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“GOD, COUNTRY, KING!” Moroccan national motto, but where have I heard that before?

“GOD, COUNTRY, KING!” Moroccan national motto, but where have I heard that before?

I’ve not long returned from a couple of weeks touring around Morocco; my first visit to the country. It is a hugely varied country that impressed me in many ways but depressed me in a couple of other ways; most especially in the way both religion and monarchy are so conspicuous just about everywhere you go. 

This indoctrination is woven into the very fabric of everyday life. The day begins with the obscenely loud calls to prayer broadcast from every minaret well before dawn breaks. Rarely did I find myself completely out of earshot of these intrusions, and on one occasion I found myself sleeping virtually next to a mosque and was rudely awoken at 6.30 am as if by someone standing next to my bed with a loudhailer on full volume! There must be cardiac arrests induced by this practice. 

These calls to prayer are repeated 5 times a day in total, but I have to say that I only once or twice saw anyone even pause for a moment at the wailings during the woken day. They are like water off a duck’s back, washing over people virtually as if they didn’t exist. But the subliminal messaging is never missed. More on this later.

As for the monarchy, King Mohammed VI, the current monarch, seems to be held in pretty high esteem by most people, and his photo adorns the reception of every hotel, and is found in many business premises. His powers and role are very different to the monarch here. More on this later too.

The church and monarchy work closely together at times, as manifested in the previous king’s involvement at every stage in the creation of the truly magnificent, eponymously named, Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. Completed in 1993, at a cost of something in the region of £500m, it was the biggest in Africa, with the world’s tallest minaret, until one in Algiers usurped both titles in 2019. But arguably the most impressive thing about it is that it was crafted almost entirely from Moroccan materials and by an army of Moroccan craftsmen. Quite staggering self-indulgence, befitting of both church and monarch. 

Thus, the Moroccan people (subjects of the kingdom, but of varied origin and ethnicity – more on this later too) are unable to avoid the daily reminders of their position in Moroccan society. Even if you escape the cities, the authorities have adorned prominent hillsides along all major routes (and many less-major ones too) with the simple three-word motto: God, Country, King!

But hey, this is hardly original! Countries have been invoking the fear of God, ethnic nationalism and subservience to privileged elites since the dawn of civilisation!

Take the British, for example.

Since 1745 we have had to endure God, country and monarch rolled into one as the national anthem, ‘God Save the King/Queen’, extolling, without any evidence, the monarch’s graciousness, nobility, wishing them glorious victory in whatever. And that’s just the first verse:

God save our gracious King, 
Long live our noble King, 
God save the King! 
Send him victorious, 
Happy and glorious, 
Long to reign over us, 
God save the King! 

Thankfully we are usually spared the remaining four verses full of jingoistic incantations for God to send our enemies into disarray, in verse 2:

O Lord our God arise,
Scatter our enemies,
And make them fall!
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all!

Verse three sounds a bit more peaceable, until you get to the end where it is clearly looking at global domination for the British Empire: 

Not in this land alone, 
But be God’s mercies known, 
From shore to shore! 
Lord make the nations see, 
That men should brothers be, 
And form one family, 
The wide world o’er
.

Verse four is about seeking divine protection for our noble, gracious King who somehow might pick up some enemies and potential assassins along the way:

From every latent foe,
From the assassin’s blow,
God save the King!
O’er his thine arm extend,
For Britain’s sake defend,
Our father, prince, and friend,
God save the King!

The final verse is the second most used verse, presumably because it is less offensive and merely cringeworthy, about showering the monarch with riches, and giving us cause to sing his praises, literally:

Thy choicest gifts in store, 
On him be pleased to pour, 
Long may he reign! 
May he defend our laws, 
And ever give us cause, 
To sing with heart and voice, 
God save the King!

No wonder this anthem consistently gets listed as one of the worst on the planet. Not that the Welsh anthem (Land of my Fathers) , the Scottish anthem (Flower of Scotland)  or the English anthem (Jerusalem) are that much better. They are full of tales of laying down your life to defend the land, but they do at least cut out references to monarchs and have good tunes!

God, King and Country” was the motto under which the British Army conscripts were marched off to be slaughtered in 1914 in that squabble between gracious nobilities seeking glorious victory over each other that evolved into “The Great War”. I rather hope that we are a bit smarter than that today. I would like to think such a motto as a clarion call to war would now provoke contention rather than unity. 

If God were invoked at all, whose god or gods exactly? Have we established the existence of any of them? I would want to know! As for Kings, well, I think we have come to understand just how little the Windsors are worth dying for, being a dysfunctional rabble of little relevance to anyone. The king of Morocco seems to justify a little more respect, but enough to die for? And how relevant is our country in an increasingly global and interdependent world? Surely the demand “to die for one’s country” has lost its appeal, especially in Europe. 

This is the essence of nationalism; even where borders are contrived, we are supposed to unite to fight allcomers and repel invaders/illegal immigrants, unless we can cherry-pick them, of course

God, king, country; meh! You won’t catch me taking up arms to defend any of these concepts. Let me examine them each in a bit more detail, with UK and Morocco as exemplars. 

COUNTRY

As hinted at above, both Morocco and the UK are contrivances. Virtually all current states are to some degree. 

Those that know me will be familiar with my campaigning work, via Yes Cymru principally, in seeking to dismantle the contrivance that is the UK. It has, after all, only existed in its current configuration since 1922, with the term United Kingdom only being in use since 1801, with the beginnings of merging the many kingdoms across these isles only really beginning around 927. 

The unity of the UK is clearly being stretched to close to breaking point over the past few decades and ever more so with the increasingly dysfunctional UK government dragging us out of the EU in such a shabby way, opening up every conceivable division amongst us, like festering sores. I am fairly confident that the UK will cease to exist in my lifetime. 

Morocco is a similar contrivance, with its own unity also being questioned.

As with the UK, the lands saw many waves of invasions throughout antiquity. For Great Britain’s Celts, Romans, Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, we have Morocco’s Berbers, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines and Arabs.

The Moroccan state appears to have been created around 790, with the creation of the first Muslim dynasty, focussed initially on the Roman-built city of Volubilis before they created their own capital city at Fez. Whether this was a single united state seems unclear as I find references to the Morocco emerging from a merger of smaller states in 1554. Some sort of federalism appears to have existed in between times. 

Of course, having only around 50% sea borders, compared to G.B.’s 100% makes borders a bit more volatile over history, but they appear to have been remarkably stable, even after the ‘Scramble for Africa’ by European colonial powers. The main legacy of this period is the unresolved status of the territory known as Western Sahara. Both Morocco and Mauretania have claims over it. The (very few) people living there, or at least some of them, aspire towards full independence. Yes Western Sahara!!

Just as within the UK, with its English and Celtic regions, Morocco has its Arabic and Berber regions, although not with distinct borders. 

And also similar to the UK are tensions around its membership (or non-membership) of a regional trading bloc of nations. For EU read AMU. The Arab Maghreb Union was established in 1989, at a summit in Marrakech, with the aim of creating a powerful economic bloc for its members (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauretania and Morocco – and Western Sahara by default. Egypt has applied to join but has yet to be admitted). 

It seems to be a barely functioning entity, unlike the EU. I’m not sure why this is so, but I suspect ethnic tensions play a role. Historically, the Maghreb is the homeland of the Berber people, who now find themselves divided between these superimposed nations, and largely subjugated by an Arab ruling class. This has been quite nasty at times. For example, one of the things the AMU seems to have achieved was the banning of giving children Berber names!! The language was suppressed too, with it being banned in schools, despite it being the first language in many areas. Thankfully, Mohammed VI saw fit to lift these bans in Morocco in 2014. But these controversies will sound very familiar to my Welsh readers in particular!

Thus, the issues surrounding nationalism and ‘country’ are not dissimilar in both UK and Morocco. Being among the relatively few monarchical nations (I count just 24 living kings/queens/emperors currently) gives them something more than usual in common, but nonetheless, issues related to nationalism, cultural suppression, expansionism and/or separatism (they co-exist in our perceived global superpowers, for example) are found in virtually every nation-state. They are all political contrivances after all. 

GOD 

If issues around ‘country’ are similar between UK and Morocco, this cannot be said about ‘god’. 

The demographics are stark enough.

Morocco claims to have been 99% Muslim for decades with the 1% containing Christians, Jewish and Baha’i in noticeable pockets. 

The UK appears to be a rapidly evolving religious landscape:

The headline news is that for the first time in census history, less than 50% of the population of England & Wales identified as Christian in 2021. A fall from 59.3% to 46.2% in a decade is spectacular and represents a loss of well over 5 million Christians. 

Even more gratifying, those identifying as having ‘no religion’ rose from roughly a quarter of the population to well over a third in those 10 years. That’s an increase of 8.5 million people, significantly from among those who preferred not to respond at all to this question in the past.

Countering these progressive trends, we do see increases all the major religions listed, and the ‘other religion’ category, which for the first time gave people the opportunity to record their actual religion. It makes for quite interesting reading, especially given my Coed Hills connections (paganism, wicca and shamanism show significantly). 

But the overall direction of travel is clear enough. Having said that, I suspect that what has really happened is that people are simply feeling able to be a bit more open and honest about what they believe and therefore which box they tick. This is, I believe the big difference between the UK demographics and the Moroccan ones. 

Over my lifetime, I don’t think adherence to Christianity has actually changed that much but what has changed, from generation to generation, is societal expectations. Once upon a time, it would have been expected that very English person would be an Anglican and it would have been difficult to say any different, although rival Christian sects like Roman Catholics, or Baptists would be tolerated (more in some places than others). I know for a fact that it was, and still is to only a slightly less extent, very difficult to come out as anything other than a Roman Catholic in Poland. 

During my adult life, what we have seen happening is that the vast swathes of people christened into a Christian denomination in my generation, but not practicing in any way, used to still identify as being of their christened denomination. Overtime, however, these people have felt less and less inclined to be cajoled into the social convention of christening their babies  at all, and thereby becoming not only increasingly likely to stop identifying themselves as Christians but producing children even less likely to identify with any religion. 

What does the census data tell us? Well, that’s tricky because the first question about religion didn’t appear on the UK census until 2001, which simply gave the option of ticking one of seven boxes: Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and None. Prior to this we have data from miscellaneous surveys of varying degrees of confidence levels and credibility.

I’m pretty sure that there is no data collected about religious affiliation in Morocco and that the 99% Muslim figure is assumed rather than counted. Not that I’m disputing that it wouldn’t indeed be close to this if it was put on a mandatory census form. I saw enough to recognise that it can’t be easy to identify as anything other than a Muslim, especially if you have been brought up as a Muslim. The 1% non-Muslim guesstimate is probably close to recorded immigration from non-Muslim countries. But to my mind this is all as credible as the Iranian government’s claim that there are no homosexuals in Iran. 

Islam informs the societal norms in Morocco, as it does in all Muslim countries, but thankfully it is not enforced quite as oppressively. In fact, from what I saw, most Moroccans are tolerant and very hospitable. Everyone seemed to identify as Muslim, but they seemed pretty easy-going about it. I suspect most would get defensive if they had their religion questioned (I resisted the temptation), especially among the evidently more conservative older generation. That evidence was mostly in the way people dressed.

Djellaba

Clothes are a particularly important part of Moroccan culture and etiquette. Many Moroccans, especially in rural areas, may be offended by clothes that do not fully cover parts of the body considered “private”, including both legs and shoulders, especially for women. But instead of the burqa seen in more oppressive cultures, you will see the much more attractive djellaba or kaftan prevailing in Morocco among those more traditionally minded.

It is true that few Moroccan women wear a veil – though they may well wear a headscarf – and in cities Moroccan women wear short-sleeved tops and knee-length skirts and western fashionable clothes. But as a result, they may then suffer more harassment, which seems tolerated as if it is to be expected. It appears to amount to older men having a quick grope as younger more-scantily clad women pass by. 

Men may wear sleeveless T-shirts and above-the-knee shorts without any such fears, of course. 

This is just part of the divisiveness of religion. Older guys that pretend to be more traditional religious conservatives think they are morally superior and entitled to prey on the more liberal-minded, dare I say progressive youth. But at least it is not the oppressive state fundamentalism of some countries. 

But what it suggests to me is that although, I suspect, every single Moroccan I encountered would self-identify as a Muslim if asked, I really do wonder about the deep-seated convictions in those claims. As I mentioned earlier, I hardly saw anyone even bat an eyelid during the calls to prayer being bellowed across their heads at regular intervals during every day. Its just part of the background noise. The mosques only appear to get filled on special occasions, and opportunities to flout rules like those over alcohol are always there and tolerated so long as you are reasonably discreet about it. After all, King Mohammed VI was something of a playboy in his princely days, by all accounts. 

The way I see it is that the UK is much further down the path of throwing off the shackles of religion than Morocco, but it has taken small steps in that direction under its current monarch. Whether it maintains this trajectory remains to be seen, given the march of fundamentalism around the globe. The UK has its own challenges fending off right wing Christian Conservatives after all. 

KING

So, what should we make of the monarchy and the monarchs in these respective countries? The first thing to make clear is the vastly different constitutional roles of the monarchs in the UK and Morocco.

In Morocco, the king has the final say on all major decisions, not just in theory, but in practice. The king personally chooses the Head of Government (Prime Minister) from the winning party of the legislative elections. He also chooses and appoints the foreign (Foreign Sec.), interior (Home Sec.) and finance ministers (Chancellor of the Exchequer). He can, and does, terminate their services when he so wants. He presides over the council of ministers (the Cabinet). He can dissolve both the upper and lower chambers of parliament. He is the supreme leader of the armed forces and controls appointments to the national bank. He can effectively set the agenda of government and does so. He currently has set an agenda aimed at reducing inequality, cutting poverty and fostering growth. This has made him widely popular!

Once upon a time, the UK monarch had similar power in a similar role. The UK monarch’s role in government today is purely symbolic. They formally open Parliament every year, and they rubber stamp (Royal Assent) Acts of Parliament, without any other input in the process. No monarch has refused to give Royal Assent since 1708.

So, our Charlie can, and does, have strong opinions on every subject under the sun, but that has no significant impact on anyone’s agenda, let alone Parliament’s. He is paid a small fortune out of the public purse, to add to his obscene inherited personal fortune, for the not-so-onerous tasks of going on the occasional walkabout amongst the peasantry,   embarking on goodwill visits around the globe, hosting lavish receptions for foreign heads of state visiting the UK and basically just trying to behave  and serve as part of Britain’s national identity, unity and pride”, to quote the official royal website.  He does fuck all of use to man or beast, to put it succinctly. 

This being the case, it depresses me to see so many people supporting this medieval institution of inherited privilege. At least in Morocco the king does have to actually put a proper shift in occasionally. Dear old Liz was the very definition of inoffensive as she did at least know how to behave well. I was always surprised, however, that she seemed to get a free pass for marrying an obnoxious racist and bringing up a clutch of variously dysfunctional kids who we now have to put up with as the senior royals in the country. This will, I would hope and expect, see the popularity of the whole institution of the monarchy slowly but surely wane, to a point where, like religion, we can consign this anachronism to the dustbin of history, where it should long have been by now. 

This reminds me; our monarch is also assumes the role of High Governor of the Church of England (but not head of the Anglican communion of churches across the world). Like the relationship with Parliament, the role is strictly a symbolic legacy of the formation of the Church of England when Henry VIII threw his toys out of his pram when the Catholic Church declined to allow him to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for failing to produce him an heir (let alone a spare!). He had Anne Boleyn lined up, and had even been ‘test-driving’ Anne’s sister, Mary. Such are the shabby origins of this shabby institution. Thankfully, the church quickly distanced itself from the moral leadership of its founding figure and the Bishop of Canterbury came to be seen as the spiritual leading figure of the church, in an attempt to give it a sheen of credibility.

As we endure a daily media feeding frenzy around the hapless and nauseating Windsor family (currently focussed around Andrew trying to squirm out of his sex abuse settlement so he can return to the privileges of being Duke of York again and revelations from Harry (Hewitt or Windsor) about his penis)  , surely the time has come for a mature conversation about bringing the farce to a dignified end and dragging the country into a more modern and progressive constitutional arrangement. 

As with religion’s waning appeal, there are sure signs that Liz’s long overdue passing of the monarchical ‘baton’ to Charlie is causing the court of public opinion to shift decisively. 

The Queen’s popularity ratings rarely fluctuated very much from these (YouGov) figures gathered not long before her demise (I believe):

But the King is starting off from a much lower popularity base:

He’s liked by close to half as many; actively disliked by close to three times as many; with three times as many indifferent. KCIII’s numbers suggest that we are not far from a position in which a referendum on abolition of the monarchy in the UK could be successful. I’m pretty sure an independent Scotland and Wales would not opt to keep any monarchy. Ireland opted for a republic over the monarchy thirty years after declaring independence. I don’t think we’d see it take that long in Scotland or Wales. England, being a right-leaning, Tory establishment-supporting enclave may well choose to kowtow on indefinitely. 

In conclusion, I have always been against inherited wealth, inherited privilege and inherited power on principle. It goes against everything I believe in as an ecosocialist. 

I fully recognise that it is a system that can sometimes work well and with the right people involved, can actually produce something akin to a successful socialist agenda. Morocco is trying quite hard to achieve this today. 

In most parts of the world where monarchy persists, it has been marginalised to a representative role at best, and as such can be argued does little harm. I get sick of hearing how beneficial our monarchy is as a tourist attraction, which is a dubious enough assertion but a wholly irrelevant one, in any case, to the validity of the principles behind calling for its abolition. 

OVERALL CONCLUSIONS

Morocco made quite an impression on me and gave me pause for thought on many things covered by this piece, among others too. It feels like a country relatively at ease with itself, with a current of mild optimism that things are slowly but surely improving for most people. 

Of course, in just a couple of weeks doing a whistle-stop tour and encountering a limited range of people, I’m working on gut feelings and relatively superficial observations. But I sense a kind of mutual toleration and respect of each other between the majority of the people and the establishment entities of religion and monarchy. These establishment institutions seem to have the people’s best interests genuinely at heart. The people therefore are prepared to put their doubts and misgivings aside and forgive the establishment indulgences and extravagances. In return, the establishment institutions, secure in having mass support, do not feel they need to be over-zealous in enforcing discipline on the people. The over-arching impression I got was that life may be quite tough in some ways, but its okay and a lot better than it could be.

This is all pretty much the opposite of the zeitgeist in the UK these days, where we know it could be a lot better than it is. Trust in our politicians and establishment institutions has been eroded steadily during my lifetime. Even the governments own figures make damning reading:

Is there anything getting better in the UK right now? There must be, but I can’t think of even one right now. 

Right-wingers will probably suggest that the erosion of respect for establishment institutions like church, monarchy, police etc. is responsible for the decline in standards in just about everything. This fails to understand that respect can only ever truly be earned and can never simply be commanded. 

These institutions should only exist to serve the majority of the people and should only wield power with the consent, democratically given, of the people. This is where it has all gone wrong in the UK over the last 40 years or so. 

In Morocco, church and monarchy still manage to maintain the support of the vast majority because they demonstrably work to try to improve the lives of the people for the most part. Or at least they succeed in giving this impression. This is a fragile state of affairs that has evolved over centuries but that could be destroyed very quickly (witness the other countries of North Africa). 

The UK feels like it is already in the process of disintegration. This is the legacy of 40 yrs of successive neoliberal, capitalist governments that have successfully manipulated the democratic system to ensure they are unchallenged in any meaningful way. 

Potentially at least, church and or monarchy could have stepped in and defended the interests of their congregations/subjects. History is light on examples of this ever happening effectively in the UK, and is hardly an example of effective democracy in any case. 

Thus, it is hard to be optimistic about the long-term futures of either UK or Morocco. Morocco is only one tyrant away (in either church or monarchy) from disaster. The UK is past the point of no return and the only hope of salvation I can see is the dissolution of the UK through Scottish and Welsh independence, thereby allowing a constitutional clean slate to give us the opportunity to learn some lessons and do things very differently. Let it be. 

 

Occam’s Razor applied to spiritual notions

What is Occam’s Razor?

Occam’s razor (also known as the ‘law of parsimony’) is a philosophical tool for ‘shaving off’ unlikely explanations. Essentially, when faced with competing explanations for the same phenomenon, the simplest is probably the correct one.

William of Occam pointed out that the most probable explanation of any phenomenon is the one that makes the fewest assumptions and/or raises the fewest questions. 

It could be said that the scientific method is built upon the principles of Occam’s razor. Underdetermination says that for any theory in science there will usually be at least one other rival theory that could conceivably be correct, thus the scientific method uses Occam’s razor in order to focus on the more probable option in order to frame its working hypotheses. Over time, we therefore build our understanding from simple ideas to more complex ideas as we refine our theories based on accumulated evidence. 

Remember, however, that Occam’s razor is just a heuristic, a rule of thumb, to suggest which hypothesis is most probably true, and therefore the best starting point. It doesn’t prove or disprove anything; it simply leads you down the path that’s initially the most likely to be correct. Of course, ‘simplicity’ can be very subjective, so you and I might come to different conclusions when faced with a decision between the same 2 hypotheses. But hey, we all have to start somewhere in our quest for truth, assuming truth matters to us (more of which later!)

Applying Occam’s Razor to spiritual experiences

I’d be more respectful these days

Over the last few years, I have witnessed and participated in a variety of events that could be labelled ‘spiritual’. Being ever open-minded, my position has changed from sceptical and scornful to sceptical and respectful in the light of these experiences. I can attest that such things can be interesting, thought-provoking and even very helpful, in the hands of the right practitioners and guides. But some of the conclusions some people are drawn to remain, to my eyes, somewhere between improbable and fanciful (to put it a bit more respectfully).

I have always been an admirer of the human spirit; the ability to battle through and overcome the odds; our survival instinct; our hidden reserves of resourcefulness and stamina. These are qualities that lurk beneath the surface of us all to varying degrees. We are generally unaware of what we are capable of until the moments these reserves are called upon. They occupy a place in our subconscious minds, along with other instincts and subconscious programming.

Yes, within. Not without.

The subconscious mind is a staggeringly complex thing. It operates all the functions of our body without our conscious effort. It stores vast quantities of information and memories in accessible archives. It gives us imagination, creativity, instincts and gives us our personality. I therefore conclude that anything we might describe as our soul, or our spirit, resides here too.  To suggest that our soul or spirit can exist anywhere else, and especially outside of our heads and/or after our bodies die, raises a multitude of questions as to how this works; each of which multiplies the odds against it being true, just like an accumulator bet. These questions spawn plenty of speculation, but rarely any verifiable evidence. To date.

It is from this position that I have witnessed or experienced various activities with a purported spiritual dimension.

Let me explore a couple of examples.

Family Constellations

Family constellations is a therapeutic approach designed to help reveal the hidden dynamics in a family or relationship, going back generations potentially, in order to address any stressors impacting these relationships and heal them.

This approach may help people seeking treatment view their concerns from a different perspective, and the therapist/practitioner may offer the family constellations approach as a treatment for issues proving difficult to treat with traditional therapy. 

This approach was developed by German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger in the mid-1990s. Family constellations therapy evolved out of his work as a family therapist and his belief in the energy, both positive and negative, found in familial bonds. Nearly 50 years of studying and treating families led to his observation of patterns of mental health concerns, illness, negative emotions, and potentially destructive behaviours within families, and he suggested individuals might subconsciously “adopt” these patterns as a way of helping other members to cope.

Proponents of family constellations believe the method to be less restrictive than other methods of therapy and support its capacity to allow people to see different perspectives and alternate solutions. Having said this, it draws on numerous other modalities, including Gestalt therapy, psychoanalysis, Virginias Saitir’s family sculpting, Psychodynamic therapy, hypnotherapy, systemic family therapy, and even some Zulu beliefs. Done well, by a trained, skilled and empathetic practitioner, it clearly has the potential to be very helpful, and I have seen it be just that.

A family constellations session typically takes place in a workshop made up of a group of individuals who are not related. Members of the group stand in for family members of the person or couple presenting a difficulty or concern. The person seeking resolution of an issue, who may be referred to as the seeker, or the group facilitator chooses these representatives and places them into position as members of the individual’s family, also choosing one person to take the place of the seeker in order to complete the family dynamic. 

The use of other individuals to represent the family is believed to illuminate the disharmony within the family, and the individuals standing in as members of the family are believed to be able to feel and experience the emotions of the person whose role they have taken on. Hellinger, the developer of family constellations, calls this sense of connectedness, which is said to be felt telepathically by members of the group, the morphogenic field. 

Although the representatives speak very little, the sense of knowing believed to result from the process is said to be apparent to all who participate. The seeker watches from the outside to gain new perspective on the situation.  Even when an issue is not fully resolved by the constellation process, the individual who presented the issue may still achieve insight into the issue for which they are seeking help. None of the members of the constellation ought to know the seeker or be aware of the underlying issues brought forth by the seeker, but they often report an awareness of specific emotions and feelings directly related to the individual’s situation. The facilitator may ask members to explain what they are feeling, specifically in their relation to other members of the family. This may shed light on certain emotions and relational aspects that can be clearly connected to the issue being addressed.Resolution may not be immediately clear to the person who has presented the issue. The facilitator in the session repositions members, occasionally asking them to speak their feelings aloud. Members may be moved from place to place in the constellation until they find a position or are able to make a verbal statement expressing feelings of comfort with their place in the constellation.  
Family constellations work is considered most effective in addressing concerns that are systemic in nature. These concerns might include family of origin issues, parent-child relationship difficulties, and intimate relationship challenges. 

It may be used as a potential therapy method for people who:

·      Are seeking to address negative or harmful relationship patterns

·      Want to be in a romantic relationship

·      Are attempting to resolve family entanglements

·      Want to overcome inner turmoil

·      Have experienced significant trauma, or loss 

·      Are in search of personal and professional success

Family constellations is gaining popularity as an alternative approach to therapy, particularly in Europe, America, Asia, and Australia, where it is seen by many as a powerful and cost-effective method of addressing relationship-based challenges. Its popularity may be in part due to the brief nature of the therapy and its unique method of resolving challenges in which others are involved without necessitating the presence of those other individuals. 

Proponents of the family constellations approach believe each member of a family, adult or child, longs to feel significant and find a place within the family construct and support the method as a helpful step in the process of achieving this sense of significance and belonging. People who participate in this technique often find themselves unearthing surprisingly emotional reactions regarding their relationships, familial or otherwise, regardless of their age. 

Many individuals report achieving significant insight and clarity through constellation work, but because of the subjective therapeutic process and experiential nature of family constellations, family constellations therapy is clearly not an evidence-based approach.  

So, what is actually going on here?

The choice of participants is important and generally determines the success of the process, from what I have witnessed. They must be open-minded and empathetic people. The open-mindedness is important, I believe, as it allows them to access their own reserves of instinct, experience and imagination; their own spiritual dimension, if you like. In so doing, they can give the ‘seeker’ some new perspective and potential insights that may help them resolve the issues being addressed. All present can similarly draw parallels to their own lives and potentially benefit too.

What is not going on?

Occam’s Razor compels me to point out a couple of things. What family constellations don’t do is put us in touch with the extant spirits of people not present. To be fair, I haven’t seen practitioners explicitly suggest they do this, but it is an inference taken by some present. The spirits of other people, insofar as they exist at all, Occam’s Razor would dictate to me, exist in our often-deep-seated memories and experiences of these people, which can have lifelong legacies lurking subconsciously and impacting on our conscious interactions with people and the world in general. We can make peace in our minds by changing our attitudes to familial connections past and present. We can change our behaviours towards, and responses to, those still present in our lives, and how we respond to memories and past experiences of those that may now be dead. Family constellations can help us achieve these things.

Thus, this form of therapy does have a lot going for it. But is does involve rummaging around in the dark recesses of our subconscious, our soul, our inner spirit. It therefore does have the potential be quite dangerous too.

I have found references to the German agency, Forum Kritische Psychologie, that reported four cases of people seeking treatment for unhealthy obsessions they reported developing as a result of attending a family constellations workshop, and a Dutch psychiatrist reported another clutch of individuals experiencing mental health concerns they said developed after they attended a workshop. 

Ironically, these cases all seem closely linked directly to Hellinger’s work in Germany, as he developed the approach. Hellinger, on closer examination, appears to be a rather unpleasant character with some distasteful views (misogynistic, homophobic and antisemitic, for example). This shouldn’t detract from the good work done with his family constellations approach by nicer human beings! But it does underline the need to know and trust that the practitioner is trained and competent, empathetic and has no underlying agenda before allowing them to stir what often lies very deep indeed.

I’m pleased to be able to report that the practitioner I am most familiar with is those things and operates in an admirably thoughtful and careful way. He holds regular sessions (every 4 weeks on a Thursday evening, last I looked) in Llantwit Major (scroll down this page: https://healthconscious.org.uk/yoga-studio-glamorgan/ ). Give it a go if you think it may be helpful to you. Like many such things, if you think it will be helpful, it likely will be helpful. If you think it won’t be helpful, it likely won’t be.

Past life regression

This is a technique that, while based on certain assumptions I find very difficult to accept, can still help give us a window into what lurks beneath our conscious minds.

Past Life Regression is a technique which purports to take an individual back through time to their previous lives by accessing normally hidden memories in the subconscious mind. It needs a trained therapist to lead you and employs the use of hypnosis along with visualisation procedures similar to those used in some forms of meditation.

I have experienced the benefits of hypnotherapy in dealing with a couple of issues as a young adult, and therefore have a lot of respect for its potential to address deep-seated issues, such as rage or anxiety. These issues are invariably tied to experiences in our pasts that we struggle to consciously recognise, rationalise and deal with.

But can they really be in any way connected to past lives? This assertion is based on one huge assumption that I remain highly sceptical about, namely reincarnation. 

Proponents of the technique, as you’d expect from the name of the technique, clearly believe (or want us to believe) that we return to this world many times, often suggesting that this is how we build experience and evolve. 

An alternative theory suggested by some is that we can access the memory of another soul, through the ‘Akashic’ records – the spiritual record of everything that has ever happened. This is a common thread to many eastern religious traditions. This is undermined by the propensity for the continuity of character traits which seem to pass from one life to another apparently.

Those wanting to appeal to a more scientific predisposition suggest a kind of ‘genetic memory’ whereby memories can get passed on from one generation to another somehow, through cell structure or DNA perhaps. This is undermined by people appearing to regress to many different cultural backgrounds. Oh, and the fact that there is no scientific understanding as to whether this exists or how it could work. To date. 

Another explanation is that the process simply stimulates the imagination and accesses information stored subconsciously to conjure up narratives, prompted by the therapist. This should not be seen as meaningless, necessarily. There may well be insights and understandings to be had in how, what and why we see the narratives we do. This explanation is undermined by the reports of astonishingly accurate recollection of detail achieved by some participants. 

However, applying Occam’s Razor, the latter fantasising hypothesis must be a lot more probable than the reincarnation hypotheses, if only because it raises far fewer questions that need answering to give the theory plausibility. 

That people can have stored details of things they have learned that they struggle to consciously recall is not much of a stretch, is it? So, under hypnosis, creating narratives rich in detail that seems extraordinary really isn’t that improbable. Certainly not when set aside the questions I have about re-incarnation:

1.  What is actually transferred from one life to another?

2.  How does that happen? What is the mechanism?

3.  Is a moment of death matched by a moment of re-birth? If not where are the ‘lives’ stored in between? And for how long, and why/how is one life matched to the next life? 

4.  Is it species-specific or can we be reincarnated as different lifeforms? Can it cross boundaries between species, genus, family, order, class, phylum or even kingdom? Could we have been plants, microbes, apes, snakes perhaps?

5.  If we have past lives in different cultures, can we recall things in languages of which we have no knowledge? Why the emphasis on visual recollections only, ignoring other senses?

6.  How does reincarnation work on a planet with hugely fluctuating populations? There was originally no life on this planet; what is the earliest point we can regress to, and why this point? If re-incarnation is species framed, then could we all regress to the original human(s)? Sapiens only? Or Neanderthals perhaps?  If it is not species framed, could we regress to the very first lifeforms on the planet?

7.  Is reincarnation constrained to planet earth? Or could our past existences span the galaxy or universe?

8.  If past life regression is possible, is future life progression possible? If so, this is surely only as a fantasy, as how can we recall things that haven’t happened yet? 

9.  Does everybody have past lives, or can new original lives be created? If so, how does this work? I’ve heard proponents of re-incarnation suggest that, as with energy, new souls are never created or destroyed. This clearly conflicts with the no.6 as well. 

10.Could or should we be held accountable in this life for things we did in past lives? 

I’ve posed most of these questions to people who believe in reincarnation. Most have no answers. Some have plenty of conjecture or thoughts as to how they think it works; often very different to the next believer. The question about species specificism is especially divisive.  And I have yet to meet anyone who has undertaken a past-life regression and found that they were a tree for 500 years, for example. Or an amoeba for 30 minutes. 

Looking at all these questions, compared to those for the fantasising hypothesis, gives Occam’s Razor a clear verdict.

In the session I participated in, I imagined I was living in 9th Century Wessex, in a family living in a simple stone and thatched cottage (highly unlikely in reality, as homes were predominantly timber and thatch, not stone, especially in Wessex), and married a girl who looked remarkably like my current wife when she was of a similar age. This was, however, a period of history I particularly enjoyed at school – the old kingdoms that predated England; Alfred and the cake burning legends; up to the Norman Conquest, Hastings, Magna Carta etc. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Frank Turner recently – especially “England Keep My Bones” with songs like ‘English Curse’, ‘Rivers’ and ‘Wessex Boy’. 

So, was my ‘past life regression’ an interesting little movie in my mind, constructed out of my imagination, fuelled by old interests and snippets of songs buzzing around my head?

Or did some part of me once inhabit the body of a 9th century Wessex boy? 

What is most probable, Occam’s Razor demands of me?

To be fair, I found it a thoroughly engrossing experience and a totally harmless one. I struggle to see anything of lasting value in it, but maybe that requires further exploration in a one-to-one situation, rather than the group exercise I experienced. Through the power of suggestion, under hypnosis, I know that fears and phobias, etcetera, can be dealt with. In the group setting, I seem to have had just about the most vivid and coherent experience of any of those present, perhaps reflecting my genuine open-mindedness and willingness to engage with the process. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to automatically jump to improbable conclusions. 

The hypnotherapist is a friend of mine that I have a huge amount of respect for. He has studied theology and has huge knowledge and integrity. And he also claims to be a spiritual medium! This is something I find incredulous, while not for a moment doubting his sincerity. I don’t know what is going on with this and I am keen to find out more. It raises at least as many questions as reincarnation does, which Occam’s razor demands fuels scepticism. (Can a medium only have contact with a spirit that hasn’t reincarnated into someone else’s life? Can we find out within whom a spirit from a past life – a relative perhaps – resides today? etc.) I hope he might be prepared to tackle some of these questions with me one day. 

Conclusions

There is a growing awareness of, and market for, what we might call spiritual therapies, emerging from things like new age paganism and growing awareness of things like mindfulness and science behind meditation. They can be hugely beneficial, I have no doubt. I enjoy and benefit from some of them. 

Even when they get wrapped up in various types of mysticism and the supernatural, I think they generally do more good than harm (notwithstanding acknowledging that they can and do harm some people when not carefully enough deployed). 

But Occam’s Razor points out that probability will always favour the simpler hypothesis, which, by definition, will have fewer ‘what ifs’, ‘maybes’  and questions attached to it. 

Of course, there are some big questions that science has no answers to yet. But I reject the notion of the supernatural, just as I reject the notion of alternative medicine. If a remedy works, it is medicine. The alternative to a medicine is an alternative remedy that doesn’t work. 

If a phenomenon is real, it is natural and knowable. Supernatural things are either not real, or not yet knowable. Knowledge is built on verifiable evidence. To claim we know something without verifiable evidence to support it is a path to potential madness. 

There is much that we know today that was unknowable in times gone by. Many proponents of things regarded as scientific orthodoxy today were ridiculed and/or persecuted in the past. We therefore have to remain open-minded and willing to assimilate new evidence as it arises. 

The scientific method remains the by far the best way of sifting through alternative ideas and theories. It builds our understanding in layers of complexity, from a simple hypothesis, through a quest for evidence that may then lead to a more complex hypothesis requiring more detailed evidence. And so on. 

It is slowly, but surely increasing our awareness of how the world and the universe works. Things that were imperceptible and unknowable no so long ago are now either understood or fuelling new avenues of investigation. Why should we assume that we cannot have verifiable evidence for a phenomenon we are asked to believe in? Why should we even entertain subscribing to notions without verifiable evidence? This is not to say that things that we, or more specifically I, find fanciful today might not become the accepted orthodoxy tomorrow. 

When it comes to matters we might consider to be spiritual, there is a vast array of beliefs out there. Many conflict with each other (‘one true god’ v various pantheons of gods and goddesses etc). What we choose to believe in is (presumably) more probable, in our assessment, than some conflicting belief, which we are likely to think of as something between heretical and amusing. 

How are we to adjudicate between competing claims, if not through evidence?

This is not as easy as it sounds though. Just as there is good and bad spirituality and spiritualists, there is good and bad science and scientists. Added to which, advances in scientific understanding can take a very long time to filter down into our education system to become the consensual orthodoxy. Charlatans are present in both the spiritual and scientific communities, feeding from people’s inability to understand evidence and evaluate sources. This is a huge (and likely deliberate) shortcoming of our education system. It’s not even that difficult to address. I, once more, flag up Massimo Pigliucci’s primer on this subject, Nonsense on Stilts – How to Tell Science from Bunk’.

I guess the essence of my scepticism is wanting my beliefs to be based on truth as far as possible. I fully appreciate and understand that this is not important to many people. 

I therefore believe in the scientific orthodoxy as I understand what goes in to producing it. It is humanities best estimation of the truth of the universe. That is the best we have. 

With regards things we call spiritual, science either has an idea (a hypothesis) but lacks the evidence or the means to get the evidence to substantiate it, or it has no idea and no inclination to pursue it, especially where it conflicts with established orthodoxy. All this changes with breakthroughs in methodology and/or available evidence. Such as when we developed the means to establish that the earth orbits the sun, rather than the other way round. This is a good example as it illustrates how religion and spiritual beliefs (the Bible is the word of God) can be an obstacle to the pursuit of truth. Copernicus learned this the hard way. I also found questioning Catholic teaching a scalding experience. 

Striving for truth is the goal of science. It is a never-ending pursuit as we can never know when we have the truth, with absolute certainty, and we are never likely to know the whole truth of the whole universe. 

With regards to spirituality, I believe that the more enlightened understand that it offers a perspective that can be beneficial to our approach to each other and the planet, irrespective of whether it is based in real world truth. It can still help us understand the deeper relationships we have with our own subconscious minds as well as fostering empathy for others and a respect for the world around us and beyond. It does this through allegory and the power of suggestion and through tapping into the incredible potential of our subconscious minds. There is evidence to support these assertions.

But extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. This is why I like to keep Occam’s Razor handy, to shear away the improbable and leave me comfortable in that what I believe, and to a lesser extent what I don’t reject, have a reasonable probability of actually being based in truth. Amen. 

Frack Free Wales reaches the end of the road – happily!! (And a review of the journey)

Last week, three members of the Frack Free Wales steering committee (Frances Jenkins, Donal Whelan and myself) met with three members of Welsh Government’s Energy Division (Lee Guilfoyle and Edward Sheriff from the energy policy team and Richard Griffiths from the department responsible for licensing, planning and permits for fossil fuel activities). 

The meeting came about as a consequence of the following letter we sent to the following Members of the Senedd (MS) in mid-September:

  • Mark Drakeford (First Minister and Fran’s MS)
  • Mick Antoniw (Minister for the Constitution)
  • Julie James (Minister for Climate Change)
  • Lee Waters (Deputy Minister for Climate Change)
  • Vaughan Gething (Minister for the Economy)
  • Lesley Griffiths (Minister for Rural Affairs)
  • Jane Hutt (Minister for Social Justice and Donal’s MS)
  • Sarah Murphy (Andy’s MS)


Dear First Minister and fellow MS,
CONCERNS REGARDING THE POTENTIAL RETURN OF THE THREAT OF FRACKING TO WALES

As the steering committee members of Frack Free Wales (FFW), we hoped we would never need to come out of hibernation, but PM Truss has re-opened the fracking and Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) issue. Reports like “Wales set for massive row with Westminster as Liz Truss plans to lift the ban on fracking” in Walesonline on 8th September have also re-awoken our concerns. 

We understand that the so-called moratorium secured in 2015 was the best that could be done under the constitutional arrangements in place at that time. However, this situation whereby all fracking-related planning applications (other than test-drilling) are automatically called-in to Welsh Government, with the understanding that you would turn them down, was clearly a long way from the outright ban we hoped for! There was always the feeling that if any application you turned down went to appeal, which would happen at a UK level, it could very easily be overturned. This has, thankfully, never been put to the test. We fully acknowledge that most of you, and many other Senedd members, would also have liked that outright ban. 

Legislation has progressed since 2015, prompting us to revisit these issues to see what has since been done and what still needs to be done. The most important development has been the Wales Act 2017. Our understanding is that the additional devolved powers gave Welsh Government total control over the licensing of all oil and gas development in Wales, including fracking and UCG.

We are pleased to see that planning guidance has indeed been updated in light of this and gives us most of what we wish to see, but it still falls short of that outright ban. Some of the language used, in what we think is the most recent Planning Policy Wales (Edition 11 dated February 2021), still lacks the robustness we ought to see. For example:

“This means moving away from the extraction of fossil fuel for use in energy generation”

Ought to say:
“This means ending the extraction of fossil fuels for use in energy generation as soon as practicable and by 2030 at the latest in Wales.”
And also:

“The Welsh Government’s policy objective is therefore to avoid the continued extraction and consumption of fossil fuels. When proposing the extraction of onshore oil and gas, robust and credible evidence will need to be provided to the effect that proposals conform to the energy hierarchy, including how they make a necessary contribution towards decarbonising the energy system.”

The policy objective ought to be to ‘stop’, rather than ‘avoid’ the continued extraction and consumption of fossil fuels in Wales, given how blessed we are with renewable energy potential. 

This ambiguity invites fracking companies to conjure up evidence to persuade Welsh Government to license them. Why not save them the time and trouble and the expense; save threatened communities the anxiety and us the need to represent those communities and challenge that evidence, by simply stating in law that it cannot happen?

There are numerous other bits of wording throughout the document that we could likewise challenge[1] [AC2] .

Despite all this, we do gratefully acknowledge the robust rhetoric from the First Minister and other MS. Wales Online reports:
Mark Drakeford said categorically “there will be no fracking available here in Wales” 
And ends its article:


A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “We do not support the UK Government’s position on the expansion of oil and gas exploration. Responsibility for licensing the exploration and development of Wales’ onshore petroleum resources lies with Welsh Ministers. We are fully committed to supporting our Net Zero commitments and will not support applications for hydraulic fracturing or issue new petroleum licences in Wales.”

This is all great to hear. But the same Wales Online article also reports: 

In March 2022 the then Minister of State for Business, Energy and Clean Growth, Greg Hands, was asked by Liz Saville Roberts in the House of Commons whether the UK Government would “assure me that he will respect Wales’s opposition to fracking, honour our COP26 pledges and not give in to climate deniers and fossil fuel opportunists?”

Greg Hands answered: “I remind the right honourable lady that energy is reserved.” Following Ms Truss’ announcement, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said the impact on Wales would be discussed “in due course”.

These are words spoken in the House of Commons just 6 months ago. 

The following questions need answering:

            • Why, despite Wales Bill 2017, does Liz Saville Roberts feel the need to ask if UK Government will respect Wales Government’s opposition to fracking? 

            • Why does Greg Hands state that energy remains a reserved matter? 

            • Why, since Truss’ announcement, has the DBEIS said that the fracking proposals impact on Wales will be discussed ‘in due course’?

These alarming developments support what we have always suspected; that no matter how strong the rhetoric, no matter how firm and clear the presumption against fracking and UCG are in the planning guidance, and no matter how adamant Mark Drakeford is in his words and assurances, there remains the constitutional possibility, even after the Wales Act 2017, that UK Government can supersede Welsh Government and enable fracking and UCG in Wales. 

Essentially, what we are requesting from you is that you, as Senedd members, provide an explanation of the constitutional and legal framework that determines these matters.

We all know that any enablement of fracking and UCG will encounter unprecedented opposition, with Frack-Free Wales once again at the forefront of that opposition. We still have the resources and people needed to re-invigorate the campaign here in Wales, should cause be given to do so. It is our sincere hope that our next action would be to publicly thank you on the steps of the Senedd for putting the permanent ban in place, if it is within your powers to do so
This would be a timely gesture that would give inspiration and hope to the anti-fracking community across the UK at this time of renewed threat. 

Yours faithfully,

Frances Jenkins, Donal Whelan, Nigel Pugh & Andy Chyba
Frack Free Wales Steering Committee

We got a prompt but wholly inadequate response from Mick Antoniw:

Thank you for your email.

The first minister made an unequivocal statement today in the Senedd that Wales will not be permitting fracking in Wales.

Our existing policy remains in place.

I hope this is satisfactory assurance

Mick

Satisfactory? Not remotely, Mick! Extremely disappointing, especially given that Mick was very supportive when our campaigning was in full swing a full years ago.

A couple of days later we were informed that Mark Drakeford had asked Julie James to respond on behalf of everyone we had contacted. This duly arrived about 4 weeks after or initial letter:

Julie James AS/MS
Y Gweinidog Newid Hinsawdd Minister for Climate Change 

Dear Andy, Frances, Donal & Nigel, 

Thank you for your letter of 19 September to the First Minister regarding your concerns relating to potential fracking and Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) within Wales. As the Minister for Climate Change, policy on fossil fuel extraction and decarbonisation is within my portfolio, and the First Minister has therefore asked me to respond. 

Responsibility for licensing the exploration and development of Wales’s onshore petroleum resources lies entirely with Welsh Ministers. Any UK Government announcements concerning fracking, including the regulation of seismicity, are applicable only to England. Our established policy is that that the interests of Wales will not be served by exploring or developing new sources of petroleum extraction. We are committed fully to supporting our Net Zero commitments and leading through action as founding members of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. We will not support applications for hydraulic fracturing or issue new petroleum licences in Wales. 

Whereas the licensing of Underground Coal Gasification is not devolved, the UK Government has a long-established presumption against issuing the necessary Coal Authority Licences due to the unavoidable impact this process has on climate change. We support this position fully in Wales. Should the UK ever reverse this policy position, we would use all available devolved powers to prevent this process from being deployed in Wales. However, it is worth noting that there are no existing licences in Wales and there is effectively zero industrial interest in adopting this technology. 

I understand that an outright ban on fossil fuel extraction is your preferred policy, however, our presumption against all petroleum extraction, regardless of extraction technique or end use, is currently the strongest policy position across the UK. Importantly, it is also having a real impact on the ground. As a direct result of implementing our policy, there has been no new licences issued in Wales since the transfer of licensing function in 2018. 

Wales inherited 14 licences issued between 1996 and 2008. The Welsh Ministers are required to administer these licences in accordance with their model clauses, the general principles of public law, and within the context of devolved policy and legislation.

Of the 14 inherited licences, only 6 remain extant. The others have been relinquished by the licensee or terminated by the Welsh Ministers for failure to comply with licence model clauses. The last well drilled in Wales was completed on 23 March 2012, and produced coal bed methane for a short time. No further wells have been drilled in Wales since 2012. All production in Wales under a petroleum licence ceased in 2012/13 and, consequently, there is currently no petroleum production onshore in Wales. 

Should a licensee seek to drill in accordance with the planning permissions, the consent of the Welsh Ministers, as the petroleum licensing authority in Wales, would be required. Should the Ministers receive an application for consent to drill, any decision will be subject to devolved policy and applicable legislation. 

I hope this provides clarity on the constitutional and legal position in Wales. If you have any further concerns or want to discuss the policy in more detail, my officials are available to meet with you. If you feel you would benefit from a discussion with them, please contact [us] to make the arrangements. 

Yours sincerely, 

Julie James AS/MS 

Y Gweinidog Newid Hinsawdd / Minister for Climate Change 

Thank you, Julie! A much fuller reply that at least attempted to address the questions we had raised, but still leaving nagging doubts about whether an appropriately minded (i.e. insane) PM in Westminster could force fracking upon Wales if they so resolved. Thus, we accepted the invitation to discuss things in that bit more detail. 

The meeting, on 2nd December, has just about removed our last nagging doubts. 

We reviewed the history of licensing, planning and permits relevant to fracking activities. No new licenses have started since July 2008. This is before I was first made aware of the fracking threat in the UK almost exactly 12 years ago in December 2010. Of the 19 PEDL licences brought forward from that time, six were relinquished in June 2016, six were terminated in June 2020, and one expired in September 2022.

This leaves 6 still extant; one expires in 2027, one in 2031 and the other 4 in 2035. Three of the six are connected to our old friend, Gerwyn Williams, who still needs to find cash from somewhere to finish off his grand retirement villa at Newton beach, but has pretty much run out of ideas, cash and potential backers it seems. It is now abundantly clear that these PEDLs are pretty much worthless as he won’t get planning consent or permits to do anything meaningful on them. 

Most of our discussions focussed on the constitutional issues surrounding potential Westminster over-ruling Welsh Government and forcing through fracking. Lis Truss and Greg Hands had clearly been aware that it was at least theoretically possible, after all. 

And yes, it is theoretically possible. But only in very limited and extraordinary circumstances. Essentially, it would have to be a UK national emergency, such as a declaration of war, in a circumstance in which the UK government could at least argue that Wales’ ministers were harming the UK’s interests. 

This, in itself, leaves too much wriggle room for contemptible UK minsters like Truss and Hands to exploit, but given that bringing fracked gas on stream from a zero base would take many months, minimum, and probably a couple of years more realistically, it can never be a quick fix answer in an emergency situation. 

Thus, it leaves us all pretty much 100% certain that fracking cannot happen in Wales in the foreseeable future. 

The geology and economics have always made it an enterprise of dubious efficacy in the UK in any case. All of Gerwyn Williams’ efforts to date have been about trying to establish that there is a viable industry to be had, so that he could then sell on his PEDLs at a huge profit to those with the resources to undertake the production processes. It has never happened and cannot realistically happen at a profit, even with the current level of energy prices. 

Thus, Frack Free Wales’ steering committee feels as if its work is finally done. After a decade keeping Wales free from the frackers, we are finally confident that it will remain so into the foreseeable future. 

At times, over the last 12 years for me personally, the campaign has been a huge part of my life. It has been a journey of highs and lows, but ultimately a successful and satisfying one. This blog has chronicled the journey in some detail.

Allow me the indulgence of flagging up a few of the more significant and/or memorable moments along the way, in the sincere hope that I never feel the need to mention fracking in this blog ever again! 

  1. The first time I blogged about fracking (January 2011) 
  2. Bridgend Green Party’s anti-fracking resolution passed by the UK Green Party Conference, with coverage in South Wales newspapers (February 2011) 
  3. Seconded to the Llandow “The Vale Says NO!” group created by Louise Evans (March 2011) 
  4. Test drilling proposal withdrawn in Llandow (April 2011) 
  5. First big wake-up call for Wales Government (June 2011) 
  6. Participation in a high profile public meeting on fracking in London (July 2011
  7. The first big protest camp (September 2011) 
  8. The Co-operative choose to launch their UK “Frack Free Future” campaign in Bridgend, in recognition of our good work (September 2011) 
  9. Helped launch the UK Anti Fracking Network in Manchester (March 2012) 
  10. Llandow Public Inquiry – ultimately lost (May 2012) 
  11.  The first “Global Frackdown” event allied to guest appearance at a Lib Dem Conference fringe event (September 2012) 
  12. Taking the message to Downing Street (December 2012) 
  13.  The birth of Frack Free Wales (January 2013)
  14. Publication of my evidence synopsis – first of several editions (April 2013) 
  15. First big demo outside the Senedd (April 2012) 
  16. First Worldview interview focused on fracking, with the late, great Denis Campbell (May 2013) 
  17. First visit to Balcombe (August 2013) 
  18. First Russia Today interview  (August 2013) 
  19. Well-received speech on the steps of the Senedd (September 2013) 
  20. The Vale’s Not For Shale Concert – great ‘Focus TV’ film! (April 2014) 
  21. We Need To Talk About Fracking national tour comes to Swansea (June 2014) 
  22. Festival of the Celts and introducing the Warrior Sigil (July 2015) 
  23. The pseudo-moratorium in Wales (October 2015)
  24. Upton(Cheshire) solidarity day (January 2016) 
  25. Not quite a ban! (December 2018) 

And this brings us right up where I started this blog piece. The short-lived farce that was the Liz Truss premiership re-awakened the nightmare prospect of Tories doing the unthinkable and exploiting what is still ‘no-quite-an-outright-ban’ here in Wales. 

It is, I am happy to acknowledge, as good as. 99.9% there. 

The only way of making that 100% is to cut all ties with Westminster and become a fully independent country. As the film in no.20 states in the last few minutes, we ought to have a very rosy energy future here in Wales, based around the varied renewable assets that Wales has in abundance. 

This is where we need to focus our attention now the fracking menace has been dispelled. 

Footnote:

Donal is looking into a project to identify and trap leaking methane from coal mines, landfill waste dumps and the like. This would be a significant mitigation measure that could also be deployed worldwide. 

In my mind’s eye I can even see a potential role for our local fracking nemesis, Gerwyn Williams, and his ilk. His knowledge and skillset could be very useful in such an endeavour; and who doesn’t like a poacher that turns gamekeeper?!

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!

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

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

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

NO to NATIONALISM

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Leanne Wood’s ecosocialist manifesto, 2011.

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

Civic v ethnic ppt

Nicked from a school ppt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YES to INDEPENDENCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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