Saturday, 6 July 2019

How To Feel British

Prime Minister-in-waiting, Boris Johnson, said this week that he wants immigrants to feel more British. This was swiftly followed up on Twitter by appeals on how this can be achieved. For instance, a French lady called Martha, currently living in York, made this appeal: “If any of my English followers have any tips on how to ‘feel British’, I’d appreciate receiving them.”

As a native Brit, being half-Irish / half-English, university educated in Wales, a previous resident of the Republic of Ireland and having lived in Scotland since 2000, I should have some insights to offer you Martha. 


One of the first things that an immigrant needs to learn is stop speaking your mind. If something is rubbish, for God’s sake do not complain openly about it, especially to the person responsible. Simply smile, say ‘It’s fine’ or ‘it happens’ and work around it, even if this is at some personal inconvenience. The time to complain is to your friends and colleagues afterwards, when the possibility for fixing the issue has long passed. Phrases like “Can you believe it?” or “what a jobsworth” can then be freely thrown around to anyone within earshot.
Conversely, if something is really good, never offer praise. It might be the most amazing pleasure one has ever experienced in life but the highest acceptable compliment is to nod and mutter “not bad.” If one must, a slight smile is permitted. 

In the workplace, never, ever volunteer or offer constructive criticism. If one can imagine being a sheep, and your place is in the centre of the flock, then just keep that image in mind at times of decision making or crises. Never allow oneself to take on greater responsibility, especially without extra pay. Acceptable answers to requests that should be made someone in a more senior position are “Sorry, I’ll have to speak to my boss” or “Out of my pay scale mate.” The reason for such negativity is that British employers seldom go in for this no-blame culture that is popular across Northern Europe. If something goes wrong, someone must be the cause of it. At best, ownership of a mistake will be a black mark against your record and can lead to something worse. Remember, in the television show The Apprentice, any time a candidate has owned responsibility for a failed task, Lord Sugar has fired their arse. 

Someone schooled in American English might have ended the previous sentence with “fired their ass”. This of course is a mistake and someone who has been educated in US English has to make the effort to adjust their language accordingly. Chips are crisps, not French Fries. Biscuits are not cookies. It is trousers and not pants and no, we Brits do not sit around on our fannies, as they are otherwise employed elsewhere on the female body. Make an effort to match one’s language to the local region and do not point out the glaring inconsistencies in a native speaker’s own usage of American English (see examples within this text). The British are seldom well educated in English grammar, making it extremely difficult for us to learn foreign languages as we usually have little idea what is happening with our own. As Tolstoy said, an Englishman in inevitably in the right because everything he says and does is right. This especially goes for spoken English. 
On a related topic however, we Brits love word play, especially when linked to cultural references. Such games can be downright silly but reduce the Brits to tears of laughter, much to the bemusement of foreigners in the group. As an immigrant, you might never get the joke. Don’t worry about it. English is the most public language in the world so perhaps it is only natural we have made it incomprehensible for our own amusement. My best advice would be just to relax, be happy to see us happy and when your finally do start getting the references, then your have finally cracked the English language. 

Do not take offence to the question “Where are you from?” as it really is a statement which means “You are not from round here, are you.” Owing to never having an East Anglian accent, it was a question that I was constantly asked when growing up in the town where I was born. Except in the largest and most cosmopolitan of cities, Brits has a curious sense of regional identity which is linked very strongly to accents. “Where are you from?” might mean that your accent comes from a town twenty miles away where the local inhabitants tend to have a bit of a funny accent and, therefore they don’t speak proper like we do. Yes, I know it is a pain answering this question and immigrants often feel it is a prequel for something nastier to follow but usually it isn’t. We Brits ask each other that same question all the time. Only when the question is followed up by something like “And when are you going back?” is rudeness or sarcasm justified as a response.

Now, perhaps the hardest thing to achieve for some immigrants is to enter into the British drinking culture. Those who are unable to drink alcohol for religious reasons are at a special disadvantage here. Outside the most formal of evenings, it is socially acceptable for Brits to get so drunk as to be a complete embarrassment to ourselves. Sorry about this but get used to it. Over the decades, many governments have tried to change things through taxation and tighter laws, drink-driving being a good example. Unless they are completely teetotal (a very rare thing for a Brit) or a recovering alcoholic (the only socially acceptable excuse not to drink), at some point you are going to see your British friends pissed - as in the English sense of being drunk and not the American of being angry. One understands that for the younger generation, illicit drugs are a socially acceptable alternative to booze, or even along with it. Either way, once work is done, us Brits love getting off our tits on abusing alcohol, or even several substances at the same time. 

There are many things to love about being in Britain. As an immigrant, that is why you are here. This is also the reason why I have not written about our virtues: they are well known, self evident and it is impolite to boast about such things. Instead I have written about the other side of being British: the negative and sometimes the self harming side. No nationality has a monopoly on either virtue or vice. Remember that it is often geography that forms a national personality and that Britain is a group of islands. Some of us Brits still seem to cling to this notion as some kind of comfort when, in today’s global world, being an island nation is a hindrance rather than any help. To understand the British, one has to see us, warts and all. If after doing so, you would prefer to live by your own cultural values instead of ours, I think most people would understand. I certainly will.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Why are the Liberal Democrats Back?

To the outsider, to those who do not pay attention to politics, the reason why the Liberal Democrats are back on the political scene is pretty obvious. Both Labour and the Conservatives are failing as parties and people are turning towards alternatives: be it Greens, SNP, Alliance, Plaid Cymru or Farage’s Brexit “Party”. Or even, *shudder*, the Liberal Democrats. On one level that is true. On the night of the EU elections, the Lib Dems came second. This could, and is being dismissed as a protest vote. A view from the inside of politics offers a different perspective.

The worse years of being a Lib Dem activist was not with the election disaster of 2015. I remember walking home from the Edinburgh count on a bright sunlit morning, smoking a cigar I had saved for the occasion. My emotions were mixed: sad that Nick Clegg had led the disaster and had stepped down. Sad for the many good Liberal Democrat MPs who had lost their jobs. Irritated that the (understandably jubilant) SNP had swept all but three of the Scottish seats before them. Angry but not surprised that the Conservatives had targeted all Liberal Democrat seats, even the ones that they knew they could not win – like Edinburgh West - in order to be rid as many Liberal Democrat MPs as possible. The Conservatives would rather have opposition MPs like Labour, or SNP here in Scotland, than someone they had to risk working with. My main emotion though was one of relief: the axe had finally fallen. Even the folk of the television show Gogglebox had called it: “Nick Clegg, dead man walking.”
It is the popular position to slight Nick Clegg but in reality he is a good guy who, while in government, made some bloody awful decisions. During his campaign for the leadership, he promised to get the Liberal Democrats into government within two elections. He did it first time, and subsequently we paid the price. 
I did not feel sorry for myself though. When I stood in 2015, I knew it was with no hope of winning. In the weeks running up to the 2010 I had written a blog, predicting the outcome of entering a coalition as junior partner with either party. The hardest thing for me to bear was being proved right, so soon after the 2010 election, and to continue campaigning for the Liberal Democrats knowing that we were stuffed. It was difficult to keep motivation up during those years. It felt perverse: Liberal Democrats are in power. We are making a difference: getting a lot of policies though and keeping at bay the worst excesses of the deep-blue nutters on the right of the Conservative Party. Why wasn’t I happy? Because no good deed goes unpunished and so it proved. 
It is natural perhaps that a lot of opponents, especially on the left, were gleeful on our downfall. Poor President Trump if he feels he is being victimised by the press and public opinion: try being a Liberal Democrat. I believed even our own esteemed former leader, the late Paddy Ashdown, described the party as “roadkill”. That should have been that for us. And yet. And yet…

The green shoots of recovery started instantly. As most jeered as they shovelled earth over the Lib Dem coffin, a small section of the UK public looked on with both horror and compassion.  Some of those people joined us and, for the first time in five years, the membership numbers of the Liberal Democrats soared. To the grizzled survivors like me, it felt like a miracle. It was Nick Clegg who later summed it up with a story. A few days after the defeat, a woman shouted across the street at him.  
“Nick, I’m sorry what happened to you and the party.” 
“Thank you. Thank you for your support!”
“Oh, I didn’t vote for you!”
In Edinburgh we had a large number of new folk join us. Most of them stayed and quite a few of our new (and high quality) activists that we have now, joined us since the rout of 2015. Even from the first days, the Liberal Democrat recovery was underway. 

Still, during the years 2016 and 2017, there was no breakthrough. Liberal Democrats campaigned and, slowly slowly, we started to regain lost ground. Although we did not gain many seats during the 2017 snap general elections, I think that one of the unintended consequences that it turned a lot of the new Liberal Democrat activists from raw, if enthusiastic recruits, into campaign-hardened veterans. What was just as important, there were some victories to show for the effort: we got three seats back from the SNP, including Edinburgh West. We Liberal Democrats took the opportunity given and in many areas, continue to campaign on the ground long after the other parties had packed up. The evidence for this was the start of local council victories in unlikely places such as Sunderland. Which, of course, leads us to consider the next reason for the recovery: Brexit.

Brexit is, and always has been, driven by the schism of the right. Although there was part of the Left (as personified by Jeremy Corbyn and before him, Tony Benn) who always objected to the EU on the grounds that it is a capitalist club (it is), the main political force against European Union comes from the economic right of the Conservative Party. It is their implacable hatred of EU regulation upon free market economics that led to the formation of UKIP. By itself, the freedom of billionaires to rip off the public is hardly a vote winner, so in order to gain popular support, the real flavour of the party was disguised by a heavy dose of nationalism and bigotry. Like all disasters, the reason for outcome are multiple. One was the foolishness of David Cameron, who thought that a bum’s rush of a three-month Brexit debate would be followed by victory, the death of UKIP and a return to business-as-usual. Another was that those backing Brexit had done deep preparation for the day that the referendum was called. New techniques of big data were used to target the electorate that felt ignored and did not usually vote. The SNP had used similar techniques for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum but, as I have stated previously, they had given a two-year-long debate so that people had an opportunity to discuss and understand the issues. With Brexit, that opportunity for public contemplation never occurred until after the vote. By heck, it has happened since though.

It is the Liberal Democrat consistency in stating the obvious: before the referendum and afterwards, that Brexit is a terrible idea, which has finally given the party its public identity. Before, the question before was “What are the Lib Dems for?” We have always had well-thought through policies by the container-load. We have always valued human rights over the power of the state. Our focus was upon the individual and families before power-blocks, be they unions or corporations. By itself though, that message is always too nuanced. Now, for good or ill, we have a clear identity: Liberal Democrats are the party of Europe. 

By ourselves though, Liberal Democrats are not yet strong enough to break through the first-past-the-post voting system. The last stage of our return requires the failure of the two main parties: Conservatives and Labour. They are both obliging in a most unexpected way. I do not have to run through the arguments: on her deal, Theresa May failed to consult with the whole parliament until it was far too late. What is truly amazing is the complete and utter failure of Labour to capitalise on the Conservative disarray. Corbyn simply had to say “We have tried: the government is unyielding and Parliament is deadlocked. It has to go back to a second referendum.” But no. Corbyn has steadfastly failed to move on Brexit and instead is sitting on the fence, much to the chagrin of most Labour activists. At the recent EU count of May 2019, held in the same venue as 2015, I was speaking to several senior Labour activists. I was told that Corbyn’s stance made it “like fighting with both hands tied behind your back.” Unlike previous counts, only a handful of Labour people bothered to turn out.
The largest parties to win that night were the nationalists, although neither the Brexit Party nor the SNP got anyway near fifty percent of the vote, important since both are claiming the vote is overwhelming support for their respective versions of nationalism. There is a map of Great Britain doing the rounds which shows that the SNP came top of the vote in all but a handful of Scottish constituencies, and Farage’s vehicle for self-promotion, the Brexit Party came top in most parts of England. An SNP supporter asks “Can you see the border now?” Frankly I cannot. Both the SNP and the Brexit Party are nationalist, popularist movements. I will give the SNP credit in being more decent that Farage but both are very much on the nationalist spectrum. 

The real border is now in people’s minds. Are you a nationalist or are you an internationalist? Do you want to define folk in terms of “us or them” or is there only “us”? The world is facing very real problems: can those problems wait until we have gained our freedom, put our country first, or do they need addressing right now, globally?

Owing to the Liberal Democrats putting people first, not insisting that the nation-state is the greatest good and wanting to address global problems right now, that we find ourselves being defined as anti-nationalist, and in a way that the Conservatives and Labour, with their old conflicts being built on wealth and class, can never do.  The popular nationalism has brought to the fore those who are internationalists. This movement is called social liberalism. The party for liberalism in the United Kingdom is the Liberal Democrats. 
Along with our own hard work, the ineptitude of the main two parties, it is the rise of nationalism and Brexit has brought us, the Liberal Democrats, back from the dead. 

Monday, 18 March 2019

Christchurch and Our Edinburgh Vigil

Another week, another massacre. Geography was one of the factors that made the Christchurch murder different. New Zealand a peaceful group of islands with no terrorist history. The terrorist came from the outside: a white supremacist from Australia who seems to have been radicalised overseas, possible in the UK. From the reaction of now-disgraced senator Fraser Anning, who wrote “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allows Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” it seems that Australia have their own share of bigots and supremacists. Fair play though that, since he wrote those words on the day of the attack, Anning is now facing a national petition with over 800,000 signatures, demanding that he be removed from the Australian senate.

Today, along with hundreds of others, I attended a memorial vigil outside the Central Mosque of Edinburgh, organised by the Muslim Woman’s Association of Edinburgh. The many speakers covered a wide range of topics. The shock and sadness on hearing the news. The fear and anger that such attacks generate. The need to avoid hate and to overcome it with love. Others spoke more politically: the need to face down the rise in modern Nazism, the role in the likes of Steve Bannon in organising the Far Right on an international basis, and the enabling and normalisation of Islamophobia by senior politicians. Boris Johnson got special mention for comparing woman wearing the burka to letterboxes. Noted also was the media’s role in normalising the killer. ISIS terrorists do not appear on the front page of British newspapers with pictures of them as a sweet little boy, but this privilege was extended to the Christchurch murderer of (at the time of writing) fifty people. Contrary to what the speaker said though, this time it was the Daily Mirror who was guilty and not, as stated, the Daily Mail. 


 
The microphone was briefly offered to the crowd to share our thoughts and, some who know me, thought I would take advantage of the opportunity. Although I had no prepared words, it is true that I was tempted. Today though was not for me: it was for the people of New Zealand, it was for our Muslim neighbours and it is for us all: to listen, to sympathise and to understand. It is difficult sometimes to make sense of such vicious disregard for life and to comprehend that some who live among us can see others as somehow lesser or even as a threat. Of course people how hold extremist views are a potential threat should they decide to act upon them but they are few. The vast majority of us just want to get on with living our lives free from oppression and in peace. 

It is my view many of the speakers are correct: that there is an active movement to motivate the Far Right across the globe. Most countries in Europe now have their Far Right movements and in places like Poland and Hungary, extreme nationalist governments have taken power. Trump in the USA has more in common with President Putin in Russia than he has with Angela Merkel. In order for our own politicians not to seem extreme, there must be someone further along the political spectrum. With the Conservatives containing the European Research Group of about 80 MPs, a party-within-a-party, along with Theresa May’s own views on immigration and Home Secretary Sajid Javid willing to pay fast and loose with the rule of law, the only people further right is the likes of Britain First and so-called Tommy Robinson. The latter’s views are being normalised in order to make our current politicians seem moderate. 

Mr Jalal Chaudry of the Council of Ethnic Minority in Edinburgh questioned the use of the term of Islamic terrorism. If terrorism is not applied to actions done by white people: if such people are deemed as lone wolves, mad, crazy people, while any act of violence done by a Muslim is Islamic terrorism, the term “terrorist” should not be used. I disagree. In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper gives an exact definition of terrorism. It is a curious thing though, that when I attempted to look up his exact words, the quotation has not turned up in the searches. So until I get hold of another copy of The Open Society, memory must serve. Terrorism is an act of violence intended to affect the political viewpoint of people beyond its immediate effect. This is a powerful definition because, as Popper goes on to explain, terrorism can be carried out by individuals, groups or by a nation-state. This latter aspect has led to the term terrorist being devalued. All states claim to act for the benefit of their own population and within the law. State actions can, the claim therefore goes, never be acts of terrorism. This is propaganda, as example of states carrying out acts of suppression against their own population are too numerous to note. However, the term terrorism has been solely applied by states against those that they disapprove of. More disturbing perhaps, the term is not applied to acts of violence that a particular state may be sympathetic too. Hence the concern that Islamic terrorism is a real threat while killings performed by white men sympathetic to the Far Right is usual ascribed, at least at first, to mental instability or individual examples of wickedness. There can be no mistake this time however, as the Christchurch killer emailed his political manifesto ahead of carrying out his act of evil against a gathering of defenceless men, women and children.

When it comes to acts of political violence, we must demand that the media cannot be partial to one side or the other. The term “terrorism” must be re-established and, if necessary, an explanation to the general readership must be made. Terrorism in the name of Islam exists, as does terrorism in the name of Irish republicanism (with the recent incendiary bombs being sent from Dublin to four or five targets in the United Kingdom) and as does, in this particular case, terrorism by the Far Right against Muslims. Jo Cox was murdered by a Nazi. At the time I called it straight away (before charges were laid) but was told to be not to be hasty as it could have been a lone nutter. The media does not give Islamic terrorists such benefit of the doubt. As a society, we must be consistent with our treatment of all politically-motivated violence.

As for my own personal reaction to the killings in Christchurch, I was greatly saddened. New Zealand is a peaceful nation that has partially detached itself from the militarism that is dominates the foreign policies of many other liberal-democratic nations – including the United Kingdom. A friend of mine commented that she felt that New Zealand had lost its innocence. I know what she means: I felt exactly the same when I heard the news of the Norwegian terrorist attack of 2011, which resulted in the death of seventy-seven people. 

Britain has a proud tradition of fighting Nazism and what it stands for. It is up to us all today, to continue that tradition because it is clear that the Far Right, or Alt-Right, is nothing more than modern Nazism. It is our responsibility, as Nazism is a combination of nationalism, corporate interest and racism that arose from the pseudo-science of eugenics. Fascism may have arisen in Italy and Nazism in Germany but the ideas that fed both came from across Europe and North America, including Great Britain. 

At today’s vigil, a young man took the microphone and tried to rouse the crowd with cries of “Never again! Never again!”. My response was, to be truthful, half-hearted. There is always going to be another time. As Nome Chomsky notes though, not only must we challenge the ideas that feed terrorism but also the situations that lead people to think they have nothing personally to lose by turning to violence. People who are secure and content do not pick up a gun. 

The problem of terrorism is ours and we must own it, no matter in doing so how uncomfortable the truths that we will face. Only by having the courage to do so can we continue to live in a society that can, on the whole, be called ‘free’.




Thursday, 21 February 2019

Party Reaction to The Independent Group

First the Seven, then plus One and, at the time of writing, now joined by the Tory Three. Brexit has made strange times for politics is highlighting the flaws in our current political system. From both Labour and the Conservative sides, the emphasis has always been on “broad church politics”. What does this phrase really mean? It means that each of the larger parties are a coalition of views: a group of sub-spectrums within the larger political continuum. The latter is often described as horseshoe-shaped, as the extreme ends of left and right bend in towards each other. It is clear now that both main UK parties have moved so close to the respective ends of the horseshoe that they are shedding members, and now MPs, who are still in the middle zone. 
I was not at all surprised that it was the Labour members that broke first. Since taking leadership, Corbyn and his private party of loyalists, Momentum, have been moving the Labour Party from being mainly a social democratic party, operating policies of wealth redistribution underneath a capitalist liberal democratic framework, to that of being a democratic socialist party who want to break capitalism. If you doubt me on this, the evidence is on Corbyn’s views on the European Union. Like Tony Benn, Corbyn considers the EU as a capitalist club and, to be fair, he is right. There is no way that he is going to build socialism under EU rules and hence his supporting of Brexit. Hence also the hostility of Momentum to social democrats within their own party. It is also no surprise that as soon as the Eight broke with Labour, there were calls for by-elections from Corbyn, Labour and trade union leaders. This is predictable but what is amazing is the speed at which Labour has announced plans to make public deselection of MPs an easier process. Famed for his lethargy as an opposition leader, Brer Corbyn can certainly move rapidly when the faced with internal opposition.

Labour’s approach is certainly different from the Conservatives who, more wisely, are not seeking to distance themselves from their dissidents. Philip Hammond is certainly holding out the olive branch and there are few calls from the right for by-elections. I am not sure for the reason for this. Perhaps it is part party culture, perhaps it is early days and the figures are not clear enough to base a decision on. 
It can be argued of course that it is the Conservative desire to keep the right wing of British politics within a single part that has led to the whole debacle of Brexit. If they had simply let UKIP mutter in the wilderness, yes, they would have been weakened as a party but at least the country is not suffering as it is now. With about a month to go, there is only chaos in Westminster. I have previously written several Brexit blogs and this is not going to be another one. 
What Brexit has shown though is that both the Conservative and Labour parties are too big. The Conservatives are split along the fault lines of regulated capitalism and the unregulated marketplace. Labour, as previously described, has moved from social democracy to democratic socialism. The extremes of both parties are united in seeing the EU (regulated, capitalist and often social democratic) as the enemy of their respective ambitions. Both have also engaged with popular nationalism in order to gain support for their positions, with the right almost hiding their dreams of unregulated capitalist society behind the flag-waving and yellow jackets.

The independent group (I have seen the acronym TIG being used) are not, as yet, a political party. If they do form into one, a major hurdle with be the first-past-the-post voting system. FPTP is acting like a clamp, holding the two largest parties together. If it is ever unscrewed, Labour and Conservatives will fragment into the smaller parties that they really ought to be. 

What of the Liberal Democrats? Perhaps with some justice they are like the girlfriend in the meme: upset, confused and a bit outraged that TIG (here the girl in the red dress) is getting the attention of the media and public (the boyfriend). The Liberal Democrats have been here in the centre all along, telling whoever will listen that UK politics is broken and, unsurprisingly, being shouted down from right and left. While there is a certain satisfaction in being proved right, I don’t think we should worry for now. Certainly we should work with TIG to gain a People’s Vote. There may well be other areas of cooperation and mutual values. There are also areas where values will not overlap, especially on civil rights. That is as maybe.  The members of TIG will need time to adjust to being outside their respective two-party system. 
For now, let’s wait and see.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

A Second EU Referendum. What's on the Ballot Paper?

Parliament is deadlocked and there is an increasing acceptance that there is a strong case for another referendum. What goes on the ballot paper though? 

In the introduction to her deal, the Prime Minister said that there were three possible outcomes: her deal, a no-deal Brexit or no Brexit. For the sake of simplicity, it would be tempting to go with this. It has been ruled by the European Court that the UK can halt Article 50 process unilaterally and, since there is no majority for a no deal exit in Parliament, another possibility is having a choice between Theresa May’s deal or staying in the EU.

Both are problematic. Those who voted to Leave the EU are understandably annoyed at the very prospect of having to go through a second ballot and are complaining loudly that the 2016 should be respected. I am not going to repeat my own views on the 2016 referendum but there is a point to be addressed. 

What I have in mind therefore is a two part ballot. It can all appear on a single sheet of paper, so avoiding the need and cost to have a two stage referendum. 

Part one of the ballot will be legally binding and will consist of a single question with a binary answer:


Should the United Kingdom stay in the European Union?  YES / NO
Use an X to register your vote in one of boxes below.


As I said, the answer to this question would be legally binding. That means that if the Leave side wins again, there can be no future ballots held on EU membership. In the legislation delivering the ballot, there  should be some kind of minimum time given before Parliament would be able to revisit the question of rejoining the European Union: a minimum of twenty five years. There has to be some safeguard against a cycle of referenda while not tying future generations of citizens to the will of those currently voting. The same time period applies to a remain outcome. One side or the other will have to accept the outcome of this vote.

The second part of the vote will not be legally binding but advisory and would be under a single transferable vote system. Parliament would be not be legally bound to deliver the form of Brexit most popular with the public but would be use it as a guideline as to which outcomes would be most acceptable to public opinion. The examples below are just that but give an idea of the various possible outcomes. It would be up to the campaigns to discuss the pros-and-cons of each. 

This time around, since the public are fully aware of the issues now, a short campaign, three months in length, is acceptable. 

The second part of the referendum is below.

If the vote above results in the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, what is your preferred outcome of future negotiations?
Use a number to express your preference, 1 indicating your preferred outcome and a 4 your least favoured outcome. Other boxes should be filled with a 2 and or
  




Thursday, 13 December 2018

Blue - on - Blue Brexit

There are some cheerleaders, such as Jeremy Vine on BBC Radio 2 who is using his show to call the public to get behind Theresa May and her deal. The same deal that on Monday the 10th of December the Prime Minister decided to pull rather than face defeat in the Commons.

That analysis of defeat was accurate when, following the motion of no-confidence in the PM from within her own party, it transpires that 117 of her own MPs failed to back her. This may seem a small number when compared to the 200 that did but, this exact ratio, 200 - 117 was identified, prior to the vote, in Conservative Home as a problematic victory. In order to be safe, they reckoned that 215 MPs would have to back her. The degree of the victory, with over one third of the parliamentary party failing to back her, keeps May in the danger zone and her authority over the party is only partially recognised. 

The no-confidence vote was called by the members of the European Research Group (ERG) on the basis that if May can be deposed, the resulting process of selecting a new leader would run down the clock on Brexit, in turn leading to their desired outcome of a no-deal exit. This has always been the aim of the economic right wing, as it is only the start of the complete deregulation of British society. Certainly this is what billionaire backers like Arron Banks and James Dyson really want out of all of this. With the overarching regulation on health, safety and working hours, the EU stands as a major barrier to their dream of unregulated corporate rule. 

Theresa May has at least been smart enough to realise that no-deal will be a hammer blow to the UK economy. Her deal addressed this by keeping industrial standards tied to the EU, thus simplifying trade. Her own intolerant views on immigration, as displayed while Home Secretary, is also displayed insofar it does away with freedom of movement. Naturally May and her supporters argue that this is what the people of the UK (well, mostly England) voted for but, in reality, it is very much a deal in her own image. Trade, yes. Immigration, no. Deregulation, some. 

The problem is that if May listened to anyone at all, it certainly was not those who still backed Remain. My initial response to the 2016 referendum outcome was that some form of Norway deal, that being keeping in the Single Market, some form of customs union and keeping Freedom of Movement would have been an acceptable compromise, while acknowledging that it is inferior to full membership. It works well enough for countries like Norway and Iceland and, in different ways for Switzerland too. It would have addressed the issue of Ireland’s border and backstop. New deals over agriculture and fishing would have been possible. Of course, the UK would have had to pay membership and keep EU regulation for goods and services, which make it unacceptable to the economic right. Those opposed to immigration would have been unassuaged too and it is this issue that keeps public support for Brexit relatively high. As already mentioned, it is an issue that is close to (what passes for) May’s heart too. 

Remainers were not consulted however and it is only this week, after nearly two and a half years, that Labour is making any real noises in this direction. Rather too little and too late. Theresa May attempted to railroad her deal through, even keeping the cabinet isolated at Chequers in order to get it through at that level before signing with the EU. When it came before Parliament last week, it was clear from the outset that Parliament, having not being consulted previously, has no intention of passing the deal. I don’t see any way this will change, especially when it is clear that there is such a large number of her own MPs not supporting her. 

Last night BBC political editor John Pienaar was talking up the possibly of a People’s Vote - otherwise known as a second referendum. This is the first time it happened: whenever it was previously raised on his show, it was pretty much waived away as a non-starter. Now it is a real possibility. Leavers say that holding a second referendum would be to disrespect the outcome of the 2016 vote. That’s fine: it was a three month debate of terrible standards on both sides. In Scotland we debated independence for two years prior to the 2014 vote which, at the time seemed an absurd length. With the benefit of hindsight though, it was the time required to debate the issues involved. It has taken about the same length of time to make it clear what Brexit actually means. Guardian reporter Carol Cadwalladr has been doing a huge amount of work in uncovering the illicit side of the Leave.EU campaign funding and methods, not that that has made a similarly huge amount of impact with the public. Enough to say that the 2016 result was flawed and possibly illegal. From the beginning I never respected it: it was so short because David Cameron did not expect to lose.

What is clear is that Theresa May’s deal is dead. What is not clear is whether any deal exists that can pass through parliament. This would take a new team to return to Strasburg and reopen negotiations from the beginning. There is no time. The EU has made it clear that the deal made is the only deal available but that depends on the UK’s red lines, or rather those painted by May. She would have to go if any meaningful new negotiations were to come about. 

Naturally the ERG are still hoping to run down the clock and leave the EU without any deal being ratified by parliament. That has always been their aim. It is possible that the EU would agree to extend the March deadline if there is either a general election or a second referendum called. I suspect that if a new government were to negotiate any new deal, Article 50 would have to be halted, resetting the Brexit clock. Only then, if the UK were determined to leave, could a new government start meaningful talks with the EU. How do we know the basis of that mandate though? Only by holding a second referendum. A second vote is a prerequisite ahead of anything else now.  If the country votes to stay, the current government has to fall. If we vote to leave again, then a general election has to be called in order for the parties to put up their competing visions of Brexit. A Remain option would no longer be viable after two Leave results.

Despite whatever the Conservative Party wants, all ways now point to a second referendum.

Monday, 24 September 2018

The History We Are Never Taught at School

Every nation teaches history as a group of selective highlights, usually (but not always) to show the home nation in a respectable, or even an heroic, light. This is natural but rarely sufficient for an educated person to make an informed decision later on in life. For example: the exam syllabus I was taught in the 1970s covered history from the 1888 until 1945. It wasn’t bad; at least we covered the German imperial ambitions (A Place in The Sun) and how that ambition led ultimately to the First World War and that, in turn, to World War Two. It was very Euro-centric but it at least mentioned Empire. Plus, it was not an optional choice: we had to take it. When I was fourteen I hated studying history but the medicine that was forced down my throat then stood me in good stead later on in life. 
My daughter, Miss V, didn’t even have to study history to exam level in Scotland. Her school restricted pupils to sitting no more than six subjects at National Five. The Scottish exam syllabus was thus: The Scottish Enlightenment of the 18thCentury, World War Two and the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Before then, there was coverage of Scotland’s medieval wars with England. Scottish-centric certainly but not exactly offering coherent themes. 

Why is this important today? Several reason that has arisen in the past twenty-four hours that make it rather so.

The first was a tweet by Paul Lomax “I think my daughter’s primary school is missing the point of Black History Month.” accompanied by the following section of the school letter. Paul indicted in following tweets that he did not wish to identify the school but wanted to
Extract from a school letter
raise it as an issue with them; that is fair enough. I applaud him for raising the topic. My own tweet replied thus: “I suspect you are right. The feedback from the parents suggest that some of them certainly don’t get it: possibly they resent their children being “forced” to learn about Black History? The teachers seem not to understand that Black History is everybody’s history.” It is this point I wish to expand upon. 

Much of Black History is not European history. The rise of the Mali Empire, Great Zimbabwe or the Kingdom of Ghana are three such examples. From the 17thCentury onwards, Black History, European and British history became increasingly entangled; the reason being through colonialism and slavery. Black History Month is necessary because these are issued that are not usually addressed in the school curriculum. Many of the fortunes that led to the great buildings of port cities such as London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow and the great factories of Manchester, Leeds and Bradford were built on the wealth of sugar, tobacco, and cotton. The farming labour was carried out, in the main, by slaves who originated from West Africa. The Asante Kingdom was deeply involved in this trade. British history, Black History and European history has been fundamentally intertwined for over three hundred years. Black History is British history too, but without Black History Month, this period would not be taught at all in our schools. 
The main reason being is that this is a period of British history that is, frankly, bloody awful. As a nation we should be ashamed of this period in our past but how can we be if most people do not know about it? I consider myself reasonably (self) educated in history but, it was only through the recent works of historian Afua Hirsch, that I became aware of how deeply Lord Horatio Nelson, Britain’s greatest naval officer, used his position to support the Caribbean slave trade; having married into one of the major slave-owning families. Little wonder we don’t hear anything of Francis Woolwards of Nevis (aka Viscountess “Fanny” Nelson) and everything about Nelson’s mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton. 
Now I do not necessarily support Hirsch’s call to topple Nelson’s Column because of this but I do support a warts-and-all approach to history. The Black History movement highlights how little the 19thCentury is taught in our schools. If it is covered at all, it ends with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, echoing the teaching of the Second World War. 

This second tweet, from Conservative and Brexit-supporter Christopher Howarth, who wrote “Re-joining the UK is the only way to re-unite Ireland and the British Isles. Brexit makes Irish EU membership less logical.”At first, and rather uncharitably, I put this viewpoint down to ignorance but I was wrong. Mr Howarth is an educated person who is quite aware of the history of Irish independence and the resulting civil war. This period is covered in Irish school curriculum but again is absent from most UK schools. What Howarth’s tweet shows is a disregard for history: British Brexit supporters simply do not care about the effect of Brexit on our nearest neighbour. If one looks deeper still, it may also give the reason as to why this should be. I see the process of the UK leaving the European Union as a major part of the ongoing process of undermining the EU by the far right. For most Conservatives, this means the breaking up of the EU for the benefit of unregulated trade. Now I don’t think the leaders of Brexit really do see the Republic of Ireland re-joining the United Kingdom except in during a private moment of erotic spasm (as Vince Cable almost said), but their logic is that anything that weakens the EU is good. The UK is Ireland’s biggest trading partner and the hope is Ireland will be prised away from the EU through a process of economic necessity. Hence Brexiters’ complete disregard for the Irish border. They have calculated that Ireland needs Britain more than it needs the EU. If hardship results or even violence is reignited, so be it: they simply do not care. 
As outlined above, the same logic will be used to either deny or campaign against a second Scottish referendum vote. It is easily countered though: neither nationalist camp really cares about the economic cost of their aims on normal folk so why should the SNP argue further when all they have to do is point to Brexit? 
This lack of concern is also the reason why the UK Conservatives in the European Parliament are supporting European far-right politicians like Hungarian leader Viktor Orban. The Conservatives MEPs are not being whipped into supporting Orban because they are seeking support for a Brexit deal. It is abundantly clear that the Conservative right want to leave the EU without any deal and hope to blame the EU for it, at least as far as British public opinion is concerned. The Brexiters want more though: they are actively working for the breakup of the European Union. 

“Those who know history are condemned to watch it being repeated.” This is the Labour Party this morning after shadow-chancellor John McDonnell’s announcement that, if the conditions should allow, that any second referendum concerning Brexit would not have an option for the UK to stay within the EU. There would be no point to any referendum then. I do not believe this is a fudge: it is a determination of the Labour leadership to uphold Brexit. Corbyn and McDonnell want to leave the EU, again regardless of the real economic cost. They may promise a softer Brexit but there is no Brexit that leaves us better off. What is worse though is that they are knowingly playing into the hands of the far-right in doing so. This morning, defenders of the Labour decision were online, claiming that they are merely defending democracy or that getting Labour on board with the People’s Vote is a sneaky Lib Dem plot to undermine Labour’s vote come the next general election. Some of them even blame the Lib Dems for bringing Brexit around up upholding the Conservative government. This is denial and deflection by Labour. The real architects of Brexit are the right wing of the Conservative Party and their schism party UKIP. The real architects of the crash and the austerity that followed are those politicians, both of the left and right, who in their arrogance thought they had controlled the boom-bust cycle of capitalism. 
Labour is playing a dangerous game. Their leaders are gambling that they can take what is effectively a right-wing coup and turn it into a left-wing revolution. I think they are focused purely on the UK picture and not what is happening more widely in Europe. Without taking the international movements into account, I think they are destined to lose. They will also lose closer to home as Brexit represents the SNP’s best chance to gain independence. The SNP do not care what happens to the rest of the UK, although they should, even if purely for selfish ends. 

Brexit is now coming. This Labour autumn conference was probably the final chance to stop it and that is now not going to happen. Brexit is only the first step to a much darker world. There is still much to be done to prevent that world coming to pass. To quote Bertolt Brecht: 

“If we could learn to look instead of gawking,
We'd see the horror in the heart of farce,
If only we could act instead of talking,
We wouldn't always end up on our arse.
This was the thing that nearly had us mastered;
Don't yet rejoice in his defeat, you men!
Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard,
The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

To live and see such times again.