In the night’s darkest moments, Northern hearts shine like a billion newborn stars.
– Tristan Coleshaw.
In the night’s darkest moments, Northern hearts shine like a billion newborn stars.
– Tristan Coleshaw.
Blank votes, pages torn from Anne Frank’s diary.
Les bulletins blancs : des pages arrachées du Journal d’Anne Frank.
– Tristan Coleshaw.
Aircraft carrier, the rubber duckie of lunatics.
Un porte-avions est le canard en caoutchouc du fou.
– Tristan Coleshaw
Today, Theresa May hit every target possible in her battle for the centre ground of British politics. From corrupt CEO’s, tax evasion and the burden on tax payers in bailing out the banks, to the housing crisis, schools and strengthening workers rights. A marked departure from the ‘strivers or skivers’ rhetoric of the previous government who emphasised employer flexibility and personal responsibility, the overarching tone of her hour-long address to the Conservative Party Conference was one of reconciliation, community and a shift in thinking about investing in and developing British industry, talent and opportunity. Is this the Tory party?
Summer 2016 has seen three coups d’état in Britain that promise to shift the shape of society for years to come. First, in the lead up to the EU referendum, the right wing of the Leave campaign harnessed the bulk of its Brexit support through lies about the financial impact of EU membership and through xenophobia (I’ll remind you of the Nazi-reminiscent ‘Breaking Point’ poster by UKIP for those in any doubt), which divided families and communities. The Leave campaign’s constant over-simplification of the intricate inter-relations between states, governments, corporations, legal bodies and people not only succeeded in muting any Remainer’s attempt to make such complexities understandable (a ten word slogan is always more effective than a drawn out thesis, no matter how important the issue – just look at Donald Trump’s success in delivering his message), precluding any sensible or intelligent debate about the pros and cons of participation that would have at least better-informed the public, be they Leavers or Remainers; but it ruptured a decades long process of fostering tolerance towards minorities and those of different beliefs or languages and heralded the elevation of far-right politics to the centre stage of UK policy.
The second and most obvious coup d’état came in the form of upheaval in the Conservative Party following the referendum result. Out with the Notting Hill/Bullingdon Club élite and in with a more middle class Tory cabinet. And thirdly, Labour fell into the biggest existential crisis since its inception, fighting over how Left-wing it needed to be in order to justify its existence and to justify the mandate of a hugely divisive though not wholly unmerited leader, Jeremy Corbyn, relegating the party to side-show status. Although this process of evisceration may be necessary in the wake of thirteen years of New Labour that saw the ending of free university education, the introduction of the private sector into health provision and an illegal war in Iraq, not to mention two failed general elections, the Labour Party’s damaging introspection and infighting created a vacuum in the golden fleece of politics – the Centre Ground. Cue: a grammar school educated vicar’s daughter, popular, tough on immigration Home Secretary and newly anointed Conservative prime minister.
Theresa May, through the vanquishing of both socialists and libertarians and the calling for corporate responsibility and a new vision for Britain, has the golden opportunity that usually only comes along in the wake of large civil unrest. Think post-WWII or the industrial action chaos of the 1970’s. And with a weak opposition who refutes the mere legitimacy of the centre ground and the millions who voted them into government in 1997 to deliver a progressive version of it, what is there to stop Theresa May now? In a country of citizens with entrenched party allegiances but whom largely agree with the same broad goals of fair taxation, good education, affordable housing and personal freedom it is the rhetorician and orator who speaks most boldly and least divisively that will win the day.
The masterstroke of Theresa May’s speech today was to claim the mandate of her premiership and her vision as a result of ‘a revolution’ in the form of 17m people’s referendum votes for change while isolating and ignoring the right wing who largely brought about the result, and to outline a political, structural, industrial and cultural re-imagining of Britain that robs every progressive party of most of their policy platforms at the same time. Nonetheless, it is a ‘revolution’ that gives her carte blanche to redefine the priorities of the Conservative Party, and in so doing, to redraw the political landscape in such a way as to cement her platform. Her assuredness in what needed to happen in this country barely even mentioned immigration, in fact highlighting the give and take that would be required in Britain’s negotiations with the EU. The pragmatism of her rhetoric is a winner, and will speak loudly to a country of voters who mainly identify as centrists.
Whether rhetoric results in actual implementation is another thing. But by claiming your politics to be centre ground, you broaden the discussion of what the centre ground is and what pragmatic solutions look like to suit your agenda. You want efficient and world-class healthcare that’s free at the point of use but you don’t want a massive hike in taxes, a huge and expensive overhaul of public administration or for other public projects to be compromised? Then perhaps a centre ground Tory policy of allowing private providers to invest in their presence in the market will be a pragmatic solution. Want cheap housing for your kids without a freeze in home values that would affect your own asset(s)? Maybe you’ll agree that slackening planning regulations that prevent affordable homes being built on public land is a compromise worth making? Want to make the UK the post-Brexit Singapore of the northern hemisphere? Maybe you’ll support even more attractive tax conditions for businesses and Foreign Direct Investors, but which are heavily enforced? What do the alternatives to these pragmatic, centre ground approaches look like? Socialism or libertarianism, according to the prime minister. And most people want neither one nor either of them.
What remains to be seen is the implementation of actual policy, and whether Theresa May’s more progressive vision for the Tory party can actually be realised by those she’s appointed to cabinet – those whose ties to the establishment and to big business may hinder the very change that she has outlined. Getting the country on board will be a walk in the park compared to getting the right wing of her own party to tow the line. And as for Labour, they have an uphill battle ahead if they want to outflank the government on policy and investment in communities. The best hope that they have in reclaiming a mandate to rule the country is that May turns out to be all talk and no action, in which case they will have to re-intimate themselves with the notion that the centre is not the enemy to the Left, and then remind the public that PM May’s plans were in fact Tory versions of policies that the Labour Party has championed ever since Thatcher. This may eventually mean for Labour voters that a new leader who can speak the centrist language that chimes with both Left and Right as successfully as Theresa May has achieved today, will be the only way to win back parliament.
Until then, the new centre ground looks definitively blue.
“Every bristling shaft of pride/Church or nation/team or tribe/every notion we subscribe to/creates a borderline.” – Joni Mitchell.
We’re all racists. All of us. Deny it if you will, but whether we admit it or not we have all at some point, whether fleetingly or in some shameful cases habitually, treated an individual or even a country (that isn’t our own) with suspicion, perhaps because of a cultural difference that we have either perceived or observed, or even just imagined of the people in front of us. It could be that someone from a certain place unwittingly solicits a glimmer of caution in you – there’s nobody on the planet who has studied European history who hasn’t at some point had to consciously override the instinct to recall WWII when they’ve met a German. Don’t waste your breath trying to deny it.
The good news is that when faced with these moments of disgusting idiocy, most of us employ that mechanism in our brain that filters out nonsensical thinking, called rational thought, and we consciously choose not to actually be a complete racist. Most of us, but sadly not all.
A massive billboard hung opposite a major hospital in London post-the invasion of Iraq, when anti George W. Bush sentiment was at its (entirely sound) height, saying ‘Who said nothing good ever came out of America?’. Ironically, it was advertising some disastrous American drama that did indeed turn out to be terrible, but I remember being horrified by the idea that anyone would denigrate an entire civilisation because of the actions of its constituent extremists and lunatics – as if every citizen were a clone copy of the small group of whack jobs that were blowing countries up. Did anyone propose not letting Americans into our country because of Bush-ist tyranny? Did anyone arrest yanks on the beach as they lay down on their car-sized towels or splashed around in the water, shrouded in their distinctively transatlantic veils of fat? We didn’t, because the majority of Americans look like the majority of Europeans – white and diabetic.
The rising levels of Islamophobia in Europe and the US have been amplifying gradually ever since 9/11, and have reached a rousingly choral level since the attacks in France, Belgium and Florida – menaces to which Muslim communities have never been immune themselves, yet for which they are being held solely accountable. The one nation nationalist tone of the Brexit campaign and the rise of Donald Trump have served little more than to legitimise racist suspicions and project racial tensions entirely onto the shoulders of minorities, and the increasing stronghold of the right wing of the media, who are engaged in their own war against the Russian propaganda machine has shown a complete disinclination towards calling a bigoted turd a turd. France, whose empire bequeathed automatic French Citizenship unto the native Muslims of her colonies, is allowing mayors and other petty bureaucrats to single out Muslim women in public, simply for wearing essentially a wet-suit with a headscarf, even though the highest courts in the land say there is no legal basis for stopping them. As if these women weren’t even citizens.
While this turn towards intolerance in Western Europe surprises me – those of us who grew up in the late twentieth century witnessed glass ceilings, cultural barriers and iron fences literally being torn down and we thought it would just keep going – what is depressingly familiar in the current wave of Islamophobia is that the people being nailed to the cross are women. And that’s not even counting those of the developing world, whose struggle for survival we not only continue to ignore, but who some argue should be disregarded entirely through the withdrawal of Foreign Aid if it is not in our own domestic interest to give it.
The reason for the burkini ban is simple. The West has no cohesive or effective strategy for tackling ISIS, it has been impotent in creating stable regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and in Erdogan’s Turkey we are seeing a previously non-aligned but secular-friendly Turkey go rogue. Russia is successfully ignoring what the outside world thinks of its increasingly militarised authoritarianism, and through Kremlin-edited news programming that is distributed globally, it is spreading the narrative that the West is the real-life inspiration behind Westeros, and that the EU’s progression towards closer integration is the extension of Hitler’s Third Reich, in spite of a few pesky cogs in the allegedly-fascist wheel, like the ECHR and the greatest array of equal rights for its citizens that our species has ever created. Misguided public policy of previous administrations across the globe have seen families go from being able to survive on income, to two incomes being insufficient. Wars have been fought in the name of freedoms that are most readily enjoyed by the wealthy elite and the arms industries. The forces of marketing have convinced the many that they need milk from China instead of the fields surrounding their town because it’s cheaper, the interests of competition have seen public services auctioned off to the highest international bidders and money can just be manufactured by bank employees without being tied to any tangible asset or exchange of goods.
So when men who know the limitations of their little stash of power realise they’re barely even plankton in the sea of the Big Fish, the easiest way to show teeth to the untouchable predators of the world that they can’t control, is the time-honoured tradition of asserting control instead over their own women.
The burkini-clad Muslim womenfolk of Southern France are being made to pay the price of the Bataclan massacre, the Bastille Day murders, and the humanitarian crisis at the hands of ISIS as if they are directly linked, even though the perpetrators of those crimes were neither wearing burkinis nor were they women going for a swim. Their only connection to those guilty of such homicides is their religion, and linking all Muslim women who look a certain way to Islamic extremism is as racist and absurd as blaming the Backstreet Boys for the Ku Klux Klan. To call these women unhygienic, un-French or terrorists because of their attire, all of which has been said, is pure and utter racism. Declarations of a minority identity are making the majority feel uncomfortable? Good! The majority are almost always unquestionably comfortable with the privilege they have but never acknowledge.
Political Correctness, for all it is maligned by populist commentators at present, used to be a mechanism for keeping racism and intolerance in check, or at least behind closed doors so that citizens didn’t live in constant fear of harassment in the streets, or of being refused a meal in a restaurant because of their religious identity, as happened in France this weekend. It could also just be called human decency, or respect. In its absence all we are getting are more hate crimes, racial profiling and women undressing in public at the insistence of the police. And these are exactly the kinds of divisions that extremists of all colours and creeds feed on and use to recruit others.
Surely, if we can come to accept that Conchita Wurst isn’t responsible for the Holocaust, that Maria Sharapova is not an exponent of Stalin, and that Judi Dench and Jane Fonda aren’t conspiring to invade and carpet bomb the Middle East, then we can remember what we knew not so long ago when we made an effort not to be bigots: that brown women with baggy clothes and their heads covered are not all Osama bin Laden in disguise. If we can’t be ‘bovvered’ to think beyond our irrational fear and gutter-steeped prejudice anymore, using the colour of a person’s skin or what clothes they wear to determine whether or not they belong to our societies, then I guess we really are all racists. And racists à la ISIS, at that.
I know so many wonderful, smart, hard-working women and men whose households depend on these meagre credits. I’m both glad and surprised that it is the unelected nobility that has sent the message back to George Osborne that the poorest should not have to see the biggest cut in their standard of living to pay for the recklessness of the international banking institutions (for which, some of the smartest, most hard-working and wonderful people I know also work). Question is, will the Conservatives use this defeat as an excuse to cut public services even further, rather than increase the 40% top income tax rate (one of the lowest of the major EU countries), or instead of increasing taxes on second homes and investment properties? I have a feeling we’ll find out soon…
‘Britain’s criminally stupid attitudes to race and immigration are beyond parody’ – Frankie Boyle, The Guardian, Monday 20th April 2015.
The British people have been fooled by our government and by the right wing media, into thinking that our benefit system is the province only of the laziest and most selfish in society: we’ve been tricked into thinking that we could never need the benefit system to support us because we are not like the slobs that use and abuse it and choose to lie in that system rather than go out for work. We’re not like that. We work damn hard for a living, we want to work and would never dream of sponging off the state. SO we need to get those people get off benefits and the only way to do it is by cutting benefits. It doesn’t matter to me, I’m never going to need them because I’m not afraid of work.
WRONG! Those of us at the lowest end of the wage scale are the ones most likely to need benefits, whether it is to supplement the poor wage we receive, or because our jobs are the most vulnerable to market changes, or because we have the weakest collective bargaining power. By arguing for or allowing unchallenged the stripping of out-of-work benefits we champion the destruction of a safety net. You may not want to need benefits, but at some point in your life, you may in fact need them. Governments also have a duty to lead people, particularly children, out of poverty, and a more generous welfare system was one of the key strategies for achieving this under Labour. Tax credits as well. This was a substitute for pushing for a living wage in this country, or regulating house prices or investing in childcare and public transport – key issues for the lowest paid people in society.
Our current government and its media arm want us to think that the majority of people on benefits are scroungers and that system is corrupt. This gives them the platform to strip it bare; and by doing so the security of all of us at the bottom of the pile is made more precarious. Raising the minimum wage helps and raising the tax threshold helps us keep money in our pockets, but there’s danger on the horizon.
If the goal of the Conservative government is to take the poorest people out of paying any tax then they are also planning to take our political legs out from under us. If we pay nothing into the system then what credibility does our voice have when we speak out against public policy? We’re not paying anything so why should we be given a say? Isn’t that exactly what they say about people on benefits? If they’re not paying anything into the NHS through taxation then why should they benefit from using it at other people’s expense? Isn’t that what they say about people on benefits?? If we earn the least, contribute the least tax yet are most dependent on government funded/government subsidised public services, won’t we, THE WORKING POOR, be the next scroungers in society? And if people are paying less tax then how will services be funded. Won’t it just justify more and more cuts and greater privatisation? And who will be most vulnerable to the effects of this? People on benefits and THE WORKING POOR, and the stretched people in the middle who thought they could just about ‘have it all’, as promised in the middle class dream.