Monday 30 April 2018

Rudd has resigned - so that's all right then?

Our Homes Secretary, Ms Amber Rudd, has resigned.  Her wording suggest that it's all over a technicality  - she "inadvertently"  (which means "unintentionally") "misled" (which means "lied to" )a parliamentary committee by claiming that  the Home Office did not have targets for deporting immigrants.

So that's all right then.   A minister has made a mistake and taken the blame, high standards have been maintained , our constitution has worked and our government can resume its course, proud that the the niceties have been maintained.

It is not all right.

What is needed is not just a change of minister (though there may be advantages in the appointment of Sajid Javid as replacement) but a change of policy and a change of the culture, not just in the Home Office but in Parliament, the parties and the country as a whole.

Our treatment of "immigrants,"  legal or not, Commonwealth, coloured, Irish, Eastern European or whatever, is not something of which our country, which likes to think of itself as tolerant, liberal and with a  Christian heritage, can be proud.

There is a populist  antipathy to "foreigners" and, sadly, both the Labour and Conservative parties have pandered to it.  Both Jack Straw and David Blunkett were highly illiberal Home Secretaries.

I think I can claim an exemption for the Liberal party.  We were the only party to want to welcome the Kenyan Asians  in the 1960s. This tradition was maintained in In the first Leader' Debate for the 2010 election,(the one which  which led to a brief period of Cleggmania,) when Nick Clegg proposed that an amnesty for all illegal immigrants who and been here for ten years, provided they had committed no crimes.  This was derided by both the Labour and Conservative parties (though, oddly, Boris Johnson has just floated an identical proposal - presumably for his own mysterious purposes)

By contrast Mrs May is the one who proclaimed the need for  a "hostile environment" to immigrants, which , of course, automatically extended to anyone who looked like or sounded like they might be  immigrants.

The Home Office, of which Mrs May  was in charge for five years,  appears to have taken her at her word and people who have lived here since childhood, confident in their perfectly legitimate assumption that they were British, have been refused medial attention, lost their jobs, refused re-entry and even deported.

Amber Rudd was merely the latest to be in charge of implementing the policy, and she seems to have done it with some enthusiasm.

We need a change of culture.  First, we should stop talking about "immigrants" and instead talk about "people."  People who have lives to live, aspirations, friendships and families to sustain, dignity to be maintained and contributions to be made, be they  to our economy or our culture.

Except in the case of notorious criminals, these people, are welcome.

Turning public opinion  to sch a culture will be rather like changing the course of the Queen Mary.  It will take time.  Maybe a BAME Home Secretary is a start.  It will need all the political parties to do their job, which is to lead rather than cravenly bow to populism.  Much of the press will be no help.  The religious establishments of all faiths will need to  speak out.

But we can get there, and be a healthier and happier society for it.

Thursday 26 April 2018

The Custmoms Union: a small step

Today the House of Commons debates a motion that the UK should stay in the EU Customs Union, even if we actually leave the EU.  Staying in the customs union will have two massive advantages and one small one. The big ones are:
  • there will be no need for customs checks at the entry and exit ports (Dover/Calais; Folkstone/Boulogne etc ) so no costly delays, massive lorry-parks, tailbacks on the M20
  • blessedly, no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
and the little one is:
  • the UK's exporters will not have to pay the common external tariff (customs duty) on goods to be sold in the EU.  Although not exactly negligible, this is a small factor compared with  inconvenience and cost of extra paperwork, inspections and delays.
The Brexiteers' arguments against staying in the Customs Union  are:
  • the UK would still be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice  (ECJ) for the resolution of trade disputes;.
  • the UK would be unable to negotiate its own trade deals with countries outside the EU but would have to accpt the collective deals negotiated by the EU.
 I really fail to understand the Brexiteers' obsession with the ECJ.  Any trade deal, be it with the US, Brazil, India, China or wherever, will involved a  some system of independent arbitration in the event of a dispute.  If not the ECJ it will be something similar (and, of course, while we're still members of the EU we have representation on the ECJ.)

The second objection is a Brexiteer fantasy (Yesterday the Guardian called it a "sham").  It is a nonsense to think that the UK, with our relatively small market of about 65 million people, could negotiate better deals than the mighty EU with its market nearly ten times the size. And if we did, it would undoubtedly be on the foreigners' terms (chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef from the US, for example.)

So I look forward to a vote in favour of this motion today. It will not bring down the government because they are playing obscure parliamentary games.  The Tories have imposed only a two line whip, so Tory MPs don't need to be there to vote against  if they can find something better to do, and it is a "motion" not legislation.

Nevertheless a vote in favour will be a significant step in exposing the folly of the government's ideological and unnecessary "Hard Brexit" position and will be an opportunity for MPs to tihnk for themselves and vote for what they believe rather than toe the party line.

Of course, remaining in the Customs Union is a small step compared with remaining in the Single Market, which incudes most services (very important to Britain).  For the practical advantages to businesses of the single Market see this powerful expose of the difficulties of being outside the Single market as recounted by this small manufacturer.a Natalie Milton

Of course, the most sensible thing to do would be to forget about Brexit, apologise for the time we've wasted, remain in the EU and get on with tackling our real problems (inequality, housing, tax evasion and avoidance, health service, racism,  and impotent local government, to name but some.)

Friday 20 April 2018

Bombing Syria: before we forget.

 The furore of the bombing of Syria in response to Assad's alleged use of chemical w4epons has already faded from the media and they and we  moved on to the cruel, unnecessary and probably illegal treatment of the Windrush children.

However, there are two crucial points which should go on record before they fade from the memory.

First, Mrs May, who makes much of being the daughter of a Christian vicar and her regular church attendances, brazenly tells us that it was not possible to recall and consult parliament about the bombing becasue "speed [was] essential."

This is obvious nonsense: indeed, since we are not in parliament, we can call it a blatant lie.  The alleged use use of  chemical weapons by the Syrian government was already a week old, "surprise" was not an element in the West's decision since President Trump had already Tweeted as to what he would do.

So Mrs May's government decided, for whatever reason (fear of losing the vote?) to ignore our sovereign parliament and recently developing convention, and "do their own thing."

So much for "taking back control."

Secondly Mrs May claimed that this trilateral military attack by the West's most powerful nation and its two acolytes was perfectly legal.without the consent of  the United nations.

As I understand it the relevant international agreements are:

  •   Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which  says: ”All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence  of any sate.”  
  • Article 2(5) which states:“All Members shall give the United Nations every assistance in any action it takes in accordance with the present Charter”
  •  Article 7(42):“Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security.
  • Article 51 ":Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security."

The first three all relate to collective action approved by UN members or the Security Council.  The fourth make the exception for a country to take independent action for self defence in the case of an armed attack.

 There was and is no credible possibility that the Syrian government is about to attack the UK, (or the US. or France, for that matter.)

So we are complicit in an illegal act of war.

 That we are so complicit on the coat-tails of a leader as capricious as President Trump makes the action not only illegal but incredibly foolish.

 Maybe international law should be different, but be we have  to work with it as it is and not what we should like it to be.  (I would like to see the UN reformed and brought up to date, and  all the world's armed forces under its control  to work as an armed international police force )

As far as domestic politics are concerned (and this could be what is uppermost in Mrs May's mind) our government has been incredibly lucky.  For once the precision bombing does not seem to have killed any Syrians, especially,for media purposes, women or children.  Nor, fortunately, do we appear to have killed any Russians.

So the government's domestic position has been strengthened.  

"They" have got away with it, but "not in my name" and, I suspect, only for a while.

Sadly nothing in this betrayal of the rule of law has done anything to improve the lot of the Syrian people, or bring bring the war to an end.

The one comforting piece of information which has come out of this incident is that the US and Russian military high commands have a hotline to inform each other of what their hung-ho political master are about to order, so that each side can take precautions to avoid any unintended clashes.  Thank goodness someone is acting with a bit of sense,

Thursday 12 April 2018

Syria: what not to do

Sir Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, has invited we members to give him our views  on military action against the government of Syria before (it is hoped) Parliament debates the issue.

Here is my response:

Dear Vince Cable,

Thank you for giving we members an opportunity to forward our views to you on the possible military intervention by the UK in Syria.

This is an extremely difficult problem which seems to place us in a lose-lose situation.  If we do not intervene we appear to stand by impotently  whilst terrible wickedness takes place, including the internationally illegal use of chemical weapons. If we do intervene there is a strong possibility of making a bad situation worse, as has already happened in similar circumstances in Iraq and Libya.

You set out some sensible conditions which should be fulfilled before any decision is taken: namely:

  • 1.       The government should share with Parliament what evidence it has that chemical weapons have been used.
  • 2.       The objectives of any proposed action should be defined and made clear to Parliament
  • 3.       Any response should be on a multilateral basis
  • 4.       There must be a full and frank debate and vote in the Commons before any action is taken.

You also sate that we Liberal Democrats must be “willing to play our part in upholding international law.” 

  In a sense that settles it.  As a letter in today’s Guardian (12th April)) states: Article 2(4) of the UN Charter says: ”All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence  of any sate.”

Russia and Iran are themselves breaking this law, and the Syrian government is breaking an international treaty by using chemical weapons.    However, as the well-known cliché states: “Two (or even more) wrongs don’t make a right. It may well be that France, as the former mandated power, has some special responsibility which justifies its intervention in Syria: the UK does not.

But we should not just cower behind  this legalism.  Rather we should take into account the unhappy history of previous interventions  in the Middle East, the repeated evidence that assurances that “surgical” intervention on precise targets always turn out to be false and produce what we sanitise as “collateral” damage .  Do we really believe that raining more missiles on the poor people of Syria will actually improve their lot?

Most seriously, do we really want to ally ourselves with the intemperate  threats and possible actions of the most capricious, unpredictable, possibly even unbalanced, US president in history? 

Rather I believe that we should vote against any proposed military action, and instead put forward constructive practical alternatives such as those recommended in yesterday’s Guardian leader, namely :

·         Give substantially more humanitarian aid  for the Syrians seeking refuge in the region
·         Take  more refugees, especially children, into the UK.
Finally, we must redouble our efforts for a diplomatic solution.   

I am no expert but it seems to me that a considerable part of the Putin government’s  motivation is to re-assert Russia’s status as  a world power.  In a sense we have brought this problem on ourselves  by triumphalist insensitivity since the collapse of the USSR, not least inviting former satellite states to join NATO (the former enemy) and  the EU (some would say prematurely).   

We have rubbed Russia’s nose in its perceived humiliation and the Syrian people are paying the price.
Never forget that Russia paid for the defeat of Nazism with 25 000 000 deaths, compared with the UK’s 450 700.  We should pull out all the diplomatic stops necessary to repair this damage to our former and invaluable ally.

Sunday 8 April 2018

Ici Londres: the BBC in Wartime

Frank Bauer, the last person alive who broadcast on the BBC to occupied Europe in the 1940s, died last week at the age of 99.  You can find the details  here.

In my "year abroad" when trying to improve my schoolboy French in 2005/6 I was surprised and rather flattered to discover that these BBC broadcasts, not necessarily Bauer's but in general,  were still remembered with  affection and gratitude by those who had lived under the Occupation.

Whilst in France I attended a small Protestant church (Temple) and as is my wont, joined the choir.  This wasn't as much help to my French as I'd expected, as  they specialised in Bach chorales and tended to sing them in German, but at least our instructions and criticisms were in French.  Two members, Guy and Annie, somewhat older than I,  kindly gave me a lift home after our weekly practices  They had been brought up,  I think, in Normandy in the 40s, and told me how, in spite of the danger,  they had hidden in their cellars with their parents and listened to the BBC,which they trusted as the only source of reliable news.

I have been reminded of this by reading Edward Stourton's book "Auntie's War, the BBC during the Second World War" published last year.  (Please buy from Foyles, second on the list, rather than Amazon -see earlier post).

The book is a mine of fascinating information: Charles Gardner's live descriptions of the Battle of Britain (much criticised at the time);  de Gaulle's famous broadcast to the French (which apparently not many heard); Churchill's less well-know one (C'est moi, Churchill, qui vous parle); J B Priestley's quixotic inclusion of "a better Margate" as one of our war aims; endless discussion on what should be the limits of censorship.

Apparently aerial bombing was expected to be even more devastating than it turned out, but a committee minuted practical suggestions to maintain morale:

"Lady Grigg  said that the most comforting thing . . . at least where women were concerned . . .was a cup of tea . . . Professor Hilton  . . .  referred to the value of sugar for steadying the nerves." 

Perhaps there's something in the  Keep Calm and Cary On spirit  after all.

The value of the broadcasts to  occupied Europe  became evident as the liberation progressed.

Following the advancing Allied armies Frank Gillard "encountered so much praise for the BBC that it must have felt,  from time to time  like a royal progress."  He reported:

 "There's always a tremendous personal welcome for us, as representatives of the BBC, when we go into newly liberated towns.  People crowd in upon us to express their thanks, and they invariably say: "We listen to the BBC, and we trusted the BBC,because it always told the truth.' "

Britain's prestige in Europe was never higher than at the end of the war.  If you want your bosom to swell with pride  read this book.  Then she a tear as the current clowns in charge do their best to destroy what's left of our good name.

Of course , this prestige could be part of the problem.

Jo Grimond, great leader of we Liberals in the 50sand 60s, who fought in the war as a subaltern, writes in his Memoirs:

" . . .we came out of the war being told we had saved the world by a unique act of courage against fearful odds.  We naturally became convinced that the world must see that we were natural leaders of the West entitled by our deeds of valour and skill to rest on oars  as far as work was concerned and owed a debt, indeed a living, by our neighbours."  (page 99)

It is this assumption of British exceptionalism which fuels the fantasies of the Brexiteers.  Will we never learn?

Wednesday 4 April 2018

HMRC's "customers" choose not to pay.

 On Monday 2nd April, a letter in the Guardian from PennyCiniewicz,  head of HMRC’s Customer (sic) Compliance Group, claimed with apparent satisfaction that the UK's tax gap  is "down to 6% - its lowest level ever and one of the lowest in the world."

Given that the latest figure for a year's tax actually collected is £752bn, by my calculation that uncollected 6% amounts to some £48bn.   That would have financed a lot of hospitals, schools, road repairs, decent payments for the sick and disabled,  or whatever else is in your wish list (parks, libraries?).  So there is no room for complacency.

Part of the problem of non-collection  is that the staffing levels at  HMRC are being cut by around a third as part of the "austerity programme" which is, would you believe it, designed to balance the government's books.

Joined up thinking this is not.

What I find irritating, if not quite so stupid, is that HMRC refers to we tax-payers (and non-payers) as "customers."  In normal parlance a customer has a right to choose to participate by buying or not buying the product in question.  And if the customer is not satisfied with the product he or she has the right to "take my custom elsewhere."

Such choices do not, or should not, apply to taxation.  But it could well be that the non-payers of the 6% are taking HMRC at their management-speak word by failing to participate - tax avoidance - or taking their custom elsewhere - tax evasion.

It is as citizens, not customers, that we pay tax.  We do not nor should not have a choice.  Rather we have a duty to pay for the proper functioning of the decent society in which we should all like to live.

Whilst on this hobby horse, we should stop referring to taxation as a "burden."  Rather those of us with incomes and wealth sufficient to make us liable for taxation are, and should regard ourselves as, privileged, not saddled with a burden.