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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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Trucking in the time of Coronavirus

2 April, 2020 - 23:55
A red articulated lorry with the Royal Mail logo on the side with a double-deck trailer on a motorway.A Royal Mail truck

The last couple of weeks have been a good time for me in terms of getting work, which had been a bit thin on the ground since the end of the last Christmas period. Usually my work involves a lot of air freight and that dried up at the start of the year, as it often does, but this year the Chinese New Year (which always results in a drastic drop in the amount of freight coming into the country) coincided with the initial outbreak of the Coronavirus in China. At the same time, a lot of the other work I had been doing last year (such as trunking for a big pallet moving operation) dried up for this and other reasons. I am qualified to drive articulated lorries (artics), but much of the work I had until two weeks ago was driving rigid trucks. Over Christmas I did several weeks’ work with the Royal Mail as a temp, and since the ‘lockdown’ started I have been doing several shifts a week with them again, albeit at a different depot to before.

Royal Mail are a pretty good company to work for, even as an agency driver. This is, I believe, in large part the product of it having a strong union. The company have introduced strong social distancing measures although the nature of work on the shop floor means it is sometimes difficult to stay 2m apart from others, but in the transport offices, only one driver is allowed in at a time (to sign in and out and pick up and drop off paperwork). They have toilets at the depots which any driver can use, which are normally well-maintained and clean, but on occasions where I have had to stop, I have not had any complaints. There has been no congestion to speak of; I have not hit a single traffic jam, either on the way in or during my runs (which have been long inter-depot runs), this whole fortnight. I have not had to make diversions to avoid congestion or delays on the M1, which I would normally have to do on a regular basis; even at 5pm, the roads are clear.

I had been working for other companies in the couple of weeks while the outbreak in the UK built up and I noticed that other companies had been getting more relaxed in their usual health and safety rules; they often demand that you hand your keys over when they are loading (so you do not pull the truck off the loading bay when, for example, they are trying to drive a forklift into or out of the back). This has changed in many places in favour of simply minimising contact between you and them. However, this is not the case everywhere. I follow the Twitter account of Truck & Driver magazine and they have posted numerous stories of depots refusing drivers access to toilets (which is illegal) and service stations withdrawing showers and closing most of the food outlets, leaving drivers who are out on the road with no way to get food. One went back to his yard because of lack of food.

For a period in mid to late 2018, my biggest source of work was Amazon. A local company (which had mostly been subcontracting to an air-freight operator near Heathrow) branched out as Amazon needed traction to pull its trailers from a big depot in Weybridge, near to the M25/A3 junction on the south-western edge of London. This is 10 miles from my house, a 20 minute ride down a fast dual carriageway. For the first few months the work was great: a ride up to a depot somewhere in the Midlands (usually Coalville or Rugeley, sometimes Peterborough), swap for a loaded trailer and pull it back to Weybridge. Then the work got more varied and I was increasingly visiting other depots, which they have in every part of the country, and attitudes to drivers and the rules they imposed varied very widely. For example, at Tilbury they demanded I hand over my keys and go and sit in their waiting area when the truck was not coupled to a trailer, let alone being loaded. This cannot be based on anything but a mistrust and contempt for drivers, an assumption that we are at once perverse and stupid, that we would deliberately hook up to a trailer that is being loaded and pull it off for no reason.

Similar policies exist at many other depots: at Weybridge, for example, drivers are expected to hand over keys as well has have a brake lock fitted to their vehicle during loaded; they are also not allowed to decouple (which would eliminate any hazard) or even leave the site. (At Peterborough, they actually told me to go and wait at the nearby motorway service area as they did not have any space for waiting vehicles on site; similarly, Rugeley did not allow breaks on site due to lack of room, so we had to take our chances on the couple of lay-bys on the road back to Lichfield.) In response to my observations about Amazon’s policies, the person behind the T&D Twitter account told me a story of being kept waiting at an Amazon depot in Dunfermline for five hours (when it was nearly empty) and of someone banned from a site for refusing to hand over their keys while decoupled.

Now that Coronavirus means that staff will not want unnecessary contact with strangers who have been to who knows where and in contact with who knows whom, one would have thought that these pointless, insulting “health and safety” practices would be scaled back and perhaps left in the past, but it seems some of Amazon’s managers (as the policies are completely inconsistent) are in no mood to change their policies; perhaps they care as little for their own staff’s well-being as for people who work for anyone else. The demand that drivers sit for hours in a small waiting room with a dozen strangers is a major health hazard and it must stop, and haulage bosses must ensure that their drivers are not subject to this unnecessary risk. Sadly, we can expect that many will not, and unions in the industry — unlike in large, formerly nationalised operations such as Royal Mail — are almost non-existent.

Image source: Paul Evans, via Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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Some photos from this past winter

29 March, 2020 - 19:16
A view from across a small pond, across a garden on a hill to a large three-storey 19th-century mansion.Scotney Castle house

I’ve been a National Trust member since last April (I joined more or less on the spur of the moment at Petworth, where I realised I had seen enough of the village and had never been inside the grand house and estate that borders onto it) and have posted a number of sets of pictures from its properties around the south-east of England. I was hoping to continue this as the trust originally planned to keep its gardens open during the Coronavirus outbreak, which would have made for some fine photo opportunities as Spring advances, but following the well-publicised excesses of the Saturday before last, they decided to close all of its gated properties and now we are told not to travel anyway. I visited a few of their attractions over the autumn and winter, including Winkworth Arboretum in Surrey where I took some very atmospheric pictures of the lake there, and Wakehurst Place, a property jointly managed with Kew Gardens in London, which also has very extensive gardens. In the couple of weeks before lockdown, I also visited Scotney Castle in Kent, which has a 19th-century country house and a ruined 12th-century castle and some very fine landscape gardens, and Bodiam Castle, a 14th-century moated castle with climbable towers, where I was among the last visitors before it closed due to the outbreak.

They can all be found on my Flickr account:

My other photo sets (including the ones I took at Petworth the day I joined) can be found from this index page.

I have a few others taken at Denbies Hillside in Surrey and the nearby Polesden Lacey mansion and garden, which I took in the autumn and has a bit of autumn colour (of which there was not much last year) which I will try and post in the next day or so.

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Coronavirus must bring about public health improvements

28 March, 2020 - 23:07
 lifts to car park, public toilets and shopmobility".The doorway giving access to Eden Walk’s toilets (up two flights of steps).

One of the things that I have found very noticeable since the beginning of the current Coronavirus outbreak, since well before ‘lockdown’ or even social distancing but back when they were telling us to wash our hands much more often than we are currently used to doing, is how difficult our environment actually makes this. Social distancing and ‘lockdown’ have not replaced the necessity of more frequent hand washing. For years, I’ve refused to eat in restaurants that have no toilet or hand-washing facilities, especially when I would have had to handle the food (fried chicken or anything with bread for example). However, the past few weeks, we have felt the imperative to wash our hands, with soap, even before we put our hands to our faces in case something we have touched may have been contaminated. I don’t normally wash my hands before doing food shopping; I wash them before preparing the food and I don’t worry about, say, having touched the outside of food packaging. But that’s all changing now.

Yet … our built environment still makes it difficult to wash your hands. We are told to take twenty seconds, but finding a toilet in a public place takes much longer. The only wash basins are in out of the way places, usually commercial premises which only allow customers to use them (and some even have code locks so that outsiders cannot simply come in and use them). In shopping centres, they are rarely on the ground floor: in Kingston, the toilets in Eden Walk are on the second floor, up an obscure stairwell that leads to the car park. This location alone would deter many people from even seeking it out. In the Bentalls Centre, they are also on the second floor (where the old food court was) although there are also toilets in Starbucks on the ground floor which I have never been refused access to. There are some toilets in the car park on the way to the Sainsbury’s off Richmond Road, though similarly it is in an ill-observed and poorly-lit location that would also deter use (though they are clean). In Sainsbury’s, they are at the far end of the store (at the front, but a long way from the entrance). Waitrose has none; John Lewis (same company, same building) does, but that part of the building has been closed.

There are so many places where food is served, whether ‘naked’ or packaged, that have no facilities to wash your hands. Many filling stations have coffee machines and hot food stands, for example. Some filling stations have closed their toilets over the years, either to save on maintenance costs or to make more room for the mini-markets owned by supermarkets that take up the service building instead of the usual old few bits of food and motoring accessories you used to find. Until recently, this did not bother me; most of the food I bought was either packaged or was coffee which I didn’t physically touch. Now, I worry that my hands are just near my coffee after handling someone else’s steering wheel. On the way to work yesterday, I stopped at a filling station for a coffee. I took out my hand wash from my bag, rubbed some of it over both my hands then looked round in vain for the toilet. I had to use the water jet for the screen wash (and they’re not made for washing your hands under; you have to squeeze it to get the water out). The station (on the A316 outside Richmond) was massive. I am guessing it will get the “Little Waitrose” treatment in the next year or so.

My point is: toilets have to be more accessible. Hand washing must be readily available. It must be easy to do, so that you would barely think twice about washing your hands before you handle food, especially food that will not be cooked. It must be plentiful, so that there is no great queue. It must be on the ground floor, in a well-observed, well-lit area near the entrance. It must be well-maintained and not stink. This does not just apply to shopping areas; very many areas where people work do not have adequate toilets or washing facilities, especially when many of the workers are visitors (distribution and cargo depots, for example — and some companies have started refusing drivers access to their toilets recently in the name of Coronavirus prevention). It is quite likely that this virus will be a threat to public health for many months even after the current wave and accompanying movement restrictions and social distancing rules pass, and there will be others. We should be able to find somewhere to wash our hands, quickly and easily.

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A soft lockdown

24 March, 2020 - 23:49
An almost empty shopping street with a mostly red-brick pavement. A Foot Locker shop is prominent near the foreground, with a Russell & Bromley shoe shop behind it.Clarence Street, Kingston, 4pm Monday (23rd March)

So, last night Boris Johnson went on national TV (programmes were interrupted or rescheduled on at least two channels) and announced that the British public was being ‘instructed’ to stay at home other than for buying groceries, seeing to medical needs, caring responsibilities and for a bit of exercise, and that all shops other than those selling food and pharmaceuticals (in particular, clothing and electronics) have to close. This followed an outrage on social media at the spectacle of large numbers of people thronging parks such as Richmond Park in London, eating and drinking ‘takeaway’ food at picnic tables or just outside a cafe, and heading out to holiday homes and beauty spots in Wales and to the coast, following Johnson’s decision to order pubs and clubs to close and cafes and restaurants to stop allowing people to eat in last Friday and to encourage people to stay at home if possible. On Monday morning, with the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, having demanded that people stay off the roads unless they are “key workers”, and having reduced bus and Tube services, images circulated on social media of packed Tubes and the traffic news reporter on BBC London proclaimed that the roads were busy and “they can’t all be key workers”.

I have the impression that this decision was as much a reaction to the social media clamour over those scenes than to the facts. It was only last Friday, after all, that most of the schools finally closed (after mounting public calls) to other than children whose parents are deemed “key workers”. I was in Kingston town centre yesterday (Monday) afternoon and the place was almost deserted. All but a handful of shops in the Bentall’s centre were closed: Smith’s, an opticians, Boots and (strangely) a couple of jewellers were still open, but the department store, the Apple Store and all the food outlets had shut. Outside, most of the shops were also closed and those that were not were going to be closed from today anyway, often in response to staff protests about having to deal with bosses and customers who were oblivious to their health, especially last Saturday. The crowding on public transport, widely complained of by those forced to endure it as well as by the Twitter mob who had the privilege of being able to work from home, happened because people still have to travel to work because not every job in fact can be done from home.

The definition of “key worker” seems to have expanded somewhat: last week I saw a list that included delivery drivers. Usually, it refers to particular professions which are often underpaid but socially necessary, such as teachers, social workers and nurses — professions that traditionally are often if not usually the domain of women. We hear the phrase in such contexts as “key workers cannot afford to live in St Albans because of the sky-high house prices”. But as people are being encouraged, and now forced, to buy anything except food and medicines online, delivery drivers actually need to work as well. Many bosses have resisted calls to close shops and pay workers for the time they will not be able to work; construction sites have carried on working (Sadiq Khan claims he argued for them to be included in the ‘lockdown’, but was overruled). If there is no guarantee of being able to pay the bills without working, people have to work.

The ‘lockdown’ hardly merits the name, anyway. A friend whose daughter has been in a number of secure or locked mental health units wrote on Facebook that her daughter told her, “a lockdown is when they lock all your doors and won’t even let you into the garden, like they do in all places [I’ve] been”. The term originates in prisons, to my knowledge. This does not approach the degree of restriction that people in Italy or Spain have to put up with, where people can only go out alone for groceries or medicine, or to walk their dog (but not take their children for a walk), or to do a protected job (which they have to be able to prove); they are not even allowed to use shared areas of housing blocks. A curious omission from the Monday announcement, and from the media coverage of it, is any reference to the legal basis for the demands: what Act of Parliament or court order justifies it? Last I heard, a speech by the prime minister does not constitute a change in the law. In Kingston today, where I cycled (alone) to get some groceries, there were no police to be seen and only one shop had a queue, although a picture taken in St John’s Wood showed a queue outside a food shop with police alongside them “scrutinising people’s behaviours” from the safety of a van. (This echoes the fears that friends have expressed, that policing of the lockdown will target minorities and ignore the white suburbs, like Kingston.) I found no cafes open, but despite Johnson’s demand that electronics and clothes shops close, a branch of M&S, which has a food hall but the other five sixths of its floor space is taken up by clothing, was open, including the clothing sections. I did not visit Sainsbury’s or Tesco, which sell electronics as well. (John Lewis, which sells clothing and electronics, was closed but Waitrose, the food division, was open.)

Despite the threat of tougher actions if the terms of the ‘lockdown’ are not adhered to, I do not expect Johnson to make good on his claims. It would require the government to guarantee people’s social security — their homes and access to food — while they are unable to work, and it is simply not in his or his party’s ideological DNA to do so. Like Donald Trump, they have been far more concerned to keep the economy going and to ensure that as many people as possible have jobs to go back to after the outbreak is over. With all the talk of the government doing “whatever it takes” to protect businesses and jobs, they have not spelled out where the money for any of this will come from; indeed, businesses have been given a “VAT holiday” and the tightening up of the rules on who can be considered self-employed (which also closes a tax loophole) has been delayed for a year. For what I suspect is the same reason, they have not tested anyone who shows no symptoms of the virus nor traced the contacts of those who tested positive (of the few who were tested, which has only been done in hospital, never in the community). They have also taken over the franchised railway services in order to protect the franchisees, a move some have interpreted as re-nationalising the system but is quite the opposite.

Their intention appears to be to be seen talking about comprehensive measures to help people through the pandemic, but only to do what does not cost money, while blaming the public for the consequences. There is no effective response to this crisis that will not cost money and is compatible with the low-tax, laissez-faire libertarian ideology which has been dominant in this country for the past four decades, much less with the disdain for expert authority that has been cultivated by the British popular press for about the same time. When people are conditioned to believe that “evidence they don’t like is a myth invented by the metropolitan elite”, it should come as no surprise that when the government suddenly appeals to expert opinion to try to persuade the public to change their behaviour.

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Coronavirus: panic buying and the dangers to disabled people

20 March, 2020 - 22:43

The medication review I talked about in my previous post happened today. The surgery texted me at 8am to tell me they would be carrying it out over the phone rather than face-to-face. This was after I had turned down paid work yesterday evening so that I could make it to this appointment, something I mentioned to the doctor who told me that they had only decided to carry out the consultation over the phone this morning because “things are changing every day”. I could see when I booked the appointment that the situation would escalate considerably by the end of this week, so I’m surprised it took this long to implement that policy.

A group of people sit on benches in front of a glass lift outside a McDonald's restaurant, where seats are on top of tables. Some of the people are eating food from McDonald's. A flight of steps down to the basement is visible in the foreground and an escalator up from the ground floor is visible in the background. Directly above the McDonald's is an optician's shop.A group of people sit outside a McDonald’s in the Bentalls centre, Kingston, some of them eating.

Britain so far has no formal ‘lockdown’ policy of the sort which has been imposed in Italy, Spain and France. However, gradually, companies that serve the public are changing the way they operate: even before the government’s announcement tonight (closing pubs and all other leisure facilities and restricting restaurants to takeaways and deliveries only), some chain cafes and restaurants have switched to takeaway only, to not accepting cash, to not accepting reusable cups (which they have previously encouraged with discounts). Both Starbucks and Costa will serve you coffee in one of their disposable cups and still give you the discount if you present a reusable cup. I walked past a Caffe Nero in Kingston this afternoon and there were still people eating and drinking at the tables outside (and probably inside), making no attempt at the social distancing we are all being encouraged to practise. McDonald’s was one of the first to ban in-house dining, but at the branch in the Bentalls centre in Kingston this week, people were still sitting in the indoor mall just outside McDonald’s eating the food they had brought there.

There is increasing social pressure to stay at home: even Boris Johnson at his daily press conference this evening had slogans on each of the three podiums, “stay at home”, “save the NHS”, “save lives”. I am seeing a lot of appeals on social media to stay at home because going out spreads the virus. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, posted an appeal on Twitter not to even go to work unless your job is ‘critical’. However, it’s difficult to minimise your time away from home when it’s so difficult to find basics in any supermarket. Some open 24 hours, others from first thing until 11pm, and the things everyone wants are gone within a couple of hours. It’s nearly impossible to find bread, butter, eggs, common vegetables (luxury vegetables like olives are still plentiful) and, worst of all, soap. Yesterday I must have visited 11 or 12 shops, big and small, supermarkets and pharmacies, in this area and did not find much of what I needed. This took me five hours which I had wanted to spend at home, ironing or writing this. For all the talk of the virus being a big win for the planet, with pollution levels down and dolphins appearing in the seas off Italy for the first time in ages, this situation is benefiting neither public health nor the environment.

The lack of availability of soap is the biggest scandal here: soap kills the coronavirus, it’s essential to protecting ourselves from it, yet shops seem to be ordering no more of it than they usually do. There is a mixture of panic buying, hoarding and simple increased use at play here; people will have started washing their hands at times they previously would not have, or would not have used soap (e.g. before they eat, rather than just after they use the toilet). I visited three branches of Boots in the Kingston area today and not one had any and far from having a large supply of it on a stand prominently signed “SOAP”, they had about three shelves for the stuff which was at the back of the store, past all the hair and holiday products and luxury skincare items. Shops all have these signs asking customers “think before you buy!” but a policy of only selling any customer three units of any high-demand item means it will run out very quickly. Some places still have sanitiser, but I don’t like using the stuff; I want something I can wash off, and in any case, anti-bacterials are useless against viruses and produce resistant bacteria.

Quite a number of my friends have children and other relatives who have learning disabilities, particularly in combination with autism. Many of them have fought long and hard to get them home to them or into places where they can live in the community. Yet the things that they enjoyed doing are now being made impossible and unlike the rest of us, they may not understand why; for example, going to the pub with family members or carers for a drink. Others are finding that carers are resigning or self-isolating. Some care homes both here and elsewhere have imposed lockdowns and barred residents from seeing their families either at the home or elsewhere. The government’s new Coronavirus Bill which they intend to pass into law very quickly contains ‘temporary’ amendments to the Mental Health Act which makes it easier to section (detain) someone (though some of the existing ‘safeguards’ are often worthless, as with the two doctors who in practice almost never disagree) and suspends local authority duties under the Care Act to provide care for disabled adults. The latter has serious ramifications for those with physical impairments, of course, but to deprive a person with a learning disability of social care when it could lead to difficult behaviour stemming from the confusion and sudden change in routine puts them in serious danger of ending up in an ATU (assessment and treatment unit) or other mental health setting, which as experience shows, need not be anywhere near home or easily accessible.

The government has a huge majority and the bill is expected to go through on the nod. I accept the need to stem the transmission of this virus; thousands have died in countries where it has taken hold. But people have died worse deaths in ATUs than from COVID-19 and there are other categories of ‘vulnerable’ people besides the elderly and medically fragile.

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Coronavirus: no let-up from NHS bureaucracy

10 March, 2020 - 16:55
A queue of trucks waiting to deliver food into Wuhan which is under quarantine. (Note the outgoing lanes are empty.)Trucks queue to deliver food into quarantined Wuhan

With cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus continuing to rise everywhere except China, where the outbreak has peaked and even in Wuhan, the quarantine measures are being lifted, life here in London is continuing surprisingly normally, the only thing that has changed is the increasing difficulty in getting hold of soap, loo roll or certain staple foods such as pasta because of people panic-buying or hoarding it. I misplaced my bottle of hand soap in a workplace loo in Thatcham a couple of weeks ago and have been trying to replace it, to no avail: every branch of the Co-op has run out. Italy, where hundreds have died, has been placed under quarantine with only those with valid work- or family-related reasons are being allowed to travel (though a look at the traffic status of the country’s roads on Google Maps still shows traffic jams and no closures that look like a cordon sanitaire, suggesting that people are still travelling). Here, schools and every other public facility remains open; some people are amazed at our complacency.

I have a medical condition called hypothyroidism or myxoedema. I have had it most or all of my life and have been taking medication (thyroxine) for it every day since I was about four or five years old. I have to have a blood test every year but my dosage has not changed since I was in my teens and that was more than 20 years ago. I get annual prescriptions which I collect every two months from a pharmacy linked to my doctors’ surgery. I currently have a month’s supply, then I have another prescription to collect and I then have to book my medication review and blood test. I’m also a truck driver, doing agency work where I mostly cover for people who are off sick and meet all sorts of people in every part of London and the south-east of England every day. So, I called the surgery today to see if they were doing anything differently given that they don’t want people coming into the surgery (where there are sick people, including the elderly who are most at risk of serious complications from the coronavirus) who might be infected and when it’s not necessary.

So, I was hoping they might just waive the annual review and renew my prescription automatically. (It would be very convenient for me as well as perhaps better for everyone’s health.) But no, the rules say that they cannot bypass the annual review and they are still being conducted as normal. They told me they have some kind of screening to make sure people don’t bring the virus into the surgery, but the best way to avoid bringing it in is not to bring people in when it’s not necessary, given that this virus can be passed on for several days before any symptoms start to show. And as medical staff are likely to have their hands full over the next few weeks, they should not be seeing patients with stable conditions for pointless reviews.

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What? Trevor Phillips was in the Labour party?

9 March, 2020 - 22:35

Yesterday it was announced that Trevor Phillips, the former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, the body set up under the Labour government to monitor all aspects of equal opportunities (there had previously been specific bodies related to race, gender, disability etc), had been suspended from the Labour party over Islamophobic comments; this was apparently triggered by a joke he made with Peter Tatchell about who best deserved the “Islamophobe of the Year” award from the Islamic Human Rights Commission (which although it does some good work monitoring the human rights situation for Muslims here and abroad, has pro-Iranian directors). This immediately attracted howls of derision from the right-wing press and from apologists for ‘populism’ on social media, among them Matthew Goodwin:

There is a subtle appeal to authority here: how astonishing that the former chairman of the EHRC, of all people, has been suspended for racism, of all things. The answer to this is that umbrella equality bodies were always controversial because they allow a single, ‘acceptable’ establishment figure who belongs to one nominally ‘oppressed’ group to represent everyone who might have a claim to have suffered discrimination even though he or she may have no understanding or sympathy for some of the different groups’ experiences. In Phillips’s case, he is a Black, middle-class, Christian man from an English-speaking background; this affords a certain amount of respectability, particularly if coupled with overt suspicion of other minorities that are perceived as ‘trouble’ or as making ridiculous or audacious demands. During his leadership, six of the body’s commissioners resigned, accusing him of a leadership style better suited to a political organisation and of not briefing them about policy announcements but leaving them to find out from press releases that had already gone out.

It is ironic that his right-wing defenders point to his past record as an anti-racism campaigner; it was also claimed that he was one of a number of “anti-racists” who signed a letter to the Guardian last year saying that they would not vote Labour because of antisemitism. In fact, Labour has thrown out others with a long record of anti-racist campaigning and service to the party after they were found guilty by its panels of antisemitism, often on much flimsier grounds than those for calling Phillips an Islamophobe (Marc Wadsworth springs to mind). The Labour party, under every recent leadership, has expelled members for campaigning for non-Labour candidates, even by writing letters to local papers giving advice on voting tactically in places where the official Labour candidate was not Labour or socialist by any common definition.

 Nation within a nation developing says former equalities watchdog".Daily Mail’s front page from 2016, featuring Phillips’s “What British Muslims think” survey

His expulsion is also consistent with the party’s drive, egged on by many of those in the right-wing commercial media now howling in Phillips’s defence, to rid itself of real or perceived antisemites. He has used both national TV, which has given him hour-long slots for his polemics, and major national newspapers to stoke suspicion and hostility towards Muslims and make sensationalist and exaggerated claims about Muslim communities. The worst was the ‘documentary’ titled What British Muslims Really Think, based on a ridiculously small survey, but he has made a living for years rehashing tabloid talking points about race and claiming to say the ‘unsayable’ when some of these things are in fact stated on a fairly regular basis in tabloids and on radio talk shows. Then there was his article for the Sun in 2017, after the Times’s story about a ‘white’ British girl in a Muslim foster home being “deprived of her cross” and forbidden to eat bacon had been debunked; he claimed it was “like child abuse” to put the girl with the ‘conservative’ Muslim family (it later turned out that the girl was from a Muslim background herself).

His record for attacking Muslims almost rivals that of Boris Johnson. In fact, his output is in some ways worse, as it is in more prominent newspapers and makes specific claims that are calculated to inspire suspicion and, at worst, hatred. He invariably presents it as a threat when too many members of a minority are found in one place, and demands that this be arranged never to happen in a school, for example. He rails against ‘multiculturalism’, communities being allowed to live on their own terms to a certain extent, yet this attitude is as antisemitic as it is anti-Muslim, because Jews have similar population concentrations and community institutions such as schools, family tribunals and food monitoring bodies, particularly for meat. Some Jewish groups are more isolated and insular than any section of the Muslim community in this country. Muslims mostly attend the same schools as everyone else and work alongside others daily.

In all honesty, I do not know why someone with his attitudes would still be in the Labour party. As for why it has taken so long to suspend him, I can only assume that his membership was only just noticed. It’s entirely consistent that a party seeking to rid itself of racism should suspend someone for obvious incitement to racial hatred and fostering of prejudice, regardless of how popular the sentiment is or how unpopular the group targeted are. Phillips is no asset to the Labour party; he is embittered by his failure to secure any meaningful elective office in the early 2000s, when he had hoped to become Labour’s candidate for the first mayor of London, and by the Muslims’ challenge to the authority of the old secular “race industry” from the 1990s onwards. I will be watching the responses of the Labour leadership contenders to this issue with great interest. I hope the Labour party sticks to its principles and does not back down in the face of criticism from racists and hypocrites.

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Coronavirus versus ritual ablution

7 March, 2020 - 18:34

I’ve been seeing a tweet being retweeted all over by Muslims, which lists an “anti-coronavirus protocol” which consists of washing the hands, face, hair and feet, washing the mouth out, and snuffing water into one’s nose and then blowing it out. This is the ritual ablution or wudu (variously also spelled wazu or wudhoo’, the latter being the precise transcription of the Arabic letters) that Muslims perform before praying if they have used the toilet or done any of a variety of other things since they last prayed. Here’s an example:

As you might guess, this type of wash is not designed to stop a virus and will not do so. It is a ritual purification to prepare for a ritual prayer. A coronavirus is a respiratory tract virus which spreads through bodily fluids, specifically those emitted into the air through the mouth and nose. This is why we are being encouraged not to touch our faces, especially our mouths, nose and eyes (while masks, and indeed niqaabs, do not provide much protection against the virus itself, they do make touching two of these three orifices, or all of them in the case of the full niqaab, much more difficult). This particular virus is one that none of us has any immunity to, because it is new. When the common cold virus, also a coronavirus, was transmitted to natives in the Americas following the voyages of Columbus, huge numbers died. It is something we get every year or so and it gives us a runny nose and sore throat for a while and then we get over it; that is because we have immunity. We will only develop immunity to COVID-19 over time from exposure to it.

A row of four ablution areas with a white stool in front of a white ceramic sinks with a tap over the top of each, with a drain at foot level. There are slate tiles on the wall and marble tiles on the floor.A modular wudu area in a mosque in Moscow, Idaho. There is no divider between the modules so that when a worshipper blows his nose out, he may blow it over the hands and into the immediate environment of his neighbour. (Source: WuduMate).

In fact, given the layout of many mosque wudu areas, where people sit with no barrier between them, the way people do wudu and then walk away with dripping wet hands might actually help spread the virus, not stop it. When you blow the water out of your nose, some of it will go on your hands and into the air. Washing your hands afterwards might get rid of a lot of it, but not all of it, so shaking your hands dry with a huge flourish as you walk towards the door will give everyone in the surrounding area a dose of it. In our fairly cool climate, hands stay wet longer than they do in a hot climate such as Egypt. People should be encouraged to dry their hands and faces before going into other communal areas and, if possible, do wudu before they leave the home (although this is already encouraged at busy times). Paper towels should be provided so that hands and faces can be cleaned before people leave the wudu area; there should also be dividers between the seats so that nobody is blowing anything at their neighbours. People should also be encouraged to dry things like toilet seats after using them; I have lost count of the number of wet seats and floors I have encountered in Muslim restaurants where there are water jugs for cleaning oneself after toileting. People must understand that just because something is not impure (najis), this does not mean it is healthy and that others should be expected to sit in it. (Lots of things that are not impure can contain and transmit pathogens: raw egg, for example.)

It is not only mosque wudu areas, of course, that should be redesigned to impede the spread of this virus. Any public hygiene area should be. At least temporarily, paper towels should be provided because they dry the hands quickly; electric hand dryers are worse than useless because the air is tepid and the flow weak, and the air itself is drawn straight from the immediate environment, i.e. the toilet (it is better to locate them outside the toilet or at least as far as possible from the toilet cubicles). Doors should open both ways so that anyone can push them with their feet or elbows, not grip a handle and pull it. Toilet bowls should always have lids, and the flush handle located behind the lid so it can only be used with the lid down (very few toilets have this latter design feature); this prevents filth being spread around when the toilet is flushed, especially if the user has had a bowel movement. This prevents other pathogens being spread to other users, including the enteroviruses (gut/bowel viruses) which cause neurological illnesses.

I am not suggesting for a moment that we should not do wudu; it is absolutely necessary for us to practise our religion, but to claim that wudu is an “anti-coronavirus protocol” in itself is hugely irresponsible. Being clean and being in the habit of cleaning ourselves as we go are hugely beneficial, but if anything, these other forms of purification are more relevant to maintaining good health than wudu itself. If this virus starts spreading wild in the general populations, open wudu areas may well become a thing of the past and mosques will have to invest in paper towels and dispensers as well as the exquisite marble washing stations many of them have.

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Boris Johnson’s vision: tabloid mob rule

21 February, 2020 - 18:57
Monument and fountain, Devizes

There is an article in this week’s New Statesman from Danny Kruger, newly-elected MP for Devizes (right) in Wiltshire, replying to two pieces from last week’s edition which called Boris Johnson’s government aimless in one case and revolutionary in the other. Kruger claims that Johnson’s project is not a revolution but a ‘restoration’, the “re-establishment of democracy and the creation of the common good”. Alarmingly he claims that public services are not where “the profound changes we need today” are; anyone familiar with them will disagree. Johnson and co, however, want to strip away the right of the people to a judicial review of legislation designed to strip their rights or their supports away. He, of course, frames this as “the judicial review process by which judges can make policy” and promises a “re-balancing”:

Most immediately it is the restoration of politics to its proper place at the apex of our common life. Last week’s reshuffle put Michael Gove in charge of the government’s reform of legal rights and responsibilities. This will examine the judicial review process by which judges can make policy. Politicians, on behalf of the people, should take the decisions and make the rules: civil servants and judges should implement the decisions and apply the rules. That balance will be restored under this government.

When Tories want to strip away people’s access to the law, they typically frame it as an attack on over-mighty judges or “fat cat” lawyers. The upshot is, of course, that people defending themselves in the criminal courts or fighting to secure access to their own children, or to protect their children from an abusive ex-partner, have to represent themselves in court, often against wealthier opponents who can afford legal representation. The legal profession largely do not approve, because they have learned from their first week at law school that a founding principle of justice is equality before the law. (Another result is that, when public legal aid is removed, lawyers seeking to serve people leave the profession and the real fat cats, who work for corporations on things like intellectual property, remain.)

Most modern democracies have constitutions, i.e. a supreme law that statute law has to be judged against, and can be overturned if it falls short by violating people’s rights or enabling an arm of government to overreach its powers. Britain does not; its ‘constitution’ is sometimes defined as “what happens” but consists of a mixture of law and tradition. Any of this can be overturned with one act of Parliament, and unlike in other two-chamber parliaments, one of the chambers is unelected and cannot guarantee that any of its amendments will make it into law if the other disagrees. In addition, the voting system often means that the largest single party in terms of popular vote — 43% in the case of the present government but in the past, even less — has an outright majority of seats. Let’s imagine that a party can come to power after a purge of dissenting voices within the party, and acquire a large number of new MPs from places that did not traditionally vote for it who might not have had time to develop independence of political thought, and you may well end up with a kind of elective dictatorship or tyranny. This state of affairs is exactly what modern constitutional democracies are designed to at least make more difficult. But Britain is not a modern constitutional democracy.

It amazes me that commentators and politicians familiar with the American constitution or most European ones, often working for newspapers with American owners, are so outraged at British judges whom they accuse of trying to frustrate the implementation of legislation: in other countries, that is part of their job and this is a matter of national pride. America has rather the opposite problem from the UK: a constitution mostly drafted in the 18th century with a number of absurd or plainly undemocratic features that can often be traced back to the demands of slave-holding states, which cannot be changed without a long and involved process that requires the approval of two thirds of those states, some of which have eight-figure populations and some barely a million and the two have equal weight. (More usually, a constitutional change requires a referendum with a two-thirds majority.) In ours, we have a parliamentary system in which the government, if it has a large enough majority, can do pretty much what it likes. Judicial activism is a natural consequence of both problems: urgent change that cannot be implemented because of a constitutional lock, or a pseudo-majority government with no respect for people’s rights or even the rule of law.

Boris Johnson was born in New York, albeit of British parentage, but his programme would deny British people the rights he enjoyed while he was an American citizen. British politicians are not used to having checks on their power, of judges in particular being able to tell them they have overstepped the mark, and British newspapers (tabloids like the Sun and Daily Mail especially) do not like it when their demands cannot be met. These demands often consist of a kick in the head for someone; usually, someone with numerous family connections here is being expelled for a reason that morally does not justify it, in some cases putting them in grave danger, or a much-needed benefit being stripped away while the cheerleader press stereotypes the recipients as scroungers. (Constitutions do not generally protect benefits, but they do protect the rights to citizenship and restrict the grounds on which it can be stripped from someone.)

“The people”, of course, did not agree to Boris Johnson being PM. His party won a numbers game, not a popular vote. He is like every demagogue who justifies their tyranny by appealing to the “will of the people”, meaning the loudest voices of the meanest, richest and most powerful members of society. The deprivation of the right to the law is something that people will fail to notice until they come to depend on it, by which time it will be too late.

Image source: Mike Faherty, from Geograph; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 2.0 licence.

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Should White Muslims marry each other?

9 February, 2020 - 20:51
A white man and a light brown-skinned Middle Eastern or South Asian woman sitting on a park bench together; the man's right hand is on the woman's left shoulder. The man is wearing black with a hood (perhaps a hoodie or a Moroccan thobe) while the woman is wearing black or dark grey clothing and a black scarf over her head and a black and white scarf around her neck. There is a low stone wall in front of them and a red brick wall behind them with a metal pipe running vertically down it.Muslim couple, Amsterdam

Yesterday some of the Muslims I follow on Twitter were discussing a blog article published last September by “Robert of Canada”, who runs a website and Facebook page both titled Islam 4 Europeans, which gave ten reasons why white Muslim converts should marry each other rather than Muslims from non-white ‘ethnic’ backgrounds and that this would be “good for the Ummah”. Most of the respondents disagreed and many indeed said that all the claims were nonsense. In my opinion most of them are irrelevant to most people’s priorities when they are getting married; there is an assumption that every family is affected by the particular “culture wars” he refers to.

1) SJW [“Social Justice Warrior”] Muslims always say that they are being attacked because Islam predominantly a religion of colour (sic). Well, if there were more white Muslim families, would that not be a viable solution?

Here we see the assumption that everyone who converts to Islam is affected or concerned by online social justice culture. In fact not everyone who converts to Islam even has a Twitter account or knows the writers from Q-News or the 2000s blogging scene; many associate with other Muslims through their mosque or a student Islamic society, for example.

2) It is better to marry another convert on the same level. Being a convert is like a pre-schooler taking graduate level courses. Instead of marrying your teacher, it’s better to marry your classmate

This is not true at all. Unless a couple convert at the same time, it is not usually the best choice for someone who has been Muslim a short time to marry someone whose knowledge and experience of Islam is as limited as theirs. The likely outcome of marriage is, of course, children and we want our children to be the best Muslims we can raise and so if we are new to Islam, it is better that their other parent be someone better grounded than we are. Besides, many convert Muslims have read in detail about Islam for years before they decided to convert and so, while obviously not scholars in the Islamic sense, are fairly literate in the religion. Needless to say, not all born Muslims are anything like scholars and are in no position to teach the religion to anyone except a small child.

In real life, people usually don’t marry their classmates. They marry people who are a few years’ age difference with themselves, usually with the man the older spouse. Whether someone has been Muslim for longer or not, or their whole life, someone who is older is still older. And “new Muslims” do not stay new; when someone has been Muslim for 20 years, they can hardly be called a new Muslim and might well be able to teach a born Muslim 10 or 20 years their junior a few things about Islam.

3) It makes the transition easier for our families. Their son or daughter in law has a better shot at getting along with the family. He or she also has the opportunity to show how Islam teaches us to be good to our spouses and in laws.

Not necessarily; if the non-Muslim family are already hostile and suspicious of any Muslim spouse coming into their family, especially one who had not been their boy- or girlfriend previously, it will not matter a huge amount if they are also White. One of the spouses may wish to protect the other from questioning by his family members or from attempts to sow doubt (e.g. repeatedly asking hostile questions about “why God expects us to pray five times a day if He loves us so much” or about the status of women), to which a born-Muslim spouse would be less receptive. Two isolated converts are hardly stronger than one.

I should add that we live in a prosperous, successful society with a strong sense of its own superiority and middle-class people are particularly invested in the notion of western society and values as superior. To marry someone who has only been Muslim a short time runs the risk that they will discover something about Islam that had not been mentioned in da’wah material they had read which puts them off. (This is one reason why people who are very new to Islam should be encouraged to delay getting married.) Not every convert is at this stage which is why the comparison of all converts to ‘pre-schoolers’ and the recommendation to marry a ‘classmate’ are inappropriate.

4) Black Muslims complain, and rightly so, that we get all these marriage proposals from born Muslims, but they do not. If that is the case, the best solution is to reject those proposals. That would level the playing field.

Not ‘rightly’ at all. It’s just not true. Many of us have been flatly rejected by immigrant Muslim families because they believe we are not good enough for, or ‘compatible’ with, their children. I do also know of Black Muslims in the UK who have been married to Pakistanis and other Asians. They suffer more prejudice from Asian Muslims than White Muslims do, but it is not total rejection and we do not experience perfect acceptance. The American experience here is not universal.

5) The alt right and Neo Nazis would not be able to say that Islam is a threat to the white race.

Who cares? There is no such thing as the “white race” anyway. It’s a figment of racists’ imaginations.

Islam is certainly a threat to any exclusivist vision of race. It preaches brotherhood on the basis of shared belief in Allah Most High and love of the Holy Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. We cannot give the baseless bigotries of fringe groups any consideration when making vital decisions about our own lives.

6) In addition, it is our duty as white Muslims to give dawah to our own group. If anyone can try to change their opinion on Islam, it’s us.

Most of us are quite weak, we are not the sort who can just expect others to become Muslim because we tell them. None of us are Abdul-Qadir al-Jilani or one of the other great Sufis and scholars whose teachings led to thousands becoming Muslim. Most of us want to settle down and start a family because marriage is about completing half one’s deen and taking care of our desires lawfully, not just about the possibility that others might become Muslim as a result.

7) Most marriages to born Muslim families do not end well. We don’t understand their culture and vice versa. Especially for the new convert who is already confused, now they have to assimilate even more while they are trying to learn the Deen?

There is no proof of this claim. In fact, I know of mixed marriages which have lasted decades. Cultural differences are not always as huge as are being made out. Many same-culture marriages inside and outside of Islam break down after a few years nowadays, perhaps because couples do not realise that they have to work on their marriage to make it last after the “honeymoon period” is over.

8 ) Other sub communities, such as the African American and Hispanic Muslims in the US, have been highly successful at accepting and integrating their new Muslims, and they have become part of the fabric of the Muslim community. Why not us?

The simple answer is that integration into an immigrant Muslim community is the easiest option for anyone living in a city in the UK (or perhaps elsewhere) who is in regular contact with Muslims of an immigrant background such as Pakistanis or Somalis. African Americans formed their own communities because Islam played a major role in strengthening the Black community there during the Civil Rights era; their impetus to become Muslim came from within their own society and not as a result of contact with outsiders. African Americans were oppressed; they had been the victims of legally enforced segregation and other forms of overt racism calculated to keep them poor and powerless even after the end of slavery. None of this is true for white western Europeans in recent times. The criticisms of groups like the Nation of Islam are fully justified, but we have even less justification than they do for embracing racial separatism.

9) It would remove us from the white saviour status, given to us by the immigrant Muslim community.

This is also somewhat exaggerated and in any case does not apply in the UK as much as it did in the USA. In any case, some of the white Muslims whose opinions were sought out were in fact scholars, not ordinary Muslims favoured purely because of their colour.

10). Islam protects the culture of the people. When the Habashi Muslims did their sword ceremony during Eid, Umar (ra) wanted them to stop as it was not an Arab custom, but Rasoolullah (pbuh) wanted them to continue. Islam is not a predatory religion, and every Muslim society, whether in China or Pakistan, kept many aspects of their culture. Why not an Italian Islam, a Swedish Islam, a British Islam?

Because there is no Chinese Islam or Pakistani Islam. There is one Islam and the way it is practised anywhere in the world would be easily recognisable to one from almost anywhere else. There are cultural differences such as in diet and architecture, and there are slight variations stemming from the following of different schools of legal thinking, as well as the influence of the native languages, hence the prevalence of words containing the letter Z in much of the Muslim world which would have a ‘th’ sound in a country where that sound existed in the language (English and Arabic both have it, but most of the world’s languages, including most in Europe, do not), but these differences are not great enough to make them a different ‘version’ of Islam.

In countries where large numbers of white people have become Muslim, or indeed where they have been Muslim for many generations (e.g. Bosnia, Albania, Turkey), those Muslims do indeed marry each other and if large numbers of white people in the UK, America or anywhere else in the western world become Muslim at some point in the future, in sha Allah, the same will no doubt happen there. In the present time, white converts are one of a number of small communities of Muslims, some immigrant and some not, who are on the fringes of the general Muslim community which is in most places dominated by those of Pakistani origin and sometimes Bengalis or Arabs. In fact, we are one of the smaller of these groups and spread fairly thinly. We have not tried to separate ourselves — we do not have the numbers to do that, with all it entails — but to fit in and form friendships with the Muslims around us, for the most part successfully.

It’s against the Sunnah for ethnic groups in a mixed Muslim community to separate away from each other or to shut each other out. When the Muhajiroon from Mecca migrated to Madinah, the two Ansar tribes build kinship ties with their new compatriots through marriage. Many of the Ansari men who were married to more than one wife divorced one of them so that they could marry a Muhajir. Throughout Muslim history, Muslims have married people who would not be considered “their race” by modern standards; you find people of Qurashi background in almost every Muslim land and they look like the local population because of intermarriage. In a large and homogeneous Muslim country, of course, most marriages will be between people of the same cultural background and ‘racial’ appearance, but this need not be the case in any context where Muslims are a fractured minority. We should be trying to heal these fractures, not produce new ones. Having a family connection to a Muslim country also helps guarantee our personal safety; if the situation turns against us, which the history of Europe shows that it can do very quickly, we have an escape route to a Muslim country and if it does not, we have the benefits of a connection to another country such as a ready holiday destination and potential business connections.

I’m not against the idea of White western Muslims marrying each other, but if you think that is the best way, you should be living in a rural white area and giving the da’wah rather than giving ill-informed advice to other converts based on false stereotypes and generalisations. There are good reasons why people who convert to Islam, whether they be White or any other ethnic or cultural background, seek to marry someone from a family which is already Muslim. Our Islam is not a gesture of defiance to ‘SJWs’, neo-Nazis or anyone else; it is about believing in Allah Alone and His Messenger, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, and our bond with other Muslims is based on that and not on race, language or accidents of birth.

Image source: Michael Coghlan. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) licence, version 2.0.

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Review: Britain’s Killer Motorways

29 January, 2020 - 19:36
A motorway with four lanes and no hard shoulders with trees on either side, with hills in the distance, with the sun in the top-right corner.A “smart motorway”

This week’s BBC Panorama (available until January 2021) was about a recent report into the smart motorway system, which has been revealed to be what many of us who have to use them regularly have known for years: that they are dangerous, because anyone who breaks down usually has nowhere to go except sit in a live traffic lane where they have fast-moving traffic coming up behind them where previously they could have moved over to a hard shoulder which is off limits to moving traffic. The government has been denying that there is a problem for years and pointing to ‘research’ that shows that they are safe. I always doubted this, not least because this ‘research’ has been done at a time when more capacity is needed but there is not the money to actually widen motorways to add the extra lane; it seems rather convenient and I suspected that the conclusion that they were safe came from trickery such as blaming the driver for being distracted. The report has provoked a great deal of public debate such as on radio phone-ins etc, but this programme left a great deal to be desired and came to an entirely wrong conclusion.

Generally there are three types of smart motorway. One has a hard shoulder and is simply ‘managed’ and has speed limits that vary when the road is congested, usually between the maximum speed limit and 40mph (sometimes less, such as around an accident or when there is a closure), communicated through lights on gantries that look like signs; this was the first type and the best-known is on the M25 near Heathrow. A second has a ‘dynamic’ hard shoulder which can be redeployed as an extra lane at busy times, and this is achieved through changing signs and gantry lights. The third has only lanes (usually four) and no hard shoulder. The latter two are the types that have become notorious for accidents because drivers assume that there will be no stationary vehicles in the lanes and that if there are, they will have warning from the overhead screens. This, however, is not always the case.

Panorama mostly featured personal stories of people being seriously injured or killed after their car broke down on one of these ‘smart’ motorways; in some cases they were in the cars which were hit, and in others they were hit after they had got out. They interviewed people at a service station as to what they thought a ‘smart motorway’ was and several interviewees did not know, despite having just driven through one. They interviewed Mike Penning, a former transport minister who had signed off on some of the ‘smart motorway’ conversions in 2010, having been convinced by the success of an early dynamic motorway project on the M42 in Warwickshire. He claimed he had been deceived about the issue of the emergency lay-bys which were about 600 metres apart on the M42 but more than two miles apart in the case of some of the newer projects. I find this explanation somewhat unconvincing; surely it is a minister’s job to read proposals before signing off on them.

However, the programme also misrepresented some of the facts about ‘smart’ motorways and then based a very wrong conclusion on it, namely that dynamic motorways, such as the section of the M42 which was such a success, are even more dangerous than plain smart motorways. One of the fatal crashes whose surviving family members were featured happened on such a section (on the M6 through the Birmingham suburbs) but the programme showed signed warnings in big bold type saying “DON’T USE HARD SHOULDER”. In fact, they are much smaller than those shown in the programme and say “Hardshoulder (sic) for emergency use only”. It would be possible to give much clearer warnings on sections where the hard shoulder is closed, including flashing lights with arrows and the simple words “GET OVER”. When the traffic is heavy enough to merit opening the hard shoulder to traffic, it stands to reason that the speed limit should also be lower, as it often is at congested times; I would suggest no higher than 50mph. Finally, there are places where a stretch where the hard shoulder has been converted to a lane permanently changes into a dynamic one, usually just after a junction, and the change occurs just after a bend without adequate warning; the M1 southbound after junction 11 (A505 Luton/Dunstable) is the worst example. The warning needs to be seen in good time, in this case before rather than after the bend.

The advantages of the dynamic system is that there is still a hard shoulder which is still there at times when traffic is flowing freely and faster; this is when you will have cars doing 70mph or sometimes more (though there are speed cameras on these stretches which are clearly advertised). If you break down there when flow is free and the hard shoulder is closed to traffic as it is not needed, the chances of being hit from behind are greatly reduced; if you break down at an off-peak time on an all-lane motorway where people are doing 70mph or more, the chances of a high-speed rear shunt, or of an accident caused by a vehicle swerving to avoid the stationary vehicle, are that much higher. The dangers of the dynamic arrangement can be mitigated through reduced speed limits, better signage and public education (the “red X” lights have always been present, but have been used much more frequently in the last few years and many drivers seem to be unaware of what they mean, i.e. that the lane is closed and they must not drive in it because there is a stationary vehicle, a barrier or a hole in the road surface ahead).

The Panorama programme also discussed the fact that the technology is not up to scratch and often fails to detect stationary vehicles. I have talked about this on this site previously; on one occasion the “stranded vehicle” warning appeared only beyond the vehicle itself which I had to swerve to avoid. I have had to call 999 to report these vehicles on several occasions and each time had difficulty getting the operator to understand exactly where it was, even after I gave them a mile-post reference (one operator told me, wrongly, that the police do not use them), and they carried on asking me pointless questions, including my address and date of birth (!), while car after car and truck after truck sped past the stranded vehicle.

So, now it is confirmed what many of us professional drivers, as well as breakdown rescue workers, have known for years: that motorways without hard shoulders are death traps. It’s a scandal that huge amounts of public money have been spent in converting motorways in this way and at the cost of huge disruption to drivers over several years (the M1 in particular has not been without such a scheme ongoing for many years). I would suggest that the nearside lane of all motorways that lack hard shoulders should be closed other than at peak times; that when the hard shoulder is open, the speed limit should be no higher than 50mph; that drivers be educated about driving on them (the government can send leaflets to every address where a driving licence is registered) and 999 operators be properly informed about the use of mile-post references and other common means of identifying the location of a hazard; and that signage and light warnings be made very much clearer and normally be in large and clearly readable type. All schemes that are approved but have not started must be put on hold if not cancelled. We must not have any more of these lethal motorways opened.

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Lib Dems blame everyone but themselves

22 January, 2020 - 23:39
A map showing the seats which changed hands in the 2019 general election.The seats which changed hands in the 2019 election

Last Sunday the Liberal Democrats’ acting leader Ed Davey (who is my MP), interviewed for the Guardian, claimed that the biggest factor in his party’s lacklustre election result last month was Jeremy Corbyn; he claimed that people had told his party’s canvassers on the doorstep that they agreed with him about stopping Brexit but insisted that they had to “stop Jeremy Corbyn”, the same as he believed happened with Michael Foot in 1983 and Neil Kinnock in 1992. The same claim was made about the widespread Lib Dem seat losses in the 2015 general election; in that case it was put down to voters’ fears about a Labour-SNP coalition leading to a break-up of the UK in the event of a minority Labour government.

The party’s own practices are never considered; the Lib Dems lost votes hand over fist in 2015 because the centre-left vote they had spent decades cultivating in the years up to 2010 dissipated as they proved to be willing accomplices to David Cameron’s Tories in the 2010-15 coalition, and very few of those have returned. As for the large losses in the south-west, all of these areas voted to leave in the 2016 referendum and not only the Tories but also UKIP increased their share of the vote in these areas too. In other words, their losses in many of their ‘heartlands’ was a long time coming. In 2019 they attracted a number of Labour MPs who had formerly split to form Change UK and were full of disgust and contempt for Jeremy Corbyn for numerous reasons, among them that they considered him an anti-Semite (I will come to this aspect later), and preferred to see Boris Johnson remain as prime minister than see Jeremy Corbyn in that role even in a coalition. Therefore, rather than contest seats held by Brexiteers or weak Remainers in the southern Remain belt, the party fielded high-profile defecting candidates in Remain supporting constituencies where one candidate against a Tory would have won, in some cases unseating a hard Brexiteer Tory (Iain Duncan Smith, Dominic Raab) or there was already a Remain-supporting Labour MP (e.g. Emma Dent Coad in Kensington). In none of these cases did the Lib Dem win; in all of them except Canterbury, the Tory won. It was suggested that the Lib Dems’ real motive was to avoid challenging the Tories too much so as to ensure an easy coalition; my hunch was that there were too many people in the Lib Dems who hated Corbyn more than they loved their mother.

Also last weekend I read a transcript of a podcast in which the journalist Oz Katerji interviews three prominent Jewish critics of Jeremy Corbyn, namely Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, human rights barrister Adam Wagner and former north London Labour councillor Adam Langleben. One of the observations made by Freedland was that, when interviewing people just before the election in places like Newcastle under Lyme in Staffordshire (where there is no Jewish community), he had come across people who believed that anti-Semitism was a hallmark of “bad people”:

But the second level I thought was really interesting, which was, and I think it makes British Jews feel, it should make British Jews feel differently and positively about some of their countrymen, which is, I think even people who don’t know Jewish people, very well have a very limited knowledge, particularly of Jewish life, but they have a, they know that it was connected with the Second World War. They may have, sort of be vaguely familiar with Anne Frank’s diary, and they basically know that good people don’t hate Jews. 

And it was as simple as that, you just hear them say, and you know, I heard one man say, ‘and what’s this thing with him slandering the Jews?’, you know, it’s very old-fashioned sort of formulation, but it meant you’re a wrong’un, you know, that that’s those are bad people who think like that. They know that just because one of the defining events of modern Britain was that it stood alone against fascism in 1940. People know what side you’re meant to be on. The idea that this man just couldn’t do enough to make it go away. 

Two impressions can be drawn from this. One is that many British people are very much still stuck in the mid-20th century and still have a romantic view of the Second World War in which Britain “stood alone” (with the help of its large empire, of course). This has a lot to do with why many older people felt able to vote to leave the EU and brush off the likely economic consequences; they forget that the world before we joined the EEC was a different place and we still controlled a large chunk of the world (and the EEC was much smaller than today’s EU). I suspect that many of these people were influenced by the repeated accusations and the non-stop coverage of the issue rather than being swayed by the claims themselves, as many of them were not what would strike the average person as racist.

As for the second, when you consider that the principal alternative to Corbyn was the undeniably and repeatedly racist Boris Johnson, it is that people regard anti-Semitism as a prejudice apart, that good people can be racist but only bad people can be anti-Semitic. This rather chimes with the history of racism in the UK and USA as directed against new immigrant communities and non-white people rather than against white minority groups such as Jews; anti-Semitism as much has always been associated with the central European far right and with the Hitlerite fringe far right, which in the 21st century has tried to move away from that in search of the greener electoral pastures of Islamophobia and hostility to refugees and European workers, with some success if only briefly. Stoke on Trent (which is administered separately from Newcastle) elected nine BNP councillors in the mid-2000s; further south in what was still then Staffordshire, a Tory was elected in the 1964 general election in Smethwick on the back of an explicitly racist slogan. It is all the more disturbing that racism towards more vulnerable and visible minorities who still face calls to “go home” and the suspicion that they are illegal immigrants or have a ‘home’ they can be sent to if deemed undesirable is tolerated while much milder prejudice, not reflected in policy, against a much longer-established, more prosperous and less physically visible minority is deemed beyond the pale. The truth is that any racial prejudice if indulged and allowed to fester can lead to the same things: violence, persecution, suffering and death.

Much as there may have been some truth to the claims about anti-Semitism (I dealt with this in the case of the “Facebook mural” story in 2018), it is also true that there were large number of false claims, often involving accusations of “anti-Semitic tropes” being used to silence justifiable condemnations of the atrocities of Israel and in particular its settlers and soldiers in the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The collective punishment, destruction of property, monopolisation of water supplies, gratuitous harassment and humiliation of natives and so on is all very well recorded as is the impunity accorded those responsible. Any demand for a solution that does not leave Israel dominant stands to be condemned as “anti-Semitic”; often those responsible are Likud sympathisers and were cheerleaders for the Iraq war as well. Their idea of a ‘solution’ is total and permanent submission by the native Palestinians to permanent Israeli domination, or their evacuation. Many of the claims were targeted at Muslim Labour candidates and these included some fairly moderate people. Essentially anyone not willing to condemn their entire community was anathema, and some of the same people who pose as “liberal Zionists” and made much of how they opposed Netanyahu, but … also circulated accusations against Muslims for condemning Israel.

The Lib Dems’ performance was impacted by the fact that it had been swollen by middle-class people who could tolerate the stench of one prejudice but not the whiff of another. They refused to make electoral pacts even though it would have resulted in gains for both parties (it would have had to be Labour who stood down in Esher, for example), perhaps reduced Boris Johnson’s majority, and taken some high-profile Tory scalps in pro-EU areas. They also must understand that people have not forgotten the 2010 coalition and some of the seats they lost in 2015 (e.g. Bermondsey) are probably lost for good, despite how long they held some of those seats; Ed Davey’s claim that he wants to lead a “centre-left party” rings particularly hollow in light of all that.

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20mph speed limits: a dishonest ‘consultation’

19 January, 2020 - 21:51
A sign with the number 20 in a red circle on a white background with 'zone' underneath in bold Swiss type; under that is a child's drawing of a red snail. Behind the signpost is a red brick wall.

Last August I wrote on here about the new 20mph zone that has been imposed by Richmond borough council (in London) across the whole borough, with a few main roads exempted. Since then a similar zone has appeared across Merton, on the other side of Kingston, and now our borough is ‘consulting’ and asking for residents’ opinions on imposing one here too. The consultation, although it is ‘statutory’, is not legally binding and the borough does not have to actually honour the response (in Richmond, those who responded mostly said no, but what were deemed ‘vulnerable’ road users were mostly in favour). The plans as stated on the Council’s website are to impose a 20mph speed limit on all roads managed by the borough, which would exclude only private roads (which normally have a 20mph or lower limit) and those managed by Transport for London, which in Kingston include only the by-pass and the roads that approach it.

Well, I opened up the online ‘consultation’ (it required me to set up an account on their website) and it did not mention the scheme being about all roads in the borough but about all residential roads, which is not the same thing as commonly understood. A residential road is a road that is principally used for access to housing, either by residents, visitors or delivery personnel. A main road is used for inter-town access, such as the A2043 road through New Malden which runs from Kingston into Sutton (it is not the main road to Sutton town centre, but to the western parts of that borough). Of course, a main road often has houses along it, but the same is true of the main roads run by TfL as well. The 30mph speed limits on main roads are generally respected, at least partly because of years of public education that the limits are there for a reason. Reducing it to 20mph in the absence of any public campaign gives an entirely different message, that the limit is just there because the council says so, and local councils are not held in particularly high regard. If they were, for example, the removal of the NHS and much of the education system from local authority control could not have gone ahead, or lasted.

There is one question in the ‘consultation’ that asks “To what extent do you agree with the council’s proposal to introduce a 20mph speed limit on residential roads in the borough, in order to help make our streets safer for everyone”, which is a loaded question and is not honest about the nature of the scheme. There are further questions about whether we agree that a 20mph limit will make roads safer or reduce car use, which clearly indicate that they are not intended for the council to listen to the responses but judge how receptive we are to their agenda. Perhaps a 20mph limit will make roads safer; 10mph will make them safer still, but also mean that getting anywhere takes ages, whether we take the bus or our cars; there is a balance to be struck, on main roads, between pedestrian safety (which can also be addressed by installing more signalised and zebra crossings) and making sure main roads serve their purpose. They will not reduce car journeys unless public transport is drastically improved; I could not commute by public transport to most of the places I work as the connections are not there. They might just deter people from using borough roads to get from one place to another, which would shift the burden of road maintenance elsewhere (e.g. onto TfL) as well as give the impression of reduced numbers of car journeys. Perhaps that is the underlying objective of the scheme.

I responded to the consultation saying that I would support this scheme if it really meant only residential roads and not main roads as well, as has been imposed in Croydon and Wandsworth (though in Croydon, the low response rate to the consultation meant that only 1.5% of the population of the affected area in the north of Croydon expressed support). There is no public movement in favour of 20mph limits; it is a scheme invented in political circles to be imposed from “on high” (Kingston, like Richmond, has provided a link to the “20’s Plenty for us” website but it’s only the second time I’ve seen a link to it anywhere). Anyone who has travelled in areas where the zones have been implemented, especially in outer London, knows that they are generally ignored and people travel at a little below 30mph rather than a little either side which is the case on 30mph main roads; the average speed has been reduced by a tiny amount, in other words, which hardly justifies the money spent on procuring and installing the signs; it could be better spent on improving bus service frequencies or keeping fares down.

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Labour leadership, Antisemitism and Islamophobia

16 January, 2020 - 23:53
Lisa Nandy

This past Monday the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a body elected by parts of the Jewish community (not all of it), launched their “ten pledges” campaign, a set of demands for candidates for the Labour leadership to “end the Antisemitism crisis”. A PDF of the full list can be found here although images of it have been circulated on social media (a straight HTML version would not go amiss; images are inaccessible and PDF files take a long time to load and often a separate application to display). They include bringing current and future ‘cases’ of antisemitism to “a swift conclusion under a fixed timescale”, access for Jewish community groups to “regular, detailed case updates”, suspension for anyone in the party who provides a platform for anyone suspended or expelled “in the wake of antisemitic incidents”, the IHRA definition of antisemitism to be accepted without qualification, education on the subject to be delivered with the involvement of the Jewish Labour Movement and, perhaps most controversially, that “Labour must engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups, and not through fringe organisations and individuals”.

On Tuesday, in response to a thread from Shaista Aziz, a Labour activist in Nottingham, in which she reported that she had been invited to be interviewed on the subject of racism in the coverage of the Prince Harry and Meghan story (see last entry) and the interview request was withdrawn when she asked for clarification, I tweeted this:

Funny how a certain predominantly white minority is trusted to dictate what is and isn’t racism against them but POC [people of colour] aren’t, when it’s often very obvious to any sincere person.

I had a series of tweets from Eve Leigh, a London-based playwright, demanding to know exactly which minority I was referring to (as if it weren’t obvious), starting with this:

In a related story, why are you taking this moment to talk about Jews? Why are Jews…occupying your mind like this? Also, I have news for you, Jews are told that what we perceive as anti-semitism is just being whiny and oversensitive every damn day.

The first point I made will be obvious to anyone from any less-advantaged community who has tried to raise the issue of prejudice or privilege. To take the Harry and Meghan story, both the TV and newspapers were full of people claiming that the hostility to Meghan has nothing to do with her being Black, despite huge evidence of more hostile coverage of anything she does compared to anything Princess Kate, who is middle-class, white and British, does. I hear complaints to this effect from people in these communities all the time and anyone who follows enough Black or Asian women on Twitter or wherever will see the same; the denials and defensiveness does not come (only) from ordinary people but from people in the media: journalists and TV presenters. Shaista Aziz clarified this in her response to the interview request which she quoted in her Twitter thread: “I’m not interested in being part of YET another media discussion where a woman of colour is gaslighted and told that racism isn’t racism”.

Twice in the last couple of months a Jewish community institution has got substantial and sympathetic media coverage for opinions it puts forward about the situation in the Labour party. The first was the Chief Rabbi’s ‘intervention’, widely reported as if of great authority when he in fact heads one group of Orthodox synagogues, and actually not an ‘intervention’ but just an opinion. The second was this week’s ten demands. These statements have been reported uncritically and with enormous sympathy while people questioning them have faced accusations of anti-Semitism. Could anyone imagine the same response to a political statement by a Muslim organisation? Muslim (and other Asian) community leaders are generally portrayed as reactionary, sectarian dinosaurs; the Muslim Council of Britain has been dismissed as an ‘Islamist’ group and criticised, by both government and its sympathetic media, for being uncommitted to “British values” and equivocal on “extremism”. Any time a mainstream Muslim organisation fails to tell the media or politicians what they want to hear, they find a nobody on the fringe to speak for us, to pretend to be an imam (e.g. Taj Hargey) or ‘expert’ in whatever they think wrong with the Muslim community (Hargey, Amina Lone, Nimco Ali and the rest of the FGM industry) and confirm their prejudices. So, the effrontery of the BOD in demanding that Labour take their word on what is or is not anti-Semitism will be obvious to any Muslim reading it: we do not get the same privilege.

The bar for what constitutes anti-Semitism seems to be getting lower and lower. It’s now ‘established’ in the media that the belief that Jews have no right to a state in what they call Israel is anti-Semitic in itself, but claims are now being made on the basis of much less than that. In a widely-shared TV interview, Andrew Neil asked the Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy if she thought it anti-Semitic for Rachael Cousins (AKA Rachael Swindon) to call the BOD “Conservative backers” and asking them to disassociate themselves from the Tories and condemn “Israeli military atrocities in the West Bank”, Nandy replied “yes” without hesitation. If the BOD were purely a Jewish community representative body, that is something we could all agree on — it’s racist to expect every member of a community to answer for what any other does anywhere in the world — but the BOD acts partly as a lobby group for Israel. On its website you can find statements blaming Hamas for deaths inflicted by the Israeli army or police, opposing BDS and issuing statements condemning councils and other bodies that condemn Israeli military actions (most recently in Gwynedd: [1], [2]). It’s not racist to call them an Israeli lobbying effort: it is there in black and white.

Labour really must show some backbone and not give in to threats or blackmail. Labour have a strong minority ethnic vote which they cannot take for granted as they took the provincial working-class vote for generations. If Muslims see one candidate after another summarily expelled from the party for expressing anger about Israeli military or settler abuses in the West Bank or Gaza, they will not vote Labour; they might just not vote, rather than vote for anyone else, but it will still be a loss for Labour. If the Black community sees its long-standing activists expelled on the basis of spurious claims of anti-Semitism (e.g. Mark Wadsworth), they will know the party does not care for them either. Labour’s vote declined when it was in power because Blair, despite all the hope that accompanied his 1997 election victory and the progressive policies of his first term, drifted ever rightwards, disregarding civil liberties, launching wars that were not in the national interest to please George W Bush, locking people up who had long served their time because the press staged a campaign against “foreign criminals”, making a show of detaining asylum seekers and so much else. They have a record of cowardice in the face of power and of viciousness to those without. This craven refusal to stand up to bullies shows that this cowardly streak is alive and well in the Labour party.

Finally, as for the particular claim that “Jews are told that what we perceive as anti-semitism is just being whiny and oversensitive every damn day”, in all honesty it is difficult to tell what is oversensitivity and what is a matter of offence being feigned to score a political point. Claims of “anti-Semitic tropes” against Labour MPs and activists, including ones of Jewish origin who are “not quite Jewish enough”, are issued on a regular basis which are obviously baseless: to take an example from this week, a motion by two Jewish (though not “BOD type Jewish”) activists at an Ilford South area party meeting was condemned as denying that there was any problem with anti-Semitism in the party (it does not) and using “multiple antisemitic tropes” which is so far-fetched as to be ludicrous (if the motion referred to Jews generally as it does the BOD, it would be, but it refers to one specific organisation). If any other minority made claims of racism, Islamophobia, or anything similar with such regularity and with so little factual basis, they would be accused, quite rightly, of being at best snowflakes and at worst vexatious, manipulative and dishonest. Regardless of a few harsh words on Twitter and in Labour party meetings, the Jewish community gets a much easier ride in the media than Muslims or any other minority and the reason is obvious: because they are white, and because an easy way of slapping down uppity minorities is to make them the racists rather than address the problem in society generally.

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Prince Harry is just protecting his family

13 January, 2020 - 19:52
A screenshot of a Daily Mail story featuring pictures of Meghan Markle with her hand under her baby bump, headlined "Why can't Meghan Markle keep her hands off her bump? Experts tackle the question that has got the nation talking: is it pride, vanity, acting -- or a new age bonding technique?".

Two things have always fascinated me about attitudes to the British royal family. The first is how protective many people are about the monarchy as an institution and how vindictive many people are against ‘dissenting’ minor royals or royal in-laws. The other, specific to the Muslim community, is how many Muslims (including some scholars) regard the royal family as somehow embodying Islamic values and being a bulwark against modernity, and take a similarly harsh view of dissenters or those exploited by its behaviour. The first was something we saw in bucketloads when Prince Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall, who was well-known to always have been his choice of bride even before he married Lady Diana; the second was directed at Diana herself. We have seen both in the reaction to Prince Harry and his wife Meghan’s decision to step back from royal duties and attempt to become financially independent and not reliant on public money in their activities.

In reaction to their decision last week, there was a storm of outrage in both the sycophantic right-wing media (e.g. the Daily Telegraph) towards the couple who it turned out had not discussed the issue with the Queen (Harry’s grandmother) before making the announcement. Prince William was reported to have said that the two were from now on “separate entities” as if they had previously been joined at the hip. As examples of unequal media treatment of the mixed-race princess compared to Prince William’s white, middle-class princess Kate were being widely shared on social media, the TV presenter Eamonn Holmes told the nation on Talk Radio last week that though he had never met her, the mere look of her gave him the impression of an “awful, woke, weak, manipulative, spoilt” woman — ‘woke’ being African-American idiom for politically conscious, here used as a derogatory term meaning both politically correct and uppity. I read an article on the Daily Telegraph’s site about the National Trust planning to plant forests on much of the farmland it owns (meaning their tenant farmers will have to find somewhere else to graze their sheep), and they had five articles linked down the side to the effect that the royal family had done nothing wrong, that of course Meghan was not receiving racist treatment, that his ‘failure’ to consult the Queen was ‘unforgivable’, etc.

Harry was, of course, one of the two sons of Lady Diana who had to carry her coffin after she died in a car crash while being pursued by photographers on motorcycles in Paris in 1997. The blame for the crash is generally accepted to lie with the speeding driver, but the whole thing would not have happened but for the pursuing photographers hungry for a picture they could sell to a newspaper. I do not follow royal stories that closely but it is widely reported that Harry blames the press for his mother’s death and resents their continuing intrusion into his and his family’s lives and the often derogatory commentary on his wife’s appearance. I have seen someone on Facebook declare that of course Meghan has not had the same treatment as Diana; this is clear as she is still alive, and Harry understandably wants to keep her that way. Another social media ‘expert’ claimed that Meghan had exploited a ‘vulnerable’ young man and was now threatening to ‘steal’ him back to the USA or Canada. The fact is that Harry is a grown man and a former Army officer who can look after himself quite easily. Of course, losing his mother was traumatic but it was more than 20 years ago and it’s something that happens to a lot of people. Meghan has already given up her acting career to marry him, much as Grace Kelly did when she married the prince of Monaco (though hers was past its best). More egregiously, people openly call for the couple to divorce and speculate openly that this will happen soon. I have a hunch that some of the women saying this are envious of Meghan for marrying someone they might have had hopes, however unrealistic, of themselves marrying.

Screenshot of a Daily Mail story showing Princess Kate heavily pregnant, in one case with her hand below her bump, with the headline "Not long to go! Pregnant Kate tenderly cradles her baby bump while wrapping up her royal duties ahead of maternity leave -- and William confirms she's due 'any minute now'".

On Muslim social media, I saw a post by an imam which connected the “gradual disintegration of what seemed the impregnable House of Windsor ie the latest Prince Harry and Meghan drama etc” with “what is happening with what also seemed the impregnable ‘Islamic family’ concept”. This reminds me a lot of conservative Muslim authors in the 90s who praised the Windsor family (“staid but genuinely self-abnegating” according to Abdul-Hakim Murad) while suggesting that Lady Diana was not good enough for them; there was insistence that monarchy was a more Islamic form of government than representative democracy, and there were diatribes against republicanism and every modern ideology. The Turkish Sufi shaikh Muhammad Nazim was even quoted as claiming that Prince Charles was Muslim and that he would one day be king of America as well as Britain. On the contrary, the Windsors’ behaviour until recently was more in keeping with the worst stereotypes of Muslim family structures, treating marriage as a means to an end, i.e. producing heirs (preferably male), expecting heirs to enter loveless marriages if deemed necessary, and chewing brides up and spitting them out.

It is Harry, here, who is behaving more like a normal family man, acting to protect his wife and son from a predatory and prejudiced media, and the reaction of sections of the public have proved him right. He wants to become as self-sufficient as he can so that, not being dependent on public money, he and his family will not be considered public property. And of course he did not consult the Queen; most men in their 30s with a wife and children do not consult their grandmother before making major decisions about their families’ futures. He has given the public a big wedding spectacle at Windsor Castle but now wants future decisions about his family to be made by him and Meghan, not some committee at Buckingham Palace. He is not a direct heir to the throne; Prince William and all of his children would have to die (or renounce their claim to the throne) in the interim for him to become king, which is why he was allowed more leeway in whom he married and the name he gave his son than Wills would have been.

Personally, over the years I have moved from being firmly in favour of a republic to believing that the status quo, with some changes, is better; many republics in Europe cultivate founding myths and use them as excuses to oppress minorities, notably Muslims as in France whose every difference is held up as an incompatibility with the “values of the republic”. The problem now is that we are too deferential to wealth in this country; of our last five prime ministers, three were educated at elite private schools and the two that were not, governed for the shortest time. Any suggestion that this class has too much power is derided as the “politics of envy” while house prices and rents are allowed to spiral out of control to the benefit of existing owners (many of whom bought them cheaply in the post-war years) and financiers and the detriment of young people who cannot live anywhere near where they work. I have come to favour a figurehead republic similar to that of Germany or Ireland, where the president is elected but is not the executive in themselves. However, I forecast that this will not happen in the near future as the establishment moves to shore up the monarchy as the crown passes from Elizabeth II to Charles, who has nothing like the popular appeal and acceptance she does, so any hope of change is likely to have to wait until well after he succeeds her. However, the cruelty and intrusion of the press into the lives of younger royals in particular has long been cited as a major reason for reform, and the attitude of the popular press to Harry’s and Meghan’s decision last week will only strengthen that aspect of the case.

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Not a religion of platitudes

4 January, 2020 - 23:51

Earlier this week ‘Ed’ Husain, author of a biographical book called The Islamist, a former member of Hizb-ut-Tahreer (from when the group that became al-Muhajiroun was using the name in the UK) and co-founder of the Quilliam group, posted a tweet for the new year that tells us the ‘wisdom’ he believes Islam lacks that Christianity offers:

Muslims responded to this original tweet and he argued back, though Ed’s part in these exchanges has all been deleted; one of his responses was that “hadith is not scripture”. As I was brought up in Christianity, I have a perspective to offer on these quotations besides pointing out some of the obvious factual errors.

First, although the hadith are not scripture in the sense that the Qur’an is, we Muslims do regard them as a kind of revelation — the meaning, not the words themselves — as long as they are authentic. This matters, as there are in fact numerous sayings in the hadith literature which have a similar import to all three of the quotes Ed gives us. The four gospels are tellings of the life and mission of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) from the perspective of four individuals who are all identified only by their first names; the hadith all have chains of transmission and the biographies and reputations of the narrators are studied as well as what they reported. They are thus more comparable to the hadith literature than to the Qur’an which is the revealed word itself; the Qur’an has no extant equivalent in Christianity whatever.

The third of these quotes has a few close equivalents in the hadith, most famously the hadith in the Bukhari and Muslim collections: “None of you [truly] believes until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself”. There are plenty of hadith like this that enjoin kindness, the maintenance of friendship and family ties, giving people the benefit of the doubt, not backbiting or gossiping, guarding against envy and resentment where one hates another’s good fortune. There is not a mere command to “love one another”; there are details on how to foster love and harmony between people who do not always see eye to eye.

On the second, despite the lack of this oft-quoted phrase “render unto Caesar”, there is ample instruction to obey rulers who uphold the Shari’ah even when they are unjust or oppressive as long as they do not expect us to do something forbidden such as neglect prayers or inform on people for things that are not crimes and thereby put them in danger. Scholars make qualifications to this for such circumstances as where a command from a ruler is made purely in their personal interests, but generally, obedience is enjoined and open rebellion or incitement to it by people who do not have the means to carry it through are forbidden.

As for the first, which was said in the context of a public stoning: that punishment is still legislated in Islam much as it was in the Jewish law, though the standard of evidence in the case of adultery is very high and will be fulfilled only rarely. There is, in fact, a hadith in which the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) intervened to make sure that a woman from a powerful tribe convicted of theft was subjected to the punishment (amputation) when a particular companion suggested that she not be. The words quoted may have been said in a particular context, perhaps so as to expose the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees who had brought the woman to him (perhaps that they were so corrupt as to be unfit to sit in judgement on anyone), but it has come to mean “never judge anyone” and interpreted in a way that resembles the “tu quoque” fallacy.

I was brought up in the Catholic church and attended Catholic schools for seven of the first eight years of my schooling. Really, these statements are just empty platitudes when you look at the way many Christians who have power other people’s lives behave. All the western Christian churches have a long history of being very harsh, uncharitable, uncaring and unloving towards those who stepped out of line or caused embarrassment, of putting dogma before human life or welfare, of putting clerical reputations before the needs of the children and other vulnerable people they were supposed to be caring for. Europe did not have public stonings, but it had public executions, almost invariably by slow and painful methods, right into the 20th century in some places. Throughout most of its history, the Christian church has been in the pockets of kings, emperors and tsars; it is no surprise that they quote Jesus, peace be upon him, as saying “render unto Caesar…” given that the religion was official in the Roman and later Byzantine empires, as well as the German Holy Roman Empire whose leader was called a Kaiser (an obvious derivative of Caesar). Even in recent times, people thought of as living saints, such as Mother Teresa, hobnobbed with the rich and powerful and when ordinary people were oppressed, she lectured them on forgiveness.

Islam has detailed and nuanced guidance for how to live life, how to deal with and think of other people, how to deal with power, and that this guidance is to be found in the Qur’an, the hadith and the vast body of Islamic scholarly literature, most of which is available for any Arabic-speaker to read in numerous libraries and bookshops and some of which is available in English translation. It is not a weakness but a strength of Islam that it is not defined or represented by the empty platitudes Ed Husain quotes.

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Imprisoned by his disability?

2 January, 2020 - 23:27
A picture of a man wearing dark glasses, black trousers and a dark blue and black striped shirt being led by a guide dog through a shopping centre.A blind man (not Nellies) with his guide dog in a shopping centre in Brazil.

Today a blind man in the UK who has been convicted of sexually abusing a 10-year-old girl some years ago in Cheshire was sentenced to seven years behind bars and told he could not take his guide dog into prison with him; the dog will instead be trained to guide someone else. Neil Nellies’s lawyer asked the judge to suspend any prison sentence (i.e. release him on condition that if he offends again, his sentence will be activated on top of any additional sentence) as he is already ‘imprisoned’ by his visual impairment and that “prison for him will have a devastating impact”. However, the judge refused.

I have a few friends who are blind and follow a few more on various online platforms (YouTube, Instagram etc). They get married, have children, write, travel, cook, work … all the things you can’t do if you are in prison, so it’s a bit insulting and inaccurate to suggest that his disability is already such a ‘prison’ that it makes sending him to a real one if he committed a serious crime unnecessary. It’s possible that this man was sighted (or less severely impaired) when he committed the crimes, but so what? Over the years I have heard of too many men and women who abused children when they were young or middle-aged and strong, and were only caught when they were old and infirm and their age and infirmity was used to plead for mercy they did not show to the children in their care when they were in their prime. It’s wrong, and it is good that the judge saw through it in this case. Don’t commit the crime if you cannot do the time.

A prison is really no place for a guide dog; there are too many people in the prison who would harm it. Some of them are there because of domestic cruelty or other violent crime that also included cruelty to animals. Unless a prison officer walks the dog, it will not get the exercise it needs to remain healthy. As Nellies has been sentenced to seven years, he is likely to be released in three and a half years at the earliest, by which time the guide dog will be near the end of its working life as it has already been working for five years according to this report. I know of a young lady who was able to take her guide dog into a psychiatric unit when hospitalised in her teens, but that was only for a year and she was able to go out with the dog again within months, which does not happen in a prison sentence this long. It’s only right that the dog will go to someone who will benefit from having it.

Image source: Antonio Cruz/Abr - Agência Brasil, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil licence.

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Disaster waiting to happen

1 January, 2020 - 18:37
A white Mercedes articulated lorry with the "dnata" logo in blue on the side curtain. Its cab is in a stream and being pulled out by a red mobile crane during the night.The DNATA truck being recovered from the Longford River, 31st Dec 2019.

Yesterday a car and a truck collided on a road I’ve travelled along a lot while doing air freight work around Heathrow airport, namely the Bedfont Road south of the Longford and Duke of Northumberland Rivers which form the southern boundary of the airport, resulting in the death of three of the passengers in the car (all British Airways employees) and injury to a fourth (the truck driver, as might be expected, was much less seriously injured but was taken to hospital as a precaution). The truck belonged to DNATA, a Dubai-owned company which operates three big cargo sheds off that road, serving numerous major and minor airlines including Emirates, Qatar, El Al, Virgin Atlantic, Turkish Airlines and many others (it happened outside another shed which they do not own). Cargo sheds, for anyone who isn’t aware, are big warehouses where cargo is dropped off to be screened before being put on an aeroplane; alternatively, it can be screened elsewhere, or held securely after manufacture and delivered as “known” or “secure cargo”. (See earlier post for details about the congestion at the Heathrow cargo centre which led to those sheds being built there.)

Bedfont Road is a busy road. It’s also a narrow road, just wide enough for two vehicles to pass with care in places, and has numerous blind bends and a 40mph speed limit, and comes off a dual carriageway which links the A30 with the Heathrow perimeter road (also both dual carriageways). All the alternative routes have weight and/or width limits. Of course, if everyone drives carefully, accidents like this won’t happen but roads cannot be designed on the presumption that everyone will and driver distraction is a fact of life. It seems to have been built well before the cargo sheds when it was just the road from Bedfont to Stanwell village, which has a 7.5-tonne weight limit, but it now carries vehicles which are just too big for the road space. It needs to be widened and the blind bends straightened out, and possibly the speed limit reduced given the large number of side turnings used by large articulated trucks. I expect, however, that only the last of these will be put in place as it will be both the cheapest and least disruptive, but a car which hits a 44-tonne truck at 30mph does not stand much more chance than it stands at 40mph.

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Why did they stay in the Labour Party?

30 December, 2019 - 22:50
Picture of two white men in their 30s standing against a blue-grey background.Douglas Murray and Andrew Doyle

Last week Douglas Murray, a self-proclaimed neo-con best known for a speech in which he called for life for Muslims to be made more difficult across the board in the wake of the terrorist attacks of the early 2000s, was then a director of the Henry Jackson Society, wrote a book called The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam and more recently has announced a tour of the UK offering “an evening with” him and Andrew Doyle (of Titania McGrath fame) with a routine focussed on attacking ‘woke’ culture, published a piece on the website Unherd in which he suggested that Labour would have difficulty recovering from the “toxic mess” of the Corbyn years. He suggested that whoever succeeds Corbyn should be expected to answer for why they remained in the party when it became, on the authority of Chuka Umunna (who left the party this year, helped to form the Independents’ Group, since dissolved, then defected again to the Lib Dems, stood in Westminster instead of his old Streatham seat and lost), an “institutionally racist” party.

In my opinion it’s a little hypocritical for a man who called for life for a minority to be made difficult and who has started to make a living out of attacking the so-called woke police, meaning people who stand up against displays of racism in the media and academia, to be complaining of “institutional racism” just because the minority suffering is a different one to those he has been attacking, or are on the receiving end of racism more generally in society. Previously the best-known institution to be accused officially of institutional racism, by the Macpherson Report, was none other than the Metropolitan Police, and this was after a young Black man was murdered in London by five racist white youths, only two of whom have been convicted and then more than 20 years later; the police bungled the investigation, preferring to harass the victim’s friend rather than investigate the murder. Perhaps Douglas Murray plans to interview serving police officers and ask them why they remained in an organisation condemned as institutionally racist in an official inquiry report.

Nobody has suggested that Corbyn adopted policies that threatened Jewish life or property in the UK, or advocated or defended discrimination against them, or advocated their deportation. It’s often used against Labour that it’s only the second party to be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the previous one being the British National Party, but the BNP was founded by Nazis from the old National Front, had a policy of repatriation and did not allow non-whites to be members. None of this is true of the Labour party. The claims against the Labour party are of an entirely different order to the BNP and for that matter the Metropolitan Police: that some Jewish members feel uncomfortable (though others do not), some have said they were bullied, that “anti-Semitic tropes” have been used by some Labour figures (and some of these claims are plainly spurious, often based on straining the definition through the needle’s eye) and that others have expressed hostility to Israel, including suggesting that it should not exist. Very many of the utterances which have been exposed were said years ago, often well before they were involved in the Labour party, and were sometimes on private forums, or were discovered as a result of a trawl through someone’s social media accounts.

As for why people remained, there are numerous reasons. Jess Phillips, one of the MPs Murray suggests should be interrogated, was always critical of Corbyn and contemptuous of some of his allies; Kier Starmer was personally untainted by the scandal and is also known not to be in agreement with Corbyn on very much and has been touted as a moderate successor to Corbyn. Many of them will have known that the Labour party was by far the most likely party other than the Tories to form the next government — our system makes forming new parties notoriously difficult — and believed that removing the Tories was essential to save what is left of the welfare-oriented British state, including the health system, and to revitalise the education system which is currently being starved of funds as normally happens during a Tory government. They also believed that there was a need to save the country from the Tories’ ruinous and divisive approach to Brexit. The Lib Dems previously colluded with the Tories in bringing much of this about; the Independent Group included several former Tories who had held cabinet posts under Cameron. Corbyn was popular with the membership, largely because of the mistakes of Ed Miliband between 2010 and 2015 and of his moderate rivals in 2015.

But many of them would also have been committed to the idea of the Labour Party as just that: a Labour party. Unless any new party could secure the backing of some of the trade unions, it would end up as another Lib Dem party or at best, a kind of mirror to the US Democratic Party which is largely dependent on donations from wealthy individuals, some of whom also contribute to Republican campaigns (so as to buy favours from both sides) and some of whom are of a decidedly reactionary character. Labour’s biggest single donation in the 2019 election campaign was from the Unite union which represents a very broad swathe of British organised labour. It is funded by ordinary people’s donation and gives those ordinary people a voice, should they choose to avail themselves of it (the political levy, the part of one’s union fees that go to the Labour party, is optional). There is already one party in this country which is funded by the wealthy and largely champions their interests, albeit making the necessary appeals to people of average income. We do not really need another.

But … maybe some of them really did not believe that Labour was “institutionally racist”; they knew that many of the accusations were spurious and that the campaign was a right-wing, pro-imperialist witch hunt often targeted at Black and Asian candidates and activists, including dissenting Jews. It was not an anti-racist campaign but a racist one, but had enough media traction that they may have believed it wiser to let it blow over than stand up to it. Cowardly this may have been, and facilitated by white privilege, but not anti-Semitic.

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National parks should be inclusive; that does not mean destruction

29 December, 2019 - 19:00
A view from near the summit of a mountain down a valley to a small lake. At the bottom of the valley is a small area of green fields; a small stream runs down the valley to the lake.Wast Water, from Great Gable, in the English Lake District.

Sky News today reported that the chief executive of the Lake District National Park Authority had claimed that the park was geared too much towards the needs of older, able-bodied, white tourists and was not inclusive enough of disabled people and ethnic minorities. This has obviously led to the usual outcry from ‘conservationists’, Nimbys and reactionaries who have accused him of seeking to dumb down the park, among them the deputy mayor of Keswick (an important service town in the northern part of the park) who has condemned the construction of a tarmac path near Keswick and said that if people do not like the environment as it is, muddy paths and all, they should go elsewhere. The article quotes a report (PDF) by the government’s rural affairs department DEFRA which says that the National Parks are in danger of becoming “an exclusive, mainly white, mainly middle‑class club, with rules only members understand and much too little done to encourage first time visitors”.

There are 12 National Parks in the UK (two in Scotland, three in Wales and the rest in England) and all are large rural areas of particular natural beauty or geological spectacle. They are not parks in the sense that an urban municipal park is, but are working landscapes where tourism is encouraged, including by facilitating access to uncultivated land, and unsympathetic development discouraged or banned altogether. Until quite recently all of the English parks were in the north or south-west; three were added in the south and East Anglia this century (the South Downs, New Forest and Broads). There are other levels of protection for nature and landscapes such as the Green Belt system, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) but the national parks are the best known and probably best funded system and the most geared towards the needs of visitors. They originated after the Second World War and were intended to ensure that there were areas where city dwellers could escape to unspoiled, unpolluted areas, enjoy places of natural beauty and benefit from clean air; their establishment was the result of a popular movement which included protests against people being shut out of uncultivated land by landowners who were using them as grouse moors and the like, one of which was celebrated in the song The Manchester Rambler by Ewan MacColl.

In the comments to the Sky News piece and the tweets in response to it, people have reacted with a mean-spirited parody of what the chief executive was saying, with one reply suggesting that a dual carriageway be built up Scafell Pike and a MacDonald’s be built at the summit, and numerous other suggestions that hills be levelled because they’re ‘exclusionary’ to disabled people. While the majority of people can cope with a muddy path, a paved path away from the road allows a wheelchair user or other disabled person to enjoy the landscape as short of carrying them on a stretcher, there is no way many disabled people could enjoy walking in the hills when the paths are steep, muddy and punctuated by walls and fences that have to be crossed by stiles. Climbing hills and abseiling down cliff faces are all very well if you can, but if you are not physically able to, you should not be shut out of the country’s premier outdoor holiday destinations. When the national parks were established, many disabled and long-term sick people were still living in institutions which were in the country for a reason — because clean air was healthier and might aid their recovery or prevent deterioration. Of course, you didn’t get to appreciate the landscape much if you were shut behind walls, but the principle was understood when these places were first built. (The “£8m tarmac trail” that is the focus of the deputy mayor’s complaint is actually along an old railway line, like many long-distance walks and cycle routes the country over, and the project is to restore it after sections of it were destroyed by floods in a major storm in 2015.)

Cities are nowadays less polluted than they used to be, although traffic fumes have eroded some of the benefits brought by cleaner fuels and reduced “smoke stack” manufacturing, but access to nature and natural beauty is still good for the spirit and access to rugged landscapes where one can climb, abseil and do other activities that build up physical strength and survival skills is good for one’s general health. I spent many holidays as a child and much time as a student exploring and appreciating some of Britain’s national parks — the Lake District and Snowdonia in particular — and I agree that it is important that everyone have a way of enjoying it, not just the physically most able, those with a car and the money to run it, and those who fit into a mostly white, provincial English county. They are called national parks for a reason; they are supported by all of us and we all have a right to enjoy them however we can.

Image source: Doug Sim, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 4.0 licence.

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