Thursday, 10 January 2019

Brexit and the Damage Done - So Far

Anna Soubry
The recent abuse directed at Anna Soubry MP outside the House of Commons highlights what I consider to be one of the most damaging aspects of the whole Brexit debacle: the polarisation of British public opinion. From the outset, the referendum in 2016, and the subsequent farce, has divided families, friendships, workplaces and political parties. In the Labour Party, for example:
"Today, Labour’s MPs, individual members and affiliated trade unions are overwhelmingly pro-EU and hostile to Brexit. All but about ten Labour MPs voted “Remain” in the referendum. A recent poll of party members found 90% would now vote for Britain to remain in the EU. The problem is that the party leader doesn’t always seem to share their enthusiasm."
Piers Morgan, a man who does not command universal respect and admiration,  was surely correct when he said recently that Brexit has brought an unfamiliar element of intolerant anger from both sides of the debate. This has led to "Remainer" Anna Soubry being called a Nazi by far right protesters (!), and "Leave" dilettante, Nigel Farage, being attacked in his car when with his family. In the 1970s, I took part in protests against extreme right figures like John Tyndall and Martin Webster. I thought this justified as these men stood for violence against political opponents and mass deportation (or worse!) of ethnic minorities. I see no justification for violence or intimidation by either side in the Brexit debate - but it has happened, and may prove to be a genie difficult to get back into the bottle.
For the genie of violence has gone beyond  the limits of the 1970s. We all remember the horrific murder of Jo Cox, M.P., by the Leave campaigner, Thomas Mair. We should also bear in mind the death of Duncan Keating in 2016, two days after the referendum. Keating, a "Leave" voter, died after a fight with a Remain-voting neighbour, Graham Dunn. And, of course, let's not forget the rise in hate crime, which has doubled in the past five years, according to the Home Office.
All this is bad enough, but there have been other negative effects. The economy, predicted to suffer post-Brexit, is suffering already. As The Guardian says:
"The UK economy is already 2.5% smaller than it would have been had Remain won the referendum. Public finances have been dented by £26bn a year, more than half of the defence budget. This translates to a penalty of £500m a week, a figure that is growing."
My final area of concern is the growth of Populism and the commensurate rise of the Far Right. Anna Soubry is not a Nazi; anyone with a minimal grasp of political theory knows this to be a ridiculous accusation. The problem is that many people are ignorant of political theory and political history. The protesters who abused and harangued Anna Soubry would react with hostile derision if you pointed this out to them. Subtleties such as facts are of no interest to what is clearly a shower of ex-English Defence League members, acting like Nazis themselves.I believe this to be part of what I can only describe as a celebration of ignorance. My main charge against the referendum and Brexit is this: it has legitimised prejudice, division and unthinking hostility to people of different opinions. This does not, of course, mean that we are engaged in internecine warfare, but at times it feels like it.
By way of an afterthought, there is one more area where Brexit has caused us damage: our international prestige has been seriously weakened by the referendum result, the absurd antics we have seen during the past two years of "negotiations" with the EC and the recent defeats of the government's efforts to provide a solution. All this has made us look insular and incapable of sane governance to people abroad. And we haven't even left the EC yet, nor has the Irish border problem been resolved. Social division, political intolerance and violence, the rise of the far right, an economy that already looks shaky and diminished prestige abroad - if there's light at the end of the tunnel, I can't see it.
Soldiers of ignorance: EDL in all their glory

Friday, 14 December 2018

The Rhymes and Routes Christmas Message, 2018

The Rhymes and Routes Christmas Message this year comes from the President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump. 
Hi there! I am going to be kinda busy over the Christmas holiday period, so I thought it best to let the wonderful people of Great Britain know that I'm thinking of them - even the pinkos who run this damnfool blog. I have had numerous adverse comments made about me on here, but as it is Christmas and just opened a bottle of Jack Daniels, I'm inclined to be forgiving - for now.
As it is Christmas, I'd like to talk about the birth of the man who gave his name to this season - and it's not me yet. I am, of course, talking about Jesus Christ. Despite the fact that he has a Mexican name, I still feel a strong affinity for this wonderful man, who has so much in common with me. Like myself, he came from a humble background, lived an austere life of service and faced horrendous calumnies. As Jesus was falsely accused, so have I been. At this wonderful time of year, it is sad to recollect the fake news that has been spread about me since my inauguration. All this nonsense about my alleged links with Russia is one example. President Putin himself told me that in my place he would not be so forgiving, but, as Jesus did, I forgive my critics in the true spirit of Christmas. Just wait until the new year, you know, I never drink alcohol, but this whiskey tastes real good.
I guess one big difference between me and Jesus Christ is that, by my personal magnetism, I have enjoyed the company of many beautiful women. Jesus had magnetism too, which means we share a God-given characteristic. I know there have been slanderous allegations made against me about my dealings with women, but they are all lies. Sometimes I think that my Russian friends are spreading stories about me as well as the ones I like to see written about Hillary Clinton! Lousy overpaid schmucks...I need another drink...
Still, I now wish to extend my warmest wishes for Christmas to the people back in the mother country, especially in my ancestors' wonderful land of Scotland. I love Scotland, because I always feel so venerable there. It seems that very few of the wonderful Scottish people live to be over 65. This, I am aware, is because they eat fried food for every meal, get drunk every day and the only exercise they get is when they whup the crap out of each other. Still, there is one item from Scotland that I truly prize, and that is Irn-Bru. Rubbing it on my skin gives me a wonderful tan. Happy Hogmanay, Guys!
I wish to send my sincere Christmas wishes to my wonderful old friend, Teresa May, who is having a hard time right now. I hope to see you at Chequers soon, Teresa! Chequers is a wonderful game that I'm really good at, as I've played it for years. Even if Teresa isn't Prime Minister for very much longer, we'll still be friends. I'll wave at her when I next drive through London. When you get the Brexit you guys deserve, I'll send advisers to show you how to build a wall around your borders. You can pay for it.
As President of my country, it has been my mission to make the world a safer, more peaceful place. I have worked tirelessly to bring peace to Korea, where North and South still have differences, but East and West Korea are now completely at peace. I am humbly aware that this is what the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, would have wanted. This Jack Daniels is making me feel really wonderful...

Thank you for your kind message, Mr President. No words can express my feelings at this moment, but, if anyone needs a glass of Jack Daniels right now, it's me!

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Vietnam, Max Hastings and Curious Absences

Max Hastings' latest book must have been a challenge to write, as so many books have been written about the Vietnam War already. Hastings has a reputation as a right-winger - Private Eye calls him "Hitler" - yet he has tried very hard to produce an even-handed account of the conflict, and how it affected all the nations involved. This is creditworthy of itself, as, like he says of French and American historians of the subject, they:
"...write as if it was their own nation's story. Yet this was predominantly an Asian tragedy...around forty Vietnamese died for every American".
 Instead of a bare chronology, Hastings sets out to answer the question: "What was the war like?" And in this, he succeeds very well.
Digressing somewhat, I need to provide some personal reflections. I spent the Vietnam war years in the comparative safety of Southport, Lancashire, and, in a sense, aged along with the conflict. I was 25 when Hastings, on his own admission, lost his nerve and joined the ignominious helicopter- borne evacuation of the US embassy in Saigon in 1975. Like most of my contemporaries, I was affected by the music, art and culture of the late 60s and early 70s, and when the Vietnam War ended, I felt as if something integral to my life had vanished. Even with my nascent political consciousness, I recognised that to be a merciful thing.
Not everyone felt like that. In the late 70s, I asked a merchant seaman ("Jack"), whom I knew had sailed to Viet Nam many times during the war, what he thought of it all. His answer startled me:
"I loved it!".
In brief, Jack had done very well out of the war, making money hand over fist, delivering cargoes to the South Vietnamese regime. Living in New Zealand at the time, he had beaten up many anti-war students, whom he saw as trying to end his lucrative lifestyle. He nurtured an abiding rancour for opponents of the war:
 "Peaceniks and reporters - they ruined a good war!"
I leave the reader to form his or her own views on the underlying morality (or lack of it) of Jack's views, but we'll hear from him again later.
Returning to the book, Hastings begins with the inescapable fact that the history of the Vietnamese people has not been a happy one. They have known occupation by the Chinese (1000+years; finally kicked out 1426), the French (1883 - 1953), and numerous Emperors and warlords before the USA arrived to "help" defend South Vietnam against communist aggression. The USA might have noticed that this was a people who would not take kindly to foreign interference. Some voices in the US administrations recognised this, but were ignored.
One noticeable absence from the impressively comprehensive list of authors at the end of the book is that of John Pilger. This is surprising, as Pilger was a frequent commentator on Vietnam, during and after the war. In fact, Pilger was evacuated from the US Saigon embassy in 1975 at the same time as Hastings. Pilger has written much about the war and its aftermath, and it is curious how Hastings nowhere quotes him. Nonetheless, John Pilger is a conspicuous absence in Hastings' book, perhaps because he is less "objective".
Not that Hastings is any the less scathing about American "assistance" to South Viet Nam than Pilger. He acknowledges that the US intervention was justified by what would now be called "fake news" - the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, where North Vietnamese torpedo boats had supposedly attacked a US spy ship (they hadn't) and that the "helpful" landing of US Marines at Da Nang in 1964 happened without the prior knowledge of the South Vietnamese government. Pilger describes this as an "invasion", but then, this is not about him.
Where Hastings excels is in his depiction of combat, both on the ground and in the air and in relating his descriptions to the overall strategy of both sides. He recognises that both sides fought well at times and disastrously badly at others. The North Vietnamese supremo is recognised as Lee Duan (not Ho Chi Minh), an implacable and utterly ruthless member of the Politburo who authorised the 1968 Tet Offensive, which was a military disaster for the Viet Cong, if a political victory for the North Vietnamese cause. Nor does Hastings spare US commanders who, in his words, often:"...exhibited folly of Crimean proportions". Hastings makes it clear that both sides were pitiless in their destruction of the environment and its impact upon civilians. The NVA and NLF pillaged villages for food supplies; the Americans destroyed whole areas of jungle and crop growing land with Agent Orange.
Hastings is scrupulously fair when it comes to the atrocities that were committed by both sides. The Viet Cong were merciless in their treatment of civilians they considered traitors, but, says Hastings, their atrocities were not featured in the Western press, whereas US and South Vietnamese atrocities were. Anyone who took an interest in the war remembers the naked little girl scorched by napalm, the Viet Cong soldier shot in the head by Saigon's police chief during the Tet Offensive and the ongoing atrocity that the US administration never realised caused them the most international and domestic opprobrium: the bombing of North Viet Nam. The poet, Adrian Mitchell, summed up this (largely ineffective but expensive and murderous) campaign in his classic poem "To Whom it May Concern":
"You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out,
You take the human being and you twist it all about".
Adrian Mitchell, along with the legion of poets, writers and musicians who opposed the war in Vietnam, is curiously absent from the book. I can appreciate that Hastings wanted to write a strictly political and military history, but, as I know myself, the reaction to the war led to a huge surge in what was called the "60s counter-culture", with the appearance of the hippie movement in western countries and great numbers of anti-war demonstrations. The war influenced the writing of poems and lyrics which were often masterly in their attacks on the war. Who can forget the lines in the song by Country Joe Macdonald? :
"Be the first one on your block
To have your boy come home in a box"
When Joan Baez sang "We Shall Overcome" in the 60s, it was a protest against the war in Vietnam as well as part of the struggle for Civil Rights in the USA. Hastings would probably say (rightly, if not relevantly) that such dissent would not have been tolerated in North Viet-Nam, but the poems, songs and protests gave focus and encouragement to all who opposed the war.
Relating to the question of Viet Cong atrocities, I recall Tariq Ali being questioned about them after the so-called Battle of Grosvenor Square, in 1968. He said this by way of reply, as far as I can remember:
"We dismiss them (VC atrocities) as irrelevant. The French Resistance committed what may have been thought atrocities, but it was the cause that mattered"
He had a point. As any Marxist would say: there is a difference between the violence of the oppressed and that of the oppressor. And Herbert Marcuse did say that there is a difference between Red Terror and White Terror; between defending an old order with violence and the overthrowing of that order. In the case of Viet Nam, I believe the whole issue to be irrelevant; the war itself was an atrocity that could have been avoided. John Pilger has said that had the US not intervened, Vietnam would have become an independent Marxist non-aligned state, as was Yugoslavia; Hastings says this is a mistaken view, as the North Vietnamese leadership were committed Stalinists; I say that anything would have been better than this horrible conflict.
The American justification for this disaster was that they were "helping" the South Vietnamese defeat Communism. When US troops went into action, post-1964, they came to form a generally low opinion of the ARVN (South Vietnamese troops). The bulk of the fighting fell upon the American soldiers and marines, and it was no surprise when they referred to their allies as "dinks" and "gooks". They forgot that they, the US troops, would serve a fixed-term tour of duty and then go home, back to "The World" on "The Great Big Bird to Paradise". The ARVN, on the other hand, however much they suffered and fought, had nothing to look forward to but more fighting. No incentive there. It is remarkable how some ARVN formations continued to fight well, as Hastings, to his credit, makes clear. Even when things fell apart in 1975 and the PAVN (People's Army Of Viet Nam) drove on Saigon, some South Vietnamese formations fought with the utmost gallantry, while most ARVN units disintegrated alongside them. It has taken a right-of-centre Englishman to publicly acknowledge their doomed bravery.
There are villains in this book a-plenty: Richard Nixon, who kept American troops in Viet Nam, even when he knew the war was lost. 21 000 troops were killed while he procrastinated about their withdrawal. Lee Duan, who drove his people to suffer and to be slaughtered for the cause in which many did not believe. As one ex-PAVN soldier said recently on TV: "We weren't fighting for Karl Marx, but to drive out all foreigners". But, thankfully, there are heroes and humanitarians: the North Vietnamese prison guard who lost two relatives in an American bombing raid on Hanoi, yet still shook hands and wished well to US prisoners of war who were released two days later. The boxer, Muhammad Ali (not mentioned in the book), who refused military service and risked imprisonment for his stand - "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger". And the unbelievably courageous helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, who rescued Vietnamese civilians at risk of being murdered during the My Lai massacre, 1968, and who "raised hell" for years afterwards about this crime committed by Charlie Company.
This is a long, powerful and disturbing book, which I recommend to anyone interested in post-WW2 history. it provides insight and information into the actions and motives of the prime movers in the conflict. My only (mild) criticism is that I would have liked to see further insight into the motivation of the fighters on both sides, and what underlying factors drove the NLF and NVA in particular on to so many sacrifices. I think I can provide some insight here, with another anecdote from Jack the sailor, mentioned above.
Again in the late 1970s, Jack was talking about an incident during one of many US "search and destroy" missions in Viet Nam. A group of GIs happened upon  an old drinks vendor and demanded coke to drink. The old man refused, presumably because he wanted payment. One GI raised his rifle and gave the old man "two in the chest". Jack was smiling as he told me this, and he clearly approved of the GI's action. He saw no problem with this killing, as, said Jack, the GIs were fighting for the freedom of the old man's country. The contradictions and immorality of this view were completely lost on Jack.
Anyone seeking to understand how the United States alienated so many Vietnamese can learn something from Jack's brief anecdote.
Was anything learned from the US debacle in Viet Nam? The USSR learned nothing, as the world saw when they invaded Afghanistan. The resulting war, and eventual withdrawal, became known as "Russia's Viet Nam". We British, of course, beat many imperial retreats post-WW2. None, happily, were as bloody and destructive as Viet Nam and Afghanistan - although every bit as inglorious. As for the USA, let's fast forward to the early noughties. After the invasion of Iraq, I clearly remember seeing on TV a black GI haranguing a group of Iraqi women:
 "We are here for your f-----g freedom!"
Plus ca change.

Monday, 12 November 2018

The Armistice, Remembrance and Me

The Hounslow War Memorial

I must own up; I have no personal connection to the Armistice of 1918. As far as I know, no forebears of mine died in the conflict. In fact, I don't even know of any who served in the armed forces in WW1. Nevertheless, I have had an abiding interest in that war, having read a number of books on the subject, even when I was too young to fully understand the surrounding issues. I seldom talk to anyone about WW1, though, as I don't like anoraks myself. These are the types who have an enthusiasm for some activity, eg, Jazz or sport, and at every opportunity will bore you by diverting conversation to that subject. If you have never met anyone like this, believe me, they exist.
In the 60s, WW1 came to signify meaningless carnage - the image of Tommies going over the top to be slaughtered epitomised the futility of war. An "anti-war" spirit towards the Great War pervaded popular culture, with productions such as "Oh, What a Lovely War!" and a revived interest in the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, two of the greatest war poets in any language. The contemporary poet, Roger McGough, expressed the prevailing view of many in his poem "On Picnics":

"at the goingdown of the sun
and in the morning
I try to remember them
but their names are ordinary names
and their causes are thighbones
tugged excitedly from the soil
by frenchchildren
on picnics"

This does not mean that Roger McGough was himself callously indifferent to the fallen of WW1. On the contrary, anyone has read his poetry will know that he is deeply compassionate towards the victims of war, even writing about his own family members who suffered war's after effects. But this poem does sum up the attitude of many in the 60s - WW1 happened a long time ago; it was futile; the men and women who fell died for nothing, and they, like the war itself, should be forgotten.
This has been an enduring viewpoint, seen in films such as "Tunes of Glory", "The Trench" and "Joyeux Noel". It can be heard in 80s songs like "Stop the Cavalry" (Jona Lewie), "The Children's Crusade" (Sting) and seen in the classic TV series of the 90s, "Blackadder Goes Forth".
What no-one took into account were the thoughts and feelings of survivors of the Great War. This view dismissed them as helpless victims - suckers, in other words. I cannot remember a single TV or radio programme that asked them whether they thought their hardship and sacrifice had been worth it or not; they were seemingly dismissed as being obsolete and irrelevant. Lyn Macdonald, in her marvellous book "To The Last Man", commented on this:
"In recent years I have listened in the company of (Great) war veterans to speeches which were kindly meant and expressed with real sincerity but whose sentiments have caused them pain...they realised long ago how difficult it can be to explain the concepts of loyalty, as they understood them..."
One positive result of the recent Armistice commemorations, as well as all other such events since 2014, has been to awaken a wider interest on the part of the general public towards those who fought in our name in WW1. There has been a greater debate on the rights and wrongs of Britain's entry to the conflict, and a boost in personal remembrance at public events and on social media. Many families have discovered more about long-forgotten forebears and learned to appreciate their sacrifice and suffering. Those forebears might have had "ordinary names", in Roger McGough's words, but they were people much like ourselves, in an extraordinary and nightmarish situation. It is as if, after the passage of a century, a barrier has been broken and a new bond has been formed.
For me, as far as I know, having no family members to remember, the barrier to the past was broken by my online work for Sefton Libraries: "Beyond the War Memorials", which I wrote about on April 29. Thanks to my work on the Waterloo and Seaforth War Memorial, and my investigations into the stories behind the names on that memorial, I had someone to remember. During the two minutes silence, I remembered them: Harold Joseph Wright, 14 years old, died on the Lusitania...Francis Zacharias, son of a German father and English mother...the gallant Walter Duncan, who escaped from German captivity...the brothers Andrew, Robert and Charles Cunningham, lost in France and Egypt...I thought of them all. A simple message on a wreath at Hounslow War Memorial summed up my feelings towards those newly important, if "ordinary" names:
And yet, while I now feel a much greater affinity and respect for our war dead, and fully appreciate the importance of commemorating the Armistice, I cannot help but reflect on the sadly unfulfilled hope of the combatants and survivors of 1914-18: that it would be the war to end wars. The violence went on in many places: Ireland, Turkey, Russia, Germany and the Baltic states. Warfare itself became even nastier, with civilians suffering an increased proprtion of casualties. And, of course, the rise of Nazism in Germany led to WW2, partly, it is said, as a result of the terms imposed on the defeated Germans by the "victorious" Allies. But there was more to it than that. The C-in-C of US forces in France, General Pershing, said, in 1923:
"We never really let the Germans know who won the war. They are being told that their army was stabbed in the back, betrayed, that their army had not been defeated. The Germans never believed they were beaten. It will have to be done all over again.."
With the General's words in mind, I wrote this poem to mark the centenary of the 1918 Armistice:
Under fire from dawn,
We crouched in holes and slimy ditches
While spiteful bullets went buzzing overhead.
I prayed and sang with men and boys
Listening to the battle’s noise.
It stopped. Eleven a.m.
We sat for a while, bathing in silence,
Then slowly stood and cheered “The End”
And talked of going home again.
We sang “Goodbyeee” to sniper and shell,
Escapees from attritional hell.
Our foes stood up, side by side.
One German officer saluted and cried:
“Farewell, Tommy – we’ll meet again!”
And tried to control his wavering men.
The sun shone down with a friendly light
On souls emerging from endless night.
We shook their hands and said goodbye.
We drank a toast and wondered why
We’d had to fight.
They cheered, and marched off out of sight.

We drank more wine, and, gathered there,

The Padre led us all in prayer

For God to cause all wars to cease

And all mankind to live in peace.

But later, as I tried to sleep,

I thought long and I thought deep

Of the officer’s words before he went-

“We’ll meet again” – and what that meant.

The Tower of London, 11/11/2018. Photo by Bryan Morris.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

"Maids in Hell" - Beirut to Park Lane

I was brought up with stories about William Wilberforce (1759 - 1833), pictured above. His campaign, along with other British abolitionists, led to the outlawing of the slave trade in the British Empire. He died about a month before the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act, yet he saw the beginning of the end of what he, and others, saw as an abhorrent institution. 
I wonder how Wilberforce would have reacted to a programme shown on the BBC three days ago - "Maids in Hell:Why Slavery?". It was a disturbing programme that dealt with the treatment of African and Filipina maids in the Middle East - specifically Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Abuse of such workers has been reported before, but this programme conducted some hard-hitting interviews with a Lebanese employment agency ( run by the urbane Maher Dumit),Emma Mburu, a formidable Kenyan senator opposed to the domestic worker trade and some heart-rending interviews with ex-maids who described, in graphic detail, the ill-treatment they had received at the hands of their Middle Eastern employers.
Of course, there are obvious differences between this form of "employment" (called "Kafala") and the slavery system that Wilberforce campaigned to abolish. These domestic maids are, in theory, paid for their services, and their contracts end after about two years. Instead, their passports are confiscated, they are not allowed to change jobs and, in Jordan at least, they are not allowed to have mobile phones.
If this were not bad enough, some (many?) Middle Eastern employers of maids have a habit of expecting far more from the maids than simple domestic duties. Human Rights Watch has described numerous cases of beatings, and of sexual abuse of maids. Rothna Begum interviewed 19 Tanzanian ex-maids, finding that:
"The women who described sexual harassment and assault said that male family members groped them, exposed themselves, chased them around the house, and entered their rooms late at night. Several described attempted rape. Twenty-year-old “Jamila A.” said all the men in the family she worked for in Oman, “even the old man,” assaulted her and hid her room keys so she could not lock her bedroom door."
The BBC programme showed this to be the tip of a very large iceberg. There are also many complaints of maids being forced to work 18-hour days, with no time off. Many never receive any salary at all. Small wonder, then, 10 000 maids fled from Saudi Arabia last year. No surprise, either, that 67% of domestic workers' deaths in Lebanon are caused by suicide or "falling from buildings". One ex-maid in the BBC programme said that she had risked her life escaping from a third-floor flat, preferring death to servitude at the hands of her employer. That might explain these deaths - 110 in Lebanon in 2016, averaging two a week. Most notorious of such cases is that of Joanna Demafelis, a Filipina who was murdered by her employers in Kuwait, stuffed into a freezer and not found for a year.
Maher Dumit, the agent featured in the programme, passed the comment that if Lebanese people were all bad, no maids would go there at all. An ignorant person might ask "Well, why do they go?". The answer is ludicrously simple. These maids are recruited from the poorest people in Third World countries: Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and the Philippines. In fact, the "recruiters" specialise in attracting the desperate of these lands. To provide for their families, these girls and women are prepared to travel thousands of miles to an uncertain future. That is why all domestic workers in the Middle East are there - to send money home. 
The programme ended on a melancholy note. A Kenyan maid, Mary Kibana, a married woman with four children, returned from Jordan with 100% burns. Before she, sadly, passed away, she said that she was caught in a fire in her employer's kitchen. All she remembered next was being found by her employer and kicked. After Mary's funeral, the then Senator Emma Mburu tried contacting a minister in the Kenyan government, who made a politician's answer to her impassioned appeal for action. Mary's family received no back salary and no compensation. Emma Mburu commented: "You feel useless".
A couple of years ago, I felt like that. The programme, rightly, focussed upon this problem at its worst - in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the problem exists right here in the UK, where many wealthy Middle Eastern families own property and, when visiting London, bring their domestic workers with them. They bring their nasty, abusive attitudes to their domestic workers as well. A UK-based group that campaigns for domestic workers brought here was quoted in The Guardian in 2017:
"Kalayaan’s data showed that 85% of domestic workers... reported psychological abuse. In addition, 63% said they had no access to regular food and 81% claimed they were not allowed out of the house; 83% said their employer took their passport, while 33% said they received no wages at all."
This was reported to Kalayaan by domestic workers who escaped from their employers. If accurate, and I have strong personal reasons for believing it to be, we have Middle Eastern slavery right here in London. I have no doubt that this happens in every European capital city and everywhere Middle Eastern employers are domiciled.
I have encountered this awful state of affairs at first hand. Several years ago, we had a runaway Filipina visit us here in Hounslow. She came because a friend of ours, who knew that I am a long-standing member of Amnesty International, thought I could help in some way. And this lady - let's call her "Linda" - needed help. She had been brought to the UK by her Middle Eastern employer to work in the family flat in Mayfair. Linda committed some minor misdemeanour and was threatened by her employer. He said that he would punish her severely for her offence (I think she broke a plate) when they returned home. Wisely, Linda escaped with the help of some Filipinos, only to find herself in a dire situation. She had not heard of Kalayaan (neither had I), she had no passport and faced possible deportation to the Philippines, although she had seen a solicitor.
I tried to help. I phoned AI's head office, but they were unable to provide much assistance. As Linda was possibly facing deportation to the Philippines, where she was not at risk of torture or imprisonment, AI could not intervene. They did give me the phone number of the Refugee Council, but could do no more. I reported back to Linda, and her disappointment was palpable. Like Emma Mburu said: "You feel useless"; I certainly did. 
There is, however, a happy ending. Linda has been allowed to stay in the UK, and is loving it here. After what she has been through, that's no surprise. I could not have secured that for her. I cannot change the dire economic situation that affects so many in the Philippines and Africa, still less can I provide an answer to why so many (not all) Middle Eastern employers are so abusive to domestic workers. The UN condemns this situation, but has little means of taking positive action. In spite of this, I wish I could do more.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

OFSTED and Discovering the Obvious

OFSTED, the Schools Inspection Service, reminds me of the carthorses that used to draw milk wagons prior to WW1. The more elderly carthorses, like OFSTED, were slow and steady but got there in the end. There are differences, of course, but, for now, let's look at a similarity. 
The similarity arises from the recent belated discovery by OFSTED that schools - even primary schools - have become exam factories and that teachers have become "data managers", according to the OFSTED chief, Amanda Spielman, pictured above.
Mrs Spielman went on to say, several days ago: 
"The cumulative impact of performance tables and inspections, and the consequences that are hung on them, has increased the pressure on school leaders, teachers and indirectly on pupils to deliver perfect data above all else... we know that focusing too narrowly on test and exam results can often leave little time or energy for hard thinking about the curriculum, and in fact can sometimes end up making a casualty of it."
All well and good, but the fact remains that I, along with all teachers between 2000 and the present day, have known this for years. I retired in 2011, but still remember the effects of exam stress on pupils that I witnessed before then. I taught in a primary school, and, at that time, Year 6 children took three SATs tests. The highest grade was Level 5, while Level 4 was considered acceptable. Schools were under tremendous pressure to achieve well in their SATs results, which were published like some kind of league table. Year 6 children were taught to the examination to a high degree, going through at least one full mock SATs test, all of which were marked by the class teachers. Many children were subjected to intense pressure from their parents to achieve top grades. I have seen an 11-year girl in floods of tears after gaining two Level 5s and one level 4 - she was frightened that her mum would be angry. Another girl reported to us that her father had threatened to beat her up if she did not get three Level 5s. I lost count of the number of children who told me they were forced to study for hours by their ambitious parents. I myself had a pushy parent complaining that her daughter had only achieved a Level 4 in a practice test when I taught a Year 5 class. For this age group, a Level 4 was a very good result. All this, please note, for what was meant to be a monitoring measure providing assessment information to secondary schools. Instead, it became a virility test for primary schools and a matter of prestige for aspirational parents.
I think I was unkind to carthorses above. After all, they existed to provide a service. OFSTED exist for a service, of course, but they have functioned, until now, to enforce the examination regime which they now say is all wrong. As a veteran of many inspections myself, I regard this change of emphasis with utter cynicism. It's rather like the owner of a horse wondering why the horse never looks happy and, after a number of years, realising that it was because he repeatedly beat the poor creature. OFSTED do not beat teachers, of course, but their highly stressful inspections are part of the problem that they now profess to want to solve.
So - how do OFSTED propose to improve matters? Well, the BBC say that:
"The biggest planned change to the inspection framework is that the section based on "pupil outcomes" (exam results) is likely to be replaced with a new judgement for "quality of education".
There are also plans for three other categories: 1. Personal Development. 2. behaviour and attitudes (presumably of children). 3. School leadership and management.
There will be a consultation in January, which has been welcomed on all sides. This consultation will involve teachers and other "hands on" professionals, and, hopefully, will produce a more humane system for schools. What a pity it has taken so long...
A symbol for OFSTED?

Friday, 14 September 2018

George Galloway - Up Against it

I would not like to be in George Galloway's shoes right now. By looking at his facial expression, you can see that he's feeling up against it. George crops up on this blog every so often, and gets little sympathy. In fact, he gets none from me, as I think him to be an apologist for dictators in the Middle East and elsewhere. Anyone who doubts this must account for his flattery of Sadaam Hussein, his denial that the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened and his fulsome adulation of both President Assad of Syria and the regime in Iran. Please see my 2012 post on this issue. However, his most recent effort at distorting facts has been his support for President Putin over the Salisbury poisoning. He has vehemently defended Russia on this issue for months, on his talkRADIO programme, on YouTube and even to Piers Morgan and Susannah Reid on Good Morning Britain, back in March:
"I have no idea who did the poisoning, but Russia must be near the bottom of the list," he told hosts Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid. He said that Iran had previously produced the chemical, he added that it had been used in Uzbekistan, before pointing the finger at British biological warfare base Porton Down which is a few miles from Salisbury."
I sometimes wonder who George blames for the assassination of JFK.It must be the CIA, FBI or Tony Blair. However, he will have to employ his creativity to the maximum to defend the Russian suspects for the Salisbury poisoning: Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Beshirov. All commentators agree that their interview for RT borders on Monty Pythonesque farce. Their preposterous "explanation" for their visit deserves nothing but ridicule. As the BBC says:
 "They said they only stayed an hour in Salisbury on Saturday 3 March because of the snowy weather conditions, but returned on Sunday 4 March to visit the sights. The two men admitted they may have passed Mr Skripal's house by chance "but we don't know where it is located," Mr Petrov said".
For once, I agree with Teresa May:
 "The lies and blatant fabrications in this interview given to a Russian state-sponsored TV station are an insult to the public's intelligence,"
There has been much discussion today about what the Russian security services hope to achieve by attacks such as the Salisbury and Litvinienko poisonings. The Jeremy Vine programme on Radio 2 offered two explanations. The first, obvious, explanation is that these attacks warn Russians living in the west that the FSB and GRU have a long reach. Secondly, and less obvious, is that by their denials of even the most blatant attacks and the bizarre counter-accusations by the Russian government and their acolytes abroad, it causes widespread confusion about the facts among the general public in the west and Russia itself.
Among these acolytes abroad, of course, is our friend, George Galloway. As I said above, he will be severely taxed to come up with a way to whitewash the Russian "tourists" and their government. Using Photoshop, he could place Tony Blair and George Bush in Salisbury at the time of the attacks. He could blame MI5, MI6, the CIA or the Boy Scouts for the poisonings or, as the dedicated supporter of the Palestinian cause that he is, he could, failing all other options, blame the Israelis. He has an arduous task ahead of him !
Joking apart, while we argue about who is responsible for the Salisbury poison attack, we should remember the victims: Sergei and Yulia Skripal, Dawn Sturgess, Charlie Rowley and a police officer, DS Nick Bailey. Four of these people became severely ill, and Dawn Sturgess lost her life. For them and their relatives, justice must seem to be far away, as are Petrov and Beshirov. George Galloway is going to be very busy.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Labour's Anti-Semitism Quarrels - Ignoring the Real Threat

I hate writing about an issue that leaves no room for fresh insight. The row over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has raged for some time, and there seems to be no immediate solution. I have wondered what it must be like at Labour Party ward meetings nowadays. If they are as fraught as this controversy seems to indicate, they must be very tense and fractious gatherings. Much has been said about this issue in and out of the Labour Party (not to say endlessly repeated), but I saw no reason to comment until a seemingly unrelated event happened in Germany this week.
The event is the outbreak of violence in Chemnitz between right and left wing groups, following an alleged stabbing of a German youth by two immigrants. The violence took the local police force by surprise - 6000 right-wingers arrived in Chemnitz in a very short time. This reminded me of an old concern of mine, and I will discuss it later.
Returning to the Labour anti-Semitism issue, it seems to revolve chiefly around Jeremy Corbyn. There is, of course, the argument about Labour's refusal to adopt the definition of anti-Semitism set out by the  International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's guidelines, which can be read online here. Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for sharing a platform with Hamas and Hezbollah supporters and for (allegedly) laying a wreath on the grave of some Arab terrorists in Tunisia. Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, has entered the fray by saying:
“Now, within living memory of the Holocaust, and while Jews are being murdered elsewhere in Europe for being Jews, we have an antisemite as the leader of the Labour party and Her Majesty’s opposition. That is why Jews feel so threatened by Mr Corbyn and those who support him.”
With due respect to Jonathan Sacks, I think that is more than a little exaggerated. I have not conducted my own opinion poll, but not all Jewish people feel threatened by Corbyn. In fact, some are fervent Corbynistas. Anyone who doubts this can visit the "Jews for Jeremy" website.
I believe many criticisms of Corbyn on this issue to be valid, but he is no anti-Semite, at least according to his definition of the word. As he sees himself, he is an anti-racist, and has a long history of acting according to his principles, opposing far right groups, apartheid in South Africa and Enoch Powell. The sticking point is what he perceives as Zionism and his opposition to Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. Now, as the dreary old cliché that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism appears to serve us well as an explanation of his actions, that appears to wrap things up.
But it does not. The problem is that the extreme right have hi-jacked the word "Zionist", using it as a synonym for "Jew". The National Front (NF) used this trick in the 70s, once describing the opposition to their activities in Ilford as due to a heavy Zionist presence. They did not explain how they knew so many supporters of Israel lived in Ilford - and, of course, they meant Jews. If you announce to a modern-day fascist that you are an anti-Zionist, he will think you mean something else. Genuine anti-Zionists should take this on board.
Besides this, there are real manifestations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party which cannot be ignored. Two examples will suffice:
1.A Jewish Labour MP, Ruth Smeeth, was sent a 1,000 word death threat from a Corbyn-supporter calling her a ‘yid c–t’. The threat followed Smeeth’s decision to walk out of a meeting outlining Labour’s response to anti-Semitism because she was accused of working ‘hand in hand with the right-wing media to attack Jeremy’. Smeeth then received 20,000 abusive messages and has since questioned whether Labour is still ‘a safe space for British Jews’
2. A former Labour parliamentary candidate in Witham, John Clarke, shared a Neo-Nazi meme saying the Rothschild family has used money lending and Israel to ‘take over the world’. He said the meme ‘contained a great deal of truth’ and was later suspended.
There are more to be found HERE. To be fair, most of these incidents have led to (not always enforced) disciplinary action, but they stain the name of the Labour Party.
Ending on a personal note, I am a lifelong Labour supporter and will continue to vote Labour in coming elections - but I know some lifelong Labour supporters who will not. I hope that Labour will stop tearing itself apart, and I will only stop supporting Labour if things do become overtly anti-Semitic, although I might consider it if George Galloway is allowed back into the party.
Returning to events in Germany, I think we see a manifestation of the real face of anti-Semitism and eliminationist racism. The neo-Nazis who riot in Chemnitz are only one face of the monster rising from the deep. The far Right is on the rise all over Europe, and internecine quarrels between the rest of us can only work to their advantage. Given their chance, they will put all ethnic minorities, Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews and political opponents into the same boat, concentration camp or gas chamber. Bertolt Brecht has fallen out of fashion since the demise of Communism, but his words on Hitler ring true to this day:
"Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For, though the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again."