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.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

The Time of Monsters

It's almost passe to say the world is in turmoil. And while to some degree it always has been, a glance at today's news shows just how much: mass street protests from Baghdad through Beirut to Barcelona and beyond to Chile. Governments in paralysis of one kind or another in Israel, the UK, Canada, the USA. Violent protests in Hong Kong, military conflict in Rojava,Yemen... and so on.

Underpinning all of it are two consistent factors. Extreme levels of economic inequality, often accompanied by increasingly visible poverty, and a collapse of faith in political classes seen as self-serving, corrupt and alienated from the Governed. Liberal democracy is teetering on the edge, its once universal nostrums of elected parliaments overseeing a modicum of public services in market economies with private property and supposedly "free enterprise" stripped bare and exposed for the lies that they have been.

Increasingly, we see the vast wealth accumulated by tiny, tiny portions of the population, acquired through a hypocritical combination of ripping off taxpayers through state-appointed contracts for tens if not hundreds of billions of pounds, euros or dollars and in turn corporate and personal tax avoidance. As the system slowly breaks down, no longer responding to the macroeconomic management of the past fifty or sixty years, the social contract is under ever growing pressure.

While as many as two million domestic properties are empty each night in the UK, 25,000 people sleep on the streets. While hedge fund managers speculate and earn millions betting on the future price of food, "gig" economy workers die at 53 years of age because they can't afford time off to visit their doctor - and in one recent Amazon case, they are sent back to work immediately the removal of the corpse of a colleague who collapsed and died on shift after being told to get on with his job by the company doctor.

Globally, resources once prized as being for the common good of all - such as the rainforests and natural sources of water - are seized and commodified by multinational companies with the backing of compliant governments and international agencies such as the World Trade Organisation. Trade treaties like the EU-Canada partnership allow companies to sue the taxpayer if, for example, a hospital contract is taken back into public hands, damaging the private firms profits. The whole system is stacked in favour of the wealthy becoming ever wealthier, even at the huge risk it creates to the future of life on Earth. As the Roman writer Tacitus once lamented of his own society's colonising of all it could grab hold of, "they make a desert, and call it peace."

Here there are dangers and opportunities, and both are already becoming nakedly apparent.

Unreformed, the system will stumble on, the super-rich gradually incorporating it even further to serve their own ends through funnelling public contracts and taxpayer cash into their ever deeper pockets. They will continue to extend surveillance over everyone else, initially in the name of consumer support, but already to control our thoughts, expectations and actions. In such a culture, they will continue to foster and sponsor division - between old and young, white and black, indigenous and migrant. They will fund wars and build walls. To divide is to conquer.

We can see the fruits of this just this week - a survey in the UK, divided between pro- and anti-Brexit supporters, found that a substantial majority on both sides support violence where people can be seriously injured as a valid means of achieving their respective objectives of remaining in or leaving the European Union. This includes those who claim to be anti-populist liberals, their anti-democratic prejudices showing a bit more nakedly than their leaders' spin doctors might ideally like. While actual political violence against individuals remains relatively rare in Britain, we only have to look at the 2016 murder of Jo Cox and the death threats routine received by her successor and other predominantly female MPs to sense that it doesn't lurk far beneath the surface.

Political violence in the USA has risen sharply in recent years - many of the mass shootings covered so luridly as the work of unstable loners in truth the work of politically motivated fascists and white supremacists, while a 2018 survey found that one in five Americans on both sides of the mainstream political divide felt that the country would be improved if a large number of  supporters of the other party could "just die". Similarly, 17% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans believe that is is acceptable to send threats to public officials. One in ten support violence if the candidate of their choice doesn't win the 2020 Presidential election.

In "The Common Good", the linguist Noam Chomsky wrote that The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum....”

Noam Chomsky
This could not be truer than now. The poisonous Brexit debate in the UK has pitched ordinary people against each other in ways that have destroyed any faith in ballot box democracy and in each other: different groups denounce each other as traitors and morons, both sides parade guillotines and scaffolds on marches and politics have growing into a new form of sectarianism. Facts do not matter on either side: it is sheer, naked, visceral hatred and distrust. All in the name of what type of trading relationship we have with a free trade block which in truth is neither the colonising behemoth claimed by its opponents, nor the guarantor of civilisation claimed by its supporters.

Happily skating above all this, moving with some ease between both camps, is a rich elite, untouched and unmoved by whether the UK is in the EU or not, but either way continuing to rip off society on an almost unparalleled scale and quite content for the paralysis and division to continue: for as long as it does, they are unchallenged and untroubled. The real issues are ignored.

We can take on the rich and make a better future. For we already live in a world of abundance. There is already more than enough food to feed almost 50% more souls than currently walk our Earth. And just this week a study showed that offshore wind power alone could provide more energy that the world is every likely to need - clean, cheap, and permanent. Artificial Intelligence is posited to "do" almost half of current paid human work by just 2030 - a decent society could use that to give every worker 4 day weekends. A capitalist society will put half of the workforce on the dole: it won't pay a company to keep humans on where robots can take over.

The choice seems obvious, but with all the vested interests and established Power in place, change will not come easily. It will take much more than a visit to the ballot box once every four or five years. The mass demonstrations we see around the planet now have to be the harbingers of wider, deeper change.

But first, we need to make peace with each other and turn together on the real issue, the real problem before the Monsters in charge of our world finally make a desert of it and continue to charge us admission to the "Peace Experience."

Friday, 4 October 2019

In the Land of Nod - Book Review

In these difficult, anxious days, you might imagine an epidemic of insomnia, but somehow even the depths of any Backstop nightmare wouldn't compare to the premise of "Nod" a 2016 novel by Adrian Barnes published from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, of all places. It is one of the most imposing reads I have had for a while. It is dystopian sci fi at its best.

Set in Vancouver, the central premise is that one morning, nearly everyone in the world faces the rising sun having been unable to sleep all night - and over the next day or two, it becomes obvious to an increasingly panicky human race that they are unlikely to ever sleep again. In spite of this mandatory insomnia, the effects of sleeplessness ravage their bodies and over the first week, an increasingly disoriented society crumbles into despair and the apocryphal beliefs for which such times offer fertile soil. Paul, the protagonist, is a writer whose discarded manuscript of a short story about a world where no one can sleep is secretly kept by a somewhat anti-social casual acquaintance, who disseminates it to the despairing as a prophetic bible. In turn, Paul is forced into the role of a somewhat reluctant and disbelieving Messiah to an increasingly unpredictable cult. Headed by the self-titled Blue Admiral, its followers search every moment for an explanation, however bizarre, for what is happening to them, and, equally, for the assumed meaning of it all.

Paul, ironically, can still sleep - as can a handful of others he encounters, all of whom have had the same powerful dream as he has experienced each time he slumbers. Similarly, a number of suddenly mute children still sleep and hide in the forests of British Columbia as the suspicious Awakened alternately fear and blame them for their plight. The blood of Sleepers becomes prized as a possible source of a cure and Paul has to tred an increasingly impossible path between outcast and saviour.

It is beautifully written - both from the perspective of Paul as his partner withers in front of his eyes from her inability to sleep and as the paper thin social conventions of civilisation are torn in a hundred different ways each day. So also it explores the dreamier perspective of a world view dulled and giddied by its increasingly certain demise. Humans' need for purpose and reason, if only to avoid staring at the void of ultimate meaninglessness, is explored in the cult's constant, desperate search for resolution, as well as an ever growing willingness to redefine reality in search of any chance, any possible hope, even when it is so clearly hopeless. Visually striking too are the descriptions of the city landscape and the physical transformation of streets, buildings and, above all, people.

It could be a parable for our times - and the character ruminates on how people have previously denied climate change rather than face its existential threat; and how, ironically, that threat may now be removed by humanity's pending demise. The Awakened, however, do not die quietly - they kick ever more aggressively against reality, seeking solace in a round of activities and the reassuring speeches demanded of Paul by his sometime jailer/ sometime confidante, the Blue Admiral.

It would be interesting to see a film of this - if it was faithful to the book, there would be a plethora of wonderfully surreal characters and scenes to bring to life; and you'd be fairly sure to not doze off mid-tale.

Worth a read!


Tuesday, 1 October 2019

UFO - the fall of the puppets

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson are remembered for their groundbreaking children’s TV animatronics from the 1960s. Thunderbirds, Stingray, Fireball XL5 (even I am not old enough to recall its first showing!) and Captain Scarlet among others opened up a universe of sci fi to young minds still young enough to think that it was quite realistic - and quite the opposite of a 2017 study, oddly but honestly now debunked by its own authors, that science fiction "makes you stupid" by commanding less attention than other genres.

The Andersons had bigger ambitions than children’s TV though and in 1970 produced UFO, a science fiction series pitched at an adult, especially American audience. Unfortunately, it did not get recommissioned although a second series was planned and instead the Andersons went on to develop the longer Space 1999 franchise with somewhat higher production values and a more expansive storyline. However, I have recently nostalgically watched the single but substantial run of 26 episodes of UFO, some of which I don’t recall seeing before at all, others half-remembered. A particular pleasure is how “1980” flashes up in the title credits to signal its amazing setting in the future!

It is a curious cross-over from puppetry to live action. It still uses scale models for many outdoor scenes, often very evidently so, though by contrast a couple of space-walk scenes are incredibly well done and would easily hold up in the digital era. But in the bunker-like headquarters of SHADO (a secret organisation protecting the Earth from alien UFOs that prey the planet sometimes to steal human organs and other times simply to cause maximum damage), real actors take the place of the Andersons’ puppets (many had notably voiced puppet characters in earlier programmes) though I do have a friend who once watched an episode almost all the way through thinking the actors were actually mannequins.

Leading SHADO is Commander Ed Straker, played by the late American actor Ed Bishop. And this is where things get surprising. Straker’s character at first seems cold and one -dimensional, but back stories about his divorce and the loss of his son, as well as a hinted drink problem, allowed Bishop to develop the role into a rather humane but tortured, dutiful but exhausted character with much more depth than immediately apparent.

Less so is the case with most of the others: Alec Freeman, Straker’s deputy, played by George Sewell is a credible foil to Straker, but beyond that the characters slip into single dimension and there are some inventive but ludicrous concepts. Inexplicably, on Moonbase female operatives wear purple wigs and shiny outfits which leave you expecting them to burst into some 1970s disco number while the crew on the Skydiver submarine are equally bizarrely togged out in string vests. Meantime, on land for some reason SHADO’s secret base is located below a film studio where Straker pretends to be a producer. When he talks into a cigar box (almost everyone smokes, even on spaceships) the whole room sinks underground to his base rather than have the Commander just use the stairs or the staff lift.

Essential 1980s Lunar gear
Although many later well known faces from British TV can be found as guest actors, the scripts are variable and sometimes include a lot of rather baffling shouting and some stormingly bad one liners. In the first couple of episodes there is a deeply off-putting welter of sexist stereotyping, while, when an African man worries about facing racist hostility when he is appointed Commander of Moonbase, Straker off-handedly dismisses the issue as having “gone out the window five years ago.” 

So that would be sometime around 1975. If only... 

It strikingly recalls just how very different the nostrums of popular culture were back then - this was the era of Man About The House, Til Death Do Us Part (Alf Garnett) and Love Thy Neighbour. To be fair (just), SHADO personnel do have a markedly greater degree of racial diversity than the norm for 1971 TV and later episodes cast some strong female characters as leaders and show male emotional vulnerability as acceptable.

Many of the storylines are rather intelligently developed and themes include a degree of ambiguity about the alien enemy: their motives are shown as desperate and survival-focused, and at times they demonstrate compassion towards the humans. The ethical limits of authority and secrecy are explored, as is the toil on individuals of constant struggle. Notably, the series cleverly anticipates the impact of later developments like electric cars and solar energy, mobile phones, voice identification and mass surveillance - although it does not question the need for the latter in fighting the alien threat.

The ambience is effectively done. Although the 1980s never looked as predicted, the detailed set designs by award-winning architect Norman Foster and fashion by Sylvia Anderson (wigs and sewage-coloured cars aside) do  provide a sense of a fairly credible alternative future. Doubtless if made now it would look even better, and while it is all too easy to reminisce and snicker at it, for its time it represented an enjoyable and thoughtful development in science fiction.

So UFO is worth watching if you are an aficionado of sci fi or if like me grew up in the 1970s and would like an affectionate stroll down the old memory lane of vintage fantasy. There’s even a very seventies soundtrack with background organ and electric guitar muzak permeating each and every episode. 

Also enjoyable are the occasional politically-oriented nuggets, apparently echoing Bishop’s progressive political views - a Green Party activist, he first met his third wife while dressed as General Pinochet when he gatecrashed an arms trade fair to protest against weapons sales. As well as many references to protecting the Earth from environmental degradation, I smiled at one of his best lines when, faced with a private mining company’s activities threatening the security of Moonbase, Commander Straker growls contemptuously, Corporations? There’s no place for corporations on the Moon!

Trailer here:UFO

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Boris and the Boys: An Eton Mess of Misogyny

He speaks for us. Seriously, he does.
Somehow each and every week seems to bring ever more bizarre unravelling of our crumbling Political Class and a deeper and deeper plumbing of new depths of appalling behaviour. Tuesday's shock becomes Wednesday's norm and on and on. Representative democracy dies before our eyes.

This week was no exception. The biggest political tremor may have been the Supreme Court's controversial finding that the reasons for the prorogation of Parliament were unlawful. Yet perhaps the most memorable moment came when the PM was challenged by Labour MPs Paula Sherriff and Tracy Brabin to moderate his language which, deliberately, invokes World War 2 tropes of "surrender" and "betrayal" in the face of the Continental enemy.

Amplifying this has been the Tory press, the Daily Mail in particular, decrying their political opponents as "enemies of the people" and "saboteurs", again language more akin to 1939 (when of the course the Mail was actually very pro-Hitler in its sympathies). The wording is calculated - they may not explicitly state it, but in the past such designations would see the recipients jailed or even executed. The permission to commit violence in the cause of the Nation is not long in coming to minds so inclined.

Sherriff, since 2015 the MP for Dewsbury, who, like many MPs and especially female ones, has been subject to literally thousands of threats and incidents of abuse, reminded Johnson of the murder of her friend and former neighbouring MP Jo Cox, stabbed and shot in the street by right-winger, Tom Mair. The last words she heard from her assassin were "Put Britain first" and in court, asked to confirm his name, he responded, "My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain."

In better times: Jo Cox and Paula Sherriff
Johnson's response to a passionate but clearly upset Sherriff was to pompously declare, "I've never heard such humbug in my life." He was equally dismissive to a follow up question from Brabin, who is Cox's successor as Batley MP, and went as far as to suggest that the best tribute to the murdered parliamentarian would be to "get on with delivering Brexit." 

Echoing him, whether as Master or puppet it's not entirely clear, his adviser Dominic Cummings, an Orc-impressionist whose grasping bitterness would put Sauron to shame, mumbled that given the failure to deliver Brexit, it wasn't surprising some voters are angry with MPs. Yes, of course, threats of murder and rape are just par for the course to these guys. 

And this is where we need to look behind Johnson's dismissal of Paula Sherriff and Tracy Brabin: two women, speaking up in a place where, deep down, it seems likely that neither our Prime Minister nor a good number of his Boys' School chums really feel women should be in the first instance - not unless they're hoovering the carpets, or perhaps polishing the Mace rather than dispensing it. Their anger at his boorish rhetoric is dismissed out of hand, just the hysteria of the weaker sex. 

Why should we expect anything better from these men? Sent to male-only schools where misogyny headed the curriculum and for the crucial period of puberty their first and longest encounters with girls would usually be in the pages of glossy porn magazines, they were inculcated with an unquestioning belief in their superior status over everyone else, women in particular. So when he casually disregards the protests of female MPs, we should not be surprised, for this is how Johnson and his ilk have always been. 

Mogg and Nanny
From the first suckle on the Nanny-proffered bottle through the rare warmth of Nursey's blanket at boarding school, women's roles have been clearly set as the silent, suffering Support, fully indulgent to the fully self-entitled Lads. The Father of the House, the languid, loping Rees-Mogg has kept Nanny ever with him from his cradle until, it would appear, at least until one of them is in the grave.Like a child's comfort rag or maybe a human teddy bear, she has been on hand through all his days, serving his needs and dutifully knowing her place. (Though, candidly, viewing an official photo of the two of them does elicit unfortunate thoughts of some Guillermo del Toro production.)

A comedian mused tonight that we shouldn't expect the Johnsonites to be kind or self-aware. Nor should we - these are the Bullingdon bullies who trashed restaurants for fun knowing Daddy would pay, the guys who set toilets on fire for a laugh, and who even today burn money in front of homeless street-sleepers. 

And in Johnson's case, he has suggested women only go to university to find men to marry, that those who do have careers have caused house prices to rise and at the end of the day don't work as hard as men. As the Mayor who hosted the London Olympics he was moved to describe dedicated female volleyball players as "glistening like wet otters" and more recently decried investigations into child abuse as w*nking money onto a wall.

Bad enough, but this, too, is the man who helped a friend plot to have a journalist beaten up, and who allegedly threatened a young woman for giving refuge to his first wife so seriously that she has remained scared of him for over thirty yearsAnd continuing the theme, this is the Prime Minister in waiting whio had a visit from the police when neighbours were concerned for the physical safety of his partner

Little wonder that, this Old Etonian views threats to women who, in his little World of Misogyny, shouldn't even be MPs as being of zero concern. As we have seen with Trump, lauded by Nazis and the KKK, when a national leader uses such belligerent language, the fascists who, like Mair, live among us feel legitimised and entitled to act. But, like his American Idol, Johnson's sociopathic behaviour suggests he simply does not care. Indeed, quite the opposite - the terrifying truth is that what may come across as unscripted and spontaneous is in fact carefully considered to raise the tempo and appeal to what he sees as his base. With our crazy voting system, that may be more than enough to see him returned comfortably at a General Election.

Army Dreaming
Politics has always had an element of bombast, of insult and metaphorical allusions between debate and conflict even. No one is asking anyone not to display passion or even anger - there is after all plenty to be angry about.

 But politicians of all parties have deployed increasingly inflammatory language that actively plays to violence, particularly against other people. Within the Brexit debate, Remainers are just as capable as Leavers of displays of aggressive hostility to those who disagree with them. Labour's Jess Phillips has talked about her fears and her office was attacked this week, but she has herself talked of "knifing (Jeremy Corbyn) in the front", while the Lib Dems' Ed Davey urged "a Remain alliance to decapitate that blond head", i.e., Boris Johnson. Invective knows no party boundaries it seems.

Yet between the leaders of the two main parties there is a sharp contrast. When Jeremy Corbyn was faced with a plot to oust him by Blairites, he made clear to some of his over-eager supporters how he wanted them to respond:There should be no bad language used, there should be no abuse used, and I don’t like the use of the word ‘traitor’ either.”  Johnson's snivelling insistence this week that he should be able to continue with his verbiage without even acknowledging the concerns raised to him are more than adequate testimony to the great difference between the two men in terms of the respective content of their characters and suitability for office.

If Clauswitz characterised war as "politics by other means", increasingly, it seems at least some of our divided legislators see politics as war by other means. 

Yet while Farage may talk about picking up a rifle and Johnson compares the EU to Hitler's Naziseagerly posing with generals to associate himself with the military, their "wars" are little more than the adolescent fantasies of self-entitled rich kids who might have got to play with guns a bit in the school cadet corps, but would run a mile at the first hint of any real trouble. Cripes chaps, scarper!

It is fairly clear who are the strong people here.

While male MPs and members of all parties receive abuse, it does need to be noted that Black Minority Ethnic and female MPs, particularly Labour ones it seems, receive far more than any other category of parliamentarian. Formal criminal incidents have almost trebled in three years and formal police protection is almost the norm for our elected representatives, a fact that is bound to deter at least some people from entering politics.

Yet they persist: Paula Sherriff continues with her parliamentary duties in spite of receiving over 200 threats (3 serious enough to call the police) in the 24 hours after she challenged Johnson, and Yvette Cooper similarly works on even as her daughter tweets about her anxieties at the sight of an anti-bomb sleeve installed in their home's letterbox. So too do many other MPs, including Lib Dem Jo Swinson, who received threats to her children this week and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot, who at times has received more threats that all other MPs combined. 

By contrast, Farage infamously refused to get off a bus to avoid milk shake throwers and Johnson ran from fifty Luxembourgers shouting anti-Brexit slogans at him. How would these brave armchair generals fare trying to dodge the real bullets and battles they slever and drool about so loosely from their wet, trembling lips? Hopefully, Nanny would be waiting in a nearby tank with a lovely flask of warm milk and a calming pacifier, ready to whisk them away to the safety of an impregnable Command Nursery.

It would be a forlorn quest to imagine that Johnson might somehow wind back from his extreme behaviours. His carefully crafted bumbling bonhomie has largely peeled away to reveal him for what he truly is. Once a Bullingdon, always a bully. For now, between the loss of his majority in the Commons, the mass protests planned for the upcoming Tory conference and his own narcissistic disintegration, we can only unite and work to ensure that his time is soon at an end.

Boris, quo usque  tandem abutere patentia nostra? Pericles si viveret, ad remum dareris!