Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Statues and Statutes


If we needed any more proof of the Government's inherent illiberalism, and the range of prejudice and bigotry that accompanies it, the last week has surely provided a surfeit. The awful murder of Sarah Everard was a shocking example of how, allegedly, the mere impression of acting on state authority can be misused to appalling ends. 

Yet the response of Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel has been to seize the moment to propagandise and push through even stronger laws to control and squash the citizenry - literally hours after the terrifying image of a 5foot2 woman thrown to the ground and cuffed face down by police as they broke up the vigil for Sarah on Clapham Common, one of the last places she passed through alive. The apparent circumstances of her murder prompted women and men to come to remember her and to "reclaim the night", just as women did decades ago when Peter Sutcliffe's killings in Yorkshire led to the authorities telling women not to go out alone, a suggestion echoed in the wake of this latest murder. The same authorities had the option of allowing an organised, socially distanced gathering, but chose instead to deploy public health rules to forcibly break up the spontaneous one that took place anyway.

In as tone deaf an example of misogyny as you could get, the Government's proposed initiative to protect women now is to deploy large numbers of undercover police to trawl post-lockdown pubs and clubs to identify and supposedly detain potential rapists and murderers. With the endorsement of Opposition Leader Keir Starmer, the alleged misdeeds of one police officer will apparently be solved by having more police officers mixing secretly with the public.

Except we know how that has gone in the past. Police spies infiltrated a wide range of peaceful groups, particularly in the environmental movement but also trade unions, race justice groups and others pursuing perfectly legal aims. 

Supposedly to remain undercover, some of them developed relationships with women activists, living with them and even fathering children before disappearing. Some acted as agents provocateurs, initiating others to commit often trivial offences but offences nevertheless that got them criminal records and were used by the state to tighten legislation against its opponents. One case, highlighted repeatedly by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas using parliamentary privilege, allegedly involved a police officer setting off a bomb outside a department store in order to frame an animal rights activist.  

In this new paradigm, how far will undercover duties involve officers mingling in night clubs acting "in role"? What potential is there for abuse of position and power to do quite the opposite to protection? Rather than acting to counter the cultural objectification of women, it seems more a very conscious misrepresentation of a terrible event to enable an ever-creeping interference in normal social life and activities.

Yet this same week's Policing bill uses precisely the zeitgeist of peaceful activism as a national secruity threat to enact the most draconian legislation in our history - now past its second reading in the Commons, the new laws as they stand will make it illegal to protest too loudly, or to "cause annoyance" to even one person. If you commit such an appalling excess, you can face ten years in jail.

The legislation is clearly pitched at environmental protests such as Extinction Rebellion - demonised by a former police officer's report for the rightwing Policy Exchange thinktank in 2019 and listed as an extremist ideology by Counter-Terrorist police a few months later. Also in sight are initiatives like the Black Lives Matter protests last summer and many of the anti-fracking protests that spiked the attempts to destroy swathes of the English countryside in the entirely unnecessary search for shale gas. While most fracking is now cancelled or on indefinite hold, the Tories' funders have long and unforgiving memories and a long backstory has been created all the way back to David Cameron's Coalition era pledge to crackdown on "non-violent extremism"

Be too different (travelling communities will now be required to have special identity cards), or too radical and it doesn't matter how pacific or law abiding you are, you are still an annoyance - a decade in the clink beckons.

Attack a woman, of course, is a different matter. Almost simultaneously to passing the policing legislation, the Government turned down a range of proposals to make it easier to protect women facing domestic violence and to turn misogyny into a hate crime, although a very recent concession will involve recording gender and sex-based crimes where these are judged to be factors. In a blatant lie, the ill-titled Safeguarding Minister appeared on TV to claim that hate legislation is "mainly for minority groups" and  as women are the majority, it couldn't apply to them.

Never in the field of British politics have so many been misled so much by the guardians of the few. To paraphrase that Tory icon, Winston Churchill.

Unlike women, though, this much "white"-washed character, with his very mixed legacy of wartime leadership, anti-Indian racism and sexist jibes about women's faces, is carefully protected: deface Churchill's statue, or those of any of

the slave traders and mercantilist thieves that grace our cities, and a special place awaits you in Patel Hell. For, it seems, these lumps of Victorian marble that stare down silently on largely disinterested people, who barely give them a passing glance, are integral parts of our national culture. And the snowflake fascists can't bear the idea of anyone disrespecting them by doing something like drawing attention to the historical facts of their icons' lives and deeds - leading to a police guard being set around Churchill's image near Scotland Yard this week, just in case. 

It seems that when the Left disagree vocally with something, such as Rees Mogg speaking at a university or an AltRight candidate speculating about raping a Labour MP, this is "political correctness gone mad" and "cancel culture" - even although the perpetrators are pretty free to carry on sounding off as much as they like: witness the oaf Piers Morgan's tantrum when he was criticised by a weather presenter over his highly personalised attack on Meghan Markle last week. He chose to walk, but no one made him. No one actually shut him up - someone simply disagreed with his pompous bombast.

But now, block a road with a demonstration, shout too loudly or spoil someone's enjoyment of their day by warning about climate catastrophe, or campaigning about racism - or remembering a murdered woman...  and the freedom-loving Tories will lock you up for the next decade. The same people who wax lyrical, tearfully even, about the Magna Carta and mythical English rights to avoid wearing face masks during a deadly pandemic will incarcerate those who offend or annoy them. Cancel culture deluxe.

So we face what so many of us have long feared and warned about - post-purple wave, the Conservatives are no longer small state advocates, but rather Big Statists. Not the sort who want to use the state to better lives, or at least not the lives of all. Instead, they are seizing and deploying state power to embed themselves and their friends and funders into the ownership of the nation. 

The market system, bad though it was, is decaying, replaced not with the common good, but instead with the rise of  the nobility of Varoufakis' "techno-feudalism". This is now a place where an Etonian chumocracy acquires the state and its authority to preserve and extend their writ indefinitely, and where  the last serious socialist challenge to its ascendancy is demonised into a hate-filled totem of fear and loathing; Jeremy Corbyn channelled as the Emmanuel Goldstein of the 21st century.

A place where the future is a boot - a copper's boot - stamping on the face of change, the face of hope. Forever.

And yet, thousands commemorated Sarah Everard around the country; thousands turned up outside Parliament to oppose the new legislation. And hundreds of thousands joined the BLM protests and XR actions. You can kill the canary if you like, but the fires are still burning - our species and our planet are at severe risk; people still demand justice - for racial minorities, for the female majority and for all society. No politician can legislate these truths away. 

And we won't let them.

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Suits You, Sir Keir!

Behind You! - The allegedly scruffy Jeremy Corbyn followed by Man in an Empty Suit

Reeling from a 7% swing to the Tories in the latest opinion poll, haemorrhaging members and money and struggling to be heard even in the silence of the depleted Covid Commons, Labour's leader Sir Keir Starmer has taken a leaf not so much from the Biden as the Trump Playbook to try to revive his flagging fortunes.

In the true spirit of neoliberalism and new Nu-Labour, a leaked report recommends the party needs to "make use of the (union) flag, veterans and dress smartly". 

In an unsurprising triumph of form over content, the report from the party's Research team has found that after nearly a year of the startled Starmer regime, the vast majority of voters have no idea what the party is about or what it stands for. Possibly seeking to consolidate this vacuum, the proposal seems that the party should become even more indistinguishable from the Conservative Government, to whom Sir Keir has repeatedly leant his support or, failing that, his abstention on issue after issue through their dreadful mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Supposedly intending to hold Boris Johnson to account via his lawyerly "forensic questioning", he has rarely landed so much as a light smack on the fingers to the Old Etonian prefect as now over 106,000 citizens have died. The supposedly lame Ed Miliband has been the only Labour frontbencher to come anywhere near embarrassing this laziest of Prime Ministers during these historic days, only to have to hand back in time for Starmer to try to outdo the Tories in demanding schools stay open in the face of union fears - until of course he heard Johnson was going to close them and so rushed out a closure demand just ahead of the PM's announcement.

Similarly, he has singularly failed to challenge the appalling nepotism and pork-barrel politics of this most corrupt of government and he has backslid on a raft of legislation. The latter has included notably supporting the Brexit Deal in spite of doggedly insisting on opposing the almost identical Theresa May deal two years ago and later dragging his party to supporting a second referendum - this latter step was a fatal move that drove millions of Labour voters over to the Tories and Brexit Party, shearing the party of dozens of seats. More recently and even more shockingly Starmer failed to oppose new powers granted to the espionage services including the right to torture and kill, in spite of his past fairly good record as a challenger for human rights in the courts. 

His time as Director of Public Prosecutions though perhaps pressaged his true or maybe changed self.  Quite aside from the failure to prosecute Jimmy Saville (not his direct decision, but on his watch), his tightening of the criteria for viable prosecutions for sexual assault led to a marked and immediate decline in rape prosecutions which remains the case today, a decade later.

But of course, the one thing that does seem to set the wooden knight aflame is attacking the Labour Left and in particular Jeremy Corbyn, now expelled from the Parliamentary Party (though readmitted to wider party membership by the National Executive Committee). In spite of campaigning for the leadership election on a promise of keeping the socialist, transformational policies of the Corbyn era, he and his Shadow Cabinet have now backed away from tax reform, from ending student fees and have even signalled a move away from the radical Green New Deal. Once the pandemic crisis is over, it seems only a matter of time before his Shadow Chancellor Annaliese Dodds will be out-austeritying the Tories on balancing the budget after the months of furloughing employees (a policy adopted by Sunak and Johnson after their one and only meeting with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the early stages of the crisis).

So as he waves his flag and patronises veterans in his best pinstripe, Starmer seems unlikely to see the truths staring him in his seemongly ever-startled face: that when Labour previously embraced this Tory-lite strategy under Tony Blair, it was in the backwash of the collapse of the USSR and the "end of history", where voters were however uncertainly willing to accept neoliberalism and the benign guidance of the liberal "Political Class" in return for some meagre share of the Dream. 

But we are twenty years on now and Cool Britannia is buried under thick icy sheets of  personal debt, broken promises and shattered lives. The Tories have successfully played the new landscape by setting neighbours against neighbours and sharpening conflict everywhere. Even their ludicrous, vicious predatory purchase at above-the-odds prices of over seven times the quantity of covid vaccines needed to innoculate all of the UK has been driven by an attempt to stymmie other countries' efforts to vaccinate and save the lives of their citizens. 

Yet from Starmer, there is nothing. Some level of complaint that some things haven't been done well enough, or soon enough; or a bizarre notion that he can bring down Boris by pointing out some time or other that the PM muddled his figures - when anyone knows he can't even count his children properly but his voters don't care.

Just as Biden needs Bernie Sanders, AOC and others in the USA to drive him hard if the grievances that Trump leeched off are ever to be resolved, so here we need more than a Man in a Suit - especially this particular man (after all, even Corbyn managed to wear a suit with "for the many, not the few" pinstripes during the last General Election). Voters will not be won back by some well-scrubbed liberal with excess hair gel oozing his support for the incumbent. Rather, they want the transformational politics skewered in December 2019 by the vitriol of the billionaire press, the bias of the BBC and the rampage against their own party by the Labour Right - quietly among them, perhaps, Starmer himself with the more than obviously suicidal strategy of his insistence on Corbyn backing a second Brexit referendum.

Like the rest of the world, we are at a historic crossroads. The death and devastation of the pandemic demand something better than the "business-as-yesterday" Blairite revanchists. We do well to remember that the last time Labour lauded veterans in this way, it ended with scores of sons and daughters of some of the poorest communities in the UK lying dead or maimed in Iraqi deserts or on Afghan hills. True love of country, or of community, involves challenging its wrongs and making it into something better. It isn't about the flim-flam of waving flags and putting on a tie.

Above all, it isn't about being another Tory Party. We've already got one. And that's already more than enough.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Intermezzo Americana?

Maybe some of us, many even, will sleep a little better tonight. Just that tad more restfully. It's been a good day. Some big symbolic changes.

But what we mustn't do is think we can turn off the alarm clock. Nor turn it back. Because we've had our wake up call and now, somewhat unusually, our world has a second chance, of sorts.
But for others, the same desperate fears and frustrations that led to their giving all their hopes and trust to a snarling sociopath grip their hearts and minds tonight as they have for years, decades, whole lives. We may condemn them for their bad choice, laugh and sneer at their credulity, denounce their apparent bigotry. 
Except, one in five of them would have voted for Bernie if the Democrats had run him, and many more were originally part of the New Deal Coalition targeted by Reagan and dismissed as deplorables by both Clintons. Many were Latin Americans. And many more than last time were black.
They will still be there in four years. Will they still be angry, still afraid? Still as many?
The people who destroyed their worlds, closed their factories, poisoned their water, sent their kids to desert wars and shut down their futures - they are as much in the Oval Office tonight as they were four years and forty years ago. They promise to listen more, to heal better and certainly progressive voices are louder than before. 
Yet they have always promised so, and power is seductive and elites so terribly good at absorbing real challenges. It's not conspiracies or cults; it's just what happens when authority is based on rank and hierarchy, greased of course by filthy lucre. It has been so ever since we were persuaded to give our grain to the priests to store in the temples. And then the priests gave the grain to soldiers and made themselves into kings and emperors and built palaces and capitols. Primus inter pares
But senators need tribunes to call time on their deeds. Symbols need to be more than themselves. You don't "speak truth to power". You tear it down and share it out. Otherwise, nothing ultimately changes until the all that is left to make it happen is the whim of the mob and the rumble of the tumbril. Biden quoted Kennedy today but not to the extent of repeating his not particularly radical but still prescient predecessor's warning that "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
So the monster is gone. And perhaps we can sleep. But not too deeply or too long. 
The world may have a second chance, but it only gets one wake up call.
And we've just had it.