Ilham Aliyev voting in the Azeri Presidential elections 11th April 2018. Behind him stands his daughter Leyla Aliyeva, waiting to vote.

On 18th April Ilham Aliyev will be inaugurated for the fourth time as President of Azerbaijan. His re-election comes as no surprise. It is so predictable that it barely counted as ‘news’ and consequently got next to no coverage in the international media.

Originally the election was scheduled for 17th October, but at nine weeks notice Aliyev announced that it would be brought forward by six months without clear justification. In a similar manipulation of the constitution Aliyev used a plebiscite in September 2016 to lengthen the presidential term from five years to seven years. Earlier limitations on the number of terms in office had already been removed in 2009. Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party (set up by his father Heydar Aliyev) has won all parliamentary elections since 2000.

Without fail the Central Election Committee officially confirmed Ilham Aliyev won 86.02% of the vote on a 74.3 turnout, and rubber stamped by the Constitutional Court on 17 April. Yet, despite Aliyev’s impregnable position, there was still evidence of ballot stuffing and double voting. As with previous elections opposition parties boycotted the election to protest the restrictive legislative and political environment. Azerbaijan’s most prominent opposition politician, Ilgar Mammadov, has been in jail since 2013, alongside over 140 other political prisoners

The first link in the chain that binds Azerbaijan is the Aliyev autocracy; Ilham Aliyev’s complete control of the machinery of government and the constitution, as well as a marginalised political opposition.

 

Heydar Aliyev meets with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1994, shortly after he came to power in a coup

This April’s election confirms Aliyev’s hold on power until 2025. By then he will have been the country’s autocrat for twenty years. He inherited the presidency from his father, Heydar, in 2003. When Ilham completes his new term, the Aliyevs, father and son, will have been in control of Azerbaijan almost continuously for 54 years. A year ago Ilham appointed his wife as Vice President, so the dynasty is set to continue.

Heydar Aliyev had been the communist leader of Azerbaijan when it was a state within the Soviet Union, but he lost his position when charged with corruption by President Gorbachev in 1987. By the end of 1993 Heydar Aliyev had returned to power and, partly through negotiating the ceasefire in the war with Armenia, he oversaw a period of stabilisation. This stability came at a cost: political pluralism. This trend continued under his son’s regime, and has only been meekly contested at international level as Azerbaijan’s oil and gas assets have been of greater interest to consuming nations. (We detail this in our book ‘The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian Sea to The City of London’[1].)

Last week, one of the first international figures to congratulate Ilham Aliyev on his election victory was President Putin. Aliyev is an important ally to Russia as well as Turkey; for Azerbaijan is variously seen as a bulwark against Iran, to the south; a secure airborne supply route to US troops in Afghanistan; and an economic bridgehead for the EU into Central Asia.

The second link in the chain that binds Azerbaijan is the support given to the Aliyev clan by foreign powers.

EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini welcomes President Ilham Aliyev to a bilateral meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels, 6th February 2017

Whilst in jail, the opposition politician Illgar Mamadov managed to have a statement published on Open Democracy in January 2017 entitled ‘A letter from an inmate of the Southern Gas Corridor’.[2] In the piece he explained the ‘flawed international attitudes that help keep democrats locked in the prisons of the “clever autocrats” who are, in turn, courted by retrograde forces within today’s democracies’. He wrote:

‘I will tell the story of how plans for a giant pipeline that would suck gas from Azerbaijan to Italy, the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), impacts on Azerbaijan’s political prisoners.’

The Southern Gas Corridor is the string of pipelines, SCPX, TANAP and TAP – better known as the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline[3] – that is currently being constructed across Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece, Albania and Italy. The plan is that it will carry gas from the Azeri fields offshore in the Caspian Sea to the consumers of Western Europe. The European Commission has decreed that it is vital to the EU’s future energy security and especially as a means of reducing member states’ dependence on gas imports from Russia. (In Azerbaijan, ECMP’s social, economic and environmental impacts are, unsurprisingly, not debated publicly, nor are they even part of any participatory decision-making process).

As has been continuously highlighted by an international campaign involving Re: Common[4], 350.Org[5], Bankwatch[6], Counter Balance[7], Platform and many others, this 3,500 long pipeline will drive climate change by locking the EU into gas consumption until at least 2050. Furthermore, at a time when gas consumption in Europe is falling, this massive construction has been deemed a Project of Common Interest by the EU and recently given loans amounting to €3.1 bn[8] by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB).

So determined were EU Vice President Maros Sefcovic and Climate & Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete that in July last year they wrote to Dr Werner Hoyer Director of the EIB[9], lobbying the supposedly independent bank to give a loan to the pipeline. Their letter declared that the project was “vital and irreplaceable” to diversify gas imports away from Russia, that the pipeline would build a “constructive alliance” with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, and that “Europe’s commitment must not wane.” (This attitude within the EU towards Alivey would explain why its response to the clear fraudulence of last weeks’ election was so weak).

Equally striking is the apparent belief of the EIB in Azerbaijan’s commitment to transparency and access to information. The bank accepted wholesale a confirmation given to the European External Action Service stating that despite its withdrawal  from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)[10] (in the face of likely expulsion), Azerbaijan “will continue to work in line with EITI principles of revenue transparency and disclose all information related to revenues received from the extractive industries to the full extent”. It is clear that assessments by the lenders to the pipeline are knowingly opaque and breach  their own zero-tolerance policy against fraud and corruption.

The third link in chain that binds Azerbaijan is the ECMP gas pipeline and the European Commission’s insistence on gas as being vital to the EU’s future security.

Signing ceremony for the new ACG contract – September 2017 – with President Aliyev and BP centre stage

 

But the corporations that are building ECMP, and own either the pipeline or the gas which it will suck out of Azerbaijan, are not doing so to assist EU security, they are doing so to generate return on capital. These are private profit making companies, ‘responsible to their shareholders’, not to EU ministers. This is the case for BP who is the lead player in ECMP. For BP the pipeline is about securing its position in Azerbaijan over the long term. Whether or not it believes that ECMP, by itself, is profitable, it knows that it is the price to pay for its continuing access to Azeri resources. And Azerbaijan is one of BP’s most important ‘profit centres’.

On 14th September last year a BP led consortium and Ilham Aliyev signed a new production sharing agreement for the offshore ACG oil field. It was 23 years to the month that BP had signed the original agreement, the so-called ‘Contract of the Century’, in 1994 – the deal that cemented Ilham’s father’s grip on power. This new agreement extends to 2050. By that year Ilham will be 88. His father lived to 80, so perhaps he will still be in power? Or perhaps will have passed away and his wife will rule? There are, after all, only three more presidential elections – in 2032, 2039 and 2046 – to go through.

The fourth link in chain that binds Azerbaijan is BP’s support for the Aliyev dynasty. Accepting his election victory Ilham Aliyev said “People voted for stability, security, and development.” These are exactly the reasons why BP assisted Aliyev’s father in coming to power. What the company needs is these three things to ensure a profitable return on its massive investments in Azerbaijan, and that is why they support ‘their autocrat’.

Leyla Aliyeva, the Azeri President’s daughter, opening an exhibition of Azeri contemporary art in London 2012

BP is a lynch pin of the Aliyev regime for it is Azerbaijan’s largest foreign investor and fundamental to the production and export of oil and gas which entirely dominates the economy. The company is perfectly placed to perform the function that Aliyev requires of it, to provide revenues for the state but also to cement international alliances. Despite its name BP is (in terms of shareholders and executives) arguably a US corporation, but it is also inextricably interwoven with Russia, and arguably the Putin regime. And because of being a British institution for a century, it has had seemingly unshakeable support from Westminster, Whitehall and the British Establishment.

This interlinking of a capital concern with Aliyev’s key foreign allies mirrors the behaviour of the Azeri elite. For the Aliyev clan does not stand alone, its grip on power depends upon the support of an array of other Azeri families and individuals who have amassed vast fortunes over the past two decades whilst much of the country, especially beyond Baku, has languished in poverty. Azerbaijani society has evolved along lines similar to that of Russia, becoming what many refer to as an autocratic kleptocracy.

The recent ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’[11] investigation by The Guardian showed the extent to which fraud and corruption has propped up the current Azerbaijani regime. This £2.2bn scheme, centred in the UK and used to pay lobbyists, apologists and European politicians as well as to launder cash, ran between 2012 and 2014. On average $3m was channelled out of Azerbaijan every day.

In the past months, following the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, there has been much coverage of the presence of Russian kleptocratic money being harboured and spent in London. The same story can be told of the wealth acquired by the Azeri elite which is spent on art and property in London.

A perfect example of this connection between the UK and the Azeri ruling class is seen in Leyla Aliyeva, the President’s daughter. Educated at Queen’s College for Girls, Harley Street, she now owns a penthouse over looking Hyde Park and is the official editor of ‘Baku’ magazine, covering international art and fashion, and run out of Conde Nast near Oxford Circus in London. And to highlight the importance of culture as a means of garnering international support, her mother, the Vice President Merihban Aliyeva, is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. (We detail these connections in our book ‘All That Glitters – Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan’[12].)

The fifth link in chain that binds Azerbaijan comes from the embedding of the Azeri elite into the world of British finance, property and art.

 

Khadija Ismayilova, Azeri human rights defender

Azeri freedom, the possibility for its citizens to choose the political structures they desire rather than living in an autocracy bolstered by foreign states, is dependent on breaking these five links in the chain. This reality is well known to those who have sought to speak out against the Aliyev regime. Despite on going threats, civil society activists continue their work – they include allies and friends of ours  Rasul Jafarov, Intigam Aliyev, Emin Huseynov, Khadija Ismayilova, Leyla Yunus and Arif Yunus.

The Aliyev regime is dependent upon the sale of oil and gas. Consequently the Azeri government will do all it can to ensure that it is extracting and exporting hydrocarbons for as long as possible. Legally the ACG oil field and the ECMP gas pipeline are set to remain in place until 2050. But the Earth’s climate cannot sustain carbon emissions at its current level until that date. Something must give, and the closing down of fields such as ACG is essential if we are to slow or halt climate change. These oil & gas fields and the oil & gas pipelines must be forced by civil society to become stranded assets long before they see out their projected legal lifespans. This will not happen while the Aliyev regime remains in power. Curtailing climate change and curtailing the Aliyev regime go hand in hand.

We stand by our allies & friends in the Azerbaijani democracy movement, We stand by our determined opposition to the private corporations who drive the destruction of the climate in their blind pursuit of return on capital.

Together we will break the chain!

By Nathalie Losekoot and James Marriott. With thanks to Emma Hughes

Endnotes:
  1. The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian Sea to The City of London’: https://www.versobooks.com/books/1502-the-oil-road
  2. ‘A letter from an inmate of the Southern Gas Corridor’.: https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/ilgar-mammadov/open-letter-from-inmate-of-southern-gas-corridor
  3. Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline: http://platformlondon.org/2016/03/08/walking-the-line-new-interactive-documentary/
  4. Re: Common: https://www.recommon.org/
  5. 350.Org: https://350.org/london-home-global-finance-connects-its-dots/
  6. Bankwatch: https://bankwatch.org/
  7. Counter Balance: http://www.counter-balance.org/
  8. €3.1 bn: https://bankwatch.org/project/southern-gas-corridor-euro-caspian-mega-pipeline
  9. wrote to Dr Werner Hoyer Director of the EIB: http://www.climatechangenews.com/2017/11/27/eu-commission-urged-bank-support-azerbaijan-gas-pipeline/
  10. Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI): http://platformlondon.org/2017/03/16/azerbaijan-suspended-by-extractive-industries-governance-watchdog/
  11. ‘Azerbaijani Laundromat’: http://platformlondon.org/2017/09/07/bribes-bulldozers-and-bp-what-makes-a-gas-mega-pipeline/
  12. ‘All That Glitters – Sport, BP and Repression in Azerbaijan’: http://platformlondon.org/p-publications/all-that-glitters/

French police armoured vehicle on the road into La Zad surrounded by clouds of tear gas, Tuesday 10th April

The police arrived at 03.00 am on the morning of Monday 9th April. The exact number is, of course, unclear but it is said that 2,500 officers in riot equipment, with crash helmets and visors, Perspex shields and plastic body armour were deployed. Two and a half thousand highly trained men appeared out of the dark night with batons, dogs, tear gas, rubber bullets, armoured tanks and bulldozers to turn La Zad into rubble. It seemed that the destruction of the wonderful community of La Zad was underway.

The news that Gerard Collomb, the French Minister of Interior, had determined to evict the people of La Zad had spread among friends around Platform over the previous two days. We watched the twitter feed of Defend La Zad[1], we texted with loved ones living on that land, and we helped gather a demonstration outside the French Consulate in London. There have been similar solidarity actions in Nantes, Rennes, Paris, Bruxelles, Munich, New York City, in Gasteiz in the Basque Country, in Chiapas in Mexico, in Lebanon, in Spain, in Palestine and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris went on strike.

 

Demonstration outside the French Consulate in South Kensington, London in solidarity with La Zad on Monday 9th April

There was next to no coverage in the UK press except for a piece in The Guardian[2], which declared ‘French police have used teargas in an attempt to clear anti-capitalist squatters from the site of an abandoned airport project’. The journalist described the inhabitants of La Zad as ‘an eclectic group of anti-capitalists, eco-warriors … squatters, and a handful of farmers’ 

These words bare little or no relationship to the people and communes of La Zad that we know and hold in our hearts. For we know that these people are farmers, carpenters, cheese makers, musicians, artists … For we know that the communities which have evolved on the land of a planned, and now abandoned international airport, are a remarkable source of inspiration, a lighthouse that illuminates what can be done. We have described La Zad in blogs[3] on the Platform website[4] and retold the story of its miraculous existence hundreds of times to friends, lovers and families.

The farmers and carpenters building their houses and barns on La Zad

Over the past two days the French state has been attempting to destroy these homes on La Zad with bulldozers. The police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas, many grenades and countless rubber bullets. Yesterday over 30 people were treated for injuries by the La Zad medical team and two people were wounded so badly that they were taken to hospital. Most of the injuries were caused by grenades hitting faces and chests and rubber bullets fired at chest level.

Part of the team of La Zad medics by their first aid caravan by the commune of La Gourbi on La Zad, Tuesday 10th April

Of course many of the images in the French press highlight the violence of the resistance. Film of men and women with catapults and faces masked against the tear gas, photos of barricades and lines of tractors. But what does it mean to be evicted from your home and the land that you have been farming?

The house at Les Vraies Rouges that the French police tried to demolish on Tuesday 10th April

If men clad in plastic armour, with batons, dogs, tear gas and armoured bulldozers came to our houses, would we not fight to prevent their demolition? The press describes the residents of La Zad as ‘squatters’, but we know that these people have come to settle the land, they have made these woods and fields, the farms and workshops their home. Would we not fight to defend our home, a place that we possessed, and which had come to possess us?

Barricades on the La Zad road erected to stop the police vehicles, swathed in tear gas, Tuesday 10th April

The people of La Zad are being evicted from land and houses because of two things.

Firstly, because they do not have legal title to land that for half a century was earmarked by the French state and a private corporation to be turned into runways and car parks.

And secondly, because they are deemed to be ‘undesirable’, because they are described by the press as anarchists and anti-capitalist, individuals who should not be allowed to experiment with living in a manner outside the norms of consumer society.

There is a long history of eviction, but there is also a long history of resistance and reoccupation.  As we write this blog the battle is raging and the Defenders of La Zad are pushing back . The bulldozers and riot shields have made smaller in-roads into the vast area than they surely planned. Perhaps only a fiftieth of the zone has been captured by the police so far.  

Map of La Zad, settled on the land of the planned airport

We pray that the  defenders will win as they did against the police’s Operation Cesar in 2014. That the thousands of police attempting an eviction over several days will fail and have to withdraw. We need to assist the defenders in these coming days and help them seize victory again – not just for La Zad itself but also for what La Zad stands for:  the freedom to live outside the norms of a consumer society.

An international call out for support has just been made.[5]

Or maybe the defenders will ‘fail’ this time? Maybe they will be forced off the land, farm by farm, field by field as homes and communal spaces built by hand out of love and earth are turned into rubble.

Aerial photograph of the ‘bocage’ farmland and woods that was the site of the planned airport and is now La Zad.

However the defenders possession of the land will remain. By living on the land they have come to possess the bocage and the forests, and these places will remain possessed by those that have lived there. The memory will hang like a spectre over whoever tries to take ownership of that land. And this memory will create a continued desire to return.

La Zad exists. It is not some hoped for future, some dream. Nor is not a reality fading into the past. It is an actuality – and like all actualities it has its deep flaws and imperfections – but it is an actuality.

We hold it. Whether we live on that land or we live in this metropolis of London, we are part of the community of La Zad. In these days especially we hold it, stand with it, and continue to declare its existence.

This morning, out of the mist that swaddled the Thames Estuary, the first Swallows appeared! Spring and Summer are rushing ahead.

Surely the Swallows are returning to nest in the barn at the commune of La Rolandiere on La Zad. Perhaps they will have to fly through the clouds of tear gas?

The true inhabitants of this land, those who possess it, will not be easily deterred.

 

By James Marriott and Jo Ram

With thanks and inspiration from John Jordan, Isa Fremeaux and Dom Francis

Endnotes:
  1. Defend La Zad: http://@ZAD_NDDL
  2. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/09/france-notre-dame-des-landes-police-anti-airport-activists-teargas
  3. blogs: http://platformlondon.org/2018/01/25/victory-at-la-zad-inspirational-resistance-through-community/
  4. Platform website: http://platformlondon.org/2018/03/18/la-zad-puts-down-roots-sensing-the-future/
  5. made.: https://zadforever.blog/2018/04/11/a-call-for-intergalactic-solidarity-actions-everywhere-to-end-the-destruction-of-the-zad-of-notre-dame-des-landes/

Male Blackbird in full song.

 

Even in the dark the Blackbird sings. The bubbling song fills the night outside our bedroom window. You sleep silently, the bedclothes rising and falling, as the notes of the bird flow over you.

Hours later, the grey light of dawn has come and with it the calls of Song Thrush and House Sparrow. In the distance are the cries of Pheasant and Carrion Crow, Green Woodpecker and Black-Headed Gulls.

The birds sing up the land, the fields and marshes, the roads and the housing estates. Spring is coming here on the peninsulars and islands at the mouth of the Thames. Spring is coming all the way up the valley. It engulfs the motorways and the airports, the bridges and the railway lines. A layer of birdsong blankets the extraordinary jumble of concrete and glass, brick and steel that is scattered over the banks of the river and her tributaries.

The song fills the ears of companions in Oxford, in Leyton, in Shadwell, in Sidcup, in Stoke Newington, in Lewisham, and beyond. It is a song of survival.

For the more than human, these birds and fish, these animals and plants, another Spring is a miracle. A miracle of their continued existence.

So many have gone under. The Salmon and the Sturgeon driven into extinction by two hundred and fifty years of fossil-fuel industrialism that has canalised the river and buried the streams.

So many were driven to the brink of extinction. The Raven and the Buzzard, the Kite and the Otter annihilated by the shotgun and the steel trap.

So many had their populations decimated. The detergents that filled the rivers with foam poisoned the fish who floated, belly up, on the surface. The pesticide sprays that thinned the eggs of raptors and caused the song birds fall out of the sky.

 

A poisoned Carp in the River Crane, west London. One of 10,000 fish killed by pollution in the river, October 2011

And so many were driven from their homes. The felling of woods, the draining of marshes, the burial of grasslands and poisoning of soils, all destroyed places to breed, places to feed and places to rest.

It is remarkable that the more than human has survived in this valley. They have maintained their toe holds in corners of woodland and the bends of streams. And they have clawed their way back into our imaginations.

Slowly, painfully slowly, the trap and the shotgun have been outlawed, some of the detergents and the pesticides have been banned, and some of the woodlands and marshes have been protected. Not enough, not nearly enough, but the tide turns slowly.

And still they sing. They fill these dawn moments with sound, and they watch us. So few us notice them but we are constantly in their gaze. They watch our every move. They wait and labour to survive.

I listen to the Blackbird at night and the Song Thrush at dawn and I am in deep gratitude for the resilience of the community of which I am part.

 

Thanks to Anna Galkina and inspiration from the words of James Baldwin

[1]

Credit: Divest London

Yesterday, the Mayor of London joined the divestment movement. Sadiq Khan announced plans to divest the London Pension Fund from fossil fuels, calling on other London boroughs to do the same.

[2]

Credit: Divest Lambeth

We are seeing a wave of divestment pledges across the capital. Lambeth and Islington Labour have announced divestment commitments in their manifestos. With some local election manifestos still to launch we hope to see more pledges in the next few weeks.

But it isn’t just London going fossil free. This month, Monmouthshire County Council and Derby City Council both passed motions calling on their pension funds to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry – backed by councillors across the political spectrum.

In November last year, Platform analysed data from all the UK local government pension funds. The results[3], released with Friends of the Earth and 350.org, showed that the London Pension Fund is worth over £5bn and invests in companies wrecking the climate like Shell. The Derbyshire Pension Fund invests over £75 million in Shell. Monmouthshire’s motion asks the Torfaen Pension Fund to divest ‘at the earliest opportunity’. Torfaen currently invests nearly £250 million in fossil fuels, including over £27 million in BP.

Derby and Monmouthshire join 13 other UK councils – from Sheffield to Stroud, Brighton to Birmingham – in calling for divestment from their pension funds.

Big congratulations to all the local activists that have worked so hard for these victories!

You can look up how much your local authority’s pensions invest in fossil fuels, and link up with your local campaign, through our handy map tool[4].

The Derbyshire campaign handed in their petition with over 1000 signatures to the fund. They’re also backed by 20 local organisations – including anti-fracking groups, the Chesterfield Trades Union Council, and the Derby Student Union.

Last November, activists from: Divest London, Switched On London,Greater London Pensioners’ Association and Fuel Poverty Action occupied the Mayor’s Question Time and confronted Sadiq for ducking out on election pledges to set up a fuel energy utility for London and divest the city pension fund from fossil fuels.

[5]

Credit: Switched On London

It’s great to see the Mayor taking action on divestment. We still want to see him increase climate ambition for the capital. Cities such as Munich, have become leaders on climate action, setting ambitious targets like running on 100% renewable electricity by 2025. With your help[6], we can make London a leader too and unleash more divestment commitments UK-wide!

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2018/03/29/win-mayor-of-london-and-more-councils-back-divestment/divestlondon/
  2. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2018/03/29/win-mayor-of-london-and-more-councils-back-divestment/divest-lambeth/
  3. The results: https://gofossilfree.org/uk/fuellingthefire/
  4. our handy map tool: http://platform.cmail20.com/t/r-l-jyykkhjy-wtyuujjy-k/
  5. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2018/03/29/win-mayor-of-london-and-more-councils-back-divestment/city-hall/
  6. With your help: http://platformlondon.org/donate/
[1]

Hundreds gather outside the court to support the Stansted 15 and demand an end to deportations. Credit End Deportations

‘Home is a hostile lover’  a poem by Selina Nwulu[2] is read from the concrete steps of Chelmsford Crown Court. London’s former young poet laureate, gives a powerful indictment of the UK’s ‘hostile environment’. Hundreds listen in the chill morning outside Chelmsford Crown Court to stand in solidarity with fifteen people who begin trial this week for blocking a secret, deportation flight to Nigeria and Ghana. Two of the fifteen defendants are Platform staff members – Jo Ram and Emma Hughes. Whilst Platform had no role in this action, as an organisation committed to human rights, it does stand against racist and inhuman deportation flights and the UK’s ‘hostile environment’.

It was on another cold March day last year that the fifteen defendants stopped a Titan airways plane from taking off by chaining themselves around it[3]  and lying on the airport tarmac for ten hours.

The flight was due to send 57 people to Nigeria and Ghana. As a result of the group’s action, 34 people were not immediately deported and many were given the chance to have their appeals heard. One man was able to be with his partner for the birth of their child, as the fifteen activists were lying on the runway she was already in labour. If the plane had left that night he still might not have met his child.

Deportation flights are brutal and secretive. People who may have arrived in the UK as children, who grew up in places like Manchester, Croydon or Glasgow, are ripped from family and friends, locked up and eventually sent to a country where they have little connection. Sometimes people face the threat of persecution or death when they get there. The defendants knew the stories of people who were due to be on the flight including a lesbian woman whose abusive ex-husband threatened to kill her on arrival in Nigeria.

For those on board, these ghost flights are violent and terrifying. People are handcuffed and waist restraint belts are regularly used, despite an independent panel advice that they should only be used in exceptional circumstances. In 2010 Jimmy Mubenga, a father of five from Essex, died on a commercial flight that was sending him to Angola[4]. He was heavily restrained by G4S security guards and collapsed after complaining of not being able to breathe. We only know what happened to him because passengers on the commercial flight were witnesses. On deportation flights there are no witnesses.

A few weeks ago a bus taking people to Stansted airport caught fire. The people on board were being sent to Pakistan. When the fire broke out, the Tascor staff started handcuffing people before they allowed them off[5]. Just minutes before the bus exploded, and as it was filling with fumes making it hard to breathe, the guards were handing out cuffs. In the panic one person broke their arm.
[6]

Supporters outside the court. Credit End Deportations

Months after the fifteen defendants in this case were arrested the CPS changed the charge from Aggravated Trespass to the terrorist related crime of endangering an airport under the 1990 Aviation and Maritime Security Act, a piece of legislation written in response to the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988.

As new waves of ‘terrorist’ legislation have been introduced by successive governments, the repressive implications have become clear. First in relation to our muslim communities who face constant surveillance, racial profiling and hostility. Now it seems terror laws are also being used to shut down dissent. That’s just one reason why this case matters, if found guilty it will mark a serious blow for all those who believe civil disobedience is an important part of how progressive change is achieved.

Whatever the outcome of the trial, the government’s draconian actions will not stop the growing movement against deportation flights. Today, 120 women in Yarlswood detention centre continue their month long hunger strike[7].
Beginning their hunger strike on 21 February this year, the women escalated their action to an “all out strike” saying “we will cease to participate in detention, we will not eat, use their facilities or work for them.” The strikers have occupied the Home Office and Healthcare departments within Yarls Wood after the government refused to recognise the hunger strike.
[8]

Credit The London Latinxs

In response the women have been told they will be moved to prisons, targeted for individual deportation and there are reports that people are being rounded up and separated from other detainees, for a charter flight to Nigeria and Ghana. The strikers’ demands[9] read as a liturgy on the brutality of detention:

  • We want the Home Office to stop deporting people before their cases are decided or appeals heard
  • We want adequate healthcare
  • We want the Home Office to stop detaining the vulnerable people, that is victims of rape, that is torture, all forms of torture, trafficking, forced labour, the disabled, the mentally ill
  • We want amnesty for all people who have lived in the UK for more than 10 years and an end to the exiling of those who came as children and are culturally British.
  • We want an end to the Home Office’s of employing detainees to do menial work for £1 per hour, it prays on the vulnerable and forces them to participate in their own detention.
  • We want an end to charter flights and the snatching of people from their beds in the night and herding them like animals.
[10]

Credit Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants.

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2018/03/22/home-is-a-hostile-lover-ending-the-uks-governments-racist-deportations-regime/outside-court/
  2. Selina Nwulu: http://www.selinanwulu.com/
  3. by chaining themselves around it: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/29/arrests-as-stansted-anti-deportation-protesters-lock-themselves-to-plane
  4. died on a commercial flight that was sending him to Angola: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/oct/14/security-guards-accused-jimmy-mubenga-death
  5. handcuffing people before they allowed them off: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/feb/21/home-office-contractors-cuffed-detained-migrants-inside-coach-on-fire
  6. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2018/03/22/home-is-a-hostile-lover-ending-the-uks-governments-racist-deportations-regime/outside-the-court/
  7. month long hunger strike: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/im-on-hunger-strike-in-yarls-wood-to-show-that-detainment-doesnt-work-for-anyone_uk_5a9fa90ee4b0d4f5b66baaa2?jtp&utm_hp_ref=uk-homepage
  8. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2018/03/22/home-is-a-hostile-lover-ending-the-uks-governments-racist-deportations-regime/hunger-strke/
  9. demands: https://detainedvoices.com/2018/02/25/the-strikers-demands/)
  10. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2018/03/22/home-is-a-hostile-lover-ending-the-uks-governments-racist-deportations-regime/yarlswood-2/

Calouste Gulbenkian at the height of his powers as an oil titan

Quite unexpected comes remarkable news! Lucy Neal, a long-term part of the Platform family, e-mails out of the blue, forwarding an article from the Algarve Daily News, published on 1st February in southern Portugal. The headline reads:

‘Gulbenkian Foundation gets out of the oil business’

That truly is unexpected. Lucy had not foreseen this coming and most certainly neither had we. It is a potent symbol of the extraordinary shift away from oil that is taking place at least in parts of Europe and North America. It is as significant as the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation being publicly critical of the board of ExxonMobil, the corporate remains of the empire built by John D. Rockefeller.

It takes some explaining. The Gulbenkian Foundation[1] is a private fund that supports the Gulbenkian art museum in Lisbon, Portuguese culture internationally, and science, education and the arts around the world. Its base is in Lisbon, but it has an office in London, and for a long time the Arts Director of the UK branch was the inspiring Sian Ede. Under her guidance a host of powerful arts projects were financed, many of them with a strong ecological or social theme.

Platform received funds from the Gulbenkian in 1983 for our Homeland[2] project, a performance piece, commissioned by LIFT and produced by ArtsAdmin. The work uncovered the reality of the ecological footprint of trade across Europe by tracing the origins of the light bulbs, copper and coal that came together to make light in a London home.

We were aware at the time that the Foundation bore the name of Calouste Gulbenkian, who was a titan of the early oil industry, but we did not choose to look too closely at the current holdings of the fund’s capital. Of course inertia played a part in that failure, but those were days before we had thought about the connections between foundations and the financing of climate change. By the 2000s – at which time we were immersed in the politics of oil – whenever the name of the Gulbenkian Foundation came up in a fundraising conversation, we put it to one side, deciding that it was not a source of funding to which we could apply.

Then in the winter of 2016, Lucy Neal got in touch. She was caught in a conundrum, that she wanted to talk through – what to do about the Gulbenkian Foundation? Lucy had been co-director of LIFT[3] from 1981 to 2006, and had seen the Gulbenkian fund a number of their productions and indeed publish the book ‘The Turning World – Stories from the London International Festival of Theatre’[4] co-written by Lucy and Rose Fenton.

Now Lucy, and her collaborator Hillary Jennings, had put their hats in the ring to be project managers of the Inquiry into the Civic Role of the Arts, which aimed to assist the Gulbenkian in rethinking their direction. They were excited by the prospect of the enquiry, and the opportunity to bring their own civic engagement practice to the frame – a practice that engages the arts and culture wholeheartedly with global issues such as climate change. However as they researched the organisation and its role, a personal challenge arose: much of the funds of the Foundation came from its’ holding of a 100% stake in Partex, an oil & gas exploration company.

Here was a cultural foundation that wasn’t just the holder of equities in Shell, or BP or ExxonMobil, but actually owned it’s own oil & gas corporation that was busy drilling for oil from Algeria and Angola to Brazil and Kazakhstan, and threatening to do so off the coast of the Portuguese Algarve. There was strong local opposition to the latter exploration, and the Foundation had been challenged over the contradiction between their support for projects to defend ocean ecosystems and the oil company’s extraction plans. Partex was producing, and still produces, around 6.4 million barrels of oil equivalent per year, most of it in Oman.

The oil & gas assets of Partex around the world

Lucy and I met and discussed possible ways forward. It was clear that most of the Foundation trustees were resistant to raising questions over the Partex holding. We crafted a letter to Martin Essayan, one of the Trustees of the Foundation, great grandson of Calouste Gulbenkian, who was based in London. But in the event Lucy and her partner were not selected by the Foundation to undertake the consultancy contract. Once again, inertia and the distractions of the rest of life took over, the letter was not sent and we let the matter drop.

Quite suddenly, a full two years later, comes the article in the Algarve Daily News that   reads:

‘In a seismic shift in policy, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is selling its Partex oil and gas interests and is to invest in sustainable energy,  “in line with the international movement followed by other foundations.”’

What has happened in the intervening months to push the Foundation to undertake this step, which in 2016 looked so unlikely? We don’t know exactly, for the deliberations of the Trustees are private. Perhaps it was the pressure of local opposition to the drilling off the Algarve? Or perhaps it was the impact of an initiative to push foundations to divest from fossil fuel equities? Certainly the climate around climate change is changing.

The pioneer of the divestment campaign has been the indefatigable Ellen Dorsey who, as director of the Wallace Global Fund[5] in Washington, has charmed and cajoled the staff and trustees of other foundations to drop their holdings in oil & gas corporations. She, and those who’ve struggled alongside her, have been remarkably successful. Many foundations have followed Wallace Global Fund’s lead, including the Ashden Trust,[6] the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust[7], and most notably the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.[8] When this latter body decided to divest, some of the trustees spoke out about their great, great grandfather:

“We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.”

Now the Gulbenkian Foundation has joined this movement and has announced its intention to sell the entirety of its’ holding in Partex.

The Algarve Daily News writes:

‘The Foundation soon will be able to hold its head high in this much-changed world, no longer tainted by its funding of ecological projects from the proceeds of an industry that spends much of its time destroying land and marine ecosystems.’

Being in the unique position of owning an entire oil & gas company, as opposed to owning shares in one, gives the Foundation a unique opportunity. They could simply shut down the corporation, handing back the oil concessions to states such as Oman, and destroying its capital value. This would, of course, destroyed the major source of the Foundation’s income. Instead they will sell on Partex to the private conglomerate CEFC China Energy[9] and will reinvest the €500 million generated into renewable energy projects and the like. CEFC China Energy will, of course, not cease to exploit the hydrocarbons that they’ve purchased from the Foundation. The carbon from those oil & gas fields will be emitted into the atmosphere.

However, the Gulbenkian’s move is not just about the shifting of capital from China Energy to the Foundation, for it holds a far more symbolic position than that. This can be understood by exploring the origins of the Foundation’s wealth.

Calouste Gulbenkian was an Armenian born in 1869 in Contantinople (now Istanbul) the capital of Ottoman Empire, which then encompassed most of the Middle East. His father, Sarkis, was an oil trader who owned interests in the Baku oil fields in the Tsarist Russian province of Transcaucasia, now Azerbaijan. (We described the history of those oil fields in our book ‘The Oil Road – Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London’) Calouste was sent to study petroleum engineering at Kings College, on The Strand in London.

Calouste Gulbenkian, aged 20, graduating from Kings College, London 1889

At the age of 26, after having conducted a survey for oil in the Province of Mestpotamia for the Ottoman government, he set up his own oil business. He helped establish the Turkish Petroleum Company, which eventually gained the concession to explore for oil across Iraq, then occupied by the British after World War 1. For sixteen years Calouste was locked in a bitter battle with the major oil corporations Standard Oil (the father of today’s ExxonMobil), Royal Dutch Shell, Compagnie Francaise des Petroles (today’s Total) and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP) who were all determined to oust him from the business scene and acquire his concession. However through extraordinary skill and tenacity, Calouste cut a deal in 1928 and retained a 5% stake the Iraq Petroleum Company, profiting from all the oil fields that were subsequently exploited. Consequently he became know as ‘Mr Five Percent’ and amassed a vast personal wealth.

Calouste had played a key role in the establishment of the French, British and American empires of oil. But he spent the last years of his life in Lisbon, building his art collection and being a philanthropist, particularly towards the Armenian diaspora. Upon his death in 1955, much of this wealth and 6,000 artworks were left to the Gulbenkian Foundation, to which he also bequeathed the company Partex. This latter, which came to own 2% of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company[10], was registered in the Cayman Islands and remitted all its dividend to its sole shareholder, the Gulbenkian Foundation.

Writing about the decision to sell Partex, the trustee Martin Essayan said:

“We believe that Calouste Gulbenkian would have wanted us to do the best for the Foundation in a rational way, balancing the risks and the rewards …Calouste is often quoted as saying he was not an “oil man” but a “business architect.”

Essayan added that the board had discussed the issue of Partex over many years wanting to:

“avoid an excessive concentration of our investments in a single industry and in one company … and the issue of fossil fuels which also has been worrying me for reasons of sustainability.”

What strikes me about this tale is that it took four decades for Gulbenkian to secure the capital holding that enabled him to become an immensely significant player in Middle Eastern oil. This pattern echoed other companies. Anglo-Persian, for example, struggled to gain the backing of banks and other financiers for its exploration projects in its first decade.

It was a struggle to draw capital into oil. It took skill and extraordinary persistence to acquire the funds that built the house of oil. Now there is a struggle to draw capital out of oil. It is requiring skill and extraordinary persistence to undermine the foundations of the house of oil.

But that battle is being won, slowly but surely the house is crumbling. And the decision by the Gulbenkian Trustees, including Martin Essayan the great grandson, to sell its stake in Partex is another sign of this steady collapse. We salute the Trustees in making this important move!

Thanks to Mika Minio, Lucy Neal & Hillary Jennings

 

Endnotes:
  1. Gulbenkian Foundation: https://gulbenkian.pt/uk-branch/
  2. Homeland: http://old.platformlondon.org/otherprojects.asp
  3. LIFT: https://www.liftfestival.com/
  4. The Turning World – Stories from the London International Festival of Theatre’: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Turning-World-Stories-International-Festival/dp/1903080037
  5. Wallace Global Fund: http://wgf.org/
  6. Ashden Trust,: http://www.ashdentrust.org.uk/
  7. Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust: https://www.jrct.org.uk/
  8. Rockefeller Brothers Fund.: https://www.rbf.org/
  9. CEFC China Energy: http://my.cefc.co/
  10. Abu Dhabi National Oil Company: https://www.taqaglobal.com/

Live performance by the Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp

We’re in the middle of the crowd. Standing some way back from the stage, watching transfixed and elated at the performance of Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp.[1] Two trombones, two drummers, two marimbas, two electric guitars, two cellos and five other musicians blast out such a blissful riot of sound that our souls sail above this extraordinary gathering.

The banner on the stage reads:

Notre Dame Des-Landes ENRACINONS L’AVENIR sur La Zad 

For this is a festival to celebrate not only the victory of the people of Notre Dame des Landes[2], in alliance with others all across France and across the world, over the planned mega-airport after 50 years of struggle. It also a festival to declare that La Zad[3] is putting down roots.

We look around and take in the scene. A huge crowd of people of all ages, many of whom have travelled for hours from cities across France – Paris, Toulouse, Lyons – and others from further afield – Belgium, Netherlands, England, Ireland.

Whilst we are watching this whirlwind of a band, in marquees nearby there are cabaret acts, a techno dance tent, a traditional Breton Fest Noz, and much, much more. Amidst this there are rows and rows of covered field kitchens serving coffee and cakes, wine and beer, vegan and vegetarian food, sausages or chicken.

At this level, the day with 20 to 30,000 people gathered to celebrate a victory in muddy fields of the Pays de Loire near Nantes, although joyous, is perhaps not that remarkable. What makes it unique is what is not visible, but can only be sensed.

We paid no ticket to attend this gig of a major international band. Nor did the other people in the crowd. None of us are wearing those ubiquitous day glow ‘festival wrist bands’. The food and drink at almost all of the stalls is ‘Prix Libre’. Meaning that the price is not fixed, which emphasises that a donation is desirable if possible. Here and there are washstands at which those who have eaten their Prix Libre meals clean their ceramic plates and metal knives and forks, and leave them to dry in racks. There is an absence of plastic packaging, plates and cutlery. And there are no ground staff clearing bins or collecting rubbish. Indeed there is everywhere a notable lack of rubbish. It is as though the crowd of 30,000 visitors has been infected by the La Zad spirit, of self-determination and self-responsibility.

The land that we are standing upon as we watch the band, or wander among the stalls, belongs to everyone and no one. It is a commons, like the rest of La Zad, liberated from the French state and the private corporation Vinci, that had been working for years to build the airport. This liberation was achieved by an occupation of the land and extraordinary acts of resistance against eviction. Some of these acts, taken in the face of violence meted out by the police, are part of what lies behind the attainment of this peaceful festival scene.

The stage on which the band is performing is constructed within a beautiful barn, built by the free labour of the communards of La Zad in 2016, using timber mostly cut from communally worked common woods of the zone. There are no security guards hanging around at the sides of the stage, no figures wearing those ever-familiar black bomber jackets and ear-pieces. And there are no police.

 

 

All day we had processed in a carnival column winding its way across La Zad, with a massive newt at the head made of cloth and wood. At several moments we took a double take that here was a gathering of several thousand people blocking the roads as they passed along them, and yet there were no police, no women in uniforms and hi-viz jackets, no burly men videoing the ‘protestors’ and only occasionally did we hear the thudding of a helicopter above.

At no other event of this scale in my life have I ever been to has there been no visible state presence. But the explanation for this is obvious, the land of La Zad is outside the state. As the Paris politicians declare ‘It is land lost to the Republique’. However the absence of police comes as a shock.

Later I heard that on another part of La Zad there was a heavy and oppressive police presence at a parallel event celebrating the victory. That I had no sense of this points perhaps to my ignorance but also to the sheer scale of the land area of La Zad. However this new information only detracts a little from the intense memory of the lack of police presence in those hours.

For what makes this day and the evening gathering remarkable are the ‘absences’. What is not: no private ownership of the performance space, no privately owned land, no security, no prices for the food, no event tickets. Yet when I think about this ‘No’, this absence, I can sense a ‘Yes’, a presence. It is the presence of the future in the present. Not a possible future, not a possible ‘other world’, but an actual future, another world now. It is an idea explored in this video from La Zad:

It is as though La Zad is a part the future now. Not so much an experiment of another way of being, but an incubator of the future. And this day is less about celebrating a victory, celebrating an achievement of the recent past (the airport cancellation by the French government a month earlier) but rather a dissemination of the future. La Zad is a plant putting down its roots, but it is also one spreading its seed. How many of the 30,000 people who have come to this event will carry away its spores? How many of these seeds will take root elsewhere?

These fertile messages are not blueprints or plans. At no point is La Zad ‘explained’ or delineated to the visitors. There are no information boards or brochures. There is no attempt to suggest that this is a model that should be perfectly replicated elsewhere, like a 10th century monastery or a 20th century Soviet experiment.

Instead La Zad is a future that runs like a rumour through the crowd and is carried as the gift of a story to kitchen tables, work places and lovers’ arms by all those that have gathered here on this day. For perhaps they too sensed the future in this place.

Thanks to John Jordan, Isa Fremeaux, Kirsty Wright & Jane Trowell

Endnotes:
  1. performance of Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp.: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUMdY7vBZLU
  2. victory of the people of Notre Dame des Landes: http://platformlondon.org/2018/01/25/victory-at-la-zad-inspirational-resistance-through-community/
  3. La Zad: https://zadforever.blog/about/

National Grid issued emergency warnings last week when snow and freezing temperatures caused a gas crunch in the UK. With great tact, Big 6 company E.on chose the same week to hike average energy bills up to £1,150.

This gas crunch was itself an outcome of burning fossil gas and accelerated climate change – specifically

  • Freezing conditions delayed gas deliveries
  • Low temperatures meant people burnt more gas to heat their homes
  • Falling gas extraction in Netherlands, following earthquakes caused by Shell’s drilling for gas.

 

What does the gas crunch mean for energy bills?

Rising wholesale gas prices will probably lead to energy bills being hiked. In the good years when gas prices were low, E.ON, British Gas and SSE pocketed the savings as profits. But now as wholesale prices rise – costs are passed on to the public.

Everybody agrees that there’s a problem with bills in the UK: the Competition & Markets Authority[1], Citizens Advice[2], Theresa May[3], Jeremy Corbyn[4]. Electricity and gas networks especially are walking off with large profits, while people are freezing and NHS picks up the tab when people get sick.

Who owns the gas grid?

The gas grid in London, Midlands and North West England was sold last year by National Grid to Australian investment bank Macquarie, Chinese state and Qatar. Energy grids have a record of extracting billions in dividends, and not investing for the future.

In sensible countries like Denmark, heat is seen as so important that it’s run not-for-profit. Instead of selling it off to private banks and sovereign wealth funds, heat networks are run by local councils or co-ops. It turns out this is more efficient and don’t users get ripped off.

Britain’s cold leaky homes

Why are our homes so cold and leaky? Nowhere else in Europe are homes so badly insulated. In countries like Finland and Sweden, this level of snow is is bog-standard, but their homes are warm.

As our weather becomes more extreme, we need to assert that staying warm is a human right.[5]

Too dependent on gas

The gas crunch last week made clear that we’ve got too many eggs in the same basket, and are over-reliant on gas for heating, for electricity, for industry. We were lucky that the wind was blowing pretty hard, so at least all those turbines were churning out electricity, reducing demand from gas plants.

But it’s about time we reduced our dependence on fossil gas. Winter weather is getting colder, gas prices are volatile and burning gas accelerates climate change.

Public ownership of energy can help transform our heat and electricity systems –  delivering cleaner power, better jobs and lower bills.

Endnotes:
  1. Competition & Markets Authority: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/cma-publishes-final-energy-market-reforms
  2. Citizens Advice: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/about-us/how-citizens-advice-works/media/press-releases/energy-networks-making-75bn-in-unjustified-profit-over-8-years-citizens-advice-finds/
  3. Theresa May: https://www.mirror.co.uk/money/theresa-vows-end-rip-energy-11286064
  4. Jeremy Corbyn: https://www.cleanenergynews.co.uk/news/efficiency/jeremy-corbyn-takes-aim-at-network-companies-in-bid-for-public-ownership
  5. [Image]: http://platformlondon.org/2018/03/07/whats-the-role-of-climate-change-in-snowmageddon-and-the-gas-crunch/pic_1358441378/

Recently I was sitting talking with a friend who was relating the harrowing tale of her partner’s sudden illness. My heart was in my mouth as she described the paramedics arriving in minutes to their home, the ambulance that took them to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, her partner being transferred to a specialist clinic at King’s College Hospital on Denmark Hill, and the weeks and weeks of appointments with consultants after his discharge.

As she spoke I could see the hospitals in my minds eye and thought of these massive buildings and their sisters dotted throughout the fabric of London that is spread across the Thames Valley. How many of these places have cared for us at Platform and our families and friends? Off the top of my head I can remember how individuals among us have been supported by St Thomas’ Hospital, Guy’s Hospital, Homerton University Hospital, Royal London Hospital Whitechapel, Whipps Cross Hospital, and beyond London, Medway Maritime Hospital, Darent Valley Hospital, John Radcliffe Hospital.

 

Map of London hospitals in 2013

 

So many times I’ve heard friends say: “Oh the NHS service was wonderful” or “It was amazing. The staff were incredible.” However it is curious the way the experience is retold only as individual or familial. The service in these hospitals has helped us in Platform, or our partners, children or relatives. Yet we rarely talk of how the NHS has helped us as a group. How its existence has underpinned ours.

In purely financial terms the NHS reduces the costs of running Platform. Were we based in the USA, like many sister organisations, the wages that we pay ourselves would need to be that much higher to enable each individual to contribute to their private health insurance. As it is, the wider society of Britain provides this support for Platform in financing the NHS.

At a deeper level, the existence of the health service removes from our daily collective life a level of anxiety. When a Platform companion suddenly took compassionate leave to care for her partner, we were anxious for her. We didn’t think “Oh dear will a prolonged illness mean that her family will be thrown into financial turmoil and will this mean that she will be unable to work at Platform?” Perhaps we should have had this thought. But because of the wider social provision that has existed for over two generations in our society, we did not think about how ill health for one of us, or our families, might destroy our own security as a group.

This lack of a collective sense of being supported by, the NHS, is echoed in my feelings as to what I can do about its plight. Repeatedly I read the headlines “NHS Winter Crisis” or “NHS on brink of collapse”. However I do not take action in response, I do not gather with others in order to act.

I find that the press coverage serves only to numb me, as it instills a sense that this massive instution is tipping endlessly into chaos, and that there is nothing I can do to halt its death spiral. Of course I can clearly observe that recent governments have starved the NHS of investment, and that we need to elect a party that is truly committed to reversing this decline. So the easiest route to preserving the NHS is by ensuring the election of such a government at the earliest opportunity.

However this ‘macro-level’ approach seems to deny the possibility that I – or me and my companions – might take a more considered, reflective, even intimate approach to caring for this vital service that has cared for me, my companions, and our families for the better part of seventy years.

This is what inspires me about the work of one of Platform’s former Trustees who has long been a wonderful ally for many years – Peter Roderick. Peter is a lawyer by training and was pivotal to many environmental campaigns, such as the Friends of the Earth’s legal work in the Battle against the Newbury Bypass. Since 2014 Peter has been working alongside Allyson Pollock in the Campaign for the NHS Reinstatement Bill[1].

The heart of the campaign is to demand that a bill be passed through the House of Commons and the Lords, that reasserts the founding principles of the NHS, as providing the best healthcare for all, free at the point of delivery. The bill would fundamentally roll back the process of creeping privatisation that has been disembowelling the NHS since the Thatcher Government in the 1980s. When the campaign launched, the prospects of it being successful seemed bleak. But so much has changed over the last three years in British politics. The collapse of Carillion is only the latest disaster to reveal just how flawed is the principle of the state paying private corporations to deliver public services such as the NHS.

The Campaign’s latest manouver is to request a judicial review of the actions of the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt. In order to bring this legal action in the High Court, Peter and colleagues needed funds and launched a crowd justice appeal – in an amazingly short period of time it raised £170,000 from 6,000 donors.[2]

Now the legal battle has begun and I urge readers of this blog to go onto the site and follow the campaign. Support the initiative, wear their badge, not only because they need our encouragement, but also because it is an action we, as individuals acting collectively, can take.

 

Flyer from strike by domestic staff at Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge 1985-86

 

In some ways, for Platform to support the work of the Campaign for the NHS Reinstatement Bill is a return to orgin. One of our earliest projects, in 1984 – 1985, was Addenbrookes Blues[3]. This combined research, agitprop theatre and mobilising demonstrations to support the domestic cleaners who were on strike at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge.

The service of maintaining the cleanliness of beds and wards at the hospital had long been undertaken by in-house staff. But this work had effectively been privatised and outsourced to a profit making company, OCS[4] (or Office Cleaning Services). The new employers had radically reduced the terms and conditions, and altered working hours. It was one of the earliest signs of the long process of privatisation that has hollowed out the NHS, but which even 34 year ago was being resisted by workers and trade unionists.

Over the better part of a year, a group that combined students from Cambridge University and activists from the city, performed theatre in the market square and fundraised for the pickets at the hospital entrance. We teamed up with Tom Snow, an amazing Education Officer from the NUPE union (now absorbed into UNITE), who arranged for us to perform at union meetings, at hospitals in East Anglia, outside the House of Commons and at political rallies. We were clearly part of a drive to help give energy to the struggle of trade unionists and the Labour Party in the face of the onslaught of the Thatcher government and we were delighted to meet the the then Labour Leader, Neil Kinnock, and perform alongside the Shadow Minister for Health, Michael Meacher.

The Platform team in that project included Graham Burns, Richard Fredman, Dan Gretton, Abigail Morris, Wes Stace, Mel Steel, Mark Wheelan and Anna Wright. Many of these we’re still in touch with, others we’d love to reconnect to. But, I’ve no doubt that all, at many points have had cause to fall back into the arms of the NHS and use its hospital, health centres and surgeries dotted across the UK. Silently, so often in the background, it has helped enable the work that we have all undertaken.

How would it be if we were to collectively engage in the defence and support of the NHS institutions in our locality? I am reminded of a plaque on the wall of a building on the Walworth Road in Southwark that the writer Ken Worpole drew my attention to.

 

 

‘The health of the people is the highest law’, a translation of a line by Cicero, was carved into the front of the Walworth Health Clinic opened in 1937. A decade before the NHS was founded, here was a Labour Borough Council, like others across Britain, funding the construction and provision, with the most modern equipment, of a local clinic to provide for the poorest in the community. As Cllr Gillian, the head of the Labour run Public Health & Sanitary Committee said: “when the health of the people, and particularly the poorer classes of the population, is involved, only the best equipment and the most modern scientific devices would suffice.”

Perhaps, just as campaigns for Energy Democracy have reignited a desire for municipal electricity systems publicly owned and democratically run, we might see a similar level of imagining and engagement in the provision of health care? Perhaps we might turn to help the NHS, to defend it, and posses it in return.

 

With thanks to Sarah Legge, Peter Roderick, Ken Worpole

 

 

Endnotes:
  1. Campaign for the NHS Reinstatement Bill: http://www.nhsbillnow.org/
  2. £170,000 from 6,000 donors.: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/jr4nhs-round2/
  3. Addenbrookes Blues: http://platformlondon.org/about-us/history/
  4. OCS: https://www.ocs.com/