Author Archives: Bridgend's Green Leftie

What should we make of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the SNP’s proposed Independence Referendum?

As with any committed supporter of Yes Cymru’s campaign for Welsh Independence we should take a close interest in developments in Scotland. We have always been behind the curve traced by the Scottish campaigners for independence, so their experiences there should inform our approach here.

So, what should we make of the Supreme Court ruling today? (23/11/2022)

1.   It should have come as no surprise, given what was required in order to hold the 2014 Referendum.

2.   The ruling given today is no more than an (admittedly well-informed) interpretation of the current law and is not legally binding.

3.   It lays bare the current constitutional status of Scotland (and Wales, by inference) such that it should fuel the Independence campaign rather than defeat it.

Let me expand on these points.

1. What was required to allow the 2014 Referendum to happen?

The relevant constitutional arrangements were laid down in the Scotland Act 1998. These dictated what was required in order to have the IndyRef in 2014. This Scotland Act laid out what areas the Scottish Parliament could make legislation on and which areas were ‘reserved’ to the UK Parliament in Westminster.

Then, as now (nothing has changed), what is devolved and what is reserved is determined by the UK Government and that has always included matters of “the union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England”.  Thus, then as now, explicit permission from the UK Government was required to enable the 2014 IndyRef to happen. This took the form of a facilitating ‘Order in Council’. These require the monarch to sanction a proposal drafted and controlled by the government to override some existing legislation. It is usually done with the approval of Parliament, via an Act of Parliament, but can be authorised by virtue of royal prerogative (which is quite a scary thought, if you reflect on it a while).

So, IndyRef 2014 was enabled by the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013, in which the UK Government gave Scottish Ministers permission to organise said referendum, but under tightly framed conditions. These conditions included:

  • ·      The referendum question; “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
  • ·      The layout of the ballot paper
  • ·      The date of the ballot; 18 September 2014
  • ·      Those that were entitled to vote
  • ·      How the vote could be conducted (postal ballot, proxy votes etc.)
  • ·      Campaign rules and offences
  • ·      And most other details of the whole thing.

This was all duly monitored by UK Government officials.

Thus, Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP and Yes Scotland would all be fully aware that nothing has changed since 2014 in these respects. Thus, when the Scottish Government drafted their Scottish Independence Referendum Bill earlier this year, with the aim of holding a referendum next October, they knew full well that it was illegal. So why go through the charade?

The obvious reason is that they know what is different now than was the case in 2013. Back then, they knew that they had enough support in Westminster and a weak UK Government (it was the Cameron-Clegg coalition government, that had not long taken over from (Scot) Gordon Brown, who had facilitated a lot of the groundwork. Now we have a vehemently non-co-operative government and an equally disinterested Leader of the Opposition (a knight of the UK realm, no less). Thus, the Scottish Government are, in my opinion, trying to manipulate public opinion in order to make the UK Government’s position untenable.

2. So, can a referendum still happen?

Short answer, of course it can. 

Long answer, there are a few circumstances in which it can still happen. 

  1. ·      Scottish Government could choose to ignore the opinion of the Supreme Court and take their chances in the inevitable legal challenges to its validity.
  2. ·      They could work harder on lobbying for support for an enabling Act within the UK Parliament
  3. ·      They could manipulate the campaign at the next General Election in Scotland into a single-issue campaign, i.e. Scottish Independence.

The last of these 3 options seems to be where the SNP are at right now; a position they will have been lining up knowing full well what the Supreme Court would say. But I think it is a very high-risk approach. There is so much other shit going down right now, especially the cost-of-living crisis, that to kick stating policy on all this down the road in order to focus purely on the independence question might seem somewhat self-indulgent. However, with a large part of all the big issues being directly attributable to a succession of Tory governments in Westminster, it could be the right approach if handled well enough, although at best it is no more than a staging post towards the other options.

Personally, I see a lot in favour of the first approach above. With a resounding result in favour, why not go for a UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence)?  UDI has a chequered history of successes and failures. 

This was what they attempted to do in Catalonia in 2017  and it did not end well. But a lot of mistakes were made there that the Scottish Government can learn from. If nothing else, it would be fascinating to witness how the UK Government would respond to attempts to go down this route.

I think we can dismiss the middle option above as not worth the effort with the current make-up of the UK Parliament, but it could certainly have much greater traction if the first option went well. 

3.  What have we learned from the verdict of the Supreme Court?

In short, nothing new.

But it has laid bare a few things that independence campaigners have argued for a long time, that cannot now be denied.

Not surprisingly, Nicola Sturgeon was all over some of this straight away:

“A law that doesn’t allow Scotland to choose our own future without Westminster consent exposes as myth any notion of the UK as a voluntary partnership and makes the case for independence.”

She is patently right on this point. It establishes the reality that, despite the increased devolution achieved in recent decades, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are, at best junior members of an unequal, forced and enforced union. They are, in effect, colonies of an English Empire, along with the few remaining scattered and distant islands of the nominally British Empire (British Overseas Territories) .

There is no British Empire left. Control of all these territories includes matters reserved for the Westminster Government. King Charles is the monarchial head of state of them all too. It is an English Government and an English monarch (so long as you don’t go too far down the family tree).

The myth that Westminster can represent the interests of its UK colonies is laid bare by this table showing the make-up of the Westminster parliament over the last 100 years:

Currently the three colonies combined are allowed 18% of the votes in Parliament (9% to Scotland, 6% Wales, 3% N. Ireland). 100 years ago, the three together had 20% of the seats. At the next election it actually goes down to barely over 16%!! The direction of travel is clear enough; Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland get less and less influence in Westminster over time.

Furthermore, there is no pretence that Westminster is a UK parliament reserved to look after UK interests. It has always been, first and foremost, the English parliament. There is no devolved English parliament; Westminster is it!

CONCLUSION

All that today’s Supreme Court verdict has achieved is to underline the moral bankruptcy of the UK’s constitution, in every sense of that word ‘constitution’. It underlines that the UK is a coercive relationship:

  • ·      It dictates your relationships with those outside (e.g. EU, NATO etc)
  • ·      It dictates what you can and cannot do for yourself
  • ·      It denies you freedom and autonomy
  • ·      It gaslights you regularly (e.g. this is a union of equals)
  • ·      It limits your access to money
  • ·      It impacts on your self-esteem (e.g. you are nothing without me)
  • ·      It is ultimately seriously bad for your well-being.

Scotland, and Wales and Northern Ireland need to sustain their desire to break free and create their own independent futures. If this means, ultimately, just getting up and walking out, then so be it. There are always difficulties along the way, but it is the only way to a truly happy and safe future.

Ukraine is shining a light on the very worst in most of us. Discuss.

Firstly, let me present some context to what I want to focus on.

Putin’s/Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a major international crime, however you care to define such crimes. Putin is a war criminal. I have never held a candle for Putin, just as I never held a candle for Saddam in Iraq, Gaddafi in Libya or Assad in Syria. But as aware as I am of their crimes, I am also aware of the crimes of Bush in the USA, Blair in UK and a near constant stream of leaders in Israel. War crimes and war criminals go back as long as the history of armed conflict.  

What I want to focus on from here on, is not so much the heinousness of war crimes themselves, as this is self-evident to everyone I would hope, but instead, I want to focus on the hypocrisy and double-standards that we seem to collectively subscribe to, or at least tolerate, in the way we consider war crimes in different parts of the world, and also in how we treat the victims of war crimes and war in general, specifically in our attitudes to refugees. 

NAKED SELF-INTEREST?

I think it is safe to say that there is a very high level of public consensus in support of Ukraine and its people right now. And who am I to say that is inappropriate. As a member of “Stop the War”, I am unequivocally against the war there, recognise it as a potential threat to us all, and support demands for an immediate ceasefire and the withdrawal of all Russian troops. 

These are the views of just about everyone I know on social media, especially those with their blue and yellow profile pics. They were sentiments that the entire crowd at just about every sports fixture across the country, who stood to applaud on Saturday (including the 1000+ fans at the Bath City v Ebbsfleet Utd game I was at). Rarely, if ever in my lifetime, can I recall such unity of expression against a common enemy. 

The power of words aka propaganda

“A common enemy”. 

“A potential threat to us all”.  

Is it as simple as pure self-interest that makes us absorbed by this particular conflict? 

Is this the reason we have no more than a passing interest and very little awareness of the ongoing wars in Yemen, Somalia and Syria, for example, all of which are arguably far worse humanitarian disasters than Ukraine to date?

MEDIA NARRATIVES

Since the turn of the century, we have seen an extraordinary transformation of the media landscape, with a plethora of competing news agencies and outlets available 24/7 via satellite and cable networks, all digested, regurgitated and manipulated by, well just about all of us (what do you think I’m doing right here?) via social media channels. 

We have never had so much access to the truth, but also never been so deluged with propaganda and fake news. I don’t want to get into how to determine truth from bunk; I’ve dealt with this in the context of the Covid pandemic and climate change, for example over many years (I’d still urge those struggling with it to read Massimo Pigliucci’s book “Nonsense on Stilts”– spoiler alert: check out your sources credentials!)

What I do want to focus on is the language (check out that Newsweek front page, above) being used in the reporting of this particular conflict; how it differs to the reporting of other conflicts, and what this might say about us all.

‘The beauty of our weapons’

Let me take you back just a few years to April 2017. Trump had just ordered the launching of tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Syria in response to unproven claims that Syria had some nasty chemical weapons. The NBC anchor (or something that rhymes with anchor), Brian Williams eloquently described the video images of these strikes thus:

‘We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean – I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons” – and they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is, for them, a brief flight…’

It is thought that 105 of these were launched by Trump on Syria. Raytheon is the manufacturer of the Tomahawk Block IV, a low-flying missile that travels at 550 miles per hour. During a decade of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya, the Pentagon has increasingly relied on the Tomahawk. In 2010 Raytheon reported its 2,000th Block IV delivery to the U.S. Navy. Who knows how many they have sold by now. These ‘beauties’ were retailing at $1.4m a piece in 2010. 

I’m sure we have all seen these launch pictures on our TV screens over the years, whenever the USA, or the UK, or NATO launched them over Iraq, Libya, Syria, wherever. News from where they landed, of course, is highly selective. Our attacks are predicated on noble motives, of course, to free the people of these countries from tyranny. Our weapons are so sophisticated that we can target them within a few feet and this surgical precision means only military and governmental targets would be struck. Civilian casualties would be minimal (whatever that means). This is what we are told. 

The reality was very different in Iraq. Under the torrents of bombs launched by Bush and Blair from the start of the air campaign and the ground attack that followed, there were 150,000 violent deaths and around a million ‘excess’ deaths of civilians. Just 7 per cent of the ordnance consisted of so called ‘smart bombs’. But they did get Saddam too.

Homemade explosives

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Middle East, Hamas  were daring to launch homemade mortar attacks, heinous terrorist attacks incurring the full wrath of the Israeli military. In June 2007 it was reported that: “At least five mortars struck the Erez Crossing Sunday morning, moderately wounding one soldier, and lightly wounding three others.” 

In response PM Olmert said that Israel must continue to take military measures in order to defend its citizens.”Security forces will continue to act incessantly against agents of terror in Gaza and the West Bank“. Olmert told his ministers. “The activities will continue so long as they serve our security interests and the defense of Israeli citizens.”  In addition, Olmert emphasized that negotiations with Hamas were not on the table: “In light of what appears to be a lull in Kassam rocket fire, I want to make clear: We are not holding negotiations. We are not committing to changing our method of operations“. 

What of those methods of operations? 

Well, since the attack reported above there have been around 6000 Palestinians killed by Israeli armed forces, with around 135,000 significantly injured. As compared to well under 300 Israeli fatalities and less than 6,000 injured. That’s well over 20 times the casualties on the Palestinian side than the Israeli side.

Hamas is designated a terrorist group, not only by Israel, but by USA, UK, EU and Australia, among others. Here’s the BBC’s portrait of the group, Hamas: The Palestinian militant group that rules Gaza”. 

Anyway, back to the current conflict in Ukraine. But please keep in mind these ‘beautiful cruise missile’s and those ‘heinous home-made mortars’.

THE UKRAINE NARRATIVE

Russia has been deploying cruise missiles in Ukraine. There appears to be nothing beautiful about these ones though. The repeated use of the word ‘tragedy‘ emphasises the realities of collateral civilian deaths from an attempt to hit an air base in this report: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/child-among-least-four-killed-26363381 

No awe inspiring take-off pics (they will be doing the rounds in Moscow no doubt, under headlines about their surgical precision). Instead we are invited to surmise that a four year-old child is being extracted from the burning rubble in the photo. 

As for terrorists making homemade weapons, there is none of that going on in Ukraine. Instead, we have breweries and ‘humanitarian’ centres being used by ‘brave’ and ‘defiant’ women and children to make Molotov cocktails, to an ingenious recipe that puts grated styrofoam in the bottles to help them stick on impact to Russian vehicles, as the brave citizens prepare to use cunning guerrilla tactics to repel the evil invaders. 

Such are the narratives we get sold. Take your pick. Beautiful or heinous. Precision or indiscriminate. Hero or tyrant. Terrorist or defender. Success or tragedy. Shock or awe. Evil or collateral. Black or white. 

Notice the words the media peddle. Do we buy them, or are we capable of seeing through propaganda and are we also capable of examining our own prejudices?

As much as I am genuinely sympathetic and sickened to the plight of the Ukrainian people right now, I find the main stream media coverage of it  in ’the West’ nauseating too. But social media have done a decent job of calling it out, especially via Twitter (which I am beginning to see in a new, more positive light). Let me present some examples.

Charlie D’Agata wincing at what he just said?

CBS News senior correspondent in Kyiv, Charlie D’Agata, said on Friday 25th February: 

This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”

I’ve heard similar sentiments, including from members of the royal family this week

I heartens me to witness the storms of anger and derision such dehumanising comments generate. Observations such as these:

Atrocities start with words and dehumanization. Atrocities unleashed upon millions in the ME, fueled by dictators labeled as reformists in the west. The racist subtext: Afghans, Iraqi & Syrian lives don’t matter, for they are deemed inferior—“uncivilized.” Rula Jebreal, Visiting Professor, The University of Miami. Author. Foreign Policy analyst.

“Utterly stupid and ill informed statement. Afghanistan was also a peaceful and “civilised” place in 1979 before the Soviets invaded (and became the battle zone between the West and Soviet block). Ditto for Iraq (before the American attack in 2003)” Saad Mohseni, Director of the MOBY Media Group.

“This isn’t even OANN or Fox. This overt white supremacy is on CBS. Absolutely disgusting dehumanization of people of color.” Qasim Rashid, human rights lawyer.

Ros Atkins – Outside Source; inside prejudice?

BBC News’ ‘Outside Source’ presenter, Ros Atkins (often very good in his analysis) let himself down on Saturday 26th February when saying he ‘understood and respected the emotion expressed in his interview with Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze when he said:

“It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blonde hair and blue eyes being killed every day with Putin’s missiles and his helicopters and his rockets”.

The responses were many and fairly predictable:

“But people with ‘blue eyes and blonde hair’ dropping bombs over the Middle East and Africa is OK. And ‘Blue eyes and blonde hair’ is Hitler’s words from the Mein Kampf about the superior Aryan race.” Advaid, historian.

“White supremacy is a core European value.” Dr. Denijal Jegić, post-doctoral researcher of media and communication.

BBC’s Peter Dobbie following the money.

Al Jazeera English I would expect better from, but then when you use BBC stalwarts like Peter Dobbie, standards can be seen to slip. On Sunday 27th February Dobbie described Ukrainians fleeing the war thus:

“These are prosperous, middle class people; these are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war; these are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa, they look like any European family that you would live next door to.”

“Add Al Jazeera to the list… The Supremacy around the media coverage of this isn’t even subtle.”  So says Vladimir Poitin,  a peace loving communist echoing my thoughts.

INCONSISTENCIES

Added to this overt racism in the media coverage is its apparent collective amnesia too. I’ve lost count of the number of references to this fledgling war being labelled by our politicians and media alike as the worst crisis in Europe since the end of Word War Two.

Close to home

We British have long got into the habit of forgetting/ignoring the Northern Ireland conflict of 4 decades or more, but what of the more intense and catastrophic conflict in what was Yugoslavia, that incorporated full blown genocide in the 1990s?

I suppose this helps dilute the accusation of pure racism, and raises questions about the demonisation of Putin and Russia as part of wider geopolitical agenda. Milošević and Karadžić (and others) were eventually put before war crimes courts for atrocities in Bosnia, but there have been people calling for for Putin’s war crime tribunal to be organised the moment tanks crossed the Ukrainian border. Surely should join the queue behind Tony Blair, Bush Jnr, Assad and a long list of others from recent and ongoing conflicts. We know the names of many of the Israeli war criminals, a whole succession of them going back to Ben-Gurion, but can anyone name those responsible for the war crimes occurring in Yemen and Somalia for example.

The only consistency in all these sorry tales is the general apathy to the plight of both victims and perpetrators in parts of the world where black and brown people live among the white ‘westerners’ of Europe and North America. 

Can this overt racism be laid purely at the door of the media and the gullible that take their narratives at face value ? 

Maybe. But there is another dimension to these crises that brings it all closer to home and can make us confront our own prejudices.

This is the issue of refugees. 

REFUGEES

We keep hearing that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered one of the largest and fastest refugee movements that Europe has witnessed since the end of World War II. By the time of writing, within about two weeks from the start of this invasion, around 2 million people have already fled Ukraine, mostly to western Europe. 

It has also triggered a huge wave of compassionate help from a wide variety if sources:

  • On Monday, February 28, Airbnb and its nonprofit partner, Airbnb.org, announced an offer of free, short-term housing to up to 100,000 refugees fleeing Ukraine. These stays will be funded by Airbnb, Inc., donors to the Airbnb.org Refugee Fund and many Airbnb hosts.  
  • Rideshare company Uber said that while it had paused operations throughout Ukraine “to protect the safety of drivers and riders,” it would be providing unlimited free trips between the Ukrainian border and Polish cities to help out refugees and their families. 
  • Stay the Night and Budget Traveller are asking any hotels, hostels, hosts and accommodation providers willing to provide accommodation for refugees fleeing Ukraine to add their names to a Hospitality for Ukraine directory the company is putting  together.
  • British telecommunications company Virgin Media O2 said that to help its customers in Ukraine and in the U.K. stay in touch, the company removed charges for data use in Ukraine and is also crediting back charges for calls and texts to and from Ukraine and the U.K.
  • Throughout March, Wizz Air is making 100,000 free seats available for Ukrainian refugees on flights leaving Ukraine’s border countries (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania) and low cost ‘rescue’ fares for refugees stranded in other locations.
  • Bakers Against Racism has activated its network to mount the global Bake for Ukraine campaign. The group is asking “all bakers, chefs, home cooks, artisans and people from all walks of life to join in an emergency bake sale to raise funds for those who are providing food, shelter, transportation, and medical services.”
  • José Andrés’s nonprofit World Central Kitchen is serving meals to Ukrainian refugees at eight border crossings in southern Poland. The organization is supporting local restaurants preparing meals in five Ukrainian cities, including Odessa and Lviv, WCK said on its website. And WCK teams are on the ground in Romania and Moldova and will soon be in Slovakia and Hungary. 
  • Kindhearted Polish mothers and members of support groups have been leaving prams and other baby supplies at train stations for desperate women and children fleeing the war in Ukraine.
  • Households in the UK will be offered £350 a month to open their homes to people fleeing the war in Ukraine. But the Refugee Council is concerned about the level of support for those traumatised by war.
  • Many EU countries have said that refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine will be allowed to enter their countries even without passports, or other valid travel documents; other EU countries, such as Ireland, have announced the immediate lifting of visa requirements for people coming from Ukraine. (N.B. UK is no longer in the EU and is not relaxing these restrictions).

Heartwarming, isn’t it? ‘Restores your faith in humanity’, I’ve heard some people say. 

Let me refer you to a piece I wrote in 2019. I refer to the stories from 2015 of the 4,000 refugees who were allowed to drown 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. 

Bodies of refugees we didn’t care about in 2015

I feel compelled to reprint the section I printed then, from Hans Rosling’s book (Factfulness pg212 ff):

[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? After 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.

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 toreach the terrible, guilt-inducing conclusion that our own immigration policies [those of the EU] are responsible for the drownings of refugees. 

More recently, in late 2021, the terrible treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, most of them from Iraq and Afghanistan, some from various parts of Africa, trapped on Belarus’s borders with Poland and Lithuania sparked outrage across Europe. Belarus was accused of weaponising the plight of these people, luring them to Belarus in order to travel on to EU countries as retaliation against EU sanctions. It is a form of people trafficking sponsored, it would seem, by the Belorussian government. 

It has been widely reported that Polish border guards were brutal in their treatment of these refugees and migrants, many of whom sustained serious injuries from Polish and Belarussian border guards. Thousands were left stranded in the forests between the two countries in deplorable conditions with no food, shelter, blankets, or medicines: at least 19 migrants died in the freezing winter temperatures.

In response to this situation, Poland and Lithuania sent soldiers to its border, erected razor-wire fencing, and started the construction of a 186-kilometre wall to prevent asylum seekers entering from Belarus. It also adopted legislation that would allow it to expel anyone who irregularly crossed its border and banned their re-entry.

Even before the stand-off between Poland and Belarus, refugees in Poland did not receive a warm welcome. No pushchairs and food parcels for these asylum seekers! Although very few asylum seekers were actually granted refugee status (in 2020 out of 2,803 applications, only 161 were granted refugee status) and large numbers of refugees and migrants were detained: a total of 1,675 migrants and asylum seekers were in detention in January 2022, compared to just 122 people during all of 2020. 

So, to what should we attribute the starkly different responses we see to the current crisis involving Ukrainians and the 2015 crisis involving Syrians? Has Europe’s response to refugees really changed this much in such a short space of time? 

Perhaps we should take a closer look at what is actually happening to those fleeing Ukraine. 

In particular, nationals from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—are not getting the same generous treatment as the citizens of Ukraine. 

Ukraine has some excellent universities with students drawn from all over the world. However, foreign students attempting to leave the country say they are experiencing racist treatment by Ukrainian security forces and border officials. 

One African medical student told a CNN reporter that she and other foreigners were ordered off the public transit bus at a checkpoint between Ukraine and Poland border. They were told to stand aside as the bus drove off with only Ukrainian nationals on board, she says. Similar stories abound from the train stations.

Rachel Onyegbule, a Nigerian first-year medical student in Lviv was left stranded at the border town of Shehyni, some 400 miles from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. She told CNN: “More than 10 buses came and we were watching everyone leave. We thought after they took all the Ukrainians they would take us, but they told us we had to walk, that there were no more buses and told us to walk… My body was numb from the cold and we haven’t slept in about 4 days now. Ukrainians have been prioritized over Africans — men and women — at every point. There’s no need for us to ask why. We know why. I just want to get home”.

CNN also reported the experiences of Saakshi Ijantkar, a fourth-year medical student from India, trying to leave from Lviv, western Ukraine.”There are three checkposts we need to go through to get to the border. A lot of people are stranded there. They don’t allow Indians to go through.” It appears that they allow 30 Indians only after 500 Ukrainians get in. “To get to this border you need to walk 4 to 5 kilometers from the first checkpoint to the second one. Ukrainians are given taxis and buses to travel, all other nationalities have to walk. They were very racist to Indians and other nationalities,’” the 22-year-old from Mumbai told CNN.

She added that she witnessed violence from the guards to the students waiting at the Ukrainian side of the Shehyni-Medyka border. “They were very cruel. The second checkpoint was the worst. When they opened the gate for you to cross to the Ukrainian border, you stay between the Ukraine and Poland, the Ukrainian army don’t allow Indian men and boys to cross when you get there. They only allowed the Indian girls to get in. We had to literally cry and beg at their feet. After the Indian girls got in, the boys were beaten up. There was no reason for them to beat us with this cruelty,” Ijantkar said. “I saw an Egyptian man standing at the front with his hands on the rails, and because of that one guard pushed him with so much force and the man hit the fence, which is covered in spikes, and he lost consciousness,” she said. “We took him outside to give him CPR. They just didn’t care and they were beating the students, they didn’t give two hoots about us, only the Ukrainians,” she added.

This Al Jazeera report has disturbing video footage that corroborates these claims and reports the African Unions dismay at the way Africans are being treated. 

Al Jazeera reports that South Africa’s foreign ministry spokesman, Clayson Monyela, said in a tweet that students from his country were stuck at the Ukraine-Poland border. The South African ambassador to Poland has been at the border trying to get the students through, Monyela added. South African and other African students have been treated badly at the border, Monyela said. Meanwhile, the United States Bureau of African Affairs tweeted that it was coordinating with UN agencies and other governments “to ensure every individual, including African students, crossing from Ukraine to seek refuge is treated equally – regardless of race, religion, or nationality.” This has perhaps been prompted by African Americans in Ukraine experiencing this discrimination. 

This tweet from an Indian student in Ukraine, Nirmal, seems to sum things up well and includes a disturbing video clip of a Ukrainian police officer pushing a black woman off a train to let a white woman on instead. 

Others have alleged that they are being blocked from planes and their passports have been seized. Families and children as young as two months are waiting outside in temperatures as cold as three degrees. A man can be heard on a video saying, “They are not allowing any Black people to enter inside the gates. It’s only Ukrainians that they’re allowing in, even ones with kids, they’re not allowing in. Nobody is talking to us.” Another video shows more than two dozen Africans huddled in a basement reportedly without heat.

The Global Detention Project, a non-profit organisation based in Geneva that promotes the human rights of people who have been detained for reasons related to their non-citizen status, reports in an article that I have lent heavily on here,  that several African leaders—including, notably, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari—have strongly criticized the discrimination on the borders of Ukraine, saying everyone has the same right to cross international borders to flee conflict and seek safety.

The African Union stated that “reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach of international law,” and called for all countries to “show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity.”

Similar messages were shared by the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who said in a Tweet: “I am grateful for the compassion, generosity and solidarity of Ukraine’s neighbours who are taking in those seeking safety. It is important that this solidarity is extended without any discrimination based on race, religion or ethnicity,” and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who stressed that “it is crucial that receiving countries continue to welcome all those fleeing conflict and insecurity—irrespective of nationality and race.”

The recent history of migration policies and practices in Europe, right up to the present, make this seem a forlorn hope. Yes, the current media coverage of the Ukraine crisis does show that we are capable of demonstrating generosity, humanitarian values and a commitment to the protection and welfare of refugees. But it does not take very much reflection to realise that it also unmasks the widespread racism and animosity to refugees and asylum seekers from outside of Europe, especially with black or brown skin. 

Ask yourself why you can identify only one out these three flags with any confidence. (Well done, if you can name all three without cheating). 

Postscript: Two days after publishing this piece , Double Down News posted a video piece by Peter Oborne that echoes much of what I have said above about the differing values we see towards Ukarainian/European victims of war and, say, Yemeni/non-white victims of war. Osborne says this shows that “we’re racists; we’re barbarians too”.

It appears to be the time he has spent reporting from Yemen, among other things, that has changed Osborne’s worldview from that of a staunch Conservative (foremer lead political commentator for the Daily Heil and Torygraph, no less, into a commentator of true wisdom and valuable insight. I commend this article he wrote for the Guardian to gain an insight onto the man; especially how appalled he has become by Boris Johnson’s incessant lying and the media’s failure to hold him to account . He has even gone so far as to produce this great little website: https://boris-johnson-lies.com

Why every country needs a written constitution

I first learned that the UK was the only democracy in the world without a written constitution when I learned of the US constitutionScreenshot 2021-11-14 at 20.10.03 when studying A-level history in the late 70s. I remember writing an essay on it in which I think I ended by saying that perhaps one day the UK would regret not having one even though it didn’t seem to be much of an issue to that point.

I have had similar thoughts at various points between then and now, but now, as I campaign for the dissolution of the UK and the creation of democratic republics in Wales and Scotland (Ireland is a different kettle of fish), the matter of written constitutions seems more pertinent than ever. Screenshot 2021-11-14 at 20.11.43But even more than that, and if we assume for the sake of argument the UK exists in perpetuity, the current abysmal government of the UK under, the criminal mismanagement of Boris Johnson, is really underlining the the problems of not having a written constitution.

Screenshot 2021-11-14 at 20.13.45This criminal mismanagement is very much the focus of the Good Law Project; a not-for-profit campaign organisation that uses the law to protect the interests of the public. They fight cases that defend, define or change the law and use litigation to engage and educate. They seek to challenge abuses of power, exploitation, inequality, and injustice, and as such have a good track record of holding this government to account. (https://goodlawproject.org/annual-report-20-21/). In many ways they are just about the only meaningful opposition to this government.

Written constitutions may seem the dry, boring matters for lawyers alone, but they are the cornerstone of the governance of a country.

Screenshot 2021-11-14 at 20.08.30I was therefore very pleased to receive the letter, reproduced below, that highlights exactly my thoughts and concerns about our lack of a written constitution, written by Jolyon Maugham QC, the Director of Good Law Project. He is avowedly a political centrist, which is generally anathema to me, but he is driven by a strong moral compass that drives him to challenge the overt abuses of power, corruption and injustice that have become virtually unchallenged, everyday events under this abysmal regime.

I would urge everyone to read this letter carefully. It is a concise summary of what is so wrong with our governing establishment in the UK. It therefore also highlights what the constitution of a independent Wales needs to consider and guard against.

Dear Andrew,

 

The UK may be the only democracy in the world without a written constitution – a ‘higher’ law or code to which all others must conform.

Until now, we haven’t seen the need for binding rules. We’ve relied on self-restraint. We’ve trusted politicians to behave themselves. We’ve assumed that only ‘good chaps’ – as Lord Hennessy memorably put it – will rise to high office. And those good chaps won’t need to be told how to behave. Being good chaps, they will know what the rules are and they will obey them.

But what happens if the people running the show aren’t good chaps?

What you get is what we have. Bullying of regulators. Stacking of boards. Challenges to the independence of the media. Criminalising civil protest. Restricting the right to vote. Attacking the independence of MPs. Challenging the judiciary, curtailing its powers and reversing its decisions. Abandoning the Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. There are well-sourced rumours of political interference in operational policing decisions. And, let us not forget, we have a Prime Minister who unlawfully suspended Parliament.

All of this is before we start on the tidal wave of sleaze engulfing the Government: VIP lanes for the politically connected; vast payments to politically connected middle-men; procurement fraud going uninvestigated; failures to declare conflicts of interest by MPs; and the misleading of Parliament by the Prime Minister.

Sitting above all of this is a set of problems, arising not so much from how some politicians behave but from how the world now is. Our politics feels more divided. We seem to have less in common, and the idea we all want the same things for the country feels less secure.

The truth is, the world our rules were made for no longer exists.

What does this mean for the idea that Parliament is supreme – has absolute power? Is this conception of democracy consistent with a first-past-the-post system that can, and often does, give unconstrained power to a Government with a minority of the popular vote? And if MPs are coerced into voting with the Government, who gets to play the constitutional trump card of Parliamentary supremacy? MPs accountable to voters, or the Executive?

At the heart of all of this is a simple truth: you don’t need a constitution to protect you against good chaps because they’re good chaps, and a constitution that can’t protect you against bad chaps is no constitution at all.

Meanwhile, what remains withers and weakens. What is left is less and less able to command public confidence. Trust in politics – and ultimately in democracy – is the victim.

A responsible Government would respond with a process for a new British Bill of Rights. A smart Opposition would demand one.

Thank you,

Jo Maugham – Good Law Project

Your recent Labour Party resignation request

Begin forwarded message:

From: Labour Membership <labourmembership>

Subject: Your recent Labour Party resignation request

Date: 30 November 2020

Thank you for your email recent email concerning resigning your membership.

I am very sorry to hear that you are thinking about resigning your membership. I would like to thank you for all the support you have given previously.

In order for us to process your resignation we need you to reply to this email with an explicit request confirming you would like to do so.

Our Party is more inclusive and democratic than ever before and every single one of our members has something special and unique to contribute. I hope you will consider changing your mind and decide you would like to stay so that you will be able to continue to help shape our Party’s future and hold this Tory Government to account. 

If you stay, your experience, your passion and your voice can be a real force for change. 

Best wishes, 

Lee
Membership Services and Correspondence
The Labour Party

How explicit would you like me to make this?

I am a socialist who will not be part of a neoliberal, Blairite Tory-lite party headed by a class traitor.
Not only do I explicitly request the immediate cancellation of membership, as I first requested a few days after the catastrophic party leadership result was announced, but I also hereby explicitly inform you that I will not even consider voting Labour while Sir Blair Starmer is at the helm.

I don’t know who you are trying to kid with your ludicrous claim that the party is “more inclusive and democratic than ever before”. With the obscene treatment dished out to arguably the most popular, best supported former leader that the Party has ever had; with the threat of thousands of of members likely to be suspended, according to that other traitor, Rayner; with censorial bullying and refusal to even discuss member concerns happening all over the country in local Parties; the Labour Party has become utterly unfit for purpose. No wonder it is haemorrhaging members at a quicker rate than they flooded in to support Corbyn.

So disgusted am I with the state of Westminster politics in general and within the Labour Party in particular (I don’t expect any better from the Tories), that all my political energy is now devoted to dismantling the dysfunctional Union and bringing about independence for Wales, alongside that of Scotland (with a united Ireland completing the dismantling of the UK) i.e. bring about some meaningful progressive change for once!!

Is this explicit enough for you?

Na zdrowie,

Andy

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).

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.49.55

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.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.33.11

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.

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 it 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.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.45.37

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.

Screenshot 2020-05-15 at 22.47.44

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.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 09.33.00

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.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 13.31.11

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.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 13.41.47

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.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 14.16.01

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.

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 09.31.44

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!

Screenshot 2020-05-08 at 14.15.38

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

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 18.55.11

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 by a slate of candidates for Leader that included 4 women and only one dull grey suit (well, Tory blue suit in fact). 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 to 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