PEGIDA: a post-Nazist uprising?

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 3 heures 56 minutes

Recent anti-Muslim demonstrations in Germany have fused right-wing chauvinism with Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and populism.

PEGIDA supporters march in Drseden. Demotix/epoca_libera. All rights reserved.

“You have to first enlighten people that we’re not a sovereign country with a sovereign government, that the commands come from Tel Aviv and Washington (people clapping in the background). And the USA is being governed by the Jewish lobby. […] And now I ask you: what right do they have to exchange the population although the preconditions of economy and society are not given? If even academics have to go from internship to internship and that for one job vacancy…that’s the dream of the global economic lobby that there’s not ten applicants but thousands […] I was vilified a couple of days ago because I said you have to catch the refugees in the Mediterranean and disallow their refugee status… do you know what I was told – I was called a Nazi. […] We have neither jobs nor space, just look at the major Western cities: 70%, 80% are not German anymore. Is that a normal trend? I don’t know. I don’t have anything against other cultures, but it’s unacceptable that because of ISIS…because all the civil wars are incited and manipulated by the US. […] And if you air this, then I wonder if you’re going to keep your job”.

Somebody in the background yells: “We are the people”, thereby playing at the 1989 East-German uprising to bring down state socialism. The scene: Dresden, Germany, at the sight of the so-called PEGIDA (patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the occident) demonstrations.

PEGIDA is one in a recent series of anti-Muslim demonstrations in Germany, occasionally disguised as anti-Islamist in order to render rampant racism illegible. The contentious process started with HoGeSa, hooligans against Salafists. While a popular satire newspaper reflected public sentiment by titling “radical idiots protest against other radical idiots”, the relatively high number of participants indicated new developments.

Since then, similar demonstrations have flowered in numerous German cities, from Bonn and Hannover to Berlin and Leipzig. Dresden’s PEGIDA proved particularly strong as it fuses popular discontent and xenophobia with East Germany’s sentiment of being a marginalized region. It also draws from the strong fascist networks that have emerged in the former GDR since the end of state socialism. The number of demonstrators successively grew from several hundred in early December to about 18,000 on January 5, and to a record turnout of at least 25,000 on January 12, briefly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Since then, internal conflicts have tremendously weakened the movement, although thousands continue to meet each Monday. Enough of a reason to draw some preliminary conclusions.

PEGIDA and the tradition of German chauvinism

Somewhere else at the demonstration, an old man complains: “I’m against foreigners, that so many of them enter the country, that’s my reason to be here. They get a lot of money. I’m retired, I get a small pension and got a job in addition in order to scrape by.” When at a later point being confronted with the fact that only about 0.2% of the Dresden population are Muslim, he responds: “I don’t care how many they are, that’s already 0.2% too much”. A middle-aged woman worries: “I don’t want us to have to go to a mosque for Christmas…if we’re even allowed to celebrate Christmas at all”. Another one complains: “I’m against Islam being introduced as state-religion.”

These rants may seem completely diffuse to people not familiar with contemporary German political discourse, and PEGIDA is a diffuse movement indeed, but it nonetheless merges several central tropes of resurging German chauvinism: a vague and diffuse discontent with contemporary capitalism and imperialism, the crude perception of which turns the German state from a colonizer into a colonized; the racist and often anti-Semitic targeting of ethnic minorities, especially Muslims, as somehow responsible for social injustice; a fear of losing one’s alleged cultural and/or biological purity; the perception of a conspiracy of US, global and (sometimes implicitly, sometimes more explicitly) Jewish elites behind all social ills (parallel to ethnic minorities); those elites in turn supposedly took complete control over the media, parties and finance (an object of fetish in fascist history), thereby acting as parasites infecting the pure national body.

These themes are present to very different degrees in recent right-wing demonstrations. They merge German fascist history with post-Nazist political culture and reclaim the right to openly use chauvinist rhetoric, which the post-Nazist social contract has banned to the private realm, isolated extremist parties and occasional conservative rants instrumentalizing and nurturing these themes.

The state of social struggles in Germany

Liberal myths hegemonic to public discourse are shocked at the rise of the movement, and respond with a combination of working-class phobia, confusion and ridicule. Neoliberal hegemony in Germany desperately needs to maintain the erroneous narrative that the German economy and thus “Germany” is doing splendidly, while other countries don’t know how to work hard and spend money responsibly. Challenges to these myths might be linked to demands for a social-economic transformation after decades of slashing social welfare, precarisation and destroying social solidarity.

 Along these lines, dominant social forces need to continuously downplay the danger of resurging (counterhegemonic) fascism and transform it into a problem of lack of education and intelligence among the popular classes. In reality, protesters draw from the racist and anti-Semitic legacy of German nationalism, a nationalism that is crucial for ruling forces in order to produce legitimacy and channel popular discontent against ethnic minorities. Before the 2012 parliamentary election, the Bavarian conservative party (CSU) titled “Wer betrügt fliegt” (something like: cheaters get deported), thereby fuelling the imagined fear of an invasion of poor foreign people exploiting the German welfare system. This is but a tiny example of institutionalized German racism.

But Germany is a special case within recent global unrest well beyond the historical legacy of Nazist discourses: the crisis of global capitalism is clearly felt among large parts of society, but slightly soothed by the benefits the German state reaps from international inequality, especially from inner-European imperialism. While Southern and Eastern Europe as well as the Southern Mediterranean are turned into peripheries of one large European-Mediterranean economy led by North-Western Europe, the German state is among the forerunners of imperialist Europeanisation.

Germany uses Europeanizing structures to protect itself from global market pressures and reaps large profits by exporting its products undervalued by the common currency mainly to the BRICS. Grievances, although devastating for some parts of society, are thus somewhat smaller on average than within other states, as regional inequality ensures a continuous flow of surplus-value to Germany. This contradicts the distorted right-wing narrative claiming the occasional subordination of German imperialism under US imperialism means that Germany is not a sovereign state, despite its reality as a driving force of imperialism and neo-colonialism. The complaint about US imperialism thereby becomes one of “we want a bigger share of the imperialist pie”, while continuously harassing the individualized victims of global inequality on German streets.

On the other hand, the left is weakened by the social-democrats’ introduction of neoliberal structural adjustment reforms, thereby reminding us of Walter Benjamin’s famous verdict that the rise of a fascist movement is an indicator of a failed revolution. The left is also historically split against the background of the Israel-Palestine conflict: The so called Anti-German camp is pro-Israeli and pro-American, accusing the rest of the left of anti-Semitism due to an alleged downplaying of Islamic-fundamentalist violence and anti-Semitism.

The anti-imperialist camp stands in solidarity with Palestine, accusing the other side of supposed colonialism and orientalism. While many leftists reject this false binary construction and reject capitalism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism altogether, others find themselves forced to choose between two hostile camps. In any case, this conflict seems to demobilize many progressives in struggles over Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism in Germany.

On the other side of the political spectrum the right-wing populist “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) managed to position itself as a new counterhegemonic alternative to the radical left party “Die Linke”. Large parts of AfD openly sympathize with PEGIDA and established AfD members have participated in rallies or maintain contacts to PEGIDA organizers. Head of AfD Bernd Lucke pushed his party to carefully maintain a certain distance from the movement in order to maintain the mirage of a post-political party transcending the left-right-scheme. At the same time, however, he expressed understanding for their fears. Vice versa, preliminary studies found strong affinities of PEGIDA members towards AfD. It remains to be seen if PEGIDA strengthens the right-wing of AfD and how AfD will interact with right-wing movements.

Lineages of a 21st century fascist movement

Let’s return to ideology: The quotations above clearly illustrated that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are by no means a contradiction and are fluidly mixed in resurgent chauvinist movements. Contemporary Islamophobia merges xenophobic fears of the Oriental other with anti-Semitic tropes of the (Islamist) revolutionary disturbing national health and conspiratorial (Gulf) minorities controlling and exploiting Germany, while historical anti-Semitism targeting Jews and Israel is alive and well at the same time.

Recent attacks on refugee centres, anti-Muslim killings by the national socialist underground(NSU) are paralleled by anti-Semitic sentiments and violence extended well beyond the extreme right. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism share the process of blaming ethnic minorities for the contradictions of capitalism, although one represents the attack on lower ranks in social hierarchy, while the other mainly targets alleged conspiratorial elites.

It is this vague fear of the other, the destruction of social security, and an alleged endangering of invented traditions that is explosively fuelled by the social ills of the European age of austerity. In Germany, this dangerous combination merges with contemporary Islamophobia and German post-fascism, and its livid hate against the US and Israel, a mélange to manifest in diffuse movements such as the PEGIDA movement.

The contradictory nature of the PEGIDA is perfectly reflected by its initiator Lutz Bachmann. Bachmann demands no tolerance against criminal immigrants, an issue he is undoubtedly familiar with. Bachmann himself was convicted over drug trafficking, grand theft, multiple burglaries, driving without license, driving under the influence, false accusation and incitement to false testimony. When he was convicted to 3 years and 8 months in 1998, he fled to South Africa, where he lived under false name for two years until he was deported back to Germany.

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Sideboxes Related stories:  What is Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) on about? Country or region:  Germany
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Just how badly does the UK protect victims of trafficking?

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 6 heures 6 minutes

The government claims its Modern Slavery Bill, that passed into law today, is proof that it cares about victims. So why are anti-trafficking processes letting victims down?

Anti Slavery Day, October 2012, London (Flickr)

One day last September a 16 year old girl arrived at Heathrow airport accompanied by a British woman. The girl was travelling on a United States passport but she’d left there when she was two and was now living in an African country. 

Suspicious of the relationship between the pair, Border staff detained the child and let the woman continue on her travels. 

Whenever Border staff suspect that a child may be a victim of trafficking, they are supposed to inform the police and Children’s Services straight away.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, officials sent instructions for the girl to be flown to the US, even though she’d left there 14 years ago and didn’t speak English. The US Department for Homeland security was informed that the child would be returning. 

The girl was escorted to a holding room to wait for her flight and then taken out again for boarding. Then there was a ticketing glitch, so she was returned to the holding room.

It took officials 16 hours after the girl was first detained to inform the National Referral Mechanism, the system that exists to identify and protect potential victims of trafficking. 

Still, the order to send her to the US remained in place until, at last, officials acknowledged the girl’s request not to be sent there. It was another 34 hours before she was picked up by a social worker. 

Later, the Home Office found reasonable grounds to believe the girl was a victim of trafficking and she was temporarily admitted to the UK. 

This case came to light only because prison inspectors happened to make a surprise inspection of Heathrow Airport’s holding facilities on 30th September 2014. The details emerged two weeks ago in a report published here.  

The Prisons Inspectorate said: “The attempted removal to the US, the delay in placing the child in social services care and delay in referring her to the national referral mechanism indicated a lack of focus on promoting the child’s best interests and welfare.”

You can say that again. The UK’s systems for protecting victims of trafficking  — adults as well as children — aren’t up to the task. So how is the system supposed to work?

Mind the gap

The National Referral Mechanism was introduced in 2009 to identify and support trafficking victims. Government and agencies such as the police, social workers or charities like the Salvation Army, who may come into contact with a victim of trafficking are known as “first responders”. They refer individuals to one of two decision makers, known as Competent Authorities, which currently are the UK Visa and Immigration service (UKVI) and the UK Human Trafficking centre (UKHTC).  

Once the victim is identified and referred, the Competent Authority has up to 45 days to determine whether the person was trafficked or not. During this time the person is provided with accommodation.

When a decision has been made, an adult has 48 hours to leave the accommodation provided for them if it’s found that they have not been trafficked and 14 days to leave if it is found they have been trafficked. In either case adults get no further assistance and they may start a claim for asylum.

Children are accommodated by Local Authority Children’s Services. Many disappear, according to a shocking report by the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, published in 2012 (PDF here). The group noted:

“Trafficked children from abroad are particularly being let down and their needs ignored because the authorities view child trafficking as an immigration control issue. Hundreds of them disappear from care every year, many within 48 hours and often before being registered with children’s services. The majority of these children are never found again.” 

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that the majority of re-trafficking cases involves minors under the age of 25. 

The Anti Trafficking Monitoring Group  brings together human rights organisations including the Helen Bamber Foundation and ECPAT UK whose work involves combating human trafficking. They reviewed the National Referral Mechanism’s first five years’ work and exposed multiple flaws in their report last year. (You can access the PDF here).  

They found evidence of prejudice towards applicants from outside the European Union and towards child victims of trafficking, and identified a culture of disbelief against non-EU victims.

The Home Office may ignore or dismiss evidence of trafficking. (Womens eNews 2009, Flickr)

The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group’s report includes quotes from asylum interviews that provide examples of trafficking scenarios which were not acted upon by the UKVI staff at the Home Office. Here’s one:

“He told me I had to work on the streets. I worked ... he threatened me [with] what would happen to me if I ever left. I told [him] that I didn’t want to do this. That it was against my will.”

Here’s another:

“I have been working as a sex worker since I arrived in the UK four years ago. I did not pay any rent to the lady so she said I will have to sleep with these men.”

A Home Office staff member told one child victim of trafficking who was from outside the EU:

“Your account of escaping when your employer left the doors unlocked but actually open is considered inconsistent with your account of their previous behaviour where they kept the doors locked, wholly restricted your freedom and controlled your actions.”

Another victim, known as YP, was 16 years old when she was trafficked into the UK. She had been told that she would be able to go to school. Instead she was beaten and forced to work for her traffickers.

She escaped. Social services referred her case to the National Referral Mechanism. The decision was negative. But the judge in her asylum case decided that she had in fact been a victim of trafficking. She was later awarded £54,000 in damages.

The Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group found that out of 299 referrals made in 2012 to the UK human trafficking centre, 80 per cent of their decisions said that the person had in fact been a victim of trafficking. For the UKVI it was less than 20 per cent.

According to National Crime Agency figures the National Referral Mechanism received 1746 applications from potential victims of trafficking, from EU and non-EU countries in 2013. Of all the applicants, 559 received a positive response, and 400 of them were EU victims.

I asked the Home Office to explain the apparent bias against non-EU victims. A spokesperson said: “non-EU victims of trafficking tend to be found in more exploitative conditions compared to EU.”

There is a more likely reason. A ‘positive’ decision on the trafficking claim may lead to leave to remain. Since the Home Office is also the gatekeeper of immigration decisions, there is a clear conflict. In EU cases there is no immigration decision to make.

“How can you have an organisation making decisions on a victim of trafficking when they have a performance indicator that marks them on how many people they get to leave the country?” asked Huw Watkins, a former Detective Inspector, Gwent Police, in a Centre for Social Justice, report in 2013.  (The Helen Bamber Foundation’s David Rhys Jones reviewed that report here on OurKingdom.) 

Fail again, fail better

In April last year Home Secretary Theresa May ordered the Home Office to review the National Referral Mechanism.

They published a report in November, proposing to put the Home Office in charge of the entire National Referral Mechanism, and take the UKVI out of the process, replacing them with a panel of decision makers. They also proposed to run an awareness programme to public and professionals to enhance recognition of human trafficking and to improve data collection plus provide support based on the assessment of the individual victims’ needs.

Advocates for people who have been trafficked aren’t impressed.

Mike Emberson, of the Medaille Trust, which provides shelter for victims of trafficking, reckons the Home Office is just giving more “jobs for the boys”.

He told me: “Replacing UKVI and UKHTC with this multi-agency panel is not going to work. A victim normally appears unannounced, requiring a decision to be made as soon as possible. Assembling a panel, issuing paperwork etc. is going to turn this into a hugely bureaucratic process that will take months to resolve, as with all civil service endeavours we will have a lot of process with little outcome.”

The Home Office plan to have only statutory bodies referring victims of trafficking excludes specialist charities who understand this work, and leaves it instead to police officers and social workers, some of whom do not know what the National Referral Mechanism is.

Chloe Setter from ECPAT, said: “We train frontline professionals, with many of them unaware the system exists to help identify victims of trafficking.”

Tatiana Jardan, from Human Trafficking Foundation, said: “The recommendations don’t go beyond the 45 days; it is like re-shuffling chairs inside a room. They may improve the current situation but the problem of life beyond the shelter has not been tackled. Victims will face the problems of no support from the government.”

Last July Karen Bradley, the minister for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime, told the House of Commons: “The current UK Government policy goes further than the European Convention on Action against Trafficking obligations by providing a minimum of 45 days’ support once a Reasonable Grounds decision is made.”

Each year 150 people leave Medaille Trust’s six safe houses. Mike Emberson told me: “We may know what happens to five per cent of the people who leave our shelters each year. There is no tracking of where they go or end up from the government.”

Some of these people could end up living homeless, involved in the sex trade or return to their trafficker.

Some things are getting better. Speaking today as the government’s bill passed into law, Unicef UK's executive director David Bull said: “We welcome the fact that the Modern Slavery Act includes a defence for child victims against prosecution for crimes committed directly as a consequence of their trafficking.”

However, he said: “We believe there is still more work to be done to ensure trafficked children are not at risk of being wrongfully prosecuted and even sentenced for these acts. Our work does not stop here.”

Sarah’s story

Lately I met Sarah (not her real name), a young women from Ghana, who came to the UK hoping to make a new life.

Her room at the shelter is cosy, filled with pictures of her family from back home in Ghana, and some photos of Sarah with other girls from the shelter. She starts by telling me about why she moved to the UK and how she was hoping to start a new life while supporting her parents back home.

Living with her aunt in London Sarah was subjected to daily beatings and forced to work for no pay. 

“I needed someone to fund me when I first came to the UK, I wanted help,” she told me. “For six years my aunt beat me and would tell my family back home a different story.”

Sarah mentioned nothing of this to her family in Ghana; she didn’t want to upset them: “A friend of mine helped me escape and took me to the authorities. I just didn’t want to go back to that house,” she said.

Sarah was placed into the specialist care of the Medaille Trust. She has been waiting for more than a year while the Home Office determines whether or not she is a victim of trafficking.

If the decision goes against her she will have to leave the shelter within 48 hours and find her own accommodation.

If she is identified as a victim of trafficking, she will have to start an asylum claim in order to put a roof over her head.

For now, her life is on hold.

Think this piece matters? Please donate to OurKingdom here to help keep us producing independent journalism. Thank you. 


Some references The National Referral Mechanism: A Five year Review. A report by the Anti-Trafficking Monitoring Group for the Joint Committee on the Modern Slavery Bill, February 2014

Report on an unannounced inspection of the short-term holding facility at Heathrow Airport Terminal 1, by HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, inspection 30 September 2014, published March 2015.

It Happens Here: Equipping the United Kingdom to fight modern slavery, Centre for Social Justice, 2013

Sideboxes Related stories:  When you've been tortured does it matter who your torturer was? What stops the UK protecting victims of trafficking? Is she a victim or an illegal immigrant? The UK Border Agency decides Inspectors condemn UK’s detention of torture survivors and victims of trafficking
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A new language of hospitality

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 6 heures 18 minutes

The complex linguistic identities of migrants to Europe are constantly denied recognition. We must renew the language of hospitality, in which equality rather than homogeneity dictates our borders.

Demonstration against racism and exclusion, Amsterdam, 2011. Steppeland - Lutgarde De Brouwer/Demotix. All rights reserved.According to the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the relationship between hospitality and immigration should neither be a one-way street that imposes rules of assimilation and acculturation onto the Other, nor should it simply be the occupation of one's space by the Other. For Derrida, hospitality has to be negotiated at every instant, to be invented at every second with all the risks involved, and without pre-given rules.

But the act of welcoming the ‘stranger’ has always been intensely contested, and only deepened with accelerated forms of globalisation. The current practices of welcoming the 'stranger' in the Netherlands, for example, are steeped in traditions of imposing pre-given conditionalities that are never really negotiated but rather imposed, such as visas, integration exams, citizenship tests, 'Dutch' as the language of asylum, and so on.

Based on our interactions and negotiations as part of Stichting Gast, a local support organisation for 'undocumented migrants' based in the Netherlands border city of Nijmegen, we try to think through the notion of hospitality as an everyday practice of negotiation. Taking the critical question of "When two people who don't speak the same language meet, what should they do?" posed by Derrida as a starting point, we reflect on our experiences to rethink language, hospitality, and the borders of nation-states.

Border voices from a cafe

Each time we enter the weekly cafe meetings of Stichting Gast, it feels like we are entering an island. This is because the dynamics of interaction inside the cafe are so starkly different from interactions just beyond the threshold of the cafe, whose location is nevertheless at the heart of the city of Nijmegen. The intimacy and proximity of people coming together in a small café, who nevertheless are here for reasons often not fully of their choice, pushes one to search for a common language.

I use language in a broad sense: not only verbal language, but also the power of body language, gestures, habits, and the role of objects, in facilitating interactions. It is never the same group. There are always new faces and new languages. It is akin to the feeling of being on a journey, in an airport waiting room or a train, where people you develop a friendship with are getting off or new people are boarding.

The cafe is run out of a voluntary kitchen and so the rituals of making, serving and drinking tea, coffee and soup often helps to create an environment in which the roles of who is welcoming whom are blurred or left to improvisation, as opposed to spaces such as embassies, asylum centres and visa offices, where it is quite clear who has the power to welcome or not. The lack of a common verbal language pushes one to look for common gestures of body language. It is a space full of frustrations, misunderstandings and disappointments as much as a space for communicating solidarity and friendship.

But the challenges of translation lie on both parties who are communicating, rather than on a single one, unlike integration exams and asylum procedures, in which both the choice of language and translator is determined the state. The lack of a common verbal language also allows for each of us to be confronted with all the paradoxes, contradictions, pains as well as joys of communicating across difference, leaving the process of translation to be constantly negotiated.

Once a month, a physiotherapist volunteers to give a free session to teach members exercises for relaxation and dealing with stress. Although she asks for their preferred language – either Dutch or English – most of those present are following her instructions in spite of not understanding either of those languages. So the challenge of translation, of finding a common language, lies with all of us present then and there. However what is even more difficult to translate is embodied difference: the difference in our relationships with our bodies.

For instance, the physiotherapist instructed us to “swell our stomachs like a baby belly” and then to “let go”. As we were following this, there was suddenly a loud thud. One of the older women from Somalia had fallen to the floor. Most of us who did not know her very well because of the language barrier were taken aback. Indeed the assumption behind the physiotherapy sessions is that many migrants are stressed, and subject to traumatic conditions of displacement and rejection. But on closer inspection we realized that she had fallen down from uncontrollable laughter, finding the very exercise hilarious and absurd. The instructor used this episode to explore how laughter, too, can be incorporated into stress-relief. The starting point of searching for a common language allows for negotiation and accommodation of the Other without suppressing difference. This lies at the heart of a Derridean notion of hospitality.

Thinking beyond ‘one state, one language’

The power of nation-states and the geopolitics of borders as lines in the sand are produced not only in visible strategies of walls and fences, and immigration and citizenship policies, but also in their ability to capture common-sensical imaginations. As Benedict Anderson famously argued, nation-states are most importantly 'imagined communities'. Yet the most challenging barrier to cross is often a mental threshold, or thinking out of the frame within which one is often used to.

Nationality in Europe is attached to an oppositional discourse, linked to language. It is a challenging threshold to cross despite the territorial borders of Europe's nation-states themselves shifting across time and space (such as expanding colonial networks and decolonisation, and more recently the formation of the European Union, and the EU's enlargement and neighbourhood policies, to name some). However the box of ‘one language, one territory, one nation, one state’ is increasingly contested. 

A friend of ours recently shared her story of asylum in the Netherlands with us, a process made tortuous by errors of mistranslation in immigration interviews and the exclusionary language of “you are in the Netherlands, you should speak Dutch”. Hospitality continues to be seen by the state as a one-way process imposed onto the Other, mostly understood within the framework of nation-states. The expectation of "you are in the Netherlands, you should speak Dutch" denies the possibility of searching for a common language of hospitality, thereby producing integration as a fixed process rather than as something to be negotiated.

The asylum system is also built on stereotypes of ‘asylum seekers’ as the 'illiterate Other', understood to be speaking ‘distant’ languages that require translation. This is blind to the lived reality of an asylum seeker's ability to speak fluently in English or another common language that might not fit neatly into the pre-determined languages of nation-states.

The complex linguistic identities of migrants to Europe, rooted in intertwined colonial networks and histories, are denied all recognition in the space of the asylum interview. We need to think through hospitality and the language of asylum as a negotiated process, beyond the borders of nation-states and homogenous linguistic identities. This is the starting point for a renewed language of hospitality that acknowledges the diverse transnational conditions of migration and asylum today. Most crucially, we must renew a space for translation and negotiation in which equality rather than presumed superiority dictates our borders.

Country or region:  Netherlands City:  Nijmegen Topics:  Civil society Democracy and government
Catégories: les flux rss

Libya: the pressing need for dialogue

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 7 heures 25 minutes

The western intervention in Libya in 2011 failed to recognise the complex warp and weft of its pre-democratic tribal fabric. Only a regionally facilitated dialogue can repair the shattered state left behind.

Not just trappings: tribal affiliations still matter in Libya. Demotix / Ibrahem Azaga. All rights reserved.More than three years since the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya has plunged into political and security turmoil.

Divisions have deepened among the ever-proliferating groups, interests and ideologies. The country has two governments and a plethora of militias control various pockets of territory. Most of the major cities are subjected to devastating violence. Civilian casualties are rising, with reports of incidents regularly counting the fatalities in scores. And the uncontrolled situation is increasingly threatening the stability of neighbouring countries, as last week’s attack on the Bardo museum in Tunis indicates.

It was not supposed to be like this. When NATO forces arrived in 2011, they thought Libya would be “the most beautiful of the Arab Spring”, as one of the EU diplomats following in their train put it. They believed that with 6m inhabitants, all Sunni Muslims, it would not be difficult to knit things together. They soon realised, however, that underneath the seemingly homogeneous Libyan identity lay a rather heterogeneous population, made up of countless tribes—which the intervention unwittingly ensured acquired well-armed militias.


Following the country’s independence in 1951, Libya, then a monarchy, was a federation of three regional entities, Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. These provinces already existed under the Ottoman empire (1299-1922) and remained as such under Italian domination (1911-43) and Franco-British occupation (1943-51). But King Idriss, from Cyrenaica, wanted to control the entire territory under a centralised political system and he transformed the federal monarchy into a unified national state in 1963. Following his coup in 1969, Qaddafi pursued the same policy.

A profound cleavage persists between the urban and rural populations, some of whom have moved into the major Libyan cities. Rural roots are predominantly Bedouin, stemming from the centre and south of Libya, and these still tend to prevail over an urban identity. Qaddafi knew only too well that individuals would be loyal to their tribe before any central government. One of the reasons he managed to remain in power for more than 40 years was his shrewd manipulation of the tribes, relying on the rural Bedouin in his power struggles with the big cities.

Libyans have little, if any, experience of democratic political culture. This lack of political aspiration is substituted by the personal ambition and über-ego of many politicians and militia chiefs, more interested in their own success than the fate of the nation. Social mistrust is the other side of this coin: Misrata, for instance, employs an estimated 1,300 policemen and 700 secret agents, all from the city—no Libyan from outside will be employed there.

Militia groups refuse to lay down their arms unless other militias do so first; the formation of a national army is ruled out unless it is controlled by (one’s own) militia. And militiamen are often well-paid by Libyan standards—between $500 and $1,500 a month—which can only motivate them to sustain the chaotic status quo. So fighting between these uncontrolled militias, competing for power in Tripoli and other major cities, has become the norm. Militias often work hand-in-hand with politicians they protect, some even taking charge of the security of embassies and diplomats.


The use of force against the transnational scourge of non-state violence, threatening the security of Libya and its neighbours, may be legitimate and necessary. But only an intra-Libyan dialogue can resolve its deep-rooted conundrums and, in so doing, preserve territorial unity and sovereignty and social cohesion. This has to be long-term and strategic: it will take great patience, wisdom and political manoeuvring for Libyans not to see their country transformed into a giant, upended jigsaw plunging the entire region into chaos. All the political and military protagonists must engage in genuine dialogue, finding a lasting solution which prioritises the well-being of the population.

Yet Libyans have no real political experience and have still to learn the skills of living in a pluralistic political culture. To help them reach a national agreement, a co-ordinated regional approach is required, drawing on states and peoples fully accustomed with the internal dynamics of Libyan society, culture and language, supported by the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN). Neighbours know all too well Libya and Libyans, and could therefore have a better chance of bringing together the different protagonists around a negotiating table, which could put an end to the current, two-governments quagmire.

In this context, multiplication of international and regional initiatives—the ‘Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa’, held last December in Senegal, for instance—can only complicate an already complex internal situation. Too many initiatives may in the end only duplicate the already numerous continental efforts led by the AU.

Last’s week carnage in Tunisia, perpetrated by Tunisian nationals allegedly trained in camps in Libya, reminds us that Libya has not only become a hub of international violence. Its overspill having already scarred Mali, it is on the verge of creating transnational chaos right across north Africa and the Sahel.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Libya’s downward spiral Libya, Syria and the “responsibility to protect”: a moment of inflection? Country or region:  Libya Topics:  Conflict
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Virgin wins £280m more of NHS services even as tax criticism mounts

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 7 heures 51 minutes

Virgin Care has won a £280m contract to run NHS healthcare for frail and chronically ill people in the Midlands, it was revealed today.

Image: Protect our NHS and People's NHS supporters protesting against Virgin last weekend

Virgin Care have won a £280 million contract to run NHS healthcare in East Staffordshire, it was revealed today. Virgin will now provide (or sub-contract to other providers of its choice) healthcare services for 6,000 frail elderly people and around 38,000 people with long term conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.

Local health commissioners, East Staffordshire CCG, explained the decision, telling the Health Services Journal that without the contract it would be unsustainable by 2018 and overspend its allocation from NHS England by £10m. The decision follows a KPMG report highlighting the ‘distressed local health economy’. 

Quite how Virgin will deliver the service cheaper than the NHS is unclear.

Although separate from the £1.2 billion contracts to deliver cancer and end of life care across the rest of Staffordshire, details of which were leaked to openDemocracy last week (the larger part of which, Virgin is also bidding for), the contract is another of the new ‘prime provider’ contracts. As we exposed last week, the ‘prime provider’ model typically allows the winning company a remarkable amount of leeway to choose what services will be continue to be provided to patients, to what standards (using a vague ‘outcome-based’ model), and whether it provides these services directly or sub-contracts them to other organisations of its choice.

Of today’s deal, leading trade publication Health Services Journal reported “The group said Virgin Care will coordinate services across providers to deliver agreed outcomes, although it has not published what these outcomes are.”

Virgin already operates 30 primary care services across England (often hidden under the NHS logo) including GP practices, GP out of hours services, walk-in centres, urgent care centres (UCCs) and minor injury units (MIUs). Their ‘Urgent Care Clinic’ in Croydon was last year criticised by official inspectors for putting patients at risk by using receptionists with minimal medical training to assess how unwell arrivals were.

Campaigners have already voiced concerns about what the privatisation announced today will mean for frail elderly patients in East Staffordshire .

Richard Murphy, who has just released a report with Unite the Union on the tax avoidance activities of companies like Virgin and other private firms bidding for NHS work, told OurNHS today:

“There can only be one reason for doing this, which is that it is believed that despite the fact that Virgin will want a reward for its work they can deliver the service cheaper than the NHS can. That is only possible if services, wages or quality are cut. There is no other option…the NHS is as efficient as any large, complex organisation dealing with polysymptomatic health problems can be. It is only by pretending that the complexity will disappear that Virgin can claim otherwise.

"That's a fraud on the people of East Staffs just as much as the use of tax haven based structures is a fraud on all the rest of us.”

The issue of tax avoidance by private firms taking over parts of the NHS is also becoming increasingly sensitive as the scale of the NHS financial crisis mounts.

Unite’s research reveals how Virgin uses 13 intermediate holding companies to distance the firm’s healthcare division from its parent company, based in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands.

Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite, commented: 

“Despite the NHS being under huge financial strain the Coalition government is behaving like an accomplice to private companies with tax avoidance structures in place.” 

Today the Kings Fund released a report showing how waiting times are at their highest for years and criticising all parties for not showing how they would plug the £2bn NHS funding deficit the Kings Fund has identified.

Like this piece? Please donate to OurNHS here to help keep us producing the NHS stories that matter. Thank you.

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The 'ninja' NHS privatisers you've never heard of...

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 9 heures 50 secondes

Meet the shadowy team at the heart of many of the most controversial NHS privatisations to date, including the Staffordshire deal leaked last week to openDemocracy.

Image: Wikipedia

”Despite our warnings about the risks... no one has been held accountable for the consequences.”

That was the fierce criticism last week from watchdog Margaret Hodge MP and her Public Accounts Committee of the failed flagship privatisation of Hinchingbrooke hospital.

No-one can hold Circle Holdings accountable. On the day inspectors gave the hospital they were running, the worst rating for ‘caring’ of any hospital in the country, the firm announced they were giving up and walking away, three years into the ten year contract.

The Committee concluded that the deal was an expensive experiment that left taxpayers to pick up the bill.

But who cooked this deal up in the first place? And have they learnt their lesson?

Step forward, the Strategic Projects Team (SPT), a shadowy organisation initially set up within the NHS to design the Hinchingbrooke deal.

And no, they don’t seem to be in apologetic mood.

”Change is a combat sport.”

So said Strategic Project Team co-founder, Stephen Dunn, at this week’s SPT anniversary celebration. For six years, these ‘change-makers’ have been, in their words, ”supporting the brave” and ”encouraging the timid” to reform health services and hand them over to the private sector.

That’s to say, roaming around England’s health service looking for things to privatise.

‘Change from within’ is SPT’s tag line.

Today, though, SPT is having trouble defending its record, which may explain why they are in fighting mode.

The list of failed projects is growing. On the back of Hinchingbrooke, SPT started open competitions to ‘franchise out’ the running of both George Elliot Hospital in Nuneaton, and the Weston in Weston-super-Mare, with companies like Care UK and Circle throwing their hats into the ring. Both projects resulted in expensive U-turns with the planned sell-offs being abandoned - but only after a million pounds had been spent on administering the process, in George Eliot’s case. The SPT was also behind the beleaguered privatisation of pathology services around the country; and the friends and family test, designed by MacPherson and Dunn, rolled out across the NHS at huge cost, and slammed as ‘inappropriate’, ‘unreliable’ and highly questionable as a measure of patient experience.

When not trying to flog hospitals off - of which more later - SPT has also been ‘intervening’ in hospitals, as in Bedford, which has recently lost services to both Circle and US health giant, UnitedHealth.

SPT appear not to have spent any time reflecting on the aborted privatisations of Hinchingbrooke and elsewhere, their costs, or consequences. As a speaker from SPT’s law firm and last night’s hosts, Wragge & Co, said: ‘Business doesn’t research things to death’. If it doesn’t work, bin it, move on.

SPT is a big fan of the world of business. It talks of creating a ‘customer-centric’ (not ‘patient-centric’) NHS. They call healthcare a ‘distressed purchase’.

But who are SPT, and who are they answerable to? The Team was originally set up by senior NHS officials in the East of England, a pioneer region when it comes to private sector involvement in the NHS (and coincidentally home to Andrew Lansley’s Cambridge constituency). They provided the “air cover” for SPT’s controversial operation.

SPT’s other co-founders are Sir Neil McKay, now with healthcare industry consultants, GE Healthcare Finnamore, although at the same time still advising a ‘local NHS body in the Midlands’; and Andrew MacPherson, current SPT managing director. MacPherson’s background is in customer services in the transport business. His experience of the NHS prior to running SPT was as a non-exec director of his local hospital.

Dunn has since moved on to the Trust Development Authority, where he helped decide the fate of many other small hospitals like Hinchingbrooke. More recently, he was given his own one to run, his local hospital in West Suffolk, where he says he is ‘very keen to see if we can create a Kaiser Permanente-type organisation’, referring to the US health insurer’s model.

Exactly who the Strategic Projects Team answers to today is unclear. In one email released under Freedom of Information (FOI) law, MacPherson casually asks a colleague in NHS HQ for ‘insight as to where we might do the most good during 14/15?’, which suggests perhaps that SPT has little in the way of official remit.

SPT’s intent is clear, however, from a ‘commercial in confidence list’ of its activity. NHS bosses twice tried to block the release of this list under FOI law, but it reveals the extent to which community services around the country have had the SPT treatment: the NHS in Coventry & Warwickshire, Huddersfield, Cheshire, and Cambridge & Peterborough have all employed SPT’s services. The latter spent £220k on SPT in 2013-14 to help it open up older people’s services to the private sector, according to figures released under FOI. Companies that bid for the £800m Cambridge & Peterborough contract included: Circle, Capita, Care UK, UnitedHealth, Interserve and Virgin Care. (Virgin Care’s ‘senior relationship manager’ was at last night’s birthday bash).  

The SPT - which claims to specialise in ‘major change initiatives’ - has also been involved in Staffordshire for several years, the list reveals. Staffordshire faces cuts to hospital beds across the county and the downgrading of one of its hospitals, as recommended by KPMG in its recently leaked review of Staffordshire’s ‘distressed’ health economy.

According to its confidential activity log, SPT has made multiple interventions in the area’s hospitals, its community services - and in the redesign of Staffordshire’s cancer and end-of-life services.

And now, these are big contracts up for grabs, with SPT running the bidding process.

It was SPT who produced the ‘Memorandum of Information’ - leaked to OurNHS this month - which set out some of the details for the £687m cancer care contract. It shows that most of the elements of the contract’s design, such as standards and targets, will unusually be decided after the contract has been awarded. Also, there doesn’t appear to be any provision for a break clause for the NHS to get out of the ten-year contract if it doesn’t work out.

Perhaps the most concerning thing about the plans as drafted, though, is their lack of accountability. The Kings Fund described such plans as "a risk to take with taxpayers’ money”, which has a certain resonance in light of the Hinchingbrooke debacle.

Companies shortlisted for the huge cancer contract are UnitedHealth, Interserve and CSC Computer Sciences (which also appears to be a ‘supply chain partner’ of UnitedHealth). The same three companies have also thrown their hat into the ring for the £535m palliative care contract, along with Health Management Ltd (a subsidiary of US outsourcing firm, Maximus) and Virgin Care.

SPT’s role in pushing through such radical reforms is not only in advising its NHS colleagues. It also ‘works closely’ with the healthcare marketplace.

This week’s birthday bash, for example, was aimed at ‘senior NHS and independent sector healthcare leaders’. SPT says it has provided a ‘forum’ for private healthcare companies to influence the direction of the NHS. This includes discussions on making it easier for them to enter the NHS market.

Two groups appear to have driven SPT’s ‘commercial engagement’: a cooperation and competition panel, and a commercial advisory board. The latter is referred to as a ‘unique interface’ between NHS executives and the independent sector, and in typical MacPherson management-speak, as ‘a catalyst for shared learning in healthcare strategy’.

A publication by SPT’s parent body provides more detail. The 15-20-strong commercial advisory board, it says, regularly brings together ‘existing and potential future providers’ of healthcare from all sectors (public, private and voluntary) to discuss NHS reform and ‘market issues’. Topics include the NHS’s approach to procurement, ‘lowering barriers to market entry’ and introducing more ‘innovative’ ways of commissioning care.

It is not known whether the groups are still active: opportunities for continuing the advisory board were under discussion in 2013.

But SPT has a new set of associations these days. Since early 2013, when the NHS organisation that established SPT was dissolved, SPT has been ‘hosted’ by another NHS organisation -the equally ‘commercially-minded’ Greater East Midlands commissioning support unit (GEM) (though SPT maintains its offices in Cambridge and inside NHS England’s London HQ).

The East Midland organisation certainly talks SPT’s language. According to GEM’s chief executive, John Parkes, organisations like his can ‘provide access to... a £70bn market’. They ‘know local decision makers’ and can ‘create opportunities’, he says (writing in a publication for outsourcing giant Sodexo, which now runs many English pathology services).

But who are GEM? They are one of a number of organisations, both private and public, which provide services to the GP groups that hold most of the NHS budget. From HR, PR and IT support, to analysing population data, negotiating contracts and redesigning services, in many places these ‘commissioning support providers’ appear to be essentially taking over the process of planning health services in the NHS, and so determining how and where the NHS budget goes.

The government’s recent NHS reforms created a market in these ‘commissioning support’ services. Organisations like GEM compete with commercial operators such as Capita, and a consortium led by UnitedHealth (that includes KPMG, CSC Computer Sciences, BT and others).

But the relationships are entangled. UnitedHealth, KPMG, Capita, and GE Healthcare Finnamore (where SPT founder Neil McKay now works) are also ‘strategic partners’ of GEM, providing a range of commissioning services to GEM’s GP clients. KPMG, for example, was being paid over a quarter of a million pounds a month through GEM for services, including the development of a ‘commercial strategy’, and the provision of an interim chief operating officer, according to figures the NHS recently reluctantly released.Payments by GEM were also indirectly made to UnitedHealth, via a company sub-contracted by KPMG, although it’s not known what for.  

SPT CEO, MacPherson sees GEM as providing a ‘fertile environment’ for his team to build new partnerships.

It perhaps wants to keep its distance from some of GEM’s other partners, though. With UnitedHealth bidding to run Staffordshire’s cancer and end-of-life services, and SPT running the bidding process (not to mention KPMG helping to reconfigure Staffordshire’s health services), the situation looks pretty cosy.

The Strategic Project Team insists that it is ”committed to the ethos and values of the NHS”. Its work, though, betrays a prejudice towards market solutions and the private sector.

It prides itself on ”breaking new ground”, on ”meeting difficult challenges head on” and on delivering a series of ‘firsts’ in the NHS. Yet, little of what it does appears driven by evidence of what works.

One innovative way of commissioning care currently being championed by SPT is the ‘integration’ of services. In very simple terms, ‘integration’ is sold as a way of improving standards and reducing costs by changing the way healthcare is planned and purchased (or commissioned), so that services are more joined up. (Which sounds like common sense, but treat with caution: The National Audit Office described plans to save money through better integration as being based more on ‘optimism rather than evidence).

Both the Cambridge & Peterborough, and Staffordshire contracts are so-called ‘integration’ projects.

In 2014 SPT’s commercial director, Martin Peat, outlined what SPT saw as the main drivers of this innovative approach to commissioning. ‘Improved services for patients’ comes in at number two on his list. Reduced costs is fifth. Number 1 on his list of what’s fueling integration, though, is: ‘The market’.

Which begs the question: is SPT’s focus on the ‘integration’ experiment, the result of discussions with private sector companies that stand to benefit?

The truth is SPT is itself a failed experiment.

Yet if this week’s event is anything to go by, the team fully intends to continue to push its ‘change strategies’ in the NHS and provide the private sector with bigger entry points, all seemingly without any oversight.

MacPherson’s aim, he told a ‘Nudge’ conference in 2013, is to ‘revolutionise aggressively the world’s fifth largest employer.’

Unfortunately, at the moment nothing except perhaps confusion is standing in their way.

 Like this piece? Please donate to OurNHS here to help keep us producing the NHS stories that matter. Thank you.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Leak reveals worrying truth behind the biggest NHS privatisation yet Hinchingbrooke - why did England's privatised hospital deal REALLY collapse? Shock U-turn as sell-off of George Eliot hospital cancelled
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New report out on TTIP highlights its dangers

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 11 heures 17 minutes

The public oppose it , no one is allowed to see the text of the agreement, but big business are very much in favour. Democratic rights stand to be trumped by corporate demands.


With just a few days left before Parliament dissolves ahead of the general election, a flurry of select committees are publishing reports on inquiries which have been held in recent months. Among them is the Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee’s report on the Transatlantic Trade and investment Partnership (TTIP), published yesterday.

I gave evidence to the TTIP inquiry on behalf of Global Justice Now.

TTIP is an ambitious neoliberal trade agreement being negotiated between the EU and USA. Its purpose is to create new trading opportunities for EU and US business by reducing tariffs, removing unnecessary regulation, liberalising some sectors and giving new protection for investors. The controversy around TTIP is about what regulation is deemed unnecessary, which sectors will be liberalised and that business will benefit at the expense of governments.

The gravity of these concerns has ignited a furious public campaign on TTIP from trade unions, environmental organisations, international development groups and NHS campaigners, united in their call for the negotiations to stop.

The findings of the BIS select committee report vindicate the public’s concerns.

Many of the arguments for TTIP rest on the benefits it will bring to the UK, European and US economy, often breaking this down to a £400 benefit to every UK family every year. The economic models used to churn out these figures are fundamentally flawed ( and present a best case scenario which would not deliver any benefits until 2027 and then only £2 per person a week - equivalent to a packet of fishfingers.

The 11 MPs from across the political spectrum find that “it is impossible at this stage to quantify those benefits in any meaningful way”. They are critical of the figures the UK government uses to promote TTIP and instruct it to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the likely economic benefits of various possible outcomes on TTIP.

Without this evidence, there can be no case for TTIP.

The report goes further to call for a sector by sector analysis of the potential benefits and risks of TTIP. There was an audible gasp from MPs when Sean McGuire of the CBI gave evidence in the inquiry and admitted that the CBI was arguing that TTIP would be good for British business without having undertaken a sector by sector analysis of its impact.

Proposed new rules to protect businesses investing abroad are one of the most controversial proposals in TTIP. These are the rules that have been used by Philip Morris to sue the Australian government for the negative impact on its profits as a result of introducing plain packaging on tobacco products as part of measure to protect public health.

Many civil society groups, including Global Justice Now, have argued that there is no need for these additional rules in TTIP because the EU and US already have robust judicial systems. Including new investment rules (known as Investor State Dispute Settlement) is hugely beneficial to business at the expense of governments – and the taxpayer.

This is backed up by research from 2013 commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills itself which found that “an EU-US investment treaty that does contain ISDS is likely to have few or no benefits to the UK, while having meaningful economic and political costs”.

Perhaps the most significant conclusion of the BIS select committee is that they “do not believe that the case has yet been made for ISDS clauses in TTIP”. This echoes the conclusion of Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, from just a couple of weeks ago, which said that “a compelling case for the inclusion of an ISDS in TTIP has not yet been made". With 97% of the public who completed the European Commission’s consultation on ISDS also saying they do not want ISDS in TTIP, the UK Government’s current pro-ISDS position seems increasingly untenable.

The report nods towards the political pressure to include ISDS in TTIP by suggesting possible modifications should ISDS be included. In particular, the committee asks for a “loser pays principle” to protect states from frivolous claims by business.

The committee also acknowledges the huge public concern about the impact of TTIP on the NHS and other public services, in particular by campaign group 38 degrees. While they report the reassurances that public services will be unaffected by TTIP, without being able to see the text of the negotiations, they ask the government to make an unequivocal public statement that public services are protected at present as well as the right to expand them in the future. It would be stronger if the report went further and asked about the cost associated with expanding public services in the future, under TTIP rules. However, this broad clarity from the UK government is something we have been calling for since TTIP negotiations were launched. It is one thing for the TTIP negotiations to enable EU governments to liberalise public services though TTIP. But it is the decision of each national government to decide which public services will be covered or excluded from TTIP.

With 6 weeks until the general election, the big question is what the position of the UK government will be on TTIP after the 7 May? The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats remain committed to TTIP and ISDS of some sort. The Green Party and Plaid Cymru oppose TTIP in its entirety. The Labour Party will only support a deal on TTIP if ISDS and public services are taken out, and standards are raised and not lowered. The SNP wants to see the NHS excluded from TTIP.

The first indication may be the government’s official response to this report by the BIS select committee, usually expected within 2 months.


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A Geneva Spring? Why civil society needs North-South solidarity

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 13 heures 44 minutes

International human rights institutions are weak, but true North-South solidarity in civil society could challenge a broken system. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on internationalizing human rights NGOsEspañol, Português

A longer version of this article was first published in Sur Journal’s 20th issue hereproduced by Conectas.

In the last decade, the international human rights framework has become addicted to norm-setting, devoting far too much effort to refining norms, tools and protocols, and not enough to their actual implementation. There have certainly been some important new normative initiatives, such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But now the challenge is that the international institutions protecting human rights are very weak; this will likely remain a challenge for a long time. They are, essentially, the UN’s Human Rights Council, with all its various mechanisms, and in extreme cases the UN Security Council. Both are inter-state bodies, however, where nations trade interests. Neither of these contains a judicial body (such as the European Court of Human Rights or the Inter-American Court), and as long as that remains true, implementation of human rights norms will always be deficient. 

The great strength of the international human rights framework is the civil society community of human rights defenders, international and domestic. But international NGOs must take care not to get drawn into this doctrinal and normative environment; instead, they must remain anchored in their fieldwork. For large international human rights NGOs, moreover, partnership with national actors is critical, and this is where the real impact will be felt. The more cohesion there is between the international and local NGOs, the more one can dispel claims that the human rights movement is a Western-dominated agenda, serving Western cultural, political or even economic interests.

Flickr/UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre (Some rights reserved)

Louise Arbour presides over a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council. As High Commissioner, Arbour implemented the Universal Periodic Review system as a means of leveling the playing field for international NGOs.

Another way to combat this sense of “Western dominance” is for civil society to have more voice in the UN human rights system. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) system was brought into place when I was High Commissioner, and the driving idea behind it was the idea of universal scrutiny. Before the Human Rights Council and the UPR, many countries felt the old Human Rights Commission was selective, biased, and the human rights system was Western dominated. With the UPR, however, every country in the world, not just Belarus and Cuba, are objects of scrutiny. And it is not useful to compare Norway to Venezuela, or Russia to Bolivia. Instead, what the UPR does is compare each country against its own record to look for measurable progress, regression or stagnation.

It is better to work with those trying to engage and refine the thinking, with countries that have at least publicly expressed a positive disposition towards progress. That is a better investment. It is true, of course, that standard setting mechanisms are only put into practice amongst communities or countries that are already committed to the general agenda. Yet in a sense, it is better to engage everybody within this positive agenda, even if it means that some are completely left behind. If you had to find the model that would make North Korea become a fully human rights-based country, you would hold the entire system hostage waiting for that to happen. It is better to work with those trying to engage and refine the thinking, with countries that have at least publicly expressed a positive disposition towards progress. That is a better investment.

Investment, however, can also become a sticking point. NGOs have to get funded, and the aggressive pursuit of resources plays into the hands of many governments, particularly in the global South, who claim that human rights work is a self-sustaining racket. NGOs need to show that their country is bad, to generate more money and hire more people. These new staff members then produce more reports saying conditions are bad, securing more money for their organizations. Governments see this as an industry, and NGOs’ competition for resources feeds that narrative.

But at the end of the day, the main sources of funding for human rights are still in the North. It is incumbent on Northern NGOs to be open to partnerships, and to share and support groups in the global South, many of whom have a better understanding of the contexts in which human rights promotion and protection takes place.

The flipside of that, of course, is that NGOs in the South are often very limited in their ability to internationalize. But the more parochial they remain, the more difficult it is to have these partnerships with a broader community.

Take Sri Lanka as an example. In 2010, the International Crisis Group, among other NGOs, documented massive war crimes and crimes against humanity. We estimated 30,000-40,000 casualties during the government’s war against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). Many Northern NGOs pushed for accountability mechanisms, including an international commission of inquiry. The government promised they would do this themselves, but did nothing. The issue comes up in the UN human rights council every year, but it is very difficult to get Southern countries interested. They don’t know much about Sri Lanka, and they can’t make the effort. This is a huge shortcoming, as it leaves the international NGOs to apply the pressure on their own. As a result, it looks like the big Northern groups are picking on poor, small Sri Lanka. The Northern-based international NGOs that speak on abuses in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Guinea-Bissau, among many others, must be joined by the voices of their Latin American and Asian friends, among others. Without those voices, the Northern NGOs have less and less credibility.

During the “Arab Spring” I mentioned the need for a “New York and Geneva Spring”, by which I meant denouncing the shortcomings  of the international human rights protection framework. In Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world, civil society rose up to challenge the existing political order. Globally, we are not there yet; civil society is not yet posed to challenge the international order, and maybe progress can still be made inside the box.

But there may come a time when people will turn their backs on the international human rights framework, because it is too slow to deliver. Or they may take the system in a much more radical direction.


Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 


Related stories:  Human rights diversity goes beyond North-South relations Coming together, or falling apart? Playing both ends against the middle Convergence towards the global middle: an emerging architecture for the international human rights movement How do we solve structural inequality in global networks? Internationalizing human rights NGOs is not a zero-sum game A time for change? The future of INGOs in international human rights To truly internationalize human rights, funding must make sense
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On Solidarity

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 14 heures 20 minutes

The idea of solidarity has its roots in the history of the workers’ movement, and as this is usually excluded from conventional tales of human endeavour, it is seldom understood. 

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

"Quarto Stato" di Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved. On the idea of solidarity many bien-pensant authors have written a great deal. Like ‘fraternity’ and unlike liberty and equality, it is considered soft and fuzzy, a matter of leading articles on national holidays and solemn anniversaries. As if it were not a concept.

But it is.

In a famous study, Jeremy Waldron has shown how the universalist notion of human dignity has its historical origin in the not very universalist – to wit, feudal – idea of ‘rank’, the dignity attached to status.

The idea of solidarity has its roots in the history of the workers’ movement, and as this is usually excluded from conventional tales of human endeavour, it is seldom understood.

What has ‘solidarity’ meant for the workers’ movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? 

Looked at from the outside, the workers’ movement was a set of organizations for and of an exploited, oppressed and politically unrepresented class which was trying to improve its lot.

It was, in particular, an attempt to introduce politics into an area from which it was legally banished. Modern, that is, bourgeois society is based on a series of separations. One of the most important separations – on which the social equilibrium, the balance of social forces depends – is the distinction between public and private. The public – the realm of the common good – is identified with the affairs of the state, the only realm in modern society where legal coercion is accepted and where obedience and deference to authority is obligatory.

In the sphere of the private, in ‘civil society’, it is contractual, that is, free and voluntary acts that are the rule (private citizens normally don’t have the right to coerce fellow citizens into obedience). Such is the case, according to official doctrine, of labour contracts and, in general, of labour that is seen legally and jurisprudentially as a private affair between two contracting parties, the employer and employee, where money will usually change hands, going from employer to employee, for the performance of voluntarily assumed duties prescribed by contract, custom, technology and the like.

The law is there only to ensure that the implied promise of performance is kept and that the agreed salary is faithfully paid. But the substantive and material content of the labour contract remains a private affair in which no ‘third party’ is allowed to interfere, as such an interference would hurt the freedom of contract, one of the fundamental prerequisites of any civilized, that is, commercial society.

It is good to remember that once upon a time strikes were considered illegal precisely because they constitute a breach of contract. Moreover, they use violence – by closing down machinery or other technological devices etc. – to force one of the contracting parties, the employers, under the threat of financial loss, to change the terms of contract previously accepted. This is, of course, a disloyal and unfaithful breach of promise, a promise that people are supposed to observe under penalty of law.

Why did the striking workers – apart from the wish to improve their economic and social position, e. g. to increase their wages, shorten their working day and improve their working conditions, including various social advantages, such as unemployment benefit, old-age pensions, paid holidays, social housing, free healthcare and the like – think that they were justified in changing the terms of a fundamental, perhaps constitutional arrangement essential for the inner peace and for the existing system of liberties? For it is undeniable that for secular bourgeois societies the system of separations is necessary for upholding individual autonomy, by making private life, private affairs and their framework, civil society, inviolable by political authority, in other words, by the state.

Why did the workers’ organizations believe that it was morally permissible to use coercion, sometimes physical violence to force the employers (or the employers in general, the ruling class) to give up some of their privileges and advantages guaranteed by another fundamental right, the right of property? (This is why socialism was and sometimes still is seen as an enemy of freedom, a tendency to make politics, that is, the state, absolute and one which is bent on destroying the autonomy of civil society and of the individual.)

Plainly, albeit discourteously formulated, they obviously thought that they were in some sense morally superior to their adversaries, which would justify coercive, sometimes violent, but in any case illegal tactics which have questioned the constitutional order, even one of its foundations, the customary distinction between public and private or, if you prefer, between politics and the economy (and the ‘social’).

Moral superiority

Let us examine this idea of moral superiority, which is of course alien to Marxism, but which has influenced the followers of Proudhon, Lassalle and Bakunin, in many respects more influential than Marx in the practical movements of the nineteenth century, and an idea revived in the anti-war movement after 1914, in the Russian revolution in October 1917, in the anti-colonial or ‘national liberation’ movements, and which has indeed coloured the Bolshevik version of Marxism for nearly a century.

This fight for seemingly humdrum and mundane goals may appear as a rather poor reason for the kind of sinful pride affirming moral superiority.

How could be such a feeling sustained?

Bourgeois society was regarded by olden-time proletarian revolutionaries as a régime of selfishness. After all, liberal capitalism, especially its early version, was constructed as a régime of self-representation. Built as a clash of wills, a clash of interests, regulated, tempered and moderated by an overarching constitutional order ensuring that conflicts of interests would be conducted in a peaceable manner, decided by elections and court trials, where everybody’s rights will be respected, but otherwise the (peaceful) battlefield is open for all.

Quite apart from the traditional advantages of the wealthy, of the well-educated and of the well-connected, this was held by the proletarians – even if it was not a sham or a fraud – to be quite contemptible, as it was governed by self-interest and decided by force, both damned by Christian morality. But what then was the difference? Were the workers not fighting for their own advantage or interest, just like the bourgeois?

But the proletarians – an identification that was tantamount to being called a socialist, a communist or an anarchist – did not regard the class struggle as a zero-sum game or merely the aspiration for the lowly material advancement of a group of people united by their similar economic and social condition. They did not believe that they represented only themselves and their narrowly defined interest. Their own authentic aspiration could be told apart from the aspirations of the rest by the principle of solidarity.


This had many features.

First, they did not recognize the uncoerced, voluntary character of the labour contract, the alternative of which, if you were unwilling to sign, was starvation. Hence, they did not recognize that labour was in the private realm and that as such it was not political. (This is the intuitive foundation of every version of anti-capitalism, even today.) So the fight for higher wages and for a shorter working day and working week had the dignity of politics, formerly the preserve of the upper classes, barring revolutions.

Second, they did not recognize the absoluteness or exclusiveness of property rights as, in accordance with natural right, they regarded wealth as a source of obligation for the promotion of the common good (or of public interest) and thus subordinated to the superior claims of the quest for a better human society. (This is obviously also the claim of the ecological movements.)

Third, in agreement with the young Marx, they believed that the working class heralded the dissolution of all classes, that it was the quintessential non-class, defined as an aspect of the human condition in which the self-interest of some would mean the end of all sectional interests and so, the emancipation of the human race. By opposing property and power, they did not want to acquire property and power for themselves, but to destroy property and power for ever and in all respects. This was not supposed to be reduced to a political interference in civil society, on the contrary: it was supposed to mean the obliteration of the duality civil society/state by putting an end to class/state coercion and to its law.

Hence, this was not self-representation (this would be a miscontrual of old social democracy, in a way that has become familiar from current historiography, which has always been so wary of ideas) but a battle fought on behalf of humankind as such.

And as this fight was always understood as unselfish, generous and heroic, as the fight of the weak against the strong, the virtues that went with it were similarly generous and heroic: they were essentially virtues of self-sacrifice. During and after strikes and rebellions, workers were laid off and thrown into jail: this was a badge of honour and a mark of the highest moral pride, always construed as suffering for a noble goal at the hands of the flunkeys of the ruling class – gendarmes, gaolers, professional soldiers, spies, scabs, snitches, prosecutors, judges, priests, bourgeois politicians, kings and journalists. Voluntary suffering for the noble goal is naturally also Christian in origin: it is the secular version of the idea of martyrdom. Also similar to Christian moral theology: this was the proof of the essential justice of the noble cause.

And the highest proof was solidarity with other workers, especially that which took the form of internationalism.

One of the main instruments of bourgeois society, then as now, is the cross-class solidarity of the nation – the main moral competitor to the workers’ movement. National interest was supposed (this is the bourgeois standpoint) to supersede ‘selfish’ and material class interest (the bourgeois interpretation of the proletarian stance) particularly in the way this supercession was demanded and expected in wartime. The proletariat had (or should have had) the effrontery to doubt the legitimacy of this claim, through three natural right-style principles, typically forgotten:

   • equality between nations,

   • friendship between peoples,

   • world peace.

In this, the workers’ movement was the true heir of Immanuel Kant, despised as an ‘idealist’ not only by the General Staff, but also by most political theorists, in the first place by Carl Schmitt, so much admired these days by the baddies. Kant’s assumption of ‘publicness’ as the sole guarantor of an international law conducive to perpetual peace is parallel to the demand of ‘publicness’ by socialists as regards labour and property. Perpetual world peace through ‘hospitality’ (not philanthropy, but right, says Kant) means the extension of regular democratic politics to a territory from which it was banished earlier. In exactly the same manner, socialism extends politics to civil society.

The end of peace

In his influential book about the crisis of the European Union, Jürgen Habermas acknowledges the changes in the official international doctrine of a universal rule of law after 1945 – in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the UN Charter and a number of national and regional constitutions, conspicuous among them that of the Free State of Saxony, which was accepted and enacted after 1989 – where it appears that the recognition of universal and equal dignity plays a role previously unknown. He does not spell this out in precisely these terms, but it is glaringly obvious that this development took place thanks to the influence of socialism, as it enjoyed its brief moment of international legitimacy immediately after the victory over the Third Reich.

One of the institutions dreamed up to ensure peace at least in Europe – which is of course unthinkable without the cognate principles of ‘equality between nations’ and ‘friendship between peoples’ – was the European Union, or ‘Europe’ for short.

There is no need for extraordinary acuity to discover that the most recent European crisis, not caused by but only made visible by the Syriza government in Greece, presents us not with a banal instance of the difference between theory and practice, principles and interests, but with a deeper and more worrying malfunction: this appears to be the renunciation of egalitarian principles on the international level, where once the idea of solidarity was injected into an exceptional historic moment. Now the ejection of solidarity heralds the end of international or, in this instance, European peace. Such a peace, already broken in the former Yugoslavia and now in the former Soviet Union (Ukraine/Russia) is nearing its conceptual and moral end, also within the narrower confines of the European Union.

The disappearance of socialism from the political mix – and with it, of solidarity, acted upon as a principle, and not merely an empty emotional phrase in May Day speechifying – demonstrates the close of an epoch. It is the first time in European history that capitalism is alone, unresisted by socialism or, for that matter, by Christianity. The international solidarity evinced in anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism seems also defunct.

There is no question, that the proud faith in the moral superiority of the solidary proletariat has become obsolete. Contemporary anti-capitalist protesters – sons and daughters of the middle class and of the intelligentsia or rootless bohemians of working-class ‘backgrounds’ kept alive by the bourgeois welfare system – do not advocate and practice self-representation, they are rebelling on other people’s behalf. But those people are strangely silent.

Solidarity is a social ideal that always tries to become a politics. Its chances are slim.


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Sideboxes Related stories:  What is Post-fascism? Country or region:  EU Topics:  Civil society Conflict Democracy and government Economics Equality Ideas International politics
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Waiting for emancipation: the prospects for liberal revolution in Africa

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 15 heures 5 minutes

Clearly, trade and finance are not organized, in Africa or the world at large, with a view to liberating a popular movement.

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.


South Africa miners strike following the Marikana massacre, 2012. Demotix/Jonny White. All rights reserved.We live in a racist world. Despite the collapse of European empire and the formal adoption of a façade of international bureaucracy, the vast majority of black Africans are still waiting for meaningful emancipation from their perceived social inferiority.

Africans wait for emancipation in an unequal world

Now there is much talk of economic growth in Africa. In the present decade, 7 out of the 10 fastest-growing economies (as conventionally measured) are African. In 1900 Africa was the world’s least densely populated and urbanized continent with 7.5% of world population. Today it is double that, with an urban share fast approaching the global average. According to UN projections, Africa will be home to 25% of all the people alive in 2050, 40% in 2100 (when Asia will contribute 42% and the rest 18%). This is because Africa’s annual population growth rate is 2.5% while the rest of the world is ageing. The Asian manufacturing countries already recognize that Africa is the fastest-growing market in the world. This could provide an opportunity for Africans to play a stronger hand in international negotiations. If they succeed in standing up for themselves, it would be a world revolution, the end of the racist world order, no less.

The movement to abolish slavery was officially completed in the late nineteenth century. But emancipation is rarely as simple as that. In West Africa, abolition was a disaster. The internal drive to capture slaves continued apace and, despite a shift to their use in domestic production, supply soon exceeded demand. The price of slaves fell drastically, leading to their widespread abuse. Colonial empires were then justified by disorder in West Africa and by the drive to abolish the Arab slave trade in East Africa. Much later, when these regimes fell, Africans were offered emancipation once more, this time through national independence. Most African economies then regressed for a half-century. Apartheid was defeated in South Africa, but two decades later the country is more unequal and unemployment is rampant, while the government shoots its own people if they complain. Africans are still waiting for equal membership of world society. But they have never encountered more favourable conditions than now.

In the twentieth century, a population explosion was accompanied by a jump in Africa’s urban share from under 2% of the population to almost half. This urban revolution is not just a proliferation of cities, but also involves the installation of the whole package of pre-industrial class society: states, urban elites, intensification of agriculture and a political economy based on extraction of rural surpluses and the city bazaar.

The anti-colonial revolution unleashed hopes for the transformation of an unequal world. These have not yet been realized for most Africans. Africa’s new leaders thought they were building modern economies, but in reality they were erecting fragile states based on the same small-scale agriculture as before. Either machine production would be developed in some sectors of the economy or the state would devolve to a level compatible with its small-scale productive base. This structural weakness inevitably led them to exchange the democratic legitimacy of the independence struggle for dependence on foreign powers. Life support to Africa’s new ruling elites was switched off in the early 1980s. Many governments were made bankrupt and some countries collapsed into civil war.

The growth of cities should normally lead to rural-urban exchange, as farmers supply food to city-dwellers and in turn buy the latter’s manufactures and services. But this progressive division of labour requires a measure of protection from the world market and it was stifled at birth in post-colonial Africa by the dumping of subsidized food from the tax-rich West and later of cheap Asian manufactures. ‘Structural adjustment programmes’ imposed by the World Bank and IMF meant that Africa’s fledgling national economies had no protection. Tax collection in Africa was never as regular as in Eurasia; and governments still rely on whatever they can extract from mineral royalties and the import-export trade. Rents secured by political privilege are the chief source of wealth. This constitutes an Old Regime ripe for liberal revolution.

African development in the twenty-first century

‘Development’ refers first to humanity’s hectic dash from the countryside to the city since 1800. The engine driving this economic growth is assumed to be ‘capitalism’. Development then means trying to understand how capitalist growth is generated and how to make good the damage it causes in repeated cycles of creation and destruction. A third meaning refers to the developmental states of the mid-twentieth century, the idea that governments are best placed to engineer sustained economic growth with redistribution. The most common usage, however, refers to the commitment of rich countries to help poor countries become richer. This was at first real enough, even if the means chosen were often flawed. But after the 1970s, it has faded. If the rapid growth of the world economy encouraged a belief at first that poor countries could become rich, from the 1980s ‘development’ has meant freeing up global monetary flows and applying sticking plaster to the wounds inflicted. Development is the label for political relations between rich and poor countries after colonial empire.

There are two pressing features of our world: the unprecedented expansion of markets since the Second World War and massive economic inequality between (and within) nations. Becoming closer and more unequal at the same time is a recipe for disaster. Africa, with a seventh of the world’s population, had 2% of global purchasing power around the millennium. What could Africa’s new urban populations produce for the world economy? Apart from exporting raw materials, when they could, the world market for food and other agricultural products is skewed by western farm subsidies. Manufacturing as an alternative faces intense competition from Asia. African countries should argue collectively in the councils of world trade for some protection from international dumping, so that their farmers and infant industries might supply their own populations first.

Exchange between cities and their hinterlands has been frustrated for a post-colonial Africa whose international bargaining position is undermined by being fragmented into 54 states. The fastest-growing sector of world trade is the production of culture: entertainment, education, media, sports, software and information services. The terrain is less rigidly mapped out here than in agriculture and manufacture and Africans are well-placed to compete in this field because of the proven global preference for their music, films and plastic arts.

Classes for and against a liberal revolution

  Mineworkers and Construction Union members remember the Marikana victims, 2014. Demotix/Antonella Ragazzoni. All rights reservedThe classical liberal revolutions were sustained by three ideas: that freedom and economic progress require increased movement of people, goods and money in the market; that the political framework most compatible with this is democracy; and that social progress depends on science, the drive to know how things really work. The energies generated by Africa’s urban revolution are already manifested in economy, technology, religion and the arts; and they could be harnessed to radical change if freed from the Old Regime.

Rousseau’s condemnation of eighteenth century France rings as true for our world: “It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities”. The institutions of agrarian civilization are alive and well, not just in post-colonial Africa. The greatest riches are no longer acquired through selling products cheaper than one’s competitors; rents secured by political privilege -- such as Big Pharma’s income from patents, monopoly revenues from DVDs and CDs or tax revenues, used to bail out the Wall Street banks – keep the superrich afloat today.

In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon provided a blueprint for a class analysis of decadent societies ripe for revolution. Political parties and unions were weak and conservative in late colonial Africa because they represented only a tiny part of the population: the industrial workers, civil servants, intellectuals and shopkeepers of the town, classes unwilling to jeopardize their own privileges. They were hostile to and suspicious of the mass of country people.

The latter had customary chiefs supervised by the military and administrative officials of the occupying power. A nationalist middle class of professionals and traders confronted the superstition and feudalism of traditional authorities. Landless peasants joined the urban lumpenproletariat. Eventually colonial repression forced the nationalists to flee the towns and take refuge with the peasantry. Only then, with the rural-urban split temporarily healed by crisis, did a mass movement take off. Fanon’s method might help us identify the potential for another African revolution.

Clearly, trade and finance are not organized, in Africa or the world at large, with a view to liberating a popular movement. A liberal revolution would need allies with significant wealth and power. Africans will have to develop their own transnational associations to combat the huge coalitions that would deny them self-expression. One of the strongest political movements today is the formation of large regional trading blocs in response to neoliberal globalization. A national framework for development never made sense in Africa and it makes even less sense today. The coming revolution could leapfrog many of the obstacles in its path, but not if African societies still wear the national straitjacket they inherited from colonial rule.

Freedom and protection in the early modern revolutions

The American, French and Italian revolutions all combined mass insurgency with an extended period of warfare focused on removing fragmented sovereignty, unfair taxes and restrictions placed on movement and trade; German unification had a similar focus, but followed a different political trajectory. The success of the British in establishing a global free trade regime in the nineteenth century and the revival of that regime as economic orthodoxy today have obscured the complex dialectic of freedom and protection whose imperatives were laid out by Sir James Steuart in Principles of Political Economy (1767).

Impediments to trade caused by divided sovereignty within and between states had to be overcome. Development under these circumstances depended on removing these barriers to trade. At the same time, these incipient free trade areas needed a measure of protection, so that their own agriculture and manufactures could benefit from supplying newly consolidated home populations. The French revolution is a striking case in point.

In 1793, the Terror was unleashed and the Bretons raised a ‘Royal and Catholic Army’ against which the revolutionary Republic sent out an army of its own to fight in the War of Vendée. Nantes, France’s largest port, was heavily involved in slavery and trade with the Caribbean. It stood out for the Republic and was besieged by the Royalist army. The ensuing battle was decisive for the Revolution; the shippers financed the Republican army. Why did the Nantes bourgeoisie risk so much for the Revolution? France, although a central monarchy, was then a patchwork of local fief-holders, each of whom exacted what they could from people and goods moving through their territory. The Republic promised to end all that and establish a regulated home market. The Nantes shippers wanted to reduce the costs of moving their trade goods inland and so they allied themselves with the Republic.

In the United States, American and Dutch smugglers led resistance to the East India Company’s tea monopoly and to British taxes offsetting the crown’s military costs. The Italian Risorgimento too was backed financially by the industrialists of Milan and Turin who wanted a national home market freed of territorial fragments and unrestricted access to world trade. In all three cases, the power of merchant and manufacturing capital played a decisive part in the revolution.

Long before the European Common Market became the European Union, the Prussian Zollverein was launched in 1818 and culminated in the German Empire. In each case political unification was preceded by a customs union lasting half a century. The Zollverein was a piecemeal attempt to harmonise tariffs, measures and economic policy in scattered territories controlled by the Prussian ruling family. The Germans attributed their vulnerability to extreme political fragmentation (some 40 states in 1815). Prussia’s main aim was to expand a protected zone of internal free trade from which the Austrians were excluded. By the 1860s, most of what became Germany had joined the customs union. Their leading economist, Friedrich List, proposed a ‘national system’ of political economy. He emphasized the scope for innovation within an expanded free trade area protected from the world market. Similar proposals were espoused by Americans like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay.

Towards greater integration of African trade

President Mbeki’s idea of an ‘African renaissance’ expressed the belief that a black majority government in South Africa might be a catalyst for an African economic revival based on greater political coordination between what had before been easy pickings for the world’s great powers. His initiative was aimed exclusively at the very political class that has failed Africa so often since independence. He did not factor civil society movements into his plans.

Africa currently consists of a labyrinthine confusion of regional associations which do little to strengthen their members’ bargaining power in world markets. On the ground, however, African peoples maintain patterns of long-distance movement and exchange developed over centuries despite their rulers’ attempts to force economy and society into national cages.

This is one major reason why so much of the African economy is held to be ‘informal’: state regulations are routinely ignored, with the result that half the population and most economic activity are criminalized and an absurd public effort is wasted on trying to apply unenforceable rules. Classical liberalism offers an answer to this chaos -- the widest area possible of free trade and movement, with minimal regulation by the authorities.  Neoliberal globalization has done much to discredit this recipe, since political initiatives, even in pursuit of free trade, are anathema. Yet the policy conclusion is inescapable: the boundaries of free commerce and of state intervention should be pushed beyond the limits of existing sovereignties.

China occupied a similar slot to Africa in western consciousness not so long ago. In the 1930s, people often spoke of the Chinese as they do of Africa today. China was then crippled by the violence of warlords, its peasants mired in the worst poverty imaginable. Today the country is an economic superpower. This profound shift in power from West to East does not guarantee that Africa will escape soon from the stigma of inferiority, but the structures of North Atlantic dominance that once seemed inevitable are perceptibly on the move; and that makes it easier to envisage change. Humanity is entering a new era of social possibility. Africans’ drive for emancipation from an unequal world society affects all of us. In that sense an African revolution would be a world revolution.

Topics:  Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Economics Equality International politics
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Anti-trafficking campaigns, sex workers and the roots of damage

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 18 heures 44 minutes

Anti-trafficking campaigns have their roots in 19th-century efforts to ‘save’ white women from ‘white slavery.’ Contemporary strategies broaden the stigmatisation and criminalisation, impacting a range of vulnerable communities.

The adverse impact of anti-trafficking laws and policies on sex workers rights has been documented extensively for the last decade. Despite calls for change from sex workers, human rights activists, academics and a range of other actors, states around the world have been reluctant and slow to respond. Some analysts emphasise that the states’ use of anti-trafficking laws to limit immigration is largely responsible for this reluctance. I further add that the analysis of the historical development of contemporary anti-trafficking policies is crucial to understanding the escalating criminalisation and stigmatisation of sex workers, migrants and other vulnerable populations. I argue that any legal framework centred on ‘crime’, rather than on rights and the structural causes of social ills, is bound to disproportionately and systematically impact the poor and vulnerable.

Saving women from ‘white slavery’: the roots of the anti-trafficking

The roots of contemporary anti-trafficking laws can be firmly located in the prostitution-abolitionist ideology of the late 19th century; a period during which trafficking was also referred to as ‘white slavery’. The white slavery campaigns portrayed a world filled with sexual danger for young white women, seduced and exploited by sinister dark men. Thus these campaigns were driven by xenophobia, racism and classism at the peak of British imperialism.

By the mid-1800s anti-solicitation laws (targeting prostitutes) had become a staple of urban codes. Prostitution-abolitionists joined other anti-vice crusaders in the 1800s, introducing a new strategy. As a precursor to the legislative approach taken by Sweden and other countries today, the prostitution abolitionists held that women were forced into prostitution, and were therefore victims rather than criminals. They also opposed legal prostitution, objecting to[ “…the double standard of sexual morality reinforced by the policing and control of women's bodies [and] … fought to expand the definition of trafficking to include third party involvement]8, which they argued should be penalised or criminalised.” Then, as today, this legislative and campaign strategy was ostensibly offered in sympathy. However, the criminalisation of third parties drove commercial sex underground and resulted in extreme and dangerous isolation of sex workers, because third parties could include landlords, domestic help, family members, brothel owners and even support among sex workers themselves.

The closure of the brothels also coincided with a rise in property values. The legal status of prostitution was thus subject to the politics of land development, an on-going element of prostitution repression. In the US, marginalised urban populations from immigrants to newly emancipated African Americans were targeted under such statutes as the 1910 Mann Act or White Slave Traffic Act. This statute established a central database of ‘known prostitutes’ and led to the formation of the FBI, in a stark example of how anti-trafficking policies widen police powers. Such repression and criminalisation of most aspects of prostitution soon spread around the globe. This firmly re-located prostitution deep within the underground economy, exacerbating and causing vulnerability. The murder rate of sex workers has since  increased steadily, along with police abuse against adults and youth.

The criminalisation of third parties and the definition of prostitution as an inherent ‘evil’ was further cemented at the global level by the 1949 UN Convention on the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. As Kamala Kempadoo argued in her paper “Trafficking for the Global Market: State and Corporate Terror,” anxiety over the trafficking-prostitution nexus gained even more momentum following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc:

It would appear that the appearance of women from the former USSR countries in Western European sex industries, was a main reason for European governments to pay attention to the problem of trafficking. In many ways, this focus echoes the late nineteenth - early twentieth century crusade...It would seem yet again, that attention for the lives of white women … has propelled international action.

The fight for sex workers’ rights

In the late 70s, the sex workers’ rights movement radically suggested that sex workers were a class of workers wholly eligible for human, civil and labour rights. This led to the organisation of international conventions for sex workers and human rights activists, beginning with the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights in the 80s. The analysis offered by these groups reflected development, social justice and harm reduction theory. There was increasing recognition of the flaws of prostitution-abolitionist strategies at these conferences and within academia, as well as calls for the self-representation of sex workers as put forth by the Network of Sex Work Projects.

In the 90s, in response to the growing attention to migration issues, and informed by sex worker rights activism, a collaboration of rights-based groups created the Human Rights Standards for Treatment of Trafficked Persons. Their intention was to advocate for an anti-trafficking protocol that targeted the abuse of all workers—including sex workers—primarily in the context of migration. The disagreements between this collaborative group and the prostitution abolitionists were laid bare in the late 90s, when these diverse factions were invited to participate in drafting the new UN Trafficking Protocol. A battle ensued.

It was apparent that prostitution abolitionists had no interest in including forced labour in the UN Trafficking Protocol. Rather, they insisted that the Protocol be used as a tool to abolish prostitution. In the compromise reached at the end, the new UN Trafficking Protocol referred to labour abuses involving the use of force, fraud, coercion, etc. for the purpose of exploitation. More significantly, the Protocol specifically chose not to define ‘sexual exploitation’. This left individual states to define it as they saw fit, equating prostitution with sexual exploitation or defining sexual exploitation as abuse within prostitution. In this way the Protocol could be interpreted as supporting both proponents of legal prostitution and those seeking its abolishment.

These strategies within the UN Protocol have largely failed sex workers as well as migrants and trafficked persons. In addition, while the included human rights protections are optional, the criminalisation and border controls are mandatory. In consequence, the predominantly criminal justice response primarily aims to stop commercial sex through immigration raids and arrests, yet is coupled with limited support for a wide range of victims. Thus, as stated by Marjan Wijers, “This focus on the purity and victimhood of women, coupled with the protection of national borders, not only impedes any serious effort to address the true human rights abuses we are confronted with... but actually causes harm to real people.”

Under pressure from prostitution abolitionist coalitions, many countries have now enacted domestic anti-trafficking laws that focus exclusively on prostitution, retreating to strategies of the earlier centuries. In the United States, the prostitution abolitionist lobby, in alliance with religious fundamentalists, strenuously lobbied for all sex workers to be considered victims of trafficking to foreclose the option for legal prostitution and labour rights for those involved. These groups also recommended a bifurcated definition of trafficking, one that separates ‘sex trafficking’ from other forms of labour trafficking. The US Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which partially reflects this proposal, defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harbouring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” No condition of force, fraud or abuse is stipulated. Although ‘sex trafficking’ is not included in US criminal codes, the TVPA certainly paves the way for that possibility.

The focus of enforcement in the United States has primarily been on suppressing commercial sex, rather than on addressing abuses within the sex trades. These repressive ideologies are also actively promoted and exported through channels such as the ‘Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath,’ which requires beneficiaries of US aid money to guarantee their opposition to legal prostitution. US domestic funding followed a similar direction, rendering sex worker organisations ineligible for funding. Sex workers were also excluded from further participation in policy making in both systematic and and informal ways.

State of play

The current neo-abolitionist movement has expanded its strategies to include the ‘Nordic model’ of prostitution repression. Clients are now included in the long list of targets of criminalisation, escalating the isolation of sex workers. Although abolitionist philosophy is ostensibly opposed to criminalisation of sex workers, internationally such campaigns have been launched where prostitution is legal, or as a means to further criminalise the sex industries, rather than as a means to decriminalise sex workers. It is this crime-based approach that also promotes tighter border controls, as well as the escalating punishment and targeting of migrants, youth and people of colour. These ‘solutions’ exacerbate violence and vulnerability in many populations, just as the criminalisation of brothels in the 1800s resulted in a century of isolation and increased violence against sex workers.

Sex workers have long explained that one of the many conditions needed to prevent the abuses often conflated as ‘trafficking’ is the decriminalisation of sex work. This principle is supported by Human Rights Watch the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, the United Nations Development Programme, UN Women and UNAIDS, among a growing list of international bodies.

Clearly, some results of anti-trafficking policies have been positive for those individuals found to qualify for protections, affording them specific visas and settlements among other humanitarian advances. At the same time, substantial evidence of adverse effects has been found following research carried out by the Global Alliance against Traffic in Women. From a rights based perspective, any legal framework that centres on ‘crime’ rather than on rights and the structural causes for social ills is bound to disproportionately and systematically impact the poor and vulnerable. Meanwhile, the double-edged sword of anti-trafficking places vulnerable populations in competition for justice, because those qualified as trafficked persons may obtain recourse from the same systems that punish other, equally vulnerable individuals.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Convenient conflations: modern slavery, trafficking, and prostitution Speaking of “dead prostitutes”: how CATW promotes survivors to silence sex workers The role of the state and law in trafficking and modern slavery
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Lies, damn lies and hunting polls

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 23 heures 32 minutes

Whether the public support or oppose the hunting ban seems to depend very much on which question is asked, and who's asking the question.

Flickr/beaucon. Some rights reserved.

In December last year the anti-hunting charity the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) commissioned its seasonal poll from Ipsos MORI. The results were predictable to those of us who follow such 'research' and LACS subsequently produced its traditional Boxing Day press release claiming '80% of the British public are in favour of keeping the ban on fox hunting'. Those numbers looked a little odd beside the reports of hundreds of thousands of people supporting their local hunts, but surely showed that everyone else must hate those nasty foxhunters.

In January however, another polling company, YouGov, decided to ask a question about hunting in anticipation of the tenth anniversary of the Hunting Act on 18th February. That poll reported that 51% of people "support the ban on fox hunting with hounds". The research was not commissioned by anyone, but according to YouGov was asked "purely for the interest of our (website) readers".

We hear a lot about 'rogue' polls and statistical range these days, but a 29% polling difference on the same issue a month apart is some anomaly. How on earth can this have happened?

The story goes back into the 1990's and the increasing reliance of the anti-hunting movement on public opinion polling to make the case for a ban on hunting. LACS, with its partners IFAW and the RSPCA, found a willing helper in the form of Robert Worcester, founder and Chairman of the dominant market research company MORI. Worcester was happy to appear at LACS meetings, and LACS press releases invited interested parties to contact him directly about polling commissioned for anti-hunting groups. The message was simple: an overwhelming majority of the public supported a ban on hunting, and as the other arguments for prohibition fell away public opinion became more and more important to its advocates.

From the start MORI polling often showed significantly more support for a ban on hunting than research carried out by other companies and as a polling war developed around impending legislation that difference became potentially critical. When the Government introduced an 'Options Bill' including a 'middle way' proposal to license hunting, polls commissioned by the Countryside Alliance started to show well under half the population supporting a total ban on hunting. The Advertising Standards Authority were even dragged in and told us that on the basis of one poll we ran we could say that 59% of people did not want hunting banned, but not that 59% of people had said 'keep hunting'.

By 2003, however, MORI research was claiming that "69% of the public think fox hunting should not be legal". Eventually the absurd debate concluded with the passing of the Hunting Act, but the polling war was not over. Critically, in 2005, a few days before the Hunting Act came into force, MORI ran a poll for someone other than LACS. The research, for the BBC programme Countryfile, concluded that there was no overall majority of support for the ban with just 47% of people saying that they 'personally supported a ban on hunting with dogs'. MORI polling for LACS, however, continued to show ever greater support for a ban which by October 2009 had reached 75%.

At this point a cross party group of parliamentarians stepped in to raise the anomaly with the industry regulator, the Market Research Society (MRS), and in particular to challenge the extremely dubious preamble and question being used by MORI (now Ipsos MORI) when it polled for LACS, which they argued clearly breached the MRS Code of Conduct.

To the MPs and peers the reason that the polling for the BBC and the polling for LACS varied so widely was obvious. The Ipsos MORI poll for BBC Countryfile which found 47% of people supported a ban on hunting asked:

Now a question about hunting with dogs (that is, fox hunting, deer hunting, hare coursing, hare hunting and mink hunting)As you may know, a ban on hunting with dogs is due to come into force in England and Wales, subject to a legal challenge.

To what extent do you personally support or oppose a ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales?

Whereas the MORI poll for LACS which found that 75% of people supported a ban on fox hunting asked:

Now a question about sports where animals are set on other animals to fight or kill them. These activities are currently illegal in the United Kingdom:

Dog Fighting, Badger Baiting, Fox Hunting, Deer Hunting, Hare Hunting & Coursing

For each one I read out, please tell me whether you think it should or should not be made legal again.

The parliamentarians argued that the description of hunting in this poll, and the inclusion of fighting and baiting activities unrelated to hunting were designed to prejudice the respondents' attitude towards hunting and to influence the subsequent answers. They further pointed out that the effect of the preamble and question were evidenced by the earlier MORI poll for the BBC which had not included such pejorative content and reported a very different response.

The MRS Standards Board initially rejected the complaint, which frankly was no surprise given that the founding Chairman and current 'ambassador' of the MRS is the architect of the very polling strategy being complained of. However, when the parliamentarians took their case to the MRS's 'Reviewer of Complaints', an independent lawyer, something extraordinary happened. The Reviewer savaged the initial response saying:

"I have considered carefully the Minutes and papers from the Investigations Committee and the Standards Board and the reasons given for the decision in respect of the involvement of alleged unrelated activities. In the form set out the line of reasoning is far from clear. No attempt seems to have been made to address the substance of the Complaint, namely that the nature of the activities of badger baiting and dog fighting were inherently different to hunting."


"The comparison of the 2003, 2005 and 2009 polls does seem to me to be a valid issue. The substance of what was being addressed was substantially the same and what was at variance was the format"

The MRS was unabashed, however, and rejected its own Reviewer's criticisms out of hand without any serious attempt to address them, or the substance of the original complaint.

The MRS's failure to act did not just effect that 2009 poll and what had come before. It also signalled a free-for-all in which LACS and Ipsos MORI have become ever more brazen. The current claims for support for the ban on hunting have grown ever higher, to 80%, but when the 'research' is making direct comparisons between hunting and dog fighting to 15 year olds and recording their opinion, as the December 2014 Ipsos MORI poll did, that is not really surprising.

Then in January YouGov asked a straight question 'Do you support or oppose the ban on fox hunting with hounds?' and got a straight answer, which has once again laid bare the strange results of polls commissioned by LACS with Ipsos MORI. However, with a cowering regulator and seemingly no concern from either the charity or the research company about their reputations it would seem nothing is likely to change.

You may think this does not matter: that it is only hunting, or that you don't like fox hunters, but I would suggest that this story sets a very dangerous precedent. With opinion polls exerting increasing influence on politicians over almost every issue the ability to trust the numbers presented by campaigners and politicians is critical. You might not care about hunting, but can you trust polling on issues that do matter to you?

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Holding MPs to account: a Truro experiment

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 23 heures 32 minutes

To hold our MPs to account we need to know what they promised to do before they were elected. We also need to have a clearer sense of what we expect them to do. How can we achieve these aims?

I want to share with others one approach to re-imagining democracy which may or may not work. It is small scale, experimental  and with no certainty of success but even its shortcomings and failures  will, I hope, afford some useful learning lessons for all of us.

It attempts to tackle two issues relating to representative democracy. The first is the absence of any clear, independent record of what candidates actually say and commit to. Cast your mind back to the last election and try Googling an issue of concern – can you find anything?  There may be scattered references in local newspapers or on defunct blogs  but the most important content has likely been deleted or removed, probably soon after the 2010 election ended. What your MP said then might be a  source of some embarrassment now – or worse! But it is too late, the information has been deleted.

Nor can you look to manifestos or speeches by our political leaders kept on party websites dating back to 2010; as is all too clear from David Cameron’s early speeches and promises of ‘no top down reform of the NHS’, speeches are taken down if they later  prove to be too contentious and we are then left with quotes and extracts from second hand sources.

In an age of ‘information deluge’ that is an astonishing omission. With no clear independent record of what our local parliamentary candidates say, how can we effectively call our representatives to account?

The answer I suggest, is only if we take on that task ourselves. What we have tried to do in Truro is to create an election website which sets out some key issues and asks all parliamentary candidates for a detailed written response in their own words. That gets round the problem of hustings events where a candidate – now MP –  later claims that they have been misquoted, quoted out of context or that the record of the event is incomplete.

The second is to tackle head on an overcentralised party machine that positions candidates as outposts of Party HQ. Even those with genuine regard for constituents' concerns have little wriggle room to take an independent stance. They are foot soldiers answerable to the party whip, not our elected representatives. It will take time to break this stranglehold but I suggest a first step is for constituents to come together and start to develop their own pledge, set of proposals or even their own manifesto. That is a tall order and one that requires far more time than is available now. Instead, what we have tried to do is avoid open ended questions that invite a speech rather than an answer. We have set out our own manifesto proposal on – in this instance – Climate Change and the NHS. We have then invited candidates to either publicly commit to our pledges. Whether or not they do, they are invited to give  a detailed answer which stands as their definitive position on the issues.

Their answers will then be posted on the election website for  public scrutiny and comment and by doing so, we hope to encourage sustained informed conversations with candidates as well as between members of the public. This goes beyond ephemeral petition initiatives that fail to engage and are often quickly forgotten. We intend to forward comments to candidates on a regular basis and encourage them to reply to constituents concerns directly.

By taking this approach we are  also making the point to candidates that they are there to listen to their constituents, not we them; they are there to represent us, not their party. That may require some head scratching by party apparatchiks who seek to ‘sell’ a message rather than engage in dialogue. Yet the more we, as constituents, start to take charge and re-frame the election on our own terms, the less likely we will be treated as passive consumers of party manifestos written in Westminster by a political class who know little about the lives of those they claim to speak for, and care even less.

Whatever the outcome of this experiment, I firmly believe that  the first step towards  any re-invigorated democracy must be to break the stranglehold of an over-centralised party systems that conduct elections as marketing campaigns; in effect  tightly controlled spectacles, managed by rival teams of PR professionals who select and present a small range of issues deemed ‘safe’. That can only happen if there are thousands of ‘assemblies for democracy’, thousands of conversations happening at the grassroots level where local people start to shape their own manifesto, town charter or pledge campaign. In other words they become active participants in shaping the political agenda and by inference, their own future.

There are risks. If assemblies for democracy are adopted on a wide scale, expect chaos, confusion and much contradiction in the early stages,  not least because we will all have to relearn the political and democratic skills of active listening,  finding common ground, engaging with sometimes complex issues  and forging a consensus with those whose values and outlook we initially reject as ‘not ours’. For if we are to truly win back real democracy, we must first practise among ourselves.

A re-invigorated democracy from the grassroots up will  not replace the party system but it will act as a centrifugal force that pulls power away from Westminster and makes parties much more porous, open and democratic; that process will also mean dispensing with focus groups and marketing  professionals and instead returning to a grassroots party activism which interfaces with Assemblies for Democracy and other related initiatives and in doing so, captures the real voice of the people.

I will end with one other website I created – a mock election website called 'Anytown'. It is roughly the direction I would like to go in although others I am working with are understandably more sceptical;  it  is incomplete and rather simplistic, but it does sketch out some possibilities of how a town, a village, a city or a constituency might approach electioneering in the future, one that  moves beyond restricted party manifestos and widens to include the voice of the voluntary sector, freed from undemocratic gagging laws and bullying government ministers.

This article was first published at Assemblies for Democracy.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.


Gavin Barker is based in Truro and a participant in Assemblies for Democracy.

Related stories:  Re-imagining democracy - peoples' assemblies Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Devolution in the North of England: time to bring the people into the debate?

Open Democracy News Analysis - il y a 23 heures 32 minutes

The referendum in Scotland is creating impetus for a redistribution of power within England. But who will determine the shape of this - Westminster, local elites or local citizens?

In the wake of the Scottish independence referendum, the ‘English Question’ has gained new political traction, emerging as one of the most crucial issues underpinning the debate on the future of the Union. In spite of its result, the Scottish vote has certainly shed light, with a renewed emphasis, on the presence of a growing democratic deficit across and within the  nations of the UK, and in particular in England. This, in turn, has triggered a new interest both within political elites and the wider society on the role and place that England should have in the context of an increasingly decentralised UK.

For the for the first time, all the main traditional parties have overtly embraced the narrative of the English Question – putting it at the core of their political discourse, and offering alternative ways to address it. The Conservatives have proposed the introduction of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ as a means to tackle the West Lothian Question. At the same time, they have also sketched a ‘new regional agenda’ for England, advocating devolution to create a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to boost economic development in the north of England and also proposing the introduction of directly elected mayors in northern cities such as Manchester (with others to follow) if the party wins the 2015 general election.

Meanwhile, the Labour party has argued that there is need for a ‘constitutional convention’ to consider the future governance of England within the context of the UK more widely. However, the party has also reiterated its belief in City Regions, a policy first mooted in the wake of the 2004 North-East regional assembly referendum defeat – stating that it will pass an ‘English Devolution Act’ if elected into government, giving more powers to City and also County regions, and replacing the House of Lords with an elected Senate of the Nations and regions to work as a forum for regional representation.

On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats are showing a commitment to devolve greater powers to the local level, as reflected in their support for a Cornish Assembly, and through the ‘Northern Futures’ project. And yet, the growing popularity of minority parties in England indicates the emergence of a more complex political landscape. The rapid rise of UKIP in the European elections as well as in by-elections across England shows how the party has the potential to become a de facto English nationalist force, likely to exploit any grievance within the devolution debate to present England as the ‘victim’ nation of the Union.

Interestingly, however, this time round mainstream parties are not the only actors trying to influence the agenda on English devolution – as shown by the recent growth of new regionalist parties, especially in the North of England. English regionalist parties may not be an entirety new phenomenon. The Wessex Regionalists have been around for a while; and, despite its claim that Cornwall is not a region but a nation, Mebyon Kernow is in practice ‘regionalist’ in its approach, as reflected in its support for a Cornish Assembly, rather than full independence. What is certainly new, though, is the emergence of regionalist parties in the North of England, i.e. Yorkshire First, the North East Party, and the Campaign for the North. These parties share common regional devolution claims, arguing for the establishment of a Yorkshire Parliament, a North East Assembly and a pan-Northern Assembly respectively. They also seek to politicise regional identities, taking inspiration from the example of Scotland. In spite of having been formed just over the past year and a half, they will all fight the May 2015 general election, fielding candidates across the North of England.

Although the public  long showed a lack of interest on issues of decentralisation for England, this trend too seems to be reversing. Sensing the strength and traction of devolutionist agendas in contemporary politics, and their growing resonance amongst the public, the BBC ran a series of programmes exploring the issues involved in the autumn of 2014. Similarly, regional newspapers have also focused on issues of regionalism and decentralisation, as illustrated for example by the Yorkshire Post’s recent publication of a ‘Yorkshire Manifesto’ in view of the 2015 general election.

All these points clearly illustrate the saliency not only of the English Question in general, but also of its regional permutations — pointing towards a form of ‘new regionalism’ which seems to be taking a particularly Northern flavour. The regions of the North, in fact, are at the forefront of the current debate on the future of territorial governance and decentralisation in England.

The key themes and questions underpinning the narrative of this nascent ‘Northern regionalism’ were unpacked and discussed at length in a symposium held at the University of Huddersfield (co-sponsored by the Centre for Research in the Social Sciences and the Political Studies Association and organised by the Britishness Specialist Group) on the 13th of February: ‘Decentralisation and the Future of Yorkshire’. Although, as its title suggests, the event focussed on the specific case of Yorkshire, the debate gave rise to a number of important reflections that apply to the whole North of England, and can also serve as a basis to put the wider English Question in perspective.

One of the key issues at stake concerns the need to extend discussion on English devolution beyond the ‘closed circle’ of Westminster and mainstream party politics – opening up to local and regional stakeholders, and giving voice to the grassroots. Put simply, none of the plans proposed by the mainstream parties can succeed if they are not accepted ‘from the bottom’. This links to another very important and yet often underestimated point, i.e. that regional devolution in the North of England should not just be about reviving economies, so as to address the North-South divide, but also about improving democracy. For the most part, the underlying message in the current regional and city regional agenda seems to be that devolution will lead to economic renewal for the regions ‘lagging behind’. And yet, this is only one side of the coin – because to really flourish regional economies need to be nurtured from the bottom, through a system of governance which is ultimately accountable to the people, and not only to Westminster.

From this angle, the regionalist parties that are emerging in the North of England have a great potential, especially if they succeed in joining forces with civil society organisation and movements, mobilising grassroots support and pushing for the creation of some form of ‘Northern Constitutional Convention’ capable of influencing decision and policy-making at the centre. In this sense, there is a great deal that can be learnt from Scotland, and in particular from the experience of the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The most obvious one is that effective regional devolution requires concerted efforts from the centre and from the bottom, so as to engage in a constructive dialogue on how to build a more democratic and accountable system of governance that can ultimately improve people’s life. In a social climate characterised by increasing levels of political disenfranchisement, the example of Scotland shows that accountable decentralisation can be an effective way to restore the relationship between the public and the wider political system – bringing decision and policy-making closer to people and, in this way, putting people back into politics.

But concerted discussion is also needed to establish the level(s) at which powers should be devolved, and to develop a constructive relationship between different layers of government. One of the most striking aspects in the current debate on devolution in the North of England is that the main actors (local governments, leaders’ boards, political parties, business organisations, etc.) seem to work in isolation – each devising their own plans, often irrespective (or wary) of the positions of the others. This climate of ‘mutual suspicion’ hinders decentralisation from within, and should be changed so as to transform the current competing discourses of city-regions, regions, elected mayors and local authorities into a ‘virtuous narrative’ able to inform a consistent and non-redundant new regional architecture.

Finally, looking north of the border offers also insights on the potential implicit in the politicisation of regional identities – especially in regions such as Yorkshire and the North East, with a long tradition of cultural, political and historical distinctiveness. After all regions, like nations, are imagined communities too (although ‘thinner’ and less bound to the concept of self-determination). Hence, they can be constructed, exploiting shared regional traits and values and forging a community that simulates the archetypical principle for political organisation, i.e. kinship. However, as Scotland shows us, such a process does not necessarily have to be founded on ethnic principles, which could lead to some form of ‘exclusive’ political identity/ community. On the contrary, regional identities in the North of England could be mobilised as part of an inclusive political project that seeks to nurture shared civic and democratic values and bonds – a plan that ‘speaks to the people’ and aims at actively involve them in the construction of a better future for their region. This could provide the foundations to build a notion of the North as a coherent and meaningful political space – and is perhaps one of the greatest challenges ahead.

Thus, whether regional devolution in the North of England will succeed or fall may well hinge on the ability to generate ‘democratic momentum’, creating a clear, bold, confident and concerted vision for the future. However, the story of the Scottish Constitutional Convention also tells us that such a process will take time, and cannot be rushed or accomplished overnight. In this sense, the following months and the results and effects of the imminent general election (as well as the way in which both regionalist and mainstream parties will react to these) will be crucial in shaping the path ahead.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.

Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Heretical Europe: Jan Patočka as symbol of dissident contingency

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. Mars 2015 - 23:17

Post-Europe, for Patočka, must be acutely aware of its own contingency even when it proclaims (above all when it proclaims) the sanctity of universal principles.

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

The term ‘euro-skepticism’, as it is usually deployed, creates a kind of idiocy in public debate by assimilating many diverse positions. We can sketch at least three possible positions (all of which would require further clarification).

One thing would be to be opposed to the European Union in principle – opposed to the very possibility of a Union between European peoples or countries. Nationalists we can assume would fall into this category, although there are nuances here (one could be nationalist and in favour of the United Nations, but not the European Union, for example, or opposed to all kinds of internationalism).

Another thing would be criticism of the current European Union and its policies, which we can assume is a very widely held view at the moment, but does not equate to denying the possibility of the EU as such – indeed, criticism of this kind could be taken to be an affirmation of the possibility and desirability of an alternative European Union.

A third thing again would be to adopt a skeptical approach in general to all politics, following diverse philosophical, religious and scientific traditions which all assert the importance of doubt and questioning in our search for truth or justice.

What is more, there is a further distinction between Europe and the European Union which gets lost both in public debate and in the European Union’s own narrative for ideological reasons. The European Union is a unique and difficult to define political institution (an ‘unidentified political object’ as former President Jose Barroso described it). Europe, on the other hand, is a mythical figure, a geographical signifier with no clear boundaries, perhaps a ‘civilisation’, a subject of history and an object of political, philosophical, ethical and poetic reflection and imagination for thousands of years.

The European Union often talks about itself as ‘Europe’ (something highly frustrating to all those people who consider themselves European but not yet part of the European Union, but also for all those who want to maintain some autonomy for the rich intellectual European tradition).

But it is one thing to be critical or skeptical of the European Union as a political institution; quite another thing to be critical of Europe as a civilization, historical figure or even literary motif. As is often the case in confused public debate, which smacks of ideological mystification, the distinction is currently exploited best by right-wing populists. The UKIP MEP Roger Helmer is very proud of his car-bumper sticker reading ‘Love Europe, hate the EU’ (no doubt benefiting from the lack of border controls in mainland Europe as he drives around showing it off).

Patočka shines a light

Amidst all this confusion and obfuscation, the person and symbol of Jan Patočka stands for me as a lightening rod. Heretical and skeptical in the best theological, philosophical and political senses, dying under political repression, Socrates-like for challenging the state’s claims to absolute truth and organizing resistance against it, Patočka’s thought and biography are sufficiently charged and grounded in European history and reflection to light up the insufficiency of our current European debate, and to provide some terms which can help us.

Patočka’s historiography of Europe-after-Europe, or Post-Europe, allows us to take a stance that is at once highly critical of Europe’s bloody and murderous history, and acknowledges that the consequences of history bestow upon us a particular responsibility as Europeans who inherit this past. This is all the more so when we in have many ways benefited from the violence that was inflicted on others. We can think that the European Union or some version of it is the most responsible political mechanism for addressing this conflicted and contradictory history, a history which goes well beyond questions of war and peace to include colonialism, the destructiveness of European technological and economic progress, and deep anti-human components of European thought.

Patočka’s thought helps us to see the European Union as a potential consequence of European history, without identifying Europe and the European Union, nor seeing the EU as the ultimate point in a historical teleology of progress or reconciliation. The EU – like any political construct – is fully open for political critique and contestation in Patočka’s thought, and it is justified not in terms of political progress, but rather in terms of ethical responsibility.

During these hard times for pro-Europeans, when the inadequacies of the Union and indeed the disastrous consequences of its current policies both outside and inside its borders seem all too apparent, Patočka’s position is sufficiently complex to acknowledge the ethical and moral contradictions of politics, whilst also asserting that it is our duty to keep on travelling towards a European ideal we know we can never totally reach.

Even more important, Patočka’s anti-totalitarianism, expressed politically in his insistence on human rights and democracy through the Charter 77 movement, and profoundly in his philosophical writing, belies all those who claim to have, or call for, ‘final’ answers to political problems. Patočka’s insistence on human rights – often seen to be in some kind of tension with his ‘asubjective’ phenomenological approach -  is at once an insistence on human contingency and radical liberty. The Charter states “The idea of human rights is nothing other than the conviction that even states, even society as a whole, are subject to the sovereignty of moral sentiment: that they recognize something unconditional that is higher than they are, something that is binding even on them, sacred, inviolable.”

Patočka relates this absolute character of human rights to the Greek idea of ‘care for the soul’, and his point seems to be that human rights are prior to our existence in the world and protect the humanity of human kind: they are the guarantee of the very possibility of our caring for our souls, because they guarantee the possibility of self-expression, the right to assembly, the right to a free press. These human rights protect the possibilities we have to pursue our self-care individually and collectively, which is something never totally achieved.

Here there is an important break with what Patočka takes to be the Platonic ideal of care-for-the-soul, in which it is possible for humans to become god-like in knowing what the ideal human life is. Patočka’s heretical Christianity, his analysis of the mysterium tremendum, that the truth of God cannot totally be revealed, means that no one, and no state, can have a definitive answer to moral, ethical or political questions, and thus must leave space for contestation, experimentation and alternatives to appear.

If we relate this to the current European Union, and its policies in many areas but most noticeably the ‘moralising’ that has gone on around the debt-crisis and austerity, we could draw many lessons about the risks of totalitarian tendencies in Europe and the vital importance of maintaining democratic and human rights. Post-Europe, for Patočka, must be acutely aware of its own contingency even when it proclaims (above all when it proclaims) the sanctity of universal principles.

The deeply Christian commitment of Patočka’s thought is its most problematic aspect for those of us who want to use his terms in a secular or atheistic way in the pursuit of Europe, something that seems ever more important in an age of renewed religious wars. But Patočka’s heretical approach to Christianity, as well as his engagement with other religions of the book, are also perhaps a reminder that in insisting on secularity in the public sphere, there is a risk that we become more dogmatic than ever before, each in our silos: heresy relies on the possibility of dissidence, and Patočka’s vision of solidarity is one where vibrant public debate--also on spiritual life--is the most authentic way of living together.

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Sideboxes Related stories:  How can Europe be shaped from a citizen's perspective? Europe after Europe: the other Europe in waiting Saving Europe: reformulating the rules Introducing three old ideas for a new Europe: flourishing, solidarity and care for the soul Country or region:  EU Czech Republic
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Interview with a murderer

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. Mars 2015 - 16:04

There are currently 59,000 women in Russian penal establishments. For many of them prison is not so much a punishment, more a way of life.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, there are currently 671,700 Russians serving sentences in penal establishments, of whom 59,000 are women. Only the USA and China have more female prisoners (over 200,000 and 100,000 respectively). According to human rights organisations, conditions in Russian prisons and prison camps are among the harshest in the world. The harsh climate is one obvious factor, but inadequate nutrition, physically demanding and low paid work, isolation in a punishment cell for the slightest misdemeanour, bullying, beatings, and other violence from prison staff are all also the norm.

Russia’s female prisoners

Women prisoners are usually too frightened to complain to the legal authorities or human rights groups, as this might trigger immediate and severe punishment. And it is not just the camp administration that exercises power over its population; there are also the ‘overseers’ – prisoners who take charge of the others in the same barracks. Some of these overseers work with the administration, but others refuse, preferring to observe their own ‘criminal code.’

A group of Russian female prisoners.

‘Overseers’ collect ‘tribute’ from their fellow prisoners and are responsible for ‘order’. But this ‘order’ has nothing in common with either the law of the land or the normal rules of human interaction. These are the rules of the criminal world, according to which it is shameful to work and honourable to thieve.

Women prisoners are usually too frightened to complain to the legal authorities or human rights groups

Female criminals usually live in ‘families’. Lesbian relationships are common, and young and attractive ‘new girls’ often become objects of sexual harassment from more hardened women prisoners. Most Russian prison camps are also breeding grounds for potentially fatal illnesses, with HIV/AIDS now added to the traditional TB. The prisoners most likely to contract HIV/AIDS are young women serving long sentences for drug-related crimes.

A women's workshop in a penal establishment.

Unlike male prisoners, who often receive visits from their wives and children or even manage to initiate relationships through lonely-hearts columns, women prisoners are often abandoned by everybody from their previous lives. Their husbands divorce them. Their lovers don’t want to wait for them. Their children are ashamed of them, and their friends forget them. These ‘outcasts’ are only ever visited by their mothers; and they find it very difficult to regain their previous job status after their release. Often they are unable to find any work at all.

All too often, the easiest road for these ‘criminals’ is straight back to prison. At least there everything is familiar, there is food to eat and somewhere to have a bath and sleep. A woman sent to a ‘penal colony’ for even a petty crime such as shoplifting or vandalism will most likely be unable to get back on the ‘straight and narrow’, and will become a hardened criminal – a ‘repeat offender’ as the courts call it. These women serve sentences of not just a year or two or even ten. They are prisoners for life.

The women’s zone

Even veteran guards prefer not to work in the women’s ‘zone’ – a term Russians often use for a penal colony.

'There’s no animal worse than a female!’ a member of the prison riot squad told me. ‘Today she’ll be making eyes at you and tomorrow she’ll stick a shank into you. You never know what to expect from these bitches!’  

'You never know what to expect from these bitches!’

I met one of these ‘bitches’ in a prison camp near the small town of Omutninsk in the Kirov Region, about 1000km east of Moscow. Her name was Valentina, Valya for short, and she had spent 36 out of her 53 years in similar places.

Valentina spent 36 out of her 53 years in Russian prisons.

‘I was a headstrong kid right from the start’, she happily told me after asking for a smoke. But she didn’t care for my menthol cigarettes, and after cheerfully cursing me she lit up one of her favourite rough, filterless ‘Belomor.’ Valya was a chain smoker, stopping only now and then to clear her throat, and was known throughout the camp as ‘Valya Fag-end’ – a good nickname for her as she was tiny (no taller than a child), skinny and fidgety. But she was also bent over like an old woman and appeared to be of indeterminate age and gender. A kind of human fag-end, chucked out of normal society but not yet burnt out. Her voice was hoarse and throaty, like a man’s. She was a thief of long-standing, and feared nothing.

A life in and out of crime

‘I started off in juvenile’, she told me. ‘I was 16. We lived in a village with a shop on the edge of it, and the lads and I robbed it – as a test, a dare. We found about 500 roubles in the till – old, Soviet roubles, and also made off with beer, vodka, tinned stuff, sweets, and a blouse with lace on it.

'It was the blouse that got me caught by the cops – one of the lads grassed on me. Bastard! But I know who it was and I’ll get the prick! Just give me time, Katyusha!’ (Valya had taken an instant liking to me, started calling me by a pet name, ‘Katyusha’, a diminutive of Ekaterina. I had no objection).

‘Have you ever been in a prison wagon, Katyusha?’ she went on. I shook my head in fright, shocked by the very idea. ‘You haven’t, have you? I remember travelling in one with a girlfriend who had 48 bodies on her conscience. She was an interesting woman, a real passionate type. She would sleep with a man and then bump him off in the morning – either strangle him or knife him right in the heart. But I wasn’t into that then.’

‘Did you ever love anybody, Valya?’ I asked cautiously.

‘I was married once. His name was Alikhan – he was a Chechen. There was an army base at the village, and he was doing his military service there. We met at a dance and I took a fancy to him – he was smitten, he fought for me. He would see me home and we would kiss and cuddle and then one evening I brought him in to meet my parents. My dad asked him if he wasn’t scared, and he said, “Vala and I (he called me Vala) are in love! I’ll take her back home to Grozny!” Dad chuckled: “If she doesn’t take you to Bystritsa first!” Bystritsa was where the local cemetery was …’

He went back to Grozny and I never saw him again.

‘So we got married and started living together, but as soon as we got in to bed together I felt like I was allergic to him … I didn’t need all that sex! And my Mum said, “At least have a kid with him, Valechka, then at least we’ll have a grandchild!” Then I realised my periods had stopped, my breasts were getting bigger, I felt sick and couldn’t even look at food. Mum said, “That’s it, you’re pregnant!”

'So I threw Alikhan out the same night. “What are you doing?” he asked, “I’m your husband! We’re going to have a baby!” But I got his stuff together and threw it out of the house. “Get lost, I don’t need you anymore! It’s my baby!” So he went back to Grozny and I never saw him again.

‘When I went into labour, they got me to the hospital and there I was, yelling and swearing! The doctor came running and said, ‘The baby’s too big; she’ll never push it out!’ So they took me off into surgery and I had a caesarean.  When I woke up in the morning I immediately said, “Show me what I gave birth to!” They brought me my baby girl, who weighed 5kg and was 54 centimetres long, with her head covered in black curls! I turned her over – she had arms, legs, a wee-wee – everything was where it was supposed to be.

‘I left my daughter with her grandparents and took off! I started hanging about, partying, thieving!’

'For four months I didn’t leave her once, and fed her every three hours. I had loads of milk, and she was really plump and red-cheeked. But then I just switched off – it was like the devil whispered to me! I left the house, left my daughter with her grandparents, and took off! I started hanging about, partying, thieving! I stole 70 roubles and got four years for it … Ah, it’s a pity we can’t have a drink together, Katyusha, but Mr Prison Governor doesn’t allow it! We could always sing, though!’

And Valya Fag-end began to sing a sad prison song. She sang in a throaty, cigarette-stoked voice, but with perfect pitch.

‘Let me tell you all a tale
Saw it with my own two eyes
A little girl was being tried
Though she only was a child ...
She asked the court if she could speak
The judge said yes, go on my dear!
As soon as she began her tale
The room began to fill with tears.
“I knew him since I was a child
I’d go with him to rob and thieve
And in my seventeen short years
He was the only one for me!”’

At the last line Valentina burst into tears herself, obviously remembering her own sad life, although it wasn’t a husband or boyfriend that she loved, but the free life of crime. 

From robbery to violence

‘Have you ever killed anyone, Valentina?’ I asked.

‘I did, Katyusha. I told you I was headstrong. One day I came home, and my dad was sitting crying and his eye was all bloody. My dad didn’t smoke or drink. He worked all his life and brought up six children; and I was the only jailbird, the black sheep of the family. “What happened, Dad?” I asked. And he said, “My brother got drunk and came to ask me for some money to buy vodka. But I wouldn’t give it to him, so he hit me.” I just flipped! How could someone hit my dad – the person who gave me life, showed me the world? So I went to sort it out with my uncle.'

‘When I got to his house my auntie was pounding potatoes for the pigs with a wooden mallet, and my uncle was sitting washing a snack down with vodka. I said, “Hair of the dog, eh? I’ll give you a real hangover!” And I grabbed the mallet from the table and brought it down on his head – once, twice! His wife was screaming, “You’ve killed him, you’ve killed him!” Then I went home. The next morning the cops turned up: “Did you kill your uncle?” And I was, “Yes! ‘Cause nobody hurts my dad!”'

The next morning the cops turned up: “Did you kill your uncle?” And I was, “Yes! ‘Cause nobody hurts my dad!”

‘I got six years for my uncle – he survived. Turns out I hadn’t killed him after all. I did the full six years, every day of them. When I got out my daughter was growing up, she was shy of me, didn’t recognise me, and my mum had turned into an old woman. And I didn’t get to see my dad again – he had died when I was in jail. I gave him a proper burial and got myself a job as a caretaker. And I worked, made enough to keep us, lived quietly; didn’t bother anybody.'

'But I could see that my mum had become very down; she was always wiping away tears when she thought I wasn’t looking. I asked her about it and she told me: “The cops have been hassling us, Valya! As soon as you got back they were round here – pay up, old girl, for your jailbird daughter! At first it was 1,000 roubles, then 3,000, and now they’re asking for 5,000! Where am I going to get that sort of money? I asked. I’ve only got my pension”. And they were like, “Pay up, or we’ll send her down again! We can always find a reason!” And they used such language as well! They said they’d be back and if the money wasn’t there they’d send you back to jail”. I said, “Don’t cry, Mum, I’ll sort it out!”'

'So I went into town and found some old friends of mine, and we sorted them. I finished one of them myself – a shank right in the heart! Why should my mother be living in fear? This time I got the full whack – 15 years. Why so long? ‘Cause I killed a cop, and ‘cause I was a repeat offender, in other words a hardened criminal!’

Valya laughed, revealing her half-toothless mouth; then her laugh turned into a cough. She cleared her throat and started singing another sad prison song ...

‘The sparks in the hearth burn up like rubies,
And disappear in wisps of blue.
Once I was a handsome lad,
Now I’m sick and lonely too.
What can I do, I’ve lost my youth,
What can I do, where can I roam?
I’ll follow an untrodden path,
Away from you and far from home ...’

‘That song was written by one of the friends that killed the cops with me, Katyusha. He’s dead now. He had TB. Well, what else can I tell you? I got released early – I have TB as well, and asthma too. I went home. My mother had died. My daughter was married; she lives a respectable life – her husband’s a cop. The last thing she needs is an old lag for a mother. And I wouldn’t have wanted to go there anyway – why should I ruin the girl’s life? I got another job as a caretaker in a warehouse. My rich little brother fixed me up with it; he didn’t forget his sister. So this is how I lived: I didn’t get paid much but then I don’t need a lot – just enough for bread, tea and smokes.

Pig farm on the grounds of the women's prison where Valentina was serving her sentence.

My daughter’s respectable – her husband’s a cop. The last thing she needs is an old lag for a mother.

'But I’m not used to being beholden to anyone! I’m used to being my own woman! My brother’s a good egg, but his wife’s a right bitch! One day she said to me, “You should pay us something – we cook for you! You live in our house!” And I was like, “I live in my own house; my dad left it to me! And you don’t have to cook for me; I’ll eat in a cafe! I never asked you to cook for me!”’ But she wouldn’t leave off – she was always on at me about something! She would shout and scream and tell my brother tales about me! I had it up to here with her! So I decided to get rid of her.'

'I hit her over the head, but it didn’t finish her off, just left her brain damaged. She lost her wits, turned into an idiot. So I got done for attempted murder with aggravating circumstances, plus GBH, plus I was a repeat offender – 10 years altogether! There you go, Katyusha! But I’ll get her some day!’

The end of the road

Valentina gave me a crafty look, obviously pleased with herself at having reduced this journalist to silence. As I was leaving she took my phone number and promised to get in touch when she got out. Many years later, I got an unexpected call.

We met at a centre for homeless and unemployed people on the outskirts of Kirov. Valya had just been released and had nowhere to go. Her parents were dead and her family wanted nothing to do with her. Her brother had refused to give her any more help after what she did to his wife, and her daughter was ashamed of her jailbird mother. When she left she was given a certificate of release and 700 roubles, which she had already spent on a train ticket to Kirov. She was delighted when I gave her a pack of her beloved Belomor and a packet of tea. We sat in a corner at the centre, made ourselves tea in grubby mugs and recalled old acquaintances.

 ‘How are you going to live now, Valya’, I asked. ‘As God wills,’ she answered, ‘if there is a God, that is! The priest always said there was, but I have my doubts.’

Two weeks later Valya was dead. She had been suffering through the final stages of TB, and died in the homeless people’s ward of a hospital on the outskirts of Kirov. She was of no use to anyone, like a cigarette end dropped on the ground. Someone will step on it, someone walk past; the wind will carry it who knows where, turning it to ash.

All images via Ekaterina Loushnikova. All rights reserved.

Sideboxes Related stories:  Comrade Stalin’s secret prison Vyatlag: the Gulag then and now The Zone Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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What you can do for your democracy

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. Mars 2015 - 14:45

Last week saw the launch of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee’s The UK Constitution – a pocket-sized, written constitution for the UK. Here's what you can do.

Our democracy is not fit for purpose and voter disengagement is at its highest with more people not voting at the last election than voted for the two main parties. A radical package of reform is essential, including letting electors know the Rule Book of our democracy. Last week saw the launch of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee’s The UK Constitution – a pocket-sized, written constitution for the UK.

The launch of the pocket UK constitution marks a further opportunity for you to tell Parliament about your views on our democracy and its future. The document briefly sets out our current democratic arrangements, and provides options for possible reform including devolution to independent local government in England, the election of the Second Chamber, and letting people vote directly for the Prime Minister.

This work follows on from our major project which examined whether or not the UK constitution should be codified and, if so, what it might contain. This inquiry ran for four years, and was informed by a unique collaboration with a team from King’s College London lead by Professor Robert Blackburn.

Our report A new Magna Carta? was published in June 2014. It set out three alternative blueprints for possible codification of our constitution: a constitutional code, a consolidation statute, and a written constitution.

A major consultation exercise followed publication of the report and during the six months between June 2014 and 1 January 2015 we received over 3,000 responses in a variety of forms ranging from traditional written submissions to the Committee, to survey responses, to social media. We recently published a summary of our consultation, which identifies the main themes emerging from the consultation.

The response to the consultation was impressive and a clear demonstration that the public care deeply about our current and future democratic arrangements, and A new Magna Carta? remains an invaluable tool for examining and discussing whether and how we might adopt a written constitution for the UK. But the conversation cannot stop there.

In the year of both the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta and an unpredictable and uncertain general election, the launch of our pocket UK constitution marks an opportunity to tell Parliament what you think and to get your views on record.

There is now cross-party commitment to the establishment of a Constitutional Convention in the new Parliament. We don’t yet know what form that will take, or what its terms of reference may be. But we do know that these issues need to be discussed, and this is an opportunity to help shape the agenda for the future.

Constitutions are about power: where it is located, who can exercise it, and how it is controlled. We cannot be complacent about our democratic arrangements, and it’s vital that we think about and discuss where we are now and where we might be going.

Here’s how you can take part in this conversation:

If we are to continue to be a democracy we need to radically reshape our institutions so that power rests with a plurality of elected institutions not with an over centralised, unelected power elite in Whitehall, the media and the Prime ministership.

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Wanted: A Magna Carta for the 21st Century

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. Mars 2015 - 12:45

To protect and renew the rule of law we need to re-imagine our democracy. This Spring's Assemblies for Democracy have a vital role to play.

The attacks on the rule of law and access to justice – two key principles of the Magna Carta – by successive governments should lead us to rethink the existing relationship between the state and citizens and then to reimagine democracy.

Eventually, everyone came to enjoy the rights enshrined in the constitutional settlement between King John and powerful barons signed at Runnymede 800 years ago. This was no smooth process, however. The mass of the people had to struggle over many centuries for the rule of law – as opposed to the unbridled power of the state – to apply to them and their activities.

The Great Revolt of 1381 was as much against arbitrary power as privilege. In the English Revolution, the Levellers and Diggers fought for a constitutional settlement that would benefit the majority. The 1647 Agreement of the People put forward by the Levellers at the Putney Debates declared:

“That in all laws made or to be made, every person may be bound alike; and that no tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth, or place do confer any exemption from the ordinary course of legal proceedings whereunto others are subjected.”

The Levellers were saying that the wealthy were evading the law while other sections felt its full weight. At Putney, Colonel Rainsborough sided with the Levellers’ demand for the right to vote for all “free men”, saying: “…I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”

Oliver Cromwell and the leadership of the New Model Army defeated the Levellers’ demands and agitators like John Lilburne were arrested for their views. He relied on sympathetic juries for his freedom, speaking for himself in the courts.

In the 18th century, radical reformers like Tom Paine resisted arbitrary arrest and censorship. He was driven into exile. In the 1830s, trade unionists were hanged or packed off to Australia for defending their right to organise collectively. It is worth noting that only in the 1830s were defence lawyers allowed to represent defendants in criminal cases.

As an insistence on the rule of law applied to all developed into the struggle for democracy and access to power itself, a long line of campaigns stepped up to the plate, like the Chartists, Suffragettes, political reformers, trade unionists and socialists and anti-colonial movements.

Underlying the eight centuries since Magna Carta is, therefore, an ebb and flow struggle between the state, its institutions and the “common people”.  As Conor Gearty Professor of Human Rights Law at LSE says:

Successive governments and the Tories in particular have long had a problem with the rule of law.  It seriously inhibits the security services in their desire to take national security wholly back – Cold War style – into the realm of the executive.  It also inconveniently stands against the populist manoeuvring favoured by the dark side of both main Parties.

In the previous parliament, plans were brought forward to detain alleged terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge. This was reduced to 28 days when New Labour’s plans were rejected. Though down to 14 days at present, this is still the longest period of pre-charge detention of any comparable state.

Control orders that amount to house arrest on foreign nationals against whom there is insufficient evidence to charge them with an offence, were introduced by New Labour and reintroduced in a new form by the ConDem home secretary in 2011.  Then there is the Special Immigration Appeals Commission that deals with appeals from persons deported by the Home Secretary under various powers. An appellant is represented to by a special advocate who is a person vetted by the Security Service. Evidence is heard in secret.

None of these state actions can be said to be compatible with the rule of law.

The present government has used austerity to justify draconian legal aid cuts and restrictions which undermine access to justice in a variety of ways for people without independent means, which is about most of society. One of the consequences is that judicial reviews of state decisions are much more difficult to launch.

One of Britain’s most senior judges launched a scathing attack on cuts to legal aid after a couple with learning disabilities were not provided with a lawyer to fight the forced adoption of their two-year-old son. Sir James Munby, the most senior family court judge in England and Wales, said it was “unthinkable” that the parents should have to face the local authority’s application without proper representation after they were denied legal aid because the father earned £34.64 too much.

He added that the state had “declined all responsibility for ensuring that the parents are able to participate effectively in the proceedings it has brought to the goodwill of the legal profession”. “This is, it might be thought, both unprincipled and unconscionable,” the judge concluded.

The Tories had planned to hold some anti-terror trials in total secrecy until their plans were struck down by the Court of Appeal. No doubt a future government will try again. A recent report for the European Parliament on the use of secret evidence in trials singled out the UK. Secret evidence was considered a threat to the “rule of EU law”.

Legality is secondary when it comes to mass surveillance. Senior security official Charles Farr says searches on Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as well as emails to or from non-British citizens abroad, could be monitored legally by the security services without obtaining an individual warrant because they were deemed to be external communications.

In February, the Guardian reported that the regime that governs the sharing between Britain and the US of electronic communications intercepted in bulk was unlawful until last year. Ironically, the ruling was made by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal which deliberates in secret. Kafka, eat your heart out!

OpenDemocracy’s Anthony Barnett, last month joined a march from Runnymede in protest at the “Global Law Summit” conference taking place in London, ostensibly to mark Magna Carta’s anniversary. Barnett described it as “a monstrous jamboree of corporate law, tax avoidance, networking and global business”.

 He added: “The corporations have stolen our political parties, they are stealing our media, they are robbing us of our government, they are suborning the law and now they are stealing our history, making it a plaything for networking.”

Barnett is right. Actually,  the modern state could fairly be described as a market state. Many of its functions are outsourced or privatised. The state, always essentially capitalist but compelled in the post-war period to play a moderating role, has bared its teeth in the globalisation period. Now the state is openly partisan for the 1% and can count on the support of the mainstream parties to maintain the status quo.

Thus the centuries-long struggle for the rule of law and access to justice today poses a new kind of challenge. The erosion of Magna Carta gathers pace as the state places the “defence of the realm” top of its agenda in a kind of reflex action aimed at maintaining existing power relations.

The 800th anniversary of Britain’s first written constitutional settlement is as good a time as any to re-imagine democracy – not just in terms of government and state but also in relation to the economy, finance, land and the environment. The majority want to end austerity, tackle climate change, deal seriously with inequality, provide affordable housing and decent care for people in older age.

For that to become a reality, the limited, declining forms of democracy at present have to give way to a system where people themselves decide what’s best for their communities, towns and workplaces. In place of corporatocracy we want a real democracy, where the rule of law is absolute and access to justice is there for all.

Making the transition to a 21st century democracy founded on a 21st century Magna Carta is what Assemblies for Democracy are all about.

This article was first published at Assemblies for Democracy.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.

Related stories:  Re-imagining democracy - peoples' assemblies Rights:  CC by NC 3.0
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Assembling for democracy: part 2, the Chartists and us

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. Mars 2015 - 12:43

Democracy arrived in the UK thanks to popular movements which pressured a reluctant Parliament into democratic change. Part 2 of this article picks up the story beginning with the Chartists.

The Reform Act was not met with universal acclaim in 1832. The majority of people were still excluded from the franchise, and indeed they were so dissatisfied with this situation that they soon mobilised the largest mass movement in British history in response. This was the Chartist movement, named after their 1838 People’s Charter, which was the most famous iteration of their many petitions. It demanded the “Six Points”, still taught in schools today:

  1. A vote for every man over 21 years of age.

  2. Secret ballot (instead of the system for voting in public).

  3. MPs do not have to own property.

  4. MPs will be paid.

  5. Equal voting constituencies.

  6. An election every year for Parliament.

Albeit that suffrage has now been extended to women as well as men, and over the age of 18 rather than 21, five out of six of these demands are foundational to British democracy. In the 1830s however, Parliament’s response was to accuse the Chartists of sedition, and they fought the People’s Charter every step of the way. Indeed the Chartists are conventionally understood to have failed, as they did not achieve their demands at the time.

Chartism was the logical direction for Victorian Radicals to take after the Great Reform Act. Radicals had coalesced around the cause of Parliamentary reform, taking their name from their collective desire that such reform be radical, and the Chartists’ aim remained securing meaningful representation for the people in Parliament via Universal Manhood Suffrage. The Chartist movement was also a response to a new criticism however: that under the existing system MPs could largely ignore their constituents. This was because once elected, MPs and governments were safely entrenched in office, and therefore free to pass whatever unpopular and unwanted legislation they liked (such as the hated Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834). Furthermore, with the the two-party system already in evidence (albeit being reformulated, as it sometimes is, from Whig vs. Tory to Liberal vs. Conservative), the Chartists also argued that the only viable option the system offered was to let the other lot in – whereupon the whole process of unaccountable law-making, let alone corruption, could simply be repeated.

 Given that these two problems remain with us (I am yet to be convinced that our system will no longer be dominated by two major parties), we could perhaps stand to learn something from Chartist views of democracy. Their alternative vision, proposed as a solution to these problems, was that MPs should be delegates rather than simply representatives. This would require that MPs could actually be held to account directly by the people who elected them. In short, it required that MPs could be recalled by their constituents. We should not underestimate how radical this idea was, and remains. In 1993, the historian Miles Taylor wrote that ‘Arguably, the greatest threat posed by the Chartists in constitutional terms, was not universal suffrage, but the mandatory theory of representation’.[1] This claim stacks up – given the power to compel Parliamentarians to submit to their instructions, and to relieve them of their positions if they failed to do so, people would undoubtedly exercise it.

This idea frightens most parliamentarians – only last October Parliament shot down an attempt to work towards creating genuine accountability of MPs by rejecting a proposal that the right to recall should be exercised by the constituents of the relevant MP. Instead, they plumped for a version of recall controlled by themselves. After all, if it makes perfect sense that the banks know their business best and must therefore regulate themselves (with such memorable results for the rest of us), this logic must surely also hold for Parliament also! The people couldn’t possibly be trusted with the role of judging the performance of their representatives outside of the election cycle! After all, as my MP wrote to me at the time, real recall might expose MPs to politically motivated attack! (What else would it be for?)

Mark this well, because it is the perennial cry of those who support the exclusion and disenfranchisement of the majority to argue that the people are too ignorant, too stupid, too lacking in reasoned maturity, to make decisions. It is the perennial cry of opponents of democracy that people cannot be trusted with power. Yet there is only one alternative to this – that the people must therefore have someone else to exercise power for them. But without meaningful power ourselves, all we can do is trust that those with power exercise it properly on our behalf – and, as we are increasingly aware these days, without meaningful mechanisms by which to hold our representatives to account, precisely because we lack meaningful power of our own, that trust is frequently broken.

The majority, it is said, should trust a minority class of representatives to exercise authority over them. Now, historically this was argued on the basis that only this elite had the wisdom, independence of mind and character, and removal from petty sectional interests, to both know and pursue the common good. This minority, furthermore, must supposedly be given inalienable power, power that cannot be taken away from them, lest the ignorant mob seize hold of it. We are never allowed to have the power we give those representatives back. We can only ever transfer it, at certain allotted times, to another minority – and when they get in we’re just supposed to trust them as well. The “tyranny of the majority” by contrast would apparently create endless dissension. The people don’t know what they want, and so they must be told. In other words, power should not reside with the people, but with only a subset of those people – and they’ll see us right, don’t worry.

This is the line that has been spun out to the disenfranchised in Britain since at least the Putney Debates in 1647, when Cromwell and his generals were contested by the Levellers, who represented the opinion of the ordinary soldiers in the New Model Army. The generals prevailed, and property requirements for voting remained. When the Diggers decided they had had enough of being led, and attempted to take matters into their own hands in an attempt to build a new egalitarian society, they were ruthlessly suppressed.

This was also the line spun out to those denied the vote before 1928; and since 1928 it has been the line spun out to us as to why we need to concentrate power – to vest it in hierarchies, leave it to the experts, and limit people’s participation to penning an occasional “X” in a box.

The argument that the people cannot be trusted was also the line spun out to the colonised peoples of Britain’s empire. The natives were supposedly too immature to be trusted to govern themselves; apparently needed the guidance of British elites to become civilized; and would supposedly be granted independence when they had “matured”. To that end the Empire claimed to be educating the natives to govern themselves – yet in Africa black people were excluded from joining the central colonial state, and until such a time as Britain could no longer sustain the effort required, rebellions were ruthlessly crushed.

Independence for the colonies was only gained in the aftermath of the Second World War, when maintaining the Empire became untenable. India and Pakistan for example broke away as soon as Britain lacked the material power and domestic political will to reassert control. Nationalist movements sprung up all over the Empire during the 1940s-50s. When the British government’s proposals to “democratise” Ghana in 1949 restricted the vote by including property qualifications for example, a People’s Assembly was founded in response with mass support, pushing for Universal Suffrage. The rejection of this movement led to the civil disobedience, boycotts, and strikes that resulted in independence. Though America’s role and the Cold War context can’t be ignored, decolonisation was in large part driven by pressure for change “from below”, exercised by nationalist movements – and whilst independence may not have turned out not to be all it seemed, the processes that achieved it remain testament to what people can achieve when they organise to demand democratic change.

But what about Britain? We all know how the people mobilised to defend democracy against foreign aggression in the Second World War, and, if the current government’s recent bout of propaganda is to be believed, the First as well. But if the First World War was a crusade for democracy then it was certainly a strange one. Legislation for Universal male Suffrage in Britain was only granted after the war (the legislation passed in 1917), and even then it was not extended to all women until 1928. In the rhetoric of the time, Parliament was quick to claim that Universal Suffrage was a reward for the sacrifice and ability displayed by the disenfranchised during the war – a coming of age demonstrating their newfound maturity. But this actually just gives the lie to Parliament’s longstanding position on the franchise before the war, which was that it should be limited precisely because the people could not be trusted with it. In reality, Universal male Suffrage was given lest the people demand something more, and it would not have been gained without the war. It is no coincidence that the vote was granted after the people had become empowered by their experience of mass organisation, and disillusioned by a system in which their predetermined role was to be used as cannon fodder. One only has to consider how quickly the Army was demobilised (in 1815 and 1945 as well) to see how wary the government was.

Yet last year, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, we were sold the story of how people willingly laid down their lives for democracy – in fact, a democracy that did not yet exist at the start of the war, and which was reluctantly conceded as its result. It also makes a curious crusade for democracy that ended up extending imperial authority, Britain gaining conquered territories in Iraq, Transjordan, Tanzania, Namibia, and a number of islands in the Pacific from Germany. Technically these were governed as “mandates”, but just as with Britain’s other colonies, the justification was that these areas required British rule until such a time as they could be trusted with independence – which, as we have seen, was only gained when power was reclaimed by organised movements. It was the same in Britain.

Before 1918 a common argument in favour of denying disenfranchised people the vote was that they lacked the maturity to be trusted with it. It was said that dependents such as women, children, servants, and men without independent property of their own, would be too easily swayed to vote by the people that they were dependent upon. This meant therefore that they could not be trusted to make impartial judgements, and so could not be entrusted with deciding the common good. Yet under this system dependents were claimed to have “virtual” representation – women and servants explicitly being said to be represented by the votes of their husbands/masters acting in their role as head of household (indeed this conceptualisation of the vote was why many women supported the Chartist demands for Manhood Suffrage). However, under this system of “virtual” representation, people were clearly being denied the vote on the basis that they would be too easily influenced by the people they depended on, at the same time that they were said to be represented by the vote of that very person!

Though naïvely optimistic to the point of utopianism, virtual representation has ever been used cynically as a smokescreen to obscure and excuse disenfranchisement. But the real intention seems clear enough – the far more numerous class of “dependents” in Britain were excluded, not only from exercising their own votes, but also by being folded into the single vote of their masters. It didn’t matter if you had one dependent or fifty, they were all subsumed into a single vote. Thus virtual representation was exclusive and disenfranchising.[2] This glaring absurdity was only put to an end, at least formally, in 1928.

But what glaring inconsistencies have persisted since then?

 I would argue that virtual representation is still in force – albeit via a different means – in that those who do not successfully elect an MP in their constituency give completely dead votes. Under our system of electing MPs, 49% of a given seat may vote for one candidate, but if 49.01% voted for another, then that group will win the seat. All of the votes except those for the winner of each seat count for absolutely nothing. In 2010, MPs were usually elected with around 30-50% of the vote in their constituency (47.7% mean average), and about 2/3rds won with less than 50% of votes. By this means the majority of the electorate is essentially disenfranchised. After factoring in turnout (65% in 2010), only 31% of the electorate actually chose our current MPs, who are supposed to represent everyone. The remainder of the electorate are apparently represented well enough by these candidates, presumably on the same basis as argued historically, that they have the ability to rise above petty interests and represent us all. But if this were really the case, why would it even matter who we voted for at all? Presumably anyone would do! By this means the majority of the electorate is essentially disenfranchised, because their vote for a local representative is statistically most likely to count for nothing at all in a Parliament that is organised at a national scale.

In these contexts, is it any wonder that they renege on their manifesto pledges? MPs of course claim that they need to be given latitude by their constituents in order that they can make up their own minds about the issues that face them, especially if the situation changes in the future. This  sounds plausible, except that in the vast majority of cases, MPs voting decisions are given to them by their leaderships via the Party whips – and going against the whip can have serious consequences for one’s political career. After all, the future of their career and job depends a lot more on the Party’s good will than that of the electorate. If such MPs displease their leaders, they can simply be deselected as candidates at the next election – a power which has shifted from local parties to central leaderships over the past two decades. Then there’s the carrot and stick of being offered or denied public office on the basis of voting behaviour. Thus the average backbenchers in the main parties “toe the party line”. Rather than subordinate themselves to the people they represent – rather than actually act as representatives – such MPs sell themselves the Party system of rewards and punishments.

Of course, the constituents of a deselected or hamstrung MP’s constituents could always return them to Parliament again, but how many people really vote on that basis? Most people vote along national lines of party or leader – Conservative or Labour, Cameron or Miliband - and indeed are encouraged to do so. There is a fundamental disconnect between the way many voters conceive their vote, and the reality of voting in Britain.

Historically, the rhetoric around the franchise – concomitant to denying it to “dependents” – revolved around notions of “manly independence”, which most people were said to lack. MPs, and the limited electorate were supposed to enshrine these qualities, which included the abilities to have reasoned impartiality, and to be able make one’s own mind up (which was, after all, why dependents were denied the vote). But have you ever seen such a timid lackey as an MP who slavishly “toes the party line”? Such MPs are dependents, but cannot be bound to what their constituents tell them to do, because they are already spoken for. This is the real objection to real recall: MPs must be free from having us tell them what to do, because they must remain free to be told what to do by their Party leaders! Whipped is a good word for it!

The people of this country have again been left facing the fact that they have no meaningful methods of exerting pressure on Parliament. But all this means is that we must therefore begin again the process of building such pressure. This is simply part of the cyclical history of British politics. The Blanketeers and the Chartists are often said to have been unsuccessful, but this is untrue. To see their success you have to know not only where to look, but how to look – without the context of the pressure created by organisations of people dedicated to achieving democracy in this country, one would be liable to believe that radical reform and meaningful democratic power was given to us out of the kindness of politicians’ hearts, or handed out as some kind of reward. It wasn’t, and at each step Parliament gave the least ground it could. It was only by assembling for democracy that changes were made to happen.

Today, we don’t even have a representative democracy. That is not what the system was originally constructed for, nor what it has become. Today we, like the Scottish martyrs, are faced with a government more interested in gagging acts than addressing corruption. Like the Blanketeers our role (at least between elections) is essentially limited to petitions. Like the Chartists, we are still unable to really hold MPs to account between elections, and our choice during them is severely limited by the realities of the system. Like the Suffragettes and Suffragists, we’re also still faced with a system based on virtual representation, whereby the choice of a minority whose votes matter are said to be good enough to represent everyone. Finally, like all of them, we’re asked simply to trust those with power, whilst being told that we ourselves cannot be trusted with power, lest we abuse it. In times such as these!

The time to organise has come again. It doesn’t matter if you have a lot of time and energy to contribute to such a movement, or a little. What matters is that we collectively commit to building a democratic movement, driven “from below” by people power. That we not only cast our vote as an “X” in a box, as we are allowed to do once every five years, but act in favour of a genuinely alternative politics – that we establish a different way of doing things that will place power in our hands.


[1] M. Taylor, ‘The Six Points’ in O. Ashton, et al. (eds.), The Chartist Legacy, (Merlin Press 1999), 2.

[2] A theory of virtual representation was also put forward as an argument against giving the Thirteen Colonies representation in Parliament, on the basis that MPs inherently represented their interests already.

Sideboxes 'Read On' Sidebox: 

The Great Charter Convention – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.

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Are the Tories applying a scorched earth strategy to the NHS?

Open Democracy News Analysis - 25. Mars 2015 - 9:15

The Tories now seem not to care what we think of their NHS policies. Last election, it was all very different - a new book highlights how promises were made - then broken. 

Forty-two days til the election and worrying news about the NHS is arriving daily. It seems the Tories, fearful of losing in May, are determined to put their final mark on the NHS by hitting it with every bit of scorched earth policy they can think of.

The biggest surprise they’ve sprung in the last few weeks is ‘DevoManc’ - £6 billion worth of health and social care budgets signed over to 10 local councils in Greater Manchester. The move is viewed with suspicion and trepidation by most health commentators and campaigners – if for no other reason than that anything George Osborne is signing off with a big grin on his face is bound to be bad news.

And just weeks before the election the NHS signs a contract for £780m - the biggest-ever privatisation of its services - to help hospitals tackle the growing backlog of patients waiting for surgery and tests. The contract includes 3 companies – Circle, Vanguard and Care UK - who have already been heavily criticised for the poor care they delivered to NHS patients. Half of the private firms involved have links to the Tories.

And now OurNHS openDemocracy have leaked the details of the massive £1.2 billion contract lined up for cancer and end of life services in Staffs. The contents of the previously closely guarded plans have shocked health campaigners. It’s ‘no more than a blank cheque for whichever private firm is most ruthlessly willing to cut costs to shore up their own profits’, says John Lister of Health Emergency. No wonder there was no proper public consultation, only ‘weak engagements led by patient champions’. The public didn’t vote for a privatised NHS, doesn’t want it, and the politicians know it.

At this stage it looks as though the Coalition simply don’t care what we think about their shabby treatment of the NHS. But they were more careful when they came into power. Granted they broke promise after promise – infamously Cameron had promised no more top down reorganisations, and had featured on billboards above the slogan ‘We will cut the deficit not the NHS’.

But even while going back on their word they understood they had to persuade us that what they were doing – breaking up the NHS and paving the way for the private sector - was justified. So they created myths about the NHS and about Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act, and sold them to an uncritical media. These myths - and outright lies - have become part received wisdom for many. There is plenty of evidence to disprove them, but we need a positive and concerted effort to dislodge them from the public consciousness.

It was the persistence of these myths and lies – zombie claims that continue to stalk the land long after they should have been killed off – that drove us to write our new book ‘NHS For Sale – Myths, Lies and Deception’.

Our book tackles the big lie that was necessary to justify sweeping changes - that the NHS was a poor service and was letting patients down while costing too much money, hopelessly ‘inefficient and unaffordable’. In fact the NHS is one of the most cost effective health services in the world.

The book destroys the myth that the private sector delivers better and cheaper care than the public sector. And it evidences how, contrary to their increasingly strident claims, the government’s actions are resulting in the privatisation of the NHS.

It argues that far from giving GPs the power, the Act means they now have less money, more responsibility and all of the blame. Contrary to what Lansley promised, patients and communities now have less choice and voice, and indeed doctors and patients are all worse off as a result of the ‘reforms’. The Act has resulted in more bureaucracy, higher costs, more waste and less transparency in the NHS.

It dissects claims about government funding of the NHS and shows them to be a sham, detailing the cuts and closures that have taken place.

The market has no place in delivering health care, squandering scarce money and clinical time and destabilising those vital NHS services that the private sector has no interest in delivering.

It is time to abolish the ‘purchaser provider split’ which divides the NHS into those that hold the purse strings and those who provide the healthcare - and allows private firms to muscle in on both sides of the split. This split was introduced under Thatcher and labelled ‘a failed experiment’ by the Health Select Committee.

We hope that as many as possible will read it before they cast their vote on May 7th. After 5 years of lies and cover ups voters need the full facts to allow them to make up their minds about the Coalition record on the NHS. We intend that this book will come to their aid.

Like this piece? Please donate to OurNHS here to help keep us producing the NHS stories that matter. Thank you. 

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