The House that Brexit Built

With less than a week since HM Government presented the EU with the letter, the lineaments of the new British future are already beginning to emerge out of the fog of incompetence, lies and fading promises, and it isn’t a pretty sight.   Before Article 50 had been triggered, Michael Gove was looking forward to ending the EU’s Clinical Trials Directive,  so that British pharmaceutical companies could sell drugs without clinically testing them.

Even British pharmaceutical companies don’t want this, because if they didn’t meet international standards they wouldn’t be able to sell drugs on the international market. But like his fellow-Brexiters, Gove hates ‘EU red tape’ too much to pay attention to such minutiae.  Gove also wants to get rid of the European Commission’s Habitats Directive, which obliges builders to find alternative green spaces to offset the environmental impact of building within five kilometres of listed green areas.

The need to protect the countryside and the environment ought to be as obvious as the need to test drugs thoroughly before marketing them, but for Gove such regulations are just more red tape that ‘holds back’ business.

Since Gove made these observations the British economy has been sliding ever closer towards gotterdammerung as the government’s shallow and barely-thought through promises unravel, the pound gets weaker,  the price of food goes up, and real incomes decline.   In these circumstances Theresa May has been out frantically touting for business in the Gulf.  Pausing to criticize the fact that the word ‘Easter’ doesn’t appear in a National Trust advert, even though it does, she was unable to condemn or even mention the fact that Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen ever closer towards famine and societal collapse, even though it is.

On one level such silence is a continuation of the old UK complicity with the Gulf autocracies, in which oil, weapons deals and real estate speculation always trump any other considerations.  Nevertheless it’s difficult not to detect a new whiff of sweaty desperation behind May’s world tour.  She knows – even though she will never admit it – that ‘Global Britain’ is a very weak brand that needs any investors it can possibly find, and she clearly doesn’t care where such investment comes from.

The Gulf States know this too.  That’s why they reportedly have ‘signature ready’ free trade agreements already prepared for the moment the UK leaves the EU, and don’t anyone even think that May’s government will allow reservations about human rights, democracy or gender equality to get in the way of signing them.

If anyone was in any doubt about this, consider Liam Fox’s trip to the Philippines to meet Rodrigo Duterte.  Even in the freakish rogue’s gallery of 21st century ‘populism’, the president of the Philippines is a stand-out monster.  This is a man who has ordered his police to murder thousands of real and suspected drug addicts and drug dealers, and has boasted about throwing people out of helicopters himself.   Yet Fox has no problem having his picture taken with the smirking gangster,  and babbling about the UK’s desire to intensify a ‘ well-established and strong relationship built on a foundation of shared values and shared interests’ with the Philippines.

Fox is not the kind of politician to allow a few thousand extrajudicial executions get in the way of a good deal, and we can expect more of this in the future, a lot more.  In effect, the UK has given up its membership of a community of liberal states – the EU – with which the UK does share some values such as democratic government, a commitment to human rights and the rule of law, to cultivate relationships with politicians who have the same values as Al Pacino’s Scarface, and Arab rulers who are as democratically accountable as the Lannisters in Game of Thrones.

Of course there are contradictions and glaring failures in the practical application of the EU’s values, but at least they exist as an aspiration and a standard that member states are expected to live up to, which is more than you can say about Rodrigo Duterte.

The current direction of UK foreign policy makes it clear that we no longer aspire to have any such values either.  Fox told a Manila newspaper that we are becoming ‘a stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking nation’, but very little in that statement is true, and most of it is a grotesque misrepresentation of what is actually happening.

We are in fact becoming the opposite of all those things: poorer, weaker, more vulnerable, more deregulated, and more divided.  As for ‘fairer’ – this was a week in which thousands of families are set to become even poorer as a result of George Osborne’s ‘three child’ benefit reforms and Theresa May described cutting bereavement benefits as ‘fairness to the taxpayer.’

We are ‘outward-looking’ only in the sense that we are now prepared to do business with any autocrat and sleazeball gangster who wants to do business with us.

None of this should be at all surprising.  Brexit was always going to be like this, but knowing that doesn’t make it any better, and for the time being at least, there is very little that anyone seems able to do to stop it.

 

Save a Refugee – Bomb ’em all to Hell

In less than a week, the British government has frantically changed its line on Europe’s refugee crisis like a twitchy gambler shuffling cards in the hope that the right one comes up.  First David Cameron rejected the notion that accepting more refugees was a ‘solution’ to the crisis, as if anybody had ever said it was.  Then, wrongfooted by an unlikely eruption of humanitarian fervour from the British tabloids, he agreed to take in a quota of 20,000 ‘vulnerable’ Syrian refugees over the next five years – though Syrian and other refugees already in Europe will not be allowed into the UK since that would only encourage others to follow them.

And now, with barely a pause for breath, Lord Snooty and His Pals are coolly plotting to transform the refugee crisis into a new casus belli in Syria and a justification for a new round of ‘humanitarian’ bombing against ISIS

That won’t be the end of it however, since Osborne warned at the weekend that ‘ You have got to deal with the problem at source which is this evil Assad regime and the Isis terrorists.’ Yesterday the creepy neocon former defense secretary Liam Fox – a man who has never seen a war he didn’t like – was on Channel 4 News calling for the creation of a no fly zone to enforce safe havens in Syria that would protect ‘vulnerable people’ from ISIS.

When Fox talks about protecting vulnerable people one can only stifle a hysterical giggle – coupled with a certain feeling of nausea.   This is the man who supported the war in Afghanistan, the Iraq War, the Libyan War,  Israel’s Gaza wars, and favoured military action against Iran.

These wars not only failed to protect ‘vulnerable people’, they also killed a great deal of them, even as they generated refugees in their millions; 4 million in Iraq; between 600,000 to 1 million in Libya; nearly four million in Afghanistan.  Such outcomes ought to cast some doubt over the notion that bombing can serve a humanitarian purpose, but Fox is not the man to ask such questions.

He would like to use British air power to fight ISIS and establish these havens, but since ISIS doesn’t have an airforce then someone on the ground will have to ensure such protection.  Who?  Well naturally it can’t be our boys, since even Fox isn’t dumb enough to believe that British troops would be welcomed in Syria.

Instead he suggested that ‘Arab countries’ might do the job.  That would be some of the Gulf states which provided ISIS with its start-up funds?   Perhaps some members of the coalition who are currently doing such grand work in Yemen?  How about Turkey, not an Arab country, but one which has nevertheless done so much to facilitate ISIS and many of the jihadist groups fighting in Syria for reasons that have nothing to do with protecting ‘vulnerable people.’

Maybe the Kurds could do it, except that they aren’t strong enough, and anyway the Western states that praised their defense of Kobane last year are now in the throes of betraying them once again in order to keep Turkey on board the great anti-ISIS coalition.   Still why worry about the details?   After all, we never did before.  The main thing is to bomb, because bombing is always better than doing nothing, isn’t it?

The Sun certainly thinks so, and yesterday carried a picture of refugees arriving in Germany with the headline ‘ Blitz ’em to hell: Our Boys await order to destroy IS in Syria’ – a touching juxtaposition that speaks volumes about the limits to the Murdoch press’s humanitarian blip.

The Sun also assumes that a) bombing would protect ‘innocent civilians’ and b) that British air power could ‘destroy’ ISIS – something that months of bombing by the US-led coalition have failed to achieve.    Given the record of British military adventures over the last fifteen years, the government’s rush to bomb is alarming and almost mind-boggling for its cynicism and simplistic belief that if you just keep bombing someone, sooner or later it’ll all turn out right.

Osborne insists that ‘ You need a comprehensive plan for a more stable, peaceful Syria – a huge challenge of course, but we can’t just let that crisis fester.’  As Hugh Roberts argues in the LRB, Britain and its allies rejected the last political opportunity – admittedly slim – that might have helped demilitarize the Syrian conflict back in June 2012, when they scuppered Kofi Annan’s attempts to broker a political compromise at Geneva by insisting that Assad could not be part of it.

They did this because they were committed to a policy of ‘regime change’ that was driven by purely geopolitical calculations, even though it was often given a humanitarian rationale. This policy wanted more militarization not less, regardless of its impact on Syrian society. Recently-published Pentagon documents reveal that as early as August 2012, the US and its allies foresaw the establishment of a ‘Salafist Principality’ in Syria as a strategic instrument that they would be able to use to topple Assad.

At a time when Western states were publicly supporting the notion of a ‘moderate opposition’, US intelligence agencies privately recognized that the ‘major forces driving the insurgency in Syria’ consisted of ‘ the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq’ – as part of an opposition that was supported by ‘The West, Gulf countries and Turkey.’

It is nonsensical to imagine that these same countries can now protect civilians or bring about a ‘stable, peaceful Syria’ by bombing the ‘Salafist principality’ they helped create.   On the contrary, such ‘havens’ will inevitably exacerbate the fragmentation of Syria, and they will also be used as bases to attack the regime – an option that was already being pursued in the first year of the conflict.

To point out this out does not mean that no one should do anything, or that external forces can be held entirely responsible for the catastrophe that has wrecked Syria.   Assad may not have seen himself as a tyrant when he inherited the family dynasty, but that is what he is, like all the Arab rulers who were challenged during the ‘Arab Spring’, including those that have been trying to overthrow him.

Syria was a tyranny when the Syrian army colluded with Christian militias in the Lebanese Civil War; when Hafez Assad participated in Operation Desert Storm; when US intelligence flew terrorist suspects off to Syria to have their feet beaten by Syrian security services.

Such a regime has no more right to rule than any of its counterparts, and the staggering violence that it has unleashed against its own population is evidence of its political and moral bankruptcy.  Nevertheless, in the short-term at least, it is difficult to see how ISIS can be defeated without it, because Syria has become a country in which only bad choices are available.

The immediate priority in both Syria and Iraq must be to defeat the fascistic ISIS, both militarily and politically, and prevent the two states from the complete collapse that would pave the way for indefinite warlordism and jihadism.  But that ultimately, must be the task of Iraqis and Syrians themselves, and will be dependent on a degree of political will that has so far been absent.

The foreign states that have done so much harm in Syria ought to commit themselves to that objective and use what powers they have to bring it about.

The question is whether they really want to, and it may be too late to do any of this.  The wars in Syria and Iraq may have to run their course, with all the devastation that involves, until there is very little left of either state in their present form.

That would be an absolute catastrophe, and it would generate a refugee crisis that will last for decades.   So we need to do anything we can to prevent it, but let’s not allow ourselves to be manipulated by the current outpouring of public solidarity and empathy with refugees into believing that bombing is a solution to the horrors that are currently unfolding.

And let’s not think that there is anything ‘humanitarian’ about rushing into a bombing campaign to save refugees in order to stop refugees from coming to Europe, because there really isn’t.

Tory Ghouls Shuffle into the Limelight

‘False friends are like our shadow, keeping close to us while we walk in the sunshine but leaving us when we cross into the shade,’ wrote the nineteenth century American author Christian Nevel Bovee.

With darkness falling on Cameron-land, and Nigel Farage grinning manically and looking more and more like the Joker about to take over Gotham City as he floats the prospect of a new coalition without Lord Snooty, His Lordship’s friends and allies are beginning to stick their eager little heads above the parapet and stake out their positions as possible candidates to take his place.

First up was Theresa May, a politician who has made her name by pandering to the most xenophobic anti-immigrant sentiments of the electorate and making sensational, eye-catching and dishonest claims about the ‘abuse’ of the Human Rights Act.  In a speech at the ConservativeHome’s ‘Victory 2015 conference‘ over the weekend, the Home Secretary went beyond her usual brief to offer her thoughts on how the Tories might win the next election:

‘We have to become the party that is tireless in confronting vested interests. The party that takes power from the elites and gives it to the people. The party not just of those who have already made it, but the home of those who want to work hard and get on in life.’

These ‘vested interests’ included both the private and public sectors and also – somewhat bizarrely – the ‘ organised abuse of vulnerable young girls in Derby and Rochdale’.    Needless to say,  the main ‘vested interests’ that May promised to confront were those to be found within the public sector, which she argued should be opened to even more competition through an intensification of the Coalition’s ‘ reform agenda’.

All this was diplomatically accompanied by praise and declarations for Lord Snooty and his pals, but Cameron would probably do well to get a taster for his meals, if May serves them to him.    And now Liam Fox, the former defence secretary, has entered the fray, with promises to cut benefits even further in order to reduce the ‘bloated state’.    What cuts would Foxy like to implement that his lousy government hasn’t already introduced?

According to the BBC these include ‘ an end to the ring-fencing of budgets for the NHS, schools and international development and as well as of universal benefits such as the pensioners’ winter fuel allowance.’

Well that’s right, you can’t have all those elderly people just getting winterfuel allowance, can you?  Whatever next?   But never mind: Fox is also calling for an end to capital gains tax, so those pensioners with second homes can sell them and pay for their fuel that way.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the reason Fox is no longer a minister is because he was forced to resign as a result of the activities of his dodgy ‘friend’ and advisor Adam Werrity, who accompanied him on ‘defence’ ie. arms selling trips abroad, and apparently used them for his own commercial purposes.

This is a man who once declared that he was ‘proud’ of Britain’s role as the world’s second largest arms exporter, and posed for photographs like this:

So no one will be surprised that Fox, like his successor Philip Hammond, does not include the MoD in his attack on the ‘bloated state.’    This tubby Rambo was also the founder of a thinktank called ‘Atlantic Bridge’ that connected Tory rightwingers like himself to American free marketeers and hawkish lobbying groups such as the Heritage Foundation.

Registered as a charity in 2003,  Atlantic Bridge was dissolved in 2011, following criticisms from the Charity Commission that it did not do charitable work and acted essentially as a vehicle for promoting Tory policies.

Given this record, it’s amazing that Fox even has a job as an MP at all, but such are the types that modern politics has lumbered us with.   On the one hand,  the fact that he is still considered a significant figure within the Tory right is another indication of how much the Conservatives have become a carbon copy of the Republican hard right.

But coming after May’s self-aggrandising proclamations over the weekend, his speech may be an indication of the possible future that awaits us all, when Lord Snooty falls beneath the truck of history and a UKIP-Conservative coalition forms a new marriage made in hell.