Russia Today, gone for good?

5th March 2022

Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, chokes back crocodile tears for the BBC

For those who like to get their world news from a variety of sources it has been a bad week. This is not the case if you want to access France International or Al Jazeera; one of the many news channels from the United States; or indeed the BBC.  However, if you want to compare and contrast information on the current situation in Ukraine from the Russian point of view, you will find that Russia Today (RT) had vanished from your TV channel options.

The withdrawal of RT from the airwaves is, apparently, a victory for free speech as it prevents Russian propaganda from polluting the living rooms of Europe.  The ban is EU wide but enthusiastically endorsed by the British government, not least by Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, who stated,

“It is my absolute position that we will not stop until we have persuaded every organisation, based in the UK or not, that it is the wrong thing to do to stream Russian propaganda into British homes.”   

Dorries shed crocodile tears in the House of Commons as she praised the bravery of BBC journalists ‘risking their lives’ to cover the conflict, in spite of Dorries herself being the biggest threat to the BBC, as she presses ahead with plans to abolish the licence fee and cut budgets.

Dorries’ zeal to stamp out the Russian broadcaster was matched by Labour leader Kier Starmer who backed the ban on the basis that Russia’s “campaign of misinformation should be tackled” and that RT must be prevented from “broadcasting its propaganda around the world.”

The fig leaf for the banning of RT, which it is not in the government’s gift, is that the regulator Ofcom must make such decisions and, having received a number of complaints about the channel’s coverage of events in Ukraine, Ofcom duly declared that,

“All licensees must observe Ofcom’s rules including due accuracy and due impartiality.  If broadcasters break those rules, we will not hesitate to step in.”

It is unclear as to whether Ofcom’s position includes omission as well as observance with regard to its definition of “due accuracy aand due imprtiality”. One of the issues RT has raised consistently over the past week is the failure of Western media to give the current conflict any context.  In particular RT coverage questioned why the West gave no coverage to the coup which took place in 2014 in Ukraine, resulting in a conflict in which 14,000 people have lost their lives in the past eight years.

The subsequent agreement in 2015, when the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France met in Minsk to sign an interim peace deal gets scant attention in the West.  At the heart of the deal was Ukraine’s agreement to give autonomy to the Russian speaking Donbass region, now the self declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.  The fact that the Ukrainian government failed to honour the Minsk agreement, and perpetuated an ongoing war against the Donbass region, is key to the two republics declaring independence and to the Russian intervention.

In the interests of “due accuracy and due impartiality” it would be reasonable to expect the BBC to provide some airtime to explaining this.  It may even be reasonable to expect the BBC to highlight the agreements made following the demise of the Soviet Union, that NATO would not impinge upon the borders of Russia or recruit East European states into the military alliance.  Agreements which NATO has flagrantly breeched.

While none of this is an excuse for the actions of nationalist oligarch, Vladimir Putin, in launching military operations against Ukraine it does at least help understand the Russian mindset and the security concerns which lie behind the decision.  In any conflict situation understanding the concerns and viewpoint of your adversary is part of the way towards knowing what may be possible by way of a negotiated settlement.

This is assuming that NATO is looking for a settlement in the short term.  Embroiling Putin and his cohorts in a protracted conflict in Ukraine may actually serve the longer term purpose of regime change in Russia, which NATO, the EU and the United States have clearly been building towards for some time, as troop deployments move ever closer to the Russian border and Eastern Europe states become absorbed in the EU.

US President, Joe Biden, concluded his State of the Union, speech this week with a peroration on the war in Ukraine which culminated in the proclamation, “Go get him!”, hardly a call to negotiate.  

Ukrainian President Zelensky is stepping up the demand for a NATO no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would draw the military alliance into direct conflict with Russia, potentially having to shoot down Russian aircraft, and escalate the conflict further.

The propaganda war is as much a part of the conflict as troops on the ground and missile attacks.  The characterisation of the war as one of good vs evil is firmly established in Western media and is reflected in the actions of much of the population.  In Britain alone buildings are lit in the colours of the Ukrainian flag, municipal buildings fly the flag itself and collections are being organised to support refugees from Ukraine.

Having previously attempted to build a steel ring around the EU when migrants fled NATO inspired conflicts in Iraq, Libya and Syria, even the states most hostile to migrants, such as Hungary and Poland, are prepared to admit any number of Ukrainians.  White Europeans appear to get an easier pass than anyone from the Middle East or North Africa.

The BBC and its sister stations across the EU continue to give such actions high profile coverage and, far from being duly accurate and impartial, take an active and clear side in the conflict.  The BBC has also launched two new short wave radio frequencies to reach Ukraine and Russia.

Which is not to say that RT would be completely impartial in its coverage from a Russian perspective or that its reportage of the conflict as it unfolds would be any more accurate.  It would be naive to think that the propaganda war does not cut both ways. However, it would appear that the much vaunted ‘freedoms’ of the West do not stretch to being able to access both sides of the debate.

Ukraine – weapons pour in to fuel the conflict

28th February 2022

Members of the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion march in Kyiv

Transgressions of international law have been legion in the period since the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1991.  The NATO led bombing and dismemberment of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s resulted in fragmentation, civil war and thousands of deaths, counter to international law.  The US led bombing of Iraq in 2003 flew in the face of international law, resulting in thousands of deaths and the collapse of the Iraqi state.  The same applies to the US bombing of Libya, the twenty year long US occupation of Afghanistan and the Saudi led bombardment of Yemen, which has gone on since 2015.

The United States continues to illegally blockade the Cuban economy in the face of massive international opposition.  The British government will not release to Venezuela gold reserves which legitimately belong to that country.  The Israeli government continues its illegal occupation of Palestinian land, counter to United Nations resolutions and international agreements.

None of which justifies Russia’s decision to launch a military operation in Ukraine but certainly makes Western holier than thou proclamations of defending democracy and being a bulwark against tyranny sound particularly hollow.

The West has always taken a pragmatic approach how it handles ‘tyrants’.  Saddam Hussein was courted for many years, his pilots trained by the RAF and his regime tolerated as a lesser evil in the Middle East than that of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The eight year long Iran-Iraq war, which raged from 1980 -1988 and left over a million dead, was encouraged by the West in the hope that the Iranian revolution would be thwarted.

The plan backfired.  The war ended in stalemate but the Iranian clergy used it as cover to purge those progressive elements who had been against the Shah, but were equally opposed to the establishment of an Islamic Republic, and consolidate the medieval theocracy which continues to oppress the Iranian people to this day.

The Taliban in Afghanistan emerged from opposition groups, armed by the CIA and Saudi Arabia, to undermine the 1978 revolution in Afghanistan, which freed the country from feudal overlords and which the Soviet Union was asked to assist in defending.  The recent retreat of Western forces from Afghanistan, defeated by the very same Taliban, is another instance of the plan backfiring.

Opposition to the Bashir al-Assad government in Syria was fuelled by the West pouring into the country vast quantities of weaponry, which encouraged ongoing violence and degenerated into civil conflict.  The attempt to undermine Syria failed, though not without the people of that country paying a significant price.

Agreements were made following the defeat of the Soviet Union that NATO would not take advantage and extend its influence into Eastern Europe and threaten Russia’s security.  The exact opposite has happened.  NATO influence and membership now extends to Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Romania and beyond.  The United States territory of Alaska shares a border with Russia.

The NATO and EU backed coup in Ukraine in 2014 was followed by the banning of a wide range of political parties, including the Communist Party, attacks upon the ethnically Russian dominated areas of Odessa and Mariupol and the inclusion of fascist elements in both the government and armed forces.     

The ‘democratic’ Ukraine, much vaunted by the Western media and liberal opinion, is little more than a façade for the influx of weapons which the current crisis has precipitated.  Arms are flowing into Ukraine at an alarming rate, including an alleged 30,000 weapons handed out on the streets to Ukrainian citizens for their ‘defence’ but has actually resulted in gangs looting in the capital Kyiv.  The EU has just agreed weapons deliveries of €500 million to Ukraine, further fuelling the likelihood of extending the conflict rather than moving towards a peaceful resolution.

Russian and Ukrainian peace talks have been initiated in Belarus offering the opportunity that an agreement may be reached.  However, it is unlikely that Russia will accept any agreement which does not result in Ukraine’s neutrality, while Ukraine’s President Zelensky is reported to be demanding an unconditional ceasefire, the withdrawal of Russian troops and immediate EU membership for Ukraine.  Both sides may remain apart for some time.

A special session of the UN General Assembly has been called, only the tenth in the past seventy years, to discuss the crisis.  In his speech the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN has described the Third Reich as the “spiritual mentors” of the Russians.  He further went on to question whether Russia is even a legitimate member of the United Nations.  Such rhetoric does not augur well for negotiations.

Putin has made it easy for the West to ramp up the demonisation of both himself and Russia with the miscalculated invasion of Ukraine.  It may be that the unintended consequence is his own downfall, as the gangster capitalists he represents will no doubt be quick to find an alternative, if Putin is not seen to be serving their best interests.

The West will seek to exact a price to defend its own position but may still tolerate a more compliant, resource rich Russia, desperate to do business with the West to rebuild its profit base.  Feelers will no doubt be out already for an alternative to Putin, not least from the British Tories, who benefit significantly from donations of dirty Russian money, and the City of London, which has played a key role in laundering the asset stripping of the former Soviet Union.

It may not play out that way, Putin may yet step back and find a way to survive.  In any event, he is unlikely to emerge from the crisis stronger.  Whatever the outcome the West will need to remember, seeking reparations from a weakened rival may seem like a good outcome in the short term but, as twentieth century history shows, it my store up greater dangers in the future.

Tories throw in the towel

23rd February 2022

Living with Covid or dying to make a profit?

Any pretence that the Tories have been involved in anything but a de facto strategy of herd immunity during the Covid pandemic was cast to one side this week.  The minimal protections in place, such as mask wearing on public transport and in crowded public spaces, will go.  Access to regular free lateral flow tests will go, other than for the most vulnerable and social care staff, though not health workers.

Remarkably, the necessity to self isolate when testing positive for Covid will disappear, with responsibility being passed to employers and individuals.  To describe this as a monumental abdication of responsibility on the part of the government is an understatement.  While many employers in the public sector will acknowledge their duty of care, and advise staff who show symptoms to stay at home, the same cannot be relied upon in the small business and private sector. 

Setting out its plans the government states that from 24th February in England:-

  • The legal requirement to self-isolate ends. Until 1 April, people who test positive are advised to stay at home. Adults and children who test positive are advised to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for at least five full days and then continue to follow the guidance until they have received two negative test results on consecutive days.
  • From April, the Government will update guidance setting out the ongoing steps that people with COVID-19 should take to be careful and considerate of others, similar to advice on other infectious diseases. This will align with testing changes.
  • Self-isolation support payments, national funding for practical support and the medicine delivery service will no longer be available.
  • Routine contact tracing ends, including venue check-ins on the NHS COVID-19 app.
  • Fully vaccinated adults and those aged under 18 who are close contacts are no longer advised to test daily for seven days and the legal requirement for close contacts who are not fully vaccinated to self-isolate will be removed.

Infection rates remain high and the death rate across Britain remains the highest in Europe, with over 160,000 deaths to date.  Britain is second only to France in the number of cases.  Only the United States, Brazil and India are ahead on both cases and deaths from Covid.  Yet the Tories’ adherence to private wealth as opposed to public health remains unshakable.  Without a hint of irony the Tories call their plan Living with Covid, though their entire strategy to date could best be characterised as Dying to make a Profit, a strategy from which the latest announcement is no departure.

The latest rules only apply to England, for the moment, but it is hard to see how the other UK governments will not follow sooner or later.

It is clear that the impact of the changes, as at each stage of the pandemic, will hit the poorest the hardest.  Those who have no choice but to work, often at more than one job, will have no safety net and no incentive or encouragement to stay at home when they display Covid symptoms.  Those on temporary or zero hours contracts or surviving in the gig economy will be faced with impossible choices.  This is underlined by the fact that guidance also states that from 1st April the government will,

  • Remove the health and safety requirement for every employer to explicitly consider COVID-19 in their risk assessments.

In response to the government plan Prof Anthony Costello, professor of global health and sustainable development at UCL, told the BBC:

“The worry about lifting the legal restrictions is that we are telling not only our population, but the world, that there is really nothing to worry about, that it’s all over when it isn’t.”

The new Covid plans would also see councils in England become responsible for managing outbreaks using existing powers, although there is no indication that any additional resources will be allocated.

Several scientists and clinicians – including Prof Anthony Costello, Dr Kit Yates and Prof Christina Pagel – have signed an open letter to Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, urging them to “clarify the extent to which the planned policies are consistent with scientific advice and what specifically that scientific advice contained”.

Further concern was expressed by Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, who stressed that infections need to fall further before the rules were relaxed, stating,

“It does appear as if the government is trying to pretend that Covid doesn’t exist in the day-to-day lives of so many people.”

The right wing press and the hard core right wing in the Tory Party may well crow that the “shackles are off” and trumpet loudly the removal of so called “restrictions” but for many people this is simply a case of stripping away protection and increasing their sense of vulnerability.  The pressure upon the NHS remains, the working class continue to suffer disproportionately and Tory donors, with their fast track contracts, walk away with fat profits on the backs of us all and the deaths of many.

This is the true face of capitalism in 21st century Britain.  It is time for a change. 

Iran and US on a short runway in Vienna

19th February 2022

As the negotiations between Iran and the P5+ 1 world powers to revive the Iran nuclear deal progresses Jane Green considers the issues and the prospects for peace in the Middle East

Talks on the Iran nuclear deal continue in Vienna

Negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal, have been ongoing since early December 2021. Vienna has been the venue for these negotiations involving the Islamic Republic of Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and the European Union, in an effort to avert a devastating new war in the Middle East.

Ned Price, the US state department spokesperson, has warned that, “The runway is very, very short – weeks not months.” This assessment is confirmed by US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who has added that any hope of a deal is dependent on getting agreement on reductions in Iran’s nuclear programme.  With Iran achieving levels of uranium enrichment at 60%, the US argue that faster progress is needed.

Under the 2015 JCPOA, the Obama administration agreed to remove economic sanctions on Iran in return for the latter’s guarantee that it would keep the enrichment of uranium at lower levels.  Iran remained in compliance with the terms of the JCPOA but, a year after the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, reimposing sweeping sanctions on Iran, the Iranian regime began to suspend some of its commitments, including the cap on uranium enrichment.

The regime in Tehran argues that it had no choice but to go down this path, to find ways to generate leverage to revive the deal, especially after other signatories to the agreement failed to counter the effects of the reimposed sanctions or tackle the unilateral withdrawal of the US.

The sanctions have had a crippling impact upon the Iranian economy and the regime is acutely conscious of the growing popular unrest in the country, stemming from the sanctions. This is as a result of factories and industrial complexes folding, unemployment skyrocketing and a rapid severe devaluation in the national currency.

As a consequence, the regime has begun to moderate its demands and preconditions to ensure the current negotiations do not collapse.  The Islamic Republic more than anything is concerned about the survival of the theocratic regime rather than worrying about the direction of Iranian social and economic policies.

In spite of negotiations not showing any signs of immediate breakthrough, in Tehran the official statements attempt to show that the negotiations are progressing. The Iranian position appears to be that if the negotiation is threatened, the leadership will change tack and proclaim an “heroic compromise” for the negotiations to go forward. Iran seriously needs the sanctions to be lifted.

There has been some movement recently with the US agreeing a waiver on some of the sanctions. The latest US move lifts the sanctions threat against foreign countries and companies from Russia, China and Europe that had been cooperating with Iran under the terms of the JCPOA.

The waivers permit foreign countries and companies to work on civilian projects at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power station, its Arak heavy water plant, and the Tehran Research Reactor without triggering US sanctions.  The US position is that the waivers are being restored in order to move forward the negotiations in Vienna.

However, Iran is attempting not to rely entirely upon the outcomes of the negotiations to address its economic crisis. The Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, travelled to China recently to secure a 25-year partnership agreement. Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian president, has travelled to Moscow recently with the same purpose.

Nevertheless, neither China nor Russia can economically or politically protect Iran’s position.  Neither can help to save Iran from the economic catastrophe confronting it if the US and UN economic and banking sanctions continue, or if negotiations fail and Iran continues with its uranium enrichment to weapons grade, 95% purity.

The Iranians are also concerned that any deal will not be subject to the vagaries of any change in US administration. Tehran wants binding commitments that if the US quits the deal, the EU will do more to defy secondary US sanctions by injecting real cash into the abortive trading mechanism, Instex, set up by the EU to bypass US sanctions.

The outcome of the negotiations is further complicated by the position of Israel where the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has warned that his country will not be bound by any agreement.  This underlines once again the precarious balance in the Middle East and the danger that, even if agreement is reached in Vienna, the hardline mavericks in Israel may still plunge the region into conflict.

For the US Biden’s policy is in essence the same as Trump with a softer cover. It aims to tame Iran to play a “constructive” part in the Middle East, as the US aims to give its full attention to China and the challenges it faces there. In short, US favours a multilateral confinement approach, as introduced by Obama, with the difference that Biden is protective of Israel and Saudi Arabia. The ideal scenario from a US point of view is that the balance of power between the four big Middle Eastern powers, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt, will keep US interests protected. 

The ongoing actions against trade unionists and the political opposition, a feature of the Islamic regime for over 40 years, are leading to increasing resistance and protests, as the corrupt practices and economic incompetence of the clergy become more evident.  More than 60% of Iranians live below the poverty line, there is no economic growth and inflation continues to climb.

While the regime makes a show of resistance to US demands in Vienna all indications suggest that the theocratic regime is running out of options.  An agreement behind closed doors with the United States may be all that is left. This is certainly an option that can firmly tie Iran to the global capitalist system.

It may not be the outcome that the US or the Islamic Republic will admit to publicly, but it may yet be a solution both are prepared to live with in the short term.

For the full text of this article go to http://www.codir.net

Unthinking conservatism

12th February 2022

Poland calls on NATO to send more forces amid concerns about Russia | Stars  and Stripes

NATO troop build up in Poland continues

Kier Starmer’s leadership of the Labour Party sank to an all time low yesterday when he took the opportunity in an article for The Guardian (My party’s commitment to NATO remains unshakable – 11/2/22) to lambast the Stop the War movement for being critical of the approach of NATO in relation to Ukraine.

Starmer went further and nailed his leadership of Labour firmly to NATO’s mast by proclaiming the formation of the military alliance, during the post war Labour government of Clement Attlee, as being on a par with the formation of the NHS.  Starmer concluded his article with the assertion that.

“…I regard both the Ns – NATO and the NHS – as legacies of that transformational Labour government that we need to be proud of and to protect.”

On one level it appears that Starmer falls into the trap of the politically naïve, assuming that the opposition of those who see NATO as an aggressive military alliance, designed to protect imperialist interests around the globe, are automatically supporters of the ‘enemy’, whether that enemy is deemed to be Beijing or Moscow.

The put down of the ‘liberal Leftie’ who is soft on authoritarian regimes, does not understand the need for defence and security and is, by inference, on the wrong side, has been a standard trope of the capitalist press and right wing Labour leaders for decades.   In that sense Starmer is not being naïve but is following a long tradition of demonising the Left in order to burnish his own credentials to be seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ when the prospect of a General Election looms.

The more sinister undertone to Starmer’s position is the implicit and at times explicit anti-communist tone to his words, commenting that,

“Attlee, Bevin and Healey saw communism for what it was and were prepared to stand up to its aggression.  Today’s Labour party has the same clear-eyed view of the current regime in the Kremlin.  We know as they did, that bullies respect only strength.”

The Russia of the 21st century is not the Soviet Union of the 20th century, though it is convenient for Starmer and his ilk to convey that impression, as it serves their one dimensional view of the world as divided into simply the good guys and the bad guys.  Hence, the anti-Sovietism of the late 20th century has been transformed into the anti-Russian propaganda of the 21st century by those seeking to present the world in simple black and white terms.

That is not the position, whatever Starmer may assert, of those who support Stop the War or who regard both NATO and Britain’s membership of it as problematic.  True, many have regarded NATO as an aggressive military alliance since its inception.  Its initial stand to refuse membership to the Soviet Union was an early indication that it was not “a consecration of peace and resistance to aggression” but a defence of imperialist power against the threat of the spread of communism.

The creation of NATO was arguably the first act of the Cold War and precipitated a nuclear arms race which sucked resources away from the needs of working class people across the world, only making rich the arms manufacturers and warmongers.  

NATO forces have been deployed across the globe to defend imperialist interests in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen.  They continue to establish advanced forward bases in Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states; all of these moves are regarded as a threat by Russia.  Adding Ukraine to this perceived encirclement is the source of Moscow’s fear for its own security in the present stand off.     

To characterise NATO as the guarantor of “democracy and security”, as Starmer does, is simply to fly in the face of history.  Those in the peace movement opposed to war in Europe are no more in favour of Russian aggression than NATO aggression but the evidence of where such aggression has usually been initiated in recent history is clear.  Starmer further caricatures the Left as being guilty of unthinking conservatism, stating,

“The kneejerk reflex, “Britain, Canada, the United States, France – wrong; their enemies -right”, is unthinking conservatism at its worst.”

Correct, if true, but the only unthinking conservative in this instance is Starmer himself, who fails to grasp the world in its complexity and insists on the classic good guys, bad guys scenario.

The fact is that the Ukraine situation is one of bad guys versus bad guys.  There is no more to commend the Putin regime and its gangster politics than there is NATO’s defence of its imperialist interests and desire to extend those.  The issue is one of assessing where the threat of initiating conflict is more likely to come from and what the consequences would be for world peace should such a conflict erupt.

There can be little doubt that the reach and firepower of the combined NATO arsenal far outweighs that of the Russians but also that Russian firepower is sufficient to inflict significant damage should a conflict erupt.

Rather than unshakable commitment to NATO it would be good to hear Starmer proclaim his unshakable commitment to peace and conflict resolution, to de-escalating tensions across the world, to wanting to see Britain in the forefront of arms reduction and banning arms sales to dictatorships.

As for equating the formation of the NATO military alliance with the life saving NHS, Starmer really is plumbing the depths.  The objectives of both could not be more diametrically opposed.  The comparison is a shameful one and an insult to all of those NHS staff working tirelessly to save lives and who have been at the forefront of doing so over the past two years in particular.

The same cannot be said for NATO, its Generals or its many apologists.

Levelling up or just another bumpy ride?

5th February 2022

Shoppers search for that levelled up bargain

If the policies and practices of the British government were not littered with such tragic outcomes for working class people they would have to be regarded as a comedy.  Schooled in the finest and most expensive institutions the ruling class can muster, the Eton heavy Cabinet, having rid themselves of Head Girl, Theresa May, could do no better than put the boy who sniggers at the back of the classroom in charge, in the form of Boris Johnson.

For those who do not move in such ‘enlightened’ circles it was clear from the off that Johnson, as with any other Tory Prime Minister, would have nothing to offer the working class other than poverty, insecurity and broken promises.  In this, if in nothing else, Johnson and his diminishing band of cohorts, can at least claim to be consistent.

Yet they still attempt to pedal the illusion that, if they are patently not of the people, they can be trusted to be for the people.   That this is nonsense, propagated by every Tory huckster since time began, is unfortunately no guarantee that some will not fall for it.  Sadly, Johnson would not have an 80+ majority in the House of Commons without that being the case.

The Levelling Up White Paper, published this week, is the latest Tory attempt to hoodwink the people.  The Minister in charge of this nonsense is Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove, who has claimed that the British economy had been ‘like a jet firing on only one engine’.

Gove goes on to proclaim the virtues of the strategy claiming that,

“This White Paper is about ending this historic injustice and calling time on the postcode lottery.  This will not be an easy task and it won’t happen overnight, but our 12 new national levelling up missions will drive real change in towns and cities across the UK so that where you live will no longer determine how far you can go.”

Gove fails to point out however that ‘how far you can go’ will still depend upon which class you are born into and how fast a car, helicopter or private jet, presumably with more than one engine, that you can afford!

So, what does this marvel of modern equality contain?

First off there is more bureaucratic dismantling of local government through an expansion of the Heseltine style city Mayor idea, imported from the US.  This will consist of nine county deals, two new combined authorities and a host of new powers for existing metro mayors in England.

The Government has also pledged a ‘simplified, long-term funding settlement’ for devolution while the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the replacement for European regional development funds, will be decentralised across the whole of the country.

In existing mayoral areas, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands will become ‘trailblazers’ with extended powers, providing a blueprint for others to follow.  The North East Combined Authority is also due to expand. 

For all of those huddled up in a rented flat, faced with the choice of whether to heat or eat, this will all surely come as a welcome relief!  A new layer of government with an Elected Mayor should be just the ticket!

In addition to the devolution plans the White Paper outlines proposals, marketed as 12 ‘missions’ to be met by 2030, to increase education and skills attainment, boost research and development, improve transport and broadband, and improve pay and employment.  In theory, tackling all of the things which have been cut back or reduced following more than a decade of Tory austerity.

Of course, with inflation now bordering on rampant levels the Bank of England is already whimpering about pay deals being too high, so it will be no surprise if that one is the first to go out of the window.  Let’s face it, why would levelling up prioritise giving people better pay and conditions?

There is little in the government’s levelling up missions to disagree with.  Who does not want increased life expectancy, better schools, better transport, better housing, better broadband connectivity?  In short it is a wish list of things that obviously need to be addressed but have suffered because the private sector has been more concerned with making profits for shareholders than meeting people’s needs.

Nothing in the proposals suggest that putting the private sector first will change.  Nothing suggests that the energy companies, making vast profits on the back of hiked up energy prices, will be nationalised.  Nothing suggests a more effective and efficient rail network, publicly owned rather than in private hands.  Nothing suggests the return of local housing control to local authorities and the abolition of the iniquitous ‘right to buy’ scheme.   

Nothing suggests that the private school system, with the sham of educational establishments for the rich being able to claim charitable status, will change.  There is no mention of abolishing university fees, the introduction of which has become a barrier to access for working class students.  While we are on, anyone care to look at the gender equality pay gap?

For most ordinary people the promise of levelling up looks a lot like being just another bumpy ride from the Tories.

It is safe to say that there is more levelling up to be done than is dreamed of in Michael Gove’s philosophy.  In fact, there is more levelling up to be done than is possible under any capitalist philosophy as inequality, exploitation and expropriation are at the core of the system.   Levelling up, in any real sense, is a socialist proposition and can only be delivered when the system is under the control of the people, run by a government for the people and committed to meeting the needs of the people.

Anything less than that, including the government’s White Paper, is little more than hot air and will not change the real balance of power one jot.

Remembering Bloody Sunday

30th January 2022

Peaceful demands for civil rights, undermined by Bloody Sunday

The history of the British presence in Ireland has always been one of violence, oppression and exploitation.  For centuries Ireland only mattered to the British ruling class as a source of cheap food, feeding the British army during the Napoleonic wars and being turned into a largely corn growing economy as manufacturing began to grow in Britain in the early nineteenth century.

The struggle for control of the land was integral to the national struggle in Ireland throughout the nineteenth century.  English landlords profited from the extortionate rents charged to the Irish peasantry, who were forced to either pay up or be evicted.  Essentially the peasant grew wheat to pay the rent and potatoes for food.

When the potato crop failed, leading to the so called Irish famine of 1845 – 1850, food to the value of £17m was exported from the country, in 1847 alone, under the protection of English troops.  As A. L. Morton observes,

“The million and a half people who died in these years did not die of famine but were killed by rent and profit.”  (A People’s History of England – Lawrence and Wishart 1938)

Different movements including the Young Ireland Movement, the Fenian Society and the Land League attempted at various times to defend the economic interests of the peasants, fight evictions and foment risings against English exploitation without significant lasting success.

The parliamentary route was represented through the Home Rule Party, formed in 1872, which quickly found an able leader in the form of Charles Stuart Parnell.  Parnell had some success in delivering a significant body of nationalist MPs into the Westminster Parliament.  However, even this route was barred when Parnell was discredited as part of a conspiracy to successfully split the nationalist position, and any attempts to introduce Home Rule for Ireland were blocked by the landlords, keen to hold onto their profits.

By the time of the Easter Rising in 1916 it was clear that significant sections of the Irish working class were against both English domination and participation in the Imperialist war.  While the rising itself was unsuccessful, and its leaders, including James Connolly, executed by the British, the rebellion triggered a steady growth of labour and nationalist activity. 

The guerrilla warfare against the English which lasted from 1919 – 1921 resulted in the establishment of the Irish Free State but at the expense of the annexation of the six counties which became Northern Ireland, incorporated into the so-called United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland itself was essentially an enclave of English occupation, managed on behalf of the English industrialists who controlled the economy, by the Protestant majority at the expense of the Catholic minority.    Working class Protestants, who should have had more in common with their working class Catholic counterparts, were bought off by preferential access to jobs, housing and dominance of the police and security services.  Voting rights for Catholics were also restricted in order to ensure an inbuilt Protestant majority in any governance arrangements in the province.

Catholic areas were regularly under attack and resistance was met by the British state with a policy of internment, arrest without evidence or trial, which further inflamed Catholic and nationalist sentiment.

Internment was, in effect, the repressive response by the British state to the growing challenge of popular resistance to defend nationalist areas from assault by sectarian Protestant forces.  It was also the British state’s attempt to stem the rising tide of a civil rights movement demanding their rights against decades of repression, discrimination, and gerrymandering.

As the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) note,

“The British and Orange state saw the resistance of the people and continued demands for civil rights as a direct challenge to the very existence of the British-imposed political settlement of 1922, which partitioned Ireland.”

The civil rights march in Derry, which took place on 30th January 1972, fifty years ago today, was called to protest against the policy of internment which had been introduced in August 1971.

As the CPI go on to point out,

“The activities of the Parachute Regiment in Derry on 30 January 1972 followed the state-organised killing of at least nine people in Ballymurphy in Belfast between 9 and 11 August 1971, all part of Britain’s military strategy of “low-intensity conflict,” a strategy for quelling and subduing local working-class resistance to its political, economic and military strategies of control.”

The ’activities of the Parachute Regiment’ on 30 January were the murder of 13 unarmed civilian protesters, as the British soldiers opened fire on a peaceful demonstration.  A fourteenth innocent victim died later as a result of injuries inflicted on the day, which has gone down in history as Bloody Sunday.

The actions of the British state on Bloody Sunday undermined the peaceful protests and class solidarity being built through the civil rights movement and drove many nationalists into the arms of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). 

The misguided guerrilla campaign of the IRA, targeting civilian as well as economic and military targets, played into the hands of the British state.  It was easy for the media to whip up opposition to IRA ‘atrocities’ and difficult for the Left in Britain to generate solidarity with those seeking a genuine working class solution to the partition of Ireland, achieving unity across all 32 counties.

The violence of British imperialism in Ireland did not end with Bloody Sunday and the economic grip upon the six counties of the Northern Ireland statelet continues to this day.  The debate over the border in the Irish Sea, which has erupted as a result of Brexit, has underlined ruling class differences over the statelet’s position as part of the increasingly fragmenting United Kingdom, or whether it can be incorporated into the safe hands of the Irish ruling class and be absorbed into the neo-liberal arms of the EU as part of a united Ireland.  

Neither solution will benefit the Irish working class in the short term but an Ireland united will at least have the opportunity to shape its own future on its own terms rather than having to fight on two fronts.  As the CPI conclude,

“The best way to remember the victims of imperialism is to struggle to end imperialist control and domination, to take up the challenge and struggle bequeathed to us by James Connolly, to struggle for and build a Workers’ Republic, from Derry to Kerry.”

For more info go to https://communistparty.ie/en/2022/01/bloody-sunday-1972-statement/

Stop the NATO war drive!

22nd January 2022

Ukrainian soldiers practice with US weaponry – January 2022

Ever since the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1991, followed by the slide of the Russian Federation into gangster capitalism and the rightward shift of many former Soviet and Eastern European states, there has been the potential for conflict with the West.  Inter-imperialist rivalry has been a key feature of world politics since before World War 1 and however it is currently dressed, in talk of globalisation for example, it has not fundamentally changed.

Capitalism is driven by expansion, whether that is through territory, economic influence, strategic resource control or sheer military force, new conquests and new markets are always on the agenda.

The opening up of markets and influence which ‘victory’ in the Cold War afforded Western capitalists has been reflected in the incorporation of former socialist states into both the European Union and NATO; the annexation of the former German Democratic Republic into a ‘unified’ German state; and the creeping economic and military encirclement of Russia.

The flaw in the West’s plan for the post Soviet era was a failure to recognise that the beast it had unleashed in the East, in the form of the gangster capitalists of Russia, may have demands of their own and may not take kindly to the diktats of the West.  There is also the fact that Russia’s new regime inherited a substantial military arsenal, as well as a not insignificant economic capability and major geo-politically important resources, in the form of oil and gas reserves.

Inheriting the Soviet Union’s seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council also meant that, whoever was in the post Soviet driving seat in Russia, was always going to be a key strategic player. In European terms Germany, always keen to maintain its economic and political dominance of the EU, does not seek an economically strong rival to the East.

Germany has been well placed to benefit from the pool of cheap labour, which the incorporation of the former socialist states in Eastern Europe was designed to achieve for the EU.   The free movement of labour has merely been a cover for the easier exploitation of cheap labour by the established EU states.

This has also allowed German market expansion into Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and the Balkan states, with Ukraine firmly in the sights, as both a key market and source of strategic resources.  

NATO troops and heavy weaponry are already positioned as far forward as Poland and in the Baltic states, with military exercises in those countries having been a key feature of recent years.  Additional Western firepower has been provided to the Ukrainian government today, to counter the much hyped ‘threat’ of a Russian invasion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is by no means an innocent player, as Andrew Murray states,

“…he presides over an authoritarian regime run mainly in the interests of the oligarchic groups which have seized the wealth of the USSR.  It is a brazenly corrupt system, which has concocted an ideology mixing Russian chauvinism and Orthodox-influenced social conservatism…” (The Empire and Ukraine Manifesto Press 2015)  

For Putin though, a Ukraine on the Russian border, as a member of the EU and armed by NATO, is regarded as unacceptable, the equivalent of Russia forging an alliance and stationing troops in Mexico.

The relative decline of the United States as the world’s dominant economic force, challenged by China on that front; the struggle of the EU to maintain both political unity and economic influence; and the reassertion of Russia as a force on the European front, make Ukraine a very real potential flashpoint, in both economic and military terms.  

The ever compliant Western media focus upon the number of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine, failing to point out that these troops are actually in Russia, unlike the troops and weaponry which NATO has been amassing for years in countries neighbouring Russia, as part of its strategy of encirclement.

The roots of the current crisis run deep. In November 2013 the elected president of Ukraine at the time, Victor Yanukovych, was negotiating with the EU to move Ukraine closer to the EU but not by directly joining. His aim was to broker an economic deal that would benefit Ukraine, the EU and Russia, if possible. Via Ukraine, the EU could access Russian energy resources and Russia would gain new customers. As the intermediary, Ukraine could win financially by playing the pipeline middle man and getting cheaper gas for itself.

However, the EU wanted Ukraine to keep paying inflated prices and to stick to a burdensome debt repayment schedule. Putin then offered Ukraine a better deal than what the EU was offering, with Russian gas for up to a third less and help paying off debt. Yanukovych, who did not want to impose the austerity on his people that the EU was demanding, accepted Putin’s offer.

In response, the nationalist right wing in Ukraine, led by openly fascist organisations, began to whip up protests. Yanukovych overreacted with police violence against demonstrators, and many were killed. Things spiralled out of control, and he fled to Russia as a fascist coup openly backed by the U.S. seized control in Kiev under the guise of “restoring law and order.” Again, EU and NATO expansionist desires were resulting in bloodshed.

Clearly a military conflict will not benefit the people of Ukraine, Russia or the West, as any escalation is in danger of degenerating quickly into a Europe wide conflict or worse.  The moves towards more arms and ammunition being supplied to Ukraine by the West must be stopped and exposed as the provocation they clearly are. 

Opposition to further imperialist war must be the priority for progressive organisations across the world.  Opposing NATOs war drive is by no means an endorsement of Putin but mass opposition to it may just save thousands of lives.

The position of the Stop the War Coalition should be widely circulated, stating,

“Stop the War demands an end to the relentless expansion of NATO, which has only added to international tension, particularly as NATO has played a more aggressive role internationally in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia. We oppose the deployment of British forces to the borders of Russia as a pointless provocation. “

For more info go to https://www.stopwar.org.uk/article/stop-the-war-statement-on-tensions-around-ukraine/

Dancing in the dark

15th January 2022

Hard ‘at work’ in the Downing St garden, May 2020

The news this week has been dominated by narcissists trying to wriggle off the hook.  In Australia, tennis star, Novak Djokovic, has been wrangling with the immigration authorities about his vaccination status, or rather his entitlement to an exemption, given his widely known anti-vaccination views.

Djokovic is aiming to win his tenth Australian open and surpass the world record by recording his 21st Grand Slam, remarkable achievements by any measure, but not ones which entitle him to be treated differently to the average Australian citizen.  Australia in general, and Melbourne in particular, has seen some of the most severe lockdown restrictions during the pandemic and many are justifiably outraged that Djokovic is trying to flaunt the rules and trade on his status.

The Australian government have finally seen sense and withdrawn Djokovic’s visa, an action which should send a message to anyone in the sports and entertainment world that fame should not be an assumption of entitlement.  Nevertheless, the Serb’s legal team are launching a final appeal which may yet take the saga into early next week.

The British national embarrassment which is the Royal Family compounded its anachronistic status this week with the Queen being compelled to strip her son, Prince Andrew, of a slew of military honours and to withdraw use of his His Royal Highness (HRH) status.  Quite what the Prince had done to accumulate his military accolades is a moot point.  Given a life of sponging off the hard earned taxes of the working class, which continue to bankroll the pampered lifestyle of the aristocracy, it is hard to see what useful purpose Andrew and his retinue serve.

Without any real purpose, and no challenge to earn a living, the Prince has indulged himself as an international playboy, using his royal status as a passport to the closed world of the rich and famous.  Whether Andrew is guilty of sex trafficking or sex with children will be for the US courts to decide but, whatever the outcome of the case brought against him, associating with criminals of the nature of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell shows, at the very least, poor judgement.

The Prince’s legal team have jumped through every possible hoop to prevent the case coming to court, all of which gives off the smell of something rotten being hidden.  Another narcissist, another week of squirming and months more ahead.

Then there is serial liar and narcissist in charge of the British government, Boris Johnson.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to enumerate with any brevity the catalogue of lies, misdirections and disasters which characterise Johnson’s premiership.  Not long after the official pandemic death toll in the UK passed 150,000 it turns out that Johnson and his cronies have been cavorting around the garden at 10, Downing St, enjoying the “lovely weather” while others could not visit dying relatives.

To date at least 13 parties have been identified as having taken place at Downing St when lockdown rules covered the rest of the country.  Johnson’s miserable excuse for an apology, that he stumbled upon a ‘works event’ on 20th May, with his fiancé, stayed for 25 minutes then went back to work in his Downing St office is paper thin. In any event, stumbling upon 30 people boozing in your back garden when you were only allowed to meet one person outdoors should have elicited a slightly different response, whether or not the boozing was ‘work related’.

The Metropolitan Police, the ones who famously do not investigate past illegal acts, no wonder their reputation is in tatters, are awaiting the outcome of PM appointed bureaucrat Sue Gray’s investigation before deciding whether to act.  Tory MPs are similarly sitting on their hands, waiting for the outcome of Gray’s report before deciding which way to jump, though their local parties may be sending them a more robust message.

Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson is awaiting the outcome of Gray’s pontification, before deciding how badly he or his staff may have behaved and whose head may have to roll as a consequence.  Martin Reynolds, the bureaucrat who sent out the e mail invite to the infamous 20th May party, looks like his punishment will be an ambassadorship in the Middle East. That will top up his Civil Service pension nicely no doubt.

While the noise around parties and personalities continued the real judgement on the government’s monumental pandemic money laundering operation sneaked out almost unnoticed.   The billions of pounds worth of contracts awarded through the VIP fast lane during the pandemic, many to Tory friends, donors or associates was deemed illegal in the High Court.

An estimated 32 billion items of PPE, worth in the region of £14 billion, were bought through VIP fast lane contracts to companies given preferential treatment due to their political connections.  To add insult to injury, many of the materials supplied by these companies were unsuitable for use in the NHS or were defective.

Jo Maugham, Director of the Good Law Project, one of the companies which brought the case commented,

“Never again should any government treat a public health crisis as an opportunity to enrich its associates and donors at public expense.”

Dancing in the dark at parties in Downing St is just the tip of an iceberg.  Lurking beneath the surface is the real world of the political establishment, a closed world of back handers and back scratching, which keep the pampered and privileged in their positions and makes sure that it is the rest of us who pay.

Johnson’s error, and the reason why his head may be on the block as Tory leader, is not that he has departed from the expected norms of his peer group but that he has made this too obvious.  There has been too much braggadocio for many beyond his diehard supporters and those on his payroll to defend.

To do this in a pandemic, when people are dying; your inept procurement is increasing the chance that more will die; and you do it while flaunting your own rules by indulging in back garden boozing is beyond the pale.

Johnson clearly has to go but his departure will only lance a boil, it will not cut out the cancer.  The political establishment in Britain truly is rotten to the core, however much they try to mask or masquerade.  Getting to the root will take time but the reality is gradually being exposed and the need for fundamental change will resurface.  The Left must continue to make that case and continue to argue for a system which works to the benefit of the many, not the few.  

Wallpapering over the cracks

8th January 2022

Lytle cause for concern in Downing Street

The long running farrago over who paid for what, when and what they received in exchange, to redecorate Boris Johnson’s Downing Street flat came to a head this week.  In typical fashion it did not conclude in the colourfully bold, some may say garish, style of the Johnsons’ chosen decorator, Lulu Lytle, but settled into the usual whitewash of bluster and apology which has characterised Johnson’s premiership.

In a series of WhatsApp exchanges it is clear that Johnson was prepared to accept cash from one of his cronies, Lord Brownlow, in exchange for entertaining Brownlow’s pitch to stage a Great Exhibition 2 in 2022.  Brownlow’s cash was to be laundered through a so-called blind trust, thus washing it through a ‘legitimate’ route which could not be construed as a donation or, worse still, a bribe.

When the whole scam came to light, last April, Johnson appointed another pal, Christopher Geidt as an ethics adviser and suggested that he look into whether or not Johnson had acted in breach of the ministerial code.  It was no surprise to anyone that Geidt did not find any breach and assured the public that Johnson did not know where the cash was coming from.

The Electoral Commission also got involved and launched its own inquiry, finding that the Tories should have reported Lord Brownlow’s donation and fined the Conservative Party £17,000, a notional slap on the wrists.

In the meantime, it turns out that Johnson had not come clean with Lord Geidt and had forgot to mention a couple of WhatsApp exchanges with Brownlow, which were clear evidence that he had a very good idea of where the cash was coming from, how it would be laundered and what Brownlow was after as a pay off.

Geidt subsequently took the hump and accused Johnson of acting “unwisely”; Johnson offered a “humble and sincere apology”; Brownlow did not get GE2 but a diluted version branded as Unboxed, which will be rolled out over 2022; and Lulu Lytle oversaw the £58,000 flat redecoration, including the now famous £800 per roll gold wallpaper – tasteful.

Out in the real world, the pandemic continued to rage, the body count in Britain continued to outstrip most of the rest of Europe and the new Omicron variant had made its appearance, just when everyone thought that some degree of normality was on the horizon.  

While Johnson shrugs off justifying his £58,000 flat refurbishment many across the country are struggling to feed and clothe their children, or meet the rising cost of energy bills, which impact disproportionately upon poorer families.

The average annual salary for workers in North East England in 2021 was £27,500, the lowest in the UK and less than half of the cost of Johnson’s designer flat makeover.  Once tax and national insurance contributions are deducted take home pay is likely to be less than £2,000 per month, which is how much the average annual energy bill is likely to be from April, according to recent estimates.

Take that calculation down to the level of part time work and those surviving on Universal Credit and the impact of energy costs alone looks alarming.  Add to that rising national insurance costs for those in work, inflation across the economy, leading to rising costs for food and fuel, and the cost of living crisis begins to take on real shape.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has immunity to the impact of these changes, due to his millionaire status, but has said that the Treasury are looking at ways to mitigate the impact of rising prices.  The Treasury do not appear to be open to that mitigation including a windfall tax upon the profits of the major energy companies or a wealth tax on profits and property ownership, or even making the major beneficiaries of the pandemic, in the form of Google and Amazon, pay their fair share of the tax burden.

Still, we must not lose heart.  The Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Michael Gove, has written to all local authority Chief Executives this week encouraging them to begin planning for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, with a four day Bank Holiday weekend scheduled for the 2nd – 5th June and extended pub opening hours in prospect for the first three nights.

Beacons will be lit, music will be commissioned, street parties will be organised and much alcohol will be consumed, in a collective effort of the will by the ruling class to keep us believing that we really do need a monarch, “long to reign over us”.

Whatever state the British economy is in by June we can be sure that the rich will continue to get richer and the poor will continue to pay the price.  Playing the patriotic card is often the last refuge of the few in diverting the people’s attention away from the day to day realities of life in capitalist Britain for the many.

The bigger reality is that no amount of wallpaper will cover the cracks in the capitalist edifice, even at £800 a roll, and the corruption that is at the heart of the system.  That is a system which is designed to maintain power and privilege in the hands of those who continue to own and control the means of production, distribution, exchange and communication. 

That must change, the whole structure which sustains such inequality must be challenged and the emergence of the people as citizens, not subjects, with control over their own destiny, will be the measure of a real shift in the balance of power. That would really be a step towards levelling up.