The importance of challenging expertise

As everyone now knows, science is contested. Of course, many aspects of science continue unchallenged – things like the electron mass or the structure of DNA. But other aspects, such as the speed of light, are open to constant refinement. Some aspects will soon cease to matter entirely to everyday science.

But the sort of science we are most familiar with right now, the science of exploring the unknown, is very different. It is an emergent process – a messy, gradual approximation towards truth, replete with uncertainty and ambiguity. It is advanced by human beings within social systems. And this appreciation of it as neither firm nor fixed, as not grounded in clear or inviolable evidence, is currently contributing to a cultural epiphany.

Almost every aspect of the coronavirus outbreak has been, and will continue to be, drawn into question by scientists and others for some time. That is how it should be. The origins, extent, actions, infectivity, durability and lethality of the virus are disputed, as are the best way to mitigate its spread and treat its associated diseases. Discussions of all these things draw on models, with built-in assumptions about all these aspects, as well as assumptions about how people behave.

The experts disagree on various issues here. This is because their interpretation of what currently passes for the available evidence – on everything from fatality rates to the benefits of wearing masks, from lockdowns to the reliability of tests – matters as much as the evidence itself. It is a competition for meaning within science.

That some scientists are venal, fallible and selfish may come to be as important as their virtue, diligence and humanism. The systems they work within matter, too. Mechanisms for the peer review of their work, the success, or not, of their funding applications, and the pursuit of promotions, are all open to gaming and interference. These are all framed by what some sociologists call ‘cultural scripts’.

After all, who decides what questions should be pursued in all this, what matters most and what ought to be prioritised. How any ensuing data (limited as it is in both scope and specificity) is to be interpreted is another key issue. Inevitably, decision-makers (and scientists) have other agendas, too – as we all do. Science, then, is not an exact science, but a deeply cultural activity.

A short contribution, titled ‘Misanthropy and Political Ideology’, to the American Sociological Review in 1956, illuminates some of the issues raised here. Its author, Morris Rosenberg, wanted to explore how individuals’ political ideologies are formed. He noted the research on factors such as personality characteristics, interpersonal relationships and group affiliations, among others. In his opinion, however, what had been overlooked was our fundamental attitudes about human nature or, as he highlighted in the title of his piece, misanthropy.

At its heart, democracy rests on having faith in the rationality of people. This affects how we interpret the actions of others, and it shapes what we each think is necessary for society to function. In other words, our most deeply held views of what human beings are like shape ‘the principles, practices and policies of a political system’, he argued. He sought to measure faith in people, correlating this against how we view our relationship to government, free speech and state control.

His conclusion was that, more than any other factors, these things determined individuals’ political outlooks. And what was true then about politics is also true today in relation to science and scientists, not least because science and scientists increasingly hold sway over much political decision-making. But what do we actually know about these people, about scientists? That the PM’s adviser, Dominic Cummings, attended a recent meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) pales into insignificance when we begin to ask what the actual scientists really think about us.

We know full well how recent events – from Brexit to Trump and beyond – have led elites to question the rationality of the people and, implicitly, democracy itself. How many of this expert group of scientists potentially share these prejudices? And how might that shape decision-making? As we know, the dominant impulse in public-health circles is a patrician one – one of the state telling the people what is for their own good.

We see scientific questions being contested now every day. Maybe the next time a politician or scientist talks with such certainty about ‘the science’ – in relation to climate change or our diets – we ought first to think about how they view other people, free speech, and whether they look to the state, rather than the people, to control things.

First published on spiked, 4 May 2020

Economic crisis begins at home

Trade and tariffs are not the key drivers of growth and prosperity.

On 28 and 29 June, the G20 summit will convene for the 14th time in Osaka, Japan. This gathering of leaders from the world’s leading economies, including the EU, plus invited guests and international organisations, ought to offer an important moment for mature reflection and collective coordination regarding the future needs of the world economy at a difficult time.

Instead, however, it is likely to descend either into directly confrontational rhetoric or empty promises and vague platitudes that avoid its mission to be the ‘premier forum for international economic cooperation’. The focus could end up on more peripheral matters, such as climate change, counterterrorism, health and migration, which are perceived as being less contentious.

The G20 is no stranger to crisis. It emerged from the 1997-99 Asian Financial Crisis that led G7 finance ministers (representing almost half of world GDP) to establish a wider group in order to engage with the major emerging economies. Then, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the group was further elevated to become a forum for heads of state.

In 2019, it is the continuing dispute between the US and China over trade that appears to loom largest. But this ought not to be the main focus of the G20, either. As is well understood, trade wars are symptoms of underlying economic problems rather than their cause. Trade and tariffs are not the fundamental drivers of growth and prosperity. Rather, these derive from domestic productivity levels in the making of goods and services that are driven by investment. To trade effectively, the key is to have something worth selling in the first place.

Tariffs, regulation, barriers
Unfortunately, the protectionist measures that had hastened the advent of the Second World War, and that were dismantled subsequently through the establishment of the GATT/WTO, led to a growing proliferation of non-tariff or technical barriers to trade. Rather than invest in new industries, older ones were sustained artificially behind a chaff of regulatory standards, intellectual-property laws, state subsidies and public-procurement policies.

Accordingly, assertions that we have been living through a time marked by a so-called ‘rules-based international trading system’ fall very wide of the mark. All the evidence points to systematic attempts by the key players – and the US in particular – to subvert any supposed ‘liberal world order’, both economically and militarily.

Now, it may be, of course, that US President Donald Trump – who is certainly not the first US or other world leader to engage in such embargoes against China – understands full well that to compete internationally as a successful exporter, it is the ability to produce efficiently at home that matters more than trade deals. Some of his pronouncements have reflected as much, looking to put pressure on manufacturers, such as Harley-Davidson and Nike, to bring their production back to its origins.

But, irrespective of this, the adverse effects of Trump’s approach are evident for all to see. Many American firms have warned the US Department of Commerce that such measures hurt both businesses and consumers alike. The latter invariably bear the brunt of any related price increases.

The IMF has cut its world economic growth forecast in accordance. And anyway, many enterprises will simply relocate elsewhere, such as to Vietnam, which is not currently on the receiving end of additional duties.

A risky game

The deeper consequences, though, will take more time to become manifest. These include growing differences among the Western powers over how to handle the economic rise of the East.

This was seen recently, through the US stance towards its partners not using the Chinese firm Huawei to develop critical 5G infrastructure, despite it being the leading global player in the field. Such actions could come to damage relations with key allies, including the UK and Germany.

In this regard, the US is playing a very risky game. With its relations veering towards a potential conflict with Iran, as well as its ongoing disputes with Russia and China, the US may yet come to rue antagonising its friends as well.

Or, at the very least, it may regret making them have to choose between their relations with the US and with China. Only this week, the UK chancellor Philip Hammond launched the new Shanghai-London Stock Connect that looks set to deepen financial relations by facilitating investment between them.

This, and China’s recent decision not to pursue WTO market economy status, may also point to a growing maturity on its part in relation to such matters. Certainly, its most successful strategy in the past was always to keep a low profile on the international stage and avoid confrontation in foreign affairs, while focusing more on its domestic concerns.

Historically, it has often been extraneous circumstances that have accelerated change in world affairs more than any conscious push. The two powers that dominated each of the past two centuries – the US and UK – did so as much through the decline and imperial overreach of their predecessors as through their own efforts. That, and its underlying crisis of innovation and investment, are what the US leadership would do well to reflect upon most in Osaka.

First published on spiked, 26 June 2019.

Why the West doesn’t understand China

The Huawei debacle shows how prejudice still shapes Westerners’ view of the People’s Republic.

Of all the platitudes relating to China in recent times, one of the more facile must surely be that, ‘The prime aim of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) … is to stay in power’. Maybe those making such pronouncements should try pointing to a Western establishment that does not share this goal.

It is ironic, then, that those lambasting the lack of loyalty on display in the leaking of a decision by the normally secret UK National Security Council to allow Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to supply 5G technology to the UK, appear to yearn for precisely the coherent, centralised and confidential mode of decision-making attributed to the Chinese state.

But generalisations about Chinese politics and society are difficult to sustain. China is so vast that Cambridge economist Joan Robinson’s famous adage, ‘Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true’, surely applies to China, too. Robinson also noted how ‘The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all’ – a lesson the ruling Chinese cadre-class implicitly took on board when, during the late 1970s and 1980s, it shifted its base away from peasants and towards the market, a move justified in the name of ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’.

Given this orientation towards the market, it is misguided to start any analysis of Beijing politics, or the Huawei debate, with assertions as to the Chinese Communist Party’s roots in Marxist-Leninist ideology. The world has changed a good deal since 1917 or 1949, or even 1978.

Indeed, with the constant chatter nowadays about the forces and impact of globalisation, one might have imagined that armchair analysts would have caught up and noticed the extent to which their cherished models of China might need to change, too. Yet when the West examines China, there seems to be a failure to note the obvious – that our understanding of China is shaped not just by the nature of China today, but by the nature of the West, too. VIDEO‘The establishment uses Twitter to demonise the public’ – Brendan O’Neill vs Ash SarkarSPIKED

A confident and purposeful West, for instance, will see China in a very different way to a West that is insecure, confused or directionless. It might see China as a source of opportunities rather than a constant threat. The truth – as in many things – will lie somewhere in between. Before looking at China, then, it is essential to understand how much has changed in our own Western backyards over recent decades.

Who is in charge?

The apocryphal phrase, attributed to the former, realpolitik US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger – ‘Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?’ – contained an important truth. Through its institutional arrangements, what was to become the European Union (with five presidents, Council, Commission, Parliament, Central Bank and Eurozone Finance ministers), failed to speak with a singular voice and, accordingly, could not project itself coherently into the international domain.

The tables appeared to turn a decade ago when the European Union appointed its first foreign affairs and security policy chief, the unelected British politician, Catherine Ashton. But when then US president, Barack Obama, wanted to discuss what really mattered in European affairs at the time, such as the Euro debt crisis, he turned not to the EU, but to national leaders, like the German chancellor and French president.

More recently, with the election of Donald Trump as US president, the Washington foreign-policy establishment appears to have become less confident and coherent, too, while the post of secretary of state seems increasingly to come with a revolving door. Finally, EU officials have been able to invert the joke and ask with whom they should talk when wanting to speak to the US.

This form of political incoherence is now almost universal. Who speaks for the UK, for instance? Theresa May, the outgoing British prime minister, not only struggled with her cabinet, but lost control of the Brexit process to parliament. And parliament is, in turn, opposed to implementing the expressed will of the majority of the people it is meant to represent.

Such recent developments aside, international relations and foreign-policy analysis models have long been out of step with postwar developments. These include the emergence of a multitude of supra- and sub-national institutions of growing significance – a process that accelerated through the post-Cold War breakdown of the old, left-v-right political order, and the advent of regulatory (as opposed to redistributive) regimes, expressed through a shift in emphasis from government to multi-stakeholder governance.

China is different?

The evident assumption of much political bombast relating to China is that it has somehow evaded all of these trends. However, there is considerable scholarship examining how the Chinese state has been affected by the same processes of ‘fragmentation, decentralisation and internationalisation’ that have occurred elsewhere. Far from being ‘a unified, authoritarian regime’, clinging to its sovereignty and disrupting a ‘liberal rules-based world order’, what we see in China is a state being transformed, in its own way, by prevailing cultural and market forces.

Indeed, contrary to Western prejudice, while highly centralised in principle, China has long been, in practice, one of the most decentralised states on Earth. According to Arthur Kroeber, a Brookings Institute senior fellow and independent financial journalist, the share of governmental expenditure taking place at the subnational level in China was ‘a staggering 85 per cent’ in 2014 – that’s compared to about 25 per cent in most democracies and less than 20 per cent in non-democracies.

This level of regional and local autonomy predated the period of reform and marketisation heralded by then leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s – a process Beijing was then even less able to command or control, as it shifted from focusing on production targets to increasingly just issuing coordinating guidance. Its development since has reflected a struggle between disparate actors and agencies, although the tendency of careerist sycophants to echo any messages from the top may give an impression of order to this fragmentation.

In practice, while Chinese leaders issue simple directions – to ‘Go Out’ (1999), ‘Go West’ (2000) or to promote a ‘Chinese Dream’ (2013) – these are inherently nebulous in character. Such guidelines have largely replaced the centralised planning of the past. But, at the level of implementation, they are necessarily interpreted (or even ignored) according to the specific interests of particular regions, agencies and enterprises.

Much like a game of Go (or weiqi), Chinese strategy appears more like the framing of a domain to be filled in at a later date. But the ensuing competition between parties readily confuses any initial goals. So, for instance, what began as the One Belt One Road initiative, to redevelop the ancient Silk Road and open up a modern maritime equivalent, was rapidly repackaged as the Belt and Road Initiative, with many belts and many roads, as almost every Chinese region, in pursuit of associated funding, claimed a role in it.

The process of internationalisation cannot be centrally controlled either. It has allowed key players, such as the People’s Bank of China, to impose international regulatory discipline at home (in the same way that European leaders have used European Union rules as a cover for their own domestic objectives). National agencies, such as the coast guard, have acquired significant foreign and security policy roles that they are ill-suited to. And provincial governments have pursued their own agendas across Asia and Africa.

For the West, China’s involvement in Asia and Africa has come under considerable scrutiny, especially the activities of China’s many state-owned enterprises (SOEs) overseas. These are understood to be businesses over which the government retains significant control. But, in fact, many of these 113,000 or so entities, are not under government control. They emerged from the former production ministries of the late 1970s, operate independently, and sell their commodities on the open market.

There are far too many to command and control, so central supervision applies to just 111 of them (or 0.1 per cent). Of course, the CCP does have leverage over these SOEs through a range of financial mechanisms, the issuing of permits and licences, as well as by retaining the power to regulate, discipline and appoint to top-level positions. But there is a world of difference between having such instruments available, and exerting effective control. The actual evidence points, rather, to the inability of the state to rein in the activities of its SOEs – even when it tries to.

Indeed, when supervised at all, the CCP’s focus is on the profitability of SOEs rather than their impact on foreign policy. The drive to promote business and maintain employment levels – particularly when faced with a domestic profit squeeze and production over-capacities that are some of the real drivers of the Belt and Road Initiative – has left the Ministry of Commerce in a far stronger and more significant position than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Accordingly, what we actually see are the outcomes of complex inter-agency struggles rather than top-down directives. State policy often follows and seeks to catch up with developments rather than lead them.

Enterprises, regions and agencies, including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), pursuing their own agendas, have also, on occasion – in Myanmar or the South China Sea, for instance (where actions have been described as ‘consistently inconsistent’) – had adverse impacts, triggering diplomatic incidents that have embarrassed the Beijing establishment by acting in ways contrary to its official policy, and even violating UN embargoes to which it was formally committed.

The recent re-centralisation drive, under President Xi, to streamline and curtail some of this free-wheeling behaviour, may have led to his being perceived of as more authoritarian than some of his predecessors. But it is a move that smacks equally of the dying days of the former Soviet Union, when various leaders amassed more and more titles to compensate for their dwindling power. Talk of re-centralisation may, therefore, be a sign of weakness rather than inherent strength.

Lessons from history

Officially, Huawei is not an SOE, though its activities are undoubtedly of interest to the authorities in Beijing. Now ranked 72 on the Fortune Global 500 list (though not among the top 25 businesses in China), Huawei has become the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world, employing some 188,000 people and investing over 10 per cent of annual revenue in research and development.

It has established a significant retail presence in the UK and is now angling for the more lucrative returns of government contracts to help build 5G infrastructure. This would facilitate the advent of the so-called ‘internet of things’, whereby countless devices in the real world may, one day, become interconnected.

In this regards, it is worth recalling a significant parallel from just over a hundred years ago. In the period leading up to the First World War, the British government was looking to appoint a provider of essential radio-telegraph equipment, through which it sought to maintain communications and control over its vast empire.

The main manufacturer was the Marconi Company which, while operating from within the UK, was headed by an Italian and had a considerable percentage of shareholders based overseas. Italy was also, at that time, a member of the Triple Alliance, with Germany and Austria-Hungary, of potentially hostile powers – though what seemed to exercise the parliamentary imagination somewhat more was the possibility of monopoly gains and back-handers to those involved in the awarding of an initial contract.

A committee of inquiry took nine months to acquit the ministers concerned and issued three conflicting reports on the matter. The then Liberal government also lost various by-elections as a consequence. And it also took a further 15 years for the UK to acquire a wireless system, owned by the government, but built by… Marconi.

As with the issuing of contracts for a new generation of nuclear-power stations and other critical infrastructure, such as HS2, one of the lessons may be that, unless Britain is prepared to invest for itself, then it is likely to have to engage others through outsourcing. Complaining about who these may be is unlikely to win friends or be an effective industrial strategy.

Yet again, conflicting opinions abound. On one hand, Huawei stands accused of having the potential to conduct future espionage for the Chinese government, through the installation of so-called backdoor access to data gathered through its systems. On the other, it is its supposed technological incompetence that is said to be the problem. A typical review casts endless aspersions before admitting that ‘there is no evidence’ of wrongdoing beyond ‘suspicions’.

Many suspect one of the real drivers of this debate to be the US realising that it is about a year behind in the 5G technology race with China, amplified through its ongoing trade war and security fears. After all, backdoors, and chief security officers reporting to domestic-security agencies rather than their own CEOs are hardly just a Chinese issue.

On 1 December 2018, the chief finance officer of Huawei, Meng Wanzhou – daughter of the founder and CEO, Ren Zhengfei – was arrested in Canada, accused by the US authorities (who are trying to extradite her), of misleading its banks by being in breach of US-imposed sanctions on Iran, as well as engaging in corporate theft. If these allegations are true, it would certainly not be the first time a Chinese (or indeed another nation’s) firm had acted in this way. Again, that may say more about Beijing’s inability to control things than of its having an overarching plan, though its somewhat predictable response has done little to help such impressions. The US, too, has hardly acted coherently in all this.

In the meantime, and in the aftermath of the flagrant leaks from its National Security Council (whatever the source), the UK would do well to reflect on the extent to which such behaviour has been condoned and even encouraged over recent years, as well as on how this reflects deep divisions at the highest level of government and elsewhere.

The need to maintain confidentiality is both desirable and necessary in any society – for our own privacy as much as for private enterprise, from which a healthy public domain can then ensue. But for this we may need to rediscover and celebrate a sense of national and personal sovereignty and purpose that contemporary cultural and political trends have undermined – including, at their most pointed, through contemporary criticism of and concerns about China.

First published on spiked, 27 May 2019

People aren’t defeated by terrorism

Our study suggests communities are more resilient than we think.

So soon after Mental Health Awareness Day (or Week for those in the US), it may appear a tad churlish to draw attention to the dangers of over-diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But a study conducted with my colleague, Dr David Wainwright, of the department for health at the University of Bath, and published today in The Lancet Psychiatry, does just that.

Our purpose is not to upset people, but to review the history of academic inquiry into the association between terrorism and mental health. To do so we first compiled a list from psychological and medical databases of all the research literature we could find that linked those concepts together. After removing less relevant papers, we were left with some 330 articles, all of which were read and analysed.

The first notable element of this exercise was quite how recent the tendency to look for any such connection is. Terrorism, historically, has more often been interpreted through a political prism, or one seeking to address physical damage. Any focus on individual health in the past was mostly statistical or surgical.

That changed shortly before the terrorist attacks of 2001, reflecting the growing recognition of PTSD after 1980 and its redefinition by the American Psychological Association in 1994, as well as an evolving social and cultural climate more attuned to psychological damage.

Most of the pieces we reviewed appeared after 9/11, but there was an emerging interest in the field driven by earlier incidents in Omagh (1998), Oklahoma and Tokyo (1995), as well as Israel, both during and after the first Gulf War (1991). VIDEO‘The establishment uses Twitter to demonise the public’ – Brendan O’Neill vs Ash SarkarSPIKED

Aside from PTSD, we noted a new emphasis on the impact of so-called indirect exposure to such events, through the media (primarily television), as well as an understandable focus on the effects on children.

The most striking lesson we drew was that terrorism isn’t terrorising – at least not in the sense that most researchers looked for, in terms of it causing rates of PTSD greater than from any other potentially traumatic event (typically less than five per cent for civilian populations). That ought to be a cause for celebration.

But it was not how the evidence was reported. Instead, across a range of high-profile, peer-reviewed journals, we found studies that subtly stretched what was looked for. Unable to confirm PTSD through asking a limited set of questions (often by means of telephone surveys staffed by volunteers with little training, and sometimes too soon after events to count as PTSD), researchers reported instead on finding what they then variously described as ‘pre-PTSD’ or ‘PTSD symptoms’.

To label the finding of a few symptoms from the then standard PTSD checklist of 17 items as being ‘partial PTSD’ or ‘spectrum PTSD’ is as unhelpful as my proposing that headaches and vomiting are pre-bubonic plague symptoms. It confuses matters and conflates data in a way that can only raise unnecessary anxiety and concerns. PODCASTWeed, cigarettes and Irn-Bru, with Julia Hartley-BrewerSPIKED

Why did this happen and what are the consequences? Well, we certainly do not propose that anybody misrepresented their data. Rather, we suggest that the cultural mood is such today as to predispose people to look for mental-health impacts and to not notice even when their evidence may point the other way.

Examples of people relying on their own social and community networks to recover were read as reflecting a lack of awareness about psychological services rather than what they truly were – signs of resilience. It does not help the minority who truly need such support when many more are referred for counselling. The vast majority of people continued about their everyday lives relatively unimpaired and in many instances defiant.

Suggestions of media effects at a distance are also inaccurate. Indeed, several who suggested these at the time later altered their views. Watching television at such times can be evidence of an active search for understanding and meaning. Social media can build elements of community. But unfortunately, it was often the earlier claims that have continued to be reported.

Of course, some children ought to have their TV viewing curtailed. But that has more to do with establishing parental authority – a social factor – than avoiding media or medical effects that are deemed inevitable. Children ought to be afforded special protections by adult society. But that ought not lead to treating us all like infants.

Overall, we concluded, the evidence pointed to a considerable degree of coping with extreme adversity. And this was despite a dominant social narrative often promoted by politicians and officials, as well as media commentators and academics, to the effect that terrorism is somehow bound to impact our mental wellbeing adversely.

If anything, this shows some limits to those who presume that language or discourse can significantly shape or determine our existence. Researchers, particularly in Israel, noted the possibility for post-traumatic growth at such times, as well as the problematic deployment of the PTSD label, as a call for resources or professional intervention.

Europe and America, they averred, within which such individualised mental-health categories arose, are particularly obsessed with the self. In fact, we are all constructs of families and communities. So a proper understanding of mental health requires a greater appreciation of culture and its transformation over recent times.

It is time for government, academics and commentators to focus on what really happens at such times and to stop emphasising a narrative of vulnerability. This reflects their own insecurities more than it does the insecurities of those affected by adversity.

Read the full study here.

First published on spiked, 17 October 2018.

Salisbury: are we any closer to the truth?

The government’s diplomatic errors have knocked its credibility with the public.

The Salisbury spy-poisoning saga has exposed a crisis of diplomacy and coherence at the heart of the British establishment, and it has raised the question of how people come to determine what is true and what is not. How do we know what we know? And how do we form a diplomatic position in the absence of complete information? These are important philosophical and political questions. But here they have been wielded, by Russia, to deflect accusations that the Kremlin ordered the killing of Sergei Skripal, and, by the British government, to cast doubt on Russia’s claims.

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson has come under fire for suggesting that the evidence pointing to Russia was stronger than it actually is. In turn, he has accused opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn of falling for Russia’s supposed disinformation campaign. Corbyn asked for clarification from the government after Gary Aitkenhead, the head of the UK government’s Porton Down chemical weapons facility, indicated in an interview that the provenance of the nerve agent used in the attempted murder in Salisbury could not be confirmed. All Porton Down has confirmed is that it was Novichok, a type of nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union in the dying days of the Cold War.

The government’s assertion, that Russia was probably behind it, is a political judgement, based on an assessment of who might have the motive and capability to pursue this (so far) botched assassination attempt. Scientific evidence is rarely enough to arrive at the truth in situations like this. Rather, societies ultimately interpret what is true in moments of uncertainty. The truth is what the majority determine it to be. This may be a majority of specialists and experts, or a majority of the public.

Politicians can seek to shape public opinion but they cannot assert it. And the government’s ill-measured statements on Russia’s alleged culpability have made its position far harder in this respect. Prime minister Theresa May has asserted that there are only two possible conclusions to draw from the Salisbury incident – that either the Kremlin was behind the assassination attempt or it had lost control of its chemical-weapons stock. Both hold Russia responsible, either directly or indirectly. And Russia was given only 24 hours to answer this charge.

But as many have noted, there are many other possibilities. Ignoring the Russian suggestion that scientists from Porton Down may have been involved, other actors could well have been. As the BBC has identified, there were Novichok stocks in Uzbekistan in the 1990s, which US agents were involved in clearing up. Equally, it is not impossible to consider Ukraine having access to Novichok stocks and a motive for killing Skripal. By limiting the spectrum of possibilities, the PM stretched her own credibility.

Another government miscommunication came in the form of a tweet from the Foreign Office, since deleted, that incorrectly suggested that Porton Down had identified the source of the nerve agent. The Foreign Office claims this was based on a misrepresentation of the words of their ambassador in Moscow, whose comments were being live-tweeted. Either way, sufficient confusion on this issue has been cast by the British side, let alone by Russia, to leave the public unsure about what to believe.

Infuriatingly for those who argue that, post-Brexit, we live in a post-truth age, it is societies that ultimately determine what is true in situations like this. Truth is arrived at in politics through a process of deliberation and engagement between leaders and their publics over fundamental moral and strategic values. And this is a process that the British state is increasingly ill-prepared and ill-equipped to pursue.

First published on spiked, 5 April 2018

After Salisbury: the lost art of diplomacy

Cool-headed diplomacy has given way to bluster and confusion.

The ongoing saga of the poisoned former spy in the normally quiet English city of Salisbury has led British government sources to accuse Russia of being ‘a strategic enemy’. Far more problematic for the future stability of the international order is how the response to the poisoning has revealed a gaping hole where cool-headed diplomacy and strategic coherence once stood.

At the operational level, systematic searches, forensic analyses and detailed inquiries continue to be conducted calmly and painstakingly by a wide variety of security professionals. But in the more strategic realm of communications, there has been a considerable amount of grandstanding by, and discord between, various significant parties.

Rash, early statements by the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, to the effect that England may pull out of the football World Cup in response to the incident, were probably to be expected. He more recently agreed with a Labour MP that President Putin would look to draw prestige from the upcoming tournament in a manner akin to Hitler’s use of the 1936 Olympiad for propaganda purposes.

Many others have been equally intemperate and ill-measured. Once the specific substance involved had been formally identified, the defence secretary Gavin Williamson told Russia that it should ‘go away and shut up’. His more junior security minister, Ben Wallace, then appeared on Newsnight to announce to the Russians that the UK was ‘coming to get you’.

When asked why the government had only given the Russians 24 hours to address the available evidence, rather than the 10 days recommended in the Chemical Weapons Convention, the government asserted that the Russian reaction – to not respond to British demands – would have remained the same anyway. Lazy, self-fulfilling presumptions, inflammatory language and barroom banter appear to be the order of the day.

Then there’s the use of meaningless terminology. For instance, Novichok, we are continuously reminded by the media and prime minister alike, is a ‘military grade’ nerve agent. Are there any other types of nerve agent?

In a similarly confused and confusing vein, the chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, issued precautionary advice to pub-goers and diners who may have been close to the incident to wash their clothes and other possessions, and to bag up any dry cleaning – only later being advised that these would be collected and destroyed. At the same time, she stated that she was ‘confident none of these customers or staff will have suffered harm’. Her predecessor, Sir Liam Donaldson, emerged from retirement to express surprise on national radio that, in his view, such messages from public-health officials had been so ‘slow’ to emerge and were too limited in scope.

The earlier, and more significant, outbursts by politicians had already led one former UK ambassador to Moscow, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, to advise that senior ministers should not be ‘shooting their mouths off’ over the affair. Quite. In doing so, he echoed somewhat more forthrightly the home secretary, Amber Rudd, who pointed out the need ‘to keep a cool head’ and to collect all the evidence before taking action. But that was always going to be challenging in a climate fuelled by backbench posturing and media caricatures of the ‘evil empire’. Many, it would seem, are rather keen in our age of uncertainty and insecurity to return to the Cold War with its reassuring clarity, despite the potential for mutually assured destruction.

Indeed, a head of steam has been building up against Russia for quite some time. It relates, among other matters, to its hostile views regarding homosexuality, its temerity to reject NATO and EU advances in Ukraine, its pursuit of different goals in the Syrian crisis to our own, and its alleged fixing of the US presidential election.

In response to the Salisbury poisoning, the Russian Embassy has sent tweets dismissive of the British government line. The tweets have caused the BBC and other media outlets to veer between incredulity and incomprehension for their apparent lack of due decorum and concern. But since when has British foreign policy been conducted in the Twittersphere – an arena most right-thinking adults know ought never to be taken too seriously at all? One president we all know of may conduct his affairs in that way, tweeting about the size of his button, but anyone else above the age of 12 should understand this neither to be appropriate nor useful.

The Foreign Office was once staffed by the brightest and the best the British education system had to offer. Recruited for their understanding of history, appreciation of culture and ability to speak foreign languages, its staff helped shape and deliver the UK’s national interests overseas in good times and ill for well over two centuries. They understood clearly that dinner-party opinions, short-term gains and petty politicking had no place in diplomacy, which sought to deliver long-term strategic objectives of benefit to the nation.

In recent years, such insights increasingly appear to have been forgotten. We now live in an age when senior officials and politicians on all sides and in all places think little of leaking private conversations, as happened to Theresa May recently in relation to her Brexit discussions. Elsewhere, there is talk of sidelining diplomats altogether in arranging talks with North Korea.

What all this reveals is how the United Kingdom and others have increasingly lost sight of, and are unable to articulate, their longer-term national interests in an age when the sovereign nation state has come to be viewed with disdain and suspicion. European and other partners have agreed to expel Russian diplomats over the Skripal affair. Their support may be welcome in the short term, but it is one thing to know what they collectively oppose, quite another to know what it is exactly any of them stand for.

The British people recently called upon their leaders to ‘take back control’ of their nation. It may be high time they did.

First published on spiked, 28 March 2018

Why vigils aren’t enough

Our response to terror attacks has become increasingly therapeutic.

‘Despair is suffering without meaning’, proffered Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in an interview once. In his most famous work, Man’s Search for Meaning, he paraphrased Nietzsche to the effect that: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’ So, in gauging how people in Manchester and across the UK pursue their lives in the trail of the nihilistic attack on the Manchester Arena last Monday, as well as in the aftermath of other recent attacks, it ought to be to the question of meaning and purpose that we all turn.

I once interviewed two Singaporean citizens who had been caught up in the incidents in Mumbai in November 2008. Ten supposed affiliates of a Pakistani Islamist group had pursued a coordinated series of bombings and murderous attacks across the city over a period of four days, killing 164 people and wounding 308. The company the Singaporeans worked for asked me to speak to them to offer support – if any were needed – beyond that to be provided by their government.

I thought long and hard about how best to go about the task and determined to keep my questions simple and objective: When did you fly out? What were you there for? What did you do that day? When did you first notice something was wrong? What did you do then? What happened next? How did you get out? At the end I left an opening for them to contact me again should they want to.

Many might imagine that asking ‘Were you affected by anything you experienced?’ would have been somewhat more sensitive. But in whatever way they would have answered, the power of suggestion could then readily have elicited manifestations of psychosomatic trauma in them at a later date. Our minds work in mysterious ways. Singapore suffered its first ever fatality at the hands of terrorists during those attacks and so the media were keeping the matter salient in the popular imagination. It was to the media’s credit, though, that they did so in a considerably less protracted, shrill or emotional way than I have witnessed elsewhere after similar incidents.

Both of my respondents had spent many hours cooped up in their rooms at one of the hotels that was attacked, the Oberoi, before being freed. One had focused variously on his faith and on his family during his time there. The other had made some rather dangerous, if somewhat understandable, decisions – first trying to escape down a smoke-filled stairwell and then almost being unable to find his way back to his room before trying to smash the window open with an armchair and ultimately lacerating his leg on the fractured glass. Oddly, it was the need to stop the bleeding from this wound that then allowed him to remain calm and collected over the ensuing hours.

Frankl proposed that it is down to each individual to attribute an appropriate meaning to situations of adversity and that nobody else, however well intentioned, can do it for us. We may offer too much support and sympathy at such times. Emotional appeals from loved ones, concerned employers, the media, and government agents wanting to support their citizens, can cause additional stress and confusion during an emergency, as well as, in many instances, perpetuating suffering long after it.

‘Whatever you do, don’t give your name to any journalist’, my friend Simon Wessely, now the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told me following the London bombings in 2005. ‘They’ll never let it drop and will call you on every anniversary thereafter.’ People can and do forget. For many that really is the best option. Short-term anxieties rarely last.

Of course, participating in communal events like a mass vigil may seem positive to others, though I suspect that those who attend are mostly not those who are caught up in the incidents. Surveys showed inordinate numbers of people across the US claiming to have been affected by 9/11, even when their only exposure had been through the medium of television. Well-meaning as such gatherings and online statements of condolences may be, these can also be superficial and self-serving. Some turn it into an identity. We live in the age of virtue-signalling, after all. And if the best response to such incidents is to go about our lives as normal, as politicians assert at such times, then this is hardly normal.

Another friend of mine, sociologist and spiked contributor Frank Furedi, pointed out to me once that if the Israeli state held a few days of national mourning after every terror incident there, as the Spanish government did after the train bombings in Madrid in 2002, then at times it would be permanently closed down. Like it or not, the Jewish people have had to habituate to the circumstances they are in, supported maybe by a narrative of being God’s chosen people and of having endured suffering throughout their history. Of course, Palestinians also suffer there and their way of explaining this to themselves has also been through a narrative of resistance and future liberation.

At the beginning of 2001, before the attacks on New York and Washington, there had been a series of throwback incidents in Northern Ireland, as if from a time before the peace process. For weeks, hundreds of Loyalist protesters tried to stop young Catholic schoolgirls from traversing their Protestant enclave to reach the Holy Cross Primary School in Belfast. They hurled abuse, as well as urine-filled balloons and improvised grenades, at them. Police and soldiers had to escort the parents and terrified children through.

The school, as was already a growing norm then, offered the families counselling. There was no indication of what type of therapy this was to be or whether there would ever be any follow-up to verify if it had worked, so I later commissioned research to assess its effects.

What my collaborator discovered was that the girls most affected had been those with younger parents. These parents had been less able to situate the incidents within the political framework of the Troubles and communicate this to their children. To them, the violence appeared simply mindless and random. And this had left their daughters conceptually unarmed.

Encouragingly, there appear to be plenty in Manchester and beyond who are not afraid of articulating why what happened there did, and who are keen to show their defiance. Their framing can be rudimentary. It is certainly far less equivocal than that of the authorities who appear, as spiked’s Brendan O’Neill has noted, simply to offer vapid appeals for unity and harmony. But to not be angry at these events, argues O’Neill, is to be dead already.

Amazingly, at the height of the Mumbai attacks, one of the perpetrators used the mobile phone of someone he had just killed to conduct a live interview with newscasters at India TV. When the anchors asked him for his demands, he was heard putting the phone down and asking another of the attackers what these were. Almost nine years on, no one has yet articulated them. Not even those held to have planned and controlled those events from afar. That the so-called terrorists today have no explicit agenda or purpose, beyond carnage, is surely the element we should be exploiting the most. That is, so long as we are clear about our own.

Republished on spiked, 30 May 2017

The pretentious nihilism of Plane Stupid

They pose as radicals, but actually are the worst kind of elitists.

That 13 supposed climate-change protesters from direct-action group Plane Stupid managed to breach security at London’s Heathrow Airport in the early hours of yesterday, chain themselves together and remain on the runway until 10am, over seven hours later, will, no doubt, be cause for considerable embarrassment in some circles.

True, the economic cost may not have been severe, due to there being flight restrictions in operation relating to take-offs prior to 6am. What’s more, the number of flights cancelled – 22 out of some 1,300 – would not have caused much more disruption than may be expected normally. But the implications of this protest, especially in relation to potentially more serious security breaches, seem evident to many.

What, runs this dominant commentary, if the individuals concerned had not been smiling, predominantly well-to-do types opposed to the planned expansion of Heathrow? What if they had been jihadists, affiliated to al-Qaeda or so-called Islamic State? What if they had been armed?

No doubt, such questions ought to be asked in certain circles. But, at the same time, we should not lose sight of the fact that many supposedly secure facilities have had their security compromised in one way or another since 9/11 – despite the vast sums expended to ensure this would not happen. If anything, such events suggest terrorism is not the main problem.

The Houses of Parliament in Westminster have been invaded on at least three occasions over recent years. Two members of campaign group Fathers 4 Justice threw flour bombs during Prime Minister’s Questions in 2004. Later that year, five supporters of the Countryside Alliance invaded the chamber.

In 2009, more than 30 Greenpeace activists climbed on to the roof of Westminster Hall, and many of them spent the night there, before being removed. Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle have suffered similar incursions from self-styled activists, as well as burglars and attention-seekers.

The incursion at Heathrow was clearly not an aberration.

What’s more, this particular type of incident – often perpetrated by self-absorbed types in pursuit of their usually limited political agendas – is not even the most significant in relation to airports and aviation security. In the intervening period, there have also been countless incursions worldwide into cargo areas by more organised criminals in pursuit of bullion and other goods.

If anything, Plane Stupid’s stunt seems to confirm the analysis of American political scientist John Mueller in his 2006 book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them. As Mueller wrote, stepping up security for passengers has done little to ensure airside security. Terrorists know this, so there must be fewer of them than we imagine.

There is one aspect, though – missed by most commentators – that we ought to pay some attention to. Those middle-class types, smiling for the photographers on the tarmac, are born of the same cultural malaise as many wannabe terrorists and fantasy Islamists. They start from an unshakeable moral certitude regarding their project and require little public support or engagement.

They have also – by-and-large – been indulged by the authorities. In the past, when the authorities were more confident of what it was they wanted for society, they would not have given any of them the time of day. Today, however, these protesters are handled with kid gloves. That is because those self-same agencies are no longer even sure of what it is they believe in.

That the Plane Stupid protesters could so blithely interrupt the plans of thousands of people – whether they were attending a loved one’s funeral in a foreign land or simply having a break – and not even trouble themselves to engage those people in a debate regarding their actions is a form of pretentious nihilism.

It is born of an age in which we no longer demand that people support their actions through reason, or build community support for their opinions. Rather, we accept that if someone feels passionately about something then that alone may condone their actions. According to some, having a grievance or being offended can explain – if not justify – someone’s rage.

Most alienated white Brits cannot readily join the ranks of those throwing a tantrum and heading off to Syria. They will have to find other forms of expression for their self-distancing disconnection from society. It may well be that terrorism is simply the more violent end of a spectrum, connecting extremists to the mainstream narcissists of groups like Plane Stupid.

Anti-terror: the perversion of tolerance

Cameron’s crackdown on extremists will destroy freedom, not protect it.

The announcement by prime minister David Cameron today that a new counter-extremism bill is to form part of the Queen’s Speech on 27 May, providing the authorities with new powers to tackle terrorism, confirms that, as early as the first week of his new government, all pretence at inspiring and engaging has been set aside in favour of legislating and coercing.

When home secretary Theresa May told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that she wanted to ‘bring people together to ensure we are living together as one society’, she omitted to say that this ‘bringing together’ is to be made mandatory, with severe penalties for those who will not comply with what the authorities define as British values.

The window for free speech has now been firmly shut just a few months after so many political leaders walked in supposed solidarity for murdered cartoonists in France. Yet, it was only just over 200 years ago that the very British poet William Wordsworth, observing the spirit of liberty that had just been unleashed in France, exclaimed: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!’

Today, we face the twilight of freedom, and to be young is to be cowed and scrutinised, as the government implicitly reveals that it has given up on trying to understand the reasons why growing numbers of youths are disengaged from society, leading at the margins to the vexatious violence of a small minority. Interception and incarceration are to be the bold new vision for the future of Britain.

Most strikingly of all, the BBC reports that May will tell the National Security Council that the government will empower institutions to ‘challenge bigotry and ignorance’. Lest we forget, it was only five years ago that the previous PM, Gordon Brown, castigated a traditional Labour voter as a bigot. And, presumably, old-fashioned Church of England adherents opposed to gay marriage on principled religious grounds will also face the need to be re-programmed under Cameron’s new regime, just as much as the many who don’t know their Sunni from their Shia?

Cameron states that for too long ‘we have been a passively tolerant society’ and is presumably ‘pumped-up’ at the possibility of actively changing this image. But, in truth, Britain has strayed a long way from the Enlightenment conceptualisation of tolerance, which advocated robust engagement with others over matters of principle while recognising and accepting the need to live side-by-side.

In recent years, British society has become not tolerant but indifferent to the mores of others, preferring to turn a blind eye to outlooks and activities deemed not too threatening. You can believe anything you like, so long as you don’t believe in it too much, has been the unstated outlook of the authorities. Now, Cameron seeks to shift gear from passive indifference to active authoritarianism.

Of course, deep down, neither Cameron, May nor any other person in power truly believes that this approach can work. At best, it is a form of containment. And, as the security services know full-well, there can be no security solutions to social problems. Their capacity is already fully stretched monitoring the active few. Presumably, then, our ignorance is to be challenged by local authority-led training workshops?

What this will achieve, though, is to mandate bad faith across society. The government legislates to be seen to be Doing Something. Institutions and individuals will act and speak accordingly – to be seen to be in compliance. No wonder so many voted Tory without telling the pollsters; to say what you really think is no longer a constituent of British values.

Meanwhile, a generation of young people in search of purpose and meaning in their lives, looking for something to believe in, will find this in all manner of bizarre and, sadly, occasionally twisted avenues. It is not ideas on the internet that radicalise. To presume so is to view people as mindless sponges. Rather, it is the gaping hole at the heart of where real values ought to be that these young people actively seek to fill – a hole best exemplified through the recent election, where no party sought to provide any strategic or principled vision for society.

Sadly, it really is through the prism of an authoritarian form of child protection that the government now views the populace, and especially the young. Successive heads of MI5 have alluded to how these people are ‘vulnerable’ and ‘groomed’ online by vicious malcontents. While feeding off and into contemporary anxieties and fears of paedophiles, this formulation also presents the next generation (who, oddly it would seem, manage to get to Syria quite easily) as lacking any agency, autonomy and – inadvertently perhaps – accountability for their actions.

A far more useful approach would have been to challenge the therapeutic culture that has now infected our education system – a culture where children are taught from kindergarten on that their feelings are sacrosanct and that having their personal beliefs challenged is a form of offence. It is a culture that has spread right through society leading to a situation where the impulse to ban ideas and activities that some find unacceptable has become the mainstream solution. In his announcement today, Cameron has shown that the government now best exemplifies this new and dangerous trend.

First published on spiked, 12 May 2015

Lee Kuan Yew: the last of the great authoritarians

Love him or loathe him, the former Singapore leader had something his successors lack.

Lee Kuan Yew – the founding father of modern Singapore – has died aged 91. He was a controversial figure. Revered by many, despised by others, his aura became such that, in recent years, few people dared say his name in public – preferring to call him either ‘LKY’ or ‘the old man’.

Brought up under British rule, and educated in law at Cambridge, Harry Lee, as he was known then, became the figure the British could do business with (as did Gandhi in India) in the period of postwar decolonisation. His memoirs and actions revealed that he imbibed many of the racial caricatures and elitist prejudices of the British.

When he became the first prime minister of Singapore in 1959, he inherited and made full use of the Internal Security Act, which allowed for the preventative detention of individuals indefinitely without charge or trial. Accordingly, under the guise of anti-Communism, and in the shadow of the Malayan Emergency, he advocated for the internment of many of his former allies in the early 1960s. Several of whom – figures virtually unknown in the West – remained in prison until the early 1990s, for periods on a par with Nelson Mandela’s incarceration.

The fact that many of these prisoners managed to maintain their political beliefs with considerable dignity throughout their internment is a tribute to their courage. The recriminations over what exactly occurred are likely to resurface in the wake of Lee’s death. Singaporeans will re-examine their past, with accusations of historical revisionism from one side meeting considerable evidence of concealment by government, media and academic lackeys from the other.

The swamps-to-skyscrapers narrative, the idea that Lee pulled Singapore from a Third World to a First World country in the space of a single generation, is now being questioned, though developments in housing and infrastructure are still likely to be his abiding legacy. Singapore’s development was undoubtedly assisted by Western interference in both of Singapore’s neighbouring states – most barbarically in Indonesia, where more than half-a-million lost their lives during the CIA-backed anti-Communist purges of the mid-1960s. This period gave rise to the myth of Asian values, and of non-interference, which served to conceal domestic suppression.

Many foreigners may be familiar with Singapore as the ultra-clean city-state which, alongside the draconian regulation of jaywalking and chewing gum, continues to restrict freedom of expression and sexuality. But anyone who has spent time in its heartlands will know there is little enforcement of such petty rules. Police are noticeably absent on the streets. Rather, such codes have been ingrained in people’s heads. Smear campaigns against opposition parties and systematic electoral gerrymandering has meant dissent in Singapore is muted.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) – established by Lee in 1954, with a logo strangely reminiscent of that of the British Union of Fascists – has accordingly run Singapore since the late 1950s. Lee was prime minister at the time of Singapore’s merger with, and forcible ejection from, Malaysia, and remained in power until 1990. After that, he became senior minister and minister mentor, and continued to loom large in the background of Singaporean politics, even with his son at the helm, as he remains today.

Born, like many nations, in a period of great conflict, it may have been inevitable that Singapore came to be steered for so long by a leader like Lee. While many may focus on his authoritarian rule or politically incorrect views, it is likely that the greatest failing of the incredibly wilful, last-of-a-kind individual that was Lee Kuan Yew was his inability to instil the same sense of conviction in his successors. Singapore now faces being governed by largely uninspiring bureaucrats for the foreseeable future.

First published by spiked, 24 March 2015