“Wolf!”

 

She wanted this election to be about her. She chose her platform: “strong and stable.” Implicit in this was the idea of her as defender of the country and its values. Her opponent by contrast was depicted as weak, unpatriotic, unreliable on defence, and even an ally of terrorists (the IRA).

Very well.

On 22 May a young British-born man of Libyan parentage, living in Manchester, detonated a home-made bomb in the foyer of a Manchester concert hall and killed 22 people, injuring 119 more. Within a few hours he was named as Salman Abedi and the British police said they believed he had been acting alone.

That was quick, I thought. How could they be sure of so much so soon? It was as if they knew something else they weren’t saying.

They did.

One should always keep one’s eye on the House of Commons Select Committees. I am indebted to a friend who sent me a link to John Pilger’s website www.johnpilger.com (Terror in Britain), where I found a very interesting piece of information. Last September, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee concluded that David Cameron had taken Britain to war against Colonel Gaddafi on “erroneous assumptions” and that “the proposition that Mu’ammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”

On the basis of that proposition, Britain took part in a NATO operation that carried out 9,700 “strike sorties,” used fragmentation bombs and depleted uranium, and carpet-bombed two Libyan cities. Unicef reported that a high proportion of the children killed were under ten. After Gaddafi’s death, the country descended into chaos.

Where did that false information come from? “Salafist militias facing defeat by Libyan government forces,” explains Pilger.

Overthrowing Gaddafi had been a goal of Western policy for decades. He was a tyrant, but that wasn’t the problem; the problem was that he was an Arab nationalist, a pan-Arabist, a socialist (he did much to improve Libya’s housing, literacy and health care), that he controlled most of Africa’s oil wealth and, latterly and fatally, that he was intending to abandon the petrodollar, which underpins America’s economy.

In addition to the above, Britain had a personal animus against Gaddafi (Lockerbie; the shooting of PC Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan embassy). When the revolt against him broke out in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, the British authorities smiled on the anti-Gaddafi Islamic militants living in Britain, some of whom had been under Home Office control orders.  The control orders were lifted. The militants were allowed to travel to Libya to fight, and travel back. The Home Secretary at the time was Theresa May.

Among the militias was a group that had been active against Gaddafi for a long time, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. It had a base in Manchester. It was “cultivated,” says Pilger, by MI5. The Middle East Eye website, which has a good article on this subject (May 27, “Sorted” by MI5), shows a mural on a wall in Tripoli commemorating the “Manchester fighters.”

Salman Abedi’s parents were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. So was Salman Abedi. As a teenager he had waged jihad against Gaddafi.

There was nothing of this in the announcements by the British police immediately after the bombing. The prompt and confident assertion that Abedi had “probably been acting alone,” combined with the void around it, was puzzling. Even more puzzling was the furious response of the British Government when a leak from the FBI to a Washington journalist, which identified Abedi before he had been named in Britain, turned out to have surfaced in an American newspaper.

It’s now known that Abedi repeatedly travelled to Libya and back after 2011. The FBI had tracked him, and had told MI6 he was looking for a “political target” in Britain. Nevertheless, the British Government, with Theresa May now in Downing Street, had allowed him in May 2017 to go to Libya again,  where he contacted an IS group based in Syria. He returned via Düsseldorf to Manchester just a few days before he set off his bomb.

The Government’s anger at the leak seemed disproportionate (and Theresa May doesn’t say boo to Trump) if all the FBI had done was jump the gun in naming Abedi. However, that wasn’t all: the FBI had blown the gaff on the British pretence that Abedi was merely a criminal loner. It revealed an “extensive network” (Pilger) of contacts. This information, which has since disappeared from the record, threatened to open up the British involvement with the Libyan extremists and raise questions about the results of British interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East.

In the Daily Mail (26 May), Peter Oborne attacks MI6 for endangering the country’s security. In its untrammelled pursuit of the Government’s foreign policy objectives, he says, it encouraged the Home Office to lift the control orders on the extremists. He accuses MI6 officers of “creating a generation of British-born jihadis who are prepared to do anything … in their efforts to destroy this country,” and says that the Manchester bombing was “in part a direct consequence of MI6’s meddling.”

This is Jeremy Corbyn’s turf and he didn’t flinch, although he must have known what would happen. Speaking in London, he said, “Many experts, including security professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between the wars our government has supported and fought in other countries and terrorism here at home… An informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people that fights rather than fuels terrorism.”

That is true and important and it’s common sense, but it provoked outrage, although I don’t recall any outrage when Eliza Manningham-Buller said the same thing: silence descended instead. And no-one is going to take on Dacre’s Mail (although that article is not as iconoclastic as it sounds1). But to make government morally responsible for the effect of its wars is not normally allowed: it would make war impossible. Corbyn would like to make war impossible, which puts him, in Parliament, in the position of a sheep in an abattoir.

Money and jobs depend, in one way or another, on war. Publication of the report David Cameron commissioned on overseas funding of terror may never see the light of day because it will inevitably focus on Saudi Arabia, to which our Prime Minister recently paid a trip that resulted in a major arms deal. We are going to need money and jobs after a hard Brexit. Saudi Arabia funnels millions of dollars to terrorists. Nevertheless jobs are more important.

Corbyn’s willingness to talk about this difficult, tabooed stuff is why he has to be vilified. However, to many people that willingness is like fresh air in a tomb. If the public is getting tired of the lies and hypocrisy of government, nowhere are the lies thicker than around national security. Theresa May’s mechanical iteration of opaque platitudes doesn’t impress, and is not attractive.

She finds herself on the back foot, as well, on ground which she probably thought she commanded. She is a former Home Secretary: she has authority. But that, now, is the problem. She was in charge of the Home Office when the control orders on Islamic extremists were lifted. As Home Secretary, she cut police numbers by 20,000. She was warned by the Police Federation about the likely effect, but accused it of crying “Wolf!” More than that, it has emerged that in 2015 she was planning even deeper cuts, but was prevented by the then Chancellor, George Osborne.

Corbyn thinks she should resign. So does David Cameron’s former strategy chief, Steve Hilton, who on Monday tweeted, “Theresa May responsible for security failures of London Bridge, Manchester, Westminster Bridge. She should be resigning, not seeking re-election.”

It isn’t the only thing. There is the toadying to an American President who is a climate change denier and insults the Mayor of London. There is the very disturbing state of our schools, which she will improve by eliminating free school lunches. There is the sinister Naylor Review, which she intends to implement, which will asset-strip the NHS. There is her arrogant refusal to answer questions or to debate. There is her complete unpreparedness for the Brexit negotiations; the “12-point Brexit Plan” is the length of a shopping list and less informative, whereas the EU has released a raft of position papers.

But the security failure is arguably the worst thing. People have died, many of them children. Her first duty is to protect, and she has not done it. Who, in this contest, is weak, unpatriotic, unreliable on defence and an ally of terrorists?

And she won’t tell us the truth. Ever. Her every instinct is to conceal.

This country is about to sail into the eye of a hurricane. If we are going to come through it, we need to understand what is happening. Cameron was right about this much: we are all in it together. We cannot afford to have a dead-eyed secret-hugger, who does not trust either the passengers or the crew, as Captain.

 

1  Oborne attacks MI6 and praises MI5, and claims that the two organisations are working against each other. It’s clear from Pilger’s report and the M.E.E. website that MI5 is equally to blame in that it “cultivated” the militants and allowed them to travel. But the Home Secretary is responsible to Parliament for the conduct of MI5, whereas the Foreign Secretary has to answer for MI6. Oborne is protecting Theresa May.

 

 

 

 

It’s not raining

 

Mention the European Court of Justice to a Brexiter and it is almost certain to provoke an impassioned speech about Abu Qatada.

This radical Muslim cleric was detained in Britain in 2002 in the aftermath of 9/11. He had been tried in absentia for terror offences in Jordan and found guilty. Successive British Home secretaries tried to deport him to Jordan but the European Court of Human Rights ruled he could not be sent back there if he was to face retrial based on evidence obtained through torture. Theresa May finally managed to ship him off from Belmarsh in 2013 after an agreement was obtained from Jordan that evidence obtained through torture would not be used. He was tried and acquitted.

There was strong feeling at the time, in both Parliament and the country, about the European court that was preventing his deportation. David Cameron talked of pulling Britain out of the European Convention of Human Rights, and replacing the Human Rights Act, which enshrines it in British law, with a British bill of rights. Theresa May, as Home Secretary, was in agreement.

It has become familiar Tory ground, colonised with enthusiasm by Brexiters. Foreigners should not be allowed to tell us what our rights are, or what anyone else’s rights are if they are resident here. We are quite capable of making our own laws. Brussels should bugger off and stop telling us what to do.

However, Brussels was not telling us what to do about Abu Qatada. It was Strasbourg that was telling us what to do. The obstacle was not the European Court of Justice, created in 1952 as a part of the European Union to rule on disputes between member countries and ensure the uniform application of EU law across them, but the European Court of Human Rights, set up in 1959 with Britain as a founder member, to safeguard basic human rights across the continent. The two courts are quite separate. The European Court of Human Rights is not part of the European Union. Our status as signatories to it will not be affected by our leaving the European Union.

Do not expect Theresa May to clarify this for the British electorate. The confusion, which is almost universal (I heard a US Senator conflate the two recently), works to her advantage. Abu Qatada had to go; therefore the court that said we couldn’t deport him was wrong; since that court was European, we are right to leave the EU. Thus goes the logic, or what passes for it. And since it was Theresa May who got rid of him, here is another reason for voting for TM as PM.

The confusion is compounded by the fact that those Tory right-wingers who do know the difference between the two courts loathe them both equally and for the same reason.  They believe that the ECJ, too, interferes with British sovereignty. In a limited sense it does, of course; in that same limited sense, it interferes with all member countries’ sovereignty and that is the point of it. It is the legal authority that guarantees transactions between member states and to which they can appeal in a dispute.  Without it, or something like it, the Union could not exist.

Removing Britain from the jurisdiction of the ECJ is Point 2 in Theresa May’s 12-point Brexit Plan.

This issue goes to the heart of the row that erupted immediately after the tragic bombing in Manchester: security. How is the safety of this country from terror attacks best assured? The answer clearly is “by international co-operation.” However good our security services are, they are only as good as their information, and much of that information is held abroad. They must have easy access to it. That means they must be willing to part, reciprocally, with information they hold. This implies mutual trust. They need to able to pursue suspects beyond their own borders. All of this is obvious and on this occasion, fortunately, it worked.

It may not always work.

Europol is the EU’s law enforcement agency; modelled on Interpol, it assists member states in fighting terrorism and serious international crime. Eurojust co-ordinates criminal investigations and prosecutions across borders and facilitates extradition requests. The European Arrest Warrant is valid throughout all member states and covers 32 crimes including terrorism and human trafficking. SIS II (second-generation Schengen Information System) is a database that allows police forces to share real-time alerts on suspects and missing people. All these are functions of the Justice and Home Affairs Council of the EU. We will forfeit our membership of the JHA when we leave the EU.

No-one questions our need to participate in these measures. Theresa May, in November 2014, when Britain had negotiated a temporary opt-out on some of the JHA measures and was about to vote on whether to opt back in, said, “If we were to vote against the motion tonight and did not opt back in to the measures […] we would find ourselves kicked out of Europol within weeks and our extradition arrangements would be thrown into legal uncertainty, potentially for years. That would risk harmful individuals walking free and escaping justice, and would seriously harm the capability of our law enforcement agencies to keep the public safe.”

The Government says it will negotiate special arrangements for our access to the JHA but will not say what arrangements. After the Manchester bombing, Nick Clegg accused the government of putting the country at risk by its attitude to Brexit. He focused particularly on SIS II, which is used “16 times a minute” by British security forces. The Government heatedly replied that he was talking “nonsense” and that security would be “an important priority in the negotiations”, adding that it was not “in the EU’s interest to lessen that relationship.” The outlines of the Government’s negotiating strategy may be discerned in that last statement, which is a veiled threat. It means that Britain has valuable security expertise and might choose to keep it to itself if Europe doesn’t give us what we want.

It is true that we “have a strong hand” in security matters: “The UK played a prominent part in designing and constructing the JHA system” (Clegg).  The question is whether it is strong enough and whether, in any case, this is the right tactic.

The EU has its rules. SIS II is only available to full members of the EU or participants in Schengen. The same applies to the EAW. Europol can enter into either a “strategic” or “operational” partnership with a non-EU state, but both have disadvantages: strategic partners cannot access data or intelligence on individuals, and operational partners have no direct access to the Europol Information system.

The Government is hoping to negotiate a “bespoke solution” that allows Britain the access to JHA it needs. In principle a bespoke deal is possible, but there is a major stumbling block: the UK Government’s rooted hostility to the European Court of Justice.

In a 20-page paper on Justice and Home Affairs Cooperation, published in December1 , Nick Clegg explains why the ECJ would continue to have a major role in any post-Brexit partnership agreement. The reasons include that the EU can only act in compliance with its Charter, “of which the ECJ is the ultimate arbiter”; that “any agreement needs to be policed”; and that “some form of dispute resolution is necessary in any international agreement.” Yes, it might be possible to establish an independent arbitration body – it has been done for Norway and Iceland covering Europol, with recourse to the UN in case of a dispute – but Britain would require virtually full membership of the JHA, and there is no precedent for the creation of an arbitration body of that scope.

Nevertheless, “A JHA partnership agreement could be agreed if goodwill exists,” Clegg thinks. “We… have very good bilateral relationships with member states… We have a culture of respect for human rights and for the rule of law. These are all good starting points.”

This was written in December. Consider what Theresa May has been doing in recent months. She has gone out of her way to antagonise the EU. She has whipped up suspicion of Europe in this country. What price a bilateral deal with Europe if our Prime Minister has scuppered relations before the talking starts?

And what happens then, if Britain lurches uncontrollably out of the EU under her bungling leadership? Clegg sets it out under seven terse points. But May has already told us. She said it in November 2014. It would “risk harmful individuals walking free and escaping justice, and would seriously harm the ability of our law-enforcement agencies to keep the public safe.”

I have a picture in my mind of a child walking into a rain squall, head down and hooded, fists clenched, shouting, “It’s not raining!”

But I was six when I did that.

 

 

1 www.libdems.org.uk/brexit-challenge-justice

 

 

Say you like it

 

 

 

There’s enough going on, I’d have thought – including the global computer-hack that brought down part of the NHS system, and an operation, probably Russian, that infected the Twitter accounts of 10,000 Pentagon workers – to make laughable the claim that in leaving the EU Britain will be taking back control of anything other than the colour of its passports. But now there’s this.

“We are talking about the most powerful mind-control machine ever invented in the history of the human race,” said Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology. “And people don’t even notice it.”

The “machine” is a project to influence the minds of Facebook users. In three deeply-researched articles in the Observer by Carole Cadwalladr1, it is alleged that it was used to influence the outcome of the EU referendum. In February Cadwalladr started an investigation into Robert Mercer (“the money behind Donald Trump”) and his links with an American data analysis firm called Cambridge Analytica, which was involved in the Leave campaign in the UK. In May that investigation ended up in a place whose outlines will be clear to anyone who has ever innocently volunteered a piece of information and then had it used against them. Not in a terribly bad way, some may think. It’s just used to change their minds. Without their noticing it.

The Observer articles referred to here are the subject of a legal complaint on behalf of Cambridge Analytica and SCL Elections Ltd, its parent company. Cambridge Analytica denies it worked for Leave.EU or had any involvement in British politics; however, Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s communications director, said that it had. There’s also a video, from which the Observer published a clip (14 May), showing Brittany Kaiser, an executive of Cambridge Analytica, on the podium at Leave.EU’s launch event.

Is this already sounding complicated? It gets far worse. Cadwalladr’s articles painstakingly join the dots between people and organisations that have gone to a lot of trouble not to be linked. However, what they’ve been doing seems to me considerably more frightening than their attempts to conceal it.

Andy Wigmore described Facebook as the key to Leave.EU’s operation, and the “like” button as its “most potent weapon” (Observer 26 February). From the “likes” a user clicks, a picture can be built up of that user’s personality, preferences and sympathies. The more the clicks, the more detailed the profile. With 150 Facebook “likes”, the model “could predict someone’s personality better than their spouse,” said Michal Kosinski, lead scientist of Cambridge University’s Psychometric Centre, on whose research Cambridge Analytica built its psychometric model. “With 300, it understood you better than you understood yourself.”

I am not a button-clicker, and was inclined to doubt this until I started to think about it. Three hundred casual, impulsive, sent-into-the-ether-without-a-second-thought clicks of the mouse. Anonymous, apparently. Not a commitment to anything. Not public.  Yet, at the same time, social. You like this photograph, you agree with that opinion, you admire what this person did? Go on, click the button. Be part of things.

Three hundred times. Over months, perhaps years. A direct route to the unconscious.

It’s very clever. If I were theologically minded, I would be inclined to say it was devilish.

The next step is obvious. There is the personality, with its foibles and weaknesses and sad little dreams. Now, target it! Send it, to its Facebook page, information which you calculate will nudge it in a particular direction. The information may be true or false, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s convincing to that target. The target has already told you how it wants to be talked to. Nuance is important. The process must be invisible.

Whether this has actually been done on the individual level is disputed, although it could be. It has certainly been done on the group level, focusing on people thought to be vulnerable to influence. In the case of the UK referendum, it’s estimated that only 600,000 votes needed to be swayed. In the USA, Cambridge Analytica claims to have psychological profiles based on data from 220 million American citizens.

Computers amass the data. But people determine the direction in which targets are to be nudged. The basic direction is towards the right. This technology is a tool of the rich.

Robert Mercer is a billionaire who made his money in computer science and is joint owner of one of the highest-performing hedge funds in the world. He is a friend of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, and an associate of Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, to whom he gave $10 million when Bannon was running Breitbart News. Mercer funds the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial think-tank.  Since 2010 he has donated $45 million to Republican campaigns, and another $50 million to right-wing non-profit organisations. Though reclusive, he has a fun side: he likes yachts, and owns a $2.9 million train set.

He has a 90% stake in Cambridge Analytica, an offshoot of a British defence company called SCL, which contracts at a high level (to NATO, the State Dept., etc) for military psychological operations. SCL has specialised in “election management strategies” in places like Afghanistan. “It models mass populations and then it changes their beliefs” (Observer 26 Feb.).

Mercer introduced Cambridge Analytica/SCL to his friend Farage’s Leave.EU campaign.  During the referendum period, Cambridge Analytica’s Vice President was Steve Bannon, who wanted to “change the culture” in Britain. The data firm, which had worked on Ted Cruz’s campaign, transferred to the Trump camp when Cruz pulled out of the race. Leave.EU’s campaign director Andy Wigmore told the Observer that the Trump and Leave.EU campaigns had “massive parallels.”

At the same time, the “official” Leave campaign, Vote Leave, fronted by Boris Johnson, was going down the same route: it hired a data analysis firm based in Canada called AggregateIQ and spent half its campaign budget on it. Three other minor campaigns affiliated to Vote Leave – Veterans for Britain, the Democratic Unionist Party and BeLeave – also hired Aggregate. This was a very obscure company, and where it had come from remained mysterious for some time. However, it is now known that AggregateIQ’s intellectual property is owned by Robert Mercer.

A source who worked for Cambridge Analytica told the Observer, “The Canadians were our back office. They built our software for us. They held our database” (Observer 7 May). But the connection was never supposed to come to light. It is still denied, although there is documentary evidence (Observer 14 May). So is any accusation of meddling in British politics.

It’s important to remember the kind of psychological techniques and models that are being used in the project. They come from the military .2  They were developed inside the defence establishment for use against a hostile or potentially hostile population. They were turned against a friendly population in a democratic country. (It is horribly easy to imagine them being used to turn a population against one of its minorities: ethnic, religious, sexual…)

The secrecy is also important. Openness is crucial to a democracy. The fact that Robert Mercer was connected with AggregateIQ  had to be followed through companies that did not exist and links that appeared on a web page one day and were gone the next. Connections between the various players were buried and had to be diligently unearthed. A diagram of them was published in the Observer on 7 May and it is not comforting: all of them end up in the White House.

British electoral law was certainly broken. Campaigns must not be co-ordinated unless their expenditure is declared jointly; Vote Leave and the smaller affiliated campaigns that employed AggregateIQ did not do this.  If work is “donated” by a foreign organisation to a campaign, it must be declared to the Electoral Commission. The work done by Cambridge Analytica for Leave.EU was not. It is against the law for a foreign national or foreign company to interfere in a British poll.

What redress do we have?

Not much. The use of data analytics “for political purposes” is being investigated by the Information Commissioner. But the most important evidence is offshore. AggregateIQ is beyond British jurisdiction. And the Electoral Commission and the Information Commissioner’s Office are, by all accounts, toothless. The worst they can do is impose a fine, which is not going to make much impression on a man who can spend $2.9 million on a train set.

We are now in the middle of yet another election, this one called to shore up the power base of a Prime Minister who wants extra muscle with which to implement the Brexit of her choice, which presumably is Mr Mercer’s choice as well. Data analysis is still at it. Thomas Borwick, Vote Leave’s chief technology officer, was on the BBC’s The World at One today (26 May), talking blandly about it and its democratic credentials.

The Observer asks whether Mrs May knows “something she isn’t telling us” about all this. If she does, and has the grace to be uneasy about it, she is not the woman to take a stand against a power that is working in her interests.

Goering liked train sets, too. He had one in the attic of his mansion at Karinhall. Presumably it’s to do with control. And being interested in the workings of a complex mechanism.

By the pricking of my thumbs/ Something wicked this way comes. 

1 “Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire,” Observer 26/02/17; “The Great British Brexit robbery,” Observer 07/5/17; “Follow the data,” Observer 14/5/17.

2   Cambridge Analytica is now working inside the Pentagon.

Magical thinking

 

“I’ve got my country back,” said the proprietor of the garden shop.

There was no triumph in it, just a quiet satisfaction. Outside, on the pavement, the sun smiled down on his zinnias and verbena. He sat at a small overloaded desk in a narrow space, doing his paperwork. I thought he was probably a pretty good businessman.

I said, “You never lost it.” It was not what I wanted to say, but I wasn’t there to say what I wanted to say. In any case, although I was in his shop by invitation, I was supposed to be out on the pavement with the zinnias.

“I voted to join Europe in 1975,” he said.

“So did I.”

“I voted to join a trading bloc.”

The conversation opened at once into a dozen forking paths, any of which might be taken.

“That isn’t an argument,” I said, “for leaving it when – ”

“All those laws.”

“You mean the regulations?”

“Over-ruling our Government. Telling us what to do.”

“The regulations are protective,” I said. I thought of the list I’d made a few weeks previously for a blog post: if I’d had it with me, I would have placed it under his nose. Clean air, workplace rights, safety of roll-on roll-off ferries, axle weight of lorries, standards for vehicle brakes and lighting, lead-free petrol, food safety, chemical pollution, consumer protection, climate change… it’s quite a list. It’s probably just as well I didn’t have it with me.

“Unelected officials,” he said.

Brexit becomes a labyrinth at the drop of a hat.

“Can you tell me,” I asked him, “one thing those regulations stopped you doing that you wanted to do?”

He couldn’t. He produced something nonsensical about square bananas. He knew it was nonsensical and he was smiling.

I asked him what else, given that square bananas were a fantasy of Boris Johnson’s.

He still couldn’t think of anything else but it didn’t matter. He was very pleased that we could make our own trade deals now. We would do it within two years. There was no problem: countries would be happy to sign up with us.

“People who negotiate trade deals,” I said, “say that it will take ten years. Minimum.”

“No, no, no.” He waved it away.

I referred to the considerably more than two years it had taken Greenland to negotiate a deal that only concerned fish.

He didn’t want to talk about deals with the EU. He put aside his sheaf of papers and became lyrical. “Australia. New Zealand. The Commonwealth we abandoned!”

“Yes,” I said.

“For years they fed and clothed us. We ditched them so we could get into Europe.”

It was true. Europe was on the doorstep and we had needed a market close to home. We could have behaved better. I admitted as much.

He wasn’t interested in the reasons for that decision or how it could have been better managed. He was suddenly an idealist. A romantic. It lies just under the skin of many Leavers.

I was quite enjoying the conversation but I had been in there too long. I thanked him for his time and courtesy, and left the shop.

I returned to my post between the Britain for Europe stall and the zinnias. On the stall, the pile of blue and yellow badges had diminished and the signatures on the sign-up sheets for supporters had multiplied. That was encouraging. A woman with a girl of about ten came by; the girl was her niece and had a French mother. The girl smiled proudly. I gave her a badge saying “EU citizen.”

An Iranian engineer who had lived in Britain for 30 years stopped and said he thought what we were doing on the pavement was honourable. I was struck by this word, which is now hardly ever uttered. He said the way politics were discussed here reminded him of Iran. He thought it was good to feel strongly about politics, but not good to feel too strongly.

Five Leavers in t-shirts went by in a bunch and said they were absolutely fine with Brexit, thank you. A middle-aged German, resident here for most of her life, was very unhappy with it. An elderly lady who had recently moved to the area from London confessed to extreme confusion about who was standing where and for what in which election, and a frail-looking pair, also rather elderly, gazed at the blue ground of the EU flag and said in fright, “It’s not the Conservatives, is it?”

It was shortly after this that an enraged woman hurtled out of a nearby café and said she hoped “that flag” would not be on display for much longer.

I thought, that evening, that Theresa May should leave her minders behind and get out on to the pavements. She might then stop pontificating about how the country is coming together and realise that there is a chasm running down the centre of it, through every city and down every street.

How will this chasm be bridged? It is not even a chasm. Quite literally, Leavers and Remainers do not inhabit the same mental universe. I had not dented the certainty of the garden shop proprietor, not because it was based on facts I had been unable to challenge, but precisely because it was based on nothing but itself. It moved seamlessly in a circle from one focus to the next, each blending into the succeeding one, division and therefore analysis being impossible because it was all the same thing.

I am not talking about his intelligence – he was certainly not a stupid man – but the way he was using it. He was employing magical thinking. In magical thinking, everything is connected. Any part invokes, and evokes, the whole. To deny any part should therefore be to threaten the whole, but denial can never succeed because its target is constantly shifting – from country to sovereignty to accountability to bananas to loyalty towards old friends. For the same reason, a discredited part can be simply dropped, as was the £350 million for the NHS by the Vote Leave campaign, and the waters close over it at once.

Arguments in favour of Brexit are always magical thinking. This is why it is impossible to convince a true Leaver by rational arguments. Magical thinking is not only impervious to both logic and evidence, it is very attractive. It is magical. To convince a magical thinker by means of evidence, you need to pile up the evidence so high it starts to block out the sun. (This will, of course, eventually happen.)

Because the same idea runs all though it, Leavers don’t need to think: everything is there already, as in a revelation. They do not see at all what Remainers see: a complex web in which each element must be separated out and the arguments appropriate to it marshalled. The part is the whole and the whole is the part. There is no thread to follow through the labyrinth, only the divine light that bathes the hills. If they are nice enough, they will feel sorry for us.

This has produced two belief systems that annihilate each other like matter and anti-matter. What one group regards as patriotism is what the other regards as a complete betrayal of country. What to one group is a cause for pride is to the other the cause of deepest shame.

These are not positions between which a bridge can be built. They are positions which, on one side or the other, can only be abandoned in hopeless defeat or held for a lifetime.

I find myself thinking of the American Civil War.

And, yes, it is like that. What I wanted to say, when the garden shop proprietor told me that he had got his country back, was, “And I’ve lost mine.”

 

 

 

 

They need us more

 

Let’s talk figures. It’s in the national interest.

Our exports to the EU comprise roughly 44% of our total exports. The EU’s exports to Britain comprise roughly 16% of the EU’s total exports.

This is rather dreary so let’s talk about cakes. The Government likes cakes. So, there are two cakes. One has a piece cut out of it that’s just less than half the cake. The other has a piece cut out of it that is about one-sixth.

Now perform an imaginative feat and make the second cake much bigger. So big that the piece that is cut out of it is slightly larger than the hefty piece cut out of the first cake.

You have not, of course, changed the proportion that is cut out of the second cake. It’s still about a sixth. It’s bigger than the piece cut out of the first cake because the cake is bigger.

Because our exports to the EU total £240 billion and the EU’s exports to Britain total £290 billion (2016 figures), the Government would like us to think that the EU exports more to us than we do to them (true in a limited sense), and therefore that they need us, as an export market, more than we need them (completely untrue). And I am sorry to tax the patience of my readers, who I am sure understand the whole thing perfectly, with this business about cakes, but the population as a whole does not understand it perfectly and the Government has taken good care that it shouldn’t.

Exports were top of the alternative-truth soundbites during the referendum campaign and now, with the general election, they’re back. The highest-ranking Government apparatchik to parrot “they need us more” recently has been David Davis, in an interview with John Humphrys on Today (May 3). Davis, for all his apparent confidence, said nothing in the course of ten minutes and sounded nervous. Davis often does sound nervous, if you listen carefully, but it’s getting worse. He laughs too much. He fiddles with his glasses too much. He knows where it’s all going, and that it will take him with it. Meanwhile he is stuck in the role of the fall guy who hasn’t yet fallen, and he had, at all costs, to stop John Humphrys from getting at the truth about those exports.

He succeeded. He is not ex-SAS for nothing. It was radio so I was unable to see exactly what he was doing to Humphrys, whose voice at one point became strangely muffled, but by the end of the exchange the truth had not emerged. We had not got beyond the money, which isn’t relevant, to the proportion, which is.

I volunteer at a pro-Europe stall sometimes; if people stop, I talk to them. Some of them know exactly what the Government is doing with the trade figures, but those who don’t have a tendency to back away if I try to explain it. It is not my lack of charm or the fear of a parking ticket. They don’t like figures. Moreover, when someone starts to dispute figures for a political purpose, they are instantly suspicious, which is entirely reasonable. However, I’m not the one who is being tricky: it’s the Government which is being tricky. And the trick works.

The £240 billion/£290 billion fabrication is crucial to the Government’s claim that we have a strong hand in the negotiations with the EU, and it has to maintain that claim in order to keep on side the constituency that voted Leave. The Land of Leave has already been destabilised by tremors of doubt. How will the NHS manage if nurses stop coming here from abroad? Why are we being told that immigration might not fall? Does it matter that the banks are relocating? Will the farmers get their subsidies?

These voters have to be reassured. This is no time to rewrite the banners of last summer’s campaign. The fiction that the EU needs us more than we need it becomes, in this context, both a claim that cannot be abandoned, because too many have been abandoned already, and a huge comfort blanket that smothers all worries. There may be bumps ahead but we can sort everything out. Theresa May holds a strong hand. They don’t want us to go. Look at all the German cars we buy!

For some time, truths have been emerging that make it impossible to keep this muddled fantasy intact. Now, the EU has openly called it a fantasy. In any case, we are nearing the point where May can’t control the flow of information in this country because information will be flying all over the place in Europe. This must be her worst nightmare. She pleaded with Juncker to keep the talks secret and he rightly said they could not be. If he had not been such a gentleman he would have laughed in her face. How could she possibly have expected to keep them secret? Europe has a free press, even if we don’t. Soon everyone will know how complex and difficult the negotiations are going to be and how few cards the Government really holds. (Only one, actually: the luckless EU nationals.)

Belatedly, May has started to prepare the country for this. She has put a spin on it that she hopes will serve her well. The talks are going to be tough but that is the EU’s fault: it is “lining up against us.” This puerile rubbish goes down well at the Daily Mail and can readily be dressed up in the Union Jack. And that is very important because there is an election campaign going on.

This election is about Brexit, the Prime Minister says (it isn’t). There is division at Westminster (there isn’t: the Article 50 Bill went through with no amendments). She needs a stronger mandate in order to make best use of the strong negotiating hand she has. This is clever but not clever enough. Even Theresa May cannot pretend simultaneously that negotiations are going to be easy and difficult; more to the point, the size of her majority in Parliament will make not the slightest difference to the negotiations, and Brussels has several times said this, as well. She is confusing negotiation with hand-to-hand combat, which doesn’t bode well.

No matter: the more Brussels protests at her ridiculous assertions the better, because Brussels has been cast as the villain and every counter-assertion it makes will translate into votes for her. To make sure this continues to happen, she is losing no opportunity to provoke the leaders of the EU. If they seek to clarify something, she snarls. If they issue a quiet rebuke, she bares her teeth. It is all going splendidly.

She does not seem to be aware that she is alienating the only people who can help her. The negotiations really will be difficult, and she will be desperately in need of wise friends. The EU has been remarkably patient. It won’t be patient for ever, and it has indicated that, too.

Perhaps she thinks her luck – “a lucky astuteness” in Machiavelli’s apt phrase1 – will come to her aid. Or perhaps she doesn’t care. The whole edifice, being built of lies on a foundation of sand, is going to crumble. However, even that doesn’t matter very much, as long as it falls down after the election.

Beyond that, she has no plan. Win a big majority by declaring war on Brussels, clobber Corbyn because dissent of any kind is intolerable, and ride out the storm. She must know there will be one. If we crash out of the EU, an outcome she is doing nothing to prevent,  there will be a storm such as we have not seen for decades. That is what the hoped-for majority is really for. Not for dealing with Europe, but for dealing with us.

For what purpose, finally? What purpose could there be? The good of the country has already been sacrificed on the altar of her ambition. The purpose can only be her own survival as Prime Minister. The ship may sink, but she is the Vicar’s Daughter and she knows she will come through.

 

1  The Prince, IX, referring to the quality a private citizen needs in order to become ruler “by the favour of his fellow citizens.”

 

Put it on the bonfire

 

In Ben Elton’s 1989 novel Stark,  a consortium of the super-rich are planning to escape to another planet from the devastation they have caused on this one. The plan, naturally, has to be kept secret, or they and their bespoke spaceship will be torn apart by the enraged populace whom they have robbed of a habitable home.

This story resurfaces in my mind whenever there is news of a privately-funded initiative to explore space. It resurfaces when there is particularly dire news about the environment.

It resurfaced last week when the Government lost its attempt in the high court to keep its plans to tackle air pollution under wraps until June. The Government was ordered in November to provide these plans by April 24. It appealed against the order with only hours remaining before the deadline. Its grounds were that the policy would be controversial and should be withheld   until after the general election in case its publication breached “purdah,” the pre-election period in which politically contentious announcements should not be made by local or central government.

Mr Justice Garnham said that purdah was not a principle in law, the Government should not try to hide behind it, that its failure to comply with directives and regulations constituted a significant threat to public health and it must publish its draft plan on 9 May. Then it must comply with his original order of November and release its final policy by July 31.

Three cheers for the judge, I thought. But who is winning? The Government has been refusing to publish its plans for tackling air pollution for seven years.

Air pollution is believed to be responsible, according to Defra’s own figures, for 40,000 premature deaths per year, of which nitrogen dioxide from diesel traffic causes 23,500. According to a Labour party analysis, 59% of the population lives in towns and cities where nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution is above legal limits. Asthma and cardiovascular disease are among the effects. Children are particularly vulnerable. The cost to the NHS is in the region of £6.6 billion per year.

All the time it is prevaricating, inventing excuses and consulting lawyers, the death toll continues. NO2 pollution costs 64 deaths per day (Government figures). How many lives might have been saved if Andrea Leadsom had decided to do her job and publish that draft plan in, say, December?

I suspect there was no draft plan until the judge’s ruling.  They will be doing it now quickly on the back of an election leaflet. However, I don’t think that is the real reason for its non-appearance. I think for the past six months Andrea Leadsom, instead of talking to health professionals, has been talking to motor manufacturers.

To allege that public servants are in fact working against the public should be a very serious matter. I should be afraid of a writ, or something of the sort.  I am not, because everyone knows that it happens. If the Government has failed for seven years to make plans for cleaning up the air we breathe, it can only be that it doesn’t want to make such plans. And that can only be because it cannot resist the pressure put on it by groups in whose interests such plans are not. It is a familiar story.

But this is the air we breathe!

Hence, presumably, the acerbity of Mr Justice Garnham’s ruling. The Government will now, belatedly, comply. But if it has taken seven years to get the British Government to attend to our air, what can we expect in future? And to whom can we look? The courts, it’s to be hoped, will continue to defend our rights. But on the basis of what law?

The regulation which the Government is required to implement is an EU regulation. It is part of EU Directive 2008/50/EC that sets air quality limits for all member countries. The level for NO2 was set in 2010 and the UK has been in breach of it ever since.

The EU has regulations and directives on dozens of issues from anti-competitive behaviour to workers’ rights, from clean air and consumer protection to the safety of shipping and the protection of birds. It concerns itself with waste disposal, chemical pollution, the control of scientific experiments on animals and standards for windscreens. Over the years these regulations have saved and improved many lives, and made many enemies.

There are people in Britain who are intent on destroying these regulations. This requires that the country leave the European Union.

It took me a while to accept that this was what lay behind the drive for hard Brexit. When I first came across the idea I was shocked: I felt that it ascribed to certain unnamed individuals a depth of cynicism that was barely credible. Yet it made sense when nothing else did. What, I had often wondered, was in it  for the rabid Brexiteers, if they were not so stupid as to believe their own propaganda?

Well, they are now telling us openly what’s in it: a low-tax, low-regulation economy. They think they are speaking to initiates and will not be understood by people who voted Leave believing they were voting against Spanish trawlers. Fortunately we have among us people who will decode the signal. Here is A.C. Grayling:

“They want to make it [an]… economy where they and they alone can flourish. Such an economy will not have the resources for the NHS, a good state education system, a welfare net or environmental protection. It will strip away consumer and employee rights… Brexiters have stated in public their intention to make a “bonfire of regulations” to make money-making easier. And that is the key. It will make things easy only for money – money and nothing else.

“The only people who do not need an NHS because they have private medical insurance, the only people who do not need a state education system because their children go to private schools, the only people who will never need a welfare net because they are too rich to care, the only people who do not need clean city air and clean beaches in the UK because they have country houses and take their holidays abroad, are the rich.” (The New European, April 28-May 4, p. 15).

It explains everything, doesn’t it? The rejection of all forms of soft Brexit, the refusal to offer assurance to EU nationals living in Britain, the wilful provocation of European institutions. Theresa May’s crass insistence at a Downing Street dinner on concessions she had been repeatedly told she could not have; since then, open belligerence towards the EU. Taken together, all these must result in an impasse in the negotiations, leading to Britain’s unceremonious exit from the EU. At the mercy of the bandits who have brought this about.

What, I wonder, will the bandits do when they get their wish and then the bottom falls out of that plan as well? Greed, by definition, has no limits. But a swindle cannot go on for ever, and a looter will in time run out of loot. They could move on to the rest of the planet, of course, where their counterparts will be doing the same thing. But even the planet…

Yes.

The thing is, Mars and all those places aren’t ready. They should have started planning earlier.  And they aren’t very hardy, those people, in all probability. They are used to air-conditioning and having their martinis mixed. They aren’t going to do well in a place that has no atmosphere and where the lighting is all artificial and everything tastes funny and they can’t go outside.

But there is hope for them. It’s to be found on another page of The New European  (“Going Underground”, by Frank Heinz Diebel). The fashion for converting underground Cold War-era bunkers into survivalist refuges has spread to Europe from the USA, catering to a moneyed clientele worried about social unrest as well as dioxin, climate change and polluted rivers. A 2,500 sq ft apartment at Europa One in Germany comes with access to a wine cellar, restaurants, bakery, a hospital and a zoo. (I have no information on the zoo.) Applicants will be invited – or not – following an interview. The Oppidum in the Czech Republic offers a swimming pool and underground garden.

There appears to be something along these lines at Chislehurst, but it sounds a bit of a muddle. Herr Diebel says it’s not a bunker any more. Does this mean it isn’t underground? If not, there doesn’t seem to be much point. Fleeing Brexiters would have to get themselves into one of the European ones, which might be awkward.

 

The children are so sleepy

 

 

 

 

Jeremy Corbyn is a non-politician doing a politician’s job.

Why didn’t anyone spot this a year ago? Well, they did, including many gleeful Conservatives. But a lot of Labour supporters were incredulous with joy. At last, a leader who didn’t tell porkies!

The result is that we are in a general election campaign, and the only person in the country who is placed to lead the fight against Theresa May and her Bruiser’s Brexit is cornered into answering questions about Trident on the Andrew Marr Show, and is promptly contradicted by his own, panicked, shadow cabinet. He had not meant it when he said that defence policy, which includes Trident, would be “reviewed.” The Labour Party was wholly committed to weapons of mass destruction that would be fired (probably) from beneath the waves as an apocalyptic act of vengeance against a foreign power that had attacked our island. Quite right, too, said Michael Fallon, adding that he personally was ready to launch a first strike if sufficiently cross. By this time Tim Farron had weighed in, saying that the Lib Dems also were true blue on Trident.

Having neatly demonstrated to the nation Mr Corbyn’s unfitness to be Prime Minister, Andrew Marr passed on to air strikes.

It is always like this. Nuclear weapons are amazingly popular considering how nasty they are, but then no-one ever does consider how nasty they are. In any case, it is classified information. They are an emblem of patriotism, notwithstanding the increased incidence of cancers around their places of origin. They exist without fully existing. They are there to be manipulated like pieces on a chessboard, for one gain or another, probably political. We might be well on the way to getting rid of them by now but for Margaret Thatcher, who realised, after extraordinary noises had come out of a summit in Reykjavik, that, if they were to be abolished, she might lose the next election to Neil Kinnock. She flew to Camp David, and Ronald Reagan proceeded no further with some very promising talks with Gorbachev.

Thus Britain’s four Trident submarines, one of which recently fired a missile in the wrong direction, have, just by existing, probably influenced the outcome of this general election.

The weapons themselves are never supposed to do anything.  They’re a deterrent, aren’t they? We want them to go on slumbering in their secret nests, creating – absurdly – a sense of security.

But they don’t do nothing. They never do nothing. They may or may not be “active as a deterrent.” Military thinking has largely moved on from deterrence to first strike, partly because nukes will not deter terrorists but, on the contrary, attract them. However, they are certainly active in encouraging proliferation of their own kind. The reason for this is that they are believed to be a deterrent. If they’re good for us, they’re good for everyone. This is irrefutable.

These are bellicose times. (Start a war with Spain? What a splendid idea!) It’s a good time to play the “Are you a nuclear realist or a nuclear wimp?” game, particularly when your opponent is known to be a nuclear wimp.

However, Jeremy Corbyn is not a nuclear wimp. He is one of the few politicians who have the courage to name the beast. He believes nuclear weapons are a useless evil. He thinks they endanger all life on the planet whether they are detonated or not, and are an obscene waste of money. He is right.

CND has been fighting this battle for decades, and a Brexit blog is not the place to reprise it. However, I want to return to that Trident missile which lost its satnav last summer. Theresa May knew about it, and kept quiet about it, during the Commons debate on whether Trident should be renewed. Whether it would have made a difference is irrelevant. If MPs do not have all the appropriate information at their disposal in such a debate, the debate is a sham – and so, incidentally, is Theresa May’s pose as The Vicar’s Daughter. However, what is really alarming about that bit of hi-tech errancy is that it keeps happening.

The military, which is romantic about itself, calls accidents involving nuclear weapons “broken arrows.” There have been 32 since 1950. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, published three years ago, describes some. Schlosser starts with the Titan II missile on which a young mechanic dropped a wrench in 1980. It ruptured the missile’s fuel tank, which began to leak. Nine hours later the missile exploded, destroying the launch site and killing an airman. There was no nuclear explosion, although there could have been; in that case, there would now be no Arkansas.

More than once during the Cold War, a commander’s finger was poised over the launch button when he was dissuaded by a subordinate who did not believe the information he was getting from the warning system. Chatham House has a report on incidents that nearly led to nuclear war: 13 since 1962.1  Once, an exercise tape had been left in the system. Once, it was a faulty computer chip. Once, it was a Norwegian research rocket that had a radar signature similar to a Trident’s…

It’s not just the technology. President Mitterand left the launch codes in his suit pocket. So did Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter’s suit was taken to the dry cleaners.

And it’s not just the weapons. This week is the 31st anniversary of Chernobyl. I went to watch a documentary 2 filmed at a 2001 conference in Kiev, facilitated by the WHO, about the effects of nuclear radiation.  Scientists and physicians from many nations presented their findings. Also present were representatives of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose remit is to promote the “peaceful use of nuclear power.” The film focused on new evidence that ingestion of radioactive caesium 137 after the explosion caused damage to the vital organs of children, which at a certain level became irreversible. The IAEA denied the validity of the evidence.

Then we saw the children. Serious, polite, fluently pronouncing the names of medical conditions  they should never have heard of; they could pronounce them because they had them. Systemic collagenosis. Infarctions. Cardiac crisis… An old lady, tending her goats, spoke about the changes in the village. Once, the street had been noisy with children. “This was before radiation.” Now there were eight children in the street “and they are so… sleepy,” she said.

The conference’s final resolution, which would form the basis of government guidance on radiological protection for the future, did not accept the new evidence about caesium 137. It was never going to. The IAEA has muscle the WHO lacks, although they are both agencies of the UN and theoretically equal, because it reports direct to the Security Council. The World Health Organisation is prevented from researching into the medical effects of radiation without the IAEA’s approval.  After the Chernobyl disaster, it was banned from the contaminated area for five years. The IAEA estimates the number of deaths resulting from the explosion at around 35 and the number of seriously contaminated at a few hundred. Kofi Annan estimates the number of victims at nine million.

The nuclear power industry cannot be separated from the production of nuclear weapons. Its reactors produce the fissile material that goes into the warheads. However, nuclear reactors would still pose a danger to human health – and everyone else’s – if their products did not go into bombs, and even if the reactors never exploded and were never overtaken by earthquakes, tidal waves or subsidence, because those products are in themselves highly dangerous. And some of them will survive for a length of time we can barely imagine.

Worried about this and, unlike our own government, resolved to do something about it, the Finns  are constructing a vast bunker 500 metres underground in which to store their radioactive waste for a hundred thousand years. There’s a documentary about this, too: a haunting, eerie film called Into Eternity.

This least appealing aspect of nuclear power explains why Jeremy Corbyn isn’t a fan of Sellafield, and why he lost the Copeland by-election.

What can one say about all this? In political terms, Corbyn’s stance is a disaster. In moral terms, it is the only conceivable stance. What do we want?

I know what I don’t want. It is presumably apparent from this blog.

The Chatham House Report observes that, often, nuclear war has been averted by a refusal to follow orders.

I do find that hopeful.

 

1 Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Policies for Today. Chatham House Report, April 2014.

2  Nuclear Controversies and the WHO Cover-Up.

 

Beautiful wall

 

 

America has form with Mexico.

Northern Mexico was a savage place in the early nineteenth century. Largely desert, cut by canyons and mountainous, theoretically ruled by a government one thousand miles to the south which often enough could not impose its will on its own backyard, it was roamed by bands of Comanche and Apache who had never submitted to anyone and existed in a state of war with the few scattered towns. Those towns defended themselves as best they could; some were military colonies founded by the Spaniards, others survived by hiring mercenaries. This violent anarchy is unforgettably depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying novel Blood Meridian.

In the 1820s, after Mexico had wrested its independence from Spain, the Mexican government offered land in a north-eastern corner of the country to immigrant settlers, in the hope that they would create a buffer against the indigenous tribes. Settlers flooded in from the neighbouring United States. They did not adapt well to Mexico; they despised its laws and disliked its centralised government, and it became clear that some of them wished to import the slave economy of the southern USA (Mexico had abolished slavery). In time Mexico stopped the settler programme, but by then it was too late. The settlers wanted independence, and drove Mexican troops out of the state.

Mexico would not allow Tejas (later Texas) to secede, and sent troops to re-take the territory from the Americans, who had fortified themselves in an old mission, the Alamo. The assault, under General Santa Anna, was carried out with a lack of restraint that rallied more Americans to the Texan cause. Six weeks later the Alamo was “avenged” at the battle of San Jacinto, which routed the Mexican army. Santa Anna, captured, agreed to Texas’s independence but then, released, rescinded his agreement on the grounds that it had been given under duress. Its status remained disputed.

In 1845 America annexed Texas. Mexico had warned that this would lead to war. In 1846, an American provocation in border territory led to a skirmish, and war followed.

For Mexico the war was calamitous. At the end of eighteen months of fighting, fully half of Mexico’s territory passed into American hands, signed away in return for 15 million dollars by the incompetent Santa Anna, who was now President. Thus America acquired the present states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and most of Colorado. This was in addition, of course, to Texas.

There were protests, in the heart of the nation that committed it, against this fantastic piece of armed robbery. Ulysses S. Grant regarded the war “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” Emerson said victory over Mexico would “poison” America. Thoreau was briefly jailed for refusing to pay taxes to support the war, and wrote On Civil Disobedience as a response. Several hundred Irish soldiers defected from the US Army to form the St Patrick’s Battalion and fought alongside the Mexicans.

If you stroll through Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, you will see six marble columns, each surmounted by a bronze eagle, in an amphitheatre. This monument commemorates the Niños Héroes, six military cadets who disobeyed the order to surrender and fought to the last. One, it is said, threw himself off the cliff of Chapultepec wrapped in the Mexican flag. It is very rhetorical, very Mexican, and very sad.

Every Mexican knows this history and, to my knowledge, very few Americans. But it is impossible to understand the way America is viewed in Mexico without knowing it.

When, therefore, Donald Trump announced he was going to build “a beautiful wall” along the US/Mexican border, Mexicans could have been forgiven for thinking that it was 171 years too late. They might also have reflected that Mexico would be a better place if there had been a wall keeping out American guns, American Hallowe’en customs, American fizzy drinks, American sliced white bread, American interference in Mexican internal affairs, American interference in Mexican foreign policy, America’s “drugs war,” American subsidised maize (which has destroyed Mexican agriculture) and mass American immigration to San Miguel de Allende. But they are a polite and proud people, and will not say so.

Nevertheless there will – or will there? another day, another policy – be a wall, and it has to look like something, and so some unfortunate charged with making the President’s whims reality has invited designs. Some of them appeared in a fascinating spread in The Guardian on April 10. They are a mixed bag, and a few seek to upstage their master’s chauvinism by downright barbarity. Thus, one of them incorporates into its design a trench filled with nuclear waste. Another, trying its best, combines solar panels with an affectionate look back at Stalag Luft 4. There are designs that answer to Trump’s vulgarity with fake battlements and resemble a crazed wedding cake. There are hi-tech dystopias with barbed wire and concrete.

But – take heart! – there are others that subvert and mock their remit. There is one that consists entirely of three million hammocks, strung end-to-end. This deserves a Nobel Prize.  Admittedly it will not keep anything out. But still less so will the design that refuses to grasp Trump’s basic concept, and depicts an open, sunlit landscape of fields and woods and soaring eagles. This is a place that belongs to neither country, but is Otra Nation. It’s beautiful: it is beautiful precisely because it is not a wall. Will Trump understand this? No, he cannot.

And of course the Mexicans have a design. (They have many, but the Guardian page shows only one.) It is splendid: it is bright pink. I don’t think Trump will like it.1  It is subversive also in its breadth: in the photograph one cannot see the other side of it. In that case, it is not a wall, is it? A wall must have two sides. A wall you can walk across widthways  is…

At this point something that had been nudging me for the past ten minutes came out and showed itself. It’s a science fiction story by Arthur C. Clarke. I had long forgotten both the title, The Wall of Darkness, and the author, but Google helped. It is as follows:

There exists a star-system consisting entirely of one sun and one planet, and on the planet a gigantic wall has been built. It completely encircles and blocks access to the southern pole. It is believed that it bars the way to some terror that should never be glimpsed; that to see it would bring madness. The wall appears impossible to scale; the region is shrouded in perpetual semi-darkness and is very cold. One day someone braver than the rest decides to find out what is on the other side.

He constructs a scaffolding and climbs up. At the top, he can see nothing but the wall, stretching away into darkness. He starts to walk.

He walks and walks. It gets darker and colder. He is leaving the sun behind. Soon it is far distant, as if at the end of a tunnel. He goes on walking.

After a long time, through the blackness he sees ahead of him a pinprick of light. He is afraid, of course: there is a nameless terror dwelling here. But still he goes on walking, doggedly, like a sailor who might be about to fall over the edge of the world.

And that, in a sense, is what happens. For the pinprick of light grows bigger, and it is hanging in the middle of the sky, and as the darkness disperses he realises that he is walking towards the sun. But that is impossible. He has left the sun behind. He is walking away from it.

There is no nameless terror, we understand at the end of the story. The wall was built by a government, long ago, that wanted to protect its people from – or to deny them? – a knowledge that was deemed too difficult for them to cope with.

I will not tell you what that was and spoil a good story (still available in Arthur C. Clarke’s Collected Stories, Gollancz, 2001).  I will only say that the universe is not the way Donald Trump thinks it is.

Happy Easter.

 

1   Clearly he didn’t, because it has now vanished from the website. It must be somewhere.

 

 

Gib

 

 

 

 

My father grew up in Gibraltar. At the beginning of World War I his father, an electrical engineer at Devonport Naval Dockyard, was sent to the Naval Dockyard at Gibraltar to work on an electrification scheme. The whole family went. I have a photograph of my father from that time, dressed up as a “Spanish fisher lad.” His smile is earnest and trustful. He believes in what he’s doing. It is a touchingly innocent scene and reeks of empire. It was 1917.

England “acquired” Gibraltar in 1704 by the normal means of invasion with the sword. It was part of the War of Spanish Succession, and the English force was part of an Anglo-Dutch army whose main objective was containing the power of France. English possession of this strategic rock jutting into the Mediterranean, eight miles from the African coast, was formalised in the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713. Spain has never been reconciled to the loss of it and in the 18th century made two attempts to re-take it by force.

In 1830 it became a British colony; Spain maintains that it still is, although Britain now classes it as an Overseas Territory. It played an important part in the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War and World War II, and is presumably vital to Britain’s intelligence and communications network in the Mediterranean region. None of this is an argument for hanging on to it at all costs if a workable arrangement with Spain can be reached, and one nearly was in 2002, when a shared sovereignty deal was agreed. It was presented to the Gibraltarian people, and they overwhelmingly rejected it. The British Government seems to have given up at this point.

Gibraltar resembles one of those mythical monsters that has the head of one animal and the body of another. Physically Spanish, politically British, a modern tax haven with a deeply conservative world outlook, and a working population that identifies as British but commutes constantly across the border with Spain. That border has to stay open for its economy to function. Spain can close it, and has done (Franco did for 16 years), or just make transit difficult, which it also does.

What would such a population want but membership of the EU with its single market and free movement of goods, people and services? And what would it fear, deep down, but government by Spain?

And thus they voted. To remain in the EU, 96% (in 2016). To remain under British sovereignty (in 2002), 98%. Only as long as Britain remained in the single market would these two be compatible.

And, thinking about this, you might realise, if you were in Downing Street, that only as long as Britain remained in the EU would Spain continue to be quiet over Gibraltar. Theresa May appears not to have done, although the Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, warned her that trouble was in the offing. She didn’t think the Rock deserved mention in her letter of farewell to the EU. The response to this omission was swift. Donald Tusk’s reply contained the following sentence:  “After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.”

 

The news that Spain will not seek to veto any application by an independent Scotland to join the EU hit the airwaves shortly afterwards. For Theresa May, that is a near shot across the bows.  It was largely overlooked, however, in the hysterical reaction to The Sentence. The grammar was wobbly 1 but the meaning was clear: if the UK didn’t come to an agreement with Spain over Gibraltar, Gibraltar would be denied the benefits of any deal Britain had reached with the EU. Admittedly, at present it looks unlikely that a deal will be reached that anyone would want to be part of, so bargain-basement are this Government’s diplomatic skills. But, if it were, Gibraltar would be left out in the cold.

The gunboats weighed anchor at once. Admiral Lord (“something of the night about him”) Howard sailed straight for the enemy vessel and engaged it with a shot just above the waterline from his trusty ship the Maggie. He recalled the Falklands and said he was absolutely sure “our current Prime Minister” would “show the same resolve.”

Stirring stuff, eh? Get ready for another Task Force. Do you remember the dockside waving of handkerchiefs, the long voyage cloaked in secrecy (it was before GPS), the bombing of Port Stanley airfield by Vulcan bombers apparently risen from the grave, the breath-bated “I counted them all out and I counted them all back again”? Mrs T’s commanding “Rejoice at that news!” outside Downing Street on the surrender of South Georgia? It was all so exciting.

Well, Lord Howard seems to want to bring it back again. So do other people who should know better. God help us if, in Europe, they believe the nightmare vision of Britain that is evoked: thousands of grey-haired people sitting bolt upright in their recliner chairs fiddling with the remote, hoping to see a rerun of the Falklands War with another bunch of Hispanics.

Downing Street is embarrassed, and has distanced itself from its barking-mad Tory grandee. The Intelligence and Security Committee has tutted. Jack Straw, who worked on the failed 2002 agreement, has said, sensibly, that it is in the interests of Gibraltarians for a deal to be done with Spain “in the new circumstances”, which they didn’t vote for. But it is the fact that they didn’t vote for the 2002 shared sovereignty proposal that is the sticking point.

Spain is flexing muscle – newly-acquired, and that’s Britain’s doing – but is only pursuing its legitimate interests (how would we feel if the positions were reversed?), and warned Britain a long time ago that a British exit from the EU would re-awaken the Gibraltar issue. The more intractable problem is that the Gibraltarians will not accept reality and that the British Government is, again, refusing to shoulder its responsibility to take responsibility when “the will of the people” yields an outcome that is contrary to common sense and sound politics. It thinks it can make capital out of outraged “patriotism,” whipped up by politicians of yesteryear who do not take responsibility for anything either.

Seventy-five years after my father came home from Gibraltar, I heard him say something in Spanish. He had never done this before, in my hearing, although he had often mentioned “Gib.” As it happened, I was learning Spanish myself. His accent sounded perfect. I thought of my hours spent wrestling with the use of the subjunctive in a conditional clause in which the condition has not been fulfilled. I asked him why he hadn’t kept his Spanish up after he came home; he could have spoken it with his brothers. He shook his head. The other boys at his school in Plymouth had laughed at him and called him a “dago.” He was deeply sunburned; he looked Spanish. As soon as he could, he dropped everything that identified him with that foreign place; the language went first. But he hung on, devotedly, to his memories of it. Gibraltar became, in his mind, Eden.

Did it have to be like that? They needn’t have mocked him: they could have helped him settle back in. He would have rewarded them: he had things to talk about of which they knew nothing. He would have felt validated. He might not have retreated, in later years, to the entrenched positions over which my mother sighed and I fought him.

But none of this was going to happen in England in 1920.

I think now: when is this country going to grow up? When is it going to stop hating foreigners? When will it accept that the empire is gone?

Until it does, it has no future. All it has is a past, and even that past is not the past it thinks it is.

 

 

1 “Without agreement between” would be OK. “Without an agreement between” would be OK. “Without the agreement of” would be OK. “Without the agreement between” is not, because it supposes an actual agreement which does not exist. Unless it is referring to the agreement of 2002, but then it would say so.

 

 

Making a souffle

 

Well, it’s done. The greatest act of British stupidity in two generations has been carried out, by a woman holding an expensive fountain pen in front of an expensive fireplace. Our man in Brussels, who replaced our previous man in Brussels, who resigned because no-one in Westminster listened to him, has delivered the Letter personally to Donald Tusk.

It will be a month before anything else happens. I thought this would be a good time to glance again at the Government’s White Paper on Brexit.1  I had the impression there wasn’t much in it.

There isn’t. Moreover it’s a strange creation, and gets stranger. However, it sets off bizarrely enough. How’s this for the start of Chapter 2, “Taking Control of Our Own Laws”?

Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that” (2.1) (my italics).

What? We thought the whole point of the opera about “sovereignty” during the referendum campaign was that we had lost it to the EU! 2 Are you saying that we didn’t? (So can we have a re-run of the referendum?) And if we didn’t, what does the title of this chapter mean? And what on earth does “it has not always felt like that” mean? It seems to have slipped in from The Archers.

It is a document that seems uncertain what it wants to be. Each chapter leads with a paragraph about Brexit that reads as if written by an advertising agency. In the main text, thickets of factual data are surrounded by clouds of pious hope, virtuous intentions and bluster. Here and there a soundbite whizzes in, like a meteorite (“No deal is better than a bad deal”). The whole thing resembles a soufflé with lumps. The overriding aim is reassurance, the general tone is anodyne. If you poke it, it collapses:

“After all the division and discord, the country is coming together” (foreword by the PM). Really?

“Work is underway (sic) to define the Government’s trade policy” (9.8). Oh, good.

The Government is “committed to ensuring we become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it” (8.41). By abandoning the EU and embracing Trump?

And it assumes its readers are ignorant of facts:

The Government “has engaged a range of stakeholders, including expatriate groups, to ensure we understand the priorities of UK nationals living in EU countries” (6.3). But those groups say they have not been consulted.

The reassurance is so hollow a baby could stick its finger through it, but the Government is talking to grown-ups and hopes they will not be so unkind. Thus, scientists are told they can still apply for EU research funding for as long as Britain remains in the EU (10.9). How long does the Government think scientific research takes? And when it praises the contribution of overseas researchers to British projects, doesn’t it know that many of them are already leaving? And that British scientists are being sidelined in new European research? When it reassures existing EU students they will still be eligible for loans (10.11), does it know their numbers have fallen? Not a word. On leaving Euratom, which includes arrangements for nuclear safeguards and safety, it says soothingly, “We will ensure this continues by seeking alternative arrangements” (8.31). Head-first back into the soufflé.

The White Paper, in other words, does not address reality. What is it for, then? This is a Government White Paper!  Well, it is a document wrenched out of a reluctant Theresa May in return for an undertaking by MPs that they would not vote against the Article 50 bill. Its underlying tenor is, “You’re forcing me to talk to you, so I’m talking to you, but I’m damned if I’m going to say anything.” Obliged to produce something or other, the Government has produced 72 pages of propaganda. Thus, it repeats unblushingly the often-made assertion that the EU exports more to Britain than Britain does to the EU (8.4), while omitting to explain that that is in cash terms: the percentage figures put quite a different complexion on the matter. Roughly 44% of Britain’s exports are to the EU; roughly 16% of the EU’s exports are to Britain. Who stands to lose from Brexit?

This mendacious flim-flam was not what MPs had asked for. They felt that the Government’s airy target of “the best possible deal for the British people” was unacceptable, that clearer targets needed to be defined, and that many would be difficult to accomplish because of the contradictions they would involve. They wanted these difficulties to be acknowledged. They wanted information and to know that the Government knew what it was doing.

Nothing like this was forthcoming. Acknowledge the difficulties? But that would cast doubt on the wisdom of the enterprise. Information? Oh yes, there is plenty of information, there are pages and pages of it, with lovely clear charts, but it is information about the wrong thing. It is information that everyone who has an interest in the EU already possesses – information about the flow of goods and services, about immigration numbers, workers’ rights, co-operation on policing and security, what the EU is and does, what we are leaving behind. At no point does it go up to a problem and grasp it.

For instance, on the huge question (Annex B) of how it is going to close the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (because if it doesn’t there will be no way of stopping EU migrants from entering the UK from Ireland), and at the same time keep it open (because, if it closes it, it could re-ignite the Troubles) it devotes three pages to saying only that it is “firmly committed” to everything. It then, incredibly, states that the present cooperation between justice and security agencies in Ireland and Northern Ireland “exemplifies the sort of relationship we want to have with the EU post-exit.” Post-exit, it will be lucky to have it with Ireland.

David Davis, from whose Cloud Cuckoo Land this document issues, would say, “We cannot give away the Government’s negotiating position.” No-one is asking him to. You presumably want your Government to do its best, even if you think it is a crew of chancers led by a zombie. But to state your goal is not to give away your negotiating position, nor is admitting that your goal lies in difficult-to-attain territory. To state your goal is only inadvisable if your goal is criminal or exceedingly devious.  Or if you’re afraid of the press in the event that you fail to achieve it. Is Theresa May that craven?

This makes it clear, I think, that the White Paper is not the inert thing it seems: it does something. It throws sand in the eyes again. A bit more time is bought. We are all a bit more confused, and a bit more tired, and a bit more ready to accept whatever is coming.

And what is that?

One candidate is that, nine months in, the Government still does not know what it is doing. It is still saying, “I wonder what will happen if I pull this bit…” Let’s not forget that this White Paper comes from the office of the man who admitted to a Parliamentary Select Committee that he had no idea what would happen if the UK left Europe without a trade deal. He hadn’t done the figures. For some reason, they weren’t worth doing.

In that case, what is coming is the revelation of the Government’s utter ineptitude, and it is trying every trick in the book to put off the day.

The second possibility is that the Government knows exactly what it is doing, and what it is doing is very devious indeed. I shall come back to this at a later date.

A third possibility is that the entire Government is raving mad and thinks it is fighting the Second World War. This would account for the obsessive secrecy, the hostility displayed to all representatives of the EU, the ceaseless appeals to patriotic feeling, the routine use of propaganda, the equating of government negotiating tactics with national security, and the peculiar implacability of Theresa May’s countenance.  She is trying to look like a bulldog.

In that case, what we have to look forward to is either that the Government comes to its senses before Europe loses patience and blows us out of the water, or that it doesn’t.

 

The truly awful news is that another White Paper is on the way.

2 Good analysis of sovereignty, and much else, in  https://rationaldebateblog.wordpress.com/2017/03/29/a-dark-day-for-the-UK-and-for-europe/