Category Archives: Politics

Truth stranger than fiction

I caught the end of a fascinating news report on BBC Breakfast this morning. Author Jeanette Winterson had visited a school in the Cotswolds to help the children there critically review the Cinderella fairy-tale, and then re-imagine it for the 21st Century. You can see the report and watch the video here. In part, the purpose of the visit was to explore the inherently sexist nature of the traditional narrative, and the version created by the children brilliantly re-writes the story’s ending to create a vision of an empowered and independent Cindy becoming co-founder of a successful business in partnership with the prince. The sassiness of shortening the name to Cindy, and the ambition shown for her by these primary school children is charming and inspiring in equal measure. The opprobrium of many of the viewers who contacted the BBC following the story, declaiming the ‘ruining’ of traditional stories, was as depressing as it was predictable.

Juxtaposing this story with the “you couldn’t make it up”, real-life story of Donald Trump promoting his public-school educated, merchant banker buddy Nigel Farage, as a potential UK Ambassador to the US,simply proves the old adage that truth is often so much stranger than fiction. But the sexist, racist, elitist messages that both Trump and Farage openly endorse, make the work of Winterson and a whole host of other, less prominent, people who are continuing to promote ideals of equality, fairness and justice, even more vitally important.

It is Edmund Burke, 18th Century parliamentarian and philosopher, to whom is attributed the saying that “for evil to triumph it is only necessary that good men do nothing”. Of course, taking our lead from Winterson, we need to change the “men” in the quote to “people”; but now more than ever, Burke’s sentiment must be a clarion call to everybody who opposes the narrow-minded, myopic, xenophobic, homophobic, mysogynist narrative of Trump, Farage and the motley crew of ultra-right wing ideologues that cling on to their coat-tails.

Fairy tales are quaint and can be indulged more liberally when the prevailing wisdom in society sees them as artefacts of a by-gone era when we were less enlightened. When the core messages of a ‘woman’s place in the home’, economic dependence on men, and a good marriage as the principal means of future security, are now part of mainstream political discourse, then its time for all of us to re-write the fairy tales.

That was the week that was

It’s been a bit of a week. Seven days’ ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton looked likely to become the first woman President of the United States of America at the end of an election campaign that had focused almost exclusively on the personalities, and had featured virtually no analysis of their policies or proposals for government. Donald Trump’s achievement in securing a majority of the electoral college votes with fewer popular votes than his Democratic Party rival may yet lead to a review of that system ahead of the next election in 2020. Before then, the transition of Trump the anti-establishment ‘outsider’, through Trump the President Elect, to Trump the “Leader of the Free World” will be fascinating to watch. The early indications are that he is already backing away from some of the more controversial pledges of his campaign. Obamacare may not be swept away quite as comprehensively as his supporters may have expected, and he has put some distance between his promise to “lock her up” and any commitment to launching a formal investigation into Clinton’s unorthodox use of e-mail servers as Secretary of State.

Global markets – initially jittery in the wake of Trump’s victory – appear to have taken things in their stride since, perhaps providing further evidence that in 2016, governments (even those in the largest territorial economy in the world) are of only passing interest to and influence on world trade and capital.

The mysogyny, racism and demonisation of minorities that characterised so much of the Trump campaign has already shown itself to be a major challenge to politicians from other countries. Diplomacy has been strained to its farthest limits as statements seek to congratulate Trump’s success whilst stopping short of endorsement of the means by which it was achieved. This was perhaps best illustrated by Angela Merkel, who stated that: “Germany and America are connected by values of democracy, freedom, and respect for the law and the dignity of man, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. I offer the next President of the United States close cooperation on the basis of these values.”

The claim of Trump supporters that those who continue to call out the discriminatory nature of many of his pre-election statements are simply sore losers, mimics the labelling of those in the UK who continue to campaign against Brexit as “Remoaners”. It is unlikely that the deep divisions that have been riven on the basis of gender, race, sexuality and religion during the Presidential campaign can be healed simply on the assertion that the vote has happened and everybody should now just accept it.

What has been interesting in the last couple of days, as the initial surprise and novelty of the election outcome has given way to more sober reflection, has been the emergence of a narrative that seeks to connect Trump’s victory with Brexit in the UK, and Putin’s rise in Russia. This (from historian Tobias Stone) is one of the more academic analyses and is quite depressing for those of us who value liberalism, equality, and openness.

So what can we do to prevent the creeping intolerance and ‘fear of the other’ that seems so endemic in the arguments that underpinned the Trump campaign, the Brexit campsign before it, and so much of what we see emerging from Putin’s Russia? Ultimately, we have to take our lead from people like David Remnick, writing in the New Yorker magazine earlier this week :

remnick-quote

Remnick’s ideals are not exclusively American of course. They are the same things that Angela Merkel highlighted. Now, of all times, we have to believe that they will prevail.

My reflections on the rise of the Donald

I’ve tried to write today’s blog post many times in the hours since it first became clear that Mr Trump would become the 45th President of the United States of America. Each time I have come up against some words of advice that have guided me from a very young age :

“If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all”.

 

 

 

 

I’ll be back tomorrow!

Remember, remember the 5th of November…

Bornfire night in the UK. The annual festival of fireworks commemorating the foiling of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. You can find out more about the original Gunpowder Plot here : http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/gunpowder_robinson_01.shtml  but the significance of Bonfire Night in 2016 has been brought into even sharper relief by the events in the High Court of Justice this week.

In June 2016, the UK electorate voted by 52 : 48 in a non-binding referendum to leave the European Union. These are facts. The referendum said nothing about the speed with which the exit was to be achieved, nor the terms and conditions that were to be negotiated in leaving the political and economic union. How could it? A referendum is – by its very nature – a black and white, binary process. “Leave” or “Remain” were the only options available to the electorate in June.

Since June, the debate has raged in the media and across the country about the precise form that ‘Brexit’ should take. Every pub, café, workplace has seen variations of the same sorts of conversations about hard and soft Brexit, and the triggering of Article 50. Bizarrely, the one place that has not staged that debate is the House of Commons – the centre of our parliamentary democracy. Other than repeating the utterly meaningless phrase that “Brexit means Brexit”, and stating consistently that the government will not discuss the terms of its negotiating strategy with the EU because that would somehow make the negotiation more difficult, Ministers have treated parliament with utter contempt on the issue.

Thankfully, the rules governing the withdrawal of a country from the EU (the now-fabled Article 50) require that country to follow its normal constitutional conventions in formally triggering the exit process. The UK – famously – does not have a written constitution per se. Ironically, it has been a Conservative Party manifesto commitment for at least the last three general elections to introduce a formal Bill of Rights that would go quite a long way towards codifying UK constitutional convention, but it has so far proved to be beyond the wit of Ministers and Civil Servants to come up with something that adequately replaces several hundred years’ worth of legal and parliamentary convention.

Thus it was that this week, the High Court was asked to uphold the constitutional convention that Acts of Parliament cannot be repealed other than by a subsequent Act passed in the usual way by both Houses and subsequently endorsed by the Crown. This was something of a blow to the Prime Minister, her three wise monkeys overseeing the Brexit process, and the baying, Neanderthal, ultra-right ideologues that now populate most of the print media in the UK. They seem to have forgotten that in the UK, British Laws for British People can only happen through the explicit Acts of the Houses of Parliament.

The High Court acted to reinforce the constitutional convention that Parliament is sovereign in the UK’s democracy, preventing a unilateral and un-scrutinised exercise of Article 50 that would have been as damaging to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, as Guy Fawkes gunpowder would have been to the bricks and mortar of the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

That Article 50 will be exercised in due course is beyond doubt. That it will be exercised with the will of Parliament following appropriate scrutiny and debate of the government’s strategy for Brexit, is thanks to the Rule of (British) Law and the independence of the judiciary within the (British) constitution. And if that’s not worth sending up a firework for, I don’t know what is.

 

In, out, shake it all about…

So – that’s it then. Brexit. The UK will be leaving the European Union at some point in the next 2 to 3 years. New treaties and trade deals will be struck; a new leader will be elected for the Conservative Party and, (by the looks of things), Jeremy Corbyn will be ousted from his role as leader of the Labour Party. At the moment, things look bleak. The pound has lost ground against the Euro and the Dollar. The FTSE 100 has fallen by 5%. There are dire warnings about the implications of the decision to leave on jobs, economic growth, pensions, the NHS, higher education, and national security. On the plus side, from the Brexiteers’ perspective, the UK has regained control of the country, and can now move to sort out immigration.

At least, that’s the narrative that ran throughout the campaign. ‘Project Fear’ pointed to economic disaster if Brexit succeeded. Vote Leave raised the spectre of unlimited immigration and even more European interference in UK affairs if the vote was to remain.

In reality, it’s unlikely that either of these domesday scenarios has any real basis in fact. There will be a short-term shock to the economy, but the Bank of England and most responsible financial institutions had already made provision for that. There will be an impact on research and development, and capital investment decisions in the private sector; and whoever is Chancellor of the Exchequer by this time next week will probably need to increase public capital expenditure to take up that slack. The rate of immigration to the UK will decline as some non-UK citizens decide that they no longer want to stay; and others decide against coming here in the first place. There will be skills shortages and higher job vacancy rates as a result. Unemployment (already at or around near historically low rates) will not be effected to any great degree. And immigration will return to something near current levels as the reality dawns that in fact we need people to do the work that generates the revenues that the country depends on.

The rash promises of the Leave campaign (£350m a week saved; remove VAT on domestic fuel; maintain farm subsidies at current levels; reduce immigration below 100,000 a year; and so on) will be slowly diluted or abandoned altogether. By enlarge, it’s very likely that in a couple of years, things will be pretty much the same as they are now.

The problem, of course, is that because things will be the same, the anger, the sense of powerlessness, the disillusionment with the political class, the belief shared by at least 51% of the voting public that they are not being served by the current system, will remain. And the big question then will be : so what happens next?

That’s the challenge for post-Brexit politics. How can whatever emerges from the train-wrecks that are the current Conservative and Labour parties re-engage with people in a way that makes the political process real and meaningful again. It won’t be easy.

 

 

 

One law for the rich…

It’s funny how sometimes a pattern emerges from a whole series of different stories and events that in many respects would appear to be unrelated. That’s been the case for me this past week.

It started with news coverage of the decision of the Financial Conduct Authority to order the end of an enquiry into UK banking culture that had originally been proposed as one of a number of measures to determine whether the lessons for the world financial crisis had been learned. Apparently, the FCA thinks they have, and that we should all stop giving the bankers such a hard time (http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/dec/31/banking-culture-review-john-mcdonnell-urges-george-osborne). Others are less sure, and see the dead hand of the Chancellor behind the move which will go some way to appeasing the likes of HSBC who had been threatening to pull out of London and take their HQ elsewhere.

This was followed by the confirmation from the Crown Prosecution Service that the posthumous ‘trial of the facts’ to examine allegations of historic child sexual abuse involving former MP Lord Janner, had been shelved (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-35304528). This on the same day that it emerged that an establishment cover-up in the 1990s may have prevented a more detailed inquiry at a time when Janner was well enough to have been properly questioned in relation to complaints against him (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/19/establishment-stopped-me-exposing-greville-janner-25-years-ago).

At the same time, and without any public fanfare or opinion pieces in the national newspapers, a family in South Wales is facing the double heartache of fighting health and social services to secure appropriate treatment and care for their daughter who is suffering constant fits and debilitating paralysis, whilst at the same time needing to find a new home following the decision of their landlord to sell their rented property out from underneath them.

There is little doubt that lawyers have been working tirelessly and at great expense to lobby both the FCA and the CPS that any further enquiry into the actions of their respective clients would not be in anyone’s best interests. They’ve done a good job and doubtless been paid handsomely for their expert services. I don’t begrudge them a penny.

Unfortunately, the same access to legal support is not available to the family fighting to make public services discharge their health and care duties, nor to support them in securing suitable alternative rental accommodation. Both parents have jobs and work hard to support their kids, but their disposable income after living costs won’t stretch to the fees of a housing or community care lawyer.

What seems like a lifetime ago now, I worked for the Legal Services Commission at a time when its prime concern was securing access to justice for those who desperately needed it, but lacked the means to pay for it in full or at all. Unfortunately, since then, successive governments of all colours have seen legal aid as a cost rather than an investment, and have sought to reduce both the scope of things covered by the scheme, and the rates of pay of those lawyers foolish enough to continue to operate it.

The theme that runs through all this, of course, is the old adage that there’s one law for the rich (and powerful) and one for the rest of us. It’s this that is highlighted so perfectly in this Tom Robinson song for the Justice Alliance.

Finger Lickin’ Deadly

So, in a shock announcement that has left UK consumers reeling, it transpires that if you don’t keep raw poultry in the fridge, and if you don’t cook it properly before you eat it, then it might make you ill. It’s very hard to believe that there’s anybody above the age of 8 years old who didn’t already know this, but apparently it’s a huge surprise to the Food Standards Agency, the major supermarkets, and most mainstream media outlets (at least if the coverage of the story today is anything to go by: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-30227342 ; http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2851740/Warning-contaminated-chickens-70-fresh-supermarket-birds-tainted-campylobacter-food-poisoning-bug.html ; http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/campylobacter-bacteria-affects-70-of-supermarket-chickens-9887701.html ).

Of course, it’s useful to be reminded that simple precautions need to be taken to ensure that your Sunday roast, chicken goujons, or breaded drumsticks don’t become your last meal. But the fuss that’s being made over something that is fixed by making sure you put it in the oven and leave it there until it’s cooked seems totally over the top.

However, just in case you’ve forgotten, here’s a few extra life-saving tips to help make sure that you make it safely through Friday :

1. don’t get out of your car until it’s stopped moving – tuck and roll may be ok for Bruce Willis but it won’t end well for you

2. don’t go searching for gas leaks using a cigarette lighter to illuminate the way – you’ll find the leak all right, but you probably won’t have enough skin on your hands to hold the ‘phone to tell anyone

3. don’t check whether the electricity is on by sticking your finger in the socket – this may come as a shock to you, but it’s not nearly as big as the shock you’ll get if you try it

4. if the sign on the door says “Danger! Do not enter”, that’s an instruction not a challenge

5. if you see Andrew Mitchell coming towards you on his bike, just open the ******* gate!

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/plebgate-former-chief-whip-andrew-mitchell-loses-high-court-libel-action-9887920.html

Stay safe everybody!