Fiction: Post-Partum

A young Muslim woman from England makes a shocking discovery when she visits her Hindu husband’s ancestral home

Post-Partum1I – The Ancestors

Shaista lay on her bed, idly fiddling with the long, black tress that spilled over her shoulder. The humidity had made it curly and unmanageable and the weight of it made her neck ache. She wished Arjun would let her cut it, but no, it was her crowning glory, the diadem of her femininity, she must let it grow.

Let it grow, as she must let the child grow; grow and change and develop a life independent of what gave birth to it. Her hand slid from her hair to her belly, where the first curves of pregnancy were beginning to show.

Arjun stirred beside her, one eye held half-open by the weight of his face on the pillow. The visit had left him exhausted and he had collapsed onto the palang as soon as they had retuned hotel. She had joined him, lying in a fitful half-slumber for a couple of hours on the wood-framed rope bed, the rough fibres prickling her hyper-sensitive skin even through two layers of linen.

True sleep, however, would not come. Her mind was full of memories, some bright and fresh, others emerging ponderous from long years of dusty confinement. All of them, though, went off like fireworks against the black night of her closed eyelids.

The tuk-tuk, she remembered, negotiating the narrow winding road up the town, sheer cliffs rising on one side and a five hundred foot tumble into the churning river on the other; Arjun fretting and sweating next to her; the bright white walls of the house his father’s father’s father had built; Arjun’s grandmother, his Daadi, bowed with age, her otherwise kindly eyes narrowed to see just who was this half-Pakistani, half-Gori witch who was stealing away the flower of their youth.

“At least she’s pretty, in an obvious sort of way.’Daadi had said as they took tea in the shaded courtyard of what had once been the women’s quarters. Shaista had given the old hag her brightest and most demure smile. ‘But can she speak? Can she read?’

‘Jee, mah Hindi or Urdu bolte hun.’ Yes, I speak Hindi and Urdu Shaista had said, the words clumsy on her unaccustomed tongue. The old woman had harrumphed and spent the rest of the afternoon talking over Shaista in the high Urdu of the north. She quizzed Arjun on his recently completed studies, his career plans and the minute details of the health of every family member.

From time to time, when it was necessary to talk to the girl, she would descend into more prosaic Hindi or into a strange English, peppered with subcontinental phrases and delivered with an acting school over-enunciation.

‘So your family is from Alibad originally, hanh?’ Alibad was regional capital, so at least she earned some points for being from the right region. It had been the icebreaker in her very first conversation with Arjun: ‘Oh, your family comes from the same city of a million people that mine does, surely they know each other!’

‘Jee.’

‘I spent some time in Alibad, before the…’ The old woman had paused, ‘before Independence.’

‘My grandfather was there, his family owned land.’

‘Before he left to follow that drunk Jinnah to his holy land?’

‘Before he left for Pakistan, yes.’

The old woman had shaken her head. ‘I thought you said she came from a good family, Arjun. Not from the children of donkeys.’

‘Daadi, please, be nice!’ And Shaista felt a flash of pride that he had stood up for her.

‘No good comes from this kind of thing.’ Daadi had said, looking Shaista up and down and leaving no doubt as to what thing of thing she was referring to. They had left soon afterwards; it was a long drive home after all. Arjun had saved his tears for the car.

‘She’s such a stubborn old witch, why can’t she be happy for me?’

‘That’s no way to speak of your grandmother’ Shaista had chided. ‘She loves you very much, but how can she possibly understand what your life is like?’ He had smiled, he was so lucky to have found such an understanding woman.

She had been saving tears, too, So as he slept, she let them fall in a silent flood down her cheeks: Why was she such a stubborn old witch, why couldn’t she just be happy for us? Why couldn’t any of them, why were they so attached to their pasts and their tribes and their dividing lines?

It would not have been a problem her grandmother faced, covered head to foot as an aristocratic Muslim lady should be, living a cloistered life; neither attracting nor attracted. She would never have had to blush into her blouse as his slim, toned frame crossed the room with the catlike grace and arrogance of an aristocrat or bite the inside of his lip as the music of his pin-sharp and yet somehow lyrical Anglo-English accent rolled over her.

Ammu Daadi would have never have had to see the flash of his smile or look into his eyes and know that she was lost, that nothing short of knowing this man was possible if she were to call this existence Life. She would have been safe, in her little bubble, safe from the filth and confusion of Experience.

The derision had come from all sides, her friends, cosmopolitan, urbane young women, most of them lawyers like her, had been amazed that she had fallen for a freshie; her father, well, he had a lot to say and not a leg to stand on; her mother hid a quiet disappointment. From the wider community, she discovered the answer to the age-old question that terrorises every sub-continental: Log kya kahen ge? What will people say?

What they will say, she learned, is some awful bigoted shit. Bigoted shit made all the more galling considering how much they complained about how the white people treated them. Arjun, she knew, was facing the same at his end. His family, separated from their Hinduism by three secular generations, had found its liberalism sorely tested and those, like his grandmother, who had never entirely given in to modernity, were suddenly finding their voices.

II – Fair and Lovely

Shaista lifted herself out of the bed, moving slowly so as not to wake Arjun, the rope creaking and straining as she swung her legs onto the floor. It was past midnight and the hotel, a colonial style villa, was completely still. She was thirsty. On bare feet she padded to the fridge, finding it outside to the courtyard. Crickets were chirping and moonlight spilled thick and bright over every surface. A faint smell of woodsmoke and the sound of voices attracted her to an outbuilding. There, by the light of a wood fire, she could see the squat, rounded silhouette of the night-watchman and next to it the long thin shape of his rifle. The watchman was talking to someone inside the building, his coarse Hindi gurgling out around a mouthful of betel nut.

As Shaista approached, a wiry old man, his lunghi hitched up around his thighs, emerged from the outbuilding. The man squatted on his heels by the fire, tending it with the help of a long, charred branch. The two men began exchanging dirty stories. Shaista hovered just outside the circle of light, struggling to follow the filthy exchange. Her Urdu – or Hindi, they were the same language, barring politics – was passable. She understood more than she spoke, but there were certainly gaps in her education.

She and Arjun made love in English. He found it exotic, perhaps imagining her as the white girl that her genetics had, allowed her to pass for. She, well, she had no choice. Some things had evidently been too heavy to make the journey from India to England; the vocabulary of politics was one that of sex was another.

She waited for the watchman to finish his sordid tale, grateful that she received only the barest sketch of what he had done to his previous employer’s maid in the pool house, and then stepped into the light.

‘Chai?’ She asked, as the two men turned and, seeing her a guest, immediately dropped the spread-eagled looseness of men at their ease and sat straighter, as if to attention.

‘Yes memsaib.’ The night watchman said in English, and she cringed at the word, a colonial hangover. She was wearing jeans over a kameez tunic. In the darkness, had he seen only her pale skin and assumed her a gori indulging in a little of the local culture?

The older man shuffled inside and emerged with the makings of tea whilst the watchman, in his very limited English, tried to make conversation.

‘You like India very much?’

‘Yes.’

‘First time visit?’

‘Yes.’

‘We love English.’ He said. ‘Very much turn Indian lunghi wearer into civilised man.’ He kicked a leg in the direction of the older man, squatting in his loin-wrap by the fire.

‘I’m not English.’ She said and immediately regretted it. ‘Not just English.’

‘No? But you are very fair and lovely. So what are you?’

What indeed? How do I even begin to explain? She thought. My mother, the hippie, repelled by the porcine masculinity of her own people and the inexplicability of their God.; she went looking for Nirvana and ended up finding her rebellion in a quiet, scarf-wearing Sufism even more repressed and regimented than the middle England she had left behind.

Or her father, born in Alibad, raised in Pakistan, educated in England and always, throughout Shaista’s childhood, jetting off to Brazil in pursuit of a consignment of rare hardwood or to Uganda chase up missing stock. A man who prided himself on being from everywhere – because everywhere was God’s creation – and yet who could not quite bring himself to forget what will people say.

Or her father’s father, atheist and political firebrand, Congress socialist turned Muslim League nationalist who uprooted the family business, had an almighty ruckus with the extended family, and emigrated to the promised land to become an embittered old patriarch, steeping himself in the couplets of Iqbal and mourning into his scotch.

So many twists and turns, so much more complicated than Kipling’s ‘ne’er the twain shall meet.’ They met, they mingled, they had children and grandchildren. Whatever deserved to survive, survived, everything else could not help but burn on the pyre of history.

The rattle of the teacup under her nose made her realise that she had drifted off. The man in the loincloth was holding a cup of tea under her nose

‘My mother was English.’

The watchman jumped excitedly in his chair, ending seismic flows of fat rippling in all directions. ‘Dekho! Dekho!’ He said to his companion. ‘See! See! I told you she was a gori.’

Shaista shook her head. When she had been a kid, there had been no doubt what she was, the cries of ‘Paki’ and ‘half-breed’ that followed her home made sure of that. But to these men, she was white, and even as part of her felt sickened by it, there was a certain relief, not to have to explain yourself, not to need to list of class and caste and creed, but simply to be. A gori, no more complicated than that, the normative state of being against which all others were measured.

‘Your father?’

‘He was born in Alibad,

‘Local boy, very good! When did he move to England?’

‘He left when he was a baby, he didn’t go to England.’

The man stilled for a moment, his countenance grave. ‘Where did he go?’

Weighing her words carefully, she answered: ‘He went north.’

The man nodded sadly, and when he spoke again it was as if he had shut part of himself off from her. ‘A lot of people went north in those days.’

They sat in silence, sipping their tea. A lot of people went north, a lot of people went south, and a lot of people didn’t make it to the end of their journey.

III – Interdependence

The rest of the trip passed in a blur of family visits. There were uncles in town to visit and cousins in the country to whom respects must be paid. They returned to Arjun’s ancestral home only once more, for an overnight visit just before they were due to fly to Mumbai for the long haul home. They dined with Arjun’s immediate family in chilly formality and the next day, when her husband was called away to inspect some newly installed irrigation works, an exhausted and fuming Shaista was left alone with Daadi.

She found Shaista taking breakfast in the garden and hobbled up, her ghastly, crone-like face grinning with the pleasure of inflicting discomfort on another.

‘Ah. This is where you are hiding.’

‘I wasn’t hiding.’

Daadi smiled, or at least showed her teeth. ‘Of course not, mere bachi.’ My girl. She reached out to pinch Shaista on the cheek ‘Why would one as lovely as you hide?’ Shaista pulled away, her cheek stinging. ‘So pale and pretty, no wonder my boy had his head turned.’

She sat herself down at the table, choosing the chair immediately opposite Shaista. ‘Still, that runs in the family. Those Ramachandra boys all have a weakness for the ladies. His grandfather was the same.’ Daadi said, with something like a lecherous fondness in her voice.

‘Have you come here to tell me that he’s going to cheat on me, just because your husband did on you?’

‘Mere lal.’ My lovely ‘In my time, our husbands did not cheat. They just did not promise us fidelity, nor did we expect it. A woman was grateful if her man kept a roof over her head, jewels about her neck and didn’t bring home anything unpleasant from the bazaar. You modern women are unhappy because you expect too much.’

‘You old women are unhappy because you settled for too little!’ Shaista spat back. Revered matriarch or no, she would not be talked down to by this paindu hick from the old country.

But the old woman just laughed. ‘So you do have some spirit in you! You Muslim girls are proud, Arjun needs that, he’s been so coddled by his mother, he needs to be challenged.’

Daadi sat back, watching her, seeming suddenly tiny, frail and sad. ‘You are with child?’

Shaista was shocked, instinctively she covered her belly. ‘How did you know, even Arjun doesn’t know.’

‘A woman knows.’ The sadness grew like a shadow, seeming to overwhelm the older woman. ‘When you have lived as long as I have, you learn to recognise life.’ The bright sunlight and the fragrant garden seemed to fade to grey, the birdsong became distant, like the hint of a thing half-remembered.

‘What will your child be, Shaista?’ Daadi asked.

‘That is up to him or her to decide.’

A burst, a peal of laughter. ‘Oh, mere lal, you are so young. Come, let me show you something.’ Daadi pulled herself upright and began tottering towards the house. She held one arm out, not quite asking for assistance, but nevertheless there should a solicitous and well brought up daughter-in-law offer it. Shaista helped the old woman make here slow and wending way back inside the house. Daadi took her through the modernised wing, back into depths of the building where wooden planks burst like ribs from the crumbling white plaster. She stopped only to take an oil lamp from a niche and light it before leading Shaista through a low doorway of gnarled planking to a room that smelled of rose oil and old, old wood, Daadi took Shaista to a large wardrobe, apparently cast in iron and ornate with a mix of faux-classical and faux-Indian frippery.

For the monsoon, Daadi answered in reply to her unvocalised question, and for safety. You never knew when you might need to flee the city, fire, plague, or… troubles, and you never knew who might visit your home while you were gone.

The old woman provided the keys and Shaista the strength to get the massive door open. Inside were an array of beautiful saris, the hand-stitched gold-work marking them out as antiques – high-quality ones at that. Even a half-white, London-raised mongrel knew that no living stitchsmith retained these skills. In stacks below the saris were wooden jewellery and cigar boxes.

Daadi rooted through them until she found the one she was after. She opened it to a faint waft of cigar tobacco, still spicy and rich after all these decades. Inside were stacks of letters and black and white photographs. Daadi selected one and handed it to Shaista.

By the faint, greasy light of the lamp, Shaista could make out four figures standing in front of a wall covered in flowering vines. Three were male and one female. All were young, in their teens and early twenties. She recognised one of them at once, it was Arjun’s grandfather. The other two men seemed familiar in a vague way that she could not place. She turned to the girl, who was wearing trousers, a beret and a fierce expression that called back through the years.

‘Its you. What are you wearing?’

‘Indian Youth League uniform. I was a socialist. We were all socialists. We were going to make people free.’

‘Who are these other two men?’

‘We were neighbours, in Alibad. There were five families in our colony. One Sikh, two Muslim and three Hindu. There were, oh, fifteen, twenty of us kids, but the four of us, we were close. The other children, they were slow, but we loved reading and art. We would act the Ramayana in the courtyard while the adults slept in the afternoon.’ The old woman seemed to stand straighter, taller, her years melting away and the resemblance to the old photograph growing stronger.

‘You can have no idea what it was like. We had hope! We were about to do something nobody had ever done before.’ She gripped Shaista’s wrist. ‘We believed the lie, your people’s lie, that we could be better than humans.’ White people, she meant, the tone of humiliated frustration left no doubt.

‘For ten thousand years we lived. We fought wars and built temples, Harappans came and went, Guptas came and went, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, the Muslims came and went, but Hind was still Hind.’

‘We were one thing, then we became another. We were backward and we became modern. The blood was the price we paid, to become civilised, like the white people – it was the ‘40s, it was what everyone was doing, destroying old worlds and making new ones, whatever the cost.’

There was a frantic look in her eyes, her hair, long-since turned bright white, sprayed out around her. ‘But we are not Hind anymore.’ She blinked, shook her head, pressed her palms to her eyes as if coming to. ‘Mere jaan, I’ve scared you.’

‘No.’ Shaista said, choking back emotions she could not even put a name to. ‘I want to hear, I want to know. Tell me about those boys.’

‘Those two boys. They are Khurram and Abbas-Ali.’

‘Khurram became a soldier. He died fighting the Japanese in Malaya. He was a sweet boy, but so eager to fight. He said there was Pathan in him, on his mother’s side.’

‘And Abbas-Ali?’

‘Abbas Ali is the one on the left, the handsome one.’ Something in the old woman’s voice pricked Shaista’s attention. ‘He was the cleverest boy in school. He could quote Iqbal and Marx, he was, what do you Muslims call it, hafiz, he had memorised the Qur’an. And most of the Baghavad-Gita, too. A committed atheist, mind you, but something in him couldn’t stop searching.’

‘You were close?’

‘I was fifteen, he was eighteen. He was handsome and clever.’ She shrugged.

‘You didn’t tell me what happened to him.’

‘He married his third cousin and went away.’

‘Where?’

‘North.’

‘To Pakistan?’ Shaista protested, watching Daadi wince at the word. But he was an atheist, a socialist!’

‘Something changed him.’

‘What changed him? What?’

She lowered her head. ‘He loved a woman. She loved him back, but she would not break caste for him because of what it would do to her father.’ Daadi made a noise, it was not quite a sob. ‘So he abandoned his universal socialism and decided to look to his own kind.’

‘And then Partition happened, and how could there be a road back from that for anyone? Neighbours killed neighbours. It was like -‘ she faltered, grasping for words in several different languages at once ‘ – like a black hole. We were friends and neighbours, then the hole. And then we had new friends and new neighbours.’

‘And who has time to dwell on past loves and old secrets when remembering means going back through all that to the time before?’

‘So you see,’ Daadi smiled up at her, ‘nothing good can come of free mixing. We should not try to cross old lines or to draw new ones.’

Shaista gently put her arm around Daadi A realisation was beginning to dawn, floating dimly into her consciousness like an iceberg in the mist.. ‘And what happened to the woman?’

‘Why, she married one of her own, and he gave her four children and they gave her five grandchildren.’

Daadi raised her hand to Shaista’s cheek, before resting it on her belly. ‘And one of those grandchildren might yet give her another reason for joy in her the twilight of her days.’

IV- Descendants

Takeoff was delayed by two hours. Shaista took the opportunity to check her emails for the first time since they landed. Almost five hundred. She began, with a determined resignation, to go through them. Arjun sat beside her, plugged in to some cheap looking thriller on the little screen in front of him, looking beautiful.

She had not shared the revelation that his family and hers were closer than either of them had known – how did you even begin that conversation? She kept her thoughts on the matter between herself and the bump, now distinctly visible beneath her loose top.

What will you be? She asked it, echoing Daadi’s question. She prayed it would be a boy, who could write his own destiny, not a girl to be written over by others, to have her womb turned into speakers corner for every madman to pontificate at, over and in.

What will you be? Not Muslim, not Hindu, not Christian. not white or brown, English or Pakistani or Indian. Something new. Her eye was drawn to the corner of her smartphone screen where the day’s news was scrolling by, a horror show.

Just as well, we will need something new for the hell that is coming.

Arjun turned to look at her. ‘What’s the matter, babe?’ He asked in that drawling, rolling accent that made her pulse race despite herself.

‘Nothing.’

He noticed her arm on her belly. ‘You’re not worried about getting fat are you? Yaar, you are the most beautiful woman in the world, you don’t need to worry about that.’

A whirr and a loud clunk indicated that IA 503 to London Heathrow was getting ready to taxi. ‘No.’ Shaista said, lowering her head and smiled to herself. ‘I’m not worried about getting fat.’

As the plane began to roll faster and faster up the runway, she said a prayer. A Sura from the Qur’an taught to her by her mother as a talisman for travellers.

What will you be? The best, I hope, of all of us. You will need it, for the hell that is coming

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The concentric circles of blame for the Manchester attack

Salman Abedi was a weapon, to understand what happened we need to look at who aimed and fired him

Manchester vigil

A woman lights a candle at a vigil for the victims

 There is a diagram, leaked to the press by an American intelligence official that models the blast set of by Salman Ramadan Abedi in the foyer of the Manchester Arena. I have not reproduced it here out of respect of the families of the dead and maimed, but it shows where the bomb detonated and where the murdered and the injured fell. It depicts the concentric circle of death and pain that have broken the heart of Manchester. But the radius of the blast goes far beyond the shrapnel scarred walls of the Arena, just as the blame goes far beyond Abedi, the widely disliked misfit with ‘hate in his face.’

After the killer himself, it falls on those responsible for radicalising him; for taking an angry and alienated young man and helping him to turn his hate, and his body, into a weapon. Abedi was the son of a Libyan dissident and part of a tight-knit community of refugees who fled the Gadhafi regime for a Manchester suburb. As reports continue to emerge, it seems Abedi had the classic lifestyle of a western-born attacker, he drank, he smoked cannabis; he was, in short, as alienated from the spiritual aspects of his faith as from the community round him. It seems that Abedi and other members of his family were regularly in Libya after the fall of the Ghadaffi regime. It is not too much to presume that it was in the cauldron of chaos that the country has become that Abedi came into contact with the Wahabi/Salafi Jihadists who helped him to complete his journey from misfit to mass-murderer.

But when we look deeper than the man and his associates, a whole host of troubling facts emerge. Abedi was reported for his dangerous views but nothing was done. There are indications that British intelligence operated an ‘open door’ policy for Libyans wanting to travel return to their homeland to take part in both the toppling of Gadhafi and the multi-sided civil war that has plagued the country since its dictator was removed. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Middle Eastern events for the last thirty years; from the rise of the Mujahedeen in ‘80s Afghanistan to the Iraq and Syria conflicts, Western intelligence agencies have attempted to ride the tiger of jihadist militancy for short-term gain. Each time they have failed spectacularly and each time they have continued as if those failures were anomalies instead of part of a pattern.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former advisor to Jimmy Carter who passed away recently, articulated this strategy in unambiguous terms:

“What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

Even such establishment papers as The Daily Telegraph are pointing the finger of blame at the security services for missing at least five opportunities to bring Abedi in. The fact that Abedi was, in some sense, an ‘asset’ of British intelligence, also explains why the vast majority of what we know about him came first from that American intelligence official – someone deep in the bowels of the US security establishment who will have warned of the threat that Abedi and others like him posed and been ignored.

So after the killer and those who radicalised him, we can see that the role our own intelligence agencies played makes them culpable, either through their negligence or by enabling Abedi to receive the indoctrination and training that he did whilst allowing him to remain free.

Intelligence agencies, however, do not act on their own, they are mere instruments of the politicians who direct them. The combination of ideologically driven and ineffective domestic counter-extremism policies like Prevent and continued support in the Middle East for military interventions and the very regimes most responsible for spreading the hateful innovation of Whahbism mean that there is blood on the hands of politicians from Washington to London to Paris.

It is a horrible synchronicity that just the day before the attack, Donald Trump was in Saudi Arabia, praising the Kingdom’s stand against terrorism and (in a speech that bizarrely did not even mention ISIS) laying the blame for all the world’s terrorism at the door of Iran whilst agreeing a deal to sell hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to one of the most repressive regimes on the planet.

The orb

King Salman (unelected), General SISI (brought to power by a military coup) and Donald Trump (who lost the popular vote) are keeping the world safe for democracy.

But it was not Iran that enabled the attack; it was not the Islamic Republic’s Shia Islam that provided the ideological justification for the murder of 22 innocents. Instead it was the network of madrassas, militants and hardline mullahs that has been created and supported by Saudi and its Gulf allies across the Muslim world over the last fifty years. Our leaders, then, must take their share of the blame, both for engaging in the interventions that destabilised counties like Lybia, Syria and Iraq and for directly supporting with weapons and political cover those nations which promote Jihadists and the vile perversion of Islam that they preach.

Finally, there is some blame to be laid at the door of us Muslims – although not in the sense that the far-right would have it. We are not all ticking time bombs waiting to go off, but too many of us have for too long, allowed bigotry to go unchallenged. Yes it is true that Abedi was reported, but many of the views he held still find safe haven in the whispering corners of the hearts of some Muslims who have been happy to take Gulf money and allow the insidious influence of the ideology it promotes to define our debates around engagement and integration. Overt calls to violence might be decried, but statements like “Shias are kafirs” have gone unchallenged because they conform to deeply held prejudices. As a result, the monster of takfirism – excommunicatory logic – has grown and now many mainstream Sunni groups find themselves under suspicion. It will only be a matter of time before they, too are in the crosshairs.

Islam strongly discourages the act of takfir because it us up to Allah alone to judge our hearts, but it has long been the go-to tactic of far too many of those who whose understanding of Islam comes from the Wahabi or Salafi schools on in the Arab world and their Deobandi analogue on the Indian Sub-continent. It is a logic that cannot go unchallenged. And yes, that means we must pronounce takfir upon the takfiris. There are some who will be squeamish about this, who will say that it makes us no different to those we are combatting. This is a logical fallacy, a pathetic and cowardly excuse. There is no equivalence between those perpetrating violence and encouraging bigotry on the one hand and those who refuse to put up with it on the other. The line must be drawn somewhere, and if not here, then where?

What I learned arguing with Trumpers

potusffs

Nothing about this is pretty

Some observations from a British Muslim leftie just arrived in the USA

Land of the Freakout

Just under a month ago, I arrived in the USA where I’m planning to start a PhD in September. Needless to say, my plans were made before a certain…electoral event took place.

Since I arrived, I’ve spent far more of my time than is healthy time arguing with Trump supporters (and just about everyone else) on Twitter – particularly since the Muslim ban was put in place. This was not out of any hope of converting them, but to get a feel for what they think, how they argue and the political culture they operate in. This is what I’ve learned:

  1. I agree with a lot of their grievances

This is not in itself surprising. The polling shows that many of them would have voted for Bernie and much of Trump’s messaging in the lead up to the election was anti-NeoLiberal (even if they might not recognise it as such). Globalisation took their jobs, a string of unnecessary wars has killed or maimed their sons and daughters, made them feel less safe and perhaps worst of all, dented the sense of American exceptionalism that is intrinsic to their identities.

Many of them were angry about the bailouts and foreign policy failures in the Middle East, about unaffordable healthcare and a world that has let them down.

They just seemed incapable of blaming it on anything other than a strawman liberalism constructed for them from a mishmash of Fox News articles and half-remembered Reaganism. A huge part of that, I suspect, is the extent to which Cold War indoctrination made capitalism and patriotism synonymous in America. The myth that every American can make it is a hard one to give up on and for many on the right attacking the ultra-rich oligarchs that have infiltrated their democracy feels at some instinctive level like an attack on their future selves.

  1. American politics is almost inconceivably tribal

Despite the commonalities, it was striking how angry they were at liberals at a cultural rather than just a political level. Much of their rhetorical approach was to attempt to activate my own tribalism. They were nonplussed when I refused to defend many of the actions of Clinton and Obama on the basis that I’m British and it wasn’t ‘my side’ that enacted them. They appeared to have trained themselves to take on the fixed positions and expected to rile me into a fixed response. When I didn’t rise to it, some got enraged and blocked me, others actually showed a measure of humanity towards me. Several came with words to the effect that ‘I’m sorry if you’re affected, but the world is a mess and we need to keep our citizens safe.’

The Muslim ban isn’t the way to do that, of course, the way to do that is to stop supporting countries like Saudi and Qatar that promote the Wahabi ideology that underpins terrorism undertaken in the name of Islam and to stop toppling regimes and starting wars across the region, but it was a big climbdown from ‘I consider you a traitor to this country.’

Conversely, when I suggested to some liberals that treating every single person that voted for Trump as a persona non-grata might entrench difference rather than overcome it, I was told I was insane. I was surprised at how quickly the side that I agree with excommunicated me. Now I haven’t been in the country long and I can understand how arguing with unhinged, counterfactual nastiness could wear you down but it was disappointing to see the side that claims to be humane and reasoned acting so similarly to its opponents.

  1. The ‘liberal’ wing of the Islamophobia industry has a hell of a lot to answer for

People like Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Majed Nawaz and Asra Nomani have spent years projecting a vision of Islam as a threat to liberal values. This has driven some members of some groups – particularly feminists and the LGBT community – to take up anti-Muslim stances that place them in much closer proximity to the Trumpists than they would ever admit.

The understanding of Islam that these supposed liberals project is the same as the one that ISIS would have you believe is the whole of Islam. Whilst they utterly repudiate Trump, they have given a great deal of cover to the narratives that fuelled his rise. I do not think I would be hearing from misogynists about how Islam tramples women’s rights, from gay-bashers about how Islam throws homosexuals off cliffs or from anti-Semites about the plight of Jews under Islam were it not for the anti-Muslim animus of those within the liberal movement who have spent years promoting and honing these arguments.

A lot of the blame for that must go to the assumption, common to many American liberals before the rise of Trump, that they had won the big battles and so could move on to correcting the deviances of minorities. This approach has allowed a lot of thoroughly illiberal people to ease their consciences at the same time as endorsing a suite of ideas that have enabled a demagogue to rise.

  1. Any resistance will need to carry principled Republicans with it

Before I left the UK, I had a conversation with a female Muslim colleague who is married to an American convert from a Republican family. “Trump didn’t surprise me” she said “because American liberals failed to carry conservatives with them, they just moved to the coast.” My own experience bears this out. I’ve met a fair few Republicans who either voted for Trump because they were voting for their party or who sat this one out. I know that I’m supposed to rage, to tell them they are stupid and abhorrent and that they’ve screwed us all – and sometimes when my anger gets the better of me, I want to do just that. But telling people they are awful is a poor tool for persuasion and and pretending there is not such thing as a principled Republican is just childish. How many of the 1,000 diplomats that signed a letter against the Muslim ban, for example, are likely to be card carrying Democrats.

The Donald may not have won the popular vote, he may have relied on working the electoral college, but the system that elected him is the system that must be worked with. If it is to be taken back from his tiny hands intact, we will need Republicans to come along with us. And that means not arguing against him just from our own beliefs, using arguments that could have been applied to any Republican president, but from the beliefs of those on the right.

That is difficult to stomach – I don’t relish being told that my religion makes me inherently disloyal and threatening – but we are asking a great deal of conservatives. We are asking them to choose their higher ideals above their tribe and the only way we can succeed is to embody our own highest ideals, to allow them a way to be anti-Trump without requiring them to cross the wide gulf between Republican and Democrat.

We can argue afterwards about what kind of democracy we want to see, for now it is more important to protect the democracy itself. The progressive politics I believe in leads by example, it takes the high road – not at the expense of principle and certainly not as a form of appeasement – but because at its core is a recognition that all human beings are equal in dignity and deserves to be treated as such, even the ones whose beliefs we find unpalatable.

We will slip, we will rage and we will, from time to time let ourselves down, but we must aim to embody that ideal. If the American left cannot find in itself the courage, forbearance and spiritual discipline to do so, then it will lose, and it will deserve to.

Fiction: Levantine Gothic

Desert Rats Part I

A special forces team sent to rescue a missing archaeologist find something terrifying buried deep beneath the desert sands gothic-soldier

The chopper rose slowly, kicking up a storm of dust and grit as it banked sharply to the left. For a moment it was a black silhouette against the brilliance of the desert stars and then it was gone, the roar of its rotors
fading to a thumping low hum and then to a ringing silence that was more than just the mere absence of noise.

Elliot picked up his backpack and walked away form the landing zone towards the low dune where the soldiers were crouched in a defensive posture. Their commander, a large American named Coyle had a map spread out before him.

“I’ve sent two men to scout the dune.” Coyle said, “This map is not accurate.”

“Not accurate?” Elliot asked.

Coyle pointed “Here and here.” He said. “The diggings are where they are supposed to be, but the buildings are not.”

“It was based on the latest intelligence.” Elliot protested.

“Well the intelligence is wrong. This,” Coyle placed one thick finger on a blank space near the diggings “should be open ground, but there’ some kind of bunker there now.”

“Bunker?” Elliot asked.

“Peyton,” Coyle called to one of his men. “Tell him what you saw.”

Peyton, a wiry little man with an air of barely suppressed violence, took up a pencil and drew an oblong. It was two inches on the map, perhaps a hundred feet in life.

“Thick concrete, sloped wall, small windows with bars. And a pair of steel doors like a missile silo. Guard towers on each corner.”

“How could they have built it so quickly?” Elliot asked himself, only realizing he had spoken aloud when Coyle responded.

“You tell me, Mr Intelligence Man.”

“We did a flypast a month ago, there was nothing then.”

“They were in a hurry, it seems. Murderous savages they might be, but they can get things done when they put their minds to it.”

“Private Peyton,” Elliot said, turning to the wiry little man, “was there any clue what they might be using it for?”

“Hard to say sir, but the searchlights face inwards and the lines of sight are terrible for defence. I’d guess it’s a prison, sir, designed to keep people in, not out.”

Coyle motioned Elliot. “This is not in our mission plan,” he said when they were alone. “We’re not equipped to assault a hardened structure, this isn’t safe. I suggest we abort.”

“Lieutenant, you have your orders and I have mine. This mission is a priority for the coalition.”

“This desert is crawling with militias, government troops, our guys, Russians and Iranians and a dead archeologist and his notebook are a priority?”

“We don’t know that professor Kathum is dead and his research has huge value, both for science and for the propaganda war.” Eliot paused. “I shouldn’t have to tell you, lieutenant, that this is above all a battle for hearts and minds.”

“We lost the battle for hearts and minds ten years ago in Fallujah.” Coyle said, not quite under his breath.

“All the more reason to make this mission a success, Coyle. Now please gather your men.” Elliot nodded towards the east where the first green glow of the false dawn was lightening the horizon. “We don’t have much time.”

Coyle saluted him with a crispness that bordered on the sarcastic, “Sir, yes, sir!” and stalked off to prepare his men.

Coyle and his translator, Rafiq waited with the two soldiers at the top of the dune while Coyle and his squad fanned out and began their approach.

Through a borrowed pair of night vision goggles, Elliot watched as the soldiers covered the open ground with the quick, crouched steps of special forces commandoes. Three of them reached the first outbuilding, creeping up to the door and windows with a boneless fluidity. They swarmed in together and then moments later reappeared to give the all clear.

A second team followed behind while the first gave cover. They entered the next building, a corrugated iron shed and again, reappeared to give the all clear. Within half an hour, Coyle’s men had the entire western side of the compound secure.

The radio of one of the soldiers guarding Elliot crackled to life. It was Coyle: “It looks clear, bring everyone down.”

Following the soldiers, Elliot and Rafiq half slid, half ran down the opposite face of the dune. Elliot got to his feet and began walking across the open ground, only to be pulled down by one of the soldiers.

“Stay low, stay close!” The man hissed at him.

“Coyle said it was safe.”

The man gave Elliot a contemptuous stare. “He said it looks clear. Nothing is ever safe in a war zone. Take a look around you, Mr Intelligence, dunes, rocks, scrub and ditches, there could be anything hiding out there.”

Elliot looked out across the huge emptiness, sky and sand stretched out towards nothing. They were very alone out here. Very alone and very exposed. Chastened, he covered the rest of the distance close and low. By the time he reached the outbuildings, it was light enough to see without the goggles.

Coyle was waiting for him inside the largest of the buildings. A two storey house made of breeze blocks and pocked with bullet holes.

Elliot entered the building, ducking through the low front door and into a small, dark room, empty but for a large wooden desk and chair. The sole light source was a low wattage bulb dangling from the ceiling by a frayed wire.

“This place is deserted.” Coyle said. He nodded to a mug sitting near the edge of the desk. Elliot peered into it. It had once been coffee, but now contained a thick layer of mould. “Four or five days at least. We were told this place was swarming.”

Coyle was right. Intel had shown at least fifty fighters and three times that many workers coursing rhe site for treasures and antiquities that they could sell on to finance their endless war.

“Could they be holed up in the new building?”

“Maybe, but why leave no sentries, no scouts, no booby traps. This isn’t their style at all.”

“So what do we do, Lieutenant?”

We secure these buildings and then wait for the sun to come fully up. Then we take a look around.”

“Shouldn’t we use the cover of darkness while we have it?”

“IF anyone’s still here, they’ll start moving once its light. If there isn’t at least we’ll be able to see what the hell is going on. None of this feels right, Mr Elliot and I want the clear light of day before I send my men any further.”

Elliot opened his mouth to reply but before he could, Petyon called out from the far corner of the room. “Sir, you should see this.”

Elliot followed Coyle to where Peyton was standing. Looking down he saw a heavily stained carpet half pulled back to reveal a trap door set into the concrete floor.

Coyle gestured to the two men who pulled the carpet fully back and lifted the trapdoor, grunting with the effort. As the door opened, however, both men stepped back, gagging and let it drop.

“Oh Jesus.” One of them called out, before bending double and dry heaving.

The others covered their mouths and noses. The stench that came from the trapdoor was vile, thick enough to taste, sickly sweet with the smell of decay and cut through with a chemical reek like burned hair and plastic.

Following the others’ lead, Elliot pulled his neckerchief over his mouth and nose and pulled his sand goggles over his eyes. He followed Coyle as the man took a flashlight in one hand and his sidearm in the other and began a careful descent into the chamber below.

The steps were steep and narrow, more a ladder than a stair and slick with an organic dampness. Even through his neckerchief, Elliot could still taste the decay. It was strong enough to make him lightheaded and he had to grab the wall more than once to steady himself.

By the time he reached the bottom, Coyle had already dropped a flare and was taking photographs. With his first steps into the chamber, he felt a thick slush, cold and ankle deep. He suppressed a shudder.

By the searing light of the flare, he could make out a room perhaps twenty feet square, with a low ceiling and thick walls. The room had a strange warmth to it, like the decompositional heat of a compost heap.

At the centre of the room was a something resembling a dentist’s chair, surrounded by electrical equipment, wires and screens. On a medial trolley nearby sat a vicious array of saws and blades. Heavily used by the look of them.

Several large syringes, like those used to tranquilise horses, floated in the sludge.

The chair, he noted, was equipped with head, arm and leg restraints.

As Elliot came closer, he could make out that the far wall was lined with cabinets full of specimen jars “What is this place?” He asked Coyle, though he already feared he knew the answer.

“A playroom.” Coyle responded without a hint of sarcasm. “They torture people for fun, not for information, just for the sheer joy of making pain.”

One of the cabinets caught Elliot’s eye. Unlike the others, its door was ajar. He opened it fully to examine the content by his flashlight.

His heart froze.

“Coyle.” He said, whispering hoarsely around the sudden constriction in his throat. “What’s this?”

One of Coyle’s men was beside him. The man reached into the cabinet and pulled out a foot long gas canister. As he turned it in his hands, a skull and bones became visible through a thick layer of dust.

“Soldier!” Coyle yelled. “Put that down.” The man started, instinctively dropping the canister. It fell to the floor with a clang and began to hiss and bubble in the sludge.

“Everyone out!” Coyle screamed.

Elliot turned and ran, taking the stairs two at a time. “Gas!” He cried as he sprinted past the soldiers upstairs, out of the building and away, away from that terrifying room. He sprinted until his legs gave way beneath him and he fell.

Lying with his face in the dust, he looked back. The men upstairs had got clear. Coyle and two others were still sprinting away form the building. As Elliot watched, the last man, the one who had picked up the canister, screamed and fell, clutching at his head. He pulled himself upright and for a flashing second, Elliot saw something that seemed almost inhuman. It was bloody, bulging and raw, it seemed to steam and bubble and the eyes, staring straight at him, were like holes cut in the fabric of space.

Then the man fell again. Elliot heard Coyle scream “Blow it! Blow it! Blow it!” and then the whistling yelp of an anti-tank missile slamming into the building followed by a flash of light and thump like a punch to the chest.

Elliot pulled himself up to lean against a rock. The panic was taking control of him His vision narrowed and darkened. He stared blankly ahead and noted, through a fear stricken haze that it was not mud on his boots after all.

Instead, below the patina of dust they had acquired during his flight was an almost syrupy layer of blackish red, such as one might find on a slaughterhouse floor.

Just before he passed out, he recalled one, strange detail from the underground chamber. The restrains on the chair were loose, but not as if they had been unclasped.

Rather, they were ripped from their anchors, as if whoever had been held there had torn themselves free.

 Part II coming soon

 

 

 

 

 

Britain has voted decisively for incoherence, and we need to pull together to deliver it

 

Star Rising

Our star is rising

The nation has spoken, and  after a festival of democracy the whathefuxit camp has a clear mandate to forge a new, less comprehensible Britain

 

If EU leave me now, you take away the Brexit part of me

The British public has spoken in a clear, unequivocal voice that must be heeded by those in power. The nation is sick of experts with their facts and analysis; it has had enough of leaders with their detailed plans for what to do when things occur; it is fed up of so-called ‘reality’ and giving up its freedom to the laws of causality: the UK wants to take back shambolic, delusional ineptitude and wants it now.

The hummus-munchers of Islington may not like it, but the winds of change are blowing and new leaders like Etonian Boris, former Times and Spectator journalist Gove and investment banker Farage are the face of a new, anti-establishment Britain that won’t take no, yes or even maybe for an answer.

The Labour Party is leading the way, its MPs striking a blow for bewilderment by moving to axe Jeremy Corbyn, blaming his equivocal views on Europe for single-handedly dragging the country into Brexit. You can see their point – with a possible snap election in the offing, the last thing Labour want is to put a Eurosceptic leader in front of a Eurosceptic public and risk increasing vote share. Moreover, with the Tories in crisis following the resignation of David Cameron, Labour must quickly follow suit or risk being seen as out of touch with the political currents of the time.

Thankfully the Conservatives are demonstrating that their finger is also firmly on the pulse of the nation. Boris Johnson has moved swiftly and decisively to implement his comprehensive one-point plan by declaring for the Tory leadership running from the almighty mess he’s made while insisting, quite correctly, that just because the UK voted to leave the EU, it doesn’t mean we should invoke Article 50 now or, indeed, ever. He has used our vastly improved negotiating position to demand that Britain be allowed to stay in the common market while not allowing free movement or fulfilling any obligations towards the other member states, confounding the Eurocrats who are struggling to keep up with such agile thinking.

 

No Bregrets

Of course, there are some flies in the ointment. The Scots and the Northern Irish are refusing to accept the democratic will of the English people and insisting that because they are nations in their own right and they voted overwhelmingly to remain, they should not be dragged out of the EU against their will. At a time when the Pound is plummeting, the markets are in chaos and racist incidents are on the rise, their arrogance beggars belief. Now is the time for us all to pull together, not to arbitrarily leave political and economic unions that underpin our security and economic stability.

There are also some who voted to leave that are now claiming they were duped. Some of these so-called Bregretters claim they were promised the £350m a week the UK sends to the EU would be spent on saving the NHS from Tory cuts, others that they were promised an end to migration, especially from Muslim countries. Neither claim stacks up: the £350m figure is sheer fantasy, plucked from thin air and no promises were made about immigration. After all, there isn’t a single Muslim country in the EU, so why would anyone have promised that leaving would prevent hordes of ISIS refujihadis coming here?

Bus promise

These faked images have been circulated on social media, probably by ISIS

 

There are also claims that Brexit has given a green light to racists to attack and abuse immigrants. These claims are patently false, backed only by eyewitness testimony (which is intrinsically biased) and mobile phone footage. There is no evidence that these supposed attacks haven’t been staged as false flags by embittered remainers, and even if some of them did genuinely occur, there is a huge logical leap between someone yelling ‘Go home, we voted for you to leave’ and assuming that such attacks were caused by the referendum.

The idea that it was only racists that voted to leave is further confounded by the fact that many Muslims and Asians voted for Brexit. Their thinking was simple, with European migrants gone, the door would open to commonwealth countries. And they are absolutely correct, we will welcome New Zealanders, Canadians, Australians and Bermudans with open arms to do the jobs that British workers just don’t have the skills for.

And then, of course, there is Jeremy. He and his tiny band of 200,000 supporters have shown utter contempt for the ordinary, hard-working MPs who voted overwhelmingly to get rid of him and whose daily struggles they clearly do not understand. Even worse, when the country needs stability and strong leadership, he is refusing to step aside to allow the three month campaign of bitterness and recrimination that would make that happen.

Breaking up on Breentry

We were warned that Brexit would lead to chaos, that the Pound would fall, racism would rise, Scotland would go its own way and big business would pull out of the UK, taking thousands of jobs with them. So far, only events back up any of these conclusions, revealing Project Fear for what it was – exactly the kind of evidence-based analysis of cause and effect that the British people have had enough of.

The big risk now is making those dire predictions a self-fulfilling prophecy and we must act quickly to prevent that. All visible foreigners should be tattooed with a Union flag to ensure their loyalty;  Merkel needs to be informed in no uncertain terms that as bit-part players on the world stage, neither Germany nor the EU have any say in when, whether or how we choose to leave and the rebellious Picts and Gaels need a show of force. It is worth remembering that the majority of soldiers in the army are drawn from Scotland  and so will be assisted in their mission by a cultural affinity with local people.

The totalitarian project of European domination – begun by Hitler and today embodied by Frau Junker, Herr Merkel and Oberleutnant Sturgeon is faltering in the face of British pluck. Just like at Dunkirk, the siege of Singapore,the charge of the Light Brigade and the performance of our brave lions in Euro 2016, Brexit has demonstrated our national character to the world -nobody can have any doubt who we are as a people or what we are capable of when put to the test.

 

 

 

 

Old England’s Done

Who do you think you are kidding.pngWith Brexit, the UK takes its last, doddering steps off the world stage and into delusional senility

A Tale of Two Nations

In 1981, Salman Rushdie wrote of a ‘little empire’ within the UK. The British had, he argued, replaced control over external dominions with internal colonies made up of immigrants from its overseas possessions. In so doing, it deferred much of the psychological trauma that might otherwise have followed from its sudden loss of status.

Today, that little empire fell, as England decided that it had had enough of the world and withdrew into a rose-tinted delusion of village greens, cucumber sandwiches and giving those damn continentals what for.

The United Kingdom started as an imperialist enterprise. Ireland was brought into it by force, Scotland by the lure of the profit, particularly in the wake of its own failed attempt to set up trading posts in the Americas. When the profit motive was no longer there, it was only a matter of time before the concord between the peoples of these islands would begin to fray.

Scotland is as good as gone. Just two years ago 45 per cent of its population voted to leave the UK, despite a ferocious cross-party campaign of fear and intimidation. Today, with every single constituency returning a remain vote, it seems impossible to imagine that the 300 year old union between the two kingdoms of mainland Britain will last more than a couple of years.

The country split almost down the middle, with 52 per cent voting to leave and 48 per cent to stay in. Those who voted to leave were overwhelmingly English, provincial and old. Those who voted to stay in, young, multicultural and urbanised. They thought this was their country to shape for the future, but it was ancient grudges against Jaques Delors and a world view that was old-fashioned even in 1979 that carried the day.

Even Jeremy Clarkson voted in.

Bad politics, bad politicians

The tenor of the debate was atrocious. Both sides are guilty of patronising, fearmongering and failing to make a lucid case – in other words politics as usual. But the truth is, this could never have been about the intimate details of the EU charter, it could never have been a cold calculation of cost and benefit, because for the last 40 years our politics has been deliberately dumbed down and the field of acceptable debate narrowed to inconsequential issues.

The referendum itself only took place because David Cameron needed to promise Tory Eurosceptics something to stop them from bleeding to UKIP. The conversation, such as it was, was about sovereignty and immigration. The idea that we might ‘take back control’ was paramount, any ideas of what we might do when we have it, well, the point is we’ll have control and when we have control, control is what we’ll have. Did you know there are 500 EU regulations about pillows?

Many of the strongest arguments against Brexit – protection for workers, the ability for British citizens to work freely on the continent, the stability that comes from belonging to a large bloc – were all off the table because they are almost inevitably anti-Tory. There was much talk of the disenfranchised white working class, but with respect to their whiteness, not their working class identity. Such things are outside the lexicon of our Neo-Liberal consensus and impolitic in a country that did, after all, vote for this government twice.

And so it became about identity. It became about being able to say something, to matter, just once. And nobody made the point that this might not be the best time to rock the boat, nobody said that perhaps it was not Europe that was the source of our woes, but successive generations of British politicians who have pursued broadly the same social and economic policies, doing the same thing again and again in the hope of a different result.

Of course, there were many people who voted leave who were genuinely concerned that the bendiness of their bananas was being regulated or that the money spent on the EU could better be spent on the NHS. But these people did so well aware that the unintended but inevitable consequence of their decision would be the kind of chauvinistic nationalism that had Nigel Farage claiming victory ‘without a shot being fired.’

Even though a shot was fired and a brilliant passionate young MP, a wife and a mother was slain by a man who gave his name in court as ‘Death to Traitors, Freedom for Britain.’

A green and pleasant land

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps as a Muslim and the son of immigrants, I have a skewed perspective. Perhaps Europe, and people like my parents, hard-working decent people who’ve helped to drive the national economy are the problem.

Maybe all that needs to happen to #MakeBritainGreatAgain is for the drawbridges to be pulled up, the Poles politely asked to leave and the European working time directive  and those pesky human rights to be abolished . Or maybe not, we will find out soon enough.

Jo Cox’s death was horrific, but for me the most poignant moment of the campaign was hearing the TV next door turned on for an hour each night as my Romanian neighbour, a trader with one of the big banks, listened diligently to the back and forth that would decide her fate in this country.

She’s not part of the new Brexit Britain, and neither, I suspect, am I. But I’m sure that England can manage without us and without the hundreds of thousands who will either be forced to leave, or choose to do so having had it made to clear they are not welcome. And that doesn’t even count the young native British who will be wondering how on earth they are supposed to make their way in the world when so much of it has suddenly been cut off to them.

But as we move towards whatever happens next, into a world where an outdated notion of sovereignty matters more than a stable, viable country. It is hard not to see this as the culmination of the process Rushdie described, part of a vast historic arc that began in 1801 and to find it rather fitting that the nation that conquered the world has, in what surely must be its final act, conquered itself.

 

The Doctor is out again: Is it ethical for Junior Doctors to withdraw emergency cover?

The arguments around the dispute have been muddied by all sides, but if we strip back to the key issues, the answer is clear

Hunt Final OfferThe argument from labour relations

It is a generally accepted tenet of free societies that individuals have a right to withdraw their labour as a method of negotiating with their employer and that people cannot be coerced into working under conditions they have not agreed to.

This right is especially important when individuals are working under one set of conditions and the employer decides unilaterally to change them.

This is the case with the junior doctors.

They signed up for a whole career for service with the NHS, including making life plans based on their expected earnings. This is part of the social contract between doctors and society – we train them, they stay and look after us.

The proposals put forward by the DoH radically alter the expectations doctors had when they signed up about how they would be living and working. The argument that the service they deliver is so important that they cannot withdraw it is invalid – if the service is vital to society, it is up to the government to ensure that those who provide it feel valued.

There is of course a need to balance this against public finances, but if skilled workers are not happy with the conditions they are offered, they will go elsewhere. It might well be the case that the stock in trade of this particular set of skilled workers is saving lives, but that does not mean they exempt from the basic principles of labour relations.

We accept that we can’t tax the bankers too hard, so why do we believe that it is any different for doctors?

To take an analogy from the business world:

Imagine you own a company. You have a supplier. The supplier is meeting all their contractual obligations. You unilaterally inform the supplier that you want to renegotiate the contract to procure more items at a lower unit cost. The supplier refuses and stops supplying you. You tell the supplier that the item they supply is too valuable for it not to be supplied and that they must agree to the new contract. Despite having skills that are in high demand all over the world, the supplier inexplicably goes against their personal interest and agrees to work at the reduced rate.

 That’s what the government wants us to believe should happen with the Junior Doctors.

The argument from social capital

The only reason the government is able to put forward such an improbable scenario is because they know doctors take their payment in more than just hard cash.

Of course they have relatively high salaries, but they are more than capable enough to have gone into banking if money was their object. They also gain some considerable social standing, but this could have been achieved by becoming a lawyer.

But the government is relying on the fact that kind of person that becomes an NHS doctor is driven, at least in part; by the satisfaction they derive from being of service to society.

This is proven by the relatively low numbers who have, until recently, taken their training abroad or to the private sector.

To use that against them, by suggesting they should accept worse working conditions because the actions they are pushed into taking to negotiate better ones would endanger patients, is emotional blackmail.

And the attempt at emotional blackmail proves that even those spinning the opposite don’t believe doctors to be unfeeling to the point where they would happily trade patients lives for a few extra quid and a round of Sunday golf. They wouldn’t attempt it if they didn’t think Junior Doctors were not invested in a human way in their jobs and their patients.

This applies as much to the withdrawal of emergency cover as it does to previous less comprehensive strikes. If anything, it drives home the importance of the service doctors provide and the risks of taking it for granted.

The argument from medical ethics

The Hippocratic injunction to ‘do no harm’ has been quoted by many of those who argue that the doctors should not strike or that withdrawing emergency cover is morally wrong.

But doctors trained to trade off long-term and short-term imperatives every day in the attempt to provide care that meets all the needs of the patient.

They know that sometimes invasive surgery, untried experimental procedures or amputations are necessary for the wellbeing of the patient over time.

To argue that an all out strike ‘does harm’ without considering the wider impact of the proposed new contract on patients and the long-term viability of the NHS is deliberately reductive.

The assessment is not whether the strike puts patients at risk. It is obvious that it does. The question is whether this risk is greater than the long term harm that doctors claim is in the new contract.

When making this assessment, it is up to the public to bear in mind the vested interests on both sides. The doctors’ interest is plain, but the government also has enough at stake for its position to bear scrutiny.  It made a promise regarding the 7-day NHS that it did not realise would be so difficult to keep. Its credibility rests on this achievement.

In the end it is a question of trust: do we believe the physicians, or an ex PR and education textbook publisher who has openly declared that privatisation should be the long-term goal for the NHS?

It is possible to make arguments on both sides, but there’s a reason nobody ever said ‘trust me I’m a spin doctor’ and meant it.

The political argument

The political argument is in some ways the most straightforward: The government has a mandate to create a 7 day NHS, albeit one based on only 36 per cent share of the vote and somewhat undermined by consistent polling data that shows the public blames the government and supports the doctors.

While not explicitly stated, it might be assumed that this would be achieved by greater investment rather than by spreading what’s already there more thinly.

The fact that the government has chosen this approach means the goal is achieving the letter, not the spirit of the promise. This is spin as policy and bad government. There is not much more to it than that.

The government knows this. That’s why unnamed sources are upping the stakes by claiming the ‘radical’ unionized ‘militants’ of the British Medical Association – a sentence that would have seemed absurd a year ago – are trying to topple the government.

Of course they aren’t, they’re fighting for their pay and working conditions in the face of a unilateral change to existing contracts and an attempt at unilateral imposition.

The accusation that Junior Doctors are trying to bring down the government belongs to the ‘he repeatedly attacked my fist with his face’ school of logic. When middle class professionals, who have chosen a career where they give back to society rather than taking from it, are this angry for this long and prepared to take action that is unprecedented in the history of the NHS, the government is bringing itself down.

Doc suport aprl 2016.png

IPSOS MORI Poll April 2016