Lubov Chernukhin backs the Tories

Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Russian ex-finance minister Vladimir Chernukhin, recently became the biggest female donor to any political party in the United Kingdom. Her total contributions amount to over £1.9 million in the last six years.

Lubov herself is now a British citizen and has every right and entitlement to donate to a British political party. Russian state interference in the British political landscape, on the other hand, is understandably concerning. This concern was reflected by the UK government itself with a report conducted in 2019 into possible Russian interference. The failure of the British government to release this report, since its publication in October, has led many individuals both inside and outside the government to question the findings and the reason for its non-release. One can only presume that it confirms suspicions that Russia intervened in the UK referendum on Brexit and the government therefore wants to avoid its release, in case that the Brexit issue is brought back to centre stage.

Transparency is vital in politics, both in order to fully understand the possible influence and sway that money exerts on politicians and the political agenda, as well as to understand what possible external pressures have been placed on the electorate.  Britain has a greater degree of transparency regarding the source of donations to political parties than most countries. However, Britain lacks transparency with regard to outside interference in the political process. 

Lubov Chernukhin becoming Britain’s largest ever female political donor is quite an accolade. Attempting to research and understand Lubov Chernukhin’s past is difficult. Of Russian heritage, she attained British citizenship alongside her husband, Vladimir Chernukhin. Mr. Chernukhin held the role of deputy finance minister from 2000 to 2002, in which “he had ‘regular meetings’ with Putin“. During his career, Mr. Chernukhin became a close ally of Kremlin critic Mikhail Kasyanov, who was removed as prime minister in 2004 by Putin’s government.  After an alleged falling out, Putin stripped Mr. Chernukhin of his role, prompting Mr. Chernukin’s move to the UK to escape the possibility of arrest

Lubov Chernukhin’s career path is more difficult to explore. By profession, she is presumably a banker and consultant. She is currently the director of a property firm called Capital Construction And Development Ltd. Under her maiden name, Golubeva, she had previously acted in the role of director for five other companies, all of which have been dissolved.

The couple’s primary residence is an eight million pound mansion overlooking London’s Regent Park, reportedly owned by an offshore trust. During a court case in which Mr. Chernukhin was involved, Justice Teare commented that it was obvious “that Mr. Chernukhin had prospered in Russia after the collapse of the USSR”. 

As Ms. Chernukhin tends to avoid publicity and does not give interviews, it is challenging to determine her current stance on Russia. Her husband, Mr. Chernukhin was indeed removed by Putin, and fearing arrest has not returned since, prompting the belief that he might be Anti-Russia. Regardless, he remains influential in his home country.  Luke Harding, a Guardian journalist, tweeted that in a recent legal battle, when asked if Vladimir Chernukhin “still had relationships with ‘prominent members of [Russia’s] establishment’ who were still in favour with the Kremlin”, his wife, Lubov Chernukhin, replied, “‘Today he still does, yes”‘. The legal battle was between Mr. Chernukhin and Mr. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who has remained in Russia,  regarding a dispute over property in Russia. If Ms. Chernukhin were not so reluctant to step into the media spotlight, we might better understand her motives which, one can only speculate, may be to ensure that the UK remains independent of the influence of a mother country from which, presumably, herself and her husband are now exiles.

Lubov Chernukhin’s political donation history is also a windy road. She attempted to give her first donation of £10,000 to the United Kingdom Conservative Party in 2012 which was initially blocked as she was declared as “an impermissible donor” by the Electoral Commission. Presumably, the reason for this was because she was not yet on the electoral roll. As a British citizen, however, she now has every right and freedom to make donations to political parties.  The Conservative party took advice about her donation and ultimately determined that there was no reason not to accept it. Since then, she has donated over £1.9 million, in 54 different cash payments, making her the biggest ever female donor to any political party in the United Kingdom. These donations have often provided her with face time with Conservative party leadership. Such occasions have included £160,000 for a tennis match with Boris Johnson and David Cameron in 2014, £135,000 in February 2019 for dinner with female cabinet members including Theresa May, and £45,000 for a tennis match with Boris Johnson in February 2020. The donations are all public record, the contents of their conversation are obviously not. But arguably, Ms. Chernukhin has potentially become one of the most significantly influential figures in British politics merely because of her donations. In the first three months of 2020, Lubov Chernukhin has donated an additional £335,000 to the Conservative party.

Regarding the quite separate issue of Russian state interference in British politics, after it was revealed that the Kremlin had interfered with both the 2016 United States election and the EU referendum, an investigation was ordered to look into possible Russian interference in the United Kingdom. It was finalised in March 2019, before being sent to Downing Street in October 2019. Conducted by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, it examined alleged Russian activity, including espionage, interference, and subversion, in the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 general election, citing evidence from intelligence services such as MI5 and MI6. Despite having the report since October of last year, Downing Street claimed that it could not be released before the December election as it could not go through the proper processes before parliament returned after the general election. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who chairs the Intelligence and Security Committee, confirmed that the report was cleared by early October and has not received a response despite “the longstanding agreement that the Prime Minister will endeavour to respond within ten days”, adding that in this case, there has been no response at all. It has still not been released as of June 2020. Calls are now being made by politicians for the release of the report and questioning the reason why it has not been published. Dominic Grieve has expressed concern that the results of the report would be pertinent to voters in the next election. 

The UK Freedom of Information Act of 2000 guarantees public access to any recorded information held by public authorities. Information that has been cleared and approved for the public eye should be readily available for those requesting it. No government can claim to be free from influence so it should be acknowledged and in order to be an open democracy, the responsibility for transparency falls on every member of the government. 

 

If Black Lives Matter – where do you stand?

Issues of the Week

We all have something to answer for – from God in his Heaven to you as you sit there in lockdown. What do you care when it comes down to it? To listen to William’s podcast click here.

HOWEVER MORE IMPORTANTLY: Everyone seems to be busy campaigning to tear down statues and blue plaques – alienating some in the process as well as obliterating part of our history. Instead why don’t they campaign to celebrate the greatest British warriors to end slavery?

William Wilberforce for instance. Where is his statue? Well there is one in his home city of Hull and there is a smaller one tucked away in Westminster Abbey. But there should be a proper one out of doors in Central London don’t you think?

You could argue that John Newton, the ex-slaver that became an abolitionist (and incidentally wrote the hymn Amazing Grace after he shifted over to the side of the great and the good) deserves a statue. After all he was the one that mentored William Wilberforce. But all he has is a large bronze bust somewhere in Ireland.

However this Cornish warrior against slavery nobody celebrates. Stick him on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square I reckon. He at least deserves a statue somewhere. Barrington Reynolds, the Cornishman who helped put an end to international slavery. Now there’s an unsung hero.  Looks a little strange but – What a guy. In fact forget the statue, they should make a movie about him:

BArrington-Reynolds

COVID-19 and learning gaps between children in the UK

COVID-19 has severely impacted the lives of disadvantaged pupils in the UK. Many are back at school this month, but plans for all primary schools to reopen before the summer have been scrapped. The UK’s high infection rate of COVID-19 means that schools must continue to operate with social distancing measures, and so most children continue to learn at home. While many expressed disappointment in the government’s initial plans to reopen schools, critics, such as the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Speilman, have pivoted to argue that they should not close at all over the summer. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of these two positions, it is obvious that there has been a disorganised decision making process, with plans failing to be discussed with unions, school leaders and teachers. A plan for schools moving forward that invests in economically disadvantaged children is necessary. 

The ability of schools to reduce disadvantage is particularly important for less affluent children, who show lower levels of school readiness and are less likely to benefit from enriching home environments. The longer schools are closed, the greater the risk of educational damage as responsibilities are transferred to parents. Like professional caregivers, parents should be involved in engaging children’s cognitive processes but there is a clear link between the resources parents have and the home environments they are able to provide.

The French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdiau offers some insights here through his theory of ‘capitals’, i.e. the resources an individual has access to. While schools provide ‘cultural capital in advancing educational attainment, some children remain at an advantage where they are able to access other forms of capital at home: beneficial social networks (‘social capital’) and financial resources (‘economic capital’). Capitals are also mutually reinforcing, so a child with access to ‘economic capital’ at home, for example, will be more likely to adapt to the school environment when they return in September. Schools could also play another role in reproducing advantage: the introduction of a grading system based on teacher assessment will likely underestimate the academic potential of poorer pupils, particularly those who leave their revision until the last minute. Relying on institutional providers to challenge disadvantage alone therefore involves overlooking the resources available to some families.

There are children who have nowhere to work at home, or have little to no online access to allow virtual study and lessons. The Department for Education has been unable to deliver enough resources such as iPads and laptops to aid learning, and gaps of school readiness and performance between children can be expected to widen. The role of institutional arrangements have always been limited, as they are undermined by what happens within households, but this is now amplified by the fact that most children are learning at home. Material deprivation within families needs to be addressed, and quality provision directed to disadvantaged children when they return to school or educational disadvantages will prevail.

 

The horrors of human trafficking during COVID-19

During this COVID-19 crisis, many feel isolated, “locked in” due to restrictions on their daily life – understandably. But what would the forty million trafficking victims worldwide say about the same situation?

It is not so long since International Sex Workers’ Day (02/06), so perhaps this is a good moment to examine the pandemic’s impact on sexually exploited people and other victims of modern slavery.

Human trafficking is the trade of people, both across and within borders. When a person is affected by this, he/she gets forced into labour exploitation, debt bondage and other miserable circumstances plus often gets one of the “DDD” (dirty, dangerous, difficult) jobs: This is modern slavery.

Perhaps trafficking should stop under a nationwide lockdown and increased police presence on the streets. However, luring and recruiting victims is still possible, even in their own home neighbourhoods, where they are still obeying travel restrictions. Instances have been recorded of the use of drive-thru and delivery services for the sexual exploitation of children. Others have been satisfying demand for sexual services delivered online by webcam. Additionally, the county lines (criminal exploitation of children selling drugs on the UK’s streets), are still active everywhere. Brothels operate underground. As recently as 22 April, British police found trafficking victims at four different premises in Westminster, London.

So, the trafficking business has adapted to the current situation and flourishes. Academics have identified three pillars which are the foundation on which this has been happening:

  • Firstly, current victims of labour exploitation need to cope with a worsening of the situation they already find themselves in.

Due to the pandemic, many healthcare services and trafficking survivors’ assistance centres diverted resources to deal with the enormous pressure from COVID-19. This limits the authorities’ ability to expose trafficking activities, identify victims and offer support.

The trafficked persons’ movement restrictions are aggravated by travel disruptions and the governmental order to stay at home. This leaves many vulnerable people isolated and helpless in the hands of their abuser.

Even if they can leave their house, debt bondage forces them to remain with their trafficker, who can now easily force them to do even riskier activities. Moreover, recession leads to low-cost production everywhere, forcing victims into extremely exploitative jobs simply to avoid the danger of homelessness and severe poverty.

Another important aspect of the situation is the way in which increased stigmatization can damage the mental health of trafficked people. Now more than ever, many trafficked people are seen as outcasts due to their living and working conditions: sex workers could easily spread the virus due to their activities, construction workers living very close together in labour “camps” (e.g. in the Gulf) have low hygiene standards, and so on.

  • The second pillar is that of the increased pool of people that can be exploited since many more people worldwide have become vulnerable due to the Coronavirus crisis.

As usual during international emergencies, support structures change and break down. Since COVID-19 has exacerbated social inequalities and unemployment has risen, disadvantaged people are ideal victims a trafficker is looking for!

Let’s say you’re in desperate need of paying for your basic needs and someone proposes a cheap loan or an easy way to earn money – you might accept it, assuming that it’s only temporary. Even if you know that it’s far from a fair offer paying minimum wage, you’d take it since it can help you out of acute poverty!

So, the downward spiral begins, the victim becoming financially dependent on their respective trafficker and usually being threatened with violence.

Even in the absence of such external influences, really desperate people may take, for example, sex work into consideration. However, due to brothels being closed at the moment, prostitution is being pushed underground, making it more dangerous.

The next point is the increased risk of child exploitation – currently, children are mainly at home instead of attending school. This has three negative effects on their safety: they are more prone to online exploitation, abuse and grooming; they might be forced to search for money and food on the streets; and if the situation goes on for much longer, they could be at risk of child marriage in some countries.

This is very concerning, having the third pillar in mind:

  • Due to the pandemic, victim support services and law enforcement agencies are being disrupted in their usual work.

Recently, shelters for trafficked people have had to close due to financial pressure or high infection risk. Since donors turn away from them and governmental resources are being redirected towards the battle against COVID-19, some emergency networks had to issue requests for material support – not just for sanitizers or masks – but simply for food! This illustrates the severity of the situation.

Also, many governmental or NGO offices are closed leading to delays in legal proceedings. Immigrants who’d have to renew their documents might not be able to do so, but then, they cannot return to their country, either. This leaves them in a precarious situation.

To sum up, the remaining question is how can we tackle these problems? Researchers assume that if we invest to support victims adequately, we might still be able to stop a “trafficking epidemic”.

Most importantly, resources need to go directly to the most vulnerable in our society. This could consist of providing housing for victims, providing anti-trafficking workers with PPE and more generally, strictly enforcing minimum wage laws.

Clearly, it’s not easy for an individual to act against such a large-scale issue, but one way to help is to watch out for situations that seem suspicious and report them to police or suitable NGOs (e.g. unseen UK, hope for justice or the Red Cross) – they are grateful for every hint they receive! 

Image by sammisreachers from Pixabay

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.

 

 

Six in the Afternoon

Some of you may remember Joelle Manih and Ethan Jahan as the Producer and Director respectively of The English Hour broadcasts formerly hosted by NCF Secretary General, William Morris. They are both in lockdown as are most of us these days. This is an interesting short film, made by Ethan and starring Joelle, as their response to Covid-19.

Stronger UK-China relations? First try and understand China

In 2019, the United Kingdom ranked 9th among the People’s Republic of China’s top trading partners in terms of export sales. That is to say, the UK imported around 62 billion dollars worth of Chinese shipments in 2019 alone. The same year, the PRC ranked 5th among major trading partners of Britain, meaning Beijing imported around 30 billion dollars worth of British products. Against all odds, trade and investment have been peaking after Brexit, with the UK being the first recipient of China’s FDI (foreign direct investment) in the real estate sector in Europe since 2017.

There is more: England is a decisive pawn on the Chinese geopolitical chessboard. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a massive plan for infrastructure investments covering the route of the ancient Silk Road to promote trade, diplomacy, and people-to-people exchanges, to exert influence abroad and – according to some observers – to reshape the US-led global order into a Sino-centric one. It is no coincidence that the first-ever “Silk Road train”, inaugurated in 2017, connects London and Yiwu (one of China’s main production hubs). The BRI was also the main sponsor of the 2019 London’s Chinatown Chinese Spring Festival, signalling that China-UK relations go beyond business and trade to cultural exchange.

Looking at data, it seems clear that chances for the UK to thrive without dealing with China are shrinking. However, many in Europe are still sceptical about China being a responsible actor to be entrusted with large shares of power and influence over others. The reason is a legitimate ‘fear of the unknown’: the PRC is an unfamiliar country, geographically, politically, and culturally distant from Western liberal democracies.

Doubts on the eligibility of China as a partner worthy of trust have been the result of both warnings from the United States and lack of knowledge of the Chinese context. Concerns have been raised in many European countries about whether it is acceptable to promote closer ties with the PRC. But given its growing involvement in international affairs, it seems unlikely that – for the foreseeable future – any major country will be able to avoid doing business with Beijing.

What is suggested here is a medicine for uncertainty. That is a need to depart from binary Cold-War-logic in favour of a more comprehensive understanding of the Chinese context, beyond the domain of business and trade. Filling the gaps in knowledge of China’s civilisation, history, society, and institutions is essential to better understand the country’s current strategy and policy-making.

The Chinese are devoted students of Western history, philosophy, and political theory: without relinquishing their identity they managed to take over those aspects of Western thought that they believed would be beneficial to them. Greater understanding of factors of this kind would enhance the ability of Western governments to predict China’s behaviour and, possibly, to find a framework for mutual understanding under which to operate.

The PRC is experiencing impressive economic and technological development. At this pace, the capacity of China’s economy will outstrip the U.S. within the next few decades. Likely, the templates of economic – and eventually, political – power will be shifting from West to East. Greater knowledge of China will provide policy-makers with useful tools to promote national interests through an effective relationship with Beijing.

Furthermore, with power shifting from the U.S. to China, Europe might draw strength from acting as a mediator. In the geographic middle ground, European countries – especially the UK, given its traditional diplomatic ties with the United States – might be in a position to make the best of both worlds. Such a repositioning should start now and be consolidated over time if it is to be an effective reality at the time of the shift.

To this end, it is essential for the UK to get the big picture: if Brexit really does mean that a more independent Britain will have the chance to reboot its foreign policy and build healthier, equitable and ethical bilateral relationships with its international partners, then China would be a good place to start. For this to be possible, a holistic approach to China should be pushed forward to become the bedrock for a new topic of conversation within the English public discourse.  

 

Covid-19: Lessons from the East?

Are there lessons still to be learnt about the way the East has handled coronavirus? As Europe and the US adopt increasingly draconian measures to stop the spreading of the virus, Asia is slowly recovering. Within a similar period of time, the virus has made a greater number of victims in Europe and the US than in Asia. This imbalance is not only a matter of governance or national health systems – a lot of it is cultural.  

The People’s Republic of China, a country of 1.4 billion people, managed to contain the virus in about ten weeks reporting the first day without deaths on April 7th. Vietnam, one of the PRC’s neighbours and home to the first registered case outside of China back in January, has only a few hundred infections within its territory and, seemingly, no deaths. The government in Hanoi was even praised by the World Health Organisation for its performance. South Korea, one of the virus epicentres back in February, managed to slow down the spread and now has about 10,000 cases (one seventh of those registered in the UK) and only 222 deaths.

What made Asian countries’ response to the virus effective? Many have found an answer in the ability of governments to strictly control their citizens. This capacity is seen as the direct result of the presence of authoritarian governments – China, Vietnam – or authoritarian traits within formally established democracies – South Korea – and has been dismissed in the West as something neither possible nor desirable. But this view might be simplistic. As much as a country’s policy-making reflects the nature of its political systems, political arrangements result from the mindset, customs and social behaviour of a people or a society. To put simple, politics rests upon culture.

There are a few societal behaviours shared by China, Vietnam and South Korea that are absent in the Western cultural tradition. First, the general tendency to value the collective over the individual. This fundamental premise is a legacy of Confucianism and an underlying concept to the notion of citizenship in China and culturally proximate countries. Confucius preached that the virtuous individual should be willing to sacrifice for the family, the neighbouring social circles, and ultimately the state.

Valuing the collective over the individual is a two-fold asset at a time like this: first, the Chinese, the Vietnamese and the South Koreans have arguably had less troubles than Europeans or Americans in accepting the idea of suffering any form of discomfort – isolation, in this case – for the common good. As such, they proved more disciplined. This is evidenced by the Chinese experts that were sent to Europe to help fighting the virus: “The main problem is that too many people are still out in the streets,” they declared to China’s State News Agency.

Secondly, the importance conferred by the individual on the state, combined with centralized policy-making, allowed the government to adopt cost-cutting strategies to deal with the crisis. For instance, central governments in China and Vietnam have been able to elude market rules in order to prioritize production of certain goods over others: this allowed to avoid the risk that key products – such as food, surgical masks, and sanitary products – get out of stock or become overly expensive.

Most European countries and the United States have been taking on some of the measures that proved successful in Asia, but recovery is nowhere near in sight. As Westerners, we feed into the idea that this imbalance is the result of the ideological premises of liberal democracy that grant citizens’ individual freedom instead of controlling and restraining them. This might be true. But on closer inspection, we might find that some aspects of existing liberal democracies exceeded those premises: undeterred individualism, the rule of the market, and the lack of state intervention, if unchallenged, may be our doom in the world of the future.

 

Covid-19 and Protagoras’ Paradox

This interesting reflection explains a lot about how the British Government were handling Covid-19 in the early days. It has been doing the rounds on the internet though we are unaware of the original source. The earliest source we can find for it is the Nigerian publication “City People”

Over 2000 years ago, in Greece, there was a lawyer named Protagoras. A young student, Euthalos, requested to apprentice under him, but was unable to pay the fees. The student struck a deal saying, “I will pay your fee the day I win my first case in the court”. Teacher agreed. When the training was complete and a few years had elapsed without the student paying up, the teacher decided to sue the student in the court of law.

The teacher thought to himself: ‘If I win the case, as per the law, the student will have to pay me, as the case is about non-payment of dues. And if lose the case, the student will still have to pay me, because he would have won his first case. Either way I will get paid’.

The student’s view was, ‘If I win the case, I won’t have to pay the teacher, as the case is about my non-payment of fees. And if I lose the case, I don’t have to pay him since I wouldn’t have won my first case yet. Either way I will not pay the teacher.’

This is known as Protagoras Paradox, which ever way you look both have equally convincing arguments, one can go either way in supporting the teacher or the student and would not be wrong.

Those of us in medical practice often come across such situations, either in making a diagnostic or therapeutic decision. One physician can recommend a course of treatment based on scientific evidence and another can recommend a diametrically opposite course again based on medical evidence. Right or wrong, but some merit would exist on both sides.

Often the physician himself is having an internal struggle to make a decision about the most appropriate course of action, Protagoras & Euthalos are arguing in his mind, to do this or to do that. The horns of dilemma are tearing him apart.

But what prompted this essay was a tweet by Donald Trump, ‘hope the cure is not worse than the disease’. L & G I hate to say, but I find some merit in this tweet. In our global attempt to flatten the COVID curve, I hope we do not flatten the global economy curve. The question is what’s the best way forward. One group recommends ‘total lockdown’ to break the transmission chain, based on evidence from China, they managed to control the spread of the virus by ruthless lock down and 3 months later they are showing that disease is controlled in Wuhan. On the other hand, the other school of thought is graded isolation & protection of elderly and very young and those with co-morbidities, let it spread amongst the young and healthy, after all the disease ultimately will be controlled when we achieve ‘herd immunity’. The medical community is divided in these two groups. To enforce complete lockdown or Graded isolation?

To complicate the issue the epidemiologists have joined the bandwagon with cacophony of statistical analysis. From Rosy to Dooms day predictions. If we don’t do a complete lockdown then a million people will die in 1 year. No say some more like 90 million will die in 1 year. Whose data analysis is correct. Some suggest do nothing, nature will take over in a few months and all will be well, they quote historical data to justify their recommendations. On whose inputs should we base our disaster management strategy.
Then come the economists with their doomsday predictions. If this continues till May our medical resources will be overwhelmed, Agriculture will suffer, food shortages will occur, production will come to a standstill. There will be an economic crisis of the proportions that world has not seen ever. So, break this lockdown nonsense and let’s get back to work as usual.

What will our political masters do. My guess is they will listen to medical experts, epidemiologists & economists. Then they will decide what course of action will ensure their survival, what will get them people’s votes and they will run with that. At present ‘Lockdown” finds favour with them. Boris in UK had to abandon the recommendations of the medical community about graded response, because the people’s perception became that our Government is not doing enough to protect us citizens. That means revolt against him. So, screw it, lets go with total lockdown if that’s what the people want. Gradually people will get tired of lockdown and demand- let life go on. Then with equally convincing arguments the governments will say the time has now come to lift the blockade, we have controlled the contagion, we have won.

Incidentally the Protagoras Paradox has not been resolved till date. Students in Law schools still hold mock trials and give arguments on both sides, without any resolution of the dispute.

 

The UK should not use Huawei’s technology to develop its high speed internet

The current coronavirus crisis originated in China and has become – quite naturally – the only issue about which most of us care. But there are other China related issues that affect our future, and the overarching crisis should not allow other issues to slip under the wire unchallenged. The most important of which, as far as the UK is concerned, is Huawei, as the following implies:

Huawei’s access to the UK’s 5G network is a political matter – one the UK government shouldn’t underestimate.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson allowed Huawei to be part of the country’s 5G network, although setting a strict cap of 35% on market share. The decision triggered criticism among Tories, as it was taken whilst ignoring US warnings of alleged links between Huawei’s administration and the Chinese Military. UK citizens may be wondering whether the country should use Huawei’s technology to improve high-speed internet. The answer is no.

Without detracting from Huawei’s technological capacity, it does not seem in the UK’s strategic interests to increase the involvement of the Chinese company in its 5G rollout. Aside from the alleged relationship between Huawei’s CEO, Ren Zhengfei, and the People’s Liberation Army, the reason that should keep Johnson from letting the company free access to the country’s 5G network is the USA.

The race to dominate tech and the cyberspace is part of the trade war between China and the US – a solution to which is nowhere near in sight. Choosing a partner to implement 5G broadband nationwide is thus a matter of picking sides: regardless of the deepening of China-UK relations, the US is still the island’s first trading partner – whereas China ranks fifth – and the US is a traditional political and military ally.

Americans, who are now in a phase of retraction from world economy under Trump’s leadership, might further hold back from engaging economically with partners they don’t consider trustworthy: if that is the case, fast-speed downloads and uploads allowed by Huawei’s 5G coverage might be more expensive than the UK can afford.