The annual figures produced by the IEA on the OECD countries are a useful gauge of shifting sources of power generation. The OECD is made up of all the world’s richest countries; all of North America plus Columbia and Chile in South America, most of Europe, Japan, Korea, Australia and Turkiye.
Overall, between November 2021 and November 2022, fossil fuels still accounted for over half of all power generated, with renewables now up to just over a third and nuclear down to a sixth.
But, between November 2021 and November 2022 there has been a growth in the use of renewable sources of energy and a decline in the use of fossil fuels and nuclear.
Within fossil fuels coal and natural gas have both declined by about the same amount.
Within renewables there has been a dramatic increase in solar and a smaller but steady increase in wind.
The International Energy Agency has projected that 90% of new energy generation will be renewable by 2025. With the IPCC warning that 1.5C is slipping beyond our grasp unless we accelerate this trend sharply there should be no holding back on getting to 100% and eating into those big residual fossil fuel slices.
These figures are just for the generation of electricity. This is a vital area, but fossil fuels are also in use for domestic heating and cooking (78% of homes in UK have gas central heating) transport and manufacturing. Energy generation has made faster progress towards sustainability than other sectors. Transport emissions in the UK, for example, have made no progress for over a decade.
These are figures from the OECD. OECD countries are primarily those with high per capita climate footprints and the huge legacy of having generated the overwhelming majority of the carbon emissions that have led to the temperature rises we have seen to date. This is therefore not a full picture of the Global sources of energy use as it misses out most of the Global South. China has a large legacy use of fossil fuels but is investing in renewables on a significantly greater scale than the OECD.
The OECD also has the capital and technical wherewithal to invest in renewable energy; but are denying this for the most part to the Global South, which is being impacted harder and deeper. On average African countries are already losing 5-15% of GDP a year due to adverse climate impacts, so having to run harder and harder to stand still. Global South countries are charged far higher rates of interest by banks if they want to borrow to invest in energy transition than Global North countries, which makes it hard for them to do so without being caught in a debt trap.
The Global South, for the most part, has a very high proportion of traditional renewable energy (Hydroelectric dams) so the transfer of capital and technical expertise is vital for them to develop without reliance on fossil fuels. The decision by China to stop all coal power funding as part of Belt and Road is a huge positive step. The decision by the EU to classify gas as a transition fuel and encourage a “dash for gas” in Africa (to make up for the loss of Russian supply) is a step backwards.
This is a slightly tweaked version of the talk I gave at the Socialist Solutions to the Climate Crisis meeting at the Marx Memorial Library alongside Dan Kovalic from the University of Pittsburg, Lauren Collins from the Cuba Solidarity Campaign and the Nicaraguan Ambassador Giselle Morales-Echaverry and chaired by Ben Chakko from the Morning Star. A film of the whole meeting can be viewed here.
What China does to tackle the climate crisis will have a huge impact on whether humanity succumbs to it or not.
This is partly because it
is already the world’s largest economy in Purchase Power Parity terms
has a population greater than that of Europe, North America, South America and Australasia combined; a four continent country
is a developing country that has developed very successfully
is now exceeding the US in the number of patents for new inventions filed every year
is a country run, not by the private sector interests that make the USA the best democracy money can buy, but by a Communist Party with 90 million members; whose project is to build Socialism with Chinese characteristics.
This is in a context in which the US – as the self proclaimed “indispensable nation” and “global leader” – the country for which the rules in the “rules based international order” are written – is failing spectacularly to lead the world in confronting its greatest existential challenge – the breakdown of the climactic conditions in which human society can continue to exist – and prioritising war instead.
On current government spending, the US is putting fourteen times as much into its military as it is into domestic green transmission, and is encouraging its allies to increase theirs too; which they are doing.
The economic context of this is that, because globalisation now favours China not the US, the US is “decoupling” from it and pressing its subordinate allies to do the same, while screwing them over at the same time.
China, by contrast, is spending more than twice as much on green transition as on its military. More precise look at these figures here.
China’s is the right priority for every country because of the scale of the problem. Reports that the 1.5C limit is fast getting beyond reach should be a klaxon going off in all our heads. Not an invitation to fatalism, which will be fatal, but to redouble efforts to accelerate the scale and speed of transition to limit the damage as much as possible.
The consequence of not doing so will be severe. In 2007 a joint report from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and the Centre for a New American Security entitled “The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy Implications of Global Climate Change” made this prediction for the impact of the kind of climate breakdown we could be heading into.
“Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long, nightmarish episodes of triage; deciding what and who can be salvaged from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not just abroad but at home.”
That’s what we have to avoid, and the Labour movement has to take a lead in making sure we do. Not least because if we don’t the widespread anxiety about the future will give rise to wilder and wilder versions of the tsunami of irrationality we are already seeing, with severe consequences as climate crises bite and people seek false solutions. We should note that the capitalist class, which emerged historically– in its own head at least – as champions of reason and enlightenment – are going down promoting collective insanity; Q Anon and on…The only question is whether they take us with down them.
Socialist solutions are needed because, as the FT noted recently “The Free Market will solve the Climate Crisis – but not in time”. This is even recognised in the Skidmore Review of the government’s Net Zero “Strategy” which notes that the state has to provide clear goals, legislative frameworks and sufficient investment for any transition to be viable. The US Inflation Reduction Act has taken the same approach, which has now prompted the EU to follow suit, streamlining investment procedures, resetting regulations and priming green pumps.
This is better than letting the market follow its financial nose while hoping for the best, but its still within a framework in which it is the job of the state to provide the conditions for private sector profitability – with that profitability being the determinant of whether a transition takes place or not.
This won’t be good enough – which brings us back to China.
In the context of the second phase of the Wars for the New American Century, and the great decoupling that goes with it, China will not get a good press in this country; and the dominance of a set of negative narratives relentlessly repeated means that relatively few people, even on the Left, will give it the benefit of the doubt.
This sometimes takes the form of extreme cognitive dissonance. A recent Labour Party Foreign Policy Group Report said that China’s success in poverty reduction for 850 million people in the last half century was “perhaps the single most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history.” but then goes on to argue for technological, commercial and academic disengagement from, and military preparedness to confront, the country, people and Party that produced “perhaps the single most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history.” A similar view is common in the climate movement.
So, on climate, does China get it? Beyond Xi Jinping’s speeches about the need to build an ecological society and for global cooperation to achieve it – a concern that predates him becoming General Secretary – there’s what China does domestically, how it acts internationally, and how the two intertwine. I want to look at two key areas.
China is still heavily dependent on coal to generate power, but we should note that since 2011 the quantity of coal used every year has levelled off, while the economy has been growing dramatically.
Overall, China’s investment in wind and solar has been on such a large scale that it has made them a cheaper source of energy than fossil fuels, which is a crucial global life line.
The current (14th) Five Year Plan envisages a better connected grid with renewables at its core and coal relegated to a back up role.
The International Energy Agency and others project that China’s 2030 target for renewable power installation could be met by 2025, which indicates the sort of exponential growth that will be needed for China’s overall emissions to start dropping before the end of the decade.
The IEA assessment is also that the speed and scale of this drop will, exceed Western precedents.
At the same time, the decision to cease any funding for coal fired power stations as part of the Belt and Road initiative is estimated by the IEA to have the same beneficial effect as the whole of the EU actually getting to Net Zero by 2050. So, a massive deal.
That means that the energy development paradigm for those parts of the Global South where China is hegemonic will be via renewables. The “dash for gas” in Africa being pushed by the EU, and Tony Blair Institute among others, at the last COP is depressing contrast. They are selling this as a “transition fuel” for the continent, but its actually for export to Europe.
The city of Shenzen in Southern China replaced its entire 16,000 strong bus fleet with electric vehicles in 2016. London, with 8,000 buses, is going to take until sometime in the 2030s, and TFL is very good by UK standards.
In 2021 China produced 57% of the world’s electric vehicles and 77% of the batteries needed to power them. We should note in passing that the only gigafactory making EV batteries in the UK is part owned by a Chinese company. The debacle of build it from scratch startup company BritishVolt illustrates the difficulties of the UK model; which can’t compete with the level of subsidy that continental scale economies like the US and EU can put up, while its increasingly Sinophobic Foreign Policy posture will inhibit any inward investment from China, where this technology is best established.
The rapid development of China’s High Speed Rail Network has saved it from dependence on internal medium haul flights – of the sort that the US relies on and which were largely responsible for US carbon emissions rising again last year.
This is also and essential paradigm for Global South transport development through the Belt and Road initiative, which runs on rails.
So, Socialists in the climate movement have a number of tasks
To challenge disinformation about China in the movement and, as the saying goes, “seek truth from facts”.
Oppose the war drive and military spending, campaigning for financial and technological transfer to the Global South instead.
Oppose economic decoupling as detrimental to climate progress (a very clear example of which is that the trade sanctions imposed on Chinese solar panel imports by the US this year has led to a 23% drop in domestic installations – which is bad for emissions and bad for jobs) and seek win win global solutions on the context of the most rapid possible green transition.
Just as Nigel Farage tries to diss Just Stop Oil demonstrators as out of touch and cossetted upper class “brats” with names like Indigo and Jocasta – this from a man called Nigel – a survey from Savanta Comres shows majority support for faster, deeper action to head off the climate emergency.
Overall, only one in four voters think the government is doing enough. Three in five say that it is not doing enough.
Majorities of all age groups think not enough is being done. The younger the age group, the more strongly this is felt. Just over half of over 65s rising to over 7 out of ten of 18-24 year olds.
Even among Conservative supporters, nearly half want more action and this becomes overwhelming among supporters of other Parties. Farage and his denialist head bangers are the unrepresentative minority.
As there are such strong majorities, and some of the actions needed, like stopping new oil and gas exploration, unblocking Onshore Wind farms and launching an immediate insulation programme are so easy and obvious, the question that has to be posed is; why isn’t this happening? Who is the government representing if it isn’t the majority? And, given that their failure to act on the scale and at the speed needed is causing widespread anxiety and fear, especially among young people who see the future approaching with a sense of menace and trepidation, doesn’t the term “eco-terrorist” apply more to them than to young people trying to jolt them out of their complacency?
As we go into the COP, we know the conference will be full of lobbyists from BP – and other companies like them – trying to claim that they are on a pathway to sustainability. Doesn’t look like it, does it?
BP changed their logo and adopted the slogan “Beyond Petroleum” in 2000. If this is the progress they have made in 22 years, it doesn’t look like they’ll be getting beyond it any time soon. In fact, carry on making this rate of progress (up to 7.3% in 22 years) and they’ll have made it “beyond petroleum” in just over 301 years – so, by around March 2323; which is a bit late in anyone’s terms.
Atlanticist Labour Shadow Foreign Secretaries have the difficult job of squaring the circle between the reality of UK subordination to US global dominance – with everything that flows from that – with the desire of the Party membership to be – and to be seen to be – “ethical”. This is usually covered by rhetorical devices that touch nerves and mobilise emotions, while obscuring awkward realities. A classic of its kind was Emily Thornberry’s speech in 2019 in which she included Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro in a list of “Trump inspired strongmen” that the Party had to oppose, sliding over the awkward fact that, far from being one of Trump’s acolytes, Maduro was one of his targets, and Venezuela to object of ruthless US sanctions that were responsible for the deaths of over 40,000 people. Details, details…
With the banishment of that awkward internationalist Jeremy Corbyn and the reassertion of a new era of unapologetic Atlanticism from the front bench, David Lammy has gone further.
He did not reflect, in his foreign policy speech to Labour conference this year, that the role of “Britain in the World” has historically been rather like that of the policemen he mentions who used to stop and search him when he was “a skinny kid in NHS glasseson the streets of Tottenham“; and for very similar reasons. At one time as dominant world cop and enforcer, latterly as the new world cop’s most eager henchman.
His speech provides a cover for it to continue to do so.
His list of challenges faced by the world is odd, and in a strange order.
Conference, the world faces more challenges today than at any other time in my 22 years in parliament. The rise of China. Conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia and South Sudan. A global food crisis. And a climate crisis.
“And a climate crisis”. The climate crisis is the framework in which everything else takes place – or doesn’t. It’s not an item on a list. Least of all the last item. And the central problem is that the world’s most powerful state is prioritising military interventionism over dealing with it. The USA is spending more than 20 times as much on its military as it is on dealing with climate change, claims to “global leadership” notwithstanding.
China, by contrast, is spending one and a half times as much on climate change as on its military.
Who is doing the right thing?
The UK already spends more on its military than every other country in the world apart from the USA, China and India. It spends more than Russia. Through NATO and AUKUS it is in direct alliance with countries that account for two thirds of total global military spending. But the Truss government wants to increase spending by 50% by 2030 and the Labour front bench is going along with this. This is not a polict that tends to peace.
Lammy’s “green dimension” is subordinate to Cold War imperatives and inwardly oriented. The UK should not be dependent of “fossil fuel dictators” he says. Which ones does he mean? Will imports be stopping from Saudi Arabia any time soon?
And “we will seek to work with allies and partners to create a new international law of ecocide to criminalise the wanton and widespread destruction of the environment.” There’s that presumption of leadership from the Global North again, Britain’s “allies and partners” in setting and policing the ecological rule book for everyone else.
And note the weasel words – “we will seek to…” This will be rather tricky for the Global North because most of the fossil fuel companies seeking to develop the 350 carbon Bombs (projects which each have a carbon footprint of over a billion tonnes of CO2) that will bust us well beyond 1.5C on their own are companies that are based here; and so are most of the banks that finance them.
This also applies to the specific crisis that Lammy uses to frame his speech. The USA has for years explained to the Global South how hard it is to squeeze out a few billion dollars to help get to the 2020 target of $100 billion a year agreed at Copenhagen ten years earlier which has still not been met and that, with a bit of luck and a following wind (and a bit of redefinition of private sector loans) they might be good enough to get up to the target by 2024. Maybe. If the Global South is good. And nothing else comes along that is more urgent.
By contrast, they have magicked up $53 billion to fuel the Ukraine war in 6 months. Just like that. Easy. Whatever your view of the rights and wrongs of the war in Ukraine, and more on this later, it’s shocking how both the quantity and the speed are so dramatically different and provide such a clear demonstration of US priorities. Perhaps the way that a lot of this aid will go in orders for munitions and ammunition from US arms manufacturers may have something to do with that, but most of it reflects the war drive the USA is carrying out to try to shore up its economic decline relative to China.
In this framing, its odd that Lammy poses “the rise of China” as a challenge “for the world”. It is certainly a challenge for the US world order, Pax Americana, New American Century, Unipolar US domination; call it what you like. But that’s not the same as a challenge “for the world”.
For most of the world, benefitting from Chinese investment and trade, it looks more like an opportunity; and this is explicitly embraced by the Left in the Global South, Latin America particularly; where they are very clear about who runs the “Empire” and who has carried out coup after coup to install “dictatorships” across the continent.
It is peculiarly bizarre when considering that UK overseas aid is lauded for raising 3 million people a year out of poverty. This is not a figure I have seen anywhere else and have not been able to find online. It would be odd if true, because the impact of the COVID pandemic everywhere in the Global South outside China has been to throw back development and increase poverty. It would, of course, be a good thing if true, but pales into insignificance compared to China’s record as a developing country of raising 850 million people out of poverty in 40 years (21 million a year); seven times the rate. This was described in a Labour Foreign Policy Group document, generally rather hostile to China, as “perhaps the single most significant contribution to human wellbeing in world history”. But let’s not dwell on that. Let’s move swiftly on and not think about how this statistic is actual people whose lives have been immeasurably improved. It’s only the same number of people as the entire UK population thirteen times over. Just think of how many people that is. In forty years. And that includes everyone in Xinjiang, whose living standards are rising by 6% a year and whose labour is no more forced than that of anyone else who works in a factory.
It is also odd that Lammy does not mention that the “conflict in Yemen” is fueled by British made arms, of the sort that Conference sadly voted to boost, and the Saudi Air Force and Navy are trained to bomb and blockade ports by the RAF and Royal Navy – leading to famine and the world’s worst cholera epidemic. Nothing to see here. Let’s talk about Ukraine instead.
Lammy says “No act of imperialism is ever the same. But Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine this year was just the latest front in an age-old war between democracy and dictatorship. Freedom and subjugation. Empire and independence.” From the country and allies that have – just since 1990 -brought us two wars each in Iraq and Yugoslavia, the invasion and twenty year occupation of Afghanistan and the reduction of Libya from the most prosperous country in North Africa to a war ravaged basket case, this might be considered a little ironic. Quite what kind of “act of imperialism” Lammy considers these to be is unclear, who was fighting for “freedom” and who for “subjugation”, who for “Empire” and who for “independence“, he doesn’t say. Possibly because it’s too obvious if you think about it for a moment. Does he have no self-awareness at all?
“Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine” is an oft repeated mantra that conceals more than it explains. Deliberately. The war in Ukraine did not start with the Russian intervention this February. It started with the overthrow of a democratically elected President in 2014, aided and abetted by the considerable resources of the USA and EU, in cahoots with the local far right. This led to a rebellion on the Donbass region and an eight year civil war. As Sir Richard Sherriff, the former NATO Deputy Commander, remarked, a little off script, “this war started in 2014”.
The invasion this February followed attempts by the Russians to get an agreed mutual security arrangement that was spurned with complete contempt by NATO.
The Russian decision to recognise the Donbass Republics in February was not carried out by Putin alone but had the support of the overwhelming majority of the State Duma, including the main opposition Party, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, reflecting concerns at the failure to implement the Minsk Agreement, refusal of NATO to engage in any talks about mutual security, and a build up of 130,000 Ukrainian troops – whose pay was tripled in December – opposite Donetsk and Lugansk threatening their liquidation.
All war is barbaric, but it may seem odd to viewers of the atrocity porn produced by Feargal Keene and the like that by comparison with what the Americans do, the Russians have been relatively restrained. There have been a number of specific strikes on infrastructure like power stations or dams, but in US air campaigns they aim to smash the entire power and water treatment systems on day one to reduce the population to a state of rebellious despair. “Shock and Awe”*. In fact, the US dropped as much explosives on Iraq on the first day of the second Iraq war as it took the Russians a month and half to do in Ukraine. All relative? Up to a point. But not if you’re underneath it.
The term “Special Military Operation” incidentally, is not a weaselly euphemism to cover all out war, but an internationally accepted definition of a particular sort of limited war, and everyone who reports on this knows it. This is now escalating and will continue to do unless peace negotiations can get going.
Worse, Lammy’s way forward is both delusory and condemns Ukraine and its people to being a permanent proxy war zone for NATO. “Whether it takes six months, three years or ten, Ukraine will win.” Ten years of war? Seriously? “Ukraine will win“? With Russia incorporating the South and East into the Russian Federation and mobilising accordingly, I can’t see that. Lammy is calling for war without end.
At a point that even EU Foreign Representative Jose Barroso is calling for a negotiated peace acceptable to both sides – “we stand ready to assist the peace plan just launched and we urge all parties to seize this opportunity to de-escalate the crisis and end violence of this developing tragedy,” it is deeply depressing that Labour’s Foreign policy spokesperson striking the same sort of bellicose posture that Boris Johnson did when he intervened to sabotage the last serious attempts at peace talks back in April.
If he wants the “global food crisis”, not to mention the energy crisis that he, again oddly, didn’t mention, to end, we need to end the war. That starts with pushing for peace, not a ten year war.
Lammy envisages a war crimes tribunal for Putin. On the model of the sort we have seen for George W Bush and Tony Blair for the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq that their war led to? One like that? Or perhaps the one for Putin after the Chechen war, at a time he was considered a “strategic partner” by NATO? War crimes, it seems, are always committed by our enemies. Never by us, or anyone allied with us. The numbers don’t count. Especially if they are in the Global South.
Lammy is also right that the Tories tend to craft a Foreign Policy that is a wolf in wolf’s clothing and that the current government, delirious on Brexit Kool Aid is picking fights with everyone and thinking it can get away with it. It won’t. But his version of looking outward is simply to reassert traditional alliances with the rest of the Global North as it rearms on a colossal scale, while hoping a wee bit of extra aid will keep the Global South sweet enough not to start lining up with the Chinese model of development.
While Lammy is right to argue for restoring overseas aid to 0.7% of GDP, his argument is less that this is the right thing to do as partial reparations for the damage and exploitation done by the Empire and slave trade, more about enhancing the “soft power” of the UK as the beneficiary of it, even though, as he said his “ancestors knew what it was like to have their freedom taken away. They heard the twisted lies of imperialism as they were stolen from their homes in shackles and turned into slaves.” Quite so.
“A voice for peace, development and freedom across the globe” is sorely needed. A voice for expanded UK military expenditure, for an unquestioning alliance with the USA in its provocative militarist dotage as it pushes for wars it thinks it can win in Ukraine and the South China Sea, won’t provide any of that.
“Shock and awe” marries the two US bombing traditions of precision targeting with colossal force. But, unlike the initial advocates of precise targeting, who argued for overwhelming strikes on key targets of military significance, “choke points” like the Schweinfurt ball bearing factory in the case of Nazi Germany, these strikes combine taking out military HQs but also decisive civilian infrastructure. So, from day 1, there is no power, no clean water, no functioning sewage system. It seems odd that advocates of this approach are trying to argue that “the Russian way of making war” is more barbaric than that.
The idea that destroying civilian infrastructure makes a population less inclined to resist has never been vindicated in practice; unless it reaches the almost genocidal scale of the B29 raids on Japan in 1945 led by Curtis LeMay, who went on to bomb North Korea “back to the Stone Age” a few years later; in which the state of mind of the shattered survivors barely counts. In the initial argument in WW2 between the US Air Force, who thought they could “hit a pickle barrel from 6 miles up” using a precision bombsight in daylight (they couldn’t) and the RAF, which went into carpet bombing wide civilian areas at night, the British side disregarded its own experience during the Blitz, that the raids had made the civilian population hate the bombers harder and strengthened resistance to them, thinking this wouldn’t apply in Germany because the people were “a different sort”. No stiff upper…A racialised argument within white supremacy, indicating that the British took it for granted they were ubermensch, but that it was rather vulgar to proclaim it.
All quotes from “The Bomber Mafia” by Malcolm Gladwell.
Living in the UK is a bit like living in a museum, in which popular culture is encouraged to steep in nostalgia for lost status. This can be quite bitter, rather like an over stewed pot of tea.
An aspect of early industrialisation and former global dominance here is the survival by inertia of archaic forms of governance mostly abandoned or overthrown elsewhere. Our Head of State has just changed, not by election and not on any political timetable, but because of biology. The former Queen was 96 and as healthy as anyone could be expected to be at that age; but died last week just two days after seeing Boris Johnson off, and Liz Truss in, as Prime Minister.
This is probably entirely coincidental. But we now have a new Head of State and new Prime Minister in the same week, in a bizarre two for one offer. From Elizabeth II and Boris Johnson to Charles III and Liz Truss. “Oh, brave new world that hath such people in it!”
As a result, we are now in a strange pause of “national mourning” in which almost everything is on hold. While they haven’t gone so far as to stop all the clocks, strikes by Rail and Postal workers have been suspended, the TUC postponed, no Party meetings or campaigning is taking place, Parliament has shut down, the media is wall to wall black suits mobilising a tsunami of deference for the old monarch and the new: even the football is cancelled for a week of Sundays, the last two Proms have been scrapped “out of respect” and the music on the Radio has a definite decaffeinated quality. Charles III declaring that this mourning period will extend to 7 days beyond the funeral is probably his first mistake. People will be grumbling.
More to the point, while everyone catches a breath, the underlying crises of what might be called “Late Britain” are building beyond a point that they can all be peacefully contained. In his first address to the nation, Charles III intoned gravely that “our values have remained, and must remain, constant.”
Fat chance of that.
The 2008 crash shattered the notion that things might go on relatively well or relatively badly, but it was all, ultimately, manageable. This went out the door with the boxes carried by the sacked employees of Lehman Brothers. Politics in the UK became more intense, and the unthinkable thought. Much of it fantasy.
This was writ large with Brexit – the notion that with one mighty bound, the UK could free itself from the shackles of EU restrictions holding back its natural market genius and long lost ubermench status, and go sailing off into the wider world, striking “easy” trade deals on favourable terms, especially with countries in the Global South; an approach openly referred to as “Empire 2” in some parts of Whitehall. Wishful thinking as policy.
This has not worked. Levels of private investment and private sector R&D – never high in the UK – have sunk to historic lows. So has growth. Poverty, particularly child poverty, has increased. Wage levels have stagnated or sunk. People in work are having to use food banks in ever increasing numbers. Life expectancy in poorer areas is dropping. People are having fewer children. The future no longer looks like a promise, more like a threat. And that’s leaving aside climate breakdown – which is exactly what they are now trying to do.
Since Brexit, the Tories are now on their third Prime Minister. Each replacement has been a move further right, with wider still and wider Brexit as goal and talisman. In the leadership election campaign over the summer, both candidates were agreed on the aims of deepening Brexit – decoupling the UK from the EU’s environmental and labour standards so the UK becomes more like the USA – but disagreed on the pace of it.
Liz Truss represents a minority of her Parliamentary Party – most of whom supported her rival, Rishi Sunak. Truss’s cabinet rests solely on her own faction – most of whom have essence of Ayn Rand on a drip feed into what passes for their souls – and promises war on all fronts. Stalling on climate action. War drive against Russia and China. Confrontation with the EU – and USA – over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Confrontation with the SNP. Redistribution of wealth up to those who don’t need it from those who do. Attacks on the right to strike and organise. Privatisation of the Health Service. Tearing up all remaining alignment with EU standards on labour and environment standards. War on woke (ie equalities). It’s hard to imagine that this will go well.
Her speech in Downing Street spelled out three priorities and challenges.
She did not mention climate breakdown, which makes everything else she said a form of displacement activity while we are waiting to die. Her list of infrastructure to invest in did not mention insulation but had roads in first place. Truss is backed by the Net Zero Scrutiny Group and Lord Frost, who opined during the week local temperatures exceeded 40C that he saw “no evidence” of a climate crisis, has appointed Jacob “2050 is a long way away” Rees Mogg to energy, plans to open up 130 new gas and oil fields in the North Sea and remove the ban on fracking, opposes onshore wind and rural solar farms. This is proclaimed as a way of increasing domestic energy supply in the face of rising prices, with the implication that this will ease the pressure on bills. It won’t. The quickest sources of low cost additional energy is onshore wind and solar, which she opposes. New North Sea gas and oil fields take 28 years to come into production on average. So, approval now will see them on stream in 2050 which, as Rees Mogg might remark “is a long way away”. It is also the point at which we need to have closed down fossil fuel production almost entirely if we want a planet we can live on. This is a kind of madness and a sign that these people are incapable of rising to the actual challenge of our time and, if left in power, will instead lead us to disaster.
Of the three, her first aim was to “get Britain working again”. This is curious, because employment levels are high, albeit often poorly paid, part time, insecure. Her “bold plan” is to make tax cuts and “reform”. Reform means greater insecurity for workers, greater “flexibility” for employers. Tax cuts benefit people with higher incomes most; which Truss formulates as a reward for “hard work”. In her book, people on low incomes don’t work hard and therefore deserve everything they get. Her presumption is that increased disposable incomes for the better off will lead to greater demand and therefore spark “business led” investment. But increased demand without investment, which is what we’ll get, will just fuel inflation, as it did in the US and beyond, with Joe Biden’s stimulus package. At best, this will be a clumsily inequitable way to try to partially counteract the recessionary impact of higher prices for necessities and increased interest rates leading to reduced demand across the board but seems guaranteed to entrench inflation into stagnation. It serves a political purpose of trying to keep the better off on board with the Conservatives, pulling the ladder up beneath them, consolidating a core vote and preventing total political meltdown. It may not be enough, even for that.
Her second is to “deal with the energy crisis”. The rise in fossil fuel prices started long before the Ukraine war and is now structured into the global economy, but the upward twist the war gave it could be resolved by a push for peace negotiations. As the Financial Times put it, “This coming winter will bring a reckoning. Western governments must either invite economic misery on a scale that would test the fabric of democratic politics in any country, or face the fact that energy supply constrains the means by which Ukraine can be defended.” As it is, Truss sabre rattles in faraway countries of which she knows little, and sometimes can’t pronounce, is pressing for a sharp increase in military spending to 3% of GDP, will try to ride out the economic misery, and will try to tear “the fabric of democratic politics” to do so.
She is standing on thin ice. But she will jump up and down on it all the same.
With UK based fossil fuel companies scheduled to make £170 billion in excess profits in the next two years, she has chosen not to impose a windfall tax on any of it. Shell, her former employer, paid £0 in UK tax in 2021, and she obviously thinks this is the way to go. Instead, the state will borrow up to £150 billion this year alone to subsidise energy costs at £2500 per household per year for the next two years (until the next General Election). Though the details of exactly how this scheme will work are still unclear, this heads off an immediate meltdown, as prices were projected to go up to over £5,000 by January, putting more than half of the population into fuel poverty. But this is still a rise of £600 on current levels, which are already pushing a lot of people into arrears (and this is during the Summer in which most people have their heating off and are just using their boilers to heat water, so this will still be a grim winter on this front and vulnerable elderly people are expected to die).
This is just one aspect of a general inflationary crisis, with prices rising at 13% a year (and projected to rise to 18% next year) while wages are falling well behind. Employers who are offering any rises at all are trying to lock workers into two or three year deals at below the current inflation rate while also proposing “modernisation” (a euphemism to cover cuts in holiday entitlement, pensions, safety measures, extra payments for unsocial hours etc). This is sparking a revival of trade union struggle, support and membership. Rail workers and Post Office workers and Barristers (!) are already engaged in a prolonged series of strikes and these, despite frantic efforts in the media to demonise and divide and rule, are very popular with the public, because everyone is under the cosh in the same way. Union leaders like RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch have become media stars and gained a lot of resonance putting straightforward common sense arguments that workers shouldn’t be expected to carry the can for the crisis when private companies are making massive profits, opening up a space in the mainstream for broadly socialist ideas for the first time since the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn in 2019.
Smaller scale and hard fought local or sectional disputes have often won substantial gains for the striking workers, so in the national disputes there has been a clear line from the government to the companies involved not to make any concessions at all, for fear that these struggles will become contagious. Truss aims to pass legislation to make strike action almost impossible to carry out legally, by imposing high ballot thresholds, while imposing “minimum service levels” if strikes do take place. If passed, in conditions of continued economic pressure, this will lead to what used to be called “wildcat” actions and, at the very least “quiet working” as the norm as resentful people struggle with an unfair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. The coordination of a prolonged series of one day stoppages in the existing disputes would provide a political focus both for the demands of the strikes and opposition to these measures that will spread far beyond them.
Her third priority is to “put our health service on a firm footing”. In her book, that means privatisation. US style labour and environment standards also imply US style health care. Needless to say, this is not popular, even among conservative supporters. When Boris Johnson put his big lie, that leaving the EU would save the UK £350 million a week” on the side of his campaign bus in 2016, the strap line was “let’s spend it on our NHS”. The “our” in that slogan is heartfelt across the country. Anyone who tries to break it up for private insurers to leach off will be well and truly loathed.
Truss could be an easy magnet for that. Trying very hard to be a two dimensional cardboard replica of Margaret Thatcher, she has the brass neck that comes as standard with Tory MPs, but also seems to have had a charisma and empathy bypass operation. It used to be said of Johnson that he was Teflon. Nothing stuck to him. It took a while, but it did in the end. That has never been said of Truss. Excruciating mash ups of her most embarrassing moments are doing the rounds on social media. Just google “Truss cheese speech” for an example. With Johnson’s calculated buffoonery it was possible to believe that, as the old Habsburg joke had it, “the condition of the realm might be terminal, but it’s not serious”. Truss doesn’t do humour, except unintentionally. And she has a gift for dropping unnecessarily antagonistic remarks which exacerbate crises that need emollience, like her comment that SNP leader and Scottish First Minister is an “attention seeker” who should be “ignored” or that workers in the UK are “the worst idlers in the world” who should “graft” more: which won’t exactly endear her to them.
As the polls turn south, the pound sinks slowly in the West, possibly dropping below parity with the dollar for the first time ever, and the nemesis of the 2024 General Election approaches for Tory MPs, expect trouble in Parliament as they fight like ferrets in a sack to keep their jobs. It has been reported that 12 of them have already written letters of no confidence, all ready to go. Some honeymoon period.
Nevertheless, I suspect that the calculation is that whatever they do, the Conservatives will probably be out at the next election in 2024, so they might as well go for broke in the meantime; in full confidence that an incoming Labour government led by Keir Starmer will reverse none of it. The task in the labour movement is to generate such a mobilisation against Truss’s measures that the momentum has to be carried over into government.
Lord Frost must have choked over his freshly ironed copy of the Daily Telegraph this morning. Spread across the wide open spaces of its front page – because, as long as there is an England, the Telegraph will forever be a broadsheet – was a map with the whole of Southern England coloured red.
This is to show the areas in which – in the current drought – wildfires are just a flicked match, barbecue ember, or suns rays concentrated through a thrown away bottle away. As the wildfire in Wennington showed at the end of last month, if vegetation and buildings are dry enough, and the winds are strong enough, a small fire can spread out of control and burn down whole streets. We should note that Wennington is on the edge of Rainham marshes, not an area we would normally expect to catch fire. In fact, we got lucky that time, because the winds were quite low. So, anyone who owns a property in that red zone, which stretches right across the Tory heartlands of the soft South, has real reason to be worried.; which would be why the Telegraph published it.
But, this is where ideological dissonance slips in. The Telegraph puts a lot of effort into bigging up all the forces on the Tory right, from Lords Lawson and Frost, to Steve Baker and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, who like to argue that Climate Breakdown is all a woke plot; that because dealing with it requires a fairer society that would be uncomfortable for people like them, not dealing with it, while hoping with Mr Micawber that “something will turn up”, is the better option.
Indeed, this is just two days after Frost opined in an essay on Public Exchange, that “there is no evidence” that the UK faces a climate emergency.
One can only conclude that he goes through life with his eyes. and ears firmly shut, and has not bothered to read very much. He could just look around him. Perhaps, like so many “non elite” Brexit supporting members of the House of Lords, he hasn’t been around to notice what’s going on here because he’s off on holiday somewhere continental. But, he can’t really miss it there either. If he is in Italy, perhaps he has noticed coverage of the drought that has cause the Po river to dry up on parts of its course. If he has passed through Germany, he might have noticed that the Rhine is now so low that shipping is being restricted. If he has gone to the United States, he can’t have missed the epic drought and wildfires there this Summer which have produced fire tornadoes in California; or the floods in Kentucky that washed whole houses down streets turned into torrents. Had he popped up to the Arctic for a bit of whale spotting, he might have been made aware that it is heating up four times faster than the rest of the planet and the permafrost is melting 43 times as fast as it was.
If he wants some written evidence, maybe he should just read the latest IPCC Report. Current policies, which he thinks are too fast, have us heading for a 2.7C average temperature rise by the end of the century. Crisis? What crisis?
But, of course, he is from a political current that dislikes “experts” and prefers its own prejudices whenever that’s more convenient.
Frost’s proposals are designed to make other people, in poorer parts of the world, pay the price for the over consumption of people like him.
He blathers complacently on – with that blithe self confidence that so many upper class people have, that if you state total bollocks with enough conviction you can disregard any evidence to the contrary – “the prevailing mood is one in which individuals are asked to restrict their use of energy and in which unsatisfactory renewables technology is touted as the best solution to our problems.Instead of focusing on technological solutions that enable us to master our environment and get more energy in a more carbon-efficient way — nuclear, CCS, fracking, one day fusion – we have focused on managing demand so we can use medieval technology like wind power.”
This is such flabby thinking that it beggars belief that he can be taken seriously by anyone with a fragment of critical intelligence. But, let’s look at them one at a time anyway.
“Individuals are asked to restrict their use of energy”. At the moment, the biggest pressure forcing people to reduce their use of energy is the rapid increase in fossil fuel prices (and the profits of the energy producing companies that flow from them). Frost does not favour taxing those profits to give people a break. He stands for the free market (in this context). Nor does he favour an insulation programme that would allow people to keep warm and cook food, using less energy and getting lower bills as a result. Using less energy means less demand for fossil fuels, therefore fewer profits for the producers. Can’t have that, can we? This is of a piece with his complaint in the Brexit campaign that the EU was introducing standards to force vacuum cleaners to become more efficient – on the grounds that a proper clean needs to burn lots of joules. Vacuum cleaning for petrolheads.
That “unsatisfactory renewables technology”, overtook fossil fuels in UK electricity generation in 2020. “Medieval” wind power produced 24% of UK energy demand in 2020, increased 715% from 2009 to 2020 and is now much cheaper per Kilowatt hour than fossil fuels or nuclear; and steadily getting even cheaper. That reduces bills. Once the turbines are up or the solar panels installed, the wind and the sunshine is free. “Unsatisfactory” for fossil fuel producers, no doubt. Very helpful for the rest of us. Oddly, Lord Frost does not seem so keen on “the market” here. He wants to restrict renewables as such. Perhaps not as suicidally keen as France’s Marine Le Pen, who wants to “tear down” turbines that are already up; but in the way that the Conservatives have restricted onshore wind with all sorts of planning “red tape”. You’d think, with onshore wind being among the cheapest energy sources, he’d want to cut the restrictions and “let the market work its magic”; but not a bit of it. You’d think, as a patriotic Brexiteer wedded to notions of “energy security”, he’d want to make the most of an energy source that doesn’t have to be imported. He could make a bit of a campaign of it, painting them red, white and blue and calling them “Freedom Farms”; with banner headlines in the Tory Press screaming “It’s Britain’s Wind!” But, no. If its low prices for energy users with fewer carbon emissions on the one hand, and sustained fossil fuel profits generating billowing clouds of carbon dioxide on the other, its no contest.
In full macho mode, Lord Frost prefers “technological solutions that enable us to master our environment” (my emphasis). So butch. 50 shades of Frost. Let’s see what he has in his special room. “Nuclear, CCS, fracking, one day fusion“. While its in the nature of denial for people to clutch at straws, this is a peculiarly old fashioned vision of modernity. Taking them backwards, which seems an oddly appropriate thing to do… “Fusion” has been the holy grail for nuclear power that has been full of promise for at least 50 years; but has never actually arrived. This year, next year, sometime, never. He might as well argue that “one day” we will power ourselves with Unicorn farts. “Fracking” for oil and gas. No one wants a fracking site in their backyard. Presumably Frost wants to enforce them on unwilling communities “in the national interest” of the profits made by the fracking companies. Perhaps he hasn’t noticed that oil and gas are fossil fuels. So, not a solution to a problem created by burning too many fossil fuels. And not a “carbon efficient” way to generated energy. “Carbon Capture and Storage.” The IPCC Report made it very clear that this is not a technology capable of economic deployment at the scale needed. Indeed, given that this would be such a “get out of jail free” card for carbon intensive industries, you’d think that it would have been developed by now. Instead, rather like fusion, it is the solution that’s just around the corner; and has been for decades. “Nuclear”. There is an argument about how “low carbon” nuclear energy generation is. What is in no doubt is that it is immensely costly. Costlier than fossil fuels. Costlier than renewables. And slow. By So, Frost’s “solutions” are a mix of unproven wishful thinking combined with a cavalier disregard for costs; both environmental and financial. And, that’s it.
With the whole of Southern England a tinder box, perhaps the threat of wildfires in the backyards of prosperous Tory speissburgers might make a few of them pay attention – especially if house price values start being affected. But, with Frost highly influential with Liz Truss, and medieval thinkers like John Redwood slated for cabinet posts in our new and unimproved Conservative government, we can expect a lurch even further to the right. Their problem is that its only possible to safely deny reality so long as that reality isn’t imposing itself on people’s lives, as climate breakdown is. It has been argued that climate is “above politics”. It isn’t, as Lord Frost and his ilk demonstrate. But the reality of it is foundational to any politics that is relevant from here on. We’re not in the Holocene any more Toto.
In his friendly review of Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown argues that the 2010 Copenhagen summit failed to lead to the breakthrough we needed because of both “the reluctance of the US to make legally binding commitments, and the deep suspicion of China, India and the emerging economies of any obligations that they believed might threaten their development”. (1) He then anecdotally glosses over the former and emphasises the latter by recounting the rather startling image of “Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd” having to be “physically restrained from punching the Chinese negotiator.” What an unreconstructed colonial incident that would have been. (2)
It might seem odd that the man who, as Chancellor in 2005, campaigned to “Make Poverty History” should put an equals sign between the refusal of the US – the worlds heaviest emitter per capita and the country with the biggest global legacy of carbon emissions – to see world leadership as anything other than getting away with the most it could, at the expense of those less powerful than itself – and the desire of the developing world not to stay poor; let alone foreground the latter. The way that he does this – possibly unconsciously – could stand as a warning that this attitude – that seeks a global division of labour in which the worse off and worst hit parts of the world do the heavy lifting, and restrain their development in the common interest, while the wealthiest countries try to make only those moves that maintain existing patterns of wealth, power and ways of life – is likely to find expression again and again in the run up to, at, and beyond the COP in November. There is already a significant effort going in to paint the more industrialised parts of the developing world in general – and China in particular – as the flies in the global ointment.
A recent report from US Researchers shows how much more work every country has to do if we are to hit the Paris target of keeping the global temperature rise within 1.5C – beyond which we are likely to be in danger of feedback loops that will make it incredibly difficult for us to control. (1) The additional effort needed for a selection of key countries looks like this.
So, China has to do 41% more, just under half as much again as its already doing, while the UK has to almost double its efforts (97%) and the USA, India and Japan roughly quadruple theirs (203%, 190%, 229% respectively) and South Korea almost nine times as much. So, while John Kerry’s argument that China “isn’t doing enough” is true, nobody is, and the Washington has far more to do than Beijing; so a little humility might be in order. Closer to home, the frequent trope from UK Ministers that we “lead the world” on this are neither true – we are well behind the Chinese – nor relevant. It doesn’t matter if you are leading a pack of slower runners, if you are not going to get to the finish line before nature calls time on the race.
This blog is the first in a short series.
1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-021-00097-8#Tab1 The worrying thing about this Report is that it puts a lot of emphasis that only an 80% increase in global effort would be needed to stay within 2C, as if it would not be extremely damaging and dangerous for us to end up there and it is just too much to expect that we could do what we need to if it was remotely inconvenient in the short term.
The emergency measures being taken to deal with the immediate acute coronavirus crisis- and the preparedness to take them – can be seen as a model for the emergency measures we need to take to save ourselves from climate breakdown. Making extraordinary efforts to return to the “normal” functioning of an economy and society that is destroying the conditions for its own existence is like treating a patient to recover from an acute illness just to put them on palliative care only for a chronic underlying condition that has no need to be fatal.
The Coronavirus is an acute challenge that could – if let rip – kill millions globally. All other issues are redefined by it. The crisis will go on for months and there will be no return to “normal” afterwards. So many things previously considered impossible have become inevitable in the last three weeks and some “impossible demands” will look absurdly moderate quite soon.
The necessary measures to effectively suppress coronavirus cost China a 20% drop in its economy in one quarter. They were prepared to do that, did it, and we should learn from them. In doing so they averted a potential 11.5 million deaths in a few months (assuming an 80% infection rate and 1% death rate).
The confused half measures being taken in the “West” will take longer and lead to more deaths. This graphic from the FT illustrates the impact of the different approaches used in China and the US in deaths per million.
This was from March 31st, so the Chinese bubbles will still be the same size. The US bubbles will now be significantly larger, and be even larger than that next week, and the week after. On March 31st 1550 had died in New York. By April 7th it had risen to 5489; so the New York bubble here should be just under four times as big.
This raises a real scream of financial pain from fractions of capital who are willing to sacrifice lives to keep the system running as it is. Open or covert advocates of “herd immunity” in the UK, Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro, the Wall Street Journal, columnists in the Times and Telegraph have taken this line; sometimes with absolute swivel eyed consistency (Bolsonaro); sometimes seeming to concede one moment, only for the content of the argument to pop up again even as the label is disavowed. This account of the argument in the cabinet on this is very revealing. (1)
We in the Labour movement have to be completely unambiguous that lives come first. Herd immunity was not “probably” wrong (2). It was wrong full stop. If allowed to “work through” the population we could have had half a million deaths – which is more than the total UK casualties in World War 2. – by the autumn. The first step to an economy designed to serve the people is not to sacrifice the people for the economy. That applies directly to any “exit strategy”.
The best time to have taken all necessary measures to eliminate the virus was when we first knew about how dangerous it was – instead of dicking about for two months – the second best time is now. That includes the government using powers to require industry to manufacture PPE, ventilators and whatever equipment is needed to effectively expel this virus out of the population – as demanded by UNITE, UNISON, the BMA and RCN last Friday. (3) This kind of emergency measure to meet urgent human need – and over riding the imperatives of profit – is a model for reorganising the economy more broadly as companies crumble under the impact of prolonged shutdown.
Labour should be demanding that that is what is done. The government approach here is for the state to subsidise business with no social quid pro quo; and that cannot be accepted. George Osborne – who snuffed out a mild economic recovery in 2010 with his austerity policy – was on Radio 4 yesterday arguing for the state to take “equity shares” in medium size businesses to stop them collapsing. This is a repeat of the 2008 Bank bail out – satirised at the time as “socialism for bankers”. State led investment should be just that; job creating, socially necessary and environmentally imperative measures that will allow our society to recover on a sustainable basis.
With the UK projected to have the worst casualties in Europe as a result of the Conservative government’s approach, the Labour leadership should not give them any blank cheques in the name of “national unity”. The privilege being allowed into the room where the decisions are taken – even as spectators – is only ever extended by the Conservatives if they want someone else to become complicit in their failures and share the flak with them.
The deeper existential crisis is that of climate change – or more broadly the human impact on the environment. This is linked with coronavirus because viruses have jumped the species barrier both from
human encroachment on wildlife habitats and the use of wild animals for food – ebola, COVID19
and the intensification of factory farming – H1N1 Swine Flu – which emerged from gigantic (and disgusting) industrial pig farms in the US.
The wholesale overuse of antibiotics in this sort of “farming” is also a clear and present cause of the rise in anti-biotic resistance that is also a significant and growing health risk for all of us.
The economic “Exit Strategy” Labour should argue for – once the virus has been eliminated -is for the state to regenerate the economy and employment through investment in the transition to sustainability that we need. The plan is already there in the Green Industrial Revolution which Keir Starmer pledged in his campaign would be “at the heart of everything we do” but didn’t mention at all in his victory speech.
The proof of the pudding on this will be whether he and the Shadow cabinet COVID19 Committee make this the core of the recovery strategy and a clear line of divide with a government that will want to go back to the free market “ideology” they claim to have abandoned in a fit of bipartisan generosity; but actually because it gave no tools to deal with the Coronavirus crisis adequately and it won’t provide the tools for an effective recovery either. Dumping dosh onto companies in the hope they will use it wisely won’t work. Stating this is basic.
We can’t afford another wasted decade like the last one. The politics of austerity treated the profit motive and private ownership as a sacred cow. Only by creating the conditions for profitable production could companies be induced to invest. It failed. They didn’t do it. Huge cash piles were not deployed or invested.
The Tories are in government and will try this again. They will fail again at great cost to those least able to bear it.
The climate crisis really is one that we are all in together and we can’t wait for dealing with it to become profitable in the short term.
We have ten years to make a significant enough dent in carbon emissions that we are not toast in the medium term. If we don’t borrow from the future, there won’t be one.
We need those wind farms, insulated homes, reforested uplands, sustainable vehicles as part of the recovery – and that won’t happen without state investment.
Labour’s job is to keep banging away at this and in no way to become complicit in the idea that dealing with climate change can wait until we have regenerated the economy as it was enough to have enough left over to make a transition with what we can “afford” over and above normal functioning. We have to recover by and through the transition if we want a future.
The blog below was written before Home Secretary* Priti Patel’s interview on LBC in which she defended the reporting of climate change protesters to the Prevent programme on the grounds that police have to look at “a range of security risks.” This inability to tell the difference between high explosive and superglue reveals Prevent to be a vehicle for criminalising dissent more than safeguarding society from violence. The subsequent revelation that a counter terrorism policing guide from June 2019 included logos from Greenpeace, PETA, Stop the War, CND, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Anti Fascist and Anti racist groups underlines the point.
Given that they are often so keen to tell us that it is the first duty of government to keep its citizens safe, perhaps Patel should heed the warnings of the Ministry of Defence, which is planning for a more unstable world up to 2040 as a result of the impact of climate change, or, the recent US Army report on the security impact of climate change which predicts severe water shortages, increased incidence of “natural” disasters, floods, fires, hurricanes of unprecedented scope and scale, global pandemics, and a break down in vital infrastructure and state functions, including a possible collapse of the army itself – and conclude that the “unco-operative crusties” and, indeed, school students, taking to the streets calling for action to avert this might have a point.
If she can’t do that, and recognise that safeguarding our future is a government responsibility, she should resign or be sacked.
*”Home Secretary” sounds very cosy. Other countries, that don’t do official euphemisms, refer to Patel’s role as the Ministry of the Interior.
The decision by “counter terrorism” police in the South East to include climate change activists who speak in “strong or emotive terms about environmental issues like climate change, ecology, species extinction, fracking, airport expansion or pollution” or “neglect to attend school” or “participate in planned school walkouts” or took part in “writing environmentally themed graffiti” in their list of “extremists” who should be reported to Prevent by their teachers is very revealing about the way these people think.
There is a very revealing use of the word “or” in this description of what the guide was for. “This document is designed to help you recognise when young people or adults may be vulnerable to extreme or violent ideologies.” The safeguarding concern of Prevent is supposed to be about violence, but the term “extreme” is put in here as an equivalent concern of equal weight.
This is elaborated further, again in a very revealing way in which climate change activism is defined as arising from an “Anti-establishment philosophy that seeks system change…” Given that the “establishment” and “system” that we have is heading for a global temperature rise of 3-4 C by the end of the century – with everything that flows from that (not least melted ice caps) – that we are in the middle of the 6th mass extinction, that we can see the effects of climate change around us now and the future is closing in like a trap; why is it the “system” and the “establishment” that they instinctively seek to safeguard – not the futures of everyone threatened by it? This is of a piece with the use of public money to pay for under cover police officers to infiltrate non violent environmental campaigns under assumed identities; sometimes forming relationships and fathering children with unsuspecting women activists – in a way that is never held to account by any values at all – let even “fundamental”, “British” ones.
The rapid retreat from this classification shows that they can’t get away with this kind of labeling as a way to inhibit the climate change movement as yet. But it also raises concerns about the Prevent approach in general.
Guilt by association
During a Prevent INSET at a school somewhere in North London a couple of years ago – one of those after school staff meetings at which a course that is supposed to take a whole day is rushed through in a one hour “death by” power point presentation for a room full of teachers who are in that fresh, receptive, alert state of mind always in evidence after a day’s teaching – the trainer, who was quite good as these people go and put a lot of emphasis on the growing threat from the far right, noted that in some parts of the country the biggest terror threat was from “vegans.” What he meant to refer to was the physical force wing of the animal rights movement, but the verbal slip indicates two things.
That the issues involved in generating people prepared to take violent action to force change are only seen as the context for the actions, not as issues of wider concern that mostly DON’T lead to people taking violent actions. Vivisection. Animal rights. Invasions of other countries. Military violence. Discrimination. Unequal rights. Racism. All are issues that demand and deserve open argument. Feeding back from the actions to the ideas, and putting those ideas solely in the context of “safeguarding”, freezes necessary debate and argument, making them a matter for enforcement and suppression ; which is more likely to bottle up people at risk than allow the exploration of worries, concerns and fears in a safe context with trusted people.
That a term that includes a wide set of people – in this case “vegans” – can be used as a short hand term for “terrorists” and thereby implicitly brands the whole lot of them. The trainer was very clear about this in the case of violent Jihadis, often referred to simply as “Muslims”. A nudge on this to a small group of public sector workers is all very well, but this usage is common in the media, which frames the discourse of most people. The far right are usually correctly referred to as fascists or racists. Never as “white people”; which would be the equivalent. In their cases of course, they are often individualised, or seen as individuals with mental health problems not part of a movement: especially by newspapers that have encouraged their fears and hatreds and could be seen to be complicit in their actions.
Fundamental? British? Values?
Napoleon’s Foreign Minister, Tallyrand, once remarked that the chief characteristics of the Holy Roman Empire were that it was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire. “Fundamental British Values” can equally be characterised as neither British, nor Fundamental, nor Values.
These – central to Government’s Prevent Strategy – require a closer examination because there is a statutory duty on public bodies not simply to respect them, but to promote them, and somehow quantify the impact of doing so.
When initially asked to define the sorts of things that might be considered “Fundamental British Values”, then government Ministers like Eric Pickles came up with things like “the queen and red buses”; which are not values at all; more images from tourist postcards. The real concern of government – it seems from this -was nothing to do with “values” at all, but just to draw on emotional signifiers of loyalty to a creaking established order.
Nevertheless, the values specifically listed (and for which public servants are accountable by law rather than ministerial prejudice) are
the rule of law,
and tolerance for those of different faiths or beliefs.
Most sets of values that emerge from genuine historic events come in threes (with only one of them as a phrase) whether its France’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, the US constitution’s Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, or, indeed, Superman’s Truth, Justice and the American Way. These have the advantage of being memorable and with a historical resonance. They tell a story. There is something rather stodgy, bland and committee like about this list of one word and four phrases; and an ambiguity in the last two points. The need to include “tolerance” as a bottom line indicating that “respect” might be too much to ask for in some cases.
Nevertheless, lukewarm as they are, these five points are presented as timeless, unchanging and unquestionable truths. Set in stone just like the 10 commandments… or possibly the Asda price promise. So it was, is, and shall be. Permanently, forever.
Historically they are not “fundamental” at all – in the sense of being built into the foundation of the state. They were not truths that were held to be self evident in 1707 when the Act of Union absorbed the independent Scottish Parliament into Westminster. This was not a foundation on any kind of liberating ideals. It was a deal to set up England and Scotland as a joint colonising enterprise – after the failure of the Darien expedition convinced the Scottish ruling class that they couldn’t build an Empire on their own.
Empires are not founded on mutual respect, and tolerance is often is short supply too. The 100 years after the establishment of Britain were the peak of the Slave trade and the colonisation of India. The state brought into being by that Act had religious discrimination against Catholics built into its foundation.
Democracy had nothing to do with it. It was an oligarchic monarchy with no popular sovereignty.
Individual liberties and the use of the law to defend them had began to be established with the 1679 Habeus Corpus Act, but as a general principle had to be fought for in tumultuous struggles throughout the ensuing century and the laws that ruled hung the poor in great number for crimes born of poverty.
The point here is that none of these are inherent or single edged- “the birthright of free born Englishmen (sic)” as conservatives would have us believe – all are the result of struggles. Nor is the current settlement either perfect or fixed. Nor are these struggles over. As they say in France “La lutte continue!”
Setting up a set of officially sanctioned values seeks to freeze society in their image. Thus far and no further. The government would like us to treat them as articles of faith; and boxes to be ticked with no further thought; especially given that the “training” is a rushed online exercise carried out by frazzled people with too many other things to think about to properly reflect on what they are skimming.
However, if we are to keep faith with History, we have to look at them as a living and necessarily malleable partial settlement of unresolved political conflicts.
Its probably best not to ask all of these questions to a trainer if you want to avoid being referred yourself, but obvious questions that can be asked of each of them should be borne in mind by anyone having to be trained.
to what extent they are actually characteristic of contemporary British society and do they apply to everyone equally?
how fundamental they are to it?
to what extent are any of them are qualified, and if so what by?
and sometimes to what extent do they contradict each other?
“And it’s through that there Magna Charter, As were signed by the Barons of old,
That in England to-day we can do what we like, So long as we do what we’re told.”
Taking it for granted that democracy, rule of the people for the people by the people (Abraham Lincoln, unfortunately an American but no one from Britain has put it better) is a good thing, to what extent can this be considered fundamental to the British state (or the states that currently make up the UK) today, in their domestic history and history of overseas Empire? Those who argue that democracy is essential to its character at least have the obligation to tell us
At what point did we become democratic enough for the idea to be considered fundamental? 1215 when the Magna Carta was signed? 1649 when Charles 1 was overthrown and executed? 1688 when James II was overthrown? 1832 when Parliament was reformed? 1867 when the vote was extended to (some) working men? 1928 when the vote was extended to women?
Was democracy fundamental to ANY of the Acts of Union that formed the UK?
How did this democracy come about?
Who was fighting for it?
Who was opposing it?
Do we currently have a fully realised democracy (both in constitutional terms and more broadly to what extent are the decisions made reflective of popular will or needs and to what extent to they reflect imbalances of power or wealth)?
Can we be more democratic than we are? If so, how?
Are the current forms of the British state the last word in democratic participation and to what extent to they embody – and to what extent deny – popular sovereignty?
Is not the right to have an argument about both the history and the current reality a hard earned democratic right?
The Rule of Law and individual liberty
“What you’re saying is that there’s one law for the rich…”
“Oh no! There’s FAR more than ONE law for the rich.”
These also look smooth on the surface, but when you examine them there are a lot of interesting questions which make them more problematic and therefore more alive.
To what extent does the rule of law conflict with the notion of individual liberty?
What are the constraints on individual liberty, and are these primarily codified by law?
To what extent is there are shared set of social mores and accepted ways of getting along without recourse to law; and if so what are they and where do they come from?
Who makes the laws, and who enforces them?
Is our current legal system equally accessible to all individuals and if not why not?
Is there a right of conscience to act “criminally” for the greater good? What might the parameters of that be? Anti-war protesters have been known to break into BAE factories to smash up fighter bombers about to be sold to dictatorships. Their defence was that they were committing criminal damage to save lives. They were acquitted by a jury. On the other hand, a recent City of London Police anti-terrorist exercise bracketed terrorists with Occupy and Environmental protesters; which is another way to look at it and could be where this legislation is leading us.
Isn’t part of living in a democracy that people argue about what laws are right or just?
Isn’t part of the rule of law the recognition that people will sometimes feel oppressed by specific laws, or the people who enforce them, and have a right to argue and organise to change them?
Are all liberties individual, or do some apply to collective groups (Companies, unions, protected groups in equalities legislation etc)?
Is it compatible with individual liberty for the state to define ideas as criminal or pre-criminal, or would it not be better simply to apply John Stuart Mill’s principle that people are free to think, speak or do as they wish, so long as by so doing they are causing no harm to someone else?
Mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths or beliefs.
This is a very desirable value – that we can see implemented in practice every day on the front pages of tabloid newspapers and for thirty years in the journalistic scribblings of our current Prime Minister – which have never been less than respectful to women, gays, ethnic or religious minorities. Although this has been promoted in UK public sector since the Race Relations Amendment Act of 2002; after 2010 the coalition government removed virtually all equalities guidance from the DFE website within months of coming into office, which shows what they thought of it.
Indeed, David Cameron argued in 2014 that “multi-culturalism has failed”, then in the 2015 general election, the Conservative Party attracted the votes of high caste, well to do Hindus with a promise to take caste discrimination out of equalities legislation, so it seems that some discriminatory practices are more tolerable than others; even those that do not “unite us”.
This value is presented as though it is the norm. Looking at statistics for discriminatory patterns in housing, unemployment, employment prospects, employment by sector, school exclusions, stop and search, deaths in police custody, rates of imprisonment and poverty it’s clear that “mutual respect and tolerance” is little more than a self regarding denial of yawning cracks of inequality and injustice; which creates “a sense of grievance” and a “desire to change things”, that is entirely reasonable and justified; and therefore the Prevent guidance warns against it.
The giveaway here, which is itself an expression of the reality described in the last paragraph, is that the allocation of funding for the Prevent strategy is based on the proportion of Muslims in a given area. This puts a paradox at the heart of this value. Although there is mention of “far right extremism” as also an area of concern, funding is not based on proportion of votes for far right parties in any given area. Now that Tommy Robinson has joined the Conservative Party, along with the entire membership of “Britain First”, and Priti Patel is in the Home Office, we should not hold our breath that this might change any time soon.
British Values? When will Britain live up to them?
There is a further purpose in describing these as British values even though – as described above – they are not actually applied in Britain in any consistent way as lived realities.
A desire for democratic rights, mutual respect, individual liberty and the rule of law (in the sense of putting limitations on arbitrary power) is widespread across the world, and they are embodied (to a greater or lesser extent) in many countries. They are not specifically British as values. Posing them as if they were is to take them out of a human rights framework – which has to be struggled for – and to put them instead as a privilege of citizenship and a reward for loyalty. They take what we have fought for and they resisted, and shamelessly present them as though they were gifts from them to us.