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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
Updated: 3 hours 38 min ago

Why the Daily Mail’s “volunteer army” should be resisted

1 December, 2018 - 22:20

 Mail calls for volunteer army to transform NHS".Today, the Daily Mail launched a campaign to recruit a “volunteer army” to “help” the NHS starting next Spring, in conjunction with a “new social movement called Helpforce”. The roles that volunteers are expected to do include running hospital libraries, fetching medicines from pharmacies for patients, talking to and comforting patients (including children) when their families cannot or do not visit, delivering blood on motorbike, assisting cardiovascular patients in the gym and providing speech therapy for people who have had strokes. Hospitals have always had volunteers doing some of the above roles, running libraries and cafes and acting as porters (although the latter is also a paid role), but while it’s assured that this scheme will not amount to running the NHS on unpaid staff, some of these roles do cut into what should be paid jobs.

Let us understand that there are clear disadvantages to relying on voluntary workers. Voluntary work is not actually free; the NHS will need to provide training and get criminal record checks for all volunteers, to prevent another Jimmy Savile using voluntary work to find vulnerable people to abuse. Only someone who has a lot of time on their hands on a regular and reliable basis can volunteer regularly; most jobs people do to make ends meet leave barely enough time to take care of household necessities such as cooking, cleaning, laundry etc. This includes a small number of young people or people who have been made redundant who seek to build up their work skills but mainly means retirees. Furthermore, by nature, a volunteer can choose to continue or discontinue his or her work because, for example, they may have family duties or have just found a more fulfilling use of their time; they do not need to do the work and the people they are serving do not have any right to demand that they continue, unlike with a paid worker who is contracted to work for a set number of hours. When I left some voluntary work early a few years ago for family reasons, the administrator thanked me for my time when he could probably done with a few more hours of it.

Some of the roles mentioned in the Mail’s article and in their interviews with some volunteers, should be (and usually are) paid. This includes the man delivering blood supplies on his (or a NHS-supplied) motorcycle, for example. Any job involving a motorcycle is hazardous; however well-trained, and however much they enjoy the job, the rider is at risk from other road users, oil or ice in the road and so on, to a greater extent than almost anyone else on the road. (Ideally, a blood bike should have blue lights and be allowed to break speed limits and so on as the delivery may well be urgent.) Support for people undergoing treatment for cancer or for cardiovascular patients are specialised roles and while someone who has been through this treatment (chemotherapy, mastectomy or whatever) may be able to talk to someone just about to about what it involves, better support can be provided by full-time, paid staff than a volunteer who is only there one day a month.

We must remember that paid work is a social good, and this includes low-skilled paid work; even if it is not a career or even a living, it means that people gain at least a bit of self-reliance and have money to spend that is theirs and not a loan or a hand-out. It is unfair on these people if their paid work is abolished so that people can “gain experience” or do something for the buzz or the feelgood factor. Some of these voluntary roles pose the danger of usurping skilled paid roles; much as advice from a Citizen’s Advice volunteer is not always a substitute for qualified legal advice, no unqualified volunteer can possibly be as effective as, say, a trained speech therapist for a stroke victim and if enough of these volunteers are available, there will be the temptation to simply do away with the paid specialist or combine their role with other work. The suggestion that the wave of volunteers might “transform the NHS” rather does suggest that they will be doing a lot more than volunteers do right now.

And nobody will have missed the ‘coincidence’ that the voluntary roles are due to start in the Spring, at just the time when Britain is due to leave the European Union and there is a risk of economic collapse — perhaps there is the suspicion that a lot of people will have free time on their hands — as well a large number of paid NHS staff from the EU, particularly eastern Europeans who will have been made particularly unwelcome, leaving as a result of uncertainty about their residency. One commentator on Twitter compared it to an arsonist offering a thimble-full of water to put out a fire he started. It also clearly harks back to David Cameron’s rhetoric of a “big society” which put a heavy emphasis on volunteering, and proved to be a cover for public service cuts (and some of the promises made, such as a “national care service”, remain unfulfilled). If we were not about to inflict a major disaster on ourselves, we would not be talking about recruiting huge numbers of volunteers but investing in more paid staff.

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Why do we house refugees in hostile areas?

30 November, 2018 - 23:15

Two police officers, one male and one female, stand against green railings, behind which is a purple sign with "Almondbury Community School, Fernside Centre" in white and yellow writing.This week a video was circulated on social media of a Syrian refugee boy, named Jamal, with his arm in a cast being attacked in a park in Huddersfield by a group of boys and having water poured over him. It has transpired that the boy and his sister have been bullied by teenagers at the same school in Huddersfield; the sister is reported to have attempted to kill herself in the school toilets and another video shows a girl tearing her hijab off her head. The boy, whose Facebook profile was allegedly full of posts supporting “Tommy Robinson” and Britain First (the posts have since been removed), was supposed to have been charged with assault but media reports say he has fled the country, but the Far Right, including “Tommy Robinson”, have circulated rumours that Jamal was himself a bully, but the picture used to ‘prove’ this was in fact extracted from a Daily Mirror story about a boy in Surrey. This morning’s Victoria Derbyshire show on BBC2 covered the story an interviewed two men who work for the Syrian refugee community, one of whom mentioned that after he was settled in Sunderland, his home was vandalised repeatedly by local racists.

The UK has a policy, since 1999, of dispersing asylum seekers away from London and the South East so as to relieve pressure on local authorities, since this is where the majority of asylum seekers made their claims as this is where people landed when they entered the UK (and the main Home Office centre for processing visa applications is in Croydon). It is no secret that in much of the north there is a lot of empty housing stock, the main reason being that there are no longer the jobs to employ local people. Ever since then there have been periodic complaints that asylum seekers are being housed on “sink estates” and other areas where there is a lot of crime, vandalism and racism; even where dispersal was not an issue, a person with obvious differences such as race or disability can become an easy target for local criminals and bigots, as with the case of Bijan Ebrahimi, who was targeted by locals with false accusations, vandalism and violence, ending, in 2013, in murder, by neighbours in Bristol while the police and local council treated him as an attention seeker.

In most big towns in Yorkshire and the north-west of England, there are areas with a high Asian Muslim population, with schools that reflect that. The media are fond of calling them ghettoes and blaming them for ‘radicalisation’, but any area where an asylum seeker or refugee’s religion or culture are well catered for is preferable to an area where it is not, let alone where people of that culture or religion who already live locally will not set foot, and indeed where the people making these policies — mostly white and middle class — will not set foot either, even if the latter is cheaper, for the reasons already mentioned. The school the victims in this case attended (Almondbury Community School) is majority white although it does have a large minority of minority-ethnic pupils; in its last Ofsted report (2017), pupils were reporting that bullying was rare, but it also mentioned that behaviour “requires improvement” and that disruption was often linked to unchallenging lessons; the behaviour went unchallenged by teachers. Apart from its nursery, the school’s rating was “requires improvement”, as it was in 2015. While pictures of the school do show diversity, Muslims do not seem to be well-represented.

The whole point of asylum is to provide refuge to people fleeing war or persecution. It defeats the object of that if they are forced to live in areas where they are liable to be attacked because of their origin or religion, or their houses damaged, or their children forced into schools in the same attitudes prevail. As with other kinds of bigotry (e.g. myths about rape such as that victims were asking for it), children pick their attitudes up from their parents and if they hear parents or other adults talking about foreigners, immigrants or others who are different in derogatory ways or repeating falsehoods they have gleaned from tabloids, talk radio or social media, then they will pick these attitudes up themselves. People who have suffered persecution or torture or experienced the violence of war must not be forced to live in areas where they will be subject to further violence. It is not much better than sending them home, which itself is against international law.

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Is new FGM legislation really needed?

25 November, 2018 - 17:17

Picture of Christopher Chope, a white man in late middle age wearing glasses with thin metal rims, a white shirt, a blue tie and a dark grey jacket.Last Friday a bill sponsored by Lord Berkeley, a Labour life peer (who was formerly a hereditary peer) to extend family law protection to girls deemed at risk of FGM, was derailed by Christopher Chope, the Tory MP for Christchurch in Dorset who shouted “object” when it was read on a Friday afternoon, a method he has used to scupper a number of other private members’ bills (most famously the “upskirting” bill) on the grounds that they might have been passed onto the statute book without proper debate or scrutiny. The government supported the bill, and might well include its provisions in a future government bill if this bill fails. The reaction to Chope’s action was, as might be expected, furious and often included comparisons with the upskirting bill incident; Rachael Swindon tweeted “there is seriously something wrong with this guy” while others called for a bill to stop the use of “object”. (More: Shifting Sands.)

The issue of whether Parliamentary rules should allow a single MP to stop a bill proceeding has been raised before; we have too many of these rules but really, private members’ bills should be shown more respect and debated at a time when MPs are more likely to be in the chamber rather than on a Friday afternoon when, it seems, few of them will be there. Rather than relying on one MP to shout “object”, holding the debate another time seems more logical and more democratic. What also needs debating, however, is the complete lack of scepticism in the reaction to this incident about the prevalence of FGM in this country. It is naturally assumed that all girls whose parents or grandparents come from countries where FGM goes on are at risk, an assumption for which there is little evidence.

To give an example, David Alton, a former Liberal Democrat MP and now a cross-bench peer, gave a speech in the House of Lords supporting the bill which used a lot of the familiar emotive arguments (the text starts with a library picture of rusty and bloodied instruments) and quoted a number of the statistics commonly used to raise alarm about FGM in this country but in themselves do not prove that it is happening. For example, he quotes the familiar statistic of “5,391 newly recorded cases” in England during 2016-7 and “9,179 total attendances in the same period where FGM was identified or a medical procedure for FGM was undertaken”. He also claims that “according to the NHS”, there were 112 cases where the woman was born in the UK and in 57 cases, the procedure was ‘known’ to have taken place in the UK. Yet, he does not state how it is known, or how long ago the procedures took place, or indeed whether they were FGM at all or in fact non-traditional genital piercings.

Alton also quotes the World Health Organisation as saying that FGM’s immediate complications include “severe pain … excessive bleeding … swelling … fever … infections … urinary problems … wound healing problems … shock” and “death”, yet if it were taking place on any scale in the UK, we would not need to rely on “new cases” recorded in adult women giving birth or having smear tests or other gynaecological work years after the event; these things would have been recorded. No large community which has been in this country for 30 years or more could have kept something like this a secret, skilfully avoiding prosecution, for this long. If someone was piercing ears, let alone performing genital alterations, without observing proper hygiene, ultimately they would cause an infection that would result in someone needing medical treatment.

If you were wondering what the bill actually does, the Family Law Journal has this information, which is missing from much of the emotive commentary (including any of the mainstream media coverage):

The purpose of the proposed amendment is to enable the courts to make interim care orders under the Children Act 1989 in child cases relating to FGM, in addition to FGM protection orders. If a court was satisfied that there were reasonable grounds for believing that the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, an interim care order could be made. The interim care order would mean that a local authority would have shared parental responsibility for the child concerned until a final hearing.

At present, provisions under the Children Act 1989 enable interim care orders to be made only in certain ‘family proceedings’ as defined by the Act. These ‘family proceedings’ do not currently include proceedings under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003—which Lord Berkeley’s Bill seeks to change.

However, making care orders on the basis of alleged risk of FGM raises the possibility of children being taken into foster care or even children’s homes, and if this is the case, one has to ask if any extra money is going to be made available for the care of a whole new category of looked-after children. The care system is already overstretched looking after children who are at risk of neglect or ongoing abuse as well as those whose parents are unable to care for them for one reason or another; foster homes, if available, could be miles away from their home and school and not necessarily culturally suitable. On top of this, the outcomes in terms of exam results, employment, homelessness and so on for care leavers are not great; to add a group of young people to this to prevent a single harmful thing (particularly if it is not one of the severe forms that involves removing parts of the labia, for example) when they are being well-cared for and not otherwise abused (or worse, when the suspicion is influenced by prejudice or based on rumour or hearsay) could prove worse than simply leaving them alone.

It is my belief that FGM is a minor issue in the UK which is being exaggerated for a mixture of racist reasons and the need for a coterie of professional activists to maintain their reputations and careers. If it were taking place on a significant scale, we would have more reliable indicators such as girls and young women presenting with complications of recently-performed FGM, or dying. Much of the non-academic literature includes appeals to emotion and prejudice, including the shared assumption that “of course” FGM is happening here, in the absence of serious evidence. This gives a green light to those who seek to impose intrusive surveillance on some of the minorities concerned, particularly Muslims of African origin. Before we cheer on further legislation, we must have more reliable evidence that it is needed.

Image source: Chris McAndrew, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence.

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Care homes and revenge evictions

24 November, 2018 - 22:55

A picture of Meadbank care home, a red-brick building on a corner with the name 'Meadbank' in large white letters on the rounded corner, with a brick wall topped by a black metal railing in front of it.In this morning’s Guardian, there’s an investigation into abuse in British care homes and the homes involved care for the three main groups of care home residents — the elderly, those with learning disabilities and those with physical impairments — and the abuses are all those we are familiar with, such as call buttons not being answered, residents being left in soiled clothing and bedding, people not being kept safe — as well as rodent infestations, all while their owners earned a tidy profit and paid handsome dividends and executive salaries. However, there is one issue which the two articles do not mention and one which does not often get discussed when it comes to care homes: the ease with which the management can evict a resident for minor infractions of rules, irrespective of whether there is anywhere else nearby which is suitable for them. It is not only landlords but also care home owners that indulge in “revenge evictions”.

A couple of posts back I mentioned a lady, in her early 20s and living in the north of England, who earlier this year became an amputee and a paraplegic. I won’t go into the specifics of how that happened; the amputation was planned but her paralysis was the result of a mistake made following it. Initially she went back home and lived with her mother, but the house was unsuitable and the care burden enormous for her mother, so the decision was made that she had to go into residential care and she was placed in hospital. Social services searched for a care home for her and found one; she moved in in July. The home’s residents are mostly those with learning disabilities, including autism. She has the sort of autism that used to be called Asperger’s syndrome, but that is not why she was in the home. She was there because she needed a suitably adapted home for her physical needs, and this was the nearest that could be found. While not ideal — she could not leave without asking a member of staff to let her out because other residents needed to be kept in, and she found that the TV was mostly used to watch children’s programmes — it was not terrible, she had friends outside and they took her out often.

However, she admitted a member of the management to the private Facebook group she used to share her ‘journey’ with her online friends and one day complained on that group that her morning care call was not made until noon. As a result, the management held a meeting and gave her (and social services) six weeks’ notice that she had to leave the home. Eventually it was decided that she would live in a bungalow which had previously been occupied by a disabled woman who had died, so it was partially adapted and needed some improvements; in the meanwhile, she is living in a supported living environment which usually deals with elderly people, and where the care arrangements are very limited and ill-suited to her needs.

Revenge eviction is normally used to refer to a landlord evicting a tenant because they complain that the property is inadequate and needs repair or improvement; a bill to ban such evictions was voted down in the Commons in 2014, much to the delight of private landlords, and a law was finally introduced in 2015 although it only covered tenancies signed since October 2015. However, a care home, including one owned by a large chain, can still evict someone for complaining about the care they receive on social media, including a private Facebook group, and take no responsibility for where they might live afterwards. Care home living for young people who have physical impairments has become unpopular for good reason, but a result is that for people with very substantial needs, places are thin on the ground and someone might have to move a long way from friends and family. If someone is evicted, they might have to travel even further. If someone mounts a sustained campaign of repeated and often exaggerated public complaints because a member of staff rubbed them up the wrong way or some other petty reason, evicting them might be justified but evicting for the reasons given here is not.

This lady did not want to live in a care home all her life; she wanted an adapted property where she could live, I believe, with her mother and have care provided rather than her mother having to do it all. However, some people need the care a care home can provide and may not want to live on their own; they have a right to security in where they live and that means not being evicted for trivial reasons. The law must be changed to stop this practice.

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So, you don’t want to call “Tommy Robinson” a thug…

23 November, 2018 - 14:47

This morning the Today programme on Radio 4 covered the story of Gerard Batten, the new leader of UKIP, hiring Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the former leader of the English Defence League, anti-Muslim agitator and self-styled independent journalist, as an advisor on prison reform and “rape gangs”. The programme featured an interview with Nigel Farage, the former leader who has opposed this appointment and Batten’s more general “drift to the far right” and preoccupation with Islam, and to their credit it was fairly robust; he was accused of moving the party in that direction himself with advertising campaigns which stirred hostility to immigration. However, they went rather soft on Robinson himself.

The presenter noted that Robinson had some personal experience of one of those areas, namely prison, where he spent several months earlier this year on a contempt of court charge which has since been quashed, and noted that many people would object because they regard him as a thug. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon in fact has multiple criminal convictions which have not been quashed; these include an assault for which he was sentenced to 12 months, numerous convictions for assaults during his time as EDL leader, as well as breaking court orders that had been issued as a result of these convictions. He has also served time for using a false passport and mortgage fraud. This information is all quite readily available online.

The tone of these remarks, that his being a thug is just some people’s view, reflects the BBC’s preoccupation with ‘balance’, the idea that there are two sides to every story, especially where an individual has a degree of popularity; if Yaxley-Lennon was just a football hooligan rather than one who is also a political agitator with a few hundred fans, they might not have been so hesitant about stating facts. They are too fearful of being accused of ‘bias’ which might include being the focus of an orchestrated letter- writing campaign. They have acknowledged the dangers of false balance on scientific matters such as man-made climate change but the dogma that you can’t be brazenly biased against a political figure (as opposed to implicitly, which we see fairly commonly in their coverage of anything to do with the Labour party) still holds.

Perhaps it would have been unacceptable to just call him a thug. But it’s not a sign of political bias to give details of his criminal convictions and to at least raise the issue of his lack of any expertise in prison reform (there are many better qualified individuals, including ex-convicts) and the rape gang issue - his contribution there was to endanger a trial, which is why he was imprisoned as it could have cost the public a lot of money, delayed other trials and resulted in victims having to testify and be cross-examined again. If UKIP are to be treated as a respectable political party, decisions such as these deserve as much scrutiny as they would in the Labour or Conservative party.

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Trucking, toilets and wheelchairs (a World Toilet Day post)

19 November, 2018 - 22:30

Three people standing in front of a washbasin in a communal toilet, holding certificates saying "Loo of the Year 2016"Earlier today I came across an article announcing some research that had been done about British workers and their access to toilet breaks, or lack thereof, published by the trade union Unite. Thousands of workers do not have access to basic toilet facilities in their workplace, it says, with evidence of staff at high-street banks having to urinate in buckets and construction sites failing to provide toilets for female staff, assuming there are none. Bus drivers were sometimes denied toilet breaks for up to five hours and call centre staff told to log out (which, it appears, means they will not get paid) if they get up to use the toilet. The worst practices, the report says, are in “bus and lorry driving, construction, warehousing, agriculture and the banking and finance sector”. This is an incredibly varied group of occupations; agriculture is rather to be expected as workers are often out in the country where there are few buildings; others are micro-managed menial work, but truck drivers are among the less well-supervised of those, so why is it on the list?

Well, I work as a truck driver, and if you spend most of your driving life on the road, you are less likely to be unable to find a toilet for very long; motorways all have multiple service stations (except for those that are very short, which usually have one) and main roads have filling stations which are often more frequent, though they have fewer cubicles than a toilet block in a big service station. An urban delivery driver usually drives a vehicle which can easily fit into the average petrol station, many of which have toilets (not all, and some have closed due to vandalism or because the owners decide they do not want the expense, or want the extra space for shop use). However, if you spend a lot of time at depots, the situation varies. The worst offenders are bonded warehouses which store goods which are due to be put on an aeroplane or are subject to duties (e.g. alcohol); many of these have only recently stopped allowing drivers to use the warehouse toilets because it is supposedly not secure to escort drivers to them. This is a somewhat unconvincing explanation; often they also have offices which could be made available to drivers. Apparently, recently the Health and Safety Executive has issued guidelines that these warehouses must, in fact, allow drivers the use of their toilets. Many airport cargo stations do not have toilets available either, despite having plenty of space.

In the last 10 years or so, trucks have increasingly been fitted with trackers so that bosses know where a driver is at any given time, which allows them to nag a driver who has stopped unexpectedly or too long. While I have avoided these sorts of jobs like the plague, I must say I have never seen a supermarket delivery van or a waste collection truck in a filling station forecourt, and these are the only places outside their depots that have parking and toilets. In one job I was asked why I had stopped for 10 minutes at a particular junction outside Woodford in Essex, and when I told the fifty-something lady the reason (and not in excessive detail, just “I was in the loo”), she told me I should not tell such a thing to a lady. On another occasion I was trunking for a major parcel company which had a policy that drivers should not stop en route, ostensibly for security reasons, which I did, as I was unaware of what the toilets and refreshment facilities were like at their depot (it turned out to be quite satisfactory); when working for the Royal Mail last December, I had a manager interrogate me as to why I had stopped at Warwick Services on the way back from a trip to Coventry, and the reason was that the drivers’ toilets at Coventry were crowded and, if I remember rightly, not very clean. I had to give this guy lengthy explanations as to why a loo break might take longer than expected (e.g. having to clean up the loo before using it).

In the work I’m doing now, the boss doesn’t mind if I stop as long as I get there on time, and if I’m not going to, I’m expected to call ahead. Toilets at depots vary; in some places there are two toilets for all the drivers, though we are not expected to stop for long, while at others (typically the older ones) there are plenty. They are usually well-kept and it’s not that common to find one that stinks or where the seat is covered in urine. The job itself is stressful, with two or three middle-men between me and the company I’m ultimately working for and jobs not coming in until two or three hours before it starts, but not having to worry too much about finding decent loos takes some of the stress out of it.

Some of my disabled friends have far worse stress about using the toilet, of course. Most people know what a “disabled toilet” is, but don’t know that only certain types of disabled people can use one — those with good upper body strength who can transfer out of a wheelchair onto the loo and back again. They have those red cords so that, if they fall when transferring, they can get help, so if you ever see one tied up so that it doesn’t reach the floor, you should untie it and tell the management. People with other impairments, such as muscular dystrophy, often don’t have the strength to transfer themselves and require a hoist to lift them, and most public places don’t have them. There is a network of special toilets with hoists and adult-size changing tables, known as Changing Places, but currently there are only 1,203 in the whole of the UK. The upshot is that some people, particularly women, are having surgery to fit catheters (often at some risk to their own health), despite not being incontinent, so that they can relieve themselves without requiring a hoist and not have to take such as dehydrating themselves so they will not have to use the toilet when they are out for a few hours.

One of the worst tendencies in the treatment of disabled people in this country right now is the withholding of the care necessary to get from their wheelchair to the toilet and back, expecting them to use nappies although, as with those having the medical unnecessary surgery to fit catheters, they are not incontinent. The best known case involved Elaine McDonald, a former ballerina who challenged Westminster City Council’s decision to withdraw her overnight care visit and issue incontinence pads instead, but more recently a woman I know, who is both a paraplegic and an amputee and was forced out of a care home a few weeks ago after criticising the care she was receiving in Facebook (a story in its own right: care home managements indulging in revenge evictions), was told that when she moves into a home of her own in a few weeks’ time, she also will not be supplied with a hoist she can use herself (which exist; she has done her research) nor sufficient care time, but be expected to use nappies. She is in her 20s.

This obviously is causing her some distress, but so far the law does not seem to be on her side despite the obvious disadvantages — it’s undignified, it’s unnatural to anyone who has learned to control themselves which is most people above age two, it brings the risk of skin inflammation and breakdown which is particularly hazardous to a full-time wheelchair user, there is the likelihood of leaks (especially as nappies and pads supplied by public bodies are rarely of the best quality and absorbency) which falls to the disabled person to clean up — not to mention the added damage to some people’s already fragile mental health. Really, the cost to the public purse of providing a care visit every few hours so that a severely disabled person can use the toilet cannot be that great. It’s a disgrace in a well-developed country to be penny-pinching at the expense of disabled people’s health and dignity.

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Brexit, ignorance and lies

18 November, 2018 - 22:47

Nadine Dorries, a middle-aged white woman white grey and white hair wearing a light grey top under a light brown coloured jacket.Last week, a draft agreement for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU) was published; it was some 500 pages long and, as could have been predicted, really pleased nobody. It prompted two Cabinet resignations, a few other junior government resignations and a few threats and talk of a back-bench no-confidence motion in Teresa May’s leadership of the Conservative Party but, so far, this has stopped of the 48 letters required to trigger a ballot. Jeremy Corbyn has finally shown a bit of backbone and has said he would not support the deal in Parliament as it does not meet his “six tests” but also has not committed himself to a second referendum on either the deal or on Brexit itself. The main sticking point has been the status of Northern Ireland, where the Irish government and many in Northern Ireland seek to avoid a return to a hard border on the island, while many Tories and hardline Unionists insist there not be a “sea border” between two parts of the UK, or a different relationship with the EU for Northern Ireland or the rest of the UK. What has stuck out for me has been the sheer ignorance and dishonesty displayed by Brexiteers both in the country and in Parliament.

Pro-Brexit intellectuals such as Matthew Goodwin, whose piece on populism and Brexit I responded to a month ago, are fond of lecturing us that, contrary to the ‘myth’ that people voted for Brexit because they hankered for the old days when “faces were white”, many young and prosperous people and many people from ethnic minority backgrounds voted for it. But the old 50s and empire nostalgists are a significant proportion. The other day Eddie Nestor, the BBC Drivetime presenter on their London station, interviewed people in Romford, part of the borough of Havering where some 70% of people voted to leave (London as a whole supported Remain). The people interviewed sounded old, and talked about how Britain never used to have to be a member of the EU and we got on fine then, and we were an empire once so why do we have to be part of the EU now?

The Empire nostalgists conveniently forget that it was not a British empire but a collection of other people’s countries, and we “did without the EU” because other countries had empires or their own (France, Portugal) or were vying for bits of other people’s countries so they could have one of their own (Germany, Austria, Italy). Part of the idea behind the founding of the EEC was to make sure that European nations traded with each other rather than preferring their respective empires at each other’s expense. By the time we joined the EEC, most of our empire had become independent (not only because native peoples wanted to rule themselves but also because maintaining it cost money) and Commonwealth countries often had more convenient local trading partners than us. Britain has not always stood on its own. That is a myth.

On the subject of lies, Teresa May proclaimed that the draft deal was a good one because it ended freedom of movement and gave us back control of our money and borders. Last I checked, we still had our own currency because successive Labour and Conservative governments refused to join the Euro. We still have control of our borders because successive Labour and Conservative governments refused to join the Schengen accord. True, people from anywhere in the EU can come and work in the UK but we can do the same in other countries as well, which is why there are no visa issues when we holiday in Greece, Spain or Portugal. The deal does not, of course, end “freedom of movement”; it ends it for us. EU citizens will still be allowed to live and work in the remaining 27 member states, none of which now retain the restrictions on eastern European nationals which they had in the few years following the 2004 accession. Those who are already here, and even those who arrive during the transition period, will be allowed to remain (and these, quite possibly, are whom a lot of people who voted to leave the EU wanted to see go).

In the last couple of weeks it has become apparent that not only were some prominent Brexiteers lying (that was obvious in 2016) and that the official campaigns were taking funding from overseas, but also that some of them did not know what leaving the EU would entail themselves. First we hear Dominic Raab, the MP for Esher (a wealthy constituency in the Surrey commuter land), telling us how he was just now discovering the importance of the Dover-Calais ferry connection to British trade with Europe, something that has been obvious to the rest of us for years (perhaps he only flies) and only today, the MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, Nadine Dorries, complained that the deal was worse than the present situation because we would have no MEPs or commissioners, which is exactly what leaving the EU always did mean, and even when the “Norway option” was discussed both before and after the referendum, this drawback was made quite clear.

I’ve always been a Remainer, and perhaps in 2016, just after the referendum when the first shocks were being felt as the Pound lost a chunk of its value, which it has not recovered, it was premature to say that there was no need to respect the result, although I was saying it then (and the impediments, such as the narrow result, the difficulties with the Northern Ireland border and the status of Scotland and Gibraltar, were well-known then as well). In 2018, when the politicians have shown that they never knew what they were talking about, when their incompetence and duplicity has been revealed time and again and when we are only on a draft proposal more than two years after the referendum and four months before we automatically leave, we know that leaving the EU with this lot in charge will be disastrous and most people have not much more faith in Jeremy Corbyn, who presides over an equally riven party, either. There needs to be a second referendum so this country can save itself from disaster next Spring.

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Holby City: the Gaskill saga’s denouement

16 November, 2018 - 18:30

Still from Holby City of Jac Naylor, a middle-aged white woman wearing no make-up and with blonde hair tied behind her head, wearing a hospital gown, standing in a darkened laboratory in front of a table with a desk lamp shining down and some test tubes in a rack.I’ve been a fan of the BBC dramas Casualty and Holby City since the 1980s, although I only started watching them on a regular basis again more recently (Casualty was a fixture when I was a child, although it’s less watched now and always gets dropped whenever something ‘important’ needs the BBC1 slot, such as a sporting or remembrance event). The premise was that Casualty was set in Holby City hospital, and Holby was understood to be Bristol until BBC Wales took over the making of Casualty, though not Holby City, and Welsh accents and locations started to appear in it and Holby City characters, some of whom appeared in both, started appearing only occasionally despite the premise of them being set in the same hospital. Recently, Holby City has been dominated by a storyline involving a ‘brilliant’ consultant named John Gaskell who had developed a device allowing people who are paralysed to walk again. However, he was also an extremely manipulative individual and anyone who questioned his judgement (usually someone junior with ‘na&idia;ve’ ethical principles) was dropped from the project and often driven off the ward. It then turned out that patients were dying and that the device was supported by stem cells that were contaminated, and when more senior doctors started to raise concerns, he started killing them.

More recent episodes looked in depth at his early career and his period as a student, with the laconic Swedish consultant Henrik Hanssen and his partner Roxanna McMillen. McMillen remembered her mother who had become “locked in” and her ambition was to find a cure for this condition. After Gaskell realised that Macmillan was aware of the defects of his trial, he chased her through a car park resulting in her being run over by a member of staff; he then sabotages an operation on her brain, resulting in her becoming locked in, and when she starts to communicate with a nurse who holds a letter board in her hand, he ushers the nurse away and then poisons Macmillan. Meanwhile, another consultant in the hospital, Jac Naylor, who had suffered spinal injuries by being shot (by Hansen’s wayward son Fredrik, who had been carrying out unethical trials of his own) had demanded that she be fitted with the implant after her injuries had been causing her crippling pain; when she discovered that contaminated stem cells had been used on others fitted with it, resulting in them developing cancer, she demanded it be removed. Gaskell and Hansen did attempt to remove it, and removed some of the scar tissue that had developed, but could not get at the device itself; Gaskell also attempted to poison Jac, but it appears he failed, though Hansen also was exposed to the poison which Gaskell had developed.

At the end of last Tuesday’s episode, with his trial discredited, his kidnapping of a Portuguese patient (who had been kept in a coma for months) and subsequent attempts to operate on her himself revealed, he drowned himself in a lake where he had previously prevented Hansen from doing the same to himself. Hansen appeared to intend to try and rescue him, telling him he had to face the consequences, but kept collapsing from the effects of the poison. The rest of the staff had to attempt to save both Lana, the Portuguese patient (who died) and Jac Naylor after Gaskell had tried to poison her and then fled; she, it seems survived, although the impression I got — seeing her first open her eyes and then, finally, with her eyes closed and a blank expression and her colleagues standing around with sad expressions — was that she had died. I had been planning to write a retrospective on Naylor’s career and it was only from reading tweets and reviews that I worked out that she was in fact still alive (and her name is in the cast list for the next two episodes).

I found some aspects of this plot weak. One is that Jac would have been able to get this implant put into her on demand, and then get it removed as quickly as she did, also on demand. There are, of course, waiting lists for elective, non-emergency procedures in real NHS hospitals. Another was that she apparently trusted Gaskell to remove it himself. Although she did not know that he was a murderer, she was aware that he was negligent in sourcing the stem cells to support the device. A real consultant who suspected such things would, no doubt, have the money to have this done privately or at least get a private consultation with a neurologist who had no connections to or debt to Gaskell. Another weakness is that she attempted to get both Fletch (a nurse who had recently had a crush on her) and Sacha (a consultant) to look after Emma, her daughter, if she did not make it, saying that she did not trust “her father”. The father has a name, Jon Maconie, a nurse who was once a major character, who at one point Jac pretty much threw Emma at and of whom she previously said he was a good father and regretted having at one point cut him out of Emma’s life; he would have first priority if indeed Jac became unable to look after Emma. I also wonder how Gaskell could have kidnapped a comatose patient, on a hospital bed, from a hospital, let alone from one country to another.

Despite not being dead as she appeared at the end of Tuesday’s episode, she is not out of the woods and the synopsis mentions “when her condition worsens”. Whether she will still be able to work as a consultant cardio-thoracic surgeon with the effects of both her gunshot injury and Gaskell’s butchery and poisoning attempt remains to be seen. Like most watchers, I suspect, I have always found her remarkably dislikeable, right from when, as a registrar, she got a consultant’s job purely because another (female) applicant was tending to a patient when the interviews were held. Despite her competence, she was exceedingly arrogant, a bully to junior staff (who were somehow drawn to her all the same) and was obsessed with hierarchy; she had one relationship, with a male nurse (Maconie), resulting in Emma, whom she lived with for a while but he left, for reasons we never discovered, but Naylor subsequently said “me and a nurse? It was never going to work” and when Fletch showed his affections she shouted “you’re not good enough for me!”. However, for some reason male consultants did not find her attractive enough.

Occasionally, storylines featured Jac’s background as an explanation for why she behaved the way she did: her mother had abandoned her and she grew up in care, starved of affection — though others in the same home were abused, which she escaped, and one of those, Fran Reynolds, ended up working as a nurse at Holby and confronted Jac, revealing that Jac witnessed her abuse but said nothing. Her sister, whose mother had not abandoned her unlike with Jac, also came to work as a junior doctor at the hospital, but Jac froze her out; she ultimately died after being stabbed accidentally with a scalpel during a fight with Reynolds. Jac clearly was not particularly aggrieved at the loss of her sister.

Reading the gossip, it appears that some old faces, such as the much-loved Mo Effanga, are returning starting from the next episode. She’ll be a breath of fresh air as she has a passion for the job and has real human warmth rather than being a walking robot (like Hanssen, whose occasional displays of emotion don’t convince) or a scheming manipulator who rarely shows emotion other than anger (like Naylor) — I’d quite like to see a bit less of these two in particular. Many people on Twitter are complaining that the recent storyline is not typical, i.e. not what they want to see when they watch it; one person said “when I know the aliens are gone, I’ll be back” and another asked, “what happened to the hospital programme — this is like Frankenstein’s experimental castle FFS!!”. It may remind people of how Brookside, the Channel 4 soap of the 80s and 90s, declined from being entertaining, with the odd ‘issue’ based storyline (domestic violence, gambling addiction) to being obsessed with dramatic storylines such as the killer virus and a drug bust in Thailand. The Gaskell storyline may have some people gripped but it has put a lot of the old fans off and a few episodes of normal human beings getting on with each other and treating patients with varying degrees of success might win some of the old fans back.

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Will there ever be a London-Hull motorway?

12 November, 2018 - 19:20

A map of the eastern UK showing a new motorway route running from the M11 in Essex to the north-east via HullThis morning on a truck drivers’ group on Facebook, I saw a link to a report on the Hull Daily Mail website (not linked to the national Daily Mail) which claimed that the proposal to extend the M11 from Cambridge to the Humber Bridge, thus linking London directly with Hull, will be decided on next year and that the Department for Transport had said last year that it was reviewing plans for that particular motorway project. This idea has been brought up every now and again since the 1980s but has never made it off the drawing board, partly because of pressure from farmers in Lincolnshire (although such objections never stopped any of the other motorways from being built; the government can make compulsory purchase orders) and partly because of the geography and population densities of the areas served.

Although Hull has a fast motorway link to the major northern cities via the M62 and the Midlands via the M18 and M1, there is no doubt that Hull is not well served with motorway links to the south; the most direct route is across the Humber Bridge, a toll bridge, to Scunthorpe, then along a single-carriageway road to Lincoln and then along mostly two-lane dual carriageways to London. The motorway route involves going westwards along the M62, then south-west to Doncaster, and then picking up the M1. This is quite a long detour and goes through a number of the most congested bits of motorway and through several sets of major roadworks; however, the M1 remains the recommended route for traffic from London to Yorkshire and the north-east rather than the more direct A1, which despite recent improvements is quite slow further south (the improvements stop at Huntingdon, where traffic heading for the Channel ports veers off onto the A14). Britain’s major population centres outside London are on the western side of the country and that has been where infrastructure investment has been focussed.

There is a map of a “preferred corridor” for an M11 extension (a low-quality version of which can be found on the HDM article) but it seems to avoid all the major population centres between Cambridge and Hull. Rather than extending from the current northern terminus of the M11 north-west of Cambridge, it would leave the M11 towards Newmarket (along the present A11, it appears) before turning north across east Cambridgeshire and central Lincolnshire to approach the present Humber Bridge approach, the A15, from the south. This would be quite convenient for trucks going to the agricultural centres in east Lincolnshire such as Boston, but misses both the major population centres in that part of the country, such as Peterborough and Lincoln, as well as the ports of Immingham and Grimsby. Beyond Hull, it would continue past York and pick up the current A19 towards Tyne and Wear. It would, effectively, be a new corridor to the north-east coastal areas.

The biggest flaw in this is where in London it goes: the north-eastern side. This is convenient enough if you are going to the Docklands or to the industrial areas around Beckton or the Blackwall Tunnel approach or indeed the south-eastern Channel ports, but not if you are going to the Heathrow area or round the south side and want to avoid paying a toll. If you are going to those places, you will want to head for the M1 or at least the A1. Even people going to Cambridge and Norwich often use the A505 and A1 rather than the M11 and M25, particularly when the M25 is heavily congested (which is often). It also involves building a hundred miles or so of new motorway across sparsely-populated but productive farming country which will result in a very pronounced environmentalist outcry; it will be seen as a lot of environmental damage for very limited economic benefit.

A far better idea, much cheaper and with much less environmental damage, is to upgrade the corridor via Lincoln: remove the Humber Bridge toll, widen the A15 to Lincoln and the A46 Lincoln by-pass to dual carriageway and upgrade the junctions with the M180 and the A1 (the A1/A46 junction at Newark needs upgrading as it is: the slip roads on the A1 are way too short and are a cause of danger as vehicles slow down rapidly to access the slip roads at sharp angles). People would then have the choice of taking the A1 straight to London or the A46 to Leicester, where the M69 takes over to Coventry and the West Midlands. It will also require upgrades to the few remaining roundabouts on the A1 south of Huntingdon, which are a major cause of congestion and have been left in place simply because the government prefers people to use the M1 instead, and to the Newark by-pass on the A46.

I suspect that this scheme will not be seriously considered by government, whichever party is in power. The main source of support for it is Hull itself; the idea that the government intends to give it serious consideration next year is a bit of wishful thinking from the Hull local press. There is already a direct route to the south which could be upgraded at much less financial and environmental cost and with greater benefits, in terms of the area of the country whose links with Hull would be improved, than with a brand new motorway across the east of England, which is the A15 and A46 via Lincoln. This should be improved to stop people having to make a huge detour via Doncaster; a whole new motorway would be a pointless expense and an unwarranted act of environmental vandalism.

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On aesthetics and housing policy

10 November, 2018 - 17:51

The Whistling Witch, a tower on a corner in Poundbury with a brick portico at street level and a four-sided spire at the top.Recently social media has been abuzz with comment on the new government housing ‘tsar’, Roger Scruton, previously best known as a philosopher and commentator for various magazines including the Spectator and New Statesman. His position is the chair of a government commission on building ‘beautiful’ homes, which apparently explains why a professor of philosophy is appointed to a position that has anything to do with housing given that he is not known as a writer or authority on that subject. Buzzfeed and others have reminded us of all the very bigoted things he has written over the years, most recently his links to the authoritarian and anti-intellectual Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, and his comments about the Hungarian intelligentsia, namely that many of them were Jewish “and form part of the extensive networks around the Soros Empire”. As Zoe Williams puts it in today’s Guardian, “every time they chuck a job at one of their mates, the most casual scrawl through their Twitter feed reveals that a lack of any meaningful qualification or transparent application process for the role is the very least of their problems”.

When I questioned what exactly Scruton’s qualifications were, I was reminded of his writings on aesthetics and when I pointed out that there was more to housing policy than aesthetics, someone told me “Well look at those ugly blocks built in the 60s and 70s. Ugly buildings affect the people living in it”. This sounds a lot like prejudice or snobbery wrapped up in pseudo-science to me. I grew up in a town that had many of these buildings; nobody who didn’t grow up in a very small town is unfamiliar with them. While they were rundown by the 1980s when I was a child, in the 60s and 70s when they were built, they were places people were glad to move into after living in slums, prefabs and bedsits; people took pride in keeping the insides clean and tidy while the councils took care of the landings and grounds. At the time, these developments were considered prestigious and futuristic and people quite willingly moved into them, and if you live in a cosy flat in one of these externally unattractive buildings then seeing the exterior will not have a bad effect on you, because you know that they are full of cosy flats like your own, each decorated to reflect the tenant’s tastes.

It was only in the 1980s when Thatcher forced councils to sell council houses and flats off while imposing rate caps that prevented councils from maintaining them properly that they started to become rundown. In cities where high-rise buildings are common, they are often seen as perfectly desirable places to live, and in this country one notices that the ugly council block stereotype is only applied to blocks that poor people live in. Even Grenfell Tower was regarded as a great place to live before and after it had been fitted with the infamous flammable and toxic cladding so that it would be less of an eyesore to its wealthy neighbours. Nobody would suggest that the architecture of the Barbican has a negative effect on the people who live there.

Of course, it is an advantage for housing, public or private, to be attractive on the outside as well as the inside, but it is noticeable that the more attractive public housing that existed at the beginning of the 1980s, the houses that can be found in every town and village, are the ones that got sold off while the grey concrete buildings are more likely to be still in public hands or ended up in the hands of private landlords who now rent to people on housing benefit. But there is more to a ‘beautiful’ housing development than just pretty buildings. If we look at what makes a new development such as Poundbury in Dorset successful, we see that it was planned to include public services such as doctors’ surgeries and shops as well as some light industry (including, appropriately, an organic cereals factory) while a lot of new development, despite including only private properties often on sale for six-figure sums, often contains no amenities and requires residents to drive off site to find them. Poundbury is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall (i.e. Prince Charles’s estate) which is one of the few landlords in the district (if not the only one) to accept Housing Benefit tenants; many other new developments make no attempt at social diversity.

I don’t suggest that Prince Charles should have been chosen to chair this commission — there may well not be the time left before he becomes king and will have to put aside such commitments — but perhaps one of the architects or planners behind Poundbury could have been chosen, or someone who has actually studied planned developments such as Saltaire or Bourneville that were commissioned by philanthropic industrialists with both beauty and diversity in mind. I’m sure the government could have found someone whose Tory credentials were as impeccable as Scruton’s who would not have been exposed as a bigot with a simple Google search within 24 hours. We mostly agree that brutalism is, and should remain, a thing of the past in this country but mere aesthetics do not guarantee a healthy community.

Image source: Zonda Grattis, AKA Luridiformis, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence.

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Why birthright citizenship should be defended

4 November, 2018 - 23:30

Black and white picture of Jacob M Howard, a middle-aged white man sitting in a wooden chair wearing two dark coloured jackets over a white suit with a bow tie at the neck.Last week it was announced that Donald Trump favoured ending the automatic American citizenship of anyone born in the USA, which a number of conservative politicians claimed was constitutional although it clearly violates the 14th Amendment which would likely be upheld even by a conservative Supreme Court, whether Trump attempted to do it through an executive order (which is what he has threatened) or through legislation, because its wording is absolutely clear and unambiguous. While the announcement was greeted with scorn by pretty much every progressive and mainstream voice and with scepticism by many conservative ones (Trump is not known for his knowledge of the Constitution; he has recently claimed that if Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams becomes governor of Georgia, “your Second Amendment is gone”), I saw African-American Muslim friends saying they agreed with this on Facebook, largely because they believe immigrants from Latin America and the Middle East are often preferred over African Americans and this contributes to Black Americans’ poverty. The right to citizenship by birth is something that existed in the UK until the early 1980s when it was removed. The upshot has, as you might expect, been hardship and injustice for many innocent people.

Trump was, of course, wrong (or lying) when he claimed the US was the only country in the world that gave citizenship by birth; many countries in the Western world do, including Canada. In the UK, the new law is that anyone born to a British parent (mother or father) in the UK or overseas or to parents settled in the UK (i.e. with leave to remain, not illegal entrants or tourists) is entitled to citizenship. Previously, anyone born in the UK was a citizen, but people born overseas to a British mother and a foreign father were not. The upshot is that there are many older people who were born overseas to a British mother and brought to this country when those relationships broke up and find years later that they are not citizens, as well as British-born people, usually of Caribbean parentage, whose parents migrated here in the late 70s or 80s whose older siblings are British citizens but they are not. The state has also attempted to deport people born here, with no family in their parents’ home country, back to those countries (again, usually in the Caribbean). In some countries in Europe, you have multiple generations of people born in the country who are not citizens because the government uses a “law of blood”, i.e. race, to determine citizenship (so, for example, an “ethnic German” from Russia or Romania has a right to German citizenship but someone of Turkish origin whose grandparents migrated to Germany might not). Some countries devolve decisions about citizenship to local councils which reflect local prejudices, and others use a questionnaire which may require a Muslim to denounce parts of Muslim religious law to prove that he “shares local culture”.

A common justification for removing birthright American citizenship is that it prevents families establishing themselves by the back door through “anchor babies”. In fact, the US does not give parents of such children citizenship or even a visa; the government has deported such parents, giving them the choice of leaving the child in the USA or taking them with them, and the child will have the choice to return as an adult but the parents will not be able to return. So, there is no conflict and there is no such thing in reality as an “anchor baby”. The number of children allowed citizenship by this method must be fairly small, but it is invaluable as, if a parent’s citizenship status later becomes regularised or they have other relatives who are already legal immigrants or citizens, the child is not penalised by being removed to a country they have never known. The details of this ‘policy’, whether it will apply to legal as well as illegal immigrants, have not been fleshed out but removing birthright citizenship for illegal immigrants alone will not make a huge amount of difference.

It will not be a great advantage to African-Americans if birthright citizenship is removed. To take the UK as an example again, the state has been removing people’s citizenship if they have been convicted of crimes or are deemed ‘undesirable’ due to alleged (not necessarily proven) involvement in terrorism and they have citizenship, or the right to it, elsewhere. The reactionary writer Douglas Murray has demanded that Muslims automatically be deported to the home country of a parent or grandparent if they support not only terrorism in this country any attack on western troops anywhere in the world. In the case of African Americans, they enjoy a right of abode in Ghana (and possibly other countries in Africa) and this may be used as an excuse to deport any African American convicted of a crime or otherwise deemed undesirable. Only last year the US deported an American citizen (American father, British mother) to the UK as a condition of his parole as he was also a British citizen; he had killed his girlfriend at age 16 and had spent 40 years in prison.

Nobody who is not in Trump’s core vote should trust his intentions or those of his conservative allies (some of whom were saying that removing birthright citizenship was unconstitutional a couple of years ago) on this. It is consistent with Republicans’ use of, say, a minority of fraudulent voters as an excuse to impose identity checks which make it more difficult for poorer voters to vote, because they are less likely to vote for them. It will not just be so-called anchor babies that suffer; it will be anyone they deem undesirable. It will be a stepping stone to making citizenship a kind of glorified visa rather than a confirmation that your home is your home, and it will be used as a vehicle to entrench voter suppression. No Muslim, certainly, should be cheering a proposal like this on; injustice to a group of people you resent will not mean justice for you, especially when perpetrated by a common enemy.

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Pittsburgh and anti-Semitism in context

3 November, 2018 - 19:00

Three memorials to victims of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, consisting of names (Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger) written on white hexagonal stars, with flowers, hearts and stars placed at the feet of the stars, with the word "hope" visible on one of them.Last Saturday, a racist gunman attacked a synagogue near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and killed 11 worshippers, including four Holocaust survivors, a married couple and two disabled brothers in their fifties; also killed was a doctor named Jerry Rabinowitz who was described by a former patient as the most effective AIDS doctor in Pittsburgh in the 1980s and early 90s who would treat patients with respect and without fear which a lot of doctors would not. This came at the end of a week in which two elderly Black people (one man, one woman) were murdered in a grocery store in Kentucky and pipe bombs were sent in the mail to a number of Democrat politicians including the Obama and Clinton families as well as some wealthy or celebrity democrats including the actor and director Robert De Niro and the financier at the centre of many far-right conspiracy theories, George Soros. I have nonetheless come across attempts on Twitter to take the event out of context, to emphasise that this was an anti-Semitic attack, to claim that the victims were Jews killed just because they were Jews rather than because there is a rising tide of hatred and of white-supremacist violence.

One example was a rabbi who quoted a tweet that called the attack an example of hatred and gun violence and said she would have ‘liked’ it but for the lack of any mention of anti-Semitism; another was a Facebook post by the Brighton-based writer David Bennun which started by asking “Why do people always kill Jews, for being Jews, wherever there are Jews?” and gave two possible answers (I have quoted sections from it rather than the entire post):

One: In every place that Jews live, but for their own homeland (and even there much of the outside world looks upon them as interlopers), as well as in places where they do not or can no longer live, they are the eternal Other. Perceived as in but not of that place (“despite having lived here all their lives”); not like Us; forever under suspicion. The poisoners of wells, the thieves of children’s blood. … This is the racist conspiracy theory known as anti-Semitism. It takes many forms, and there is no type of zealous political ideology, of the left or the right, in which it does not sooner or later flourish.

Two: Jews somehow bring it upon themselves. A view encapsulated in the words of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity . . . I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” In this view, which is invariably held by people who, you understand, haven’t a racist bone in their body, it is always, of course, terribly regrettable that these awful things should be done to Jews by these awful people - but if only the Jews hadn’t provoked it through whatever it is that Jews do.

Except that in this case, the attacker gave his reason: because he blamed the organisation that ran the synagogue for bringing in ‘invaders’, i.e. immigrants. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered”, he also said, possibly referring to the caravan of refugees from Honduras making its way on foot northwards through Mexico (which had been alleged, without any evidence, by US Vice President Mike Pence to include people of Middle Eastern origin), or possibly referring to the “white genocide” trope common on the far right, that multiculturalism and mixed relationships dilutes the ‘purity’ of the “white race” and is thus effectively genocide. He also claimed that it was “filthy evil Jews bringing filfy (sic) evil Muslims into the country”. So, he was an anti-Semite, but his anti-Semitism was one of a number of other prejudices he had.

Then there was this tweet, by the Labour MP Jess Phillips:

So to her, this attack is representative of rising global anti-Semitism, not rising violent armed racism in the United States. Clearly this is to put the attack in the same context as the so-called anti-Semitism observed in the Labour party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, an allegation largely based not on violence against Jews or anyone advocating it but attacks on Israel in response to its oppressions of the native Palestinians. So, let’s be clear: this man was not inspired by Jeremy Corbyn; he belongs to the American Far Right, is a white supremacist, and did not act out of solidarity with Palestinians.

It has to be remembered that the United States is not Europe and has its own history of racism and any understanding of American racists, including neo-Nazis, is incomplete without that history. The United States used to be a legally white-supremacist country in which Blacks were first slaves and then, in much of the country after they were freed, subjected to a legally-enforced regime of discrimination. Violent racists linked to organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan occupied positions of power such as in the police, judiciary and the legislature. Although the remnants of the KKK and other white-supremacist organisations from that time have since merged with the neo-Nazi fringe, they were not always anti-Semitic; the Confederacy had a Jewish secretary of state, Judah P Benjamin (previously a US Senator from Louisiana). Although anti-Semitism became established among segregationists in the 20th century, their principal targets were African-Americans. They wanted to preserve, as much as possible, the “old order” in which the white aristocracy ruled and Blacks were powerless and did menial work for them. After they lost the Civil Rights battle, mainstream right-wing politicians began to appeal to racist white voters using coded terms for (particularly poor) Black people; references to welfare queens and appeals to “law and order”.

In the modern western world, there are two distinct strands of white supremacist thinking: the fringe, traditionalist one inspired by Hitler which remains anti-Semitic, and the mainstream one that defends the current white-dominated world order represented by Trump and the newly elected fascist president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, which numbers Jews among whites and is aggressively pro-Zionist. There are people, particularly on the political Right, who are not known for taking a strong stand against racism, particularly police racism and hostility to immigrants, who will sanctimoniously condemn anti-Semitism, especially alleged Left-wing anti-Semitism; also note how, when Iowa congressman Steve King was questioned about his connections to white supremacists in a public meeting, he angrily pointed to his lifelong support for Israel and demanded that the questioner be removed. In the UK, although their anti-Semitism was never a secret, the National Front of the 1970s exploited hostility towards immigrants from the Commonwealth; anti-Semitism was not emphasised as it was not a vote winner, and after Nick Griffin (a known Holocaust denier) became leader, open anti-Semites such as John Tyndall were manoeuvred out of the party as he realigned it to attack Muslims, and to a lesser extent non-white immigrants; Griffin attempted to court Jews, though he had little success as they knew his history. The BNP have dropped into obscurity but the fringe right represented by UKIP and the “football lads” element aggressively targets Muslims for hatred and is also pro-Israel.

If the Pittsburgh attack was against a backdrop of rising global anti-Semitism, then someone explain why the major anti-racist protest movement of the past few years was called Black Lives Matter, not Jewish Lives Matter. The reason is that Jewish Americans were not being shot or choked to death in the street by the police or, occasionally, white vigilantes (occasionally it was the learning disabled or mentally ill). Anti-Semitism exists, but there is no stereotype of Jews that would lend itself to justifying arbitrary police violence against an unarmed civilian, often a child. We know Donald Trump has friends who are anti-Semites and blamed the attack partly on poor synagogue security when places of worship the world over have their doors open, especially when they need to let worshippers in, but we also know he is supported by the mainstream, conservative Right which has strong memories of being allied to the Jewish Right during the Bush years, that he has Jewish close relatives and that he has taken a firmly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian stance while in office. Any violence is not going to come from the State.

And frankly, there are some who give the impression that they think anti-Semitism is not morally equivalent to other prejudices and some who say so explicitly. For example, last May Melanie Phillips (who may be seen as a fringe voice within the Jewish community but is a regular fixture on British TV and radio), on a panel along with Dawn Foster on Sunday Politics, claimed that Islamophobia was a term which “covers legitimate criticism of the Muslim community; any criticism of the Muslim community is considered Islamophobic”. She then claimed that there was no comparison with anti-Semitism (which she also claimed was endemic on the Left, not only the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party but also the Liberal Democrats as well), which was not like other forms of racism and for which there was “never any excuse” and was “a unique derangement”, “based on lies and demonisation”. The implication is that other forms of racism can be rationalised as based on fears over jobs, crime or demographic change, and can or even should be accommodated, while anti-Semitism is a derangement and any rationalisation of it is anti-Semitic in itself.

And it is also gun violence. In the UK we also have violent racists, but the worst racist incident in recent times anyone can think of was the murder (by stabbing) of a single Black teenager (Stephen Lawrence) in 1993 by a gang of five white, racist youths. They used a knife because the average person has no access to anything more powerful (you need a legitimate purpose, e.g. hunting, grouse/pheasant shooting or pest control, to get a licence for firearms); if they had been able to obtain the automatic weapons anyone with an axe to grind can get hold of in the USA, they could have killed many more people and so could others. We have also seen family murders committed using firearms, but massacres are extremely rare here. Much as with any of the numerous school and workplace shootings that have taken place in the USA, it is a legitimate opportunity to talk about the need for gun control and, especially, the control of automatic and assault weapons (or anything that can be modified to serve that purpose). It’s not countries that do not have racism that do not have racist massacres; it’s countries with gun control.

Last Saturday’s massacre was horrific. Of course it was. The synagogue that was targeted was chosen not only because it was a synagogue but because it had a history of helping refugees. There may well be more racial violence in the USA in the coming years, as well as in Europe where racist ‘populists’ are on the march in many countries. But it’s pretty nauseating to hear people emphasise the anti-Semitic aspect of this, and demand that it not be “lumped in” with gun violence or hate, when it took place against a backdrop of rising violence against minorities in general rather than Jews in particular. I agree with the editor-in-chief of the Jewish magazine Forward, Jane Eisner, who wrote in last week’s email newsletter, in regard to the comment of an imam who said he was relieved when he discovered that the killer was not a Muslim:

Isn’t that what it’s like to be a targeted minority in America? How often have we as Jews had the same reaction — pride when one of us wins another Nobel Prize, finds a new cure, invents another amazing device? And then how often do we cringe in fear when one of us is found to be a crook, a murderer, a predator, a detriment to society?

America has been a violent place for African Americans since its inception, and for other minorities for centuries. Jews have been relatively immune — privileged by the fact that so many of us are white, educated, prosperous, unthreatening, willing to fit in.

America might be a less safe place for Jews now than it seemed two weeks ago. But it was never safe for many other visible minorities, and while I do not doubt that there will be more of the same and some of it directed at Jews, Jews will not be the major target of whatever racial violence may ensue over the next few years in both America and Europe. The major targets will be Blacks, Muslims, refugees and other non-white immigrants.

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Social care costs money

28 October, 2018 - 10:51

Picture of Beth, a young white girl with curly hair wearing a knitted white jumper and a pink skirt, kneeling in front of a rose bushToday the Mail on Sunday published two long articles ([1], [2]) by Ian Birrell, a former speechwriter to David Cameron who has a disabled daughter, on the scandal of autistic people and people with PDA (pathological demand avoidance syndrome) trapped in institutions in the UK. This follows the outcry started when BBC’s File on 4 broadcast an interview with the father of a young woman named Bethany who had been in seclusion at St Andrew’s hospital in Northampton where her father could only visit her by talking to her through a hatch in a doorway; this has now been ended as a result of the publicity, though not before the local authority tried to take out a court injunction to prevent him talking about his daughter’s situation. Birrell’s articles include a brief run-down of a few people’s stories, most of them well-known to the activist community already and most of which have been in the media before. Birrell also claims credit for getting Beth moved out of seclusion into a “three-room unit” within St Andrew’s by saying that it took place after his article was raised in parliament and read by the health secretary, but fails to mention the File on 4 piece which actually brought Beth’s case to public attention.

Not all the cruelties mentioned in these articles have anything to do with money; some of them are just downright cruelty or the product of a rule-ridden and risk-obsessed culture in British mental health care. It is, for example, standard practice not to allow parents or other visitors to see the room their child or friend/relative lives in, ostensibly to protect their privacy and those of other patients. When they visit, they have to do so in a visitor’s room (if they are not allowed out with them). There have been cases of families coming to visit and being told that one family member cannot enter because they are under 18, resulting in them having to sit in the car for the entire period. In other cases, visits have been refused after the family has travelled for several hours to visit them because they are “not calm” or have not been for two hours or some arbitrary period. Some institutions make no attempt at person-centred care and some treat their patients with no regard for their dignity. This has nothing to do with money. The fact that the mental health sector has, over many years, failed to educate itself on autism and PDA so that it can treat people with these conditions effectively and without abuse, cannot be blamed on money either.

But the reason people are trapped in these places for extended periods often can. It has become very common to complain about the cost to the public purse of keeping people in these units particularly given the atrocious and neglectful treatment they receive, and Ian Birrell’s articles are no exception. But local authorities would have to foot the bill if they were not under NHS care (either directly or through a contract with a private provider such as St Andrew’s or a company such as Priory or Cygnet) and they have been starved of funds over many decades simply because people hate paying taxes and would rather complain about poor services, be it social care or bin collection, than pay for them. In some areas, councils have carried out consultations asking local people what they would be willing to pay more council tax for and the reply usually comes back as “nothing”, leaving the council to sell off assets such as playing fields and staff car parks in schools to raise money.

We’ve all heard of, for example, care home companies hiring staff at minimum wage, often who don’t speak English properly and who do not have proper training. If you are in contact with disabled people for long enough you will hear of some of them losing good carers because they cannot afford to live independently on a carer’s wage, or because more money is offered elsewhere. In some places people with personal budgets are ‘encouraged’ to put their staff on zero-hours contracts because offering a proper employment contract with holiday pay and so on costs extra money. I have heard of numerous cases where autistic people were discharged from hospital into a bespoke housing and care arrangement which fell apart months later, resulting in them having to be re-admitted, often hours from home; these things would be less likely to happen if carers were well-trained and well-paid. In the case of St Andrew’s, we heard that evenings and weekends were being covered by agency staff (who in Beth’s case were forbidden to open the door of her room, hence the ‘visits’ through the hatch) rather than full-time staff, and this was only remedied as a result of publicity. The same charity was able to pay its chief executive nearly £1m over two years and has 72 other staff on six-figure salaries, but cannot afford specialised nursing care for its patients outside of business hours. Why? Because private contractors have to tailor their bids for public contracts to be “cost-effective” so as not to cost the taxpayer more money than they absolutely have to because ultimately, no political party can contest a general election with the promise to put up taxes, and ideally want to be able to promise to reduce them.

The Tory party, which Birrell supports, and its supportive press such as the Daily Mail, has driven this trend towards cutting taxes at the expense of public services since the 1980s and the cuts that characterised David Cameron’s time in office have made it all the more difficult for local authorities to provide the care that elderly and disabled people need. Of course institutions need to be exposed if they are subjecting people to cruelty but the ultimate reason people are trapped in them boils down to central government policy and a culture of meanness and penny-pinching that has built up over several decades and that is something we do not see the Tory press complain about. One of the parents featured in this article asked on Twitter this morning “When will our most vulnerable be treated with love and care?” and the answer is: when people are willing to pay for it, when they realise that these are things that don’t only happen to other people, and when the same newspapers which complain about poor care and blame staff get honest with the public about the real reasons social care has been cut to the bone.

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‘Normalisation’ is real and has consequences

21 October, 2018 - 22:47

An old white man points to himself (saying "I belong here!") while racially abusing a black security guard in a Sainsbury's shop. The tobacco counter is visible behind him.‘Normalisation’ is the idea that if the media gives too much exposure to extreme views or those without any basis in fact or science, they become the political mainstream and will come to be widely accepted as fact, or people will feel obliged to accommodate them despite disagreeing with them or knowing that they are baseless. I have heard this word used a lot in recent years, mainly by the left who are rightly concerned about the effect of the rise of the “alt-right” on things such as women’s rights, the right of minorities to live in peace and in some cases the rule of law itself. Peter Hurst, who writes mainly on Medium as “Post Liberal Bot”, calls the “normalisation narrative” an example of left-wing authoritarianism in which we lament the “loss of traditional gatekeepers to news and information, due to the decline of old media and the advent of social media”. He cites calls by politicians for bans on anonymous accounts and closed forums on social media and for a social media regulator.

In my experience, the normalisation narrative is not so much that people are getting their news and views through alternative means; most of us think that is no bad thing. In the last month or so, for example, I have seen a lot of tweets from Scots advocating a refusal to pay the British TV licence fee on the grounds that it funds the BBC which they see as a biased, English-establishment broadcaster which gives too much airtime to English Brexiteers and too little to Scottish, pro-EU progressive or nationalist viewpoints. I also know many people on the Left who firmly reject any ban on anonymity because it allows people such as abuse survivors (or people currently suffering abuse) to talk about their situation without fear of retaliation from their abusers or of being exposed to friends and relatives who do not know about their situation. Most of us use social media. It allows us to keep in touch, to make friends, to announce things such as events and blog postings, to share writing and other content we like.

The chief complaint is that traditional ‘gatekeepers’ allow fringe voices airtime out of proportion to either their popular support, their respect for truth or how well-founded their argument is. A classic example is the regular slots on programmes such as Question Time given to Nigel Farage despite the fact that his party had never persuaded a single constituency to give him a plurality of votes (as well as burnishing his “man of the people” image by showing him drinking beer in a pub, then calling it a “Kent village pub” when in fact it was in an expensive corner of a wealthy London borough). They may justify this with the result of the 2016 referendum and the party’s better (though not overwhelming) showing in European elections, but one has to ask whether his access to the media is a cause or a consequence of the popularity of his party, which produced no other politicians of note (Douglas Carswell was a Tory for most of his parliamentary career).

Often the reason for amplifying extreme voices is that they treat news and discussion as entertainment and deliberately bring on people with inflammatory views so that they can have a row on air. In other cases, an insistence on ‘balance’ means that an ‘expert’ who denies the science that points to the fact of man-made global warming will be brought on to argue with a real expert when in fact there is no great debate among climate scientists that it is a fact; the ‘sceptics’ are often funded by the oil industry or other moneyed interests and sometimes use a scientific background as a justification when their specialisation is not climate. They present other industry-funded lobby groups as grassroots affairs (e.g. Forest, which is funded by the tobacco industry, presented as a “smokers’ group”) and think-tank spokespeople get regular slots on news and analysis programmes without any question about their qualifications or funding.

This has consequences. The media regularly allowed Omar Bakri Muhammad and Anjum Choudary, the leaders of the Muslim extremist group originally called Al-Muhajiroun, to promote their ideas on local and national news on TV and radio, allowing people to think that the group had support among Muslims whereas in fact they were tiny and dwindling and were fond of gate-crashing other Muslims’ demonstrations (they were openly contemptuous of the groups that organised the demos they invaded — they claimed that Cage, then Cage Prisoners, was “close to becoming munaafiqeen”, i.e. not really Muslims). A lot of Muslims thought they were agents provocateurs retained by someone or other’s secret services. It was their demonstration (attended by about 20 people) at a procession by returning soldiers in Luton, and the sensationalist media coverage of it, that led to the formation of the English Defence League. The EDL itself has peaked (though the hooligans reformed as the “Democratic Football Lads’ Alliance”), but we now have Steven Yaxley-Lennon being made a martyr while interfering in the legal process and being dishonestly promoted by racists and other malefactors as a defender of western values against “Muslim extremism” and/or cowardice when he is in fact an ignorant thug with a criminal record. We have not heard the end of this and if the media had not hyped the Muhajiroun throughout the 2000s his ‘career’ may never have got off the ground.

The fact is that if you have access to the media, you have a greater degree of freedom of speech in this country than if you only have access to the Internet, as laws that ban ‘offensive’ or ‘malicious’ communications using the phone system (which have more recently been extended to the Internet) do not apply to newspapers or to things said on a stage, such that people have been convicted for taunting football supporters about a plane crash decades ago, inducing a dog to give a Nazi salute and denying the Holocaust on online videos which they would not have been if they had done it in a mainstream newspaper or on TV. The thing that gets someone prosecuted does not even have to be illegal in itself, just judged (after the event) to cause offence. The mainstream media are not governed by any such laws; they are free to print lies as long as they are not against an individual, and even then the penalties are civil, not criminal. It is even legal for political campaign ads to contain obvious falsehoods.

Social media does present avenues for the promotion of extremism. People can very easily circulate images which are doctored or which do not reflect what they say they do — they may be taken at a different time in a different country, for example, but any footage of brown-skinned people celebrating could be misrepresented as Palestinians celebrating the 9/11 attacks, for example. It is an ideal forum for circulating fake news, i.e. false stories on fake newspaper websites or fake clippings (an older method). The Right accuses the Left of existing in a Twitter-based echo chamber (as does Hurst’s article), but racists often use social media to spread misinformation far more cheaply and easily than they could when they had to actually put together and run off fliers or mini-newspapers and distribute them. And racists and fascists have been complaining about being shut out of the mainstream media for a lot longer then the mainstream Left have been complaining about ‘normalisation’ — in some cases it was almost a boast, that the “Jewish controlled media” would not touch them.

But nobody wants social media to disappear. As already stated, most of us use it for both personal and political reasons. It’s actually quite easy to rebut misinformation on social media as an image can be reverse-searched and a newspaper can be contacted to see if they really printed a given story, or if they exist. The same is not true of mainstream media; it takes months to even get a complaint examined and even then, the correction will be nowhere near as prominent as the original story, which many people will continue to believe. It is easier to get an account shut down or a story taken down because it is false or offensive than a newspaper story, even on their website. How many times has a newspaper been closed because a story they printed caused offence? Just once — the News of the World in 2011, because of outrage over a murdered teenage girl’s voice mails being illegally accessed, which it was thought might have delayed finding her or her body — and its owner promptly launched another Sunday paper based on its own weekday title.

But ultimately, what the likes of Peter Hurst calls ‘populism’, the rest of us calls racism, and the reason why we want to see racism suppressed rather than ‘debated’ is because it has consequences: people discriminated against, harassed or abused in the street or as they do their job, made to feel unable to live in the country they had been led to believe was their own, or unjustly expelled from it and separated from their families. You may think “Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West?” is a worthy or necessary ‘debate’ that the “metropolitan élite” has been shirking for too long — despite it having been on the front pages of tabloids in one form or another on a regular basis for decades — but it’s their life. And when racist attitudes are normalised by being exposed on the radio or in the papers (this includes whinges about immigration, health/benefit tourism etc., particularly when they take liberties with the facts), especially if unchallenged, it makes life difficult for anyone who is, or may be mistaken for an immigrant, or has personal connections with them. This is not academic. It’s not the university debating society. It’s not a nice bit of entertainment on a Friday evening. It’s people’s lives.

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Truckers blocking London? Get real.

20 October, 2018 - 15:31

Two trucks travelling side by side in the two leftmost lanes on a British motorway.This morning I saw a longish interview on the BBC Breakfast show with some guy called Richard Tice, who was identified only as a spokesman for “Leave Means Leave”. I didn’t hear most of it as I was having a haircut and the electric shaver started up almost as soon as he opened his mouth, but I did catch him call the marchers “losers” who should “get behind us Brexiteers” instead of trying to undermine the government’s negotiations. However, on a truck drivers’ Facebook forum, someone quoted him as saying that a trucker had said to him that he could just give him the word and he would block London. This is baloney and whether he knows it or not, his alleged friend does.

Most of us truck drivers do not own a vehicle other than private car or maybe a motorbike. We drive our bosses’ trucks and often those bosses are big companies such as DHL which are based abroad, often in mainland Europe, and often they are involved in moving freight to and from the mainland. I happen to know that my boss supports Brexit, but he’s a subcontractor to a major contractor to a big online ordering company and most of the journeys his vehicles make are to pull that company’s trailers. Said big company is based in a mainland European tax haven. He will not be using his vehicles to stop his client from doing their business, regardless of politics. Nobody will thank him for doing that and they might remember it the next time he needs some business. Besides, those of us who have Saturday off will often have spent all week working and will be spending Saturday doing a mixture of house chores and relaxation and then preparation for the week ahead. Brexit is not enough to get anyone blockading roads (unlike the fuel price crisis of 2000 or so, which really was impacting on business even though prices were much lower than they are now).

As I write this I’m on the way to the demonstration; not everyone who opposes Brexit is a comfortably-off academic or financier.

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What really lies behind Trump, Brexit and “national populism”?

14 October, 2018 - 21:27

 UK loses three out of four human rights cases, damning report reveals"During the post Iraq War days (when Iraq was effectively if not in name under occupation), the pro-war blogger Norman Geras ran an article on what it called the Single Transferable Article About Iraq or STAI. The easy way to spot a STAI, according to him, was silence on one date, that of the first democratic elections in Iraq in history or since God knows when (30th Jan 2005). They were always written by anti-war leftists who, they believed, could not bring themselves to accept that the outcome of the invasion was good (as we now know, it really was not, despite some glimmers of hope such as that occasion). In the post-2016 era, a common feature in the media and blogosphere is what I have come to call the STAB: the Single Transferable Article about Brexit. STABs are typically all about why the Brexit vote was perfectly legitimate, represents a lasting shift in public opinion and that the liberal Remainer elite consoles itself with myths (such as that voters were deceived by Russian-sponsored propaganda) and stereotypes (such as that most retainers were racists or old white bigots). What defines the STAB is silence on the role of the mass media in fomenting the attitudes and beliefs that led to the 2016 result. The latest example was in last Sunday’s Sunday Times, an extract from a book by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, which sought to debunk a number of the comforting myths and stereotypes that Remainers use to discredit the 2016 referendum result and that liberal intellectuals use to explain the popularity of Donald Trump and various ‘national populist’ movements across Europe. (Article is paywalled; you need to register to read it.)

My first action when reviewing these sorts of articles is to do a simple text search for words such as ‘news’, ‘media’, ‘papers’ and ‘tabloid’. Usually the hit count is tiny and in this case it’s zero for all of them, except for ‘media’ which in this case occurs once, as part of the word ‘median’. To give them due credit, they mention that the fears about the threat to people’s way of life “may not be grounded in objective reality” but do not explain this any further. I do not believe any study of why people voted for Brexit in particular is valid without examining the role of the mass media, which has been dominated by right-wing corporate players since the 1980s, some of the largest of which have been running a campaign of propaganda and misinformation against the EU and the EEC before it since the 1980s and the European Convention on Human Rights since the late 1990s when it was incorporated into British law. This is a major reason why the tide of revelations about Russian involvement in and funding for the Leave campaign have not had the results that the Remain side believe they should.

The chief reason they hate strong international institutions is that they are a threat to the power of British politicians, whom they can normally expect to react quickly to media-generated outrages with panic legislation (which they can tear apart at a later date, e.g. the Dangerous Dogs Act) or a crackdown (e.g. the 2006 “foreign criminals scandal”). Politicians hate them for the same reason: until very recently, power meant power. Unlike American politicians, they were not used to the idea that the laws they passed could be scrutinised by judges or that they could be told “you can’t do that”; they made the rules, others obeyed them.

In addition to the mainstream media, social media plays a major role today in circulating myths which feed hostility to immigrants, refugees and other newcomers. This has been particularly recorded in developing countries where Facebook is the biggest source of ‘news’; people have been lynched and houses and businesses burned because a rumour circulated that members of a particular community were responsible for a rape, or similar. In the case of Germany, social media, blogs and pseudo-news sites circulated rumours of a mass sexual assault by Arabs at a public event in Cologne two years ago, but closer examination revealed that the ‘Arab’ element to the story was spurious. This past summer, the New York Times revealed that hostility to and violence against refugees in Germany was spread through Facebook and that communities where Facebook use was high also had higher rates of racial violence. There is no mention of Facebook (or Twitter) in this article, either, yet it should be considered when evaluating the reasons for the rise of Alternative für Deutschland. (Social media rumours played a large part in mustering the support among ethnic minorities for Brexit; among them the claim that the European Parliament would ban halal slaughter and that reducing eastern European immigration would mean more of their people would be allowed to move from South Asia again. One of these is baseless; the other is wishful thinking.)

Eatwell and Goodwin are, in my opinion, in error when treating Brexit, Trump and the rise of so-called national populism in Europe as the same trend or phenomenon. Brexit is a single issue; the other two are political parties or its leader in the case of Trump. In the UK and USA, it has been the mainstream Right that has benefited, if only temporarily, and in the USA been radicalised; in Europe, not only the centre-left but mainstream Right parties such as the Christian Democrats in Germany are facing challenge as well — Angela Merkel, it should be remembered, is a Christian Democrat who was compared to Margaret Thatcher when she was on the rise. In the USA, white supremacism has always been closer to mainstream politics than in the UK (openly race-based political appeals are banned in much of Europe) as parts of the country were legally white-supremacist within living memory — not in the sense that there was racism and discrimination, but that there was legally mandatory discrimination in which Black people could not vote, could not use the same facilities or go to the same schools, etc. as Whites. A major part of the political Right’s campaigns has been to challenge the legal rulings that held racial discrimination and voter suppression to be unconstitutional, hence the struggle to get ‘conservative’ judges like Brett Kavanaugh nominated to the Supreme Court.

In both the cases of Brexit and Trump, there is no single reason why these two things happened. They note that support for Brexit is strong in many parts of provincial England, some of it affluent and some of it depressed from the decline of heavy industry and not all of it white-dominated. There is also no getting away from the fact that outside some major cities where the Remain vote was strongest, the rural areas that supported Remain were in the south. In the North, the old mining and steel-working areas voted to leave, with the exception of the big cities (Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle) which have substantial student populations. Dissatisfaction at how Britain engages with Europe must play a big role: we have tended to engage with Europe to the benefit of business, not ordinary people — witness how we refused passport-free travel and still allowed the price of a passport to increase considerably during the 2000s. It was the then pro-EEC Tory party that presided over the destruction of industry in the 1980s and early 90s and the pro-EU Labour party which treated the ex-industrial north as a group with “nowhere else to go” in the late 90s and 2000s. So, the whole thing cannot be put down to a movement preoccupied with national identity (though the issue of immigration from eastern Europe was a major factor). Economic dissatisfaction fed into it as well.

In the case of Trump, it has to be remembered that he got 3 million fewer votes than Clinton and won because the electoral college arrangement is weighted in favour of small, rural (and predominantly White) states; the Republican Party is also notorious for voter suppression at every level, targeted at citizens judged likely to vote against them. He won in the key northern states by attacking the trading agreements many Americans blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs in states like Pennsylvania. He ran on a protectionist, “America first” platform and whether he takes them again in 2020 (if he runs, which he intends to) depends on whether he can deliver on these appeals. However, he also benefited from mounting anger at the fact of a Black president and from that president’s sympathy for campaigns against the murder of Black civilians by police and for accountability for said police; Americans were either willing to overlook his clearly expressed racism and the incidents of violence at his rallies, as well as his associations with certain neo-Nazis, or they approved.

As for Europe, Goodwin informs us that “it was actually in the 1980s that the most significant national populists in postwar Europe showed up”, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France and Jörg Haider in Austria. Well, anti-fascists like myself don’t like euphemisms like ‘populism’ to describe those people; we prefer terms like ‘fascist’, ‘Neo-Nazi’ or just ‘Nazi’. They had clear roots in mid-20th century fascism, often denied the Holocaust and otherwise openly espoused anti-Semitism as well as hatred of immigrants and their native-born children; the parties were typically the subject of cordon sanitaire arrangements whereby parties would coalesce with each other to make sure they did not achieve power, and when that rule was broken in Austria, the country was the subject of sanctions by the EU. Today, the AfD uses such slogans in its literature as “protect our wives and daughters”, referring to the stereotypes and rumours of Arab male refugees as sexual predators. The idea of a racial other as a threat to your women is a classic racist trope, and we should call it by its name rather than use euphemisms. Again, the view is fed by rumours, not facts. (I word-searched this article for the word ‘racist’ and it appeared once, and not in reference to parties which use this sort of rhetoric.)

Map showing the largest party in each constituency (left) and municipality (right) in Sweden in the 2018 parliamentary election; yellow represents the Sweden Democrats (concentrated around three cities in the south), blue the Moderate party (concentrated near Stockholm) and red represents the Social Democrats (everywhere else)And the success of the new far right is being exaggerated here; it has certainly increased its share of the vote from 4.7% and no seats in 2013 to 12.6% and 94 seats in 2017, but that is still not enough to secure power, and the Free Democratic Party also increased its vote substantially from 4.8% of the vote and no seats in 2013 to 10.7% and 80 seats in 2017. In the recent elections in Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats increased its share of the vote to 12.86%, which is certainly worrying but given that other parties will not touch it (and have other options as proportional representation gives the Green and Left parties greater representation than they would have in the UK), it also means they are far from power (and in any case, they are localised to two cities in the south, Malmö and to a lesser extent Jonköping and Gothenburg). In the case of Germany, their strongest showings (where they actually won constituency seats, i.e. came first in a first-past-the-post poll) was in the east where democracy has only been firmly established since 1990; before that, it had been a dictatorship under first Hitler and then the Communists since 1933. That part of the country has always been where far-right parties have done better and where racial violence has been worst, and the constituencies they won were in eastern Saxony, known during Communist times as the “Valley of the Clueless”, which was for geographical reasons beyond the reach of western radio broadcasts. In the most recent state elections in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (the Bavarian equivalent of the Christian Democrats), lost ground to both left and right, with the Greens the second biggest party with 18% of the vote to the CSU’s 37%; this is the first time since 1957 that the party has lost control of the Bavarian state legislature.

In addition, the article errs in lumping in swing voters who voted for those he classes as ‘populists’ with those who would have voted for them anyway — they lump in “what’s changed” with “what hasn’t”. They remind us that “more than 62m people voted for Trump” but this includes those in the outer and lower Midwest and the Rocky Mountain states who have voted for them since the 19th century as well as the South which has done since GW Bush’s time. They voted Republican even when its candidate was John McCain (whose bid for the presidency in 2000 was partly derailed by racist push-polling in the South and who was widely vilified by the right-wing media during Bush’s term) and then the Mormon former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. They will, in short, vote for very unlikely presidential candidates if they can be made out to be conservatives, and even though the Republican party passes over conservative Southerners such as Mike Huckabee.

Lastly, they refer to the stereotypes entertained by the “comfortable elites” for the groups of people who voted for these three things — “irrational bigots, jobless losers, Rust Belt rejects, voters who were hit hard by the great recession and angry old white men who will soon die and be replaced by tolerant millennials” — and then gives statistics that show that younger voters, voters in prosperous areas and ethnic minorities voted for them as well. However, being young or prosperous does not stop someone from being racist or from being vulnerable to being influenced by propaganda, especially if it is delivered on a regular basis for many years and presented as news. The issue is not really that relevant, because the people who have control of the situation now are a few hundred politicians, many of whom support Brexit for quite different reasons to the supporters in the populace: desire for power, vested financial interests, ideological commitments such as to large-scale privatisation, etc. It is no coincidence that they resist demands to give the people another ballot, either a further referendum or a general election, and will do so until they reach absolute deadlock, because a repeat of the narrow 2016 referendum result is not a guarantee. The MPs talking about “going down fighting”, as Morley and Outwood MP Andrea Jenkyns proclaimed this morning, are usually not those who will have to suffer the consequences of a disorderly Brexit personally.

Finally, the matter of “what the people want” is not the be-all-and-end-all with either Brexit or Trump, or racist nationalism in Europe for that matter. When such ideology last achieved power in a European country, it was brought down by force. Regardless of whether they are a minority or not, Black Americans cannot be expected to tolerate indefinitely a racist police which harasses them on a regular basis and kills on the basis of prejudice and suspicion and a political system which is set up to deny them a fair vote. Whether people really know what they want think they know, or they are voting as a protest or whatever, if leaving the European Union will result in an economic collapse leading to mass job losses and no food on the shelves, it has to be resisted and politicians who shout about “going down fighting” are betraying their voters, not serving them.

In a “long read” opinion piece for the Guardian last week, James Miller quoted American founding father John Adams as saying “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide”. Today, conservative opinion writers proclaim that western democracies are committing suicide by opening themselves up to ‘incompatibles’ (usually meaning Muslims) or that the Left does the same by concentrating too much on minorities and forgetting the interests of their White base. However, the real fatal flaw of modern liberal democracy, especially in the English-speaking world, is the enormous amount of leeway it gives the commercial media to present propaganda as news and for the political classes to lie outright, without fear of sanction, as long as the lies were not against an individual. In the case of Brexit, while the turning point was undoubtedly the admission of hundreds of thousands of workers from eastern Europe in 2004, a decades-long campaign of propaganda from the commercial press and a few barefaced lies from Leave campaigners in 2016, unpunishable because lying for political ends is legal, sowed the seeds for what could be a self-inflicted national disaster. Future generations will condemn our society for allowing the media barons this much power, and may well conclude that free speech and profit do not mix.

Image credits: map of Sweden by AvopeasValmyndigheten, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

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Stacey Dooley and the environmental impact of fashion

9 October, 2018 - 18:58

Stacey Dooley, a young white woman with blonde hair wearing a white top with a dark blue or black sleeveless top over it, in conversation with a south-east Asian man with very short hair. A tree is out of focus in the background. The words "There is a CCTV over there" can be seen at the bottom.I haven’t watched any Stacey Dooley for about five years, since I watched her programme on drug smuggling through Ukraine in 2013 and gave it this scathing review. In tonight’s BBC Three documentary (shown on BBC1; BBC Three is now online only), she tries to expose the environmental impact of the fashion industry and to test and try and raise people’s awareness of it. She visits Kazakhstan, where almost an entire inland sea, the Aral Sea, was lost because the rivers that fed it were diverted to irrigate cotton fields in what it now Uzbekistan, and then to Indonesia where textile factories were shown dumping large quantities of chemicals in a river that locals used to drink, wash and irrigate crops with. She interviews the head of a local textile manufacturers’ association and tries to get answers out of big fashion bosses and the UK government, all to no avail.

In her opening sequence, she asks people on a British high street to rank six industries known for causing heavy pollution (coal/oil, beef, tourism, transport, fracking and fashion) in reverse order of cleanliness, i.e the biggest polluter at the top. Most people put oil and coal (which she grouped together for some reason; putting fracking separately is also puzzling as it produces oil) at the top (correctly) and fashion as number six, when in fact it is number two. She gets a delivery of dozens of huge industrial water tanks to demonstrate the huge quantities of water that it takes to grow cotton — a man’s jeans, supposedly, took over 15,000 litres. I found this comparison dubious, because fashion is after all a globalised industry in which fabrics are either grown (like cotton) or synthesised (like polyester), transported to countries like Indonesia where they are spun, dyed, woven and then cut into a garment before being transported again to its markets such as here in the UK. The ships and trucks used in each stage of the transportation process, as well as the factories themselves, all either burn oil or use electricity which is often generated from coal or oil, so all these forms of pollution are interlinked. And that amount of water was probably used to produce the whole batch of cotton from which the cotton used in those jeans came from, not just the cotton in the jeans.

As an example of the environmental impact of cotton, Stacey is taken to see the Aral Sea on the Kazakh/Uzbek border, where both of its main water sources were diverted during Soviet times to irrigate cotton farms in Uzbekistan which turned the sea bed into a desert and destroyed a thriving local fishing industry on the Kazakh side. She mentions that these projects started in the 1960s but does not mention that the Soviet Union was still in existence then and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were Soviet republics; this decision would have been made in Moscow. She does not mention that in fact many western clothing companies try to avoid using cotton sourced from Uzbekistan because the state uses forced labour on its cotton farms, including child labour, although the boycott may well be less than 100% effective. In addition, water loss was greater because the channels were poorly constructed and leak, though even if that were not so, it still would likely have reduced the size of the Aral Sea considerably. She does not address the politics of this at all and does not explain why she does not attempt to visit the cotton farms or talk to Uzbek officials (Uzbekistan is still a dictatorship and people critical of the regime disappear). Furthermore, overuse of water is a major problem everywhere cotton is produced and the usual issue is the use of water from aquifers such as in the USA and India which will not last forever; at least if the over-irrigation from the Amu Darya river in Uzbekistan is reduced, the Aral Sea could recover.

She also visits a part of Indonesia where there are textile plants which pollute local waterways considerably, especially the Citaram (pronounced Chitaram) river which is used by local people for all the usual purposes, causing major health problems. She talks to local environmental activists who say they have been threatened by thugs employed by the textile companies; they also say that if people are seen filming, the companies close the outflow pipes until they have passed on, although we did see a large amount of coloured liquid being discharged straight into the river. She arranges an interview with the head of the local textile manufacturers’ association who says all the right things, telling her that there are standards and all that and he’d like to see there be no pollution from the industry but that he has no power to force companies to stop polluting; she seems convinced that his explanation is genuine, when it struck me as straightforward PR talk.

Stacey Dooley, facing away from the camera wearing a blue cardigan and loose, light blue jeans, standing in front of a row of industrial water containers made of plastic inside a metal cage, each with a sign on them saying "13,000 LITRES", "14,000 LITRES" or whatever, talking to a balding white man in a white shirt and blue jeans, holding a shopping bag in his hand.Later on she interviews a group of fashion vloggers or ‘influencers’ who seemed unaware of the pollution caused by the fashion industry; she opens a bottle of the river water from the polluted area in Indonesia and they all say how foul the smell is. It’s assumed that their clothes are all from the factories implicated in her programme, but they may or may not be and finding clothes that are not from developing countries is extremely difficult nowadays; all the major stores, including upmarket ones, sell clothes made in China or South Asia. She lectures us that we should shop less, but nothing is said about alternative fabrics other than recycled cotton; she only briefly mentions the fact that the oceans are being polluted by microplastics which includes fibres detached from polyester clothing during washing, and does not mention that a lot of ‘fashion’ clothing, especially for women, is made of these materials and not cotton.

She also attends a summit on sustainability in Copenhagen and tries to talk to a number of bosses of fashion companies, such as ASOS, but none of them will speak to her and she starts plaintively asking why they will not speak to her when they’re here to talk about sustainability. In response to another refusal, she professes bafflement that someone paid to communicate will not communicate (with her). She has much the same response when the environment secretary, Michael Gove, refuses her an interview and instead gets his secretary to send her a very brief statement. Of course, any serious investigative journalist would have had much the same response, but whining about it seems a bit unprofessional and they may have been briefed about her because she has a history of inappropriate and juvenile conduct in her programmes.

I have to say that her presenting style has not changed much since 2013 when I last watched enough of one of her shows to review it. The gushing emotion, the banal observations presented as if they were deep insights, the inappropriate touchy-feely behaviour are all still there. The only countries she visits are the ones where it is easy to film, namely relatively open places where there is no danger of her or her crew coming to harm, and while the environmental impacts are important, so is the prevalence of sweatshops and dangerous working conditions, which she does not touch on at all in this programme. And she does not really get to the bottom of why fashion is such a destructive industry, which is that the industry dictates that fashions will change each season and that the things people (again, especially women) bought last season will go off the shelves and “out of fashion” and completely different things will be sold now, much of it poorly made so that it will not last. To change this needs more than just for people to “shop less”; it requires organised boycotts and political action to force up the quality of clothing being sold.

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Is Britain really the most tolerant country in Europe?

7 October, 2018 - 22:00

A young white man wearing an open-collared black shirt, with hands moving as he talks, sitting in a TV studio audience. A South Asian man is sitting in front of him.Last Thursday, on the BBC’s Question Time programme (a weekly late-night political panel show in which a panel of politicians and an academic, writer or other lay ‘expert’), there was a contribution from an audience member who claimed that Britain is “one of the least racist societies across Europe” and that one of the supposed benefits of Brexit would be that it would end preferential treatment for (white) European immigrants and allow more people to come from places like Malaysia and Singapore. One panel member (who was Black) countered that he had been stopped by police while just sitting on his mother’s front porch while a Muslim woman (wearing a headscarf) argued that he was a white man and that he wasn’t the person experiencing racism, such as being screamed at while in hijab or being stopped by police while walking across the street. I saw a Twitter thread explaining various measures by which Britain could be considered the least racist or most tolerant country in Europe, in terms of things like positive attitudes to Muslims or other minorities as expressed in opinion polls. But that does not tell the whole story.

As a Muslim, I’m well aware that none of the laws which restrict the observance of Islam by ordinary people in some European countries apply here. We have no bans on hijab in school (although individual schools can ban them or impose “hijab uniforms” which many Muslims consider not to constitute hijab), no bans on wearing niqaab in the street or anywhere else, no ban or restriction on halal slaughter and no requirement to register religious observance. There are enough of us that businesses will take our needs into account in designing things like staff uniforms, which is not the case in some places in Europe where no legal discrimination exists. Unlike in some Muslim countries, mosques can remain open all day and night and you will not face arrest or intimidation for growing your beard or praying the dawn prayer in the mosque. That’s the good news.

A young South Asian woman wearing a black headscarf and black glasses, sitting in a TV studio audience.The bad news is that there is a commercial press which regularly demonises minorities, in some cases explicitly (e.g. Muslims) and sometimes implicitly; we have politicians who make threatening noises at Muslims and send vans into areas with a high non-White population with “GO HOME” printed on them in big letters; we have police who stop and search Black men for no real reason, and immigration officers who accost anyone who “looks foreign” demanding papers that they are not obliged to carry; we have ordinary members of the public who harass and abuse Muslim women in the street because all they know about Muslims is stories about terrorism (mostly by men); we have many stories from people working in the NHS and elsewhere of being told they do not want to be served or treated by them, or that they should go home. It does not matter if the situation is better or worse in France or anywhere else; Britain is the only home most of us have and we cannot up sticks and move to France where we know nobody and do not speak the language. Black and Asian people moved here in the 50s and 60s because their countries were or had been part of the British empire, not the French or Portuguese one.

And as a white man who has no relatives in any of the groups that regularly suffer harassment, even though as a Muslim I find the media coverage and political noises threatening, I am not in the “front line” as it were. The young man in the Question Time audience clearly has no idea; frankly he sounds like he comes from a posh background and went to a “nice school” and probably thinks Britain is a country where success is based on merit, not privilege, and that if you get into trouble it is your fault. I wonder if he actually works for a political party or a think-tank. But whether he does or not, it’s offensive to counter stories of real racism with claims of how tolerant we as a country are, because laws and opinion poll results do not always reflect people’s everyday experiences, and comparisons with other countries are irrelevant.

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High-tech barbarism

7 October, 2018 - 18:00

A picture of a very wide Victorian building, with a central three-storey block with two-storey extensions to the side. In the foreground is an extensive green. The sky is cloudy and grey in parts.

Last Tuesday evening there was a 45-minute programme on Radio 4 (part of its File on 4 slot) exposing the abusive treatment of an autistic teenage girl at the St Andrew’s hospital in Northampton, an institution which has been the focus of at least one other documentary exposing its treatment of adolescents, particularly those with autism, and adults as well as a number of inadequate CQC reports. My last entry was a commentary on the programme (which also exposed the failure of councils to protect people in care homes from abuse or to bring negligent management to book, which is why I recommend listening to it in full), but since then I have heard from Bethany’s father Jeremy on Twitter who answered some of the questions about her treatment the documentary raised.

One positive outcome of the programme was that the bits of a ballpoint pen which had become embedded in Bethany’s arm as a result of self-harm have been removed (this was after they had left it in for two weeks because it was supposedly too dangerous to take her out of her isolation room to do it). However, Walsall council — the same council who vetoed a community placement earlier this year — have also attempted to take out an injunction against Jeremy for displaying a picture of Bethany as the cover photo on his Twitter account. It seems they believe they are a better judge of her best interests than her own father, despite having nothing to offer her themselves. (Naming a living victim of rape or sexual abuse without their crime, or at all if they are under 18, is a crime, but parents of children in care, whether the care is the result of a question over the parents’ adequacy as parents or, as in this case, the child’s special needs often face demands not to identify their children; supposedly this is to protect their privacy but the presumption should be that the parents know best, as there is normally no prohibition on sharing information about one’s children’s lives and some parents overshare.)

Jeremy also filled us in as to why he is forced to talk to her through a hole in a door rather than being allowed in the same room as his daughter. The answer is that when he has the opportunity to visit, at weekends and in the evenings, regular staff are off duty and agency staff cover, and they are under strict instructions not to open the door no matter how calm Bethany has been during the day or whether it has been open all day or not. In other words, it is a case of cost-cutting and staff convenience taking precedence over the needs and rights of the patients; it is just easier for the institution to hire agency staff to cover periods where there are fewer activities such as education and therapy and the wards are winding down for the night or most people are asleep. The fact that this is the only time when some people’s parents can visit doesn’t get in the way of this institution-centred thinking or behaviour.

Jeremy also reported in a tweet earlier today (Sunday) that, shortly before Beth was transferred to St Andrew’s (when she was in a unit in Preston), the two of them had spent time on a nearby beach together without any staff present; yet now, they are not even allowed to be in the same room together? It does not make sense.

These people are not trying, and should not be in any kind of healthcare.

On many occasions I have seen media exposés of primitive mental health care abroad; one that got a large amount of media coverage was the spectacle of mentally ill people in Indonesia being chained to beds for extended periods (Human Rights Watch did a 75-page report on this [PDF] in 2016, complete with numerous pictures of people shackled to wooden platforms or metal bars, often in a state of undress); another was a girl in the Palestinian territories being kept in a cage in her parents’ back garden. These stories often have somewhat racist overtones, particularly when they are about peoples who have been campaigning for freedom but who, so goes the stories, keep intellectually disabled or mentally ill people locked up in cages. However, the abuses in some western psychiatric institutions often has a calculated cruelty to them and it is backed up with security that money and technological advancement can buy — high walls and fences, multiple locked doors, air-locks, cameras everywhere. In fact, keeping a mentally ill relative locked up at home (with a hired nurse to guard and look after them) used to be regarded as a more humane way of caring for them than submitting them to an asylum, which in the era of ‘Bedlam’ was likely to be a hellhole full of restraining devices and crackpot ‘treatments’, all for public spectacle. The story of Bertha and Grace Poole in the book Jane Eyre is based on this practice, which was common amongst the well-off (poorer people did not have the money or space). This is nowadays in theory illegal, although I have heard of some families doing this, but I do not see how it is any more cruel than keeping someone in a high-security institution hundreds of miles from home for years and not even letting them hug their visiting relatives or talk to them without it being listened in on.

Our system is as barbaric as anyone’s. It’s just that it’s high-tech barbarism.

There is now a fundraising appeal for a new placement for Bethany. The goal is only £1,000 which will not fund a whole new placement on its own but might, for example, contribute towards legal action to improve her situation. You can find it here.

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Transforming care? More like history repeating itself

3 October, 2018 - 18:35

Stephanie BincliffeLast night BBC’s File on 4 programme was dedicated to how well the government’s declared intention to get people with learning disabilities out of short-term mental health care and into the community where they belong was progressing, seven years after it was announced following the Panorama expose of physical abuse at the privately-run (but NHS-contracted) unit near Bristol, Winterbourne View. Since then there have been a number of deaths in such care that were related to neglect, most famously that of Connor Sparrowhawk but also Nico Reed (in Oxfordshire like Connor), Stephanie Bincliffe (right) and Thomas Rawnsley (both in Yorkshire). Yesterday it featured an interview with the father of a teenage girl who was being held in the St Andrew’s hospital in Northampton, in conditions that sounded a lot like those that led to the death of Stephanie Bincliffe but are also somewhat reminiscent of how convicted criminals are treated in some American (though not British) prisons. It also touched on the excessive use of restraint, and finding out how prevalent that was took a lot of detective work on their part as it was not readily available under the Freedom of Information Act. (More: Mark Neary.)

The young lady in St Andrew’s is named Bethany, is 17 and from Walsall in the West Midlands. She has been held in ‘seclusion’ in that hospital for 21 months, so likely since she was 15. The room is bare and has only a chair and a bed, which itself consists of a mattress covered in plastic. She is fed through a hatch in the metal door, she talks to him over the phone through it while someone standing on the other side holds it, and when her father visits, he has to talk to her through it. They do not explain why they cannot let him into the same room as his daughter, but they did say that she had been outside it only a few times in the last year and three quarters, which indicates that she is not let out to wash on a regular basis. They mentioned that she is prone to self-harm and had embedded bits of a biro pen in her arm, which it was supposedly too dangerous to take her to hospital to get removed; she has also become clinically obese during her time locked up. Her father says that on the phone, they talk about what they could do if she was somewhere else, meaning a suitable placement in the community; she used to love going to the circus, but he has been unable to do that (or anything else) with her since she has been there. The hospital do not take her out for activities because they are short of staff.

Earlier this year, she was supposed to be moving to a community placement but at the last minute, Walsall borough council pulled out, claiming that her needs were too specialised for it to be suitable. Her father, Jeremy, says that every three months he attends meetings at which institution staff say that it’s all terrible but nothing changes. As she is detained under the Mental Health Act (or ‘sectioned’), he is powerless to remove her from this situation; it is in the power of the responsible clinician.

The programme exposed a number of conflicts, one of them being that local authorities are resistant to funding bespoke support arrangements because they cost money; they prefer to keep people with complex needs in the mental health system because the NHS pays for that. Local authorities have been a prime target for government cutbacks since the 2010-15 coalition came to power, because the ‘glamorous’ state services have been taken over by bureaucracies which answer to central government — in particular, health and the academy school system. Local authorities run non-academy schools (which are unfavoured), social services (which have been cut to the bone) and services such as bin collection which can be privatised.

However, it really failed to ask why private institutions such as St Andrew’s and the private units run by companies such as Cygnet and Priory do not have the staff to offer a humanly dignified standard of care to people like Bethany. The likely reason is that the prices they charge do not allow them to hire enough staff for that purpose, and behind that lies a competitive tendering system that means there is a drive to bring costs down. There is also a history of ‘soft’ inquests that are reluctant to find neglect or wrongdoing where a disabled person has been killed as a result of doctors’ or commissioners’ decisions (e.g. Stephanie Bincliffe and, earlier this year, Oliver MacGowan); bosses know that the legal system will take their side even when, to any outsider, someone’s death appears to be an obvious result of arrogance, carelessness or incompetence. To combat this there must be some minimum standard of care; mental health patients who are detained for more than, say, a certain number of weeks must be taken out at least a certain number of times, have activities available, have access to a shower on a regular basis and so on. Bethany’s care is costing £12,000 per week; there is simply no excuse for someone’s care to cost that much and be so poor.

We do not know the full details of how Bethany came to be in the seclusion room; we were given a brief telling of her life story by her father. But she has been in this situation for 21 months and if it were possible for her to be in a community placement and go to the circus, it is possible for a hospital to provide decent care in the interim. We heard her speak and she is able to do so coherently; she sounded calm on the phone and likes to sing her favourite song (Three Little Birds by Bob Marley) to him. If the people running this hospital do not have the wit to work out how to accommodate her dignity and her need for fresh air, human contact and stimulation in all that time, they are in the wrong job, and if they cannot get the staff, their financial model is all wrong. There’s just no excuse.

To me, statistics only have so much impact and the finances are of less relevance than the human suffering involved, especially when the treatment in question killed someone a lot like Bethany only a couple of years ago. Clearly the standards are not tough enough and some of the people making decisions that affect people’s lives for years to come are in the wrong jobs.

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