China appears at 14th on the list, with an overall score of 63, alongside Japan, Sweden, the Netherlands and New Zealand.
The USA is 23rd, with an overall score of 61, alongside Lithuania, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Belgium, Australia, France and Saudi Arabia.
The UK is down at 30th, with an overall score of 60, alongside Poland, Ireland, Slovenia, Kosovo and Kazakhstan.
This survey was carried out by Gallup during 2020 with “66,0000 women and girls (aged 15 and older) in 122 countries and territories and over 140 different languages to assess the multiple dimensions that contribute to women’s health.”
Lists of military spending are usually done in absolute figures.
Using these, the UK spends more on its military than every other country in the world apart from the USA, China and India. More than Russia, more than Germany. More than France. More than Japan. The sixth largest economy, but the fourth biggest military spender.
When you look at per capita military spending however, that’s the burden that that spending puts on each individual citizen, the UK comes in at number three.
For 2022 that looks like this for the ten countries that spend the most in absolute terms.
Per capita military spending
In US Dollars
So, the burden of military spending on every UK citizen is more than double that of every Russian citizen, and over five times that on every Chinese citizen. So, to match the Russian level of per capita spending, we could cut our expenditure by half. If we wanted parity with China’s spending per citizen, we could cut down to a fifth of the current level.
It should also be noted 1) that the top six of these countries, plus Japan, are allies of the United States and 2) there is not majority support in the UK to increase military spending. A poll by yougov/datapraxis in May which asked voters to choose between
(a) ‘The war in Ukraine has showed that my country should be spending more on defence, even if that means that we must cut money on other areas like health, education and crime prevention’, and
(b) ‘Despite the war in Ukraine, my country should not be increasing spending on defence as that could require cutting money on other areas like health, education and crime prevention’.
showed 36% against increased expenditure to 25% in favour.
The figures for absolute military spending that these calculations are based on come from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute for 2022. The figures for population are from UN figures for 2019, so the calculation won’t be exact, but aren’t likely to be significantly different.
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.
Sajid Javid’s bluster is the exact opposite of reality. The UK is 25th in the world in death rates. 182 other countries have done better in keeping their people safe – the first duty of government they used to say – and only 24 have done worse. So, perhaps, leading the world in dying with the virus might be a better way to put it.
Diane Abbot’s article in Labour Outlook pointed out that, when compared with the death rates in countries with an active covid suppression strategy, the UK has done spectacularly badly.
The UK has had a death rate of 2,274 per million.
Australia’s death rate is 112 per million.
New Zealand, just 10.6.
China, a minds bogglingly small 3.47.
In the press here, this is used as evidence that these countries have been quite mad in not letting their people die in numbers comparable to ours, with headlines like “China’s Zero Covid Tyranny” in the Daily Telegraph.
The single minded ferocity of this line is explained by a simple calculation that they really don’t want people to do, or think through.
If you multiply the per million death rate for these countries by 65, for the 65 million people who live in the UK, you get some very startling figures for how many people would have died had we adopted their policies and had a comparable death rate.
A comparable death rate to Australia would have meant that 7,280 people would have died here.
A comparable death rate to New Zealand would have meant 687 deaths.
A comparable death rate to China would have kept deaths to just 226 during the whole pandemic so far.
That looks like this.
This policy, that we have to “live with the virus” means an acceptance that we will continue to die from it in large numbers. It invites us all to participate in a gigantic piece of disavowal: to look straight at the reality that this virus is ten times as deadly and infectious as the flu and continuing to evolve, and pretend that it isn’t.
The Labour and trade union movement – despite the line of the leadership (Wes Streeting’s surreal “plan to live well with Covid”) should resist going along with delusions of a “return to normalcy.” There are always elephants in the room, but with this policy, there will be viruses too.
This is why the comments from Sajid Javid and others that “We need to learn to live with” the virus because “sadly, people die of flu as well” are so light minded and not comparing like with like.
Javid says that “in a bad flu year you can sadly lose about 20,000 lives but we don’t shut down our entire country and put in place lots of restrictions to deal with it.” In a good flu year, however, you can lose a few hundred, as we can see here.
The worst years for flu are far less lethal than any year we have had so far with Covid.
Given that it is
there is no reason to believe that the casualty rates “for many, many years, perhaps forever,” will be lower than they have been in recent months, during which the UK has, in Sajid Javid world, been “leading the way in showing the world how you can live with Covid”. Every one of the average of 359 people who have died every day in the last week lies in their graves as a rebuke to this vainglorious cynicism.
The notion of “endemic”, ie ever present, disease that the government presents is that it will be faded into the background, not too serious, predictable and fairly regular. The wild roller coaster of the successive waves we have seen, and will continue to see, is nothing like that. His remark that we will have to continue to employ “measures”, however “sensible, appropriate and proportionate” is a backhanded admission of that.
His comment yesterday in scrapping the Plan B safeguards that “We cannot eradicate this virus” (my emphasis) is an abject admission of failure. The ruling class in the West can no longer even claim to lead humanity.
They can’t eliminate it, because they are not willing to. China keeps managing to do it. Only 2 people died of Covid there last year and they have no intention of following the pressure from the US to abandon their zero Covid policy. If they did, between 3 and 4 million people would die. No doubt Javid would consider that a small price to pay.
The effect of letting the genie back out of the bottle as soon as possible will be seen soon enough. It will slow the downward trajectory in cases, hospitalisations and lead to more people dying than need to. Keir Starmer has called for the data on which this is based to be released. This is beside the point, as the overall data is available. More widely, the pretence that acting as though we are back to normal means that we are back to normal is simply deluded. Labour should break its complicity with this approach, which bakes in permanent crisis from here on.
Boris Johnson’s game plan is quite clear. Brass it out. Throw as many underlings under the bus as possible. Try to appease his Party’s right wing – who are the force behind trying to defenestrate him now with a series of increasingly wild policy pronouncements.
Go to war with Radio 4. As if the BBC weren’t right wing enough, with their long succession of lead political commentators who either were or might as well have been Conservative activists (Nick Robinson was in FCS in the 80s at the time they demonstrated in support of Nicaraguan terrorists and sported Hang Nelson Mandela T shirts; Laura Kuenssberg has often seemed to act as a straight conduit for the latest line from Tory central office). Perhaps the success of GB News is what they have in mind. A channel with very little appeal outside the Alt Right bubble.
Deploy the Royal Navy in the Channel against refugees seeking safety. This is either bluff – sounds decisive, means nothing – or murderous. What are they going to do? Heroically open fire on dinghies full of desperate people? Or ram them? Leave people to drown or save their lives?
Lift Covid safety measures early. Having learned nothing from every other time they’ve done this in the pandemic. Latest government measures have all had this finely tuned “not quite just in time” quality. Cutting the isolation period down to five days from seven means that a third of the people concerned could still be infectious. But, what the hell, it gets more people back to work. Being “past the peak” is not the same thing as being in a sufficiently safe space to open up. Just as “endemic” does not mean that an epidemic is any less lethal – its just means you’ve given up on trying to control it. Current safety measures – however half baked – have case numbers and hospitalisations going down. Deaths are a lagging indicator and still going up (38% up from the previous week on Sunday). Letting them go early means that they will have less effect, which means that the rate of decline will slow and more people will die. A small price to pay for the PM’s political career.
Push a Red Scare. The bizarre allegation’s from MI5 that Christine Lee has been conducting “illegal” attempts to “influence” legislators in the interests of the Chinese Communist Party – coming from the team that brought us the Zinoviev Letter, Spycatcher and Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq – without specifying what she did that was “illegal” nor charging her with anything. In fact, Priti Patel has admitted that Lee’s behaviour is currently below the criminal threshold to be prosecuted. In other words, what she is supposed to have done was not, in fact, illegal, as claimed by MI5. How it differs from lobbying by other countries, some of them supposed to be allies, has not been defined. Nor why this sort of thing is illegitimate in this case, but not in theirs. All part of developing a Cold War politics of paranoia. Yvette Cooper has, of course, gone along with the government’s approach. Priti Patel has warned that we can expect more of these announcements and floated a change in the law. I doubt any of this will target attempts to “advance the interests” of the United States which are part of the warp and weft of the UK establishment – from the Trilateral Commission to the 5 Eyes Intelligence alliance – which makes the UK security services a local auxiliary of those of the USA – to the Henry Jackson Society and Uncle Sam Cobbly and all. This appears to be an attempt to make it impossible for anyone in politics, academia or the media to suggest that maybe China gets some things right, without being accused of being an agent or a spy; thereby closing down the range of debate and setting up anyone raising awkward facts to be howled down by enraged mobs rather than acknowledge them. The decline of once unchallengeable US dominance really sets us up for a delirious period of irrational politics.
It also beggars belief that, at precisely this point, Keir Starmer and Wes Streeting think that the thing to do is to ride to Johnson’s rescue on Covid.
Streeting – in an article on Labour List – put forward “Labour’s Plan to live well with Covid”. Yes. he really did write that. A real contender for the backdrop for Party Conference, or billboards at the next election. Possibly more memorable than Starmer’s latest “This, That and The other”. The irony of this is that Streeting is putting this forward as part of a plan to show that Labour aims to win the next election on its own merits, not simply be the lucky beneficiary of the Tories falling apart. Clearly, the statesmanlike thing is to show how fit we are for government by being as much like them as possible.
At the same time Starmer’s speech to the Fabian Society echoed the government line. “We need to learn to live with Covid. He went on “I don’t want a government ever again to have to place tough restrictions on our lives, our livelihoods and our liberties.” Ever again. From here. Regardless of what happens? Close your eyes and it could be the Covid Recovery Group speaking. Restrictions (which might also be called safeguards) only have to be put in place when the virus is left to run riot). An active Covid suppression policy saves lives and allows economic recovery. Let the virus evolve into a new variant – as it will – and we’ll once again have picked up the card marked “Return to Hospital. Do not pass Go. Do not collect an economic recovery”.
To be fair to Streeting, his proposals actually spell out that constant safeguards (restrictions) are the price of accepting that “the virus is here to stay”. Some of this proposes a sensible wholesale roll out of a serious testing and tracing system, ventilation systems in schools, support for worldwide vaccination, proper sick pay for those having to isolate – which concedes that people will have to – and but also requires a permanent volunteer “jabs army” to relieve pressure on Health Service workers – instead of recruiting workers that will have to be paid (?!). All of this concedes that pressure will be constant from here, as will waves of jabs.
By contrast, a serious position that rejects complicity with the government and sets a course towards active Covid suppression has now been adopted by the Socialist Health Association, and this should be discussed up and down the Party and through the unions too to push a change of course and defy this fatal fatalism.
We note that:
1. The Tory Government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world, as well as causing thousands to suffer with long term health problems.
2. Its incompetence, corruption, repeated failure to take timely decisions, reliance on just vaccines and herd immunity, on top of its ideological neo-liberalism mean that it has utterly failed to protect the health and well-being of the people of the UK.
3. In October 2021, Parliament’s Health & Social Care and Science & Technology Committees’ joint report on the lessons learnt from the UK’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic described it as one of “the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”; and the Public Accounts Committee report on the government’s flagship test-and-trace system said that it had failed to achieve “its main objective” to cut infection levels and help Britain return to normal despite beinghanded an “eye-watering” £37bn in taxpayers’ cash.
4. The Government continues to delay its promised independent public enquiry.
We recognise that:
1. Vaccination, while essential, can be only one tool in the struggle to control Covid-19.
2. Those countries which have aimed at maximum suppression of the virus have the lowest death tolls and are suffering the least negative economic consequences.
3. There is no reliable evidence that it is possible to live safely with this virus as it mutates, and more dangerous variants emerge.
We call on the SHA and Labour Party at all levels to:
1. Reject the Tories’ ‘living with the virus’ approach, and instead support a comprehensive strategy to keep community transmission of the virus as close to zero as possible and ultimately to eliminate it entirely from particular geographic areas, based on tried and tested public health principles, including: An effective public sector local and fully-funded Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support (FFTIS) operation run by the NHS and local authorities, providing comprehensive financial, psychological, social and health care support and practical assistance to all required to self-isolate or shield. Continuing personal protection and mitigation measures including social distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing and good ventilation. An obligation for workplaces, educational places, hospitality, venues and other indoor public spaces to adhere to and publicly display Covid protection standards (especially for ventilation).Vaccine passes where appropriate. The right to work and study from home where possible and no requirement to attend the workplace unless strictly necessary.
2. Actively support campaigns and international efforts to tackle the pandemic on a global level through facilitating speedy vaccine deployment and production in all parts of the world In order to effectively campaign for this essential life-saving elimination strategy, we resolve to support Independent SAGE, to affiliate to the Zero Covid UK campaign, and to work with those campaigns.
The latest figures on UK cases, hospitalisations and deaths- released for 1 January – make sobering reading for all of us; but appear not to be giving pause to the Secretary of State for Health, who is doubling down on arguing that we have to “live with” the virus (forever) and the select breed of scientists in his camp, who argue that Omicron is a step towards COVID evolving into a “mostly harmless” “endemic” infection like the common cold.
The figures are stark – and do not support either that hypothesis or the government’s policies. The Omicron variant is now considered as infectious as measles, and it is capable of infecting people who have been vaccinated or who have contracted it before. And “endemic” does not mean “harmless”.
In the week up to 1 January there were an average of 162,000 verified new cases every day for England alone. This was a 47.9% increase on the previous week and is rising sharply.
Hospitalisations similarly rose by 49.9%, with an average of 1,915 new admissions a day, again on a sharply rising curve.
Deaths, a lagging indicator, were up by 31.1%, with an average of 151 people dying every day – again on a rising curve.
It is important to bear in mind that these new cases, which have baked in a following wave of hospitalisations and deaths, were picked up during the Xmas week after a significant additional wave of people getting their third vaccination.
Relatively few people have been at work.
No schools or colleges are open.
Relatively few journeys will have been taken on public transport.
There has also been an 8% decline in the number of tests that have been carried out during this week – largely due to shortages of kit.
Projecting forward we can sketch out the likely impact in two weeks time. If 2% of identified cases end up in hospital, we’ll be looking at 3,251 daily admissions in England by mid January, just from the cases already identified (2% of 162,000).
With a sharp increase in social interactions coming from a large scale return to work from Tuesday, and schools beginning to reopen, with no further safeguards put in place, we should expect the upward spike to jag even more sharply upwards.
On 31 December there were 154 deaths and 1,915 admissions, giving a deaths to admission ratio of 1:12. Extrapolating this to the 3,251 admissions expected by mid January gives a death rate of around 270 a day (or 1,890 a week); and rising.
There is an expectation that this wave will decline again once it has infected all the people that it can. But, as it seems able to infect vaccinated people, and people who have recovered from previous variants, it has a very large pool of potential victims.
By February we will know if this wave has receded, and to what extent, or if it keeps on going.
Allowing a virus like this to become endemic and not stamping it out is a catastrophic strategic choice that means that, so far, the UK has suffered 30 times the number of deaths as Zero Covid China in absolute terms, and 629 times as many people per capita – and will suffer many more, with no prospect of an end to it.
The argument a week ago was that Ministers wanted “more evidence” before taking further safety precautions. The evidence seems to be in. How much more do they need?
A narrative in the media today that seeks to pre-emptively point the finger of blame at four of the G20 countries – Brazil, China, Russia and Australia – for a global failure to meet carbon reduction targets is coming from countries that have no leg to stand on.
While all countries need to sharply increase their commitments, and actions, they are not all starting from the same place.
People in China and Brazil might feel aggrieved to be lectured by the UK, which has a worse per capita emissions figure than them; and even the Australians might feel a bit piqued if criticised by the USA.
It should be noted that these are carbon emissions by domestic production. Countries like the UK which have offshored a significant slice of manufacturing have a significantly higher global impact. In 2016, only 54% of the UK’s carbon footprint was domestically sourced with the remaining 46% coming from emissions released overseas to satisfy UK consumption. Ministers tend to be very quiet about that. While China, which has a lot of manufacturing, has a lower footprint through consumption.
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.