Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, 2021
The first article in this series looked at the ‘domestic’ role of the British monarchy, suggesting that they served as a ‘counter-revolutionary backstop’, a feudal remnant kept artificially alive in order to prop up bourgeois rule through the bypassing of parliament and the establishment of rule by decree in the event of serious popular unrest and revolt. In a nation as deeply saturated with colonial wealth and outlook as Britain, however, this is more of an ‘insurance policy’ than an active and ongoing role. In the realm of foreign policy, however – where the revolutionary overthrow of Britain’s colonial proxies is a real and ever-present danger – their role is much more active and visible. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Arab world.
Following the taxonomy deployed by the legendary Ghanaian revolutionary, Kwame Nkrumah, the Arab states can be divided into two main camps: those which are under the effective control of the former colonial powers and their allies (which he termed ‘neocolonial’ states), and those which are not. In the former camp are states such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE, all of them creations of the British empire and to this day still controlled by the ruling families handpicked by Britain at the height of empire. The consolidation and reinforcement of the relationships between Britain and these families, and the shoring up of their power, is a core part of the role of the British royal family, and much of their time is taken up with hosting and visiting these families. This is especially important at times when their rule is under threat, providing an expression of solidarity at the highest level, an assurance that the British state will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with whatever repression is deemed necessary to hold onto power.
Whilst this symbolic royal solidarity is offered to leaders of Britain’s neocolonial proxy states the world over, it is the relationships with the ruling families of the Arab world specifically that are considered to be paramount. To understand why this is so, it is essential to appreciate the fundamental importance of Arabia both to the neocolonial system – the channelling of wealth generated in the global South to the western states – in general, and to British economic and political power in particular.
The Gulf region’s importance to the neocolonial world system derives primarily from its strategic location and its energy resources. Even before the discovery of oil, the region was particularly coveted by the British state due to its proximity to India. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 sent British officials scurrying for control of the Arabian peninsula in order to close the Gulf to the French navy; to this end, the first Anglo-Arabian treaty was signed that year, with the Sultan of Muscat. Others followed soon after, such that the British were virtual hegemons in the region by the middle of the nineteenth century. The thrust of these treaties was always the same – British security guarantees for the ruling families in exchange for British control of their foreign policy, with securing the trade and military route to India the fundamental objective. Urgency was added to this aim in 1911, when Winston Churchill decreed that the navy would switch from coal to oil, meaning that not only British economic strength, but British naval power too, was now dependent on imports from the East (which, since the opening of the Suez canal in 1882, could now make their journey to Europe purely by way of cargo ship through the Red Sea).
This geostrategic imperative for British control of the Gulf region remains operational today. Three of the world’s eight ‘transit chokepoints’ – narrow waterways through which a large proportion of global trade passes daily – surround the Arabian peninsula – the Suez canal to the Northwest, the Strait of Hormuz to the east, between Arabia and Iran, and the Bab el-Mandab Strait to the west, linking Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti. Control of these chokepoints is considered crucial, therefore, not so much to British energy security (as the Gulf region supplies less than 4% of Britain’s oil and only 13% of its gas), but to Anglo-America’s ability to control the flow of energy to other countries – in other words, to the leverage provided by such control. The ability to cut off energy supply to whoever it chooses is a key element of western global power. As Bush advisor Zalmay Khalilzad put it back in 1995, “the US position in the Gulf…helps the United States to prevent the rise of another global rival. And should one arise, Washington’s position in the Gulf would be a great advantage.” With East Asia, in particular, increasingly dependent on energy imports from the Middle East, it is easy to see how control of these chokepoints could be used as another weapon in the West’s escalating economic war against China.
Yet the strategic location of the Arab world is only part of the story. The other key element is oil, and in particular, the link between oil, currency and global power. In his book The City, Tony Norfield identifies the international status of a country’s currency as one of four factors essential to global power, with the status of sterling thus crucial to Britain’s continued imperial role. And the value of sterling fundamentally depends on Gulf oil wealth.
This was already true in the immediate postwar era when “maintaining the strength of the pound sterling was an absolute strategic priority for British policymakers… and Britain’s interests in Gulf oil were crucial to London’s success in this regard.” (David Wearing, paraphrasing Steven Galpern.) Back then, taxes paid by British-owned oil companies like BP and Shell in Iran and Kuwait helped finance the government’s domestic spending, whilst the foreign currency they earnt allowed Britain to finance imports without building up a trade deficit, as well as building up reserves which could be used to defend the pound when necessary. They also, of course, allowed Britain to import oil without using up precious foreign reserves; all of which helped keep sterling’s value from collapse.
Following the oil crisis of 1973, when oil producing states turned to western banks to house their newly acquired petrodollars, however, a new role began to emerge for Gulf wealth. Says Wearing, “As well as direct investment in the British economy and investment opportunities for British industry in the Gulf, Whitehall sought a wider influx of surplus oil revenues into the financial system, whereby recycled petrodollars would play a similar stabilising function to the recently expired Bretton Woods system of managed exchange rates.” By the end of the decade, those banks were the repositories for $154billion of petrodollars. This new source of capital allowed for a fundamental transformation in the structure of the British economy, and a new type of imperialism – neoliberalism. Whereas the imperialism of Lenin’s day had been predicated on the export of capital by imperial states based on a manufacturing economy, this new type came to rely on the import of capital, in turn facilitating the ‘offshoring’ of production to the global South.
In an excellent article on the blog paradigmchange.net, neoliberalism is described as an economic model that is predicated on a shift “from production to finance” and “based on consumption not accompanied by an adequate level of production…The resulting shortfall in income needed to sustain consumption is then replaced with debt, and the trade deficits are paid for by attracting capital into the City.” Imperialism has always been parasitic, but neoliberalism, based on the influx of consumer goods without any corresponding production of exports, is openly and brazenly so – and Arab wealth is essential to the financing of this parasitism. Whilst the capital imports which finance the debt on which neoliberal consumerism is based comes from all over the world, a significant amount comes from the Gulf. In 2012, UK Foreign Office minister Lord Howell claimed that the (Qatari owned) Shard was “the tip…of a very large iceberg” with “ a significant proportion” of GCC capital inflows “channeled into financial assets.” Kuwait and Saudi Arabia each have around £100billion invested through the City of London, with another £30billion from Qatar. It recently emerged that Gulf wealth is considered so important for Britain’s financial health that the UK government had established a secret Whitehall unit – Project Falcon – to attract investment from the UAE alone. Tony Blair was a lobbyist for the group. Says David Wearing, “on the status of the pound sterling, it is clear that Gulf capital inflows make an important indirect contribution by helping to maintain the strength of the pound, and thus its attractiveness as an international currency. This is because, on the balance of payments, the GCC region plays a very significant role indeed… on these key measures, the Gulf region is not merely important to the UK compared to other leading economies (such as the BRICS) but important even compared to major economies in the global North.” Put simply, Gulf capital shores up the pound enough to offset the potentially destabilising impact of ever growing mountains of household debt. Keeping Gulf wealth flowing into the counting houses of the City of London, then, is an essential prop for Britain’s ailing imperial economy. It is also a key mechanism by which the wealth and labour of the global South continues to be extorted by the West, both through the horrifically exploited and abused South Asian migrant workforce on which all the Gulf economies depend, and through the money paid for Gulf oil from the world’s – and particularly Asia’s – heavily import-dependent energy infrastructure. In other words, the US and Britain’s ability to consume more than they produce is dependent on the threefold process of, firstly, the super-exploitation of Asian migrant labour in the Gulf economies; secondly, the channelling of global South wealth into the Gulf states through oil sales in western denominated currencies; and thirdly, the investment of the income thus gathered into US and British banks.
Ensuring this wealth continues to flow depends on two things: firstly, ensuring that the ruling families of the Gulf states continue to direct their Sovereign Wealth Funds to invest in the US and Britain, and, secondly, and more fundamentally, ensuring that those families are not overthrown. These two tasks are linked, for, alongside the economic incentives for Gulf investment in London (the Treasury and Bank of England’s commitment to guaranteeing ever rising asset prices through QE and house price manipulation) are the political incentives: bolstering the political and military alliance with the UK to ensure regime survival. And when the economic incentives are waning, as they seem to be daily, it becomes ever more imperative for the UK to ensure that those political incentives – securing the family dictatorships – are made very clear. This is where the Windsors come in.
One of the problems of the neocolonial era is that those charged with securing British interests abroad – the rulers of comprador global South states – must become masters at decoding the contradictory diktats of the western powers. One day, these gentlemen will proclaim themselves champions of liberal freedoms, willing to slaughter millions of people and burn trillions of dollars at its altar; the next, they will declare themselves as standing shoulder-to-shoulder against terrorism with the most illiberal states the mind can concievably imagine. How is an Arab ruler to know, the next time he feels the need to crush an emerging dissident movement, whether to expect a shower of hellfire missiles for his troubles, or a hearty slap on the back?
This is when a red carpet at Windsor Palace can be very reassuring, and it is no coincidence that the most frenetic hosting of high level state visits seems to occur at precisely those moments when Gulf autocracies are facing the most resistance from their own people. Over the past ten years, for example, when the Arab monarchies have confronted perhaps the biggest popular threat to their rule since the height of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 60s (when British-created monarchs were overthrown in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Libya), they have met with leading members of the British royal family over two hundred times, with Charles alone undertaking ninety-five such visits. Bahrain, home to the most important British and US naval bases in the region, is a case in point.
The al-Khalifas, the ruling clan in Bahrain for the past 200 years, originally hailed from Iraq, but were expelled by the Ottomans due to the disruption to trade caused by their frequent banditry. They briefly seized control of Bahrain in 1783 as Persian control began to crumble, but their falling out with the Wahhabi sect, on whom their power had relied, ended their rule twenty years later. It was only the treaty they signed with the British in 1820 – in which Britain guaranteed the family’s reign in return for their obedience to imperial designs – which restored them to power, and has kept them there – latterly with the addition of US support – until this day. Only gaining formal independence from Britain in 1971, the director-general of its state security directorate was a Brit – Ian Henderson, a former colonial official in Kenya – right up until 1998. Like the other Gulf states, their military and security apparatuses remain utterly dependent on US and British support.
Yet the al-Khalifas’ position has been permanently unstable, due to both their obvious role as a facilitator of subordination to foreign domination and their persecution of the majority Shia population. A major workers’ revolt was crushed by the British in 1965, whilst the newly-elected national assembly was closed down by the Emir after just two years in operation in 1975 due to its demands for women’s votes, the nationalisation of oil resources, and the expulsion of foreign bases. “Since then”, says the author of a recent academic piece on the country, “the rule of the Khalifa family has become increasingly authoritarian.” This growing anti-democratic trend has coincided with an increase in the visible support of the British royal family. In 1979, there was particular anxiety in Britain that the revolutionary wave sweeping Iran would extend to the Gulf Arab states. Thus, within weeks of the Shah’s departure, the Queen was duly dispatched on her first official tour of the region in a clear expression of British solidarity with the Gulf rulers against their people. Bahrain was a particular concern, but the schedule of cosy engagements with the Emir, including horse racing, a banquet at the palace, and a return dinner on the royal Yacht Britannia, would have done much to reassure the Emir that British support for his “increasingly authoritarian” regime was unwavering. In 1984, a “glittering banquet” was organised by the Lord Mayor of the City of London in honour of the Emir of Bahrain, attended by the Duke and Duchess of Kent on the Queen’s behalf; whilst Prince Charles and his wife visited Bahrain two years later to attend a banquet in the Emir’s royal palace in Manama. Here they presented the Emir with the Order of St Michael and St George, the highest honour that can be bestowed for services to British imperialism, neatly symbolised by its insignia of a white child standing on the head of a prostrate Black man.
But it was in 2011, when mass protests against the Khalifa dictatorship threatened to overwhelm the regime, that British royal support really went into overdrive. The mass movement that had been bubbling away since the mid-eighties broke out onto the streets in an unprecedented show of strength, involving at its height an estimated one third of the population, demanding the most basic political freedoms. The Khalifas brutally crushed the demonstrations, their weakness demonstrated by their dependence on Saudi armed forces to do so. The British government’s response was not only to step up the arms exports needed to shore up the regime, and to invite the country’s interior minister to the British foreign office to gather “lessons learnt from our experience in Northern Ireland,” but also to use the royal family to consolidate the Anglo-Bahraini alliance. In May 2012, King Hamad was a guest of honour at the Queen’s jubilee dinner at Windsor castle, and institutional links between the two families have been cemented by the Windsor and Khalifas’ joint sponsorship of the Windsor Horse Show. This event has become an occasion for an annual hobnobbing between the two heads of state, sharing the royal box and jointly hosting the awards ceremony. Commented the human rights group Reprieve during the 2017 event, shortly after the Khalifas began executing dissidents following a six-month hiatus, “Make no mistake, visits like [the Windsor Horse Show] gift the Bahraini government a royal cloak of acceptability, while the Kingdom mercilessly executes political prisoners and uses torture to extract ‘confessions.” It is a gift which is intentional, and clearly appreciated by the Khalifas; indeed, Hamad skipped a meeting with US President Obama in order to attend the show in 2015. In 2016, Hamad was given the most prestigious seat possible at the Queen’s ninetieth birthday dinner, right by her side. Yet even with the full might of British and US imperialism behind them, the Khalifas have still not been able to stop the Bahrainis’ courageous struggle.
Bahrain is not an exception; the wheeling out of the royals to bolster British-sponsored regimes threatened by popular movements has a long history. In 1952, as the ousting of the British-imposed King Farouk by Colonel Nasser in Egypt ignited republican sentiment across the region, King Faisal of Iraq was invited to Balmoral, the Queen’s private estate in Scotland, in a demonstration that Britain would stand shoulder to shoulder against these anti-monarchical currents wherever they emerged. It wasn’t enough to shore up Faisal’s rule, however; he too was ousted six years later. 1987 saw the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, the biggest uprising in the West Bank and Gaza since they were first occupied thirty years earlier, lasting until 1993. The Israelis responded with massive violence, including a policy of breaking the bones of child protesters; the royals showed their support for the repression with an official state visit for the Israeli President Chaim Herzog that same year. In 2007, when the Saudi criminal justice system was under unprecedented international scrutiny following the sentencing of two gang rape victims to imprisonment and 90 lashes the previous year, British approval for the regime was signalled by the King Abdullah’s invitation to a state banquet with the queen. “Contacts between our two families have been regular and close,” noted Elizabeth Windsor in her speech welcoming the king, adding that “Many British people have benefited from Saudi hospitality over the years as traders, experts and advisors,” a reference to the British military officers, arms traders, oil men and bureaucrats with whom the Saudi state is riddled. As the Arab Spring began to get under way in late 2010 – and with it, Britain’s twofold policy of using the protests as cover to launch wars against the region’s republican socialist states (Libya and Syria) whilst drowning in blood the peninsula’s anti-monarchical movements, all the region’s Arab collaborators were treated to the royal red carpet treatment: the Al Thanis of Qatar at Windsor castle in October 2010; the Queen in Abu Dhabi the following month; the Emir of Kuwait at Windsor castle in November 2012 and of the Emirates the following year, to name just the visits made by the Queen herself. The relationship with the al-Sauds was and is especially important given the Saudis leading role in facilitating Britain’s genocidal war against the Yemeni revolution.
What I am not saying here, it should be made clear, is that the British royals are somehow sullying themselves by association with these Arab ‘dictators.’ This is all-too-often the implicit line of the British colonial left when, for example, it protests such visits as those outlined above. If anything, the criticism is the other way round – that the real crime of the al-Khalifas, the al-Thanis and the Al-Sauds is their willingness to prostitute themselves and their countrymen to the diktat of the genocidal British state, to do the dirty work of empire. As for the British royal family, they are no different from their counterparts in the Gulf: an artificial creation of the imperialist bourgeoisie, made up of reactionary feudal remnants on life support whose role is the suppression of democratic freedoms wherever the masses threaten property relations. And yet, as the Yemenis, Bahrainis and Palestinians are proving daily, and as the Iraqis, Egyptians, Libyans and Iranians have long since shown, their days are numbered, all of them, and these childish institutional fantasies will soon reveal themselves as but castles in the sand. Godspeed the day.
Corbyn’s election as leader of British Labour party in 2015 was seen by much of the British left as their best chance to reverse the neoliberal imperialist trajectory of the British state for at least a generation. With a solid track record of opposition to war, nuclear weapons and privatisation, he was able to capture the imagination of a disenfranchised youth sick of corporate-sponsored politicians, quickly turning the Labour party into the biggest mass membership party in Europe, with over half a million members. Two years later, defying all predictions, Corbyn’s Labour managed to overturn the ruling Conservatives’ parliamentary majority in a snap election which was supposed to deliver them a landslide. The prospect of a Corbyn government, with a genuine commitment to reversing the inequality and militarism that had become the hallmark of the western world, seemed to be a real prospect – perhaps even an inevitability.
Yet the general election of 2019 saw the entire project come crashing down in flames. Boris Johnson’s revitalised Tory party, united around a Brexit deal which had escaped his predecessor, stormed back to power with the party’s biggest majority since 1983, stripping Labour of dozens of working class constituencies it had held for generations. Corbyn was replaced by Sir Kier Starmer QC, heralding a purge of Corbynites from the frontbenches. Within a few months, Corbyn himself had been expelled from the parliamentary party.
Explanations for the 2019 result came thick and fast, and their apparent variety obscured the basic argument which tended to run throughout all of them: “Corbyn lost because he didn’t do what I said”. For the party’s right wing, he lost because he was too left; for the left, he lost because he had not moved decisively against the right. For Brexiteers, he lost because of his support for a second Brexit referendum; for Remainers, because this support came too late. For many Corbynites, the result was simply down to contingent tactical mistakes and the hostility of the media; and for Tories, of course, it simply demonstrated, once again, the British people’s instinctive, and correct, abhorrence for socialism.
For socialists, the temptation is to forget the whole sorry saga and ‘move on’. But a serious postmortem is essential if we are to have any hope of learning from the mistakes (as well as the successes) of the movement.
At the outset of this process, it is essential to recognise some basic political realities.
Firstly, the UK is an imperial entity. The relinquishing of formal political rule over most of its colonies between the 1940s and 1970s (with the crucial exception of a string of strategically-positioned island territories such as Diego Garcia, the Caymans, the Falklands, the Virgin islands and around a dozen others) has not changed this simple reality. The basic contours of the world economy created by colonialism – a system of wealth transference from Asia, Africa and Latin America to North America and Western Europe – remain intact, and have indeed been strengthened and perfected in the era of neo-colonialism, to the extent that net resource transfers from the global South to the North today amount to roughly $3trillion per year – triple the value of goods and services flowing the other way, and twenty-four times the total value of North-South foreign aid. Much of this uncompensated wealth transfer is via ‘capital flight’, often illicit, and mostly facilitated through the network of tax havens located in Britain’s remaining island colonies.
Secondly, and contrary to the claims of the colonial left, this wealth does not only benefit a tiny minority. From the 1840s onwards, writes historian Eric Hobsbawm, a ‘labour aristocracy’ began to emerge in Britain – a privileged section of the working class paid above the value of their labour power out of the profits generated by empire. Since 1945, this labour aristocracy, argues Zak Cope, has come to encompass the entire citizenry of countries such as Britain. The domestic accomplishments of Clement Attlee’s Labour government – the NHS, social housing, the welfare state – were largely paid for by the intensified exploitation of the colonies, and colonialism has underwritten social democracy ever since. Even in the era of neoliberalism, which has seen welfare states decimated, the British population (at least up until the 2008 crash) has seen the value of its real wages increase, as intensified exploitation of the global proletariat has led to cheapening consumer goods.
Thirdly, Britain has consistently used its military might to protect and defend this colonial wealth transfer whenever it has been under threat. From the opium wars of the mid-nineteenth century, to the destruction of Libya in 2011, any and every country which has refused to collaborate with the precepts of the colonial global economy has met the wrath of the UK military, either overtly or covertly (with the exception of some Latin American countries, the war against whom has been largely been subcontracted to the US). It is largely for this reason that Britain has invaded no less than 90% of the current member states of the UN at some point.
Social democracy in Britain has always reflected this colonial reality; it has always been a fight over the spoils of colonialism, rather than a challenge to it. The need to uphold and defend the colonial wealth transfer at the heart of world capitalism has always been the singular point of agreement between governments of left and right in the UK. It was, after all, the Attlee government that initiated both Britain’s nuclear weapons programme and NATO, as well as sending troops to Greece, Malaya and Korea to drown their revolutions in blood and restore the rule of more pliant local aristocrats; and it was Tony Blair’s New Labour who spearheaded illegal Anglo-American aggression against Serbia and Iraq as well as sending troops to Sierra Leone and invading Afghanistan, for the fourth time in Britain’s modern history. All of these interventions, from Attlee to Blair, can best be understood as wars to contain threats to colonial ‘global capitalism’ in general (as Christopher Dolan has comprehensively shown in the case of Iraq) and British corporate interests in particular (as documented by Mark Curtis). Social democracy in Britain has, in reality, always been social imperialism – the provision of social gains for the British on the backs of millions of superexpoited workers in the global South, backed up by military force where necessary – and the Labour party has, for over one hundred years, been at its vanguard.
This is the historical movement which, in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn suddenly found himself heading. At first, he seemed to be offering something very different. A tireless supporter of indigenous struggles against settler colonial dispossession and discrimination the world over, from Ireland to Palestine, Chagos to South Africa, he had also, for his entire political career, been a CND activist and advocate of unilateral nuclear disarmament. His consistent opposition to war – not only the Iraq war, which 139 Labour MPs had voted against, in the biggest backbench rebellion for 150 years, but even the war on Libya, opposed by only 13 MPs out of 650 – had not only made him a pariah in the Blair years, but set him apart from the entire trajectory of Labour party history. It was this, as much as his opposition to neoliberal austerity and privatisation, that made him such a breath of fresh air to millions disgusted by the ongoing brutality of British policy. And it was precisely this that made him so completely unacceptable to the British ruling class, including the Labour party elite.
It soon became clear, however, that Corbyn was, however grudgingly, coming round to the social imperialist bargain. Perceiving his anti-militarism as an achilles’ heel in a nation with a deep-rooted colonial mentality, the Conservatives tabled parliamentary votes on the bombing of Syria and the renewal of Trident immediately after his election; the aim was to force his hand and, they hoped, damage his standing with the electorate in the process. Would he stay true to his lifelong principles and whip his party into opposing the measures, setting the stage for his portrayal as a limp-wristed, unpatriotic, coward? Or would he support them, pigeonholing himself instead as a feeble-minded, opportunistic, turncoat?
In the end, he attempted to have his cake and eat it – by offering Labour MPs a free vote on both issues, he allowed the Blairite majority to continue to direct the party’s foreign policy, whilst maintaining his anti-war credentials – and salving his own conscience – by making a symbolic one-man protest against it, just as he always had done as a backbencher. This was the Stop The War Coalition’s ‘Not In My Name’ policy all over again, the point being to demonstrate your personal unease with the nation’s warmongering, rather than actively trying to prevent it – not so much ‘Any Means Necessary’ as ‘Nowt to Do With Me, Mate’. When a vote on bombing Syria had come before parliament two years earlier, Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Miliband had whipped Labour MPs to vote against it, resulting in the motion being defeated and military action being called off. Yet the chair of the Stop the War Coalition could not bring himself to do the same, and so, on his watch, the motion was passed. The Typhoons began flying out the next day.
The basic contours of the de facto agreement with his, unremittingly hostile, parliamentary colleagues were now becoming clear: they would be allowed to continue to control Labour’s foreign policy, so long as they joined forces with Corbyn when it came to opposing austerity; an uneasy compromise which would, in other words, combine domestic radicalism with a militaristic foreign policy – the very definition of social imperialism. It wasn’t necessarily intended to be a permanent platform, but the precedent had been set. The next major showdown was Yemen.
Saudi Arabia had begun bombing Yemen in March 2015 in an unsuccessful attempt to restore their hated stooge President Hadi to power following his ouster in a popular rebellion that had quickly gained control of 80% of the country. The official UK position, in the words of foreign secretary Philip Hammond was to “support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat,” support that quickly came to involve training, targeting, diplomatic support and the pouring of billions of pounds worth of weapons into the conflict. By the autumn of the following year, an estimated 10,000 people had been killed in the war. On 26th October 2016, Corbyn and his shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry put forward a motion in the House of Commons calling on the British government to end its support for the Saudi war until an independent investigation into civilian casualties had been conducted.
Yemen perhaps seemed, to Corbyn, more cut and dried. Nuclear weapons, after all, have always been portrayed as a peaceful deterrent rather than a battleground weapon; whilst the bombing of Syria was ostensibly about halting the rise of ISIS, an avowedly genocidal death cult. Making the case against either was always going to be an uphill struggle. But in Yemen, children were being starved to death at the rate of one every ten minutes as part of a war against an entire population, a war which was being conducted in the name of restoring a President too unpopular to set foot in his own country, who had never won a competitive election, and whose supposed mandate, such as it was, had expired years ago. A report the previous month had shown that a third of airstrikes were against civilian targets, and 140 people had been killed in one single attack during the deliberate targeting of a funeral just a fortnight earlier. And all this was being carried out by a monarchical dictatorship who had spent $87 billion on promoting the viciously sectarian ideology behind Al Qaeda and ISIS. Opposing British support for this war – without which, it could not take place – was surely an argument Corbyn could win?
Apparently not. Whether because they were genuinely committed to genocide taking place, or simply willing to exploit it as a means of humiliating Corbyn, around 100 Labour MPs refused to support the motion, even after Thornberry had suggested, under pressure from trade unions representing workers in the weapons industry, that it did not require the suspension of arms exports to the Saudis. It would be the biggest backbench rebellion against their leader during his entire five years in office. To support a genocide. That’s the reality of the British Labour party.
Even Corbyn’s well-wishers told him he needed to ‘shut up’ about foreign policy. Corbyn’s opposition to austerity, plans to crack down on tax avoidance, and raising taxes on the rich, wrote Michael Chessum in the New Statesman, were very popular. But criticising foreign policy could blow it all. The media understood this, he argued, focussing “all of their attacks on [Corbyn’s] links to Irish republicanism, controversies around the national anthem, rumours that Corbyn wants to “abolish the army”.
Paul Mason, meanwhile, one of the most high-profile Corbyn supporters, wrote that “Labour’s number one objective has to be to form a government radical in social and economic policy. For that, I think it should be prepared – as I saw [Greek prime minister] Alexis Tsipras do in January 2015 – to put radicalism in foreign policy on the back burner”- that is, to continue with the imperialist status quo, a much more terrifying proposition when it comes to the UK, with its track record of ongoing colonial extortion and butchery, than Greece, which has not been an imperial power for over 2000 years. By 2019, he had gone further, arguing that Labour “needs to sideline all voices who believe having a strong national security policy is somehow ‘imperialist’. It needs to forget scrapping Trident.” In Mason’s case, this was not solely pragmatic; he was a true believer in the NATO-imposed colonial world order, bemoaning the West’s (supposed) declining military influence and openly arguing that Labour should aim to procure the West an even greater cut of global wealth at the expense of the global South, advocating a “strategy designed to allow the populations of the developed world to capture more of the growth projected over the next 5-15 years, if necessary at the cost of China, India and Brazil … It is a programme to deliver growth and prosperity in Wigan, Newport and Kirkcaldy – if necessary at the price of not delivering them to Shenzhen, Bombay and Dubai,” and to do this “by reversing the 30-year policy of enriching the bottom 60%” of the world’s population. That there has been never such a policy is apparently by the by when it comes to such appeals to western ‘victimhood’.
As well as being denied access to global wealth at home, foreigners should obviously, Mason argued, be prevented from seeking it within Britain’s borders. Rather than seeking to extend freedom of movement to those beyond Europe’s borders as a basic right of the international working class, Mason sought to abolish it altogether, arguing after the Brexit vote in June 2016 that “the Labour front bench must commit to staying inside the single market, while seeking a deal on free movement that gives Britain time and space to restructure its labour market.” This formula – of maintaining the capitalist free market but ending freedom of movement for European workers – was exactly the same as that sought by the Tory Brexiteers, and had long been ruled out by the EU itself. He went on to bemoan the fact that John McDonnell’s ‘red lines’ on Brexit had not included the demand to end free movement. For Labour’s Brexit plans to “embody the spirit of the referendum,” he argued, the party needed to push for a “significant… retreat from freedom of movement. That means – and my colleagues on the left indeed to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.” Only an anti-immigration policy, he argued, would avoid electoral disaster.
One time pro-Corbyn economist and leading tax reform campaigner Richard Murphy agreed. His post-Brexit broadside against the leadership suggested that migrants should only be allowed into the hallowed heartland of whiteness if their home country had taken on the entirety of the expense of training them for the purpose: “Learning English, offering a skill and being willing to work where work is needed can be and should be the conditions of seeking to live in this country. Migration would be a contract, not a right,” he insisted, adding that “Norway has done this; so should we.” This was the logic of apartheid influx control – “ministering to the needs of the white man” – writ global. Like Mason’s position, this was and is no different from the policy of the Tory right.
Mason and Murphy’s blows clearly landed. When the Immigration Bill – which cranked up the ‘hostile environment’ for irregular migrants by effectively turning landlords, banks and universities into extensions of border patrol – had passed through parliament the month before the Brexit referendum, Corbyn had led the parliamentary opposition, with 245 MPs ultimately voting against it. Whilst not enough to prevent the bill becoming law, this was still major progress compared to the 6 Labour MPs (including Corbyn himself) who had voted against its 2014 predecessor which had formally ushered in the ‘hostile environment’. Yet this principled position would not last. Whilst Mason was correct that MacDonnell’s initial red lines, formulated in the days after the referendum, had not included immigration controls, a week later, on 1st July 2016, MacDonnell clarified his position: “Let’s be absolutely clear on the immigration issue. When Britain leaves the European Union, free movement of labour and people will then come to an end.” In March 2017, Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary Kier Starmer formalised this as an official condition that would have to be met for Labour to support any Brexit deal in parliament (‘Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?”). Later that year, Corbyn himself appeared to have been won over to the benefits of blaming migrants for wage cuts and working conditions, arguing on the Andrew Marr show against the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions in the construction industry”. Commented Zak Cope: “By feeding the grossly one-sided view that globalisation has been disastrous for British workers, by blaming high immigration levels for stagnant wages, and by studiously ignoring Britain’s role as a parasitic drain on the countries of the Third World, Corbyn’s social democratic nationalism has inadvertently (?) legitimised and promoted a self-pitying, white nationalism that has seen a rise in racist hate crime in the UK. In purporting to oppose this upsurge in popular xenophobia and racism, however, the British left (and its European and US counterparts) is indulging in rank hypocrisy.”
The Labour manifesto of the following year, drafted by privately-educated Cambridge graduate Andrew Fisher, would again state that “freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union” committing the party instead to supporting the “management of migration”. As Fisher later explained, “Taxing the rich, public ownership of the railways and core utilities, and ending austerity had majority public support. Increasing benefit levels and more humane migration policies did not.”
The 2017 manifesto, in fact, was a fully-fledged return to the heyday of social imperialism. Corbynism had now been shorn of any remnants of anti-imperialism (a concept mocked by leading lights of the campaign such as Paul Mason), and was now fully committed to the military apparatus required for the enforcement of colonial wealth transfer. The document committed Labour to meeting NATO’s requirement to spend 2% of GDP on the military, and praised Tony Blair’s government for consistently spending above this benchmark, whilst criticising the conservatives for cuts to the number of aircraft carriers and jump jets in the British arsenal. It committed itself to not only retaining, but renewing, the Trident nuclear defence system (estimated costs of which vary from £39 to £205billion), and to ensuring “our conventional forces are versatile and able to deploy in a range of roles.” Why they should be “deployed” at all, rather than simply maintained as a defensive force to protect against invasion, was never explained; nor was there any mention of the seven wars in which British troops were deployed at that very moment.
The electorate appeared to like it; Labour did far better than expected in the 2017 election, increasing their vote share to 40%, up 10% from the 30% they had achieved under Ed Miliband’s leadership just two years earlier, the biggest swing for any party since 1945. This gave them a net gain of thirty seats, enough to wipe out the Conservative’s majority, and a clear electoral vindication for the party’s social imperialist platform. There was euphoria in the Corbyn camp – and gloom amongst the Blairites, who had hoped to use a disastrous showing for the party to finally rid themselves of their upstart leader. Yet the results obscured some serious warning signs. Across 41 seats in Labour’s former industrial heartlands of the North and the MIdlands – seats that later became known as the ‘Red Wall’ – the Conservative’s vote share increased to 42%, higher than Labour’s national average. Although Labour managed to hang on to most of these seats, six of them fell to the Conservatives. These were constituencies that had been Labour strongholds for, on average, over fifty years, yet now they had done the inconceivable and returned Tory MPs. The taboo had been broken.
Focus groups run by the Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft in the aftermath of the 2017 election revealed that, whilst Labour’s anti-austerity message was popular, many voters remained suspicious of Corbyn’s commitment to the defence of British supremacy abroad. Commented Ashcroft, “Lifelong Labour voters would often say that Jeremy Corbyn was the single biggest reason they were reluctant to stay with the party.” The first set of reasons for this all related to his colonial credentials, with voters making comments like “He’s anti-military. He wants nuclear submarines without the nuclear missiles. How stupid can that be?”; “It’s disastrous, his stance on defence, potentially catastrophic;” “He had links with the IRA. I didn’t like that at all;” “‘He was supporting the IRA. He was turning up at gunmen’s funerals.”
Yet “more often,” wrote Ashcroft, “people simply did not think he was up to the job of leading the country.” Voters explained that they found Corbyn “wet,” “weak,” “too principled,” too lacking in “balls”, and, revealingly, “the most humanitarian of all our politicians…But that could be our problem with Corbyn. He’s just going to give it all away.” What both sets of reasons have in common is that they all relate to the fear that Corbyn, however much he attempted to distance himself from his former principles, simply could not be trusted to “stand up for British interests”. When it came to the bottom line, Corbyn’s willingness to defend the flow of wealth to Britain from the global South, and maintain exclusive native British access to it, was seriously in doubt. The media, and the Conservatives, had found the crack in Corbyn’s armour and were determined to explode it.
Labour has for some time been a fragile electoral coalition of two main constituencies – an older, more ‘culturally conservative’ and nationalist constituency in the former industrial towns of the North and Midlands, forming the core of the Leave vote; and a younger, more socially liberal and multiethnic constituency based in the big cities, forming the core of the Remain vote. The claim of ‘anti-semitism’, which dominated coverage of the Labour leader for the next two years, was particularly well chosen to undermine Labour’s support amongst both. On the one hand, it was clearly an accusation with which the socially liberal metropolitans did not wish to be associated with, demoralising them and undermining their belief in the Corbyn project. But on the other, the Israel-Palestine conflict served as a neat proxy for the growing fears of ‘white decline’ rapidly gaining currency on the anti-immigrant right. By drawing attention to Corbyn’s support for Palestine, the media were able to successfully associate him with the Muslim Other in the great battle for civilisation. The realisation of the ‘right to return’ which he (along with longstanding international law) supported, so the fear went, would lead to the ‘swamping’ of white Israeli civilisation by brown-skinned Arabs. Was this Corbyn’s vision for Europe as well? The implication did not need to be spelt out – the visuals of the conflict said it all – but it is revealing that one of the most vociferous purveyors of the anti-semitism smear, Lord Sacks, was also a strong supporter of Douglas Murray, the acceptable face of white decline/ great replacement catosrophism. For those who already suspected Corbyn of being an Arab-lover, the anti-semitism crusade, by keeping the focus on Corbyn’s position on Palestine, was a constant reminder of his reluctance to stand up for white supremacy, defeating all the Corbyn camp’s attempts to keep foreign policy off the agenda and out of voters’ minds. Corbyn himself – much to the despair of an increasingly exasperated John MacDonnell – also helped to keep the issue alive, by refusing to budge from the Palestinian position of wariness towards the two most controversial ‘examples’ of anti-Semitism that the Labour party was being pressured to adopt, both of which were seen as potentially being abused to delegitmise criticism of Israel. In the end, Corbyn capitulated and adopted them anyway – but not until, argue Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick MacGuire, all the political capital achieved by the election result had been used up in the failed attempt to resist doing so.
Nevertheless, at the start of 2018, Corbyn’s poll ratings remained significantly above those of Theresa May. What would change this, permanently, was Corbyn’s response to another test of his ‘patriotism’ – the poisoning of the Skripals. In March 2018, Julia and Sergei Skripal, visiting the UK from Russia, were rushed to hospital having been discovered unconscious and foaming at the mouth on a bench in Salisbury, apparent victims of a nerve agent attack. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was quick to blame Putin, and used the incident to intensify the ongoing war of attrition against the Russian state, cajoling other countries to embark on a worldwide expulsion of Russian diplomats unprecedented even at the height of the Cold War. Rather than close ranks behind the government’s sabre-rattling, however, as ‘loyal oppositions’ are clearly expected to at such times of ‘national crisis’, Corbyn dug his heels in and suggested that blame and retaliation should await the production of convincing evidence and that internationally agreed procedures should be adhered to. It was a position of political suicide in a country used to throwing its weight around. “That’s fucking going to cost us the election!” fumed John MacDonnell’s media advisor James Mills following a press conference in which Corbyn’s press secretary Seamus Milne questioned the undisclosed intelligence reports that the government was using to justify its actions; “Who the fuck does stuff like that?” (Pogrund and MacGuire, p.80). Certainly not Corbyn’s social democratic forebears – as Pogrund and MacGuire have pointed out, “as much as the left had lionised Attlee and Foot, both had supported military action by their Conservative opposite numbers” when it came to the crunch.
The incident was a tipping point, not only in terms of Corbyn’s public standing and the already corrosive, division between his team and the parliamentary party – but also for relations within the Corbyn camp itself. Not only Emily Thornberry – always a fairweather friend of the project – but more significantly, Dianne Abbott and John MacDonnell, Corbyn’s only longstanding comrades in the parliamentary party, began to go consistently off-message when it came to Russia. The defence of Putin – even against accusations which appeared, at least at first, to be unfounded – was not the hill MacDonnell had been working thanklessly for decades to die on. His relations with Corbyn’s office were irreparably damaged.
Corbyn would try to make amends and demonstrate his (white) nationalist credentials a year later when the next instalment of the ‘hostile environment’ came before parliament, in the form of the government’s new Immigration Bill. This bill established Britain’s new post-Brexit migration policy, creating a new income qualification for migrants, introducing a ‘cap’ on migration, and barring all new migrants from accessing public funds or settling permanently. The aim was to end freedom of movement for low-paid workers whilst maintaining it for middle class professionals, and to ensure that any migrants who did make it into the country were in a position of permanent precarity. It was clearly a ferociously anti-working class piece of legislation (except for the most myopic and nationalist definitions of ‘working class’). This was, in fact, recognised by Dianne Abbott, Corbyn’s shadow Home Secretary, who wrote that, under the new legislation, “many migrant workers who come to Britain will in effect have no rights” and called it “one of the most serious threats to all workers for decades…The risk of super-exploitation will be built into the legal system.” Yet when it came to the first parliamentary vote on the bill, the position of the ‘worker’s party’, under its ‘pro-migrant’ leader, Corbyn, was, right up until three hours before the vote, to abstain; as Abbott herself noted, defence of Freedom of Movement was incompatible with the party’s 2017 manifesto, to which she declared herself a “slavish devotee” and therefore duty-bound to let the bill pass at its second reading. This official position of abstention was, at the very last minute, changed to advice to vote against the bill – but only after many MPs had already left parliament for the day. Yet even this about-turn was half-hearted, backed only by a ‘one-line whip’, the very weakest type of enforcement, with no consequences for insubordination. As a result, 78 Labour MPs were absent when the vote was called, and the bill passed by a margin of 63. Corbyn had helped the Tories deliver, in Abbott’s words, “one of the most serious threats to all workers for decades”. Yet there was no popularity dividend amongst the Leave-voting anti-migrant constituencies he was presumably trying to woo, and his ratings remaining as stubbornly low as ever.
The problem for Corbyn was that he never quite managed to convince people that he had left his old anti-imperialist and pro-immigrant views behind; and his reluctance to ditch the Palestinians or jump on the Russia-baiting bandwagon buried any chance he might have had of doing so. By the time the 2019 election came around, this was clearer than ever. As Luke Pagarani wrote after 100 hours of canvassing, “the key charge against Corbyn is that he fundamentally believes British lives are of equal value to the lives of others,” an unacceptable position for the bulk of the British electorate. His continued: “His opponents wouldn’t put it so bluntly, but this is what it has always been about. Hence the series of confected outrages – from not bowing deeply enough at the Cenotaph to ruling out pushing the nuclear button – that built a treasonous charge sheet as absurd as it was banal. Smears such as Corbyn “siding with Putin” over the Salisbury poisoning, when caution about trusting the judgment of British intelligence agencies was cast as support for the Russian version of events, or “supporting” the IRA, gained more traction as time went on. Even Corbyn’s commendable record of campaigning against the geopolitical grain, such as for dispossessed Tamils, Chagossians and Palestinians, came to be seen as evidence that he didn’t know which side he was supposed to be on. A symbolic moment of the campaign was the first leaders’ debate, when Corbyn highlighted the impact that the climate crisis would have on the poorest people in the world and a section of the audience responded with groans and someone shouted, “Here we go again!” When people talk about having paid into the system all their lives, as I heard repeatedly at the doorstep, they’re not just talking about national insurance payments and the benefits they’re entitled to. They’re talking about loyalty to a state they expected to be their exclusive patron …A small hoard has been salvaged from the UK’s long post-imperial decline, and only those whose fealty is proven can claim their share…Taxing the rich was unpersuasive, as many people just thought it impossible. These voters wanted the patronage of the powerful, not to challenge their power.”
The Conservatives, meanwhile, had learnt their lessons from the 2017 election very well. The first was that austerity was not a votewinner. The public sector pay cap – Labour’s opposition to which, according to Ashcroft’s research, had been “one of [their] biggest attractions, which our respondents raised spontaneously throughout the campaign” in 2017 (Ashcroft, p.26) – had been ended by the Conservatives a few months before the election (only to be reimposed again less than a year after), removing one of the major grievances against them of the previous election. And in sharp contrast to Theresa May’s unremittingly grim spending propositions in 2017, Boris Johnson went to the electorate with a promise of more nurses, more police and more hospitals.
The second lesson was that, in 2017, the electorate had not been quite ready to buy Theresa May’s claim that parliament, and Labour in particular, was obstructing Brexit. But two years of Brexit quagmire in a hung parliament now meant the argument had far more traction; that Johnson himself had led the opposition to getting May’s Brexit deal passed was apparently a nuance with which the electorate were not concerned.
Combined with Labour’s eleventh hour conversion to a rerun of the Brexit referendum, the proposition in 2019 was now fundamentally different to that of 2017. Back then, an electorate seeking to move past Brexit and end austerity faced two Brexit-supporting parties, only one of whom was offering to end austerity; now, they seemingly faced two parties seeking to end austerity, only one of whom was offering to ‘get Brexit done’. More fundamentally, however, they also faced a Labour party whose commitment to upholding the colonial balance of power on which their globally-privileged living standards depended was in doubt as never before. Because, as in 2017, former Labour voters consistently gave not Brexit but Corbyn as the main reason for changing their vote – ”usually justified,” noted Jeremy Gilbert, “with reference to Corbyn’s supposed historic sympathy for the IRA or his ‘excessive’ sympathy with Muslims.”
In the end, all post-mortems of the Corbyn project must answer two questions. The first – could any policy platform or leader have won the 2019 election for Labour in the circumstances? The fact that Labour’s two main electoral constituencies – the culturally conservative former industrial towns of the North and Midlands, and the socially liberal multiethnic communities of the large cities – had by this point hardened into seemingly irreconcilable identities based on ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ makes it hard to be positive on this front. This is especially so given that Labour seem to have lost around a million voters on the Leave side, and 1.7million on the Remain side, suggesting that more decisive movement in either direction would only ever have traded lost votes rather than saved them.
But the more important question for socialists is could Corbyn – or anyone with the politics he represents – have won in any circumstances?
Ultimately, the fate of Corbynism was defined by a series of tragic realities, three of which were beyond the project’s control, and the last of which resulted from a stubborn unwillingness to recognise the first three.
The first reality is that the vast majority of the British population are, at least on an immediate material level, beneficiaries of the global system of racialised capitalism with, therefore, no class interest in upending the neocolonial status quo. The electoral base necessary to deliver a parliamentary victory for any kind of anti-imperialist programme in this country, then, simply does not exist. As Zak Cope has argued, “Britain and all of the classes and class fractions therein (albeit to varying degrees) are net consumers of value created elsewhere [and this] fundamentally bourgeois class structure of Britain means that there is no mass basis for British people to act as agents of change.” The country has “a right-wing electorate that fears above all the dissolution of [global] white supremacy as a condition of its caste-class status.” Capitalism is a system of global exploitation of which the entire populations of Western nations are net beneficiaries, and, in the main, they know it; the citizens of the imperial states areaware not only that their living standards are relatively privileged by global standards, but are also on some level aware, I would contend, that this privilege is dependent on the continued impoverishment of the global South. As Cope has written, “It is obvious that the wage in Guatemala or China is only a fraction of the wage in first world countries. It is equally clear that there is a connection between low prices for bananas, coffee and electronics and the low wages paid to the workers that produce them…No doubt the average person is unaware of the theory of unequal exchange as such, but a great many people in the first world are aware that they buy goods cheap relative to the labour that goes into their production.” Western citizens, in other words, know which way their bread is buttered.
This need not have been a fatal blow for the Corbynite project, however – which, as we have seen, quickly defined itself as an overtly social imperialist programme. Says Cope, Corbyn “promotes a national chauvinist version of socialism that aims to share among the British people more of the wealth accumulated through Britain’s imperialist exploitation of dependent countries…[Whilst] he has been a fairly consistent long-term critic of neoliberal restructuring of Britain’s welfare state… neither he nor his supporters have concerned themselves with stopping the flow of surplus value from the Third World. Doing so would require an end to British economic and military imperialism, that is, the radical restructuring of British society as we know it,” something the 2017 manifesto made clear it was not prepared to countenance. A party which had been more immediately and convincingly willing to toe the line of the imperialist bourgeoisie on Palestine and Russia may well have been able to garner support for a more equitable national distribution of imperial loot. Whether they could do this under a leader with a track record such as Corbyn’s, however, is far less likely. The second tragedy for the Corbynites, then, was that, despite the project’s capitulations, the colonial credentials of Corbyn himself, thanks to his track record of involvement in the anti-war, anti-nuclear, and international solidarity movements, were so much in doubt that he would never be trusted, by either the electorate or the elite, to be allowed into office. As Cope put it, “Corbyn is neither sufficiently xenophobic nor racist enough to appeal to the white working class electorate, and he is neither militarist enough nor neoliberal enough to gain the backing of the financial elite.” It is not only commitment to the basic principles of imperialism (if not necessarily their every manifestation) that is a necessary condition of electoral success in imperialist countries; that commitment must be seen to be sincere. This was not something Corbyn could ever have achieved.
Even a hypothetical scenario in which a 2017-style social imperialist programme achieved electoral victory under a leader with an unimpeachable track record of disdain for Third World struggles, however, would not necessarily result in the realisation of that programme. For the third tragedy of the Corbyn project is that whilst there may still be an electoral base for a social democratic programme in Britain (so long as it does not challenge neo-colonialism), what does not exist are the class forces required to enact it once in office.
Quite apart from the colonial credentials he established during his five years service as Churchill’s deputy in the War Cabinet, overseeing, amongst other atrocities, the Bengal famine and the bombing of Dresden, Attlee was allowed to deliver his left-economic programme due to a quite unique constellation of circumstances in 1945. First of all, capitalism was under threat as never before, primarily due to the existence of the Soviet Union, which emerged from the Second World War with its prestige at an all time high. Not only was it universally acknowledged to have been by far the major force in the defeat of Nazi Germany, but it seemed to have been the only industrialised nation to have got through the 1930s without being plunged into an economic depression. It suffered many other problems during this time, of course, to put it mildly; but the worst of them were not yet known to the rest of the world, much of which viewed Soviet socialism as a far superior system to the global capitalism that had failed so miserably in the 30s, ushered in fascism and led to two world wars. Capitalism, in other words, had an existential need to prove itself, as, unlike today, it faced a seemingly viable – and powerful – alternative.
In addition to these favourable geopolitical circumstances, British capitalism faced a domestic working class movement that was heavily unionised, politicised and militarily experienced – a powerful combination, with no equivalent today. In addition, the mass destruction of the war meant that there was a high demand for labour, giving the unions major leverage they do not have today, as well as a need for government investment in bankrupted industry. And finally, British capital was far less footloose than it is today; had it opposed the new settlement, it would have had nowhere else to go anyhow. In sum, in 1945, the capitalist class themselves were pushing for a new dispensation that would simultaneously get industry back on its feet, underwrite a more quiescent working class and deal with capitalism’s image problem.
None of this pertains today. In our hypothetical scenario, the most likely outcome of any attempt to deliver a social-democratic programme such as that promised by Labour under Corbyn would be that the financial markets would simply strangle the economy into submission. In this regard, the voters’ oft-repeated scepticism towards Labour’s ability to deliver on its manifesto promises must be seen not only as a reflection of cynicism towards ‘lying politicians’ but a rather savvy understanding of the class forces ranged against such an undertaking. Voters were essentially correct that Labour’s economic economic programme was unachievable – not because the ‘money was unavailable’ – the country is awash with cash, which was the main cause of the 2008 crisis – but rather because of the inevitable resistance of the bourgeois financiers.
Given the structural impossibility of challenging neo-colonialism at the ballot box and the virtual impossibility of delivering even social democracy in contemporary conditions, the real tragedy of Corbynism is that its commitment to delivering these undeliverables blinded the project from realising what could have been achieved. Corbyn’s election to the leadership in 2015 and the upsurge of enthusiasm it ignited presented a unique opportunity to use the organisational capacity of the Labour party to create cadres of community activists committed to meaningful and effective grassroots mobilisation. With 600,000 members, Labour was the biggest political party in Europe by membership, and even the internal left pressure group Momentum had 50,000 members, opening up the possibility of creating a real and lasting counterforce of working class power. Imagine what could have been achieved had these enthusiastic members been put to work in the most alienated and neglected communities, running breakfast clubs, youth programmes, political education and grassroots campaigns on local issues. Of course, there is a danger that such work would have been perceived as patronising or condescending – especially if it were to involve young middle class city folk (who seem to have been the core of the new Labour membership) descending on areas with which they have no organic connection. They would have had to have been organised by locally-rooted, experienced activists, and would have had to have serious training in the culture and ethos of the local communities they would be serving – and, even then they would have had to have worked hard to overcome much entrenched (and justified) suspicion. But none of this would have been beyond the organisational capacity of the Labour party; indeed, Labour, with its deep roots in the unions and working class movement, was and is uniquely positioned to organise such an endeavour. Yet the chance to use that position to actually build working class power in the communities was squandered. Such power would not have been enough to have won the election, for all the reasons outlined in this piece. But that is not the point; the point is to build – both through organisational practice and political consciousness raising – the power of the working class movement, as a detachment of the international proletariat. In the end, all attempts at grassroots mobilisation, political education, community programmes, and anti-militarism were ultimately subordinated, it not completely sacrificed, to the priority of winning the election. This was the real tragedy of Corbynism.
Rebels burn down Minneapolis police station following the murder of George Floyd, May 2020
In late 2012, Peter Turchin, a professor at the University of Connecticut, made a startling claim, based on an analysis of revolutionary upheavals across history.
He found there are three social conditions in place shortly before all major outbreaks of social violence: an increase in the elite population; a decrease in the living standards of the masses; and huge levels of government indebtedness.
The statistical model his team developed suggested that, on this basis, a major wave of social upheaval and revolutionary violence is set to take place in the US in 2020. His model had no way to predict who would lead the charge; but this week’s election gives an indication of how it is likely to unfold.
Let’s take the first condition, which Turchin calls “elite overproduction,” defined as “an increased number of aspirants for the limited supply of elite positions.” The US has clearly been heading in this direction for some time, with the number of billionaires increasing more than tenfold from 1987 (41 billionaires) to 2012 (425 billionaires). But the ruling class split between, for example, industrialists and financiers, has apparently reached fever pitch with Trump vs. Clinton.
As Turchin explains, “increased intra-elite competition leads to the formation of rival patronage networks vying for state rewards. As a result, elites become riven by increasing rivalry and factionalism.” Indeed, based on analysis of thousands of incidents of civil violence across world history, Turchin concluded that “the most reliable predictor of state collapse and high political instability was elite overproduction.”
The second condition, popular immiseration, is also well advanced. 46 million US citizens live in poverty (defined as receiving an income less than is required to cover their basic needs), while over 12 million US households are now considered food insecure. While this figure has been coming down consistently since 2011 (when it reached over 15 million), it remains above its pre-recession (per-2007) levels.
Trump’s policies are likely to sharply reverse this decrease. Trump’s second promise in his ‘contract with voters’ is a “hiring freeze on all federal employees,” amounting to a new onslaught on public sector jobs. This is in addition to what seems to be a promise to end the direct funding of state education (to, in his words, “redirect education dollars to…parents”), and to end all federal funding to so-called ‘sanctuary cities’, that is cities which do not order the state harassment of immigrants or force employers to reveal the nationalities of their workers. These cities are some of the most populated in the country, including NYC, LA, Dallas, Minneapolis and over two dozen others.
In concert with his avowed intention to lower taxes on the wealthy, including slashing business tax from 35 to 15 percent; to smash hard fought workers’ rights (under the mantra of ‘deregulation’); and to scrap what little access to healthcare was made available to the poor through Obamacare – not to mention his threat to start a trade war with China – poverty looks set to skyrocket. It is not hard to see how social unrest will follow.
As for the third condition – government indebtedness – it is hard to see how the massive tax breaks Trump has proposed can lead to anything else.
Turchin writes that “As all these trends intensify, the end result is state fiscal crisis and bankruptcy and consequent loss of military control; elite movements of regional and national rebellion; and a combination of elite-mobilized and popular uprisings that manifest the breakdown of central authority.”
But Trump is also preparing for that. Exempt from his public spending cuts, of course, are police and military budgets, both of which he promises to increase. And when questioned on the issue of police brutality last year, Trump said he wanted to see the police be given more powers. In other words, the tacit impunity which currently exists for police violence looks set to be legalized. And history shows that there is nothing like police impunity to spark a riot.
Meanwhile, as his policies fail to deliver the land of milk and honey he has promised, the demonization of scapegoats will continue. Having already vowed to round up and deport two million immigrants, and to ban Muslims from entering the US, it is already clear who these scapegoats will be. However, as well as migrants, popular anger will also be directed toward whatever namby-pamby liberals have blocked him from waging his promised war against them: be it Congressmen, judges, trade unions, pressure groups, or whoever. A combination of increased executive powers plus the use of his newly mobilized mass constituency will be directed toward purging these ‘enemies within’.
“My model suggests that the next [peak in violence] will be worse than the one in 1970” says Turchin, “because demographic variables such as wages, standards of living and a number of measures of intra-elite confrontation are all much worse this time”. All that remains to be seen is – who will win.
The world needs to “move on” from slavery and colonialism, David Cameron declared during his visit to Jamaica earlier this year. He went on to casually dismiss demands for either reparations or even an apology for the systematic kidnapping and enslavement of Africans which laid the basis of both of the wealth of his own country (and indeed his own family) and the poverty of the nation hosting his visit. What he meant by “move on”, of course, was simple: forget it ever happened and ignore its continuing legacy.
Last week, in Oxford, a demonstration of around 200 students were also demanding that Britain ‘move on’ from its colonial past – not by forgetting about it, but precisely the opposite – by acknowledging the damage done (and still being done) and atoning for it.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement began in South Africa this year, demanding an end to the veneration of ‘colonial murderers’ like Cecil Rhodes, but has since spread to Oxford, where Rhodes’ alma mater, Oriel College, still displays a huge statue in his honor. Rhodes’ statue at Cape Town University was eventually removed after protests, and the Oxford campaign hopes to repeat the success here.
Cecil Rhodes was the archetypal British imperialist – a tyrannical stealer of land, ruthless exploiter of labor and rabid butcher of men, women and children. By the 1890s, he had conquered around one million square miles of territory (including modern day Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia) and laid waste to its inhabitants, using the newly invented Maxim gun to massacre all those who stood in his way and forcing many of the rest into the living graves that were his company’s diamond mines.
As Prime Minister of Britain’s Cape Colony, his policies laid the basis for what became the apartheid system, as he forced Africans onto reserves, introduced segregation and forced labor, and systematically excluded Africans from voting, explaining to the Cape Assembly in 1887 that “the native is to be treated as a child and denied the franchise. We must adopt a system of despotism in our relations with the barbarians of South Africa.”
What exactly this meant was spelt out in one of his more prosaic pronouncements: “one should kill as many n*ggers as possible.” The question is not so much why there is a campaign to have his statue removed as why on earth it is still there. It says a lot about just how little Britain has ‘moved on’ from its imperial past when the leader of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, Robert Mugabe, is one of the most demonized figures in the British media – whilst the architect of that country’s subjugation, Cecil Rhodes, remains a ubiquitous and venerated presence in Britain’s most hallowed academic institution.
But the campaign is about much more than statues; as the press release for the event noted, “Our call for the statue to fall is but the first step. What we stand for is something much greater: the transformation of the university in its physical and intellectual spaces, its colleges and its curricula.” Indeed, Rhodes Must Fall is part of a much broader global movement that has emerged in recent years, based around the demand to decolonize academia.
As Maori anthropologist and activist Linda Tuhiwai Smith has put it, “decolonization, once viewed as the formal process of handing over the instruments of government, is now recognized as a long term process involving the bureaucratic, cultural, linguistic and psychological divesting of colonial power.”
Western academia is in particular and urgent need of such a decolonizing process as it so clearly continues to reproduce Eurocentric fallacies and omissions in manifold ways.
One way is through its erasure of the crime of colonialism; that is, its tendency to overlook – or, worse, deem as irrelevant – the sheer scale of human suffering caused by European colonialism.
Surinamese scholar Sandew Hira, for example, notes how the typical figure given for enslaved Africans in Western histories is around 12 million. But this figure neglects both those killed in the process of capture in Africa, and those enslaved at birth in the Americas. Once these two groups are added, the true figure rises to between 236 and 432 million – that is at least twenty times higher than the standard Western statistic.
Hira has also made a calculation of the reparations owed by European colonial powers to those they colonized based on the value of goods stolen, unpaid rent and labor, and compensation for human suffering, plus a very reasonable three percent compound interest on the debt (half the rate charged to Haiti on the ‘reparations’ imposed by France for the crime of abolishing slavery). The estimated total comes to $321 quadrillion, demonstrating “the inconceivable damage that colonization has caused upon the colonized and the unimaginable debt that rests of the shoulders of the colonizer.”
Little of this is recognized in mainstream Western historical accounts of the rise of Europe, which still tend to treat colonialism either as a mixed blessing for the colonized or a net drain – that is, effectively an act of benevolence – for the colonizing powers. This ‘weighing up’ of supposed ‘positive and negative’ aspects of colonialism would never be accepted for other acts of mass murder, such as the Hitlerite atrocities – yet are apparently perfectly valid for colonialism.
As Rhodes Must Fall activist Chi Chi put it at the Oxford event – “You cannot reconcile ‘but what about the railways?’ with genocide.” Except that, apparently, you can, and those who do, such as empire cheerleader Niall Ferguson, are handsomely rewarded with research grants, media accolades and seemingly endless commissions by the BBC.
But it is not only the crimes of empire that are erased in Western academia – so too is the non-European contribution to European civilization itself. As JM Blaut has analyzed in depth in The Colonizers’ Model of the World, ‘Greater Europe’ is still depicted by the majority of European historians as “the perpetual fountainhead of history” based on what he calls the ‘diffusionist’ notion that “the world as a whole has one permanent center from which culture-changing ideas tend to originate, and a vast periphery that changes as a result.” This unique capacity for progress, in this view, is based on Europe’s supposedly superior and self-generated ‘value system’.
Hand in hand with the notion that all that is good in the world flows from ‘Inside’ (Europe) to ‘Outside’ is its inevitable corollary of a “counter-diffusion of evil and savagery and disease from outside to Inside.” The supposed knowledge about the non-European world, on which such ideas are based, was, of course, produced in the process of colonialism, reflecting the biases – and interests – of the colonizer.
As Blaut writes, “the plain fact is that theories constructed from this information – and this includes the great bulk of nineteenth century anthropological, geographic, and politico-economic theories about non-Europeans – are systematically distorted” as not only were they based on information reflecting the bias of the colonialists who collected it, but also involved “shaping knowledge into theories that would prove useful for colonialism.”
It hardly needs stating that the ‘diffusionist’ theories produced by such methods are completely false. As John M Hobson has outlined in great detail in his magisterial The Eastern Origins of Western Civilization, far from being the passive recipient of Western innovation, Africa and Asia largely provided the technological and institutional ‘portfolios’ (not to mention the labor power and resources) that enabled both the European industrial revolution and the ‘voyages of discovery’ that preceded it Vasco Da Gama’s travel round the Cape, for example, was not the unprecedented triumph it is still depicted as in Eurocentric history; in fact the voyage had already been accomplished 20-50 years earlier by the Islamic navigator Ahmad ibn-Majid, whilst “the Javanese, Indians and Chinese had all made it across to the Cape many decades, if not centuries, before Da Gama” (who, incidentally, relied on a Gujarati Muslim pilot as his guide).
Similarly, Hobson shows how non-European societies had a major influence on all the major turning points in European history, with, for example, Chinese technological innovations and ideas underpinning both the industrial revolution and the European Enlightenment, and Afro-Asian trading circuits originating a millennia and a half ago laying the foundation of the global trading system of today.
But it is not only history that continues to reproduce colonial theories; as Hobson has argued elsewhere, Eurocentrism thoroughly permeates fields such as international relations as well: “international theory does not so much explain international politics in an objective, positivist and universalist manner but seeks, rather, to parochially celebrate and defend or promote the West as the proactive subject of, and as the highest or ideal normative referent in world politics.”
In philosophy, too, only European philosophy is typically taught, with non-European philosophy consigned to anthropology – to be studied as the quaint beliefs of irrational societies. At the same time, the racism of the European philosophers under discussion are buried or ignored. As Charles W. Mills points out in The Racial Contract, there is a “uniformity of opinion” on the inferiority of non-Europeans amongst pretty much all major European thinkers from the Enlightenment onwards: he cites, for example, “Hume, who denies that any race other than the white one has produced a civilization; the utilitarian Mill, who denies the applicability of the anti-paternalist ‘harm principle’ to ‘barbarians’ and maintains that they need European colonial despotism; [and] the historicist GWF Hegel, who denies that Africa has any history and suggests that blacks were morally improved through being enslaved.” None of this will typically be mentioned on undergraduate philosophy courses.
Underlying all of this is what decolonial scholar Ramon Grosfoguel calls “epistemic racism”. Seventeenth century Europe saw a revolution in epistemology, epitomized by Rene Descartes’ idea of mind-body dualism. By separating the mind from the body, Descartes was able to posit the idea of a completely objective system of knowledge, unbounded by the limitations of societal specificity. This afforded the subject – the privileged male Western subject, that is – a ‘God’s eye’ universal view of the world, superior to all other epistemologies. Such a claim to perfect, godlike, knowledge, would have been treated as idolatry in other cosmologies; and for decolonial scholars, all knowledge is “bio-graphically and geo-historically located,” to use Walter Mignolo’s terminology.
But Western epistemology has, by sheer force of arms, been able to impose itself on the rest of the world, presenting itself as the one true and valid system of knowledge production; it is no coincidence that the epistemological revolution overlaps with the era of colonialism. As Enrique Dussel argues, it is not so much that “I think, therefore I am” as “I conquer, therefore I am.”
And academia still bears the birthmarks of its colonial genesis. Grosfoguel points out that this is the case to such an extent that supposedly “universal knowledge” is still based on “the socio-historical experience of just five countries” – Italy, Germany, Britain, France and the USA, comprising between them a mere 12 percent of the world’s population, but virtually 100 percent of the reading material of almost every academic social science course in the western world. Knowledge produced in all other parts of the world is interiorized.
Oxford was, and is, central to both this inferiorization of non-European knowledge, and the conquests and exterminations that allowed this process to develop. I asked Ciaran Walsh, radical Labor historian at Ruskin College, who runs the excellent Radical Oxford walking tour, about the university’s role in colonialism: “The ideologues who justified the creation of first the English and then the British Empire came from Oxford, and generations of imperial administrators were educated at Oxford under the banner of the civilizing mission. But this mission was a cover for the expansion of European political forms, structures, property relations and all the oppression, dislocation and death that flowed with that. Imperialism and capital accumulation have been co-emergent in the modern era and Oxford’s played a key role in this whole process in Britain and globally.”
Places like Oxford’s Indian Institute – founded after the first war of Indian independence in 1857 had shaken the foundations of the British Empire – were created as what Walsh calls “centers of orientalism,” designed to study non-European cosmologies, legal systems, institutions and social structures the better to dominate them. Walsh explains that William Jones, the first European to study Sanskrit, was a product of Oxford, who went on to study Indian law in order to allow “a more workable system of European property relations to be imposed. This is the instrumental nature of orientalism.”
And still today, as Mignolo notes, “seldom, if ever, are intellectual debates in the regions being reported taken into account…very much like natural resources, Third World ideas are processed in European intellectual factories.” Thus, as Kiran Benipal put it on the demonstration, “Rhodes legacy is alive and well, and runs through the blood of this institution.”
And Oxford continues to produce the modern-day Rhodes’ who are his worthy successors in British colonial barbarism in Africa and beyond. Oxford graduate, Tony Blair, was involved in plans to follow directly in Rhodes’ footsteps and invade Zimbabwe; it was only the steadfastness of Mbeki’s ANC government in South Africa that prevented this from taking place and subsequently exposed the plot. Likewise, David Cameron, a graduate of Brasenose College, did his bit to stymie African development; his blitzkrieg destruction of Libya paved the way for a bloodbath that has already enveloped Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria and continues to grow.
So Rhodes’ legacy continues not only through the manifold monuments, buildings and institutions that bear his name, not only through the European supremacist foundations of academia, but also through British policies that continue to brutalize and subjugate Africa, Asia and South America. The British state cannot bear to see anti-colonial resistance movements in power anywhere, and have still not reconciled themselves to the reality that the movements that led the fight for independence remain in government across much of Southern Africa. Rhodes will fall. But it will require constant vigilance – and we must never forget that the enemy today is the same as it was then – British imperialism.
The killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray triggered protests not just in their home states but worldwide, with the campaign group Black Lives Matter emerging to protest the ongoing deaths at the hands of US police. The Oxford Union hosted a packed debate on whether the US is “institutionally racist”earlier this year, and the deaths, protests and trials resulting from the killings have all made regular headline news.
What has received far less attention has been the continued deaths at the hands of UK state officials. In March, the Institute for Race Relations published an in-depth report on 509 people of color who died in suspicious circumstances between 1991 and 2014 whilst in the custody of police, prison or immigration officers. Their analysis of these deaths – which averaged almost one per fortnight over the period covered – showed that a large number occurred after excessive use of force by the authorities, and an even larger number involved a culpable lack of care. Perhaps even more damning, the report concluded that “lessons are not being learnt; people die in similar ways year on year.”
But the big difference that emerges from the US is the handling of the officers involved. Officers stood trial following all three of the big recent cases from the US – even if, infamously, they have all so far been found not guilty. In the 509 cases examine by the IRR, however, a mere five cases – less than 1 percent – led to prosecutions – with not a single conviction. This is despite inquests recording verdicts of unlawful killing in over a dozen cases. Indeed, of the thousands of deaths in custody that have occurred since the late 1960s (current levels are around 600 per year), only one single case, that of David Oluwale in 1969, has resulted in the conviction of an officer.
One case which clearly illustrates the difficulties faced by families of the victims in their struggle for justice is that of Habib “Paps” Ullah.
Habib and two of his friends were pulled over by police in High Wycombe, near London, on July 3, 2008. Habib was peaceful and compliant with the police, who he allowed to search him. However, when he was asked to open his mouth, he turned his back on them. That was the trigger for a vicious assault. Without warning, one officer, DS Liles, punched him in the back with maximum force, at which point four officers set upon him. Over the course of the next 10 minutes, Habib was subjected to further blows, knee strikes, a finger in his eye socket, the squeezing of his throat, and the full bodyweight of an officer on top of him whilst face down on the ground, along with a variety of “pain compliance” techniques. At one stage, DS Liles shouted to his colleagues: “Break his arm.”
Witnesses were screaming at the officers that they were strangling him, with another witness describing it as like something from a horror film. By the end of the assault, Habib had lost consciousness, with officers noting that his arm dropped to the floor when released, and that his eyes were motionless when his eyelids pulled back. Nevertheless, the police waited a further 10 minutes before calling an ambulance. Witnesses spoke of the police “standing around”; no CPR or mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was given to Habib, he was not put into a full recovery position, and his pulse was not taken: the officers all claimed that they believed Habib had been “faking it.” When an ambulance was finally called, the police gave the code B1, for a non-life threatening situation; by the time it arrived, witnesses – including the officers themselves – had confirmed Habib had been making very strange coughing sounds with his face turning first blue and then grey. Those sounds, it now seems clear, were almost certainly his death rattle. The small wrap of drugs which Habib had in his mouth had got lodged in his throat during the attack which, combined with likely “positional asphyxia” caused by the restraint, had caused him to suffocate.
The family have had to wait seven years until the inquest was finally held in February this year for this account of Habib’s death to finally emerge. Yet the initial police statements, written by the five officers involved immediately after Habib’s death, had pretty much admitted the full story. So what happened in the intervening seven years?
Following Habib’s death being confirmed in the hospital, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) was brought in to conduct an investigation, as is the usual practice following a death in custody. But those initial statements made by the officers were not the ones that were handed to the IPCC.
Rather, what happened is that senior police officers, members of the Police Federation, and a police solicitor oversaw a process in which the officers were instructed to rewrite their statements. References to the compliance of Habib and his friends; to the amount of force used by the police; to Habib’s condition (including his going limp and his strange breathing); to warnings from witnesses that Habib was being strangled and even to the presence of some of the witnesses were all removed from the final statements. It is entirely clear that senior officers, the Police Federation and the police solicitor were actively instigating a cover-up, in which the IPCC was being deliberately misled as to what was done to Habib, the warning signs about his condition, and even as to who witnessed the event.
At first, the cover-up worked. The IPCC investigation exonerated all the officers involved and concluded that no wrongdoing had taken place (none that is except for failing to inform Habib’s family of his death promptly enough, exhibiting a disregard for the family’s welfare that seems to be disgracefully common in such cases). Two years later, however, when the inquest began, the truth about the redacting of the statements began to emerge. Under cross-examination – when asked why so many relevant details now coming out were not included in the initial statements – one of the officers gave the game away. The inquest was suspended whilst the IPCC re-opened their investigation. The new investigation was to look into not only whether the original findings were affected by the new evidence, but also into whether the rewriting of the statements itself constituted wrongdoing.
This new investigation, amazingly, took the IPCC a full three years. The final report – which has still not been published – concluded that the case should be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (the CPS) for criminal prosecution of the officers involved; charges to be considered included misconduct in public office, assault, intention to pervert the course of justice and perjury. Months passed – until, in August 2014, the CPS announced that it did not intend to prosecute a single one of the officers involved.
But that was not the end of the matter. An inquest had still to take place, and it was announced that this would be held in February 2015. If this inquest resulted in a verdict of unlawful killing, the potential for a criminal prosecution would be reopened.
As the inquest unfolded, the likelihood of this outcome seemed to grow. One expert witness after another concluded that the officers’ “restraint” significantly contributed to Habib’s death. Under cross-examination, even the police’s own preferred specialist – the appropriately named Dr Bleetman – eventually had to accept this (a finding he had denied in his initial report). Police trainers testified that many of the strikes and “compliance techniques” used by the officers were not approved, and even those that were should not have been administered in those circumstances – that is, without warning against a passive victim. It was revealed that, despite officers’ claims to be trying to open Habib’s mouth, some of the techniques used are actually deigned to close the mouth. The evidence of the inquest revealed, overwhelmingly, that the assault had been unlawful and had, in part at the very least, led to Habib’s death.
After a month taking evidence, the jury deliberated. Their highly critical narrative concluded: “Several officers recognised some signs associated with abnormal breathing but no practical assistance was offered. Valuable time was lost due to the fact that the officers believed him to be feigning unconsciousness. Once Mr Ullah was unconscious rigorous monitoring should have been undertaken. The jury believes that the level of monitoring was inadequate. Furthermore the jury considered that the incident was poorly managed. In particular the lack of communication and clear commands by a leading officer resulted in an uncoordinated and ineffective restraint.” Yet they did not reach a verdict of unlawful killing; rather they recorded “death by misadventure.” The last chance for a criminal prosecution was over; the officers who had just been shown to have launched an unprovoked attack on Habib and then left him to die would walk free.
These are the battles which families of victims face in case after case in this country: uphill struggles even just to find out what happened, endless delays, and then total lack of accountability or justice at the end of it all. The whole labyrinthine system is a masterclass in obfuscation and the perversion of justice under the guise of bureaucratic procedures. And every step of the way, the institutions involved emerge complicit in protecting the impunity of the police.
Firstly, the police themselves and the Police Federation. It was senior police officers and Police Federation members who stepped in to ensure that the original police statements were doctored to protect the officers. Yet they have never been called to account for their actions.
Secondly, the IPCC. Established in 2004 to replace the entirely discredited Police Complaints Commission, the IPCC was supposed to be an independent body which could be relied on to impartially investigate the police. Paps’ case shows how far this is from the truth. The senior officers and Police Federation members who instigated the cover-up were never the subject of the IPCC’s investigations, which focused solely on the officers involved in the death – despite the fact that the second investigation had a remit to specifically investigate that cover-up.
Furthermore, the fact that the scene was not treated as a crime scene, and that the officers were interviewed not as suspects but as witnesses is indicative of the bias that is at the very heart of the IPCC. These decisions – which are standard practice when investigating custody deaths – reveal that, from the very outset, the IPCC’s assumption is that no crime has been committed, and the idea that the officers involved might be responsible for the death is not even a possibility. Deaths in custody are treated not as crimes, but, at worst, as tragic accidents. This goes beyond the concept of “innocent until proven guilty”; the IPCC, begins by assuming there is not even anything to be guilty of. And inasmuch as there is any case to answer, it is only ever for the officers on the ground to answer – never their superiors.
None of this should be surprising, however, given the composition of the IPCC: eight out of its nine most senior members are themselves former police officers. Some independence. In 2012, the IPCC was even threatened with contempt of court proceedings by a coroner following its refusal to hand over key evidence during the Mark Duggan case. The IPCC is clearly unable to act as the independent watchdog it proclaims to be; indeed, in 2013 a parliamentary inquiry concluded that the IPCC “has neither the powers nor the resources that it needs to get to the truth when the integrity of the police is in doubt.”
Thirdly, the CPS. The decision not to prosecute the officers – after the IPCC had handed them detailed evidence of assault, perjury, and intent to pervert the course of justice – can only be understood in terms of an institutional determination to protect the police from prosecution at all costs. The evidence to mount a prosecution clearly was there. Even the police officers themselves admitted that the passages they removed from their statements were relevant and should have been included. Yet, as one officer noted at the inquest: “The Crown Prosecution Service concluded we were looking to make the evidence more accurate and not wishing to mislead people.” Given what was removed – details of the assault, details about Habib’s condition, details of other witnesses – even the IPCC concluded there was no way that making these omissions could have made the evidence ‘more accurate’.
But again, the CPS have form in this regard. In 1999, a government inquiry conducted by Gerald Butler was highly critical of the CPS’s reluctance to prosecute police officers involved in custody deaths. Since then, little has changed. In 2011, Janet Alder made history as the first person ever to take the CPS to court. Janet’s brother had died in police custody in Hull in 1998 and, as ever, the CPS refused to prosecute the officers involved. Four years later, after massive campaigning and evidence-gathering by the family, the CPS did eventually bring a case against five of the officers – but, it seems, deliberately bungled the case. Key pieces of evidence were not submitted, and others were conflated and thrown out. As Janet Alder said: “I don’t think it’s incompetence, because they’ve been prosecuting cases for hundreds of years… I think the CPS from the beginning had absolutely no intention whatsoever of prosecuting these officers. They’d proved that for four years. ”
Between them, these institutions – the Police Federation, the IPCC (and its predecessor) and the CPS – have shielded the police from justice for decades. This shielding has allowed a culture of impunity to persist and grow where officers believe they will never be held to account for their actions. What was particularly revealing about Habib’s inquest was that the more senior the officers involved, the more brazen and vicious were their actions.
The most senior officer, DS Liles, with eighteen years experience, was the one who initiated and led the attack itself, but also who showed the least remorse and the most arrogance subsequently, telling the jurors he would act in just the same way again. His younger colleagues, in contrast, were clearly worried about what had happened: one, PC Pomery, confessed to a colleague that he was worried he had gripped Habib’s throat too hard, for example. Liles clearly knew, however, that they had nothing to worry about. He knew they would be protected.
Their victim was well chosen. Many of the suspicious deaths in custody involve members of vulnerable groups who are already treated with contempt by society. Victims often have mental health problems; in Habib’s case, he was a drug user (a point which the officers never failed to mention in their testimonies at the inquest). The officers knew, it seems, that such a character – and a Muslim to boot – could hope for little sympathy from the jury. They may not have expected him to die from the attack – but the point is, they knew they could attack him with impunity, breaking every rule in the book. And those who had been there the longest, knew this the most clearly.
But for the family of Habib “Paps” Ullah – and for many others – the struggle for justice continues. The police’s internal gross misconduct case is due to take place in June; it will be one of the first ever to be held in public. In addition, the family have instigated a civil claim against Thames Valley Police on the basis of assault and breaches of the Human Rights Act Article 2, the Right to Life.
Over the past year, Prime Minister David Cameron has constantly declared his undying commitment to the “rule of law.” Yet while his own police force retain the level of impunity they currently enjoy, the notion remains a total fiction.
When a family member is killed, it is devastating for anyone. When that family member dies at the hands of the police, it is also likely to be the start of an overwhelming struggle to establish the truth.
Every obstacle will be put in the way of a successful outcome of this struggle, and those who seek justice are likely to find themselves subject to a vindictive campaign by the police. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than Janet Alder’s almost two-decade long campaign to establish what happened to her brother Christopher.
On April 1, 1998, Christopher Alder was on a night out in Hull. The 37-year-old was a former paratrooper who had served in the Falklands and Northern Ireland, and had been decorated for his service; he had two children, and was in training for a new career in computer programming. Later that night, however, outside the Waterfront nightclub, he got into a fight. After being punched in the face, Christopher was briefly knocked unconscious and lost a tooth. An ambulance was called, and Christopher was taken to Hull Royal Infirmary, accompanied by police officers. His injuries were not deemed life-threatening, and he was discharged, after which the police drove him to the police station.
Exactly what happened in that police van during the short one-mile journey remains shrouded in mystery; indeed it has never properly been investigated. What we do know is that by the time he arrived in the police station, he was unconscious again, had lost another tooth, and had received two additional injuries (a cut to the lip and a cut above the eye). He was then dragged into the custody suite with his trousers round his ankles and his belt missing, and left face down and handcuffed on the floor. No attempt was made to put him into the recovery position, and CCTV footage shows officers standing around chatting as he gasps for breath, still unconscious. Within 12 minutes he would be dead, with officers making racist comments and monkey noises over his corpse. It was a level of contempt that has characterized the state’s attitude towards Christopher and his family ever since.
Christopher’s sister Janet began campaigning for justice for her brother just three months after his death. Her tireless efforts have served to keep the case in the public eye, thwarting the police’s attempts to brush it under the carpet, and have resulted in some astounding revelations and admissions. Yet, to date, justice has still not been done; the police who caused his death have never been properly held to account or punished for their actions, whilst Janet has borne the brunt of a vindictive campaign against both her and her brother’s memory which continues to this day – but which began immediately after his death.
In the days following Christopher’s death, six officers raided his flat. The flat was then sealed off for two weeks whilst the police laboriously itemized and mapped out every item in the home. Needless to say this is not usual procedure for dealing with a possible murder victim; indeed, an official report by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (the IPCC) later noted that it was “more in keeping with what might be expected if Mr Alder were a suspect rather than a victim.” What seems likely is that this raid, far from having anything to do with investigating Christopher’s death, was rather a desperate attempt to find something – anything – that could be used to smear his name. For this is usual procedure: one only has to recall the lies that were put out following the executions of Mark Duggan and Jean Charles de Menezes to realize that the smearing by police of their victims following a death in custody is standard practice.
The raid, however, turned up nothing.
So the next step, it seems, was to smear his family. An investigation by the IPCC in 2006 revealed that following Christopher’s death, Humberside Police had dredged up social service records dating back to the births of all the Alder children – Christopher, Richard, Emmanuel, Stephen, and Janet, who were brought up in care. The IPCC report noted that the records “did not seem to have any relevance” to the case; it did not speculate on what the real purpose of obtaining the records might have been.
So the police were certainly busy in the aftermath of Christopher’s death. What they were not busy doing, however, was investigating the actual circumstances of his death.
Given that Christopher died at the hands of Humberside police, the investigation into their role in his death was carried out by West Yorkshire police. However, they proved unable – or more likely unwilling – to follow even the most routine of procedures. Whether he had been assaulted by any of the officers he encountered that night was never investigated. Worse, all the evidence which would help to establish this was allowed to be destroyed. The police van was cleaned, blood samples and clothing – both Christopher’s and the officers’ – were destroyed without being tested, and CS gas canisters from the police van were disposed of. Christopher’s missing belt and tooth were never located.
Humberside police, meanwhile, were mounting a prosecution of their own. Jason Paul had been involved in the fight with Christopher that night; initially trying to break it up, he ended up punching Christopher after receiving blows himself. Yet despite the pathologist’s conclusion that this punch had played no role in Christopher’s death, when Jason went to the police station to assist with the inquiry the following day he was arrested on suspicion of murder. He was eventually charged with “GBH with intent.” It would not be until three months later that the spurious charges were finally dropped. Jason Paul eventually mounted a successful civil court case against the police, which found that he had been falsely imprisoned and the prosecution had been malicious. The jury unanimously agreed that it was “more likely than not that the police charged [Mr Paul] with causing GBH with intent to deflect potential criticism of the [actual] circumstances of Christopher Alder’s death.” Police were ordered to pay £30,000 damages.
Whilst the police were busy destroying evidence, pursuing their scapegoat, and digging for dirt on their victim, the work of actually investigating Christopher’s death was, from the start, left entirely to his family and their supporters.
An early victory for the family, however, came in 2000 at the inquest into Christopher’s death. Despite the refusal of any of the officers involved to answer questions, and despite the forensic experts’ work being severely hampered by the police’s destruction of crucial evidence, the jury concluded that Christopher died from “positional asphyxia” due to neglect – that is, his death was directly caused by the position he was left in by the police. The result was a unanimous verdict of unlawful killing. Such verdicts are extremely uncommon. Of 509 suspicious deaths in custody between 1991 and 2014 investigated by the Institute for Race Relations, only 12 resulted in verdicts of unlawful killing; often, the coroner will not even allow such a verdict to be considered. So this was, in the words of Janet Alder’s lawyer Ruth Bundey, a “high point” in the campaign – and it paved the way for a prosecution of the five officers involved in Christopher’s death. But the trial would prove to be a travesty.
Prosecutions are even more uncommon than unlawful killing verdicts; indeed, the Butler report, published just a year after Christopher’s death, had explicitly criticized the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for their reluctance to prosecute police officers. What Christopher’s case seems to demonstrate, however, is their absolute determination that when prosecutions that do go ahead will have no chance of a successful conviction. As Janet said of the case, “The CPS did the job of the defense – they eradicated any evidence of police wrongdoing.”
The trial began in 2002, four years after Christopher’s death. The officers were charged with gross negligence, manslaughter and misconduct in high office. But as Janet explained to me in 2011, “I’d wanted [the CPS] to investigate why he’d received additional injuries and lost an additional tooth on transit to the police station; why his belt was missing and his trousers were down; why their van had been cleaned, their clothes dry-cleaned, and CS gas canisters destroyed. But on all those things, the CPS totally ignored me…They had never ever even considered whether an assault by the police officers could have caused Christopher’s additional injuries. I was very very shocked at that.”
It got worse: “The evidence that incriminated these police officers was not even put into the case.” The audio of the monkey noises, for example, was never presented in court. But that was not where the problems ended. Even where evidence was submitted, it was submitted in a way that ensured it could not be used: “When it came to the medical evidence for gross negligence and manslaughter, they conflicted the evidence. The evidence to suggest that Christopher would have died [even if his injuries had been treated] was put together with the evidence collected by the family to say that he would have survived.”
With the evidence conflicted in this way, the judge concluded he had no choice but to throw it out. The trial had collapsed before it ever really got under way, as a direct result of the CPS’s handling of the evidence – and all five officers were acquitted. As Janet put it: “I always felt, from the beginning, that this case was set to fail. It basically proved me right. And because this case didn’t get past the halfway stage – which I believe the CPS were well aware it would not – the police officers once again were able to evade answering any questions whatsoever.”
The following year, an internal disciplinary hearing was held – the police investigating themselves once again. All five were cleared of any wrongdoing and allowed to take early retirement. Despite the inquest’s ruling that the police had unlawfully killed Christopher, all involved had walked free, without ever having had to answer questions about their conduct except in private to their own colleagues. As Janet told me, “There is absolutely no disciplinary system for when somebody dies at their hands – no accountability whatsoever.”
Janet was undeterred. Together with lawyer Ruth Bundey, she mounted two further court cases: one at the European Court of Human Rights, and a civil case against the CPS for their mishandling of the prosecution. Then in 2004, the Home Office ordered the IPCC to conduct a review of the whole investigation into Christopher’s death. Its findings, published in 2006, were damning, highlighting “serious failings” in three areas: “i) the individual conduct of four of the police officers involved, which amounted to serious neglect of duty; ii) subsequent mistakes by senior police officers in their response to investigating a death in custody; and iii) major systemic failures including the presence of negative racial stereotyping in the treatment of Mr Alder, the poor level of working practices between police and medical staff regarding transfers of responsibility for care, and failings in the police disciplinary system.”
Thus the IPCC had not only reiterated the inquest finding that the officers’ neglect had directly caused Christopher’s death, but also slammed the investigation and effectively rendered the verdict of the internal disciplinary hearing null and void. Yet, bizarrely, other than recommending an “unreserved apology” to the family, the report suggested that no further action be taken against the police.
A full five years later, Judge Penelope Belcher finally heard the civil case Janet had brought against the CPS. This case proved what Janet had always suspected – that the CPS had never bothered investigating what happened to Christopher in the police van. As Janet explained, “In the civil case, I asked the CPS whether an additional assault could have caused the additional injuries, and they said yes. So I asked them if they had investigated this, and they said no. I asked why not, and they said they thought the investigating officer was going to ask those questions.”
In other words, even when collecting evidence for a prosecution the CPS were scared to step on the toes of the very police they were supposed to be prosecuting, preferring to leave the “difficult questions” for the police to ask themselves. In her summing up, the judge concluded that she shared “Miss Alder’s concerns as to the possibility that racial discrimination played some part in the actions of the police officers on the night that Christopher Alder died” as well as “her concerns as to the standard of the investigation undertaken by West Yorkshire Police into the actions of the Humberside officers.”
Once again, officialdom had admitted that racism played a part in Christopher’s death and that the death itself was never properly investigated. But there was still no suggestion that the perpetrators of any of this should actually be brought to justice.
Then, eight months later, in November 2011, Janet’s case was finally due at the European Court, eight years after she had first lodged it. The British government had fought tooth and nail against the case being heard. But then, on the eve of the case commencing, the government issued an extraordinary statement admitting that the police had breached articles 2,3 and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights in their treatment of Christopher – that is, they had breached his right to life, to freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment and to freedom from discrimination. The British government was effectively admitting its own police were guilty of a racist killing, and that this had never been properly investigated. One might have thought such an admission would be the trigger for a proper investigation to actually be finally carried out. It was not. Once again, despite what was now a fourth official admission of wrongdoing, killing and cover-up, no action was taken.
But the full scale of the police’s contempt for the Alder family was still to be revealed.
In 1999, Nigerian-born Grace Kamara died in Hull of natural causes. Immediately, her close friend Christine Omoregie began the laborious process of applying for visas for Grace’s family in Nigeria to attend the funeral. Inexplicably, the visas were subjected to endless delays. “I spent about £3,000 trying to get relatives over,” Christine later told BBC News, “and waited a decade for a visa to be granted.” It was not until 2011 that Grace Kamara’s relatives finally had their visa approved. Twelve years after her death, her family prepared for the burial, scheduled for November 4, 2011.
Grace’s body was to be buried in an open casket; it is part of Nigerian custom that the family see the body at the funeral. After initially attempting to frustrate the family’s requests to see the body, however, the Council eventually made a terrible admission. Grace’s body was not, in fact, in the mortuary where it was supposed to be. It had been buried in Christopher Alder’s grave: back in 2000, the Alder family had been given the body of 77 year old Grace Kamara and told it was Christopher; and they had buried her in his place. The Home Office, it seems, had collaborated in covering this up ever since with their interminable visa delays, presumably in the hope that Kamara’s family would either die off, or accept a closed-casket funeral after so much time had passed. Indeed, when Alan Johnson – Home Secretary during the repeated visa denials – was interviewed about the affair on ITN, his usual unflappably slick and confident persona was transformed into a twitchy and defensive bundle of nerves. Every fiber of his body screamed: “Rumbled.”
A criminal investigation was ordered, to be carried out this time by South Yorkshire police. It concluded in May 2013 that mortuary workers did indeed have a “case to answer,” and had missed at least 10 opportunities to report what had happened. But in October that year, the CPS announced it would not be prosecuting anyone. A review of the decision was ordered: so the CPS dutifully “reviewed” the decision, only to repeat their original conclusion in March 2014.
Coverage of the scandal at the time tended to describe it as a “mix-up” and a “mistake,” which only came to light when Christopher’s body was “discovered” in the mortuary in November 2011. We now know this is false. Once again, it fell to the family to discover the truth. A Freedom of Information request to the Human Tissue Authority, lodged by Janet Alder, revealed that Christopher Alder’s body had the correct documentation attached to it all along; it was even signed off under his name when it had been moved to another mortuary in 2005. It had not been mysteriously “discovered” in 2011; the authorities had known exactly where he was from the start. Janet has her own explanation: as she told Press TV last year, “I don’t believe it was a mistake. I believe it was a punishment to me personally for fighting against the system.”
It is a harsh verdict, but one that is supported by further revelations over what exactly had been happening to Christopher’s body all this time. In August 2014, Humberside police took the unusual step of referring itself to the IPCC when a number of officers claimed Alder’s body had been used for some form of police training. Further investigation revealed that 59 officers may have been shown Christopher’s frozen body during the time he was in the mortuary. The IPCC declined to investigate, saying it was a matter for Humberside police themselves to investigate. The same force, that is, that killed Christopher in the first place and then spent years gloating over his dead body.
For Janet, however, there was more to come. In 2013, it emerged that the Metropolitan police had kept the family of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence under illegal surveillance. In response to the scandal, all police forces were ordered to check their records for evidence of surveillance relating to the investigation. That was when it emerged that Humberside police had been illegally spying on both Janet Alder and her lawyer. This, however, was not a shock for Janet so much as a confirmation of what she had always suspected.
The IPCC this time did deign to investigate, and issued their findings to the CPS in May. It is now in the hands of the CPS whether to prosecute. Don’t hold your breath. As Janet told me: “I don’t expect anything from these people now. All I want is to expose them.”
Darren Cumberbatch was fit and healthy at 32-years-old when he left his family home on the evening of Sunday 9th July to return to the bail hostel where he was staying in Nuneaton. For reasons which remain unclear, however, police arrived at the hostel later that night, during which time, say the police, Darren ‘became unwell’ in their presence. This is putting it mildly. By the time they dropped him off at hospital later that night, he was covered in bruises and burns, later telling a friend he had been tasered nine times. Ten days later he died from his injuries. He was the third young black man to die in UK police custody or ‘following police contact’ in as many weeks.
A justice campaign has been established by Darren’s friends and family to pressure the authorities to reveal what happened and to hold those responsible to account. Their first public meeting was held on Wednesday 27th July, which was attended by around 500 people. The meeting led to calls from the community for the immediate suspension of the officers involved, and for an immediate suspension of the use of tasers, which are thought to have played a role in Darren’s death. Dan Glazebrook interviews one of the campaign organizers, Desmond Jaddoo.
Well, what we know is this. After leaving the family home on the 9th of July, he returned to the hostel at some point. And we know overnight, either the late hours of 9th July or the early hours of the 10th July, the police were called to the hostel; for what reason, we’re unaware. Contact then took place with the police which ended up with Darren being arrested; but when he was placed in the back of a police van, instead of them taking him to custody, the police took him to the George Eliot hospital. They never told his sister Carla, who is his next of kin, that he was hospitalised until the Wednesday, which was the 12th of July. That day, the family went down there, and he had a lot of unexplained injuries: he was battered and bruised, he had burn marks on his feet, parts of his body were swollen, he had various cuts and abrasions that were all unexplained. Then on the 19th of July his injuries were insurmountable and his life support machine was switched off, so he sadly passed away. So what we know in a nutshell is that he was fit and healthy when he left the family home on the Sunday, and then between Sunday night and Monday morning he had sustained several injuries following police contact whereby he ended up in hospital. And that ultimately led to him losing his life.
Now, it’s our understanding that force was used when the police attended. It’s our understanding that a baton was used, that CS spray was used, and that a taser was used. And it’s our understanding as well that Darren told a friend – because he was still communicating then – that he was tasered up to nine times. Now that’s overly excessive because it’s known that people [are lucky to] survive being tasered three times or more. Now the important thing is this: this was what’s called a ‘serious injury event’. This means that Warwickshire police should have reported this to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) on the 10th of July because clearly this man had been hospitalised with serious injuries. However, it was not reported to the IPCC until the 19th of July when he died. So that’s an inexcusable delay.
And what do we know about the IPCC investigation? Do we know, for example, is the IPCC treating Macintyre house [where the initial contact between Darren and the police took place] as a crime scene? Is it interviewing the police as suspects or as witnesses?
At the moment, it’s not a criminal investigation. It’s an IPCC independent investigation. However, based on the evidence gathering they can review that at any time. So right now the terms of reference have been agreed, and they’re anticipating between six and nine months for an investigation. But in terms of a criminal investigation, the door on that has not been closed, thankfully.
In previous cases like these, the police have gone to great lengths to cover up what they’ve done. For example Habs Ullah, who died on the 3rd of July 2008 just 90 minutes after being stopped by police officers, police statements were doctored at the behest of the Police Federation; in the case of Christopher Alder who died in police custody in 1998, crucial evidence like gas cylinders and police clothing was destroyed. Can a campaign like this one put pressure on the IPCC to make sure these kinds of things aren’t taking place right now?
Well, I will tell you this – we are holding the IPCC to account. And the idea today, that we’ve tried to show at our demonstrations, is that there’s strength in numbers: to send a clear message that this is a serious campaign; there is serious support for the family and that support can only grow. But importantly, what it signifies is that people want answers – and we want the truth.
The purpose of last week’s march was also to pay our respects to Darren where he fell, by lighting candles outside Macintyre house. But it also shows that we’re good people: it was a well behaved march and one of the things we have to show is that we are better than what we’re stereotyped to be. We don’t need no special treatment, and the most important thing, which I said outside the police station, was this – it is no longer open season on the black community. Because the special treatment sometimes that is dished out to the black community is just totally unacceptable. It’s ungodly as well.
The movement against police brutality in the US has been making serious waves. Uprisings across Baltimore and Ferguson in particular have made global headlines, and a new movement, dubbed ‘Black Lives Matter’, has seared itself onto public consciousness. Revolutionaries within the movement have been calling for Black Community Control of the police, under their modified slogan Black Power Matters, and the movement as a whole has succeeded in making police brutality a live issue across the US which no politician can afford to ignore.
It is perhaps with an eye to averting such an outcome in Britain that British Home Secretary Theresa May announced in March that she would be launching the first ever public inquiry into deaths in police custody. Though receiving far less coverage, deaths ‘following police contact’ are a major issue in this country as well, with 1,433 taking place in England and Wales between 1990 and 2012, according to campaigning group Inquest. However, not a single police officer was convicted over any of these deaths.
Names such as Christopher Alder, Azelle Rodney, Sean Rigg, Kingsley Burrell and many others have become synonymous with police violence, racism, cover-up – and impunity. This year has seen a number of bitterly disappointing legal verdicts for the families and campaign groups which have been fighting for truth and justice for their loved ones and, with anger growing, the government will not have forgotten that it was precisely such a case – the police execution of Mark Duggan, and particularly the contempt with which his family was treated after the killing – that triggered a youth insurgency across inner-city England in August 2011.
So far, exact details of the inquiry have yet to emerge. And while May has expressed her desire to tackle a number of issues around deaths in custody, no concrete changes have emerged yet.
Deborah Coles, Director of Inquest – a support group providing legal advice to families of those who have died in state custody – gives me her response to the proposed inquiry. ‘We have given it a guarded welcome,’ she says, ‘but there are 2 issues for me. One is that there has been no consultation with the families or with Inquest about the terms of reference, and the terms of reference are going to be critical. But there is also that sense of déjà vu. In 30 years of our organization’s existence, there has been review after review, and there is a whole wealth of evidence out there about what the problems are. The key issue is the fact that recommendations are not implemented.’
Harmit Athwal, who co-authored ‘Dying for Justice’, an Institute of Race Relations report into deaths in custody last year, agrees with Coles. ‘In terms of the IPCC [the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which investigate deaths in police custody], you see the same mistakes being made again and again: investigations take an incredibly long time, a failure to recommend prosecutions and then, when a case gets to an inquest and there’s a critical verdict, it’s coming out about officers conferring,’ explains Athwal.
The end result from all these inquiries is huge documents that take months and years to come out and don’t really have any effect in terms of the numbers of deaths
Ken Fero, whose 2001 film Injustice was critical in bringing deaths in police custody into the public consciousness, is even more unequivocal: ‘It’s another public inquiry. It won’t be effective in terms of preventing police officers killing people. It’s just repeating what we’ve had before in terms of investigations – inquiries into the IPCC, inquiries into the police investigation system, judicial inquiries into the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service]. The end result from all these inquiries is huge documents that take months and years to come out and don’t really have any effect in terms of the numbers of deaths.’
So what will have an effect? What is necessary to bring about justice for those who have died at the hands of the police? Ken Fero is emphatic that ‘there is no need for any new legislation. There is the law of murder and manslaughter and these need to be implemented for police officers. It’s as simple as that. The only change there needs to be is in the determination of the CPS to actually prosecute and the determination of the IPCC to investigate.’
This reluctance of the CPS and the IPCC to rigorously investigate and prosecute is one raised time and again by campaigners on the issue. As Deborah Coles outlines it, ‘One of the problems with the whole investigation process has been the reluctance to approach deaths in police custody as if a potential crime has been committed. We’ve seen a number of cases where we would have expected that successful prosecutions would have been brought.’
Cole specifically mentions Azelle Rodney, whose death triggered a public inquiry which concluded that there was no lawful justification for his killing, and Jimmy Mubenga, suffocated during an illegal chokehold by officers from the private security company G4S. ‘And you have to ask how it is,’ she continues, ‘that there has never been a successful prosecution of a police officer for murder or manslaughter in the last 50 years. Because that does not reflect the evidence that has come out during the investigation and inquest process into these deaths, particularly following the use of force or gross neglect. And that begs very important questions about policing in a democracy – that people can die in really disturbing circumstances and nobody is held to account.’ Athwal agrees, explaining that the IPCC issues critical reports, ‘but that it is then incumbent on the CPS to act upon them – and in 99 per cent of cases, they say there is not enough evidence to prosecute.’
No new inquiry is needed to reveal these CPS failures. The Butler Review had explicitly criticized them back in 1999. But, as Lee Bridges has noted, ‘the report of this review published in 2003 is notable more for the proposed reforms that it rejected than the changes in CPS practices which it introduced.’
Will any real change result from this inquiry? Time will tell. But the signs are not good
So one concern is clearly whether this inquiry will be any different from its predecessors in terms of its recommendations actually being carried out. But Harmit Athwal points to another worrying aspect: ‘One of the issues for us is that it doesn’t plan to look at old or current cases; so I am wondering how it can examine the issue in any thoroughness.’ Ken Fero agrees: ‘One of the caveats is that this inquiry won’t look at previous cases. So the question is – why not, if Theresa May is really concerned about what’s been going on? The only way you can stop the culture of impunity is by looking at the roots of it.’
Indeed, Fero argues that this will fatally undermine the entire inquiry: ‘What’s going to prevent officers killing is the realistic likelihood that they are going to go to jail. So the fact that she’s not willing to reopen cases – because there are cases where we have had undeniable evidence that officers have committed manslaughter and, in a few cases, murder – means that all the changes to the system for the future won’t make any difference to the culture of impunity that the police hold.’
Will any real change result from this inquiry? Time will tell. But the signs are not good.
Over the last three months, I have been writing a short series of articles on some of the horrific deaths in police custody that have taken place in Britain in recent years and the fight for justice waged by the families of the victims and their supporters. Each story is unique, but there are certain similarities, depressingly familiar to those who have followed such cases over the years.
These include: the brutal use of force by police – even once victims are incapacitated; neglect of their victims when they are clearly in need of medical attention; omissions, lies and cover-ups over what actually happened; and an absolute refusal to administer justice by all the various state agencies tasked with doing so. All of it together amounts to one thing – the effective impunity of the British police. And, no surprise, Britain’s Asian and, particularly, African-Caribbean communities are bearing the brunt of it.
Enter British Home Secretary Theresa May, who is apparently promising to change all this, portraying herself as all but the saviour of the black community, fearlessly taking on the police in a battle to reign in their abuses. She has addressed a community meeting in Brixton, met with the families of two of those who have died in custody (Sean Rigg and Olaseni Lewis), and written an Op-Ed for The Voice, Britain’s largest-circulation black newspaper. She has even done something which no Home Secretary – perhaps even no British government official – has apparently done before: admit that deaths occurring in custody is a problem, and that the families campaigning for justice have been denied it. Specifically, last month, she acknowledged the “pain and suffering of families still looking for answers, who have encountered not compassion and redress from the authorities, but what they feel as evasiveness and obstruction.”
May has made no bones about the failings of the police. Her speech to the Police Federation last year was unequivocal, beginning with a roll-call of some of the latest scandals to embroil the force: “In the last few years, we have seen the Leveson Inquiry. The appalling conclusions of the Hillsborough independent panel. The death of Ian Tomlinson and the sacking of PC Harwood. The ongoing inquiry by an independent panel into the murder of Daniel Morgan. The first sacking of a chief constable for gross misconduct in modern times. The investigation of more than ten senior officers for acts of alleged misconduct and corruption. Allegations of rigged recorded crime statistics. The sacking of PCs Keith Wallis, James Glanville and Gillian Weatherley after Plebgate. Worrying reports by the inspectorate about stop and search and domestic violence…”
Then came the stern warning: “Make no mistake. If you do not make significant progress towards the implementation of the Normington reforms [36 reforms proposed by a review led by David Normington in January 2014], if the Federation does not start to turn itself around, you must not be under the impression that the government will let things remain as they are…”
Back in 2011, May had ordered a review of the police’s use of stop and search, which, she subsequently pointed out, is “excessive and inappropriate” and disproportionately targeted at Black and Asian people. The review revealed that over a quarter of the million or so stop and searches conducted that year may have been carried out illegally.
In April last year, she threatened the police with a barrage of statutory reforms to the practice unless the police improved their performance: “I want to make myself absolutely clear:” she told the House of Commons, “if the numbers do not come down, if stop and search does not become more targeted, if those stop-to-arrest ratios do not improve considerably, the government will return with primary legislation to make those things happen.”
The following August, all 43 police forces in England and Wales voluntarily signed up to her reform program, which included restrictions on the use of “no suspicion” searches, the recording of the outcome of every stop and search, and the involvement of community groups in observing searches being carried out and triggering action against their misuse. As from this month, details of stop and searches carried out by every force – including age, ethnicity, and outcome of each search – will be published on the national police website.
Now Theresa May has turned to deaths in custody. In October 2014, at a conference part-organised by Black Mental Health UK, she announced a number of measures she claimed would tackle the problem. Specifically, she promised to create more alternatives to police custody for those with mental health difficulties, and more transparency in the use of restraint and tasering.
A number of explanations are possible. The most obvious is the quest for the “black vote.” At the Tories’ 2002 annual conference, Theresa May famously lambasted her party for having an appeal and popular base that was “too narrow.” “You know what some people call us,” she said, “The Nasty Party.” If they wanted to get reelected, she argued, they would have to “diversify” their support base – and with the Tories’ current wafer-thin majority, this remains as true as ever. With almost two thirds of African-Caribbeans seeing the police as systematic liars, taking on the police could be a smart electoral move – especially taking them on in the areas in which police racism most visibly manifests itself: stop and search, and deaths in custody.
An editorial in The Voice in summer 2013 suggested this was already paying dividends, with May’s work on stop and search specifically identified as a sign that the Conservatives were gaining ground from Labour in terms of appealing to black and minority voters. With the non-white population growing – and May widely seen to be positioning herself as a future party leader – this could all be a very astute attempt to build up a solid base of support.
However, there is almost certainly more to it than that. For the Tory party’s battles with the police go far beyond the issues outlined here; indeed, ever since coming to power in 2010, the party has been involved in more or less open war with the Police Federation (the closest thing the police are allowed to have to a trade union) over the austerity agenda.
Thatcher had been very careful to exempt police from the attacks to which the rest of the workforce were subjected – even significantly increasing their pay (not to mention providing lucrative overtime opportunities during the miners’ strike) whilst everyone else was seeing theirs cut. Cameron’s party have not gone down this road, arguing instead that the crisis today is so deep that no one (no workers, anyway) should be exempt. And this attempt to push cuts and privatization onto the police has sparked fierce opposition from within the police force, with a 30,000 strong demo by the police held in 2012 quite possibly the biggest political action by the police since they went on strike in 1919 (when the government genuinely feared revolution). Given that Theresa May has so far threatened a lot more than she has actually delivered in terms of statutory reform, could it be that she is simply using the threat of removing the police’s time-honored impunity as leverage to drive through the cuts agenda?
Personally, I am both not as cynical as this – but also much more so. Although it remains to be proven, I believe Theresa May could well be genuine about her desire to tackle black deaths in custody – not, however, because she wants to see fewer black people killed, but more – far more – and not because she wants to move us away from being a police state, but ever further toward it.
Let me explain. We are living through times of an unprecedented emerging crisis of the capitalist world system, both economically and militarily. Economically, the world system is tipping once again into a classic overproduction crisis, of a type endemic to capitalism: a crisis which re-emerges with greater force and destructive potential each time around. Within capitalism, overall demand is never enough to consume all the goods that are produced – because people, as a whole, are not paid the full value of their labor. For some time, this crisis was staved off with the “credit trick”: artificially boosting demand by lending people money to buy things they could not afford – but this collapsed in 2007-8. Capital, desperate for profitable sources of investment, then flooded into property, “commodities” and government bonds, sparking price bubbles in each one. One by one, these bubbles are now bursting.
The day of reckoning – the day, that is, when banks suddenly realize their “assets” are only worth half, or a third, or a quarter, of what they had previously been valued at, and their cash machines stop giving out money – is drawing near.
The Conservatives understand this very well, better perhaps than most of the left; after all, they have had more experience of navigating this system than probably anyone else in the world. So they are preparing for this future. One way they are preparing is through militarism: endless wars to destroy rival capital, and to create the basis for more profitable investment of their own. Libya was here a textbook case: a war costing barely £300 million produced investment opportunities (reserved, we now know, for the conquering forces) of £300 billion.
But this war was just the prelude to bigger conflicts, becoming a launchpad for proxy wars against Syria, Mali, Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia. These in turn are laying the groundwork for yet more future wars, being prepared as we speak. People do, and will increasingly, flee these battlefields. Yet Europe would rather sink their boats than let them flee to Europe, and have already turned this desire into official policy. Economic crisis is leading increasingly to ever more desperate and depraved forms of warfare against the global South – that is, against the homelands of a large section of the British population.
Malcolm X said it clearly when he said, “You can’t understand what’s going on in Mississippi if you don’t understand what’s going on in the Congo.” What he meant is that the lynchings and discrimination being experienced by African Americans were part and parcel of the US and Western Europe’s ongoing war against African liberation, and third world liberation as a whole; part of the colonizers’ permanent aggression against Africa, Asia and Latin America. He always fought for black and minority communities in North America to see themselves as part of this worldwide struggle, and to identify with the homelands in their struggle against such oppression.
It was for this reason that he was seen as such a threat by the authorities, and for this reason that the Black Panther Party, who continued to put this thinking into practice after this death, were identified by the FBI as the number one threat to US national security. The presence of black and Asian people in Europe and its extensions has always been seen as a threat precisely because of their potential allegiance to their homelands in the ongoing imperialist wars against them. They have always been seen as a potential “fifth column.”
Yet their treatment as a so-called fifth column, and the violence towards them this entails, has the effect of reinforcing their skepticism and hostility toward the state, and deepening their sympathies towards the anti-imperialist movements and states abroad. Racist state violence, then, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: the state’s permanent suspicion about the loyalty of its black and Asian population creates a very real basis for disloyalty; by treating them as “prone to rebellion,” it prompts them to rebel.
Being subjected to racist violence by the British state automatically creates a kinship with those subjected to racist violence by that same state abroad, which is the victims of British wars and economic subjugation. If she is serious about dealing with racist police violence and impunity (which, I reiterate, remains to be seen) Theresa May could in fact be attempting nothing less than the final obliteration of any identification of its non-white population to their blitzed and besieged homelands.
Ultimately what is being attempted is a form of racist flattery: where once black people were effectively told “You’re no better than the n*****s in Africa,” Theresa May is now effectively telling them: “You’re nothing like those n*****s in Africa: they deserve to be drowned and droned and beheaded; but you are worth so much more’.” This is a bold new racism for the 21st century: all British citizens, no matter what their skin colour, should be able to support the drowning, strafing and droning of Arabs and Africans.
Yet just as violence and oppression is being ramped up abroad, so too at home. The combined reality of permanent mass unemployment and a benefits system unable to provide basic subsistence is leading to a growing underclass potentially drawn to revolt, and likely to be drawn into frequent contact with the police. The state’s response has been mass surveillance and, increasingly, mass incarceration.
The public have been led to accept this increasing intrusion of the state into their lives on the grounds of Islamophobic “anti-terrorist” propaganda and hate stories about “feral youth.” Yet police racism and police violence continue to be major fault lines in relations between police and a large section of the public, a major obstacle to the acquiescence of the black community in accepting this massively increased role for the police and security services in the governance of Britain. To co-opt black and Asian people into accepting the structural violence of mass poverty and incarceration requires a limitation on the arbitrary meting out of individual violence and persecution by racist officers. Remember that, against a backdrop of the massive use of racist stop and search, widespread unemployment and benefits cuts, it took the execution of Mark Duggan to actually trigger a riot.
Theresa May, then, is attempting to improve police relations with the black community for a very simple reason: to buy their acquiescence in her war against the poor at home and abroad. We should not be fooled. Through its war on both Libya and migrants in the Mediterranean, this government has facilitated a massive ramping up of violence against Africans, and is preparing the grounds for mass incarceration at home.
Nevertheless, even as we recognize this, and without any illusions, we must use this moment to push for an end to police impunity: to insist on an end to all the institutional practices that allow the police to escape accountability and to demand murdering officers are prosecuted. Genuine community control is the only way to ensure this happens. But we must never forget that it is not only police officers, but Theresa May too, who must be held to account for her crimes.
In March 2011, Kingsley Burrell called the police requesting help, fearing he and his son were at risk from an armed gang. By the end of the day, Burrell had been arrested, beaten and had his son taken from him. Four days later he was dead.
Since then, it has been a long, hard struggle by Kingsley’s family and friends to find out the truth about what happened – but last month, during an excruciating five-week inquest, that truth finally came out.
When they arrived on the scene and found no evidence of anyone threatening Kingsley, the police decided to arrest him under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act, claiming he was delusional. Both he and his son were taken away in an ambulance, where the police set upon Kingsley in an attempt to forcibly remove him from his son. During the inquest, it emerged that Kingsley had not been asked to relinquish his son before police attacked him. One officer admitted in typically guarded language: “I accept that to communicate to everybody, in an ideal situation, that would have been done.”
Kingsley was then driven to the Oleaster mental health unit of the local hospital and later transferred to another mental health facility, the Mary Seacole Unit. What exactly happened to him during this time is unclear, but his sister Kadisha visited him in the unit the following day, telling the inquest “Kingsley had three lumps, one on his forehead. I said to [his partner] Chantelle ‘take a photo of that’.”
“Kingsley said to me, ‘I can’t move’. He couldn’t move the upper part of his body… He couldn’t move his head, couldn’t move his body, couldn’t move his shoulders,” she said, adding he had deep marks around his wrists. She later discovered that her brother had been left handcuffed to the hospital floor for five or six hours, had not been allowed a drink of water or a visit to the toilet and was subsequently left to urinate on himself. He told her that after he requested the handcuffs be loosened the guards tightened them even more.
On March 30th, police were called back to the Mary Seacole Unit after staff there reported he was acting aggressively; when pressed for more detail in the inquest it transpired that he had been making ‘stabbing motions’ with his toothbrush.
This was apparently all the excuse the police needed to launch another blistering attack on the man they had left barely able to walk just three days previously. Kingsley over the course of the next two and half hours was again beaten, this time whilst sedated, handcuffed and in leg restraints. During this time, he was transferred by police to the Queen Elizabeth hospital, first to emergency to stitch up a head injury he had sustained during the course of the restraint, and then back to the Oleaster Unit of the hospital. During the ambulance journey, a towel was wrapped around Kingsley’s head; when asked why, it was explained that it was because he had been spitting. The restraints were finally removed on arrival at the Oleaster seclusion unit. A staff member present told the inquest that whilst removing the restraints, one officer “knelt on Kingsley’s back between his shoulder blades” whilst others punched his thighs “with a lot of force,” including with the butt of a police baton. He noted: “These were methods that I had never seen before—they were alarming and shocking.” He explained how the police then left Kingsley face down on the bed with the blanket still wrapped around his head. He was motionless.
During this time, Kingsley’s respiratory rate had been dropping; since he was coming out of sedation it should have been rising. The inquest revealed that this drop had been noted but not acted upon on several occasions. Even when it dropped to below half the usual rate, there was apparently “no urgency” about the situation.
Eventually, Kingsley went into cardiac arrest. Community activist Desmond Jaddoo’s blog of the inquest hearings records what happened next: “This afternoon we heard from the Doctor who was on call when Kingsley went into cardiac arrest and it was a complete case of confusion, as she claims that she was told to go to the wrong ward and when she arrived there, there were no compressions being done and they placed him on the floor for a solid surface for compressions. Furthermore, we went on to hear the wrong breathing mask was used initially, along with the defibrillator not having any pads and there was a delay whilst an alternative one was obtained from a different ward.”
Kingsley Burrell was pronounced dead the next day. Last month, the five-week inquest concluded that the police had used excessive force and contributed to his death, as did the covering left over his head, and the neglect he so clearly suffered. It was a damning indictment not only of the police, but also of the various mental health workers and ambulance staff who allowed the brutal treatment to continue, and of the Crown Prosecution Service who refused to prosecute anyone over the death. Had the coroner allowed ‘unlawful killing’ to be considered, it is quite possible the jury would have reached this verdict.
Following the verdict, the all-too-familiar refrain of “lessons learnt” began to emanate from all corners of officialdom. Coroner Louise Hunt pronounced: “The only consolation to family members is lessons can be learnt from such a tragedy.” West Midlands Police Assistant Chief Constable Garry Forsyth said, “Crucial lessons have been learned from this tragic case and how the force manages people who are detained with mental and physical health needs.” Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson told the press: “Clearly more lessons need to be learned by all the agencies involved so that these tragic incidents are not repeated.”
This is the same refrain that is churned out every time somebody dies while in police custody. Time and again, families are forced to battle for the truth, often for years, against all the odds – but when that truth is revealed, and the states’ culpability in the death of their loved ones is revealed, the state refuses to administer justice. Instead, it calls for ‘lessons to be learned,’ as if police officers beating a man to death is akin to a schoolboy failing a math test. As the chair of the Kingsley Burrell justice campaign Maxie Hayles commented, “We are constantly told that ‘lessons are being learned.’ The black community is totally fed up with hearing this rubbish. It’s almost like we are an experimental project.”
The truth of the matter is that, precisely because justice is never done, these ‘lessons’ are never actually learned. The Institute of Race Relations published a report into deaths in custody in March of this year, examining over 500 black and minority ethnic deaths in custody that have occurred in the UK since 1990. Their report noted that “despite narrative verdicts warning of dangerous procedures and the proliferation of guidelines, lessons are not being learnt: people die in similar ways year on year.”
Indeed, every aspect of the Kingsley Burrell case is depressingly familiar to campaigners on police brutality. Every single element of ‘what went wrong’ had already contributed to previous deaths on several occasions, and everyone has already, we have been told, resulted in ‘lessons being learnt,’ long before Kingsley’s fateful call to the police in 2011.
One such lesson is the lesson of ‘institutional racism’. This was the term used in the 1999 MacPherson report into the death of teenager Stephen Lawrence, which concluded that the police mishandling of that case was a result of the institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police. This racism results in the black community being “under-policed as victims and over-policed as suspects” in the memorable words of campaigner Stafford Scott, with racial stereotyping leading both to the excessive use of force against black people and an assumption that they are deviant.
Despite the ‘lessons learnt’ from the Lawrence case, both factors clearly played a role in Kingsley’s death. PC Shorthouse, a six-foot-four tall police officer involved in Kingsley’s death, told the inquest that his “knees were knocking together” in fear of dealing with Kingsley, prompting the family’s lawyer to ask him: “Are you sure you were not applying the stereotype of Kingsley being mad, black and dangerous?” “No, not at all,” Shorthouse replied. “He was the strongest, most aggressive person I have ever met in my career as a police officer.” Perhaps. But one wonders how much aggression Kingsley was meting out whilst sedated with his arms and legs strapped down, or whilst being beaten face down and motionless on a hospital bed.
Another explanation for the incident was put forth by the Institute of Race Relations in their examination of similar cases: “Black men, especially young black men, acting erratically or even asking for help, are stereotyped first and foremost as bad, mad, and, being black, likely to be involved in drugs and/or violent – so they are met with violence.”
Even when victims display clear warning signs of being in serious danger, police often ignore them on the grounds they believe their victims are “faking it.” As Shorthouse told the inquest, he assumed that Kingsley pleading with him that he couldn’t breathe was “tactical.” Such assumptions were also fatal in the cases of Sean Rigg, Christopher Alder and Habib Ullah, as well as many others.
Yet this ‘lesson’ – that institutional racism and racial stereotyping is dangerous and can even be fatal – is one that had supposedly already been learnt from the MacPherson report in 1999. Just for good measure, it was ‘learnt’ again in 2006 when an IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) report concluded that “unwitting racism” contributed to the death of Christopher Alder – a very generous finding given CCTV footage appeared to show the officers standing around making monkey noises whilst he lay dying – and that four of the officers present when Alder died were guilty of the “most serious neglect of duty.”
Another lesson not being learnt is that, when it comes to holding the state to account, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is not fit for purpose. In 1999, the Butler Report – an official government inquiry into deaths in custody – was seriously critical of the CPS’s obvious unwillingness to prosecute police officers. Yet given the behavior of the CPS in subsequent years, the report may as well have never been written. Even when verdicts of unlawful killing are reached, as the IRR has noted, “there has still been a marked reluctance to prosecute those implicated.” The number of prosecutions resulting from the 509 suspicious custody deaths detailed in their report can literally be counted on one hand – and even where prosecutions are brought, they are not done so effectively.
Following years of campaigning by Alder’s sister, Janet, the CPS did eventually bring a prosecution of the officers involved in Christopher Alder’s death.
However, the CPS then conflicted much of the evidence, meaning the judge had to throw it out, with the most damning evidence – the CCTV footage – never presented to the jury. Janet then brought a civil case against the CPS, in which the judge concluded that she shared Janet’s concerns “as to the standard of the investigation undertaken by West Yorkshire Police into the actions of the Humberside officers.” No surprise then, that the CPS decided last August not to prosecute the police officers implicated in Kingsley Burrell’s death, leading to a protest by the Burrell family and their supporters outside its Birmingham headquarters. Lessons learnt?
The list of lessons that should already have been learnt is endless. Another lesson concerns “positional asphyxia” – suffocation due to a person’s body position blocking their airways. The IRR report shows there have been at least nine cases of deaths in police custody where ‘positional asphyxia’ was identified as a cause of death since 1990. ACPO guidance, says the IRR, already “makes clear that placing suspects in a prone position….gives rise to the risk of death by positional asphyxia and the prone position must be avoided if possible, and minimized if unavoidable. It also recommends that body weight should not be used on the upper body (ie sitting on a suspect) to hold down a person.” This lesson was supposedly ‘learnt’ in the 1990s. Yet it did not stop the officers involved in Burrell’s case from ignoring the advice, putting him in prone position and leaning on his chest, causing the positional asphyxia which led to his cardiac arrest – just as predicted by ACPO’s guidelines. If the British state really is being ‘taught lessons,’ it must be a seriously retarded pupil.
Another lesson that should by now be well understood is that “excited delirium” is a medically dubious diagnosis routinely wheeled out by dodgy police pathologists desperate to avoid verdicts of positional asphyxia at inquests. Refuted by the vast majority of medical experts, this did not stop police pathologists bringing it up both at Kingsley’s inquest, and at the inquest of Habib Ullah earlier this year.
At least the pathologists are giving distorted interpretations of the facts, however, rather than simply making them up. Another lesson is that it is not only racism that is apparently institutional in the police force – so too are cover-ups and lying. Last week, hearings for gross misconduct began against police officers involved in the death of Habib Ullah, all five of whom heavily doctored their witness statements to the IPCC about what happened, removing references to the use of force used, to other witnesses on the scene, to warning signs of his deteriorating condition and much else besides.
As Gerry Boyle, presenting the case against the officers, said: “The nature and extent of the deletions and amendments these five officers made were on a breathtaking scale, covering almost every single aspect of the incident.” (Needless to say, the CPS dismissed the IPCC’s suggestion that those involved be charged with perjury and various other charges). At Kingsley’s inquest, a similar pattern emerged. The testimony of PC Adey and ambulance driver Mr MacDonald-Booth were particularly shameless. Various witnesses had testified that, after his restraints were taken off, Kingsley’s arms dropped to his sides and he never moved again. “I know what I saw” PC Adey said, “he raised his head.” Incredulous, the coroner replied: “I suggest you are wrong, officer.”
In an earlier statement, Adey said he had seen this through a window in the door. But it emerged in the inquest that this window was covered by a locked hatch to which only nurses had the key. Adey also insisted that Kingsley’s face was uncovered, contradicting evidence from six other witnesses that his face was covered with a towel or sheet. “How can they all be wrong, officer?” asked the coroner, showing him CCTV photographs of Kingsley’s head covered. He said he wasn’t looking at him at the time. Adey also denied kneeling on Kingsley’s back, as had been described by two other witnesses.
The coroner, Louise Hunt, also became exasperated with Mr Macdonald-Booth, the ambulance driver, whose testimony in the inquest directly contradicted his own earlier statements. Mr MacDonald-Booth, it turns out, had only recently joined the ambulance service, having previously been – any guesses? – a police officer.
We were told ‘lessons had been learnt’ from the Hillsborough disaster, where police had systematically lied about the 96 football fans killed as a result of poor policing in 1989; we were told the same about the miners’ strike – where police had systematically lied about those they arrested at Orgreave; and again after “Plebgate”, when police officers had lied about what they heard Andrew Mitchell say in Downing St. Lessons learnt? Kingsley’s inquest suggests otherwise.
Yet lessons are being learnt. The real lesson – being taught again and again – is that impunity prevails; that, if you are an agent of the British state, you can falsify your evidence, you can lie in court, you can attack people from vulnerable or minority groups at will, and whatever happens – even if you kill them – that state will protect you. We don’t need any more lessons to be learnt; indeed we have had enough of this lesson being learnt. What we need is for justice to be done.