History, Peace, and Beauty: On Barcelona’s Ramblas

Of all the massacres perpetrated in Europe in the name of Islamic State, yesterday’s slaughter in the Ramblas has a particular personal resonance for me. I spent nine years in Barcelona, living near the Ramblas for part of that time. Even when I moved further away from downtown Barcelona, hardly a week went by in which I didn’t pass through it. This is because the Ramblas has a special place in the life of the Catalan capital. It’s where you go to meet people, at the Café Zurich at the top of the Ramblas, or by the entrance to the Plaza Catalunya station, or by any other point up and down this fabulous thoroughfare.

It’s where you go to shop at the marvellous La Boqueria indoor market, or look at the fruit and vegetable stands laid out with meticulous precision in dazzling displays of colour. More than anything else, it’s a place you go to stroll. Lorca famously described the Ramblas as a street that was so beautiful that you didn’t want it to end, and he wasn’t wrong. Despite the over-priced cafés, the dense thicket of tourists, the traffic running up and down alongside the pedestrian thoroughfare, the Ramblas remains a space of peace and beauty.

On Sundays it was a pleasure to join the families walking up and down the rows of plane trees, past the flower-sellers, bird stalls, and newspaper stands, to check out the dancers, the ridiculously elaborate living statues, musicians, the skinny little guy who used to perform astounding tricks with a football, the silver-painted Columbus I once interviewed for a radio feature.

Sometimes you might let yourself drift dreamily all the way down from the Plaza Catalunya to the Drassanes medieval shipyards; past the rebuilt Liceo opera house; the Miró mosaic where the murderer eventually crashed his van yesterday; past the Poliarama cinematograph where George Orwell spent three days reading detective novels in June 1937 while anarchists and Assault Guard soldiers shot it out in the Café Moka down below; past the seedy side-streets of the Barrio Chino, where Jean Genet had once picked up knife-fighting lovers in sleazy bars; past the former stamping ground of so many characters from Juan Marsé’s Barcelona novels; past doorways that still bore the marks of the high heels of prostitutes waiting for ships to arrive at the harbour.

My piece for Ceasefire Magazine.  You can read the rest here.

The United Kingdom of Insecurity

According to conventional political wisdom the first duty of a democratic government is to afford security and protection to all its citizens.   This objective is often misleadingly conflated with the notion of ‘national security’ – a principle that supposedly incorporates the duty of protection but actually often overrides it.  National security isn’t necessarily concerned with the protection of the public or even with the nation, but with the survival of the state.

‘National’ security has more inclusive and democratic connotations than the more fascistic-sounding ‘state security’,  which is why governments prefer to talk about it in the first person plural, and invoke the principle of protection in response to acts of political violence.  They promise to wage wars, or introduce emergency legislation and ‘Muslim bans’ in response to terrorist attacks or in order to preempt them in order to ‘keep us safe’.

The procession of sinister and shocking events of the last month have made it brutally clear that the British government is failing to keep its citizens safe.  The attack on Westminster; the massacre at Manchester; the jihadist stabbing spree at London bridge, and now yesterday’s attack on the Finsbury park mosque – all these events are part of a barbaric cycle of vengeance, fanaticism, and murder that may be paving the way for even worse horrors to come.

These events – though the British government will never acknowledge this – are part of a continuum of violence that reaches back to the Iraq War, and includes a series of reckless and failed neo-imperial military interventions and black ops that have reduced the heart of the Middle East and parts of North Africa to violent chaos.    However horrendous the events that we have witnessed these last weeks, they are only the most visible manifestations of the 21st century’s savage world of unwinnable wars and pseudo-wars that have no end in sight.

The governments that set this process in motion may not have intended these consequences, but the idea that their own citizens could somehow remain untouched by these events was never really viable.   So if we take the governments that launched these wars at their word, and assume that they really were intended to protect us, then we are looking at monumental policy failure, because what these wars have done is exacerbate every conflict and every threat they were supposed to eliminate.  They have created a series of failed states and ungoverned spaces that provide the perfect recruiting ground and battlefield for politico-religious fanatics.  They have fueled racism, of the kind we saw last night, and the murders of Muslims that have taken place in the US, and ushered in a cycle of tit-for-tat murders and atrocities that shows no sign of abating.

Presented as humanitarian interventions, they have killed people in huge numbers that barely even feature in the imagination of the West, and made it possible for a succession of terrorist organisations to present their obscene acts of violence as legitimate acts of revenge, however spuriously.

But violence is not the only threat to public safety, and the entirely preventable tragedy at Grenfell is a testament to a different kind of security failure.  It has made it brutally clear that there are some sections of the population who are not considered worthy of protection because they are poor, because they are migrants or because they are darker-skinned.

The stench of neglect at Grenfell is overwhelming, from the failure to respond to warnings from the local action group to the utterly inadequate official response that followed. And this neglect is itself the product of a wider failure of governance that reached a pitch of sociopathic delirium in the name of ‘austerity’, with its destructive cuts to vital services, deregulation, corner cutting safety procedures, and the gradual pulling away of safety nets and the essential struts that hold society together.

The result is that insecurity and precarity are now the dominant social forces – except for the minority of the population rich enough to take the future for granted.  This is why hospitals and A & Es are closing down across the country, why firemen, police and ambulance drivers are being shed, why patients wait for hours on stretchers in corridors.  It’s why the welfare system that was intended to be a safety net has now become a punitive trap and a form of humiliation for some of the most vulnerable men and women in the country.  It’s why jobs are becoming temporary, part-time and zero hours.  It’s why living longer is increasingly becoming a nightmare to be dreaded rather than a sign of social progress.

We rightly condemn the feckless, callous and grossly inadequate politicians who have presided over this process, but they are only the most visible expressions of a broader social process, which has increasingly ensured that no one is really secure except those who are able to afford it.

That insecurity is global and also national.  We now inhabit a country – and a world – that is bracing itself for the next atrocity and the next massacre.  It’s a world where no one is secure, where demagogues like Donald Trump promise to keep their populations safe by building walls and issuing blanket bans on Muslim immigrants; where Richard Littlejohn calls us to ‘war’ and Isis attempts to use the Finsbury Park attack as a justification for the ‘war on the UK streets’ that its own provocations have been seeking to promote.

It is not at all clear how we get out of this dystopian situation.  It may even be that we can’t.  But there is really only one possibility that offers any hope, and that is to acknowledge the failures of the last few decades, both at home and abroad and move beyond the shallow notions of national security that have been invoked too often for the wrong reasons.

We might also imagine a different kind of security,  based on the human rather than the national, that goes beyond war, counterterrorism and the imperatives of the state, and places the notion of the common good at its heart, and the possibility of a better future as its primary objective.

 

 

Mayday! Mayday!

There are some politicians who look better from a distance, and Theresa May is definitely one of them.  May and her advisors are clearly aware of this, and they have done their best to shield her anything approaching close scrutiny. They have refused to let her participate in political debates. In an absurd attempt to present May as a politician in touch with ‘ordinary people’,  her team have arranged a series of increasingly bizarre stage-managed encounters with party loyalists in factories and other public places from which the public has either been removed or forced to remain silent about what it heard.

Not that there has been much to hear, except for incantations and soundbites.  But even if these theatrical flourishes have a tinny North Korean-style echo to them, Tory Central Office clearly prefers that hollow sound to anything approaching intimacy or proximity – and with good reason.  Asked on Radio Derby whether she agreed with the arch-buffoon’s characterisation of Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘mugwump’ she replied ‘What I recognise is that what we need in this country is strong and stable leadership.’

That wasn’t an answer, but it is pretty much the only answer May has to any question these days.   Well not quite.  On the Andrew Marr show on Sunday she was asked what she thought of the fact that many British nurses use foodbanks.   May’s immortal answer was: ‘People use foodbanks for complex reasons’.  These words really ought to be trailed in blazing letters across the sky or put on the side of a bus and driven from one end of the nation to the other, because they capture not only the essence of Toryism, but the essence of May herself.

Remember all those months ago, when May demurely announced her leadership bid, oozing sincerity and humility as she told the world that she wasn’t one of those politicians who ‘wear their heart on the sleeve’ but someone who just ‘got on with the job in front of them’?  How appealing those words sounded then – to some at least.   Remember last year’s Tory Party conference when she railed against ‘international elites’ and promised to stand up for ‘ordinary working-class people’?   Her observations on foodbanks make it clear – if there was any doubt – that the reason she doesn’t wear her heart on her sleeve is because she has no heart at all, and that she doesn’t have the remotest idea who ordinary working class people actually are or what is actually happening to them.

In that sense she is not much different from her predecessor, or from the cynical clowns who she managed to fend off to get the Big Job.   But May’s aura of can-do competence last year had an immediate post-Brexit appeal to an anxious British public that was feeling nervous about what it had just voted for, and desperate for any politician who seemed to know where the country was going and how they were going to get there. May seemed confident and superficially competent enough to suggest that she might be that person – especially given the competition.

In addition, her meaningless tautological insistence that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ appealed to those who don’t care where we’re going as long as we get out of the EU.  So all good, except that it wasn’t.  May’s image of competence was already looking tarnished long before she called the election.  No sooner had she become PM than she appointed a succession of chancers, idiots and ideologues to her cabinet who were patently unworthy of their positions.   She then went on to make speech after speech alienating her European negotiating partners and pandering to the popcorn-munching gallery of Farageland.

True, she was good at throwing puerile Mean Girls insults at Jeremy Corbyn in PMQ. But the more she appears in any other format that is not controlled or scripted, the more it becomes painfully clear that she is yet another rabbit peering into the oncoming headlights of history, who is as out-of-depth as her colleagues and equally unwilling to listen to anyone who tells her things that she doesn’t want to hear.

If there was any doubt about this, the leaked reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAZ) on the Downing Street ‘Brexit dinner‘ ought to lay them to rest.  OK, I know this is a German newspaper, and nowadays we know that Germany is only using the EU to get what it didn’t get during World War II and all Germans are closet Nazis and therefore can’t be trusted.  But apart from that, there is no reason to dispute the genuine shock and incredulity of Juncker and his colleagues on realising how little May understands about what is at stake over the next few months and years and how little leverage she actually has.

Given the kind of country that we have become, and the kind of newspapers that have done so much to bring us to the cliff-edge that we are now looking over, no one will be surprised that some have tried to spin this debacle as yet another example of the sheer iniquity of these damned foreigners.  Whether it’s Tony Parsons ranting on about the war and calling Jean-Claude Juncker a ‘puffed-up political pygmy’ or the Daily Mail venting about the ‘bully boys of the EU’, we have become accustomed to an extremely low-level debate – usually sloshing somewhere around the gutter – about all things European for a long time now.

Others will recognize that it is not a good look to have European politicians suggesting that the Prime Minister of the UK is ‘delusional’ and ‘living in another galaxy’, and that such accusations do no bode well.   They may wonder why May’s timetable seems so blatantly at odds with that of her negotiating partners, and why it is that she seems incapable of understanding the things they are telling her, and why she refuses to listen to people who tell her anything different.

Given these terrifying limitations, you can see why she has chosen to campaign as a robot programmed by Lynton Crosby that simply utters the words ‘strong and stable…strong and stable’ over and over again, like a soothing mantra for a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown to mutter to itself before slipping into another night’s fitful sleep.

If you or I were Theresa May we would do the same. But fortunately we aren’t.  We are in possession of our faculties, and we can still vote against her.   It may not be possible to vote her out of office, but her majority can certainly be reduced.  If it was, that would be a kind of victory.   And we need to try, because this hologram-robot is asking for a mandate to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations, even when she clearly does not know what she is doing.

Giving into such a request would be like putting your hands on a steering wheel, driven by a would-be suicidal maniac screeching at high speed towards a brick wall.  Normally, sensible passengers don’t accept requests like that, but these are not normal times, and there will be those who will blame the looming disasters on the EU and the ‘saboteurs’ or ‘EU quislings, rather than the madwoman at the wheel.

May is clearly attempting to make us complicit in her madness, and it isn’t too late to come to our senses and vote for anything and anyone that is not Theresa May and not Tory.

Alternatively, we can just accept her invitation to grasp the wheel.  We can stare into her glassy eyes and mutter over and over again ‘strong and stable…strong and stable’ in the hope that it will all just work out somehow, despite the mounting evidence that it really won’t.

 

The Anglo-Spanish War

One thing about political reality – in the end you can’t avoid it.  You can try, as Theresa May and her weird little Brexit government have been doing for the last eight months or so.   You can beat your rhetorical chest and bare your teeth.  You can threaten this and promise that.  You can utter expressions like ‘truly Global Britain’ and ‘we are a great trading nation’ like mantras and hope that millions of people – or at least enough of them to deliver Tory votes – will utter them too.

You can tell the nation that we will have our cake and eat it, because that is what great trading nations do.  You can run off a cliff and keep going at your own momentum for a few steps.  But in the end,  just like Roadrunner and Tom the cartoon cat, you will fall, because countries can’t walk on air any more than cartoon characters can.

For Cruella de May and her Brexit-skinning crazy gang, that moment arrived last Monday when Donald Tusk announced the EU’s negotiating deadlines.  Unlike so many statements that have come out of Cruella’s mouth – to say nothing of those that have come from some of her more outlandish ministers – these guidelines were founded in a very objective concept of reality, rather than the entirely subjective version that we Brits have got used for the last ten months.

As a result the government’s delusions were quietly and effortlessly dismantled. Free trade agreements will not allow the same privileges as single market membership. There will be no cherry picking. The UK will not be able to make deals with individual EU member-states. The UK will be expected to resolve its outstanding financial commitments before negotiations begin.  The UK will not enjoy the same benefits in its future relations with the EU as member states.  Any free trade agreement will have to contain safeguards ‘ against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, fiscal, social and environmental dumping.’

All this was written in the kind of calm reasoned tone you might use to try and talk down someone standing on a high bridge about to commit suicide.   Most of it should have been obvious to any British politicians who were prepared to consider what was legal and what was possible in the forthcoming negotiations.  Unfortunately such politicians have been in short supply lately.   And this is the problem with jingoistic arrogance: it makes it difficult, if not impossible to make realistic assessments about the national interest or even consider what your opponents are thinking and planning.  That’s why you are likely to miss little gems like this one,  that also propped up in the guidelines:

‘After the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.’

No one should be surprised that Cruella and her team didn’t see that one coming, since they have blatantly ignored all the more obvious things that they should have seen coming.   And no one should be surprised that, faced with Spain’s diplomatic coup, they are responding with the same arrogant and aggressive bluster that has been spewing out of their mouths ever since this ghastly process began.

For reasons that are not exactly clear, the first verbal shot was fired by Lord ‘something of the night’ Howard, who assured Channel 4 News that Theresa May was prepared to go to war over Gibraltar.  Just let that sink in. Howard said that this country would be willing to go to war with a European country that is still technically its ally, and which has some 800,000 Brits living there, if Spain were to do anything contrary to the wishes of Gibraltar’s population, such as insist on co-sovereignty.

Howard describes this as an ‘EU land grab,’ when in fact it’s just another example of the galumphing flatfootedness of Cruella and her team, who really don’t see any iceberg until they hit it.   Howard has noticed that ‘  35 years ago this week another woman Prime Minister sent a task force half way across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country.’

I love that ‘another Spanish-speaking country’, don’t you?  Reason enough in itself to go to war, Howard seems to feel.   For him, the Falklands isn’t just a coincidence – it has the whiff of imperial destiny.   And he isn’t the only one.  Defense Secretary Michael Fallon has also said that Britain would ‘go all the way’ to ‘protect Gibraltar’.  Boris Johnson – always a good call whenever you need a fatuous stupid statement from anyone – says that British support for Gibraltar will be ‘implacable and rock-like’.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as yet more crowdpleasing Blimpish loose talk from politicians who don’t seem to know any other kind.  That would be bad enough. You don’t need to read Machiavelli to know that it probably isn’t a good idea to go into complex negotiations from which you need a good result babbling about gunboats and war with one of the countries you’re going to be negotiating with.

But there is also another even more disturbing way of looking at this latest fleck-spittled outpouring of indignation towards Johnny Foreigner.   When Thatcher took the country to war in the Falklands her government was in deep trouble politically, the economy was failing and her polls were dropping.  She gambled on war and won, and the jingoistic bubble that she inflated gave her the political power to take on the miners.

The situation that May and co are in is so much worse, even if the polls and the politics don’t reflect it yet.  They are leading the country towards economic disaster.  They have promised things that are impossible, and the things that are possible they have no intention of delivering.  They are already out of their depth and seem to have no idea what they’re doing or what to do.

In these circumstances we can’t be surprised to hear them talk of war.  Because Brexit means never having to say you’re sorry.  It means that you never admit that what you promised was dishonest, impossible and politically and economically nonsensical.   What you do, when things go wrong, is blame other people: the ‘traitors’ at home; ‘Remoaners’; the ‘EU bullies’ – and now,  ‘another Spanish-speaking country’ that thinks it can get the jump on Global Britain when its back is turned.

Such talk brings back warm and pleasant memories: of the Burmese ‘shoe question’; of Palmerston bombing Athens after a British merchant was attacked by a Greek mob; of the Opium Wars…and for a certain type of Tory, it brings back memories of the Falklands and conjures up enticing visions of a united country of patriotic, flagwaving crowds watching our brave boys depart and the sun never setting etc, etc.

All this war chatter took place in a week in which a school here in my new home of Sheffield has just suggested that parents pay £33 each half term to keep their school going.  That’s the kind of government this is.  It won’t even pay to educate its own children but will go ‘all the way’ over Gibraltar.    We should never forget that, when they get their rhetorical sabres out.

And if the likes of Theresa May, Fallon and Johnson have the temerity to even think about taking us to war over this, we should show these lunatics what treason really is, and give them so much of it that they will never be stupid enough to consider such a possibility.