The withdraw in August of US and allied troops from Afghanistan saw the return of the Taliban in control of that country. This sadly was always going to be the outcome once the US and its allies withdrew. I opposed the intervention in 2001 and have done so ever since precisely for this reason.
It brings me no pleasure at all that 19 year old me, dragged out of a New Zealand Labour Party Conference for yelling at then Prime Minister Helen Clark, still only a few months out of secondary school, with long flowing hair and an enormous amount of frustration and anger at the world was so completely right. That thousands died in a conflict that ultimately achieved very little is tragic, made so much worse than it was so obvious from the start that this was indeed the only likely outcome of sending troops into Afghanistan. There were many like me who opposed this war, yet we were not able to stop it from happening in 2001 or for the following two decades that it continued.
US President Jo Biden has taken a hit to his approval rating since the withdrawal of US troops especially with the reporting of so many Afghani’s opposed to the Taliban unable to leave the country and the hectic scenes at the airport after the Taliban took control of the country. This is not a post trying to defend Jo Biden or his presidency, but if anyone actually believes that a) there was a way to withdraw from Afghanistan without the Taliban taking control and b) that a more orderly and humanitarian withdrawal of troops whereby any Afghani who wanted to leave could, then you were very sadly mistaken. It was in fact Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump who negotiated with the Taliban and began the process of withdrawing from the country. As I outlined in my 2018 blog on the former US President, the man may be many undesirable things, but he is no fool. Trump, and indeed his military advisors will have worked out that the incompetent and corrupt regime running Afghanistan would not last long once the US left the country and that any withdrawal would result in the Taliban making gains. Further, he no doubt also knew that when the withdrawal finally happened it would be a PR disaster, thus leaving it until his second term or for his successor to face the fallout.
The problem with Afghanistan was from the start, the purpose of going there was flawed. When President George Bush Jr declared his War on Terror after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, the stated purpose was to find and capture Osama Bin Laden. It was on this premise that US troops were sent into Afghanistan in October 2001, based on intelligence that Bin Laden was running his terror network Al-Qaeda from that country. A decade later in 2011, during Barack Obama’s first term in office, that Bin Laden was captured and killed in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. It is not clear whether Bin Laden was still in Afghanistan at the time of the World Trade Centre attacks, but it seems for much of the decade after this until his capture, that he was living in Pakistan. Unlike Afghanistan, Pakistan is a state with nuclear weapons and where there is an extremely fragile peace with India and an ongoing border dispute in the Kashmir region. A potential conflict with Pakistan was not something the US were up for in 2001. Sending US troops into Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban after they refused to give up Bin Laden was a way of showing the World US military strength after the 11 September terror attacks. Despite the fact that the US had earlier supported the Mujahideen when opposing the Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s, in 2001 they were quite happy to show that they had overthrown a regime that denied women education, destroyed world heritage sites and was brutal and repressive to their population. However, like the Iraq war in 2003, the short term victory of toppling a regime is the easy bit, whereas trying to establish a new government and order as outside foreign power is much much harder. And Frankly, the US history of invading other nations and successfully creating functioning democracies is pretty poor.
In 2011 a friend of mine from university was visiting Wellington having lived overseas for a few years. She at that time was working in a humanitarian role in Afghanistan and had seen a fair bit of the country. I recall asking her what she thought would happen when the west withdrew from Afghanistan to which she quickly replied “it’s fucked.”
This view of my friend was widely held by people who’d been or knew anything about Afghanistan. It is therefore not surprising that Barak Obama, who in his first term had to oversee the withdrawal from Iraq, only to later have to face the rise of ISIS, was not surprisingly reluctant also withdraw from Afghanistan. At the time Obama’s Vice President Jo Biden supported withdrawing troops, having himself supported the invasion a decade earlier as a senator.
There are many who still try to defend the last twenty years of intervention in Afghanistan. Former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark, the same Prime Minister whose conference speech I interrupted in 2001 continues to defend the decision to go into Afghanistan claiming the western intervention in the country needed to be a “long term project”, akin to the commitment to the United States made after the Korean War, deploying 50,000 soldiers in the country for decades. Clark after serving as New Zealand Prime Minister went on to become the head of the United Nations Development Programme, described the present situation as “surreal and devastating.” The Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also opposed Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan claiming it was “tragic, dangerous and unnecessary” and believed the US and its allies had an obligation to fight the Taliban. In both cases, the view seems to be that there needs to be a permanent military presence in the country to stop the Taliban. The question is, if that is the correct thing to do in Afghanistan, then it must also be the right thing to do in any nation where there is no democracy, women’s rights aren’t upheld and where there are brutal regimes in charge. By this logic, a great many other places would also require military presence, including nations currently considered allies to the US.
Those in power in 2001 no doubt wish to protect their legacy, rather than to reflect on the fact that the decision to go into Afghanistan was poorly thought through and was always going to end in failure. This sort of justification of military intervention has however has been the dominant thinking since the end of the Second World War, that the US and its allies have a right to intervene and interfere in other countries they do not know and attempt to change cultures they do not really understand. That doing this, in no small way contributed to the tragic events on 11 September 2001, only to do the same foolish thing again costing more lives and creating far greater instability is indeed “surreal and devastating.”
What has happened in Afghanistan has been “tragic, dangerous and unnecessary,” yet the unnecessary decision was not to withdraw but the earlier one to intervene in the first place.
All national identities are a construct that evolves and change over time. That the identity of Britain has evolved is in no way unique to this country. The concept of the national state or borders is a relatively recent concept in human history. Britain, as we know it today, is just over 300 years old with the 1707 Acts of Union where the Scottish and English Parliaments agreed to a merger. Ireland formally joined in 1801, through English conquest and rule over the much the Island of Ireland dated back to the Norman Invasion of 1169, then in 1922 much of Ireland became independent leaving just the six counties in the north. The Welsh have a much longer association with England, having been part of the Roman occupation and became part of the Kingdom of England under Henry VIII in the 16th century.
Of course, the national identities of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales are also constructs. The Kingdom of England was formed on 12 July 927AD emerging from various Anglo Saxon Kingdoms. The Kingdom of Scotland is slightly older being founded in 843AD, though the clan system dominated Scotland until the battle of Culloden in 1746. Wales was slightly later to form in 1056 having previously been divided into various kingdoms. Ireland, after 800 years of English/British dominance gained independence in all but six counties in 1922 and became a republic in 1949.
It is little surprise then given this history that questions over Scottish Independence and a United Ireland continue to simmer. But regardless, the United Kingdom or Britain has during its three centuries constructed a strong national identity. One of an empire that for a time dominated half the planet and “ruled the waves.” French revolutionary Bertrand Barère de Vieuzac claimed the British were a “nation of shop keepers” a quote commonly attributed to Napolean who famously used it as an insult while at war, in fact, has been taken as a point of pride by many Brits who see themselves as traders and entrepreneurs.
Like many nations, Britain defines itself by its conflict with other nations and powers. Modern British identity is cloaked in the language of the Blitz and constant references to Churchill and the Second World War are made. As one English friend commented to me recently “to hear them speak you’d think everyone in Britain over the age of 60 was actually at Normandy for the D-Day landings.” The British identity is that of the great power who in her ‘darkest hour’ stood up to fascism and ‘never surrendered.’ Like all narratives, this national identity based on Britians glorious role in the Second World War is subject to historiography and interpretation of evidence. For example, whilst the British sacrifice and effort during the war was formidable, had it not been for the Nazi’s decision to attack the Soviet Union and that nation’s ferocious defence the outcome of the war may have been very different (a historical fact many wished to downplay during the Cold War and after). Nor is much made of fact that fascism had many supporters in 1930s Britain, including by many at the top of British society. But one cannot dispute the war effort of the British and allies was pivotal in defeating Nazi Germany in the 1940s. Moreover, doing so came at enormous cost to Britain which faced years of rationing and rebuilding after the war.
As I pointed out in an earlier post, The COVID-19 pandemic has been the greatest challenge Britain faced since the Second World War. Very quickly the narrative has been one of war with a virus where stoicism is expected, and NHS medical staff have been clapped as ‘frontline heroes’ in this conflict with a virus. In this context, it is little surprise that Captain Tom a Second World War Army Officer rose to national prominence during the pandemic starting walking laps of his garden to raise money for the NHS Charities Together. Likewise, when Queen Elizabeth the second made a rare public address outside of her yearly speech at Christmas she talked of how she and her sister Margaret, like many other children during the Second World War were evacuated from London and at this time she and her sister recorded a message to provide comfort to children separated from their parents. She followed this by saying “once again, many of us will feel the painful sense of separation from loved ones, but now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do.” This emotive appeal to the spirit of wartime Britain from a member of The Greatest Generation and Britains longest-serving monarch was quite deliberate and important for establishing Britain at war narrative against the virus.
Current British Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, is a great admirer of Churchill and in what John Kampfner of The Observer described as a “not so subtle attempt to draw a parallel between Johnson and Churchill,” Johnson authored The Churchill Factor where he says of Churchill “he alone saved our civilisation.” This inflated sense of national pride along with the ‘great man of history’ outlook gives us a great insight into the current British PM’s worldview. Churchill’s role in the Bengalis massacre or the botched Gallipoli landing is of course played down, as to be fair they are in most historical accounts of his life. With regards to Johnson’s own leadership to date, his government’s apparent support of herd immunity as the response to COVID-19 in early 2020 had much more in common with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy in the 1930s than the Battle of Britain.
The Johnson view of Churchill and Britains place in history is not universally shared by all who live in Britain. Increasingly many are becoming aware that British imperialism, in particular the slave trade that Britain participated in for many years. When the Black live matter movement erupted in 2020 in response to the murder of George Floyd by Police in the US, this prompted protesters to pull down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the English city of Bristol and throw it into the harbour. This divided people as many thought this was petty vandalism or an attempt to censor history. Others however could see the link between the slave trade of Britain’s past and how this has contributed to discrimination and injustice against black people in the US and the UK today. To celebrate Colston’s Philanthropic works in Bristol without acknowledging that he gained his wealth through slavery causing misery to so many is wrong.
The Bristol statue toppling was followed by protests outside parliament. Soon security were having to cover up the statue of Winston Churchill in parliament square for fear that his statue may be thrown into the Thames. These debates absolutely polarised public opinion as for many Churchill is the man who “saved civilisation” without whom we’d “all be speaking German”. Voted the “greatest Briton” in a 2002 BBC poll, for many his legacy is above question. To others, he represents a British establishment that profited from the empire at the expense of its colonies. For example, Churchill was on the wrong side of history during the Irish civil war for independence after the 1916 uprising, motivated by holding together the empire above all else.
Coming from New Zealand, one feels connected with this history, yet also like an outsider. In New Zealand, the narrative that has developed since the disaster at Gallipoli is that of the brave young men, ANZAC’s, from Australia and New Zealand who were sent to their death due to incompetent decisions by stuffy British generals. New Zealand history, since colonial times, is heavily connected to Britain and this continues to dominate this countries narrative about who it is in the world to this day. When New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage declared war on Germany in 1939, technically a few hours before Britain due to time zone differences, he famously said of Britain “where she goes, we go.” It is slightly jarring these days to hear New Zealand’s celebrated first Labour Prime Minister being so deferential and subservient to Britain. By contrast, New Zealand current Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made political mileage by juxtaposing her government’s response to COVID-19 compared with that of Britain. In response to a journalist question, Jacinda said she was “not willing to risk a UK style ‘live with COVID’ policy.” In this way Jacinda connects with the ANZAC narrative of common sense kiwi’s (and Aussies sometimes) doing things better than those stuffy old Brits, which many white New Zealanders are descendants from.
Back in the UK, recent divisions over Brexit have challenged national unity. One bizarre event earlier this year to try and combat this was the song put out by the ‘One Britain, one nation’ campaign. Then Education Secretary Gavin Williams, who since has been sacked due to his poor performance in the role, tried to get every student in the UK to sing this song at school on 25 June. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the media she thought it was a spoof, also that it showed the ignorance of politicians in Westminster as the 25th of the day Scottish students started their summer holidays.
The current push to unify and create a modern “British” identity is actually about “English” nationalism. Very little in the ‘One Nation’ rhetoric British politicians espouse, is about Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. Of the 66 million people who live in Britain, 55 million live in England. If you want to win a majority in the House of Commons, you need to win English voters primarily. At a time when nationalism dominates the world of politics, it is increasingly clear that what is cloaked as “British” is increasingly about the dominant nation in the United Kingdom. This English dominance is nothing new, however, in post Brexit Britain counter-narratives by nationalist groups in the other nations of the UK have gained far greater potency. During the 2019 general election, I commented on the increased support for Scottish independence since Brexit. I will explore this topic further in another post, but it is clear that the conflict over Scottish independence will continue to hover like a dark cloud over the British establishment.
The COVID-19 pandemic since March 2020 has changed peoples lives considerably. Whilst some hoped that facing a crisis on this scale may ease divisions caused by Brexit. This is clearly not the case. For those supportive of Brexit, the fact that the UK were quicker to roll out the vaccine than EU nations was seen as proof that leaving was the right thing to do, ignoring the fact that UK COVID-19 infections rates were considerably higher than most European nations at the start of 2021. Vaccine nationalism ignores the fact that the virus does not respect international borders and any long-term effective response must be a global one. This is a sentiment that was shared by former UK Prime Minister Theresa May who complained that the virus has been “treated as a national issue for countries to deal with alone” and that “the global impact of Covid-19, and our inability to forge a coherent international response to it, have raised new questions about the effectiveness of a system of cooperation through shared institutions.” May’s more outward-looking internationalist view of course represents a different strand of the British establishment and indeed of the British Conservative Party to that of the current Prime Minister and his ministers who use more inward-looking nationalism as a way of achieving short term electoral success. The long term consequences of this tension for the future of the British state will be fascinating to watch.
The British identity is one many still hold onto as a key part of who they are and their overall worldview. Increasingly though this identity is being challenged and interrogated by those who do not feel part of this dominant narrative and those who believe it would be better if the United Kingdon broke up. It is important to remember that all national identities are a construct built on a selective interpretation of historical events. National identities can and do change over time and it is clear that the identity of Brexit Britain is still being challenged and contested far more than it was even a decade ago.
But whatever the future holds for Britain, that narrative of Britain at War is likely to hold fast regardless of whether the union stays together or not. The “spirit of the Blitz” is etched deep into the psyche of the populace and will reliably cause an outpouring of national pride when mentioned. Increasingly though, many do now question this history and counter this narrative. Certainly, for Winston Churchill, his earlier canonisation as the patron saint of all things good in British politics, is now in doubt. And as the country tries to recover from Brexit division and COVID-19, constant references to Britain and WW2 may have diminishing returns for Boris Johnson and his allies in Government.
In a nation that has suffered over 100,000 COVID-19 deaths, one maybe somewhat taken aback to see the latest YouGov Poll where The Conservative Party enjoy a 15% lead over the Labour Opposition. 17 months after the Conservatives won the 2019 General Election, it would be easy to conclude that the Government are still enjoying the support they gained during this campaign. The last year and a half have been anything but normal with a pandemic creating the greatest social and economic crisis in decades. As we are still living through this crisis, it is too soon to really understand what the long-term consequences of it will be. However, the recent elections in the UK do highlight some important trends and issues.
The downside to Party Political council elections is that the media interest is primarily what the impact of local council elections on national politics. This has included projections for how many seats each party would get in the House of Commons based on these results, despite the fact that not all councils were up for re-election. More importantly, while some will be voting on party lines, many others are likely to vote on local issues. Someones vote in council elections may not reflect how they would vote in a general election.
English Council Elections – 5 May 2018
It remains true that too much emphasis is made of how local election results may translate to voting intentions in a general election. Many people when they vote, are doing so based on the performance, or lack thereof, of their local councillors or mayors. However, many do use these elections as a chance to send a message based on the performance of party leaders nationally. And in 2021, the gains made by the Conservative Party, in particular Labour losing their majority on councils like Durham were part of a national trend.
Of course there were not just council elections being held on Thursday 6 May, but also the Scottish and Welsh assembly elections and the Hartlepool by-election.
Hartlepool saw the Conservatives win in a constituency Labour had held for 57 years. The official response from Starmer’s leadership team was that Labour were still suffering from the result in 2019 where the Party had lost its ‘Red Wall’ seats and implied that the fault lay with the previous leader Jeremy Corbyn. Labour held Hartlepool in both the 2017 and 2019 general elections, and in 2017 Labour’s majority actually increased. Two major factors at play in Hartlepool were a) voter turnout falling to 42% whereas in 2019 turnout was 57.9% and b) in 2019 the combined Conservative Party and Brexit Party votes were ahead of Labour meaning in 2021 much of that Brexit Party vote went Conservative.
Another problem for Labour, and one which highlights the current poor decisions being made by Labour’s current leadership was the decision to select former Stockton South MP Paul Williams, from a shortlist of one, as their candidate. Williams, a vocal Remainer, was an odd choice for a constituency where support for Brexit was high. Williams was also forced to apologise early on in the campaign for an inappropriate tweet sent a few years earlier. When running for Labour Leader Kier Starmer tweeted that Labour needed to be “more democratic” in the way it selected candidates and should end “impositions” from the national leadership. Yet Paul Williams was ‘imposed’ and voters responded accordingly.
The current success of the Conservative Party is certainly in part due to the vaccine roll out. Unlike the expensive Track and Trace system that did not deliver, the NHS have rolled out a successful COVID-19 vaccination programme which has significantly reduced transmission and hospitalisation of this virus. Added to this has been the British media gleefully highlighting the problems the EU have had rolling out the vaccine, confirming to those who voted Brexit in 2016 and/or the Tories in 2019 that getting out of the EU was the right thing to do. Despite the pandemic, the Government made a point of delivering the promise to “get Brexit done.” Whilst this has not helped political stability in Northern Ireland, it keeps a promise made in 2019 which plays well with a strong section of English voters.
The re-election of the Scottish Nationalist Party, despite the recent controversy over Alex Salmond, will have disappointed those opposed to Scottish Independence. Any thoughts that Scottish Labour’s new leader Anas Sarwar would improve the fortunes for the party that once dominated in Scotland were dashed with the party coming third and only holding marginal seats like Dumbarton due to tactical voting by Tory and Lib Dem voters to stop an independence candidate winning. The media, particularly in England, and the Westminster establishment make much of the claim that having failed to win an outright majority there is no mandate for another independence referendum. This says more about the ignorance of the political and media establishment within the London bubble than about Scottish nationalism. The proportional voting system Scotland uses makes a party getting an outright majority highly unlikely. That the SNP were one seat shy of this is impressive. Further, the Scottish Greens also ran on a pro independence platform meaning there is a pro independence majority in the Scottish Parliament. Independence is still far from certain in Scotland, but as I wrote after the 2019 general election the calls for independence have and will continue to get louder.
The results were not all bad for the opposition Labour Party on 6 May. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham was elected with 67.3% of the vote to the Tories 19.6%. Andy ran on a progressive platform of improving buses and public transport in the city. He also has been given the nickname ‘King of the North’ after standing up to the Government in late 2020 calling for greater support for the region during the lockdown. In Wales, Labour was re-elected with their leader Mark Drakeford claiming the Welsh Governments response to COVID-19 helped them stay in power. In London Labour retained control of the Greater London Authority and Mayor Sadiq Khan was reelected. Khan’s majority was small than his 2016 result, with many voters dissatisfied with his handling of transport issues in the city.
The picture these results paint is one where the Conservatives won largely as it was their voters who had greater motivation to vote. Those satisfied with, or at least more forgiving of the Governments response to COVID-19, were more likely to go to the ballot box and vote Tory. The polling data shows the combined support of opposition parties to be greater than the Tories, but under a First Past the Post electoral system this helps the Tories. The current poll shows the Green Party, who currently has one MP in the House of Commons, enjoying 8% support. An increase in the Green vote to this sort of number will likely split the progressive vote in marginal constituencies and help the Tories. By contrast, the Conservatives no longer face serious competition on the right having mopped up the Brexit Party/UKIP support. Further, despite performing fairly poorly in Scotland and Wales, the Conservatives remain the dominant Party in England where the vast majority of UK voters live. As an English nationalist party, the Tories are able to motivate enough people in England to keep voting for them and keep them in power.
The COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity for oppositions parties, in particular the Labour Party, to have made gains. Although a small-c conservative country, the governments handling of the crisis has upset many. Yet a combination of voter disengagement, and competition with the Greens and Lib Dems, has meant Labour continues to perform poorly, except in areas of the country where the party has local leaders who are prepared to step up. My next blog post will turn once again to the UK Labour Party to understand why 18 months after the 2019 election defeat the party is slipping backwards in terms of support nationally.
People overseas often have preconceived ideas about British society. On moving to the UK I was told that in Britain people will try and place you based on your accent, the school you went to and your job. This does happen, especially in the south, as a way of identifying someone in terms of their class or status or even just to understand where one fits. However, there is one question, one identifier, which I believe takes precedence over all others, that is of course which football team do you support.
Being obsessed with sports is hardly something unique to the Brits, in fact, most nations have a few sports they avidly follow or excel at. But the British love affair with football goes well beyond a passion for this sport. The football team one supports is core to one’s identity and it says where you are from or what your family heritage is. It is the glue that binds communities across the land and as a nation brings people together. It is a critical part of peoples lives and the communities they live in.
This second post in my blog series on what COVID-19 has taught us about British society was not initially going to start with a post about football. Yet this weeks news and the response to it illustrates how much football matters in this country and why to understand British culture and predisposition then football is the obvious place to start.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020 former Conservative Cabinet Minister Michael Portillo was interviewed on Radio Four as part of a panel discussion, in which he argued that British society would not tolerate football matches being cancelled in response to the pandemic. On 13 March the Premier league was halted and did not resume for three months. There were fears that this would be the first British Football season not to be completed since the Second World War. In June the season did resume and Liverpool FC were able to win the league.
During the second and third lockdowns, Football continued to be played throughout Britain, though the teams played in empty stadiums where only a small few spectators were allowed in to watch the games live. Also as part of restrictions on pubs reopening, live screenings of matches were not allowed. Yet despite these restrictions and difficulties, football carried on from professional Premier League sides right through to local clubs. Continuing football has been an absolute lifeline for many during this very difficult year. My local pub has a Fantasy Football league which has run for a few years now. Being able to stay connected, analyse games, give cheeky banter to those who support Arsenal and generally share something as a community in these times has been so important.
The proposal to establish this European Super League is elitism and self-selection at its worst. Britain may not be known for being the most egalitarian of societies, but the magic of football is that even the crappiest low budget team still has a chance. When Leicester won the Premier League in 2016 their fans were absolutely elated and anyone who put money on them at the bookies suddenly was very rich. This was the true rags to riches small-town side taking on the big boys and winning story that people love. It is this that every fan of a struggling side wishes will happen to their team one day. This proposed league takes this magic away. It self selects historically strong and more importantly wealthy teams and creates their own league. Twelve European teams, including six Premier League sides, have signed up to this. Fans of these teams have spoken out against their clubs wanting to join this League, fearing that already expensive tickets to see matches will become completely unaffordable. Further that these few clubs, having made money through this league, will own all the best players and make it even harder for smaller clubs to compete.
The loss of spectators during the COVID-19 pandemic has hit many clubs hard financially. In terms of community clubs encouraging kids to get into football, a recent report claimed that 10% of grassroots clubs did not think they will survive the next 12 months due to lack of membership dues. Outside the Premier League, many local clubs have struggled to maintain their grounds or buy decent players for many years and the pandemic has only made this worse. Rich and poor clubs is nothing new and there is a reason that certain football teams have been more successful than others. In recent years this gap has widened.
Top tier football is big business and it involves big money. Manchester United Midfielder Marcus Rashford had a transfer value of £150 million in January 2021, for many clubs even if they sold their stadiums and all other assets could not afford this player. At the same time many of these big clubs show nothing but contempt for their loyal fans, charging them obscene amounts of money for tickets. Fans will get themselves thousands of pounds in debt to watch their team play both home and away games. Such is the loyalty of many football fans, they literally will spend all their savings to support their team whose players often are reluctant to sign shirts for their loyal follower after games.
Football culture in Britain is not always pretty. In 1985 English football clubs were banned from playing in Europe for five years after hooligans caused the deaths of 32 Juventus fans in Italy due to drunken and violent behaviour. More recently players have been subject to racist chants or abuse from fans from opposing teams, prompting the Show Racism the Red Card to be formed. One should not romanticise British football culture. Football holds a mirror to this society showing both the best and worst of British culture and social attitudes.
There are few things that stir the passion of Brits like football. And it seems in a country so deeply divided in recent years and having in the last 12 month gone through so much, this European Super League proposal has united people in a way that few other things can.
People living overseas who hear of this cannot make sense of what has happened in the UK. Likewise, those opposed to the current Government in the UK have taken to despairingly remark – what does this say about our country now?
In my next blog I will address the immediate issue of UK polling, which in part is due to the COVID-19 vaccine roll out, but also includes other factors which help explain current polling numbers at this time.
But beyond parliamentary politics, I believe the question of what the pandemic says about British society should be explored more broadly. The last 12 months have seen this country tested and challenged to an extent not seen since the Second World War. It is far too early to assess what the long term social and economic impacts of this crisis will be on either the UK or the world, but one year on from when the first lockdown began, we can start to assess the the impact this has had on society. Also, to assess the responses, both good and bad from the Government and the population as a whole.
There are many aspects to this, but at first we must understand what Britain as a nation is or at least what it is perceived to be. This is now highly contested ground and the term British means very different things to different people. The recent census for example asked people whether they identified as British or English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or other. For some all people within the United Kingdom are British and are all are part of one country, whereas others see themselves as distinctly Welsh, Scottish or Irish or English. Underlying this are debates about maintaining “the union” and increasing calls for independence in Scotland, Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent Wales. All of this heavily impacts on the response to the coronavirus pandemic as devolved Governments has often responded differently to the crisis and in Scotland this has been used as a political tool to campaign for independence.
The next few posts will explore this issue of Britain and its response to the pandemic, starting with the political response and repercussions.
I think on this day I should just really repeat that I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and of course as I was prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done. We did everything we could to minimise suffering and minimise the loss of life and will continue to do so.
Boris Johnson addressing the nation Tuesday 26 January 2021
Back in May 2020, I wrote a blog which listed the many failings of the UK Governments handling of the crisis. The Prime Minister and his colleagues ignored scientific advise and allowed the virus to take hold throughout the population in February and March 2020. The Prime Minister, in particular, took pride in the fact that he planned to keep the country open even when most other European nations were going into lockdown. It was only when NHS hospitals were near breaking point that Britain followed other nations and implemented similar restrictions.
Probably the greatest failing by the Conservative Government in the fight against COVID-19 was not its response to the crisis but the decade of underinvestment in the country’s public health system. Sir Michael Marmot from the UK Institute of Health Equity published a damning report in December 2020 which highlighted that during the last decade of Conservative Government:
people can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health
improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and declined for the poorest 10% of women
the health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas
place matters – living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less.
The report also made clear that the above trends, in particular the health gap between wealthy and deprived areas, corresponds with data during the COVID-19 pandemic which found those from poorer parts of the UK were hit harder by the virus.
In May 2020 I posted a blog about the state of UK Social Care where for decades successive governments have failed to resolve the funding crisis, or indeed to build proper links between the health and social care systems. In October 2020 Amnesty International published its report As if Expendable which outlined how many older people were kicked out of hospitals and placed back into residential care homes, without first even being tested for COVID-19. This shameful action, along with not supplying social care providers adequate supplies of PEE was responsible for many thousands of deaths. The Amnesty report highlights that the UK Governments treatment of people in the social care system during this time breached both domestic and international law:
The UK is a state party to international and regional human rights treaties which require it to protect and guarantee fundamental human rights relevant to the concerns addressed in this report, including notably, the right to life, the right to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to non-discrimination – including on the grounds of age, disability or health status – the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.
As if Expendable, Amnesty International report 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has yet to atone for what happened during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the social care sector. Whilst this was not just the fault of his government’s failure, his statement on Tuesday shows he still accepts no-fault and claims they did all they could to ‘minimise suffering’ and ‘loss of life’, a claim the Amnesty International report demonstrates is false.
On the issue of face masks, the UK Government lagged behind most many other nations, initially implying that these were not effective, only later to make them mandatory on public transport. The justification for this U-Turn is that by mid-2020 there was more scientific data, which is fine except many other nations applied this scientific advice much earlier. A Centres for Disease Control and Prevention paper published 2004 found that during the 2003 SARS outbreak that wearing a face mask frequently in public places, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting one’s living quarter were effective public health measures to reduce the risk for transmission. Nationalist Britain knows best self-confidence could well have been a factor in the UK Governments refusal to learn from international experience.
The failure to develop a functional track and trace system has led to one of the greatest policy failures that have contributed to England being in its third COVID-19 lockdown. Very few people would disagree that having schools closed and students having to learn remotely is negatively impacting on students. And most people can understand how difficult it is for any government to balance public health against long term educational outcomes. But when the Conservative-leaning paper The Telegraph runs the headline The biggest mystery in politics: why is Gavin Williamson still in a job? you know that the Education Secretary has performed poorly. The recent example where after Christmas schools reopened for one day in January before closing again due to high infection rates, despite the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warning the UK Government on 22 December 2020 that with the new strain of COVID-19 leaving schools open was contributing to the rising infection rate. A poll conducted earlier this month found that 92% of teachers believe Gavin Williamson should resign as Education Secretary, which is hardly given surprising his abysmal performance in recent months.
Yet the blame for schools does not sit fully with the Government. Her Majesty’s loyal opposition can also take much of the blame for this fiasco. In April 2020, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus pandemic in the UK, newly elected Labour Party Opposition Leader Kier Starmer called on the Government to set out plans to end the lockdown. Starmer, former head of the Crown Prosecution Service and a QC would argue that he meant that there should be a plan which included contact tracing, social distancing guidelines and other measures to make it safe to reopen. But the optics of the call was pressuring the UK Government to lift restrictions and specifically calling on them to reopen schools. Unlike in a court of law, in politics, it is about the key message, not the detail buried on page 7 of the affidavit.
The Oppositions position on schools has been nearly as confusing and contradictory as the Governments. The Party, still recovering from its 2019 election loss (which I wrote several blogs about in early 2020), under a new leader was trying to rebrand, reposition and appeal to voters it had lost. This has not been helped by the internal factionalism (which I also blogged about in May 2020) and the party still not being clear where it sits politically and ideologically. In April 2020 shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey’s position was that schools should reopen when safe, a position that was consistent with the education unions. Shortly after this Long-Bailey was replaced as Education Secretary by Kate Green, who has been clear that she wishes to distance Labour from the education unions in an attempt to present the party as more ‘moderate’.
Green and Starmer’s position throughout this has been motivated by a policy of triangulation and policy by focus group whereby they are appealing to middle-class parents who want their kids back at school. Like the Tories, Labour’s position has been motivated by politics, not science. That former Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for schools to close earlier this month before the opposition is telling. Meanwhile the leader of the opposition was being grilled by media for his confusing position. Many believe that Green was appointed due to her loyalty to Starmer just as Williamson has kept his role due to loyalty to Boris Johnson. One would be more concerned if either appointment were based on ability as this would say a great deal about the capability of the other 648 MPs in the Commons if these two are the best and brightest on offer for education.
The issue of schools reopening is a personal one for me. In my blog earlier this month, I told of how my partner who works as a secondary school teacher in London caught COVID-19 and how we both spend Christmas and New Year recovering from the illness. When Greenwich Council tried to close schools in the borough due to skyrocketing infection rates, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threatened legal action to keep the schools open. By this time, most schools in the area had a significant percentage of students sick, or in isolation having been in contact with someone infected. In many schools, pupils were sent home due to the number of teachers off sick with COVID-19. To argue that continuing with this situation is any better for secondary school students is nonsense.
Much of the concern over school closures is the impact on students’ grades. When the Government announced GCSE and A-level exams would be cancelled once again in 2021 this added to the anxiety. One of the issues here has been this Government’s shift towards having student grades mostly assessed through examinations. This style of assessment favours certain learners over others, as exams favour those with short term recall skills. Many other countries have moved away from a full examination model of assessment to a mix of exams and course work assignments during the year. But aside from implementing a poor education assessment model for students, the pandemic has highlighted the risk of placing so much emphasis on examinations as, if for whatever reason, these cannot go ahead, it becomes difficult to determine student grades. The UK Government’s position on education and assessment is blinkered and ideological, which has meant it struggled to come up with sensible pragmatic solutions to this problem during the crisis. Worse, the Education Secretary has demonstrated he lacks the intellectual rigour and leadership to address these issues.
A coherent and strong opposition would have easily made political mileage during this time, however to date, the opposition has opted for triangulation and timidity. The opposition MP who has made the clearest and most articulate statements regarding school closures during the pandemic has been Lisa Nandy the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who came a distant third in the 2020 UK Labour leadership contest. What Nandy had to say was hardly earth-shattering, merely that the Government needed to get testing and track and trace working properly before it would be safe to reopen schools. To be fair, Starmer, Green and Long-Bailey probably also thought they were saying the same thing, but what people heard was quite different.
Prime Minister Johnson’s non apology on Tuesday was an insult to the British public. Yes, this was a difficult crisis and all governments have made some mistakes at this time. But the UK has done particularly badly and the statement on Tuesday shows he has learnt nothing. The Conservatives won the 2019 election with the sizeable majority that they did largely due to Brexit (see my blog post immediately after the 2019 UK election) and divisions within the opposition. Boris Johnson is not a strong leader and in this crisis, he has proved to be woefully inept. It is well known that Johnson likes to compare himself to former Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in which case the COVID-19 pandemic has been his Gallipoli.
At a time when the country is in its third lockdown, when over 100,000 people have died, when the economy is in recession and the number of jobless is set to rise, few now are looking to the next election which will likely be held in 2024. Yet that still motivates leaders of the UK’s two main political parties. Polling numbers in recent months have been fairly close between Labour and the Conservatives. Where polling has been much more consistent is in Scotland, where the SNP maintain a strong lead heading into the Scottish Parliament’s election on 6 May 2021. Support for Scottish independence also maintains a strong lead and as I predicted in my blog post nearly a year ago this issue continuing to feature prominently on the political agenda, despite fierce opposition from political leaders in London. Without a doubt, independence campaigners in Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales, continue to win support for their independence calls on the back of the UK Governments inept handling of this crisis.
There is however hope on the horizon. The Governments rollout of the COVID-19 vaccinations will hopefully in time slow the movement of the virus to a point where current restrictions can be lifted. It is a wonder of modern science that within a year of COVID-19 emerging that scientists, including those at Oxford University, have developed a vaccination. Despite concern by some about the speed with which this has been released, the evidence so far is that widespread vaccination will stop the spread and save thousands of lives. Credit where credit is due, the UK Government have been quick off the mark to get this vaccine available to the most vulnerable with the aim of immunising as many people as possible over the next year. And to the oppositions credit, they have supported the Government on the vaccine rollout.
There is still a long way to go until this crisis ends and the Government have a lot to answer for badly mishandling things to date. The Prime Ministers apology on Tuesday did not cut the mustard and was an insult to the families of those who have died. Lessons from the mistakes over the last year need to be learnt and with this, the Prime Minister needs to cut the bombast and bravado and instead learn humility and humbleness. The successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine will be essential not only for ending the crisis but also for rebuilding trust in public trust British state after it has managed this pandemic so badly.
Wednesday 6 January 2021 The US Capitol building in Washington DC was the site of armed insurrection, incited by the outgoing President Donald Trump. The last time this building was breached was in 1814 when British soldiers set fire to it during the brief war between The United States and the United Kingdom which at that time saw the building partially destroyed. The violent incident which occurred on Wednesday saw four people killed and both legislative chambers, The House of Representatives and the Senate had to suspend business and elected representatives were forced to take shelter whilst pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol.
This was never going to be an easy transition of power. Trump’s ego would never allow him to accept that he lost the election. Sadly, it was always likely that he would incite violence by stirring up his base with false allegations of voter fraud and a stolen election. My earlier blog post on the subject correctly predicted that Trump’s legal challenges to the election would likely fail. So too were the hopes that the Election Certification of Joe Biden’s victory would be overturned by the Senate and its chair, Vice President Mike Pence. Then to add salt to the wound, voters in Georgia ensured that Biden’s Party would have a majority in the Senate by narrowly voting for the two Democrat candidates in the traditionally Republican Party voting states runoff election.
As I outlined just before the 2020 election and earlier on the one-year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration there are significant problems with the US electoral system. Twice in the last twenty years, the candidate who won the most votes nationally failed to win the presidency through the electoral college system. Trump, both in 2016 and in 2020 failed to win the popular vote. Yesterday when speaking to his mob of supporters in Washington he claimed to have won in 2020 with a bigger majority than in 2016 and claimed the Democrats victories were “explosions of bullshit.” The only bullshit that has exploded is the lie that Trump ever had majority support in the US. Certainly, in the 2020 election, Trump not only lost but did so by 7,059,741 votes nationally in the popular vote and by 74 electoral college votes.
On Monday a recording was released of a call between Donald Trump and a Republican Party election official from the state of Georgia, where Trump demands that the official find the 11,780 votes needed to win the state. This attempt at corruption and electoral fraud by Trump makes the Nixon Watergate Scandal of 1973 seem like a minor misdemeanour in comparison. He then followed this up by encouraging his supporters to go down to the Capitol and cause disruption to the Election confirmation vote to confirm Joe Biden as the next US President. Trumps inability to accept defeat and instead to manipulate his supporters through lies and inciting violence will be his final legacy.
Unfortunately, there remain many who support the Trump presidency and continue to argue that journalists who are critical of this president are reporting fake news. A former work colleague of mine sent me a clip showing thousands of Trump supporters singing the national anthem, claiming that the media not showing this clip meant Trump and his supporters were victims of media bias. That the media did not report protesters singing probably had more to do with the fact that it was irrelevant, especially when compared with armed protesters storming the legislature, planting pipe bombs and generally using violence to try and stop lawmakers confirming the 2020 election result.
Much has been said about the response from Trump to this protest in contrast to the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the George Floyd killing in 2020. Contrast the two statements from Trump in the image below:
Eventually, Vice President Mike Pence called in the National Guard and authorities took back control of the Capitol. Despite earlier praise from Pence for those Republican Senators wishing to challenge the result (most of whom backed away from this position after what happened), Pence chaired the confirmation and agreed to uphold the election result.
The ugly finale of the Trump presidency will have long term consequences. While many Republican lawmakers now distance themselves from Trump, it took them far too long. For the last five years, they have allowed Trump to create a narrative of misinformation tapping into America’s worst prejudices and fears. Trump has successfully built a following based on these lies and in the process created a political climate of hostility and fear that will inevitably now lead to further conflict and civil unrest.
Prior to the events at the Capitol on Wednesday, my take of the Georgia senate runoff was that the Democrats will have a narrow majority in both legislatures for two years, then most likely would lose one or both to the Republicans in the mid-terms. Now things are not quite so clear. Whatever the shortcomings of Biden and the Democrats in the coming months, it will shadow in comparison with the president who incited an insurrection at the Capitol and tried to intimidate an election official in Georgia to “find votes.” The Republican Party will now split between those who continue support Trump and those who would now like the GOP to return to its pre-Trump state. Further, the many new voters who turned out in 2020 to get rid of Trump, and in Georgia to elect two Democrat senators will likely not want to see Republicans regain control of either house after Wednesday’s scenes. Whilst Biden will face opposition, the 81 million who voted for him will not wish to see the events of Wednesday repeated, meaning the usual trend of voter turnout declining in the midterms may not happen next year.
The Trump presidency has laid bare the many weaknesses and deficiencies in the US political system and shown the world that it is a country rife with prejudice and division. While the US remains economically dominant (though this too is declining), it no longer has the credibility it once had on the world stage. Wednesday’s insurrection further tarnishes America’s reputation as a credible democratic nation. Significant changes will be needed before this reputation can be restored and it is hard to be optimistic that the US political system is capable of reforming itself in the way it needs to.
The hope for the future is that those who believe in democracy, both in America and throughout the world demand change. Wednesday’s events were a low point in the history of the United States. But there is still hope for change. Through continued work on voter registration and turnout that the US has a chance of turning a corner. The work done in Georgia on voter registration has shown what is possible and if this is replicated throughout the United States things may actually get better.
Two years ago I wrote a short pithy little blog about New Years and the self-reflecting navel gazing that traditionally occurs during this time. It can be viewed here.
The end of 2020 was quite different. This is the case for most of us, but for me it ends a very eventful year. It also ended with me having testing positive for COVID-19. I have spent much of the last week feeling unwell and exhausted.
2020 was not easy for anyone. A global pandemic which as of 31 December 2020 had killed 1.8 million people and infected over 83 million. It has plunged the world economy into an economic recession that could well take years to recover from. For many this year will be very memorable for all the wrong reasons.
2020 was not an entirely bad year for me though. Both in terms of my professional and personal life, 2020 was actually been positive. Just under a year ago I started working in the House of Lords with Baroness Greengross. I have had the privilege of working in the House of Lords at a time when it adapted to the pandemic by having virtual proceedings and moved to online voting. Whilst having worked remotely much of the year, I still have an office in Westminster which I will return to in 2021.
Personally, things have also gone well. I started a new relationship earlier in the year and we recently moved in together. Also, throughout 2020 I have continued to build and strengthen my friendship networks in London, especially in the South East where I live. I am very lucky to have good friends around me, especially at a time when I have come down with COVID-19.
The virus itself came from my partner who works as a teacher at a London secondary school. Infection rates have been climbing steadily in recent weeks and just before Christmas she caught the dreaded lurgy. When we both got tested on the 18 December she tested positive and I negative, but within a few days it was clear I had also contracted the it.
I could write a whole post about how well the UK government have responded to the pandemic in 2020. I may do this at a later time. Suffice to say 2020 ended with London in Tier 4 restrictions meaning much of the city was closed and people advised against going out or leaving their local area. Needless to say having to stay home for New Years Eve was no great hardship when very little was happening in the city. Earlier plans of heading to Edinburgh for Hogmanay will also have to wait until another year when Scotland is not under COVID-19 restrictions.
So, is the virus as bad as it has been made out? Well for me the symptoms were flu like, high temperature, headaches, blocked nose and sore throat. The fatigue is probably the worst feature of this virus. From Boxing Day till 29 December I was mostly bedridden and living off ibuprofen and Lemsip. Luckily I can still taste food, though it became clear my sense of smell had dulled when I could not smell Vicks Vapour rub or coffee – which anyone else would think my flat stinks of right now. The worse feature of the virus was the fatigue and reduced energy levels which I started feeling the week before Christmas and persisted long other other symptoms had passed.
As of now I feel better. My concentration is improving but still reduced. I am very aware that despite having done little over the last few days my body is still tired. I hope energy levels restore to something resembling normal fairly quickly in 2021. I am lucky in that already the symptoms of COVID-19 begin to fade which is not the case for many others who have caught this virus.
2021 will also be a very different year. We all hope the situation starts to improve in the coming weeks and months, but the reality for the UK is that restrictions on peoples lives will remain in place for some time yet. International travel will also remain limited. It is highly unlikely that I will be able to visit family and friends in New Zealand until 2022, as quarantine restrictions and flight options being very limited and expensive at this time. Zoom has been great for keeping families connected throughout 2020 and will continue to provide this important role again in 2021. It is not the same as actual face to face contact which once this pandemic is over is something many of us will relish.
Four days into the New Year and the UK Government has announced that England will be returning to a full lockdown. This will include schools doing remote learning, something that SAGE told advised should happen before Christmas. How long this lockdown will last and how soon things finally return to normal in 2021 is not clear.
One thing that is the same as New Years two years ago, I have once again changed my calendar.
Last month New Zealand made history by joining a growing list of nations to legalise assisted dying for those with a terminal illness. The question was put to the country in a referendum held at the same time as the New Zealand General Election. In the referendum, 65.1% of voters favoured legalising Assisted Dying compared with 33.7% who were opposed.
The above graph is from the NZ Electoral Commission showing the official results of the End of Life Choice referendum: see full results here
Whilst voters in New Zealand strongly favoured this law change, a vocal minority ran a strong campaign in opposition. This opposition included advocates from the disability community, many of whom had unfounded fears that supporting the End of Life Choice legislation would be used adversely against those who are sick and disabled. The bill was in fact very clear that Assisted Dying would only be allowed to people who meet the following criteria:
be aged 18 years or over
be a citizen or permanent resident of New Zealand
suffer from a terminal illness that’s likely to end their life within 6 months
have a significant and ongoing decline in physical capability
experience unbearable suffering that cannot be eased
be able to make an informed decision about assisted dying.
New Zealand follows Canada who legalised Assisted Dying back in 2016, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany the Australian states of Victoria and Western Australia and 10 jurisdictions in the United States, including California, Washington and Oregon. The Republic of Ireland’s Dáil (parliament) is also currently debating a bill which aims to legalise assisted dying.
There is now growing recognition internationally that the right to a dignified death is a fundamental human right. Assisted dying is not about reducing health care costs or pressuring those who are frail, old or disabled to end their life prematurely. It is about allowing those with a terminal illness the choice to die rather than face a period of significant physical decline and suffering before the end of their life. The significant point here is that this is about choice. Those whose faith or beliefs are against assisted dying have nothing to fear from this change as it merely gives choice to those who want assisted dying while still protecting the right to life for those that do not.
In the United Kingdom, opinion polls consistently show that most people support the legalising of assisted dying. In March 2019 a poll commissioned by campaign group My Death, My Decision found that 90% of people in the UK favoured such a law change. Despite support for Assisted Dying in the UK being higher than in New Zealand, to date parliament has shown a reluctance to support assisted dying legislation. In 2014 Lord Falconer introduced an Assisted Dying Bill into the House of Lords which was unsuccessful. One year later in 2015, a similar bill was put forward in the House of Commons by Labour MP Rob Marris which was also defeated. Prior to these attempts, the late Lord Joffe tried unsuccessfully on four separate occasions to introduce bills that would have legalised physician-assisted suicide. In 1997 MP Joe Ashton’s bill to legalise Dr Assisted Dying was defeated, as were attempts in the 1960s and 70s in the House of Lords by Lord Raglan and Baroness Wootten respectively.
New Zealand has a lot in common with British society in terms of culture, politics and societal attitudes. Both are small ‘c’ conservative cultures, but also where the values of compassion and social justice are important. The New Zealand referendum came after years of debate. In 1995 MP Michael Laws introduced an Assisted Dying Bill which was defeated in the second reading. Another attempt was made in 2003 by MP Peter Brown, where the bill was once again defeated in parliament, this time by just two votes. The recent referendum was a compromise by MPs as despite strong public support, parliament remained reluctant to pass this legislation.
In 2020 Lord Falconer has once again put forward a bill to legalise Assisted Dying. The Lords should support this well-drafted bill which would allow those diagnosed with a terminal illness the choice of assisted dying, but like the New Zealand law protects those who do not. Parliament should listen to public opinion and support this law change. But if it does not have the courage to do so, then like in New Zealand, the question should be put to the public in a referendum.
Two weeks after one of the most tumultuous elections in US history it is now clear that Joe Biden has won. This was not clear on election night as much of the in-person vote favoured Trump in key swing states. But as the postal votes came in it became obvious that in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and Michigan were going with the Biden/Harris ticket. Whilst traditional swing states of Florida and Ohio went to Trump this would not be enough for him to get the required 270 electoral college votes to win.
My previous post outlined the importance to America and the world of a Trump defeat in these elections. It also outlined the many limitations the US political system put in place to make much needed political, social and economic reform in that country difficult (though not impossible). It also highlighted the absurd electoral college system that twice this century has allowed a presidential candidate who received fewer votes than their opponent to win the presidency. The 2020 election could well have been the third such election based on election night results, but postal ballots make it clear that Trump is on his way out. In an election where one of the main dividing issues now is whether or not to believe science, those worried about COVID-19 were more likely to postal vote and thus these votes were more likely to go to the Democrats.
Trump is mounting a legal challenge to the election result claiming the election was rigged. In many cases, the state authorities running the ballot system were under the control of the Republican Party. Trump is unlikely to succeed in any of his legal challenges and even if he does this will unlikely result in him gaining the required 270 points to win. There is little chance of a repeat of the 2000 Presidential election where the Supreme Court ordered the recount of votes in the State of Florida to stop, a disgraceful chapter in the history of US elections and one which exposed how flawed the US system really is.
In 2016 Donald Trump received 62,984,828 votes nationally. In 2020 his national vote increased to 71,927,381. Biden’s apparent victory was down to increased voter turnout nationally and specifically increased turnout and in the swing states listed above. When looking at the results in both Congress and Senate, the Republicans have reduced the Democrats’ majority in Congress, and the Senate is now split with Republicans only losing one senate race last week and now having a runoff election in January 2021 which will decide which party has control of the upper chamber.
The projected ‘blue wave’ that many pundits predicted (and this author hoped for, but did not expect) did not eventuate. There are plenty of possible explanations for this but ultimately it comes down to the simple fact that support for Donald Trump and indeed for the Republican Party did not collapse in 2020. If anything, the Republican Party held the line with their base and even won some new support despite a woeful mishandling of the pandemic and having a President who was blatantly dishonest and self-serving. This is disappointing, but not at all surprising. Trumpism did not just come out of nowhere, and nor is it likely to disappear anytime soon.
The election for Congress saw the Republicans reduce the Democrats’ majority. This was probably the Democrats greatest failure this election, given they only gained control of Congress two years earlier in 2018 and already their grip on power here is slipping. This is reminiscent of 2006, where Nancy Pelosi led the Democrats to victory during the Mid-terms as President George W Bush’s popularity was waning. By 2010 the Democrats had lost control of the House in Obama’s first mid-term. Despite the loss, Pelosi remained the Democrat leader in Congress, and in 2018 became the speaker once again when Democrats capitalised on anti-Trump sentiment to gain control of The House. The issue for Pelosi and the team around her in Congress is that twice they have won during mid-terms when opposition to a Republican President is strong. Now a Democrat is President, Pelosi cannot just be an oppositional figure, she and her team need to put forward a policy agenda to address the issues facing the country. Just like when Obama was elected President in 2008, Biden’s win this year is happening in the middle of a serious economic crisis. Democrats in Congress need to be offering policy solutions to this crisis. Now maybe time for new Democratic leadership in Congress that can step up to this challenge.
The Senate currently hangs in the balance with Republicans holding onto more senators this month than expected. In early January 2021 a runoff election will be held for the two Senator seats in the state of Georgia. The race between Biden and Trump was very close in this state which has traditionally been safe Republican. The change in Georgia was down to voter registration and turnout campaigns led by Stacy Abrams who narrowly lost the Georgia Governor race in 2018. This campaign is one Democrats should be looking to replicate nationally as it has been widely praised as successful.
In early 2018 I wrote a blog post about hope in which I said the following about the Obama Presidency of 2009 to 2017:
Obama promised hope and intended to deliver that through the US political system. The problem is that system is flawed. He gave people hope in a political system which could not deliver on the promise.
Hope – A powerful but dangerous tool, April 2018
When trying to understand US politics we need to understand that it is indeed a flawed and inflexible system. This criticism could be made of most democratic systems, but the flaws in the US are stark and very hard to shift. In another 2018 blog, I wrote about the issue of Gun Control, a prime example of where the US system, despite public opinion has successfully blocked any form of gun control for decades.
In August this year, Rolling Stone Magazine published an article by Anthropologist Wade Davies called The Unraveling of America. I would recommend anyone who has not yet read this to do so. In this article Wade outlines how the COVID-19 pandemic has furthered the decline of the United States. Wade claims that one-fifth of all COVID-19 deaths were from that country. He highlights how the United States has lost its moral authority on the world stage, citing the below example:
Trump’s performance and America’s crisis deflected attention from China’s own mishandling of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, not to mention its move to crush democracy in Hong Kong. When an American official raised the issue of human rights on Twitter, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, invoking the killing of George Floyd, responded with one short phrase, “I can’t breathe.”
The Unraveling of America Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era. Rolling Stone August 2020.
And indeed, the Black Lives Matter Movement has like COVID-19 shown the world that the United States Government is neither interested nor capable of looking after its own population. Given this it is little wonder many throughout the world no longer view it as a moral authority on the world stage. Wade also argues that Donald Trump is a symptom of the decline, rather than the cause of it.
On the morning of the US election results, the BBC Today Show interviewed former UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. He expressed concern that an uncertain result would be used by dictators in countries like China to discredit democracy. The reality is that the United States is a poor example of a functioning democracy in 2020. The country’s widespread voter suppression, its antiquated and undemocratic voting system, its cumbersome and difficult to change constitution, its poor record on climate change, its institutional and systemic racism, its increasing inequality and last but not least its shocking record on the international stage of supporting dictators like Pinochet and Suharto, discredit it as any sort of moral authority. When looking for examples of modern, functioning democracies we should look at places like Germany, Scandinavian nations like Norway or Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, Uruguay and Costa Rica. Even in the United Kingdom, though in recent years has faced considerable challenges in response to Brexit and a fairly ugly General Election in 2019, not to mention a voting system that does not deliver proportional outcomes, the political culture in the UK is still much healthier and far less divisive than in the US.
This is not to beat up on the United States or to say that it does not still have the potential to play a positive role in the world. The point is that for the United States to do this it needs significant reform. Biden, even if he gains a majority in the Senate will not be able to deliver this in one term. And the level of opposition this administration will face internally from Trump/Republican Party supporters is formidable. But this too can change. In 2020 increased voter turnout stopped Trump getting a second term and may still help the Democrats narrowly win a senate majority if Georgia goes their way. Hope can be dangerous if it gives people the false idea that a broken system is ok. But in understanding that there is a fundamental problem, there is then the opportunity for real change, something which would be cause for some cautious optimism. At the very least, the more people understand the problem, the greater the chance of things improving.