Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Order In Berlin

Appeal to no reason: Nazis canvass a farming family
"We don't want lower bread prices. We don't want higher bread prices. We don't want   unchanged bread prices...
We want National Socialist bread prices!" 

This summer marks the centenary of the infamous Treaty of Versailles, which notionally put a formal end to the carnage of the First World War, but which a plethora of commentators, politicians and historians have long held to be in truth the trigger for the Second World War. Indeed, a few have even postulated a single world war from 1914 to 1945, punctuated by a false peace traced in Germany from 1933 by the Nazi era, but prior to this epitomised by the tumult of the Weimar Republic.

Weimar is often nostalgically remembered as the progressive interlude between the authoritarian Second Reich of the Kaiser and the genocidal Third Reich of the Fuhrer. It has been lionised as the time of Bauhaus, Marlene Dietrich, Fritz Lang and Cabaret, when under the aegis of the "most liberal constitution in the world" Berlin was Cosmopolis and German culture led Europe in breaking old boundaries and forging ever freer means of expression.

That it was to lurch politically from crisis to crisis until collapsing almost eagerly into the clutches of the devious Hitler is a conundrum that has occupied historians from William Shirer's epic "Rise and Fall of Nazi Germany " through Alan Bullock, Peter Drucker and hundreds of others. And now to Benjamin Carter-Hett's 2018 offering, "The Death of Democracy", published by Windmill Books. Echoing the long held narrative, the jacket blurb dramatically poses the question of the day: "What caused the fall of the most progressive government in 20th century Europe and the rise of the most terrifying?"

Carter-Hett's book uses a combination of the episodic and thematic with a relatively loose nod to chronological narrative. Each chapter opens with a cameo to illustrate the rest of the chapter - the mysterious Reichstag fire leads to the suppression of the Communist Party; a detailed description of propaganda posters, from the Red Flags of the Communists through the muscular men of the Social Democrats and the demure, smiling women of the liberal State Party to the charcoal-grey, grim-faced unemployed workers express "Our Last Hope: Hitler". The latter opens a piece on Goebbels mastery of mass communications, his pioneering methods picked up and used by the mass media and marketing communities ever since. In a later chapter, the wife of a Communist MP searches for her arrested husband in the early weeks of Nazi rule, soon to share his fate as the main narrative picks up on the final destruction of all opposition to the Nazis.

Carter-Hett firmly places the story in the context of Germany after the First World War. While giving a nod to contemporary events, he avoids the over-tired and often facile comparisons between then and now, though still warning of the need to learn from history. No one in 1933 expected Hitler to stay in power long; no one could have anticipated the sheer scale of the horrors he would inflict on tens of millions; yet the confluence of mass protest, disillusion with democratic institutions and the blind arrogance of a self-entitled elite, and "suddenly the whole thing looks close and familiar."

Underpinning this analysis, however, is the traditional narrative: of plucky social democrats and liberals bravely taking power as the Kaiser's Empire succumbed to military defeat, desperately fending off assaults from both the extreme left and right and badly let down by the Western Allies. The latter's vengeful continuation of the wartime blockade for eight months after the Armistice, condemned hundreds of thousands of Germans to death from malnutrition and disease and coupled with the imposition of punitive reparations and substantial territorial losses at Versailles, the fate of the young liberal democracy was sealed almost from its inception.

Party representatives outside a polling station at 1932 election
Carter-Hett tracks through the ups and downs of the republic, from the wheelbarrow inflation of 1923 through the revival of the Stresseman years, from the brief attempts to advocate an early form of European economic union to the 1929 Wall Street crisis, and finally the deflation which flooded Germany with cheap food, ruining the large farming community and fostering the mass unemployment of 1931 -32. The anti-Semitism that led later to the Holocaust is also set in the context of longstanding hostility towards Jews and other racial minorities among substantial elements of German society, exacerbated but not originated by the Nazis.

Yet at the core of the book is the view that the Weimar Republic was indeed a democracy, ruined by the ill-intentions of army leaders like Ludendorff through the myth of the "stab in the back" of November 1918 and the political immaturity of its people. He notably recounts the views of Berlin Social Democrats who, viewing the rise of the Nazis, decried the proletariat as not being ready for democracy. Germans longed for a Father-Emperor, it seemed.

Yet there is another narrative; one largely excised from mainstream history and given only a passing reference in Carter-Hett's tome. Its most recent publication can be found in another 2018 book, "A People's History of the German Revolution" by the late William A. Pelz under the Pluto Press imprint.

This takes a very different starting point: the Social Democrats who assumed power in 1918-19 were not the democratic revolutionaries that both history and their right-wing contemporaries portrayed them as being. In fact, quite the opposite - in truth, they prevented rather than led revolution and willingly agreed a Faustian pact with the military specifically to head off the momentum of their more radical rivals - the Independent Social Democratic Party and the Spartacist League (transformed on New Years' Eve 1918 into the Communist Party of Germany, the KPD).

The Imperial bureaucracy, judiciary and military were left in place and ownership of industry and land was to be reviewed rather than nationalised or redistributed. SPD leader and first Republican President Friedrich Ebert vocally abhorred the idea of revolution, while more sanguine colleagues argued that the time had not yet come for such massive change. In exchange for a parliamentary republican constitution being supported by the High Command, the Social Democrats undertook to bring the revolutionary components of the revolution to heel.

German social democracy had its roots in revolution - in particular the unsuccessful revolts of 1848, which Karl Marx himself participated in,  and during which the bourgeoisie failed to make significant inroads against the feudal hangovers that existed in the then-disparate German states. Although social democrats organised and grew, it was only much later in the century, after the wars of unification and industrialisation under the Second Reich founded in 1871, that it flourished. Political reform under the Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, granted a very limited parliamentary system under which the Social Democratic party (SPD) soon grew to be the largest socialist party in the world.

Indeed, as both Pelz and Carter-Hett explore, its membership expanded into so many forms of activity - political, cultural, educational, artistic, community self-help - that it developed into a virtual state-within-a-state. As other parties representing different groups developed similar infrastructure under the Weimar system, German politics became increasingly confessional in their nature, almost tribal, with limited interaction and switching between their fixed points - to leave the party was to leave behind personal affiliations and even a way of life.

Yet Pelz postulates that, while the growth of the SPD greatly enhanced working class organisation and political awareness, it developed its own bureaucracy and hierarchies, and even a leadership class whose rise to prominence was parallelled in a fall in its radical temperament. Its parliamentary success was its revolutionary downfall, culminating in the decision by the party's MPs to defy the previously agreed line of the Second International that socialist parties would oppose war and work instead for international revolution to end conflicts. Instead, like socialists in most other countries (the Russian Bolsheviks being one of the few exceptions), the SPD voted in favour of the war credits requested by the Imperial Government to fight the war.

This dichotomy between continuing revolutionary rhetoric and revisionist reality was to lead to schism in the party in 1916 with a minority led by Hugo Hasse, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg leaving to establish an independent party (the USPD). This was to fracture further with Liebknecht and Luxemburg moving into the Spartacist League, which transformed itself into the Communist Party (KPD) at New Year. Meanwhile, the USPD initially collaborated closely with their original comrades in the crucial weeks of October and early November 1918 and joined the provisional government under SPD leader Ebert following the Kaiser's abdication.

Pelz charts how the war came to an end not through the machinations of either politicians or generals, but through a war weary soldiery making common cause with a revolutionary civilian populace. Starting at the naval base at Kiel, where sailors refused a final supposedly glorious "death run" by the Imperial Fleet (one Admiral lamented that had the fleet been destroyed, at least its' officers and men would be "lying in immortal flame at the bottom of the sea" rather than being preserved in cowardice and disgrace), military mutineers were quickly aided by masses of revolutionary civilians. In many cases the insurrection was started or even led by women, who had been prominent in illegal anti-war protests from 1914 onwards. The revolutionary crowds quickly established a string of Soldiers and Workers Councils (or to use the Russian word, Soviets) to threaten the exhausted Imperial regime.

The Social Democrats, by this stage in negotiations with the Imperial Chancellor Prince Max of Baden, actually sent one of their leaders, Gustav Noske, to try to head off the radical movement, but his success was fleeting as the Council movement spread across Germany and to the capital, Berlin, itself. Ebert and the SPD leadership responded by making its deal with the military - and while the Kaiser abdicated and retired into Dutch exile, the events that followed were in effect the Establishment absorbing the revolutionary wave until its impact was blunted and softened into meaninglessness.

When the USPD, alarmed by the violent suppression of protesters in early December, left the provisional coalition government, their personnel were removed by the SPD from key posts, leading to further popular discontent. When the USPD Berlin police chief was dismissed by Noske, who now held the position of Minister of the Interior, huge crowds took to the streets in early January and an initially hesitant Luxemburg joined them. For several days, a full socialist revolution appeared in the making and the SPD leaders fled the city.

Freikorps paramilitaries -"the advance guard of Nazism"
However, the revolutionary leaders debated ceaselessly over whether or not to seize power until the initiative was lost. Noske, who declared himself the SPD's bloodhound, enlisted the Freikorps - hard right-wing armed paramilitary units composed of former soldiers - to suppress the civilian demonstrators by all means necessary.

Over several days, hundreds of Berliners were slaughtered, among them Liebknecht and Luxemburg. Pelz charts the utterly vicious and vengeful nature of the repression and in particular the misogynistic repercussions that were rained down on female socialists, a number of whom were tortured, sexually assaulted and humiliated by both paramilitaries and regular police. The Far Right's hostility to female activism and its emphasis of "traditional" roles for women runs deep, and Hitler was to amplify it many times in the years ahead, but it was centrist social democrats who drew first blood.

The SPD leaders returned and proceeded with a constitutional convention that obligingly adopted a thoroughly liberal constitution and kicked the issue of industrial ownership far out of sight. While revolutionary uprisings persisted in a few places, these were all bloodily suppressed, the last one in Munich in March 1919, where an idealistic commune of artists and philosophers briefly held a form of power before the more organised KPD organised a three week defence of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Among the elected members of their Workers and Soldiers' Council sat one Adolf Hitler, who clung briefly to socialism's promise of a better world when questioned after his arrest - before being employed by the police to spy initially on his former comrades and then, with devastating consequences, to infiltrate the predecessor organisation of the Nazi Party.

Pelz and Carter-Hett exemplify the sharply different narratives that define interwar Germany.

The latter, liberal view regrets the bloodshed by the Freikorps, but essentially lionises the Weimar Republic as a noble but tragic experiment in democracy, one which was flawed from a combination of ill-will among leading politicians and generals on the right; hobbled by (largely unpaid and ultimately cancelled ) war reparations to the Allies; and undermined by provisions in the constitution which granted emergency powers that bypassed the Reichstag. Secondary considerations he explores are the division between cosmopolitan Berlin and the rural hinterland where the large farming community was hostile to the immorality of the capital, alarmed by the arrival of large numbers of refugees from Soviet Russia and devastated by the deflation of 1929.

Socialists murdered by social democrats - Liebknecht and Luxemburg
Pelz by contrast sees Weimar not as a product of revolution, but as a block or perhaps more correctly a devious sop to mass revolutionary fervour. The self-interest of the SPD leadership won out over the demands of the radical crowds and turned on its former comrades with a ferocity markedly more severe than anything meted out against subsequent right-wing putsches.

While Hitler's Beer Cellar uprising led to his jailing in a comfortable prison suite for just long enough for him to complete his Mein Kampf testimony, Luxemburg was done to death by sadists who dumped her corpse into a canal where it rotted for some months before its recovery.

The SPD justified the suppression of democratic protest on the grounds that it was done to defend democracy - it was all for the greater good of a new Germany. Like centrists and revisionists throughout history, their emphasis was on defeating radicalism, not assaulting conservatism. It warped the incredible revolutionary optimism of the war-weary masses in 1919 that out of the dreadful slaughter a new, better and peaceful world could be born. It squeezed out any hope of significant social change through years of economic crises and austerity which, like more recent troubles, somehow always favoured the big landlords and capitalists. And ultimately it gave rise through the collapse of any faith in liberal democracy to the abandonment of realism and the wild fantasy of "National Socialist bread prices!"

Nazis come to power with Centrist support, 1933 Enabling Act
In the end, as observed by Professor Mario Kessler in his introduction to Pelz's tome, "The unfinished Revolution of 1918-19 resulted only in a precarious democracy, which was usurped by full-fledged counter-revolution in 1933 when the Nazis took power."

The ultimate irony, recounted in some detail by Carter-Hett, was that in 1933, the Enabling Act that legally empowered Hitler's dictatorship only passed the required threshold with the crucial votes of Zentrum - the Centre Party.

And perhaps it is this betrayal, even more than the obscenity that was Nazism, that should be the lesson of then for now. For through such historical prisms, the Great Lie of the Centre is exposed - by the very nature of its fettering of socialist change, centrism shifts rightward and becomes of the Right; it is not that the centre cannot hold - it is that it does not actually exist, and never did. As Pelz himself reflects, "...had the German Revolution been radical and purged the old state apparatus, there would most likely have been no Nazi seizure of power, no Third Reich, no World War II, no Holocaust. Unhappily, that opportunity to sweep away the pests of the past was squandered... Moderation won out, albeit after a mountain of corpses and rivers of blood, and it proved ultimately wanting."

On 14 January 1919, as the bloody social democrat-instigated repression of socialists and Spartacists was picking up momentum, and just hours before her murder, Rosa Luxemburg penned her final polemic, mocking the SPD for announcing that "order" was being restored through the killing of Germany's own citizens. Yet even in that darkest moment, she looked to a better future, one which she would never see, but which she summonsed up with her last known words, words which echo still today.

"Order prevails in Berlin!"
You foolish lackeys! Your "order" is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will "rise up again, clashing its weapons" and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing:

                                                              I was, I am, I shall be!

Spartacist League flag, 1917

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Dry Cleaners of the World Unite: Democracy is in Danger!

 So yesterday in Newcastle Nigel Farage became the latest rightwinger to have a milkshake tossed over his lovely pinstripe suit.

It is a trend that started when would-be MEP Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, aka Tommy Robinson, was hectoring a young man who, pushed to the edge of reason, poured his own recently purchased liquid confectionery over the former EDL leader. Soon after, Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, a UKIP candidate in the south-west, was milked not once, not twice but four times. Even the Peterborough stall of the re-formed Social Democratic Party, a bolt-hole for allegedly moderate former Kippers, was splattered on Monday, though their only casualties were some leaflets.

Social media has of course been abuzz with pictures and memes - from relatively mild speculation about dairy-free alternatives for would-be vegan assailants through "this is what happens when lactose meets intolerance" to rather cruder speculation about neo-Nazi sexual practices. But, while predictably the rightwing mass media and rightwing groups have howled with rage about this alleged assault on free speech, so too have some on the left voiced concerns about the thin-end-of-the-wedge. Surprisingly, what would previously have been generally viewed as relatively minor, whimsical acts of protest are seen by a not small number of progressively-minded people as a serious threat to the democratic process.

You start with milkshakes, one Green activist warned me, and before you know it, people are committing atrocities like murdering Jo Cox.

Well, no. It may be a bit silly and an arguably counter-productive act to waste a tasty cold beverage on the likes of Farage, but there is a quantum difference between someone staining Nigel's jacket and Thomas Mair gunning down an MP in Birstall market.

The milkshake option (caramel and banana, I believe) follows a long tradition in political protest, one which, while messily dramatic, is ultimately entirely peaceful with clothing the only casualties and temporarily so given the prevalence of new-fangled contraptions like washing machines. It is just the medium that is new: in the past, a variety of soft food products were a popular option - precisely because, as with milkshakes, these can express disdain and anger with very little chance of anyone actually being hurt (physically at any rate, egos may be a different matter).

In 1970, after his car was pelted with eggs during the General Election campaign, Labour's Harold Wilson's response was to quip, "If the Tories get in, in five years time no one will be able to afford an egg." In 1992, Margaret Thatcher was hit by a bouquet of daffodils, while then Deputy PM John Prescott was doused in iced water by members of Chumbawamba at the 1998 Brit Awards.

Egged - Harold Wilson in 1970
My personal experience of this was standing behind the late Labour MP Tam Dalyell at a march against the looming Gulf War in 1991 when a flour bomb struck him between the shoulders, the powdery fallout temporarily bestowing my face with a ghostly Halloweenesque quality. Dalyell however dusted himself down, grinned at me and plunged into a speech about peace.

A few years earlier, at a meeting at Glasgow University where the SDP leader Roy Jenkins was speaking, I witnessed a paper aeroplane hurtle out of the mass of a far from sympathetic audience to land squarely between his bespectacled eyes. Jenkins' response was to coolly carry on speaking while he retrieved the missile from the desk in front of him before nonchalantly launching it back in the direction from which it had come.

There are scores of similar incidents down through the years. John Major, Nick Brown, Michael Heseltine, Nick Griffin, Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair, Ed Miliband - all these and many more have been pelted with rotten fruit, had chocolate eclairs shoved in their hair or ended up with egg on their faces. Democracy wasn't imperilled and politicians did not call the police to report crimes against their laundry.

Until yesterday, that is, when Farage bravely called the police and made a statement which landed his "attacker" in court charged with common assault and criminal damage.(Of course, Nigel has form when it comes to wasting taxpayers money on his whims - among other charges to the public purse, he similarly insisted on a prosecution of an egg-thrower in 2014.) Whisked on from Newcastle to Wakefield, he refused to leave the "safety" of his bus while vowing (I jest not) to "keep buying new clothes" until polling day.

The cream sours on Tyneside
Well, forgive me, but I shall not weep. In or out of the carton, milkshakes do not threaten democracy. What does are people like creepy "Sargon", who ponders on twitter about whether or not to rape a Labour woman MP; or Farage himself, who has belligerently promised his "People's Army" that he will "pick up a rifle" to ensure the Brexit of his choice happens.

Little more of course than inflammatory bravado when in truth he turns tail and runs from chocolate-dusted cream, but inflammatory all the same and it is this, not harmless acts of protest, that we should be worried about. Because Farage may never lift anything heavier than a pint - but who is listening to him, and what are they thinking and doing?

The murderer Thomas Mair shouted far right slogans - "Britain first!" - as he slaughtered Jo Cox with his knife and home-made gun, and just today we learned that the police and MI5 have been tracking scores of far right extremists who have plotted to murder Labour MPs and carry out major acts of terror. In a number of cases these fascists were dissuaded from committing slaughter only by agents revealing that they were being tracked and their plans were known: the police have not been able to arrest or prosecute in many cases. Instead, they walk our streets, their minds filled with rather more sinister ideas than dispensing sugary drinks over their opponents' heads.

So forgive me, but as I look at the comparisons, I am not losing any sleep over a millionaire's dry cleaning bill.

Friday, 12 April 2019

SHORT STORY: Election '22 - Or, Be Careful What You Wish For

It was a lovely day, that June morning all these years ago in 2022. The sun was up. The sky a crystal clear blue from the very first glow of golden dawn. But down here on Earth, it was as if the solar rays playing across the rooftops of the capital were mocking them as Britain was plunged into a great darkness. It was just the first day, the first of many days of despair that now, as he clutched his drenched jacket around him and tasted the salt in the cold flecks of spray, he remembered so well. So bitterly, terribly well...

"Mr Farage is expected at the Palace in the next twenty minutes to kiss the Queens' hand and accept appointment as Prime Minister... Afterwards, he and his likely Deputy Prime Minister, his coalition partner and leader of the UKIP, Gerard Batten will meet with their MPs to begin the process of forming a new government. The Brexit Party's Foreign Affairs spokesman, Katie Hopkins, has announced that the new PM has already spoken by skype to President Le Pen, herself a recent newcomer to office, to discuss their planned Budapest Compact for a New Europe. Viktor Orban of Hungary and Matteo Salvini of Italy are expected to join them as they prepare to radically overhaul the European Union into their planned Europe of the Nations confederation..."

Hard to believe, he thought, but it was there. Staring us in the eyes. In the f*cking face, in fact.

But of course, just as they'd never anticipated it, the liberals even now denied it. Someone must have stuffed the ballot boxes. The media told lies. The great unwashed had fallen for the Facebook ads and the Twitter memes yet again. Didn't they see it...??

But this was one vote they couldn't rerun and a process they couldn't drag out.

Sure, they had won the second referendum. Back in September 2019, the ChUKs champagne corks had popped and the Lib Dems shook in exotic spresms when, pushed from pillar to post, Theresa May had caved in and agreed a second referendum. Her deal, her precious deal, or... Remain. "No deal" wasn't an option because it apparently made no sense. "Anyone who wants to vote for that, is too stupid to be allowed to vote!" declared one Nu-Labour peer as the ballot bill was rushed through a somnolent Lords.

And so they won: three and a half years' after the first referendum, Remain on 54% of the vote carried the day.  After 6 weeks of ever more vicious and divisive argument, somehow even worse than the first plebiscite, 16.9 million backed staying in the EU. Article 50 was revoked and, tail between its legs, Britain sheepishly returned to the Eurofold. Bereft of her majority already and with Rees-Mogg's ERGers in open, permanent revolt, Theresa May retired to a wheatfield in the Home Counties. A National Government under Sajid Javid was forged between the rump of 220 Tory loyalists and the ChangeUK contingent, now swollen to 80 as Blairites fled the Labour Party en mass. The SNP provided "confidence and supply" in return for its own second indy referendum being agreed for 2025, ten years after the first.

No one could remember when the term zombie parliament first entered common parlance. It was probably before the referendum, but at any rate by early 2020 it was seared in permanent place. In the crumbling gothic ruins of Westminster, the patchwork of neoliberals and chancers kept things turning a little bit less each day. But outside, something was happening.

The Brexiteers had lost the referendum. But amidst sarcastic jokes of "best of three", and repeated expositions on how the winning Remain vote this time was numerically lower than the Leave vote last time, Squire Farage donned his finest tweeds and, harrumphing like a latter day Toad, proclaimed war on the Weasels of Westminster. And just as the SNP had hoovered up the YES vote after they lost the Scottish referendum in 2014, so the Brexit Party and, to a lesser degree, UKIP, found their stock rising in spite of the referendum result as they radiated and consolidated the seething anger of millions of Leave voters.

Or, as he pondered things now, perhaps because of it. For people who had switched back to the Tories and Labour in 2017 after both pledged to honour the first referendum turned away again. The shenanigans that had stretched all the way through 2019 had poisoned most citizens' views of the political system. The self-identifying Political Class never seemed so detached from reality as it did that year and, feeling no loyalty from their MPs, similarly millions of voters offered none in return.

Birthed in their successful 2019 campaign for the Euroelections they claimed should never have happened, the Brexit Party had faced something of a quandry about what to do after the second vote, but the formal defection of 40 ERG MPs from the Tories to Farage in early 2020 gave it a significant parliamentary presence for the first time. By late 2021, the rightwing collaborators stood at 29% in the polls, behind Labour's 32% but 13% clear of the Change UK party and 15% ahead of Javid's doomed Tories. Sensing its ultimate fate at the polls, the Government of the Undead stumbled on blindly with only Nick Clegg's Fixed Term Parliaments Act keeping them clinging on constitutionally to the aptly-named deadline for fresh elections in spirng 2022.

The General Election campaign was bitter indeed. The Leaders' debate between Javid, Farage and Corbyn oused with recriminations and accusations of treason, racism and corruption. Farage and Corbyn were seen as joint winners by the polls, with Javid sinking. But still, on polling day, Labour clung to a 3% lead - 35 to 32 - over the Faragists. The received wisdom was that  as UKIP had polled 14% in 2015 but won no MPs, then even with a much swollen vote, they might hope at best for "a Brexit dozen" as Ken Clarke scathingly predicted from behind a large cigar.

"Farage finished" proclaimed the Guardian, while the Independent favoured "Brexit's Last Gasp" and even The Sun cautioned "Nigel Nowhere?".

Polling was brisk, but in Leave-voting areas from the referenda, it was mobbed. Angry queues formed from early morning as Britain enjoyed the first days of a warm summer. Police fought with groups of right wingers who moved through London parks attacking black people, tourists and anyone - indeed, anything - they deemed foreign.

He spat as he remembered sitting with some Green and Lib Dem friends in a tapas bar in Limehouse. They had all been in high spirits as they traded tales of ignorant Brexit supporters on the doorsteps. As the sonorous election programme theme sounded and the red and blue graphics sparked and sparkled in the dim light of dusk, they had watched in jubilant anticipation.

"And our prediction is - Brexit-UKIP take 35% of the national vote and win with 312 MPs for the BP and 36 for UKIP. An overall majority for the alliance of 46 seats.  Labour remain the official Opposition with 201 and the SNP follow up with a much increased 49. The Tories polled 17% of the vote, better than expected, but held on to just 19 seats..."

"First-past-the-post," he heard himself mutter. "First-past-the-f*cking-post..."
They somehow hadn't reckoned on that, had they. 46% of the vote lost the Brexiteers the referendum; but just 35% won them an outright majority in the Commons, as it had done for Blair way back in 2005. 65% opposed them, but there was Farage in Downing Street and Tommy Robinson on his way to his new desk at the Home Office.

But of course, at least Britain was still in the EU. That would protect them, wouldn't it?

Wouldn't it?

As he sat now on the side of the raft on this grey day, his gaze switching from the lapping water to the distant Gallic shore, its haze-covered beaches traced with barbed wire and lookout towers, he knew better.

The distant hum grew louder and through the faint mist he watched the Border Protection Force frigate HMS Enoch Powell bearing down on the flotsam and jetsam of liberalism as it bobbed in the cold waters around him. He closed his eyes. And as the guns strafed the sea, he grew angry, his face contorting with pain.

Yet it was not from piercing bullets that his agony came, but from his seething disappointment. For in these, his final fleeting seconds, all he could think of, all that he could visualise, was David Cameron, his porcine chops grinning and puffing pretentiously, his condom-quiff wobbling and his porcelain-perfect teeth flashing with customary contempt.

A snoot laughing in the face of humanity forever...

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Bless The Holy Fallout

The news that the Royal Navy is to hold a National Service of Thanksgiving for Britain's nuclear weapons on 3 May has to be an almost unique event and one rightly condemned by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which is running a petition to call for it to be cancelled

It is one thing to commemorate the sacrifice of the armed services in past conflicts - Remembrance Day offers reflection of the loss of the dead and the chance to engender hope for future peace. Above all else, it is about people, the flesh and blood and spirit that makes us human and that was either threatened, damaged or destroyed in war.

The Alpha & Omega: the Ape Doomsday Bomb!
This ceremony, however, is to give thanks for our possession of weapons systems - Polaris, Trident and the future Continuous At Sea Deterrent replacement (cost £205 billions). Not just any weapons systems of course - systems of Mass Destruction: many, many times more powerful than the puny atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Westminster Abbey will see God thanked for our supposedly independent nuclear force (which can't actually be used without US targeting systems and service facilities) which has the capacity to completely destroy the world and all life on it.

This is at best misguided; at worst, it is an ominous development, incorporating militarism and nationalism into a religious ceremony. Shades of a dark future - after all, our Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson apparently dreams of a post-Brexit world where British armed services use our "hard power" to face off against Russia and China. Delusional fantasy for sure, but all the more dangerous in a mindset that seeks to bestow some sort of halo on a ballistic missile system and presumably sanctifies its use.

The 1970 film Beneath the Planet of the Apes offered us a glimpse into a nightmare future where the mutant survivors of the human race worship a Doomsday Bomb, with the intentionally ironic biblical name of Alpha and Omega. Of course, back then, it was just science fiction, but as has often been observed, yesterday's sci fi can all too easily become today's reality...

Green Fades - a fond farewell to the party I love

(Written on 14 March)
This is, for a change, a personal piece - I rarely write here in the first person or about my own life or experiences, but today I make a possibly self-indulgent exception. Because this week, for the first time since either May 1977 or possibly 1978 - it's a while ago either way! - I am not a member of a political party, a state that, after all these years, seems mildly odd (when in truth, set against the population as a whole, it is membership of a party that is odd - fewer than one in ten people join one in their entire lifetimes).

After nearly 14 years, I have said goodbye to the Green Party of England & Wales. It may seem to some of my former colleagues and comrades a strange time to take such a step - after all, when have politics been as fascinatingly volatile as this frenetic week of Brexititis at Westminster? A hung Parliament has figuratively hung a Prime Minister, hoist on her own hubris and peculiar school-prefect-like mix of duty and disdain for lesser mortals. And of course the Opposition is little better - fracturing parties, policy changes by the day, while Brexiteers warn ominously of treason and Remainers of apocalypse. An election could be weeks away, or a referendum - or just a meltdown.

Great days for active politicos of any and all stripes in any and all capacities.

And as historic days pass by and our electorate scan the horizon for some hope, this could have been the time for Greens to have offered a new way forward - while still open to the world we care so much about, we could have been majoring on our core policies of fostering local economies and bringing manufacturing closer to home to create a fairer, more sustainable way of doing things. But instead we have been enthusiastically adding to the centrist narrative of almost any form of Brexit being the reality version of The Walking Dead.

I voted and campaigned for Remain, but the Greens' drive for a second vote from as soon as the results of the first one were declared completely ignored the reasons for the Leave victory - and fails to consider the possibly dire consequences to our politics if a second vote reversed the first by anything less than an overwhelming margin, something no polling evidence suggests even remotely likely. What better shot in the arm to Farage's Brexit Party than if say 47% still voted Leave and, as the centrists popped open the post-referendum champagne, his new party scooped up even just 35% of the vote at the next General Election? That same figure gave Tony Blair an outright majority in 2005.

But it is not only in Brexit that strange days have fallen on the Greens. After a record-breaking vote in 2015 under Natalie Bennett and a second-best ever result in 2017 in spite of fewer candidates and the Corbyn surge, a narrative took hold across the national echelons of the party that, in truth, these two amazing results were actually abject failures caused by the promotion of a far-left, almost bolshevist agenda. Apparently, there had been too much emphasis on the NHS, on renationalising the railways and energy sectors and tackling inequality. Time to turn back to talking simply about ecology and climate change - so now the strategy passed by the party last spring commits it to a path described in the document as "social liberalism".

What is "social liberalism"? Well, aside from it being the title of a vaguely social democratic group within the Lib Dems, it is usually used to describe a combination of mildly regulated free market economics with promotion of individual freedom. While it sees the role of government including ameliorating poverty and providing some level of social support, it does not fundamentally change capitalist economics nor challenge ownership of resources or concentration of wealth - at its heart is a policy of growth and managed/ prompted trickle down of wealth, a sort of kinder, gentler neoliberalism. How would ot could this ever provide the social and economic transformations needed so urgently to stop environmental catastrophe?

This is quite a contrast to the party I joined after hearing Caroline Lucas argue passionately on a panel about economic and social justice and about the ills of capitalism in 2005. It is a peculiar path to take and unnecessarily exclusionary for those of us who hold to ecosocialism or simply to breaking up capitalist monopolies to create new forms of economics focused on sustainable sharing of resources. The rest of the strategy explains why - social liberalism hopefully appeals to some voters from other parties, crucially including the apparent abundance of green-minded Tories who would have voted Green if only we hadn't been calling for a public NHS or for a fairer distribution of wealth.

So, sure, if you represent a party as a candidate, as I have done at local and parliamentary level, you need to be at least comfortable with what it is doing - though would the words "social liberalism" either win over or deter anyone on the doorsteps? Or for that matter, the party's current decision to abolish its formal trade union links? Nope, of course not. It is a case of activist-world problems, dear perhaps to me and others who fuss over such matters, but how crucial really in the wider scheme of things when our planet is burning up, literally, before our eyes?

Well, humans are social creatures. We affiliate to many communities and groups. Our friends, colleagues and comrades are our tribe. Like families, we might fall out, but in the end, we make up. Or do we?

British politics and society, just like pretty much everywhere else now, are divided and fractious beyond belief. The Greens are no exception.

I won't dwell over-much or break confidences here, but in 2017 I was co-chair of the Green Party Regional Council for 8 months. This is one of two bodies - the other being the Party Executive - that oversee the party's functioning. For me, previously working in my naivete with fairly harmonious and certainly positive, friendly local and regional parties, it was an unwelcome revelation: GPEW has a significant hinterland of caustic complaint, legal threats and mean-spirited, personalised dispute utterly astonishing in a party that claims - in the vast majority of cases, I believe, genuinely - to seek a better, happier world for all.

These disputes covered all manner of issues, many at core quite trivial until fermented in sometimes truly alarming vitriol. One repeating theme, mostly after my time on GPRC ended has been around transgender issues. There is certainly discussion to be had for many to understand transgender issues better - and there has also at times been some pretty harsh and inappropriate behaviour by individual transmen and transwomen in the party. But when have Greens of all people held that the actions of an individual justify pre-determined views of a whole group? And if some statements by some transactivists invite questions from others, why can't these questions be advanced in a culture of inquisitive acceptance as opposed to rejectionist hostility?

Those who complain about transactivists being overly hostile to others' viewpoints ignore the fact that these viewpoints often deny the validity of transmen and transwomen's identities, for some reason often presuming them to be lightly worn. Not rarely are these complaints themselves delivered with pretty full-on anger. Referencing the worst of US Republicans, sometimes lewd and often bizarre concerns are raised about men supposedly using women's toilets or the apparent indoctrination of children to transgenderism at school - how Clause 28 is that? It seems the history of fighting oppression has been somewhat set aside by some when it comes to transgender rights.

For me this came to a head with the posting on a party noticeboard of a lengthy diatribe in the form of a pantomime script filled with crude references to transpeople in the name of supposedly supporting feminism. Though written by a woman, it was posted by a man who described it as "hilarious" - sure, very funny if you like lots of references to f*cks and d*cks, but hardly conducive to either inviting serious discussion or fostering a culture of respect. It remained posted for several days, a veritable paean to a new sectarianism.

At the end of my time on GPRC, I organised some interviews for the chair of a commission the party conference had voted to set up to review its workings. An interviewee asked the panel what success would look like. A senior party member responded that, among other things, it would be good if Greens were kinder to each other.

So, my former Green colleagues, I hope you can learn not just to be kinder but even to love each other again. However, you will only succeed if you acquire that generosity of spirit where, even if you truly can't agree or understand, you can at least accept one another for who you are. Enquire, seek to understand, but no more exclusion, no more pejorative complaints forms or abusive social media tirades.

Because after this warmest of winters, as you well know, the world doesn't have the time any more.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Last Spasm of the Centrists

The Usual Suspects: the Seven Centrists of Neoliberalism  (photo - Guardian newspaper)
"What has happened to the Labour Party is a symptom of the dysfunctional state of British politics - it shows why fundamental change is so badly needed. It is time to build an alternative."

Bold words from Chukka Umunna as he announced the departure of himself and six other Labour MPs from the party to sit as the Independent Group. Politics is broken, asserted one of them, the hitherto unheard of Mike Gapes, MP for Ilford South, whose Twitter handle shows him relaxing in his straw hat - perhaps illustrating this whole exercise as a "strawman", hoping to peel off more right wing Labour parliamentarians and members. And, it seems, a few Tories too according to Mr Gapes. Bedfellows all.

Keeping coy about their intentions about forming a new party, they have set up a website to invite supporters to register. It seems a deliberate echo of the now distant time when social democrats split from Labour to set up the SDP in 1981, for a brief interlude beforehand setting up the Council for Social Democracy. That party briefly flew high before sinking under the ego of its second leader, Dr David Owen, and then vanishing into the merged Liberal Democrats in 1988.

The world shakes: the prominent MP Mr Gapes resigns from Labour
But this time, what prospects for the Independents?

Well, few could doubt that politics is broken - not only over Brexit (indeed, that is itself a symptom rather than a cause of the current temporal rift in British politics) - but over a society that is broken. And why is it broken?

Perhaps it has something to do with the last 40 years of "neoliberalism", the ideology promoted by Thatcher and happily adopted by Blair and his cronies - Umunna and Chris Leslie, another of today's defectors, among them. These seven dwarves of centrism - these are the people who happily sold off chunks of the NHS, privatised swathes of welfare, introduced student fees, and leeched out tens of billions in taxpayer funds to ludicrously expensive Public-Private "partnerships", a misonomer of a relationship akin to the type that a tapeworm has with a bowel. These are the people who gladly took us to war in Iraq and blew their own fuses when Miliband and Corbyn opposed bombing Syria. These are the people who were "intensely relaxed" about the filthy rich becoming even dirtier.

These are the people on whose watch Britain, the fourth or fifth richest country in the world, became one of the most unequal, a land where the equivalent of the population of a medium sized town sleep in shop doorways and under bridges every night of the year.

So they are not the harbingers of a new politics, these Balirite hasbeens and never-weres. Rather, this little parade of the Usual Suspects this morning seems more like the final spasms of the centrists, akin to a headless chicken still runing around for a frenzied few, final moments. Neoliberalism re-animated, a true Frankenstein for our times. Stitched together, stitched up and, as people turn for new answers to the problems they created, out of ideas and out of time.

Unlike the Seven Centrists, the SDP only had a gang of four, but at least they had a name: tellingly, Umunna & Co haven't adopted a name - "Independent" is meaningless, though to be fair, "neoliberal" is probably too obscure.

So what could they use?
Hang on - how about "New Labour"?! That should do the trick...

The Social Democrats 1981 - at least they had a name!

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Piers & Greggs: Or how to flog pastries with an entirely accidental food fight

For the last few days, Twitter has been clogged up with sausage rolls - these being of the vegan type, developed in time for Veganuary 2019 by the High Street bakery chain Greggs.

Reflecting the growing interest in vegetarian and vegan lifestyles both for personal health and to challenge the more damaging effects of the mass meat industry on the environment, Greggs launched their new product with a fairly bog standard release of a video showing a long tubular shaped item filled with meat-free gunk rather than its more traditional gunk-with-meat "delicacy". 

So far so corporately normal. But barely a couple of hours after the shops opened to flog the animal-free miracle food, there came a tweet by the louche "commentator" Piers Morgan as he played to the gallery with customary rightwing rudeness.

Next came Greggs' reply.

This was apparently very humorous indeed, almost hilarious in fact, because it channelled the iconic cool of James Bond (although ironically using the words of a villain as opposed to the bow-tied hero) and this gave the roll the traction to truly get rolling.

Vegans, vegetarians, greens and then the utterly massive demographic of everyone and anyone who can't stand the GMB presenter and former Mirror editor got chomping down to their local outlet to sample the apparent quantum breakthrough in healthy, sustainable eating. Though it has to be noted they first made a point of retweeting the Greggs' response nearly 20,000 times, granting it 146,000 likes and viewing the video over 5 million times. Some made their own videos, fulminating against Morgan, and even the Green Party co-leader tweeted a photo of himself sitting next to their white and blue corporate logo, eating one and promising to eat even more!

By the next morning, the national print media had picked it up and the Morgan-Greggs bun fight was headline news and even today a poorly attended anti-Brexit gathering in Manchester was confused for an anti-vegan roll protest when the police kettled it outside a local Greggs.

So Piers Morgan NIL, VeGreggans ONE!


In the world of Public Relations, everything is greasepaint.

Did Piers Morgan really wake up on Wednesday and decide to pour his wrath on Greggs over a vegan roll? He may or may not like a pie, but does he actually follow their account, scanning it anxiously of a morning as self-appointed sentinnel for carnivores? Was he motivated to troll Greggs after becoming riddled with guilt for failing to challenge the vegan sausage roll when it was trailed on his own programme a few days earlier? And equally, did the person running Greggs social media account really spontaneously think up an allegedly witty response to his verbal assault on pastry-correctness-gone-mad?

Well, maybe. Though it turns out that Greggs and Morgan share more than passionate tweets about vegan rolls.

They also share a PR company - Taylor Herring.

When challenged, TH responded, on Twitter of course, that "Yes we do regular work for the good folk Greggs and a while back promoted Piers book - but yesterday's launch was handled by the in house team."

Is that an actual denial of involvement? Was the handling of "the launch" by the inhouse team anything to do with the twitter-storm between Greggs and Morgan? After all, surely a spontaneous spat with Piers Pieman was not part of the launch plan - was it?

But whatever, how fortunate - what could be better, entirely accidental, publicity for both of them than this little quarrel? Piers reinforces his image as a caped conservative melting snowflakes faster than a bakery hotplate, while Greggs pose as heroes of inclusivity and get to flog their mass-produced fast-food to people who wouldn't previously have even considered darkening their doorways.

The PR press has been ecstatic over the whole episode. PR Week has lauded it as "a PR masterclass" with ecstatic reviews from industry insiders on the sheer savvy sausageness of it all.

Oh hello Piers, we've been expecting you...

Yeah, yeah, yeah...
In a world of confected products and confected "debate", that is possibly, maybe, allegedly the truest statement of the whole episode.

Script extract from "The Ploughman's Lunch", a 1985 film written by Ian McEwan and directed by Richard Eyre:
                               (a sudden laugh)
                         That food you're eating.


                         What would you call it?

                         I dunno.  Ploughman's Lunch.

                         Ploughman's Lunch.  Traditional 
                         English fare.


                         In fact it's the invention of an 
                         advertising campaign they ran in 
                         the early sixties to encourage 
                         people to eat in pubs.  A completely 
                         successful fabrication of the past, 
                         the Ploughman's Lunch was.

               We look at James's plate, the unappetising food.  Matthew 
               takes a long drink.