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. 

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Salzburg and the Continuing Rise of Nationalism

Apparently the EU’s reaction was an insult to Britain. Prime Minister Theresa May has track record of not listening however and for being inflexible. From a harsh line on immigration, resulting in the injustice of the Windrush affair, through the 2017 snap election with its unwavering mantra of “strong and stable” and now to the so-called Chequers plan, May has shown that, once set out upon a course, she is incapable of moving from it until it meets an immovably real object. According to the European editor of Irish broadcaster RTÉ, Tony Connelly, this mismatch of expectation led to the debacle of Salzburg. Having trampled over objections within her own party to the plan, Theresa May thought that she could do the same with the EU 27. They, on the other hand, have been consistent and clear: there are options available but they have never included compromising either the customs union or the single market. Either the UK accepts membership of the EEA and with it becomes a rule taker, or a Canada Plus deal with defined, regulated trade but, and this is important, a backstop provision covering the island of Ireland in order to support the Republic of Ireland’s place within the EU. Other than this, there are two further options: leave the EU, with no deal and no trade agreement, or stay. Stay and all this can go away. 

These are the deals on offer folks. Sure, there may be some tinkering around the edges but the twenty-seven nations of the EU have decided to stick together on this. If the UK chooses to leave with no agreement or trade deal in place, it will be painful for all. The pain however will be spread, albeit unevenly, among the EU-27. The focus of the agony however, will be upon the UK. For those British people reading this who, like our Prime Minister, may be detached from reality, that means you and me.

We are told however that sovereignty has a value greater than gold and, like the wolf of Aesop’s Fables, better lean freedom than fat slavery. Except that the UK have never been a slave within the EU and British citizens have certainly never been so. We have never been so free to work and move across the continent and millions of our fellow citizens has taken advantage of this for decades: whether for work, holiday or retirement. The only problem seems to be that this is not a case of British exceptionalism: foreigners(!) are allowed to come to the UK with exactly the same rights. Foreign is being spoken on the streets of Britain and apparently that makes some people feel less British. There is a word for that and it is called xenophobia. 

What has been undoubtedly the case though is that an economic sub-class has been allowed to developed and this has been mobilised by nationalist forces across the continent. This nationalism has varied from place to place but it is the far-right variety that is currently in ascendency. It is most visible in nations like Poland and Hungary, but make no mistake, it is continent-wide: as seen in rising support in Sweden, France, Italy and the UK. The Conservative Party now occupies the territory formally covered by UKIP. The rump of UKIP is effectively merging with the EDL. 

The lesson for this who support the EU is clear: the economic benefits has to be shared as deeply as possible, with no EU citizen being left behind. This is a major challenge but it cannot ever be ignored again. Doubtless this insight will enrage the economic right which are currently driving the rise of nationalism and the attempt to break up the European Union. They want a system of competing economies with weak governments dictated to by strong corporations. Competition between nation states are great for them as long as corporations are free to invest in the best opportunity. As far as the various populations are concerned, it will be a race to the bottom. This is the reality of the lean freedom on offer. The EU, for all its faults, is designed to benefit its citizens through the provision of a regulated marketplace. It is these regulations that the economic right wish to destroy and nationalism is their chosen weapon; regardless of who suffers. In fact, for the extreme right, suffering is the natural order of things. A citizen may have to suffer for the sake of the nation but a strong nation ultimately will export its suffering on to other, weaker nations. This is where the far right and the free markets merge in interest except the social Darwinism of the far right will be cheated by the more powerful corporations. The nation-state will forever be weak. It is divide and rule.

How do we avoid this grim prospect? First of all, Britain has to get through this current crisis. It will not be easy. The supporters of the economic right are on the verge of victory. All this have to do is keep May in power and limp her across the finishing post at the 29thof March, 2019 when the UK leaves the EU. They would prefer a no-deal exit. Billions can be made in a crash, primarily by betting against currency values but also by being ready to buy up devalued property. It is the opportunity that the billionaire backers of Brexit are waiting for. The majority of the press are on their side: insult to Britain, EU Gangsters, May’s Finest Hour, to paraphrase just a few of their headlines.

The Labour leadership has so far been backing Brexit. One can only conclude that Jeremy Corbyn is following the Marxist analysis that capitalism has to become intolerable before the masses to rise up and overthrow the system through revolution. I don’t know if the majority of Labour supporters share the leadership’s Marxism. If they don’t, they have to offer a final referendum on EU membership asking the British people are they sure this is what we want. As a party, they also have to come out as firm supporters of the EU. It was lack of Labour leadership on the issue that, in part, led to the defeat in 2016. 

The SNP has to come off the fence on this too. Many of their supporters have calculated that the UK leaving the EU will lead to an increased chance of a second Scottish independence referendum and a far-right England will lead to a Yes vote finally succeeding. That might be so but, the main problem is that Scotland’s largest neighbour and trading partner will then be a far-right monster! That is really kind of important guys and regardless of one’s aspirations, it is something that no sane person can wish for. Get off the fence and actively support a People’s Vote. 

As for my own party, the Liberal Democrats, we have been knocked into the wings of late but we are still here. If there is an election within the next year our message has to be simple: we will refuse Brexit. No Peoples Vote: a majority Lib Dem government would simply note that the 2016 referendum was advisory under law and a majority government would have a mandate to block it. A vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote to stay in the EU. If we remain a minority party after the next election, then yes, we still support a People’s Vote. 
Yes, we have many other good policies and it is right we shall talk about them as well. Brexit is the elephant in the room that everybody has to be talking about for now. 

Beyond party politics however, Brexit is the most important thing facing the United Kingdom. It has to be stopped: the alternative is too horrible to contemplate but it is almost upon us. 

UPDATE: 24th of September, 2018. On BBC's Today Programme, shadow Chancellor John McDonnell confirms that any People's Vote offered by Labour would not include a option to remain in the EU. This effectively renders any further referendum being worthless. 

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Citizen of Nowhere: a New Memoir

Over the summer I have been writing up memoirs which is mostly new material that has been previously been unpublished. I am currently looking for either an agency or publisher for this book. Please contact me on

The title, Citizen of Nowhere is a direct reference to and rejection of, Theresa May’s speech of October 2016 where she says “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”
At its heart, the memoir is the story of my personal development and changing attitudes set against the backdrop of domestic politics and international affairs.
Citizen of Nowhere addresses the following issues and themes:

·     Being an outsider in Britain
·     UK politics, including Northern Ireland
·     Working in the oil and gas industry
·     Environment, geology and nature
·     Nationalism
·     Racism
·     Sudden loss and grief
·     Israel and Palestine 
·     The arms industry
·     Travelogue of Texas, Africa, Central Asia, and Israel.

The book is complete and runs to a length of 79,000 words. 
-->The social and political content carries a strongly anti-nationalist message. It sheds light on how we, as a society, went from leaders like Blair and Obama to Trump and voting for Brexit. The truth is that the support for extremism has never gone away. 

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Sajid Javid and the fate of the Islamic State Jihadists

It has been disclosed that Sajid Javid, the UK Home Secretary, has allowed the extradition of two UK-based individuals who are accused of committing a series of murders while acting in support of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Contrary to convention, Javid did not gain the usual assurances that the suspects would not be subjected to capital punishment, which is allowed under US law.

Quite a few people have been asking why all the fuss over the fate of two men who have travelled to fight with a terrorist organisation and there is video evidence of them committing most horrible murder. If the Americans end up killing them after due process, who cares? 

Well, hang on there. All the fuss is about rule of law and not sympathy with young men who, most likely, have committed obscene criminal acts.  It is certainly not about support for terrorism, which I have been accused of while debating the issue online. 

Since the 1960s, the United Kingdom has given a free vote to MPs on the matter of capital punishment. Every time the subject has been raised for debate, the death penalty has been rejected by the nation’s sovereign body. The law of the United Kingdom rejects capital punishment. In addition, UK law does not allow for torture.

Owing to this, all people who are under UK law and are subject to extradition requests are not to be extradited if there is a possibility of them subjected either to capital punishment or torture. Previously, all extraditions have been subject to this proviso. As part of the European Union, this nation has agreed to object to capital punishment in all cases and, as a nation, we support the active campaign to oppose capital punishment on a global basis.

In not seeking the usual assurances from the Americans prior to extradition, Home Secretary Sajid Javid has overturned both EU and UK law on a whim. He may personally have no objection to seeing these two men executed by the Americans after due process but it is not his choice to make. The law of the UK does not allow for him to choose. He, and quite possibly PM Theresa May has, by decree, now stated that the death penalty and the fate of those the UK transfers over to the jurisdiction of others, is a matter of indifference. That indifference is effectively support for the death penalty. 

Upon hearing the news, I tweetedThe UK government is either opposed to the death penalty or not. One cannot use death as a penalty a wee bit. This Conservative government has shown its hand: it is pro-capital punishment. That is a disgrace for any civilised nation #R4Today

The hashtag #R4Today is a reference to the BBC Today Programme on Radio Four and allow other listeners on Twitter to follow listener reaction. I was kind of struck by the similarity of my point with that of the shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott who, was speaking in the Commons later the same morning.  “They [the Government]cannot be a little bit in favour of the death penalty. Either we offer consistent opposition or we don’t.”

Another critic pointed out to me that the two people have been stripped of their UK citizenship, the implication being that the UK no longer have an interest in their fate. That is not so either. First of all, the concept of making a person stateless may possibly contravene Article 15 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government may argue that withdrawal of citizenship was not arbitrary but creation of individual statelessness as a result of criminal activity is legally dubious, especially without trial. Secondly, even if the two individuals have legally been made stateless, the Home Secretary has exercised authority over them and the rules he acts under is still that of the UK. 

Ultimately, this argument is all about the rule of law and whether the government can ignore it or can exempt people from it. That answer is simply no, it cannot. 

A critic opined whether I “would be still bleating the mantra if you were on your knees in the desert in an orange jumpsuit.”

I have two replies to this. First of all, it is the rule of law that ultimately stops governments acting in the same way as ISIS.

Secondly, it’s been a few years but I have worked in such places. My name has been down on proposals for work in Iraq. I have worked in the Middle and Near East, North Africa. Yes, there was security and in some places lots of it. Ultimately though, our best chance of remaining a decent society to uphold the rule of law, even for people we don’t like. Even for murderers and terrorists. 

Sajid Javid has put his personal morality above both UK and international law and, as a senior government member, has by executive decree, overturned both. That is why there is a fuss. 

Friday, 29 June 2018

Popular Nationalism and the Threat of Trump.

Many people are rightly alarmed and worried by the rise of nationalism across the planet, especially with the antics of President Trump who appears to be on the road into turning the world's military superpower into a fascist regime. Honestly, I’m not depressed. In my youth I took it upon myself to study Nazism. In the 1990s I discovered and challenged The National Alliance on the prototype of the Internet, the same organisation that influenced and inspired the murderer of Jo Cox MP. The madness of Brexit and the refusal of any fact-based evidence to be taken on board is the English manifestation of this nationalism. Even the nationalism of our own dear SNP here in Scotland, who is very much on the fluffy end of the scale, appear on the same spectrum because ultimately all nationalism is defined by claims of oppression: both by those who claim to seek escape from it and by those who, in claiming to be oppressed by foreigners, seek to impose their will upon others. 

I’m ready for this fight. Since the end of the Second World War, the prevailing wisdom has been for advised democracy. Why is democracy advised? Because most people just want to get on with living. People think about politics in the most case on principle rather than the facts. 

Popular movements appeal directly to emotion and seek to undermine any fact that does not fit in with their narrative. With his constant tweeting, Trump wishes to avoid any debate at all, instead slamming together a narrative that the USA is being manipulated and overrun by foreigners, whose sole purpose for existence is, apparently, the undermining of America. Only this morning Trump claims that the European Union was created to undermine the USA. Obviously it was that and nothing to do with the propensity for European nations to wage murderous wars against each other and destroy the continent twice within forty years. No, it was obviously an anti-American plot from the beginning. 

The trouble is, starved of facts, a sizeable majority of people are buying into the nationalist message. With the experiment of the separation and interment of immigrant children that occurred during June, Trump has now confirmed that federal agencies will follow brutal and inhumane orders without question. Everything is now in place for the ending of democracy in the USA. 

The danger is now that people will vote away four hundred years of struggle by which any citizen can stand up and pursue their rights as an individual human, able to face up to the power of government. We are losing our democracy and our human rights to those who would deny the rule of law or any objectivity. Power is the only good to such people. This means that, to people who back this drive, you too will be the victim of the power you now support. There will be no recourse because facts will be denied and laws ignored.

It is time for all to put aside nationalism because it is a pathway towards hell. All who would oppose fascism must stand up for evidence-led, fact-based advised democracy. 

Monday, 12 February 2018

Oxfam and the Perils of Remote Operations

The recent news of Oxfam troubles over the behaviour of some staff in Haiti should come as no surprise to those who have worked in the poorer parts of the world.  I don’t think this is an issue about charities per se. Instead it about standards, and about how anybody who finds themselves in foreign cultures applies them.

Beyond more times than I can recall, I have seen examples of bad behaviour by Europeans  (including British) and North Americans while working in poorer societies. Use of either prostitution or having a local girlfriend while in country is commonplace.  In the early 2000s, I did one particular job in Kazakhstan for a month, which involved regular rotation work for many colleagues. The temptations there were incredible.  I stayed a month and refused further work because if I had returned I am certain that I would have been unable to hold my marriage together.  Divorce is indeed the fate that befell most of my married colleagues: out of forty guys who were on month-on-month-off rotation, by the end of two years (by which time the contract ended) thirty-eight of them were divorced. Some of them came away with new partners, others required courses of medication.

It can be argued that in this case there was no moral leadership, which is perfectly true. In fact, there is often a large degree of peer-pressure to get people “dirty”, so that they are not going to blab when they go home. “What happens in the field stays in the field” is an old saying that is still honoured.  It can be argued that charities are engaged in noble work and should be held to higher standards than a bunch of rig-pigs. In reality though, standards to which any person operates are the ones that they carry with them.  When back in the UK (or wherever home is), one is held to certain standards, the social norms. It is quite common for a man to leave his own society and, finding himself in a new society whose norms he is unaware of but is offered easy access to sex, drugs and alcohol. The newcomer has a vast amount of spending power compared to locals and a proportion of those local folk not only want that cash but are willing to deliver pretty much anything in order to get it. The newcomer is basically entering a moral vacuum where there are few external boundaries. If that person does not carry moral standards within him or herself (and no, that is not me being politically correct – one former colleague said she enjoyed working in Angola because of all the “uncomplicated sex”) then they are capable of living out their wildest fantasies. Abuse is only possible because the power is so one-sided. Kazakhstan is a society that has become a lot richer over the past two decades and, as economic power has equalised, the desperate excesses of the late 1990s are no more. 

Corporations are very aware of the perils of this lifestyle and nowadays try to control the situation by overworking employees. That may include long shifts, seven-day-a-week working and no leaving of the hotel or staff house. Some even have tried to introduce a strict policy of no alcohol while on rotation, that even includes airports and flights.  Such extreme measures, in all, make a complete misery of foreign working and takes any joy out of the proceedings. What is the use of being in a country when one is not able to visit any site of interest or culture? By the same reasoning of course, it keeps others out of the fleshpots. Many of the senior executives know the perils of course, because while they were in the field they were often the worst offenders.

It may be possible to keep oil workers away from the public but charity works, by definition, involves public contact and being part of the fabric of the host society. It will be a lot harder to enforce a moral standard as isolation is not possible. Before I continue, I don’t want to cast aspersions on everybody. For example, I came across a brilliant team of American doctors and nurses in Mauritania who had given up a month of their time to provide free operations and medical care to local people. Another good example I encountered was a UN conference in Kampala on refugees and stateless people. Much good is being done, so please do not get the idea that all foreign charity work is a waste of time. It isn’t. There are bad examples though. In West Africa, the UN workers were often derided for being in place to stop the exploitation of women while being themselves regular clients of sex workers.  Some of the most unpleasant individuals I have ever met have been diplomats attached to various embassies - although I have not encountered misbehaviour from any UK staff.

When it comes down to how to solve such problems, it is difficult. Cultural awareness must be one key. I don’t know what courses are available to charity workers before they are shipped out to remote parts of the world, but I don’t recall much training on this being offered in industry.  Leadership in field is another imperative.  If the leader is a sleaze, the team is left to their own personal standards. In fact, as I stated above, bad conduct is often encouraged from those indulging in it.

Perhaps the worst examples though are not failures in individual behaviour but extravagance in operations. Both the following examples come from former colleagues and both involve Oxfam. Both are also historical: at least twenty years old.  The first one concerns a colleague comes backing from West Africa and, unexpectedly, he is upgraded to business class. Next to him is some guy and, as the flight goes on, they fall into conversation.
“Who do you work for?”
The engineer expresses surprise that he is travelling business class.
“Oh, I don’t work directly for Oxfam. My company are being hired on a consultancy basis.”

The second example was another friend who, as engineer-in-charge, was running an operation out of Port Hardcourt in Nigeria. The house that the company was renting could sleep ten and was often used for crews coming and going to rigs and arriving in country.  One day the landlord comes to the engineer and gives notice, unless more than double the rent can be provided.
“That’s crazy!” says my friend. The landlord says calmly that he already has an alternative tenant lined up on these terms.
“Who is it?”
“That must be a huge team that they are moving in.”
“Oh no, it’s just for one person.”