The Referendum Wasn’t Real

This is my 100th post and I’d planned the title to be “what’s the point of this blog?” and given the UK’s decision to leave the EU I think my comments on that might answer the question anyway. But, first things first, the Referendum wasn’t real, what’s that all about? OK. It was real, devastatingly so. It is already having vast emotional, social and economic ramifications. As Britain ‘goes it alone’ the pound has plummeted in value, the economy is wobbling and a shift to the right in mainstream politics is underway with the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove vying for power. Extremist right-wing parties like Ukip and their European counterparts are claiming this as a victory for xenophobia and hate. We’ve even recently witnessed one act of right-wing terrorism claim a life, that of Jo Cox. Uncertainty is rising as hope takes a blow to the chest. Yet, for all this, how can I claim the Referendum wasn’t real?

Because from the outset it was a farce. Firstly, democracy was boiled down to a single multiple choice question with only two answers, In or Out, that few people had actually wanted to be put to the public. This doesn’t respect the multi-faceted and multi-partied nature of our democracy it just promotes further divide and hostility as friends and families suddenly found themselves forced to pick a side. And asides for a select few bureaucrats in Brussels and maybe one or two British politicians no one, absolutely no one (myself very much included) could vote with a sufficient degree of knowledge – there are documents of tens of thousands of pages outlying all the treaties and clauses amassed over the decades Britain has been part of the EU and I certainly haven’t read them all. It’s funny that people were suddenly and arbitrarily forced to get knowledgeable and passionate about something they had not seemed to care that much about before.

Meanwhile, people who’ve lived in this country and contributed to its economy for longer than I’ve been alive weren’t allowed to vote. Teenagers weren’t allowed to vote even though they have more future to lose than the rest of us voters. Both campaigns used tactics of fear, hate and misinformation (aka lies) to cajole and manipulate. We’ve already seen Nigel Farage swiftly distance himself from the Leave pledge of £350 million to the NHS (but did we really think neoliberal parties would do an about turn on their views of the welfare state?). There were campaign posters that bore too much resemblance to ones used by Nazis and the media played on xenophobia, fear and outdated nationalistic sentiments to make people think that voting in the referendum was the equivalent to taking some sort of significant stand (it wasn’t, it just makes it easier for the rich to get richer whilst deepening austerity and rolling back the welfare state). Somehow the woes of neoliberal, consumer capitalism (see the rest of this blog for criticisms on that) were landed on the heads of some of the most powerless, namely refugees and immigrants, and a bunch of pro-establishment, old-Eatonians managed to dupe large chunks of the country into thinking voting Leave would lead us into a wonderful British revolution rather than entrenching inequality and recession. That being said, lots of utopic left wingers were somehow led to believe Brexit would yield a land of milk, honey and socialism (my fingers are still crossed). And let’s not forget why this referendum even happened in the first place: because David Cameron wanted to be Prime Minister and he needed the support of his more right-wing back benchers to get it, so he promised them a referendum to appease them rather than having the courage to say ‘no’ (he put it on our heads instead). That’s not democracy, that’s cynical party politics at the public’s expense.

So, yes, the referendum is real and it has happened and this is a rallying call for anyone of whatever political persuasion and however they voted in the referendum to choose peace and oppose the rise of extremism and the violence that goes with it. But, no, the origins of this referendum were neither hopeful nor fair nor democratic. So whatever people say, this was not a victory for the British and the public have not spoken because there was only 1% in it. Like austerity, the referendum is a story wrapped around an agenda. Many desperately believe in it, many just cynically use it to get more power, many misguidedly want it to become true in ways it never will but it is not ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ it is just one story among many. Unfortunately, it is a very powerful story and its repercussions will prove fatal for many. But Britain has survived two world wars and I think we can survive this too. Now here’s Lady Gaga because why not 😉

Britain Is Not A Fart

Better In than Out I say. And there are many reasons for it. Human rights, for example, we like those don’t we? And we get a lot more of them when we’re in the EU. Easy holidays abroad. We love them too and we’ll get lots more if we stay in. Greater security from, for example, terrorist attacks as we share intel with other European countries. Greater diversity, more interesting people coming to Britain more of the time to make our lives more interesting (of course, this one might not convince you if you’re a xenophobe). More stability in the West, something that Obama (leader of the Free World) really wants whilst the likes of Putin and ISIS leaders don’t. More jobs, stronger economy, reduced risk of armed conflict…but we know all these things already (and if you don’t check out the Stronger In website), so I’ve got another reason we should stay in the EU: my grandparents would have wanted it.

All my grandparents fought in the Second World War. One grandfather stormed the beaches at Normandy, the other was based at the caves of Malta, one grandmother drove lorries and fire engines around Britain (imagine that, a woman driving a truck, that was a big deal back in the day), whilst the other helped crack the Enigma code at Bletchley Park (but no, she wasn’t mentioned in that film with Benedict Cumberbatch, hmmm). They all contributed to the war effort for the sake of peace – they believed the Nazi threat had to be challenged, and so they did what they thought was right and put their lives on the line.

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Now, I’m not using this blog to condone war, indeed nothing’s black and white (save zebras and old photographs) and much history has shed complicating lights on the geopolitics of WW2. Secret plots, subterfuge and much anti-Semitism within British politics. So I’m still a big ‘no’ to war but I do think that my grandparents believed they were doing the right thing and I have an awful lot to thank them for. After the war ended the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 was the first step in the federation of Europe, an effort to curb the rise of extreme nationalism on the continent that had led to fighting. Unsurprisingly, my grandparents and many others never wanted to see Europe go to war again. The EU was created to maintain peace.

Of course, there were other motives at play. The Coal and Steel Community is hardly the Culture and Peace Community, it was about business, specifically capitalist business. Opening markets and freeing trade were seen as key ways of ensuring countries stayed on amicable terms. There’s much logic in the idea but when making money takes precedence over making lasting friendships it’s easy to forget why some random village in the south of England is twinned with an equally random village in the north of Germany. Furthermore, when recessions hit and economies get rocky countries all too quickly revert to nationalistic policies (may I refer you to what happened in Europe before WW2 and what’s happening right now).

In many ways the EU has failed us – the bullying tactics that the likes of Germany and France impose on countries like Greece and Spain; the fact that it’s predicated on capitalist growth-based consumer economics (see many previous posts on why that’s a disaster); the undemocratic nature of the Council and Commission; the giant gravy train that is EU bureaucracy (I once met an EU bureaucrat…but that’s another story); the relative ease with which individuals (especially extremist ones) can get into the Parliament solely with an aim to disrupt negotiations, remember Nigel Farage’s shenanigans. The list goes on. But these are not reasons to leave. At a time of huge global problems – looming world war 3, climate change, nuclear threats, terrorism, recession – we need huge global solutions and political transnational bodies like the UN and EU are part of that. They might not be fit enough for purpose but it’s our job to make them better and in doing so make the larger system better rather than blame the likes of the EU for the failings of said system. And it’s what my grandparents risked their lives for and who am I to trash their legacy?

Now, perhaps for the only time, I will give the last word to Margaret Thatcher (full Evening Standard article here): “To come out [of Europe] now, with nowhere else to go, would jeopardise our own and our children’s future … In politics we always have to consider ‘What is the alternative?’ The European Community or what? If we came out now we should be…cold-shouldering our friends…The reasons for staying in…are concerned with the ideal and vision of what we could do together…and with the consequences that would arise for Britain if instead of solving our problems as part of a partnership we withdrew into the unknown…At a time of uncertainty in world affairs, Europe gives us a far better chance of peace and security, and if we want our children to continue to enjoy the benefits of peace our best course of action is to stay in Europe.”

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Corbyn: In The Box To The Left

Corbynmania is exciting stuff. It seems there’s actually debate to be had when it comes to politics. People are discussing things rather than just accepting the Tories’ line of austerity, tax breaks for the rich and cuts, as if these are immutable truths. Jeremy Corbyn, front-runner for the leadership of the Labour Party, is leading the debate and offering an alternative politics – one of hope. But it was Beyoncé who told her ex to put everything he owns in the box to the left and my concern is that Jeremy Corbyn is being resigned to that very same box.

One thing Corbynmania proves is that the Conservative victory at the last general election does not spell the end of politics. We are not consigned to a future of corporate giants crushing communities, endlessly bailing out big banks and the poor getting poorer until climate change melts us all, no, it seems politics could still shift leftwards – back to a bigger state that dares to close tax loopholes, challenge corporatocracy and reduce inequality.

But this isn’t enough (even if it happens). If we really want to change society for the best then we must recognise that some of the big issues we face are so much bigger than left and right-wing politics. For example, to address climate change we cannot just cut carbon emissions and green consumer capitalism because woven into the fabric of our political-economic system is an inherent flaw: it depends on endless economic growth on a planet that offers finite resources. As the name suggests a growth based economy has to keep growing to function but, as we saw with the banks, when things do get too big they can fail, except rather than just a financial system collapsing, rampant globalised capitalism threatens the very earth itself (imagine an impossible hamster getting bigger and bigger until it eats the whole world).

Whether you go rightwards to a smaller state and bigger corporations, or leftwards to a bigger state and smaller corporations, neither approach will tackle this underlying threat because both take capitalism at face value – they just have different ways of dealing with its problems (Labour tend to be nicer to the poor whilst the Tories like to ignore them). Corbyn hints at transcending party politics when he talks of distributing power beyond the state to include communities as well and certainly a push towards peace over arms proliferation could recognise that one of the many reasons we go to war is to ensure our economies can keep growing (the arms industry being a great example of the illogics of growth based economics because so much of the stuff it makes gets destroyed but this is a good thing for the economy because it means more stuff can be built to replace the old).

Corbynmania is exciting stuff. He’s diversifying and opening the debate, putting the demos back in democracy, but that doesn’t mean he’s answering all the questions which is why we’ve still got to keep asking them. We can’t let him get trapped in the box to the left because questioning our tired, destructive political-economic system in its entirety means transcending the left and right debate. Having enjoyed Beyoncé I’ll now leave you with a nice video of that impossible hamster I mentioned earlier…

Boris Johnson Made Me An Angrier Feminist

The Context: at a science conference in South Korea earlier this year Sir Tim Hunt, a famous biochemist, told his audience about his “trouble with girls…Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” He claimed he was joking but lots of people didn’t find it funny.

In case you’re struggling to see why his comments are sexist, offensive and crass let me summarise: calling women ‘girls’ is demeaning and disturbingly sexually predatory. Reducing all women to an overly emotional caricature is inciting and purposefully ignoring their brilliance as scientists. If you still don’t get it why not replace ‘girls’ with a different group, e.g. homosexuals, Jews, immigrants, blacks. Being homophobic, racist or xenophobic isn’t OK but why is it alright to make jokes at the expense of women?

The backlash was big and Hunt went on to resign from his position at UCL. However, the backlash faced its own backlash. Many people, especially female scientists, who spoke out against Hunt’s sexism were hounded online and issued with death threats. It seems lots of people are passionate about defending a man’s right to be sexist. But it was when London Mayor Boris Johnson weighed in on the debate that I really got angry.

Enter Stage Left Boris Johnson: in an interview Johnson said Hunt had fallen victim to the “ferocious stinging bees of the Twittersphere” thereby trivialising the views of people who use Twitter. This just shows how desensitised he has become to his own power – he’s the mayor of London, a journalist, an MP – his voice can be easily heard over and over again, yet he doesn’t seem inclined to care about the views of those with less easy access to power. He then said people should take Hunt’s comment “in the spirit in which it was meant”, so basically asking us to enjoy sexist and misogynistic jokes that demean women. Really!?

He went on to write an article in the Telegraph, highlights include: “…the world’s leading expert on crying, Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University, has shown that women on average cry 30-64 times a year, while men cry only between six and 17 times a year…Whether you say it is a function of biology or social expectation, it is a fact that – on the whole – men and women express emotion differently. There is, in other words, a gender difference, and it should not be an offence to say that.”

Hunt was categorically not merely stating a “gender difference” – he was making a joke at women’s expense. That Johnson attempts to back this up by referring to some scientist who has analysed how often men and women cry is somewhat comic. Furthermore, the study (withstanding questions of its validity and reliability) actually tells us very little because it doesn’t tell us why women might cry more than men. Perhaps living in a repressive, patriarchal, sexist, misogynistic, body shaming, slut shaming, rape culture as we do does make the victims of oppression cry a lot but Johnson doesn’t seem inclined to explore this context. And that’s just it, neither Johnson nor Hunt care because they’ve never been made to – they haven’t experienced oppression in the way women do and they clearly haven’t exercised their empathetic capacities to try to understand what it might be like to be discriminated against. That’s why Hunt can make such casually sexist remarks and why Johnson will defend him in doing so, they just don’t get it.

Contextualising Johnson: it’s not enough just to lambast Johnson, as fun and easy as it is, we must also try to understand how someone can make comments like his and not realise how offensive they are. So who is Boris Johnson?

He is a heterosexual, cisgendered, white male. He’s also privately educated having gone to Eton boarding school for (predominantly white) boys and he studied at Oxford University, founded around 919 years ago but only letting women in 90 years ago. The political world he navigates is dominated by men just like him making it far easier for him to rise through the ranks as he’s one of the ‘old boys’. In other words, he is exceptionally privileged – his suitability for a job will never have been questioned simply because he is a woman, he will rarely have found himself a minority figure in his chosen profession, he won’t have been cat called on his way to work or judged meriticious for his job based on his appearance or forced to accept a lower salary than a colleague of the opposite gender in the same position or slut shamed or a whole host of other acts of oppression and violence that are perpetrated against women in our society.

But Johnson isn’t only privileged he’s also ignorant. In a society rife with information he’s still managed to ignore the lessons that feminism tries to impart. Combine that ignorance with a lack of empathy – the ability to imagine what another person’s experience is like – and it’s no wonder he can’t fathom why people would be offended at Hunt’s ‘joke’. In the video below he gives his defence of Hunt – he cites his great work in science and his Nobel prize – in fact he defines Hunt’s worth by what he has achieved. But his achievements cannot excuse a terrible attitude that trivialises the continued prejudice women face, within and without of the scientific community.

With regards Hunt’s resignation Johnson says it’s a “bit hard”. Yes, it is a bit hard and it’s going to keep getting harder and harder for out of touch sexists to maintain positions of responsibility whilst they continue making women’s lives more difficult. Anyway, far worse than Hunt’s resignation is the continued prejudice women face within the patriarchy – that’s the real issue here, not Hunt’s job position, and that’s what we need to unite in challenging and changing. Hunt and Johnson will be key figures in this change but first they need some serious re-education and a few basic lessons in compassion because, at the end of the day, the trouble isn’t with “girls” it’s with sexists.

History Repeating

Shirley Bassey said it best, whatever innovations and revolutions are promised, it usually just turns out to be a little bit of history repeating. The same is true for British politics. David Cameron can walk triumphantly (and smugly) back into Number 10 whilst Ed Miliband hangs his head in shame and exits stage left but underneath the trials and tribulations of party politics history will just keep repeating. It is a history of capitalism in the UK and before we can change it we must have the courage to critique it.

What we have seen is a failure of politics, a failure of democracy at a cultural level, part of a larger story playing out across the struggling countries of the post-industrial west.” These words are taken from Dougald Hine’s exemplary blog, a philosopher who understands the underlying tectonics of politics and economics. Using some of his blog as inspiration I will analyse why contemporary politics are caught in the endless repetition of history.

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Tories: the Tories think they have won and, for now, they have. They quite marvellously (and maybe even unintentionally) weakened their political rival the Labour Party. The Tories successfully made people believe that Britain’s economic woes were the result of Labour’s over-spending and conveniently forgot to mention that the actual cause was the unregulated banking sector capitalising on the housing market and using too-good-to-be-true sub-prime mortgages to profit from toxic assets. The public bailout of the banks nationalised a private debt to the tune of billions that has still not been paid back. Yet the Tories have done next to nothing to try to re-regulate the banks thereby increasing the likelihood of another recession all too soon.

They tried to scare people into voting for them – it’s either our ‘sensible’ economic plan or ‘chaos’ – and it worked. Unfortunately, capitalism churns on unchallenged and booms and busts will continue to affect Britain. Yet, the Tories are unashamed in their imposition of austerity – a policy that will exacerbate inequality, weaken the working and middle classes and actually undermine Britain’s economic recovery. Even the IMF has advised against such a plan but George Osborne has ignored it. They got votes by promising people houses and security. But the middle classes will not be safe from the Tory cuts – austerity will undermine public services that middle class people rely on and increased inequality will cause greater social discord, discord that will reach the doorstep of middle class houses.

Meanwhile, with no serious redress of the housing crisis and no attempt to curb ruthless profiteering in the housing market, prices will continue to rise and people will find themselves trapped in unaffordable mortgages or conned into suspiciously affordable mortgages born on an ongoing housing bubble. The Tories are signing their own death warrant. They’ll take as much credit as possible for any minor growth in the economy and then squirm if/when the next bubble bursts and the economy dips. They told us that voting for Ed Miliband would result in ‘economic chaos’. That chaos is going to unravel anyway and this time it will be on the Tory watch and they won’t be able to scapegoat Labour anymore.

Labour: is trying to figure out how to rebrand themselves. Some think it best to become a New-New Labour type party, whilst others think they need to appeal more to the working classes. Going right for Labour means trying to play the Tories at their own game – using the defunct discourse of class politics to convince people that they can rise up through the social ranks and embed themselves comfortably in the land of the middle class. Heading this direction affirms the view that Labour have now shifted right of centre, a process initiated by Tony Blair as he embraced the precepts of neoliberalism (he was, after all, Margaret Thatcher’s self-professed “greatest legacy”).

Going left for Labour means trying to appeal more to the working classes but in a post-industrial society the working classes are not what they used to be. Firstly, Margaret Thatcher effectively won the class war when she crippled the mining communities and their means of representation in politics, i.e. the unions (it’s also worth bearing in mind that basing one’s community around the extraction of a finite resource, i.e. coal, is always going to ensure a limited shelf life). Secondly, in our post-industrial economy many of the industries we have now revolve around 0 hour contracts, call centres and other service sector jobs – it is very hard to imagine flourishing and cohesive communities forming around these sorts of work. We have also outsourced so much of our labour to countries like China that we have far less of a working class anyway. So if Labour do go left they won’t be able to rely on their old industrial working class style rhetoric.

Ukip: will do what they do best – completely ignore the larger macro-economic issues and scapegoat immigrants for the inevitable loss of jobs following a recession. A tried and tested approach, remember Enoch Powell.

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The Next Five Years: sadly things won’t magically get better. Unless the ruling government addresses the economic instabilities built into the British capitalist system then history will keep repeating – we’ll have more recessions which will result in people losing jobs, even more jobs will be lost as labour is taken on by machines and the sectors in which new jobs are created will only provide temporary redress (although maybe not for hairdressers and plumbers).

So in about five years time we’ll be fed up of the Tories who will have crippled the long-term chances of the British economy with over-zealous austerity. We will be desperate for change and will turn to the rebranded Labour Party, they’ll promise a land of milk and honey, and will blame the Tories for causing the latest recession. If they get into power, which isn’t guaranteed, they’ll try to ride the wave of what little economic growth follows the recession. Meanwhile, extreme right-wing parties will scapegoat immigrants for our economic woes and stir up xenophobia. It will be all too similar to the times that Thatcher beat Callaghan, Thatcher lost to Blair and Brown lost to Cameron/Clegg. Indeed, as Shirley Bassey astutely observed, it will all just be a little bit of history repeating.