Dec 302018
 
Brexit/Britain is in the bin (via Erica Neustadt)

While Theresa May and Jeremby Corbyn play games with Parliamentary procedure, time is passing. In less than three months, on 29 March 2019, 2 years after Theresa May triggered the Article 50 procedure, the EU Treaties will cease to apply to the UK … unless Parliament does something first. The only problem is that the there is a political impasse in Parliament.

To get an idea of how people feel about this, we have created an online “event” which you can take part in anonymously. By answering this first question, you will help to feed the word cloud below. You can add several words if you wish, before clicking on the ‘Send’ button.

Fresh from its Christmas break, the Home Office started to ask non-British EU nationals living in the UK to apply for ‘settled status’. Actually, the tweet called on all EU citizens living in the UK (ie including British citizens) to apply.

Apart from the legal error, this suggests that the Home Office has failed to learn the lessons of the Windrush scandal and is about to launch another “ethnic cleansing” programme on a much larger scale – there are some 3.6 million non-British EU nationals living in the UK. As Professor Tanja Bueltmann has pointed out, ‘settled status’ will create a new Windrush generation of EU citizens. The unsettling effects of this policy on people who have lived and worked in the UK for decades are illustrated by the people in the video response below.

Meanwhile, back in Parliament, Theresa May has negotiated a deal with the EU27 which few MPs (other than those in Government) are prepared to back. It is either a worse deal than staying in the EU or does not allow the UK sufficient independence from the EU – depending on the perspective of the MP concerned.

MPs were supposed to have voted on the deal on 11 December but the vote was postponed by Theresa May until 14 January as she realised that a significant majority of MPs would vote against the deal. Her strategy appears to be to scare MPs with the perspective of a ‘no deal Brexit’ if they vote against her deal. The delay also seems to have been designed to reduce the time for a People’s Vote on the deal before 29 March 2019.

In theory, the UK could ask the EU27 to extend the Article 50 deadline. However this would require all 27 Member States to agree to this and, given that Theresa May has already exhausted their patience, there would seem to be a high chance that at least one Member State would block such an extension.

Another option, confirmed by the 10 December ruling of the European Court of Justice, is that the UK is free to revoke its Article 50 notification unilaterally. That possibility exists until either the withdrawal agreement comes into force or the 2-year period expires on 29 March 2019.

So there seem to be four options for MPs, as shown in the question below. Which of them would you prefer? You will see the relative support for each option after you have made your choice and pressed the ‘Send’ button.

So far in Parliament, most MPs are against a ‘no deal’ Brexit. However, there is currently no majority in Parliament for any option which might avoid this outcome.

Although Theresa May had claimed only three months ago that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal‘, the costs of a ‘no deal’ Brexit are becoming more apparent now. A few days before Christmas, the Government set aside £2 billion for ministries to prepare for a ‘no deal’ Brexit and putting 3,500 troops on standby. At the same time, more than 25% of UK business leaders are very pessimistic about the prospects of the UK economy.

Tagore had observed over a century ago that nationalism has a subtle but quite destructive effect on society.

“… the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anæsthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion,—in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out. …

“The Nation has thriven long upon mutilated humanity. Men, the fairest creations of God, came out of the National manufactory in huge numbers as war-making and money-making puppets, ludicrously vain of their pitiful perfection of mechanism. Human society grew more and more into a marionette show of politicians, soldiers, manufacturers and bureaucrats, pulled by wire arrangements of wonderful efficiency.

But the apotheosis of selfishness can never make its interminable breed of hatred and greed, fear and hypocrisy, suspicion and tyranny, an end in themselves. These monsters grow into huge shapes but never into harmony.”

Excerpt From: Rabindranath Tagore. “Nationalism.”

Tagore also drew attention to the tendency of nationalists to hold foreigners responsible for causing problems because they are different.

“The social habit of mind which impels us to make the life of our fellow-beings a burden to them where they differ from us even in such a thing as their choice of food, is sure to persist in our political organization and result in creating engines of coercion to crush every rational difference which is the sign of life.”

Excerpt From: Rabindranath Tagore. “Nationalism.”

Of course, this is not limited to the UK and Brexit. The late Paddy Ashdown, whose last book Nein! Standing up to Hitler 1935-1944 explores a similar period in German history, noted that President Trump has been using the same techniques as were used in that period.

In an interview in 2016, Paddy Ashdown had said “Leave aside the fact – which is good – that we don’t have mad militarists who want to go to war, everything else about our age reminds me of the 1930s. The fracture, the disrespect for the business of government, the hatred of the establishment. You see a retreat into isolationism, you see the rise of ugly forces, you see those who lie and make a pattern of lying … As Goebbels said, if you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big one and tell it often.”

Fortunately, in the same interview, he also said “I am certain that decency and the forces of good will triumph. When, I don’t know. But that it will happen, I am absolutely clear.”

Dec 012018
 

Yesterday, British broadcaster, actor, producer and director Stephen Fry launched this 12-minute animated documentary. It shows how certain UK politicians have built their careers by stirring up fear of immigrants and fear of a ‘mythical EU dragon’ over the past couple of years.

The video opens with an illustration of an illusion known as ‘forced perspective’, which Stephen Fry suggests is how the politicians have convinced people that these fears are real. As he points out, and as I mentioned in my previous post, they and the mainstream media promoting their views have used propaganda techniques similar to those used by the Nazis in the 1930s.

In the US, Donald Trump brands all news stories and facts which contradict his narrative as ‘Fake News’. Similarly, these UK politicians have branded inconvenient facts and forecasts as ‘Project Fear’.

Thanks to this approach, facts are unlikely to convince supporters of these politicians to change their minds. Stephen Fry explored this phenomenon in a previous video about the Dunning-Kruger effect … and explained how to tackle it.

In his excellent new book How to be right … in a world gone wrong, Radio talk show host James O’Brien describes how the media have fuelled the rise of this type of politician.

As with climate change, media organisations like the BBC have attempted to preserve ‘balance’ by interviewing people who have opposite views for the same amount of time. However, even if 95% of scientists are convinced that climate change has happened, this attempt at ‘balance’ gives disproportionate exposure to the 5% that do not.

James O’Brien suggests that his approach of asking people ‘why?’ (rather than the ‘what?’ asked traditionally by interviewers) obliges those he is interviewing to explain why they believe what they do, often revealing their misconceptions. However, he lays the blame for this at the door of the politicians who have misled his callers, not his callers themselves. Here is his recent RSA discussion about his book, which inspired me to buy the book.

Another impressive, recent initiative is the podcast series Dial M for Mueller, with award-winning investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr (who revealed the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal) and Peter Jukes. The latest episode explores why Nigel Farage is a ‘person of interest’ for the FBI investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

As I have mentioned before, Rabindranath Tagore attempted to warn the world about the dangers of nationalism over 100 years ago. His 1939 dance-drama Shyama , written in the context of growing tensions of pre-Independence India and the rise of nationalism in Europe, opens with a foreign merchant who is falsely accused of theft by a repressive regime.

I was happy to see that French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated this in his speech on Armistice Day. Fortunately, there are still a few politicians around who are brave enough to stand up to the real Project Fear.

Oct 292018
 
Notice on the door of the Poundworld shop in our local High Street

This week’s UK Budget is expected to reduce business rates, to reduce costs faced by shops and businesses on UK High Streets, but not by their online competitors. Media reports about recent closures of shop chains have mentioned reduced sales in High Street shops due to people buying online. Few dare to mention any loss of interest in shopping (in general) due to uncertainty faced by many households, particularly low income households, as a result of the UK Government’s seemingly incompetent handling of the UK’s departure from the EU.

Yesterday, I took a walk along our local High Street, in Sutton, which is in the suburbs of London. I took these photos of all the abandoned shops and businesses, many of which have closed in the past couple of years. Of course, there are other recent arrivals (mainly cafés, restaurants, vaping shops and nail parlours) which allow the High Street to retain some life. Nonetheless, I was left feeling quite sad about the state of what was a vibrant High Street not so long ago.

If this is happening in the relatively affluent South-East of England, I suspect that the situation is even worse in other parts of the country, particularly further North – often forgotten by Westminster parties and political leaders. In any case, the impression of decay in our own High Street is far more intense than in other parts of Europe we have visited over the past couple of years. The UK is apparently more heavily into online shopping than other countries but, even so, that cannot be the only explanation.

The owner of our favourite kebab shop confirmed to me on Saturday night that the costs of his raw materials (particularly vegetables) had already gone up significantly as a result of the 18% fall in the value of the pound since the Referendum was announced. So far, he has been absorbing this increase without raising his prices – he knows he would lose business if he increased his prices.

A significant proportion of his customers are from low income families and they have been telling him that they are uncertain about the future and are trying to spend as little as they can now. Yes, they are fed up of hearing about Brexit but that is because it is not at all the simple process they were led to believe it would be by certain politicians – instead, we now hear the Government warning that people may need to stockpile medicines and that lorries may need to be parked on the M26 (several miles from the coast) while waiting to cross the English Channel. This could explain the popularity of online shopping and the state of the High Street, which is far less busy than it used to be (and those that are there seem to be window shopping rather than buying).

Last Christmas, my holiday reading was the disturbing book Alternative War by James Patrick, a former police officer turned investigative journalist. The book tackles Russian interference in the UK’s EU Referendum and the US election of President Donald Trump, suggesting that these are elements of a ‘hybrid war’ Russia has launched using fake news and sophisticated disinformation campaigns. The book documents how ‘detached and deniable assets’ and ‘useful idiots’, such as Wikileaks, the far-right (including UKIP and Republican officials), were engaged by Russia to subvert two of the world’s superpowers and install managed democracies as part of a strategy to enhance Russia’s position and destabilise its perceived enemies.

One of the key claims of the Leave campaign was that £350m contributed per week could be spent on the NHS. However, it is now emerging that, in the event of ‘no deal’, there may be cancelled NHS operations and staff shortages.

Via Cory Doctorow, I came across this 15-minute short film American Psychosis featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges. In it, he draws parallels with totalitarian regimes he has reported on and a culture dominated by ‘pervasive illusion’ which he now finds in the US. Perhaps this is also the situation in the UK?

Lord Adonis has been travelling around the country arguing in favour of a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal (or no deal) which Theresa May is negotiating. In this article for The New European, he explains why we are now in a similar situation to the 1930s. He recommends the new book by Paddy Ashdown Nein, Standing up to Hitler 1935-1944 about the German resistance, and how it was undermined by the appeasement of the British and French Governments.

Today’s appeasers of the far right similarly recreate the weak and demoralised liberals and conservatives of the 1930s, from Germany’s Catholic ‘centre’ party which voted with Hitler in 1933 to Neville Chamberlain treating so disastrously with the German dictator thereafter. Theresa May is eerily Chamberlainite in her stubbornness, her deep ignorance of the extreme political currents swirling around her, and her appeasement of an English far right – Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the puppet Boris Johnson …

Andrew Adonis, Yes we are back in the 1930s – The New European, 25 October 2018

Meanwhile, the number of people sleeping rough in the UK has increased by 169% since 2010, with increases every year for the past 7 years. The conditions would appear to be ripe (again) for populist politicians to offer the fantasy of an easy solution: nationalism. But, as Tagore pointed out over a century ago, this approach comes with risks for the society we live in.

Throughout history, demagogues rarely need to direct the violence. They set the tone – they focus the blame, ridicule, rage and hate — and leave the violent acts to others. That way, they can always say “it wasn’t me. I don’t have blood on my hands. The culprits are out there.”
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) October 28, 2018

Robert Reich, Berkeley professor and former US Secretary of Labour

A few weeks ago, I was dismayed but not surprised to see James Patrick suggesting that the real objective of the UK Government is a ‘no deal’ Brexit, with all the harmful consequences its own documents now predict. I did find it shocking though that the reason would be to justify Ministers using their powers under the Withdrawal Act to by-pass Parliament.

In effect, this ’emergency rule’ would take the UK out of a democracy and into dictatorship. I would invite you to follow the link below and read the rest of his thread on Twitter. I hope this is not the real objective of the UK Government (whose official line is still that it is working towards an agreement with the EU27). However, as time goes by, and as the UK missed the opportunity of the recent Summit in Brussels to sign any agreement, perhaps his analysis seems increasingly likely?

With this in mind, here are some of the speeches from last Saturday’s People’s Vote march. Note particularly the comment from Tom Brake that the UK Government and Parliament have spent the past two years being so focused on Brexit that they have not tackled the real problems affecting millions of people, such as the housing crisis, reform of the education system and the state of the NHS. Maybe, in time, the people who spoke at the march will be seen as the ‘resistance’.

 Posted by at 2:54 am
Oct 222018
 

Yesterday, Kaberi and I were among the estimated 700,000 people marching for a People’s Vote on the outcome of the negotiations between the UK Government and the EU27. These comments summarise our impressions.

Yesterday’s march, which was led by young people, was a moving reminder that humanity is still a strong force in the UK. We saw people of all ages in the march, ranging from senior citizens marching for their grandchildren to children wrapped in the EU flag.

There were also many, original placards which people had made. Here are a few examples.

Meanwhile, the BBC continues to boost the profiles of politicians like Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson by quoting them ‘for balance’ every time anyone dares to question the wisdom of the UK leaving the EU.

The scale of the March felt amazing, as we stood in it. Before we set off, we heard a series of stirring speeches. Our friend Tom Brake, Brexit spokesperson for the Liberal Democrat’s, pointed out how much of a distraction Brexit has been for both the Government and Parliament. There are many other pressing issues, such as homelessness, which they could have been doing something about.

The speeches included Vince Cable uttering the most popular slogan of the day: “Bollocks to Brexit”. The rhythmic pattern of this slogan was repeated from time to time during the march using whistles.

By Sunday morning, news of the march (which eventually became the top story on BBC News on Saturday afternoon) had been removed from the BBC’s top stories. Even while the article was the main story, the first person quoted in it was Nigel Farage, who was speaking at a pro-Brexit event in Harrogate attended by 0.17% of the number of people attending the march. That there has been no follow-up of the March at all by the BBC suggests censorship rather than balance.

As we approached Downing Street, we could see many marchers heading in the opposite direction. We learned from them that access to Parliament Square had been blocked as there were too many people.

On our way to finding something to eat in Chinatown, we passed the statue of Shakespeare in the middle of Leicester Square. The quote on the lectern he is leaning on reads “There is no darkness but ignorance”. It seemed somehow appropriate for the occasion.

 Posted by at 12:51 am
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