Black Lives Matter protests force Britain to take a look in the mirror

Last weekend thousands took to the streets of Britain to protest the killing of George Floyd and voice their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Critics have suggested that Brits joining arms with the American struggle is unfounded and merely stokes tensions that don’t exist in the UK. However, these protests have larger ambitions than simply to avenge the victim of one injustice. Many feel it is time Britain came to terms with it’s own dark history, both old and new.

Across the Atlantic, Floyd’s death has precipitated the burning of American cities and illuminated once again the archaic nature of American institutions. Meanwhile in the UK, there has been an establishment effort to distance ourselves from facing similar hostility. Government minister Kemi Badenoch sought to throw cold water on the issue, saying in the Commons: ‘This is one of the best countries in the world to be a black person.’

These comments follow hard on the heels of the news that black men and women are twice as likely as their white counterparts to die from coronavirus. Someone who falls under such a statistic is Belly Mujinga, who was spat at while on duty as a railway ticket officer, and later lost her life to Covid-19. The police have faced backlash for the premature closure of Ms. Mujinga’s case, but thanks to a vociferous campaign, this is to be reviewed by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The close proximity of Ms. Mujinga’s case to that of missing (now presumed murdered) Madeleine McCann has drawn stark contrast. While both cases are tragic in their own right, there is a notable chasm in effort and attention, paid by the police and media alike, to one over the other. McCann’s case has received police funding since she went missing thirteen years ago, while Mujinga’s was closed barely two months after her death.

Of course, this is not the first time the police have been accused of racial apathy. It is a little over twenty years since the Metropolitan Police were found to be ‘institutionally racist’ following the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Since then it is often suggested, as in Kemi Badenoch’s comments, that Britain has taken heed and is now a ‘post-racial’ society.

The numbers, however, tell a different story. Black people are nine times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched for drugs, despite using illegal substances at a lower rate. Black people are also far more likely to be victims of the use of force by the police. Around 12% of all instances of police force can be attributed to incidents involving Black people, despite their only constituting around 3% of the population of England and Wales.

The police, however, are just one institution – albeit a particularly powerful one – that seems to have a blinkered view of Britain’s racial history.

The current demonstrations have catalysed already substantial support for education reform in British schools. Proprietors of such ideas attest that schoolchildren are purposefully made unaware of the realities of colonialism and empire. A petition regarding this issue, directed toward the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson, has 180,000 signatures at the time of writing.

Education reform is not without its brick-and-mortar relevance. In fact, following the Windrush scandal, an independent review recommended, among other things, that Home Office staff be educated on the country’s colonial past.

Such a past is one worthy of comparison with the United States, given that America was born from the thirteen British colonies. In many ways, American history is British history. BBC journalist Emily Maitlis, however, had this to say on the current protests: ‘Our police don’t have guns, [Britain’s] legacy of slavery is not the same … it’s not the same is it?’

While Maitlis was likely playing devil’s advocate, she was appeasing those who seek to whitewash history and paint the British empire without foibles and as an evergreen ‘good-guy’. Such language fails to consider that like America, Britain acquired it’s riches through resource extraction and large-scale exploitation. Until we have come to terms with this reality, cases such as Windrush – aided and abetted by top-down ‘hostile environment’ policies – are doomed to be repeated.

Those at Black Lives Matter protests in London, Manchester and Bristol have stood in solidarity with those facing oppression in places as far and foreign as Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington DC. This, however, is not the first time Britain and America have occupied common ground with regard to racial injustice.

The Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963 – where a state-owned bus company was held to account for racist hiring policy – marked a certain synchronicity with the struggles taking place in the U.S. That same year, American civil rights leaders began to make headway too; most notably the march on Washington, and an iconic Martin Luther King speech that scarcely needs mentioning.  It is a shame that the leader of the Bus Boycott, Paul Stephenson, is yet to be celebrated in the UK as King and Malcolm X are in the States.

The parallels in history and progress between the two nations are evident. Therefore to turn a blind eye could be considered a break with tradition – one of standing together against systemic racism, in spirit if not geography. Just as in ’63, the Black Lives Matter protests seek broadly to unravel our privileged conceptions of race and power.

Aside from solidarity with George Floyd, the British public should be aware that it has many ingrained racial injustices on its own doorstep. Moving forward, the momentum of the Black Lives Matter protests can and should be used incisively to uncover them. A diversion in efforts toward the governments new discriminatory immigration bill might be a good place to start. 

UK’s false-start contact tracing has fatal consequences

The UK now has a worse death rate than any other comparable nation, bar Spain, according to the World’s Press. A Financial Times report released last week gives Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent assertion – that the upcoming track-and-trace system is ‘world beating’ – something of a grim irony. Such technology has proved effective in other countries, most notably South Korea, who contrarily have one of the lowest Covid-19 mortality rates in the world.

For South Korea, aside from being quick off the draw with regards to testing (by mid-March they had tested more than 270,000 people), they had realised the benefits of prudent use of mobile technology early. People who had tested positive were asked to input data with regard to their movements, aided by GPS and credit-card transaction tracing.

Such an approach has caused a collective skin crawl in the West, who’s leaders and populations alike lazily ascribe notions of totalitarian surveillance to the Asian continent as a whole. It is worth noting that such technology has struggled to get off the ground not only in the U.K, but in the U.S too. The latter nation has seen many citizens insisting that lockdown impinged upon their freedom. There have been demonstrations in as many as 18 U.S. states, while the number of Covid-19 cases sky-rocketed, giving the U.S. the largest case count globally.

It is not just the U.S. who are guilty of patriotic exceptionalism, however. A number of critics have painted Mr. Johnson and his government as having a lackadaisical approach to the virus from the off. Back in February, a leaked government report suggested that coronavirus could claim as many as 500,000 British lives in a worst case scenario. The next week, after chairing his first COBRA emergency meeting, Mr. Johnson assured the public that while the spread of the virus was likely, the British people should ‘go about business as usual’.

Later, the Sunday Times would report that Mr. Johnson had in fact missed five previous COBRA emergency meetings regarding the status of the pandemic, and thus suggested a marked failure on part of the Prime Minister to take the virus seriously. On March 3rd, one day after the his first chaired COBRA meeting, Mr. Johnson said, ‘I was at a hospital the other night where I think a few there were actually coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody. I continue to shake hands.’ The Prime Minister’s previously unshakeable confidence has since been rattled by his contracting the virus himself.

Two days later, on the 5th March, the Prime Minister appears on ITV’s This Morning where he introduced the public to the idea of herd immunity. He said, ‘One theory is that you could take it on the chin, take it all in one go, and allow the disease, as it were to move through the population.’ But in reality the NHS simply didn’t and arguably still doesn’t hold the required capacity. To be fair to Johnson, it was his chief aide Dominic Cummings who was largely reported as the original proprietor of the herd immunity strategy – a man who later embroiled himself in scandal after breaking the ‘Stay At Home’ rules he helped to create.

Granted, after heeding warnings from scientists, Cummings distanced himself from the herd immunity approach, in favour of a policy of strict social distancing. However, this does not contradict the thesis of the Sunday Times piece, which suggested five weeks of battle-planning were lost due to government floundering.

It is true that while the government were juggling with herd immunity, another approach was considered: that of developing test-and-trace technology. This strategy, however, was abandoned in mid-March. One senior Tory was quoted in the Financial Times as saying, ‘There is a belief here that the things being done in Korea were too intrusive and wouldn’t be acceptable.’ He continues, ‘No one believed you could be totalitarian about this.’ Thus it seems we have more in common with the U.S. than we would care to admit.

Later, critics accused the government of missing an opportunity to deploy 5,000 contact tracing experts who were sitting pretty at local councils across the country. In fact, the Guardian reported in early April that such people were expecting to be called to action: ‘We are pretty good at infection control and contact tracing, it’s part of the job. We thought we’d be asked and we were shelving other work’ said one environmental health worker at a council in the north west.

This brings us to the first week of June, with Mr. Johnson’s ‘world beating’ contact tracing technology being resuscitated and made available to the public, two and a half months after it was initially buried. The only evidence available as to why it was buried in the first place, points to government paranoia and a need to maintain favourable polling amongst the public. Indeed this shows a willingness to place party priorities over public health.

Perhaps this too is the reason why the government is itching to unravel lockdown procedures when as many as 324 people died just last Friday. As of Monday the 1st June, Brits are able to mingle with up to five other people, and elite sport is to return behind closed doors. This is despite warnings from scientific advisers that it is too soon to lift lockdown.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and formerly of the World Health Organisation, has said this of lockdown easing: ‘Test, trace and isolate has to be in place, fully working, capable of dealing with any surge immediately, locally responsive, rapid results, and infection rates have to be lower.’ Whether the track-and-trace technology will be effective is yet to be seen, but the UK’s infection rate remains high.

The UK government would do well to consider that both Germany and South Korea have seen an upsurge in cases since public life has resumed. Spain, the only nation with a higher death-rate than the UK, extended their state of emergency after a rise in the death toll was caused by easing lockdown measures. Britain, like the U.S., has so far acted with a crisis strategy largely informed by isolationism and exception. Critics will therefore continue to be suspicious of the UK’s ability to follow the example of other nations.

The consistent evocation of war-time rhetoric and Churchill-like stoicism by the UK government has done little to quell something as faceless and apolitical as an airborne virus. This is mirrored in the U.S, with the virus being personified as an affront to individual freedom – an idea further perpetuated by the twitter ramblings of President Trump. With the U.S and the U.K topping the Covid-19 death-charts, and both proving to have ineffective crisis strategies, it is worth asking, what makes us so special?

 

Post-coronavirus recession will test Starmer’s allegiances

The adults are back in the room was the phrase being used by the Westminster commentariat following the return of Prime Minister’s questions in the last week of April. Britain’s new opposition leader, Keir Starmer, has since been lauded by those on the Right and Centre-Left alike for his amiable demeanour and oratorical flair. Most frequently, however, he is branded with a label that reads electable. Regardless of the condescension that aims to paint his predecessor (as well as the popular movement that came with him) as unworthy of the hallowed halls of Westminster, there appears an obvious blind-spot on the part of the media as to what Starmer represents.

It is hardly a secret that for large swathes of the population, the elite have come to be perceived as purveyors of inequality. The suggestion being that after the events of the 2008 banking crisis, the establishment were at least complicit in allowing certain communities to wallow in destitution while financial hubs such as London thrived. In the decade following that recession, Britain’s billionaires saw their net worth double, while the income of many of the rest stagnated or even decreased. Thus, the notion that austerity is ultimately a political decision with consequences from which some are exempt begins to hold traction.

But not all establishment figures are billionaires, so why have our technocrats been moulded into political scarecrows? In his book Nervous StatesWilliam Davies speaks of the way knowledge and wealth have become more intertwined. He says: ‘Under industrial capitalism, there were those who got rich and there were those claimed to know best. Today, the privilege of knowledge and wealth reinforce each other: highly educated consultants, lawyers and investment analysts are also the main beneficiaries of capitalism.’ For much of the nation, Keir Starmer is seen as a continuation of such ideas, and lacks the impetus for real change.

The Brexit vote can in part be considered a revolt against technocratic rule. The mantra advocated by the remain campaign can largely be reduced to – ‘things can get worse’. For those who had seen their wages fall in real terms, while their communities were stripped bare by austerity, the Brexit vote was a way of re-entering the conversation. Similar discordance can be seen in the tendency to explain economic well-being through the use of aggregate statistics. For many years GDP (gross domestic product) statistics have implied that the UK is a prosperous nation, without ascribing nuance to the regions that have fallen behind.

The use of statistics as a way of assessing the health of a nation doesn’t hold water when the nation itself is split along economic lines. Average wealth statistics have long been used by those who seek to signpost the supposed success of unabashed free-marketeering. When a BBC newsreader tells a resident of Tilbury in Essex (among the top 1% of Brexit voting regions) that they are getting richer, they are forced to take stock of their reality and conclude they are being lied to. Thus, a narrative that people have been able to weave for themselves, that explains their situation more accurately, is one of nationalism. In the moments following his 2019 election win, with some justification Boris Johnson thanked his new supporters for ‘lending’ him their vote.

On the horizon sits another recession, forecast to be of even greater stature than the 2008 banking crisis – and it is how Labour seeks to pull the UK out of it that will illuminate their desire, if any, to win back their traditional voters. Replicating the approach to economic recuperation seen post-2008 will only pry open the cultural chasm further, leaving a space to be filled by charlatans and demagogues who seek to abet people’s resentment. In the aftermath of the virus, there will likely be those who try to convince us that the antidote for economic ill health is to free the economy of red tape and to bail out the multinationals. In this case, Starmer’s response should be uncompromising. Whether it is or it isn’t, his true character will at last become apparent.