Sunday, 21 January 2018

Janis Joplin is Seventy Five

Janis Joplin would have been seventy five years old on Friday. It seems impossible to think of her as ever being that old.  It also seems impossible that all this time later, she would still have been that young, that all that was effectively only yesterday. She died, as everybody knows, as the great wave of “the sixties” broke, leaving the debris of those whose vulnerability as well as talent seemed to define that still extraordinary era. 

Even at the time, there was something of an air of ritual inevitability about it. First there was Jimi…then a few weeks later there was Janis…then Jim Morrison a few months after that. All damaged, all publically bearing their wounds to the hungry world, all burning out with a rapidity contiguous with the brightness of that burning. All 27, of course, famously, and all, too, in the process of renegotiating the congruence of personal, cultural and world history that focussed on their unready persons, and devoured them raw.

In Janis’s case, there was never anything private about what was happening to her.  Heart on her sleeve wasn’t in it. The whole basis of her sudden fame had lain in what she had represented as female, freaky and young.  Bewildered hurt was what she did, it was her schtick. In the way she sang, tearing at herself to find and display her damage, in her rambling but poetically focussed monologues in between songs on stage, in her alternately reckless and needy personal relationships, at any time and place, Janis Joplin would have been a troubled soul, dangerous to know, or know too well. But it took a very particular time and place to take her out of the provincial, hip coffee bars of Austin, Texas, and make her personal pain into the global cultural commodity that it was…and still is.

What happened, basically, upon the discovery by corporate America that there was money to be made out of “rebellion”, was that the outcasts and losers…they self-identified as freaks…who have always and will always be on the failed fringes of home owning consumerism, were handed guitars and money and the very best of them conquered the world.  Whenever you watch film of them, something like the Band’s great, elegiac concert movie, The Last Waltz, for example, you find yourself thinking, “would any one of these funny looking fuck ups have been signed to a record label at any other time in history?” The answer is probably “no.”  It was a particular moment of cultural dislocation combined with economic expansion that brought these culturally dislocated people into the economic mainstream.  For a giddy year or two, in their early and mid-twenties, still children, really, with the Beatles at the top of the pyramid, these glorious inmates had the run of the asylum…and produced what are still some of the most arresting and brilliant “moments” in the history of popular culture.

The version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” on Janis’s “breakthrough” album with big Brother and the Holding Company is one of the musical highlights of the century for me, never mind of the decade.  A voice breaking into chords over Sam Houston’s visceral, tearing guitar, reinventing the personal in the appropriation of a black woman’s blues by a young white woman that, for me anyway, transcends a later era’s cross-cultural queasiness through the sheer force of that individual witness. It couldn’t have happened before the moment that it did happen.  And it sure as hell couldn’t have happened afterwards.

The dumb accidental tragedy of her death, which is brought to mind by thinking of her as alive today - a cackling, life affirming firebrand of a certain age, on her fourth marriage to a younger guy with a hell of a stock of memories and who can tell what other achievements - is that like all the icons born in the first half of the forties who burned brightly in the sixties, she was in the process of re-negotiating her own life.  They were all doing it, that whole generation who suddenly found themselves nearer to thirty than twenty…

Some reinvented themselves as corporations in their own right, some found a niche in the rather quieter, less dangerous world of jazz or country rock (Janis was heading in that direction). But every change, as in the case of the Beatles, had a price of breaking something.  Perhaps it was easier if you in a group, that you had to break up the gang…or turn it into a brand… in order to survive into adulthood.

And maybe somewhere in there is where we find the real link between members of the 27 club. Not so much in their numerology as in their singularity, their isolation. Janis changed bands three times in three studio albums, but it is in her unaccompanied “Mercedes Benz” song that she most wistfully yet definitively sang to us of her plight. Unable to fit in with what she had been, and with her very existence defined by her being estranged from herself, she called herself and her last Album by the name of a black prostitute, , “Pearl.” 

That her she destroyed herself just at a time when she had put the worst of her self-destructiveness behind her, and that her lonely death on a hotel room floor is so synonymous with her very real achievements as a musician is every bit as much our tragedy as much as it is hers. It would have been better for all of us if that remarkable person still lived on, rather than what we do have left of her…the comparatively cheap currency of a legend. 

Monday, 18 December 2017

A Lesson from History

By any measure, the Battle of Britain stands with the October revolution as among the most historically decisive few weeks of the 20th Century. Little wonder its spirit is evoked so often in our national mythology  and popular culture.  It really was, bu any reasonable measure, “Our Finest Hour.”

As a playwright I try very hard to look at historical stories in the present tense, as if we didn’t know how it was going to come out.  Because that’s what it must have been like at the time.  And in the late summer of 1940, what had happened in the past year, from a British point of view, was not going to fill you with confidence.  

True, the Chamberlain Government, which would have almost certainly have made a deal with Nazi Germany rather than fight on alone, had been replaced by Churchill leading an unlikely coalition (still forming) consisting mainly of the Labour Party and a few Tory rebels. The most dangerous potential Quislings had either been interned, like Mosely and the Tory MP for Peebles, Colonel Ramsey…while other less immediately dangerous but untrustworthy individuals, including the ex King, were being put out of harm’s way.  True, the British Army and a good chunk of the French had escaped from capture and death at Dunkirk…but even a successful retreat is still a retreat.  

To the shock of the world and the Germans…and the French…Churchill had recently ordered the destruction of the French fleet at Oran …with the loss of 1500 French lives…partly to keep the ships from being added to the German navy, but also to show the Germans…and the Americans, crucially, that he wasn’t going to mess about, that he could be as big a criminal as he had to be to win. At this point, the Germans were forced into serious preparation for invasion of Great Britain…the prerequisite of which was, of course, air superiority, without which an invasion across the Channel was unthinkable. (As it was in 1944.) 

So the RAF had to be bombed and blown out of the war. 

Had we lost the Battle of Britain, then, the Germans would almost certainly have invaded the South of England before the bad weather came in October 1940…Roosevelt would likely have lost the Presidential election in November.  And the King...or his older brother... would have shaken hands with Hitler on the balcony of Buckingham palace. The Americans could never have supplied the Russians when the Nazis inevitably turned on them and the Americans would have had no forward base in Europe from which to launch the invasions of North Africa, Italy and France.

A close run thing.  At the time, entirely unpredictable 

So far, excepting with a few minor details of interpretation, I imagine I’d be in agreement with Boris Johnson and William Rees Mogg…at least in the summary of what was at stake when “we” took to the skies over the South East of England to take on the Luftwaffe in August and September 1940.  Where we might differ is in recalling the details of who “we” were…who WERE the “few” to whom so much was and is still owed by so many.

Nearly three thousand pilots – fought in the Battle of Britain. Nearly 600 of them, 20%, were not born in Britain. Around 300 came from the Commonwealth…Canada, New Zealand, Australia…Jamaica, India… Nearly 300, however, came from future EU countries. France, Belgium, Ireland…and from Poland and Czechoslovakia. The most "kills" by any Squadron during the fighting was 303 Squadron. Who were ALL Polish... 

They don't just do kitchens, you know.

So the only REASONABLE conclusion from the Battle of Britain...and of the fact that 20% of the few weren't British...and that 10% of them, including the single most effective group of them...were from Europe... is that it was a jolly good thing they were here.  And that Britain was saved from Nazi Invasion in 1940 not by standing alone, but by welcoming immigrants...

Sometimes history doesn’t quite teach the lessons that everybody thinks it does.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Speak for England, Jacob!

On September 2nd 1939, as Neville Chamberlain sat down in the House of Commons, his speech having delivered distinctly equivocal support for Poland, invaded the day before by the Nazis, despite all the previous promises of solidarity, Arthur Greenwood was rising to his feet to reply for Labour when an angry voice came from the Tory Government backbenches, and shouted possibly the most famous and most spine tingling set of four words uttered in that Chamber during the Twentieth Century : “Speak for England, Arthur!”

The words were spoken by Leo Amery, an anti-appeasement Tory MP in a moment of angry shame that, in his judgement, his Conservative and Unionist colleagues were preparing to bow the knee to the Nazis, that the terror of another war with Germany was about to push The United Kingdom into further acquiescence in the Nazi take over of central Europe that had begun in earnest with the unopposed invasion of Czechoslovakia in March that year. Those words were spine tingling for a reason not usually part of the story we tell ourselves about Our Finest Hour…that right from Munich in 1938 until the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, it was by no means a settled certainty that the hour in question would have been anything other than one of shame, betrayal and collaboration.  It was, as the Duke of Wellington observed on another European occasion, "a close run thing."

I’m thinking of this pivotal moment in our national history (as the UK of GB and NI) partly because I am dead certain that Leo Amery’s defiance of a weak and vacillating Tory Prime Minister is not ever far from the thoughts of Jacob Rees-Mogg as he characteristically - and not without the courage of his own convictions - identifies so clearly what is at stake as we go into “Phase Two” of the Brexit negotiations.  Jacob Rees Mogg, in his heart of hearts, knows he is speaking for England, and that what is at stake is what “England” and the “UK”…mean. 

This second stage of talks with the EU will focus on the so called “transition” after the UK putatively leaves at the end of March 2019.  The Chancellor , Phillip Hammond, confirmed yesterday that during this period, the UK will follow EU Trade Rules…even though it will no longer have any say as to what those rules are. Rees Mogg, and the rest of the “Conviction Brexiteers”…still a minority in the Tory party in the Commons, if not in the country, are horrified.  Rees Mogg has described this transition status as being equivalent to the UK being a “colony” of the EU. (Able and highly educated though he is, irony seems to be entirely lost on this scion of a newspaper dynasty and the 18th Century.) 

Mildly absurd though the rhetoric is, it does point us to the beating heart of what Brexit means to its advocates, both consciously and unconsciously: The Independence of England.  If that Independence is sacrificed to expediency and pacifying the Irish, why then, Old England really is Done…as the song nearly says at the beginning of Dad’s Army.

When Amery used the word “England” in 1940, he meant Britain, of course.  An England equivalent to Britain…and Britain a Greater England… was as natural for him as it was for George Orwell, who in his own defining statement on the war in 1940 had to add a rather irritated footnote to the effect that Scottish, Welsh or Irish readers might object to the lumping together of the four nations under the name of one of them , but that he thought they were being a bit silly about it. Thing is, that in 1940, and for some considerable time afterwards, most Scots would have agreed with him that the differences between us added to our cultural richness and “diversity” (to use a later term) but were of no real political account.  This was and remains the opinion of those who campaigned most coherently for a No vote in 2014.

 What has changed in the last couple of weeks, I believe quite by accident, is that Ireland’s refusal to contemplate a hard border with the North, and crucially, that refusal being comprehensibly and unequivocally backed by the 27 countries of what we will need to get used to calling the rEU, combined with the risible mixture of incompetence and arrogance that somehow persuaded the Tories that the DUP would ever contemplate a functioning border between Holy Protestant Ulster and the Motherland, has catapulted us into UK wide “Soft Brexit” territory quite without plan or expectation…to the manifest relief of the Remainer majority on the Government benches.

Ireland has saved England from itself.  I always thought that was our job!

Anyway, Farage is quite openly spitting out his own teeth with rage, while in rather more civilised tones, Rees Mogg, on Newsnight last night, drew the battle lines for the next stage in the Tory Civil War that has landed us all here in the first place.

“We cannot be a colony of the European Union for two years from 2019 to 2021, accepting new laws that are made without any say-so of the British people, Parliament or Government,” Jacob Rees Mogg said on Newsnight last night. “That is not leaving the European Union, that is being a vassal state of the European Union, and I would be very surprised if that were Government policy.”

With Rees Mogg, as with Enoch Powell before him in the story of the break Up of Britain, the choice of language is fascinating. But I want to concentrate on the word “we.” 

 “We” are “the people”…to coin a phrase. And the people are being betrayed and hoodwinked by what Nigel Farage, despite more than twenty years salary and a fat pension on its way from the European Parliament, calls “professional politicians”  - involved in a conspiracy against the nation.

But that nation is not the place Leo Amery wanted Arthur Greenwood to speak for in 1940, it is not not the place with a Global Empire that decided to create the Welfare State in a moment of nation defining solidarity when the Labour Party, fired with a sense of British National certainty and purpose it has not had before or since, (despite “White heat” in the Sixties and “Cool Brittainia” in the 90s) swept to popular and political power in 1945. That Vision of Britain held itself together while begging to join the EU from the late fifties till the early seventies when it finally succeeded. But one part of that Britain was never comfortable with subsuming itself into the greater whole, was never comfortable with the diminution of its “place in the world”, clinging onto past greatness through folk memories of the 1940s as much as to its seat on the UN Security Council and a “special relationship“ with an increasingly bemused and indifferent United States - ALL, of course, products of that war and it's victorious but complicated conclusion. The complications of that Victory came crushingly home to the UK (and France) in Egypt just ten years after that part in a World War that came out more or less right.. I believe that "Brexit in 2016" will have the same resonance for future historians as the words “Suez in 196” do now…as a self inflicted slap in the face to British Exceptionalism based on folk memory more than current reality. And will stand with the same symbolic certainty for the difficult acquisition of self-knowledge.

Part of this learning curve is that you cannot simply pretend that the other three nations of the UK don’t exist, or rather, that they only exist when they’re being “silly” and annoying. The debacle over the Irish border saw to that. But to KEEP Northern Ireland and maybe Scotland and Wales and, crucially, LONDON, within that Greater England…then England will  have to KEEP the Single Market and the Customs Union and quite possibly Free Movement as well.  (Ask the can't have the first two without the third) 

So to keep the Kingdom United, England can’t leave the EU, in any terms that Rees Mogg and his like would accept, at all. England can’t leave the EU without leaving the UK as well.

As has been observed before, England cannot abide being “just another country in Europe.” “We”…in the Rees-Mogg sense of “we”…stood alone and unique in 1940. What Rees Mogg and his fellow Brexiteers insist upon is that once more “we” can stand alone despite the traitors and equivocators of appeasement among us. But “we”, in my view, isn’t what it used to be. “We” no longer convincingly mean the same “us.”  For example, I don’t think that even Unionist Scotland, here and now, has a problem with being “just another country.”  In fact, in Nationalist Scotland, I think a considerable number of us rather aspire to being “just another country.”

But we learned in 2014 that Breaking Up Britain was too big a job for the hesitant, equivocal Scots.  Breaking Up Britain was always a job for the English  - who went ahead with Brexit without, really, a second thought....  This despite the warnings (not entirely delivered with conviction, admittedly) that a Brexit vote in 2016 was a decisive step along that road. 

But now, as we move into the next phase of the divorce, the question of English Independence that was implicit in 2016 (Farage didn’t use the word till the next morning) is going to be explicit as the “transition” (to what?) is negotiated not just in Brussels, but in the Cabinet room, the pubs and the Parliament of England.

If Rees Mogg inter alia do decide to “speak for England” in the way I describe (though they will still call England “Britain”)…and insist that a hard, clean break with Europe is what “the people” voted for in June 2016…they will likely bring down their own government, of course.  But they will also, I think, do something else of rather more historic significance.  They will declare that the English Independence they believe in, is not only a “liberation” from the EU, and from its daily insult to English Exceptionalism. Brexit is also, in effect, an English Declaration of Independence from the UK.  

Are they really ready for that?  Because the light will dawn in the course of 2018, that Breaking Up Britain is the price of a meaningful Brexit. 

Fasten your seat-belts and pass the popcorn.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Speech During Wartime

What this is about, after the 48 Hour news rumble which I'm sure Trump loves, is the degradation of public speech. Of the defeat of evidence by noise.
Trump and his people are inviting us not to care about whether a Britain First video is "real" or not because Trump retweeting it "elevates the conversation." This elevation is clearly not intended in any sense that Jane Austen or Henry James might have recognised elevated dialogue. No. What Sarah Huckabee means by "elevates" is "make louder." In Trump world, in what is increasingly "our world," all that matters is that an opinion be loud. That it garner re-tweets and follows. Britain First understand this principle of the new media, which is dragging the old media along behind it like your "other" Grandad, the one who isn't the boorish, embarrassing one who rants about women and immigrants and Muslims over Christmas dinner. Nice Grandad goes along with the distasteful crudity of the boor who carves the roast simply because he no longer has the conviction or energy to tell the man to shut up.
Why does the degradation of public speech matter? What is wrong with the loudest voice being the most important? With there being no agreed standards of ,if not "truth" then at least ethics in what people in positions of power carelessly chuck onto social media because it gives them a warm feeling in their tummy as their own worst, weakest most bigoted instincts are confirmed? Or indeed offers the opportunity to sneer loftily at the idiots on Twitter, one of whom happens to be Dipstick In Chief? Isn't it all just a bit of fun, reduced like all consumed news product to titillation at one level or another? Does it really matter if Rupert Murdoch was right all along? That the most cynical, bleakest view of all human conduct, elite or not, turns out to be right?
What matters to me, I think, that The Triumph of Energy that Trump represents is also the Death of Hope. The triumph of prejudice over evidence, of the triumph of loudness over intellectual process is the Triumph of the Will over Reality. Reality itself gets bent out of shape so that stuff which was unthinkable a year ago is normal times now. God knows about five years from now when he's in his second term.

It isn't just Trump. It's the making of the machinery of government into his echo chamber. The reduction of government itself into loud, cheap lie machine to protect the hatreds and stupidity of a cheap crook. That a White House staff would calmly dismiss the promotion of a Neo-Nazi Hate Group as "elevating the conversation" is more than absurd: much more dangerously, it is what you have come to expect. As each line of decency is crossed, as each decline and fall of what it is publically possible for the President to say and retweet is crossed and normalised, the more we really are, as a civilization, handing over our future to the successors of the Trumps and Farages simply because they seem to have more get up and go than we do.
In the same way, cherished liberal elitist notions of "Balance" - that the media can offer a neutral platform for the debate of ideas within a commonly agreed window of responsible disagreement - are blown out of the water when you interpret this to mean giving equal time to climate change deniers and fascists on an equal footing with actual scientists and ...well, let's just say Nicola Sturgeon, or Vince Cable, or Hillary Clinton. Whatever complications one may have about any or all of these, surely we can agree to recognise that there is a qualitative difference between them and Nigel Farage and Donald Trump? "But what can we do?" bleat the newsminders. "We can't be Reithean Policemen of the Public Good anymore! This is what the democracy has chosen, it is what the new media has thrown up, this is what the market wants!"
The apparent energy of the faux authentic...of the "good bloke in the pub" Nigel Farage, and of the "No nonsense Man's Man" Donald Trump seems to just floor the equivocating, desiccated toffs who have lost all conviction about their role as "keepers of standards." Even the fact that I am putting so much of this little lament into inverted commas tells me that I too am hidebound by deadened language, crippled by quotation, unsuited by my own civilised, pussy footing irony to properly face of the enemy. It feels like dereliction of duty even to try to explore an idea rather than reach for a baseball bat.
Of course, one reaches for past parallels. One is gaining from the present debacle a tremendous insight as to what the 1930s must have felt like at the time as we drifted in apparent hopelessness towards war and genocide. But what requires no retrospection or gazing into a crystal ball is the observation that right here and now we are in real trouble. That if we continue to hand over the field of public speech to the boors and thugs then maybe will get the future Trump, the Future Farage that such equivocation deserves. Maybe it really is time to finally abandon ideas like "balance" and "truth" rather than simply imprison them in quotes. We need a new set of weapons to take these people on. Right now it feels like life during wartime. And only one side is suited up.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Boris, Brexit, England and Reality

England, Their England – 20th September 2017.

In The Lion and The Unicorn, his great 1940 essay on the nature of Englishness, George Orwell, in Hampstead, as the German Bombers flew overhead, was trying to define the identity of something that was in real and present danger of being lost. Perhaps this is why it is the definitive statement of identity that it is, why it had to be definitive. The very survival of England was at stake.

(It wasn’t just England whose survival was in question, of course…the survival of Europe and of civilisation was up for grabs…but we’ll get to that, and Brexit, in a minute.)

Among Orwell’s most memorable observations was that the support of the “average Englishman” for the British Empire was expressed by being barely conscious that it existed, and that this blithe disregard for the complex reality that supported “his” simple way of life was one of the things foreigners found so maddeningly incomprehensible about the English. It wasn’t a wholly new thought.  The essayist Sir John Seeley in a book of 1883 made the famous and connected observation that the British had “conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” Absence of mind had extended to historical matters nearer home too, of course.  The name of the book in which Seeley had made this observation was “The Expansion of England.”

Orwell, in a rather irritated aside, addresses the anomaly, when he acknowledges that readers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may object to the expansion of Englishness to include them in his essay on identity.  He argues, with some justice, that to the rest of the world, the differences between us are insignificant to the point of invisibility, and moves on, having dealt with the absorption of the minor Celtic nations into the big one purely as a matter of identity, and not as a series of political, historical and cultural events.  Rather in the way he fondly accused his countrymen of their not knowing that the British Empire existed, Orwell treated the Expansion of England as a fact of nature, rather than as a political process that could, as is the nature of processes, be reversed.

This is all in my mind this morning as we approach what future historians of identity in these islands may, (or may not, depending what May does in Florence on Friday) identify as a defining moment as much as 1940 – “Dunkirk and All That” – was definitive for the relationship of 20th Century Britain to itself and to everybody else. It seems to have been on Boris Johnson’s mind as well.  Not only is he ferociously, personally ambitious, he is also rather a gifted and passionate writer on English history and identity. Churchill is his hero and role model in this as well as, he hopes, finding himself summoned to the Palace to assume the office of Prime Minister in Our Darkest...and Our Finest Hour.

May was being widely trailed as finally making the statement of British Intent on Brexit that the aforementioned Maddened Foreigners had been waiting for. Finally, it was promised, more than a year after voting for it, they would be told definitively, what the British wanted out of Brexit.  There would finally be clarity in the negotiations because there would finally, actually be a real and conscious policy that Britain was pursuing.

And this is where we get back to absent-mindedness. The entire historical success of Britain, or England, has been in not really being conscious of what Britain, or England, was doing. The famous preference for “muddling through”, “buggering on” and so on, is not just a charming cultural trait like warm beer and cricket on the green.  It’s actually at the heart of how Britain, or England, gets things done.

The centre of things, the way things are, must not be challenged. The way to deal with change is always, ALWAYS to act as if nothing had changed. The Scots, Welsh and Irish may have been conscious of the particular circumstances of their absorption into greater England, but it is the genius of England barely to have noticed. The British Empire was not only absent-mindedly acquired over two centuries, it was as inconsequentially and easily abandoned in two decades in exactly the same way, as if it had never been.

The perennial question, since 1950, of “why are all these immigrants from India and the West Indies coming HERE?” is testimony to this sound cultural policy of forgetting. In a similar way, the consequences of the End of Empire on the immediate borders - the slow and differential self- assertion of the previously quietly absorbed peripheral nations of Scotland, Wales and Ireland over the last century or so - has been equally irritating and inexplicable.

As for Europe, and what is or is not going to happen on Friday, Greater England joined the EC in 1973 with exactly the same strategic self-persuasion that “nothing has really changed” with which she has been attempting to leave the EU.  “Britain” – the economic and administrative oligarchy that bestrides Greater England like an invisible colossus – may well have known that joining the EC was absolutely essential, if politically inadmissible, as a SUBSTITUTE for Lost Empire in connecting to the imperative yet invisible wider world. But England, like Ireland, Scotland and Wales, is inevitably, as the Empire fades from memory, asserting a distinct identity, and will be having none of it.

It turns out that Britain understood “England” just as poorly as it understood its other colonies, and with catastrophic results.

What the other Europeans, the foreigners, may have failed to understand is that unconsciousness, NOT having a fixed policy on Brexit, was absolutely essential not just for holding Britain together, but for Theresa May holding her cabinet together.  David Davis was never specific in his negotiations with the EU because he and the Cabinet had never been specific with each other.  They had never even really discussed it outside of algorithmically isolated cabals of Europhiles and Eurosceptics who only ever talked to people they already agreed with.

All that, by force majeure, was due to change on Friday.  The Prime Minister was going to get specific in Florence on a phased transition deal that once again try to keep the cracking edifice of Britain, and the cracking edifice of Her majesty’s Government together, that once again, would change everything, while changing nothing at the centre. And Boris Johnson, on Saturday in the Daily Telegraph, spoke for England, and said he and England were having none of it.

This is only Wednesday, as I write. Not, like Orwell, with German Bombers flying overhead, but just before what might be the next moment of crisis in Britain’s long, more or less managed post war decline.  Boris has drawn a line…the moment we get specific on Brexit, hard or soft, one way or the other, the Cabinet and Government split like an over ripe melon. It is entirely possible, even probable, given past precedent, which Theresa May will follow in the grand historical tradition of putting off till tomorrow the reality that she would rather not face today, and that her speech on Friday will be as gutted of content and specificity as almost everything else she says. But if Theresa May screws her courage to the sticking post and goes ahead with Speech A, make no mistake, the Tory Party Conference in Manchester in the first week of October is going to be a bloodbath that it is hard to see her Minority Government surviving.

As for the Labour Party, every bit as split on Europe, every bit as dependent for unity on “not really talking about it”, they must be thanking God and the Ghost of Clement Atlee that their conference isn’t the week after, but the week before. They will be able, if it happens, to fully enjoy watching the Tories explode into acrimony and accusations of treason while pretending to be unconscious of the thought “there but for the Grace of God…and the traditional scheduling of Conference Season…go I.”

As a footnote the subject of reality, it has just occurred to me that the name we might give to England leaving Europe on its own might be just "Exit"...but that's a thought for another time.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

"To Govern As If"

I won’t be the the only person to say this, on this blog-site and elsewhere, but the Programme for Government set out yesterday by the First Minister is far and away the most progressive and ambitious that the chamber has ever heard. An awful lot of it makes welcome reading to an awful lot of people involved in the broader Yes coalition over the last few years. From a primary to tertiary strategy on education, to a positive and manufacturing and export based vision for the economy - all underpinned by a publicly owned and run investment bank - from an unashamedly optimistic, joined up programme going from infrastructure to green targets to taxation and welfare, this PFG represents nothing less than an aspiration to transform this small country.

That this is being done in the doomed, minimal expectation atmosphere of Brexit is to dissociate Scotland from the UK without even mentioning the Constitution, and it left opposition parties floundering, responding to the speech that they were expecting, not the speech they got.  Within the narrow confines of the Holyrood Bubble and it’s attendant commentariat, it was something of a game-changer.

We’ve had a few months now since the election of denial and wound licking.  And the document produced yesterday is of course still ambition rather than achievement.  The question of how it will play in the wider world of Scotland, let alone the wider world beyond will probably come down to what the “story” is.  And that may comer down to nuance and feeling as much as the very firmly holistic and grounded “culture of government” that the PRG sets out. It unashamedly looks to a Scottish State to coordinate and shape a holistic vision of what a country can be. In the contemporary context, this is almost thrilling in its heresy. It is also entirely, unashamedly, optimistically European.

It is a Programme for Devolved Government with the ambition we’d look for from Independence.  In fact, in many ways, it is far MORE ambitious than was the White Paper produced for the 2014 Referendum Campaign.
And this, to me, is a sure sign that the Sturgeon Government has moved on. In retrospect, the perpetuation of the “Indy Mood” BEYOND September 2014 and through 2015 and 16 (until the Brexit vote, in fact) , that sustained and promoted the fortunes not just of the SNP, but of the rather more numinous “mood of optimism” in our political culture, was bound to come to cultural if not arithmetical grief in the unexpected election of 2017.  The wave had been stoked up and kept going by a mixture of stubborn ineptitude and arrogance in the Cameron government, and charisma in the person of Nicola Sturgeon…and the wave was bound to crash at sometime.

But what was clear yesterday was that the twin realities “external” to the aforementioned Holyrood Bubble of the increased uncertainty of Brexit on the one hand and the mercurial rise of Corbyn on the other may well have taken the immediate constitutional campaign of “IndyRef 2” off the front burner, but they have also opened a space for a far more specific and identifiable “left” programme of government by the SNP.

Thanks to an astonishngly positive response to the new circumstances that seems to be very much led from the front, the SNP government have hit the ground running in a New Normality that I, at least, was slow to see coming.
Buit make no mistake.  This degree of radicalism in government is only possible if the political priority of building a referendum coalition which includes, (as Salmond so cautiously did) a very Not-Radical proportion of the Scottish Electorate that is simply arithmetically essential to a Yes vote, has been decisively dropped. Ironically, we and Nicola Sturgeon may be being afforded this vision of Scotland’s future only because The Independence Campaign - as we have understood it up until now - is off the agenda.

The “Indy Moment” of 2011-2016 is over. We are in a new phase now. There are things happening over which we have control, as evidenced by the leaking yesterday of a Home Office paper on future UK Immigration policy as suicidal as it is illiberal, as oppressive as it is impractical. The contrast of confidence that was displayed yesterday between Edinburgh and London is absolutely stark. .  For my money, it is exactly what needed to be done to positively change the story we need to tell ourselves as a culture.  The way to prove to ourselves our fitness to govern ourselves…is to do it.  

To govern "as if "

Friday, 9 June 2017

Democracy? You've got to love it!

I spent most of last night in an impressively improvised TV Studio for Broadcasting Scotland in the same kind of incoherent shock as has been displayed by Theresa May ever since her tight wee circle of acolytes launched her manifesto, and the damn thing sank like a boat in a Buster Keaton movie.  But come the dawn, and the Tories having lost their majority, and Jeremy Corbyn talking about forming a minority Labour government with a mischievous plausibility that will have most of his own parliamentary colleagues reaching for a fresh pot of paint to daub a frozen smile across their masks of despair...with the EU now in a position to absolutely dictate whatever form of Brexit they feel like, even with  Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Tories and the DUP combining forces to put whoever is leading the Tories next week over the line…I have got a smile on my face that I don't have to paint on.

This election, on both sides of the border, has worked out really well.  In fact, even with the loss of some real talent from the SNP Parliamentary group, in terms of what comes next, I’m not sure how it could realistically be any better.

Think of it this way.  35 SNP MPs matter FAR more in THIS context, than 45 or so MPs would have mattered had the Tories achieved the thumping majority they were after, or than 56 mattered until yesterday.  I don’t believe any more than Jeremy Corbyn really does that Labour can REALLY form the next government…His main cause for celebration today is that the Blairite hegemony in his own party is now decisively over.  But even if they did try to form a government, they would absolutely now need the SNP to pass a budget, and to renew Trident…to name but two. 

As it is, yes, of course, the Tories will form the next UK government…and this is not a good thing...but did anyone really expect them NOT to? The real news this morning is that the UKIP/Tory fusion Party which Theresa May had decided was the way to keep her safe from having to make deals with ANYONE, her own party very much included, is as dead as a door nail, even if TM tries to hang on as a deeply damaged PM.

But what about Scotland?  Symbolically, if in no other way, this is a surely a huge comedown from the heady symbolism of the Tsunami two years ago?

Firstly, I’d argue that this is no bad thing in and of itself.  Symbolism, after all, is only symbolism.  If this election has taught us anything it is surely that real life continues anyway, and that the vast majority of the electorate, God Bless 'Em, don't give much of a toss for it. The Yes/No divide in Scottish politics is what produced that tsunami…the 45% for yes had somewhere obvious to go, and the Unionist vote, under the illusion in 2015 that Scottish politics could back to a status quo ante referendum led to them coming unstuck.  What has happened, paradoxically, in the highly successful reorganization of the Unionist tactical vote that has STILL left the SNP with a healthy “majority” of Scottish seats is first of all, a predictable and salutary catching up…better reflecting our divisions and no longer allowing the 2015 result to allow some in the Yes movement to imagine that we’d sort of won in 2014 after all…and secondly, it's a confirmation of the re-focusing of Scottish politics as an entirely distinct entity from politics South of the border, as having changed forever.  Scottish politics now is ALL about the constitution, and in the long run, that’s exactly where the nationalists want it to be.

But what about the second referendum? So that Scotland gets to decide on what kind of Brexit deal we want?  Well, first of all, the EU are in the driving seat on that one, and not the UKIP/Tory merger…and second, can we now admit that it was never a very good idea in the first place?  Calling a referendum when you don't know the result in advance may make for exciting television, but it's no way to run a government. It may be that democratically there was no option but for Nicola Sturgeon to announce that there should be some specifically Scottish say on the shape of the Brexit to come…but still, we're better off without it being any kind of immediate promise let alone terms of running Scotland properly, if nothing else.

Calling a second referendum when you can’t predict the outcome was always a very dangerous strategy, and one doomed to a second defeat, on this timing, in my view. Now that, first of all, the Brexit process is itself completely up in the air, and we have even LESS idea what we might be voting on in that referendum in 2019, in terms of narrow politics,  iit makes even less sense.  So when Ruth Davidson triumphantly demands that Indyref 2 get off the table NOW, I think we should let the baby have her bottle and think that we've just dodged a very nasty bullet.

In another wonderful paradox of democracy, by making this election campaign in Scotland about NOTHING but the “threat” of Indyref Two…the Tories have won some seats, but in the longer term, even in the medium turn, have done the SNP an enormous favour. It may be that Nicola Sturgeon, after due consideration of the changed UK posture on the Brexit talks, can concede that “while the Brexit deal is so uncertain, there will be no referendum in the course of this parliament “…and breathe a sigh of well deserved relief. This is a chance to remove am electoral millstone from around the neck of the Scottish Government, who can now take part in the Brexit process with a MUCH better mix of Westminster parliamentary arithmetic and a secure Scottish government for years to come.

What's more, with the Tories relying on MPs elected from Northern Ireland, there is absolutely no way that the "hard Tory Brexit" that justified that referendum can happen. The "fringe" nations, including Scotland are in a FAR better place to negotiate a soft, even differentiated Brexit, than they were yesterday.  Time to blow the dust off that proposal that Theresa May so arrogantly dismissed a couple of months ago.  If Indyref 2 is off the table, it's because a differential Scottish Brexit is now back on.  

Crystal balls probably belong in the trash…but by re-aligning Scottish politics so decisively along constitutional lines, and insisting as the “prize” of “SNP defeat” that the SNP drop a second referendum which I strongly suspect they never really wanted in the first place... and with pressure on the SNP in Holyrood coming from a Labour Party which entirely owes its revival to its own left wing, I don’t see, beyond the improbable “Coalition” that people may have considered in the wee small hours last night, that this could be any better.

Democracy, as well as being a ruthless bugger, as Theresa May and Alex Salmond have both found out, also has a fantastic sense of humour.  That’s one of the reasons you’ve got to love it.