Government Ministers purposely degrade our language and the mass media often aid and abet. It has ever been so. James Madison, fourth President of the USA – you may remember him from Hamilton the musical – wrote in 1788: “The use of words is to express ideas. Perspicuity, therefore, requires not only that the ideas should be distinctly formed, but they should be expressed by words distinctly and exclusively appropriate to them”. He had in mind the divisive politics of the Constitutional Convention. His advice has continuing relevance. You may have observed that the word ‘perspicuity’ is almost archaic, judging by responses from most Ministers in radio or television interviews. As the Allegra Stratton video showed, our professional political communicators get on the job training in obfuscation.
George Orwell echoed James Madison in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, still a guide for writers and punctilious editors. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity”, he wrote noting “it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes”. Slovenly thinking leads to slovenly writing and discourse. It follows that “to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration”. He was reflecting on the propaganda of Nazi Germany, and Stalin’s Soviet Union, but his insights apply today.
We await both political regeneration and the regeneration of our language. New misleading terms are constantly invented. ‘Levelling Up’ means the funding of local authorities and towns with Conservative MPs and thus discrimination against Labour controlled ones. “Regulatory reforms” means, having reneged on promises made to gain their support for BREXIT, bankrupting thousands of farmers. ‘Externalisation’ of asylum seekers means deporting and dumping them in distant countries in contravention of refugee conventions. And what Orwell called ‘fly-blown metaphors’ abound. A ‘wake-up call’ means a problem will be ‘kicked into the long-grass’ (hackneyed but sincere - from Opposition Parties) or ‘kept under review’ in governing Party’s words. I wonder what Orwell would make of Johnson’s ‘oven-ready deals’, a nicely chosen metaphor to render a lie and the liar homely, domesticated and just like us.
When did this degrading of our language become commonplace? This is Liam Fox MP, Secretary of Defence 2010-2011, looking for his next ministerial post in 2013. ‘The great Socialist coup (my italics) of the last decade was making wealth an embarrassment”. Peter Mandelson? The Blair and Brown governments? A coup? Fox would later call the Northern Ireland protocol ‘a coup against the British people’. Such debasement of the meaning of words, of course, predates the various Conservative governments since 2010 and was gaining some ground during the Blair years, a period that saw a refinement of ‘spin’.
But Tony Blair had, and retains, the ability to succinctly, clearly and therefore persuasively analyse and present a changing world to the public. In the case of the Iraq war, his analysis was flawed, failed to persuade, and appeared to many as insincere. Being out of power removes constraints, but the difference in clarity between a Blair interview and that of a current government Minister is striking. Deliberately using imprecise language as a tool of government is a thread running through Karen J. Greenberg’s excellent Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump. The book convincingly demonstrates the processes at work undermining democracy since 9/11.
Greenberg points to “the degradation of language, the starting point for political dishonesty and power mongering, and the platform upon which undemocratic and unlawful policies have been fashioned”. Imprecise and confounding language gave rise, she argues, to “confusion and imprecision in the roles and responsibilities of institutions of government” followed by “the abandonment of legal and procedural norms for law making”. Try ‘work event’ instead of ‘party’. She charts in detail how the US reaction to terrorism, the catch-all 18 September 2001 Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF), played out through ‘the Global War on Terror’. As Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State 1997-2001, reputedly said America usually gets into trouble waging war on an abstract noun. Greenberg presents the Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, the creation of the multi-institution Department of Homeland Security, leading to ferocious border control and domestic policing notably of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, as culminating in the insurrectionary riot and attack on the Capitol of 6 January 2020.
In the UK this trajectory of political disintegration accompanying debasement of language has not closely followed the US example. But we see echoes of growing and misused Executive power in Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament, Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill and her Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In the Policing Bill decisions about protests and demonstrations which, in the vague words of the Bill, threaten “serious disruption to the life of the community” and “the activities of an organisation” may be taken away from the Police with their long practical and operational experience and, when deemed necessary, given to the Home Secretary to delineate by secondary legislation. In other words “what falls within and without lawful protest”, as Amnesty International puts it, now assessed by the Police on the basis of potential harm after consultation, or negotiation with interlocutors running the protests, would be at risk of being determined by a politician without reference to Parliament and on the basis of political content. During the Second Reading of the Bill, even past Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, herself a former Home Secretary, expressed anxiety about its consequences.
Import and export of ideas and words have not been just one way. The European Court of Human Rights judged that the five techniques used in ‘Deep Interrogation’ in Northern Ireland during the 1970s were ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’, but not torture. This judgement was picked up by the Bush administration to counter condemnation of their treatment of Al-Qaeda terrorists. But the US added water-boarding as their sixth technique. Calling them ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ was not accepted by President Obama. “I believe it was torture”, he admitted in 2009.
Maybe we in the UK have a Wizard of Oz government. Maybe we are too fearful. Follow the yellow brick road. Pull back the sheet, probe the language and all you will find - Orwell again – is “a mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence”. Or maybe 2022 will reveal, as Greenberg does for the USA, something more dangerous, a serious, advancing erosion of our own democracy. Whichever awaits us, James Madison still speaks to our condition: “It is a misfortune, inseparable from human affairs, that public measures are rarely investigated with that spirit of moderation which is essential to a just estimate of their real tendency to advance or obstruct the public good; and that this spirit is more apt to be diminished than promoted, by those occasions which require an unusual exercise of it”. Mea culpa.
See TheArticle 12/01/2022
Last year we heard far too much from the Tory back-benches. They present themselves as custodians of our freedoms. Masks compulsory on public transport, closing venues, limiting numbers at social gatherings to reduce transmission of Omicron infection, requiring COVID passes for entry to others, are comparable, not to widely accepted speed limits, mandatory seat belts or to banning smoking in public places, but to an assault on human rights. “I personally didn’t come into Parliament to restrict people’s freedom”, Health Minister Sajid Javid felt obliged to say on 19 December as the epidemiologists advised caution. And our Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, our leading political chameleon, tries to brand herself as a ‘freedom warrior’ seeking ‘control over our own lives and destiny’ in her pursuit of leadership of the Conservative Party.
Future historians may look back in bewilderment on the one-sided understanding of human freedom flourishing during the last decade, an understanding which has become a decisive measure of political credibility within a part of the Conservative Party. After the Cold War ended, the persistence of threatening authoritarian regimes - more accurately described as increasingly brutal dictatorships - encouraged a narrow definition of freedom: immunity from the coercive power of the State.
But is that the nature of human freedom done and dusted? Advocacy of ‘freedom from’ has been pushing aside ‘freedom for’ and in consequence essential political questions arising from the other core dimension of human freedom: how to create freedom for the good, for excellence, for authentic self-realisation as social beings, for the Global Common Good. The push comes from the top led by a feckless Prime Minister who should never have been made leader of the Conservative Party, for whom ethical norms, rules and high standards of behaviour in public office become barriers to ‘getting the job done’ and restraints on raw ambition and power.
The Johnson clique are either blind to the contradictions in the policies they promote or just duplicitous. The principal advantage of democracy is freedom to sack a government for whatever reason through regular free and fair elections and thus to protect the fundamental freedoms which democracy upholds. The Conservative Party, learning from US Republican Party voter suppression techniques, is proposing ‘electoral reforms’ demanding the presentation of photo ID at polling stations before a ballot paper will be issued. At the same time, they are rejecting similar checks to regulate social media because, according to their estimates, 3.5 million people will fail to provide photo ID and thus be excluded. Some 3.5 million would also be excluded from voting by the photo ID requirement; they are more likely not to have passports and drivers’ licenses and more likely to be Labour voters. The over 60s will be allowed to use their travel passes though not younger voters - who are far less likely to be Conservative voters.
According to the Electoral Reform Society and a recent report from PACAC, the Cross-Party House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee: “PACAC found that the introduction of mandatory photo ID at the polling station risks ‘upsetting the balance of our current electoral system, making it more difficult to vote and removing an element of the trust inherent in the current system’. PACAC also found that “the research and evidence adduced by the government to support this proposal ‘has simply not been good enough.’” Voter identity fraud at polling booths in Britain is, of course, nearly non-existent.
The European Convention on Human Rights which the UK signed in 1950 and to whose drafting the UK made a major contribution has for years been a target of the Conservative Right wing. Human Rights, of course, include freedoms for something as well as freedoms from something. Since the days of BREXIT campaigning, the Johnson clique has clung to the hope, on grounds of national sovereignty, that they can tamper with the European Convention and avoid the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. The ECHR offers citizens of all signatories, including British citizens, the safeguards of justiciable fundamental freedoms and a body of human rights case law. Since its incorporation in our 1998 Human Rights Act, the Convention and the Court have directly informed the judgements of our legal system. The Act was considered at the time a major achievement of the Blair years.
Since the 1998 Act, Parliament imposes on all UK courts, including the Supreme Court, the obligation to interpret relevant law so it is compatible with the ECHR. In cases where a British court rules a piece of British legislation incompatible with the interpretation of the ECHR, the government can benefit from ‘margin of appreciation’, meaning that significant cultural differences between States are recognized and allow a small degree of divergence from the ECHR’s legal obligations. However, the margin of appreciation afforded to participating States is not intended to prevent or inhibit individuals or groups from taking part in the political life of their country, especially through the election of members of their legislature.
It remains a longstanding Conservative Party policy to repeal and replace the 1998 Human Rights Act. Between 1999-2010, 12,000 applications on human rights grounds from the UK were made to the court in Strasbourg – a court which includes a British judge. Of the mere 390 applications deemed admissible, the court found against the UK government in 215. An unacceptable infringement on Britain’s national sovereignty? No, a judicial system, incorporated into UK law by our Parliament which can prevent an autocratic government doing whatever it wants to the detriment of its citizens. Human rights legislation provides protection for human freedom which the Tory Party claims to defend.
Most people are aware of the hullabaloo from the Conservative side of the House aroused by measures to reduce the spread of Omicron, representing a division in the Party inhibiting government action to control the COVID pandemic, but few are equally alert to the planned and proposed erosion of civil liberties and the weakening of restraints on our overbearing Executive. Judicial Review, for instance, is on the agenda for curtailment.
How to describe the present situation ? Not simply a Prime Minister and Cabinet responding to emergencies and, under pressure from overlapping crises, making mistakes. There is more to it than that. We are also seeing a faction within the ruling British Political party, untethered from national norms of governance, performing a confidence trick on the public. They behave like a group of con-men solicitous about the welfare of an old lady - read our aging Parliamentary democracy - intent on getting control of her wealth but at great risk to her well-being and health. Our New Year resolution should be to make sure they fail.
See TheArticle 04/01/2022
All my children and many others loved Sister Pamela Hussey. Pamela would have been 100 on 7 January 2022. She died peacefully on 13 December in Cornelia House, in the Harrogate care home of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She made up for missing the traditional letter from the Queen by receiving one from each of two Popes, Benedict XVI and Francis, congratulating her on her Diamond Jubilee as a nun. An Anglo-Argentinian, Pamela grew up in Buenos Aires which makes the occasion being noticed for a second time, and by Pope Francis, seem more fitting.
Pamela wanted to join the war effort and sailed in 1942 from Argentina on one of the perilous Atlantic crossings to the Bay of Biscay and, hugging the French coast, northwards to wartime Britain. She joined the Women’s Royal Naval Services (WRNS). For three years she worked in Scarborough as a wireless telegraphist in an offshoot of GCHQ Bletchley – where she is on the Roll of honour - and returned in 2014 to open a new centre through the good offices of Prince Charles. In 2018 she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for her service during the Second World War presented in person at her care home by a representative of the French Government. As a special operator she learnt Morse Code spending hours on end waiting for German U-boats to break cover and surface to communicate with their base revealing their location. It was hardly the most effective use of a woman who was a fluent Spanish speaker, who would take a degree in modern languages at St. Anne’s Oxford and, having joined the SHCJs in 1950, teach languages for ten years.
The first time I met Pamela was in 1981 when she became a volunteer administrative assistant in the Latin America department of the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) where I had also just started working. It was a critical and intense period in the Cold War. Dictatorships and oligarchies, backed by the CIA, ruled many of the Latin American States with appalling human rights violations as a consequence. Pamela gravitated to the El Salvador desk at CIIR, making several field trips, sharing the department’s admiration for the Archbishop of San Salvador, St. Oscar Romero, his courage, work for justice and his theology and after his assassination publicising his life. Pamela had the advantage of looking frail and conservative when she wasn’t. She was the scourge of US Foreign Service personnel who were entirely unprepared for the passion and anger of this diminutive and well-spoken woman when they tried to defend the indefensible. To her great pleasure her work was first recognised in 2000. She was awarded an MBE for her tireless defence of human rights.
The last time we met I asked Pamela what training as a Woman Religious was like in the strict self-effacing convent discipline of the 1950s for someone like her. “Well”, she said, “I complained to the novice mistress that my personality was being crushed. She replied: ‘Pamela, your personality is oozing out of every pore’”. And anyone who knew Pamela would agree. In a quiet sort of a way Pamela had style. Decidedly not the dressy kind but more her old fashioned politeness which set her at ease with a huge spectrum of people whom she would address as ‘dearest’. One of my happiest memories of Pamela was her 70th birthday party in 1992. We had a lovely meal in the upper room of the now defunct Gay Hussar. Jon Snow and George Foulkes MP, later Baron Foulkes of Cumnock, were there. She was in her element. So was everyone else though sadly the number of empty bottles arrayed on the table in front of the group meant a photographic record of the event for the CIIR Annual Review had to be censored. Even at Apley Grange she would take a daily walk to the local hotel for morning coffee with her copy of Le Monde or La Croix to keep up with international and Church affairs. The last time I saw her she confided that she had Alzheimer’s then promptly recited a long poem word perfect from memory.
Pamela was a feminist. Books she wrote, Freedom From Fear: Women in El Salvador’s Church and, with Marigold Best, Life Out of Death, the Feminine Spirit in El Salvador and Women Making a Difference bear witness to that. She felt deeply the betrayal of women who had fought against the Latin American dictatorships and who were expected after victory to return to traditional roles. Her life offered yet another example of the extraordinary range of Women Religious’ gifts to the Church. Her death brings down the curtain on a period when the witness of many Women Religious was within the struggle for liberation against tyranny, justice against repression, life against death. There will never be another Pamela.
She leaves a younger brother, now aged 96.
May She Rest in Peace.
A bad month for Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party is in the nature of things a good month for Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Party. And after the massive 34% swing in the North Shropshire byelection a good month for the Liberal Democrats. That said there is no easy path to government opening up for the Leader of the Opposition. He still faces the seemingly impossible task of winning back 125 seats to achieve an overall majority at the next election.
Despite his devastating public questioning of the Prime Minster last Wednesday, the Labour leader got complaints that he had not called for the Prime Minister’s resignation. No killer instinct and all that. In fact Starmer used Prime Minister’s Questions to good effect saying it was up to the Conservative Party to deal with their failed leader, aiming to pin the blame on the Party he will still have to defeat whenever Johnson goes.
In the context of a new and frightening pandemic wave, a prudent reticence shown by the Leader of the Opposition serves the Common Good. Neither does the Labour Party want a new and possibly competent leader of the Conservative Party to have time to win back the voters’ trust before the next election. In any case Conservative MPs themselves will only write the requisite number of letters to the 1922 Committee when they finally conclude Johnson has become a clear-cut electoral liability. For the time being it is Johnson whom Starmer must defeat.
There is a tendency to underestimate Sir Keir Starmer. His legal background has been derided by the Prime Minister. But the diverse skills of a successful, radical QC and a Director of Public Prosecutions heading the 6,000 strong Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales, skills so cavalierly dismissed by Jonson, are transferable to politics: strategic thinking, good judgement, shrewd tactics, self-discipline, getting timing right, projecting integrity and competence, conviction that crime is a Labour Party issue. A certain caution is no bad thing - at the right time.
Under the present First Past The Post system (FPTP) a candidate whom the majority of voters in a constituency reject can still win. Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1983 winning 13 million votes which elected 397 Conservative seats. Labour plus Liberal/SDP alliance won a total of 16 million votes and ended up with 232 seats. FPTP exaggerates the lead of the largest party, a kind of ‘winner’s bonus’, and can hobble third Parties. Or as Professor Curtice puts it: “The problem with first past the post is there is no post”. Any negotiations between the Lib Dems and Labour to address this bias would be affected by the memory of Tony Blair’s pulling back from discussions with Paddy Ashdown on electoral reform once in power. Some form of electoral pact with minority Parties is sometimes discussed but is not the straightforward, common-sense, solution it seems.
Peter Kellner, former president of YouGov, for example, estimates that ‘intelligent tactical voting’ could increase Liberal Democrat seats to c. 50 but could not jointly produce an overall majority for the combined Parties in opposition because of the regional geographical concentrations of their supporters piling up votes in their strongholds. The problem with our present electoral system, according to John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and go-to expert on elections is that out of the 650 seats in the House of Commons there are only 88 marginal seats – a marginal being defined as neither of the two biggest British Parties having a lead of more than 10% over the other. That means an awful lot of votes unlikely to make any difference. In 1955 there were 166 marginals. Deciding who should be given a clear run in marginal constituencies is the obvious occasion for bitter and protracted local as well as national disputes. And, given the failure of Cameron’s 2011 referendum on voting reform, the Liberal Democrats might be insisting on an actual manifesto pledge to introduce some form of proportional representation.
Though it is often defended on the grounds it produces majority government, under FPTP there is no systematic relationship between votes cast for a Party and the number of seats they obtain. Providing a second choice, the Alternative Voting system (AV) is designed to solve this problem. But as the 2010 election demonstrated, as well as Theresa May’s second term between 2017-2019, when the DUP and SNP gained considerable leverage after her disastrous 2017 election, neither can FPTP be guaranteed to create a functioning majority in Parliament.
Electoral reform has had little appeal to voters though they seem unfazed by the abandonment of FPTP in elections for the Assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as Metro-Mayors. In 2011 David Cameron’s Coalition Government paid the price the Liberal Democrats had extracted in exchange for their entry into coalition: a national referendum on the adoption of AV. The Conservative Party were opposed and a majority of the Labour Party too. The result was 68% against and 32% in favour on a 42% voter turn-out. So our current system remains with 98/100 rural constituencies returning a Tory Member of Parliament whilst 41% of those voting in these constituencies support another Party. Not a very promising outcome for advocates of electoral reform decided by referendum.
Given the magnitude of our overlapping crises and the need for national unity and solidarity, there are arguments for at least exploring the possibility of electoral reform or of coalition government. Yes, the mishandled Liberal Democrat dalliance with Cameron’s Conservatives was a disaster for the former. On the other hand, during the Second World War, holding positions in a coalition government did the Labour Party ably represented in the War Cabinet by Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, Stafford Cripps, no harm at all. Indeed Labour’s presence in government, coupled with their adoption of the Beveridge Report and the aspirations of the British public for a new start, produced an unexpected Labour landslide and an overall majority of 146 seats on 5 July 1945.
In 1945 the Labour Party was led by a clever, competent but modest man of the political Left with personal integrity, trained as a barrister, whose colleagues grumbled about him. Clement Attlee won 393 seats against an eccentric, charismatic, and ruthless opponent whose exaggerated English persona, despite an American mother, had gained him widespread popularity in the national crisis of war. Post-war, the mood changed dramatically. Winston Churchill won only 213 seats.
We should not, of course, draw the wrong lessons from history. The past is another country. We are in a life and death struggle with a virus and with carbon emissions not with the Third Reich. Though Mr. Johnson might enjoy some elements of the comparison. Starmer has a tough road ahead but we shouldn’t discount the possibility of surprises in politics. Sometimes an absence of charisma can come as a blessed relief.
See TheArticle 17/12/2021
Britain, France and the USA fall in an out of love regularly. Relations between Britain and France have recently reached a new low point. A number of disputes are commonly presented as the reason. But there is one ultimate cause: mutual hostility. Mutual hostility plays well in politics on both sides of the Channel. Yet, we are neighbours and share a broad spectrum of democratic values. This raises the question: why?
A long history of conflicts large and small has to bear some of the blame. Nothing extraordinary in that. It was an American writer, James Baldwin who said: “People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them”, a reflection on racism in the USA but the aphorism applies no less to the UK and France, and not just to racism.
Thanks to decades of Second World War movies, in Britain we often seem trapped, not in the glory of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, but in our memory of May 1940, the heroic, alone-against–all-odds stand after France fell. Not such a bad trap when it comes to sustaining a sturdy sense of national identity during loss of Empire, but a misleading guide for navigating the contemporary world of great power blocs and militarised autocracies. Policy and diplomacy require a finer grained understanding of history. The military historian, Professor Michael Neiberg, in his recent When France Fell; The Vichy Crisis And The Fate Of The Anglo-American Alliance (Harvard University Press) provides it.
“When we mislead ourselves about our past, we not only fail to learn, but we sometimes learn exactly the wrong lessons”, Neiberg warns. Well, we mislead ourselves when we fail to acknowledge that Hitler began losing the war after he invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, and fail to recognise how much we owed to the Soviets’ dreadful sacrifice of human life. We also misread the impact of events by forgetting that the USA in 1940 was nothing like the incomparable military force it became and is today.
The fall of France was a mighty shock not only to us but to a militarily weak USA. Kabul taken in a week was nothing compared to the surprise of Paris taken in a month - supposedly protected by the ‘impregnable’ Maginot line but breached at Sedan. The Americans saw this calamitous rout as the disappearance of a vital defensive barrier from the Wehrmacht thrusting west to the Atlantic. They feared, with a touch of paranoia, possible threats to the USA by coups in Latin American states and French colonial possessions becoming available as Nazi launch-pads for attacks. Unsurprisingly they thought that Britain would be the next to fall.
As colonial powers Britain and France had large and powerful navies. After the French armistice with the Germans on 22 June 1940, American policy was directed at stopping the Nazis getting hold of the French fleet: it consisted, according to Neiberg, of an aircraft carrier, eight battleships, twenty cruisers, seventy destroyers and seventy-eight submarines. To Britain’s chagrin, President Roosevelt recognised Vichy – (essentially the south-east two-fifths of France beyond the extensive Nazi occupied zone minus the French coast) – largely to keep Marshall Philippe Pétain, its figurehead and hero of the First World War, from handing, or being forced to hand over, his ships to the Nazis. It was an embrace based on fear.
On 3 July 1940, Churchill authorised an attack on the French naval base of Mers-el-Kébir, Oran, Algeria, killing 1,300 French sailors and destroying or wrecking three battleships and four destroyers. The battleship Richelieu, the pride of the French fleet undergoing repairs in Dakar on the West African coast, was also attacked and disabled. The Americans denounced the British action in public but breathed a modest sigh of relief in private. The French never forgot Churchill’s ruthless attack on an erstwhile ‘ally’.
Admiral Jean-François Darlan, Commander-in-Chief of the French navy, was an unscrupulous quisling interested only in backing the winning side to forge a path to power, he rose rapidly to become de facto head of the Vichy Government under Pétain, and sent countless French Jews to their death. He surfed an incipient French civil war. General de Gaulle called him ‘the root of evil’. Neiberg memorably corroborates de Gaulle’s assessment, quoting a description from an American officer: “a short, bald-headed, pink-faced, needle-nosed, sharp-chinned little weasel”.
The USA entered the war in December 1941 after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. North Africa and its ports had already become strategically critical. Control was contested by Vichy France in the form of Darlan, briefly ‘High Commissioner of France for North and West Africa’ until his assassination on Christmas Eve 1942, and the Americans and British who landed 73,000 troops on the Moroccan and Algerian coasts in November 1942 to engage the German forces in Tunisia. The Americans continued reluctantly to back Darlan, who was caught in Casablanca, and had to change sides becoming the Americans own ‘weasel’ until two bullets from a French monarchist liberated them from their flawed policy towards Vichy. The British, not grinning but bearing it, supported de Gaulle, their ‘Cross of Lorraine’ in London, and in this rare instance shared his opinion.
In retrospect, I would suggest US support for Vichy and Darlan set a pattern for their later backing of murderous dictatorships in Latin America. The motto for the early years of the CIA should have been ‘Coups Are Us’, two major blunders in the 1950s each with damaging consequences: Guatemala and Iran. As Talleyrand said of the restored Bourbon dynasty post-Napoleon: “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing”.
Apart from the military forces of the Third Reich, there were other fears shared by the Western Allies: communist subversion and anti-colonial uprisings, notably Islamic ones. But there was little love lost between them. Roosevelt couldn’t stand de Gaulle’s grandiloquence, associating him with the French Resistance viewed as a hotbed of socialists and communists. Holding his nose the US kept lines more than open to Vichy France. While Churchill knew that he had to put up with de Gaulle and the Free French however infuriating. Nothing was forgotten. In 1963 de Gaulle gave as explanation for his refusal to admit Britain to the European Economic Community his belief that it would mean opening the door to US influence. And it wasn’t just an excuse. Relations with Washington were bad and he downgraded his participation in NATO in 1966.
When France Fell is a compelling read. It is as if a Norma Percy documentary had been turned into a book, translating to print that fly on the wall experience and intimacy she achieves through interviews with the big players who created the action or tried to catch up with it. It provides corrective insights to a history we thought we understood. If you are interested in these critical years, it tells a surprisingly exciting and gripping story. The book would even make Christmas reading. If you think we should learn from how the proponents of realpolitik can get it very wrong, as in US policy towards Vichy, and draw the wrong lessons from it, it’s definitely for you.
See TheArticle 09/12/2021
Michel Barnier stares out from the cover of My Secret Brexit Diary: A Glorious Illusion. Distinguished, suave, reassuring, every inch the international civil servant. Not exactly the Professor Moriarty of the right-wing Press, nor the crumpled joker, Boris Johnson who rode to power on BREXIT.
The book’s sub-title is inadvertently accurate: it contains no spicy insider secrets or major revelations. This is the EU chief negotiator’s carefully calibrated historical record of 1,600 days of BREXIT negotiations – a long intermission in a political career. But not all entries, doubtless carefully edited with a politician's eye on the future, are put through the blander.
This is a chronicle of a hard BREXIT foretold. Theresa May’s January 2017 Lancaster House speech ruled out future membership of the Common Market and the Customs Union. This eliminated almost all EU models previously negotiated with countries such as Norway, Iceland or Switzerland. It left Britain, like South Korea and Canada, with a free trade agreement option. “Can we be sure”, an astonished Barnier asks, “that the referendum vote gave the British government carte blanche for such a total break?”
Britain’s ‘red lines’, announced before negotiations had begun, defined the UK’s negotiating positions and precluded the most mutually advantageous partnership models. British negotiators were stuck with seeking special privileges for a third party country, playing for time in the process, engaging in what the EU saw as ‘cherry picking’. May’s appointment of David Davis as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union opposite Barnier while she herself worked through an experienced, knowledgeable and competent civil servant Olly (now Sir Oliver) Robins, didn’t help.
On the British side there was misinterpretation, even denial, of the nature of Barnier’s, the EU’s own, red lines. The misunderstanding went deeper. As the BREXIT diary repeatedly reveals, the way of thinking on both sides was different. Barnier, for instance, insisted on logically sequencing British withdrawal with ‘divorce arrangements’ first, including UK financial obligations, rights of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in the EU, peace and stability in Ireland. Barnier worked from basic principles. The Single Market, as the foundation of the EU, an ‘eco-system’ involving much more than economics, was inviolable, so between the Single Market and third party economies such as post-BREXIT Britain there had to be a ‘level playing-field’. Unity amongst the 27 member states, sustaining unanimous support for the EU’s negotiating position was essential, ‘everyone for all’ in short.
The positions of all individual EU negotiating teams on specific topics were derived from these principles – ‘everyone for all’ applied particularly to Gibraltar ( Spain), Cyprus (UK military bases) and, of course, Ireland, (the Good Friday agreement). Throughout negotiations the EU position remained coherent. Barnier prioritised transparency towards all interested bodies, from the EU Council to Danish fishermen. In contrast, British tactics appeared more like the interplay between a weak trades-union and a powerful employer: bluff and piecemeal pursuit of concessions.
The UK had one overarching principle: ‘sovereignty’, sometimes just a matter of being seen to ‘Take Back Control’. Barnier had the advantage of representing the EU, an international organisation based on the closest possible mutually beneficial co-operation between national sovereignties in a globalised world. He found the British concept of sovereignty, frequently deployed as a trump card at critical moments, irrational.
The EU Commission task-force had other advantages over the British. Barnier was a team player leading a talented international team which he respected, drawn over the four years of negotiations from 22 different nationalities. He worked tirelessly to keep the different leaderships in Brussels, the Commission President and the different Commissioners, the Council and Parliament, plus member states’ Ministers and political leaders, business leaders, academics and trades unions, fully up to date - and was rewarded with broad solidarity and a lack of dissent from his approach and strategy.
In contrast Prime Minister Theresa May was negotiating on three fronts: with Barnier’s team, with BREXIT extremists on her back benches and with Northern Ireland’s DUP, who during her second term 2017-2019, brazenly took advantage of her slim majority to her detriment. Meanwhile Boris Johnson, a fifth column, was using his role as Foreign Secretary, after resigning as Daily Telegraph journalist, to position himself for a Conservative Party leadership bid championing the hard-line Brexiteers, prepared if necessary for ‘No-Deal’.
Barnier kept himself well-informed about the political shenanigans in Whitehall. When Johnson won the decisive second round of the Conservative Party leadership election on 23 July 2019, Barnier was reflecting on his ‘deliver BREXIT’ promise (‘get BREXIT done’). Two days later Johnson declared his determination to leave the EU by 31 October and make further discussions dependent on rethinking the Withdrawal Agreement, notably by removing the back-stop designed to prevent any ‘physical border’ within the island of Ireland.
To thwart EU strategy, Britain repeatedly made attempts to bypass Barnier’s negotiating team by directly contacting EU heads of state and Jean-Claude Junker, President of the Commission, in the hope of gaining support and weakening the Commission’s position. The old imperial ‘divide and rule’ was never going to work. At one point two key heads of state were refusing to take Boris Johnson’s calls. The UK underestimated the degree to which Britain’s withdrawal and behaviour was counterproductive, uniting a fractious EU divided over immigration policy and threatened by populism in Hungary and Poland.
Reading between Barnier’s carefully crafted lines, at the political level, from David Davis to Boris Johnson, there was a deplorable lack of preparedness for meetings and grasp of key detail. Following Theresa May, for whom there was some sympathy in Brussels - she knew her brief - there was a growing loss of trust. But Barnier kept a ‘stiff upper lip’. He writes of his commitment to avoiding anger, aggression and vengeance. The tone of the diary entries suggests that he succeeded. But the consistent denigration of malign ‘Brussels intransigence’ in Britain coupled with a readiness to tear up international treaties and attempts to re-negotiate hard won agreements clearly tried the most experienced of negotiators on the EU side.
Because the Withdrawal Agreement had come into force, Johnson’s threat of an Internal Market Bill in September 2020, enabling the reversal of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland and a clear-cut threat to breach international law, shocked Brussels. This, Barnier writes, ‘from a country that, for centuries, has built its reputation on the trustworthiness of its signature’. Despite such signs of bad-faith, negotiations moved forward, shoals of fish in British waters to the left, French fishing boats to the right. An ‘ambitious and fair free trade agreement’ was reached on Christmas Eve 2020. 47 years of EU membership had ended. Here the book ends – though BREXIT problems do not.
The British government seems to have learned nothing from the negotiations. Barnier has. His valedictory last chapter nods rightwards towards the Gaullist Party, ‘Les Républicains’, which may or may not select him as their candidate in the coming French Presidential elections. Whether Boris Johnson fights the next general election as the Prime Minister who got BREXIT done will depend – excuse the anachronism - on the men in grey suits. They may be having them dry-cleaned in preparation, or perhaps pre-crumpled as I write.
See TheArticle 25/11/2021
‘No war, no warming’: slogans on placards at COP26. But what has the peace movement to do with climate change? Judging by states’ final commitments in the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ nothing at all.
Yet, worldwide the military carbon foot-print amounts annually to around 5% of all global carbon emissions. This figure includes military bases, land, use of equipment, as well as the military production. Add the impact of contemporary wars and the total could be 6% - one of several estimates from Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR), an organisation formed in 1992, led by distinguished scientists from different disciplines working to end “the misuse of science and technology in threatening human life and the wider environment”.
But among Heads of State closeted in the Glasgow ‘blue zone’ military spending was the dog that didn’t bark. Thanks to SGR and the peace movement amongst the People’s Summit for Climate Justice – a broad coalition of NGOs and climate activists assembled to strategize and plan action - it barked after all.
The USA spends $778 billion on defence annually, China around $250 billion, India $75 billion. According to SGR the USA’s annual military emissions are 205 million tonnes, the UK’s around 11 million - the highest in Europe - with France next at 8 million. Just moving military personnel and equipment around by air, sea and land burns a prodigious amount of fossil fuels; a Humvee, and America has 60,000, consumes a gallon of diesel every 4-6 miles. There are no accurate figures for China though total carbon emissions are believed to be 10.2 billion metric tonnes.
The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) came into effect in 1994. It required signatory nations to provide a regular inventory of their greenhouse gas emissions and negotiate further treaties to control emissions. The 1997 Kyoto protocol set legally binding emissions reduction targets for wealthier nations. But the US negotiated an opt-out for military emissions both from reporting and reduction targets. Kyoto was followed in 2015 by another international treaty, the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump withdrew the US from it, but Biden re-joined this year.
Faced with reporting demands, the most militarised nations have adopted a dual strategy: avoiding systematic reporting or, failing that, burying military emissions under wider anodyne headings. For example, energy use in Canada’s military bases falls under ‘commercial and institutional emissions’ and military flights hide beneath ‘general transport’. After the Paris Agreement, under Obama and Biden, the US Department of Defence did begin reporting, but their published figures need to be scaled up significantly to obtain a more accurate picture of total military carbon emissions. Some data points to the supply-side of the military-industrial complex being over five times more polluting than … direct energy consumption by armed forces. Then there are emissions from bombed fuel depots and the reconstruction of buildings following ceasefires. Saddam Hussein setting fire to Kuwaiti oil fields offers a striking illustration.
With COP26 approaching, at the end of March 2021 the UK Ministry of Defence bestirred itself and produced a slim and optimistic volume and a fine piece of climate virtue signalling. The green transition could even add to the UK’s military capabilities. Energy-saving drones and new technology were anticipated. There would be lots of carbon offsetting. The behemoths of modern warfare would in future feed on bio-fuels and nuclear power. Though it was expected that actual combat in climate-changed, ravaged environments would become more difficult. The impact on food production, were British planes and missiles to be fuelled as proposed by ‘algae and alcohol’, was not discussed.
The poorer nations most immediately affected, or threatened by climate change, left Glasgow disillusioned. Substantial funding needed to mitigate impending climate-induced catastrophe was still not forthcoming. The British Government’s priorities are clear from its plans and actions. By 2025 the UK’s military budget will be increased by over 10% above inflation, but from 2021 the International Aid budget will be reduced by 30%. Until at least 2030, the rich industrialised world, or some 1% of the global population, will be generating 16% of global carbon emissions. Emissions attributable to the Pentagon are larger than those from the 140 poorest countries combined. Not for nothing did the NGOs entitle their meeting during COP26 “The People’s Summit for Climate Justice”.
Have the NGOs’ efforts to highlight the impact on climate of world expenditure on the military, some $2 trillion globally last year, been successful? On 1 January 2021, the US National Defence Authorisation Act became law after Congress overrode a Trump veto. It requires the Secretary of Defence to produce a detailed report on the Pentagon's greenhouse gas emissions for each of the last 10 years. In addition the Pentagon must have clear emissions reduction targets and commit to “monitor, track, and report greenhouse gas emissions from all its operations, including combat operations, deployments, drone attacks, weapons production and testing, and base construction and functions”. In June NATO set a target to “contribute to” achieving net zero by 2050. At COP26 itself, the Conflict and Environment Observatory, working with Durham and Lancaster Universities, launched a website, www.militaryemissions.com, monitoring and tracking reporting from the 60 countries with the highest military expenditures. Amongst western nations, to some degree, the NGO campaigns have been successful.
Perhaps the most significant breakthrough to date is a radical Resolution on climate and military emissions being put to the US Congress by Barbara Lee, a Democrat Congresswoman for California’s 13th District (Oakland), with the support of 100 NGOs, many well-known names. The only person in Congress to vote against the Iraq war, Barbara Lee is hardly mainstream Democrat. In her mid-70s, raised a Catholic, her track record of opposition to militarism and war has been, like that of Bruce Kent in UK, courageous and consistent.
In his first week in office President Biden issued an Executive Order requiring a climate risk assessment from the Pentagon. Described by Lee as the “single largest institutional source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet”, the Pentagon dragged its feet. Its analysis published in late October only just scraped into print before COP26. While recognising Climate Change as a major National Security issue, it lacked the concrete action Lee is seeking in her Resolution.
The combined peace and climate movements get another opportunity to tackle military emissions when COP reconvenes in Cairo next year. But they will be operating in a regime led by, President Sisi, a ruthless politician who swapped his military uniform for a suit. The Egyptian army remains politically powerful. Then again the Nile provides 97% of the country’s water source. Egypt knows it will be one of the first countries to run dry.
The anti-war and environmental movements with their focus on military emissions have highlighted a fundamental truth. Our acceptance of globalised competition for military ascendancy is incompatible with our quest for a secure future and mitigation of runaway global warming. Negotiations for disarmament must urgently return to the agenda of international diplomacy. And for that we need Statesmen for Global Responsibility - not just scientists and religious leaders.
See ThArticle 19/11/2021
Bosnia is heading for conflict that could draw in NATO, the EU and the UK. Two weeks ago Christian Schmidt, the specially appointed High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina (B-i-H) who has very considerable powers, described the small Balkans country as facing the biggest existential threat since the ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica during the early 1990s. “The prospects of further division and conflict are very real”, Schmidt reported to the UN Security Council.
The US-brokered peace accords, the 1995 Dayton Agreement, created the present State known for short as Bosnia or B-i-H. Its constitutional arrangements are complex. The Dayton negotiators brokered a power-sharing arrangement. The State has three presidents representing its three principal ethnic groups, (Orthodox) Serbs, (Catholic) Croats and the (Muslim) Bosniak majority, and is made up of two semi-autonomous entities: the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serbian Republika Srpska. Not surprisingly the convoluted governance has been unable to resolve tensions between Bosnia’s constituent parts.
The Republika Srpska and Bosnia’s chimaera of a presidency were designed to counter Serbian separatism - and failed. The Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, supported by the West and twice President of Republika Srpska, rose to prominence as a moderating counter-weight to Bosnian Serb nationalists who were seeking complete independence. Once in power Dodik soon adopted their populist, nationalist stance even threatening secession. His most recent démarche is to announce his intention to pass ‘divorce’ legislation to create – in order of gravity – a separate armed force and judiciary, and direct Republika Srpska taxation.
These threats seems to have been a riposte to the departing High Representative, Valentin Inzko, who in July 2021 pushed through a new law criminalising genocide denial in the face of adamant Serbian assertions that Srebrenica amounted to no such thing. Inzko’s departing shot resulted in a temporary Serbian withdrawal from the Presidency, Government and Parliament. The once moderate Dodik called the new law ‘a nail in Bosnia’s coffin’.
The past remains a dead weight on Bosnia’s future. Whether or not Dodik’s threat of what amounted to secession was a bluff simply directed at Bosnian Serb voters, it produced a flurry of international activity including a visit, on 6 November, by the hard-Right nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban, and, a day later, US Assistant Secretary of State, Gabriel Escobar. A ‘leak’ had Dodik telling Escobar that he couldn’t care less if his actions resulted in US sanctions. Dodik was apparently ‘open to discussing’ his separatist legislation but was not about to stop preparing it. No sooner had Escobar departed than on 9 November Dodik went off to meet with the Turkey’s authoritarian President Erdogan in Ankara. Bosnia’s future, an important element in the stability and peace of the Balkans, was only briefly a news item.
My own first introduction to Bosnia in 2016 left me in no doubt that the 1992-1995 war cast a long shadow over the country. I was there to collaborate with the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM). We were working with 18-25 year olds in a programme directed at increasing social integration amongst youth, the first post-war generation. First thing, straight off the plane, was a programme in Prijedor in Republika Srpska close to where a mass grave of Bosnian Muslims had recently been discovered. Would we like to visit the site? I explained that while we would, of course, wish to pay our respects , we could not risk being perceived as partisan of any ethnic group if our work was to be credible. Visiting the site of an atrocity by Serb military would not have been a good start.
Once we began the programme, we discovered that the ethnically diverse young people in our programme did not want to talk about the past. Their anger was directed against all of the ethnic political elites whose corruption and self-interest were served by sustaining the ethnic divisions and which they saw as taking away their future and prospects. This was not because the past had had no impact on them personally. One young man told me about his father, still suffering from post-traumatic symptoms, waking up screaming at night. We discovered that hostility to politicians and their clients was just as common in other parts of the country. For the young emigration was the key issue: should they stay or should they leave?
After Prijedor, Sarajevo - where we stayed in remarkably cheap but excellent university accommodation and worked with a new group of young people at the IOM offices. Sarajevo like an elongate City of Bath sits in a valley between mountains. You follow the river and main road into the centre to find the actual corner of a non-descript little street near the Latin Bridge where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914 by a Bosnian Serb nationalist. The route inevitably evoked memories of old 1990s TV footage. I tried not to imagine women out buying bread shot down by snipers positioned in the mountain beyond the river above the city. Tourist souvenirs included biros made from rifle shells, a hopeful Bosnian variation of the biblical swords into plough shares.
600 troops in EUFOR, a small European multinational force, still provide a token peace-keeping force. In 2016 Bosnia applied to become a member of the EU but disagreements within the EU itself about future membership of Balkans States have meant negligible progress towards accession and a growing reciprocal lack of interest, despite the stability and prosperity derived from Croatia’s Accession in 2013. The UK has pledged to work for peace in Bosnia but where is Bosnia heading and what will be its significance for the UK?
The danger is that an emboldened Putin ever probing, seeking opportunities and assessing the resolve of his opponents, will see Bosnia as his next stress-test for the West. Time has elapsed since Russian military interventions in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine improved his ratings and popular appeal. For Putin the attraction of Bosnia is that his KGB State can create mischief there through an established intermediary, Serbia. An outbreak of hostilities would, by humiliating EUFOR, be mud kicked in the eye of the European Union. Russian covert support for BREXIT clearly revealed that weakening the EU is one of Putin’s goals. And Bosnia is one of NATO’s Partners for Peace. A violent political implosion in Bosnia would also be a move against NATO which has a military headquarters in Sarajevo, showing it up as a paper tiger. The pot is bubbling. It would need little stirring by Moscow.
A feint away from Ukraine would come naturally to Russia with its sense of grievance that its proprietary rights in the Balkans - and Eastern Europe - have been abused. The British Foreign Office has recently warned of Putin’s hidden hand in the current crisis. The question is what are they and the EU going to do about it? Putin may well be calculating – nothing.
See TheArticle 15/11/2021
President Biden has led in Glasgow with his outreach to Beijing and an announcement on cooperation on Climate Change. But recent US Gallup polls put his positive ratings at 42%, the second lowest yet at this point in any previous presidency. Trump dropped to 37%. Psephological wisdom has it that going below 50% in the ratings means losing 37 Congressional seats. Though Biden’s immediate problem is two maverick Democrat Senators, Joe Manchin, senior Senator for West Virginia (the second poorest State in the USA) and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona (where Sinema is the first Democrat Senator for twenty years and where in 2020 Biden narrowly won the State’s delegation to the National Electoral College).
Each individual Senator matters. The Democrats in the Senate are working with a 50-50 split with the Vice-President, Kamala Harris as president of the Senate, presiding over its proceedings and currently holding a tie-breaking vote. Manchin who has considerable political funding from oil and gas companies is delaying Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better social spending and climate change bill, known as the Reconciliation Bill – whittled down in negotiations with the Republicans from $3.5 trillion and to be spent over ten years. Sinema won’t support getting rid of the filibuster a key weapon in the hands of the Republicans who are determined to block Biden’s social and climate plans. The Democrats have got a bi-partisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill through Senate, but Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi has been traded its progress in Congress against the Republicans unblocking Biden’s Reconciliation Bill for a while. The infrastructure bill was finally passed on 5 November. But with the US economy not rebounding fast enough, Biden is still under enormous pressure.
A core plank within traditional Republican ideology, like that of the old-style Conservative Party here in the UK, is small State good, big State bad. But the 2008 financial crisis and the 2019-2021 COVID pandemic proved that major government intervention in times of crisis is essential. The same is true of Climate Change if we are to contain global temperature rise at liveable levels and avoid catastrophe. This is the context in which Brandeis University Professor Robert Kuttner asks in the New York Review of Books (18 November 2021) if Biden is “ready to insist that full-on planning and explicit targeting of vital industries” is urgently needed. Indications are that he is.
In February, with his feet barely under his desk in the Oval Office, Biden issued Executive Order 14017 tasking the National Security Council and National Economic Council to undertake reviews of the vulnerability of the USA’s supply chains for, amongst others, semi-conductors and electric car batteries. What he received in June was a far ranging Keynesian recipe for a replay of Roosevelt’s New Deal coupled with a vision of ‘government led scientific advances as the main engine of growth’ following the prescription of the former Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950). The implications of such an approach to Climate Change is not difficult to discern. Biden is trying to marshal substantial government financial support to realise economic change in pursuit of this vision. This is not some minor battle in the culture wars but a well-defended front manned by die-hard Republicans, a potential Stalingrad for Biden.
You could argue that getting to net-zero by 2050 will need the sort of command economy created during the Second World War. Think of the production of Spitfires in Britain, recently celebrated in BBC documentaries. Think of the female labour drafted onto the land and into munitions factories. In the USA no cars for civilian use were produced between February 1942 and October 1945. Fordist production lines were all converted to war production. For military vehicles and aircraft then read electric cars, wind turbines, solar cells, and carbon capture technologies now.
But the thought of Boris Johnson and his clique directing a command economy doesn’t bear thinking about. In a future planet-saving economy the alternative to a full-blown command economy could be substantial sector-specific government investment in key technologies – a route taken by several East Asian economies in the 1990s and substantial financial support for transformations in the life of the poor – taken because of the pandemic between 2019-2021 in the USA with a significant and remarkable decrease in poverty. But the old taboos are again reasserting themselves.
Decisive action by government itself to shape their national future economic activity seemed to take second place in Glasgow. Instead we have the impressive pledges by corporations and financial services to invest in climate friendly production aimed at reaching net-zero. Recognition of their power and potential for good is welcome. Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England until 2020, recognises that it is not enough and government has to take a firm steer. But he has done an outstanding job in putting a case that Supply and Demand, the market, will direct the money where the action needs to be. Let’s hope so. Let’s hope against hope so. But Adam Smith was not facing runaway climate warming.
If ever there was an issue of national security, as Biden recognised by involving his National Security Agency in his economic reviews (they are moving on to energy in 2022), it is Climate Change. And national security, in Republican terms a good thing, requires national planning and targeting of substantial amounts of public money to mitigate Climate Change, in Republican terms a bad thing. Ideology is doing more than getting in the way of a bi-partisan solution. It threatens national and global security.
Can Biden convince American voters and both Houses of Congress that half-measures are not enough, that a Republican victory, with or without Trump, spells a terrible setback that will cost lives in the USA and around the world? Can he make a divided society understand the really important choices? Some journalists have taken to calling him ‘Poor Old Joe’. It’s poor old us if he doesn’t succeed.
Turning to the UK with Biden’s dilemma in mind, can the British government turn rhetoric into concrete national plans commensurate with the threat of global warming? Can it take the public with it during such a radical transformation? These are the choices that will profoundly alter the lives of the next generation. . It is time to finally drop longstanding economic taboos.
See TheArticle 06/11/2021
The Budget has come and gone. The British government is still determined to plunder our international aid budget to demonstrate their financial probity. At least until 2024. Ever ready for a U-turn when public opinion swings, the Cabinet must have calculated there are few voters who will desert them as a result of these cuts and, indeed, some who may be won over.
But what do the public really think about aid? The damage caused by the nationalist and popular binary opposition between ‘home’ or ‘domestic’ and ‘overseas’ or ‘foreign’ intensifies as the threats from COVID mutants and carbon emissions grow. But polls suggest a majority support the cuts. ‘Charity begins at home’ – and ends there - is strengthened as default position at times of uncertainty. There are bigger things to worry about. It’s money down the drain thanks to the corruption of recipients or, straight out of the Daily Mail playbook, taxpayers’ money wasted on ‘nonsensical programmes’.
There is another explanation why the argument that it is a bad idea to reduce international aid by more than 0.2% of GDP fails to win the day. Most people have little idea what a good developmental project or programme looks like beyond what they might see watching Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day. How could they? Nor do they hear any explanations why ‘odd’ sounding FCDO (old DfID) programmes make a difference.
Public generosity is impressive in emergencies and for humanitarian aid. But people are distrustful of spending on abstract nouns such as ‘international development’. What exactly does it mean? They are sceptical about things they cannot see or verify themselves. Corruption causes distrust particularly of government to government aid. Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), of course, provides an alternative. Yes, NGOs can have their blind-spots failings and flaws. I should know having worked in them for thirty years. But despite recent sex scandals they retain public confidence.
In 2009 when I was working on malaria prevention in West Africa, I met a young American Orthodox Jewish medical student who had been living on the outskirts of Mali’s capital, Bamako, amongst impoverished migrants from the rural areas. He had spent time with families whose children had died because the mother had no money to pay for medical treatment. As a pious Jew, soon to be a doctor, he found himself thinking of collapsed health systems in Africa in the light of passages in the Babylonian Talmud discussing to whom the moral imperative to rescue people from under a collapsed building should apply. He began to see the responsibility to rescue the many deprived of health care as a question of justice. The glaring injustice of thousands dying from treatable disease for lack of money, inspired a small group of Malians and Americans to devise a pro-active, community-led, but scalable and data-driven, primary health care programme which they called Project Muso (Muso means ‘woman’ in Bambara, and true to the name 80% of the workers in it today are women). This took them on a path that led to a partnership with the Ministry of Health and international aid from a variety of sources.
The scalability of the programme depended on its simplicity. The mortality rate in Mali amongst children under five was more than one in ten because parents were not able to get their children to a health centre for medical treatment. So the key feature of the programme would be to bring health care to the patient. Community health workers (CHWs) who visited homes in their local area, would be trained to diagnose some dozen prevalent and potentially lethal diseases. They would be paid for each patient they got to a clinic by whatever transport available.
A single CHW can now be responsible for 1,000 of her own neighbours. They make home visits carrying basic medical equipment in backpacks, often with their own baby bound to their front. These women are known and trusted. 97% of project staff are Malians. By 2016, 82% of sick children covered by MUSO reached a clinic within 24 hours. The drop in under-five mortality was spectacular. The additional cost – beyond what the Ministry of Health was spending - from getting each patient into treatment at a health centre was estimated at $6-13 dollars.
The beauty of the training – which I was allowed to observe – is the demanding and sensitive supervision by a nurse and doctor, the respect for the women, some of whom were illiterate. Drawings are used to illustrate a range of common symptoms. Role plays allow experienced CHWs to correct faux pas such as sitting down on the mat with the training doll without asking permission, or errors like prodding the wrong side of the abdomen to detect appendicitis. The nurse and doctor only intervene if the peer review CHWs can’t answer a question.
By 2019 Project Muso had forged a strong partnership with a dynamic Malian Minister of Health who was rebooting the health care system with a focus on pregnant women, under-fives and the elderly and providing more public money to enable free treatment. The rate of child death was now lower than in any country in sub-Saharan Africa. By this time, true to its aim of scalability, the Project was also supplying technical assistance to the Health Ministries in Togo and Côte d’Ivoire, and from its Bamako programme had budded off eight centres in rural areas and serving 350,000 patients. Despite military coups, an outbreak of Ebola, terrorist attacks murdering Muso’s patients and a refugee crisis, expansion continues. As COVID infections increased Project Muso designed, trained and supported the Health Ministry’s contact tracing programme, promoted vaccination, produced COVID teaching material and marshalled PPE for its CHWs as well as oxygen cylinders for hospitals. As Nelson Mandela said: “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.
Because of Mali’s desert-edge poverty, life-saving measures will continue to depend on external money, money which the UK is removing from its budget. The Project has a number of donors - fortunately not the UK government - and recently landed an unprecedented $15 million three year grant from a single donor, some indication of its effectiveness.
Project Muso as it evolved demonstrated many features of good development not least the importance of women’s agency, effective partnerships, government-NGO cooperation, scalability, sharing expertise in a well thought out strategy. When I hear international aid being dismissed as some kind of foible of soft-headed liberal internationalists I think of healthy Muslim Malian children rushing out, calling ‘Ari, Ari’, to embrace my Orthodox Jewish friend, kippah in place, doing one of his rounds. Perhaps he should invite Mr. Sunak to spend a few days with him in peri-urban Bamako.
See TheArticle 29/10/2021