March 29, 2017
by Martin Odoni
It’s Brexit Day!
Yes, it’s Brexit Day!
It’s Br-br-br-br-br-br-br-br-Brexit Day!
(If you have no idea what the reference is, watch this.)
I was genuinely open to the idea of Britain leaving European Union, you know. The EU does have some truly ugly qualities to it, including revolving around a Friedmanite Central Bank that clearly wants to turn the whole continent into a neoliberalism club. Less so for the red herrings about ‘bureaucracy’, which is mainly a codeword Big Business uses when it means it wants to be allowed to do absolutely anything it feels like, without being accountable. But even there, it has to be said that some of the mechanisms in the EU are rather too Teutonic for the good of humanity.
So I have never been against the idea of ‘Brexit’ in principle.
But for me to support the idea of withdrawal, I needed to see a coherent and plausible plan for what the UK would do to reform once it had left. Even up to today, the day we hand in notice of our departure, no such plan has ever been presented. No plan as to how British markets would adjust to the loss of priority trade access to the continent. No plan for resolving the issue of having to renew the Northern Ireland border with Eire. No plan for how to police the borders of the UK as a whole when surrendering the co-ordinating advantages the EU gives with police forces in other countries. No plan even for how to carry out the withdrawal process.
Hence, when the referendum came round last June, I voted to remain. There was, and is, bound to be so much disruption and so many lost advantages, it could only be worth making such a move if we had a clear idea of what we were going to do to adjust, and to this day, still nobody seems quite sure. I simply could not support such a crazed leap into the darkness.
On that note, I still think the Leave campaigns were as shocked as anybody about the result of the referendum, and once it happened, their most prominent members were visibly flapping around awkwardly. You could almost hear them wondering to themselves, “Oh no! What the hell do we do now?”
My own position since last summer has not really changed. If someone who matters can actually come up with a workable, cohesive plan – and they would have to do so in a big hurry – I would be willing to give ‘Brexit’ the benefit of the doubt, at least for a while. But the sad reality is that I see no sign of that happening. None at all. All that we are really getting from Theresa May’s Government are descriptions of what will happen by default instead.
Voting to leave was not stupid in itself, but voting for it, when it was totally unclear what shape the process or outcome would take, was an incredibly high risk for little gain, and therefore reckless. But many Leave voters still seem startlingly over-confident that ‘Brexit’ is going to be the best news that the country ever had. They treat every development as confirmation of the onset of paradise, even when the opposite reality is grossly obvious. For instance, I have seen Brexiteers on social media happily telling all-and-sundry it is absolutely fine that David Davis MP, the ‘Brexit Secretary’, has not even assessed the likely impact of Britain leaving the EU without securing a new trade deal. This ‘oversight’ (a little like calling the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki “an unusually hot summer”) is one of the reasons why negotiations are failing to take any coherent shape, as presently, British representatives are not sure exactly what sort of deal to work for.
What causes this ‘Brexit-at-any-cost-has-to-be-better-than-what-we-have’ attitude?
Part of the problem is just flat-out xenophobia, the instinctive unease of knowing that your country is part of something far larger. It can be forgiveable for seeing this relationship as one of a colony controlled by a conqueror, even though Britain has in practise been allowed considerable leeway over which EU rules it must follow – not compelled to join the Eurozone or the Schengen Area for instance (those who voted to leave because they wanted stronger control on immigration never seem to realise that our borders remain regulated) – and has also exercised a strong influence on EU legislation.
The other part of the problem is the ‘Good-ole’-days’ delusion that many, especially in ‘Little England’, have that Britain was a better place before joining the European Economic Community in 1973, and that this move was what ended the country’s old status as a ‘great’ nation.
The truth is very different. In world terms, Britain had been in an inevitable decline since early in the Twentieth Century, having been stagnant since late in the Nineteenth. Two World Wars in the space of thirty years exhausted the country militarily and economically, and left it almost powerless to retain most of the colonies it had accumulated over the previous two centuries. As it struggled to adjust to the dismantling of the British Empire, the UK could no longer obtain vast resources without the inconvenience of having to give something back in return for them. Dependence on legalised theft was replaced with dependence on trade, especially imports, all of which were subject to tariffs and customs bureaucracy.
Indeed, given the troubles of losing an Empire, it is a remarkable testament to the ingenuity of the social democratic consensus of the post-war era that, at the very least, the economy of Britain managed to remain unprecedentedly stable.
But this stability simply softened the pain of lost prestige and power, and these losses inevitably made Britain more vulnerable to prevailing international conditions. So in fact, joining the EEC gave Britain a useful boost, as it gave the country cheap, relatively tariff-free access to a very large foreign market. What is more, given 1973 was also the year of the First OPEC Oil Shock, it arguably happened in the nick of time.
Whether that is precisely true or not, the inescapable reality is that joining the EEC had no bearing on Britain’s decline; it began long before the Community had even been thought of. If anything, joining the EEC helped arrest the slide; the discovery of North Sea Oil did the rest. And there is no way the British are going to get the old Empire back, or become a great power of the type it was before the World Wars. People looking back to the largely-fictitious ‘good-ole’-days’ are pining for something that is simply never going to happen. Irrespective of whether it would be morally right or not to re-establish the British Empire (and of course it would not), it just is not a possibility. Britain’s military in the modern era, while still significant, is completely dwarfed by some of the world powers of today, and those other powers will not allow Britain to embark on a fresh campaign of conquest and colonisation. The booming industrial powers of India and China, for instance, are former victims of the British Empire, albeit in different ways, and remain permanently against it ever coming back.
No, Britain is going to have find its way in the wider world without the violent old short-cut of taking-without-asking. The sad aspect is, in joining the EEC/EU, it had already found a pathway to doing so. But now it has decided to step off that path without firstly making sure the ground around it is solid enough to take its weight.
None of this is to say that doom is a certainty. We might yet make the best of this if someone can come up with a workable plan in a hurry, instead of scaremongering about foreign bureaucrats, or making jingoistic false promises about ‘more money for the NHS’. Perhaps, in the very long term, leaving might even prove to be better than sticking with the EU, if the departure is guided correctly.
But if the process of withdrawal continues on its present, erratic, thrashing heading instead, we are going to be in for some very, very hard times in the coming months. With the unguided action it takes today, Britain is committing itself to a perilous course into the unknown.
Without either an Empire or the EU, Britain needs something else abroad to prop it up, and so far, no one has suggested anything likely to do the job.
by Martin Odoni
After lengthy investigation – and it would appear some very reckless and unjustified arrests in a big show of looking ‘in control’ – the police have concluded that the Westminster Attacker, Khalid Masood, acted alone when he took the lives of five people this week.
The media, and many in the wider public, seem to have determined for themselves that Masood, nèe Adrian Ajao, was a Radical Islamic terrorist operating on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq & Levant (ISIL/’Daesh’). That is a perfectly understandable conclusion to draw. Although born and raised a Christian, he converted to Islam at some point probably between 2001 and 2004. His method of killing, involving driving a vehicle into a crowd of people on Westminster Bridge, has very loud echoes of last year’s attacks in Nice and Berlin. And of course Daesh have claimed Masood as one of their own, calling him “a soldier of the Caliphate”. Open-and-shut case then?
People would do well to show a bit more caution though – yes including you, Andrew Marr – as the idea has now taken such a firm hold that everyone is just taking it for granted. In fact, while on balance Radical Islam is perhaps the likeliest explanation for Masood’s actions, it is by no means a certainty. There are a few details that lead me to having doubts; –
Firstly, after the aforementioned investigations concluded that Masood acted alone, it is perhaps a little difficult to reason exactly how or when he had been radicalised. For one thing, radicalisation is not exactly unknown among middle-aged men, but younger men are far more vulnerable to it. More importantly, it is a little incongruous that Masood supposedly joined a movement that radicalised him, but then he acted completely independently of it. When and how did it happen? He is understood to have spent a couple of years living in Saudi Arabia teaching English, but that appears to be the closest he ever got to the heartlands of Radical Islam. He did feature in a counter-terrorism investigation into an extremist group some years ago, but he was very much a peripheral figure, and it was before Daesh had even existed in any event. He may have had very loose associations with radicalised individuals, but the truth is that we can find ways of saying that about almost anybody. There really is no firm indication that Masood was ever ideologically radicalised.
Secondly, it is high time everybody grasped that just because Daesh claim a crime as one of their own, that does not mean that it genuinely is. Daesh wants the world to fear it. It especially wants Western countries to be afraid, as it hopes to intimidate the West into abandoning ‘The Holy Land’. Therefore, so long as it sounds plausible, Daesh will always claim these sorts of crimes as their own; it makes the organisation sound like more of a threat than it really is. But the reality is that the investigations have found no direct, practical link between Daesh and Masood. He might well have carried out the attack as an act of support for Daesh, he might well have done it after being inspired by Daesh (although actual evidence for either has not yet been uncovered), but the signs are that he did not do it as a part of their organisation. He did not appear to act under Daesh’s specific instructions, he certainly did not act in co-ordination with Daesh. Nor indeed did he act in co-ordination with anyone else. He acted alone. It is only by appending a very, very broad definition of what constitutes a member of Islamic State that the claim can really be sustained.
This leads directly into the third of my reasons for doubt, and it is quite a major sticking point. The truth is, as yet, no one really knows precisely why Masood did what he did, because he did not appear to leave an explanation behind for it. This may sound like a minor point, but it is fairly important to my mind, because it is where his modus operandi deviates from the norm; it is quite unusual for a Radical Islamist not to leave behind an explanation, usually by video recording, for his actions. Not unheard-of, but unusual. The London Bombers of 2005, just for instance, made prior video recordings of themselves explicitly pointing to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 as their justification for the attacks. So far, no explanation for Wednesday from Masood, written or spoken word, has been found. No political or religious motivation has been established. Given the extent of the police investigations, it seems highly likely that they would have found it by now if he had provided one. As Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu of the Metropolitan Police commented yesterday,
“There is a possibility we will never understand why [Masood] did this. That understanding may have died with him.”
Analysis of Masood’s history suggests a man with serious problems controlling violent and criminal impulses, dating back to long, long before he became a Muslim. He spent three terms in prison, all before he converted to Islam, including twice for stabbing victims in the face with knives. In both cases, it seems more-than-possible that the attacks were intended to be lethal, but also they foreshadow his killing of PC Keith Palmer on Wednesday. Masood further had an extensive history of substance abuse, including cocaine and steroids, which were bound to have long-term effects on his mental health. Perhaps paradoxically, after his conversion, he for some years showed signs of bringing his behaviour under control.
So while Radical Islam is one strong possibility, another strong possibility cannot yet be ruled out. If we look at the Westminster Attack in the context of the rest of Masood’s life, instead of in the context of popular hysteria against Muslims, we see an equally consistent pattern. The possibility is that Khalid Masood was just an unstable man who, having spent some years battling to bury old impulses, finally reached the end of his tether. He may simply have been carrying out a mindless act of last-gasp despair similar to the massacre by Derrick Bird in Cumbria a few years ago.
Nobody called Bird a terrorist, or assumed some kind of ideological motive for the Cumbria Shootings. Given Masood was attempting to force a way into Parliament, it seems more likely in his case, but we should at least be cautious about it. It is possible he took inspiration from the Nice and Berlin Attacks when choosing his method, but not necessarily when deciding to attack in the first place; Masood may have only decided to drive into the crowd on Westminster Bridge on a sudden mad impulse for all we know. (The fact he was carrying a knife on Wednesday tells us nothing, as it is clear from his previous convictions that there was nothing unusual about him carrying a knife.)
We really do not know why Masood did what he did on Wednesday, and as he was gunned down, the odds are that we never will. Without finding more information first, any attempt we make to fill that void will be a mixture of prejudiced speculation and fevered guesswork. Such an exercise is not only futile, it will potentially blind us to better information, should it become available.
In the end, such impatient guessing games will only reveal more about the people playing them than they will ever reveal about Khalid Masood.
by Martin Odoni
“Well what more evidence do we need?” cry the foam-at-the-mouth racist brigade. “With a name like that he must be a Muslim from the Middle East! He must be an immigrant! A refugee from Syria! Let’s close the borders now…!”
One problem, and it is a very familiar one. Yes, he was a Muslim, I will grant you that. But the thing is, he was not from Syria. Nor from Yemen, nor from Saudi Arabia, nor from the wider Middle East. Come to that, he was not even from abroad.
Khalid Masood was in fact born in the rolling desert wastelands of sun-scorched… Kent. He was living in the mighty, oil-rich Arabian Sheikdom of the West Midlands at the time of his death. He had a record of non-political crimes as long as the average elephant trunk, and that record arguably raises doubts about how appropriate it is even to call the attack yesterday ‘terrorism’. He may just have been a very unstable man who lost control of himself. In truth, terrorism has a very broad definition, and his crime of killing five people, while horrific, is not noticeably worse than, say, Thomas Hamilton at Dunblane, or Derrick Bird‘s rampage in Cumbria. Neither of those atrocities are seen as ‘terrorism’, even though they took more lives.
The reason I call Masood’s nationality ‘a very familiar problem’, by the way, is the historical pattern of terrorist attacks in the name of Radical Islam. Even if we are to assume that this was indeed Masood’s motivation – and we have yet to see any firm evidence that it was – that history shows that Radical Islamic terror, quite simply, does not cross borders all that much. The 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC may give the impression otherwise, but in practice, the majority of atrocities are committed by people who originated in the country where the attack is taking place. These include most (though not all) attacks in Europe. The Paris Attacks of November 2015, for instance, were not carried out by Syrian refugees, but by French and Belgian nationals. As another example, the London Bombings of 2005 were carried out by a group of radicalised and foolish young men from Yorkshire.
This pattern is cardinal, as many people misunderstand the plural nature of Radical Islam. It is not a single, coherent organisation, or even two or three organisations. There are hundreds of very small military groups, and while they share an ideology – based on the Wahhabist ideas of an Egyptian academic called Said Qutb – they have little to do with each other on any practical level. Most of these groups’ goals are very localised, and can even contradict each other’s. (Where the goals are international, they are more about trying to intimidate Western countries against interfering in ‘The Holy Land’ than trying to destroy the West.) So when an attack happens in Europe or the USA, it is far likelier to be by someone from Europe or the USA in the first place, than by someone from the Middle East.
This is why I have argued, and will continue to argue, that the constant, self-absorbed and paranoid hysteria in the media and the wider British public against refugees, is as much futile as it is deceitful, hyperbolic, and cruel. Closing borders to refugees altogether – and let us not forget while the Radical Right bemoan our largely-mythical ‘open borders’ just how few refugees Britain has taken in during the post-‘Arab Spring’ crisis – will have very little positive effect, and considerable negative effect. It is very unlikely indeed to stop terrorists getting into the UK, because any terrorists we are at risk of facing are probably already here, and have probably lived here all their lives. Far from protecting anybody, all it is likely to achieve is increased stigma felt by many desperate people, and thus raise the chances of them becoming radicalised too. Turning away refugees is like trying to heal a broken bone by kicking it.
It does not matter what Nigel Farage or Katie Hopkins want viewers of Fox News Channel to think about this. Khalid Masood was not a refugee, and what happened in London yesterday does not add any weight at all to the case for banning refugees (such as there is one).
One only-loosely-related note to end on; the Islamophobic accusations have extended to attacking a by-stander in the aftermath of yesterday’s attack. A hooded woman was photographed apparently walking past one of the victims, ignoring him as she fooled about with her cellphone, apparently full of ‘Muslim indifference’ to his suffering. In fact, the woman was a nurse, and the below picture takes an example of this attempt to smear her and explains the real reason she had a phone in her hand; –
March 22, 2017
by Martin Odoni
I earlier put up a small plea-for-calm over today’s atrocity in London. That plea still stands, but I have few extra points and clarifications I would like to add.
Firstly, more information is now available, including a clear order of events. Contrary to my earlier understanding, the attack was carried out by one person acting alone, and it began, not ended, with a car driving into a crowd of people on Westminster Bridge. The driver then got out of the car, and tried to enter the Palace of Westminster, where he was intercepted by a police officer. The assailant stabbed the officer with a knife before being gunned down by two apparently plain-clothed officers. There is no evidence of an accomplice.
The death-toll currently stands at four, including the police officer and the attacker, and it is to be hoped the toll goes no higher.
The necessity of my earlier plea-for-calm has been demonstrated in the hours since. Between Tommy Robinson of English Defence League infamy taking the opportunity for some Islamophobic rabble-rousing, histrionic doubtful accusations against a man who is apparently in prison, and some classic, barefaced Western hypocrisy, the aftermath of the atrocity has been predictable in its want of thought.
Regarding Robinson, nothing I can say about this evil little man will not already have been said by others. But it was beyond crass of him to talk of the nation being ‘at war’, not least because what wars Britain fights it does so at its own choosing. And it makes that choice with depressing and imperialistic frequency.
Regarding the doubtful accusations, the rumour is circulating that a notorious hate-preacher, born under the name of Trevor Brooks, but nowadays going by the name of ‘Abu Izzadeen’, is the dead attacker. This may potentially come as a mighty surprise to Izzadeen. It certainly did to his solicitor, who insists that Izzadeen is currently in prison, and still breathing without difficulty. Dominic Casciani of the BBC seems very confident about that too. Izzadeen’s ongoing imprisonment has not yet been confirmed by the Metropolitan Police or the Ministry of Justice, so there is still an outside chance that he was the attacker. But it can be taken as a sign of nervous over-eagerness that Channel 4 News, the source of the rumour, has jumped the gun quite so wildly.
And finally, the Western hypocrisy. Sean Spicer, Press Secretary to US President Donald Trump and God’s gift to Melissa McCarthy’s comedy career, gave a briefing to the media earlier, in which he rolled out the usual sentimental clichés about full co-operation, and formal condolences, and support and so on. He also stated that the White House condemns “today’s attack in Westminster”.
I am unimpressed that ‘Melissa’ has the effrontery to condemn such an attack, today of all days. After all I have seen not one example of anyone at the White House condemning an attack carried out in Syria yesterday, one that had a death-toll over eight times higher than the one in London.
Why would that be? Could it be because the victims yesterday were Middle Eastern and not Westerners, and therefore their lives were prejudged to be ‘less valuable’ than those of Europeans? It is partly that, I am sure.
But I think the main reason is that yesterday’s attack was carried out by jets allied to the US Air Force. Therefore it does not ‘count’ as an atrocity, but merely as a ‘misfortune’, one to be treated as an afterthought.
I received some rather ugly comments on my earlier post from some shamelessly racist individuals. I decided not to authorise the comments, and further I have no intention of doing so in the future. But one comment in particular was really galling. Among some other racist assumptions, the user said,
Every non-white crime in a western country is one that shouldn’t have happened at all as the non-whites shouldn’t be here.
Beyond the unsupported nonsense that a person’s right to be in the UK is dependent on their skin colour, and the debatable assumption that the attacker was not white, I was equally contemptuous of the ignorant hypocrisy. How many crimes of extreme violence have white people committed in the Middle East? Such as the one yesterday? How long have white people been in the lands of the Middle East, mainly in order to control the flow of the region’s vast oil reserves, and how often have their Governments shown a casual willingness to use force there to maintain that control? For over one hundred years, and with terrible frequency. Is that not one of the major reasons why radicalised Muslims tend to commit atrocities in the first place? Surely every white crime in a Middle Eastern country is one that should not have happened at all, as the whites should not have been there? It is a lengthy catalogue of such crimes, not least by the US Air Force. Just ask Medecins Sans Frontieres.
But as I say, in too many Western minds, these crimes do not ‘count’. Atrocities are only atrocities when carried out against the West, not when they are carried out by the West.
March 22, 2017
by Martin Odoni
Reports have been circulating over the last hour or so (at the time of writing) that there has been a violent incident outside Parliament. My understanding of the incident so far – and it may be subject to change as more details come through – is as follows; –
Someone armed with a knife has stabbed a police officer in the vicinity of the House of Parliament. A couple of plain-clothed officers appear to have shot the assailant while he was running away from the scene. The assailant may have had an accomplice waiting in a car nearby. The possible accomplice appears to have run some people over as he drove off.
The incident sounds very ugly indeed, but as far as we can tell at present, only one life has been lost. One life lost is one life too many of course, but it is hardly on the same scale as the day-to-day atrocities experienced in Iraq for the last fourteen years. It may not even be a ‘terrorist atrocity’ in the accepted, political sense of the term. The Metropolitan Police say they are treating it as a terrorist incident, yes, but only until they get indication otherwise.
Therefore, everybody, please let us have no jumping of the gun, or panic about the attack in Westminster. Please let us have no knee-jerk “CLOSE THE BORDERS NOW” responses from xenophobes who naturally just assume every time something violent happens, “It must be the Muslims!!!!!” It is imperative everybody waits to see what has really happened, without looking to apportion blame or demanding action taken that may make matters worse.
I would also ask people to remember that this would be seen as one of the least violent days in recent memory if this were the only attack that had happened today in, say, Yemen or Syria. European lives are not, ipso facto, more important losses than Middle Eastern lives. Therefore, I hope that this incident is treated with some measure of proportion by the media, and we do not get the tasteless saturation coverage that tends to happen when these horrors happen in Europe and the North America; incidents several scales greater than these are often left in the small print in the Western media when they happen in Africa or the Middle East – when they are mentioned at all. This suggest an unconscious racism that fuels the same xenophobic/Islamophobic outrage when they happen in the West.
Let us keep the outrage, and the racism, under control, and let facts drive our response instead.
Three more deaths have now been confirmed.
Also, I have received several comment-submissions on here that I have chosen not to approve. I normally prefer to allow non-spam comments, subject to initial review, but the two I am discussing here make exactly the sort of racist, knee-jerk assumptions this article is warning against. Under the circumstances, it seems inappropriate to approve such comments and debunk them, as is my usual approach, so I have simply rejected them. PLEASE, if you are a xenophobe or racist who wishes to cash in on this atrocity, do not bother trying to do so on this blog. Your comments will not be approved.
by Martin Odoni
Philip Hammond, the finest Chancellor of the Exchequer since… well, since… erm… um… well, he is somewhat less awful than George Osborne, I suppose.
Tell you what, I should start again; –
Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the Exchequer who is somewhat less awful than George Osborne, was today forced into a humiliating climb-down. In last week’s Budget, he announced a rise in National Insurance contributions for self-employed people. Today, after just seven days of pressure from all corners of the House of Commons including many in his own party (some of whom are themselves self-employed, let it be noted), he performed a sharp U-turn.
During last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn really went on all-out attack, starting the ‘domino effect’ of opposition that brought about today’s climb-down. The reality is that this is one of Corbyn’s best victories since becoming Labour leader eighteen months ago. So, what congratulations did the media decide to bestow upon him in acknowledgement?
Well, Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC drooled,
…the Labour leader… was the one looking uncomfortable by the end of his weekly clash with Theresa May.
Helena Horton at the Telegraph raved,
Many thought PMQs would be a bloodbath, with Labour landing most of the punches… However, they forgot one thing: that Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of the opposition.
Her colleague, Christopher Hope, also lauded Corbyn on his achievement by commenting,
A compete abrogation of the duty of the Leader of the Opposition.
Andrew Sparrow at the Guardian was also at his usual level of fulsome praise for Corbyn, when he declared,
Corbyn failed dismally to exploit this at the dispatch box.
And so on, and so forth, and yada-yada-yada.
Read the mainstream media (something I only do with the utmost caution), and you would think that Corbyn has just fallen to his worst defeat. It is frankly breathtaking that the media have decided to find a way to attack Corbyn yet again, even as he has played a key role in forcing a Government U-turn. It is as contrary to the facts as the popular British myth that “Dunkirk was a great triumph”. The determination, especially of the shamelessly aristocratic Kuenssberg, to insist that absolutely anything and everything Corbyn does must be wrong even when it works perfectly seems almost quasi-instinctive now. It cannot be just stubbornness or orchestrated bigotry against the ‘real’ Left anymore, it seems to be just unthinking, ingrained habit. As soon as the media see Corbyn getting out of his seat to speak at the despatch box, they simply assume before he has drawn a breath that he is about to do a bad job, and then find a way to confirm it to themselves. Sure, they probably really do want to make sure Corbyn gets no credit when he deserves it, but it happens so routinely that it has almost ceased to be premeditated.
It has got to the point where the media have largely skated over the detail that today is a major defeat for Hammond that seriously hurts his credibility. Even where this is acknowledged, it is treated as ‘a draw’, or ‘a bad day all round’. It is no such thing, this is a big and embarrassing defeat for the Tories. (And had a ‘Blue Labour’ leader had exactly the same week as Corbyn has had, what would the media be saying now, I wonder?)
Now truth to tell, Corbyn’s performance today, while not exactly jugular-piercing, really was not noticeably weak anyway. A bit ordinary, I would concede, but not weak. But even if it had been, so what? As I have pointed out before, political commentators in Britain are much too focused on the theatre of what happens in the House of Commons, and too little interested in the substance of what happens there. So the media overlook the substantial reality of the U-turn; were it not for the pressure started by Corbyn at last week’s PMQs, the National Insurance policy might not have been overturned at all, let alone so quickly. That has to count as a significant victory for Corbyn; far from ‘abrogating his responsibility as leader of the Opposition,’ he has fulfilled that duty to a tee by effectively combating an unfair Government policy. Instead, the media focus on how ‘insufficiently showy’ Corbyn’s performance was in the aftermath.”Didn’t make good TV, dontchaknow?”
So apparently, Britain’s media imagine cheap point-scoring in a staged slanging match is much more important than getting a bad policy reversed.
Has Britain truly become this shallow?
March 6, 2017
by Martin Odoni
If, as seems inevitable after last month, Article 50 is activated in the next few weeks and the United Kingdom starts the process of withdrawal from the European Union, it is perhaps ironic that it should happen in a year ending in -17. For the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics was established 100 years ago this year, after a pair of Revolutions in the old Russian Empire, and was the world’s first Communist/Socialist country (at least in its objectives). It lasted through until 1991, when it collapsed in circumstances that should sound uncannily familiar to anyone closely studying what is happening to the UK right now.
There was a lot to be said against the Soviet Union down the decades. Despite its established aim of fairness and equality, the nation proved to be an oppressive, at times expansionist, dictatorship. It was one of the most dreadful regimes on Earth during Joseph Stalin’s era as General Secretary of the Communist Party. (Not officially the Head of State, but in practise whoever held the office of General Secretary was the man – it was always a man of course – in charge.) Stalin is estimated to have taken the lives of over twenty million people during his rule. Thanks principally to him, the very name ‘Soviet Union’ tends to cause lips to curl back in disapproval.
There is another side to this however. Although there was very little freedom in the USSR, it did take relatively good care of its population, by the standards of wider Russian history. Life had been utterly miserable for the vast, vast majority of ordinary people during the centuries of the old Russian Empire. While Stalin had shown no real concern for the well-being of the man-in-the-street – and considerable paranoid concern for his own physical safety – his successor from 1953, Nikita Kruschev, made a genuine-if-modest attempt to liberalise society, and the standard of living had improved a lot between the 1950s and the 1970s. Irina Lobatcheva, author of Russia in 1990’s, recalls,
In 1960s-1980s the Soviet society provided majority of Russians with a decent life, free of fear of unemployment, with plenty of opportunities for self-fulfillment and career advancement. Everyone had a right to a month long vacation which one could spend in recreation hotels, sanatoriums, or touring the USSR for a very affordable price. Medical care was free, as well as any education, numerous children clubs and summer camps; even day-care centres cost next to nothing. Simple life, overall confidence in the future, guaranteed pension. The ideological load had almost waned after the death of Stalin: the state security had little effect on our lives compared to its influence in 1930s-1950s, when harsh competition with the rest of the world demanded from the new socialist state extraordinary repressive measures.
NB: Apologies for the poor syntax and punctuation of the above excerpt. The published translation into English of Russia in 1990s was not compiled very well, and it has to be said that the book sometimes reads a little like the output of a website subjected to Google Translate. I considered making corrections but ultimately decided against it as it would be dishonest.
One can certainly question whether Stalin’s repressive measures were really as necessary as Lobatcheva implies, but her points about the standard of living in the USSR, at least compared with what preceded it and what succeeded it, are accurate and frequently overlooked in the West. Life may not have had much in the way of civil liberty in the Soviet Union, but it had been no freer or less brutal under the Tsars of the Russian Empire, and at least under the Communist Party, levels of starvation and destitution hugely declined for the first time in centuries.
Kruschev introduced a major stabilising influence on day-to-day life in 1961 when he imposed indefinite price controls on essential goods; the same number of rubles that could buy a loaf of bread in 1961 could still buy an equivalent loaf in 1986. This had an unfortunate effect in the wider economic picture, as the costs of manufacture were rising constantly, and to keep manufacturers and farmers funded, the Government was forced to keep printing more and more money, causing international inflation of the ruble.
After Kruschev was effectively overthrown by the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1964, he was replaced by his Ukrainian deputy, Leonid Brezhnev, a comparative doctrinaire hardliner who lacked imagination or energy. Brezhnev had positioned himself to take over by blaming Kruschev’s policies for the country’s mounting economic difficulties. Once in office, Brezhnev spent the remaining eighteen years of his life in Government doing very little to change them. Meanwhile, he restored repressive powers to the state police force, the KGB (‘Chekhists’), that Kruschev had taken away from them, and restarted the Stalinist practise of imprisoning political and cultural dissidents.
In the 1980s the ailing Soviet economy began to break down. One key cause of this was intervention in a civil war in Afghanistan, between the communist Government in Kabul and Islamist guerrillas, beginning in 1979. It proved to be a calamitous ten-year mistake that ultimately took a terrible toll on Soviet resources without ever achieving a victory to which to point. The sluggish economy was crippled by the burden of trying to support a failing and unending war-effort. Necessary production capacity that should have been used for consumption goods was instead allocated to manufacturing military supplies. At home therefore, industries that had advanced over a century’s-worth between 1929 and 1945 were stagnating once again, and producing fewer and fewer goods, as the ongoing price-controls slowly transformed currency inflation into a production deficit.
To add to the terrible burdens on the Soviet economy, in 1986, the entire population of Pripyat in Ukraine had to be evacuated permanently as a result of reactor unit 4 at the local nuclear power station, Chernobyl, exploding, condemning the region to literally thousands of years ahead of inhospitable radiation poisoning. The phenomenal resources needed to prevent the spread of the radioactive fall-out, to rehouse over 30,000 people, and to adjust to the enormous loss to the electrical power supply on the Soviet Union’s western frontier, were perhaps a final tipping point.
Brezhnev was long dead by this time; he had died in 1982 at the age of 75, and had been replaced by a former KGB chief, Yuri Andropov. At 67 when coming to office, Andropov was another old man rather stuck in his ways. His main policy platform was a necessary but largely ineffectual campaign to end political corruption within the Communist Party. It did not help the stability or conviction of the Soviet economy that he died a little over a year after taking over. His successor, Konstantin Chernenko, was even older (72 years old) than Andropov, and was already in dire health when he became General Secretary in March 1984. He too died after just over a year in office.
In 1985, a young (by Soviet Union standards anyway) new General Secretary was elected, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first leader of the USSR to be born after the Revolutions of 1917. At 54, he was not such a hardline stick-in-the-mud as his predecessors, and while he remained a dedicated communist, he recognised the urgent need for reform. He embarked on two side-by-side programs of reforms. The first, going by the name of Perestroika, very roughly translating as ‘restructuring’, was a campaign to reform the economy, including loosening the state controls over industry and the markets. The second, going by the name of Glasnost, very roughly translating as ‘open-ness’ or ‘transparency’, was a campaign to reform the country politically.
Glasnost allowed far greater freedom of expression, making it easier for people to speak out about the hardships they were increasingly facing, and making it easier, in turn, for the Government to identify failings that needed correcting. But it also made it a lot easier for fundamentally different ideas about the way the country should be governed to proliferate. (The USSR had, to this point, been a one-party state, but Gorbachev legalised the formation of political parties other than the communists.) One idea that became popular among pro-reform groups was that life in the West was much better than life in the USSR. TV and photo images began to appear in Russian media in the mid-to-late 1980s of the glossier side of life in the USA. Spectacular technology, colourful, glamorous ‘showbiz’ lifestyles.
Of course, there was no mention of the uglier side of Western life, including the tendency not to take much care of the poorest, or the horrendous poverty and misery of, say, being black in Ronald Reagan’s America. Naturally, Western life looked superior when the focus was on the rich and privileged in the richest, most privileged country.
Therefore, growing numbers of Russian people around the turn of the 1990s, fed up of waiting hours in queues just to buy bread, began to get the idea that the way the USA operated was the way the USSR should do things too. So the reformers began to push for, not a reformed communist economy, but a full-scale free market economy.
This was not what Gorbachev wanted. Despite his reforms, he remained a communist, and was deeply suspicious of what might happen if state controls of the economy were loosened to the degree found in the USA. But growing public unrest, and pressure from a reformer faction within the Communist Party itself, gradually dragged him into changing the market more severely than he had intended.
Gorbachev’s reform programs were not helped by the fact that he had no coherent plan in place, and he was largely improvising. That he recognised the need for reform had made him the best option for General Secretary, but that really just showed what a collection of dinosaurs the other options had been. Knowing something needed to change was a step up from his colleagues, but knowing how to do it was another matter. With no clear framework for reform, his every policy decision could lead to problems, and they frequently did.
Furthermore, the reformer faction had gained a figurehead in the shape of Boris Yeltsin, who was developing a popular reputation as an ‘anti-establishment’ figure after taking the unprecedented step late in 1987 of resigning from the Politburo. Gorbachev had responded to this by firing him from his secondary role as First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party, while the Communist Party started smearing Yeltsin in the media. All of this just seemed to increase Yeltsin’s popularity, while motivating him to seek revenge on Gorbachev. Over the next several years, Yeltsin piled pressure on Gorbachev to increase the scope and pace of reforms.
In 1990, Gorbachev created new fundamental reforms to the political system. As part of a reorganisation that ended the permanent link between the Communist Party from the Executive branch of Government, a new office was established of ‘President of the USSR’, to which Gorbachev was elected in March. At a secondary level, the Russian Republic was given a Presidential office of its own. Yeltsin, to Gorbachev’s despair, was elected to the role in May. If Gorbachev was worried, conservative Marxists within the Communist Party were horrified. They had spent the last four years or so becoming increasingly alarmed by the amount of authority the party had surrendered due to the reform programs. Yeltsin, their ideological nemesis, was now in a position of real power within the largest federal Republic in the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev had appointed Gennadi Yenayev, Chairman of the nation’s Trade Unions Council, to become the Soviet Union’s first (and only, it would transpire) vice-President. He was a known conservative who opposed the reform programs. If Gorbachev expected gratitude from the hardliners for making such an appointment, he was soon to be disillusioned. For in the summer of 1991, Yenayev led a group of the hardliners in Moscow in a poorly-planned attempt to overthrow Gorbachev, and to restore pre-Perestroika communism.
The coup, or ‘Putsch’ as it was called, failed, due to its dependence on support from the military, which in the event refused to open fire on the civilian population of Russia. Opportunistically, Boris Yeltsin spotted the chance to shine by very publicly heading up civilian resistance to the coup. In one major moment of showmanship, he actually climbed onto a tank outside the Russian Parliament building and addressed a crowd of resisters from there.
In truth, opposition to the Putsch among the population was not nearly as large as the Western media likes to portray it; with growing political chaos, including the collapse of the so-called ‘Eastern Bloc’, and ever-worsening shortages of goods in the shops, Gorbachev’s popularity had rapidly eroded. So while there was a disapproving recognition that what the plotters were doing was anti-democratic, there was no great wish to defend the Soviet President. But still, the opposition proved just strong enough, and once it was clear that the military would not support Yenayev, the ‘Putsch’ quickly collapsed, and the conspirators surrendered.
In the weeks that followed, Yeltsin got enormous praise and adulation, both at home and in the West, for rescuing Gorbachev and for thwarting the hardliners. Seeing the opening to complete his revenge on Gorbachev, Yeltsin used the hype, in effect, to seize control.
Knowing that the coup had effectively severed his relationship with the Communist Party, Gorbachev felt compelled to resign as General Secretary. Yeltsin then shut down the party by ordering nationalisation of all its assets and suspending all of its activities inside Russian boundaries. At the same time, most of the different Republics of the Soviet Union began declaring independence, rendering the Soviet Presidency a powerless role. All its authority was devolved to the Heads of State of the individual Republics, including Russia itself. As Yeltsin was President of Russia, and Russia was the largest of the Soviet Republics, this made him more powerful than Gorbachev.
From there, Gorbachev had no option but to terminate the Soviet Union completely. On Christmas Day, 1991, he formally resigned the office of President of the Soviet Union, and the USSR had been formally dissolved.
The USA and its allies had always hated and feared communism, and so were delighted to see the USSR break up. The hope in the West was that, under Yeltsin, Russia would go further than Gorbachev had so far dared, and try to create a full free market economy. To this end, the USA despatched groups of right-wing economists to Moscow to advise Yeltsin on how to transition to full capitalism. Their advice was to remove state operations within the market entirely, including remove all price controls set by the Government. All businesses were to become completely privately run.
The problem was, the price controls that the Soviet Government had imposed since the early-60’s had kept people’s money safe. As mentioned before, the price of a loaf of bread in 1989 was the same as it had been in 1962. The price of all manufacturing goods had been subsidised by the Government, so prices in the shops did not have to go up. At the end of 1991, all these price controls were removed, and all state interference in the market was ended, including the subsidies for manufacturers. Manufacturers and retailers were now free to set their own prices for all of their goods.
Frankly, almost anyone could have predicted what was to happen next, yet somehow the very people who were supposed to be the experts were completely unprepared for it. The manufacturers of goods were no longer being subsidised by the Government, and no longer being regulated by the Government either. They were given freedom, therefore, to put prices up. So they put prices up. A long way up. And so the shops had to put their prices up as well to make an honest profit. It meant that the Russian currency, the ruble, became almost worthless within weeks. People’s life savings were used up in weeks as desperation led them to pay massively inflated prices for the most basic items.
Prices had quadrupled before the end of the first week, and they just kept ballooning up and up and up. This was partly due to the well-intentioned but ill-advised decision of Viktor Geraschenko, chairman of the Russian Central Bank, to try to offset the sudden price-jump by increasing the size of the money supply, which simply led the ruble to inflate even faster.
Within a year, Russia was in chaos. Vast numbers of people were struggling to afford food, it had become so expensive. Entire industries were teetering on the brink of shutdown as markets were unable to sell goods to a population whose income was no longer adequate to afford them. By August, industrial productivity across Russia had declined by worse than forty percent. Many people resorted to selling their most prized possessions just to get the extra money they needed to buy bread.
Tiny numbers of entrepreneurs who happened to be in the right place at the start of the 1990s were now able to hog all the consumption goods, and with the markets cornered, they could hold the population to ransom. Wealth was absorbed by these tiny handsful of people, while millions of others went hungry. The hoarders would eventually become known derisively as ‘The Oligarchs‘.
The privatisation of state assets led to the development of a voucher system so that the public could own shares in former public property. But because of the desperation of hunger, many people ended up desperately selling off their vouchers in exchange for the money they needed to buy food. The vouchers were almost invariably sold to the Oligarchs, cementing their grip and control over the new Russia.
While the Oligarchs counted their ever-growing stockpiles of money and assets, the state had become so weakened as the 1990s wore on that before long it was largely powerless even to enforce the law. Business in Russia had leapt from one extreme to the other. Gone were the days of excessive state-intervention, to be replaced with a kind of ‘frontier law’, rather like the Old West; if a businessman had trouble with a strong competitor on the market, the solution was literally to hire a bounty hunter and have the competitor blown away. It was almost possible to measure how successful a businessman in Russia was by the number of bodyguards he needed surrounding him.
The courts in Russia became largely useless. Officials within Government were open to bribery as they were desperate for money themselves, which meant that any Russian with a genuine grievance could not expect help from the law unless they were rich enough to buy a court’s time. And even then, if the defendant was richer, the case would almost certainly be dismissed. With most of the old ‘Soviet’ councils disbanded, every local state office was now basically operating as a front for the Russian Mafia, including the courts. Crime and disorder were everywhere. The majority of people across Russia were living in horrendous poverty, of a kind hard to imagine in the UK or the USA, and many had to turn to crime themselves just to avoid outright starvation.
While all this was going on, the political instability of the previous decade proved to be ongoing. Indeed, there was a near civil war between different branches of the Government. Yeltsin was still President, but the Russian Parliament (‘Supreme Soviet’), dominated by former members of the Communist Party (leaders were Aleksandr Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov), wanted him impeached over his handling of both the economy and the new constitution of the Russian Federation. In response, Yeltsin issued a controversial Presidential decree, Decree Number 1400, dissolving the Supreme Soviet. He did have the authority to do this under the constitution, but he was also compelled under the same laws to call a Presidential election to happen within three months of the dissolution, which he refused to do. Therefore, the Soviet refused to stand down. In October 1993, the two factions started firing at each other.
On 2nd October, tens of thousands of civilians gathered outside the Parliament building – the Russian ‘White House’ as it is known – to protest as Yeltsin’s military forces approached. After a lengthy stand-off, the military opened fire. A prolonged and convoluted skirmish across central Moscow continued through the 3rd and 4th of October, at the end of which, the official number of civilians killed was one hundred and forty-nine. The real death-toll, we will probably never know, but from eyewitness accounts, it seems likely to have been well in excess of a thousand. Thousands more were injured, thousands of others were arrested and/or tortured.
In the next few days, the Russian media tried to spin events as the military ‘heroically’ rescuing the country from ‘Marxist thugs’, ‘terrorists’, ‘bandits’ and ‘gangs of assassins’, all roused into armed insurrection by the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin himself delivered a very cynical address on television while the insurgency was going on, calling the protesters ‘mercenary troops’. In reality, only a tiny proportion of ‘mercenaries’ were armed at all, and a great many of them were older generation Muscovites peacefully protesting against the effects of the Government’s ‘Shock Therapy’ economic reform program.
The whole bloody chapter demonstrated that Yeltsin was as capable of deceit, ruthlessness and authoritarianism as any Soviet leader or Tsar had been before him. The end of communism in Russia was not the end of brutality or oppression in Russia. Communism was clearly not in itself the reason for the decades of tyranny after all, and ending it was not bringing about the promised social liberty. Society was not freer; what oppressed people was now crime and poverty rather than harsh policing. Even the markets were not freer; markets had merely exchanged domination by the Soviets for domination by the Oligarchs
None of this was what people had expected at all when they had struggled for an end to the grip of communism two years earlier. Many were left wondering why on Earth they had sided with the reformers back in the early-1990s at all. For sure, times had often been hard under communism, but at least back then, more often than not, they had enough to eat, the money in their pockets was not completely useless, and crime and disorder were largely kept under control. Now the Russian people were living in a kind of purgatory. It was only a return to state authoritarianism under Vladimir Putin that brought an end to it.
The scary thing is – and I realise this may not seem obvious at first glance but stay with me – I see worrying parallels between what happened in Russia a quarter of a century ago, and what is starting in Britain now.
See the USSR and the European Union.
See the Russian reformers and the Leave EU campaigners.
See Mikhail Gorbachev and David Cameron.
See Boris Yeltsin and Nigel Farage.
I am quite serious about the parallels; –
The USSR was a stagnant, bureaucratic mess. The Union arguably was beneficial to its members, but at the same time, it did a lot of harm to them in certain ways. The EU is sometimes weighed down by its own bureaucracy. It is often stagnant because of the constant squabbles amongst its members. And while sharing a common market and many laws with the EU does its member-populations a lot of good, its treatment of some countries such as Greece shows it also does harm in a lot of ways.
The Soviet reformers promised the Russian people the moon around the turn-of-the-1990s. They promised far greater freedom, unlimited prosperity, happy lives-of-plenty for everybody. The Leave EU campaigners have promised the people of the UK the moon. They have promised far greater freedom, an end to bureaucratic inconvenience, more prosperity, less money taken from British pockets to go to Brussels; happy lives-of-plenty for everybody.
Mikhail Gorbachev was a Soviet leader who saw a need for reform, promised change for the better, an open, freer relationship between the peoples of the USSR, a revival of the economy and of industry. But once he was in power, he had no coherent plan in place to bring it all about, and so largely resorted to improvising, reacting, blundering, and making it up as he went along. His programs attempted to find a middle ground between all-out reform and staying-the-course, and the compromise fell flat. Ultimately, Gorbachev’s reforms were rejected by the Russian people, who chose all-out departure from communism. David Cameron was a British leader who was rather forced into trying to reform the UK’s relationship with the EU. He promised change for the better, an open, freer relationship between the British people and their neighbours on the continent, and negotiated amendments to the treaty with the European Union. His program attempted to find a middle ground between leaving the Union altogether and allowing the relationship to remain unchanged, and the compromise fell flat. His deal was rejected by the British people who chose all-out departure from the EU.
Boris Yeltsin was a popular, charismatic, ‘everyman’ figure in Soviet politics, with a reputation for being anti-establishment, and he demanded a major shift of the country towards the Right. A cynical showman wanting change entirely for the advancement of his own interests, he convinced substantial numbers of people to support him, and eventually led them to force a fundamental change of the country’s entire way of life. Nigel Farage is (sadly) a popular, charismatic, ‘everyman’ figure in British politics, with a reputation for being anti-establishment, and he demanded a major shift of the country towards the Right. A cynical showman wanting change entirely for the advancement of his own interests, he convinced substantial numbers of people to support him, and eventually led them to force a fundamental change of the country’s entire way of life.
Gorbachev had no coherent plan for reform before the death of the USSR, and neither did Yeltsin after it. The UK Independence Party had no coherent plan in place for what to do after leaving the EU, and it has become painfully clear in the months since the Referendum that the Conservative Party lack one either. Gorbachev and Yeltsin despised each other, despite having much common political ground. Cameron and Farage despise each other, despite both being right wingers.
Furthermore, if you look at the Oligarchs, and if you then picture what most of the key figures in the Leave campaign would like to become i.e. stinking-super-rich while the rest of the people are ground into abject poverty, and there is little distinction to be found. (There seems little doubt that Farage’s own wish when seeking to leave the EU has been to make it easier to exploit workers, and to get richer quicker.)
With the majority of Britons who expressed a preference voting to leave the EU, they have done to themselves what the Russians did when they fought to end communism. The British have cut their own lifeline, under the delusion that disconnecting it will make them ‘freer’.
But a baby does not become free and independent when the umbilical is cut. The baby requires a fully-working pair of lungs in order to breathe without the help of its mother, and even then will need the mother’s care for years and years to come. The UK, with its almost total butchery of key industries since the 1980s, has removed its own lungs, and, in the shape of its largely-parasitical Financial Services Industry, transplanted a couple of balloons in their place. It is only with the umbilical cord of Globalisation that such an industry can keep Britain breathing in and out. This is one of the reasons why leaving the EU, at least before we revive critical industries that Margaret Thatcher discarded, is foolish.
Now, I need to stress that what happened to Russia will not necessarily happen to Britain, but it is something that needs to be guarded against; many EU regulations that quarter-informed Britons endlessly moan about present an obstacle to ‘Oligarchism’ (for want of a better word), and these regulations are going to be repealed in the UK when ‘Brexit’ goes ahead. Perhaps the parallel that makes a British repetition of early-90s Russia likelier than it should be is that far too many Leave supporters assume, just like the Russian reformers before them, that the changeover will work simply by default. It will not. It can be made to work for the betterment of the country, but it must be made to work, it cannot be left simply to work itself. The process will be too easy for opportunists to subvert that way.
So too many are not guarding against a repetition of what happened in Russia, and there are some hawkish people out there who, for reasons of pure greed, actually want a repetition. They have been allowed to control much too much of the public discussion to this point, partly because, as I say, there is no plan in place for leading the country in an alternative direction. Just like there was no plan in place in the former Soviet Union.
Destitution, political chaos, economic turmoil, war, mass-deprivation. Yes, these can be avoided, but more of the UK population need to work to avoid them. At present, too many are either assuming that leaving the EU will solve everything by itself, or sulking about the referendum result and looking for ways to derail the process rather than to guide it to a satisfactory conclusion. How effective was Yenayev’s attempt to simply ‘undo’ all the changes in 1991, rather than to influence their outcome?
The reformers v the hardliners.
The Leavers v the Remainers.
As Mark Twain is (wrongly) credited as saying, “History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”