Defending Free Movement

Last night I spoke at the launch meeting of the Alliance for Free Movement, hosted by Caroline Lucas at the Houses of Parliament.   The alliance is a broad-based movement of organisations, politicians, unions and NGOS, whose aim is to defend, uphold and extend the EU’s free movement rules at a time when the concept of free movement tends to be depicted more often than not as another of the many evils inflicted on the nation by the ‘dictatorship of Brussels.’

The initiative came out of a joint letter to the Guardian last month, of which I was one of the co-signatories.  Its stated aim is ‘to champion the right to live, work, study and retire abroad.  We want to defend and extend the freedom to move.  Migrants have not run down our public services, failed to build proper housing or caused a race to the bottom on wages or conditions.  These are results of political choices made by governments and corporations.’

Last night’s panel made these points in various ways.  Caroline Lucas spoke with her usual lucid eloquence about the importance of migration to the UK.  The barrister Colin Yeo spoke about the legal nightmare that is likely to unfold post-Brexit regarding EU nationals.   A Spanish nurse who has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years spoke movingly about  the insecurity which he and so many other EU nationals have felt since the referendum.  A speaker from Unison spelt out the dire consequences that are already unfolding for the NHS as European nurses, radiographers and other staff continue to leave the country in droves because of the poisoned post-referendum atmosphere – and all this at a time when British applications for nursing training places have dropped by 20 percent.

Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting, table and indoor

Alliance for Free Movement launch meeting

These panel speeches were followed by sometimes abrasive but mostly thoughtful, passionate and considered contributions from the attendees.  Some had voted Leave and argued that the ‘hard Brexit’ that is now unfolding was not what they voted for. Some made the often-repeated point that ‘not all Leavers are racist.’  Others declared unequivocally that Brext was a racist vote and must be stopped.

These differences were not resolved – and could not be, in the time available – but they made very clear the political faultlines that left/progressive forces in this country will have to negotiate their way round if we are to find a way out of the dismal trajectory in which the country is currently trapped.

On the issue of free movement however, there should be no doubts or ambiguities. This is a principle that the left – in the broadest sense of the term – must fight for, even in its limited European form.  To abandon it would inflict enormous damage on British society – not to mention the millions of people whose lives are likely to be disrupted if Amber Rudd’s pledge to ‘end freedom of movement as we know it’ is realised.  It would be a giant step backwards and inwards and a capitulation to xenophobic reaction, fear and misinformation.

This is a campaign that can be won.  It has the potential to develop into a really broad coalition of unions, organisations and campaigners.  It can include employers and workers and can reach out across party lines.   Defending freedom of movement means rejecting the politics of scapegoating and fear.  It means recognizing the positive contribution that migrants make to the UK in many different ways.  It means upholding the right of workers to seek work in other countries and to have rights when they do so. It means giving our children and grandchildren the same opportunities that we now have to work, study and retire in Europe.

If we reject even the limited version of free movement enshrined in the EU’s four freedoms then we have very little chance of extending the same principle beyond the EU, and we are likely to entrench ourselves even deeper in our ongoing Trumpish dystopia of walls, fences and militarised borders.

That’s why I went to the meeting last night.   To sign up and find out more, visit www.forfreemovement.org

Hellhounds on my Trail

I wasn’t going to write about the Stop the War/International Brigades fiasco again.  In fact I had hoped that it was all beginning to quieten down and I could return to normal and write about something else.  For the time being at least, normality is no longer possible, and so I feel I have no choice but to try and surf the toxic wave that my response to Hilary Benn’s speech has created, if only to avoid being swamped by the garbage.

Now some of you might think that it is every blogger’s dream to see their site traffic ballooning day after day; to open a newspaper or go onto a webpage and find your words being quoted in a nice little screenshot, even if the articles in question don’t even mention your name; or to know that those same words are floating back and forth in twitter arguments.

Well in this case you would be wrong, because there is really nothing very enjoyable at all about seeing your own words being appropriated in the service of a vicious political lie. Today, for example I found an article by James Bloodworth on the Poltics.co.uk website on why Jeremy Corbyn should leave the ‘repugnant’ Stop the War, which contained a screenshot of my International Brigades reference as proof that STW ‘praised’ Daesh.

I wrote to Politics.co.uk’s editor Adam Bienkov and pointed out that I had issued clarifications and a rebuttal, and he took the screenshot out.  But no sooner was that over than I discovered that Caroline Lucas had resigned from Stop the War because of ‘positions’ that the organization had taken.

I’m a great admirer of Caroline Lucas, so I was almost relieved to discover that these ‘positions’ did not include my own article, and referred to events that had preceded it.  But I still found my ‘ International Brigades’ screenshot on a piece on the Huffington Post website referring to these ‘positions’.   So I wrote to HuffPost’s political editor Owen Bennett and pointed out that I had written a rebuttal and an apology, and now the piece refers to the latter.

Even then it was still not over.   By the end of the day I found my International Brigades piece yet again, in an article in the Guardian about Lucas’s resignation, so I am beginning to conclude that firefighting is an impossible exercise, and that journalists like Bloodworth are either too lazy or too dishonest to actually check the ‘truth’ they are repeating, and that too many media outlets  only too willing to uncritically recycle what they say..

If these journalists had any integrity, they could easily have looked into why someone would have done something so outlandish as to ‘praise Daesh’ and read my original piece.   They would have realized  from the context that I did no such thing.  They might have quibbled at my wording; they might have argued or disagreed with me; or they might think that I was being unclear, as some people who have written to me have already  suggested.

But there is no way that any intelligent, honest or thinking person could seriously believe that I ‘praised Daesh’.   If they still had doubts, then any reading of my rebuttals or apology, or a look at some of the other pieces I had written would surely have dispelled them.

Instead an extract from a paragraph taken out of context has become a kind of self-contained ‘truth’ which has nothing to do with truth at all, to the point when my own words have become a kind of alien language to me.   And the more this ‘truth’ spreads through the Internet, the more it has acquired the status of an uncontested fact; that Stop the War has praised Daesh..

I’m not sure if this Kafkaesque or Orwellian, but it is certainly kind of nightmarish, like chasing after a train that is always just in front of you; or  waking up to find that you’ve turned into Katie Hopkins; or finding yourself at the bottom of a dank hole with James Bloodworth and Dan Hodges nibbling pieces of flesh off your feet and handing them onto the Guardian and the Telegraph for a little snack before the big dinner of wrecking Stop the War, Jeremy Corbyn, and the single most promising leftist revival in decades.

Among the most depressing aspects of this new portal that I’ve stepped through are the gleefully contemptuous tweets, which seem to take a weird delight in insisting that I really meant what I did not mean, no matter how many times I insist that I didn’t mean it.   And the increasingly shrill and overheated messages I’ve received, such as the one ranting about throat-cutting Muslims in a way that seems to suggest I am somehow in favour of cutting throats, and another suggesting  that I would have once supported gassing Jews, or something.

I am not posting these rants, neither of which seems to show the slightest understanding of what I actually said. One of them refers to my rebuttal and then paraphrases it to prove that even though I denied  that  I ‘praised Daesh’, I didn’t mean it.  I have the feeling that even if I wrote out ‘I did not praise Daesh’ a thousand times, like lines, or hired a plane to float these words on a giant placard in a nationwide tour,  there would still be those who would  say ‘ You praised Daesh.’.

There is nothing I can do to change their minds and convince them that I really, really, don’t love Daesh, and neither does Stop the War.   Too many people, it seems, don’t want to believe this, and believe what they have already chosen to believe, and the words I wrote have acquired a malignant life of their own that is entirely independent of my intentions and which I can neither clarify or reclaim .

So in this context, I am really grateful for the positive and supportive messages I have received on this blog and elsewhere, and also for the thoughtful discussions I have sometimes been able  to have, even with people who disagree with what I said.

They remind me of a world where dialogue, debate and discussion are still possible, where ‘truth’ is not confined within a screenshot, where conversations can continue, and ideas can be criticized and revisited.

And they also remind me why I started writing this blog, and why I will continue to do so.

 

Aaronovitch administers the hatchet

Anyone who has read this site will know that I’m not a big fan of the UK’s little band of neocon/liberal interventionist journalists.  It isn’t just the fact that I don’t agree with them.  I can live with disagreement.   It isn’t even  their total obliviousness to the discrepancies between their militarist proposals and the actual outcomes of the wars they support. It’s just that they are such a horribly self-regarding, obnoxious and downright disreputable bunch, in their reliance on straw man arguments, cheap smears, condescension, character assassination,  and sneering innuendo to dismiss their opponents.

Few people demonstrate these tendencies more clearly than David Aaronovitch. Someone once said of Trotsky’s remorseless debating style that he could take his opponent’s head off and shake it to demonstrate that there was nothing inside.  Aaronovitch has a different technique.  What he does is construct a papier-mache head to represent his intended target, the cruder the better, and then he stamps on the pieces he’s constructed with a kind of gleeful schoolboy spite, to the sniggering satisfaction of  a readership that likes to watch such little spectacles.

Craig Murray, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and numerous others have all been subjected to this treatment.   And now Aaronovitch has turned his skills on the Green MP Caroline Lucas, in a review of her book Honourable Friends?  Parliament and the Fight for Change, that is one of the most vitriolically nasty pieces that I have read in some time.

I haven’t read Lucas’ book, but Aaronovitch clearly read it with the sole intention of writing a hatchet job, and boy, has he delivered one.   The full piece is subscriber only, but some excerpts will give you a flavour.  It begins like this:

‘Lucas is the nice Green female MP from Brighton who, like Nigel Molesworth’s classmate Fotherington-Thomas, skips around saying “Hullo clouds, hullo sky” and loves the scents and sounds of nature.’

Maybe I’m being oversensitive here but I can’t help sensing just a teeny-weeny bit of male condescension in that ‘nice Green female’ parody, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to the Caroline Lucas that I’ve seen.   And then there is this

‘It is a tome untroubled by doubt or admission of error and free of anything as necessarily complicating as wit. There is, in short, not a reflective passage in it….It is not as though Lucas is alive to her own contradictions. In fact, she glides over them.’

Anyone familiar with Aaronovitch’s work is likely to find this amusing, in a very, very dry kind of way,  because I have yet to see any evidence that Aaronovitch has ever been troubled by doubt or admission of error or any awareness of his own contradictions

As always he maintains the fiction of balance and nuance, praising Lucas for promoting renewable energy and because she ‘ got a manufacturer of cluster munitions thrown out of the morally dubious affair that is the UK arms expo.’  He then goes on to argue that she is wrong, so utterly and absolutely and dismally wrong, on everything else.  And she’s also a bit of a phony too because she claims to be an ‘outsider’ even though she was educated at Malvern College.

That’s Lucas owned then,  but it isn’t until the end of the review that the real explanation for his spleen becomes clear:

‘ But to me perhaps the worst chapter of the book is when Lucas moves to foreign policy and the “positive outcomes” of the vote not to attack Assad in September 2013, not least that it “spared the Syrian people … the inevitable death and destruction that western air-strikes would have brought in their wake”. Actually it spared Assad’s air force to drop barrel bombs on the people of Aleppo.

Never mind, because Lucas has an alternative for Syria. Which is to “promote a regional process in which those countries with a strategic interest can come together to explore a peaceful settlement that can lead to long-term stability, justice and an end to poverty in the region. That must also include an end to the illegal occupation of Palestine …”

Aaronovitch then gives the silly little woman a demonstration of what wit means:

‘Poot! As Fat Freddy’s Cat farted. This is a hippy formulation in its own way as immoral as any arms fair. “Hullo clouds, hullo sky!” it says, and “Goodbye Syrians!”

Like Fotherington-Thomas, she skips around saying “Hullo clouds, hullo sky” ‘

Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker eat your little hearts out.    My first response on reading those lines was that Aaronovitch is even more of a jerk than I ever thought he was, because it really takes a very convoluted conception of morality to dismiss an argument suggesting that war may not be the solution to the Syrian Civil War is a ‘hippy formulation in its own way as immoral as any arms fair’.    So voting against a war is as immoral as selling cluster bombs at an arms fair?

It is in Aaronovitch’s moral universe, a universe in which (western) wars are always moral and always beneficial to those on the receiving end, and always waged with no other purpose except to save people from evil dictators, and air-strikes are always intended to save people rather than bring ‘death and destruction’.

A former member of the communist party, Aaronovitch has attached the old  ‘can’t-make-an-omelette-without-breaking-eggs’ philosophy from his Stalinist intellectual heritage to the new age of neo-imperialist ‘humanitarian’ war, and the absence of omelettes or humanitarian outcomes has never led him to question his assumptions or regret his choices.

A quick look back on his foreign policy record really suggests a man who ought to be a little more humble in making judgements about other people’s suggestions and proposals.   Take his support for the Iraq war, which he once described  as ‘ the most difficult and painful judgement he had to make.’  In fact the breathtaking shallowness of his predictions suggests that it wasn’t really that difficult or painful at all.  Aaronovitch once predicted that Iraqis would greet the Anglo-American occupation with flowers.

He once cheerily predicted that the Iraq military campaign would be the ‘easy bit’, which it was for him.   When it turned out – who would have thought it? – that there were no flowers and that Iraqis actually died during the war and occupation, he rationalised the death toll by telling his readers how many people Saddam would have killed if he had remained in power, as though Saddam killed according to a yearly quota.

The result was the kind of calculus that some white men like to make about brown folk, in  which you simply add up how many Iraqis have died in any particular year, then substitute the imaginary Iraqis who you think would have died had Saddam still been in power that year, and if the latter is higher or only a little bit lower than the former, then result!  It was a good war after all!

But then the deaths kept rising, to the point when even Aaronovitch was worried that it was higher than supporters of the war like him could ‘reasonably’ have expected.   How many dead Iraqis was a ‘reasonable’ figure to make it a good war?  Aaronovitch didn’t say.  But it definitely wasn’t the 655,-000 to a million calculated by the Lancet and other epidemiological studies, all of which he dismissed.

What authority did he have to question these methodologies? None,  but his own unwillingness to accept the horrific consequences of the war that he supported.   That, and the fact that the Labour government also refused to accept them, despite the insistence of its own chief scientist that the methodologies used were ‘best practice.

Before the Iraq war Aaronovitch said that he would never believe his government again if no WMD were found in Iraq.  Yet even after no weapons were found,  he has continued to defend the Iraq war and to support every war and proposed intervention since, because like Elvis Presley he just could not stop believin’ everything his government told him.

And this is the man who now has the temerity to ridicule an MP who suggests that war is not the answer to the Middle East’s problems?   This is the man who says that Lucas lacks the capacity for self-doubt or awareness of her own contradictions?   And Lucas is supposed to be the naive ‘hippy’ wandering around her head in the clouds?

You must be kidding me.