Is Boris Johnson a murderer?

Murder is generally regarded as just about the most heinous of crimes in just about every society on Earth. As such, it is an accusation not to be bandied around lightly. That is the power of words at times. ‘Killing people’, on the other hand, seems far more acceptable term as both an action and as an accusation. It’s obviously not nice, but its kinda unavoidable at times and therefore forgivable it seems.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 23.16.08Thus, Tory policies that we know have killed somewhere in the region of 120,000 poor and vulnerable people over the last 10 years or so seem to trouble relatively few people. The direct cause and effect is not blatantly clear or visible enough, and even if it were, austerity was accepted as a necessary evil for the sake of ‘the economy’ i.e. the wealth of the middle classes and above. It could be argued that the Government’s goal was not to kill off those 120,000 people, but that it was simply acceptable collateral damage, as the alternative was deemed unacceptable i.e. that the middle classes and above actually be made to suffer for the economic catastrophe they created through their reckless financial practices. We all know this has happened, but many are happy to accept it and still vote the perpetrators back into Government.Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 23.35.16

So is the Government’s handling of this Covid-19 pandemic any different? Maybe not, until this juncture.

We all know that a Tory government cares more about protecting wealth than about protecting people. That they were openly and casually talking about ‘herd immunity’ initially and not wanting to impose restrictions until the ‘right time’ (i.e. the last possible moment to avert total catastrophe) can be of no real surprise and, indeed, people were quite happy to ‘clap for Boris’ when he fecklessly got himself infected. Once the horse had bolted, and it became clear the extent to which it could run amok, the stable door was shut, or at least pushed to, as bodies piled in the street is not a good look for any Government.

To be fair, this was a ‘novel’ virus that sounded a bit like another form of ‘flu initially. We happily see several thousand people die from influenza every year, so what was the big deal? Well, despite the usual band of truth deniers and conspiracy crackpots, we now have a handle on the nature of the threat and challenge this virus poses. Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.15.51Other countries were all over it from the off and have relatively modest death tolls, but they had voted in caring, intelligent, cautious people (especially women) to lead their Governments. We made a very different choice last December. We chose Boris Johnson to ‘get Brexit done’, and nobody could know that this would lumber us with exactly the wrong type of person in the hot seat during the worst health crisis for 100 years. It was just our bad luck. Suck it up Britain!

 

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 21.57.24So, as I write, we have little choice but to accept that, instead of the 5 to 6,000 deaths that may well have been unavoidable (even though some countries experiences suggest as few as 5 to 600 was actually possible), the current toll of 55,000 to 60,000 (to use the widely accepted estimates from people like the ONS, rather than the 34,000 declared by Government to date) represents something in the region of 50,000 deaths (and counting) that we could realistically call ‘involuntary manslaughter’.

‘Involuntary manslaughter’ is when someone accidentally kills someone while pursuing a course of action (or inaction) that had no intention of killing anyone. I actually think I am being very generous to Boris Johnson, and his partner in crime, Dominic Cummings, in accepting that they never intended to kill anyone, despite comments made on record. Intent is always tough to prove.

The actions and core messaging of the Government until this week have, at the very least, given a credible illusion that they have wanted to keep us safe from harm (STAY HOME), and to ensure (despite the legacy of previous Tory governments) that the NHS would not be overwhelmed (PROTECT THE NHS) and thereby avoid some of the 500,000 deaths that doing nothing at all could have led to (SAVE LIVES).

The cynics amongst us would still point to Johnson’s ‘take it on the chin’ nonsense, and Cummings acknowledging that many old people were going to die, and say that their policy stance from the outset had murderous overtones. Knowing the consequences surely has to be as good as intent; and the motive of driving down the pension and welfare bill is surely clear enough in most Tory policy of the past few decades. But I am prepared to accept that it may be hard to make this stick in court.

But where does this leave us now?

Firstly, let’s be clear, we now know a lot more about the nature of this invisible killer amongst us. What we do not know is its prevalence amongst us. Due to the fact that many people carrying it are completely asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, and due to the woefully inadequate testing procedures we have to cope with the scale of the problem that we have allowed to evolve, we are in no position to successfully implement a test/track/trace/isolate policy that is the only way to defeat this virus without a vaccine. The other route is to let it run through the ‘herd’ and for us all to ‘take it on the chin’. This doesn’t defeat the virus; it gives in to the virus and it will then become part of the regular viral threats like influenza, but with very uncertain implications from this.

We also have learned a lot more about who is most vulnerable to it; the make up of the 3.4% of those known too be infected (through testing) that will die from it. Although it can kill indiscriminately, there are certain demographics that we now know are particularly vulnerable, even if we don’t fully understand why just yet. From the outset, it was clear that the there are a wide range of underlying conditions that make people particularly vulnerable. In fact anybody that is not in robust health is evidently going to struggle to fight it off. This brings the older generations, especially those beyond 70 years into the vulnerable category, as even those in rude health will invariably have less than optimum immune systems and less power of recovery. We then see that, not surprisingly, the so-called ‘key workers’ that work in public facing roles such health care, retail and public transport (especially buses) are falling victim in disproportionately high numbers because they have effectively been forced into greater contact with the virus. That people in black and ethnic minority categories are a disproportionately large part of the workforces in the ‘key worker’ sectors probably goes a long way to explaining the higher death rate in these communities (but more research is needed here urgently).

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Cummings and Johnson behind bars, where they belong.

It will not have escaped Johnson and Cummings attention that these groups of people, and their wider families and communities in which they live, comprise the the poorest segments of our society. Those in work often struggle to make ends meet and have to rely on benefits of one sort or another, be it working tax credits or the ever-diminishing range of other benefits. The elderly, the sick and the disabled are also huge drains on public finance too. All of this will be very clear in the minds of Tory ministers and MPs that went over it with a fine tooth comb in oder to prune and lop off big chunks during the austerity years (that have never really ended, despite May’s claims otherwise, not actually that long ago). Having pruned it down to, and indeed into the bones already, how else can the frightful costs be reduced? Do we have the sense of a motive forming here?

We also have learned very recently that even countries that got on top of the problem quickly, through test/track/trace/isolate from the outset, release their lockdown strategy too quickly at their peril. Witness Germany. They are, however, in a good position to get back on top of it again. What their experience shows is that releasing lockdown when R0 is at 0.7, or thereabouts, is not really sensible, even if it is theoretically doable. And yet we are pressing ahead with lockdown release when we are being given vague estimates of R0 being somewhere between 0.5 and 0.9.

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Covid-19 pandemic in New Zealand

 

Given the vastly greater numbers of cases, the inadequacy of our testing capacity to cope with these numbers and a similar inability to scale up contact tracing to the necessary level, it is impossible to believe that Boris is not fully aware that he is triggering a significant second wave of infections and deaths. Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.35.11Countries like New Zealand and Greece and a few others got all over the virus with testing/track/trace/isolate at the outset so that things never got unmanageable and the virus could effectively be squeezed out of existence in those countries. This ship sailed months ago from the UK. From where we now find ourselves, it is completely impractical to pursue such a policy to a point of eliminating the virus. The resources needed, in terms of testing capacity and the labour needed to investigate and successfully track and trace all contacts of the infected is immense. The agenda behind the implementation of this strategy is still what is was in March; trying to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by the wave; not minimising the death toll. There is no suggestion of disbanding the ’Nightingale Hospitals’, despite them not really being needed at all to date, because their time is likely to still come!

The only way to minimise the death toll from here is to lockdown hard until a vaccination is available. That could be a long wait. So Boris has clearly decided that the initial ‘herd immunity’ approach is the way to go, irrespective of the final death toll. That will require around 70% of the population to contract the virus (that is about 50m people in the UK). With global data suggesting a true death rate of about 0.5 to 1.0%, even at the lower end of the range, this means the likely death toll from Boris’s deliberate decisions could end up at around 250,000, with the 500,000 that Prof Neil Ferguson warned of in March still a possibility. This is why there is no suggestion of disbanding the ’Nightingale Hospitals’, despite them not really being needed at all to date, because their time is likely to still come!

The government’s changed messaging gives further evidence of their thinking as they try to bring us out of lockdown. At first glance, the new core messaging of STAY ALERT, CONTROL THE VIRUS, SAVE LIVES struck me a piss poor and amateurish. But this Government is usually very astute with its messaging and propaganda, so what are they trying to achieve here?Screenshot 2020-05-10 at 16.50.04The first thing to note is that the red flashing around the messaging has been changed to green. This is very basic messaging; red = stop/danger, green = go/safe. Then we have the bizarre sounding STAY ALERT. To most people this means be on your toes, wake up and be ready to react. How’s this relevant to an invisible assailant that takes a couple of weeks to let its presence in your body be known? When asked, ministers trotted out the prepared line that ’stay alert’ in this context means stay at home unless you can’t work from home, keep washing your hands and maintain safe distancing (I hate that phrase “social distancing”). This is patently NOT about staying alert; it is about staying safe. But they don’t say STAY SAFE because they’ve had enough of that now. They want you energised and back to work now, hence the energising phrase STAY ALERT.

Then we have CONTROL THE VIRUS; an instruction to us all. But how do we do that? We don’t even know where it is. The key word here is ‘control’. They are trying to suggest that there is some control over the virus; that the Government is in control. But in putting it into this instruction they are putting the onus on us to control the virus. When it goes wrong (‘if’ is too optimistic), then it will be because we, the public, lost control. Yep, it’ll be our fault when the NHS is swamped by a second wave and this Nightingale Hospitals come into play. I hope they are bracing themselves!

As for SAVE LIVES, that would be far too brazen to ditch, given that opinion polls still consistently showing the public would prefer to save lives ahead of saving the economy. They’ll keep saying it even though they didn’t really mean initially and certainly don’t mean it now.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.37.15Now is the time to remind ourselves of the definition of murder as used in the UK judicial system. I am using the Crown Prosecution Service website for this section.

The crime of murder is committed, where a person:

  • Of sound mind and discretion (i.e. sane);
  • unlawfully kills (i.e. not self-defence or other justified killing);
  • any human being;
  • in being (born alive and breathing through its own lungs – Rance v Mid-Downs Health Authority (1991) 1 All ER 801 and AG Ref No 3 of 1994 (1997) 3 All ER 936;
  • under the Queen’s Peace (not in war-time);
  • with intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH).

The intent for murder is an intention to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH). Foresight is no more than evidence from which the jury may draw the inference of intent, c.f. R v Woollin [1999] 1 Cr App R 8 (HOL). The necessary intention exists if the defendant feels sure that death, or serious bodily harm, is a virtual certainty as a result of the defendant’s actions and that the defendant appreciated that this was the case – R v Matthews (Darren John) [2003] EWCA Crim 192.

The last sentence surely nails it. Releasing the lockdown at this point, with the current state of knowledge, makes it an absolute certainty that additional deaths will be caused. He knows it full well, just like everybody else knows it full well. Plenty of people have told him as much.

Scientists at University College London (UCL) have estimated that there could be anything between 37,000 and 73,000 more within the space of a year depending on how restrictions are lifted.

“On our current path we seem destined for a disastrous ending. Lifting lockdown without the public health infrastructure in place to contain the virus will allow Covid-19 to spread through the population unchecked. The result could be a Darwinian culling of the elderly and vulnerable, and an individual gamble for those exposed to the virus. This should be avoided at all costs.” Devi Sridhar is chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh

The First Ministers of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are having none of it. They are clearly not convinced by Johnson’s position and disinclined to murder their old and vulnerable citizens. Not before time, they are distancing themselves from this narcissistic sociopath.

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From Elvis Costello’s “Let Him Dangle” (click). The irony is that it is murderous Tories that love the death penalty.

Given his track record, the evidence and the legal definition of murder in this country, I seriously believe that such a prosecution of Boris Johnson is entirely merited. Derek Bentley was not only convicted, but allowed to dangle on a jury’s interpretation of the the words “Let him have it”. There is nowhere near as much ambiguity in Johnson’s words and actions. Surely he ought to go before a judge and jury, as a matter of urgent public interest, before countless thousands of additional needless deaths are added to his charge sheet.

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V.E. Day, 8th May 1945 – 18 yrs old and a long way from home

As the UK embarks on a slightly surreal ‘coronavirus’ bank holiday weekend to mark the 75th Anniversary of the formal declaration of the end of the war in Europe, I find myself in a bit of a swirl of mixed emotions. Yes, of course, the end of a horrendous war needs celebrating and, yes, we need to keep remembering what it was all about, for fear of it happening again. But this is where we start to lose the plot a bit, in my opinion.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 13.28.06The sight of red, white and blue bunting and union jacks going up, and talk of abandoned street parties (due to covid-19), smack of misplaced British triumphalism and exceptionalism that deny the fact that the only indisputable reason we were the only European country to completely resist invasion by the Nazis (if you give up the Channel Islands), was not because of any exceptional military might, or brilliant generals, or plucky British spirit, but because of the simple geographical accident of being an island. Without being bailed out by our American ‘cousins’ even that would probably not have been enough.

Thus, our perspective on what VE Day means is somewhat different, I’d say warped, compared to that of most of the rest of Europe. For this reason, I want to mark this anniversary in a very personal way and share the story of how an 18 year lad from a small town in Poland found himself, more than a thousand miles from home, in the safe haven of the city of Glasgow on V.E. Day.

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Jerzy is the small boy nearest the dog, Siva. His father is standing to the right of Siva. c.1933.

Jerzy Severyn Chyba was born on 29th November 1926 in Krotoszyn, a small agricultural town of about 25,000 people, about 100 miles from the German border. He was the middle child of seven, having 4 brothers and 2 sisters.

Jerzy was still shy of his 13th birthday on 1st September 1939, when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The German Army swept to the outskirts of Krotoszyn County on day one of the invasion. On 2nd September, a train carrying over three hundred fleeing citizens of the town was bombed and all were killed. The Chyba family were sitting tight, and there was little resistance as the Nazis swept in to take full control of the town on 4th September.

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Krotoszyn as it is today.

The eldest brother fled town to join the military resistance, at the cost of his life at some point, but the rest of the family settled to some sort of routine under German occupation. Jerzy’s father, Severyn, was a ‘key worker’, becoming a manager of the water supply and sewerage system in the town, with the family wheelwright business in the hands of younger men.

At some point in the spring of 1941, the Nazis swept through the town rounding up young men for forced labour. Somehow, at the age of just 14, Jerzy was included in this group and was among the youngest, if not the youngest of the group. He wasn’t even particularly big or strong for his age, but was, by all accounts, energetic and full of mischief. This clearly did him no favours. He was not to see Krotoszyn again for about 25 years.

He had never been far outside of Krotoszyn in his life up until this point, so his hazy awareness of where they were taken is understandable. They were carted off in the back of trucks for an uncomfortable drive, for a few hours, to work initially on railway lines. Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 13.35.12Given the timing and the geographical range, this was almost certainly work on the train lines into Auschwitz.

The network of ‘death’ trains from the whole of north-west Europe (northern Germany, Benelux countries, Scandinavia via ships to Rostok) and the whole of France, all fed down to Breslau (now known as Wrocław). A single route then went from Breslau to Auschwitz (as the Germans renamed the Polish town of Oświęcim). This section certainly needed considerable upgrading and links building. Wrocław is about 50 miles south of Krotoszyn, and Wrocław to Oświęcim is about 140 miles. This work was completed in order to facilitate the first mass transit of Jews to Auschwitz in January 1942.

Jerzy’s story from here gets increasingly sketchy as what, initially, may have seemed quite an adventure, rapidly turned into a living nightmare that took its toll on him physically and mentally. With work on the railways completed by the end of 1941, the forced labour gangs were hauled off to various other activities that appear to have taken Jerzy ever more westwards towards Bavaria. The work included digging ditches in woodlands, which could only really have been for mass graves, and various quarrying and building tasks.

Jerzy consistently found himself as the youngest member of whatever gang he was assigned to, and this probably saved his life, as the older guys took him under their wings a bit and even the guards seemed to take pity on him. Thus, when he finally broke down into something of a gibbering wreck, he wasn’t despatched into a ditch like most that were literally worked into the ground, but somehow found himself in an asylum.

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Irsee Abbey, Bavaria

His memories of this were that the nurses included german-speaking nuns and that there was something ecclesiastical about the ‘hospital’, with very peaceful grounds. Putting these snippets together, my best guess is that he was at Irsee Abbey in Bavaria. A former imperial monastery, after 1849, the buildings served as an asylum and hospital for the mentally ill. Between 1939 and 1945 more than 2,000 patients, both adults and children, were transported by the then regime from Irsee to death camps. Jerzy recovered sufficiently after a few weeks/months here, to be discharged back to a working party. It was the summer of 1944.

Back with a working party, he was, at age 17, still the youngest of the group. This particular party seemed to spend as much time marching country lanes as working sporadically on assorted minor projects. Their accommodation was more often than not locked up into barns for the night. Security wasn’t the tightest and as autumn set in and the weather started to deteriorate, the men plotted to break out and run for it overnight.

This they duly did. Initially there was a small group of them together, 3 or 4 perhaps, but as their escape was noticed and a commotion and gunfire followed, they splintered and never saw each other again.

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Envelope opener made from the knife Jerzy took from the dead German soldier by one of his brothers.

Jerzy just ran and ran until he collapsed, muddied, cut and bruised from stumbling through woods in the dark. He awoke after dawn to find himself near the edge of woodland bordered by grazing land, but with otherwise no idea where he was or which way he should go. He was aware enough to deduce from the sun roughly where west was and decided that was the way to head. This was a life-saving decision.

Several days later he had not seen a soul, giving the occasional farm or hamlet he spotted a wide berth, but was getting increasingly starving. Such was his hunger that at one point he stumbled across a recently deceased sheep and managed to rip out its liver, still slightly warm, to eat raw (which explains his aversion to offal throughout my lifetime). A while after this, he ventured into a bombed out farm to see what he could scavenge. What he found was a dead German soldier. This took a bit of processing, but it clearly suggested some resistance forces, and perhaps some form of sanctuary not too far away. He ’stole’ the soldiers knife and pressed on after resting up awhile.

Near complete exhaustion, and semi-consciously hiding in a ditch somewhere, he was eventually picked up by allied soldiers. Given what is known of the allied advances at this time, I’m guessing this must have been around November time and near the German/French border, not far north of Switzerland. Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 13.47.56He was severely malnourished and pretty much delirious, probably as much from relief as anything else. He found himself passed back through the lines and eventually on a boat. By the time he was fully aware again, he found he was in a convalescent hospital in Glasgow, probably the Glasgow Convalescent Home, used as a military hospital and soldier convalescent home during and immediately after the war, later to become Woodlilee Hospital. He was uncertain as to whether he was there for his birthday, but was there for Christmas in 1944, having just turned 18 years old. The aerial shot shows that it was a majestic complex of buildings, surrounded by fields, just outside the city as it was then. The second shows that there are few building left, with the hospital now gone and the site part of the sprawling suburbs of Glasgow today.

This is where Jerzy still was on V.E. Day itself. The celebrations were enjoyed by one and all, with Jerzy getting used to being called George by the nurses he was now up to flirting with, and a little more. He was to track down and renew his friendship with a couple of these nurses almost 60 years later. It is not inconceivable that he is in this photo, below, somewhere. Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 14.22.43

 

As a postscript, after being discharged from the convalescent home, he joined the Polish Resettlement Corp (PRC) when it was set up in May 1946.

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Jerzy, now George, c. 1946, c.20 yrs old.

The PRC was an organisation formed by the British Government in 1946 as a holding unit for members of the Polish Armed Forces who  did not wish to return to a communist Poland after the end of the War. It was designed to ease their transition from military into civilian life and to keep them under military control until they were fully adjusted to British life. It taught George to drive (pretty badly), for example. This is a picture of him in his PRC uniform.

George was torn as to whether he wanted to return to his family back in Poland. On the one hand he was desperate to see them all again after all he been through, but on the other hand he was being encouraged to stay put in his mother’s letters, as life under Soviet control was still proving very harsh back in Krotoszyn. George had sampled the taste of freedom and some frivolity here in the UK and was happy enough to bide his time.

The Polish Resettlement Corps was being wound down by the end of 1948 and there would have been some pressure on George to make his mind up. Despite the urgings of his mother he secured a ticket for a repatriation ship sailing from Sheerness in Kent, of all places. I can find no record of any such official passages, and I suspect it was a dodgy operation, given that when he missed the boat due to public transport still being a shambles, he found himself stranded in Kent, with no alternative but to look for work and lodgings.

Thus, he ended up working in the Bowaters Paper Mill near Sheerness. Some time later he was transferred to their mill in Gravesend, where he became the room tenant of Mr and Mrs Whiffin and their young son Derek. He spent the rest of his life in Gravesend and Mrs Whiffin became Mrs Chyba in 1959.

I share this with you all as I want to put it down before I start forgetting it, but also feel that it is a story worth reflecting on, on this day in particular. The sense of relief at the end of the war must have been that much greater across the mainland of Europe than it could be have been here. We should not lose sight of that, and this is why I am flying the Polish flag instead of the Union flag (aka ‘butchers apron’) today. The British certainly cannot take the moral high ground when it comes to blood-stained conflict.

Anyway, na zdrowie Jerzy/George Chyba!

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Independence, YES. Nationalism, NO. The problem of “fictive ethnicity”.

As an Englishman, by accident of birth, it often causes raised eyebrows, at the very least, when people find out just how committed I have become to the cause of independence for Wales.

simplistic nationalismThis is in no small part because I have long been a vociferous critic of nationalism. I devoted a small chapter of my 2011 book, The Asylum of the Universe (now out of print), to this perspective, at a time when I was still far from convinced of the case for Welsh independence. I have to admit that this was an intellectual stumbling block to me getting my head around an unambiguous position in favour of independence.

NO to NATIONALISM

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Leanne Wood’s ecosocialist manifesto, 2011.

In my time with the Green Party, and as an ecosocialist, I found myself having large amounts in common with fellow ecosocialists within Plaid Cymru, most notably its leader at the time, Leanne Wood. She and others all took considerable trouble to try and differentiate their form of cuddly ‘civic nationalism’ from the far more distasteful ‘ethnic nationalism’. This was kinda comforting, but doesn’t actually bear too close scrutiny. Only the other day, one of my Yes Cymru colleagues was jesting that I was ok for an Englishman as I have lived here long enough to have drunk enough Welsh water!

Civic v ethnic ppt

Nicked from a school ppt.

For a full exposition of why civic and ethnic nationalisms are false opposites, and actually little more than different conceptions of one ideology and movement, I would encourage the reading of this dissertation, False Opposites in Nationalism: An Examination of the Dichotomy of Civic Nationalism and Ethnic Nationalism in Modern Europe. From its conclusions:

“What these two different conceptions do however provide is different subjective or “ideological bonds” for their members, that provides the glue by which a community of people regard themselves as belonging and sharing a feeling of kinship, solidarity and unity. Citizenship is the key to the bonds within civic nationalisms, and ethnicity within ethnic nationalisms; the cement of civic nationalisms are legal codes and institutions, but within ethnic nationalisms it is customs, myths and symbols.”

The common denominator of the two is the apparatus used to support the ideology. Louis Althusser (French Marxist philosopher who, admittedly, ended up insane) recognised two key categories of this apparatus. On the one hand, we have the “repressive state apparatuses” of the the armed forces and police, which will use coercion where necessary to maintain order and/or repress opposition to the political establishment. And on the other hand, we have the “ideological state apparatuses” of the education system, media, churches and the like, which disseminate ideologies acceptable to the political establishment. Through these apparatuses you are identified as either a member, and incorporated, or an outsider, and ostracised. If you want ‘in’ but don’t share the ideology, Blaise Pascal offered this advice way back in the 16th century:
“Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe”

Whatever the prevailing balance between the expressions of civic and ethnic nationalism, not to mention all the other variants that I have no inclination to explore here, as they all are elements of the same whole, there can be little denying the role of the collective identities of nation and ethnicity in the worst episodes of history.

This is explored by Etienne Balibar ( a student of Althusser) in his influential 1988 essay, The Nation Form: History and Ideology. (Outlined here) He illuminates the common assertion that ethnic and/or cultural homogeneity is not only desirable but a necessary basis for a democratic and harmonious society, with his own concept of “fictive ethnicity. He argues that:

“No nation possesses an ethnic base naturally, but as social formations are nationalised, the populations included within them, divided up among them or dominated by them, are ethnicised.”

Human taxonomyThis is basic anthropology and ancient history. There were once no nations and no borders. Indeed there were once no people, and apart from the points of origin of our species (why stop there? Genus? Family? etc.), well, the point is that who belongs where is ALWAYS subjective and distorted by assertions of the significance of who actually was where at some arbitrary point in history. ‘Fictive ethnicity’ is therefore the idea that all the people who seek to ‘belong’ to the ‘nation’ are required to share certain characteristics, be they biological or cultural. This can be used to assert the distinctiveness of people at different scales: Coity v Wildmill, valleys v the vale, SE Wales v SW Wales, South Wales v North Wales, Wales v England, Britain v Ireland, UK v Europe, Europe v Asia, white people v the rest of the world.Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.05.17

Not all these scales will seem relevant to concepts of nationhood, but they can be. We see supposed ‘nations’ at everything from city state to United States. There are no problems in applying civic nationalism concepts at all these scales. Ethnic nationalists will have greater issues with this notion of nationhood. This can be, and often is, the starting point for fascism.Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 15.03.20

It is a surely a matter of personal choice whether I choose to identify as a Welsh, English, Polish, British or European. Most people would probably concede this. I have lived in Wales for nearly 30 years, was born and bred in England of an English mother and Polish father, who himself had some German ancestry. This would seem to give me some entitlement to that range of identities.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.07.50Strangely though, people start to have issues if I try to claim more than one and I would probably struggle to get away with claiming to be Icelandic, which would be my first choice, or Jamaican, for example, which also has some appeal. Ok, I may be getting a little facile, but my point is a serious one. Does ’national identity’ matter? Should it matter? And why?

I also agree with Balibar in asserting that nationalism, with its systems of inclusions and exclusions, can never fully coincide with national borders. In his 2002 essay “What is a border?”, he points out that borders represent only one part of a complex set of boundaries, shaped by the aspirations, and histories on either side of them. Take a look at the history of the border in Ireland, of Poland, of Monmouthshire, to grasp this point.

It is not only borders that move around, of course. Human populations have always been migratory in nature, going all the way back to our hunter-gatherer roots, with major migrations in response to resource pressures. These pressures still exist, of course, but with the invention of nation-states and borders, it has been like putting a lid on a pressure cooker. The combinations of man-made and natural calamities (oft intertwined) will never cease to crank up these pressures. The result is the ever greater refugee crises we see. The story of these crises always shines a light on the fundamental immorality of nationalism and nationhood.

It has to be recognised that all nationalisms are particular and the enemies they choose vary. Balibar does, however, recognise a competitive mimicry in much of it. Johnson, Farage, Trump, Bolsanoro, et al, all employ similar rhetoric and slogans, targeting locally identifiable scapegoats. But is it fair to label these people as nationalists rather than fascists? It is a fine line at best. Balibar’s contemporary, Alain Badiou expresses well:

“When the state starts being concerned about the legitimacy of people’s identities, it can only mean we are in a period of darkest reaction, as historical experience has shown …. This is because an identity-based definition of the population runs up against the fact that since every population in the world today is composite, heterogenous and multi-faceted, the only reality such a definition will have is a negative one.”

YES to INDEPENDENCE

Thus, I hope I have adequately laid out my position with regards to any form of nationalism. I reject it. So how can I be so committed to the campaign for Welsh independence? It’s actually pretty straightforward. It is built on a belief in certain forms of localism, rather than nationalism, and on a conviction that we need to have a far more effective form of democracy. These two things go hand in hand.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 20.02.25Like nationalism, localism describes a range of related political philosophies that can range from the far left to the far right. My localism comes from the more anarchic, environmentalist end of the spectrum. In general terms, localism supports local production and consumption of goods, local control of government, and promotion of local culture and identity.

It promotes deliberative democracy that seeks to engage as many people was possible in the decision making that effects them. It seeks more than just an X in a box and strives for consensus, or at least clear overall majorities. It leans heavily on the principle of subsidiarity that holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution. This in turn will lead to a general rejection of economic globalisation. Production and consumption at local level is founded on sound environmental arguments, with a drive for self-sufficiency having a range of other benefits too. This is not to deny that there are not downsides and negatives to this approach. It needs to be focused on environmental sustainability and respect of every individual (i.e. left wing priorities) rather than economic sustainability and the wishes of dominant groups (i.e. right wing priorities)

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 20.07.08Independence for Wales is not necessarily going to achieve these aspirations in itself , but it is a huge stepping stone towards it. Is there anything that effects the lives of people in Wales that is inherently better decided in Westminster at a UK scale, than in Cardiff (or somewhere else in Wales – I’m not convinced that Cardiff is the most appropriate location for whole-of-Wales decision-making) for Wales or even at more local level where practicable? It is, at best, cumbersome and inefficient (a bit like that last sentence!) and at worst, prejudicial, detrimental and anti-democratic. Wales has never backed a Tory government in Westminster, yet has suffered immeasurably from the consequences of being ruled by one. If nothing else, it has created a degree of subservience and sapped the self-belief from the people of Wales. I have explored this recently in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Independence based on these principles is not insular and self-serving. It is not about denying ourselves bananas and coffee, for example. But where we do get involved in international trade it should respect and maintain the same principles in the areas we go to for trade. Cut out the big multinational corporations. Foster relationships built on fair trade principles and mutual respect with local suppliers of bananas or coffee or whatever. Utilise environmentally friendly routes and modes of transport wherever possible. Likewise, trade our surpluses in accordance with similar ethics. Recognise and celebrate the diversity that exists in our communities, with very few people in Wales having welsh roots that go back more than a few generations at best. Extend the culture of our cities of sanctuary‘ across the whole country. Equally, recognise and celebrate the culture and traditions that have evolved in this part of the world that enrich us rather than diminish us.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.33.26This is beginning to sound like a manifesto for the a new Welsh republic, and it is of sorts. I have a dream! But none of this is assured in an independent Wales. Far from it. In the hands of the far-right it would look utterly different. But the essential point is that it is all possible in an Independent Wales and virtually impossible in a Wales tied to a deeply conservative/Conservative England. Whereas ethnic and/or cultural homogeneity may be dangerous goals, political consensus must be a worthwhile aspiration. There is obviously some overlap in this, but it is patently easier to achieve in smaller countries than big ones.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.33.03The late 20th century saw the breaking up of many unwieldy, fractured blocs, such as Yugoslavia, the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and parts of east Africa. The early 21st century has seen growing pressure for independence of viable smaller countries in many parts of the world, from here in the UK, across many parts of Europe and beyond.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.21.06Few would surely argue that the breaking up of the supposed superpowers of USA, Russia and China, along with perhaps massive countries like Brazil and India, would not be of huge benefit to the whole planet. In the history of the breaking up of empires I have yet to find an example of a country anywhere, at any time, gaining independence from an imperial power that ever regretted it and asked to return.

On this basis, so long as nationalist extremism is kept at bay, it is hard to see how independence for Wales cannot be the way to go.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 20.16.38

 

Resignation from the Labour Party

Open letter to constituency and branch secretaries and cc’d to my blog.

Hi gentlemen,

Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.40.47I doubt you’ll be surprised by this, but having spent a couple of weeks reflecting and soul-searching, I have decided my time with the Labour Party is done once again.

Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.26.23I came back to the party, after a hiatus of nigh on 30 yrs, along with many thousands of others, once Corbyn became established as leader and it was clear that the Labour Party had finally returned to its socialist values. Except it was only ever the leadership and huge influx of new members that ever properly bought into this.

The whole time of my involvement was dominated by battling with the old guard, especially the Welsh Labour establishment, most notably in the shape of Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.28.00Carwyn Jones and Madeleine Moon, who did more than their fair share to undermine the new zeitgeist. But slowly and seemingly surely we were dragging things in the left direction. With Jones and Moon discarded to the dustbin of history, despite the circumstances, I still felt a degree of optimism that with new blood in the leadership of the right calibre, momentum could be regained.Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.33.34

Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.35.44I was further encouraged bay a slate of candidates for Leader that included 4 women and only one dull grey suit. When this became the final four (with Clive Lewis and the awful Jess Phillips gone), there were three acceptable women candidates, all of whom I could have given a real chance to, but no. Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.39.22The dull grey suit wins it. The knight of the realm wins it. The establishment lawyer wins it. The heir to Blair wins.

We all knew it was coming some time ago, of course, and plenty of good socialists have been debating amongst themselves as to whether they should stay or should they go. I didn’t want to make a hasty decision, for sure, and plenty of people were saying he would build bridges and unite the party.

However, the shadow cabinet appointments along with the revelations of the full extent of the treachery in the Governance and Legal Unit have totally alienated me. Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.41.24I can no longer bear to have my name associated with the Party that so actively undermined and destroyed the possibility of a Corbyn government today. I cannot countenance another penny of my money or a minute of my time being used and abused.

I hear the arguments that it will all be thoroughly investigated and put to rights, but I have absolutely no faith in that happening. If it does, then maybe, just maybe I can be tempted back.

I hear the arguments that we need a Labour government more than ever, and Starmer should be better placed to do that. That is a given, but will be the case with or without my contributions. And to be honest, unless the manifesto remains a close approximation to that shaped by Corbyn and McDonnell, as a bare minimum (which again I have no faith in happening), then it is pretty much a choice of the lesser of two neoliberal evils. But again, if I’m wrong, I may be tempted back.

I hear the argument that this will all be more likely if people like me remain within the Party. But as I intimated earlier, it was hard enough work achieving progressive change in a party with a progressive leader and a progressive membership. It is going to take a Herculean battle to achieve anything remotely progressive with a resurgent Blairite wing. I have never enjoyed pissing in the wind.

What is the point of winning for winning’s sake? If it doesn’t allow you to do what is necessary, it is a Pyrrhic victory at best. It is largely pointless, save for the few people around the fringes that may be saved . That may be enough for me to still vote Labour. Absolutely anybody would be a significant improvement on the vile Wallis that Moon managed to lose to. Anybody but a Tory is certainly as true as ever it was.Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.23.37

Anyway, enough. Let me thank you gentlemen personally for your support and encouragement during my time in the party. I wish you luck in the pursuit of some of the goals we share. I’ll be pursuing them through other channels from now on.

Na zdrowie,
Andy Chyba.

Covid-19 and the Case for Welsh Independence

Straight away let me respond to those who may be tempted to try and criticise me for politicising this crisis to advance a political agenda. You are absolutely right and I do so unashamedly. If nothing else, this crisis has shone a light on everybody’s political choices. Few come out of it looking good, which is one reason they want to close down such discussions. The variations in response, and the success of those responses around the world, are entirely in the hands of political decision makers. Thus, every single decision has to be seen and understood in a political context.

It is the political context that we find ourselves in here in Wales that I want to focus on. It is my contention that the half-baked, halfway house of a devolution arrangement we have here in Wales is no happy compromise and leaves us in the ridiculous situation of not knowing who to hold responsible for successes and failures in, well, just about anything. This is, of course, a highly agreeable state of affairs for the establishment politicians, especially where we have Tories in Westminster and Welsh Labour in Cardiff Bay. Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 21.39.16Carwyn Jones made a very nice career for himself using the Tories in Westminster as the ready-made excuse for failing to achieve the bare minimum you’d expect from Labour after 20 years of supposed-government; the eradication of poverty and homelessness, substantially less inequality, the restructuring of industry and employment for the 21st century. We can and should still have these aspirations.

The reasons for these failures are pretty simple. Unless they are the goals of the UK government as well, they cannot be achieved until Wales has FULL control over taxation, monetary policy, public expenditure and infrastructure investment. That would take us to at least 90% of full independence. The other 10% would be cultural things like Olympic and Eurovision status, along with aspects of trade and foreign policy- such as, dare I say, EU membership. I don’t want to go into the tiresome debate over whether Wales would be economically viable, if independent, here. Check that out elsewhere if you still need convincing. But I do want to look at how being umbilically tied to Westminster has impacted on the response to Covid-19 here in Wales.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 12.44.17This story needs start well before the onset of this pandemic. The last pandemic we encountered was the 2009 H1N1 ’Swine flu’ pandemic which saw Wales escape with relatively few confirmed cases, but a higher death rate than the UK average, even if that did amount to just 28 deaths (if just is ever an acceptable word to describe multiple deaths). As a consequence there was a flurry of post-pandemic reviews across the UK and attempts to update pandemic preparedness and response guides. The most recent substantial document I can find from Welsh Government is this one, published in 2014.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 12.51.07I have no inclination to pore over this and dissect it as I’m not even sure it is the most up-to-date pre-Covid-19 advice in Wales. But It is essentially a supplement to UK guidance rather than a stand alone document, as acknowledged on pg 2:
“Further detail on pandemic preparedness and response can be obtained from the UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy. This can be downloaded from the Department of Health website

It kowtow’s to UK level decision making at many points. Is this a problem? I think so. More on this shortly.

We do know that Theresa May’s UK government undertook a comprehensive review of Britain’s pandemic response capabilities in October 2016; Exercise Cygnus. It involved all major government departments, NHS England , Public Health England and many big local authorities, but I have not yet been able to ascertain whether there was any involvement of any of the devolved administrations. It seems probably not. This showed gaping holes in the government’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) plan. Did Welsh Government even see it? Did they emulate it? Did they do anything at this time? Was it even on their radar?

What we see in far too many spheres, but in the current coronavirus crisis in particular, is a tendency for Wales, even where it has theoretical freedom to make its choices in devolved areas like health and education, to hang onto the coat tails of UK decision makers and rarely have the confidence to take the initiative or take a separate path. That is arguably fine so long as Westminster is on the ball and a reliable source of wisdom, but could that ever be expected of any Tory government, let alone one led by Boris Johnson?!!

With this deference comes tardiness. For example, the decision to shield the elderly and vulnerable by instructing them to remain at home for a full 12 weeks minimum led to letters being issued within a week or so in England, but a week to 10 days later in Wales (with thousands being sent to the wrong addresses to exacerbate things). It is not as if Wales doesn’t have its own Chief Medical Officer who could have issued such guidance potentially a lot sooner. But no, we have to wait and see what England is doing and follow suit pretty much to the letter. Our people deserve better surely.

To be fair, the devolved administrations did take some initiative by announcing school closures at a time when Boris Johnson was still dilly-dallying on the issue. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all announced the school closures on Wednesday 18th March, with immediate effect in Northern Ireland and from the end of school on Friday 20th in Wales and Scotland. On 18th March, the official Government advice remained that all educational institutions should remain fully open in England. But with up to a third of staff missing due to illness or self-isolation measures this was untenable and England fell into line by the 20th.

What is not clear in this is who was pushing the school closure agenda in the devolved administrations. It seems implausible that they all took the decision on the same day completely independently. There was clear co-ordination in the announcements.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 22.20.46

Kirsty Williams doing what she does best.

Knowing what we do of Kirsty Williams (the only Lib Dem AM, made Education Sec in Welsh Government in order to give Welsh labour a workable majority) it seems unlikely that she or anybody in Welsh Government was the prime mover. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland have significantly different educational arrangements than England and Wales. In typical Welsh deference, education in Wales is essentially exactly the same as in England but with a Cwricwlwm Cymraeg addendum bolted on.

On top of this, and probably more significantly, both Scotland and Northern Ireland consistently show more confidence and inclination to diverge from whatever the English do. They don’t even have the same political parties in Northern Ireland, whereas Scotland’s very own SNP has far more presence and resultant confidence, on the back of mass popular support, than Wales’ very own Plaid Cymru can currently dream of having.

Thus, we have a situation whereby the majority in Wales seems to be content with seeing itself as little more than an annex of England, led by an essentially unionist party, unlike their Celtic cousins. It is little wonder, in this context, that doing anything radically different to England seems nigh on impossible and as rare as hen’s teeth.

The renewed radicalism within Welsh Labour since the rise of Corbyn to lead the UK Labour Party has to be acknowledged. The Corbynite group ‘Welsh Labour Grassroots’ wrote to Mark Drakeford (First Minister) on 5th April to raise concerns about responding to the Covid-19 crisis “largely in lock step with the UK Government”, and raising specific concerns over how this has impacted on testing and PPE, lack of clarity in messaging, lack of protection for vulnerable groups, such as private renters, and a failure to address the gaps in income support schemes for the self employed in particular.The also took him to task for closer adherence to UK guidelines and actions than to those advocated by the WHO, where those differ.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 22.24.21

Drakeford demonstrating the grip Johnson has on his prime assets

Drakeford didn’t rush his reply, taking until 8th of April to respond. He conceded that, while the virus is no respecter of boundaries, it is indeed incumbent on WG “to shape the response in Wales”. He then went to highlight the things Wales’ had chosen to do differently to England, namely:

  • Suspending routine work in the NHS sooner than England in oder to get better prepared
  • Put into actual law that exercise away from home can only be once a day, along with the 2m distancing rule
  • Restricted fines for breaking social distancing rules to £200, instead of the £900 in England
  • Different funeral rules
  • Quicker to close camping and caravanning sites

While each of these is commendable enough, it amounts to very little if these are the best examples he can come up with. Its resonant of the claims of success for 20 yrs of Welsh labour government in Wales. Lots of tiny gains that help small groups of people (free prescriptions, reduced tuition fees, carrier bag charges and the like), but that add up to no substantial benefit for the entire population.

And these tiny gains need to be set against the various ways the people of Wales have lost out directly due to Welsh Government kowtowing to Westminster. For example, there have been the complex shenanigans of PPE procurement. Drakeford’s letter clearly states that all 4 UK Governments had agreed to pool their purchasing power and share procurement capacity rather than try to compete against one another. Sounds fine in theory. Indeed, imagine if such a collaborative venture was tried across the whole of Europe…. But I won’t digress down that avenue here!! Save to say, this has quickly unravelled as English companies with contracts with Public Health England have taken that to mean they cannot supply Wales and Scotland.

The situation with the all important testing capabilities is an even worse case. I happen to be good friends with a senior academic, who actually trains the biomedical scientists who perform these sorts of testing services in the NHS. Some of his students will be employed on vaccine development programmes and others in other medical fields relevant to this crisis. He had this to tell me just a few days ago:

“As soon as this happened I contacted the WG and also colleagues in my university. Next thing I knew they had taken our testing capabilities to Milton Keynes to set up a super testing facility. I know the testing method inside out. I offered my services and signed up to an online standby service but I’ve heard nothing.”
“Wales always follows England. As an academic in two welsh universities for 30 years I can say that Wales has never made independent decisions and has always followed England’s lead. So, nothing new and I’m not surprised we are following their lead.”

Add this to the Roche debacle, whereby Public Health England was effectively allowed to gazump Welsh Government’s order for 5,000 Covid-19 tests per day. This led to Whitehall effectively taking control of test procurement across the whole UK and dishing them out pro-rata. However, this looks like being pro-rata by population, not pro-rata by need, and Wales has had more than its ‘fair share’ of cases for most of the crisis. Thus, Wales is not likely to be well-served by this arrangement, especially since the transfer of University testing equipment appears to have happened across all academic institutions in Wales, leaving Wales as the only UK nation without a large testing facility.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 22.27.41

Gething showing the size of his faux pas.

Thus, having given up all control for testing in Wales, it is little wonder that Welsh Government has had no option but to abandon all pretence at being able to even work towards a testing target. That is entirely in Westminster’s hands now. So now we have to put up with Wale’s Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, trying to spin this as not a problem as he reckons we don’t need to be testing right now!!

As if that wasn’t confidence sapping enough, he then went on to say that Welsh Government were working with those well-known biomedical experts at Amazon to produce a coronavirus testing web-portal! Priority will no doubt go to those with Amazon Prime accounts! Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 18.15.34This probably also explains the nauseating Amazon adverts currently running where Amazon tries to pretend it is a lovely caring company that cherishes it workers, rather than arguably the worst employer on the planet. Not a good look for a Labour Party association.

 

 

IN CONCLUSION

The current constitutional arrangements have not freed Wales anywhere near enough to achieve its potential. Beyond this, it also ties us too often and too closely to an English establishment and all its shortcomings.

Covid-19 has shown the extent to which the Welsh Labour Government is happy to be beholden to Westminster. It is a relationship that has served it well, giving it excuses for its own conservatism and lack of radicalism.

Wales needs its own resources to do its own due diligence in these circumstances so that it could emulate other small independent countries like New Zealand and Iceland, rather than follow meekly the path trodden from Westminster. In the current context it would have given us the potential to save hundreds of lives to date and thousands more yet to come.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 22.30.33The neoliberal sociopathy of a deeply Conservative England really ought to be anathema to the people of Wales, built as it is on richly diverse working class communities. The NHS was, after all, born in Wales through Nye Bevan. It was Tredegar Medical Aid Society that gave Bevan the model and inspiration for the entire NHS.

Thankfully we have just about sufficient devolution currently to mean that we can sidestep Boris Johnson’s megalomaniacal moves to take over at the running of the NHS in England and hasten its dismantling and privatisation. But without the freedom and control of resources from full independence, the Welsh NHS will continue to be strangled from afar.

Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 18.22.57A common mantra emerging from this crisis across the world is that there can be no return to normal, as what we had as ‘normal’ was very much the essence of the problem. Such a crisis has enabled everyone (well, all those that will look up and see at least) to see the full evil of disaster capitalism – which is not really any different than everyday capitalism in that it promotes the welfare of capital and capitalist elites above the needs of the common people. It will no doubt lead to the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich since, well, the last global disaster (the banking crash of 2008) via the con that was ‘austerity’.

Wales needs to wake up and smell the coffee. It can stay meek and subservient and remain grateful for the crumbs tossed its way from the top table. Or it can boldly take control of its own destiny; develop the bountiful natural and human resources to create ample sustainable wealth and security for all people living here. Many argue that we don’t have the visionaries or the talent to pull this off in Wales. I find that deeply insulting. I know it is not so. And where does such pessimistic resignation lead us? Into the arms, or even the nooses held by the arms of ‘visionaries’ of the calibre of Johnson and Cummings. I rest my case.Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 22.32.52

 

Lies, damned lies & statistics – understanding graphs

This posting has been prompted by a number of people failing to understand what the graphs the government keeps showing in its daily press briefings actually show and mean. In particular, there is one graph, that they feature updated most days, that seems to be giving a misleading impression of what is going on. I will get into teacher mode and endeavour to explain the issue as clearly as I can, and leave you to decide whether it is a cynical deception or not.

This is the graph in question:Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 20.47.07

This is a screenshot taken directly off the televised briefing to the nation this evening. I have done my best not to distort either axis, so as to leave it exactly as the government presented it. (However, it may be distorted a little in one or other axis by the device you are viewing on, but this is not significant overall).

It has become a familiar feature of the daily briefings and I,  and many others no doubt, take a close look to see how we are doing compared to other countries. But I wonder how many have looked at and then understood the axes labelling and small print.

The small print tells us that Day 0 is NOT when the first death occurred, which is what I have found people assuming (not unreasonably), but, as you can see above the graph, Day 0 is the first day 50 deaths were reported. In the UK’s case, this was on 16th of March, when we saw a rise from 35 on the 15th to 71 on the 16th. It was, in fact, ELEVEN full days after the first death occurred (on 5th March).

The axis up the left hand side of the graph, showing the total deaths, goes up in a rather odd looking way (50/100/200/500/1000/2000 etc) and the spacing between the lines looks pretty random too. For example the gap between 5000 and 10000 (an increase of 5000 deaths) looks pretty much the same as the gap between 1000 and 2000 (an increase of just 1000 deaths). This is what is known as a logarithmic scale and is a common enough device in statistical analysis, especially graphing data that explodes in values, as is surprisingly common in science and nature.

Because they are relatively complicated to design and understand properly, it is not something encountered in school before ‘A’ Levels at the very least (and only then by maths and science students). Most people will have never learned anything about them at all.

When looking at the graph above, intuitively most people will interpret it as suggesting a steady increase for every country, with South Korea clearly having lower deaths than everywhere else, and Spain noticeably the worst. This is only partly correct. Yes, Spain is substantially worse than South Korea, but rising steadily?  Sorry, that is far from the truth. 

If you look closely at the graph, again intuitively, most people notice the line starting to flatten for most countries around about Day 14 or 15. This they assume must be good news. Looks like the start of a downturn, many think. Some are savvy enough to notice that the line for the UK actually steepens a bit around Days 14 and 15 and wonder if this is cause for concern. We are told to not read too much into this as we need to see trends over longer periods. That is fair enough. But the reality of what those slightly less steep lines means in the upper part of a logarithmic graph comes as quite a shock to most once it is shown to them! Prepare for that shock.

So what sort of line graphs have people seen in school and have relatively little trouble understanding? That would be arithmetical graphs. This is a big word for a simple enough idea.

With an arithmetical graph, you would expect to see the axes going up in perfectly equal steps. They don’t always start at zero, that is a somewhat different trick of the trade, but basically each even gap up the side will go up the same amount. So instead of the odd sequence of numbers listed above we might find 1/2/3/4 etc or 10/20/30/40 etc or 50/100/150/200 etc. Any even step up will work.

So how would the above graph for the UK look on an arithmetical graph, one that truly represents the day to day change in the figures? I have produced it here using Excel. This starts at the same point, day 16 when the total burst through the 50 barrier and is up to yesterday, as is the graph above. Shocked? Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.09.47

Dramatically different, isn’t it? All the other countries would have a very similar shape. Where the COBRA Government graph above suggests a flattening off, this one, more accurately would show a slightly less steep curve at best, because really big numbers do not get squashed down dramatically on this sort of graph. On this graph the same amount of deaths each day shows the same size step up in the graph each day. On a a logarithmic graph the same size increase each day gets shown as a smaller step up each day. Deceptive! It will, and does, mislead the unwary!

Now, pedants out there will point out that these graphs can be further distorted by playing around with the axes to make it look flatter or steeper. Both of these are accurate and truthful versions of the same sets of data:

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.24.30

Squash the death axis down; stretch the date axis out. Result is a much flatter line.

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.25.13

Stretch out the deaths axis; squash the dates axis. Result is a much steeper line.

To the uneducated eye these would look like they are telling very different stories. See what I mean about lies, damned lies and statistics. You certainly have to be very wary when politicians start bandying statistics about, and even more so with graphs. 

So, for the sake of fairness, I’ve attempted to line up the two graphs next to each other so that the date axis is the same. and the deaths axis takes up the same space on the page. (This may not come out too well, depending on the device you are viewing on, but at least I’ve tried!). Remember, I’m only lining up with the UK line on the COBRA graph. Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.40.59

So why has the government chosen to present the data using a logarithmic scale and starting from 50 instead of zero? Well, Spain and Italy would be way off the top of any practical arithmetic graph some time ago, so this method is far more manageable for the data (but only beyond, say, day 20 or so). Below 50 deaths would not really register as much other than a flatline at the bottom. So it is not entirely unreasonable to use this technique as a statistician. But without proper explanation and understanding it can be very deceptive to the general public. 

The lesson I want to leave you with, is that only an arithmetical graph that starts from zero is a totally ‘honest’ representation of the data, that doesn’t manipulate the patterns shown beyond what the average person in the street would understand. Yet they are surprisingly rare. Whenever you see scales that are not evenly spaced and not starting from zero (unless its dates) then ask yourself what is being hidden and why. If you cannot work it out for yourself, ask a friendly scientist or mathematician!

Talking of which, for those that want to explore this topic little further, I highly commend the Minute Physics Youtube channel, and this short 7min video in particular:Screenshot 2020-04-03 at 18.46.54

 

 

 

 

 

 

BORIS & the VIRUS – Lies, damned lies & statistics

Numbers carry weight. They, in themselves, are unambiguous and precise (within the rounding applied to them). They do, however, in the hands of most of us, often masquerade as facts when they are actually anything but this. Numbers as parts of recommendations or predictions cannot be factual, and are therefore always going to be open to interpretation and dispute. This all explains why they are so beloved by politicians and propagandists, as famously encapsulated in this quote that I usually attribute to Mark Twain (I love Mark Twain).

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.09.32(Source: okl.blogspot.com)

Research suggests it actually originates with ‘anonymous’, was popularised by Twain, who mistakenly attributed to Disraeli, for whom there is no evidence of him ever using the phrase at all!

I use this to illustrate my point that we have to understand that numbers used in recommendations and predictions especially, but all numbers dressed up as facts, need to be properly contextualised and the methodology used in producing them understood before we can have full confidence in them.

So let me turn to the numbers being bandied around every day in the media at the moment with regards to the Coronavirus epidemic. There are three sets of numbers in particular that I’m going to look at:

  1. Social distancing guidelines
  2. Death/mortality rates from the virus
  3. Projected deaths from the virus.

 

The first two are relatively straightforward, but the latter is a real can of worms!

 

SOCIAL DISTANCING GUIDELINES

All the guidelines I’ve seen in the UK have stated keep two metres away from everybody other than those you live with. That has seemed entirely reasonable to me as the principle is get out of reach of the spray of small droplets emitted from mouth and nose when people cough or sneeze.

As someone renowned for the power/volume in my sneezes, 2 metres strikes me as the very reasonable minimum distance. Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.19.19As such, people’s failure to adhere to this guidance, primarily because they seem to have no notion of what 2 metres looks like, prompted me to make this up in my workshop. I am 6’3” and most people equate two metres with six feet and think I’m over 2m tall. I am in fact 1.93m and 2 metres is in fact 6’6” to the nearest inch. So with USA and many in this country thinking 6ft is fine, does that extra 6 inches make any real difference? That does, of course, depend on whether you ask the actress or the bishop, but the short answer is not really.

What is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidance on this? What do you think? Higher or lower?

To be honest, I was expecting to find it recommending 2m/6ft in line with the above. It came as something of a shock to find this on their website and on YouTube (click image):Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.25.05

So, they reckon one metre is adequate with someone showing symptoms, let alone anyone else!! Intuitively, this feels totally inadequate to me, but does help reduce my level of paranoia in supermarkets especially, where aisles are never 2 metres wide and therefore passing people at all infringes that 2m/6ft zone.

Why are we being bombarded with the message of keeping 2m/6ft away? A couple of things occur to me. Firstly, perhaps it is a sensible precautionary measure that acknowledges the ignorance levels in the country as to what 2 meters/6ft actually looks like on the ground, and thereby in stating 2m we might actually achieve the 1 metre guideline. Or else, perhaps, it is part of a deliberate policy to crank up paranoia. Surely not.

Overall, I am all in favour of the precautionary principle, so I will continue to respect and expect the 2 metre distance around me as much as possible, but with a now greater understanding that it is far from a critical thing in itself. Indeed, I know of places where they are encouraging up to 4 metre social distancing – but that is in places where there is plenty of space available to make that practicable, and better safe than sorry is a perfectly reasonable stance to take. More of which later!

 

DEATH/MORTALITY RATES FROM THE VIRUS

These are pointless and impossible to calculate with any degree of accuracy worthy of the name. This is a matter of simply understanding the statistics. As a geographer by training, demographic statistics were a stock tool of my trade. In a generic form, mortality rates can be seen as calculated using:

(d/p)10n

where d represents the deaths from whatever cause of interest is specified that occur within a given time period, p represents the size of the population in which the deaths occur (however this population is defined or limited), and 10n is the conversion factor from the resulting fraction to another unit (e.g. most commonly multiplying by 103 to get a mortality rate per 1,000 individuals, or 102  to give a percentage, which is per 100, and is being used in most reports of the pandemic.

In simple terms, to calculate the death rate percentage from covid-19, we need:

  • The number of deaths from covid-19
  • The total number of people who have contracted the disease.

The number of deaths is very straightforward. You simply count the corpses. It is hard to hide this figure and we can rely on it being very accurate in most parts of the world, and certainly in the UK. Although it has to said that China is not ‘most parts of the world’ and has quite a track record of ‘disappearing’ people and corpses.

But as for determining the total number of people who have the disease, that is an entirely different matter and totally beyond any country to produce accurate figures at this stage.

It is entirely dependent on testing the entire population to see who has had it. It has to be the entire population tested as many are asymptomatic; in fact everybody is for a number of days before the symptoms emerge. The symptoms are also relatively common ones, which in their milder forms can very easily be confused with other conditions, especially the seasonal influenza variants that are also out there.

Thus these figures will be utterly meaningless to us until calculated after the epidemic is passed and every single person is given the antibody test to establish whether they had it or not (not forgetting to add on the subset of the population that have died from it along the course of the pandemic)

There has been some spurious talk about the fact that a lot of the dead had underlying conditions and/or were very old and therefore some would have died anyway during the course of the pandemic. While this is undoubtedly true, this has no relevance as to whether or not the coronavirus was ultimately the final straw. Once this virus gets a foothold in care homes, it will likely prove catastrophic.

I need to qualify the ‘utterly meaningless’ comment before I get taken to task for it. Wrestling with these inaccurate figures is the area of expertise of epidemiologists. They manipulate the raw data on the basis of assumptions derived from past experiences and other data analysis of risk factors and the like. It is an imprecise science at the best of times, yet can, and does, play an important part in public health policy and practice. It is used (and occasionally abused) as a tool to rationalise resource allocation decisions for health services. It will have been used, I expect, in the decision, in 2017, not to stock PPE for NHS staff up to pandemic levels!  

Until we have definitive data that we can make sense of, these on-the-hoof, knowingly inaccurate statistics should be kept out of public discourse, or at the very least ignored.

 

 PROJECTED DEATHS FROM THE VIRUS

This is one, simple-looking statistic that epidemiologists can be asked to conjure up. This they do with varying degrees of rigour and based on differing sets of assumptions. It makes for an interesting academic exercise that can outline the range of likely outcomes and be an aid for planning, but in the hands of the media and politicians it can take on an insidious propaganda role.

Throughout most of this crisis, the projections bandied about the most have been these from the reputable source of Imperial College, London University, Epidemiology Department:Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.40.16

This successfully built the pressure to implement, and public acceptance of, measures such as school closures, social distancing and the isolating of the vulnerable; more of which shortly.

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.42.48In mid-February, Imperial epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson went public with a comment that 400,000 deaths in the UK was ‘not absurd’, but inferred that he expected the government response to succeed in bringing this figure down drastically.

4 weeks later, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Vallance, was saying that 20,000 deaths would be a ‘good outcome’ in the circumstances, but admitted that “If you put all the modelling information together, that’s a reasonable ballpark way of looking at it. It’s not more accurate than that.”

However, on 28th March, we see the publication of another paper from Professor Tom Pike, also of Imperial College, that reckons the death toll could be kept to a relatively modest 5,700 if Britain succeeds in maintaining social distancing, as in China. However, I do have a number of issues about this paper. Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.45.19First and foremost, Tom Pike is not an epidemiologist. In fact it is difficult to see how he is significantly better qualified than I am, given that his area of academic expertise, while at a significantly higher level, is in the less relevant discipline of electrical and electronic engineering, with, on a closer look, a specialisation in micro-engineering for space exploration vehicles.

In addition, from what I can gather, he has simply looked at the progress of the disease in China, using their reported figures, and then extrapolated that to the UK from the point of lockdown here. There are fewer holes in a colander than in this research design! Nonetheless, his report is being bandied around without any such qualification as if it is of equal merit to Neil Ferguson’s work and as some sort evidence that the UK strategy is having the desired impact. To use appropriate academic language, that is bollocks.

To be fair, Pike pretty much admits as much. Answering questions about the new paper on Twitter, Professor Pike says the estimates are purely data driven and ‘there is no epidemiological modelling, or in fact any modelling, in our analysis.’ In other words, it’s tantamount to rough calculations on a bit of scrap paper, done over a tea break.

This is where we run into problems with experts. It’s not that they try to deceive anyone at all. They only ever seek to enlighten us. But there are experts and then there are ‘experts’. A bricklayer may be regarded as an expert in their field, but you wouldn’t want them extracting a tooth for you. Neil Ferguson is a respected expert in a relevant discipline. Tom Pike is a respected expert in a completely irrelevant field. He should have known better than to get involved, to be quite frank, and I would expect Ferguson to be pretty livid about it. And I suspect the government are not too impressed either, even though it might seem to be endorsement of their strategy. Are we to lay every death over 5,700 at their door? Hold that thought.

 

THE USE & ABUSE OF ‘EXPERTS’ FOR PROPAGANDA PURPOSES

In terms of the use of these projections, be they be by experts or otherwise, their main use to government is in managing expectations among the general public. There is nothing unusual in this. It is standard marketing strategy. Talk up the size of the problem and your solution will seem all the more efficacious.

So, scary, apocalyptic predictions based on worst case scenarios, whereby nothing is done, are a great starting point. Look what will happen if our Government does absolutely nothing! 400,000 to 500,000 deaths according to this trustworthy expert! (I have seen figures of up to 650,000 dead in the UK from less trustworthy non-experts).

This appeared to be exactly the Johnson/Cummings masterplan up until a mere two weeks ago. (Click on image)Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.54.19

This is Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser trying to justify the target of allowing at least 60% of the population to contract the virus in order to produce “herd immunity”. This is on the 13th March. Note the ticker tape comment about PM deciding to keep schools open. Johnson repeated the herd immunity policy on breakfast TV, including his now-notorious ‘take it on the chin’ quip! 

This was clearly a huge miscalculation in terms of the PR, and the uproar, as people began to see 500,000 deaths as a real prospect, forced a change of approach within 48 hours, as reported in Tory rag, the Express:Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 14.57.28

Up until 15th March, official government advice consisted of wash your hands for 20 seconds regularly and self-isolate if you have either of the two main symptoms of a fever and/or a persistent cough. That was it.

Despite no such pressure from the government, the FA Premier League and EFL decided enough was enough and suspended their programmes with immediate effect on 13th.  They were being pressured by all sorts of bodies and the example of leagues all over Europe (shut down by their governments mostly) to cancel fixtures.

This may well have been in part due to this damning indictment by Professor John Ashton (a passionate and well-known Liverpool FC supporter) on Question Time on 12th March.

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.03.56

Is John Ashton worth listening to? The fact that he is a member of the Labour Party may arouse suspicion in some, he is an outstanding and well-respected expert in the field of public health.

John Ashton was far from being alone in being critical of Johnson’s approach. Even the Tory-faithful Telegraph readers were queueing up to take a pop at him on 13th March

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.07.40

The Tory-inclined Business Insider ran with this, also on 13th March:Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.08.50

So, by Monday 16th March, the government was in total disarray and had to try and get a grip somehow. When you have the Right’s pierced organ that is Piers Morgan laying into you over breakfast, describing your response as ‘completely unacceptable’, you really are in a bit of trouble.

This saw the instigation of the PM’s daily coronavirus updates to the nation, flanked by (I said “flanked”) the less than dynamic duo of Prof Chris Whitty (UK’s Chief Medical Adviser- CMA) and Prof Patrick “herd immunity” Vallance (UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser- CSA).

Let us examine the progress of these press conferences to the nation and other key events from this wake up point.

Monday 16th March

  • Whole families should self-isolate for 14 days if anyone has symptoms. No news on any support for businesses or families, financial or otherwise, in doing this.
  • Don’t go to pubs, clubs or other mass gatherings. We’re not actually closing any down or banning any events though, so it really is up to you. That would cost my buddies in the insurance sector way too much!
  • Over 70s please stay away from everybody for at least 12 weeks (no matter how fit and well you are, as a one-size-fits-all approach is much simpler, and we like simple)
  • Blueprints of designs for ventilators are being sent out to UK manufacturers (of anything, because we haven’t much manufacturing left these days) with a view to ordering 20,000. Maybe. If needed. Wakey, wakey Jim Dyson (this one is for you, buddy).

 

Tuesday 17th March

  • Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveils the new tag line to replace “Get Brexit Done”. It is the equally naff “Whatever It Takes”. Sounds no more convincing after saying it 6 times in three minutes than it did on first hearing.
  • He does announce an impressive sounding, but totally inadequate £330bn in LENDING (“at favourable rates”, despite the base rate being as good as zero!), for large and medium businesses. (Will obviously help if you’re a Tory donor!)
  • £20bn to be made available (not sure how yet) to small businesses in the form of grants of between £25-30,000. (Only need £10k? Grovel to your bank?)
  • UK-EU trade talks called off indefinitely, but don’t fret Brexiteers, No.10 assures you that the transition won’t be extended, virtually guaranteeing you the Holy Grail of that No Deal Brexit we have dreamed of for so long. Our victory is complete! (Shhh…. Keep this one quiet, as we are hoping nobody notices.)

 

Wednesday 18th March

  • Schools, colleges and nurseries in England to close on Friday. The time was patently NOT right for this a mere two days ago. Despite pressure from just about everyone, except my trusted CMA and CSA, we stood firm supported by the (carefully selected) science. But now that same science says now is that right time. It’s nothing to do with those bastards in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland daring to use their devolved control over education to step out of line and announce it this morning (with immediate effect in Northern Ireland, where neighbouring Eire have had schools closed since 12th March). We do do the right things at the right time, honestly, because our scientists really are the best. So when this proves not to be the case, I will be blaming these suckers.
  • London is at crisis point, so if they don’t behave and go home to starve without two quid to rub together, then the pubs may have to be shut down after all. Or something like that. (Maybe Wetherspoons could be exempt?)
  • Evictions to be banned for three months as renters probably won’t be able to pay rent. Kick them out later when they can’t clear the arrears.

 

Thursday 19th March

  • “We can turn the tide in 12 weeks” if everyone does as they are told, without actually being made to comply (cue “Land of Hope and Glory”); and the PM is “absolutely confident we can send Coronavirus packing in this country” (cue “Rule Britannia”). Winston would be proud!
  • UK Vaccine trials may start within a month (but don’t hold your breath)
  • No new measures at all. “We’re guided by the science” (when we find some we like) and “nothing is ruled out” (when our arms are twisted hard enough). Btw, I’m getting bored with this charade so may not bother soon.

 

Friday 20th March

  • Sorry Tim Martin et al, but the pressure has finally tolled and all nightclubs, pubs, restaurants, gyms and other social venues really must close now. Well, tomorrow will do; it is Friday night after all!
  • Chancellor agrees to pay 80% of wages up to £2500 to employees in the companies of (mostly Tory supporting) large and medium businesses. The Institute of Fiscal Studies suggest this will cover a mere 10% of the workforce and on that basis cost £10bn over first three months). Self-employed? Don’t be silly, that’s a bit too complicated (and not enough of you vote correctly). Make do on Universal Credit if you can jump through enough hoops.
  • Talking of which, in recognition that no-one can survive on the current UC of a pitiable, nay derisory £73.34 a week (single childless adult), that will go up for a whole year (boundless generosity being the trademark of this peri-socialist chancellor!) to a just woeful £92.57 per week (and you can’t even blow it in Wetherspoons – sorry again, Tim)

 

Saturday 21st March

  • Please stop panic buying.
  • Don’t see mum on Mother’s Day (tomorrow).

 

Sunday 22nd March

  • Social hubs will be set up to provide supplies for those asked to stay indoors for 12 weeks. (This is in memory of Dai Cameron’s famous ‘Big Society’ notion of getting you to rely on each other because you can’t rely on Tory governments to look after you).
  • Today also saw French President Macron steam in to attack Johnson’s inadequate response. He basically declared that the UK’s border with France and the entire EU would be closed if Johnson didn’t get his shit together and impose a proper shutdown. Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.35.40

 

Monday 23rd March 

  • You bastards are not listening so I’m being forced (by a threatened cabinet revolt,as well as Macron) to do even more stuff I don’t want to do.
  • Stay the fuck at home (unless you fall into a wide range of loosely termed exceptions) because if the Police don’t like the look of you (we all know who that means) they will harass you more than usual and fine you money you probably haven’t got.
  • We’re trying to buy millions of test kits but its really hard because so many other countries snapped them up weeks ago. Sorry.Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.38.51

 

Tuesday 24th March

  • Army to build a 4,000 bed makeshift hospital in the Excel Centre in the east end of London (cue Theme from M.A.S.H.).
  • 35,000 former NHS workers lured out of retirement etc. because they, more than most, know just how effectively we have trimmed it to the bone and driven them out in the first place. (It could have been more, but those that chose better pay and conditions, shelf-filling and the like, are now equally key workers in their new less stressful careers.)
  • That still won’t be anywhere near enough staff so would you all mind bailing out the NHS by volunteering. (You’ll be fast-tracked into the frontline before you know it!). We need at least 250,000 of you or we’re fucked it would appear.

 

Wednesday 25th March

  • So many of you know how dire the state of the NHS is these days, and/or have nothing better to do now you’ve been laid off, that a genuinely impressive 405,000 people have volunteered to help out in 24 hrs. It will probably take 6 months to wade through all those applicants, of course, by which time 10,000 of you will be dead, but thanks anyway.
  • Still sorry we cannot seem to buy many test kits. We really should have thought about it a bit more in January when this thing first kicked off, but the wi-fi in Mustique was a bit ropey and Carrie (aka ‘Apples’) was ripe for the plucking and taking my mind off of everything (well almost everything 😉 )
  • We might have to think about legislation to prevent unscrupulous wideboys profiteering during this national crisis. This is infringing on the territory of the big boys who fund our Party, so unlike most other things, it really does have to stop immediately!

 

Thursday 26th March

  • We have finally thought about the feckless sole trader and self-employed tradesman and if you complete a ream of paperwork to prove your average monthly trading profit over the past three years, you might get 80% of that (up to £2500 max) in June if your lucky. Not been in business that long? You’re still fucked. Set up as a limited company employee? You’re still fucked too. Hopefully all the laid off airline and hotel staff can be conned into doing the admin work to give you half a chance of seeing something in June.
  • Oh, btw, we’ll claw it back by raising national insurance for the self-employed when it’s over. (Shh!!!!)
  • If you’re not covered by everything now, forget it. Its UC or nothing. Nothing would be our preference.

 

Friday 27th March 

  • Whoops. Boris Johnson (PM) has tested positive. Perhaps brazenly ignoring the ‘no handshakes’ protocol wasn’t so clever after all. And before anyone gets too excited, Dominic Raab will step into PM’s shoes if necessary (define necessary, please!).
  • Oh dear. Matt Hancock (Health Secretary) has tested positive.
  • What a shame. Chris Whitty (CMA) has started to display symptoms, but he’s not special enough, like NHS staff in general aren’t either, to be given a test. It’s establishment members only at the moment (PM, heir to the throne, selected celebrities).

    Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.48.11

    CMA Whitty, PM Johnson, HI Vallance. HS Hancock has used these lecterns numerous times

 

So, that is it to date.

“We will do the right things at the right times”

“Whatever it takes”

Is anyone really buying this anymore?

Or is it just cynical old me giving Johnson et al a hard time because I loathe the Tories on principle?

I really do not think so. If the above doesn’t convince you that Johnson has done the least he could, as late as he could, with untold consequences for the eventual death toll, then perhaps a closer look at the timeline, from the very beginning will help.

TIMELINE

The disease was first identified on 1st December 2019 in Wuhan. It was still confined to Wuhan and Hubei province at the end of December. In early January it started to break out into the rest of China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand.

At this point the WHO and UN started to sit up and take notice and on 9th January the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) issued its first risk assessment and guidance. The ECDPC consists of the EU members plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. The UK left it on 1st of January!

This is roughly the point at which the whole world was put on notice that it was on its way and the wise started to make plans. The word ‘pandemic’ wasn’t even muttered at this stage, but started to gain traction by the end of January as the first cases outside of Asia were beginning to get reported, in Australia, Canada, Japan, Sri Lanka, Germany, Austria, Romania, Ecuador, Poland, France, Brazil, Armenia, USA, Italy (first case 30th January) and UK (first case 31st January).

By the end of January, China was effectively locked down and despite soaring infection rates and death rates, was beginning to see a degree of control established.On 30th of January, 120 Britons were evacuated from Wuhan, flown to Brize Norton and then driven, somewhat bizarrely, to a campus on the Wirral for 2 weeks quarantine.

Screenshot 2020-03-28 at 22.09.01

Evacuees wearing face masks. Medic in full HazMat suit. Driver? Wearing a seatbelt for a change if nothing else.

During the course of February, it started to become clearer and clearer to most that this was no ordinary flu bug and that this was going to have far-reaching consequences across the globe. But the numbers, while increasingly widespread, were still pretty modest outside of China. Only the wise and proactive were seeing the writing on the wall. Guess who that wasn’t. 

By 14th of February, most European countries were making detailed plans and preparations. Simple basic stuff, like getting orders for PPE and ventilators processed, checking over and servicing existing equipment, training staff. Should the UK be taking such steps? Two Labour MPs Lilian Greenwood and Alex Sobel,  that had been in contact with a confirmed case, certainly thought so as they took themselves off into self-quarantine. But in the UK advice to procure PPE for NHS staff in case of a pandemic was rejected back in 2017, on the basis that NHS finances were too tight to cover what-ifs!!

By 23rd February, Italy was imposing a lockdown on the large area at the centre of their rampant outbreak. Iran was being isolated by its neighbours closing its borders and airspace, as it too was spiking alarmingly.

The daily WHO Coronavirus Bulletin reached edition 40 on 29th February. It was now evident that Italy was the new hotspot rising to third behind China and South Korea, with Spain also beginning to take off, and the UK clocking up its 23rd case (one in Wales). Pressure was mounting for a more proactive response from the Government. This was fairly typical:Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 15.59.38

That first COBRA meeting duly took place after the weekend, on Monday 2nd of March and produced nothing but soundbites. It amounted to agreeing a plan to devise a plan, with the first draft of “the right steps, at the right time” being glimpsed as he spoke to the media afterwards. But this does at least mark the start of the government taking a modicum of serious notice. I’m far from alone in thinking that at least 6 weeks were wasted.

Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 16.02.40Nothing much was seen or heard over the next few days, other than assurances that all the right plans and preparations were being looked after. Its anyone’s guess what that actually meant in practice as it sure wasn’t getting PPE in place for front line staff, or ensuring adequate ventilators would be available.

VENTILATOR SCAM?

Ventilators were already scarce, as the rest of Europe shared them out. Not that they were being mean or selfish about it. The EU invited the UK to collaborate in a joint program to boost the supply of ventilators, but the PM’s spokesman is on record as saying the UK would not be taking part because “We are no longer members of the EU”. Instead Johnson said he would seek the thousands of ventilators needed from British manufacturers.

But even this relatively noble, if misguided sounding aspiration is now mired in controversy. Instead of getting established existing manufacturers to upscale, such as MEC Medical, they  shunned these. turning instead to high profile engineering companies with no direct experience to design and produce new equipment, such as the Tories very own ‘Technology Tsar,’ James Dyson. 

So 10,000 ordered, and 15,000 pledged of these deluxe beauties, Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 16.09.31despite them not yet seeing the light of day, let alone being tested and approved for use. And the cost? Well, that’s a secret!

Upscaling existing production could have seen deliveries starting within a few days. MEC reckon they could have had 500 ready to deliver at very short notice, but that ship has apparently now sailed. Whereas this from-scratch approach will take many weeks. MEC know this as they have been contacted to make parts and accessories! The turn-around time for these alone, will be measured in weeks. Quite frankly, this stinks and is patently not in anyone’s but Dyson and Tory Party interests.

And now we hear, from an admittedly utterly unreliable source, that Johnson is begging  Trump (yes, Trump is the source) for any spare ventilators lying around the USA. As if!!

 

IN CONCLUSION

No matter what your political disposition, I struggle to see how anyone can seriously defend Boris Johnson’s handling of this admittedly unprecedented crisis. I also struggle to imagine any other PM in my lifetime being as bad and acting against the whole nations well-being so damnedly, and there are plenty of contenders. Yes, I really do think May, Cameron and Blair would have been marginally preferable.

The great irony is that Johnson has been backed into a corner whereby he and his chancellor have had to enact and enable a whole raft of essentially socialist policies in order to allow their precious neoliberal market-are-king capitalism to survive at all. Although, in reality there is nothing really socialist about it at all, of course. It’s part of the disaster capitalism we saw with the 2008 banking crash. Most of the money dished out will end up in the hands of the mega rich while the plebs will be back grovelling for minimum wages again, grateful to have a job at all.

When Torygraph columnists are clamouring for this, you should know it is not all it seems: Screenshot 2020-03-29 at 16.18.42

Does this mean that we would have been better of with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm? In principle, most certainly. He would have enacted most of these socialist policies and more much quicker and with a lot more conviction and attention to detail. But I simply cannot see the masses, that have been so successfully poisoned against JC, being any more respectful of pleas to respect social distancing rules, and I really struggle to imagine the Tory media supporting and lauding Corbyn implementing socialist measures, as they would be in place for good, rather than as a short-term crisis strategy to save their world for the return of normal capitalist service as soon as possible. But hey, I never thought I’d see many of the things I’ve witnessed in the last few weeks, so who knows. We will never know, sadly.

What we can be certain of is that Boris is and will continue to be responsible for an indeterminably large number of deaths that could have been avoided. It will probably end up being many tens of thousands. It may yet prove to be the cataclysmic total of several hundreds of thousands. The Financial Times suggests that  the UK strategy is likely to cause 35,000-70,000 excess deaths. I’m not going to dispute this.  He has probably pretty much achieved his herd immunity strategy through the back door through his persistent tardiness in doing anything.

For this he ought to be held properly accountable, like any mass killer, but instead he will probably end up being knighted for services to the establishment and capital. At the very least, he can be seen to be continuing in the long-established tradition of culling the poor and the vulnerable. Add the 70,000 mentioned above to the 130,000 excess deaths attributed to Tory austerity over the last few years, and you have 200,000 thousand largely unproductive people that the state no longer needs to support. That represents a ‘result’ to many sick Tory minds.

In the end, the actual numbers barely matter to how we should judge Boris Johnson and his handling of this crisis. Remember where we started from in talking about statistics. The undeniable state of affairs is that whatever the death toll from this virus in the UK, it could have and should have been less. It is also undeniable that that it would be more but for the interventions of others too force Johnson’s bloodied hand. Thank you, devolved administrations, for forcing through the school closures. Thank you, President Macron, for forcing through the semblance of a proper lockdown. Thank you, Tory cabinet ministers, for standing up and threatening a revolt to get him to act. Although you should take him down anyway.

So we find ourselves with another PM, like Blair, with blood on his hands and innumerable lives cut short by his thoughts and deeds.

I’ll have to leave this here, as I’m choking up with a mixture of anger, frustration, resentment and desperate sadness.  Aneurin Bevan was right enough about Tories, but he never really met a Tory quite like Johnson.

POSTSCRIPT

A few days after publishing this article, on 31st March, perhaps the most damning and incendiary revelation of Tory culpability for the scale of this crisis was revealed by, of all people, the Tory stalwarts and chief propagandists of the Telegraph!Screenshot 2020-03-31 at 10.56.15

It transpires that Exercise Cygnet is the code-name of an exercise undertaken in October 2016, a few months into Theresa May’s tenure as Prime Minister, with Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary and Boris Johnson tucked away in the Foreign Office, but very much part of the Cabinet , present and involved.

The Telegraph writers paint the scene in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room (COBRA) vividly:

“Ministers from across government were seated, ashen faced, in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room. On a large flat screen, epidemiologists from Imperial College London were showing a slide which detailed the scale of the epidemic that was enveloping Britain.”

“The first cases of the virus had been confirmed in south east Asia two months previously. Britain reported its first cases, imported from returning travellers, a month later. Now there was widespread and sustained domestic transmission and the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared a global pandemic.”

“But it was not the pandemic itself that was causing those gathered in Whitehall to grimace but the nation’s woeful preparation. The peak of the epidemic had not yet arrived but local resilience forums, hospitals and mortuaries across the country were already being overwhelmed.” 

“There was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for the nation’s doctors and nurses. The NHS was about to “fall over” due to a shortage of ventilators and critical care beds. Morgues were set to overflow, and it had become terrifyingly evident that the government’s emergency messaging was not getting traction with the public.”

Apart from the whole Cabinet, it transpire that the were also representatives of the NHS and local authorities present, presumably gagged by the Official Secrets Act. I have found no evidence that there was any involvement of the devolved administrations of Wales, Scotland and N.Ireland. That would be useful to know for sure.

The modelling was prepared by the same team at Imperial College whose projection I have already highlighted. The whole exercise made patently clear to all present that there were gaping holes in Britain’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) plan.

OK, the exercise wasn’t for Covid-19 coronavirus, which didn’t exist then, but was based on modelling for the H2N2 influenza virus. However, both spread rapidly and kill by causing acute respiratory illness.

The Telegraph highlights the other key difference:

While the real Covid-19 epidemic is being played out in public, the report detailing the findings of Exercise Cygnus have never seen the light of day. A senior former government source with direct involvement in the exercise said they were deemed “too terrifying” to be revealed. Others involved cited “national security” concerns.”  

“There has been a reluctance to put Cygnus out in the public domain because frankly it would terrify people,” said the former senior government source yesterday. (‘Yesterday’ would have been 27th March).

“It’s right to say that the NHS was stretched beyond breaking point [by Cygnus]. People might say we have blood on our hands but the fact is that it’s always easier to manage the last outbreak than the one coming down the track. Hindsight is a beautiful thing.”

So why has this exercise been buried from view? We can all speculate about that, but we do know a few other damning things that happened consequently. For example, at a meeting of the Public Health England (PHE) advisory board on 26 April 2017 (six months later), Paul Cosford, the quango’s director for health protection, has said that a report “setting out the learning and recommendations” from Cygnus “was in the process of being finalised” but it never saw the light of day.

As for NHS England, the Telegraph has only managed to uncover evidence of cursory consideration of the Cygnus exercise and findings. Apparently, the editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, has called on the NHS board to “resign in their entirety” once the current crisis is over on discovering this Cygnus cover-up. Whatever, the revelation the government and the NHS leadership knew of the gaps in Britain’s surge capacity ahead of the current outbreak cannot go ignored.

The Telegraph has also uncovered references to Cygnus in the records of a range of local authorities in England. It cites Croydon, Rotherham and Northampton in particular. The Croydon one is within the last few weeks. Croydon Council’s latest Pandemic Response Plan makes mention of Cygnus. A key lesson from the exercise, it notes, is the need for “a better understanding of the likely public reaction” to a pandemic in order to “help the development of a robust communications strategy to assist the response”. The irony of this is not lost on the Telegraph writers, who suggest “the importance of this will not be lost on Number 10 communication chiefs who have faced criticism in recent weeks for their failure to communicate clearly and effectively with the public.

So here we have it laid bare by die-hard Tory supporters. I’ll leave the final word to them, and allow you to formulate your own opinions accordingly:

“Exercise Cygnus starkly revealed what a worst case pandemic scenario would do to Britain but ministers did not respond by building capacity enough to cover it.”

 

Screenshot 2020-03-30 at 00.17.49

My Little Red Book of Companies to Boycott – Coronavirus updates

The unfolding Coronavirus pandemic has started to unveil the barbarism of capitalism Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 19.39.57before our very eyes. Perhaps for the first time, the truth in Rosa Luxemburg’s assertion that ultimately we are faced with a choice between socialism or barbarism id there for all to see.

We have Boris Johnson’s peri-fascism having to swallow it’s false pride and instigate a whole raft of socialist policies in order to prevent calamity upon calamity piling up at his door. Even the Telegraph has made a plea for short term socialismScreenshot 2020-03-26 at 19.37.12 in order the secure the future of the free market!

Meanwhile we have prominent companies, many of which are Tory supporters and/or donors, making the crassest and most insensitive decisions revealing their devotion to their shareholders and profits ahead of the workers on whose labour their wealth is built.

This led to me to make a comment about adding some of the worst offenders to My Little Red Book of Companies to Boycott, which doesn’t exist outside of my head to be honest. I was asked to name the companies in it by someone on Facebook, so thought I’d better make a list!

So let me start with the companies that have shown their true colours in this current crisis. They all have previous, of course, but I’m hoping the public will be less forgiving this time around.

  1. WETHERSPOONS

The chain’s founder, mega-arsehole Tim Martin has incurred the wrath of many for declaring he won’t pay his staff while the Pubs are closed down during the Coronavirus crisis, suggesting they basically fuck off and get jobs in Tesco (who are recruiting short-term extra staff) while the pandemic shuts his pubs. Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 20.02.38A number of pubs were appropriately graffitied with “PAY YOUR STAFF” and the like. This is not long after it was revealed that the Tories December election victory saw his personal stake in the company increase by £44m overnight, up well over half a billion pounds.

Not long ago, he angered many by his overt and over-zealous support for Brexit. He was one of very few business leaders to overtly and vocally back Brexit and the Brexit Party. He is known to spent £95,000 on pro-Brexit beer mats and regularly used the pub group’s magazine for customers to promote Brexit. Many of you will know my own relative ambivalence over Brexit, so its not his position on this that is objectionable per se (although some of reasoning is predictably offensive), but to use and abuse his business, his premises and his staff to such blatant political ends that conflict with many customers and staff, is beyond crass and totally inappropriate.

Not that he gives a toss about his staff. He uses and abuses zero hours contracts routinely, mostly on minimum wages and unsocial hours. They employ all manner of sharp practices, like clocking people at closing time, even though expecting staff to continue clearing up. They are also renowned for not providing references, perhaps because it would be a full-time job given their atrocious staff churn.

All-in-all, having once upon a time used them quite a lot, I now avoid them like …. well the Coronavirus itself. Stay well clear and support local independent premises instead.

2. SPORTS DIRECT

Another company with a renowned arsehole at the helm. Mike Ashley has endeavoured to defy the admittedly half-baked lockdown, initially wanting to remain open to the public, but once leant on insisting employees still turn up, even though closed to the public, if they want any pay at all.

Appalling treatment of staff has long been the Ashley way. In 2016 it was compared to a Victorian workhouse in parliament , and was subject to an inquiry that produced a hugely damning 37-page report that included finding that the company regularly fired people when off ill more than a few days; ritual humiliation of staff nor meeting tough targets; expecting workers to finish off work after clocking off; use and abuse of zero hours contracts; and an appalling health and safety record. Things have only improved slightly since by most accounts.

Their customer service is little better with poor and misleading returns policies that do not heed the Consumer Rights Acts and other legislation. Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 21.06.01Add to this his dreadful handling of Newcastle United, which he uses as little more than an advertising platform for Sports Direct, and he generally seems to piss off everybody he has any dealings with at all. Save yourself the trouble and don’t touch from now on.

3. EASYJET

EasyJet made the perverse decision to appeal for taxpayer support last week despite handing shareholders £174 million in dividends. Labour MP David Lammy described the move as “greedy super capitalism at its worst” as the UK government drew up plans to buy into airlines to save the industry.

These cheeky bastards give Ryanair a real run for the money even before this stunt. They have quite a repertoire. Overbooking, which results in passengers who have already checked in getting dumped off a flight at the airport. Flights cancelled just hours before take-off, leaving passengers stranded abroad. Promised compensation and other expense claims first ignored, and then fought at every stage – in the hope you’ll give up and go away. in 2015, AirHelp, which provides online legal help for those claiming compensation for delays, said its data showed EasyJet had the worst record of any airline for paying out what is legally due.

4. VIRGIN ATLANTIC

I have used Virgin Atlantic just the once and it was not an enjoyable experience at all, primarily from dreadfully uncomfortable seats. It was actually difficult to find an alternative carrier for the journey I was undertaking, but I will try harder next time after its most recent disgrace.

Virgin Atlantic has been heavily criticised after telling staff to take eight weeks of unpaid leave due to a sharp drop in demand caused by the outbreak of the virus. Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: “It is a disgrace for a company owned by a billionaire to ask its employees to live without wages for two months in the middle of a crisis. Richard Branson can put his hand in his own pocket if needs be.”

Is that unreasonable? I don’t think so when you do some basic maths. Virgin Atlantic have 8,500 employees. At say, £500 per week, over that 8 weeks, that would amount to £34 million. Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 21.59.51Ok, that’s a lot of money to most of us, but Branson is worth an obscene £4 billion or thereabouts. He’d have £3,966,000,000-ish to scrape by on after this magnanimous gesture, and has long been established within the top 10 richest people in the UK.

Virgin Atlantic is, of course, only a small part of his empire. Most have had their share of controversy, right from the earliest of days. His astute school headmaster famously predicted he would either go to prison or become a millionaire. ‘Both’ should still be an option.

Virgin Records, in the early 70s, was initially a mail-order business that boomed until it was uncovered that he was undercutting the competition by selling stock earmarked for export only and thereby evading purchase tax. Tax evasion (although, with Tory complicity in the rule making,  he can claim it is legal avoidance) has become a speciality.

His other speciality has been carpetbagging. Virgin Money picks up Northen Rock at a heavily discounted price that effectively cost the tax payer £400million, giving him a nice little mortgage lender that has had all its rubbish subprime ‘assets’ removed courtesy of the Treasury. And don’t get me started on Virgin Rail’s hundreds of millions of subsidies.

Virgin Radio and Virgin Mobile? Both granted government licences to operate in a heavily restricted market. Virgin Airlines? The beneficiary of regulators’ decision to strip British Airways of landing slots between London and New York and Boston and award them to the number two player for opaque reasons at best. Again, a closed market where Branson has tried to keep the door shut tight against further competition. Hence my lack of options.

As a naive teenager who fell in love with Tubular Bells (Virgin Records big breakthrough release) I once saw Branson as a heroic figure. I now see him for the self-indulgent  capitalist parasite he truly is.

5. BRITANNIA HOTELS

At least CEO Alex Langsam has not become a celebrity while accruing a small fortune (a mere quarter billionaire) from his shabby hotel empire of 61 hotels. He has hit the headlines now for his obscenely insensitive response to the Coronavirus crisis.

Aviemore Coylumbridge Hotel ruthlessly kicked staff out of live-in accommodation, telling them their services are “no longer required“. The hotel has since reversed the decision, blaming an ‘administrative error’ for sacking staff during the pandemic. Clearly it had nothing to do with the massive public backlash following the decision. But it has been similarly crass elsewhere this week too, notably in Blackpool.

The Metropole and The Savoy hotels, both part of the Britannia Hotel Group, who were shocked to receive letters on Thursday terminating their employment. The letter confirms staff at The Savoy have had their jobs axed from March 19 because “your services are no longer required.” Staff have been “thanked” for their service while being wished “every success” in finding another job.Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 22.26.56

Admittedly, Britannia operates at the budget end of the market, and includes the shite Pontins Holiday Park portfolio, but in recent years, Britannia Hotels has been a subject of widespread criticism over the hygiene and maintenance of its locations, with the consumer group Which? consistently declaring the hotel chain to be the worst in the United Kingdom since October 2013.

The very last places you want to go near right now, but best avoided forevermore!

6. NEXT

An easy boycott for me as they do bugger all in my size, but their quality has always appalled me anyway. But now these Tory Party sponsors can go to hell and back.

Leaked emails from Next HQ show staff are being told to take unpaid leave or use holiday days if they’re worried about coronavirus. Workers are being docked pay if they turn up late due to transport disruption. Staff in warehouses say the company is “putting lives at risk” as social distancing rules aren’t being followed, with 50 people stood together brushing shoulders according to one employee.

Nothing new, yet again. In October 2014, the company was one of several retailers criticised by Janice Turner in The Times for failing to pay a living wage. UK taxpayers pay £28 billion to low-paid workers and Turner says retail companies – which have the highest proportion of low paid workers – are exploiting austerity and effectively adding staff wages to the UK welfare bill. When asked why, despite record profits their lowest paid workers were so poorly paid, Next replied that they had thirty applicants for every job advertised. As if that is an excuse for anyone but a free market capitalist.

7. CINEWORLD / PICTUREHOUSE

Cineworld and Picturehouse made mass redundancies last week and cut pay for all retained staff by 60 per cent. The devastating decision left many employees wondering how they will afford essentials such as housing, electricity, gas and food in the coming weeks and months.

They have previous in the Uk in terms of refusing to pay the living wage. This is all totally inexcusable from the biggest cinema chain in the UK, and second biggest in the world. I was part of a successful campaign to get Odeon to review its pricing policies locally, backed by boycotts. Let us see how responsive this mob are.

 

So this bunch have (further) sullied their reputations badly in response to the current crisis and will join the long list companies I do my best to avoid.

THE REST OF MY RED BOOK:

There follows a brief summary of other companies I have long taken issues with and endeavoured to boycott:

  • Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 22.42.40AMAZON – primarily for outrageous tax avoidance and appalling treatment of employees. Its tricky in that I do find myself using small businesses that use Amazon’s website as an Ebay-like platform, but I do avoid purchasing directly from Amazon. Check their listings carefully to see who you are really dealing with.
  • AUTOTRADER – Tory sponsors who support scrapping of workers rights to enable staff to be sacked at will.
  • BEN & JERRY’S – primarily for Israeli deals and poor environmental record in supply chain
  • BP – Appalling environmental and safety record.
  • CADBURY –  disgraceful tax avoidance
  • COCA COLA – Primarily for shocking human rights record including paying to have union leaders killed and/or intimidated in Colombia, Turkey and Guatemala.
  • EDF Energy – among the worst environmental records in a industry full them. Their involvement with the Hinkley Point nuclear plans is a prominent concern locally, here in South Wales.
  • FED-EX – Have a shocking human rights record. On top of links with the NRA gun lobby, they continue to sponsor the Washington Redskins – who bear a racially offensive name. The term “redskins” is derived from a horrific former practice of removing the skin of Native people for the purpose of collecting bounties.
  • GINSTERS – Tory sponsors
  • HEWLETT-PACKARD – One of the top arms-producing companies in the world and has an extensive number of contracts with the Israeli state. It owns the company which developed the BASEL system, in use at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank, which controls Palestinian movement through a system of ID cards and biometric information. 
  • JCB – Big Tory donors.
  • Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 23.44.03NESTLE – Appalling attitudes to human rights in particular. Nestlé has been the subject of boycott calls around the world since the 1970s for its irresponsible marketing of baby milk formula. It is accused of “contributing to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants” through its aggressive marketing practices, which promote baby milk formula as a superior option to breastfeeding despite evidence to the contrary. In recent years they have also seen controversy over CEO, the vile Peter Brabeck, claiming water was not a human right, but just another commodity.
  • PUMA – This is a tricky one right now as they are the current kit suppliers to my beloved Crystal Palace FC. However, I have contacted the club and hope they will review this link and, at worst, not renew the contract. Puma have made the huge tactical error of sponsoring the Israeli Football Association, after Adidas decided enough was enough and responded to the BDS campaign.
  • SAINSBURY’S – Big Tory donors
  • SHELL – Human rights issues (especially in Ogoniland, West Africa) compound their part in the climate emergency and other environmental l issues.
  • STARBUCKS – Poor treatment of suppliers, support for GMO, trampling of indigenous peoples rights (e.g.Lakota), links with Nestle (see above), and massive tax avoidance.
  • WARBURTONS – donations to the Tory Party and allowing their premises to be used in Tory publicity campaigns.

 

There are, of course, tons of others deserving to be boycotted for all manner of reasons, but these are ones I feel I need to keep reminding myself about as they are the ones I’m most likely to encounter and get seduced by. It is very much a work in progress and needs regular reviewing.

Homosexuality. An attempt to educate.

This is a chapter of the book I published back in 2011 (The Asylum of the Universe, pgs 81-91),  that I hope deals with the subject in a way that most people will be able to relate to. I might choose to put a few things in a slightly different way today, but I stand by it as is.

IMG_5475I have been prompted to post this at this juncture as we approach Cardiff Pride this weekend and getting horrendous regular reports of institutionalised homophobia in my father’s land of Poland at the moment. The Chapter below ends with concerns about what was happening in Uganda at the time.  That such concerns are now happening within the EU horrifies me to the core. It’s not just Poland, but throughout Eastern Europe in particular, especially Russia. And we have seen a 150% increase in homophobic attacks in the UK, alongside the rise in racist incidents, since the infernal Brexit vote. 

I hope this essay can help in some small way.

HOMOSEXUALITY

But I don’t care what they say
And I don’t listen to people
Who say that all actors are gay
Not that I don’t think that’s OK
As far as I’m concerned
Although it’s not my bag
If you wanna be a fag
Be a fag y’know?
Who am I to say
Where you come
And where you go (88)

Here is another topic surrounded by bigoted nonsense. Why people can’t just mind their own business and live and let live is beyond me. Living a fairly closeted childhood, I first became aware of homosexuality as an issue in the 1970’s when the Naked Civil Servant (89) was shown on television. My reaction was that of initial curiosity, followed by the conclusion that although it wasn’t for me, what was all the fuss about?

I guess it is a combination of the usual suspicion and fear of anything people struggle to relate to – like black skin, turbans etc. – and the disgust engendered by Leviticus and other religious scripture. It is a vile sin, end of story. But herein lays the essence of the problem. It is a sin because supposedly sacred texts say it is. Why? Because it is, so there! No rationale; just small-minded prejudice.

Religious homophobia has a huge influence on people’s attitudes. It is just one strand of my antithesis to faith schools. Michael Cashman MEP, who played one of television’s first gay characters, Colin in Eastenders, has made the following point:

“Within faith schools we are still getting a message of anaesthetised hatred – ‘we don’t hate these people but they are not equal’. If that is said enough, it softens the brains of young people and that’s so dangerous. And it’s a message echoed by sections of press.” (90)

88 From Mitsubishi Colt by Tim Minchin.
89 Quentin Crisp’s autobiography, the same title, is still worth a read.
90 Reported in a BBC News Magazine article entitled ‘Is Gay Bashing on the Rise?’

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A recent report by the gay rights group Stonewall (91) found that bullying of gay pupils rose significantly in faith schools. I wonder what queer- bashing kids grow into as adults. Onward Christian soldiers perhaps.

Just what is the problem with homosexuality? If you don’t like celery, then don’t eat celery. But you cannot label everyone who then eats celery as weird/evil/perverted, can you? (92)

The problem rarely seems to be with someone loving someone else of the same gender – loving in the sense of the emotional bond and mutual dependence between two people who care about each other. It is, after all, unreasonable to knock such positive feelings, isn’t it? So instead we are asked to focus on things that can be seen as stomach turning and threatening by those of a sensitive disposition. Yes, I am referring to cocks in bums.

At this point you may be recoiling in horror, and those of you tainted by religion are probably uttering a quick prayer of contrition for even reading such words. Alternatively, you may be chuckling to yourself. But in either case, why? It is a patent absurdity to be personally threatened by anyone else’s gender orientation. Be threatened by a rapist or a paedophile, not a homosexual.

Personally, I will admit to being somewhat anally retentive. I don’t like anything near my bum hole (other than my right hand and loo paper) in much the same way that I hate people touching the soles of my feet. But I have no problem with other people enjoying their feet, or their rings, being tickled, their toes being sucked and/or their anus being rimmed and probed. Whatever floats your boat.

Another strange thing is that many heterosexual men find the idea of buggering a sexy woman very appealing. I am not totally sure, but I don’t think the Bible has anything to say about this particular sexual permutation. But is there any significant difference between fucking a female arse compared to a male arse? Am I missing something?

Personally, I find it a little odd to want to shove your cock in any shitty hole, but especially when there is a nice pussy just inches away. But hey! Each to their own. And who am I to deny the pleasure patently enjoyed by most willing buggerees? Many men often view women that enjoy it up the bum as some sort of ‘holy grail’. As Ali G pointed out to the Beckhams, football crowds chanting ‘Does Victoria take it up the arse?’ can actually be construed as a compliment. Respect!

91 Reported in The Independent on 13/01/2010.
92 I have to confess to being a celeriphobe – it makes me want to vomit!

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The bigots get so hung up about these things that they seem to assume that every gay man wants to bugger them. How conceited can you get? Do they think every heterosexual woman fancies them? Do they think every heterosexual male wants to fuck their wife? Some are so small- minded, deluded and arrogant that they possibly do!

This focus on buggery is presumably the reason for the much greater tolerance of female homosexuality. In fact, show me a heterosexual man who says he doesn’t/wouldn’t enjoy watching lesbian sex, and I will show you a liar or religious bigot in denial. It is such a visual feast, that few men can fail to be aroused. Visual stimulus is highly important to men. Maybe this is why godly scripture, while often raging incandescently about male-on-male action, feels no need to condemn the girl-on-girl equivalent.

This allowed our lawmakers, who (historically at least) based their judgements of right and wrong on the Bible, to completely overlook consent laws for lesbians. These same lawmakers had no problem discriminating against gay men though. It is not that long ago that their age of consent was reduced from 21 to 18 yrs old – still two years older than for heterosexual girls. Just look at the mindset of these old fart lawmakers – they have no problem with girl-on-girl action; girls (their daughters) cannot consent to heterosexual sex before 16 yrs old, but boys (their sons) technically can; and boy-on-boy action is a real no-no. What inconsistent nonsense.

There is, of course, a line of argument that sees homosexuality as abnormal and even unnatural. If we were all to become homosexual, then we would, indeed, become extinct within a generation. This is one line of argument the bigots like trotting out. But it has a couple of pretty obvious flaws. Firstly, people do not ‘become’ homosexual and, secondly, homosexuality is perfectly natural.

On the first point, psychiatric and psychological research around the world tends to be pretty much unanimous. Most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation. It exists as part of the whole spectrum of human sexuality from exclusively heterosexual through to exclusively homosexual, via a mid point in the spectrum that would be completely bisexual. As such, sexual orientation is seen to be generally impervious to attempts to change it. (93)

93 www.apa.org/topics/orientation.html Answers to Your Questions About Sexual Orientation and Homosexuality. American Psychological Association.

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This is not to say that there is an even distribution of people along this spectrum – far from it. It is certainly not the bell curve that represents a statistically ‘normal’ distribution. This would infer that bi-sexuality would be the norm. It would, perhaps, be nice if it were so that more people could enjoy ‘the best of both worlds’.

Estimates of the occurrence of exclusive homosexuality vary considerably from one study to the next. It is a notoriously difficult topic to elicit frank, honest responses on. I have found estimates ranging from 0% to 20% of the population. The truth inevitably lies somewhere in between. Surveys over the last 20 years in the UK, however, seem to yield pretty consistent responses around the 6% mark. Figures for the U.S. tend to be around 4%. Remember, this is for people claiming to be exclusively homosexual.

Far more people will have had some degree of bisexual experience. In the UK, a 2008 poll revealed 13% of Britons have had some form of sexual contact with someone of the same sex (kissing or threesomes included) (94) but do not identify themselves as homosexual. Add on people who may have had homosexual urges or feelings, but not acted on them, and you can certainly imagine a figure of 20% being realistic.

The 0% figure is the patently anomalous one. This figure comes from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during a speech at Columbia University in 2007. He insisted that there were no gay people in Iran. He is, of course, wrong! (95) It may not be cock up his arse, but that is probably due to his head being up there already!

Whatever the figures, the reality is that sexual orientation is part of who we are, in a similar way that hair colour or body shape is. There is no rationale for persecuting ginger hair or rotund people, but the ignorant do so nonetheless. The fact that sexual orientation tends not to emerge until puberty and may not be identified until much later gives scope for some people to conclude that there is an element of choice, or even that indoctrination might be involved. Ironically, it is the ‘indoctrinaires’ of the church that most often suggest this.

94 Sex uncovered poll: Homosexuality. Guardian.
95 New York Times article of 30/09/2007 entitled Despite Denials, Gays Insist They Exist, if Quietly, in Iran by Nazila Fathi.

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In the narrow-minded and bigoted world we live in, homosexuality would not be a rational choice. This is why virtually everybody I know to be gay has had periods of torture and denial to cope with before coming to terms with the reality and ‘coming out’ (96).

This business of coming to terms with your own sexuality when it is different to what you are surrounded with must be difficult at best, and it is little wonder that it can prove traumatic. I think that one way in which it is even harder than it is for other minority groups (such as ethnic and racial groups) is that most people are brought up in heterosexual environments. The vast majority of parents will be, almost by definition, essentially heterosexual. Add to this the levels of ignorance and hostility towards homosexuality in many communities and it becomes easy to see why the adolescent homosexual finds it difficult to know where to turn for support, understanding and role models.

I guess that there must be several stages to go through in terms of the awakening and coming to terms with ‘being different’ in terms of one’s sexuality. Based on people I know and have spoken to, as well as things I have read, most homosexual people would not have been aware of their sexuality at all before puberty, although some claim to have had an awareness of being different in some way. Puberty is the time for sexual awakening for all of us.

In terms of coming to terms with one’s self, the ease of this must depend on your circumstances. However liberal and open your family and friends are, there must still be difficulties in coming to terms with being different. By your teenage years it must be obvious to everybody that heterosexuality is the norm and that homosexuality attracts bigotry and hostility. This is why, I suspect, many enter a period of self-denial. By the end of puberty – young adulthood – we all generally know who and what we are. So, what next?

The next stage must be sharing the realisation with others. If anyone of any sexual disposition is ever going to experience satisfying relationships in their life, they cannot deny or hide their sexuality forever. So, at some stage there must be a ‘coming out’ to your nearest and dearest. Again, just how easy this is will very much depend on your circumstances.

96 The term ‘coming out’ seems to stem from the use of the term ‘closeted’ for people that choose to keep their homosexuality away from other people. Thus, those that decide to disclose their sexuality to others are thereby ‘coming out of the closet

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How this phase goes will probably determine how quickly and easily going the ‘whole hog’ is and deciding to live openly without feeling the need to shy away from the truth of your sexuality. I would hope that this would not be the hardest step in this day and age.

There are not many circumstances where a person’s sexuality and sexual preferences are of any relevance whatsoever. Modern legal statutes make it increasingly difficult to negatively discriminate on the basis of sexuality. Indeed, many large organisations undertake positive discrimination in favour of all sorts of minorities and demographics to ensure their organisations reflect the national demographics (and tick all the boxes on their Investors In People application – but that is another load of bull I might come back to).

In some ways it is a sad reflection that some people feel uncomfortable about sharing their sexual disposition with the world, but I would fully defend their right to do so. As I said at the beginning of the chapter, it really is nothing to do with anyone else at all. So the practice of ‘outing’ people has to be seen as utterly despicable in most circumstances.

The exception to this would be with people who display homophobic attitudes in public while indulging in homosexual activities in private. Research (97) suggests that around 80% of homophobic men have homosexual tendencies to some degree. It supports long held theories that homophobia is often indicative of repressed, self-loathing homosexual feelings; and that they use their public homophobia as a smokescreen for their own homosexual activities.

In this situation, groups like OutRage! and their supporters, such as Peter Tatchell, feel justified in outing these people. It is justified in the following terms:

  • The gay community is entitled to defend itself against homophobia of any sort.
  • Homophobia from closet gays is particularly indefensible on the grounds of hypocrisy and the additional harm caused by not only under-representing the size of the gay population, but in the duplicity and bigotry exhibited my members of that population.
  • Such behaviour is often most damaging from people in positions of influence who out of (often misguided) self-interest are prepared to pervert their authority to harm other gay people to protect their position.

97 The biggest study appears to have been undertaken by Prof. Adams at the University of Georgia in the 1990s – reported in an article entitled Most Homophobes are Gay at www.ipce.info and in the US Journal of Abnormal Psychology, in 1996.

p86

 

I accept these arguments. I hate hypocrisy more than just about anything. Outing in these circumstances is going to make people face up to their hypocrisy and is therefore likely to be in everybody’s long-term interests. The “outing” of ten gay bishops in 1994 forced the Church of England to begin a serious dialogue with the homosexual community for the first time. It has heralded a period of critical self-evaluation by the Church that has significantly changed attitudes to gay clergy and led to a wider review of attitudes to issues like women clergy. The whole establishment has been forced to become more circumspect with regard to overtly homophobic attitudes.

Thus, in exceptional circumstances, outing can very definitely be a catalyst for good. Following the outing of the Bishops, hypocritical, homophobic, closet gays in politics, business, the military, the judiciary and the police will need to tread more carefully. This should not be a threat to closet gays in general – just the hypocrites among them that need to reconcile their homophobic personas with their homosexual dispositions. Enough said.

Moving on to another thorny aspect within the nature versus nurture debate, there are some legitimate questions as to how a genetic propensity for homosexuality can persist. The answer to this can be found in the in journal Evolution and Human Behavior (98). The authors of a 2008 study revealed that there is considerable evidence that human sexual orientation is genetically influenced. What is not known is how homosexuality, which tends to lower reproductive success, is maintained in the population at a relatively high frequency. They hypothesised that genes predisposing to homosexuality could confer some advantage in heterosexuals who carry them.

The research into this hypothesis showed that masculine females and feminine men exhibit two relevant traits. Firstly, they are more likely to be non-heterosexual (gay or bi-sexual). Secondly, when heterosexual, they tend to have significantly more opposite-sex partners. I can certainly relate to effeminate guys I know who seem to have constant strings of female partners.

98 Evolution and Human Behavior vol.29 pg 424-433 entitled Genetic factors predisposing to homosexuality may increase mating success in heterosexuals by Zietsch et al.

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It is possible to imagine all sorts of psychological issues involved in these trends, but most pertinent would appear to be the subliminal inferences that a relatively effeminate male makes a more attractive mate from the point of view of likely contributions to child rearing perhaps. This could also be behind the ever-growing body of evidence that homosexual couples are at least as good as heterosexual couples when it comes to parenting (99).

All this merely confirms that a tendency towards homosexuality is perfectly natural. Indeed, a growing body of research reveals that homosexual and bisexual behaviour are widespread in the animal kingdom (100). Would you believe that homosexual behaviour has been witnessed in close to 1500 species and is well documented in around 500 of them?

Some of the behaviour witnessed would boggle even the most liberal of minds. (That has aroused your curiosity, hasn’t it? Perhaps that is why the book referred to in the footnote is out of stock at Amazon as I write!!) Just to give you a little flavour of the rich diversity out there, how about gay whales fucking their partner’s blowholes! The whale song afterwards translates, I speculate, as ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’!! Perhaps this is also what generated the slogan ‘Nuke Gay Whales for Jesus’ (101).

The motivations for and implications of homosexuality in nature are far from fully understood. But what is clear is that there is much greater sexual diversity in the animal kingdom – homosexuality, bisexuality, masturbation and all manner of non-reproductive sex – than the scientific community has yet studied in any detail and far more than the religious bigots would be prepared to accept.

Having said this, there have been homosexuality-embracing human societies at various points in history and dotted around the world.

99 See Wikipedia article on LGBT parenting. (LGBT = Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender)
100 A particularly impressive review of the subject can be found in Bruce Bagemihl’s enclopaedic book (almost 800 pages) entitled Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.
101 The phrase was coined to offend as many people as possible in one fell swoop in an irreverent parody of trendy political causes. Makes for a great t-shirt!

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For example:

  • In pre-colonial Africa, women in Lesotho engaged in socially sanctioned lesbian relationships, known as ‘motsoalle’. The Azande warriors of the Congo routinely took young men into their households as home helps and to shag when wanting sex without the risk of a pregnancy. The first recorded homosexual couples in history were depicted in ancient Egypt.
  • The indigenous people of the Americas had a form of same-sex spirituality centred on the concept the Two-Spirit individual. Overtly homosexual and transgender individuals were common and accepted in Latin American civilisations including the Aztecs, Mayans and Quechuas. Indeed, the Spanish conquerors (Catholics) were so horrified by such open practice of sodomy; they crushed it with stiff penalties that included public execution by burning or being torn to pieces by dogs. What else would you expect from good Christians?
  • In eastern Asia, homosexuality has been recorded throughout history. It is an integral part of monastic Buddhist life and the Samurai tradition in Japan. In Thailand, Kathoey (more commonly known as ‘ladyboys’) have been a feature of society for many centuries. Thai kings are known to have taken male as well as female lovers.
  • Attitudes to homosexuality were quite liberal in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Plato equated the acceptance of homosexuality with democracy and its suppression with despotism in his Symposium. All Roman emperors, bar Claudius, are known to have taken male lovers. Renaissance Italy was renowned for widespread same-sex relationships – although frowned upon by the (Catholic) authorities.
  • In Persia (modern day Iran) public displays of homosexual and homoerotic expression were common in the Middle Ages. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism has pushed it ‘back into the closet’ with Iran, along with Muslim nations Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Mauritania, Sudan and Nigeria, now being among the only 10 countries with the death penalty in place for same-sex intercourse.
  • In many Melanesian societies, especially Papua New Guinea, homosexuality has been celebrated. Until the middle of the last century, the Etoro tribe, for example, regarded homosexuality as a preferable state to heterosexuality. In some tribes, young boys would be paired with older adolescents as mentors who would ‘inseminate’ the young boys to ‘help’ them achieve puberty!

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So, here in western ‘Christian’ societies (Europe and USA) our attitudes to the natural phenomenon that is homosexuality tend to be inconsistent, bigoted and riddled with unnecessary guilt and anxiety. Things may be changing slowly, but it can still be painful to watch. There is even some evidence that gay bashing may be on the rise in parts of Britain. (102)

I was amazed to find that Catholic Poland was one of the first countries to de-criminalise homosexual acts, back in 1932. It took until 1967 for the UK to follow suit, just after the Scandinavian countries.

Prohibiting discrimination has been even slower. Quebec was the first place to legally ban discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, in 1977. Most developed countries caught up in the 1980s and 1990s, but the situation is still grim in many parts of the world. The war against narrow- minded bigotry is still to be won.

There is current uproar about Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill, going through its parliament as I write, in early 2010. It is the most draconian attempt at fascist legislation since God knows when (he says with deliberate irony). It has been encouraged by local Christian leaders and funded, according to Peter Tatchell (103), by US evangelical ministries. So, just what are these nice Christian folk proposing?

The bill before the Ugandan parliament proposes the death penalty for “aggravated” and/or “serial” homosexuality. Aggravated homosexuality is defined as gay sex involving under 18s or disabled people, or by anyone with HIV, irrespective of condom use. Serial homosexuality is having same sex relations more than once. Life imprisonment used to be the more lenient punishment for same-sex intercourse, but that is now the fate for anyone caught indulging in any form of homosexual behaviour, such as kissing or holding hands, or even living together in a same-sex (but possibly sexless) marriage. Condoning or promoting homosexuality will get you five to seven years.

102 BBC News Magazine article entitled Is Gay Bashing on the Rise? There was an 18% rise in reported attacks in the East End of London in the summer of 2009. The police claimed that this partly reflected improved relations with the gay community making them more comfortable in coming forward and reporting incidents.

103 See Peter Tatchell’s letter, on behalf of OutRage!, in the Jan/Feb 2010 edition of New Humanist under the heading ‘Witch Hunt’.

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Why, oh why, oh why? They are not far from a ‘final solution’ to eradicating the perceived menace. Sound familiar? Hopefully the international community will get its act together sooner rather than later this time around. But then again, I expect we will see the Christian and Muslim fundamentalists sitting on their hands on this one, much as the Roman Catholic Church, and others, sat on their hands when faced with the Holocaust.

Welcome to the asylum of the universe.

 

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Factfulness – The EU’s racism and anti-refugee agenda.

I’ve just finished reading Hans Rosling’s incredibly important book “Facfulness”. For the most part is a very uplifting and positive take on the state of the world today – and thereby a welcome antidote  to the prevailing negativity and doom and gloom that pervades the news and social media. It is, after all, subtitled “Ten reasons why we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think”

Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.19.18However, towards the end, in a chapter entitled The Blame Instinct, he examines the situation, in 2015, of the 4,000 refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried to reach Europe in inflatable boats. I’m sure we all remember the images of children’s bodies washed up on holiday beaches. That were splashed all over the news media and evoked outpourings of horror and compassion. Well, of horror at least. How could it happen? Who is to blame?

Over to Hans Rosling (Factfulness pg212ff):

[W]hy weren’t the refugees traveling to Europe on comfortable planes or ferry boats instead of traveling over land to Libya or Turkey and then entrusting their lives to these rickety rubber rafts? Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.23.20.pngAfter all, all EU member states were signed up to the Geneva Convention, and it was clear that refugees from war-torn Syria would be entitled to claim asylum under its terms. I started to ask this question of journalists, friends, and people involved in the reception of the asylum seekers, but even the wisest and kindest among them came up with very strange answers.

Perhaps they could not afford to fly? But we knew that the refugees were paying 1,000 euros for each place on a rubber dinghy. I went online and checked and there were plenty of tickets from Turkey to Sweden or from Libya to London for under 50 euros. 

Maybe they couldn’t reach the airport? Not true. Many of them were already in Turkey or Lebanon and could easily get to the airport. And they can afford a ticket, and the planes are not overbooked. But at the check-in counter, they are stopped by the airline staff from getting onto the plane. Why? Because of a European Council Directive from 2001 that tells member states how to combat illegal immigration. This directive says that every airline or ferry company that brings a person without proper documents into Europe must pay all the costs of returning that person to their country of origin. Of course the directive also says that it doesn’t apply to refugees who want to come to Europe based on their rights to asylum under the Geneva Convention, only to illegal immigrants. But that claim is meaningless. Because how should someone at the check-in desk at an airline be able to work out in 45 seconds whether someone is a refugee or is not a refugee according to the Geneva Convention? Something that would take the embassy at least eight months? It is impossible. So the practical effect of the reasonable-sounding directive is that commercial airlines will not let anyone board without a visa. And getting a visa is nearly impossible because the European embassies in Turkey and Libya do not have the resources to process the applications. Refugees from Syria, with the theoretical right to enter Europe under the Geneva Convention, are therefore in practice completely unable to travel by air and so must come over the sea.Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.21.21

Why, then, must they come in such terrible boats? Actually, EU policy is behind that as well, because it is EU policy to confiscate the boats when they arrive. So boats can be used for one trip only. The smugglers could not afford to send the refugees in safe boats, like the fishing boats that brought 7,220 Jewish refugees from Denmark to Sweden over a few days in 1943, even if they wanted to.

Our European governments claim to be honouring the Geneva Convention that entitles a refugee from a severely war-torn country to apply for and receive asylum. But their immigration policies make a mockery of this claim in practice and directly create the transport market in which the smugglers operate. There is nothing secret about this; infant it takes some pretty blurry or blocked thinking not to see it.

We have an instinct to find someone to blame, but we rarely look in the mirror. I think smart and kind people often fail to reach the terrible, guilt-inducing conclusion that our own immigration policies [those of the EU] are responsible for the drownings of refugees. 

Thank you, Hans.

So there you have it. I wish I had had this to hand a couple of years ago when the toxic Brexit debate was at its height. Yes, of course, there were, and are racists heavily involved in the Leave camp. But to try to label the everybody on the Leave side of the argument as small-minded, xenophobic racists, was always despicable in itself and even more so when you accept the fact that the the racists on the Remain side are even more in denial, hide in the shadows and successfully enact racist, anti-refugee policies in blatant contravention of the Geneva Convention.

I am not saying that this, in itself, is grounds for supporting either side of the Brexit campaign. What I am saying is that it kind of invalidates the whole topic from the debate. There is little to choose between the two sides in the final analysis (this story could be about UKIP with just a few words changed), other than one side is a bit more brazen and honest about its stance than the other. All the bollocks talked about freedom of movement boils down to simply shifting the barriers around.

Talking of barriers, perhaps the EU could sell the design for this one to Donald Trump: Screen Shot 2019-02-11 at 23.02.09

P.S. I fully expect a torrent of abuse from rabid ‘Remainers’, indignant at the mere suggestion that their wonderful EU could compared to overtly racist UKIP. I’d invite them to take a good look at the facts first, then in the mirror second. By all means stand by your ‘Remain’ convictions, but take some responsibility for cleaning up the focus and level of the debate.