COMMENT by Joanna Bazley

Refugees and immigrants: two tales

I recently discovered that the Dutch Protestant refugees from the Spanish Netherlands in the 16th century brought valuable gardening skills to England along with their better-known weaving skills. They settled in huge numbers in East Anglia (constituting nearly a third of the population of Norwich by the 1570s) and were soon playing an important part in feeding the ever-expanding population of London. They introduced new varieties of vegetables and new methods of cultivation, including the intensive use of manure (the “filth of the city”, according to Orazio Busino, chaplain to the Venetian Ambassador).

Root vegetables had traditionally been regarded as food for peasants and their animals, but the newcomers soon realised that the hot and sandy soils of Suffolk, Essex and Surrey were ideal for the cultivation of carrots and turnips and by 1607 the topographer John Norden noted how the carrot (“a beneficial fruit’’) “begins to increase in all places of the realm where discretion and industry sway the minds of the inhabitants”. And by the mid-17th century “a revolution had taken place, not only in methods of market gardening but also in the nation’s eating habits” [Margaret Willes, “The Gardens of the British Working Class”, 2014].

A regular visitor to our regular weekly vigil (an elderly Iraqi who often stops for a chat) shared a very moving story with us. He has been in the UK for many years, a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s brutal régime, but he was born in Baghdad in the days when that city was a melting-pot of ethnicity and religion, as were all the great cities of the Middle East, including a considerable Jewish population swelled by refugees from the Nazis.

His own family was Sunni Muslim but his father had a Jewish colleague at work who came to his rescue in the family’s hour of need. Fatima (our friend’s mother-to-be) was in acute anxiety over her new pregnancy, having lost her two previous babies, and it was this good friend and colleague who arranged (and presumably paid for) her admission to the very best private medical establishment in the Baghdad of those days — which was principally staffed by exiles from pre-war Vienna. And so it was that our Iraqi friend was born in a Jewish hospital.

It is so important to remember how recent are many modern national boundaries and how often entire populations have been uprooted and resettled. Nations have been shaped by these histories but each individual holds a human story.

Hitler and the feisty badger

A few weeks ago I took part in a U3A promotional event as a champion of the German language and was saddened that the immediate association of Germany with Adolf Hitler still widely prevails (fed by the wartime nostalgia industry). I was drawn to Germany many years ago because of my love of music and I have read a great deal (in both English and German) in an attempt to understand how the Nazi disaster could have happened; we have only to look around at present-day populist and xenophobic politics to get an indication of how fear and insecurity can be exploited.

I was able to initiate some more thoughtful discussion by displaying two books by one of my favourite authors, Hans Fallada, who chose to remain in Germany during the war (despite being blacklisted as an “undesirable writer”) and whose bestselling work Alone in Berlin, about an ordinary middle-aged couple’s heroic campaign to undermine the Nazis, was published posthumously in 1947. This well-known book is in striking contrast to an enchanting animal story that he wrote for his small daughter (“in the sixth Christmas of the war”), Fridolin der freche Dachs (the feisty badger), bound by hand and only recently commercially published. These people were human and caught up in an appalling tragedy through no fault of their own.

The study of language is important in international understanding. Merton U3A [University of the Third Age] needs a volunteer tutor to run a revision German language course for students who learnt German for a few years at school and would like to rediscover their half-forgotten skills. Have we a retired language teacher among the WDC/CND membership?


Tim Wallis: Trident update

On 22nd September, Tim Wallis, author of the excellent Truth about Trident†, was guest speaker at one of the regular evening meetings at Housman’s bookshop, and used the occasion to summarise the current situation. He started by talking about the implications of the House of Commons vote on 13th July, when of course there was a massive majority in favour of building the four submarines that will carry the next generation of UK nuclear weapons. (472 ‘ayes’, 117 ‘noes’, 61 abstentions.) Tim reminded us of the 2003 Iraq vote, when ‘national security’ was invoked equally passionately, creating a substantial majority in favour of the invasion — all based on arguments which we now know to be rubbish.

† “The Truth about Trident” summarises the basic technical and legal factual background to UK nuclear weapons and carefully analyses the arguments on both sides of the Trident debate.

Theresa May rolled out the standard line — a nuclear deterrent is essential for our security, the threat from Russia and North Korea remaining very real, a nuclear threat which has not gone away, an “act of gross irresponsibility to lose the possibility of retaliating”. She did not discuss costs, the legality of Trident renewal remained unquestioned (despite the pending case at the World Court: UK v the Marshall Islands), ongoing safety was assumed and the logic of deterrence was unquestioned.

But what about the wider consequences of this line of argument: incitement to proliferation, undermining the rule of law, overt contempt of treaty obligations (including legitimising attacks on civilians), perpetuating the myth that Britain can “stand alone” and above all nurturing an evil which is “the taproot of violence in society” (a striking quote from a US Jesuit priest)?

Tim touched on the complex question of the legality of nuclear weapons and quoted the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ assessment that only luck has hitherto saved us from a major nuclear accident (convoys on public roads, submarine accidents, plane crashes etc. all present massive potential risk). He outlined recent international developments that are leading inexorably towards a vote in the UN in favour of a Nuclear Ban Treaty, supported by the great majority of non-nuclear nations.

Tim’s personal conviction is that the new Trident submarines will never come into service. The world is changing too fast. Technology is developing all the time. Huge floating platforms for weapons whose actual use would be suicidal are unlikely to be relevant to any future military requirements. Underwater drones will threaten supposedly ‘invisible’ submarines in the same way that 20th century submarines superseded 19th century battleships. There will probably be no formal ‘cancellation’ of the Trident project: it is more likely to be quietly forgotten.

Let us hope that Tim is right. But meanwhile, what a tragic waste of public money.

Report by Joanna Bazley

“Trident wrapped up?”

In a recent blog article, Paul Ingram, Executive Director of BASIC [British American Security Information Council] writes: “The emerging threat to the future of the Trident programme and Britain’s deployment of nuclear weapons independently arises from the spiralling costs and the technical and industrial risks. This major project is currently costed in public at £31 billion plus £10 billion contingency — a great deal of money but deemed a price worth paying. But rumours were already circulating in the early summer that estimates were looking unreliable... at what point do MoD planners judge that the pain absorbed by the rest of the armed forces is simply too great?

“Recent years have seen a growing expressed unease from those parts of our military who have the freedom to voice their opinions on the matter — the retired top brass in the House of Lords.... And then there is technology.... The smartphone in your pocket has far more processing power than the latest most sophisticated fighter jet. This in combination with the development of artificial intelligence and swarming communication algorithms, rapidly developing sensing abilities above and below water... mean the capability to track and take out submarines is rapidly improving month by month.

“The nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine is the Rolls-Royce nuclear weapons system today... but these take 20 years to construct and deploy: 20 years in which the technology that will be used to neutralise submarines will go through many generations of development at a pace that will leave submarines exposed and vulnerable.”

Nuclear convoys

A very effective new campaign was launched this summer highlighting the risks inherent in transporting nuclear material by road. It is obvious to most of us that the nuclear convoys that regularly ply between Burghfield in Berkshire and Coulport in the south of Scotland are not the most dangerous aspect of nuclear weapons, but the fact remains that human nature relates most easily to the specific, visible and domestic, and the signs are that this is a very effective line of campaigning.

For a start, surveys have shown that most people are wholly unaware that nuclear weapons are transported on public roads; it is rather different from the “out of sight, out of mind” nature of the “deterrent” patrolling deep beneath the ocean and “keeping us safe”. A new report† from ICAN-UK documents the routes of these convoys, the emergency exercises run in connection with them and the accidents that have already happened:

† “Nukes of Hazard: the nuclear bomb convoys on our roads”

“The convoy has crashed, broken down and got lost. Its brakes have failed, it has leaked fuel and suffered a range of other mechanical failures. Bad luck, poor weather, human error and computer software glitches have all been to blame....

“According to the MOD’s internal safety watchdog, the UK’s nuclear weapons programme is suffering from a chronic shortage of skilled nuclear engineers that could threaten safety. It has been under pressure from government spending cutbacks.... The demands of secrecy and security could compromise safety. Local authorities and fire services are not forewarned about convoys and are unforthcoming about their emergency plans....

“Evidence from an MoD report suggests that in extreme circumstances an accident could trigger a nuclear reaction known as an ‘inadvertent yield’ which would deliver lethal radiation doses. A terrorist attack on a nuclear convoy (according to the MoD) could cause “considerable loss of life and severe disruption both to the British people’s way of life and to the UK’s ability to function effectively as a sovereign state.... The MoD says that the risks are ‘tolerable when balanced against the strategic imperative to move nuclear weapons’.... Whether the risk is tolerable is not a judgment that should be left to the MoD alone.”

Now people are being properly informed, they do not like what is happening.

The Trident debate: statistical analysis

BASIC has published an interesting academic analysis of the types of argument used in July’s parliamentary Trident debate, revealing what kind of argument MPs felt had force, or best represented their constituents.

Arguments in favour of Trident:

Arguments opposing Trident:

A conspicuous absence on both sides was any discussion of the international legal régime surrounding nuclear weapons: the word “legal” was not mentioned once (where reference was made, it was to suggest that the UK should maintain its deterrent to prevent other states from acting illegally!) But both Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas made reference to the ongoing negotiations for a global ban treaty taking place in Geneva at the UN OEWG [Open-Ended Working Group — see March Newsletter].

Analysis by Sebastian Brixey-Williams,

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