Wednesday, 18 November 2009

America today is an example of why we so desperately need electoral reform

It's a familiar predicament to some Conservatives this side of the pond - who do you support in US politics, Republicans or Democrats? That might seem like a very simple question to many on both the centre-right and -left of the British political spectrum, but international affiliations aren't always so clean-cut.

To some it may seem baffling, but there was a considerable swell of support for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential elections from within the Conservative party. It may have been a minority, but it was also a large one - boasting among its members none other than the increasingly independent Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

A leaf through Obama's election manifesto gives some clues as to why this may have been the case - America strong but fair overseas, support for the middle classes, an enterprise culture, individual freedom, opportunity - all traditionally Conservative policies which reflect the far more right-wing nature of American society Obama needed to appeal to than here in Britain.

Then of course there was the historic lure of the first black president of the United States. For many - nearly 150 years since the abolition of slavery - this was reason in itself to support the Democratic ticket.

However, things change. Now that the post-election euphoria is over, President Obama is losing much support over his centralising and statist tendencies, particularly over healthcare. To some it no longer seems unjust or extreme to call him a socialist. Others see him as taking America down the same self-destructive road as Britain did in 1945.

Oppositions change also. Having faltered under an all-embracing moderate in John McCain, the Republican party is taking a particularly steep lurch towards its religious right, firstly with vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, and now with newly rising star Congressman Michele Bachmann. Theirs is a conservatism that, set out of the context of US politics, is quite peculiar and alien to many in the Conservative party.

For example, in response to Obama's health insurance plan, Bachmann told her supporters ;

What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. This will not pass. We will do whatever it takes to make sure this does not pass.

Supporters who by the way, dress up as Speaker Nancy Pelosi whilst holding "handfuls of bloody foetuses" and use photographs of Jewish corpses from the Holocaust under the heading 'National Socialist Healthcare', according the the Observer.

Aggressive, extremist and downright nasty, it is a conservatism that places great importance on opposing abortion and gay rights, while claiming that the 'real America' (in Palin's words) is the God-fearing Bible Belt of the South and the remote rural communities of the mid-West and Alaska. It is an essentially divisive brand of politics that could not be much farther from the inclusive politics of the Cameroons and the increasingly libertarian values of today's Conservative Future.

There is of course a reason for this - Britain's Conservatives are currently on the way up, while the defeated Republicans are doing much the same as Labour did after 1979 under Michael Foot - retreating to a safe yet self-destructive brand of radical extremism.

In this extremely polarised political climate - socialists to the left, religious fundamentalists to the right - one would be forgiven for thinking that the sensible American voter has very little room for manoevre, particularly when the two main parties together claim 96% of the popular vote. The Libertarian party - at present the largest third party - achieved only 0.8% in the 2006 midterm elections.

This is a recipe for political apathy, and it is no coincidence that voter turnout has rarely strayed above 60% in America for the last 100 years. Conversely, since 1945 British voter turnout has only dipped below the high 70s following Labour's landslide victory in 1997.

Interestingly, whilst America's current problem appears to be the lack of any real middle ground in politics, contemporary Britain appears to be suffering from an abundance of it. In my own canvassing around the Penistone & Stocksbridge constituency I am constantly being told by voters that they feel there is very little difference between the modern Labour party and the Conservatives, and that as such they do not feel inclined to vote.

One manifestation of this is that neither of the two main parties are willing to speak about immigration, despite appearing to be an issue of paramount importance to many of the voters I speak to. Another is that, in seeking the common ground, Labour has completely lost touch with its traditionally working class constituency.

Indeed, the most common response I hear while canvassing Penistone & Stocksbridge is that while the individual has voted Labour all their lives, they will never do so again. Some, attracted by socialist economic policies and a hard line on immigration, openly support the BNP.

In both systems there is a clear democratic deficit that must be closed. A situation in which voters will not vote for a party who best represents their views lest their vote be wasted is an incredibly unjust situation indeed. Worse still, when they vote for extremists because they feel they are not being listened to, this risks bringing down the democratic system itself.

The rise of militarism and fascism in 1920s/30s Japan, for example, happened largely because ordinary Japanese people had entirely lost faith in a corrupt two-party politics that they felt no longer represented them.

Some kind of electoral reform would go a long way towards renewing the youth of the state (to paraphrase Macaulay's speech on the Reform Bill, 1831) and giving people back the confidence of knowing that every one of their votes count - whether they wish to vote Labour, Conservative, UKIP, Green or Monster Raving Loony.

However, in this country there is one problem with introducing proportional representation or alternative voting, and that is the monarchy. Without a strong, directly elected presidency (as in France), a political system of this kind is at risk of deadlock and over-compromising consensus. This has been demonstrated no more vividly than in Belgium, which between June and December 2007 was unable to form even an interim government.

My own suggestions of republicanism have been met with a surprisingly passionate defence of monarchy, given the drubbing that the royal family frequently receive in the nation's press. However, that is not to say that there have not been sympathetic ears to the principle of the suggestion.

Some suggested making the position of prime minister elected - though this seems to have constitutional ramifications so complex as to make it impossible - whilst others suggested creating an elected position above the prime minister, serving as a constitutional representative of the sovereign (which in this case could mean either the monarch or the people) leaving the PM to represent the House of Commons.

Given that a similar situation exists in Commonwealth realms such as Canada and Australia, this doesn't sound like such an unlikely suggestion. While not an elected position, the Governer-General in these states serves as a representative of the Queen and fulfils the de facto duties of a head of state.

Whether this elected position would be named Governor-General, President, or even Lord Protector, the question of electoral reform cannot fail to be an issue in future parliaments. It is absolutely vital in order to ensure that Her Majesty's government is indeed representative of her subjects and that our democracy is both strengthened and perpetuated.

However, this must be done in the spirit of full, honest and careful debate in both the country and in the House of Commons. It must not be done, as has been attempted by this dying government, in the spirit of expediency, populism and panic.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Britain must stand up to the bullies in Brussels and in Washington

We are quite accustomed in this country to the idea of Americans not really knowing what they're talking about, reducing all things down to their simplest forms and generally being a little slow on the uptake. This caricature of the ignorant American may be somewhat unfair to the American people themselves, but I do not believe it is a wholly unfair assessment of the American media.

Case in point is a recent and rather depressing article by Roger Cohen of the New York Times highlighted by ConservativeHome yesterday. Sadly, Cohen's complete ignorance on European affairs and the nature of the European Union serves well to disguise his Oxford education (then again, Nick Griffin went to Cambridge...), while his entirely genuine and shameless assumption that all western nations exist to serve the United States marks him out very clearly as the archetypal American.

In fact it really is quite difficult to decide where to start with this spectacularly bad piece of journalism. Perhaps the part where he asserts that, in forming the European Conservatives & Reformists Group (ECR), Cameron was "bowing to his party's Euroskeptics [sic]" rather than pushing to its logical conclusion the established Conservative desire to reform the European Union (hence the name!) into something more accountable and democratic. This is something that the European People's Party has thus far lacked the political will - some might say intent - to tackle, making the establishment of the ECR something akin to common sense.

Or perhaps I should have started with Cohen's clear lack of primary research. This is very sloppy journalism indeed. He is, for example, quite happy to paint Poland's Law & Justice and Latvia's For Fatherland & Freedom as "right-wing fringe parties" and "Cameron's loopy European Parliament allies". He seems unaware however, that one of these 'loopy fringe parties' currently provides Poland with its sitting President, while the other participates in Latvia's present governing coalition. The idea that these two nations are governed the extremists on the lunatic fringe is something that must be wholly offensive and contemptible to the good people who elected them.

Indeed, Cohen's knowledge of the facts seems so sparse that apparently the mere mention of the name For Fatherland & Freedom is enough to make his case! ("These include a Polish politician who thinks apologizing to Jews for World War II massacres is a bad idea and a Latvian party called For Fatherland and Freedom"). This is clearly designed to evoke western images of Nazi Germany and Robert Harris' novel, despite the term 'fatherland' being very common and entirely acceptable in eastern Europe.

Then of course there is Michał Kamiński. Cohen astutely observes that, on David Miliband's desk there "lay highlighted articles from the Jewish Chronicle about Michal Kaminski of Poland’s Law and Justice Party", and that Kamiński "claims Poland should not have apologized for massacring hundreds of Jews at Jedwabne in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1941". Jews ought to be pretty mad about this, right?

Let me direct you to some quotations from an article by the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard. Funnily enough, it's titled 'David Miliband's insult to Michal Kaminski is contemptible'. I would not normally quote at such length in an article, but these lies have been blown so out of proportion I believe it is necessary that I do so;

Mr Kaminski is a mainstream centre-right politician who would, were he British, fit naturally into the Atlanticist, free-market wing of the Conservative Party.
...there is simply no evidence that Mr Kaminski is an antisemite, only a series of politically motivated assertions. It is not Kaminski who is odious; it is those using antisemitism as a tool for their own political ends who deserve contempt.
Mr Kaminsk’s argument was that apologising for the collective guilt of Poles let the individual murderers off the hook. Far from trying to cover up the massacre, Mr Kaminski was using the president’s apology to make a wider point.
The massacre was not committed by “the Poles” against “the Jews”, but was a vile crime committed by specific individuals. The victims were not “Jews”, as if they were the stateless people declared by the Nazis, but fellow Poles.
A further accusation is that, in an interview, he said that he would apologise only if someone "from the Jewish side" apologises for what "the Jews" did during the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland from 1939 to 1941. Mr Kaminski flatly denies this, and no one has yet produced a shred of serious evidence to contradict him.
David Miliband owes him a grovelling apology.

He most certainly does. But the lies and mud-slinging do not end there. Both Cohen and Miliband flatly deny that there is any chance of a federal European state emerging any time in the future.

Now, I am not entirely against the idea of a a federal European Union in itself - indeed, Winston Churchill was an early advocate - but what really gets me are the constant bare-faced lies, denials and deceptions by our politicians. These began with Edward Heath in 1970 ("There is no question of any erosion of essential national sovereignty") and have continued to this day.

In Cohen's article, Miliband claims that the Conservatives are chasing "the phantom ghost of federalism", while Cohen bleats in agreement that "Tory little-Englandism has become a strange anachronism since the end of the Cold War dictated a broad Europe rather than a deep one, a loose bloc rather than a United States of Europe" (dictated by whom? How?). Miliband is either very innocent to the facts or just blatantly lying, but many of his European counterparts do not feel the need to keep up such a pretence.

Helmut Kohl for example - the former Christian Democrat chancellor of Germany - declared in 1997 that "We want the political unification of Europe." His Social Democratic successor Gerhard Schröder followed this in 1999 by stating that the introduction of the euro was "in no way just an economic decision. Monetary union is demanding that we Europeans press ahead resolutely with political integration."

These two politicians belong to the European Union's two largest political parties - the centre-right European People's Party and centre-left Party of European Socialists. This illustrates with extreme clarity the need for the ECR in the European Parliament if those opposed to federalism (and I assume this includes Miliband?) are to have their voices heard and their influence felt.

Not of course that this matters to the Americans. Cohen points out that "Under George W. Bush, friends were privileged. Under Obama, friends have ceded to American interests coldly assessed. And on issues from Afghanistan to climate change, Obama wants Europe to step forward." An article by the news weekly New Europe (featuring a disgustingly-used photograph of William Hague in mid-wave) goes on to ask "Could it be that the Americans best friends will not be the British, but the Germans? How will that affect Anglo-US relations?" before seemingly demolishing this concern by observing that "The ‘special relationship’ between Blair and Bush turned out to be more akin to the relationship between a dog and a lamppost."

This is, however what Anglo-American relations have always been since 1945. Any 'special relationship' has always been a personal one, not a political one. From Churchill & Truman to Thatcher & Reagan to Blair & Bush, it has only ever flourished between politicians, not states.

In reality the United States does not care about Britain and never has. Make no mistake, the fallacy of a 'special relationship' serves only two functions - to delude Britons into feeling they are important on the world stage and to serve the American national interest. Right now that national interest is Europe (though if the Americans believe that a strong EU will ever be strung along they are sadly mistaken), which means that both the 'special relationship' and our sovereign right to make our own decisions can go to hell. Obama wants us to fall into line so we'd better listen.

Now, perhaps paradoxically, I believe we ought to throw in our lot with Europe over America for this very reason, and so that we may strive to create the kind of union that as Conservatives we can whole-heartedly support. Only in doing so will we finally put to rest the lie of a special relationship between the United States and Britain. For let us not forget that this is a country that has consistently supported Irish republicanism in Northern Ireland and even at times the IRA. It is a nation that during the Suez crisis of 1956 sided with the dictatorial Abdul Nasser over her own British, French and Israeli allies - only for the Egyptian nationalist to repay the favour by aligning his country with the USSR!

It is true that we are not and never will be in a position to go it alone in the world isolated from Europe and America. Our imperial past and national character also prevent us from taking the road of nations such as Canada or Japan - quietly sitting a few rows back in politics while while still possessing financial clout. We need to be part of something greater.

I say to you that we do not have a stake in the United States - that ended in 1783. So let's stop pretending and forget about it. We do however have a stake in Europe. This means that we have a duty to fight for the kind of union that we believe in - one that we can be an enthusiastic part of - and to stand up to the bullies who would deny us this, whether they come from Brussels or from Washington.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

A conflict of loyalty

With the European Parliament elections over and with all our dutifully placed X's in that increasingly meaningless little eurobox, I'd like to take this opportunity to seriously challenge every single Tory voter out there. Having tottered home from the polling booth to the quite exquisite sight of a Prime Minister-in-roasting, my question to you is this. How close did you get to doing it? You know what I mean. Come on... how many times did that string-tied little pencil dart from one end of the (rather large) ballot paper to the other? In all seriousness? For I hazard there was barely a blue finger in the land that did not totter, even for a moment, over that most tempting of forbidden fruits - I speak, of course, of voting Ukip.

It is a temptation that has, for better or worse, already consumed a number of Adams from the Conservative party in recent months. Lord Pearson, Lord Willoughby de Broke, Lord Dartmouth, Stuart Wheeler, and most recently former chairman Stanley Kalms. Lord Tebbit may prove to be the latest casualty of this trend if he doesn't learn to keep his mouth shut. At the end of Tory Bear's Conference after-party in Birmingham last year, I myself (vaguely) remember having to help convince one young member (while blind drunk) that remaining with the Conservatives was the wisest and, in the long term, more effective choice over joining Ukip (p.s. if you're ever in a position to be DJ-ing at Party Conference, lay off the free champers...).

It seems to me that the cause of this whole storm in a teacup may be the nature of politics itself. The question being; is it all about integrity and conviction or is it simply pragmatism and expediency? Arguably the fine art of politics is finding a balance between the two - between what you believe to be right and what you believe you can do. Yet, in a two-party system it can often seem as though the latter assumes a significantly greater importance. This seems particularly true concerning the European Union because its very structure, it's raison d'être goes right to the heart of so many core Conservatives ideas on democracy, the state, the rule of law, markets, liberty and national identity. Every single one is touched (one might say trampled) upon directly by the EU. This fundamentally undemocratic, unaccountable, protectionist, coercive, illiberal, wasteful and vastly bureaucratic monolith that undermines, in every one of its institutions, the very idea of sovereignty itself - whether that be national or popular.

Yet still two of the three main parties wholeheartedly support our membership of this gorgon. Furthermore, that the Conservatives' position is ambiguous at best, non-existent at worst makes the matter profoundly more frustrating. Splits orchestrated by a few 'big beasts' in the 1990s have naturally made discussion of EU membership a taboo subject in the upper echelons of the party machinery. Yet practically every grass-roots Tory you are likely to meet is, for whatever reason, virulently anti-EU and I dare say, strongly for withdrawal. All the same, the Conservative party does nothing. The fear of splits is all-embracing and, right before a general election, perfectly understandable. The much-celebrated presence of Kenneth Clarke in the Shadow Cabinet - who has already spoken against party policy on a number of occasions - becomes something of a liability in this respect.

And yet the most pressing argument on the subject is also the one that appears to be the least heard. Namely, that the Europe the British people approved membership of in the 1975 Referendum was not the same as the Europe we have today. It didn't even have the same name - the European Economic Community sold to us then was of a Common Market and nothing more. Edward Heath, the incumbent Conservative Prime Minister at the time of our accession (1973), was very vocal on this point, stressing that it did in no way entail any loss of sovereignty, then or in the future. Labour incidentally were very much against the Common Market, which is why the Referendum took place following their election victory in 1974. How times have changed.

The puzzle is that, even having made this promise to the nation, Heath maintained to his death in 2005 that gaining EEC membership for Britain was his greatest achievement - even after the EU had already made extensive inroads into our national sovereignty. Today, more than thirty years after the 1975 Referendum, the EU makes more than 75% of the laws passed in this country. Yet we have been a denied a referendum on a treaty that would enshrine an even further encroachment of this already precious remaining sovereignty. Time and time again the British public are told that they are wrong by the political class, despite 55% opposing EU membership.

This is the fear that appears to drive the many crises in faith we are seeing among Conservative members - that the only realistic way to stop this now very open and unabashed drive towards political federalism is unilateral withdrawal from the European Union. What I gather is making Ukip so appealing is the belief that the Conservatives are never likely to deliver on this. As the only vaguely eurosceptic of the main parties, their ambiguity appears to make Britain's absorption into a federal European super-state and the permanent loss of our sovereignty all but inevitable. 

For make no mistake - if the Lisbon Treaty is successfully put into law, the sort of concessions that John Major extracted at Maastricht in 1993 will become a thing of the past. Britain's voice - which has always strayed far from the course taken by those in Europe - will be subsumed under a tidal wave of qualified majority voting in a 27-member union. Any who maintain the illusion that we have ever exercised any influence in shaping the EU would surely see this vanish under Lisbon. Our unique laws, legal system, economy and constitution would be mercilessly trampled under the stampeding tyranny of a foreign majority. Not for nothing did Peter Drucker claim in The End of Economic Man (1939) that 'The new freedom preached in Europe is ... the right of the majority over the individual'. Any power we have left to prevent the mauling of our constitution and our liberties would be lost. And let's face it - they've already taken quite a beating under Labour.

Don't get me wrong - I have no doubt that David Cameron dislikes the EU just as much as Nigel Farage. It's just that there is very little he can actually do. He leads a very broad-based party and would lead the country - both of which have very powerful and influencial voices against any radical change in Britain's membership. Some have a genuine enthusiasm for the EU, while others - though hardly enthusiastic europhiles - seem to believe that the consequences of our leaving would be too damaging to Britain's trade and standing with the rest of the world. It is also frequently leveled at the Conservatives - and not without justification - that any referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would be legally useless once and if it is ratified. The moment it becomes law, the only way to reverse it would be to leave the EU altogether. Indeed, this has been cited by Polly Toynbee and other 'liberal' voices as grounds for not giving the public a say in the matter at all. This kind of a headache I can perfectly understand David Cameron wishing to save for better days.

So what will he do? At this point the answer seems quite uncertain - he could really go either way, and the decision will reveal much about the strength of his convictions. Does he believe he can achieve more in positive dialogue with the EU or in unleashing the British public's misgivings to it? The whole conflict reminds me very much of the personal and political antagonism between William Pitt and Charles James Fox. As a biographer of Pitt and future Foreign Secretary, I do hope that William Hague might appreciate the analogy. He will, after all be the public face of this government's action or inaction with regards to Europe.

Both Pitt and Fox led factions in the House of Commons that called themselves Whigs (though Pitt is now considered the first modern Tory) and their policies were broadly of the same aristocratic mould. Both favoured some degree of electoral and constitutional reform, in particular limiting the powers of the monarch. However, whilst Pitt - as the King's First Minister - approached this with a great deal of caution, Fox passionately bellowed from the Parliamentary hilltops as a matter of personal and political principle. Where the French Revolution had effectively torpedoed Pitt's must-cherished hopes of reform (and at times even pushed him to suspend habeas corpus), for Fox it served only to fan the flames of his already very vocal radicalism and hostility to George III. Indeed, since the American Revolution he had taken to wearing only the blue and cream colours of the Continental Army at all times.

Of course, the crucial thing to note about the careers of Pitt and Fox is that for the 20 years between 1783 and 1806, it was Pitt and his party that were in government while Fox was in seemingly eternal Opposition. Indeed, it brings us neatly back to that fundamental question - what is politics? Is it the Foxite expression of pure, undying principle and integrity, or the more Pittite art of the possible? More specifically; is an anti-federalist more influential in the Conservative party or in Ukip?

I believe this question is central to the conflict raging in the hearts of a good many otherwise loyal Tory supporters. It will be one of the many difficult issues facing the new Conservative government when this current motley crew finally goes overboard, and will need to be addressed with both sensitivity and boldness. Failure in this task would undoubtedly be a disaster both for the country and for the Conservative party, the latter of which have arguably suffered enough over the question of Europe. Nonetheless, it will need to be settled. For, if you will excuse the reference, if it is not, the time may come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which we have ourselves wrestled with for perhaps too long.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

A salute to the heritage of the EU

It's recently come to my attention that euro bank notes are probably the only paper currency in the world that don't have any historical or monarchical figures on them. No doubt this is because it would be near impossible to find the appropriate historical figures without offending a good handful of nations whose forebears didn't quite make it. Indeed, this is the case right down to the bridges and 'gateways' featured on the notes, which aren't even real structures, lest they incur the petty jealousies of member states.

Hence I've taken it upon myself to come up with a solution for this predicament. In a multi- and supra-national state, it would be understandably difficult to come up with any criteria for a historical figure that could justify leaving many nations' heroes out. However, there is one that to me seems perfectly reasonable - all the men who have laid the groundwork for the EU by attempting to force European unity.

True, this hardly includes all member states, but it makes a damn good tour of the continent. Candidates come from as far as Italy, Germany, France, Austria, and even Turkey. All these nations have, at one time or another, had rulers who have attempted to force Europe together under a common yoke, whether they liked it or (as was most often the case) not. What better way, I ask you, to celebrate the heritage of this great European project than the tyrants and despots who set such a precedent for it?

Julius Cæsar (100-44 BC)

Charlemagne (742-814)

Suleiman I of the Ottoman Empire (1494-1566)

Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (1500-1558)

Louis XIV of France (1638-1715)

Napoléon I of France (1769-1821)

Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)

Needless to say, most of these rulers (the exceptions being Cæsar and Charlemagne) failed in their ambitions to forcibly unite Europe. Usually this was a direct result of British intervention. I do hope the significance of this fact is not lost...

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

St. George's Day doesn't have to be all about football and skinheads

I was struck the other day by an extraordinary, though admittedly rather odd similarity between two characters that will be familiar to Britons of all ages. Giants of popular culture; they're both yellow, rather portly, a little thick, have an obsession with snacking, and manage to be somehow both annoying and lovable at the same time. Who could I possibly be referring to? Yes I'm afraid it's my old friend Winnie-the-Pooh. And Homer J. Simpson.

Well don't look at me, I told you it was odd. But it does go beyond them both being fat, stupid and yellow... trust me. Consider this. Like Homer, Pooh's gluttony frequently gets him into tight spots (such as Rabbit's rabbit-hole), and he often breaks off, mid-conversation, to fantasise about or look for food. In Eeyore Loses a Tail (1926), for example, Pooh is in Owl's house, who is devising a plan to help find the missing appendage...

"We write a notice to say that we will give a large something to anyone who finds Eeyore's tail".
"I see, I see," said Pooh, nodding his head. "Talking about large somethings," he went on dreamily, "I generally have a small something about now - about this time in the morning," and he looked wistfully at the cupboard in the corner of Owl's parlour; "just a mouthful of condensed milk or what-not, perhaps with a lick of honey-"
"Well then," said Owl, "we write out this notice, and we put it up all over the Forest."
"A lick of honey," murmered Bear to himself, "or - or not, as the case may be".

Pooh then proceeds to follow Owl's conversation without a single clue over what is being said, giving generic responses along the lines of 'yes' and 'no' intermittently. Remind you of anybody?

In another story, Piglet and Pooh decide they are going to catch a Heffalump, using the last of Pooh's honey as bait in the trap they have set. In the middle of the night however, Pooh decides that he can't take it anymore and proceeds to get his honey back. Finding the jar, he realises that actually, he'd eaten most of the honey anyway so sticks his head into it to get to the bottom. The next morning, Piglet goes to check on the trap, believing he could hear a Heffalump inside. Scared, he calls for Christopher Robin, who in a fit of laughter realises that - in typical Simpsons style - the 'Heffalump' is in fact Pooh, ramming himself into a tree root, desperately trying to remove the honey pot from his head.

Am I seriously suggesting, I hear you cry, that Matt Groening subconsciously stole Winnie-the-Pooh's character? Perhaps. Winnie-the-Pooh was probably fairly popular in America to have been adapted at all. Pooh is, of course much more well-spoken than Homer, despite also being, by his own admission, "of very little brain"; but then that's because he's English, not American. And that's just the point isn't it? The world may be more familiar with Walt Disney's corruption of Milne's creation, but this giant of children's literature, in his original form, encapsulates so much of that traditional Englishness. Bumbling, well-mannered, a bit on the cheeky side perhaps but overall a lovable scamp... Not entirely unlike the current Mayor of London in fact, who I incidentally have already compared to Winnie-the-Pooh on these very pages.

Yes, you were right to have faith. This piece had to be moving somewhere. Boris Johnson has of course announced that he's going to give St. George's Day a proper send-off this year in London with a boon of official events celebrating hundreds of years of English culture throughout the week. And it's about time. We seem to be curiously cautious about our identity here in England at a time where our fellow islanders in Scotland and Wales are seeing a renaissance in theirs. And yet, in doing so we've enabled the crazies and the ruffians to hijack this rich and diverse tapestry, and in no way more than the cross of St. George itself. The English flag may adorn the top of every single Anglican church in the land, but somehow we've allowed it become more representative of football hooligans and knuckle-scraping racists. The very fact that even Billy Bragg is in agreement with me here demonstrates the urgency with which this needs to be addressed.

In fretting over ridiculous things such as whether muslims might be offended by a symbol of the crusades (which frankly, has to be offensive to the good sense of English muslims) we've forgotten that England, and its flag, can be just as much about Winnie-the-Pooh and Gillray, Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, Christopher Wren and Charles II, Jeeves & Wooster, Gladstone & Disraeli, Dickens and Darwin, Morecambe & Wise, John Lennon and Jarvis Cocker. Not only is England the absolute mother of all parliaments, not only did we bring trade and prosperity to the far corners of the earth and risk it all to free Europe from tyranny (twice); but it's hardly a stretch to say that we damn well have the finest comedians and musicians on the globe right now. The Americans would certainly testify to that - English bands and sitcoms have seldom seen such a enormous wave of popularity in the States, in a climate which we've become far more accustomed to it being the other way round. Cultural hegemony my fanny.

So I say break the habit of a lifetime everybody and stick St. George's Day on your calendars this year. It's April 23, which you'll of course already know happens to be William Shakespeare's birthday (I knew none of these things before today). After all, England's given a hell of a lot to the world, and we've very openly received a lot in return. So I think it's about time we started to feel good about the fact. All of us. And maybe even have a barbeque or something to celebrate. Yeah, barbeque. Cumberland sausage, anyone?

Monday, 9 March 2009

The surveillance state we're in

This Saturday your correspondent laid back after work - feet up, shoulders relaxed, and a plate of feta by his side for a quiet peruse through the Guardian weekend edition. And he was angry. Real angry. You know, blood pressure high, heart doing star jumps, steam out of the ears...the whole shebang. Hellenic dairy products were flung, plates crashed against the wall in the tradition of this fine cheese's home turf... Okay I didn't quite go that far. But what was it that so infuriated this laid back, jazz-tapping model of Tory serenity? Arthur Scargill dribbling tripe about the Miner's Strike? Polly Toynbee shrieking half-baked demands for proportional representation? (I do actually support the latter, but only on the provision of a strong executive - yep, that means a president folks!).

No, these trivial yet irritatingly mistaken points illicit only chuckles, or withering despair at best. What really ground my gears, as I imagine it did many a Guardian hack, was the story burning through the front page. It's a perfect example of the kind of issue that ought to unite both left and right of sensible British politics, though in practice it rarely does - namely, Labour's wholesale destruction and mangling of our civil liberties.

The investigation launched by the paper allegedly reveals that 'Police are targeting thousands of political campaigners in surveillance operations and storing their details on a database for at least seven years'. Now, I say allegedly, but this writer remembers very vividly, back in his half-arsed lefty-student days, watching police videorecord and photograph protesters at the 2005 May Day march whilst deliberately spooking kids they'd already 'looked into' by using their first names in speaking to them. Naturally, wise marchers like myself wore bandannas over our faces for that very reason, which gives me hope that I myself am not filed away on this assiduous exercise in voyeurism.

But that is not the most shocking revelation of the report. That the police are so diligently cataloging scruffy, idealistic lefty types is sadly not all that surprising - these people fit the bill perfectly for 'potentially dangerous' individuals to the narrow-minded and paranoid mindset the police so frequently employ. After all, they don't look quite right do they? And why are they out on the streets marching when they could be doing it on the Wii at home?

What does, however, really send shock-waves thundering down to the very foundation of our democracy is that the police appear to be specifically targeting journalists in their observations. Whether these people are part of the protest or merely doing their job and investigating activists' views, they somehow manage to command the full attention of the force whenever they waver into the view of that sinister lens, according to the Guardian's report.

What's so angering and just plain old nail-bitingly scary about all this is that both journalists and protesters are being treated as social deviants and potential criminals simply for engaging in 'activities' that are (a) accepted and (I had thought) encouraged in a healthily functioning democracy and (b) part of the very fabric of human nature itself. Yet here we see the journalist's natural sense of curiosity questioned, their inquisitive role in the workings of the free press treated with suspicion. For the protester, their very need to express themselves on issues which concern them is given a disapproving eye, treated almost as though it were an abomination to the species. It makes one think, childish as it sounds, that perhaps the police are not so satisfied in enforcing the law as much as social conformity and thought processes. After all, if you've nothing to hide you've nothing to fear, right Jacqui? Yeh Blunky?

It's interesting that I find myself speaking out on this issue much as I would have all those years ago - that red moaning minnie that I've come to loathe so much. But this really is something that affects us all. Under Labour, this country seems to have become increasingly enthusiastic about treating good, law-abiding citizens as though they were dangerous threats to national security. These recent revelations come shortly after Jacqui Smith - the very latest in New Labour's long pedigree of nut-job, Stalin-esque Home Secretaries - announced her dream of an enormous government database storing text messages, emails, internet traffic and phone calls. All with the appropriate safeguards in place, you must understand.

But the central point to all this madness is thus - whether or not you believe these 'appropriate safeguards' actually mean anything (and let's face it - given the incompetence of our civil service they equate to precisely d**k), irrespective of whether you think Labour are mutilating our constitution with the best possible intentions, and entirely disregarding whether or not you think they can be trusted with this god-like responsibility upon their shoulders; the very nature of a democracy - hell, any state - is that there is absolutely no way of knowing for sure who is going to inherit all that information in the future.

How pleased do you think Hitler would have been to have found all leading 'trouble-makers', protesters and journalists conveniently gathered together with their personal details in one government database when he took office in 1933? Or how much bother do you think we could have saved the Bolsheviks and their army of Cheka spies if the Provisional Government had left them a handy device recording peoples' every correspondence when they seized power in 1917? I'm sure Ayatollah Khomeini would've had a far easier time butchering his opponents in 1979 if only he'd had all that at his fingertips. They included anyone who happened to disagree with him by the way - from revolutionary communists to moderate Muslims and middle-class democrats.


It only takes one crisis, with only one group of well-organised and fanatical nut-jobs willing to exploit it (one of which is making remarkable electoral progress in local British politics) and then that's it. It's over. Your rights, your freedoms, your very ability to think for yourself. Gone. You may even be one of the many that find their way into a concentration camp or simply shot dead where they stand (a ride on the Tube, anybody?).

In Russia, as in Germany and more recently Iran, these seizures of power brought forth human tragedies on an unprecedented scale. With the surveillance powers currently enjoyed by the Government and security services, these people would have been able to eliminate any opposition overnight. The 'Night of Long Knives' and Kristallnacht would have looked like nativity plays in comparison. With the mind-bending proposals Jacqui 'Insanity' Smith is currently putting forward, they could ensure that it never, ever, ever surfaces again. And that, my friends, is what you call a real Orwellian Nightmare.

Friday, 27 February 2009

The ugly new face of socialism in Barnsley

Zzzz..pffgh...bphff...nudge....NUDGE...huh? wah? hahh? Your correspondent was slumped on the precipice of catatonic vegetation at a local services committee in Dodworth, South Yorkshire. 'Any more questions?' Ripped out of this stupor by a panel of grinning nudge-nudge crony-socialist councillors, he for some reason felt it appropriate to blurt something out about the BNP's worrying surge at the last local elections (they'd come second in near every ward round here) and what exactly are you planning to do about it, eh? More fool you, the panel seemed to say - this geriatric slumber-party was strictly forbidden from discussing party politics (angers the blood you see) and besides, monotonous droning on the subject of what's allowed in which recycle bin and what to do about 'loitering' kids is far more interesting.

Anyway as it happened, one of the female councillors was quite keen to speak to me about this issue after the meeting. Turns out that at the very moment my mouth lept into auto-pilot on the BNP there was a member of this curious band of political mutants sat right behind me. Tosh, I thought. They know what people think of them and they should bally well be reminded. Naturally though Comrade 'Race-Hate' Porter felt the need to treat me to a passionate defence of that unique conflagration of idiocy and prejudice that so characterises the mind of homo nationalus.

What followed, as Porter oozed at indefatigable pace with seemingly no end was utterly bizarre. But like most things bizarre it was also utterly fascinating and really quite insightful. In one phrase Porter unshrouded the peculiar myseries of the BNP's success in threatening centuries of one-party Labour rule in Barnsley. While he was coughing up bile about the councillors present, your reporter chanced upon a diamond in the jetstream of slurry. Comrade Portly proudly, and with not a trace of irony touted inbetween his repeated and really quite annoying commitments to democracy that the BNP were 'more like old Labour'. Aha. Suddenly it began to make sense...

Anyone living in Barnsley will know exactly why the people round here have always voted Labour. Since the nineteenth century the town has been a predominantly mining borough, with a homogenous and heavily working class culture. In the '80s and '90s this appeared to be threatened as the remaining pits were closed under the Conservatives, which I can tell you has left a very real and lasting bitterness. The female councillor mentioned earlier seemed to think that the BNP's success was due to the recent trickle of immigrants into Barnsley (and I mean trickle) and what she called our more individualist and sectarian society, with people selfishly pursuing their own interests without regard for wider society. Now, this is typical and very familiar Labour windbagging of course, but in this case it reveals a particular weakness for Labour politicians - their inability to see that the working classes are beginning to feel abandoned by them. If anything, the truth is probably closer to what Captain Race-Hate said himself - that the BNP are indeed 'more like old Labour' in the ways that seem to count to folk round here.

For, what many people overlook is that the BNP are a staunchly anticapitalist party, and this is what makes them so dangerous. Take this festering nugget for instance, taken from a BNP magazine and posted on the Barnsley BNP blog

In its opposition to the global capitalist society, our rejection of free trade and call for tariffs on selected imports that can damage our remaining manufacturing base, all necessary steps to give some insulation from the worst aspects of unstable world markets, the BNP has again been proven right.

That of course could've been straight out of the mouths of the Socialist Worker's Party and no-one would have batted an eyelid. And, as anyone who has ever dealt with socialist groups before will know, if you oppose the entire economic and social composition of society as it stands then you can promise people pretty much anything. Combine this old-fashioned socialism with an almost ravenous opposition to political correctness and a good dollop of race hate and you have the uneducated working-class vote in the bag. Like the socialist parties, they can capitalise on what many people now see as there being no difference between the Conservatives and Labour. Indeed, in their insipid literature, they frequently refer to the 'Lib-Lab-Con' parties as one entity, with themselves as a revolutionary element representing true democracy.

All this presents a very serious challenge to both the Labour and Conservative parties in Barnsley. For Labour the lesson is clear - don't take your electorate for granted. Decades of guaranteed victory has made the party arrogant and distant from their voters. For the Conservatives, a more confidant, open and implicit approach to policy needs to be taken, specifically targeting and countering BNP campaigns. The nationalists thrive, unlike most parties, from targeting voters on both sides in their campaigns. The insidiousness of this multi-faced Medusa must be fought vigorously and in concert by all those who oppose prejudice and ignorance for it to be vanquished. For Labour and the Conservatives, this will entail putting aside their differences and working together in defence of our common values.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Oh, Pooh...

I've been thinking lately that this little archive of practice rants and digitised scribblings needs to change dramatically from now on in light of the highly unlikely, but nonetheless disconcerting possibility that there's anyone out there actually bored enough to actually read any of it. If you are indeed out there and not, in fact, a fevered figment of my imagination then I salute you. For your patience and, of course, for your muffled giggles. Because let's face it, if you are out there, you deserve better.

And as you, this possibly fictional reader will no doubt have noticed in some perhaps Schrödingerean assessment, too many of these articles resemble essays and suffer greatly from a very academic tone. This, of course, makes me very popular with examiners but just doesn't cut the proverbial mustard in the world of witty, on-the-pulse column journalism. They are also few and far-between if I were, for a moment, to be extraordinarily understating. There's simply no rhythm to them. No voom to their vocabulary, no rich sensory soliloquies with off-the-cuff and serendipitous similes.

Okay that's a bit much, but you get the gist. Of course, recent reading of Boris Johnson's hack compendium Lend Me Your Ears has influenced this seemingly sudden revelation, but then so has your author's simultaneous delve into the Complete Collection of A. A. Milne's one and only Winnie-the-Pooh...

Yes, it's true. It's taken not one but two blond, honey-craven and slightly overweight ursidæ to bring home the bitter fruits of my neglect of English literature over the last few years. Don't judge me too harshly. Peering meekly over an enormous in-tray of academic textbooks and historiographical tomes your plucky narrator felt he had no other recourse than to tell prose 'to bollocks' in the face of such an apparently superior truckload of factual and utilitarian knowledge.

Well no more I say! This blog shall be fluid, it shall be frequently updated and what's more it shall be readable & read! It shall also, for some reason, vaguely resemble Fisher Price packaging in its appearance. Perhaps the sharp, restrained lines and points of Times New Roman were too indicative of the old blog's failings for your author to merit retention and are, in any case, clearly not as groovey as a font once used by Pulp...

I shall leave you then with my, to date, most favourite passage of Pooh by that Wodehosian giant of children's literature, A. A. Milne. It comprises, funnily enough, the very first words of the very first stanza of the very first volume of the very first Pooh, first published (for the very first time) way back in 1926.

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn't. Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie-the-Pooh.

Keep that dream alive Pooh.