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The rise of Rishi and the contradictions of multicultural Britain

Rishi Sunak’s spectacular rise in British politics has understandably drawn a great deal of global attention. His achievements are indeed for the history books: the first ever non-white British Prime Minister of Indian heritage who is also a practicing Hindu; the youngest in more than 200 years. His conspicuous status as one of the richest Prime Ministers in British history owes much to his marriage to Ms Akshata Murthy, the daughter of the Indian tech billionaire Narayana Murthy. Rishi Sunak, like very many British former Prime Ministers, is the beneficiary of elite education (Winchester College, Oxford, Stanford Business School).

Image 1: Rishi Sunak starts his first day as PM

Source: https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-63388207

In  September, it appeared that Rishi Sunak was destined to become the ‘nearly man’ having lost comprehensively to Liz Truss when the rank-and-file members of the Conservative party voted for her in droves. There was a certain irony in the ascension of Liz Truss because Rishi Sunak was blessed with a strong show of support by his fellow MPs but the plebians in the party decided to disregard the collective will of the plutocrats in Parliament. 

Fate smiled on Rishi Sunak when the Prime Ministership of Liz Truss imploded spectacularly in the wake of her pristine neoliberal agenda of using unfunded tax cuts, primarily directed towards the rich, to drive growth. The ‘markets’ rebelled at such fiscal profligacy at a time of high inflation and rising public indebtedness  spelling the end of Ms Truss and her Prime Ministership. She could only depart with the indelible label of the shortest serving Prime Minister in British history. This paved the way for Rishi Sunak’s rise facilitated by the ‘kingmakers’ of the Conservative Party (the 1922 Committee) who changed the rules of selection to give a very high degree of weight to a candidate’s popularity among MPs. The only remaining contender (Penny Mordaunt) did not stand a chance, while the disgraced former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seeking a triumphant return, simply gave up. Rishi Sunak was duly anointed as the leader of the Conservative Party without even having to seek endorsement from rank-and-file members.

Does the rise of Rishi Sunak in British politics  herald a new era for ethnic minorities in multicultural Britain? As someone who lived in the UK for ten years during the early 1970s and early 1980s as a student (A levels and University education), I was struck by how far Britain of that period has evolved. I still recall the racist slurs (‘Paki’) that were occasionally directed at me and my family and the horrendous bashing from racist thugs that two of my friends endured. As Aamna Mohdin notes, ethnic minorities at the time were subjected to a ‘sustained campaign of terror’ by nativist agitators. Furthermore, in 1980, the year Rishi Sunak was born, there was not a single person of colour in the British Parliament. Multicultural Britain of the 21st century has thankfully moved beyond the primitive rage of the nativists of the 1970s and 1980s.

Image 2: ‘Skinheads’ in the 1980s notorious for being associated with ‘Paki-bashing’.

Source https://bricksmagazine.co.uk/2020/11/06/the-hypocrisy-of-the-skinhead-fashion-fascism-and-cultural-appropriation

It is thus legitimate to ask: does the phenomenal political elevation of Rishi Sunak mean, as Indian politician Shashi Tharoor who is also a fierce critic of British colonial rule says, that Britain has ‘outgrown racism’. I am not so sure. I like to think that the British Conservative Party consists of overt racists and forward-looking realists prepared to allow for pragmatic accommodation with ethnic minorities.  Racists are captive to primordial emotions that overcome their judgements. Hence, they yearn for an insular and nativist agenda that belies current circumstances. Realists know how to hide their racial prejudices while having full faith in the superiority of Western/European civilisation. Realists know that the UK, for decades now, has embarked on an irreversible path towards a multicultural, multi-faith future. Realists realise that there are many potential Rishis in waiting. They can no longer be ignored as natives who serve ‘vindaloos’ to white clients or mind the corner store through all sorts of odd hours. Furthermore, realists feel much more at home with the ‘pucca sahibs and begums’ of colour rather than the ‘white trash’ in some forgotten part of Northern England who can’t even speak English with the right accent. More importantly, the realists are fully aware that these pucca brown sahibs and begums can be relied upon to project a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude to demonstrate their Britishness. Hence, one has the glaring example of Suella Braverman who has returned as home secretary to continue her role as aggressive culture warrior and who is keen to pursue her anti-immigration agenda. She is also on record as saying that Britain should not feel apologetic about its colonial past. In sum, I would argue that the realists in the Conservative Party are happy to have the fig leaf of diversity reflected in Rishi Sunak and many of his colleagues who are in the frontbench.

Video insert of Suella Braverman extolling the virtues of the British Empire

There are multiple reasons to believe that Rishi Sunak is most unlikely to disrupt the status quo of an iniquitous society that cuts across class and race. Hence, the Conservative Party is in a safe pair of hands. His coronation does not connote a new era for multicultural Britain. Rishi Sunak is a self-proclaimed ‘proud Thatcherite’. He voted for Brexit. He believes in a low tax, fiscally conservative regime. He will be preoccupied with soothing the frayed nerves of the markets through fiscal consolidation regardless of its socio-economic consequences. This is a conventional Conservative way of responding to economic challenges. Hence, one might see a replay of the fiscal austerity program under David Cameron that ‘broke Britain’

Image 3: Protests against fiscal austerity in UK

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/03/lost-decade-hidden-story-how-austerity-broke-britain

Broken Britain today manifests itself in many ways, but most notably in large-scale poverty and deprivation. According to the comprehensive poverty line devised by the Social Metrics Commission, 22 percent of the population were deemed to be poor even before COVID-19. Ethnic minorities were conspicuous for very high poverty rates. Other surveys show that nearly 5 percent of the population are ‘food insecure’ with a sustained increase in the utilisation of foodbanks. With an incipient energy crisis and the lingering effects of COVID-19, poverty in the UK is likely to get worse. Do not expect Rishi Sunak to acknowledge these challenges and seek to act upon them.  It is only a matter of time before the first person of colour to become British Prime Minister shows his true ideological colours.

Image 3: A landmark report on poverty in Britain

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: a tragedy foretold?  

There are, as Ronald Suny points out, two contending narratives on the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine and the humanitarian catastrophe that it has created. The dominant version familiar to many in the West is that Ukraine is the hapless victim, and perhaps the first of many, of Russian neo-imperialism. The architect of neo-imperial intent is Vladimir Putin. Such a narrative is enunciated as a morality play, with a cast of characters that range across victims, villains, and heroes. It is a story in which the victim, a morally righteous David (in the form of President Zelensky of Ukraine), is pitted against a vile and villainous Goliath (manifested in the Russian President Putin). US-led Western heroes of NATO are aiding and abetting David with weaponry, financial assistance, moral support, UN-led condemnations, and crippling sanctions on Russia. They are protecting liberal democracy in Ukraine in particular and East Europe in general. They are defending a ‘rules-based’ global order.  

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Goliath-biblical-figure

At the same time, the US and its Western allies are exercising restraint because they are ruling out any attempt to engage in a direct confrontation with a nuclear-armed Russia. The expectation is that this strategy will pay off as Russia concedes defeat and decides to end its invasion of Ukraine. Any attempt to seek a negotiated settlement with Russia is seen as appeasement which will only embolden Putin. It will entail a betrayal of the aspirations of the Ukrainian people to remain a sovereign nation and embrace the liberal democratic West through eventual EU and NATO membership. 

The alternative view is that the perfidious Russian invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy foretold, especially by foreign policy experts and scholars of international relations in the US. Its roots lie in egregious errors of US foreign policy, and it has to do with NATO.

It was under President Bill Clinton that the project to expand NATO ‘eastward’, that is, to incorporate the ex-Soviet Republics in Eastern Europe, gathered pace. Bill Clinton and his cheerleaders celebrated such expansion. Then-Senator Joe Biden played a pivotal role in this cheerleading exercise proclaiming that ’50 years of peace’ was within the grasp of humanity. Much more knowledgeable observers were alarmed.  

https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_110496.htm

On June 26, 1997, a group of 50 prominent US foreign policy experts that ‘..included former senators, retired military officers, diplomats, and academicians, sent an open letter to President Clinton outlining their opposition to NATO expansion’. They considered a ‘…US-led effort to expand NATO (to the former Soviet Republics) ‘ as a ‘…policy error of historic proportions’. They highlighted the fact that ‘In Russia, NATO expansion…continues to be opposed across the entire political spectrum’ which will ‘…bring the Russians to question the entire post-Cold War settlement’. They proceeded to argue that Russia, struggling to recover from the political and economic calamity of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ‘…does not now pose a threat to its western neighbours and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe are not in danger’. This warning was duly ignored and the US Senate ratified NATO expansion starting with Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in April 1998. 

In the same year, in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, the late George Kenen, widely regarded as the doyen of the US foreign policy establishment, and the architect of the ‘containment strategy’ pursued by the West during the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, observed:  

‘I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a light-hearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.’ 

https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-F-Kennan

In 2007, Vladimir Putin gave a much-noted speech at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) where he expressed his clear disapproval of a US-led ‘unipolar model’ that emerged after the end of the Cold War proclaiming that ‘I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world’. Most importantly, he observed:  

‘NATO expansion … represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today?’  

https://blogs.prio.org/2017/02/the-munich-security-conference-focuses-on-russia-and-reflects-on-putins-speech-10-years-ago/

Yet, in April 2008, the US and its NATO allies welcomed Georgia and Ukraine to be members of NATO, although when it was likely to happen remained unspecified. The irony is that, as Stephen Walt points out, Ukraine was a non-aligned country until then.  

https://www.gettyimages.ae/detail/news-photo/summit-2008-in-bucharest-romania-on-april-03-2008-news-photo/113957252

One could argue that Russia’s response to the ‘serious provocation’ (Putin’s words as uttered in 2007 – see above) of NATO expansion entailed the use of military force and the use of pro-Russian proxies to protect its security concerns. The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 is consistent with this interpretation. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and a grinding conflict in Eastern Ukraine led by pro-Russian separatists might be seen as responses to the so-called Maidan revolution that led to the ouster of a pro-Russian Ukrainian President. Sadly, in this contentious affair, the US was not an innocent bystander. As Ted Galen Carpenter notes, US politicians openly aided and abetted the progenitors of the Maidan revolution in which unsavoury far-right political forces played an important role. 

Those who support the view that NATO’s reckless eastward expansion and its offer to incorporate Ukraine as a member of NATO at some point in the future provoked Russian aggression also point out that the US would react in much the same way if faced with similar circumstances. Suppose Mexico was to seek a security alliance with Russia or China and allowed its territory to host foreign army bases. The US would react aggressively. This, Peter Beinart explains, would be a re-affirmation of the Monroe Doctrine formulated nearly 200 years ago in which the US states that it has the unique right to exercise its sphere of influence in its own hemisphere and any attempt by ‘foreign powers’ to tamper with this right will be perceived as ‘dangerous to its peace and security’. Hence, Putin’s 2007 proclamations appear to be a Russian version of the Monroe doctrine. 

It is impossible to prove the veracity of this interpretation of the historical context to the current tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine today. It is entirely possible that Russia would have invaded Ukraine even in the absence of NATO enlargement. This counterfactual cannot be dismissed, but those who subscribe to it do not have a tangible solution other than seeking the comprehensive defeat of Putin’s Russia. Short of this seemingly unattainable goal, what is a way forward?  

Sanctions are certainly likely to cripple the Russian economy, while indirect military support to Ukraine would sustain this highly uneven conflict between David and Goliath. Despite sanctions, Russia will probably continue its brutal military interventions in Ukraine simply because sanctions, while causing a great deal of pain borne by ordinary people, do not lead to changes in the core strategy of a particular regime (think of Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and similar examples). As the IMF has warned, the longer the crisis in Ukraine persists, the greater the adverse consequences on the global economy. This is primarily because of adverse energy and food price shocks caused by further disruptions to supply chains already reeling under the impact of COVID-19. The poor and vulnerable in parts of the world far removed from Ukraine are likely to bear the brunt of adverse price shocks.

Those who subscribe to the view that NATO’s eastward expansion is a central part of the narrative on the war in Ukraine suggest it ‘could really be ended with a diplomatic solution in which Russia withdraws its forces in exchange for Ukraine’s neutrality’ (Jeffrey Sachs). There are small, prosperous countries in Europe, such as Finland, that peacefully co-exist with Russia without being members of NATO. Henry Kissinger, perhaps the personification of the US foreign policy establishment and leading scholars of international relations – such as Stephen Walt, John Mearsheimer, and others – fully concur with this prescription of ‘Finlandization’ of Ukraine.

Micheal Mandelbaum, one of the 50 who raised formal objections to the NATO enlargement project in 1997, has wistfully reflected on an alternative scenario. ‘Imagine, he says, a different global configuration, with Russia aligned with rather than opposed to the United States’. Indeed. Imagine!

Durable global and regional peace is likely to happen when the US and its Western allies move away from treating Ukraine as a morality play in which they, and they alone, are the defenders of a rules-based international order in a multi-polar world. Will they have the humility to acknowledge that the NATO enlargement project has probably led to unintended, but tragic, consequences? Will they embark on the delicate task of persuading the current regime in Ukraine that its best future lies in being a non-aligned nation buttressed by mutual security guarantees from Russia and the US and its allies? Will the West, in cooperation with Russia, be prepared to offer a massive reconstruction package to enable Ukraine to move beyond the ruins of war? Only time will tell.

Profit? Yes! But Must be Clean

The Royal Commission Report into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry will be released to the public this afternoon (4 February 2019). The Commission had already published an Interim Report in September 2018.

The Interim Report had hardly anything good to say about the industry. Rather, the Commission used the word “greed” to describe the industry’s behaviour and how the industry largely treated the ordinary customers. Otherwise, how can one explain fees charged for services not provided? Fees charged to dead people?

The Australian banking industry had been politically very successful for decades. In the post-GFC years, the industry used the excuse of  ‘rising costs of funds’ in international markets for raising their interest rates asynchronous to the RBA’s rate decisions. Nobody raised an eyebrow when the major four banks reported record profits year after year while still crying poor about rising costs of funds. The crux of the matter is the banking industry fell into a culture of profit at any cost and bank executives’ remunerations were linked to profit and revenue.  Thus, the bank executives in Australia all they cared for was whether they were contributing to the bank’s revenue and profit. Bank leaders did not care enough whether their employees were doing the right thing for their customers. If the bank management were thinking that they were more focused on creating shareholder wealth, shareholders thought differently.   ANZ, NAB,  and Westpac – all received a ‘first strike’  2018 under Australia’s ‘two strikes’ rule.  CBA  received a ‘first strike’ in 2016.

So, the bottom line is: yes, we want our banks to be profitable and financially strong. Yes, we need strong banks for a strong economy. But the profit must be clean.

Diverging life expectancy: USA vs Western Europe

The USA has many of the world’s finest educational institutions. It is home to the world’s largest number of Noble Prize winners in different fields (400). Such intellectual capacity is paradoxically juxtaposed with the fact that the US seeks to remain as the world’s sole superpower by continuing to flex its military might. It is aggressively aiming to contain Russia and China in order to retain its numero uno status in international affairs. Yet, in one fundamental respect the United States is not a nation worthy of emulation.

Take, for example, the record of the USA on a basic health indicator, namely, life expectancy at birth. Indeed, this is regarded as such a pivotal measure of the well-being of nations that the UNDP has incorporated it as one of three components in its well known Human Development Index.

One can draw on the demographic data of the UN’s population division to compare long run trends (1950-2021) in life expectancy at birth (both sexes) in the United States relative to another rich region, Western Europe. There is a significant difference in life expectancy between the USA and Western Europe. In 2021, life expectancy in the USA was 77.2 years while in Western Europe it was 84.1 years. More importantly, life expectancy in the United States has fallen significantly in recent years. Indeed, life expectancy in 2021 in the USA was equal to the value prevailing in 2003! As one analyst notes: It is hard to communicate just how disquieting that trend is.

 

Source: https://www.un.org/development/desa/pd/

How can one explain this adverse trend in a basic health indicator in one of the world’s most affluent and powerful nations? Nobel Laureate Angus Deaton and his co-author Anne Case wrote, as Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff has observed, an ‘extraordinarily’ influential paper in 2015 that can shed light on changes in life expectancy in the United States. In 2020, the authors published a major book on the topic.

Case and Deaton discovered ‘deaths of despair’ rising sharply in the 2000s among middle aged, non-Hispanic, white men. The term pertains to rising mortality due to suicide, drug overdose and alcoholic liver disease. Case and Deaton argued that this was primarily concentrated among white males without a college degree. Since then, Case and Deaton have done an update of their original thesis. They lament:

“Deaths of despair, morbidity, and emotional distress continue to rise in the United States, largely borne by those without a college degree—the majority of American adults—for many of whom the economy and society are no longer delivering.”

The authors have blamed the dysfunctional US healthcare system (‘pharma and its political enablers’) for this sorry phenomenon. As the authors suggest, the inadequacies of the US healthcare system is in turn a reflection of a deeper malaise in the US political system. Indeed, political polarization has played an important role in the inept handling of COVID-19 with the United States earning the unenviable distinction of having the largest number of COVID-19 related deaths (over million) in the world. The tragically large number of COVID-19 deaths have reinforced the declining trend in life expectancy in the United States.

Dealing with the ‘China threat’: an Asian perspective

I was invited by John Menadue (former CEO, Qantas), publisher of ‘Pearls and Irritation’, to submit a piece on dealing with the ‘China threat’ from an Asian perspective (P&I). For those of you who are unfamiliar with P&I, please become a regular reader if you are seeking a refreshing alternative to mainstream media, especially in Australia. The media landscape is dominated by Murdoch and his ilk and keen to push their right-wing, pro-American views. Demonizing China stems from that particular worldview. I seek to debunk it in the following post:

Bangladesh and IMF

I reflect on the background of the recent request by the Bangladesh government to seek financial assistance from the IMF. As other South Asian countries – Sri Lanka and Pakistan – have sought support from the Fund under economic duress, there is a tendency to regard Bangladesh as a country in distress. I argue that this is not the case. Bangladesh appears to have sought support from the IMF as a precautionary move to safeguard its sustained macroeconomic success, despite being saddled with deeply entrenched microeconomic inefficiencies. Whether Bangladesh will take this new engagement with the IMF as an opportunity to craft an inclusive reform agenda remains to be seen.

Read more here….https://blogs.griffith.edu.au/asiainsights/bangladesh-seeks-support-from-the-imf-why-and-what-lies-ahead/

Economic consequences of the Russia-Ukraine war: A grim outlook

My recent blog for the Griffith Asia Institute draws on the latest evaluations by IMF, World Bank, and UN agencies. Ukraine is destroyed as a viable nation. Russia is expected to suffer its steepest recession since the early 1990s before a rather modest recovery in 2024. The economic reverberations of the war will be felt in Europe and the rest of the world.