CategoriesPoliticsHarrogateThought of The Day

New dictionary word: “Phillip-Allott-ed” 

Verb (transitive)

To be “Phillip-Allott-ed” is a four-staged test.

First, during a stream of consciousness, you brain-dump your most bizarre, innermost thoughts, at the most insensitive of times, in full public gaze, crushing your ability to carry out your new job. Your action reveals something particularly unusual about you that only your closest friends and family might have known, and which made you precisely the wrong person to carry out your new duties.

Second, you attempt an apology, but only make matters worse, compounding your first gaffe, drawing additional ire, ensuring that the story continues to run in both the local and national news.

Third, you try to cling on to your job, in the face of universal bewilderment, during which time you are publicly humiliated, time and again, before falling on your sword. See Margaret Thatcher’s demise, dragged out kicking and screaming.

Fourth, your unforgivable opinion expressed in the first stage of the test, ensure that such viewpoints will be forcefully tackled by your successor, thereby providing a total annihilation of the position you so publicly espoused.

Example

“That new guy at work, didn’t last long. After his tirade and his protestations, he’s eventually been Phillip-Allott-ed.”

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

N.B. All MPs, mayors, PCFCs and councillors deserve our gratitude, including Mr Allott. I know many of them: all of them want to make their communities a better place. The politician has become a dangerous profession, too. RIP Sir David Amess MP and Jo Cox.

CategoriesQuakerismHarrogateThought of The Day

Living Adventurously, in Settle

Typing this blog on my phone, in Settle Quaker Meeting House, North Yorkshire, I can hear an English language lesson taking place, one on one, in the room above. The student, I imagine, a recent newcomer to this country. I’m not eavesdropping: you cannot help but hear it.

Quaker Meeting House Settle

By some distance, this is my favourite Meeting House: simple, wooden, in a central location, and surrounded by an enchanting garden, together with a Quaker burial ground. Founded in 1678 during the usual period of Quaker persecution, it’s one of the oldest Meeting Houses.

Quaker burial ground

Interestingly, the founder of Birkbeck College came from here, George Birkbeck. He had previously founded the Mechanics’ Institute, which were adult education centres, focussed on the working man.

Soon, I will be launching a radical, consensus-building, democratic tool called Pol.is, to be hosted by the newly formed: The Crowd Wisdom Project. On this project, I work with a talented tech whizz, who lives in Ghana. He designed this website for me. Coincidentally, as I sit here, on the poster, before me, is a list of some of the Quaker Meetings around the world. One of them is in Accra, Ghana!

Quaker Post

I’ve never felt more like a Quaker: sitting peacefully, alone, at the beginning of this movement. It’s tranquil, here, yet still international, even in this sleepy Dales town.

 

CategoriesLegalPoliticsHarrogate

Live on BBC Radio: Resigned to No Resignation

Here in North Yorkshire our Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner is Phillip Allott, a Conservative. Until the last few days, almost nobody in this area knew his name. That’s not a criticism of him, for the same is true for all Police, Fire and Crime Commissioners.

All that changed on Friday 1 October 2021. During a live interview on BBC Radio York, to discuss the heinous murder of York woman Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, Mr Allott said:

“So women, first of all, need to be streetwise about when they can be arrested and when they can’t be arrested. She should never have been arrested and submitted to that.

“Perhaps women need to consider in terms of the legal process, to just learn a bit about that legal process.”

Twitter went into meltdown. Keir Starmer, Piers Morgan together with thousands of others demanded his removal from office. Even Reckless Boris criticised him, describing the comments as “wrongheaded”. Mr Allott apologised.

Given that Reckless Boris has given senior Tories carte blanche to do as they please, free from the expectation of being fired or being compelled to resign, I knew that Mr Allott’s resignation was the very last thing Mr Allott would do. This culture is wrong.

Fondly, I remember the time when politicians of all stripes would tender their resignations when they messed up. Margaret Thatcher’s Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, resigned when Argentina invaded the Falklands and – more memorably, as resignations go, Estelle Morris, Education Secretary under Tony Blair, resigned because, in her own words, that she wasn’t up to it. Her resignation letter reads:

“I’m good at dealing with the issues and in communicating to the teaching profession. I am less good at strategic management of a huge department and I am not good at dealing with the modern media. All this has meant that with some of the recent situations I have been involved in, I have not felt I have been as effective as I should be, or as effective as you need me to be.”

Oh, to have that candour and introspection today! Those were the days.

As luck would have it, the PCFC’s team were due to be in Harrogate on the morning after his comments, in order to garner feedback during their planned roadshow – something which should be lauded. Knowing this, I messaged some people whom I thought would be interested in running a petition outside of their roadshow. With only a few hours to arrange it, with social media more use than harm, a “motley” group assembled in the cold and rain, with our sign and our petition.

Petition Phillip Allott

We secured 165 signatures, in less than an hour, despite the inclement weather. People of all ages attended. I’ve never seen members of the public more keen to sign a petition. Perhaps if we had set up the stall on the Sunday instead, when the story was better known, there would have been more signatures, as many of the people who walked by didn’t know about the story.

Pleasingly, random lawyers – many of whom I didn’t know – attended. Speaking to them, all of us would have accepted arrest – as Sarah did – knowledge of the law or not. (Lawyers who know me are bored of my complaint that lawyers exist as a profession: we exist because citizens do not have access to all the laws which govern them, so in that, I have some sympathy with Mr Allott).

My interview in the Yorkshire Post is here.

As I explained to the Yorkshire Post and as you may have seen in this essay, I was subjected to an assault/wrongful arrest on my first day as a lawyer in Manchester. A completely different set of circumstances to the heinous murder of Sarah of course, however, I did feel that this experience of being arrested/assaulted by an off-duty police officer (who was trying to do the right thing), gave me some insight to speak up.

Today, 4 October 2021, I was interviewed live on BBC Radio York about this situation. I followed on from an interview of a long-standing disability champion, as well as the leader of the Fire Brigade’s Union, in calling for the resignation. Being interviewed live wasn’t good for my heart!

During my career, I have represented police officers and have I also brought civil claims when there has been wrongdoing. In my experience, 99.9% of police officers are the very best of us, doing a job that, frankly, I’m not brave enough to do. As George Orwell noted, we sleep peacefully in our beds because we have an army and a police force. I would take our police force over any other that I have seen.

I don’t know Mr Allott. Until those comments, he might have been doing an excellent job. As 99% of politicians go into it for the right reason – to make their community better – and assuming good motives for Mr Allott, I should place on record my gratitude to him for his service. My preference is that politicians in specialist elected roles – such as in Defence, Health, Justice and Policing – have some knowledge of their spheres of influence before taking up such a role. Otherwise by the time the politician has spent a number of years in the role – just to understand the basics – they are then turfed out of office. What a waste!

Mr Allott’s comments came from another era. For a PR man before being elected, his comms couldn’t have been worse. Not only has he lost the support of the public and the victims’ groups, but he’s also managed to make the work of the police far more difficult. A triple whammy. The frequent accusation on this online petition (7,000 signatures at the time of writing) was that he was blaming the victim, Sarah.

Sadly, from the position as a male, the overwhelming majority of those who signed our petition and this one online, are women. Men should be just as appalled, equally keen to sign the petition. Although men are far more likely to be killed by a stranger, the murder of Sarah has shone a spotlight on the fact that a very high proportion of women feel unsafe alone on the streets, including the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss. This is a sick culture.

Sadly, when the Tories introduced these commissioners, they didn’t include a power of recall for precisely this type of situation. So, unless Mr Allott does the right thing, then we are stuck with him for four years, probably eight. If Mr Allott remains in post, then although I believe his credibility is shot, perhaps on his cathartic quest to upgrade his thinking, we shall all benefit. I wish him well, whether he stays or goes.

Professionally and personally, I do wonder what will happen to me.

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Buy a Generator, Just in Case

Political nerds like me are fascinated with Dominic Cummings. So interested, in fact, that I pay him a monthly fee to read his excellent newsletter. I know: I have just lost a chunk of my audience at that announcement. (You can sign up here. Previously, I blogged about Cummings here.)

In a recent lengthy post, Cummings writes:

“If you will live in the UK over the next 6 months take steps to ensure you and your family can cope with a 4 week major disruption — e.g a cascade of logistics and energy failures. The only safe assumption is that the true situation is much worse than the media are telling you. This was true in spring 2020 and autumn 2020. It’s true now. Making some basic preparations is extremely low downside and extremely high upside. Keep in mind, some of the people I know who were most right most early on covid and other things have bought generators they can plug into their homes…”

In a more sensible media landscape, the suggestion from someone as senior as Cummings that we should consider purchasing a generator would be a major headline. But the media landscape is warped, fixated on personalities and trivialities.

Cummings is in good company, for Goldman Sachs has warned of a “non-negligible risk” of power outages, too.

With a number of energy providers having gone under in the last few weeks and with 12m people soon to get a whopping 12% hike to their energy bills, we should examine the reasons why, which, according to Deloitte, are:

  1. Natural gas prices have quadrupled over the past six months.
  2. Gas provides the UK with 40% of electricity production and 80% of the heating of homes.
  3. There is ongoing maintenance work in the North Sea.
  4. Wind speeds are low.
  5. Droughts have reduced hydropower.
  6. Unlike in Europe with their 20-30% storage facilities for gas, we stand at only 2%: there is no wriggle room.
  7. Fixed-rate tariffs and price caps don’t easily allow price increases to be passed onto consumers.

And we haven’t opened a nuclear power station since 1995. If Norway and Russia don’t increase supply, and if we have a cold winter with low wind speeds, we are in serious trouble, according to the experts.

Risk-assessing this situation, buying a generator – and the fuel if you can get any! – is a sensible course of action. If Reckless Boris says that there is nothing to worry about, then there is everything to worry about.

Think clearly, folks.

CategoriesHealthThought of The Day

Dysautonomia 2: The Sequel

When your daughter theoretically starts to design the colour scheme for my custom-made electric wheelchair (I have not ordered one, for clarity), to enable me to attend her dance performance, you know that my world has turned once more. Yes, dysautonomia is back: worse – and yet better – and as baffling as ever.

After one month of passable, acceptable health, the weirdness returned. But for how long, I don’t know. Three months on and one month off: I’ll take that.

Genuinely, I am not down about it. I’m not! Saddened for its impact on others – sure – but as the only constant is change itself, we all must adapt. Moaning about it will only make the situation unbearable. Human’s adaptability has been the key to our success.

When some months ago the likely prognosis was the horrifying Addison’s Disease, I discovered that both JFK and Osama Bin Laden suffered from it. Neither lived long lives, but they were certainly eventful. My guess is that their condition turbo-charged their ambitions. They must have known that the condition had reduced their life expectancy.

Which reminds me – most pretentiously – of a letter which Proust wrote to a Parisian newspaper in answer to this question: if a scientist proved that the world was about to end in the near future, what would happen? His answer:

“I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies, it—our life—hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future delays them occasionally.

But let all this threaten to become impossible forever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! If only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”

This condition isn’t life-threatening, just life-limiting – if seen that way. Life is random. Live each day as if it’s the last.

CategoriesHealthEssaysThought of The Day

On Wasps, On CBT, On Oxbridge, On Change   

As a six-year-old, I had a crush on a classmate. I’ll refer to her as ‘S’.

One pleasant summer’s day, our family went on a walk, along a former railway line, behind our house. After a few minutes, I spotted S and her family: they were walking straight towards us. Inevitably, our paths would cross. This was going to be so embarrassing, I thought.

Thinking quickly, unbeknown to both families, I ran up the steep, wooded embankment, crouching behind a bush. Soon, S and her family would pass by, oblivious that I had evaded them. Blushes, spared.

Breathing deeply, as S’s family passed by below, what appeared to be golden pellets fizzed into the air from under where I was sitting. It was quite an enchanting sight, like being surrounded by all the local tooth fairies.

Then – ouch, ouch, ouch. Whatever these supernatural flying creatures were, they were attacking me. And it really hurt.

With greater speed than I have ever mustered, I hurtled down the embankment screaming, running past S and her family, making it to my own. So out of breath, in pain and distressed, I was incapable of explaining what was happening.

Quickly, my parents grasped that I was covered in angry wasps, crawling all over my tracksuit, stinging me repeatedly. With S and family watching on, my father stripped me down to my underpants and began jumping on my clothes. With superhuman strength, my mother picked me up, then ran the 600m, or so, back to our house, where she put me in a bath of warm water to which she added vinegar. Whether the vinegar helped, I do not know. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.

In all, I was stung 12 times. My mother gave me 10p per sting: it felt like a good bargain. This bounty certainly cured my tears.

To this day, I have no idea what S and her family made of this hilarious incident. My bet: they don’t even remember it.

……………………………….

It wasn’t until my 20s when I realised that I was quite nervous – understandably so – around wasps. Entering my 30s, unbeknown to me, this phobia became progressively worse. Into my late 30s, I couldn’t be in a room with a wasp, generating great hilarity to everyone else and significant embarrassment for me. To defend and deflect, I would tell the tale of S and my 12 stings. It is a good story.

When lockdown struck, “normal” people spent more time in their gardens, but I couldn’t. “Normal” people would barbeque, but not me. Frustrated, my wife enquired about CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – on the NHS. After screening that my need was only during wasp season, months later, my online sessions commenced with a super therapist.

I must confess that I thought that the sessions were going to be a waste of time; however, having represented hundreds of clients who had needed CBT, I was at least intrigued to know what it was all about.

Through these sessions I realised how ingrained and life-impacting my phobia had become. As homework, my therapist asked me to look at photos of wasps on the internet. To my surprise, I couldn’t, often peering through my fingers, before moving away from my computer. Looking back, I do not possess the word power to describe my disgust and fear at looking at such images. In my defence, images of wasps on a screen are – of course – far larger than wasps in real life!

Over time, lesson by lesson, always completing my homework, I made great progress. By educating myself about the vast number of wasp species and their role in the food chain and in pollination, I learned to respect – if not to love – wasps. Yes, I now love wasps! No more do I reflexively run away at the sound of a buzz in my vicinity. My mind, reprogrammed.

So confident I am now that I often work in the garden under the wasps’ favourite bush, alongside our mini-orchard – also a favourite haunt of my yellow and black friends. With my new hobby of drawing, I even sketched one (don’t laugh – it’s below) to prove my mastery. As evidence to my therapist of her success, I sent her the below photograph of my new workstation. I think it made her day.

Recently, I took my family to the fateful embankment, and, in a ceremonial manner, I buried a dead wasp that I had been asked to study. Of course, I didn’t kill that wasp, for it was already dead. Squishing wasps is not for me: instead, I open a window, because now I can.

wasp drawing workstation in orchard

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Walking in the garden now, I feel – oddly – powerful. Unafraid. Although I am proud of this small achievement, what excites me most is my mind’s – and anyone’s mind – ability to change, at any age. If my neural pathways can be re-wired in relation to something trauma-caused and developed over 35 years, in just ten online sessions, then a world of possibility has opened before me. And before you. But why didn’t I tackle this defect sooner?

Though not everyone will agree, the myth that many in my generation was implanted with – and which persists somewhat to-date – is that by the end of your formal education, the quality of your mind is supposedly set in concrete. As a result, your successes will flow from howsoever far your mind managed to develop in that time. I shall call this “The Fixed Mind Myth”.

First, so we were told, your life chances were allegedly moulded by your GCSE results. Next, your A-level results laid the foundations of your future. Thereafter, so the story goes, for those who attend university, the ranking of your institution and your grade determined your life. From that point, the condition of your brain was permanently affixed, incapable of improvement, your intellectual position in society, stuck. Fail at school and your life was over.

Until recently, I imbibed that bile. But where did The Fixed Mind Myth emanate from? And is it true?

For an answer, I’ll turn to a philosopher, whose name I shall withhold for now. He wrote:

“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.”

This black and white analysis was from Karl Marx. The Fixed Mind Myth – if this was, as I propose, a society-wide notion – then according to Marx, it was disseminated by the ruling class. (Like him or loathe him, Marx’s criticism of capitalism has merit, but his hazily sketched-out model for a communist utopia was flawed.) I must proceed with a warning: there is always danger in overly simplistic analysis of complex issues, but as this isn’t an academic essay and as I have no training in biology (where, surely some answers also lie), I shall concentrate on this class issue.

…………………………………………

Born in the year that Thatcher (educated at Oxford) came to power, my first 18 years were lived under Conservative rule. Unquestionably, the Tories are the party of the ruling class and they have dominated British politics. Through their control, we can thank, or not, the Conservative Party for most of the successes and failures of the British state, including its myths.

Due to centuries of the ruling classes attending Oxbridge, coupled with predominant Tory rule (there is a connection), the notion that life was fixed by the time you finished formal education, was all-pervasive, inescapable. Beneficiaries of this system had no reason to contest it. The rest of us accepted it as gospel – well, that’s my firm recollection. And with Oxbridge forever top, everyone else’s place was set by their proximity to it.

Recently, Michael Gove’s time at Oxford University – which he left 33 years ago – was reported in The Times. Joining Gove, Reckless Boris and on-his-jollies-during-a-crisis Raab, attended Oxford, so did Dominic Cummings, Rishi Sunak and Theresa May, not forgetting Tony Blair, too. Matt Hancock studied at both, infamously hiring his “friend” from university. It is no surprise that today’s ruling coterie mostly attended Oxbridge: they always have.

Perhaps today’s politicians reached their lofty positions solely because of their exceptional talents, but perhaps Marx was onto something: that to attend Oxbridge guaranteed a place in the ruling class, and that The Fixed Mind Myth was then promoted by those who studied there. Once ensconced at the top of the academic hierarchy, to maintain your position in society, it was logical to proffer The Myth, brazenly or subconsciously. The Myth would therefore make sense to those who promulgated it and to those who heard it. With most Prime Ministers having studied at Oxbridge, the evidence was compelling, so it would have seemed. In addition, as I have previously blogged, clans help their own, only making matters worse.

One of the reasons why white bread became the most popular type was because, historically, only the rich could afford it. Similarly, orange carrots became the dominant type due to their popularity with the Dutch Royal family. In both cases, the predilections of society’s top strata, influenced all below.

Certainly, those who make it to Oxbridge today had academic talent at the time that they sat their exams. These students are likely to become successful – by traditional definitions of success. However, there are countless examples where this is not so: examples of non-Oxbridge students making it; of people without a university education, against the odds, becoming successful in their chosen fields. Some of the brightest and original minds that I know did not attend university.

Having worked with hundreds of lawyers, my anecdotal evidence is that an Oxbridge education does not always lead to the production of the best lawyers. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t. And those who become successful – as traditionally defined – without an Oxbridge background, have done so in spite of their “ignorance” and impeded by this class-based myth. This is because talent is not solely determined by formal education; because the brain is malleable, capable of growth at all ages, as I experienced. Some of the best lawyers I know obtained unenviable grades.

In these observations, I make no criticism of those who attended Oxbridge. Zero. Many of my friends attended. Is there an element of envy on my part? Perhaps: you decide. I’m also acutely conscious that, for some, an Oxbridge qualification may well be detrimental, perhaps pushing people into careers that ordinarily they wouldn’t have selected, because that’s what Oxbridge graduates are meant to do. Conceivably, the sense that, by attending Oxbridge you had made it, may well deter some students from continuous self-improvement, thereby leading to a less full life. And like the writer of a one-hit-wonder, who then spends a lifetime trying to recreate that magic, attending Oxbridge might feel for some as if it was the pinnacle of their existence, with everything downhill from there on in.

Irrespective of whether you concur with my observations, I hope that we can agree that attending Oxbridge is a thing. It is the sun around which the rest of us orbit.

………………………………………..

The philosopher, Nietzsche, who taught me much, instructs us to form our own codes by which to live and thrive. Nietzsche disdained traditional values, taboos and sacred cows, recommending that we move, amongst other ideas, Christianity and alcohol to the “deleted items” box in our heads. He said we should contest all doctrines that hold people back, however prevalent they are. Nietzsche, though a precocious talent, easily capable of attending Oxbridge, would have found the Oxbridge experience and all its accompaniments, suffocating. Never would he have promoted The Fixed Mind Myth.

On the contrary, he encouraged us to metamorphose from who we presently are, to, he called it, the camel, then to the lion, eventually becoming our true selves when we finally return to being a child: unburdened by society’s strictures, living in a liberated state of creativity and play. Only few “Supermen” (and women) make this mental transition, he said. Sounds delicious to me, it does, un-stung as well, and worthy of another blog.

Nietzsche is credited with the notion that ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Perhaps sitting on a wasp nest was, after all, worth it. Those working-class wasps had been encoded to protect the hive at all costs, even to their detriment. What they needed was Marx, CBT and Nietzsche. Until my CBT, unconsciously I have been defending The Fixed Mind Myth. No more! The mind is flexible, plastic, hungry to grow.

I wonder which other ruling class-originated ideas that I should confront, and what unhelpful mental models I need to discard.

CategoriesEducationPoliticsThought of The Day

Comment Piece in The Yorkshire Post

With the children returning to school on 7 September, The Yorkshire Post published my blog, originally entitled “Carpe Diem, Gavin Williamson” in reference to the Government’s introduction of Latin. The article was trailed on page 2 (not page 3, as my friends have suggested!).

In it, I outline some obvious changes which ought to be implemented to education. If I was allowed more words, I could have gone on, for there is so much which is broken with the system. Because we are a rich country – due to historical reasons – it seems to me that we do not often question why it is that we do certain things. Why do children have ludicrously long school holidays? Because, historically, it allowed them to harvest. There are countless other examples of such poor thinking and poor governance.

The titles of the online and print versions vary. The online version can be found here.

Page 2 of Yorkshire Post on 7 September 2021

Andrew Gray

Page 15 Yorkshire Post 7.9.21
Article by Andrew Gray
CategoriesHarrogate

Up and Out in Middlesmoor and The Dales

Thankfully and inexplicably, for a few days now, my health returned, almost back to normal. But how long it will last, I don’t know. So, let’s enjoy it whilst I can. No time to waste.

Without question, my favourite part of the Yorkshire Dales is the hamlet of Middlesmoor. I remember stumbling across it some years ago, puzzled – as I still am – that it wasn’t well-known. Plonked atop of a hill in Nidderdale, 8 miles from Pateley Bridge (where I used to run a free and never used law clinic!), its reminiscent of an Italian hill-town, but probably older, as a settlement has been here since 1200. And you can see why, for although there is no obvious fortifications, its position would have made it impregnable, with sweeping views all around.

Together with our new puppy, I just drank it up. Photographs do it more justice than my words ever could.

Given that the puppy ate every sheep poo within lead-distance, my stay was cut short. Therefore, I went exploring somewhere new, finding the reservoirs of Scar House and Angram, at the start of the River Nidd, a short distance from Middlesmoor. Building work commenced on these reservoirs almost a century to the day. They still supply Bradford with water.

Again, photos will do it more justice. What was pleasing to see is the number of new tree plantations, not far from my law firm’s woods just outside of Summerbridge.

As with Middlesmoor, though this area is stunning, it is largely empty of tourists, even on a Sunday basking in fine weather. Had Wordsworth ventured here, rather than the Lake District, perhaps Middlesmoor would have become like Ambleside, jam-packed with cars. My preference for beauty is always for awe-inspiring natural views, but only if accompanied by something man-made, like a castle or a reservoir.

I wonder what else is on my doorstep.

CategoriesEnvironmentInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Us and Them

Accompanying the scenes of the Kabul evacuation, Pink Floyd’s Us and Them plays on a continuous loop in my head.

“Us (us, us, us, us) and them (them, them, them, them)
And after all we’re only ordinary men.”

In recent weeks, this troubling issue – of ‘them’ and ‘us’ – has dominated my thoughts. Why do some people matter to us, but others do not? Imperilled people at Kabul airport who have had our help, are just as important as humans in, say, sub-Saharan Africa who have not, right? Former soldier and Tory MP, Patrick Mercer, wrote in The Yorkshire Post on 29 August 2021:

“If ever there was an unimpeachable reason for offering safety and sanctuary to our friends, this is it. We need to get those people out – all of them – and help them here in Britain just as they stood by our boys when the bullets were flying over there.”

Since the invasion of Afghanistan twenty years ago, I do not recall the British media suggesting that any Afghan was on our “side”. Deaths of Afghans – either in “collateral damage” or otherwise – didn’t seem to matter much. Only the deaths of our unfortunate soldiers ever made the news. Until now. Now, Afghans who worked on our side, or who benefitted from our presence, have quickly become ‘us’ in a matter of weeks.

Perhaps we now care for some Afghans because “our” people got to know some of them, fighting and dying together. Because those Afghans picked our tribe over “theirs”, they are now friends for life, as Mercer says. Our tribe owes their tribe, goes the logic. Difficult shared experiences develop strong bonds between people.

As I hope to treat all people equally, this rapid volte face in the media, though welcome, causes me concern. And if these Afghans can quickly change sides in our consciousness, are there any useful lessons for how we could shine a spotlight on other unfortunate people, equally deserving of our help? What methodology and logic should we use for determining who deserves our assistance?

Yuval Noah Harari’s magnum opus – Sapiens – which ought to be compulsory reading for all – traces the development of our species. Like many of his readers, I now understand myself better because I recognise my DNA code. Harari spends much time explaining the ‘them’ and ‘us’ phenomenon. He writes:

“Evolution has made homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ is people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for ‘them’. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human.”

A challenging read, because it is true for many people.

In 2016, at the suggestion of a Quaker friend, I travelled with him to the Calais refugee camp – The Jungle – together with some members of a Pentecostal church in Leeds. Our mission was to distribute food and other assorted items.

At that time, in the British gutter press, The Jungle had become notorious. If France was so civilised, why not stay there? – went the narrative. The gutter press’s answer: only because Britain was a soft-touch, ready to help others rather than “our own”. Charity begins at home, they intoned.

In The Jungle lived Afghans, Syrians and many other nationalities – mainly young men – who wanted a better life, escaping war and poverty. If, through fate, I had been in their position, I imagine I would have done likewise.

Here are some photos of that trip.

You might expect that such an experience would leave a lasting impression, but it did not. Rarely do I think about The Jungle, however, frequently I think about the people whom we travelled with: they became part of my tribe. Perhaps this is because I did not (frankly, because of fear), spend any meaningful time with any of the inhabitants of The Jungle: it was intense, overwhelming experience – one that I do not wish to have again. I cannot tell you any of their names of the people we helped. In my head, they didn’t enter my tribe.

Harari’s work helps humans to understand our still-primitive minds. If we are all encoded to really only care about ‘us’, if we want to break-free from such thinking, answers can be found in religion and ideology (taken as one) and philosophy.

Although religion unquestionably sows division, it is also a great unifer, by increasing the size of the ‘us’ pool, extending the size of our tribe. Don’t just care about Christians in your town in affluent Harrogate – goes the logic – care about the plight of Christians in Kurdistan, too. Furthermore, if an omnisicient creator gave all things life, assuming that humans are at the zenith of the importance hierarchy (which is quite an assumption), then religions are a helpful antidote to humans only caring about the people whom they know. For example, the Christians from Leeds, who led The Jungle odyssey, were inspired by their faith to help those in need. And for these Leeds Christians, upliftingly they did not care for the religion for those whom they helped.

Similarly, communism encouraged the working classes to care about the class struggle throughout the world, extending the working class tribe. Communism and the reaction to it certainly caused much bloodshed, but it also spawned human connection.

In philosophy, I draw great strength from Peter Singer – the inspiration behind the animal rights movement. Together with my instinctual predilection for utilitarianism, Singer’s Drowning Child Experiment has shaped how I see the world. His thought experiment goes as follows:

Imagine that you are walking through an empty village – empty except for a young child. That child is about to drown in the village pond. You are the only person who can save it. If you wade into the water, through the mud, to make a rescue, then you will permanently ruin your best clothes. The financial cost would be modest. Morally, should you wade in?

To which everyone answers – of course! Singer asks why it is, then, that most people in rich countries would not spend only a small sum of money to save the life of a child – or perhaps a few children – in a developing country, a country that we will in all likelihood never visit. Why does it matter that we cannot see, in the flesh, the child drowning in another land? Singer challenges us to ignore distance, to apply logic – a life is a life wherever it is – and to make that donation.

Inspired by Singer’s reasoning, the organisation – The Life That You Can Save – ranks charities who make the greatest contribution to saving lives. I encourage all readers to subscribe to their newsletter.

Drawing lessons from Harari, religion and philosophy, how should we, in rich countries, act? My personal recipe is to get to know one developing country – in my personal case, Myanmar – and give a fair proportion of your wealth (including your time) to achieving the maximum return. We cannot know all people, or we would exhaust ourselves. Alternatively, we could let the Life That You Can Save direct our giving, but you will never get the warm feeling of knowing the people your money helps, perhaps leading us to give to the local donkey sanctuary instead when we get bored.

Perhaps more intelligently and compassionately still, our money and time ought to be focussed on environmental matters: allowing us to be both local as well as global, acting in the knowledge that the people who will be hit worst by environmental collapse are always the most needy. This requires long-term thinking, something which does not come naturally to most of us.

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Taliban 2.0?

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, my good friend went to the Iranian Embassy in London to collect our visas. In what was a foreboding experience, we had completed the requisite paperwork in the embassy several weeks before. With our plane tickets booked to Athens, the plan was that we were to make it overland – from Greece to Thailand, flying home from Bangkok. By this point, we had obtained visas for Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The back-of-a-fag-packet plan was to apply for a Burmese visa when in Bangladesh. The Iranian visa was the missing piece.

Due to 9/11, with the world in a pickle, with travel insurance invalidated for Iran, we were only able to safely visit India.

Watching the Taliban press conference, a few days ago, I thought I would revisit my Lonely Planet Guidebook to Central Asia, printed in 2000. My friend and I would have ventured into Afghanistan, had it been safe at that time. The guidebook reads:

At the time of writing the sound of gunfire and shelling still reverberates over parts of Afghanistan as it has done with depressing regularity since the late 1970s. Hopes are high that the latest faction to win control over the war-torn capital, the Islamist Taliban fighters, may eventually succeed in bringing peace but for the time being Afghanistan is unsafe to visit.

The 19th century was a period of often comic book confrontation with the British, who were afraid of the effects of unruly neighbours on its great Indian colony. The rise of Great Game tensions and the internal weakness of the Afghan Kingdom resulted in a series of remarkably unsuccessful and bloody, preventative wars being fought on extremely flimsy pretexts.

In 1841 the British Garrison in Kabul found itself under attack after Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes was hacked to pieces by an Afghan mob. The British attempted to retreat to India and were almost totally wiped out in the Khyber Pass – out of 16,000 persons only one man survived. The British managed to re-occupy Kabul and carried out little razing and burning to show who was boss, but Dost Mohammed ended up back in power, just as he had been before the war.

Following local wars, from 1878 to 1880, Afghanistan agreed to become more or less a protectorate of the British, happily accepted an annual payment to keep things in shape and agreed to a British resident in Kabul. No sooner had this diplomatic mission being installed in Kabul than all of its members were murdered. This time the British decided to keep control of Afghanistan’s external affairs, but to leave the internal matters strictly to the Afghans themselves.”

History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, so said Mark Twain.

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In strict legal terms, the initial war in Afghanistan in 2001 was lawful. Morally, there was a casus belli – just cause. The “occupation” also had legal cover, as the foreign troops were invited to remain in situ by the Afghan Government. But was there a duty to nation-build – and, if so, at what cost and for how long?

My view is that our shameful colonial legacy, rather than the invasion of 2001, obliged us to help. The boundaries drawn by colonial officials many years ago split communities, artificially creating this country and that country, sowing generations of division. As a former Burma/Myanmar expert, this pattern is familiar.

With regards to the US, any obligation to the Afghans stems not from their invasion in 2001, rather from their proxy war fought against the Soviet Union during the 1980s, flooding Afghanistan with weapons. Such obligation does not last twenty years, nor should it cost $2 trillion, 2442 dead and 20,660 wounded.

President Biden has come under sustained criticism due to the manner of the collapse, but he was elected on a pledge of ending the “forever wars”. I shall not join in with the condemnation, for he was democratically elected, with his rival – Trump, who made the deal with Taliban – also promising likewise. Had the US remained, in breach of the presidential promises, the US taxpayer would have shouldered additional considerable expense. If such cost had been met by the UN, fairly split across the G20 countries, given that no US soldier had died in 18 months, such continued involvement would have been equitable to the US, but it was not. Expecting the US to act as the world policeman, with the expectation that the US spends a higher proportion of her GDP on defence than other NATO allies, is the root cause of the scenes at Kabul airport. Look to Germany, France, other NATO countries and to the UN, if you want to allocate blame.

Certainly, the intelligence assessment of the capability and durability of the Afghan National Army (ANA) proved wildly inaccurate, but such predictions were always educated guesses. Just as the intelligence errors which led to Pearl Harbour did not bury Roosevelt, the CIA assessment of the ANA shouldn’t finish Biden. In fact, the speed with which the ANA collapsed, when faced with an inferior force, gives credence to Biden’s position – that the US job in Afghanistan could never be complete, leading to many more trillions to be spent to little strategic or economic gain.

However, politics is an unfair business. Images of Taliban fighters in US fighter planes and driving around Kabul in Humvees, which will drip-drip for years to come, will pummel Biden on a daily basis. Given his age, Biden will not seek re-election, paving the way for Harris. Harris’ success may rest on her ability to distance herself from the withdrawal. This may wash with the US electorate, who know that Biden has always been opposed to US military adventurism. As the Taliban always say, “You may have the watches, but we have the time.” Foreign expeditions on behalf of a democratically elected Government – in this case, the US – can only ever be time-limited affairs.

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Combined with the angst that we in the West feel for those caught up in these unfortunate circumstances, my (likely unpopular) view is that we feel embarrassed – humiliated even – that “our side” were so easily swatted away, often without a fight, by fighters whom many regard as primitive. Furthermore, the Taliban leaders whom we now see on TV, do not so far appear to be the monsters which we were led to believe that they were. This is not to ignore their multiple atrocities, rather it is comment on their appearance and actions as de facto rulers thus far.

My sense is that many people in the West feel discombobulated: everything that we thought we knew was wrong. To make matters more disorientating, my view is that many in the West now feel unsafe: our soldiers were beaten (when they were not); our allies are incompetent and untrustworthy; refugees and terrorism will soon be brought to a street near you; our prestige, shattered.  As George Orwell wrote: “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Our “rough men” have gone, though most of them left years ago.

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Watching the Taliban take Kabul without a fight, pondering the reason why it was an effortless coup d’état, instantly I thought of my favourite organisational thinker, Simon Sinek. Sinek created the third most-watched TED Talk of all time. Sinek’s simple message is that organisations need a shared Why: i.e. a culture – a mission – that all participants subscribe to. Through adhering to that vision, an organisation can achieve great things.

Sinek highlights how the little-known Wright Brothers somehow managed to fly the first plane despite being pitted against Samuel Pierpont Langley – an eminent astronomer who was bankrolled by the US Government and who assembled the brightest minds of the day. As Sinek states about the Wright Brothers, “they were able to inspire those around them and truly lead their team to develop a technology that would change the world.”

My view as a non-expert (though with some foreign policy acumen – I submitted written evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee) is that the ANA were without a mission that the foot soldiers and their leadership bought into. Though well-trained and well-armed, they were no match for purpose-driven Taliban fighters. Without purpose – because Afghanistan, though a nation state in legal terms, has little cohesivity. This mountainous country, with few roads, makes for insular, autonomous areas, rather than a joined-up whole. This is not to criticise the Afghan people, for a national identity cannot be forced. Why, then, as an ANA solder would you risk your life for an idea that you do not – to your core – believe in?

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Do we in the West have a moral or legal duty to evacuate anyone who is queuing at the airport? Have “we” spent enough? Should we aid the brain and financial drain, which is taking place, hampering the country for years to come? If so, who do we bring over and for how long? Because our taxpayers funded Afghan engineers, should we take their whole families with us, depriving Afghanistan of their skills?

The moral answer perhaps lies in our analysis of what may happen to such people if they stay, but then we have already witnessed the issues with predicting what will happen in Afghanistan. Applying a risk-assessment methodology, temporary residency should be provided for those with cause. If Afghanistan does not descend into reprisals, then Afghans would need to return, supported by turbo-charged foreign aid. Whilst in the UK, all Afghan should have the right to work – a right that refugees have but asylum-seekers do not. If safe, Afghanistan will need most of the people back who are now departing.

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But has the Taliban changed in twenty years? Early indications suggests that they have. The world has changed in that time. Their leaders have experienced life in other countries. A generation of Afghans has experienced democracy, women’s rights, and the internet. The country they now govern is a different prospect from what they knew. Taliban leaders will still scan the sky for drones, perhaps tempering some of their activities.

Sadly, what I expect to see is some reprisals and a dramatic reduction in women’s rights. I expect that the West will make it difficult for the Taliban to access banking and international aid, so I expect to see – as has happened in Burma/Myanmar – the march of the Chinese into Afghanistan. Iran, Russia and Pakistan too will all look to curry favour, with minerals to exploit and border zones to influence. The Great Games – as mentioned in the extract from my guidebook above – continue. Everything changes, but nothing changes.