Referendum Fever?

My normal reaction to politics is heightened interest, a quickening of the pulse, a keen desire to understand what is going on.  Whether it’s elections in Germany, ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in the USA, or the organisation of voting in countries with low literacy levels (pictograms come into their own here), I am quite excited.  But this referendum?  It is the worst combination ever, being both tedious and toxic.  It feels as if we’ve all been taken hostage by Michael Gove and Chris Grayling.  Not nice.

No good is likely to come of this whole process.  That it was unnecessary is a given. But now that it is happening, a lot of things will follow.  They will not be good.

The first thing to note is who is most excited and motivated by the prospect of a ‘leave’ vote?

Some of them, and they’ve had quite a lot of airtime and newsprint over the years, are the neoliberal fundamentalists.  Their poster boy is Daniel Hannan, the MEP, but Govey and his ex-SPADs are in this crew, too, with Boris as a ‘me-too tag-a-long’.  They have access to the media, and they are articulate and forceful.  For once I say, let them have all the media exposure they crave.  I don’t agree with their case, but it does helpfully muddy the waters.

For the Hannan approach uses numbers, references to other countries, evocations of the law, and all the stuff of political argument that is most confusing to the core ‘leave’ voters.

For this referendum will be about one thing.  Immigration.

Not immigration from the EU.  When Farage says that keeping out Romanian fruit pickers will enable the UK to admit Indian doctors and African architects, his voters are not listening and don’t care.  For them, this is a referendum on everything and everyone they don’t like.  Homosexuals, feminists, clever people, artists, above all those of suspect pigmentation.

The referendum has unleashed every unrequited hate of the last of the last sixty eight years. From Windrush to the Megabus migrants, all historic and current resentments will focus on the referendum as a means of giving voice to those howls of rage.

I can anticipate some objections to this.  If those real anxieties and resentments have been suppressed, perhaps they ought now to be heard.  That’s what politicians mean when they say “we need an honest debate about immigration”.

But that’s actually dishonest.  Functional societies absorb, sublimate, relegate to the shadows, all sorts of dissonant ideas and feelings such that they ‘sort of go away’ and people can get on with their lives in social harmony or tolerance. It’s messy, but it works. That’s what’s happened since the 1948 Commonwealth Immigration Act.  There have been moments of flare-up, with Moseley, Powell, and far-right electoral surges, but by and large there has been a broader political consensus not to go there, and the broad current of public opinion, helped by generational change, had gone along with this.

But as we see when ethnic nationalism rears its head, what once was dormant is too easily reactivated.  We don’t need to look to communalism in India, sectarian viciousness in the Middle East, or African genocides.  At the heart of Europe twenty years ago, in the Balkans, we saw how old antagonisms are always latent.  Like smallpox, or plague, the virus that was once contained retains the potential to run freely and destructively.

Or how about the Scottish independence referendum?  People in the rest of the UK had all my life seemed generally well-disposed towards Scots.  Then the referendum let loose ethnic nationalism, and Cameron was able to use that to buy himself an unexpected election victory.  It is hard to see how, without the SNP-Miliband bogey, there would have been any election result other than another coalition.  And then, of course, we wouldn’t be having this referendum.

This referendum will scarcely be about the EU.  The curved banana eccentrics, and the ‘Brussels bureaucracy’ bores are few.  The hedge-funded globalisation fanatics are also few, even if they have some traction in the London media bubble.  But the length and breath of this land every tongue-tied bigot will be emboldened by this referendum campaign.  They may not front the campaign, but below the line comments, letters to the local press, radio phone-ins, and all the rest will be their playground.

And then what?  Getting the crazies back in the box won’t be easy.  If they win, they won’t get what they want (because like Trump supporters, they have no idea what they want).  If they lose, their martyrdom complex will be reinforced and battle-hardened.  Like the SNP-supporters, they won’t want to give up the heady rush of the fight.  Ethnic nationalism is dangerous stuff.

So thank you, Mr. Cameron, for your miserable little referendum which is about nothing and will settle nothing.  Meanwhile, in real life there’s a war going on, the biggest refugee crisis ever, and perhaps another financial crash on the way. But British politics doesn’t deal with petty issues like that….

EU Referendum – Latest

Owen Patterson, the inventor of footballing badgers (I’m not making this up, as Theresa May once said, though in her case, she was), was on the radio this lunchtime getting his knickers in a twist over David Cameron and the EU ‘negotiations’.

Meanwhile, on another channel, ‘Lord’ Nigel Lawson, the French chateau-dwelling defender of Auld Blighty, was smoothly spewing his bombast.  He’s good at that – you can rent him by the hour.  He moonlights as the improbable face (as in his face is pretty improbable) of climate change deniers and Big Oil.

Not that it’s all one sided.  For heaven’s sake, the fearless Today programme interviewed Lord Neil Kinnock this morning.  That’s probably the first Labour voice of the New Year, unless you count John McTernan, and no one does.  Who is he, anyway?  If you know, please leave a comment.

But don’t think the ladies don’t get a say.  That nice Amber Rudd (who she?) was on Today, too, and over on sassy, urban C4 News there was even a well-spoken Black gentleman, one Chuka Umunna, debating with another Lord, Dobbs of Kevin Spacey fame.  Britain, truly, is speaking.

But about what, exactly?  Forget talk about emergency brakes, in-work benefits, border controls, and a host of other matters we might call “anti-plastic surgery”, i.e. cosmetic disfigurement.  These things don’t matter to either side.  They just provide the vehicle for the sub-text.

The facts are these.  The Conservative Party is hopelessly divided, and its lazy leader may be stretching the limits of his luck.  The referendum circus was unnecessary for Britain’s interests, spectacularly badly timed from a broader European perspective when we are caught up in the greatest refugee crisis of the century, and also face possible further economic chaos, but it is a veritable wet dream for the ‘outers’.

Make no mistake, the out campaign are the Donald Trumps of this country.  A posse of angry fantasists, each motivated by their own malign phobias.  That’s why they are so difficult to counter.

The sight of people foaming at the mouth to seal our border against the freezing kids of the Calais Jungle are a damn sight more compelling than Chuka talking export numbers.  Who can get their head around billions of the currency of your choice?  Six thousand refugees, on the other hand, would surely swamp a country of 60 million?  They could all be resettled in Oxfordshire and Cheshire under the watchful eye of the PM and his Chancellor, and no one would notice, but I digress.  None of these things matter.

If the right-wing press decide to back Cameron, whether his negotiation achieves an agreement that Germany will fund the entire NHS for ten years, and France will build HS2 for free, or whether he comes back empty handed, he will win.  But if the press is against him, it will be a hell of a struggle to oppose Brexit.  For this, ultimately, is about who governs Britain.

Yes, say the outers, waving their Farage masks in the air, and kicking their little legs with glee!  Who governs Britain?  ‘Us’, or ‘Brussels’?

Or is this referendum a few million quid on a pointless vote as a short term measure to rein in the right of the (already far-right) Tory Party?  Whoever wins the vote, that bigger question – who governs Britain – remains.  And the Governors live on contentedly in Murdoch Mansion, Dacre Palace, and Barclay Castle.

Because no one is offering us a referendum on ownership and control of the ‘British’ press, or the BBC Charter.  Who governs Britain is the one question on which we will never get a vote.



The Shock Of The Old

Why are young people flocking to Bernie Sanders? What on earth do all those young Corbynistas see in the old guy? What’s going on?

It’s true.  By all accounts there are a lot of young enthusiasts at Sanders’ meetings.  I saw for myself (and recorded it here in a post in August last year) that there were a lot of young people at Corbyn meetings during the Labour leadership campaign.  But there are plenty of older people at those events, too.  It was the middle, roughly the 35-45 year olds, who were missing.  Their absence is an issue that needs to be addressed.  But for now, I’m interested in the ‘shock of the old’.

For there is indeed something shocking about some of those old radical voices.  I heard an interview with Angela Davis on BBC radio last year.  She was a voice of extraordinary power, not as an echo of her youthful African-American radicalism, but as an intellect completely engaged with the contemporary world and the issues of today.  Her power to cut through some of today’s usually unquestioned assumptions about what was possible in the world shook me – and I know her work, or at least, used to.  How much more amazing to encounter these ideas for the first time?

And so to another event which I think belongs with Sanders, Corbyn and the whole Shock Of The Old crew.  The Social Eye of Janet Mendelsohn.

Who?  What?

I’d never heard of her before.  I almost bumped into her before I knew who she was.  The Ikon Gallery in Birmingham was disgorging opening night guests out into a freezing January night as I arrived.  A fire alarm. Janet was right beside me when a kind Ikon assistant brought out a blanket to keep their guest of honour warm.  All around, the mostly young gallery goers milled, still clutching bottles of beer and glasses of wine, in high spirits and oblivious to the cold.  Thankfully the false alarm was over quickly, and we got into the building to see Janet Mendelsohn’s photographs at her show, ‘Varna Road’.

It was the most crowded opening night I’d ever been to, and certainly the most youthful.  The photographs had been taken in the late 1960s in Balsall Heath, an inner-city area of Birmingham, when Janet Mendelsohn was an American graduate student at Birmingham University’s Centre For Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS).    They are part of a much larger archive of Janet’s work which she has generously given to the University, documenting the lives of people in the earlier years of the city’s multicultural heritage.

It was followed a few days later by a symposium, The Social Eye of Janet Mendelsohn.  A few years ago both the exhibition and the symposium might have been a small, worthy event attended by a handful of people.  The organisers had initially booked a small meeting room in the library.  They ended up having to book a theatre to accommodate all those who wanted to attend.  As I sat there looking around at the excited buzz of young men and women, I said to my companion, “this feels like the Jeremy Corbyn rally.”

One of the first speakers was Professor Catherine Hall of UCL.  Hall had known Mendelsohn as a young woman in Birmingham when she had lived in the city with her partner, Stuart Hall, the brilliant Caribbean intellectual and activist who was the heart and the brains behind the subversive radicalism of the CCCS.

For that is why the event, and the exhibition, had meaning for the young people there.  It spoke of a different time when change was possible, necessary, and driven by the power of ideas and moral purpose.  If I was here to review the exhibition and to report the symposium I would say much about Mendelsohn’s unjudgemental empathy, her unflinching female eye locked onto the male gaze, the joy and beauty she finds in places others thought unimportant, or even unpleasant.  Varna Road was, at that time, ‘the most notorious street in Britain’, and its multicultural hinterland was exactly the sort of place that ,even as she documented it with her camera, was being denounced a couple of miles away by Enoch Powell when he delivered his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in the city centre.

But that’s another story.  This story is about the yearning of the young for art, education, politics and society to be about something that isn’t constrained and monetised.  What the old guys – and women – have to offer is the story of how it used to be, and could be again, if the young take possession of their agency.