Category Archives: UK Domestic Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to Abolish Grammar Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does the evidence show?

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

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

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

But again, this needs a little unpacking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Britain really a democracy?

Is Britain Really A Democracy?
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 July 2022

Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze in January, Jeremy Black, Professor Emeritus of History at Exeter University, strongly opposed the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in June 2020. “Since 1928 we have had a full, equal parliamentary democracy… we do have democratic processes in Britain, both in local government and in national government, to change the law or to give effect to the law,” he argued. “I’m not happy with the way of using force and violence in order to affect change when there are democratic processes there.”

Professor Black’s belief in the efficacy of British democracy echoes repeated statements made by the British elite. “I am fortunate to live in a democracy, I am fortunate to be the Prime Minister of a free, independent, democratic country,” Boris Johnson told the BBC’s Sophie Raworth in February. Indeed, these kinds of self-serving platitudes tend to be popular when discussing international affairs, with Tory MP Andrew Percy responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine by announcing“We are lucky to live under the best form of government ever known in human history”.

As the quote from Johnson makes clear, one function of public pronouncements about “British democracy” is to confer legitimacy on the status quo, and our rulers.

But what is the reality?

There has been some important research done on this question in the US, with a 2014 BBC report on an academic study into American political system titled “US is an oligarchy, not a democracy.” The authors of the research – Professor Martin Gilens from Princeton University and Professor Benjamin Page from Northwestern University –noted their “analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” Writing in his 2012 book Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, Gilens explains his research shows “that when preferences between the well off and the poor diverge, government policy bears absolutely no relationship to the degree of support or opposition among the poor.”

Back in the UK, there is considerable evidence all is not well with our own much heralded democracy. Note, for example, the following polling results.

A May YouGov survey found 60 per cent of respondents backed the public ownership of the railways, which echoes a survey done by the polling company in 2017 which found a majority of people in favour of nationalising Royal Mail, water companies, energy companies and railway companies.

Another YouGov poll in January found 67 per cent of respondents (including 65 per cent of Tory voters) supported capping private housing rental rates, with 69 per cent supporting “Increasing the percentage of new builds required to be set aside for affordable housing.”

In October 2021 the thinktank Demos and WWF surveyed 22,000 British people – the “biggest analysis of [climate] policy preferences ever published,” according to the Guardian. They found overwhelming support for a number of policies, including a carbon tax (94 per cent), food campaigns that promote plant-based diets and reduced meat and dairy consumption (93 per cent) and raising flying costs, especially for frequent fliers (89 per cent).

And in 2020 YouGov also found 61 per cent of the public supports a wealth tax for people with assets over £750,000.

Morning Star readers will know that despite public backing, these policies are not supported by either the Conservative government or Labour opposition, and garner little support amongst the wider political class.

To (mis)paraphrase The Jam’s Going Underground, on key issues the public often doesn’t get what the public wants.

This is because there are more powerful forces bearing down on the political system that are actively working in opposition to public opinion – corporate interests, being a key influence.

The Democratic Audit research unit at the London School of Economics came to a similar conclusion in 2012. “There are very firm grounds to suggest that the power which large corporations and wealthy individuals now wield on the UK political system is unprecedented,” their report noted about the “long-term, terminal decline” of representative democracy in the UK. “Evidence is presented throughout our Audit of ways in which policymaking appears to have shifted from the democratic arena to a far less transparent set of arrangements in which politics and business interests have become increasingly interwoven.”

This influence occurs in a number of ways, many of which, as the Audit suggests, are hidden from public scrutiny as much as possible.

For example, in 2011 it was revealed by the Guardian that financiers in the City of London provided over 50 per cent of the funding for the Conservative Party. More recently the Guardian reported “private firms including healthcare bodies, arms companies and tech giants” had provided £13m for All-Party Parliamentary Groups, informal groups in parliament made up of MPs focussing on a variety of topics.

In addition to directly funding of political parties, corporations undertake extensive lobbying of politicians. In 2012 the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that the City spent £92.8 million (with 800 staff working full time) on lobbying government in 2011. Unsurprising this work creates access to the highest level of government. For example, in 2015 the Guardian reported “fossil fuel companies enjoy far greater access to UK government ministers than renewable energy companies or climate campaigns,” with just Shell and BP having double the number of ministerial meetings as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Incredibly, 2012 Freedom of Information requests uncovered employees of oil companies Shell and ConocoPhillips working at the Department of Energy and Climate Change – in most cases paid by the government to do so.

Corporations also exert influence through well-funded thinktanks such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs, Policy Exchange, the Adam Smith Institute and the Legatum Institute. All are very close to the current Tory government, helping to shape the political debate in the media and Westminster.

And of course big business and wealthy individuals own significant sections of the media, the primary source of news for the population. With three companies controlling 83 per cent of the national newspaper readership in 2018, in their 2020 book The Media Manifesto, four academics note “levels of concentration of press power are actually increasing” in the UK.

What all of this shows is we have a corporate-dominated democracy – a managed democracy in which we have formal elections but governments that are often unresponsive to voters on many of the key issues but usually happy to implement corporate-friendly policies. Which of course means we don’t really live in a democracy at all. As comedian and writer Robert Newman argued in his 2003 novel The Fountain at the Centre of the World “Either you have democracy or you have private power – you can’t have both.”

A word of warning: don’t expect unwavering support from liberals in this fight.

“That nobody could possibly do a better job than… professionals is a core belief of elite liberalism,” journalist Abi Wilkinson argued in Jacobin magazine in 2017. Elite liberals are “suspicious of mass democracy,” she notes, because they believe “that every other social order had been tried and proven inferior. Capitalist democracy, stewarded by sharp, well-intentioned experts, had allegedly emerged from the scrum as the unquestioned victor.”

Wilkinson’s analysis is echoed by a study published in the New York Times in 2018. Using data from the World Values Survey, David Adler found that across Europe and North America “centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and [other than the far right] the most supportive of authoritarianism.” Again, this won’t be a surprise to anyone who remembers the support and/or supportive silence Labour centrists gave when the Labour Party barred thousands of people from joining to vote in the 2016 leadership election, or their attempts to overturn the Brexit vote.

All is not lost. Another world is possible. The answer is simple: more democracy. How we get there is the hard part. What we do know is that grassroots, popular movements applying decisive pressure on the elite is a tried and tested method for winning political change. There is no way round it: successfully addressing the big problems – poverty, inequality, covid and, most importantly, the climate and ecological emergency – will require an epic confrontation with, and significant weakening of, corporate power.

Time to get busy.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Book review: Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice by Chris Saltmarsh

Book review: Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice by Chris Saltmarsh
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
April-May 2022

Though he doesn’t mention it in this book, I imagine activist Chris Saltmarsh is a big fan of the Chico Mendes quote that often appears on Twitter: ‘Environmentalism Without Class Struggle is Just Gardening.’

For Saltmarsh, ‘the root cause of climate change is our system of organising the economy and our relationship to nature: capitalism.’ With the ruling class profiting most from the crisis, he notes the resistance of capital is ‘perhaps the biggest barrier to climate justice.’

Part of Pluto Press’s Outspoken series, Burnt is a challenging read, with lots of constructive criticism of various facets of the climate movement.

Too often the ‘environmental NGO industry’, like the United Nations COP climate talks, has played a depoliticising, limiting role in the struggle, Saltmarsh argues, working ‘to uphold capitalism and the interests of fossil fuel capital by deflecting blame away from them and lowering our collective ambitions.’

There is an interesting analysis of Extinction Rebellion, the youth strikes and direct action more broadly – Saltmarsh was active in Reclaim The Power (which used direct action to oppose the UK’s ‘dash for gas’). He describes the victories of similar campaigns such as Climate Camp in the UK, Ende Gelände in Germany and the Keystone XL pipeline protests in the US as generally limited (‘downscaling or delaying construction’) and precarious – and insufficient to force long-term change.

With top climate scientist James Hansen recently noting ‘the 1.5°C target certainly will be exceeded, and the world will almost certainly blow through the 2°C ceiling’, Saltmarsh maintains: ‘There is only one political form presently capable of dismantling the fossil fuel industry on the timescale that the climate crisis commands: the state.’

As a co-founder of Labour For a Green New Deal – which he passionately fleshes out in one chapter – Saltmarsh believes that addressing the climate crisis ‘will require a centrally managed plan of targets, budgets, resource allocation, and key initiatives spanning years.’ Therefore the task is to capture the state through democratic means – by mobilising and radicalising the Labour Party and trade unions (the Green Party is never mentioned as a viable option).

While Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership showed that a more humane Labour Party is possible, I’m not as hopeful as Saltmarsh is that there will be another opportunity to elect a radical Labour leader in the near future.

A thought-provoking primer about the most important and urgent issue facing humanity, Burnt is an inspiring call to action, directed in part at those who don’t identify as activists. ‘Because without you, we can’t win,’ he notes.

If Vladimir Putin is to be tried as a war criminal, why not Gordon Brown?

If Vladimir Putin is to be tried as a war criminal, why not Gordon Brown?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 April 2022

Last month former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was among 140 academics, lawyers and politicians who signed a petition calling for a Nuremberg-style trial for Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion of Ukraine.

Appearing on the BBC Today Programme, Brown said “We believe that Putin should not be able to act with impunity, that a warning should be sent out that he will face the full force of international law, that his colleagues who are complicit in this will do so as well”.

He continued: “The foundational crime… is the crime of aggression, the initial crime of invading the country… the rule of law has been replaced by threats and by the use of force, and that has to be punished.”

Asked if he considered the Russian leader to be a war criminal, he replied: “That’s what President Biden said, and that’s my view.”

There is, of course, another relatively recent and glaring example of the “foundational” crime of aggression – the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq led by the US and UK. With the US and UK failing to gain United Nations support for military action, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan explained in 2004 the war “was not in conformity with the UN charter” and therefore “from our point of view and from the charter point of view it was illegal.”

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has undoubtedly been bloody with, it seems, indiscriminate bombing and shelling of urban areas leading to thousands of civilian deaths and millions of refugees. The reporting at the weekend of Russia’s alleged massacre of civilians near Kyiv is particularly horrifying. However, it is also worth remembering the US-UK attack on Iraq and the chaos it caused 500,000 deaths, according to a 2013 PLOS Medicine journal study, and over 4.2 million people displaced by 2007, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Brown has direct responsibility for the destruction of Iraq. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1997 to 2007 – the second most powerful person in the government after Prime Minister Tony Blair – he oversaw the financing of the war. As a senior cabinet minister he also had collective responsibility for the decision to invade. Andrew Rawnsley explained Brown’s role in the immediate run-up to the war in his 2010 book End Of The Party: The Rise And Fall Of New Labour: on March 17 2003 “Brown gave an unequivocal statement of public support and threw himself into the effort to win over Labour MPs.”

“In the final days [before the invasion] Gordon was absolutely core,” senior Blair aide Sally Morgan told Rawnsley.

Incredibly, Brown was still supporting the war in 2010, telling the Chilcot Inquiry the decision to attack Iraq was “the right decision for the right reasons” and that “everything that Mr Blair did during this period, he did properly”. According to the Guardian’s report of his appearance at the inquiry “Brown accepted he had been fully involved in the run-up to the invasion”.

Brown was also Chancellor for the illegal invasion of Afghanistan, and then Prime Minister from 2007-10. According to Brown University’s Costs of War research project, as of 2021 an estimated 176,000 people had died in the near 20-year Afghan war, including around 46,000 civilians. After his staff interviewed over 600 people with first-hand experience of the Afghan war, the head of the US government’s Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, told the Washington Post “the American people have constantly been lied to” for 20 years. As the US’s closest ally in Afghanistan, how many lies did the Blair and Brown governments tell the British people about the war?

Surely, then, if anyone should be facing a Nuremberg-style war crimes trial for the crime of aggression it is Brown himself – along with Tony Blair, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, and senior figures in the US government at the time.

Brown’s responsibility for the slaughter in Iraq is unarguable, though unmentionable in the mainstream media and by the blue tick commentariat.

Even much of the left seem unable to compute Brown’s culpability for mass death in Iraq. In a review of Brown’s new book Seven Ways To Change The World, last year William Davis, Professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths, University of London, argued “Brown’s forte as a politician was his combination of clear moral purpose with a mastery of technical minutiae, but which sometimes resulted in an air of bookish detachment.” In June 2021 Professor Anthony Costello, a member of the leftish Independent SAGE group, tweeted that Brown was “a true international statesman”, while in 2012 Save the Children CEO – and former Special Adviser to Brown – Justin Forsyth tweeted “Well done to Gordon Brown for being appointed UN SG special envoy for education. His leadership over many years is impressive.”

Brown’s ‘leadership’ certainly helped to change Iraq’s education system. A 2004 UNICEF survey found “over 700 primary schools had been damaged by bombing… with more than 200 burned and over 3,000 looted” since the US-UK invasion in March 2003. “Iraq used to have one of the finest school systems in the Middle East,” commented UNICEF Iraq Representative Roger Wright. “The current system is effectively denying children a decent education.” Brown University’s Costs of War project found similar impacts on Iraq’s higher education sector: “The Iraq war resulted in the decimation of Iraqi universities, through looting, violence against academics, and the removal of Iraq’s intellectual leadership.”

There are rare exceptions to this power-friendly historical amnesia. Over the years media watchdog Media Lens, the editor of Interventions Watch blog, Declassified UK’s Matt Kennard and blogger John Hilley have all highlighted Brown’s responsibility for the Iraq War. And in 2009 Peter Brierley, whose son Shaun was killed in Iraq in 2003, said both Blair and Brown should be tried as war criminals. And while 37 per cent of respondents to a 2010 ComRes poll answered that Blair should be tried as a war criminal, in the same poll 60 per cent of respondents said that Brown should share responsibility for the conflict with Blair.

Arguably the anti-war movement has all too often focussed their ire, rather successfully I would argue, on the individual figure of Blair.

But this isn’t how history works. Blair could only take the UK to war because he had the support – or at least acquiescence – of key centres of power, including Brown, the cabinet, the vast majority of Labour Party MPs, nearly all Conservative Party MPs, the military, the civil service and significant sections of the press.

Indeed, Brown’s importance to events is highlighted by the argument that if Brown, representing a huge power base in the Labour Party, had publicly opposed the war in 2002-3 it would have likely stopped British military involvement – something then International Development Secretary Clare Short said in the recent BBC documentary Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution.

Of course, it is very unlikely Brown (and Blair) will ever appear in front of a Nuremberg-style trial for what they did to Iraq. But in a sane and just world Brown’s crimes would have ended his career as a public figure long ago. Instead his ‘expertise’ is regularly sought by the mainstream media, the Guardian provides him with a platform to opine about Afghanistan (stop laughing at the back), he is regularly invited to give prestigious public lectures, and he has been appointed to a number of high profile positions.

Excepting Blair and his many “rare interventions” in public life, a more perfect illustration of the moral bankruptcy of the British political and media elite you could not wish to find.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

“The climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism”: Chris Saltmarsh interview

“The climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism”: Chris Saltmarsh interview
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
11 March 2022

Published at the end of last year, Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice is the first book from Chris Saltmarsh, socialist climate campaigner and the co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal.

With top climate scientist James Hansen recently noting ‘the 1.5°C target certainly will be exceeded, and the world will almost certainly blow through the 2°C ceiling” Ian Sinclair asked Saltmarsh about capitalism and the climate crisis, and the role played by established NGOS and new grassroots campaigns such as Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikes.

Ian Sinclair: Your analysis in the book is unashamedly anti-capitalist. Why? 

Chris Saltmarsh: It’s really clear to me that the climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism. We have an economic system that puts profit before all else. Fossil fuel companies have known since the 1970s or 1980s that their business model is driving global heating. Yet they continue to extract and burn oil, gas and coal because frankly there aren’t many other resources that generate such high returns. Most of these companies have invested millions in acquiring reserves and developing technologies. Even if there is money to be made in generating renewable energy, within capitalism it doesn’t make business sense for these companies to not extract every last drop of fossil fuels.

The book is anti-capitalist because, while there’s a lot of moralising that goes on in the climate movement, its not really any individuals’ fault. Not my fault, your grandma’s or even really fossil fuel company CEOs. We all play by the rules of the system and if Shell’s CEO suddenly became enlightened and wanted to put a stop to it he’d be replaced very quickly. Fundamentally, if we don’t have an anti-capitalist analysis of the climate crisis then we’ll remain stuck in partial solutions that won’t get to the heart of the problem.

IS: You are critical of what you call the “environmental NGO industry”. Surely green NGOs like World Wide Fund for Nature, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace do valuable work?  

I’m critical of these NGOs because although they are seen (by themselves and others) as the leadership of the climate movement, they operate within really significant constraints. Politically, there is a really strong ideology of liberalism which runs through these organisations. This means they’re generally unprepared to take an anti-capitalist – let alone socialist – analysis of climate change. It means they never support necessary measures like expanding public ownership and democracy in the economy. Organisationally, they are generally structured like corporations. They have an unaccountable and overpaid CEO or director, a bloated middle-management, and under-paid underlings who do most of the work with no say. These organisations aren’t democracies internally, and they certainly aren’t building a democratic mass climate movement.

We should understand this, though, as being a broadly structural problem. As charities they’re legally limited in what they can do by government. That they’re funded either by relatively conservative supporters or the philanthropic arm of capital (grants from trust and foundations) is a major source of political moderation. Sure, some of the work they do is useful, although a lot is actively harmful to our movement such as focusing on individual behaviour change. There is definitely a role for some of these organisations to play, but they need to understand their own limitations and contribute to the wider movement with more humility.

IS: 2019 saw an explosion of climate activism in the UK, and around the world, with Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikes. What is your assessment of the impact of these two movements in the UK? 

CS: My view is that these two movements, along with campaigns for a Green New Deal, emerged as responses to the same moment. In the summer of 2018, we saw really stark extreme weather like wildfires; an IPCC [United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report warning we only had 12 years left to save the planet; and another report warning of a ‘hothouse earth’. They effectively channelled a latent anxiety and strong desire for proper climate action among the public.

I think both were effective at mobilising previously inactivated constituencies of people. The youth strikes obviously did this with school children. I thought this was particularly powerful as one of my criticisms of the wider climate movement is that it doesn’t really understand what its base is. Is it workers? Is it urban climate-conscious liberals? Too often we try to mobilise everyone and end up with nobody. Others should learn from the youth strikes organising a defined group. XR [Extinction Rebellion] did similar with older people, I think. Overall, their major impact was to push climate further up the political agenda and keep it there. This is valuable, of course, but also limited. It was essentially enhanced awareness raising. The lack of politics and demands, particularly from XR, allowed for elite co-option and unfortunately a dissipation of what became relatively short-lived energy.

IS: You argue the state is the only political form presently capable of transforming the economy and society in the short timescale the climate crisis requires, devoting a chapter of the book to the concept of a Green New Deal, which the 2019 Labour Party conference endorsed. What would a Green New Deal entail? 

CS: A Green New Deal is broadly a state-programme of investment, regulation and economic transformation with the dual aims of rapid decarbonisation and achieving economic justice. There are different interpretations from different political positions. In the book, I make the case for a socialist Green New Deal which has expanding public ownership of the economy at the heart. Crucially, a Green New Deal must also be serious about a proper just transition to clean energy. This means guaranteeing jobs for all workers in polluting industries, repealing all anti-trade union laws, and spreading industrial economy across sectors.

In terms of what a Green New Deal would mean for everyday life, for me it’s about making the greenest option the cheapest and easiest in every corner of life. Transport, for example, would mean a shift from polluting private cars to low-carbon public transport that’s cheap or free, accessible and quick. Housing would mean warm homes for all alongside a massive expansion of council housing. Ultimately, its about a green transition that improves our lives at the same time. Perhaps most importantly, a socialist Green New Deal doesn’t just seek these transformations within the borders of one country, but internationally too.

IS: Where do you think the UK climate movement, and the broader left, should go from here?  

CS: I think the climate movement and the Left need to have a realistic assessment of where we are. The Tories are still in power and emissions are rising. We also need a realistic strategy for achieving a Green New Deal. There are a few pre-conditions for it. First, electing a socialist government and capturing state power more widely. Second, having a radical and militant trade union movement taking industrial action for climate and economic justice. Third, a radical mass democratic climate movement mobilising millions of people on the streets and to take direct-action.

On all counts, we’re not where we need to be. The climate-left needs to divide our energies between working to re-capture the Labour Party as the most viable vehicle for a socialist government in the UK and agitating for it to have ambitious Green New Deal policies. We also need to work to re-empower our trade unions by organising our workplaces and building confidence and militancy. We can connect fights over pay and conditions to climate where relevant, and otherwise work internally to create common-sense support for a Green New Deal and a just transition among union members. We also need dozens of offshoots of youth strikes and XR, mobilising new constituencies and cohering around demands for a socialist Green New Deal.

Burnt is published by Pluto Press, priced £9.99. Follow Chris on Twitter @Chris_Saltmarsh.

Why is no one talking about how senior Labour Party figures whitewash apartheid?

Why is no one talking about how senior Labour Party figures whitewash apartheid?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2022

Amnesty International’s recent report condemning Israel for “committing the crime of apartheid against Palestinians” is a damning indictment of the current Israeli government (and its predecessors), and its supporters around the world.

After carrying out research for four years, Amnesty concludes “Israel enforces a system of oppression and domination against the Palestinian people wherever it has control over their rights”, including Palestinians living in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and displaced refugees in other countries.

Defining apartheid as “an institutionalized regime of oppression and domination by one racial group over another,” Amnesty explains Israel’s “massive seizures of Palestinian land and property, unlawful killings, forcible transfer, drastic movement restrictions, and the denial of nationality and citizenship to Palestinians are all components of a system which amounts to apartheid under international law.” This constitutes a “crime against humanity”, the human rights organisation notes.

Amnesty also has a message to those backing Israel: “governments who continue to supply Israel with arms, and shield it from accountability at the UN are supporting a system of apartheid, undermining the international legal order, and exacerbating the suffering of the Palestinian people.”

The UK does exactly this. In 2018 the Campaign Against Arms Trade exposed how British defence contractors were selling record amounts of arms to Israel, with the UK issuing £221m worth of arms licences to defence companies exporting to Israel. This made Israel the UK’s eighth largest market for UK arms companies, the Guardian reported.

The same year, Mark Curtis, the Editor of Declassified UK, highlighted “consistent British support for Israel internationally, helping to shield it from ostracism”. In 2017 the Foreign Office refused to sign a joint declaration issued at a Paris peace conference on Palestine attended by 70 nations, accusing it of “taking place against the wishes of the Israelis”. And in 2019 the then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt confirmed the UK would oppose motions criticising rights abuses carried out by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza that are brought to the UN’s Human Rights Council.

While the world’s leading human rights organisation criticising Israel for perpetrating the crime of apartheid is hugely significant, it is important to remember Amnesty is just the latest group to come to this conclusion.

In April 2021 Human Rights Watch declared Israel was committing the crime of apartheid, enforcing the policy to “maintain the domination by Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.” Drawing on years of documentation, analysis of Israeli laws, government planning documents and public statements by officials, the rights organisation concluded Israeli authorities “systematically discriminate against Palestinians” and have adopted policies to counter what it describes as a demographic “threat” from Palestinians.

Similarly, in January 2021 B’Tselem, the leading domestic rights group in Israel, described Israel as an “apartheid regime”.

“One organising principle lies at the base of a wide array of Israeli policies: advancing and perpetuating the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians.” Hagai El-Ad, the group’s director, noted “Israel is not a democracy that has a temporary occupation attached to it. It is one regime between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid.”

Likewise, Yossi Sarid, a former Israeli cabinet minister and longstanding member of Israel’s parliament, said in 2008: “What acts like apartheid, is run like apartheid and harasses like apartheid, is not a duck – it is apartheid.” Famously, former US President Jimmy Carter published his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid in 2006, and in 2002 Desmond Tutu, who knew a thing or two about apartheid, told a conference in Boston about a recent visit to the Holy Land and how “it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”

Though the UK media have studiously avoided making the link, the reports from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, and the quotes above, have huge ramifications for key figures in the UK Labour Party.

Giving the keynote speech at the November 2021 Labour Friends of Israel’s annual lunch, Keir Starmer noted Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948 “committed the new state to freedom, justice and peace; complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”

“Israel herself is the first to acknowledge that at times she falls short of these goals”, he continued, “But we will continue to support Israel’s rumbustious democracy, its independent judiciary, and its commitment to the rule of law”.

The Labour leader said Labour Party saw their counterparts in the Israeli Labor party “as comrades in the international struggle for equality, peace and freedom”, before quoting Prime Minister Harold Wilson: “social democrats who made the desert flower.”

The assertion it was Israeli pioneers who made the desert bloom repeats one of the founding – and racist – myths of Israel. Novara Media’s Aaron Bastani tweeted why at the time of Starmer’s speech: “The reason why is because it implies it was ‘terra nullius’, nobody’s land, & therefore fine to be appropriated. The story of colonialism.”

Starmer also explained the UK Labour Party does not support the Boycott, Disinvestment and Solidarity campaign against Israel. Why? “Its principles are wrong – targeting alone the world’s sole Jewish state”.

“We believe that international law should be adhered to”, he stated, and therefore Labour “opposes and condemns” illegal settlements, and annexation and the eviction of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Starmer said nothing, of course, about Israel being an apartheid state.

Speaking at a 2017 Jewish News/Bicom Balfour 100 event, Emily Thornberry MP, then Shadow Foreign Secretary, echoed Starmer’s sentiments: Israel “still stands out as a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy, particular in respect of women and LGBT communities, in a region where oppression, discrimination and inequality is too often the norm.”

And speaking at the 2017 Labour Friends of Israel annual dinner, Thornberry praised former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres as “a hero of the left, of the state of Israel and of the cause of peace.”

In contrast, in 2005 US dissident Noam Chomsky called Peres “an iconic mass murderer,” presumably for his role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that led to the creation of Israel and for being Prime Minister when Israel shelled a United Nations compound in Lebanon in 1996, killing over 100 civilians. After conducting an investigation, Amnesty International concluded the attack was intentional.

Labour MP Lisa Nandy excels at smearing critics of Israel. Interviewed on the BBC in early 2020 when she was running to be Labour leader, presenter Andrew Neil asked her about online Labour activist Rachael Cousins, “who’s tweeted calling the Board of Deputies of British Jews Conservative [Party] backers, and demanding that they disassociate themselves from that party, and that they condemn all Israeli military atrocities in the West Bank – her words. Is that anti-Semitic?” Nandy is quick to respond: “Yes.”

And when there were nonviolent protests at the London School of Economics in November 2021 against Israeli Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely, Nandy, then Shadow Foreign Secretary, tweeted: “The appalling treatment of Israeli Ambassador @TzipiHotovely is completely unacceptable. There is no excuse for this kind of behaviour. Freedom of speech is a fundamental right and any attempt to silence or intimidate those we disagree with should never be tolerated.”

Reading these quotes in light of all the reports and testimony above is nothing short of shocking. As the American historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

The Labour Party’s code of conduct notes it “will not tolerate racism in any form inside or outside the party” and that “any behaviour or use of language which… undermines Labour’s ability to campaign against any form of racism, is unacceptable conduct within the Labour Party.” Surely, then, the whitewashing of, and apologism for, the racist Israeli apartheid state carried out by Starmer and co. should lead to them being expelled from the Labour Party?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Munich – The Edge Of War: glossing over the British Empire

Munich – The Edge Of War: glossing over the British Empire
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
4 February 2022

A pretty good, sometimes gripping, political thriller, the new movie Munich – The Edge Of War, based on Robert Harris’s 2017 novel, includes a couple of obvious howlers.

First, the film’s Adolf Hitler is so bad it becomes comical. Surely, filmmakers understand Bruno Ganz as the Fuhrer in the 2004 German film Downfall irrevocably raised the bar when it comes to onscreen portrayals of the Nazi leader? Second, amazingly the filmmakers chose August Diehl to play a slightly manic, slightly comic SS officer, after he had played a slightly manic, slightly comic SS officer in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 movie Inglourious Basterds. Is the pool of decent German actors really so small?

Furthermore, a couple of casting choices seem particularly significant. Cecil Syers, a civil servant in Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Downing Street, is played by Black British actor Raphael Sowole, while British Asian actress Anjli Mohindra plays Joan Menzies. Initially presented as the best typist in Downing Street, she is – spoiler alert! – later revealed to be the niece of a senior MI6 official.

Whether these are examples of “colourblind” casting is unclear. In a recent interview Mohindra notes “There were lots of South-Asian civil servants working for the British government at that time”, and specifically mentions British South-Asian spy Noor Inayat Khan as an inspiration for her work on Munich.

For the record, I have no problem with Black and ethnic minority actors taking roles that would traditionally be given to white actors. I loved Dev Patel as the titular character in 2019’s The Personal History of David Copperfield; the ethnically diverse cast of playful period drama Bridgerton made perfect sense to me; I was mystified by Laurence Fox’s criticism of a Sikh soldier appearing in Sam Mendes’s epic and brilliant 1917 film (more than 130,000 Sikhs fought in the First World War).

However, there are wider political ramifications connected to these casting decisions in Munich that I think are worth exploring. So while the Nazis are depicted as, well, Nazis, including several obligatory scenes showing the repression and dehumanization of Jews, Sowole playing Syers, and Mohindra as Menzies, suggests Chamberlain’s government, ruling over the biggest empire the world had ever known, was running an equal opportunities recruitment process for top-level “national security” work in Downing Street.

In short, the casting choices arguably work to gloss-over the racism, repression and elitism of the Chamberlain government, and of the whole British ruling class at the time. A similar concealing effect can be seen in 2017’s Darkest Hour movie, which conjures up the fantasy of Winston Churchill getting inspiration after travelling on the tube and swapping lines from a Macaulay poem with a West Indian man.

Indeed, like nearly every British war film, Munich reaffirms a ‘Britain = good, Nazi = evil’ binary understanding of history. With the action shifting to the emergency talks in Munich, one of the film’s two main characters, Paul Hartmann, a translator in the German Foreign Office who is heroically trying to stop Hitler, tells Chamberlain the German Chancellor is “a man who hates everything you stand for.”

The problem with this popular framing of the Second World War, as the comedian Robert Newman argued on his 2005 album Apocalypso Now, is that it’s “based on a very misleading premise: which is just because the enemy you are fighting is evil, that makes you good”.

As then Guardian columnist Seamus Milne noted in 2010, “The British empire was… an avowedly racist despotism built on ethnic cleansing, enslavement, continual wars and savage repression, land theft and merciless exploitation. Far from bringing good governance, democracy or economic progress, the empire underdeveloped vast areas, executed and jailed hundreds of thousands for fighting for self-rule, ran concentration camps, carried out medical experiments on prisoners and oversaw famines that killed tens of millions of people.”

Though it remains pretty much verboten to mention in polite company, the uncomfortable truth is Hitler and Chamberlain (along with a significant segment of the British elite) shared some key values.

“Hitler’s dream was inspired, in part, by the British Empire,” noted British historian Richard Drayton, currently Professor of Imperial and Global History at King’s College London, in the Guardian in 2005. “The British and Americans were key theorists of eugenics and had made racial segregation respectable. The concentration camp was a British invention, and in Iraq and Afghanistan the British were the first to use air power to repress partisan resistance… we forget, too, that British and US elites gave aid to the fascists.”

In addition to obfuscating the reality of the British Empire, the film also ignores the importance of the British Empire to Chamberlain’s decision-making during the Munich crisis.

“By the mid-1930s Britain was defending a vast and vulnerable empire encompassing a quarter of the world’s territory and population, with the dismally depleted military resources of a third-rate power”, historian Robert Self noted on the BBC News website in 2013. He goes on to quote Sir Thomas Inskip’s defence policy of December 1937, commissioned by Chamberlain: “it is beyond the resources of this country to make proper provision in peace for defence of the British Empire against three major powers [Germany, Japan and Italy] in three different theatres of war.”

The 1985 Granada Television documentary End Of Empire explains what this meant for the UK government: “Britain’s leaders feared the empire would not survive a war on both sides of the world at once, so desperate for peace at almost any price, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich and appeasement.”

To be clear, I support more Black and ethnic minority-centred stories and actors on our TV and film screens. For example, I consider Steve McQueen’s monumental Small Axe film anthology one of the most important British cultural events of recent times.

There is no shortage of historical events and stories centred around the experience of Black and ethnic minorities that could be mined if mainstream Western filmmakers were as open minded and progressive as they thought they were. How about a period drama about the brutal British repression of the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya? Or an epic film about the largely nonviolent national movement that forced the British to grant Ghana independence in 1957? Why hasn’t there been a television series about the British arming recently surrendered Japanese troops in 1945 to put down a nationalist uprising in Vietnam? Or about Greek resistance fighter Manolis Glezos, who was moments away from killing Winston Churchill in Athens on Christmas Day 1944, after Britain had turned against the Communist-led insurgents who had helped defeat the German Army? Or a political thriller about all the dirty dealings and repression the UK has carried out and supported over decades to keep all their favoured despots in power in the Gulf?

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.