Tag Archives: activism

Book review. Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion by Steve Melia

Book review. Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion by Steve Melia
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2021

Steve Melia has taken a topic that could be dully technical and written a book that is both interesting and infused with a sense of urgency in terms of the climate crisis.

Underpinned with 50 original interviews with activists, policymakers and lobbyists, he surveys the key campaigns against government transport policy over the past 30 years, from the anti-roads protests of the 90s to the fight against airport expansion, and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) mass actions in 2019. His review includes the fuel protests of 2000, which nearly brought the country to a standstill.

As a Senior Lecturer in Transport and Planning at the University of the West of England, Melia’s writing leans toward the academic, though he has a journalist’s eye for detail and a good story. He relates how one of the first targets of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, with its new offence of ‘aggravated trespass’, was ‘a pantomime cow called Buttercup’ at the Newbury Bypass protests: ‘The front half pleaded guilty to aggravated trespass while the rear half argued that his vision was obscured when they pranced across a security cordon’.

His analysis of the impact of protest will be of particular interest to activists – all the movements in the book ‘did have at least some influence on policy and practice’, he argues. For example, the anti-roads movement triggered a significant shift in public opinion and government policy, with most of the Tories’ planned road schemes dropped by the mid-90s. ‘Swampy had a lasting impact,’ notes a government advisor in the mid-2000s. ‘To build a road now is a lot of aggro.’

However, Melia notes government transport policy tends to change for three interconnected reasons: the strength of argument and evidence, the economic context, and public opinion – often driven by direct action. On the last point, he maintains ‘the main message of this book for XR or any other protest groups is that your actions will only work if you bring public opinion with you.’ This reference to XR – Melia was arrested during the April 2019 Rebellion – is, in part, about the controversial action to occupy a tube train at Canning Town in October 2019.

‘The need for disruptive protest action has never been greater’, he concludes. With the government attempting to push ahead with the expansion of Heathrow airport and a huge road building programme (sound familiar?), Roads, Runways and Resistance couldn’t be more timely.

Roads, Runways and Resistance: From The Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion is published by Pluto Press, priced £16.99.


The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy

The importance of knowing our own strength: the anti-war movement and UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 June 2021

Though considered an abject failure by many, the enormous anti-war movement against the 2003 Iraq War has had a number of long-lasting impacts on British politics and society. One unfortunate effect is, nearly 20 years later, the movement’s inability to stop the invasion continues to breed cynicism and defeatism when it comes to the general public influencing UK foreign policy.

For example, discussing the large-scale UK protests against the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza, one Middle East scholar quipped on Twitter “If history has taught me anything, when people in the UK march against immoral actions in the Middle East, their government will almost certainly ignore them.”

This pessimistic take is even shared by anti-war figureheads like Tariq Ali, who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park in London at the end of the biggest march in British history on 15 February 2003. “It was a huge show of anger, but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”, Ali commented on the tenth anniversary of the demonstration.

So should we be disheartened? History suggests there is cause for optimism.

Take the Vietnam War and the US anti-war movement that opposed it. Elected in 1968, “President Richard Nixon claimed in public to be completely unmoved by anti-war protests”, academic Simon Hall notes in Rethinking the American Anti-War Movement.

The reality was rather different. Both Nixon and President Lyndon Johnson before him “took an active interest in the movement’s doings”, Tom Wells explains in his 1994 book The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam. Indeed, Nixon “received multiple reports per day on some demonstrations.”

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells “The reaction of the noisy radical groups was considered all the time”, with the wider movement having “a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.”

With the movement playing “a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war”, it “was perhaps the most successful anti-war movement in history”, Wells concludes.

In short, the US anti-war movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was able to successfully inhibit the most powerful nation and biggest war machine the world had ever seen.

Impressive stuff. But British anti-war activists don’t need to look across the Atlantic for inspiration.

Having trawled the National Archives on post-war UK foreign policy, in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses, Mark Curtis notes “the public is feared” by the UK government. “A perennial truth which emerges from the declassified files is the public’s ability to mount protests and demonstrations that divert the government from its course.”

In the late 1950s British forces were involved in crushing an uprising against the UK-backed Sultan of Oman. Curtis notes the senior British official in the region – the Political Resident in Bahrain – had recommended three villages should be bombed unless they surrendered the ringleaders of the revolt. However, the government initially decided not to bomb since, they argued, “world opinion at that time was very flammable.” The British commander’s report at the end of the war noted “great pains were taken throughout the Command to keep all operational actions of the press”.

By the 1960s, the ongoing US aggression in Vietnam had generated considerable anti-war activity in the UK, including some high profile demonstrations. By 1965 the British Ambassador in Saigon noted “mischievous publicity” about the war from the anti-war movement “is having an effect on the policy of Her Majesty’s Government.”

Curtis disagrees, explaining Britain backed the US war in Vietnam “at virtually every stage of military escalation.” What was happening? Noting there was an “organised campaign” against the war, in 1965 Foreign Official James Cable reported: “All this has not yet affected our basic support for American policy in Vietnam, but it has generated a certain preference for discretion in the outward manifestation of this support.”

So the government continued to follow their preferred policy, just out of the public eye – not much to shout about, it could be argued. However, it’s important to remember the bigger picture. Despite significant pressure from President Johnson, Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to send regular British troops to Vietnam (a small number of British special forces did fight in Vietnam). According to History Extra, the official website for BBC History Magazine, one of the main reasons Wilson gave was it “would be extremely unpopular with his party and the wider public.”

The British establishment’s fear of the public is not confined to distant history. Starting in late 2001, the UK government’s huge propaganda campaign to persuade the public to back the Iraq War underscores just how seriously it was concerned about public opinion. According to the Guardian, days before the onslaught started the Spanish UN ambassador noted in a memo to Spain’s foreign minister that the UK had become “exclusively obsessed” with domestic public opinion.

Reporting on leaked documents, in November 2003 the Guardian also revealed “a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War”. According to the 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.”

Though it is rarely framed as such, parliament’s momentous vote against British military action in Syria in 2013 – the first time a British prime minister had lost a vote on war since 1782 – can be considered a delayed impact of the anti-Iraq War movement. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the Commons”, the Guardian reported at the time, with Labour leader Ed Miliband apparently telling Prime Minister David Cameron “You have to realise that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us.”

This historic defeat sent shock waves through the British political and military establishment.

Speaking at the international affairs thinktank Chatham House in September 2015, Sir Nick Houghton, the UK’s chief of defence staff, argued “we are experiencing ever greater constraints on our freedom to use force”. Some of these related to technological advances of potential enemies, Houghton said, “but the more worrying constraints on the use of force lay in the areas of societal support, parliamentary consent and ever greater legal challenge”.

The year before, former Labour Party Defence Secretary Lord Browne conceded “the British public have made it clear that there is very little support for new expeditionary wars of choice, even where there is a national security dimension.”

Of course, the British military were not simply bystanders to this shift in public opinion. In September 2013 the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the influence of the UK anti-war movement and the general public.

Titled “MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public”, the report summarised 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”.

“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.”

“The public have become better informed”, the MoD paper noted, recommending the armed forces run “a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.”

Back to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Wells has a distressing conclusion: despite its huge impact on the government’s war policy “few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed”, which “spawned defections from the movement… bred lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks, impeding the organization of protests and the maintenance of anti-war groups.”

All of which will be familiar to peace activists working today.

Of course, we shouldn’t uncritically exaggerate the power of grassroots activism. But a good understanding of the history of UK foreign policy, and how this interacts with social movements and public opinion, provides a valuable grounding for maximising our influence on future government policy.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair. Ian is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press.

Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow

Book review: How To Start A Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
June-July 2021

Having directed the award-winning 2011 documentary about Gene Sharp, How To Start A Revolution, Ruaridh Arrow has now published an engrossing biography of the man who CNN once called ‘the father of nonviolent struggle’.

Sharp, who died in 2018 aged 90, led an extraordinary life.

He was sent to prison for refusing to be drafted at the time of the Korean War, worked as assistant editor at Peace News in the late 1950s, observed firsthand the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, and trained activists in Burma in the early 1990s.

Along the way he corresponded with Albert Einstein, argued with Frantz Fanon in Accra and tried to convert Yasser Arafat into adopting a nonviolent strategy.

This was crucial: Sharp saw strategic planning as essential if a nonviolent movement was to succeed. ‘No military commander would ever dream of putting 1,000 soldiers on a battlefield without a strategy for how to use them and so it was of nonviolent action’, Arrow summarises.

Moreover, Sharp’s argument for pursuing nonviolent struggle is not that it is moral but that it’s the most effective method to effect change – something confirmed by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in their 2011 book, Why Civil Resistance Works.

With his journalistic eye for a story and access to archival material, Arrow runs through a number of fascinating case studies, highlighting the impact Sharp’s thinking had on the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, as well as in Burma, the Baltic states (against the Soviet Union), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt.

Arguably Sharp’s most spectacular influence was on the Otpor movement that played a central role in the overthrow of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević – described by Arrow as ‘the most advanced nonviolent campaign in history’.

Though he clearly admires Sharp, Arrow provides a rounded, very human portrait, noting how he could often be obstinate – it was Sharp who chose the Albert Einstein Institution as the confusing name of the organisation that he founded in 1983 – and how several close professional relationships eventually broke down.

Anti-imperialist activists will likely baulk at Sharp’s links with the US defence and state departments, as well as with organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute.

However, it’s Sharp’s huge, power-threatening body of work – something he argued could be used by anyone – that is most important to peace activists today. And there is much to do.

As Sharp told US activist George Lakey: ‘We are simply at the bow and arrow stage of the development of nonviolent struggle.’

For those hungry for more, Arrow provides good news – Jamila Raqib, Sharp’s colleague at the Albert Einstein Institution in his later years, is currently writing her own book about Sharp.

How To Start A Revolution is published by Big Inky Books, priced £14.99.

Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read

Book review. Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse by Rupert Read
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 May 2021

RUPERT Read’s latest book on the climate crisis is underpinned by the realisation pretty much all of us are “in some form or another of climate denial” – about honestly facing up to the level of threat, and the speed and depth of change required to successfully deal with it.

On the former, Carbon Action Tracker estimates the current policies in place around the world will lead to 2.9oC of warming by 2100. Read believes it is “very likely” climate and ecological chaos will lead to civilisation disintegrating “within the lifetimes of some readers”.

For the latter, he argues the desperate situation we now find ourselves in cannot “be adequately addressed from within our current paradigm of politics and economics.” As the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s warned in 2018, limiting warming to 1.5oC will “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

A call to arms for everyone to step up to the challenge, Read’s thesis is, in many ways, very simple: if you care about your children (or other people’s children), then you should also care about their children, and their children’s children – “the whole human future.” And this means you should also care about the future of the planet all these future generations will live on.

He presents three core proposals for embedding this transformational thinking. First, the setting up of citizen’s assemblies that would be empowered to make the long-term proposals and decisions our fatally compromised and short-termist political system is unable to do. Second, the introduction of what he calls Guardians For Future Generations – a permanent “super-jury” that would sit above parliament and consider the interests of future generations in policymaking. And, finally, adherence to the Precautionary Principle – “when you lack full evidence and potential consequences [of a path of action or inaction] are grave, you need to err on the side of taking care.”

The book’s logical, essay-length polemic points to Read’s academic position as an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. Likewise, the clarity and urgency of his message also highlights the influence of his time as spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion in 2019.

Compelling and deeply challenging, it is often an uncomfortable argument (Read tells readers: “you… need, at a minimum, to devote either your time or the bulk of your financial resources to this cause”). Which, of course, is why it is such an essential read. Time to get busy.

Parents For A Future: How Loving Our Children Can Prevent Climate Collapse is published by UEA Publishing Project, priced £10.99

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance

Book review. Twyford Rising: Land and Resistance by Helen Beynon with Chris Gillham
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
23 February 2021

IN 1989 the Thatcher government announced the “biggest road-building programme since the Romans”. One of the new schemes was the M3 extension past Winchester across Twyford Down.

With local groups having fought the planned road for decades with little success, in the early 1990s there was a shift to direct action. Concerned about the proposed road’s impact on the land, the so-called Dongas Tribe – named after the ancient trackways in the area – set up camp on the Down.

Skilfully using original interviews, letters, memoirs, photos and poems, the authors paint a vivid picture of outdoor living, with many people recalling a deep, spiritual connection to the land.

The Dongas were soon joined by members of radical environment network Earth First!, while local residents, such as ex-Tory Councillor David Croker, continued to lobby against the road through more conventional methods (some also participated in actions too).

There were tensions between the different groups, of course, but from summer 1992 onwards they were able to carry out regular nonviolent direct action, often forcing a stop to work on the site. In 1993 the Department of Transport claimed the protests were adding £20,000 a day to the costs of the road.

The crunch came on 9 December 1992 – known as “Yellow Wednesday” – when the camp was violently evicted by a small army of private security guards. The authors painfully highlight just how traumatic the clearance was for those who experienced it. Activist Becca records “Female protesters were sexually assaulted and had their clothes ripped off.”

With the camp forced off the Down, people continued organising, with large rallies and mass trespasses taking place at the work site in 1993 and 1994, including one in which Kinder Scout trespasser Benny Rothman spoke at.

The road was eventually built but not before the resistance at Twyford Down had lit the touch paper for the wider anti-roads movement. There were protests against the M11 Link Road in east London, Fairmile in Devon, Jesmond Dene in Newcastle and, most famously, the Newbury Bypass. Like Twyford, these hard fought battles ended in defeat for the protesters, though arguably they won the war.

“When we began campaigning there were 600 proposed schemes in the Government’s roads programme”, John Stewart, then chair of the anti-roads group ALARM UK, noted in 1998. “Now there are 150 and we expect that number to be cut further… we have done our job.”

More broadly, Twyford “begat a hundred campaigns”, activist Shane Collins notes, including Reclaim The Streets and the anti-GM movement of the late 90s. Key figures also assisted Plane Stupid with their campaign against airport expansion, and there is a clear link between the anti-roads movement and the climate camps of the 2000s and Extinction Rebellion.

Hugely inspiring, Twyford Rising is an engrossing account of one of the most important protests in recent British history. As the authors conclude: “Twyford richly deserves to be part of the legends of these Islands, for it is a lost land now, which once was filled with beauty and hope.”

To order Twyford Rising visit https://twyfordrising.org/.

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.