“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

28 April 2015

In solidarity with the feminists (for once)

As I have explained here on several occasions, I am no fan of modern feminism. I don’t like the bad ideology, authoritarianism, unpleasantness, elite-centeredness and sometimes downright idiocy that many feminists engage in.

But on the latest hoo-ha whipped up by feminists defacing and removing ‘body-shaming’ adverts from the weight loss firm Protein World, I have more than a little sympathy.

It’s all about choice. We have no choice about viewing adverts in our public spaces – for example on billboards, at bus shelters and train stations. That wouldn’t be a problem if only so many adverts weren’t so blatantly propagandistic.

The one that has got feminists hot and bothered features an extremely slim young woman in a bikini with the slogan “Are You Beach Body Ready”, sited next to the company’s ‘Weight Loss Collection’ range of products [I have decided not to copy the image in here; Google it or click on the link above if you want to have a look]. A petition against the adverts attacks it for “targeting individuals, aiming to make them feel physically inferior to the unrealistic body image of the bronzed model, in order to sell their product.”

This is fair enough.

These and so many other adverts amount to private sector propaganda, forced on us just for going outside. One that has got me annoyed recently features two good-looking young women seemingly having a great time, with the slogan “Regret Nothing” attached (thankfully I don’t know what it is advertising). This is the propaganda of our age, and it’s utterly cynical in seeking to mould our behaviour.

As the street artist Banksy has written, advocating guerrilla action against adverts, “They have rearranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

Adverts have colonised our public spaces and it is about time we made an effort to re-capture them. In my more militant moods I’m tempted towards going the whole hog and banning them altogether: a mass re-capture of our public spaces from the tyranny of adverts.

That may be a bit harsh though.

The alternative is regulation. This could easily get out of hand but I think is the best option. Keep it simple: say to companies you are free to advertise your products but no lying and propaganda please. If you breach the guidances and the regulator upholds someone's complaint – hefty fines.

I’m no prude but I also see no good reason why we should be forced to look at half-naked young women as we go about our mundane daily business (if you want to do that you can do it freely in your own time). So let’s just ban them too (with maybe an exception if you’re selling underwear).

Advertisers and other companies will bleat, but they’ll get over it and soon adapt to the new times. The rest of us get a more pleasant and more civilised public sphere, and with Labour leader Mr Ed in interventionist mode, I hope this is one he’ll pick up and run with: not just to please the feminist tribe, but for all of us.

For more on feminism and other identity politics, see Identity Politics and the Left page.

23 April 2015

England needs a new national anthem

St George’s Day is meant to be England’s national day, but if you were not looking out for it you would likely miss it.

That shouldn’t reflect badly on you or on anyone else. England’s national day has been long neglected in England for various reasons, not least the priority put on other identities in national – British – life.

Liberal universalists – who largely dominate our public sphere - insist that borders are redundant and should ultimately be abolished. They seek to include everyone, but they just divide in other ways. Their forms of division are international, but they are still divisions – not by territory but by identity and ideology; in their way of thinking you may not belong where you live on account of having the wrong thoughts.

This point of view needs to be resisted strongly by all of us who believe in the connection between people and the earth they stand on.

As a part of this politics, England needs to find itself again.  

The first step for England starting to find itself again is surely through a new national anthem. At the moment England shares the plodding God Save the Queen as an anthem with the United Kingdom, thereby identifying 'the UK' with England, to the exclusion of the Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish. This is clearly wrong and silly; even more so given Scotland’s new-found national and separatist consciousness.

So England should have a new anthem. But how should we choose it?

The whole point of choosing an anthem is to form and define a community called England which everyone in England (the English) can gather around – a joining together of new and old Englands plus those who haven’t thought themselves English before. This is a big task which requires thought and planning. Most importantly, it requires mass participation and democracy. The people need to choose their new national anthem. This is something that needs to be done on primetime television.

How should we put together a shortlist of potential options though and compress the possible tunes into possible anthems? This means involving musical experts and orchestras, and also letting the general public submit suggestions which could be taken on and adapted if popular.

But – time to get on to possible options. I’m not going to bother with God Save the Queen because the whole point of this article is that we should get rid of it. Clearly though, it should be an option in the voting.

Here we have five possible options to provide the material for England’s new national anthem (all from what I know – not meant to be exhaustive):

Option 1

'I Vow to Thee, My Country' (instrumental version) from Gustav Holst's 'The Planets'.
(Holst was apparently a great teacher of music as well as a great composer; his name suggests an immigrant background; this was a few generations down the line).

Ralph Vaughan Williams with his cat, Foxy

Option 2

Ralph Vaughan Williams with the much-loved 'The Lark Ascending', played here by the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen and the BBC Concert Orchestra at The Proms.
(There is pathos there though since larks are almost gone; also I am no expert but it would seem to be difficult to make an all-purpose tune out of it).

Option 3

'Nimrod' from Elgar's 'Enigma Variations', beautifully played with restraint here by our military bands on Remembrance Sunday in 2009:
The Grimethorpe Colliery Band has an excellent version too.

Option 4

Jerusalem by Hubert Parry; words by William Blake – the classic favourite, here played and sung at the Last Night of the Proms in 2006.
(not a favourite of mine)

Option 5

Ralph Vaughan Williams again with 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis' - an anthem would need to pick out moments from this, but they are there to be picked.

My personal instinct is that a new English anthem should have no words. England has changed so much in such a short space of time that I think it would be impossible to put together words that define who we are – no bad thing. The music can be left to speak for itself. 

From that music, not being too prescriptive, England may start to scope out a shared life as a nation. Then perhaps after a while we might think about choosing some words for our new English anthem - but not now.

See also blogpost on 'The English Problem'. 

20 April 2015

Mediterranean migrant deaths – testing the limits of responsibility

The recent deaths of hundreds of migrants on boats in the Mediterranean are first of all a tragedy for the people involved and their families – also of course the poor survivors plus the Italians and others who are retrieving the bodies.

But the phenomenon is much wider than this, and many are describing it as a disgrace in relation to British policy. Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper for example called Home Secretary Theresa May "immoral" for having participated in dropping EU search and rescue operations; plenty of others have piled in behind her.

Our demands that something must be done morphs very quickly into that we must do something – specifically that we must provide upgraded rescue services for all these migrants who are paying big money to traffickers to get to Europe. It is the classic humanitarian response and is perhaps the only practical way to prevent a lot more of these disasters from happening.

It has had me wondering however if in many people’s minds we’ve reverted to a sort of colonial mindset: that we’ve gone back to the times of Empire when Britain was responsible for what happened all over the world.

By taking on responsibility for migrants crossing the Med – and calling others ‘immoral’ for being reluctant to do so – we are spreading our net of jurisdiction beyond our own borders – and indeed beyond the EU’s borders – to those troubled places where these people are coming from. The choices and risks these people are making are taken on as our responsibility.

No doubt there is some truth and goodness in that, not least when Britain, France, the United States and others conducted a bombing campaign to help kick out Colonel Gadaffi in Libya, the now-broken state where many of the traffickers and their cargoes are setting out from. The world is an increasingly mobile, globalised place where problems in one country have consequences all over.

But we should be wary about spreading our fields of responsibility like this – and honest about what we are doing when we do so. By bombing Libya and taking responsibility for the welfare of migrants wealthy enough to pay for passage to Europe, we are taking jurisdiction beyond our borders. If it’s our responsibility for their safety crossing the Med, then surely it’s our responsibility for their safety in Libya, Eritrea and Nigeria where they are coming from? And if we’re responsible for the wealthier ones, surely we should pay some attention to the poorer folks who cannot afford the passage?

This comes to the crux of the liberal universalist world-view, which sees happenings in elsewhere in the world as of equal importance to what’s going on in our own countries and on our own streets. This rationalist viewpoint is absolutely correct from an objective point of view – what Thomas Nagel called ‘the view from nowhere’ – but fails to account for people and governments as they really are: as bounded, local and limited in scope. It is completely unrealistic to expect me or you or ‘the media’ or government to give equal prominence to what happens in Eritrea as what happens in our own families, streets, to our compatriots and fellow citizens. This is not a heartless thing to say; after all we wouldn’t expect an Eritrean to give a damn about what happens in Britain.

Liberal universalists don’t believe in these limits though; they don’t believe in borders and boundaries to our interest and intervention. They believe that their universal rationality should be applied everywhere. Transfer this view to government and you have governments which break free from their erstwhile borders and wield their power all over: a neo-colonialist approach.

And that begs a bigger question.

For when so many states in Africa and the Middle East are in various states of collapse with little or no prospect of recovery (unless you take the triumph of Islamic extremism as recovery), what should and what can the so-called ‘civilized’ world do?

If we are serious in our liberal universalism - in seeing these world situations as important to us as the more mundane situations we have to deal with within our own borders - we should be making plans to use military might to take over these failed states and impose ‘good’ government on them. A version of this has already happened in Sierra Leone, to which Britain has given significant governmental assistance for many years since Tony Blair’s intervention there in 2000.

You would perhaps say in response: “But doing that would be completely impractical and we could not afford it.”

True, but it would be consistent with trying to address the problem as a problem within that (unrealistic and utopian) world-view.

I don’t have the answers to this specific problem of migrants dying on boats in the Med, and I don’t envy those in Europe trying to figure out what to do about it. This globalised world of ours is so complex that it’s difficult to get our heads around.

But I think we would do well to start re-emphasising where responsibility lies. Migrants entrusting their lives to traffickers are taking a risk, and we in Britain are not primarily responsible for that risk.

So blaming our politicians and media for migrant deaths is unfair. If we want to take responsibility then we should be honest about what we are doing and be prepared to confront the phenomena as a whole.

Alas, I think the traffickers will win out since it looks politically impossible for European governments to risk more migrants dying like they have been doing recently. Likewise, no serious intervention will take place in the countries of origin, so the migrants will keep coming.

One of my particular concerns is that governments in Africa and elsewhere take responsibility for their own jurisdictions and for their own people - and I don’t think the tendency of Western liberals to ‘leap in’ to take control in other countries through state- and NGO-related activity is always altogether helpful. The worst kinds of rulers are often only too happy to outsource state functions to outsiders who will take their place – and even better if they provide the funding. I think we may be seeing a similar process going on with migration. Populations across Africa and the Middle East have been exploding, and it seems that governments are only too happy to export their people in order to lessen their load. Again, we can see a phenomenon of responsibility – and population pressures – being transferred from one jurisdiction to another.

For more on not-dissimilar topic, see Immigration and the left page.

17 April 2015

Political parties as professions

This is just a bit of fun I was having on Twitter with the election campaign on and thought I would turn into a blog post - imagining what our political parties would be if they had to get up every morning and go to work [h/t Sasha Hunter for that last thought].

The Tories: South West London estate agent

Well-scrubbed, suited and booted, posh or ‘aspirational’ or both, originally from the Home Counties, keen to ‘make it in the property market’. Says ‘Yah’ a lot.

Labour: Local authority 'equalities' officer

Well-meaning, but tangled up in convoluted ideology and bureaucracy; nevertheless convinced that more convoluted ideology and bureaucracy is the way forward; partly lost sense of itself but still packs plenty of political clout.

UKIP: Builder

No-nonsense at best, uncouth and bigoted at worst; unreliable, ‘likes a drink’, resentful at all these Eastern European builders coming in and doing a better job for less money.

The Lib Dems: Lawyer (EU level)

Internationalist; in love with the European Union and making a good living off it, flitting between Brussels, Luxembourg and London. Generally competent and decent, but tends to over-estimate its worthiness; like any good lawyer, will take the view of whoever does the hiring [h/t Kathie Clark  for that thought].

The Greens: Student or full-time activist

Nice but young and gullible; head full of theory and self-righteousness, but not done much questioning yet. Hasn’t had a job in ‘the real world’; trustafarian or at least from a wealthy family; total devotion to saving the world, but won’t stray far from fellow travellers.

For more on not-dissimilar topics, see The Labour Party and other party politics page.

4 April 2015

Cross-post: 'My four general election predictions'

This post was first published on 2nd April on The Condition of the Left in England blog which is written by Samuel Fawcett, Deputy Editor of the Young Fabians’ ‘Anticipations’ publication.

‘Soothsaying is not really my thing normally – which is why it’s rather nice to have a go at it. But, as for who is going to win the election and by how much, I can only repeat a version of the general consensus from the geeks who study the daily polls. They say we will either have a Labour minority government or a Conservative minority government, or another coalition – Labour-Lib Dems, Conservative-Lib Dems or Conservative-DUP. I see no reason to doubt this.

Nevertheless, there are a few things that are perhaps worth saying which have not been covered extensively already.

1. The next Parliament will be one of rancour and increasing anti-politics mood.

Narrow majorities, coalitions and minority governments generally make for feverish politics. That the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition has endured and remained stable over the past five years is remarkable, but I can’t see that happening again this time, whoever forms the government and under what arrangement. That is, unless the mathematics delivers more or less the same result, but this is unlikely since both the Tories and Lib Dems look set to lose seats.

The mathematics will make each Parliamentary vote a potential battle for whichever government we end up with. For Labour I think this would be particularly problematic, especially if it is relying on Scottish Nationalist support. The media noise will be intense, with any weaknesses and/or controversial proposals feasted upon. It won’t be pretty, and the sense that our politics isn’t working will become even greater than it is now. Many people, especially on the left, will see this as a problem with our democracy but it will be better seen as a problem with the main parties themselves, neither of which makes sense as an entity like they used to.

2. But nothing major will happen in party political terms.

I’ve been pondering over the possibility that our politics may go back to the 18th Century sort of system in which floating groups of factions make fleeting alliances to form governments. This would be logical if only if it wasn’t for our political system and the age of mass democracy in which you need access to a lot of voters to get anywhere. Factions within parties rely on their party machines for organisation and funding; breaking away is a big risk which not many will take. It is only realistic when there is somewhere else to go, as with Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless jumping over to UKIP. I can’t see any Labour MPs jumping off anywhere, whether to the Greens or to UKIP or a socialist party (unless the exceptional circumstances detailed below transpire). I also can’t see any more Tories moving to UKIP because…

3. UKIP will fail to make much headway, but could a split follow?

The UKIP brand has become toxic due to constant media attention on the nutcases and racists that the party has been attracting. I actually have a little sympathy for them, since it is inevitable that any party standing against continuing mass immigration (which is perfectly reasonable in itself) will attract racists and idiots, especially from a right wing base. Kippers are not all loonies, but enough are, and the media has seized on that.

So in places without strong local organisation to counter the bad publicity and reassure the decent majority of voters, UKIP will fall down and fail to make much headway. The party’s supporters make a lot of their expectations of becoming the opposition to Labour in Labour’s northern heartlands. However, to follow this through in the next few years, they would have to become another party, a lot less Shire Tory – or else arrange an amicable split between left-leaning north and right-leaning south. Things could start to get interesting if this happens, but will they be brave enough to go ahead? If they don’t do something their party will surely ebb away.

4. The ‘Green surge’ will die a death – and they will blame the media

A YouGov poll for The Sun now has the Green Party down on 4%, having previously gone up as far as double figures. This was inevitable as the party and its hapless leader Natalie Bennett finally started to get a bit of exposure in the media. At first this benefitted them as an unknown force claiming to offer a clear alternative. But scrutiny and exposure are bad for the Greens. Bennett is so bad she makes you feel sorry for her, but the party’s policy positions are perhaps even worse. They seem almost set out to deter everyday voters: from abolishing the armed forces to loads more immigration and loads more public spending. They seem most interested in pleasing their core vote – a quite particular band of people – rather than reaching out to a broader base of support, and they will suffer for it.

At 4% the Greens can’t go much lower, but I certainly don’t see them rising back very far. One question is if they are doing any better in their target seats, and though admittedly I am no expert about these I just can’t see it happening for them. To break through in a first-past-the-post system you need to be clever, well-organised and project a good image: none of which applies. Caroline Lucas will probably retain her seat in Brighton because incumbency matters, she is likeable and intelligent, and folk there will likely gather around her as one of their MPs. But that will likely be it.

So the #GreenSurge boasts of Green supporters will be dashed in the election. Having fought a comfort zone campaign, they will then retreat even further into those comfort zones afterwards, blaming the media when they should be looking at themselves.

You may ask why I am so bothered about the Greens. I am a Labour member, but a decent, coherent, centre-left pro-environment and pro-nature party would actually be my most natural home in politics. The Greens need a complete change in direction to become anything like that, and given that they’ve attracted in all sorts of far left types in recent times, there is little hope of this change happening. I find this very disappointing.’

For more on not-dissimilar themes, see The Labour Party and other party politics page.