Friday, 28 April 2017

A shining window casts a light on our own existence

Two people struck me particularly when we first moved to our present house five years ago.

Right next door was the neighbour from hell. The young woman liked to organise occasional parties that lasted from about 8:00 till 11:00. That’s 8:00 in the evening until 11:00 the next morning. The parties had a well-honed internal pattern: a period of singing, laughing and general good humour; then some tears; next a row; finally, a fight with sounds of broken crockery. A brief period of silence would merely be the prelude to a repeat performance.

It made for – how shall I put this? – a certain level of unnecessary stress.

The young woman had a daughter. She was as angelic in appearance as any pretty eight-year old, and as devilish in behaviour as any inhabitant of a nightmare. Her mother was never keen on clearing up the mess after her parties, so her garden was a real treasure chest of discarded bottles, cigarette packets, to say nothing of stones and sticks.

One of the daughter’s preferred games was to collect such bits of rubbish and throw them over the fence at the back of their garden into the property behind theirs and ours. It was inhabited by a man in his eighties who took great joy in his flower beds, tending them with a care that cost him some pain: he had trouble bending down and making much in the way of serious physical effort. We would see him pottering sadly around his garden, picking up the rubbish and observing with sorrow the damage done to his flowers.

This was the second figure to strike me in our new neighbourhood. He lived behind us, but he would walk slowly around from his house and up our street, painful step by painful step, to the newsagent on the corner to buy his daily copy of the Sun newspaper. Anyone who knows the Sun, flagship of Murdoch’s British print holdings, will realise that I’m using the term ‘newspaper’ loosely. It tends to lead on stories such as the drug arrest of an anorexic fading model, the jailing of a stalker for the murder of his ex-girlfriend or any scandal or whiff of scandal that might embarrass the British Labour Party.

Still, it clearly gave our neighbour some pleasure, as did the walk to buy it, so it gave us pleasure to see him do it. We’d exchange a few words when we met him, but little more than “good morning” or “what a fine day”. But he was a fixture in our new lives and we appreciated him for that.

Eventually, by dint of constantly complaining about her to anyone we could get to listen, we were able to force the departure of our neighbour from hell. I don’t like to see anyone subject to eviction, but when it comes down to a choice between the protection of her right to behave insanely, and the need to take steps to protect our own sanity, I’m afraid I didn’t hesitate. So eventually she went.

Then one day the old man with the Sun stopped walking up our street in the morning. At first we didn’t think much of it, but when days lengthened into weeks, the suspicion began to grow that we might not be seeing him again. Ever.

A lighted window saying that people pass on
Indeed, the house fell quiet and dark, with no light showing at night. Until, one evening, I saw a window lit up again. It had fairy lights hanging above it, and it shone in blue. Not at all the taste of our old neighbour; more that of a girl growing into womanhood or possibly a young woman.

Memories flowed back of the two neighbours who had gone. And it came to me that some time we too would go, but the house would stay, as would those of both our neighbours. They’d have new inhabitants who would know little or nothing at all about those who had preceded them, and care still less. Just as little as we know or care about our own predecessors.

In time, the houses themselves would vanish. The street would remain, with new houses where ours now stand. New residents in new houses in the same street.

It takes a long time for streets to go and be replaced. But who knows what the future holds? Nothing lasts forever and eventually even the street, and the town itself, will go.

But we, like our neighbours, friendly or foul, will have disappeared far sooner, leaving no trace.

The lighted outline of a single window at night had evoked a powerful sense of the transience of our existence. We strive so hard, but in the end we’re just making a hole in the water. In no time, it seems, the water flows back in and all those things that once seemed to matter so much, matter no more.

Not a particularly sad thought, though perhaps a slightly sobering one.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Anglos of the World Unite!

Donald Trump approaches the end of his first hundred days with no achievements to boast for them. He tried to undo Obamacare and failed (fortunately). There’s no sign of the improvement in employment or earnings he promised for the poor. He has, however, managed to indulge in some mean-spirited xenophobia with his travel bans. Now he’s running the risk of shutting down the government of the US altogether because he can’t raise the funds to build his wall along the Mexican border. That’s because he has apparently failed in his stated aim to get Mexico to pay for it. The wall is, of course, another measure against the dreaded foreigner.

And yet his supporters remain firmly wedded to him: 81% of Republicans in a recent poll say they are mainly excited and optimistic about his presidency.

Meanwhile in Britain, it becomes increasingly clear that Brexit is going to deliver few if any of the benefits expected of it. Already inflation is edging upwards and, with austerity policies keeping earnings down, that means living standards are being squeezed. Well, squeezed for the poor: the wealthy have seen their incomes and wealth grow impressively since the 2008 crash. In society generally, growth is slowing except in the opening of food banks, for which the demand keeps trending upwards. In spite of all that, much of the population seems convinced that all that matters is to control immigration, to keep out the foreigner.

That desire apparently sustains continued support for Brexit, though it’s far from certain that leaving the European Union will even lead to a reduction in immigration.

Meanwhile, Australia has won itself quite a reputation for its handling of illegal immigrants and refugees, holding many of them in detention centres, some outside its own territory and administered by a private-sector company. Conditions in some of these camps have led to serious controversy, with allegations of beatings, insults and sexual assaults. One of the most controversial, in Papua New Guinea, is slated to close. Meanwhile, attempts to get information out about the centres are blocked by the Australian government.

It seems that Australia too dislikes foreigners.

The Manus Processing Centre on Papua New Guinea
slated to close, but leaving an image to awaken sad memories
It has now been reported that there is debate within the British Conservative Party about withdrawing Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights. The Convention has nothing to do with the EU. British lawyers played a leading role in its drafting and it was enthusiastically endorsed by Winston Churchill. It predominantly guarantees rights to citizens but, because it can be used by foreigners, sometimes unappealing ones like the Islamist cleric Abu Qatada, many British citizens would like the country to withdraw.

They’d rather see their own rights curtailed in order to deny them to foreigners.

The French talk about the “Anglo-Saxon” world, embracing such countries as the US, UK and Australia. They believe the Anglos have a culture distinct from their own. It’s hard not to feel they have a point. After all, France seems set on barring the far right from its Presidency, while many in the English-speaking world are intent on declining further into xenophobia and the protection of privilege at the cost of rights.

It feels to me as though the Anglo-Saxon world needs a new slogan. I have a modest proposal. How about:

“Anglos of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your rights. You have an elite to feed.”

Catchy, isn’t it?

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Left and right: opposite wings or the meeting point of a circle?

“Any delay in the ranks of the left exposes us, at the very least, to a further advance by the far right, which will further reduce the social and political strength of the left in the parliamentary elections.”

That was French Socialist Party politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon in 2002, the first time the far right National Front saw its candidate, Jean-Marie le Pen, win a place in a run-off election for President.

In 2017, no longer in the Socialist Party, Mélechon took a stance on the far left of French politics and came fourth in the first round of the Presidential election, with a respectable but insufficient 19.5% of the votes cast. Once again, the far right is through to the runoff – in this case represented by le Pen’s daughter, Marine. But, amazing to relate, Mr Mélenchon seems to have forgotten his wise words of 2002 about the damage of delay, preferring indeed to delay day after day instead of coming out in favour of the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron, front-runner in the first round and now the only candidate able to block “a further advance by the far right”.

Now, why might that be? Could it perhaps have something to do with the sense that rather a lot of Mélenchon’s voters might prefer to go with the hard right in the second round, than with the soft left? And that Mélenchon would rather go along with that than lose contact with a voter base he rather values?

Call me cynical if you like, but that’s what I think is going on. There is in the hard left a holier-than-thou attitude which claims that it’s more principled and honest than the rest of us, but it’s capable of being just as opportunistic and evasive as, say, a Blair or a Putin.

At a deeper level, there is also a deeper link between far left and far right. Both are far out. They like to reason in terms of simple, pure solutions to complex problems, which avoid any of the complexities and messiness of reality. Compromise? That only dilutes the purity of our principles. Instead you end up defending a maximalist policy which, on the left, can lead you to defend the rights of the poor so hard in Venezuela that you bankrupt the country and starve your people. On the right, it leads to taking Britain out of the EU to escape from international control, only to leave it entirely dependent on the whims of the United States (or, worse still, the Trumpiverse).

There is today a taste for the simple and uncompromising. And it leads to the far right and far left both exerting greater appeal than they usually do – and almost interchangeably. Which is why voters can switch from Mélenchon to the National Front without apparent inconsistency.

Nor is this an exclusively French phenomenon. Kate Hoey, left-wing Labour MP for Vauxhall, has an enviable reputation for standing up for the rights of her hard-pressed, poor constituents. And yet, seduced by her enthusiastic dislike of the European Union, she found herself working shoulder to shoulder with Nigel Farage, then leader of UKIP, the British equivalent of the French National Front. They may have come to their common position from opposite directions but ended up, like two halves of a circle, meeting at a single point.

Hoey with her buddy, and supposed inveterate opponent, Farage
In the pursuit of fantasist, simple solutions, people can find themselves with strange bedfellows, though they approach them from different directions. Britain, sadly, is going to be living with the consequences of those fantasies for decades to come, struggling to find a role outside the EU. In France, on the other hand, if the defeat of Mélenchon is followed and confirmed by the defeat of the National Front, that fate may well be dodged.

At least for now.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Holy Grail and other aspirations. LIke European unity.

My wife points out that we face the possibility of moving, for the first time in our lives, to a place where we’ve chosen to live.

That doesn’t mean that we’ve always lived in places we dislike, just that in the past we’ve always moved to them because we’ve had to. It’s either been to take up a new job or, worse, to respond to having lost an old one. Buffeted through life by the whims of redundancy, a tedious fate.

That makes it a pleasure to be in Valencia, in Spain, where we hope to retire at some as yet distant date in the future. As it happens, it won’t just be the first place we’ll have moved to entirely voluntarily, it’ll also be the first place we’ll have chosen before we even knew it.

That’s why we’re out here now, discovering the place.

My first impressions have been excellent. I mean, the city has a town beach of golden sand a kilometre or two long. A beach inside the town? Hey, that alone gives it full marks right off the bat.

But then I discovered more. For instance, I had to make a visit to the cathedral as soon as I learned that it houses the holy grail. I kid you not: the holy grail. They call it the holy chalice but, hey, that’s what the grail is. The thing’s in a side chapel, in a display case, for all to see.

The hunt for the Holy Grail is over:
look no further than this display case in Valencia cathedral
Seems a real pity that no one told the Arthurian knights. Think of the trouble, the desperate quests, the lives truncated that might have been saved. All they had to do was hop on an Easyjet flight in the morning, pop into the Cathedral at lunchtime to take a look at the grail, and they’d have had time to spend the afternoon on the beach with an ice cream. Or a mojito if they preferred.

On the way to the cathedral, I was struck by another sight which was almost as moving. More, to be truthful, if you see things the way I do. The symbol of an aspiration almost as unattainable as the holy grail seemed to be until we found it hidden in plain sight.

Wandering up a Valencia street, I was struck by the sight of three flags flying from masts over the entrance to a court building.


Three Flags in Valencia
On the left was the flag of the country and city of Valencia. It consists of the Senyera, the banner of gold and red bars that marks Catalan nationhood. To it, Valencia adds a blue strip with gold leaves. The whole thing is a proud and attractive statement of local attachment.

In the middle was the flag of Spain, representing the national state to which modern Valencia belongs.

And to the right was the familiar pattern of gold stars on a blue ground of Europe, the free confederation of which Spain is a member, by its own will and with pride.

It struck me as an interesting collocation of local, national and supranational adherence. It says, my roots are here, but I realise I belong to a wider community and, through that community, to something beyond even the old and timeworn concept of the nation, source of so much needless conflict, pain and death down the centuries. Indeed, I belong to an evolving union designed to end all that bitterness and slowly, painfully build something better.

It was encouraging to see that the people of Valencia seem capable of reconciling those three levels of attachment. But it was a little disappointing to think that my own countrymen, back in England, are apparently unable to show that generosity and breadth of vision. They prefer the parochialism of Brexit over the internationalism of Europe.

Ah, well. It’s enough to drive you back to the beach and another mojito. It would have been fun to drink it out of a grail, of course, but hey, a glass will do. The setting and the drink itself are just as good, whatever the container.

A glass is perfectly appropriate to salute the generous courage I saw symbolised out here, and drown the memory of the petty-mindedness back home.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Labour and the coming general election: the context

As we in the British Labour Party prepare for our next general election, on 8 June, it struck me as interesting to look at the others there have been since the end of the Second World War. We are, after all, in a sense still living the post-War era, at least insofar as there has not been such a violent shock in the evolution of society as that war produced. Not yet, anyway, even if Donald Trump’s working on it.

There have been eleven leaders of the Labour Party in that time, not counting deputies who have acted as leader while a new one was being elected (George Brown, Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman twice). Of the eleven, nine have fought at least one general election; John Smith sadly died before he could, and Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader, is about to face his first.

Elections, how Labour did, under which leader
Victories in red, defeats in blue
Worst result in black, best in orange
The table shows how they have all fared.

Curiously, since 1945, Labour has only lost one more election than it has won (nine victories to ten defeats). However, it has managed to hang on to power significantly less successfully than the Conservatives: of the nearly 72 years since the war ended, Labour has held power for only about 30.

The Tories have moulded the era in which we live far more than Labour has.

Of all the elections it contested in that time, Labour reached its nadir in 1983, under Michael Foot, when it won just 209 seats. Under Neil Kinnock, it gradually rebuilt its fortunes in 1987 and 1992, until it achieved its biggest success under Tony Blair in 1997, winning 418 seats – curiously, precisely double the number won under Foot.

Almost as spectacular as Blair’s success of 1997 was his victory four years later, when he won 412 seats, with Attlee’s landslide in 1945 and Wilson’s in 1966 (393 and 363 seats respectively) close behind.

At the other end of the scale, the number of seats won by Labour fell at both of the last two general elections, until under Miliband in 2015, it reached 232, just 23 more than Foot took in 1983.

So that’s a little context. The obvious question is will the trend reverse in 2017? Will Corbyn, like Kinnock, put the party on a road back up towards power? Or will he merely continue the downward trend from Brown to Miliband? Will he move us off the bottom or, conversely, set a new post-War low?

I shall be out canvassing with other members to ensure that we achieve the former outcome rather than the latter. The polls are against us but the polls can be bucked. Seven weeks from now, we’ll know whether we’ve pulled off that trick.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

UK General Election: the real action starts the day after

Exciting times for us in Britain, as we head for another, and rather premature, general election.

Well, moderately exciting. There is a general sense that the actual result may be a bit of a foregone conclusion. But that’s only based on the most recent polls suggesting the government has a lead of around twenty points. That’s only the polls – there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, even if in this case it would need to be more of an avalanche than a slip.

Indeed, without an avalanche to knock them back, the Conservatives may well be winning by a landslide. Perhaps that’s the most exciting aspect of this campaign: if we can’t block Theresa May’s re-election, can we at least limit its scale and prepare for a Labour comeback in the future? We shall see. The election’s on 8 June. One certainty in this campaign is that a fierce debate will start the following day.

Theresa May. Going to the country
At a time that suits her...
How about the timing of the election?

In 2010, the Liberal Democrat Party, for a long time the conscience of the Centre-Left, frequently sniping from the Left of the Labour Party on civil rights issues, amazed us all by going into coalition with the Conservatives. This put them in partnership with a party that stood against practically everything the Liberal Democrats claimed to believe. They claimed they’d influence the government to enact some of their measures but in fact, and unsurprisingly, pulled that trick off very seldom. Instead, they were simply dragged along behind their dominant partners until their inevitable and richly deserved punishment at the polls in 2015, reduced from 57 MPs to just 8.

Of their losses, 27 went to the Conservatives: after all, if you have to choose between two members of a coalition, you might as well go for the senior partner.

One of the few things they did achieve was the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This was designed to put an end to the custom of Prime Ministers calling elections when it suited them (generally when they saw the best chance of being re-elected), forcing them instead to go to the end of the five-year maximum term for which a Parliament can last. It would take a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons to overturn the measure and allow an election to be called early.

In the event, the vote was 522 to 13 which, in case you don’t want to do the maths, does constitute a two-thirds majority.

Odd, isn’t it? The vast majority of MPs voted for the election, even though a great many of them are at serious risk of losing their seats. Sound like turkeys voting for Christmas? The reasoning seems to be that you must never let the other side think you’re afraid of facing an election. Political machismo, it seems, comes first, even at the cost of letting the Prime Minister play the system to her advantage.

It also shows another accomplishment of that sad coalition government between 2010 and 2015 failing at its first test.

Ah, well. At least we’re now only seven weeks out from clearing the political air. By then we should know some of the questions that have been troubling us for the last couple of years.

Can Labour put up any kind of reasonable showing against the government?

Has the electorate swung massively over to the Conservatives?

What are the prospects for rebuilding a progressive alternative?

A new phase of interesting times starts on 9 June.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Corbyn and Peter Pan politics

“Every time a child says, ‘I don't believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”

Peter Pan leads the way to a fantasy land
where fairies depend on children's beliefs

“I believe it because it is absurd,” said Tertullian, one of the fathers of the Christian church. It’s a powerful and highly sophisticated statement.

Christianity, like any belief system, requires faith, an ability to believe despite a lack of evidence, even against all evidence. After all, you need no faith to believe that the sun will set in the West: that’s the definition of the West. To believe that a man can be executed and rise on the third day, that does require faith.

This is as true of trivial beliefs as these more profound ones, such as Peter Pan’s statement about fairies. Or the belief that a portly, white-bearded man in a red suit will come down a chimney to bring good children presents.

I find it impossible to make such an act of faith. I say that even though I know the great comfort that faith provides. It’s no accident that the words “communion” and “community” are linked: shared belief creates a community and belonging to one is a deep human need and a source of consolation in a difficult world.

Even so, I can’t make that leap. Like Diderot, I find it less of a miracle that Lazarus was brought back from the dead, than that nobody, but nobody, chose to record the fact. Surely, somewhere there’d be something from a neutral third party: a spice merchant from Asia Minor, a Roman officer writing home, perhaps a sailor from Alexandria, even if all they were saying was “there’s a really weird tale going around this place at the moment, about a guy called Lazarus. They say, would you believe, that he died but a visiting miracle-worker brought him back to life.” Instead, nothing, nada, nix. The only authority is from the gospel writers themselves, those who were promoting the belief in the first place.

Not a problem, of course, for those like Tertullian who believe because it is absurd. But for someone like me, looking for evidence to support a point of view (which isn’t quite as strong as a belief: it can be overturned by new evidence), I simply can’t accept the story on such thin backing.

So I’m deprived of the child’s joy in waiting for the tooth fairy to call, believing in the fairy even though no one’s ever seen her. Or indeed the sense of belonging that inspires a mass at its best, even though no one’s ever documented the conversion of a biscuit and a chalice of wine into flesh and blood. Or indeed, the atmosphere at a meeting of Corbynistas, encouraging each other to further acts of faith, even though no Opposition leader in history has ever won an election from a base of unpopularity as dire as their guru’s.

That’s a double misfortune for me. In the first place, because I can’t enjoy the simple comfort of the believer drawn from the mere fact of belief. There must be joy in the fervour of the Corbynist who can, like Tertullian, convince himself of the truth of an absurd notion, such as John McDonnell’s that Corbyn can turn the poll position around in twelve months. I can’t share in it.

Then there’s the second misfortune. A child whose parents are sufficiently indulgent, and sufficiently well-heeled, will wake up in the morning to find that a coin has replaced the tooth she placed under the pillow on going to bed. Unless the parents are exceptionally indulgent, an adult who does the same with a lost tooth is likely to suffer acute disappointment. Generally, indeed, we expect adults to grow out of such childish beliefs.

In the case of Corbynist fancy, not growing out of it has serious consequences for everyone in Britain: clinging to the belief that Corbyn can defeat the Tories prevents us replacing him by someone who might make some progress against them. That simply ensures continued Tory rule. The results are all about us to see: hospitals offering doctors nearly £1000 to do a shift in A&E to prevent complete collapse into unsafe service, kids from poor backgrounds far less likely to attend good schools, families of dying invalids deprived of basic support.

Unlike the Peter Pan claim, in the Corbyn fantasy, it isn’t lack of belief that kills. On the contrary, it’s belief itself. The longer we cling on to that absurd faith, we ensure the suffering, even death, of more people – not fairies, let me stress, but people.

Personally, I can’t believe that fairies exist and depend on the belief of children to assure their own survival.

I can’t believe that the universe is run by a God who took human form to suffer and die to redeem humankind from a fate to which he’d condemned it in the first place.

And I can’t believe that the least popular Opposition leader in my lifetime has the slightest chance of winning a general election.

Well, it would be absurd, wouldn’t it?