Keeping the spotlight on the West’s ongoing devastation of Afghanistan and Syria

Keeping the spotlight on the West’s ongoing devastation of Afghanistan and Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21-22 January 2023

Amnesty International’s 1991 Annual Report should be required reading for all media studies and journalism students.

“The Iraqi Government headed by President Saddam Hussein had been committing gross and widespread human rights abuses” in the 1980s, including using chemical weapons, the human rights organisation explained.

The report goes onto note Amnesty International publicised gruesome evidence of the atrocities and appealed directly to the United Nations Security Council in 1988 to take urgent action. “However, the world’s governments and media took only token interest, and none of the UN bodies took action.”

Then something happened. “The response to Amnesty International’s information on Iraq changed dramatically on 2 August 1990, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait.”

“Suddenly, the telephones at the organization’s International Secretariat in London were busy with inquiries about Iraq’s human rights record. Pictures of the victims of chemical weapons appeared widely on television. Exiled Kurds, who had battled for so long to have their stories heard, were invited to speak to the media. Amnesty International’s own reporting of the abuses perpetrated in Kuwait following the Iraqi invasion made front pages across the world”.

What Amnesty International doesn’t mention is the shameful support given to Hussein in the 1980s by the US and UK, meaning it was in their interest not to draw attention to the Iraqi leader’s atrocities. However, in August 1990 Iraq’s human rights record suddenly became useful to the UK and US governments.

This is a textbook example of the propaganda role played by the UK media – how their laser-like focus on human rights abuses is switched on (and off) depending on the UK government’s interests, and not because of anything to do with the human rights abuses themselves.

This sudden shift also occurs after Western military intervention ends. Take, for example, what happened following the saturation news coverage of the Gulf War when deadly US-UK-led UN sanctions were levelled on Iraq in the 1990s.

“During the worst years of the sanctions, the Western media largely ignored the horrifying impact in terms of hunger, disease and physical and mental stunting of Iraqi children – and hundreds of thousands of child deaths,” Milan Rai, the founder of Voices in the Wilderness UK, which campaigned against the sanctions, tells me. “On our sanctions-breaking visits to Iraq as part of the Voices in the Wilderness campaign, we would often be accompanied to children’s wards by journalists from other parts of the world, such as TV Globo from Brazil, but rarely by media from our own countries, the US and the UK.”

Similarly, once Muammar Gaddafi had been lynched in October 2011, and Libya supposedly liberated, the UK media’s attention quickly shifted away from the collapse of the North African country, despite – or because of? – the US-UK-NATO playing a key role in destroying Libya as a viable state.

Today, Afghanistan and Syria have the unfortunate distinction of being nations the Western media, after a period of intense coverage, has largely forgotten about, even though the US, supported by its faithful lapdog the UK, continues to ravage these nations.

In Afghanistan “nearly 19 million people are estimated to remain acutely food insecure in the second half of 2022, with nearly 6 million people still considered to be on the brink of famine,” the Disasters Emergency Committee warned in November.

In August 2022 United Nations special representative Dr Ramiz Alakbarov said “the situation can be best described as a pure catastrophe… you’ve seen people selling organs, you’ve seen people selling children.” (Hat tip: these two quotes were published in Peace News newspaper).

The same month, Vicki Aken, the Afghanistan country director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), explained the causes of the humanitarian emergency: “At the root of this crisis is the country’s economic collapse. Decisions taken last year to isolate the Taliban – including the freezing of foreign reserves, the grounding of the banking system, and the halting of development assistance which financed most government services – have had a devastating impact.”

To be clear, it the US, UK and other Western countries who have undertaken these actions, following the Taliban taking back control of Afghanistan in August 2021. After speaking to several international experts, in December 2021 the Guardian reported “large parts of Afghanistan’s health system are on the brink of collapse because of western sanctions against the Taliban”. Even David Miliband, the warmongering ex-UK Foreign Secretary and now CEO of the IRC, understands the West’s culpability. “We are not punishing the Taliban. It is ordinary Afghans that are paying the price of peace,” he told the Guardian in February 2022. “It is not just a catastrophe of choice, but a catastrophe of reputation. This is a starvation policy.”

Shockingly, in February 2022 US President Joe Biden signed an executive order releasing some of the $7bn in frozen Afghan reserves held in the US to be given to American victims of terrorism, including relatives of 9/11 victims.

In Syria successive waves of Western sanctions have broadened in number and scope over time, a 2022 UNICEF discussion paper explained. “Initially targeting individuals at the beginning of the conflict in 2011” the sanctions implemented under the 2019 US Caesar Act targeted “Syrian government’s financial resources, economic foundations and external actors dealing with the Syrian government.” In addition to these direct targets, the sanctions “create a ‘chilling effect’ that discourages technically legal transactions that business judge to be too risky,” researcher Sam Heller explained in a 2021 report for The Century Foundation US think-tank. This “raises the cost” of “even humanitarian transactions”, he noted.

The same year the World Food Programme estimated 12.4 million Syrians – nearly 60 percent of the population – were food insecure.

After interviewing more than 24 humanitarian aid workers, diplomats and aid workers, in his report Heller noted “The deterioration of Syrian food security is the product of many factors. It is, foremost, the result of an economic crisis that has overtaken Syria since 2019, and the dramatic depreciation of the national currency. Many Syrians can simply no longer afford to feed their families… key imports have also been disrupted, including wheat needed for bread; and fuel, whose scarcity has affected food supply and prices.”

“All this has been exacerbated by Western sanctions on Syria,” he stated.

Similarly, a 2021 report written by Zaki Mehchy and Dr Rim Turkmani for the Conflict Research Programme at the London School of Economics noted sanctions “have directly contributed to… a massive deterioration in the formal economy associated with a weakening of legitimate business and civil society, and increased suffering of ordinary people.”  (Incidentally, the report also argues sanctions have contributed to “greater reliance of the Syrian regime on Russia and Iran, and less political leverage for Western countries” and “the establishment and strengthening of a network of warlords and ‘cronies’ with a vested interest in regime survival and a criminalised economy”).

The role of western sanctions in creating extreme hardship for ordinary Syrians has been understood for years. In 2016 The Intercept obtained an internal email written by “a key UN official” that cited the sanctions as a “principal factor” in the erosion of the country’s health care system. And a 2017 Reuters report was titled Syria Sanctions Indirectly Hit Children’s Cancer Treatment.

More recently, after a fact-finding mission to Syria in November, Alena Douhan, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures, concluded “Primary unilateral sanctions, secondary sanctions, threats of sanctions, de-risking policies and over-compliance with sanctions have been exacerbating Syria’s humanitarian crisis, which is already affected by 12 years of conflict and terrorist activity, destruction of infrastructure, COVID-19, a growing economic crisis in the region, and millions of IDPs and refugees.”

She went on to note “the imposed sanctions have shattered the State’s capability to respond to the needs of the population, particularly the most vulnerable, and 90% of the people now live below the poverty line.”

I’m not aware of any polling done on the US and UK public’s awareness of the West’s role in intensifying these two humanitarian crises but given the paucity of media coverage it seems likely it’s very low.

So UK anti-war and peace activists have an important job to do: push past the media’s indifference and concentrate the public’s gaze on the continuing deadly impacts of Western foreign policy in Afghanistan and Syria.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. A Strategic Nature: Public Relations And The Politics of American Environmentalism by Melissa Aronczyk and Maria I. Espinoz

Book review. A Strategic Nature: Public Relations And The Politics of American Environmentalism by Melissa Aronczyk and Maria I. Espinoz
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2022-January 2023

‘We seem trapped in a world where fossil fuel producers and financiers have humanity by the throat,’ United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated in June. ‘For decades, many in the fossil fuel industry have invested heavily in pseudo-science and public relations — with a false narrative to minimise their responsibility for climate change and undermine ambitious climate policies.’

Written by Rutgers University academics Melissa Aronczyk and Maria I. Espinoza, A Strategic Nature explores the relationship between American public relations (PR) and American environmentalism, arguing they emerged alongside each other, with neither looking the way they do today without the other. Buttressed by Oxford University Press-level referencing, they posit ‘it is not possible to understand the role of the environment in our everyday lives without understanding how something called “the environment” has been invented and communicated’ by PR.

If it isn’t clear already, the book is very much an academic take on the topic, often quite dry and not a particularly easy read.

However, it contains some useful information for activists. For example, if measured by the scale of the response from corporate PR, it can be argued US green activism has been very successful. For example, the authors highlight the campaign to discredit Rachel Carson after she published Silent Spring, her broadside against pesticides, in 1962. Elsewhere they note the upsurge in environmental activism in the 60s and 70s ‘represented the greatest challenge to business… perhaps of the entire twentieth century’, and sparked a huge, highly sophisticated PR campaign to counter it.

Starting with the ‘father of the US national parks’ John Muir, they also note both big business and environmentalists have used public relations to further their cause. Indeed, in the UK activist groups such as the 2000s anti-airport expansion Plane Stupid, Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace are undoubtedly all highly skilled PR practitioners. The difference, of course, is though business PR practitioners tend to frame their work as informing public debate, Aronczyk and Espinoza conclude ‘the true measure’ of a successful corporate public relations campaign ‘is the extent to which it has ensured that publics do not form, do not constitute a body of concern and do not raise problems as public problems.’

While the book is largely concerned with twentieth century history, the battle between corporate power and a liveable planet will likely be the key focus of activist work for the foreseeable future. An up to date, UK-specific book on corporate PR and green activism would therefore be very welcome. Until then, concerned citizens will likely find the following books more useful: A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the Cutting Edge of Corporate Power (2007) by David Miller and William Dinan, and Sharon Beder’s Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, updated in 2002.

Yemen’s Forgotten Children

Yemen’s Forgotten Children
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
31 December 2022

With Christmas and New Year very much centred around children, how many of us have given a thought over the holiday season to the children of Yemen?

I recently gained an insight into the horrific conditions in the troubled Middle East nation when I watched Hunger Ward. Released in 2020, the MTV documentary is filmed inside two therapeutic feeding centres in Yemen, following two women healthcare workers treating starving children in the midst of the war.

Just 40 minutes long, it’s a harrowing, heart-breaking watch: we see resuscitation being carried out on a baby, and the family wailing in grief after the child dies.

“These children are dying as a result of malnutrition,” Mekkia Mahdi, a nurse who manages the largest network of rural malnutrition clinics in North Yemen, explains. She scrolls through photos of children on her phone: “Amal died, Ibrahim died, Fatima died.”

While Yemen has long been impoverished, the military intervention by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in March 2015 against the Houthi rebels, who had recently ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, massively intensified the death and destruction. The fighting continues, with Saudi Arabia undertaking a huge bombing campaign, along with an air, sea and land blockade. “Conflict remains the primary underlying driver of hunger in Yemen,” 30 NGOs operating in Yemen, including the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam and the Norwegian Refugee Council, noted in September.

In October the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned the situation in Yemen remained the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. According to a November briefing from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), 17 million Yemenis, over half of the population, are estimated to be food insecure, with 3.5 million acutely malnourished.

“Malnutrition rates among women and children in Yemen remain among the highest in the world,” the WFP reports. “1.3 million pregnant or breastfeeding women and 2.2 million children under 5 requiring treatment for acute malnutrition.”

Sadly, there is no shortage of horrifying statistics highlighting the plight of Yemen’s children. An estimated 77 per cent of the 4.3 million people displaced in Yemen are women and children, according to ReliefWeb, the information service provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In 2018 Save the Children reported that “an estimated 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger” since April 2015.

By the end of 2021 the United Nations Development Programme estimated the number of direct and indirect deaths due to the war was 377,000. “Of the total deaths, 259,000 – nearly 70 per cent of total conflict-attributable deaths – are children younger than five years old,” the report noted.

Shamefully, the UK (and US) has played, and continues to play, a crucial role in fuelling the conflict, and therefore bears significant responsibility for the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.

Asked by Majella magazine in 2018 “What do you think the UK can do more in the realm of helping the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?” Alistair Burt MP, then UK Minister of State for the Middle East, replied “At the moment it’s difficult to see what more we can do.”

For once, a Tory politician was telling the truth. In September the Campaign Against Arms Trade estimated that since March 2015 the UK government has licensed at least £23 billion of arms to the Saudi-led coalition. However, as Burt intimates, UK support goes far beyond just selling weapons. “Every day Yemen is hit by British bombs – dropped by British planes that are flown by British-trained pilots and maintained and prepared inside Saudi Arabia by thousands of British contractors,” Arron Merat noted in the Guardian in 2019. Appearing in the Channel 4 documentary Britain’s Hidden War the same year, a former Saudi Air Force officer noted Saudi Arabia “can’t keep the [British-made] Typhoon [aircraft] in the air without the British. The pilots they can’t fly it without maintenance and without the logistics.”

We also know British military personnel are based in the command and control centre for Saudi airstrikes, and have access to target lists. And according to a 2019 Daily Mail report British Special Boat Service soldiers are on the ground in Yemen, operating as Forward Air Controllers, requesting air support from the Royal Saud Air Force. On the world stage, the UK provides diplomatic cover for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing slaughter. “The UK is the penholder at the UN over Yemen [the lead country on the security council, with the power to draft resolutions and statements], and some former Conservative cabinet ministers, notably Andrew Mitchell, say Britain has been protecting Saudi Arabia from criticism there,” the Guardian reported in 2018.

All of this extensive support is the reason Dr David Wearing, Lecturer in Lecturer in International Relation at the University of Sussex and author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, argued in 2018 “The reality is that Washington and London could have stopped the Saudis’ war any time they liked.”

As well as footage from medical centres, Hunger Ward also highlights an aerial bombing of a funeral, showing distressing camera phone footage taken by a survivor in the immediate aftermath of the attack. It was a ‘double tap’ airstrike, the second strike commonly understood to target those coming to the aid of the initial victims.

“The world needs to know the depth of the Yemeni people’s suffering,” the man pleads.

The problem is polling conducted by YouGov in 2017 found just 49 per cent of Britons were aware of the war in Yemen – something that should mortify everybody who works in the mainstream media.

Frustratingly, the rare times the war is reported on, the UK role is often omitted. For example, a 2022 episode of the BBC World Service Inquiry programme, titled What Will End The War In Yemen?  and presented by journalist Tanya Beckett, made no mention of the massive UK (and US) involvement. One can only imagine the depth of ideological training and education necessary for a BBC journalist to ignore the UK’s enabling role.

Of course, some wars –and victims – are more newsworthy than others. Indeed, an analysis of the scale and quality of media coverage given to the Russian attack on Ukraine compared to the Saudi-led attack on Yemen would make an illuminating PhD research project. In terms of solidarity from Britons, Ukraine has been very lucky, with supportive street demonstrations, people flying Ukrainian flags from their homes and on their Twitter profiles, record-breaking donations to humanitarian organisations working to help Ukrainians, and warmly welcoming Ukrainian refugees to the UK.

Far from being apathetic, this shows the British public’s humanity and concern can be lifted to unexpected heights by extensive media coverage of injustice and suffering. With last year’s temporary ceasefire in Yemen having now lapsed, what we now need to do is expand our sympathy and outrage to include those in Yemen, especially Yemeni children, whose lives are being destroyed by the UK’s abhorrent foreign policy.

Hunger Ward can be watched for free on Pluto TV: https://pluto.tv/en/search. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock

Book review. The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
December 2022-January 2023

In 2019 the Washington Post published a treasure trove of documents which proved ‘US officials had repeatedly lied to the public about what was happening in Afghanistan, just as they had in Vietnam.’ This industrial-scale deception was spread across the three presidencies of Bush, Obama and Trump.

The papers included notes from over 1,000 interviews with people who played a direct role in the war – taken from huge Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports unearthed by Freedom of Information lawsuits, Army oral history interviews, Defense Department memos and testimony from senior members of the Bush Administration.

Now summarised in book form, the vast majority of people quoted are from the US military and government, which means the criticisms are highly circumscribed. The gap between rosy official statements and the reality on the ground in Afghanistan is repeatedly highlighted, as is the level of cultural ignorance and bureaucratic inefficiency exhibited by Western forces. However, the idea the military occupation itself was the fundamental driver of the insurgency is never seriously considered.

A veteran Washington Post journalist, Craig Whitlock himself occasionally reveals his own ideological blinkers. Describing Bush’s publicly stated aim of transforming Afghanistan as ‘noble and high-minded’, he notes the US ‘inadvertently built a corrupt, dysfunctional Afghan government’ and ‘tolerated’ warlords. This massively downplays US culpability – only a few pages earlier he explains the CIA ‘dangling bags of cash as a lure… recruitedwar criminals, drug traffickers, smugglers’, including Abdul Rashid Dotsum, a notoriously brutal warlord, who received $70,000 a month from the CIA, according to a 2014 Washington Post report.

The most eye-opening chapters are those on US-assisted corruption and the strained relations between the US and the increasingly independent Hamid Karzai, leader of Afghanistan from 2002 to 2014. For example, before the 2009 Afghan presidential election, Obama’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke encouraged other candidates to stand to reduce the chances of Karzai winning. Later Karzai impeded the signing of a US-Afghan security pact which would authorise the US to keep troops in the country after 2014, insisting US soldiers be banned from raiding Afghan homes. In response the US threatened to withdraw all of their forces. Karzai prevailed in this dispute, though the US signed the agreement with Karzai’s successor in 2014.

With in-depth references and copious quotes from government documents there is lots of interesting information here. However, there is a frustrating lack of joined-up thinking. If the US repeatedly tried to force Karzai’s hand what does it say about the US’s so-called democracy promotion?

And other than a couple of passing mentions, Whitlock never properly explores why the US government repeatedly lied – because they feared US (and European) publics would turn against the war. It is this insight – that domestic public opinion is always a crucial battleground in Western wars – that is arguably the most important message peace and anti-war activists can take from the book.

Time to Abolish Grammar Schools

Time to Abolish Grammar Schools
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 December 2022

Last month a new campaign was launched – Time’s Up For The Test. Supported by a coalition of organisations and public figures including Caroline Lucas MP, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and poet Michael Rosen, it’s pushing for an end to the 11-plus exam, and therefore the abolition of grammar schools and the implementation of a comprehensive education system.

In support of the campaign Baroness Christine Blower, Labour peer and former General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has introduced a School Reform of Pupil Selection Bill to the House of Lords. “The Bill promotes the advantage of a fully comprehensive system. It would end all discriminatory tests which allow schools to select whom they will educate,” she says.

With this in mind, it’s worth considering the evidence base on grammar schools, a perennial topic of interest for the UK commentariat and the Tory Party.

Grammar schools – schools that select all or most of their pupils based on examination of their academic ability, at age 10 or 11 – were part of the education landscape created by the 1944 Education Act. This tripartite system at secondary level – made up of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools – dominated until the mid-60s, after which the Ministry of Education introduced comprehensive systems in most areas.

163 grammar schools remain in England, attended by 176,000 pupils (around five per cent of state-funded secondary pupils), according to a 2020 House of Commons Library briefing. A few local authorities, including Kent, Medway, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire, continue to operate largely selective education systems, including the notorious 11-plus exam.

So what does the evidence show?

Supporters of grammar schools often argue they increase social mobility, especially for poorer students.

In reality “those attending grammar schools are much less likely to come from poor backgrounds… than students in other schools,” noted academic Sandra McNally, summarising Department for Education data at a London School of Economics public lecture in 2017. The House of Commons Library briefing confirms this, finding just three per cent of entrants to grammar schools were entitled to free school meals – an indicator of social deprivation. In contrast, the average proportion of pupils entitled to free school meals in non-selective schools was 15%.

Another argument that proponents of grammar schools make is they improve the academic performance of its pupils. And, yes, the evidence shows grammar school children’s attainment at GCSE is, on average, higher than that of children at non-selective schools.

But again, this needs a little unpacking.

A 2018 peer-reviewed article on grammar schools published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education by two academics at Durham University analysed the results of over 500,000 students in England. They found “grammars are no better or worse than non-selective state schools in terms of their pupils’ progress in attainment… once their intake differences are taken into account.”

Furthermore, Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education and Public Policy at Durham University and the lead author of the research, argues grammar schools increase social segregation: “The process of selecting pupils based on their academic ability at a young age leads to schools becoming segregated by social, ethnic, economic and other characteristics – such as poverty, special needs, ethnicity, first language, as well as the pupil’s age in their year.”

Based on a large household survey in England, a 2019 peer-reviewed journal article in the Oxford Economic Papers confirms grammar schools as drivers of inequality: “controlling for a range of background characteristics and the current location, the wage distribution for individuals who grew up in selective schooling areas is substantially and significantly more unequal.”

Indeed, the evidence is so strong that even the Tory education spokesperson in 2007, David Willetts, agreed, telling the Confederation of British Industry “we just have to recognise that there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.”

This is because “poor children do dramatically worse in selective areas,” journalist Chris Cook explained on the Financial Times data blog in 2013, after comparing “Selectivia” – an artificial region made up of Kent, Medway, Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire – with other largely non-selective regions in England.

Why does this happen? “Students in non-grammar schools might lose out in the absence of high ability peers because they are deprived of the really good, really clever people, and high income people, who have managed to get into the grammar school and are not with them, and therefore [they] can’t benefit from them,” McNally argued.

University College London education expert Dr Rebecca Allen explained another important factor when she spoke to the House of Commons Education Committee in 2016: “Grammar schools are more likely to have fewer unqualified teachers, far more experienced teachers than in secondary moderns, more teachers with an academic degree in the subject that they are teaching, and less churn of teachers.”

And here is the kicker: in areas with selective education, Cook explained on BBC Radio 4’s More Or Less programme in 2016, “the process that made [a] school a good school is also the one that made the bad school the bad school,”

Furthermore, Cook’s comparison of “Selectivia” with other English regions finds that once the social composition of areas is taken into consideration “introducing selection is not good at raising [overall] school productivity.”

“In fact, the [Selectivia] region is actually a bit of a laggard” when it comes to GCSE results, he notes, scoring below London, South East, South West, East of England and the North West, after taking into account the social make-up of areas.

His findings are supported by a 2016 report from the Education Policy Institute think tank, which also concluded “we find no evidence to suggest that overall educational standards in England would be improved by creating additional grammar schools.”

The research findings above seem to generally hold up when we consider international education systems. For example, the House of Commons Library briefing notes the “available evidence from… international comparisons using PISA [Program for International Student Assessment ] data suggests that across OECD countries, selective education systems widen educational inequality, and do not increase performance overall.”

But let’s get back to the UK. In a 2017 Guardian article Chris Horrie calculated that between 1944 and 1976 around 30 million people took the 11-plus exam and “more than 20 million of us failed.” That’s 20 million children, over decades, effectively told they were a failure, 20 million children who had their life chances severely weakened at age 11.

How then, if the evidence is so clear, has such a massive, multi-generational injustice been allowed to continue?

One reason is grammar school alumni have generally been over-represented in the establishment, in sectors likely including the media, civil service, local government and national politics, and therefore have had an oversized influence on education policy. “It’s a large part of their own life stories, getting into a grammar school is a point of pride for a lot of people,” Cook argued on BBC Radio 4’s More Or Less programme.

Also, while many people support reducing social and educational inequalities, it’s probable that notions of exclusivity and hierarchy are exactly what draws many to send their children to grammar schools (though they wouldn’t describe it to themselves or others in these terms, I’m guessing).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, an in-depth  2019 Loughborough University study of an all-girls English grammar school found “a sense of hierarchy and elitism among teenage girls”, with some viewing “poverty as a moral failing and associat[ing] it with belonging to other groups and pupils at other schools.” According to the authors, “for the most part” the grammar school pupils were “oblivious to both the scaffolding which had supported their entry into this privileged space and the structural disadvantages of ‘poor’ groups who attended ‘other’ schools.”

It seems the façade of meritocracy provided by grammar schools allows many to validate their sense of superiority. Olivier De Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, recently argued this outlook is based on the “quasi-pathology that if you succeed in life, it is because you deserve [it]. And so if you fail, it’s because somewhere you’ve [made] a mistake.”

In reality, a selective education system is the opposite of a meritocracy, with the success of pupils at grammar schools directly connected to many, many more children failing to reach their true potential.

Find out more about the Time’s Up For The Test campaign: https://timesupforthetest.org/. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Did the UK torpedo peace talks on Ukraine?

Did the UK torpedo peace talks on Ukraine?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 November 2022

Since 1976 the award-winning US media watchdog Project Censored has printed an annual list of the most under-reported news stories in the US media – the “news that didn’t make the news”.

Should someone start publishing a similar book about the UK media, the top under-reported story of 2022 will almost certainly be the news the UK government worked to prevent a negotiated settlement to the Ukraine war in March-April 2022.

Here’s what we know.

Following Russia’s aggressive and illegal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, in March Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met in Istanbul for talks. On 17 March a Sky News headline summarised: “‘15-point’ peace deal being ‘seriously discussed’ as Putin says he’s ‘ready to talk’”.

The deal included “a ceasefire and a Russian withdrawal, with Kyiv having to accept neutrality and curbs on its armed forces,” the report noted. “Citing three sources involved in the negotiations, the FT [Financial Times] said Ukraine would have to give up its bid to join NATO – something Mr Zelenskyy has already hinted at.”

“It would also have to promise not to allow foreign military bases or weaponry into the country in exchange for protection from allies such as the US, UK and Turkey.”

Quoted in a 20 March Al-Jazeera report, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated “We see that the parties are close to an agreement”.

This is also the conclusion of Fiona Hill, a Russia specialist in the Bush and Obama Administrations, and Angela Stent, an ex-Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council. Writing in the September/October issue of the establishment Foreign Affairs magazine after having spoken to “multiple former senior US officials”, they note “Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement” in April 2022. “Russia would withdraw to its position on February 23, where it controlled part of the Donbas region and all of Crimea, and in exchange, Ukraine would promise not to seek NATO membership and instead receive security guarantees from a number of countries.”

However, in May the Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda, citing “sources close to [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy,” reported UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson “appeared in the capital [Kyiv] almost without warning” on 9 April, bringing “two simple messages.”

“The first is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is a war criminal, he should be pressured, not negotiated with. And the second is that even if Ukraine is ready to sign some agreements on guarantees with Putin, they are not.”

According to the Ukrainska Pravda – described by Encyclopædia Britannica as “one of Ukraine’s most-respected news sites” – “Johnson’s position was that the collective West, which back in February had suggested Zelenskyy should surrender and flee, now felt that Putin was not really as powerful as they had previously imagined, and that here was a chance to ‘press him.’”

Three days after Johnson returned to the UK Putin said the talks “had turned into a dead end”. In September Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted that “the Americans and the British… forbade Ukraine to conduct further dialogue with Russia” and “since then, the Ukrainian authorities have been shying away from negotiation process.”

Of course, hopefully it goes without saying we should be highly sceptical of public statement from Putin and Lavrov, especially about their willingness to seriously pursue a negotiated settlement. And it should also be noted that the Ukrainska Pravda also reported that Russian atrocities in Bucha and other locations in Ukraine affected the course of the peace talks.

But as the Morning Star is a British newspaper, and as I am a British citizen, let’s get back to the actions of the UK and the US. Johnson publicly confirmed his opposition to talks during a trip to India later in April, telling reporters that negotiating with Putin was like dealing with “a crocodile when it’s got your leg in its jaws,” according to Reuters.

Why did the UK government try to torpedo the peace talks? The answer likely lies in the references above to the “collective West” and the opportunity to “press” Putin. As Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA under President Barack Obama, explained in March: the conflict is “a proxy war with Russia whether we say so or not.”

This fits with comments made by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference in Poland in late April. Asked whether the US aims had shifted since February, he replied the US supported Ukraine in retaining its sovereignty and defending its territory, before adding a second, previously unstated, goal: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, concurs with this “proxy war” framing, writing in May that “For NATO, the payoff has been damaging some of the most important parts of the Russian military – its ground and mechanized forces, its airborne units, its special operations forces – so badly that it may take them years to recover.”

However, while the West has continued to ramp up their military support for Ukraine, there are increasing calls for the US – and UK – to change their position and make a serious diplomatic push for peace negotiations.

Commenting on Russia’s repeated threats to use nuclear weapons, in October Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, told ABC News “We’re about at the top of the language scale, if you will. And I think we need to back off that a little bit and do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing… the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned.”

Speaking to Newsweek magazine about President Biden’s comment that he was “trying to figure out what is Putin’s offramp”, a “senior intelligence officer” said “We have the power to influence how that offramp might work. I’m not comfortable criticizing a president, as if I’m some partisan animal, but we are just not doing enough.”

A “senior military source” quoted by Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman last month made the same point: “Military action is ineffective on its own. It’s only truly effective when it’s combined with economic and diplomatic efforts. And we’re not seeing enough diplomacy.”

Tellingly, I didn’t find out about Johnson attempting to block peace negotiations from the UK’s famously stroppy and disputatious Fourth Estate but from small, progressive publications and writers – namely Milan Rai at Peace News and Branko Marcetic from Jacobin magazine.

With the war dangerously escalating and President Biden warning the world is the closest it’s been to nuclear “Armageddon” since the Cuban missile crisis, concerned citizens simply cannot afford to rely on the mainstream media to gain an accurate understanding of the world.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

“This civilization as we know it is finished”: Rupert Read interview

“This civilization as we know it is finished”: Rupert Read interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 November 2022

Professor Rupert Read has devoted a huge amount of his life to green politics – as a Green Party member, councillor, parliamentary candidate and spokesperson, as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, and in 2019 as a spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, appearing on BBC Question Time.

With his new book Why Climate Breakdown Matters just out, Ian Sinclair asked Read about why he thinks this civilization is finished, the importance of telling the truth about the climate crisis and where the green movement goes from here.

Ian Sinclair: One of your central messages in the book is “This civilization as we know it is finished”. What, exactly, do you mean by this? And does the climate science support this statement? 

Rupert Read: It’s not just about climate science. It’s about a whole systems-analysis and understanding. That is what, as a philosopher, I seek to offer. Though of course the task is actually way too big for any one person. But we have to try. We can’t take refuge behind academic specialism, if the cost of doing so is that no-one asks the really big questions, like I ask in this book, such as is this civilisation finished?

But yes, indirectly I think the climate science does support this claim. If we are to get through what is coming without collapse, then the curve for change is getting ever steeper. The time when a smooth transition might have been possible is past. The only transition possible now is transformational. Everything is going to change, either way. This civilisation will be transformed, by us or by Earth, by collapse. These are the two possible outcomes insofar as I can see; our civilisation either collapses due to ecological breakdown, or it consciously transforms to combat the climate crisis in such a fundamental way as to no longer be this society. Either way, this civilisation’s days are numbered.

IS: The 2015 Paris Agreement, under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, agreed to “pursue efforts” to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C, and to keep them “well below” 2.0C above pre-industrial times. You describe the agreement as a failure. Why? 

RR: Look, the first thing to point out is that the Paris Agreement was of course an unprecedented diplomatic triumph. It rocketed the climate to the forefront of international relations, and the success of having all 196 countries agree to limit their emissions was unheard of. Nevertheless, Paris still did not establish an international regime of the kind created by the much more successful Montréal agreement (on stopping ozone-depletion) a generation before: this time, countries were left to create their own carbon budgets, and there was no enforcing power behind the accord, no requirement for trade sanctions against laggards. Moreover, the budgets that were created to limit carbon emissions were based on overly optimistic models of climate change, and this is insufficient when dealing with the inherent uncertainties of climate modelling; even if all countries were to abide by a climate budget that was agreed upon at Paris (which obviously they are not), there is no guarantee that this would be enough. Moreover, Paris in effect relied on totally uncertain gambles on carbon-reduction technology for its optimistic projections. All in all, Paris should have been at best the starting point, inspiring a wave of more intense and stringent climate policies. Instead, Paris remains the mediocre highpoint of climate conferences, seven years later. 

IS: Responding to Liz Truss labelling opponents of her government as “the anti-growth coalition”, Fatima Ibrahim from Green New Deal Rising said “this couldn’t be further from the truth. Activists such as myself are committed to clean, equitable growth for all.” What’s your take on ‘green growth’?  

RR: Firstly, my position on economic growth is that we really must abandon it as the be-all and end-all aim of economic policy. The obsession with economic growth, GDP, has gripped the world for far too long without considering vital questions like what is all this growth for, who is benefiting from economic growth, is endless economic growth possible, why are we growing the bad things that are wrapped up inside the definition of GDP, etc. My view is that we talk about economic growth to avoid having to talk about redistribution; there is enough to go around, and making sure everyone has what they need should be our focus and I’m entirely unconvinced economic growth is any kind of path to that. The economy should, for the sake of the environment and the people in it, be geared towards providing what we need, whereas it currently serves to sell us what we don’t for the sake of growth. I would be sceptical of Fatima Ibrahim’s idea of “clean, equitable growth.” Certainly, there are green sectors of the economy that do require substantial growth, such as the renewable energy sector, but being committed to societal-wide economic growth, green or otherwise, as an indispensable component of policy, means we are still prioritising a statistical figure over the needs of the people. Instead of pursuing growth, let’s pursue equality: that’s the way to be equitable! And let’s aim to grow the clean and to shrink/eliminate the rest.

IS: Reading your book about the radical transformations in society that need to be implemented as soon as possible, it strikes me that even the Green Party of England and Wales is not speaking honestly about the severity and enormity of the climate crisis. Do you agree? 

RR: Yes, on balance I would agree. Although, as should be expected, they are doing way better than any other major party on this issue (full disclosure: I’m a life member, and have previously been a national spokesperson, an elected local Councillor, etc.). Nevertheless, the Green Party are still not being honest about the fact that contemporary society as we know it will not survive the ecological breakdown we are already embroiled in, as set out in my answer above. To continue to tell the public “just vote for us, we’ll sort it out if only we are in power” is dishonest for two reasons; the first is that the current first-past-the-post political organisation of this country makes the Greens winning a General Election as close to impossible as you can get, and the second is that it’s too late for anyone to simply ‘sort it out’. There isn’t going to be a smooth green transition, not even if we had a benevolent environmentalist Government in this country fairly soon. Especially given that it is a pipe dream – and nothing more – to expect that to happen fairly soon worldwide. When we consider the impact of things like the ‘tipping points’ that appear to be being triggered – in our weather systems, in the Amazon, in the oceans, and so forth – and the obvious fact that this is a global issue that requires a global response, the ability of the UK Government to ‘sort this out’ should in any case not be over-claimed. What the UK government does matters – we are a wealthy country, even now; we need to show leadership, especially given our historical responsibility for huge climate-dangerous emissions and for imperial damage to others; and the City of London exercises an enormous, disproportionate, global influence on climate-related finance, an influence that remains mostly for ill, not good – but we are one part of a much larger picture. 

The way in which the Green Party could make the most difference is by telling these difficult truths, now. The Green Party’s USP is as the political party that is a trusted messenger on all things green. If we were to speak authentically about the direness of the crisis, about how hard we’ve tried to shift things, about how we have achieved small incremental improvements but the country and the world remain miles behind the clock and off the pace, about how it’s too late to ‘fix’ this and how we in the Greens certainly can’t significantly ameliorate it alone… if we were to be brave enough to do this, it would be game-changing. Ironically, such a confession of comparative impotence could propel many more voters to us; for voters are hungrier than ever for authenticity, for truth, for humility; for politicians who break the stereotype of their trade. That in any case is the essence of the strategy that I am pursuing for the Green Party, along with my colleagues in The Greens’ Climate Activists Network, GreensCAN: http://www.greens-can.Earth. I’d urge interested readers to weigh it up.

IS: In the book you argue for a new “moderate flank” to be built up within the green movement. What is this, and after playing a key role in Extinction Rebellion’s 2019 actions, why do you think this is the best way forward? 

RR: The emerging Moderate Flank is designed to mobilise everyone who is concerned about the environmental crisis; it is a movement that puts climate and life (aka biodiversity) first and foremost. Extinction Rebellion really did achieve remarkable things, and has put climate concern into the public consciousness in a way that was never been seen before. However, in recent years some of their actions have become more radical, such as the smashing of bank windows. And this process started with the own-goal, that in retrospect proved basically fatal to XR’s prospects of being the prime vehicle for change, of some rebels targeting tube trains, in October 2019. The desperation and frustration behind any of these actions is certainly something I completely relate to, but it’s also no secret that Extinction Rebellion has for years now lacked support from the general public. The climate crisis is the biggest issue our planet has ever faced, and we need a vehicle to mobilise people on it that, while deepening the truth-telling that XR helped initiated, will be unpolarising, welcoming, with low barriers to entry. That is why the new Moderate Flank is being created; to allow every single person who is concerned about climate breakdown, but who may not agree with the more radical tactics of Extinction Rebellion, or at least recognises that it is vital we provide ways (for many more to get involved) that are truth-based and yet don’t require sign-up as an ‘activist’, to participate in trying to prevent/mitigate it, and to seek to adapt transformatively to it. If you want to know more, and I hope you will, then go to @moderateflank on Twitter.

Why Climate Breakdown Matters is published by Bloomsbury, priced £17.99.


Economic Growth vs. A Liveable Planet: Which Side Are You On? 

Economic Growth vs. A Liveable Planet: Which Side Are You On? 
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 October 2022

“There is no final victory, as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle to be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.”  

My main takeaway from Tony Benn’s wise words is that each new generation of activists and progressives need to fight and win the important arguments again and again and again. 

Take, for example, former Prime Minister Liz Truss telling the recent Tory Party conference that those who oppose her government were the “anti-growth coalition.” 

Writing in the Financial Times weekend magazine under the heading ‘Intellect’, Tim Harford, the presenter on the fact-checking BBC radio programme More Or Less, told readers “The UK’s new prime minister is absolutely right to believe that economic growth should be her top priority.” 

Over at The Guardian there was a roundtable collecting responses to Truss’s speech. The contribution from Mick Lynch from the RMT union was titled ‘It’s pure nonsense that unions are “anti-growth”’. On the same page, Fatima Ibrahim, Co-Director of activist group Green New Deal Rising, noted “Green groups have been labelled as part of an ‘anti-growth coalition’, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Activists such as myself are committed to clean, equitable growth for all.” 

Responding to Truss resigning as Prime Minister, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party tweeted “For our economy. For growth. For working people. General Election, now.” Meanwhile the Labour Party’s popular 2017 manifesto under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership included fifteen mentions of “growth”, such as “Labour will invest in our future, to ensure faster growth” and “our industrial strategy is one for growth across all sectors.” 

Analysing 1,133 news items – from the Guardian, Telegraph, Sun, Mirror and BBC – about the Financial Crisis for her 2018 book Media Amnesia: Rewriting the Economic Crisis, Laura Basu found only one that challenged the growth paradigm. 

There is, then, with a few rare exceptions, a broad consensus across the political and media spectrum today that economic growth – as measured by a nation’s Gross Domestic Product or GDP per person – is good.  

However, we have not always been so sure about economic growth, or blind to the climate and ecological ramifications of making it a central aim of society and government. 

50 years ago this year a report was published by researchers at the Massachusetts of Technology, which had been commissioned by The Club of Rome, a group of business leaders and intellectuals. Titled The Limits To Growth, the study warned “If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime in the next one hundred years.” 

The report continued: “It is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future.”  

“If the world’s people decide to strive for this second outcome rather than the first, the sooner they begin working to attain it, the greater will be their chances of success.” 

The Limits To Growth’s legacy in terms of sales and generating debate has been huge, including influencing Tim Jackson’s report Prosperity Without Growth: Economics For A Finite Planet, published in 2009 by the Sustainable Development Commission. 

Noting “GDP growth has been the single most important policy goal across the world for most of the last century”, he argued the climate crisis now requires reconciling our aspirations for the good life with the constraints of a finite planet. This means “we have no alternative but to question growth” and transition to a sustainable economy. 

Also published in 2009, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better took time out from analysing inequality to highlight the problem. “We have to recognize the problems of global warming and the environmental limits to growth,” co-authors Professor Richard Wilkinson and Professor Kate Pickett noted.  

Australian public intellectual Clive Hamilton was more forthright in his 2010 book Requiem For Species: Why We Resist The Truth About Climate Change. Building on his 2003 treatise Growth Fetish, he explained “From the outset, the fetish with economic growth has provided the principal obstacle to coming to grips with the threat of global warming.”  

Naomi Klein took up the baton in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Published in 2014, she noted “the things we must do to avoid catastrophic warming…. are now in conflict with the fundamental imperative at the heart of our economic model: grow or die.” She quotes climate scientists Professors Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows from 2010: to meet our emissions targets “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations are needed.” 

Our rulers cannot say they haven’t been warned. Since 1972 The Limits To Growth has sold over 10 million copies and been translated into over 30 languages. Prosperity Without Growth was endorsed by King Charles and the then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and appeared on then Labour leader Ed Miliband’s summer reading list. This Changes Everything was on the New York Times bestseller list, and reviewed across the mainstream media. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, one of the most famous people on the planet, has repeatedly denounced the “fairy tale” of ceaseless economic growth. And speaking in 2013, national treasure Sir David Attenborough explained “We have a finite environment – the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.” 

But what about the ‘green growth’ championed by Fatima Ibrahim from Green New Deal Rising? Reviewing the academic literature on the subject in a 2019 peer reviewed journal article, Jason Hickel and Giorgos Kallis conclude the “empirical evidence on resource use and carbon emissions does not support green growth theory” and therefore “green growth is likely to be a misguided objective, and that policymakers need to look toward alternative strategies.” Hickel explained why in a 2020 blog: “The question is not whether GDP can be decoupled from emissions (we know that it can be), the question is whether this can be done fast enough to stay within safe carbon budgets while growing GDP at the same time. And the answer to this is no.” Only a degrowth strategy will succeed in reducing emissions fast enough to keep the global temperature increase below 1.5oC or 2oC, he argues.  

Indeed Hickel sees a deliberate policy of degrowth as an opportunity to improve people’s lives. “We can ensure that people are able to access the things that they need to live a good life… without feeding the never-ending growth machine.” He calls this Radical Abundance, where private riches would likely shrink, but public wealth would significantly increase. 

All of which makes the current consensus incredibly depressing – and deeply worrying. If we are to have any chance, as a nation or humanity, in averting catastrophic climate change then the mainstream debate and government policies on economic growth need to be in a radically different place than it is today.  

As the academic and activist Rupert Read noted in his 2019 co-authored primer This Civilisation Is Finished, “unless you ‘angelise’ economic activity, eliminating its environmental impact altogether… then increasing economic activity is prima facie now a dangerous thing to encourage.” 

In short, growth fetishists who ignore the reality of the climate crisis need to be treated accordingly – as a danger to young people and future generations. 

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair 

Book review: Why Climate Breakdown Matters by Rupert Read

Book review: Why Climate Breakdown Matters by Rupert Read
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 October 2022

“There are no non-radical futures,” top climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson has repeatedly explained. “The future is radically different from the present either because we make huge, rapid shifts in reducing our emissions with profound shifts in our society, or we hang onto the status quo for a few more years whilst we lock in huge shifts from the impacts of climate change.”

After reading Why Climate Breakdown Matters, I’m confident Rupert Read, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia and former Green Party councillor, wholeheartedly agrees with this.

A summation of his recent writings, talks and activism, it’s a deeply challenging and necessary book.

“The stakes could not be higher,” he argues. “Our economic, political and social systems are in the process of making our planet uninhabitable.” And with government action in the UK and elsewhere woefully inadequate, he contends “we are likely to face widespread social and ecological collapse within the next few decades.”

Echoing Anderson and the title of his 2019 primer co-authored with Samuel Alexander, he believes “This civilization as we know it is finished”. Those who downplay the seriousness of the climate emergency are participating in “soft denialism”, which he argues “is now the real enemy.”

A comforting bedtime read this is not.

The book’s second half is more hopeful, with Read leaning on the work of Rebecca Solnit and Charles Fritz to highlight how resilient communities often grow in response to terrible disasters. He urges readers to get active and “do what is necessary now, regardless of its legality or otherwise.” Having played a key role in Extinction Rebellion’s policy-shifting April 2019 uprising, he is now pushing for a “moderate flank” to be built within the climate movement, one that will have the numbers and broad appeal to force radical change.

For Read, if you care about the future of your children and the generations that will come after them, then logically you should also do everything you can to pass on a liveable and sustainable planet to them.

As part of Bloomsbury’s Why Philosophy Matters series, unsurprisingly there is certain amount of philosophy running through the book. However, Read keeps his language and arguments relatively straightforward, making the book accessible to the lay reader. Unlike a lot of academic writing, his references are genuinely an interesting read – I repeatedly found myself underling sentences and citations for later consideration and investigation.

With Read one of the most interesting thinkers currently engaging with the most pressing issue of our time, Why Climate Breakdown Matters is essential reading.

Why Climate Breakdown Matters is published by Bloomsbury, priced £17.99.

The food industry vs. the nation’s health: interview with anti-obesity campaigner Tam Fry

The food industry vs. the nation’s health: interview with anti-obesity campaigner Tam Fry
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 October 2022

The UK has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe, according to a May report from the World Health Organisation. As the research noted, obesity is associated with many diseases, including musculoskeletal complications, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and at least 13 types of cancer.

In 2017 Public Health England estimate the overall cost of obesity to wider society at £27 billion per year.

Tam Fry, the Chairman of the National Obesity Forum and an Expert Advisory Team Member at Action On Sugar, tells Ian Sinclair what he thinks about the Truss government’s plans on obesity, and what policies might actually work to address the deep-rooted problem.

Ian Sinclair: According to the UK Health Security Agency, in 1980 6 per cent of men in England were obese (those with a Body Mass Index over 30). By 1993 it had more than doubled to 13 per cent, and by 2019 it had doubled again to 27 per cent. Why have obesity rates increased so quickly in England and the rest of the UK?

Tam Fry: Obesity rates in the UK have risen so quickly because no government in the last thirty years has succeeded in formulating a strategy that has any chance of stemming the epidemic. A review paper from Cambridge University published in January last year (‘Is Obesity Policy in England fit for Purpose?’, The Millbank Quarterly) concluded that every attempt to come up with a workable set of measures was doomed to fail. And there is nothing coming out of new Health Secretary Thérèse Coffey that gives any hope for success in the future. Ironically her mantra “ABCD” is the US obesity specialists’ description of the condition – Adipose-Based Chronic Disease! No government, of whatever hue, has addressed the principal cause for the nation’s overweight: without serious curbs being slapped on a food industry that persists in lacing its products with excessive levels of fat, salt and sugar – three of the principal drivers of obesity – and continues to market the worst products at attractively low prices, levels will not fall significantly.

IS: How do you respond to the common argument obesity is a failure of individual willpower?

TF: The common argument that obesity is a failure of individual willpower was all the rage in the early years of this century and it was a very easy way for government to escape taking any blame. But all that went out of the window in 2007 when the Foresight Report was published. The report was the result of two years intensive work into obesity commissioned by the Labour government and it clearly established that the obesogenic environment in which we all live was the main cause of the problem. It recognised that few individuals would be able to withstand the incessant advertising and marketing of food and, the lower down the social scale they were, the more difficult it would be to resist the onslaught.

The incoming 2010 Conservative government then turned to a new strategy: promoting behaviour change. This was the great white hope for a few years. That ran out of steam quite quickly, however, when it became obvious that waiting for the population to change ingrained habits was akin to watching paint dry. A special office was even set up in Downing Street to oversee the process but it had little effect. The office will probably be best remembered as the ‘Nudge Unit’ but nudging was never likely to be the answer.

Running parallel with nudging, the Conservatives also mistakenly decided that it would appeal to the better nature of the food barons and came up with a “responsibility deal”. The premise was that with their promise not to legislate food production, the barons would pledge voluntarily to reformulate their products into being “healthy” items. In the expectation that industry would keep to its pledges, the government even invited senior industrialists to co-chair the committees which would implement the ‘deal’. It would be a vain hope. Pledges fell by the wayside and the deal was dead.

IS: Last month the Guardian reported the new Truss government is considering scrapping a range of anti-obesity policies, including bans on “buy one get one free” offers, displays of sweet treats at supermarket checkouts, TV adverts for junk food before the 9pm watershed, and possibly the sugar tax. You commented “Once again the interests of big business have dangerously overridden the interests of the man in the street.” How does big business influence government policy?

TF: Essentially business influences government policy by pleading dire consequences for the country if Downing Street takes any measures that might affect its profits. In a 2010  Guardian article entitled ‘Andrew Lansley’s Department of Big Macs’, Philip James, one of the UK’s top nutritionists involved in setting up the Foods Standards Agency at the turn of the century, gave two examples of the food industry at work. In the first he described how it became clear to him that ministers were under intense pressure from industry to see that the agency excluded nutrition from its portfolio and should focus solely on food safety. His second example illustrated how a report authored by him, outlining a strategy that had the potential of nipping childhood obesity in the bud, was never published at the express request of industry leaders because it suggested that advertising and marketing might influence children’s behaviour. They seemed to have ‘persuaded’ the then Minister for Public Health, Tessa Jowell, that the report was “extraordinarily radical” and that they would like to speak to James. Within days he was invited to a private chat over dinner with the industry chiefs “who considered it entirely reasonable to market products directly to children”. The report was quickly buried in some Whitehall graveyard – and there has never been anything similarly ‘radical’ since.

IS: Depressingly, many experts describe the current UK anti-obesity strategy – which the Tory government is looking at ditching – as inadequate. What policies would work?

TF: The greatest hope that something radical might be done to stem obesity came when Prime Minister Boris Johnson exited St Thomas’ Hospital having been treated for COVID-19. Realising that his own weight was identified as a contributing factor to catching the virus, he declared that he would launch a war on obesity. In July 2020 he published the measures that he was sure would start to see it off. Public health specialists were jubilant that finally some of the draconian proposals that they had been advocating for years might be about to be implemented.

It was a false dawn. The majority of the proposals that Johnson hoped would empower adults and children to live healthier lives have now been kicked into touch by Liz Truss and Coffey, and the single proposal that remains, and which has just come into force, has served only to confuse – the idea that supermarket layouts be reconfigured so that sugary items in particular be furthest from the check-out/entrance has essentially infuriated customers who are baffled as to the aisles in which they will find their desired purchases!

The only initiative to combat obesity that might, over time, have some effect in significantly reducing it is the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL). It came into effect in 2018, after Chancellor George Osborne fought lengthy battles for it within Downing Street. The SDIL knocked everyone out with its success and its continuing benefit has sparked clamours that it be extended to food items. Its success lies in the fact that it is not a tax on the drinks’ purchaser but a levy on the company bottling it. Indeed, it allowed companies to escape the levy altogether if they radically reduced the sugar content in their sodas and they embraced the idea. There are now many zero sugar or low sugar versions of drinks on sale and, would you believe, companies are profiting from it. Indeed, so immediate was the levy’s success that in 2019 Dame Sally Davies, who was England’s Chief Medical Officer at the time, made an extension of the levy her first proposal to tackle child obesity. She singled out milk based drinks (presumably milkshakes and high street coffee shop drinks etc.) as prime targets but, inevitably, any food product unreasonably high in sugar content could follow. Stripping sugar out of breakfast cereals, cakes and biscuits is also on the cards but more time is needed for reformulation to be achieved.