Category Archives: Protest/activism

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.

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.

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.

The UK government’s criminally negligent response to coronavirus

The UK government’s criminally negligent response to coronavirus
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June 2020

Due to the extraordinary nature of the crisis, the UK government has had an unprecedented opportunity to control the narrative about their response to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the daily Number 10 press briefings there has been a months-long, multi-faceted public information campaign using television and radio spots, social media posts, billboards, wrap around messaging on the front of all major newspapers and a letter to every household in the UK.

Despite this communications advantage, there has been increasing criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis from sections of the media, health and science experts, opposition political parties, trade unions and the general public.

In response, the government has rolled out a number of common retorts – they are ‘following the science’, their primary motivation has been to save lives, and it is easy to criticise in retrospect, as ex-cabinet minister baroness Nicky Morgan said on BBC Any Questions (22 May).

A careful reading of mainstream news reports tells a very different story – one which supports Lancet editor-in-chief Dr Richard Horton’s description of the government’s response as ‘a national scandal’ (BBC Question Time, 26 March). The UK’s official death toll of 41,969 as of 16 June – the highest in Europe, and the second highest in the world after the United States – confirms Horton’s criticism. Due to deficiencies in how deaths are recorded, the government’s figures are likely a significant underestimate: by the same date the Financial Times estimated the number of UK excess deaths linked to coronavirus to be 65,400.

‘It goes right back to 2010’

While nearly all media coverage has focused on the period since the outbreak in China in December 2019, the UK government’s reaction has much deeper roots. ‘It goes right back to 2010, when the [Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition] government came in with a very clear policy to reduce public spending across the board, including the National Health Service’, sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, told LBC radio on 15 April when asked about the UK’s response being slower than other countries. ‘I’m afraid these austerity measures did lead to the cutting back on the risk management programmes’.

The government also ignored several warnings about the possibility of a pandemic and its lack of preparedness. In October 2016 a three-day training called Exercise Cygnus was held on how to deal with a pandemic, involving all major government departments, the NHS and local authorities. According to the Sunday Telegraph (28 March) the unpublished report of the exercise concluded ‘There was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for the nation’s doctors and nurses’ and ‘the NHS was about to “fall over” due to a shortage of ventilators and critical care beds’.

Publishing a leaked copy of the report on 7 May, the Guardian provided more detail: ‘it contained 26 key recommendations, including boosting the capacity of care homes and the numbers of staff available to work in them’ and ‘warned of the challenge facing homes asked to take in patients from hospitals.’

A senior academic directly involved in Exercise Cygnus and the current pandemic noted ‘These exercises are supposed to prepare government for something like this – but it appears they were aware of the problem but didn’t do much about it’ (Sunday Telegraph, 28 March).

In September 2017 the National Risk Register Of Civil Emergencies was published by the Cabinet Office, noting ‘there is a high probability of a flu pandemic occurring’ with ‘up to 50% of the UK population experiencing symptoms, potentially leading to between 20,000 and 750,000 fatalities and high levels of absence from work.’

More recently, on 30 January 2020 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a ‘public health emergency of international concern’. According to David Nabarro, professor of global health at Imperial College, London, ‘That is the highest level of alert that WHO can issue… It made it very clear then – to every country in the world – that we were facing something very serious indeed’ (Guardian, 18 April).

Herd immunity

Though ministers have repeatedly denied it, the concept of ‘herd immunity’ seems to have been central to the government’s response plan (herd immunity is when a large majority of the population are infected and therefore gain immunity and stop the spread of the virus).

The government’s stated ‘mitigation’ strategy – to delay the spread of the virus, and reduce and broaden the peak so the NHS is not overwhelmed – fits with the goal of herd immunity, as chief scientific advisor sir Patrick Vallance explained on the BBC Today programme (Guardian, 13 March).

According to a ‘senior politician’, the chief medical officer Chris Whitty was ‘absolutely focused on herd immunity’ when they spoke in late January (Sunday Times, 19 April). The prime minister Boris Johnson himself floated the idea – without naming it – on ITV’s This Morning on 5 March. Speaking to the BBC Today Programme on 13 March, sir Patrick said one of ‘the key things we need to do’ is ‘build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission’.

There are two huge problems with herd immunity – both widely understood in March, if not before. First, the estimated mortality rates of the virus – around 1% (Guardian, 7 March) – means a large number of people would die by the time the UK achieved herd immunity. Putting these figures together with the 66.6 million population of the UK, we would end up with around half a million deaths in order to achieve the 80 percent level of people with antibodies.

Second, there was – and still is – ‘no clear evidence people who had suffered the virus would have lasting antibody protection’ (Sunday Times, 24 May). As WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told the BBC Today programme on 14 March: ‘We don’t know enough about the science of this virus, it hasn’t been in our population for long enough for us to know what it does in immunological terms’.

Despite these deadly flaws, the government’s herd immunity plan to manage rather than suppress the spread of the virus likely shaped other decisions that have led to thousands of unnecessary deaths, including ending the quarantining of people arriving at UK airports from coronavirus hotspots on 13 March (Financial Times, 23-24 May), the cancellation of contact tracing and mass testing, and the delayed national lockdown.

Ditching tracing and testing

When people started getting infected in the UK, the government established a programme to test suspected cases and trace people they had been in contact with. However, on 12 March the government announced it would no longer try to ‘track and trace’ everyone suspected of having the virus, while testing would be limited to patients in hospital with serious breathing problems (Guardian, 13 March).

This U-turn contradicted WHO recommendations. ‘The most effective way to prevent infections and save lives is breaking the chains of transmission. And to do that, you must test and isolate’, WHO Director General said on 16 March. ‘You cannot fight a fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected.’

‘We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case’, he noted: ‘If they test positive, isolate them and find out who they have been in close contact with… and test those people too’ (WHO, 16 March).

On 17 April the Health Secretary belatedly announced the government would restart tracing the contacts of people who have had coronavirus symptoms, with 1 June as the planned start date.

Too slow to lockdown

On 24 January professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College’s School of Public Health and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) committee, submitted a report to ministers and officials. According to the Sunday Times (19 April), the report noted ‘There needed to be a 60% cut in the transmission rate — which meant stopping contact between people. In layman’s terms it meant a lockdown’.

Similarly, on 26 February infectious disease modeller professor John Edmunds and his team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine presented their latest ‘worst scenario’ predictions to the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on modelling (SPI-M).

This group advises the country’s scientific decision-makers on SAGE. ‘It warned that 27 million people could be infected and 220,000 intensive care beds would be needed if no action were taken to reduce infection rates’, the Sunday Times (19 April) reported. ‘The predicted death toll was 380,000. Edmunds’ colleague Nick Davies, who led the research, says the report emphasised the urgent need for a lockdown’.

A further investigation by the Sunday Times (24 May) reported that modelling teams from Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine separately concluded that if the government’s mitigation strategy continued, there could be approximately 250,000 deaths – results they passed onto SAGE on 3 March.

However, the government only implemented a national lockdown on 23 March. Back-dated modelling by Oxford University estimates there were just 14,000 infected people in the UK on 3 March. By 23 March the number was likely to have been 1.5 million. ‘Those 20 days of government delay are the single most important reason why the UK has the second highest number of deaths from the coronavirus in the world’, the Sunday Times (24 May) notes.

Exiting lockdown

After coming under pressure to set out an ‘exit strategy’ from right-wing Tories and the leaders of the Scottish National Party (The Times, 24 April) and Labour party (Guardian, 15 April), on 10 May the prime minister Boris Johnson announced a loosening of the lockdown. He urged people in jobs such as construction and manufacturing to return to work, gave permission for unlimited outdoor exercise and suggested shops might open in June.

However, with new daily cases estimated to be 20,000 (The Times, 8 May) and a contact tracing programme still not in place, many experts were quick to warn it was too early to loosen the lockdown. Professor Edmunds warned that the current level of cases made it ‘probably impossible’ to control the outbreak through contact tracing (The Times, 8 May).

David Hunter, professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at the University of Oxford, noted ‘If we take the prime minister’s advice and return to work in large numbers now – and without the ability to test, trace and isolate – then virus spread will increase, there will be super-spreader events and local or regional lockdowns will have to be reconsidered’ (Guardian, 11 May). Professor Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said the UK did not ‘have in place the basic building blocks of surveillance to actually know who has the virus’ and therefore ‘what we are going to see is cases are going to go up… the virus is going to continue spreading and in a few weeks we are going to have this exact same debate again’ (BBC Question Time, 14 May).

The importance of activism

Notwithstanding the government’s criminally negligent response to the crisis and the huge UK death toll, there is some hopeful evidence the government and Tory party are worried about public opinion, and susceptible to public pressure.

Citing one senior MP, in early April the Guardian noted the Tory party was ‘watching the polls closely’ (2 April), while on 18 April the Telegraph published a revealing quote from a ‘cabinet source’ 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.’ And following reports the prime minister’s adviser Dominic Cummings had breached the lockdown, the Guardian noted MPs ‘said they were motivated by anger among their constituents’ (30 May), while the Telegraph reported some Tory MPs ‘said they would wait to see how their constituents responded before passing judgement’ (26 May).

Unlike the UK’s response to the climate crisis, post-9/11 foreign policy or anti-nuclear weapons activism, this influence has come about without any organised national grassroots campaign or group informing and directing public outrage and resistance.

Activists, then, have an important role to play in maximising pressure on the government, including tracking and drawing attention to government failures, establishing campaign groups and organising a coordinated response.

The coronavirus crisis: where is the British left?

The coronavirus crisis: where is the British left?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 June 2020

From mid-April onwards the government came under intense pressure to start lifting the lockdown it had imposed on 23 March.

A relatively early loosening of restrictions was supported by business groups and their cheerleaders in the right-wing press and cabinet (Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Home Secretary Priti Patel and perhaps Michael Gove too). Pressure was also applied by the leaders of the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party. Whatever the actual detail of their policy positions, it was obvious to anyone with a pulse how their public statements would be perceived by the media and wider political establishment. Keir Starmer Calls For Ministers To Set Out Plans To End Lockdown was a 15 April headline in the Guardian. “Ministers are under mounting pressure to reveal their plans for easing lockdown after senior Tories said that Nicola Sturgeon was right to outline her strategy for a ‘new normal’ in Scotland”, reported the Times newspaper on its front page on 24 April.

Ranged against these forces – or at least not as gung-ho – were a number of powerful actors in the national debate. For example, it has been widely reported Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock were both more cautious than many in the cabinet when it came to lifting the lockdown.

Lots of experts stood in opposition to loosening the lockdown. On 7 May Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the Lancet medical journal, tweeted: “Dear Prime Minister – Please don’t dilute your policy of lockdown. Not yet. We have come so far. We need 3 more weeks”

Writing in the Guardian on 11 May David Hunter, Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at the University of Oxford, argued “If we… return to work in large numbers now – and without the ability to test, trace and isolate – then virus spread will increase, there will be super-spreader events and local or regional lockdowns will have to be reconsidered”.

Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, echoed these concerns when she appeared on BBC Question Time a few days later. “We don’t have in place the basic building blocks of surveillance to actually know who has the virus”, she explained. “And if the lockdown starts opening up now before we have the infrastructure in place, it’s basically pointless… what we are going to see is cases are going to go up… the virus is going to continue spreading and in a few weeks we are going to have this exact same debate again”.

Public opinion was also very cautious. A 3 May Opinium poll showed 67% of respondents opposed to opening schools, 78% and 81% opposed to opening restaurants and pubs respectively, and 84% against allowing mass gatherings at sports events or concerts to resume. Similarly, 75% of respondents answered it would be wrong for the government to start loosening lockdown now, according to a YouGov survey released on 8 May.

These surveys are important because the Tory Party was “watching the polls closely”, according to an early April Guardian report. A couple of weeks later a “cabinet source” was quoted in the Telegraph discussing the government’s exit strategy from the lockdown. “It [the government] is waiting for the public to change their mind”, they noted, after explaining ‘We didn’t want to go down this route [of a lockdown] in the first place — public and media pressure pushed the lockdown.”

We now know, of course, the government didn’t wait for the public to change its mind.

Speaking to an estimated audience of 27.5 million, on 10 May the Prime Minister announced the loosening of the lockdown. People who can’t work from home should be “actively encouraged” to return to work, Boris Johnson said. He also said that people could now take unlimited outdoor exercise, and outlined a phased plan to open primary schools and shops in June.

The Prime Minister’s statement demonstrated that business and economic interests had prevailed over public health concerns.

There are lots of signs the easing of the lockdown will be a disaster. On 7 May Sir Ian Diamond, head of the Office for National Statistics, estimated there were 20,000 new cases a day in the UK – at least three times as many new cases as recorded by official statistics – according to the Times newspaper. The day before the Sunday Times had reported the government target was 4,000 new cases a day. We still seem a long way off from this – on 5 June the MRC Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge University estimated 17,000 new cases a day in England alone.

Citing the 20,000 figure, on 7 May John Edmunds, Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, explained that contact tracing was “probably impossible at the moment”.

This doesn’t bode well in light of the Guardian report on 4 June: “the NHS coronavirus test-and-trace system designed to prevent a second deadly wave is not expected to work at full speed until September or October”.

Two days later the Independent highlighted the regional reproduction rate of the virus: “R is thought to be 1.01 in the northwest and 1 in the southwest, in results shown by a tool created by Public Health England (PHE) and Cambridge University. In only one region — the northeast and Yorkshire — was it below 0.9, the data suggested.” The R number is the number of people each infected person, on average, passes the virus onto. Lower than one means the pandemic is declining, higher than one means cases increase exponentially.

An 11 May British Medical Journal blog provides important context. “The Rt [the R number] in Wuhan at this stage of lockdown was below 0.2”, explained KK Cheng, Professor of Public Health and Primary Care at University of Birmingham, and Wenjie Gong, Associate Professor at the Xiangya School of Public Health at Central South University in China.

The Prime Minister’s announcement on 10 May also highlighted how the British left has largely been MIA on coronavirus.

Keir Starmer may be playing smart politics – he and the party are enjoying rising poll ratings – but arguably Labour has not been an effective opposition when it comes to taking strong positions on key facets of the crisis. Instead there is an increasing sense the Labour leader is usually one step behind public opinion, rather than out in front, leading and shaping it. This was well illustrated in April when Andrew Marr suggested to Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds her party was being “too gentle” on the government. With Dodds equivocating on the question of loosening the lockdown when she was interviewed again by Marr on 31 May, the BBC pussy cat quoted Starmer’s recent statement: “We support the gradual easing of restrictions on lockdown” though “It’s got to be safe”. Still Dodds was unable to give a clear answer, to which Marr responded: “You haven’t come off the fence and said whether you are in favour of the unlocking, or not in favour of the unlocking”.

More broadly, any influence the public has had on the government during the crisis has happened without a national grassroots campaign leading educating, organising and energising public opinion. Where is the Occupy movement for the virus? The new Stop the War Coalition? The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament of the crisis?

A senior Tory MP told the Guardian in early April they were “frankly amazed” the Prime Minister’s popularity was holding up. “The death toll will become totemic”, they suggested. “If we get thousands of people dying every day for several days, who knows where this will go. It is frightening, and the prime minister looks like he doesn’t know what to do.”

With the official death toll now over 40,000 and Johnson’s personal ratings plummeting, this fear of the public means there is an opportunity for the left to have a real impact on government policy, the official opposition and the wider national debate during the biggest national crisis in a generation. The $64,000 question is: will the British left rise to the challenge?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Rebooting the stalled domestic revolution: Sally Howard interview

Rebooting the stalled domestic revolution: Sally Howard interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
15 May 2020

A London-based journalist specialising in gender, human rights and social trends, in March Sally Howard published The Home Stretch: Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes.

A brilliant and inspiring book that attempts to “reboot the stalled domestic revolution”, Ian Sinclair asked Howard who does the dishes today, the impact of key life events and how coronavirus might change things.

Ian Sinclair: Many people may think there is broad equality in the UK in terms of housework today – certainly compared to the past. Can you summarise what the evidence tells us about domestic labour today?

Sally Howard: There’s a common misconception, fuelled by our onus on women’s gains in the public sphere (closing the Gender Pay Gap, for example, and equalising women’s representation in politics), that the feminist revolution on the home front has been fully achieved. And yes British males today contribute much more in terms of domestic effort than their 1970s counterparts: 18 hours a week compared to the one hour 20 minute contribution of 1971 man. However, British women still put in 60 percent more effort into these often mundane and repetitive tasks – 26 hours a week of cooking and cleaning, not to mention the invisible domestic administration we now refer to as ‘the mental load’. More troublingly, male efforts appear to have gone into reverse since the 1990s, with today’s male contributing an hour less to these tasks, each week, than his 1998 counterpart.

IS: I was particularly interested in your assertion that key life events tend to reinforce traditional gender roles. Can you explain more?

SH: Yes, there’s a phenomenon I call ‘the Parent Labour Trap’ – the fact that no matter how egalitarian a heterosexual couple are before the arrival of children, multiple factors conspire, once children are on the scene, to ‘discipline’ men and women into traditional breadwinning and housekeeping roles. First amongst these is the Gender Pay Gap, which often means it makes sense for a woman to put her career on the backburner to prioritise a higher income. Then there is the persistent stigma against male early-years primary caring that leads to our poor uptake of Shared Parental Leave (only two percent of eligible British males exercise their right to share leave). As I argue in the book, hands-on male primary parenting is the foundation of establishing egalitarian domestic arrangements in a family household (as seen in the Swedish model, where state-funded ‘use it or lose it’ daddy leave quotas lead to a much higher uptake of male parenting leave and a consequent fairer division of domestic labour). There’s also a surprising societal resistance to non-traditional domestic roles in childed families, with 72 percent of respondents to the 2018 British Social Attitudes Survey saying mothers of pre-school children should stay at home or only work part time. Add the fact that men with children tend to be promoted more readily, and it’s very easy for even the most progressive couples to slide into traditional domestic arrangements. My book finds that the arrival of a child increases the domestic labour load by around three hours a day – all of that wiping up and toy- tidying – and that two hours and 40 minutes of these extra labours fall to women.

IS: You note the politics of housework was a central concern of Second Wave feminism in the 1970s, but has fallen off the feminist agenda since then. Why do you think this happened?

SH: Yes domestic labour – in fabulous activist movements such as Wages for Housework – was a central plank of the Second Wave feminism. Partly this was down to the fact that these feminisms were an outgrowth of the socialist left. Wages for Housework, for example, was inspired in the workerist movements that took root in Italy in the 1960s. By the 1980s mainstream feminism had, following theorists such as Catharine MacKinnon, turned its attention to gains in women’s legal rights and in the public sphere. On one hand the dirty business of housework became unsexy, associated with the housewives working feminists no longer wanted to be. On the other a lazy compact was made, with some middle-class women passing domestic labour to other subordinate women, often along race and class lines. In the 1980s we saw a huge rise in low-paid childcare and per-hour domestic cleaning as many women paid other women to account for the fact men aren’t pitching in more. Of course this offloading of ‘women’s work’ along race and class lines was a breathtaking failure of feminist solidarity.

IS: I particularly enjoyed the chapter on utopian visions and alternative communities seeking to address the issue. Can you talk about your favourite?

SH: One of my favourites actually isn’t included in the book. The House of Nobodies in La Paz is a progressive all-gender feminist community where housework, undertaken by all members, is degendered, allocated by lottery and paid for out of a central pot. It’s a modern take on the ideas expounded by Wages for Housework: that attributing fiscal value to these tasks clearly designates them as ‘work’, rather than the natural-born gifts of woman’s love. I also love built community fixes to uneven division of labour, however, such as the utopian socialist society designed by self-taught architect Alice Constance Austin in the 1910s, in which ‘kitchenless homes’ were connected by a system of underground tunnels used for commuting, laundry and hot meal collection and delivery (from a large centralised city kitchen and laundry), as well as the transportation of supplies and goods. These utopian ideas might seem fanciful, but in fact we can no longer afford our inefficient nuclear family dwellings on environmental as well as social justice grounds. I argue for radical new ideas around post-fossil fuel communalism.

IS: You mention Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein’s belief that transformative change is most likely to occur during and after societal crises. Do you think the coronavirus outbreak and the unprecedented impacts it is having on society could be one such crisis?

SH: Absolutely. On one hand we’re seeing worrying signs in terms of the impact of the crisis on gendered care work – as childcare and the cooking of three meals a day are abruptly shifted from the paid to the unpaid economy it’s women who are, in many cases, picking up the slack (a sharp rise in women’s unemployment in the US is likely to be matched by UK figures). On the other hand, this crisis is a brutal reminder that the care labour we all rely on to survive is not work that ‘just gets done’. Despite the blip of the 1950s, with its myth of the Perfect Housewife in her Ideal Home, the two world wars were huge system shocks that ushered in radical changes in social roles and set the ground for Second Wave feminism. I hope that this will be the case for the Covid-19 crisis, not least in terms of our increased appreciation for the ‘pink collar workers’ – the cleaners, nurses and carers – who are at the frontline of the Coronavirus battle and whose poorly remunerated labour is part of the broader picture of our social devaluation of ‘women’s work’.

The Home Stretch is published by Atlantic Books, priced £14.99.

How nonviolence reduces government-led mass killings: interview with Evan Perkoski

How nonviolence reduces government-led mass killings: interview with Evan Perkoski
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
6 April 2020

Ignored by the mainstream media, in 2018 Dr Evan Perkoski, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut, and Erica Chenoweth, a Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, published a very important study titled Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings.

With commentator Gary Younge heralding the 2010s as the decade of protest, and huge demonstrations continuing in places such as India, Chile and Iraq, Ian Sinclair questioned Perkoski about his co-authored report.

Ian Sinclair: Your report is informed by the seminal 2011 Columbia University Press study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by your co-author Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. For those unfamiliar with the idea of nonviolent resistance, can you summarise the key findings of Chenoweth and Stephan’s book?

Evan Perkoski: Chenoweth and Stephan produced a ground-breaking book in 2011 that was the first to systematically compare the efficacy of violent and nonviolent resistance methods. In other words, it statistically evaluates how likely popular uprisings are to succeed – to remove a dictator from power or to gain territorial independence, for example – when using either violent or nonviolent strategies. They find that nonviolent strategies are nearly twice as effective. As to why, there are many possible reasons. Nonviolent uprisings tend to be bigger and more diverse since lots of people can participate; they are difficult to suppress owing to their size, but also because militaries might not follow orders to crack down on protesters;  and they are often seen as more legitimate by international audience. As a result, these uprisings can very effectively disrupt civic affairs and apply pressure to governments. Yet, Chenoweth and Stephan also find that nonviolent movements have to grow quite large if they are to succeed. Specifically, if 3.5 percent of a state’s population actively participates at a campaign’s peak, then success is almost inevitable. But that’s a lot of people: in the US, for example, that would require over ten million individuals to turn out.

IS: What does your report tell us about nonviolent and violent resistance and the incidence of mass killings during popular uprisings?

EP: We find that mass killings tend to occur less frequently when dissidents use strategies of civil resistance and nonviolence compared to violence. Specifically, nearly half as many cases of nonviolent resistance experience mass violence as do cases of violent resistance. There are a few reasons why. Nonviolence might seem less threatening to regime elites and their families, giving them a way out without using force. Nonviolent movements also probably make it easier for members of the regime, including soldiers, to defect to the opposition, which they might hesitate to do when the opposition is a violent insurgency. And nonviolent movements don’t give the regime any cover for resorting to violence. In other words, they make it hard for states to justify a crackdown to their domestic and international allies.

IS: What are the other key factors which influence the chances of government forces carrying out mass killings in response to an uprising?

EP: Overall, we find that the interaction between dissidents and states matters greatly when it comes to the onset of mass violence. For instance, while strategies of nonviolent resistance seem to be safer, so are movements that can elicit defections from members of the armed forces. We also find that those resistance movements seeking to overthrow the incumbent regime are at a greater risk of violence. Which makes sense: leaders in such cases have the most to lose – compared to a secessionist campaign, for instance.

But we also find that outside actors can have a big effect. One of our most consistent findings is that highly internationalised conflicts, where foreign states are supporting dissidents as well as the regime they’re fighting against, are particularly dangerous.

But it’s not only the dynamics of the uprising that affect whether mass violence happens, either. Certain types of states are especially likely to kill their own civilians, and this includes non-democracies, military-based regimes (where the military controls the state), and those that are generally less developed.

IS: Can you give a real world example of this playing out in a recent struggle?

EP: One of the cases where we’ve seen some of these dynamics play out in a terrible way is Syria. In some ways it fits with our findings, and in other ways it doesn’t. In terms of it fitting, this is a highly internationalised conflict with foreign states supporting both dissidents and the regime in very overt ways. Syrian dissidents are also seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, which might explain why Assad is willing to use lethal force – specifically, to stay in power. Dissidents and the regime are also engaging in direct battles against one another which can help explain the high level of civilian victimization. Of course, dissidents initially began protesting the regime with nonviolent means and only escalated after the regime began its campaign of brutal repression. This shows how it is important to remember that cross-national statistical findings will not always explain every case perfectly, and they are instead most useful for identifying broader patterns that will generally – but not always – hold true across contexts.

IS: If resistance campaigns who receive external support are more likely to experience mass killings by government forces, are there any practical steps concerned citizens and organisations in the US and UK can take if they want to assist resistance campaigns in other countries?

EP: In our research we focus on a very specific type of foreign support: namely, overt material assistance. While we find that this particular type of engagement can make violence more likely, this does not necessarily mean that all forms of engagement should be avoided. States and other interested groups might therefore avoid sending money and arms, and instead provide training materials, to help develop organizational capacity, support dissidents through acts of diplomacy, and to use their leverage to isolate and sanction any regimes that resort to violence. Doing so would also send a powerful signal to other states that such behaviour won’t be tolerated.

Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings is published by the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, and can be downloaded for free from https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/nonviolent-resistance-and-prevention-of-mass-killings/.