George Monbiot Blog

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Archive of his syndicated column about international and British politics and issues, arranged by topic.
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Democratic Revolution

Fri, 09/18/2020 - 05:55

Full-scale participatory democracy would change everything. It has the same revolutionary potential as the universal franchise and women’s suffrage.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 16th September 2020

It’s good entertainment, but that’s all it is. Seeing Boris Johnson ritually dismembered in Parliament might make us feel better, but nothing changes. He still has an 80-seat majority, though only 29% of the electorate voted for the Conservatives. We are reduced, for five long years, to spectators.

Our system allows the victorious government a mandate to do what it likes between elections, without further reference to the people. As we have seen, this can include breaking international law, suspending Parliament, curtailing the judiciary, politicising the civil service, attacking the Electoral Commission, and invoking royal prerogative powers to make policy without anyone’s consent. This is not democracy, but a parody of democracy.

By contrast to our five-yearly vote, capital can respond to government policy every second, withdrawing its consent with catastrophic consequences if it doesn’t like its drift. There’s a massive imbalance of power here. The voting power of capital, with modern trading technologies, has advanced by leaps and bounds. Electoral power is trapped in the age of the quill pen.

The problem, in other words, is not just Boris Johnson. The problem is the UK’s political system, which presents an open invitation for autocratic behaviour. In the past, people warned that a ruthless operator could make hay with this system. Well, that moment has come.

Labour has long been part of the problem, refusing to contemplate even a change to our preposterous first-past-the-post elections, let alone any wider surrender of power. And it is tragic to watch it now, still playing by the old rules. These state that a party should not show its hand until a few months before the election. Well, that’s four years away, and the power grab is happening now. We urgently need a stirring alternative vision, a call to democratic arms. Instead, we get forensic dissections of particular government policies: admirably done, but unmatched to the moment.

At moments like this, old parties flounder. New ideas arise outside the system, and effective opposition takes place on the street. Of course, this is difficult now, as there are good public health reasons not to gather in large numbers, and we can expect the government to exploit them. But civil disobedience is ever-inventive, constantly developing new tactics in response to attempts to shut it down.

We saw some of these in Extinction Rebellion’s latest week of protests, and we saw something else too: its emergence as a broad oppositional movement, taking on the billionaire press, the lobbyists, the banks and other bastions of power, that are not usually associated with the extinction and climate crises, but are fundamental to them. From the beginning, XR has been both an environmental movement and a democracy movement: participatory politics, in the form of citizens’ assemblies, has been one of its key demands.

Like the suffragettes and the civil rights movement, it was excoriated for threatening “our way of life”. Almost all democratic advances, everywhere, have been secured by people who were branded “anarchists” and “criminals”.

The democratic and environmental crises have the same roots: our exclusion, for several years at a time, from meaningful politics. In some places, particularly Ireland, Iceland, France, Taiwan, British Columbia, Ontario and several Spanish and Brazilian cities, a host of fascinating experiments with new democratic forms has been taking place: constitutional conventions, citizens’ assemblies, community development, digital deliberation, participatory budgeting. They are designed to give people a voice between elections, tempering representative democracy, allowing them to refine their choices.

The UK pays lip service to these innovations. Last week the citizens’ assembly on climate, convened by parliament, published its findings. But there are no obvious means by which they can be adopted by the government. In Scotland, all local authorities allow local people to set part of their budgets, though so far it’s very small: just 1% of the money allocated by central government.

Unless the results of participatory democracy can be translated into policy, and unless it operates at a meaningful scale, it generates cynicism and disillusion. But as the processes in Ireland, Madrid and some Brazilian cities have shown, when people are allowed to make big and frequent decisions, the results can be transformative. Alienated, polarised populations come together to identify and solve their common problems. Democracy becomes a lived reality.

Nowhere has participatory politics yet been allowed to fulfil its promise. There is no principled or technical reason why the majority of a municipal or national budget should not be set through public deliberation, following the techniques pioneered in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. There is no principled or technical reason why the monthly voting process for improving life in Reykjavík could not be applied at the national level, everywhere. The call for full-scale participatory democracy is as revolutionary as the call for the universal franchise was in the 19th Century. What is needed is a vehicle similar in scale to the Chartist and suffragette movements.

There are precedents for environmental protests mutating into democratic revolutions: this is what helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union. Our climate and extinction crises expose the failures of all quasi-democratic systems, and the blatant capture of ours by the power of money turns the UK into a global crucible.

In XR’s outrageous, reviled protests we see the beginnings of what could become a 21st Century democratic revolution. Through his incompetence, callousness and greed for power, Boris Johnson has done us two favours: exposing the shallowness of our theatrical democracy, and creating a potential coalition ranging from hospital porters to Supreme Court judges. Now we must decide how to mobilise it.

Categories: Blogtastic

Rotten to the Core

Mon, 09/14/2020 - 09:52

The UK’s economic and political life revolves around corruption.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th September 2020

Fear, shame, embarrassment: these brakes no longer apply. The government has discovered that it can bluster through any scandal. No minister need resign. No one need apologise. No one need explain.

As public outrage grows over the billions of pounds of coronavirus contracts issued by the government without competition, it seems determined only to award more of them. Never mind that the consulting company Deloitte, whose personnel circulate in and out of government, has been strongly criticised for the disastrous system it devised to supply protective equipment to the NHS. It has now been granted a massive new contract to test the population for Covid-19.

Never mind that untendered contracts with firms that had no previous experience in supplying medical equipment have left us with vast piles of substandard PPE that can’t be used. Never mind that, Byline Times has reported, one of these contracts has cost taxpayers £800 for every medical gown it has delivered. Never mind that at least two multi-million pound contracts have been issued to dormant companies. Awarding contracts to unusual companies, without advertising, transparency or competition now appears to have been adopted as the norm. Several of the firms that have benefited from this largesse are closely linked to senior figures in the government.

Every week, Boris Johnson looks more like George I, under whose government vast fortunes were made by political favourites, through monopoly contracts for military procurement. Any pretence of fiscal rectitude or democratic accountability has been abandoned. With four more years and the support of the billionaire press, who cares?

The way the government handles public money looks to me like an open invitation to corruption. While it is hard to demonstrate that any individual deal is corrupt, the framework under which this money is dispensed invites the perception.

When you connect the words corruption and the United Kingdom, people tend to respond with shock and anger. Corruption, we believe, is something that happens abroad. Indeed, if you check the rankings published by Transparency International, the UK looks like one of the world’s cleanest countries. But this is an artefact of the narrow criteria they use.

As Jason Hickel points out in his book The Divide, theft by officials in poorer nations amounts to between $20 and $40 billion a year. It’s a lot of money, and it harms well-being and democracy in those countries. But this figure is dwarfed by the illicit flows of money from poor and middling nations that are organised by multinational companies and banks. The US research group Global Financial Integrity estimates that $1.1 trillion a year flows illegally out of poorer nations, stolen from them through tax evasion and the transfer of money within corporations. This practice costs sub-Saharan Africa around 6% of its GDP.

The looters rely on secrecy regimes to process and hide their stolen money. The corporate tax haven index published by the Tax Justice Network shows that the three countries that have done most to facilitate this theft are the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands. All of them are British territories. Jersey, a British dependency, comes seventh on the list. These places are effectively satellites of the City of London. But because they are overseas, the City can benefit from ”nefarious activities … while allowing the British government to maintain distance when scandals arise.” The City of London’s astonishing exemption from the UK’s freedom of information laws creates an extra ring of secrecy.

The UK also appears to be the money-laundering capital of the world. In a devastating article for the Guardian, Oliver Bullough revealed how easy it has become to hide your stolen loot and fraudulent schemes here, using a giant loophole in company law: no one checks the ownership details you enter when creating your company. You can, literally, call yourself Mickey Mouse, with a registered address on Mars, and get away with it. Bullough discovered owners on the Companies House site called “Xxx Stalin” and “Mr Mmmmmm Xxxxxxxxxxx”, whose address was given as “Mmmmmmm, Mmmmmm, Mmm, MMM”. One investigation found that 4000 company owners, according to their submitted details, were under the age of two.

By giving false identities, company owners in the UK can engage in the industrial processing of dirty money, with no fear of getting caught. Even when the UK’s company registration system was revealed as instrumental to the world’s biggest known money-laundering scheme, the Danske Bank scandal, the government turned a blind eye.

A new and terrifying book by the Financial Times journalist Tom Burgis, Kleptopia, follows a global current of dirty money, and the murders and kidnappings required to sustain it. Again and again, he found, this money, though it might originate in Russia, Africa or the Middle East, travels through London. The murders and kidnappings don’t happen here, of course: our bankers have clean cuffs and manicured nails. The National Crime Agency estimates that money laundering costs the UK £100bn a year. But it makes the rich much more. With the money come people fleeing the consequences of their crimes, welcomed into this country through the government’s “golden visa” scheme: a red carpet laid out for the very rich.

None of this features in the official definitions of corruption. Corruption is what little people do. But kleptocrats in other countries are merely clients of the bigger thieves in London. Processing everyone else’s corruption is the basis of much of the wealth of this country. When you start to understand this, the contention by the author of Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano, that the UK is the most corrupt nation on Earth, begins to make sense.

These activities are a perpetuation of colonial looting: a means by which vast riches are siphoned out of poorer countries and into the hands of the super-rich. The UK’s great and unequal wealth was built on colonial robbery: the land and labour stolen in Ireland, America and Africa, the humans stolen by slavery, the $45 trillion bled from India.

Just as we distanced ourselves from British slave plantations in the Caribbean, somehow believing that they had nothing to do with us, now we distance ourselves from British organised crime, much of which also happens in the Caribbean. The more you learn, the more you realise that this is what it’s really about: grand larceny is the pole around which British politics revolve.

A no-deal Brexit, that Boris Johnson seems to favour, is likely to cement the UK’s position as the global entrepot for organised crime. When the EU’s feeble restraints are removed, under a government that seems entirely uninterested in basic accountability, the message we send to the rest of the world will be even clearer than it is today: come here to wash your loot.

Categories: Blogtastic

For Your Eyes Only

Fri, 09/04/2020 - 10:45

The opaque and secretive networks on which Boris Johnson builds his power.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 2nd September 2020

To accumulate power, a government with authoritarian tendencies must first destroy power. It must reduce rival centres of power – the judiciary, the civil service, academia, broadcasters, local government, civil society – to satellites of its own authority, controlled from the centre, deprived of independent action. But it must do this while claiming to act in the people’s name.

So it needs an apparatus of justification: arguments that can be fed through a sympathetic press and manufactured into outrage against its rivals. This is where the intellectual work of such a government is focused. Dominic Cummings is not the sole architect of this project: much of the intellectual landscaping has been outsourced.

Since the 1950s, an infrastructure of persuasion has been built in the UK, whose purpose is to supplant civic power with the power of money. The model was developed by two fanatical disciples of Friedrich Hayek, the father of neoliberalism: Anthony Fisher and Oliver Smedley. They knew it was essential to disguise their intentions. While founding the first of the thinktanks whose purpose was to spread Hayek’s gospel, the Institute of Economic Affairs, Smedley reminded Fisher it was “imperative that we should give no indication in our literature that we are working to educate the Public along certain lines … That is why the first draft [of our aims] is written in rather cagey terms.”

The institute, and the other lobby groups Fisher founded, honed the arguments that would be used to strip down the state, curtail public welfare and public protection, and restrict and discipline other forms of social strength, releasing the ultra-rich from the constraints of democracy. Unsurprisingly, some of the richest people on Earth poured cash into his project. His groups translated Hayek’s ideas, that were seen by many as repulsive, into a new political common sense, producing the reframings and justifications on which Thatcher and Reagan built their revolutions. 

Others began to copy this model. In his autobiography, Madsen Pirie, the founder of the Adam Smith Institute, describes how, using funds from 20 of the UK’s biggest companies, he helped to chart the course that Margaret Thatcher took. Every Saturday, while Thatcher’s Conservatives were in opposition, staff from the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs sat down for lunch with her researchers, and leader writers and columnists from the Times and Telegraph, to plot the revolution that would bring her to power. They “planned strategy for the week ahead”,  and would “co-ordinate our activities to make us more effective collectively.” Pirie describes how he devised many of the policies that defined Thatcherism.

In Pirie’s book, in the testimony of the whistleblower Shahmir Sanni and elsewhere, there is evidence that these lobby groups coordinate their work, creating the impression that people in different places are spontaneously coming to the same conclusions. Several of them work from the same offices, in 55 and 57 Tufton Street, Westminster.

The lobby group that Boris Johnson’s government uses most is Policy Exchange. While it claims to be a neutral educational charity, it was founded in 2002 by the Conservative MPs Francis Maude and Archie Norman, and Nick Boles, who later also became a Tory MP. Its first chairman was Michael Gove. Its proposals and personnel have been adopted by the Conservative Party ever since.

It seems to me that Policy Exchange has played a crucial role in shifting power away from rival institutions and into the Prime Minister’s office. For several years it has been building a case for curtailing the judiciary. It provided the ammunition for the government’s current attack on judicial review.

Judicial review enables citizens to sue the government to uphold the law. It was the process Gina Miller used in 2016 to oblige Theresa May to seek parliamentary approval for Article 50, that began the Brexit process, and to overturn Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament last year.

Policy Exchange calls such rulings “judicial overreach”. It claims that they threaten the sovereignty of Parliament and the separation of powers between government and judiciary. To my mind they do the opposite. The law is not whatever Boris Johnson says it is. It is legislation passed by Parliament and interpreted by the courts. Both the Gina Miller cases returned powers to Parliament that prime ministers had seized. The government has appointed a former Conservative Minister, Lord Faulks, to examine judicial review, along the lines suggested by Policy Exchange.

The lobby group has called for the Prime Minister’s office to have greater powers “to develop and direct policy change” through the civil service, and to appoint leaders of public bodies whose “culture and values” align with government’s aims. It has led the public attacks against what it calls the “chilling effects” of leftwing views in academia. Its recent report on academic freedom was brilliantly eviscerated in the Guardian by Jonathan Portes, who found it riddled with basic statistical errors and mistaken assumptions. What purports to be a campaign for intellectual freedom looks more like a McCarthyite attempt to suppress left-leaning ideas. It’s an effective weapon in the government’s gathering culture war.

The thinktank’s proposals for changing the planning system, that involve a massive removal of power from local authorities, have been adopted wholesale by the government. One of the authors of this scheme, Jack Airey, has moved from Policy Exchange to Downing Street, as a special adviser.

Last year, Policy Exchange published a polemic that claimed Extinction Rebellion is led by dangerous extremists. As usual, it was widely covered by the media. Less discussed was the report that the lobby group has received funding from the power company Drax, the trade association Energy UK and the gas companies E.On and Cadent, whose fossil fuel investments are threatened by environmental activism. These are among the few funders whose identities we know. Policy Exchange is listed by WhoFundsYou as among the most opaque thinktanks in the UK.

It might seem remarkable that its activities qualify as charitable: without having to reveal its funders, while promoting shifts that could harm civil society, Policy Exchange remains a registered charity. Conservative governments attach great importance to the way charities are overseen. In 2018, a parliamentary committee sent the government an unprecedented letter, pointing out that the government’s preferred candidate as chair of the Charity Commission, the former Tory minister Baroness Tina Stowell, was “unable to demonstrate … any real insight, knowledge or vision”; could not be seen as neutral; and had failed to withstand the committee’s scrutiny. The government appointed her anyway, and she remains chair today.

By such means, political life is steadily undermined, until little remains but authority and obedience to the Prime Minister. Without strong civic institutions, society loses its power. From the point of view of global capital, that’s mission accomplished. To resist the government’s machinations, first we must understand them.

Categories: Blogtastic

Population Panic

Mon, 08/31/2020 - 20:46

The obsession with the birthrates of the poor has a grim history, and is used by the rich to transfer blame.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 26th August 2020

When a major study was published last month, showing that the global population is likely to peak then crash much sooner than most scientists had assumed, I naïvely imagined that people in rich nations would at last stop blaming all the world’s environmental problems on population growth. I was wrong. If anything, it appears to have got worse.

Next week the BirthStrike movement – founded by women who, by announcing their decision not to have children, seek to focus our minds on the horror of environmental collapse – will dissolve itself, as its cause has been hijacked so virulently and persistently by population obsessives. The founders explain that they had “underestimated the power of ‘overpopulation’ as a growing form of climate breakdown denial”.

It is true that, in some parts of the world, population growth is a major driver of particular kinds of ecological damage, such as the expansion of small-scale agriculture into rainforests, the bushmeat trade and local pressure on water and land for housing. But its global impact is much smaller than many people claim.

The formula for calculating people’s environmental footprint is simple, but widely misunderstood: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology (I = PAT). The global rate of consumption growth, before the pandemic, was 3% a year. Population growth is 1%. Some people assume this means that the rise in population bears one third of the responsibility for increased consumption. But population growth is overwhelmingly concentrated among the world’s poorest people, who have scarcely any A or T to multiply their P. The extra resource use and greenhouse gas emissions caused by a rising human population are a tiny fraction of the impact of consumption growth.

Yet it is widely used as a blanket explanation of environmental breakdown. Panic about population growth enables the people most responsible for the impacts of rising consumption (the affluent) to blame those who are least responsible.

At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the primatologist Dame Jane Goodall, who is a patron of the charity Population Matters, told the assembled pollutocrats, some of whom have ecological footprints thousands of times greater than the global average, “All these things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years ago.” I doubt that any of those who nodded and clapped were thinking, “yes, I urgently need to disappear.”

In 2019, she appeared in an advertisement for British Airways, whose customers produce more greenhouse gas emissions on one flight than many of the world’s people generate in a year. If we had the global population of 500 years ago (around 500 million), and if it were composed of average UK plane passengers, our environmental impact would probably be greater than that of the 7.8 billion alive today.

She proposed no mechanism by which her dream might come true. This could be the attraction. The very impotence of her call is reassuring to those who don’t want change. If the answer to environmental crisis is to wish other people away, we might as well give up and carry on consuming.

The excessive emphasis on population growth has a grim history. Since the clergymen Joseph Townsend and Thomas Malthus wrote their tracts in the 18th Century, poverty and hunger have been blamed not on starvation wages, war, misrule and wealth extraction by the rich, but on the reproduction rates of the poor. Winston Churchill blamed the Bengal Famine of 1943, that he helped to cause through the mass export of India’s rice, on the Indians “breeding like rabbits”. In 2013 Sir David Attenborough, also a patron of Population Matters,wrongly blamed famines in Ethiopia on “too many people for too little land”, and suggested that sending food aid was counter-productive.

Another of the charity’s patrons, Paul Ehrlich, whose incorrect predictions about mass famine helped to provoke the current population panic, once argued that the US should “coerce” India into “sterilising all Indian males with three or more children”, by making food aid conditional on this policy. This proposal was similar to the brutal programme that Indira Gandhi later introduced, with financial support from the UN and the World Bank.

Foreign aid from the UK was funding crude and dangerous sterilisation in India as recently as 2011, on the grounds that this policy was helping to “fight climate change”. Some of the victims of this programme allege that they were forced to participate. At the same time, the UK government was pouring billions of pounds of aid into developing coal, gas and oil plants, in India and other nations. It blamed the poor for the crisis it was helping to cause.

Malthusiasm slides easily into racism. The great majority of the world’s population growth is happening in the poorest countries, where most people are black or brown. The colonial powers justified their atrocities by fomenting a moral panic about “barbaric”, “degenerate” people “outbreeding” the “superior races”. These claims have been revived today by the far right, promoting conspiracy theories about “white replacement” and “white genocide”. When affluent white people wrongly transfer blame for their environmental impacts to the birthrate of much poorer brown and black people, their finger-pointing reinforces these narratives. It is inherently racist.

The far right now uses the population argument to contest immigration into the US and the UK. This too has a grisly heritage: the pioneering conservationist Madison Grant promoted, alongside his environmental work, the idea that the “Nordic master race” was being “overtaken” in the US by “worthless race types.” As president of the Immigration Restriction League, he helped to engineer the vicious 1924 Immigration Act.

But, as there are some genuine ecological impacts of population growth, how do we distinguish proportionate concerns about these harms from deflection and racism? Well, we know that the strongest determinant of falling birth rates is female emancipation and education. The major obstacle to female empowerment is extreme poverty, whose effect is felt disproportionately by women.

So a good way of deciding whether someone’s population concerns are genuine is to look at their record of campaigning against structural poverty. Have they contested the impossible debts poor nations are required to pay? Have they argued against corporate tax avoidance, or extractive industries that drain wealth from poorer countries, leaving almost nothing behind, or our own financial sector’s processing of money stolen abroad? Or have they simply sat and watched as people remain locked in poverty, then complained about their fertility?

Before long, this reproductive panic will disappear. Nations will soon be fighting over immigrants: not to exclude them, but to attract them, as the demographic transition leaves their ageing populations with a shrinking tax base and a dearth of key workers. Until then, we should resist attempts by the rich to demonise the poor.

Categories: Blogtastic

Finding Our Feet

Fri, 08/21/2020 - 06:13

Landed power, built on theft, slavery and colonial looting, crushes our freedoms. It is time to reclaim them.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th August 2020

Boris Johnson’s attack on our planning laws is both very new and very old. It is new because it scraps the English system for deciding how land should be used, replacing it with something closer to the US model. It is old because it represents yet another transfer of power from the rest of us to the lords of the land, a process that has been happening, with occasional reversals, since 1066.

A power that in 1947 was secured for the public – the democratic right to influence the building that affects our lives – is now being retrieved by building companies, developers and the people who profit most from development, the landowners. This is part of England’s long tradition of enclosure: seizing a common good and giving it to the rich and powerful. Democracy is replaced with the power of money.

Almost all of us, in England and many other nations, are born on the wrong side of the law. The disproportionate weight the law gives to property rights makes nearly everyone a second-class citizen before they draw their first breath, fenced out of the good life we could lead.

Our legislation’s failure to moderate the claims of property denies other fundamental rights. Among them is equality before the law. If you own large tracts of land, a great weight of law sits on your side, defending your inordinate privileges from those who don’t. We are forbidden to exercise a crucial democratic right – the right to protest – on all but the diminishing pockets of publicly-owned land. If we try to express dissent anywhere else, we can be arrested immediately.

The freedom to walk is as fundamental a right as freedom of speech, but in England it is denied across 92% of the land. Though we give landowners £3 billion a year from our own pockets in the form of farm subsidies, we are banned from most of what we pay for. The big estates have seized and walled off the most beautiful vistas in England. In many parts of the country, we are confined to narrow footpaths across depressing landscapes, surrounded by barbed wire. Those who cannot afford to travel and stay in the regions with greater access (mostly in the north-west) have nowhere else to go.

The pandemic has reminded us that access to land is critical to our mental and physical well-being. Children in particular desperately need wild and interesting places in which they can freely roam. A large body of research, endorsed by the government, suggests that our mental health is greatly enhanced by connection to nature. Yet we are forced to skulk around the edges of our nation, unwelcome anywhere but in a few green cages and places we must pay to enter, while vast estates are reserved for single families to enjoy.

This government seeks not to redress the imbalance, but to exacerbate it. Its proposal to criminalise trespass would deny the rights of travelling people (Gypsies, Roma and Travellers) to pursue their lives. It also threatens to turn landowners’ fences into prison walls. Last week I mentioned the illegal quarrying of the River Honddhu I discovered. Had I not been trespassing, I would not have seen it and had it stopped. Criminalising trespass would put free range people outside the law, and landowners above the law.

The government’s proposed award to landowners and builders, of blanket planning permission across great tracts of England, will tilt the law even further towards property. Housing estates will be designed not for the benefit of those who live in them, but for the benefit of those who build them. We will see more vertical slums as office blocks are turned into housing, and more depressing suburbs without schools, shops, public transport or green spaces, entirely dependent on the car. It will do nothing to solve our housing crisis, which is not caused by delays in the planning system but by developers hoarding land to keep prices high, homes used for investment rather than living, and the government’s lack of interest in social housing. By shutting down our objections, Johnson’s proposal is a direct attack on our freedoms. It is a gift to the property tycoons who have poured £11 million into the Conservative party since he became Prime Minister: a gift seized from the rest of us.

But we will not watch passively as we are turned into even more inferior citizens. Launched today, a new book seeks to challenge and expose the mesmerising power that landownership exerts on this country, and to show how we can challenge its presumptions. The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes, is massively researched but lightly delivered, a remarkable and truly radical work, loaded with resonant truths and stunningly illustrated by the author.

It shows how the great estates, from which we are excluded, were created by a combination of theft from the people of Britain (the enclosure of our commons) and theft from the people of other nations, as profits from the slave trade, colonial looting and much of the $45 trillion bled from India were invested into grand houses and miles of wall: blood money translated into neoclassical architecture.

It reveals how the “decorative pomp and verbose flummery” with which the great estates are surrounded disguises this theft, and disguises the rentier capitalism they continue to practice. It explains how the landowners’ walls divide the nation, not only physically but also socially and politically. It shows how the law was tilted away from the defence of people and towards the defence of things. It shows how trespass helps to breach the mental walls that keep us apart.

Accompanying the book is a new campaign, calling for the right to roam in England to be extended to rivers, woodland, downland and uncultivated land in the greenbelt, and to include camping, kayaking, swimming and climbing. This is less comprehensive than the rights in Scotland, which, despite the dire predictions of the landowners, has caused little friction and a massive improvement in public enjoyment. But it would greatly enhance the sense that the nation belongs to all of us rather than a select few. A petition to parliament launched by Guy Shrubsole, author of another crucial book, Who Owns England, seeks to stop the criminalisation of trespass. Please sign it.

We can expect these efforts to be testerically opposed in the billionaire press. This is what happened when a group of us launched the Land for the Many report last year: it was greeted by furious attacks and outrageous falsehoods across the rightwing papers. Even the mildest attempts to rebalance our rights are treated as an existential threat by those whose privilege is ratified by law. But we cannot allow their fury to deter us. It is time to decolonise the land.

Categories: Blogtastic

Watery Grave

Fri, 08/14/2020 - 09:33

Across the UK, our rivers are being turned into filthy, dead gutters, at astonishing, heartbreaking speed.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 12th August 2020

You can judge the state of a nation by the state of its rivers. Pollution is the physical expression of corruption. So what should we conclude about a country whose rivers are systematically exploited, dumped on and bled dry?

I’m writing from the Welsh borders, where I’m supposed to be on holiday. It’s among the most beautiful regions of Britain, but the rivers here are dying before my eyes. When I last saw it, four years ago, the Monnow, a lovely tributary of the River Wye, had a mostly clean, stony bed. Now the bottom is smothered in slime and filamentous algae. In the back eddies, the rotting weed floats to the surface, carrying the stench of cow slurry.

A few days ago, part of another tributary of the Wye, the Llyfni, was wiped out by a pollution surge, for the third time in five years. Hundreds of trout, grayling and bullheads floated to the surface, while rare white-clawed crayfish crawled out of the water. In the Ewyas valley, I discovered, out of sight of any vantage point, that part of the Honddhu, another beautiful little river, is being illegally quarried for loose stone. Ancient alders and ashes on its banks have been ripped out to make way for the digger.

The Wye itself is dying at astonishing, heartbreaking speed. When I canoed it 10 years ago, the stones were clean. Now they are so slimy that you can scarcely stand up. In hot weather, the entire river stinks of chicken shit, from the 10 million birds being reared in the catchment. We made the mistake of swimming in it: I almost gagged when I smelt the water. The free range farms are the worst: the birds carpet the fields with their highly reactive dung, that’s washed into the catchment by rain. Several times a year, algal blooms now turn the clear river cloudy. The fish gasp for breath. Aquatic insects suffocate.

Similar disasters are happening across Britain. In the east of the country, the main issues are human sewage and abstraction. The privatised water companies, granted local monopolies on supply, extract vast dividends and salaries while investing as little as possible in pipes, sewage systems, reservoirs and pollution control. Instead of stopping leaks or discouraging overconsumption, they draw down the groundwater that feeds our rivers. Many now run dry for part of the year. There are only 225 chalk streams in the world, and 85% are in England. Yet several of these rare and precious ecosystems could disappear altogether.

The water companies blatantly abuse the “exceptional circumstances” rule[], which allows them to discharge raw sewage into our rivers during extreme storms and floods. Official records show that Anglian Water, for example, dumped untreated sewage into the River Stour for 8760 hours in 2019: in other words, every hour of the year.

In the west of Britain, the main issue is livestock farming. As dairy and poultry units have consolidated, the manure they produce is greater than the land’s capacity to absorb it. As an agricultural contractor explained to the Welsh government, some farmers are deliberately spreading muck before high rainfall, so that it washes off their fields and into the rivers. A farm advisor told same inquiry that only 1% of farm slurry stores in Wales meet the regulations. When the stores inevitably leak, rivers become sewers. The collapse of sea trout populations in Wales maps almost precisely onto the distribution of dairy farms.

A reader in Cumbria writes to tell me that the neighbouring farmer drives his slurry tank down to the river at night to pump slurry straight into the water. A rare investigation by the Environment Agency found that 95% of farmers in the catchment of the River Axe in south-west England have failed to invest in proper slurry containment. As a result, 49% of these farms are polluting the river. The reason the agency’s internal report gave for this systemic crisis is that the government has been using a “voluntary approach”. Farms in the south west have their slurry stores inspected, on average, once every 200 years. Why upgrade your store if there’s little chance of getting caught?

What we are seeing across Britain is complete regulatory collapse. Even after the extreme and sudden pollution of the Llynfi, the “emergency” team at Natural Resources Wales failed to arrive for 13 hours, and refused to accept a water sample taken by a local person at the peak of the incident. In the Wye catchment, Powys County Council is licensing new chicken farms behind closed doors. In England, the Environment Agency turns a blind eye: of 76,000 pollution and fly tipping cases reported last year, just one resulted in a fixed penalty notice. Yes, one. As the ENDS Report documents, the agency’s own officers see its monitoring methods as completely useless.

In 2016, the Westminster government revealed that only 14% of England’s rivers are in good ecological condition. But instead of taking action, the government has followed Donald Trump’s coronavirus policy: if you want the issue to go away, stop testing. After 2016, it ceased annual monitoring and reporting. It told us to expect the next report in 2019. Then it said spring 2020. Now it says autumn 2020. Perhaps it means never.

The economic power of the water companies and the cultural power of the farmers both translate into political power. Special interests rule. The public and the living world come last. Peer into your local river, and you’ll see the political filth flow past.

Categories: Blogtastic


Sat, 07/25/2020 - 17:00

The great majority of people do not want to return to business-as-usual after the pandemic, but our governments are determined to make us do so.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 22nd July 2020

Out there somewhere, marked on no map but tantalisingly near, is a promised land called Normal, to which one day we can return. This is the magical geography we are taught by politicians, such as Boris Johnson with his “significant return to normality”. It is the story we tell ourselves, even if we contradict it with the very next thought.

There are practical reasons to believe that Normal is a fairyland, to which we can never return. The virus has not gone away, and is likely to keep recurring in waves. But let’s focus on another question. If such a land existed, would we want to live there?

The polls consistently suggest we would not. A survey by BritainThinks a fortnight ago showed that only 12% of people want life to be “exactly as it was before”. A poll at the end of June, commissioned by the nursery provider Bright Horizons, suggests that just 13% of people want to return to working as they did before the lockdown. A YouGov study in the same week revealed that only 6% of us want the same type of economy as we had before the pandemic. Another survey by the same pollsters in April showed only 9% of respondants wanted a return to “normal”. It’s rare to see such strong and consistent results on any major issue.

Of course, we would all like to leave the pandemic behind, with its devastating impacts on physical and mental health, its exacerbation of loneliness, the lack of schooling and the collapse in employment. But this doesn’t mean that we want to return to the bizarre and frightening world the government defines as normal. Ours is no land of lost content, but a place in which lethal crises were gathering long before the pandemic struck. Alongside our many political and economic dysfunctions, normality meant accelerating the strangest and deepest predicament humankind has ever confronted: the collapse of our life-support systems.

Last month, confined to our homes, we watched columns of smoke rising from the Arctic, where temperatures reached a highly abnormal 38°C. Such apocalyptic imagery is becoming the backdrop to our lives. We scroll past images of fire consuming Australia, California, Brazil, Indonesia, inadvertently normalising them. In a brilliant essay at the beginning of this year, the author Mark O’Connell described this process as “the slow atrophying of our moral imaginations”. We are acclimatising ourselves to our existential crisis.

When business as usual resumes, so does the air pollution that kills more people every year than Covid-19 has yet done, and exacerbates the impacts of the virus. Climate breakdown and air pollution are two aspects of a wider dysbiosis. Dysbiosis means the unravelling of ecosystems. The term is used by doctors to describe the collapse of our gut biomes. But it is equally applicable to all living systems: rainforests, coral reefs, rivers, soil. They are unspooling at shocking speed, due to the cumulative impacts of normality, which means a perpetual expansion of consumption.

This month we learnt that $10 billion-worth of precious metals, such as gold and platinum, are dumped in landfill every year, embedded in tens of millions of tonnes of lesser materials, in the form of electronic waste. The world’s production of e-waste is rising by 4% a year. It is driven by another outlandish norm: planned obsolescence. Our appliances are designed to break down, and are deliberately engineered not to be repaired. This is one of the reasons why the average smartphone, containing precious materials extracted at great environmental cost, lasts for between two and three years, while the average desktop printer prints for a total of five hours and four minutes before it is discarded.

The living world, and the people it supports, cannot sustain this level of consumption, but normal life depends on its resumption. The compound, cascading effects of dysbiosis push us towards what some scientists warn could be global systemic collapse.

The polls on this issue are also clear: we do not want to return to this madness. A YouGov survey suggests that 8 out of 10 people want the government to prioritise health and well-being above economic growth during the pandemic, and 6 out of 10 would like it to stay that way when (if) the virus abates. A survey by Ipsos produces a similar result: 58% of British people want a green economic recovery, while 31% disagree. As in all such polls, Britain sits close to the bottom of the range. By and large, the poorer the nation, the greater the weight its people give to environmental issues. In China, in the same survey, the proportions are 80% and 16%, and in India, 81% and 13%. The more we consume, the more our moral imagination atrophies.

But the Westminster government is determined to shove us back into hypernormality, regardless of our wishes. This week, the environment secretary, George Eustice, signalled that he intends to rip up our system of environmental assessments. The government’s proposed free ports, in which tax and regulations are suspended, will not only exacerbate fraud and money laundering but also expose the surrounding wetlands and mudflats, and the rich wildlife they harbour, to destruction and pollution. The trade deal it intends to strike with the US could override parliamentary sovereignty and destroy our environmental standards, without public consent.

Just as there has never been a normal person, there has never been a normal time. Normality is a concept used to limit our moral imaginations. There is no normal to which we can return, or should wish to return. We live in abnormal times. They demand an abnormal response.

Categories: Blogtastic

Contract Killers

Sun, 07/19/2020 - 07:15

Coronavirus deals worth billions of pounds have been awarded by the government to “unusual” companies, without advertising or competition.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 15th July 2020

This stinks. It stinks worse than any of the other carrion this government has buried. Every day for the past fortnight, I’ve been asking myself why this scandal isn’t all over the front pages. Under cover of the pandemic, the government has awarded contracts worth billions of pounds for equipment on which our lives depend, without competition or transparency. It has trampled its own rules, operated secretly and made incomprehensible and – in some cases – highly suspicious decisions.

Let’s begin with the latest case, unearthed by investigative journalists at the Guardian and openDemocracy. It involves a contract to test the effectiveness of the government’s coronavirus messaging, worth £840,000. It was issued by the Cabinet Office, which is run by Michael Gove. The deal appears to have been struck on March 3, but the only written record in the public domain is a letter written on June 5, retrospectively offering the contract that had already been granted. There was no advertisement for the work, and no competition. No official notice of the award has yet been published. The deal appears to have been done with a handshake and a slap on the back.

But we do know who the contract went to. It’s a company called Public First, owned by a married couple, James Frayne and Rachel Wolf. Since 2000, James Frayne has worked on political campaigns with Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser. When Michael Gove was education secretary, he brought both Cummings and Frayne into his department. Cummings was Gove’s chief political adviser, while Frayne was his director of communications. At roughly the same time, in 2010, Gove’s Department awarded Rachel Wolf a £500,000 contract to promote his “free schools” obsession. Guess what? That didn’t go to competitive tender, either. Rachel Wolf co-wrote the Conservative party’s election manifesto in 2019.

In response to these revelations, the government claims it had to override the usual rules for public procurement because it was responding to an emergency. There are several problems with this claim. The first is that it had six weeks to prepare for the pandemic, before the deal was done. The second is that, of the four contracted services later listed on the government’s website, two were not for testing the government’s coronavirus messaging at all, but for “EU exit comms”: in other words, Brexit. The coronavirus work, according to this list, did not begin until May 27. The Cabinet Office now claims that when it said “EU exit”, it meant coronavirus. This seems an odd mistake to make. The third problem is that the government’s communications on the pandemic have been disastrous. Did it choose to ignore Public First’s “emergency” work, or was it of little value?

On Friday, the Good Law Project issued proceedings in the High Court against Michael Gove, alleging breaches of procurement law and apparent bias in the grant of the contract to his long-standing associates. It is crowdfunding the challenge.

But this, extraordinary as it is, is not the strangest of the cases the Good Law Project is taking on. Another involves a pest control company in Sussex called PestFix, which has listed net assets of only £18,000. On April 13, again without public advertisement or competition, the government awarded PestFix a £32 million contract to supply surgical gowns. PestFix is not a manufacturer, but an intermediary (its founder calls it a public health supply business): its role was to order the gowns from China. But, perhaps because of its lack of assets, the government gave it a deposit worth 75% of the value of the contract. The government’s own rules state that prepayments should be made only “in extremely limited and exceptional circumstances”, and even then must be “capped at 25% of the value of the contract”.

If the government had to provide the money upfront, why didn’t it order the gowns itself? And why, of all possible outsourcers, did it choose PestFix? In the two weeks before it awarded this contract, it was approached by 16,000 companies offering to supply protective equipment (PPE). Some of them had a long track record in manufacturing or supplying PPE, and had stocks that could be deployed immediately.

Again, the government relies on the emergency defence to justify its decision. But it issued its initial guidance on preventing infection among health and care workers on January 10. On February 14, it published specific guidance on the use of PPE. So why did it wait until April 13 to strike its “emergency” deal with PestFix? Moreover, it appears to have set the company no deadline for the delivery of the gowns. Astonishingly, even today only half of them appear to have reached the UK, and all those are still sitting in a warehouse in Daventry. On the government’s own admission, “none of the isolation suits delivered so far has been supplied into the NHS”. So much for taking urgent action in response to the emergency.

Again, the contract is surrounded by secrecy. Crucial sections, such as the price paid for the gowns, have been redacted. Bizarrely, the award notice initially stated that the contract was worth £108 million. But in responding to the lawsuit, the government claimed it had made a mistake: the real value is £32 million. Apparently, it struck “further contracts” with PestFix for other items of equipment. It has so far failed to reveal what these might be, or to publish the contracts. It is worth remembering that while all this was happening, frontline health and care workers were dying as a result of inadequate supplies of PPE.

There are plenty of other cases: such as the employment agency with net assets of £623, which was awarded an £18 million government contract to supply facemasks; the confectionery wholesaler given a £100 million contract to supply PPE; and the £250 million channelled through a “family office” registered in Mauritius, specialising in currency trading, offshore property and private equity, also to supply protective medical equipment. Altogether, billions of pounds’ worth of contracts appear to have been granted, often to surprising companies, without competition. I think we may reasonably ask what the hell is going on.

This is not just about value for money, important as that is. Transparent, competitive tendering is a crucial defence against cronyism and corruption. It is essential to integrity in public life and public trust in politics. But the government doesn’t seem to care. As the scandal over Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham shows, its strategy is to brazen out disgrace until public outrage subsides. We know it cheats and lies. It knows that we know, and it doesn’t care.

But these things matter. People die when the government gets them wrong. Our challenge is to discover how to make them count.

Categories: Blogtastic

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Tue, 07/07/2020 - 05:01

Are Trump and Johnson paving the way for fascism, or for something different, but just as bad?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd July 2020

The anger that should be directed at billionaires is instead directed by them. Facing inequality and exclusion, poor wages and insecure jobs, people are persuaded by the newspapers billionaires own and the parties they fund to unleash their fury on immigrants, Muslims, the EU and other “alien” forces.

From the White House, his Manhattan tower and his Florida resort, Donald Trump tweets furiously against “elites”. Dominic Cummings hones the same message as he moves between his mansion in Islington, with its library and tapestry room and his family estate in Durham. Clearly, they don’t mean political or economic elites. They mean intellectuals: the students, teachers, professors and independent thinkers who oppose their policies. Anti-intellectualism is a resurgent force in politics.

Privileged grievance spills from the pages of the newspapers. Opinion writers for the Telegraph and the Spectator insist they are oppressed by a woke mafia, by the rise of Black Lives Matter and other cultural shifts. From their national newspaper columns and slots on the Today programme, they thunder that they have been silenced. The president of the United States portrays himself as a martyred hero, the victim of oppressive liberalism. This politics of resentment is taken up by the footsoldiers of the nascent far right on both sides of the Atlantic.

Myths of national greatness and decline abound. Make America Great Again and Take Back Control propose a glorious homecoming to an imagined golden age. Conservatives and Republicans invoke a rich mythology of family life and patriarchal values. Large numbers of people in the United Kingdom regret the loss of empire.

Extravagant buffoons, building their power base through the visual media, displace the wooden technocrats who once dominated political life. Debate gives way to symbols, slogans and sensation. Political parties that once tolerated a degree of pluralism succumb to cults of personality.

Politicians and political advisers behave with impunity. During the impeachment hearings, Donald Trump’s lawyer argued, in effect, that the president is the nation, and his interests are inseparable from the national interest. Dominic Cummings gets away with blatant breaches of the lockdown. Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, with his attempted special deal for a property developer who then gave money to the Conservative Party. With every unpunished outrage against integrity in public life, trust in the system corrodes. The ideal of democracy as a shared civic project gives way to a politics of dominance and submission.

Political structures still stand, but they are hollowed out, as power migrates into unaccountable, undemocratic spheres: Conservative fundraising dinners, US political action committees, offshore trade tribunals, tax havens and secrecy regimes. The bodies supposed to hold power to account, such as the Electoral Commission and the BBC, are attacked, disciplined and cowed. Politicians and newspapers launch lurid attacks against Parliament, the judiciary and the civil service.

Political lying becomes so rife that voters lose the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Conspiracy theories proliferate, distracting attention from the real ways in which our rights and freedoms are eroded. Politicians create chaos, such as Trump’s government shutdowns and the no-deal Brexit Boris Johnson seems to be engineering, then position themselves as our saviours in troubled times.

Donald Trump shamelessly endorses nativism and white supremacy. Powerful politicians, like the congressman Steve King, talk of defending “western civilisation” against “subjugation” by its “enemies”. Minorities are disenfranchised. Immigrants are herded into detention centres.

Do these circumstances sound familiar? Do they pluck a deep, resonant chord of apprehension? They should. All these phenomena were preconditions for – or facilitators of – the rise of European fascism during the first half of the 20th Century. I find myself asking a question I thought we would never have to ask again. Is the resurgence of fascism a real prospect, on either side of the Atlantic?

Fascism is a slippery, protean thing. As an ideology, it’s almost impossible to pin down: it has always been opportunistic and confused. It is easier to define as a political method. While its stated aims may vary wildly, the means by which it has sought to grab and build power are broadly consistent. But I think it’s fair to say that though the new politics have some strong similarities to fascism, they are not the same thing. They will develop in different ways and go by different names.

Trump’s politics and Johnson’s have some characteristics that were peculiar to fascism, such as their constant excitation and mobilisation of their base through polarisation, their culture wars, their promiscuous lying, their fabrication of enemies and their rhetoric of betrayal. But there are crucial differences. Far from valorising and courting young people, they appeal mostly to older voters. Neither relies on paramilitary terror, though Trump now tweets support for armed activists occupying state buildings and threatening peaceful protesters. It is not hard to see some American militias mutating into paramilitary enforcers if he wins a second term, or, for that matter, if he loses. Fortunately, we can see no such thing developing in the UK. Neither government seems interested in using warfare as a political tool.

Trump and Johnson preach scarcely-regulated individualism: almost the opposite of the fascist doctrine of total subordination to the state. (Though in reality, both have sought to curtail the freedoms of outgroups). Last century’s fascism thrived on economic collapse and mass unemployment. We are nowhere near the conditions of the Great Depression, though both countries now face a major slump in which millions could lose their jobs and homes.

Not all the differences are reassuring. Micro-targeting on social media, peer-to-peer texting and now the possibility of deepfake videos allow today’s politicians to confuse and misdirect people, to bombard us with lies and conspiracy theories, to destroy trust and create alternative realities more quickly and effectively than any tools 20th-century dictators had at their disposal. In the EU referendum campaign, in the 2016 US election and in the campaign that brought Jair Bolsonaro to power in Brazil, we see the roots of a new form of political indoctrination and authoritarianism, without clear precedents.

It is hard to predict how this might evolve. It’s unlikely to lead to thousands of helmeted stormtroopers assembling in public squares, not least because the new technologies render such crude methods unnecessary in gaining social control. As Trump seeks re-election, and Johnson prepares us for a likely no deal, we can expect them to use these tools in ways that Hitler and Mussolini could only have dreamt of. Their manipulations will expose long-standing failures in our political systems, that successive governments have done nothing to address.

Though it has characteristics in common, this isn’t fascism. It is something else, something we have not yet named. But we should fear it and resist it as if it were.

Categories: Blogtastic

Road to Perdition

Fri, 06/26/2020 - 13:54

How did wildlife groups start collaborating in the destruction of nature?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 24th June 2020

Out of this horror comes hope. In the backwash of the pandemic’s first wave, we see the shingled ruins of the old economy, and the chance to construct a new one. As we rebuild our economic life, we should do it on green principles, averting a crisis many times greater than the coronavirus: climate breakdown and the collapse of our life-support systems.

This means no more fossil fuel-based infrastructure. Even existing infrastructure, according to climate scientists, could push us past crucial thresholds. It means an end to megaprojects whose main purpose is enriching construction companies.

Perhaps the definitive example of such projects in the UK is the Oxford – Cambridge Arc. It’s a plan to build a conurbation twice the size of Birmingham (1 million homes) from Oxford to Cambridge. This is far beyond the region’s housing demand. Its purpose, government agencies admit, is not to meet the need for homes, but “to maximise [the area’s] economic potential”.

Originally, the Arc was to be built around an Expressway: a new motorway linking the two cities. After a furious public backlash, the Expressway, according to Highways England (the government agency promoting the project), is now “paused” while it explores “other potential road projects”. In either case, there would be a massive expansion of the road network and the traffic it carries, though air pollution in the region already breaks legal limits. The new housing would mean a huge increase in water use. Already rivers in this area are running dry, as demand exceeds supply.

Even before the pandemic struck, this megalomaniac scheme was in trouble, due to the strength of public opposition. The pandemic, some of us assumed, would be the death blow. Why would the government spend money on this grandiose nonsense, when there are so many other priorities?

But last week, a new campaign came to the rescue. It has rebranded the project “Nature’s Arc”. Apparently, with some adjustments, this massive exercise in concrete pouring “could show how development can restore nature, rather than destroy it”. Building up to a million homes, the new PR blitz tells us, is “the perfect opportunity to invest in nature, improve people’s lives and realise the green recovery.” There’s no mention of traffic, no mention of the Arc’s contribution to air pollution, climate breakdown, resource consumption or water use. It’s suffused with the kind of corporate-Maoist exhortations you see in brochures for new estates: “Nature’s Arc: Be part of it”.

It’s one of the most outrageous exercises in greenwashing I’ve ever seen. But I haven’t told you the worst of it. This guff was not published by the government or the housebuilding companies. It was published by a consortium of wildlife groups: the RSPB, the Woodland Trust and the region’s two Wildlife Trusts. All of them once fought the Arc and its associated developments. The two Wildlife Trusts once mounted a legal challenge to the Expressway. This looks to me like a switch from opposition to collaboration.

There’s a remarkable, distressing similarity between their campaign and Highways England’s own PR materials. The wildlife groups use the same dismal, instrumental language. They call nature “natural capital”. They rebrand nature reserves and woodlands as “green infrastructure”. They uncritically deploy one of the most controversial concepts in development planning: “net gain”. This is the principle that established wildlife habitats destroyed by a project should be replaced by a greater area of new habitat. It has been used repeatedly as an excuse to destroy ancient and precious wild places, replacing them with uniform saplings in plastic guards. Government newspeak appears to have framed their language and shaped their thinking.

Both the Wildlife Trusts in this consortium, in response to my questions, tell me they have applied for funds from Highways England, for other projects. The boundaries blur and the objectives mesh, until it seems hard to tell the difference between protectors and destroyers. But I don’t think this is about money. I think it’s about power.

The four groups all tell me that, despite the statements in their press materials, they still oppose the housing target. They say they want to lay down green principles for construction in the Arc and ensure it “respects environmental limits”. But by rebranding the Arc as the potential saviour of nature, I believe they are playing straight into the government’s hands.

To make matters worse, none of them consulted the local campaign groups who have been leading the fight against the Oxford – Cambridge Arc. Deborah Lovatt of the Buckinghamshire Expressway Action Group tells me she had no idea Nature’s Arc was coming. “When I saw that they were describing this scale of destruction as ‘a perfect opportunity’, I felt sick.” They have “completely undermined community campaigns”. This is ironic, as one of the many complaints against the government’s proposal is the lack of public consultation.

The bigger and more established an organisation becomes, the more timid and conformist it seems to get, until it’s almost indistinguishable from the interests it should be confronting. In this age of environmental crisis and collapse, of government lies and corporate power, we need our nature defenders to rise like lions after slumber. Instead, they queue at the abattoir gate like sedated lambs.

As commercial propaganda seeps into every corner of public life, trust collapses. No one knows what or whom to believe. We need campaigning groups that stand on principle, mobilise their members, use their own words and think their own thoughts. Instead, they swing in the winds of power.

Categories: Blogtastic

Lying In State

Sun, 06/21/2020 - 17:06

History, as the government tells it, is one long lie, airbrushing a host of atrocities.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 17th June 2020

When Boris Johnson claimed last week that removing statues is “to lie about our history”, you could almost admire his brass neck. This is the man who was sacked from his first job, on The Times, for lying about our history. He fabricated a quote from his own godfather, the historian Colin Lucas, to create a sensational front-page fiction about Edward II’s Rose Palace. A further lie about history – his own history – had him sacked from another job, as shadow arts minister under the Conservative leader Michael Howard.

But, Johnson tells us, “We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history.” Yet lies and erasures are crucial to the myths on which Britain’s official self-image is founded, and crucial to hiding the means by which those who still dominate us acquired their wealth and power.

Consider the concentration camps Britain built in Kenya in the 1950s. “What concentration camps?”, you might ask. If so, job done. When the Kikuyu people mobilised to reclaim the land that had been stolen from them by British settlers and the colonial authorities, almost the entire population – over 1 million – were herded into concentration camps and fortified villages. One of these camps, as if echoing Auschwitz, had the slogan “Labour and Freedom” above the gates. Even Eric Griffith-Jones, the attorney general of the colonial administration in Kenya, who was complicit in these crimes, remarked that the treatment of the inmates was “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany”.

Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of prisoners died. Many succumbed to hunger and disease, including almost all the children in some camps. Many others were murdered. Some were beaten to death by their British guards. Some, as the governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, acknowledged in a secret memo, were roasted alive. Others were anally raped with knives, rifle barrels and broken bottles, mauled by dogs or electrocuted. Many were castrated, with a special implement the British administration designed for the purpose. “By the time I cut his balls off,” one of the killers boasted, “he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket”. Some were rolled up in barbed wire and kicked around the compound until they bled to death. If you know nothing of this history, it’s because it was systematically censored and replaced with lies by the British authorities.

Only in 2012, when a group of Kikuyu survivors sued the British government for their torture and mutilation, was an archive, kept secret by the Foreign Office, discovered. It revealed the extraordinary measures taken by colonial officials to prevent information from leaking, and to fend off questions by Labour MPs with outright lies. For example, after 11 men were beaten to death by camp guards, Sir Evelyn Baring advised the colonial secretary to report that they had died from drinking dirty water. Baring himself authorised such assaults. In implementing this decision, Eric Griffith-Jones warned him “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.” When questions persisted, Baring told his officials to do “an exercise … on the dossiers”, to create the impression that the victims were hardened criminals.

As it happens, Sir Evelyn Baring was the grandfather of Mary Wakefield, the wife of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. Last month, her own truthfulness was called into question, as an article she wrote in the Spectator, discussing her experiences of coronavirus, created the strong impression that she and Cummings had remained in London, rather than travelling to Durham, against government instructions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Baring’s family fortune was made from the ownership of slaves, and the massive compensation paid to the owners when the trade was banned.

The hidden Kikuyu documents that came to light in 2012 were part of a larger archive, most of which was systematically destroyed by the British authorities before decolonisation. Special Branch oversaw what it called “a thorough purge” of the Kenyan archives. Fake files were inserted to take the place of those that were expunged. “The very existence” of the deleted files, one memo insisted, “should never be revealed.” Where there were too many files to burn easily, an order proposed that they “be packed in weighted crates and dumped in very deep and current-free water at maximum practicable distance from the coast”. So much for not editing or censoring our past.

The same deletions occurred across the British Empire. We can only guess at what the lost documents might have revealed. Were there more details of the massacre of civilians in Malaya? Of Britain’s dirty war in Yemen in the 1960s? Of the catastrophic famine the British government created in Bengal in 1943, by snatching food from the mouths of local people and exporting it? Of its atrocities in Aden and Cyprus? One thing the surviving files do show us is the British government’s secret eviction of the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, to make way for a US air base. The Foreign Office instructed its officials to deny the very existence of the indigenous islanders, so that they could be removed without compensation or parliamentary objections.

The erasures and deletions continue. In 2010, the disembarkation cards of the Windrush generation of immigrants from the Caribbean were all destroyed by Theresa May’s Home Office. Many people suddenly had no means of proving their right to citizenship of this country, facilitating her cruel and outrageous deportations. In 2013, the Conservatives deleted the entire public archive of their speeches and press releases from 2000 to 2010, and blocked access to web searches using the Wayback Machine, impeding people trying to hold them to account for past statements and policies.

This week, the Prime Minister asked the head of his policy unit, Munira Mirza, to set up a commission on racial inequalities. She is part of a network of activists whose entire history has been, in my view, confused and obfuscated. It arose from the Revolutionary Communist Party and Living Marxism magazine. As these names suggest, they purported to belong to the far left, but they look to me like the extreme right. In 2018 I discovered that one of its outlets, spiked magazine, had been heavily funded by the US billionaire Charles Koch. Other sources of funding remain obscure. In common with some of her comrades, Mirza has cast doubt on institutional racism. Her new role has caused dismay among anti-racist campaigners, who fear yet more editing of history.

Lying about history, censoring and editing is what the political establishment does. The histories promoted by successive governments, especially those involving the UK’s relationship with other nations, are one long chain of lies. Because we are lied to, we cannot move on. Maturity, either in a person or in a nation, could be defined as being honest about ourselves. We urgently need to grow up.

Categories: Blogtastic

Sold Out

Mon, 06/15/2020 - 10:28

The government intends to use a US trade deal to bypass democracy, override Parliament and rip down our public protections.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 10th June 2020

The Conservative manifesto made a clear promise. It pledged that in the government’s trade talks, “we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”. Just six months after the election, the promise has been ditched. Our government is now proposing that chlorine-washed chicken, beef treated with growth hormones, pork from animals injected with ractopamine and scores of other foods produced in the United States by dangerous, cruel and disgusting means will be allowed into this country, as long as higher trade taxes (tariffs) are applied to them.

The trade secretary, Liz Truss, has made it clear that any such tariffs would be removed within 10 years. It’s impossible to see the US negotiators allowing them to pass in the first place. The US intends to secure “comprehensive” access to our food markets, while “reducing or eliminating tariffs”. This nonsense about higher tariffs is a blatant attempt to soften us up, to sugar the toxic pill of US imports that don’t meet our standards. When I say sugar, I mean high fructose corn syrup.

It’s not as if our standards are wonderful. But by comparison to the revolting practices in the US, our food rules, laid down by the EU, are a haven of sanity. As well as washing chicken flesh with chlorine, to compensate for the filthy conditions in which it is raised and processed, and injecting dangerous substances into cattle and pigs, Big Farmer and Big Food in the US use 72 pesticides that are banned here and food colourings that have been linked to hyperactivity in children, impose no limits on the amount of sugar baby food contains, and permit cow’s milk to contain twice the amount of pus that the UK allows.

What this means is that we will bring into this country food whose production is banned here. Either our farmers and food processors will be outcompeted, or our domestic production standards will be brought down to match. Some Conservative MPs attempted to insert an amendment into the Agriculture Bill, to uphold the manifesto promise. But it was decisively slapped down by government loyalists.

The US government argues that these matters should be left to consumers. We should each be allowed to decide whether we buy cheap vegetables containing residues of pesticides that are banned here. But I suspect that, rather than having to read and interpret the labels on everything we buy from shops, takeaways and restaurants, most of us would prefer to know that all the food on sale is safe to eat. Anyway, just in case we did try to exercise such choice, the US also insists that all useful labelling be banned.Perversely, it has argued that warning labels are “harmful” to public health.

This doesn’t end with food. In the same section of their manifesto, the Conservatives promised that “in our trade talks … the NHS is not on the table. The price the NHS pays for drugs is not on the table. The services the NHS provides are not on the table.” The leaked dossier of trade documents released by the Labour Party last year revealed that the US is seeking “full market access” to the NHS. If the promised food and farming standards were a lie, how long will it be before we discover that the NHS pledge was also worthless?

I suspect this has been the agenda all along. The neoliberal extremists who populate the front benches have long sought to rip down our public protections, rip down our public services, rip down everything that stands in the way of the most vicious form of capitalism. A trade deal with the US allows them to do so while disclaiming responsibility for the consequences. Once they have signed it, they can claim that, sadly, their hands are tied. Unfortunately, the rules don’t allow us to maintain food standards, and force us to open the NHS to competition. Perhaps mistakes were made during the negotiations, but it’s a done deal now, enforced by legal instruments. There’s nothing we can do.  They know they could never obtain public consent for these policies. A US trade deal would impose them without consent.

Even parliamentary consent is unnecessary. The Trade Bill, in its current form, makes no provision for parliamentary scrutiny of any deal. Parliament has no legal right under this bill to debate or vote on a trade deal, or even to know what it contains. The bill also grants the government Henry VIII powers to change the law on trade agreements without parliamentary approval. The governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are granted no formal role in negotiating or approving trade treaties. In other words, nothing is being left to chance. This is not democracy. This is elective dictatorship.

To make matters worse, the US is likely to insist that the deal is enforced by an offshore tribunal, which allows corporations to sue governments if domestic law affects their “future anticipated profits”. This mechanism has been used all over the world to punish nations for laws their parliaments have passed. It ensures that, over time, legislation everywhere has to be tailored to the demands of corporate power. Far from taking back control, a trade deal on these lines with the US involves a massive renunciation of sovereign power.

The government knows that accepting such a deal means no deal with the EU. US food rules are incompatible with EU standards. In the leaked documents, US officials remark that “there would be all to play for in a No Deal situation”. I suspect our government sees it the same way. The pigheaded obstructionism of the UK in the current EU talks is at stark odds with its willingness to prostrate itself before US power. Dominic Cummings says he intends to stay in his post for the next six months. In other words, he will stay for long enough to ensure that the transition period is not extended, making a no deal Brexit more likely.

Just as Trump seeks to erase Obama’s legacy, Johnson and Cummings seek to erase Clement Attlee’s much deeper legacy. It’s not about sovereignty. It’s not about taking back control. It’s not about British values or British autonomy. It’s about locking deregulation and the demolition of public services in place, by means that cannot be challenged by either people or Parliament. The combination of a no deal Brexit and a coercive US trade agreement will allow the government to rip down a wide range of rules and protections, creating a paradise for the disaster capitalists funding the party, and hell for the rest of us.  

They intend to pursue this agenda regardless of the pandemic, regardless of a petition that has already gained 800,000 signatures, regardless of the economic and political harm it might do. This is their game, and we must use every democratic means to stop it.

Categories: Blogtastic

Rings of Power

Fri, 06/05/2020 - 14:55

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is not so much a democratic leader as a monarch with a five-year term.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 3rd June 2020

Do we live in a democracy? You may well ask. An unelected adviser seems to exercise more power than the Prime Minister, and appears unanswerable to people or Parliament. The Prime Minister makes reckless public health decisions that could put thousands of lives at risk, apparently to dig himself out of a political hole. Parliament is truncated, as the government arbitrarily decides that MPs can no longer join remotely. As the government blunders from one disaster to the next, there seem to be no effective ways of holding it to account.

Established power in this country is surrounded by a series of defensive rings. As soon as you begin to name them, you see that the UK is a democracy only in the weakest and shallowest sense.

Let’s begin with political funding. Our system permits billionaires and corporations to outspend and outmuscle the electorate. The great majority of money for the Conservative party comes from a small number of very rich people. Just five hedge fund managers have given it £18 million over the past 10 years. The secretive Leader’s Group grants big donors special access to the Prime Minister and his frontbenchers in return for their money. Courting and cultivating rich people to win elections corrupts our politics, replacing democracy with plutocracy.

This grossly unfair system is supplemented by outright cheating, such as breaching spending limits and secretly funding mendacious online ads. The Electoral Commission, which is supposed to regulate the system, has deliberately been kept powerless. The maximum fine for winning an election (or a referendum) by fraud is £20,000 per offence. Democracy is cheap in this country.

Despite such assistance, the Conservatives still failed to win a majority of votes at the last election. But, thanks to our preposterous, outdated first-past-the-post electoral system, the 43.6% of the vote they won granted them a crushing majority. With proportional representation, we would have a hung parliament. Five years of unassailable power for Johnson’s Conservatives, even as popular support collapses, would have been impossible.

The structure and symbolism of Parliament, with its preposterous rituals and incomprehensible procedures, could scarcely be better designed to alienate people, or to favour former public schoolboys, educated in a similar environment. Even its official emblem tells us we are shut out. It’s a portcullis: the means by which people are excluded from the fortress of power. The portcullis is topped by a crown, reminding us that power is still vested symbolically in an unelected head of state. Many of her actual powers have been assumed, in the absence of a codified constitution, by the Prime Minister.

These powers are routinely abused, by all governments. Prime ministers bypass Parliament, governing through special advisers like Dominic Cummings. When they make catastrophic mistakes, they have the power to decide whether or not there should be a public inquiry, and, if there should, what its terms and who its chair should be. It’s as if a defendant in a criminal trial were allowed to decide whether the trial goes ahead and, if so, what the charges should be, and to appoint the judge and jury.

Even when an investigation does take place, the Prime Minister can suppress its conclusions, as Boris Johnson has done with the Russia report by Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, that remains unpublished. Does it contain details of unlawful donations to the Conservative party? Or about Conservative Friends of Russia? This group is closely associated with a man who has subsequently come under suspicion of being a Russian spy. He has been photographed with Boris Johnson, whom he described as a “good friend”. What was going on? Without the report, we can only guess.

The same inordinate powers enabled Johnson to suspend Parliament last autumn, until his decision was struck down by the Supreme Court, and to terminate remote access for MPs this week, preventing many of them from representing us. He is, in effect, a monarch with a five-year term and a council of advisers we call Parliament.

The House of Lords is a further defensive ring within this ring. Some of its seats are reserved for hereditary aristocrats. Some are reserved for bishops, making this the world’s only country, other than Iran, in which religious leaders have an automatic right to sit. The rest are grace and favour appointments, keeping power within existing circles. Many of them are granted to major political donors, reinforcing the power of money. In any other country, they would call it corruption.

Despite a vast array of new democratic techniques, pioneered in other countries, there has been a total failure to balance our supposedly representative system with participatory democracy. This failure grants the winning party a scarcely-challenged power, on the grounds of presumed consent, to do as it pleases, for five years at a time. Even when public trust and consent collapse, as they have now done, there are no effective channels through which we can affect the decisions government makes.

These formal rings of power are supported by further defences beyond government, such as the print media, most of which is owned by billionaires or multi-millionaires living offshore, and the network of opaquely-funded thinktanks, that formulate and test the policies later adopted by government. Their personnel circulate in and out of the Prime Minister’s office.

Our political system has the outward appearance of democracy, but it is largely controlled by undemocratic forces. We find ourselves on the wrong side of the portcullis, watching helplessly as crucial decisions are taken about us, without us. If there’s one thing the coronavirus fiascos show, it’s the need for radical change.

Categories: Blogtastic
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