Thoughts on Trauma

A computer monitor with a fragmented image

I’ve been thinking today about trauma. Here I’m going to explore the topic a little, discuss the case of survivors of war, and think a bit about how in public and institutional context trauma can be precipitated and weaponised.

At my therapist’s the other day the topic of trauma came up, and he described a model of trauma that was arresting in its difference from my naive understanding, but profound in its implications.

Trauma, he said, occurs when our feelings are at odds with what we are told we are feeling. This can happen not only when our suffering is denied by those around us (this is gaslighting), but also when we are told we are suffering but are not.

As an example, he discussed the experience of survivors of war arriving in camps for refugees or internally displaced persons. Under previous practice, the camp workers would assume that people arriving at the camp would be traumatised, and would start their treatment on this basis. They found that rather than decreasing the levels of trauma, this actually increased them. Many of the arrivals didn’t consider themselves victims, and to have victimhood forced on them was itself traumatising.

A new approach was to attempt to understand each camp arrival on their own terms. To be ready to appreciate and value their resilience in escaping a war zone and making it to relative safety. To be ready to treat trauma if it became apparent, but all the more to recognise and celebrate the strength, experience and knowledge that each person brought.

As I look around our social and political discourse, I wonder how often we see the traumatisation of the previously untraumatised. How often do we tell people ‘you are suffering’, ‘you are traumatised’, ‘you deserve pity’, ‘you need help’, without first asking them ‘how do you feel?’, ‘what do you need?’ And by doing so, how often do we propagate traumas not rooted in primary experiences, but rather in our imposed, secondary perception of them?

And how often are these patterns of behaviour part of a self-perpetuating system? How often are these ripples of trauma deliberately propagated? How often are the newly traumatised collateral damage in our toxic political discourse?

Andy Slaughter on DRIP

I wrote to my MP to ask him to oppose the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill, which the government is rushing through after the European Court of Justice ruled that UK spooks were illegally accessing our data.

Here is what he had to say:

Dear Mr Butt,

Thank you for writing to me regarding the Government’s emergency legislation on communication data and interception.

As a result of a recent judgement by the European Court of Justice, the police and intelligence agencies are in danger of losing vital information which is used in 95% of serious and organised crime investigations as well as counter terror investigations and online child abuse.

In order to prevent this, UK legislation needs to change to be compliant with EU law. If these changes are not made, the police are likely to suddenly lose vital evidence this summer.

I share your concerns about the rushed nature of these proposals, but as a former criminal barrister I know how crippling the loss of this evidence would be in prosecuting dangerous or violent offenders.

Given the limited Parliamentary time available to discuss the emergency legislation Labour has ensured that the Government’s legislation is temporary and that it will expire in 2016. This will require the Government and Parliament to properly consult on and consider longer term proposals next year.

I think it is important to remember that this is not the Snooper’s Charter that the Government previously tried to push through Parliament and which I opposed. No extension of powers will be introduced in this temporary legislation. This legislation is designed solely to protect existing capabilities in compliance with the European Court of Justice’s ruling and in fact Labour has now been able to secure safeguards that have not previously existed.

We have also now secured agreement to our proposal for a major independent review of the legal framework governing data access and interception (the RIPA review we called for earlier this year) in light of the huge changes in technology. In the wake of the Snowdon leaks and the concerns raised about whether the legal framework has failed to keep up with new technology, there is a clear need for wider public debate about the right balance between security and privacy online, a review of powers and stronger oversight.

I think it is important that legislation is subject to full parliamentary debate and scrutiny and I am very disappointed that the Government has waited until the last possible moment to introduce these temporary measures. However, I will support these proposals as I believe it would be far too damaging in the fight against serious crime and terrorism if the police and intelligence services were to suddenly lose existing capabilities.

I will be sure to keep your comments and concerns in mind when I scrutinise the details of the Government’s plans in Parliament next week.

Thanks again for your e-mail. I really appreciate the time you have taken to share your views on this important issue.

Yours sincerely,

Andy Slaughter

Labour MP for Hammersmith

My message to Boris

The London Cycling Campaign is asking us to send an email to Boris to call for safe streets for cycling.

Here is my message:

Boris, this is your chance to be a cycling hero: act now to make our streets safe for cycling

Dear Mayor,

I am writing to ask you to take decisive action before anyone else is killed cycling around London. The six deaths of people cycling in this city in the last fortnight are not only tragic, they are completely unacceptable, and as mayor, you have the power and responsibility to prevent any further fatalities.

One of those killed was my parents’ old friend Francis, who was killed as he rode through Holborn on 5 November. Their devastation at losing a dear friend is matched by their fear that I, my brother, or either of our partners might meet a similar fate as we cycle around town. How can I reassure my mother that I will be safe on this city’s streets when her friend, who had several decades’ experience on our streets, was struck down?

You have recently responded to these deaths by announcing a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to traffic offences; I hope that this means that rather than nagging a few people on bikes, the Metropolitan Police will start taking seriously the commonplace disregard so many London drivers—many in their ranks included—have for the rules of the road. Enforcements of speed limits, parking restrictions, ASLs and cycle lanes would go a small way to making this city a pleasanter place to get around.

However, this all misses the point: cycling in this city is dangerous and stressful because the infrastructure is woeful. People on bikes are expected to negotiate their way around half-blind HGVs, huge buses, and cabs that pull up to the kerb when least expected. We are expected to share bus lanes, for heaven’s sake: the lightest and most vulnerable road users are positively encouraged to use the same space as some of the heaviest and most dangerous vehicles, and we have to leap-frog each other at every bus stop.

Nowhere are these shortcomings more apparent than on Cycle Superhighway 2, which for those on bikes must be the most lethal stretch of road in this city.

I see glimmers of hope that you, Andrew Gilligan, and your team are beginning to see what can be done, and the mock-ups of Blackfriars Road and Victoria Embankment are encouraging, not to mention the draft plans for Nine Elms; however, this is too little, too late while people are being killed on our roads. To force us to wait years for one or two safe streets is, quite frankly, criminally negligent.

So first, have a look at this article (, which describes in great detail exactly what powers you and your planners have to make immediate, temporary improvements to our roads. Then act on this, at Bow, and on other principle roads in this city.

Second, show us some progress with these plans. A few pretty pictures are not good enough. Give us timescales, and tell us what temporary measures you are putting in place while you work on the final plans. You could even use temporary measures to test out new layouts.

Thirdly, ditch your commitment to ‘smoothing the traffic flow’ unless you can recognise that people on bikes ARE traffic, and that the most effective way to smooth the flow is by creating ample, high-quality infrastructure for two-wheeled traffic to pass the more lumbering road users.

Finally, remember that this is your opportunity to sell the case for better cycling infrastructure. This is your opportunity to show clear leadership in opposing those councils, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Greenwich in particular, that refuse to countenance dedicated infrastructure. In the light of the carnage on our streets you have the opportunity to embarrass them into permitting proper segregation on principle streets in the area; if you do this, you will really be a cycling hero, and not just a bumbling bloke on a bike.

Boris, this could be your moment. Carpe diem—carpe urticam—and transform this city into one that really is fit for cycling. This means infrastructure, not nagging PCSOs, and it is your responsibility to deliver it now.

Yours sincerely,

Matthew Butt

[Edited for typos]

Thoughts on Marriage

My brother married recently. It was a lovely afternoon, and thrilling to see the two of them looking so happy, but what touched me most was something he said in his speech.

You see, marriage isn’t a big thing in my close family, and when pressed—ever so gently—on the matter, my brother and his girlfriend had always brushed off suggestions that they might get married, so it came as a wonderful surprise when they announced their engagement. And then, on his wedding day, my brother explained that, yes, they had never seen much attraction in marriage until I, his brother, married my partner Peer. This, he said, was what showed him that marriage still had a relevance today, and this was a tipping point in their decision to get engaged.

Of course, Peer and I didn’t actually get married. We couldn’t. Instead we entered into a civil partnership. But we have always spoken of each other as husbands, and have always referred to the day as our wedding, even if that wasn’t strictly true, and it was lovely to feel that our example, far from undermining the institution of marriage, had lent it contemporary relevance to a mixed-sex couple who might otherwise have been happy to continue cohabiting.

Today, however, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act received royal assent, and soon we will be able to have a proper, legally recognised marriage, rather than a next-best civil partnership.

But I’m not celebrating.

First, there is the disgraceful way this legislation has thrown trans* people under the bus, and while I am pleased that I may personally gain something from the act, I cannot in good faith celebrate something that disregards the rights of a more marginalised group of people. It is fantastic that gay rights have progressed to this point, but saddening that those of our trans* friends lag so far behind.

Then there is the way that this act retains the gender-specificity of previous legislation: rather than removing references to ‘a man and a woman’ in previous legislation, this act simply makes additional references to ‘a same-sex couple’.

But there are some remarks by Helen Grant, in the discussion of the spousal veto on Gender Recognition Certificates, that add to the disquiet I feel about this.

On 21 May, Grant said:

It must be remembered that a marriage is contracted between two people who should have an equal say in the future of that marriage. We consider that it would be unfair to remove the right of every non-trans spouse to have a say in the future of their marriage before gender recognition takes place. 21 May 2013 : Column 1146

The implication here is that if one spouse is granted a Gender Recognition Certificate, the nature of their marriage changes, and that is why the other spouse’s consent is needed. In other words, a marriage between a man and a woman is not the same as a same-sex marriage, and the two are so distinct that someone should have a veto over their partner’s self-realisation to protect them from slipping from one form of marriage to the other.

What this means is that, far from opening up the existing institution of marriage to same-sex couples, we are in fact creating a new institution, also called ‘marriage’, in many ways interchangeable, but still different enough to merit the insertion of the spiteful spousal veto into this act. Funny enough, this is pretty much what civil partnership did, and that its lack of equivalence led to the campaign for same-sex marriage.

So no, I don’t feel we have achieved true equality. I don’t believe we will have achieved that until we can get marriage redefined in truly gender-agnostic terms as a union between two persons, with none of these weasel mentions of gender or insinuations that one configuration might be less desirable than another. In the mean time, I will recognise the passing of this act into law as an incremental step towards equality, but not the glorious triumph that some would claim.

Addison Lee and Licensing

At this evening’s die-in at the Addison Lee offices, the ever entertaining predictable John Griffin deigned to address us the broadcast media, only to rehash his previous comments about cyclists needing licences.

Now, Addison Lee has a licence as a private hire operator, yet that doesn’t stop Griffin inciting his staff franchisees to break the law.

Addison Lee drivers have driving licences, but that doesn’t stop their constant infringement of traffic regulations.

Griffin and his company are a prime example of the ineffectiveness of licensing.

So why the buggery does he hold so much stock by the idea?

Bradley Manning: my challenge to Andy Slaughter

I have blogged previously about my letter to Andy Slaughter MP to ask him to sign Ann Clwyd’s Early Day Motion on the treatement of Bradley Manning, and on Andy’s less-than-satisfactory reply.

I wondered in my second post whether Andy was fobbing me off by telling me that shadow ministers cannot sign EDMs. Recently Naomi Colvin at UK Friends of Bradley Manning has posted a clarification of the rules on (shadow) ministers signing EDMs, and @ITFriendsofBM has drawn my attention to Andy’s parliamentary record of EDMs, which rather puts the lie to the claim that he cannot get involved.

In the light of this information, I have written again to Andy:

Dear Mr Slaughter,

Since our original correspondence, it has been brought to my attention that in the current parliamentary session, you have signed 67 EDMs, seconded 7 and even proposed 4 ( This sits rather at odds with your assertion that “as a shadow minister I am unable to sign EDMs.”

I note (House of Commons Information Office Factsheet P3, ‘Early Day Motions’ that ‘under the Ministerial Code Parliamentary Private Secretaries “must not associate themselves with particular groups advocating special policies”’; however, the issue at stake is not a ‘special policy’ but a fundamental humanitarian principle, which is clearly laid out in international law.

Of course, I am no expert in parliamentary protocol, so it is very useful to have your own record to hand. It is worth mentioning a few of the EDMs you have signed in the current session:

  • EDM 112 on Human Rights in Burma, which ‘calls on the Government to support a United Nations-led effort to pressure the dictatorship to enter into … dialogue’
  • EDM 127 on Israel and Gaza Flotilla, which ‘notes that UK … nationals have been held by Israel … and calls on the international community to require Israel to end its blockade’
  • EDM 213 on MK Zoabi and the Gaza Flotilla, which ‘views with concern the treatment that MK Zoabi has received from her fellow parliamentarians … and calls on the Government vigorously to support the actions of MK Zoabi’
  • EDM 271 on Lord Trimble and the Israeli Inquiry into the Raid on the Gaza Flotilla, which you sponsored, and which ‘notes that Lord Trimble has been appointed as a foreign observer of the Israeli internal inquiry into that country’s raid on the Gaza … and further notes that … he is one of the founding members of a newly-formed Friends of Israel’
  • EDM 973 on Western Sahara, which ‘expresses its horror at the violent dismantling by Moroccan forces of refugee camps in the Western Sahara … and calls on the Government to signal that it is not prepared for the stalemate to continue in defiance of UN resolutions and international law’
  • EDM 1385 on Brenda Namigadde, which you proposed, and which ‘is concerned by the imminent proposed deportation of Brenda Namigadde, who has claimed asylum because she fears persecution based on her sexuality … and calls on the Government to exercise its powers to allow [her] to remain in the United Kingdom.’

These EDMs show striking parallels with Ann Clwyd’s EDM 1624 on Bradley Manning. In particular, the focus on UK nationals abroad (EDM 127), contraventions of international law (EDM 973), and demands that the government take measures to intervene in humanitarian issues (passim). It is also worth reiterating that not only are you a signatory to these EDMs, but you proposed one, and seconded another, which strongly suggests that the principle of (shadow) ministerial non-involvement is not relevant.

I am rather puzzled by this. I can see from your record that you take a keen interest in Human Rights and international law, and you express shock in your email at Bradley Manning’s treatment, yet you tell me that you are unable to sign Ann Clwyd’s EDM, when your parliamentary record suggests otherwise.

Please could you explain to me why you have proposed, seconded and signed 78 other EDMs during this session, but are unable to sign this one.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Yours sincerely,

Matthew Butt

I am genuinely puzzled by this: Andy clearly takes an interest in issues of Human Rights and international law, so why is he refusing to sign Ann’s EDM. I will post an update if I hear back from him!

Bradley Manning: Andy Slaughter replies

Yesterday I wrote to my MP, Andy Slaughter, to ask him to sign Ann Clwyd’s early day motion 1624 on the treatment of Bradley Manning. Today I received this response:

Dear Matthew Butt,

Thank you for contacting me regarding this issue. This situation has only recently been brought to my attention, and I am shocked to hear about what has been taking place.

As a shadow minister I am unable to sign EDMs, however I will write to the Foreign Secretary to raise your concerns, and to ask what, if any steps, the UK Government is taking to prevent any further torture from taking place.

In the meantime, if you would like to raise any further issue with me, please don’t hesitate to do so.

Yours sincerely

Andy Slaughter

Labour MP for Hammersmith

I am thrilled to have received such a quick response, although sorry that he will not be adding his signature to Ann Clwyd’s EDM. I have responded to him as follows:

Dear Mr Slaughter,

Thank you for your very speedy response to my email, and for expressing your shock at Bradley’s treatment.

I am sorry to hear that parliamentary protocol prevents you from signing Ann Clwyd’s EDM, and very much appreciate your undertaking to write to the Foreign Secretary about this issue; I would be very interested to read a copy of your letter, and any response you might receive, as it would be greatly reassuring to all of us concerned with this case to know that it is being given proper consideration.

Could I also urge you to encourage your parliamentary colleagues to sign the EDM, and to give this shameful situation the exposure it needs.

Yours sincerely,

Matthew Butt

It is worth noting that Parliament’s own website has this to say about EDMs:

The following people in Parliament normally will not sign EDMs:

  • Ministers and government whips
  • Parliamentary Private Secretaries
  • The Speaker and his deputies

In other words, there is no mention of shadow ministers not signing, and indeed it appears that the practice of ministers not signing EDMs is custom rather than rule; perhaps someone with better knowledge of parliamentary procedure can enlighten me whether Andy is abiding by protocol or fobbing me off.

I will of course report back if I hear any more.

Letter to Andy Slaughter MP re Early Day Motion 1624: Treatment of Bradley Manning

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I have been taking a particular interest in the case of Bradley Manning, the young Welsh-American soldier accused of whistleblowing and releasing classified military information, including the Wikileaks files. This afternoon Peer and I attended a demonstration outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square to protest against his treatment, and this evening I have written to my local MP, Andy Slaughter, to ask him to sign early day motion 1624, tabled by Bradley’s old MP, Ann Clwyd, which calls on the government to raise Bradley’s case with the US administration.

Here is the text of my letter:

Dear Mr Slaughter,

I am writing as a constituent to ask you to sign early day motion 1624, tabled by Ann Clwyd, on the treatment of Bradley Manning. Bradley is being held in conditions which constitute torture and, as a UK citizen by virtue of his mother’s nationality, is entitled to British consular support. Furthermore, as Shadow Justice Minister, his case should be of particular interest to you, as it is in breach of both international law and the fundamental principles of justice.

Private First Class Bradley Manning is being held in military custody at Quantico Marine Base in the US on suspicion of whistle-blowing and releasing classified military documents. He is being kept under ‘prevention of injury’ conditions, which place him in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in his cell, while for the other hour he is transferred to another room where he can pace around in shackles for his daily ‘exercise’. During his confinement, he is interrupted by gaolers every five minutes, and required to respond verbally to confirm that he is awake; at night he has access to minimal bedding, and has recently been required to sleep naked, and to present himself naked in the morning. At times Bradley has been placed under suicide watch, although the brig psychiatrist himself has assessed him as being at low risk of suicide; the only explanation for this situation is that this treatment is punitive. Bradley needs glasses to read, and is frequently denied access to them, as well as to radio and television, meaning that he has very limited access to external stimuli during his incarceration.  This treatment has been widely criticised, amongst others by P J Crowley, the former adviser to Hillary Clinton, who described his treatment as ‘ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid’; indeed, the very conditions that are supposed to ‘prevent injury’ to Bradley, are likely to weaken his mental state and put him at further risk.

It is clear that the treatment of Bradley Manning constitutes torture or cruel and degrading treatment, contrary to the UN Convention against Torture, and pressure must be put on the US government to ensure that this treatment ceases, and that Bradley is held in humane conditions.

Secondly, this treatment constitutes pre-trial punishment, as Bradley has not yet stood trial for any of his alleged actions, nor has a date been set for him to stand trial. As Shadow Justice Minister you will be aware of the importance of due judicial process, and should be deeply concerned at this breach of such process.

Thirdly, Bradley Manning holds dual citizenship and the UK has a responsibility to ensure he has appropriate consular support. His mother is Welsh, and he lived and went to school in Haverfordwest during his teenage years. Whilst Bradley returned to the United States at the age of 17, he still has family in Wales, and it is the local MP, your colleague Ann Clwyd, who has tabled this early day motion.

I urge you to sign this early day motion, to demonstrate that the UK values the rights of its citizens and stands up for human rights around the world. Whatever your personal position on the charges brought against Bradley, I am sure you will agree that his torture and pre-trial punishment are unacceptable, and that we in the UK have a particular responsibility to stand up for his interests. Please support our calls for justice by signing this early day motion at the first opportunity, and by urging your colleagues in the house to do likewise.


Matthew Butt

Please write to your MP as well. It is a small matter for them to sign this motion, but we in the UK are in a unique position to help improve the conditions of this heroic young man.

UCL Occupation Petition

I am, rather belatedly, signing the UCL Occupation petition. Here’s what I had to say:

I was fortunate enough to receive a free university eduction — one of the last generation to have this opportunity — and condemn the assault which both the previous Labour government and now, with redoubled zeal, the coalition are making on the notion of education as a public good.

As a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, I helped organise a rent strike in protest at the colleges’ proposal to impose sharp increases in the cost of living at the university. We believed that this would have a be a major disincentive for students from poorer backgrounds to come to a university whose social mix was already fairly unrepresentative. We little knew that higher rents were only the first in a series of measures that would make going to university a major financial commitment.

I also have a personal connection to UCL: I worked here for three years after graduating, and have seen the quality of teaching there, as well as the commitment of lecturers, administrators and students alike. It is a fine institution, and must ensure it remains that way by standing up for fairness, openness, and access for the best students, no matter what their background and means.

Good luck to all involved in the occupation, and let’s build on this movement to create a fairer education system, and a fairer society at large.

Click here to sign the petition.