Jun 052017
 

In my previous post, I asked whether controlling immigration would make the UK and better, safer place.

The other belief stirred by certain UK politicians and media is that controlling immigration from the EU would reduce the risk of terrorism. Really? 52-year-old Khalid Masood, who carried out the Westminster Bridge attack in March, was born in Kent. 23-year-old Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber who attacked the Manchester Arena last weekend, was born in Manchester. Both had been reported to the security services for their beliefs. This analysis illustrates how Salman Abedi fitted the profile of other terrorists.

In the wake of Saturday night’s London Bridge attack, Theresa May said yesterday that “terrorism breeds terrorism“. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that extremism breeds extremism.

Most of us cannot imagine how anyone could attack fellow human beings with vans, knives or bombs. However, in Tagore’s Nationalism in the West speech a hundred years ago, he noted that:

When we are fully human, we cannot fly at one another’s throats; our instincts of social life, our traditions of moral ideals stand in the way. If you want me to take to butchering human beings, you must break up that wholeness of my humanity through some discipline which makes my will dead, my thoughts numb, my movements automatic, and then from the dissolution of the complex personal man will come out that abstraction, that destructive force, which has no relation to human truth, and therefore can be easily brutal or mechanical.

Take away man from his natural surroundings, from the fullness of his communal life, with all its living associations of beauty and love and social obligations, and you will be able to turn him into so many fragments of a machine for the production of wealth on a gigantic scale. Turn a tree into a log and it will burn for you, but it will never bear living flowers and fruit. This process of dehumanising has been going on in commerce and politics.

It seems to be time to ‘follow the money’ on this issue. Last week, Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat Shadow Foreign Secretary, called on Theresa May to publish a report into the foreign funding of extremism in the UK. He reminded her that Saudi Arabia “provides funding to hundreds of mosques in the UK, often espousing a hard-line version of Islam”.

Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat Shadow Foreign Secretary

He said, “The Conservatives have broken their pledge to investigate funding of violent Islamist groups in the UK, seemingly because they were worried about upsetting their dodgy allies in the Middle East.” Home Secretary Amber Rudd had said during last week’s Leaders’ Debate that arms sales to Saudi Arabia were good for industry.

Tom Brake added, “This short-sighted approach needs to change. It is critical that these extreme, hardline views are confronted head on, and that those who fund them are called out publicly.

“If the Conservatives are serious about stopping terrorism on our shores, they must stop stalling and reopen investigations into foreign funding of violent extremism in the UK.”

After the Brussels attacks just over a year ago, our friend Leo Cendrowicz investigated in this article for the Independent how Saudi Arabia’s influence and a deal to get oil contracts sowed seeds of radicalism in Belgium. According to Belgian opposition politician George Dallemagne, Salafist clerics at the Great Mosque of Brussels have tried to undermine attempts by Moroccan immigrants to integrate into Belgium.

“We like to think Saudi Arabia is an ally and friend, but the Saudis are always engaged in double-talk: they want an alliance with the West when it comes to fighting Shias in Iran, but nonetheless have a conquering ideology when it comes to their religion in the rest of the world,” he said.

Mr Dallemagne has sponsored many resolutions in the Belgian parliament aimed at loosening ties with Saudi Arabia, and reducing the Salafist influence in Belgium. “We can’t have a dialogue with countries that want to destabilise us,” he says. “The problem is that it is only recently that authorities are finally opening their eyes to this.”

As Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has pointed out, Theresa May rejected warnings from the police that cutting police numbers would increase the risk of terrorist attacks and that her Prevent anti-terrorism community engagement strategy is not trusted. And, of course, when all else has failed, the superficially easy solution is to propose to control the internet.

To return to Tagore’s Shyama, with which I ended in my previous post, after Shyama hears why Bojroshen has been imprisoned, the Companions sing about the oppression of the innocent:

The locking up of the good at the hands of the cruel – who will stop it? Who?
The flow of tears from helpless, distressed eyes – who will wipe them away? Who?
The cries of distressed people sadden Mother Earth.
The attacks of injustice are poisoned arrows –
Under persecution from the strong, who will save the weak?
Whose generosity will call those who have been insulted into his embrace?

Jun 052017
 

News of Saturday night’s terrorist attack on London Bridge emerged just as I was finishing this post. I decided to defer its publication and return to the topic of terrorism in my next post.

UK Border Control at Eurotunnel Calais

This was the UK Border Control at the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais on Friday night. Every single vehicle is stopped and passports of all the occupants are checked and scanned. For over 20 years, I have crossed this border many times when driving between Brussels and London.

However, for most Europeans, this type of border post is an unusual sight.  Since the Schengen Agreement was signed over 30 years ago, between most of the other Member States, you hardly notice the border as you drive through it on the motorway. The Schengen Area now covers 26 countries including Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Only Ireland and the UK have opted out of the Schengen Area, which is why this border post exists. Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus and Romania are currently preparing to join the Schengen Area. This video illustrates what it is like to jog between two countries without border controls: Belgium and the Netherlands.

The experience at Calais has changed over the years and became especially sad in 2014-15 when refugees camped at the nearby ‘Jungle’ would try each night to smuggle themselves onto a Eurotunnel Shuttle. Several of them lost their lives in the attempt and there was a time when we would see some of them (usually men) making the two-hour trek in small groups in the dark along the motorway hard shoulder as cars and lorries whizzed past them, sometimes jumping into slow moving lorries. We have not seen any of them for over a year but the triple fencing topped with barbed wire and bright floodlights around the Eurotunnel terminal area are still there.

It seems hard to imagine that this border could be any more difficult to get through if the UK were to leave the EU. The only thing that might happen is that this border control, complete with the No Man’s Land between it and the French border control, might itself be sent back to the UK by France’s newly-elected President. The squalid conditions of the Calais Jungle have been an embarrassment for France and Calais in particular.

One of the main arguments of Leave campaigners was that the UK needed to “take back control” of its borders. Take another look at the photo above. The UK already has control of its borders. What they meant is that the UK should be able to refuse entry to whoever it wants. And it cannot do that to EU citizens … although benefits to EU citizens face some restrictions if they are unemployed for more than 3 months.

In September 2015, Hugo Dixon analysed whether or not the UK would have better control of its borders inside or outside the EU. He drew attention to the Dublin Regulation, under which “the country where asylum seekers arrive has to process their applications. If it grants them asylum, it is responsible for looking after them. The refugees are not free to travel where they like. But if they do end up somewhere else in the EU, that country can then send them back to the country where they first sought asylum.”

Nonetheless, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have both advocated excluding the free movement principles of the EU. The remarkably united reaction of the EU27 has been to refuse access to the Single Market without the free movement principles.

If the UK is outside the Customs Union, the Calais border control would shift to Dover and there would be no possibility to send refugees back to another EU Member State where they had claimed asylum – something which the UK had done with 12,000 refugees between 2003 and 2015. Regarding another border between the UK and the rest of the EU, EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier has said he will try to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. However, this may prove difficult as “customs controls are part of EU border management”.

Thanks to Leave campaigners, many people in the UK have been given the impression that controlling immigration would reduce pressure on the NHS and other public services, make more jobs available to Brits, avoid taxpayers’ money being abused by immigrants claiming benefits and reduce the risk of terrorism. Each of these beliefs is not supported by the statistics. In addition, the eligibility rules for benefits for EU nationals were tightened in 2014 and confirmed by the European Court of Justice as being in line with EU law.

And yet, for some years even as Home Secretary, Theresa May has been pushing an arbitrary and hitherto seemingly unachievable target for net migration. Could it be that the anti-immigration rhetoric of certain UK politicians has fanned the flames of terrorism?

My first feature-length film was Rabindranath Tagore’s dance-drama Shyama. In it, Tagore addresses a number of issues which are as topical today as they were in 1939, when he wrote Shyama. A year earlier, Tagore had written Prayashchiththo (Penance), which reflected his deep concern with both the increasingly turbulent atmosphere in pre-Independence India and the rise of Hitler in Europe.

In Shyama, in casting the character of Bojroshen as a foreign merchant, Tagore may have been referring to the persecution of Jews by Hitler at that time. When Shyama asks why Bojroshen has been imprisoned, the King’s Guard replies:

There has been a theft in the Royal Treasury.
We need a thief, no matter how, we need a thief.
It doesn’t matter if it’s just any man, we need a thief.
Otherwise we will lose our honour.
Who better to accuse than a foreigner … ?
Jun 022017
 

While preparing to turn Brits into Europe’s untouchables, Theresa May spoke to President Trump and expressed her “disappointment” that he had just binned the Paris Climate Accord. Meanwhike, the leaders of France, Germany and Italy warned the US President that the Paris Agreement could not be renegotiated.

French President Emmanuel Macron recorded this speech in a language which the problem child running the US could understand:

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also explained the situation during a discussion in German:

Meanwhile, weak-and-wobbly Theresa May probably felt that she could not afford to upset President Trump. What if that could damage trade relations with the UK’s second biggest trading partner after the EU? After all, who else would trade with the UK after the ‘hard Brexit’ from the EU that she has been advocating?

Of course, there’s always scope for arms deals with Saudi Arabia. During Wednesday evening’s leaders’ debate, when challenged by Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas about why the UK was selling arms to countries on the UK’s Human Rights watchlist, Amber Rudd (substituting for the debate-allergic Theresa May) observed that these were good for industry.

As the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers – “people with no other options must be content with what is offered“. And yes, thanks to David Cameron’s need to solve a problem within the Conservative Party and fend off the threat to it from UKIP, the UK is now set to have no other option but to sacrifice any moral principles it may once have had. It’s not exactly the best starting point for negotiating with the EU … .

Rabindranath Tagore first became concerned about man’s impact on the environment after seeing an oil spill at sea on his way to Japan in 1916. This was decades before an environmental movement emerged in the West. Over 100 years later, President Trump still fails to get it – unlike the leaders of almost every other country in the planet, except Syria and Nicaragua. President Trump’s short term aim of creating a few jobs in the US coal industry in places like Pittsburgh somehow became a higher priority.

We’ll always have Pittsburgh – New Yorker cartoon by Kim Warp

And yet the two biggest drivers of the migration of which President Trump and Theresa May are so fearful are war and climate change. As former US Vice-President Al Gore pointed out recently, climate change helped cause Brexit. The civil war in Syria followed the worst drought there for 900 years, which forced 1.5 million people to move from the countryside to the cities. Then popular nationalists started to use psychological operations techniques to play with people’s fears.

Following the announcement by President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk resigned from his involvement in the presidential councils.

In a speech at Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy in Berlin a couple of years ago, he had noted that: “Today’s refugee problem is perhaps a small indication of what the future will be like if we do not take action with respect to climate change,” stated Musk during the recent speech. “Today, the challenge is in terms of millions of people, but in the future, based on what the scientific consensus is, the problem will be in the hundreds of millions and much more severe.”

Jun 012017
 

Andrew Neil “interviews” Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron

With Brexit-vision, intolerance seems to have become the ‘new normal’. Take, for example, the so-called “interview” of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron this evening by Andrew Neil. You can read the full transcript on the Spectator blog (remembering that Andrew Neil is the chairman of the Spectator, among other things).

There was a time when interviewers used to ask questions and listened to the reply before following it up. If the reply was drifting away from the question, of course, the interviewer should intervene. Maybe Newnight’s Jeremy Paxman was the first to develop this more aggressive TV interviewing style. Even so, if the interviewer does more talking than the interviewee, maybe it ceases to be an interview?

It seems that Brexit-vision has led to the phenomenon that Tagore described in his speech Nationalism in the West: “the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics 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.”

Meanwhile, after hiding behind her settee last night, Theresa May emerged to present her Brexit-vision, as did Jeremy Corbyn. Considering that neither of them have a plan for Brexit or indeed any vision which acknowledges the real impact of Brexit, their ability to waffle as if life for British people will continue as normal is impressive. The BBC perceived a “clash” but the difference between their policies is fairly marginal, especially since both are playing to the now fashionably intolerant Brexiteer voters. The “clash” was rather that they just hurl personal abuse at each other – in the truly constructive tradition of Labour and Conservative politicians.

Theresa May also avoided journalists’ questions.

Of course, many on social media were asking  “where’s Theresa” yesterday evening. After Tim Farron picked up on this during yesterday evening’s debate, he asked the audience “Where do you think Theresa May is? She might be outside your house sizing it up to pay for your social care.” Labour student Christopher Knott and his friend Christian Calgie, a Conservative supporter, decided to check that she wasn’t on their doorstep.

Even the official Twitter account of the US TV series House of Cards joined in:

Of course, the US House of Cards has been struggling lately to present its viewers with something even more scary than the actions of the real US President.

May 312017
 

As Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas pointed out this evening: “The first rule of leadership is to show up”. Apart from Theresa May, the leaders of all the major political parties (plus UKIP) took part this evening in the only televised Leaders’ Debate of the UK General Election campaign. Amber Rudd, whose father passed away on Monday, was obliged to represent the absent Conservative “leader”.

Looking back a year ago, during the EU Referendum campaign, Theresa May sat on the fence and only eventually emerged to support the Remain campaign.

David Cameron resigned after the Referendum. As the Conservatives’ main Leave campaigner, Boris Johnson appeared to be the most likely successor to lead the Conservative Party … until Michael Gove stepped into the race, somewhat treacherously. With these two safely out of the way, Theresa May became the Conservative leader and Prime Minister without any election.

This reminded me of the rise of the “hero” of the BBC’s House of Cards political series, Francis Urquhart – although there was at least a leadership election in the fictional story.

UrquhartNot feeling guilty, I hope. If you have pangs of pity, crush them now. Grind them under your heel like old cigar butts. I’ve done the country a favour. He didn’t have the brain or the heart or the stomach to rule a country like Great Britain. A nice enough man, but there was no bottom to him. … So let’s not indulge ourselves in any squeamishness — alright? Because this… is just the start.

Theresa May then appointed Leave campaigners David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox to take care of Brexit and the UK’s international relations. As their campaign had been based largely on undeliverable promises, it was a bit like leaving the Keystone Cops to reorganise the police force.

Before doing that, she could have called a General Election to obtain a democratic mandate. But she didn’t.

After doing that, she could have launched a debate in Parliament about what to do in the light of the Referendum. But she didn’t.

Instead, while sterling continued to trade around 10% below its value before the Referendum, she did nothing. Eventually, she started repeating the meaningless phrase “Brexit means Brexit”. Perhaps she wanted to put people into a trance … .

She also fought a court case to require Parliament to decide on launching the Article 50 procedure, and not just her. When she ultimately lost at the Supreme Court, she rushed a back-of-the-envelope Act through Parliament.

Then, a few days after triggering the Article 50 negotiations, she called a General Election. She presented herself as a ‘strong and stable’ leader and taunted her opponents as the ‘coalition of chaos’.

Meanwhile, the Keystone Cops have shown little evidence of having a plan.

Some pointed out on social media that someone else had once promised strong and stable leadership back in the late 1920s. And people voted for it.

All this and various U-turns during the election campaign so far suggest that Theresa May is far from strong and stable. Rather, she seems to be cold, calculating, controlling, secretive and closed. Together with the Keystone Cops, they look like the real coalition of chaos leading the UK over the Brexit cliff, while forcing the elderly to pay for their social care and axing free school lunches for primary schoolchildren … although they would offer children free breakfasts – kind of.

May 302017
 

Former MEP Andrew Duff is credited with the formulation of “Article 50”. He has written a fascinating 4-page discussion paper entitled Brexit: Time for plan B for the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.

The likely disagreement

He analyses the diametrically opposed negotiating positions of the UK and the EU27 (links to which I included in my blog post yesterday). He reminds us of Theresa May’s vacuous ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’ soundbite, which is as uncosted as the Conservative party manifesto.

He concludes that the talks between the UK and the EU27 could break down before they reach the end of Phase 1 – namely “sufficient progress” being made on agreeing the principles of the three key issues regarding citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and maintaining a soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“No deal”

In that case, the UK would leave the EU at midnight on 29 March 2019 (2 years after Theresa May’s Article 50 notification letter) without any agreement or transitional arrangements. You only need to look at the trade data to realise that the UK would have a lot more to lose than the EU27 if this were indeed to happen.

In 2014, total exports of goods and services to the EU were £228,893 million and total exports of goods and services worldwide were £515,191 million. This made exports to the EU 44.4% of the total. The US is our next biggest export market, accounting for 17% of the total. – The Pink Book, Office for National Statistics, October 2015, Table 9.3.

From midnight on 29 March 2019, the UK would then trade with the EU under WTO rules. The implications of that were set out in the UK Government’s pre-Referendum paper Alternatives to membership: possible models for the UK outside the EU :

  • WTO rules represent a minimum threshold. It would be the most definitive break with the EU, offering no preferential access to the Single Market, no wider co-operation on crime or terrorism, no obligations for budgetary contributions or free movement of people.
  • If we did not manage to secure an agreement on better terms, we would be forced to revert to this model. This would cause a major economic shock to the UK, with serious consequences for companies, consumers, jobs and prices.
  • The UK would face immediate and heavy costs to our trading relationships, both with the EU and with the wider world. If reciprocal tariffs were introduced on imports from the EU, these goods would become more expensive.
  • UK nationals would not have the rights that they currently enjoy to live, work and travel in the EU.
  • Under WTO rules neither the UK nor the EU could offer each other better market access than that offered to all other WTO members.
  • Our privileged access to 53 markets outside the EU through the EU’s Free Trade Agreements would be terminated. We could seek to negotiate new agreements, but this would take years. It would be difficult to replicate the terms that we currently enjoy.

Moreover, the UK would no longer be a member of the European Investment Bank and, if it fails to pay what it owes to the EU, which other country is ever likely to trust it with a trade deal?

The rosy ambition of the Leave campaigners for the UK to negotiate trade agreements with its former colonies presumes that the latter have forgotten their past, usually-unhappy experiences under UK rule. Shashi Tharoor’s comments at the Oxford Union a couple of years ago (see the 15-minute video above) illustrate why these former colonies fought for their independence from the UK to “take back control”.

Even Brexit Minister David Davis has said that “If we fail, the consequences for working people will be dire.”

The only plan B which could save working people in the UK from Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn

At a live event in Brussels earlier this month, Martin Selmayr, the Head of Cabinet of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, was asked (see the video of the event from 43:15) whether a new UK Government could withdraw the Article 50 notification made by its predecessor. His reply was that it could not be withdrawn unilaterally without the agreement of the other Member States but that, if that situation were to arise, the other Member States would probably not insist that the notification could not be withdrawn.

For the UK, this would seem to be the only viable Plan B which would be in the best interests of the country. After a Referendum called in the best interests of the Conservative party (not the country) and a General Election called in the best interests of the Conservative party and Theresa May (not the country), this plan B could only happen if there is a majority of anti-Brexit MPs elected to the House of Commons on 8 June.

Come to think of it, since neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn seem to have much of a plan for Brexit, shouldn’t this be the UK’s plan A?

May 302017
 

I was born and grew up in London. I used to love it. I still love London’s theatres but many other aspects are no longer what they used to be – at least for me.

The beginning of the end

I think the decline started long ago, when both schools and parents stopped teaching children any values and focused instead on mechanical learning and testing. It accelerated when David Cameron decided to call a referendum on EU membership purely to try to settle a split within the Conservative party. More recently, Theresa May’s strong and stable promise to leave both the Single Market and the Custom’s Union with the sole objective of reducing immigration seems set to make the UK an even less pleasant place to live or even visit, let alone do business with.

UK Government – consistently clueless

All we know about the UK position comes from:

  • Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech (17 January 2017), setting out the UK’s negotiating objectives;
  • The UK Government’s White Paper (2 February 2017) on its “vision” for a new partnership with the EU; and
  • Theresa May’s letter to European Council President Donald Tusk (29 March 2017) triggering the start of negotiations under Article 50 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

The two-line European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 does not say much, supposedly to avoid tying Theresa May’s hands in the Brexit negotiations. Apart from this, we had heard for six months that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and lately that she wants to “make a success of Brexit”. The wishful thinking of the Leave campaign that a UK outside the EU would be able to have its cake and eat it was continued by David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox as Ministers. Personally, I found this extremely amateurish and clueless.

All this waffle has already caused a lot of uncertainty for anyone or any business based in the UK and for UK citizens based elsewhere in the EU. The pound is still worth 10% less against the euro than it was on the day of the Referendum. That is before any Brexit negotiations have even started.

The EU27 negotiating position

Unlike Theresa May, the EU27 (ie, the group of European Union Member States other than the UK) and the European Commission have decided to be completely transparent about the Brexit negotiations. Perhaps ironically, the UK Referendum result and the election of Donald Trump in the US have led to greater unity between the other EU Member States (as German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted yesterday).

Apart from the timeline, here is what we know so far about the EU27 negotiating position:

The clear line is that “sufficient progress” needs to have been made on agreeing these principles with the UK before discussions on other areas would begin.

The future of the UK?

The Leave campaigners claimed that the UK would be better off trading with countries other than the EU. In case you had forgotten what they told us, here is the leaflet put out by our local Conservative MP at the time of the UK Referendum last year.

The Leave campaigners conveniently failed to mention how long it might take or that the UK could not negotiate trade agreements with countries outside the EU until after the UK has left the EU. They also forgot to say that the UK would not be the 5th largest economy in the world without its EU trade. The UK already fell behind India soon after the Referendum because of the 10% drop in the value of the pound.

Another thing the Leave campaigners didn’t mention is that the UK would need to recruit a lot more civil servants to carry out the tasks currently carried out by the “unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels”.

Could the General Election on 8 June change this?

From these UK and EU27 negotiating positions, you can already see where the areas of disagreement are likely to be if Theresa May wins the predicted landslide majority on 8 June. Given Labour’s plan to control immigration, the destiny of the UK probably would not be very different if they win either.

The Government had already predicted the economic consequences of a Leave vote in its pre-Referendum leaflet. It had not predicted the dramatic rise in hate crime fuelled by the anti-immigration rhetoric of populist politicians or the collapse of the NHS when its tens of thousands of non-British staff decide to leave the UK to work somewhere they feel welcome. If most people really vote for either Conservatives or Labour, as the opinion polls are predicting, all this seems likely to become the reality.

With this perspective, I don’t really see that the UK will have much of a future – or at least one that I would still want to be part of.

Of course, there are the consistently anti-Brexit political parties like the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP. For them to do well, a lot of people in the UK would need to vote as recommended by the ‘Best for Britain’ tactical voting campaign led by Gina Miller. I really hope they do. Otherwise, the UK will become a country where, as Tagore observed in his Nationalism in the West speech in 1917:

“… the people are hospitable but the nation has proved itself to be otherwise, making an Eastern guest feel humiliated to stand before you as a member of the humanity of his own motherland.”

May 142017
 

Last weekend, as in previous years, we marked the birth anniversary of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. Our theme this year was the centenary of the publication of Nationalism by Tagore. You can watch our half-hour presentation in the video above.

Celebrating Tagore’s birth anniversary in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – 6 May 2017)

While the First World War was still raging in Europe, Rabindranath Tagore gave a series of speeches in Japan and in the US in 1916-17 warning of the harm of Nationalism. These speeches were published as essays in 1917 in a book called Nationalism. It comprised Nationalism in the West, Nationalism in Japan, Nationalism in India and the poem ‘The Sunset of the Century’.

In these essays, Tagore warned of the harm which he believed Nationalism could cause to humanity. 100 years later, his warnings appear to have been prescient and have a new relevance today.

I had included some of his observations in my previous post about the assassination of the British Labour MP Jo Cox a few days before the Referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. For the 10 months since the marginal victory of the Leave campaign, the politicians who argued for it have avoided spelling out how exactly they plan to deliver their ‘have cake and eat it‘ promises.

Only this morning, in his 13-minute interview with Robert Peston, Britain’s Brexit Minister David Davis revealed the extent of the delusion he is under. He seems to be blissfully unaware of the speech by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier just over a week ago in Florence about ‘Protecting Citizens’ Rights in the Negotiations with the UK‘. He also seems to have no understanding of trade negotiations … .

Still, let us not worry about this, Theresa May invites the people of the UK to put our faith in her ‘strong and stable leadership‘. This after the UK’s National Health Service came to a grinding halt on Friday due to a cyber-attack using vulnerabilities found by the US NSA.

Theresa May seems simply to have taken over the populist mantle of the UK Independence Party, emphasising the need to control immigration into the UK (and reject trading with the rest of the EU). Her ‘battle bus’ has ‘Theresa May: For Britain’ emblazoned on it and she has been meeting pre-selected voters and journalists who have had to submit their questions in advance.

In the modern era, nationalism has become popular in several countries. Fake news, and the money behind it, has played a major role in this, including in the UK Referendum. Claudia Cadwalladr’s investigation has linked the main Leave campaigns to a US billionaire who also financed Donald Trump’s campaign. It remains to be seen whether the Tactical2017 campaign will be able to counter this.

As we have seen recently in France, the debate is no longer between left and right but between the Nation and the world. In the French Presidential elections last Sunday, the people of France clearly preferred the internationalist view of Emmanuel Macron to the nationalist view of Marine Le Pen.

Emmanuel Macron: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Of course, there is still an underlying problem which the populists have been playing on: many ordinary people have not seen the benefits of globalisation. Remarkably, globalisation was something Tagore had predicted a century ago in his speeches on Nationalism. He also suggested that the way to avoid the world being “broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls” could come from India’s experience.

The whole world is becoming one country through scientific facility. And the moment is arriving when you also must find a basis of unity which is not political. If India can offer to the world her solution, it will be a contribution to humanity. There is only one history – the history of man. All national histories are merely chapters in the larger one. And we are content in India to suffer for such a great cause.

European nationalists, not to mention Donald Trump, were hailing the result of the UK Referendum as the beginning of a domino effect leading to the disintegration of the EU. Fortunately, since then, the voters of other EU Member States rejected the advances of eurosceptic populists, as Thomas Taylor’s cartoon illustrates.

In his TED talk ‘Why Brexit happened – and what to do next’, social scientist Alexander Betts explains that this was behind the way people voted in the UK Referendum.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attributes his election success to having identified some years ago that ‘Globalisation isn’t working for ordinary people‘. Similarly, France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron, campaigned for a clear diplomatic policy to make France an independent, humanist and European power. In his inaugural speech earlier today, he said “We will need a Europe that is more efficient, more democratic and more political, for it is the ultimate instrument of our sovereignty.”

Macron’s call for France to be a humanist power echoes Tagore’s most famous poem from the English Gitanjali:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

Here is the French version recited by Arlette Schreiber for our multilingual Story of Gitanjali at the world premiere of our film version of Chitrangada in 2012:

Dec 242014
 
Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee
Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee

Breakfast scene with Alph & Chah-lee

It has been over a year since my last post here. Let me explain why.

In January 2013, I wrote about Coconut oil: after the cataclysm. Almost two years later, I have just completed the film You must be nuts! which traces the journey I’ve been on since then.

It’s my fourth feature film – the first three being film versions of the three dance-dramas by Rabindranath Tagore: Shyama, Chandalika and Chitrangada. Of course, You must be nuts! is a very different film from the Tagore dance-dramas. However, after dealing with repressive regimes, prejudice and women’s emancipation in the previous films, the theme of You must be nuts! is probably just as controversial.

You must be nuts! is more like an investigative documentary, with puppets. Here is its 3-minute prequel.

As you will realise from the film, the situation is even more sinister than I had imagined when I wrote my blog post about coconut oil almost two years ago.

You may be asking yourself what this has to do with Tagore. After all, he was writing poetry right up to his death at the age of 80 on 7 August 1941 and he wrote his most accomplished stage work, Shyama, at the age of 78.

Well, here in the West, there is a convenient myth that more people are likely to develop dementia because people are living longer. Was Tagore an exception? Maybe it was because he kept himself mentally active?

In reality, there has been a surge of dementia in the last 30 years which cannot be explained simply by increased life expectancy. It was rare until the 1980s. Today, over half of people over 85 have Alzheimer’s, compared to 2% in the 1960s. In addition, 8% of people with dementia have Young onset dementia – they are between 30 and 65.

Even so, friends joke about having a ‘senior moment’ or ‘early Alzheimer’s’ when they forget a name or something slips their mind. There is a general fear that, as everyone gets older, they will get Alzheimer’s. Indeed, a recent UK survey revealed that ‘a third of people are worried about getting dementia’.

In what has been classed as one of the best non-fiction books of 2014 (The Big Fat Surprise), Nina Teicholz has provided a fascinating but tragic account of why scientists in the US and other countries started to advocate a low fat diet and lowering cholesterol 50 years ago. She summarised the story of what happened in an interview:

“It begins in the 1950s, when the desperate need to solve the heart-disease epidemic caused experts to jump the gun, launching dietary guidelines based on weak, incomplete science. As research dollars and institutions became invested in the idea, it became harder to reverse course, until, ultimately, the U.S. government’s adoption of the diet enshrined it in our federal bureaucracy. Biased science became a necessity. A once-loud group of critics was silenced … .”

When you realise that a low fat diet and lowering cholesterol may cause dementia, and that a (low fat), high carbohydrate diet increases the risk of dementia by a factor of almost 4, you start to see this seemingly harmless dietary advice in very a different light. Indeed, a study published last month concluded that, not only does eating more saturated fat not increase the level of saturated fat in the blood but also diabetes and heart disease are linked to diets high in carbohydrates.

Last week, Dr Richard Smith, the former editor of the British Medical Journal, wrote a feature article with the title Are some diets “mass murder”? . He concludes that:

“The successful attempt to reduce fat in the diet of Americans and others around the world has been a global, uncontrolled experiment, which like all experiments may well have led to bad outcomes. What’s more, it has initiated a further set of uncontrolled global experiments that are continuing.”

After all I have seen and heard in my research about dementia over the past three years, it seems to me most likely that the lives of millions of people, including my father, have been harmed by regulatory failure which failed to stop ‘bad science’ driving Government advice. That, in turn, seems to be costing public authorities millions, if not billions, in avoidable healthcare costs.

The clear stream of reason seems to have lost its way, whether because of corruption or complacency (the dreary desert sand of dead habit), over at least 30 years. Maybe there is even fear to admit that mistakes were made. Whatever the reason, it’s time for a full, formal investigation, possibly with criminal penalties for the individuals responsible, certainly with policies based on the latest scientific research.

As things stand, though, we in the West are far from being where the mind is without fear. At least by publishing You must be nuts! on YouTube, and by providing the underlying scientific references, knowledge is free and words come out from the depth of truth.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free:
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.

Rabindranath Tagore, 1912

Oct 072013
 

A version of this post first appeared on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust blog on 9 May 2013.

7 May 2013 was the 152nd anniversary of the birth of the Bengali creative genius and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. This year is also the centenary of Tagore winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

We celebrated the occasion at Shakespeare’s Birthplace on 4 May 2013, two weeks after the Shakespeare birthday celebrations.

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Board in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace announcing the ceremony

I had outlined the connection between the two Bards and presented the programme for the afternoon in my blog post Two bards’ birthdays. The annual tradition of celebrating Tagore’s birth anniversary by the bust in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace was started by my parents and their Bengali cultural group Prantik in 1997, the year after the bust was installed in the garden.

This year, the event attracted many people, including HE Dr Jaimini Bhagwati, the High Commissioner of India to the UK, and HE Mohamed Mijarul Quayes, the High Commissioner of Bangladesh to the UK.

As High Commissioner Bhagwati noted in his introduction, the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh are songs which were written by Tagore.

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HE Dr J Bhagwati,
High Commissioner of India

With the help of Shakespeare Aloud! actors Jennifer Hodges and Jenny Jenkins, we gave the first performance of Tagore’s Nobel Prize in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, by the bust of Tagore. The show explained, through poems and songs by Tagore, how he came to win the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The opening poem was recited in Bengali by Mousumi Basu, who was also one of the singers. The other singers were Supratik Basu, Chhaya Biswas, Kaberi Chatterjee and Tirthankar Roy. We were accompanied on esraj by Tirthankar Roy.

Of course, behind the scenes, there had been weeks of preparation by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust team: Dr Diana Owen (its Director), Julia Howells, Jennifer Stone (Shakespeare Aloud!), Chloe Malendewicz (Operations manager) and Charles Rogers (Centre manager).

Tagore’s Nobel Prize recalls how Rabindranath Tagore was invited to London by the painter William Rothenstein, a friend of Rabindranath’s nephew Abanindranath Tagore. In July 1912, Rothenstein introduced Rabindranath to his literary friends, including W.B. Yeats. They became mesmerised by Rabindranath’s English Gitanjali.

By February 1913, Tagore had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature by Thomas Sturge Moore, a member of the Royal Society of London. Meanwhile, 97 members of the Royal Society had nominated Thomas Hardy.

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Me narrating Tagore’s Nobel Prize
in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace

By September 1913, members of the Swedish Academy of the Nobel Committee were considering awarding the Nobel Prize to Emile Faguet, a French literary historian and moralist. However, a letter by Swedish poet and novelist Verner von Heidenstam (who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature himself) convinced them to give the Prize to Tagore:

“I read them with deep emotion and I cannot recall having seen for decades anything comparable in lyric poetry… and if ever a poet may be said to possess the qualities which entitle him to a Nobel Prize, he is precisely the man… we should not pass him by… the privilege has been granted us to discover a great name before it has time to be paraded for years up and down the columns of the daily newspapers. If this discovery is to be utilized we must not delay and lose our chance by waiting another year.”

We concluded the performance by moving next to the bust of Tagore and singing two Tagore songs which are usually sung on his birth anniversary.

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Singing by the bust of Tagore
in the garden of Shakespeare’s Birthplace

After a break for tea and a chance to look at the Tagore section of the ‘Shakespeare Treasures’ exhibition, HE Mohamed Mijarul Quayes, the Bangladesh High Commissioner, launched the CD collection of all 2,222 songs in Tagore’s Gitobitan (the compendium of his songs) and presented a framed portrait of Tagore to the Shakespeare Birthplace. He then gave this excellent introduction to the UK premiere of our film version of Chitrangada.

You can watch Chitrangada here.

In his introduction, High Commissioner Quayes also mentioned the other two dance-dramas by Tagore: Chandalika and Shyama. Our film versions of these dance-dramas had their world premieres in Stratford in 2011 and 2009, respectively. Chitrangada completes the Tagore dance film trilogy.

You can watch Chandalika here.

You can watch Shyama here.

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