Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Who inspired Suzanne by Leonard Cohen?

'Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river'

 

So it's RIP Leonard Cohen. Poet, song writer and performer even in his final years. He will be missed. But what about his most famous song, Suzanne?

A much covered tune, including by the early Fairport Convention, Suzanne has a melody that can properly be described as haunting.

The inspiration was one Suzanne Verdal, then the partner of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, whose most famous work is a giant fountain in San Francisco dedicated to Quebecan independence. Cohen says that 'everyone was in love with Suzanne', including him, although, as the song says, he could only 'touch her perfect body' with his mind.

She was the one that pout the breaks on the relationship. She said in 2006 “Somehow, I didn’t want to spoil that preciousness, that infinite respect that I had for him… I felt that a sexual encounter might demean it somehow.”

Cohen met her in Montreal, and they would walk by the St Lawrence River before popping back to her place for 'tea and oranges'.

An early eco-activist, she was big into recycling, which is why  "she's wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters" and "she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers". This wasn't terribly fashionable at the time and so probably explains the line ‘you know that she’s half crazy but that’s why you want to be there.’

Suzanne travelled the world as a dancer and by the late nineties she was living in a home made shack with her seven cats and working as a dance instructor and massage therapist. However a serious accident ended her dancing career and she ended up broke and homeless.

The song appears in the soundtrack of last year's Reeth Witherspoon film Wild, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, as Verdal was a friend of the author's mother. It seems everyone really did love Suzanne.

So as Cohen humself shuffles off this mortal coil, his works remain, including this wonderful, bittersweet, hymn to a unrequitted, but still beautiful, deep and emotionally charged love affair.

Cohen missed Suzanne, and we now miss him.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Labour Party Occupied!

It's been rather strange to watch an election that I'm not allowed to vote in.

Despite being a member of an affiliated trade union myself, and despite my wife being a full member of the party, neither of us received ballot papers.

However that doesn't matter in the long run and the Jedi Obi One Corbynobi has been reelected as leader of the venerable old Labour Order. Hopefully this will now be The Force Awakens, not the Revenged of the Sithed Off.

But the strangest part of the contest is how Corbyn's opponents seem to have spent the entire campaign boxing at shadows. Talk of 'Trotskyite infiltrators', 'the new Militant tendancy' and a 'return to Syndicalism' just miss the point entirely.

Yes, there are all those types of people in the party, along with anti-semites, misogynists and abusive trolls, and they probably think all their Christmases have come at once right now, but they are not running this thing. We have not fallen back through some wormhole to the seventies, or even the thirties. Red Robbo is not driving this and Stalin has not risen from the grave and dispatched Comintern agents to bring down British democracy. Orwell, if he were alive, would be part of this movement, not against it.

Occupy Wall Street, with a good question
This is Occupy the Labour Party. This is the people who have been hacked off with party politics for
the last twenty years finally deciding take an interest in elections and get a candidate they can actually vote for. These are the people who marched against the Iraq War, who mobilise against fracking, who stood up to the Brexit racists, who rally for the climate and stood against the EDL.

These are people who think the Labour Party should not be supported by anonymous millionaires, should not seek endorsement from billionaire newspaper owners, should not try to do a deal with the City and should not be made up of MPs taking five and six figure 'consultancies' from unelected corporations.

Against them were the new old guard of New Labour who do not see how the ground has shifted under their feet. Kinnock, Brown and Miliband all lost general elections, so are in no position to call anyone 'unelectable'.

The socially liberal but economically conservative Cameron was far better Blair than even Blair himself, and the City were always going to prefer the real thing to a cheap Labour copy.

Owen Smith in Liverpool, with ice cream van.
There is no technocratic solution here. There is no playing at politics and being better Tories than the Tories. That game is over.

The New Labour strategy of funding from rising wealth cannot work since global capitalism tanked ten years ago. There is no room for manoeuvre any more on the economy. The City demands austerity for the poor and socialism for the rich. You may as well be a communist as a Keynsian right now, they will treat you exactly the same, as 'Red(ish) Ed' found out.

Nor can there be any meaningful comprise with an Establishment that sees itself as besieged on all sides. Whether in Greece, North Dakota or here there is no negotiation with an economically, environmentally and intellectually bankrupt ruling orthodoxy. They will lie, they will cheat and they will fight. They will not listen. They will not be reasonable.

This result is not be the end. Party leadership elections are not general elections. Our man has won, but Corbyn's supporters, especially those like me who aren't allowed back into the party, need to get out on the streets and get the message out. They need to campaign, to door knock and to reach the people who only read The Sun or the Daily Mail, who believe the UKIP lies, who voted Brexit, who do not live in the post-industrial north, who do not work in the public sector and who possibly share very few of our values, but who need change as much as everyone else.

Corbyn will need to decide what he wants to do. It's not clear they he knows what to do, or even if he understands the movement he is the figurehead for. Perhaps he should take a hint from Gandhi, a man he clearly admires, who when he realised he had started something he could no longer control said:

 "There go my people. I must follow them, as I am their leader."

Friday, 23 September 2016

Britain's Real 'Fifth Column'

James Fox as the fiction Lord Darlington in The Remains of the Day
June 1940, and Britain stands alone against fascism. The entire nation is united behind Winston Churchill as leads the nation in war against Hitler.

Or, almost the entire nation.

Until almost the end of the war Churchill had to watch his back against three groups of people who might at any time undermine the war effort and seek terms with Germany. These were the 'enemy within', who happily have done a deal that would have left Hitler with mastery over the Europe.

I am not talking about the British Unions of Fascists, all safely under lock-and-key by 1940, and who were never much rated by the real Nazis, but three groups of people at liberty to bide their time and strike if the Prime Minister showed weakness.

These are the people who Soviet ambassador to Britain Ivan Maisky - one of the unsung heroes of the war - called "the real 'Fifth Column' in England".

The City of London


Montagu Norman, the banker's banker
When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 there were no cheers in the City of
London. Here was one Tory who seemingly had no interest in the grubby business of making money, and who seemed to regard their entire trade as a little bit seedy.

General Raymond Lee, an American liaison officer in London, wrote in his diary on December 8 1940, after a conversation with a businessman "(He) was very interesting about the city ... he ... confirmed my belief that the City is ready for appeasement at any time, and is a little bit irritated because it has no hold at all on Churchill".

We don't know who this banker was, but he wasn't alone in his views. Sir Hugo Cunliffe-Owen, City grandee and former Director of British American Tobacco, was still hoping in autumn 1940 that "Neville Chamberlain would come back into his own" and make peace with Hitler.

The most powerful man in the City though was Montagu Norman, the Governor Bank of England, and he was a Nazi sympathiser. Norman was good friends with Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler's minister of economics, and admired them both. Schacht eventually turned against Hitler, and ended up in a concentration camp, but it's not clear if Norman ever did.

In 1939 Norman had helped the Nazis sell $735 million (in today's prices) of Czech gold, which the country had deposited with the Bank of England after Hitler's tanks rolled in, in the mistaken belief it would be safe there. The money went to help rearm Germany. We know this because the story partially broke in 1939. However the details of what else he got up to are still sealed in the Swiss vaults.

In 1942 Roosevelt was so concerned about Norman's activities he sent a report to Churchill. The PM launched an investigation but, frustratingly, the outcome is not known. In particular the file does not answer the specific allegation made by the Americans, that Norman met a German official in Switzerland in May 1941 to discuss a secret peace offer.

We should be grateful that the City in 1940 did not have the influence on government it has now. However the second group in Maisky's 'Fifth Column' had plenty of influence.

The Aristocracy


Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster
Oswold Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, was a baronet and very much a part of the British aristocracy.  When war broke out he was interned in Holloway prison, but he was far from the only posh fascist in the country, and the others were very much left at liberty.

There was, for example, Lord Brocket, “a fundamentally nice but stupid man”, who attended Hitler's 50th birthday party, and who was alleged to light fires on his Hertfrodshire estate to guide German bombers. Also at the party was the Duke of Baccleuch, who continued to sing Hitler's praises even as the bombs fell on London. Then there was Unity Mitford, who had adopt her father's pro-Nazi views, and her sister Diane, who married Oswald Moseley. The Duke of Westminster believed in a Jewish conspiracy to undermine the country and was still calling peace with Hitler in the autumn of 1940.

Out in Kenya the 22nd Earl of Erroll was promising to bring fascism to Africa, until he turned up dead in his car. Possibly MI6 did the decent thing. Also in Africa was Marquess of Graham, who would go on to serve in Ian Smith's racist government of Rhodesia and who went on to believe The Beatles were part of a world communist conspiracy.

Add in Churchill's cousin Lord Londonderry, who Winston regarded as a "half-wit", and the impression is of a bunch of idiots who couldn't organise a piss up in a brewery. However their power came from their birth, and not their brains, and it was very real. Many were prominent politicians in a House of Lords that still had real power.

What these people had in common was virulent anti-semitism, and a belief in a global conspiracy between Jews and communists that only fascism could stop. They also chaffed at their own declining power in the country and the rise of the Labour Party. 

Edward as Prince of Wales
Luckily for Churchill the head of the aristocracy, King George VI, was a staunch supporter of the
war. However had Churchill got his way in 1936, he might not have been.

One of the reasons most of country regarded Winston as a bit of a joke before he became Prime Minister was how he had acted during the Abdication Crisis of 1936. Churchill had encouraged the King Edward VIII to "Retire to Windsor Castle! Summon the Beefeaters! Raise the drawbridge! Close the gates! And dare Baldwin to drag you out!"

Four years later and, while Churchill was promising 'blood, sweat toil and tears', Edward was enjoying himself in neutral Spain and hanging out with Nazi sympathisers. It took a threat from Churchill to court martial the former king to get him to return to the UK, which fortunately thwarted a plan by German agents to kidnap him. Churchill then sent Edward to the Bahamas for the rest of the war where the FBI kept a close watch on him.

Had Britain lost in 1940 Hitler would have put Edward back on the throne. The new king would not have lacked in aristocratic sycophants for his court.

The Conservative and Unionist Party


Archibald Maule Ramsay
One of Churchill's more surprising acts of 1940 was in November when, on the death of Neville Chamberlain, he took the job of leader of the Conservative Party.

Throughout the war he portrayed himself as a man above party politics, who led a coalition government on behalf of the whole nation. What's more, most of the party didn't even like him. When Churchill first came to parliament as Prime Minister he was greeted by thunderous applause from the opposition benches, but silence from his own party.

Perhaps one of the events that influenced his decision was on the 20th May that year when the police raided the house of Tyler Kent, a cipher clerk at the US embassy. Kent had been stealing top secret documents, but in his house Special Branch found the 'Red Book,' a list of the 235 people who were members of something called the Right Club. Amongst the names were the 5th Duke of Wellington, the Lords Redesdale and Lymington, A K Chesterton, who would go on to form the National Front after the war, William Joyce, better known to history as Lord Haw-Haw, and several Conservative Party MPs. Worse, the club itself had been formed by the Scottish Unionist MP Archibald Maule Ramsay.

A minor Scottish aristocrat, Ramsay had been part of the January Club, formed by Oswald Moseley to allow his Blackshirts to mingle with figures from the establishment. Ramsay shared Moseley's anti-semitism. When he formed the Right Club he had said "Our first objective was to clear the Conservative Party of Jewish influence ". Ramsay, it seems, had been using Kent to get hold of secret correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt. He intended to release selective telegrams with the purpose of stopping America entering the war. The Right Club had so far spent the war giving out leaflets and calling for a negotiated peace to end what they called "a Jew's war".

"Chips" Channon
The Right Club were on the extreme of the Conservative Party, but many more moderate Tories had been torn between admiration of Hitler for his authoritarianism, and fear of German expansionism. As most of them believed Britain had become decadent and was in decline, a large number believed Hitler would win the war anyway. Many simply detested Churchill who they regarded as a vulgar showman, and a traitor for crossing the floor to join the Liberals. Sir Henry "Chips" Channon, an old fashioned Tory in that he was stinking rich but thick as pigshit, reported at the height of Churchill's popularity with the people in 1940 that "Feeling in the Carlton Club is running high against him."

Ramsay was to spend most of the rest of the war in Brixton prison, but by 1944 Conservative MPs were campaigning to have him released. Churchill was acutely aware of the potential for the Tory right to ally with the defeatists, and those who simply thought he was doing a rubbish job of PM, creating a block of MPs who could vote him out of office. Becoming leader of the party was his way of controlling it.

And control it he did. With help of the Labour Party, the Liberals and the Trade Unions, Churchill commanded a national coalition like no other before or since. At a political level, Britain's war effort was run better than that of any other combatant on either side in the war.

We really were all in it together, but next time to you hear the Daily Mail, Daily Express or some right wing politician telling you that, just remember that some people weren't quite in it as much as everyone else.

References

Was Montagu Norman a Nazi Sympathiser? The Telegraph 31 July 2013
The Nazi's British bankers Independent 30 March 1997
Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings
Aristocrats: Power, Grace And Decadence by Lawrence James

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Five Things Lawrence Didn't Do In Arabia - And Five He Did

One hundred years ago this month, a young British Army intelligence officer in Cairo was getting ready for a mission that would change his life.

The war was not going well. On the Western Front the Battle of the Somme had dissolved into a bloody stalemate. In the Middle East things weren't much better. The previous year had seen the failed attack on the Turks at Gallipoli, whilst in April 1916 General Townshend and his army had surrendered at Kut, in modern Iraq. What the nation needed was a hero.

The man who decided he was going to be that hero was T.E. Lawrence. An above averagely talented novelist, he enjoyed an above averagely exciting First World War. Had he kept these talents separate he would now be largely forgotten as both writer and war hero, but by combining them he made himself a legend.

The myth has largely eclipsed the man, but as he mostly invented it himself he can't really complain. So what is the truth?

First, what didn't he do.

1. Lead the Revolt

 

Sirs not appearing in this film.
The Arab Revolt which broke out in June 1916 was nominally led by Ali ibn Hussein, who had been
appointed Emir of Mecca by the Ottomans.

However the actual fighting was done by his sons. Eldest Ali held the southern front around Mecca. Second son Abdullah fought in the east, against both the Ottomans and the rising power of the Saudis. Third son Feisal was in the west. That put him in the better position for getting British help, but his ambitions also made him the more pliable character, and hence the favourite son with His Majesty's government.

A host of British and French officers went to help the Arabs. Colonels Pierce C Joyce and Stewart Francis Newcombe were the vital links during the initial stages of the Revolt, which happened whilst Lawrence was still at his desk in Cairo. When he eventually arrived in Feisel's camp in October 1916 he joined a growing team of European advisers.

Lawrence only become associated with the Revolt in the public eye after the war, when American film maker Lowell Thomas opened his film With Allenby in Palestine in Covent Garden in 1919. The launch was accompanied by exotic dancing girls and the band of the Welsh Guards, whilst Lawrence posed for publicity shots in Arab costume. The image of the clean-cut hero in the desert created such a contrast to the bloody horrors of the Western Front that it was a huge hit and soon the film was soon being billed as With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, giving the colonel (as he then was) equal billing with his general.

The Arabs themselves were now only so much colourful scenery. To the public Lawrence now was the Arab Revolt.

2. Pioneer attacks on the railway


Lawrence of Arabia was here
The tactics Lawrence is most associated with are the daring attacks on the Hejaz Railway. The initial stages of the Revolt involved fairly conventional warfare, but by 1917 the rebels were in a position to attack the Achilles Heal of the Ottoman forces, the slender rail link between Medina and Damascus. Attacking the railway tied up large numbers of Turkish soldiers and prevented the 12,000 troops in Medina from coming to the aid of the rest of the army fighting the decisive battles with Allenby in Palestine.

Initial attacks on the railway line were led by Colonel Newcombe, and then in February 1917 Lieutenant H Garland first blew up a moving train using a mine of his own devising. After that Colonel Joyce was kept busy supplying explosives to attack the line. Lawrence did eventually join in himself, but Newcombe, Garland and Joyce were the pioneers of the tactic. Still, better late than never.

3. Cross Sinai in two days


The real Lawrence
Amongst the heroics documented by Lawrence in his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is his crossing of the Sinai desert in two days, to bring news of the fall of Aqaba to Allenby's headquarters in Cairo. The adventurer Michael Asher tried and failed to emulate this feat, nearly killing himself and his camels in the process.

Having failed to live up to his hero, Asher took a look closer look at Lawrence's diary. He had scrupulously recorded where he pitched camp every night and this revealed, contrary what Lawrence himself actually wrote, that he crossed the Sinai in a more reasonable, if less remarkable, three days. This is still a pretty impressive adventure, especially in wartime, but it is not superhuman.

4. Lead a picked group of Arabs


Lawrence and his real friends
The theme of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is how Lawrence inspires the Arabs but then in turn is dehumanised by the horrors of war. The trigger for this was apparently when he was captured whilst on a undercover reconnaissance in the town of Deraa. Like most of Lawrence's stories this is highly controversial, although there is no evidence it didn't happen either so we can give him the benefit of the doubt.

The result of this No More Mister Nice Guy approach and when he next went into battle it was at the head of a hand picked band of 200 cut-throats and brigands who had sworn personal loyalty to him, 60 of whom died in his service. The reality, as recorded by those who were there, is rather more ordinary. He had an entourage of about a dozen Arabs who fetched his water, looked after his camels and presumably did his laundry. None were brigands, and none appeared to have actually died in battle.

5. Massacre prisoners


Dramatic license
The culmination of the new hardcore approach by Lawrence was when he led an attack on a column of retreating Turks in which he ordered that no prisoners were to be taken.

The battle is real enough, and was greatest single success the Arab army had against the Turks, wiping out a column of 1000 men, including Germans and Austrians. Lawrence wasn't the only European present. As well as other British officers there was the Frenchman Capitaine Rosario Pisani, commanding a battery of mountain guns. He'd been on the Aqaba mission too, although without the guns, but someone didn't make it into the film.

What actually happened though is still disputed by historians. What is not in doubt is that the Turks massacred the entire village of Tafas, although whether this happened before or after the battle is disputed. Either way though the Arabs had it in for the Turks. Lawrence later wrote to his brother that he ordered 250 prisoners, including Austrians and Germans, to be machine gunned. Nasty stuff.

However second hand accounts from Arabs officers who were there said Lawrence, and other British officers, tried to stop the killing. Other accounts have Lawrence tell of how he found what he witnessed "sickening". Even his brother didn't believe the claim Lawrence had ordered the prisoners shot, which he confessed to in a letter, but which doesn't actually appear in Lawrence's own book.

Why Lawrence should portray himself as a war criminal if he wasn't is one of the mysteries of the man. Maybe it was just for dramatic effect or maybe, like many returning soldiers, he really did feel a sense of guilt for his involvement in a war that was nowhere near as clean and honourable as he portrayed it.

So if Lawrence was a minor figure in the Revolt, and a braggart to boot, should we still read his book, or even remember him at all?

Yes, because here are five things he did do:

1. Understand guerrilla warfare


When British soldiers back in the Middle East in 2001, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was being taken down from the bookshelf and dusted off. The reason is that Lawrence, the academic in uniform, understood the nature of the guerrilla war he was engaged in better than the professional soldiers he served alongside.

He wrote of the Arab army being like a 'gas', aiming to avoid pitched battles whilst engaging in hit-and-run tactics that caused maximum disruption with minimum casualties.

'Most wars are wars of contact, both forces striving into touch to avoid tactical surprise. Ours should be a war of detachment. We were to contain the enemy by the silent threat of a vast unknown desert., not disclosing ourselves till we attacked. The attack might be nominal, not directed against him, but against his stuff.; so it would not seek either his strength or his weakness, but his most accessible material.'

The British Army thought it knew how to fight guerrillas, but only Lawrence, the outsider, was able to understand how to be one. Today American Generals read Lawrence so they can understand too. 


2. Capture Aqaba


Real photo of the attack on Aqaba
Not all Lawrence's heroics were made up His capture of Aqaba was real. The port threatened the flank of the British forces in Palestine. It was protected from attack from the landward side by the desert the Arabs called 'al-Houl' meaning 'the terror', and was defended by three battalions of Turkish infantry.

The film has Lawrence riding off into the desert to persuade Anthony Quinn's Auda to stop taking Turkish money and joint the Revolt. In reality, whilst Auda had accepted Turkish gold in the past, he was very much fighting for Arab independence by this time.  Auda was with Lawrence from the beginning of the Aqaba mission and on the way rounded up 6-700 Arabs from his Howeitat tribe for the attack. The operation was at least as much Auda's as Lawrence's.

Director David Lean exaggerates the naval defences of Aqaba, which were minimal, although still enough to keep the Royal Navy away, and misses out the Turkish infantry battalion that was camped round the last well before the port. These were dealt with using classic guerrilla tactics. The Turks were first harassed by snipers until, after a day in the sun being shot at, they were finished off by a charge from Auda. All were either killed or captured. The port then fell with the help of the Royal Navy without a shot being fired.

It was an amazing victory by an irregular force over numbers of superior soldiers, and completely changed the strategic situation. The Arabs were now in a position to threaten the entire length of the Hejaz railway, as well as to move on to Damascus. For this battle alone, Lawrence deserves to be famous.

3. Co-ordinate the Revolt with Allenby  

 

Lawrence and Allenby
Sir Edmund Allenby arrived in Egypt in June 1917 with a reputation as being General Melchett style bloodthirsty bungler. In the deserts of Palestine though he found he calling, and his imaginative strategy led to him becoming the only genuine hero of the war the British Top Brass produced.

He was a month into the job Lawrence when captured Aquaba. Allenby immediately realised the potential of this act. The idea of coordinating the Arab Revolt with the British advance was Allenby's, not Lawrence's, but it was Lawrence who carried it out.

The Bedouin first of all tied down the Turkish forces, then cut their railway links, and finally covered the right flank of Allenby's army as it advanced on Damascus.

Lawrence's operation were not just with Arab irregulars, and he also led missions that consisted solely of British armoured cars and infantry on camels.

Lawrence was lucky to have such a dynamic general to work with, but he deserves credit both for realising the potential of guerrillas as support for a conventional force, and for actually carrying out Allenby's strategy.

4. Understand the Arabs

 

 Lawrence's problems weren't just military, they were also cultural. He knew the strengths and the
weaknesses of his irregular army. His strategy had to not only take advantage of their mobility, but also cover up their lack of discipline. Lawrence avoided casualties were possible, and kept plans simple.

He also knew what motivated the men to fight. He spoke their language and dressed like them, not just for reasons of vanity, but also because he alone of the British Mission understood their cause and their character.

However Lawrence also knew that he was living a big lie. He told the Bedouin they were fighting for Arab freedom, but he knew that France and Britain were not going to allow this. He negotiated to ensure that the Arab troops led the victorious army into Damascus, but he knew that the locals were going to spot that they hadn't been liberated by his ragged force, but by the heavy artillery of Allenby's men following on behind.

In 1918 European Empires covered almost the entire globe. However Lawrence, at least, realised this might not always be the case. 

5. Support Arab independence

 

Lawrence with Feisel in Paris
But Arab freedom would not come in Lawrence's lifetime. He knew he had sold the Arabs a lie, but he tried to make amends when the fighting was over.

He accompanied Prince Feisel to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, became an adviser to the Colonial Office and attended the Cairo Conference of 1921. By this time Lawrence was famous, and he tried to use his popularity to help the cause of his Arab friends. At one point he suggested to the French hero General Foch that if he led a French army into Syria, he would lead an Arab one against him.

That didn't happen, and instead the Middle East was carved up to make the failed states whose conflicts make up our nightly news. Peace in Arabia would not be one of Lawrence's legacies.

Instead he left an insightful journal of one of the twentieth century's first successful guerrilla insurgencies, created a new doctrine of desert warfare, that would later be adopted by the Long Range Desert Group and the original SAS in the next world war, and inspired one of the greatest films of all time.

That's quite a life by any standards.

Bibliography

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (1922)
Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia by Michael Asher (1999)
The Arab Revolt 1916-18 by David Murphy (2008)

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Bird Brains

Just when you thought that you might be starting to understand Americans, along comes the Guardian with the story of Lee Sherman. Sherman worked for Pittsburgh Plate Glass, a company with a somewhat dodgy health and safety reputation, even by US standards. During his time there he was gassed and blown up, exposed to dangerous chemicals and nearly dissolved in acid. The company had him dump toxic chemical in the local river at night, which eventually wiped out the local fishing industry. When Sherman started to go off sick he was sacked for absenteeism. Even his time off to serve in the Army reserve was counted against him.

The rub is that Sherman supports the Tea Party. Never mind that weak regulation failed to save either his health or his job, he wants less of it.

Support for the delusional far right like the Tea Party always seemed pretty stupid unless you actually were a billionaire, but in the post-Credit Crunch world of perpetual austerity it seems pathologically stupid. But support there certainly is. Opinion polls regularly showed that the number of people who supported Obama's very modest health care reforms in Texas was actually less than the number of people who didn't have health insurance. In other words there were Texans willing to risk an unnecessary demise from a curable disease rather than support something they saw as 'communist'. An extreme case of Better Dead Than Red.

Indeed, it sometimes seems there is actually more support for the policies of tax cuts for the fat cats
and free reign for the big corporations at the bottom of the social strata than at the top. Transition Town founder Rob Hopkins once told me that at a 'Chatham House rules' junket he attended he asked a Captain of Industry what he thought the Credit Crunch meant and he replied "this is what the end of Western Civilisation looks like".

But if those at the top know the wheels have come off the waggon it is clearly not in their interest to let on. Not so the middle class. Most Corbynistas are middle class apparently, and the Green Party, 'as everyone knows', is both bourgeois and female, leading the Telegraph to declare their manifesto was "communism designed by a middle class woman", which is a line so good they should have used it as a campaign slogan.

But what about those on the lower rungs of society. The working class who may still work, but for whom prosperity never came? Our own rather tragic version of the Tea Party is UKIP. Across huge chunks of formerly Labour voting England, in the post-industrial north and the down-at-heel seaside towns of the east, in places that failed to boom under Thatcher or bounce back under Blair, UKIP has its supporters. If only we can evict the foreigners and get the EU bureaucrats of our back, they say, then industry would flourish, Britannia would rule the waves again. Capitalism may have failed to bring prosperity to all in two hundred years of trying, but if only the red tape was ripped up, the trade unions beaten down and health and safety brigade told off, then this time it would work.

It's bonkers, but people believe it. Why?

B F Skinner
Seventy odd years ago the American psychologist B F Skinner was doing some very strange things to animals. As well as teaching his cats to play the piano and his beagle to play hide-and-seek, he had an idea for the military to use pigeons as the guidance system for missiles.

Skinner was the father of the study of Behaviourism. Anyone today who talks about positive and negative reinforcement is using the language Skinner derived from his experiment on rats and more pigeons.Trapping the poor animals inside what was later called a Skinner Box, he had the tap levers in order to get rewards of food.

The clever bit, or the utterly evil bit, depending on your point of view, was that Skinner made sure they didn't always get their food. Some pigeons would get fed every time they pecked the lever, some every other time, and for some unfortunate birds it was completely random whether food appeared. Then Skinner would let the food run out.

The results were interesting. Group one would figure out pretty quickly what had happened and down beaks, so to speak. The second group would carry on a bit longer before working out that the free dinners were over. The third group though, the ones who received random rewards, would carry on pecking away for much longer. I've heard - and I can't prove this mind - that Skinner let some of them peck themselves to death still hoping that another pellet will come their way.

People aren't pigeons, but it's hard not to see an analogy here. For people like Lee Sherman life has always been a lottery. The industrial accidents that killed his co-workers could easily have taken his life. That he has survived to 82 despite a life in a toxic industry is surely just good fortune. That he was sacked for getting sick may not be a surprise to us, but he may well regard it as just bad luck.

To the Lee Shermans of the world, who see the fat cats walking away with riches they can only dream of, who get their world view from the Tea Party and their 'news' from Fox, it may seem that if only they wait a little longer their luck will change. If only the liberals don't steal their prize, if only they can stop the immigrants jumping the queue.

They believe that their turn will come if only they take the medicine at a higher and higher dose. Telling them that food tray ran out years ago or that they have only ever been pawns in some giant social experiment, which even its architects now regard as having failed, will not be welcome news.

So across the red states of the USA, and in UKIPland in the UK, the turkeys continue to vote for Christmas.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Isles of Brexit

Four years ago Danny's Boyle's Isles of Wonder opened the 2012 London Olympics.

Everyone said the show would not be as extravagant or spectacular as Beijing in 2008. It wasn't.

The press also uniformly said it would be embarrassingly awful. It wasn't.

Instead the director of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire delivered a show that was quirky, creative, amusing, touching and progressive.

After Bradley Wiggins rang the great bell, the Industrial Revolution literally burst out of England's Green and Pleasant Land to the sound of a thousand drummers. It brought with it a new industrial working class, the Suffragettes, the horrors of  Great War and immigration on the Empire Windrush, until the fifth Olympic ring rose out of the smoke, seemingly forged in the sweat and blood of two hundred years of history. It was an immensely powerful moment.

James Bond and a stunt double made the arrival of the Her Majesty interesting, for a change, in a section that is worth watching again if only for the look on Daniel Craig's face when he appears to be wondering what the hell is going on. A choir of deaf children sung God Save the Queen, then, to the theme tune of The Exorcist and narration by J K Rowling, a host of villains from children's fiction appeared to threaten the staff and patients of the NHS. Mary Poppins drops in to rescue everyone, and then it was Mr Bean helping the London Philharmonic play Vangelis' theme tune to Chariots of Fire.

Next  we had a medley of pop and rock hits from the sixties to the noughties, complete with pogoing
punks, twisted firestarters and all, as a background to a story of multi-racial romance during a night out on the town, which in turn was just a prelude to introducing to the world Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the internet, and then gave it away for free.

There was more: a spectacular modern dance to an acappella version of Abide with Me, the Arctic Monkey's, flying bicycles, David Beckham and a starting attractive female footballer on a boat, Paul McCartney and the amazing 204 piece Olympic Torch. Somewhere along the way some athletes came in too, but I went to get some supper at that point.

London had welcomed the world to the biggest party of the year. With the help of 9000 volunteers we had celebrated being the nation that had given the world an industrial revolution, a musical revolution and an information revolution. We had shown we were at peace with our history, comfortable with diversity and proud of our health service, our popular music and our children's stories.

The lad from Lancashire had pulled it off. Giles Coren, who had filed a scathing review before the ceremony had even opened, quickly had to have it pulled as he loved the show so much. The press, who 24 hours before had been predicting disaster, where ecstatic.

Everyone was happy.

Or almost everyone. Conservative MP Aidan Burley, a man who likes to attend Nazi-themes parties, called it "leftie multicultural crap", but he was a lonely voice on Twitter that night.

Fast forward four years and though, and that summer evening seems like it took place in a different country.

Events like these move to a different rhythm to the electoral cycles. Just as New Labour inherited the Tory's Millennium Dome, an empty shed which they filled with an exhibition designed by a committee, so it was the ConDems that inherited the event that Labour had brought to London. They tried to remove the NHS section and replace it with fighting Hitler, but Boyle stood his ground. Boris's intervention gave the Olympics a White Elephant of a stadium and erased the affordable houses. Finally infamous private security company G4S cocked up big style and the army had to be brought in to provide security.

Corporate failure and gentrification affected the rest of the country too as and austerity began to bite. Twelve months earlier social decay had made a rare entry into the news as the country had been convulsed by riots. But the show still went on.

When it all ended, with an almost equally amazing steampunk and Druidic paralympic closing ceremony, spending £9 billion pounds playing games in east London didn't seem quite as mad as it had done a month or so earlier.

But whatever the benefits to the nation were, they have been totally swallowed by the austerity that followed. At the top level English sport is doing well, but at the bottom our schools are home to some of the least fit, and least happy, children in the world. The NHS is in crisis.

Then there was Brexit. Outside of London, it appeared, a majority of people would prefer to wallow in hubris of lost imperial glory rather than have an immigrant for a neighbour.

Why the nation took collective leave of its senses and voted out is question that is still being debated, but as depressed newspeople went around the country recording the verbal diarrhoea of Brexiters one message came out crystal clear: this was a vote against 'leftie multicultural crap'.

Poor old Danny Boyle. He had pulled off a blinder, an artistic event that will be remembered when the sporting triumphs are forgotten, but alas neither art, nor sport, can really change the world.

Progress will continue, I hope, but England has left the party.

Watch the ceremony in full here.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

"All that is solid turns into air"

Rod Holt looking serious at Keep Corbyn rally, Manchester 1 July 2016
So wrote Marx in the Communist Manisfesto 166 years ago, and this seems a very good description of UK politics over the last two weeks.

UKIP, although only given a single MP by the UK's first-past-the-post electoral system (and not even an MP they actually like), have never-the-less managed to get their main policy adopted by a reluctant government.

The Tories themselves, the most resiliant of all political parties, are regrouping after the resignation of their leader, and the humbling of both his prospective heirs.

The Labour Party meanwhile, is either a farce of tragic proportions or a tragedy of farcial proportions, with the parliamentary party and its resurgent membership either on a collision course or heading in opposite directions.

So what on earth is going on?

The obvious answer is that politics as we know it has ceased to exist. The traditional left/right split has almost become meaningless.

Political compass of UK parties May 2015
Various alternatives have been proposed. The two dimensional model of the Political Compass, which grades parties on both their economic and social liberalism, being a popular alternative.

The problem is, when you look at the UK, it turns out 90% of us voted for right wing, authoritarian parties. This might be true, but it's not very useful.

In my opinion, the extra dimension you really need to add at the moment, is whether the party is pro or anti-austerity.

UKIP, with their 'back to the 1950s/blame it all on the EU' views may not be a coherent anti-austerity party, indeed their billionaire backers and ex-banker leader (now ex-leader) rather suggest otherwise, but they did hoover up a huge chunk of disaffection with the status quo.  Anti-immigrant rather than anti-austerity perhaps, they are still different to the Tories.

In 2015 Labour offered up austerity-lite, and the Green Party were the only real anti-austerity party of the left. The SNP though were channelling the same disaffection north of the border as UKIP did in England, and mostly (if not entirely) sending it leftwards.

Today Labour is pretty much an anti-austerity party of the left, or rather it is a party whose members and leadership appear to be mostly anti-austerity, but whose MPs aren't. If Labour's current difficulties result in a split, then we will end up with an austerity-lite Blue Labour and anti-austerity Red Labour.

The Europeans

European Parliament as of June 2015
Looking out across Europe we see the same political mess as here. In the countries hardest hit by the Credit Crunch the fault lines are becoming clearly. Broadly speaking the people of Europe are up to 20% anti-immigrant right, 60% pro-austerity centre (usually split between two traditional parties) and about 20% anti-austerity left.

The error bars are at least 10% on those figures, and the results of individual elections are skewed by voters wanting to kick out corrupt or incompetent governemts and punish those seen as responsible for mess we're all in.

Hellenic Parliament as of September 2015
In Greece, for example, the pro-austerity left party PASOK has been almost completely wiped out, giving the anti-austerity parties of the left nearly 45% of the vote. However they also seem to have stolen support from the anti-austerity right as the Golden Dawn (the Greek BNP) and the Independent Greeks (the Greek UKIP) used to muster about 15% of the vote between them, whilst now they're down to about 10%.

Back in Blighty

In the UK in the last election the figures for the 2015 election (rounded to the nearest 5%) were:

UKIP (anti-austerity/immigrant right) 15%
Conservatives (pro-austerity right) 35%
Labour and LibDems (pro-austerity left) 40%
Green and SNP (anti-austerity left) 10%

Of course, in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn and his pals all voted Labour. If we pretend that Corbyn's election as leader immediately transformed Labour into an anti-austerity party of the left (which it obviously didn't), then the breakdown of the electorate after this years local government elections becomes:

Anti-austerity/immigrant right 15%
Pro-austerity right 30%
Pro-austerity left 15%
Anti-austerity left 50%

Clearly Labour did not become Syriza overnight, and 25% of the electorate have not become anti-capitalists since the general election. All we can say is that the true political views of UK voters are probably somewhere in the middle of these two sets of figures.

A 20/30/30/20 split is not impossible.

So what?

The obvious answer is chaos.

A progressive alliance?
Our first-past-the-post system, billionaire owned media and electorate that prefers to vote for confident idiots, gives an advantage to parties who are able to target marginal seats, reward the rich and present a confident front, which is the Tories.

However if we really do have 20/30/30/20 split in the vote, then no one politcial faction, even one prepared to play fast and loose with the rules for electoral expences, can guarantee victory on its own.

The question will be, what alliances will emerge? If Labour splits, will some of the austerity-lite middle of the party follow Corbyn and can an anti-austerity left 'progressive alliance' really work? These are very important questions.

Other deals are possible. Tory/UKIP is certainly on the cards. A Tory/Blue Labour/LibDem alliance of the pro-austerity middle is not impossible, and potentially unbeatable. Even a UKIP/Red Labour deal is not out of the question, as this is effectively the coalition that runs Greece.

To the barricades?

All of which is very frustrating to those of us who don't want to use politics as a game, but as a means of actually getting things done. Unless you really do think The Revolution is at hand, you have to
Occupy London, February 2012
vote for someone.

Even if you're sure you want to vote for an anti-austerity left party, unless you live in Chippenham, you can't actually vote for Corbyn yourself. We need some options, and they aren't easy right now.

The complete Marx quote is "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

Alas, I think in the second half here Marx is in error, or at least premature. Sober sense is the one thing I feel I can safely predict is going to be abscent from UK politics for a while yet.