Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Backward to the future – How English!

Englishness – final part: solutions.

The images below show residential quarters of three small British towns. It is possible to identify where they were taken?

LMCOHE

The first image comes from northern Scotland, not far from Inverness; the second from southern East Anglia, and the third from East Devon. The straight-line distance between the first and the other two is about 460 miles each, while the second and third are about 200 miles apart.

But in many ways, they could almost be parts of the same place. Apart from some climate-related differences, there is really little to separate them – and in a way, I believe this is a profound expression of the identity crisis within Britain, England in particular.

As I discussed previously, Englishness is an elusive concept. While the Scots, Welsh and Irish have, if anything strengthened the celebrations of their national days in recent years, St George’s Day remains a Cinderella – or an embarrassment. There are many reasons for this, and the British are not the only nation to fight shy of such overt patriotism – but as anyone who has experienced national days in France or even reserved Switzerland will know, they can have a powerful impact on people’s sense of identity and ‘belonging’. People celebrate them because they choose to, not because they’re told to.

The purpose of the three images is to illustrate how little regard we have in this country for regional differences. It is true that the pictures were intentionally selected to show this; the more historic parts of the three towns do look rather different. But given how important ‘home’ is to people’s sense of identity, it is perhaps concerning that for a hundred years or more, we have increasingly expunged localness from people’s dwelling-places. And what we have replaced it with largely lacks character of any sort at all.

We don’t seem to be making much headway either: while more recent builds sometimes incorporate nods to local vernacular, they are rarely little more than stick-on additions to developers’ standard products. And the quality is so poor! The build and environment of the average British residential area more closely resembles what I have seen in some former eastern-bloc countries than most of our western European neighbours.

Such things might not seem the most obvious place to start when addressing a crisis of national identity – but a moment’s thought might show that the places where people live – where they most closely identify with – might be precisely the place to start. If we are to address this perceived deficiency, then no amount of flag-waving ceremonial can achieve the same impact as attending to the basics of ordinary ‘lived lives’.

We need to address the fact that the traditional nation-state may no longer be the most appropriate model for identity-loyalty. In fact, it may never have been. Prior to the nineteenth century, most communities had a much more local sense of themselves; before the coming of the railways, neither time nor currency was fully standardised.

What happened since may be seen as “progress”, but there is no guarantee that people’s fundamental psychological needs have kept up – particularly for those who have least access horizon-broadening education and travel, and the ability to benefit from it. (Even where I live, a mere 45 miles from London, there are still people who see those from the next village, three miles away, as ‘other’; it is easily done…)

The nation-state is arguably the product of a past era, whose purpose was not to serve its citizens, but to compete externally with other nation-states. To that end, it was necessary to construct a common sense of purpose and commitment within the population-workforce. That was particularly effectively done in the UK due to its hierarchical social structures, strong ruling class and the state’s longevity. History speaks for itself.

But the fact that we have these top-down national structures is no guarantee of the depth to which they really penetrate into people’s real identities. Identity is primarily a matter of personal experience; it is not really something that can be commanded. In the modern era, a more widely educated population has started to see nationalism for the construct that it is; groups of all kinds are demanding the right to define their own identities.

At a more local level, nationwide policies have eroded the local distinctiveness that perhaps resonates more fully with people in terms of their personal identity. The fact that one is almost obliged live in bland, identical houses the length of this nation – ones that show no respect whatsoever to the physical or cultural environments in which they are situated – can be seen as an important expression of that erasure.

A significant defining difference between the UK and much of the rest of Europe was the experience of 1939-45. The nations currently with the most stable social settlements seem largely to be those which were forced to re-build from the ground up in the post-war period. They had every incentive to create structures and mindsets that would not lead them back to their past – including the EU; they seem to have very largely succeeded.

In the UK, by comparison, the experience of “winning” the War led to the further entrenching of dated attitudes and structures that have become increasingly unfit for modern purpose. One of those was the enduring strength of the centralised nation-state. Other countries that tended in a similar way, for example France and Italy, have increasingly been forced to acknowledge that regionalism is necessary to accommodate popular demand.

But in the UK, the trend has been in precisely the opposite direction. There was no incentive to do otherwise while the nation’s entire structure was predicated on social hierarchy and the preservation of the elite classes. One of the reasons that the houses in those photographs are so dismal is that the living conditions of the “ordinary people” have simply not been seen as sufficiently important in the corridors of power for anyone to do much about it.

The same could be said for almost any aspect of this nation; this has led to the gross socioeconomic polarisation that we see today – and which in turn undoubtedly fed the disaffection that ironically caused much of the population to turn against an EU whose nearer member-states arguably represent models that could help us to solve some of these problems. It certainly applied to education – the want of which (in an intellectual as opposed to functional sense) also fed Brexit because much of the population was neither sufficiently engaged nor equipped to make the complex decision with which it was presented.

So it may be that we need to go “backward to the future”. The crisis in identity is in large part based in the fact that the one we already have was built for an earlier era, one where authoritarian imposition was sufficient to make people “buy in”. That identity – and almost all of the cultural icons that came to represent it – were based overwhelmingly on class hierarchy rather than anything more universal. The elite called all the shots; the middle tried to conform – and the rest were left to define themselves with the scant pickings that were left. It was based on competition for privilege, and top-down control, rather than genuine collaboration in a shared identity.

This mindset is still far more dominant in the British psyche today than many realise. Almost all aspects of British society and culture still hinge on social signalling and competitiveness, rather than any common sense of identity (the only sharing is within our internal tribes). What we eat, wear, inhabit or drive are more signals of social status than anything else. Any glance through the Sunday supplements will reveal endless role-models for status-seeking. All that has changed – if anything – is that money and material goods have come to assume a more visible aspect of that labelling, while ephemeral cultural goods such as art, literature and civic duty have declined.

In the process, people’s more instinctive identities, focused on much smaller areas, were overridden. The construction of identikit mass housing the length of the nation from the nineteenth century on was just one particularly visible example – superficially unifying, but only in an impoverished sense – and to an identity that they did not necessarily embrace.

In general, the concerns of government have not been the practical emancipation of the general populace. The Right has increasingly bulwarked the existing hierarchy, while the Left has mostly sought to replace one elite with another. What is really needed is for the concept of social elitism to be dispensed with altogether. This might seem naively idealistic – yet it is my repeated and persistent impression that social competition and exclusivity is simply a much less significant feature of society in places such as The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. It is not that they reject it: they don’t need to. It barely even figures. An acquaintance who moved to France with relatively little knowledge of that country recently observed to me how much more genuinely egalitarian it is than the UK – and despite the glorious revolution, France is hardly the best example. The need to climb the ladder is inversely proportional to conditions at its foot; it is those that have never been paid sufficient attention to in Britain.

By removing competitive elitism, the matter of individual and group identities can shift to being something more genuinely universal and inclusive. This is why, I believe, we get such as strong sense of collective culture and ‘identity’ when we visit countries where that is the case: their cultural capital of all sorts – both high and low – is not fragmented by class, but is “owned” by a much wider section of the populace. Food, art, fashion, décor, music and more are simply less obviously a matter of monopolisation by a small elite. That is not to say it doesn’t exist – think BCBG signalling in Paris for example – but it is not particularly socially-exclusive to go to the opera in Italy – because opera is “owned” by nearly everyone. Even in the world of fashion, designer clothing is more often sold on its quality and style; less-often on its “exclusivity”. Scandinavian countries, of course, take equality several stages further. And as a result, you also rarely see the inverse-snobbery of bling and chavism where extreme (or inverted) social climbing attempts to misappropriate things perceived to be outside its natural territory.

So the key to curing England’s identity crisis is, ironically to do “less England”. Given that so much of its traditional identity is saturated with the issues discussed above, we need to find a different basis on which to build. The most obvious thing to use is regionalism. Everyone has to live somewhere, and without recourse to gated communities, places are difficult to make exclusive. Places are generally things experienced (“cognitively owned”) by all. It could be made a lot more so if land ownership were not so overwhelmingly private… In effect, we need to break England up into its constituent regions – not only in an administrative and economic sense – but in a cultural one too – and give them to their people.

Baden-Württemberg in Germany is a land about 150 miles by 100; Bavaria is somewhat larger at about 200 by 150. But both are not radically different in size from the standard economic regions which already exist in Britain. (Scotland by area may already be too large as a single unit). The difference with länder in Germany, cantons in Switzerland, regions in Italy and France is that those all have a cultural and geographic identity as opposed to a purely administrative one, as is the low-key British norm. It is not a panacea: there are internal tensions, for example, between Baden and Württemberg and between Swiss cantons (not to mention the Belgian provinces…) – but it is also interesting that there was significant outcry in France at the recent re-consolidation of smaller-sized regions into larger blocs.

The question is how to do this – but the answer is not as difficult as it might seem; again we can take ideas from other countries. Those standard regions – or something like them – need to be explicitly identified and named in the public consciousness in a way that they currently are not. They need to be given their own regional governments and state capitals. They need to be given flags, signage – and perhaps even anthems. They need to have the power to vary local laws and taxes; to exert control over matters like planning and environmental protection. They need to be able to champion their distinctiveness in matters such as food, history, accents, customs, landscape, economy, architecture and transport. This last is significant: a way of binding a region is through creating the perception of regional integration. It works on the railways in some areas, such as Scotrail and Greater Anglia – but they need to strengthen the regional emphasis. These regions need to be given meaningful budgets in order to promote these things. They then need to send representatives to London.

EA
East Anglia’s flag

It would all feel rather artificial at first, of course. There would no doubt be huge scepticism. But a concerted programme of gentle, benign state-building over a period of decades would start to change this – assisted by the generational churn. And over time, I believe people would start to acquire meaningful identities based on places rather than social status. Rivalries would probably emerge – as to some extent already exist – but that would probably be a good thing, so long as they were gentle. Existing identities in some parts of the country could be used as a basis – but they would need to shift from the rather defensive semi-defiance of today into something more wholly positive.
As this became established, people would start to feel pride and security in those identities; they would “own” the iconography that went with them in a more authentic, less defensive way than now – and they might hopefully perceive those who chose to migrate to their regions as welcome arrivals in a shared enterprise that was strong enough to assimilate them.

In the long run, I think this would also shift British perceptions of the rest of Europe too – not only because that is where many of those migrants might come from – but because we would feel that we could engage with the rest on a much more equal, proactive footing. It is worth noting that German länder retain direct representation at the EU in Brussels. On the fourth flag pole, along with the regional national and union flag, could fly the gold-stars-on-blue: something else that has never routinely happened in this country. At that stage, we might finally be ready to re-join.

But whether a nation that seems so culturally atrophied at all levels that it is terrified of voting for any change at all will ever manage to enact this, is a question of an entirely different magnitude.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Ditch the Dogma?

I have never belonged to a political party. Well, almost never. I joined the Labour Party for a short while, with the explicit intention of electing Jeremy Corbyn. I believed – and still do – that his policies were what the country needs at present. (It was the only time in my life where my vote has had any meaningful effect. Afterwards, my membership lapsed, as I felt the job was done, and the Party should not be further influenced by arrivistes).

For what it’s worth, I still think that move was successful. For all Corbyn’s subsequent disappointments, he has succeeded in shifting the national agenda to the Left. He put properly social-democratic policies back into the public arena. That may be his legacy.

But after the initial shock of last week’s election result, I have a problem. I have inadvertently found myself not disagreeing with a few of the things Boris Johnson has now said. I am entirely aware of the great likelihood that much of it is hot air, perhaps even intentionally so. I am not about to start trusting the man one iota. But more than that, as I said above, I am not and never will be, dogmatically partisan.

My political decisions derive purely from aligning my wishes and beliefs for my country with a party that says it will deliver them. It has never been a perfect fit; that’s life. Normally I have been best accommodated by the left-of-centre parties. But if another part of the political spectrum starts making noises that I agree with, why should I dismiss them purely on tribal grounds? Not doing so is surely the mark of a modern, independent-minded voter, and of politics working properly. A bigger failure was the tradition of voting tribally, according to generations of family loyalty, with one party sanctified and the others condemned purely as a matter of ritual.

In the last days, Johnson has reportedly said:

  • The Conservative Party needs to change for good. Err, yes.
  • The government’s newly-elected northern MPs need to “deliver” for their constituencies. Err, yes.
  • That those northern votes are probably only loaned to the Conservatives. Err, yes.
  • That he has “got the message” on the NHS and will enshrine higher spending in Law. Err, yes.
  • That he will invest in rail transport and other infrastructure. Err, yes.
  • That we need to come together as a nation. Err, yes.
  • That we will shake up the Civil Service. Err, yes – with reservations over how and why.

It’s hardly a full manifesto-worth of agreement, and once again, I concede that what he says and what he does may well be very different things – but he would hardly be the first politician for whom that was true. Yet if what I perceive as the ‘right’ decisions are made for the country, does it really matter very much who makes them? Isn’t that the whole point of representational politics?

I have read much about the poor state of British government. There are plenty of authoritative, independent writers such as Anthony King who advocated a major overhaul of the Civil Service years ago. Its upper echelons have possibly been a major obstacle to change in Britain for too long. There was a reason so many politicians loved Sir Humphrey Appleby: they recognised the accuracy of the character. For all that Appleby has a point (below) surely the prospect of dismantling such pillars of the establishment ought to appeal to the Left?

There are clearly big risks – not that the nation now has much choice but run with them. Regrettably, matters such as electoral reform are probably once again out of the question for the time being: Johnson hardly has the incentive to look at it.

And then there is the matter of Brexit. On this, I am resolutely and implacably opposed to Johnson’s past direction of travel. It is a defining matter;  even alone it ensures that I will never actually vote Conservative.

But that does not imply there is nothing to be done. It pays to listen to your opponents. The much-despised Dominic Cummings is no fool, and he may have a point when he claims that the Remain movement inadvertently hardened the likely outcome by making compromise more difficult. Johnson is now largely free of the need to pander to Nigel Farage and his own hard-liners too, if he so chooses. There is some evidence to suggest that he is not a hard Brexiter by instinct. As a teacher, I know there are times when you have to put your foot down, to over-state your case.

There have been a few other noises from Conservative MPs about recognising the depth of feeling of pro-Europeans. That itself is progress. Sometimes, in order to achieve (some of) your objectives, it is also necessary to give some ground in order to allow your opponent to come towards a mid-point. So there is perhaps still a slim chance that Brexit will be soft, which while still objectionable, is less so than the other type. 

An underlying tenet of the Remain campaign is presumably that it values European ways of doing things. When it comes to politics, the ‘European Way’ involves talking to your opponents, trying to find consensus and compromise, metaphorically holding your nose – and working with them where possible. That approach was also defended by the Left over Corbyn’s contact with various rebel groups.

By contrast, the stubborn tribalism seen in the Brexit conflict – which involved a bunker mentality on both sides – did nothing more than perpetuate the traditionally confrontational nature of British politics. It is all too evident where that has now led. For all that pro-Europeans portray themselves as compassionate, reasonable people, there has been a lot of talk that does not really fit that description, even if it didn’t quite plumb the depths of the Brexiters. No matter how much they feel they were forced into this, the ‘big’ thing to do now is to play a part in the reconciliation process. It will not be easy – but that is the European approach. The Far Right, in particular thrives on uncompromising attitudes from others; this somehow needs to be defused rather than stoked.

There is a need to start looking for places, no matter how slim, where agreement can be found. Perhaps the starting point is the relative consensus about the fundamental problems facing this country, irrespective of their attributed causes.

Pro-Europeans do not need to set aside their views; indeed they need to argue for them all the more strongly in future. Part of the European movement’s failure has been the absence of challenge to forty years of misinformation; that needs to change. But there is now a need to engage with the opposition in the hope that at least a tolerable compromise can be reached. Has Johnson just hinted at willingness?

There is a strong possibility that I am being too optimistic, born from nothing more than temporary relief at the removal of uncertainty. Fundamental beliefs need to be protected. Extreme caution will be very necessary. But I think we should not be too hasty to condemn developments that have not yet happened, which may be born more of fear and disillusionment than clear thinking – and we should also be ready to endorse positive actions if and when they do occur – even if they are a compromise on our ideal situation – and even – perhaps especially? – when they come from our opponents.

In this, I think the EU itself has been a model institution: willing beyond the call of duty to engage with a withdrawing UK despite its regret at the situation, standing firm on its own fundamental position – and seeking a workable compromise.

That is the modern European way.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

If you want to understand the UK election result, look at Ireland, not the continent.

Back in 2015, at the end of a more innocent age, Tim Marshall wrote a book called Prisoners of Geography. In it, he argued that the principal governing force behind human activity is not, as we choose to think, free will – but the geographical configuration of the planet on which we live.

Geopolitics is not a widely-discussed subject – at least not explicitly so, though according to Marshall, much of what happens in the world is underpinned by it. This is no less true of the 2019 British General Election result, which saw a right-wing nationalist party returned with an increased majority – and the issue that underlay it: Brexit.

Pro-European Britons, particularly on the Left, may be reeling under what they see as the denial of the self-evident truth of the modern world, namely the U.K.’s future as a social-democratic member of the E.U. It was very attractive to a certain sort of well-travelled, often-educated Briton for whom the EU had increasingly felt like home – me included.

But our dream of the place we earnestly believe that Britain needs to be is, and always has been, compromised by those pesky geopolitics. The 2019 election has just shown this once again: our worldview is simply not persuasive enough to carry a decisively large percentage of the wider British public with it. The tough fact is, the U.K. is marginal to the European land mass, and it has always had split loyalties as a result; EU membership was simply not important enough to many enough for the issue to carry the election. And that’s without considering Britain’s history, which has left it with a deluded sense of its own importance. For centuries, British policy was to divide the continent in order to prevent an anti-British alliance (which itself may have been more neurosis than real threat – but it worked). What has really changed? But maritime nations are no longer strategically pivotal; instead, they have become marginal. The British seem not to have noticed.

The Interrail generation has always ‘read’ the U.K. from its proximity to the continent. We travelled widely; we formed international friendships; we eagerly grasped every shred of evidence that the U.K. was gradually becoming more like the rest of the Europe that we saw and admired. It was not a delusion: particularly in the last twenty years, since the internet turbocharged communications, there has indeed been convergence, some visible, some less so. Eurosceptics glued to their TVs during the Champions’ League know not what they do. Eurostar altered perceptions too – albeit mostly for those living in the South East. The fact that the British economy shed its post-war difficulties was probably also due to integration with a larger entity – that effect has repeatedly been observed elsewhere. In pure trading terms, the ‘economies of scale’ count. But we ignored the fact that they don’t work socially, culturally – and perhaps geopolitically. In reality, Britons as a whole are little more ‘Europeanised’ than they ever were.

If you want to understand Britain in those terms, don’t look at the continent; look at Ireland. For in doing so, we hold a more realistic mirror to our own place vis-à-vis the rest of Europe, and perhaps gain a better understanding of the true nature of our own country. Simply put, continentals perceive the U.K. in something like the way the British perceive Ireland.

I can’t claim to know Ireland intimately, though I have travelled over much of its southern half – and through my love of its music, I have repeatedly rubbed up against its people, both music-friends who live there, and Irish friends in the U.K. Playing ‘their’ music may have provided something of a cultural pass-partout that other Brits have not had. For my purposes here, I will also plead guilty to doubtful wisdom of blurring the political and geographical uses of the term ‘Ireland’, because we are really talking about a combination of the two.

To an even greater extent than the U.K., Ireland is not a modern European country. True, if you drive around the Dublin ring-road, you will see light industrial estates similar to those on the outskirts of Rouen or Ghent. True, if you take the empty new toll motorways to the west, you could easily believe that you were on a western-French autoroute on which they have been conspicuously modelled. True, in central Dublin, you can use the tram as you can in Strasbourg or Basel. But it doesn’t take long to realise that these things are symbols of desire, a statement of what the modern Ireland wants to be, not what it yet wholly is; that is still visible down the side-streets. Outside these bubbles, much of Ireland still struggles with its location on the periphery of Europe, where the land is often poor, and where the population, while youthful and rising, is low enough to make wider development problematic. You can see it in the difficulty that the Irish have had with developing their infrastructure: the place simply isn’t big or populated enough to compete successfully with a whole continent, now that continents matter more than seaways. Without the EU funds, it might not have happened at all.

You can also find it in the mindset. I don’t for a moment wish to indulge in typical English condescension towards a country whose culture is, in many ways stronger and more productive than my own – but it still has a largely nostalgic, provincial mentality. The modernity that I described strikes me as a somewhat contrived denial of a historico-geo-political reality that is still uncomfortably close to the surface. This is an island where religion has only quite recently lost a significant grip – and allowed the ‘permissiveness’ of modern internationalism seen in otherwise-universal matters such as abortion and same-sex partnerships – and where it is still seen as novel – even if proudly so – for the Premier to be non-white and gay.

It is a nation that still venerates its past – as seen in the enduring presence of traditional music – even though its actual practice is a minority interest in a nation that is prouder of having produced the likes of U2. But Irish exports still overwhelmingly play on traditional images of Ireland. It still takes little for bitter-sweet nostalgia for the island’s troubled past to come pouring out. While the small towns with their multitude of independent businesses may look picturesque, they are still demographically and economically precarious – often dated, and hardly an expression of modern Europe. They are resolutely inward-looking: while Irish hospitality is everything it is reputed to be, the communities feel introspective; the warm welcome is that extended to strangers, not the familiarity of fellow-locals.

Even the shiny buildings in Dublin’s docklands have been built using cash that had be attracted by an aggressive policy of ultra-low corporation tax, which is a distinctly un-European approach. When we first visited around fifteen years ago, much of the South resolutely failed the Cappucino Test: our tongue-in-cheek measure of how cosmopolitan a place actually is. On more than one occasion, the advertised cappuccino turned out to be filter-coffee topped with aerosol cream… and while things have definitely improved since, in our experience, it is still not certain that a decent vegetarian meal will always be available.

But above all, Ireland is a long way from the continent. Not necessarily in terms of kilometres – but because those kilometres are mostly water, in people’s minds they expand ad infinitum. You can only get in and out by ship or aircraft, as used to be the case in the UK too. The sheer practical fact of Ireland’s physical isolation alone is sufficient to explain most of the above – and indeed the admirable determination of the Irish that it will be otherwise. But you only have to arrive via the docks at Dublin or Waterford to be reminded that pretty much every expression of modern, cosmopolitan Ireland has to be imported.

While the practical, economic benefits for Ireland of belonging to a much larger economic unit are most visible, I can also sympathise entirely with Ireland’s Europeanism  on another level: as a peripheral lump of rock on the edge of both a large continent and a larger ocean, it actually has more to prove – including to itself – than those countries closer to the core of Europe, where it happens much more easily and naturally. It is not alone; it is a known cultural phenomenon that peripheral areas identify more strongly with their cultural cores than those cores do with themselves. (We see the same with the Ulster Unionists vis à vis the UK). In the case of Eire, there is also a strong imperative to define the modern nation in opposition to its historic master (on which it is nonetheless heavily reliant) – namely the UK.

At the same time, it is these peripheral areas that experience conflicted identities. The characteristics I have described above are not unique to Ireland; many outlying parts of Europe, from Scandinavia to Southern Italy, have difficulty in identifying unreservedly with the core European identity. In fact, we should not claim that Europe is only about that core identity: it is a dispersed and disparate place – but for all that, there clearly is a core, built around France, Germany and Benelux. While it has not been an entirely smooth journey, at least the Irish have had the sense to understand that their best future lies in a partnership with that core, in a way that many British still refuse to do – and they are getting on with it.

I do hope that Irish readers understand this is not criticism of their country. The key point is this: the British have historically tended to look down on the Irish as provincial, disorganised and poor. They have seen Ireland as a country riven by backward-looking sectarian tribalism and hamstrung by poor geography. Those geographical realities have indeed done more to shape the Irish state – and still do – than the modern Irish might be comfortable admitting.

But as I said at the outset, we British can learn a lot from Ireland. Our problem with the EU is that in relation to the continent, we are just the same. Jean-Claude Juncker quipped that “everyone understands English – but no one understands England”. It is truer than he realises – in much the same way as the English don’t really understand the Irish. They are islanders, they are ‘other’; their different geopolitics gives them a fundamentally different mindset as a result. Continentals – being continental – tend to underestimate it. Equally, no post-joining attempt was made at European state-building in the UK, because it was never understood to be important.

Like the Irish, we British are still essentially islanders, also more primitive, more tribal and more inward-looking than we care to admit, no matter what the aspirations of a minority. Insular cultures tend to be conservative, and they are habitually suspicious of ‘foreign’ influences. In some ways, our closer proximity to the continent only exacerbates the problem, amplifying the inequalities between the South East and the rest and making the identity-dilemma all the sharper. What’s more, while the Irish share with many continental countries, relative youth as a nation – and traumatic events in their recent past that has forced them to think hard and positively about the kind of nation they want to be – the UK was able to wallow in post-War triumphalism and ignore such issues – until now, when hard choices belatedly need to be made.

The recent election has simply showed this all over again: when the chips were down, the British voted for More of The Same. Very little has really changed. The prospect of a European future was sloughed off in favour of the usual insular, inward-looking delusion of purely national greatness that always prevails. Sadly for we pro-Europeans, this is the true nature of the British people. De Gaulle spotted it when he vetoed the UK applications to join in the 1960s. Little has really changed – because the fundamental geography that gives rise it never does. Such delusions can only come from un-connected living on an island, permanently decoupled from the greater tides of humanity that have shaped modern continental co-operation. Until the next ice age, when sea level falls and the land-bridge returns, it will be ever thus.

Most of us as quite literally too far away to see what we are missing.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Maintaining the momentum

One of the few beneficial effects of the Brexit experience has been the long-overdue social debate that it has sparked. People now seem willing to engage in meaningful discussion about the nature and state of this country, where previously there seemed to be relatively little interest. It has also been one of the more positive impacts of social media that such debate is now possible. In the past couple of years, I have had numerous productive discussions about the current position in the U.K. and what arguably needs to change within it. Resources have been shared, thinking has moved on.

In particular, people seem to have woken up to the fact the Britain is not some kind of nirvana, that “everywhere else is worse”, as was implicit in the everyday British mindset for so long. There is real discussion going on about other societal models, and how some other countries manage to find success in fields where this country repeatedly and persistently fails. There is at last some recognition of the insular smugness of that traditional British worldview, which has blinded so many for so long – and even an emergent acceptance that in our conservatism, we have turned into a rather unimaginative stodgy nation, afraid of change, who are very often being run rings around by the flair of more creative, innovative places and peoples elsewhere.

I think, though, that the British have yet to achieve a more objective understanding of their country’s natural and geographical situation that would allow them to address some of its enduring structural and attitudinal problems.

And too many still seem to think that higher standards “can’t be done here”. In a way, the  absence of ambition which that betrays is the single greatest indictment of the place we have now reached. 

But tomorrow, it looks as though the large part of the population that remains dead to such debate will vote to allow the old Establishment to put the cork back in the bottle, to ignore the debate, to re-assert the old ways, the old privileges, all the things that have caused the problem in the first place – perhaps for another generation. For too many, the old habits and mindset are so established, so innate, that their only reaction to challenge is to turn their back on it, and cling to what they know: a dull delusion of “Britishness”.

Quite how one can cut through to the fearful, the small-minded, the inward-looking, who it seems can only imagine the future as more of the same flawed past – while simultaneously showing a respect for their right to differ that they don’t often show in return – I really don’t know. As I said in my last post, real cultural change is extremely hard to bring about, and if they won’t engage in constructive debate, I am not sure how we can even begin.

Part of the problem is that they don’t want to: conservatism is by definition about continuity – about resisting change – and tends to be the preserve of those who feel they have little need to shape a different, more positive future – or little power to do so. In some countries, it defends a system that tends to work; in the case of the U.K. there is a stack of global comparators that suggest the opposite.

The resultant neglect is shocking; the stresses of Brexit have laid bare the extent to which the Establishment is prepared to neglect the nation that is notionally in its charge, in order to preserve its own primacy in the pecking-order. All it has really learned in a century is the need to make a few more quasi-democratic noises to keep the masses quiet. In reality, it still feels it can ignore a petition with over six million signatures, and even the constitutional conventions that it largely evolved, when it so chooses. Meanwhile, many of the rest continue to labour under a set of social assumptions and values with the same provenance, which are more widely seen as inappropriate for modern societies, but which are so embedded here as to be almost unconscious. Britain’s enduring preoccupation with status and social class, for example, only really shows how little progress there has been in removing its influence.

In reality, British conservatism seems to mean allowing only those changes that benefit existing privilege, thus perpetuating the problems which have led the country to its present moment of reckoning. The entire message is about a return to the past. Too often, even necessary change (not least the embracing of a more realistic view of Britain’s place in the world) has been rejected because it threatened the status quo. This, I suspect, is the real reason underlying conservatives’ antipathy for the EU: in its ideals at least, it is just too egalitarian  and future-orientated for them.

This country is paying the price for its complacency: a complacency started – and encouraged – by those historic elites, but in which the wider population is now complicit. We took too much on trust. We believed the assurances that everything was already for the best. We tolerated the neglect of necessary change in our national processes; in some cases we even voted to endorse it. We claimed powerlessness when things deteriorated.

If those of the conservative establishment were the sincere democrats and believers in “freedom” that they claim, they would long ago have enacted change. They could have started with the electoral system. They could have willingly examined alternative models and venues for our political institutions. They could have tackled private education and other wealth-perpetuated privilege. They could have devolved power to the regions. They would not have dragged their heels on environmental legislation to the point that the EU had to prosecute. And they could have accepted that their neo-liberal economic experiment has not worked for most of the population. Instead, they often enhanced it. So long as the system worked for them, they just didn’t care about the wider failings – and they still don’t. “Compassionate conservatism” has been revealed for the contradiction and lie that it is.

If the powers of conservatism are allowed to reassert themselves, this is precisely how they will carry on. None of the essential changes will happen. I’m not sure how it can be stopped; traditionally, it seems to take a revolution to topple embedded elites – but I think we need to be very careful what we wish for in that respect: such things rarely run according to plan. And I suppose that democracy needs to include the right of turkeys to vote for Christmas, though it should surely accommodate the rights of others not to be dragged down against their will, too.

There must be another way to ensure that the productive debate of the last three years does not just wither.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Turkeys and Christmas

turkey-that-voted-for-xmas

‘Culture’ is a creature whose DNA is quicksilver. Trying to define, let alone analyse it is like wrestling with shadows. One is forced into generalisation, simply because there is no other way to approach the collective thoughts, beliefs and behaviours of millions of people. Neither, in one’s pursuit of objectivity, is one able to escape one’s own cultural position; this is all the worse if one is scrutinising one’s native culture. No matter how one tries, it is impossible to be certain that one really has achieved the detachment needed for objectivity. There is no escape.

Some argue that there is no such thing as culture in the sense I mean it, just the behaviour of individuals and groups that coalesce and divide like shoals of fish. And yet it is hard not to feel that national culture or identity does exist: a deep, underlying commonality in the way people in a certain place tend to perceive and react to the world. But reaching an objective appraisal of it is almost impossible.

It should by now be clear that I am not referring to matters of art, literature and so on. To me, culture is a matter of mindset, which at varying levels gives rise to the ways in which people think and behave. The more conventional meaning refers to the means by which a particular mindset finds creative expression.

An irony of European integration has perhaps been that the differing cultures of that continent have become more of an issue rather than less. Being charitable, perhaps it is simply that we are more exposed to both the similarities and differences now than in the past; that creates the possibility to celebrate them – but it is also undoubtedly what has given rise to the problem of Brexit – and the various other nationalist resurgences being seen across the continent.

I am always bemused by the enduring British use of the word ‘international’- as in ‘St Pancras International’ and even ‘Aberdeen International’ (Airport). The use of the word suggests a glamorised perception of ‘abroad’ that I don’t think I have seen anywhere else – as though the mere use of the word can bestow cachet on a concrete bunker near Dyce. In a similar vein, a few days ago, I spotted a couple of neighbours whom I know to be hard Brexiteers cooing over some ‘continental’ biscuits in a local store – without any apparent awareness of the irony. (I thought such things went out in the Seventies…) Often, the very same people who despise the EU (and by extension, perhaps all continentals) are happy to visit (German-derived) Christmas markets, take their holidays in Spain, and splurge on the Champions’ League or Six Nations on TV without once sensing the contradictions in their behaviour.

My friend Manu lives in Lyon. He recently brought his eleven-year-old daughter to the UK with the express intention of exposing her to a new culture, one in whose language she is already pretty proficient. She engaged very well – though she did repeatedly complain of how cold she was on a mild British autumn day: that’s conditioning again. And Manu, despite being an Anglophile, was still stumped by the string-pull on British bathroom lights – something to which we British never give a second thought, yet the rest of Europe seems to think is deeply, neurotically bizarre. That is the level at which cultural conditioning and normalisation works: the small things that are so ingrained that it does not even occur to us that they might not be the same everywhere. Indeed, the very act of Manu’s visit struck me as a manifestation of such cultural differences: I wonder to how many mainstream British families it would even occur to undertake such a trip. Ours is a culture that is still fundamentally insular, inward-looking and overwhelmingly self-referential. Brexit has shown the limitations of such a position – and yet still we persist, almost as if we can’t help it.

The most telling aspects of a culture are those that it exhibits despite itself: the deep values, attitudes and behaviours that are so far below the radar that they escape our modern (supposed) self-knowingness. And when one starts to examine those things, what one finds can be far more disconcerting that a pretentiously-named box of biscuits.

All those ardent pro-European Brits may feel that they represent an outward-looking, cosmopolitan nation – but I suspect they are actually just another expression of precisely the opposite. The very fact that we are so insistent about such things at a conscious level might suggest we are less sure they are present at an unconscious one. For many on the modern continent, internationalism is simply a matter of day-to-day practicality, largely devoid of the romantic sentimentalism that underpins the British version. For them, crossing borders is often little more than a necessity. British ardour for other countries, on the other hand, is arguably more an expression of frustration at, or rejection of, the limitations of our own – a truth let slip a few days ago in a discussion I witnessed on pro-Remain social media, where there was agreement that pre-2016, few had given much thought at all to a European perspective. Even today, for many British, the continent is just the nearest place to go on holiday with decent weather. So be it – but the real problem is that most don’t seem to be aware of the inherent limitations of that view.

The deepest irony of the continental biscuits, of course, is that they are probably nothing like what one would really find on the continent – and that is before we even get to the point that there is no such culture as ‘continental’ on a land-mass made up of a kaleidoscope of some fifty different countries. And sadly, as with chocolate (and most things), the British re-interpretation is often a pale and insipid caricature. What those biscuits really betray is not knowingness, but ignorance.

So much for an outward-looking view: much of the current Europhilia is actually little more than an expression of normal human loss-aversion. If it were not, we would by now be experiencing more than polite marches and distribution of leaflets in its defence, even as the participants see the protests in Hong Kong on the TV nightly. What we are seeing is not really British “natural reserve”: it is the behaviour of people who have been systematically politically suppressed by their ruling classes, excluded from the real political process to the extent that we no longer believe we can make a difference, or that Change can come. In this country “Government” is something that is done to us, not by us. And it is so normal to us that we don’t even notice.

Who told us that we are “reserved”? Mostly those who made us that way: the same people who tell us that strong governments are preferable to consensual ones, and that a more inclusive electoral system really isn’t needed. The problem, once again, is that many seem to accept this as self-evident natural truth rather than a deliberate narrative which is open to challenge. “Representative democracy”, long-trumpeted as a good thing, is nothing more than a misnomer for a system that takes away any real say and places it in the hands of people who are all too often anything but representative. Which is just what they want.

If Brexit has revealed anything, it is the depth of ignorance still prevalent in this country about both the wider world and the workings of our own country. It is as though the reach of modern media has done little to dent the unconscious of the nation. We are in the throes of a general election campaign which owes its existence almost entirely to Brexit – and yet it has taken very little to deflect general public’s attention away from that issue and back to the traditional domestic battlegrounds of health, education and taxation. How convenient. It is also a means of addressing Brexit that, unlike the original vote, will deny millions of people in safe seats any meaningful influence on the outcome. How convenient.

That Brexit also seems to have exposed the chronic deficiencies in our social and political model seems still to be passing a substantial proportion of the population by. It is said that when the doors are opened, captive animals often cower at the back of their cages, preferring the captivity they know to the intimidating freedom they have been offered. That is the situation here: we know things are wrong, but collectively we seem to prefer the wrongness we know to the risk involved in making long-overdue reforms.

There is sufficient awareness of social models such as the Scandinavian one, for this country’s deficiencies not to be accepted as inevitable – and yet they widely are. The better standards of many continental countries are seen (and envied) by many, and yet they still believe the lie that “it can’t be done here”. The view is reinforced by the ingrained cultural belief that the patriotic British Way is still best – despite the manifold and growing evidence to the contrary. In the end, we prefer to grumble – and do nothing. Therein lies the hideous difficulty involved in genuinely changing a tired culture.

The electorate seems literally unable to make itself vote for a path to a more emancipated, egalitarian society in Britain. It clings to the handed-down view of a State which is a direct descendant of a domineering, imperialist power – which gives threatening names to agencies such as the Border FORCE, and which seems to believe that a resentful, punitive approach to the needs of its citizens is appropriate for all but a privileged few. It clings to a hierarchical view of society that is simply much less evident elsewhere – and thence to the notion that politics is about personal advantage rather than collective compromise.

The most terrible aspect of all is the prospect that our ruling institutions are still wedded to an authoritarian model whose main job is to keep “the masses” in their place while empowering certain influential individuals – and mouthing just sufficient platitudes about ‘Democracy’ to keep it so. Methinks they do protest too much: even today, when this system is perhaps broken beyond repair, it refuses to countenance an alternative.

Its success lies, as always, in portraying all the alternatives as worse: the depiction a consensus-seeking leader of the opposition as lily-livered, or a “Communist” as though that label is absolute damnation rather than merely an (inaccurate) description of an alternative political position.

This – rather than any particular set of values – is where the system is seriously imperilled: the point where people stop seeing the status quo as the relative position that it is, and starting thinking of it in terms of absolute truth is a serious threat to democracy. It then doesn’t take much – as seems already to be happening in the UK – for incumbent powers to convince the electorate that there really is no alternative.

This is why Jeremy Corbyn – for all his imperfections – has not made more headway. British culture simply can’t cope with an anti-hero like him, no matter how genuine he may be, and no matter how beneficial his policies might actually be for the health of the nation. He has refused to be made into the kind of leader the British think they want. His neutral position on Brexit, for example, seems entirely reasonable given the conflicts that he faces – and yet a mature “judgement of Solomon” type position is all too easily portrayed as weakness rather than maturity. Consensus-seeking depicted as a policy vacuum by the proponents of hard power. Yet ironically, consensus-seeking is precisely the way most continental politics work – and they are not in the mess that we are.

As I said at the start, cultures are complex and ill-defined things. Deliberate change is extremely difficult to effect – but from a long perspective, it is equally indisputable that cultures do change. Whether this is by evolution or revolution is another matter – but as with all organisms, those that are unable to adapt tend to die. At the point when societies and their cultures stop believing that another way is possible, stop being prepared even to speculate that the ‘farmer’ who feeds them might not after all be their best friend, then like Christmas turkeys, they are only headed for one destination.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Failed again

The calling of a General Election, far from being a courageous decision, marks just another failure of our political system to govern the country effectively. No matter how strenuously it is denied, this election will become a de facto referendum on Brexit – but far from resolving the issue, it virtually guarantees to lock the resentments of the issue permanently into the national psyche.

Rightly or wrongly, the original referendum in 2016 asked people to express their individual preferences for remaining in or leaving the EU; the resolution of the resultant deadlock in 2019 (for, short of another hung parliament, that it will be) will not allow people to do that, because it will utterly obscure the will of those individuals behind the many imperfections of our electoral system.

The most obvious criticism is that a single issue is being addressed using a mechanism more suited to the multi-issue matter of who governs the country for the next five years. While Brexit will clearly be a major factor in that, there is simply no neat correlation between people’s views on it and their other priorities and opinions.

More important, however, is that the votes of millions of people will count for nothing. I live in a very safe Conservative seat, and the chances of a change of MP are minimal. With a Conservative majority of 18,646, the likelihood of this constituency representing my wish to remain is nil. The same is, of course, true for Leavers who live in safe Remain-represented seats.

Therefore my views on Brexit (which are as far from my M.P.’s as they can possibly be, given that she is the Home Secretary) will have absolutely no effect on the outcome of the issue, simply because I am unfortunate enough to live in an area where the majority of people think differently. My M.P. has not even seen fit to reply to my correspondence on the matter. While I have little choice but to accept this in more normal politics, in this situation, it is intolerable.

Frankly, it will not even be worth my turning out to vote in the issue that is perhaps the most critical political event of my lifetime. The resentment that this will cause – particularly if the UK does then depart the EU – will, I’m afraid, remain in my memory forever. The same will be true wherever people don’t see their personal wishes honoured on an issue that was opened on the basis that every single vote counted and carried equal weight.

The U.K.’s First-past-the-post electoral system often returns governments that are only supported by the largest minority, not the majority. This will probably happen again, and is also in itself inconsistent with the ‘simple majority’ requirement of the original referendum. Instead of addressing the issue, all this does is to lower the bar. And if there is a hung parliament, it will solve nothing.

Parliament has been criticised for failing to represent the British people over Brexit. I don’t agree: if one considers the electorate as a whole, the stalemate of the past three years has accurately reflected the state of the nation. But it has utterly failed to find the collective courage to resolve the problem in the only way that has even a slim chance of setting the issue properly to rest. What’s more, this decision has once again been made not on the grounds of the national interest, so much as what has proved politically expeditious for a government of dubious real legitimacy.

While I am a firm Remainer, my objections are not about losing in 2016 per se. They are about the failure of that event to produce a trustworthy answer, with clearly-explained choices, a sensible winning margin and an honest campaign run by both sides. (When one considers that in theory the national destiny could have been tipped by even one vote, it becomes clear how unsafe the simple majority position was).

All I want is to see a ‘fair fight’ between the two sides, which would yield a result that I could accept as being properly democratic, and compliant with international norms for such referenda. In such circumstances I would, no matter how reluctantly, accept the result if it were to Leave. I would like to believe that Leavers would say the same in reverse, though their behaviour in the past period hardly gives much confidence. That, however, should not be a consideration in the fair resolution of the matter.

The Brexit referendum was an act of direct, individual democracy; the only appropriate resolution for the matter is another. Unfortunately, the decrepit system that got us into this mess seems to have learned nothing.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Petitioning the European Parliament in Brussels

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The view from my seat. Guy Verhofstadt straight ahead…

January 2020 update:

My petition to the European Parliament is still available for signing, and is still considered to be ‘live’. If you wish to sign, I suggest using this link to the website which contains details of how to do so. Due to EP procedures, it requires a little determination to sign, hence I have provided a help page. Alternatively, you can go straight to the EP petition page here


On 2nd October I travelled to Brussels to hear my petition debated by the European Parliament petitions committee (PETI).

On occasions like this, the anxiety still jangles away unpleasantly in the background, but I managed to get myself to Brussels (and find a decent lunch!) I walked the mile to the Parliament, and despite a forecast of fine weather, this being Belgium, it rained on me…

I arrived in good time, and was met by members of the EP secretariat, who got me rapidly through security and into the chamber, which was in the form of a mini-hemicycle. I had expected to be sat somewhere towards the rear – but no: petitioners are seated on the floor of the chamber, along with MEPs and Commission representatives. Luckily I was familiar with most of the technology from my visits to the EP in Strasbourg.

Despite running early when I arrived, the debate did fall behind time – mostly because of the arrival of some of the EP ‘big guns’, notably Guy Verhofstadt (Lead on Brexit) and Antonio Tajani (former President of EP). Verhofstadt is never one to be brief, and he was still going well after the time petitioners were due to be heard.

As the time I had been given for my contribution came and went, I began to wonder whether I would get my chance before needing to head back to Midi to catch my Eurostar. In the event, my ‘caretaker’ managed to get my speech brought forward and I eventually spoke at about 17h20.

I got a round of applause, and as I was leaving the building, one of the British MEPs rushed out and congratulated me on my speech. So it seemed to go down well.

I have included the text of my speech below the photos.

Having watched, and taught, EU affairs for many years, this was a great experience. I can only say that anyone who doubts the value of European co-operation should watch the webcasts of such proceedings.

While this is admittedly a committee rather than the main chamber, proceedings are calm, unassuming and tinged with good humour. Those present seem to have few pretensions, and it is perhaps worth looking up the background a few of them, such as:

• Dolors Montserrat (Chair)
• Jude Kirton-Darling
• Claude Moraes
• Irina Von Wiese
• Christian Allard

When I arrived, the discussion was about how to extent animal welfare controls to laboratory animals and to curb the eating of songbirds in Cyprus. A significant issue. It is hugely varied. It was quite humbling and hugely enthusing to sit amongst such people from all over Europe and be heard and to hear their responses.

PETI hears several petitions at a time, grouped by themes. There were other representations from groups concerned about ex-pat rights and refugees after Brexit – but none other about the position of ‘regular’ British citizens. I am still left with the sense that while there is a lot of concern, no one really knows what to do about us. The Commission position is still that EU citizenship is a product of citizenship of a member-state and it would take a treaty change to alter that. Hence British citizens lose their rights if we leave. But they did not completely rule out a treaty change – huge though that would be – and there were a number of calls from MEPs for European citizenship to assume an identity independent from national ones. That would be contentious.

It is worth noting that PETI does not count numbers of signatures before admitting a petition. I was worried that mine only had a few hundred signatures – but there was one heard earlier in the session that had only THREE. It is the strength of the case that counts. And the ability to sit in a hearing and present one’s case is of course, conspicuous by its absence from the procedures in Westminster. While sitting there, I could not help but think that it will be an utter tragedy if Britons’ voices cease to be heard at the end of this month, or indeed at any point.

The meeting was web-cast and is available here.

  • Beginning at 15h57’50”
  • My speech is at 17h21’25”
  • There is a Commission response to my points from one of Michel Barnier’s team at 17h47’47”
  • Important point at 17:55’55” Where the representative says that the EC is not giving up on the existing Withdrawal Agreement despite what BJ says.
  • There is debate from the Committee at 17:57’50 and an important (but probably little-known point) about the cost of passports at 18h03’52. (Why does a British passport cost nearly FIVE TIMES the EU average for people claiming naturalisation?)
  • The section ends at around 18h14′.
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I don’t normally do selfies, but here I am just before going into the EP…

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Text of my speech:

Thank you for admitting my petition, and for giving me the opportunity to address you today.

Should Brexit happen, British citizens will in effect be stripped of their European citizenship. For many, this will be against their deeply-held wishes, and represents in effect the oppression of that group by its own government, similar in style if not degree, to events that often provoke moral outrage when they happen elsewhere in the world.

While accommodation will have to be found for nationals living in each other’s countries, pro-European Britons remaining resident in the UK will be the most disadvantaged group. Our rights and abilities to function in the rest of the EU risk being severely curtailed after Brexit.

As can be seen from the outpouring of pro-EU feeling in the UK, this is a greatly significant matter for many millions of us. It represents the theft of a deeply-important part of our identities by our own government and our peers. Our lives will be not only practically but culturally and emotionally diminished as a result. I have seen and experienced at first hand the deep anguish that this is causing.

Particularly for us islanders, whose history and geography have always set us slightly apart from the European mainstream, this is extremely important. It matters greatly to us that we can look our fellow Europeans straight in the eye and say “we are part of this project too”.

When it comes to resolving this issue, it is noticeable that our own administrations have had nothing whatsoever of substance to say to us for the past three years. We have become invisible; the daily rhetoric about the “will of the people” makes absolutely no reference to our wishes. As one commentator put it, “We are being written out of our own futures”. In short, the British government simply does not know what to do about us, and it is all too evident that the new UK administration cares even less than the last one did.

It is also very clear that Britons who are in favour of Brexit care not one iota for our welfare. They see this as a zero-sum victory for their views, and the likely consequences of this are not encouraging. I live in the constituency of the Home Secretary, and have stood on the streets of that constituency, experiencing the hatred of some Brexiters towards Remainers.

Guy Verhofstadt has argued that the lives of ordinary Europeans should not be harmed by Brexit. Whatever the political future, geographically and culturally speaking, Britons are still Europeans – and the lives of European-thinking Britons will be harmed by the actions of a minority of our fellows. I argue that the wider European community should not be prepared to let this happen, and should do whatever it can to mitigate the impact.

I maintain that should Brexit happen, and the U.K. becomes in effect just another external country from the EU’s perspective, it will be no business whatsoever of the UK government, what recognition and treatment the EU chooses to dispense to people within the territories of its own member-states.

I therefore call upon the EU to create a status – perhaps “associate citizen” – that would recognise this unique group of disadvantaged former EU citizens and provide them with as many as possible of their former rights whenever they are within EU27 countries. My petition sets out a number of possible dimensions of this. I suggest that this need not compromise any other citizenship arrangements either in the EU or the UK, and I urge the EU to act, unilaterally if necessary, to implement it.

I realise that there would be costs to doing this, and therefore it would be reasonable for those to be at least in part recovered. An application charge (and perhaps other checks) could also test the genuineness of the application – but I would urge you to implement any such system in a way that does not exclude those on low incomes. The EU has a great record on promoting equality and will surely recognise the importance of this. Again, I submit that such procedures would be nothing whatsoever to do with the UK government.

As someone who has been engaged for many years in European education in the UK, I urge you seriously to consider such moves, not least because they will help preserve a European consciousness in the UK during the dark times outside the EU. Should Brexit happen, providing this identity-option would be very significant in terms of reconciling British Europeans to an unenviable situation, and helping to heal the rift in our society – as something similar through the Good Friday Agreement has helped resolve such issues in Northern Ireland. An act of faith such as this can only encourage the U.K. to rejoin in due course.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

It can’t be done

shires

Way back in the Nineties, the design team Richard Seymour and Dick Powell made a series of programmes for Channel 4, in which they fundamentally redesigned everyday products to improve both their functionality and aesthetics. The most memorable was Designs on Your Loo; the full programme can be watched here.

In it, they worked with Bradford-based sanitary-ware manufacturer Shires in an attempt to develop their product. The pair travelled the world in search of the cutting edge of WC design – and found it notably at that time in Japan. They brought their ideas back to the company – where they encountered a deep-seated resistance. At the time, the company was a long-standing and significant mid-market player producing a range of pseudo-traditional suites, complete with cheap wooden seats and ornate phoney-brass handles, all with dainty, faintly ridiculous ‘heritage’ names. There is a memorable moment in the film where one of the company’s managers proudly shows Seymour and Powell the extra-curly “design features” that the company added, supposedly to make the product more attractive. Powell was incredulous, observing that all it did was make the thing harder to clean. Design is not a matter of superficial curly bits.

As the duo persevered (with the rearguard support of Shires’ deflated one-man design team) against interfering but ignorant management, they did eventually produce a compromise product. The company then rolled this out with enough fanfare for a world-first. But for me, the abiding memory is of a significant British manufacturer whose methods and attitudes had not changed in decades – and which saw no need to do so. The Market, they said did not want anything new; the existing retro-range was sufficient; the risks were not worth taking.

The immediate response to new challenges was, “It can’t be done”.

This programme has stuck in my memory because it is a striking metaphor for this country’s wider difficulties.

In the past week, I have heard a UK-resident Dutch woman ranting about how this country is so far behind the curve when it comes to convenient and sustainable public transport. I have also had a meeting with representatives of a major building company, which gave a clear impression that corporately it was not interested in innovation. The implication was that the market will not support it – even though this part of the market was telling it to its face, quite the opposite.   It is the white-knicker argument all over again*.

It is also seen in the recently-released designs for the temporary House of Commons (needed while the original is (belatedly) refurbished). Rather than take the opportunity to experiment with a new format, the design is a copy of the original, a pastiche worthy of Shires. And let’s not even consider the passed-up opportunity to move parliament out to the regions for a while… Everything militates against change, even when the need for it is overwhelming.

The same attitude was manifest some months ago at a local planning forum that I attended. At the outset, the chairman said, “I will rule out of order any discussions of good practice in other countries: this is Britain we are dealing with”. And at a stroke, many excellent potential solutions were dismissed as unworkable. The aforementioned building company made the same comment a few days ago: “we need to work within the realities of the British context”.

Taken at face value, it is hard to argue. But even assuming it is not just a convenient excuse for inaction and short-termism, it does not deny the underlying problem: just why is the culture of this country so resistant to even desirable or urgent change? An Anglo-Italian contact of mine (currently resident in Italy) put it succinctly: “The British are too afraid to go out of their comfort zone”. It is an observation that could be used time and time again.

Sadly, the same mentality also seems to pervade our administrative functions: planning issues seem to encounter as much resistance there as from the developers. The building company mentioned earlier admits that it is partly cautious because it does not want to waste time developing designs that will be thrown out by ultra-conservative planning authorities – some of whom appear even to be selectively ignoring the more progressive parts of their own planning guidelines. I have encountered similar resistance myself – the impression is of an organisation paralysed by red-tape and stuck in a hidebound, backward-looking rut that stifles innovation.

I was first struck by the disconnect between attitudes in this country and the continent around the same time that the Seymour-Powell film was screened. I often returned (from Switzerland in particular) clutching innovations that I had found there, which were nowhere to be seen in the U.K. Some years later, the same things would appear in this country, where they would be loudly hailed as evidence of how cutting-edge the nation was. It covered everything from the arrival of IKEA (whose Chuck-out-the-Chintz approach was in itself telling), through the fads for silk shirts, mid-length shorts and Birkenstocks and a wide range of new technologies, to films (even some English language ones seemed to have had continental release before they came to the U.K.). I even noticed it in the use of vinyl design-graphics on the sides of lorries and trains: vehicles on the continent were multicoloured and cheery for years while ours were still boring white or brown.

There isn’t the space here to delve deeply into the psychology of why this should be so – but I suggest that the false perception that we are cutting-edge when we are actually often behind the curve, is yet another manifestation of the insularity that we as a nation aren’t even aware we suffer from. We simply don’t see enough of what is being developed elsewhere. The institutional resistance meanwhile is the product of a sclerotic system that hasn’t been properly shaken up for far too long, where the status quo is just too comfortable, the punters just too docile – and the fact that it is easier to produce a new sound-bite than a genuine innovation. It’s not that this country doesn’t produce innovators – but the frequency with which they still have to work abroad to succeed tells all.

Change can be uncomfortable – but it is sometimes necessary and always unavoidable: time moves forward, and things change. It’s called evolution. Often it brings benefits as well as problems: the trick is what you emphasise. The challenges are the same everywhere – and change for change’s sake  is not always good – though it can still be as good as a rest… But the real problem is one of receptiveness. Cultures that deny Change are themselves headed for extinction.

It is the same attitudes that are leading this country further and further up a blind, Brexit-induced alley: the mistaken belief that the Past is Best, that Britain Knows Best, that it is still leading the world, and can learn nothing from anywhere else. But when it comes to progressive change, It Can’t Be Done.

In the meantime, the world of sanitary-ware – as much else – has been captured by sleek continental designs from the likes of the German Duravit and Swiss Laufen. Companies that glory in bringing the latest designs and technologies to the market to improve people’s lives. A few British companies are now making cheap imitations, but that is all – and I don’t see them making much of the export headway that will be essential should Brexit finally happen.

The metaphor for the national mindset that was Shires went bust in 2009 – and I suspect the rest of the country is not far behind.

 

*The White Knicker argument: for many years Marks & Spencer said that they mainly sold white underwear because that was what their customers mainly bought…

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The Midas Touch

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I think the current political turmoil in Britain has revealed the extent to which there is no longer much shared consensus at all about the fundamental values of the nation. Hitherto, there somehow existed an unspoken sense that beneath the normal divergences of view and action, there was a greater feeling for the collective interest – dare I say – that we were “all in it together”. Even if one did not agree with individual perspectives, one could always assume that the fundamental  national values of enlightened shared interest were still there. Now I’m not so sure; maybe it was a naive assumption in the first place – the various British clans have always looked after their own first. Perhaps a better interpretation of a nation is a rag-bag of various saints and sinners forcibly pulled together by the diktats of history and geography, somehow rubbing along together?

Britain feels, more than ever before, like a place that is being run by people whose priorities, indeed core world-view, are utterly opposed to mine, which it was perhaps too easy to assume that everyone else actually basically shared. While Brexit is the issue that has perhaps shed more light on this than anything else, it is by no means the only expression of it.

Of more fundamental concern are their basic priorities and principles, specifically the importance and nature of ‘wealth’ and the trade-off between individual and collective wellbeing. Maybe it is just a sign of middle-class ghettoism, but I have always considered it a ‘given’ that monetary wealth is merely the mechanism by which people acquire the things that they really value in life – and for allocating scarce resources – rather than an end in itself. It is perhaps too easy to believe that ‘everyone knows’ that money and power do not bring happiness – but maybe they really don’t?

I am increasingly of the view that those who tend to elbow their way into the most influential positions in society are amongst such people: they see power and wealth as bringing personal opportunity rather than collective responsibility. One individual above all embodies this at the present time…

In my own value system it is self-evident that one cannot (and should not) ignore the well-being of others, even those one disagrees with, if not for more altruistic reasons, then because it tends to impinge on one’s own. But there seem to be plenty these days who either do not understand that view – or do not care. Gaining sufficient muscle, they seem to think, is all that is needed to proof oneself from any of the ill effects of one’s poor treatment of others.

We could perhaps look to history to test whether this is actually the case, but it’s perhaps also too easy to allow hindsight to cloud our judgement: while the various terrors of the Twentieth Century were indeed ultimately repelled, and in much of Europe at least, the century ended relatively peacefully, the same was not true for many of the individuals who suffered appallingly during their often-short lives. Salvation did not come. So I think we should be wary of believing that the current instability will somehow rectify itself in the fullness of time, simply because that happened in the past. Who can say with confidence that certain Eastern European countries are not headed towards another era of totalitarianism – or that the U.K.’s travails will “come out alright in the end?” That is a prediction only made more difficult because the definition of ‘alright’ is not shared to begin with.

It is all too possible to destroy the things we supposedly value by mistakenly assuming that others hold them precious too. Brexit is indeed an example of that: there is a significant risk that it will end up destroying the sovereign nation that it purports to defend. I saw the same in the education sector: the drive for greater ‘efficiency’ ended up destroying the very things that education is really about in the first place – once again, the sacrifice of the valuable to the measurable.

Yet the principle is also much more widely applicable too: it seems to me that the entire capitalist system that supposedly exists to generate wealth and improve life is now in serious danger of making exactly the same error.

The immediate cause of this introspection has been developments in the small part of eastern England where I live: a historic market town of about 5000 people, with around 300 listed buildings some dating back to the 14th Century, and a delightful rural setting. It is about as unlike the popular stereotype of this county as one could imagine. Yet in the past few years we have faced (and continue to face) a number of corporate threats that could destroy the very quality that we who live here all value:

• A major road upgrade nearby that would have torn through some of the most tranquil countryside remaining in the county (now thankfully re-routed).
• A seemingly unending flow of planning applications for large numbers of houses to be built around our town and in the surrounding countryside.
• A plan that refuses to die for an un-needed waste incinerator on an old airfield 2km upwind of the town.
• The extension of a large gravel quarry to within 100 metres of the town and its historic buildings, and the subsequent desecration of some of the most attractive surrounding landscapes.
• At the same time as these developments, the further paring back of social and infrastructure provision such as the threat of closure of our local libraries (which reached the national press, now hopefully resisted), and the cutting back of the bus service (still pending).

In each case, we are faced with parties who claim that what they propose is necessary or essential. One wonders what criteria they are using. In each case, the principle justifications are economic – the gravel is needed, the road is needed, the incinerator is needed, the houses are needed, the library and bus savings are needed. In each case, it is possible to argue the opposite – and that investment and the preservation of the local quality of life in an otherwise over-developed county are also needed. But mysteriously, that never seems to carry equal weight. One wonders what the ‘need’ actually is – and if it is really anything more than the need for companies to make profits or local government to cut costs – mostly at other people’s expense.

We are told that the emissions from the incinerator will be insignificant, that the quarry landscape will be restored (after twenty years of noise and dust), that the houses are required for the county to meet its targets. And yet when one argues for even mitigation measures (we are not all NIMBYs), all of a sudden the need for that somehow ‘cannot be demonstrated’: the housing development that slipped through the net somehow cannot ‘justify’ the extra care taken to ensure that what is created is an enhancement of our historic place rather than a bastardisation. The developer is not obliged to consider the impact of a 20% increase in population on demand for medical and educational facilities, or to mitigate the extra traffic that will use our narrow streets – let alone the impact on a fairly close-nit community. They were not even taken to task for the factual inaccuracies and misrepresentation in their initial application, while bodies such as the Highways Agency, who might have objected, appear simply to have rubber-stamped the scheme.

The need can never somehow be demonstrated, either, for things that would bring genuine benefits – the traffic-calming of our town centre, the enhancement rather than reduction of our local bus service, the provision of better broadband, greater support for community initiatives. The answer is always that there is no money available for such things. It’s not difficult to see the trend: vested interests will ‘demonstrate the need’ for anything that adds to their profits or smooth-functioning, but nothing that will add to their costs or work-load. Those costs are externalised, and left for communities like ours – across the nation as a whole – to pick up through the erosion of quality of life, while the vested interests laugh all the way to the bank.

It is all the more galling when one realises that some of those ‘interests’ are public bodies who exist, one might presume, to protect the public interest. Yet they seem to be run by people, and with cultures that ape private business rather than civic values. The libraries were threatened by the County Council. The quarry extension is being supported – unbelievably – by The Environment Agency on the grounds that the extraction of 13 million tonnes of gravel will permit implementation of a questionable flood management scheme. The housing development was permitted – over the heads of local representation – by the district council, which also resolutely neglects its responsibilities for providing either the planning enforcement or infrastructure enhancements that might offset the worst of the resultant damage. It in turn blames the government (of the same colour) for Austerity.

Time and again, such bodies fail to protect the public interest because they, too, have been forced to run along strict economic principles which decree that anything financially loss-making cannot be justified, no matter what the wider cost-benefit situation. (More charitably, they also seem bound in so much red tape that it is an easy task for nimble developers to run rings round them). It is also why the first action of the local secondary school on becoming an Academy has been to divest itself of responsibility for the community swimming pool in its grounds. It is why the bus service is being threatened with cuts: corporate profitability trumps social need every time. And more widely still, it is why the quality of everything from the places we inhabit to the quality of health and education provision is being diminished because those who make the critical decisions are more swayed by personal gain and a narrow, monetarised definition of benefit, than one that really helps the population in the round.

I used to argue that these issues would prove self-rectifying, once those same decision makers realised that they were not immune from the impact: they still have to drive their expensive cars along the same shoddy roads, and they are still dependent on voters and customers. And then someone pointed out that a good few of them now travel by private jet and helicopter…

It is a legitimate argument that historically, adverse trends do tend to elicit counter-reactions and eventually correct themselves. Empires from the Romans to the Nazis were ultimately cut down by their tendency to over-reach themselves. Push people too far and they do tend to resist – or rebel.

It seems to me that our entire social-economic system is in danger of reaching a similar extreme: by defining wellbeing in purely monetary terms, it is increasingly destroying the very things that people actually value. Our living quarters, culture and wider welfare are being sacrificed at the altar of supposed wealth creation. And yet when it comes to spreading the resultant wealth around, it suddenly (but perhaps not surprisingly) becomes much more difficult to ‘demonstrate the need’. Our county perceived a ‘need’ to cut libraries – but not the tens of thousands spent on private health care for its executives. Academised schools perceive the need to restrain or cut teachers’ salaries – but simultaneously to enhance those of their managers; how (less cynically) are such conflicting ‘needs’ to be explained, let alone reconciled? The biggest example of all of such contradictory behaviour is, of course, the damage being done to the global natural environment.

It seems there is nothing that the great god ‘business’ will not destroy in the pursuit of its own narrow self-interest – including the things that brought it success in the first place. This is not really surprising since companies are, by their very nature utterly  self-interested and usually short-termist. But at very least this fact might support the existence of genuinely effective counter-balancing forces; what is more concerning is that the civic bodies that existed to do this have either been seriously weakened or have gone native.

I think it is now reasonable to suggest that in the West, commercial and other selfish-individualistic forces are out of control and in civic terms, desperately need to be tamed. The supposed pursuit of individual liberty is at risk of destroying that very same thing in the collective sense. If the collateral damage is the destruction of the very thing one supposedly values in the first place, then the system is not working, and one can only wonder whether a fundamentally different approach might have been wiser all along.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Sartoria

The cultural politics of socks.

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Trying to escape the big political battles for the soul of Britain for a while, I retreated into the delights of small things. Remembering that God is in the Details, I decided to sample the products of The London Sock Company. I came across it – yes – through its social media advertising, which dangled an enticingly eggy-saffrony yellow pair of its eponymous product.

A quick scan of the comments on said post revealed a large dose of British male incredulity that anyone in their right mind would pay in the £10-£20 range for a pair of socks. But having sampled the wonders of Bresciani from Mes Chausettes Rouges and Loding’s and Boggi’s own brands (for which you pay considerably less on the continent than here), I have come round to the opinion that a decent housing for one’s feet is an investment that pays day-long returns, if only because the wider range of sizes on offer than in chain-stores means fewer sags, slips and holed toes.

I regret to say the ultra-fine offerings from those Italian and French companies didn’t stand up well to the day-to-day demands of a British man for whom ‘stocking’ his wardrobe with one-wear-only quantities of such refinement is beyond his budget. (I do note, however, that Mes Chaussettes Rouges is now stocking an ‘extra-durable’ range, so maybe I wasn’t the only one…)

A pair of the bright yellows was duly ordered, and arrived impressively quickly, enclosed in a recyclable card envelope and nicely presented in tissue paper, with the further insert that gives quality new socks their pleasing scrunch – even if not the little cloth draw-bag that MCR despatches in. Who said this is just about something as mundane as keeping your trotters warm?

While they are largely made of the same fine fil d’ecosse cotton as the Italian products, LSC’s range mostly have some synthetic content in the heel and toe, which is probably sensible. And attract favourable comments, they did.

A couple of more orders have followed, including some nice ‘dusk blues’ the Bordeaux jacquard shown below.

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And yet, on reading the blurb on the company’s website, it struck me that even here I can’t escape the reach of politics. Brexit may even stretch to our feet: as previously mentioned, LSC uses the same materials and manufacturing as its Italian and French inspiration: surely a clear case of European cultural diffusion. It is, however, manufacturing in Portugal, which I assume is considerably cheaper than Italy. How will the price and availability of the product be affected by Brexit, let alone the fortunes of the small company that took the risk?

I’ve also just finished reading Harry Mount’s 2012 book How England Made the English. He takes a more sympathetic view of these islands and their inhabitants than I tend to – but even he acknowledges that, in general, the British lag behind many of their neighbours when it comes to the finer things in life.

Intriguingly, he (sort of) attributes our failure to appreciate fine socks to our not having been invaded for so long. Property, he says, is such a safe investment in a very secure country that people have traditionally sunk large portions of their income into it, which in turn left them with less to spend on life’s enjoyable fripperies:

“Because [the continentals] aren’t spending all their money on their houses, they have higher disposable incomes. They have tended to rent more, and to spend more on themselves and the bella figura – the sort of spending that the badly dressed, self-denying, puritanical English have historically looked down on as self-indulgent…and so England ends up as a world leader in chain retail shops, specialising in selling, amongst other things, cheap clothes – another reason we don’t look as good as our continental cousins.”

Recent contact with a Brexiter with whom I occasionally converse gravitated towards a similar topic, but drew forth the view that “We can produce everything we need here”. He was referring food rather than socks – but the principle is the same.

Although we haven’t been remotely self-sufficient in food for decades, I suppose in theory we could become so again – but would you really want the kind of beef-and-potato diet that would result? (Even British wheat is pretty marginal when it comes to bread-making). Personally I would rather head in the opposite direction and enhance further the range of other delights we have on offer. True, we have good dairy – and presumably some of the new-found artisan products would endure – but would this country really want to do without the vast array of foods we can now choose from? While I have found a couple of decent mozzarella makers in the U.K. we still don’t do a good line on our own buffalo milk, nor apricots, oranges, peaches or even tomatoes. Let alone pineapples, coffee – or cotton.

So it occurred to me, while reading that book and talking to that uncomprehending man, that I suppose my tastes have become so thoroughly Europeanised (we also resisted the lure of a huge mortgage, and live in an apartment) that giving them up would be – while possible – a significant dent in the quality of life that Brexit is supposedly going to enhance.  “It’s about freedom!” cried my interlocutor; “By depriving me of mine?” I replied.

While the freedom to buy Illy coffee and fancy socks may not be about to solve world peace, they nonetheless can bring a little colour to the life even of an Englishman, in the way that the old insular ways did not. And it’s certainly much-needed in the current political climate. One could even argue that the cultural convergence that they represent is a force for international good: despite my preferences, I just don’t see myself as a “Citizen of Nowhere”, in fact quite the opposite.

But even in one’s choice of footwear, it seems, politics intrudes.