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Ousmane Sembène, Les Bouts de bois de Dieu

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 01/07/2022 - 11:11pm in

More than forty years ago, before I went to university, I was living in Paris and became an “organized sympathiser”, a candidate for membership, of the Trotskyist sect Lutte Ouvrière. The training for people like me consisted, of course, of reading some Marxist classics, but also of making one’s way through a list of novels that included, as I recall, Zola’s Germinal, Christiane Rochefort’s Les Stances à Sophie, Malraux’s Les Conquérants and La Condition Humaine, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, London’s The Iron Heel and certainly some others that I forget. One of the books that I never got round to was Ousmane Sembène’s Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, and I had more or less forgotten about it until a contact on social media with whom I share many mutual friends reported reading it after a trip to Senegal. So I thought I would give it a go.

It is one of the most remarkable novels I have read in the past several years and deserves to be widely knows as a classic. It is an epic constructed somewhat in the manner of a great Russian novel (think of Grossman’s Life and Fate, for example) and centres on a strike of African railway workers, against the French rail company and the colonial administration in 1947-8. The strikers are poor, many of them are illiterate, they are Muslims, many are in polygamous families and they are regarded by the French as savages and by their religious leaders as people who ought to be grateful and know their place. Yet they have their dignity and cannot accept that they are worth less than the whites who work on the railway, that they should have no entitlement to family support, or to a pension in their old age. So they strike, heedless of the advice of their elders who had done the same ten years before.

The hero, if there is one is Ibrahima Bakayoko, a charismatic leader with a complicated domestic and love life. Yet for a good half of the novel he does not feature, we are waiting for him. Instead, after the initial decision and some ensuing violence and death, most of the action focuses on three groups of households, in Bamako, Thiès and Dakar and on the struggle of the women to survive in the absence of wages. Sembène is a master of description and of set-piece scenes that capture the essence of the conflict: the killing of a ram belonging to a quisling character, the trial of a strikebreaker, raids by teenage apprentices armed with slingshots, the death of a grouchy old caretaker who is trying to catch rats to eat, the raids by colonial authorities and the resulting death and destruction, a march by the women of Thiès to Dakar to demand justice, the embittered ranting of the old colonials, the prison and the torture of detainees. He also conjures wonderful characters: Penda “the whore” who hates men but fights alongside them, N’Deye Touti who wishes she was white and suffers that harsh lesson that she is not, Maïmouna the blind woman with her twin babies that nobody knows the paternity of, Fa Keïta the elderly and devout railworker who preaches forgiveness and humanity in the face of colonial cruelty. In many ways the women, often the polygamous wives of the striking men, are the central characters: depicted with dignity, agency and not at all as they might feature in the white liberal imagination.

In brief, I cannot recommend it highly enough. There is an English edition in the Heinemann African Writer’s series (where the author’s name is given as Sembene Ousmane) but I haven’t checked the translation which seems to have many fewer pages than the original (but maybe the print is small). It would make a great movie on the scale of Dr Zhivago, but they don’t make them like that any more.

Book Note: Erin Pineda, Seeing Like an Activist

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 22/06/2022 - 6:49pm in

I’ve just finished Erin Pineda’s Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press, 2021), and it is a very welcome addition to the literature on both civil disobedience and the history of the US civil rights movement that anyone interested in either topic should read. Pineda is keen to push back against a particular liberal constitutionalist theory of civil disobedience, associated with Bedau and Rawls that purports to draw on the US civil rights movement but which, according to her, ends up both falsifying the history and provides succour to a narrative about civil rights that is used to discipline subsequent movements (such as Black Lives Matter) as failing to live up to the standards set by the activists of the 1960s. That narrative and theory also supports what we might call a form of soft white supremacy, according to which a nearly-just republic composed largely of white citizens was already in place and the task of civil disobedience was to communicate the anomalous exclusion of black Americans from the polity, so that white citizens, apprised of this injustice and stricken by conscience, would act to rectify things.

This standard liberal narrative around civil disobedience has fidelity to law and an acknowledgement of the basic justice and legitimacy of the established order at its heart. The task of civil disobedients on this view is to act non-coercively and non-violently but to break the law (a bit) only to raise the awareness of citizens considered as fellows who are thought of not as themselves implicated in the injustice but as basically good people who would act if only they knew. The civil disobedient on this view submits willingly, even eagerly, to punishment in order to testify to injustice whilst also accepting the shared framework of law. The tacit framework here is also a nationalist one (or at least a statist one) of shared co-operation among fellows who want to establish a just order on national territory together.

This picture, Pineda demonstrates, is just historically wrong and naive. Black civil disobedients did not see their position in a national frame and as an unfortunate national anomaly but rather saw their struggle as part of a wider global fight for racial justice that encompassed Indian independence, Ghanian struggles against colonialism and the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Far from going to prison as an act of communication to white liberals, activists saw it as part of a refusal to compromise with a racist state, as an act of defiant self-actualization, and as a tactic for draining the resources of the oppressor. And far from seeing northern whites as being generally on the side of justice, they saw them as implicated in racial oppression, indifferent to the poverty and discrimination of the black citizens around them and too willing to see the South as somewhere exceptional that was nothing to do with them.

I only felt (mildly) frustrated by material that the book did not cover but which another book might have and which the author may yet address in subsequent work. The first of these is that the focus on the civil rights movement and the struggle for black equality obscures from view other aspects of the US as a white settler state such as the domination of indigenous peoples and their struggles and of the racially exclusionary laws against Chinese and other immigrants, also designed to bolster white supremacy. Second, I found myself wanting more comparative material about disobedience and non-violent resistance but drawing on other countries and traditions: some of that his here in the links drawn to anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles, but I also found myself thinking about France and its history of resistance internally but also the far-from-nonviolent story of resistance to its colonialism, particularly in Algeria (to be fair, Fanon gets a mention). And third, I found myself hoping that Pineda might engage with Erica Chernoweth’s work somewhere, and that didn’t come.

But these are minor things: the book gets ***** from me!

(Small note: the image on the cover, Jack Whitten’s Birmingham 1964, is a really arresting piece of visual art. I believe it is in the Brooklyn Museum, and I would love to see the original.)

The Frontman of Empire: How Bono’s “Activism” Serves the Powerful

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/06/2022 - 7:16am in

DUBLIN – Bono is again in the news for his political activism. At the behest of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Irish rockstar and frontman of U2 traveled to Kiev, where he performed a few songs with Ukrainian soldiers inside the Khreshchatyk metro station to a crowd of around 100 people – most of whom were journalists. After the concert was over, Bono addressed the Ukrainian people through the media, stating, “Your president leads the world in the cause of freedom right now; …the people of Ukraine are not just fighting for your own freedom, you’re fighting for all of us who love freedom,”  while also calling for regime change in Russia.

Earlier, Bono sent U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the following poem, in which he anointed Zelensky a living saint. Pelosi read it out at an event celebrating St. Patrick’s Day:

Oh, St Patrick he drove out the snakes

    With his prayers but that’s not all it takes

    For the snake symbolizes

    An evil that rises

    And hides in your heart, as it breaks


    And the evil has risen my friends

    From the darkness that lives in some men

    But in sorrow and fear

    That’s when saints can appear

    To drive out those old snakes once again


    And they struggle for us to be free

    From the psycho in this human family

    Ireland’s sorrow and pain

    Is now the Ukraine

    And St Patrick’s name now Zelensky

His work was not well received, being described as “unhinged,” “a particular kind of awful,” and “literally the worst poem ever written,” in the media. His recent activism has also failed to impress Dr. Harry Browne of Technological University Dublin and author of the book “The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power).”

“I guess Zelensky is just old enough to remember when U2 were cool, and certainly old enough to remember [Bono] as a key public figure in global decision-making on humanitarian policy,” Dr. Browne told MintPress, adding, “My impression is that the event didn’t play all that well globally… In general it seems like Bono’s ship has perhaps sailed: he’s no longer a useful or even credible image of the West’s best intentions.”

This, however, is far from the first time the 62-year-old Dublin native has publicly chosen sides in wars. In 2016, for instance, he accepted Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s offer to join him on a much-publicized visit to a camp for Syrian refugees near the Turkey-Syria border. Bono extolled “the Turkish people’s generosity,” adding that Turkey’s response to the Syrian Civil War was a “lesson” for the world. This message was undermined somewhat as, barely two weeks later, Turkey invaded and occupied Syria and has not left since.


Friends in high places

Since his first major foray into activism at the 1984 Live Aid concert (where much of the money raised reportedly went to buy weapons for the Ethiopian military), Bono has become an almost ubiquitous face in the halls of power, being invited to speak at a host of elite events on poverty, including the Munich Security Conference, the G8 summit, the World Bank and at the World Economic Forum. There, he is usually treated as the voice of Africa and an intellectual and moral powerhouse helping to solve the world’s most pressing humanitarian problems.

Yet critics would say that, far from helping the poor and challenging power, he has instead bolstered it. As Browne wrote:

Bono has been, more often than not, amplifying elite discourses, advocating ineffective solutions, patronizing the poor, and kissing the arses of the rich and powerful. He has been generating and reproducing ways of seeing the developing world, especially Africa, that are no more than a slick mix of traditional missionary and commercial colonialism, in which the poor world exists as a task for the rich world to complete.”

In this line of work, Bono has gladly rubbed shoulders with many of the most notorious individuals the world has to offer. At the World Bank, he discussed poverty with Paul Wolfowitz, one of the chief architects of the Iraq War. At the World Economic Forum, he told Rwandan genocidaire Paul Kagame and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde that “capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other ‘ism.’” Indeed, it is hard to find a powerful figure with whom he has not joined forces.

In 2013, he met with the Obamas in Dublin, acting as their tour guide. Four years later, he was praising Vice-President Mike Pence as a champion of humanitarianism in Africa. Other controversial figures with whom he has been sure to be seen glad-handing include French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. war planner Henry Kissinger.

Bono Kissinger

From left to right, Mike Bloomberg, Wilbur Ross , Gordon Brown, Henry Kissinger and Bono at the 2009 Appeal of Conscience Foundation Fundraiser. Photo | Alamy

While claiming to care deeply about ending poverty, the Irish singer has consistently joined forces with many of the individuals and groups most responsible for keeping the world in a state of destitution. In 2005, he wrote the introduction to Jeffrey Sachs’ book “The End of Poverty.” An extremely influential economist, Sachs, more than almost anyone, was responsible for the collapse in living standards in 1990s Russia, as it embraced an orgy of privatization and hyper-refined gangster capitalism that stripped away its formerly impressive social safety net. This led the country’s population to shrink by 6.6 million between 1992 and 2006 as millions died in the economic destruction. His advice to Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer also resulted in a catastrophe that saw hyperinflation reach 14,000% – but also saw many of Bolivia’s wealthiest individuals increase their wealth.

Bono is also something of a disciple of Lawrence Summers, the former chief economist at the World Bank and board member of Bono’s ONE Campaign, a charitable organization that claims to be fighting extreme poverty and preventable illness in Africa. Like Sachs, Summers was one of the principal creators of the extreme inequality we see around the world today. While at the World Bank, he strong-armed countries in the Global South into privatizing their assets and allowing Western corporations to pillage their natural resources, all while drastically cutting back on social programs that kept hundreds of millions alive.

Publicly, however, Summers is probably best known for the infamous Summers Memo, a letter that he wrote while heading the World Bank that argued that Western countries must be allowed to ditch their toxic waste on “underpopulated countries in Africa.” “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable,” he wrote, declaring it “lamentable” that places like Los Angeles could not dump their traffic pollution on Africa as well.

Far from making him an outcast in celebrity philanthropy circles, Summers’ position on the board of the ONE Campaign serves as a vehicle through which much of Bono’s activism is channeled.

Headquartered on Pennsylvania Avenue just two blocks from the White House, the ONE Campaign is an NGO juggernaut, receiving funding from many of the largest corporations in the world, including Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Google. It also works closely with other elite organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. Although its stated goals of reducing poverty and illness are laudable, it remains unclear how much it has contributed to this. After all, if we remove China from the statistics, global poverty reduction is going in the wrong direction. And while it claims to be a “grassroots advocacy and campaigning organization,” one glance at the company’s board of directors suggests a different story.

ONE Campaign's Board of Directors

From Facebook to the US government, the ONE Campaign’s Board of Directors represents the world’s most powerful interests. Source | ONE Campaign

The ONE Campaign is headed by Gayle Smith, the former head of USAID, a U.S. governmental regime-change organization that funds political and social groups across the world that align with U.S. interests. For example, USAID was instrumental in the attempt to topple the Cuban government last year, quietly funding, training and supporting the anti-Communist activists who led a failed color revolution. Also on the ONE Campaign’s board of directors are former British Prime Minister David Cameron, the COO of Facebook, and a host of senior officials from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Open Society Foundations.

The ONE Foundation strongly supported the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a Western-backed initiative whereby G8 countries agreed to give African states economic relief in exchange for opening up their nations to foreign agribusiness, allowing massive land grabs, and signing deals with agribusiness giants like Monsanto that will entrap them into permanent dependence on their GMO products.

As Browne noted, Bono’s style of activism, “is by definition a limited tactic to seek help in addressing the world’s problems from the people and institutions that fundamentally cause those problems to begin with, on the basis of their goodwill rather than on the basis of seizing their power.” Thus, his work ends up whitewashing the very institutions enslaving the world. Bono, in effect, has, therefore, become the frontman of empire. Powerful organizations that hold African nations down are not challenged by this form of activism, but bolstered by it. As Browne explained:

It’s more interesting to think about it dialectically: how are those institutions served by this ‘activism’? It’s not hard, e.g., to imagine MEPs getting a lot of feel-good from t-shirted young ONE activists ‘taking over’ the European Parliament, and that in itself constitutes a purpose of the activity.”


Embracing war criminals, rejecting Palestinians

U2 built their entire brand around being an indie anti-war band with a social conscience. Indeed, they released an entire album called “War” to critical acclaim. The large majority of Bono’s countrymen and women opposed the Iraq war. This was likely doubly true of his fan base. Yet by 2003, Bono had so deeply integrated himself into the corridors of power and was so intimately involved with the Bush and Blair administrations that the Iraq War posed a serious quandary: do you sacrifice your credibility or your connections? In the end, he found a deeply unsatisfactory third way, endorsing the leaders but stopping just short of unqualified support for their war.

“Tony Blair is not going to war for oil. Tony Blair is sincere in his convictions about Iraq. In my opinion he is sincerely wrong. We must not make a martyr of Saddam Hussein. He is good at working the cameras,” he said. This blatant falsehood framed the decision to go to war for oil as a strategic PR mistake helping a dictator, rather than a crime.

On Bush, Bono performed similar mental gymnastics. “I’m all for President Bush trying to scare the shit out of Saddam Hussein, but you have to bring along the rest of the world…I support [Bush and Blair] all the way to the point where they go to war without the United Nations behind them. That is a mistake, because that looks like the U.S. doesn’t need to explain itself,” he said, again offering limited opposition purely on the grounds that this might look bad.

Bono War Criminals

Bono, far right, poses with left to right: Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Thabo Mbeki, and Tony Blair at the 2005 World Economic Forum in Davos. Michel Euler | AP

Any hope that Bono might take any sort of true anti-war stance was quickly dashed when the next year he personally received Blair at his home in Dublin and then spoke at the Labour Party conference, where he described the prime minister and his chancellor Gordon Brown as the “John Lennon and Paul McCartney” of global development. A close relationship blossomed. On Blair’s final day in office in 2007, Bono offered his strongest endorsement of him yet, seemingly hinting at his support for the Iraq occupation as well, stating, “What I admire most about Tony Blair is that… he has almost all of the time exposed himself to bad press and outcry for doing the things he believed in.” The Iraq War is estimated to have killed up to 2.4 million people.

Over time, the aging rocker also developed a close friendship with Bush. “I’ve become very fond of him… Underneath his armor, there’s passion, compassion. He has it,” he said. Far from criticizing Bush or America, he claimed that Africa owes them a great debt of gratitude and that there are hundreds of thousands of Africans “who owe their lives” to the American government and its generosity.

Long after Bush’s retirement, Bono still meets with the former president, visiting his Texas ranch in 2017. A year later, Bono was the inaugural recipient of the George W. Bush Medal for Distinguished Leadership, which the Irishman described as a “huge honor.” Discussing their joint work on AIDS in Africa, Bono said that he wished to “honor your leadership on the greatest health intervention in the history of medicine.” Bush responded that he was impressed with Bono’s knowledge. “The first time I met you, you knew more statistics, like you were coming right out of the CIA,” Bush said.

This hearty and unnecessary endorsement of the two architects of the Iraq War did not go down well in indie music scenes. It also caused consternation inside U2 itself. Larry Mullen, the band’s drummer, has constantly refused to be part of these stunts, stating that Bono’s friendship with “war criminals” like Bush and Blair makes him “cringe.”

Like Iraq, another excellent litmus test of the credibility of any person or group presenting themselves as a moral authority is their position on Palestine. Ireland has traditionally been a hotbed of support for Palestine, with the large majority of the country seeing parallels between the Israeli attempts to colonize and repopulate the land with Jewish settlers and the British occupation of Northern Ireland and its support of a pro-London Protestant faction. Successive Irish presidents have voiced their unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian people and their cause.

Yet U2 has gone against the grain and is one of the few Irish bands of any note to break BDS and play gigs in Israel. Bono himself is a disciple of Israeli president Shimon Peres, describing himself as his “admirer.” At a gig in Toronto, he dedicated a song to him, addressing him directly and stating, “We understand, President Peres, that you have tried to be the voice of reason. And you’ve dedicated a lot of your life… to try and bring peace in this really dangerous region.” This assessment might be news to the families of the people Peres ordered killed in multiple massacres he oversaw. Bono also attended Peres’ 90th birthday celebrations.

Yet while Bono love bombs Israeli war criminals, he rejects Palestinians as people “filled with rage and despair.” In a New York Times op-ed, he insisted that they must “find among them their Gandhi, their [Martin Luter] King, their Aung San Suu Kyi.” Thus, like others, he intentionally ignores decades of non-violent Palestinian struggle, instead maintaining they rise to the standard of fairytale versions of individuals who were not nearly as anti-violence as Western whitewashers wish they were.

In the same op-ed, Bono presented Barack Obama as a modern day Martin Luther King, despite the fact that the Obama administration continued Bush’s wars and would go on to bomb seven countries simultaneously. He also called for regime change in Iran, North Korea and Myanmar, saluting those protestors as brave heroes “who continue to take to the streets despite the certainty of brutal repression.” He would get his wish in Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi would come to power and preside over a genocide of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims.


Tax dodging business empire

In an attempt to foster a vibrant arts scene, Ireland has extremely generous tax laws for those working in the creative industries, with no artists or musicians in the country paying any income tax whatsoever on royalties below $250,000 per year. Yet U2 still decided in 2006 to move their money offshore into tax havens. The fact that an individual who styles himself the champion of the global poor was avoiding paying taxes on his reported $700 million fortune led to widespread protests. U2’s performance at the Glastonbury Festival in England in 2011 was upstaged by huge banners in the crowd highlighting the absurdity of tax-avoiding charlatans lecturing the poor on global justice. Commenting on the affair, Bono said that “smart people” should be “sensible” about the way they are taxed. U2’s lead guitarist David Evans (who insists upon being called “The Edge”) claimed that it was “ridiculous” that people were making a “big deal” about it. Bono himself would later be named in the Paradise Papers – a leak of documents hinting at the level of tax avoidance from the world’s super-wealthy elite.

Ireland’s economy fell into terminal decline after the 2008 financial crisis. Its fictitious finance bubble burst, causing untold harm to millions. The ultra-low tax regime encouraged corporations around the world to relocate to Dublin, driving up property values and gentrification to absurd levels and stealing a future from the Millennial and Zoomer generations. Yet in 2014, Bono caused outrage by insisting that the unsustainable, hyper-capitalist program successive governments pursued “brought Ireland the only prosperity we’ve ever known.” Many might ask “prosperity for whom?” “U2 are arch capitalists; they don’t seem like it but they are,” said the band’s promoter Jim Aiken.

This “do as I say, not as I do” preaching is a key reason Bono is one of the most disliked men in his home country. U2 is one of Ireland’s most recognizable exports, yet years of hypocritical, faux activism have soured many of Bono’s countryfolk against him. Browne writes that a common story among Dubliners is to tell their friends, “I saw Bono in town today, but I pretended not to recognize him – I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.” Adding to this pretentious air is Bono’s insistence on wearing sunglasses at all times, even indoors. He has stated that he has a medical condition that necessitates it. This may well be the case. However, it is remarkable how this condition appears to afflict celebrities far more than the general population.

Bono has built up a considerable business empire, including the purchase of a large Dublin hotel and a shopping center in Lithuania owned through a shell company based in ultra-low-tax Malta. The center reportedly has paid no tax in Lithuania despite making a profit. He also founded a private equity firm in 2004 that invests in creative industries. Through this firm, he produced “Mercenaries 2,” a video game in which the object is to invade Venezuela and overthrow a “power hungry tyrant” who has seized control of the country and its oil supply. The game, which featured blatant pro-U.S. propaganda, was clearly depicting a coup against President Hugo Chavez – something which Bono’s friend Bush attempted multiple times. USAID provided the funding and the training to the failed coup plotters.

Therefore, from Iraq to Palestine to Iran and Venezuela, Bono has always stood shoulder to shoulder with the world’s powerful, attacking their enemies and shielding them from criticism. It is one thing to ruthlessly murder and starve millions; many in Washington and London do that. It is quite something else to cheerlead this process while singing your own praises and presenting yourself as a modern day saint. And it is perhaps precisely this Messiah Complex that has irked so many and made him such a controversial individual.

Bono presents himself as a radical activist ruffling feathers and standing up for the world’s oppressed. In reality, he has not done or said anything in decades that discomforts the political and economical rulers of the world, which is precisely why he is constantly invited into the halls of power. Bono is not a threat to empire; he is its smiling, singing face. Thus, if Bono is speaking truth to power, he is so close to it that he could whisper. And power likes what it hears from him. As Browne said:

Does Bono’s work serve the purposes of some of those who seek financial and ideological domination over the poor world and the rich world alike, and whose interests differ profoundly from those of the majority of us? He may not know the answer himself, but we had better.”

Feature photo | MintPress News

Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.orgThe GuardianSalonThe GrayzoneJacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.  


The post The Frontman of Empire: How Bono’s “Activism” Serves the Powerful appeared first on MintPress News.

A nod to

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 05/06/2022 - 10:00am in

A nod to the Ol’ Queenie’s Jubilee from one of the last outposts of Empire. There he is. Up there. On the hospital. Who? Albert, HRH the Prince Consort (from 1840-61).

This here’s the Albert Pavilion to match the reverse mirror image Victoria Pavilion (1901-03), designed by NSW Govt. Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon, in the “classical Federation-style”. Mansfield Bros. contracting in Sydney Sandstone and Red Brick. Originally built to commemorate the death of Queen Victoria (1901), it was the new “men’s wing” of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA), on the north side of the original building established in 1882. Women were treated in the Victoria wing to the south. This pavilion also cared for thousands of wounded soldiers from both World Wars, and is still used as regular hospital wards today. The statute of Albert and a matching one of Victoria are both nine foot tall, made of hammered copper by sculptor James White at his nearby Annandale workshop. The RPA is now one of the oldest, largest and most prestigious public hospitals in the land. Camperdown.

American history as imagined in liberal political philosophy

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 09/05/2022 - 7:59pm in

I was reading a book on migration ethics recently – I may write a review later 1 — and it reminded me how a certain picture of the normal liberal state and its place in the world figures in a lot of political philosophy. Although the normative arguments are supposedly independent of historical facts, history is to be found everywhere, but only in a highly selective version that reflects the dominance of the United States within the discipline and the prominence of prosperous white liberals as both the writers of the important texts and as the readers and gatekeepers. 2 Their assumptions about the world and the US place in it shine through and form a "common ground" that is presupposed in much of this writing.3

In this vision, all the world is America 4 — though not one that corresponds to the actual history of the US — and the rest of the world mostly consists of little proto-Americas that will or should get there in the end (thereby echoing Marx’s dictum that the more developed country shows the less developed one a picture of its own future). This imaginary, but also not-imaginary, state is a sort-of cleaned-up and aspirational version of the actual one, cleansed of embarrassing details that are mere contingencies that detract or distract from what US liberals suppose to be its real essence or telos. Crucially, it is also considered as a basically self-contained entity, where all the important relationships are ones among people on the territory.5 It is an association of free and equal persons that has simply arisen on virgin soil. Both the actual United States and other countries fall short of this model, of course, but with time and good will wrinkles and carbuncles will be removed. 6

Now nobody believes that actual United States is anywhere near where its supposed essence directs it, so proponents of the model have certainly conceded its gross and deep injustice. But I think that what they take that great and deep injustice to be and the necessary mode of its correction, is both revealing and problematic. In brief, the apparently wise and noble vision of "the Founders" is soiled by the great uncorrected "anomaly" (henceforth the Anomaly) of race and the bringing to full citizenship and equality of the United State’s black citizens. In this narrative, then, slavery, the Civil War, Lincoln, Reconstruction, the struggle for civil rights and Martin Luther King all loom large and the central political task is overcoming that legacy of civic exclusion and subordination so that all take their place as full American citizens, recognizing one another as equal members of the Republic.

Corresponding to this is a characterization of White Supremacy (though this term is rarely used explicitly) as the domination of White Americans over Black Americans, with White Supremacy conceived of as being overcome once true civic equality is realized. (On the Left there is a variation of this story in which race is an epiphenomenon of class and in which the Anomaly is overcome once black and white recognize their commonality as American workers.) 7 Anyone who consumes the liberal output of Hollywood will also recognize the narrative in innumerable movies, but Selma is a recent example. The narrative of essential purity contaminated by the Anomaly explains some of the angrily defensive reactions to the New York Times‘s 1619 Project.

Now the narrative isn’t exactly false: the struggles of black Americans for equality are of very great historical importance: those who fought and fight for civil rights were and are heroic. They really did make immense sacrifices against racism and injustice, something that is rather diminished in a narrative that has them as redeeming the essential goodness of the very polity that brutally oppressed them and in large measure continues to do so. The trouble is that the bordered national and historical frame that the narrative is set in leaves so much else out of the picture, most significantly, perhaps, three things: first, the indigenous peoples of the Americas, overwhelmed by the aggressive imperial expansion of the original white settler-colonists; second, the fact that black Americans have another commonality that is tacitly suppressed in the focus on US citizenship, namely with the African diaspora elswhere in the Americas that also results from the Atlantic slave trade; third the fact that White Supremacy was not simply directed at black Americans but also had as its antagonist — and not just in the United States — immigrant workers from China, India and other Asian countries (and more recently from Latin America).

On the first of these, the place of the indigenous peoples of the Americas in the story, there is either silence or the the thought that it was all a long time ago and we can’t unpick it now (and certainly not without causing great injustice in the present). And maybe that’s right, at least to the extent that claims to resources on the part of indigenous populations have to both settle the thorny and contested question of who counts as indigenous,8 and to upset the lives that have been blamelessly built by many in the very places that indigenous people used to hold. Hence various attempts by philosophers to address the supercession of historical injustice. 9 But it is one thing to think that we cannot roll the clock back and quite another to deny the exclusionary claims of past holders of territorial and property rights while asserting very strong claims for oneself against people now characterized as non-citizens and hence as “outsiders” but who may well include descendants of past holders. Anyway, my purpose here is not even to begin to settle these questions of restitution, compensation and the like — which many people have worked on — but to note how little the issue features compared to other intrusions of historical detail into the central texts of liberal political philosophy.

The second omission, in some ways more interesting to me, is that of the black diaspora. It is interesting because of what neglect of it implicitly erases. The Anomaly is that there exists on the territory of the supposedly liberal-democratic state a group of people who have been wrongfully excluded from the civic status of equal citizenship and so the "solution" is to turn them into (or to recognize them as) regular citizens alongside other Americans. Presented like this, the Anomaly is a problem that is purely internal to the liberal democratic state and the "solution" is the re-establishment of a kind of normality that is consonant with the alleged essence of the political community. Perhaps this re-establishment also involves some kind of compensation in recognition of historical injustice, and perhaps it does not, but either way the goal is to bring it about that the hitherto excluded are brought to a position where they have a set of rights and duties towards the other members of that political community that are more extensive to those owed to "outsiders". Indeed, the primacy of these "internal" rights and duties over external ones is presupposed by the assumption that the state or nation is the privileged site of co-operation for all its inhabitants.

However, alongside the commonality that black Americans share with those who live within the state that they inhabit is another history, that of all the descendants of those forcibly brought to the Americas by Europeans, some of whom ended up in the United States, others in Brazil, elsewhere in Latin America or in the Caribbean. That the descendants of the victims of this legacy of forced kidnapping, transportation, rape and murder ought to, in the first instance, be bound by ties of civic equality to the children of their kidnappers and exploiters (and others, of course) rather than to their fellow victims who contingently ended up behind other borders, may have something to recommend it given that we live in a world of bordered national states, but it is surely an argument that deserves to be set out in the open rather than something that disappears behind a theory’s founding assumptions. Too often I have read some white American migration theorist arguing that "we", ie the set of American citizens, ought to protect poor black Americans from labour competitition from immigrants, but why are those poor black Americans part of a "we" that excludes a "they" of whom other descendants of slavery are a part? (Commonality with one’s fellow victims beyond borders is also something that bears on the indigenous case.)

The third omission is the failure to notice that the United States (like other white settler states such as Canada and Australia) has historically pursued policies of racial exclusion to preserve white supremacy that have little to do with the dominance of whites over black Americans. 10 The chief exhibit here is the Chinese Exclusion Act and related measures at the end of the 19th century and the subsequent making explicit by leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt of an approach that saw the United States as part of a group of white countries determined to preserve racial dominance against the threat of labour competition from Asia. These days, if work on migration ethics mentions these measures at all it is as another unjustified "anomaly" that disgraces the constititional liberal state which really ought not to discriminate in matters of immigration. This rather neglects the fact that such measures of racial exclusion were not unjust deviation from the state’s legitimate exercise of the right to control its borders but rather the central motive to getting immigration control started in the first place.11 Moreover, while the focus of racial anxiety has shifted its location somewhat, the central motive behind restrictionism remains the worry that the white core of America may be overwhelmed by the undesirable other: nowadays "Mexican rapists" instead of Chinese labourers and "prostitutes".

The centrality of the Anomaly in the historical imagination of liberal political philosophy and the pretence that White Supremacy would be defeated once civic equality for all, irrespective of race, is realised within the borders of a liberal constitutional state that remains free to restrict immigration obscures much from view that we ought to take seriously if we oppose both inequality and racism. First, there are consequences for the realization of civic equality within the state. Historically, the creation of a national citizenship and pressure to conform the the expectations of what a citizen is like has not worked well for indigenous people and their children. In the present, the equal status of citizens who look and sound like the people that the state is trying to keep out is often compromised as they and their families suffer the consequences of aggressive immigration enforcement.12 But in focusing on equality within the state taken as a discrete unit, as a little world unto itself, the methodological nationalist gaze simply fails to notice that White Supremacy both historically and in the present is maintained by keeping the non-white Other (Chinese labourers then, Central Americans now) on the outside. Liberals caught in an epistemic frame that is limited to citizens within borders can therefore complacently congratulate themselves on their anti-racism, because they favour equal status of all irrespective of race, while upholding in practice a system of white dominance. To my mind the lessons ought to be that we cannot easily separate questions of equality among citizens from the unequal statuses that are produced by nationality and bordering and that in doing political philosophy we cannot easily escape from the contingent unjust histories that have deposited particular people in the places where they now are.

[Many thanks to the friends who gave me feedback on drafts of this post]

  1. It was Michael Blake’s Justice, Migration and Mercy, (Oxford University Press, 2021).?

  2. As as British person I’m aware that we could tell a similar story about Britain, racism, exclusion etc as I refer to here and we could even find examples of historical amnesia and selection in the work of British political philosophers to illustrate the point (perhaps David Miller, and see for example Lorna Finlayson’s "If This Isn’t Racism, What Is? The Politics of the Philosophy of Immigration" Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 94 (1):115-139 (2020)). But US institutions are so dominant within the discipline that it is American historical narratives of self-congratulation, messianism, guilt, anxiety that loom largest.?

  3. Olúfémi O. Táíwò discusses Stalnaker’s notion of common ground as presupposed in conversation in his new Elite Capture (Pluto/Haymarket, 2022). It is "a shared resource that participants in a conversation use to build and perform social interactions." "When we act in social contexts, we treat the information in the common ground as if it were true…." Elite Capture pp 40–41.?

  4. See what I did there??

  5. Most liberal political philosophy therefore resembles the approach that Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Shiller have called "methodological nationalism". See e.g. their "Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences", Global Networks 2, 4 (2002) pp. 301–34. In political philosophy, both Alex Sager and Speranta Dumitru have been prominent in challenging the assumption of methodological nationalism. See e.g Alex Sager, "Methodological Nationalism, Migration and Political Theory", Political Studies. 2016;64(1): pp. 42–59 and Speranta Dumitru, "Qu’est-ce que le nationalisme méthodologique : Essai de typologie". Raisons politiques, 54, 9-22.?

  6. The relationship between the liberal state in ideal political philosophy and actual states has, of course, long been a topic of controversy, on which see for example Charles Mills’s classic article "Ideal Theory as Ideology" (in Peggy DesAutels and Margaret Urban Walker, eds., Moral Psychology: Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), pp. 163-81). On the one hand people will say that something like Rawls’s well-ordered society (as an example among others) is a purely philosophical construct to enable the discussion of abstract principles, on the other hand critics have long suggested that Rawls, Dworkin et al are merely parochial rationalizers of something like existing states. Personally, I think that claims of purity are often belied by the intrusion of actual facts into the discourse, most notably facts concerning civil rights but also, for example, Dworkin’s discussions of workfare programmes in his Sovereign Virtue. In our conversations with students, moreover, there’s often an implied "we" and a shared social and political context against which classroom argument takes place. But I also think that the "merely" of the parochial rationalization attack vastly overstates that case. Anyway, here I’m in the business of noticing which bits of reality and history intrude and which don’t, and suggesting that this might be symptomatic of something.?

  7. A proper academic article making the points of this blogpost might look through the works of, say, John Rawls, and note how often the Anomaly, Martin Luther King, Lincoln etc are mentioned compared to the lacunae outlined here and then look at later work by others in journals such as Philosophy and Public Affairs. The answer for Rawls himself is that even the Anomaly gets rather thin engagement, though one can extrapolate from his concerns with topics such as civil disobedience. Later work could include Elizabeth Anderson’s Imperative of Integration (Princeton 2010) and Tommy Shelby’s brilliant Dark Ghettos (Harvard 2016) (which both shows how much can be done to address racial injustice from within a Rawlsian paradigm but also stays firmly rooted within the boundaries of the nation state).?

  8. On which, see Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Migrants and Natives (Duke 2020) pp. 46­–50.?

  9. The key reference here is Jeremy Waldron’s "Superseding Historical Injustice", Ethics , Oct., 1992, Vol. 103, No. 1 (Oct., 1992), pp. 4-28. For reasons why past injustices in the acquisition of territory might not necessarily impugn the justice of later holdings see Lea Ypi "A Permissive Theory of Territorial Rights" European Journal of Philosophy 22 (2):288-312 (2014).?

  10. The key text here, which will transform your thinking (guaranteed!) is Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge University Press: 2008).?

  11. As Sarah Fine has pointed out, race and discrimination are central to popular discourse on immigration but almost absent from philosophical discussion of it, despite the roots of modern immigration control in the desire to discriminate on grounds of race. See her “Immigration and Discrimination” in Fine and Ypi eds Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership (Oxford, 2016).?

  12. See, for example, the work of Amy Reed-Sandoval, such as her Socially Undocumented (Oxford, 2020).?

Male, Pale and Colonial: Russell Group Universities Dominated by Named Buildings Reflective of a Bygone Era

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 26/04/2022 - 8:30pm in

Max Colbert investigates the backgrounds of those commemorated on leading university campuses

The overwhelming majority of Russell Group university buildings named after prominent individuals are named after white men, with several of these individuals having links to colonialism and the slave trade, the Byline Intelligence Team has found.

On Russell Group university campuses, 87% of named buildings are named after men (86% of whom are/were white British) and just 13% are named after women (94% of whom are/were white British). In total, 87.5% of named campus buildings are named after white Brits.

An investigation also found that 43% of these named individuals held a title – such as a knighthood or a peerage – and that of these only 11.8% are women (nearly one-third of this figure comprises three female monarchs named multiple times across several institutions).

The findings come from an assessment of all named buildings across 19 of the 24 universities in the Russell Group, with the remaining five institutions failing to respond to requests for information. The figures also don’t include statues in or around the buildings, or certain rooms within buildings named after different individuals.

Black and ethnic minority students made up 21.1% of all 18-year-old applicants to Russell Group universities in 2017.

A lack of representation in academia stretches across the board, encompassing societies, curricula, faculties, and representation via memorialisation.

Recent research conducted by the Higher Education Statistics Agency has shown that fewer than 1% of professors at UK universities are black – just 155 professors out of 22,810.

London Metropolitan University academic Sofia Akel told iNews in February that “lack of representation is not just about the number of us in these spaces, it also means the lack of our voices, knowledge, works and histories in the curriculum itself”.

There is also a stark lack of diversity represented in postgraduate studies, with the UK Council for Graduate Education highlighting a growth rate for black and ethnic minority postgrad researchers of just 0.13% between 2016/17 and 2018/19.

Buildings with the names of philanthropic donors make up 15.7% of the named buildings featured across the campuses, although many requests for information about donations and their links to buildings were refused, so this figure is likely to be much higher.

The vast majority of buildings named after individuals have been done so in commemoration of the significant achievements they have made in their chosen fields, often contributing to areas of scientific discovery, engineering, or furthering important social causes.

Sheffield University, for example, houses the Amy Johnson Building – named after the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, who studied at the university. Oxford is home to the Anna Watts Building – in honour of Professor Watts, an expert in the study of the violent dynamic events that occur on neutron stars. Glasgow features the James McCune Smith Learning hub – named after the famous physician and prominent member of the Scottish and English 1800s abolitionist movement, and the first African American to be awarded a medical degree.

However, there are several instances of institutions commemorating people linked to the slave trade, tobacco industry, or who have similarly questionable histories. This investigation has identified a number of buildings named after people with colonial links.

Bristol University, for instance, has several buildings with links to colonialism. One is Goldney Hall – bought and named by Thomas Goldney II in the 17th Century, prior its purchase by the university. Goldney and his son were both linked to the triangular slave trade through manillas produced by their ironworks. The university – located in the city famous for the recent toppling of a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston – also features the Wills Memorial Building, named for Henry Overton Wills, of the Imperial Tobacco manufacturing company, which in 2017 also faced a petition from the student body to be renamed due to Overton’s alleged links to the slave trade.

A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “Research led by Olivette Otele, the University’s Professor of History of Slavery and Memory of Enslavement, will inform a review of relevant university building names and the university logo to ensure they reflect the university’s vision and values. This will include consultation with staff, students and the wider public. More information on this will be shared in the coming months.”

Liverpool University similarly hosts the Leverhulme Building – named after Lord William Hesketh Lever, manufacturer of Sunlight Soap whose firm was associated with forced labour and using palm oil produced in British west African colonies. In 2020, Liverpool also agreed to change the name of a building named after William Gladstone, because of his anti-abolitionist stance and links to slave ownership.

A Liverpool University spokesperson said: “We recognise that slavery and colonialism are intrinsically linked to the history of the city of Liverpool, and that the historic wealth of families and businesses in the city – including some who will have contributed to the University – will have benefitted from this.

"The university is very conscious of this history, and we have therefore put a number of initiatives in place to educate and advance knowledge both in relation to historical and contemporary slavery – and our relationship to these as an institution.

“Furthermore, we are continuing to research the naming of our assets (including buildings, lecture theatres seminar and meeting rooms, academic posts, scholarships and bursaries).”

The Macfarlane Observatory in Glasgow University is also named after Alexander MacFarlane – a merchant slave-owner in Kingston, Jamaica, who bequeathed instruments to the institution upon his death in 1755. 


There is a national debate underway about the figures commemorated by public institutions.

A 2021 investigation into Imperial College London’s colonial past made several recommendations to this effect, urging the university to remove from statues and buildings the names of scientists whose work advocated eugenics.

In 2020, Edinburgh renamed its David Hume Tower over the philosopher’s “comments on matters of race”. In the wake of the dramatic sinking of the Colston statue in Bristol, anti-racism campaigners also launched the crowdfunded ‘Topple The Racists’ interactive map, which features the names of other prominent colonial figures and their placements on memorials and statues across the country. 

In addition to the colonial history of many of the buildings, and their lack of representation of black and ethnic minority individuals, women, and working-class people, recent years have also seen instances of buildings being named after individuals who have given large cash donations – sparking protests from student bodies.

In Oxford, the Sackler Library is probably the most glaring instance, with the student union unanimously passing a motion to remove the name. The billionaire Sackler family, which has donated £11 million to Oxford, own Purdue Pharma – which introduced and marketed the opioid painkiller OxyContin in America, contributing to a crisis of opiate use which has claimed more than 535,000 lives since 1999.

Facing around 3,000 lawsuits, Purdue filed for bankruptcy in 2019, but not before Sackler family members took more than $10 billion from the firm. Many institutions across the country are now revisiting their association with the Sackler family as a result. 

But the Sacklers aren’t alone. Oxford itself also houses the Said Business School, named after Wafic Said – a Conservative donor who came to prominence as a ‘fixer’ who helped to facilitate the al-Yamamah arms deal between Margaret Thatcher’s administration and the Saudi Government in the 1980s: the largest arms deal in UK history at the time.

Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government is similarly of note – financed by Russian billionaire Leonard Blavatnik, who donated £75 million to the school. The deal at the time prompted Professor of Government and Public Policy Bo Rothstein to resign his position – referencing the donations made by Blavatnik to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

In the 10-year-period leading up to 2017, more than two-thirds of all millionaire philanthropic donations – £4.8 billion – went into higher eduction, with half of this figure going to Oxford and Cambridge alone. During the same period, British millionaires gave £1 billion to the arts and only £222 million to alleviating poverty. 

“Giving at scale by the super-wealthy has done little to redistribute wealth from rich to poor, helping perpetuate social inequalities rather than remedying them,” a 2021 study from the universities of Newcastle and Bath found.

While the push to address a lack of diversity in public spaces, especially places of learning, has to be multi-faceted, a good starting point is often to recognise that an issue exists, and to begin to remedy it. While women make up between 45% and 65% of intake for most Russell Group institutions, and non-white undergraduates comprise of between 20% and 40% in most instances, these figures are not reflected in the architecture of campus buildings. 

It is a form of under-representation that can often be overlooked by some, but seen as a form of damaging ‘Patriarchitecture’ by others, who believe that learning spaces should aim to better reflect the achievements of campus communities – something that, both at home and abroad, is starting to happen more and more frequently. 

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.





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The Government’s Rwanda Plan is a Relic of a Colonial Age

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 21/04/2022 - 6:45pm in

Britain's historic hostility towards migration – by politicians of all stripes – has laid the groundwork for Priti Patel's controversial plan to send people seeking asylum to Rwanda, says Thomas Perrett


The Government’s proposal to deport people seeking asylum arriving via 'unauthorised' routes to Rwanda has sparked visceral criticism from across the political spectrum.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said there are “serious ethical questions about sending asylum seekers overseas”; while Labour Leader Keir Starmer described it as a “desperate” attempt to distract from the ongoing ‘Partygate’ scandal which has engulfed the Conservative Party.

The scheme, which aims to deter migrants from crossing the Channel by relocating those who arrive through “illegal, dangerous or unnecessary methods” in Rwanda for their applications to be evaluated, has been criticised by the UN for breaching international law. Gillian Triggs, assistant secretary-general at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said that the agency “strongly condemns outsourcing the primary responsibility to consider the refugee status”.

But rather than merely functioning as a distraction, the Government’s proposal is disturbingly reminiscent of post-imperial policies in which the British state sought to mediate the UK's relations with its colonies by controlling and regulating access to the spoils of Empire.

These policies, which began by making the status of non-white Commonwealth immigrants more precarious, later sought to categorise refugees and asylum seekers as an incursion which drained public finances and threatened to undermine national unity. 

Policing the Spoils of Empire

In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Government sought to recast its relationship with its colonies in the face of stridently nationalistic movements in the Empire and as these territories became independent.

The 1948 British Nationality Act – passed by Clement Atlee’s Labour Government – distinguished between British ‘citizens’ and British ‘subjects without citizenship’, implicitly permitting freedom of movement for white citizens from Britain’s settler colonies.

However, as 500,000 racialised Commonwealth citizens arrived between 1948 and 1962, the government sought to introduce specific legislation to deter the influx of non-white British subjects.

It was in 1962 that the Conservative government began to introduce formal measures which categorised citizens from the Commonwealth as 'immigrants' instead of British 'citizens'. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act stated that only immigrants with work visas, issued at the Home Secretary’s discretion and typically awarded only to highly-skilled workers, could travel to live and work in Britain.

Referred to by the then leader of the opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, as “cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation”, the 1962 Act set a precedent for legislation providing legal loopholes which disputed the rights of both asylum seekers and racialised British citizens to remain in the country, and to consider themselves British.

The 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act can be considered a direct antecedent of the government’s Rwanda plan.

An explicitly discriminatory law, the Act denied 35,000 overseas British citizens the right to enter the country following the Africanisation policies carried out by newly independent Kenya's President Jomo Kenyatta. Entry to Britain for Kenyan Asian refugees, permissible under the 1962 Act, was revoked on the grounds that Commonwealth citizens had to have either been born in Britain or have had at least one parent or grandparent born in the country to emigrate.

These pieces of legislation, aiming to construct a bordered British nation-state in the aftermath of decolonisation, defined 'Britishness' in explicitly racial terms. They sought to assuage post-imperial anxieties created by mass non-white immigration from former colonial dominions, contesting the ability of British subjects to become British citizens.

Disposing of Unwanted Arrivals

The political and legal disputation of Commonwealth citizens’ right to enter the country, which followed a wave of ethno-nationalist fervour and racist attacks on non-white British citizens, has provided the basis on which to refuse entry to refugees and people seeking asylum in the Government's Rwanda plan today.

In her book (B)ordering Britain: Law, Race and Empire, legal scholar Nadine El-Enany observes: “People residing in Britain on a temporary status are at the constant mercy of the state. Hanging over them is the threat of losing their status and of a court attaching little weight to the private life they established while holding their temporary status.”

Indeed, the 2018 case of Rhuppiah versus Secretary of State for the Home Department established a justification for the removal of immigrants with precarious citizenship status. The case concerned a woman who had travelled to Britain from the former British colony of Tanzania, yet faced removal following the denial of her application to remain in the UK. 

Although she had cited Article 8 of the European Court of Human Rights – which provides for the right to a private and family life – the courts relied on the 2002 Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act to dispute the applicability of this ruling. The court concluded that little consideration should be given to a person’s private life if their immigration status was precarious.

The invocation of this Act not only undermined the right of a vulnerable individual who had travelled from a former British colony to live in Britain, but also characterised immigrants with precarious status as a drain on the taxpayer.

The law states that it is in the “public interest” that immigrants are “financially secure” to ensure that they are not “a burden on taxpayers” – demonstrating how the livelihoods of people seeking asylum, and the conditions which they are compelled to flee, are of secondary concern. 

The Rwanda plan draws on this crude, populist logic.

The Government has consistently framed policies seeking to curtail immigration as beneficial for the security and prosperity of the British people, intent on providing a better life for genuine, ‘deserving,’ refugees.

Boris Johnson – whose Government has attacked as “lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders” who have called into question the legality of its anti-immigration policies – has predictably blamed “politically motivated lawyers” for seeking to thwart the legally dubious Rwanda plan. The Home Secretary has also engaged in this rhetoric.

The Rwanda plan thus represents an opportunity for the Government to position itself as the ally of a ‘silent majority’ of the British people against excessively altruistic, ideologically-motivated opponents. 

Yet this does not stand up to scrutiny. A YouGov poll conducted within hours of the announcement of the proposal found that 42% of those surveyed were opposed to the plan, with 27% strongly opposed to it. Even in the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies snatched by the Conservatives at the 2019 General Election – commonly characterised as hostile to immigration – opposition to the scheme outweighed support for it.

The Rwanda plan is by no means an aberration when viewed within the turbulent context of Britain's historic immigration policy. Successive governments have characterised both people seeking asylum and Commonwealth citizens as invasive interlopers; seeking to contest their status as British citizens and to dispute their rights to seek a prosperous future for themselves and their families.




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Backwards Britain: Having Rejected a European Future, We Can Only Hark Back to an Imperial Past

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 06/04/2022 - 1:00am in

Hardeep Matharu explores how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has exposed the UK's perilous retreat – at a time when collaboration and a new vision of itself is required to navigate the dangerous realities of a changing world


When Boris Johnson stood up at a conference in Blackpool and told his party why they understood what Ukrainians were going through, the Prime Minister was attempting another of his bridges to nowhere.

After 23 days of Russian bombs raining down on Ukraine, Johnson claimed his Tories knew that Brits had the same “instinct” as the people of Ukraine “to choose freedom every time”. He had a “famous recent example”. 

“When the British people voted for Brexit in such large numbers, I don’t believe that it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners, it’s because they wanted to be free, to do things differently for this country, to be able to run itself,” he declared.

It was another crass Johnson moment. Outrage swirled among politicians and the media; an invite to an EU summit reportedly rescinded. Ukraine’s former President, Petro Poroshenko, recorded himself asking Johnson “how many citizens of the United Kingdom died because of Brexit” and instructed him: “Please no comparison.”

But it was also a revealing moment. One which exposed an impossible problem: at a time when Vladimir Putin is bringing genocide back to Europe, when a collective stand by united Western democracies is required to fight against Russian neocolonial fascism, Johnson’s Brexit Britain is utterly at odds with our shifting world. 

Inward-looking, insecure and with delusions of past grandeur, ‘Global Britain’ in a world of Putin’s aggression, a global crisis in democracy and climate catastrophe cannot reconcile its infantilised state with the demands of reality. 

With no new ideas, and imagination deeply lacking, it finds itself in a pathetic and perilous position – in retreat as an apparent form of advance. The very idea of itself that Ukraine is fighting for – one of a different, brighter future – is the very idea of itself that Britain lacks, choosing instead to rest on its laurels. Johnson’s provocation suggested he too had spotted the problem. 

In an audacious attempt at reconciliation, he laid out a blueprint for one of his fantastical bridges – to nowhere: that Brexit and the resistance of war-torn Ukraine embodied similar values; that the UK leaving the EU meant Brits understood Ukraine’s instincts in fighting to join it.

This is the same Brexit that painted the EU as a form of neocolonial fascism; of which Boris Johnson said “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically”; and Nigel Farage declared “June 23 is going to be Independence Day”. The same EU which Russian propaganda has characterised as a fascistic super-state.

But this is, after all, Backwards Britain.

For Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University – a specialist in the history of central and eastern Europe and the Holocaust – Brexiters were right in one respect, “that Brexit would bring back Empire”. “This time, though, England would be the colonised, not the coloniser.”

By comparing Brexit Britain and besieged Ukraine, Johnson was also distancing his country further from Putin. But parallels remain.

While Vladimir Putin’s quest to create a ‘greater Russia’ has taken a barbaric and murderous form – thankfully such brutality is nowhere in sight here in the UK – Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ is also a dangerous project rooted in an imperial past and future fantasy; of a ‘memory politics’ which obscures and justifies how neither country has a politics that can deliver tangibly for its people.

With no new vision, and colonial nostalgia the one constant, neither Britain nor Russia have reconciled with their pasts. 

As Putin presides over a vastly unequal Russian kleptocracy, dominated by oligarchy and the country’s wealth looted by its leaders; Johnson’s Government is overseeing an increasingly captured state and a governing party dominated by wealth, a spiralling cost of living crisis, worsening inequality and the biggest drop in living standards in generations.

To distract from their economic failures and lack of policy, both men have whipped up divisive ‘culture wars’ – advancing ‘wedge issues’, targeting minorities and cracking down on those they believe question their mythic narratives. Putin’s fury about the West ‘cancelling’ author JK Rowling, because she “fell out of favour with fans of so-called gender freedoms”, came in the same week as Johnson kicked off another Conservative bash by saying “good evening ladies and gentleman. Or, as Keir Starmer would put it, people who are assigned female or male at birth”. 

These manufactured conflicts around ‘wokeness’ – of which the majority of the public in Britain have been shown to know little – are nothing compared to the actual conflicts (living costs, healthcare and crime to name a few) that people must contend with in their daily lives, with little support from politicians such as Boris Johnson.

Meanwhile, Brexit – the ‘anti-establishment’ revolution which made the Prime Minister its iconic leader – has left Britain permanently on the outside looking in; encouraged by the Russian President, who saw the UK’s farewell to the EU as the first step in his “information blitzkrieg” in destabilising the West.

Both Putin and Johnson have backed their countries into a corner. In this era-defining moment, their myths are now on a collision course with the reality they seek desperately to avoid.

Britain’s willingness to deny and distort its history, combined with its exceptionalism – vaccines, refugee schemes and the economy are all on a long list of “world-beating” achievements – has birthed a nation unable to mature or grow into a true sense of itself. The present feels hollow, perhaps best exemplified by the hollow men now at Britannia’s helm.

Myth is the country’s fail-safe, when a vision of itself rooted in reality is necessary.

That Britain has no outward-looking ideas of what is possible is not only true of its current leadership under Johnson, but also of its opposition politics where no defining story of the future is being advanced. In the land ideas vacate, myths take root and concerns of emotion and identity are encouraged to bloom.

Tony Blair recently spoke of “the “two competing ideas” Britain has about itself, and how an “older narrative has reasserted itself” in recent years.

“Britain finds it very difficult to tell a story about itself, because there is a narrative that supposes our best days are behind us, and that’s caught up with what happened in the Second World War: Churchill defeated Nazism, Britain’s finest hour,” he told the New Statesman. “My idea was to take what I think are the enduring best qualities of Britain – open-mindedness, tolerance, innovation – and try to give Britain a different narrative that would allow it to think its best days are ahead of it. I think, for a time, that succeeded… We quite deliberately put Britain forward as a multicultural, tolerant society, looking to the future.”

The London Olympics in 2012 seemed to be the culmination of this confident, forward-looking Britain – with its scientific innovation, diversity, Shakespeare and the NHS all at the forefront in its celebratory opening ceremony. Alongside its ‘Cool Britannia’ ethos, New Labour also positioned Britain as a “bridge” between Europe and America, maintaining strong relationships with both. The limits of this became apparent in Blair’s controversial decision to follow the US into Iraq – a move which has defined, and eclipsed, the achievements of his party’s era in power.

But even this reinvention felt like an attempt to brush the “older narrative” under the carpet. Reforms to the state, including the Union, were partial and measures to tackle issues such as institutional racism incomplete. The desire to hark back to the past and the legacy of Britain’s imperial history were not examined, in and of themselves.

And so the older narrative remained brushed under the carpet, ready for a band of hollow men keen to pull the rug from under us all.

A Britain that is about fairness and equality and has a place in the world, where it’s respected for our soft power and our humanity and for our compassion... I was brought up with those values and values are not myths

Gina Miller

Free from the shackles of the EU, Britain would be free to build partnerships and trade with the rest of the world, the Brexiters told us. It would stand alone and still be a leader on the world stage. 

The promised trade deals have not materialised, war in Ukraine has highlighted the difficulties of Britain’s continued friction with Europe, and the UK’s response to both Afghan and Ukrainian refugees has underlined its closedness. 

But ‘Global Britain standing alone once more’ was always a myth. This country was victorious in two world wars it could not have fought without the help of its soldiers from across the Empire. That their subjugation continued after 1945, and little recognition was made of the colonies’ contribution to the conflicts, led to the drive for independence in Britain’s ‘jewel in the crown’ – India – and then elsewhere.

These are inconvenient truths not found in Britain's grand narratives dominated by Blitz spirit, Rule, Britannia! and Churchill.

The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, showed the power of these historical touch-points in his address to the UK Parliament, when he told MPs he was fighting the Russian invasion in “just the same way you once didn’t want to lose your country when the Nazis started to fight your country and you had to fight for Britain”. Borrowing from Britain’s favourite wartime Prime Minister, he added: “We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.”

It’s not that we shouldn’t feel pride in this history – but this pride alone cannot be the basis for a thriving, modern Britain. To move forward, a more accurate and rounded version of our past must be engaged with, in which unpalatable facts can provide perspective and greater, messy truths. 

In 1946, when he said “we must build a kind of United States of Europe”, Churchill was one of the first to express his commitment to the idea of European integration in this way. But from Boris Johnson’s cosplaying of his hero, the man on the street could be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s wartime Prime Minister was a passionate Eurosceptic.

Our British history is a selective history, intolerant of contradictions and complexity. Yet, its problematic nature is not discussed.

For German journalist Annette Dittert, the Russian invasion shows that – despite the praise it has received for its practical support of Ukraine, which has been acknowledged publicly by President Zelensky himself – Britain “cannot afford to see the EU as a failing entity” any longer, and that its inability to engage with its past is part of its present difficulties. 

Speaking on Friday Night With Byline Times, she said this “has a lot to do with Brexit”.

“If you honestly engage with your own history – which Germany had to do because it was horrific – if you do that seriously, I think you do not fall for national myths so easily anymore, and you understand that cooperation is a real good, cooperation with other countries, with other people is the basis of democracy. I think that somehow that escaped some people in this country,” she said. 

“That’s a big danger for a nation, if you don’t look into your past… you fail to understand reality. And the reality is we have to engage with each other. Britain has to start to operate with the EU as a political entity.”

Britain has arguably not experienced any event which has forced such self-reflection – the loss of the Empire wasn’t seen as a revolution or a defeat. Accompanying this complacency are its other trappings.

One look at Prince William and Kate in their ceremonial dress atop a Land Rover surveying troops in Jamaica last month was enough to transport anyone back to the 1950s; into a bygone era of patronising recognition of native subservience and the white man’s burden being discharged in all its finery. If ever there was an image that conveyed Britain’s lack of imagination and lack of ideas, it was this photo of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their recent tour of the Caribbean – a trip beset with controversy over its colonial optics and calls to remove the Queen as head of state by those in Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas. 

Prince William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, at an inaugural Commissioning Parade for service personnel from across the Caribbean in Kingston, Jamaica, on 24 March 2022. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Images/Alamy

While Prince William expressed his “profound sorrow” about slavery, he did not follow in the footsteps of Belgium’s King Philippe who in 2020 apologised for his ancestor King Leopold II’s brutal abuse of colonial subjects in the now Democratic Republic of Congo.

This reluctance to hold a mirror up to its past is a position also pursued by Britain’s current Government, which characterises any meaningful attempt to present a fuller account as ‘rewriting history’ and the questioning of complex historical figures ‘cancel culture’.

As Corinne Fowler, the historian hounded for helping the National Trust document which of its properties has links to colonialism, told me: “The near hysterical response on most occasions when researchers have simply tried to provide new information about specific ways in which heritage sites relate to the British Empire is worrying.”

But then “part of the colonial legacy,” she added, “is a resistance to having an honest discussion which is evidence-based about what our collective past looks like.”

Discussing the problem of disinformation, “Russia is a very emotional country”, a former Cabinet minister told me recently. They were speaking about a trip to the country shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when a Russian guide said she “can’t believe” what was being said of Stalin’s atrocities.

Timothy Snyder’s analysis of Russia under Putin is that it is stuck in a ‘politics of eternity’ with the “replacement of history with myth”.

Both Brexit and Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ movement are examples of this – of a grand narrative placing “one nation at the centre of a cyclical story”. Both advocated a return to a successful past snatched away; offering recognition and meaning but no practical solutions. 

According to Snyder, such projects are also ‘sadopopulist’ – premised on the idea that people are willing to undergo pain in order to feel better about themselves. No matter that Trump and a hard Brexit don’t actually improve their lives, deliverance takes the form of a psychic ‘winning’ through which people feel better off because scapegoated others are to be made worse off.

“Eternity politicians imagine cycles of threat in the past, creating an imagined pattern that they realise in the present by producing artificial crises and daily drama,” Snyder observes. Russia, with its mystic tales of victimhood and suffering, is a prime example.

Speaking a fews days into the current Russian invasion, Snyder said that “the basic question in the 20th and now 21st Centuries is: what comes after empire?” In Europe, the answer has been a “process of integration with other post-imperial states”, through the EU. For Russia, the answer is “more empire – it’s an imperial war”.

In his seminal book on Ukraine, The Road to Unfreedom, the historian writes that Ukraine is “the axis between the new Europe of integration and the old Europe of empire”. 

“The politics of integration were fundamentally different from the politics of empire,” he says. “Russia was the first European post-imperial power not to see the EU as a safe landing for itself.” Britain is now another.

At the heart of Putin’s 22-year rule has been an increasing reliance on ‘memory politics’. Just days before he sent troops into Ukraine in February, Putin lamented Russia’s loss of the “territory of the former Russian empire”.

His justification for the invasion, to ‘deNazify’ Ukraine, is premised on a baseless distortion of the past – which has also seen Stalin’s collaboration with Hitler in partitioning and invading Poland during the Second World War airbrushed out of official narratives. Ukraine has no significant presence of far-right elements and President Volodymr Zelensky is himself Jewish – his family members having been killed during the Holocaust. 

As far back as 2011, academic Nikolay Koposov observed: “It is difficult to condemn Stalinism and to keep insisting on the Stalinist conception of history at the same time.”

“The new mythology of the war emphasises the unity of the people and the state, not the state’s violence against the people,” he wrote. “It stresses the peaceful character of the Soviet foreign policy and defends the memory of the state against charges such as complicity in initiating the war, the violence carried out by the Red Army, and its seizure of independent states."

The source of Putinism's legitimacy "lay not in future utopias but in past victories,” he added.

The war crimes being carried out by Russian troops to eradicate the Ukrainian people in the name of an (old and new) Eurasian empire, has brought horrors to Europe we all hoped lay long in the past. But the negation of truth always leads to dark consequences. 

Here in Britain, we take our democracy for granted, with its human rights and rule of law within a rules-based international order. But, in our own ways, we negate the truth. This unwillingness to understand ourselves sets us on a dangerous path of a wider denialism of our own. 

If you honestly engage with your own history – which Germany had to do because it was horrific – if you do that seriously, I think you do not fall for national myths so easily... That’s a big danger for a nation, if you don’t look into your past… you fail to understand reality

Annette Dittert

Britain and Russia are not alone in their memory politics. From Erdogan’s Turkey, where citizens acknowledging the Armenian Genocide have been prosecuted; to Narendra Modi’s India, in which the BJP leadership persecutes Muslims to advance its claims of a ‘Hindu civilisational destiny’ of the world’s largest democracy, countries with populist 'strongmen' everywhere are looking to stay wilfully ignorant of their pasts.

Germany, as Annette Dittert pointed out, is a rare exception.

Its decision to increase defence investment in the wake of war in Ukraine represents a paradigm shift for the country, since one of the legacies of confronting its past atrocities was its commitment to not build up military force again. Its departure from this is reflective of its pragmatism – the reality of Vladimir Putin’s murderous intent in the heart of Europe.

“I remember very well sitting in endless school days analysing Hitler’s speeches and having to write essays about why there should never be a war coming from German territory ever again,” Dittert told me on Friday Night With Byline Times.

Like many visiting Berlin, I was struck by the Stolpersteine I encountered under my feet – small plaques (or ‘stumbling stones’) commemorating victims of the Nazis, each starting with “here lived”. More than 75,000 of them are dotted around German towns and cities.

The number of different types of memorials in the capital, and the depth of Berlin’s cultural offerings and museums allowing people to access different elements of the country’s history, I found remarkable. Having touched remnants of the Berlin Wall, I looked into the faces of those killed trying to cross it; before learning about the families torn apart through state-sponsored deception at the original secret police headquarters, now the Stasi Museum. And just a short stroll away from the city’s famous Brandenburg Gate sits the ‘Europa Experience’, billed as a multimedia journey through Europe and the EU.

Germany provides an example of how a country can integrate its history in order to look to the future. 

DeNazification didn’t start immediately after the Second World War, when many who had supported Hitler’s regime were still living in German society. But following the high profile trials of notorious Nazi figures such as Adolf Eichmann, things began to change. 

From the 1960s, a grassroots movement, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung – “working off the past” – started to take shape, to examine and learn to live with Germany’s dark history. The Stolpersteine, for instance, are researched and applied for by local residents. Denying the Holocaust is illegal in Germany, and in many areas – from education to those working in public services – Germans are made to engage with, and learn from, the crimes of the Nazis.

While this hasn’t eradicated all far-right feeling still found in small pockets, ‘working off the past’ is not seen as a one-off exercise, but a process – one which is still ongoing.

The British Empire is still not taught comprehensively in our schools, and even mentioning it continues to be met with awkward silence (as someone who grew up with a father who was born and brought up under the Empire in Kenya and a mother from India, I find these silences bizarre but telling).

From the perplexity at Priti Patel’s hardline approach to immigrants as the granddaughter of refugees, to the former Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner who told me Sir William Macpherson was suffering from “post-colonial guilt” when he conducted his 1999 inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder, there is a distinct lack of interest in our collective amnesia and its consequences. 

But perhaps a reckoning is approaching. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only woken the West up to the need for unity in the defence of democracy, it has exposed Britain’s default, out-of-touch, ‘small island’ mentality – one that has come to particular prominence in the Brexit years.

Even the Queen, now in the twilight of her reign, can surely only hold the royal Firm together in its current form for so long. A uniquely respected figure – a bridge between Britain’s past and present – will the country feel so fondly towards those who succeed her? Or will it be a chance for that much needed self-reflection and real reinvention? A moment to consider the role of monarchy and the notions of deference and supremacy that Britain still willingly wraps itself in?

As former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall has observed in these pages, “is it not time to set the Royal Family free from their gilded cages and in the process free ourselves from the hierarchical mentality which accompanies royalty?” In a rare recognition, Prince William signalled that times are changing in the Commonwealth in response to his much derided recent royal tour. Maybe events at home will also force the Royal Family’s hand.

But genuine reinvention requires Britain to decide on its values; the lessons from its rounded history it wishes to carry with it, and the future it envisages for the best days still ahead.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in a Land Rover greeting crowds in Sabina Park, Kingston, Jamaica, on 25 November 1953. Photo: PA Images/Alamy

Forty years ago, a Conservative Prime Minister struggling in the polls found political capital in war. Margaret Thatcher won an overwhelming majority following the Falklands conflict, with a victory parade drawing 300,000 people to the mile-long route through central London – the first time the city had celebrated a military event since 1949. At lunch in the Guildhall afterwards, Thatcher said the British people were “proud of these heroic pages in our island story”.

Years later, she wrote that the legacy of the Falklands was that “Britain’s name meant something more than it had” and that its significance “was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world”.

Though four decades have passed, Thatcher’s imperial spirit is still alive today. Endorsing calls for a Margaret Thatcher Day, Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden recently tweeted that “Margaret Thatcher led the UK to victory in our defence of the Falklands” and “ended our national decline”.

While the Falklands was another harking back, Thatcher did look forward – with her, albeit divisive and at times destructive, vision of a free-market, privatised, ‘Big Bang’ Britain.

Can it now find a way to reconcile the lessons of the past with new ideas for its future; to build a more equitable country, one of genuine equality of opportunity and unafraid of looking ahead?

Speaking after a performance of Bloody Difficult Women, during its recent run at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, businesswoman Gina Miller – on whose story the play is based – told me what prompted her to take the UK Government to court over its plans to trigger Article 50 (and Brexit) without consulting Parliament: she had an idea of what Britain is which she felt was being violated by how the process was playing out.

Born and brought up in Guyana, a former British colony, she said many children of the Commonwealth feel attached to a certain notion of Britain in this way.

“We listened to the BBC World Service every night, the Queen was on the wall, my mother collected blue Wedgwood china – we literally were more British I think than the British... it’s British values that were taught to us growing up; respect and truth and honesty and doing the right thing. All those values are instilled in us and so, to me, it’s what you defend.”

Recalling her appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, she said that the journalist observed off-camera – to her shock – that she and Nigel Farage were actually “really similar”.

“He said ‘you both have a very strong view of Britain – yours is different to his, but you have a very strong view of what you’re fighting for’. And I have a very strong view still of what I’m fighting for… a Britain that is about fairness and equality and has a place in the world, where it’s respected for our soft power and our humanity and for our compassion. 

“I was brought up with those values and values are not myths. But the snake-oil salesmen [did sell] a myth… playing on people’s fear and anger and deep resentment.”

The biggest crisis facing Britain is the crisis of facing itself. Time is of the essence in integrating our past and looking to the future – lest we drift further, beyond a point of no return.




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Are the Royals Trapped in a Gilded Cage – Or Is Britain?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 31/03/2022 - 10:16pm in

Is the Royal Family trapped by Britain's past or is the problem our inability to conceive of a social order without monarchy?


I watched and read the coverage last week of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s royal tour of the Caribbean with growing dismay.

The misjudged events to showcase the couple interacting with their 'subjects'; the staged 'encounters' with ordinary folk – at one point, even separated by a chain link fence; the dated costumes; the speech expressing "sorrow" for slavery, which fell short of the need for a true apology; and other equally excruciating moments.

The entire ghastliness of the tour was summed up by the indelible image of William, in full military regalia, and Kate, as beautifully as ever in a tailored dress and hat, being driven around a parade ground in Jamaica in the same open top Land Rover used to drive the Queen and Prince Philip on similar tours in the 1960s.

The deliberate effort to hark back to a 'golden era' was a public relations disaster from start to finish.

Yet, I do not blame William and Kate for this train wreck – and indeed feel sympathetic to the couple, who, as far as I can tell, did nothing more than try to conform, dutifully, to what they thought was still expected of members of the Royal Family, and who did, in fact, receive a warm welcome by many despite the numerous gaffes. 

It is to their credit that they managed to keep smiling and ploughing manfully through the tour, even as negative coverage was mounting. Less dutiful, more thin-skinned royals might have lashed out at their critics, skulked in their hotel rooms, or even simply cut and run.

Up until the royal tour, William and Kate were widely acclaimed as the very epitome of the modern royal couple: the prince with his relatively self-effacing, jokey style, trying to convey an accessible 'man of the people' status while remaining regal; his wife with her game willingness to 'muck in' at official events – showcasing her sportiness; squatting down to chat to children, the elderly or disabled people in wheelchairs; sharing informal photos of her family, while fulfilling the clothes horse role expected of princesses and elegantly gracing official events. 

A favourable contrast has generally been drawn between William and Kate, praised for stoically going about their royal duties without complaint, and Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who are blamed for having turned their back on the Royal Family and publicly airing their grievances. It is the ultimate irony that the former are now being castigated by many for being out of touch, while several commentators have suggested that Harry and Meghan might have completed a more successful tour. 

My overriding sentiment was one of shame – for the humiliation and hurtful comments the couple themselves had to endure, for the countries who had to host this colonial misadventure, and for Britain thinking that a visit of this kind was still a good idea in the 21st Century.

The fundamental problem was not William and Kate, but the continuing British belief that royal tours are universally welcomed overseas, even by countries which have long since left our colonial embrace, and our Government’s misguided sense of what such tours ought to involve.    

As someone who has been involved in many royal visits during my time as a diplomat, I know that it is ultimately not the Royal Family themselves who decide on such visits, but a Royal Visits Committee (RVC), according to priorities determined by the Government.

The RVC is chaired by the Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and includes private secretaries of different members of the Royal Family, the National Security Advisor, and officials representing the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Office, and various departments across Whitehall.

British Embassies around the world are allowed to put in bids for visits to take place to the country where they are based, and the RVC decides on which to approve. 

They are the result of years of planning and discussions between governments, are highly scripted and staged, and guided extensively by precedent and protocol. Speeches are approved in advance by government officials. 

Yes, this process means that palace officials, including presumably those representing William and Kate, must have approved the plans. And yes, in hindsight, William and Kate and their advisors should have been able to spot the traps. However, the style and content of their tour was not dissimilar to dozens undertaken by Royal Family members in previous years, with little or no negative reaction. William and Kate were doing what their Government asked them to do. It was the responsibility of government officials to anticipate the bear traps and to design a successful programme. This includes diplomatic staff on the ground, who are supposed to understand the countries where they are based and be aware of local sensibilities.  

So, how did they get it so wrong?

In my view, a large part of the problem was that there appeared to be no point to William and Kate’s visit, other than showing up and being 'royal', in furtherance of the vague aim of ‘strengthening ties'. Other than seeking to mark the Queen's platinum jubilee year, there appeared to be no overarching theme or event around which to organise their appearances. Their star quality alone was deemed to be enough. 

In my experience, more successful visits have taken place where the royal in question has had a specific purpose in mind. Good examples include Prince Philip’s tours on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund, or Princess Anne on behalf of Save the Children – where they have a real knowledge and passion for their subject.

This means that embassies can organise substantive events, and the royal guests can engage meaningfully with those they meet. Such visits help to raise the profile of the cause the royal represents, sow goodwill with the host country, and also allow the visitors themselves to come away with more knowledge and understanding of the issues. 

While I was Ambassador in Georgia, Prince Harry’s interactions at the Invictus Games with Georgian soldiers who had served in Afghanistan were a big success. They reflected his genuine concern for veterans, while providing a good way to underscore the UK’s appreciation for Georgia’s role in Afghanistan. Prince Harry’s own military service and personal style also allowed him to bond genuinely with the people that he met. The Embassy bid several times for Prince Harry to follow-up with a visit to Georgia, though unfortunately without success.  

The most popular Royal Family members have a reputation for hard work and a dislike of excessive flummery. By contrast, in most posts where I served, we dreaded the suggestion of a visit by Prince Andrew in his capacity as the UK’s Trade Envoy.

Prince Andrew had a reputation for being high-handed and demanding, for not doing his homework properly, and for not engaging sufficiently courteously or substantively with those he met, in a way which would genuinely advance our trade goals. 

William and Kate’s visit has fuelled the debate about the role of monarchy in the UK and whether we still need such an outdated institution in the 21st Century.

It is tied to growing concern about some other aspects of our unorthodox democracy, such as the lack of a written constitution; the existence of the unelected House of Lords as our Upper Chamber and indeed the very system of peerages, both inherited and conferred; the lack of sufficient checks and balances on our over-powerful executive; the skewed nature of our first-past-the-post electoral system; and the lack of any truly independent mechanism for holding ministers to account. 

These problems have long existed, but have only been truly exposed by our current Government, which has lied with impunity and gone way beyond its predecessors in violating norms, pushing boundaries, and abusing powers to its own advantage.   

I bear no personal animosity towards the Royal Family and have huge respect and admiration for its hardest working members, above all the Queen, who has given a lifetime of service to our country. I am guilty myself of enjoying news articles and media coverage of royal events.

However, I believe that we cannot truly begin to address some of the flaws in our democracy, unless we are willing to tackle our system from the top.

The very existence of a monarchy feeds a culture of hierarchy and deference in our system which is simply outmoded. It enables a system of titles, privilege and class which infuse our collective unconscious and corrupt our society. It feeds the never-ending British obsession with 'toffs versus commoners'; upper class versus working class accents; 'U versus non-U'; Old Etonian versus grammar school; and so on.

Our country remains riddled with class consciousness, which in turn seeps into every aspect of our political life.

Many worry about what could replace the monarchy, especially when considering the alternatives – including some of the less impressive recent examples of elected heads of state, such as Donald Trump.

Some also worry that the UK would lose much of its sparkle without the glamour and glitz which our Royal Family provides. The UK is second-to-none when it comes to pomp and circumstance – the pageantry, crowns, costumes and castles of the Royal Family are indeed the jewels of our tourism industry. 

But I believe that this is a failure of imagination. Just as we as a country have rested far too long on our laurels as the heroes of the Second World War, and the Government continues to roll out tired tropes about Churchill or the Blitz to shore up support for its agenda, so we have depended far too much on our Royal Family to define our self-image of what it is to be 'British'.

It is not a failure of the Royal Family but a failure of our country to come to terms with the fact that the institution is outdated or to be able to envisage alternatives. 

Who would want to live the life of a royal? We demand an impossible standard from them – to be simultaneously regal yet accessible; modern and informal; dignified and traditional. They are expected to look and behave perfectly on every occasion. Their every action, statement, or gesture is parsed and criticised. Their private lives are dissected, their marital choices approved or disproved. 

Last year, Prince Harry compared his existence in the Royal Family to being in The Truman Show or living in a zoo. He was criticised at the time, but the comparison is a good one. And, just as it has rightly become unfashionable to gawk at caged animals in zoos, or expect them to perform for us in circuses, is it not time to offer the same grace to members of the Royal Family?

With all the talent at our disposal in the arts, the creative industries and the sciences; the brainpower of our universities; the energy and drive of our economy; our rich history, traditions and literature, is it really beyond us to come up with a new system of governance, which combines the best of the old and the new, fit for the 21st Century, but free of title or rank? 

Is it not time to set the Royal Family free from their gilded cages and in the process free ourselves from the hierarchical mentality which accompanies royalty? William and Kate have shown a willingness to learn and adapt. Isn’t it time for us to do so as well? 

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity




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Opening Our Eyes to the Cost of Empire: Why We Must Demand the Return of Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/02/2022 - 8:00pm in


Africa, empire, history

Opening Our Eyes to the Cost of Empire Why We Must Demand the Return of Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes

Paddy Docherty explains how research for his book on the 1897 invasion of the Kingdom of Benin left him ashamed – an emotion he believes must be converted into action


The Benin Bronzes were plundered from what is now Nigeria in a brutal act of violence by British forces in 1897. The unavoidable conclusion of any honest assessment of the invasion of the Kingdom of Benin late in the reign of Queen Victoria is that they must be returned.

All arguments against the return of the Bronzes amount to an attempt to hang on to the highly valuable artefacts regardless of right and wrong. Indeed, the leading barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC is clear that the attack on Benin was a war crime under the legal standards of both 1897 and the present day. Despite this, some interested parties work to retain the Bronzes in Britain on questionable grounds, such as the loss of public accessibility should they be returned to Nigeria.

These efforts are based on the assumption that Britain would lose out if these artworks were to be sent home: a priceless collection of cultural treasures would no longer be on British soil.

I would like to suggest that, on the contrary, we would also benefit greatly by returning the Bronzes to Nigeria. It could be a landmark step in what has been the long and sometimes difficult process of Britain finding its place in the world as it is today.

As a country, we have not properly reconciled ourselves with the legacy of the British Empire. One reason may be because there has never been a decisive break with the imperial era, such as a comprehensive military defeat or a revolution. Britain has had no such moment of forced reflection and reorganisation: we have shed an empire but otherwise our state and society remain much the same.

This factor has arguably allowed us to feel an inappropriate national ambivalence about the realities of the imperial project, and we have not addressed the violence and oppression that were an integral part of it. Witness, for example, the numerous books and articles in recent years that defend the existence of the British Empire on the grounds that we built some railways in India, or some other ‘balance sheet’ claim.

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In the cultural realm, we do not always handle our past with total honesty. Consider our consumption of countless remakes of Jane Austen novels on television and in the cinema, which are presented with almost no recognition that the lives of luxury enjoyed by the characters depicted were very often paid for by the labours of enslaved African people being worked to death on a Caribbean sugar plantation. 

Much worse than this cultural complacency is the way in which politicians of all stripes resort to empire-flavoured rhetoric to flatter the electorate (most egregiously on display in the Brexit campaign) – a factor that helps explain our tendency to remember only the most photogenic parts of the British Empire story.

Thus, we can celebrate our involvement in ending the slave trade after 1807 without also recognising that Britain was for decades the leading slave-trading nation in the world.

Political decolonisation – the retreat from imperial rule that began in the 1940s – should ideally have been followed by a socio-cultural process of coming to terms with our new position in the world and the impact of the colonial period. This could be thought of as collectively decolonising our minds and outlooks, commensurate with our reduced political claims on the world.

One important element of that would be putting right some of the wrongs that we committed during the long colonial era. Naturally, the legacy of empire is so deeply imbued in British history and culture that we cannot even think of reversing it entirely, but we can tackle some of the most glaring injustices – and certainly those within easy reach. Sending the Benin Bronzes home to Nigeria is one such case.

By amending the British Museum Act of 1963, the Government could make it happen without delay and follow the lead of Germany, which has committed to returning the large collection of Benin pieces in its public museums.

The campaign to achieve this outcome has, of course, been led by several Nigerian figures over the decades, not least the Oba of Benin himself, and they have recently had some notable successes in securing the return of artefacts from several institutions. The people of Nigeria have the most direct interest in seeing their priceless heritage return home; the people of Britain, on the other hand, have the most direct responsibility to undo the wrong committed by British forces in 1897. 

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This was brought home to me when I began the research for what would become my book, Blood and Bronze. I was profoundly shocked by what I found in the National Archives.

In the Foreign Office files, I came upon a set of papers that show beyond doubt that a senior British official was guilty of inflicting a reign of terror upon the Niger Coast Protectorate in the early 1890s. Among his many lawless acts, surely the most egregious, was a truly grotesque sexual crime of great cruelty. What was even more astounding was that, alongside this evidence, I unearthed documentary proof that the Prime Minister of the day – Lord Salisbury – had personal knowledge of these crimes but conspired to cover them up. The official in question was never punished and retired early on a pension.

In addition to this particular case, I found multiple instances of extreme violence by British officials, coupled with profound racism, greed and hypocrisy, all leading up to the conquest and destruction of the Kingdom of Benin. These unpleasant phenomena were not entirely new to me, being familiar with British Empire history, but the scale and severity of the bloodshed in West Africa in the 1890s was a surprise.

The process of researching and writing this book therefore caused me increasing shame: it is impossible to read endless reports of villages being burned, and of women and children being starved to death, without feeling appalled. 

Shame and guilt are in themselves useless impulses, however, unless they prompt change or action. British citizens must acknowledge our collective culpability and demand a change in the law to return the Benin Bronzes to their rightful home.

‘Blood and Bronze: The British Empire and the Sack of Benin’ by Paddy Docherty is published by Hurst Publishers




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