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‘Now is the winter of our discontent’

As I write this blog, we await the detail of what on earth government are going to do to prevent millions of our nations’ populations plummeting headlong into poverty.  It is our nations in the plural because as it stands, we are a union of nations under the banner Great Britain; except that it doesn’t feel that great, does it?

As autumn begins and we move into winter we are seeing momentum gaining for mass strikes across various sectors somewhat reminiscent of the ‘winter of discontent’ in 1979.  A few of us are old enough to remember the seventies with electricity blackouts and constant strikes and soaring inflation.  Enter Margaret Thatcher with a landslide election victory in 1979. People had had enough of strikes, believing the rhetoric that the unions had brought the downfall of the nation. Few could have foreseen the misery and social discord the Thatcher government and subsequent governments were about to sow.  Those governments sought to ensure that the unions would never be strong again, to ensure that working class people couldn’t rise up against their business masters and demand better working conditions and better pay.  And so, in some bizarre ironic twist, we have a new prime minister who styles herself on Thatcher just as we enter a period of huge inflationary pressures on families many of whom are already on the breadline.  It is no surprise that workers are voting to go on strike across a significant number of sectors, the wages just don’t pay the bills. Perhaps most surprising is the strike by barristers, those we wouldn’t consider working class. Jock Young was right, the middle classes are staring into the abyss.  Not only that but their fears are now rapidly being realised.

I listened to a young Conservative member on the radio the other day extolling the virtues of Liz Truss and agreeing with the view that tax cuts were the way forward. Trickle down economics will make us all better off.  It seems though that no matter what government is in power, I have yet to see very much trickle down to the poorer sectors of society or for that matter, anyone.  The blame for the current economic state and the forthcoming recession it seems rests fairly on the shoulders of Vladimir Putin.  Now I have no doubt that the invasion of Ukraine has unbalanced the world economic order but let’s be honest here, social care, the NHS, housing, and the criminal justice system, to name but a few, were all failing and in crisis long before any Russian set foot in the Ukraine.

That young Conservative also spoke about liberal values, the need for government to step back and to interfere in peoples lives as little as possible. Well previous governments have certainly done that. They’ve created or at least allowed for the creation of the mess we are now in by supporting, through act or omission, unscrupulous businesses to take advantage of people through scurrilous working practices and inadequate wages whilst lining the pockets of the wealthy. Except of course government have been quick to threaten action when people attempt to stand up for their rights through strike action.  Maybe being a libertarian allows you to pick and choose which values you favour at any given time, a bit of this and a bit of that.  It’s a bit like this country’s adherence to ideals around human rights.

I wondered as I started writing this whether we were heading back to a winter of discontent.  I fear that in reality that this is not a seasonal thing, it is a constant.  Our nations have been bedevilled with inadequate government that have lacked the wherewithal to see what has been developing before their very eyes.  Either that or they were too busy feathering their own nests in the cesspit they call politics.  Either way government has failed us, and I don’t think the new incumbent, judging on her past record, is likely to do anything different. I suppose there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we have pork markets somewhere or other.  

Just some more meaningless populism…

Photograph by Jonathan Hordle/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock in The Guardian

As we follow the recent American-style media circus posing as the Conservative Party leadership contest set to determine the interim Prime Minister until the next General Election, we are reminded that both ‘finalists’, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are pretty much showing us their real faces fairly early in the show, while they pander to their own, in a frenzy to be seen as the modern-day version of Thatcher. Truss’ emulation of the ‘Iron Lady’ through evident vocal coaching to sound more ‘masculine’ and ‘assertive’ has helped her come across even more awkward and inept than before; perhaps the ‘Wooden Spoon’ may be a more appropriate title. Nevertheless, with promises to cut taxes…despite having announced 15 tax rises in just over 2 years…‘restore trust’ in politics…despite having been directly complicit in keeping the outgoing clown Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) in power for so long given his track record for lying…and continue with an illegal migration policy that will see refugees and asylum seekers deported to Rwanda, we are reminded that it is not the British public that will get a say in who will represent our country on the global stage, but a comparatively handful of Conservative Party members.

Lest we forget that the Conservative Party membership is dominated by middle-aged white men, many with nationalist and strongly-held religious views, seeking to preserve traditions that go back (sometimes) centuries. It seems inevitable then that the next leader will not be a racially minoritised candidate, despite being the elite private-school multi-millionaire type that Conservative voters have grown to love since the 2010’s, paving the way for Liz Truss to put her very important ideas surrounding growing British apples and setting up pork markets in Bejing to the forefront of the current populist political model we have unfortunately allowed to flourish in the UK. Truss may find meeting the Queen during her term as quite awkward given her openly anti-monarchist history. She also seems, despite having voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Referendum, to have jumped on the bigoted Brexit bandwagon that is slowly eroding the last remaining remnants of democracy in this country. We know that every crumb of functioning public sector life has been crushed over the past 12 years:

…and there are many other examples. Without getting into yet another Brexit debate, there is no doubt that the very act of voting to leave the EU in 2016, and its subsequent consequences, has had a long-lasting impact in these services, one which we cannot hope to treat for many years. Let us not be in any illusion that either of these candidates will swoop in and majestically heal the UK from the deep wounds this Party has inflicted for 12 years, nor that there will be some miraculous light at the end of the tunnel of tyranny. Perhaps this is a rather pessimistic outlook on the years leading up to the next General Election, but unless in the unlikely event the soon-to-be PM decides to call a snap election to allow the public to finally boot out the last of this government and pave the way to some change, the situation seems rather hopeless…at least for the time being.

They think it’s all over…….

https://www.northampton.ac.uk/news/covid-blog-they-think-its-all-over/

Probably the most famous quote in the history of English football was that made by Kenneth Wolstenholme at the end of the 1966 World Cup final where he stated as Geoff Hurst broke clear of the West German defence to score the 4th goal that “Some people are on the pitch…. they think it’s all over…….it is now”. I have been reminded of this quote as we reach April 1st, 2022 when all Coronavirus restrictions in England essentially come to an end. We are moving from a period of pandemic restrictions to one of “living with Covid”. Whilst the prevailing narrative has focussed on “it’s over” the national data sets would suggest it is most definitely not. We are currently experiencing another wave of infections driven by the Omicron BA-2 variant. Cases of Covid infection have been rising steadily over the past couple of weeks and we are now seeing hospital admissions and deaths rise too. This has led to an interesting tension between current politically driven and public health driven advice.

The overriding question then is why remove all restrictions now if infection rates are so high. The answer sits with science and the success of the vaccination programme, and the protection it affords, which to date has seen 86% of the eligible population have two jabs and 68% boosted with a third. Furthermore, we are now at the start of the Spring booster programme for the over 75s and the most vulnerable. The introduction of the vaccine has seen a dramatic fall in serious illness associated with infection and the UK government now believe that this is a virus we can live with and we should get on with our lives in a sensible and cautious way without the need for mandated restrictions. The advances gained in both the vaccination programme, anti-viral therapies and treatments have been enormous and underpin completely the current and future situation. So, the narrative shifts to one that emphasises learning to live with the virus and to that end the Government has provided us with guidance. The UK Government’s “Living with Covid Plan” COVID-19 Response – Living with COVID-19.docx (publishing.service.gov.uk) has four key principles at its heart:

  • Removing domestic restrictions while encouraging safer behaviours through public health advice, in common with longstanding ways of managing most other respiratory illnesses;
  • Protecting people most vulnerable to COVID-19: vaccination guided by Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advice, and deploying targeted testing;
  • Maintaining resilience: ongoing surveillance, contingency planning and the ability to reintroduce key capabilities such as mass vaccination and testing in an emergency; and
  • Securing innovations and opportunities from the COVID-19 response, including investment in life sciences.

So, in addition to the restrictions already removed from 1 April, the Government will:

  • Remove the current guidance on voluntary COVID-status certification in domestic settings and no longer recommend that certain venues use the NHS COVID Pass.
  • Update guidance setting out the ongoing steps that people with COVID-19 should take to minimise contact with other people. This will align with the changes to testing.
  • No longer provide free universal symptomatic and asymptomatic testing for the general public in England.
  • Consolidate guidance to the public and businesses, in line with public health advice.
  • Remove the health and safety requirement for every employer to explicitly consider COVID-19 in their risk assessments.
  • Replace the existing set of ‘Working Safely’ guidance with new public health guidance

My major concern with these changes is the massive scaling back of infection testing. In doing so we run the risk of creating a data vacuum. Being able to test and undertake scientific surveillance of the virus’s future development would help us identify any future threats from new variants; particularly those classified as being “of concern”. What we should have learned from the past two years is that the ability to understand the virus and rapidly scale up our response is critical.

What is also now abundantly clear from the current data is that this is far from over and it is going to take some time for us to adapt as a society. The ongoing consequences for the most vulnerable sections of our society are still incredibly challenging. It will not be a surprise to any health professional that the pandemic was keenest felt in communities already negatively impacted by health inequalities. This has been the case ever since the publication of the “Black Report” (DHSS 1980), which showed in detail the extent to which ill-health and death are unequally distributed among the population of the UK.  Indeed, there is evidence that these inequalities have been widening rather than diminishing since the establishment of the National Health Service in 1948. It is generally accepted that those with underlying health issues and therefore most at risk will be disproportionately located in socially deprived communities. Consequently, there is a genuine concern that the most vulnerable to the virus could be left behind in isolation as the rest of society moves on. However, we are now at a new critical moment which most will celebrate. Regardless of whether you believe the rolling back of restrictions is right or not, this moment in time allows us an opportunity to reflect on the past two years and indeed look forward to what has changed and what could happen in terms of both Coronavirus and any other future pandemic.

Looking back, I have no doubt that the last two years have changed life considerably in several  positive and negative ways. Of course, we tend to migrate to the negative first and the overall cost of life, levels of infection and the long-term consequences have been immense. The longer-term implications of Covid (Long Covid) is still something we need to take seriously and fully understand. What is not in doubt is the toll this has had on individuals, families, communities and the future burden it places on our NHS. The psychological impact of social isolation and restrictions has been enormous and especially so for our children, young people, the vulnerable and the elderly. The social and educational development of school children is of particular concern. The wider economic implications of the pandemic will take some time to recover. Yet, whilst the negative implications cause us grave concern many features of our lives have improved. Many have identified that this pandemic has helped them re-asses what is important in life, how important key workers are in ensuring society continues to operate smoothly and the critical role health and social services must play in times of health crisis. Changing perspectives on work, work life balance and alternative ways of conducting business have been embraced and many argue that the world of work will never be the same again.

On that final note it’s important that as a society we have learned from what I have previously described as the greatest public health crisis in my lifetime. Pandemic planning was shown to be woefully inadequate and we must get this better because there is no doubt there will be another pandemic of this magnitude at some point in the future. Proper support for health and social services are critical and the state of the NHS at the start of all this was telling. Yes, it rose to the challenge as it always does but health and social care systems were badly let down in the early stages of this pandemic with disastrous consequences. Proper investment in science and research is paramount, for let’s be honest it was science that came to our rescue and did so in record time. There will inevitably be a large public enquiry into all aspects of the pandemic, its management and outcomes. We can only hope that lessons have been learned and we are better prepared for both the ongoing management of this pandemic and inevitably the next one.

Dr Stephen O’Brien

FHES

Originally posted here

Rule makers, rule breakers and the rest of us

There are plenty of theories about why rules are broken, arguments about who make the rules and about how we deal with rule breakers.  We can discuss victimology and penology, navigating our way around these, decrying how victims and offenders are poorly treated within our criminal justice systems.  We think about social justice, but it seems ignore the injustice perpetrated by some because we can somehow find an excuse for their rule breaking or point out some good deed somewhere along the line.  And we lament at how some get away with rule breaking because of their status or power. But what is to be done about people that break the rules and in doing so cause or may cause considerable harm to others; to the rest of us?

Recently, Greece imposed a new penalty system upon those over 60 that are not vaccinated against Covid. Pensioners who have had real reductions in their pensions are now to be hit with a fine, a rolling fine at that, if they do not get vaccinated. This is against a backdrop of poor vaccination rates which seem to have improved significantly since the announcement of what many see as draconian measures by a right-wing government. There are those that argue that vaccination ought to be a choice, and this has been brought into focus by the requirements for health workers and those in the care profession to be vaccinated in this country.  And we’ve heard arguments from industry against vaccination passports which would allow people to get into large venues and a consistent drip-drip effect of how damaging the covid rules are to the leisure industry and aviation, as well as the young people in society.

So, would it have been far more acceptable to have no rules at all around Covid? Should we have simply carried on and hoped that eventually herd immunity would kick in? Let’s not forget of course that the health service would have been so overwhelmed that many people will have died from illnesses other than Covid (they undoubtedly have to some extent anyway). The fittest will have survived and of course, the richest or most resourceful. Businesses will have been on their knees as workers failed to turn up for work, either because they were too ill or have moved on from this life and few customers will have thought about quaffing pints, clubbing, or venturing off to some faraway sunny place (not that they’d be particularly welcome there coming from plague island).  It would have felt more like some Darwinian evolutionary experiment than civilised society.

It seems that making some rules for the good of society is necessary.  Of course, there will be those that break the rules and as a society, we struggle to determine what is to be done with them. Fines are too harsh, inappropriate, draconian. Being caring, educating, works for some but let’s be honest, there are those that will break the rules regardless.  Whilst we can argue about what should be done with those that break the rules, about the impact they have on society, about victims and crimes, perhaps the most pressing argument is about equality of justice. The rest of us, those that didn’t break the rules, might question how draconian the rules were (are) and we might question the punishments meted out to those that broke the rules.  But what really hurts, where we really feel hard done by, let down, angry is to see that those that made the rules, broke the rules and for them we don’t get to consider whether the punishment is draconian or too soft.  There are no consequences for the rule makers even when they are rule breakers. It seems a lamentable fact that we have a system of governance, be that situated in politics or business, that advocates a ‘do as I say’ rather than ‘do as I do’ mentality.  The moral compass of those in power seems to be seriously misaligned.  As the MP David Davis calls for the resignation of Boris Johnson and says that he has to go, he should look around and he might realise, they all need to go.  This is not a case of one rotten apple, the whole crop is off, and it stinks to high heaven.

Vaccine day

I had my first Covid-19 vaccine recently and the day was emotional, to say the least. I am 99% compliant with Covid-19 restrictions, partly because it is the law but primarily because I believe it is the right thing to do to protect others. In fact, there have been many times over the last 15 months where I have avoided the news for my own sanity so half the time, I do not exactly know what the latest rules are. I am guided by my own risk assessments and am probably more restrictive than the law in most scenarios. Up until vaccine day I thought that I wasn’t scared of contracting Covid-19, that I was complying as an act of altruism and that I would not be able to live with myself if I unwittingly passed the virus on to somebody vulnerable to severe illness and death.

Back in March 2020 when infections then the death toll started to rise, and the NHS became increasingly overwhelmed I would watch what my daughter and I called ‘the Boris show’ where the Prime Minister and the scientists would recall the daily death data, hospitalisations and cases. Each ‘next slide please’ bringing more bad news. Each day I would think about the families of every single one of those people who had died. It was quite overwhelming, and I eventually had to limit the information I ingested, living in both a physical and informational bubble. I recall the death toll announcements were met with responses from the covid-deniers, ‘but they’re old or ill anyway’, and ‘but they could have been hit by a bus and still counted as a covid death’. As a victimologist, this infuriated me. Who were these people to flippantly dismiss right to life based on age or health? It frustrated me that people with no knowledge of statistics, medicine or science were making assumptions based on anecdotal evidence from Bob on Facebook. But then again perhaps these are the tales people told themselves to get through. If they deny it, they have nothing to fear.

A few months later in June 2020, my somebody close to me contracted Covid-19. I was told they were doing well and seemed to be recovering from the virus. They died more than 28 days after having first being diagnosed with Covid-19, but it was Covid-19 that killed them. I know because I saw them to say goodbye a couple of hours before they died. This person who was always so full of life, love and who saw the good in everyone and everything, was now fading away. But what haunts me to this day was the sound of their lungs. The sound I’d heard people talk about on the news. Crisp packet lungs. And it was that sound that was like an earworm in my head on my way to the vaccination centre.

I’ve been looking forward to getting vaccinated since vaccines were on the horizon so I was excited when I received the text invitation. I booked to attend the Greater Manchester vaccination centre at the Etihad stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club. It was well organised, despite the large numbers of people coming through. First, I was required to check in and was allocated the Moderna vaccine and a green sticker which ensured staff could direct me to the correct queue. Then I checked in at another desk where I was given some information, asked some health questions and, most importantly, I was asked, ‘do you want the vaccine?’. Those who have sat one of the research methods modules I have taught this year will have heard me discuss the importance of informed consent and this also applies to real life situations such as this. After this I joined another queue and finally reached the vaccination point, had the jab, waited for 15 minutes and left. Just like that. The whole thing took about an hour and given the volume of people being vaccinated (the site is a mass vaccination hub for a large area), I found it to be incredibly efficient. Every staff member I met was informative and did what they could to put people at ease.

From the moment I left home to go to the vaccination centre, to the moment my head hit the pillow that evening, I couldn’t help reflecting on the last 15 months. I felt a wave of emotions. I felt extreme sadness and sorrow at all the lives lost and all the families and friends left behind. It has been a traumatic time for so many of us. Getting the vaccine, I felt some sort of release from this, like it was nearly over. I have worked from home throughout and have had little social interaction, except when the gyms have been open or I have undertaken caring responsibilities for various friends and family. There were also a few weeks towards the end of lockdown 1 where my sister came to stay after returning from India. Overall, I have been alone with a teenager at a desk in my living room. It’s been awful. I’m tired and I need a break. I am well overdue a mum-cation. I felt some hope that sometime soon I might be able to get a parenting break and that my daughter can also get a break from me. I said earlier how I believed I had not feared contracting covid but having the vaccine and the relief I felt made me realise that I was more scared than I would care to admit. I am young(ish) and extremely healthy and I would probably be at low risk of developing serious symptoms but what if I was an unlucky one?

Aside from my personal experiences, I felt a collective relief. The global pandemic has created global trauma. There are still countries being ravished by the virus without the resources to operate mass vaccination of entire populations. I worry for the world and wonder what borders will look like after, if there ever is an after but I’ll ponder this further in another blog later. Getting vaccinated and being part of a mass vaccination programme made me feel cautiously optimistic. However, a few weeks on and we are now in a situation where the Delta variant is spreading like wildfire. Deaths have risen by 42.5% in the last week and hospital admissions by 44.7%. The numbers are still incredibly low in comparison to the first and second wave but every one of those deaths and hospitalisations matter. They are not a number on a presentation slide. They are people who have families and friends, who are cared for by the NHS. Every one of the deaths is a loss to these people, and has a butterfly effect in terms of the impact each death has.

Restrictions are set to lift imminently I believe (still avoiding the news) and it makes me feel uneasy to say the least. I’ve seen experts whom I trust argue on both sides of the fence. Some say this is dangerous, others suggest summer is the best opportunity to lift restrictions. It sometimes feels like we are living in some kind of twisted experiment. Regardless, I will continue to assess and manage the risk to myself and those around me. I’ll probably wear masks way after it is legal to do so and expect I will still be cautious about who I am physically close to and how I socialise. There’s things that I love and miss such as the theatre, cinema and the occasional gig but I don’t feel ready. I have a feeling this pandemic is far from over.

Never Fear….Spring is almost here (part II)

David Hockney, (2008), Arranged Felled Trees https://www.flickr.com/photos/gandalfsgallery/49564201146

A year ago, we left the campus and I wrote this blog entry, capturing my thoughts. The government had recently announced (what we now understand as the first) lockdown as a response to the growing global pandemic. Leading up to this date, most of us appeared to be unaware of the severity of the issue, despite increasing international news stories and an insightful blog from @drkukustr8talk describing the impact in Vietnam. In the days leading up to the lockdown life seemed to carry on as usual, @manosdaskalou and I had given a radio interview with the wonderful April Ventour-Griffiths for NLive, been presented with High Sheriff Awards for our prison module and had a wonderfully relaxing afternoon tea with Criminology colleagues. Even at the point of leaving campus, most of us thought it would be a matter of weeks, maybe a month, little did we know what was in store….At this stage, we are no closer to knowing what comes next, how do we return to our “normal lives” or should we be seeking a new normality.


When I look back on my writing on 20 March 2020, it is full of fear, worry and uncertainty. There was early recognition that privilege and disadvantage was being revealed and that attitudes toward the NHS, shop workers and other services were encouraging, demonstrating kindness and empathy. All of these have continued in varying degrees throughout the past year. We’ve recognised the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on different communities, occupations and age groups. We’ve seen pensioners undertaking physically exhausting tasks to raise money for the tax payer funded NHS, we’ve seen children fed, also with tax payer funding, but only because a young footballer became involved. We’ve seen people marching in support of Black Lives Matter and holding vigils for women’s rights. For those who previously professed ignorance of disadvantage, injustice, poverty, racism, sexism and all of the other social problems which plague our society, there is no longer any escape from knowledge. It is as if a lid has been lifted on British society, showing us what has always been there. Now this spotlight has been turned on, there really is no excuse for any of us not to do so much better.


Since the start of the pandemic over 125,000 people in the UK have been killed by Coronavirus, well over 4.3 million globally. There is quotation, I understand often misattributed to Stalin, that states ‘The death of one man: this is a catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of deaths: that is a statistic!’ However, each of these lives lost leaves a permanent void, for lovers, grandparents, parents, children, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Each human touches so many people lives, whether we recognise at the time or not and so does their death. These ripples continue to spread out for decades, if not longer.

My maternal great grandmother died during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, leaving behind very small children, including my 5 year old nan. My nan rarely talked about her mother, or what happened afterwards, although I know she ended up in a children’s home on the Isle of Wight for a period of time. I regret not asking more questions while I had the chance. For obvious reasons, I never knew my maternal great grandmother, but her life and death has left a mark on my family. Motherless children who went onto become mothers and grandmothers themselves are missing those important family narratives that give a shape to individual lives. From my nan, I know my maternal great grandmother was German born and her husband, French. Beyond that my family history is unknown.

On Tuesday 23 March 2021 the charity Marie Curie has called for a National Day of Reflection to mark the collective loss the UK and indeed, the world has suffered. As you’ll know from my previous entries, here and here, I have reservations about displays of remembrance, not least doorstep claps. For me, there is an internal rather than external process of remembrance, an individual rather than collective reflection, on what we have been, and continue to go, through. Despite the ongoing tragedy, it is important to remember that nothing can cancel hope, no matter what, Spring is almost here and we will remember those past and present, who make our lives much richer simply by being them.

David Hockney, (2020), Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring
https://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/a-message-from-david-hockney-do-remember-they-can-t-cancel-the-spring?fbclid=IwAR2iA8FWDHFu3fBQ067A7Hwm187IRfGVHcZf18p3hQzXJI8od_GGKQbUsQU

Keep Calm and Forget the Pandemic or What to do in a pandemic? Take advantage of the situation

Eleven months now and there is a new spectre haunting Europe; a plague that has taken hold of our lives and altered our lifestyles.  Lockdowns, the r rate, viral transmission, mutations are new terms that common people use as if we are experienced epidemiologists.  Masks, made of cloth or the surgical ones, gloves and little bottles of antiseptic have become new fashion accessories.  Many people report mental fatigue and others a state of confinement inside their own homes.  Some people have started complaining that there is no light in this long tunnel, in country after country face with overwhelmed medical staff and system.

The optimist in me is unequivocal.  We can make it through.  Life is far more powerful than a disease and it always finds a way to continue, even in the most hostile of conditions.  In my view however this is not going to be a feat of a great person; this is not going to be resolved by one solution.  The answer is in us as a collective.  Humanity thrived when it gets together and the ability to form meaningful bonds that is the backbone of our success to survival.

Imagine our ancestors making their first communities; people that had no speed like the felines, no strength like the great apes and no defensive shell to protect them.  Coming out of Africa thousands of years ago, this blood creature had no offensive nor defensive structures to prevail.  Our ancestors’ survival must have been on the brink.  Who could imagine that some thousands of years ago, we were the endangered species?  Our endurance lies on the ability to form a group that worked together and understood each other, carried logic, used tools and communicated with each other. 

The current situation is a great reminder of the importance of society and its true purpose.  People form societies to protect each other and advance their opportunity for success. We may have forgotten that and understandably so, since we have had people who claimed that there is no such thing as a society, only the individual.  The prevailing economic system focuses on individual success, values individual recognition and prioritises individual issues.  In short, why worry about others, miles away, feet away, steps away from us if we are doing well. 

It is interesting to try to imagine a society as a random collection of indifferent individuals, but more people begin to value the importance of the other.  After years of austerity and the promotion of individualism, more people live alone, make relationships through social networking and mostly continue to live a solitary life even when they live with others.  Communities, as an ex-prime minister claimed as broken and so people waste no time with them.  We take from our communities, the things we need, and we discard the rest.  Since the start of the pandemic, deliveries, and online companies have been thriving.  Whilst physical shops are facing closure, online ones can hardly cope with the demand.  As a system, capitalism is flexible enough to retune the way wealth is made.  Of course, when you live alone, there are things you cannot have delivered; intimacy, closeness, intercourse.  People can fulfil their basic needs apart from the one that makes them people; their socialisation.  We will have to address it and perhaps talk about the need to be a community again. 

In the meantime, what happens at the top? In the Bible there was the story of the pool of Siloam.  This miraculous pond blessed by an angel offered the opportunity for clemency for those who swam in the waters.  Wipe the slate clean and start again.  So, what do governments do? Interestingly not as much.  Right now, as people try to come to terms with loss, isolation and pain, different governments try to address other political issues.  One country is rocked by the revelations that its head of state has created a palace to live in.  Another one, has finished construction of his summer palace.  In another country they are bringing legislation to end abortions, in another they propose the introduction of police on campuses.  Others are restricting the right to protest, and in a country famed for its civil rights, legislation is being introduced not to take pictures of police officers in public, even if they may be regarded in violation of duties.  It seems that it is open season for the curtail of civil liberties through the back door.  In an island kingdom the system has ordered and moves forward with the construction of more and bigger prisons.  A sign that they anticipate public upheaval. Maybe; whatever the reason this opportunity to supress the masses may be tantalising, but it is wrong.  When ever we come out of this we need to reconnect as a community.  If this becomes an opportunity for some, under the suppression of civic rights, things will become problematic.  For starters, people will want to see their patience and perseverance rewarded.  My advice to those who rule, listen to your base. 

How should we honour “Our sheroes and heroes”?*

The British, so it seems, love a statue. Over the last few months we’ve seen Edward Colston’s toppled, Winston Churchill’s protected and Robert Baden-Powell’s moved to a place of safety. Much of the narrative around these particular statues (and others) has recently been contextualised in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, as though nobody had ever criticised the subjects before. Colston, one time resident of Bristol and slave-trader was deemed worthy of commemoration some 174 years after his death and 62 years after the abolition of slavery. Likewise, one-time military man, accused of war crimes, homophobe and support for Nazism, Baden-Powell suddenly needed to be memorialised in 2008, almost 70 years after the second world world (and his death) and over 40 years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. For both of these men profound problems were clear before the statues went up. Churchill, seen as a “hero” by many for his leadership in World War II has a very unsavoury history which is not difficult to locate in his own writings. His rehabilitation also ignores that his status for many of his contemporaries was as a warmonger. His passion for eugenics and his role in decisions to bomb Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki can be wilfully swept under the carpet. Hero-worship is a dangerous game, it is also anti-intellectual. Churchill, like all of us, was a complex human, thus his legacy needs to be explored deeply and contextualised and only then can we decide what his place in his history should be. His statues and soundbites from speeches on repeat, do not allow for this.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this debate is to witness the inflamed defence of individuals who have a clearly documented history as slave owners, or as enthusiastic proclaimers of eugenic ideology, racism, homophobia and so on. As long as they have been ascribed “hero” status, we can ignore the rest of the seedy detail. We are told we need these statues, these heroic men, to remind us of our history….strangely Germany is able to reflect on its history, without statues of Hitler.

It seems as a nation we far prefer these individuals, responsible for so much misery, harm and violence in their lifetimes, than to present Black Britons and British Asians on a plinth. When we are reliant on South African President, Nelson Mandela to take up two of those London plinths, it is evident we have a serious racial imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.

Furthermore, the British appear to love an argument about statues, for instance, the criticism levelled at the artist Maggi Hambling’s statue to “Mother of Feminism” Mary Wollstencraft and Martin Jenning’s artistic tribute to Nurse Mary Seacole. For Wollstencroft, much of the furore has been directed at the artist, rather than the subject. There appears to be no irony in women attacking other women, in this case, Hambling, all in the name of supposed defence of The feminism. In the case of Mary Seacole, racially infused arguments from The Nightingale Society have suggested that this statue should not be in sight of that of Florence Nightingale. It seems that even when all important parties are long dead, it is deemed appropriate to use barely disguised racism to protect the stone image of your heroine. Important to remember that patriarchy has no gender. It is evident that criticism revolves around women’s representation in statuary, as well as women’s involvement in sculpture. When statues of men are said to outnumber those of women by around 16 to 1 (and that’s only when Queen Victoria is counted) it is evident we have a serious gender imbalance in those “we” choose to commemorate.

If there’s one thing the British love more than statues, it’s war commemorations. Think of the Cenotaph, standing proud in Whitehall, a memorial to ‘The Glorious Dead’ of firstly, World War I and latterly, British and Commonwealth military personnel have died in all conflicts.

Close by in Park Lane, we even have the imagination to create a memorial to Animals in War. We love to worship at these altars to untold misery and suffering, as if we could learn something important from them. Unfortunately, the most important message of “Never Again” is lost as we continue to thrust our military personnel and their deadly arsenal all over the world.

There is a strong argument for commemorating the war dead of all nations in the two World Wars. All sides, both central powers/axis and allies were comprised in the main of conscripted personnel. These were men and women that did not join the armed forces voluntarily, but were compelled by legislation to take up arms. With little time to consider or prepare, these people, all over the world, were thrust into life-threatening situations, with little or no choice. The Cenotaph and other war memorials mark this sacrifice and to some degree, acknowledge the experiences of those who served in a uniform that they did not consent to, without the compulsion of legislation. Unfortunately, civilians don’t feature so heavily in memorialisation, yet we know they experienced life-changing events which have repercussions even today. From children who were evacuated, to families who experienced fathers and husbands with short fuses, to those whose fear of hunger has never really left them, those experiences leave a mark.

To me, as a nation it appears that we don’t want to engage seriously with our history, preferring instead a white-washed, heteronormative, male-dominated, war-infused, saccharine sweet, version of events. But British people, both historically and contemporaneously, are a diverse and disparate group, good, bad and indifferent, so surely our statues should reflect this?

I recognise the violence which runs throughout British history, I learnt it, not through statues, but through books and oral testimony, through documentary and discussion. I also recognise that I have only begun to explore a history that silences so very many, making any historical narrative, partial, poignant and heavy with the missing voices. I recognise the heavy burden left by slavery, discrimination, war and other myriad violences, understanding the desire to commemorate and celebrate and tear down and replace.

What we need is a statue that recognises all of us, in all shapes and sizes, warts and all? We are living in a global pandemic, the death toll is currently standing at over 2.5 million. In the UK alone, the death toll stands at close to 100,000. Why not have a memorial with all those names; men, women, children, Black, white, Asian, mixed heritage, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, atheists, gay, straight, trans, lesbian, young, old and all those in between. People that have been coerced, through financial impetus, caring responsibility, career or vocation into dangerous spaces, who have not chosen to sacrifice their lives on the altar of bad decisions taken by governments and institutions (reminiscent of the world wars). Such a commemoration would be a way to recognise the profound impact on all of our lives, as drastic as any world war. It will recognise that you don’t have to wear a uniform or conform to a particular ideal to be of value to Britain and every person counts.

* Title borrowed from ‘Our sheroes and heroes’ (Maya Angelou ; interviewed by Susan Anderson in 1976)

Misfortune and the Blame Game

Photo by Danita Delimont available at https://dissolve.com/stock-photo/Thousands-king-penguins-are-packed-together-second-royalty-free-image/101-D256-26-913

It seems to be a peculiar past-time in this country to moan and find fault with everything and blame anyone but ourselves for our mishaps and misfortune. 

I was watching a television programme last night about Britain’s bizarre weather conditions in 2020 and what struck me, actually you could have slapped me round the face with a wet kipper, was the behaviour of people in the heatwave of April 2020.  An extraordinary heatwave saw people flocking to parks and to the beach.  Some scenes looked more akin to those pictures we see of seals or penguins on a remote island where there isn’t an inch to move without stumbling over the next incumbent, all staking their claim to a little parcel of land on which they can sunbathe or nest.  ‘Weren’t we supposed to be social distancing and in lockdown’? Of course, we blame the government for lockdown 2 and the tier system.  How unfair it is that we can’t see our loved ones, oh the mental anguish when we miss school, or have to learn online or get made redundant or our business goes belly up.  But flock to the seaside we must, go to the park and mingle is a necessity, rush to the pub and drink and make merry, have parties and raves and forget about social distancing and that awful thing that the government keeps wittering on about.  Let’s blame the police for dishing out fines, its so unfair and let’s even blame the hospitals, that’s where my loved one caught Corona virus.  Yes, the government were to blame for suggesting that we should ‘eat out to help out’, but did we really think it was suddenly fine to plunder food from every outlet that provided a cut-price meal? Like lemmings, people rushed to pack out restaurants and pubs in search of a culinary bargain and many got more than they bargained for. ‘Two for the price of one’ had a new meaning.

None of this of course is a new phenomenon; the virus might be, the behaviour is not.  We speed along the road and when caught by the police ask them if they haven’t got anything better to do than stop us.  We complain about the NHS but carry on drinking lots, eating rubbish and failing to exercise.  Our illness in the morning is due to the bad kebab, not the large amount of alcohol we consumed.  We moan about our rubbish grades, somehow expecting that the parties, the staying in bed all day, the failure to attend, the work commitments and all the other hubris will get us an A grade or at least a B.  It’s the way the lecturers teach, not our lack of commitment, that’s the problem here, ‘oh and I’m paying for this rubbish’.  In football, we blame the referee for not giving a foul or for giving a foul when we are convinced it wasn’t one and yet watch players carry on diving all over the place rolling around as if they’ve been scythed down by the grim reaper and then chewed up by Jaws before being magically revived by the miraculous sponge.  More at home with an Equity Card, players constantly seek to bamboozle the referee, it’s no wonder they sometimes get it wrong.  We moan about the stampede at the start of the shop sales, not that that’s been a problem this year, well not yet anyway, but we are part of the stampede, shoving and trampling over others to get to the much reduced bargain.  We lament the demise of the high street, watching the tumbleweed blow past as we scuttle away to our laptops, pads and phones to do a bit more online shopping only rushing out in droves (social distancing ignored) to take advantage of the demise of yet another retail outlet.

Whilst ministers are trying to hammer out a Brexit deal, posturing and moaning about the intransigence of the other side, they probably secretly hope that there will be no deal.  That way we can blame the Europeans and the Europeans can blame us. But are we not to blame for this monstrosity; we voted for it?  We live in a democracy and are rightly proud of it and yet Trump like we are quick to point out that we personally didn’t vote for that bit that we don’t like, and the vote was probably rigged anyway.  Having realised our error, we still voted in the government that said it would get it done and we didn’t care about the price.  Let’s hope that a return to the troubles in Ireland doesn’t become a reality, but if it does, it’ll no doubt be the fault of the Irish. Our sense of history only stretches back to when we saved the world from the Nazis.

We need to look to ourselves and our own action and behaviour before we start blaming everyone and everything around us.  Yes, misfortune does fall on some of us and sometimes it isn’t our fault but like it or not, many of the problems are caused by us and we compound the problems by blaming others.  If we fail to grip the notion that we have responsibility, then history will judge us as a nation that moaned about everything and did nothing but cause calamitous problems for ourselves and the rest of the world.

Deniable racism: ‘I’m alright Jack’

‘No coloureds need apply’: a black man reads a racist sign in a UK boarding house window in 1964.
Photograph: Bill Orchard/Rex/Shutterstock

I heard on the news a week or so ago that an investigation by ITV news had found that the majority of NHS Trusts have not completed full risk assessments on BAME staff. Considering that BAME groups are impacted disproportionately by COVID-19 I have to ask why? And, probably more importantly, now that the issue has been raised, what are the government doing to make sure that the risk assessments are carried out? Since I heard about it I’ve seen no response, so I guess I can answer my own question ‘nothing’.

But then maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, I read an article on Racism and the Rule of Law and you can’t but be appalled by the number of recommendations from various inquiries and reviews that have failed to be acted upon.  The problem is that the action requires more than just the eloquently spoken or written word; to put it very bluntly and maybe crudely, ‘put your money where your mouth is’.  It is easy to state that this is wrong or that is wrong in our institutions, the term ‘institutional racism’ trots off the tongue, seized upon by the wronged and more worryingly banded about by the societal racists of the elite who are only too willing to blame someone else.  In thinking about this I wonder whether when we use the term racism, we are all talking the same language. The ‘deniable’ racism is easy to identify, ‘we don’t use that sort of language anymore’, ‘we no longer put those signs in our windows’, we have laws that say you can’t act in that way.  ‘Actually, I’m not a racist’.  But the statistics don’t lie, they can be bent, manipulated to some extent to favour one argument or another but there are some very basic inescapable facts, BAME groups are over represented in the wrong areas of our society and under represented in the right areas.  And most of this I dare say does not owe itself to ‘deniable’ racism, it’s more than that, it’s embedded in our society, it’s not institutional racism, it’s societal racism and it’s hidden.  The problem with societal racism is that we only see the positive attributes of people that are like us and we promote those that excel in showing those attributes. Hence, we have the elite in business and government that are not ‘deniable’ racists but nonetheless are the epitome of, and lead a racist society.

I want to return to the idea of ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ mantra.  They say money makes the world go around, I’m not sure that is entirely true, but it certainly goes a long way to getting things done and conversely the lack of it ensures that nothing happens or in some cases that good things come to an end.  A prime example is the austerity measures put in place in 2010 that saw budgets to government agencies and funding to councils cut significantly.  Those that suffered were the most deprived. Even worse, was the fact that funding for youth projects in inner cities suffered and those initiatives that were aimed at reducing violent crime amongst young people ground to a halt. Policing saw huge cuts and with it the withdrawal of neighbourhood policing.  This link to communities was severed and any good work that was going on was quickly undone.  That doesn’t explain all that is wrong with policing, but it certainly doesn’t help in building bridges. Who in their right mind would embark upon fiscal policies with no regard to such outcomes, our elected government did. If we think now about the so-called return to normality post the Covid-19 pandemic, which caring company or institution would suggest that the most impacted by the virus should continue or return to work, or study, or any other activity, without considering their specific risks and needs? Probably those that have more concern for the bottom line than peoples’ lives. ‘I’m alright Jack’ comes to mind or at least I want to make sure I am.

In thinking about policies, procedures, risk assessments or recommendations, managers have an eye to finance. In the NHS, the day to day business still has to happen, in policing, incidents still need to be attended to, so where is the money to do the extra?  Everything comes at a cost and every recommendation in every review will cost something.  The NHS risk assessments will cost money. The question is whether government and all of us in society really believe that ‘black lives matter’.  If we do, then then it’s time to acknowledge the type of society we live in and who we really are and for government to ‘put the money where its mouth is’ so that the recommendations can be acted on.  Or of course, we could just have another review and ‘Jack’ will do very nicely out of that as well thank you.

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