The jury remains ‘out’ on the reasons for the surprising results of the UK’s May 7 General Election. Here, Medact member Frank Boulton explores the implications of a conservative majority government on Medact’s programmatic work:
Michael Gove’s appointment as Justice Secretary includes a remit to replace the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – passed into UK law by Tony Blair in 1997 – by a ‘British Bill of Human Rights’ which would force people to go to Strasbourg when seeking adjudication on issues of human rights, and weaken the defence of such rights (such as prisoners’ voting rights) in UK courts. Note – this is not an issue between the UK and the EU as the ECHR is an issue for the Council of Europe: but all EU member States have to ratify the ECHR. Gove’s appointment could have profound effects on Medact’s work with asylum seekers and those who have suffered torture.
Theresa May (who, last June, publicly rebuked Gove for criticising the Home Office over the ‘Trojan Horse’ affair concerning apparent ‘Islamification’ of schools in Birmingham), has followed Cameron’s lead in proposing laws against extremist organisations promoting ‘hate speech’ when, according to the Quilliam Foundation (which promotes religious freedom, equality, human rights and democracy), effective laws are already on the statute books so extra laws risk fanning the extremist flames when really UK society should be much more engaging.
Tax justice and financial renewal. In 2014, UK taxes raised about £597 billion (bn), 35.5% of GDP (£160bn income tax, £110bn NI, £110bn from VAT, £26bn from fuel duties: the remainder from various ‘indirect’ taxes): but an extra £19bn could have been earned had there been no ‘tax-avoidance’ – £11bn from uncollected VAT (Tax Research UK). The banking crash of 2008 has required at least £500bn from the tax-payer although in theory eventually all this should be recovered. George Osborne is planning a £12bn annual cut in benefits to narrow the national deficit – this is likely to lead to austerity on a scale not seen in the UK so far this century. Low inflation may seem attractive to individuals but an economic system which requires continuous investment depends on a low but distinct rate of inflation. Tax Research UK recommends that the Bank of England help an active programme of ‘Green Investments’ backed by further QE, but on a scale far less than that required to bail out the banks. There is much wrong with the current financial system but humankind’s ‘entrepreneurial spirit’ (individually we are natural ‘wheeler-dealers’) needs to be put to good use rather than suppressed and may be utilised very appropriately by such ‘Green Ventures’. Increased tax revenues would enable far better ways of benefiting society.
Climate & Ecology
Here there is some room for optimism in that Amber Rudd, who has taken Ed Davy’s place at DECC, appears NOT to be a climate change sceptic. She is likely, however, to continue promoting Hinkley Point C, the Generation III nuclear power plant in Somerset, which is based on French and Chinese design and technology and due to open some time in the 2020’s; but this seems increasingly unlikely to work – this assessment is based on economic and technical grounds. More to the point, especially in view of the increasing likelihood of electricity power-cuts, is the UK’s honouring of its climate change pledges, and on how much DECC encourages ‘new builds’ in renewable energy services and overcoming the NIMBYism of people such as the English South Coast dwellers who oppose off-shore wind farms; and also on the speed of scale-back of UK coal-driven power plants: Medact will continue its work against fracking. As renewable energy costs plunge and storage systems becoming more practical, DECC must start moving away from near-total dependence on the National Grid. But efforts by the UK may easily be overwhelmed by Chinese industrial expansion especially as coal-burning there will expand over the next decade or so (although they are also activating a new low-carbon build involving renewables and nuclear). The UK can best address this by example, and expanding rapidly and effectively all forms of low-carbon renewables.
The National Health Service
High standards of Healthcare provision are core to Medact’s principles, for the UK and globally. Clear evidence of the deleterious effects of privatisation has been provided in all four editions of “Global Health Watch” and also in a recent textbook edited by Luginaah and Kerr (to be reviewed in Medicine, Conflict and Survival). Mental health – like prison reform – is not welcomed by poll-averse politicians: many sufferers still have to cope with a ‘post-code lottery’. The deleterious effects of high-salt-carbohydrate-rich fast foods on health overall are largely ignored by the food industry’s self-regulating body set up by the former Coalition. Insistence on an NHS ‘free at the point of use’ but which encourages private providers increases expense but not efficiency and is manifestly wrong. When a communal sense of responsibility for a healthy society gets lost, as among male voters up to their mid-50’s who may feel little reason to consult their GP except in the company of their pregnant partners, health-care provision can take a back-seat. Relatively affluent parents who opt out of vaccinations for their children through fear of adverse side effects, or those who oppose fluoridation in areas where the natural concentration of fluoride in water is low and the prevalence of deprivation-associated childhood caries is high, betray senses of ‘letting others suffer’. Such indifference may have contributed to Labour’s failed strategy of emphasising the NHS as an election issue, quite apart from their own dubious record after 1997 and a questionable over-reliance on a historical ‘golden age’ during which the NHS’ founding principles were laid (it is often forgotten that these were started during Churchill’s coalition wartime government). The UK’s GINI values since 1960 show a stark decline in equality during the Thatcher years which, if anything, got worse under ‘New Labour’ – see equalitytrust.org.uk
Peace & Demilitarisation
Arms Trade. That the UK is the world’s seventh leading exporter of arms (equal to China, and in which cyber-security is of increasing importance) is no source of pride, however great the tax revenues, not least because the pay of the arms industry’s workforce is heavily subsidised by UK tax-payers. The world’s Military Industrial Complex is on a merry-go-round from which escape is vital but requires much international imagination and goodwill, both of which are in short supply. Medact and our partners, looking through a psychological lens, will confront such barriers wherever possible.
Nuclear weapons. Nuclear abolitionists were hopeful – in spite of long experience and forgetting Labour’s annihilation in 1982 – that this time the issue of UK’s nuclear weapons system might be recognised sufficiently to raise alarm among the voters. The FCO and MoD have been extensively lobbied, including by Medact and particularly in the run-up to the conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons held in Vienna in December 2014 and at the currently on-going Nuclear-Weapons Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York. Yet Cameron’s resolve to replace UK’s Trident system seems unabated and a ‘pro’-decision by Parliament in 2016 seems likely. The SNP’s welcome criticism of nuclear weapons is likely to be ineffective at Westminster, and although the fires of Scottish independence have been rekindled, a resumed referendum for Scottish Independence and possible removal of Trident from Scottish shores seems unlikely. Sadly, the signs from New York this week suggest that the so-called ‘P5’ (the ‘permanent five’ veto-carrying members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – all of which assume the right to bear nuclear weapons) are succeeding in delaying any significant implementation of their NPT obligation to disarm ‘in good faith’: hence, a new generation of modernised nuclear weapons will be developed by all nuclear weapons-possessing states which now include India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. The current enthusiasm for a legally-binding banning treaty, held by disarmament advocates throughout the world and led by ICAN (the UK sector of which is supported by Medact), has much merit. The hope is that such legal means can take effect, much as did the land-mine ban treaty, by putting pressure on the P5 and must continue: let’s hope that it does not take a ‘Fukushima’-sized ‘accident’ to bring world leaders to their senses. Ignorance of or indifference to the true impact of nuclear weapons, and their ‘low-risk but very high-impact’ nature must be countered by vigorous programmes of education. Lip-service to the hope of a ‘world free of nuclear weapons’ must be replaced by real commitment. This can only come about after a true understanding of the nature of nuclear weapons and of the consequences of their use, as well as the innate frailty of human behaviour and of the doctrine of ‘deterrence’, especially while under stress. Nuclear weapons awareness – a cause close to Medact’s heart (wmdawareness.org.uk ) – must continue to be promoted. Getting such understandings, at all levels of society, is a hard slog, but must be tried through engagement and dialogue as much as by debate.The stakes are high. Fanaticism must be countered not by suppression but by engagement. Although May 7th was a significant set-back, hope remains while there are still so many committed, sensitive and knowledgeable people aware of the social determinants of health, and of the principles of ‘The Spirit Level’. To them the concept of ‘Health through Peace’ will be familiar. This is the title of Medact’s Teach-in and Forum to be held in London on November 13 and 14 this year. Check out the details as they emerge on this website and make a commitment to come. World peace is under constant threat; our November Forum is intended to empower we health professionals to measure up to the task and honour our professionalism.