Twilight in Brexitland

Yesterday evening I shared a horrific post on Facebook about a tetraplegic woman whose disability benefits have just been cancelled, and has just been summoned to a job interview by her local job centre.  As shocking as it was, this dreadful decision was a fairly typical example of the cruelty and incompetence that has been repeated again and again under the brutal sanctions regime introduced by successive Coalition and Tory governments.  Most of the commenters were as outraged as I was, but there were also messages like this:

No shame when it comes to the white British benefits office. Maybe if she was immigrant that’s might of made a differance (sic).

It’s deeply depressing to know that someone took advantage of such an awful tragedy to express such thoughts.    Once upon a time I might have written off such comments as a occasional freak intervention from some semi-literate racist nurturing their Nazi memorabilia in some dank basement somewhere.   But such interventions are not occasional and they are not from the fringes.

They are all over the place.  You can find them, in below-the-line comments sections on any online forum that has anything to do with immigration – or not.  When a Frenchwoman living in Kent announced last week that she was leaving the UK because of racism and xenophobia, her comments section was sprinkled with racist and xenophobic comments and jeering invitations to go back home if she didn’t like it.

There is a lot more where that came from, and a lot worse too.  Twitter is seething with hatred of this kind, whether directed at foreigners. immigrants, Muslims or people of colour.   Diane Abbott gets hundreds if not thousands of such messages everyday. Gina Miller has been threatened with gang rape, lynching and acid attacks simply because she tried to ensure that Parliament had a say in the Brexit negotiations.

What’s happening on social media is also happening on the streets.  In July this year the Independent reported that incidents of race and faith-based attacks rose by  23 percent in the eleven months since the referendum –  from 40,741 to 49,921.    These incidents included acts of physical violence, acid attacks and verbal insults.  There are undoubtedly many more, since many victims of verbal attacks don’t go to the police.

What is striking about so many of the incidents that are recorded is that – like the comments and tweets on social media – many of their perpetrators clearly feel emboldened, empowered and legitimized by the referendum result.   They  feel their time has come, and some of them are clearly dreaming of some kind of ethno-nationalist reckoning in which all the people they don’t like ‘go home’ – even if this country is their home.

Once upon a time some of these people might have felt ashamed to say what they’re thinking; now they don’t.  And why should they?  When Gina Miller said she might have to leave the country, Arron Banks’s Leave.EU – a mainstream lobbying group – merely laughed and tweeted that it hoped other ‘liberals’ would go with her.  Why would people feel any reservation about expressing hostility to immigrants when politicians boast of their ability to turn the UK into a hostile environment?  When ‘commentators’ can tweet about ‘final solutions’ and call refugees ‘cockroaches’ and still get a slot on the Jeremy Vine Show?  Isn’t it all just free speech?

Every week and sometimes everyday, the Home Office – an institution which currently embodies everything that is most malignant about the British state and society – displays how hostile it is by deporting or threatening to deport another immigrant or group of immigrants.

Meanwhile politicians um and ah, or shake their heads about the public’s ‘concerns’.   Some, like the iniquitous and loathsome fraud Boris Johnson, mutter darkly about ‘dual allegiances’.  When they’re caught out deporting tens of thousands of students using false language tests, they don’t bat an eyelid.   When it’s found that their own estimates of students who ‘overstayed’ their visas are wildly over the mark, they just change the conversation and boast of their ability to keep more people out.

Left-of-centre politicians aren’t always much better.   Some talk of the need to exclude immigrants in order to win votes in their constituencies or prevent exploitation or the undercutting of British workers by migrant workers.  Others, like the dreadful Frank Field, celebrate the draconian proposals in the Home Office’s outline document for a post-Brexit immigration policy.

Few pause to wonder where all this is leading us.  It’s a truism to observe that you only stand a chance of curing yourself of an illness if your illness is actually diagnosed and recognised, and right now we are becoming  a sick society – sick with xenophobia, anti-migrant paranoia and unacknowledged racism hidden behind discussions about ‘culture’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘social cohesion.’  We slowly but inexorably poisoning our society with our own fears, prejudices and hatreds.   We are becoming mean, vindictive, callous, bitter and aggressive, constantly whining about what immigrants have supposedly done to us without thinking through what we are doing to them – or to ourselves.

Not only are our politicians ignoring and even pandering to these sentiments, but the government is actually instrumentalising the Home Office to act on them and turn them into policy.   We didn’t get to this situation overnight, and the referendum is by no means uniquely responsible for it.    But there is no doubt that in the last eighteen months, the UK has become a deeply unpleasant and threatening place for many foreigners and immigrants – and for many who simply look or sound foreign – and it may get a lot worse unless we can stop it.

So we need to recognize how serious this is, and we need to act.  The tendencies that have been unleashed these last eighteen months do not express the majority sentiments of the population, but too many of those who don’t share them have not condemned them – or have not argued forcefully against the arguments that foreigners and immigrants are responsible for the social problems of 21st century Britain.  Such arguments aren’t even restricted to the right – I’m constantly coming across them from sections of the left – albeit wrapped up in a veneer of progressive politics and concern for the working class.

We need really major mobilisations to counter these developments.   We need to make the positive case for immigration and diversity and we need to make it loudly.   We can’t pretend that we are too British and too intrinsically decent to descend into a racist and xenophobic swamp.  We can, because any society can.

We need the famous silent majority to stand up for the kind of society we have begun to build –  a society that is comfortable with diversity and open to the world, where foreigners are welcomed, not considered the enemy.  We need to push the xenophobes and racists back to the fringes and restore the shame that once forced them to keep their bitterness and rage to themselves.

Because if we can’t do this, then we will be complicit, and we will also be trapped perhaps for decades, by the dangerous forces that have been unleashed, and which will leave few people unscathed if things proceed along their present course.


It’s Official: Stop the War is responsible for the Syrian Civil War

I am not a member of the Stop the War Coalition, but I have been part of the movement ever since it developed in the lead up to the Iraq War.  I may not agree with all of its positions, and I don’t share the politics of some of its members, but I share its central aims, and I can’t help noticing that the usual criticisms against it have risen to a new crescendo recently.

No one will be surprised that  Douglas Murray  regards  Stop the War as ‘ a meeting point for hardline Stalinists and Islamists to pursue their own imperial policies.’  Or even that the Guardian’s Rafael Behr  sees it as    ‘a doctrinaire pressure group that sets its moral compass by quasi-Leninist rejection of “western imperialism”’ – a concept that less ‘doctrinaire’ pundits like Behr always put in scaremarks, because as every liberal interventionist knows, there is no such thing as western imperialism, only lots of good men and women trying to do the best thing in a bad world.

The traces of that touching benevolence can be found from Central Asia to North Africa, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen – and to some extent Syria, but none of that ever seems to phase the Behrs and Nick Cohens of this world, who always seem to know, or at least believe, that the next ‘intervention’ will be better than the last.

So criticisms of STW are only to be expected from such quarters.   But Stop the War has also been attacked from the left  over its position on Syria.  In the past four years it has been accused of hypocrisy,double standards, racism and Orientalism, betraying the Syrian revolution, supporting Bashar al-Assad and acting as apologists for dictatorship.

At times anyone listening to these criticisms would be forgiven for thinking that if Stop the War didn’t exist, then the Syrian revolution would have triumphed, or at least that this horrific war would have been brought to some kind of positive conclusion. .

Some of these criticisms were repeated during last week’s discussion in London, which Peter Tatchell and a number of Syrian and non-Syrian solidarity activists attempted to disrupt, on the grounds that Syrians were not represented.  I wasn’t at the meeting, but from what I have read, and from what I have seen in the long section devoted to this episode  in Andrew Neil’s Daily Politics show, it is clear that by Syrians, these protesters only referred to Syrians in favour of Western military intervention.

The sudden interest that a rightwinger  like Neil should take in Stop the War discussions is partly an indirect tribute to the coalition’s influence, and partly yet another attempt to undermine Jeremy Corbyn by association with ‘Stalinists and Leninists’,  following last week’s announcement that the Labour leader may consult Stop the War in the event of proposals to extend Britain’s bombing campaign in Iraq to Syria.

Certainly one would like to see Neil hectoring Philip Hammond or Michael Fallon the way he hectored Diane Abbott about why no Syrians were allowed to attend diplomatic talks in Vienna, .but don’t hold your breath about that.

The criticisms emanating from Tatchell and the Syrian solidarity activist Muzna cannot be dismissed as part of some rightwing smear plot however,  regardless of how they might be used by people like Neil.  For some leftists,  Stop the War is the most visible manifestation of the supposedly intellectually and morally decadent left that has ‘turned its back’ on Syria and the Syrian revolution and embraced a phony internationalism that is only directed at the West.

These accusations can be found in articles, Internet sites and Facebook chat sites, and some of them have been directed at me personally,  in response to articles that I have written.  Their tone is often as inquisitorial and hectoring as Neil’s faux-moralistic interrogation of Diane Abbott.

Speaking for myself, I am ready to admit that my position on Syria is not without contradictions, but I don’t think that contradictions are unique to those of us who have opposed western military intervention in this war.

As far as being an ‘apologist’ for Assad is concerned, I have never really doubted the brutality of the Syrian regime..  That was clear long before the war started, whether it was the behavior of the Syrian army in Lebanon or its participation as offshore torturer during the Bush terror wars. Those who praise Syria as part of the ‘axis of resistance’ often ignore such things, just as they ignore the participation of Bashar al-Assad’s father in the first Gulf War.

Nevertheless, it was clear quite early on  in the war  that some of the violence attributed to Assad was being deliberately exaggerated by the regime’s opponents – both Syrian and non-Syrian, in order to justify another ‘humanitarian intervention’. . I cannot think of any armed conflict in history in which major news outlets have relied for casualty figures and details for the most part on a single organization, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – run by an opponent of Assad’s who runs a clothes shop in Coventry.

I didn’t believe that Assad used chemical weapons on the eve of UN weapons inspections – not because I am an ‘apologist’ for such actions, but because it was so obviously not in Assad’s political and military interests to cross Obama’s ‘red line’ and trigger military intervention which his government was clearly anxious to avoid.

It is a legitimate criticism to say that I – and other sections of the left – have not always spoken out against the atrocities carried out by the Syrian security forces and their paramilitary allies.  But those leftists who accuse us of being apologists for genocide etc. have been equally silent about the massacres of Christians and the killings of Syrian army prisoners by elements of the opposition – and I’m not referring to Isis/Daesh here.

Those who accuse us of betraying the revolution ignore the reactionary politics that permeate so much of the Syrian opposition and their foreign backers.  Should I call people who don’t mention such things hypocrites and ‘apologists’?  No, and I won’t do it.  But those who throw out such accusations at Stop the War fail to explain which elements of an opposition that now includes about 1,000 armed groups could take power or hold Syria together.

Those who protest the exclusion of Syrians from Stop the War conferences are unlikely to refer to polls – admittedly made in wartime conditions – that continue to suggest that close to half the Syrian population has supported Assad’s government throughout the war.

Could that support disappear if the war ended? Almost certainly, but the presentation of the Syrian war as a conflict between the radical evil of ‘ Assad’ on one hand and ‘the Syrian people’ on the other entirely fails to explain how the regime has lasted so long, or why some 35,000 Syrian soldiers have died defending it, or what would happen to the Syrians that have supported the regime if the Free Syrian Army or Jabhat al-Nusra took power.

There was a similar tendency amongst the liberal advocates of military intervention in Iraq to talk about nothing but ‘Saddam’, as though the Iraqi state and Iraqi society were embodied by a single person, and all that was necessary was to ‘remove’ him, as Tony Blair likes to put it.   Those interventionists often referred to Iraqis and their ‘Iraqi friends’ to support their cause and give it greater credibility.

I agree that is a tendency amongst some sections of the left to take an all-encompassing conspiratorial view of the Syrian war that ignores Syrians and the internal dynamics of Syrian society that drove the conflict.  There are those who believe that the entire war was solely due to proxy interventions.   That isn’t a view that I share.

The protests that began in 2011 were clearly the consequence of the political and economic failings of an authoritarian political system that was well past its sell-by date, all of which were exacerbated by the country’s longrunning drought,  the disastrous and bloody development of the Iraq war  and the onset of the ‘Arab spring.’

Though Assad had previously presented himself as a political reformer – not without justification, his government reacted to these protests with extreme violence, as Arab governments often do whenever their power is threatened.  But these developments provided an opportunity to Syria’s neighbors – and the Western powers that had wanted regime change in Syria  for years beforehand – to enter the conflict and militarize it still further without regard for the consequences..

In these circumstances it was entirely logical to regard the proposals for military intervention as an extension of the process begun in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to regard no fly zones as a lever to bring about regime change, just as they had been in Libya. There was in the recent history of such interventions to suggest that they would have any other result, except to turn Syria into yet another failed state, and a base for further attacks on Iran and Hezbollah that would strengthen Israel and the reactionary Gulf tyrannies into the bargain.

That position doesn’t make us ‘apologists’; it’s simply a question of priorities in a situation where the options  quickly  ranged from bad to worse.  It was and is a question of trying to separate what is desirable – the end of the Ba’athist regime and a democratic government that represents all Syria’s minorities and upholds their political and civil rights – from what was always more likely – the complete destruction of Syria as a society and as a state and the destabilisation of an entire region.

When the war began, I thought that the best possible outcome  was an interim political arrangement in which would Assad would temporarily remain before paving the way for some kind of coalition government – but the humanitarians of the Gulf States and their western allies shot down that option at Geneva with their insistence on his departure as a precondition for further talks.

Now, in the short term at least, I think that a temporary political/military arrangement between the Assad government – preferably without Assad himself – and those elements of the Syrian opposition and their foreign supporters (and not only Russia and Iran) may be the only way to defeat Daesh and the takfiri groups, prevent Syria from total disintegration and endless violence and ensure a future in which politics becomes possible once again.

Calling for the ‘Syrian revolution’ to do this, and berating Stop the War for not doing so too, is just posturing and pointscoring.    In a war in which neither side can defeat the other, the choices are not nearly as pristine as some of these critics  sometimes seem to think they are.  Wars like this tend to end in ugly, messy compromises – Algeria being one of many examples.

Right now, ending the war in Syria ought to be the single, overriding priority, rather than criticizing those who oppose yet another strategically clueless British military intervention.

And even though my position doesn’t fill me with a warm glowing feeling,  I have yet to hear any arguments, whether from Syrians or non-Syrians, to make me change it..