Fantasy Island

I haven’t written anything on this site for a while now.  It’s actually rather difficult to know what to write when confronted with the astonishing spectacle of national self-destruction that is unfolding in front of our eyes.  Nowadays hardly a day passes without another  reminder that the UK has entered a new political dimension in which delusions of grandeur, magical thinking and ideological fantasy have replaced anything that we once thought had any connection to the real world.

These tendencies reach across the political spectrum.  You can find them in George Galloway, doing the full UKIP/Churchill thing on Arron Banks’s Westmonster website (sorry not linking to this) and reminding Europeans that WE saved them during WWII and that ‘If not for us not a single European politician would hold office anywhere unless as a Quisling collaborator of the German Reich.’  For the Churchillian war-child Galloway this means that ‘ when I hear a “Schnell” or an “Achtung” from the Junkers (sic) of this world I don’t consider it music in my ears.’

Let no one spoil this demagogic rant by telling Galloway that Jean-Claude Juncker comes from Luxembourg not Germany. He already knows that.  But for Galloway, anyone who has anything to do with the EU is close enough to Nazis to make no difference, and anyone who says otherwise, like Churchill’s opponents, belongs to what he calls ‘the gang of appeasers and fifth columnists within the British elite.’

Such idiocy, as we have seen for some time now, is not confined to the fringes.  Take Boris Johnson’s latest fatuous suggestion comparing the border between  Northern Ireland and Ireland to a congestion zone between Westminster and Camden.  Never one to resist blowing his own trumpet, Johnson reminded Radio 4 listeners that ‘ when I was mayor of London we anesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people traveling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks.’

Many people have pointed out that it may not be so easy to ‘anesthetically and invisibly’ bypass Irish history or a conflict that cost 3,000 lives.  It’s a bleak testament to the current state of things that such arguments even need to be made, or that a self-aggrandising buffoon like Johnson has any influence on anything at all.  But his continued presence in the corridors of power is a symptom of a detachment from reality that only seems to grow wider as the Brexit process slouches incoherently  towards political Neverland.

For eighteen months now the May government has been asking for things it cannot have, promising things it cannot deliver, bluffing, posturing, and pursuing things that cannot be achieved, even as its own impact assessments predict that the country will be worse off in every single Brexit scenario.   Yet when civil servants point out the potential damage that the country is likely to inflict on itself, they are dismissed as traitors, quislings, closet Eurocrats or members of the ‘pro-European elite’.

Humankind cannot bear very much reality, wrote TS Eliot, and Brexiters cannot bear any reality at all that conflicts with their fantasy of a global buccaneering Britain, freed of EU red tape and the unwanted immigrants that the country depends on, able to proudly smoke in pubs once again and singing Rule Britannia as we surge toward a brave new world that we now know will not be a ‘Mad Max-style’ dystopia.

In fact a country that allows its politics to be driven by ideological fantasies and straw man constructs is likely to find itself inhabiting a reality that is more dystopian than its opposite, and the right aren’t the only dreamers in Brexittown.  On Monday, Jeremy Corbyn once again demonstrated that the left is no less prone to magical thinking than the Rees-Mogg/Nadine Dorries crowd.

Corbyn’s speech was hailed by his fans as a ‘ bold Brexit vision’, because his fan base will never say anything different about anything he says.  But despite – or perhaps because of – its attempt to be everything to everyone, his speech was littered with little reminders of why His Majesty’s Opposition has presented very little opposition whatsoever to the Brexit process,  and has largely fallen over itself in its eager desire to bring the debacle even closer.

Thus there was a leftwing version of the ‘£350 million for the NHS’ pledge in Corbyn’s promise to ‘use funds returned from Brussels after Brexit to invest in our public services and the jobs of the future, not tax cuts for the richest.’  While insisting that there should be ‘no scapegoating of migrants’, Corbyn once again promised that ‘Our immigration system will change and freedom of movement will as a statement of fact end when we leave the European Union.’

So migrants won’t be scapegoated, but immigration will be.  And freedom of movement – one of the great progressive achievements of the European Union – will end in order ‘ To stop employers being able to import cheap agency labour to undercut existing pay and conditions’.

Never mind that there is very little evidence to suggest any such thing.   When Corbyn last mentioned this ‘importation’, it was in relation to the construction industry, which has a skills shortage and where wages are actually rising.   But Corbyn, like the Lexiters moving in his political orbit,  clearly believes that immigration is nothing more than a ‘bosses club’ ploy to exploit migrants more easily and in Brexit Britain what you believe is always more significant than what actually happens.

Despite making more emollient noises than the Maybot, Corbyn insists that he won’t accept a ‘ deal that left Britain as a passive recipient of rules decided elsewhere by others’ even though the EU has always made it quite clear that it will not accept cherry-picking deals that allow the UK to continue to enjoy a privileged position after leaving while escaping the obligations of membership.   Despite this, Corbyn is optimistic about the outcome because:

‘There will be some who will tell you that Brexit is a disaster for this country and some who will tell you that Brexit will create a land of milk and honey. The truth is more down to earth and it’s in our hands. Brexit is what we make of it together, the priorities and choices we make in the negotiations.’

Not really.  Because whatever priorities and choices we decide upon, the UK is negotiating within a very limited set of parameters and is almost certain to find itself worse-off than it was before, no matter what is ultimately decided.  The tragedy is that neither the government nor the opposition want to admit this. Mesmerised by their own narrow party or personal career interests, wide-eyed and prostrate before ‘the will of the people’, they offer fantasies and pipedreams and demand the impossible in an attempt to square circles that cannot be connected.

Sooner or later the consequences of this political cowardice and dereliction of duty will become impossible to ignore, and when that happens things may get far uglier than many of us once thought possible.  Because there are historic mistakes that cannot easily be undone, and Brexit is one of them.

For now, it seems, the millions of us who are unwilling passengers on this runaway train can merely sit while it heads towards the buffers, hostages to a political nightmare that we seem incapable of waking up from, shouting out warnings that those who are driving this process seem unable or unwilling to hear.  From the point of view of a writer – and a citizen – that is not a comfortable position to be in at all, and it is very difficult to say anything knowing that whatever you say will make no difference whatsoever.



2017: The Year of Lying Brazenly

For connoisseurs of 21st century dystopian humour, there is a bleakly  amusing clip doing the rounds showing Pete Hoekstra, the US Ambassador to the Netherlands, apparently being well and truly hoist by his petard.   Hoekstra is a diplomat appointed by Trump and forged very much in the template of his master.    Asked by a Dutch journalist whether he said that there were Muslim ‘no go areas’ in the Netherlands, Hoekstra denies that he said any such thing, and accuses the interview of spreading ‘fake news.’   Said interviewer then shows said ambassador a 2015 clip in which Hoekstra can be found saying exactly what he has just said he has not said.

When the interviewer shows Hoekstra the clip and asks him why he characterized it as as fake news, Trump’s man in the Netherlands immediately denies that he said it was fake news even though the interview that he is participating in clearly shows him saying exactly that.

This exchange tells us a number of things about the state we’re in.   The good news is that there are still good journalists who are prepared to hold lying politicians to account.  That might be grounds for optimism, were it not for the fact that Hoekstra doesn’t appear to care that his falsehoods have been exposed in full public view.

Hoekstra may be little more than his master’s lickspittle, but the contempt, arrogance and total indifference to truth or fact-based argument on display here are another indicator that 2017 has taken us into a new political territory, whose implications have yet to be fully absorbed.   ‘Post-truth’ politics didn’t begin with the election of Donald Trump.    Tony Blair and George Bush worked up one of the great political lies in modern history, and neither of them paid any serious price for it.

But Blair, Bush and their defenders have repeatedly denied that they were lying about WMDs and tried to make excuses for their catastrophic decision to invade Iraq.     In the Trump era excuses and apologies are not required.    We now have an American president can lie openly and brazenly on an almost daily basis without any consequences whatsoever:   a president who can ignore and reject photographs demonstrating that his inauguration was poorly-attended as ‘fake news’; who denies that he was in a ‘pussy-grabbing’ video in which he can be clearly seen and heard – and crucially, a president whose power base ignores and rejects whatever he ignores and rejects.

This isn’t some kind of American aberration.   David Davis has clearly lied through his teeth all year about the Brexit impact studies that turned out never to have been made.   Asked by the Brexit select committee early this month what had happened to these studies, Davis denied that they  had ever been carried out, even though he himself had said on various occasions that such studies did exist.

As early as November 2016, Davis’s department said that it was preparing impact studies ‘ on over fifty sectors of the economy.’   Yet Davis sat before the Brexit committee looking bored, smug and utterly indifferent to the discrepancy between what he had promised and what he was offering that was being presented to him by his shocked interlocutors.

There are various reasons why we have ended up like this.   Part of the explanation lies in the common decadence of British and American politics, which increasingly produces politicians without any intellectual grounding or moral compass,   who no longer feel any motivation even to go through the motions of telling the truth.    But the arrogance shown by Trump, Davis et al is also the product of a deeper cultural and political shift, in which political arguments have become so tribalised that truth no longer matters even to their supporters.

Trump and Davis know that the people who support them don’t care if they lie, and don’t care if they are found out, as long as their lies suit and reflect their common agenda.   So if Davis lies about Brexit, that’s fine, as long as his lies are seen to further the cause of Brexit.   When Trump lies about…anything, that’s ok too, as long as his lies rub salt in the wounds of ‘liberals’, ‘leftards’ or ‘the elite.’    And when Hoekstra is caught lying about Muslim ‘no go areas’ in which ‘cars and politicians are being burned’, that doesn’t matter either because there are many people who want to be believe that such things are true.

This is why the likes of Katie Hopkins have continued to claim that October’s car accident outside the Natural History Museum was a terrorist attack, even when it was absolutely clear that it wasn’t.   After all, if you believe that the media and political class are so cowed by Islam that they will actively cover up a major terrorist attack to avoid causing offense, then you will believe anything, and politicians like Trump, Davis and Hoekstra appeal to an audience who are prepared to believe whatever confirms their prejudices.

This audience has been around for a long time, fed on a diet of poisonous allegations and conspiracies that goes beyond the current world of shock jocks, Infowars and Prison Planet etc to the ‘UN black helicopter’ conspiracies that circulated in the early Clinton era.   Social media have merely widened that audience and made it easier to reach it and compartmentalize it, and the results are plain to see.

There was once a time when Americans were taught to admire the young George Washington, who   supposedly admitted to cutting down a cherry tree on the grounds that ‘ I cannot tell a lie.’   A 21st century Washington would simply deny that a cherry tree had ever been chopped down or call it ‘fake news’, and his supporters would agree with everything he said even if someone showed them a chopped-down tree and an axe with his fingerprints on it.

These tendencies aren’t exclusive to the right, of course.   Leftists can think and act like this too, but the brazen dishonesty of Trump, Davis and Hoekstra is essentially a product of the tribalism of the right and the far-right.   And 2017 is the year in which this toxic sludge burst from the social media fringes into the mainstream,   to the point when the whole process of reasoned argument and fact-based discussion that makes democratic life possible is now at risk.

Because if lying no longer matters, then why should truth matter?   Why bother even trying to prove that something is true or false if people will simply ignore your arguments if they don’t like them?

And if you no longer believe that truth has a role to play in democratic politics, then you run the very real risk of transforming political life into the playground of bullies, demagogues, populists, Twitter hatemobs – and liars.





Twilight in Brexitland

Yesterday evening I shared a horrific post on Facebook about a tetraplegic woman whose disability benefits have just been cancelled, and has just been summoned to a job interview by her local job centre.  As shocking as it was, this dreadful decision was a fairly typical example of the cruelty and incompetence that has been repeated again and again under the brutal sanctions regime introduced by successive Coalition and Tory governments.  Most of the commenters were as outraged as I was, but there were also messages like this:

No shame when it comes to the white British benefits office. Maybe if she was immigrant that’s might of made a differance (sic).

It’s deeply depressing to know that someone took advantage of such an awful tragedy to express such thoughts.    Once upon a time I might have written off such comments as a occasional freak intervention from some semi-literate racist nurturing their Nazi memorabilia in some dank basement somewhere.   But such interventions are not occasional and they are not from the fringes.

They are all over the place.  You can find them, in below-the-line comments sections on any online forum that has anything to do with immigration – or not.  When a Frenchwoman living in Kent announced last week that she was leaving the UK because of racism and xenophobia, her comments section was sprinkled with racist and xenophobic comments and jeering invitations to go back home if she didn’t like it.

There is a lot more where that came from, and a lot worse too.  Twitter is seething with hatred of this kind, whether directed at foreigners. immigrants, Muslims or people of colour.   Diane Abbott gets hundreds if not thousands of such messages everyday. Gina Miller has been threatened with gang rape, lynching and acid attacks simply because she tried to ensure that Parliament had a say in the Brexit negotiations.

What’s happening on social media is also happening on the streets.  In July this year the Independent reported that incidents of race and faith-based attacks rose by  23 percent in the eleven months since the referendum –  from 40,741 to 49,921.    These incidents included acts of physical violence, acid attacks and verbal insults.  There are undoubtedly many more, since many victims of verbal attacks don’t go to the police.

What is striking about so many of the incidents that are recorded is that – like the comments and tweets on social media – many of their perpetrators clearly feel emboldened, empowered and legitimized by the referendum result.   They  feel their time has come, and some of them are clearly dreaming of some kind of ethno-nationalist reckoning in which all the people they don’t like ‘go home’ – even if this country is their home.

Once upon a time some of these people might have felt ashamed to say what they’re thinking; now they don’t.  And why should they?  When Gina Miller said she might have to leave the country, Arron Banks’s Leave.EU – a mainstream lobbying group – merely laughed and tweeted that it hoped other ‘liberals’ would go with her.  Why would people feel any reservation about expressing hostility to immigrants when politicians boast of their ability to turn the UK into a hostile environment?  When ‘commentators’ can tweet about ‘final solutions’ and call refugees ‘cockroaches’ and still get a slot on the Jeremy Vine Show?  Isn’t it all just free speech?

Every week and sometimes everyday, the Home Office – an institution which currently embodies everything that is most malignant about the British state and society – displays how hostile it is by deporting or threatening to deport another immigrant or group of immigrants.

Meanwhile politicians um and ah, or shake their heads about the public’s ‘concerns’.   Some, like the iniquitous and loathsome fraud Boris Johnson, mutter darkly about ‘dual allegiances’.  When they’re caught out deporting tens of thousands of students using false language tests, they don’t bat an eyelid.   When it’s found that their own estimates of students who ‘overstayed’ their visas are wildly over the mark, they just change the conversation and boast of their ability to keep more people out.

Left-of-centre politicians aren’t always much better.   Some talk of the need to exclude immigrants in order to win votes in their constituencies or prevent exploitation or the undercutting of British workers by migrant workers.  Others, like the dreadful Frank Field, celebrate the draconian proposals in the Home Office’s outline document for a post-Brexit immigration policy.

Few pause to wonder where all this is leading us.  It’s a truism to observe that you only stand a chance of curing yourself of an illness if your illness is actually diagnosed and recognised, and right now we are becoming  a sick society – sick with xenophobia, anti-migrant paranoia and unacknowledged racism hidden behind discussions about ‘culture’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘social cohesion.’  We slowly but inexorably poisoning our society with our own fears, prejudices and hatreds.   We are becoming mean, vindictive, callous, bitter and aggressive, constantly whining about what immigrants have supposedly done to us without thinking through what we are doing to them – or to ourselves.

Not only are our politicians ignoring and even pandering to these sentiments, but the government is actually instrumentalising the Home Office to act on them and turn them into policy.   We didn’t get to this situation overnight, and the referendum is by no means uniquely responsible for it.    But there is no doubt that in the last eighteen months, the UK has become a deeply unpleasant and threatening place for many foreigners and immigrants – and for many who simply look or sound foreign – and it may get a lot worse unless we can stop it.

So we need to recognize how serious this is, and we need to act.  The tendencies that have been unleashed these last eighteen months do not express the majority sentiments of the population, but too many of those who don’t share them have not condemned them – or have not argued forcefully against the arguments that foreigners and immigrants are responsible for the social problems of 21st century Britain.  Such arguments aren’t even restricted to the right – I’m constantly coming across them from sections of the left – albeit wrapped up in a veneer of progressive politics and concern for the working class.

We need really major mobilisations to counter these developments.   We need to make the positive case for immigration and diversity and we need to make it loudly.   We can’t pretend that we are too British and too intrinsically decent to descend into a racist and xenophobic swamp.  We can, because any society can.

We need the famous silent majority to stand up for the kind of society we have begun to build –  a society that is comfortable with diversity and open to the world, where foreigners are welcomed, not considered the enemy.  We need to push the xenophobes and racists back to the fringes and restore the shame that once forced them to keep their bitterness and rage to themselves.

Because if we can’t do this, then we will be complicit, and we will also be trapped perhaps for decades, by the dangerous forces that have been unleashed, and which will leave few people unscathed if things proceed along their present course.


Solidarity With Gina Miller

There was a time, not that long ago in fact, when ‘liberals’ and ‘leftists’ were blamed for the rise of Brexit and Donald Trump.   We – the ‘latte-drinking metropolitan elite’ had been too arrogant, the argument ran.    We hadn’t listened to ‘ordinary people’.  We’d become complacent and detached from the ‘concerns’ people had about ‘immigration’.   We’d become so ‘politically-correct gone mad’ that ordinary folk couldn’t say the things they wanted to say and had a right to say.  As one acquaintance told me this year – not without a certain hint of gleeful triumph – ‘ you thought you’d won!’

In one sense, these arguments were correct.  Those of us who grew up in the 70s did believe that the UK had made significant progress from the days when Tories could campaign with the slogan ‘ If you want a n****r for a neighbour: Vote Labour.’  We thought we were part of a society where overt expressions of racism were no longer acceptable, that accepted and even celebrated diversity.  It wasn’t that we thought we’d ‘won’, or that the UK had become ‘post-racist.’   The struggle against racism, xenophobia and intolerance is never definitively ‘won’ – it’s something that has to be waged by each generation, that requires constant vigilance regarding the complex ways in which racism changes its language and its targets and forms new tributaries.

So complacency was not in order here.  Especially over the last few decades, when ‘Muslims’ have become the new generic alien intruders and existential enemies to the far right and increasingly in mainstream conservative discourse; when words like asylum seeker, migrant and economic migrant have become tabloid codewords containing a range of undeclared and often covertly-racialised negative meanings; when ‘concerns’ about immigration suddenly made it ok to describe the entry of Bulgarians and Romanians as a potential ‘invasion’ by criminals and benefit scroungers.

But now, thanks to David Cameron, Nigel Farage, Aaron Banks, Boris Johnson and all the others who inflicted this grotesque act of self-harm on the nation, the box of monsters has been opened and we’ve found out that the progress we thought we’d made was really rather paper-thin.  Hyper-nationalism and xenophobia has infected the body politic like a virus.  It expresses itself in the streets, in social media, in below-the-line comments in newspapers, in the endless pandering of politicians terrified of losing votes and anxious to sweep up others, in the complete disregard for the millions of EU citizens whose lives have now been placed on hold while an unscrupulous and incompetent government seeks to turn them to its own advantage, in the disgraceful ‘leftist’ arguments that describe migrant workers as ‘scabs’ and commodities.

It’s comforting to tell ourselves that all this is due to a ‘few bad apples’ – an excuse that appeals both to the conservative Leavers and also to leftists who think the referendum result was a rebellion against the elite, or neoliberalism, or something.   But  it is difficult to ignore the fact that the referendum has empowered and legitimised the worst elements in UK society: the angry white men who think it’s ok to rip hijabs off Muslim women; who shout ‘ I voted for you to leave’ at people they’ve never met who simply look or sound different from them; who tell EU nationals ‘ my people have been here a thousand years, you’ve only been here for 10 minutes’; who break windows and scrawl graffiti on the houses of ‘foreigners.’

At the extreme end of this spectrum are  the sweaty keyboard fascists who threaten anyone who opposes ‘their’ Brexit or disagrees with their insanely overblown hatred of the EU, with rape and death.  Such sentiments often overlap with misogyny, because if there is one thing these ‘patriots’ absolutely can’t stand, it’s a woman who has the temerity to say things they don’t like or even to speak in public at all.

Lily Allen, Diane Abbott and Mary Beard have all been targeted by these knuckledragging trolls, and there are few people they hate more than the Guyanese-born Gina Miller.  At a time when politicians on all sides were so pathetically cowed by the ‘will of the people’ that they were prepared to allow Theresa May to drive through the hardest of Brexits without parliamentary scrutiny, Miller initiated  – and won – a court case against the British government to ensure that MPs would actually be able to vote on the outcome.

Throughout this process, Miller insisted on the simple principle – which had until Brexit been taken as an axiomatic component of British democracy – that parliament should have a say in a crucial decision of such unprecedented national importance.  For that she was mocked by the tabloids as the ‘millionaire Remainer’; condescended to by the ghastly Kwasi Kwarteng; subjected to a vicious hit-piece in the Daily Mail  which described her as a fake and a self-publicist.

Naturally she has also been threatened with sexual violence and death, because for too many people in this country,  it is unacceptable that an ‘uppity’ woman of colour should stand in the way of ‘the will of the people’ and remind them that the country’s democratic institutions are supposed to act as a check on executive power.   After all, as the racist aristocrat Rhodri Phillips put it, while offering £5,000 to anyone who would run Miller over,  ‘If this is what we should expect from immigrants, send them back to their stinking jungles.’

So Miller has been threatened with gangrape, and lynching, and many other fantasies pulled from the most rancid sewers of white racism.  She has been told that she should be beheaded and burned at the stake.  And now she has been threatened with acid attacks, to the point when she and her family don’t dare go out onto the street, and she is  considering leaving the country.

That is  Miller’s reward for upholding the UK’s democratic institutions, and for showing more courage than the entire political class between them: she and her family must now choose whether to live under 24 hour security in a state of terror or leave the country. Too many people have been silent about this, perhaps because they don’t want to be associated with someone depicted by the Daily Mail as ‘the poster girl of Remain’.

That needs to change, and now.  Politicians and commentators need to speak out loudly and clearly in support of Miller and in loud condemnation of the racists and fascists who have tormented her.  Social media companies need to become more proactive in shutting them down.  We need to do this for Miller’s sake and also for our own.  No one should be subjected to such abuse, and the vileness directed at Miller is only the sharp end of a dangerous trend that poses a direct threat to UK society as a whole.  As Miller wrote last month:

Over the last year, as the hatred flooded into my inbox, I”ve watched as perpetrators have discovered a new boldness. They no longer hide under anonymity but openly sign their name. They no longer linger alone in their rooms, or at the end of some bar in a pub; social media amplify their vile voices and create echo chambers that reinforce their views.

This is happening because we have allowed it to happen.  It will take a great deal of effort to put these monsters back in the box, but  it’s an effort we have to make.  Today Leave.EU tweeted the following GIF celebrating the fact that Miller may be forced to leave the country because of the threats directed against her:

That is their response, and no one familiar with Arron Banks’s organisation will be remotely surprised by it.  If we are going to prevent the UK from sliding into the same swamp we need a different response.   Last month Miller asked ‘the decent people of Britain to come together in opposition to the hatred poisoning our country’.

That’s an invitation we will refuse to our shame – and also at our own peril.