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Just Imagine if the EU was Behaving as the UK Is

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 17/05/2022 - 1:05am in

Chris Grey poses a thought experiment around the Government's plans to scrap part of the Northern Ireland Protocol

Imagine an alternative history of Brexit. In it, everything happens as it has in reality, except for one difference: after all the painful negotiations, the Withdrawal Agreement is finally signed by the EU and the UK, and it is legally binding both parties under international law – but immediately afterwards key figures in the EU start saying some extraordinary things. 

These things relate to what had once been a highly controversial issue that was central to the Withdrawal Agreement – the financial settlement. In the early days, many Brexiters insisted that no such settlement was due. Boris Johnson, for instance, said the EU could “go whistle” for the money. Some even said that, if anything, the EU should refund some of the money Britain had paid it over the years. But, even if reluctantly on the part of the UK Government, a settlement had been reached. 

But, within a few days of the signature, imagine that senior people in the EU said that, of course, this didn’t mean that the amount owed was fixed – really, the UK owed much more. At first, this would be pretty much ignored in the UK; dismissed as posturing within the EU in order to appease hardliners who want to punish Britain. 

Yet, gradually, it would emerge that the EU is deadly serious. How could this possibly be? 

In a series of articles and speeches the EU’s Chief Negotiator, and numerous EU politicians, would explain: the EU had only signed the Withdrawal Agreement because it was under internal pressure from some member states to reach an agreement, whereas others wanted to hold out and demand a bigger financial settlement. So the EU signed it without really meaning it and told those who were unhappy that, once it had done so, the EU would re-negotiate with the UK. In effect, the EU only signed under duress from its members and the UK took advantage of that temporary weakness to impose a fraudulent settlement upon it. In any case, the EU would claim that it never expected that the UK would insist that the agreement had to be followed to the letter.

What, at this point, would the reaction of the UK Government and Brexiters be? Abject fury at the EU’s duplicity most likely. 

But imagine then that things get worse.

Suddenly, the EU starts saying that, while it had been agreed that the financial settlement would be paid over a ‘grace’ period of several years, it has now decided that this period will be changed – and it starts putting in larger and larger invoices. The UK Government is shocked, but takes no decisive action and goes along with what the EU has unilaterally decided, hoping that through negotiation the EU will see reason.

Briefly, some British Government ministers announce that, given the financial situation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, the UK will suspend all payments of the financial settlement – though within a few hours of doing so they retract the threat, realising how unreasonable it was. But the EU sees this as proof of the UK's dishonesty and says that it justifies it now increasing the entire financial settlement, as it had always intended.

Of course the UK would have a very easy response to so absurd a suggestion: the financial settlement is part of an agreement enshrined in international law, so if the EU doesn't like it, then just too bad. Surely that’s obvious?

Imagine then that the EU makes a truly bizarre announcement. It says that it intends to pass an EU law unilaterally changing the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement so as to set a higher exit bill for the UK. What’s more, its own lawyers have said that this is fully legal in the circumstances, and that EU law takes precedence over international law. And, anyway, with war in Ukraine, is the UK really going quibble about paying a few billion pounds more than it had agreed?

Again, it is very easy to imagine the response of the UK Government and the newspaper articles that Brexiter columnists would be writing. The anger would be off the scale. The EU would be excoriated for its dishonesty and its contempt for international law. The UK would be seen as the well-intentioned, law-abiding victim of a grotesque act of bad faith. Certainly, it would not comply with something that self-evidently had no legal standing. Meanwhile, other countries, including no doubt the US, would be openly condemning the EU or quietly appalled by its descent into international pariahdom. 

This thought experiment isn’t a perfect analogy, but it captures the essence of how, in reality, the UK Government has behaved over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

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Sauce for the Goose is Sauce for the Gander

The Northern Ireland Protocol is a contentious part of the Brexit settlement that formed a key component of the eventual Withdrawal Agreement. But, ever since the UK Government signed it, it has denied the meaning of the protocol in terms of the establishment of an Irish Sea border.

It has since been claimed that the Government regarded it as an unsatisfactory deal forced upon it by domestic political pressures – while telling voters it was a ‘great’ and represented an ‘oven-ready' deal that would 'get Brexit done'; and assuring Conservative backbenchers that it was a provisional deal that would be re-negotiated later. Crucially, it signed an international treaty that it has ever since sought to renege on.

If, as in the thought experiment, the EU had acted in this way then – with very good reason – the Government, Brexiter commentators and, indeed, the many people who had wanted to remain in the EU, would have been angry and disgusted.

In fact, it’s not even necessary to imagine all the twists and turns of the thought experiment – suppose, very simply, that the EU had sought to change any aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, in a direction closer to its preferences and against those of the UK. The result, in terms of Government and Brexiter anger, would be similar – that it was intolerable for the EU not to stick to what it had agreed.

There’s a long-established precept in ethical philosophy to the effect that you should only act in a certain way if you would want, and accept, everyone else acting in that same way. That’s sometimes rendered as ‘do as you would be done by’ or just ‘what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’. However formulated, it applies here.

So anyone who can see how outrageous it would be if the EU had behaved as described in this thought experiment ought to recognise how outrageous the UK’s behaviour, in actual fact, is and continues to be. And to condemn it accordingly.

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The Conservative Mood in Parliament

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/05/2022 - 7:29pm in

A Tory insider describes the tense scenes in Westminster as the party awaits a leadership challenger to emerge

A week down after recess, the Conservative mood in Parliament is now one of trepidation. The anger and frustration of local councillors and members has reached MPs. Challengers to Boris Johnson’s throne have been sounding out support.

Locally, in London, knocking on hundreds of doors, soft Conservative voters all complained about Johnson and the lockdown parties. The night of the count, it became clear early on that we were going to do badly. Labour was ahead two-to-one in what should have been our best polling district, even with a strong Green showing. Dejected party members left early. Of those who did stay through the wearing hours of the early morning, candidates would not even stand up and be counted for the declaration.

The result was pretty much exactly what we were told on the doorstep: people chose to punish us over Johnson.

In the other nations, things were just as bad. We lost our second place in Scotland, with 63 fewer seats. Leader Douglas Ross’s reverse ferret, condemning and then backing the Prime Minister over the parties, had cost him. A post-election briefing came through with our lines: “[Given] the anger at the Conservative Party UK-wide, at the unacceptable behaviour of the Prime Minister and his staff, it would be astonishing if Labour did not come second and make significant gains in this election.”

Members of Scottish Parliament who all followed Ross in calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation and were not best pleased when he changed tack, are now questioning his leadership.

In Wales, the test was whether we could hold the modest but historic gains from 2019. The results were not promising. The Welsh Conservative Leader, Andrew RT Davies, echoing the comments of many elected Welsh Conservatives, admitted the problems faced because of Number 10. Welsh Tory MPs are very nervous across the WhatsApp groups, the corridors and in the tearoom.

Even in places where our performance was not disastrous, some MPs see this opportunity as voters giving us a chance to get rid of Johnson. Yet, even where Johnson loyalists did badly, having thrown in their lot with the Prime Minister, they fear they would not get far without him.

There is now however clearly an insidious split that will worsen in the next couple of years, as spooked Tories who have seats to lose, mostly the southern and Celtic Tories to whom low taxes and political integrity matter more, vie with the loyalists over the future of the Conservative Party.

Conservative leaders who lost councils across the country all very quickly turned to publicly blame Johnson. Privately, those local associations are pressing their MP to act. Letters are being considered, drafted and kept close at hand.

Last Week in Westminster

In Parliament last Monday, given that the Government has little to show for a full legislative year – and that there had been no noticeable advantage to our ‘Brexit freedoms’, only problems – the promise of great change in the Queen’s speech was realised.

Mid-morning, Number 10 invited MPs to a spring reception the next day. A few declined to go. Instead, of consternation and consultation, those who did fell upon a celebratory mood, the puckish charm of a midsummer’s night dream, laughter over drinks and canapés. There seemed to be no real sense that Johnson’s inner circle were taking the election results seriously.

The Government has not seriously been working to win or even retain seats in London, Scotland, Wales or the shires. The mood seems to be: we lose London; so what?

Overall, the view was that the results were poor but not disastrous. The gains in Thurrock and Nuneaton have been interpreted as the continued support of working-class Tory voters, the people we are looking to hold.

Tuesday morning, following a Panorama investigation ahead of the Government’s expected flagship Levelling Up Bill, Michael Gove tempered expectations, saying that inflation will hamper the project. Despite 38 bills being presented in the Queen’s Speech, support flagged almost as soon as the sermon had been delivered.

A day later, and already another rebellion was mounting. Senior backbencher Simon Hoare and former Prime Minister Theresa May warned over the Government’s plans to revoke the Northern Ireland Protocol. They were joined by the usual suspects, the same who rebelled at foreign aid cuts.

By the end of the week, most MPs had taken stock of their colleagues, waiting for the right person to lead the charge to replace Johnson. Everyone expects a reshuffle before the next recess, some thinking June, giving new ministers a month to settle in. The threat of it helps to keep ministers in line and no Cabinet challenge has been made.

There had been reports from friends of Jeremy Hunt, the contender who had lost out to Johnson in 2019, that he would to challenge again and was already sounding out MPs. In a classic no-names back and forth, a minister mocked Hunt for making pre-election noises. The friends of Hunt hit back, claiming the briefing had not come from him but someone trying to discredit him.

On Thursday, Hunt gave an exclusive to The Times, warning that the Conservative Party’s majority is at risk, and not ruling out a future challenge.

There are two testing by-elections ahead, Tiverton (in the south west), and the Red Wall seat of Wakefield. For now, however, Johnson rolls on, as MPs wait and see.

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‘Addicted to Exploiting Migrant Labour’: The Hidden Hostile Environment in the Fishing Industry

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/05/2022 - 7:22pm in

Post-Brexit immigration rules are pushing more and more foreign fishermen to the margins of an already exploitative system, reports Frankie Vetch

When Emmanuel* came to work in the UK, the conditions on the boat were the worst he had ever seen. Having grown up around fishing in Ghana, for him it was a way of life. But when he came to Northern Ireland in 2018, his positive perception of the industry was shattered. Emmanuel has since been registered as a victim of modern slavery. Now he can tell his story of how the UK immigration system drove him into human trafficking.

Like so many other fishermen, Emmanuel entered the UK on a transit visa; a loophole used by employers to bypass strict migration laws. When he flew the more than 3,000 miles from his home in Ghana, he was picked up at Belfast airport and taken straight to work on a boat. An experienced fisherman, Emmanuel was shocked to find the boat was not fit to go out to sea. He was even more surprised to learn that this is where he would have to live, eat, and sleep.

Despite his contract stating that he was assigned to one specific vessel, Emmanuel was quickly transferred to another. And then another. And then another. At times he would be transferred at midnight, not even knowing the name of the new vessel he was working on. Back home in Ghana, Emmanuel says he would have been given proper accommodation. Constantly living under the threat of being sent home or having his passport confiscated by his employer was psychologically damaging.

“You feel like you have been trapped on a boat where you don’t have any means to even say you want to leave,” he says. “You and your skipper only know what really happens on the boat.”

Fishing After Brexit

The UK’s strict post-Brexit immigration system is increasing the risk of exploitation for foreign fishermen. As part of the point-based system, most foreigners working in the UK must come on a skilled worker visa. Following lobbying from the industry, last April the Government opened up the visa to fishermen. But Byline Times can reveal that so far not a single visa has been granted to a fisherman.

Due to poor working conditions, long hours and low pay, fishing has become an unattractive occupation for young people in the UK. According to Alison Godfrey, deputy chief executive at the Fishermen’s Mission, “For a number of years, it has been hard to find Brits who want to fish. It is the most dangerous peacetime occupation. It doesn’t pay well and has long hours.”

With a decline in domestic and EU fishermen, the industry has become increasingly reliant on non-EEA workers like Emmanuel. According to a survey by the organisation Seafish – a government-funded body – around 35% of fishermen are not from the UK. Ghanaians and Filipinos represent the largest proportion of this figure.

Without access to skilled worker visas, fishermen enter the UK on a transit visa. These largely unregulated visas force workers to operate outside the UK’s territorial zone – meaning that any boat carrying transit visa workers should fish at a minimum of 12 nautical miles (the equivalent of around 14 miles) from domestic shorelines.

Sea conditions this far out are harsher, making it more dangerous for crews. And for fishing vessel owners in places like the west of Scotland, the shape of the coastline can make it difficult to even access these waters.

According to a new report by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the transit visa is not designed to be used for fishermen, but for seafarers transiting through the UK to board vessels operating in international waters. But the report says that for the last 15 years, the transit visa has been used to systematically exploit foreign labour.

Exploiting Migrant Labour

Byline Times spoke to several other Ghanaian fishermen who recounted similar experiences of exploitation.

Some of them worked for a company with a well-documented history of exploitation. The fishermen described being verbally abused, underpaid, and threatened with deportation while working off British coastlines. They say captains used racist abuse against them and described feeling threatened. Some were even physically attacked.

In the UK if you are over the age of 23 and are working 40 hours a week, the minimum wage is £1,520 a month. The fishermen, who were usually working well over 40 hours, had contracts for as little as £700 a month – but in practice they were sometimes paid even less. 

One fisherman, called James*, who still works in the UK, has been employed on vessels where there were no toilets or showers. Sometimes he has gone five days without a shower. Often the boats are small and dangerous to operate in bad weather. Despite these conditions, because he can only enter the UK on a transit visa, he must sleep and live on the boats that he is contracted to work on. The only time he can go ashore is to shop. With a family to feed back home, James has no choice but to continue working in the UK.

“It is so cold on board it can be minus one or two degrees, and you are living without a heater. If I had a visa, I could rent a house or a room and have heat,” he says.  

These experiences substantiate the concerns of experts that the immigration system is driving workers into exploitation. Due to the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies, the risk of being deported is significant for migrant fishermen. This plays into the hands of exploitative employers who wield the threat of deportation. According to the ITF report, by criminalising fishermen violating immigration rules, the Government is increasing their vulnerability to exploitation.

It was recently reported that P&O ferries had replaced 800 UK staff with a crew of foreign seafarers who are to be paid £1.80 an hour. It is this same under-regulated system that allows fishermen to be exploited.

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Vessels inside the territorial zone are meant to be regulated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). Even within this area, there is confusion among public authorities about who is responsible for regulation. Those vessels fishing outside the zone are subject to International Maritime Law and in this largely unregulated environment, fishermen are at even greater risk of exploitation.

“Any suspected employment issue on a vessel will be investigated fully by the MCA and a surveyor will conduct checks on any vessel that reportedly holds victims of human trafficking,” the MCA says. “If there is evidence which supports the suspicion of modern slavery or human trafficking, the MCA will work with other enforcement agencies (the police, Border Force etc.) to ensure action is taken. The MCA is strongly committed to halting human trafficking and being a part of the solution to prevent modern slavery.”

Skilled worker visas should ensure employees are paid properly. Workers over the age of 25 are guaranteed a minimum salary of £25,600, which is more than double the £12,000 or less the Ghanaian fishermen we spoke to were earning.

The biggest barrier facing fishermen seeking to obtain a skilled worker visa is the English language test. Harry Wick, CEO of the Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation, believes the test is unnecessarily hard as it requires fishermen to write to a level that does not match the requirements of the job. Many foreign fishermen can speak good enough English and have enough specialist language knowledge to safely work on vessels. But to pass the test can take years of learning English. This is time and money many fishermen do not have.

A Culture of Silence

It is because of the experiences suffered by the likes of Emmanuel and James that Chris Williams, from ITF, is advocating for skilled worker visas to be opened to more fishermen and for the transit visa loophole to be closed.

Williams has worked with several fishermen who have been exploited and says, “UK legislation is enabling conditions for forced labour and modern slavery.” He added: “The fishing industry is addicted to exploiting migrant labour and underpaying them.”

Freedom of Information data obtained from the Home Office by Byline Times reveals that a minimum of six fishermen were referred to the UK’s modern slavery referral mechanism in 2021. Data obtained from Scottish and Northern Irish police forces indicates that there were five cases in those countries.

In 2022, there have been four cases referred to the Northern Irish police. The true scale is hard to gauge because of the dangerous repercussions facing those willing to speak out. Not many people are willing to take the risk that Emmanuel has for fear of being blacklisted by the industry or even physically attacked.

Representatives of the UK fishing industry were reluctant to acknowledge there is a problem with exploitation. One Democratic Unionist Party MP, who represents a constituency with a large fishing community in it, when asked if there was a problem with exploitation of non-EEA fishermen said: “No not at all. Definitely not. Not even hinted at.”

Emmanuel believes that he was lured into trafficking through the transit visa system. A skilled worker visa would have ensured that he was paid above the minimum wage, received paid leave, and that he was assigned work he was contracted to do.

Because of his experiences, Emmanuel has given up fishing to work in the construction industry. He is not alone. Others back in Ghana are reluctant to work on UK fishing vessels at a time when the industry desperately needs skilled foreign labour.

“This experience has changed my perception of fishing, which back home is a noble profession”, Emmanuel told Byline Times. “I learnt my trade in fishing, so everything about me is fishing. But since coming to the UK and going through this I don’t want to go back to fishing. The people that work in the fishing industry in this country only think about profit, they don’t think about you.”

*Not his real name

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Food Bank Britain

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 9:04pm in

Rachel Morris considers the malaise of modern Britain as the Conservatives initiate Austerity 2.0

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“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today”, said the Mad Hatter. Perhaps he wrote this year’s Queen’s Speech, as delivered by golden calf Prince Charles, and subsequent tweets by Her Majesty’s Government.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak suggested that the Government could help you with the cost of living crisis, if you start a small enterprise first. A jam stall, perhaps.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng shared his passion for nuclear power plants – not exactly a short-term fix – in the week when it was revealed that we’re set to receive glowing veg from Fukushima.

Most ministers repeated the bit from their propaganda manual about being laser-focused on “the people’s priorities”. Nothing like a bit of alliteration to drown out those noises emanating from your stomach.

While French people got a state-delivered energy price cap limiting increases to 4%, our 54% rises can surely only be deliberate.

There’s no question that we’ve embarked upon Austerity 2.0. But the ‘A’ word can’t be said out loud, because according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, Austerity 1.0 caused 130,000 preventable deaths.

That’s one in every 517 people. COVID has now killed one in 347, if you divide the 2020 Census population by deaths with COVID on the certificate (193,713 at 11 May).

Austerity has therefore been rebranded. The Conservatives have driven the more comfortable classes into needing food banks, so has started calling them ‘pantries’. This was exactly the approach of Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt who on 22 April declared a partnership with Hive Portsmouth, setting up ‘food pantries’ in her constituency to save households an “average £800 a year in food bills”.

The accompanying video makes the food bank look like Waitrose, with more gorgeous veg and eggs than I’ve seen anywhere in France. Mordaunt appeals for generous individuals to run them, off the Government pay-roll.

In an article for the Daily Express earlier this week, Mordaunt said that anti-Brexit “doomsters want Britain to fail”. If she doesn’t understand that Britain is already failing, perhaps the minister should spend an afternoon in the food ‘pantry’, when it’s open for business.

According to Mordaunt, Remainers must instead become Tinkerbells: they must close their eyes tight and believe in Brexit hard enough, so food banks – sorry, ‘pantries’ – will vanish. For most people, however, closing their eyes just makes the hunger more apparent.

Asset-Stripping

Closing his eyes is something well-known to Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who spends his days lounging on the green benches of the House of Commons.

Ultimately, the people in charge see widespread hunger and poverty as a game: an exercise imagined in public relations school – or perhaps a question on the Eton entrance exam – designed to prove how they can wriggle out of a tight spot.

And the latest frontier of this PR campaign has focused on Labour Leader Keir Starmer having a beer and a curry during a work event. The nation’s attention has been diverted away from yet more Downing Street party fines, a catastrophic Conservative local election performance, and the High Court ruling that the Government consigned elderly people to death during the early stages of the pandemic.

It is also deeply ironic that this ‘scandal’ focuses on food, when 4.7 million adults are currently suffering from food insecurity.

Indeed, there are fewer McDonald’s (1,358) in the UK than food ‘pantries’ (more than 2,200). But, according to Conservative MP for Ashfield, Lee Anderson, it’s poor people who are to blame for their growling bellies.

Meanwhile, Prince Charles can still utter the phrase “levelling up” in Parliament while sitting in front of a gold-encrusted wall on a gold-encrusted throne wearing gold-and-medal-encrusted clothing – saying that regional rebalancing will be achieved by “ensuring everyone can continue to benefit from al fresco dining”.

There’s a reason why the Government has run out of ideas about how to fix the country. Primarily, because fixing the problems would involve a recognition that they created the problems in the first place and – secondly – because the Conservative Party takes its instructions from its paymasters in the private sector.

Everywhere you look, the Government is privatising – or threatening to privatise – whatever hasn’t already been sold-off. Passports, driving licenses, Channel 4, alongside our crap-filled waterways. But this asset-stripping goes much further. The state’s role itself has been privatised.

If you want to challenge the lawfulness of a Government action, you must crowdfund it yourself. If you want veterans to have something to sleep on, you must support a charity like Forgotten Veterans UK, whose ambassador is – Penny Mordaunt.

There will come a time when too few can afford to support privately-funded efforts by the third sector, with time or money, and some of these needs simply won’t be met at all. What happens when there are more GoFundMe pages than people who can donate to them? When there are more charities than the charitable?

Up to 14.5 million people lived in poverty before the pandemic – one in every four or five – which is projected to rise to 16 million by 2023. And the Government’s response is indifference.

Last October, the Prime Minister told businesses that it wasn’t his job to fix their every problem. The Chancellor said he “can’t do everything” after criticism of his Spring Statement. Other ministers are saying similar.

We’re on our own now, shivering in a corner with the Trussell Trust. Only £3 million crowns get a lift in a Rolls Royce. The Government makes no bones about it: you’ll have to figure it out on your own. Perhaps you could use those bones to make a tasty broth? If you can afford to put the cooker on. But don’t think there’ll be jam with it. Not today.

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What Man Has Made of Man: Confessions of an Optimist

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 9:04pm in

Alexandra Hall Hall considers the mistakes she has made in believing that the arc of history was travelling in a more progressive direction

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Lines Written in Early Spring

I heard a thousand blended notes,

While in a grove I sat reclined,

In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts

Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.

By William Wordsworth

Much has been written about the many misjudgements of Russian President Vladimir Putin in launching his invasion of Ukraine. He is regarded as having over-estimated the strength and capability of his own military, and the ease with which they would be able to defeat Ukrainian forces. He under-estimated the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people, and the inspiring leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky. He also grossly miscalculated the reaction of the West. He believed that NATO had become so divided, distracted and demoralised by problems at home and abroad that it would never be able to muster the will or the unity to mount a strong or sustained response to support Ukraine.

Putin is now suffering the consequences of his many errors. His forces are suffering numerous setbacks in Ukraine. Russia’s economy is being buffeted by sanctions. Russia’s international standing is undermined. Putin’s personal legacy, at least outside Russia, is in tatters. But while there is a certain grim satisfaction in seeing Putin proved wrong on so many counts, I ask, who amongst us can really claim to have got many of the big calls right either?

Certainly, I would argue that many of us have also been surprised by how things have turned out in Ukraine so far. I don’t think many of us expected the Russian army to fare so badly, or the Ukrainians to mount such a heroic resistance. The very fact that Zelensky apparently rejected a US proposal to take refuge in a neighbouring country – prompting his famous statement “I need weapons, not a ride” – suggests many assumed his Government would crumble.

I think many of us have also been pleasantly surprised by the robustness of the Western response to the conflict. Who could have imagined, just a few weeks ago, millions of Ukrainian refugees being welcomed into private homes across Europe with minimal popular backlash; Germany blocking Nordstream 2 and sending weapons to Ukraine; the UK clamping down on Russian money and oligarchs; the EU imposing punishing sanctions and working to end its dependency on Russian oil and gas; the US overcoming its domestic political divides to lead a strong international response; and Sweden and Finland talking about joining NATO?

Yet, as I survey the current geopolitical scene, I feel no sense of smugness or superiority, but instead a deep worry about the many other misjudgments I have made, which have far less positive implications.

For example, high on feelings of national pride, and the emotions generated by the spirit and success of the London Olympics in 2012, I did not foresee that four years later my country would descend into bitter infighting and rancour over the Brexit referendum. I also never imagined that six years later, Brexit would still not be “done”; that people would still be arguing over the rights and wrongs of that vote; and that our society would if anything be even more divided.

I also misjudged the extent to which Brexit-supporting politicians on both sides of the Chamber were willing to mislead the British public by claiming we could “have our cake and eat it”. Or, for that matter, how easily so many people were gulled by these false promises and lies.

I misjudged the extent to which Brexiters were willing to slander and insult political opponents as “enemies of the people” or “out of touch elites”. I also never anticipated that they would claim a mandate to drive through the hardest form of Brexit, instead of trying to lead a process of national consultation and reconciliation, to bridge some of the Brexit divides.

George Orwell’s books 1984 and Animal Farm are still on bestseller lists, not as cautionary tales about what once happened in the past, but as a troubling sign of what many fear might be happening in the present.

I miscalculated the extent to which Brexit politicians were willing to act so duplicitously, claiming the intention to sustain a good relationship with the EU, while continuing to blame the EU for some of the entirely foreseen negative impacts of Brexit, such as greater red tape and bureaucracy. I miscalculated the ability of opposition political parties to highlight the flaws and inconsistencies in the Government’s approach. I miscalculated their ability to offer a credible alternative, attractive to the electorate.

I underestimated our current Government’s brazenness in continuing to downplay the impact of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement. I underestimated their lack of shame in misrespresenting some of the details of the Northern Ireland Protocol. I underestimated their shamelessness in trying to shift onto the EU the responsibility for fixing the current problems with the Protocol, even though these were created by our own Government, through its own choices.

I never anticipated that having sold the Withdrawal Agreement to the British people as a great success, barely two years later the politicians who negotiated it would be trying to walk away from its terms. I never believed that a country which presented itself to the world as a ‘force for good’ and a stalwart defender of international law, would itself threaten to renege on a treaty that it had signed. I underestimated the extent to which a British government would be willing to act in such bad faith towards neighbours and allies.

I am also guilty of being complacent about the strength of our own democracy. I had assumed that the kind of populist demagoguery seen in some other Western democracies recently would not be possible in the UK. I over-relied on a sense of innate decency amongst most British politicians, to act as a check on executive overreach, and prevent breaches of the norms and conventions of our unwritten constitution.

In particular, I had always assumed that British politicians would honour the convention to treat their political opponents with respect. I assumed that a UK Prime Minister would never wilfully lie to the Queen, or prorogue Parliament unlawfully. I assumed that a UK Prime Minister asking for great sacrifices of the British public during a pandemic crisis would scrupulously adhere to those same rules himself. I assumed that politicians found guilty of breaking the law or lying to Parliament would step down, in accordance with the Ministerial Code. I misjudged the extent to which Brexit had so poisoned our politics that it has become almost impossible to acknowledge any good in the other side, or accept any mistakes as honest ones.

I also always trusted that even if parliamentary standards began to erode, other institutions in our democracy would hold our government to account. I assumed that our free press would always expose wrongdoing. But I underestimated the extent to which much of our press has been taken over by vested interests, with unhealthy connections and loyalty to certain political parties. I misjudged the extent to which this would lead many of our newspapers to shamefully slant their coverage of events to the benefit of one political party or another.

I also overestimated the extent to which our society has become more tolerant and accepting of diversity. I never anticipated any UK Government indulging in grotesque dog-whistle racist politics, and tacitly encouraging hostility towards migrants. I never imagined that a country which had helped to draft both the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on Refugees would ever seek to evade its obligations under those treaties.

On the international level, I never expected in my lifetime to see a conflict in Europe reminiscent of the horrors of World War Two. I never expected to see a Russian President celebrate his country’s defeat of Naziism while allowing his troops to use Nazi methods of brutality themselves. I never expected to see the Taliban return to power in Afghanistan, and in less than a year remove the right to education for women and girls, and require them to be veiled from head to toe. I never expected a politician from the National Front, deeply opposed to the EU, coming so close to winning the presidency in France. I never expected ‘genocide’ to be a term which applied to conflicts in the 21st Century. I never expected our global community to be struggling to protect the very climate we all depend on for survival.

But, then again, I never expected to see an American President reject the outcome of an election and encourage a physical assault on the buildings at the heart of American democracy. I never expected medieval attitudes to women to resurface in America – with a leaked Supreme Court memorandum on abortion containing references to judicial rulings from the 13th Century.

I never expected common-sense education and discussion about sexual orientation and preferences to be recharacterised as “grooming” of young children by sexual predators. I never expected the long-overdue debate about the history of racism and slavery in America to be badged as extremist, or harmful to white people. I never expected Americans to be campaigning to remove books from libraries, or a state governor to set up a hotline for pupils to report teachers allegedly deviating from approved educational material.

I never expected America to remain so tolerant of the shockingly high number of mass shootings caused by the widespread private ownership of guns.  I could never have imagined living in a country where state officials matter-of-factly debate different methods of executing people sentenced to death.

In fact, when I step back to reflect, I realise I have been guilty of gross naïvety on many, many fronts.

Above all, I trusted in human beings learning from past mistakes and becoming better over time. I repeatedly and misguidedly trusted in the slogan ‘never again’. I put misplaced confidence in democracy, good governance, respect for human rights and peace steadily spreading around the world, as nations and communities became better educated and more intertwined. I trusted that nationalism, racism, misogyny and other prejudices would recede, and tolerance, diversity and mutual respect for each other would spread.

I never expected the degree to which, in the 21st Century, we would still have so many charlatans and corrupt officials in public office. I never thought we would still have so many dictatorships and military-led regimes around the world, still able to brutalise and suppress their people with impunity. I never expected ‘great power’ politics to be an ongoing theme.

And I could never imagine living at a time when words have become so twisted, trust in institutions has become so eroded, and truth has become so relative, that facts are no longer facts, but merely interpretations. George Orwell’s books 1984 and Animal Farm are still on bestseller lists, not as cautionary tales about what once happened in the past, but as a troubling sign of what many fear might be happening in the present.

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So, yes, Putin has got many things wrong in his lifetime. Hopefully, perhaps that also means he may misjudge the strength of his own position at home. Conventional wisdom says it will be hard for any internal opposition to overthrow him, but perhaps we will be proved wrong here too.

But if I have learned anything from the last few years, it is that wishful thinking is a mistake. It is wiser not to rely on man’s better nature prevailing, or to assume that bad things won’t happen. The lesson from history is that bad people frequently get away with things they shouldn’t; and, while we can certainly hope and strive for the best, we should always be prepared for the worst.

As William Wordsworth wrote at the end of his famous poem:

“Have I not reason to lament

What man has made of man?”

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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Ukrainian Child Refugees in Limbo as Visa Applications Deferred

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 11:28pm in

Sasha has been waiting two months for his visa to come to the UK – but new rules say children travelling without their parents are only eligible under the Homes for Ukraine scheme if reuniting with a parent or legal guardian in the UK

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Sasha and his parents spent the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hiding in a basement as shells rained down on their village just outside Kyiv. 

Under fire, their options were limited. Sasha’s father needed to stay in Ukraine and fight – men aged 18-60 are banned from leaving the country. His mother couldn’t leave her seriously ill parents, one of whom was dying from cancer. Eventually, they made the most painful decision any parent can take. They hugged 15-year-old Sasha goodbye, and sent him away with his aunt Nataliia.

“Soldiers and tanks came to our village”, Nataliia told Byline Times. “We packed a bag and got on a train to Kyiv. When we arrived at the capital city, it was crowded, there were so many people trying to get out. We didn’t even want a seat, just to get on a train to the border. We were staying in the open air, sleeping in the station. We ended up travelling to Ternopil – a journey that normally takes three hours, instead it took all night. From there, we got the last two seats on a bus to the Polish border”.

Nataliia becomes tearful when she describes how the pair of them arrived in Poland. “We didn’t know where we were going, the driver just said they would find a road that was acceptable,” she explained. “Finally we got there, we had to sleep under the open sky. It was night time. It was so dark and so cold”.

While Nataliia and Sasha moved from town to town in Poland, eventually travelling to France, Laura in England was applying to be a host for the Homes for Ukraine scheme. 

The scheme was launched by the Government to match vulnerable refugees with host families in the UK. Within days of the scheme being set up, thousands of families offered to open their doors to people in urgent need. 

Nataliia and Sasha were matched with Laura on 19 March. But nearly two months later, they remain in France, waiting for their visas to arrive. They speak to Laura every day, who has been doing everything in her power to get them to the UK.

Now they have been told that visas for minors who are travelling without their parents – even if they are travelling with a recognised legal guardian – have been ‘paused’. The three of them have no idea when this pause will be lifted, if at all. 

With each day that goes by, the desperation grows. Some days Sasha barely lifts his head up from his pillow. He misses his parents, his friends, his school. Hope seems to slide further away.

Trapped by Bureaucracy

Nataliia and Sasha first applied for a Homes for Ukraine visa in March. Then the wait began – and the desperate search for paperwork that would allow the pair to come to safety in the UK.

In order to allow Sasha and his aunt to come to the UK under the scheme, the family needed to provide proof that his parents had entrusted him to Nataliia. They were told to upload a copy of his mother’s passport, to guarantee that he had her permission to travel. Next they learnt that the passport copy was not sufficient. In order to get the visa, a new set of official documents were required showing that Nataliia was Sasha’s legal guardian. 

Back in Ukraine, Sasha’s father travelled between the frontline and a lawyer’s office to get the documents Nataliia needed, while his wife cared for her ailing parents. This was not easy – nor was it cheap. The documents needed to be paid for and translated before they could be provided to the Home Office.

With the documents in place, Sasha and Nataliia thought the path to the UK was clear. Then everything fell apart. In order to safeguard minors from traffickers, the Home Office announced that visas for minors travelling alone or with adults who are not their parents were ‘deferred’. The pause means that many children have no safe route into the UK from Ukraine. 

In despair, Laura contacted her local MP who explained that “essentially, no visas are being approved for unaccompanied minors (even with legal guardianship document) unless we can prove that the parents are unable to travel”. The MP advised that Sasha’s parents provide evidence that his grandparents are sick and that is why his mother has remained in Ukraine. 

However, a letter seen by Byline Times from the Ukrainian Embassy in London suggests this advice is not correct and that Sasha and Nataliia should be able to come to the UK with the documents they have already provided.

The letter, dated 11 May, states: "Hereby we confirm that the permission signed by the parents and certified by notary authorities or City Council in Ukraine, the Guardianship Service, is sufficient for travel minors out of Ukraine during martial law in Ukraine".

It added that children over the age of 16 can travel from Ukraine, and that the Ukrainian authorities "don't block visa applications for unaccompanied minors".

Further correspondence between Laura and her MP revealed there is no data sharing between the UK Home Office and Ukraine’s Government, and so the UK “cannot certify the legal guardianship documents”. The two governments are apparently working to resolve this.

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While there are important safeguarding concerns for minors at risk of trafficking and exploitation, families like Sasha’s are now stuck in limbo, living day-to-day in refugee accommodation and waiting for answers that never seem to come.

Sasha becomes more quiet and withdrawn every day. “He is very sad,” Nataliia told Byline Times. “He speaks to his mother every day and to his father when he can”. 

Nataliia is grateful to women like Laura, and to the many people who helped her and Sasha as they travelled through Poland and to France. “We met a lot of good people and are helped by many kind people,” she explained. 

But her frustration at the delays and the lack of communication from the UK Government is clear. “It’s 56 days of waiting, of not unpacking our bags because we go to bed at night with hope for the morning,” Nataliia said. “We do not get information and I can’t understand what more we can do or what more papers we can provide. It does not help my nephew”. 

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‘Levelling-Up’ Is Dying in Johnson’s Desert of Ideas

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 9:48pm in

As the nation nears the three year mark of Johnson’s Government, it’s time to be honest about the collapse of his flagship project, says Sam Bright

We live in an era when the absolutist statements of populist politicians are rarely matched by equally forthright criticism by the media.

Boris Johnson could promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’, for example – pledging to see through the biggest change to the UK’s constitutional, economic and regional makeup for generations – and yet Brexit has sidled off the mainstream news agenda. Northern Ireland is in a state of political paralysis, our international trade has been depressed, but Johnson’s Brexit fallacies still reign supreme.

This is similarly the case with ‘levelling up’ – the Government’s flagship plan to rebalance the fortunes of our nations and regions. Once again, Johnson’s rhetoric has been bold. In a flagship speech on the subject in July 2021, he presciently suggested that the UK was only “firing on one cylinder” – referring to the disproportionate economic power of London and the south east.

The Government’s levelling up white paper released in February – designed to sketch-out Johnson’s agenda in more detail – continued this rhetorical zeal, using analogies from Renaissance Italy to inform its 12 levelling up ‘missions’.

However, these words collapse under intellectual pressure. Only four of these missions will have a measurable impact on regional inequality, according to the Institute for Government, while Johnson actually plans to spend less on English regional development than either of his immediate predecessors – Theresa May and David Cameron – according to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

Henri Murison, who runs the think tank, says that much of the Government’s levelling up agenda will be fundamentally “undermined through a lack of funding”.

This intellectual sinkhole opened up further in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday, during which the Government announced its short-term plans for levelling up. This included announcing a Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, focused on local planning and the devolution of powers.

The Government’s proposals are thin on the ground. In fact, wafer thin. The bill includes five ‘main elements’, one of which is to give “residents more of a say over changing street names and ensuring everyone can continue to benefit from al fresco dining”. Instead of providing lifeboats, the Government is encouraging Brits to dine on the decks of a rapidly submerging ship.

As in the case of the white paper, the Government’s only bold, progressive proposal is to devolve more power to local and regional authorities – under the promise that “every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified long-term funding settlement.” In the short-term, the Government plans to negotiate 10 new devolution deals in England, and has promised extra powers to Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and to Andy Street in the West Midlands.

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Levelling Down

The problem is: these facts are confined to think tank reports and the columns of broadsheet newspapers. When Boris Johnson said that he was going to level up the country, this slogan was splashed by every tabloid newspaper and news channel. The unravelling of his plan, however, is only carried in whispers.

Yet, the reality is stark: levelling up is failing. It took the Government more than two years to produce its white paper, despite the prominence of levelling up in the 2019 Conservative Manifesto.

During this time, the circumstances of the poorest in Britain have deteriorated. The most deprived and diverse communities were disproportionately saddled with the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. Among 20 peer countries, the UK suffered the second largest fall in life expectancy from 2019 to 2021, concentrated in poorer areas.

Researchers at the University of Manchester calculated that, between March and December 2020, 1,645 years of life were lost per 100,000 people in the most deprived areas of England and Wales, compared to 916 years of life per 100,000 in the most affluent. In other words, almost twice as many years of life were lost in the poorest areas of the country compared with the wealthiest.

The UK’s structural inequalities encompass every aspect of public policy. So, while the Conservatives may now be attempting to frame ‘levelling up’ purely in the realms of planning reform and devolution – hoping the media will buy this narrative – attention is diverted away from the burgeoning inequalities suffered by the most disadvantaged.

This process is only set to intensify through the cost of living crisis, that will torpedo the Government’s regional rebalancing rallying cry, in the absence of administrative action.

A further 250,000 households will be in extreme poverty next year, taking the overall figure to 1.2 million, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

The Trussell Trust delivered 2.1 million food parcels (including more than 830,000 parcels provided for children) to people facing financial hardship across the country, from April 2021 to March 2022. This represented an increase of 14% compared to 2019/2020 and double the number provided in 2014/15.

Just today, Bloomberg has released an analysis showing that, in nine out of 12 metrics, the performance of most constituencies relative to London and the south-east of England is now worse or unchanged compared to 2019.

Meanwhile, as the economy overheats – causing an inflationary spike – London has turned into a furness. Already the most expensive place to live in the country – since 2010, average private rental prices in London have grown at five times the rate of average earnings – the capital has placed even more financial pressure on its inhabitants in recent months. According to Rightmove, average rents in London reached £2,193 a month in March, a 14.3% rise from £1,919 last year and the largest annual increase in any region since records began.

Some 30% of people are in the private rental market in London – a higher proportion than any other nation or region – whereas only 10% of Londoners were private renters in the 1980s.

House prices propel poverty rates in the capital. While London has comfortably the highest wages in the country, it also has the highest rates of poverty, by virtue of its obscene property costs. If all the people in poverty in London formed a new city, it would be the second largest conurbation in the UK – and twice the size of Birmingham.

Yet, while the Housing Minister Stuart Andrew yesterday said that London needs 100,000 new homes a year to keep up with demand, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove simultaneously seemed to drop the Government’s target to build 300,000 homes across the country every year.

In this desert of ideas, the poorest parts of the country – in the north, the south, and in the devolved nations – continue to become sicker and poorer.

Johnson’s Government has run out of ideas, instead ruling through the division of its contrived culture war conflicts – hoping that journalists continue to play along, failing to expose the empty slogans that encase his betrayed promises.

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Boris Johnson Blocks Publishing Secret Lebedev Advice Due to ‘National Security’ Concerns

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 9:34pm in

The Prime Minister has failed to release the advice he received from the security services about his friend Evgeny Lebedev, despite MPs voting for its release, reports Adam Bienkov

Boris Johnson has been accused of a "cover up" after blocking the publication of the full advice he received from UK security services about handing a peerage to Evgeny Lebedev, with ministers only publishing heavily redacted details about his appointment.

The House of Commons voted at the end of April to compel the Government to publish the advice he received about the son of a former KGB agent and Russian oligarch, before April 28.

However, the documents, which were finally released to MPs by the government on Thursday afternoon, are heavily redacted and contain no information whatsoever on the security advice received by Downing Street.

In an accompanying statement, the Paymaster General, Michael Ellis, described Lebedev as a "man of good standing" but insisted that further details must remain confidential in order to "protect national security".

Labour accused the Government of a "cover up" and being in "contempt of Parliament."

“This looks like a cover up and smells like a cover up because it is a cover up", Labour's Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said.

"The Government has not provided a single piece of information in these heavily redacted documents, failing to comply with a direct instruction from Parliament. The Government is once again seeking to hide in the shadows from the sunlight of scrutiny. We will take steps to rectify this contempt of Parliament.

"The public have a right to know the truth about Boris Johnson’s interference in the appointment of his friend Lord Lebedev, the son and business partner of an ex-KGB agent, to a seat in the heart of our Parliament. It is time to get to the bottom of this whole murky business."

Asked by Labour's Thangham Debbonaire on Thursday why the information, which the Government had been compelled to publish before the local elections, had remained unpublished until that point, the Leader of the House of Commons said there were "security challenges" that had delayed its publication.

"I think I can share with the House that there are a number of security challenges in that information which have been gone through in great detail," Mark Spencer told MPs.

Evgeny Lebedev – whose full title is 'Baron Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation' – owns the Evening Standard and Independent newspapers.

Correspondence revealed by Byline Times earlier this year showed how Lebedev built a relationship with Johnson over the course of a decade.

The letters show that Lebedev lobbied Johnson to support a new Russian arts festival while he was Mayor of London, which he said had "substantial support from the Russian Government”.

Johnson, who attended dozens of dinners, parties, drinks and meetings with Lebedev during that period also told the newspaper proprietor that he would "thrilled" to secure his support.

Johnson was later flown on multiple occasions for parties at Lebedev's Italian villa, with the then Foreign Secretary ditching his security detail on at least one occasion in order to attend.

As Byline Times first revealed, Johnson was initially advised by UK security services not to hand a peerage to Lebedev.

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However, the advice was later changed following a meeting between the two men. No minutes were recorded of their meeting and Downing Street has declined to reveal what they discussed.

The Home Secretary Priti Patel this week announced new legislation to clamp down on what she described as "covert spies" which seek to influence those in power in the UK.

Asked by Labour on Wednesday whether the new law would have criminalised Johnson's meetings with Lebedev's father Alexander, who was a former Russian agent, Patel replied that “I'm not going to comment on specific examples...”.

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‘Bungs’ to Billionaires: Cummings Exposes Johnson’s Cash for Content Scandal

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 5:58am in

New testimony from the Prime Minister’s former chief aide shows how the free press has been bought by the Government

Asked by the human rights lawyer Adam Wagner if he came across any examples of private lobbying leading to lockdown rule changes during the pandemic, Boris Johnson’s now-former chief aide Dominic Cummings said that: “Newspapers negotiated direct bungs to themselves with him [Boris Johnson]”.

There were “no officials on [the calls]”, he added, and Johnson “told officials to send the [money] dressed up as ‘COVID relief’”. 

This was clearly a reference to a special subsidy arrangement for the mainstream press that began in April 2020 and was called ‘All In, All Together’. Budgeted at £35 million for the first three months it still appears to be operating two years later – the Guardian published a story under its banner in March 2022 – but the Government and the industry have repeatedly rebuffed Byline Times’ questions on how much has been spent in total. 

We do know, however, that it was conceived after intense lobbying in the first weeks of the pandemic by the club of newspapers known as the News Media Association (NMA) and there is little doubt that the chief beneficiaries were the big, wealthy news providers: the Mail group, the Murdoch group, the Telegraph group and the Mirror group. 

Though it was explicitly a subsidy – Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that this public money was being spent “in support of the print newspaper industry” – it was combined with an advertising campaign, with wrap-arounds, normal ads and paid-for editorial content labelled as ‘government-sponsored’ (though not always very prominently). 

Content for these articles was seemingly spoon-fed to the papers by the Government, with the same interviews and the same quotes appearing across several titles, though some of the linking text varied. The stories often involved praise for measures taken by the Government and some of it was barely relevant to COVID. 

The only fragment of information offered by the Cabinet Office was to refer us to its monthly spending data, which showed that the money was delivered to the papers through OmniGov, the branch of global media company Manning Gottlieb that manages Government advertising.

How much it has added up to, we can only guess. If it had continued at its initial rate for 24 months that would take the total well over £200 million, but this is unlikely as activity appears to have tailed off slowly after hitting an early peak. Spending in that early period was clearly high, however, and possibly above budget, so the total to date could well exceed £100 million. 

Barring tiny sums, this money has all gone to the big newspaper groups, including the big regionals and the Guardian. Small, independent news publishers which also lobbied the Government and which were far more vulnerable in the early pandemic period, received next to nothing. 

The chief recipients of this public largesse could hardly have deserved it less. The Mail is owned through trusts based in Jersey and the Bahamas and its proprietor is the billionaire Lord Rothermere, widely reported to enjoy non-dom tax status. The Telegraph is owned by Sir Frederick Barclay, who lives on Brecqhou, a private island in the Channel Islands. Rupert Murdoch is of course an Australian-American media tycoon worth some $19 billion. 

The question is therefore this: how can the media validly claim to be holding power to account – to be exposing the avalanche of corruption and wrongdoing perpetuated by Johnson’s regime – when it is receiving substantial funds from that same administration?

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A Systemic Problem

Moreover, this story confirms a pattern of behaviour – the co-dependence of the Prime Minister and his allies in the media. 

Byline Times has previously revealed that some 25% of the Prime Minister’s recorded meetings with external organisations from July to September last year were held with right-wing publications. According to Cummings, the Prime Minister has referred to the Telegraph as his “real boss” – and has been keen to follow the newspaper’s laissez–faire approach to lockdown restrictions. 

Johnson flew back from the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November – a crucial event in deciding the world’s climate change priorities – in order to attend a reunion party of Telegraph journalists at London’s prestigious Garrick Club.

The Prime Minister has also been criticised for his close relationship with Evgeny Lebedev, the proprietor of the Evening Standard and the Independent. Johnson nominated Lebedev – whose father is a former KGB spy – to the House of Lords under the title ‘Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia’ and overruled security service concerns about his appointment. 

Cummings’ comments come amid renewed support for Johnson’s administration, and attacks on the leader of the opposition, from some right-wing newspapers.

The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, and The Sun spent weeks in the run up to the local elections pushing for a police investigation into Labour Leader Keir Starmer for an alleged breach of lockdown laws in April 2021.

These newspaper groups have deep connections with Downing Street. The Sun’s deputy editor, James Slack, is Johnson’s former director of communications. A leaving party held in Slack’s honour inside Downing Street is among those events investigated by the Metropolitan Police following the ‘Partygate’ revelations. The Sun’s current political editor, Harry Cole, is also the former partner of Johnson’s current wife, Carrie. 

Downing Street’s connections with the Mail group are also strong. James Slack was the former political editor at the Daily Mail. His successor As Downing Street Director of Communications was Jack Doyle – another former political reporter at the Mail

Asked by Byline Times about Cummings’ claim that the Prime Minister personally negotiated “bungs” to newspapers, without any officials present, a Government spokesman said: “We recognise the valued role of national, local and regional newspapers, and actively supported the whole industry during the COVID pandemic. 

“This included investing more in advertising our public information campaign through national and local media and radio, which saw vital public health messaging advertised across approximately 600 titles including UK nationals, regional dailies, weeklies, and independent media.

“No title received preferred treatment, and all outlets were selected by the Government’s external media planning and buying agency purely on their ability to engage with audiences at a national, regional and local level.”

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‘They’re all the Same’: How Political Cynicism Breeds Extremism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/05/2022 - 10:45pm in

A lack of faith in politics is dangerous for democracy, argues Sian Norris, as it paves the way for 'strongmen' to take authoritarian control

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“They’re all the same”, is the most common moan about politicians. “They all lie. They’re all in it for themselves. They don’t care about people like me”.

Such a complaint has become particularly potent in the twin fallout of 'partygate' and 'beergate'. There is clear distance between the 12 events in and around Downing Street being investigated that are linked to the Prime Minister, and the allegations against Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner. But the fact that both main parties are facing questions from the police has added fuel to the fire that all politicians are as bad as each other. 

The narrative that politicians are all the same – and by ‘same’ we mean equally bad, not equally good – breeds a cynicism in politics that is bad for democracy. It turns voters away from the ballot box, as they refuse to choose between a ruling and opposition party that they believe are as bad as each other. It breeds distrust in politicians so that when positive policies are announced, voters don’t truly believe politics can make a difference to their lives. 

Worse, it allows for extremist and divisive actors to thrive – after all, if the mainstream can’t be trusted, why not lend your support to those who promise to do things differently? 

Extremism flourishes where faith in democracy is broken. 

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Britain’s Divides

According to a report published earlier this year by the Carnegie UK Trust, less than half the English public (45%) feel that democracy works well in the UK and an overwhelming majority (77%) do not trust MPs. Just under three-quarters (74%) of the public do not trust that the UK Government will make decisions that will improve their lives. 

The poll was taken in the early weeks of partygate. Now, with beergate fuelling the belief that they’re “all the same”, it’s possible trust is even lower. 

Such lack of trust creates confusion. This in turn creates division and divide, which can be manipulated into a culture war. This is the breeding ground for extremism. 

As democracy has eroded in the UK, culture war issues have increasingly taken hold and the electorate has become divided along values lines – with progressives pitched against ‘small-c’ conservatives, with pro-Europeans pitched against little-Englanders, with social justice and human rights advocates pitched against those who long for a return to the natural order.  

When the far-right talk about corruption, they are instead talking about the “corruption of purity rather than of law”

This is evidenced in new research from the Policy Institute at Kings College London and Ipsos UK, which found that more than half (54%) of the UK public aware of the “culture wars”. That is an increase from 46% at the end of 2020. At the same time, 36% of the UK public see the word “woke” as an insult, rising to 42% of over-55s. 

The study also found that half of the UK public feel the term “white privilege” is unhelpful when talking about race relations – double the number of people in 2020. 

This is hardly surprising. The Conservative Government has been determined to wage a culture war that can distract attention from the disastrous handling of the pandemic, and the growing stress on families caused by the rising cost of living. From reports that blamed the phrase “white privilege” on the lack of academic attainment of white working class boys, to Party Chairman Oliver Dowden telling the radical-right think tank that the term would be banned in UK schools, a Government in trouble clings to culture issues in order to create scapegoats for its failings and to stoke divisions. 

When faith in democracy crumbles, people seek refuge in the old certainties – in race, in nation, in war (even a culture one). That the UK is increasingly aware of and embroiled in a culture war over values is a consequence of both cynicism in political leaders – and the cynicism of political leaders who fill the lacuna where policies of transformation should be, with the politics of hate and division.

This, in turn, moves us towards extremism.

Strongmen Leaders

Whenever democracy is in danger, there’s often a strongman waiting in the wings. These are the authoritarian leaders who rush in on promises of simple answers, conservative solutions, and a return to the natural order. 

Crucially, the strongman leader comes to power with a promise to end corruption – to “drain the swamp” in Trump parlance – while accusing their predecessors in mainstream politics of being corrupt. For an electorate that has lost trust in its politicians, a campaign against corruption is beguiling. Voters that believe all parties are the same, that all politician are in it for themselves and not in it to support the public, have every reason to support a strongman who promises to do things differently and end corruption. 

But there’s a problem. From Putin to Orban, Trump to Bolsanara, even Sebastian Kurz in Austria and Salvini in Italy, strongmen come to power or popularity promising a new dawn... only to be corrupt themselves. 

This has two consequences. The first is to create even more disillusionment in politics – a sense that if even the man promising to end corruption is corrupt, there’s no point trusting anyone. The second is to create apathy or even forgiveness – that he probably deserves that wealth/kickback/favour (this, for a while, worked for Boris Johnson and the endless stories about backers being asked to pay for wallpaper/takeaways/nannying services). Either way, it feeds the degradation of politics and paves the way for extremism.

To understand why this happens, it’s important to understand the far-right framing of corruption. Far from being about money and Wall Street, the strongman leader sees corruption as being about who takes up space and who holds power. 

When the far-right talk about corruption, they are instead talking about the “corruption of purity rather than of law” or a “usurpation of the natural order”, according to writer Jason Stanley. He explains in his book How Fascism Works how “when women attain positions of political power usually reserved for men – or when Muslims, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or ‘cosmopolitans’ profit or even share the public goods of a democracy, such as healthcare – that is perceived as corruption”.

Little wonder then, that where there are authoritarian, strongmen leaders, there is often a flourishing anti-gender movement, along with anti-women, anti-LGBTIQ policies. According to research by Women’s Link Worldwide, anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ organisations and policies find success in countries with weak democracies and strongmen leadership. As such, natalist efforts, anti-abortion bills, anti-LGBTIQ and anti-RSE policies are the canary in the coalmine for a democracy that is sliding into extremism. 

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