Sunday, 24 January 2021

Was Brexit meant to be this lame?


Remember gung-ho, priapic Boris Johnson of the referendum campaign? The moment my remainer heart sunk, the moment I knew the leave vote might just get up in 2016, was during the debate in which Johnson loudly heralded "independence day!" to a spontaneous, rousing cheer. 

But that excitable rhetoric of "sunlit uplands" and "amazing opportunities outside the EU" has been replaced by a more subdued mood from Brexit's most vocal cheerleaders. Their shoulders are slumped and the confident promises have been replaced by stumbling, mumbling desperation. And, unsurprisingly, the self-serving, grifting con man, Nigel Farage has abandoned the men and women of the fishing industry after using them disgracefully for his own ends in 2016.

The Brexiters' rhetoric now is more like "well, it won't be so bad" or "this is what we're doing to make this a bit less rubbish" - and everything "we're doing" is stuff that we're paying for, stupidly expensive stuff we, the taxpayers, wouldn't have to pay for if we'd simply stayed in the EU. 

Take Nissan's Sunderland plant for the latest example. All of a sudden, Nissan executives were singing the praises of Brexit and announcing that batteries would be manufactured in Sunderland. Last year, Nissan was sending out perfectly valid warnings of the dire consequences of a no-deal Brexit - and luckily for Nissan, the wafer-thin deal covered goods (but not services). Last week, Nissan was all about Brexit.

First, before any leave voter dares accuse me of wanting Nissan to close the Sunderland plant, nothing could be further from the truth. On a personal level, I have friends and family in the area and, even if they don't work at the factory, a 6,000-job employer shutting up shop has implications for them all. And on a broader level, only a hateful sadist would get any joy from seeing the end of a genuine achievement for the north-east from the Thatcher era. Nissan Sunderland is a fiscal multiplier, an unalloyed good for the region, as well as the 70,000 supply chain jobs beyond the plant's gates.

The reality is that the loss of Nissan Sunderland would be a PR disaster for this government. 

Sunderland voted 61.3% to leave the EU, smashing the nationwide 52% leave vote. Ever since, the people of Sunderland have been characterised, often cruelly, as idiots who shot themselves in their collective feet in 2016. A no-deal Brexit would have almost certainly spelled the end of the Nissan plant. The government knew this from June 24, 2016, and they have been generous with our money toward the automaker as a result. In February 2019, business secretary Greg Hand had to publicly concede that Nissan, a company with assets worth US$154 billion, received a government grant of £61 million.

While this is good news for Sunderland, such corporate welfare is unsustainable. Other parts of the UK automotive industry won't be as fortunate and the government knows full well it can't just spunk £61 million every time a big company threatens to leave the UK.

And the rest of this whole Brexit thing is just a bit pathetic really. 

It's obviously a good thing that the country hasn't descended into total chaos. I'm glad I haven't been in a fist fight for the last loaf of bread in Asda or taken to shooting squirrels off the garage roof for dinner. Only the most economically reckless or illiterate disaster capitalists and disaster socialists - almost always people wealthy enough to be insulated from any real hardships - genuinely wanted absolute bedlam after 11pm on New Year's Eve 2020.

Instead, we now have lots of examples of supposedly "little things" that have happened as a result of Brexit. This was always going to be the way it panned out - Brexit as the death by a thousand cuts rather than one massive social and economic explosion wiping us all out. 

These "little things" have been seized on by Brexiters as examples of pampered remainers whining from their ivory towers - it is low-hanging fruit picked gleefully by leave voters in what has degenerated into an embittered culture war. 

Brexiters have laughed at remainers for calling out everything from having to buy dog food in France when taking pooches on holiday to increased postage charges. Apparently, only wealthy remainers have ever taken a dog on holiday to Europe, even though that is clearly nonsense. It's not just about bloody dog food - it is about the added costs of taking a pet on holiday across the channel which are a direct result of leaving the EU. Brexit makes what was once a simple, affordable pleasure for a nation of dog-lovers into something that will become out of reach for many people. It's a microcosm of the sheer joylessness that Brexit is starting to bring to us.

Increased postal costs between the UK and the EU are not just a bit of a pain in the bum - they are genuinely crippling a range of smaller British businesses and you can bet your life they won't be getting a £61 million handout from the government any time soon. But Brexit suffering is only for the little people and the little companies. 

And there are other "little things" that are being minimised by Brexiters desperate to paint remainers as doomsayers. For example, phone companies have not yet started charging for global roaming when we travel to the EU - a dire warning of the remain campaign - but anyone who seriously thinks this will never happen is almost adorably naive.

The loss of access to the fast EU queues at European airports is dismissed by Brexiters by saying it's "worth it" or "anyone would think we never travelled or worked on the continent before the EU!", conveniently romanticising an era where travel was not accessible for a lot of people, where crossing European borders was inconvenient and time-consuming, where it was not easy to work or retire in Europe without a lot of money.

When Boris Johnson pettily pulled the UK out of the Erasmus scheme, even though we could have stayed in post-Brexit, this led to predictable Brexiter howls that this was just for privileged kids. No amount of people stating that they were working class kids whose lives were changed for the better by Erasmus will change their minds.

Similarly, Boris Johnson refusing the EU's magnanimity to allow easy access for British musicians to tour in Europe can be easily dismissed by Brexiters as just muso luvvies complaining. Never mind that the arts contributes way more to the UK economy than fishing or being able to easily work as a performer in Europe helps British artists financially and professionally. This is just another "little thing" we have to put up with for... For what exactly?

Liz Truss can bang on about pork and cheese all she likes but it's not going to bring us trade deals that are close to what we had in the EU. We will still need to abide by EU rules to trade with the EU, but we will have no say in making those rules. 

Boris Johnson can tweet ridiculous photos of himself giving God the thumbs-up while on the phone to Joe Biden but the reality is that a mutually beneficial UK-US free trade deal was not part of that conversation. 

Brexiters can yell "Sovereignty!" without being properly challenged on what it means or informed of the myriad things EU countries do as sovereign nations, such as effectively closing borders to help stop the spread of a deadly pandemic. 

Any Brexiter who dares say they don't mind if the price of groceries goes up as a result of Brexit probably isn't trying to get by on universal credit. Covid-19 delays and "teething problems" can only be blamed for so long when it comes to reduced choice in our supermarkets, higher prices, and fresh foods with shorter expiry dates - these are all direct outcomes from voting to make supply chains with the EU more complicated, bureaucratic and time-consuming.

And anyone who is genuinely excited by blue passports that we could have had without leaving the EU is just too sad for words.  

Nope, it's all just a bit lame, isn't it? It's not, as yet, an abject economic disaster - and the pandemic will be blamed for all manner of things for the foreseeable future - but over the next few years, we're going to see lots of little annoyances add up, in between completely predictable job losses across a range of sectors, even after the virus is under control. 

In the meantime, the movement toward an independent Scotland and a reunited Ireland, with EU membership, will go from strength to strength - and, ultimately, that may lead to the isolated rump states of Wales and England rejoining the EU under terms that won't come close to the benefits we enjoyed as part of a 28-strong bloc. Brexit is already looking pathetic. It is a damp squib wrapped in a wet blanket - and nobody voted for that.


Sunday, 3 January 2021

Covid-19 and the expendables


Paul Embery is not an epidemiologist, virologist, or indeed a doctor of any description. According to his Twitter bio, his main claim to fame is being a columnist for UnHerd. Despite being a member of the National Union of Journalists, he appears to have missed the bit in his training where you're taught to properly analyse and responsibly report on statistics.

Unfortunately, his ridiculous tweet received a lot of traction, predictable support from the likes of Julia Hartley-Brewer, and, sure, it looks credible enough. After all, he has included a link to the NHS website. Why, he's just a humble journalist sharing Actual NHS Statistics to prove his coronavirus-minimising point. And given that we all love the NHS so much we used to applaud it every Thursday night, how could we possibly question his wisdom?

Quite easily, actually.

First, we have the ageist bigotry that says it's somehow OK for people over 60 to die of Covid-19, that once we all turn 60, our lives, our value to society, our purpose is diminished. Women over 40 already know they start to become invisible after a certain age. Now we are told that once we hit 60, we should consider ourselves lucky to have had such a good innings.  

From a purely cold economic standpoint, the NHS figures mean that an increasingly productive part of the economy is at risk and should be protected. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, between 1985 and 2015, women aged 60-64 represented the highest increase in employment rates of any demographic, rising from 17.7% participation in the workforce to 40.7%. In the same period, employment rates for men aged 65-69 increased from 12.8% to 25.8%. That's a lot of extra tax revenue and consumer spending from these demographics. As the government continues to raise the pension age, these figures should surprise nobody.

Then we have the sinister "pre-existing condition" part of Embery's out-of-context tweet. It's stunning how casually we can dismiss the coronavirus deaths of those with pre-existing conditions. This includes diabetes, asthma, heart conditions, immune system conditions, regardless of the person's age. Suddenly, we have a much larger group of people at risk from Covid-19. 

By and large, thanks mostly to modern medicine, plenty of pre-existing conditions can be managed so people can live healthy, productive, happy lives. You can't always see a pre-existing condition but if that person caught Covid-19, they could become seriously ill and possibly die way before their time. But Embery's thoughtless tweet devalues the lives and contributions of millions of people as he attempts to minimise how serious this global pandemic is.

And with a virus as easily transmissible as Covid-19, it's not just the deaths we need to focus on. There are plenty of blowhards who'll yell into the internet that there's "no need to panic about a disease with a [insert very low percentage here] death rate!". But that ignores not only the lost productivity from people who test positive, and their contacts, having to self-isolate - it also ignores the emerging data about the long-term effects even after a patient has recovered from the virus, including long covid, where people suffer ongoing health problems for weeks or months after the usual two weeks or so of illness. Even if you do survive Covid-19, that's not necessarily the end of the story - viruses can be nasty like that.

Of course, none of this has been helped by an incompetent government led by a self-serving, impatient, spoiled man-baby of a prime minister, a man more concerned with tomorrow's headlines rather than properly dealing with a major public health emergency. The UK lost the advantage of being an island in March with a late lockdown, no closing of international borders, and letting events such as Cheltenham go ahead.

Boris Johnson hates being the bearer of bad news, hence his pathetic WWII Blitz spirit cosplaying about it being all over by summer or Christmas or Easter or next summer. And don't forget his incoherent ramblings about the commonsense and pluck of the British people, even when this commonsense appears to be in short supply. But that suits Johnson too - it works for him for us to turn on each other for breaking lockdown rules or being "too careful", rather than to seriously hold him and his useless cabinet to account.

There is a desperation for things to "return to normal", which is perfectly understandable. We are all missing so many things from Before Times. But even after we have been sufficiently vaccinated and the virus sufficiently suppressed, there will be lasting changes. This means everything from irrevocably changed personal relationships to radical decisions made after taking stock over lockdown, through to a growing culture of flexible working, a collapse of the commercial property market, and a possible rethinking about how city centres can be repurposed to be more residential rather than merely places where we go to work before disappearing to the perimeters. 

We cannot and should not emerge from this awful time unchanged and none the wiser. But as long as nonsense, such as that ridiculous tweet from Embery, is shared, the stats unparsed without challenge or consideration, the emergence will be a long time coming.     

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Boris Johnson's big, green car con


Boris Johnson's latest wheeze is to declare that there will be no more new petrol- or diesel-fuelled cars sold in Britain from 2030. Don't get me wrong - clean air is good. Hell, after five years of living in the UAE, working as a motoring journalist, owning a gas-guzzling SUV, and travelling business class for press trips, I should probably atone for my carbon footprint. It was like a coal miner's lung.

It's not the idea that is the problem. It's the lashings of bullshit that come with it.

First, Johnson can say whatever the hell he likes. After all, why break the habit of a lifetime? He knows he won't be prime minister in 2030. He won't have to actually see this idea through. He won't have to take any real responsibility for the government's role in funding infrastructure, determining policy, or liaising with the private sector to make this happen.

It's a calculated risk. He's smart enough to know there will be a bit of an outcry but it's better to have a few people howling about the latest war on cars than let them get too worked up about the government's ongoing mishandling of Covid-19 or the looming Brexit debacle.

It's not all doom and gloom. Charging infrastructure is certainly improving and the range for electric cars has become longer in recent years. Indeed, the range of a couple of hundred miles is ample for the driving many of us do on a day-to-day basis. Electric vehicles often make sense for local authorities too - if the vehicle is only going to be buzzing around the borough, there's little risk of running out of charge. Fast-charging technology is getting better every year.

But for a lot of us, used to being able to fill up a car with a fossil fuel quickly and easily, making the transition to electric cars will take a mindset shift as well as potentially being expensive. Half an hour for an 80% rapid charge will seem like too long for a lot of people, especially when they need a car for work. Business secretary Alok Sharma revealed how stunningly out of touch he is with real people in a pandemic when he was talking about £20,000 electric cars as being cheap on Sky News yesterday morning. 

A decade should be plenty of time to make the transition, if there was a competent government running the show, but I am not convinced that Johnson's electric vehicle policy, part of a 10-point "green industrial revolution" has allowed a big enough budget.

£1.3 billion to roll out charging points in homes, streets and on motorways probably won't be enough. Currently, the government offers up to £350 for households to install a charging point. With around 75% of adults in the UK holding driving licenses, approximately 20 million households will need a charging point - that's potentially a subsidy bill of up to £7 billion. A lot of houses and apartment building car parks will need charging points. 

Obviously, it's entirely reasonable for companies such as BP and Esso to fork out for charging points at their petrol stations. But this smells like the government pulling a big figure out of their collective arses in the hope that we'll all be so impressed by the sheer size of £1.3 billion that we won't work out what it really means.  

Similarly, £582 million in grants to buy zero- or ultra-low-emission vehicles is a petty cash drawer figure in terms of government spending.

And "nearly" £500 million over the next four years - so less than £125 million per year - for the development of mass production of electric vehicle batteries really won't go that far. The government statement on the 10-point plan adds that this is part of £12 billion in state spending on developing electric car manufacturing with "potentially three times as much from the private sector". So that's money that we cannot count on, especially if car manufacturing goes down the toilet post-Brexit. After all, it's not as if we will be able to make all components or source all materials from the UK - with inevitably buggered-up, expensive supply chains from the EU, it becomes a less attractive investment. 

Then there are concerns about the supply chain ethics of certain raw materials for electric vehicles, such as the mining of cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which supplies 60% of cobalt for this sector. The second-biggest producer of cobalt in the world is Russia and its output is 83% smaller than that of the DRC. Wonderful.

Of course, there is an attempt in the statement to desperately appeal to their newly won Red Wall voters and Conservative voters elsewhere with the pledge to create electric vehicle sector jobs in the northeast of England, Wales and the Midlands. For the northeast, this pledge comes just as there are renewed reports of Sunderland losing its Nissan plant if a no-deal Brexit goes ahead - this could be a pre-emptive strike to convince people that this is how the jobs will be replaced. Ironically, it is faintly reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher convincing Nissan to build the Sunderland plant to help replace jobs lost when the coal mines closed, with access to the EU market as a major selling point. 

But Boris Johnson has not got any of the convictions of Thatcher and he certainly does not have her work ethic. There's no real detail in his plans for the automotive sector about how the money will be spent, and no breakdown on practical things such as budgets for retraining workers and retooling factories. At least Sunderland has experience with building the electric Nissan Leaf. Apart from the electric Mini and the possibility of an electric Jaguar, a lot of money will be needed to ensure electric cars can roll off production lines in Derbyshire, Swindon, Norfolk, Warwickshire, Cheshire, West Sussex and Luton.

But this is not a government that does details.

The point in the plan about public transport has nothing much to say to areas where public transport is non-existent. There is a pledge to spend £4.2 billion in "city public transport". Given that in London, TFL's 2019-2020 budget was £10.3 billion, £4.2 billion across all UK cities is going to spread out very thinly indeed. Again, Boris Johnson pukes out numbers that are more than we'll ever see in our bank accounts and expects us to be impressed without question. 

Still, it's all on brand for Johnson. It's all big-sounding numbers and bumper sticker soundbites, as ever. He was supposedly a green Tory mayor for London but that was a con too. This is the idiot mayor who wasted £1.4 million in a failed attempt to "glue" pollution to the capital's roads and removed the congestion charge exemption for hybrid cars. Basically, he got away with developing a reputation for being an eco-friendly mayor because he was photographed riding a bicycle like a saggy-suited clown.

Boris Johnson's figures for his "green industrial revolution" are as rubbery as the condoms he seems to be incapable of using. It's bluster and waffle, there's a strong whiff of pork-barrelling, it is more simplistic sloganeering.

He is a charlatan, a fraud, a major league con man, someone who has fooled voters for years on an industrial scale, the wrong person to be in charge of anything let alone an environmental programme this nakedly ambitious - put that on your electric car bumper sticker.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Peter Sutcliffe's mirror on misogyny


Peter Sutcliffe is dead and nobody should be upset that he is gone from this world. We will never know exactly how many women he killed or attacked. We will never know exactly how many lives he ruined. 

Thankfully, today's coverage is centred largely on the victims and the people left behind to pick up the pieces after women they loved were taken cruelly away from them. 

Naga Munchetty did an excellent interview on BBC Breakfast this morning with Richard McCann, the son of Wilma McCann, believed to be Sutcliffe's first victim. She was compassionate, she let Richard speak through his grief and complex feelings about his mother's death and the man who was responsible, she reassured him that he has nothing to be ashamed of. 

The appalling events between 1975 ad 1980 could have ended much sooner - Sutcliffe was interviewed nine times before he was finally brought to justice, and the Wearside Jack hoax tapes were a devastating distraction, wasting police time, allowing Sutcliffe to kill more women. Misogyny infested the West Yorkshire police force at the time, fuelling incompetence. This horrific account of a press conference is sickening:

Today's coverage of Sutcliffe's pathetic demise has not been perfect. The footage that did not need to be broadcast was that of a jovial interview with one of the killer's former colleagues. We saw the unedifying spectacle of a man laughing as he said they all knew Sutcliffe was the Yorkshire Ripper and that he even answered to this name. And still he laughed, reducing dead women to workplace banter.

It is vile misogyny, just as it is vile misogyny to diminish some of the victims as "just prostitutes" rather than individual women with their own stories, often of hard lives, of limited choices. It is vile misogyny to dismiss any of the victims as somehow asking for it, to create a hierarchy of dead women from sainted virgins to scorned sluts. 

But this is what happens when sex workers are among the dead, as if their lives matter less than those of other women. This narrative reared its ugly head for years in discourse surrounding the Yorkshire Ripper just as surely as it did a century earlier when Sutcliffe's grotesque namesake, Jack the Ripper, was terrorising women in London. 

Our dead bodies are not there for workplace banter, for our corpses to be picked over by hideous vultures seeking to push misogynistic narratives from our carrion, for making people feel better about their attitudes to women, for helping people convince themselves that the safety of some women is more important than that of others. 

Instead, let us take this moment to remember the names of the victims we know and to reflect that we may never know the names that would surely complete this tragic list:

Wilma McCann

Emily Jackson

Irene Richardson

Tina Atkinson

Jayne MacDonald

Jean Jordan

Yvonne Pearson

Helen Rytka

Vera Millward

Josephine Whitaker

Barbara Leach

Marguerite Walls

Jacqueline Hill

And these are the women who survived attacks by Sutcliffe, more women whose lives will be forever affected by his violent hatred of women:

Anna Rogulskyj

Olive Smelt

Tracy Browne

Marcella Claxton

Marilyn Moore

Upadhya Bandara

Maureen Lea

Theresa Sykes

Say their names. Say all their names.

Photography: Tasha Kamrowski/Pexels

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

The pandemic of "honour" killings


Let's start calling so-called "honour" killings by their real name. They are misogynistic murders. They are the murders of girls and women who have done nothing wrong. They are murders committed almost exclusively by men, although women can be complicit. They are murders with vile motivations such as a taking false offence, feeling an unwarranted sense of shame, a desire to control girls and women in everything they say, do and think, a heinous jealousy that is never flattering, a desire to maintain a sickening patriarchy where men and boys enjoy freedoms that they deny to the girls and women in their lives.

The disgusting reality of misogynistic murders was brought into sharp focus last week with Honour, the ITV drama based on the 2006 murder of 20-year-old Banaz Mahmod at the hands of her own father and uncle. Three of her cousins and two family friends were also convicted in relation to her killing. Her non-crime was to leave an abusive forced marriage and find happiness with a new boyfriend, who killed himself 10 years after Banaz was murdered. 

Banaz had gone to the police multiple times to share her very real fears that her life was in danger, even naming names of the people of whom she was rightly terrified, but she was not taken seriously until she went missing. Her body was found in a suitcase buried in a derelict garden in Birmingham, after she was killed in South London a few miles from where I'm now sitting. She is buried at the cemetery down the road. Her family tried to insult her one last time with an unmarked grave but a granite memorial stone now marks her final resting place, paid for by the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (IKWRO), police officers and Nazir Afzal, the tenacious lead prosecutor in her case.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the ITV drama was the portrayal of Diana Nammi by brilliant, brave Saudi actress Ahd Hassan Kamel. Diana is a British-Kurdish activist who came to the UK as an asylum seeker, founding IKWRO in 2002. There is a scene where she expresses her sheer frustration that because she is a woman, she is not considered a leader in the community where Banaz and her Iraq-Kurdish family lived.

But Diana is a leader. It is so important that Britain has elevated her to this status because of her important work, which included helping bring Banaz's killers to justice. In 2014, she received a Barclays Woman of the Year award,s a Women on the Move award from UNHCR and named one of the BBC's 100 Women. In 2015, she received a Voices of Courage award from the Women's Refugee Commission in 2015 and an honorary degree from the University of Essex in 2016.  

This is important because Britain needs to be better than the misogynistic murderers of Banaz Mamod, to take a stand, to speak the truth that there is nothing honourable about honour killings. A vital part of this is for Britain to be a place where women, regardless of their ethnicity, are empowered to be community leaders, to be taken seriously when they defend vulnerable girls and women and denounce misogynistic, patriarchal cultures - all of them everywhere - in no uncertain terms.

Appalling stories such as that of Banaz Mahmod are low-hanging fruit for racists. There will always be the people whose first reaction is to blame immigration, to claim that if "these people" weren't allowed in the UK, then such murders wouldn't happen here. 

This is a dreadful notion for two reasons. 

Firstly, while Banaz Mahmod would not have been killed on British soil if her family didn't come to the UK, it is entirely possible that she could have been killed in similar circumstances in Iraq - the problem of so-called honour killings would simply happen elsewhere and that is equally as unacceptable as when it happens here. The banning of immigration and, in particular, the stopping of all asylum seekers being allowed to seek safety in the UK, simply moves the problem to other countries. If Britain is serious about the moral high ground and about stopping the bloodshed, it is essential that we condemn all so-called honour killings, no matter where they happen.

And secondly, it is wrong to claim that such murders are only the domain of immigrants, that the only hands that are gripped around innocent necks or holding knives or tightening ligatures or pointing guns in the name of false offence or bringing supposed shame to families and, in particular, to men belong solely to foreigners.

In the UK, the number of women killed by current or former partner is on the increase. Data from the Office for National Statistics showed that 80 women were killed by a current or former partner between April 2018 and March 2019, a 27% increase on the previous year.

If you think these men's motivations are any different to those of the pathetic men who were offended by Banaz Mahmod making her own life choices, you're mistaken. When women are murdered by men close to them, it doesn't matter what colour anyone's skin is or whether anyone's family has been in the UK for a few years or since Roman times. The killers are still men who hate women. They are still offended because a woman has dared to leave or spurned advances or was perceived to have strayed or flirted or fell short of some impossible standard. These men, just as surely as Banaz Mahmod's killers did, feel a misguided and bogus shame, feel like they have lost control of women they considered their property, feel their pitiful male pride has been wounded by women who would not comply. 

If we are serious about ending this misogynistic turf war that is fought on women's bodies, more needs to be done. We should absolutely engage with all communities in Britain, to uphold courageous people such as Diana Nammi who shine a light on this hatred and violence at great personal cost. But we also need to acknowledge that murderous misogyny is not exclusive to any one community or ethnic group. It is a dark stain on every town and city and as long as women are killed by people close to them every single week, it shames us all.   

Photography by Joanne Adela Low/Pexels 

Monday, 21 September 2020

How to fall in love with a country again


Oh, how we whined and whinged when it became apparent that, for a number of reasons, a holiday in the UK was going to have to replace our usual September jaunt to somewhere warm and European. It just wouldn't be the same as lolling by a pool in Corfu wiling away the afternoon with endless gin fizzes or hiring an open top car to explore every corner of Rhodes. Indeed, as we booked rooms in two old hotels at Grange-over-Sands and Peebles, both places where people used to travel in pre-antibiotic days to "take in the air", we resented every penny of the price. We could have a week in Menorca for the same price, dammit. Would it even feel like a holiday if we did all our travelling in the car rather than leaving the trusty Volkswagen at the long-term parking at Gatwick and jumping on a plane?

But as we left the M25 hellscape and hideous traffic around Birmingham behind us, Cumbria hovered into sight and we found our hotel overlooking the Irish Sea at Grange-over-Sands. Sure, it wasn't the most soundproofed of hotels - I am still convinced the couple in the room above us were moving furniture in between acts of copulation - and the breakfast service could have been a bit better organised, but the picture above was the view from our room. When we opened the florid, floral curtains and were greeted by a scene that definitely beat the "sea glimpses" promised on another holiday, there was an overwhelming sense that it was going to be OK.

It was better than OK - work worries were forgotten, we ate, drank and were merry, like all good holidays there was "the incident" (in this case, my sense-of-humour failure after a misreading of Google Maps in the rain in the Lake District), we saw new places and revisited old favourites. When we crossed the border, we had to pre-book our pool time in Peebles, which does kill the spontaneous swim, but we had lovely weather, which is always a bonus on any trip to Scotland. The big coats, packed pessimistically, remained unworn on the back seat of the car.

Of course, no matter where I go, I can't quite divorce myself from politics. After all, I am the nerd who went to Cyprus on holiday and wrote about the tragedy of the abandoned resort of Famagusta, and went to Menorca and ended up writing about feelings of solidarity with the Talayotic people who lived on the Spanish island from about 1400BC until AD1287. 

And so it came to pass that on last week's UK holiday, we could not be unaware of government's ongoing cack-handedness with the coronavirus pandemic. Whether it was loving how the wearing of a mask improved the olfactory experience of using public toilets or wondering how necessary masks were while aboard a boat that was open to the wet and wild elements on our one day of shitty weather, we were conscious of the virus. 

On the way back to London, we stayed with the in-laws in the north-east for a few days, just as the region went back into a partial lockdown - the chat as I got my hair done for a considerably cheaper price than in the capital was of confusion over the latest restrictions, in between utter disdain for Donald Trump ("He's out of his box!") and sympathy for "lovely" Keir Starmer having to self-isolate. North-eastern salon banter never fails to surprise, amuse and delight in equal measure.

In Scotland, we noted the contrast between Peebles and Jedburgh. Peebles was lively, shops were open and busy, there was an air of prosperity, a sense that this historic town was going to be OK no matter what an uncertain future might hold. But Jedburgh, equally bursting with fascinating history and general prettiness, was ultimately a depressing lunch stop - it was hard to find an open cafe for lunch, barely any shops were open, pubs were boarded up, there was neither hustle nor bustle. 

Both towns, along with plenty of places where we stopped in Cumbria, had plenty of signs indicating funding from the European Regional Development Fund - a source of valuable income that has now dried up. These funds are unlikely to be easily replaced, especially as the government's absurd or corrupt attempts to prevent pandemic-related economic disaster drain money away from everything from funding tourism promotion to ensuring the decrepit but clearly once brutally beautiful lido at Grange-over-Sands is properly restored any time soon.

But while I may still be angry about the sorry state of British politics, my anger is tempered with a renewed love for my adopted country and the many lovely people we met along the way. I have a desire for the UK to be the best it can be be - and one thing I do know is that it deserves better than either the elected and utterly risible Johnson government or the hypothetical Corbyn government that was never going to happen because, like it or not, he was never going to resonate with large swathes of voters across the places I visited and revisited on what was a truly wonderful holiday.   

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Toppling Edward Colston was important and right

Two of the most useful things I studied at university were statistics and a history elective called "Public History". As the name suggests, it was all about how history is presented to the public, including statues. We studied the reasons why statues were erected, what statues are meant to achieve and how old statues stand in a modern context.

Statues are almost always erected as an act of celebration, to honour and remember people considered to have achieved great things. When we erect a statue of someone, we are literally putting them on a pedestal, we are forced to look up to them, whether we want to or not. When a statue is torn down, it is usually an event fuelled by anger, by the need to triumph over whatever it was that the statue stood for. 

In the case of Edward Colston, it stood for celebrating a man who trafficked human beings.

Between 1680 and 1692, it is estimated his company transported 84,000 men, women and children. But his apologists will claim that his statue was for his charitable work, so that somehow makes a man who treated the equivalent of almost the entire population of Bath as chattel a perfectly acceptable guy to cast in bronze for all the world to see. 

But even his charitable work was unsavoury. While there is nothing to be gained by closing down the schools he helped found, it is important to recognise that at the time, his philanthropy was tainted by his own High Church Anglican religious bigotry. He insisted that children of Dissenters be refused admission. Dissenters were the protestants who separated from the Church of England during the 17th and 18th centuries, including Quakers. The school rules included the expulsion of any boy who had been caught attending a church service outside the Church of England. Boys became apprentices upon graduation but could not be apprentices to Dissenters.

By the time his statue was erected in 1895, the act which abolished slavery in Britain had been in force for 61 years. This makes the morally lazy argument that we can't judge an old statue on modern values ridiculous.  

The other pathetic argument for leaving Colston on his plinth was that the statue should be removed by "democratic processes". Oh please. Sit down. Since the 1990s, there have been peaceful, polite campaigns to remove the statue. But, as Professor Kate Williams pointed out in a brilliant Twitter thread, plans in 2018 to put up a plaque to put Colston into historical context hit brick walls when some councillors objected to the wording and Bristol's Society of Merchant Venturers got involved because they didn't want any mention of the 12,000 trafficked children or the selective nature of his philanthropy. Pulling the statue down and throwing it in the river has been a bold, powerful, important statement. Sometimes being polite is a waste of time.  

But merely pulling down statues will not end racism in the UK any more than having two female prime ministers has ended sexism. Shadow justice secretary David Lammy suggested that these sort of statues should be in museums where the historical context can be discussed, where they will actually become a means of education rather than something for people to walk past and pigeons to shit on. Very few people ever learn anything particularly profound from a statue and they are not usually erected for pedagogical purposes. The notion that statues of racists need to stay put to educate people on racism is embarrassing.

And that brings me to my other useful university subject - that of statistics. When we look at racial inequality, the criminal justice system is quickly placed under the spotlight. By the government's own statistics, black people are stopped and searched way more often than white people - the rate for the whole population is seven in 1,000 people are stopped and searched but for black people, this is 38 per 1,000. For white people, the figure is four per 1,000. Last year, 27% of the prison population identified as an ethnic minority compared to 13% of the overall population. Before a case even gets to court, black men are 26% more likely to be remanded in custody at the Crown Court than white men. Once in front of the beak, black men are 53% more likely than white men to be sentenced to prison for an indictable offence.

Crucially, according to a 2017 Ministry of Justice review, young black people are nine times more likely to be locked up than young white people. That means that for first offences, young black people are ending up behind bars more often than young white people - and this is where the cycle of crime so often starts, with a focus on retribution rather than rehabilitation.

Simple changes such as only locking up first-time offenders for serious violent crimes, such as rape, murder and armed robbery, could help, along with eliminating custodial sentences for non-violent crimes. The money saved on keeping people of all skin colours in overcrowded prisons, which are not conducive to rehabilitation, could be invested into education, training and counselling for young and first-time offenders. The "broken window" policy of cracking down hard on first offences, no matter how minor, does not work.

Class plays a role in disadvantage too. It is naive and simplistic to think that Malia and Sasha Obama are not privileged while declaring a young white man on a council estate born into multi-generational unemployment is a shining example of white privilege. There are intersections when it comes to who holds the aces in the game of life, who will be able to reach their potential and who will fall by the wayside. But being born with black skin is still a lightning rod for prejudice on sight, for attracting the attention of police when you're minding your own business, for fearing being pulled over for a minor traffic offence, and being a target of hate. 

Policies which encourage investment in high quality comprehensive education so that "rough schools" are not permanently accepted as being rough because that's just the way it is will help the white kids who are disadvantaged as well as the black kids. The same goes for investing in high quality, affordable social housing, ensuring equitable access to healthcare and allowing greater access to higher education. And so and so forth - the policies that will help black people help society as a whole. Why would anyone object?

And while we're at it, Priti Patel could easily put an end to all Windrush deportations and ensure that every family affected receives compensation.

Pulling down the vile Edward Colston was an important moment in history, along with the powerful image of a black woman taking her place on his empty plinth to address the crowd with a megaphone, but even if every statue of every slave trader is rightly removed, there is still so much that needs to be done to improve the awful statistics.

Image credit: Prachatai/Flickr

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Moving on from Cummings going to Durham with the Dompologists

The Dompologists came out in force as soon as their hero was busted. Apparently, Dominic Cummings going to work on what should have been his first day at home for a 14-day quarantine; driving 260 miles non-stop to Durham with a child in the car while he and his wife were both possibly contagious so they could be near the person who was their only childcare option; the person who was the only childcare option apparently incapable of travelling alone to London if required; being tragically unable to ask a single friend or family member in London to drop off groceries or medication during quarantine; being unable to pay for a grocery or medication delivery service despite having a pretty good combined household income; driving his child to hospital in Durham with his wife while still possibly contagious; driving to Barnard Castle on his wife's birthday with his wife and child in the car on a 60-mile round trip to test his eyesight; not sharing the drive home with his wife even though she can drive; his wife writing a column for the Spectator about life in lockdown which omitted the salient fact that they'd buggered off to Durham; testing the capacity of a Range Rover petrol tank to its absolute running-on-fumes limits; being the parents of a four-year-old with a cast iron bladder; and retrospectively editing a blog post in April 2020 to give the impression that he warned everyone about the coronavirus last year - all mean that he didn't break any of the rules he helped to set and therefore he shouldn't resign.

Instead, a pathetic rebranding of Dominic Cummings, father of the year, erupted. It was quickly pointed out that the whole "he did what any good dad would do" line insulted everyone, especially those struggling to juggle kids and work, and all who had followed the rules since March.

So, the Dompologists started yelling: "LET'S MOVE ON AND TALK ABOUT THE IMPORTANT ISSUES!".

OK. Sure. Fine by me. Let's talk about the important issues. How about we start with childcare? Seriously, I've never heard so many people who have never previously breathed a word about childcare talk so much about childcare when they leapt to Cummings' defence.

Let's talk about childcare not just for now - although that is important - but for the long-term. What can we do about (mostly) women giving up careers because childcare costs meant they were literally paying to go to work? What about incentivising employers to subsidise childcare, offer more flexible hours or working-from-home opportunities to help families? Hell, if anything good can come of this wretched virus, it might be the penny dropping for presenteeism-obsessed employers in regard to trusting staff to work from home. At the same time, though, how about recognising the need for people who work from home to have access to childcare? And what about affordable, high-quality childcare for people on low incomes? Maybe some of the Conservative MPs who smashed the red wall could raise this issue on behalf of their working class constituents?

Perhaps the craven cabinet ministers who all spinelessly tweeted embarrassing boilerplate nonsense about Cummings being a plucky little battler who was struggling with childcare could show the same concern for families up and down the country? I could introduce them to someone I know, a single father raising a severely disabled teenaged daughter while working from home. I'm sure that meeting would prove very instructive for the government front bench.

And let's talk about how shamefully outrageous the Downing Street rose garden press conference was. Why was an unelected adviser allowed to use that particular space to defend himself on live TV?

But more importantly, if the Dompologists want to talk about the big issues of the day, let's talk about how Cummings' defence blew wide open the rifts among Brexiters, and how it became painfully clear that the main reason Boris Johnson hasn't sacked him is because he is too scared to try and be prime minister without his trusty adviser.

Cummings came across as being puffed up with his own self-importance during his rose garden statement but he had a point - to Boris Johnson, he is important. Cummings was quite right to talk up his importance to the running of the country - this is the pedestal on which Johnson placed him and now he's incapable of taking him down.

We have a prime minister who is self-serving, unpleasant, cowardly, bullying and lazy. This PM gig has not panned out like he thought it would when it competed for top billing in his masturbatory fantasies at Eton. As a result, he relies heavily on Cummings, having been way too impressed by the effectiveness of the "Take back control" slogan of the Brexit campaign.

Since then, Classic Dom's simplistic slogans have been the order of the day. To be fair, "Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives" was clear and effective. It was an instruction the Cummings himself found impossible to follow but it made sense. Now we have the shitshow of "Stay alert" with a government rushing to ease lockdown rules because public trust has eroded. It seems the government has figured everyone is just going to flock to the nearest park or beach anyway. Bizarre rules about allowing six people in your garden as long as nobody sits on the sunlounger or uses the toilet abound. We're being warned not to have sex with anyone outside our own households but we can let the cleaner, nanny or estate agent in, if required.

Today, we witnessed the Rees-Mogg-inspired farce of MPs queueing in a ridiculous conga line to vote in parliament, along with a drive to force all 650 MPs back into the House of Commons before it's safe to do so, all because the PM is useless without his braying fan club behind him. The pared-back parliament with limited numbers in the house and questions by Zoom exposes Johnson as an incompetent blatherer, a desperate haystack of a man, obviously out of his depth, reaching for Latin Christmas cracker jokes when he has no answers.

Dominic Cummings isn't urging the PM to take a step back and look at this mess with a cool head. He's probably delighted with the chaos - after all, we are edging towards his libertarian wet dream where everyone does the hell they want so they can all be blamed when there's a second spike in COVID-19 cases. And he is happy to continue to lead Boris Johnson down this pitiful path, regardless of whose lives it might cost, along with leading us over an irresponsible no-deal Brexit cliff for good measure. One unelected man has way too much power. That is what has emerged from the scandal over the drive to Durham. That is what is so outrageous and that is why we should stay angry.

Photo: Ninian Reid/Flickr

Monday, 11 May 2020

Alert or alarmed? Conservative communication at its worst

As soon as Boris Johnson pivoted from "Stay home" to "Stay alert", I had flashbacks to Australia circa 2002. The John Howard government, in all its wisdom, spewed forth the slogan "Be alert, not alarmed" in regard to being vigilant about terrorism. 

Of course, by this stage, plenty of people were alarmed about the threat of terrorism in a post-9/11 world and it was never entirely clear what "be alert" meant apart from maybe going above and beyond the usual neighbourhood watch curtain-twitching if you suspected someone might be plotting a terror attack. Alertness didn't stop four young Australians getting killed in 2005 when they were enjoying a night out in Bali, nor did it stop the 2014 siege at the Lindt Cafe in Sydney's Martin Place, in which 18 people were taken hostage and three people were shot dead. 

Should the people who went out for a night on the razz in Bali or the people who were going about their business, meeting friends or colleagues for coffee in Martin Place have been more alert? Of course not because it's is a load of victim-blaming nonsense.

That's the problem with telling people to "stay alert" - at what point does alertness give way to ridiculous paranoia? And how meaningful is advice to stay alert? 

Staying alert is reasonably sound life advice in that it's smart to be aware of one's surroundings, pay attention while driving or keep an eye on the kids when they're swimming in the sea, but how does it apply to a virus that is invisible but deadly? It won't jump you from behind and nick your wallet, despite Boris Johnson's crap mugger analogy after he emerged from hospital like scruffy Jesus. It won't cut you off like Prince Phillip when you have right of way at a T-junction. It won't drag the kids underwater like a freak wave at Tenerife.

In any case, we are already alert. 

For weeks now, people have been rolling their eyes, tutting or yelling at people who don't respect social distancing on footpaths or can't follow simple one-way systems in supermarket aisles. Hell, some people are reporting their neighbours to the police, be it for non-crimes, such as sitting in the sun for a bit, or genuinely dangerous petri dish situations, such as having a load of mates over for a party.

And people were alert enough to avoid public transport unless absolutely essential until this morning. 

Boris Johnson's new "Stay alert - Control the virus - Save lives" message was coupled with a pre-recorded address to the nation last night which avoided the scrutiny of parliament. The advice seems to be to go back to work if you can't work from home, unless you work in a pub, restaurant, barbershop, hairdressing salon or beauty salon; try to walk, cycle or drive to work if you can; and only take public transport if there is no other option. But this was issued at 7pm on a Sunday night, without the accompanying 60-page guidance document, and without any real advice to employers to make sure the workplace is safe before calling people back to work. 

The overwhelming message that cut through was "Shit! I think I have to go to work tomorrow!", probably followed by assorted panics, such as "Shit! Childcare!" and "Shit! I can't get to work unless I take the tube!".

Cue packed tubes in London this morning as people were either called into work by unscrupulous employers who couldn't possibly have done all the due diligence required to make workplaces safe between 7pm last night and 9am this morning, or people who saw the message from the prime minister as a non-negotiable order to get back to work ASAP. For many of these people, it was a decision that was based on fear of unemployment, even if it put their health at risk - and not everyone who went back to work today would have been empowered to walk off the job if they didn't feel safe. 

A construction site worker on a zero-hours contract is not going to be in the same position of power and self-determination as someone who can merrily keep working from the comfort of home. This virus is not the great leveller some say it is.

The poor messaging from a table-thumping Boris Johnson last night was compounded by a hapless Dominic Raab this morning who stammered his way through an interview with the excellent Michal Husain, admitting that maybe it would be better to wait until at least Wednesday to go back to work and, at the same time, refusing to come out and say that workers who don't feel safe should be able to walk off the job without fear. He expressed a faith in the willingness of employers to do the right thing that was, at best, cute and naive and, at worst, a reckless, irresponsible means of washing the government's hands of a likely second spike in virus cases.

It's so easy for people to claim the government's messaging was perfectly clear when they have the luxury of working from home. It's so easy to accuse people of not knowing what the word "alert" means. It's so easy to set the bar so low for this government, even though they have a well-paid communications team at their disposal.

And it's so easy for the latest example of poor communication from this government to be misunderstood - or understood and followed because there was no choice to do otherwise - possibly with the worst possible consequences.

Photography by Circe Denyer

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Of course COVID-19 is political

The COVID-19 pandemic should not be an excuse to score cheap political points. It is not an excuse to wish death on politicians and their loved ones like a psychopath. It is not the time for ridiculous, batshit conspiracy theories about 5G causing the pandemic. It is not the time for anti-vaxx pedlars of death and disease to spout ignorant, science-denying twaddle. And it is certainly not a time to become a racist bellend. But it is political. It is naive to think otherwise. 

Countries across the world are relying on their governments for leadership, to figure out the best way to manage this terrible virus, to support healthcare systems, to know what the hell individuals can do to stop the disease spreading, to ensure the scientists working on a vaccine and a cure have everything they need, to work out what role charities and the private sector should take, and so on.

This means, obviously, politicians everywhere are making decisions - and it is naive to expect that certain decisions won't be politically motivated rather than for the greater good. In every democracy, this means they should be held to account - every decision that our leaders make affects our health and our wealth. We all have a huge stake in this. And in every country that is not a democracy, this should be the catalyst for increased transparency and public participation as a positive after-effect of the pandemic - after all, if you think the official mortality figures coming out of China or Iran are accurate, I have some magic beans and a time share in Narnia to sell you. Then again, the UK isn't bothering to include care home deaths in official stats so we still need to lift our game in terms of accuracy and transparency.  

In no country should COVID-19 be a time for cultish, blind loyalty to any leader of any political stripe. I'm glad Boris Johnson didn't die of COVID-19. And I'm glad Carrie Symonds, his pregnant fiancee, is doing well. Hell, I'm glad that he is recovering for a few weeks rather than working because that is what every coronavirus patient should be doing after they leave hospital. I am also glad that the attempt to stir up a national round of applause for the prime minister's recovery was a massive damp squib. A nationwide chorus of clapping and pot-banging for one man would have been embarrassing, unnecessary and definitely cultish.

And while Johnson may now join the immune herd for COVID-19, he is not and should not be immune to criticism or scrutiny - and neither should the hapless cavalcade of assorted incompetents, yes-men and women, charisma-vacuums, intellectual lightweights and slippery moral bankrupts who are filling in for the PM at the daily briefings.

It is clear that political decisions have been made which are not necessarily in our best interests, such as declining an invitation to join a European Commission-funded scheme to stockpile essential medical equipment, to have constantly dropped pandemic planning from the agenda since 2016, and for Boris Johnson to have found better uses for his time, such as meeting a dancing dragon for Chinese New Year instead of attending a COBRA meeting - or indeed attending five COBRA meetings on COVID-19.

At a time when we should be re-evaluating our relationship with China on multiple levels, including taking a stand on human rights and animal welfare issues and getting over our reliance on cheap goods often manufactured to low standards and in awful working conditions, the photograph of Boris Johnson gurning gormlessly at the dragon is not ageing well.

Yes, it's true that the relevant cabinet minister chairs COBRA meetings but given these meetings were about a global pandemic, it is negligent at worst and lazy at best for Johnson to simply not bother with these ones. Imagine the outcry in an alternative universe if Prime Minister Corbyn missed five COBRA meetings because he was pottering about on his allotment or attending a Venezuelan solidarity Zoom meeting. The very same people who are demanding we leave poor little Boris alone would be foaming at the mouth at the very thought of Corbyn neglecting his duty so comprehensively. Hell, imagine any prime minister in living memory missing such meetings.

In January, when PPE supply chains should have been bolstered and early scientific advice heeded, Boris Johnson was distracted by January 31's Brexit day brouhaha, something which at the time he thought was going to be his greatest triumph, his most memorable speech, the iconic photograph for the history books - but now it seems like a lifetime ago. That was a political decision as well as a negligent one.

To those who are upset about the much-villified "mainstream media" going over past decisions of recent months, please try to comprehend that it is important to flag up the mistakes that have been made. If only we had a leader who could graciously admit to and apologise for mistakes in the way that Emmanuel Macron did - that would be a good first step on the road to accountability and to quickly learning from mistakes which have surely cost lives. There will almost certainly be some sort of inquiry further down the track as to how the government handled the pandemic, when lockdown restrictions have been lifted or at least relaxed. But for now, we need decisive action from accountable leaders who are prepared to admit to errors and work their arses off to fix them.

Getting upset because The Sunday Times and Reuters have pointed out these failings in great detail is absolutely pathetic behaviour. Michael Gove was on brand on Marr this morning when he admitted Johnson didn't attend five COBRA meetings but gave the mealy-mouthed excuse that cabinet ministers chair such meetings, while simultaneously making a dig at journalists, a more articulate but equally venal version of Donald Trump's constant whines of "fake news". This was political manouevring on Gove's part - he appeared to be Johnson's loyal footsoldier but his defence of Johnson missing meetings would collapse in a light breeze and he knows it. He is not an idiot. Gove, ably assisted by his wife, Sarah Vine, a Poundland Lady Macbeth, would most likely be delighted if the pandemic cost Johnson his job. Again, let's not be naive here.

The next political decision to watch is in regard to an extension to Brexit negotiations, which has a deadline of June 30. The government is adamant that the UK won't ask for an extension but they may be left with little choice if the EU decides it has bigger virus-shaped fish to fry for the rest of the year. The British economy can recover from COVID-19 or it can recover from a no-deal Brexit after December 31 this year, but to try and get through both economic and social shocks, most likely concurrently, will be wantonly destructive. We have no choice but to deal with COVID-19 but we do have a choice about taking a more responsible approach to Brexit. Either way, it's a political choice and it will affect us for years to come.

Image: Mikhail Denishchenko