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Just some more meaningless populism…
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:
- Students have seen their EMA’s and grants scrapped, and their university tuition fees trebled;
- Teachers across most education institutions are in both a pay and retention crisis;
- The National Health Service is in much the same critical position with a massive shortage of GP’s, doctors and nurses and record-level waits for hospital treatments;
- The social care sector has been decimated leaving the elderly and vulnerable both financially and physically worse off;
- Those with disabilities are disproportionately disadvantaged by so-called ‘welfare reforms’ which introduced a Universal Credit benefit merger;
- Cuts to legal sectors and legal aid has left the poorest in society unable to afford high-quality legal advice and representation in court;
- Children have seen their benefits cut and, with a sharply rising inflation rate and a looming recession by the end of this year, the use of food banks among the poorest families has been higher than ever recorded…
…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.
Chaos in Colombo: things fall apart
Following the mutiny that we witnessed in Downing street after members of the Johnson’s cabinet successfully forced him to resign over accusations of incompetency and the culture of inappropriate conducts in his cabinet, the people of Sri Lanka have also succeeded in chasing out their President, G. Rajapaksa, out of office over his contributions to the collapse of the country’s economy. This blog is a brief commentary on some of the latest events in Sri Lanka.
Since assuming office in 2019, the government of Rajapaksa has always been indicted of excessive borrowing, mismanagement of the country’s economy, and applying for international loans that are often difficult to pay back. With the country’s debt currently standing at $51bn, some of these loans, is claimed to have been spent on unnecessary infrastructural developments as well as other ‘Chinese-backed projects’, (see also; the Financial Times, 2022). Jayamaha (2022; 236) indicated that ‘Sri Lanka had $7.6 billion in foreign currency reserves at the end of 2019. However, by March 2020, it had exhausted its reserves to just $1.93 billion.’ One of Rajapaksa’s campaign promises was to cut taxes, which he did upon assuming office. His critics faulted this move, claiming it was unnecessary at that particular time. His ban on fertilizers, in a bid for the country to go organic (even though later reversed), had its own effect on local farmers. Rice production for example, fell by 20% following the ban – a move that eventually forced the government to opt for rice importation which was in itself expensive (see also; Nordhaus & Shah 2022). Critics warned that his investments and projects have no substantial and direct impact on the lives of the common people, and that what is the essence of building roads when the common people cannot afford to buy a car to ride on those roads? The fact that people have to queue for petrol for 5 days and only having to work for 1 day or where families cannot afford to feed their children simply shows how the government of Rajapaksa seem to have mismanaged the economy of the country. Of course, the problem of insecurity and the pandemic cannot be left out as crucial factors that have also impacted tourism levels and the economy of the country.
Foreign reserves have depleted, the importation of food is becoming difficult to actualise, living expenses have risen to high levels, the country is struggling with its international loan repayments, the value of Rupees has depreciated, there is inflation in the land, including shortages of food supplies and scarcity of fuel. Those who are familiar with the Sri Lanka’s system will not be particularly surprised at the nationwide protests that have been taking place in different parts of the country since May, because the Rajapaksa’s regime was only sitting on a keg of gun powder, ready to explode.
In an unprecedented fashion on July 9, several footages and images began to emerge online showing how protesters had successfully overpowered the police and had broken into the residence of the President. Their goal was to occupy the presidential palace and chase the president out of his residence. In fact, there are video footages online allegedly showing the motorcade of the president fleeing from his residence as the wave of protest rocked the capital.
Upon gaining entry into the innermost chambers of the president’s dwelling, protesters started touring and taking selfies in euphoria, some of them had quickly jumped into the presidential shower, others helped themselves to some relaxation on the president’s bed after days of protests, some were engaged in a mock presidential meeting in the president’s cabinet office, some preferred to swim in the president’s private pool while others helped themselves to some booze.
Indeed, these extraordinary scenes should not be taken for granted for they again reaffirm WB Yeats classic idea of anarchy (in ‘the second coming’ poem), being the only option to be exercised when the centre can no longer hold.
Of course, some may ask that now that they have invaded the presidential villa, what next? In my view, the people of Sri Lanka seem to be on the right direction as President Rajapaska has eventually bowed to pressure and agreed to resign. The next phase now is for the country to carefully elect a new leader who will revive the sinking ship, amend the economic policies, foster an effective democratic political culture which (hopefully) should bring about a sustainable economic plan and growth reforms.
Importantly, this is a big lesson not just for the political class of Sri Lanka, but for other wasteful leaders who continue to destroy their economies with reckless and disastrous policies. It is a lesson of the falcon and the falconer – for when the falcon can no longer hear the falconer, scenes like these may continue to be reproduced in other locations of the world.
Indeed, things fell apart in Colombo, but it is hoped that the centre will hold again as the country prepare to elect its new leaders.
Here is wishing the people of Colombo, and the entire Sri Lankans all the best in their struggle.
Financial Times (2022) [Twitter] 20 July. Available at: https://mobile.twitter.com/FinancialTimes/status/1549554792766361603
Jayamaha, J. (2022) “The demise of Democracy in Sri Lanka: A study of the political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka (Based on the incident of the Rambukkana shooting)”, Sprin Journal of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, 1(05), pp. 236–240. doi: 10.55559/sjahss.v1i05.22.
Nordhaus, T & Shah S, (2022) In Sri Lanka, Organic Farming Went Catastrophically Wrong, March 5, FP. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/03/05/sri-lanka-organic-farming-crisis/
Policy, procedures, processes, and failure
Examine any organisation and you will find a myriad of policy and procedures that are designed to inform its processes and guide employees. On paper, these formalised ideals and directions make absolute sense but frequently they bear no relationship to reality and rather than empowering, they constrain and often demoralise. These idealistic notions of how an organisation should function facilitate the dehumanising effects of managerial diktat and engender an internalisation of failure amongst employees.
By way of an example, in the 1990s police forces began to consider notions of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in respect of crime investigation. These SOPs seemed on the face of it to be a good idea. The police service, driven by government notions of New Public Management, were being measured on crime reduction and crime detection. Performance indicators were propped up by idealistic notions coming out of government supported by HMIC and the now defunct Audit Commission that catching more criminals would engender a virtuous circle resulting in crime reduction. Nothing of course, was further from the truth. But the introduction of SOPs was meant to attempt to address police failings. These, certainly in one force, were at the outset seen as a guide, a minimum standard required in an investigation. They weren’t intended to constrain.
A small department was set up in this force to measure adherence to these SOPs and to report back where there were inherent failures. For example, on attending a house burglary, the attendant officers were required to take a statement from the householder, and they were required to carry out house to house enquiries in the vicinity. At the very least, they needed to knock on doors either side of the house that had been burgled and a couple of houses across the road. Frequently the statement wasn’t taken, or the house-to-house enquiries hadn’t been completed. It became clear that the officers were failing to carry out simple procedures. Measuring adherence to SOPs and providing feedback to promote improvement soon resulted in measuring adherence in order to enforce compliance.
In hindsight, there should have been a realisation that the SOPs, far from being helpful were in fact having a detrimental effect. Where officers could have carried out further investigations based on their professional judgement, they adhered to the minimum required in the SOPs or simply failed to comply with them fully. This was partially resultant of a notion amongst officers that discretion was being curtailed, but more notably it was driven by other processes and organisational priorities. These other processes were to do with attendance at other incidents. Graded as a priority by the control room, officers were being pulled off the burglary investigation and therefore couldn’t comply with the burglary investigation SOPs. Police forces were also being measured on how quickly they responded to and arrived at various calls for service. There was clearly a direct conflict between management ideals and reality with the officers being set up to fail in one aspect or another. There were simply not enough staff to do all the work and to manage the overwhelming demands at certain times.
One way of dealing with the failures was to link these to the performance and development review (PDR) process. The development aspect was a somewhat redundant term as the PDR was all about performance. Of course, each time the PDR came around the officers had failed to achieve their objectives. This provided lots of evidence of people not doing their job properly. In the wider gamut of crime figures officers at various levels began to realise that the only way to avoid accusations of poor performance was to manipulate the crime figures. In the meantime, those driving the behaviours, washed their hands of them whenever someone was found out, often hiding behind the SOPs and policy. The misuse of the PDR process and the consistent scrutiny of performance metrics resulted in the internalising of failure by staff. Whole systems and processes had been set up to measure failure, after all how could success be measured if it could never be achieved. Of course, it could never be achieved because the ambition and driving force behind this, government’s notions of crime control, were based on ideals and rhetoric not science. But the overriding fact was that it could never be achieved because there were never enough resources to achieve it.
The failure of course wasn’t in the officers that didn’t adhere to the SOPs or those that manipulated crime figures to try to avoid overbearing scrutiny, it was the failure of managers to provide adequate resources. It was a failure of managers to try to understand what reality looked like and it was a failure of managers to deal with the dehumanising effects of policy, procedure and processes.
Having left the police, I thought higher education would somehow be different. I don’t think I need to say anymore.
From Criminal to the ‘Rule of Law’? Johnson’s border policy on refugees
Britain has a very proud history of taking refugees and migrants from war-torn and destabilised areas of the world – this is a fact which has been made clear from all sides of the political spectrum. What is concerning, however, is that this statement has since Brexit been continuously added as a precursor to every new border policy blunder made by the UK Conservative government in an attempt to ‘soften the blow’ of public perception. It is the paradox of Boris Johnson trying to appeal to those sympathetic to migration, but to also appease hard-line anti-immigration Brexiteers. This paradox was inevitable, given (a) the close split between Leave and Remain votes in the 2016 EU Referendum, and (b) the amount of lies told to both sides of this debate by Johnson and his ‘mates’ in a desperate attempt to gain political power in 2019…leaving the British public in permanent limbo as whether or not ‘Brexit’ (in the way it was described) had even taken place at all; a state of ‘technically we’re out, but we’re not really out’.
Given the ease of shaping and reproducing ‘empty signifiers’ (Laclau & Mouffe, 1985; Torfing, 1999) within this discursive limbo, Boris Johnson’s latest border policy disaster relating to refugee border crossings was announced yesterday. The new “genius” idea will be to deport those who are single men crossing the Channel in boats or lorries from France to Rwanda for ‘processing’. Of course, as per usual, this was seemingly quite a surprise to the Minister of State for Refugees who claimed on LBC just over a week prior to the announcement that he had no knowledge of any new plans to send anyone to Rwanda.
Before going into the details of the hypocrisy associated with this policy in the light of the war in Ukraine, what I fail to understand is the entire point of this process. Boris Johnson’s announcement seemed to focus most of his rhetoric on the ‘illegality’ of the status of people entering UK borders, as well as the need to curb ‘people smuggling’. He merged this part of his speech with Ukrainian refugees in an attempt to, once again, appear to seem more sympathetic to the struggle of fleeing populations than he is in reality…’whether you are fleeing Putin or Assad, our aim is that you should not need to turn to people smugglers or any other kind of illegal option’. It is important to note that we shouldn’t be confusing (as often happens) the term ‘people smugglers’ with ‘sex traffickers’, whose motives are wholly different than merely receiving money to aid someone’s journey across nation state borders. People smugglers tend to take advantage of those who are in sheer desperation. This desperation is normally grounded in a combination of multiple factors: (1) destabilisation in their home country, (2) fear for their life, safety, or future (or that of their family), (3) strong desire for liberation or freedom and, most importantly, (4) a practical inability to actually escape their current borders.
With this in mind, it is astonishing to hear Johnson trying to justify this policy on the grounds that he is somewhat of a rule-of-law fan, wishing to drive out illegal behaviour from UK borders, given that he has recently become the first ever serving UK Prime Minister to have been sanctioned for breaking the criminal law. As with many similar approaches to these types of policies in the past (the obvious being the so-called ‘war on drugs’), the core motivation has very little to do with the actual human safety, and more rooted in neoliberal frustrations of the (and I deliberately use this term in its loosest possible sense) ’tax-paying’ Eton schoolboys at others, within UK borders or otherwise, earning any kind of money from which they are not directly benefitting. This ties in closely to, what I mentioned in a previous post, as the UK Conservative Party’s lazy response to sanctioning oligarchs linked to the Putin regime…for obvious personal reasons.
Most striking here is the level of hypocrisy between who is considered part of the in-group of migrants and refugees, and who is the ‘other’; the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ (Cottle, 2000; Van Dijck, 2000; Quinsaat, 2011; Reed, 2017). Without deflecting from Putin’s responsibility in reproducing anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Russia and surrounding former Soviet nations, and framing the ethnic group as some kind of leeching parasite on the Russian people, we have seen both overt and covert racism at play in Ukraine and other parts of the world in relation to this idea of ‘ideal’ refugees. The UK is no exception to this. Not since the aftermath of the Second World War have we seen the type of outpouring of sympathy by the British public towards a persecuted ethnic group, with hundreds-of-thousands opening up their homes to house refugees expected imminently. Of course we should be proud of every hand extended to any human in need of help, but where was this reaction when Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans were fleeing their countries due to botched UK military operations in their sovereign territory? Where is this reaction when innocent Yemeni people are calling on the world to help while we are funding Saudi Arabia’s genocidal campaign in their sovereign territory?
It is too simple to claim that this issue is purely related to skin-colour-based racism or another type of xeno-racism, because we know this not to be the case. Perhaps due to the personal nature of the conflict in the Republic of Artsakh in late 2020 which killed thousands of Armenians and displaced around 90,000, and the rhetoric of neutrality from the UK Conservative government (due to their close monetary ties with the aggressor and his oligarch friends), the mainstream media and near-total silence from prominent celebrities…all of whom seem to now scream for action in response to Ukraine (rightly so), but I can’t help but echo a question asked by another Armenian, Tatev Hovhannisyan: Where was the outpouring of empathy when my country was at war?
Perhaps to understand the nature of this hypocrisy we need to focus more on the complex interplay between the nation state, power and discourse. I would add another element into this equation: money. In a neoliberal, populist political model, dictators seemingly pay vast sums of money to other nation states in exchange for the unyielding, unchallenged and unregulated power to produce and reproduce dominant discourses which ground their version of hegemony within those states.
Cottle, S. (Ed.). (2000). Ethnic Minorities and the Media. Open University Press.
Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Verso.
Quinsaat, S. M. (2011). ‘Everybody Around Here is from Somewhere Else’: News frames and hegemonic discourses in the immigration debates in the United States, 2006 and 2010 [MA Thesis]. University of Pittsburgh: Kenneth P Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.
Reed, H. (2017). Framing of Immigrants and Refugees: A content analysis of mainstream and partisan news coverage of immigration [MA Thesis]. University of Missouri: Faculty of the Graduate School.
Torfing, J. (1999). New Theories of Discourse: Laclau, Mouffe and Žižek. Blackwell.
Van Dijk, T. A. (2000). New(s) Racism: A Discourse Analytical Approach. European Journal of Political Economy, 33–49.
Looking in all the wrong places and finding no answers
Recently we saw the killer of Sarah Everard receive a whole life sentence for her murder and with the sentence came the usual rhetoric from the politicians and media alike. I could tell you how I feel as a former police officer, but I just don’t think that really matters, others have said it but what they say, undoubtedly with conviction, seems rather hollow. What matters is that another life has been taken as a result of male violence, not just violence, male violence. I don’t disagree with those that want to make the streets safe for women, reclaim the streets, I don’t disagree with the ‘me too movement’, but somehow, I feel that the fundamental issue is being missed. Somehow, I think that all the rhetoric and calls for action concentrate too much on women as victims and looking for someone or some organisation to blame. There seems to be a sense created that this is a problem for women and in doing so concentrates on the symptoms rather than the cause. This is a problem for men and our society. Let’s not dress it up, pretend it could be something else, use terms like ‘not all men’, it is a fact nearly all violence, whether that be against women or men is perpetrated by … you guessed it, men.
I was watching a tv programme the other day about migraines and as it transpires there are millions of migraine sufferers around the world, most are women. It seems as a man I’m in the minority. One of the interviewees, a professor was asked why so little had been done in terms of research and finding a cure. He was frank, if it had been a male problem then there would have been more done. I’m not sure I totally subscribe to that because there are lots of other factors, after all prostate cancer a major cause of male deaths seems to have received comparatively little coverage until recently. But he made me think, if men, particularly those of influence accepted there was a problem would they be inclined to act? We call for more females in policing, we call for more females in the boardroom, predominately because we want to make things look a little fairer, a bit more even. We still have a massive gender pay gap in so many businesses and the public sector, we still have accusations and proven cases of sexual harassment. We still have archaic attitudes to women in so many walks of life, including religion. Words are great, useless but great. If you own the problem, you find solutions, men don’t own the problem and that is a problem.
So, it seems to me, that we are looking in the wrong place. Removing Cressida Dick as the head of the Metropolitan Police service isn’t going to change things. Blaming the police as an organisation isn’t going to change things. Look around you, look at all the scandals, all the sexual offences against women, against children. Look at where the perpetrators are placed in society, in positions of trust, as members of a variety of organisations, organisations that traditionally we thought we could turn to in our need. And look at the gender of those that commit those crimes, almost always men.
The solution to all of this is beyond me. As a criminologist I know of so many theories about why people commit crime or are victims of crime. Some are a little ridiculous but are a product of their time, others fit quite nicely into different circumstances, but none fully explain why. There are no real certainties and predicting who and where is almost impossible. Somehow, we need our leaders, predominately men, to grasp the mettle, to accept this a problem for men. If we owned the problem, we might start to tackle the causes of male violence, whatever they might be. Maybe then we might start to address the symptoms, society will be a safer place, and nobody will need to reclaim the streets.
Organisational reputation: A euphemism for institutional corruption and violence
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse published a damming report regarding child protection in religious organisations and settings. One of the findings was that ‘In many cases, concerns about external involvement are connected to a desire to protect the reputation of a religious organisation’. Of course, there are many other issues highlighted in the report, but I wanted to concentrate on this notion of protecting organisational reputation. When I hear the phrase ‘organisational reputation’ my blood generally runs cold because I know that behind these words lay a multitude of sins.
Companies and public sector bodies have policies that are designed, at least in part to protect organisational reputation. The rationale behind these policies often lacks transparency. It might be that the protection of the organisation’s reputation ensures it maintains its customer or client base, an enhanced reputation sees more customers or clients, a poor reputation might see this dwindle, to the detriment of the organisation and ultimately to the detriment of its employees and owners. It is difficult to recover from a poor reputation and in the case of business, this is sometimes catastrophic.
However, behind the notions of organisational reputation and policies lays a multi-layer of complex organisational and human behaviours which ultimately lead to institutional corruption and violence. Things will go wrong in organisations, whether that be as a result of human behaviour such as poor decision making or illegal activity or as a result of system failure, such as the failure of software or hardware. Any of these failures might harm the reputation of the organisation and herein lies the nub of the matter. When there are failures, because of organisational culture, which often finds its basis in finding someone to blame, there is a propensity to try to keep the issues ‘in house’, to protect the organisation. By doing so, managers and those in charge ensure that they are not scrutinised regarding the failure, be that individual failures, failures of policies or failures of systems and processes. So, the organisational reputation is not necessarily about protecting the organisation, it is more about avoiding scrutiny of those individuals in power. The mention of organisational reputation in policies and processes has another effect, it silences employees. Whistle blowing policies are subjugated to notions of organisational reputation and as a result silence is maintained for fear of some form of informal sanction. The maintenance of silence ensures organisational reputation, but this corruption also ensures continued institutional violence and corrupt practices. The longer it continues the more those in power have a vested interest in ensuring that the issues are not addressed, lest they are uncovered as offenders through their inaction. ‘We are all in this together’ takes on a new meaning. Thus, corrupt or criminal practices simply continue.
And if the wrongdoing is uncovered, becomes public, then the first reaction is to find a scapegoat thus avoiding the scrutiny of those in power. Rarely in these inquiries do we find that those put in the dock are the managing directors, the chief constables, the heads of children’s services, the archbishops or politicians. Rarely do we see those that caused the problem through inadequate or unworkable policies or strategies or working conditions are ever brought to book. Often its simply portrayed as one or two bad apples in the organisation. Thus, organisational reputation is maintained by further institutional violence perpetrated against the employee. That is not to say that in some cases, the employee should not be brought to book, but rarely should they be standing in the dock on their own.
For ‘organisational reputation, just read institutional corruption and violence.