MI5 warning about China drips with racism

British secret agency MI5’s recently warned about Chinese influence in the UK Parliament. Breathlessly reported across the media, it didn’t do what it was intended to – knocking the No10 partying off the top of the news agenda. And everyone in the media they all seemed to overlook the very obvious racist undertones of the warning.

All of the things listed in the report are regularly done by other governments. That’s not to say they’re right. But while the Tory-led government legislated in the 2010-15 term to curtail domestic charity intervention in politics they haven’t taken the chance to do the same for state actors or private companies.

So the Chinese influence on British politics described by MI5 – giving donations to MPs and having individuals of Chinese heritage working for an MP are entirely normal activities. As is funding All Party Parliamentary Groups, which exist for countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The donations could easily be outlawed, but no government has chosen to do that. The report is clear that the ‘wrongdoing’ is seeking influence, not acquiring secrets.

So why is it wrong for a person of Chinese heritage to do this?

It’s hard not to conclude that it is all based in a racist story from the late 19th century, often called the ‘Yellow Peril’ – where China was portrayed as a threat to European civilisation. You can see this in the creation of characters like Fu Manchu. Of course the reality was that China was, at the time, a country in decline. The suggestion that it was a threat to Europe was absurd. But as with many of these stories, it was the pretext for colonisation. The British inflicted a decisive defeat on the Chinese in the Opium Wars of the mid 19th Century, with Hong Kong and the right to sell hard drugs to China being just some of the outcomes.

The full colonisation of China didn’t happen because of the First World War. But the racist characterisation of Chinese people as ruthless and deviously seeking world domination survives.

On a day when Boris Johnson was in deep trouble, the decision to release a ‘warning’ based on racist tropes is as cynical as it is wrong. If you think funding MPs to the tune of £400k is wrong, I agree. But the way to stop that is not to demonise Chinese people, it’s to ban such donations.

We can expect plenty more of this racism though, as the UK struggles to find a place in the world. Without the ability to wage another Opium War, the British establishment is reduced to racist scaremongering about the ‘Yellow Peril’. It may seem silly, but will likely lead to more racism against people of Chinese heritage, at a time when that has been especially problematic.


Lessons on Divestment from Denis Goldberg

Denis Goldberg died last night. A Rivonia triallist with Nelson Mandela he spent 22 years in jail for his part in the fight against apartheid.

When he was released from jail he ran the ANC’s campaign for divestment from South Africa. That was possibly the most significant part of most Western countries’ contribution to the end of apartheid.

I met him in 2013 when he came to Edinburgh, just as the campaign for divestment from fossil fuels at Edinburgh University was getting to the crunch point.

The advice he gave me was decisive. He told me a story about being at a US College, waiting to speak to the Board of Governors. It was a predominantly African-American college and there was a real willingness to divest.

He recounted how, before he went in to make the case for divestment, he spoke to the Director of Finance. The Director of Finance said to him “look, we agree with you. We want to divest, but we’re required to get the best return on our investments. It’s called the ‘fiduciary duty’ and we would be breaking the law if we decided to divest.’

Denis told me that at that point he realised that he’d been making the wrong case all along. He’d been making the argument that apartheid was evil. Which it was.
The argument he needed to make was that South Africa was a bad investment. And it was a bad investment because of apartheid. An authoritarian regime facing a rebelling population was a poor investment opportunity.

He told the College Board that they would be in breach of their ‘fiduciary duty’ if they continued to invest in South Africa. There and then they made the decision to divest.

The moment the argument was won at Edinburgh University was the moment we applied this lesson to our campaign to divest from fossil fuels.

It wasn’t that fossil fuel companies were going to make the planet uninhabitable, it wasn’t that they’d conspired to hide this fact. It wasn’t that they were regularly involved in workers’ rights abuses, or human rights abuses.

It was based on an observation about the value of fossil fuel companies. Oil and gas companies are valued, in no small part, on the reserves they’ve identified. Those reserves can’t be burned because they would push us through planetary boundaries and into climate breakdown.

So the divestment decision was based on the fact that we couldn’t burn the fossil fuels on the balance sheets of the companies without breaking international agreements to halt climate change.

And that was a lesson learned from Denis Goldberg.DenisGoldbergRJL

Brexit Britain: a survival guide …

… or how we get out of this mess

The day is here, and much as many of us may have thought it wasn’t going to happen, it now seems certain the UK will leave the EU. The Brexit we are getting is a right wing one. But it won’t deliver what many of those who supported it wanted. That creates an opportunity to try to salvage something.

1. Don’t build expectations that it will be terrible

It’s easy to catastrophise Brexit – to say that there will be no medicines, the shop shelves will be empty, the army of workers who’ve come from around the world to do essential jobs will leave. While I recognise the psychological value of doing this it is deeply unhelpful. We must try not to do this.

A great deal of the momentum for ‘Get Brexit Done’ came from voters observation that there hadn’t been an economic crash after the ‘Leave’ vote in 2016. Predicting doom that doesn’t happen doesn’t convince anyone. Of course, the damage done by Brexit is real, but has come slowly – and predicting it now does nothing to convince anyone.

2. Brexit Britain: Everything is for sale

The point of Brexit for the UK Government is to dismantle what remains of the post-war settlement. The lever they have to do this is ‘trade deals’. Now is exactly the wrong time to be doing trade deals. The US is hostile to free trade, the EU is very wary of the UK undercutting its consumer and environmental standards and workers rights.

We can therefore expect the government to start making the case that we have to reduce these standards in order to ‘get trade deals done’. Like austerity over the past decade this will be presented as an unpleasant but necessary change to cope with the reality of the world. We need to find an effective way of resisting this.

While it was fair to criticise the EU for its lack of democracy the UK government has already moved to stop any scrutiny of trade deals. There will be no democratic oversight whatsoever of trade deals once agreed. We have exchanged an imperfect institution for a decision making by elites behind closed doors.

3. Brexit will be a huge let down for most Brexiters

The reasons that people voted for Brexit won’t, in most cases, be addressed. It’s clear that immigration isn’t going to be substantially reduced. People won’t have more control in their lives. Austerity will worse not better. Incredibly some people thought that Brexit would reduce prices in the shops. The reverse has happened.

Saying ‘I told you so’ is satisfying. It is totally unhelpful. We need to bring people with us in exposing how disastrous this is. Telling them they were wrong is the wrong way to do it. We must be compassionate and reach out to help people understand that the only people who are ‘taking back control’ are the elites that so many distrust.

4. Brexit is part of the culture war

That said, there are some people for whom Brexit is a culture war issue: a way to roll back the advance of women, LGBT+ communities, BAME communities and on issues like the climate emergency. It may be useful to draw lines on these things. Brexit has given permission to people who want to make Britain hate again. We should oppose this vigorously.

5. Be aware of claims of investment

There is a lot of noise coming from Westminster about investing in the north of England and the midlands. It will be in physical infrastructure rather than the much needed social infrastructure if it comes. But it is very unlikely to come. This investment is difficult to deliver. Boris Johson spent his 8 years as Mayor of London living off the work done by his predecessor. Donald Trump made similar promises, which have entirely failed to materialise.

We need to seize the agenda on these things, produce proper plans to transform places and highlight the failure to invest that seems likely.

6. Brexit will mean lots of pressure to agree to a right wing agenda

There will be enormous pressure to remove politics from the debate around trade deals and the destruction of the country. We will be told to ‘come together and move on’. This is an attempt to stop opposition. We must resist it. British nationalism is excellent at the pretence that it simultaneously doesn’t exist and that everyone agrees with the elite positions it holds. We need to be gracious, but avoid being drawn into the notion that we have to destroy our quality of life for similar reasons to those people believed austerity would work.

We have a very difficult couple of decades ahead. Part of the reason the right wanted Brexit was that it will dominate our politics in both the short and medium term. They have succeeded beyond their hopes. We cannot allow ourselves to be cowed by this, but we do need to find ways to create a better future, even if the situation we find ourselves in is far from ideal.

What is Boris Johnson up to? Or… why a soft Brexit is back on the cards

There’s something odd about the Tory leadership election, and I think it points to where Boris Johnson is going once he wins (which he will). I’ve hesitated over sharing this, because I think it might be a ‘too optimistic’ take. But I think it’s pretty obvious from the events.

There are a couple of things I take for granted here. The first is that the Tories understand how damaging an issue Brexit is for them electorally, and the second is that a no-deal Brexit is going to be very difficult to manage.

The focus on ‘do or die’ leaving without a deal is clearly a distraction. I don’t think any Tory could get away with the damage to their core vote and broader coalition a no deal exit would mean. That leaves us with the question of what the macho competition to be more committed to no deal Brexit is a distraction from….

And I think it’s a distraction from the obvious route open to a Tory leader who wants to leave the EU with a deal on the October timescale. Which is to drop the red lines that the May deal was negotiated on. Not necessarily all of them, but those that necessitate the Northern Ireland backstop.

Theresa May’s reaction to losing a load of seats to pro-remain parties in the local elections in May was to claim that this meant she needed to get on with Brexit. Which sounds daft, but speaks to the reality that the Tory vote can’t be reunited at the polls while Brexit is a live issue. The Tories (and Labour too) need to kill Brexit as an issue before the next General Election.

Which is why dropping the red lines is something that I think comes back into play. A renegotiation without all the red lines is something I think the EU would entertain, it would solve the immediate problems, allow a Brexit on the October timescale, and change the debate from one of fact to one of detail.

At the moment Tories have to admit that Brexit hasn’t been delivered. That’s a boon to the Brexit party and others who want to split the Tory vote. An argument about what kind of Brexit people wanted and what kind of Brexit was possible is much more difficult for Farage and friends to argue about.

It allows a way back to a soft Brexit, offers him the chance to present himself as a good negotiator and opens the way to Boris Johnson’s premiership being about something other than Brexit. It won’t keep the hardcore Brexiters happy, but it will probably attract support from the DUP and may gain some Labour support (or abstention).

And Johnson is the best person to deliver this. He can distract the hard right, pro-Brexit elements of the Tory vote – he’s exactly the sort of chap they want to be Prime Minister. In the same way as only a right-wing Republican like Richard Nixon could normalise relations with the People’s Republic of China, so only a Brexit ‘true-believer’ can sell hard Brexit out.

I still think it runs the risk of the Tories being supplanted as the major right of centre party by a hard-right party – but I think it looks like the most likely path out of the current quagmire.

If the free market is so great why don’t you go and live there?

Anyone advocating alternatives to free-market capitalism will soon find themselves challenged to back their beliefs by moving to a socialist country. When I was younger it was East Germany, I think it’s now North Korea. “If socialism is so great, why don’t you go and live in East Germany” articulates two things, firstly the failure of actually existing 20th century ‘socialism’, and the perceived hypocrisy of those advocating alternatives to the free market as a way of organising society.

But interestingly those who argue for the free market as a the way of organising society are strikingly reluctant to run their own businesses in these ways. When they do try to run companies on the principles of the free market, they fail.

This is exacerbated by the erasure of ways of talking about the world that aren’t about the free market. When we discuss how the world could work in different ways we have no vocabulary at either conceptual or linguistic level to describe alternatives to the free market.

But the fascinating thing about the free market is that it isn’t really the guiding principle of any of the big organisations whose leaders are its greatest cheerleaders. Almost every big corporation operates through information-rich planning processes.

Most don’t operate internal free markets, because they’re wasteful, inhibit innovation and promote damaging competition. In almost every circumstance they’ve been tried they result in gaming the system, rather than improved results.

It used to be the case that our economy was incredibly information-poor. When Chile tried economic planning in the 1970s they used telex in a fascinating experiment called Cybersyn. It didn’t really work.

But information technology is totally unrecognisable today, and could easily be deployed in developing economic plans in a way that was unimaginable in the 1970s. In fact, it’s this form of ‘information capitalism’ that made Google a trillion dollar company.

Sears, the US supermarket company, is probably the most notable corporate attempt at internal free markets. Sears filed for bankruptcy last year.

Yet we continue to use the free market as the sole guiding principle for our society. Time to think again.

On doing referendums well – the way forward for Brexit?

For historical reasons we need not go into, Ireland requires agreement through a referendum every time the government signs a treaty. In 2008 Ireland rejected the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum. The Lisbon Treaty was a complex arrangement that changed the nature of the EU in a number of subtle ways. The referendum campaign was a farce. The then Taoiseach, Brian Cowan, admitted he hadn’t read the Treaty.

In the vote there was a narrow (53%-47%) victory for the “No” side. Which was embarrassing, and resulted in a second referendum (which resulted in a clear victory for the Yes side).

When Irish Labour became junior coalition partners in 2011, they wanted to change the constitution to create equal marriage. In a country that had been hostile to gay rights until the mid-1990s this was seen as difficult and controversial. A change to the constitution required a referendum, which was an even greater barrier than existed in other countries.

More out of fear than optimism the conservative Fine Gael-led government allowed the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly, which drew a roughly geographically and demographically balanced section of the Irish citizenry. These 100 people were charged with considering how equal marriage could be implemented.

The result was a national conversation about the changes that led to an extremely successful referendum. And successful not just because the right decision was reached. Successful because it received almost complete “losers’ consent” – those who lost haven’t sought to undermine the result.

Ireland isn’t good at referendums because its political culture is better than the UK’s. Ireland has simply worked out how to have a good referendum. We should learn from them.

A similar Citizens’ Assembly led to the legalisation of abortion last year in another referendum. And again there was almost universal losers’ consent.

The reason this works is that it allows thorough consideration of the proposal at hand, that isn’t susceptible to the sort of misunderstandings that so often dog public debate. And the creation of a consensus around the way forward offered by the Citizens’ Assembly paves the way for a successful referendum.

So now may be the time to have a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit (like the one already undertaken by UCL Constitution Unit. It should be on a statutory footing and should consider the various ways forward, suggesting 2 or 3 to be put to a referendum (or preferendum) that might just gain the losers’ consent we need to get out of this mess.

Thoughts on remembrance, war and humanity

I posted this last year on Facebook but I think it bears repetition on Remembrance Sunday. I’ve always been interested by our fascination, as a society, with the poetry of the First World War. Especially when contrasted with the almost complete anonymity of the Second World War poets. Of whom Hamish Henderson was one of the most significant.

It’s Remembrance Day, so I thought I’d share an extract from Hamish Henderson’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. It was written during, after and about the Allied campaign in North Africa in the Second World War. We all know the war poets of the First World War, few of us know poets of the Second World War.

This extract from the First Elegy does something wonderful and difficult. It values the enemy. Living and dead. For many the Second World War is the archetype of the just war. A war of good against evil. Is it that a just war provides less scope for poetry?

Or is it that we have lost sense of the humanity of our enemies?

Hamish Henderson, Jan 1942 from “End of a Campaign”

There are many dead in the brutish desert,
who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilous. The sand is blowing about still.
Many who for various reasons, or because
of mere unanswerable compulsion, came here
and fought among the clutching gravestones,
shivered and sweated,
cried out, suffered thirst, were stoically silent, cursed
the spittering machine-guns, were homesick for Europe
and fast embedded in quicksand of Africa
agonized and died.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of dust.

There were our own, there were the others.
Their deaths were like their lives, human and animal.
There were no gods and precious few heroes.
What they regretted when they died had nothing to do with
race and leader, realm indivisible,
laboured Augustan speeches or vague imperial heritage.
(They saw through that guff before the axe fell.)
Their longing turned to
the lost world glimpsed in the memory of letters:
an evening at the pictures in the friendly dark,
two knowing conspirators smiling and whispering secrets;
or else
a family gathering in the homely kitchen
with Mum so proud of her boys in uniform:
their thoughts trembled
between moments of estrangement, and ecstatic moments
of reconciliation: and their desire
crucified itself against the unutterable shadow of someone
whose photo was in their wallets.
Their death made his incision.

There were our own, there were the others.
Therefore, minding the great word of Glencoe’s
son, that we should not disfigure ourselves
with villany of hatred; and seeing that all
have gone down like curs into anonymous silence,
I will bear witness for I knew the others.
Seeing that littoral and interior are alike indifferent
and the birds are drawn again to our welcoming north
why should I not sing them, the dead, the innocent?”

Local elections: mass movements and agenda for change

Thoughts on the English local election results:

Expectation management and the mass party

Poor expectation management may be the biggest problem for Labour in communicating the results. Since the 1990s brought the era of media-focused campaigning we have become used to parties playing down their chances. This move was based on parties raising much more money from wealthy donors.

Parties could campaign in this way because their campaigns were delivered by paid staff supplemented with small numbers of very committed activists. Those staff and activists didn’t need to be energised by the possibility of big wins.

The need to energise campaigners can leave you with an expectation management problem. But it means that you can run campaigns that don’t rely on big donors, and the corporate capture that so often accompanies the need to do big fundraising.

Much of the current confusion in politics originates in the tensions around this approach. It’s much messier having big campaigns that excite people. But it is a necessary corrective to the sort of elite politics that divides ‘strivers’ from ‘skivers’ or cynically denies people housing or – maybe worse – cancer treatment to pander to racists.

Turnout and an agenda for radical local government

Local elections are never going to be as easy for mass movement parties, who require big ideas to motivate their voters. The enthusiasm gap will always be bigger for local elections.

These elections took place in a context where there was no national campaign. That makes it more difficult for parties making a big offer. Labour did well in 2017 with polarising policies on issues like student funding and housing. Greens did well in 2015 with issues like rail renationalisation and moving politics to the left. Local elections don’t give scope for that sort of approach so easily.

We need to build strong ideas of what voting for a radical party in local government can achieve. The right can point to lower taxes and the punitive removal of services from the ‘undeserving poor’ as a reason to elect them. Since the era of new municipal socialism in the 1980s, it’s not been clear what a radical council would do. The councils of the 80s made public transport more affordable (Fares Fair), pioneered anti-discrimination on race and sexuality and campaigned on issues like apartheid. We need that spirit back.

Some thoughts on the failure of the Sinn Féin-DUP deal

Here are some brief thoughts on the failure of the Sìnn Fein-DUP deal yesterday. At every stage of this process Sinn Féin have driven the agenda. At every stage the DUP have played into their hands. Sìnn Fein collapsed the Assembly and have set terms for agreement that Unionists would find it very difficult to agree.

1. It is partly a function of the limited devolution allowed in the nations of the UK. The job of any NI Executive would have been the administration of London-imposed austerity. It’s easy to understand why Sinn Féin were unenthusiastic about this.

Theresa May’s call for a ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ compounded Sìnn Fein’s antipathy to her government. Brexit looks very much like an attempt to reinvigorate exactly the British Imperial sentiments that repel Irish republicans.

2. Brexit brings the prospect of a united Ireland back onto the table in a serious way. There are only 3 solutions to the Irish border problem. Ireland leaving the EU and joining the UK – which (despite the DUP’s fantasies) can’t and won’t happen. Brexit failing – which might happen. And Irish reunification.

With Sinn Féin sensing the possibilities for a united Ireland they hold the whip hand in any negotiation.

This is why they’ve played so hard on marriage equality and the Irish language. The worst they could hope for was a humiliation of the DUP.

3. The imposition of direct rule from Westminster on the north of Ireland will trigger a great deal of pressure on the Irish government to defend minority interests in the north. With a veto over any deal for the UK over Brexit this is a perilous position for unionists.

It seems likely the Irish government will ask for joint authority. With the UK government’s capacity to actually govern deeply impaired by Brexit this may mean a gradual absorption of the north into an Irish political system and demos. This is the republican strategy and gets to a united Ireland without the need for a border poll.

4. This is an almost inevitable outcome of the Northern Irish electorate’s decision to polarise politics. Both unionists and nationalists gambled that they would win the peace – having concluded that they couldn’t win the war.

The era that started with the Civil Rights movement and ended with the power-sharing agreement had no clear winner. Both sides felt they had lost. This meant the political centre was ripped apart. The more moderate Ulster Unionist party and SDLP lost out to the DUP and Sinn Féin. That was a gamble for each side.

It looks like a gamble the unionists have lost.

How hard Brexit will play out

Today’s announcement that the UK will leave the EU Customs Union begins to crystallise the reality that will face us after Brexit.

Of course, there’s a real possibility that the contradictions with the agreement reached over the Irish border and the chaotic approach to Brexit will mean the UK doesn’t leave.

The aim of the right-wing Brexiters has always been to use Brexit to force a total renegotiation of the role of the state. That renegotiation will mean the removal of almost all protections for workers, for the environment and from corporate tyranny. Our society will become one run by a wealthy elite for their own enrichment.

There are other possible Brexit scenarios, but while the Tories remain in power, this will be the reality. Once we move from the ‘Goldilocks period’ of customs union access and an export-competitive currency onto WTO terms to trade with the rest of the world, there will be an immediate crash in our economy. Tariffs on exports will mean UK goods and services are undesirable, the tax receipts from manufacturing the City of London will collapse and there will be a crisis.

It is telling that at a time when UK goods are cheaper than in decades, and with single market access, there has been little rise in manufacturing exports to the rest of the EU.

Because trade deals can’t be negotiated quickly, the period between leaving the single market and having any trade deals in place will be used to asset strip the UK, and put the country in a position where it is desperate for access to other markets. This will mean any trade deal comes with the requirement to meet the lowest possible standards for workers, consumers and the environment.

The response could be a reorientation of the UK economy to meet domestic needs, while trade deals are negotiated. But it is more likely that the response will be the abolition of all working-age benefits, curtailment of pensioner benefits and a fire-sale of the remaining public assets. The NHS will be privatised, and become a fee-charging service. Schools will become a paid-for service, and charging will be introduced for all previously public services.

In order to rebuild the economy, all consumer protections will be removed, Trade Unions will be banned, and all workers rights repealed. The only way the UK will be able to compete internationally will be to remove all vestiges of a civilised society and effectively enslave the population. This is what the right Brexiters have always wanted.

Everyone with access to citizenship of other countries will leave the country.

It’s a nightmare scenario – but a Tory government that has always wanted to immiserate the population, and a scenario that makes this the easiest path, it seems inevitable that this is how Brexit will materialise.