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Most nationalist movements wait until they have achieved independence before having a civil war over who runs the country. But Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond have jumped the gun by opening hostilities while Scottish self-determination is still well over the horizon.

Could it remain an unattainable goal thanks to the open warfare between the past and present leaders of the Scottish National Party? The feud has broken the sense of inexorable progress towards Scottish independence propelled by the political skills of the SNP leadership and aided by the British government’s repeated blunders.

The British media loves a good dog fight and the melodrama of the Sturgeon/Salmond battle has swiftly promoted Scottish politics to the top of the news agenda in a way unseen since the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

The ill-concealed unionist sympathies of sections of the press have ensured a pro-Salmond bias and antipathy to Sturgeon, leading her actions to be compared by some to President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. “What did she know and when did she know it?” asked one commentator with relish. A breach of the “ministerial code”, though recently carried out with impunity by Priti Patel under Boris Johnson, is spoken of in awed tones as if it were a capital offence.

Much of this venom is driven by a desperate effort to damage the SNP before the May election for the Holyrood parliament in which, at the time of writing, the SNP is set to win a narrow majority. It would interpret this as giving it a popular mandate for demanding a second referendum on independence. Since the popularity and competence of Sturgeon is the SNP’s biggest asset at the polls, anything damaging to her – even if it does not destroy her politically – could stall the advance towards a pro-independence vote.

Trivial or exaggerated many of the allegations of misconduct against her may be, but to explain them to the Scottish parliament she has had to admit to serial incompetence by her administration at every level.

Suppose that the secret purpose of this process was the political assassination of Salmond, then the assassins were comically inept. Suppose, far more likely, that the purpose was simply to deal with allegations of sexual harassment against him without fear or favour, then the blundering is equally culpable.

Salmond’s claim of a far-reaching conspiracy against him is difficult to take seriously because there is no obvious motive for such a plot. He posed no threat to Sturgeon’s leadership since she is very popular in Scotland and he is not, according to the polls. A conspiracy would have had to recruit as co-conspirators the great armada of people and institutions that have played a part in the affair. The allegation that the Scottish political, judicial and civil service elite is such a close-knit group that they automatically act in concert, and there is no separation of powers, is contradicted by their stumbling and incoherent performance.

A better explanation for why Salmond was targeted simultaneously by so many – a concerted attack that he sees as proof of a deep-laid conspiracy – is that they were all running scared of sexual harassment accusations and over-eager to avoid being seen as protectors of a friend and colleague.

They would have been all the more prone to avoid this risk and make a rush to judgement as the MeToo movement got under way in 2017, heightening awareness of powerful men acting as sexual predators. Salmond, it must be pointed out, has been cleared of all 12 charges against him.

This is the heart of Sturgeon’s defence of her actions, telling the parliamentary committee that “I refused to follow the age-old pattern of letting a powerful man use his status and connections to get what he wants.” She claims that Salmond became so angry because he expected her, as his long-time political partner, to get him off the hook. In her evidence this week, Sturgeon repeatedly expressed sweet sorrow at the failings of an old friend, but kept returning to the original allegations against him.

Sturgeon may survive the attack on her, but how much damage will be done to Scottish nationalism, which has shallower and more recent roots than Irish nationalism? It was only six and a half years ago that the independence referendum unexpectedly legitimised Scottish self-determination as a credible option for Scots, even though they voted it down.

The SNP had an unprecedented winning streak in gaining public support, as England and Wales voted narrowly for Brexit and Scotland voted strongly against. The Boris Johnson government is deeply disliked north of the border and its floundering response to the Covid-19 epidemic last year compared badly with Sturgeon’s image of cool competence.

Nationalist movements past and present are usually good at surviving scandals. Recent examples of this include President Donald Trump and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. They have been able to do this by wrapping the national flag around them and denouncing their critics as unpatriotic. This gambit becomes even easier during the epidemic, because leaders like Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock can claim that supposed wrongdoings are a diversion when they are devoting all their efforts to fighting the deadly virus.

Sometimes national leaders fall because of scandals but nationalist movements do not. In 1890, the Irish Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell – “the uncrowned king of Ireland” – was cited as a co-respondent in the divorce case of Katherine (Kitty) O’Shea, with whom he had been living for 10 years and by whom he had three children. The scandal ended his leadership of his party, which split amid furious and long-lasting disputes, but the movement towards Irish independence continued.

Sturgeon does not have the same dominance of Scottish politics as Parnell once did in Ireland, but she is far and away the SNP’s greatest electoral asset. Her eight-hour grilling before the Scottish parliament showed her to be as formidable a politician as ever. Yet her own account of the missteps made by her government shows how bereft it is of capable leaders who might replace her. No wonder that unionists in Scotland and the government in London are slavering over their best chance of wounding her politically just when she appeared to be on the verge of decisively winning the Holyrood election in May.

Her problem is that she does not only need previous SNP voters to stick with her, which the polls show that they are likely to do. She needs a slice of Scottish voters – primarily the large number who voted “no” in the referendum of 2014 but “no” also to the UK leaving the EU in 2016 – to change their minds in favour of an independent Scotland.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Europe, Scotland 

A former Isis fighter once complained to me that western volunteers who travelled to the so-called Islamic State in northeastern Syria were a burden because they did not speak Arabic, had no military experience, knew little about Islam and had often come because they were bored or unhappy at home.

He said that their main advantage from the point of view of Isis was propagandistic, since by making the difficult journey to the caliphate, they showed that its ideology had world wide appeal.

Shamima Begum, whom the Supreme Court decided today should not be allowed back into Britain to challenge the removal of her British citizenship, has already more than fulfilled Isis’s expectations. She did so in 2015 when, at the age of 15, she travelled to Syria to join Isis, her melodramatic journey, on which she was accompanied by two school friends from Bethnal Green Academy, provoking a furore in the British media that was repeated when she re-emerged in the Kurdish-controlled Roj refugee camp in Syria in 2019.

The British government would have been well-advised to leave the whole issue alone. Anything it did could only give the Begum story legs and enhance her value to Isis and al-Qaeda-type jihadis as a propaganda icon. Ministers should have done absolutely nothing, allowing her to return to Britain. She should then have been charged with aiding terrorism, particularly if she poses “a real and current threat to national security” as she does according to the Home Office lawyers.

But government ministers do not like to be seen to be doing nothing when they have an opportunity to sound tough and in control. The home secretary of the day, Sajid Javid, stripped Begum of her British citizenship, and thereby ensured her an ocean of publicity. I do not mean that she and Isis planned it that way, but this outcome was inevitable and foreseeable.

In the eyes of many the government had converted her from a supporter of a movement of mass murderers into a pathetic and pitiable victim hounded by unfeeling authorities. The government was pursuing her, moreover, through an act of questionable legality that was bound to be contested in the courts. Nor is the issue going to go away because of today’s decision since it places her in a legal limbo, saying that her appeal against her deprivation of British nationality should be postponed until she is in a position to make it without compromising public safety.

Some will argue that she was a young teenager when she first went to Syria and cannot be held entirely responsible for her actions. She may even have been “groomed” into joining Isis – although this assumes that a 15-year-old cannot take decisions on their own and is then absolved of responsibility when they turn out to be mistaken.

Begum and her schoolgirl friends had flown from Gatwick to Istanbul on 17 February 2015 and travelled on to Raqqa, the de facto Isis capital in Syria. Atrocities committed by Isis had by then been leading television newscasts and newspaper front pages for eight months. She and her friends must have known about the murder, rape and enslavement of the Yazidis by Isis. They might even have heard of the Camp Speicher massacre in Iraq the previous June when Isis, advancing south after capturing Mosul, had murdered at least 1,095 unarmed Shia Muslim air force cadets that they had taken prisoner.

I was in northern Iraq three months before Begum arrived in Raqqa and I interviewed a Christian woman called Fida Boutros Matti who had been captured by Isis and taken to Mosul with her three children to be forcibly converted to Islam. She told me how they were taken to a house in Mosul and put in one room which was next to another where 30 Yazidi girls between the ages of 10 and 18 were being repeatedly raped by their guards. Mrs Matti told me that “the Yazidi girls were so young that I worried about Nevin (her daughter) and told the guards that she is eight years old though she is really 10”.

Such savagery was typical of the regime that Begum supported – and no degree of naivety or stupidity can excuse this.

The lawyers for the Home Office said that Begun, now aged 21, has undergone radicalisation and “desensitisation to violence”. Her lawyers contended that she never fought, trained or took part in any terrorist activity during her four years in the so-called caliphate. The Supreme Court has now decided, nevertheless, that she is such a security threat that she should not be allowed to return to the UK to pursue her appeal against loss of her British citizenship.

But this approach misses the more important political point that the government has trapped itself into providing Sunni fundamentalist supporters, who are far more numerous than Isis fanatics, with a sympathetic martyr. On a small scale, the authorities’ approach to the Begum case – reinforced by today’s Supreme Court decision – repeats the same mistakes made by governments since 9/11. Again and again, they have used terrorism as an excuse to expand their own arbitrary power and to brush aside fairness and justice on the grounds of public safety.

In doing so, whatever they claim to have been doing, they demonstrably turned themselves into recruiting sergeants for al-Qaeda, whose greatest success was not in destroying the Twin Towers in New York, but in provoking the US government into misusing the danger to the public to sanction torture, imprisonment without trial at Guantanamo and, above all, the invasion of Iraq.

Instead of enhancing public security, as governments purport to do, the US and its allies did the precise opposite, counter-productively facilitating the growth of al-Qaeda from an organisation with a few hundred adherents into a mass movement and later enabling Isis to create a caliphate the size of Great Britain.

Yet much the same arguments about the primacy of public safety over all other considerations was used by the Supreme Court today in rejecting Begum’s appeal. Its president, Justice Robert Reed, admitted that the deprivation of her British citizenship would have a profound effect on Begum as her alternative nationality [Bangladeshi] is one with which she has little real connection. Nevertheless, he said that “the right to a fair hearing does not trump all other considerations, such as the safety of the public”.

Reed said crucially that it is up to the government and not the courts to decide who and what really poses a security risk. This may sound reasonable. but one should keep in mind that it was just such self-serving and counter-productive governmental decisions that created the conditions for the rise of Isis and the caliphate to which Begum and her friends made their fatal journey in 2015.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, ISIS, Terrorism 

The invasion of the Capitol on 6 January now stands alongside 9/11 as an act of war against American democracy. Unsurprisingly, news coverage of the incursion has come to resemble war propaganda. All facts, true or false, are pointed in the same direction with the aim of demonising the enemy and anybody who minimises its demonic nature.

The three-hour takeover of the Capitol building by a pro-Trump mob is portrayed as a “coup” or an “insurrection” egged on by President Trump. The five who died during the events are seen as evidence of a violent, pre-planned plot to overturn the result of the US presidential election. Film spliced together and shown by prosecutors during the impeachment proceedings gives the impression that what happened resembled a battle scene in Braveheart.

Does it matter what really did occur? Many people feel that anything damaging to Trump and his fascistic followers is all right by them. They may suspect privately that accounts of Trump’s plot against America are exaggerated, but the fabricator of 30,573 falsehoods over the last four years is scarcely in a position to criticise his opponents for departing from the strict truth. They argue that he is an unprecedented threat to American democracy, even as it becomes clear that what actually happened in the Capitol on that day was radically different from the way elements of the media reported it.

But what is reported matters and particularly so when it risks exaggerating violence or deepening fear and a sense of threat. If the US government really was the target of an armed insurrection, then this will be used to justify repression, as it was after 9/11, and not just against right wing conspiracy theorists. By becoming partisan instruments for spreading fake news, the media undermines its own credibility.

A problem with a giant news story like the Capitol invasion is that at first it is over-covered before we know the full facts, and then it is under-covered when those facts begin to emerge. This has been true of US media coverage. But even at the time it seemed to be a very peculiar armed insurrection. Only one shot appears to have been fired and that was by a police officer who killed Trump supporter Ashil Babbitt who was involved in the storming of the Capitol. In a country like the US awash with guns, this absence of gunfire is remarkable.

Five people died during the takeover of the Capitol building and this is the main proof of deadly intent by the rioters. But one of the dead was Babbitt, killed by the police, and three of the others were members of the pro-Trump mob, who died, respectively, from a stroke, a heart attack and from being accidentally crushed by the crowd.

This leaves just one person, Capitol policeman Brian Sicknick, as the sole victim of the Trump supporters who allegedly beat him to death with a fire extinguisher. On 8 January, the New York Times ran two stories about his death, quoting anonymous law officers as describing how pro-Trump rioters had struck him on the head with a fire extinguisher causing “a bloody gash on his head”. He is then reported to have been rushed to hospital, placed on life support but to have died the following day.

This graphic story went around the world and was widely picked up by other news outlets – including The Independent, the BBC and USA Today. It was also separately reported by the Associated Press. It gave credibility to the idea that the pro-Trump mob was willing to kill, even if they only killed one person. It also gave credibility to the idea that vice president Mike Pence, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and senator Mitt Romney had only escaped being lynched by seconds.

Yet over the last seven weeks – without the world paying any attention – the story of the murder of Officer Sicknick has progressively unravelled. Just how this happened is told in fascinating detail by Glenn Greenwald, the investigative journalist and constitutional lawyer, who concludes that “the problem with this story is that it is false in all respects”.

It was always strange that, though every event that took place during the riot was filmed, there is no video of the attack on Sicknick. He texted his brother later that day and sounded as if he was in good spirits. No autopsy report has been released that would confirm his alleged injuries. Conclusively, the New York Times quietly “updated” its original articles about the murder of Sicknick, admitting that new information had emerged that “questions the initial cause of his death provided by officials close to the Capitol Police”.

Since these officials were the only source for the original story, this – though readers might not guess it – amounts to an admission that it is untrue.

The misreporting of the Capitol invasion also included: a man carrying zip ties – that were taken to be evidence of a possible organised plan to detain political leaders – were in fact, according to prosecutors, picked up from a table within the Capitol, likely to ensure police could not use them. It is significant because it is part of a decline in media reporting everywhere, but particularly in the US. Trump is both a symptom and cause of this decline since he is a past master of saying and doing things, however untruthful or absurd, which are usually entertaining and always attention-grabbing. He guarantees high ratings for himself and the television channels, Trump haters and Trump-lovers alike, to their mutual benefit.

This symbiotic relationship between Trump and the media means that they do less and less reporting, allowing Trump and his supporters to provide the action while they provide the talking heads who thrive on venomous confrontation. Even American reporters on the ground have turned themselves into talking heads, willing to waffle on endlessly to meet the needs of 24/7 newscasts.

Events on Capitol Hill provided damning evidence of this decline in American journalism when Robert Moore, ITV News’s Washington correspondent, was the only television correspondent to make his way into the Capitol in the middle of the turmoil. He later expressed astonishment that, given the vast resources of US television and the thousands of journalists in Washington, that it should be “a solitary TV crew from Britain that was the only one to capture this moment in history – it’s bizarre”.

Bizarre, but not surprising. As a news event, the Capitol invasion showed that when it comes to spreading “fake facts”, the traditional media can be even more effective than the social media that is usually blamed.

 

Ten years ago, people across the Middle East and North Africa rose up in protest against their rulers, demanding freedom and democracy. Despotic rulers were toppled or feared that power was being torn from their grasp in countries across the region, as millions of demonstrators surged through the streets, chanting that “the people demand the fall of the regime”.

There was nothing phoney about this mass yearning for liberty and social justice. Vast numbers of disenfranchised people briefly believed that they could overthrow dictatorships, both republican and monarchical. “We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery,” recited the 20-year-old poet Ayat al-Gormezi, speaking to thousands of cheering protesters in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. “We are the people who will destroy the foundations of injustice.”

But these foundations were stronger than she hoped and the dream of a better tomorrow expressed by herself and millions during the Arab Spring in 2011 was to be brutally dispelled as the old regimes counter-attacked. Crueller and more repressive than ever, they reasserted themselves, or where they had fallen, they were replaced by chaotic violence and foreign military intervention.

Out of the six countries where the Arab Spring had the greatest impact, three – Libya, Syria and Yemen – are still being ripped apart by endless civil wars. In two of them – Egypt and Bahrain – state violence and suppression are far worse than in the past. Only Tunisia, where the protests began after a street vendor burnt himself to death, has so far escaped tyranny or anarchy, though the uprising has largely failed to deliver a better life for its people.

In Bahrain, the democratic protests started on 14 February and were centred on the Pearl Roundabout in the centre of Manama. They lasted a month before they were savagely crushed by the Bahraini security forces backed by 1,500 soldiers from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Ayat, a trainee teacher, was arrested, imprisoned, beaten with an electric cable, and threatened with sexual assault and rape, and was only released after an international outcry.

Others in Bahrain suffered far worse and some died under torture according to an international commission of inquiry. Doctors in a hospital that had treated injured protesters were a special target of interrogators from the Bahraini security services. “It was bizarre,” said one consultant who had been badly beaten over four days. “They wanted to prove all the violence came from the protesters or the hospital.” They demanded that he confess that blood from the hospital’s blood bank had been thrown over injured protesters in order to exaggerate their injuries. They also claimed that a sophisticated piece of medical equipment was in fact a secret device for receiving orders from Iran.

Much the same backlash was happening across the Middle East and North Africa, as rulers used mass imprisonment, routine torture and summary executions to crush dissent. Repression not only affected places where the Arab Spring had been at its peak, but spread throughout the region, which is home to 600 million people, as frightened rulers sought to stamp out the slightest hint of dissent in case it could become a threat to their regimes.

Could the Arab Spring have ever succeeded against such odds? The question is highly relevant today because oppression by regimes, aptly described as “looting machines” on behalf of a tiny elite, is no less than it was in 2011. Even more people now live crammed into houses with raw sewage running down the middle of the street outside while their rulers loll on yachts anchored offshore.

But anger and hatred was not enough 10 years ago and it will not be enough in future. I sympathised strongly with the protesters then, though I never gave much hope for their chances of permanent success.

They had initially the advantage of surprise, massive popular support and governments that were baffled by unprecedented events. But none of the kleptocratic powers-that-be intended to give up without a fight. They soon recovered their nerve and struck back with unrestrained violence.

Egypt, with a population of 90 million and a powerful cultural influence on the region, was the crucial test case. For 18 days, the secular and Islamist opponents of President Hosni Mubarak fought side by side in Tahrir Square in a successful bid to end his 29 years in power. When he finally departed, they appeared to have won a great victory, but it was more incomplete than it looked because the revolutionaries failed to gain control of the Egyptian security forces or the state-controlled television and press, which went on smearing the protesters as sexual degenerates and the agents of foreign powers.

Astonished by their own unexpected success, the protest leaders did not know how to consolidate their gains and prevent the return of an old regime that had been shaken but was far from defeated.

It is too easy to retrospectively blame the leaders of the protests for not acting like experienced revolutionaries determined to grasp the levers of power when that leadership, in so far as it existed, had no such background. Their lack of such a revolutionary track record was why the omnipresent secret police of the region had not taken them seriously enough. Sadly, this is not a mistake that those secret police are likely to make in future.

Some protesters, and many foreign diplomats, argued that they should have sought compromise with the existing elites, but that was easier said than done since the latter had no intention of sharing power with anybody.

When street protesters looked for leadership and organisation, the only place they could find it was among Islamists, as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or among the Islamists and jihadis in Libya and Syria. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad probably deliberately militarised the crisis in 2011 so that his own ruling Alawite sect and other religious and ethnic minorities would feel, with good reason, that they were facing an existential threat from a Sunni jihadi uprising. In Yemen, the Houthis, a Shia sect that had fought the government for years, took advantage of the protest movement to seize the capital Sana’a, which they still hold.

Foreign powers cynically intervened on behalf of their local proxies and their own selfish national interests, usually helping to tip the balance towards autocracy. I always thought it absurd to imagine that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, the last absolute monarchies on the planet, would want to spread democracy and freedom of expression among their neighbours.

Was hope of progress towards political freedom a mirage 10 years ago and is it a mirage today? Protests, as widespread and prolonged as anything seen in the Arab Spring, erupted in Iraq and Lebanon in 2019 and are continuing. Political Islam has largely discredited itself because its protagonists have turned out to be as corrupt, violent and incompetent as their opponents.

Overall, the greatest force for revolutionary change in this vast war-ravaged and misruled region is that the humiliation, misery and injustice that Ayat denounced 10 years ago is even greater today – and so is the rage they inspire.

 

Get your retaliation in first,” is a cynical old saying in Northern Irish politics that means you hit your opponent whenever you can without waiting for a provocation. It neatly captures the violent traditions of the province and explains why the political temperature there is always close to boiling over.

Imagine then the pleasure of those unionists who had always opposed the Northern Ireland Protocol, which places the new EU/UK commercial frontier between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, to find that they had been genuinely provoked by the European Commission. In a classic cock-up, but one with grave and lasting consequences, Brussels had briefly called for a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, something it had repeatedly told Britain was an anathema because it would endanger the Good Friday Agreement and open the road to communal violence.

Yet here was a glaring example of the EU selfishly backtracking on its own warnings and fecklessly reopening one of the most explosive issues in European politics, the culpable purpose of this being to stop vaccines capable of saving the lives of British pensioners from being exported from the EU to the UK.

The Commission was instantly struck by a hail of abuse for its folly and it promptly withdrew the proposal with embarrassment, but for almost the first time in four years the EU was on the back foot in its relationship with Britain. No wonder Michael Gove was openly gloating as he told the House of Commons that the European Commission’s action had been condemned by everybody from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the former prime minister of Finland. And there was indeed some innocent pleasure to be had in watching somebody as poised and ostensibly competent as the Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, get quite so much egg on her face.

She had presumably miscalculated or ignored, as have so many politicians before her, the extreme combustibility of Northern Irish politics, or failed to notice how far they had already been inflamed by the creation of an Irish Sea EU/UK commercial border at the start of this year. Such flames are not be easily put out, whatever calming noises may come from Brussels, London and Dublin.

Port officials in Belfast and Larne, who actually conduct the border checks, have stopped working on the grounds that they fear for their safety. A piece of graffiti has appeared on a wall in Larne reading: “All Border Post Staff are Targets.” For weeks, the media had been full of stories about frustrated Northern Irish businesses facing ruin because of the new border checks.

Ever since Boris Johnson openly betrayed the unionists and signed the Irish protocol, they have felt the ground shifting under their feet and, they found to their horror, apparently shifting inexorably towards a united Ireland. They complain that even the British Army was having to fill in EU forms to bring military equipment into the province (it turned out that they were doing so, though they did not have to under the terms of the Protocol). An element of “getting your retaliation in first” surfaces here since, under pressure from those even more hard line than themselves, the Democratic Unionist Party leadership which – along with Sinn Fein – heads the government in Northern Ireland, has switched its stance. Instead of reluctantly enforcing the Irish Protocol, it now opposes it.

One of DUP ministers, Edwin Poots, ordered the withdrawal of the port inspectors, though the police had told him that they did not believe the inspectors were under threat from loyalist paramilitaries. Poots claims the police did not have “a full understanding of the risks” – and in the long term he is probably right.

The bizarreness – and potential dangers – of the permanent crisis in Northern Ireland cannot be over-stated. By leaving the EU, Britain created a new UK/EU frontier the effect of which would be to the benefit of either the unionists/protestants or the nationalists/catholics. A repartitioning of Ireland by resurrecting a physical barrier along the 300-mile-long land border was never feasible, if only because it largely runs through nationalist/catholic majority areas where any new customs posts would be burned or wrecked as soon they were established. Now the unionist/protestant community is extending a similar veto over an “Irish Sea border”.

In other words, the frontier between Britain and the EU is a disputed no-man’s land where two communities struggle ceaselessly for dominance. This is something that will affect – and probably poison – future relations between London and Brussels for decades to come. Brexit automatically destabilised Northern Ireland and now Northern Ireland is going to destabilise Brexit Britain.

But the embattled province will not be the only friction point, only the one with greatest potential for violence. Boris Johnson won the general election of 2019 by claiming that he would “Get Brexit Done”, promising that relations between Britain and the EU would soon achieve a stable equilibrium. But that is precisely what is not happening. Instability is built into the Withdrawal Agreement, and the row over vaccines and the Irish Protocol is only a precursor to decades of friction.

Britain will be permanently in the position of negotiating and renegotiating access to the single market for its goods and services. It will, moreover, be negotiating from a position of weakness and will be continually forced to make concessions – as was so often the case during its negotiations to leave the EU. British fishermen, once the symbol of the benefits to come of enhanced British sovereignty, have become the first visible casualties of this new and unequal balance of power.

Remainers once fantasised about the day when Leavers would see the ruinous errors of their ways in exiting Britain’s largest market and lament their folly. But the exact opposite is likely to happen: the EU will in future fight for its 27 members’ interests with even less regard for the views of the British government and British public opinion than it did before.

A Brexiteer government and pro-Brexit media will inevitably respond by scapegoating Brussels for everything that goes wrong in Britain, accusing it of overbearing behaviour and unfair practices. They may even be right, but this will not do them any good, simply because the EU has the stronger hand of cards.

Just at the moment the government can say – though not too loudly – that the advantages of speedy national action, unobstructed by the restraints imposed by an unwieldy EU alliance, are exemplified by its swift development and rolling out of the coronavirus vaccine, but this type of success is unlikely to be often repeated.

On the contrary, the outlook is that Britain will remain obsessed by its relations with the EU – and that those relations will generate continuous friction. The economic relationship may begin to sort itself out in time, but at the cost of much bad political blood while Brexit turbo-charges Irish and Scottish separatism. The furore in Northern Ireland is not an atypical hangover from the past, but the first instalment of a permanent confrontation between Britain and the EU.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, EU, Northern Ireland 

Predictions of the break-up of the UK may be reaching a crescendo, but they are scarcely new. In 1707, Jonathan Swift wrote a poem deriding the Act of Union between England and Scotland, which had just been passed, for seeking to combine two incompatible peoples in one state: “As if a man in making posies/ Should bundle thistles up with roses”. He goes on to say that political differences would inevitably sink the whole enterprise, as “tossing faction will o’erwhelm/ Our crazy double-bottomed realm”.

Swift was confident that the ramshackle project would founder, but it has taken 313 years for his prediction to look as if it might come true – and even then the split may not be quite as imminent as some imagine.

It is true that the last 20 opinion polls show that most Scots now favour independence, but the shift against the union is only a few years old, as is the dominance of the Scottish National Party at the polls.

Compare this short span with the Irish struggle for home rule, which was at its height from 1885 to 1918, when those seeking self-rule through constitutional means were replaced by Sinn Fein and unilateral secession. Many of the arguments used against Irish separatism – the most notable being that it made no economic sense – are now used against the Scots and are likely to be equally ineffectual.

The downplaying of Scottish self-determination on the grounds that it is less important than bread-and-butter issues by Boris Johnson during his one-day visit to Scotland on Thursday sounds absurdly hypocritical, coming as it does from a prime minister who only has the job because he promoted British sovereignty above all else in leaving the EU. Doubtless he and his advisers recognise this contradiction all too well since the purpose of his trip to Scotland in the middle of the pandemic was evidently to rebrand Johnson in Scottish eyes as “Mr Vaccine” rather than “Mr Brexit”.

It is a measure of just how rattled the British government must be by Scottish separatism that it should hope that the appearance of Johnson in a white coat claiming, contrary to the evidence, that Scots voters consider independence to be “irrelevant”, would help turn the political tide. He claimed self-destructively that giving priority to self-rule over economic benefits is “like saying you don’t mind what you eat as long as it is with a spoon”.

Catchy phrases like this must have the SNP leaders rocking with secret glee, as Johnson’s patronising words serve only to remind Scottish voters of the two main reason why they are more inclined towards secession today than in the referendum of 2014: Britain’s departure from the EU and Johnson’s shambolic response to coronavirus last year, compared to that of the competent-looking Nicola Sturgeon.

Johnson and his Brexiteer government are being force-fed the same political lesson that they once taught to others, which is that once a nationalist movement has gained momentum, become a mark of identity for people, and is a vehicle for social and economic grievances, then it is very difficult to stop it.

Yet self-rule comes in different shades of practical independence. Even if Scotland and Northern Ireland shift significantly further away from direct control by the UK government, the degree to which they can freely go their own way will be dictated by the underlying balance of power, as the Brexiteers have been discovering to their cost.

Competing pressures for union and disunion are normally analysed in the context of the UK alone, but it is more realistic and illuminating to look at them in relation to the British Isles as a whole.

Ireland gained a large measure of independence in 1921 and was neutral in the Second World War, but stayed to a surprising extent in the British sphere of influence because of the disparity in political and economic strength and the common labour market. But the British exit from the EU, while Ireland stays inside, made the two countries much more equal when it came to negotiations, particularly when there is a US administration sympathetic to the Irish.

One of the many things that Arlene Foster and her Democratic Unionist Party failed to understand was that no British leader wants to quarrel with Brussels and Washington in order to go along with the wishes of one million unionist/Protestants in Northern Ireland. A sign of the times is that few in the rest of the UK were much concerned that a chunk of their country, in the shape of Northern Ireland, remains bizarrely inside the EU and the commercial EU/UK frontier now runs down the Irish Sea.

Yet this does not necessarily mean that Irish unity is around the corner, or even the corner after that. Demography may be changing but, just as the unionist/Protestant community could not monopolise control when they were the majority, the same will be true of the nationalist/Catholic side as they become more numerous. Whatever the outcome of a border poll, in the unlikely event of it taking place in the near future, communal allegiances will stay the same. The basic premise of the Good Friday Agreement remains correct – both communities must have a veto over radical constitutional changes they do not like, if peace is to be preserved.

Ireland, north and south, is full of ominous warning for Johnson and his cabinet as they try to block and reverse the Scottish move towards independence. There are delicious ironies in watching them repeat, almost word for word, the old Remainer arguments about the advantages of economic union with a larger entity, which they once denounced. In an early period, the Conservatives had likewise failed “to kill home rule by kindness” by social and economic reform in Ireland.

These measures may have mitigated historic hatreds but had little lasting impact as the Home Rulers went on winning elections. It was frustration at the failure to win home rule by constitutional means, despite repeated endorsement at the polls, that handed the initiative to those advocating unconstitutional methods. In addition to the armed uprising of 1916, the newly elected Sinn Fein MPs left the Westminster parliament and established their own in Dublin.

Practical secessionism like this may still be over the horizon in Scotland, but nationalist movements everywhere in the world almost invariably respond to the path towards self-determination being closed off by becoming more rather than less radical.

The legitimacy and the visibility of the Scottish demand for self-rule will be confirmed if the SNP wins a majority in the Scottish parliament in the election in May. But Johnson’s dash through Scotland – his precise itinerary concealed to avoid protesters – highlights a crucial change in the political landscape of Britain that is already under way.

“The Scottish Question” now occupies the place once held by “the Irish Question” as a divisive issue that will dominate the political agenda of the UK for decades to come. After all those years, Swift may turn out to have been right.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Brexit, Britain, Scotland 

I was always worried when I had to enter the Green Zone in Baghdad at a time when its entrances were under frequent attack by suicide bombers driving vehicles filled with explosives.

Being blown up by al-Qaeda in Iraq was not the only danger. The soldiers guarding the outer checkpoints of the zone were understandably nervous and would shoot at any vehicle they thought was coming too close to them. Once, I had to cower down behind a concrete barrier as they fired at a battered old car which had stalled just in front of their position.

I recalled the old Baghdad Green Zone this week as 25,000 National Guards established a well-defended area with the same name in the centre of Washington. The overt purpose was to protect the inauguration of Joe Biden as president and US security agencies, caught on the hop by the invasion of the Capitol on 6 January, were busy slamming the stable door long after the immediate crisis was over.

The Democrats and the largely Trump-hating media want to portray the alt-right rioters as “domestic terrorists” who had staged an abortive “insurrection” in order to stop Biden taking office. Clearly, some members of the mob would have liked to do just that, but, despite the impression given by all those blood-curdling video films, this was not a “coup” in the sense of an organised attempt to seize power. Any suggestion that the US capital faced a threat anything like that to the Green Zone in Baghdad 15 years ago is an absurd exaggeration.

What we are seeing is political theatre, which is scarcely surprising since we have seen little else during Donald Trump’s four years in the White House. It is fitting that the end of the Trump presidency was marked by two events – the Capitol invasion and the exaggerated military response to it – that hover between theatre and reality.

At one level, it is gratifying to see the Republicans, who last year came close to winning the presidential election by pretending that Black Lives Matter protests were a “terrorist” insurgency, now claiming to be the defenders of sober truth and piously expressing dismay that the Democrats should be endangering national unity. This is a classic case of biter bit and hypocrisy run rampant.

In reality, the Republican leadership is frightened by the idea that “6/1” will become the new “9/11”, permanently demonising them and splitting their party. A billboard in one Trump-voting rural county in Texas spells this out, denouncing “treasonous RINOs” – Republicans in name only – who refused to back Trump’s claim that he had lost the election through fraud.

For all Biden’s talk of “unity”, the Democrats have an opportunity to extract political blood from the Republicans and are not going to pass it up. If they play their cards right, they can exploit the shambolic invasion of the Capitol for years, just as the Republicans did 9/11. The loss of life is very different – five dead compared to 2,977 – but in terms of perception the two events have significant features in common.

Both were highly visible even by the standards of 24/7 news coverage: the image of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers was seared into the minds of Americans by repeated showings. Every detail of the takeover of the Capitol is likewise known to the world because the supposed revolutionaries spent much time taking film of themselves. Politics has always been a form of theatre but satellite television and the internet means that today the whole world really is its stage.

The Democrats have been dealt a strong hand but it is an easy one to overplay. In the long term, 9/11 succeeded far better than Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda could have hoped because it provoked a disastrous overreaction by President George W Bush, who pursued his “war on terror”, launching two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and openly legitimising America’s use of torture and rendition.

Over-exploitation of 6/1 for short political gain could likewise be counter-productive if it targets too broad a swathe of Republicans. The gambit of former supporters of Trump on Fox News is to claim that all the 74 million Americans who voted for him are being unfairly demonised. Big business may be hurriedly distancing itself from Trump and Trumpism, but its revulsion may not last as plutocrats recall what he delivered for them in terms of tax cuts and deregulation.

It is doubtful if Trump himself could lead a resurgence of Trumpism after his Nero-like inaction during the pandemic, nor will he easily escape the explosive consequences of his belligerent demagoguery addressed to his supporters before they went on to storm the Capitol. Regardless of just how far he egged them on, their lawyers will presumably be telling their clients that it is much in their interests to claim that they believed that they were obeying a direct order from the president, without which they would not have stirred an illegal finger.

I believe a Trumpian resurrection would be very difficult because the danger he poses to so many has been so graphically demonstrated over the last four years. He no longer has the advantage of surprise and of opponents, Republican and Democrat, who underestimate him.

His great skill continues to be his mastery of modern communications, notably Twitter and television, but his chronicle of ineptitude in office showed that he had mastered nothing else.

His chaotic rule appropriately culminated in his catastrophic mishandling of the Covid-19 epidemic and 400,000 Americans dead. Yet even then, he only just lost the election, showing the vast size of the constituency to whom he appeals.

As he retreats to Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Trump remains an obsession for America and the world. The prospect of his political revival is thankfully less than a few weeks ago when it seemed possible that he might set up his own television station, stage mass rallies, and claim that he had been robbed of the presidency. Today he probably has too many powerful enemies, now in control of government, for a comeback.

Yet the social, economic and cultural causes of the rise of Trump are still there. Broadly speaking, the neo-liberal economics dominant for 40 years since the age of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher have produced unsustainable inequality. This is not just an American phenomenon. Trump is, after all, only the American variant in a range of populist nationalist autocrats who have taken power around the world from Brazil to Turkey and from Hungary to the Philippines.

America has always been more deeply divided by race and class than most Americans and almost all foreigners realised. The repeated, rather desperate, appeals for unity at Biden’s inauguration serve only to emphasise the divisions. Given the depths of the hatreds and fears, it is surprising that there has not been more violence. In the 1960s, turmoil in America was typified by demonstrations and riots, but above all else by assassination, something which we have yet to see this time around. Biden spoke of ending the “uncivil war” but this has lain beneath the surface of American life since independence and will not end now.

 

Two fervent Donald Trump supporters die and go to heaven. Soon after their arrival they meet God. “Please can you tell us,” they ask him, “did President Trump really win the presidential election or did he lose it because of fraud?”

“I can definitively tell you that Joe Biden won the presidency fairly by 306 to 232 votes in the electoral college and there was absolutely no fraud,” responds the Almighty. The Trump supporters look at him suspiciously for a moment before one turns to the other and whispers: “I can see that the conspiracy goes even higher than we thought.”

The moral of the story is that there will always be a pro-Trump core of Americans who will be convinced, whatever the lack of evidence, that their man should have stayed in the White House. Some commentators gloomily predict that Trumpism will outlast Trump, citing the 74 million who voted for him and the majority of Republicans who believe in his nonsense claims about winning the election.

On the other hand, many hope that Trump was an aberration in American history, a grotesque political accident not likely to recur – and that the defeat of his type of politics will be final.

Over the past four years I have felt that Trump’s opponents have misunderstood his strengths and weaknesses, underestimating and overestimating them at the same time. Above all else, he is an obsessive self-publicist – a common enough trait among politicians – but one of extraordinary capabilities when it comes to dominating the news agenda by skilfully using Twitter and sympathetic television networks like Fox News.

This is a difficult to do, let alone go on doing it for years as he poured out tweets precisely geared to provoking attention-grabbing headlines in newspapers and on newscasts. Outrageous lies and personal scandals did him little damage and attracted soaring television ratings. This will be a hard – and probably an impossible – act to follow by those Republican leaders manoeuvring to inherit Trump’s support.

Many fear that Trump is not permanently out of business and over the next four years, he will be lurking in Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach estate, like some American version of General Charles de Gaulle waiting in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, for a return to power. Yet this is close to impossible once he is out of the White House and no longer has the magic of executive power to attract his devotees. Without Twitter and instant access to Fox News as a megaphone for his views, he will become ever more isolated.

Significant also is the fact that he is no longer permanently entertaining, something that guaranteed him a constant presence – even on television stations that detested him. This has long enabled him to dominate the news agenda in the US and in the rest of the world to a degree that has come to feel normal to both friends and enemies. But since the election, his entertainment value has ebbed and he sounds more and more deranged as he rants on about how he was robbed of office.

The problem for Trumpism is that it does not stand for much without Trump himself and his instinctive understanding, honed by his long years as a star of reality TV, about how to dominate in an age awash with information. Trumpism has never been an ideology like European fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, but is an incoherent body of fears, hatreds and dreams. More than most such movements, Trumpism needs a leader.

How far will Joe Biden be able to repair the damage inflicted by Trump on America? The simple fact of the country not being run by an unhinged crackpot obviously enhances its government’s competence at home and influence abroad. Political establishments everywhere are almost sobbing with relief.

However, the very fact that America could produce such a leader, who should so mismanage the Covid-19 crisis as to leave 400,000 Americans dead, is not something that is going to be forgotten in the world’s collective memory.

All great powers depend to a degree on bluff and exaggerated assumptions of their superiority. That bluff has been called and America is permanently weakened. It should always have been evident that the US was deeply divided, primarily by race and the legacy of slavery and the Civil War. Once this was passed off as irrelevant history, but no longer. In future, there will always be an expectation after the invasion of the Capitol on 6 January that what happened once could happen again.

Members of the far-right mob who are facing long prison sentences are sensibly claiming that they acted only on the instructions of President Trump as they understood them. It will not be easy for him to wholly disavow them.

For all his radical rhetoric, Trump did little beyond advancing the traditional Republican programme of cutting taxes and reducing regulation. For his masses of “left-behind” followers, he did nothing beyond words and promises.

There was a phoniness at the heart of the whole Trump project and there is something satisfactory in the way that it is his bellicose demagoguery on the day of the Capitol invasion, which he probably did not expect to be taken seriously, that may now destroy him.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: 2020 Election, Donald Trump, Joe Biden 

The coastal town of Margate in east Kent is the place where the fast-spreading variant of Covid-19 first mutated before it swept through the rest of Britain. Scientists identified Kent last month as the county where the mutant virus developed, but a source with knowledge of research into its origins tells me that the earliest case of a person being infected with it was in Margate on the Isle of Thanet.

The new virus mutated during the second wave of the epidemic with the first case becoming known in September, though the danger it posed only became clear in December. The renewed epidemic in late summer was centred on Thanet and Swale, both on the north Kent coast, and was particularly severe in their most deprived districts.

Government scientists expressed alarm at the steep and unexpected increase in coronavirus cases in Kent, despite the November lockdown. “This variant became of interest because there was an investigation of the increasing case numbers in Kent in early December, despite the national lockdown,” said Professor Peter Horby, the chairman of the government’s New and Emerging and Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG).

Horby recalled that when Public Health England investigated the reason for the upsurge in Kent, its medical experts discovered a cluster of cases with a variant of the virus that they had not seen before. The first case of the new more transmissible strain was first detected on 21 September, but its enhanced ability to infect people only became evident six weeks later.

Every virus mutates, but most mutations lead nowhere. Creating a more efficient virus through trial and error requires many people to be infected and plenty of potential hosts were available as the second wave of the epidemic gathered pace in north Kent late last summer. Scientists say that the mutation probably occurred in a single person with a weak immune system, giving the virus the opportunity to improve its mode of attack.

That this person should be living in Margate, a run-down town with a population of 61,000 in Thanet on the southeast tip of England, was not inevitable but it fitted in with the pattern seen in the rest of the country. High levels of poverty and of Covid-19 infection go hand-in-hand as health inequality mirrors social and economic divisions.

The depth of these might not be obvious to a casual visitor to Margate who has come to see the Turner Gallery, swim from the sandy beaches, or eat in a restaurant in the gentrified town centre. Yet within a few hundred yards of central Margate live some of the poorest people in England.

A short walk from the Turner Gallery is the heavily populated Cliftonville West district which is in the top one per cent of the most deprived areas in England, ranking fourth out of 32,278 areas in the government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation. From a distance this part of Margate does not look decayed, and there are centres of bohemian life, but the impressive-looking Victorian buildings are often subdivided into single overcrowded one-room flats.

It does not necessarily follow that the variant of the virus began its existence in Margate in a deprived area, but, as the second wave of the epidemic grew in size and speed last year, a map showing the surging infection exactly matched a map of the most deprived districts. It was also clear that this time around, unlike during the first wave, east Kent was in the front line of the epidemic. More specifically, it was Thanet and Swale, a district a little further west along the coast from Margate, and later Medway, which bore the brunt of the attack.

Swale includes the towns of Faversham and Sittingbourne and the Isle of Sheppey, separated from the mainland by a narrow stretch of water. As elsewhere in England, wealth and deprivation are closely juxtaposed, with the former often unaware of the latter. People living in beachfront houses that sell for a million pounds in Whitstable, a fashionable town in between Swale and Thanet, have a good view of the Isle of Sheppey, looking green and idyllic a few miles away across the water. But in reality, Sheppey is one of the poorest areas in Kent with life expectancy in places 10 years less than in towns nearby on the mainland. Similarly, out of view from Whitstable are three prisons in Sheppey, one of which suffered a coronavirus outbreak in which 90 inmates were infected.

I should confess a personal interest here since I live in Canterbury, which is 15 miles from Margate and 10 miles from Faversham. During the second lockdown last November and December, I noticed that infections did not seem to be falling in nearby Swale and Thanet as I had hoped. I was a bit disconcerted that the risk level was not declining as expected, though the idea that the second wave would provide the breeding ground for a deadlier strain of virus never occurred to me. But it should have occurred to the government, with immense scientific expertise at its fingertips, that the threat of a dangerous mutation would be enhanced by the premature and excessive relaxation of restrictions in July followed by the failure to reimpose them until November.

The second line of government defence is to blame the public and pretend that the problem is people fecklessly flouting lockdown restrictions, as claimed by the home secretary Priti Patel, who inevitably concludes that the way forward is tougher rules enforced by greater punishments.

Aside from Patel, many people abiding by the lockdown rules are outraged by the roar of traffic in their streets and the number of pedestrians on the pavement. I asked community workers and activists in different parts of Kent why so many people, particularly in deprived areas, appear to be living and working as normal. They all denied that it was “lockdown fatigue”, saying that people are actually more frightened now than during the first lockdown because, as one person in Swale put it to me, this time round everybody “knows somebody who has caught the virus or has died from it”.

People in deprived areas may want to stay at home but they have no choice but to go to work to earn a living and to keep their job. “Most women on the estate work in care homes, home care, as cleaners or in supermarkets,” says one local community leader. “I guess that makes them key workers, though they don’t get the applause.” Nor do they get compensation if they test positive and quarantine, putting in doubt what proportion of the working poor do get tested. During the pilot scheme run by the British army in Liverpool, a local doctor estimated that in areas of maximum deprivation, those coming forward to be tested numbered just four per cent.

The variant of the virus has become an alibi to explain away the government’s mistakes, but it was these same failings to better suppress the virus that helped produce the mutant in Margate in the first place.

 
• Category: Ideology, Science • Tags: Britain, Coronavirus, Disease 

Republican rats deserting the good ship “Trump” make an enjoyable spectacle as they hypocritically pretend that it was only the invasion of the Capitol by a mob that finally revealed to them the failings of Donald Trump.

Longer-term opponents of Trump are cock-a-hoop that they can credibly denounce him for egging on a “deadly insurrection” and an “attempted coup”, comparing the incursion to the burning of Washington by the British in 1814 and even to Pearl Harbour in 1941. This is an exaggeration since this was not an organised attempt to seize power, but an arch-fabricator like Trump is in no position to complain about others dressing-up facts in their own interests.

Most telling was the ease with which the Capitol was briefly occupied. The 2,000 Capitol police, with an annual budget of $460m (£339m), put up little resistance while videos show some of them facilitating. Unsurprisingly, their tolerant response to the alt-right pro-Trump protesters is being widely condemned and compared with their brutal reaction to Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year. Racial bias by police in America is scarcely news but has seldom been so explicit or well-publicised.

It was gratifying to see Republican lawmakers scurrying out of the Capitol in fear of the very pro-Trump activists whose hatreds they have happily exploited for so long. But it is more important to try to understand what the Republican Party will do once the furore dies away, though the Democrats will do everything to make sure this does not happen and cast “the insurrection” as an equivalent to 9/11. A week ago it seemed likely that Trump could remain the most powerful force in the Republican Party for years to come, but no longer.

Dramatic events initially billed as turning points in history often turn out to be no such thing, but I think the invasion of the Capitol will live up to the hype – even if it was not exactly the storming of the Bastille. A better parallel might be the raid by the anti-slavery abolitionist John Brown in 1859 on Harpers Ferry further up the Potomac River from Washington. The circumstances may be very different, but both events galvanised and gave momentum to powerful political forces that were already on the move.

This was a calamitous day for Trump and Trumpism as they were battered by a series of disasters that hit them simultaneously. In a short space of time, the Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Vice President Mike Pence turned publicly against Trump in formally accepting Joe Biden as the next president. As they did so the Democrats won two Senate seats in Georgia, giving them a majority in the chamber, a defeat blamed by many Republicans on Trump.

This was capped by the invasion of the Capitol by a Trumpian mob, every detail of which was filmed and broadcast around the world. Finally, Twitter temporarily closed down Trump’s account and deleted some of his incendiary tweets. His most crucial means of communicating with his supporters was briefly gone – he has said that without Twitter he would not be president – and this could happen again.

Up to that moment, he may have calculated that he had lost the White House, but would remain the controlling figure in the Republican Party. He could set up his own version of Fox News. Republican candidates, who could not win without him, would vie for his support. He might be their presidential candidate in 2024 and have a good chance of winning.

Within a day these prospects withered and he looked a beaten man as he denounced and demanded punishment for the self-same pro-Trump demonstrators whom he had incited and extravagantly praised hours earlier. he looked shrivelled and defeated, as if he sensed that his political power was ebbing away.

For four years America and the world has been obsessed by a single man. Trump’s dominance of the news agenda has been so complete and has gone on so long that it has come to feel normal. Even as he falls – and I believe this fall will be permanent – this Trump-obsession lives on among Republicans and Democrats alike.

Yet Trump is a symptom as well as a cause, the product of powerful political and social forces, some global, some specific to America. Trump is the apotheosis of what has been called “pluto-populism” – a movement combining plutocrats, the one per cent, the very rich, seeking lower taxes and deregulation, with a broad chunk of the population fixated on their racial, religious and cultural identity. It is much in the interests of the former that the latter should be encouraged to prioritise such concerns, much against their own interests to do so, rather than focus on the decline or stagnation of their standard of living.

There are several other pluto-populist leaders in the world, but none so skilled and effective as Trump. He made vague promises of bringing well-paying jobs back to America and rebuilding the country’s crumbling infrastructure which remain unfulfilled, but he did carry through the traditional Republican programme of cutting taxes and deregulation. Even during the last few chaotic weeks, his administration has been selling rights to drill for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Pluto-populism takes a particular form in America because of the country’s history and the success of a particular toxic variant of American nationalism now dominant in the Republican Party. It is rooted in a culture shaped by slavery, the Civil War between North and South, a century of Jim Crow discrimination against blacks, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and the reaction against it. It was this past that produced the white, male, Christian non-metropolitan voters who saw Trump as their saviour.

The same split is there in every American election, most recently in the two Senate races in Georgia that the Democrats won by a whisper despite rampant voter suppression (with the highest incarceration rate in the US, Georgia has 275,000 convicted felons – many of whom are black – who are denied the vote).

Trump was expert at successfully playing on these racist themes, exploiting the paranoid and messianic strain in American culture. He did not lose the presidential election because this formula has stopped working, but because of his grotesque incompetence in handing the Covid-19 epidemic.

Does Trump have a political future after this week, catastrophic from his point of view? Probably not. The Georgia Senate races showed the Republicans that he is a vote loser as well as a vote winner. Crucially, the pro-Trump mob may have been less revolutionary than it is being portrayed, but the Republicans want to run the country, not blow it up.

Long before Trump appeared, it was said that the Republican Party never much liked, and even despised, its own voters. That is doubly true today after its leaders had to flee from fanatics who took seriously – and acted upon – Trump’s demented vision of America.

 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: 2020 Election, Donald Trump, Vote Fraud 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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