Confessions of a Citizen of Nowhere

Until recently it would never have occurred to me that I was a ‘citizen of nowhere’. ‘Citizenship’ is a legal status conferring rights, as well as a civic status implying a ‘social contract’ between the individual citizen, citizens in social groups, and the authorities that govern them. Which is a dull way of saying that citizenship makes it possible for us all to live together, because we broadly agree on the rules.

So what is a ‘citizen of nowhere’, and how did I become one?

Theresa May, the unelected Prime Minister, famously said of her (once fellow) citizens who had the audacity to proclaim their internationalist sympathies, that “…if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.” She concludes the passage in her first conference speech as Prime Minister with the ominous words, “I’m putting you on warning. This can’t go on anymore.”

It was a clever passage in a well-crafted speech, in which May laid out an agenda of things she thought Leave voters wanted to hear. It was also cynical and duplicitous. How does she intend to make bosses treat their workers decently, and not stash all their money off-shore, when she also says she will turn the UK into an unregulated low corporate tax haven in which there has been a bonfire of workers’ rights? As for the promises on better schools and hospitals? The direction of policy since last October has seen school budgets raided, and the NHS abandon waiting list targets, de-list drugs and ration access to treatments. But all that is the normal business of modern politics – telling a good story, whilst doing the opposite in practice.

The comments on ‘citizens of nowhere’ goes much further than normal politics. It gives overt expression to the authoritarian impulse motivating the May regime. It is the very essence of Brexitism/Trumpery. “If you don’t think, speak, vote as I say you should, I’ll symbolically strip you of citizenship.” Very democratic.

The European Union has taken the idea of citizenship, which had largely been confined to national boundaries, and it has stretched it ever wider, ultimately encompassing 28 countries. It was in the process, however hesitantly, imperfectly, of realising a dream of a new social contract which was expansive, international, and optimistic. One which retains national identities, but adds to them.

Free movement of people is absolutely central to this dream. Many of us were born into a world in which travel across boundaries, even in Europe, was hedged with impediments, legal, bureaucratic, practical. Popping across to Paris, stag weekends in Talinn, research collaboration in Madrid, sourcing industrial components in Gdansk – these things became routine, transforming lives with both the pleasantly trivial, and the seriously important. That is how people become ‘citizens of the world’. You just do it.

Brexitism hates this. Free trade? That’s fine. Move all the cars, prosecco, and sheep, you like. That’s all about the moolah. But letting people move freely? No way, José.

Not that that applies to the leaders of Brexitism/Trumpery. They must remain free to wash up wherever an oligarch’s super-yacht, or a private jet, is to be found. But we plebs, with our Ryanairs and Megabuses, must be kept from the possible contagion involved in cross-cultural engagement.

Citizens of Brexitland, should they travel too widely, might start wondering why their homes were smaller, nastier, and more expensive than those of their neighbours. They might notice that there are places where schools are better staffed, university education more affordable, hospitals under less strain, elderly people cared for with love and dignity. They might wonder why a seat on a nice clean train in some countries costs so much less than standing in a smelly, overcrowded commuter train in the UK? They might start to laugh at the blinkered nastiness of the xenophobe press, sapping its power. They might appraise our own political system, rigged and manipulable by its privileged beneficiaries, and reckon that we deserve a higher calibre of polity and politician.

So I am proud to be a ‘citizen of nowhere’. ‘Nowhere’ is just a Brexit-word for all the other places where people like us live. We know that ‘nowhere’ is full of excitement and possibility. It’s about being open to ideas and experiences, willing to learn, willing to teach, willing to engage, and, yes, willing to argue, but with mutual respect and good humour.

Be a Citizen of Know-Where. If nothing else, it will irritate the hell out of Theresa May!

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The Invisible March

How to hide more than a 100,000 people in plain sight? That part is easy – pretend it never happened, and if you do accidentally mention it, make sure you call it something misleading.

So yesterday those 100,000+ people marched from Park Lane to Parliament Square. Mostly it was ignored by the media, especially the most trusted news source, the BBC. In effect, it never happened. A non-event, staged by non-people, nothing to see here, move along please.

As a youthful protestor for various causes, I got used to this. We were rent-a-mob, stuffed into student-union sponsored coaches, off for a jolly. It wasn’t fair then – our causes were real, from racism to nuclear weapons, from coal mines, to land mines – but there was a trace of truth to those who scorned us. Many who marched were not personally affected by the causes they supported, or else, as with nuclear weapons, the fears were almost too big to contemplate.

Yesterday was not like that.

The unreported march was not a single event, but the work of a nascent movement; a confusing, growing movement, angry, clever and energised. The unreported protest, where it did get a mention, was usually referred to as a ‘Pro-EU’ march, or a protest by supporters of the European Union. This, too, is incorrect, deliberately, knowingly incorrect. The march, and the movement, is not so much pro-EU, as anti-Brexit. That difference matters.

It’s also heresy, of course. In the post-coup country ruled by the authoritarian Brexit Party, (with its self-neutered Opposition, the Nice, Kind, Keep Your Fingers Crossed Brexit Party), to be anti-Brexit is to be an “Enemy of the People”, a “Remoaner”, people who should be “strung up from lamp posts”, or assassinated. “Enemies of the People” was a real headline in a mass-circulation, politically-influential newspaper. “Remoaner” is an unpleasant term of abuse I heard most recently on the leading BBC TV politics programme, The Sunday Politics this morning. The “stringing up from lamp posts”, and similar proposals of terror are all over social media, including some from office holders in political parties and public life. The assassination was of a Member of Parliament whose ‘crime’ was to campaign against Brexit. So this stuff, the calculated denigration of legitimate actors and actions in a democracy, is a real and present danger. And we were protesting against it. You might think that to be a mild response to the oppressive regime of the Brexit Party and their apologists.

The unreported march was something else, too. There was organisation behind it, crowd-funded, a spontaneous response to Brexit. But the numbers on that march were so much more than just a head-count. Some people came, as I did, on a locally-organised coach, paying our own fare. The local organisation which booked the buses, and used social media to promote the event and sell tickets, was a spontaneous coming together of people who meet in a room in a pub, cross-party, no-party, committed and energetic. I’m talking of Birmingham, but similar groups, ad-hoc, local, definitely neither ‘metropolitan elite’, nor ‘citizens of nowhere’ are everywhere, at least in England and Wales.

Other people came as individuals, couples, families, mobilised by social media, carrying home-made placards (often very clever and witty, sometimes stinging and angry), They came by public transport from across the country, self-motivated.

Think about that for a moment. We aren’t actually a very demonstrative nation. Protest is hard. Politics, indeed, is hard. Canvassers for all parties find the general public turned off by politics, ever-ready to slam a door in the face, and with a ready line in abuse. So for an individual, a couple, a family with young children, and in some cases, the family dog, to come along to a protest march is an act of heroic moral resolution. To turn up, you really have to believe, whole-heartedly, that a cause is right and just.

This has happened before. I had a few conversations yesterday with people who had last protested against the invasion of Iraq. They drew no parallels between the two events, other than to make guesstimates as to the size of the crowd. I will draw a parallel, though. The two million people who mobilised to try to stop the invasion of Iraq were ignored. Most of the media were against them, they did not sway the vote in the Commons. The Iraq war happened.

In 2003, the government, and Parliament, and most of the media, had their way. Some of them scorned the two million as nothing but irrelevant Trots and pacifists, dupes of the sloganising leaders of the Stop The War Coalition. The protestors didn’t matter.

History now suggests that they ought to have mattered. The protestors then were from that deep, and wide reservoir of people who aren’t Party die-hards, and who worry about things with great seriousness. They said then, that the fall-out, the repercussions of war, would be terrible and long lasting. What they didn’t explicitly prophesy was that those repercussions would rumble like a fault-line, through the body politic in Britain.

That protest marked the beginning of the end of the magic reign of Tony Blair and New Labour. That they won one more election can’t disguise how badly their vote was on the slide. The protests also doomed the neoliberal dreams of David Cameron and George Osborne, two men who called Blair ‘The Master’. In a way, the Establishment reaction to the 2003 protests foretold the casual hubris that ended in that ill-fated referendum last year.

The people spoke in 2003. Now diplomats and generals recognise that the wisdom of that crowd was more acute than any dodgy dossier, or desk-warrior of ‘liberal interventionism’.

The moral is this. Sometimes the worries that pull people out onto the street in thoughtful, peaceful, serious protest are worth taking seriously even when the might of Government, the legislature, and the press are against them.

For if Brexit was the inchoate revolt of the residual working class, and (more numerous in its ranks) the declining lower-middle class, the anti-Brexit movement is the educated, socially-liberal, internationally-minded, sometimes economically-precarious, new middle class making its voices heard.

This group, a product of the welfare state, and the expansion of access to higher education, is the part of society that gets things done. They know how to do things, they run things, they are practical and hands-on, but also serious thinkers, anxious to do the right thing, to act on evidence, to be rational. They don’t like spin, and short-termism, and the lies and distortions of politics as it has come to be done ‘to us’ over the last thirty or forty years.

So the invisible marchers of yesterday, we who won’t go away, we who do things, who know things, and who watch those in power, and are determined to hold them to account – you can pretend we don’t exist. For now.

Why Is Everything Shit?

Why is everything shit?

It’s a simple question. It gets phased in a lot of different ways. On a news discussion programme on the BBC it might be in the form of a wry nod to living in strange and unusual times. On Twitter it’s a viral video of a man jumping out of the window. In the heavyweight newspapers it is usually wrapped up in a lot of euphemistic words like ‘unprecedented’, ‘idiosyncratic’, ‘the old rules no longer apply’. But it comes down to the same thing. Why is everything shit?

The Government is panicked and incompetent. The Opposition has all the dynamism of someone woozily coming around from a general anaesthetic after having a hip replacement operation, dreaming of a nice cup of tea. The press is less Fourth Estate, than Divine Right of Barons. As for democracy, that subtle, complex form of representation, in which courtesy, respect for opponents, and the healthy knowledge that power can and will change hands, has been replaced by a reality TV, lottery-like notion of ‘winner takes all’. Suck it up, loser.

So how did this happen?

It happened because the glue that sticks things together has perished, and now flakes off, yellowed and dry, from the social institutions that used to make things work.

Some people point to the financial crisis which shook the world a decade ago, and still hasn’t been resolved. Others, on our local turf, anyway, think that the MPs expenses scandal, with the loss of trust that entailed, has made voters cynical and vengeful. Or it’s all about ‘out of touch liberal elites’. Or ‘fake news’. Or social media. Or a cultural rift between the urban, young, and educated, and the suburban, or rural, and old, and know-nothing. Take your pick, but there’s only a partial, sometimes vestigial, degree of truth in any of these suggestions.

For the rotting glue affects all of those things, but it is also about some very specific things.  I want to start with just one of them.

It is sometimes said that voters are unhappy with politicians, because in an era of globalisation, governments simply don’t have the power to take decisions that once they did. But that’s not true. They never had absolute power to make things happen. Events, dear boy. And vested interests, and lobbyists, and the economic and financial power of business. The scale of some of these forces might have changed, but they were always there.

But politicians, governments, worked very hard, over many lifetimes, to create what Steve Bannon, Prince of Darkness, called “the administrative state”. Are students of British politics any more taught of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report (1854)? That’s the point at which the British government decided to create a politically neutral administrative apparatus, staffed on merit, to run the functions of a complex, modern state. And whatever criticisms were rightly made of the Civil Service over the years, incompetence was rarely one of them, at least until recently.

Politicians stood for elections, voters chose the direction of travel, governments steered it, parliament legislated for it, and the Civil Service made it happen – or warned of the difficulties, if necessary. It was a ‘Rolls Royce machine’ as some politicians called it. Purred along nicely, the precision engineering of the quiet, confident Whitehall mandarins.

It was traditionally the left who carped about the Civil Service. In the days before all the Oxbridge double firsts made a bee-line for The City, the clever, posh and well-connected saw a career in the Civil Service as a desirable and high-status role. But whatever the mind-set, it did work, sometimes brilliantly. The complexity of something like the NHS was rolled out from scratch in less time than it took Andrew Lansley to take a hammer to it in 2010.

But, as with so many things, the rot seems to owe much to the Thatcher-Reagan era.

Public service ceased to be a respected and honourable role, but became a despised ‘bureaucracy’. Whoever had an ambition that wasn’t about amassing money, fast, and in obscene amounts, was a nobody. Politicians on the right came to deride and suspect their Civil Servants, viewing the warnings and caution as foot-dragging and negativity. They by-passed the Civil Service, bringing in ever more ‘special advisors’, and then they actively started to privatise or outsource the ‘administrative state’ itself.

And so we get here. As the security operation for the London 2012 Olympic Games showed in an embarrassingly public spotlight, the private sector is often all talk and no trousers. The Army, the very model of a state institution, stepped in with no fuss and quiet efficiency. But when its not so public – a private prison riot here, a disability benefits cock-up there, the loss of half a million confidential patient records somewhere else – then we see that cutting and de-skilling the Civil Service, and using the ‘lean, efficient’ private sector is a recipe for failure after failure.

For generations of politicians now think that they merely have to have a bright idea, and then hire a company to put it into action. Because PWC, or ATOS or whoever, will take the client’s cash (our taxes), and try to bodge something the client will like, regardless. The Civil Service, on the other hand, are more likely to offer words of caution. And no pushy politician with a career to build wants to hear that.

The withering of a functioning state is a major part of what has contributed to the declining public confidence in politicians.  Basically, they promise, but they lack the means, the expertise, to deliver.  No wonder people think politicians are liars.

There is more – much more – to be said about political parties without purpose, companies without accountability, and above all, the withering of local government. But right now, as the Prime Minister no one elected gets ready to trigger Article 50 to leave the European Union, it is as well to start with this one big part of why things are so shit.

Without the state, government doesn’t know how to do anything. They really don’t.