April 08, 2021 16:30
As Donald Trump's presidency recedes into history, what will future generations make of this most unconventional businessman-come-politician? Biteback author Simon Dolan offers his view...
In just a short time as President, Joe Biden has failed to deliver a State of the Union address, dropped bombs on Syria, fallen up the steps of Air Force One, overseen a humanitarian crisis at the border and fluffed his lines when he tried to remember the name of one of his senior staff members.
There has been some criticism around these and other points in his 100-plus days in office, but the question remains as to whether his more direct predecessor – President Donald Trump – would have gotten away with the same track record?
Would Trump, as he is less than affectionately referred to by most, have been given as smooth a ride in the media as Joe Biden for the same incidents? How would the US and international media have reacted to the lack of State of the Union address alone? The headlines for forgetting a member of his own staff’s name would have been aggressive and derogatory.
It could perhaps be argued that Joe Biden is still in his honeymoon period, and therefore it can be accepted he would be ‘let off’ for anything going slightly awry. But the truth is that Donald Trump, the reality TV star and property magnate who became President, would without question have been pilloried for the very same incidents.
Trump had no honeymoon period to speak of. He was targeted even before day one, written off by the Democrats and his own Republican Party, and indeed by the international community, before he beat – no, swept aside – Hillary Clinton in 2015. It was the victory the world didn’t think possible, and it was a shock victory attacked from the outset.
During his presidency, Trump was subject to a years-long witch-hunt over allegations of conspiracy with Russia, for which, in the end, no evidence could be found. According to the conspiracy theory, this President was not just stupid and ridiculous – he was a traitor. However, unlike Obama, who waged military campaigns in Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria and failed to extract the US military from either Iraq or Afghanistan, Trump started no new wars during his tenure in the White House, withdrew troops from Syria, pacified North Korea, negotiated peace deals across the Middle East and was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize on four separate occasions. This is all overlooked – he receives no credit for these accomplishments.
It is this difference in how he was treated, in how he attracted so much criticism and negative press, that I believe is key to understand when considering his impact. Trump: The Hidden Halo sets out to do this, analysing what the businessman who took over arguably the biggest business in the world – the United States of America – actually achieved. It is a book which I hope helps in some way; but there needs to be a far more balanced look at the work of America’s 45th President if we are truly to understand his legacy.
And my challenge to anyone is to not consider what Biden has done in his first 100 days, but to look back on his time in office in four years, to see how it matches up with the achievements – and yes, there were many – of his predecessor, the man whom 74 million Americans voted for in the 2020 presential election.
My prediction is that those achievements will be far fewer – but they will be recorded in a far more positive way.
Trump: The Hidden Halo is out now: get your copy here.
March 30, 2021 11:00
Top human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson sits down to talk about the publication of his new book Bad People, and why he wrote it...
When I began to write this book, early in lockdown, very few people had heard of Magnitsky laws or of targeted sanctions for human rights abusers. But in the approach to publication day, sanctions have been in the headlines; imposed on Chinese apparatchiks who run the Uighur concentration camps, imposed on Russian officials involved in the poisoning and jailing of Alex Navalny and imposed on Lukashenko and his ministers in Belarus. Western governments are finally taking some actions against bad people, but in a poorly coordinated way and without thinking through the implications. I wrote this book to explain how and to what extent these sanctions can work and whether they will help to stop the slide towards authoritarianism.
The problem with autocracies is that they put themselves above international law and do not accept its rules or the rulings of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was set up to enforce them. These formed ‘Plan A’ as a means of punishing those who violate human rights. But this plan has not worked – the ICC, despite costing $1.5 billion – has only managed to convict a few central African warlords. It has of course produced a lot of jurisprudence about human rights principles, but it cannot enforce them because perpetrators are mostly protected by big powers with vetoes in the Security Council on any UN action – Russia, China and the United States. So, it is time to turn to the only laws that can realistically be enforced, namely national laws, which can stop people and tainted money from entering a specific country and confiscate ill-gotten gains.
I believe it is possible for sanctions under national law to go much further – not just to name, blame and shame perpetrators of human rights abuses, but to damage their businesses and to stop them sending their children to schools and their parents to hospitals in the West. Most importantly, such sanctions can catch their corporate accomplices – for example, those brands that buy cotton produced by the slave labour of Uighurs. Magnitsky laws are not just symbolic but put specifically ostracise those people who deserve to be beyond the pale of decent societies. This was the insight vouchsafed by the judgment at Nuremberg; that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not by states. These laws can strike at ‘enablers’ – the middle-class professionals I call the ‘train drivers to Auschwitz’, who include the lickspittle judges, overzealous prosecutors, accountants and lawyers who conduct unfair trials or hide and move the proceeds of crime.
But it is early days. We now have Magnitsky laws in thirty-one countries – US, Canada, UK and the EU member states – all countries in what I would not term as the ‘West’ but the ‘White West’. Japan is contemplating such a law and India, Brazil and Singapore should be encouraged to follow suit. They are all countries which could be described as having ‘parliamentary peoples’; they have a commitment to democracy and to the rule of international law. A level of coordination must be developed – we should not have anyone sanctioned in Britain being welcome in Europe, and vice versa. We must be careful about US leadership: the power of the dollar is vital in making its sanctions effective, but its behaviour under Trump in sanctioning the ICC prosecutor, just because she was investigating American war crimes, was irresponsible. And sanction laws must provide for due process – its targets should have an opportunity to refute allegations and have themselves removed from the list.
Bad People – And How to Be Rid of Them: A Plan B for Human Rights is the first book to be published about the sanctioning of human rights abusers and I am sure it will not be the last. I hope it will explain what is a new and potentially powerful weapon in the hands of those fighting for human rights.
Interest piqued? Bad People is out now: take a look here.
March 16, 2021 11:22
Two Minutes to Midnight: 1953 – The Year of Living Dangerously is an account of one of the most gripping, epoch-making twelve months in the Cold War. Author Roger Hermiston explains how he came to write about this year…
Ask someone for one important fact about 1953 and they might point to it being the year of the Coronation of our present Queen. If they are sports lovers, they could cite England regaining the Ashes in cricket, or the famous Stanley Matthews FA Cup final. Ask a scientist and they would probably tell you that it was the year of the discovery of DNA by Cambridge scientists Francis Crick and James Watson. Then of course, there was the first ascent of Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
My initial fascination with 1953 began with the political crisis at home over Winston Churchill’s stroke in the summer. The extraordinary cover-up of the Prime Minister’s illness – unthinkable in this era of press scrutiny and social media – has been written about before, and a half-decent television drama was made about it (starring Michael Gambon as Churchill). But I felt that a definitive account of how a small group of ministers, aides and civil servants kept the nation in the dark about the premier’s brush with death, and how they ran the country in his absence – along with that of his deputy, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, who was also seriously ill at the time – could make for compelling reading.
And hopefully it does – the crisis is covered in Chapter 7 of Two Minutes, entitled ‘The Emergency Government’. But as I discovered when starting my research, there was much, much more to say about these twelve months that had previously been labelled as one of the more monochrome years in the Cold War, not to be compared with the likes of 1948 (the Berlin Blockade), 1956 (Suez Canal and the invasion of Hungary), 1962 (the Cuban Missile Crisis) or 1983 (the Able Archer war game that nearly went disastrously wrong).
At the start of 1953 there was still no end in sight in the Korean War, which pitted America against China and the Soviet Union (on land and increasingly in the air) in a highly dangerous proxy conflict. In March, Joseph Stalin died, leaving the Western powers in a state of confusion about how to deal with the new men in the Kremlin.
The ‘Red Menace’, threatening America both abroad and at home, still loomed large in the minds of its citizens in 1953, kept there by the highly influential communist witchfinder-in-chief Joe McCarthy. The US government, with new Republican President Dwight Eisenhower backed by his hawkish Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, saw no reason to drop their guard because of Stalin’s departure.
However, Churchill, the man who had coined the term ‘Iron Curtain’, was desperately keen to embark on a new policy of ‘easement’ (détente) with Stalin’s successors. Eisenhower and Dulles were having none of it, and this tussle between the White House and Downing Street is a key theme in the book.
In 1953, Churchill sent a warship to the Falklands, the intelligence services of America and Britain plotted a successful coup in Iran, the United States was gradually being drawn into France’s disastrous war in Indo-China (soon to be Vietnam) and Britain elected not to get involved with moves towards European economic and political unification. All of these events, hatched in 1953, would have profound consequences in years to come – and still do so today.
But above all, it was the shadow of the mushroom cloud that loomed over this year. The United States had successfully tested her own H-bomb on the eve of 1953 – and Russia responded with the detonation of her own thermonuclear device in August. Throughout the year, America conducted A-bomb tests in the Nevada desert – one of them was broadcast live on television. In Korea, Eisenhower’s administration debated whether to drop nuclear bombs on the enemy on seven separate occasions between February and May.
All this led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the hands of its ‘Doomsday Clock’ to two minutes to midnight, the closest it had yet calculated that the world was to nuclear Armageddon. 1953 certainly was the year of living dangerously, and I hope my book reflects what a tense, fascinating twelve months it was.
Interest piqued? Find out more about Roger's gripping book Two Minutes to Midnight and order your copy here.
March 01, 2021 09:29
Ahead of the publication of Dr Quin, Medicine Man, John Quin turns his hand to a Biteback blog explaining the limitations of the UK's Covid-19 response...
How Twitter and three literary greats (a Vichy collaborator, an Italian Fascist and a Wehrmacht captain) ludicrously helped make sense of the British government’s woeful response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
A SPRING 2020 JOURNAL INFORMED BY L. F. CÉLINE, CURZIO MALAPARTE AND ERNST JÜNGER.
Friday 17 April 2020
Back to work for the first time in four years on Wednesday there. The front entrance to the hospital has, as ever, a couple of dossers fannying around: smokers, of course, embracing death. The old pastel-coloured Philip Dunn prints of the pier and the seafront still line the walls, a desperate gesture of levity. I overhear a conversation about some patient or relative being thrown out for ‘threatening to kill the ward sister’. I think: nothing’s changed.
I’m issued with a new security badge. Bat ears sticking out in the photograph because I’d just removed my mask. The canteen is closed, which is inevitable but sad because it has a great view of the sea. I say hello to the staff I know there and then the team at OP, where they take my temp on entering. Right. Let’s get to work. The computer and new IT is the biggest bugbear. The phone consults are fine, the patients touchingly accepting of the limitations, of my frank admission that I’ve not seen anyone in forty-seven months. Talking about erectile dysfunction over the blower is not ideal. ‘How’s your libido?’
Only one guy gives me grief – he asks three times if I can call back. He hasn’t had any of his investigations done. I’m not surprised to see that he’s in his early twenties. He’s moved to Bath, seems not to know the country is in lockdown, that there’s an emergency going on.
A colleague tells me that at least four of his old pals are currently on ventilators in various parts of the country. The BAME risk seems way too high. Maybe all BAME people over fifty should be offered immediate redeployment away from true frontline duties i.e. ITU/acute Covid streams.
‘Our survey shows: 22 per cent of physicians could not get the PPE they needed’ – Royal College of Physicians. Fuck sake. The days of austerity have crushed the NHS.
68 per cent of the British think that the government is handling the crisis well. Jonathan Coe writes: ‘That weird noise you just heard was my head exploding.’
‘We are resigned to getting it’: frontline NHS staff quoted in The Guardian. Cabinet still not meeting. Parliament not sitting. This country is now very, very sick.
Mary Agyapong, a nurse, dies of Covid. She was pregnant. The baby is reported as ‘doing well’. Imagine this poor kid aged twenty reading that in the future. Doing well. Another returnee – Peter Tun, aged sixty-two, a neurorehab consultant, dies. Over 100 docs dead in Italy.
The woman who discovered the first coronavirus – June Almeida – was born in 1930 and grew up in a tenement near Alexandra Park in Glasgow. She worked as a lab tech in the Royal. Left school with ‘little formal education’. The countries with women in charge: NZ, Germany, Iceland, Taiwan, Finland, Norway, Denmark – all doing a fine job. Those with sleazy geezers at the top – the UK, the US – not so good.
Helen Ward, prof of public health at Imperial, goes for it and accuses HMG of ignoring advice for eleven fateful days. Between 12 March and 23 March, tens if not hundreds of thousands were infected, including Boris Johnson himself. Ward is explicit: his stay on ITU ‘may have been avoided if the government had shifted to remote working on 12 March’.
Reading Jünger again, he’s still in Paris. Lunch at Prunier as he hears about the atrocities in the east: ‘You want to close your eyes to them.’
There are a lot of people who want to close their eyes right now. The atrocious cost of government health policy is not being stared at presently, but, as Jünger hints elsewhere, we will need to be forensic in our later examination of the facts. Study the pathogenesis.
Jünger says: ‘The totality of life does not dawn on us sequentially, but rather as a puzzle that reveals its meaning here and there.’ I’m trying to unpick the mystery of this trauma from the daily headlines and look for glimpses of truth in the comments.
Thursday night and at eight the pots and pans, the clapping, begin again. Kemptown sounds like an Alpine meadow, the tinkling of Swiss cowbells. Stupidly touching if naïve and the product of bad conscience in not a few.
Dr Quin, Medicine Man is out on 26th January. Pre-order your copy here!
February 23, 2021 14:00
To mark the publication of The Road to My Daughter, author Elisabeth Spencer shares her memories of the day that started her journey towards writing it...
When my child announced to me that she was transgender, I was totally unprepared in every way. I knew that Miles (as she then was) had suffered years of depression and isolation, but the idea that the young person I had only and ever known as my son might be suffering from such a total sense of gender dislocation had never crossed my mind.
Miles’ revelation emerged on the evening of a family crisis – Boxing Day evening, to be precise – when my then-husband, Baz, collapsed without warning and was rushed to hospital. The turmoil of his ensuing terminal diagnosis opened the emotional floodgates for Milly, and the truth finally came out.
At that time, I felt lost in a sea of ignorance and, as I discovered, of my own prejudice. When I saw how her burden had lifted and how happy she looked when she first found the courage to appear to me dressed as her true self, I knew I had a great deal to learn if I was to support my child.
I threw myself into trying to understand the strange new world I found myself in, reading everything I could lay my hands on. I delved into history, psychology and medical research, and in the process I discovered things about the body, gender and society that I had never before even considered.
Milly’s journey was a long and painful one. She was twenty-one when she first approached the GP about referral to the Gender Identity Clinic at Charing Cross Hospital in London and twenty-five when she was finally fully transitioned. That four-year process of transition was, in NHS terms, lightning fast. It was only possible because her desperation and determination led her to borrow significant amounts of money in order to pay for endocrinology, cosmetic treatments (such as hair removal and a tracheal shave to reduce the Adam’s apple) and ultimately full surgical transition in Thailand.
But for so many others the road is endless. Waiting lists are many years long, and few medical practitioners in the UK have any training in trans healthcare. There is a thriving trade in illegal hormones online, but even once a trans patient is on a healthcare pathway, mistreatment is endemic. Some sardonically call it ‘trans broken arm syndrome’: visit a doctor for a broken bone and you’re as likely to be sent away with a referral to a psychiatrist as a cast.
As my daughter attempted to navigate the system, I saw her plunge into despair. Eventually, her journey took her through the NHS to Harley Street, Belgium and Thailand before finally she could become the person she needed to be.
My journey was also profound. I had to face my own many shortcomings. I had much to learn, and I hope that I have grown. I now find it difficult to think of my daughter as anything other than the person she has become. The damaged, withdrawn boy of the childhood and teenage years has been replaced by a radiant and gifted young woman who is able fully to contribute to her place in the world. I am incredibly proud of her and humbled by her determination and sincerity.
I now know that no one, absolutely no one, would undertake the gruelling process of transitioning unless desperation drove them there. I have learnt that what matters is not what is bred in the bone but how a life is lived. Courage and compassion are our greatest gifts to ourselves and others as we strive to be who we are in this world. This was the road to my daughter.
Elisabeth Spencer's book The Road to My Daughter is now available to buy: take a look at it here.