Thursday, 30 March 2017

Article 50 and Identity: what can we learn?



How European do you feel?  How does that feeling manifest itself?  Does that feeling really require to be validated by membership of supra-national institutions?

One of the things that struck me reading a lot of the response to the triggering of article 50 was how much of it was about identity.  People who had voted Remain felt personally bereft.  I found that remarkable for a number of reasons.

Although I personally feel European – that somehow Europeanness is part of my cultural background – I don’t feel the need for that to coincide with governmental structures.  I don’t feel less European today, nor do I expect to feel any less European in 2 years’ time when and if the UK finally leaves the EU.

Culture and government

Indeed, I don’t feel any facet of my cultural identity needs to coincide with governmental structures.  Quite the reverse: I am deeply suspicious of the idea that government maps onto a culture in any way.  Not only do I think that quite impossible, since cultures both overlap geographic boundaries and vary greatly within them, I also think it a dangerous idea for a state to adhere to.

Nor do I assume any unity of interests with governments or with state structures. Instead I work from the assumption that a government is something with which I will be in conflict when I fight to represent my interests and values.

Neither Leave nor Remain seemed worthy of my energy

I did not feel engaged with the EU referendum. Neither side seemed worthy of my energy. When I voted Remain, it was with no enthusiasm, and it was a last-minute decision.  In the end, it was a reaction against the tenor of the Leave campaign.  I was no heart-and-soul Remainer: I cannot bring myself to feel any love for the institutions of the EU.

The EU is a neoliberal project. The Lisbon Treaty of 2007, which we were led into by Gordon Brown, is a codification of neoliberal principles.  Far from being about protecting workers’ rights, it is about protecting the interests of the business elites. It is a prospectus for privatisation and deregulation, for eroding public health services and free education, and for decimating pension provision.

If Scotland becomes independent after a second independence referendum, I’d want it to follow policies that took a very different direction: that is exactly why I support it.  Not through some kind of misplaced civic pride, but because I want there to be change.  I’d want to see utilities, transport, and the mail service nationalised.  I’d certainly hope the EU’s illogical and wasteful agricultural and fisheries management could be avoided. And I’d strongly argue that a separate Scottish currency would be a necessity in order to avoid constraining the economic levers open to government.  All of this would be far easier within EFTA than within the EU; I fail to understand why a headlong dash back into the EU is seen by so many as a given.

If I can’t work up any enthusiasm for the institutions of the EU, nor can I give any backing to the Tory Brexit team.  They do not represent me or my interests.  I fear the outcome of David Davis’s “great repeal bill”, the effects of the sweeping powers we’re told it’ll bring.  I predict those powers will be used to benefit the already powerful, not the working class.  I do not trust Theresa May to represent me in any negotiations.  I do not expect the Tories to represent any interests other than those of capital.

That Letter’s No Mine

The Twitter hashtag that took off yesterday and which features on the front page of today’s National was quite correct: that letter’s no mine.  I will never unite behind a Tory agenda.

But on the other hand, as I read through the contributions to the hashtag, I had the uncomfortable feeling that the hashtag wasn’t mine either.  It was full of an identity politics that made me uneasy.  Too many contributions seemed too uncritical of the intuitions of the EU.  Too much went unexamined.

I know: it was an in-the-moment reaction.  But it seemed one based far more on identity and emotion than on either analysis or practical concerns.  When the independence referendum campaign is finally launched, I hope that the Yes side does not operate from the assumption that EU membership is a given.  And I sincerely hope that arguments in favour of membership would not be predicated on identity.  We are European no matter how governments choose to do business with each other, no matter what treaties are struck, no matter what grouping an independent Scotland joins.

However, there is something we can learn from the outpouring of emotion: identity does matter to people.  And if Yes wins, there will be identity Unionists who might feel just as bereft as the identity Remainers did yesterday.  We need to show people that the arguments are about practicalities and policy, and that they can still feel a sense of belonging to these islands, this archipelago, even if the polities within its geography change.  If we don’t do that, we risk an unhappy minority – perhaps a very large one.  That would be the payback for giving validity to identity politics in our campaign.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Remembrance of times past: Chilcot, Iraq, and having hindsight before the event

Like many people, the Chilcot findings got me thinking about the big anti-war demos on February 15th 2003.  Along with tens of thousands of others, I was at the one in Glasgow, with my partner and children.  Blair, speaking that day at his party's conference at the SECC, heard us outside and decided to ignore our concerns.

Blair has said in response to Chilcot that the post-invasion problems in Iraq could not have been foreseen, but they were - by millions.  We shouted our warnings at him and his cabinet.  We weren't magicians or mind readers, but we knew then what Chilcot has confirmed.

In remembrance of that day in February 2003, I reproduce here a report of the demo I wrote at the time.  My favourite bit is the words on my then 7-year-old daughter's homemade banner.  Her innocence then in some ways was also ours.  On 20th March that year, just over a month after that demo, I watched the reports of the first attacks on Iraq.  It was then that many learned for certain what they'd wanted to believe wasn't true: that a Labour prime minister could be just as jingoistic as a Tory one.  The innocence had been extinguished.



GLASGOW ANTI WAR PROTEST- 15th February 2003

My partner, two daughters and I arrived at Glasgow Green maybe 10.30, along with my mate Pete and his bagpipes, crossing the footbridge from Ballater Street. I texted our arrival to a few mates.

We set off to the People's Palace to try to find one of the friends I'd texted, but he must have got there earlier and joined the demo further up the queue. But some other mates were at the Obelisk, and we went over to track them down.

"Stop this War. Why do you want it anyway? Don't you know you might get killd?"

My eldest daughter had made her own banner, it read "Stop this War. Why do you want it anyway? Don't you know you might get killd?" We milled about and found some of our friends by a Marxism.org stall.

While we tried to track down some other friends, my partner got out the face paints and decorated a few of our party.

When we joined the queue waiting to move off, an anarchist girl gave my eldest daughter a small banner with a section of Picasso's Guernica on one side and No War But The Class War on the other.

She immediately abandoned her own banner to her little sister, proud to be holding a 'real' banner.

90 000

We finally got moving and the atmosphere was amazing! Some cops near us had told some stewards that the estimates were around 90 000 (so why did your bosses divide that by 3 when they spoke to the BBC, boys?).

The streets were totally full, and pubs and shops and flats had messages of support in the windows. Random cheers went up for reasons we couldn't see, but we joined in anyway, and people behind us followed us.

Fuck knows what was happening, but everyone was really happy about whatever it was! There was a drumming group behind us, and Pete was playing his bagpipes next to us. I knew my friend, Margo,  was somewhere with her band Samba Ya Bamba, but I think they were way ahead.

Samba bands, drummers, whistle players, pipers, stilt walkers, a giant anarchist dove, some banner-waving Quakers, people of many shades of opinion, some with totally unconnected banners.

A huge guy with a banner bearing the text of Burns' poem A Man's a Man For A That, a girl had one that read "Make Tea Not War". One said "Bomb Iraq? Blair, you must be on crack!" Another just said "Whatever".

The Saltmarket, Glasgow Cross, and the High Street were lined with folks waving and cheering, and when we finally passed St George Square onto St Vincent Street another huge cheer went up as we saw the whole street ahead full of people right up the hill to Blythswood.

When we got to the top of the hill, the whole of St Vincent Street all the way back was full of people, and friends still in Glasgow Green were texting asking where we'd got to. Meanwhile the front of the march had been at the SECC for hours.

The "Jericho Rumpus"

The SECC car parks were jam packed, and people had already started filtering away, but still the area was covered with people. We passed the Rotunda, but even though there was nowhere to go, people kept swarming in behind us.

We couldn't see the speakers, or hear them. But suddenly a huge noise went up. It was 2pm. This must be the "Jericho Rumpus". We all joined in, whistling, drumming, shouting, playing bagpipes. It was huge.

We tried to look for a friend's banner, but there was just no way we were going anywhere, so we slipped down a tarpaulin covered banking into a less populous area, where a striking fire crew were, and some stalls, a guy set fire to a Union Jack. The people cheering all had SNP badges.

We texted lost friends, but then decided to head off. We wound back to Sarti's in Wellington Street, and had some coffee; other marchers had had the same idea, but it wasn't as crowed as places we'd passed. Nobody blinked at our face paint. Then we set off home.



Reports on that day in the media:

On this day in Glasgow’s History: 2003, thousands protest against war in Iraq

Prime Minister Tony Blair was speaking at his party’s spring conference at the Armadillo, but as he took to the stage, thousands were gathering outside to demonstrate against the coming war. (STV).

Organisers hail anti-war protest

Organisers said they were "thrilled" as tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Glasgow to declare their opposition to war against Iraq.  (BBC)

UK's 'biggest peace rally'

Thousands of anti-war protesters also took to the streets of Glasgow, marching through the city centre towards the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, where the Labour party's spring conference is being held. (Guardian).

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Racist incidents - how have you responded?

Bureaucratic responses will be counterproductive.  Only solidarity and mutual aid will be effective.


If you’ve been shocked by the reports of a rise in racist incidents in response to the Brexit referendum, you’re probably wondering what you can do.  The answer is remarkably simple.
According to the reports, racists are not restricting their intolerance to people who have come from other EU countries exercising freedom of movement, but also non EU immigrants and even UK-born people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

There has been an ugly undercurrent stirred up, and it is erupting to the surface.

You may have read of the Amnesty campaign to “Tell Your Local Council To Stand Against Hate”.
 
“Violence. Vandalism. Hate speech. Racist slogans on t-shirts. In the last few days, reports of hate crimes in the UK have increased. Fuelled by years of hostile rhetoric, coupled with divisive campaigns, we are now seeing racism and xenophobia on the rise on our streets and in our communities.

Local leaders must condemn these actions immediately and do everything in their power to make people safe and welcome. Tell your council to speak out against racism, xenophobia and hate crimes now.” - Amnesty UK.


You may have responded to it.  I did.  But other than letting your local councillors know there are anti-racists in their ward, it’s unlikely to do much good.  Indeed, its results may even be counter-productive.

Confirming the bias

The people expressing racism are, like many of us, angry at bureaucratic institutions, including local government.  Like many of us, they feel local authorities are not listening to them.  But those lending a sympathetic ear to racist ideas probably believe councils are favouring the “out groups” ahead of them.  A lecture on racism from a well-meaning council motion is only liable to confirm those views.  “See, it’s always ‘them’ before us.  It’s always us in the wrong”.

We are social animals.  We learn our sense not just of social norms but actually our sense of self from those around us.  The strongest learning tool is the disapproval of our peers and the people we respect.  And after that, the positive example of our peers and people we respect.  We need to do both of those things in our own communities and workplaces.  We need to rebuild communities that uphold values of solidarity and mutual aid.  We need to show that these values are practical values; that they work; that they are not just about “being nice”, but can get things done which improve things not just for others, but also for ourselves.  And that in rebuilding these values we can rebuild self-respect.

What can I do?

So what practical things can you do?  Well, have you made contact with local groups in your community? In my area there is a Polish group, a Chinese group, an Indian women’s group, a Pakistani welfare group, a Russian group.  We know that these people may have experienced the kind of “contact” racists want to make.  Have you offered the kind of support anti-racists can offer?

A group of like-minded friends could get in touch with the groups in your area and say “Is there anything we can do to help?”  What’s the worst that can happen? They might say “no thanks, we’re fine”.  But at least they’ll know there’s people who want to support them in a practical way, rather than just with a few posts on social media.

If there are on-going things you can do, you might want to form a group in your local community to target racism.  This should aim to do practical things, not just pass resolutions.  It should demonstrate solidarity, not just espouse it.  It should directly involve people from your local community in solving the problems together.

What should it do specifically?  I don’t know what’s going on it your community, or how your community is able to respond.  Only you do.  But whatever it is, make it something practical.
But the first step is contact: “Hello, we’ve heard what’s been happening.  We want to help”.

Monday, 27 June 2016

A Review of Where We Stand

What sort of future will emerge from the post-Brexit result dust cloud?

The post-Brexit referendum UK is looking shell-shocked.  Or rather, the Westminster political class is.  The Leave camp turned out to have no post-win plan , and the Remain camp to have no contingency.  The Tories – the party nominally in the driving seat - don’t know whether they’ll be led into the Brexit negotiations by a Remainer (the vast majority of their parliamentary number) or a Leaver, and Boris Johnson, the Tory Leave camp’s biggest star, looks like he’s back-peddling with all his might against the tide that swept his campaign to victory.  The Labour opposition, rather than step into the vacuum, has decided to self-combust. 

Only in Scotland does the political class have any sense of direction, although here too there is a tide that they have to ride.  Having set in motion a plan to keep Scotland in the EU, Sturgeon has raised expectations amongst her party faithful and the wider pro-independence movement that indyref2 is immanent.  The faithful may be jumping the gun.  

Scotland in the EU and the UK

A closer reading of Sturgeon’s statement in the wake of the referendum result suggests that her immediate goal is Scotland as an EU member region of a Brexit UK.  Even Alex Salmond, no longer at the helm but widely respected in his party and thought to be less inclined to caution about indyref2, on the special edition of Question Time on Sunday talked not about calling indyref2 but about Holyrood having the right to call it if it saw fit.  

The fine distinction was promptly missed by opponents and supporters alike.  Salmond has said that the Brexit vote has made Scottish independence inevitable.  He may be right, but the timescale is still far from settled.  And voices cautioning that Remain votes do not in any case necessarily translate to Yes votes need to be heeded.  The Survation poll in today’s Daily Record is one poll, in the immediate wake of the Brexit result, and though that poll gives a majority for independence it does not give a majority for calling indyref2.  The case still needs to be made, as Nicola Sturgeon, in her Bute House address, demonstrated she was fully aware.

How will capital react?

The reaction of capital is less readable.  George Osborne emerged from his bunker this morning to try to show there’s a steady hand at the tiller, trying to perform the same manoeuvre as Sturgeon: to reassure business that change will be minimal.  Except that he can only deliver a very short period of no change, since he was forced to admit that adjustment in the UK economy needs to await the new prime minister.  So even if business nerves were in any way mitigated, business is still being left to take its own longer view.  

Those of a Lexit persuasion still hope that this shock to the system will allow for a realignment in the relationship between labour and the capitalist class.  Capital is of course a relationship rather than a fixed entity or immutable object, and we are all part of that relationship.  That relationship was hitherto defined in the UK by the neoliberal-inspired rules of the EU, but with those rules all but gone and before new ones have a chance to be written by the managerial class – our politicians – the working class has its opportunity to make its presence felt and redefine the relationship.  That is the theory.  

Listening to the messages

In essence it is correct, but the challenge is that the far right is making its bid to be seen as speaking for the English working class.  The result, it is saying, is a vote of confidence in their message, and vindication that their concerns are the concerns of the majority.  This needs to be challenged.  But it will not be effectively challenged by painting all Leave voters as racists and bigots.  On the Leave side of the panel of Sunday’s Question Time, the most coherent voice was that of Giles Fraser. We deprecate the message from voices like his at our peril.

Shaping the future

Furthermore, in Scotland we need to ensure that we do not simply look to a managerial solution to the vacuum.  If we allow business to dictate the terms of Scotland’s new shape, or allow our political class to interpret business’s terms as synonymous with “stability”, then we will have missed an opportunity. Remember that despite the strong majority for Remain in Scotland, that should not be interpreted as uncritical enthusiasm for the institutions of the EU.  Like in the rest of the UK, lots of different motives lay behind the way people voted.  The simple question asked on the ballot paper was not the nuanced questions of their own making that the electorate chose to answer.

Now is not the time to simplify our demands.  Independence for Scotland is not a goal in itself, just as Brexit for England and Wales is in itself is no sort of vision of the future.  It is up to us in all parts of the UK to put colour into those futures and to give them shape.  

Sunday, 26 June 2016

What are Nicola Sturgeon's immediate goals?


Is the press still misreading the first minister's intentions?

Common Space published the following opinion piece on Friday afternoon:

Why we should pay attention to Sturgeon's "common cause" with London remark

If we agree that this analysis of Nicola Sturgeon’s statement is correct, and at this blog we do, perhaps we should be reading the actual words in the first minister's address in more detail; in a way that the media and politicians from other parties either aren’t doing, or are pretending not to, especially given her latest gambit: "Nicola Sturgeon says MSPs at Holyrood could veto Brexit".

Here's her statement from Friday morning in full.

"As things stand, Scotland faces the prospect of being taken out of the EU against our will."

Key words: "taken out" – Translation: we're still in.  We want to stay that way.

"I regard that as democratically unacceptable"

Translation: we're using the large majority within the area of a devolved polity as our justification for that polity to stay in the EU.

"Starting this afternoon Ministers will be engaged in discussions with key stakeholders - particularly the business community"

Translation: This is aimed at you: pay attention. We're keen to retain access to the single market for you. Interested?

"emphasise that as of now we are still firmly in the EU. Trade and business should continue as normal and we are determined that Scotland will continue now and in the future to be an attractive and a stable place to do business."

Translation: Stable place. Still in EU. Do you read, business community?

"Secondly, I want to make it absolutely clear that I intend to take all possible steps and explore all options to give effect to how people in Scotland voted - in other words, to secure our continuing place in the EU and in the single market in particular."

Translation: for the slow to latch on, I’ll repeat this bit. And pay attention, I’m saying all options. So not just Indy, do you follow me?

"I will also be communicating over this weekend with each EU member state to make clear that Scotland has voted to stay in the EU - and that I intend to discuss all options for doing so."

Translation: all options. Not just Indy.

"I should say that I have also spoken this morning with Mayor Sadiq Khan and he is clear that he shares this objective for London - so there is clear common cause between us."

Translation: Just in case you still don't get this, I'm addressing these hints to the UK-wide business community, not just Scottish business. I'm saying 'how about if Scotland tries to stay in the UK and in the EU? You'd still have access to the single market.'.

On indyref 2 she says:

"It would not be right to rush to judgment ahead of discussions on how Scotland’s result will be responded to by the EU."

Translation: I've got this card but I'm not playing it yet, and maybe I don't need to.

"And we said clearly that we do not want to leave the European Union.

I am determined that we will do what it takes to make sure that these aspirations are realised."

Translation: My priority here is to stay in the EU, not necessarily independence, though I do have that option if necessary.

So she's said lots of times. "All options", indyref2 "on the table" (along with other options), and that it may be "highly likely", but if we move quickly enough maybe it's not inevitable.

She's planning an EU member region of the U.K. That's her first preference. If it has to be a stop gap, fair enough, but it doesn't have to be. That's her message, and she's sending it to UK business and European leaders, not the press.

This is intended as a message of stability to European leaders, because it potentially keeps UK business in the EU and avoids the breakup of a neighbouring state. Because the immanent alternative is UK business outside of the EU and the breakup of the UK.  Which would be more attractive to European leaders?

Remember, Denmark has two home nations outside of the EU - the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Is this slightly different? Of course. But we're not in a hypothetical situation, this is real. Here’s the idea. What do you say guys? That's her message.

To the business community in the UK, she's saying: we can keep open your access to the single market.  This is the continuity and period of calm you require.

Her biggest issue is whether the party faithful will buy the idea of Scotland as an EU member region of the UK.  But the notion that an indyref2 would automatically be won is a risky basket to put all your eggs in.  Can we be certain enough No voters were EU enthusiasts? And can we be certain that enough Yes voters will stay Yes voters in a scenario that will have a lot of challenges not relevant last time?

My best guess is that her position will eventually transpire to be that we need to steady the ship first and foremost.  That once we set up this EU-member region of the UK we can decide whether the time is right for indyref2.  We don’t yet know what effect Brexit will have on the EU.  So let’s take this a step at a time.  Will the party faithful remain gung ho for indyref2?  That’s the balancing act she needs to perform, and is perhaps partly what she had in mind when she talked about the difficulties of leadership in her statement.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Listen to the voice of the English working class


Rather than paint the 52% who voted Leave as xenophobes, bigots and far right sympathisers, we need to listen to what they’re trying to tell us.

England hasn't had an indyref in which to debate its positive hopes for the kind of future it would like to see, and it didn't have the option to voice the same kind of protest Scotland did in the 2015 general election (they had mainly a choice of neoliberal parties who haven't listened to the working class for decades). This was their chance to kick the establishment and they took it. Nobody can blame them for that.

It's regrettable that the win for Leave can now be spun as a vote of confidence in the UKIPpy right.

Now that Cameron has gone, we can expect the Tories to turn right, thinking that's the message they've received. But is it? Isn't it possible that forgotten working class England just felt powerless, excluded, unheeded and angry? Farage will say it's about immigration. Do we simply take his word for that?

The plan for the left in England should be: listen to the voice of the English working class and amplify that.

If, however, middle class liberals in the media and the establishment hear what's been said and say "you're all racists", then they show only that they're still not listening.

I'm not in England. The dynamic here is somewhat different. But the working class in England has spoken with a louder voice than it has for a long time. If it is left to the xenophobic right to act as interpreter, then the blame is squarely at the feet of those who didn't listen for decades and are still not listening now: the cozy establishment consensus.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The EU referendum: is there an anti neoliberal way to vote?

The EU referendum is on Thursday, and I’m still undecided as to what I’ll do.

This campaign has been in stark contrast to the independence referendum campaign.  It has been un-engaging, unedifying, and I’ve felt no connection to it whatever.  The public reaction has seemed to me completely different from my experience of the independence referendum, too: this time nobody has talked to me about it at parties, in the pub, in the barber’s shop, in the street.  There is no excitement, no spontaneity, no feeling of mass participation in a debate about what kind of future we’d like to see. The level of “debate” on social media has been lacklustre, the official debate from our political class has been uninformative, and the coverage in the mainstream media has seemed to me to belong to a different planet to the one I inhabit.

We’re being asked by some to vote in favour of remaining in the EU on the basis of a description of the EU that really doesn’t match the reality.  It is not the great protector of migrants, it is not the champion of the workers, nor is it even a bulwark against the far right, as just a glance at the far right in EU countries will show you. For me to vote to remain in the EU would require a level of cognitive dissonance I don’t think I could maintain.

I think it's worth saying that the project that some people think they signed up to - a Europe of cooperation, of solidarity, of mutual aid, of democratic institutions we can all be part of, etc - is a good and worthwhile project.   It's just that the EU has demonstrated that it isn't it.

I've always favoured a closely linked Europe of solidarity between peoples.

The EU has shown, in its treatment of Greece, that it is not the institution to deliver that. It is instead a bankers', bureaucrats' and technocrats' tyranny that can overturn the democratically expressed wishes of any member state it feels deserves to be humiliated for daring to question the austerity consensus.   In or out we get austerity, and “remain” austerity has demonstrated it’s no friendly affair.

The EU has shown, in its treatment of migrants, that it is not the welcoming place it paints itself.  The razor wire, the grubby deals to deport Syrian refugees from Greece, the German and Danish border controls, the Calais “jungle”.  That is all happening within the EU.

The EU is a neoliberal project. The Lisbon Treaty of 2007, which we were led into by Gordon Brown, is a codification of neoliberal principles.  Far from being about protecting workers’ rights, it is about protecting the interests of the business elites. It is a prospectus for privatisation and deregulation, for eroding public health services and free education, and for decimating pension provision.

None of that looks like evidence of solidarity between peoples to me.

I’ve been amazed to see on social media people who were pro-Yes suggesting that voting Leave necessarily makes you a xenophobic bigot; have they got such short memories?  Voting Yes did not necessarily make you an anti-English bigot – that was part of a smear campaign.  And frankly it made me more determined to vote Yes.  Why on earth would recipients of that smear tactic think it will have a different effect on me this time?

It’s true that there has been almost no space at all given to a left case for exit.  The mainstream media has been dominated by volleys between the Cameron-led neoliberal camp and the Johnson-led neoliberal camp.  I have no horse in that race.  The fact that this version of the race is pretty much all there is to be seen in mainstream media coverage probably accounts for the blanket disengagement from the process I have experienced out here in the real world of bus stops and barbers.

People on social media say that a vote for Leave will give succour to Farage and Johnson.  Does a vote for Remain not by the same logic give succour to Cameron and the CBI?  I don’t want to give succour to either pairing.  But is that the best argument for voting either way?  That you don’t like some of the people who are also voting that way?  I’m tempted to say “a plague on both of your houses”, although I’m aware that this seems little better than wishing a plague on one house more than the other.

My choice seems to be to abstain.  I may still be undecided by this time on Thursday.


Update: Undecided until the evening of Thursday, in the end I voted Remain through fear that a Leave win might be seen as a vote of confidence in the UKIPpy right.   Now that a Leave win has come to pass, I hope it will not give legitimacy to a xenophobic lurch to the right.