I was born on a street whose name begins with the letter K. Unsurprisingly, no one has ever asked me “Are you proud to have been born on a street beginning with K?” I guess that everyone would agree that the question makes no sense. I had absolutely no control over the matter and it took no effort, skill or talent on my part to be born there.
There have, however, been several occasions when people have said “Are you proud to be British?” Or, sometimes, if I had been criticising some aspect of life in this country, “Aren’t you proud to be British?” I’ve always contended that these questions make as much sense as the K-street version, for the same reasons given above.
It’s pretty obvious that some form of tribalism is an evolved characteristic of human development. Whether it’s allegiance to a football team, factionalism in corporate politics, inter-gang rivalry or whatever, our instincts to want to belong to a group are strong. Nation states have been pretty effective in harnessing these instincts by instilling some form of patriotism in its citizens. I’ve always been very wary of patriotism, seeing how too often it has been commandeered into something darker, more sinister.
Depending on the context, we all carry around with us some multi-faceted idea of who we are. At different times, we see ourselves primarily in different roles: proud parent, West Ham (or Aston Villa) supporter, board member, oppressed minority member, flag-waving patriot, trade unionist and countless more. Identity and single-cause political movements have risen at the expense of traditional parties. I’m always heartened (and a little jealous) when people from minority ethnic backgrounds flex their self-identity viewpoint to the context of a discussion. Multi-lingualism can also offer a richness of perspectives from which to consider a topic under debate.
In the dimension of nationality, I’ve always claimed that I take a hierarchical approach. First and foremost, I see myself as a human being, a member of the species homo sapiens. I’m interested in those matters that unite us all and in celebrating the richness that comes from cultural diversity. Next, culturally and ethically, I am a European: this brings a whole load of ideas around liberty, tolerance, democracy and respect for the rule of law – and much more besides. Perhaps I feel a slight cultural bias towards Northern Europe, but the difference is slight.
Third in the hierarchy is the identity of being British. This is primarily a legal definition, an immovable fact I have no control over. This comes with mainly – but not wholly – negative connotations of what distinguishes Britishness from European-ness more generally. Much of this is bound up in our insular outlook on the world and our failure to complete the process of becoming a proper democracy. And last, and definitely least, comes the fact that I’m English. Even before 23rd June, I would be hard pressed to come up with significantly positive characteristics compared with the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.
I was much struck by the 2000 novel The Human Stain by Philip Roth. It tells a complex tale of a professional man who slowly becomes ostracised by friends and colleagues through a combination of his actions and the revelation of his true identity. The idea of an individual carrying around an invisible but indelible stain is a haunting one.
My wife and I were recently on holiday (post referendum result) in a part of France where many people do not speak English. I had to get by on what I could remember of my schoolboy French. Occasionally people would ask me where I was from. I found it necessary, on each occasion, to say “Je suis anglais… malheureusement”. This last comment would usually elicit some sympathetic look from my questioner. My “confession” was laced with shame and embarrassment.
Those old tribal instincts had come into play. Post referendum, my stain is being English.
The stunned silence from this blogger over the past three weeks is a reflection of the turbulent times we’re going through. I was waiting for events to slow down a bit so that I could reflect on them. But events, dear boy, events kept on coming. Since the announcement of the fateful referendum vote on 23rd June, there are many of us still confused and bewildered. I’m certainly one.
There are plenty of places on the internet where people react to news events. In blogs, social media and so on, much of it takes the form of soundbites, often angry in tone. It’s mostly a case of people shouting at each other without listening. I’ve always tried to make this blog more thoughtful, analytical and reflective than that. But it needs to be rooted in the real world. That world, and in particular Britain, has been convulsed by radical change over the past four weeks. How can we make sense of it all, from a longer-term perspective? Below are a few ideas around the political themes which are beginning to get a bit clearer. (I hope to cover the economic issues next time.)
The Government We Have
So what sort of a government have we ended up with, for now at least? Well, let’s admit it: it could have been a whole lot worse. Theresa May as PM is clearly preferable to Gove, Leadsom (or Angela Loathsome – thanks Private Eye) or Johnson – in that order of awfulness – for different reasons in each case. And yet… May’s cabinet looks worse than Cameron’s in two respects. With the likes of Davis, Johnson, Leadsom and Grayling, the government is more right-wing than its predecessor and is likely to be more socially conservative. For all their faults, especially on economic policy, Osborne and Cameron were social liberals by the standards of the Conservative Party.
May’s speech in Downing Street after becoming PM made a whole load of references to the poor, vulnerable and disadvantaged and could just have easily been delivered by PM Ed Milliband last May if the last general election had turned out differently. But the Tories have form in this respect: say one thing in the first flush of victory, do the opposite in office. Think Thatcher and her emetic quotation from St Francis of Assisi (I feel queasy thinking of it even now), and Cameron’s “greenest government ever” to “green crap”. So any initial optimism should be treated with great caution and much scepticism.
As for the opposition: in short, we don’t have one. The Labour Party has chosen this critical time for the nation to engage in one of the bitterest internal feuds I’ve ever seen. With multiple challenges and huge self-inflicted uncertainties and no clear sense of direction yet from government, we need an active and vigilant opposition holding May and company to account. Instead we have an endless feud and a drawn-out leadership contest which will most likely solve nothing.
I have some sympathy with Jeremy Corbyn when he says he was elected less than a year ago with a clear majority of members’ votes. Also, I agree with most of his policy statements (when they can be deduced). But the Party leader’s day job is to lead his or her team of MPs in the House of Commons. In this, he has clearly failed. It was asking too much of a man who had spent his entire political career as the outsider, the rebel, to suddenly transform himself into a credible Prime Minister in waiting.
Labour and Tories
All of which brings into sharp focus a key difference between the Labour and Conservative Parties. Whilst Labour bickers over procedures and following due processes for elections, the Tories go for the kill. First Johnson, then Fox, Gove and finally Leadsom were made offers they couldn’t refuse and they fell by the wayside. After months of the most vicious and mendacious feuding, they quickly fall into line, stand shoulder to shoulder and pretend they’ve always been the best of friends.
By contrast, some in Labour’s ranks seem happier fighting each other over points too trivial for the majority of voters than fighting the true enemy. I was with some Labour activists recently who were lamenting the fact that some factions within their party seem happier in opposition than in power, as it gives them the moral indignation of complaining how wrong everything is in the world. For them, being out of power is their comfort zone. It’s unsurprising, then, that there’s a mirror image in the Tory Party. A significant number of Conservatives consider themselves the natural party of power – by right – and resent it bitterly when, temporarily, someone else has the impertinence to win an election.
The State of Democracy
It’s ironic to note that both Labour and Conservatives have decided to have broadly the same selection procedure for their party leader: initial sifting by MPs followed by a members’ election from the top two candidates. The Tories aren’t afraid to bypass the second stage when their MPs don’t trust their own members not to vote for the loathsome Leadsom. Labour, by contrast, stick firmly to democratic processes, even if they know it could lead them into an endless loop of ever-more frustrating schism.
An opinion poll last week found that 61% of us agree with the statement that we should rarely or never again use a referendum as the mechanism to settle a decision as complex as membership of the EU. It’s easy to be wise after the event: ask a silly question….
This sorry affair brings into sharp focus one of the disadvantages of not having a written constitution. In most countries who do have one and which allow referenda, there will generally be some principles laid out. These typically would require some form of “super-majority” rule for votes which have far-reaching and major implications. These usually take the form of a two-thirds majority required for change, possibly with some minimum turnout figure. (Even the Synod of the Church of England has such rules!) Debated within the cool light of some constitutional convention, these rules would likely be seen as sensible and proportionate by most people. When setting the rules in a one-off Act of Parliament, as we did, such a rule would have been politically almost impossible. Howls of criticism from the usual rabid anti-EU campaigners would have classed it as cheating by those wishing to remain. The Labour Party allowed itself to be bullied into abstaining in the Commons debate: who would want to be the first to say the British people couldn’t be trusted with such an apparently simple question?
(Written constitutions are not, of themselves, a cure-all. I can immediately think of three obvious downsides of such a system in the USA: logjam in Washington, highly politicised Supreme Court judges and the notorious pro-gun lobby. Perhaps this is a topic worth discussing in more detail at some future time.) Tricky stuff eh, democracy?
What Price a Progressive Future?
For those of us on the centre-left of politics, these are bleak times indeed. I hold a deep belief in the improvability of human society over the medium-to-long term. Similarly, I believe in the power of more and better education and in the value of rational debate as a way of making progress for the greater good. Access to good information and a minimum level of honesty in debate are prerequisites to this. Religious fundamentalism, random acts of suicide / mass murder, the behaviour of politicians during the referendum run-up period, not to mention the threat of a possible President Trump, knock huge dents in that faith.
For the sake of future generations, humanity can – and must – do better.
This is a story bringing you news of the antics of some of the Mr Men today.
Mr Monster was an ogre. Mr Monster was the most evil man in the world. He owned lots of newspapers and made himself very rich. With all his money, he was able to tell politicians around the world to do what he wanted. How did Mr Monster do this? He used some of his money to pay policemen to reveal secrets about the politicians. Then he threatened the politicians he would tell unless they do what he wanted. What he wanted was new ways to make himself even richer. That way, he could afford to bully more politicians. Clever Mr Monster!
Mr Mad was mad. Mr Mad was delusional. He once worked for Mr Monster, so he knew ways to please him. He dreamed many dreams. These seemed very clever to Mr Mad. So he set about trying to make those dreams come true.
Mr Mad was put in charge of all the teachers. He went to their meeting, and they all laughed at him. This made Mr Mad madder. Mr Mad dreamed about how to get his revenge. He introduced many crazy schemes into the schools. He allowed people who, like him, knew nothing about teaching run schools. Some crazy things happened. How Mr Mad laughed! After a while, Mr Mad found that people did not want to become teachers any more. He also found that the teachers were leaving their jobs. Mr Mad scratched his head. What had he done? Silly Mr Mad!
Mr Look-At-Me liked to be the centre of attention. Mr Look-At-Me found a good way to do this. He would say silly things, the first thing that popped into his head. People laughed at his silly things, so he would say more. Sometimes he would contradict the last silly thing. People still laughed and nobody cared that nothing he said made any sense. Funny Mr Look-At-Me!
When he was a very small boy, Mr Look-At-Me had birthdays like other children. When he was four, he decided he did not want to get any older. So he stopped having birthdays. Despite being big and the size of a grown-up, Mr Look-At-Me is still four years old. His mummy even failed to get him to learn how to comb his hair. “Look at me! Look at me!! Me! Me!! Me!!!” he said. The people stilled laughed. Funny Mr Look-At-Me!
Mr Slime was made completely out of slime. Dark, green, gooey slime! Yeugh! Mr Slime hated everybody who was not like him. He wanted them all to stay where they were and not come close to him. Mr Slime’s slime smelled, a slimy sort of smell. The smell made people hate other people after they had smelled it. Mr Slime smoked all the time, to try to disguise the smell. Mr Slime drank beer. A lot of beer! He drank the beer to try to forget about the smell. People kept away from Mr Slime because of the smoke and smell. Slimy, smelly Mr Slime!
Mr Slime wanted everyone to think like him. Seven times he asked the people to vote for him. Seven times they said “no”. Mr Slime thought he had better find another way.
People thought Mr Two-Face had two faces. But it was not really like that. Mr Two-Face just wanted everybody to like him. So every time he spoke, he tried to tell the people he was with what they wanted to hear. So Mr Two-Face kept changing his appearance. He was a bit like a chameleon, except he didn’t change colour. Only he did a bit: his face went pink whenever someone told him he was wrong. Mr Two-Face thought he was never wrong. He was, after all the leader of all the people in his room.
Mr Pale-And-Thin was pale and thin. He was thin because he ate only a special diet called austerity. He was pale because spent nearly all the time indoors. He spent some of his time in his counting house, where he counted all the money. But he spent most of his time in his plotting house, where he plotted clever schemes to outwit the other people. He only ventured outside to visit places where people made things. There were so few of them now that it was getting harder and harder to find one. He wore a yellow jacket on these visits, to make him easier to see, because he was so thin. He also wore a hard hat, in case any of the people he had plotted against crept up behind him and hit him on the head. Poor, worried Mr Pale-And-Thin!
Mr Slightly-Grumpy was slightly grumpy. When he was younger, he had been very grumpy, and shouted a lot at his friends. Now that he was older, he had grown slightly less grumpy. But his friends were still wary of him. He said sensible things. But because he was grumpy, people didn’t take much notice. This made him a bit more grumpy. Grumpy Mr Slightly-Grumpy!
All the Mr Men were the best of friends, except for Mr Slightly-Grumpy, who just sat in another corner of the room and looked slightly grumpy.
The Big House
All the Mr Men in this story lived in a Big House. A very Big House! It had twenty-eight rooms, all of them big. What a Big House! All the Mr Men lived in the same room, Number Nine. This room had once been a tiny cottage on the other side of a little stream. A long time ago, a bridge had been built across the stream and Number Nine became part of the Big House. At this time, the Big House had only nine rooms and the people were happy. Over time, more rooms were added and the Big House grew bigger.
At first, all the rooms in the Big House had big, strong locks. They made the people feel safe, but the locks were big and clumsy and took a long time to open. The people grew cross waiting for the doors to be opened. The people in some of the rooms took the locks away, so they could move about the house more easily. The people in Number Nine kept their lock, which was big and strong.
To make the Big House work properly, the caretaker had set some rules. One of the rules was that anyone could move to another room as long as they had work to do there. Where there were locks, these had to be undone to let in the people with work. There were other house rules, too. The leaders in Number Nine didn’t like some of them and asked if they could be excused. The caretaker said yes to some of these.
Before The Big Vote
After Mr Two-Face became leader of a group of friends called the Nasties, he found that some of his friends were really very nasty rather than just nasty. Mr Slime had his own friends, The Stinkies, who were nastier even than the Very Nasties. His own friends kept arguing and some were saying they would leave the Nasties and join the Stinkies instead. The arguments covered many things but, above all, they argued about whether to take away the bridge over the little stream and make Number Nine a little cottage again.
Mr Two-Face had a very clever idea. He would ask all the people in room Number Nine whether to keep the bridge and that would settle it and they could all be friends again. Clever Mr Two-Face! But Mr Two-Face had a problem. He had been telling everyone in all the other rooms for so long just how wrong they were with everything. Very suddenly, he said that they were all really his good friends and that he wanted to keep the bridge over the little stream. Straight away, Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me crept up behind Mr Two-Face and stabbed him in the back! Mr Two-Face was very cross and went very pink in the face. Oh dear!
Over the next few weeks, Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me shouted at Mr Two-Face and Mr Pale-And-Thin. And Mr Two-Face and Mr Pale-And-Thin shouted back. Mr Two-Face and Mr Pale-And-Thin made up lots of scary stories and Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me told lots and lots of fibs. They all got crosser and crosser. All the people got very confused. Mr Slime joined in by showing a picture which made people feel very sick when they looked at it. The people were even more confused!
The Big Vote
In the end, the people were so confused that just over half of them said they wanted to tear down the bridge to the other rooms. “Hurrah!” they said, “We won!” and rushed off to tear down the bridge. Some people brought matches and tried to burn down the bridge. But, whoops! What’s this? The wind changed and the fire spread to room Number Nine. There was lots of damage. Everybody blamed everybody else! Mr Two-Face said he didn’t want to be leader any more. Mr Monster smiled quietly to himself. His monstrous master plan was working out very nicely…
What will happen next? Will the fire spread to the other rooms in the Big House? Will there be any bits of room Number Nine left to live in? Who will lead the Nasties? Will Mr Mad and Mr Look-At-Me still be friends? Or will there be more creeping and back-stabbing? Will Mr Slime crawl back into his slimy hole? Or has his oozy, stinky smell made too many people into Stinkies too? Watch out for the next exciting part of Mr Men 2016!