Letters · LRB 4 January 2018
Labour in Scotland
‘Folk politics’ is a curious way for Rory Scothorne to characterise the 2014 Yes campaign for Scottish independence (LRB, 14 December 2017). The phrase is taken from Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, who use it to denote politics focused on the local, immediate and particular; it is reactive to change, and often uses direct action to resist it. They criticise this mode of left-wing activism for its lack of strategy and long-term vision. The Yes campaign was the very opposite in all these respects. A campaign to create a new nation can hardly be said to be local or particular; far from using direct action, it used constitutional means to mobilise a mass vote; it wasn’t conducted in reaction to change but to try and create change; and the change desired wasn’t just long-term but permanent. The one respect in which the campaign did resemble Srnicek and Williams’s description was in its use of horizontal rather than hierarchical organisation – and in this it was very successful, eclipsing the top-down efforts of the SNP and the opposition’s ‘Better Together’ campaign.
But of course it didn’t win. Despite what Scothorne says, this can’t be put down to smallness of vision, but the campaign certainly could have made its vision more specific. The aspirations were there, but only in the broadest of terms: a fairer, more just, less punitive society, more sustainable, less unequal. How these things were to be achieved was left vague, though the first, vital step was to escape the grip of Westminster. This was not enough of a plan to convince the electorate to vote for independence, but it was enough to persuade them en masse to desert Scottish Labour, which remained loyal to the UK state and displayed virtually no sign of wishing to change its neoliberal cast of mind.
The radical independence movement did not privilege nation over class, but sought to pursue the politics of class within a new nation. This may well be starry-eyed and utopian, but folk politics it is not. Jim Murphy, the Scottish Labour leader who conducted the disastrous 2015 general election campaign in which the party lost 40 out of its 41 seats, made the error of treating the independence movement with condescension. Richard Leonard is from the opposite wing of the party, but if he is to woo voters back to it he would be wise not to make the same mistake.
The President and the Bomb
Adam Shatz notes Donald Trump’s promise to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea if it becomes a nuclear threat to the US (LRB, 16 November 2017). Remarkably, the US public seems little moved. This is in stark contrast to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. At Harvard that year the fear was intense. An emergency faculty meeting debated evacuating the university far inland but rejected it: life after a nuclear war wouldn’t be worth living. Today, as an emeritus professor at Stanford, I hear of no such discussions. But 2017 is not 1962, when two giant nuclear powers played chicken. The Soviets had missiles en route to Cuba, challenging the US to stop them. But we didn’t believe that either Kennedy or Khrushchev (despite his shoe-banging at the UN) was crazy. We hoped reason would prevail, as indeed it did. Now North Korea – small, impoverished but newly nuclear-armed – confronts the US, which has overwhelming nuclear superiority. But both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump are seen as emotionally unstable. Can we bank on reason prevailing today? Hardly. Yet we seem to accept our situation with the same dulled imagination with which we accept the inevitability of the next devastating California earthquake.
‘Pre-delegation’: the granting of authority to a high-ranking officer in the field to carry out a nuclear strike in emergency situations. Perhaps the premise of Dr Strangelove isn’t as fictional, or as funny, as it seemed on first viewing in the 1960s.
I have worked in the UK with asylum seekers and undocumented people for many years, and as such I was interested to read Dave Lindorff’s account of his experience of the NHS as a foreign visitor (LRB, 30 November 2017). It should, however, be pointed out that not everyone is allowed access to NHS treatment. Over the past five years the government has implemented numerous policies to prevent the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the UK without a visa from getting NHS care. Often this is no fault of theirs since they were brought here as children and are now adults, or have had their asylum application wrongly rejected by the UK Border Agency (30 per cent of rejections by the UKBA are overturned by judges).
It is true that some NHS medical services are still available to all free of charge: emergency intervention in A&E to save a life, or treatment of communicable diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis. However, non-emergency medical treatment, while it might (or might not) be provided at the discretion of a local NHS trust, will be billed to the patient if they do not hold a current visa. People who don’t have visas are rarely in a position either to buy the insurance that Lindorff had, or to pay the government’s NHS surcharge of up to £200 for every visa application (on top of the cost of the visa itself, which can be in excess of £1000). Usually the surcharge has to be renewed every two and a half years.
People in this situation are afraid to approach the NHS for medical treatment, because they know that if they owe the NHS £1000 or more (the cost of roughly one day’s hospital treatment that isn’t directly provided in the emergency room), the UKBA will refuse to consider any visa application they may make in the future. This rule was brought in when Theresa May was in charge at the Home Office. Other policies included detaining children without visas, removing the right to legal aid to assist children to regularise their status even if they have lived in the UK for most or all of their lives, the indefinite detention of people without visas and so on. It was also May who introduced the advertising vans threatening any foreigner who was living here without a visa – all part of what she meant when she called for the creation of a ‘hostile environment for illegal migrants’.
Undocumented migrants receiving NHS treatment are not as lucky as David Lindorff was. Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of maternity care. Government regulations state that maternity care is ‘immediately necessary’ and so must not be refused or delayed because of a woman’s inability to pay for her care in advance. But the care is still chargeable, as is all ‘overseas visitor’ treatment, at 150 per cent of the tariff charged to Clinical Commissioning Groups. Full maternity care including antenatal care, labour and postnatal care can easily cost more than £5000 for an uncomplicated birth and more than double that if the pregnancy and birth are complex. Recent migrants and women who do not speak English are among the groups with the highest risk of maternal mortality and adverse pregnancy outcomes. The effect of NHS charges, and the fear of being reported to the Home Office by the hospital if they have unpaid debts over £500, is to prevent these pregnant women from seeking crucial maternity care.
The Hunter-Gatherers Were Right
Steven Mithen, puzzling over the reasons hunter-gatherers took up the seemingly less healthy and more arduous system of Neolithic agriculture, overlooks the significance of his own observation that ‘the demands of travel’ limited the hunter-gatherers ‘to having one child every four years’ (LRB, 30 November 2017). Hunter-gathering requires periodic treks to follow migrating herds and find fresh vegetation. That’s fine if you’re a robust young male. Not so inviting if you’re a pregnant female, or an arthritic clan elder. Was there an alliance of gender and gerontocracy? It’s likely that the old guys, often in positions of authority as sages, shamans or just family patriarchs, prioritised the fecundity of their female subordinates: hence more labourers and skivvies to service the men at the top. Did they rule that the community abandon the wandering and, literally, put down roots for an alleged common good?
University of Bath
Neither James Scott, in his study of the human transition to agriculture, nor Steven Mithen in his review of Scott, asks what is for me the biggest question of all: how and why did people start to eat grain, and make it the staple diet of large communities? If you had a family to feed, you would be looking at a patch of wild grass for a very long time before you thought of a bowl of porridge, much less a powdery substance which could be turned into dough.
Birkbeck, University of London
Over a Barrel
William Carter’s account of the Libyan barrel scam reminds me of the old joke about a gulag prisoner leaving the factory each day with a wheelbarrow always filled to the brim with debris (LRB, 14 December 2017). The guard would tip the barrow over and poke through the stuff, but could never find any contraband. Years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ex-guard and ex-prisoner happened to meet in Moscow. ‘You can tell me now,’ the guard says. ‘What were you stealing?’ The prisoner answers: ‘Wheelbarrows.’
The Liveliness of the Dead
A friend drew my attention to Andrew Livingston’s letter of 30 November 2017. ‘Not content with just a taste,’ he writes, ‘these intrepid members of the Royal Society also probed the [dead] body with a stick: it felt like “boyld Brawne”.’ I’m not happy about it.
Lewes, East Sussex
The Road to Reading Gaol
Colm Tóibín cites the card the Marquess of Queensberry left at Wilde’s club (LRB, 30 November 2017). ‘The message that would cause the famous libel action,’ Tóibín writes, alleged ‘that Wilde was “posing as a somdomite”.’ In 1981, in a palaeography class in Oxford, R.E. Alton showed us the original card, which quite clearly read: ‘To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite’. The error came about because Queensberry misquoted himself when giving evidence at the trial. It’s not a huge difference, but one might as well get it right.
Where am I?
Is Thomas Jones worried enough about the GPS revolution (LRB, 16 November 2017)? Navigators used to have to balance a number of sources of not entirely accurate information in plotting positions, which they marked on charts with a ‘cocked-hat’ of not-perfectly-coincident bearings. To be on the safe side, they always chose an arbitrary position within the cocked hat that was closest to any point of danger. There is an analogy with the work of historians and others in the ‘soft sciences’, where best practice requires an understanding of the limited reliability of different sorts of data, and the choice of the safest position within a virtual cocked hat. And just as it may be unwise to rely totally on a black box for navigation, so perhaps ‘fake news’ tells us something about the consequences of replacing soft scientific procedures with a confident acceptance of questionable data.
Fredericton, New Brunswick