Wayne’s World

Whatever the economic imperatives behind imperialism, every empire invariably generates a rhetoric of superiority, which supposedly entitles and even obliges certain countries or societies to acquire territory, dominate and conquer others or impose their system of government through direct or indirect means.   Such superiority might be cultural, religious, racial, or systemic, but it often translates into a sense of ‘mission’ or ‘destiny’ which presents empire as some kind of altruistic project.

Some empires are cured of such delusions slowly and painfully.  For Spain, the process of imperial disintegration and collapse began in the seventeenth century and culminated in the Spanish-American war at the end of the nineteenth.   Other empires have experienced a more sudden and traumatic collision with reality. The thousand-year Reich and Japan’s empire of the sun underwent a process of imperial expansion that lasted roughly fifteen years, and which ended with the destruction of both Germany and Japan and the humiliation of occupation.

Partly as a result of such devastation, both countries have to some extent come to terms with their respective imperial pasts and have learned to be suspicious of the narratives of superiority that once sustained them.  Here in the UK things have turned out rather differently. Britain’s protracted ‘retreat from empire’ has never entirely cured the British ruling classes – and a significant section of the public – of the belief that the UK has some kind of special destiny that is different from other nations.

Suggest, as Danish Finance Minister Kristian Jensen did in June, that  ‘there are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realized they are small nations’ and that we might belong to both categories, and you will get the British Ambassador to Denmark Dominic Schroeder angrily denying that Great Britain is ‘ a diminished or diminishing power.’   Suggest that we might do better economically as members of the European Union than we would by leaving it, and you will hear a great deal of lofty pontificating about how we were once ‘ a great trading nation’ and could become one again.

Few of those who make such arguments will talk about how Britain became a ‘great trading nation’ in the first place.   You won’t hear many references to gunboats and the British navy, the East India Company’s wars, famines in Bengal, the collapse of the Bengal textile industry, the Opium Wars, the Irish famine, Mau Mau concentration camps, to mention but a few of the darker episodes from our imperial past.   If such things are remembered at all, they are likely to be remembered as aberrations in the acquisition of our ‘accidental empire.’

Even Orwell, the great imperial critic, once noted that the British empire was ‘ a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.’  Well yes, compared with the Nazis and Japan’s ‘Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Scheme’ we don’t look that bad, but really such comparisons aren’t something to go around feeling superior about, and they certainly shouldn’t induce us to hanker after what we have lost.

This curious and dangerous combination of imperial nostalgia and imperial amnesia that continues to define and distort our politics.   I’ve been reminded of this combination many times in my lifetime, but never more so than during the last twelve months.   Brexit is absolutely marinated by this remembered past – together with a sour streak of English hyper-nationalism.   It isn’t that we want an empire again, it’s just that we want to be as ‘great’ as we thought we were when we had one.

That’s why we can’t stand foreigners telling us what to do, even if we voluntarily agreed to join an organisation in which we also tell them what we want to do.   It’s why we describe the EU as a ‘dictatorship’ and talk of starving ourselves to be free of it so that once again we can become the great trading nation we were always destined to be.

After all, as  a woman on Question Time recently reminded viewers,  ‘ For thousands of years, Britain has ruled in a wonderful way.  We’ve been a light to the world.’  And this week, in an incredible interview ‘Wayne from Chelmsford’ told LBC presenter James O’Brien that he still supported Brexit despite mounting evidence that it may be an economic disaster, not only because he didn’t believe it would be, but because we used to ‘own 3 thirds [sic]of the world’.

How did we get to ‘own’ these ‘3 thirds’?   Wayne probably doesn’t know, and he clearly doesn’t care.   Asked whether leaving the EU might make it difficult for Brits to go to France, he replies that ‘ I don’t want to go to France’.   He doesn’t want to go to Greece either, because ‘ I’ve heard you can’t go to certain beaches because they’ve got full of tents with migrants on them.’

There are a lot of things to be depressed about it this alarming interview: the unapologetic xenophobia; the deep hatred of migrants; the ignorance and complete indifference to facts, arguments or evidence.  But once again Wayne’s view of our imperial past expresses a nostalgia and romanticism that is at the core of Brexit.  Before you reach into the standard Brexiters’ book of clichés and accuse me of snobbery or looking down at the working classes, I should point out that this view is not restricted to ignorant bigots from Chelmsford.  On the contrary, our newspapers and our ruling classes are absolutely steeped in it, as Theresa May’s ‘global Britain’ speeches and the Eton-educated buffoon Boris Johnson consistently prove.

In short, we are witnessing a textbook example of what can happen when a country succumbs not only to its worst prejudices, but also to its most foolish and most inflated delusions.   The former will be hard enough to crack, but in the end, there may only one thing that cure the country of the latter, and that is the very painful encounter with reality that John Harris suggested in the Guardian today, in a piece which attributed Brexit to ‘ an ingrained English exceptionalism, partly traceable to geography but equally bound up with a puffed-up interpretation of our national past, which has bubbled away in our politics and culture for decades.’

As Harris observed:

‘The likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have used it for their own ideological ends; in the kind of post-industrial places long ignored by Westminster politicians it turned out to be the one bit of pride and identity many people had left. It runs deep: even if the economy takes a vertiginous plunge, it will take a lot longer than two years to shift it.’

Harris also argues that

‘The only way such delusions will fade is if they are finally tested in the real world and found wanting, whereupon this country may at last be ready to humbly engage with modernity. And in that sense, to paraphrase a faded politician, Brexit probably has to mean Brexit. That may result in a long spell of relative penury, and an atmosphere of recrimination and resentment. By the time everything is resolved a lot of us will either be very old or dead. But that may be the price we have to pay to belatedly put all our imperial baggage in the glass case where it belongs, and to edge our way back into the European family, if they will have us.’

There are a lot of ifs in this scenario, and none of it is much to celebrate or look forward to.  I hope these bleak possibilities don’t materialize, because a lot of people will suffer if they do, and national political and economic traumas do not always produce a positive – let alone a redemptive – outcome.

I still hope that the country will come to its senses, and that there can some kind of revisiting of the referendum result, either through an election or a second referendum on a final deal.  I hope that we can find our way to a better future that is not based on the selective reinvention of our imperial past.  Perhaps then we might conclude that our collective interests could be best served by remaining in the – flawed – organisation that we voluntarily chose to remain and that we are foolishly choosing to leave.  

And perhaps we might finally learn to stop looking down at the rest of the world, and come to terms with the fact that we were not as great or as special as we thought we were,  and accept that empires do not repeat themselves, and finally say good riddance to the one we had.

Civilisation and its Malcontents

In the conservative-far right lexicon, few words have the same emotive power as ‘civilisation’ – a term that usually equates with ‘Western civilisation’ or simply ‘the West.’ It’s one of those words that automatically gives depth and gravitas to the hollowest and tinniest of human mouthpieces.  Use it enough and you begin to sound a little bit like Kenneth Clark or Arnold Toynbee, even if you’ve never heard of these people.  The word conjures up so many noble things: the underwater heating systems of ancient Rome; Beethoven; Velazquez; viaducts and motorways; the rule of law; great novels; farming systems; cities; botanical gardens; the Sistine Chapel; Leonardo da Vinci; womens rights.

Historically, the self-identification by certain societies and countries as civilised has often acted as a justification for war and conquest, particularly when such wars have been waged against ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ peoples.  In such circumstances, even the most extreme violence becomes an altruistic expression of the onward march of civilisation, removing obstacles to human progress and allowing the forces of light to reach those who survive these wars.

This trope has appeared again and again, in the history of European colonial conquests; in the Nazi representation of the invasion of the Soviet Union as a defense of civilisation against ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’; in the propaganda of the Confederacy; in the wars of the French colonels in Indochina and Algeria, and on many Cold War battlefronts.  With communism now vanquished, post-9/11 conservatives have attempted to replace communism with ‘Islamofascism’, ‘Islamic radicalism’ or ‘jihadism’ as the main threat to civilisation.  For diplomatic and strategic reasons, the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative was generally removed from official discourse in the ‘War on Terror’, but it was often present amongst supporters of those wars.

In 2001 Silvio Berlusconi broke protocol when he described 9/11 attacks as ‘attacks not only on the United States but on our civilisation, of which we are proud bearers, conscious of the supremacy of our civilisation, of its discoveries and inventions, which have brought us democratic institutions, respect for the human, civil, religious and political rights of our citizens, openness to diversity and tolerance of everything.’

The idea that Berlusconi spent much time thinking about the ‘discoveries and inventions’ of ‘our civilisation’ is not one to detain us for long.   And this week, civilisation found an even more improbable defender in the shape of Donald Trump, who sprinkled his Warsaw speech with references to civilisation and the need to defend it. Like most of those who say such things, Trump referenced communism as a vanquished threat, before evoking its replacement’ in the form of ‘another oppressive ideology — one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe.’

Yep, it’s Islamofascism all over again.  And it’s threatening not just our lives, but our common civilisation – a term Trump helpfully explained by telling his audience ‘ You are the proud nation of Copernicus — think of that.’  Yeah, think of that.   And while you do, think also, that this is a man who has ignored the consensus of most scientists that the planet is in grave danger from global warming, who has stacked his cabinet with climate change deniers and called for deep cuts to government-funded scientific research in his 2018 budget.   As Boris Johnson would say, Copernicus go whistle.

Trump also had a great deal to say about Chopin, our love of symphonies and ‘ works of art that honor God’, about the right to free speech and free expression’ and our respect for the ‘dignity of every human life’ and other ‘priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.’

One of these ‘allies’ is Saudi Arabia, which executed six people yesterday.  According to Amnesty International ‘The rise in death sentences against Saudi Arabian Shia is alarming and suggests that the authorities are using the death penalty to settle scores and crush dissent under the guise of combating ‘terrorism’ and maintaining national security’.   Trump didn’t mention the arrest and flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi, whose ‘crimes’ included a satirical attack on the obscurantism of his country’s religious scholars by reference to the same scientific tradition that he invoked yesterday.

But then no one would expect him to.  Because for politicians like Trump, ‘civilisation’ is only useful insofar as it serves to drum up support for civilisational war and ‘defense’ against its enemies.   No sooner were these wise words spoken, than the Sun stepped in to support them, with an approving editorial from Trevor Kavanagh,  warning that refugees have to be kept out, because the refugee crisis is ‘nothing less than an oil-and-water clash of civilisations.’

How so?  Because many refugees ‘have no ­experience of civil society.  They have mostly known only poverty, repression and corruption — the reason they upped sticks’. Therefore it naturally follows that ‘Some will recreate these ­conditions rather than adopt a Western respect for the rule of law.’  Actually, it’s not just ‘some’, it’s really a lot, because ‘More painfully to the point, almost all [refugees] are Muslim’ and ‘Individually, Muslims are no worse and no better than ­anyone else, but they belong to an exclusive and frequently intolerant faith. They might accept our rule of law, but their first duty is to Allah.’

Is it?  The sneaky bastards.  Even more worrying, these Muslims also ‘believe the entire world belongs to Allah, not the nations in which they happen to reside. No Muslim dares question the Koran, the holy book which sets out these 7th Century teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Increasingly, in the cowed West, nor does anyone else.’

Call me cowed, but I really don’t believe that Muslim women who were working out in the gym with me today, or the charming Muslim women who gave me directions this morning, or the children of the Asian taxi drivers who I hear playing most days a few houses away are intent on the downfall of ‘our’ civilisation.  And I just can’t swallow this kind of racist tripe coming from anyone, let alone from the Murdoch newspapers which once lied about the Hillsborough disaster, which hacked a murdered schoolgirl’s telephone to sell more papers, and which once called dead refugee children ‘cockroaches.’

If that’s civilisation, you know what to do with it.   In principle, I feel a little closer to the concept invoked by Brexit secretary David Davis yesterday, who told the Commons Select Committee that the issue of EU nationals rights were ‘an issue of civilisation as much as anything else.’  I say in principle, because if you equate civilisation with a moral and ethical concept of human dignity,  then it is indeed uncivilised to take away the rights of EU nationals to have their families live with them, just as it should be an ‘issue of civilisation’ that non-EU migrants married to Britons are prevented from living with their families in the UK just because they can’t meet the £18,000 threshold.

Davis told the committee that he and his team had ‘agonised’ about whether to give EU nationals the rights to family reunion that they currently enjoy, before deciding that it would be unfair to give them rights that British nationals don’t have, because of the UK government’s brutal immigration laws.  And that’s not just a testament to the very shallow conception of morality of David and his team.  It’s also the problem with this civilisational discourse thing.  Too many people like to invoke the idea, and too few of those who do actually want to practice the principles they invoke.

Too often civilisation is just another metaphorical wall to wrap around ourselves and demonise those who don’t – and can’t – belong to it.   Not for nothing was Osama bin Laden a big fan of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis.  It was as useful for him as it now is for the Cheeto millionaire, Steve Bannon and Rupert Murdoch, and that’s why when I hear the word ‘civilisation’ coming from such men, I tend to reach for my metaphorical revolver and a very large pinch of salt…

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Send In the Clowns

There was a time, until very recently,  when the Conservative Party was the competent party. They were the ones you called out to clean the drains that Labour had blocked, because unlike Labour they were the ones who acted in the national interest rather than out of ideology or misguided sentiment.  They had gravitas, political nous and common sense.  They took the hard but necessary decisions that others were too squeamish to take, because unlike Labour they actually understood the economy.   They knew that a nation couldn’t live above its means, that there were no magic money trees, and that there were times when ‘we’ all had to pull our belts in.

This reputation was always surprisingly impervious to reality. Throughout the Coalition and Cameron governments, the national debt continued to rise, even though Tory politicians insisted that austerity was the only way to reduce it.   Even when the government’s own advisors argued that austerity had harmed the economy, they still continued with it.  Even when social care floundered and the NHS continued its slow-motion collapse, the Tories still managed to convince the public that the damage they were inflicting on society was for everyone’s good.

Now, as a result of Theresa May’s catastrophic campaign and its unexpected denouement last Thursday, the myth of Tory competence has been well and truly shattered.   It is now clear that these are not politicians who know what they are doing.

First the feckless gambler Cameron inflicted a divisive and unnecessary referendum on the country to resolve a quarrel within the Tory Party. As a result the historic defender of British business is now responsible for an economic slump that has transformed the UK into the worst-performing economy in the industrialised world.  Theresa May then seamlessly and cluelessly transformed herself from quiet Remainer into the hardest of Brexiters, and did everything possible to antagonize and alienate her European negotiators.

After spending ten months promising to achieve the impossible, she then called an election that the country did not need in order to consolidate her party’s power into the next generation, only to lose her majority as a result of one of the most tin-eared and dim-witted campaigns in British history, and she leads a minority government propped up by the DUP

To say that this train-wreck is not competent does not even begin to describe it.  Faced with this self-inflicted calamity, the Tory Party is desperate to save itself. That is why we heard about May’s tears over the weekend.  That is why her MPs are insisting in the same dismal chorus that she showed her ‘human side’ at the 1922 Committee meeting yesterday, and why she is showing contrition – to her party, not to anyone else.  That is why the new Minister for the Environment (you at the back, stop sniggering, this is serious) Michael Gove now says the government is in ‘listening mode.’

Now every Tory MP or minister exudes gravitas,forgiveness and seriousness.  Even Sarah Woolaston – an MP who has at least tried to stand up for the NHS – refused to admit on C4 News yesterday that Brexit might have caused the incredible 96 percent drop in  applications from EU nurses for UK jobs – this at a time when there is a 30-40000 shortfall in British nurses.

Now we hear that austerity is over, that the government will be listening to public sector workers who Corbyn mysteriously ‘tapped into.’  Now there will be school meals again, freedom for foxes, soft Brexit, red carpets for migrants, fluffy unicorns and beautifully-coloured Tory rainbows.   No longer will hard-faced politicians taunt nurses with talk of magic money trees or throw back their shoulders in weird laughing fits. No longer will May seek to exclude parliament from Brexit discussions or threaten to ‘walk out without a deal.’

Now she seeks not to rule the country, but only to serve her party, as she has been doing since she was a 12-year-old girl stuffing envelopes and running through fields of wheat.   All this is a massive victory for Corbyn’s Labour Party, but let no one be fooled by this apparent contrition.  The only reason May & co are contrite is because they failed to achieve their objectives. The only reason they are in listening ‘mode’  is because they have been badly weakened.

But this is not a government that has any more idea about what it is doing than it did before, and it has no more concern for the national interest or the interests of British society than it did last Thursday.  It has driven itself and the country into a hole and it has no idea how to get out. It is now entirely dependent for itself survival on the DUP, whose support it is cultivating regardless of the possibility that it may undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

These arrangements are unlikely to work.   The DUP has apparently ‘parked’ its sectarian demands and its antideluvian social agenda in the negotiations for the time being, and intends to concentrate on financial demands – presumably to make up for the money that Northern Ireland will lose as a result of Brexit.  If the government makes payouts to Northern Ireland, then other regions such as Cornwall and Wales are likely to do the same.

As far as Brexit is concerned, the DUP, like the government – and to some extent like the Labour opposition – wants to have its cake and eat it.  It wants out of the things it doesn’t like and inside the things it does like.  Crucially it wants a ‘soft’ border and free movement with the Irish Republic.   If the government agrees to include this in its negotiating position, then it will have to make concessions that May insisted she would never make, and that the Europhobic wing of the Tory Party will not accept.

Meanwhile, it is difficult to believe that the DUP won’t try to use its position to undermine Sinn Fein, or that Sinn Fein won’t see a DUP-Tory government alliance as a threat to its own constituency.  It remains to be seen whether the DUP continues with its attempt to exclude members of the security forces from investigation for actions carried out during the Troubles – an aspiration that many Tories share – but if it does, and the government agrees, then Northern Ireland may be headed for very choppy waters.

And now the Brexit negotiations loom and May’s crippled government faces the challenge of getting the ‘best deal’ – an all but impossible task even before this debacle. In short, ladies and gentlemen, this is a monumental political car-crash, like one of those scenes from Die Hard when the roads are strewn with overturned vehicles, and it should never be forgotten or forgiven.  It is absolutely inexcusable.   The Tory Party created it, and they own it,  and no amount of grovelling or fake-contrite messaging should ever conceal the fact.

On one hand, the fact that Labour did not actually win last Thursday may turn out to be a blessing, as May and her hapless team lurch forward with staring eyes and frozen smiles on the road to international ridicule and humiliation, because otherwise a Labour government would have taken all the blame that will now be heaped on these duplicitous buffoons.

But that doesn’t mean that Labour will glide smoothly into power when the last wheels come off the Tory machine.   Faced with the prospect of another election and the possibility of defeat, the Tory Party will close ranks. Some individuals may go – May being the most likely, but others will take their place.   They will obfuscate, lie, and distort, blame the opposition and do whatever it takes to preserve their careers and ensure that the Tory Party survives.

And next time they will do it better.  They will not underestimate Corbyn.  They now understand that they are facing a movement that is not like anything this country has seen before.  They will develop tactics, messages and strategies to deal with it.

Hopefully none of this will be able to save them, but they should not be underrated either.  Because if clowns like these can win more than thirteen million votes, then they cannot be written off, and there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that they get the political punishment they surely deserve.