Unlocked…but for how long?

4th July 2020

Boris blagBoris Johnson – another day, another blag

Unlocked, unleashed and out on the lash.  If the government was still holding its daily coronavirus propaganda briefings this could be the new slogan, as the shackles come off bars, cafes and restaurants from today.   UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, could shuffle up to a lectern emblazoned with the slogan, flanked by nervous scientists, Patrick Valance and Chris Whitty, hoping for at least a place in the House of Lords out of this but knowing they are more likely to take the rap in any future public inquiry, almost certainly designed to incinerate their reputations.

The government has faced a lot of criticism for its dithering, delay and general tardiness in implementing the necessary measures to stem the tide of deaths arising from the pandemic, now inching towards 45,000 on official figures and counting.

In one respect though the government has been perfectly consistent.  That is in its overarching policy objective of putting private wealth ahead of public health.  Governments over the past forty years have progressively shifted the UK economy away from production and towards consumption.

The UK is over reliant upon the financial services in the City of London, being a corporate tax haven and international money laundering operation.  It is over reliant on capital hungry but socially useless investment in weapons of mass destruction.  It is over reliant on the low paid service sector and tourism economy to bring in foreign spending.

Donning a hard hat and dashing off to Dudley in the West Midlands, in order to proclaim a ‘new deal’ in infrastructure investment, Boris Johnson once again this week used a compliant media to spin his message that Britain will ‘build back better’ and that, in spite of still having the highest death rate in Europe, he could proclaim a form of victory in defeating the virus.

Quite why the BBC continues to go along with this nonsense, when the Tories will rip up the Charter and abolish the licence fee anyway is anyone’s guess, but like Johnson’s delusions of taking up the mantra of Churchill and Roosevelt, the BBC appears to be deluded enough to think that its state broadcaster status gives it a form of immunity from prosecution.

Life in the real world is, as ever, a little different to that in the Downing Street rose garden or in the cloistered corridors of Broadcasting House.  People continue to struggle with what may be life and death decisions about whether they can go to the supermarket, visit family or venture to a beach.

Listening to UK Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, this weekend, anyone could be forgiven for getting the impression that it is the patriotic duty of the nation to indulge in these activities.  Corporate profits need to be protected after all, even at a social distance, and that will not happen if people simply choose to stay at home and stay safe when they now have so many more opportunities to spend their money.

Of course, the proverbial pound in the pocket has diminished somewhat for much of the population.  Those on furlough face increasing uncertainty, as the scheme changes and employers have to contribute more.  Many others have already had to join the swelling dole queues with redundancies across a range of sectors from airlines to retail being announced daily.

As with many aspects of capitalism, the government’s strategy is about gambling.  Just as the bankers gambled incorrectly that the sub prime housing market would not collapse prior to the 2008 crash, a roll of the dice we are still paying for, so Johnson and his cohorts are hoping that a second wave of the virus will not kill off any hope of economic recovery.  Johnson is gambling that those who still have money to spend will do so in sufficient numbers to be enable him to talk up the economy and justify his policy choices.

Unfortunately for Johnson, he may be able to blag some of the people some of the time but he will not blag the virus, ever.  The government has presided over far more deaths than necessary already.  It seems set to preside over many more because of pressure from the banks, the corporate sector and the hospitality industry to unlock too many sectors of the economy too soon.

Public buildings are going to be lit blue and another round of applause is planned this weekend to mark the 72nd anniversary of the NHS, which the Tories opposed setting up in 1948 and have clobbered with austerity cuts over the past decade.  It will look good on TV, no doubt.

However, doctors, nurses, other health care professionals and workers in the care sector generally, both in care homes and local government, will need more than a token round of applause to get them through.  There is undoubtedly more work to be done.

The media, the Parliamentary opposition and, most importantly, the people out on the streets need to be galvanised to expose the ineptitude of this government and put forward an alternative which puts public health first; argues the case for properly structured planned public investment, not phoney rhetoric; exposes the lunacy of buying Trident nuclear weapons, when hospitals are underfunded and people are dying; and gives local Councils the powers to build houses for the homeless and modernise ailing public housing stock.

Most importantly, none of this should be couched in the language of reviving capitalism.  Capitalism would be one coronavirus fatality no-one would mourn.  It needs to be argued as the first steps on the journey towards socialism, a journey which puts the people first and, ultimately, takes obscene levels of private wealth entirely out of the equation.

 

 

Real zero tolerance

27th June 2020

StarmerLongBaileyBetter Days? Starmer and Long Bailey pre sacking

It was only ever going to be a question of time before Kier Starmer found a pretext to remove Rebecca Long Bailey from the Shadow Cabinet.  While Long Bailey’s leadership campaign lacked spark, she nevertheless found herself in the somewhat unlikely role of standard bearer for the Left and, as a member of the Shadow Cabinet, at least provided some link with the progressive policies Labour developed under Jeremy Corbyn.

The excuse for Long Bailey’s sacking gives significant cause for concern and is an indicator of the likely direction of both domestic and international policy under Kier Starmer.  Long Bailey re-tweeted an article from The Independent, an interview with the actor, Maxine Peake, in which Peake makes clear her view on a range of political issues, including a trenchant defence of Jeremy Corbyn and the policies developed under his leadership.

That is not why Long Bailey was sacked, apparently.  In the interview Peake also asserts that,

“The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services.”

The article goes on to add the caveat that the Israeli police deny this stating that, “there is no tactic or protocol that calls to put pressure on the neck or airway.”

In some circles this may be regarded as journalistic ‘balance’.

Long Bailey’s initial re-tweet simply carried the endorsement,

“Maxine Peake is an absolute diamond”

and she has subsequently clarified her position by stating,

“I retweeted Maxine Peake’s article because of her significant achievements and because the thrust of her argument is to stay in the Labour Party.  It wasn’t intended to be an endorsement of all aspects of the article.”

Starmer’s justification for Long Bailey’s sacking is given as retweeting an article which contains an “antisemitic conspiracy theory”.

Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the self styled leading voice of Jewish opinion but actually the voice of Jewish conservatism, welcomed Starmer’s sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, stating,

“Keir Starmer has made a very good start, we said, on tackling anti-Semitism in the party.  We had a meeting with him only last Friday and we have made it clear that we judge what he does, what his actions are.  And in this case, he’s absolutely acted decisively and has taken very swift action and it’s very reassuring to the Jewish community.”

The article, in fact an interview with Peake, does not contain an anti-Semitic reference, quote or trope.  It is clearly critical of the Israeli Secret Services and makes a specific allegation relating to the exchange of tactics and methods between the Israelis and the United States, whom no one is denying are very close allies.

Whether Peake’s observation is accurate or not, it is clearly a political point, not a racist one.  She has, in any event, apologised for making an “assumption” in relation to the links between the US and Israel but this still does not make her statement anti-Semitic.  The policies and practices of any state are surely open to comment or criticism.  The anti-Semitism witchhunt within the Labour Party is designed precisely to stifle any criticism of the policies of the Israeli government, which has been illegally occupying Palestinian land since 1967, and to justify not acting decisively enough to enforce Israeli compliance with United Nations resolutions.

At present the Israeli state is engaged in plans to annexe more of the West Bank in order to further squeeze out the scope for Palestinians to create and develop an independent state.    Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has suggested that the annexation will write another “glorious chapter in the history of Zionism.”

The Israeli move stems from US Donald Trump’s so-called peace plan, which would see 30% of the West Bank come under Israeli sovereignty, giving recognition to all of the illegally established settlements on Palestinian land and Israeli control of the strategically vital Jordan Valley, even before the Palestinians get to the negotiating table.

The Israelis are already engaged in the biggest boom in infrastructure projects in the West Bank for twenty years, laying the basis for a significant growth in settler numbers.

Kier Starmer has made much noise about zero tolerance of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, a position he inherited from his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.  However, unlike Corbyn, Starmer has not been so decisive in making clear his opposition to the flaunting of UN resolutions by the Israelis or the trampling of the rights of Palestinians.

The prospect of Starmer going back to the pre-Corbyn days of Labour simply kowtowing to the establishment agenda, rather than taking a principled stand for the rights of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, is a very real danger.

Jonathan Freedland, writing in The Guardian, under the byline, “At last, Labour is getting serious about antisemitism” applauds Starmer’s response and goes on to suggest that the Conservatives will be worried because,

“…after five years believing themselves essentially unopposed, and therefore able to get away with anything, now recognise they are up against someone serious about power.”

As is so often the case, Freedland spectacularly misses the point.  Corbyn was serious about power, Starmer is only serious about being in office.  The two are not the same.  Real zero tolerance means zero tolerance of inequality, privilege, prejudice, systematic exploitation and oppression, whether it is in the UK, US, Israel or elsewhere in the world.

Starmer needs to get his priorities in order.  Sacking Rebecca Long Bailey is a victory for intolerance, not a stand for zero tolerance in any way, shape or form.

 

 

Crashing Symbols

20th June 2020

Churchill

Protesters make their view of Churchill known

There are many arguments for and against the withdrawal from public view of symbols of imperialism, racism and slavery across the UK.  The most pressing and obvious is that these statues memorialise men who made vast fortunes from the ‘ownership’ and enslavement of others and should not, in accordance with our current realisation and values, be on display.

Another view suggests that we should leave the statues in situ but revise the interpretation associated with them, so that people can understand why they may have been regarded as ‘great men’ in their day but should be viewed differently now.

A third option suggests gathering such statues and symbols into a national museum of slavery, as a means of educating the public about these individuals and the role of Britain in initiating and sustaining the international slave trade.

The statues however are the tip of a substantial iceberg and the issues beneath the surface are beginning to show.  Oriel College, Oxford this week backed the campaign to remove the statue of white supremacist, Cecil Rhodes, from outside the college.  The Rhodes Must Fall campaign have welcomed the move, with some caution as the college have been down this road before and not removed the statue, but recognise that it is a step in the right direction.

Simukai Chigudu, an associate professor of African politics at the University of Oxford and a founding member of the campaign said,

“This statement bears some resemblance to the first statement they issued in 2016, but it includes the crucial, additional detail that the governing body itself has voted for the statue to be removed.  I think that’s a substantial shift.”

This contrasted with the opinion of Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, who called the campaign “short sighted” adding that we should “remember and learn” from the past rather than “edit” it.

Donelan will no doubt be aware that her view chimes neatly with that of her boss, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who wrote in The Telegraph earlier in the week that,

“If we start purging the record and removing the images of all but those whose attitudes conform to our own, we are engaged in a great lie, a distortion of our history”.

This is of course classic dissembling from Johnson, setting up a view that no-one is suggesting, then knocking it down in defence of his own opinion.  No one is suggesting that the record is purged but it is vital that the record is set straight.  That is not distorting history, it is correcting the current distortions, which glorify those who benefited from exploitation and slavery while ignoring the voices of the victims.

Not even Johnson however is concerned about the condemning of slave traders and acknowledging the injustice and brutality of the trade they were engaged in, even he would sign up for that.  His defence of Winston Churchill however is more telling, with Johnson fulminating that it was “absurd and deplorable” that Churchill’s statue should have been defaced and that,

“He was a hero, and I expect I am not alone in saying that I will resist with every breath in my body any attempt to remove that statue from Parliament Square, and the sooner his protective shielding comes off the better,” he said.

Churchill’s heroics are based upon his World War 2 record, where he was one of three leaders, along with Roosevelt and Stalin, who were allied against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy and Japan in the fight to defeat fascism.  While Britain played its role in the defeat of Nazism there is little doubt that the lion’s share of the struggle to liberate Europe was borne by the Soviet Union.

Churchill’s record as a politician in the early twentieth century was a died in the wool anti-working class imperialist.  Churchill’s role as Liberal Home Secretary in 1910, in sending troops to break a strike of miners in Tonypandy in South Wales, is hotly contested but he was never a supporter of trade union rights.  His role in relation to women’s suffrage during this period is also ambivalent at best.

There is no doubt that Churchill’s opposition Conservative Party did not support the setting up of the NHS following WW2, resisted the key nationalisation of coal , rail and steel as part of the post war reconstruction effort and was  instrumental in escalating the coup d’etat planning against the democratic government of Iran in 1953, while continuing UK support for the US intervention in Korea.

Churchill is just one symbol, the one that Johnson chooses to defend.  What Johnson really fears is that, once the surface is scratched, the whole edifice of the British state begins to unravel.  Is there any aspect, from the Royal Family to the Church of England to the House of Lords which is not built upon exploitation, expropriation and oppression?

How about a history which reflects the history of class struggle, the major engine of progress which has seen the franchise extended, trade unions established and working class representation in Parliament?  How about a history of the struggle for the emancipation of women, the fight for equal rights and against sex discrimination?  How about a history of the black and ethnic minority experience of life in the UK from slavery to the Irish starvation, from Windrush to Black Lives Matter?

Some histories are still deemed to be more important than others, precisely because they are the history of the class in power, and the statues and symbols they choose to erect are memorials to that power.  Some of that history is causing them embarrassment now because it is being challenged but they would not be questioning it otherwise.

Without that challenge there will not be change.  If that means a few more statues end up on riverbeds then so be it.  Hopefully it marks the beginning of a more significant re-evaluation of history, a correcting of distortions which reinforce class power and, ultimately, a challenge to the system itself.  Only then will history be on the right track.

 

 

Shackle the dogs of war

12th June 2020

blacklivesmatterBlack lives continue to matter, young people continue to protest

Capitalism has had free reign over the world economy, with the exception of China and notable smaller scale economies such as Vietnam and Cuba, for the best part of thirty years.  The defeat of the Soviet Union; the fall of the Berlin Wall; German ‘unification’; the swift dismemberment of Yugoslavia; and the annexation of the former socialist countries into the European Union, were all meant to herald a brave new world.

As ever, capitalism is the consummate conjuring trickster, now you see it, now you don’t.  Better jobs, better pay.  Better housing, lower rents.  Better healthcare, healthier lives.  Greater freedom, less oppression.  All of which has been promised then veiled with the usual capitalist sleight of hand.

The billionaire Russians laundering their ill gotten gains through the London property market are no doubt very happy with the arrangements.  German industrialists, with an untapped source of cheap labour on their doorstep in Eastern Europe have had little cause for complaint.

The reality however is that the whole system is creaking like never before.

The latest Economic Outlook from the capitalist club, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), makes grim reading, describing the world economy as being “on a tightrope.”   The OECD predict that the recession following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be the worst for 100 years, with the UK being hit the hardest.  The OECD predict a 6% shrinkage in the global economy with unemployment nearly doubling from 5.4% to 9.2% in OECD nations.

After the 2008/9 bankers gambling debt crisis global economic activity fell by only 0.1% and even that was used as an excuse to herald a decade of austerity, as the poor were punished across the Western world for the banker’s failings.

Worse still, the OECD 6% prediction is the best case scenario.  Should the world be hit by a second wave of COVID-19, as many predict, a staggering 7.6% contraction is anticipated.  The UK is expected to see GDP fall by 11.5%, compared to 11.4% in France, 11.3% in Italy and 11.1% in Spain.  A massive hit across Europe, however you measure it.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from the current economic and social crises faced by the West is that the system is not fit for purpose.  It is not just the COVID-19 crisis which highlights this reality.  The migrant crisis continues to be an ongoing issue which the European Union fails to face up to. Unemployment was rife across the EU even before COVID-19.  It can only get worse.  The killing of George Floyd in the United States has generated international activism under the Black Lives Matter banner and highlighted the economic apartheid which is endemic to the US state.

Many politicians are attempting to turn Floyd’s killing into an issue about police reform.  That is only one piece in a much bigger jigsaw however.   The persistent racism in policing in the US is a symptom of deeply engrained prejudice at every level of society in the US.  It is not the cause of that prejudice, it is a reflection of it.    To varying degrees the same deeply held prejudices are reflected across the Western world and the issues are systemic to capitalist economies.  Inequality, exploitation and prejudice are endemic.

Billionaires are on the increase across the Western world, while more people are forced to sleep on the street.  The promised land of milk and honey is just not delivering.  This is the outcome of thirty years of the attack dogs of capitalism being off the leash.  The reality of what that means is hitting home to a new generation, as more and more young people take to the streets, recognising that their hopes and dreams cannot be realised under the current system, understanding that tinkering around the edges will not bring lasting change.

Arguments for social justice, economic change, racial equality and, ultimately, socialism are more relevant than ever now.  We must encourage the tearing down of symbols of slavery and oppression.  We must shackle the dogs of war who want to spend billions on nuclear weapons technology.  We must challenge the imperialist history taught to our children.  We must root out institutional racism, sexism and defence of class interests at all levels of society.  There is nothing to lose, there is a world to win.

The profit dash continues

6th June 2020

Out of touchBoris Johnson – increasingly out of touch

It is hard to believe, with the UK death rate from COVID-19 the second highest in the world, topping the 40,000 mark according to official figures, that Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, can declare himself “very proud” of the government’s record on reducing the spread of the virus.

No one but a dyed in the wool Tory MP, financial backer or voter can believe such nonsense when the government approach to the pandemic has been calamitous from the start.  The World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic on 11th March.  The very next day, 12th March, the UK government stopped the limited test and trace programme it had in place, then proceeded to wait until 23rd March before introducing any significant lock down measures.

This was in spite of having the advantage of seeing what was happening in China, South Korea and Italy, giving the government time to respond and put measures in place quickly.  Part of the abject failure of the Tories’ response to the crisis is purely ideological.  Local government officers in public health and environmental health teams have well established test and trace practices which could have been activated at a local level quickly and efficiently.

The government however chose to go with a centralised approach, looking to by pass local government, and hand out contracts to its private sector pals.  Millions have been spent on private sector contracts without any assessment of value or capability in order to be seen to be acting quickly.  The UK death rate is the grim reality of the outcome of that approach.

The current test and trace system, which the government is now heralding as being central to its strategy, is a case in point.  Private sector company Serco is one of several firms employed to recruit a network of 25,000 tracers as part of the government scheme.  The programme is already way behind time and is not expected to be at “world class level” until September or October.

It is critical that test results are turned around in 24 hours if contacts are to be traced in order to isolate the virus.  The government continues to equivocate on the percentage of tests returned in that timescale, though it claims 92% are back within 48 hours.  Even if that is the case, all the evidence suggests that it is simply not fast enough.

Serco Chief Executive, Rupert Soames, seems less concerned about the death rate than the prospect of future profits from NHS contracts.  In an e mail to staff this week Soames said,

“If it succeeds…it will go a long way in cementing the position of private sector companies in the public sector supply chain.  Some of the naysayers recognise this, which is why they will take every opportunity to undermine us.”

As an opportunity to undermine, Soames’ e mail is something of a gift!  The purpose of test and trace is to save lives, not to boost the bank balance of the Serco shareholders.

In an attempt to bring attention to the human loss in the pandemic 27 eminent health professionals, in a letter to The Guardian this weekend, question the validity of the government’s approach, stating,

“If, as seems probable, there is a second wave this winter, many more will die unless we find quick, practical solutions to some of the structural problems that have made implementing an effective response so difficult.  These include the fragmentation, in England, of the NHS, public health and social care; the failure of those in Westminster to engage with local government and devolved nations; the channels by which scientific evidence feeds into policy; and an inability to plan for necessary goods and services, and procure them.”

As an indictment of the government’s approach this could hardly be more comprehensive.  Yet Boris Johnson is “very proud” and Rupert Soames has his eye on the company balance sheet.

Quite why this is not proclaimed as a national scandal from every news bulletin and newspaper headline is a scandal in itself.  However, the Tory press cannot bring themselves to face the reality of the government’s incompetence, while the BBC continues to play a role which can only be described as supine when it comes to journalistic credibility.

On the day the official death toll passed the 40,000 people, on the official count, the BBC reflected nothing by way of outrage but instead leavened its reporting with an emphasis on the falling rate of infections in the community.

The government has lost further credibility with the health sector, should that be possible, by unilaterally announcing that from 15th June, hospital visitors and outpatients must wear face coverings and staff must use surgical masks.  A major operational challenge for NHS Trusts around the country about which they were not consulted.

The dash to shore up company profits rather than save lives will take another step on 15th June with non-essential shops being allowed to open, as long as COVID secure measures are in place.  Following the easing of restrictions on outdoor activity, which saw many rush to the beaches in May, and the option to open schools from 1st June, there is a growing sense that the government is going too far, too soon.

The science around the pandemic is still too uncertain to proceed with anything but extreme caution.  The evidence already is that there are disproportionate impacts upon black and ethnic minority and disadvantaged communities.  Poorer housing conditions, fewer life opportunities and, as a consequence, a greater incidence of underlying health conditions, all play a part in the disproportionate impact of the virus.

It’s a fair bet not many Serco shareholders will fall into this bracket.   We can only hope that Boris Johnson’s ‘pride’ is of the variety which precedes a fall.

 

“I Can’t breathe…”

 

…these were the last words of George Floyd, killed in Minneapolis while not resisting arrest, the latest in a long line of African Americans murdered by the US police state.  The protests that have followed the murder of Floyd have exposed once again the deep divisions in the so-called “land of the free”, where apartheid may no longer be enshrined in law but is very much the reality of the day to day lives of the black population.

Minneapolis(2)

Protests mount against apartheid policing in the United States

Floyd was handcuffed on the ground for 11 minutes with a police officer pressing his knee into his neck, while three other officers stood by.  An ambulance was finally called when Floyd lost consciousness but he died later in hospital.  The public prosecutor has charged one officer, Derek Chauvin, with murder in the third degree.  That is killing without intent.  The other officers have so far not been charged.

There is a point after which, pressing your knee into the neck of a man who is protesting that he cannot breathe, especially when he is handcuffed on the ground, becomes intent.  The fact that video of the action went viral left the officers involved with nowhere to hide but behind the time honoured fortress of white privilege.  The killing has resulted in protests across the city, with a predictably robust police response.

Ilhan Omar, congressional representative for Minnesota’s 5th District, which includes Minneapolis, tweeted:

“Shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at unarmed protesters when there are children present should never be tolerated. Ever. What is happening tonight in our city is shameful. Police need to exercise restraint, and our community needs space to heal.”

The protests in Minneapolis are a reflection of the outrage relating to the death of George Floyd but are now spreading to cities throughout the United States.  The murder resonates throughout the black community.  Do black lives matter? Not very much as far as the United States is concerned.

Apart from the lived experience of the Black community and nationwide initiatives such as Black Lives Matter, studies have shown that across the country, Black people face intense bias in the criminal justice system. Minneapolis city data shows that Black residents are more likely than others to be stopped and searched by police as well as to be the targets of police use of force.

Floyd’s death is similar to that of another Black man who died as a result of police misconduct, Eric Garner.  Garner was killed when a New York City police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, put him in an illegal chokehold that resulted in his death. The officer was never brought up on charges.

Inevitably President Trump has weighed into the controversy with a helpful tweet, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”  It is not surprising that civil rights activists have seen such an intervention as provocation.  In an election year though Trump’s only agenda is to play to his base and he knows that the African-American vote is never going to swing his way.

Trump’s response is in stark contrast to his attitude to armed nationalist white militias groups who have been protesting against COVID-19 lockdown restrictions in recent weeks.  In effect Trump has conceded to the business lobby to open up large sections of the economy whether it is safe for workers to return to work or not.  Threats to withdraw unemployment benefit are being used to force workers back to the workplace, whatever the consequences for their safety.

Mainstream US media is inevitably focussing upon the damage and allegations of looting which have followed the protests since Floyd’s murder.  Whatever the truth of these reports, the reality remains that the world’s richest state and self styled defender of democracy, treats a huge section of its population as second class citizens based purely on the colour of their skin.

That is the real scandal, that is the real injustice which needs to be addressed.

 

Backing down and blustering

23rd May 2020

BB2

Empty benches – no backing for Boris?

For all of his fake ‘man of the people’ persona, when it comes to the crunch public schoolboy Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has no clue as to the popular mood.  Insisting on the necessity of a healthcare surcharge for foreign NHS workers at the start of the week, set to increase from £400 to £634 in October, he had climbed down by the end of the week.  Downing Street was forced to issue a statement saying,

“The prime minister has asked the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care to remove NHS and care workers from the surcharge as soon as possible.”

Momentum had been building during the week, with Johnson initially defending the money brought into the health service by the surcharge, which has totalled £917m over the past four years.  With even leading Tories quoted as describing the charge as “mean spirited” and “immoral and monstrous”, damage limitation became the order of the day from the Johnson camp, claiming the Prime Minister had listened and “shown true leadership”.

The episode is symptomatic of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis and the inability of Johnson himself to provide any credible lead.  The shine of Johnson’s election victory has faded rapidly and is best illustrated by the fact that Labour leader, Kier Starmer, is getting relatively sympathetic treatment from sections of the media.

The Daily Mail remains something of an exception in relation to Starmer, trying to whip up indignation over him owning a donkey sanctuary, but the story has done more to undermine the already shredded credibility of the Mail than it has Starmer.

Elsewhere, in the relatively tame House of Commons exchanges that now pass for Prime Minister’s Questions, Starmer has been described as incisive and forensic in his questioning of Johnson, who has blustered in his usual fashion but without the fan club chorus he usually enjoys.  This has led de facto fan club chairman, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to suggest that MPs should be back in the Commons, in order to mask the windbag’s blustering.  There is an irony that someone as socially distant as Rees-Mogg should be advocating the exact opposite.

While much is made of his legal career the truth is that Starmer’s questioning is no more incisive or forensic than that of Jeremy Corbyn, in fact in terms of political cutting edge it is decidedly less so.

What Starmer does have over Corbyn is establishment acceptability.  His honeymoon handling by much of the media is the first indication that the ruling circles regard capitalism as potentially being safe in Starmer’s hands.  This was never the view taken of Corbyn, who was always regarded as suspect at best and certainly likely to rock the boat, should he get anywhere near the keys to 10, Downing Street.

Johnson was always a stopgap candidate for the Conservatives, his election to the leadership based upon his populist rhetoric, media persona and the lack of a credible alternative.  In spite of his massive Parliamentary majority Johnson could yet be the fall guy for the inept handling of the pandemic.  A recession is already underway and an austerity programme is certain to follow, as the people will once more be asked to carry the cost of the crisis.

A jaded country, 15 years into austerity, could be persuaded to welcome Kier Starmer with open arms.  Inheriting an economy in a state of collapse a one term Labour administration could be permissible to UK capitalism while the Tories re grouped.

Crystal ball gazing is a dangerous practice in politics, there are so many imponderables.  Yet there is an alternative to the above scenario.  There is a world in which the inadequacies of capitalism to clothe, feed, employ and keep its people healthy are exposed.  A scenario in which the fact of care homes being run for profit rather than people’s needs is regarded as a scandal.  A scenario in which education is an equal right not a privilege according to your income.

It would be a scenario in which billions are no longer spent on weapons of mass destruction but the needs of the health service, transport infrastructure and green economy were prioritised.  Such a programme will not be advanced by a party of media darlings, it will need to be fought for inch by inch as the rich dig in to defend their privileges.

Labour can claim a small victory in seeing Boris Johnson make a u-turn this week.  It is a first step but they need to set their sights higher.  At some point they may also need to question whether Kier Starmer is the man to carry forward a programme for real change, rather than one which may just see Labour re-elected to office, on terms not of their choosing.

 

Mixing the message

12th May 2020

Stay Alert

Press mocking of the Stay Alert message was widespread

Having steered the UK to the top of the European COVID-19 fatality league, the Tories have now chosen to drop the ‘Stay at Home’ message in order to exhort us all to ‘Stay Alert’.  This is only in England.  In Scotland, where First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon read about the change with her morning cornflakes, the message remains ‘Stay at Home’.  In Wales the Labour administration had said it was not changing the message even before Boris Johnson’s ‘address to the nation’ was broadcast.  The position is the same in Northern Ireland.

It is hard to credit that the Tories do not even have the capability of uniting a country as small as the so called United Kingdom around a single message.  It is even more remarkable that in his address Johnson claimed to have consulted with the devolved administrations before embarking on the new approach. Quite apart from the fact that he obviously forgot to mention it to Nicola Sturgeon, he clearly did not get agreement for the new approach.

Johnson is bowing to pressure from the business community to ‘get the economy moving’ while continuing to use the fig leaf of being ‘led by the science’ as cover.  The science is, as ever, conflicted on many points, not least because not enough is yet known about the behaviour of COVID-19 to make reliable predictions.  What is does appear to be clear on though is that releasing lockdown too soon will result in a more rapid spread of the virus and lead to more deaths.

It also appears, from the evidence of South Korea and Germany, that rigorous systems for testing and contact tracing need to be in place, if there is to be any chance of controlling the spread of the virus.  There is no evidence that this is the case in the UK, in spite of the dash to 100,000 tests a day in April, a level which the government fails to meet on a daily basis.

The message to workers to go back to work, but not use public transport, walking or a bike is recommended, is also in advance of clear guidance on how workplaces can be made safe and clear guidance on enforcement where employers are tempted to cut corners.

Allowing people to go outside and exercise more frequently is a welcome nod to physical and mental health issues. However, the freedom to drive to a place of exercise opens up the possibility of a rush to beaches and beauty spots in good weather and the possibility of infection being spread as a result.  The timescale outlined by Johnson allows for non-essential retail being open from 1st June, sport being allowed behind closed doors and a return of some primary education.  Some hospitality and leisure outlets may open from 4th July, with the caveat that this depends upon the virus not getting out of control.

The approach adopted in the UK outside of England does not align with the timescale outlined by Johnson, opening the prospect of an uneven easing of lockdown measures and, as a consequence an uneven approach to tackling the spread of the virus.

The Tories are following up Johnson’s statement with a flurry of ‘guidance’ in order to cover the gaps.  The hope is that the economy can become active, while at the same time bringing down the rate of infection and cutting the rate of deaths.  As with the government’s whole approach to the COVID-19 crisis, it is a gamble.  As ever it is a gamble with the lives of the elderly, the poor and the most vulnerable.

One of the government’s so called five tests is to avoid a spike in the infection rate which will overwhelm the NHS.  That means avoiding a spike in the winter months when the usual bouts of flu and norovirus infections, do their annual rounds.  A spike in August or September would avoid this particular eventuality.  It may be where the UK is heading.  With over 32,000 deaths so far, it is hard to see how the UK will not be on course for 50,000 before the crisis is over.

Making History – 75 years on

8th May 2020

BerlinSoviet troops liberate Berlin

The commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second World War are taking place in the face of the international COVID-19 pandemic, which requires co-operation between nations in order to achieve victory.

The defeat of Nazism required just such levels of co-operation but took many years, many betrayals and many political twists before it came about.

The First World War had concluded with the defeat of German imperialism and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, with the spoils being divided largely between the British Empire, the French and the emerging United States.  However, an unintended consequence of a war to divide the spoils amongst imperialist powers was the 1917 revolution in Russia, from which emerged the establishment of the Soviet Union and the presence of a force on the international political stage committed to peace.

The Wars of Intervention by the armies of fourteen nations launched in 1918, aimed at defeating the Bolshevik revolution, failed and by the 1920’s the world had to recognise that a new world order had been established.

It was an order that Britain, France and the United States were not comfortable with, as it constrained their opportunities for expansion, and it was an order which they were determined to subvert at the earliest opportunity.

The need to rapidly industrialise and bring a peasant nation, so long oppressed by the Tsars, into the 20th century was the key objective of Soviet domestic policy.  Foreign policy was guided by the maxim of non-interference in the affairs of other states and recognition of the need for peaceful co-existence between states.

Such an approach to international affairs was unknown in the world, the previous periods in history having been dominated by the conquest and suppression of indigenous people, while stripping their lands of resources and enriching the conquering nation.  The British Empire was an example par excellence of this approach.  An Empire upon which the sun never set and the blood never dried.

The end of the First World War did not settle the inter-imperialist rivalries which had brought it about.  If anything, it served to exacerbate them.  The sun was beginning to set upon the British Empire with the growing demands for independence in its colonies and the growing power of the United States as a global force.

Japanese imperialism had designs in South East Asia, not least on China, and was beginning to challenge US influence in the region.  German imperialism, straight-jacketed by the Versailles Treaty, was beginning to find a route out through the rise of fascism and the populist demagogue, Adolf Hitler.  Italy had its own version in the form of Benito Mussolini.

While the British and US ruling establishments could not bring themselves to openly associate with the policies of the far right they certainly saw an opportunity.  The amount of effort which went into appeasing Hitler in particular, was for the express purpose of seeing the Nazi armies face Eastwards and attack the Soviet Union on its Western flank.

As a potential back up, much effort also went into persuading the Japanese to look to the Eastern flank of the Soviet Union and take its designs on China right through to the Soviet Far East.

In Spain in 1936 Britain and the United States looked the other way, adopting a policy of non-intervention, while the fascist troops of Germany and Italy took the side of Franco, in what is widely regarded as the Spanish Civil War but was truly a war of fascist aggression.  Some aid from the Soviet Union did get through to the Spanish Republic, much was stopped by land at the border with France and by sea.

A free hand in Spain and victory for the puppet Franco in 1939, secured Hitler’s rearguard in Southern Europe.  The selling out of Austria and Czechoslovakia by the Western powers, forced to surrender to Hitler without firing a shot, virtually gave Germany the green light to advance further.  Poland was in Hitler’s sights.

Throughout the 1930’s the Soviet Union had been pursuing a foreign policy of seeking to head off Nazi aggression and to form a European anti-fascist alliance with Britain and France.  The Soviet Union and France had signed a non-aggression pact in 1932; the Soviet Union was pressing for this to be one of mutual assistance in the event of an attack on either nation by an outside aggressor.

Moreover, the Soviet desire was for such a pact to include a range of countries threatened with Nazi aggression, including Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania and Finland.  Given the alliance of France and Britain as it stood, an attack on any of the nations by Nazi Germany would have brought all into conflict.

Such an alliance, through a combination of political manoeuvrings and a desire to appease Germany amongst some in French ruling circles, did not come about.  It was opposed by both Britain and the United States, of whom US historian, Foster Rhea Dulles, said that the US, “hoped that if war broke out in Europe, it might somehow be channelled into a crusade against Communism and accomplish the purposes which Allied intervention had failed to achieve in 1918.”

Hitler’s hatred of Communism was no less vehement than that of the United States or Britain and there can be no doubt of his desire to access the vast land and resources of the Soviet Union.   However, the policy of appeasement by the Western European powers was giving Hitler free rein to build his army, navy and air force as well as gain territory.

The Western powers being determined that Hitler attack the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union finding itself without any allies against such aggression, was left with only one option, a non-aggression treaty with Germany.   Moreover, Nazi generals feared war with the Soviet Union more than war with the West.  They recognised that an alliance of Western powers with the Soviet Union could thwart their plans, with the chief of the General Staff of Germany’s Land Forces, Halder, stating,

“It’s hard to swallow a pact between the British and the Russians…on the other hand, it’s the only thing that will stop Hitler now.”

Hitler himself declared that, without an alliance of the Western powers with the Soviet Union,

“I can smash Poland without any danger of a conflict with the West.”

The Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact effectively gave the Soviet Union more time to build its forces for the inevitable attack, it was not a question of if the Nazis would invade, only a question of when.

Western diplomacy through its combination of appeasing Hitler and failing to build an alliance with the Soviet Union, in the hope that Hitler would turn his attention East, had failed abjectly.   Millions were to pay the price.

France capitulated to German forces in a matter of months and British forces were forced into a humiliating retreat from Dunkirk.  By June 1941 Hitler did invade the Soviet Union.  Estimates vary but at least 20 million Soviet citizens lost their lives in World War 2.

The defeat of the Nazi forces at Stalingrad, fought out over many months from July 1942 – February 1943, turned the tide in the Second World War.  What was by now an alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, against the fascist forces of Germany, Italy and Japan, was gaining the upper hand.  There was still a long way to go and it was not until the 8th May 1945 that the Red Army reached Berlin and the liberation of Europe could truly begin.

Revisionist historians in the West inevitably play down the role of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazism.  It never fitted the anti-Soviet Cold War narrative and does not sit with the ongoing Western anti-Russian sentiment today.

Amid all of the nationalism, xenophobia and jingoism that surrounds such anniversaries in the UK today, it is as well to remember that there is an alternative narrative to the one played out on the BBC and in the national press.

It is one that recognises that it is only unity between people’s across the world that can result in the defeat of a common enemy.  It is one that recognises that only a policy aimed at peace between nations is a truly internationalist position.  It is one that recognises the superiority of socialism over capitalism as a solution to the needs of the people of the world. On the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe these are very much lessons for today.

 

On the downward slope

2nd May 2020

Boris Bluster

Boris Johnson – back with the usual bluster

“Boris bounces back to get UK moving” proclaimed the austerity loving apologists at the Daily Mail earlier this week, neatly sidestepping the national scandal of the government’s miserable mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis.  With the third highest death rate in the world, a testing rate manipulated to reach the government’s 100,000 test a day target by the end of April and contact tracing still a shambles, the government has little of which to be proud.

Not that this would be in evidence from the daily Downing Street press briefings, the supine ‘analysis’ provided by a parade of commentators on the BBC, or the predominantly right wing newspaper press, with the notable exception of the avowedly left wing Morning Star and the occasional critique in the liberal leaning The Guardian.

In his first Downing St briefing on Thursday, since returning to work following his own bout of COVID-19, UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, suggested that the worst of the virus was over, proclaiming,

“I can confirm today for the first time that we are past the peak of this disease.  We are past the peak and we are on the downward slope.”

Seemingly oblivious to the death toll in the UK compared to elsewhere in the world, apart from the United States and Italy, Johnson went on to blithely state that,

“We’re learning lessons everyday but I do think that broadly speaking, we did the right thing at the right time.”

All of which begs the questions as to what a national catastrophe would look like if close to 30,000 deaths, on the official count, in just three months does not qualify.

In response to ongoing pressure from the business sector, keen to resume economic activity whatever the cost to the lives of its workforce, Johnson promised this week to deliver a “comprehensive plan” pledging to cover “how we can continue to suppress the disease and at the same time restart the economy.”

The business sector increasingly have their own ideas about restarting the economy, with British Airways considering 12,000 job losses and Ryanair looking at a 3,000 job cut.  That is just for starters.  No doubt many other businesses will take the chance to cut back jobs, pay and conditions using the virus crisis as cover.  It will be interesting to see how many of the same companies cut executive pay or shareholder dividends once the economy is back up and running.

Johnson also had the temerity to say that he did not like the term ‘austerity’ to describe the brutal cuts imposed upon public services, as part of the policy programme he has supported throughout ten years of Tory government.  If this is not Johnson’s attempt to pave the way for even more austerity, dressed up in nicer terminology no doubt, to pay for the present crisis it is hard to see what else it is.

While the fanbase may well have welcomed Johnson’s return his usual bluster failed, once again, to inspire confidence.  As The Guardian sketch writer, John Crace, summarised succinctly the day after Johnson’s appearance,

“Boris talked big about the economy bouncing back, avoiding the second peak and enforcing the wearing of face masks.  But deep down he knows he’s met his match.  Up till now, he’s never found a situation he couldn’t bluster his way out of.  Now he’s up against a power greater than himself.  In a contest between coronavirus and bullshit, coronavirus wins every time.”

Meanwhile, in the United States the bullshit detector went into overdrive this week.  Following his pronouncement that a blast of bleach might be the answer to cleanse a way out of COVID-19, the Donald Trump fake news machine has reached even dizzier heights.

Even though US intelligence agencies have reached the conclusion that it “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified”, Trump claims to have seen evidence to the contrary, suggesting that the virus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Quite who is briefing the US President behind the back of his own intelligence services is an interesting question.  The Wuhan lab ‘theory’ has been circulating on right wing conspiracy theory websites in the United States for the past couple of months and is progressively making its way into mainstream news media headlines in the US and the UK, with little critique or comment.  A masterclass in fake news perpetuation and media manipulation.

Anti-Chinese rhetoric in a US election year should come as no surprise.  Even more so when China’s economic power is increasingly seen as a threat to US interests in South East Asia.  The US Navy has recently stepped up its presence in the South China Sea.  While the world is focussed on fighting COVID-19 it is not beyond the US, especially under the current administration, to be building towards conflict of the more traditional but equally devastating kind.  In which case, the whole world may be on the downward slope, to coin a phrase.