Friday, 17 June 2016

This Week: The Highs and Very Lows

This week has seen some of the best and worst of people and politics.

My own week started on Leith Links, campaigning with the Edinburgh North, East and Leith Liberal Democrats.  Given that the EU referendum is coming up, we decided to put our efforts into supporting the Remain campaign.  Always the party with the greatest enthusiasm for the European Union, I found it a real pleasure engaging people on the subject.

Even those who didn't want to know the Libdems (I know, hard to believe!) were usually willing to talk on Europe.  My approach was straightforward.  Those who were undecided were offered, and glad to accept, information on the matter.  We had brochures, leaflets and we're glad to answer questions.   People who had already decided to vote to stay were offered rather tasteful lapel badges with stickers and balloons for the children.

It was those who intended to vote for Brexit that were really engaged.  I always asked "Why?"   Now some would not be talked to, offering a stream of thoughts as they departed.  Most did stop and explain their reasoning.  The amount of misinformation about the EU is rather scary.   One person was not even aware that the European Parliament was elected and was seriously surprised that the next election for the Parliament would be in 2018, after they had missed the 2014 elections.   Others had to be reassured that the UK did have full control of non-EU immigration. One person raised the question of anti-social behaviour (littering) by some young Eastern Europeans, to which I countered "That is against the law so why aren't we applying own own laws?"  Countering minor nuisances like this doesn't depend upon the nationality of those causing it.

The result was that over half of those who had claimed to be solid No voters went away with a different point of view.  It was a good result and shows the value of real facts and direct conversation.

The next morning was the start of the lows.  News of a mass shooting came through from Orlando.  There had already been the murder of promising young singer, 22-year-old Christine Grimmie,  in the same town, earlier in the week.  It seems a perverse coincidence that there would be another incident there so soon.  As the details arose throughout the day, the full horror became clear.  The biggest mass killing by a single shooter on US soil was a homophobic hate crime.  From my viewpoint, LGBT+ rights are simply human rights.  I know that the gunman, whose name frankly should be forgotten, claimed to act in the name of ISIS but, giving the previous involvement that the murderer had with the Pulse club, perhaps that was just to give some self-justification for the atrocity he had decided to commit.

America, I don't think the root cause of the problem is the amount of guns in society, although that is a massive factor.  Rather it is the general attitude toward the value of human life.  It took two mass killings in the UK, thirteen in Australia, before guns were banned in the respective nations, with widespread public support.  It seems to us abroad, despite the continuation of the phenomena, despite the anguish of the parents and relatives of the dead, the attachment to firearms continue.  Perhaps since the right to bear arms was as part of a trained militia, that the only legal weapons should be flintlock muskets and civil war pistols.  Seriously though, military grade weapons have no purpose in civilian hands.  I remember that assault-grade weapons, such as a BAR, used to be sold with only three-round magazines for civilian collectors.  The only reason one can see to change that was to sell more weapons and bullets.  An AR-15 comes with a 30-round magazine as standard.
It might be naive to suggest a total ban but a handgun is more than enough for those who feel the need for personal protection.  Taking military grade weapons off the open market would finally signal a change in American attitudes.  Even that is too much for the NRA, arms dealers and their cronies in the Congress and Senate.   In my opinion, any society that does not value human life is the last society that should have open access to firearms.

From horrors like the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub, sometimes beauty comes forth.  Such beauty was the reaction.  Vigils were held across the world and I would like to thank the Edinburgh branch of Inclusive Networks for organising Wednesday's event, held in St.Andrew's Square.  The event was open to all and people of all ages and genders attended in large numbers, despite the unpleasant and dreich weather.  Two choirs, Loud&Proud and Edinburgh's Gay Men's Chorus, sang wonderfully and there were speeches from politicians and non-politicians alike.  The most moving part was the reading of the names.  Stalin was right: numbers are just a statistic.  Hearing the names, hearing how young and how much life would have been ahead of the fallen, that for me was important.  I turned fifty this week so in a position to fully appreciate how much life, how many futures, were taken.  For many LGBT+ people the massacre was also a violation of a haven: an area where one could relax and just be oneself in a safe and supportive environment.  It is a shame that such places are still necessary but, despite what has been achieved over the last fifty years, it is so.  We are still not in a society where neither the life not dignity of every individual is respected by all.

The following day (which was my birthday anniversary) I attended the afternoon's political rally held by the IN campaign.  This rally was symbolically very important because of its cross-party nature.  Chaired by Scottish Libdem leader Willie Rennie: Greens, Conservatives, SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats were all represented by senior party figures.  For Labour it was Scottish party leader Kezia Dugdale and for the Liberal Democrats it was Nick Clegg.  Whatever views you may have about Nick (mine are mixed), he is a brilliant speaker.  Sitting next to me was a lady from the SNP who breathed a none-too-subtle "Oh my God" when Nick was a little way into his speech.  By the end she was clapping enthusiastically.

More importantly though, while all five parties want to see different outcomes from the European Union, we are all united in wanting to see it work and Britain to be an important member and leader in Europe.

I am immodest enough to note my own question was well received.  A few days before the "Official Information About the Referendum" leaflet from Vote Leave came through my letterbox.  Noting in my preamble it had ended up in the bottom of my canary's cage, I asked how best to challenge the misinformation held within it.  One example is that it stated that Turkey is set up to join the EU.  This is a lie: Turkey is nowhere near fulfilling the criteria for EU membership despite decades of negotiation.  More disturbingly, the leaflet notes the positions of Syria and Iraq in relation to Turkey.  This is beyond EU debate: it is nothing less than an appeal to xenophobia and I asked, with a week to go, how best to fight this aspect.  I appreciate Willie giving me the opportunity to put the question, which was well-answered by Nick.

At the start of the event, Willie Rennie informed the hall that there had been an attack on Jo Cox MP, to considerable shock and dismay.  None of us knew that by that time she had already died of her wounds, leaving a husband and two small children.  It was only in the late afternoon, tuning into PM and hearing Jo Cox's maiden speech being broadcast, that I knew then she was dead.

I didn't know Jo Cox but have no reason to disbelieve any of the tributes being made of her.  I am sure had she lived, that she would have made a great contribution to public life.  What shook me was the violence and manner of her death.  Members of parliament (and we now have several parliaments across the UK) come from the public and are at their best when serving the public.  They have to be available and approachable, which of course leaves them vulnerable.  When it comes to security, I think it should be up to each member of parliament to speak with the police and make the arrangements that they feel most comfortable with.   What should not happen is that members of parliament are cut off from the open access that is currently afforded.

I have stood for parliament a few times now and have yet to be elected.  Perhaps it will never happen, who knows.  It should be noted that most people who stand are aware that that they will not be elected.  We stand in order to propagate and promote the ideas, to lay the groundwork for party success in the future.  That may involve personal success but nothing is guaranteed.  If we were doing it for personal gain, we would be idiots.  There are some exceptions of course, especially when a given party is at its zenith of fortune, but on the whole what I say stands.  The vast majority of candidates do it for love and a wish to serve, not for money and certainly not for the glory.

When out on the hustings, in street, on the doorstep, one is vulnerable.  I have been pretty lucky: never having suffered personal abuse nor intimidation.  Most people are very nice; regardless of what they may think of one's personality or politics.   My fortune should not be taken for granted.   I personally know two candidates, standing in the 2016 elections here in Scotland, one of which who suffered intimidation after an otherwise civil hustings, and another who had to undergo the humiliation of racial abuse as the spoiled ballets  were being shown to all candidates.  The former was a woman and of course the latter comes from a BAME background.  Both cases are an outrage and I am aware that perhaps one reason I have not had similar experiences is because being white, male, straight and solidly-built (okay, a bit fat), such abuse does not come my way.  I have unearned privilege but I am aware of this and working for a society where such humiliations are not heaped upon other heads.

Listening to the news this evening, it was stated that the killer of Jo Cox was, during the 1990s, involved with the US Neo-Nazi group The National Alliance.  Now I remember this bunch.  They were the real-deal, full-fat Aryan white supremacists.  While at university, by accident I discovered the group online and, being blonde and blue-eyed, I felt it incumbent upon myself to disagree with these bastards.  If Jo's murderer was indeed involved with this group and paid real money for their publications, I find it extremely easy to believe that, unless he had undergone a Damascene conversion in the years since, that he would be a supporter of today's Britain First.  In their own way they are just as vile and nasty as The National Alliance was then.

I started this week in campaigning mode for the Vote Remain and Scotland Stronger in Europe teams.  It didn't turn out that way.  This week is a ghastly, horrible, reminder that as a society we may feel that we have come far from how things were in my youth.  In reality we haven't.  The demons of hatred, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny are still with us.  Their chains have become loosened, resulting in the deaths of many.

It is up to every single one of us to continue the fight against hatred, in all its forms.  We do not win by hating back.  Hatred is defeated through knowledge, wisdom and love.  Love is love.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Britain and Brexit

This is a personal note, a reflection of my experience of the UK, Ireland, Europe and beyond. It is from both the head and the heart.

There are many disadvantages to growing old.  Hair goes grey, bits start to droop - if not actually drop off.  One has also lived through history and, in the context of the European Union debate, that is a rather valuable asset.  Polls lead us to believe that the older the person, the more likely one is to vote Leave.  What I would like to know is what on earth they are smoking because I too remember England before the EU and frankly it was a bloody miserable place.

By the early 1970s, Britain was dying on it's feet.  As a nation, we had won the war, lost the Empire and lost the peace.  Britain ship building technology was stuck in the 1950s and great yards were losing contracts to Japan.  Japan was also starting to dominate the motorcycle and car industry.  When the first Honda mopeds came to Britain in the 1960s, manufacturers like Norton, Triumph and Sunbeam laughed.  By the mid-70s, there was no more laughter.  Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha dominated.  British car manufacturers took longer to fall but fall they did and not just to the Japanese.  European manufacturers like Volkswagen,Fiat and Renault were hitting the budget and mid-market areas hard.  Avengers, Singers, Maxis and Allegros didn't stand a chance.  Even later efforts like the modern-looking Rover 3500 were underpinned with an ancient Buick chassis and suspension.  

Now that is not to say that the situation for the UK magically improved once Britain entered the ECC.  No, it took time.  The Conservatives would claim sole responsibility for the turnaround in the nation's fortune but they were greatly helped by the balance of payments from both the oil industry and trade with Europe, especially in the 1980s.   It is the fall in oil and gas production that has been a major contributor to the trade inequalities that we see today.

Europe started to change our politics too.  The emergence of the Greens in the late 1980s was directly inspired by politics in Germany and The Netherlands.  The voting systems of our European neighbours have been felt in non-Westminster politics, especially in the smaller home-nations of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.  By sticking to the nonsensical and unfair first-past-the-post system, England is falling far behind in terms of citizen representation.

It was during the 1980s I first started to travel regularly.  My brother was serving in the military and was stationed in Germany.  They did think a bit differently.  This was the first time I saw cycle lanes.  It is sensible: dividing cycle, motor and pedestrian traffic from each other simply makes the roads safer for all users.
Another thing was that the food was just better quality.  Although the 1980s started to see an improvement in UK restaurants, at the time many were still pretty dire.  Nowadays we take a plethora of cuisine types and high quality that is available to us for granted but it was not always so.  In my birth town of Lowestoft, I remember just a handful of foreign alternatives: mostly Chinese, some Indian, with a couple of Italians and Ffrench (the name of the restaurant, not a typo) for Continental dining.   The first cappuccino coffee bar didn't arrive until 1990 and was set up by an Italian electrician who had been blackballed by local management from working in the Japanese-owner Sanyo factory.  (The Japanese had decided to invest in the UK in order to circumvent restrictive French import practices.  British social practices did not change however).

When it comes to eating out it is only in the last decade or so can it be said that the UK has caught up with our continental neighbours.  The same cannot be said for our hospitality industry.  Why is it that the vast majority of our hotel staff are from outside the UK?  No, it isn't because they are cheap labour: it is because the cultural upbringing sees no shame in offering hospitality and service.  I know this is being unfair to those British people who work in hospitality and are excellent in their job but they are the not the majority.  Once past their prime, many British hotels and guest houses remain tired, threadbare and expensive.  It isn't just the climate that drives many UK holidaymakers to foreign lands.  We go abroad for vacation to be treated well.  Hoteliers in the UK employ foreign workers in order to obtain the same level of service that we have come to expect from being abroad.  Many forget to reinvest in the infrastructure.

Many British folk have permanently moved abroad to enjoy the sunshine.  It seems illogical to some that some British immigrants to Spain (or expats as they still model themselves) are voting for Brexit.  There is a reason for this however.  Those people who live abroad and are voting for Britain to leave, left Britain because they don't like the multi-cultural nation we have become.  The evidence for this is in their humour.  If you have ever seen the fanzines in circulation among the British communities in Spain, it is as if Bernard Manning and Roy "Chubby" Brown represent the pinnacle of our culture.  The readership hate modern Britain, hate foreigners and their greatest wish is to be able to assert their self-claimed superiority, insult outsiders at will and wind back the clock to 1955.  They fail to see the irony of their own position and, through their own inflated sense of self-worth, do not realise at a Brexit vote may well put their own position in Spain at risk.  A vote for Brexit defies logic but they are relying upon the Spanish government to act logically in the face of their own defiance.  What if the Spanish also throw caution to the winds and tells the British to assimilate or get out?   AdiĆ²s y per favor vete!

From emigrants to immigrants.  There are many that claim that Brexit will allow us to control our borders and thus reduce pressures on our education and health systems.  It is true that language lessons for those those first language is not English do add to school expenses but has nobody noticed that we have an ageing population in this country?  The school children of today are tomorrow's workers whose taxes will be paying the state pensions of old gits like me.  If the average population continues to get older and there is not enough young workers, the state pension, already less-than-generous by the standards of our near neighbours, will fail.

As of the ageing population of today and the relationship to immigration, I will point out that the vast majority of European people moving to the UK are of working age.  The major burden on the NHS are pensioners, not young immigrants.  It has been stated often that a lot of workers from abroad staff both the NHS and our care homes.  Brexiteers argue that if we limited immigration more British people could work here.  With an ageing population though, what if there are simply not enough working Brits to fill the vacancies of services, industry and the NHS?  We are back to immigration again.  The truth is that, in common with much of Northern Europe, we need immigrants.  It isn't out of pure altruism that the German government have opened it doors to so many refugees.

The question must be asked, what is it that the Brexiteers actually want?  There are a few on the left of British politics who follow the Bennite view that the European Union is all about big business.  I disagree but at least that is a sincere and logical argument.  Since the European Union is the world's biggest freely trading zone, it is good for capitalism.  If one is against capitalism, one should be against the EU.  That is the basic reason for socialist opposition.  Fair enough.

The main driving force for the UK coming out of the EU is not from the Left but from the Right.  UKIP itself comes from a Conservative schism.  With their usual instinct for self-preservation, the Conservative Party has managed to head off the kind of damage inflicted upon Labour in the 1980s with the rise of the SDP but the cost has been the open civil war now being openly fought between those Conservatives who want to leave and those who want to stay.

If the main thrust of the argument is being generated by the political Right, what is it that they want?  The answer is not hard to find: deregulation of the private sector and lower taxation.  One former leader of UKIP, Lord Pearson, even wanted the United Kingdom to leave the EU and go and join the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA).  To be fair that is not on the cards today but does go a fair way to illustrate where their sympathies lie.

The Brexiteers claim that to leave the EU is a reclamation of sovereignty but there is no talk from them that we should be leaving NATO, an organisation in which our national sovereignty is almost entirely subservient to the requirements of the USA.  I knew one former Royal Navy navigator who was so sickened by the amount of times his vessel was running American missions that he left the service.  This sharing of sovereignty passes without discussion with those on the Right but give anybody else outside the UK a say in workers' or human rights of British citizens and, apparently, the whole nation is being dragged down by the envious machinations of Johnny Foreigner.

Instead of being strong partners with our near neighbours in Europe, we are told that we should be going it alone.  Make Britain great again!  Reach out to the rest of the world and we will be that great trading nation once again.  Let us make one thing absolutely clear: Britain was never a great trading nation.  We were great imperialists.  Our country grew to the height of wealth through trading with our Empire in a closed market on the most advantageous terms.  Already by the end of the 19th Century American and German industry was out-competing the UK in free trade.   In  promotIng protectionism, the British Empire become our industrial tomb.  When we lost the empire and after nations such as Germany and Japan rebuilt their industrial base after its destruction in WWII, the UK was swept aside.

How are we going to compete toe-to-toe with not only the entire EU, the USA, China and all upcoming nations like Brazil on the world markets?  The answer is in deregulation.  Chinese workers have very few rights and so it will become with us.  Corporate taxation will be reduced.  Personal income tax rates may well fall too but with a rise in VAT: after all, t was the Conservatives who introduced that tax in the late 70s and it is easily avoided by the wealthy who can afford to shop outside the country.   Leave the EU, go it alone and one can say goodbye to the minimum wage,  a month's paid holiday, health and safety at work, maximum working hours and any vestige of working rights.  In a low-tax economy, there is no way the NHS will survive.  This is the grand vision that is meant by the return of sovereignty.

At this point, I would expect to be accused of scaremongering by those who would vote Leave but I'm not and I will prove it to you with a simple example and following question.  When the respective populations of both Norway and Switzerland cast their votes on EU membership, they knew, regardless of outcome, that their own governments and political systems would continue to look out for them and act in their best interests.
Now ask yourself the question: do you trust the UK government with your future, your families' future and to act in your best interest, regardless of outcome of the vote ahead?
If your answer is no, then there is only one logical way to vote on the 23rd of June.

Cast your vote to remain in the European Union.