Author Archives: ianjs2014

Why the government’s 2050 net zero carbon target is not fit for purpose

Why the government’s 2050 net zero carbon target is not fit for purpose
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 September 2020

2019 was an extraordinary year for UK activism on the climate crisis. Extinction Rebellion’s April 2019 rebellion, the school strikes and David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Climate Change: The Facts all helped to radically shift public opinion. June 2019 polling from YouGov found “the public is more concerned about the environment than ever before.”

“The sudden surge in concern is undoubtedly boosted by the publicity raised for the environmental cause by Extinction Rebellion… and activism from Greta Thunberg during the same period”, Matthew Smith, YouGov’s lead data journalist, explained.

More concretely, the House of Commons declared a climate emergency in May 2019. Introducing the motion, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the recent climate activism had been “a massive and necessary wake-up call. Today we have the opportunity to say ‘We hear you’”.

The motion – one of the first in the world – showed the will of parliament but didn’t legally compel the government to act.

Then, in June 2019, following a recommendation from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the Tory government committed the country to reducing all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. This move made the UK the first major economy in the world to pass a law to end its contribution to global warming by 2050.

Be in no doubt: parliament declaring a climate emergency and the government implementing a 2050 net zero target are huge wins for the UK environmental movement. However, speaking to the Morning Star in June 2019, Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Rupert Read called the CCC report which recommended the 2050 net zero target, “essentially dead on arrival”. And in September 2019 Ed Miliband said “2050 isn’t the radical position and now it’s seen as a conservative ‘small c’ position.”

So what are the problems with the 2050 net zero target?

First, the CCC’s 2050 target is derived from the October 2018 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5C – the maximum increase in temperature the 189 signatories of the 2016 UN Paris climate agreement pledged to limit global warming to.

However, as many climate experts have noted, the IPCC tends to be conservative in its predictions. “This is simply due to its structure”, Dr Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam University noted in 2014. “The IPCC report will contain only things that a whole group of scientists have agreed upon on a kind of consensus process. This kind of agreement tends to be the lowest common denominator.” He noted that sea level rise in the last two decades “has overtaken the speed of the upper range of previous projections of sea level of the IPCC”. Writing in Business Green in May 2019, Will Dawson from Forum For The Future, explained the ramifications of this: “The CCC is therefore using scenarios that are likely far too optimistic. Emissions have to be cut much faster than they assumed to keep to 1.5C.”

Second, the CCC admits the 2050 target, “if replicated across the world”, would deliver only a greater than 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C – reckless odds when you are talking about the fate of hundreds of millions of people.

Indeed, Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, recently stated “The problem is the framing the CCC has for net zero is already far removed from what is needed to meet our Paris commitments.” Anderson has co-authored new research, published in the peer-reviewed Climate Policy journal, highlighting this disconnect. The Guardian summarised the article’s key finding: “The UK’s planned reductions in emissions, even if it hits net zero by 2050, would be two or three times greater than its fair share of emissions under the landmark 2015 Paris agreement.”

Finally, the CCC report on 2050 is based on various questionable political assumptions. For example, the CCC admits the target date is partly informed by what is “feasible” and “politically acceptable” – and what is “credibly deliverable alongside other government objectives”.

The CCC also has a very conservative view about the possibility of large-scale behavioural change, with Chris Stark, the CCC’s Chief Executive, stating the 2050 target “is technically possible with known technologies and without major changes to consumer behaviours.” The report recommends a hardly radical “20% reduction in consumption of beef, lamb, and dairy” (to be “replaced by an increase in consumption of pork, poultry, and plant-based products”), and predicts a 60% growth in demand for air travel by 2050. They advise the government to curtail this surge rather than cut demand overall.

In short, the 2050 target date is not simply following the science but is underpinned by conservative assumptions about the likelihood of change, and intangible and changeable factors like public opinion and government priorities.

Worryingly, like a Russian doll the serious problems with the 2050 target sit within an even more concerning national and international policy context.

In its June 2020 progress report the CCC confirmed the steps the UK government has taken “do not yet measure up to meet the size of the Net Zero challenge and we are not making adequate progress in preparing for climate change.” A new report from the Institute for Government is similarly critical of the government’s lack of action. “There is… little evidence that the government, and the politicians who waved the new target through with little debate, have confronted the enormous scale of the task ahead”, it notes.

Internationally, one of the most frightening facts I have ever read was effectively hidden in paragraph 13 of 19 of a page 27 report in the Guardian in July. “According to the Climate Action Tracker, only Morocco [out of 189 signatories] is acting consistently with the [2016] Paris agreement’s goals, with the global temperature rise on course to exceed 3C by the end of the century even if the current pledges are met.”

Meanwhile the mercury keeps rising. Earlier this month the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation warned the world could exceed the key threshold of 1.5C by 2024, climate experts Pep Canadell and Rob Jackson noted on The Conversation website.

According to a leaked January 2020 report from US multinational investment bank JP Morgan, the earth is on track for a temperature increase of 3.5C by 2100. “Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory”, the paper notes. “Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive”.

We need, then, to massively increase the level of ambition and action of the UK’s response to the climate crisis. Professor Anderson argues the scale and timeframe of the transformation required needs to be larger and faster than Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe after World War Two.

A positive step would be the adoption of an earlier net zero target date. Both Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, and Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, back a net zero target of 2030. Under Corbyn’s leadership a Green New Deal with a target date of 2030 was approved at the 2019 annual Labour Party conference (though didn’t fully make it into the party’s December 2019 general election manifesto). Impressively, in July Ed Miliband, now the Shadow Business and Energy Secretary, confirmed he backs the 2030 target date.

The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill recently tabled by Green MP Caroline Lucas and co-sponsored by a group of 11 cross-party MPs is another ray of light, encapsulating many of the concerns about the UK’s lack of ambition set out above. Co-drafted by Professor Anderson and Professor Jackson – and already backed by 52 other MPs – the Bill pushes for a strengthening of the UK’s response the climate crisis, ensuring UK emissions are consistent with limiting average global temperatures to 1.5C.

Asked at Davos in January what she would like to see happen in the next year and a half, climate activist Greta Thunberg gave a typically wise answer: “That we start listening to the science and that we actually start treating the crisis as the crisis it is” because “without treating this as a real crisis we cannot solve it.”

Ian Sinclair tweets @IanSinclair.

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 October 2020

In the introduction to his first book, The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945, historian Mark Curtis notes two broad approaches are available to those attempting to understand British foreign affairs. “In the first, one can rely on the mainstream information system, consisting primarily of media and academia”, he explains. This approach frames British foreign policy as “fundamentally benevolent”, promoting grand principles such as peace, democracy and human rights.

No doubt this narrative informed the results of the recent Ipsos MORI poll, which found 34 per cent of Brits believe the British Empire is something to be proud of, with just 16 per cent saying it is something to be ashamed of (around 40 per cent think it is something neither to be proud nor ashamed of).

For those interested in discovering the reality of British foreign policy Curtis recommends a second method – studying formerly secret government documents and a variety of alternative sources.

A good illustration of this thesis is the BBC Radio 4 programme Document. Broadcasting at least 57 episodes between 2005 and 2017, Document was an historical investigation programme that used previously secret government records to illuminate Britain’s past. Two episodes on forgotten chapters in British history are particularly pertinent to understanding post-war UK foreign policy – the first from 2009 on the 1970 coup in Oman, and the second from a year later looking at the 1963 “constitutional coup” in British Guiana.

Though it has never been a formal colony, the British had an extraordinary level of influence in Oman, with Sultan Said bin Taimur, the country’s authoritarian ruler since 1932, one of the UK’s most reliable clients in the Gulf. The Sultan’s armed forces were headed by British officers, while “his defence secretary and chief of intelligence were British army officers, his chief adviser was a former British diplomat, and all but one of his government ministers were British”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain explained in 2016.

Studying secret UK government documents and interviewing academics and British officials involved in the coup, Document undercovers a fascinating, if shocking, story of deceitful British interference.

With a rebellion gaining ground in the Omani province of Dhofur, in 1970 the British elite in Oman and the British government itself came to the conclusion Taimur had become a liability.

The Sultan’s son, Sandhurst graduate Qaboos bin Said, was supported in his bid to take power. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, then a soldier in the Sultan’s army, tells Document “[UK intelligence officer] Tim Landon, with Harold Wilson’s government and with PDO – Petroleum Development Oman” and others “plotted to get rid of Said bin Taimur”.

In a July 1970 “secret” document, Anthony Acland, the Head of the Arabian Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), reports Colonel Hugh Oldman, Taimur’s Secretary for Defence, “has now instructed Brigadier Graham, the Commander of the Sultan’s armed forces… to prepare detailed plans for two contingencies.” If the coup is successful the armed forces were to “align themselves with Qaboos and facilitate his constitutional succession to the Sultancy as fast as possible.” In the event the coup failed, the armed forces “would assist Qaboos in gaining control” and “in deposing his father.”

Acland explained Qaboos “is likely to be a much better bet” than Taimur. And as the newly installed Sultan would rely heavily on British support this would likely better protect Britain’s “specific interests in the Sultanate – i.e. [the RAF base] Masirah and oil”, he notes.

“We would of course maintain the public position that we had no foreknowledge”, Sir Stewart Crawford, the most senior British official in the Gulf, states in a secret 13 July telegram to the FCO, about the plan. “The correct form should be observed so as to enable the coup to be presented as an internal matter with the British hand concealed, or at least deniable.”

Just ten days later, on 23 July, Taimur was deposed and replaced by Qaboos. The operation involved the seizure of the Sultan’s palace and the Sultan himself “by a small body of troops loyal to Qaboos, with the assistance of some British officers”, notes Abdel Razzaq Takriti in his riveting 2013 history Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976. Taimur, injured in the coup, was quickly flown out of the country by the Royal Air Force and eventually installed in the Dorchester hotel in London until his death a couple of years later.

“Despite Britain’s deep involvement in the coup that toppled Oman’s head of state no questions seemed to have been asked about it in parliament”, Mike Thomson, the presenter of Document, notes.

The UK’s actions in British Guiana in the 1950s and 1960s reveal a similarly disturbing story of colonial arrogance and interference. A British colony since 1814, the popular politician Dr Cheddi Jagan became the country’s Chief Minister in 1953, after leading the socialist-leaning People’s Progressive Party to victory in a democratic election. With British commercial interests – sugar and bauxite, in particular – threatened, Winston Churchill’s government dispatched British forces who forcibly removed Jagan from power, briefly jailing him. Interviewed by Document, Dr Spencer Mawby, an historian at the University of Nottingham, notes “The pretext [for the British military action] itself was dramatic because the British said basically there was a plot to burn down [the capital] Georgetown”.

“Was there?”, asks Thomson. “There was no plot”, Mawby confirms.

Ten years later, with new elections and independence fast approaching, the British made a second major intervention.

It was understood that Jagan, the nation’s premier again after winning the 1961 election, was likely to win the next election and lead an independent British Guiana. This fact was intolerable to the US government, which was worried about Jagan’s politics and the possibility he would align the country with Cuba. Accordingly, the US government successfully pressured an initially reluctant Britain to act to stop Jagan winning the next election.

With communal violence intensifying and an 80-day general strike starting in April 1963 paralysing the nation, the UK organised an independence conference in London, inviting the main political actors in British Guiana to resolve the crisis. Point of interest: Thomson confirms the general strike was likely “orchestrated and financed by the CIA”.

A formerly “top secret” document, recording an October 1963 meeting in the Colonial Secretary’s office, sets out the British government’s plan for the conference, held two weeks later. “It was important to ensure both that the conference and in the meantime that Dr Jagan and [British Guianese opposition leader] Mr Burnham failed to agree”, it notes. The document continues: “It was agreed that when the conference ended in deadlock the British government would announce the suspension of the constitution and the resumption of direct rule.”

With elections in British Guiana previously held under the First Past The Post system, the British government proposed a system of Proportional Representation (PR) for the upcoming election. They did this knowing Jagan would find it difficult to win under PR, and that Jagan would refuse to accept this.  

Thomson summarises the incredible deceit: “This document appears to show that the British government was setting out to deliberately scupper its own conference.”

The UK and US governments got what they wanted. After Jagan rejected the change to the voting method, Britain resumed direct rule and switched the voting system to PR. Jagan was then defeated in the 196 election, with Burham forming a coalition government that was in place when the country became independent Guyana in 1966.

These two historical episodes thoroughly undermine claims of UK benevolence in world affairs. In reality, commercial and geopolitical concerns, not self-serving notions of democracy and human rights, drive British foreign policy. And in the pursuit of this naked self-interest anything goes, including illegal coups, the undermining of democracy, covert action, and the most duplicitous, Machiavellian behaviour one could imagine.

“Are we the baddies?”, asks a German soldier, slowly beginning to realise the reality of his country’s role in the Second World War, in That Mitchell and Webb Look’s famous comedy sketch.

No doubt it will be news to the vast majority of mainstream media commentators and much of the British public, but the historical record clearly shows it is the British government which has been the bad guys in the post-war world.

BBC Document episodes are archived at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006sk3k. Ian tweets @IanJSinclair.

Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill: Andrew Boswell interview

Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill: Andrew Boswell interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
30 September 2020

On 12 August Green MP Caroline Lucas, with the support of a group of eleven cross-party MPs, tabled the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, a private members bill, in parliament.

According to the campaign backing it, the Bill “has the potential to become the most significant move forward since the Climate Change Act 2008.”

Dr Andrew Boswell, an independent environmental consultant and former Green Party councillor who assisted in the drafting of the Bill, tells Ian Sinclair about its key components and why it is so desperately needed.

Ian Sinclair: The UK government often proclaims itself as a world leader when it comes to responding to the Climate Emergency. Can you explain the current legal targets and laws the government is required to adhere to, and what the problems are with these and the government’s response to them? 

Andrew Boswell:  Each year, globally, the world emits more carbon than the previous year, and atmospheric CO2 levels increase. The Climate Emergency will only stop getting much worse when all carbon pollution stops, and atmospheric levels stabilise.

The original Climate Change Act (CCA) targets set in 2008 allowed emissions to continue beyond 2050 at a fifth of 1990 levels. Fossil fuel companies could go on extracting, corporations could continue destroying nature, politicians could avoid acting, and the public could be lied to about the scale of the emergency. Continuing to suit corporate interests, the recently legislated “net-zero 2050” is only a small change to this pervading mindset, as it allows carbon pollution to continue, atmospheric levels to continue upwards, and the emergency to rapidly worsen for another 30 years.

In short, the Climate Change Act (CCA) targets reflect the extremely limited ambition of governments globally to tackle what is an emergency, and failure is built to their architecture.

First, the targets frame the policy response as incremental steps over decades. This is convenient for a Whitehall culture not fit to step up to the emergency: policy development can be played out as a slow-motion waltz of documents bouncing back and forth between the Committee of Climate Change (CCC) and government. It suits the lobby and media giants, who block and slow change at every step, and were exposed so well by Extinction Rebellion recently. 

Second, CCC carbon budgets are artifices. Far from being science-compliant budgets, they are politically-set, via huge Whitehall wrestling, to keep vested interests happy. The Treasury seeks to weaken them (bit.ly/CB_4thCB) as just another policy wrangle. Further, they are defined for five-year periods whilst the climate emergency is moving much faster.       

Third, recent science is providing real budgets which show how way off CCC budgets are. UK scientists (bit.ly/KAnderson2020) have recently shown that the UK is set to emit more than twice its Paris-compliant budget. Instead, the UK must reduce emissions at greater than 10% year-on-year reductions starting now. 

Further, cynical governments cherry pick dealing with the easiest half of the problem: they avoid accounting for emissions from shipping and aviation, and emissions from imports and exports.  These quietly forgotten consumption emissions are around 45% of UK emissions. Tariffs for home renewable energy production have been slashed whilst fossil fuels are funded with billions.  Secondary legislation in planning has allowed roads and airport expansion to proceed irrespective of their climate impact.

IS: What are the main tenets of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill? What is new in the Bill? 

AB: The Bill gives equal weight to both the climate and ecological emergencies with expert drafting from scientists, and fully frames the massive step-change and revolution in mindset required, and firmly places responsibility across all of government.

On the climate side, the Bill’s key objective is to limit UK emissions to a science-based carbon budget consistent with the Paris Agreement, including the Paris equity principle whereby the UK must reduce emissions faster compared to developing nations, and compensate for its historical contribution to global heating.

On the ecological side, the objectives are to restore soil, biodiverse habitats and ecosystems, reducing the human impact on them. The Bill links ecological renewal to carbon sinking by natural climate solutions (naturalclimate.solutions). Climate and ecology are two sides of the same coin and the Bill fully recognises this interdependence.

The Bill amends the CCA and creates an enhanced role for the CCC: this is expanded to cover the health of UK ecosystems including species abundance, quality of biodiversity and habitats, and soil quality, and to evaluate import/export supply chains for their impact on natural resources, land, waste and pollution. Legally binding annual targets are introduced for both climate and ecology to replace the slo-mo five-year budgets.

A Citizen’s Assembly (CA) is immediately set up, under the Bill, to develop a strategy, and the government is legally bound to legislate and develop policy from its recommendations. A non-binding UK climate assembly (climateassembly.uk) held recently demonstrated that the public take Climate Emergency very seriously and want to engage (bit.ly/Melia_WakeUp, bit.ly/C4N_CA).  Citizens want to solve this crisis, with expert advice: they see the benefits of acting and are generous in their time. This is true democracy which challenges the corporate controlled mindset against change, whilst giving political cover to the politicians willing to act.

IS: The Bill states it does not allow for negative emissions technologies. What are these and why is the Bill opposed to them?

AB:
Negative emissions technologies (NETs) seek to remove carbon from the atmosphere. For example, carbon capture and storage (CCS) proposes capturing post-combustion CO2 and burying it under the North Sea. It is proposed for UK electricity production from both gas-fired and biomass-fired power stations: both should be avoided on policy and technical grounds.

CCS does not exist at scale: it does not meet the urgency and will lock the UK into policy fail. This is because greater than 10% year-on-year emission reductions are required from now which means the UK reaching emissions levels around one fifth of those now by 2030. NETs will not be developed at scale by then, and therefore cannot significantly contribute to this crucial decade where steep and real cuts in emissions are needed to eradicate four fifths of current emissions. Depending on CCS will result in the unforgiveable policy fail of overshooting the Paris Agreement 1.5C target.

CCS has only emerged in policy to enable the same fossil fuel interests to delay real emission cuts despite compelling, but complex technical reasons against it. These include emissions leakage, biodiversity impacts, water and food production impacts, public health and air pollution. Non-burning technologies like solar, wind and energy storage are cheaper, can already be rolled out at scale, and can provide for our energy needs.

The Bill removes any dependency on NETs so that the UK can meet its overall objective of Paris compliance with reliable and existing technology, and by real emissions cuts. It does allow some niche use of NETs where emissions cannot be eliminated in steel and cement processes.

IS: The Bill mentions the Precautionary Principle (PP). What is this and how is it relevant to the climate crisis?

AB:
The 1992 United Nations Rio Declaration introduced the PP which says that where there are threats of serious, irreversible environmental damage, the lack of full scientific certainty is no reason for postponing cost-effective mitigation measures (bit.ly/RioArt15). The appeal judgement in Plan B’s case against Heathrow airport (bit.ly/PlanB_Heathrow) makes clear that the PP is part of UK law: properly applied it is a strong legal and policy tool for forcing governments to act on climate change (see my review at: bit.ly/Boswell_PP).

The Bill is both revolutionary and precautionary. Revolutionary:  it is a law for the future of a liveable planet for all species, and can lead radical global action. Precautionary: it obliges the UK government to take the maximum preventive action on the climate and ecological emergency now.

We need it on the statute and working as soon as possible. No surprise, the government have already delayed its parliamentary progress. Please ask you MP, especially Labour MPs at this stage, to support it.

Campaign resources for the Bill can be found at ceebill.uk. Andrew Boswell tweets @Andrew9Boswell.

Book review. Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman

Book review. Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October 2020

The basic argument of this book is very simple. Contrary to the ‘persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish’, Dutch author Rutger Bregman argues that ‘most people, deep down, are pretty decent.’

The assumption of human selfishness underpins huge portions of mainstream political and economic thinking, including the influential veneer theory – ‘the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation’. Bregman believes the opposite to be true: ‘It’s when crisis hits… that we humans become our best selves.’

He considers the notion that humans are innately good to be a ‘radical idea’ with huge ramifications, because ‘to stand for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be’, for whom ‘a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening.’

Framing the book as a personal journey of discovery, Bregman ranges far and wide to construct and prove his proposition. He engages with thinkers and ideas from archaeology, anthropology, biology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics and history. The book’s plentiful references are similarly diverse, and provide a great guide for those interested in going deeper into particular subjects.

There is much here that will interest peace activists, including a discussion of SLA Marshall’s claim that only a minority of US soldiers in combat in the Second World War fired their weapons at the enemy in any given encounter, a passage looking at the ineffective Allied bombing of civilian areas in Germany in the 1940s and an inspiring account of the 1914 Christmas Truce.

Bregman is particularly keen on slaying a number of sacred cows, including two famous social psychology experiments that seemed to prove human beings’ darker nature: Stanley Milgrim’s 1960s work on obedience to authority and Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment.

Fittingly, the book ends by highlighting a number of hopeful initiatives from around the world that assume human beings want to do good, such as Universal Basic Income in Alaska, Norway’s progressive prison system and participatory budgeting in South America.

Bregman is a great storyteller, which makes for a really enjoyable and engaging read. Even though he approvingly quotes Bertrand Russell about not letting wishful thinking get in the way of the truth, the book is very much a polemic, with the nagging feeling of being guided down a particular path using carefully selected evidence and argument.

For example, while the many criticisms of Zimbardo’s work leads to Bregman dismissing the academic’s findings, when it comes to Marshall’s also heavily-criticised research, Bregman is happy to broadly accept his results, which happen to back up his argument.

But even if you aren’t completely persuaded by Bregman’s argument, Humankind is nevertheless a welcome rebalancing of the scales in the age-old ‘human nature’ debate in favour of co-operation, compassion and nonviolence – something that can only help peace activists and the struggle for a better world.

Humankind is published by Bloomsbury, priced £20.

Book review. War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran

Book review. War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August 2020

Currently writing for the Independent and the London Review of Books, Patrick Cockburn is one of the most experienced foreign correspondents working in the Middle East today.

His latest book is largely made up of short-form reportage based on writings and diary entries at the time of the events being covered, alongside some contextualising retrospective explanation.

Covering the first term of the Trump administration, which Cockburn argues has been populated by an unusually high number of dangerous people, the book’s strength lies in its on-the-ground journalism. ‘I have tried to give voice to what the Syrian, Iraqis and Kurds felt about events as they unfolded around them,’ he writes.

Cockburn regularly notes the complexity of the fighting in Iraq and Syria, describing the latter as having ‘the feel of medieval Italy’ where ‘every city and town had its own distinct politics, along with some powerful foreign sponsor.’

In Syria alone, the list of nations involved in the conflict is huge: Russia, Iran, the US, the UK, France, Turkey, Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia being the main actors.

There is much of interest to peace activists in the book. For example, those who wonder if Western air strikes were the only option for dealing with ISIS will be interested to read that NATO member Turkey allowed around 40,000 ISIS fighters to cross its border into ISIS territory.

Cockburn is also keen to highlight the skewed, propagandistic nature of much mainstream news reporting of the wars, noting ‘copious media coverage of civilian casualties caused by Syrian and Russian airstrikes’ in Aleppo and Ghouta (both in Syria).

In contrast, there has been ‘near silence… amounting at times to a media blackout’ about the similarly huge number of civilian casualties caused by US–UK air strikes in Mosul in Iraq (2016) and Raqqa in Syria (2017).

Visiting Raqqa after ISIS were defeated, he describes the ‘universal destruction’ as ‘similar to that of the carpet-bombed German cities in the Second World War.’

Elsewhere he notes the Western powers have ‘stoked’ the war in Syria ‘year after year’, supporting the armed opposition to the Syrian government, which has been ‘dominated by various Al-Qaeda clones’ since 2013.

Frustratingly there is no bibliography or footnotes, though arguably the first-hand nature of Cockburn’s reporting means these are not essential. This is a small gripe about an accessible, often engrossing, introduction to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East which should be of central concern to anti-war groups and activists in the UK.

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair

Peace News
August 2020

After interviewing more than 36 senior officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations for The War Within, his 1994 book about the movement against the Vietnam War, US historian Tom Wells concluded that ‘the movement played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war.’

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells the movement ‘had a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.’

However, despite this huge influence, Wells found ‘few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed’. This failure to appreciate the impact of their actions ‘hurt their cause’, he argued, leading to ‘defections from the movement’ and to ‘lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks.’

‘Moreover, some Americans never protested because they felt it was futile.’

A window

A new report prepared for the UK ministry of defence (MoD) inadvertently highlights how the post-9/11 anti-war movement in the UK has had a similarly important impact on British foreign policy – an influence largely unknown to the general public, and to many activists too.

Published by the RAND Corporation, a US think tank, The Utility of Military Force and Public Understanding in Today’s Britain is co-written by top British military historian Hew Strachan (currently professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews) and Ruth Harris (currently a researcher at RAND Europe, previously an RAF officer).

‘The government’s preference is to see both strategy and defence policy as areas to be settled between it and the armed forces, and so far as possible within the corridors of power’, the authors note.

The outcome of this largely unexamined agreement is that ‘the making of strategy in today’s Britain is an elite activity, hammered out by ministers, civil servants and chiefs of staff.’

This elite stitch-up works well for the government because it believes ‘the public is reluctant to support the cost of defence’ and ‘is unpersuaded of the utility of military force’, Strachan and Harris state. ‘The Whitehall mindset towards the public on matters of defence tends to be one of distrust.’

Why is the public not supportive of UK military action?

‘The prevailing conventional wisdom is that the wars in which Britain has engaged since 9/11 have created a public mood which respects the armed forces but doubts the utility of military force’, the authors explain.

Indeed, while it didn’t stop the UK’s involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, there is evidence the anti-war movement, by informing and mobilising the wider British public, had a significant constraining influence on the actions of UK forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Limiting Iraq

Discussing the UK military deployment to Iraq from 2003 onwards, major general (ret) Christopher Elliott notes there was ‘a cap on numbers, driven by political constraints rather than military necessity.’ The consequence of this was that the UK had ‘insufficient troops to be effective in the post-conflict phase in Iraq’, forcing ‘commanders in-theatre to react to events, and not to be able to shape them’. (RUSI Journal, 29 September 2016)

In addition, it is likely UK public opinion shaped the timing of the UK withdrawal from Iraq.

Contrary to claims from the UK government, a Telegraph report noted the US military ‘has no doubt’ the UK’s pull-out from central Basra ‘is being driven by “the political situation at home in the UK”.’ (Sunday Telegraph, 19 August 2007)

Speaking at the London School of Economics in May 2012, Greg Muttitt, author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (Bodley Head, 2011), argued the overall British pull-out from Iraq in April 2009 ‘was largely because their continued presence in Iraq was politically toxic’ in the UK.

Limiting Afghanistan

A similar dynamic was evident in Afghanistan, with US general Stanley McChrystal, then NATO commander in Afghanistan, pushing for British troops to be moved out of ‘harm’s way’ because the Taliban would target them in the lead-up to the 2010 British general election.

McChrystal held ‘the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties, including “capacity building”.’ (Observer, 8 November 2009).

Writing in 2013, Strachan provides an insight into the impact of public opinion on the British withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, announced by British prime minister David Cameron in 2010: ‘He [Cameron] explained his timeline not in relation to conditions which he saw as likely to prevail in Afghanistan but in terms of what the British public would demand.’

UK propaganda I

Aware that public opinion can hamper the actions of British forces, the UK military and government spent considerable resources trying to manipulate the public to increase the popularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This fear of the public manifested itself very early after 9/11.

Under the heading ‘Propaganda’, in a declassified October 2001 letter, British prime minister Tony Blair suggested to US president George Bush: ‘we need a dedicated, tightly knit propaganda unit for the war generally [against Afghanistan and later Iraq]’.

What followed in the lead-up to the 2003 US–UK invasion of Iraq was ‘a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world’, according to British historian Mark Curtis. (Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, Pluto Press, 2004)

More specifically, a November 2003 Guardian report revealed ‘a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War’.

According to leaked confidential papers ‘the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.’

In Afghanistan, the military tried to shape the narrative of the war by controlling the media coverage. ‘There is a general policy by the MoD to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons’, a senior officer told the Telegraph in September 2008.

‘If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.’

The Syria vote

The huge post-9/11 UK anti-war movement, peaking with the largest demonstration in British history on 15 February 2003, has had a long tail of influence on UK foreign policy going far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, in August 2013, the British government was set to support planned US air strikes in Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

However, unexpectedly, the house of commons refused to support a government motion endorsing the planned attack. This was the first time a British government had lost a vote on military action since 1782. The UK was forced to cease its involvement in the proposed strikes.

Public opinion was strongly opposed to military action, with a YouGov poll just before the vote showing opposition at 51 percent, and support at just 22 percent (Peace News, October 2013).

‘The spectre of the 2003 Iraq War hung over the Commons’ during the Syria debate. (Guardian, 30 August 2013) When Labour leader Ed Miliband met with the prime minister and deputy prime minister in Downing Street just before the parliamentary vote, a source reported: ‘Ed said to the Prime Minister: “You have to realize that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us”.’ (Guardian, 29 August 2013)

Professor Richard English, a historian at the University of St Andrews, confirms the link: ‘The decision in the House of Commons about Syria was really a decision about Iraq, but a few years late.’ (Guardian, 12 February 2014)

More importantly, in addition to stopping UK involvement in the attack, the parliamentary vote played a crucial role in halting the wider US air strikes.

The day after the parliamentary vote, officers on board US warships in the Mediterranean were expecting launch orders. (Wall Street Journal, 17 September 2013)

However, after speaking with advisers, US president Barack Obama decided to seek congressional approval for the air strikes, telling aides that ‘He had several reasons … including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.’ (New York Times, 31 August 2013)

With opposition building in the US congress, the attack was called off in favour of a joint US–Russian plan to force the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapon stockpiles.

John Kerry, US secretary of state at the time, confirmed this narrative at his farewell press conference in January 2017.

‘The president had already decided to use force’, he explained, but ‘the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval.’ (Guardian, 6 January 2017)

The government defeat – that is, the democratic process – created panic within the British establishment.

Alistair Burt, minister for the Middle East from 2010–2013, argued: ‘the UK finds itself in quite a mess.’ If the government has to convince a majority in parliament, he worried, ‘to what can government commit itself in discussions with allies, or prepare in advance for regional strategic defence?’ Burt continued: ‘Just occasionally politicians need space and time to take unpopular action that they believe in the long run is in their nation’s interest.’ (Guardian, 7 February 2014)

On 18 December 2013, the chief of the defence staff, general sir Nicholas Houghton, noted in a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute: ‘the purposes to which [the armed forces] have most recently been put has seldom been more deeply questioned. As a nation we have become a touch sceptical about the ability to use force in a beneficial way.’

UK propaganda II

Just after the parliamentary vote on Syria, the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the power of the UK anti-war movement.

Under the headline, ‘MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public’, the report provided a summary of a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: ‘The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties’.

The article went on: ‘Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage “casualty averse” public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.’

Noting ‘the public have become better informed’, the report also recommended the armed forces run ‘a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.’ (Guardian, 27 September 2013)

Since then, UK military interventions have broadly followed these proposals, with Mark Curtis highlighting in 2016 that Britain was involved in at least seven covert wars in the Middle East: ‘Whitehall has in effect gone underground, with neither parliament nor the public being allowed to debate, scrutinise or even know about these wars.’ (Huffington Post, 18 October 2016) (The seven covert wars were in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.)

Chris Cole, director of Drone Wars UK, tells me: ‘The increasing use of air power by the UK rather than the use of ground troops has been remarkable.’

He continues: ‘In Iraq and Syria over the past five years, for example, there have been few troops on the ground but thousands of air strikes. And increasingly, drones are being used to undertake those strikes.

‘In its first five years in service, British Reaper drones fired just over 350 bombs and missiles. In the last five years, however, that has increased by more than two-and-a-half times to almost 1,000 – and that’s an aircraft we are told is primarily used for surveillance.’

Occasional isolated news reports have highlighted that British special forces are operating in Iraq (Independent, 6 November 2016), Yemen (Daily Mail, 23 March 2019) and Syria (Guardian, 7 January 2019), but there has been no sustained media coverage or parliamentary interest.

In September 2013, the New York Times reported how British intelligence had been ‘working covertly’ with Saudi Arabia ‘for months… quietly funnelling arms, including antitank missiles’ to the armed opposition to the Syrian government.

‘Britain’s special forces are more secretive than any of the UK’s Five Eyes allies’, investigative journalist Phil Miller, author of Keenie Meenie: the British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes (Pluto Press, 2020), tells me. (The Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance links the UK to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.)

Miller goes on: ‘This secrecy prevents transparency around unsafe equipment and training accidents, to the detriment of the soldiers themselves and their families. There is no need for this level of secrecy in a mature democracy.’

Ongoing struggle

While I’ve highlighted how the UK anti-war movement has played a key role in constraining, and even stopping, UK military action, it is important to understand these clear-cut successes are relatively infrequent – the government usually wins in this high-stakes confrontation.

In 2014, parliament voted in support of air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq, and then a year later against Islamic State in Syria. At the time of the two parliamentary votes, polls showed clear support for the air strikes amongst the public. (YouGov, 26 September 2014 and 25 November 2015)

The UK then took part in punitive missile strikes against the Syrian government in April 2018 without a vote in parliament.

The election of anti-war, anti-imperialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party represented the best opportunity in a generation to break the elite consensus on foreign policy. In response, large sections of the media waged an unrelenting war against him, with a ‘senior serving general’ even threatening a military coup should he be elected prime minister. (Independent, 20 September 2015)

The Labour Party’s defeat in the December 2019 general election was therefore a huge victory for the elite and their preference for excluding the public from foreign policy decision-making. Despite these setbacks British foreign policy continues to be highly contested, with an ongoing struggle over public opinion and military interventions.

As Curtis argues in his book, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003): ‘It is no exaggeration to say that Britain has visited widespread destruction on many parts of the world, overthrowing popular governments, trampling over human rights, undermining democratic forces in favour of repressive elites’.

The UK ‘gets away with this largely because of the domestic structures of power’, he concludes.

The extent to which anti-war and peace activists are able to effectively organise, shift public opinion and intervene in the elite decision-making process described by Strachan and Harris therefore has enormous ramifications.

Documentary review: COUP 53

Documentary review: COUP 53
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
13 August 2020

Speaking to the BBC in 2011, Noam Chomsky explained “the West has an extremely ugly history” in the Middle East. We may not pay attention to this history, the US dissident noted, but the people in the region negatively impacted by Western military and economic interference don’t forget.

A good example of Chomsky’s truism is the 1953 coup in Iran, the subject of Taghi Amirani’s brilliant new documentary. After Iran’s parliament voted to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, the CIA and MI6 played a leading, covert role in toppling Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadeq, installing the autocratic Shah (King) Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in power.

Much like the best political thrillers, the film has a real momentum. It is anchored around newly discovered testimony from MI6 officer Norman Darbyshire, found after some serious detective work by Amirani. Interviewed for Granada Television’s epic 1985 documentary series End of Empire, Darbyshire’s firsthand memories were mysteriously missing when the programme was broadcast on television. However, the transcript of his interview survived. And from this we find Darbyshire, suavely played by actor Ralph Feinnes, admitting to being involved in the kidnapping and killing of the Iranian police chief and, more broadly, confirming the UK’s central role in the coup – a historical fact which has never been officially recognised by the UK state.

As well as interviews with US and UK experts such as intelligence specialist Stephen Dorril and Stephen Kinzer, author of the 2003 book All The Shah’s Men, the film includes fascinating testimony from key members of Mossadeq’s inner circle and other Iranians involved at the time. Look out, too, for some innovative and effective animation telling key parts of the story.

With events involving President Eisenhower, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, oil and corporate interests, a nefarious BBC and the British secret services, Kinzer is surely right to argue the coup was “a decisive historic episode” of the twentieth century that deserves to be much better known.

The coup strengthened the voices of those in the US government pushing for more US covert action (e.g. Guatemala in 1954). More importantly, it wrecked attempts to build a more democratic Iran. “As a result of that the Shah of Iran came in, a terrible dictator”, US Senator Bernie Sanders educated viewers during a 2016 Democratic Party presidential debate. “And as a result of that you had the [1979] Iranian revolution”.

Essential viewing.

COUP 53 is being screened online on 19 August, the 67th anniversary of the coup. Visit https://coup53.com/screenings/ to buy a ticket.

Neil Clark and other ‘anti-maskers’ vs. the scientific evidence and public wellbeing

Neil Clark and other ‘anti-maskers’ vs. the scientific evidence and public wellbeing
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
25 July 2020

There is a small, but vocal group of people who are strongly opposed to the wearing of masks to reduce the transmission of Covid-19.

One of the most prominent ‘anti-maskers’ is Neil Clark, a self-professed socialist writer and broadcaster. Clark has been posting increasingly absurd, conspiratorial and very dangerous tweets about masks. Here are a few examples:

  • ‘I’m quite disconcerted by the number of people with “Socialist” on their bios who seem to be v. strongly in favour of mandatory mask-wearing irregardless of the evidence & its long term effects. I never knew mandatory masks was a tenet of socialism. Or are we all CCP nowadays?’ (8 July 2020)
  • ‘Mandatory face coverings, no music, theatre or public performances. The Taliban would feel very much at home in Nicola Sturgeon’s Scotland. Perhaps they’ll relocate there.’ (8 July 2020)
  • On masks: ‘it has nothing to do with public health and everything to do with control.’ (10 July 2020)
  • ‘I’d advise any young person or anyone who doesn’t have family commitments to leave the UK & build a new life overseas. There’s no future here under the current Covid insanity. Civil liberties have been destroyed. Our lives trashed. We are no longer a free people. Tyranny rules.’ (10 July 2020)
  • ‘The “Great Reset” is NOT a conspiracy theory. The radical changes to our lives, our working arrangements, the way we interract with one another, (masks & SD), introduced under the cover of Covid, are meant to be permanent. A “New Normal”. Everyone needs to wake up to this.’ (12 July 2020)
  • On the move to make face masks mandatory in shops: ‘Yup. Safety in numbers. If enough people disobey this insane policy will be unenforceable.’ (14 July 2020)
  • ‘Face masks will become the “new normal” for AT LEAST the next year. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. They want all this stuff to stay.’ (16 July 2020)

As anyone inhabiting the real world will know, there is a large and seemingly growing body of scientific evidence, and a broad consensus amongst scientific and medical experts, that confirms mask wearing can help to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Below I have listed some of the expert evidence and advice that supports the wearing of masks, including the World Health Organization, the Royal Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US and Independent SAGE.

Despite this wealth of evidence, Neil continues to oppose the wearing of masks. Indeed, Neil repeatedly quote tweets people who disagree with him, but I have not seen him seriously engage with anyone who opposes his evidence-free position.

Thinking of other people, adhering to scientific and medical evidence and trying to reduce unnecessary suffering — all this seems to fit very well with Socialism. However, ignoring huge amounts of scientific and medical evidence, being selfish and endangering the lives of others certainly doesn’t fit with Socialism. Hard-right Republicanism or Conservatism perhaps, but definitely not Socialism.

Evidence in support of wearing masks to reduce the transmission of COVID-19:

· A study published in The Lancet concludes ‘We encourage consideration of mass masking during the coming phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, which are expected to occur in the absence of an effective COVID-19 vaccine… Mass masking for source control is in our view a useful and low-cost adjunct to social distancing and hand hygiene during the COVID-19 pandemic.’ (The Lancet, 16 April 2020)

  • A study in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences concludes ‘that wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission, and this inexpensive practice, in conjunction with simultaneous social distancing, quarantine, and contact tracing, represents the most likely fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.’ (Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences, 14 May 2020)
  • ‘Wearing a face mask or other covering over the mouth and nose reduces the forward distance travelled by an exhaled breath by more than 90 per cent, research suggests.’ (University of Edinburgh, 22 May 2020)
  • ‘Taking into account the available studies evaluating pre- and asymptomatic transmission, a growing compendium of observational evidence on the use of masks by the general public in several countries, individual values and preferences, as well as the difficulty of physical distancing in many contexts, WHO has updated its guidance to advise that to prevent COVID-19 transmission effectively in areas of community transmission, governments should encourage the general public to wear masks in specific situations and settings as part of a comprehensive approach to suppress SARS-CoV-2 transmission.’ (World Health Organization, 5 June 2020)
  • ‘Population-wide use of facemasks keeps the coronavirus ‘reproduction number’ under 1.0, and prevents further waves of the virus when combined with lockdowns, a modelling study led by the University of Cambridge suggests.’ Lead author Dr Richard Stutt comments: ‘Our analyses support the immediate and universal adoption of facemasks by the public. If widespread facemask use by the public is combined with physical distancing and some lockdown, it may offer an acceptable way of managing the pandemic and reopening economic activity long before there is a working vaccine.’ (University of Cambridge, 10 June 2020)
  • ‘A new study has suggested that the compulsory use of face masks can slow the spread of Covid-19 cases by as much as 40%. The German report, published as a discussion paper for the Institute of Labour Economics, determined that mandatory face masks can “reduce the daily growth rate of reported infections by around 40%”.The study involved researchers examining the growth rate of cases in regions across Germany in the days following the introduction of masks in shops and on public transport.’ (RTE, 12 June 2020)
  • A study by Virginia Commonwealth University looked at coronavirus death rates in 198 countries in an effort to establish why some had very high death rates and others very low. ‘What we found was that of the big variables that you can control which influence mortality, one was wearing masks’, says Christopher Leffler of Virginia Commonwealth University, one of the study’s authors. ‘It wasn’t just by a few per cent, it was up to a hundred times less mortality. The countries that introduced masks from the very beginning of their outbreak have had hardly any deaths.’ (Global News, 22 June 2020)
  • ‘Cloth face coverings are effective in reducing source virus transmission, i.e., outward protection of others, when they are of optimal material and construction (high grade cotton, hybrid and multilayer) and fitted correctly and for source protection of the wearer’ (Royal Society, 26 June 2020)
  • ‘Everyone should carry a face covering when they leave home in order to tackle coronavirus, the head of the UK’s national academy of science has said. Prof Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, president of the Royal Society, said the coverings should then be worn “whenever you are in crowded public spaces”.’ (BBC News, 7 July 2020)
  • ‘Cloth face coverings, even homemade masks made of the correct material, are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 — for the wearer and those around them — according to a new study from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science.’ (University of Oxford, 8 July 2020)
  • ‘Early in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that anyone symptomatic for suspected coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) should wear a face covering during transport to medical care and prior to isolation to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets. After emerging data documented transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from persons without symptoms, the recommendation was expanded to the general community’. John T. Brooks, MD; Jay C. Butler, MD; Robert R. Redfield, MD, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Journal of the American Medical Association, 14 July 2020)
  • ‘The case of two hairdressers who developed symptoms of COVID-19 and then saw 139 clients before they stopped working, apparently without transmitting the virus to any of them, demonstrates the effectiveness of mandatory face mask policies , according to new research’, published in the weekly morbidity and mortality report of the Centers for Disease Control in the United States. (FR24 News, 14 July 2020)
  • “Although we haven’t yet got the gold standard randomised control trial evidence about whether face coverings are effective at preventing the transmission of Covid-19, existing studies are convincing of their benefits.” — Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh (Guardian, 15 July 2020)
  • Independent SAGE recommend the government ‘launch a comprehensive public information campaign to promote effective wearing of face coverings in enclosed public indoor spaces where distancing from others is not possible.’ (Independent SAGE, 15 July 2020)
  • ‘A newly published study’ published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests ‘that universal use of surgical masks helped reduce rates of confirmed Covid-19 infections among health-care workers at the Mass General Brigham health-care system in Massachusetts.’ (Wall Street Journal, 18 July 2020)
  • ‘Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he believes the pandemic could be brought under control over the next four to eight weeks if “we could get everybody to wear a mask right now.”’ (Wall Street Journal, 18 July 2020)

Black Lives Matter: the largest and most effective US social movement in history?

Black Lives Matter: the largest and most effective US social movement in history?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star

13 July 2020

Like many people I’ve followed and been inspired by the extensive news coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. But I really didn’t understand their extraordinary size until I read a recent New York Times analysis.

For the uninitiated the women-founded movement began in 2013 with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after George Zimmerman was acquitted after he shot and killed 17-year old African-American Trayvon Martin in Florida. Since them BLM has highlighted and opposed the brutality, injustice and unaccountability that black people experience in America, especially from the police and legal system.

BLM activists played a leading role in the demonstrations sparked by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and have led the protests in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on 25 May.

According to the 3 July New York Times analysis the recent demonstrations peaked on 6 June, with half a million people on the streets in nearly 550 locations across the US. Overall, there have been more than 4,700 demonstrations, or an average of 140 per day, since the first protests began in Minneapolis on 26 May.

“Four recent polls… suggest that about 15 million to 26 million people in the United States have participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd and others in recent weeks”, the report notes.

After interviewing academics and crowd-counting experts the New York Times states “These figures would make the recent protests the largest movement in the country’s history” – bigger than the civil rights marches of the 1960s and the Women’s March of 2017.

“Really, it’s hard to overstate the scale of this movement”, Deva Woodly, an associate professor of politics at the New School, comments.

Once one comprehends the immense size of the protests, their wide-ranging and deep impacts are less surprising.

Across the US cities and police forces have responded by instituting a series of reforms – highlighting how BLM has mainstreamed the concept of ‘defund the police’. In New York City Mayor Bill de Blaiso has pledged to reallocate police funding. “We’re committed to seeing a shift of funding to youth services, to social services, that will happen literally in the course of the next three weeks, but I’m not going to go into detail because it is subject to negotiation, and we want to figure out what makes sense,” de Blasio said, according to the New York Times. Similarly, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced he would be redirecting $250 million from the police budget into health care, jobs and “healing” programmes for the city’s communities of colour, the Los Angeles Times reported in June.

The state of Iowa, Dallas and Denver have banned the use of chokeholds, with the Mile-High City introducing a new policy meaning police officers will have “to alert supervisors any time they point a gun at someone”, according to the Denver Post.

Speaking to the BBC Today Programme on 29 June, Melina Abdullah, Professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and BLM activist, noted “The number of killings at the hands of police has remained relatively stable” in the US. “However… in cities with strong Black Lives Matter chapters the numbers have dropped dramatically”.

On the national political stage, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to establish a police oversight board within his first 100 days in office and address institutional racism. And globally, BLM in the US has inspired protests in many countries, including the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, Brazil, Japan, Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa.

Crucial though these changes are, perhaps the most exciting and important influence of BLM is the impact it has had on American public opinion.

“In my 35 years of polling, I’ve never seen opinion shift this fast or deeply. We are a different country today than just 30 days ago”, Republican pollster Frank Luntz tweeted on 8 June.

He was referring to a 2 June Monmouth poll that showed 57 percent of Americans agreed that police are more likely to use excessive force against African Americans, compared to 33 percent when asked the same question after the killing of Eric Garner by New York City police in 2014. In the same survey 76 per cent of Americans, including 71 per cent of white people, said racism and discrimination was “a big problem” in the United States – a 26 percentage-point increase since 2015.

The New York Times notes “Public opinion on race and criminal justice issues has been steadily moving left since the first [BLM-led] protests ignited over the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.” However, according to the New York Times data from online survey firm Civiqs shows that since the death of Floyd support for Black Lives Matter increased by nearly as much as it had over the previous two years: a majority of Americans support the movement by a 25-point margin, up from a 17-point margin before the most recent wave of protests began.

As the Monmouth poll above highlights, there has been a significant shift in opinion amongst white Americans. This includes views of the police, with the percentage of white Americans who have a very favourable or somewhat favourable impression of police officers dropping from 72% to 61% within a week, according to a survey in early June organised by the Democracy Fund, UCLA and USA Today newspaper. White people have been a significant part of the recent BLM protests. Explaining that a recent BLM protest in her predominantly black Brooklyn neighbourhood was attended by mostly white people, African-American novelist Brit Bennett told BBC’s Start The Week programme last month that this “mainstream white support” gives her hope for the future of the movement.

The protests are continuing, though with much less media attention. And while they remain popular, the New York Times notes “events could move public opinion the other way”, suggesting “a sense that protests were getting out of control, with looting and violence, could… harm the public image of the movement.”

Polling suggests this is a danger, with a 2 June Reuters/Ipsos poll finding 73 per cent of respondents support “peaceful protest and demonstrations,” but only 22% back violent protests, with 79% believing looting and vandalism “undermine the original protest’s case for justice.”

Let’s hope BLM continues to thrive and force the change that is so desperately needed in the US and beyond.

As Professor Douglas McAdam, an Emeritus Professor at Stanford University who studies social movements, commented in the New York Times: “It looks… like these protests are achieving what very few do: setting in motion a period of significant, sustained, and widespread social, political change. We appear to be experiencing a social change tipping point — that is as rare in society as it is potentially consequential.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

How public opposition has forced Tory government U-turns

How public opposition has forced Tory government U-turns
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
8 July 2020

While there are always some people who are quick to dismiss grassroots activism as ineffective, the last couple of months has provided inspiring case studies showing how protest can have a huge impact on the government and the wider political landscape.

For instance, the coronavirus crisis may have trapped most of us at home during lockdown, but public pressure has forced the government’s hand on several important issues.

In April a “cabinet source” spoke to the Telegraph about the government’s exit strategy from the lockdown. ‘It [the government] is waiting for the public to change their mind’, they noted. ‘We didn’t want to go down this route in the first place — public and media pressure pushed the lockdown, we went with the science.’

The government has also been pushed into making two embarrassing U-turns. As the Guardian recently explained: “The phased opening of schools in England began at the beginning of June, but the government shelved plans to get every primary school child back in class for at least a month before the summer holiday, in the face of the opposition from unions and some scientists.”

Even more spectacular was the government’s retreat on free school meals vouchers, which it had said would stop outside of term time, affecting about 1.3 million children in England.

In response the 22-year old Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford wrote an open letter to the government explaining the importance of the scheme to children, highlighting his family’s reliance on the scheme when he was younger. Downing Street rejected his protest, with ministers sent out to defend the government’s position. However, with extensive media coverage and growing support the government reversed its position within 24-hours and confirmed free school meals vouchers would continue during school holidays.

And even when public opposition doesn’t win a clear victory over government – which is most of the time – it can still have important results. So the furore over Dominic Cummings breaking lockdown didn’t end with the Prime Minister’s closest adviser being sacked but it likely massively wounded him. As a “source” told the Telegraph last month: “People just aren’t scared of him any more. Everyone knows he is one wrong move from being out of a job.”

Sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on 25 May and subsequent demonstrations in the US, the Black Lives Matters protests in the UK have been hugely impactful too.

According to government figures, approximately 137,000 people attended more than 200 protests in the UK over the weekend of 6-7 June. After protesters toppled the statue of slaver Edward Colston on 7 June, Tower Hamlets council quickly removed the statue of slave trader Robert Milligan and Oriel College at Oxford University agreed to take down the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes. The University of Liverpool has also agreed to rename a building named after former prime minister William Gladstone because of his links to the slave trade.

In addition, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced he would set up a commission to review London’s landmarks to ensure they reflect the capital’s diversity. A day later the Guardian reported “all Labour councils in England and Wales said they would examine statues and monuments.”

More broadly, the protests have triggered a national conversation on British racism and colonialism, with renewed demands for Black history to be made a mandatory part of the national curriculum. And while there is already a slavery museum in Liverpool, there are growing calls for a national museum of slavery.

While coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter agitation have received extensive media coverage, another hugely important example of the power of protest seems was barely noticed by the mainstream media.

“For now, fracking is over”, Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng told the BBC’s North West Tonight programme on 18 June. “We had a moratorium on fracking last year and frankly the debate’s moved on. It is not something that we’re looking to do.”

As well as accurately describing Kwarteng’s statement as “a victory for the planet and our future existence on it”, Green Party peer Jenny Jones was correct when she told the Independent: “The end of fracking in the UK is a victory for all the campaigners who faced arrest in order to stop another climate chaos technology from taking root.”

Then Prime Minister David Cameron had announced the government was “going all out” for fracking in January 2014. He rejected calls for a moratorium on fracking a year later. However, with just a single well fracked in the UK since 2011, in 2018 the Guardian reported “Cameron has told US oil executives of his frustration that the UK has failed to embrace fracking despite his best efforts, and hit out at green groups for being ‘absolutely obsessed’ with blocking new fossil fuel extraction.”

A number of hopeful lessons can be taken from these successful struggles.

First, although the Tory Party won a majority of eighty seats in the December general election, the government is susceptible to public pressure at the moment.

Second, extra-parliamentary action is as important – arguably more important – than what happens in parliament. This is crucial to understand when the Labour Party is shifting away from the social movements and unions that backed Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and trying to project itself as a more professional and very much parliamentary-focussed alternative to the Tories. But this shift to the right doesn’t alter how change is made. As British author Gary Younge wrote in December: “progressive change is enacted through parliament, but it rarely begins there.”

Third, it is important not to be complacent. Yes, public pressure and direct action have changed government policy for the better, but this has only happened because of the hard work of campaigners over weeks, months, years, even decades. Citing the sociologist Charles Tilly, the historian Keith Flett had some wise words in a letter published in the Guardian last year: “Effective protest that leads to real change is a difficult thing to achieve and historically has required… an entire repertoire of contention”. To win more victories, and bigger and more important victories such as overturning the government’s inadequate response to the climate crisis, will require a huge and sustained surge in grassroots activism and organisation.

One of my favourite quotes – from former slave Frederick Douglass – is famous for a reason: because it is true. “Those who profess to favour freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters”, he said in 1857. “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.