Theresa May’s New Year Message: the Blind Leading the Blind

In these uncertain times, as we move closer to the yawning abyss that is Brexit, one can only wait with bated breath for a good dose of platitudinous bromide from the politicians who are about to push us off it to lift the spirits.   Maybe idiot-at-large Boris Johnson’s Christmas invitation to get behind ‘global Britain’ didn’t do it for you.  Luckily there is Theresa May, her harsh visage only marginally softened by a glittering Christmas tree, had the following reassuring message to our troubled nation:

‘We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today.  We all want a country that is fairer so that everyone has the chance to succeed. We all want a nation that is safe and secure for our children and grandchildren. These ambitions unite us, so that we are no longer the 52% who voted leave and the 48% who voted remain, but one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future. So when I sit around the negotiating table in Europe this year, it will be with that in mind – the knowledge that I am there to get the right deal not just for those who voted to leave, but for every single person in this country.’

I feel better already.  Or I would, had these hollow and profoundly vacuous promises not come from a prime minister whose own civil servants have accused her of lacking in the moral courage to admit to the complexity of the task that lies ahead of her.

And Cruella’s cowardice and political dishonesty aren’t the only reasons why this listener does not feel like singing Kumbaya along with her.  There’s also the question of vision.  So far there is no evidence whatsoever that May’s government of the clueless, the shameless, the duplicitous and the useless have any idea how to extract ‘the right deal’ from the horrendous political and logistical spaghetti junction that the nation is now stepping into.

As for the future that she expects us to unite behind, it’s worth comparing it with the Institute for Public Policy Research’s excellent report:  Future Proof: Britain in the 2020s.  

Among other things the report predicts that:

  • Technological, economic and demographic change will supercharge inequalities, with middle and low income households struggling through a low-growth living standards decade, even as the rich pull away
  • A combination of low growth, political choices and demographic change will shrink the state and put the UK on course for a structural deficit by 2030.
  • The 65+ population will surge from 11.6 million today to 15.4 million by 2030. By contrast, the working age population (16-64) will increase by only 3%. There will be a surge in the ‘oldest old’, with the over 85s population nearly doubling by 2030
  • By 2030 the economy is forecast to be up to £55 billion smaller than it would have been without Brexit. In a ‘pessimistic’ scenario, where trade costs increase significantly, households are expected to be £1,700 worse off per year by 2030.
  • Without significant reform, longstanding weaknesses in the UK’s economic model will remain: poor productivity performance, weak real wage growth compounded by surging Brexit-related consumer inflation, sluggish public and private investment rates, yawning trade decits, heavily indebted households, regional disparities, extensive financialisation and rent-seeking. In the process, morbid symptoms will multiply: negative yields, interest rates near the lower bound, underinvestment and stagnant living standards.
  • Government spending as a share of GDP is projected to fall to its lowest postwar level (around 36%) by 2019/20. This trajectory will continue into the first half of the 2020s unless fiscal policy changes significantly post-Brexit. At the same time, spending will be more focused on pensions and health.  Even with lower expenditure, the public finances will be acutely vulnerable to shock. Brexit is expected to significantly worsen the state of the public finances.
  • Demographic change will drive increasing demand at the same time as public expenditure tightens. The NHS and social care will face an acute funding challenge. The education system will grapple with equipping people for the digital age. Childcare is likely to remain patchy and inadequate.
  • The UK economic model is unlikely to deliver broadly shared prosperity. Nine of the 10 poorest regions in western Europe are in the UK, but we also have the richest region.

How will the UK’s aging population fund the NHS or social care, without younger migrant workers coming to the country to pay taxes?   How can May’s government protect the population against the consequences of further shocks in the global economy?  What will it do to prevent or mitigate the ‘morbid symptoms’ identified in the report?  How will it prevent the rich from ‘pulling away’?  What will it do to address the fact that median incomes in the UK have stagnated or declined for more than a decade?  How will  this government and its successors respond to the technological revolution that will result in more and more jobs being done by machines?

There is not the slightest indication that May and her ministers are even asking these questions.  But I urge anyone interested in the future of the country – and the future in general – to read this report and consider them.   As in all futurist documents, the IPPR’s conclusions are only predictions, but the picture they paint is of a backward, reactionary country in dire need of democratic renewal, economic modernisation and social justice to cope with the new challenges posed by technological transformation and ecological crisis.

Nor is it simply a litany of worst possible futures.   The report asks its readers to become ‘architects of the future’ and calls for ‘ a new “common sense” that reclaims a different type of modernity to that envisioned by neoliberalism – one that deepens and broadens economic and social freedom for everyone, not just a privileged few.’

To achieve this, the report argues, ‘ will require collectively shaping social, economic and technological change to extend democracy and deepen human flourishing, creating institutions that harness the growing power of technology to promote shared abundance, and building a common life that rewards purpose and kindness.’

Now if Theresa May had delivered a ringing message like that, I might have sat up and taken notice.  Of course she didn’t,  and she never will, because politicians like her can’t even think in these terms.

But we can, and if we are going to avoid some of the worst-case futures outlined in this report and built a better one, we really ought to start looking for politicians who are prepared to consider them.

 

 

Mayday! Mayday!

I’ve just returned to Brexitland after a week in the Aragonese Pyrenees with my daughter. During that time we continued to follow the tumultuous events that have convulsed our tormented island: Chilcot; the PLP’s viciously inept coup; the rapid extinction of the wretched Andrea Leadsom and the coronation of Theresa May; the ongoing racism coursing freely through the body politic.

Watching it from a distance there were a few shreds of minor comfort that could be drawn from the UK’s startling transformation into a political motorway pileup: the eclipse of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson; the indictment of Tony Blair by British establishment mandarins; the fact that England were no longer in the European championship.

That was about it really, and it wasn’t much.  Returning to the motherland on Wednesday rapidly dissipated the lingering glow of schadenfreude and the healing properties of sunshine and mountain landscapes, and reminded me that the country I was born in has become a thing to behold with more horror than admiration.  Within minutes of passing through the ridiculous signs aggressively proclaiming UK BORDER to all those foreigners out there stupid enough to mistake passport control for…passport control, I saw my first headline from the Daily Express: ‘Theresa May Will Stop Migrant Crisis.’

No surprises there.  The day the Express  fails to put the word ‘migrant’ on its front page is the day Richard Desmond will probably self-combust along with many of his readers.   Even more ominously a phone call to my mother revealed that Boris Johnson, the Great Liar whose ambitions had supposedly been thwarted by Michael Gove’s treachery, had been called into Downing Street for talks with Theresa May.

By the time we left the airport we found out that Johnson had been made Foreign Secretary.  I felt the beginnings of Brexit fever coming on again – a shaking hand and trembling jaw, eyes staring wildly in search of an escape route – as I tried to absorb the fact that the UK’s new foreign secretary is the same man who once lied again and again about the European Union as a journalist; who has made racist ‘gaffes’, as the media likes to call them, a stock-in-trade of his cheekie chappie persona; who suggested that Obama’s support of the EU was due to his ‘Kenyan ancestry’; a man who doesn’t read briefs; who used to shout ‘yah fishcakes’ when asked questions by the London Assembly; who was instrumental in winning the Brexit vote even though he had no plan what to do next.

I wanted to think it was funny, in a giggly, knockabout farce kind of way, as though I were watching a movie called Carry On Brexit, but I found I wasn’t laughing.  As the train sped across the East Anglian countryside we pored over our phones and read the media praising David Cameron’s ‘dignified’ last PMQs as though they were saying goodbye to a noble and benign statesman, rather than the Flashmanlike bully and glib PR man who gambled his country’s future to win a political argument within the Tory Party, and who still had the unbearable gall to talk of his dedication to the ‘national interest.’

We read aghast that MPs on both sides of the house had applauded a prime minister who will surely go down as one of the greatest political wreckers in his country’s history.  Some of these honorable gentlemen were Labour MPs who had previously shouted, heckled and sniggered at their own leader when he called for unity on the day that Cameron originally announced his resignation and apologized for the Iraq War.   Some of them  had sought to exclude Corbyn from the ballot in the leadership contest because they knew that he would win with an even bigger majority than last time.

These efforts were still going on even as our train continued to run through the stops. By the time we reached our destination we learned that the NEC had allowed Corbyn on the ballot after all – so generous of the NEC to allow a leader who won with more than sixty percent of the vote last year and still has the overwhelming support of his party membership to run.     But shortly afterwards we discovered that this act of largesse had outrageously cancelled out by a new announcement from the NEC that all members who have joined the party since February must pay £25 in order to vote in the leadership contest.

To say that this was dispiriting and unedifying doesn’t even begin to describe it.  It’s simply mindboggling to contemplate the strange combination of Ruritania and Banana Republic that the UK has become as it continues to sink into a swamp of rancorous decadence with a distinctly Weimar flavour as it frantically searches for new ways to exclude foreigners from the country and find itself a new post-imperial role in a world that mostly sees us as a bad joke.

On the surface,  Boris Johnson is the most obvious example of the Banana Republic jokey part.  We know this is a man who likes a laff, and his improbable recovery from the knife that Gove stuck into him is yet more proof, if any were needed, that in today’s Britain intellectual shallowness, narcissism, political dishonesty, racism and incompetence are no obstacles to the progress of elite white politicians, and might actually smooth their progress to high office.

But Johnson’s promotion is also evidence of why the Tory Party has ruled the country for so long.  After a brief period in which political bodies were piling up on stage like the final scene from a Revenger’s tragedy, the party has locked together behind Theresa May and produced a hard-right government that includes representatives of most of the factions that might have destabilised it.

Like Cameron when he first appeared as the Tory antidote to Tony Blair, May’s government has announced itself with lots of emollient ‘healing’ One Nation rhetoric. No one who looks at May or her team can take such claims seriously.    First of all there is May herself, the political equivalent of Cruella de Vil, who presided over a swathe of draconian anti-immigrant laws, deportations and restrictions, including the removal of some 50,000 foreign students falsely accused of faking English language tests,  and supported every bleak miserable decision that the Cameron/Osborne tandem took in the name of austerity.

Then there is Liam Fox, the equally rightwing former defense secretary whose ‘friend’ Adam Werritty accompanied him on official foreign trips and conducted private business that forced Fox to resign, and should have excluded him permanently from political office. And don’t expect much ‘healing’ from new Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who is a member of the political council of the Henry Jackson Society.  Or from the new Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom – UK Mum of the Year – who knows as much about the environment as I do about astrophysics.

May clearly doesn’t know or care much about it either, and has now abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change in the same week that scientists have warned the government to take urgent action to mitigate the effects of…climate change.  And then there is David Davies, the new ‘Minister for Brexit’ who even when he was campaigning in May didn’t realise that it is not possible to conclude separate trade agreements with EU member states.

For all the talk about May’s ‘safe pair of hands’ this is a hard-right, reactionary government that isn’t really likely to heal the nation even in normal circumstances, let alone when faced with the distinctly abnormal and unpromising circumstances in which we now find ourselves.  Nevertheless it is a government, and the fact that it even exists is a testament to the Tory Party’s ability to hold itself together when it counts, and lock the troops together after completing its ritual political slaughter.

While the new government purrs smoothly away – probably towards disaster but never mind – Labour’s wheels continue to screech frantically round in the mud into which the PLP has dragged the party.   Instead of trying to use the massive increase in membership as a basis for a revitalised social democratic politics, its MPs are actively seeking to neutralize and even expel their own membership, using the kind of gerrymandering practices that one would expect to find in Ulster in the 1960s.

The outcome of this struggle is by no means clear, but the fact that it is even taking place at all is an act of gross irresponsibility which suggests that many MPs have more in common with their counterparts on the other side of the chamber than they do with their own leader or their own members.

It’s also a tragedy, which opens up the chilling but very real scenario that May and her team of reactionaries and buffoons may prove to be far more enduring than they have any right to be.

 

 

 

 

The Case of Isa Muazu: a Study in Barbarism

In terms of people who matter in the eyes of this government, Isa Muazu ticks very few boxes.  He is Nigerian.   He is an ‘illegal immigrant’,  a ‘visa overstayer’, and a  ‘failed’ asylum seeker – a category which is generally considered by the public to be synonymous with ‘liar’.

He is also poor, not one of the rich Chinese who Cameron is falling over himself to bring here, and has now ‘turned a page’ in Britain’s relations with the Dalai Lamai and Tibet to make sure they come.

From the point of view of the Home Office however, Muazu does have some symbolic value.   Because all the negatives listed above make it possible to remove him from the UK without anyone even blinking an eye about it.   And by doing that Theresa May and the government can add him to the statistics of removed ‘illegal immigrants’ at the end of the year, and tell the public that they have been ‘listening to their concerns’ and have kept their promise to transform the UK into an ‘inhospitable environment’ for migrants.

A noble aspiration, and we already know the lengths our Home Secretary will go to in order to realize it.  In January this year the Home Office deported a Ugandan lesbian Jackie Nanyonjo back to Uganda, who had come to the UK 5 years after being beaten by her husband.

To say that Uganda is not a hospitable country for gays would be understating it somewhat, but Nanyonjo’s application for asylum was rejected.   During her flight back she was reportedly beaten and strangled by her UKBA-contracted Reliance security escorts.

Shortly after her return to Uganda, Nanyonjo died, allegedly because of injuries she received at the hands of her escorts.

Muazu is an even more twisted variant on this tradition.    These are the salient facts:   Muazu came to the UK in 2007 on a visitor’s visa.   He stayed on after it ran out in 2008.   On 25 July this year he was detained.  He then applied for asylum, claiming that he was likely to be killed by the murderous Islamist group Boko Haram, which he says has already killed members of his family.

His application was fast-tracked and in August it was  rejected, as fast-tracked cases often are.    He was then detained at Harmondsworth removal centre in preparation for deportation.

Muazu went on hunger strike in protest at the way his asylum claim had been treated and against his detention.   The Home Office refused to release him into the community.  Instead they prepared an ‘end of life plan’ for him: a novel procedure that can be essentially translated into a very simple message: you are are an illegal immigrant and if you want to starve yourself to death that is perfectly ok, because we are going to deport you come what may.

On Friday Muazu was deported.  By that time he had gone more than 100 days without food, and weighed only 53 kilos, even though he is nearly six feet tall.  He was so ill, according to the Liberal peer Lord Roberts, who has campaigned against the deportation, that his doctor said that he was not fit to fly.

That did not stop the Home Office.   Initially the plan was to fly him out on a regular Virgin Atlantic plane, but that was cancelled, presumably because Virgin didn’t want a man who could not stand or see and might die in flight upsetting the passengers.

Undeterred, our valiant guardians of the border rented a private jet at an estimated cost of £180,000, and on Friday they flew him to Nigeria, with Home Office officials accompanying him ( How their mothers must be proud of them, I know I am).

On approaching Abuja airport however, the border warriors were thwarted once again, when the Nigerian authorities refused to let the plane land, for reasons that have not been made clear.

Instead the plane was forced to return to the UK, via Malta.   And now he is back in Harmondsworth and the Home Office has no comment.

Labour does however.  After months of silence, the shadow immigration minister has finally roused himself to question the competence and humanity of the deportation, while emphasizing its cost to the taxpayer rather than the morality of this disgusting episode, or the policies that make such things possible.

Labour does not exactly occupy the moral high ground on this issue.  It was under a Labour government in 2008, that the Ghanian ‘overstayer’ Ama Sumani was deported, even though she had cancer of the bone marrow and was kept alive through treatment that was not available in her own country.

Campaigners against her deportation predicted that she would die if she was returned, and they were right.  She was dead just over two months after arriving back in Ghana.

Even with these precedents, the case of Isa Muazu represents a new threshold in the increasingly depraved attempts by the British state to ‘defend our borders.’  The last time the British government let people die on hunger strike was in 1981 in Northern Ireland.

Then,  it was the Thatcher government refusing to allow Irish ‘terrorists’ to have political recognition.   This time the Home Office is so determined to exclude an ‘illegal immigrant’ who says that he came to the UK for a ‘better life’ that it is willing to let him starve himself to death to stop others from following his example.

Muazu is reportedly eating again, which may mean that he may live, in which case he will probably be deported again.  If he dies,  he will have proved the ‘sincerity’ of his asylum claim and he may be allowed to stay here –  in a cemetery.

Because like the drowned migrants in Lampedusa last month who  were given posthumous Italian citizenship – something that wasn’t granted to the survivors – governments don’t have a problem with  dead ‘illegal immigrants’ who cross their borders; it’s the living ones they don’t want.

I gather that Theresa May is an Anglican and a regular churchgoer.  One hopes she bonded with her God today.   But no matter how many prayers she offers up, they will not wipe away her responsibility for this shameful and disgusting act.

And a country that allows people like her get away with things like this is pretty disgusting too, and we really ought to take a good look at ourselves, and look where we are being taken.

Theresa May’s Hateful Immigration Bill: a Shocker by Any Other Name

Listening to Theresa May announcing the Home Office’s new Immigration Bill on the Today program yesterday morning was a dispiriting and desultory experience.

Whenever its contents were called into question, her voice assumed the same taut note of barely-suppressed hysteria and desperation that the hapless Nicola Murray regularly demonstrates in The Thick of It when trying to present another useless, nonsensical and incoherent policy.

But there is nothing comical about May’s bill.  It’s essential purpose,  says Immigration Minister Mark Harper, is to ‘stop migrants abusing public services to which they are not entitled, reduce the pull factors which draw illegal immigrants to the UK and make it easier to remove people who should not be here.’

The bill’s provisions include proposals to stop ‘illegal immigrants’ having bank accounts, renting flats, and ‘abusing’ health services.  It intends to make it more difficult for ‘foreign criminals’ to appeal against deportations by deporting them first and obliging them to make their appeals from wherever they are sent.  It also intends to make landlords check the immigration status of their prospective tenants, and oblige banks to do same with their customers.

All this is supposedly motivated by a desire for ‘fairness’, says May.   It is nothing of the kind.  It is a recipe for racial and social exclusion,  that will seriously hurt people whose ‘illegality’ is due to all kinds of complex reasons that the government doesn’t even begin to understand or care about, many of whom are already at the bottom of the social pyramid.

All over the country, NGOs and charities working with asylum seekers and refugees are being inundated with cases of destitute men and women whose asylum claims have been rejected or fallen through the administrative machinery, who are living on the street, some of whom without any money at all and depend only on the food parcels and drop in centres provided by volunteers.

Many ‘illegal migrants’ who are ‘abusing the labour market’, as the Home Office puts it, are working in conditions that British workers would not accept for a mili-second.  Yet according to the government we are supposed to regard all these people as privileged intruders, deviously taking ‘our’ jobs, flats and ‘abusing’ our health services by going to a doctor or a hospital if they are sick.

All this is intended, says the Home Office, to ‘make the UK the least attractive country for illegal immigrants.’   That isn’t nearly as  noble an aspiration as the government thinks it is.

Substitute the word ‘illegal immigrant’ for ‘Jew’ and ‘Negro’ and it really doesn’t look very pretty.  But it does give a better impression of how this bill will work in practice,  if doctors and hospitals refuse to treat ‘ people with no right to be here’;  if landlords start turning people away or maybe putting up signs that say ‘no illegal immigrants; if the UK becomes a place where anyone with a foreign accent or a dark skin must be spied on and checked and held in suspicion, and stripped of the most elementary human rights to medical treatment or a roof over their heads.

There’s nothing fair about any of this.  Any more than it’s fair to deport ‘foreign criminals’ who may have lived in the UK since they were kids, and have already served a prison sentence for the crime they committed, or making it more difficult for them to appeal against their deportations.

Last year I met an Afghan in Calais with a thick Northern accent who had been living in Bradford since he was a child.  He was married with two children, but he had done time for GBH after getting in a fight, so the government deported him back to Afghanistan when his sentence was over.

He had managed to make it back ‘illegally’, but he had been caught and deported a second time.  When I met him he had been trying to get back to the UK ‘illegally’ yet again, but his spirit was broken.  He’d been in Calais too long and he told me he was going to go back to Afghanistan, regardless of the fact that he might never see his kids again.

So please let’s not talk about fairness and justice here.   Because what this bill is about is populism and demagoguery.   Asked yesterday why she was trying to stop ‘benefit tourism’ when the evidence of this phenomenon suggested that it was infinitesimal,  May simply dodged the question, and kept repeating the same gormless mantra ‘Most people think this is fair’.

When it was pointed out to her that refusing people health care might actually present a health risk to the public, she replied in the same vein.   At the suggestion that her bill might actually cost the taxpayer more than the money it is supposedly intended to save,  she responded with more blather.

On one hand she doesn’t have any choice but to react this way.  Because the truth is that the government doesn’t really know any more about the numbers of ‘benefit tourists’ than it does about the numbers of badgers, or Rumanian and Bulgarian migrants thinking of coming to the UK.

The sole purpose of this appalling bill is to reap political benefits for the Coalition – and the Tory party in particular.   It’s a sop to the voters who are thinking of voting for UKIP, which is intended to make the Tories look ‘tough on immigration’ – and  a convenient diversion from the increasingly horrendous consequences of the government’s cuts program.

And the result is a scandalously vicious, vindictive and mean-spirited piece of legislation, even by the Coalition’s standards, that will achieve nothing except to make this country an even nastier place than they have already made it.