Lindsey German on Cummings and goings, public health and the war on Afghanistan
Whitehall mandarin Sir Philip Rutnam knew exactly what he was doing when he staged his very public resignation on Saturday morning to BBC cameras. He not only laid into Home Secretary Priti Patel, but also made it clear that he has refused a private settlement and is determined to bring the claim for constructive dismissal, allowing him to present evidence in public against her. We shouldn’t shed tears for Rutnam. Permanent secretaries and other high-ranking civil servants are the people who run government departments, and he will have been part of carrying out the hostile environment and Windrush policies. But his resignation tells us that that there is something more rotten than usual in Johnson’s government.
The resignation of a top civil servant who now plans to sue the Home Office for constructive dismissal is a bombshell in Whitehall and one which threatens to seriously damage a government already facing a number of challenges which it struggles to overcome. Patel, one of the most right-wing members of the government and one who previously had to resign for holding private talks with the Israeli government, has been damned within months of taking office.
The scandal of government failure to deal with flooding in various parts of the country, the threat of the coronavirus developing here, the continuing persecution of migrants as official government policy, all are the responsibility of the Home Office and ultimately of the woman who has been effectively called a liar as well as a bully by her most senior official. On top of that the Brexit negotiations and trade deals with the EU and US, plus the real threat of economic slowdown and recession, all mean that Boris Johnson will face far more difficulties than he might have expected so soon after the election.
This is obviously about wider issues than just Patel and goes to the heart of Dominic Cummings’ plan to shake up the civil service. It follows on from the resignation of former chancellor Sajid Javid, when Cummings demanded all his advisers should be removed. It demonstrates that running a Leave campaign, or an election campaign, was a lot easier for Johnson than actually trying to run a government. With complex Brexit negotiations ahead, these internal splits are likely to get worse.
Underlying Johnson’s problem is that the election became increasingly based on two things: the implementation of Brexit and the demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn. That was a highly successful strategy, but a government with many of the population against it and with its own base among older mainly middle-class white people has real constraints on what it can do. Add to this an increasingly nervous ruling class which is by no means certain about what Brexit will bring, and Johnson will need more than a new baby to maintain his position.
It seems to me that this government is already being rocked by events beyond its control – and it is here that Labour, despite its election defeat, should be able to make the running. But that means raising class questions, sticking to Labour’s manifesto policies under Corbyn, and supporting a range of struggles and campaigns from climate change to the industrial action taking place or being planned. Richard Burgon is the only leadership candidate really fighting on these sorts of issues, and his campaign looks like it is increasing in support. Whatever the outcome, the higher the vote for him, and for Rebecca Long-Bailey, in the party elections, the better placed the left will be to take on the Tories. So if you have a vote use it.
Coronavirus: the poor suffer in a profit driven, broken society
The great influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, around the end of the First World War, is estimated to have killed more people than the war itself – up to 40 or 50 million. Much of the reason for this was the state of the world’s population after four years of war, privation, displacement, injury and hunger. Overcrowded hospitals and military camps led to its rapid spread. Immunity to disease was low and many people succumbed to the virus.
I thought of this as panic about the coronavirus has grown. It has been the week when it has finally dawned on the developed world that the spread of coronavirus isn’t just a Chinese problem. Its movement to Europe has highlighted the speed with which it can take hold, and while there is a whole range of medical opinion about what this means, and how worried people should be, it is impossible to deal with the medical issues without considering the social problems and the organisation of society as a whole.
And a society which has been badly damaged by austerity and related policies is not in a good place to deal with it. The NHS is weighed down as it struggles to respond to levels of demand because of lack of funding and creeping privatisation. Already the government is saying retired NHS staff may have to be reengaged to deal with the problem. Staff and bed shortages are acute, and access to the NHS severely limited by inability to obtain appointments and waiting lists.
Those most vulnerable will also be some of the poorest, and inequality is at record levels in Britain. The elderly or those with existing conditions, the homeless, those people without adequate food or shelter, are all going to be very vulnerable.
The work patterns which have developed under neoliberalism will also make the spread of the virus more likely. Lack of secure contracts, which means no sick pay, insecurity about missing work, so continuing to work when sick, has long been a major problem in employment and many workers will simply feel that they cannot take the precautions needed for financial reasons. Anyone in employment who is at all ‘irregular’ in their status may also fear trying to get medical treatment. The TUC demand that all workers should get sick pay from day one is absolutely right and should be taken up everywhere.
The coronavirus has already had a major impact on money markets, as the Chinese economy slows down completely, with many factories closed, and other countries will see downward spirals – already happening in Italy but likely to hasten a predicted recession here. The cancellation of public events, drastic reduction of tourism, curtailment of some areas of manufacturing, will mean big changes to people’s lives and will impact hard on employment, especially for those in casualised work.
Trade unions must be at the forefront of insisting proper protection for workers, of payment while laid off, and for increasing spending on health and related services. We must also fight the racism which has initially been directed at the Chinese, now the Italians. This is an international problem in a globalised world and will not be solved by turning one group against another.
Those countries in the developing world, who have long suffered from economic plunder and colonialism, with poor infrastructure and medical services will suffer especially and there has to be aid without strings to help combat any epidemic. The sanctions on Iran, which lead to shortages of medicine and food, should be lifted immediately.
None of these issues can be dealt with adequately in a society dominated by private property and the profit motive, and it is the ordinary people of the world who will have to fight to make them happen.
Afghanistan: we lose a war that should never have been fought
The peace deal between the Taliban and the US signed in Doha at the weekend, points to the end of the war and the withdrawal of US troops by next year. It is welcome but highlights why this war should never have been waged. Bush and Blair bombed, invaded and occupied one of the poorest countries on earth back in 2001, in revenge for the attacks of 9/11. The architect of those attacks, Osama bin Laden, was based in Afghanistan. The Taliban government was rapidly overthrown and fled, but while in office had offered to hand over bin Laden for trial.
This was refused by the US and its allies who wanted war, and this war was the prelude to Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of deaths later, the country even more desisted by war, with a record of corrupt government, lip service to women’s rights and increased bombing of civilians under Trump, the US has effectively admitted defeat.
The anti-war movement told them it would end in disaster 19 years ago. But don’t expect any honest accounting from the 21st century warriors who have laid waste to the country and to the Middle East.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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