Nationalist gamblers lose Scotland to status quo No

As recriminations from disappointed Yes campaigners become louder, I’m acutely relieved about the No. I also recognise that the No was not a socialist democratic No but a status quo No.

As time went on I warmed slightly to the official No campaign with its resolute rejection of nationalist passion, patriotism, empire or jingoism and focus on material issues. State realism facing off against romantic nationalism is never a nice choice. Up to near the end anyway, which is when the heavy passion artillery got wheeled out. I realise part of the reason that paid off for them is that they and their predecessors have incrementally dismantled the state to the point that any destabilisation looks terrifying. Talat Yaqoob was my favourite activist – she fought a sunny, respectful No campaign which rejected the politics of fear. There was the very impressive, very cogent Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson, whom I didn’t see put a foot wrong in terms of campaigning. Towards the very end, the Labour-led Better Together campaign dusted off an old labour movement discourse of collectivism, solidarity, public good and shared class interests. This was surprising to some – New Labour abandoned this kind of chat when it jettisoned Clause 4 and the militant. Allan Little is good on how nationalism came to fill this void in Scotland. I am steeling myself for collectivism, solidarity and class to evaporate in the run-up to GE2015. Sometimes it’s hard to keep your chin up.

Whereas there were non-SNP socialist Yes campaigns such as Radical Independence and Common Weal, there was no coordinated socialist or far left No campaign. Greens fell in with the Scottish Green Party which easily plumped for the inevitably petro-fuelled independence (though to be fair the alternative was a petro-fuelled union). They’ve whipped down Green Yes Scotland so you won’t be able to look back on that, but they were voting for their best chance to influence a society which could be a proof of concept for other regions. They yearned to get involved in a brand new constitution for a fresh new country. Then there was the radical left who couldn’t resist the prospect of sticking it to the Tories and/or Westminster politics. I have trouble even contemplating Billy ‘there is power in a union’ Bragg without something like disgust.

One of the most profoundly shocking moments of the campaign realising that for the first time in my life I agreed with virtually everything George Galloway was saying. Towards the end, though, there were socialist and radical left No voices. They weren’t organised but Bob has collected them.

Predictably enough this post-election poll from Lord Ashcroft reveals a stark difference between the youngest and oldest voters, overwhelmingly Yes and No respectively. I’m assuming this is about material insecurity of people with little prospect of earning power. The fact that pensions came into this at all is a travesty of privatisation. I don’t at all care for the way some are spinning this difference as the old dashing the hopes of the young. Also troubling and predictable is the fact that No voters tended to be more rural and better off, and that turnout remained lower in the disadvantaged, urban Yes heartlands. Yes was the preferred option for disadvantaged voters – we know from the English UKIP proble that this has got to be addressed.There’s a gender difference too, to do with risk-taking. When those Yes voters on the telly are haranguing people for being feart, it’s women and older people they’re slagging off.

All the raptures about democratic process need to be taken with a pinch of salt. When the SNP threatened No voters that the NHS was at stake, there seemed to be a lack of awareness that health care is wholly devolved to Scotland and even if rUK were to axe the NHS, this need not affect Scotland. Nevertheless the polling data showed that the NHS was a major factor in the Yes vote, so I’m doubtful there’s much grasp what Scotland controls, what the UK controls, and what the EU controls. Moreover this was a single vote on a single issue and that single issue happened to be the emotive and highly exercising issue of nationalism. Don’t assume this would generalise to wider democratic processes, which demand discipline, subtlety, compromise and sustained hard work.

On the bright side, there doesn’t seem to have been as big a problem of intimidation as some claimed – according to that poll at least 85% were prepared to disclose which way they voted to colleagues, friends and family.

There was a big swing to Yes. I’ve been so tense about the nationalism that I was unable to write anything before the referendum but now as we say goodbye to #indyref there is even more nationalism to come.  The West Lothian question will be settled soon. We expect the Tories to try to appease UKIP-leaning voters in marginalised English towns. There’s talk of an English parliament, votes for English laws. While Scotland claims so much of the same, the logic of this is hard to deny. But it should be denied. There is no money, no economic plan, no jobs, great environmental stress – water, pollution, greenhouse gases – which know no borders and which demand cooperation. They also demand a redistributive approach to wealth. We are very close to being fucked. We need to nationalise things and invite the devolved countries to share a stake. We need cooperative enterprises across borders. We need to join supranational environmental movements. If there is to be devolution to the constituent regions and countries of the UK, then what the left needs to do now is build collective institutions and organisations of shared interest which cross all the borders.

Is it pro-Palestinian?

Not in my name

For example Laurie Penny says that although Jews aren’t responsible for Palestinian deaths, their opinions carry extra weight and could “make a difference” when raised in opposition to Israel. “It is not anti-Semitic to say “not in my name””.

Picking through that, she’s obviously not expecting to make a difference with the Israeli government since they’re not even taking a steer from the US government at the moment. And she’s not addressing Palestinians (who may by now understand the limits of moral support – very nice thanks but here we still are, cooped up and dying). She’s definitely exhibiting her own political credentials, which matter only within her political bubble. And she may be hoping to inoculate herself against the now prevalent antisemitic view that all Jews should be assumed to support child-killing unless they say otherwise. Isn’t that a bit like urging Muslims to speak up against ISIS massacres? Don’t Jews held to political tests deserve solidarity?

Conclusion: self-centred cop-out.

Palestinian flags

For example, the “gesture of solidarity” from Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman is a stunt which exceeds his office and misuses a local government institution. How can a Palestinian flag have any impact as a symbol of peace when the Israeli flag is absent? It’s a partisan nationalistic symbol.

Conclusion: competitive, vicarious nationalism.

Writing a letter, as a Jew

Plenty of letters have been written by people and groups who wish to ostentatiously set themselves apart from the Jewish establishment.

I don’t get it. If you have a Jewish background but you’re not part of a Jewish communal organisation then you don’t get to send a representative to the Jewish Board of Deputies, the organisation which was formed to allow UK Jewry to make official, democratically negotiated representation to UK government, or its equivalent for your country. That’s understandable – so go and publish your own letter, as long as you don’t make out that your local group of elected Jewish representatives is invalid (I realise this needs more examples, but it’s late…). It probably has its tribulations and gets through them OK. Or if your Jewish communal organisation decides not to send a representative to the BOD but prefers to use the BOD as a counterfoil, then you’re in an anti-establishment clique which represents a cliquey, niche kind of Jewishness. But well done you for being so fresh and diverse. You’ll stand out really nicely against the silent, confused, hurting majority of Jews who feel unable to speak up for Gazans if it’s anti-Zionists and Jew-baiters trying to make them, and who understand enough to hate what Hamas stand for as much as they hate the sight of smashed up Palestinians.

Conclusion: loathsome identity politics from the dullest radicals.

Calling it a Holocaust

Telling Jews that they of all people should have learned from the Holocaust not to treat other people like the Nazis treated them is vindictively stupid. If I think of them as ignorant,  and beside themselves with grief, fear or rage, I can just about bring myself to explain Palestinian men drawing Hitler moustaches and swastikas on pictures Netanyahu and burning them, but when this is picked up by social media with such evident enthusiasm, Bob From Brockley explains the significance.

Conclusion: casual antisemitism of moralising simpletons influenced (maybe unwittingly) by Hamas &tc media strategists.

Fake pictures and other exaggerations

So many fake or misunderstood pictures and so much misinformation that people begin to doubt any of the reportage. On that, read this. Passing off artistic interpretations of a terrible situation as documentary evidence only sends the message that the truth isn’t actually very impressive and we can all relax.

Conclusion: lying and careless retweeting betrays any cause.

Boycotting Israel

The call is to boycott Israel in its entirety until it fulfills a list of requirements. The poorly hidden agenda is to wipe Israel off the map. “Colonization”? By whom? Nobody. “All Arab lands”? If they meant end the occupation they’d say it. “Dismantle the wall”? Not so fast – remember all those suicide bombers and all that Israeli civilian blood? “the right of Palestinian refugees to return”? That’s 12 or so million people who are designated refugees only because the countries where they live (many of whom made life unbearable for local Jews) refused to give them citizenship to keep up pressure on Israel. Imagine any politician even attempting to pull off that scale of immigration at home.

Conclusion: simple partisanship – Palestinian nationalism good, Israeli nationalism evil.

Blaming Israel for antisemitic attacks on Jews in the name of Palestinians

A seriously depressing and disturbing form of Palestine activism – particularly since so many on the Israeli left find it convenient to instrumentalise these attacks on Jews outside Israel as evidence that the Israeli strategy of confinement and bouts of force is failing.

I’m missing it out cos I’m going to bed.

Anything positive, whatsoever?

For those who are genuinely interested, plenty – but I can’t see any low hanging fruit. The easiest is reversing the empathy deficit – so hard to do in Israel or the occupied territories. Also easy, trying to understand, giving consideration to all sides from the religious Israeli settlers to the genocidal jihadis. Refusing to be in a bubble. Paying attention to honest reportage from brave journalists, and commentary from experts who are interested in peace rather than winning. Insisting that humans at risk of harm are at the centre of all conflict considerations. Insisting that every death is investigated, amplifying alternative plans for ending the conflict. Finding ways to drive a wedge between Israel and the expanding settlements, which might include selective boycott. Not leaving it to pro-Israel partisans to hold Hamas to account. Not leaving it to pro-Palestine partisans to hold Israel to account. Refusing to import the conflict. Rejecting zero-sum game politics. Pursuing a vision of peace which doesn’t involve punishing and demeaning one or other of the parties in the conflict. Being careful not to damage the credibility of Palestinian or Israeli politicians by folding them into your own agenda.

 

Sorry Vova, they choose differently.

Russia sneaked its military into Ukraine without insignia and established a military occupation in Crimea. Putin seems to be trying to provoke retaliation from Ukraine’s caretaker government, using the newly deposed and discredited puppet president Viktor Yanukovich as a pretext.

Sorry Vova, they choose differentlyPutin has done this for a number of reasons. One is because, as a fossil fuel bully, Russia can do what it likes in a world which refuses to green. Another is because he reckons its Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol has a crucial strategic role in protecting Russia’s South Western border – indeed its admiral has said Russia will never give it up. Which is related to the fact that he hopes to buffer Russia from the European Union and establish a rival to the Eurozone called the Eurasian Economic Zone; this determination to limit the European Union is a reason, if not the main reason, why he had Russian troops invade Georgia at the earliest opportunity. Another reason is that Crimea – the south-eastern peninsula that Russia is occupying – is the part that Catherine the Great conquered in 1813 and Khrushchev ‘gave’ to Ukraine in 1954, which consequently has (according to Russia Today, so perhaps a generous estimate) an ethnic Russian, Russian-speaking bare majority of 58% in the 2001 census, who make up by far the largest ethnic group, many of whom have dual Ukrainian and Russian citizenship. As an autonomous republic Crimea is far more inclined to Russia than the west of Ukraine (which looks to Europe), and in 2009 rejected a US diplomatic post which the Ukrainian government had been encouraging.

But it’s not that simple Vova, my dear nationalist. According to the sadly late Natalia Panina, a researcher at Ukraine’s Institute of Sociology, the Russians who number over 8 million or 17.3% of Ukraine’s population in the 2001 census (she among them) have not faced significant discrimination (question e2, p48) or social distance in Ukraine. In fact, they were part of the overwhelming majority of 90% who voted for Ukrainian independence when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.

On the ‘Western’ front, there are many theoretically possible actions nobody wants to take for fear of inflaming the situation (note that Russia has no such worries itself) and this means that Russia will grab Crimea. On the diplomatic front, Russia is chairing the G8, so Foreign Secretary Hague and other members will refuse to attend some imminent meetings. Somebody had better take diplomatic measures to reduce social distance between ethic Russians and other ethnic Ukrainians, including reinstating Russian as an official minority language (a big mistake on the part of the acting government because it has been both widely supported and also considered of low importance). In the UK it’s long been time to pursue a reversal of increased dependence on Russian coal in recent years (without mindlessly transferring it to authoritarian states like Qatar, where we get a chunk of our gas or narc-fuelled states like Colombia). Ukraine’s south is hot and sunny. Ukraine needs an economic boost – perhaps it would be a good idea to fund renewables like solar in the dry sunny south of Ukraine, along with the infrastructure to export it. This could help in at least two ways, I think. The UK government is actively considering withdrawing some Russian visas and freezing assets.

A bit more from other places and positions:

  • I’ve been worrying about China partnering with Russia and coming for Europe, but on Channel4 blogs, ex-AWL Paul Mason considers whether a Russian invasion of Ukraine will push the west into an economic war. He doesn’t anticipate World War 3 but the end of globalisation if (big if) China decides to get involved and sides with Russia. Perhaps then this country can stop outsourcing low wages and climate change to other people’s countries.
  • If the end of globalisation happens, then perhaps the Stop the War Coalition (London-based pro-Baathist/Islamist/Communist, anti-UK/US/EU campaign group masquerading as an anti-war group) will disband, job done. I checked by its site to confirm that they still have wildly erring priorities. Put it this way, they won’t be participating in any ‘Hands off Ukraine campaign’ unless the hands in question are ‘Western’. It’s ironic that if Stop the War were anti-Russian dissidents in Russia they’d be in prison by now. They invariably remind me how much I like the UK.
  • Yanukovich falls. Back the left! – Alliance for Workers Liberty. “Our solidarity should be with left-wing and working-class forces in Ukraine which will fight to open up democracy, to push back the far right, and to help working people in Ukraine defend themselves against the neo-liberal “reforms” now demanded by the EU and the IMF in return for loans to enable Ukraine to manage payment deadlines.”

All for now.

Update: Timothy Snyder writes authoritatively on the spurious claims from Putin about protecting Russian compatriots. Via Bob From Brockley on Twitter.

Bashar Al-Assad’s death charge

Russia is mildly tsking at Assad. Foreign Secretary William Hague pointed out on this morning’s Today Programme that there was no will among the Arab states to take action to prevent the bloody rampages of this particular insecure leader, so we won’t be sending anybody.

Lost count of the dead now in Hama – something like 1,500 since March – but let’s hope it remains far less than the 20,000 who died there at the hands of Al-Assad’s father in 1982.

That’s the dead. An estimated 10,000 detained.

Imagine. Just imagine.

PS The Egyptian army forcibly cleared protesters out of Tahrir Square today, with some local approval.

Fighting, fallen, virtual undergrowth

Paul Mason’s twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere piece is one of the reasons he’s a stand-out candidate on the Orwell Prize shortlist:

“9. The specifics of economic failure: the rise of mass access to university-level education is a given. Maybe soon even 50% in higher education will be not enough. In most of the world this is being funded by personal indebtedess – so people are making a rational judgement to go into debt so they will be better paid later. However the prospect of ten years of fiscal retrenchment in some countries means they now know they will be poorer than their parents. And the effect has been like throwing a light switch; the prosperity story is replaced with the doom story, even if for individuals reality will be more complex, and not as bad as they expect.

10.This evaporation of a promise is compounded in the more repressive societies and emerging markets because – even where you get rapid economic growth – it cannot absorb the demographic bulge of young people fast enough to deliver rising living standards for enough of them.

I can’t find the quote but one of the historians of the French Revolution of 1789 wrote that it was not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers. You can have political/economic setups that disappoint the poor for generations – but if lawyers, teachers and doctors are sitting in their garrets freezing and starving you get revolution. Now, in their garrets, they have a laptop and broadband connection.

12.The weakness of organised labour means there’s a changed relationship between the radicalized middle class, the poor and the organised workforce. The world looks more like 19th century Paris – heavy predomination of the “progressive” intelligentsia, intermixing with the slum-dwellers at numerous social interfaces (cabarets in the 19C, raves now); huge social fear of the excluded poor but also many rags to riches stories celebrated in the media (Fifty Cent etc); meanwhile the solidaristic culture and respectability of organized labour is still there but, as in Egypt, they find themselves a “stage army” to be marched on and off the scene of history.

13.This leads to a loss of fear among the young radicals of any movement: they can pick and choose; there is no confrontation they can’t retreat from. They can “have a day off” from protesting, occupying: whereas twith he old working-class based movements, their place in the ranks of battle was determined and they couldn’t retreat once things started. You couldn’t “have a day off” from the miners’ strike if you lived in a pit village.

14.In addition to a day off, you can “mix and match”: I have met people who do community organizing one day, and the next are on a flotilla to Gaza; then they pop up working for a think tank on sustainable energy; then they’re writing a book about something completely different. I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square this week.

15. People just know more than they used to. Dictatorships rely not just on the suppression of news but on the suppression of narratives and truth. More or less everything you need to know to make sense of the world is available as freely downloadable content on the internet: and it’s not pre-digested for you by your teachers, parents, priests, imams. For example there are huge numbers of facts available to me now about the subjects I studied at university that were not known when I was there in the 1980s. Then whole academic terms would be spent disputing basic facts, or trying to research them. Now that is still true but the plane of reasoning can be more complex because people have an instant reference source for the undisputed premises of arguments. It’s as if physics has been replaced by quantum physics, but in every discipline.”

I recommend reading 1-8 and 16-20. Find some of it hard to fit with what I already know and very thought provoking.

Worth reading, this International Socialism piece by Jonny Jones on Social Media and Social Movements (HT Evgeny Morozov) – I haven’t read it properly the following excerpt seems to contrast with the picture Paul Mason paints of the ‘mix and match’ activist – the ‘mix and match’ activist utlimately depends on an infrastructure of protest:

“The 10 November protest—organised by the NUS and the University and College Union under the name “Demolition”—saw over 50,000 protesters take to the streets. This turnout could not have been achieved without the structures of the NUS, which invested time and money promoting the demonstration and laying on coaches. But within days of Millbank the mainstream media had picked up on the Day X protests. The newspapers highlighted the role of student activists such as EAN spokesperson and NUS executive member Mark Bergfeld, picking up on his comments about the use of “legitimate force” to “bring down the government”.35 In an echo of the G20 mobilisations, there was a reciprocal relationship between the bourgeois media, student activists and social media. In the absence of official NUS structures (or, indeed, of left wing student organisation in many parts of the country), Facebook became a way for students in disparate areas of the country to find out about what was going on, who in their area was going to protest. It was able to give school students with little or no experience of protest the confidence to get large numbers to walk out of school.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to think that the walkouts and university occupations simply emerged from horizontal networks. The schools and colleges that saw the biggest walkouts, such as Chiswick Community School and Le Swap in London, and Bury and Holy Cross Colleges near Manchester, were driven and built by socialists and radical activists. Over 30 universities went into occupation, but the “first wave” of occupations—from “University College London, School of Oriental and African Studies and King’s College, to universities like Bradford, Bristol, Nottingham, York, Leeds, Edinburgh, Manchester Metropolitan University, Dundee, Sheffield and the University of East London”—were all marked by the presence of organised left wing activists and socialists.”

And on horizontalism:

“It conducts meetings via Twitter and is avowedly “non-hierarchical”. But when one member tried to set up an event in praise of the anti-union “cooperative” John Lewis, an argument ensued which was only resolved through long arguments among small numbers of people who had the time to debate the issues over multiple online mediums. The idea of unstructured online decision-making may seem inclusive and democratic: it is actually unaccountable and exclusive.”

That is food for thought.

There is also the issue of how information and communication technologies are used. For example, as Charles Shaar Murray puts it:

“Old-fashioned totalitarian societies control information by suppressing what they consider inconvenient for their people to hear, while the more sophisticated capitalist democracies control information by swamping the truth in a deluge of disinformation, through which it is virtually a full-time job to sift.”

Paul Mason gets to the 20th reason then proceeds to list complications, including reference to the Chinese state model for hiring social networkers to generate pro-government memes. Egyptian blogger Dalia Ziada is quick to admit that US Government-aided social networking strategies catalysed revolution across the Middle East; I assume that they were generating memes of their own. I can’t find a reference, but there are artificially intelligent software agents out there which will create accounts on social network sites, befriend a feasible number of people there, and then manufacture political blog comments on a theme. So I’m not sure about Paul Mason’s confidence in incontrovertible facts.

I know that pessimism is a luxury for when things are going well, but we’re currently in another financial bubble related to Web 2.0 and when that bursts you also have to anticipate a scenario where a few very powerful companies are left and there’s a great enclosure of the open web, as happened with telephone, television, and many other things which started off open. I was also unable to tweet for a period during the March 16th demo, because of network overload. How do the masses organise themselves to accommodate this?

And, more fundamentally, you have to anticipate the lights going off during the great bloody struggle for resources to come. Enough people I know with advanced knowledge of computer systems administration have an interest in survivalism – morse code, self-sufficiency, that kind of thing – to catch my attention. It’s an anecdote I know, but coming from them I take it seriously. They know about systems vulnerabilities, and they understand the extent to which we rely on computer networks to exist. And I’ve got somewhat far from my point now, but when you hear a usually sober economist say that during the crash of 2008 she not only withdrew as much cash as she could, but also bought in as much food as she could, you do wonder how securely the technocracy is perched.

I think the right thing to do is to treat the speculation about the power of social media as contingent, and prepare contingencies accordingly.

Back to Paul Mason’s complications:

“…what happens to this new, fluffy global zeitgeist when it runs up against the old-style hierarchical dictatorship in a death match, where the latter has about 300 Abrams tanks? We may be about to find out.”

From my Observer today (where the Middle East uprisings are now relegated to p27):

“Egypt’s deepening political crisis, which has followed the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, took a dangerous new turn yesterday as soldiers armed with clubs and rifles stormed protesters occupying Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a pre-dawn raid, killing at least two.”

And in Yemen:

“…about 100,000 marched in the city of Taiz, where four protesters were killed and about 400 injured on Friday … More than 12people have been killed since protests against Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, began in February.”

In Syria:

“More than 170 people have been killed since the protests began, human rights groups say. But the rallying cry was met with a warning by Syrian authorities that they would crush further unrest, raising the risk of further bloodshed.”

For more on Syria, Al Jazeera’s silence, and Bashar Al Assad’s free pass to murder his own people, read DaveM on Harry’s Place. We-the-people’ will never get a UN resolution to go in there and rout that bastard.

In Bahrain:

“Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, 50, who formerly worked for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was detained in a pre-dawn raid. His daughter, Zainab, said armed and masked men stormed her house aoutside the capital, Manama, and beat her father unconscious before taking him into custody.”

More on Abdulhadi al-Khawaja on the BBC site.

And elsewhere I read that in Zimbabwe:

“Forty-six people in Zimbabwe have been charged with treason, and some allegedly beaten by police, after watching videos of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia

The activists, trade unionists and students were at a meeting on Saturday titled Revolt in Egypt and Tunisia: What lessons can be learnt by Zimbabwe and Africa?, when it was raided by police who seized a video projector, two DVDs and a laptop.”

Fluffy will be flattened.

The case against liberal interventionism

BobFromBrockley interrogates the best arguments against liberal interventionism with the question ‘how can the left in strong nations help to stop civilians in places like Libya, Sierra Leone, Cambodia or Kosovo from being “genocided”’. Sadly, this quest does not resolve the question.

An illuminating read.

The logic of practice

It made front page news in The Independent and nowhere else. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have come to a number of decisions to undo the small gains in animal welfare achieved by New Labour.

Please read that piece and give attention to the suffering of circus animals, badgers, birds, and animals about to be slaughtered (in particular look at Animal Aid’s video of illegal slaughterhouse abuses).

But while The Independent’s concern for animals is necessary and all the more admirable for being so rare, what its anti-coalition blinkers (which I have to admit nearly blinkered me too) prevented it from reporting is that New Labour had been backing away from some of its own initiatives before the election.

I’ll concentrate on beak mutilation. Mutilations of animals are ‘for their own good‘, according to intensive farmers, .

“Feather pecking and cannibalism (Figure 1) affects all birds in all production systems. When laying birds are kept systems that give the opportunity for aggressive birds to contact many other birds, cannibalism and feather pecking can spread rapidly through the flock and result in injuries and mortality. Mortality of up to 25–30% of the flock can occur and cause huge mortality and morbidity problems as well as financial losses to the farmer.”

So it is common practice to cut off part of the birds’ beaks. This is painful. Here is why the government act which regulates beak trimming refers to it as ‘mutilation’.

“The beak contains nociceptors that sense pain and noxious stimuli. [12] Beak trimming excites nociceptors. Following a trim, the nociceptors in the beak stump show abnormal patterns of neural discharge, which has been interpreted as acute pain.[13] Neuromas are found in the healed stumps of birds beak trimmed at 5 weeks of age or older and in birds whose beaks are subjected to severe trimming.[14] Neuromas are defined as tangled masses of swollen regenerating axon sprouts. During healing, neuromas are formed as part of the normal regeneration process. Eventually, the nerve fibers regrow, the excess axon sprouts regress, and the neuromas disappear. If beak trimming is severe because of improper procedure or done in older birds, the neuromas may persist, and the emitted action potentials are abnormal,[15] which suggest that beak trimmed older birds may experience chronic pain. However, neuromas do not persist in the beaks of birds subjected to proper trimming at 10 days of age or earlier.[16] For this reason, when conservative beak trimming (50% or less of the beak) is done correctly in birds 10 days of age or younger, formation of neuromas is prevented and the keratinized tissue regenerates.[17]

Labour was due to ban beak mutilation but faltered after a Farm Animal Welfare Council recommendation that, although a total ban was desirable, ‘commercial’ (euphemism for overcrowded) flocks could suffer cannibalism and feather pecking. As reported in a recent ministerial statement:

“The Farm Animal Welfare Council reviewed the evidence in 2007 and 2009. On both occasions it recommended that, until an alternative means of controlling injurious pecking in laying hens can be developed, the proposed ban on beak trimming should not be introduced, but should be deferred until it can be demonstrated reliably under commercial conditions that laying hens can be managed without beak trimming, without a greater risk to their welfare than that caused by beak trimming itself. The Farm Animal Welfare Council recommended that infra-red beak treatment should be the only method used routinely, as the evidence indicated that it does not induce chronic pain.”

This is a stark case of profit taking precedence over ending extreme cruelty. Farming UK reports that breeders are beginning to select for pecking behaviour, in the expectation that in time it can be bred out of chickens. However:

“Rob Newbery, the NFU’s chief poultry adviser, believes it may be a very long time before the industry reaches such a point. “Everyone says that with the breeds we use now and the way the world is today in terms of keeping laying hens that we need beak trimming. It has to be impressed on Defra and FAWC that unless there are major changes – and I can’t see what those major changes would be with commercial poultry keeping – they need to stick with allowing producers to use infrared beak trimming.”

Locked within this logic of existing practice, it would be easy to miss the obvious – that here are social animals, animals with a pecking order, whose dysfunctions are due to overcrowding and the impossibility of escape from the aggressive members of the confined flock. Their life must be hell.

I would say these animals shouldn’t be considered food, their eggs shouldn’t be considered food, and I’m repelled by the eugenics solution.

But as far as the workers in this industry are concerned, the implications of the proposed ban on beak mutilation and my own proposal to stop eating animal are the same: either joblessness or higher food prices, and these things have to be taken seriously because they are the reason that vested interests have been able to oppose the ban.

Written ministerial statements indicate that while there is plenty of research into alternatives to beak mutilation, funded by business interests which are invested in current expectations about food and current approaches to intensive farming, nobody with credibility seems to be joining up animal welfare with research into a new national economy of plant food.

This needs to happen, or animals will never be free.

And while it is sickening to think that if the ban goes ahead in January, some of these birds will trade in their lives for their beaks because of the assessment of commercial farmers that consumers will not pay more if they invest in improving conditions for their flocks, I think that this staggering multitude of agonising mutilations is the first thing that has to stop, and I hope I am in good company.

Read Compassion in World Farming’s report from October 2009 on ‘Controlling Feather Pecking and Cannibalism in Laying Hens Without Beak-Trimming‘.

Update: read Barkingside 21’s round-up of recent developments with animal farming and animal welfare.