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It’s STILL A Hard Life

May 5, 2018 12 comments

Two years ago today I posted a piece which laid out my fears for the way our world was going. This specifically referenced the campaign which was then in full flow towards the UK referendum on membership of the European Union (EU), which took place on 23 June 2016, and the US presidential campaigning, which at that point looked very likely to endorse Donald Trump as the Republican candidate, as indeed happened. Thankfully, election campaigns here only last a month or so, unlike the many months the Americans have to endure – but there’s no guarantee that either of us will come out with a good result, regardless of how long it takes us to get there.

Reading this post again, I was struck by how my worst fears were now coming true. Our referendum became a mass vote of lemmings throwing the country off a cliff, and with only ten months or so until we are due to leave the EU we are nowhere near a conclusion to negotiations or to any coherent vision of the future direction our country will take. Our government has veered ever further to the right, going for what it calls a ‘Hard Brexit’ – in other words, a total split from the EU – with no apparent thought about what the outcomes of this will be. Racists have been empowered by the referendum result and xenophobia is the norm for many. And as for the election of Trump, with all that has brought about, I could go on at length! Here is the post, exactly as I wrote it at the time. I’ll return at the end for a final comment, or several:

“Some weeks ago, when I posted in response to the terrorist bombings in Brussels, I titled my piece after what I had always known, until then, as a Nanci Griffith song, although it was actually written by Julie Gold  – From A Distance. I had been listening to music as I often do, as a lot of truth is spoken in song lyrics and the words of that song resonated with me. One of her own songs also came to mind, and it was a bit of a toss up which one I used to illustrate my post. I chose that one as it made my point for me, and the other song has a wider meaning which I thought I might revisit as a companion piece. Having been kept away from here by illness it has taken me longer than I intended to do this, but this is the other song I had in mind:

Nanci Griffith was born four months before me so, although we have grown up in different countries we have to a degree shared our experience of the world and all its changes. In the song she references growing up in the 60s which, when we look back now, was a tumultuous decade, which in many ways has shaped our lives now: the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the assassinations of JFK, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Cold War in Europe, student demonstrations, and the massive changes in popular culture. But what have we we learned from all of this? The song’s chorus goes:

‘It’s a hard life, it’s a hard life, it’s a very hard life,

It’s a hard life wherever you go,

But if we poison our children with hatred

then a hard life is all that they’ll know.’

Look around you. What does the news tell us? Have we learnt the lessons of recent history? That song was released in the late 80s, but more than 25 years later it seems to me that we continue to poison our children with hatred. The obvious example of this is Donald Trump, who now looks very likely to be the Republican candidate in the forthcoming US Presidential election. Despite his recent appointment of some spin doctors it is difficult to forget some of the rhetoric he has used during his campaign, and the way that it has demonstrated a position built on racism, bigotry and hatred. As I have said several times before, I fear for the world if he should become President, and hope that doesn’t happen.

But the issue I want to draw to your attention is far greater than just one man, however odious he may be. Next month, we in the UK will be voting in a referendum to decide whether we remain a member of the European Union. In recent years the main (only) political party of any note to espouse this cause has been the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which, by the actions of its members and its beer swilling, chain smoking leader, has largely come across as a bunch of racist buffoons. But here we are, in the midst of a campaign which seems to become nastier by the day, and in which much of the language used seems to be based on bigotry and hatred, of Little Englander perspectives. And we have always had our far right parties, going back to Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s, via the National Front and British National Party in  more recent times. Another current incarnation is Britain First, which was started by someone who was thrown out of the BNP for being too extreme (!) and which makes UKIP look like a credible political organisation.

And this isn’t confined to the UK, either. All over Europe there are similar political parties and movements. France has long had the Le Pen family leading the Front Nationale. Italy has the Northern League, which is anti-immigration. Germany has the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) which began life as an economic movement but has jumped on the racist angle and is getting huge increases in public support as a result. Similar groupings exist in Spain and Austria, amongst others. Flip the coin and you have ISIS, or Daesh, or whatever we are supposed to call it. Then there was Al Qaeda. And in North Africa there is the Boko Haram group, amongst others. Everywhere you look you see organisations based on hatred, and the worrying thing is that they are generating huge amounts of support.

What are we doing to ourselves? Not content with destroying the planet, we appear to be trying to solve that problem by destroying ourselves from within first. In the song, Nanci Griffith references the KKK and the racial hatred for which it stands. Her song was inspired by a taxi trip around Belfast, which at that time was still a city divided by religious and political terrorism. Towards the end she mentions that she ‘can’t drive on the left side of the road.’ For the uninitiated, we in the UK drive on the left-hand side of the road, although most of the world does it the other way. Her choice of metaphor is very apt: it is about time that we all started to learn to drive on the other side of the road. We have poisoned our children with hatred for far too long.”

And back to today:

Sadly, Nanci Griffiths’ words are possibly even more pertinent now. The song and video were released in 1989, and still bring a tear to my eye. The video was made in Northern Ireland, which at that time was still subject to terrorist atrocities. Those have largely ceased now, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Yet we don’t seem to be learning from history, do we: the UK government appears totally clueless about how to solve the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and there is, I think, a potential danger that the peace could unravel. This hasn’t been helped by the electoral battering the Conservatives took last year, when hubris and arrogance cost them their overall majority in Parliament, leaving them dependent on a bribed fix with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Never has the word ‘democratic’ been more misused.

In the US, Trump duly won his way to the Presidency, and appears to be engaged on taking America back to the 1930s, with protectionist policies that ignore the progress that has been made, in social, cultural  and technological terms, since the end of WW2. I described Trump in my previous piece as ‘odious’ and I stand by that. Every day it seems we get yet another example of his, and his government’s ignorance, racism, misogyny, homophobia, hypocrisy and xenophobia. Today’s news contains reports of his speech yesterday at the NRA convention, in which he mocked London and Paris for their lack of guns. Seriously, Mr President? You need to take a much closer look at your own country, and not pander to the money of the organisation responsible for making the machines that kill people. I said in the original piece that I feared for the world if he became President, and I still do. It may be cynical, but I do wonder if he isn’t being played by North Korea, who recognise his naivety and egotism. I hope I’ll be proved wrong, but I’m not convinced that this apparent ‘peace process’ will end well. And as for Trump being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – the man is a coward and a bully, and would demean the honour.

It would be easy to abandon hope, and I’ll admit to being worried about the world we are bequeathing to future generations. But therein lies the real hope for the future. Nanci Griffiths’ video focuses on children: as she says, we need to stop poisoning them with hatred, and allow them to shape a future world which is based on human values like love and compassion. In the US, the National School Walkout campaign – a direct response to the Parklands atrocity, which took 17 lives – demonstrates vividly the lack of moral courage on the part of political leaders to do something which is long overdue. These young people are our future leaders, and it is to be hoped that they succeed where others have failed. If they don’t, then

‘a hard life is all that they’ll know.’

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Building A Wall?

April 22, 2017 25 comments

With apologies to Pink Floyd:

“We don’t need no new election,

We don’t need no thought control;

No deeper schism in our country,

Leader, leave us plebs alone!”

I really don’t think of myself as a particularly political person, far less a political blogger, but for the second time this month I feel I just have to vent my thoughts on what is going on. A few days ago, our Prime Minister, Theresa May, called a snap general election. This was despite her saying publicly on five occasions that she would not go for an election any sooner than 2020, as required by law. May became Prime Minister after the debacle of our referendum last summer, and was anointed by her party without an election, as the other candidates engaged in collective self-destruction. She faced pressure at the time to hold a general election, to ratify her credentials to lead the country, but withstood this. Since then, she has ditched her tepid support for the Remain camp and is leading a party which is moving relentlessly further to the right, and somehow seems to have redefined a narrow majority in the referendum into a mandate for what is known as a ‘hard Brexit.’ In other words, her aim is to break as many ties as possible with the European Union, seemingly on the basis of dogma rather than any practical or economic common sense. After all, why just have a simple car crash when you could drive the car at great speed off the highest cliff?

I’ve written recently, in The Ongoing Nightmare, about my concerns for the UK’s post-Brexit future, and won’t repeat myself here. Let’s just say that I don’t believe that the ‘information’ on which voters based their decision was anywhere near sufficiently detailed for a hard Brexit definition to be interpreted as what people voted for. Indeed, there has been some reporting of disquiet, along the lines of ‘that’s not what I voted for,’ but this has been fairly muted, largely because the media in this country – particularly the press – is of a right wing persuasion. I use the term ‘right wing,’ but I could actually have used words like insular, jingoistic, xenophobic or fascist. All apply, as evidenced by the Daily Mail’s front page headline:

I wonder if they realised that the original use of that phrase was by Lenin, in the context of opposition to the Russian Revolution. There is a certain irony in there, as that approach in 1917 led to widespread state control. I hope that history doesn’t repeat itself, albeit at the other end of the political spectrum. For non-British readers, that paper is the worst exponent of fascist ‘reporting’ – after all, it did declare support for Hitler during the 1930s, so it is keeping up its own tradition.

So why has the PM decided to go for an election now? Wouldn’t it have been fairer, if she was seeking some kind of ratification of her approach to Brexit, to have done this before Article 50 was enacted? Yes, of course it would, but although that is what she implied in her announcement of the election, I’m sceptical. Politicians tell lies, it’s how they seem to fulfil their role, and I think that was another. The real reason for the election now is a combination of opportunism and expediency. For expediency, there are growing signs that if she had waited until 2020 we could be suffering the economic fallout from a poor result from the negotiations to leave the EU, and her small parliamentary majority would be at risk from that. As for opportunism – the main opposition party is in a state of electoral disarray, and I suspect May believes she could win a landslide on the strength of this. The Labour Party has saddled itself with a leader who enjoys only minority support amongst his own parliamentary colleagues, and although he welcomed the chance to put his policies to the vote this cartoon from The Times rather sums that up:

© Times Newspapers

Corbyn has already ruled out a second referendum, and by doing so he appears to me to have given up the opportunity to offer a significant difference, and a home for disgruntled voters from the referendum. In the unlikely event of a Labour win, Brexit would still happen, and he might not be able to achieve a better deal than May could. The Conservatives will also expect to pick up votes from UKIP, who will be likely to lose much of their protest vote value. Our system means that you can get a landslide with around 42% of the vote if you do well in the right constituencies and they are polling better than that at present. Whilst there is still a lot of opposition to Brexit I think that is unlikely to translate into Parliamentary seats – I just don’t see how it could. I’d love to be proved wrong though, and there are already suggestions about tactical voting to achieve this. As I live in a constituency that had a 54% Conservative vote at the 2015 election, with UKIP in second place, I think it unlikely that would work here but there are better targets, so I can but hope.

Assuming that the Government does achieve a significant increase in its majority – a landslide is usually taken to mean an overall majority greater than 100, and this seems possible – what kind of country will we be? Parallels have been drawn between our referendum and the US election. One of Trump’s promises was, in effect, to become a much more insular country, becoming more self-sufficient and threatening tariffs on overseas goods. May has been cosying up to that abomination of a human being, and it is to be hoped that she isn’t thinking along the same lines. We will lose current access to EU markets and will have to rely on World Trade Organisation rules, as a small nation with a pressing need to negotiate trade deals with countries who would have no particular incentive to change their current arrangements and trade with us. This isn’t a strong position, despite the optimistic guff spouted by the three government ministers in charge of the process, and today’s news that the US will prioritise trade deals with the EU over the UK confirms our weakness. Trump is also infamous for his promise to build a wall to keep out the ‘bad hombres’ he believes are intent on rape and pillage. We have a natural boundary – the ocean – so being insular is, by definition, much easier for us. I hope that isn’t the plan, as we aren’t big enough as a country to survive, even without the likely loss of contributions from multinational companies who will probably scale back their commitments to Britain when the tariffs kick in. I just hope this election isn’t, all in all, just another brick in our own wall, as we would lose out – we would be isolating ourselves, not insulating.

In her speech announcing the election May said ‘our country is coming together.’ If she really believes that, then she must be living in La La Land! The 48% who voted against Brexit don’t feel that, and I’m pretty sure that many of the 52% who did are having second thoughts about the effect of their vote and the path the country is now following. In two years we will be outside the EU, in what I believe will be a significantly worse state than while we have been a member, and that is not a recipe for creating a united country – and there is the Scottish independence question to consider too. Joni Mitchell put it best: ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’

A further concern is that the electorate will suffer some kind of fatigue – this will, after all, be our third major election in successive years. This view was put well by ‘Brenda from Bristol’ when told by a BBC reporter that another election was coming:

I’m not sure that this should be a reason not to vote, but I can understand her frustration. Historically, low election turnouts have worked in favour of the Conservatives so I’m hoping the electorate aren’t all like Brenda, sweet though she may be. Perhaps Theresa May factored that into her decision as well? She showed herself to be a canny political opportunist in the way she became party leader last year, so I wouldn’t rule that out.

As you can tell, I’m not feeling optimistic about this country’s future. I’d love to be proved wrong, but somehow I doubt it. Try googling ‘Teresa May,’ i.e. without the ‘h.’ I know which one I’d prefer was screwing the country!

The Ongoing Nightmare

April 1, 2017 21 comments

A year ago today – April Fool’s Day, in case you hadn’t noticed – I wrote a little piece I called ‘Nightmare’. In full, this post read:

Taking liberties with the format, a little piece of 100 word flash ‘fiction,’ especially for today:

“It’s April 1 2020. The news is worrying. The UK General election is coming fast, and the country is veering towards a post-Brexit win for Nigel Farage’s renamed UK National Socialist Party. President Trump has just declared war on Mexico for its continuing refusal to pay for his wall, and has threatened Scotland with armed retaliation for the nationalisation of his golf course. President Putin and Wendy Deng now control her ex-husband’s media empire: their newspaper, Pravda of London, has begun circulating.

Am I dreaming? Is this real? A bad April Fool’s Day joke? Or is the world really stumbling towards oblivion?”

Far-fetched? I hope so, but there is so much happening now that makes me worried about our future. I hope I’m wrong! Happy April Fool’s Day!”

A year on, it seems an appropriate time to revisit this. Whilst the blossoming romance between Vladimir Putin and Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife doesn’t appear to have taken off I don’t think I was far wrong with the rest of that. I wrote it nearly three months before the UK referendum and seven months before the US election. Both my main nightmare scenarios came true, and the world now feels a scarier, less stable place as a result.

Whilst I could go on at length about the Orange One, on his mission to destroy the world in four years or fewer, my focus today is on my own country. It can’t have escaped any Briton’s notice that on Wednesday, 29 March, the letter from our Prime Minister was delivered to the EU, giving notice of the country’s intent to invoke Article 50 and withdraw from the EU in two years’ time. This has been described by some commentators as the most significant political act for this country since WW2. I’d go further: it’s probably the most significant act since Magna Carta was signed in 1215. It will change the whole shape of our country in ways that no one can predict and, on the basis of what we have seen since the referendum last June, I fear that many of these changes will be for the worse.

I don’t think even the most ardent Remainer would argue that there is nothing wrong with the EU. Rumours of corruption have long existed, and the suspicion that it is a vehicle for certain countries to promote their own agenda has long been present. I remember when we joined it was the European Economic Community (EEC) – in other words, a trading organisation. Since then – following the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 – it has expanded and become a more political union, moving towards a kind of federal United States of Europe, and opposition to that is what has, in my view, brought about the Brexit situation (how I hate that made-up word!). A great statesman said these words in 1946, in the immediate aftermath of WW2:

“We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.”

That statesman was Winston Churchill, who had the vision to see that the US of E approach was needed for future stability. But Churchill was also a good symbol of the UK’s ambivalence towards this: in 1930 he gave a speech in which he said that Britain would always stand alone, and by 1953 he was saying that Britain wouldn’t be part of Europe! This is tied up with the issue of sovereignty, which gave rise to the Leave campaign’s claim that we were ‘taking our country back.’ Taking it back from whom, exactly? It wasn’t as though the UK had been the most committed member of the EU, was it? We had refused to adopt the Euro as our currency, had negotiated a large rebate on our contributions, and had expressed opposition to many EU objectives and wishes – the pan-European defence force being one such example. I don’t feel any less British than I did in 1973 when we joined the EEC, nor do I expect to feel any more British from 2019 onwards. Anyway, I’d challenge anyone to come up with a meaningful definition of what being British means, in terms of our ‘independence’ from Europe. My suspicion is that it will mean we become a nation seen as Little Englanders, convinced of our own superiority over ‘Johnny Foreigner,’ with all the xenophobic connotations that has. There has been much evidence since the vote to support this: after all, the Leave campaign’s main appeal was to our innate racism and the promise of reducing immigration (coupled with their lies on finances, and that bloody bus!).

The formal notification of our departure, together with the other 27 EU countries’ initial statement on their negotiating position, has highlighted for me the difficulties we will face as a country. Only a fool, or a myopic Brexiter, could believe that we will obtain equally favourable trading terms with those 27 countries from outside the EU. Notions of trade with the rest of the world appear to be based on an idea of Make Britain Great Again being to return to ‘traditional’ markets. The very ones that we have traded with less and less in recent years. All this at a time when one of the major markets – the US – is moving towards protectionism of its own industries. I can’t see a strong financial future coming out of this, realistically.

Politically, the situation is a shambles. The government tells us that as a nation we have a great future. But Scotland voted by a wide margin to remain in the EU and is now demanding a second independence referendum – after the ‘once in a lifetime’ vote of 2014. So, on the one hand, the PM is telling us how much better things will be when we come out of one union, whilst trying to explain the exact opposite in respect of our own country. Good luck with that – it may need more than the politician’s usual two faces to pull that one off! There’s also the issue of Gibraltar. Despite its proximity to Spain it has been a British territory since 1713. Gibraltar saw a huge margin in favour of staying in the EU, but is now faced with managing a volte face to stay ‘British.’ Spain already seems to have seen Brexit as an opportunity to raise this again, and whilst it does seem to be an outdated bastion of a colonial past, if Gibraltar sees itself as British, rather than Spanish or European, that needs to be respected. Gunboats in the harbour, anyone?

My feelings of disquiet about our uncertain future are, I believe, shared by many. The well-attended marches in London and other cities last weekend attest to this. Not that the BBC reported them to any degree. The simple act of delivering a letter was a momentous act, and I hope I’m wrong in thinking that the government is clueless as to how they will follow it up. We are already seeing falling exchange rates and higher prices, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. Things are going to get much worse before there can be any hope of seeing benefits. As Churchill also once said:

Our average voters have proved him right. Isn’t democracy wonderful!

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