About a century and a half ago, Britain was the undisputed top nation in the world. The British Empire spread geographically further and wider than any in recorded history. Following centuries-long policies of “divide and rule”, initially among the kingdoms of Europe and later the Princedoms of India, around 1870 Britain’s national income accounted for 9% of global GDP and our per capita income was the highest in the world. The “divide and rule” practices were augmented with repeated cases of breaking our word, and the phrase “Perfidious Albion” has come into common use as a pejorative term.
Theresa May’s nervous and embarrassing plea for help from EU officials and the EU27 at the Summit this week means that the UK has now been reduced to the state of a basket case. That plea for help was to find an agreed solution to our discussions that would find support from a majority in Parliament (Commons and Lords) and from the sane. The UK Cabinet’s inability to reach an agreed negotiating position, reflecting irreconcilable differences within the Tory Party over Europe, reinforces the centuries-old image of perfidy.
If the UK were a school, it would be in special measures and ripe for takeover by a multi-academy trust. (Does the MAT analogy accurately describe Trump’s USA? Shudder at the thought.) How have we let the Tories sink us so low? The UK is perceived around the world with a mixture of derision and contempt. So much for “taking back control”.
What Didn’t Happen
Immediately after the 2017 general election I wrote my post Enough Is Enough. It’s worth a re-read. The set of recommendations I made would have put us in an altogether better position than the current appalling mess. The principal recommendation was that May resign and be replaced by a Government of National Unity under Jeremy Corbyn. Such a government would take the close 52-48% referendum result into consuderation whilst genuinely looking after the National Interest. Healing the divisions between us – and the hatred stirred up – would also be a priority for such a Government. Recommendations about repairing the damage to public services caused by austerity policies are even truer today than when written. Alas, it was not to be.
Perhaps the most worrying element contrasting what I recommended and what has actually happened concerns what I called a “change of tone” from our politicians. The hatred and divisions in our society, fuelled by the ill-advised referendum, will continue to do harm for years, possibly generations, to come. A recognition that thinking we could lecture, bully and divide the EU and EU27 is still needed – and is so 19th century!
Warnings about doing a deal with the DUP went unheeded. (Phrases involving supping with the devil and long spoons come to mind.) Archbigot Arlene Foster is threatening to turn the screw further on May by reneging on elements of the “confidence and supply ” arrangement, for which Northern Ireland got its £1 billion bribe. Foster, holding social attidtudes from the 17th century is about as nasty as a human being can be.
The BBC is still giving far too much airtime (proportionately) to lunatics, bigots and the delusional. Discussion on TV and radio is still on the wrong terms: airtime for people supporting an even more extreme and damaging version of leaving the EU.
May imprisoned herself with her red lines, conceded in a pre-Conference panic last year, in response to the unreasonable (and unreasoned) demands of the far right.
Meantime, the clock keeps ticking. Deadlines come and go, all of them missed by a country mile. Future generations will never forgive us unless we find a way out of this mess.
Top Dog to Special Measures in 140 years. And it’s all down to the Tories. I hope they suffer electorally for generations to come.
Question: what do all the people pressing hardest for the UK to leave the EU have in common? I’m thinking in particular of the politicians, newspaper owners (who set the agenda for their editors – and, all too often, for the BBC to follow) and the small minority of Leave-supporting business leaders.
Answer: they are either non-UK citizens or have made financial plans – being rich to very rich – to protect their own interests in the event of a “no-deal” departure. This generally means transferring funds to a secretive off-shore tax haven or moving (some of) their business interests outside the UK. In short, they have no concern about “the national interest”, even if many of them mouth the words without understanding their meaning.
A disproportionate number of them were privately educated, usually at the poshest of schools where a sense of “entitlement to rule” was taught above all else. The celebrated author John Le Carré recently condemned Eton alumni as “the curse of the earth”. See, for example, this article: (NB: I think this is a first for me! An article from Mail Online!)
It’s likely that Theresa May is doing her best. The trouble is, her best is crap. As Polly Toynbee writes in today’s Guardian, “Never in living memory was Britain worse governed.” I agree. Since I wrote my post Hopeless just under a month ago, virtually nothing good has come from May. True, the Conference season has come and gone. For the most part, the Tory main hall was two-thirds empty, with activists crowding to fringe meetings to hear even worse Tory politicians. Oh, and May’s speech contained at least one big lie: the end to austerity.
EU negotiations continue to stumble from crisis to crisis: above all, no solution is in sight to the Irish border issue. It gives me no pleasure to say I warned on this in my February 2016 post We Are Entitled to Proper Government. And this was four months before the referendum vote (and when Cameron – who he? – was still PM).
The “confidence and supply” agreement by the DUP was designed to prop up the failing minority Tory government. Despite this, Arlene Foster has issued threats to vote against the budget later this month unless May conceded to her logically impossible demands. There has been no visible response to this from May and this weakens her position further.
And so, here we are, just two days away from the EU summit. The 18th of October was supposed to be the “absolute final” date when negotiations were completed in detail and the UK agreed terms with the EU27. It’s not looking like that. Talk of an additional “emergency” summit in November is conditional on “maximum progress” being made by the 18th. That doesn’t seem credible unless May changes tack and embraces the reality of what would pass a vote in the House of Commons. Held hostage by the DUP and the Leave extremists (and fantasists) in her own party, May’s actions and inactions make a failure to agree terms with our European neighbours ever more likely.
Who’s All Right?
Either way, those who fund and propagandise for the Tories will be all right, whichever way things turn out. Jeremy Corbyn has made sensible suggestions for compromise (with which I don’t entirely agree, but it’s better than anything May’s government has said). He was genuinely speaking in the national interest. When are a sufficient majority of people in this country going to wake up to the stark fact that the Tories work only in the interest of the privileged few?
One of our grandchildren had her eighth birthday party last weekend. The party room was filled with balloons: dominated by two large ones. They were a huge figure 8 and a unicorn.
“Why the unicorn?” I asked her mother. “No particular reason: they just seem to be popular with children of her age” she replied. Funnily enough, this reminded me of something.
Both Labour and the Tories are split over what to do about the result of the 2016 referendum. But their approaches to the problem seem very different.
Labour, and again at its Party Conference this week, seem to be engaged in an intelligent, nuanced discussion which directly addresses the tension between taking a principled approach – in the national interest – and an opportunist one – to take a narrow view in the interest of the Party. Discussion, for the most part, is civilised and evidence-based.
The Tories, by contrast, are tearing themselves apart on waves of an emotional, irrational shouting match. The lunatic fringe, variously called (by me) the Crazies and Dunces, abandoned reason long ago. Theresa May remains trapped by Parliamentary arithmetic and is being held to ransom by this insane bunch. How this chasm will play out at the Tory Party Conference next week, we shall just have to wait and see. Like peering in on a kindergarten, I expect.
It is clear that public opinion is swinging steadily behind the Labour position. Policies that were vilified as extreme left-wing ideas a few months ago are quickly becoming the new centre ground. People are tired of austerity and are finally seeing that this policy was a political choice and not a necessity, as previously asserted by Osborne and co. Corbyn’s Labour has captured the zeitgeist and giving hope to the 48% of us who voted Remain.
Children and Grown-Ups
So what’s the connection between the politics, unicorns and my granddaughter’s birthday party?
Firstly, over two years after the referendum, May’s government has still not come up with a realistic solution to the border issue in Ireland. Fantasy proposals from the UK Government have been compared to unicorns – they simply don’t exist! A “fantasy island unicorn model” was the phrase used by other EU leaders back in April. (The Chequers proposal is largely based on this fantasy model.)
Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry said earlier this week: “…we need to extend Article 50 and essentially turn up in Europe and say the grown-ups have turned up now, let’s sit down and talk’.” Labour is speaking like a group of grown-ups with the Tories like a bunch of noisy eight year-olds.
It’s time we gave a chance to the grown-ups to run the country before it’s too late, to avert the damage inflicted by May’s mishandling of the EU negotiations. And no more need for talk about unicorns.
Donald Tusk says today that Theresa May’s plan for the UK to leave the EU “won’t work”. So do many others:
This is May in her Little Miss I-Know-Best mode, at its worst. A few weeks from the key November EU summit, we still don’t have a solution to the Irish border problem – about which I warned 31 months ago! May’s mishandling from the start has got us into this hopeless mess.
So her ten-minute talk to the EU27 leaders at the end of dinner last night went well – not!
Even More Hopeless
There’s no Commons majority for Chequers or any other conceivable plan for leaving the EU. Tusk and Macron both said May’s plans risk undermining the EU single market. So it’s even more hopeless.
Conservative alternatives to May are even worse: any credible candidate to replace her from within the Tory party simply sends shivers of horror down my spine. You know who I mean: there’s no need to name names. Cameron’s crazy plan for a referendum has divided the country and his own party. Civilised discourse has been squeezed out by extremist shouting and abuse.
A whole generation of Tory MPs fall under the long, toxic shadow of Margaret Thatcher, leading to a total lack of anyone statesman-like enough to govern in the national interest. Yesterday’s yes-men and women are today’s squabbling, hopeless idiots. No one would have predicted that the Tories, the self-styled “natural party” of government, would fall so low. “Fuck business” attitudes have infected great tracts of the party – unprecedented in my lifetime. Hopeless, hopeless.
So what next? Well, it’s Party Conference season. The Lib Dems seem to have vanished without trace this week. Most coverage centred on Vince Cable’s possible resignation as leader. Labour next week, then the Tories. Labour seems to be edging ever closer to endorsing a People’s Vote – so a bit of hope there. And the Tories? Last year we had May’s coughing and letters falling off the display board. And this year? Watch this space.
Some more schadenfreude might cheer us up for a short time, but it’s no substitute for running the country properly. Do any of this shower truly understand just how hopeless they are?
Buried away on page 27 of today’s Guardian is an article about naming and shaming FTSE top 100 companies who overpay their bosses. The article fails to name all 18 of the companies implicated! But there’s a deeper problem. These fat cat bosses are highly unlikely to feel ashamed if they do get better exposure than this. Many studies have shown that company CEOs tend to have psychopathic personality types. Here’s one example of such a study. You can find plenty more online.
The Ultimate Psychopath
Do you want your country led by a psychopath? The Americans have one, whether they like it or not. Trump is the ultimate example. Beneath that thick, unctuous layer of narcissism lies a true psycho. See his comments leaked from a private meeting with right-wing evangelical Christians about Antifa. No, I hadn’t heard of Antifa, either. They’re an extremist, violent fringe left-wing anti-fascist group in the USA. Note Trump’s latching on to a violent tiny minority group to justify his own threats to democratic norms. That strikes me as psychologically unhealthy – psychopathic, perhaps? As Psychology Today puts it: “Psychopaths aren’t capable of feeling any genuine remorse. They don’t accept any responsibility for hurting other people’s feelings. Instead, they blame other people and deny responsibility.” Sounds familiar?
The recent Ed Balls series in Trumpland shows that many of the faithful continue to support Trump because he “acts like a businessman” and not like a politician. What they may not realise is that they actually mean they like a psychopath as their leader!
The extreme Leavers – naming no names – all exhibit the behaviours listed in the quote above. As the extremist-supporting papers thrash around blaming everyone else for the damage done by the UK government’s “plan” to leave the EU, think hard on that. And what do the extremist-supporting press have in common? They are all owned (or in one case edited) by people from the richest 1% – those likely to be psychopaths. They will do all right in the event we leave the EU, by hiding their money in tax havens, open a branch of their business in an EU country or whatever.
It’s been said many times that a large chunk of the Leave vote in the referendum was a protest against feeling ignored and disempowered: “Shit life syndrome” is the term coined by GPs to label people whose life chances – or rather lack of them – create health problems. Many of them are in shit jobs: there’s even a hiring company which celebrates the fact!
Having trouble empathising with those suffering from shit life syndrome? I’ve often thought Noel Gallagher’s lyrics made little sense, but, hey now, try this for size:
I hitched a ride with my soul
By the side of the road
Just as the sky turned black (a)
I took a walk with my fame
Down memory lane
I never did find my way back (b)
You know that I gotta say time’s slipping away And what will it hold for me
What am I gonna do while I’m looking at you You’re standing ignoring me
I thought that I heard someone say now
There’s no time for running away now
Hey now! Hey now
Feel no shame ’cause time’s no chain Feel no shame
The rich 1%, unlike the rest of us, can run away to their tax havens, or hide their money there. Nothing will change while the Tories are in charge.
(a) Air pollution kills 40,00 a year, 9000 in London alone. And Boris Johnson, when London Mayor suppressed the report for 18 months until Sadiq Khan found it in his bottom drawer.
(b) Decent, well-paid, secure working-class jobs have all but disappeared.
The other possible Tory leaders, as Prime Minister – assuming there’s a coup from the extreme right in the Party – would be worse. Psychopaths all.
I’ve said a lot of rude things about Theresa May, and justifiably so. The hostile environment policy and the practices it has spawned have her fingerprints all over them. Such actions would be evidence of psychopathic behaviour. But I think the truth is more mundane. The inhumanity of the hostile environment comes from May’s sheer lack of exposure to poor people and her lack of imagination. It’s her incompetence, rather that psychopathy, that’s the problem.
So we need a general election. But first, Conference needs to change Labour Party policy to Remain in the EU, with or without a People’s Vote – I don’t mind. As long as we stay in. Hey now, what do you say?
This blog post is prompted by the Pope’s visit to Ireland – a secular, utterly changed, country in the 40 years since Francis’s predecessor visited the country. I say good to that. Let’s talk religion.
As a humanist, I obviously reject all religions (although Buddhism doesn’t require its followers to believe in a non-existent deity, so I’m OK with that.) The rest contain some superstitious nonsense about God, Yahweh, Allah or whatever and generally also a belief in some form of afterlife. Neither is for me. The Humanist position is clear and simple. We have but one life, here on Earth. And people are free to believe and practice any religion as long as it does no harm to others. That’s the acid test.
There are some deeply troubling trends in India in relation to Hindu nationalism, leading to state-tolerated anti-Muslim discrimination – but that would be a distraction from my main arguments. So I’ll stick to the main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). For reasons of brevity and familiarity, I’ll use “Abraham” rather than the Islamic form “Ibrahim” in this post.
Orthodox and Enlightened
Broadly speaking, Humanists like me have most problems with the orthodox / traditional wings of these three religions. That’s because they are “book” religions and the words are taken literally by the traditionalists. Liberal Jews, Christians and Muslims recognise that the world and social attitudes have changed since the words were written. So they “interpret” what’s been written in the light of what we’ve learnt since.
There is no shortage of enlightened, liberal and even secular Jews to engage in a debate. “Secular” doesn’t work for Christians and Muslims: it’s an oxymoron – despite Home Secretary Sajid Javid claiming he’s a “secular Muslim”: logically impossible! I suppose it helps him to be more accepted by the Christian traditionalists in the Tory Party.
The concept of “secular Jew” works because Judaism differs from the other two Abrahamic faiths in one important way. The term “Jew” is conventionally applied as both a religious and ethnic grouping. It is part of the reason we can all get quickly into hot water over debates about antisemitism. I believe that, under Benjamin Netanyahu, the actions of the state of Israel make it a rogue state: a democracy with a coalition government dependent on right-wing extremist parties. But my fundamental belief in anti-discrimination makes it easy for me to distinguish between criticism of Israel and criticism of Jews in general.
I do also believe that Jews, as an identifiable group, have been discriminated against – including genocide – more than any other over the past 2000 years. About 90% of the discrimination was done in the name of Christianity: anti-Jewish sentiment and actions by Muslims are – with one or two notable exceptions – a relatively recent phenomenon. And the Holocaust, as the most evil state-sponsored event of the 20th century, behoves us all to be very sensitive in our choice of words.
Again, taking a 2000 year view, Christianity has been the main culprit when it comes to killing and torture in the name of religion. The Renaissance, in Christian Europe, led to a rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman art and philosophy, secular in nature. The Reformation gave us Protestantism, which, via the Enlightenment, led to secularism. This and scientific discovery have brought progress to the point where over half of Brits have no religion. There are more non-believers than Anglicans.
And yet, the Church retains many privileges in Britain and certainly in England, thanks to a combination of factors. Detritus which needs to be swept away includes state-funded faith schools, the requirement for our head of state to defend the established church and the general legislative drag on enlightened, secular policies. It is a disgrace that a part of the UK (Northern Ireland) violates the human rights of women over abortion, for example. The UK and Iran are the only two countries in the world with clergy formally and constitutionally part of the legislature.
Which brings us to Islam. Humanists have one big problem which we cannot avoid. Traditional Islamic teaching states that the Qur’an, as told to the prophet Mohammed, is the final word of Allah / God, which cannot therefore be challenged. A lot of Islamic teaching and cultural practice is not in the Qur’an itself, but in the many additions, not least the Hadith, bolted on to the faith subsequently. It’s primarily about 7th to 12th century politics, when things in the Middle East were pretty patriarchal (see Misogyny below). But asserting the Qur’an as the unimprovable word of Allah doesn’t exactly encourage open debate.
I continue to strive to gain a better understanding of Islam, for two opposing motives. The first (and by far the more important) is to enable me to be culturally sensitive in my regular dealing with Muslim people, as a matter of respect for them and their right to practice their faith. The second motive is to use my greater knowledge of their religion to disagree with Islamic beliefs from a humanist perspective. Much of the culture in Muslim groups in 21st century Britain is highly socially conservative, and I am keen to gain a better understanding of where this comes from.
In the 10th century, a phenomenon known as closing the gates to Itjihad occurred: in plain English, the law-makers of the time “laid down the (sharia) law” and there it stays until this day. One thing I can say for sure: Islam has never had the equivalent of Christianity’s Reformation. But it’s more complicated than that! (Read on in the Wiki article linked above to get a brief overview of 19th century Islamic modernism and Salafism – but many of the most extremist groups in Islam and individuals such as Osama Bin Laden hark back to a mythical “Golden Period” of early Islam – which only makes things worse!)
I think what really matters is that nearly all Muslims living in Britain get on with their lives in such a way that they do no harm: that’s the Humanist litmus test. It’s a key tenet of Humanist thought that all people, of all faiths, are free to act this way without fear of discrimination.
All the Abrahamic faiths, but especially Christianity and Islam, seem obsessed about women and what they may, or may not, do with their bodies. There is a strong propensity towards misogyny. It’s easy to spot where this comes from in Christianity and orthodox Judaism. Women are unclean, as a result of menstruation and childbirth (Leviticus 12). (Incidentally Leviticus 18:22 is the only Biblical source of Christian anti-gay bigotry.) It’s worth reading Leviticus in full, as I have done. You’ll learn that it’s OK to eat locusts but not prawns, it’s a sin to wear a garment made with more than one fabric and how to deal with mildew as a nomad in the pre-Christian Arabian desert. And a whole lot more: how times have changed.
The other great driver of religious misogyny is the Adam and Eve myth. Specifically, it’s in the role Eve plays as temptress with the apple (Genesis 3:6). Echoes of this myth filter down to today in Islam around the issue of Muslim women’s right to wear what they choose or forced to by men(?). This Polly Toynbee article intelligently addresses the issue.
Misogyny and the violation of women’s rights remain the biggest example of what I meant by “legislative drag” in the earlier section on Christianity.
The Pope and Catholicism
Which all brings us back to the Pope’s visit. Good luck to Francis with his reforms – if he truly means it. Church politics will resist all moves towards a more enlightened position. Thought control is hard-wired into the Catholic hierarchy. And the interests of the Church always take priority over the victims of abuse. Steve Bell’s cartoon from 8 years ago got there first.
The Catholic Church is intrinsically evil. It has caused more anguish and misery than any other man-made institution in the past 2000 years. (Its supporters will argue it has brought comfort too. That may well be true, but the evil is greater than the good). To be Catholic is to learn guilt at a young age. If I remember rightly, wanking is a sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church. So that gets 90% of Catholic schoolboys for a start!
The pope said some words earlier this week in advance of his visit to Ireland. But victims’ groups were unimpressed: it was just words with no sense that anything will change. A bit like the “prayers and thoughts” offered by Trump and other NRA apologists in the USA after each school mass killing.
I hope that everyone has a nice time in Dublin today, even those with whom I disagree over matters of faith. But, like gun control in the States, don’t expect real change any time soon.
Between 1990 and 1995, I needed to walk on many occasions to an office in Croydon for work meetings, passing Lunar House on the way from the station. Lunar House is where asylum seekers and others seeking to regularise their UK immigration status would queue up to speak to a Border Agency official. By the body language and blank expressions in their eyes, I could tell these were desperate people near the end of their tether in their quest to navigate the Kafkaesque nightmare of UK immigration.
Dysfunctional Home Office
The Home Office has been a malignant, inhumane Government Department for at least 30 years. It has seen off the more sane and humane Cabinet Members quite quickly. At the time of my visits to Croydon, it was Kenneth Baker (who lasted 16 months) and Ken Clarke (13 months), followed by the evil Michael Howard, who saw out the end of Tory Rule until the 1997 victory by Tony Blair and New Labour. Labour got through six Home Secretaries with ever-shorter tenures: Jack Straw (4 years), David Blunkett (3 years), Charles Clark (16 months), John Reid (13 months), Jacqui Smith (2 years) and Alan Johnson (11 months). [Home Secretary dates from this Wikipedia page]
In a class of her own, Theresa May lasted over six years. Amber Rudd, aka mini-May, lasted nearly two, until she was deposed by taking the rap for her predecessor and boss. It’s anyone’s guess how long Sajid Javid will last. But May’s long tenure speaks volumes about what sort of a person she is.
Little Miss I-Know-Best
In my earlier post The Modes of May, I described the three modes: Little Miss I-Know-Best is the most apt here. May clearly has a problem in mixing and communicating with “ordinary” members of the public. She has not the wit, imagination or empathy to see how life is for people outside the leafy, Tory-supporting, prosperous streets of her Maidenhead constituency. This was exemplified in her disastrous 2017 election campaign, where she stuck to addressing hand-picked supporters in near-empty warehouse buildings. It reached its nadir on the morning after the Grenfell Tower fire, when she shunned the company of grieving relatives of the victims and confined herself to speaking to the emergency services personnel.
Although no longer Home Secretary, the notorious Hostile Environment policy, first publicised for the Windrush generation but now seen to affect many, many more people, has May’s fingerprints all over it. This took the previously dysfunctional, nasty Home Office to whole new level of hostility. Her soulmate Ian Duncan Smith took the same hostile approach to benefit claimants. This can be seen most in the inhumane approach taken to the harsher sanctions regime. The same “assume guilty unless the asylum seeker / benefit claimant can prove innocence beyond all reasonable doubt” approach can be seen in both the Home Office and Department for Work and Pensions.
We’re Not Special
Although Theresa May tamely supported Remain in the referendum campaign, she switched to being the most rigorous supporter of the most extreme form of leaving the EU. She’s a prisoner of the DUP (of her own choosing) and the Leave extremists in her own party. Reality is beginning to bite: the extremists are blaming everyone except themselves and May is strangely silent on anything of substance. But her earlier, ill-advised “red lines” have left her no room to manoeuvre. What a fuck-up.
All of this, I think stems from the same basic delusion. Namely, that the British, and especially the English, are somehow special. This springs from a distorted, whitewashed version of our imperial past. The best comment I have heard as an antidote came from a Danish politician about six weeks ago. He said something like this: “The EU consists of small countries and of nations who have not yet realised they are small countries”. I wonder whoever he had in mind?
Post-imperial hubris and delusion drives the Leave extremists (Dunces I call them) who refuse to accept reality: in particular, the complexities of unravelling 45 years of ever-closer interworking between the countries of the EU. It’s not just about trade – and that’s not simple either.
Owen Jones wrote for the New Statesman in 2015 about what would happen if Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party. Part of that was a concerted character assassination attempt by the Tories and their right-wing press outliers. The predictions are remarkable accurate, judged against what has happened since. For a balanced, sympathetic but not uncritical analysis of Corbyn’s foreign policy history as a backbencher, read this piece by Ewen MacAskill.
Over the past 30-40 years, the right-wing media and the Tories have been remarkably successful at shifting the Overton Window sharply to the right. Labour needs to start a campaign of decisively shifting it back to its proper position, in line with actual human experience for the many. John MacDonnell and Corbyn hold the middle-ground view on economic policy, not Hammond, austerity and the Tories. Public opinion is turning against austerity and supports most of Labour’s policies where they differ from the Tories e.g. rail and utilities nationalisation. But Labour is still seen as some left-wing cult in the eyes of far too many people.
It’s ironic that it was May herself who first warned the Tories 15 years ago that they were being seen as the Nasty Party. Yet her incompetence, rather than malice, has led her to introduce some of the nastiest policies seen from any government in my lifetime.
The referendum vote was almost evenly split and public opinion has swing sharply towards Remain or a proper People’s vote. Yet May plods on along her disastrous path. Favourites to succeed her are too awful even to contemplate. What have we done to deserve this?
I received good news this week. After 24 doses of my main chemotherapy drug at the cancer unit in my local hospital, I am in remission. They’re giving me an extra 8 doses, just to be sure. (Currently, I’ve just had dose 30.) The not-so-good news is that my cancer is incurable. But it probably won’t kill me. At my age, it will probably be from something else. I call that good news: you can call it what you like!
In my 30 visits, I’ve undoubtedly spoken to people who have been given a terminal prognosis and are receiving palliative treatment. For most in that position, they will find that dying of cancer is a slow death. Compared, I mean, to being shot, having a fatal heart attack, being run over by a bus, drowning – or any of the many ways we die.
It was 14 months between the time my first wife and I were told she was terminally ill and the day she died. She had with secondary breast cancer which had metastasised. The night following the news of her terminal condition was the worst of my life. The night following her actual death was a doddle, by comparison. Her death, at a hospice, was peaceful: what is known as a “good death” – albeit, tragically, far, far too young.
But this talk of cancer is not the main point of this post. I want to talk about two other forms of a slow death which affect the whole country.
Slow Death of the Economy
I first want to nail, once and for all, that the Labour Governments of Blair and Brown trashed the economy. Gordon Brown played a leadership role internationally when he took decisive action to avert a 1930s style recession following the Wall Street crash of 1929. Read this Wikipedia entry if you don’t believe me. Some even think Brown may have saved the world from something worse. And remember, the crisis started in the USA and spread to all western countries, not just the UK.
The UK economy is weak, even by the poor standards of the last decade. Productivity, the driver of real earnings growth, has flatlined. Today’s FT reinforces this point:
R&D expenditure is a big driver of productivity. UK R&D expenditure, already below the EU average, is further threatened by the referendum result: industries which are particularly vulnerable to the UK leaving the EU make up the lion’s share of business R&D spending.
Every economist, except the one or two “true believers” in the Leave campaign, believes that leaving the single market and customs union will make things worse. Look forward to days of further decline. The changes won’t be dramatic – unless we crash out of the EU under a “no deal” position – but will be slow and inexorable.
Slow Death of Civilised Values
The damage to our economy from leaving the EU is well-known by all except those in denial – which includes some Cabinet ministers. But the fundamental reason I voted Remain concerns a deeper issue: about the values we hold dear in this country. I have written about this before: even before the referendum itself: see, for example, the closing paragraphs of What Sort of People Are We?, written just after the murder of Jo Cox MP by a far-right bigot.
Membership of the EU is not just about trade – although trade seems to be the only thing the Tories care about. A variety of EU-wide programmes recognise the mutual nature of our relationship with our neighbours and the values we hold in common. A good example is the Erasmus programme where ideas about education are shared between EU countries. Our school has been engaged in one such Erasmus project and I have seen the effect on staff in re-energising their approach to teaching and learning. Cooperation on an EU-wide GPS system and on security are other examples.
The Social Fund is based on the principles of additional help for the poorest regions in the EU from funds contributed by all 28 countries. But, above all, the EU has a set of principles to which all current and aspiring countries must adhere. (Enforcement has been patchy: Hungary and Poland are the obvious examples, but Italy has been an Achilles heel since the Treaty of Rome.) That’s why Erdogan’s Turkey has never had a snowball in hell’s chance of joining the EU any time soon. It is moving away from the principles laid down for entry. The Leave campaign’s scare story was just one of their many lies.
There is a danger that the Tory party is taken over by the Leave zealots. Far-right individuals from the USA are actively collaborating with these zealots to undermine our democratic norms. Membership of the EU, imperfect though it may be, is, in my view, a way of demonstrating we still hold civilised human values dear to our hearts.
When I heard the referendum result two years ago, something inside me died. It was a mixture of two things. One: I was wrong about Britain. It’s a nastier country than I thought. Two: the slow death of hope. Hope that my children and grandchildren could look forward to a better life than my generation.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Parliamentary Committee has recently published its report on disinformation and misinformation. (It recommends we don’t use the phrase “fake news” because nobody knows what it means.) Such manipulation of the truth, it says, is a direct to our whole democratic way of life and laws are in urgent need of updating. More regulation is required. This Committee achieved a remarkable degree of non-partisan consensus. The DCMS Committee highlighted in particular the role Russia and its “digital agents” have played in both the Leave campaign in the EU referendum and in the US Presidential election.
The UK government has, rightly, condemned Russia’s actions. But, hey, isn’t there some hypocrisy here?
USA Foreign Policy
Since the end of World War II, a central feature of US foreign policy has been interference in elections and regime change in other countries, particularly those in South America. During the Cold War, according to the Washington Post, the USA had 72 attempts to effect regime change in other countries.
Historically, the USA’s approach has often been less than subtle. Their means of interference has been military, up to and including invasion. Wikipedia takes a longer view, starting in 1846. The USA chooses to spend around 3.5% of its GDP on its military rather than, for example, providing healthcare for its 20 million poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Or a half-decent European-style welfare system.
Russia, with its tiny economy compared to the USA, can never outspend the Americans on military expenditure. But it has learnt the art of cyber-warfare – a much cheaper option. Anyone who has studied Russian history – I confess I have only dabbled – will understand that the rapid eastward expansion of NATO countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union has spooked the Russians.
Vladimir Putin, with his KGB background, wants to restore Russia to the world’s esteem comparable to the USA as a superpower. His training and instincts towards authoritarianism has driven Russia to “fake news” and to funding organisations to undermine Western liberal democracy. He exploits the very freedoms which are democracy’s bedrock to work against the interests of the west.
UK and US-based fascists have exploited the situation too. The USA has spawned monsters in the form of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter. (Apple, with its obscene stockpile of cash, is in a slightly different category. It can use its money mountain to bribe any politician, senior judge or law enforcement officer anywhere in the world, or, failing that, to pay for expensive lawyers to outwit law enforcement – or to make it prohibitively expensive to pursue cases against Apple.)
With all these companies registered in the USA and with that country’s light regulation, laisse-faire attitude to business, these companies have turned into monsters. Their sheer size implies a power which prevents them from failing. Their accumulated data about our lives is on a frightening scale. (Full disclosure: I still use Twitter, WhatsApp and Google – they’re so damnably convenient!) The companies’ chiefs, Mark Zuckerberg in particular, treat democratic processes with contempt.
Only the EU as a body has shown any appetite for taking on the monsters. Trump broadly sees fines against them as anti-American. Historically, and particularly at the height of its Imperial power, the UK played Divide & Rule with the rest of Europe and in May’s mishandling of the EU exit negotiations, continues – in a futile way – to try to do the same. It won’t work any more. So May will fail, either by October, when the EU and EU27 want clarity on the UK’s position or by December, the last gasp opportunity to avoid an “over the cliff” disaster.
Fascists and “No Deal” Leavers
Western fascists like Steve Bannon share Putin’s methods, but ultimately for a different agenda. In Russia’s case, the motive is Russian security and self-esteem. For the western fascists, it’s the overthrow of democracy to enable Free Market Fundamentalism, which benefits only the richest 1% (or even really 0.1%) to continue into the future. The Tories are beginning to learn the limitations of trying to preserve a failed economic dogma within the constraints of Parliamentary democracy. The lessons of Pinochet’s Chile have been forgotten already.
Whilst there are no desaparecidos in the UK yet, as far as I know, it’s clear we are showing worrying signs of jettisoning democratic norms in favour of more authoritarian practices: see my 2016 post Sliding into Fascism for some early examples. More recent examples include the branding of judges as “enemies of the people” and talk of “saboteurs”, “betrayal” and “traitors”. A Tory MEP has even called for an update to the treason law to suppress dissenting views, specifically “extreme EU loyalty”.
May’s almost uncritical sucking up to Trump and our continuing delusion about the non-existent “special relationship” with the USA exposes both the UK’s weak position and our hypocrisy. (Explainer: Trump used the phrase “highest level of special” in his UK press conference. Trump, with the attention span of a gnat, will say in the moment he has the world’s attention, anything that will make him liked – just for that moment. All his other actions support the view that he treats us with contempt.)
We’re supping with the devil in a US-UK trade relationship. Use a long spoon or, better still, don’t sup at all and stick with people who share our values: the rest of Europe and the EU. I for one, don’t want to “take back control” and hand it over immediately to Trump’s America.
There’s a First World song, sung, rather subversively, by the Allied troops to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. The lyrics are quite easy to remember.
We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here
We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here etc.
It seems strangely topical. I’m referring, of course, to the total mess we’re in with the government’s negotiations to leave the EU.
Forces of Darkness
David Cameron made a huge strategic mistake in trying to sort out the ideological split in his party by calling a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. We have found out the hard way that, in trying to appease the irreconcilable faction of his party, he simply spread the cancer of polarisation to the whole country.
I have struggled to find the right words to describe this rabble of irrational Europhobes. I first called them the Crazies, a fairly accurate term I thought, and have taken to calling them Dunces in recent months. (DUNCE was meant to be a smart-arsed acronym for Deluded, Unhinged, Nasty, Crazy and Europhobic.) But the term “Forces of Darkness”, used by Tory Remainer Anna Soubry in a recent interview, perhaps captures better the evil nature of the people to whom I refer.
European Research Group
The core of the Forces of Darkness is the so-called European Research Group. Its current Chair is the omnipresent Jacob Rees-Mogg, a cartoon caricature of the most out-of-touch Tory imaginable. The ERG, according to Wikipedia, currently has a researcher by the name of Christopher Howarth. Is any reader aware of any actual research on Europe or the EU by this character?
The ERG, despite its name, is an extremist far-right group who wants the UK to crash out of the EU, weakening it in the process, and to establish the UK as a small-government, low regulation paradise for the mega-rich. The rest of us are there to be exploited. It’s a common feature of extremist right-wing lobbying groups to hide behind bland, neutral-sounding names: the Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange come to mind, to name just two. Another common characteristic is the total lack of transparency in their funding sources. The ERG is possibly an exception to this and has found a way to misuse MP’s expenses, within the rules, to fund their propaganda at taxpayers’ expense. (The Wiki article – link above – explains more.)
How many Tory MPs are there in these Forces of Darkness? The ERG claims 80. 62 signed the February 2018 letter to the PM and some put the true figure at 40 with a few cowardly Tory MPs willing to sign a letter for a quiet life). With May’s wafer-thin “majority” in the Commons propped up by the bigots of the DUP, that’s enough to frighten Theresa May.
May wasted two years trying to reconcile the irreconcilable within her party: a compromise between the Crazies, Dunces or Forces of Darkness (as you prefer) and the saner Tory MPs. There’s a clear majority in Parliament of MPs who voted Remain in the referendum.
The Chequers agreement and the White Paper recently published were May’s attempt at bringing reality to bear on the negotiations. It contains elements which the government knows already will be rejected by Brussels. It led to two Cabinet resignations (plus several others) and a complete cave-in by May in accepting four wrecking amendments by the ERG before a key Commons vote last Monday. Long-standing arrangements about pairing were broken by the Tory Chief Whip Julian Smith to scrape the vote home by the slimmest of margins.
The net effect of May’s caving in to the ERG is to push the UK further apart from the EU, who remain impatient and frustrated by the lack of consistency in the UK’s negotiating position. We were already a laughing stock to the rest of the EU. The mind boggles to think what our reputation is now. “Perfidious Albion” is a phrase that’s been around a long time. We still deserve that epithet.
The Will of the People?
On a single day in June 2016, without any information of the implications, the UK electorate voted as follows:
37% voted Leave
34% voted Remain
29% didn’t vote
The Forces of Darkness and their cheerleaders in the right-wing press – yes, Dacre, it’s you again – have tried very hard to persuade us that “the will of the people” is a hardline anti-immigration version of what 37% of us voted for. It is they who are making all the running at present. Time is short to correct this.
A Binary Choice
May’s painfully constructed compromise over two years is crumbling fast. Polarisation grows stronger by the day. The risk of a disorderly “no deal” crash out of the EU is increasing. It seems that we are heading for a simple “stay in or crash out” binary choice. So be it. I know which side I’m on.
And yet, if Cameron hadn’t been such a weak useless Prime Minister, all of this could have been avoided.
We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here…