The War in Ukraine and the Left

Russians in St Petersburg protest against the war in Ukraine

An article in the British web site ‘Anti-capitalist Resistance’ has an analysis of the British Left’s view of the war in Ukraine.  It reminds me of the old Irish response when asked for directions to a particular destination – if I wanted to get there I wouldn’t start from here.

So, if I wanted to determine the socialist position on the war, I wouldn’t start by saying you have to take sides between Ukraine and Russia.  In all circumstances socialists look after the immediate aims of the working class movement but look after and take care of its future.  The immediate aims involve identifying the interests of the working class – the whole working class, not any particular section and not any particular nationality.

It is not therefore the supposed interests of the Ukrainian working class or Russian working class but the working class of the world that is paramount.  It’s why the socialist war cry is ‘Workers of the World Unite.’ ‘Taking sides’ means taking sides in the class war and the first step is recognising that the ‘two sides’ we have been invited to choose from by ‘Anti-capitalist Resistance’ are conglomerates of classes with conflicting interests, and we would betray the interests of the working class by pretending that right now their particular interests don’t count, which is what this article requires.

The independence of the working class and its unity are the watchwords of socialist politics without which we become liberals.  This may be put differently, as Lenin did, by saying that we are in favour of the self-determination of the working class.

Instead, the article demands that we respect self-determination of Ukraine as ‘obvious’ but not that of the Donbass and Crimea.  The borders of this particular capitalist state are now apparently sacrosanct despite its history.  This is one problem of the demand for self-determination of nations – to whom does it apply when there are conflicting national claims?

As the article demonstrates, it often involves picking the primacy of one capitalist state over another, in other words supporting and fighting for one capitalist state and its capitalist class instead of another; in this case one group of oligarchs over another.

This is the very definition of surrendering the interests of the  working class.  Gone is any appeal to class interests, instead we are asked to believe in the progressive character of one capitalist state while its resistance contains a significant presence of far-right forces.

It is argued that “Russia attacked Ukraine. NATO did not invade Russia and nor did Ukraine” as if we are supposed to believe that the war came out of nowhere or could have had no cause that did not exclusively involve Russian aggression.

Who shoots first determines a war’s class character?  Many states have gone to war claiming that the other side engaged in some attack, often a pure invention, but never has it been the case that socialists should either accept their word for it or offer their support even if they were told the truth. 

It is argued that ‘Ukraine is facing one of the three most powerful imperialist powers . . . and is a much weaker country;’ as if we should support small capitalist powers against larger ones.  Do we then support small capitalists against large monopolies, like the Stalinists used to argue?  Do we support ‘native’ capital against foreign multinationals?  And since Ukraine has the support of NATO this argument doesn’t even hold up very much anyway. 

It is argued that although Ukrainians might know that ‘Zelensky’s government has [not] been any sort of progressive regime . . . at least they know they can vote the guy out.’  Again we are to accept that the class character of the state has no bearing on whether socialists should defend it – just as long as it has a bourgeois democratic government like . . .  France or Germany or Britain or the US? 

The history of the US intervening in elections, including Russian ones, is forgotten. But Zelensky can be voted out?  Can the Ukrainian oligarchs be voted out, can the Ukrainian state be overthrown by voting, can its capitalist state be overthrown by voting?  Will Ukraine’s subordination to the US through NATO be the achievement of real self-determination and democracy?

That self-determination of Ukraine will mean the expansion of NATO through Ukrainian membership, and so expansion of the power of US imperialism, exposes the bourgeois nature of the demand for the right of nations to self-determination.  It is not a socialist demand.  When it is therefore described as a bourgeois demand this has a particular meaning: it does not go beyond capitalism and must therefore be completely subordinated to the political interests of the working class. In these circumstances making it absolute makes your politics absolutely bourgeois. 

It is argued that there is one Immediate question and everything else is ‘later’.  We even get this from socialists who live in London for example, 1,500 miles from Kyiv, but who instinctively realise that this is really not the case so have deployed the arguments in the article to cover their nakedness.

‘Sure, NATO can be blamed to some point in time, but when the bombs start falling from the sky – only Russia can be blamed for bombing,’ which appears to mean that all political issues and responsibility for the war can be reduced to where particular bombs, suffered by one ‘side’, are falling.

We do not even get the justification, which is irrelevant to this particular Left’s argument, of a call for a separate working class resistance – on the basis that the Ukrainian working class has the right to physically and politically defend itself. We are, after all, not the slightest bit interested in the right of self-defence for oligarchs etc.

But to do this would require a political programme to win Ukrainian workers away from their current leaders and find a basis for possible unity with Russian workers – and this goes way beyond opposing the bombs.  Yet all we get is the vague and mealy-mouthed statement that it ‘does not mean you give up the class struggle in Ukraine but it does mean you fight against getting a worse regime foisted on you.’

The article quotes a Ukrainian that ‘A friend told me that it is also NATO’s guilt and after everything will be over we will have a very nationalist, xenophobic country and other problems. So I answered him: Sure, we probably will, but I will think about it later when there will be no shelling of cities and when there will be no Russian army here. Now we cannot solve these problems.’

Except if you are that weak you will not solve the problem of the Russian invasion by your actions either.  And if your actions are to advance your cause then clearly you want to advance your arguments now.

But at least this Ukrainian has no illusions in the outcome unlike the British author, who would have us believe that ‘A victory for the Ukrainian resistance, far from being reactionary, could lead to positive changes both in Ukraine, in Russia and across Eastern Europe.’

What is involved here is a capitulation to one’s own ruling class, in this case the British state, which is a significant member of NATO.  The article endorses the demands – ‘Russian Troops Out Now and No To War’ and seems to endorse that ‘pro-NATO politicians spoke from STW [Stop the War’] platforms during the Iraq war.’

Of course, this makes sense, inter alia, only if you think NATO bears no responsibility for the war itself; no responsibility for the bombs etc.  In which case the criticism of Labour Party leader Keir Starmer in the article is pretty pitiful and there is really no reason why he can’t join their ‘anti-war’ movement.

This capitulation is evidenced in another respect.  The article strangles itself over support for sanctions against Russia.  It supports them and expects that Russian workers will forgive them – ‘The existence of a very brave anti-war movement on the streets in Russia will hopefully make a nationalist pro-Putin boost less likely as a result of sanctions.’  These brave Russians are actually being told that they are on their own.

The article says that ‘Sanctions against Russia should hit its oligarchs and Putin’s war machine, not its populations’ but then says ‘In reality it will be difficult to shield Russian workers from all the effects of sanctions but any discomfort they suffer has to be balanced against the way such sanctions may shorten the war and the killings of Ukrainians.’  Of course, the sanctions are coupled with support for arms to the Ukrainian state, which will purchase its own killings, this time of Russian conscripts.  But again, the brave Russians will understand even if the effect on them is belittled and insulting – ‘not being able to buy the latest smart phone with your Visa card has to be put against a family dying in an apartment block.’

In fact, ‘Russian workers’ will quickly understand that they will be most affected by sanctions and that this is their purpose: to put pressure on the Putin regime through their impact on the lives of ordinary citizens.  It is what sanctions are for.  They are not an alternative to war, they are part of it.  If war is the continuation of politics by other means sanctions are the result of political action to make economic measures the continuation of war.

One little argument demonstrates the nature of such sanctions, that they are in fact an attack on the Russian people because they are Russian, not because they support or otherwise advance the war in Ukraine.

The article states that ‘Putin’s regime lays great store in cultural and sporting soft power. A boycott helps weaken this. It sends a message to the world that you cannot just sit there and see a state sponsored ballet company perform blithely unaware of Russian bombs falling on Kharkiv.’

So what contribution do Russian ballet dancers make to the war?  In what way are they responsible for it?  In what way are Russian paralympians, subject to banning from the Winter Olympics, responsible for the war?  How have they contributed to it?  What possible role does their ‘soft power’ have?  Why have they been sanctioned?  The only possible reason is simply because they are Russian.  Yet the article disavows any ‘Russia phobia’!

We thus see in the most petty way what ‘taking sides’ means.  Not only is any class analysis abandoned, but so is any remotely sensible allocation of responsibility for the war.  The capitulation to one side of this capitalist war has revealed its socialist cheer leaders to have emulated their liberal allies, who defend human rights except when they are under attack.  So our brave anti-capitalists defend socialist internationalism except when capitalism goes to war.

The absence of any role for class in their analysis should give these ‘anti-capitalists’ pause for thought.  When it can only come as an optional decoration you have not only started your journey from the wrong place, you’ve arrived at the wrong destination.

Previous statement

The Russian invasion of Ukraine

The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces should be opposed by all socialists.  It will deliver death and destruction and strengthen division between the workers of each country; not to mention division within Ukraine between its majority and Russian-speaking populations, and within Russia and its millions of Ukrainian residents.

Initial reports are of opposition by many Russians to the invasion and this must be supported by workers everywhere.  If we seek to support these voices we must not rally to our own ruling classes and states in their aggression towards Russia, which will inevitably hit ordinary Russians most rather than the oligarchs who have been so royally entertained in the West for so long.

We must oppose NATO and its expansionism and demand no Western involvement in the war.  The future of Russia must lie in its workers opposing the repression of Ukraine, which will be a foil to resistance to their repression from their own state.  They will bear the cost of the war in the lives of their fathers, sons and brothers and the cost of bombs, shells and missiles as well as incurring the wider enmity created.

Similarly in Ukraine, while the Ukrainian people have the right to defend themselves and to seek support from Russian workers and workers in the West, they need to ask what sort of state and Government it is that has led them into this war.  The higher living standards of the West have understandably attracted many in Ukraine, but the route to economic and social unity with the West does not lie through an alliance with NATO, which has demonstrated its aggressive and war-like nature in Afghanistan, in Libya and previously in Europe.

The promise of independence of Ukraine within NATO was a promise that could not be kept and could exist only as an increasing threat to Russia.  NATO membership would simply make Ukraine a hostage to NATO – in reality US – foreign policy and its intentions. This does not excuse the Russian invasion but damns the policy of the Ukrainian Government and the lies of Western powers.

Self-determination for Ukraine today means opposition to the war and to NATO.  At some point the fighting will stop but it will not be the Ukrainian people who will determine their future, just as the prelude to war has involved the US, EU and China arguing over their fate.  Real self-determination can only be accomplished by the unity of the peoples of the region, of Russia, Ukraine, Eastern Europe and Europe as a whole.  Who will achieve this?

Only the working people of Ukraine and Russia have an interest in denying the territorial ambitions of their respective states and ruling classes.  Only they have a joint purpose in removing their own corrupt governments from power and denying their wider geo-political ambitions.  The so-called end of the cold war and the Soviet Union has demonstrated that war is intrinsic to the existing regimes in both Russia and the West, and of most benefit to its strongest power the United States. The demand for peace will be hollow if it does not recognise this glaring fact of recent history.

In Ireland we are asked to join the hypocrisy of Western powers with blood on their own hands, to oppose Russia in its copying their own actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Serbia etc.  The call to join NATO is getting louder and the demand for a bigger Irish military is now prominent.  Ukraine has demonstrated that neither of these is a contribution to peace or security.

The unity of the peoples of Eurasia can only be achieved over the body of capitalist state rivalry and the billionaires and oligarchs who have benefited from the existing political and economic system. The working class movement of each country must reject the aggressive policies of its own states and leaders and seek to build real unity of its working people.

Against the War! Against the invasion! For immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine!  No to NATO! For the unity of working class people – Workers of the World Unite!

see also here

Stormont falls again – Brexit on loop

The decision by the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, to collapse the Northern Ireland Executive was a bit of a surprise, but it only evoked the sort of reaction among many people of – ‘whatever’.

He had set so many deadlines and made so many declarations of his seriousness that most people had begun to take it as background noise.  It’s not as if the Stormont Executive hasn’t collapsed before.

Those more interested couldn’t help recalling that he supported Brexit that gave rise to the NI protocol in the first place, and his claims about the damaging effects of it sit uneasily with his previous statement that he could live with the loss of 40,000 jobs as a consequence of Brexit. 

The timing of the announcement makes no sense except in narrow party terms; as an attempt to shore up a vote that looks like it has fallen by a third: from 28 per cent in 2017 to one opinion poll recording 19.4 per cent today. All a result of the ‘existential threat’ to the union which Donaldson claims the Protocol represents but to which his party was midwife.  

On top of this disastrous strategy we can factor in the shambolic removal of one leader only to have to get rid of her replacement in a matter of days. A party previously dominated by one messianic personality now looks at a crisis with no authoritative leadership at all.

The threat to its vote has appeared to come from two sources: from an even more rabid unionism but also from those less extreme who can see the party’s responsibility for the mess.  In an effort to shore up support there could never be any doubt as to which side the DUP would seek to win back.

The weakness of its position is evident not just because its own policy clearly led to the Protocol but that its strategy is still to rely on the word of the most untrustworthy politician ever to hold the job of British Prime Minister, and that is a very high bar, especially when it comes to anything related to Ireland.

Donaldson revealed only a day after his decision that Johnson had told him that there was only a 20–30% chance of an agreement between the British and EU on the Protocol and that he would not commit to unilateral action as previously promised if there was no agreement.  On top of this Johnson’s Secretary of State has promised to implement legislation on the Irish language in opposition to DUP demands.  And this is who they now rely on! When Johnson did make a gesture to help Donaldson out by allowing double-jobbing at Westminster and London that decision was reversed in a week.

This weakness of the DUP position was unconsciously revealed when the party complained that its four reasons for collapsing the Executive included failure by Sinn Fein to fund celebrations of the British Queen’s platinum jubilee and preventing the planting of a centenary rose bush at Stormont.

More relevant to this weakness is a recent opinion poll recording that not much more than one in ten unionists think the Protocol is the main issue, coming fourth in their list of concerns.

It is all very well for the British government to wave the DUP threat in front of the eyes of the EU, but given Donaldson’s report of his meeting with Johnson it’s hard to believe that the EU would change its relaxed attitude to the repeated threats of the British.  The EU has been careful not to inflame opinion in Ireland as it needs no extraneous factor complicating its negotiations with a party it pretty well has the measure of.

What we have witnessed therefore is a re-run of the Brexit referendum.  The DUP have been spooked by one opinion poll showing its more extreme competitor, Traditional Unionist Voice, increasing its potential support from 6 per cent to 12 per cent while its own vote has dropped.  

So, it moves even further to the right and meets with loyalist paramilitaries before announcing its new strategy of withdrawal from a Stormont that it wants to lead.  Very like the way the Conservative party felt compelled to play with a Brexit referendum under pressure from a UKIP that was never going to go very far.  The otherwise lack of interest or prominence of the issue of EU membership among a majority of people in Britain before the referendum is mirrored in the North of Ireland by the relatively relaxed view of the Protocol.

We have even had the DUP parrot ridiculous numbers about the cost of the Protocol to the Northern Ireland economy, which bear as much relation to the truth as the claim by the Leave campaign that it could get back £350m a week from the EU to give to the NHS.  In both cases the culprits are the most reactionary petty bourgeois movements with no positive agenda.  In both cases, the British economy and the economy of Northern Ireland would actually benefit from what was/is the status quo.

The mini-drama in the North of Ireland is a reminder to the British public that Brexit isn’t done.  While the Westminster opposition vituperates over Johnson’s lies over boozy parties at the office his biggest lie – Brexit – is ignored by the congenitally cowardly and reactionary leader of the opposition.  Instead it reverberates in the North of Ireland through a crisis of the party of petty bourgeois reactionaries who supported it most; it’s not a coincidence that Donaldson worked for ultra-reactionary Enoch Powell as the latter saw out his remaining political days as a Unionist MP for South Down.

Just as DUP support for Brexit has ushered in the Irish Sea border, so have the changed rules to the formation of a First and Deputy First Minister at Stormont that the DUP championed opened the door to a potential Sinn Fein First Minister.  In both cases the potential consequences were foreseeable but that didn’t stop the DUP.

It now faces the prospect of its stupidity putting this on the agenda after the elections in May, an outcome that it cannot accept and one no unionist party has admitted it will.  An extended period of paralysis in the workings at Stormont can therefore be expected.  New rules mean that the institutions can survive longer without anyone actually performing the role of a government.  A case of making the rules conform to much of the experience of the devolved arrangements over the last couple of decades, where the lights have been on but nobody has been in.

All these circumstances testify to the continuing political degeneration of the Northern state and its unionist foundations, although decay is not an alternative.  We can see this easily when we note that Sinn Fein are currently the biggest party in opinion poll terms with less than a quarter of the first preference vote.  Even with the SDLP, the combined nationalist support is only one third. Countdown to a United Ireland this is not.

Internally, the failure of unionism to reassert sectarian supremacy to its satisfaction has created fracture and division.  It hitching its wagon to the hubris of its old imperialist mentor has further weakened it where it thought it could have prospered.  From outside it has instead been the development of European capital through the EU that has now delivered a different dynamic for change that will weaken it further.

Change often comes slowly but it still comes.  The fracturing of unionism is to be welcomed as is the inevitable failure of Brexit, which will become ever more obvious.  One barrier to this taking a more progressive direction is the failure of social democratic forces to expose the failure and to offer an alternative, and unfortunately the pro-Brexit left stands behind it as the redundant non-alternative.

Opinion polls and a United Ireland (4) – Support in the South for unity

Large majority of voters favour a united Ireland, poll finds

The Irish Times

It stands to reason that for a united Ireland to happen both North and South would have to agree to it.  The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll in December last year recorded the results of an opinion poll on support for a united Ireland in the South.

An Irish Times columnist summed it up right from the start – ‘So, you want a united Ireland?  Of course.  Soon? Eh, not really.  Want to pay for it? Nope. Want unionists involved? Sure. Want to change the anthem or the flag? Not a chance.  How much do you really care about it? Let me get back to you on that.’

One thing really gets me about this type of thing, but I’ll get to this in a minute, after I briefly set out the results of the poll.

Support for Irish unity is broad – 62% support it, 16% say Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, 13% are undecided and 8% won’t bother themselves to vote.

Asked when they would like to see a referendum, 15% said now and 13% said never, while a further 16% said they would like to see it more than 10 years in the future.  Since the most popular response was ‘in the next ten years’, at 42%, it means that support for a referendum within this timescale is almost the same as that supporting a united Ireland at 57%.

It might be thought then that those supporting a united Ireland are rather keener on it than the spin placed on it by political commentary such as that just quoted.  Unfortunately for such a view the question was asked ‘how important is a United Ireland to you?’ and the most popular answer was ‘not very important, but I would like to see it someday.’  (For some reason this makes me think of this less well-known Irish rebel song).

This was the response of a majority of 52%, with only 20% saying it was ‘very important, it is a priority for me.’ More people than this, at 24%, said it was ‘not at all important’ with 4% saying they didn’t know.  Even among Sinn Fein supporters this was the most popular answer at 47%, with 16% saying ‘not at all’.

If I might seem flippant about this question it is because how important something is very much depends on the context and one might reasonably expect that an actual referendum would make the question have greater importance.  Whether this would increase or reduce support for a United Ireland again depends on context.

To determine the importance of it, or rather to emphasise its unimportance, the poll asked a number of questions about what compromises people in the South were prepared to make in order to make a united Ireland happen. Hence the comment above – ‘How much do you really care about it? Let me get back to you on that.’

So, asked if they would agree to a new flag, a new national anthem, paying higher taxes, having less money to spend on public services or re-joining the Commonwealth, support was 16%, 21%, 15%,13% and 14% respectively.  Or, to put it another way, 77%, 72%, 79%, 79% and 71% said no.  On the other hand, 47% agreed to ‘having closer ties to the UK’, whatever that meant – perhaps visiting their cousins more often? – and 44% agreed to ‘having unionist politicians as part of the Government in Dublin’, which is a hell of a lot more important than a flag or a song.  Yet another reason to doubt the value of these particular questions.

Which brings me to the one thing that really gets me about this type of thing.  These ‘compromises’ are paraded by liberals and the great and the good as if they are in the least bit important to unionists.  These people continually parrot that the concerns of unionists have to be listened to, yet their proposals show that they are the last to listen to them.  Unionism frankly doesn’t give a shit about what flag is flown in the South of Ireland and doesn’t care what the national anthem is either etc. etc.  As far as they are concerned, or rather proclaim loudly, it’s a foreign country and you can stand to whatever flag and sing whatever song you want.

In such circumstances, refusal to countenance such ‘compromises’, where only one side might agree, is perfectly rational.

This, however, is not very important.  What matters is the question that wasn’t asked, which reveals much about the blindness of those behind the opinion poll.

In the North, Lord Ashcroft’s poll asked ‘what would change in a united Ireland?’, in other words, what would be the benefit or cost of a united Ireland to unionists, nationalists and ‘neutrals’.  In the The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll only costs are considered to exist and only questions on this were asked.

Behind the poll is the view that partition has brought the Irish state freedom and is an unquestionable success, how could it be improved?  How could incorporation of the North involve anything but potential costs or uncomfortable compromises?

For the liberal political classes and their cultural and diluted political nationalism, what might be acceptable to their comfortable existence – which they deftly weave into working class concerns about standard of living and welfare services – is the only relevant issue.

There is therefore a complete absence of the question ‘what problem is a united Ireland meant to solve?’

As far as the Southern establishment is concerned the only headaches reside in the North while a potential united Ireland itself raises problems.

But before we pour scorn on the bourgeois political classes in the South, socialists also have to ask themselves – what problems do we see being solved (at least even partially – as a step forward) by a united Ireland?

Since the answer is the unity of the working class this can only register in political consciousness in the South if there is a struggle for the independence of the working class for which such unity is required – and where is that struggle?

It hardly exists.  The trade unions are bureaucratised and are welded to social partnership in whatever form it takes, or appears not to take.  There is no mass working class party asserting the separate interests of the working class, and the left organisations with elected representatives are wedded to an electoral strategy fundamentally based on the institutions of the Southern State, with implications that they don’t understand and an effect on their state-socialism they are equally only dimly aware of.

Of course, they want a united Ireland, or some of them do, but since their conception of advancing socialism is through the current Irish State their whole approach involves promises of the potential benefits from this state and not the gains from an existing mass working class movement that has already delivered.

We can point to the gains made by the women’s and gay movement, in contraception, divorce, abortion and gay marriage but where is the recent experience of a mass workers’ movement achieving more or less comparable permanent advances?

A booming economy with higher living standards and lower unemployment is the result of multinationals and this is now sold as the same route to prosperity in the North, through its unity with the South.  The left wants the fruits of the relative success of capitalism in the South spread more widely with particular market/state failures addressed (such as health and housing), which rely on this growing economy, in turn reliant on US multinationals.

On the same day that The Irish Times reported its opinion poll results it also reported on some other statistics.  These were from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which showed that almost double the number of Catholics as Protestants were arrested and charged over a five-year period from the beginning of 2016.  This is the sort of material reality that drives Irish nationalism in the North.

The absence of such a reality in the South explains a lot.

Marxists are always regaled with the charge that they don’t understand and can’t cope with nationalism.  The experience of Ireland shows that nationalism doesn’t understand itself and can’t cope without material reality, understood by Marxists, giving it substance.  It is the power of the state that gives nationalism an objective and in the South of Ireland they’ve already got one.

Back to part 3

Opinion polls and a United Ireland (3) – a struggle not simply a vote

http://www.progressivepulse.org/ireland/are-there-are-more-cultural-catholics-or-protestants-in-northern-ireland

It would seem ironic if demographics determined a united Ireland.  Socialists over the decades have advanced a political strategy based on working class unity and opposition to sectarian arrangements, including partition, which has strengthened division.  We have condemned a strategy based on Catholics ‘out-breeding’ Protestants.

In fact, of course, demographics is not a political strategy anyway.  It will not of itself produce working class unity and remove division.  It will weigh on the balance of forces, but will not determine how this balance is ultimately determined, because any referendum will not be the result of demographics but of the weight of political arguments arising out of any changed economic and social circumstances.  A referendum will not just be a count but a result of a political struggle, a struggle based on political argument, interests and organisation.

Religion does not map one to one onto politics and there are Catholic unionists and Protestant nationalists, although rather fewer of the latter.  Many nationalists may be described as soft and Lord Ashcroft’s poll records that ‘In our groups, many on all sides felt there was a growing number of voters, particularly younger voters, who would see a referendum in terms of practicalities rather than religion, nationality or tradition – or as one put it . . .“some will vote green or orange, but a lot of people will vote with their heads.”’

The 2021 census results will not show a Catholic majority or a Protestant one, while those defined as ‘other’ or ‘neutral’ are split two to one in favour of those from a Protestant background, who are currently more likely to favour remaining in the UK.  The nationalist vote has remained at around 40% for some time and the potential for the census to show the number of Catholics exceeding Protestants will not translate into votes for a generation.  The issue will sharpen well before this happens meaning that those who consider themselves soft nationalists or neutral will play a significant role in determining any majority.  Hence the importance given to non-nationalist opposition to Brexit and the poll findings of people changing their minds on the constitutional question.

The poll records that ‘More than a quarter of voters (27%) said they had changed their mind on the question of whether or not Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, including 16% who said they had done so more than once.’  This seems improbable and invites some scepticism; somewhat mitigated by the elaboration that ‘31% of women, 38% of those aged 18-24 and 71% of those who describe themselves as neutral on the constitution said they had changed their minds at least once.’  A significant change of mind would currently be required to create a majority in favour of a united Ireland.

All this points to a referendum on a united Ireland not being a question of simply counting the numbers within two blocs but of a political struggle that will much more immediately set the agenda and result.

This is more obviously the case since a referendum will inevitably be required in the South and there is no doubt that this will require a political debate and struggle.  One only has to recall the history of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which included that ‘The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas’, and its overwhelming popularity before it was overturned by a 94% vote because it would deliver ‘peace’. The nature of events in the North will affect voting in the South but equally the debate in the South will impact on the North.

Since socialists do not want a sectarian headcount the necessary debate on a united Ireland will be a welcome opportunity to fight for our ideas.  This will include support for a united Ireland, defending its claims for democracy and ensuring, in so far as we can, that promises are delivered.  At the same time we must admit that it is currently very likely that any unity will take place on a capitalist basis and will require socialists to oppose the particular form that this unity will take.

We should not fool ourselves that what will be on the agenda is anything other than the incorporation of the North into the Southern state.  We should obviously oppose the importation of sectarian practices from the North into the South in the name of accommodating unionism, as covered in this post.  In the meantime, we must continue to fight for the building, expansion and democratisation of the organisations of the working class and the influence upon them of militant socialist politics.

In this way we can hope that the struggle over a referendum will not involve just a count but will allow our politics to count.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

Opinion polls and a United Ireland 2 – unionist pessimism, nationalist optimism and Brexit

The pessimism of unionism revealed again in the Lord Ashcroft poll is based on their uncomfortable reliance on perfidious Albion – ‘more voters thought the Westminster government would rather see Northern Ireland leave the UK than thought it would rather keep the province as part of the Union. Only 11% of voters, and only 21% of Unionists, said they thought Westminster very much wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. A further 22% of all voters thought it would prefer to keep the province as part of the Union.’ 

If the Northern state were really as British as Finchley this would be inexplicable.

‘In our focus groups, voters on all sides said they thought Northern Ireland was an “inconvenience” or an “afterthought” for the rest of the UK. The “levelling up” agenda seemed to apply to the north of England, rather than anywhere further afield.’

Nationalist voters are more convinced that Britain wants to get out, with 68% believing this.  Given the determination of the British State to defeat the struggle against its rule by some of them this is somewhat surprising, but is only one element of their view of the world, and in part reflects their view of the patent illegitimacy of partition and the palpable failure of the Northern state to be what is considered ‘normal’.

Another element is that one third of nationalists think the Southern state is indifferent or opposed to a united Ireland.  While almost 95% think there should be a referendum on Irish unity within 10 years and 86% think there will be, there is apprehension at how it might occur.  Commentary to the poll states that ‘Many were also nervous about the prospect, including some who favoured a united Ireland in principle. They tended to think that a referendum would be divisive, re-awakening tensions rather than resolving them, and that a return to violence would be more than likely.’

This view can hardly be dismissed, since every change to the Northern State, including the demand for civil rights, has been met with protest and violence by unionism.  The view that a referendum in the South should follow one in the North is an additional incentive for unionist aggression and to make any threats credible.

The latest change is the Protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the British government and EU following Brexit.  Unionist leaders claim it has constitutional implications, that their agreement to it is therefore required, and that they’re not giving it.  Since the argued direct constitutional effect is mistaken, although not its implications, unionism is arguing – as it always does – that no change can be made to the arrangements within the Northern State without its agreement.  Since its politics are overwhelmingly sectarian and wholly reactionary this is one reason why partition should be ended and a united Ireland is progressive.

The main reason for nationalist optimism is demographic, that the share of the Catholic population is growing and Protestant Unionist one is declining; Ashcroft states that ‘one Catholic voter told us cheerfully and candidly in nationalist Strabane, “we breed better than they do. They have big TVs; we have big families.” More than seven in ten voters aged under 25 said they would vote for a united Ireland.’

The poll states that ‘Support for a united Ireland declined sharply with age: 71% of those aged 18-24 said they would vote for unification, with 24% opting to stay in the UK; among those aged 65 or over, only 25% backed a united Ireland, with 55% choosing the status quo.’

It also reports the finding that ‘More than a quarter (27%) of voters said they had changed their mind as to whether Northern Ireland should stay in the UK . . . Among neutrals, 62% thought voters would choose the status quo tomorrow, but 66% thought they would back a united Ireland in ten years’ time.’  Nationalists anticipate that people will change their minds and change them in only one direction.

One reason for this belief is the claimed effect of Brexit. According to the poll 95% of nationalists/republicans opposed Brexit while 66% of unionists supported it.  The 30% of unionists who opposed Brexit and the 92% of those defined as ‘neutral’ (those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution) who also opposed it are expected to, or at least it is hoped will, change their views on the constitutional question because of the UK leaving the EU.

The poll makes much of its effects – ‘Participants in all our focus groups spoke about rising prices and shortages of goods, including food, clothes, household items and building materials. Several noted that ordering items from overseas had become more expensive or in some cases impossible; several had experienced Amazon being unable to ship certain items to Northern Ireland. Such problems were attributed to Brexit, the Protocol, covid, the Suez Canal blockage, or various combinations of all four.’

It finds that ‘Nearly 9 in 10 voters (88%) said they thought Brexit had been a cause of shortages of food and other goods in Northern Ireland, including 62% who said it had been a major factor. This was especially true of Nationalist/Republicans, with 73% of 2017 SDLP voters and 90% of Sinn Féin voters saying they believed Brexit had been a major factor.’

‘Three quarters of 2016 Leave voters said Brexit had had a part to play in shortages, including 29% thinking it had been a major factor.’

‘Unionists, however, were more likely to blame the pandemic and (especially) the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nearly 8 in 10 (78%) of them, including 89% of 2017 DUP voters, said they thought the Protocol had been a major factor, compared to 38% who said the same of Brexit more generally.’

The poll asked ‘whether Brexit had affected people’s views as to whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK. For three quarters, it had made no difference: 43% said they had thought the province should be part of the UK before Brexit and still did; 32% said they had favoured a united Ireland before Brexit and they still did.’

However, ‘13% said they had thought Northern Ireland should stay in the UK before Brexit, but now favoured a united Ireland. This included 40% of 2017 SDLP voters, 34% of those who had backed the Alliance party, and 36% of those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution.

A further 9% (including 36% of 2017 Alliance voters, 29% of constitutional neutrals and 9% of self-described Unionists) said Brexit had made them less sure that Northern Ireland should be part of the UK.’

Again, its perceived effects reflect previous dispositions, with 34% of unionists believing Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely, 99% of nationalists thinking it does, and 89% of ‘neutrals’ believing the same. Nationalist optimism and unionist pessimism are long standing but have not changed the existing political division.  It is therefore an open question whether Brexit will have the effect of persuading some unionists or ‘neutrals’ to support a united Ireland.  It will certainly not strengthen opposition to it and its longer term economic effects may be more powerful in shifting views than relatively minor shortages.

to be continued

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Going to see ‘Belfast’ by Kenneth Branagh

I went to see ‘Belfast’ by the actor and Director Kenneth Branagh with an open mind, and I left wanting to like it more than perhaps I did.  It’s an autobiographical film of a small Protestant boy and his working class family at the beginning of the Troubles.

Since I was once a small Protestant boy at the beginning of the Troubles, and living in a working class area, I came with my own experience as a comparison.  Despite this being a political blog, and almost obliged to pen a political review, I’ll do that less than I would otherwise because of this.  An autobiographical review then of an autobiographical film.

So, some things struck me that perhaps others wouldn’t notice and are probably irrelevant to any reasonable review, but there are points I really would like to make.  I’ve written a long series of posts on the start of the Troubles but this one relates particularly to the initial period in the film and provides some political context.

My wife informed me that a friend of hers told her that the film was from a Protestant view.  I’m not sure if this was a criticism but it is obviously true.  The story of a Catholic family in a mixed, but mainly Protestant street, would be more harrowing.  It could easily be more ugly and bloody.  It is, however, no criticism of the film to say that this is not what the film is about, or ever could be.

A review of the film, or rather of the reality of the film’s backdrop, by Max Hastings in ‘The Times’, who covered the events as a journalist, mentions at the end of it – of Branagh – that ‘back in 1969 his tribe bestrode the dunghill, while Catholics suffered at Protestant hands.’

Whether intended or not, this gives the impression that Branagh belongs to a tribe and that this tribe, without distinction, oppressed all Catholics.  At which point I’m compelled to say that he’s missed the effing point.

For the point of the film, in so far as it can be interpreted as a political film, is not that all Protestants oppressed Catholics; but rather that some didn’t, that some even opposed it, and that some had to get out because they too became targets of loyalist bigots on account of this refusal.  To get all autobiographical myself, my own family did not oppress Catholics, were not even unionist in politics never mind loyalist, and actually supported the civil rights movement as some other Protestants did.

This matters, because it points to an alternative to forever being a creature of your ‘tribe’ both then and now.  I don’t see any nostalgia in the film for any tribe and the cliched love across the sectarian divide is not overwrought as it so often is.  Whatever saccharine aspects the film has, it avoids any empty self-exoneration because none is required.  If anything, the Catholic characters are hardly developed; to repeat, that’s not what the film is about.

As it proceeds it becomes less political and more personal. For this reviewer the personal elements are often more evocative of my own back story than the political.  The discovery by the small boy recalls my own that there are such things as Catholics and Protestants; that we were Protestants and some people expected us to hate Catholics, although without me having a clue why, or them for that matter.

On a lighter note, I remember going to see ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ but I refuse to buy the portrayal of the family as hard up.  They have a phone and the boy has more toys than I could ever have dreamed of.  They do say they haven’t had many holidays but however many they had was exactly the number more than me.

We didn’t have any religious upbringing, which is rather more important to the characters in the film, but the role of the organised, determined and principled woman in holding the family together was from my experience typical.  Hiding under the table when there was a riot outside reminds me of doing the same when there was a gun battle in my street.  The uncertainty of leaving also reminds me of my own experience although I didn’t have the film character’s desire to stay.

On other aspects Hastings is right, especially that Belfast was a much uglier city than portrayed in the film.  The streets are too clean and tidy as is the entry at the back, which in my granny’s Shankill Road home was a rotting tip the whole way down.  There are no painted kerb stones and no flagpole holders on the houses, not to mention flags sticking out of them.

The film is too soft in this respect, so that the loyalists are not dark, repellent and menacing enough, and the film doesn’t therefore truly portray the stifling and oppressive environment of the time and place.  Again, it’s not that sort of film because it arises from an escape that is not only the author’s history but, he appears to believe, the history of the place full stop. It is ultimately a story of good fortune because that’s what came out of it.

The film is a simple story made vivid by the excellent performances from all the cast.  Only one scene borders on the ridiculous and if the background just about passes muster, the accents and language do so as well.  Enough certainly for the vast majority of audience which will watch it.

My main qualification for being a critic is that I am comfortably at home being critical, and as I say, I left wanting to like it more, and maybe I will.   It reminds me of something I heard a long time ago – that Belfast is a great place to come from.

Opinion polls and a United Ireland – 1

Everyone loves an opinion poll on the potential result of a referendum on a united Ireland.  The media has something to report and its commentators have something to comment on. 

Nationalists in particular like them – they are a good fit with Sinn Fein policy of being in favour of a united Ireland while not actually being able to do very much about it.  It keeps the pot simmering with the promise that someday soon it will come to the boil.  Nationalism repeats that there needs to be a conversation about what a united Ireland will be like, as if talking about it brings it closer – giving the impression of doing so – at least to its supporters.

The Dublin Governing parties don’t mind since their policy of sometimes expressing support for a united Ireland tallies with the general view of the Southern population that it would be a nice idea, although without much evidence of it exercising itself to bring it about.  A perfect fit for the Southern establishment and its political representatives.

The British government doesn’t mind because it has said it will do whatever the people want, once again demonstrating its good offices, while it can be confident that it will not be required to do anything very much.

Only Unionists seem not be enamoured with them, even though they should, since they usually show there being no realistic chance of the majority in the North voting for unity in the foreseeable.  This might be a result of their normally dour political outlook in which seventeenth century politics seems by far the most attractive, and among whom some think flying the union flag for Prince Andrew on his birthday is the honourable and righteous thing to do.

Of course, they have an aversion to seeing the little enclave carved out for them being anything other than as British as Finchley, and nobody asks this North London district if it wants to leave the union. They are also concerned that opinion polls may show them winning most of the time, but that they only have to lose the real thing once to have lost definitively, which is progress of a sort, since the last time they lost such a vote they changed the rules to ensure that they couldn’t.

Two opinion polls were reported at the end of last year, one in the North and one in the South, and the issue will become more excited as the results of the March 2021 census in Northern Ireland begin to be published in March this year, although with full results only by next year.

These polls are attractive because they allow for various interpretations.  As we have seen in the vote for Brexit, some on the left still see it as a great idea even if it rallied a reactionary vote around Boris Johnson and split the Labour Party.  If only, they say, the Party had supported Brexit it could have stolen Johnson’s thunder and won over all the pissed-off working class voters available to a progressive sovereignty politics!

Fortunately, opinion polls can rule some claims out, including the idea of Brexit powered by progressive politics, as the Lord Ashcroft poll showed. It demonstrated that it was primarily an English nationalist vote with strong anti-immigrant content that would supposedly have expanded the Labour Party vote by pissing off the 63 per cent of its supporters who voted Remain.  Very convincing, I don’t think.

The Ashcroft poll on Irish Unity reported that ‘The news that Northern Ireland voters would choose to stay in the UK – by a majority of 54% to 46% in my poll, once undecideds are excluded – is a welcome early Christmas gift for unionists. In a similar survey two years ago, I found a wafer-thin margin for Ulster to join the Republic in a united Ireland.’

It then said that ‘My latest research, published today, shows a clear swing back towards remaining in the United Kingdom . . . But as I also found in my survey of over 3,000 voters and focus group discussions throughout the province, it is the nationalists who feel things are heading their way.’

When I first heard this previous poll result, I didn’t believe it to be accurate and in discussion with a colleague in work he didn’t believe it either. It wasn’t consistent with what I knew and with other polling results.  There has also been no political development in the past two years that could explain an increase in support for remaining in the UK or a fall in support for a united Ireland.

The latest poll has recorded that ‘Nearly two thirds (63%) of voters thought that in a border poll tomorrow, Northern Ireland would vote to stay in the UK. However, by 51% to 34% they thought that a referendum in 10 years’ time would produce a majority for joining the Republic in a united Ireland.’

‘While 90% of self-described Unionists thought voters would choose the UK in an immediate border poll, only 64% thought this would be the outcome ten years from now,’ while Nationalists belief that the vote would be for a united Ireland increased from 47% to 91%.

Nationalists overwhelmingly (93%) expected Northern Ireland to be out of the UK within 20 years, two thirds (67%) of unionists thought they would still be part of the Union at that stage. However, fewer than half (47%) of unionists thought the status quo would still prevail in 50 years; 23% said they thought Ulster would have left by then, and 30% said they didn’t know.

This reflects a certain pessimism of unionists, consistent with their reactionary and generally paranoid politics where ‘Lundies’ and traitors are a constant threat, but also reflects for some a nagging unspoken acknowledgement of the illegitimacy of their position, which doesn’t however extend to shifting from it.  I recall my not very political late Aunt from the Shankill Road in Belfast saying that there would be a united Ireland, but not in her lifetime.  That, it appears, continues to be another largely unacknowledged view.

Whether the pessimism of unionism collapses into resignation and the optimism of nationalism becomes a spur to action is yet to be determined.

Forward to part 2

Goodbye Covid-19?

Common Cold Can Protect Against Infection by COVID-19 Virus

Professor Tim Colbourn of University College London was quoted in the ‘Financial Times’ (on 4 Jan) that it was “entirely reasonable to think that the burden of Covid can be reduced by 95 per cent in 2022, so that it’s no longer a top 10 health problem.  That would be a reasonable goal to end the pandemic.”

The article notes that ‘some experts view Omicron itself as a pointer to future evolution of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, as natural selection favours mutations that pass quickly and efficiently between people who already have some immune protection . . . These conclusions are supported by epidemiological evidence that the risk of severe disease is reduced by half or more with Omicron.’

The Director of the Wellcome Medical foundation, Jeremy Farrar, is quoted as saying that he was reassured at the prospect of Omicron taking over from Delta and that “I’d be more worried if you had different variants circulating at the same time.” 

The article states that ‘another variant of the virus is a certainty and that while individual changes in the genetic code are random the environmental pressures that allow some to thrive are not.  This favours variants that transmit quickly while evading immune response but mutations that make the virus more lethal are unlikely to make it fitter and may even be a handicap.’

Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist and UCL professor, said that “although you can imagine a deadly new variant emerging that’s more harmful . . . I don’t know how feasible that would be for this virus.  Sars-Cov-2 depends on infecting cells and it may already be close to the limits of its repertoire.”

The article notes that the view that the virus will become milder is ‘a matter of debate among scientists’, but quotes another professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, Paul Hunter, that he is convinced this is true of coronaviruses.  “Sars-Cov-2 will continue to throw up new variants forever but our cellular immunity will build up protection against severe disease every time we’re infected. In the end we’ll stop worrying about it.”

Jeremy Farrar notes that there is a small risk of an evolutionary jump – “something out of left field that does not come from existing lineages”, the article states that ‘most experts regard it as extremely unlikely. “I’m much more scared of another pandemic caused by a new virus that we don’t yet know about than by some variant of Sars-Cov-2” says Tim Colbourn.

Since much of the left has taken a doomsday view of Covid-19 this is perhaps not good news for their perspectives.  How they can continue to argue for a zero-Covid policy – the article quotes a forecast of 3bn infections world-wide over the next two months – is a terrain I don’t really want to explore.  With perspective not far from the fictitious character Private Frazer of ‘Dad’s Army’, perhaps they will cling to a dialectical understanding of the non-linear revolutionary genetic leap that will confirm their pessimism.

They will not, in addition, be enamoured with the views of the former chairman of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, Dr. Clive Dix, who has said ‘Covid should be treated as an endemic virus similar to flu, and ministers should end mass-vaccination after the booster campaign.’

He effectively repeats the views of Dr. Gerald Barry in Dublin quoted in the previous post in calling ‘for a major rethink of the UK’s Covid strategy, in effect reversing the approach of the past two years and returning to a “new normality”.

“We need to analyse whether we use the current booster campaign to ensure the vulnerable are protected, if this is seen to be necessary,” he said. “Mass population-based vaccination in the UK should now end.”

The Guardian’ article goes on to report him saying that ministers should urgently back research into Covid immunity beyond antibodies to include B-cells and T-cells (white blood cells). This could help create vaccines for vulnerable people specific to Covid variants . . .  adding: “We now need to manage disease, not virus spread. So stopping progression to severe disease in vulnerable groups is the future objective.”’

The article quotes Professor Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh, saying: “Everything depends on whether another variant comes up.  A fourth dose or second booster of the existing vaccine probably isn’t going to achieve very much. The evidence is that immunity against severe disease is much longer lasting. The only justification for doing a second booster for the majority of the population would be if we saw clear evidence of people, five or six months after their booster, ending up in hospital with severe Covid.”

Most people will welcome these views, if only because it’s what they want to hear, as they are tired of lockdown and fed up with the restrictions on their lives.  One danger of pretending everyone has been equally in danger from Covid-19 was always that the vulnerable would be overlooked.  A continuing blanket assertion that we are all still threatened, including children, is worse than useless.

The left’s zero-Covid strategy has nowhere to go, except to expose its exponents as wild catastrophists whose ultra-left politics is exposed once again; supporting longer restrictions for which more and more people can see little justification.  Believing that socialist revolution can only arise out of crisis, they wrongly assume that every crisis requires revolutionary methods.  They do so in pursuit of relevance and sign of their revolutionary purity.  That social crisis has not shown itself conducive to working class politics was the subject of some of the earliest posts on this blog.

A continued forlorn and regressive campaign for zero-Covid will ignore the real issues that are arising, and will have to argue that individual, very basic, freedoms and civil rights should continue to be suppressed by the state.

The issues arising include other costs of lockdown, which will affect working people, and the young especially, for decades.  A left that wants this lockdown extended and deepened has no credibility in responding to these problems.

These costs include financial, health and educational losses.  Calls by the left for the government to pay for workers not to work exhibit all the ignorance often called out by conservatives and reactionaries.  Those workers genuinely at risk or sick must be fully protected but this requires that the rest of the working class actually continues to work.  Real mass lockdown of society is impossible.  Pretending that only ‘essential’ workers should continue to work divides the working class perniciously and reveals levels of ignorance about a division of labour under capitalism that makes the vast majority ‘essential’.

As for asking the government to pay, this reveals incredible confusion at multiple levels – illusions in the capitalist state; illusions in the power of money without workers producing goods and services to buy with this money; the effects of inflation on workers’ living standards in simply handing out money, and the fact that governments don’t pay for anything – they tax or borrow and pay back the latter with the former, unless of course they print money, but then see previous comment.

If any of what this left claimed was true for any length of time, the ‘property question’ which Marx said was key would not be the ‘leading question’ in socialist politics.

More immediately, socialists should support workers being back in the workplace, in order to strengthen their feelings of shared identity, interests, solidarity and organisation.  Concern about health and safety should be dealt with collectively, which is much easier to do if you actually work closely together.

The Health Service has failed – see this earlier post – but to say so is almost to be damned as impugning the staff who work in it, some of whom have made real sacrifices during the pandemic.  Unfortunately, the politicians and bureaucrats who have been responsible for the incapacity of health services to carry out their role have cynically hid behind them, substituting rhetoric about heroes and rituals of hand-clapping for an effective service.

The British left is especially bought into illusions in the NHS, which is a health bureaucracy that was exposed from the start as incapable of protecting even its own staff.  The overwork of many staff is testament to its essential nature as a medical bureaucratic creature of the state, which for socialists is first and foremost a capitalist state with operations, functions and direction determined by the requirements of its class character.

Much of the Irish left wants an Irish NHS, because health care in the South is two tier, in complete ignorance of the fact that the failure of the NHS in the North means that health care there is more and more two tier as well.

Health provision in the pandemic has undergone a real crisis, with services closed down or restricted, waiting lists increased and diagnoses not carried out.  Just like an economic crisis, no crisis goes to waste as far as those in power are concerned.  Simply defending the existing service and believing that more money is the answer is an illusion.

So, to answer the question – Covid-19 will only go away if a zero-Covid policy was possible and was implemented.  It isn’t possible so it isn’t going to happen.  Instead Covid-19 and the mistaken reaction to it will leave in its wake multiple problems.  We need to understand the reason for this mistaken reaction and what the correct approach now is to the current and future evolution of the disease.

Back to part 2

‘Lockdowns . . . a failure of public health policy.’

Coronavirus: 133 patients in intensive care as pressure on hospitals builds

When University College Dublin virologist Dr Gerald Barry was interviewed by ‘The Irish Times’ and asked ­– why have we so many cases when we’re so highly boosted? – he said ‘Even asking the question points to the root of our problem in Ireland and in many parts of the world, we are using a tool that isn’t designed to stop infections and then wondering why it didn’t stop infections.’

‘I would strongly advocate for a complete reassessment of everything we have done to this point, identify everything else that could be done that would help, knock off everything that isn’t feasible or is unaffordable and do everything else.’

So we have failed? – ‘The problem with a “do more” strategy is that some countries that have demonstrably done less to curb the spread of infection, such as England, seem to be doing better overall.’

Just such a reassessment was recently reported in ‘The Guardian’ from Professor Mark Woolhouse, ‘one of the country’s leading epidemiologists’, who has written a forthcoming book, ‘The Year the World Went Mad: A Scientific Memoir’.  Lockdown, he says, ‘was a lazy solution to a novel coronavirus epidemic, as well as a hugely damaging one”.

The day Britain went mad is reported as when ‘the No 10 briefing in March 2020, cabinet minister Michael Gove warned the virus did not discriminate. “Everyone is at risk,” he announced.’  To which Woodhouse responds: “I am afraid Gove’s statement was simply not true. In fact, this is a very discriminatory virus. Some people are much more at risk from it than others. People over 75 are an astonishing 10,000 times more at risk than those who are under 15.”

 “We did serious harm to our children and young adults who were robbed of their education, jobs and normal existence, as well as suffering damage to their future prospects, while they were left to inherit a record-breaking mountain of public debt.  All this to protect the NHS from a disease that is a far, far greater threat to the elderly, frail and infirm than to the young and healthy.”

“We were mesmerised by the once-in-a-century scale of the emergency and succeeded only in making a crisis even worse. In short, we panicked. This was an epidemic crying out for a precision public health approach and it got the opposite.”

That Covid-19 is a disease that discriminates is a point made often on this blog and by others, which should have signaled that a blanket approach wasn’t warranted.  A recent paper analysing this has recently been published, which shows the disparity in effect by age, despite the difficulties in measurement. 

It records that in ‘Twenty-five seroprevalence surveys representing 14 countries were included . . . the median IFR [Infection Fatality Rate] in community-dwelling elderly and elderly overall was 2.9% (range 0.2%-6.9%) and 4.9% (range 0.2%-16.8%) . . . IFR was higher with larger proportions of people >85 years. Younger age strata had low IFR values (median 0.0013%, 0.0088%, 0.021%, 0.042%, 0.14%, and 0.65%, at 0-19, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, and 60-69 years . . .’

These IFRs have been calculated using data from 2020 and are therefore before widespread vaccination, at least in richer countries and before the less virulent Omicron variant.  We can therefore expect these numbers to have fallen not only due to vaccination but also better hospital treatment as lessons began to be learned about ventilation etc.  The paper notes that ‘absolute risk values still have substantial uncertainty’ and mentions the low number of elderly in the studies examined by the paper, but which might also reflect uncertainty about the total number of infections and number of deaths actually caused by Covid as opposed to deaths of people with Covid.

The link here to IFRs for various diseases shows that for the younger age groups Covid-19 is far down the list.  According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control here Influenza (over all ages) appears more severe than Covid-19 for those aged below 30 although this also depends on the virus, host issues, and other factors.

The paper also notes that ‘besides age, comorbidities and lower functional status markedly affects COVID-19 death risk. Particularly elderly nursing home residents accounted for 30-70% of COVID-19 deaths in high-income countries in the first wave, despite comprising <1% of the population. IFR in nursing home residents has been estimated to be as high as 25%.’

Professor Woolhouse argues in ‘The Guardian‘ article that:

‘the country should have put far more effort into protecting the vulnerable. Well over 30,000 people died of Covid-19 in Britain’s care homes. On average, each home got an extra £250,000 from the government to protect against the virus . . .  “Much more should have been spent on providing protection for care homes,”

He ‘castigates the government for offering nothing more than a letter telling those shielding elderly parents and other vulnerable individuals in their own homes to take precautions,’ something this bloggers’ wife found particularly galling as medical personalities and politicians congratulated themselves and were congratulated by others for efforts on her and others’ behalf which consisted of nothing much more than a letter.

As ‘The Guardian’ goes on in reporting Woodhouse’s views ­– ‘The nation could have spent several thousand pounds per household on provision of routine testing and in helping to implement Covid-safe measures for those shielding others and that would still have amounted to a small fraction of the £300bn we eventually spent on our pandemic response, he argues. Indeed, Woolhouse is particularly disdainful of the neglect of “shielders”, such as care home workers and informal carers. “These people stood between the vulnerable and the virus but, for most of 2020, they got minimal recognition and received no help.”

The British Government, according to Woodhouse, thus “lacked a convincing plan for adequately protecting the more vulnerable members of society, the elderly and those who are immuno-compromised.”  

“Lockdowns aren’t a public health policy. They signify a failure of public health policy.”

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3