Renew member and candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 general election, Haseeb Ur-Rehman, argues that the Russia Report damningly reveals just how influential a part Russia has played within UK politics.
The Russia Report is a peculiar document, which obfuscates, skirts, insinuates and in some places almost sarcastically detracts from the Brexit issue; the latter of which nevertheless is central to the Report’s very existence.
It seems that this version of the Report is not the same as that from nine months ago, as it is not explicitly or directly as damaging to the Johnson’s Government, as his initial reluctance to release it, would suggest. Many things are left unsaid or implied and have to be garnered or pieced to together by the reader, suggesting that the Report was intended to be read in conjunction with other information in the public domain dealing with Russian influence over and interference with, the 2016 Brexit Referendum, yet still not providing a full and clear picture. For instance, the two threads more specifically dealing with the 2016 Brexit Referendum; “Case study: the EU referendum” and the political influence of “Russian Expatriates”, are not explicitly linked together, although when considered together, do more clearly indicate the nature of the relationship between Russia and Brexit. The Russia Report, unto itself, almost confirms the very issue that it is trying to address; the weakness and inability of the UK security and intelligence agencies to protect the UK from Brexit and is almost a testament to the extent of party-political control over the security agencies, particularly where they are almost tasked with protecting the UK from the very political party, forming the government they report to.
The Russia Report deals with Brexit indirectly in its various parts and has to be read in its entirety to draw conclusions. The portion “Disinformation and Influence” begins to touch upon Brexit and states in Paragraph 28 that “Russia’s promotion of disinformation and its attempts at broader political influence overseas have been widely reported” with the example of “Kremlin-linked entities hav(ing) made ‘soft loans’ to the (then) Front National in France, seemingly at least in part as a reward for the party having supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea”. The source for this statement is redacted. Without admitting to anything untoward on the part of any UK political party, pressure-group or “think-tank”, the suggestion here is that Russian funding for Far-Right movements across the EU is a documented fact, indicating that the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament is fully aware of such funding being received by such groups.
In the following Paragraph 29, the Report states, “Russia may spread disinformation or seek to influence political events for a wide range of purposes, but all in support of its underlying foreign policy objectives” with the example of “direct support of Russia’s preferred outcome in relation to an overseas election or political issue; and (the) general poisoning of the political narrative in the West by fomenting political extremism and ‘wedge issues’”. The Report states that ‘wedge issues’ refers to “highly divisive subjects which bifurcate a country’s population, often (but not always) into socially liberal and socially conservative camps, and which often to at least some degree transcend traditional political party boundaries. Examples of wedge issues include abortion and gun control in the US and Brexit in the UK.” ]
Paragraph 29, is therefore very laterally confirming that Brexit is a Russian foreign policy objective and is subject to Russian disinformation campaigns and “astroturfing”: “a propaganda technique whereby a viewpoint is falsely presented as belonging to a certain group”.
Confirming both Paragraphs 28 and 29, Paragraph 31 states that “(t)he UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts.” noting that “that the formal HMG assessment categorises the UK as a “REDACTED” target for political influence operations.” Paragraph 31 goes on to further state that “(t)he Agencies have emphasised that they see their role in this as providing secret intelligence as context for other organisations… and do not see themselves holding primary responsibility for the active defence of the UK’s democratic processes from hostile foreign interference, and indeed… appeared determined to distance themselves from any suggestion that they might have a prominent role in relation to the democratic process itself, noting the caution which had to be applied in relation to intrusive powers in the context of a democratic process.”
This is followed in Paragraph 32, with “Overall, the issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a ‘hot potato’, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead.” Paragraph 33 and 34, then proceed to discuss issues of scale, capability and access of the various organisations who would ordinarily be tasked with protecting electoral and democratic integrity, with various recommendations from the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.
Paragraph 31 and 32, in essence, state that Russia targets the UK with its disinformation campaigns and political influence operations, yet for largely unstated reasons including “nervousness around… intelligence and security Agencies (being) involved in democratic processes” (as stated in Paragraph 33), the various organisations, who would ordinarily be tasked with protecting electoral and democratic integrity, are not prepared to do so, as doing so evidently in their view, is a task for Government.
Paragraphs 39 and 40 specifically begin to deal with the “Case study: the EU referendum”, in the context of that above, stating that the impact of attempts by Russia to influence the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU “would be difficult – if not impossible – to assess, and we have not sought to do so” and that yet “it is important to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process…”. Paragraph 40 states that the brevity (“six lines of text”) of secret intelligence provided by MI5 at the outset of the Inquiry, is also indicative of the “nervousness” described in Paragraph 33. This “nervousness” is described in relation to an issue “as contentious as the EU referendum” as “illogical; this (being) about the protection of the process and mechanism from hostile state interference, which should fall to our intelligence and security Agencies.”
Paragraphs 39 and 40, in effect, admit that Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit Referendum occurred, although no attempts have been made by Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament to ascertain the impact of such influence, for perceived difficulties in doing so. Paragraphs 39 and 40 further state that the failure of organisations tasked with protecting electoral and democratic integrity, vis-à-vis such Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit Referendum, occurred as a result of an illogical reluctance of these agencies to be involved in, or be seen to be involved in, democratic processes and a lack of ownership of such responsibilities by any one agency.
Continuing to deal with the 2016 Brexit Referendum, as part of Section (i) of “Case study: the EU referendum”: “Failure to prepare”, Paragraph 41, refers to “credible open source commentary suggesting that Russia undertook influence campaigns in relation to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014” particularly referencing “Ben Nimmo – #ElectionWatch: Scottish Vote, Pro-Kremlin Trolls, 12 December 2017”. This Paragraph concludes with “We note that – almost five years on – “REDACTED””; presumably referring to the United Kingdom General Election held on 12 December 2019.
Paragraph 42, states that it was only following the conclusion of the 2016 Brexit Referendum did “the Government belatedly realised the level of threat which Russia could pose in this area” and admitting that such levels of threat were a “game changer” and that “prior to what we saw in the States, [Russian interference] wasn’t generally understood as a big threat to [electoral] processes”.
Paragraph 42, referring to two redacted conclusions of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) as of May 2017, states that “(h)ad the relevant parts of the Intelligence Community conducted a similar threat assessment prior to the (Brexit) referendum, it is inconceivable that they would not have reached the same conclusion as to Russian intent, which might then have led them to take action to protect the process.”
In Paragraph 41, the reference to Russian influence, specifically concerning the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, seems to be a party-political throw-away and the “credibility” of the “open source commentary” by which this particular instance of electoral interference is substantiated, seems primarily to be the pro-Atlanticist and ideological credentials, of the originator of the said commentary, more than anything else. Notably, the same commentator has previously, at least partially, acknowledged Russian influence in the 2016 Brexit Referendum and has variously and conspicuously tended to focus on the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014, as subject to such influence. By merits of acknowledged Russian influence in the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, and presumably in the United Kingdom General Election in 2019, as well as the acknowledgement of the severity of such interference only becoming apparent to the intelligence services, subsequent to the 2016 Brexit Referendum, Paragraphs 41 and 42 again confirm the high likelihood of Russian influence on the 2016 Brexit Referendum, particularly as the Report admits that this conclusion would have been reached had the Intelligence Community, assessed such risks prior to the 2016 Brexit Referendum.
Still dealing with the 2016 Brexit Referendum, as part of Section (ii) “Narrow coverage”, Paragraph 44, states that “HMG had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election…” and proceeds to reiterate the innocence of Arron Banks. Paragraphs 45 and 46 deal with the failures of the government, intelligence and security agencies; to even have been able to detect Russian influence on the 2016 Brexit Referendum, from “open source materials”, which given that the Intelligence and Security Committee’s belief “that open source material is now fully represented in the Government’s understanding of the threat picture” was “surprising”.
Paragraphs 47 and 48 conclude the Report’s analysis of Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit Referendum in Section (iii) ”Lack of retrospective assessment”, stating that, given the issues at stake for Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit Referendum are not as “clear-cut”, as for Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election, “where an intelligence community assessment was produced within two months of the vote with an unclassified summary being made public”, the Committee’s view is that a similar assessment of Russian interference in 2016 Brexit Referendum should be conducted and published. Paragraph 48 states that the discovery of minimal Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit Referendum would “represent a helpful reassurance to the public that the UK’s democratic processes had remained relatively safe.”.
The next portion of the Report deals with Russian Expatriates, resident in the UK, stating in Paragraph 50 that “Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, with “a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin…well integrated into the UK business and social scene”. Paragraph 50 further states that “that any measures now being taken by the Government are not preventative but rather constitute damage limitation.”
Paragraph 51, addresses the “(g)rowth industry of enablers” “who manage and lobby for the Russian elite in the UK” including “(l)awyers, accountants, estate agents and PR professionals” who “played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, in the extension of Russian influence…” “…linked to promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state.” In Paragraph 53, the Report states that “it is widely recognised that Russian intelligence and business are completely intertwined”. Paragraph 54 states that “several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with…political organisations… having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations”. This Paragraph follows on, stating that “it is notable that a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state…” which should be scrutinised, “…given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them”. References are made to “the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament requires that MPs register individual payments of more than £100 which they receive for any employment outside the House”, which is recommended to be introduced at the Lords.
The portion of the Report dealing with Russian Expatriates admits the extent of political influence Russia has over politics in the UK, including discussing the direct involvement of persons close to Vladimir Putin in making donations to political parties. For the purposes of Brexit, aside from undisclosed funding to other pro-Brexit organisations and parties, such donations would specifically be relevant to donation receipts by the Conservative Party. In the discussion involving “enablers”, the Report does not specifically focus on but presumably includes, such enablers who demonstrably had and have, a specific interest in promulgating the pro-Brexit narrative, particularly the various “55 Tufton Street” pro-Brexit think-tanks and especially the “Conservative Friends of Russia” (now re-labelled as the “Westminster Russia Forum”). For the purposes of Brexit, the participation in these organisations, by various Conservative Party MPs, almost certainly constitutes “Russian Influence” on politicians and is therefore within the scope of the consideration of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Although the business interests of the Lords are explicitly referred to, such relationships amongst others, of various Conservative Party MPs with compromising Russian interests, are not. This is also particular in the case of persons close to Number 10 and simultaneously close to the promulgating the pro-Brexit narrative, who have questionable relationships with the Russian State and Russian actors and enablers in the UK and Russia.
The Russia Report very apprehensively and indirectly confirms that Brexit is a Russian foreign policy objective and was, and is, subject to Russian disinformation campaigns, with a view to destructively divide the British public into diametrically and ideologically opposed camps. The Report also indirectly suggests that Russian funding likely reached Far-Right pro-Brexit groups before the 2016 Brexit Referendum. Russian influence over British politicians and the political establishment is almost ubiquitous and the ability of Russia to facilitate Brexit as a foreign policy objective vis-à-vis the UK is an issue the British government were unable, or more likely unwilling, to take steps and measures to contain or prevent. The Report confirms that the intelligence and security apparatus of the UK were not able to contain, anticipate and did not even seek to anticipate Brexit as a Russian foreign policy objective and are almost entirely subservient to the Government on a party-political basis. The Intelligence and Security Committee finds some solace in celebrating the unlikelihood of Russian inference in the physical “paper-based” electoral processes of the UK, but are very unfortunately unable to even adequately discuss how Russian influence can actively and successfully manipulate the very national narrative of the UK that lead up to the 2016 Brexit Referendum.
Chris Lovejoy poses the question: how can we help the UK resolve this crisis before its too late?
400 million people in highly developed countries don’t know why they have suffered so badly from the coronavirus. The failure to publish relevant data in the USA and UK made it difficult for opposition parties, and the media, to rigorously scrutinise decisions the government has taken on critical issues affecting their country. Various checks and balances found in mature democracies should have required governments to publish relevant data. We don’t know why opposition parties haven’t demanded relevant data, why investigative journalism and research by academic bodies didn’t create a demand that this tragedy was rigorously investigated, or, even why capitalist lobby groups failed to prevent themselves suffering incredible losses. But a failure to scrutinise decisions on critical issues resulted in the government becoming the de-facto sovereign body. This degraded democratic processes in the USA and UK, increasing the possibility that decisions taken to end the lockdown will not be implemented smoothly, which might cause a second wave of the epidemic.
After external authorities had published critical facts that affected the USA or the UK, some government decisions need to be justified. For instance:
· WHO report cases of coronavirus infections and deaths, which reveal the UK has one of the world’s highest rates of infections and deaths (per million citizens), yet the UK government claimed, without providing relevant facts, it had successfully dealt with the virus.
· WHO revealed the crisis is rapidly growing in the USA and a surge in infections in the USA could occur before the presidential election. The USA government also claims it has successfully dealt with the virus without providing relevant facts.
Some government decisions may need to be justified by other facts. For instance, it is known that infectious viruses shouldn’t be ignored and restrictions are necessary on planes, for example, as passengers sit in a confined space, creating an ideal incubation area for the virus and the flight enables the virus to quickly move into new areas. The risk of spreading the virus is reduced if passengers with high temperatures are quarantined until it is proved they were not infected by the virus. Other decisions also may need to be justified as:
· Governments normally stockpile essential medical equipment and, if more is needed, they rapidly obtained additional equipment (as the EU did).
· Some Governments warned their citizens a crisis was imminent and explained how citizens can minimise the risks of being infected.
· Most Governments didn’t believe in herd immunity and, when they couldn’t stop the virus, they quickly enforced a lockdown (to save lives and reduced the economic damage).
Therefore, in the USA and the UK, some decisions may need to be justified.
People are naturally worried about being infected by the virus and suffering economic damage, as some politicians who accentuated the crisis remain in power. While the globe is recovering from the economic costs of the lockdowns, the UK will find it difficult to recover from this crisis. This is because the UK has not yet made a treaty with the EU or with any of its major trading partners. The difficulty in finding new export markets will be increased (because the UK weakened its political relationship with the EU; is currently opposing China on several fronts; claims Russia has interfered with the UK elections etc.) and it is challenging to persuade countries the UK is a desirable business partner after UK ended a 40-year commercial agreement in a manner that causes considerable costs to the EU.
There are weaknesses in the USA and UK’s political systems (and, if either system failed, it would have major global consequences). Yet the greatest impact a political failure would have is on its citizens and, therefore, the UK must consider how the UK’s political system could be improved as the virus might re-emerge in the winter.
The problem will be to identify changes in the UK’s political system that weren't divisive and would reduce the risk of another lockdown.
Therefore, can Renew members help? For instance:
· Tax havens reduce the amount of taxes collected and this reduces government services or requires the government to increase the taxes that other taxpayers have to pay. Therefore, can recovery be partially financed if tax havens were restricted?
· Could members evaluate if constitutional changes can prevent the UK Government from implementing contradictory policies? For instance, the government argued people over 70 were vulnerable to the virus and required them to stay in their homes and not see their relatives or friends. Yet the government also instructed the NHS that elderly patients, who had ceased to require intensive care, should recover from the virus in old people care homes in which neither staff nor patients had adequate PPE. Tragically, about a quarter of all vires deaths occurred in care homes.
· Could Members evaluate if constitutional changes may enable Parliament to scrutinise decisions made by the government, or make Parliament the de-facto sovereign authority in a crisis?
Therefore, can you help the UK resolve this crisis before it is too late?
Draeyk van der Horn, Renew's spokesperson on Food and Farming, delves into some of the concerns surrounding gene editing.
New genetic modification techniques (NGMTs) such as “gene editing” present ethical concerns as well as economic and environmental ones. There are a number of unresolved questions and concerns.
There is an overwhelming flaw in the claim that gene editing of food crops and animals is similar to accelerated breeding or natural mutations as this is wholly unprovable.
At the moment we have a regulatory approach to our food and farming standards that rests in the precautionary principle. If we give way to a laissez-faire deregulation model, where the onus is put on consumers or “those harmed” to come up with “proof of harm” we are in very different waters. Rigorous independent scientific research must be commissioned and the proponents of NGMTs must show no proof of harm is evident before wider consultations can begin. The UK’s shift and potential acceptance of a deregulated approach is perhaps due to this governments haste in submitting to new trade agreements that potentially lower food standards, most notably with the USA.
The bar to gene editing acceptability must be robust and high, given it allows for outcomes that may be unprecedented in human experience. Familiar species and breeds may become unrecognisable over time through gene editing, through the ongoing manipulation of genetic code. Gene editing also raises concern around “ownership” of these new varieties and breeds, profoundly impacting food security by concentrating ownership of our food, though patents, into the hands of a few.
From a strictly scientific and technical perspective, NGMTs are clearly genetic modification procedures that result in the production of GMOs and as such must remain within the remit of existing GMO legislation.
The challenges for future food production are not simply based in the lab, but in the fundamental need to create food that works in harmony with the planet rather than a short term sell that does not tackle the underlying issues. Our planet is capable of feeding us. If we focus on reducing waste, build resilient food networks that serve local communities and embrace sound agricultural principles we nurture more than just our food and land but our well being.
Food and Farming needs to be recognised in terms of its stewardship and in terms of creating and maintaining traditions that support all life, working in harmony with natural systems. Supporting our farming communities means focusing on a path that supports a sustainable future, rather than rushing towards the irreversible direction of gene editing, that is quite simply dicing with our future.
Draeyk van der Horn
Spokesperson on Food and Farming
The Renew Party
Renew's Terrance Knot investigates the demise of democracy in the UK.
The term "democracy" first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought in the city-state of Athens during classical antiquity. The word comes from demos, "common people" and kratos, "strength". Led by Cleisthenes, Athenians established what is generally considered the first democracy in 508–507 BC.
Since then, many countries have claimed to be democracies, but none more so than the United Kingdom. Indeed those who still profess to be British, and who identify, more or less, as English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh, have often taken pride in a supra-national United Kingdom: renowned worldwide for its sense of honesty, fairness and democratic decision making and rule, although in some cases harshly, but with “tough love” over countries comprising a quarter of the globe.
Nowhere was the sense of a thriving democracy more portrayed than in the coming together to support the “mother country” in the two World Wars, with thousands laying down their lives, for a concept founded on a common ideal, principle, or faith. Meanwhile one of the modern bodies of democracy was - at the same time as women got the vote - a health system, created for all. We also battled with the consequences of the national sale of assets to fund the defence of democracy – still living, believe it or not, with the abolition of the Slave Trade. Many will find it hard to come to terms with the fact that, although the UK connection with this trade officially happened in 1833-1840, throughout the British Empire, we were still paying off the money borrowed for the Slave Abolition Act in 2015!
On a lesser scale, the UK took steps to abolish child labour, to improve schooling (although the battle between so-called private and state-run schooling continues to this day) and workers were striking and marching against poverty and unemployment (Yarrow march 1936 et al.). On the back of this poverty and the feeling of frustration about the condition of the country, trade unions gained in power, especially in the fields of mining, textiles and transportation. An even-minded person would perhaps admit that the people of the country were fighting back in the only way they knew how: by denying their labour. Indeed they were “voting with their feet”, a democratic exercise of their human rights.
Before readers assume that this is a rant about human rights, let me assure you that it is not: it is simply a portrayal of some of the major steps along the way, as the British people, led by the English in 1215, gradually threw off the yoke imposed by royalty, later the “robber barons” and finally the affluent upper classes. This development of the “rights of man” (Thomas Paine in 1791, published a book, in which he linked the French Revolution with the idea that popular political revolution is permissible “when a government does not safeguard the natural rights of its people”) was a gradual process, over several centuries, but sped up as modern communications allowed ideas to be spread over the internet and similar systems.
Meanwhile the other major component countries, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, in no particular order, also showed a strong and understandable tendency to rebel and "do their own thing".
It is of note that, impoverished though she was after the Second World War, Britain (readers will forgive if I shorten Great Britain and Northern Ireland to “Britain, or the UK), played a major role, in international deliberations, post WW2. This applied, amongst other activities, to help to rebuild Europe, much of which was in ruins, both financially and in terms of assets and infrastructure. Of course, anyone with a grasp of basic history knows that this included the initial building blocks of a Free Trade Area, or Market, which grew in time, into the European Union.
This one short paragraph above disguises an enormous development, which in time has proved enormously popular, no matter how some may try to gainsay it, encompassing an amazing mixture of long-term civilisations, including a rather unsteady Greece, the so-called cradle of democracy, and many younger and smaller countries, some of which did not exist, at the end of WW2.
Again, despite sniping and protestations to the contrary, this union, as opposed to the British one, developed a democratic system of elected members from each country, a council and a mechanism for enabling each countries’ own elected senior ministers to exercise the right to contribute to - and vote for – its further development. It would be a surprise only to the most naïve, that this development, enabling seventy-five years of relative peace in Europe, has not been without its problems along the way, but try to point to a similar union which has not? Indeed compare the UK’s chequered history of sometimes vicious infighting between Irish, Scots, Welsh and English. Compare also, the “Land of the Free”, in which the American Confederacy fought against its Southern counterpart; and some in Virginia still quarrel to this day!
So, while the Continent of Europe was rebuilding itself, with initial whole-hearted input from the British, what of our own “Home of Democracy”?
We have only to say the word “Brexit”, to recall immediately the appalling schism that has developed in our union, and the negative effect this is having on our immediate international neighbours. One has only to take advantage of the Freedom of Movement that we have enjoyed for the last seventy-five years, to realise the shock and horror, the incredulity and derision, the snigger behind the hand that confronts the British, as they travel, holiday, or read the international press.
To say that we have become an international laughing stock, as the present Tory government wrangles about percentage points of approval or disapproval, is an understatement.
Yet, this wrangle, voiced in every newspaper, TV show and published article, both pre and during the pandemic, seem to make little difference to the small yet vocal group of alt-right politicians, bent on wresting political and financial advantage and lining their own pockets and those of their friends and cronies. Never mind that current polling indicates some 55-65% of the population of the UK would prefer to cancel Brexit. (Professor John Curtice, political guru, asserts that many of the young, who were unable to vote in 2016, are now “twice as likely to vote Remain and puts the Leavers on only 44-47%).
But here is the crux of the matter. Under the current “first past the post” (FPTP) electoral system, the public vote of 2016 overturned the referendum of 1975 and since then, the 2019 election, by what some regard as devious means, persuaded the great British public to return the Tories with a majority of 80 members in Parliament. This completely ignored the fact that a “proportional representation” (PR) electoral system would return a very, very different result. Yet neither the Tories, nor indeed the Labour Party, would vote for such a change, as their power base depends upon the status quo.
It does not help that the major party, in favour of PR, the Liberal Democrats, were completely out-manoeuvred and beaten, in the 2019 election: hardly a cause for confidence in the future. Other smaller parties also exist, such as the relatively new and centre of the road Renew Party, and the Green party, but again, under FPTP, the “big beasts” of politics are reluctant to switch loyalty, to more centrist policies, which lack a high profile. Except by honest and reasonable people, of which there seem to be fewer and fewer these days, most support tends to go to the headline catching extremists, rather than the outmoded concept that “the government of the people should be by the people, for the people”!
In that respect, the writer and many others, both friends and acquaintances, are amazed at the supine attitude of the average “Brit in the Streets”, compared with, for example, the French and many other significant countries in Europe, who are not slow to voice their views on poor government. Apart from two major marches, which saw not a single person arrested, the British public seems to have rolled on its back to have its tummy tickled! People outside the UK regard this as quite extraordinary and quite at odds with the battles and indeed a Civil War, fought for democratic freedom.
Meanwhile, the UK’s current government takes full example of the impact of the pandemic, to cement its grip on power and to railroad through policies and stratagems, that cannot be queried or fought on the floor of the House of Commons. It might be said that the Tories have a stranglehold on the throat of Democracy.
One other point before I close. From one who lives most of the time now, in Mainland Europe, amongst a thriving, educated, motivated group of 1.3 million British citizens, I must note that two aspects of life are paramount. We view with mounting horror, the downward slide of democratic freedoms in our mother countries of the union; and we feel embarrassed at the pity we encounter, amongst our fellow Europeans.
Is Democracy dead in the United Kingdom? Not yet, maybe, but on its last gasp.
Ross Orchard, who is interning with Renew, argues why the UK has a moral obligation to protect its people in Hong Kong.
It’s no secret that Beijing’s harsh authoritarian regime has cast an increasingly imposing shadow over the liberties of Hong Kong’s citizens in the past year, but is China’s new security law the final nail in the coffin for Hong Kong’s unique freedoms?
Unfortunately, this seems to be the reality for the people of Hong Kong. However, the “One Country, Two Systems” principle laid out in the Sino-British handover agreement in 1997 guarantees semi-independent status to Hong Kong until at least 2047. Therefore, Britain must now uphold its obligations to its former territory and protect the democracy of its institutions.
Protests over Beijing’s increasing interventions into the city have been a recurring theme recently, and yet, for the most part, Britain has stood idly by and allowed tensions to build. It is arguable that the government's excuse for refraining to intervene is seeded in the success of the 2019 protests which forced chief executive, Carrie Lam, to suspend the controversial extradition bill, which would have permitted the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. Yet, as China pushes to pass another controversial security law to crush dissent in Hong Kong and evidently seek a close reunification with mainland ideals, Britain can no longer simply provide empty rhetoric in support of its former colony. This is not to argue that Britain has some sort of duty to uphold democratic policy in all its former imperial territories. However, in the case of Hong Kong, where there has been no desire for swapping British rule for Chinese, the UK should be obliged to act when called upon by its former overseas citizens.
Johnson and Raab have this week publicly condemned China’s new security law stating that "such legislation would be a clear violation of China’s international obligations, including those made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration". At first glance, I, like many others, initially thought Britain would simply continue with its limp strategy toward criticizing China with public condemnation and little else. However, the prime minister has since announced a plan to protect British national (overseas) (BNOs) passport holders if Beijing pushes ahead with its new security law. 350,000 Hong Kong residents are currently BNOs, but the Home Office has since confirmed that anyone eligible to apply for a BNO passport (of which there are an estimated 3 million) is also covered by the visa rights extension. Naturally, this has infuriated China’s Communist party who have warned of retaliation. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has stated, “China reserves the right to take necessary measures”. As ominous as that sounds, it is rather refreshing to see the government stand up and protect foreign nationals on the grounds of morality against what Chris Patton calls an "international bully".
Johnson’s new "bespoke" visa rights extension will undoubtedly provide some protection for those threatened by Beijing’s increasing pressure, while simultaneously challenging Chinese intervention in Hong Kong.
Nonetheless, it raises questions over whether potentially uprooting millions of citizens and providing them with a path to citizenship in the UK is the most effective way of protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy. From a moral standpoint, it is admirable that we have offered a way out for many Hong Kong citizens who feel threatened, but surely a better case scenario for all involved is to make sure that maintaining a Hong Kong passport remains an option for those who have a long history on the island. Although this is arguably the UK’s strongest threat to Chinese expansion to date, it has the potential to backfire. If the citizens of Hong Kong eventually feel threatened enough to uproot their lives and take the UK’s visa offer then China will effectively have done enough to ensure the end of the “One Country, Two Systems” principle and drawn a close to Hong Kong’s autonomy, an outcome many will not deem favourable.
Britain is right to challenge China, but it must do so in a way that guarantees the autonomy of Hong Kong. The Responsibility to Protect is certainly being upheld with the UK’s plans to offer passports to Hong Kong citizens, but it is imperative that we seek to uphold the future of a secure and independent Hong Kong. Trade sanctions are one possibility the UK could explore to try and curb China’s aggression, however, the nature of the recent economic downturn due to COVID-19 and China’s presence as one of the worlds leading trade partners makes this an extremely precarious route to follow. Nonetheless, many would consider standing up to China, in any form, a bold move. It now comes down to how far the UK government is willing to go on grounds of morality before it is forced to cool its attack on the seemingly unstoppable growth of Chinese hegemony.
In any case, Britain’s recent response to China’s actions symbolises a breath of fresh air and a step in the right direction regarding upholding the rights of our former imperial territories. But it is important that this initial step should not be considered sufficient in relieving the pressure on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is our moral obligation to continue to fight for the rights and freedoms of the citizens of Hong Kong and to ensure the continuity of a safe and autonomous city. We are bound by Treaty to defend the rights of the people. To give up now is to turn our back on our moral duty, something that the UK must always strive to uphold.
Friend of Renew, Zach Mayford, tells us his views on leaving the EU.
On Monday 15th of June, the EU and the UK government agreed not to extend the Brexit transition period: Britain will leave the European Union on the 31st of December. In a joint statement, the first ministers of Scotland and Wales, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, condemned the decision thoroughly. They, like many Remainers, predict a “damaging ‘bare bones’ trade deal or - even worse - a disastrous no-deal outcome” by the end of the year.
With each of these options now mutually unavoidable, it is left to us to figure out the intricacies of this delicate, evolving situation. By keeping a close eye on proceedings as the unknown looms, we will see just how “damaging” or “disastrous” the future might be.
The Transition Period:
The current pandemic and easing lockdown make it seem a bit like we are outside of reality, in a strange calm in the eye of the storm. In many ways, the Brexit transition period runs parallel alongside such unprecedented events. Both phases are similar to what came before, but have a few key differences before an oncoming social shift.
Currently, Britain still gets the benefits from the EU, like frictionless trade and travel (pandemic notwithstanding). We also still bear the responsibilities of EU membership, in terms of funding its budget and being subject to the arbitration of its courts. However, Britain now has no say in EU votes during the transition period, and this powerlessness is driving the government to keep the transition period temporary.
However, when we leave properly, many freedoms that we hold dear will disappear. Unseen costs and hassles lurk in 2021. By “unseen”, I mean “hidden or ignored by the leave campaign”, and by “costs”, I mean “consequences of our actions”.
It’s a sign of privilege that one of the first Brexit effects that hit home for me was that I will never go interrailing. Without Brexit, I might not have gone anyway, but the sudden removal of the option left a strange sensation, like a geopolitical phantom limb. I can’t imagine the fear or uncertainty forced upon EU nationals in Britain or working Brits abroad. The leave campaign brandished Eastern European migrant workers as a vote-inducing bogeyman. In reality, working, studying, and travelling in Europe is a two-way street.
Will we have to wait in the longer “non-EU passports” queue at European airports? According to the BBC, it depends on the ongoing negotiations. Will we have to buy a visa to get on holiday in the first place? Well, if we’re travelling for less than 90 days, and not working or studying, then no. Or, not really. Apparently, the EU is introducing a visa-waiver system for certain non-EU countries, called ETIAS. ETIAS, or the European Travel Information and Authorisation System, will cost 7 euro and be valid for three years.
Not too much bad news for holidaymakers then. Honestly, I would prefer not to go through the bother, and just travel like we used to, but the voters want what the voters want. That’s the price to pay for liberation from an out-of-touch bureaucratic ruling class, which doesn’t represent the people. Thankfully, the 2016 referendum delivered us to the famously down-to-earth Conservative party. In truth, both the EU and the Tories are out of touch, and by the 31st of December, they’ll be out of time.
Work and Study:
For Brits young and old, continental trade and education are often decisive issues. In university, half of my housemates left England to study abroad through Erasmus scholarships. Several courageous friends also left the country to au pair on the mainland, an activity so continental that even its name is French. Countless Brits depend on travel and trade across EU borders for a living and a laugh. Brexit, that monumental event meant to simplify life for British people, looks set to complicate it overseas, especially in the world of work.
According to a 2019 Conservative infographic, companies and self-employees alike may need a work visa, a work permit, a residency permit, or all three to work in the EU post-Brexit. The decision still hangs in the balance, and it may vary from country to country. Workers may also have to split or double social security contributions like national insurance over two countries instead of one.
Negotiations and Accountability:
Many of the government's key Brexit concerns lie not over the channel, but across the pond. Let’s hope that the politicians who clapped for our NHS, and those politicians who pledged to return £350 million to it on the side of a bus, follow through on their promises. Leaders on the left fear that the National Health Service will be sacrificed at the altar of corporate America. If that happens, we must hold those responsible to account, in the media and in the voting booth.
While the pandemic lingers, paralysing national and international governments, there’s still time to pay attention to these pending trade decisions. I’ll be paying attention to what picture Boris paints with the art of Trump’s deal, because right now, that’s the only thing we can do. We can pay attention, and hold them to account politically for every foot they put wrong between now and 2021. Brexit awaits.
Chris Lovejoy asks: what lessons can be learned from Kerala's handling of the coronavirus pandemic?
Over 10% of the globe’s population lives in India. Considering internal travel restrictions didn’t exist in India (or in the USA or the EU) before the lockdowns, an epidemic easily could have spread across the country. Yet, for the 1.3 billion people in India, the different COVID outcomes appear to be primarily a consequence of delegating health care to local governments (although other influential factors include wealth differentials, a variety of cultures, religions and the political systems within local governments).
The BBC reported India had 266,598 confirmed virus cases on 10th June and, Mumbai had 51,000 cases, yet one Indian state claims to have avoided the pandemic. If this claim is correct, could another COVID pandemic and a surge in infections after the lockdown ends be avoided?
One Indian state, Kerala, has had only 524 cases of COVID-19 and four deaths. The state has a population of about 35 million and a GDP per capita of only £2,200, which suggests an effective disease containment policy is possible in a democracy that isn’t wealthy. By contrast, the UK (double the population with a GDP per capita of £33,100) reported more than 40,000 deaths, while the US (10 times the population with a GDP per capita of £51,100) reported more than 100,000 deaths, as well as rapid transmissions of the virus in their counties, resulting in strict lockdowns being enforced.
Such an amazing outcome requires an explanation. The Guardian, fortunately, has provided a detailed explanation of how this was achieved in Kerala.
Laura Spinney wrote the health minister, KK Shailaja, had phoned one of her medically trained deputies on 20th January. She had read online about a dangerous new virus spreading in China. “Will it come to us?” she asked. “Definitely, Madam,” he replied.
And she began her preparations.
Three days after reading about the new virus in China, and before Kerala had its first case of COVID-19, Shailaja held a meeting of her rapid response team. The next day, 24th January, the team set up a control room and instructed the medical officers in Kerala’s 14 districts to do the same at their level. The state adopted the World Health Organization’s protocol of test, trace, isolate and support. (N.B. tracing people requires finding every person contacted by an infected person in order to stop the spread of the virus.)
On 27th January, one week after her first phone call, the first cases were identified when passengers filed off the Chinese flight from Wuhan and had their temperatures checked. Three were found to be running a fever and were isolated in a nearby hospital. The remaining passengers were placed in home quarantine – sent there with information pamphlets about COVID-19 that had already been printed in the local language, Malayalam. The hospitalised patients tested positive for COVID-19, but the disease had been contained. “The first part was a victory,” says Shailaja. “But the virus continued to spread beyond China and soon it was everywhere.”
In late February, encountering one of Shailaja’s surveillance teams at the airport, a Malayali family returning from Venice were evasive about their travel history and went home without submitting to the now-standard controls. By the time medical personnel detected a case of COVID-19 and traced it back to them, their contacts were in the hundreds. Contact tracers tracked them all down, with the help of advertisements and social media, and they were placed in quarantine. Six developed COVID-19.
Another cluster had been contained, but by now large numbers of overseas workers were heading home to Kerala from infected Gulf states, some of them carrying the virus. By 23rd March, all flights into the state’s four international airports were stopped. Two days later, India entered a nationwide lockdown.
At the height of the virus in Kerala, 170,000 people were quarantined and placed under strict surveillance by visiting health workers, with those who lacked an inside bathroom housed in improvised isolation units at the state government’s expense.
That number has shrunk to 21,000.
“We have also been accommodating and feeding 150,000 migrant workers from neighbouring states who were trapped here by the lockdown,” she says. “We fed them properly – three meals a day for six weeks.” Those workers are now being sent home on charter trains.
Shailaja was a celebrity in India before COVID-19 due to her proactive response to an outbreak of an even deadlier viral disease, Nipah, in 2018. She visited the village at the centre of the outbreak. The villagers were terrified and ready to flee because they did not understand how the disease was spreading. “I rushed there with my doctors, we organised a meeting in the panchayat [village council] office and I explained that there was no need to leave because the virus could only spread through direct contact,” she says. “If you kept at least a metre from a coughing person, it couldn’t travel. When we explained that, they became calm – and stayed.”
Nipah prepared Shailaja for COVID-19, she says, because it taught her that a highly contagious disease for which there is no treatment or vaccine should be taken seriously.
Every village has a primary health centre and there were hospitals at each level of its administration, as well as 10 medical colleges. This occurred in other states, too, says MP Cariappa, a public health expert based in Pune, Maharashtra, but nowhere else was so much invested in their primary health system. Kerala enjoys the highest life expectancy and the lowest infant mortality of any state in India; it is also the most literate state. “With widespread access to education, there is a definite understanding of health being important to the wellbeing of people,” says Cariappa.
Although emergency measures such as the lockdown are the preserve of the national government, each Indian state sets its own health policy. In 2016, Kerala undertook a modernisation programme. One pre-pandemic innovation was to create clinics and a registry for respiratory disease – a big problem in India. “That meant we could spot conversion to COVID-19 and look out for community transmission,” Shailaja says. “It helped us very much” and – according to Shailaja – no community transmission subsequently occurred during the COVID epidemic.
Each district was asked to dedicate two hospitals to COVID-19, while each medical college set aside 500 beds. Separate entrances and exits were designated. Diagnostic tests were in short supply, especially after the disease reached wealthier western countries, so they were reserved for patients with symptoms and their close contacts, as well as for random sampling of asymptomatic people and those in the most exposed groups: health workers, police and volunteers.
Shailaja says a test in Kerala produced a result within 48 hours. “In the Gulf, as in the US and UK – all technologically fit countries – they are having to wait seven days,” she asks, “what is happening there?”
“I think testing is very important – also quarantining and hospital surveillance – and people in those countries are not getting that.” She strongly believes “Proper planning” is essential.
Places of worship were closed under the rules of lockdown but resistance has been noticeably absent in Kerala – in part, perhaps, because its chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, consulted with local faith leaders about the closures. Shailaja says Kerala’s high literacy level is another factor: “People understand why they must stay at home. You can explain it to them.”
The Indian government plans to lift the lockdown on 17th May (the date has been extended twice). After that, she predicts, there will be a huge influx of Malayalis to Kerala from the heavily infected Gulf region. “It will be a great challenge, but we are preparing for it,” she says. There are plans A, B and C, with plan C – the worst-case scenario – involving the requisitioning of hotels, hostels and conference centres to provide 165,000 beds. If they need more than 5,000 ventilators, they will struggle – although more are on order – but the real limiting factor will be manpower, especially when it comes to contact tracing. “We are training up schoolteachers,” Shailaja says.
Once the second wave has passed – if, indeed, there is a second wave – these teachers will return to schools. She hopes to do the same, eventually, because her ministerial term will finish with the state elections a year from now.
Laura Spinney's article demonstrates an effective disease containment policy is possible in a democracy that isn’t wealthy, emphasising the importance of forward planning, engaging with the community and using resources that are available.
Julia Hollingsworth and Manveena Suri reported on the outbreak of the Nipah virus, which killed 18 people within a couple of weeks and had a fatality rate of between 40% to 75% — a great deal higher than COVID-19. They reported that the most vital issue was contact tracing and claimed: “If we trace the call correctly, we can isolate the human being from other folks and we can crack the chain and flatten the curve of the epidemic”. Oommen Kurian, a senior fellow at the Observer Exploration Basis, stated that Kerala “reacted as if it’s a really fatal disease from the start when folks were truly doubtful across the earth about the deadliness of the virus.”
Their report contrasted the differences between Kerala and the worst affected area in India, Maharashtra. This state includes Mumbai, one of the world’s biggest cities with huge slums in it, slums which are extremely difficult to control during an epidemic. Kerala has the oldest populace in India (13% of Kerala’s population are aged 60+ while 9.1% of in Maharashtra’s population are 60+), meaning they have a higher vulnerable demographic than anywhere else. Kurian considered Maharashtra did not act as promptly as Kerala and “was reactive”, rather than proactive because it hadn’t recently dealt with a viral outbreak. Kurian believes Maharashtra cannot benefit from tracing after more than 23,000 cases had been confirmed (as each infected person is very likely to have been in contact with a large number of people) and stated: “The thing about making contact with tracing is that it is really easy to get overwhelmed if you go above a threshold”.
In the 2011 census, Kurian observed 94% of Kerala’s population were literate when the national average was 73% (and this made it easier for the state to communicate with its citizens). Kurian also said Kerala experienced a per capita GDP in 2017-2018 of 184,000 Indian rupees, compared to the national average of 114,958 rupees. While the Central Bank of India stated Indian citizens employed around the world sent $69 billion to India and 19% of these remittances went to Kerala.
Consequently, although significant differences exist between the two states, the critical difference was the speed, and manner, in which they responded to the crisis.
Although Kerala has flattened the curve, the crisis might easily return. “We are bracing ourselves for the third wave,” Isaac, Kerala’s state’s finance minister, tweeted. Kerala’s chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, believes that until people undergoing treatment have fully recovered and their quarantine periods are completed “we can’t let our guard down a single little bit.”
Yet the risks are huge as India’s lockdown is set to be lifted later this month. India also has started repatriation flights for Indians stranded abroad or have lost their jobs (and Kerala has many citizens working and residing overseas). Kurian warns this is really not the time to be complacent. “The true fight is just coming. As soon as the international tourists come again and the migrants appear back again and the area economic system commences operating once more, that is when the future wave will hit Kerala, and if they are caught napping, it will look a whole lot like Mumbai.”
Significantly the BBC reported on 10th June a surge of infections in India (with 266,598 confirmed cases and 90,000 of them in Mumbai and, in Delhi, the authorities expect more than half a million cases by the end of July) (see https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-52989452?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.com/news/world&link_location=live-reporting-story). The surge coincides with India's decision to relax restrictions after a stringent lockdown lasted three months. Shopping malls, places of worship and offices were allowed to reopen on 8th June and, earlier, shops, market places and transport services had been allowed to open. The BBC reported experts had said there was no other option but to lift the lockdown. It was causing a massive economic toll on the country, millions had lost their jobs and livelihoods, businesses were shutting down, and the fear of hunger drove masses of daily-wage migrant workers to flee cities - mostly on foot because public transport was halted - and many died from exhaustion and starvation. The government lifted the lockdown hoping most of India's undetected infections would not require hospitalisation. But although states used the lockdown period to ramp up health facilities, hospitals in major cities are being overwhelmed and many patients with COVID-like symptoms are being turned away.
It is very difficult to quantify the risk of being infected by the coronavirus. We don’t know if after recovering from the virus, patients can infect third parties, nor if they can gain immunity (on either a temporary or permanent basis). Nevertheless, the WHO stated on 17th July that there were about 8 million confirmed coronavirus cases and only 83,000 were in China. Therefore, for each case in China, there were about 1,000 cases outside China. This understates how infectious the coronavirus is because most cases in China couldn’t have infected people outside China, as China’s lockdown prevented most Chinese people leaving China.
When a lockdown ends, the virus must not be allowed to return and cause the country to revert to the situation it was in before the government enforced its lockdown. To minimise the risk of another lockdown, governments must learn lessons from across the globe.
What can we learn from Kerala's success?
Ross Orchard questions why three years on from Grenfell, we're still awaiting answers to the same questions.
June 14th 2020 marked the third anniversary of Britain’s largest domestic fire since World War II.
The Grenfell Tower blaze that killed 72 people has since sparked a long and arguably directionless response from the government that has seen multiple disruptions into the fires inquiry, lacklustre attempts towards preventing similar disasters and most importantly, highlighted the failures in the governing party’s strategy to provide adequate aftercare for survivors of the inferno regarding re-housing. The culmination of these failings equates to an apparent perversion in the course of justice for the victims of Grenfell, and as we now find ourselves in the midst of a global pandemic and a civil rights movement, the time for solidarity is now.
Social distancing laws have prevented the continuation of the monthly Grenfell silent walk but let us take this opportunity to remember those we have lost and to consider whether the establishment has truly learned from its mistakes.
News of the inquiry’s closure in March due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic came off the back of widespread outrage among Grenfell survivors, as the preceding events left victims justifiably angry. Benita Mehra, one of two panellists appointed by the government to advise the inquiry, was found to head an organization which was receiving grants from one of the companies tasked with the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower. This significant disruption into the inquiry raises some serious questions into the government’s commitment to provide an adequate and just conclusion for the victims of Grenfell.
How was the conflict of interest not uncovered before Ms Mehra’s appointment?
Why did Ms Mehra initially resist calls for her to step down?
Have these events raised the possibility that the companies heading the refurbishment of Grenfell may be delaying the process?
These events highlight the need for continued and heightened support for these victims and stands as a significant wake-up call for the public to realise the Tory party do not prioritise justice. Support for Grenfell victims from anti-racist protestors taking part in the ongoing civil rights movement has shown just how important the matter still is, three years on, and that community solidarity is the key to achieving justice. As the inquiry is set to resume in July we must stand together and use the momentum gained over these past few weeks to push for answers.
Going forward, evidence suggests that the Tory party have not heeded the warnings of Grenfell and fears of a repeat disaster are very much real. The infamous cladding that allowed the fire to engulf the entire building in just 25 minutes is still present on over 2,000 buildings nationwide. The Housing Communities and Local Government (HCLG) committee have published a report rightly calling on the government to “make an absolute commitment” to making all buildings with cladding safe by December 2020. HCLG has stated that the government’s pledge of £1bn to this cause will only cover a third of the refurbishment costs and, coupled with a short application window, means that many will not be able to access the funds. This leaves thousands of residents still living in at-risk buildings three years on from the harrowing disaster.
The moral compass of the current government is evidently severely disrupted and there is a clear need to hold those who have caused, and in some cases refused to rectify, accountable. Chairman of the committee, Clive Betts MP, has pushed for the government to take legal action in cases where private building owners have failed to begin remedial work by December 2020. These failings and the blatant disinterest in providing safe and adequate living conditions for thousands of citizens demonstrates the government’s willingness to gamble with the lives of its people three years on from one of the most fatal blazes in British history. This is simply an unacceptable approach to governing and managing a crisis and has resulted in significant, and in some cases irreversible, damage, both financially and mentally, for the victims of Grenfell. For those still having to live in evidently unsafe conditions, 94% of residents in affected buildings have reported feelings of anxiety and 1 in 5 have had suicidal thoughts.
200 homes were lost in the blaze in 2017 and three years on you would think it impossible that any of these victims would still be searching for a new permanent residency. Unfortunately, this is indeed the case with seven households still living in temporary accommodation and a further ten households who have since requested to be rehoused after being placed in accommodation deemed to be unsuitable. The stem of this issue is rooted in the government’s inability to provide adequate social housing. The lack of investment in social housing over time has led to a shortage in suitable housing options, especially for those with particular needs. Evidence of this reality is outlined by Spike Western, housing paralegal at North Kensington Law Centre, who stated that:
“The households who have still to be rehoused permanently following Grenfell are the most vulnerable survivors. They represent either those with particular housing needs, such as those arising from a disability, or those on whom moving permanently is something that cannot be rushed and must only be done when the survivor is ready.”
Unfortunately, the current state of the Grenfell response highlights the Tory party’s utter disregard for the wellbeing of the victims and shows a dysfunctional and poorly developed housing system that is unable to cater for those most in need. With warnings from victims and housing experts alike that another Grenfell-like disaster could be looming on the horizon, the government's disjointed approach to crisis management worrying to say the least.
As COVID-19 has further prolonged the pursuit of justice for the victims of Grenfell, it is imperative that we do not let this tragedy and its lingering consequences slip into the background. The abhorrent neglection and disproportionate prioritisation of response tactics from the Tory party highlights their inability to cope with such disasters. Realising the very real risk of a repeat catastrophe is reason enough to call on the public to express their solidarity with the victims of Grenfell and to extend these grievances to wider and very relevant causes such as the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.
It is worth reiterating that solidarity is key in achieving justice in what can only be described as a broken system. Only when we all stand together can we truly achieve the answers, justice and results that we as a community are still hoping to see.
John Bates, Renew member and councillor for Morecambe, explains why doing nothing is not an option.
The current upsurge in the Black Lives Matter campaign, triggered by the death of George Floyd in America, has once again brought to the fore the disparate treatment of Black people in society. At the same time, as with any major campaign, there has been a rise to prominence of counter-protests. It is my view that the instigators of the counter-protest are probably white supremacists. But it cannot be ignored that they bring along with them many otherwise, ordinary, run of the mill people who, under any other circumstances, would support, or at least not oppose, cries for equality in less fractious circumstances. These otherwise decent people share posts on Facebook, which, while ostensibly upholding traditional values of respect and patriotism, serve only to move the subject away from the important one of much-needed reform, onto the easier platforms of Law and Order, Vandalism and respect for National Freedoms and traditions.
It is a successful tactic. Once the mind is diverted from the fundamental injustice it becomes easier to brand the original campaigners as vandals or thugs or malcontents. The justice of the cause is lost in a welter of condemnation of direct action without any real consideration being given to the fundamental injustice or inequalities which lead to the protests in the first place.
So, on Facebook, we read claims that George Floyd was no angel, that he was a serial offender. These posts go on to question the appropriateness of the elaborate funeral arrangements, implying that all this "fuss" or "celebrity" treatment is undeserved. The sinister yet unspoken implication behind this post is, of course, that George Floyd's life, let alone death, are not worth such commemoration. Our attention is thus diverted from the appalling facts of his death, away from the fact that in a civilised society, everyone should be treated with respect under the law, particularly from those whose job it is to uphold that law.
Our Prime Minister in Name Only decries the defacing of statues and memorials in the name of protest, and in doing so, immediately ascribes more importance to those artefacts than to the underlying inequalities which give rise to the protests. Once again, the ground for debate is shifted.
On Facebook again we see the fatuous slogan "All Lives Matter." All manner of meaning can be read into that statement, but for many, it is seen as diminishing the "Black Lives Matter" slogan. Black Lives Matter campaigners are thus painted as only having a narrow and selfish interest, rather than compassion for society as a whole. At a stroke, the real message, that Black Lives are all too often, demonstrably and institutionally, worth-less in the eyes of society, is deleted and the argument is shifted onto safer, but essentially, meaningless ground.
Our Prime Minister in Name Only declares the formation of a far-reaching (world-beating?) inquiry into racial inequalities and leaves the arrangements for it in the hands of a person who has already made known her scepticism about institutional racism.
Will that inquiry give any consideration to the manifestly institutionally racist Windrush scandal?
How will that inquiry improve on previous inquiries whose non-implemented findings shout just as loudly about institutional and chronic, racial bias?
Is there any chance at all that the inquiry will even address the notion that an upsurge in campaigning and direct action is the inevitable result of generation after generation suffering inequality and indignation with no redress and little or no understanding of their long-held and justifiable grievances being shown?
It is difficult to see this inquiry as anything other than an institutional fig leaf, poorly designed to cover this Government's shame.
And on Facebook, we read:
"History is not to be erased just because you may not like it!"
"It is time to recognise that the past is over. It is time to look to the future and not the past!"
Or other such shallow twaddle.
There can be dozens if not hundreds of replies to such statements. Henry Ford told us that history is bunk. Many others have told us that history is written by the victors. Whatever answer you choose, there can be little doubt that our history as a nation, whose wealth was built on the proceeds of slave trading and the appropriations of Empire, never fully includes or dwells on the evil of those times. I have never met anyone who seriously wants to rewrite or erase history, but I know there are those who think the time is long overdue to examine its truths. I have no doubt that the ramifications of slave trading and empire are only understood by a few when they should be made clear to all. I also know that the deep and burning injustice felt by the descendants of those oppressed by the slave trade and the imposition of empire are only imperfectly appreciated by those who have never felt that oppression. The removal of deeply offensive statuary is not an erasure of history, it is a much-needed acknowledgement of evil.
Change is long overdue. I doubt that such change will come easily and almost certainly not as a result of yet another inquiry, even if well-meant, and I detect no honest intent in this latest sop to the BLM campaign. It seems to me that something much more profound is required. At the cessation of Apartheid in South Africa, the more immediate and vicious inequalities of that policy could have led to widespread and violent conflict. That the pent-up resentments and anger of that time of repression and cruelty did not lead to wholesale slaughter is, in large part, due to the wisdom, foresight and generosity of Nelson Mandela and his institution of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That action enabled opposing sides to face unpleasant truths and to achieve understanding, remorse and forgiveness in ways that no public enquiry formed by a cynical and sceptical government could do. Generations of world-wide domination and exploitation can only ever embed a deep-seated sense of superiority on the one hand and equally profound resentment on the other. In the worst of us, that attitude of superiority has led to an ingrained and xenophobic hatred, and, in the victims, a justifiable rejection of a system and polity which has consistently refused to acknowledge the need for change.
What is needed is something akin to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A forum where each side can learn from the other. Of course, the learning will be greater on the part of those who do not at present understand the legacy of the slave trade and of empire, but equally essential is that the Black community can see and be a part of the processes which are implemented to address the centuries-long injustices for which reparation has never truly been made.
The Prime Minister in Name Only will tell you that he is not racist and cannot see that his "letterbox" and "watermelon smile" remarks are pure racism drawing, as they do, on race memory and ridicule of the non-white, non-Christian Other. Such a man will never address the problem if only because he does not believe there is a problem. And there are many others like him in the country. I am not referring here to the white supremacists, who I hope are mercifully few, and who simply represent a combination of ignorance and all the worst human traits. I refer to those whose understanding is subtly blunted and led away from proper understanding by the dishonest social media posts and all the years of sustained misinformation from a partial tabloid press, designed only to mislead and subvert honest people away from the inherent decency which directs most of us. If government will not do it perhaps others can. If enough of us begin the process surely we could make a difference. It might only take a few good people to raise the standard of decency so that others might flock to it.
Of one thing I am sure: doing nothing is not an option.
Renew supporter Zach Mayford argues for the removal of the statues of slave traders.
As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on and “the new normal” grows older ever day, another pandemic is stirring hearts and minds across the globe: racism. George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police department sparked a monumental movement of anti-police-brutality and anti-racism protests. These erupted not just in the States, but around the world, from South Africa, to France, to the British Isles.
The movement has struck a deep and reverberating chord across the UK in individuals and institutions alike. Every major city has a protest movement, with networks of activists campaigning for socio-political change. It’s stirring to see such demonstrations, many masked and socially distanced, echoing Floyd’s last words: “I can’t breathe”. Some of the most evocating protests involve crowds kneeling out of respect, like the American athlete and equality activist Colin Kaepernick. Similarly, some protestors lay on the ground for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the exact amount of time Minneapolis officer Chauvin fatally knelt on George Floyd’s neck.
Such crowds, and such evocative demonstrations, are already forcing words from the mouths of British politicians. Boris Johnson originally echoed Donald Trump’s condemnation of the activists as “thugs”, and even progressive figures like Nicola Sturgeon urged protestors to find alternatives to physical demonstrations. Many mainstream publications have paired Britain’s abysmal struggle to combat COVID with the BLM crowds, alleging their responsibility for public jeopardy. The truth is, the same publications and politicians were uncritical to the point of jubilance when presenting the white faces packing out sunny beaches or celebrating VE day. BLM activists are bracing themselves for the inevitable branding of brown and black faces with the blame for Britain’s failures. We must think critically about which groups are the root causes of Britain’s inability to compete with other countries in this crisis. In reality, the UK government has systematically failed to provide enough PPE, testing, or even coherent advice to combat the pandemic effectively.
Yes, large, compact, and unprotected crowds spread coronavirus, but that’s not what BLM are advocating for. Activists and organisers are telling protestors to wear masks, to bring hand sanitiser and to physically distance at rallies. They are saying it with far more unity, clarity, and consistency than the UK government ever has. By contrast, police tactics like kettling and mass detainment pose serious concerns for infection and transmission, as do the discriminatory over-policing and violently physical arrests that sparked the protests in the first place.
It may seem far removed that British protestors, and other international activists, are marching about injustice thousands of miles away in America. However, racism is not just an American issue. Many, including prominent journalist and scholar Afua Hirsch, have eloquently argued that American racism was created and exported from right here in Britain. Black Brits are five times more likely to die in police custody than their white counterparts, and while only three per cent of the British population is Black, twelve per cent of the prison population is Black, due to over-policing, harsher sentencing, and disparity of economic opportunities.
Such disparity stems from Britain’s racist past, and the whitewashing, if not glorification, of the empire’s crimes. Protestors are turning to this legacy and tearing down the physical remnants of the slave-trading past, focusing their anger on statues. In Bristol, anti-racist activists tore down an effigy of the prolific slave trader Edward Colston and launched it into the marina. How poetic that the statue of a man who profited from transporting nearly 100,000 people across the Atlantic, killing almost a quarter in the process and tossing them into the sea, met its own demise in the same way, rejected, underwater. Immediately, Sir Keir Starmer, supposed saviour of the Left in Britain, labelled the activism as “absolutely wrong”, showing how out of touch both sides of the political establishment are with the country’s current climate.
As many are pointing out online, the act of removing such statues is teaching people more about British history than they ever did upright. Major cities across the nation, initially Manchester and London, are launching huge enquiries into all their statues and their links to slavery and white supremacy. As of the 9th of June, the Canal and Rivers Trust in London has already removed its statue of the slaver Robert Mulligan from the docklands. If anything, it was lucky to escape the waters of the canals and rivers which the Trust administers. A statue of the mass murderer and colonial overlord King Leopold II has already fallen in Belgium and the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College Oxford looks like its next on the list. Some call it the destruction of history. Other, with good reason, call it the production of a new, more balanced history. Whilst only symbols, these statues put slave trading and white supremacy on a literal pedestal. The debates around these statues, and their lasting presence in the 21st century, are already promoting vitally representative education and positive socio-political shifts.
With each protest, things change incrementally around the world. Cases are being reopened across the states, with activists successful demanding accountability for needless black deaths. Apart from the marches and the falling statues, the movement is provoking important introspection on this side of the pond too. Social media is ripe with educational posts and constructive reading lists. Attention builds around the case of Belly Mujinga, a black railway worker who was spat on and died of coronavirus. The CPS are now reviewing the case “in light of public interest”.
So what is next, and what can you do?
First and foremost, be an activist, and/or be an ally. If it’s safe, protest in a socially distanced way. If not, donate to urgent causes, share information, and sign petitions, particularly concerning the fair and representative historical curriculum of British history. Renew your politics, and be creative as you push for a kinder, fairer, and better society.