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Tearing down statues of oppressors is not censorship

18 January, 2021 - 00:25
A bronze statue of Edward Colston atop a stone monument with four figures on a lower plinth.Statue of Edward Colston, Bristol (erected 1895, toppled 2020)

Murderers are not a section of society that is held in great respect in our society, much as in others. Until the 1960s if convicted they were hanged; since then they have been subject to life imprisonment, and if released, they will be on lifetime supervision. Those who kill multiple victims or who sexually abuse or otherwise torture their victims first are often given whole-life sentences or in any case are never released. Their name will live on in infamy for a good few generations. There is one exception, however: people who were responsible for sometimes hundreds, thousands or more deaths in the service of their country, or whose victims were foreign and deemed “less than”, and who splashed money around their home city, will live on in statues and places named after them: concert halls, hospital wards and wings, railway stations, colleges, streets, squares.

Last year in Bristol, a statue of the slave trader and Tory MP Edward Colston (1636-1721) was torn down and toppled into a harbour by a group of protesters inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. A concert hall that had been named after him (on the site of a school he founded, which has since relocated to the suburbs) was renamed Bristol Beacon. A society which had existed to commemorate Colston for 275 years also disbanded last year. Colston had traded wine, textiles and fish but was also a member of the Royal African Company, which had a monopoly on English trading along the west coast of Africa, from 1680 to 1692 and served as deputy governor from 1689 to 1690 (the king or queen was governor) and during his involvement, 84,000 Africans were transported to the Americas of whom well over a fifth died along the way. The appalling treatment of slaves while being transported to the Americas is well-known: being walked for hundreds of miles in chains, being kept chained together naked in the hold, being whipped, being thrown overboard if sick. (Another detail that might interest a Labour council is that the crews of these ships also had a 20% mortality rate.)

Yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for housing, communities and local government, announced that the government would be bringing forward legislation to make it more difficult to remove statues and other memorials such as the Colston statue (the article is paywalled but there is a Twitter thread summarising the article by the paper’s assistant editor here). He claims that the memorials were often erected by public subscription and its removals are “an attempt to impose a single, often negative, narrative which not so much recalls our national story as seeks to erase part of it”. He attributes this to both “the flash mob” and “the decree of a ‘cultural committee’ of town hall militants or woke worthies”. He accuses the Labour Party, including the present leadership, of threatening to remove tombs of those it calls “offenders” and of changing Birmingham street names from those of historical figures to names like “Diversity Grove” and “Humanity Close”. (This is a modern-day Winterval myth; the streets in Perry Barr given these names were new, part of a redevelopment of a former university campus.) Councillors are elected, so their decisions are quite distinct from self-appointed mob violence, although if such things cannot be carried out by a local democratic process, the danger of such monuments being sabotaged is that much greater.

Jenrick then claims that “at the heart of liberal democracies is a belief that history should be studied, not censored”. Memorials are not ‘history’ but are a statement about history. We still know who Colston was and what he did without having a statue of him. A statue of someone or a street or building named after them is a testament to their worthiness and greatness. If a statue towers over people as they go to work, if people have to travel every day through a railway station named after a particular person, if a town hall is named after them, it tells people that this person has official approval or is celebrated. It may not hurt if the people oppressed by that person were not your ancestors, but if they were, it might well do. If the person celebrated by a street name led the army that repressed your people’s movement for self-determination so that they could profit from your people’s labour and country’s produce, or enslaved your ancestors, it might well rankle. When people first arrive in a country, of course they do not have the right to tear down monuments or insist streets or buildings be renamed to suit them, but when they have been with us for two or three generations, they have a right not to be offended on a daily basis by monuments to their forefathers’ enslavers or oppressors.

Jenrick proposes that a “proper process will be required” and that removals of “historic monuments” be performed only after consultation with the local community and if councils fail to do this, the Secretary of State will use his powers to “reflect the Government’s planning policies”. I am sure he is well aware that councils of all parties are notorious for conducting ‘consultations’ that hardly anyone hears about and the results of which are interpreted selectively, so if he seeks to remedy this so that unnecessary 20mph speed limits can no longer be inflicted on whole boroughs on the basis of no public demand whatsoever, that will be very welcome. However, it could be that some people are not bothered by a statue of a politician or financial benefactor from decades or centuries past but a substantial minority, descended from people they oppressed, is offended by being reminded of their ‘greatness’ every day. The greater good is not always the same as what the majority want.

Myra Hindley, one of the two notorious “Moors murderers” of 1960s Manchester, spent most of her life imprisoned for the five murders she and Ian Brady committed when she was in her twenties. Later in her life, she sent a cheque for a small amount to a children’s charity; the cheque was returned. They did not want her money, even though it had nothing to do with her crimes; it may have been earned while in prison or had been given her by relatives or supporters. If we believe that the lives of African people are worth as much as those of the children of Manchester, we really should not be protecting monuments to a man closely involved in a trade that treated human beings like mere inanimate property, tossing them into the ocean or sinking whole ships full of them for money. At a certain point, someone’s largesse becomes less significant than their crimes and the suffering and death they cause.

Image source: William Avery, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 licence.

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Who is, and who isn’t, a terrorist?

8 January, 2021 - 20:24
Picture of a youngish white man with a mostly bare, hairy chest, dressed in a furry headpiece which drapes partly over his chest, which has horns; he has tattoos on his arms, his face has US flag paint and he is carrying an American flag. Behind is a bearded, long-haired white man wearing a police body shield (whether legitimate or stolen is not clear).One of the mob who invaded the US Capitol on 6th Jan. Taken from police PDF (see bottom of this entry).

Earlier this week a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters, whipped up by Trump’s baseless claims of ‘fraud’ in last November’s presidential election, invaded the houses of Congress in Washington, DC, with the apparent help of some of the police who should have been guarding the place, as the Congress met to certify the result of the election. They rampaged through the building, opening desks and strewing files over the floor, took pictures of each other in the offices and chambers, and removed artefacts; five people died, one a police officer, one of the mob who was shot, and three others from “medical emergencies”. In the aftermath social media was abuzz with complaints that the mob were not labelled as terrorists, a label that would have been applied had the rioters been Muslims, Black Lives Matter or anyone except White supremacists (along with much more stringent security and, very likely, lethal force); the White man who killed himself in a car bombing in Nashville over the Christmas period was also not referred to as such. This has been countered on Twitter by Muslims who suggested that expanding the use of ‘terror’ lingo might come back to haunt Muslims; Hoda Katebi suggested calling them “white militia” or “racist scum” instead.

While I agree with Hoda Katebi’s assessment, there is a simpler reason why the term ‘terrorist’ isn’t used for acts like this week’s invasion: they aren’t. The traditional definition of terrorism, as opposed to the official one that might be used in some government departments, is the use of spectacular acts of destruction or violence that are aimed at forcing political change to the benefit of the perpetrators by causing harm to members of the public and making the public fear for their lives. Such acts typically include bombings and massacres; they typically rule their populations by fear, running protection rackets on local businesses and murdering or maiming individuals presumed to be ‘traitors’ or ‘spies’ or those who publicly oppose their aims or methods.

Political actors have tried to stretch the definition to include activities which are merely disruptive, or intimidation which does not cause fear for one’s life or personal safety, or sabotage which is designed to avoid injury or loss of life to innocents. Such activities include the intimidation by animal rights extremists of people who breed animals for experimentation, which has included vandalism of vehicles and utilities but no personal harm, and the destruction of aircraft and other military equipment intended for use by an oppressive regime or in a civil war. Meanwhile, activists call for other things to be lumped in with ‘terrorism’ when, although an individual may be intimidated, the public are not. Domestic violence, for example, is not terrorism. A workplace or school bully is not a terrorist. Similarly, they demand that things are called what they think they are, regardless of facts; a certain type of feminist will demand that the word ‘rape’ is used for any age-of-consent breach, for example. There’s an old-fashioned word for harassing or intimidating people on the road and making them fear to travel, and that word is ‘banditry’. It’s not used enough, and there are plenty of bandits in US law enforcement.

The reason the Nashville suicide bomber was not called a terrorist in the media is because he wasn’t one; he had no political aims but just wanted to go out with a bang. In 2004 a man parked his car on a level crossing in southern England and sat there in front of an approaching high-speed train which derailed; the crash killed him, the train driver and five of the train’s passengers (including two children) and injured 66, twelve of them seriously. The man’s aim was not political; one matter of interest was that he was awaiting the results of an HIV test, but this was in fact negative. Both men were white.

‘Terrorism’ is being used as a pejorative term for any political activity that involves disruption or violence. Its use is being taken as a sign that something is being taken seriously; people are disappointed when it is not used, much as there is disappointment and distress when a war crime is deemed not to be genocide, as action is not mandated at UN level and penalties are lighter. The problem is that too much that people call terrorism, or insist be called that, really has little in common with the real thing and if we expand the definition of terrorism, it will be used against people who are already liable to be accused of condoning terrorism, or being “unindicted co-conspirators”, or being somehow “linked to terror” because of a tenuous personal connection or because of having a similar or distantly related ideology with an actual terrorist group that they have nothing to do with (as organisations and public figures associated with the Muslim Brotherhood commonly experience, not only from American pundits and politicians but from the authorities in some Muslim countries).

It’s not right or just that anyone be accused of terrorism because of such associations, or for illegal acts such as sabotage or computer hacking that are not designed to cause death or injury to innocents but perhaps even to prevent it. And if we do not want this done to our own people, to our personalities, activists and imams, we shouldn’t be clamouring for things we don’t like to be called terrorism when they are not or people who are hostile to us to be called terrorists when they are not, or at least are guilty of other things. There were many crimes committed by the people who invaded Congress; it was at least a coup attempt or a threat to the constitutional order from people who did not like the result of an election. However, not every politically motivated crime is an act of terrorism.

Image source: District of Columbia Metropolitan Police, via Wikimedia.

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A politicians’ and grifters’ Brexit

31 December, 2020 - 20:02
A circle consisting of the EU and Union (British) flags with a strip between them as if they have been torn apart.

So, the Tories finally negotiated a deal to take Britain out of the EU single market and customs union a little over a week before the transition period ended (the end of the year) and left Parliament just days to vote on the matter. Keir Starmer whipped Labour MPs to vote in favour while other opposition parties were against. This means that the absolute worst-case scenario of a “no-deal” Brexit on WTO terms, in which all goods crossing the border are subject to a 10% tariff, is averted (meaning that the cost of imported food, including the huge quantities of fruit and vegetables brought in from Europe, will not rise substantially), but very little else. Brexit fanatics had spent the past three years claiming that a WTO Brexit was nothing to fear, erecting banners saying things like “no deal, no problem” next to motorways, but most people were unconvinced, especially as they had been promised that leaving without a deal was impossible because the Tories would get a great deal. They have since taken to claiming that it was always about sovereignty and about “taking back control” and “us making our laws” and never about jobs or prosperity, as if any sensible politician can treat the economy, trade and business as if they were of such little importance.

The European Commission published a chart showing the advantages Britain loses from this deal compared to being a member state: borders without checks, pet passports, visa-free travel longer than 90 days, the right to live and work throughout Europe, the guarantee of no roaming charges for mobile phone users (at present, no mobile carrier intends to bring them back, but they could do in the future), recognition of professional qualifications, the single aviation area, the Erasmus programme. This last, in particular, Boris Johnson had promised to ensure we retained access to; now, his apologists are saying it was only the middle classes that benefited and has taken us out of it. Although tariffs have been removed, customs checks are to be reinstated, which could still delay freight in both directions considerably and made delivery to the UK a more haphazard and frustrating process than it has been since the early 1970s. Anything delivered over a certain value will incur customs charges even though there are no tariffs. Everything will have to be accounted for; a consignment of miscellaneous car parts, for example, will all have to be documented, item by item. This is precisely the bureaucracy that the Tory press railed against for decades.

This is a deal that benefits nobody except politicians and grifters. The politicians will get out of it what they have been seeking all along: power. Politicians have emphasised questions of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘identity’ as a disguise for British politicians shedding limits on their power, and the media support them in this as it allows media campaigns to be more easily responded to. The grifters will be the various brokers and middle-men who will spring up to handle the paperwork and bureaucracy that has hitherto been unnecessary. Young people who for two generations have had the opportunity to study and work in Europe to broaden their horizons, be exposed to other cultures and learn other languages will no longer enjoy this, but this is dismissed as a mere elite concern by the vulgar, envious Brexiteers. People who had built relationships and families across borders will no longer be able to live in both their home countries (something which is already onerous for couples where one spouse is from outside the EU, thanks to British income thresholds which are nothing to do with the EU). Restaurants and food businesses who are not conglomerates will be less able to source food of greater variety because perishables will take longer to cross the border and some of it will spoil. This, too, is dismissed as a concern of the metropolitan elite. Even ordinary travellers face having their cars ransacked at the border; truck drivers have been told they may no longer bring a meat sandwich with them. Life is going to get poorer for everyone, with no guarantee of rebuilt industry and the jobs that would bring.

I don’t blame Labour MPs who voted for the deal, nor those who voted against. Enough voted for it to prevent the absolute worst thing, the UK leaving with no deal, happening that a few could vote against it because it is still a wretched deal. It was the Tories who left it until the last minute to strike a deal so that it could not be adequately debated in Parliament and the government could not be sent back to strike a better deal, not that this parliament (as opposed to the one that called last year’s election) would have done, being as it is dominated by Tory Brexit fanatics. I find Keir Starmer’s declaration that he would not challenge the deal in the forthcoming election to be dismaying; it’s extremely premature, as it’s an obviously unfavourable deal from any practical point of view that could not have been predicted and was not on the agenda when the vote went in favour of leaving the EU in 2016 and its disadvantages will become obvious over the next four years. He must keep his options open rather than capitulating to a reality that might not be reality by the next election.

I do not accept that the 2016 referendum result was a mandate for this deal. Any deal should have been negotiated in timely fashion so that it could have been voted on by the people, with remaining in the EU an option; it is not democratic that even Parliament can only vote on the deal at the last minute with a gun to its head. The minority that voted to remain was a greater share than any winning party has received in a general election since the war (the landslide election results of 1983, 1997 and 2019 involved vote shares of 42.4%, 43.2% and 43.6% respectively). It was a mandate for a compromise. A vote of slightly over 51% for leaving at a time when the discussion was of a Norwegian-style arrangement is not a mandate for depriving both individuals and businesses of the ability to live, work, study and trade throughout the EU. The ‘sovereignty’ argument was a post-facto justification made by the people who found themselves empowered by the result; the chief objection was to the influx of Eastern Europeans after the 2004 accession, a British policy not forced on us at the time by the EU. The UK remained a sovereign state after joining the EEC and after it became the EU; pseudo-sovereignty is distinctive by the use of force when a country attempts to go its own way, as seen in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, something noticeably absent after the 2016 referendum. In many parts of the world, an elected government in a foreign sphere of influence which tries to deviate from a particular economic or political orthodoxy would be removed by a military coup, as seen throughout South America in the 1960s and 1970s; this has not happened here. We retained a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, our own armed forces, and we engage in other international institutions in our own right. The constraints that some people found irritating about the EU (those which are true and not fabrications of the right-wing media) are mostly things Britain had a say in designing; in many of them, Britain had a veto. Europe is a union of democracies and all its policy-makers are elected politicians.

We were not oppressed by being in the EU. To a certain extent, our politicians engaged in a way that benefited business and eschewed things which would have been a tangible benefit to individuals (which is consistent with the recent announcement that British nationals cannot expect Foreign Office assistance when in trouble abroad, even if blameless, which has been obvious for some time), but there is also an element of me-tooism, of privileged people who have never known other than freedom wanting the righteousness that comes with being oppressed; but most of all, there is the frustration of politicians used to untrammelled power not getting their own way all the time; this issue lies at the heart of hostility to the European Convention on Human Rights as well and this is likely to be their next target. Britain had a great deal out of the EU which bent over backwards to accommodate our nationalism. If the grass proves not to be so green as the only country in Western Europe that is outside the European Economic Area, rejoining is likely to involve giving up these concessions, joining the Schengen accord and accepting the Euro as other countries that joined more recently have had to — and that’s if they will have us back at all.

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The danger of a return to the death penalty

27 December, 2020 - 20:21
Priti Patel, a South Asian woman in her 40s wearing a white shirt open at the neck under a dark grey suit jacket, pointing her finger forwards. Behind her is a BBC background of different shades of pink and purple.Priti Patel

The same weekend the government signed a wretched trade deal with the European Union which preserved the zero-tariff regime on goods but sacrificed almost every other advantage we had from being an EU member state, it has been revealed, or at least rumoured, that the government has been looking into restoring the death penalty, or at least holding a referendum on the matter. The death penalty was abolished in 1965 and at various times opinion polls have suggested that the public would vote for its restoration if it were put to a referendum, but Parliament (whichever party was dominant) has always resisted this and in 1998 abolished the death penalty for all remaining offences (which included treason and arson in royal dockyards, i.e. naval bases). Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, is known to support its reintroduction; on Question Time in 2011, in response to a question from the audience prompted by the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, she claimed that “we have a criminal justice system which continuously fails … where we have seen murderers, rapists and people who have committed the most abhorrent crimes in society go into prison and then are released from prison to go out into the community to reoffend and do the crimes they were convicted of again and again”.

As anyone knows, the death penalty is irrevocable. Once done, it can never be undone and if an innocent person is put to death, they cannot be brought back. If the criminal justice system “continually fails” in terms of releasing people who then reoffend, which is a dubious claim, it can be changed so that the release of serious offenders is made harder, so that supervision after release is made more stringent or so that sentences are longer or that more life sentences imposed. If it fails by imprisoning people wrongly, it can be improved by improving standards of evidence or by making it easier to overturn wrongful convictions. If it fails by executing innocent people convicted on the basis of prejudice, a desire for revenge or a reliance on faulty science, these wrongs cannot be undone.

British justice is littered with wrongful convictions before and after the abolition of capital punishment. In 1950 a man called Timothy Evans was hanged for the murder of his wife and daughter who had in fact been murdered by the serial killer John Reginald Christie, the subject of the film 10 Rillington Place after the address in Notting Hill, west London, where he committed most of his murders. He was convicted in large part on the testimony of Christie himself; the jury were told about Christie’s own criminal history, but they chose to ignore it and convict Evans. Evans was granted a royal pardon in 1966 at the recommendation of the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, but remained dead. Better known is the case of Derek Bentley, the young man with learning disabilities who was hanged after his underage accomplice murdered a police officer during a robbery; the conviction hinged on his words, “let him have it”, which could be interpreted as “shoot” or “give him the gun”. In the spirit of the public outrage following the murder of a police officer, the jury preferred the former.

Since the abolition of the death penalty, many people have been convicted of murder or of terrorist offences on the basis of faulty science. A whole family was convicted of preparing bombs for the IRA after nitroglycerine was found on their hands in police tests; subsequent research found that household cleaning products could produce this result. In the 1990s, Sally Clark and Angela Cannings were both found guilty of murdering their babies who in fact died of cot deaths; this was influenced by a paediatrician, Roy Meadow, who claimed that multiple cot deaths did not happen. The two women spent years in prison before his science was discredited and other evidence was found to exonerate them. There have even been situations where a person was convicted on the basis of ‘science’ when the victim testified that it was not in fact them. In the US context, there may have been time to find such evidence when they were awaiting execution, but in the UK, executions were carried out weeks after the sentence was passed. In Evans’s case, sentence was delivered on 14th January 1950 and he was executed on 9th March the same year. Less than two months. American laws typically do not make the death penalty mandatory for all murders but for certain aggravated ones (e.g. where it was committed alongside another violent felony such as rape or armed robbery); in the UK, it was mandatory for all murders. If the law had been the same as in the UK pre-1965, Sally Clark and Angela Cannings would have been hanged.

We also cannot guarantee that our judicial system would safeguard people from being wrongly put to death by allowing lengthy appeals. Look at the anger displayed at the length of time it took to deliver Brexit, and that was only three and a half years. If we had the likes of Peter Sutcliffe still sitting in prison ten years after being sentenced to hang, there would be public outrage and a media campaign against a judicial system that “frustrates public demands for justice” and that keeps murderers alive while innocent people do not know where their next meal will come from (as if the death penalty was a solution to that). Right-wing tabloids have long clamoured for its reintroduction; only this weekend, former Sun editor Kelvin McKenzie posted a tweet comparing the ‘fight’ to that for Brexit and suggesting that a referendum on the death penalty should be the next step. In the United States, when the length of time people spend on Death Row and the conditions on such units are criticised, a common response from the political Right is to suggest that the convicted appeal less, and submit to the punishment. The same would be true here.

The reason I am against reintroduction of the death penalty is not because I am fundamentally morally opposed to the execution of murderers. I don’t believe a judicial execution is the same as murder or that society is diminished or degraded by the execution of the worst of the worst; it is, however, degraded by the careless execution of the innocent, even more so by that of the poor, learning disabled or those despised because of their race. In our system, there is the certainty of innocent people being executed because jurors are prejudiced, scientific evidence is accepted which is faulty, because the public are prone to a desire for retribution and blind to contrary evidence, and because police are sometimes more interested in being seen to “get their man” than in getting the right person, and because junior police are under pressure from their superiors who are themselves under pressure from politicians and the press. I can well understand why people would want to see child killers and serial murderers put to death, but in fact our system keeps such people in prison for decades and often the rest of their lives and still keeps the public safe; experience in the US shows that the death penalty would not deter a twisted mind.

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There’s already a Queen Elizabeth II Bridge

23 December, 2020 - 22:52
Black and white picture of Aneurin Bevan, a clean-shaven, middle-aged white man wearing a dark grey suit and tie.Aneurin Bevan, 1943

In today’s Guardian there’s a news story that there is a dispute between local politicians in Gloucestershire and South Wales about a plan to rename the old Severn Bridge. The Welsh want it renamed after Aneurin Bevan (pronounced A-Nye-rin, commonly shortened to Nye), the post-war Labour politician who founded the National Health Service (NHS), while the English want it renamed after the Queen. Councillors in South Gloucestershire, a unitary authority that consists of the northern rural part of the former Avon county, claim that the matter of the bridge’s name should be entirely the business of the English as both ends of the bridge are in England. A second suspension bridge over the lower Severn was built in the 1990s and is officially called the Prince of Wales Bridge, but is still commonly called the Second Severn Crossing despite the public money spent on the renaming.

South Gloucestershire councillor Matthew Riddle claims that the bridge only links England with England. While it’s true that both ends of the actual original Severn Bridge are in England, there is no exit in England on the western side; the bridge runs straight into another bridge over the River Wye which ends in Wales, although it is the best access from Bristol for places in Gloucestershire on the west side of the Severn, such as Lydney and is also convenient for the A466 road, which runs north into England towards Hereford. Most, but not all, of the traffic to Wales has been diverted onto the new bridge, but the old bridge is used when high winds close the old one. It was built to link Bristol and London with Newport and Cardiff.

There aren’t that many large suspension bridges in England and most are named after where they are: the Humber Bridge and Tamar Bridge, for example. Similarly in Scotland, the bridges have names like Kincardine Bridge, Skye Bridge and Forth Bridge. Although traffic reports about the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford call it the QE2 bridge and there is a large sign with the name on it at each end, road signs refer to the bridge and the tunnels collectively as the “Dartford Crossing”. It’s not necessary to name every big bridge and tunnel after someone, or for there to be monuments to the Queen everywhere, especially things which had nothing to do with the Queen but are public infrastructure projects funded by public money. For two big suspension bridges to have the same name would cause a lot of confusion.

Additionally, the bridge was built to link whole countries and the major cities near the border: Bristol and Cardiff, for example. The matter of its name should not be dictated by rural Tory councillors in South Gloucestershire whose principal reason to dislike Bevan is that he was a Labour politician. At a time when we are facing a global and national health crisis and the people who work for the NHS have made great sacrifices, sometimes their lives, for the whole country’s benefit, Aneurin Bevan’s name would be a perfectly appropriate one for a bridge that was built to link England and Wales and enters Wales through Bevan’s home county of Monmouthshire (he was MP for Ebbw Vale, in the west of the former county).

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Blaming ‘Remainers’ for hard Brexit

8 December, 2020 - 22:51
A poster on a billboard that reads "Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU. Vote Leave" with a picture of an open door with a British passport displayed on it, with footsteps passing through it. The Pinnacle/ClearChannel billboard appears in front of a railway bridge.A Vote Leave poster in Salford, containing a obviously false claim.

There is an article on the Guardian website by Owen Jones, probably due for publication in the print/daily edition tomorrow, blaming those he calls “hard Remainers” for the current threat of no-deal Brexit (and the likely bad deal the government is negotiating) on the basis that they refused to compromise after the 2016 referendum, portraying anything less than overturning the result as “both disastrous for the country and morally untenable”, and devoted themselves to overturning the referendum result despite it having been a democratic result, patronising Leave voters by harping on the illegalities and lies of the Leave campaign and claiming Russian interference rather than winning them over, and in some cases using the issue as a means to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. There is some truth to this: Remainers did undermine their own cause, but not in the way he suggests and he ignores the history of some of today’s Remain politicians.

People forget that Remainers and Leavers didn’t exist until 2016. In the mid-2000s, leaving the EU was the demand of fringe parties such as UKIP (who were in the wilderness under Lord Pearson’s leadership, entertaining Dutch far right politicians at Parliament) and of some fringe elements in the Tory party. Even during the Coalition years, some of the politicians now known as Leavers were saying that they opposed leaving, or that it would be ‘madness’. By 2015, the momentum had built up and the Tories won a majority on the basis of a promise of an “in-out referendum” in an election in which UKIP, then under the leadership of Nigel Farage who had spent the past five years harping on immigration, won the third biggest share of the vote (3.88 million or 12.6%) and made the biggest gain (9.6%) despite holding only one seat and losing one (both involving former Tories). In explanations for the Tories’ majority that year, the collapse of the Lib Dems as a result of the coalition and the collapse of Labour in Scotland, leading to fear of a Labour/SNP coalition are often cited, but support for that referendum is also likely to have been a major reason. However, the Coalition made no moves towards leaving the EU, bound as it was by the Lib Dems’ involvement; that same coalition was responsible for the Hostile Environment and the harassment of the country’s disabled people through the austerity programme, as well as the destruction of so many local services in the name of deficit reduction. It is no surprise that many people who had voted to stay in the EU could not stomach voting for a Remain splinter party that included many of them, let alone one of the parties that participated.

A number of what British people perceive as problems with the EU are in fact of our own making. Britain has a history of engaging with Europe to the benefit of business rather than of ordinary people. Other countries have open borders; we (and Ireland) are the only countries that always required everyone to have a passport to travel. The benefits of EEC and EU membership were largely sold as a free trade agreement that made it easier to sell and buy goods and services to and from Europe. This lay at the root of Tony Blair’s decision to allow unrestricted worker migration from eastern Europe in 2004, a decision not replicated in other European countries; opponents to that were dismissed as racist. The upshot was that hundreds of thousands came here. As someone who was working in a manual occupation, I can say that my wages did not go up for several years and when I gained an HGV licence, I found it extremely difficult to get jobs because employers required two years’ experience because it gave them advantages with their insurers and there was no shortage of drivers with that because of the influx from eastern Europe. In an unregulated labour market like ours, an influx of workers from a country with a weaker economy than ours benefits business owners, not native workers; it frees employers from having to invest in native talent. Academics will dismiss objections as “lump of labour” (i.e. the idea of there being only so much work to go around) and say that economic activity generates more work, but there is no guarantee that natives will benefit when employers have found immigrant workers reliable. By 2016, the influx was water under the bridge; workers were no longer arriving in large numbers, but the damage had been done.

As for the behaviour of Remainers after the referendum, Jones blames their intransigence in demanding a re-run or revocation of the referendum result but does not really go into another factor which was their sabotaging of their own cause and indeed their country’s future. This was first really apparent in 2017 when the first election was called; calls for people to hold their noses and vote Lib Dem as a way to hold off a hard Brexit, or preferably any, were shouted down by people who made an issue of Tim Farron’s views on homosexuality, which until then had not been widely known of and in any case were not party policy. By the 2019 election, a number of prominent pro-EU MPs had defected from Labour and a smaller number from the Tories to form the Independents/Change grouping, most of them ultimately joining the Liberal Democrats. Labour dissenters harped on Corbyn’s association with antisemitism while ignoring Boris Johnson’s very obvious history of brazen racism and the fact that his party had rounded up innocent Black British citizens and expelled them from the country for no reason. Such a policy might have been justifiable if the alternative to Corbyn had been a middle-of-the-road Tory like, say, Stephen Dorrell, but it was Boris Johnson! I even saw a Twitter thread that claimed that a Corbyn premiership was “a disaster on at least the same scale as No Deal” because “Jewish charities and organisations would no longer feel they had a sympathetic ear in government” and “Israel would be slandered at the highest level” (as if anyone needed to slander Israel). The author of this drivel was not even Jewish. The consequences of a no-deal Brexit could be calamitous and the loss of jobs and the disruption to food and medicine supply cause all kinds of social breakdown and even violence, yet we who don’t have another country to go to are supposed to just put up with it so that Israel can get an easy ride?

Remainers’ ‘intransigence’ really became an issue after Leavers decided that the reason for the result was immigration and that the ‘Norway’ option was not an option because it would mean workers could still come here freely from Europe (and we could do the same, but nobody appeared to believe that was important). It was the next best option after remaining in the EU but it suited nobody: it was being signed up to the rules without having a seat at the table when they were being written. It was not on the table and it was not even certain that EFTA, the organisation we left when we joined the EEC, would even have us back given that we would have a bigger population than the rest of the association combined. Yet, ‘Norway’ is what we were promised before the referendum — Leavers talked about the benefits the Norwegians got all the time — and if that was not an option, there was only one that delivered what people were promised, which was simply staying in; people who thought we would end up with no deal were a tiny minority of those who voted to leave, but the result did not reflect that. And why did people believe it was morally unacceptable to leave? Because of its impact on Northern Ireland, because of its impact on EU nationals who had lived here for decades and had families here and on British mixed families in the EU, because Scotland had rejected it, because tariff barriers would threaten jobs and red tape would threaten all kinds of trade. There is a limit to what can be justified on the basis of what people want, or think they want.

Image source: Geograph, posted there by Neil Theasby. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

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Inquest travesty

26 November, 2020 - 21:09
Picture of Thomas Rawnsley, a young white man with Down's syndrome wearing a grey top and blue trousers, sitting next to a woman who has her arm round him, and both are holding a baby girl who has a pink top, white bottoms with a floral pattern, and a white bib with a blue border. They are sitting on a red sofa.Thomas Rawnsley, pictured with his mother holding his baby niece

This week the inquest into the death of Thomas Rawnsley, the young man with Down’s syndrome and autism who died in 2015 in a privately-run care home, Kingdom House, where he had been placed by the Court of Protection after his family campaigned to free him from abusive hospital confinement, concluded with a verdict of death by natural causes after the assistant coroner ruled that the jury could not consider the background to the circumstances of Thomas’s death, only the events of the last five days. This was because, as he was in private rather than state care (even though this was against his and his family’s wishes and on court order), it was not an “Article 2 inquest”, meaning the right-to-life clause of the European Convention on Human Rights, which applies when someone dies in prison or an NHS hospital. The family are not satisfied with the verdict; his mother Paula Rawnsley, quoted in a BBC report, said “we are left wondering how it can be natural for a fit and healthy 20-year-old to die from a chest infection” and her supporters are calling it another example of “death by indifference”. The charity Inquest called the verdict ‘shocking’ in a Twitter thread and called for “clearer guidance for coroners” about Article 2 in a Twitter thread.

I had been following Thomas’s story as part of the online activist community that built up around Mark Neary after his son Steven was incarcerated for several months in 2009 after an incident in a respite unit; the community gives support to parents who are trying to free their children, who are usually autistic, from unsuitable or abusive hospital placements. When I first heard of him, Thomas was in the Assessment and Treatment Unit where he had been sent after a supported living placement broke down after he came to mistrust staff because one of them had been violent (he was convicted of this). In the ATU, according to his mother, he was over-medicated with anti-psychotics to keep him docile and had been lying in a corridor with just a quilt over him. At some point, the local NHS trust came up with a plan to house Thomas in a bungalow in his mother’s home town with trained staff, a similar arrangement to that found for Josh Wills and others, but the plan fell through for reasons unknown and the plan was then to move him to a “specialist unit” in Peterborough, which his family also opposed because it was too far and his mother did not drive. When he was ultimately sent to Kingdom House, where he was initially the only resident, the care also raised serious concerns; his family noticed unexplained injuries such as a carpet burn during a visit, and the home first agreed to allow him home for Christmas and then reneged, claiming he would not want to come back and would “act up”, though they subsequently backtracked.

The inquest that concluded today took five and a half years to be heard; there were pre-inquest hearings to decide the scope of the inquest, but when adjourned last September, it was understood that it was to be an Article 2 inquest. This was reversed after that coroner retired and the assistant coroner found that Article 2 did not apply; his family’s lawyer said it was “deeply concerning” that private care homes were not held to the same standards as prisons or hospitals. As a result of that ruling, neither the effects of the medication Thomas had been forced to take over the years nor the standard of his care prior to his collapse in February 2015 were allowed to be considered by the jury.

This saga demonstrates the extreme difficulty in securing justice and accountability when disabled people, especially those with learning disabilities, are abused or die in either private or state care. Inquests are delayed for many years, often at the request of the care provider, are often reduced in scope, and coroners are notorious for deferring to ‘expert’ opinion, often that of the medics held responsible for the person’s death (as in the case of Oliver McGowan, whose death is only now being re-investigated). When an inquest fails to find neglect, the media then lose interest in the story, treating the verdict as authoritative rather than looking into why, say, it did not find that neglect contributed to the death of someone who had been shut in a room on her own for seven years and fed on junk food for that whole period, because it did not look at the role of the NHS’s commissioners or whether the hospital responsible for this treatment should have been involved in her care at all, or indeed, anyone else’s; in this case (Stephanie Bincliffe’s), interviews and features which had been planned were cancelled. No neglect, no story. A blinkered inquest can also result in the wrong lessons being learned; it can make it appear that the solution to suicide is to make the act more difficult (by removing anything that could be used for that purpose, regardless of legitimate other uses), rather than improving the conditions or treatment, and that the solution to respiratory distress is to check someone every few minutes, disturbing their sleep, rather than to maintain the physiotherapy they had been receiving until moving to the unit where they died.

Families who have lost relatives to poor social or hospital care rely on inquests to expose the truth about how their loved ones lived and died; besides being a legal judgement which carries weight with the media, they may also be the gateway to legal action and to holding the individuals and organisations responsible and ensuring that they cannot harm anyone else. There is a legal fiction that inquests are non-adversarial; organisations (including NHS trusts and large private hospital chains) are able to pay for legal representation so as to minimise the risk of being found to have contributed while families are forced to pay for legal representation themselves. They are frequently subject to delay, often taking years to be heard as in this case. Of course, the entire legal system has been subject to financial cuts since the Tories came to power in 2010, with courts closed and sold and legal aid cut to the bone, resulting in widespread delays across the system even before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. It must be reformed so that it conducts robust investigations into the deaths of disabled people in any kind of institutional care, be it a prison, a hospital or a care home. Families must be funded to have legal representation and be able to call expert witnesses; they must examine the standard of care the disabled person received and the conditions they were living in; they must be wise to delaying tactics; they must be consistent in their application of the law. Coroners must abandon the false distinction that their role is to investigate “how someone died, not why”. The inquest must be about justice for the deceased if they died because of wrong, not fulfilling a legal formality. As things stand it has been a continual source of disappointment, and is part of a system that appears to consider some people’s lives as being worth less than others’.

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Subsidise eating in, not eating out

13 November, 2020 - 18:33
A picture of an illuminated "Eat Out to Help Out" poster featuring a Black woman holding a plate of food. The poster is next to a 40mph speed limit sign on a dual carriageway; it is twilight and headlights can be seen.An Eat Out to Help Out poster from August 2020, Sheffield

There was talk yesterday that the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, which ran through August and saw restaurants subsidised to offer a substantial discount on meals eaten in on weekdays, might be revived at some point this winter. Currently, England is under a semi-lockdown in which people are expected to stay at home except for a fairly liberal list of excuses; in Kingston today, most of the shops were shut, but cafes and food stalls were operating and the streets were fairly busy, in stark contrast to March and April during which streets were deserted and everything except food shops and pharmacies were closed. While the talk may be just rumours (though yesterday the chancellor refused to rule it out), I am going to set out why I believe this scheme should not be revived until well into next year when a vaccine may well have reduced the risk of catching the virus somewhat, and even then not in the same form as it previously took.

Many key workers, and others who worked outside and could not work from home, work irregular shifts, often long shifts that go through all the hours where one would normally eat lunch and dinner and which are often long and tiring. I’m a lorry driver; I help deliver a lot of the stuff ordered online. My shift tomorrow, for example, starts at 10:35am and finishes after 11pm. Very often, I will start in the mid-morning (7 or 8am) and not finish until 11 or 12 hours later, and I will be an hour’s drive from home and tired, and before Coronavirus happened I would have headed straight for a cheap Indian restaurant and had a curry or a biryani. These days, I can’t do that because they are all offering takeaway only, as per the law. However, during August I was able to do this to a limited extent, but much less so on Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays as families crowded restaurants for their subsidised half-price meal. If I had been able to get a table, I would have been at increased risk of infection or might have been exposed but not infected, requiring me to isolate myself for two weeks and go without work.

This was the height of stupidity even in August. If the government wanted to help struggling restaurants, they should have subsidised the takeaways or home delivered meals so that people with homes to go back to could have got their food and gone there and eaten it and those of us who needed somewhere to get a meal after work could have eaten without putting ourselves at undue risk. (They could also get rid of the needless traffic obstructions that have been imposed in some areas like Tooting where you can’t turn into most of the roads where there’s parking, but although these were also subsidised, the decisions were made by local councils or mayors.)

Image source: Tim Dennell. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial (BY-NC) 2.0 licence.

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“Liberals think conservatives are evil, while conservatives just think liberals are wrong”

8 November, 2020 - 21:12

Yesterday I saw a thread by the American comedian Jeremy McLellan (known to the Muslim community for opposing some Islamophobes a couple of years ago) which identified what he saw as the main difference between how liberals and conservatives in the US see each other:

This reminded me of a comment by a British conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton if I remember rightly, in which he said that conservatives like himself could get on better with left-wingers than they could with him because the left regard conservatives as evil, while they just think the left are wrong. And it’s a bit of a myth.

To be fair, it has some truth as far as British socialists, liberals and conservatives are concerned. Perhaps as far as “old-school” American Republicans and Democrats were concerned also. In my experience, people who are “on the left” can get on with people who vote Tory; we can have an engaging conversation about anything except politics, and sometimes about some things political. Most people who vote Tory do not want to see the things we take for granted torn away, such as the National Health Service and welfare system; they may, however, be content with some things being cut or removed because it’s deemed unnecessary (even though we may disagree) although they do not seek the abolition of either. It gets difficult when a family member, in particular, keeps expressing views that upset us: that, for example, a lot of disabled benefit claimants are not really disabled or scroungers, that Britain is full and shouldn’t accept more immigrants, that this minority or that are demanding or getting special rights and impinging on others’ freedom or imposing “no-go areas”, often because they have heard it on the grapevine or read it in the papers and are impervious to facts. It’s more distressing when they believe that for some reason we should not have rights.

A pro-life protest featuring a white woman in a grey and white striped T-shirt and a knee-length white skirt holding a placard saying "Choose life", with two children either side of her holding banners saying "I am pro life" and "Honk 4 Life" with a drawing of a baby wearing a sash saying "save me" on it. Others (adults and children) can be seen behind them.Part of a pro-life protest in Lawndale, California.

It’s also a myth that conservatives regard liberals as just wrong or can easily empathise. British people of different persuasions can get on because there is no religious fervour on either side. In other contexts, conservatives or reactionaries regard liberals as godless atheists and see defeating them as the “work of God”. This can be seen in American campaigns against abortion which have been a mass movement in parts of the USA since the 1980s as depicted in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?. In the 1970s, reactionary military leaders (often in alliance with big landowners and American business interests) used it as justification to stage coups and lock up, torture and kill those they accused of being communists; they portrayed it as a defence of western civilisation and Christianity. Many conservatives use moralistic justifications for their opinions; they regard demands for a welfare state or redistribution of wealth as a product of envy by those who have achieved less because they are lazy or less intelligent. They see a threat to their freedom, or ‘uppity’ people (plebs or the N-word) challenging their rightful position from below.

It is also a fact that the Right, especially in the US, do not respect democracy and have a history of attempting to restrict access to the democratic process by those they believe are less likely to vote for them. This starts with voter ID laws which require identification which those who are disabled, poorer, or less well settled where they live (who are often less likely to vote for the Right, be they the Tories or the Republicans) are less likely to have (this has been going on for years in the US, but has been copied by the Tories in the UK) on the pretext of preventing fraud of which there is no evidence is a serious enough problem. It proceeds to the gerrymandering of voting districts to ensure that the opposition are corralled into one or two districts, at-large voting districts (so that minorities are never represented on a particular council or committee), to imposing restrictions on postal voting, to imposing daunting requirements on those registering others to vote, to deter them from doing so, to voting equipment being in shorter supply or mysteriously breaking down in areas less likely to vote for the Right, or registering a vote for the Right when the voter attempted to vote for the Left.

Quite simply, they do not believe that those who do not vote for them have a right to vote; they do not believe in equal citizenship. Their forebears used ‘literacy’ tests (based on unanswerable questions such as “how many bubbles are in a bar of soap?”) and outright violence to exclude Black people from the vote. They are not honourable opponents but oppressors and enemies. While not all American Republicans are evangelical Christian conservatives, it is worth remembering the words of Randall Terry, the founder of the anti-abortion extremist group Operation Rescue:

I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good…. Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this county. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want pluralism.

Finally, many people hold a mixture of opinions from both camps. Very few people believe wholeheartedly the entire slate of liberal or conservative opinions. The definition of what constitutes liberal or conservative thought changes from generation to generation; in the 1990s, for example, a hallmark of liberal opinion was acceptance of homosexuality which nowadays is mainstream on both Left and Right here in the UK (not so in the US); the sticking point now is the status of transgender people, which is the subject of much disagreement on both sides. Equality and protection from discrimination for women, people of colour or immigrants and disabled people were controversial when they were introduced; today, the principle is mostly accepted by both sides; what would have identified someone as a feminist in 1965 would not now. Many people vote for a party with many policies they oppose simply because they see their natural party as being against them because of their race or religion; I know Muslims who are in line with evangelical Republicans on issues such as abortion and sexuality but who vote Democrat because the evangelicals who dominate the Republican party now are intolerant of Muslims and anti-immigrant. It has been said that the Jewish community is a liberal community with conservative needs (conservative in foreign policy, that is) while the Muslim community is a conservative community with liberal needs. So, this idea that “the Left” is full of hoity-toity urbanites stuck in their social media bubbles who have no understanding of most people’s values is a baseless stereotype (and the social media bubble, in any case, is easily matched by the niche media and talk radio bubble of the Right, particularly in the States and increasingly so here).

During the recent US election campaign, I heard many people on the centre-left here in the UK predict that the Biden campaign was doomed, that it was perceived as weak and too close to those who wanted to “defund the police” or were wedded to “critical theory” approaches to gender. I saw tweets purportedly demonstrating “this is how you lose an election” when the people being quoted were not in any election and were sometimes simply calling racism or ignorance for what it is. We should never be afraid to do that. When running for election one has to be diplomatic and appeal to the best in people, but the truth is that the Trump campaign and much of the Republican party are stuffed with fascists and racists, cruel, dishonourable and vicious people who do not respect democracy or the rule of law, and fanatics with tunnel vision who will believe nothing that does not come from a propagandistic ‘news’ source; everything else is “fake news”, even if it has been sympathetic to them in the past. What on earth is the point of running a political campaign based on principles of social justice, equality and the rule of law if we cannot call cruelty, ignorance, fanaticism and bigotry what they are?

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Why use Hermes?

5 November, 2020 - 19:44
A still from a video shot during the night showing a blue Hermes van with a man throwing a parcel into the back. A roller cage of other parcels is waiting at the back of the van.An angry Hermes driver throwing parcels into the back of the company’s van

This week a video appeared on social media and in some newspapers of a Hermes van driver picking up a cage full of parcels and throwing them with great force into the back of his van. I saw the video and my impression was that the man was angry, perhaps because something hadn’t gone well for him or he had been asked to do another collection on top of his usual. But it’s also possible that this was his usual method of getting parcels quickly to the front of his vehicle. It understandably attracted outrage, with numerous stories shared of parcels arriving with fragile goods smashed or just never arriving. This is not the first time such behaviour by their drivers has been filmed and exposed; there is a video on YouTube from 2018 showing a driver doing much the same. I have worked for Hermes and used online retailers who use them and none of this surprises me.

It’s important to understand that most of Hermes’ business is delivering clothes and other soft items ordered through catalogues and their online equivalents. They are not really set up to deliver fragile goods such as craft products. If you send such products with them, it will be treated like a parcel of clothing which is unbreakable and thus can be thrown around the floor of a warehouse, much as airlines treat wheelchairs and guitars like suitcases full of clothes, with the result that both frequently get smashed. When I worked at one of their distribution centres I saw packages get thrown around the warehouse floor and dropped into big bags which then got humped around when delivering them to local agents, then they might get thrown over a fence at the point of delivery. I have been hearing complaints about craft products sent through Hermes arriving smashed for years and this can only be the reason.

One problem is that craftspeople do not wrap up their products carefully which might reduce the risk of them getting broken, but not eliminate it, but my advice to craftspeople other than clothes makers is to use other delivery services such as DPD or Yodel. These also offer better services to the recipient: in DPD’s case they allow the recipient to specify delivery to a pick-up shop, for example. They also offer better tracking than Hermes which will not tell a recipient where a package is, only at what ‘stage’ of delivery it is at. The best option is to allow the customer to specify a delivery service as different courier companies offer better service in one neighbourhood than another. I prefer DPD because of the pick-up shop option, but a friend in another part of the country has said that their local driver refuses to go to the right door and no amount of complaining does any good.

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Expanded congestion charge is just an unjust tax

21 October, 2020 - 20:25
A map of inner London with the North and South Circular Roads highlighted.A map of the North and South Circular Roads within London (click for expanded map)

It’s been reported over the last week or so that, in exchange for a government bail-out of Transport for London, the London public and road transport body overseen by the mayor, that the government are demanding not only a rise in bus and train fares but also the extension of the Congestion Charge, a flat toll originally introduced by Ken Livingstone in the early 2000s to curb commuter congestion in central London and raise money for public transport, to the North and South Circular Roads; it currently covers only central London, the area within the inner ring road. This follows an earlier rise to £15 per day and a change to its operating hours so that it operates seven days a week until 10pm. The cause of all this is that during lockdown, reserves were spent and debts run up by running buses for free, mostly empty as they were supposed to be only for key workers, throughout the lockdown after drivers were infected with Covid from their passengers as they paid or checked in their payment cards. That ended when the lockdown did after the buses were adapted so that drivers were isolated, but the capacity of the buses has been drastically reduced and buses remain underoccupied, but clearly take as much money to run as before. Much the same is true of trains. Boris Johnson accused Khan of running TfL down even before the virus hit, but the figures suggest otherwise; Khan has tweeted that Johnson has lied to the Commons and that he had reduced the deficit by 71% since taking over from Johnson in 2016.

The most egregious part of this bailout scheme (which the Government have backed up with a threat to take over the running of TfL if Khan does not agree to it) is the extension of the Congestion Charge. It was already planned to extend the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the Circular Roads by late next year, which would mean that drivers of older cars, particularly diesels, would have to pay a flat rate to drive into inner London; this would impose an additional £15 charge on everyone. A few months back I said that the ULEZ extension was discriminatory against the south of London because it was about improving air quality, and much less of south London lies inside the zone than the north. The new proposal is discriminatory against the north of London, for the same reason. The North Circular Road includes a vast swathe of suburbia and inner-city residential areas, and in the north-eastern corner it is almost at the edge of Greater London while at Edmonton it runs closer to the M25 than to central London; the South Circular Road runs very close to the south-western corner of central London and then includes only a narrow strip on the south bank between Wandsworth and Kew (though it includes more suburbia to the east). It would also include the Blackwall Tunnel, and there is no other road-based river crossing between there and the Dartford crossing (the two circular roads are linked by a ferry at Woolwich). Meanwhile, the outer suburbs will not be affected at all, including the entire borough of Hillingdon in which lies Johnson’s constituency. The existing central zone includes very little that is residential; when Livingstone extended it to the west during his second term to include Kensington (including the impoverished areas around Grenfell Tower), it was so unpopular that it contributed to his losing the subsequent election to Boris Johnson, who reverted it back to the original boundaries.

So, the areas affected will include Chiswick, Acton, Harlesden, Willesden, Kilburn, Cricklewood, Hampstead, Swiss Cottage, Camden Town, Highgate, Muswell Hill, Wood Green, Holloway, Stoke Newington, Tottenham, Hackney, Stratford, Walthamstow, Leyton, West Ham and East Ham. On the south side it will include parts of Kew, Mortlake, Putney and Wandsworth and all of Battersea, Brixton, Dulwich, Camberwell, Lewisham (including the northern half of Catford), Greenwich and Charlton. If the scheme operates as it does currently, people living in these areas will have to pay a daily charge (and the residents’ discount is currently closed to new applicants) to use their car at all, whether it is travelling to work, to see friends, or to do their shopping. People living outside it will not. Why should people in these areas shoulder a greater share of the burden for TfL’s debts than people in Romford, Bromley, Croydon, Kingston or Harrow? It’s true that many people in inner London do not have a car because they do not need one, but many do, much as they do in outer London. If the bailout has to be paid back quickly (which is dubious, but Tory doctrine is that debt is a bad thing and has to be paid back immediately, unless it’s for war, of course), all of London should pay, perhaps through an increase in general taxation. It should not take the form of a swingeing regressive tax on inner London when the problem is everywhere. However, that idea would hit Tory and Leave voters in outer London; the Tory agenda seems to be to punish parts of the country that did not vote for it or to leave the EU as well as to warn populations what happens when you fail to vote for their candidate.

However, Khan himself has to take his share of the blame for the situation London is in right now. He was elected for a four-year term in 2016 and has been gifted an extra year, which did not need to happen as the new election could have taken place during the lull in coronavirus infections in August. He has imposed a number of changes on the roads controlled by TfL (a network of ‘priority’ roads known as red routes, which confusingly are also mostly primary routes, marked in green on most maps), removing parking and loading spaces, adding physical barriers to cycle lanes, removing lanes or repurposing them as bus lanes, increasing bus lane hours to 24 hours regardless of necessity, and imposing pointless turning restrictions, preventing people turning into or rightwards out of side roads, despite there being no convenient turning point. His ostensible reason is to reduce car use which has increased as a result of reduced capacity on public transport and the risk of infection, but the measures vastly increased congestion as alternative routes were blocked as part of “low car neighbourhoods” by borough councils. There has also been a proliferation of misleading speed limit signs on some major roads, such as the small 20mph repeater signs on the Marylebone Road and the A41 in St John’s Wood. Khan has a policy of rolling out more 20mph zones (red routes are currently excluded from borough 20mph zones), but there is no mention of this on the driving section of TfL’s website. Disabled acquaintances have complained that disabled parking spaces are being removed and that the roadside obstructions (i.e. the ‘wands’ that separate traffic lanes from cycle lanes) make it more difficult for them to get in and out of their vehicles or cabs and are often carried out without consultation with them. It seems to be assumed that “car use is the problem” and that anything that will reduce it will be a good thing.

There is in my opinion an enormous democratic deficit in the entire mayoral system: it is one individual who can make changes unilaterally, albeit subject to consultation (which he is free to ignore, as Livingstone did when extending the congestion charge, or interpret as he likes), with a rubber stamp from the government. If Khan had to answer to an elected council, there is a greater chance that damaging changes could be stopped before they occur. Much the same goes for many of the other “metro mayors” around the country. Admittedly, councils are often stuffed with councillors who vote along party lines, much like Parliament, but it could still be raised in an open, minuted council meeting that removing disabled parking spaces, for example, was discriminatory and illegal, that removing loading bays on main roads is damaging to local shops and that 24-hour bus lanes everywhere are unnecessary. I had the same reservations in 2000 when the scheme was proposed, but the lack of an effective council was justified on the basis that the new authority could not be “another GLC”. It will now take the agreement of one man on behalf of all of Greater London to cave in to the government’s demands for punitive, unjust taxes. Presently he says he will not, but it remains to be seen whether he will stand his ground once the government threatens to remove control of TfL from him.

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