Little noticed amongst all the Syria coverage, peace has been breaking out across Ukraine. After a faltering start, the so-called ‘Minsk II’ agreement – signed in February by the so-called ‘Normandy Four’ – now seems to be making serious headway.
A new ceasefire, which began on September 1, has been largely adhered to by all sides, paving the way for the withdrawal of weaponry from the frontline which was a key demand of the Minsk agreements.
On the political front, there have also been breakthroughs. One of the key sticking points was resolved two weeks ago when representatives of the self-declared People’s Republics in Lugansk and Donbass agreed to postpone elections to ensure they are held in line with Ukrainian law and international electoral standards. Meanwhile, in August the Ukrainian parliament – after a heated and tumultuous session – approved a law on decentralization that grants significant autonomy to the Eastern regions; another key demand of the Minsk agreements.
That the so-called ‘Normandy Four’ (Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine) are keen for the peace to hold no surprises. For, ultimately, the US-UK destabilization strategy in Ukraine aims at weakening all of them.
It is worth recalling the key US and UK role in fomenting the war in the East of Ukraine. Whilst both powers openly supported the fascist-led coup in February 2014 – British EU commissioner Catherine Ashton, for example, giving immediate recognition and finance to the new coup government – they have also been instrumental in stoking the war in the East of the country. When resistance to the coup began in the Donbass region in April, CIA Director John Brennan was immediately flown to Kiev. By the time he left, the Ukrainian coup government’s bloody crackdown on the Eastern regions was well under way; it was pretty obvious he had been sent to push for precisely this response.
However, the crackdown did not go as hoped. Ukrainian tanks were met by angry crowds demanding the soldiers refuse to fire on their compatriots and give up their weapons. Many did precisely this, expressing sympathy for the resistance and fraternizing with the crowds; within days, a full scale mutiny appeared to be underway, with 21 armored vehicles turned over to the resistance. The futility of a military solution became increasingly clear, and even the coup-installed Prime Minister Yatsenyuk began making noises about federalism and the need to respect the rights of ethnic Russians for the first time since coming to power. The door appeared to be opening for negotiations and some kind of peaceful compromise.
It was at this point that no less a figure than US Vice President Joe Biden was sent over – and, once again, the offensive was renewed the day he left. But this time the reliance was less on the regular army, and more on the ‘National Guard’, a new paramilitary formation created the month before by Andriy Parubiy. Parubiy, from the extreme Russophobic ‘Fatherland’ party, had been the ‘head of security’ of the Maidan protests (and therefore directly implicated in the sniper shootings of February 20) before being made National Security Chief of the new government following the coup. The National Guard was a crude means of putting ultra-nationalist militias on the government payroll – and following visits by Biden and Brennan these militias became the spearhead of the US policy of war on Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population.
Within weeks, new militia such as the Azov, Donbas and Dnipro battalions were created, incorporated into the National Guard and thrown into battle. Azov’s founder, Biletsky, explained that: “The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the white races of the world in a final crusade for their survival: a crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.” The US has subsequently poured hundreds of millions into the training and equipping of such militias.
The result of this fascistic war has been to weaken Russia, Europe and Ukraine itself. On the one hand, it has been a willful provocation of Russia, whose very modest attempts to defend the eastern regions (allowing Russian volunteers to join the resistance, for example) have been characterized as aggression and used by the US as means of maneuvering Europe into supporting self-destructive sanctions against Russia. At the same time, Ukraine – which had higher per-capita industrial output than Germany during Soviet times – has become an economic basket case, facing massive inflation and economic contraction. Just last week, Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko requested a doubling of the $40 billion IMF rescue package just to stay afloat.
All of this suits the US very well. On the one hand, it is fully in line with veteran cold warrior (and Obama advisor) Zbigniew Brzezinski’s strategy to maintain US supremacy by keeping Europe and Russia divided. On the other, the sinking of the Ukrainian economy leaves the country utterly dependent on foreign loans and at the mercy of its Western creditors in the IMF, making the return of a genuinely non-aligned foreign policy along the lines of those followed by Yanukovich ever more unlikely. That is why the US has been at the forefront of pushing for this war.
It is also why not only Putin, but Hollande, Merkel and even Poroshenko are so keen for the war to end. So long as the ceasefire holds, European sanctions on Russia are due to expire at the end of the year. And as EU President Jean-Claude Juncker – well aware of the damage sanctions are doing to the European economy – said last week, “We must make efforts towards a practical relationship with Russia … we can’t go on like this… We can’t let our relationship with Russia be dictated by Washington.” Likewise, even Poroshenko – despite all his tub-thumping at the UN – knows that simple geographical reality dictates he needs to have a constructive relationship with Russia, and that continuation of the war will make economic recovery impossible.
For the US, however, the surest route to maintaining economic war against Russia, keeping Europe and Russia divided, and keeping Ukraine dependent, is for the war in the Ukraine to continue. This is why the US policy of directly supplying and training the fascist militias is so worrying. For these militias will be the wild card in the months to come. They have already shown their willingness to violently challenge Ukrainian government authority, and have made no bones about their willingness to subvert any peace agreement that is not to their liking.
Three people were killed, for example, during ultra-nationalist demonstrations against the decentralization law, and in July Right Sector militias were involved in a firefight with Ukrainian police, leaving four dead. Following that incident, the Right Sector’s press spokesman commented that: “In the event of a new revolution, Ukrainian president Poroshenko and his associates will not be able to flee the country as the former president did. They can expect nothing but execution in some dark cellar, conducted by young Ukrainian military men or members of the National Guard.” A fascinating article by Nicolai Petro argued that, in the event of a full scale showdown between the paramilitaries and the official government forces, it is far from clear that the government would win.
The fascist militias, then, are the wild card who may threaten the peace that Russia, Europe and even the Ukrainian government are seemingly so committed. Could it be that the US has been developing its relationship with these forces for this very reason? The fact that the immediate US response to the success of the recent ceasefire has been to promise an additional $300 million worth of training and equipment to military “and other security forces” in Ukraine is a worrying step indeed.
Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, 2021
The death of Elizabeth Windsor’s husband Philip Mountbatten earlier this year prompted an establishment-led frenzy of monarchism across Britain, with wall-to-wall sycophantic TV and radio coverage and Covid public information boards replaced with Philip’s portrait. The standard view of the British monarchy is that they are no more than symbolic figureheads lacking any real power; mere ornaments adorning the British political system. But the truth is that Philip and his family were and are crucial pillars in the maintenance of the class power of the British imperialist bourgeoisie, both domestically and globally.
To begin with, the Sovereign still has a significant place in the British political system. The government is still known as ‘her majesty’s government,’ there to govern on her behalf. It is she who appoints the prime minister, not just in the UK, but in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and twelve other countries. And it is only by convention that she appoints the leader of the winning party following an election – as Gough Whitlam discovered in 1975 when the monarch’s representative in Australia dismissed him from office, despite his party having won the previous year’s elections, and appointed in his place the leader of the losing party, deeming the winners too radical. In the UK, she has weekly meetings with the prime minister to discuss government business, and her approval is required before any legislation passed by parliament can become law. Whilst it is true that this approval – known as Royal Assent – has been granted to all Acts of Parliament since 1707, what is more commonly withheld is the lesser known ‘Queen’s Consent.’ For bills affecting the Queen’s private interests, as well as those impinging on the royal prerogative powers (executive powers which can be used without consulting parliament), the Queen’s permission must be granted before it can be put to parliament. Such ‘Queen’s Consent’ (or ‘Prince’s Consent’ in the case of bills affecting the Prince of Wales’ private interests) was sought 146 times between 1970 and 2013 according to former government minister Norman Baker. Any bill that might affect the income from the monarch and her son’s private estates, for example (the Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster, comprising some of the most lucrative real estate in the London, the Strand, as well as Balmoral and Sandringham) is subject to veto by the Crown. And here, unlike for Royal Assent, the Queen is neither obliged by convention to give her consent, nor to act in accordance with advice from her ministers – she is free to use her discretion. All laws affecting income or land tax, for example, or employment rights, require Queen’s Consent, as did the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, because it granted inspectors the right to go onto private estates to investigate claims of animal abuse. To prevent the bill being vetoed by the Crown, the Labour government agreed that the Windsors’ private estates would be exempt from the legislation – literally putting them above the law. Queen’s Consent even had to be sought for the 2008 Child Maintenance Act as it affected payments to the Queen’s private staff. And the Queen is uniquely exempt from a 1973 Act of Parliament requiring shareholders to identify themselves, allowing her to anonymously hold shares in companies of dubious repute. This exemption may well have been a condition for giving consent to the bill in the first place – we cannot know for sure, because no record is kept of when and how Queen’s Consent is used, and the negotiations go on behind closed doors before the first draft of the bill is ever published.
‘Queen’s Consent’ is not only a tool for the personal enrichment of the Windsors, however. Bills which affect the Royal Prerogative powers (powers exercised on behalf of the monarch by government ministers) also require Queen’s Consent, and in this case, unlike in the case of bills where her personal interests are involved, the Queen will simply give or withhold consent according to advice from her ministers. This allows the government to use the Queen to prevent certain private members’ bills, for example, from even being discussed in parliament. Norman Baker’s excellent book on royal powers, “And What Do You Do?”, from which much of the material for this article was garnered, notes that the Military Action Against Iraq (Parliamentary Approval) Bill in 1999 was blocked after the Queen withheld her consent, as was the 1964 Titles (Abolition) Bill and the 1969 Rhodesia Independence Bill, amongst others.
But this use of Queen’s Consent is just one way in which the residual powers of the monarch are used by the government to avoid public or parliamentary debate and scrutiny. The Royal Prerogative powers, exercised by government ministers on behalf of the monarch, mainly pertain to foreign relations, and can be exercised without the consultation of parliament. This allows the prime minister to deploy troops and agree treaties without even informing, let alone consulting, parliament. The use of the Royal Prerogative occurs through the Privy Council, a group of current and former members of the government, senior members of the opposition, and senior members of the royal family, including the Queen. Members are sworn to secrecy, and the body has the power to secretly create legislation, known as ‘Orders of Council’. In the first half of 2000, over 250 such Orders were issued, around ten per week – including, says Baker (who was made a Privy Councillor by virtue of his position a junior minister in the Conservative-Liberal Coalition government) “an Order relating to the Saint Helena Act 1833, an amendment to a naval pension scheme, an Order relating to sanctions on Yemen – the sort of thing thing that the Commons ought to have had the chance to debate – and an amendment to the misuse of drugs act 1971, which I knew nothing about despite having been the drugs minister for a year until shortly before.” And these were just those passed in one meeting. Baker broke his oath to reveal this information, but such revelations are highly unusual, and the passage of such laws willo rarely reach the public domain.
Yet the most important aspect of monarchical power in British politics is not the Windsors’ role in day-to-day government so much as their function as a kind of ‘counter-revolutionary backstop’. Globally, this is an ongoing and active role, as will be explored in part two of this series. In the domestic arena, however, it is more as a potential, a ‘force of last resort,’ should popular unrest ever get seriously out of hand.
Of fundamental importance here is the oath of loyalty sworn by members of the armed forces. This oath commits them to the defence, not of the constitution or the elected parliament, but of the monarch and her successors, and to do so “against all enemies,” including, therefore, domestic enemies – such as, for example, any future parliament that attempted to abolish them. It also commits them to “obey all orders of her majesty, her heirs and successors.” Were, for example, a genuinely radical parliament to be elected in Britain, the armed forces would be a priori committed to support an armed overthrow of such a parliament should the monarch command them to do so. Baker suggests that we “suppose Hitler had invaded England, and suppose Edward the Eighth, with his Nazi sympathies, were restored to the throne as a sort of puppet, a scenario that certainly existed in Hitler’s mind. If the restored Edward the Eighth had called on the armed forces to lay down their weapons and accept a sort of Vichy Britain with him at the head, they may well have done so, whatever the elected government may have thought. I know members of the armed forces who take their oath to the Queen very seriously, and for them this allegiance trumps any democratic considerations. The fact that members of the royal family occupy senior positions right across the military only reinforces this.”
Nor is it only the armed forces who are made to swear such an oath – it is also a condition of entry into the British police force, judiciary, and parliament, as well as (since 2003) British citizenship itself, for those applying for it. This means that when (and it is indeed a matter of when, not if) the proverbial shit hits the fan in the UK, should the ruling class feel the need to impose military rule and rule by diktat, this oath ensures the army, the police and the entire criminal justice system, will be committed in advance to support such a measure, so long as the Windsors are on board. As Baker has noted, “the Queen herself on her accession took an oath to govern the country and uphold the rights of bishops. Parliamentarians take an oath to the Queen. Nobody takes an oath to uphold democracy.”
The key to understanding the role of the monarchy in a bourgeois society like Britain is to go back to its origins, which lie, not deep in antiquity, but in the tumultuous events of the seventeenth century. There has not been seamless continuity or evolution when it comes to royal power, but rather three distinct major monarchical epochs, separated by violent upheavals. First was the feudal monarchy that existed prior to 1485, in which the monarchy was the head of an aristocratic-ruled state. Second was the monarchy that was established under Henry the Seventh in 1485, at the head of an alliance between the aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie, an era that was decisively ended with the execution of Charles I and the creation of the English republic in 1649. Our current monarchy, under bourgeois domination, took shape between 1660 and 1689, and though it was ushered in with the so-called ‘Restoration’ of Stuart power, when the deposed Charles’ son, Charles II, was invited to take the throne, it was in reality an entirely new institution (as Charles’ brother James II learnt to his cost when he attempted to challenge the new dispensation and was swiftly replaced). The question is – why did this third epoch of monarchism even come about? When the bourgeoisie had so decisively defeated the aristocratic power that the monarchy represents, why did they then re-create the institution? And the answer is – the fear of popular revolution.
Cromwell had mobilised the masses in his war against Charles I, but their demands – as exploited, land hungry, peasants, and even as small traders and artisans – went far beyond his as a merchant landowner. What Cromwell sought was not the abolition of exploitation, but the extension of the absolute right to exploit, from the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie, via an end to the aristocratic monopolies on foreign trade and land ownership. Radical trends within the republican movement, however – including, crucially, within Cromwell’s army itself, such as the Levellers – sought genuine social equality – equal access to land, political participation, and a toppling of the very hierarchical pyramid that Cromwell had been fighting for the right to ascend. Cromwell had their leaders executed but the fear of a resurgence remained – and in the late 1650s, when rising prices were leading to growing unrest and agitation, the bourgeoisie reasoned that, though their power seemed secure for now, the time may yet come when they would need to call on the defeated aristocracy to help suppress a renewed popular uprising. And this is what the current British monarchy is: the artificial keeping alive of feudal remnants (along with their symbolic counterpart in the human psyche) as a potential counter-revolutionary ally of an insecure bourgeoisie.
That this is so can be seen clearly in the waxing and waning of royal privilege over the years. Here, a clear pattern emerges whereby, in periods where the bourgeoisie feel more secure, and less in need of their feudal allies, royal privileges are limited or revoked; whilst in periods of real or potential unrest, they are extended. If the army are loyal to the monarch, the ruling class need to be sure that the monarch is willing to do its bidding. And that costs money.
In the years following the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution,’ however – when, in 1688, Parliament called on the Dutch King William of Orange to depose King James II and take the crown for himself, on the strict understanding that his position would be subordinate to Parliament – bourgeois rule seemed impregnable. The 1690s saw the formation of the Bank of England, the tearing up of the Royal trading monopolies – heralding a commercial frenzy, especially in the trafficking of kidnapped Africans – and the dispossession of Ireland. With the English merchant class triumphant, they had little need to make concessions to a monarchy that, after all, they themselves had placed into position, and was effectively their mouthpiece. Thus, in 1697, did the Crown agree to surrender even the income it gained from the Duchy of Cornwall.
This era of untrammelled security did not last long, however. The failure of William and Mary, as well as her sister Anne, to produce any surviving offspring, had led Parliament to pass the Act of Settlement in 1701, decreeing that the Crown would pass to the (Protestant) Hanoverians. Their claim to the throne by virtue of royal bloodline was shaky to say the least – but the newly empowered merchant class were determined to prevent a Catholic restoration, with all the resultant continental political realignments and reversals that would entail. This seemingly arbitrary passing around of the Crown for political convenience was a step too far for many, however, and the Jacobite movement – which called for the continuation of the Stuart monarchy, in line with established hereditary principles – was born. Thus it was in 1721, two years after the third major Jacobite rising, at a time when the schemes of the government were under serious threat from inter-ruling class rivalry, that the mechanism of ‘King’s Consent’ – whereby the monarch gets veto power on any bill affecting his private interests – was introduced.
Once the threat dissipated, however, the monarch’s fortunes were reversed. In 1745, the Jacobite movement was decisively defeated, and the bourgeois ascendancy seemed, once again, triumphant – and in no need of feudal backup. Thus, in 1760, did the entirety of the Crown estates (with the supposed exception of the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster) pass into the hands of the state, finally stripping the king of his position as ‘landowner-in-chief,’ the basic tenet of monarchical power since 1066. It was not without some benefit for the monarch, as, along with the estates, he also gave up responsibility for funding the growing costs of the state, which would now be taken on by the government directly. The king also negotiated a hefty annual subsidy from the state coffers, set initially at £800,000 per year and still in operation today, known as the ‘civil list.’ Yet the ban on the monarch’s ownership of private property that accompanied the deal was, by any standards, a reduction in power. It was not to last.
The earth shattering events of the 1790s – in France and Haiti primarily, but with planet-wide reverberations that continue to this day – struck terror once again into the hearts of the English ruling class, and over the decades that followed, various forms of emergency rule and suspension of liberties became the norm. Lacking the legitimising cloak of liberal niceties, the legitimising cloak of regal bullshit took on a new importance for government. The monarch’s value to the imperilled bureaucracy grew, and the ban on his ownership of private property was lifted. And not only that – an argument was made that the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall were already private estates of the monarch, exempt from the 1760 agreement that surrendered the rest of the Crown estates. The reasoning? They had not been explicitly mentioned in that agreement, and were therefore not covered by them. The compelling legal argument that this was so precisely because, since 1697, the Duchies were already understood to be public assets (their income streams having been handed over at that date) was trampled underfoot by the cavalry charge of the counter-revolutionary war and its need for maximum unity against the Jacobins. Two hundred years later, the income streams from this desperate act of political expediency remain exceptionally lucrative: the holdings of the Duchy of Lancaster alone amount to over half a billion pounds, with annual profits reaching £20 million in 2018, and the Duchy of Cornwall not far behind, including a particular bonanza in 2012 from the auctioning of tungsten and iridium mining rights on Duchy land.
The pattern continued throughout the nineteenth century. As tumult grew in Ireland, Jamaica and both rural and urban Britain between 1829 and 1831 – resulting in major concessions on all three islands – the Duchy of Lancaster was, in 1830, again exempted from a bill formalising the government takeover of royal income streams. As Baker noted, “with the great reform bill on the stocks, the government did not want to alienate the king unnecessarily.” The same year, the two Duchies also secured an exemption – alone in the country – from the abolition of the feudal practice of landowners taking over the estates of anyone who dies on their land without relatives. This would prove particularly lucrative for George VI, who got a bonanza from all those killed on Duchy land during World War Two, and continues to bring in additional income for the Windsors to this day.
The Great Reform Act was eventually passed in 1832, successfully breaking the middle class-working class alliance that had shaken the country in previous years. The wealthier middle classes had been enfranchised by the Act, and now happily supported the repression of their erstwhile proletarian comrades. Bourgeois rule was secure, and again the need to buy royal favour declined. In 1842, income tax was introduced for the first time, and the monarch was not exempt. From now on, taxes would be paid not only on royal income – including on the civil list subsidy, and on Duchy profits – but on royal land and property also. This was confirmed in the Crown Private Estates Act of 1862 (during another period when the British ruling class were feeling secure, when the country’s industrial monopoly had birthed a labour aristocracy following the defeat of the Chartists). The Act was unambiguous: “The private estates of her majesty,her heirs or successors, shall be subject to all such rates, duties, assessments, and other impositions, parliamentary and parochial, as the same would have been subject to if the same had been the property of any subject of the realm.”
Yet even during this period, royal privileges ebbed and flowed in line with the degree of feared unrest. In 1848, proletarian revolution broke out across the continent, and the Chartists planned a march on London. Although the demonstration was ultimately outnumbered by pro-government volunteers, the state took no chances, and shored up its favour with the King through the establishment of ‘Prince’s consent’, extending the existing veto rights over legislation affecting the King’s private interests to his eldest son. No legal justification for this anti-democratic provision was even attempted; threat of revolt demanded royal concessions, the practice was established, and that was that. Again, it is a practice that continues until today.
In the period 1865-7, near-simultaneous risings again broke out again across Jamaica, England and Ireland. Then, In 1873, the great economic boom which had begun in the 1850s ground decisively to a halt, just when Britain had lost its industrial monopoly to Germany and the USA. The depression lasted until 1896, and a new wave of militant trade unionism amongst the lowest paid broke out. Foreseeing a time when the monarch’s collaboration in the suspension of civil government might be required, the government during this period ramped up the civil list payments, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Writes Baker, “As a result of Albert’s pleadings of poverty they [Victoria and Albert] were given more than they needed to enable Victoria to carry our her constitutional duties, but then hung onto the cash which had been obtained under false pretences and invested it in property.” In 1889, a parliamentary select committee noted that Victoria had siphoned off almost £1 million from her civil list ‘expenses,’ which had been used to purchase the private estates of Balmoral, Sandringham and Osborne (in the Isle of Wight). Philip Hall, in his book Royal Fortune, estimates that a total of £67million has been saved by the monarch from civil list payments over the last five reigns, making the MPs’ expenses scandal look like a parking violation. But the point is, this subsidy has been willingly granted by an insecure ruling class as an insurance policy against (so-called) democracy.
In the years before the First World War, this insecurity went into overdrive – and so too did the ‘insurance payments’ to the royals. Revolutionary trade unionism was spreading like wildfire across Britain, with major strikes taking place in key industries such as minings, docking, building and transport, many of them successful. The ruling class were terrified: Conservative cabinet minister Leo Amery recorded in his diary at the time that he went to purchase a revolver to arm himself against the revolutionary threat, but found they had all sold out. The value – and so the price – of royal backup thus increased again; already by 1903, Edward VII had wrangled his way out of paying income tax on his civil list payments (despite the existence of very clear laws on the matter), and in 1910 prime minister Lloyd George agreed to exempt the monarch from paying income tax at all. In 1913, this tax exemption was extended to the Duchy of Cornwall. Says Baker, “Despite the fact that the inland revenue had gone into the matter of the Duchy’s status quite exhaustively and concluded there was no case for its exemption from taxes, the government’s law officers, in a very short ruling, and one without any explanatory arguments, disagreed, and that was that.” In 1911, another unprecedented – and legally indefensible – ruling exempted royal wills from public scrutiny. To this day, royal wills are the only wills that can be kept private, enabling the extent of royal wealth to remain forever secret. This means that the amount of wealth stolen from civil list payments can be kept hidden, as can the extent of ‘gifts’ – which must, by law, be turned over to the state when given in connection with public duties – amassed by the monarch and her family. Says Baker, “if it became publicly known how much had been bequeathed, the public might begin to question afresh the level of taxpayers’ support the royal family benefits from, or indeed begin asking how it was possible to accumulate such wealth in their lifetimes without seemingly having any external means to do so.” The 1911 ruling thus effectively sanctioned the siphoning off of civil list payments for private gain, giving legal cover to what had already become standard practice. Thus, by the time of Elizabeth Windsor’s sister Margaret’s death in 2002, she was believed to have amassed a fortune of £20 million. “Where did Princess Margaret get £20 million from?,” asks Norman Baker, “Even the generous largesses provided by taxpayers through the civil list cannot explain that.” Elizabeth’s mother, meanwhile, is believed to have left a fortune of £70 million, well beyond what she is believed to have inherited herself. And yet her spending far exceeded the £634,000 per year she received from the civil list, her private staff wage bill alone coming to £1.5 million per year. Comments Baker, “What is certain is that the sealing of royal wills does not allow the proper checks to be made to ensure that what properly belongs to the state has not slipped across into private property [of the Windsors].”
Popular unrest did not cease in the years after the war, and there was genuine fear of Bolshevism spreading throughout Europe following the epic events in Russia. 1919 saw a police strike in Liverpool, the growth of the militant ‘tripartite’ alliance between the dockers, railwaymen and miners’ unions, and the establishment of a workers’ Soviet in Glasgow, prompting Lloyd George to send in the tanks. The price of royal backup appreciated further. In 1921, just as the ‘Geddes Axe’ fell, decimating public services, the Prince of Wales was granted further tax concessions, enabling him to stash away £1million by the time he became King Edward VIII in 1936. In the 1930s, too, as the Great Depression took hold, King George V stopped paying tax on Duchy of Lancaster profits, with his entire tax levy dropped in 1937. Writes Baker, “Overall in the interwar period, royal taxes dropped while those for everyone else rose. This dichotomy became even more pronounced during World War Two.”
The end of the Second World War saw Soviet prestige at an all time high, a powerful workers’ movement (with military experience) across Europe, and anti-colonial insurgencies across the globe, a situation that largely pertained until well into the 1960s. In 1952, when Elizabeth Windsor took the throne, the civil list payments were extended from the monarch and her spouse to their entire extended family, today covering over 40 people. At the same time, the monarch was no longer required to pay tax on her investments. Up until George VI, monarchs had always paid such taxes, although George began the dubious practice of reclaiming it. In 2001, it was calculated that the Treasury had lost out an estimated £1 billion revenue in lost payments on the £200million stock market investment made by the Queen in 1952 alone. Also in 1952, it was agreed that the wages of workers employed on the upkeep of the palaces should be transferred from the monarch to the Ministry of Works, as well as further tax exemptions such as taxes on agricultural profits, a major windfall for the Duchies.
The era of neoliberalism, however, saw a reversal of workers’ power, and, especially after the defeat of the miners in 1985 and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, bourgeois supremacy once again seemed guaranteed. The need for a royal coup seemed far off, and the period saw a corresponding limitation of handouts to the monarchy. In 1992, following a major fire at Windsor castle, the royals were left to fork out their own cash for the repairs, and a year later, Charles and Elizabeth actually started to pay income tax, including on their investment income. The Memorandum of Understanding that initiated this spelt out that this was a purely voluntary arrangement that the could rescind whenever they chose, but nevertheless, the fact it was agreed at all suggested that the royals had become aware that their financial privileges were now at risk. In 2000, the civil list payments were frozen for a period of ten years, with some expenditure previously paid for by government departments now to come out of those payments. This amounted to a real-terms cut, the closest the list had ever come to an actual cut.
The ‘neoliberal (domestic) peace’ did not last. The buildup to the war on Iraq would ultimately lead to the biggest ever demonstrations in British history, and the biggest backbench rebellion for 150 years. Luckily for the Blair government, the colonial left leadership of the Stop the War movement prevented this anger from being channelled into effective resistance, but such resistance had been a real possibility. Had even a fraction of the crowds that amassed in 2003 stayed for ongoing protest outside parliament, or heeded the anarchists’ calls for direct action at airbases, the situation could have quickly got out of hand. Thus in 2002, the era of containment of royal finances came to an end, and the convention banning the public from viewing royal wills was secretly – and without legal precedent or justification – made into law. Also during this period, some very dubious accounting practices – such as including the wages of 28 members of Charles’ personal staff, along with the jewellery, clothes, horses and bodyguards of his mistress Camilla, as tax deductible – were discretely ‘overlooked’ by the inland revenue. The result was that, by 2012, Charles was paying less than half a million pounds tax on £18 million of Duchy profits; the 1993 Memorandum of Understanding had now been virtually revoked in all but name.
The 2007-8 financial crisis was the biggest financial crash since the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and triggered a global slump from which the world has still not recovered. The danger of mass unrest suddenly became very real. To add to the fears, the election of 2010 was indecisive, threatening political stability just as economic and social stability was already on a knife-edge. The coalition government that emerged took the opportunity to restore owning-class fortunes through a massive attack on public spending through their flagship policy of ‘austerity.’ Cuts led to riots in 2010 and in 2011 following the police execution of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, at the same time as uprisings across the Gulf threatened the ruling families placed in power by the British. The threat to bourgeois order was as high as it had been at any time since the miners’ strike. Emergency powers suddenly did not seem so unthinkable.
Thus in 2011 was royal collaboration with such a path ensured by the biggest hike in royal finances since at least 1952. The Sovereign Grant Act finally overturned the 1760 deal with George III entirely, ushering in a massive and ongoing hike in taxpayer payments to the royals. For the first time since that deal, the link between royal fortunes and the Crown Estates was reestablished, with the civil list payments no longer based on an estimate (however fraudulent) of the legitimate expenses of the royals, but instead calculated as a proportion (15%, later increased to 25%) of the income from the (former) ‘Crown Estates’ that had been in effective public ownership since 1760, a massively retrograde step at a time of deepening mass poverty. In the first year – a time of severe wage cuts for the population at large – the civil list payments rose by well over 50% from just under £8million to almost £14 million. Similar rises followed year on year, taking the payment to a staggering £82.8 million by 2019, a more than tenfold increase from the pre-austerity amount. Furthermore, it was written into the Act that these payments could never be reduced, making permanent any temporary good fortune in the value of their estates, and immunising the royals against any collapse in the value of British real estate. The forthcoming auction of windfarm sites on Crown Estate land (which covers hundreds of miles of coastline) alone is likely to produce a windfall of hundreds of millions for the royals.
Since the bourgeois monarchy was first established in 1660, then, the pattern has been clear: when the capitalist order is under threat, the stock of the royals – as the ultimate counter-revolutionary backstop and ‘legitimising’ force for the imposition of rule by decree – increases. When the order is secure, it declines. The fact that royal handouts have increased tenfold in recent years, then, should be seen as a sign not so much of a ruling class so powerful it can plunder public funds with impunity, but of one with a desperate fear of the future, and of the masses, and with a total lack of faith in its own ability to rule by consent. Either way, the case for republicanism has never been clearer.
(Prologue to Supremacy Unravelling: Crumbling Western Dominance and the Slide to Fascism)
27th May 2020
Many of the chapters in this book were originally published on RT.com, the website of the Russian state’s English-language news channel RT (formerly Russia Today). Back in 2011, when the war on Libya was raging, RT’s coverage was a breath of fresh air. The major western news channels have never been much more than state propaganda outfits during times of war, and the NATO bombardment of Libya was no exception. Even Al Jazeera, the Qatari-owned channel that made its name with its no-holds barred coverage of the 2003 attack on Iraq, had seemingly cashed in its hard-won credibility as a voice speaking truth to power to become an unashamed mouthpiece of NATO. This should, perhaps, have been no surprise, given how deeply invested Qatar was in the NATO aggression, providing the foot soldiers and much of the training for the operation to kill Gaddafi and destroy the state he had built. But RT – despite Russian support for the UN Security Council resolution that paved the way for NATO’s attack – stepped into the vacuum created by Al-Jazeera’s conversion to the war party. Their uncompromising output combined reports on the brutal reality of NATO’s actions and allies with critical, forthright anti-war analysis of a type formerly relegated to the very margins of the internet.
I had been recommended to the channel by my old friend and comrade Sukant Chandan, who had spent much of 2011 in Libya in solidarity with those resisting NATO’s criminal bombardment. My first interview with them seemed to go well, and received 39,000 views on youtube. Having until that point been the author of articles and leaflets that rarely went beyond the confines of the anti-war meetings and demos in which they were distributed, this was by far the biggest platform I had ever had. A few weeks later I was asked to appear again, and soon I was appearing every month or so. Later it was suggested to me that I pitch some articles for their website. I did, and they were accepted. I started writing regularly for them, and my broadcast appearances increased in frequency also. By 2013, my output had drawn the attention of Middle East Eye, who started to commission pieces from me as well. This writing work became regular – and relatively lucrative – enough that I was able to reduce my teaching workload, and focus one or two days per week on writing. This was, in many ways, my dream job, allowing me to dedicate serious time to researching and writing about the things I considered important, helping (as I saw it) to produce analysis that would inform and equip the anti-war movement to really understand the machinations of a crisis-ridden western capitalism. For the first time in my working life I felt like I had real freedom: my pitches were almost always accepted, and they were never edited or tinkered with in any way.
RT had always hosted some dodgy characters, however. That was no surprise; I knew it was a not a left-wing operation per se – it was funded and run by the oligarchic-capitalist Russian state, after all – but if they were prepared to give a platform to socialists, I thought, in amongst all the conservatives and nationalists, that was surely a good thing. Wasn’t it?
But over the years, I started to notice more and more coverage being given to the hardcore far right and neofascists. Representatives of France’s Front Nationale, Austria’s Freedom Party, Germany’s Pegida and AfD seemed to be getting slots almost every day, giving their ‘interpretation’ of the day’s events. Tommy Robinson even got an entire half hour slot. Sukant pointed out that, disturbingly, much of the far right seemed to be saying very similar things to us about Syria, and that if we did not make a clear distinction between our analysis and theirs, we were effectively legitimising them.
For a while I kept my head in the sand, and even justified it – ‘oh well, they have lots of different viewpoints, of course they are going to have some right-wingers as well as left-wingers – they want a diversity of opinion’ blah blah blah. And anyway, I managed to convince myself that nothing would be improved by me cutting my ties, which would merely be cutting off my nose to spite my face. My position was – I will speak on any platform that lets me state my piece uncensored. That’s it.
But the dirty role RT was playing just became too blatant to ignore. Even more insidious than the guests being invited were the increasingly frequent ‘news items’ that whipped up a barely-veiled hatred of migrants. It seemed that every half-hour news slot would contain at least one piece on a ‘migrant crimewave’, ‘migrant stabbing’, ‘migrant rape’ etc etc – always inevitably followed up with an interview by some fascist or other telling us what to think about it. On the website, too, I noticed some really toxic pieces going up, consisting of base migrant-baiting, or pushing the ‘death of Europe’ fantasies about European civilisation being swamped by alien cultures. The comments on these articles – my own included – were, it is no exagerration to say, pretty much wall-to-wall antisemitic conspiracies.
By this time, Sukant had become persona non grata with the channel for his candid denunciation of the new fascism and forthright defence of immigration on their flagship panel show Cross Talk. But still my line was – I’m not being compromised: I stand by what I publish, and as long as they are giving me a platform to say what I like and get it out there, I will take it. I’m not endorsing any of these fascists.
But what I was doing, I came to realise, was helping to bring these fascists an audience.
What I eventually had to admit was that the presence on RT of people like me and others on the left was giving the channel a credibility and reach amongst a large section of people that would not have touched an out-and-out far right platform with a bargepole. Myself and others like me were being used to pull in people from the anti-war movement and the anti-austerity movement, and draw them in to an anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, antisemitic mileau, which rendered them harmless to capital but deeply harmful to the global proletariat. And I am not talking about small numbers of people; RT was the first youtube channel to reach a billion views, and RTUK has more viewers than Al Jazeera; it is, I would argue, the most powerful ‘alternative’ news channel/ site in the world. And it is a gateway drug to fascism.
But it was only when I started really researching into some of these neofascist currents and people that I realised that this is a very carefully crafted strategy. Up until around the new millenium, most of the fascist movements in the west had always been about bashing the left, the ‘reds’ and the ‘commies’. But around the year 2000, some of them underwent a shift in strategy. Witnessing events like the ‘Battle of Seattle’ – when anarchists fought cops in an attempt to close down the World Trade Organisation – they thought, ‘here are angry kids, ready to take militant action in the streets against [what they saw as] the ‘Jewish power structure’. We shouldn’t be fighting these kids. We should be recruiting them’.
Fast forward to today, and this strategy has made serious headway. The boundaries between militant left and militant right have become more porous, to the benefit of the right, and RT has played a major part in facilitating this phenomenon. Fascists like Alexander Dugin in Russia and Steve Bannon in the US – with deep ties to the Russian and US bourgeois state leadership – are leading this new type of fascist recruitment drive which aims to unite far left and far right under the leadership of the far right. Leftwingers like George Galloway are now defending Steve Bannon and people who consider themselves leftists are reposting fascist websites and talking points without even realising it. The new fascist strategy – of reaching out to the left and slowly, subtly, bringing them round to neo-fascist positions – has been very effective. One example of how successful this strategy has been is on the issue of migration. There is a theory very popular amongst the RT crowd, that Muslim immigration is a Jewish plot to weaken Europe by diluting its cultural identity and virility, and ultimately wiping out its white population. Even prominent figures like Julian Assange have given credence to these theories, which have gone on to inspire massacres such as those in Christchurch New Zealand in March 2019.
I am not saying RT is a ‘fascist channel’ per se; it is more subtle than that. Rather, it is doing the spadework for fascism. Alain de Benoist (see the chapter in this book on politically correct fascism) came to the view back in the 1960s that, for fascism to become acceptable again, a long-term battle of ideas would need to be fought, to slowly shift the contours of debates on race, identity and ethnicity such that a reformulated fascism could be cast as a legitimate response to these debates. The mainstream has already been doing this for decades of course, but RT is taking it to the next level, through its steady drip-drip dehumanisation of migrants and refugees and the normalisation of fascist parties. It is working hard to create what Hitler called “a people ready for” fascism.
So, finally, the nature of the project I had been involved in dawned on me. I had been extending the reach of fascism, for money. I had a vested interest in not seeing what was going on.
The way I squared it with my conscience was to call them out on air. Every time I did an interview, I would criticise RT or the Russian state (or both) for their facilitation of fascism. The first time I did it, I assumed I would not get called back. But I did. It became a running joke with the guy at the studio – ‘I don’t think you’ll be seeing me again’ I would tell him, again and again. But eventually, on maybe the 6th or 7th time, my final interview did come. I think the interviewer was a bit of a novice; she didn’t cut me off like the others had as soon as I started going ‘off piste,’ so I just carried on, calling out Russia for selling out Iran, collaborating with Trump, facilitating fascism in a totally self-defeating manner, and on and on. I haven’t heard from them since, nor have I pitched to them.
Unfortunately, others have not taken the same view. Leftwingers still contribute regularly, and RT have now added big names like John Pilger, George Galloway and Slavoj Zizek to their writers’ roster. A brief glance at the site shows their work nestling in amongst a piece painting Nigel Farage as a courageous truthteller unfairly victimised by the powers-that-be, a flattering interview with Hungary’s far right foreign minister, and an article bemoaning “record numbers of non-EU migrants” arriving in the UK. The normalisation of anti-migrant fascism continues – and sections of the left continue to facilitate it.
Originally published in Counterpunch magazine, May 2020
Amongst all its glistening commodities, one product has defined capitalism above all else: human waste. Superfluous people, not necessary for production, not able to participate in the market, and an ever-present threat to the stability of the system, are – and have always been – the main output of the bourgeois epoch; managing, containing, expelling and eliminating this waste has always been its prime, if hidden, concern. In the nineteenth century, surplus Europeans were exiled, in their millions, to the colonies – to Australia, Canada, the US, Algeria etc – to continue the process of exterminating surplus non-Europeans. In the twentieth century, two world wars functioned not only to destroy surplus capital, but surplus humanity too, in unprecedented numbers.
But today, for the first time in history, it is a majority of humanity who face redundancy. In 2004, Zygmunt Bauman published Wasted Lives: Modernity and its Outcasts. In this short book, he argues that “the production of ‘human waste’, or more correctly wasted humans… is an inevitable outcome of modernisation, an inseparable accompaniment of modernity.” Indeed, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he wrote, “the disposal of human waste produced in the ‘modernised’ and still ‘modernising’ parts of the globe was the deepest meaning of colonisation and imperialist conquests,” as these conquests produced outlets for the export of surplus human beings. As Europe ‘modernised’ itself, throwing people off the land and replacing them with, first, sheep, and then threshing machines, these ‘surplus’ humans were shipped off to the colonies. Thus did the modern European states “seek, and find, global solutions to locally produced ‘overpopulation’ problems.” But this situation, he noted, could only last “as long as modernity (that is, a perpetual, compulsive, obsessive and addictive modernisation) remained a privilege. Once modernity turned, as it was intended and bound to, into the universal condition of humankind, the effects of its planetary domination have come home to roost. As the triumphant progress of modernisation has reached the furthest lands of the planet and practically the totality of human production and consumption has become money and market mediated, and the processes of the commodification, commercialisation and monetarisation of human livelihoods have penetrated every nook and cranny of the globe, global solutions to locally produced problems, or global outlets for local excesses, are no longer available…the volume of human waste [is] outgrowing the extant managerial capacity.” As a result, the world now faces “an acute crisis of the human waste disposal industry”. This issue – what to do with those growing number of souls superfluous to the requirements of modern capitalist production – is “simultaneously a most harrowing problem and a most closely guarded secretof our times.”
The year before Bauman’s book was published, in 2003, the UN published a report entitled “The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements.” This paper noted that almost a billion people – one third of all city dwellers globally – now lived in slums, with this number projected to double by 2020. The causes were straightforward: “The collapse of formal urban employment in the developing world and the rise of the informal sector is seen as a direct function of liberalization. . . . Urban poverty has been increasing in most countries subject to structural adjustment programs,” imposed on the global South throughout the 1980s and 90s by Western-controlled financial institutions. Fragile national economies were forced to open up to heavily-subsidised, high-tech imports against which they had no chance of competing, with entire industries and farming communities devastated as a result. Life in the slums produced by these policies consisted of “the most intolerable of urban housing conditions” whose residents “suffer inordinately from water-borne diseases such as typhoid and cholera, as well as more opportunistic ones that accompany HIV/AIDS.” By the year 2030, the report’s authors predicted, the world’s city dwelling population will consist of three sections, summarised by Mike Davis as follows: “1: .1 billion urbanites—owners, managers, technicians, and skilled information-sector workers—will provide the principal demand for branded international production.2: . 1.5 to 2 billion workers—ranging from Mexican American nurses’ aides in Los Angeles to Chinese teenagers in Guangdong sweatshops—will provide the metropolitan labor-power for the global economy.3: 2 to 3 billion informal workers—at least 2 billion of whom live in classic slums or peripheral shantytowns—will exist outside the formal relations of production, in Dickensian conditions or worse, ravaged by emergent diseases and subject to a menu of megadisasters following in the wake of global warming and the exhaustion of urban water supplies.”In other words – consumers; producers; and those superfluous to the reproduction of capital; the latter by far the biggest group. Of them, Davis wrote that “this outcast proletariat… is the fastest-growing and most novel social class on the planet. By and large, the urban informal working class is not a labor reserve army in the nineteenth-century sense: a backlog of strikebreakers during booms; to be expelled during busts; then reabsorbed again in the next expansion. On the contrary, this is a mass of humanity structurally and biologically redundant to global accumulation and the corporate matrix.” Superfluous to the needs of capitalism, and with “little vested interest in the reproduction of private property,” this class does nevertheless possess “yet unmeasured powers of subverting urban order… the contemporary megaslum poses unique problems of imperial order and social control that conventional geopolitics has barely begun to register.” Fast forward sixteen years to today and it has certainly registered. Frase warns us that “A world where the ruling class no longer depends on the exploitation of working class labor is a world where the poor are merely a danger and an inconvenience. Policing and repressing them ultimately seem more trouble than can be justified. This is where the thrust toward “the extermination of multitudes” originates. Its ultimate endpoint is literally the extermination of the poor, so that the rabble can finally be brushed aside once and for all, leaving the rich to live in peace and quiet in their Elysium.” In the “dystopic robo-feudalism” that is our near future, Ian Shaw writes, “a policy of ‘neo-exterminism’ might be enacted.” *** On December 31st 2019, China alerted the World Health Organisation to the existence of several cases of an unusual pneumonia in the town of Wuhan. Eleven days later, Chinese scientists published the genetic sequence of the virus causing it, identifying it as a new strain of coronavirus. That it was deadly was confirmed by Wuhan’s first death from the virus, reported the same day. On 24th January, a study published in the UK’s leading medical journal, the Lancet showed that a third of China’s Covid-19 patients required admission to intensive care, with 29% worsening to the point where they needed ventilation. The authors made clear the lethal potential of the virus, making comparisons to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic which killed up to 50 million people, and recommended measures be taken to suppress the virus.
Understanding the seriousness of the coming pandemic, the British government convened its first COBRA emergency planning meeting on the outbreak. But underscoring their determination not to fight it, the prime minister refused to attend, as he would fail to attend the next four COBRA meetings that followed; as one senior government advisor told the Sunday Times, “There’s no way you’re at war if your PM isn’t there.” A week later, on January 31st, the Lancet published another study on the new virus, concluding that “On the present trajectory, 2019-nCoV could be about to become a global epidemic…for health protection within China and internationally…preparedness plans should be readied for deployment at short notice, including securing supply chains of pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment, hospital supplies, and the necessary human resources to deal with the consequences of a global outbreak of this magnitude.” The same day, the Covid-19 outbreak was declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organisation. Since long before humanity even knew about viruses, the time-honoured method of dealing with them has been to identify those with symptoms, isolate them, and follow up everyone they have been in contact with, today known as “test, track and trace”. These were the measures public health experts had been advocating since the new coronavirus was first identified, and have been used by all countries (such as South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam) that have managed to keep a lid on the spread of the virus and death rates low. As Mike Buckley has pointed out, “WHO advice is abundantly clear, based on existing guidelines and the experience of countries which have successfully contained and turned back COVID-19 and previous pandemics. The essential elements for success are mass testing, the isolation of the sick and those carrying the virus, contacting and testing people who may have been exposed to it, and social isolation to prevent its spreading by people yet to show symptoms. This is not theory, it is fact.” Yet, in the UK, noted the Lancet in a scathing editorial in March, “they didn’t isolate and quarantine. They didn’t contact trace. These basic principles of public health and infectious disease control were ignored, for reasons that remain opaque… February should have been used to expand coronavirus testing capacity, ensure the distribution of WHO-approved PPE, and establish training programmes and guidelines to protect NHS staff. They didn’t take any of those actions.” Indeed, when the government’s SAGE committee – an ad-hoc subgroup of COBRA tasked with providing scientific advice during an emergency – first commissioned a study on the impact of possible Covid-19 interventions in January, it specifically requested that test, track and trace was not included in the modelling. It was later claimed that this decision was taken because “not enough tests were available”. Yet they had eight weeks to prepare; Vietnam had been able to produce its entire supply of Covid tests domestically in far less time. As Anthony Costello noted in the Guardian, “The UK had been among the first countries to develop a Covid-19 test in mid-January, approved by the WHO, and has an exceptional national research infrastructure,” including a sophisticated pharmaceutical industry, and 130 NHS labs which were never utilised. The idea that it was beyond Britain’s physical capacity to produce the tests it required is utter nonsense; what was lacking was the political will.
Clearly, a decision had been taken very early on that the only tried-and-tested measures of disease control were not to be implemented in the UK. Instead, the UK government seemed determined to follow a policy of what could only be termed ‘let it rip’. As the government’s chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance explained, the aim was “to reduce the peak [of infection], not suppress it completely”. Graham Medley, the government’s chief modeller, elaborated: “We’re going to have to generate what we call herd immunity … and the only way of developing that in the absence of a vaccine, is for the majority of people to get infected”. Robert Peston summarised it as follows: “The strategy of the British government in minimising the impact of Covid-19 is to allow the virus to pass through the entire population so that we acquire herd immunity”. This strategy went into overdrive on March 12th, when the limited testing that had been occurring was stopped, and the advice to travellers coming into Britain from hotspots such as Wuhan and Northern Italy to self-isolate for fourteen days was withdrawn. At this point, noted the Financial Times, “there were fewer than 1,500 confirmed cases in the UK, while in contrast infection rates were soaring in Italy and Spain.” The result, said the government’s Chief Scientific advisor Patrick Vallance, was that a wave of infections were “seeded right across the country.”
Advocates of the so-called ‘herd immunity’ (aka Let It Rip) strategy proposed that the most vulnerable should be shielded whilst the virus was allowed to flow through the population. Yet in practice, far from being shielded, those most susceptible to the disease appear to have been deliberately targeted. The particular vulnerability of the elderly to Covid-19 had been understood since the study of its first victims was published on January 23rd. Yet the government ordered that elderly patients be removed from hospitals, where they may well have contracted the virus, and sent back to their care homes, where they would inevitably spread it. As one NHS cardiologist told the Telegraph newspaper, “Our policy was to let the virus rip and then ‘cocoon the elderly’. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry when you contrast that with what we actually did. We discharged known, suspected, and unknown cases into care homes which were unprepared, with no formal warning that the patients were infected, no testing available, and no PPE to prevent transmission. We actively seeded this into the very population that was most vulnerable.” When discussing the policy of wilfully spreading the virus, Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings was reported to have said that “if a few pensioners die, so be it.” The cardiologist continued, “We let these people die without palliation. The official policy was not to visit care homes – and they didn’t (and still don’t). So, after infecting them with a disease that causes an unpleasant ending, we denied our elders access to a doctor – denied GP visits – and denied admission to hospital. Simple things like fluids, withheld. Effective palliation like syringe drivers, withheld.” By the start of May, 12,500 care home residents were recorded to have died from Covid-19. Meanwhile, no effort was made to increase the population’s ability to survive the disease by boosting their immune systems. In the 1940s and 50s, cod liver oil was provided free to children, pregnant mums and nurses due to its immunity-enhancing properties; yet in 2020, government ministers made no effort even to promote immune-boosting vitamins or foods, let alone provide them. On the contrary, the government’s lockdown guidelines actively prevented people receiving their daily dose of vitamin D by barring those without gardens from the sun, despite growing evidence of the vitamin’s importance in fighting the disease.
That people would die, in their tens of thousands, from the government’s policy of ‘wilful neglect’ was painfully obvious, and indeed, was admitted at the time. As countries across Europe were announcing bans on mass gatherings and school closures, Johnson resisted such measures, and instead told the nation to brace themselves for mass death. On March 12th, the day the government formally announced its intention to roll the virus out across the population, Boris Johnson told a press conference that “It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.” This was at a time when Vietnam – which shares a border with China – had suffered zero Covid deaths, due to their timely implementation of WHO advice. At the time of writing (17th May) they have still not suffered a single fatality. Yet, far from being a cause for concern, the coming cull was positively welcomed in some quarters. Toby Young, old friend and fellow Etonian of Boris Johnson, and an advocate of what he calls ‘progressive eugenics’, said in his column on 31st March that “prolong[ing] the lives of a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people is an irresponsible use of taxpayers’ money.” Earlier that month, financial writer Jeremy Warner in the Telegraph had written that “from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long-term by disproportionately culling elderly dependants.” BBC radio broadcast ‘moral philosophy’ programmes debating which patients were more deserving of access to ventilators, the young or the old; the fit and healthy or those with obesity or diabetes. The idea that the sick and elderly should be denied medical care was being pushed further than ever before.
As the ‘herd immunity’ strategy was greeted with universal horror by public health experts, the government performed an apparent (but only apparent) volte face and pretended it had never existed. Eventually, with infections doubling every three days, and a steadily mounting death toll, calls for action became irresistible. Yet the nationwide ‘lockdown’ imposed on March 24th – with all but ‘essential’ businesses ordered closed and the rights to assembly and association suspended – has been widely misinterpreted. Far from being a belated recognition and reversal of the reckless negligence that had characterised their initial response, it served as a cover for continuing that response but in a way that preserved the integrity of British state institutions such as the NHS. Once the virus had spun out of control, a lockdown could have served the useful purpose of buying time to establish the basic disease control procedures that should have been implemented from the outset – mass testing, contact tracing and quarantining. But, even during lockdown, the government’s stubborn refusal to take these measures continued. Travellers remained free to enter the country from known hotspots, without testing or quarantining, and no test-and-trace system was put in place. Whilst a symbolic target of 100,000 tests per day by the end of April was announced to placate the media, testing remained at a far lower level until right up to the 31 April, when the target was magically reached by testing tens of thousands of people twice on the same day, a horrific waste of resources when care homes were crying out to be allowed access to testing. The following day, the numbers slumped back down again. Meanwhile the British company delivering test kits for use in Germany told the Telegraph, on April 16th, that it was ready to provide one million tests per week to the British government, but their calls had been unanswered. Those tests that were carried out were not done as part of an integrated programme of virus suppression; they were simply a standalone distraction for the media. To the extent they had any purpose beyond pure symbolism, it was to maximise staff turnout at hospitals (by preventing suspected cases from needing to self isolate) and nothing more. Care homes, who needed these tests the most, remained barred from them right up until the end of April. No system of contact tracing was established. And test results – carried out not by the 130 world-class NHS labs ideal for the purpose, but by the accountancy firm Deloittes – were not shared with local Directors of Public Health or GPs; the entire infrastructure of public health was still being barred from the information which would have enabled them to identify and tackle local outbreaks. A successful contact tracing apparatus could have been set up in three days using the existing infrastructure based around Environmental Health Officers alongside retraining those furloughed in other lines of work, explained public health expert Allyson Pollock, if the political will was there. But it wasn’t. The government only started advertising for contact tracers – via outsourcing giant Serco, to whom it awarded the contract – on May 10th, six weeks into the lockdown. Even now, it remains far from clear whether this is part of a genuine attempt to keep track of the virus or simply an excuse to award a lucrative monopoly to a major government-backed private company in order to help build up its global brand; once again, the existing public health infrastructure necessary for a holistic, integrated response has been cut out of the process.
Meanwhile the government hammered out a message of “stay home, protect the NHS, save lives”. Yet this was more than simply a benign injunction to ensure people avoided picking up or transmitting the disease; it also carried the more subtle message that you should not bother the NHS at this crucial time. People were being made to feel guilty for seeking treatment, especially if they were old. How dare they distract the NHS from its essential Covid work? Old people were told they would almost certainly not get emergency treatment and were pressured to sign ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ orders en masse, whilst the NHS was effectively shut down for all but Covid patients (and, in the case of elderly care home residents, even them). Hospitals were cleared, ‘elective operations’ cancelled and treatments stopped. The emptying of sick elderly patients led to an increase in care home deaths from an April average of 8000 to a staggering 26,000, only 8000 of which were attributed to Covid; the rest very likely a result of the abrupt termination of their treatment. Oncologist Dr Karel Sikora noted that cancer diagnoses were around 5000 in April, down from what would normally be around 30,000. All these missed diagnoses, along with the cancelled treatment for known cases, could, he estimates, lead to an additional 60,000 cancer deaths this year. Thus, both the ‘let it rip’ strategy and the measures supposedly taken in response to it, such as the clearing out of hospitals, have had unnecessary mass death as their result rather, it seems, than their target. That same day the government finally started recruiting contact tracers – four months and 30,000 deaths after it had been recommended by the Lancet – Boris Johnson ordered low-paid manual workers back to work, to be followed by the reopening of primary schools three weeks later. This was in breach of WHO advice, and public health experts were united in their view that this easing of the lockdown without having put in place any system to trace and isolate the virus in was reckless and threatened a second wave of infection and death. As Oxford University professor of epidemiology David Hunter wrote in the Guardian, “the countries that have succeeded in taming their coronavirus epidemics – such as South Korea, Taiwan, China, Australia and New Zealand – … all have in common “test, trace, isolate” as the centrepiece of their strategy.” In Johnson’s speech, however, “what we did not get was any list of the actions in place to pursue and contain the virus….If we take the prime minister’s advice and return to work in large numbers now – and without the ability to test, trace and isolate – then virus spread will increase.” Yet this seems to be precisely the point; as Hunter notes, “emerging antibody data from hard-hit cities such as New York show that, with less than a quarter of the population affected, it would take at least another wave of devastation to get close to the herd immunity threshold.” Far from using the lockdown to buy time to establish disease-control structures, the government appears to be using it as a ‘tap’, not to reduce infections, but to ensure their flow across the population in a timely manner. It is a tap they are now slowly turning back on, and will have predictable, and fatal, results.
Covid’s results in the Southern hemisphere, however, are likely to be catastrophic. Here, noted World Food Programme’s chief economist Arif Husain recently, “is where the winter is coming, where the flu season is coming. I’m really, really concerned about Southern Africa. Why? Because there’s extreme poverty, extreme malnourishment, to begin with, and poor, poor, poor health infrastructure. There’s already a history of H.I.V., aids, and TB, and they’ve gone through multiple climate disasters. Now you get covid-19 on top of that —what do you think is going to happen?” The WFP’s executive director David Beasley, in a disturbing address to the UN Security Council in April, noted that the Covid crisis had already sparked “the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two”.
Yet Covid itself is only half the story; the lockdown imposed by Western societies is also ravaging the global South. Siegfried Kracauer has written that “the measures provoked by existential fear are themselves a threat to existence,” and this is certainly true of the ‘lockdown’ prompted by the fear of the government’s refusal to tackle Covid. Remittances, which last year overtook foreign investment as the largest source of capital inflows to low and middle income countries, are expected to drop by $100billion this year, as migrant workers find themselves unable to earn money to send home, money on which millions of families depend to meet their nutritional needs. And the wiping out of demand consequent to the lockdowns is likely to prove equally devastating. As Beasley noted, there is “a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of Covid-19 than from the virus itself,” warning that famines could break out in 55 countries in the worst case scenario, with 300,000 starving to death every day and 260 million ultimately at risk of starvation. “If we don’t prepare and act now,” he concluded, “we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.” “In all,” the Guardian concluded, “shortages are likely to affect a fifth of the world’s population,” some 1.6 billion people.
And yet there is no shortage. “The world is not running out of food,” one humanitarian worker told the Telegraph. “Global food prices have been coming down for several years and we’ve had good harvests over the last few years. The main problem is access.” This is capitalism being pushed to its depraved logical conclusions. People will be wiped out by a lack of food not because there is a lack of food, but simply because their labour is not needed to meet the demands of wealthy countries.
We are living through the early stages of a massive extermination event. To deliberately and wilfully allow a deadly virus to rip through the population, fully aware of the consequences for the elderly and vulnerable is beyond negligent; it is the rebirth of colonial eugenics in the heartlands of empire, unprecedented since the foundation of the welfare state. As Bauman noted, with the universalisation of modernity, and the consequent drying up of ‘non-modern’ areas for the export of surplus population, “societies increasingly turn the sharp edge of exclusionary practices against themselves”. The demonisation of the elderly and sick, the ideological war against their right to life, tentatively floated with Cameron’s proposition that obese people should be denied access to the NHS, appears now to have passed a major milestone. Our reactions are being tested; Covid is being utilised as a canary in the mine for our willingness to be abandoned by any pretence of state protection in the face of the coming economic chaos and climate misery. The 1% and their state planners must be very pleased with the results. Meanwhile, famines “of biblical proportions” threaten the global South, provoked by the gratuitous – because, had public health advice been followed, unnecessary – lockdowns which have strangled global supply chains. Saskia Sassen, in her 2014 book “Expulsions: brutality and complexity in the global economy”, notes that “the move from Keynesianism to the global era of privatisations, deregulation, and open borders for some, entailed a switch from dynamics that brought people in [to global capitalism] to dynamics that push people out”. We appear now to have reached such an extremity of that process, however, that there is a new switch under way – from the containment of those pushed out, to their outright elimination. Already the humanitarian agencies, tasked with keeping a lid on surplus humanity, are warning that their calls for an emergency $4.7 billion to feed those “pushed out” by the Covid response are nowhere near being met. With nativists like Trump in charge of the richest economies already terminating contributions to the World Health Organisation, what are the chances of a newfound love for the World Food Programme emerging anytime soon?
Order, Bauman reminds us, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the condition in which everything is in its proper place and performs its proper function.“ Yet in the capitalist order of the near future, there is no proper place or proper function for the majority of humanity, neither as producers nor as consumers. Asked how he obtained the beautiful harmony of his sculptures, Michaelangelo reputedly answered: ‘Simple. You just take a slab of marble and cut out all the superfluous bits’. Comments Bauman, “In the heyday of the Renaissance, Michaelangelo proclaimed the precept that was to guide modern creation… through cutting out and throwing away the superfluous, the needless and the useless, the beautiful, the harmonious, the pleasing and the gratifying was to be divined.” Today, the ‘harmony’ of the capitalist order can be preserved only by a massive intensification of this “cutting out and throwing away” of the superfluous who, quite apart from being a threat to stability, are an abhorrent reminder of the defects of the system. “As modern times went by,” says Bauman, “an ever larger part of the designing zeal and design-drawing efforts was prompted by the urge to detoxicate, neutralise or remove from sight the ‘collateral damage’ done by past designing.”
And yet, we must always remember, none of this is inevitable. The technical capability to provide the housing and nutritional needs of everyone on the planet has never been greater. Charity has never been more than a sticking plaster, nor intended to be more; what is needed is the realisation of article 25 of the universal declaration of human rights – the right to subsistence. All are capable of making a dignified contribution to the global provision of subsistence, regardless of their economic circumstances, and none should be denied food or shelter simply because their labour is superfluous to the requirements of capital accumulation. A new global movement with this principle at its heart is needed – and needed urgently.
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.