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The UK has long been divided by class, region and race, but these divisions have been masked by political and economic success. This has meant the English, as the dominant nation in the UK, are not good at coping with a sense of failure and a loss of self-confidence.

The current focus is on parliamentary turmoil and the acceptance or rejection of Theresa May’s muted version of Brexit but, whatever happens in the coming weeks, there will be no resolution of the overall crisis. On the contrary, the divisions exacerbated by Brexit will only get deeper and more toxic, dominating the national agenda to the exclusion of everything else.

The nature of English nationalism – deeply ingrained but so self-confident its norms were assumed by most English people to be part of the natural order of things – is changing. George Bernard Shaw said “a healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man is of his bones”. Smaller nations like the Irish and the Poles, with a history of defeat and occupation, have grim experience of having to nurse back to health the fractured bones of their nation but for the English worrying about their national identity and the future status is a new and unnerving experience.

The sense of English superiority was real but relaxed and often expressed in self-mockery. I remember my late brother-in-law Michael Flanders, part of the Flanders and Swann duo in the 1950s and 1960s, singing a song entitled Patriotic Prejudice, one version of which ran:

“The English, the English, the English are best,
I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.
The Germans are German, the Russians are red,
The French and Italians eat garlic in bed.
The English are moral, the English are good,
And clever and modest and misunderstood.”

Many pro-Brexit supporters do not seem to have advanced far beyond this benign picture of the national character. But these days their tone is defensive and self-assertive. Immigrants are to be schooled in British values – whatever those may be – the very thing Shaw saw as a symptom of unhealthy nationalism.

Analysis of the forces that led to Brexit usually looks at issues over too short a time span. The English may once have been confident of their own nationality but this does not mean they were as tolerant of others as they sometimes like to suppose. Punch cartoons in the 19th century showed the Irish as murderous sub-humans. The Aliens Act of 1905, brought in by a Conservative government with an eye to winning votes in a general election the following year, aimed to exclude Jews fleeing Russian pogroms. A century later, the Conservative Party spent years trying to trump Tony Blair’s ability to win successive elections by experimenting with different types of dog-whistle anti-immigrant rhetoric, often combined with demonisation of the EU.

Conservative politicians such as David Cameron, whose career was to be destroyed by the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum, were highlighting the migrant threat a year before the vote, warning of “a swarm of people, coming from the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain”. This showed real chutzpah, or cheek, since Cameron played a central role in launching the Nato war to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011 that turned Libya into a land of warlords and predatory militias, opening the way for migrants from North Africa to try to reach Europe from Libya in overcrowded boats and dinghies, often dying in the attempt.

A further feature of English nationalism will make it difficult to manoeuvre during the coming years of preoccupation with European relations. Small nations get used to inferior status and playing a weaker hand against opponents who hold most of the cards. British diplomats understand this, but a large part of public opinion in Britain, as in other former imperial nations, sees compromise as a sign of inexplicable weakness of will or as a treacherous stab in the back.

This lethal inability to calculate the real balance of power in the EU or anywhere else is not confined to an ill-informed public which has been spoon-fed war-time triumphs. Covering wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the last 20 years, I noticed again and again how difficult British politicians found it to take on board what was really happening and distinguish winners from losers, obvious though this often was.

A further English weakness – and the switch from referring to the English rather than the British is deliberate – is that neither Leavers nor Remainers have ever thought through what self-determination really means and how it can best be achieved. This is a perfectly legitimate aim that has inspired national movements in much of the world but Remainers tend to deride it as spurious patriotic bombast tinged with racism, and Leavers speak of achieving real independence for Britain almost automatically once the shackles of the EU are removed. This is in keeping with the behaviour of every nationalist or liberation movement in history which has invariably blamed all the woes of its people on foreign rulers or domestic tyrants. This conveniently saves them the trouble of having to explain what they would do themselves.

Britain could achieve a greater degree of formal self-determination outside the EU, though everybody in the country would be considerably poorer. But it would not be as a free trading entrepot like Singapore or Dubai: political and economic isolation for any country usually leads to the state playing a greater role. This is already happening in a small way in Britain with the Department of Health arranging uninterrupted supplies of medicine in case Britain topples out of the EU next year without an agreement.

A contradictory aspect of the Brexiteer project is fanaticism about freeing Britain from EU courts and regulations. At the same time, Leavers are relaxed about British water companies and other essential utilities being owned by financiers in Sydney, Hong Kong and anywhere else in the world.

As Shaw pointed out, national self-confidence is not something that you notice until it is gone and it is then difficult to win back. The same is true of national unity: the obvious fallacy that the British as a whole chose to leave the EU, when the vote was so evenly divided, could only end in a self-destructive crisis. To expect such a revolutionary change to be carried out by a minority government was demented. Whatever happens in the coming months and years, the English nationality will have to mend a lot of broken bones.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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The anniversary of the sinking of two great capital ships off Singapore, one of the great British defeats of the Second World War, falls unnoticed between the proposed May-Corbyn debate on 9 December and the House of Commons vote on the Brexit agreement with the EU on 11 December. This is a pity because the miscalculations that go into producing first rate disasters, both political and military, have a lot in common.

Seventy-seven years ago, on 10 December 1941, Japanese planes found and sank the battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulsewhen they unwisely sailed north of Singapore without air cover in a bid to attack the Japanese forces invading Malaya. Describing his reaction to the sinking, in which 840 sailors died, Churchill said: “In all the war, I never received a more direct shock.”

The ingredients that led to this naval calamity were similar in general terms to those producing most disasters: inadequate resources for the task in hand, over-optimistic assessment of the risks, and self-destructive ignorance of the obstacles to be faced. The two ships went to their doom because the British had no more forces to send and underestimated the threat of Japanese air attack.

Supporters of Britain leaving the EU will bristle and say that it is far too apocalyptic to draw any parallel between a military reverse in the last century and Brexit today. They will say that this is one more exaggerated example of “Project Fear” and “Project Hysteria”, and all that is needed is to keep our nerve and exercise greater willpower until those EU leaders and negotiators come running, because they know that their countries would lose out, though not as much as the UK, from a failure to reach an agreement.

This optimistic view suffers from a profound and deeply damaging lack of understanding about what is really at stake as Britain fumbles its way towards the EU exit door. Rational debate on the EU in Britain has been hobbled for years, because it is conducted in terms of economic advantages and disadvantages with talk focusing on issues like single markets and custom unions, tariffs and those magical free trade agreements we are to sign with countries hungering for British goods and services.

But the EU is, and has always been, primarily a political rather than an economic organisation. This has been true since 9 May 1950 when the French politician Robert Schumann made his proposal for the French-German Coal and Steel Community out of which the EU was to develop. The purpose of the Schumann plan was to bind France and Germany together, but the British at that time – and up to the present day – had great difficulty in taking this on board. They have always exaggerated the extent to which the EU is about fostering free trade and economic prosperity.

The nature of the EU, the primacy of politics over economics, made Brexiteer hopes of German carmakers and industrialists pressuring their government to keep access to British markets to be so disappointingly unrealised. The quasi-democratic trappings of the EU, whereby its 27 members appear to have an equal voice, is deceptive. If Germany, France and the EU core members want something then they are going to get it and Britain is going to be over-matched, regardless of whether or not it is inside or outside the union. The outcome of the Brexit negotiations have simply underlined the extent to which the balance of power is skewed against Britain.

The myth preached in Britain down the decades that Brussels is an all-powerful behemoth has led people to underestimate the degree to which Europe is a continent of nation states bound together in a treaty-based alliance dominated by Germany and France.

The French see the revolutionary nature of what Britain is proposing to do more realistically than the British themselves. An article in Le Figaro by Adrien Jaulmes goes to the heart of what is happening, saying that “the UK has built its power on two principles: keep the British Isles united and the European continent divided. Today it is close to succeeding in doing the opposite.”

Jaulmes goes on to cite with approval Jo Johnson’s denunciation of the Brexit venture as a failure of British statecraft not seen since the Suez crisis in 1956. Unfortunately, it is a much more serious failure than Suez where the crisis was short in duration, underlining the self-evident fact that Britain could not launch wars opposed by nationalist forces against the wishes of the US.

Other peacetime crises cited as comparable to Brexit, such as the Ulster Crisis of 1912-14 or going off the gold standard in 1931, do not approach Brexit in terms of long term impact. Only wartime calamities like the loss of the Prince of Walesand Repulse, and the British defeat in Malaya that followed soon thereafter, are really similar to Brexit in terms of the damage done to the British state. To quote Churchill again, the Malayan campaign was “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.

A further reason for drawing an analogy between Brexit and wartime disasters is that there is a gratifying but false belief by the British that they flourish in times of disaster. But the disasters usually cited as examples of national robustness at dark moments are usually not that disastrous. Gallipoli and Dunkirk, both heroic failures but not total defeats, are remembered, but not Mesopotamia, where in the First World War 100,000 British and Indian troops were killed or wounded, or Malaya where 130,000 British, Indian and Australian troops were taken prisoner by a smaller Japanese force in 1941-42.

There is nothing surprising about this. What nation anywhere in the world wants to advertise its defeats? But the British differ from other Europeans in having a positive collective memory of the Second World War which is ceaselessly massaged by books and television. The past gains a golden glow, far from reality, which fuels a comfy belief that predictions of disaster are either exaggerated or a malign effort to generate fear and sabotage the whole glorious Brexit project. It is difficult to imagine a cast of mind more likely to produce frustration and failure.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, EU 
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When a majority of the British people voted to leave the EU in 2016, I was struck by the similarity between the Brexiteers’ plans for their perilous voyage and those of Edward Lear’s characters in The Jumblies as they set to sea in their sieve. The analogy became more apt as the proponents of Brexit showed that they did not know nor care very much about the nature of the world into which they were proposing to sail other than to hope that everything would be alright on the night.

The Jumblies, like the Brexiteers, were swift to dismiss critical comment predicting a disastrous end to their venture, saying: “Our sieve ain’t big / But we don’t care a button, we don’t care a fig! / In a sieve we’ll go to sea!”

The water did indeed come in, but the Jumblies were not downhearted “because they wrapped their feet / in pinky paper all folded neat”. For extra safety, they pass the night in a crockery jar where they sang of their wisdom as they set their pea-green sail for lands where, among other things, they secured an owl, a pig and some green-Jack-daws, and “a lovely monkey with lollipop paws”.

The Brexiteers’ alternative to the EU is just as imaginary as that described by Lear as a habitation for the Jumblies. The reason why the Leavers have failed to negotiate the sort of settlement they said they wanted from the EU is simple: what they said in 2016 was based on the proposition that the EU got more out Britain than Britain got out of the EU. Had this been true, the British departure would be easy enough, because Britain could genuinely have threatened to walk away. But because Britain needs the EU more than vice versa, the outcome of the negotiations were always going to be heavily skewed in favour of Brussels.

Yet this simple proposition evidently eluded Dominic Raab, David Davis, Boris Johnson and the other Leavers who departed from the cabinet claiming that Britain was being blackmailed and bullied into submission. Successful negotiations always reflect the balance of power between the negotiating parties and it is puerile to believe that the settlement, which the EU leaders will or will not agree to in the next few days, was determined by a failure of will by Theresa May or subtle treachery by Remain-sympathising civil servants.

It is easy and right to deride the Leavers for their wishful thinking and inability to calculate the true balance of power between Britain and its neighbours. This is the same ruinous mistake made by so many populist-nationalist leaders down the decades. The great flaw of nationalists everywhere is an assumption that their nation has greater political, economic and military potential – and their rivals less – than is really the case.

Exaggerated ideas of national superiority have fuelled the most self-destructive policy mistakes of modern European history. They led to France declaring war on Prussia in 1870 and Germany choosing to fight wars on two fronts in both World Wars. American and British leaders blithely intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq this century in total ignorance of the real odds against their success.

Such military examples are apposite because Britain’s withdrawal from the EU is the equivalent of a major defeat in war. Suppose, hypothetically, that Britain fought and lost a military conflict with a rival European power, then the departure of Britain from the EU might well be demanded by the victor as a way of ensuring that Britain was permanently weakened.

What foreign enemies failed to accomplish against the British state for centuries may soon be inflicted by the modern day Jumblies. Negotiations now completed are at best an attempt to mitigate the extent of the British loss and all scenarios point to a country less well-off and influential than if it had stayed in the EU.

The best argument for Brexit has little to do with political power or economic success. The demand for national self-determination has been behind the most progressive developments in the world over the last century since the break-up of the German, Austro-Habsburg and Ottoman empires after 1918, and the British and French empires after 1945.

Newly emergent nation states invariably blame former imperial masters for their economic, political and social troubles. Usually there is a lot in this claim, though not as much as the claimants pretend. In this context, there is nothing surprising in the fact the British complaints against Brussels echo those made by the Irish and the Indians against London when they fought, with rather more reason, for their independence.

This comparison will not appeal to hardcore Leavers because of their nostalgia for a state of the world at home and abroad that, if it existed at all, was briefly present in the 1950s. British society of that era may have some aspects that were superior to the present, as well as many that were worse, but in either case they lie in the past and cannot be recreated.

One of the many weird characteristics of the Leave leaders is their frequent references to a mythical version of British history, featuring “vassalage” and humiliating treaties signed by King John at the beginning of the 13th century. One Brexiteer even attacked the proposed EU agreement as the most humiliating since Charles II agreed the Treaty of Dover with Louis XIV in return for a heavy subsidy in 1670.

But these historical nuggets are really only there for adornment. For all the talk about “Britain standing alone”, Britain invariably made every effort to do no such thing. British success against Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler were based on the Royal Navy preventing defeat, while Britain built up overwhelmingly powerful alliances against the enemy of the day. The last time the country was as bereft of continental allies as it is today was during the American War of Independence at the end of 18th century.

Contemporary English populist nationalism has much in common with similar movements in Europe and the US: hostility to immigrants and minority communities combined with a sense of lost identity and control, which seems to be the inevitable consequence of globalisation.

For globalisation in this century is turning out to be as destructive to the political and social status quo as the Industrial Revolution was in the 19th century. Metropolitan areas, primarily urban, that are plugged into the global economy do well, while everybody else falls behind or does badly. The same pattern is repeated everywhere from Arkansas to the Isle of Thanet and from Saxony and the rural hinterland of Damascus.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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On the afternoon of 11 November 1918, my father Claud Cockburn, then aged 14, covertly threw the keys of the main gate of his school out of an upstairs window to a soldier waiting below. His purpose was to allow the soldiers being trained locally to break into Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire and thrash it in retaliation for the refusal of the headmaster, Charles Greene, to call a school holiday to celebrate the armistice, which had just been declared. Many pupils, including Claud, objected to this decision, as did the soldiers, angry at what they saw as an unpatriotic failure to celebrate victory adequately after four years of war.

But the soldiers and schoolboys were both mistaken about the headmaster’s motives: Charles Greene, whose third son was the novelist Graham Greene, supported the war, but he was acutely aware of its terrible cost, not least to former Berkhamsted pupils, of whom no less than 230 had been killed, their names commemorated by plaques outside the school chapel, while a further 1,145 were still in the armed forces as the war ended. “Most of the sixth form were wiped out year after year,” Claud recalled 60 years later. “I know when I was in the sixth form, I think that only 10 per cent of the previous year were still alive.” Greene, a liberally minded man with great force of character, had had the grim experience of seeing those whom he had just been teaching called up when they reached the age of 18 and, all too often, they were reported killed or wounded a few months later.

The end of the slaughter might have led Greene to declare a holiday, but he reached a radically different conclusion about how the peace should best be celebrated. He had time to think about this because the news that the German kaiser and crown prince had abdicated reached Berkhamsted on Sunday 10 November and the announcement of the end of the war would clearly follow shortly. When the armistice was signed at 11am the following day, Greene announced the fact to staff and pupils who sang “God Save the King” before dispersing. He did not make the expected announcement about the holiday but instructed everyone to go on working as if this was a normal day. He justified this by arguing that, with 5 million allied soldiers killed, the survivors had to work even harder to make best use of the victory for the good of civilisation and could not afford to take holidays. “We must go on,” he said. “Now is the time for effort.”

It was a decision which, however reasonable in abstract terms, was so entirely contrary to the patriotic fervour of the day and the intense sense of relief being felt by those who had the most to gain from an end to the fighting that it provoked an almost instant uprising. Those involved included soldiers training in and around Berkhamsted, most of whom belonged to the Officers Training Corps (OTC) of the Inns of Court, in addition to members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. They were highly – and soon drunkenly – relieved to find that they would not be sent to the western front where the OTC members stood a high chance of being killed or maimed. The boys at Berkhamsted, particularly the prefects and the older boys facing military call-up, also had good reason to be thankful that the fighting was over. Explaining this in an interview 60 years later, Claud told Norman Sherry, the author of the magisterial biography The Life of Graham Greene – from which much of this account of the Berkhamsted uprising is derived – said that, deeply though he admired Charles Greene, he could understand the anger of the prefects and senior boys at not being allowed to celebrate victory. He pointed out they had been living in expectation of likely death or injury in the near future “so they didn’t take much interest in the preservation of civilisation or the school spirit and they got pretty rough”.

The prefects, normally in charge of keeping tight discipline in Berkhamsted, had conspired with men from the OTC to break into the school. By chance it was Claud, though much younger than the others in the plot, who played a crucial role in what happened next. Because it was he was due to have a bath, he was allowed to enter part of the school which was beyond the Great Hall, which was the main assembly area for staff and pupils. He was therefore able to open an upstairs window and throw down the key of the heavily locked main gate, which the plotters had secured, to a sergeant major waiting below.

It is worth citing my father’s account, as retailed to Sherry, at length since it gives a tangible sense of the rapidly unfolding events: “I can remember now sitting there – it was one of those foggy nights in Berkhamsted, fog rising from the canal and so on, and suddenly, we heard the roar of the distant troops coming up the road. Everybody was quite content because they couldn’t get in. And then in they burst and we were all sitting at prep in the Great Hall at about 7pm. So suddenly all these drunken troops and women came surging in and were planning to throw Charles Greene into the canal … and Greene and the second master Cox appeared at the end of that little passage, and defended the door, and Greene was persuaded to retire to his study. Cox stood at the door, and drunken troops joined in with the students, and we surged out of the school, and marched through the streets of Berkhamsted, and I can remember to this day walking down Berkhamsted High Street and I took off my shoes in order to beat on the drum with them. We then occupied the local cinema and we sprang onto the stage and sang songs and yelled and shouted. And at last the troops retired, and we, rather bedraggled, returned after this enormous elation, this tremendous night, and suddenly realised that we had to face reality. And that reality was Charles Greene who was sitting at the big desk on the Great Hall, and said ‘you’re expelled, you’re expelled’ one after another. He expelled 122 of us…”

The rioters went to bed deeply worried. Claud in particular was anxious because he knew that his father, Henry Cockburn, a former Foreign Office diplomat of high principle and seriousness of purpose, would take the dimmest of views of his expulsion. The following morning, he and the other expellees were brought back to the Great Hall and given a great lecture by Greene, his denunciation of their action delivered with all the force and rolling periods of which Victorian rhetoric was capable. He linked the previous day’s riot to the revolutionary upsurge spreading everywhere since the Bolshevik revolution in 1917: “This is one more exhibition of the spirit of Bolshevism which is spreading across Europe. Over there in Moscow, there sits Lenin, there sits Trotsky, there they are. The spirit of Bolshevism and atheism is creeping across Europe. It is breaking out all over. Look at Lenin, look at Trotsky and look at you.” Fortunately for his by now thoroughly rattled listeners, Greene in his rage had expelled more of his pupils than could really be purged in one go, so all were reinstated aside from two whom, Claud recalled, had “tried to get the soldiers to break into Charles Greene’s study and tear up his books – a really rather shitty thing to do”.

* * *

 
• Category: History • Tags: World War I 
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In 1898 the state of Louisiana held a constitutional convention with the declared aim of disenfranchising black people and perpetuating white rule. “Our mission was, in the first place, to establish the supremacy of the white race in this state to the extent to which it could be legally and constitutionally done,” reads the official journal of the convention. Legal means were found to scrub 130,000 registered black voters from the rolls and allow juries to come to non-unanimous verdicts in felony trials, including those involving the death penalty.

This measure might sound technical, or even be presented as a bid to make the court system more efficient, but its real purpose was thoroughly racist. It effectively side-stepped the constitutional requirement that black people should serve on juries, which gave them some leverage in resisting legal discrimination against the black population.

Since there were usually only one or two black jurors on a jury, they only had influence so long as verdicts were unanimous. Once a split verdict was allowed, then all-white juries could effectively decide the fate of defendants by a 10 to 2 verdict. This entrenched the legal bias against black people for over a century.

It was only last Tuesday that voters in Louisiana approved an amendment that abolished this toxic Jim Crow law that had survived the civil rights movement because it was not demonstrably racist written down, despite its obvious racist intent. Oregon is now the only state that does not require juries to reach unanimous verdicts.

Votes like the one in Louisiana – though little reported by the media – are often more important in their effect on people’s lives than the choice of elected representative in Congress.

Some of these votes have vast political consequences: great attention is given to the races for the governorship and senate in Florida and too little to the decision by voters to restore the voting rights of ex-felons though this will re-enfranchise nearly 1.5 million people in Florida or 9.2 per cent of the voting-age population. These are people who have completed felony sentences, but until now had lost the right to vote in a state that is often described as evenly divided between Republican and Democrat.

The purpose of denying ex-felons the right to vote was much the same as that expressed openly by those attending the Louisiana constitutional convention 120 years ago. Depriving felons of the vote was purportedly non-racist since it applied to every ex-convict, but in practice it targeted the black population. Some 418,000 out of a black working age population of 2.3 million in Florida have felony convictions. This is just under 18 per cent of the potential black voting population who, if they could have cast a ballot, would have ensured that the Democratic candidates for governor and the Senate were elected.

Only two other states – Iowa and Kentucky – bar former felons from voting, so the situation in Florida was always out of the ordinary. This should be very obvious but pundits mulling over the political divisions in Florida last Tuesday night seldom mentioned this crucial act of voter suppression.

The midterm elections confirmed the extent to which the US is racially divided, though this was scarcely a mystery to anybody who has spent any time in the country. It was easy enough for President Trump to whip up racial fears and animosities by demonising the so-called caravan of Central American migrants in Mexico.

Trump is always skilful in dominating the news agenda and he did so again in the final weeks of the campaign. His success was hugely aided by the lack of any Democratic leader able to rebut him in equally attention-grabbing terms. The media dances too easily to Trump’s tunes, but, since the Democrat leaders don’t play any memorable tunes of their own, it is difficult to know what else the journalists can do.

The absence of an effective Democrat leadership also opened the door to Trump’s partial success in claiming a great victory in the elections, though, in losing the House of Representatives, he has overall suffered a defeat. Many of these ploys are scarcely new: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan invariably claims an electoral triumph before all the votes are counted and a winner declared. Populist nationalist leaders with cult-like attributes the world over all show the same need to project an aura of inevitable success.

This unrelenting focus on Trump and the struggles at the apex of American politics is often irrelevant to what is happening, both good and bad, on the ground. It does not bring anybody very close to understanding what makes America tick and how far and in what direction this is changing.

A better guide to this is often local or state-wide initiatives or the election of new district attorneys or sheriffs who actually implement the law. In Alabama, for instance, two counties have voted to ban their sheriffs from being allowed to take for themselves any money left over from that allocated to pay for food for prisoners after they have been fed. This is a significant amount of money, with one sheriff keeping $750,000 which he invested in the purchase of a beach house. Since it is in the financial interest of sheriffs to spend as little as possible on feeding their prisoners, it is not surprising that they go hungry. In one case, where the sheriff had legally pocketed $200,000, a judge found “undisputed evidence that most of the inmates had lost significant weight”.

I found when I was a correspondent in the US that visiting foreigners, who came from centralised states, usually exaggerated the role and power of the federal government and underestimated that of local officials in the states. An example of this on Tuesday was the election of progressive DAs in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio in Texas, a state that holds 218,500 people in jail or prison. Many are there because the state authorities have criminalised poverty. The choice of DA will decide to what extent people who cannot pay minor fines end up spending years in incarceration.

Resistance to such injustices is strong and growing with the return of over one million people to the electoral roll in Florida being the most important sign of this.

The shock effect of the rise of Trump is great but is exacerbated in the minds of many Americans and most foreigners because they underestimate the extent to which the US is a racially and socially divided country. Slavery left a mark on black and white people that has never been eradicated. Trump is a symptom of this rather than an aberration. That is why his type of politics will persist, but so too will the opposition.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: 2018 Election, Donald Trump, Racism 
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US sanctions imposed on Iran today are the greatest test so far of President Donald Trump’s ambition to act unilaterally in defiance of both rival powers and traditional allies.

The aim of the Trump administration is to put enough economic pressure on Iran to force it to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 or, more ambitiously, to secure regime change in Tehran by provoking popular unrest.

It will be difficult to achieve either objective: sanctions can impose intense pressure on a country if maintained over a long period, but their effectiveness depends on support and enforcement by a broad coalition of powers. This is what happened with UN sanctions on Iraq between 1990 and 2003 and with sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2015.

But this time round there is no coalition supporting sanctions and a great array of states from China and Russia to the EU and Iran’s immediate neighbours, Turkey and Iraq, which are opposing them. On one level, they are seeking to save the Iran deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which the five permanent members of the Security Council – US, UK, France, Russia, China – plus Germany and EU, agreed with Iran three years ago.

The danger for the US is not only that these countries are opposing sanctions against Iran, but that they all have an interest in making sure that they fail. They know that if Trump does succeed then their own authority will be damaged because the US will have proved that it can act unilaterally and effectively without their assistance.

The power of the US Treasury is never to be underestimated, but at this stage the odds against Trump succeeding look long and are getting longer. He could decide to negotiate with Iran – as he did with North Korea – and declare a famous victory, which is not impossible.

For all Trump’s bellicose rhetoric, he has yet to start a war and his fantasy picture of Iran trying to take over the Middle East would make it easy for him to claim to have repelled it since it is not happening in the first place.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said that “because of the sanctions we are announcing today, Iran will have zero oil revenue to spend on terrorism, missile proliferation, regional proxies, or a nuclear programme”.

But Iranian power in the Middle East does not really depend on any of these things and is, in any case, only strong in the northern tier of the region – Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – where the Shia have political strength and Iran is in loose alliance with Russia and Turkey.

In any case, Iranian political and military intervention was at its height up to 2017 in Iraq, when the Iraqi army recaptured Mosul, and 2015-16 in Syria, when Russian began its military intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad, and East Aleppo was recaptured from the armed opposition. Winners and losers have emerged in this part of the Middle East and the success or failure of US sanctions on Iran will not change the outcome.

A weakness of the Trump administration’s policy in the Middle East is its exaggerated reliance on Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman: long before the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi assailants in Istanbul on 2 October, the operational incapacity and poor judgement of the kingdom’s leadership was, to some, self-evident.
The growing power in the Muslim world is not Saudi Arabia but Turkey, which has friendly if edgy relations with Iran and balances between the US and Russia. Iraq, a Shia-majority country, tries to keep on good terms with both Tehran and Washington, but in any conflict between the two will side with Iran because of deep-rooted Iranian influence and common Shia identity.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been in the forefront of pushing the US towards withdrawing from the nuclear deal and confronting Iran.

“Iran is the biggest threat to Israel, to the Middle East and to world peace,” he declared on Monday. “For many years I dedicated my time and energy to fighting the Iranian threat … Today we see the fruit of that long and continuous battle.”

But the Israeli leader, like Mr Trump, has previously specialised in belligerent rhetoric and threat inflation, but is cautious about engaging in real military conflict. This could change, but Israel would not gain much and could lose a lot from war with Iran and Hezbollah.

The US sanctions will put strong pressure on Iran, but the temporary waivers granted to eight importers of Iranian crude shows the difficulty the US is having in imposing an economic siege. Trump’s demonstration of US strength could easily turn into a demonstration of weakness.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran, Iran Sanctions, Israel 
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I caught polio at the age of six in an epidemic in Cork in 1956 and was taken to St Finbarr’s hospital in the city where I was well treated by the doctors and nurses. The fever passed but the virus had crippled the muscles of my back and legs so I was moved to another hospital nearby called St Mary’s at Gurranebraher, where the patients, mostly young children, were appallingly mistreated.

The nurses viewed the polio victims they were supposed to help as the irritating cause of them having to work and were angry when crippled patients asked for anything. I remember one nurse screaming at a small boy who had defecated in his bed because he was too weak to move and her saying that, if he did so again, he would be forced to eat his own excreta. I listened in terror and feared the same thing might happen to me.

The nurses maintained a rough barrack-room discipline, but I was bullied by older boys who smashed the toys brought by my parents. Years later I met Maureen O’Sullivan, a tireless volunteer nurse who drove a Red Cross ambulance during the epidemic, and she told me that the problem at the hospital was that “it lacked professional staff and there was a shortage of trained people. Many of the nurses looked at it just as a job and not a vocation. The main problem was always lack of resources.”

I stopped eating and speaking and my parents believed, almost certainly rightly, that I was dying. The doctors, who were a rather distant and ineffective presence in the hospital, believed that my deterioration was somehow connected with the polio. They noticed that the care of patients was poor, but they were told by the senior matron that she had great difficulty in recruiting nurses though untrained carers were easy enough to find

After 13 weeks at Gurranebraher, my parents brought me home where I rapidly recovered my spirits, though I was confined to a wheelchair.

A year later, I went to the Whitechapel hospital in London for an operation on the surviving muscles in my legs, which would enable me to walk again. I was surprised to find that many of the nurses in Whitechapel were Irish. In sharp contrast to what I had in Gurranebraher, they were kind, attentive and well trained.

The problem in Ireland in the 1950s was not so much a lack of nurses, but the fact that so many of the best of them had gone to Britain because of better pay, conditions and prospects. In coping with a rapidly spreading polio epidemic, the Irish health authorities had concentrated their best-trained and most experienced personnel to treat those who had just been diagnosed with the disease in St Finbarr’s, and had left the other hospitals to get by as best they could.

This problem has not gone away in the following 60 years. The British healthcare system remains extraordinarily reliant on attracting doctors and nurses from poorer parts of the world, notably Africa and South Asia, with damaging – and at time disastrous – consequences for the health of people in countries denuded of their best trained health workers.

“In the UK, over a third of the registered doctors are not originally from the UK and nearly half of nurses are from overseas,” says Rachel Jenkins, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London, in an editorial in the journal International Psychiatry prefacing detailed papers on the brain drain of medical specialists from the poor to the rich.

Jenkins writes that – in a similar way to the polio epidemic in Ireland that I had experienced – “the dangers are exemplified by the recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, which was able to spread so rapidly because of weak health systems. Those systems would have been significantly stronger had it not been for health worker migration to the UK.”

The numbers involved are strikingly large. Out of a total of 255,141 doctors registered in the UK, no fewer than 82,866 or 36.4 per cent were trained elsewhere. Put simply, the UK population depends for its high standard of healthcare on health professionals trained elsewhere and the demand for which can only rise with the ageing of the British population.

The economic gain to Britain, and the proportionate loss to some of the poorest countries in the world, is very high. Jenkins points out that it costs £220,000 to train a doctor in the UK and £125,000 to train a nurse. If the training is done elsewhere, this implies a saving to the benefit of the UK of £65m from the employment of 293 Ghanaian doctors and £38m from the employment of 1,021 Ghanaian nurses, a sum that exceeds the annual UK aid to Ghana.

This unrecognised subsidy to Britain by poor countries has produced great dollops of hypocrisy about the recipients of aid. The Department for International Development (DFID) in the UK said in a report this summer that “our focus is on helping Ghana to end its reliance on aid and become a strong trading partner for the UK”.

Solutions to the present toxic situation in which the poor subsidise the healthcare of the rich – and thereby deplete their own health systems – are twofold: wealthy countries like Britain should build up their own training of doctors and nurses to a level that meets demand. Poorer states, for their part, should improve pay and conditions for their own health professionals to the point that emigration ceases to be such an attractive option.

Such a change in British government policy is unlikely because the current deeply unfair system is, from its point of view, too good a deal. Jenkins argues that the situation will only change for the better “when rich countries assume some responsibility for reimbursing the country of origin for each foreign-born health worker”. This would give such countries the money to rebuild their healthcare systems.

Western states all benefit from siphoning off health professionals: some 23 per cent of the doctors in the US were trained abroad and 64 per cent come from low- or middle-income countries. This is not a statistic likely to be mentioned by President Trump as he denigrates immigrants in general as parasites taking jobs from native-born Americans.

The advocates of Brexit in Britain, conscious that opposition to immigration has been the core issue driving their success, have never wanted foreign health workers to be emblematic of immigration, perhaps conscious that a YouGov poll shows that 76 per cent of the British population welcomes them or would like more to come.

There is some understanding of how necessary this migration of doctors and nurses is to ill people in Britain, but little knowledge of the damage it does to the countries they come from. Foreign aid would be more popular if it was presented as compensation for the huge hidden benefits the UK gets from this sort of immigration, giving poorer countries the money to fill the gap in their own healthcare systems that the migrants leave behind them.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Immigration 
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The silly idea of recruiting businessmen and other non-professionals into the Foreign Office is more menacing than it looks at first glance. It is a depressing signal that Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, though promising dramatic increases in the numbers of British diplomats, has not really taken on board what has gone wrong in the past and what can be done to put it right.

The main failings of British foreign policy over the last two decades has been amateurism and wishful thinking combined with a rather pathetic desire to retain great power status by piggy-backing on American political and military strength.

British participation in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria showed an inability to correctly forecast trouble and act effectively to avoid it. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who was the British envoy to Iraq after the invasion of 2003, told the Chilcot Inquiry that “the preparations for the post-conflict stage were abject: wrong analysis, wrong people”.

It is not just that things go wrong, but so little is learned from past mistakes: fast forward to the summer of 2014, and a victorious Isis, fresh from capturing Mosul, is advancing on Baghdad where the political section of the British embassy has just three short-term diplomats, according to a report by the House of Commons Defence Committee.

I have always found it strange that British diplomats often stay for a shorter period in their posts than journalists. To be fully effective, anybody, however able, needs time and experience – and without these they will always lag behind rivals with greater expertise. Most of the skills required for successful diplomacy have not changed since Athens and Sparta were exchanging emissaries.

“One of the saddest developments during my professional lifetime has been the decline of the Foreign Office,” remarks one close observer of the institution. In THE wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, countries imagined the political landscape of the world had gained permanent stability and there was less to play for diplomatically. Expertise was at a discount.

The Foreign Office, moreover, has long been the victim of attempts by successive foreign secretaries to justify their budgets by stressing its role in promoting foreign trade. Commerce is more tangible than traditional diplomacy and easier to sell to governments as self-evidently beneficial. I recall a British ambassador in Tehran in the 1970s being quoted as saying: “I don’t want any more elegantly written reports about social conditions in Iranian villages. What I want is exports, exports, exports!” Soon afterwards the Shah was overthrown – something that had a lot to do with social conditions in Iran – and exporters may have wished that the embassy had paid more attention to them.

The Foreign Office is now to expand rapidly as Britain approaches its Brexit moment, and its diplomats will have to play its diminished pack of political and economic cards with greater skill. But expertise once lost cannot be recreated overnight, and long-term demoralisation of staff will take time to reverse.

More ominously for the future of the Foreign Office, the politicians who favour Britain striding bravely forward to claim an independent place in a post-Brexit world have been those least interested in finding out what that world is really like.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain 
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One reason Saudi Arabia and its allies are able to avoid a public outcry over their intervention in the war in Yemen, is that the number of people killed in the fighting has been vastly understated. The figure is regularly reported as 10,000 dead in three-and-a-half years, a mysteriously low figure given the ferocity of the conflict.

Now a count by a non-partisan group has produced a study demonstrating 56,000 people have been killed in Yemen since early 2016. The number is increasing by more than 2,000 per month as fighting intensifies around the Red Sea port of Hodeidah. It does not include those dying of malnutrition, or diseases such as cholera.

“We estimate the number killed to be 56,000 civilians and combatants between January 2016 and October 2018,” says Andrea Carboni, who researches Yemen for the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), an independent group formerly associated with the University of Sussex that studies conflicts and is focusing attention on the real casualty level. He told me he expects a total of between 70,000 and 80,000 victims, when he completes research into the casualties, hitherto uncounted, who died between the start of the Saudi-led intervention in the Yemen civil war, in March 2015, and the end of that year.

The oft-cited figure of 10,000 dead comes from a UN official speaking only of civilians in early 2017, and has remained static since. This out of date statistic, drawn from Yemen’s patchy and war-damaged health system, has enabled Saudi Arabia and the UAE – who lead a coalition of states strongly backed by the US, UK and France – to ignore or downplay the loss of life.

Casualties are rising by the day as Saudi and UAE-directed forces try to cut off Hodeidah – the last port controlled by the Houthi rebels – from the capital, Sanaa. Oxfam said this week, a civilian is being killed every three hours in the fighting, and between 1 August and 15 October, 575 civilians were killed in the port city, including 136 children and 63 women. An airstrike on Wednesday killed 16 civilians in a vegetable market in Hodeidah, and other strikes this month have hit two buses at a Houthi-held checkpoint, killing 15 civilians, including four children.

Little information about casualties in Yemen reaches the outside world because Saudi and the UAE make access difficult for foreign journalists and other impartial witnesses. By contrast to the war in Syria, the American, British and French governments have no interest in highlighting the devastation caused in Yemen – they give diplomatic cover to the Saudi intervention. But their deliberate blindness to the death of so many Yemenis is starting to attract more negative attention, as a byproduct of the flood of international criticism of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the premeditated murder of Jamal Khashoggi – now admitted by Saudi officials – in Istanbul on 2 October.

The absence of credible figures for the death toll in Yemen has made it easier for foreign powers to shrug off accusations they are complicit in a human disaster. That is despite frantic appeals from senior UN officials to the organisation’s Security Council to avert a manmade famine which now threatens 14 million Yemenis – half the population.

The crisis has worsened because of the siege of Hodeidah – with the city a lifeline for aid and commercial imports – since mid June, a situation that has forced 570,000 people to flee their homes. UN humanitarian affairs chief Mark Lowcock warned on 23 October “the immune systems of millions of people on survival support for years on end are now literally collapsing, making them – especially the elderly – more likely to succumb to malnutrition, cholera and other diseases”.

Just how many people die because they are weakened by hunger is difficult to know accurately, because most of the deaths happen at home and are unrecorded. This is particularly true of Yemen, where half the meagre health facilities no longer function, and people are often too poor to use those that do.

Loss of life from fighting should be easier to record and publicise, and the fact this has not happened in Yemen is a sign of the lack of interest by the international community in the conflict. Carboni says ACLED has been able to tally the number of civilians and combatants killed in ground fighting and bombing by drawing on the Yemeni press and, to a lesser extent, international media. ACLED has used these sources, after carefully assessing their credibility, to calculate the number of fatalities. Where figures differ, the group uses lower estimates and favours the claims of those who suffered casualties, over those who say they inflicted them.

It is difficult to distinguish between civilian targets that are deliberately attacked, and non-combatants who died because they were caught in the crossfire, or were close to a military unit or facility when hit.

A study by Professor Martha Mundy – Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial Bombardment and Food War – concludes the Saudi-led bombing campaign deliberately targeted food production and storage facilities. Some 220 fishing boats have been destroyed on Yemen’s Red Sea coast and the fish catch is down by half.

ACLED began counting casualties after the war was under way, which is why it is only now researching loss of life in 2015, with its findings due to be published in January or February.

Carboni adds, the trend is for the number of people being killed to rise. The monthly total before December 2017 was fewer than 2,000 casualties, but since then it has always been more than 2,000. Almost all those who died are Yemenis, though the figures also include 1,000 Sudanese troops killed fighting on behalf of the Saudi coalition.

The Khashoggi affair has led to greater international focus on the calamitous war in Yemen, and the role of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the conflict. But there is no sign of the US, Britain or France curtailing military assistance to the kingdom and the UAE, despite the likelihood the coalition will fail to win a decisive victory.

The true “butcher’s bill” in the Yemen war has taken too long to emerge, but it may help to increase pressure on outside powers to stop the killing.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen 
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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a skilful politician who knows how to maximise his advantages and this was very much on display in his speech to the Turkish parliament.

He contemptuously dismissed the official Saudi story that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was the accidental outcome of a botched interrogation by a “rogue” Saudi intelligence team.

It was always naive to imagine that Mr Erdogan would tell all that Turkey knows about the murder and the Saudi role in it because such information – particularly the alleged audio recording of the killing – is invaluable in giving Turkey leverage over Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser degree, the US.

Mr Erdogan disappointed the media by not producing “a smoking gun”, but it is not in his interests to do so for the moment. However, he was categorical in showing that the killing of Mr Khashoggi was premeditated. “Intelligence and security institutions have evidence showing the murder was planned,” he said. “Pinning such a case on some security and intelligence members will not satisfy us or the international community.”

This unlikely narrative is, of course, exactly what Saudi Arabia is trying to sell to the rest of the world. Mr Erdogan did not mention Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by name. But then he does not have to. All he had to say was that “from the person who gave the order to the person who carried it out, they must all be brought to account”. The nation has repeatedly denied any suggestion that the crown prince may have been involved.

The crown prince is discovering, as have many authoritarian leaders in the past, that once you win total control of a country it becomes impossible to talk of ignorance of its crimes.

Mr Erdogan is shooting at an open goal. When Saudi Arabia denied knowing anything about the killing for 17 days and then issued a vague and unconvincing admission of the “rogue operation”, it created a vacuum of information about a story which the whole world is watching with fascinated interest. This vacuum is being filled by unattributable briefings by Turkish officials, drip-fed to the Turkish and international media at a pace geared to keep the finger pointing at Riyadh and the affair at the top of the news agenda.

The Saudi admission on 19 October that Mr Khashoggi was killed has made things worse rather than better for them. Their feeble cover story is already in shreds. Mr Erdogan is very reasonably asking what has happened to the body and what are the names of the Turkish “collaborators” to whom Riyadh is claiming operatives have handed over the corpse.

The problem for Saudi Arabia is that any attempt to explain away its role in the killing is likely to be immediately discredited by Turkish leaks. It is almost certain that the audio recording of Mr Khashoggi’s final moments really exists and will finally be made public. Meanwhile, it enables Turkey to pile on the pressure on the kingdom in the knowledge that it holds all the high cards.

It will play these cards very carefully because, once revealed, they lose their value. For Turkey, the Khashoggi affair has provided an unexpected and miraculous opportunity to recalibrate its relations with Saudi Arabia and the US to its own advantage. The Saudi bid to be the undisputed leader of the Sunni Muslims, although never really convincing and always overstating the kingdom’s strength, is dissolving by the day. Mr Erdogan can look to extract concessions – although he may not get them – from Saudi Arabia when it comes to the war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar and confrontation with Iran, as well as financial benefits.

Whatever happens, the aggressive, arrogant but disaster-prone Saudi foreign policy over the last three years under the leadership of the crown prince is likely to be thoroughly diluted in future.

Mr Erdogan will be looking to modify the stance of the US towards Turkey on issues such as the US alliance with the Syrian Kurds, whose enclave in Syria Ankara denounces as being run by the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the Turkish state has been fighting since 1984.

This is a delicate moment for President Trump. The Khashoggi affair may not much effect the midterm elections, but it will affect the US position in the world. Mr Trump’s most radical change of policy has been to exit the Iran nuclear deal and to reimpose severe sanctions on Iranian oil exports in early November. The main US regional ally in this was to have been the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, but this strategy is in deep trouble. Turkey has close if shaky relations with Iran and says it will not comply with sanctions. Saudi Arabia will go on being an important regional player because of its oil and money, but its prestige and influence have been damaged beyond repair.

If the crown prince does survive then he is likely to be much more under US influence and less likely to act independently than in the past. For the moment, he will be watching the news from Ankara and living from leak to leak.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Erdogan, Saudi Arabia 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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