CategoriesHealthPoliticsHarrogate

Tory Contenders and Covid Deaths

Reflecting on the shameful vote this week by the majority of Tory MPs to support disgraced Tory MP Owen Paterson, and then for the Government’s immediate volte-face, my sense is that a potential challenger to Reckless Boris will soon break cover.

It is noteworthy that 109 Tory MPs didn’t vote for the Andrea Leadsom’s Putin-esque amendment (including Harrogate’s Andrew Jones and Ripon’s Julian Smith), with six Tory MPs voting against. Of the six, my analysis is that only Mark Harper MP is a potential challenger to Reckless Boris.

Harper previously stood for leader and has been critical of lockdowns. Candidly, I have not heard any chatter of Harper standing, but in most parties there is usually someone waiting in the wings for their moment to usurp their leader and this is such a potential moment. Thatcher had Heseltine, Major had Redwood, Blair had Brown, Cameron and May had Reckless Boris. But who challenges Boris?

If not Mark Harper, then Skipton and Ripon’s, Julian Smith MP – who took the unusual decision to demand the resignation of Phil Allott – is an unlikely, but potential, contender. He may trigger a leadership race so that others break cover.

My reading of him is that he is an honourable MP who is embarrassed by the Tories – yet again – descent into sleaze. By most accounts, Smith is meant to be a safe pair of hands, as judged by his time as Northern Ireland Secretary. In addition, Smith is unassailable in his constituency. By attacking Reckless Boris, with Brexit done, Smith is unlikely to suffer censure by his local Conservative Association, for the people in this area – particularly in Skipton, home to Skipton Building Society – abhor financial impropriety.

Watch this space.

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Out of the 830,000 people estimated to be living in North Yorkshire, according to figures collated by the North Yorkshire Outbreak Management Advisory Board, since Covid arrived in February 2020 there have been 559 excess deaths. According to Public Health England, in the same period, there have been 1,227 deaths where Covid was mentioned on the death certificate. Most deaths occurred during the first and second peaks.

Working on the assumption that dozens of deaths would have occurred indirectly because of Covid – for example, because people didn’t summon an ambulance for fear of catching Covid in hospital, and then dying at home; or because cancers went undetected – my educated guess is that around 400 residents of North Yorkshire sadly perished directly due to Covid.

There are 634 days between 1 February 2020 and 31 October 2021. Circa 400 deaths, in 634 days, for an above average-aged population, in a fairly prosperous and spaced-out population. Dreadful, but if you ask residents of this area, as I have done, what their own estimates of deaths in this area is, most likely you will get estimates into the thousands. In my social circle, the highest estimate I have heard was 10,000. Now that, if correct, would be rightly terrifying.

Each death, each Long Covid survivor, is tragic. But the figures, dispassionately analysed, are a cause for optimism. With our vaccines and boosters, armed with our knowledge and experience of this virus, though we must be cautious, though we must crush all new variants, we must enjoy life again.

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Voices For Burma (Wikipedia entry)

(What follows is my Wikipedia entry for the organisation which I co-founded in 2003: Voices For Burma (VFB). Wikipedia removed the entry, so I add it here for posterity. Hopefully historians of that period will locate this page, and perhaps my kids will be proud of their father. After all, Aung San Suu Kyi was regarded as a saint until 2017, but we campaigned against her 14 years before that).

Voices for Burma

Voices for Burma (VFB) was a Non-Governmental Organisation founded in 2003, closing in 2009. Founded in the UK, Voices for Burma campaigned on two fronts. First, to examine the complexities of the tourist boycott of Myanmar promoted by Aung San Suu Kyi and secondly to educate visitors to Myanmar on the need to travel in the country ethically.

Original Founders

Voices for Burma was founded by Andrew Gray, Anna Laycock and Zishaan Arshad, following Andrew Gray’s visits to Burma/Myanmar in 2002 and 2003.

Change of Leadership of Voices for Burma

As Cherie McCosker and Emily Pelter joined Voices for Burma, Zishaan Arshad and thereafter Anna Laycock stepped aside. Andrew Gray remained throughout.

Campaigning

Voices for Burma was supported by Dr Zarni of the Free Burma Coalition and several British former diplomats and Myanmar scholars. On their key message that ethical tourism to Myanmar could be undertaken ethically, Voices for Burma took the counter position to The Burma Campaign UK which had maintained strict adherence to Aung San Suu Syi call for a total tourism boycott.

Primarily, Voices for Burma educated potential visitors to Myanmar through its website (now defunct) and through Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree online travel forum. The website was created and managed by Burmese refugees living in India.

Voices for Burma was invited by Lonely Planet editors to advise on the 9th edition of the Burma/Myanmar guidebook, referenced in the 2005 edition.

Publications

In 2006, Voices for Burma submitted written evidence to the UK House of Lords on the efficacy of the tourism boycott here. Voices for Burma concluded:

“It is VFB’s stance that the UK Government’s policy on tourism to Burma is at best confused and at worst irreconcilable with its commitment under the Common Position to assist the poorest sections of Burmese society. It is not VFB’s argument that the Travel Boycott is fundamentally flawed, as VFB discourages some tourists to Burma, however the boycott policy has not been evaluated and has not engendered any positive societal shifts.”

In 2006, founder Andrew Gray appeared in the New York Times here.

“When I was in Burma, I’ve never met anyone who said that I shouldn’t be there,” said Andrew Gray, founder of Voices for Burma, another advocacy group. Mr. Gray argues that educated tourists can spend money on local businesses without government links and help average people in one of Asia’s poorest nations.”

In 2010, though now defunct, Voices for Burma appeared in The Guardian at here.

“While favouring engagement, Voices for Burma and the Free Burma Coalition urge tourists to do as much as possible to help private Burmese citizens and not put money in the government’s pocket, and in fact it is possible to do so now as a tourist.”

 

 

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.”

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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.

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.

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
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.

……………………………………………………….

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.

CategoriesPoliticsEssaysThought of The Day

Carpe diem, Gavin Williamson

At the request of The Yorkshire Post, for whom I occasionally write, I have penned this comment piece. Perhaps they will publish it. Time will tell. I was limited to 750 words, but there is far more that I could say on this subject! Enjoy.

 

I’ll admit it: middle-class parents, like my wife and I, had a good pandemic. Working from home, deliveries, Zoom and a garden, we never had it so good. Our children – girl and a boy – aged 11 and 9, fared well, thanks to devices and internet. To supplement the lamentable online “schooling” from their state school, we hired a teacher for daily online lessons. When one child was learning live, the other was completing homework.

Encouraged, we challenged our children to find an additional tutor – in any subject, in any country. Using an app, my son selected an Argentinian-based coding teacher, whereas my daughter instructed a drama tutor, all the way from Lancashire. (The pound goes further in Argentina!). These weekly lessons continue. Through making their own choices, our children have reconfigured their view of education.

Naturally, I have inexhaustible sorrow for the children whom Covid eternally penalised. The gulf has widened. So, what to do?

Treat Covid as an opportunity. Historians will declare this time – revolutionary: a promiscuous, Catholic Prime Minister; furlough extravaganza; exodus from the cities; Brexit; amber lists; space races; UFOs; wild climate; Tories in Hartlepool; national sporting success; and Natwest in profit.

Meanwhile, over at the Department for Education, for Gavin from Scarborough it’s business-as-usual.

The aftermath of WW1 delivered women’s suffrage. WW2 spawned the welfare state. Post-Covid, here is my uncosted education bucket-list, emanating from a new Education Rights Bill.

First, fundamentally restructure education and the status of educators: teachers should be atop the status hierarchy. Education should become a life-long process. Double the pay of state schoolteachers and make it harder to qualify. Private school advantage will haemorrhage. Empower the teaching regulator. Looking back, all of us remember a teacher who saw something in us that nobody else did. Similarly, most of us remain embittered by a poor teacher, who caused our shameful grades. In future, those who can, teach. Then, pay school governors, encouraging the best to apply, removing the cosy relationship with the Head.

Lengthen the school day. I recommend six terms. Half the summer holidays, given that children no longer harvest. To improve traffic flow in an area, vary school start times. Country-wide, to end the extortionate cost of foreign holidays, term times should vary. And scrap fines for taking children out of school, too, if under ten days. To foster a better balance of genders and ages of staff in primary schools, legalise positive discrimination.

Each child – state school or private – should be given a budget, managed by their carers, to purchase their schooling, as well as any extracurricular activities, additional lessons, clothing and school meals. Want to learn fencing or horse riding, fine. Higher budgets for poorer children and those with special needs. Parents can add to the pot, as they do already. Granny can buy Latin lessons as a gift. The State should have a statutory obligation to provide a free device with free internet.

Each citizen – not just children – should be given an encrypted, personalised education dashboard – a repository for all our educational activities and results, from cradle to grave. One-third of lessons ought to be streamed, available for anyone in the world. If children are poorly, isolating or on holiday, they can watch later. Private schools could maintain their charitable status, only if they stream one-third of their lessons. Want to know what Eton is like, then attend their lessons, either live or watch on-demand later. Didn’t understand the lesson, then go over it again in your own time.

Whilst a British education remains prized, with English the world’s lingua franca, by exporting our online lessons for free to our former colonies, and at cost to others, we can culturally lead. A bulwark against Chinese domination, with its impenetrable Mandarin. To offset the drop in our foreign aid budget, newly qualified teachers must spend their first-year teaching abroad.

Trip-advisor-style reviews from pupils and carers should inform school rankings. With so many online lessons for anyone to view, the best teachers will become celebrities. Scrap Ofsted, SATs and GCSEs. Employers which received furlough cash must provide work experience, allocated by lottery, opening-up the professions. On top of that, I want to see mandatory CPR, sign language, and philosophy lessons, with Shakespeare the preserve of higher education.

School buildings and playing fields must be opened-up to their communities. And like at Hogwarts, children should be allocated a House, with online competitions. Finally, as a right, our children demand clean air, both inside and outside of school.

 

CategoriesLegalPoliticsEssaysThought of The Day

The Middle Class Advantage?

(I would prefer never to speak of any particular “class”, but as the term retains utility, I shall use it.)

On Friday evening, I had an emergency telephone consultation with a GP. Her advice was unequivocal: go to A & E. Not what I wanted to hear – of course – but I appreciated the clarity.

What I think I needed was for my blood pressure to be checked. Attending A & E alone was a non-starter, as I couldn’t stand up. We therefore asked our wonderful neighbours for an emergency babysitter. In that chat group was a GP.

Now I can assure my readers that I did not want our friend to check in on me, but check on me she did. (As I thought, my blood pressure was too low on standing, flooring me. A & E was spared my needless presence). For our friend, I feel immense gratitude, and I hope that she never needs to check on my again. But such fortuitousness (or not) gave me pause for reflection at the reason for my “luck”.

During my teens, my middle class, wonderful parents secured me two weeks of legal work experience. Unpaid, of course, as such work experience always is. These two weeks not only set me on my career trajectory, but then made it easier for me to find my first job in law. During my gruelling interviews to become a trainee solicitor, I remember citing my work experience as evidence that I understood the profession.

Today, routinely I help my friends and family with their legal problems. No question. Like me, most of my friends and family are “middle class”. Candidly, in the past, I was more likely to sanction a work experience placement if I knew the family.

But let me confess: over the years, I have joined in the pillorying of Old Etonians – particularly the Bullingdon Club boys – for using their upper class connections to further their interests. Even recently, Reckless Boris appointed yet another “Buller” to – believe it or not – take a seat on the Whitehall sleaze watchdog. And let’s not forget Matt Hancock, who appointed his “friend” from Oxford as a non-executive at his department. They soon got to know each other better.

Writing in The Times, Matthew Syed notes:

“The American data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz estimates that the son of a president is 1.4 million times more likely to become president than an average American. He also shows that the sons of governors have a 6,000 times greater chance of reaching high office, and the sons of senators have an 8,500 times greater chance.”

Such statistics will be similar in the UK. Locally, my former colleague, Richard Burgon, MP for Leeds East, is the nephew of former local MP, Colin Burgon. More famously, in the next constituency – in Leeds Central – we find Hilary Benn MP, son of Tony Benn. Tony Blair’s father stood for the Conservatives, although usually most Labour MPs are drawn from unions – another club of sorts.

Witnessing the building work carried out on our house, it is clear that tradespeople, on the whole, have their own code of honour, able to call on each other whenever they need to. I envy it. Just as when I give free legal advice to friends or family, or when Reckless Boris appoints another mate, tradespeople often go to who they know; whom they trust; who is any good.

In the same Times piece, Syed also notes that the world’s greatest sport – football – is immune from nepotism. Billions play it, because all you need is a football and two jumpers for goalposts. Very few barriers to entry. In football, family ties mean almost nothing: you need ability to succeed. Connections won’t get you far. Unquestionably, the quality of football improves each season. No Premier League Winner in the 1990s would make a Premier League-winning team in the 2020s.

Whilst I am sure that we would all like to live in a more meritocratic world – a world which is mercifully becoming more meritocratic – it would pay us all dividends to consider how we use our own networks to get on, and to help “our own” to get on. The Etonians of this world are just doing what the rest of us do. The only difference being is that they usually control the levers of power. Our GP friend checked up on me – to my advantage – because we live in the same leafy suburbs. I live in a leafy suburb, thanks in large part to the advantages bestowed upon me from childhood. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with such opportunities being passed down the generations– that I should have rejected our friend’s generosity, due to an acknowledgement of historic injustices – but it is right that I realise that most people cannot call upon a friendly GP on a Friday evening.

Turning to our “clan” is what we have always done as a species. In football, we can see a brighter future, where all our talents are deployed to the benefit of the collective; a nirvana to aspire to. In the meantime, next time I contemplate decrying Reckless Boris, I shall first consider my own hypocrisies.