Saturday, 23 May 2020

Travels In Time And Space: Cummings to be new Dr Who!

Dominic Cummings, adviser to Boris Johnson, has landed the prestigious part of the new Doctor Who.

BBC producers insist that this is not to mollify the eugenics advocate and former night club manager's plans to castrate the corporation, but is rather down to his ability to be physically present in two spaces at the same time, as well as his astonishing power to cure covid without so much as a twist of his sonic screwdriver.

Who could have failed to be moved to tears just four weeks ago, as the BBC gave his wife, Spectator journalist Mary Wakefield, a special slot to talk about how she had fallen to her knees and begged the Timelords to spare her gravely ill partner? Who wouldn't have had to stifle a sob as she recounted how, after rushing home and bravely nursing her, he struggled breathlessly with the apparent insolence of the covid virus in daring to infect a genetically superior body like his ripped torso? As the presenters choked back their grief, she compellingy described his existential battle, seemingly confined in their London home, something she later wrote more about in her rightwing magazine.

Yet at the same time, neighbours of Dom's parents were peering over their hedge 260 miles away on Teeside to observe the Master Race's mightiest hoofer bopping to a high volume outdoors rendition of Abba's Dancing Queen in his age-vulnerable Mum and Dad's garden. Given that he had until then been apparently hovering between this world and the next, some have speculated if he may have been undergoing some form of regeneration process.

It was this astonishing ability of Cummings to alter the very fabric of truth and reality, while also dispersing any traces of shame or hypocrisy at a sub-atomic level, that apparently swung him the part. "And he comes complete with eccentric clothing," a BBC spokesperson enthused, though adding wistfully, "At least, when he actually wears some."

She did go on to admit though that scriptwriters are in crisis conference trying to work out how to explain to Cummings that "exterminate!" is in fact the catchphrase of his dalek enemies and that it would not be a good plot twist for the new Doctor to put them in charge of managing care homes.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

A World Made Small

Once I dreamt
Of galaxies of fire
Streaming stars of possibility
And supernovas of desire.

A future potent
with hope of a dawn
that would never set
Never darken again.

But you with golden locks
And loafing, languid mind
In oak-dark boardrooms
Spun while all declined

Exhaling tyrant breath
In dreadful mirth
At fate's misfortune -
Your accident of birth.

Bumbling and fumbling
Like an adolescent in the dark,
In a world made small
By your jolly jape, your prefect's lark,

Like a cuckoo in straw,
You might bluster and fluster
And wheeze and deny
With all the deceit you can muster.

But the lyre is broken,
Curtains torn in Empire's hall,
Your days draw late
Whispers echo in coming Fall.

With empty heart and hollow eyes
What spectres you must flee,
In this once-sceptred Isle
Set on a septic sea.

But no Cassio, only Brutus
Shall the tin throne attend,
A kindless, covid kiss
Thy final, foolish, bloody end.

Lockdown: Humanity On Notice

Empty city. 
As we stumble about wondering what we are allowed to do and where we can go, here are some scenes from York in simpler times of total lockdown a couple of weekends ago. Normally packed streets devoid of all but the occasional passing jogger or cyclist. And a little gargoyle waiting at the Minster for work to resume one day.
I am fortunate indeed to have this beautiful environment easily in range of a walk for my permitted daily exercise, doubly so to experience it so deserted. It speaks to how well people are continuing to respond to the need to protect not just ourselves but our vulnerable fellow-citizens from the coronavirus. 
And also, as I could hear pigeons rather than people as I walked along Parliament Street, it points up how quickly nature will fill any vacuum left by humans.
Perhaps we are on notice.



Saturday, 2 May 2020

At Tyrants' Fall

Who were you?
What did you do?
And what did you see
With those haunting, haunted eyes
That plead even now with me?

Perhaps it was just a big boys' game
Or you longed so much to be the same
As the Neu-Men in dark blue
Their jutting jaws and snarling teeth
Calling out to you.

Mephisto's deadly bargain dies
With Night-time's wilfull lies.
Eir asks for the soldier-boy
And begs the gods tender mercy
To the Monster's chosen toy.

Who were you?
And what did you know
At the bitter end of it all?
A thousand years not to be
And still-life to live, at tyrants' fall.

75 years ago, the Battle of Berlin had just ended and in less than a week the war in Europe would be over. But for many of all nations, their personal struggles to comprehend themselves and their past were just beginning. 

From January 1945, the Nazis had stripped the schools of all boys and some girls aged 13 and above to fight alongside elderly conscripts in the Volksstrum, the People's Army. In the previous year, a special 10,000 strong SS Division had been created of 16 and 17 year olds and, deployed to Normandy, became infamous for its particularly cruel treatment of prisoners. 

As many as 25,000 German children took part in the defence of Berlin with casualty rates in many units as high as 80%. Elsewhere, a million school age troops were deployed with little training and often few weapons against far superior Soviet soldiers. Raised in Nazi schools and steeped in its mythology, they often fought to the bitter, fatal end. 

But many also survived. The Americans even took the surrender of an 8 year old boy. Their bewildered mixture of anger, fear and confusion is evident in their Prisoner of War photographs. Yet these children made old before their time were far from unique to the Second World War or to the Nazis: even today, there are around 250,000 child soldiers, 40% of them female and all of them frequently subjected to a wide range of physical and psychological abuse. Although declared a crime in international law after 1949, using children in war remains to this day a frequent stain on all humanity.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Jonestown, USA: The Death Cult of Donald Trump

"I could stand on the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose any voters."
So Donald Trump lauded his supporters for their blind loyalty ahead of the 2016 Presidential election. His comments typically divided opinion - his detractors saying he was fomenting violence, his supporters claiming it was a joke.

Both rather missed his point: his voters, his "base", were and remain so loyal that any normal contract of mutuality between a political leader and their supporters has been pretty much suspended in these days of populist farce with the coronavirus crisis somehow the surreal icing on the most amazingly beautiful cake. Ever.

As Trump's already crowded tableau of the grotesque has expanded exponentially, many have asked how such a character has come to lead what remains in destructive terms at any rate the most powerful nation on the planet. He has comprehensively failed to deliver any of his promises to his disenchanted base, instead delivering tax cuts to the rich like himself, and plundering the White House budgets and sinecures with an unparalleled nepotistic largesse. His behaviour ranges from the bullying to the bizarre and back again, his own loyalty to his staffers as thin as his thin skinned ego.

And yet still he remains a not unlikely victor in the November elections, assuming he allows them to take place (not as frivolous a conjecture as a few short weeks ago). While many Americans are clearly terrified and embarrassed by him, just as many love him and hang on his every word, rebutting his many lies as either the Deep State forcing him to do its evil bidding or alternatively denouncing the reportage of his comments as biased "fake news", even when the man is broadcast mouthing his verbiage.

We may have thought he had reached his nadir last week when amidst his latest of many ramblings on the covid pandemic, he encouraged armed groups to go onto the streets to "liberate" themselves in States that were following the lvirus lockdown rules set his own Federal government. With the President effectively calling for an act of treason by his followers, it has to remain an open question as to what these same groups of nascent fascist militia will do with their heavily armed arsenals if Trump does lose the election, the so-called "boogaloo" insurrection fostered enthusiastically on social media by the US far right. But, incredibly, there was worse yet to come.

Recently, the medically ignorant President waxed on TV about hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that a rogue French doctor briefly claimed could help cure Covid-19 based on a very limited trial. Later research has in fact indicated that it actually leads to a higher than average death rate among covid patients treated with it. But this was too late for one elderly Arizona couple who were scared of contracting the virus. They watched the President speaking on the alleged "game-changing" virtues of chloroquine and took it in the form of a treatment for fish parasites that contained the drug. The man died and his wife was hospitalised. 

At least chloroquine is a drug, approved for treating some conditions even if Covid-19 virus is not among them. But yesterday, in what must surely become a moment of infamy for the USA, Trump mused in yet another eclectically self-centred press conference on the merits of intravenous administration of disinfectant and ultraviolet light into human bodies to kill coronavirus. Dismissing the objections of a reporter as fake news, he "consulted" with a rather awkward looking, but criminally silent, White House doctor on whether she had heard of such treatments and suggested she was going to experiment on them.

 "I am not a doctor," he candidly admitted. "I am a person who has a good... you know what..." - he gestured to his head.

The reaction across the world has range from humorous disbelief to frustrated anger but Trump's supporters have rallied to him, predictably denouncing the scientists and reporters who highlighted his shocking statements as misrepresenting him or not sharing his genius-level insight, or both. Some claim he was referring to ozone therapy, an as yet unproven treatment touted by some as a potential response to the virus.  Much more likely, he was thinking of the intensive lobbying by Mark Grenon, who has been marketing a form of industrial bleach, chlorine dioxide, as a cure for cancer, autism and, now, surprise, surprise, coronavirus. Like Trump's monologue suggested, Grenon, who manufactures chlorine dioxide and sells it to be taken orally in water, apparently believes that if disinfectant kills something outside the human body, it can be taken internally as well.

Consequently, in the hours following his diatribe, government officials and cleaning manufacturers have had to scurry anxiously to the airwaves to warn people not to drink or inhale bleach or other disinfectants given the potentially fatal consequences. And yet, the very pleadings of these "experts" may well be like a red rag to some raging Trumpites to believe in their President's self-proclaimed genius and damn the advice. There must be a high chance indeed that some, out of faith or confusion or both, will be mixing dettol with their beer right now with possibly fatal consequences.

Liberals may sneer at the seemingly moronic nature of Trump's base. Social media is awash with jokes about Darwinism and faked pictures of rednecks demanding their right to die. But snake oil peddler Trump is very much a product of the society liberals created, a reaction to the bloodless pseudo-meritocracy of the Clintons, Obamas and Bidens of this world. They it was who presided over the destruction of swathes of US industry and the communities associated with it through their imposition of the free trade NAFTA framework over the 25 years up to Trump's election. As industry after industry folded, lives were ruined as liberals proclaimed a place called Hope, a comfortable Nirvana for some, but for many a distant, unreachable mirage.

It is not lack of intelligence nor some form of inherent misanthropy that drives most Trump supporters to lionise and pump up the ego of this narcissist. It is the desperation of decay, of the decline and fall of the American Dream and its transformation for many into a Nightmare of impoverishment. It is the hope of a quick and simple solution that will bring instant results - as with most forms of populism, there is no patience or planning, just a visceral desire. Trump may peddle lies, but so did Democrat after Democrat, from Clinton to Obama, and Trump's falsehoods are at least ones that chime with their sense of loss and anger. That his claims are incredulous matter little - for in this context incredulity is synonymous with hope.

It is not an isolated phenomenon in a state of social collapse, which is effectively what the USA has been in for two decades or more. History has repeatedly shown how tenuous any society is and how quickly the veneer that marks civilisation can fall away.

In the fifth century, as the Roman Empire collapsed, the astonishing logic of philosophers accurately calculated the distance of the Moon from the Earth to within a few thousand miles. Yet this triumph of rational enquiry fell away in barely two generations to a dislocated world filled with levitating saints and talking serpents. This destruction of reason in favour of the fantastic was driven by the religious dogma of Church and Emperors who closed down the classical schools of philosophy and science on the grounds that it was heretical to seek to understand or explain the God-given world. Rather it was simply to be accepted.

This has distinctly uncomfortable echoes over fifteen centuries later in the growing power of evangelical Christians within American government , which has fervently dismissed science as worthless or even malign in the covid crisis. Pastors and preachers excuse Trump's self-evident abundance of sins on the grounds that he has been sent from God Himself and publicly bless the Orange Prophet. And while Trump's definition of monotheism is almost certainly intimately concerned with placing an idol named Donald at its centre, he obviously does nothing to deter the fawning adulation of the evangelical priesthood.

Heaven sent, allegedly.
So unsurprisingly, wrapped up in a combination of existential despair and millenarian fantasy, like so many religious zealots throughout history, Trump's base in no small numbers would seemingly contemplate giving their own lives for the President. When some of his elected supporters suggested older Americans would be willing to die to save the economy from the impact of the covid lockdowns, they found an abundance of apparently willing victims. And similarly, when Trump ruminated on opening the churches for Easter in spite of the virus, plenty of pastors were happily jangling their temple keys.

Yet while his opponents detest him with a vengeance, there is a little festering Trump curled up inside every centrist: Hillary Clinton's disparaging characterisation of his supporters as "a basket of deplorables" in 2016 wasn't a one-off accidental comment. It simply illustrated how contemptuously removed from ordinary Americans the US elite has become with the same remote Political Class that plagues the pseudo-democracies in much of the rich world. They may sarcastically dismiss the demands of protesters for an end to the lockdown, but seem relatively impervious to the fact that without their next pay cheque, many of them are financially ruined in a nation with little welfare support. Work or starve: it is even today an all too familiar choice for the US poor.

And so while they will emphatically deny it, for liberals, Trump is a necessary evil, distasteful but hypocritically serving the purpose of focussing discontent on ethnic minorities, Muslims and migrants. However shrill, however embarrassingly stupid he may be to them, he keeps the line of sight well away from the real thieves of hope and helps them neutralise any true insurgency, such as Bernie Sanders' now kettled socialist movement.

Trump may or may not win at the polls this autumn, but either way, post-pandemic, the social dislocation will accentuate rapidly and new movements and leaders will emerge. A younger generation is rising which will inevitably have to face the increasingly sharp choice to be made: co-operation or conflict, Utopia or Bartertown.

But for now, the USA is hostage to a cult, one led by a man whose phraseology and thinking have become increasingly infantilised. He has no plan beyond the next cowardly boast, the next demand for praise, the next incredible, simple solution to our complex world, revealed to it by He Himself. In this insatiable quest for his personal aggrandisement, he may not shoot anyone on Fifth Avenue, but like a latter day Jim Jones with the USA as his very own Jonestown, he will happily take sacrifices in honour of the divinity he deep down believes himself to be.

The only difference, of course, is that at least Jim Jones took the poison himself.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Bernie Sanders and the Revolution to Come

Passing the Progressive Torch: Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders

And so democratic socialist standard-bearer Senator Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign for the Democratic Party nomination for US President.

With around half the primaries contested, he trailed former Vice-President Joe Biden by over 300 delegates and with surveys giving Biden a roughly 2:1 advantage in forthcoming contests, Sanders could not see a realistic way to win. Coupled with the hobbling of his campaign, which had thrived on mass rallies and town hall events, by the coronavirus crisis, the institutional barriers thrown up by the Democratic Party establishment in the form of the Democrat National Committee have yet again stopped any progressive traction within the party.

There is some evidence of ballot tampering - notably, on Super Tuesday, when Biden's campaign decisively pulled ahead after a dreadful start, data indicated something amiss in states where Sanders won the exit polls but lost the actual vote, but with extraordinary differences well beyond the normal margin of error. And from the outset the mess in Iowa stymied Sanders' momentum, although it did get moving afterwards for a short period until the sudden turnaround in favour of the previously badly flailing Biden in South Carolina. The withdrawal of all the centrist candidates in favour of the clearly ailing former VP, coupled with Elizabeth Warren's refusal to back Sanders when she withdrew, effectively handed the nomination to Biden and his vague, liberal platform.

And so, just as Corbyn was crucified by a range of tactical manoeuvring by his centrist opponents and their corporate media paymasters in the UK, so in the USA once again the Establishment has spiked and neutralised a major challenge. They may be popping the champagne in the DNC tonight, but in truth the path ahead for them is infinitely harder than the typically pompously naive centrists can imagine.

Joe Biden - confused
For Joe Biden has to be arguably one of the worst, if not the worst, candidates the Democrats have ever nominated. Aside from his self-evident health issues, which appear to be some form of dementia or Alzheimers, his provenance is poisonous.

While faced with the mercurial Trump some may still fondly remember the Obama years, when Biden served as the President's loyal deputy, many aspects of his career raise serious questions - his civil rights record, contrary to his propaganda, is poor going back decades, as has been his approval of wars and welfare cuts. A rape allegation from a Democrat activist and former staffer of Biden has gone uninvestigated alongside a myriad of other issues about his invasion of women's personal space and unwelcome touching. And while Democrats may have invoked legal process to try to impeach Trump as ineffectually as Don Quixote tilting at windmills, the incumbent President was in fact worrying a very real sore when he tried to induce the Ukrainians to investigate Biden's son Hunter over his lucrative involvement in the energy sector in their country.

Senior Democrats seem to acknowledge this and blatantly, having rid themselves of Sanders' challenge, rumour is rife that Biden will, in fact, not become their final candidate for President. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose profile has been substantially boosted by his very visible leadership of the state's response to the Covid-19 epidemic, or even former 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton, are both touted as possible replacements, in spite of neither having won a single delegate to the Democrat Convention. Taking the democracy, such as it is, finally and irrevocably out of the Democratic Party.

So what now for the progressive and socialist movement? Sanders' relentless advocacy for fully-funded public health has been completely and dreadfully validated as tens of thousands of US lives succumb to coronavirus, with poorer and ethnic minority communities disproportionately affected. His huge movement, which has effectively mobilised tens of thousands of younger people and others towards a socialist or at least social democratic platform, remains intact and vibrant, hungering for change and social justice. And with the pandemic set to utterly transform politics around the globe, the USA will be no exception.

All the inequality, the underinvestment in crisis preparation and lack of effective public health facilities and staff, as well as the low level of welfare in the USA, has never been more poignantly and powerfully evident than now. While President Trump has enjoyed, inevitably, a miniature boost in the polls as he heads up the government response to the national crisis, his veering backwards and forwards around how to respond to a threat he ignored for weeks, then played down for weeks and for which even now he declares all manner of wild and unproven solutions that never turn out leave him vulnerable to attack.

Just as Cameron and Osborne's prominent involvement in the Remain campaign handed the UK Euro-referendum to the Brexiteers, so the DNC's eagerness to put up Biden or Clinton or even Cuomo against Trump plays directly into his hands in the November poll. It is unsurprising that a leaked recording showed that he feared Sanders above all other potential Democrats - for Sanders' stance on issues like opposing free trade deals like the job-thieving NAFTA, or on tackling the influence of political lobbying in "the swamp" posed a direct threat to Trump's tried and tested card, even as the incumbent, of being in Washington but not of it. While centrists fantastically claim that Biden can reach out to supposed "moderate" Republicans who nevertheless backed Trump in 2016, in truth, it is Sanders' agenda of radical change that is far more likely to cut into the President's base of the alienated and oppressed working class and turn their anger into something more positive.

By contrast, Biden or Clinton could not appeal to such voters in a century of trying - it is precisely because of them and their betrayal of the decades' old New Deal Coalition that Trump and other populists have been able to rise and harness voters' disillusion into racism and xenophobia rather than challenging the gross wealth of the tiny elite.

With a clearly misplaced loyalty, Sanders has already lauded Biden in a show of unity, while stating he will stay on the remaining primary ballots, though inactively, in order to influence the final party policy platform in the autumn. But that is almost certainly a forlorn hope. Biden and his ringmasters have made clear that they will stick with the same unimaginative, business-as-usual Democrat agenda that left Trump catapulted into the Oval Office four years ago.

Sanders' socialist torch will now pass on, skipping a generation from him to much younger politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and their colleagues in the Progressive Caucus within Congress and others outside the legislature. The Green New Deal, central to Sanders' movement, will continue to inspire and attract millions of younger voters as the climate crisis eclipses by far the current virus pandemic, but it will also increasingly raise the question of how long, and why, they should persist with the institutionally totalitarian, pro-corporate, corrupt Democratic Party - or go their own way. With socialism as popular as capitalism among young US adults even before the current crisis, new routes to change will inevitably be mapped out and taken. If ever there was a time for a third party/ independent run by a credible progressive candidate, it is now.

Third parties are effectively barred from competing in the USA, a fact missed by much of a world  still dazzled by the propaganda that it is supposedly the "land of the free". While not formally banned, they frequently have to find much higher, often prohibitive thresholds of sometimes tens of thousands of electors to nominate their candidates while Democrats and Republicans enjoy automatic ballot access and even then remain excluded from the public funds handed over to the two main parties. With the media stitched up to advocate the status quo, like much of the rest of the world, voters are powerfully corralled into voting for the "right" candidates, who, contrary to myth, are distinctly not the best of the USA.

Yet the Republicans themselves once replaced the Whigs almost overnight, and strong third candidate Presidential runs have occurred as recently as 1992 when Ross Perot polled nearly one in five votes running as an independent on an anti-free trade platform. With Biden or any replacement distinctly flaky and Trump vulnerable over the Covid-19 crisis and the economic one to follow, could there be a better time? Wouldn't a Sanders-Cortez ticket, perhaps in conjunction with existing radical third parties such as the Greens, have a uniquely powerful chance of delivering the revolution he and his supporters have worked so hard to prepare for?

It sadly remains an unlikely outcome, but in a world of social lockdown, viral pandemic and economic dislocation, this may be the best and possibly last chance to effect real change to the USA, and the rest of the world, before the gathering storms of global warming, resource depletion and societal collapse hit our fragile Earth.

And while an independent candidacy is remote, the challenge will endure - the ideas and the movement Bernie Sanders shaped, harnessed and energised will go on. As the crises facing the planet and our species become clearer, its cry will become sharper, and as the vested interests threatening our survival are ultimately forced break cover, its demands will become ever more radical.
 "Not me. Us."

Wednesday, 25 March 2020


The streets are empty
The hospitals full.
The last bread gone
The final bell tolled in school.
Stop the trains
Then shut your gate
To this land of silence
And quiet isolate.
But in space so sudden so small
Behind such fearful fences,
Our minds become the Universe,
Awakened realms of senses
Where technicolour dreams might fashion
The world that we can have
Of sharing, and of caring
And always, always, of love.


Monday, 2 March 2020

Super Choice on Super Tuesday

Sanders and Warren

SUPER-TUESDAY, the only second working day of the week to lay claim to such a dubious titĺe, is about to dawn

Democrats in 16 states across the USA will be voting for the party's Presidential candidate. In today's opinion polls, Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders leads centrist Joe Biden in the three largest states - California (35 to 14%), Texas (31 to 26%) and North Carolina (28 to 14% with billionaire Mike Bloomberg on 20%).

But with Amy Klobucher endorsing Biden and Pete Buttigieg out of the contest, the liberal vote may begin to coalesce against Sanders as the divided Democrat Establishment rally around either former Vice-President Biden or, perhaps less likely now, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

While the centrists fall like nine-pins, progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren, now touted by some as a perhaps still unlikely VP candidate for Sanders, continues to run as high as 17% nationally. As the race tightens, she will now be ever more critical to how the party's existential contest turns out and with it the long-term future of democracy in what remains perhaps the most powerful and certainly the most destructive nation on Earth.

It is to be hoped that personal ambition does not cloud out the reality that the nomination is far beyond her grasp now. While she and Sanders retain significant policy and perspective differences, they have worked together many times over the years and the progressive wing of a party still stitched up by the Clintonite Democratic National Committee needs to unite to have any chance of overcoming the myriad of obstacles about to be chucked at them on the path to the Presidency.

Barring any last-minute upsets, by Wednesday morning, Warren will have a crucial decision to make - one that anyone hoping to see a first glimmer of a reversal of the populist right's surge across the globe must hope she calls correctly, stands down and backs Bernie.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Film Review: JO JO RABBIT - or "Mein Kampf for CBeebies"

After viewing this film, currently doing the rounds, the overhwelming reaction has to be to ponder how it has been received with so much approval. It succeeds as neither tragedy (it is dramatically anodyne) nor comedy (there are about 6 or 7 funny lines, all shoe-horned into the trailer) and it bafflingly promotes masses of hate jokes and really crude Nazi-era stereotypes against Jews in a weirdly sanitised way.

Set in the closing weeks of the war in the cleanest and cheeriest Nazi town you could imagine, the story centres on Johannes Betzler, an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth, creditably played by Roman Griffin Davies, who discovers that his mother (Scarlett Johansen in a dialled-in performance) has been hiding a Jewish girl, Elsa Korr (Thomasin Mckenzie), in their attic.

 "Jo" Johannes has an imaginary friend in the form of "Adolf", (portrayed by the writer-director Taika Waititi), who is both a good-humoured and, apart from a final tantrum, thoroughly unthreatening Fuhrer. And just as there are Jewish stereotypes, so too we are bombarded "mit ze stock German vee-haf-vayz" accents from actors like Sam Rockwell who should just know better.

There are also suitably sinister SS agents a-plenty, with Stephen Merchant blatantly taking off Herr Flick from 'Allo 'Allo, but anything unpleasant happens off-screen and pretty much everyone, even the Jewish fugitive hiding in the attic, has a fairly good time until the Soviets turn up and spoil things by butchering the happy-go-lucky Hitler Youths(again off-screen).

It's a sort of smug "Mein Kampf for CBeebies", and of deeply questionable provenance. To my mind, it lazily diminishes the horrific genocidal truth of the Holocaust and of life in Hitler's Germany. There is an absence of fear, and even of restriction - Johannes' mother very openly and casually posts anti-war leaflets round the town and although there are awful consequences, somehow there is a bloodless quality to it all. The war is referenced, but life seems impossibly well-fed and relaxed to the point that, beyond their  immature snickering at the crude drawings of Jews in Johannes school jotter, anyone without a fairly full pre-existing understanding of the reality would be forgiven for wondering what was actually wrong with Nazis.

It is not a patch on the films Waititi perhaps imagines he is emulating, such as Life Is Beautiful or possibly even parts of The Pianist. However well-intentioned, it ends up more like an uncomfortably poor but accidentally real tribute to "Springtime for Hitler" the fictitious Nazi musical in Mel Brooks 70's classic, The Producers.

Run rabbit run.
Coming out the cinema, I could only wonder what the point of it all was. I could only conclude that whatever Waititi's intentions were, the film is a mistake

If it was to show things from a child's perspective, it makes its lead character neither sufficiently credulous nor fanatical, nor, well, childlike even. Veering towards slapstick via attempts at satire and thoughtful interlude produce an uneven and meaningless mish-mash.

It is all done from a painfully knowing perspective, perhaps dangerously presuming that its audiences will be as clued up about and hostile to Nazi Germany as its creators. It presents prejudice and racism in a misguidedly whimsical way, supposedly to highlight the innocence of Johannes, but it would not be far-fetched to imagine anti-Semites turning this into something of a cult movie for themselves, displaying as it does all their prejudiced thoughts about Jews and doing absolutely nothing to challenge them beyond the painfully obvious foil of having an adolscent boy fall for a slightly older and oddly calm refugee.

And if Labour MP Naz Shah was suspended for anti-Semitism because she tweeted a fairly unremarkable joke about the Israeli-Palestinian divide from The Big Bang Theory, written by Orthodox Jewish scriptwriters, (and thus kicking off the whole Labour crisis which has now crossed the Atlantic to target socialist Presidential insurgent Bernie Sanders), how on Earth does a film showing unchallenged pictures of Jews as bats, vampires, worms and much worse end up being lauded and nominated for prestigious industry awards by the squealingly mindless media glitterati?

The David Bowie track doesn't help. Save your ticket money for something else.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Beating Boris - YOU can do it!

Tomorrow I will vote Labour.
In our constituency, it is the only way to stop the Tories - we have an excellent Labour MP, but with a small majority. I'm not a Green member now, but green issues are still central to my concerns and Labour's Green Industrial Revolution is a good, but imperfect, step forward.

We have a great Green candidate standing too, and it is really conflicting to not be voting for him. If Labour would commit to electoral reform, this dilemma would of course be gone - and Tory governments with it. Conservatives last won a majority of votes in 1931, but have governed for 58 out of the 88 years since.

But for now, stopping Johnson has to come first. Please read and share the brilliant piece below from a Labour activist, Jasmine Kennedy.
Kick the Tories out!!

My nana died two months ago and I'm utterly bereft.

What's the point in all of this really? Why should I try to do or achieve anything if she's not here to tell me how proud she is? Will anything I do really make me feel happy ever again?

And, of course, I'm angry.

At times, my nana was mistreated in a country with a private healthcare system that prioritises profit over people. She was sold expensive medicines that worsened her condition. It took moments from us. Chats we should've had, nights at the bingo, that holiday we were going to go on together. Things that don't seem all that significant until you realise they'll never happen again.

But I'm also grateful.

The NHS saved her life more than once. It gave us moments we otherwise would've lost. The day I drove her to Scarborough (the long way round so she could see all the green of the countryside that she loved), the time I showed her a photo of the crowd I’d played to at a festival and she beamed with pride, the day she took me to see the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. Things that I'll always remember. Things that will never happen again.

In a way I'm lucky. Aged 26, this is the first loss that has really hit me in this way. One that's had me crying at least once every day since the 15th October. One that's had me thinking endlessly about how we only get this one, short, precious life and how we deserve so much better. So much better than what we've been given over the past 9 years.

So this election isn't a joke to me. It's not an inconvenience. It's not an aside. It's not something to analyse or speculate on. It's not about memes or stats or video clips.

It's about the moments we stand to lose, and the ones we could gain.

It's about this one, short, precious life that we get and how we want to live it. How we deserve to live it. How we believe others deserve to live it.

It's about hope. I believe that a better life is possible for many of us. We can and should be living happier lives. It shouldn't be a battle. We shouldn't have to beg to be treated fairly. Kindness and compassion shouldn't be considered radical. We should be living not surviving. And there's more than enough resources in this country to make that so. We have the opportunity to vote for a government that wants to make that so.

My nana spent so much of her life trying to make this world a better place. A committed activist, the first black woman to receive a TUC gold badge for her services to the trade union movement, despite every card that was stacked against her she fought to protect and improve the lives of others and to live her own free from injustice. I would betray her memory if I didn't commit to doing the same.

For all these reasons and more I'll be voting Labour with all of my broken, hopeful heart on 12th December and encouraging everyone I know, and many I don't, to do the same.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Things Fall Apart : one week in the disintegration of Boris Johnson

"All this has happened before and will happen again."

Whether this line brings to mind Peter Pan or Battlestar Galactica may perhaps indicate your age or taste in the fantastic, but this week it seems relevant to what was once called the "Brexit Election" in which Theresa May was going to take apart Corbyn's Labour Party.


...the "Brexit Election" in which Boris Johnson was going to take apart Corbyn's Labour Party.

Sooo last Saturday, isn't it? Harold Wilson, Corbyn's urbane predecessor back the the swinging sixties, is held to have said a week is a long time in politics and this week has been no exception.

Seven days ago, Prime Minister Johnson was poised to see off his upstart Brexit challengers from the Farage Fan Club through a concerted programme of threats and promises and could look forward to patriotically heading up the Remembrance Day ceremony at the London Cenotaph for the first time as PM.

But now, one week on, for all his bravado, Johnson must be gazing fitfully and misty-eyed into his cups as he contemplates the week it all went wrong. While still holding a substantial poll lead, it has now nearly halved with almost a month to go to polling day, and if he isn't ruminating on how pride comes before a fall, he should be.

Straight off the block, last Sunday morning, there he was lined up at the annual commemoration of the war dead, his tie askew, his pale face distracted, his steps distinctly off kilter as he stumbled forward ahead of cue to place his wreath upside down in front of the monument to the Unknown Soldier. While the Sun newspaper concentrated on claiming Jeremy Corbyn's head when he bowed to the Cenotaph was clearly at a treasonous, Bolshevist angle of inclination, Johnson temporarily got away with looking as if he had just stumbled out a taxi with a cold kebab in one hand and a bag of his own sick in the other.

However, for whatever reason - and we can speculate, given the tortuous explanation eventually provided - the BBC Breakfast programme the next morning ran footage of Johnson at the Remembrance ceremony back in 2016, when he was rather better turned out, and failed to note the fact on any of the three times it ran it. Viewers and the Labour-leaning Daily Mirror were soon highlighting the fact and commentary on the Premier's messy appearance and attitude was soon widespread on social media and many mainstream outlets.

So far so bad, but it soon got worse.

As his opponents criticised Tory cuts to river and canal defences in the light of widespread flooding in Doncaster, the PM rather languidly journeyed to South Yorkshire to be pictured pretending to mop a sodden shop floor before attempting to sympathise with rather disgruntled soaked locals. "Where have you been?" they demanded irately as he refused to declare the risen waters an emergency. Asked what she thought of him after a chat, one elderly resident gave her considered opinion of the PM: "One word.... Arsehole!"

From PR disaster to turning water into wee came next. Hassled by his funders, Farage caved in to demands that he stand down Brexit Party candidates in Tory-held seats after he watched a video in which Johnson promised no extension to the Brexit transition deadline on 1 January 2021 - raising the prospect of an eventual possible No Deal departure after all. However, between the Brexit leader's announcement and the close of nominations, Johnson's acolytes pompously over-reached their own egoes by seeking to push the Brexit Party to drop candidates from seats where Tories are challenging sitting Labour MPs.

This proved too much for the stripe-suited lounge lizard Farage and he responded with a blistering series of complaints that the Tories were offering bribes in the form of public appointments and peerages to his waivering candidates. The Tories denied it, but if true it would be a clear abuse of office. And so now, after former Labour Lord Chancellor, Charlie Falconer, formally reported the claims, the Tory Party is under police investigation for possible offences under the Representation of the People Act.

Facing off against him has been Labour's Jeremy Corbyn, issuing a mouth-watering range of eye-catchingly imaginative policy proposals - massive new funding for the NHS alongside an end to health privatisation; free dental checks; taking rail and energy back into public hands; a 32 hour working week without pay reduction; free broadband for all by 2030; a big extension of employment rights; and a Green New Deal to transform Britain and slash our carbon emissions.

Against this, Johnson has floundered ever more, now quite incapable of keeping the debate anywhere near his "oven ready" Brexit deal (a blatant lie, as even Farage has pointed out). Free broadband would be "communism", he gasped as his aides struggled to come up with something bad about it.

Umm, wow, should I touch him? What do I say?
Next up, there he was, smirking in an internet video showing him pacing the offices of his campaign, awkwardly greeting a carefully placed BME guy who had evidently been told to walk past him. Next he was making tea and claiming to like The Clash (whose fans were not amused) before explaining in what may have been a bizarre attempt to sound "ordinary" that he starts his day by taking his dog for a poo.

And then a new low: a visit to a nursery school where he sat with mothers and toddlers and, Redwood-like, pretended to know the words of "The Wheels on the Bus", but apparently didn't and so sat looking distinctly uncomfortable. Perhaps he was wishing he was at home where, as we know, he very truthfully passes his time making model buses. By Friday, his exposure was being restricted to film of him talking to staff on a boat, all stage-managed - the Great Communicator and Man of the People no more.

Meantime, his party Chairman, James (not-so) Cleverly, became so confused on one radio programme that he wasn't allowed by his own party to appear on a TV interview. Finally, aping 2017's social care payments disaster, the Government finished the week by bringing forward its plans to raise the retirement age for women to  68 seven years earlier than previously planned to head off Labour's intention to stop them.

It is still early days, but the whole ambience is very familiar - 2017 revisited but at coke-speed. The

Corbyn - slowly, slowly...
opportunism of the Tories is evident in almost every pronouncement, yet still like a reverse Midas Effect everything Johnson touches seems to turn to sh*t. Theresa May must be gleefully running through every imaginary wheatfield in her head.

With the Lib Dems now fading into well-deserved irrelevance after Ed Davey's economically illiterate declaration today that they will work to a permanent budget surplus, a.k.a. continue austerity, the path seems increasingly clear for Corbyn's Labour - and the polls are now showing this, with an average 5% rise in support over the last week to ten days. Since the start of the month, the Tory lead has declined from as much as 16% in one opinion poll (Opinium, 1 November) to as low as 6% in another(Survation, 8 November).

Things fall apart, seems an apt line to summarise Johnson's week. Yet the Yeats poem from which it comes is probably rather too optimistic for our bumbling PM as he perhaps nurses his bruised sense of superiority tonight, hoping against hope that he may yet have a "Second Coming".

Taxi for Johnson.
Hold the kebab please...

The Loneliness of the Short-attentioned Ar**hole

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Be Like Vasili: personal reflections 30 years after the Fall of the Wall

I nearly died before I was born. I have a man I never met to thank for my life - and so do you.

It can be difficult to remember sometimes how the world has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, thirty years ago today. It is almost easy to forget what was a fixed world with rigidly set boundaries between the Communist East and capitalist West held in a perpetual state of uneasy tension by literally thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each other under the appallingly apt doctrine of M.A.D. - mutually assured destruction.

The Man Who Saved The World
My Mum was pregnant with me during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, fourteen days when the world teetered on the edge of Armageddon as Kennedy and Khrushchev eyeballed each other over the Mexican Gulf. Although they eventually blinked and found a diplomatic solution, we now know that atomic war was only avoided by the personal action of Vasili Arkhipov, a Deputy Commander of a Soviet submarine that was caught in the blockade of Cuba by the US Navy.

After several days out of radio contact with Moscow, his commander and the Political Officer concluded that nuclear war had begun and wanted to fire an  atomic warhead at the American ships. A unanimous decision was required between the three of them and after a long and heated argument with his superiors, Arkhipov courageously vetoed the attack. Had he not done so, it is unlikely that I would be alive to be writing this now, and nor would you or anyone else be around to read it.

The world is probably in many ways more dangerous now that during the Cold War - but perhaps the sense of an underpinning threat of potentially imminent existential destruction that was always in the background before 1989 has at least abated. I can't quite recall when I first became aware of atomic weapons, but growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, our culture was soaked in the propaganda of the Cold War. It might seem hard to believe, but for our "Boomer" generation "Europe" stopped at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and behind the Wall and indeed the whole "Iron Curtain" lay a mysterious, closed Soviet hinterland of untold threat and misery.

Aside from the news and political line that we could be overwhelmed in days by the gigantic muscle of the Red Army or alternatively wiped out within a couple of hours in a nuclear exchange, much popular culture was founded on the Soviet Menace. Whether on the cinema screen in films like "From Russia With Love" or the publications from shadowy right-wing employers groups like the mid-70's Aims of Industry's "Reds Under The Bed" attempt to smear socialist trade unions with treason, we were to accept the need for eternal vigilance in the form of Poseidon nuclear submarines patrolling the seas from their Scottish base and American Cruise missiles deployed in the heart of England.

Bizarre booklets like 1980's "Protect and Survive" informed householders how to survive the radioactive holocaust by unscrewing an interior door, laying it length-ways against your lounge wall and then sitting behind it for two weeks with some cartons of water and boxes of biscuits. The equivalent of tens of billions of pounds poured into subterranean bunkers. There, national and local government officials and the bizarre volunteer force of the Royal Observer Corps - folk who spent their evenings and weekends watching for war - would monitor the nuclear exchange and subsequent fallout above their heads and then hilariously "re-establish normal service".

There were of course plenty of parodies of this mix of cynical propaganda and wild naivete - from the early 1960s classic "Dr Strangelove" through to the 1980s "Whoops Apocalypse" and the nauseatingly haunting "Threads". Raymond Briggs' powerful picture book "When The Wind Blows" devastatingly recounted the tragically unquestioning faith of an elderly couple in the authorities' promises of their ability to survive the end of the world. In music, Frankie Goes To Hollywood's No.1 "Two Tribes" satirised the government emergency broadcast to provide advice on disposing of your dead grandmother outside your fallout shelter.

The dark humour was pervasive, but so too was the sense that, one day, any day, it would all go so quickly and badly wrong for us.

People protested of course - the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched from the 1950s onwards and women's peace camps appeared most memorably outside Greenham Common airbase, and at a number of other military sites too. Spied on by the authorities and dismissed as troublemakers and traitors, the zeitgeist was that it was only institutions like NATO that stood between us and the plans of conquest of the Soviet Empire. And of course for freedom loving peoples, the obliteration of the planet was infinitely preferable to living under Communism.

The Soviet Empire was, of course, just like any other Empire - it exploited its vassal territories and oppressed its subjects. And yet, the idea that it sought world domination in anything other than its ideology is far-fetched. The concept of World Revolution was cast out when Stalin expelled Trotsky in 1929 and by the late 1960s the Soviet leadership was mostly about stagnant stability rather than fomenting world war. It was in this context that, again and again, they were willing to talk and make treaties - any revolutionary dynamism was long gone, replaced by a weary bureaucracy.

Tanked in post-revolution Prague, 1990
The truth lies perhaps more in what happened after 9 November 1989 rather than before it. For when the Wall came down that evening, it was like a window opening. The world got bigger for sure - by summer 1990 I was driving into former Communist Czechoslovakia with a couple of friends and photographing an overturned army tank in Wenceslas Square, scene of the "Velvet Revolution" that swept the Czech Communist regime from power barely a fortnight after their German comrades had faced their denouement.

Visiting the offices of Civic Forum, the group that had organised the crowds that brought the dissident playwrite Vaclav Havel to the Presidency, I remember buying a badge from an activist who asked me where we came from. When I told him Britain, he smiled enthusiastically and declared, "Long live the Iron Lady!", a reference to our then PM, Margaret Thatcher. He seemed a tad disconcerted when I responded with a grimace of dislike - but neither of us, I am sure, quite appreciated what was about to happen.

For what followed was the wholesale appropriation of public property in former Communist states by a handful of people, sometimes former Party officials, sometimes using violence and frequently deploying corrupt methods. Egged on directly by Thatcher and the "advisers" she sent to the East, the former Soviet block underwent massive economic dislocation that impoverished previously reasonably comfortably off citizens and left them prey to the populism and racism of the far right that has now manifested itself in places like Hungary and Poland.

Equally and notably, in a number of countries the former Communists have retained substantial followings and even occasionally have been re-elected to government. While no one would wish a return of the old Soviet Bloc, the truth is as ever not binary.

The USSR was responsible for some appalling things - just like any Imperial Power. Yet in its seven decades, it transformed a peasant state into a superpower, built homes for hundreds of millions, eradicated illiteracy, pioneered world-class, free public health systems and was the first state to put a satellite and a man and a woman into outer space. While there were queues for consumer goods (something apparently unknown in the UK!), the verified calorific intake of a Soviet citizen in the 1980s was on average higher than in the USA and Soviet leaders may have had their dachas, but they were modest affairs compared to the robber barons of the capitalist Russian mafia. By contrast, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian health indices declined substantially and average life expectancy fell by three years between 1990 and 2005 - though it has since recovered.

East Berlin misery - or my Gran's place?
Touring the DDR (East German) Museum in former East Berlin last year with my wife, we saw round a recreation of a typical Communist era flat from the early 1980s. Expecting something utterly miserable and basic, what I actually encountered was something close to, but slightly bigger, than my grandparents' ground-floor flat in Scotland around the same time.

Years earlier, visiting Prague with my friends in 1990, we lodged with a Czech family in a comfortable, well-equipped flat, one of many similar ones in the suburbs, as the father of the house lamented the "changes". We forget that the education, work and lifestyles available under Communism represented huge progress for many groups, families and individuals who would have been kept consigned to the bottom of the previous capitalist societies they had lived in. Being able to choose between Jo Swinson and Boris Johnson wasn't perhaps as important as some liberals like to think.

Freedom fries at Checkpoint Charlie (the
author did not partake!)
For we assume, of course, that because it's what we are used to, everyone wants to live like us. I remember a particularly crass 1989 British TV commentator droolingly reducing the significance of the fall of the Wall to the opportunity it now gave to East Berliners to sample the dubious delights of Big Macs and fries. Last year, travelling to look at the former crossing of Checkpoint Charlie, well, there we were: a giant Big Mac sign and restaurant gracing the former gateway to freedom.

If there is any lesson from all of this, I think it is that as in so many cases, we are all so more alike than we often understand. Much was wrong, but Eastern Europe was not shrouded in a veil of overwhelming misery for 70 years any more than Western Europe was a land of milk and honey.

And because Stalinist State Communism failed, it doesn't mean that any and all forms of socialism and communism can't work, or aren't in fact needed if we are to avoid the ruin of our world in the years ahead.

Above all, be like Vasili Arkhipov: always question the official narrative and the judgement of your would-be superiors.

One day, you might save the world.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Not The Brexit Election

Sick and tired of Brexit?
Sticking to the Tory script, Sky News is running every single new bulletin with a "Brexit Election" tagline, even when the subject doesn't feature on the news for a rare change. Similarly, the one-trick ponies that are the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats feature their respective demands on Europe prominently, if not in their actual name then at least on the side of their bus.

Yet, after almost four years of relentless debate about our EU membership, are the public really aflame and up for another five weeks of intensive debate about it? As Jo Swinson hypes her mission to save us from ourselves, Johnson bumbles about unleashing creative forces not even his grandiose imagination can comprehend and Farage drinks for England, they need to hope that everyone else is ready to squeeze into their Brexit Bubble, where nothing matters more than whether we are outside a trade block pissing in or inside pissing out.

The Green Party co-leader Sian Berry yesterday argued that "some things are even bigger than Brexit" as she declared this to be the Climate Election and outlined ambitious plans to tackle the global warming crisis with £900 billions of investment over ten years to make the UK carbon neutral by 2030. It is perhaps surprising that just a day later her party has made a deal with the Lib Dems, who, as well as accepting funding from frackers, take a much more leisurely approach to the climate crisis with a net zero target put well back to 2045. This is just a mere five years ahead of their former Tory partners' mid-century "objective". Nevertheless the Greens' core point is well-made and the urgency palpable.

Her words echoed the declaration a few days earlier by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, that "This election is our last chance to tackle the climate emergency with a Green Industrial Revolution at the heart of Labour's plan to transform Britain." Backing this up was a pledge to insulate every house in the UK to cut energy costs and carbon emissions, as well as massive investment in clean public transport and bringing the energy companies back into public control. Labour have also dwelt heavily on a range of other issues including ending austerity, redistributing wealth, ending student fees and investing in the health service.

It might be argued of course that Labour wouldn't want to talk about Brexit given their complex history on the issue. Yet Corbyn has devoted a speech to this too - reflecting on the need to talk to "the 99" rather than "the 48%" or "the 52%" he accused the other parties of focusing on to the exclusion of roughly half the UK. But it is clear that his strategy is to campaign on a much wider range of issues - the General Election should be just that, a general election on a variety of policies and initiatives stretching across the next 4 or 5 years. It should plainly not be a substitute referendum - Corbyn has made clear that Labour will hold a real one if they become the government.

So are Labour ignoring reality by moving on from Brexit to other issues?

Possibly, but probably not. Already several polls show that the NHS is seen as a bigger issue than Brexit by most votersand this is an area where Labour remain more trusted than any other party and where the Tories and Lib Dems are vulnerable given their opening up of front line services to private providers from 2012 onwards. And while it doesn't register as the highest concern, there is little doubt that climate change is a much higher priority for many voters than previously - and 56% of voters back the Green and Labour 2030 date as the zero carbon deadline. Even 47% of Tories support that compared to 16% for the official 2050 one. A YouGov survey shows that 25% of voters view the environment as one of the top three issues compared to just 8% at the 2017 election.

Similarly, crime has risen substantially as a concern with 26% rating it compared to 11% previously, and the Tory/Lib Dem slashing of police numbers back in the Coalition days make them vulnerable. So too the fallout from the initial Grenfall report has highlighted a range of concerns from cuts to fire services from austerity through slum housing, underhand contract deals and Tory elitism to the rampant inequality that stains our country.

Faced with this battery of critical issues, although it remains a key issue for now, it seems that a public that is palpably sick to death of Brexit is less than likely to want to think of nothing but Brexit for the next month and a bit. Given this, Labour have everything to play for and their slow but steady trend upwards in the polls, matched by a slow but evident decline for the Lib Dems, is evidence for this.

Heath's winter election gamble
Boris Johnson claims to be a historian. So he might want to dust down the archives from winter 1973 when one of his predecessor Tory Prime Ministers, Ted Heath (ironically the man who took us into Europe), faced a crisis when a national miners' strike left electricity power plants short of coal. Simultaneously, after the Yom Kippur war between Israel and the Arab states, oil and petrol prices were rising sharply, offering little in the way of any affordable or practical alternative to coal for much of Britain's energy.

Heath dramatically declared a State of Emergency.  His Chancellor, Anthony Barber, implemented a crisis budget just before Christmas. A three-day working week was introduced, TV stations were compelled to stop broadcasting at 1030 pm each night to reduce energy consumption and regular power cuts were implemented with householders huddling round candles to keep warm. All in the middle of winter.

In spite of the crisis, the Tories' poll ratings were generally favourable and a much-trumpeted "Liberal surge" seemed to damage Harold Wilson's Labour Party most. Enjoying as much as an 11% lead, Heath was convinced that because of Labour's close relationship with the trade unions, he would be able to sweep to victory.

So far, so familiar.

And so he went to the country in our last winter election (February 1974) believing that he could triumph on the single question he pompously put to the nation in a Prime Ministerial broadcast: "Who Governs Britain?"

The voters' answer, when it came?
"Not you."

March 1974 - Labour's Harold Wilson began his third term as Prime Minister

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Boris Johnson - A Pericles for Our Time?

The man who would be Pericles
History can teach, warn and inspire us. If we don't understand the past, how can we fathom today? And as the many times over-used phrase goes, if we don't learn from history, we are bound to relive it.

Our esteemed Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is no exception. He has penned a few histories of varying quality and sometimes at striking odds with his other pronouncements. For example, his Dream of Rome is a deeply Europhile work and the TV version concludes with an unbroadcast peroration where Johnson looks forward with great enthusiasm to Turkey joining an expanded EU as some sort of recreation of the Roman Empire.

But the locus of his historical inspiration is much earlier, and their identity is more than a little instructive as to how the ludicrous occupant of Number 10 views himself as well as his personal hero. For the hay-haired chancer apparently fancies himself as a modern day version of the 5th century BC Athenian leader Pericles, who presided for almost 40 years over what is known as the birthplace of democracy - notwithstanding the exclusion of women and slaves from the "Demos" (citizenship). He keeps a bust of him in his Downing Street office for his visual musings and even quoted him in his first PM phone-in back in the balmy days of August.

On that occasion, as on others, Johnson promoted the idea of Pericles as a cultured champion of democracy and, superficially, you can see what he means: this was after all the man who presided over the construction of the final phase of the Acropolis. This fantastic range of buildings perched above Athens symbolised the city's devotion to the Hellenic gods as well as highlighting its imperial status as the leading power of classical Greece, its powerful navy exporting its form of Peoples' Government to rather reluctant neighbours on the points of their battering rams.

The Acropolis project has echoes perhaps in some of Johnson's own doomed attempts to commission prestigiously wasteful taxpayer-funded initiatives such as the London Garden Bridge that never was or, more recently, to issue a Brexit coin tomorrow morning which has now had to be melted back down. Yet, while Pericles' project was actually completed and substantial parts remain almost two and a half millenia later, when you look at the two men what might initially seem a pompous, facile comparison with the Athenian orator by Johnson actually holds more weight than might be apparent, though perhaps not for the same self-serving reasons.

For as well as divorcing his wife of some years to live with a much younger woman, Pericles had pretty much the same cavalier attitude towards public finance as the PM. On several occasions, he and his associates were accused of wasting Athenian tax money, although there was no charge of inappropriate personal benefit - as a contemporary historian, Thucydides, noted, he was already sufficiently wealthy to not be overly concerned about his own financial gain. Prestige seems to have been the main motivation, and so accusations of unfitness for office would bite all the harder on his noble ego.

By means of deflection, Pericles was happy to launch personal attacks on his enemies and to play to the mob, claiming to be an opponent of the conservative establishment in spite of hailing from precisely that quarter (his noble-born father was an army commander and his mother the descendant of a tyrant) and even using the Athenian speciality of ostraka (ostracism) to exile his key political opponent. Johnson has often cited Pericles' alleged skills as an orator as a personal inspiration, and so it is no surprise that a contemporary of the Athenian leader, the poet Ion, described him as having "a presumptuous and somewhat arrogant manner of address, and that into his haughtiness there entered a good deal of disdain and contempt for others".

All rather familiar somehow.

Similarly, Pericles' introduction of restrictions that limited Athenian citizenship to people who could prove both their parents were Athenian-born smacks of at least the same Tory attitudes towards modern immigration - all the more so as he hypocritically made an exception for his own son by his foreign-born partner Aspasia. His policy of imperialist expansion in the name of spreading democracy again has some parallels with Tory fantasies of "Empire 2.0" floated in the wake of Brexit. Perhaps not so much of a similarity was Pericles' opening up of public offices to less affluent Athenians, while in stark contrast the new electoral identity rules Johnson is implementing for voting seem designed to make it much harder for many poorer people to exercise their democratic rights.

Pericles of Athens
Yet if that is a difference, we need to hope that it is not the only one. For Johnson's hero funded his Acropolis project by embezzling funds from the Delian League, the official term for what was in effect the Athenian Empire. Money was purloined in what Greek historian Angelos Vlachos has claimed was perhaps the largest incidence of fraud in human history and contracts were dished out to Pericles' personal friends to oversee the construction.

He courted further controversy by having a friendly sculptor, Phidias, insert a likeness of himself onto one of the friezes, drawing accusations of impiety. When he finally faced formal charges of impropriety with the public finances, the historian Plutarch claims he provoked the devastating Peloponnesian War to divert attention.

If so, it was a fatal move on several fronts. The war was to vanquish Athens and reduce it to a vassal of Sparta. The democracy Johnson claims Pericles championed was destroyed for good. His hero however did not witness the apocalyptic denouement - as war raged, refugees crowded into the city, creating cramped conditions where hunger and disease became rife. Pericles duly succumbed to plague along with a good number of his compatriots just two and a half years into what became a three decades long conflict.

So let us hope indeed that the comparison is just the fevered imaginings of Johnson's own self-aggrandising hubris. If he is indeed a modern Pericles, inspired by his ancient hero's imperialist adventurism and readiness to sacrifice his country for the sake of his own beleaguered reputation, it is  absolutely imperative that on 12 December he suffers the fate of so many of the classical politician's opponents and is firmly and permanently ostracised from office.

A vote (unsuccessfully) cast in 444BC to ostracise Pericles from Athens.