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.

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