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.