Brexit 2017: The Year of the Mogwai

Looking down with a vaguely-superior disdain at the outside world is a long-established Anglo-Saxon pastime.   Over the years we have been taught to use the words ‘very British’ to distinguish the bad things that happen in the world beyond from the better things that happen here.  We talk about ‘very British revolutions’ and ‘very British coups’. The notion of something being ‘very British’ conjures up comforting notions of a national character based on gentleness,moderation, an aversion to extremes, of a nation supposedly moved more by common sense than the hot political passions that cause civil wars and revolutions in less cultured or sophisticated places.

I learned this very early on, when I studied O’ Level History and learned how nineteenth century British statesmen grappled with continental instability and the phenomenon known as the ‘sick man of Europe’ – the Ottoman Empire in this case.  Back then we were very much steeped in the ‘great men’ school of History and we understood that British leaders were greater than most.

We learned that our statesmen were men of vision like George Canning, who ‘ called the new world into existence to redress the balance of the old’; that the British way was always to avoid extremes of any kind and steer a delicate course through the middle ground; that when faced with a serious crisis our leaders were always wise enough to make concessions to avoid it getting any worse.

Other countries, we assumed, we led by leaders who weren’t as wise or all-seeing as our own, and that was why we sometimes had to intervene in their affairs and perhaps even take over their countries.

Our ancestors had been forced to deal with the sick man of Europe.  They had taken on ‘the burden of Empire’.  They had intervened in two world wars.  They had been faced with ‘the Irish question’, and the ‘problem of India’ and the dangerous aspirations of the ‘Russian bear’, when all they really wanted was to put their feet up in a Mayfair club or watch a good game of cricket somewhere.

Other leaders wanted power.  Ours were only concerned with ‘the balance of power’ and safeguarding the nation’s interests – interests that we were never taught to question and always assumed were legitimate.

Of course I have long since shed these illusions, or at least I thought I had. Because I still find it impossible to reconcile these narratives of British caution and moderation with the mind-boggling combination of malice, idiocy, prejudice, magical thinking and epic incompetence that is dragging the country towards one of the great self-inflicted wounds in its history.

In the last week, lying in a sickbed watching the country speed towards Article 50 like a train heading for a cliff, I’ve often myself thinking of the Joe Dante 80s comedy Gremlins, when a dad purchases a little oriental animal called a mogwai for his son as a present and inadvertently brings forth an army of destructive little monsters who wreak havoc on a small American town.

I can’t help feeling that a similar process is now taking place on  national level, as I watch the stunningly vacuous Boris Johnson turning what was once seen as one of the most serious posts in the British government into a vehicle for his narcissistic buffoonery.  No one can be surprised that his own department is in despair at his inability to read briefings or his willingness to alienate his foreign counterparts, because such an outcome could have been predicted from the moment he got the job.

Which brings us to Theresa May, gremlin-in-chief, who has allowed her personal ambition to put herself in a position when she is painfully and terrifyingly out of her depth. Her party can’t even guarantee the interests of big business – the main purpose of the Tory Party after all – let alone the wider interests of the country.

May is nominally leading the country, even though she only seems to listen to the Brexit gremlins prancing around her shrieking that we must leave, leave, leave the EU, regardless of how we leave it or what leaving means or whether their exits are even possible.  They include the more thug-like gremlins like Aaron Banks and Nigel Farage, ‘the bad boys of Brexit’ , who clearly don’t care what happens if we leave just as long as we leave.

And posh Jacob Rees-Mogg – a politician who looks more and more like a ghost from the fourteenth century rather than a living person.   And stonecold idiots like Ian Duncan-Smith and Andrea Leadsom – an environment secretary who is so pig-ignorant that she thinks farming has been around ‘since the dawn of mankind’.

Like Brexit secretary David Davis, these gremlins can’t be doing with any negative talk about what might happen, or any fussing about single markets, tariffs, schedules and regulations.  That is namby-pamby, lefty pink liberal europhile talk.  They want out and they want it now.  They’re ready for the nation to take the ‘economic hit’ that none of them will ever feel.  Because after so many years of continuous suffering they just can’t endure the murderous tyranny of Brussels for a moment longer – now that the green fields of freedom are so near.

The more the pitfalls and dangers mount, the more they put their fingers in their ears and chant ‘la la la la la’.   Or theystamp their feet and shout and mock anyone who says anything they don’t want to hear.   So when judges uphold the rule of law and say that parliament should have some scrutiny over the Brexit process, the judges are vilified as traitors and gremlins across the country starting talking of hanging them.  Because just like the gremlins in the movie, some Brexit gremlins initially seem cheeky and mischievously appealing – like Farage or Johnson – but they quickly turn menacing and even homicidal.

In these circumstances, no one can be surprised that a career diplomate like Ivan Rogers is ignored by his own gremlin-filled government when he warns of the dangers ahead.   When Roger resigns and has the cheek to write a resignation letter he is screeched at by the king of the gremlins Nigel Farage that he just is a ‘Europhile’ anyway and the foreign office is full of ’em, dontcha know?  And then the ghastly Theresa Villiers calls Rogers ’emotionally needy.’

Yep, that’s the way to treat your diplomats.   According to the version of British history I was once taught, civil servants were ‘mandarins’ who knew how to run the country and the empire and gave wise disinterested counsel to governments.   Given the staggering complexity that the task of leaving the EU involves,  you would have thought that even the most ardent Leaver  would want such men in place to ensure the best possible outcome.   After all, it’s only common sense to want an experienced negotiator to take part in … negotiations, right?

But Gremlin Britain is not a country where logic and common sense applies.  It’s not the country that my teachers told us about. Gremlins only want to see gremlins like themselves in power.   Because otherwise their vacuity is like to be revealed to the world.   And the more it becomes clear that they ave no coherent plan and don’t even understand what they’re doing and don’t even care about the consequences the more they shout down the people who point this out.

Meanwhile the NHS is crumbling away to the point when Red Cross volunteers are now assisting…the NHS as patients die on trolleys in corridors.   And prisons across the country are rioting – the same prisons where Paul Dacre’s Gremlin Times recently said that prisoners were living a life of luxury.

All this is also part of Gremlin Britain- a country where it’s much easier to rise high if you’re willing to destroy things than if you’re willing to build them, and cronies, grifters and zealots are promoted above their  ability while civil servants who actually have ability and experience must step aside.

The historians of the future will have their eyes popping out on stalks when they look back on this incredible mess and try to understand how this was allowed to happen. They will know it wasn’t because someone brought a weird oriental mascot for his son.   Some may see it as the product of some kind of post-imperial corruption and decadence, in which the British ruling classes inadvertently applied a shotgun to their own head like a boozy squire on a grousehunt, supported by a population that wanted to believe in Santa Claus when it wasn’t even Christmas.

Others might see it as a popular rebellion gone wrong, or another part of the same generalised institutional collapse in western democracies that has given us a president who boasts about his ratings on a tv show less than two weeks before taking office

But one thing is clear.  The words ‘very British’ are likely to be even more meaningless than they were before, and like Joe Dante’s Gremlins, they may well conjure up horror rather than affectionate amusement

Theresa May’s New Year Message: the Blind Leading the Blind

In these uncertain times, as we move closer to the yawning abyss that is Brexit, one can only wait with bated breath for a good dose of platitudinous bromide from the politicians who are about to push us off it to lift the spirits.   Maybe idiot-at-large Boris Johnson’s Christmas invitation to get behind ‘global Britain’ didn’t do it for you.  Luckily there is Theresa May, her harsh visage only marginally softened by a glittering Christmas tree, had the following reassuring message to our troubled nation:

‘We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today.  We all want a country that is fairer so that everyone has the chance to succeed. We all want a nation that is safe and secure for our children and grandchildren. These ambitions unite us, so that we are no longer the 52% who voted leave and the 48% who voted remain, but one great union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future. So when I sit around the negotiating table in Europe this year, it will be with that in mind – the knowledge that I am there to get the right deal not just for those who voted to leave, but for every single person in this country.’

I feel better already.  Or I would, had these hollow and profoundly vacuous promises not come from a prime minister whose own civil servants have accused her of lacking in the moral courage to admit to the complexity of the task that lies ahead of her.

And Cruella’s cowardice and political dishonesty aren’t the only reasons why this listener does not feel like singing Kumbaya along with her.  There’s also the question of vision.  So far there is no evidence whatsoever that May’s government of the clueless, the shameless, the duplicitous and the useless have any idea how to extract ‘the right deal’ from the horrendous political and logistical spaghetti junction that the nation is now stepping into.

As for the future that she expects us to unite behind, it’s worth comparing it with the Institute for Public Policy Research’s excellent report:  Future Proof: Britain in the 2020s.  

Among other things the report predicts that:

  • Technological, economic and demographic change will supercharge inequalities, with middle and low income households struggling through a low-growth living standards decade, even as the rich pull away
  • A combination of low growth, political choices and demographic change will shrink the state and put the UK on course for a structural deficit by 2030.
  • The 65+ population will surge from 11.6 million today to 15.4 million by 2030. By contrast, the working age population (16-64) will increase by only 3%. There will be a surge in the ‘oldest old’, with the over 85s population nearly doubling by 2030
  • By 2030 the economy is forecast to be up to £55 billion smaller than it would have been without Brexit. In a ‘pessimistic’ scenario, where trade costs increase significantly, households are expected to be £1,700 worse off per year by 2030.
  • Without significant reform, longstanding weaknesses in the UK’s economic model will remain: poor productivity performance, weak real wage growth compounded by surging Brexit-related consumer inflation, sluggish public and private investment rates, yawning trade decits, heavily indebted households, regional disparities, extensive financialisation and rent-seeking. In the process, morbid symptoms will multiply: negative yields, interest rates near the lower bound, underinvestment and stagnant living standards.
  • Government spending as a share of GDP is projected to fall to its lowest postwar level (around 36%) by 2019/20. This trajectory will continue into the first half of the 2020s unless fiscal policy changes significantly post-Brexit. At the same time, spending will be more focused on pensions and health.  Even with lower expenditure, the public finances will be acutely vulnerable to shock. Brexit is expected to significantly worsen the state of the public finances.
  • Demographic change will drive increasing demand at the same time as public expenditure tightens. The NHS and social care will face an acute funding challenge. The education system will grapple with equipping people for the digital age. Childcare is likely to remain patchy and inadequate.
  • The UK economic model is unlikely to deliver broadly shared prosperity. Nine of the 10 poorest regions in western Europe are in the UK, but we also have the richest region.

How will the UK’s aging population fund the NHS or social care, without younger migrant workers coming to the country to pay taxes?   How can May’s government protect the population against the consequences of further shocks in the global economy?  What will it do to prevent or mitigate the ‘morbid symptoms’ identified in the report?  How will it prevent the rich from ‘pulling away’?  What will it do to address the fact that median incomes in the UK have stagnated or declined for more than a decade?  How will  this government and its successors respond to the technological revolution that will result in more and more jobs being done by machines?

There is not the slightest indication that May and her ministers are even asking these questions.  But I urge anyone interested in the future of the country – and the future in general – to read this report and consider them.   As in all futurist documents, the IPPR’s conclusions are only predictions, but the picture they paint is of a backward, reactionary country in dire need of democratic renewal, economic modernisation and social justice to cope with the new challenges posed by technological transformation and ecological crisis.

Nor is it simply a litany of worst possible futures.   The report asks its readers to become ‘architects of the future’ and calls for ‘ a new “common sense” that reclaims a different type of modernity to that envisioned by neoliberalism – one that deepens and broadens economic and social freedom for everyone, not just a privileged few.’

To achieve this, the report argues, ‘ will require collectively shaping social, economic and technological change to extend democracy and deepen human flourishing, creating institutions that harness the growing power of technology to promote shared abundance, and building a common life that rewards purpose and kindness.’

Now if Theresa May had delivered a ringing message like that, I might have sat up and taken notice.  Of course she didn’t,  and she never will, because politicians like her can’t even think in these terms.

But we can, and if we are going to avoid some of the worst-case futures outlined in this report and built a better one, we really ought to start looking for politicians who are prepared to consider them.

 

 

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.

 

 

Imagine a Country Without Migrants

It’s nearly three months since the idea of a national protest by and in support of migrants in the UK on Feb 20 next year went viral on social media. In that time what began as a Facebook discussion has morphed into the national campaign One Day Without Us. We now have more than two dozen groups across the country. We have received support from various organisations, including Hope Not Hate, War on Want, and the Migrants Rights Network.

When I first suggested this possibility back in early October, I asked what people would think of a national migrant strike/boycott on the lines of two similar protests in the US in 2006 and in Italy in 2010. In the course of the many discussions that have taken place since then, this concept has evolved into a National Day of Action to highlight the contribution that migrants make to British society, in which taking time off work is one of a wide spectrum of actions that people can take to highlight the contribution that migrants make to British society and show solidarity with them.

Launching an organic grassroots campaign without any financial support or the backing of any political party has not been easy. Throughout this process I have been inspired by the many people who have rallied to this idea, and by the courage and commitment shown by migrants and British citizens across the country who have given their time entirely voluntarily to help organise what is an unprecedented protest in the history of the UK.

Along the way I have constantly been reminded of why an event like this necessary: the Belgian told to ‘go home’ when walking his dogs on the beach; a Greek who has had his windows broken; a Portuguese woman chased down a London street by a racist gang; a British Asian woman racially abused with her mum and two cousins on a bus; the desperation and insecurity of men and women who have lived in this country for decades and are told that their right to remain is in jeopardy.

This has been a year in which the national ‘debate’ about immigration has more than ever been saturated with hatred, fear and anti-migrant hostility; when migrants are blamed for problems they didn’t cause; when politicians too often lack the courage to speak out against these tendencies and prefer to pander to them instead.

In this climate it has been heartening and deeply moving to be reminded of the many people in this country – both migrants and British citizens – who do not accept the alarming victimisation and scapegoating of migrants, and are determined to try and counter it with a more positive and inclusive vision of what British society could be.

Many people have given not just their time, but their creativity to our campaign. This week we have launched a remarkable campaign video, that was shot and produced by Emigrant Beard productions, a Bristol-based company of mostly Spanish nationals which specialises in internet documentaries on ’emigration in the UK from the emigrant perspective.’

Emigrant Beard approached us at a very early stage in the campaign and offered to make the video for free. We asked the company to come up with a concept based on the idea of disappearing people – and particularly disappearing workers – that would invite people to imagine what the UK would be like if there were no migrants in the country for one day.

Having agreed on this basic concept, Emigrant Beard asked us to give them a script that would be poetic and evocative. We then approached the playwright Steve Waters, author of Temple and the forthcoming Limehouse. Waters welcomed the opportunity to participate in what he calls ‘ a wake-up to all of us to celebrate the diversity of our country and the vital role people of all nations play in the way we live and work.’

In little more than a day,Waters came up with a beautifully-turned rhymed script written as a short question and answer dialogue, in which migrants from various professions – baristas, surgeons, teachers, cleaners – tell their interlocutors that Feb 20 will be ‘ a day without us.’ The ‘questions’ are spoken by the professional actors Linus Roache and Lee Ross, who generously – and in the current climate – courageously – offered their services for free.

For Roache, this was a philosophical decision, in keeping with his belief that ‘we are living in a globalizing world. There is no going back, we need to be fearless in our embrace of diversity. This is the march of human evolution toward greater unity.’

The rest of the script was spoken by migrant ‘actors’ from Bristol. Carlos Blanco, who is also one of the cameramen and editors,appears in the film because ‘ I felt it was important first of all because I am a migrant and I don’t feel that bad about it. I think all of us should be proud of it; to be a migrant is to be brave. I hope people realize that.’

For Nadia Castilla, the video was an opportunity ‘ to be part of a project that includes everyone and that sends such a positive message’. To Emigrant Beard’s sound engineer Gerardo Pastor Ruiz, even the sound was part of the film’s attempt to give ‘ a voice to people who needed to be heard.’

What gives the video its power and its visual poetry are the close-up shots of eyes, mouths and parts of faces, which powerfully highlight the humanity of people who too often are not regarded as people at all, but as intruders, usurpers and outsider.

The result is a not just a campaign video, but a short film of real beauty and emotional power, which we are proud to associate with our campaign. For the film’s director Jacobo GF, the message of this video is: ‘Lets make the United Kingdom an amazing place to live, a paradise for everyone who really appreciates it. It does not matter where are you from or what is your background as long as you contribute to the cause of making this place better day after day.’

This is not a perspective we are used to hearing in these bleak times, but we feel that nowadays it needs to be heard more than ever. As the film reminds us, migrants are not invaders and strangers, but part of society in which all have a place:

We live with you and work with you
We’re part of this place we’ve travelled to
We’re part of your today and your tomorrow too

February 20 is an opportunity to recognize that reality – and also to celebrate it, anyway you can.