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.

 

 

2016: The Year of Living Fearfully

There was a time – it seems many years ago now – when governments in the Western world told their populations that things were getting better, and that they were helping them to get better.   In those days voters by and large believed them, and made their political choices from amongst a cluster of political parties who they were familiar with and who mostly sounded and looked the same.

Voters may not have liked or trusted politicians individually but they recognized the parameters they were operating in.  They knew that they were right-of-centre or left-of-centre or somewhere in between. Anything further out than that and the majority of voters would usually say no.

For some time now these assumptions have been crumbling in different countries and at different speeds.  It’s difficult to put a particular date on when this disintegration started.  Some might trace it to the 2008/09 financial crisis and the grotesque fraud known as ‘austerity’ which followed.

But you could go further back, to the rampant ‘end of history’ arrogance that provided accompanied the shift towards globalisation at the end of the Cold War; when a capitalism that believed itself to be victorious and unchallenged believed that it could do anything it wanted; when even liberal governments adopted conservative nostrums and regarded the whole notion of an enabling state as a historical anachronism.

Or perhaps we could see the origins of our current predicament in the Reagan/Thatcher years, when the exaltation of ‘the market’ and the glorification of wealth came to trump (pardon the pun) any other social considerations.

Whatever the timetable,  2016 will go down in history as a watershed year when the old political establishment that had largely accepted this consensus was rejected by an  unprecedented electoral insurgency that was dominated by the right and extreme right. This was the year in which millions of people in the UK voted for perhaps the greatest  assembly of snake oil salesmen in the history of British politics, largely on the basis of post-imperial fantasies and pipe-dreams.

Given the positions taken by Tony Blair and George Bush over Iraq – to name but two examples – we can all take the notion of ‘post-truth politics’ with more than a pinch of salt.   Lying didn’t begin in 2016, after all.  But what is alarming about 2016 was the fact that politicians could lie through their teeth, and people would often know or sense that they were lying, and they would still vote for them if only because they weren’t the liars they were used to.

This was a year when emotion and magical thinking triumphed over rationality, common sense and even material self-interest; when millionaires and billionaires presented themselves as the voice of the common people and anti-establishment rebels; when millions of people voted for giant walls, imaginary jobs, ‘control’ and other things that were difficult if not impossible to achieve, and which the ‘rebels’ who were offering them never really intended to achieve.

It was also a year in which you could be a racist, sexist, misogynist braggart and people were still prepared to make you president of the United States; when voters in the UK opted to leave the European Union largely because of ‘concerns’ about immigration that were steeped in misinformation, and xenophobic and racist assumptions that Leave politicians cynically manipulated and played on.

All this should be deeply alarming to anyone on the left/liberal spectrum who doesn’t believe that these developments were some kind anti-establishment rebellion or a revolt against neoliberalism.  Revolts they may have been, but electoral insurgencies against the ‘establishment’ don’t necessarily benefit the left and may in fact contribute to its destruction – or at the very least, its irrelevance.

Many factors contributed to making 2016 such a weirdly morbid and demoralising political year, but its consequences are now glaringly clear to anyone who wants to look: that the Western world is now in the throes of a reactionary nativist/hyper-nationalist ‘counter-revolution’ with a distinctly rank odour of white privilege and white supremacism wafting into the mainstream from its fringes.

To point this out doesn’t mean that all the voters who voted for the grotesque political monster that is Donald Trump were racists, bigots or white supremacists, but millions of voters were prepared to ignore the racist and bigoted sentiments that Trump mobilised so brazenly,  because they didn’t care about them or because other things mattered to them more.

The same in the UK.  It’s rather pointless – and tedious – to have to refute the Leave argument that ‘not everyone who voted for Brexit is racist or a xenophobe.’ Obviously not, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the Leave vote would have triumphed without the barrage of dog whistle messages about immigration that accompanied the campaign.

These alarming and disturbing tendencies are not likely to abate anytime soon, and further shocks may follow in the coming year, so it is incumbent upon us to face up to them and not take refuge in ‘the revolution is just around the corner’ or ‘first the liberals then us’ utopianism – or is it just opportunism?

One of the main reasons why the right triumphed in 2016 is because it was able to mobilise fears and anxieties that the old political order has not bothered to address or has not known how to address.   For some years now fear has become the dominant political emotion of the 21st century, which politicians of various persuasions have sought to mobilise.   The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has coined the term ‘liquid fear’ to describe the anxieties that he believes underpin the current ‘crisis of humanity’ in the Western world.

For Bauman, the crisis is driven by a ‘tangible feeling of anxiety that has only vague contours but is still acutely present everywhere.’  These fears are manifold.  Fear of terrorism – often translated into fear of Muslims or simply fear of ‘the Other’.   Fear of immigrants and refugees. Fear of war, violence and political instability.  Fear of open borders.

Today, as Adam Curtis has often pointed out, politicians have largely abandoned the notion of a better future, and like to present themselves as managers of risk, preventing the bad from becoming even worse and promising to  ‘keep you safe’ even when their decisions are clearly not making anyone safe.

On the contrary we live in an age of persistent and constant insecurity, which our rulers often seem determined to encourage.  Whether we are beneficiaries or victims of globalisation, we all inhabit an economic system that is inherently unstable, chaotic and prone to shocks and tremors such as the 2008 crisis, that can capsize the futures of millions of people in an instant.

Having largely abandoned the notion of an enabling state, governments and political and financial institutions from the IMF to the EU have adopted and accepted policies that appear to be intent on reducing more and more people to a state of permanent insecurity and precariousness.  Since 2008 austerity has pushed more and more people – except the rich and powerful – towards a common precipice where they are told that they will have to work longer, for less, or try and find some tenuous foothold in an economy based on ‘flexibility’ while the struts and safety nets that still pay lip service to the common good are systematically pared back and dismantled.

In these circumstances, no one should be surprised that millions of people have rejected what they see as the politicians who have presided over these developments – or at least been unable to prevent them.

The tragedy is that they have chosen politicians who are unlikely to bring them anything better and are more likely to make things even worse.  There are many things that will have to happen to turn back the nativist tide, but one of them must surely be to reduce the fear and insecurity that has led so many people to turn to the pseudo-solutions offered by this dangerous new generation of chancers, demagogues and charlatans.

This shouldn’t mean emollient talk of ‘hope’ – let alone fantasy revolutions and utopias. Utopia is not a solution to the dystopian present that is now unfolding before our eyes. To my mind the left needs to think outside the usual channels if it is not to vanish into irrelevance.   We need practical and viable polices and solutions; a new notion of the common good; broader coalitions, alliances and discussions that do not simply involve the left talking to itself.

This doesn’t mean aping the right.  You don’t have to fight reaction by becoming reactionary yourselves.  You don’t right racism and anti-immigrant scapegoating by pandering to it.

Nationally, and internationally, the crises and problems that confront us in the 21st century require collective solutions, not walls and even harder borders – whether mental or physical.

Trump, Farage, Johnson and so many of the ‘populists’ who have made 2016 such a grim year are offering a kind of certainty and security.  They won’t succeed, even on their own terms, because they are liars, frauds and demagogues, and because their ‘solutions’ are unrealisable.

But already they have made the world a nastier and more evil place.  ‘Their world is crumbling, ours is being built, ‘ crowed the Front National in celebration of Trump’s victory in November.

That is one possibility, and you would have to be naive and cynical to discount it.   To prevent this outcome, it must surely be our task in 2017 to combat the forces they have helped unleash,  and reduce the toxic political emotions that are leading us towards a disaster that we may not recover from.