“Embracing Brexit”, and other nonsense from UK Labour’s leadership

Summary: The UK Labour Party should look to the moral courage of Hume and Mallon to effectively oppose Johnson’s debased government

At the start of the play King Lear, the villainous Edmund contemplates how he plans to ruin the life of his decent brother Edgar. It won’t be too hard, he reckons, because Edgar is a “brother noble, whose nature is so far from doing harms that he suspects none; on whose foolish honesty my practices ride easy.” In other words, Edgar is so innocent he will never be able to believe that someone could be so shameless with the shenanigans that Edmund plans to unleash in his bid for power.  

This line struck me again after seeing a report of Ed Miliband of all people, following in the footsteps of Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, advising the British people to “embrace Brexit.” This wholesale purchase of Boris Johnson’s shameless Big Lie by the British Labour leadership must have Johnson rubbing his hands in glee. Just as the disaster of Brexit in terms of reduced revenues and collapsing businesses begins to become apparent, Labour, without Johnson even having to ask, has surrendered to him the most favourable political terrain upon which the next election could be fought. And just like that, like innocents, they blunder into his trap.

Few con-men in history can have been so gifted with luck as Johnson. His practices run easy on Labour’s foolish honesty. Starmer and his team may wish to be statesmen and stateswomen endeavouring to do what is best for their country. But what is needed from them first is that they be an opposition, because Johnson has no such patriotic inclination. Johnson remains only interested in Johnson. So Labour must bide their dreams of good government until they actually win an election over the exposed lies of Johnson’s cabal. But that is a possibility that is forever diminished by their acquiescence in Johnson’s most fundamental grift.

I did not grow up politically in the British Labour party. I grew up during the Troubles in the North of Ireland. I learned politics from John Hume and Seamus Mallon. They were men who had their disagreements and differences in approach. But there were more important things that united them and made them such a formidable political partnership.

One of these things was that they repudiated the Big Lie. They did not accept that a polity gerrymandered through the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system was worthy to be considered a democracy. They did not accept that violence could ever heal a divided society. They accepted neither the mealy-mouthed justifications of the British state nor of the Irish paramilitaries for the carnage they wrought. Over 30 brutal years they helped turn their commitments to those truths into a workable peace process, in the face of odds which to many seemed insurmountable. Too many English politicians now seem to take this peace so easily for granted that they dismiss the importance of its roots in Ireland’s and the UK’s common membership of the European Union.

People often made jokes about Hume’s “single transferrable speech”: the one he delivered year in, year out from Derry to Dublin to London to Washington and Brussels. In it he unfailingly demanded peace, power-sharing and respect for each other’s traditions and identities.

But whatever the jokers thought, Hume knew something important that he learned as a teacher. Repetition works. Eventually the basic facts – of French grammar, or Irish history, or the fundamental elements of a peace process – could with patience be drummed into even the most obdurate of brains.

Mallon spoke a similar truth. Sometimes observers would be amazed to see him telling constituents to keep their potential votes rather than pander to their prejudices, and be dishonest about his most deeply held principles.

Mallon showed a class of moral courage which is rare in general. It is even rarer in the current British Labour party which ties itself in knots in its efforts to pander to the perceived prejudices of the Tory voters in its former “Red Wall” seats. Unfortunately it seems they have come to believe that this demands they give Johnson a free pass on his most outrageous lie: that there are benefits to Brexit.

Labour’s leadership may be decent people, but their nature is such that they do not properly conceive of the harms that Johnson so casually wreaks upon them. History is happening to them, and they lack the steel of a Hume or a Mallon to bend its arc back towards justice. 

The Power of Geography: 10 maps that reveal the future of our world, by Tim Marshall

Summary: a further compelling lesson on geopolitics from Tim Marshall who highlights some of the challenges – and opportunities – that humanity will face in the coming decades

The Power of Geography is a follow up to Marshall’s magisterial introduction to geopolitics, Prisoners of Geography.

In this volume he focuses on some emerging issues, including how we as human beings will explore space. He also discerns potential for conflict arising in important parts of the world, such as the Sahel and Ethiopia. These places are often little understood to outsiders. But issues arising there are likely to have a huge bearing on the course of human events in the coming years as ancient national aspirations, global warming and competition for water forces political choices that will ripple out across the planet.

I regretted that Prisoners of Geography had no discussion of Britain and Ireland. This book does have a discussion of the UK, currently a leading contender for the title of most bizarrely deluded country in the world.

It has earned this unenviable accolade by deciding to make policy for itself with almost no discernible consideration of geography. Brexit, the fevered wet dream of a few disaster capitalists and frothing xenophobes, has now become the guiding principle of UK policy. Marshall pays little attention to the disastrous impact of this policy on Irish peace, which was built on the foundations of the UK’s and Ireland’s common European Union membership. But he does note how it has added impetus to the Scottish desire for independence. This consequence of Brexit would, Marshall observes, likely cause greater damage to the UK’s international standing than Brexit itself.

If that happens it would be a deserved fate. Over the past half decade the UK seems to have embraced a vision in which international rule of law should not apply to it. Hence its legal commitments are today hardly worth the paper they are written on. Such rogue states are not deserving of respect.

Of course, Marshall has a much broader perspective in this book than the repercussions of Brexit. His discussions also encompass Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain, Greece and even Australia. Each chapter is filled with fascinating historical and geographic detail and a clear perspective on their geopolitical implications. It is an outstanding companion to Prisoners of Geography and an essential book for anyone interested in current affairs and the issues that may confront us in the coming years.

Warriors: Life and death among the Somalis, by Gerald Hanley

Summary: An exquisite book about an unusual aspect of the Second World War in a part of the world that is still little known and understood

Warriors is Gerald Hanley’s account of his experiences during the Second World War when he was posted to Somalia as an officer with the King’s African Rifles. Somali friends have described it to me as the best book about Somalia written by a foreigner.

Hanley was not a typical British officer. An Irish Catholic from Liverpool, he was politically anti-colonialist, and so had an instinctive sympathy for those on the receiving end of the British Imperial project. He seems also to have had a particular fascination with Somalia and the Somalis. He appreciated their fierce individualism, and perhaps had some sense of kinship with them: the stories he tells, of their raiding, their magic and their poetry, has echoes of the Ulster cycle of legends from Iron Age Ireland.

Later Hanley led Somalis in battle in Burma. He remembered how the Somalis appreciated the Japanese there. They were a rarity: an enemy that the Somalis could go hand to hand with who would not run away. 

The troops of the King’s African Rifles were from many parts of Africa and many different cultures and communities. But they were united by the common usage of “army Swahili” as their medium of communication.

Hanley reflects at one point that this common language and the experience of common purpose and mutual dependence that war brought gave him a glimpse of a community that the British Empire could have been. But of course, he was also aware that the very moment he discerned this possibility it was already too late. Such a vision was already fatally undermined by the British Empire’s original sins of theft, racism and subjugation.

But it’s a reflection that I was reminded of this week when the Scottish elections delivered a decisive mandate for a new independence referendum. In response English politicians and commentators again made assertions that Britain is “better together”. But it is far too late for this hollow argument after half a decade of concerted campaigning and government intent on proving that the UK is a singularly English project in which the hopes and fears of subordinate nations simply don’t matter. English contempt for Irish peace, for the Scots, and indeed for the rest of Europe, apart from Putin’s Russia, is hardly any foundation for a community of equals.

So, fifty years after the first publication of Warriors, the UK looks as doomed as the British Empire. That’s also probably a good thing.

Do Not Disturb: The story of a political murder and an African regime gone bad, by Michela Wrong

Summary: An exceptional, and exceptionally courageous, study of Paul Kagame’s Rwandan dictatorship

I’ve been a fan of Michela Wrong since her first book exploring the history of Congo, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz. Her subsequent books on Eritrea, and particularly, on Kenyan corruption have been excellent.

Do Not Disturb is, however, by far her best book. It is an extraordinary work exploring the path to power of Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda.

Kagame, and Rwanda, have been the darlings of Western aid donors for decades. As Wrong points out he’s a regular at Davos. Both Labour and Conservative UK governments have fawned over him, and his musings pop up from time to time in the Guardian.

Which is all quite strange because it has been plain for decades that Kagame is a psychotic war criminal. He has waged illegal war. His armies have plundered eastern Congo with vicious abandon. He has assassinated democratic opponents in foreign lands. And he has massacred civilians both at home in Rwanda and abroad. In other words, Wrong details the atrocities of a man as rapacious of Central Africa as the worst of the colonial powers.

Since his earliest days as an intelligence officer in the Ugandan bush, Kagame has never been one to put himself in harm’s way. However he is an enthusiastic giver of orders, sending others out to murder on his behalf. As president Kagame has shown himself a petty bully as well as a murderous dictator.

Alongside Kagame’s story Wrong explores the careers of, among others, Fred Rwigyema, Rwanda’s lost leader, killed in disputed circumstances in 1990 shortly after the RPF invaded Rwanda, Seth Sendashonga, Rwanda’s first post-genocide interior minister, a democratic Hutu politician assassinated on Kagame’s orders, probably with the assistance of Patrick Karegeya, whose own assassination opens the book and whose story provides a thread through the narrative.

Given all of this, the book is not just an exemplary work of history and journalism, it is also a work of extraordinary courage. Wrong knows how vindictive Kagame is, and how murderous his state apparatus is: she details it here. Nevertheless she has done the whole of the Great Lakes region an immense service, by exposing in such unflinching detail Kagame’s corrupt brutality.

If, over the past two decades, donor governments had shown but a modicum of Wrong’s courage perhaps Central Africa would have fewer graves. Maybe now, at least, Kagame may have fewer preening op-eds in the pages of the Guardian.

The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, by Anne Applebaum; and The Assault on Truth, by Peter Oborne

Summary: Lies, and the lying fascists who tell them

I was in Brazil just before Jair Bolsonaro was elected to the presidency there. Why not give him a chance, one taxi driver asked me. What’s the worst that can happen?

The soaring death toll from Covid in Brazil rather answers that question. As similar levels of carnage have shown, under Trump in the US, and Johnson in the UK, electing fascists is never good for the national health – literally. How could it be otherwise when people are but livestock and cannon fodder to them.

In spite of the setback that Joe Biden delivered fascism with his defeat of Trump in the United States presidential election, authoritarianism remains a potent threat to liberal democracy and to the lives and livelihoods of millions across the planet.

These two books are important contributions to the struggle against the far-Right not least because they are by conservative writers: Applebaum a moderate US Republican married to a centre-Right Polish statesman; Oborne is a former Brexiter.

Both books are concerned with the centrality of lying to authoritarian political projects. Applebaum’s perspective is more international, exploring populist political projects in Europe as well as the United States. Oborne focuses much more sharply on the UK and in particular how Boris Johnson has so throughly corrupted British politics and mounted a concerted assault on the independence of the civil service and the judiciary, and debased the notion of parliamentary accountability. It may be churlish to point out to Oborne, given that he has somewhat rethought his position on Brexit, that Johnson’s assault on democracy is more easily undertaken outside the European Union than within. But that is the case.

These are useful books, but hardly happy ones. The rational arguments and pleas for decency that they contain are unlikely to find purchase in the fevered fantasies of the ultras. But they do help the rest of us understand better the machinations of the far Right. And, if we ever hope to successfully oppose something it is first necessary to properly understand it.

Caste: the lies that divide us, by Isabel Wilkerson

Summary: an elegantly written exploration of the poison at the heart of the American nightmare

“The townspeople of the East Texas village of Leesburg hammered a buggy axle into the ground to serve as a stake. Then they chained 19 year old Wylie McNeely to it. They collected the kindling they would use for the fire at the base of his feet, despite his protestations of innocence in connection to the white girl they said he had assaulted. Five hundred people gathered that fall in 1921 to see Wylie McNeely burn to death in front of them.”

Violence has long been at the heart of American society. It was intrinsic to slavery and it is intrinsic to maintaining the systems of preference and privilege that persist in America. With her book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson focuses with impressive clarity on this violence and how it manifests in small ways and large to maintain the system of prejudice and discrimination that still afflicts the United States.

Following the Civil War the lynchings of innocent black people, such as that of Wylie McNeely that Wilkerson describes in such depressing and horrifying detail, became routine to remind black people that whatever the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution said, they still had to know their place. The contemporary police killings of black people serve the same purpose. It is also why so many Americans voted for a corrupt and imbecilic white supremacist to be their president.

As it did for Martin Luther King, the introduction to the South Asia concept of caste helps clarify for Wilkerson the nature of the United States’ own hierarchical system. But, unfortunately, this book provides only a limited discussion on the plight of Dalits – the Untouchables – and Adavasi – tribal peoples – in South Asia where they continue to struggle against ongoing enslavement, and routinized violence comparable to the worst excesses of the United States.

Wilkerson defines caste as the “granting or withholding of respect, status, honour, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in” a hierarchy. She identifies Nazi Germany, contemporary India and the United States as the principal exemplars of caste societies. Indeed, the Nazis drew on the US South’s segregation laws as inspiration for their own anti-Semitic laws, though they did initially find some of the American laws too extreme.

Wilkerson draws some hope from the fact that casteism has been dismantled in German society. However its persistence in both South Asia and the US shows just what a pernicious and destructive idea it still is. But to have any hope of combatting it, it is first necessary to see it clearly, and this is what Wilkerson does in relation to the practice of caste in her own country

Perhaps having diagnosed with such clarity this sickness at the heart of US society, some US legislators may follow the advice of “the Martin Luther King of India”, BR Ambedkar, and propose new laws to help heal a body politic diseased with ignorance and hatred.

How shall we fail thee, Comrades? Let us count the ways…

Summary: UK Labour’s fundamental strategic failure is its endemic innumeracy

Over the next couple of years, as the U.K. readies itself for another general election there will be passionate debates within the U.K. Labour Party about policy offerings. Much ink will be spent on how to regain “traditional” voters whose xenophobia led them to abandon Labour in 2019. There will be much anguish about whether the manifesto is “socialist” enough or whether it represents “centrist” betrayal. Doctrinal dispute, after all, has a visceral delight that has never gone out of fashion.

But in many ways, these disputes will be pedantic irrelevance. Because whatever Labour’s policy offer ultimately is, it’s not going to put Labour into government unless the party enters an electoral alliance with the Lib Dems and Greens.

It is an axiom that the most important skill in politics is the ability to count. (It’s the electoral skill, probably more than any other, that made Lyndon Johnson such a dominant figure in US politics.) And yet, for many years now UK Labour appears innumerate.

It’s never a good idea to go into an election 10 points behind your opposition. But this is what Labour allowed happen to itself in 2019. The result was its worst defeat since 1935 and the installation of an increasingly authoritarian, and wholly incompetent, Conservative government. To make matters worse of course, this happened just as a perfect storm of two existential crises – one constitutional and economic, the other public health – hit the UK.

Innumeracy is a key reason UK Labour has never properly backed the introduction of proportional representation in Westminster elections. Even when the PR-lite “alternative vote” system was offered to the UK electorate a decade ago, many Labour leaders grumbled that it was “too complicated.”

Every other country in Europe has PR. Scotland and Northern Ireland have it for elections for their devolved government structures. Even the US has a form of PR, with its primary system. Why do so many in the UK’s political elite think such a system is too complicated for the English electorate?

Truth is, you do need a basic understanding of fractions and decimal numbers to be able to fully understand most systems of proportional representation. You know: the stuff you were taught in primary school, shortly after “one plus one equals two.”

As it stands the UK’s electoral system is a gerrymander. The population of England is broadly centre-left when one amalgamates the 2019 votes of Labour, the Lib-Dems and the Greens. In spite of this the Conservatives have a massive majority in parliament. This sort of systemic anti-democracy sparked a civil rights movement in the North of Ireland in 1968. However the English continue with their bovine acceptance that this is the best electoral system in the world, because it’s English, just as the British response to Covid is “world-beating” irrespective of how many corpses pile up.

Currently Labour looks set to go into the next gerrymandered UK general election with the same guilelessness born of their innumeracy that allowed them to be bushwacked with such electoral slaughter in 2019. There will be the usual witterings of “undemocratic practices” should anyone suggest an electoral alliance between the broad centre-left parties, or even tactical voting.

Instead Labour seems set to offer as an alternative for government the same Little Englandism offered by the Tories but with a promise for more competent management of the national decline. In such a competition, pandering to the prejudices of the voters of the reactionary portion of the electorate rather than setting out a progressive, internationalist and European alternative to the Tories, Labour seems already doomed to lose.

It’s easy to see why, in spite of all his lethal blundering, Boris Johnson still looks so pleased with himself.

Joe Biden: American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos

Summary: a hopeful portrait of the man striving to rescue American democracy

Joe Biden: American Dreamer is a brief but engaging biography of the US President-Elect, by an author who has covered Biden’s career for over a decade.

Much of the book has previously appeared in New Yorker articles over the years. But it is well researched and elegantly edited together into a highly readable and intriguing portrait of a man who has found a third act to his career just when most other people would be putting their feet up in retirement.

Even before reaching the presidency, Biden’s life has been marked by spectacular achievement and almost unbearable loss. Elected to the Senate just before his 30th birthday appalling personal tragedies followed soon after with the death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. Tragedy struck again when Vice President and his son died of cancer. The grief he has had to bear has eroded much of the arrogance typical of senior politicians and enhanced his legendary gift for empathy.

Still, after decades in the Senate and eight years as Vice President, one might think that a Biden presidency will offer few surprises. But, Osnos describes Biden as a man with a remarkable capacity for learning and acknowledging error and hence an almost Lincolnesque capacity for personal growth and political evolution.

A cautious politician, Biden nevertheless has a keen eye for the historic opportunity. So, appreciating the shifts in the current political environment, most notably the growing hunger amongst young people for social democracy, Biden has incorporated into his campaign leading advisers from the Left of the Democratic Party to help craft key plans for government including on health and the environment.

Biden has suggested a number of times that he wants to have not just a transitional presidency to a new generation, but also a transformational one, comparable to FDR.

In defeating the openly fascist Donald Trump for the presidency Biden has already earned a place in history by helping rescue American democracy itself. And, as Osnos’ book indicates, it would be a fool who would suggest that this is the last service he will do for his country before he finally puts his feet up for that well earned rest.

The Clare in the Community Collection, by Harry Venning

Summary: the iconic hero we need right now

This book is an exquisite collection of Clare’s adventures from her earliest days, through her legendary years in the Guardian, battling government cuts, office politics, and global patriarchy.

Helpfully the book contains facsimiles of the Guardian front pages that accompanied many of the strips, reminding the reader of the events that would have been irking Clare that week.

Self-righteous, occasionally mean, but always with her heart in the right place, Clare is the wonderful creation of Harry Venning. Together, she and he represent the finest social justice traditions of British society, with better jokes than Orwell.

It’s a sardonic love letter to the do-gooders at the sharp end of a broken country, the ones who will ultimately rebuild a decent society after the old Etonian parasites have finally shuffled off the stage.

Just lovely.

What about Donald Trump?

Summary: As Donald Trump endeavours to steal another election, a failure to vote to eject him from office is to be a traitor to all humanity

“Whataboutery” – the practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation of your own – is something of an art form in Ireland. Skilled practitioners can “What about…” all the way back to Richard “Strongbow” de Clare’s invasion of Ireland in 1169 to justify 20th Century IRA atrocities. It’s not a wholly nationalist pastime though. Loyalist practitioners of the dubious art can sometimes go back as far as the massacres of Protestants by partisans of the Irish Catholic Confederacy in 1641 to justify every prejudice and brutality of their tradition.

However Irish primacy in such politically sterile debate has finally been usurped. Unsurprisingly, in this era of political chancers, the preeminent practitioner now is the charlatan-in-chief, Donald J Trump.

Trump has taken “whataboutery” to the next level. He doesn’t just justify his nefarious acts by accusing his opponents of similar heinous deeds. He simply accuses them of the very things he is planning.

So when Donald Trump accused Mexicans of being rapists, it’s because he is a serial sex abuser. When he accused Hilary Clinton of being a crook its because he pilfers from all and sundry, from his contractors, to his own businesses, to the supposed charities that he set up, to the chumps who pay for whatever is the latest brand of snake oil he’s selling. When he accused Clinton of lying it’s because he is fundamentally incapable of telling the truth. When he accuses Joe Biden of using performance enhancing drugs it’s a vain attempt to distract from his incessant snorting of Adderall.

The practitioners of “whataboutery” have always been glib about human life, and Trump is no exception. Like his acolytes in the UK, the desolation and loss of life from the Covid-19 pandemic that he has so ineptly overseen has not disturbed the peace of his conscience. He seems to wholly lack one.

I first began to suspect that Trump had stolen the 2016 election recollecting that he had accused Clinton of trying to steal it herself. His current accusations that if he loses it will be because the election is rigged, is because he is desperately trying to rig it.

Trump starts from an advantage in any election in that the electoral college system that determines who the president is, is, in itself, a gerrymander. This means that in the sparsely populated western states an individual’s presidential vote has much greater value than that of a voter in the more populous states. For example the vote of someone in Wyoming is of 193% greater value than that of a voter in California.

In 2016 Trump leveraged this advantage with the help of Cambridge Analytica’s voter suppression expertise. One can be pretty sure that a bit of Russian hacking in Wisconsin and Michigan helped him over the line in the electoral college.

Trump’s sense of entitlement means that he would not hesitate to steal another election if he can marshal the necessary resources to do it again. This time, of course, the stakes are higher for him with the prospect of prison and creditors awaiting him should he lose. So already he has moved to pack the Supreme Court in case the election ends up there as it did in 2000 with Bush v Gore.

Commanding as Biden’s lead currently is, the next few weeks are going to be nail biting. Because the stakes in this election are not just about the survival of vulnerable US citizens from a plague or the future of US democracy. The planet itself is at stake as the time for meaningful action on climate change runs out.

Given this, anyone entitled to vote in this election who doesn’t vote to eject Trump from the presidency will be a traitor to not only their own country but to all of humanity. And no amount of “whataboutery” will change that fact.