rooting around for grubs in diverse soils

Tag: Cameron

Let’s remain. Remain to complain


blame canada

Your prophets are like jackals among ruins. Ezekiel 13:4

I wrote three years ago that a plebiscite might lance the boil of the EU’s perceived undemocratic illegitimacy. But the choice needed to be on a clear prospectus: what are we actually voting for or against? What is going on in the UK at the moment is not what I had in mind.

First of all, this referendum is about the Tory party’s failure to exorcise their inner demons since immolating Thatcher 26 years ago. Our current overlords cut their political teeth in the 1990s and have needed to purge their collective guilt for the decision in November 1990 to slay their messiah on the altar of the European project. A few years ago people grumbled about the EU like they grumbled about politics in general, but it was never among the top concerns according to the opinion polls. But the Conservative Party has long considered itself the incarnation of Britain (the ‘natural party of government’ etc.) so it is only natural for Cameron, their most patrician leader since Alec Douglas-Home, once restored to government, to make his party’s internal problem into the whole country’s problem: except of course that now it is not just a problem for the United Kingdom but a problem for the whole of the shuddering edifice of the EU and probably beyond. This insular referendum cannot be isolated from globalised politics and capitalism.

The tenor of the referendum debate has become so jaundiced, polarised and bilious that the murder of Jo Cox last week by an extreme right wing loon has led to petitions for the whole business to be aborted. But we cannot go back now. David Allen Green’s elegant unpicking of the whole premise of the referendum as unnecessary and non-binding is legally sound but politically implausible. But he is spot on that, because there is no concrete proposal to focus on, the debate is about everything and nothing.

Second thing: the Leave campaign have struck a chord with a lot of people, mainly in non-metropolitan England, because politicians are not giving them what they want. The chord Leavers strike is a dissonant one, transferring the blame for domestic frustrations onto to foreign shoulders. So, in the minds of large sector of society which is frustrated and irritated, foreigners, immigrants, migrants, terrorists,  bureaucrats and the EU all meld into one. And as the global establishment, freaked-out at the prospect of yet more political and economic uncertainty, have rallied to cause of Remain, Leavers add ‘experts’ and the ‘elite’ into this demotic cauldron of the damned. It is a mild British equivalent of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. (The same thing explains Trumpmania in the US, though it’s more dangerous because they all have guns.)

David Cameron’s team have today drafted for him a splendid, optimistic plea for sanity, the sort of positive endorsement of the UK in the EU which was needed but which he shunned for years while he acted as tribune of the grumpy eurosceptics. (Mario Monti said this in an interview with the Economist last week.) Now he is the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, desperate to contain the mayhem which he has unleashed in a bid to keep his party together.

The referendum campaign has exposed and aggravated fault lines right down the middle of the electorate. England versus Scotland, city versus countryside, graduates versus school leavers, pensioners versus young adults (though not very old pensioners: surveys indicate that people who experienced the last World War are more likely to appreciate than to disdain the EU project), and even Hindu versus Muslim. It has exposed the castrated condition of the post-Brown/Blair centre-left of British politics.  Most of all, it has exposed the unscrupulous hypocrisy and imperiousness of the Tory ruling class, prepared to stoke tensions between the indigenous poor and first generation immigrants.

Brexit cheerleaders such as Daniel Hannan, Isabel Oakeshott, Tim Montgomerie, Toby Young, Julia Hartley-Brewer and – the toadiest of all – Louise Mensch have aimed an endless stream of blinkered, reductionist rancour against the EU, perpetuating the myth that membership of the EU is what holds Britain (they mean England, they are always from blessed shires of England) back from utopia. As if our own shit doesn’t stink. These educated, privileged individuals seem to have no moral compunction. I was perplexed at why, in the wake of the horrific murder of Jo Cox, they were desperately urging everyone not to ‘politicise’ the outrage or to ‘jump to conclusions’ that the assassin had far-right politics, that he was just a quiet gardener with mental health problems. Yesterday before the Beaks Thomas Mair gave his name as ‘Death to Traitors Freedom for Britain’ – what might easily pass as a drunken paraphrase of one of the familiar Leaver slogans. It is as if these people consider any criticism of the far-right as effective criticism of themselves.

(There are similar quirks across the political spectrum: speaking ill of Israel’s government is tantamount to antisemitism, while you cannot condemn violence by Palestinians at the same time as supporting their fight for human rights and statehood.)

Bizarrely in contemporary Britain it has become worse to insinuate that someone is racist than actually to be racist. Timothy Garton Ash has just published a book decrying the threat to free speech of today’s squeamish generation demanding a right not to be offended.

So senior Tories, former Eton and Oxbridge chums, take their high japes and repartee out of the quad and onto the high street, chucking around hyperbole and inventing big numbers to frighten the plebs into voting for them. ‘Take back control’ is the mantra.  Who is taking control from whom? Well, Johnson and Gove are trying to take control of the government from Cameron and Osborne, that’s the only certainty. They incite baser instincts, telling people that their lives, identity and self-esteem which have been undermined by globalisation can be restored simply by leaving the EU. Such is the brazen hypocrisy – since time immemorial – of one faction of the elite telling people  not to trust the other faction of the elite. No more room? There is room enough on the country estates of the prominent Leavers for refugees and people who want to make a better life for themselves and their families. If you object to all things foreign, then you should evict McDonalds and Starbucks from the high street, turf out oligarchs and oil sheikhs laundering their money in London’s property market, stop buying cheap stuff produced by the underpaid and overworked in Asian sweatshops. That would be taking back control.

Blaming the EU and immigrants is the equivalent of the expulsion of the Jews from England under Edward I: a sop to prejudice from a bankrupt state.

All the while they are trying to harness and to indulge their court jester Nigel Farage, who is basically one of their own but slightly off the rails, the man who at Dulwich College had a Hitler fixation and decided not to bother with university and instead to make a packet trading in the city. (That Farage and Cameron are fellow travellers is betrayed by their shared idiom and speaking style – a fluent duck-and-jab, sprinkling their pronouncements with ‘and franklies’ as if being ‘frank’ somehow equates to telling the truth.)

A few hours before Cox’s murder Farage unveiled his ‘Breaking Point’ poster, an image directly lifted from Nazi propaganda insinuating that hordes of darkies were about to overwhelm England: because of the EU. It was a calculated intensification of toxicity, a ramping up of the populist rhetoric which was scheduled to continue in the last week of the campaign until the slaughter on the streets of Birstall rudely intervened and occasioned a brief moment of national reflection. There were signals, logically enough, that Farage would be given a post in a post-Brexit Johnson administration.

In effect this is a right-wing putsch masquerading as a public policy plebiscite.

Once Britain has flounced out of the EU, the same Leavers will move on to their next scapegoat.

I am an EU official, part therefore of that privileged class, so I have a personal and direct interest in the EU’s success. When I arrived in Brussels in 2008 it was three weeks after the Irish had voted down the Lisbon Treaty. I remember the high dudgeon of Commissioners and other EU politicians at this petulant act of ingratitude by a small nation which been one of the biggest recipients of the EU’s largesse. The prevailing attitude was – How dare they! Well, they will have to vote again until they give the correct answer. Here you had the much vaunted EU democratic deficit writ large. At this time the strongest advocates of ever closer federal union were in their pomp: the technocratic will to harmonise everything, it was peak ‘more Europe’. This was also the moment when the inner core of EU decision-makers decided to leave Turkey’s application indefinitely out in the cold, on the grounds that they were not really European (i.e. they were Muslim). (Sarkozy is still at it.) Since then, Turkey has become an increasingly authoritarian and intolerant bastardised Ottoman Empire, which the EU now has to bribe to stop people from bloodied Middle East and central Asia crossing the EU’s borders.

Arrogance and strategic errors are inherent to human politics.  But the European Union represents the most ambitious of all post-cataclysmic endeavours in the 20th century to stop countries fighting each other. The armies which for centuries looted and slashed their way around the continent have been largely disbanded, and only partly replaced by a host of suited bureaucrats. Thanks to the EU. The EU’s bureaucracy is in my view badly structured, but with 55 000 officials in a continent of 508 million it is no more ‘bloated’ than other tiers of national administration. Almost all of them work in a second language with a sense of ideals which is almost quaint in these cynical times. Its internal procedures like its buildings are impersonal and prone to abstraction. Its Byzantine snake-like policy-making process lacks transparency. The members of the European Parliament are generally there because they have been selected for their party lists by party apparatchiks. The monthly decamping to Strasbourg is a comic travesty. But these are the results of compromise agreements between democratically elected governments and the democratically elected parliament. The underlying ethos of the whole extraordinary project is inclusive social democracy and care for the environment grounded in human rights.

I can guarantee that, if you codified everything about the governance of Great Britain and Northern Ireland into a single document and put it to the electorate in a referendum, in the current climate more than ever, the majority of British voters would reject it. The problem is politicians lacking vision and growing inequality and economic uncertainty. That is why I argued a couple of years ago for referenda in every country that is or that aspires to be a member of the EU, with a simple statement of values and objectives that all citizens in their busy or torpid lives can understand. Let them vote yes or no, and for those that vote yes there would be a democratic mandate to talk and draw up complicated constitutions. I also worried that without such a recourse to the popular will the far right will rise up from the debris of economic decline and stagnation and the victimisations would begin.

This is happening now. A Brexit vote will accelerate this trend. The world will continue to spin on its axis.  Humans will continue to consume, defecate and multiply as before. But as the last people to remember World War II pass away in the next few years, the post-cataclysm efforts to work together will have gone into reverse, and all because of the vaulting parochial ambitions of Boris and his chums. At best, Britain will remain but it will have been such a close run thing that a rocket will have been fired up the arse of complacent Europhiles. We clearly cannot go on like this.

It’s time to save England, this beautiful mongrel nation, from itself. Remain, complain and do something to make it better.

Nothing is too good for asylum seekers

There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat . But when his disciples saw it , they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it , he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. …

Matthew 26:7-10

It did not take long for the wheels of the Great British Hug-A-Refugee bandwagon to fall off.

Yesterday in response to a rabid Daily Mail headline the story occupied the airwaves of a Home Office contractor using a luxury car to ‘transit’ asylum seekers from one hovel in London to another in Manchester. The BBC served up an earnest reporter to explain to concerned viewers in their sincere voice saying that the firm had apologised for the error of using inappropriate transport for asylum seekers and that the premium which presumably usually attaches to such taxiing would not be passed on to the public purse. And so the nations anger is quelled. 

Inappropriate. When has there ever been an appropriate use of a limo? The rapid transiting of Russian kleptocrats or Chinese autocrats through foreign capitals? Lary hen parties giving it large in Basildon and environs?

In August David Cameron and his foreign secretary Philip Hammond spoke respectively of ‘swarms’ of ‘marauding migrants’ threatening our ‘standard of living’, in a sort of imagined reverse siege of Calais, where England’s island tranquillity had to be shielded from the unshaven hordes in ‘the Jungle’. Then in September the images of a three-year-old Syrian washed up on a Turkish beach made it suddenly fashionable for politicians and journalists to substitute ‘migrants’, with its connotations of mischief and opportunism, for ‘refugees’, more redolent of unfortunate strays in desperate need of our pathos and donations. It has not lasted long. Yesterday the familiar dehumanising lexicon made its exuberant return, with ‘intimidating’ groups of migrants ‘overwhelming’ an English village.

First of all this should not be a story at all. So what if a carload of the world’s downtrodden have happened to travel in a posh vehicle for a few miles. And so what if it was a mistake and they should actually have been bundled into a minivan?

Second, if it was to be of journalistic interest, it could have been a semi-humorous, saccharine piece of journalism about how Mr Whatshisname had within weeks gone from fleeing torture and barrel-bombing in Syria to leather upholerstered chauffeured stretch Hummer.

But no, in England there must be outrage that the government may have funded a one-off expensive taxi ride for an asylum seeker. The implication that these are the least befitting of any form of luxury. That they ought to be grateful for even being admitted to detention in the country, pending an asylum decision. Any upgrade on a shithole is an insult to hard-working taxpayers and to unemployed servicemen. It is now necessary to issue public apologies for inadvertently dispensing modest and ephemeral privilege upon displaced Africans.

In other words, asylum seekers are subhuman.

This was a week after Theresa May cynically inverted facts about economic benefits of immigration. From a Home Secretary who has attempted to curtail freedom of expression on grounds of ‘incitement to hatred’, this was brazen, inflammatory and divisive right wing politics at its most contemptible. The Tories are sowing and cultivating animosity between poorer sections of society, diverting frustration at inequality and injustice towards the most defenceless. I heard the other day Emily Dugan, a thoughtful and conscientious investigative journalist, documenting the social fracturing which afflicts Boston Lincolnshire, the town with the highest proportion of people from post-2004 EU enlargement in Britain.

We are told that this is an overcrowded island. Bollocks. It’s like food shortages, famines and malnutrition when two thirds of the affluent west are overweight or obese and where waste enough food to feed the planet. Of course there is room for immigrants, the thousands or hundreds of thousands who are committed and resourceful enough to find their way to this wet corner of Eurasia. I would offer them temporary digs not on former inner city council estates, or in Longford, LB Hillingdon, or Boston Lincs, but on country estates, in the Prime Minister’s bucolic constituency, or in the west London penthouses left empty by oligarchs in order to launder their ill-gotten wealth. I would even offer a family my spare room while they get themselves set up.  Why, in the 21st century, should the indigenous, relative poor of western countries be burdened with accommodating the migrating poor?

It is often speculated in pulpits around Christendom that Jesus, had he appeared today, the suffering servant, would appear in the guise of a stateless unshaven migrant, or a trafficked prostitute: ‘despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not’.

Jesus did not have an easy life, but he did not make a virtue out of misery.

John Reid, one of the fix-it-men of the late Blair years, though certainly  not a star of the first magnitude in recent political life, did to his credit trot out some memorable – albeit overworked – clichés. One of his commonplaces seemed to paraphrase partially the sentiment expressed by Christ in the house of Simon the Leper when he was annointed with perfume, a vignette indicating the nervous restiveness among the disciplines; the last anecdote in the Gospel of Matthew before Judas sloped off to offer his betray for thirty silver coins and the story of the passion gets underway. ‘Nothing,’ Reid once said to me, with a twinkle in his eye and a twitch in his neck, ‘nothing is too good for the working classes’.

Nothing is too good for the tired, the huddled masses, yearning to be free.


Falling slowly. Good.


It takes a peculiar sort of arsehole to want to be a politician

Quote from a friend  of mine, circa 2000.

I am one of those landlubbing devotees of the Shipping Forecast. Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight. It’s a litany of just-fathomable poetic code, a ritual Stations of the Coast, the ticking of the big hand of a clock, swinging round the islands towards me in my Flanders exile and away again. I imagine the reader as a priest rhythmically sprinkling holy water at regular intervals, passing over places and words where I’ve walked or of which I’ve read, including Malin, near where my mother lives, and those wild remote shores, Ireland stretching its gnarled fingers into the surfy turmoil.

An English tradition on Ascension Day is beating the bounds of the parish. I did it once in Hackney. It is one of those characteristically vague compendia of obscurity, the origins lying somewhere between administrative functionality and pagan ritual, eventually subsumed, co-opted by the medieval church.

The shipping forecast, if I may be permitted one last analogy, is like the beating of the British bounds, tracing the insular outlines of the only thing that truly unites its inhabitants, cosseted, diligent, rebellious and marginal.

I’m beyond those boundaries now, but I’m always looking back in, which I’m sure prevents me from integrating in my new home.

Nothing draws my retrospection so irresistibly as the politics of the UK. The general election campaign seemed pure Vaudeville – the ridiculing of Miliband and the demonization of the Scots, Cameron ‘chillaxin’ and then all a sudden ‘pumped’, Leanne Wood saying Wa-ales loads of times, the Edstone, Russell Brand, and everything that Farage did and said. Ed Balls.

I was partial, although living abroad the outcome doesn’t affect me, but still I was deeply disturbed by the outcome on the morning of 8 May, as if the failure of the centre-left and the triumph of the Tories was some signal of personal inadequacy.

Dawn broke and the sun shone on conservative England, and let me feeling sore and ashamed. I’ve never been more than on the fringes of activism. I am politically supine, a desktop handwringer. I have never been sure enough of myself and my tribal beliefs to knock on doors and stand on soapboxes to try to persuade people to do something that they would not otherwise do.

I was once almost wholly convinced of a religious doctrine, which propelled me to evangelising, but I never really believed strongly enough to follow through on those convictions. (And when I recall some of the urgings of the Inner Voice during those salad days, thank God I didn’t.) But then that was broken on the anvil of reality, and I was lured away by an alternative vision, perhaps equally unattainable, of Homeric meanderings, the eclectic poetics of Joyce and the others.

For now, the subaltern gaze of my Indian heritage alights and lingers on the insouciant comforts of England’s ruling elite, now more comfortably restored to their rightful berth than any time since the demise of Thatcher. The image of Cameron, his pasty face which historically has rarely been troubled even by so much as a wisp of bumfluff, savouring the dawn of victory in his seigneurial Oxfordshire bastion of Witney; hard to recall that all politics ends in failure amidst this seeming return of the natural order of things.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst can neither summon much passionate intensity.

What after all is party politics for? I like to believe that had I the time and space to think things through, I might be able to contribute to a pragmatic and progressive politics borne out of a genuine respect for the environment and humanity. (A party for immigrants perhaps?) 

In the meantime I’ll bask in the erratic sunshine of the loveliest month of the year, just inland beyond the offshore waters of Dover.

L’Union? C’est nous.



A friend of mine recently told me that the artificial Brussels construct – of the EU institutions by day and the polite socialising by night – makes for relatively boring fayre, replete with platitudes, when compared to the bonhomie enjoyed with educated peers from his native Portugal. The air of society in the bubble feels cold and impersonal (emails to known individuals open with the frenchified ‘Dear colleague’). That suits me fine. After the chaos of my latter London years it gave me an opportunity to start something new.

Global capitalism may make the EU necessary, but not sufficient. It’s deficient because it was and remains a technocratic confection, the brainchild of several brilliant and progressive post war visionaries, determined to avoid another man-made catastrophe. Democracy, in the sense of direct accountability through an elected transborder parliament, was an afterthought. Now, as the wannabe superstate totters from crisis to crisis, the parliament provides a veneer of post hoc legitimation for the whole project, but it has little chance of placating a grumpy and pessimistic electorate. In the same way the laws that are churned out seem to lack a sense of (can I say this?) organic conviction – there are so many checks and balances that the solutions are at best beautiful compromises, fleeting like the seasons.

Take the latest capitulation to France and Italy for their unapologetic flouting of the fiscal rules which they themselves had foisted on Greece, Ireland and Portugal a few years ago. Une Europe solidaire? Chutzpah evident in, for example, Michel Sapin’s breathtaking pronouncement last month that ‘No further effort will be demanded of the French’, carried distant echoes of the Sun King and his successors. Such episodes make it easy to conceive of the EU as a bastard offspring of the French polity, perpetually condemned to pleading for its inheritance.

The compromise machine will no doubt also find a way to accommodate a truculent majority Tory UK government post-2015, for all the ostensible trench-digging about intra-EU immigration, a.k.a. the free movement of labour, a.k.a. a founding principle of neo-liberal capitalism. Britain owes its historic prosperity to this same right, arrogated to itself by its ruling class and merchants while they were hoovering up the land and resources of the empire. These were rights denied to colonials, and only reluctantly and slowly ceded when large numbers moved in from India and the Caribbean. It is not expedient for Farage, Cameron and Johnson to engage with this facet of Great British History. Anti-immigration is too useful a tactic for deflecting anger at political ineptitude and cowardice onto the least enfranchised members of society.

In the eye of the storm, meanwhile, boredom reigns largely unperturbed. I don’t know whether this is a good thing.