Were you still watching on election night 1997 when Stephen Twigg defeated Michael Portillo in Enfield Southgate? My late wife and I were. Great, wasn’t it? We went to bed shortly afterwards with tired smiles and a feeling of contentment.
Talking of wives, my current wife is a real dog lover and she wouldn’t knowingly harm any animal. And yet, she laughed uncontrollably at the sight of a small, cute dog being accidentally thrown into a cement mixer in a famous sitcom scene.
Schadenfreude, that most guilty of pleasures, seems to affect us all, no matter how well-intentioned we claim to be. Taking pleasure out of someone else’s misfortune has been the stock-in-trade for moral tales and for comedy down the centuries. From the comeuppance of Shylock to the humiliation of a self-important Basil Fawlty, the audience is invited to feel good or to laugh at witnessing the suffering of a rogue or buffoon.
As a comedian once said, “I wonder what the German word for schadenfreude is”. Although we have no everyday word in the English language, there’s a whole host of idiomatic phrases to choose from. “Cut down to size”, “got what (s)he deserved”, “the higher they climb, the harder they fall”, “taste of your own medicine”, “(s)he had it coming” all spring to mind. Clearly our in-built sense of justice often includes a levelling down as well as a levelling up.
So, why do human beings, even quite moral ones, exhibit schadenfreude? An interesting article in Psychology Today attempts to answer this question. A key point is this: “people … have a fundamental need to believe that the (social) world is a just place and that this belief is functionally necessary for them to develop principles of deservingness”. That’s fine, I get that… except that it doesn’t explain the joy at poor Binky’s fate. Of course, the core theme of the sitcom was that most British of subjects: embarrassment and the gradations of the English class system. But I think we’ll keep our dog walking away from building sites, just in case.
The chocolate orange
Right now, the UK government is in a state of collapse. In a few short weeks, the evil hubris of “crush the saboteurs” has given way to minority government, bribes to the DUP, open warfare in the Tory party, a breakdown in Cabinet discipline and the PM’s plea to opponents for ideas. The head of the National Audit Office speaks of disarray between Government departments, a lack of policy-making capacity and the real danger of the UK’s approach to EU exit negotiations falling apart “like a chocolate orange”.
The government’s official economic watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, said this week that the UK economy was in a worse shape now to cope with economic shocks than it was in 2007, before the global crash. Exiting the EU on May’s proclaimed terms will be the biggest economic shock since World War II. The sheer size and breadth of the mess is becoming clearer by the day. So much for Tory austerity policies. Anyone brave – or insane – enough to say “strong and stable” one more time?
Ode to Joy?
Of course, I can’t help at times feeling some guilty pleasure at all this misfortune falling on a group of people who felt they were entitled to rule for generations. In my heart, my dream scenario – or, perhaps more accurately, the most benign nightmare scenario – would be this. May and her ragbag of incompetents and fantasists struggle on long enough to damage their reputation and electability for a generation. But in so doing, they don’t do so much damage to our economy and national interests that we – and especially the poor and most vulnerable – are harmed irreparably for decades to come.
My heart may wish for such an outcome, but my head says the chances of this happening are vanishingly small. Perhaps I’d better stop my indulgence in schadenfreude pretty damned soon. But, hey, I guess the odd snigger from time to time might still be allowed.
Arguably, the most successful soundbite of last year’s EU referendum campaign was “take back control”, used by the Leave team. It was delusional, of course, based upon the ridiculous idea that Little Britain could be master of its own destiny outside the EU. The realpolitik of 21st century capitalism means that the mega-rich and multinational corporations are free to move capital – and jobs – around the globe. This makes pure fantasy the idea that one medium-sized country can be in control. Standing together with like-minded countries in a bloc like the EU gives some chance of the needs of the people winning – sometimes – against the rich, powerful and footloose. On our own, forget it.
But the idea – and the phrase – caught the imagination of many, assuming they didn’t think too deeply about it.
Ironically, one year on from the referendum, the idea of taking back control – in a different sense from before – is really beginning to catch on. And, this time, it’s a development of which I approve. Two recent events best illustrate my point.
The 2017 General Election
Once again, the pollsters got it wrong. The Tories’ loss of overall majority came as a surprise and, this time, a pleasant one for me. (The shocks of 1970, 1992 and 2015 were three times too many for one lifetime!) There genuinely seem to be signs of change. Specifically, I mean signs that more and more voters are seeing the Tories and their austerity agenda in its true colours: as a way of reinforcing the power and wealth of a minority at the expense of everyone else.
People are beginning to see the value of the public sphere: the schools, hospitals, police, firefighters, public infrastructure, clean air, enforcement of reasonable regulations for safety in employment, and many more. It extends to an appreciation of the longer-term strategic view that public ownership can give to areas such as blue-sky R&D and in the energy sector.
For three and a half decades, government and economists have asserted the supremacy of free market fundamentalism. They assert that free markets, unfettered by government interference, will produce the best of all possible outcomes. For the poor, their concerns and fears are vilified or ignored. At long last, an increasing number of people see that assertion for what it is: a lie.
They can see with their own eyes that the average worker is still worse off than before the 2007-8 global financial crash. They can see the rise of low quality, insecure jobs and the sham self-employment. They see ruthless employers increasingly treating their workforce with contempt. Too many people feel they have no control over their lives. Job insecurity means they cannot make sensible plans for the future, about basic matters such as housing and starting a family. For the rich, every whim and opinion is indulged and flattered.
The recent general election result showed that more people have seen through the Tories’ lies. Corbyn’s Labour Party finally gave them a real choice: a chance to get back some control. Emphasis on workers’ rights and the renationalisation of railways and utilities is seen to make sense. Private utilities casually rip off their customers – their nationalised forebears never exploited them in that way.
The Grenfell Tower Tragedy
And then came that most unimaginably awful, utterly avoidable tragedy: the Grenfell Tower fire. Four weeks on, those who have lost their homes and those who have lost loved ones still haven’t had their questions answered. Still the authorities, above all Kensington and Chelsea Council, are failing in their most basic obligations to the residents. Most of the support and help for practical, emotional and psychological issues still seem to be given by volunteers and community organisations. Yet Kensington and Chelsea is the UK’s richest authority, with nearly £300m in its reserves. The total breakdown of trust between the state and the citizens of the area is palpably raw and tragic. The Grenfell residents aren’t being given even the basic answers to help begin a grieving process and to rebuild their lives. The lack of control they have over their present and future lives screams out every minute of every ghastly day.
Out of Control
Whilst in no way comparable, I remember clearly the moment I found out my first wife, in her mid-40s, had been diagnosed with cancer. There was an overwhelming sense that our lives had, very suddenly, got totally out of control. Over the following few days, through our own research and with good support from medical staff answering our many questions, we began to feel better able to cope. The cancer hadn’t gone away, but we had more information to begin to make sense of it all and gain a feeling of control once again.
It would be simply wrong, impertinent and insulting to the Grenfell victims to say I know how they feel. But it is, after all, a defining feature of being human that we try, however inadequately, to empathise with those who are suffering. All I can say with any certainty is that it must be massively, massively worse than what I went through – unimaginably so.
A Turning Point?
It feels like the Grenfell fire and its aftermath is a turning point: I really, really hope it is. Grenfell, or something like it, is what happens after thirty-five years of inhumane economic policy, treating humans simply as economic units. And, as economic units, the rich and powerful are treated with utmost respect; the poor and vulnerable with utmost contempt. I sense that people really have had enough, at last.
The hope now is that we can be led by people with the vision to plot a new path to the future. The Labour Party manifesto for the recent election was a good start. Jeremy Corbyn seems to have found his feet. He clearly recognises that, if everyone is to “take back control” of their lives, most of us, at some time need the state to be there to lend a helping hand. This help takes many forms: benefits, doctors, nurses, firefighters, a decent job with a predictable wage or basic needs like gas and electricity from an organisation that doesn’t try to rip you off all the time.
The Tories won’t get us there. Several members of May’s cabinet are professed admirers of Ayn Rand and have called her most famous novel an “inspiration” – here’s one example. Free Market Fundamentalism, that cruel and heartless creed of greed, is the natural brainchild of Rand’s cold-hearted and false assumptions about human behaviour. It must stop. All the people of Britain, poor and rich, must be given the opportunity to take back control of their lives. Starting now.
Recent evidence has emerged about a forgotten civilisation during the second century CE in the eastern Mediterranean. Historians and Archaeologists have been engaged in a five-year study on the small island of Kaos (capital: Mayhem). The inhabitants of the island were mainly Greek speaking, although there was also wide use of the Latin tongue, as we shall see soon.
A short distance to the north-east of Kaos was the even smaller island of Antikos (capital: Duplicity), so called because the ideas of the Antikossians seemed very old-fashioned to the Kaotics.
The Tribes of Kaos and Antikos
Kaos at this time was a warlike place, with tribal rivalries and skirmishes all over the island. The largest and most warlike tribe was called the Tauries. This was because, when they went into battle (which was often), they wore masks in the shape of bulls’ heads on their faces, to make them look more ferocious.
Almost as large a tribe were the Lavories. They saw themselves as morally superior to the Tauries, partly because they weren’t quite as warlike in their approach. In battle, they demonstrated the purity of their thoughts by each wearing a soap-on-a-rope around their necks. This was less effective as a battle tactic, but the Lavories all agreed they felt better for doing it.
There were a few smaller tribes, too. No one was really sure what the Liberalies stood for, but everyone agreed they were very nice people. There is some sketchy evidence that an extremist, fringe breakaway group from the Tauries existed for a time. Called the Kippies, a combination of inbreeding and infighting led to their extinction almost as soon as they were formed.
Confined to the north of the island, the Peskies were so named as all their leaders were named after fish. Across the waters in Antikos, two arch-rival tribes occupied the north-east corner of the island: the Dupies and the Shinbonies. The Dupies were usually known by their nick-name: the Little Willies. This was because the Dupies worshipped an ancient, but tiny, god called William, who was only the size of an orange. The Dupies wanted to be considered part of Kaos, whilst the Shinbonies thought they should all join in with the larger tribe in the south of Antikos: the Begorrahs. (Cultural note: lazy racial stereotyping was all the rage in the 2nd century, under the so-called Davidson Doctrine. This was named after Jacobus Filius Davidus, a first century CE troubadour who lived under the shadow of a bigger tree than anyone else. )
Although the Tauries constituted well under half the population of Kaos, they generally held the upper hand in ruling over the affairs of the island. Although all the other tribes, except the Dupies, broadly agreed on matters of policy, the Tauries successfully applied a game of “divide and rule” to get their own way.
It has already been emphasised that the Kaotics were a warrior race. Their weapon of choice was the Three-Pronged Fork. This was originally developed as an ideal tool for scraping the fast-growing moss from the rocks and cliffs of the island. During the wet season, these mosses grew rapidly, blocking tracks and access around the island. During an early skirmish between rival clans, the Kaotics soon discovered that Three-Pronged Forks were also good for killing people, and their use as weapons quickly spread. They came to be known as the Weapons of Moss Destruction.
The Elders of the tribes often told of the times of the Great Manufacture of the Three-Pronged Forks. The Forks were made of iron, and there were no deposits of iron ore on Kaos itself. Instead, the ore needed to be imported from the island of Ferros, a two-day journey away by their primitive sailing boats. The Ferrotics were a hard-nosed people, always ready to strike a hard bargain. Their island was rocky and barren, and their crops often failed. The only commodity they would trade for their iron ore was food, and lots of it. Just before the Great Manufacture of the Three-Pronged Forks, the Kaotics had traded so much of their own food with the Ferrotics that there was widespread famine throughout the island. Many people, mainly women and children, died. The women, of course, didn’t matter. (Cultural note 2: misogyny at this time was, of course, de rigueur.) But the sorrow at the death of so many children stayed in the people’s memories for many generations.
One tribe, the Peskies, had adopted a different weapon from the rest: the dirk. This was named after the legendary Thespian called Dirkus, an erstwhile leader of a troupe of travelling players, who was born in the north of the island. He was often known – particularly by the womenfolk – as Dirkus Beauregardus, on account of his legendary good looks.
His troupe, the Circus Dirkus, travelled widely in the Mediterranean, performing their plays. (Eat your heart out, Will Shakespeare! Dirkus had a “Theatre in the Round” a millennium and a half before you were strutting your stuff in the Globe.)A favourite play was Medicus et in Domo, in which the great actor played Hippocrates, the legendary First Doctor. (No, it wasn’t William Hartnell.) For stage props, they had the surgical knives used by Hippocrates, which were soon nick-named “dirks” after the great actor.
Many a fair lady fainted at the sight as Beauregardus pulled out his dirk on stage and held it aloft, glinting in the evening Mediterranean sunlight. (Cultural note 3: It’s well known that, in Classical Greek theatre, gratuitous smutty jokes were hugely popular. Just ask Euripides. “Euripides, I rip-a yours!” Who could forget – or even remember – the classic line by Chico in the Marx Brothers’ tribute to Classical Greek Theatre, A Night at the Hippodrome?) But I digress… (Cultural note 4: Whilst performing a particularly tricky surgical procedure, Hippocrates once pricked his thumb on his surgical knife. This was the moment of creation of the world-famous Hippocratic Oath. Yes, yes, I know! What did you expect? Wit and sophistication? We are talking second century here!) Dirkus died whilst on tour in Venice. Meanwhile, back on Kaos…
On Land and Sea
At first, the inter-tribal battles took place on land. The various tribes fought and slew each other with their Three-Pronged Forks, trampling all over the crops as they fought. The women of the island, who did all the hard work in the fields, cooked all the meals and cleaned and tidied up after their menfolk, got extremely annoyed by this needless destruction. So, gradually over time, the battles took place more and more in the shallow waters all around the island. They found their Three-Pronged Forks were quite good for catching fish, too.
The Tauries, at great expense, commissioned two great galleons with giant oars and galleys filled with captured slaves from the other tribes. The galleons were to transport the weapons to different parts of the shoreline for battles. But they found they only had enough Three-Pronged Forks to fill one galleon. Worse still, prolonged use of the Three-Pronged Forks in the salty seawater had gradually corroded the iron. Bits started falling off the now-rusty Forks and they became less and less effective as weapons. The Tauries were strongly committed to replacing the Forks. The people of Kaos were fearful of this. The great famine following the last trading with Ferros was still strong in their memories. All the other tribes, apart from the Little Willies, were against the idea of renewing the Three-Pronged Forks.
The Tauries called all the people together, to get them to vote on who was best to lead them, thinking that they would consolidate their position once and for all. Unfortunately for them, the vote was ambiguous and left them weaker than before. It’s here that the historical record gets patchy. It seems that there was some other momentous decision that the leaders of Kaos had to make. What is known is that the Tauries themselves split into two camps, known as Brexitus Maximus and Brexitus Minimus.
Some historians believe this was to do with some Alliance with other islands in the area. But no record has ever been found of any plan by the Tauries to deal with this issue. One dissenting historian also believes that the Tauries were so desperate that they were led for a period by a woman! An even more unlikely tale is that the woman tried to cling on to power by holding fast on to the Little Willies. But mainstream opinion is that such tales are simply too implausible to be true.
Whatever the cause of the split, the Tauries were fatally weakened. This created the opportunity for the other tribes (except the Dupies) to forge an alliance and take over the running of the island. This alliance was known as the Koalition of Kaos.
Notwithstanding the lack of information about the true meaning of the mysterious “Brexitus”, archaeological records are clear as to what happened next. Under the rule of the Koalition of Kaos, the renewal of the Three-Pronged Forks was cancelled, famine was averted, and peace and tranquillity reigned over the Island of Kaos for the next two hundred years. Such a long period of peace was, of course, of absolutely no interest to historians. This probably explains why the history of this early civilisation had fallen into obscurity for well over 1500 years.
(Literacy SATs Question: Why is Koalition spelt with the letter K? The answer is because the people of Kaos were GreeK, but they did not actually live in GreeCe. I would have thought that was obvious. You clearly haven’t been paying attention! Please see me after school for a remedial session of “Spelling and Punctuation for Idiots”. )
It has been some time since we heard about the Mr Men. Lots of exciting things have been happening! But first, there are some new Mr Men and Little Misses to introduce.
Mr Custard lives in another land over the sea. His brain is made out of custard. You know, custard is sometimes a bit runny. Sometimes it’s thick. Mr Custard’s custard is thick. Very, very thick.
One day, when he was a little boy, his teacher wanted to teach him a new word. It was an adjective: a describing word. Mr Custard only knew five describing words: great, bad, fake, false and failing. When his teacher tried to teach him the new word, Mr Custard’s brain got hot. Very, very hot! Some of the custard boiled over out of his brain and flowed over the top of his head. Oops! Because it was so thick, it set very hard on his head. It has stayed there ever since!
The fright of the boiling custard made other changes, too. Mr Custard’s hands stopped growing and stayed very, very small. And Mr Custard could no longer say the word “cat”. From now on, he could only say the word “pussy” instead.
Apart from his brain and hands, the rest of Mr Custard’s body kept growing until he looked like a grown-up. He had a job building big buildings. He tried building them out of custard first, so that he looked better standing in front of them. But, slowly, slowly, the custard buildings sagged. They sagged more. Then, slowly, slowly, they fell down, until they were just gloopy puddles of custard on the ground! The people who lived in the buildings were not happy.
Then he had an idea. His daddy was very rich and had a lot of gold. So, Mr Custard made his buildings out of gold. Hurrah! He stood in front of the gold buildings. His custard head looked less silly. And the gold was all shiny too! Mr Custard smiled and waved his little hands in the air.
Mr Custard lives in a land called Merry-Ka. Which is a funny name, because it’s not really merry. Every 16 minutes, someone in Merry-Ka shoots someone else dead. No so merry!
Mr God knew everything. He was so clever that sometimes he thought he was three people! Funny Mr God! But there was a problem. The people couldn’t agree what he looked like. Some people thought he looked like a cloud. Others thought he looked like a slice of burnt toast. Others even thought he looked like a dog’s bottom!
But they all agreed on two things. First, he must have long arms. Very, very long arms. Because he could hold the whole world in his arms! Clever Mr God! And they all agreed he was good. Very, very good. Even though, if he was so good and clever, he let bad things happen. Oh dear!
Little Miss I-Know-Best
Little Miss I-Know-Best had a daddy who was a vicar. Daddy’s best friend was Mr God. Daddy had told her that Mr God was born in a stable. When she was small, Little Miss I-Know-Best wondered about Mr God. When he was born, did he float down like a cloud from the sky? Or did he just pop up, like out of a toaster? She tried not to think about her third thought about how Mr God was born.
Daddy wanted to be more like Mr God. So he knocked down his house next to the church. In its place, he built a stable. He did not want it to fall down on their heads. So he built it strong. A strong stable. And he didn’t want it to be blown over by the wind. So he built it stable. A stable stable. Little Miss I-Know-Best lived in a strong and stable stable.
Daddy told Little Miss I-Know-Best about how clever Mr God was. As he was Daddy’s best friend, she listened to everything Daddy said, so that she knew best. Then she wouldn’t need to listen to what other people thought ever again! She would know best. And she wouldn’t have to keep meeting people. She hated that! Unless, of course, it was just to tell them what to do. She knew best!
Mr Fox-Up lived in a den. It was a special den where all the clocks were a hundred years slow! In Mr Fox-Up’s den, the people in Room Number Nine were still the rulers of the whole world. They had big ships, big guns and went around telling everyone else what to do. More often than not, they had told him where to go!
Mr Fox-Up had a special friend, Mr Ferrity, who was a ferret. Mr Ferrity followed Mr Fox-Up wherever he went. He also ran up drainpipes and up trouser-legs and went into all sorts of places he shouldn’t go. Mr Fox-Up didn’t seem to mind. He had an important job working for Mr Two-Face. He was in charge of one small rowing boat and a pop-gun. This was all that was left of the great armada in Mr Fox-Up’s den. But Mr Two-Face said Mr Fox-Up had broken all the rules. So Mr Fox-Up had to go. Nobody expected to hear from him again!
Mr Breaks-It is one of the Nasties. Most Nasties are Posh. Mr Breaks-It isn’t Posh. He grew up in a place called Cow-n-Silly State. The Nasties think is a wild and lawless swamp. A long time ago, Mr Breaks-It and Mr Two-Face fought to be leader of the Nasties. Mr Breaks-It lost. (Mr Fox-Up was, true to form, knocked out earlier in the fight.) Mr Breaks-It didn’t do much in our story for a long time. But we will meet him again soon.
Little Miss Traffic-Light
Little Miss Traffic-Light’s favourite colours are amber and red. Sometimes, but not very often, she pretends to like green, too. Some people who really like green said she had fibbed to people in the Voting House about liking green. Little Miss Traffic-Light is Posh, like most of the Nasties. She was given a present by her sister: a money-making tree. But this and some other money-making trees died while she was looking after them. Little Miss Traffic-Light is a bit like a mini version of Little Miss I-Know-Best, as you will see soon.
The Other Mr Men
You may be wondering by now: what happened to the other Mr Men from our earlier story? When we left them, Mr Two-Face had just sulked off as leader of the Nasties in Room Number Nine. At the end of the story, we asked the question: “Will there be more creeping and back-stabbing?” Oh yes, there was!
After Mr Two-Face sulked off, the Nasties needed a new leader. Mr Look-At-Me was the favourite, because he had been shouting “Look at me!” for so long. Mr Look-At-Me thought Mr Mad was his best friend. Everybody was very surprised when Mr Mad said he wasn’t, and stabbed Mr Look-At-Me in the back and said he wanted to be leader himself!
So, five people put their hands up to say “Choose me please!” Mr Mad, Mr Fox-Up, Little Miss I-Know-Best, who we’ve met before, all put up their hands. And there was Mr Crab, who nobody had heard of. So he walked sideways all the time so people would notice him. And finally, there was Little Miss Loathsome. All you need to know about Little Miss Loathsome is in her name. Yeugh! Enough said!
When the Nasties voted, nobody was surprised when Mr Fox-Up had hardly any friends and was told to go. Mr Crab and Mr Mad were nearly as unpopular, and off they went too! Mr Crab scuttled off sideways. And Mr Mad sneaked off in the middle of the night. This just left Little Miss Loathsome and Little Miss I-Know-Best. All the Nasties were very excited! There were now just two Little Misses left in the contest! Then Little Miss Loathsome said something loathsome about Little Miss I-Know-Best. So, she had to go. That just left Little Miss I-Know-Best to lead the Nasties.
What Little Miss I-Know-Best Did Next
First Little Miss I-Know-Best said “hurray!” Then she chose her team of helpers. She told Mr Pale-And-Thin and Mr Mad to go far, far away. Mr Mad went to work as a writer for Mr Monster. But Mr Pale-And-Thin set about getting lots of jobs. He didn’t mind what the job was, as long as it paid LOTS of money! Greedy Mr Pale-And-Thin! Just a few weeks ago, he got ANOTHER job as well! This one is writing for a newspaper. There he can say lots of nasty things about Little Miss I-Know-Best, because she sacked him. Nasty, spiteful Mr Pale-And-Thin!
The New Helpers
Little Miss I-Know-Best chose some new helpers. She chose Mr Hammond-Organ to replace Mr Pale-And-Thin. Mr Hammond-Organ spent all day playing sad songs about how we had no money. These songs were often in a different key from all the other Nasties. This made Little Miss I-Know-Best cross. She thought she would get rid of Mr Hammond-Organ soon.
Mr Hammond-Organ was a bit boring. Little Miss I-Know-Best wanted to make things a bit more exciting, like running through wheat. How exciting was that! So she had a thought. “I know”, she thought, “I’ll choose some helpers that no one could have guessed!” And so she did.
The people in the other 27 rooms of the Big House bought most of the things the people didn’t buy themselves. After she burns the bridge across the little stream – which hasn’t happened yet – the people would need to find some new people to buy them instead. She needed someone to help. “Ah!” thought Little Miss I-Know-Best. “I’ll choose someone that no one will ever trust again! That would be fun!” So she chose Mr Fox-Up for the job! Funny Little Miss I-Know-Best!
But her fun didn’t stop there. Oh no! She needed someone to make sure the bridge across the little stream was well and truly broken. So she chose Mr Breaks-It! “He has the right name”, she thought. “And it would teach Mr Two-Face a lesson for leaving me with all this mess to clear up.” Funny, funny Little Miss I-Know-Best!
But her best fun was still to come. She needed someone to talk to all the other leaders in the other lands, so that we could still be the best of friends. So she chose Mr Look-At-Me! Funny Little Miss I-Know-Best! What a joke! All the people in the other lands saw the joke too! They laughed and laughed until their sides ached and their heads turned to jelly! What fun!
Little Miss I-Know-Best smiled. What could possibly go wrong?
Next time, we will find out how Little Miss I-Know-Best got on with her new plans. Will it all be easy, like Mr Fox-Up and Mr Mad said? Would we still be friends with everyone? Will everyone think Little Miss I-Know-Best knows best? Watch out for the next topsy-turvy part of the story!
I can now reveal the eight records Theresa May has chosen for her appearance on Desert Island Discs. They are:
Should I Stay or Should I Go? – Clash
Go Now – Moody Blues
Sling Your Hook – Jez and Labour
Our Day Has Come (original 1688 mix) – DUPey and the Rome-antis
No Woman No Rights – Bob M’arlene and the Wailers
Unsteady As She Goes – The Saboteurs
Is There Anybody Out There? – Barnier and Juncker
Give Jez a Chance – John and Yo-go
(May was forced into a U-turn on one of her choices when the BBC Record Archive could find no trace of The Laughing Policeman.)
Book chosen to take to a desert island: The Desert of Wheat by Zane Grey, “to bring back those happy memories”.
Luxury item to take: a spade, to bury all her hopes and dreams, and ours, too.
A song for Theresa “No Mates” May: no mates in the Tory Party, no mates in the right-wing press, no mates in Europe…
If you stir up a storm, build your hopes up high,
But show you’re afraid of the Mail
At the end of the storm, we all say “bye-bye”
And tweet that you’re wrong and will fail.
Plod on: you won’t win
Plod on, say again
Till our screams are crossed with groans
Limp on, limp on, no hope in your heart
You’ll forever walk alone
You’ll forever walk alone.
Limp on, limp on, you won’t tear us apart,
You’ll forever walk alone
You’ll forever walk alone.
The UK has now reached the greatest political crisis since 1945. Article 50 was triggered in March. The clock is ticking down to March 2019. The EU and 27 other countries have discussed, agreed their approach and are waiting to begin negotiations.
May, with a workable majority of 17, in a fit of hubris, decided to crush all opposition. After consistently denying she would call a snap election, she called one. Her argument – always a lie – was that parliament was thwarting her plans for negotiating exit terms with the EU. And this was after Jeremy Corbyn had led his party to support the triggering of Article 50.
So, after 7 weeks of unnecessary distraction, where are we? Hung parliament, with May proposing to govern propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party. This is the party that wants the hardest, the most economically damaging form of exit from the EU. The irony is that Northern Ireland voted 56% to 44% for Remain. So the DUP is the least representative party in Ulster to express the province’s wishes. Tragically, Northern Ireland’s politics is frozen in a 17th century time-warp. The DUP’s anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage stance takes us straight back to the Dark Ages. Being beholden to this lot is worse even than the Tories own “Irreconcilable” backbenchers. They’re way outside the UK mainstream. Enough is enough.
Nasty and Greedy
Nasty: May once famously warned the Tories about being seen to be the Nasty Party. Their election campaign was full of nastiness, or repeated personal insults and false accusations against her opponents, Corbyn above all. I trust that by now, her campaign coordinator Lynton Crosby will have had the sense to fuck off back to Australia. I hope too that 2017 will mark the low point in such vicious, nasty campaigning.
Greedy: The Tories have championed the economically and socially disastrous policies of Free Market Fundamentalism. Since the days of Thatcher, the cry has been “greed is good”. The election result clearly expresses the UK voters’ desire for an end to austerity, which has always been a political choice, not an economic necessity. (Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s article in the Guardian on 8th June states extremely clearly why Labour’s manifesto policies will be best for the country.) Well, May got greedy. She had a Commons majority of 17 – she wanted 100+. Look at her now, sucking up to the most socially conservative, almost mediaeval party (the DUP) in Parliament to scrape a fragile majority of 2 or 3.
The sight of sociopathic, narcissistic Donald Trump in the USA should be a warning to all countries where Nastiness and Greed ultimately lead. Let’s hope this is the end of both. Enough is enough.
The Tories got us into this mess, almost all by themselves, with a bit of help from their bigoted, xenophobic outliers, UKIP. The British people are owed an apology, from these three people in particular:
From David Cameron, for being too weak to manage dissent in the most rabid, xenophobic ranks of his own backbenchers, by calling a referendum, thinking it would quell the infighting in his own party.
From Theresa May, for failing to listen and consult more widely, for her instinctive authoritarianism and for her hubris, greed and poor judgement in trying to secure a crushing majority in Parliament.
From Nigel Farage, for… well, for being such a fraud and total gobshite.
The Westminster Parliament collectively has a lot to answer for, too. In passing the referendum bill in the form in which it was agreed, needing only a simple majority of votes. Such a constitutionally momentous change would, in any well-ordered democracy, have included checks and safeguards such as a super-majority of votes cast and a minimum percentage of the electorate.
Will anyone apologise for this mess? Don’t hold your breath. Enough is enough.
UK’s Negotiating Position
May spoke recently of the danger of the UK going “naked into the debating chamber” in the event of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. Well, where are we now? May’s authority is fatally damaged. With her leading negotiations, the EU and the 27 other nations will just laugh at us. They were already incredulous about the referendum result and May’s choice of the trio of ministers most involved in negotiation, Boris Johnson in particular. Referring presumably to the Berlusconi years, a senior Italian politician remarked last summer: “We though we were the crazies!”
To extend the metaphor, a May-led negotiating team will not only be naked, but the wounds on her back from the lashing she has just had from the British electorate will be red and raw for all to see. Talk about “strong and stable”: the opposite is the case. May has already got the backs up of Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier (the chief negotiator) before the election with her bombastic approach. Now she can be expected to be treated with contempt. That’s absolutely NOT in the national interest. Enough is enough.
The Way Forward
What IS in the national interest seems screamingly obvious to me. Well over 50% of the votes cast in this election were for parties wanting to break from the old orthodoxy. In particular, they want a move away from austerity and an approach to the EU negotiations that reflects the wishes of both Leavers and Remainers. The latter, 48% of us, simply haven’t had a look in so far. A little humility from those representing us wouldn’t go amiss, either. Oh, and, after the resignation of its joke of a leader, UKIP can just fuck off and die, finally.
What we really need is a Government of National Unity, where a progressive alliance of parties work together to take a fresh approach to the many issues which face us. And yes, the government should include a few of the more forward-thinking, liberal-minded Tory MPs.
Goodness knows, the problems arising from the old politics are real enough. The dire, crumbling state of our public services, and especially the NHS, need urgently addressing. Proper school funding to ensure we have the best possible educated future citizens is a priority, too. And the crisis in the lack of genuinely affordable housing is building to a crescendo – one 35 years in the making since Thatcher started selling off council houses. We need to get productivity rising again, by strategic investment in promising industries of the future. And, not least, we need to address the evil of terrorist attacks, including through adequate community policing.
We also need a change of tone from our elected representatives. The point-scoring, fear inducing, hate-fuelled approach of the last few years must stop. And we need politicians who speak proper sentences, like the rest of us.
A more consensual approach to EU negotiations will pay dividends and maximise the chance of a better outcome that we’d ever get from May’s gang of zealots and the delusional. We’ve seen record numbers of younger people engaged in politics and actually voting. It’s more about their future than mine. And we need a new kind of leader to take this forward and build on the momentum generated by this new blood. A person who’s shown he’s at his best when painting a better vision of the future for – dare I say? – the many, not the few. (His talents are wasted in opposition, where he doesn’t really shine.)
Step forward, Prime Minister-in-waiting, Jeremy Corbyn.
Tomorrow, Britain faces what is, almost certainly, the most important general election of my lifetime. Two paths into the future are possible, depending on the choices we make. But hanging over the election are two dark and ponderous clouds. These are, of course, the impending EU negotiations and our reaction to the recent spate of terrorist attacks.
The first major issue will be the path we steer to leaving the EU (or not??), following the calamitous referendum result last summer. Neither of the party leaders has been straight with the British electorate on this point. Any conclusion to negotiations, short of changing our minds, will leave the UK worse off than now. The whole negotiation process is an exercise in damage limitation.
Recognising this, Jeremy Corbyn has been largely silent when it comes to reaching the “best” conclusion, or speaking of “success”. For this, Theresa May has accused him of being unpatriotic or failing to “believe in Britain”. These soundbites may play well as a dog-whistle to the Tory faithful – or, more cynically, to wavering Tory / UKIP voters. But the sheer vacuity of the comment exposes May’s own weaknesses. Her promise of a “successful” outcome means one of two things. Either she’s lying or she’s deluded.
Response to Terrorism
Following the shocking events in Manchester and at London Bridge, Jeremy Corbyn and other critics have challenged the government on cuts to police forces of 20,000 officers. Retired and serving senior police officers have explained the importance of community policing in building trust in communities. This is particularly important in areas where people feel marginalised and discriminated against. The statement issued by Corbyn on Sunday evening was balanced, proportionate – even “statesmanlike” by one commentator.
By contrast, May’s reaction seems to have been twofold. Firstly, she has engaged in a series of personal attacks on Corbyn. These include questioning his patriotism and willingness to make hard decisions, often based on a distorted interpretation of remarks he has made in the past. (To his credit, Corbyn has not sunk to the level of personal attacks in return.) Secondly, she has made a series of what appear to be “on the hoof” policy announcements about the powers of police and security services. This smacks of panic and as an attempt to detract from her record over six years as Home Secretary and a year as PM. Comments about Human Rights legislation are particularly worrying. These seem to reinforce the strong authoritarian streak in May about which I have commented before.
All of which brings us to the contrasting personalities of the two leaders who could conceivably become Prime Minister on Friday.
Theresa May has looked more and more uncomfortable as the election campaign has progressed. The first period was spent trying to build a personality cult: “Team Theresa”. We saw a series of set-piece speeches with selected party faithful hermetically sealed from the town or village outside. “Strong and stable” was the mantra repeated endlessly, to almost hypnotic effect. When May proved “weak and wobbly” over the social care spending cap, this entire strategy fell apart. Her “nothing has changed” squeaked out after this U-turn made her look like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights.
May’s now notorious lack of warmth has a number of consequences. Her inability to relate to people bodes ill for the EU negotiations. Her disastrous dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker got matters off to the worst possible start. His comment was “I leave Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before.” Nicola Sturgeon described May’s lack of relationship-building ability in stark terms. “You literally go into a one to one with her and it’s like she’s reading from a script rather than having a conversation”, she said.
The same coldness means May’s personal support in her own party is thin, trusting and consulting with only a small circle of close confidantes. This could prove a serious problem when the going gets tough in negotiations. This also means that, too often, she is closed to wider advice. Many of her announcements seem to come as a surprise to the Minister responsible for the policy area: Education, Home Office and Foreign Policy spring to mind. Ministers support the party line on TV one day, only to find May has changed her mind the next. So the “Team” bit of “Team Theresa” is mostly a sham.
May’s wobbles, U-turns and panics during the campaign all seem to come from criticisms from the same quarter. The only pressure she responds to is her own right flank – the Incorrigibles as I call them – and the likes of the Daily Mail and other right-wing newspapers. She has never shown the slightest concern for other members of society – including the 48% of us who voted Remain. She’s deaf, too, to the particular concerns of those from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
May’s refusal to appear in a TV debate with the other leaders won her no friends and effectively killed off the “strong and stable” strategy. Her excuse – that she was too busy “preparing for Brexit negotiations” – was an open goal for an obvious riposte: “So why did you call an unnecessary election?” Theresa May just looks awkward most of the time these days, like she wishes she could be somewhere else. None of this bodes well for the next five – or two – years with May at the helm.
On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be enjoying himself. The crowds greeting him around the country seem to growing larger and more enthusiastic. For sure, he’s had some embarrassingly bad moments, Woman’s Hour being an obvious one. Corbyn stood up well to pressure in TV cross-examinations from Jeremy Paxman and the like. His interactions with members of the public appear to be genuinely warm and sympathetic. The one thing this campaign has given us, under media impartiality rules, is greater exposure to the actual Jeremy Corbyn, rather than the straw man caricature. (I see that that most rancid of rags, the Mail, is today throwing everything they’ve got from their hate-filled, distorting sewer, in an attempt to blacken the name of Labour’s leaders. Quelle surprise.)
It’s true that Corbyn is untested in high office, having spent his entire political career on the back benches until elected Labour leader nearly 2 years ago. But it does seem that the man has grown in stature during the campaign and he has said, somewhat modestly, that he’s giving the campaign “everything he’s got”. There seemed to be a certain refreshing honesty in that remark. It seemed to have come from the heart, in contrast to May’s “I speak your weight” robot. And Corbyn does seem to have enthused and inspired significant numbers of younger voters, whose future is most at stake.
And so, tomorrow, decisions are to be made, votes to be cast. The polls have been all over the place, but the odds still seem to be in favour of a Conservative win. Anything different will depend crucially on the turnout by younger voters, who appear to favour Corbyn by about a 3:1 ratio. I have no idea whether the apparent enthusiasm for Corbyn can be turned into a higher turnout from this notoriously “won’t vote” age group.
For me, the decision is simple. Two paths are open to the country tomorrow. The path to a win for the Tories leads to the certainty of economic pain and misery for most. Five more years of austerity, further deterioration to our underfunded NHS, schools and police forces, plus a continuation of the housing crisis. All this compounded with a disastrous outcome to the EU exit negotiations, with implications for generations to come.
The other path to a Labour victory is less certain. A Corbyn-led, more consensus-seeking approach to EU negotiations should lead to a less damaging outcome for our economy – if the City and the media give him a chance. But Corbyn at least offers the hope of a better future, particularly for those younger than myself.
Sadly, my vote will not count: like 80% of the country, the outcome in my constituency is not in doubt, thanks to our first-past-the-post system. But, token though it may be, my vote will be a small gesture towards the uncertain path to a fairer, more hopeful future.
Just after she retired, my wife and I were at a social function. She was asked what she was now doing with her time. She replied that she was doing English Literature as a part-time student with the Open University. The questioner without hesitation responded: “Oh, I can’t think of anything worse!” This, as it turns out, is a great conversation killer! Where on earth can the conversation go from there?
Reflecting on this exchange some time later, I wondered why I felt at the time such huge contempt for her questioner. My conclusion was that the questioner and I are poles apart on one spectrum of human attitude: curiosity. I was appalled by the fact that someone would find offensive the idea of a mature woman gaining new knowledge and learning new skills.
I started to think about the wider ramifications of all this. To start with, we all have some fundamental principles that underpin our outlook on life. Two of mine, relevant to this subject, are these. Firstly, the development of the human brain by the random march of evolution is a thing of wonder and celebration. Secondly, when it comes to the brain, I’m a firm believer in the “use it or lose it” principle.
Just look around any primary school classroom. Just talk to, or observe, any 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9-year old child as they explore new things about the world. See the joy that comes from each new discovery, and the further quest for knowledge that it inspires. Sadly, for too many of us, that joy, that quest for learning, withers and fades. But for many – and I like to consider myself as one such – that curiosity survives into old age. The popularity of adult education classes, of institutions such as U3A, of mature students taking degrees are all testimony to that. To quote a tired – but paradoxically energising – old cliché, “You’re never too old to learn!”
Left and Right
I’ve often pondered what underlying characteristics separate politically left-leaning from right-leaning people. It’s part of the old “nature versus nurture” debate. Perhaps it’s something to do with our faith in human nature. The right might take a view that, left to their own devices, people are selfish and can’t be trusted. The left, by contrast, may hold an unshakeable faith in the improvability of human kind. They criticize each other as being bitter, cynical and twisted or being hopelessly naïve and utopian. Such an analysis may explain a lot, but I think it gets us only so far.
I think there’s another dimension, a spectrum which characterises the left-right character differences. And that’s this dimension of curiosity: the preparedness to use one’s own brain to challenge received ideas and think things through for oneself. My observations of human behaviour over nearly seven decades have noticed one thing in particular. Those on the right (politically and socially) seem much more prepared to take at face value the word of authority figures, such as politicians, doctors, priests and anyone in uniform. (Increasingly these days, these also include business leaders and the rich of all types.) The left are more prepared to challenge and seek alternative views on the subject.
This underlying difference has many manifestations. Divine revelation versus the scientific method. Theocracy versus secularism. Royalist versus republican. Tradition versus progress. Order versus creativity. Views on the environment and climate change. Rote teaching of facts versus “learning to learn”. Attitudes to race, gender and sexuality. Nostalgia for a mythical “golden age” versus optimism for the future. The welcome, or otherwise, for different cultures and the immigrants who bring them. Win-lose versus win-win. Daily Mail versus Guardian.
To sum up: “I have nothing to learn from you” versus “I welcome the opportunity to learn from you”.
Sticking Together and Schism
There’s a further point I’d like to make concerning this phenomenon. And that’s to do with political parties. It’s a well-observed fact that parties of the left love to have debates and schisms, factions and splits. It seems naturally easier for left-wing party activists to split and form a new party than split the difference. (Think Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)
Sorry, I meant the People’s Front of Judea.
Parties of the right tend to keep their differences to themselves. Last year, nearly half of Tory MPs voted Remain. But with literally one or two exceptions, you never hear from them now. There’s a strong cultural pressure to stick together / avoid doing something that is “bad form” / don’t let the side down / support the regiment / rally round the flag / supply your own cliché. (The exceptions, of course, are the extremist right-wing parties like UKIP and the Front National.)
In addition to the huge disparity in funding, this phenomenon hugely disadvantages Labour and the left in UK elections, with our first-past-the-post voting system. To recall an old joke of two men chased by a lion, “I only have to run faster than you, not the lion”.
It Makes Me Cross
One last thing about all this that makes me cross. It’s when religious apologists rage against that non-existent oxymoron, the “militant atheist”. You know, the person who’s going to undermine all moral authority by brainwashing our children into becoming atheists too. All the atheists and humanists I know want nothing of the sort. We just want people to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. The uncurious just don’t get that bit. So I say, rediscover your inner eight year-old. Try using your brain a little harder and discover something new. Test your opinion against some facts. You might even enjoy it.
“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice. Well, amen to that, I might say!! (Or not.) And, by the way, Alfie, what is it all about?