Taking Liberties With Labels

This month, I return to one of my favourite subjects – America.  All my life, I have indeed been watching America, as the refrain goes.  And as I write, the Razorlight analogy extends further because there is trouble and also panic in America.

I’ve been here before.  On the eve of the 2016 election, I wrote a letter to my old friend, begging her not to fall under the spell of a man who would charm her in order to abuse her.  As you know, she didn’t listen and…   …well, let’s just say she’s feeling pretty used right now.

Another obsession I seem to have is for words.  In particular their use (and abuse) as labels and, as far as I can deduce it, their etymology.  One of the most fundamental principles of psychology, albeit one which is still hotly debated, is this: Language determines Thought.  Using the very words that people use, I have always contended, it is possible to form a deeper understanding of them.

Let’s begin with that most American of words: Liberty.  Like the statue that bears its name, the obsession with the principle is one with strong French connections – but one re-purposed into something uniquely star-spangled.  As is frequently the case with the words we analyse, a greater insight can be gained from the words not used and so it appears to be the case here.  As the American colonies were crystallising in their rejection of King George and taxation without representation, revolutionary France was discovering her penchant for Liberté – but as part of a tripartite, together with Egalité et Fraternité.  Is it telling that America seems to have cherry-picked one over the others?

This seems less clear-cut on second glance.  The cradle of the America we know today was Philadelphia, the site at which the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776.  Tri-lingual word-nerds will instantly know that this city’s name was derived from the ancient Greek words phílos (beloved) and adelphós (brother) – hence its identification as ‘The City of Brotherly Love” – and that, just as France was nearing her revolution, the importance of fraternity was valued equally by both peoples.

And then we get to Egalité.  The notion of equality in America has always been somewhat problematical – the fact that the declaration includes the phrase “that all men are created equal” seems to neatly encapsulate America’s rather variable approach to a construct that is supposed to be, by definition, a constant.

800px-lady_liberty_under_a_blue_sky_28cropped29Whatever their reasons, by 1886, when France chose to bestow a gift on her anti-royalist co-conspirator, its manifestation was of Liberty, not Fraternity or Equality.  The location of the statue, at the mouth of the Hudson, adjacent to Ellis Island, the destination for incoming ships carrying fleeing immigrants provides a clear context for the Liberty it extols.  It is designed as a beacon to welcome and reassure those who see it that they are now free of the repression that forced them to flee their homeland.  “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” says the poem inscribed upon her.  Liberty may therefore be viewed more as a defining characteristic of the process of becoming and American citizen than of America itself.

As seems to have been the case with Equality and Fraternity, the concept of Liberty was allowed to shift from this specific context to something wider, more self-congratulatory, more self-serving.  America’s eventual anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner was originally a fairly obscure poem written by Francis Scott Key in 1814, compelling his compatriots to sing with gusto that they inhabit “The land of the Free” but even then, such a sentiment was demonstrably illusory, a perversion of the specific principles espoused by the Statue of Liberty.  Doubtless, it was a high-intentioned celebration that American citizens were free of the shackles imposed on the feudal subjects of the Old World.  What it doesn’t address is that the citizenry at that time only included white people.

This pre-Civil War self-deluding notion of “the Free” may have simply become a historical quirk, an innocent indulgence from a time that knew no better.  We may even have come to see it as a harmless, unknown piece of naive jingoism, were it not for the actions of two Presidents, over a century later.  The US Navy had been using the song since 1889 but it gained its first Presidential approval from Woodrow Wilson in 1916.  Given that its words were taken from a poem called Defence of Fort M’Henry and with its strong themes of conflict and resolute defence, perhaps its sentiments resonated more strongly at a time when America felt uneasy about the unfolding ‘Great War’ in Europe.

It’s certainly feasible that its images of stoicism through embattlement may have sustained America through her eventual involvement in war – and the beginnings of the Depression a decade later.  Seemingly uncoincidentally, President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional resolution of March 3rd 1931 to make The Star-Spangled Banner the national anthem of America.  At a time of huge economic uncertainty and its attendant tendency for existential re-assessment, there was a clear benefit to reminding Americans, at every opportunity, that they were undeniably “the Free” and “the Brave”.

It’s important to be even-handed at this point.  In many ways, pre-Depression America was flourishing and could be slightly forgiven for her blinkered optimism.  Already a major military power and the world’s biggest exponent of two of the century’s most defining industries, entertainment and transportation,  her riches led her to mount challenges to history’s favourite benchmarks.  America was already, the holder of ‘World’s Tallest Building’ – the Chrysler Building’s 1,046 feet would be surpassed within a year by the Empire State Building in a flurry of skyscraper construction in Manhattan.  Similarly, the title of ‘World’s Longest Bridge Span’ was held by one American construction after another, with New York’s George Washington Bridge, at 1,067 metres almost doubling the distance of its predecessor, the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit.  Plans for even more ambitious projects like the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge were a clear sign of America’s bravery, zeal and intent.  Freedom and Bravery: the words seemed to be perfectly apt.

However, Liberty seemed to be in limited supply among America’s black population, officially emancipated by Abraham Lincoln almost seventy years previously.  Institutional racism could not be so easily legislated against and over the intervening decades, forced labour and partition remained as prevalent as they had been before the Civil War.  And, of course, there were also the lynchings and abuses of justice.  Prevailing racial attitudes in the South, together with increasing mechanisation, cheaper transportation and the burgeoning growth of industry in the Northern states had led to The Great Migration – and America’s first real test of her heady aspiration that “all men” should be equal – a test which resulted in racial tensions and rioting in 1919.  Not for the last time, the threat to America’s mostly segregated status quo was re-presented as a symptom of the pernicious disease of Communism, by then on the rise in much of Europe, and the racial significance of the unrest was downplayed by the widespread use of name “Red Summer”.

And so, from 1931, it became possible for a whole country to clutch its chest and pledge allegiance to a flag which represented values that were demonstrably inconsistent where differences were only skin deep.  It would be another eighteen years before George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four introduced the concept of ‘doublethink’ as a satirical tool of his Totalitarian state but a prototype form of it was already in evidence in “the free world” well before the rise of the great dictators had really begun.

Over the rest of the 20th century, as subsequent American generations came and went, each more rewarded by the fruits of materialism than the last, and with only the concoction of external threat to rally around, the American notion of Liberty seems to have shifted, to mean something else entirely – namely the freedom to gratify the self.  In this way, the old notion of American Liberty seems to have become annexed by Libertarianism, the right for the individual to be free in all aspects of life, without recourse or consequence.

The words sound similar and are, of course, related but it is by no means inevitable that the two principles should become so conflated.  There is also a word from that same root that describes those who extol the rights of others to be free in all aspects of their lives, without recourse or consequence.  That word is ‘Liberals‘ – and it’s a label carries a whole different load of connotations in America today.  It’s the reason why we are presented with what appears, to non-Americans, the faintly ridiculous sight of those who value their Liberty decrying with equal passion their vehement disagreement with Liberals, to whom a litany of perceived impositions are attached.

Is that all this boils down to, then?  An existential struggle about which ideological group’s right to Liberty (however that may be defined) exceeds the other’s?  If X’s right to free speech supercedes Y’s right to be heard?  If A’s right to religious expression outranks B’s rights over their own body?  If P’s right to love and partnership infringes on Q’s right to their own beliefs?

As valid as they undoubtedly are, the questions are, I venture to suggest, not the sum of the argument.  There’s a lot of discussion about rights across this whole debate and very little mention of responsibilities.  It reminds me of a teenage conversation I once had with my Grandmother when I was fixated on and certain of my rights – a conversation teenagers are still having today – and I found I was unaware that there even needed to be a relationship between one’s rights and one’s responsibilities.  It’s a conversation I was reminded of the first time I saw Spiderman and Peter Parker’s teenage reasoning with his Uncle Ben – a conversation that uses his “powers” as a metaphor for one’s rights and draws a similar relationship with one’s responsibilities.  Societally, Western culture seems to have done a generally poor job in underlining this principle, leaving the job solely to caring older relatives to attempt to establish it as a fundamental value.  As one generation replaces another, what if that role ceases to be filled?

The correlation with teenagers is, I believe, of some relevance.  Occurring roughly a fifth of the way into a human lifetime, it’s a fairly universal expectation across most cultures that such coming-of-age conversations become necessary.  Would it be therefore hugely amiss to suggest that America herself, at the tender age of 244, is still in her late adolescence?  That the child prodigy who once mocked her slower, more ponderous elders with her youthful brilliance is beginning to understand the limitations of her own mortal capabilities?  Like a star student who suffers their first disappointing grade, she must now ask fundamental questions about herself, in order to learn from the experience and face the future with renewed confidence.

‘Liberty’ as she stands, looking out to sea, was always supposed to represent freedom from persecution elsewhere.  The principle of Liberty was never about the right to simply do as one pleases – and it certainly wasn’t a cipher for a particular kind of government.  Even in a truly equal society, the rights of the individual are not inalienably superior to the rights of one’s fellow citizens and, as any properly-raised teenager should eventually attest, the freedoms of others occasionally have a detrimental impact on the freedoms of the self.

5108465b35e6de9a7d065627a00d0a9aThis is not a broadcast on behalf of the Democrats or the Republicans and neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden approve this message.  It’s merely an attempt to illustrate how the misuse of language and the absence of objective, critical thought have led to a meta-situation where the ultimate freedom seems to have become the very right to define what freedom is.

Check your history books and see what Orwell has to say on the subject and you’ll find that such a freedom is a symptom of the least free societies in human history.

My Letter to Lisa Nandy MP: May I Count on Your Support for the Kyle-Wilson Amendment?

official_portrait_of_lisa_nandy_crop_2Lisa Nandy is the Labour Member of Parliament for Wigan and former Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.  

If you agree with the points I have raised in this letter, I encourage you to copy the text and use it as the basis for a letter to your own MP.

Dear Lisa,

I write as a concerned constituent, having read your recent piece in the Guardian: ‘A flawed second referendum could break our democracy’ and the arguments it puts forward to support the position.

I understand your discomfort at dealing with the legacy of divisive, binary choices and your concerns of holding Yes/No referenda on deeply nuanced matters.  These are uncomfortable times which seem to be filled with binary choices to navigate a way safely onwards.

The piece suggests you have accepted that the moral rather than the ideological imperative renders the ‘No Deal’ outcome unsupportable, particularly with regard to protecting the peace process in Northern Ireland.  For this reason and all the concerns about protecting health and prosperity that you have cited, it would indeed be an act of gross negligence to facilitate our withdrawal from the EU without an agreed structure.  There’s nothing wrong with removing an unacceptable outcome – but it does have the effect of increasing the probability of a further binary choice to come.

By your own admission, this morally unacceptable outcome is one which polls suggest around a quarter of the public would support – logically, around half those who wish the UK to Leave.  Unfortunately, this presents you with another binary choice: simply ‘respect’ the most recent democratically-expressed view of the electorate or explain the consequences of blindly following a potentially self-destructive path before we all have to follow it, knowing the proportion who favour an unworkable solution.

Given the unhealthy closeness of the June 2016 vote, the changes in the demography of the UK in the two and a half years since then, the huge gulf between what was promised by Leave and what we now know may be possible to negotiate (and the fact that some promises were demonstrably untrue), it’s impossible to claim there is insufficient evidence to re-evaluate the whole issue.

Consider also the fact that the last major poll that indicated a Leave majority was conducted a year ago and in recent weeks, the continuing impasse in the Commons has led to a slew of polls showing mounting concern for the current trajectory of the country and growing support for another referendum.  As you can see, I’m using the same source for these polls that you used in your article.

The argument against a second referendum cannot, in any sense, be that it is “anti-democratic”.  Disobeying a referendum would be anti-democratic.  By definition, asking people to vote again is the very essence of trust in democracy.  Those who would have you believe otherwise must be viewed suspiciously in only asserting so because they feel they have something to lose.

Obviously, such opponents of a 2nd Referendum are likely to be the evangelical Brexiteers, those who believe they “won” and have now been granted a mandate to pursue EU withdrawal with barely-limited gusto, based on a tiny majority, zealously guarding the interests of “17.4 million” by seemingly seeing fit to ignore completely the expressed view of 16.1 million fellow citizens.

There are other opponents: Remain-leaning MPs of all hues who sit in strongly pro-Leave seats, whose vacillation may potentially be influenced by the fact that publicly disagreeing with a majority of their constituents may not be the most advantageous career move.  Such a description may or may not apply to a number of Tory back-benchers who can find comfort in diligently obeying the whip and conveniently avoiding a confrontation with their own voters.  On the Labour benches, the Member for Don Valley seems to be the most notable example for such a potential conflict of interest.

Finally, of course, there are the stealth Brexiteers, those who secretly always wanted out but who sit back and allow events to take their course with a suitable amount of shoulder-shrugging and token opposition around the margins of the debate to be seen to have done just enough not to have exposed their own duplicity.  I speak, of course, of your own Leader and much of his inner coterie.

This week, following the 230-vote defeat of ‘The Meaningful Vote’ and the 149-vote defeat of ‘Meaningful Vote II’, there is, we are informed, likely to be a third attempt for the Prime Minister to scrape her ill-conceived, ill-begotten, ill-starred deal into UK policy – I’d like this one to be called ‘Meaningful Vote – With A Vengeance’.  Among the amendments it will face, we expect the Kyle-Wilson Amendment to be debated, in which May’s faltering, diluted position, if passed, must be put to the people as a “confirmatory referendum” and against which the option to Remain must feature.

As a concerned constituent, someone who has met you, has always found you to act very impressively and who has always been proud to say that you are my MP, I implore you to abandon the position in your Guardian piece, of hand-wringing deference to a single vote on a once-in-a-lifetime issue, in the name of ‘protecting democracy’.

This decision must be guided by the most fundamental principles of parliamentary representation – with which I trust you will be more than familiar.  I won’t insult you by quoting Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill at you but I think it’s fair to ask that, given the clear distinction between ‘representative’ and ‘delegate’, your vote for Kyle-Wilson demonstrates your willingness to provide representation for all the constituents of Wigan, not simply act in delegation of its (suspected) majority.

I trust you to put clearly-delineated national interest above those even of most of your voters.  I trust you to disobey your party whips if the country’s future depends on it and, just as Jess Phillips has already stated, I trust you to have the integrity to accept that in doing so, you accept all consequences that your most noble actions may invite, should the majority of the people of Wigan then disagree.

Yes, it’s a binary choice but leadership often requires the conviction to make a choice and argue for it – and it’s disingenuous in the extreme to ignore that inconvenient truth and continue to act as a leader of the constituency you represent.

I wish you well this week and I hope you can be part of the change that sees this whole ghastly mess turned around, allowing the whole country to concentrate once again on the real problems it faces.  I also believe that, in due course, the failure of both front benches over the last three dismal years will be corrected and younger, more reasonable, more resonant voices such as yours may be heard, from positions of greater seniority.  I’d very much like one day to claim that I’m proud of you not just as my MP, but as the holder as one of the Great Offices of State.

Please seize this opportunity to better define the future for us all.

Yours faithfully,

Paul Bentham

Diaries of a Texan Traveller – pt. 5

A verbatim record of a diary I wrote while visiting friends (Paul & Rice) in Austin, Texas during the Easter holidays of my second year at University in 1994.  Re-blogged on the anniversary of each entry.  2017 Commentary, where necessary for context, added as footnotes in italics.

14767409950_56b297ffd0_o
The University of Texas campus in Austin.  Photo: UT Austin

Wednesday 23rd March 1994,  16:53 (CST)

COMPUTER LAB IN LIBRARY, UT, AUSTIN, TX

Well, here I am, replete with new pen and ready to take on the world in my “journal” as Chris puts it [Reminder: Chris’s email number is IFZE530*].  This is going to be a waffly entry, I can tell.  Here, seated in between Paul’s and Chris’s monitors, and I’ll get distracted a lot…    …(see!)…

Anyway, I went for a wander round Austin today and bought a Charles Manson CD**.  I’ve just emailed Matt and written a couple more postcards.  It’s possible to play a CD and listen to it while you work on a computer here…   …That would be cool; if we could only do it at Lancaster!***

(Chris has just disappeared for a bit so I’m now writing this whilst listening to said CD)

(Ah, now he’s re-appeared, and I’ll have to stop now) — see, I knew I’d get distracted…

I can’t believe I’ve actually got very little to say at this juncture — this is a new experience.

Oh yes…   …soap-box time.

Without getting all political on you, cherished reader, I’d just like to point out a sinister side-effect of Americanisation.  We don’t have this in Britain right now but we might soon — after all, we didn’t have Sunday trading or car-jacking until not very long ago.  The point is the open warfare that most natives refer to as ‘TV advertising’.  Whereas in Britain, firms are not allowed to say things like: “Fly British Airways because Virgin is shite and Richard Branson is a tosser”, this is standard practice over here.  Granted, Richard Branson is not the Nobel award winner for being an OK bloke but when this type of message is dumped into the houses of a nation, the underlying message is one of a twisted sense of morals.  It isn’t really cricket.  In principle, the idea of slagging off your bitterest rival is the commonest of common sense but when you get the ‘bickering’ effect of AT&T appearing, saying “MCI is crap, they don’t really save you money”, immediately followed by MCI saying “AT&T is useless and they charge more than they should”, it all gets a little shambolic.  I’m all for free enterprise but negative advertising is depressing to the intelligent viewer, not just because of the infantile method of reaching the masses.  The really depressing thing is the masses actually lap all this up; i.e. it is their lack of intelligence that dictates the parameters of the marketing battle — if everyone was intelligent enough to see through the pantomime, then AT&T and MCI aren’t stupid enough not to change tack.  No, America is (has been and always will be) market-led and it is the ignorance of the public in general (i.e. the marketplace) that is to blame.  That is ultimately what is so depressing about it all.  After all, it is not merely the cable & wireless companies; everyone is at it: Coke v Pepsi, all the car manufacturers are after each other.  All the insurance firms are in there — everyone.  Where it gets absolutely ridiculous is during election time, when believe it or not, even the political parties get involved!

Sheesh, sometimes this place is so unbelievably over-the-top, I just laugh, be glad I’m British and try to imagine John Major and John Smith**** appearing on adverts saying nasty things about each other…   …Oh no, Party Political Broadcasts!  What are we turning into?

At least it’s not:  “That John Smith, he’s so stupid, he’s fat, he’s bald, he wears glasses, er…   …he’s Scottish” etc. etc.

Except in John Major’s case, it may give him a little credibility!

Anyway, enough of these musings.  Beware, Britain.  Beware of the demon negative advertising, for it will try to encompass us all!!!

<<That was Paul’s soap-box for the day.  Tomorrow at the same time, he will investigate the disturbing plight of misogyny amongst the tree-dwelling Indians of the Venezuelan Amazon.>>*****

I don’t think I did so badly for someone who didn’t have much to say, did I?

PS JCB = Jalapeño Cheeseburger.  Jalapeño = VERY****** hot Mexican chilli.

* …@utexas.edu

** Yes, you read that correctly.  Charles Manson, convicted multiple murderer had a song, ‘Look At Your Game, Girl’ covered by Guns ‘N Roses as an unlisted bonus track on their 1993 punk covers album ‘The Spaghetti Incident?’.  I was browsing in Tower Records on Guadeloupe St. (more commonly known as “The Drag”) and found it.  I had to buy it and still have the CD.  Occasionally one of the tracks on it pops up when my iDevices are set to ‘Shuffle’.

*** Wow!  Playing a CD in the CD tray of a computer while working on another task on the same computer!  Imagine that!!

**** John Smith MP.  Remember him?  He died less than two months after I wrote this, creating a vacuum in the Labour leadership – which would be filled by an up-and-coming politician by the name of Tony Blair.

***** To be clear, this was the most random thing I could come up with, in the name of satire.  It’s not really a thing.  Or at least I’m not aware that it is. 

****** See earlier post for relevance of this post-script.  Not that hot, relatively speaking – as I’ve since learned…

Buddy, Can You Spare A Minute?

Hey America!  Hi there.  I’m a friend of yours from way back.  In fact, I come from the same place as Myles Standish so I guess I may even be related to a whole lotta you guys.  Anyways, I just wanted to say something to you, you know, ‘As A Friend’…

We in the rest of the world have been talking and, well, you gotta know, not many of us like this Trump guy a whole lot.  I know a lot of you guys do so I just need to let you know that it could cause us a problem.  We didn’t want to say anything and we nearly didn’t but like that Friends show says: “I’ll be there for you” so here I am.

ph-at-the-bellagio
Visiting the Bellagio, Las Vegas, Nevada in 2002 – with Caesar’s Palace in the background

Before I start, I know it’s your election and kinda your business so I appreciate you might not take too kindly to some guy from the “old country” stickin’ his nose in your affairs but before you get all ‘1776‘ on me, let’s get a few things straight:

First of all, you guys have our sympathy.  We in the UK have, as you might say, “been there, done that”.  We know what it’s like to have a vote to use and feel we’ve got a bunch of crooks and clowns on each side to have to choose between.  It’s only five months since we had the same deal here.  And, according to most of the rest of the world, we messed up then.  I know what you’re thinking: “why listen to this loser?” and I know how you value success.  Think about it though: whose experience is most helpful here; they guy who doesn’t realise what problem he avoided or the guy who knows exactly what his mistake was?

And then there’s this: a lotta you guys like to think of the USA as the pre-eminent country in the world and in many ways it is: economically, militarily and culturally – well popular culture, anyway.  As the world’s only super-power, Uncle Sam is a pretty big deal.  Since the Cold War started, we’ve grown used to a succession of your presidents being styled as the “leader of the free world”.  Y’know, sometimes that presumption of supremacy has rankled with us but we jus’ sucked it up and didn’t say nothing.  I gotta say, if you go with this Trump guy, we’re through with being OK with that.

Take a look at history – not ‘Hollywood’ history where the US cracked the Enigma Code or American servicemen took part in the “Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III but real history.  Look at how Greece rose and fell (the first time) and how Greek civilization got surpassed by the Roman Empire.  Since Churchill’s days, America has been described as the ‘Rome’ to Britain’s ‘Greece’.  Just remember that eventually, the Roman Empire contracted and disappeared.  I ain’t saying your time is over – jus’ that nothin’s forever.  There are signs if you know where to look: the past kinda catches up with you, y’know, like our colonial past caught up with us.  Thanks to Washington and his homies, you guys mighta got out early but we managed to keep ahold of Canada, much of the Caribbean, India, Australia, New Zealand and some other places.  It was pretty cool while it lasted but eventually, you gotta pay the price for all this struttin’ around the world.  So we managed to re-boot our Empire as a Commonwealth and some say that immigration from those countries was a good thing for us but we had to take a lotta responsibility we kinda didn’t see comin’.  Take it from us, when we look Stateside and see things like the controversy surrounding the use of the Confederate flag and the Standing Rock thing right now,  we recognise them as echoes of history no-one ever thought would keep comin’ back.  You gotta know, these things are jus’ gonna get more and more complex from here on in.  “Mo’ history, mo’ problems”, brother.

The reason you need to know this, guys, is that when some bozo keeps sayin’ “Make America Great Again”, you gotta be sure what he means by that because I gotta tell you, I think he’s bein’ deliberately unclear with you.  In so many ways, America is still great and never stopped being.  In the ways you might think he means by “great again”, you gotta ask: can he, or anyone else, bring back those days?  No amount of slogans on baseball caps is gonna make everything how it was and nor should it.  America still has nothing to fear but fear itself.

You think I’m over-reacting?  What about the last guy who shouted simple solutions to bring back former glories at controlled rallies, who threatened his opponents with jail, who blamed outsiders and gave no value to disabled people?  Well your country mobilized 16 million to help us stop him and over 400,000 of them never came home.  Y’know, I couldn’t believe when he tried to explain away his crazy-ass opinions as being “just words”.  If we’re in a world where that works as a way out for politicians, we’re in a whole heap o’trouble.  Like JK Rowling said, if you can remove the importance of the words we use that easily, “we’re all lost”.

I ain’t sayin’ Hillary is perfect – I don’t know enough about her to tell you I know better than you.  I mean she is without doubt an experienced political operator who’s been a First Lady, a Senator and a Secretary of State  so I do kinda find it hard to understand why she’s so mistrusted by so many of you but I guess you have your reasons.  I just hope it’s not simple misogyny.  You could do worse than have a woman as a leader – ask Germany!

I’m proud to be a pro-American.  I spent my 16th birthday in Florida – the first of many visits there.  I’ve been fortunate enough to visit New York City; Las Vegas; Austin, Texas and Colorado, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  I wanna go back and see more of your amazing country.  I love your people, your positivity, your values and your achievements.  I have American friends: I’m pretty sure some are Democrat-leaning and some are Republican-leaning and I hope none of you take offense at what I’ve said.  Whatever happens, I’m not gonna stop lovin’ America, watchin’ your movies, listenin’ to your music and readin’ your literature – but a few of us might think about consciously uncoupling for a few years if you get involved with that guy…

Anyways, I hope we can still be friends – maybe this will help:

I sure do appreciate you reading this.  Much obliged!

Remaining To Be Convinced

If I’ve learned anything over the last few weeks of pitiful so-called ‘debate’ leading upto today’s EU Referendum, it’s that politics is even more of a sham than I had previously dared imagine.  Whichever way the vote goes, the most depressing conclusion is that due to the forces that have led to this conclusion, such an analysis seems unlikely ever to change.

My problem is nothing to do with the issue we’re actually voting on; morally, there’s lots to be said for granting the UK’s population the chance to review our involvement in the European ‘project’, half a lifetime after our parents and grandparents (as it mostly was back then) chose to enter the EC by a ratio of 2 to 1.  The cause for my disdain is the way that our politicians of all sides and of all hues have consistently chosen to present their arguments – and for the most part, the acquiescence of the media in allowing their oversimplified agendae to remain unchallenged by nuance and critical thought.

The signs weren’t encouraging when the term ‘Brexit’ suddenly began to infiltrate our national consciousness.  Given today’s 140-character attention-span, acronyms and portmanteaux are an increasing presence and while I can accept that the media will generally tend to embrace such terms to help them shorten headlines and seem current, it has always sat uneasily with me that such a stylised piece of jargon should be so embraced by the politicians themselves.  In communicating effectively to the electorate, those whom we have chosen to represent us have a responsibility to maintain clarity in the face of a complex argument not descend into the latest piece of Westminster Village gobbledegook at the earliest opportunity.  It was claimed by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1948 that Churchill once wrote “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put” in exasperation at the unwieldy restriction of correct English grammar where it hampers effective communication.  The same argument can be made to the very term which has come to represent the whole issue in its ugly, five-letter, ‘dumbed-down’ state.

Similarly, the arguments on either side of the discussion have remained largely untroubled by too much careful consideration or any sense of balance.  In or Out, the main tactic has been to scare the poor, well-meaning, responsible voter into submission by tainting their reasonable uncertainty with fear.  “Vote Leave and create a recession” said the Remainers, almost certainly guided by James Carville’s now legendary psephological constant which asserts that “It’s the economy, stupid” when it comes to compelling voters.  This was bad enough but given so much xenophobic material to work with, the Out campaign certainly left no barrel unscraped, with ‘all immingration is bad’ becoming the inevitable baseline for their rhetoric.  The worst case scenario for such idiot-baiting was therefore unsurprisingly realised when Jo Cox MP was senselessly murdered while doing her job serving her community, a job that all people with a brain will realise is a public service denied to much of the world’s population.

While I’m on the subject of immigration (and I must address it at some point), it’s actually something of a red herring in the context of this referendum but there’s a hugely important point to be made.  While the argument has become so childishly binary, we allow certain assumptions to stand as fact and it’s important to point out that they are not.  I found myself in a minor Twitter spat with someone who accused me of being ‘anti-immigrant’ because I pointed out that it seems necessary to “control numbers”.  Note: that does not mean cease immigration, merely apply control to the number, whatever that may be.  I answered that controlling numbers wasn’t ‘anti-immigrant’,  not even ‘anti-immigration’, just ‘anti-uncontrolled-immigration’.  To righteously make the leap that I hate foreigners themselves because I have concerns about the capacity of the country was, I felt, pernicious thought-policing of the worst kind.  Remember Gillian Duffy, the Rochdale pensioner whom Gordon Brown called a ‘bigot’ for expressing the same concerns?  If the Prime Minister of the day can’t make that distinction, based on a knee-jerk assumption that people who question uncontrolled immigration must be unreconstructed Alf Garnetts, we are clearly not as intelligent a species as we like to think we are.

Where in this whole monstrous carbuncle of a process have we seen evidence of positive inspiration to vote one way or another?  Any form of assessment that our life will be enhanced or enriched either way seems to have been lost in the universal agreement that the decision we face can only be characterised in the way our choice will need to protect us from one catastrophe or another.  And we wonder why people are engaging less with Politics?  Of course the electorate need to be convinced but there are ways to do that by inspiration as opposed to unremitting threats of desperation.

Actually, there does seem to be one tactic, employed on both sides, which I would have to admit is based in positivity and aspiration rather than the rest of the negative narrative – but it’s so pathetically facile, I almost can’t believe I’m allowing myself to distinguish it as a legitimate piece of electioneering.  It is, alas, the celebrity endorsement.

We’re all used to seeing Gary Lineker’s face on a Walkers crisps ad or hearing Helen Mirren assure us that actually, *we*, not just she, can now be said to be “worth it”.  We live in a consumer society and we’re so used to famous people telling us that they recommend such-and-such that we barely even notice it as a tactic anymore.  Similarly, we all know which households in our local area will be desperate to stick up signage in their window or garden exhorting every passer-by to vote for this party or that, every time there’s an election.  Why not combine the two ideas?  There’s only two choices so there must be a ready selection of ‘slebs’ on either side who’ll only be too egotistical, sorry, happy to publicly align themselves with either argument.  How meta is that?  Forget the actual merits of the argument, everybody, just know that if you vote ‘Remain’, you’ll be on the same side as James Bond.

I don’t really have a problem with Daniel Craig outing himself as an ‘In’ supporter on Twitter – we all have the right to do that if we so desire and he’s no different, he just has more followers.  What I do despair at is the expediency (which is doubtless in direct proportion to the number of followers) that saw our Prime Minister (Our. Prime. Minister. FFS) rush to accept the acclaim that, hey, even 007 is in my gang!  I know I bang on about Churchill a lot (and I know he had his faults) and I like to use him as a go-to personification of a true statesman but consider this for a moment.  Can you possibly imagine him even thinking of resorting to bolstering his position by noting that (for instance) “Mr. Nöel Coward has been insightful enough to agree that we must not pursue Mr Chamberlain’s policy of Appeasement”.  To a statesman, there is politics and there is celebrity.  One is determinant of the standard of living that a country enjoys, the other is a distraction from it.  Ne’er the twain shall meet.

Many would claim that we’re now living in a celebrity-obsessed age.  Is that why we’re being confronted with dumbed-down arguments, sugar-frosted with celebrity endorsement?  Politicians have long acknowledged the power of the maxim ‘if you’re explaining, you’re losing’, which rather sadly seems at odds with the whole point of political debate, doesn’t it?  Consequently, are they now living by the addendum ‘if you can retweet a film star, you’re winning’?

And so to the actual issue at hand.  As we all know, it’s very tempting at this point to re-heat our favourite historical distractions like Agincourt, Trafalgar, Waterloo, “Two World Wars and One World Cup” and all that but ultimately, to do so only provides a jingoistic shot in the arm and achieves nothing so it must be resisted.  At its heart, the issue first seems to be one of control: London or Brussels, UK or EU, ‘Queen and Country’ or ‘European Partners’.  There is of course a lot to get worked up about when you consider the EU, the seemingly ever-growing mission creep of the project from trading entity to would-be federal state, the grossly-skewed-in-favour-of the-French CAP, the impenetrable lack of transparency and accountability of all the countless Eurocrats, the mind-boggling levels of resource it all requires and, one suspects, wastes.

And yet, we forget its primary aim, its – dare I use the French term? Yes, I dare – raison d’être was the avoidance of a continent-splitting bloodbath for the third time in half a century.  From a very low baseline of expectation, it has to be said that, so far, that particularly basic aim has been successfully achieved.  Well done, all concerned for avoiding potential world oblivion by finding an inordinate amount of more trivial matters to squabble about in expensively-designed buildings instead!

It has also, in fairness, provided protection from unfair trade tariffs, cut heavily (believe it or not) most cross-border bureaucracy, provided member states with the option of a common currency (which we seem to like, as long as it’s the same in every other country) and vastly simplified (via vastly complex rules on standards) the process of selling goods across the continent by providing the single source of regulation.  Much of this happened before the internet age so, whether you wish to be charitable enough to say that the European project anticipated it or not, by the time we all realised we could now shop across national boundaries from home, much of the regulatory work was already done to enable the whole of the continent’s sellers to benefit from the shift in customer behaviour.

I don’t remember the 1975 referendum but I do remember the 1992 ‘Single Market’ upgrade that presciently paved this particular path.  I remember the often ridiculous resistance to it, often from ‘Outraged of Tunbridge Wells’ retired Sergeant Major types: “we don’t want to be eating Italian sausages and Dutch cheeses when we have Cheddar and the good old British banger!” they prattled.  And look what’s happened since then: our palate has become infinitely more cosmopolitan, our cupboards now brim with foods we didn’t even know existed twenty-four years ago.  We haven’t just savoured the salami since ‘92, we have cherished the chorizo and venerated the wurst.  And we’ve similarly done all sorts of alliterative appreciation of an untold amount of other foodstuffs that I’m going to leave you to consider.  It’s also interesting to recall that even the most ardent anti-Euro old farts never seemed to direct their ire to French wine or German beer, strangely enough.

So we’re demonstrably not that keen to leave the European party, we just want to be peripheral to it, one may conclude.  Participating on our own terms but free to move on to another party somewhere else if we feel like it.  Is this about control, then, or ambition?  Is it a case of Remaining to keep the safe and mostly agreeable status quo or Leaving because we feel we’re capable of having more fun, with cooler people?  It sounds enticing enough but is it as simple as merely being free of Europe – or will it require more of us, and our leaders, than that?

One argument that’s often made in support of the EU is the fact that its schemes benefit deprived areas in member states, fund higher education, support scientific development and regulate cleanliness of beaches.  While much of the above could be claimed by naysayers to be costly, interfering, inefficient and exceeding the body’s initial remit, there’s one point that seems never to have been adequately addressed: why?  Not so much why should the EU feel the need to concern itself in these areas but how is it even necessary?  If every member state was being run properly, each would have granted sufficient priority to the state of deprivation, educational attainment, scientific progress and marine environmental quality.  It seems to me that such schemes only exist because of a dereliction on the part of all member states that rely on EU aid – a charge that applies historically to the UK as much as anywhere else.  It seems that successive Governments have treated the EU in the same way they view the Lottery – as cash-rich entities that exist simply to relieve its own departments and ministries the burden of having to actually worry about funding necessary improvements to vast swathes of the national resource.

In order to be convinced that we’re better Out than In (because I really believe that we could be), the question really becomes one not of control or even ambition but one of competence.  Do I trust a post-Leave Government (of any colour) to increase our trading power, reduce our regulation, control our immigration and ensure that our sink estates, our universities and our beaches are all appropriately resourced?  In order to answer that question, we need a little more context…

Referenda (to use the correct Latin plural) are a curious notion.  One the one hand, they seem ultra-democratic; allowing the public to decide on a given single issue.  What could be more self-determining that that?  On the other, they sit uneasily within the usual democratic framework – generally, the idea is that we the people give a mandate to govern us for a term, based on a manifest selection of promises to effect certain changes and then we leave them to it.

Also, parties win and lose elections and those within the winning and losing parties are given (or relieved of) power as a consequence.  Candidates are expected to ensure their electioneering is in harmony with the party on whose ticket they are standing, meaning that if they win, they win but if they lose, they can always highlight the areas of their Party’s policies with which they personally disagree to mitigate their failure.  In short, there’s nothing terminally discreditable to one’s further career in losing a seat at an election.

In a referendum, it’s different.  Politicians are granted that most dangerous of things: a position determined by their ‘conviction’, unencumbered by those controlling bullies, the party whips.  Removing partisanship strips out their requirement to be ‘on message’ and therefore makes it a rare test of each politician’s ability to truly align himself or herself with Public Opinion.  The upshot is that those who are seen to agree with the Great British Public may thereafter wear their affirmation as a badge of honour and those who misjudge the mood may have nowhere to hide when questioned about their ongoing credibility.

That’s why referenda tend to be so uncommon.  Yes they seem all very inclusive and communal but do we really want to have to tell the Government we’ve already elected what we want them to do every five minutes?  Do politicians themselves want to subject themselves to the vagaries of so frequently committing their personal views to the public vote, when it’s difficult to make an excuse for being seen to be out of step?  No.  However nice an idea it seems, to all concerned, the prospect of a referendum is a box left unopened – most of the time.  The only times they can’t be avoided are when the issues are so fundamental and generally when the question falls outside of general party political lines.  Like now.

That means that there’ll be casualties on whichever side loses.  As it’s non-partisan, that means that there’ll be casualties within a Government, a Cabinet, potentially even the office of Prime Minister itself.  And that means there’ll be opportunities for those on the winning side to fill those vacancies, wherever they occur.  Could that be the real motivation for those who have chosen to oppose the ‘Remain’ campaign?  A shit-or-bust gamble to attain higher office, based on alignment to a game-changing shift in the political landscape rather than a commitment to the actual principle itself?  Surely it can’t be true that the thing we’ve been talking about all this time is just a sideshow in a wider game to further the ambitions of a small number of string-pulling pro-Leavers.  Surely not…  You have to wonder…

So, to re-cap: we are where we are with Europe, it could be better, it could have been much worse.  We may want more control of our affairs but what are we prepared to give up to get it?  Can we really do much better by doing things differently and, crucially, do we have the leadership talent to ensure that we make the most of the opportunity?  Does the way we’re being communicated to by our politicians show a disdain for our intelligence to start with – and does any of it really matter anyway if it’s all just a part of a Machiavellian play for power?

As Duncan Bannatyne says on ‘Dragon’s Den’, “for those reasons, I’m oot” –  by which I mean I’m ‘In’.

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Archived: Why our future should keep you up all night

Originally published as a FB Note, on 5 May 2010 at 21:45

Winston Churchill once said “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried”. Considering it was the very system that he so famously fought to defend, it seems odd to see that he would damn it with such faint praise. And yet, Churchill was nothing if not a realist, able to reconcile the seemingly opposable motivations of idealism and pragmatism – he also said (about Britain’s wartime propaganda) that “truth is so precious she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”.

Indeed, there’s nothing like a British General Election to showcase the very noblest and most base elements of political activism and this one has been no exception. The content generated by the party machines, media coverage and workplace water-cooler discussions alike has raged from intelligent debate to bitter class-riven tribalism, from wide-eyed idealism to narrow-minded prejudice. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, for better or worse, this is the best – indeed the only – way to elect your government.

So why should you lose sleep on election night? Well, not necessarily in a partisan, what-if-the other-lot-get-in? way (although perhaps you might) but because there is little else that can provide greater drama than watching the immediate direction of the nation unfold before you. Seeing the very tectonic plates of power shifting with all the human reaction at those twin imposters of triumph and disaster reminds you of the power of the people – however we choose to wield it. The very certainty of a voting process provides drama of the highest order, which is precisely why it has become so central to the many forms of Saturday night television in the last decade. Unlike the X-Factor et al, though, the outcome of this talent show really does matter – ‘Britain’s Got Options’, you might say. This always has been and always will be the ultimate reality show.

During the coverage recent Winter Olympics, I and, I’m sure, a good number of others became acquainted once again with the nuances of curling. Before very long, the mists of time had lifted and terms like ‘house’ and ‘Rhona Martin’ began to waft back into the conscious mind. And so it is the same with the process of the General Election. Terms like ‘swing’, ‘boundary change’ and other staples of psephology (the science of elections) begin to re-emerge from the box your mind put them in the last time you took the time to understand them fully.

Except of course, that it is not exactly the same. Olympics are strictly quadrennial, as polls in many countries are. British Elections on the other hand are more like earthquakes, total eclipses or meteorite falls – generally adhering to a pattern over time but not quite following a predictive model. I could go on at greater length about the idiosyncracies of the British electoral term but more important issues should exercise you right now…

In the first instance, I know my primary civic responsibility is to engage in the process, evaluating the merits (and otherwise) of the protagonists and reminding myself of the fundamental, inalienable right a free country has to self-determination. And yet beyond that, I have come to acknowledge in myself that I have also found the process riveting in a secondary role as an observer of the whole process from as detached a position I can find. As a marketer, elections prove an interesting insight into both sampling and attempting to influence public opinion. I spend most of my working life questioning and second-guessing the trends and tastes of the great British public and I have concluded that a General Election may well be the ultimate exercise in brand loyalty.

Along the way then, for many of us, it’s time to return to questions about the very essence of the size and role of the state, the opportunities and security of the individual, the care of the young and the old, the defence of the realm and, inevitably, the scale and method of taxation it all requires. Or do we? Instead, do we just vote the way our parents did, simply choose a leader we like best/dislike least, settle on a convenient minority interest upon whom to endow a protest vote or, worst of all, not bother voting at all?

That is both the blessing and the curse of democracy. The right to vote for any reason, informed or otherwise, frivolous or otherwise. Indeed, unlike Australia, even the right not to vote. Churchill also said the “the greatest argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. For every voter who studies every manifesto and reads between each line of media coverage, there is often another who ‘cancels out’ the considered vote with a choice based on the fact that their chosen party leader’s eyes aren’t too close together – or some other such observation.

With nothing less than the future of the country at stake, isn’t this kind of flippancy frustrating? Sometimes. Is it acceptable? Well no, it’s not ideal – it only reinforces the view of Joseph de Maistre, the 18th/19th century French philosopher: “Every nation has the government it deserves” – but even a bad government, elected as the result of a country’s momentary lapse of reason will eventually be found out and removed. It may last for a number of years in the meantime, but democracy has wider horizons and is too important to attempt to refine or replace, when it fails to provide the ‘best’ choice of direction. Like evolution and geology, the eventual tendency to produce progress in the longer term is more important than the odd fluctuation along the way. Even democracy must be allowed to ‘fail’ sometimes if we believe firmly enough that it is always to succeed.

The alternative is to find a means of bestowing power some other way. Aside from considering the ridiculous options of dictatorship (it’s been tried elsewhere and has tended not to go well), it is often said of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates that their very willingness to seek election should singularly preclude them from participation, such are their (perceived) excesses of smugness and self-righteousness. Take this notion to its logical conclusion and it advocates that candidates should be like the cardinals who surround an ageing pope, where the quickest way to disqualify oneself from ever being considered a successor is to show any sign of desiring the position. This is all very laudable but rather impractical. Someone has to stand and wouldn’t it be rather better on the whole if they actually showed their hunger and qualification for the office they seek before we grant them it? This part is at least intrinsically honest – even God-fearing cardinals may not always tell the truth about their avowed disinterest, you know. I won’t check but I’m quite sure that it’s no coincidence that the words ‘candid’ and ‘candidate’ are so similar.

In today’s multimedia environment, it’s unrealistic to expect that the whole exercise will not be seen by many to have ‘descended’ to some extent into the ‘beauty contest’ or ‘presidential’ vote that it’s often purported to be. While this may now be true in some ways, it is still also true to say that the electorate is increasingly media-literate and to a large extent, actually demand more media coverage, with all its inherent risks of manipulation. Commentators love to imply that in a media-proliferated world, we now inhabit the era which values the soundbite over genuine oratory, that we deal merely in dumbed-down detail. I’m dubious of this. At any time in history, people have always known what it is that concerns them about their future and it is the amalgamation of such concerns that the parties must continue to strive to address, however they can. The difference today is that there are now more ways for each of us to pursue that interest, to find out more. Contrast that with the days of significant levels of illiteracy, or even the days where there were only three television channels and you may conclude that we may not be marching towards a time that boasts a perfectly engaged electorate but neither are we marching away from one.

And yet there is still a question over the the legitimacy of this noble, imperfect process in practice – an inconsistency at its very heart that threatens its idealism but is supposed to ensure its practical application. The Whip. For all we are exhorted to vote now for ‘our’ MP, the individual who will serve his or her constituents’ interests in Westminster, we are offered a choice of largely manufactured candidates who merely act as a representative for a small number of brands of ideology. Once elected, they will then be pressured into taking the ‘party line’ by essentially a small group of corporate bullies behind the closed doors of the Palace of Westminster. And so ‘your’ MP, if guided by his or her own set of ethics and judgement will eventually fall foul of their partisan paymasters – in the interest of party (or even sometimes national) unity. Whither the high-minded morals of democracy at that stage? In essence, we appear to be able to choose the guests to attend our Westminster Function, but the decisions about the buffet and the choice of music are still made for us.

The other interesting contribution of the constituency is in the vote-counting formula that decides the winner. Without the arbitrary groupings that we know as constituencies, our votes would count equally, unencumbered by considerations such as ‘safeness’ of the seat we happen to be live in. Essentially we would all be voting for one UK constituency and it is the overall share of the vote that determines the winning party. This would be the truest form of Proportional Representation. Or, as is currently the case, we ask parties to demonstrate that they can command a majority in a majority of places accross the country – our ‘first past the post’ system. PR is easier to understand, slightly easier to defend on grounds of moral legitimacy but will inevitably deliver an unclear result, which therefore gives rise to questions about the strength of mandate the winning party has. Flawed as our current system may be, it does tend to allow strong government because it only allows demonstrably more popular parties to prevail, quelling claims that their subsequent acts have no clear mandate. Once again, it’s a decision between the idealistic and the pragmatic – unless you have faith in the notion of coalition.

So why not have faith in coalition? Isn’t this notion of confrontational politics a little outdated? Can’t we embrace the notion of the parties working together a little more warmly? Well, even that is for the electorate to decide – albeit effectively, by the absence of a clear majority, not necessarily because we all think it’s a good idea. Certainly, this sentiment could be gaining support – this may be one reason behind the huge growth of support enjoyed by the Liberal Democrats in our post-sleaze, post-expenses jaundiced political outlook but it’s still an idea that is unfamiliar to many of us. “Look at Belgium” seems to be the main rejoinder of the consensualists. I suspect Churchill would have declined the invitation to look at Belgium. Following the bombing of the chamber of the House, he spurned the chance to re-design its geometry from oppositional to semi-circular, believing in the value of oppositional debate to bring rigour to any argument. Ironies abound here, not just because Churchill led a wartime coalition government on the one hand, but on the other, because he ‘crossed the floor’ not once but twice in his career.

Interestingly, when we consider the structure of the other key area where our inalienable rights were hard-fought and hard-won, the judiciary and all its due process, we appear to be keen to cling to the values of the adversarial system. Exactly how would a consensual system of justice work? “We may all think you shouldn’t have done it but it probably wasn’t entirely your fault”? When the stakes are high and it’s just as important that the wrong decision is avoided, it strikes me that in politics, as in law, it is the strength of the debate that is most likely to reach the right decision – or at the very least, one for which those charged with making are then accountable. While I will remain steadfastly enigmatic about my views about which party should be given the right to govern in this election, I am prepared to argue that a coalition, while it may be a necessary recourse in the short term is not a long-term solution in peacetime. Wars aside, all of the 20th Century coalitions seem to have been short, torrid affairs punctuated by inertia and in-fighting. Did you know that the last time a state of emergency declared in the UK was in 1974 – as a result of increasing industrial action, exacerbated by the weakness of our last minority government. Why would it be significantly different today?

So, there you have it, our collective future, laid bare for all to see. Many will place too much emphasis on it; those participants and activists who use it as a tool for self-aggrandisement or those who placing too much faith in the eventual winners to make every aspect of their life irreversibly better. More still will place too little emphasis on it; choosing the easy option of apathy and unconvincingly defending their right to ignore it. Having said that, the result may not affect you hugely, whichever way it goes. Our choice of may not even affect the country all that much, either. We’d find that difficult to prove because when we come to look back on this fork in the road, we’ll never really be able to say if the other lot would have done much better or worse. But then again, it could mean everything. It’s a time of possibilities and, for the first time since 1992 (the very first election I voted in), it’s genuinely unpredictable. The idealist decided long ago that I would watch it all, throughout the night. The pragmatist made sure I took the next day off work.

Whether you sleep through it or not, I wish you pleasant dreams!

Archived: Waste Not, Want Not!

Originally published as a FB Note, on 7 July 2008 at 22:27

"If you don't eat it all up, you'll have it again for breakfast"
“If you don’t eat it all up, you’ll have it again for breakfast”

Rampantly rising oil prices, a swathe of unchecked knife murders, the credit crunch, falling house prices, rising inflation, international terrorism, overflowing prisons – the list of the UK’s current woes goes on and on.

Yes, it’s no fun being Prime Minister right now but Our Charismatic Leader continues to march on where others fear to tread by insisting we all throw less food away. Now, I have no problems with the sentiment here – I hate wasting food, myself – but do we really feel that this is the issue that should be most taxing the man who runs our country?Moreover, by taking on such an issue, one that most of us associate with memories of our childhood, exasperated parents and threats of not being allowed to leave the table, Brown risks becoming seen as the physical embodiment of the Nanny State, surely a public perception that very few leaders would willingly embrace.

I once read an article (which as far as I could tell was apolitical) which claimed that wars and economic crises apart, every Conservative government would eventually fall because after continual cuts in public service, aimed at creating tax cuts would eventually wear out public goodwill. Conversely, every Labour Government, having been elected on a ticket of reform and reinvestment would eventually run out of things to reform or ideas that work. In time, the higher taxes and increased obsession with ever-decreasing improvements would also exhaust public patience.

In other words, so the theory goes, after a number of years, the two main British parties revert to stereotype and almost legislate themselves out of power.

I don’t know if Gordon is familiar with this notion, but it seems as if he is single-handedly trying to prove it, especially with his very earnest insistence that such wastefulness costs each family about £420 a year.

Official National Statistics figures show that the UK has around 17.1m families. Imagine each paying out £420. That’s £7.2bn. Coincidentally, that’s exactly the figure that the Commons Public Accounts Committee accused ministers of spending on private consultants between 2004 and 2007, a practice they described as “sheer profligacy”. It seems, Mr. Brown that miscalculating our own grocery requirements is not the only way we can all cost ourselves £420, is it? And he has the gall to lecture the nation about “unnecessary purchases”!

When times are hard, it’s even harder to countenance waste. With every quarter-point rise, I suspect the nation’s household freshness threshold lowers a little further. We all become a little less extravagant and a little more prudent. The thing is, Mr. Brown, that ethos applies to our vote as much as it does to our shopping basket.

Archived: It’s the Personality, Stupid!

Originally published as a FB Note, on 20 May 2008 at 22:19

So, the local elections have come and gone, Labour has taken a proverbial kicking and Our Glorious Leader, Mr. Brown, has faced calls from all quarters about his suitability for the role and, once again, even his mandate from the electorate. Instead of providing yet another political analysis, I respectfully submit my own apolitical assessment, based on my slightly greater understanding of public relations.

I make this submission contrary to political folklore, which since Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 Presidential election campaign has enshrined the maxim “It’s the economy, stupid”, a phrase that has since become part of the parlance for voters as much as psephologists.

Rewind, if you will a year, almost to the day. On May 11th, 2007, Gordon Brown announced his candidature for the leadrerhip of the party/country in the wake of Tony Blair‘s impending resignation of the posts. In his speech that day, he appeared to make a pledge to reject his predecessor’s well-known use of ‘spin’ by saying “I have never believed presentation should be a substitute for policy”. It was meant to act as a beacon for all those who criticised Mr. Blair’s “presidential” style of politics, where it was often alleged that Parliament and even the Cabinet were by-passed and the unelected Alastair Campbell, the spin-doctor in chief, wielded more power than senior Ministers. It may seem unusual to say so about politicians these days, but you could even believe that it was a stance that even he agreed with. Britain under Brown was, we were assured, to return to the good old days of Parliamentary scrutiny and collective responsibility.While this was all very worthy and even morally courageous, it did overlook one slight flaw – that in politics, just as in business, ultimately, it’s the number of punters that matter. Unfortunately, it would appear – and any focus group would probably confirm this – that there are fewer voters in the country today who are concerned by such dusty concepts as parliamentary process than there are those who care merely about backing the person they want to win. What’s more, all this was true before (New) Labour’s election victory in 1997, which is precisely why the old party needed the ‘New’ adjective back then. It’s hard therefore to escape the conclusion that Tony Blair was perhaps not the pathological egomaniac he was portrayed to be, but that he chose to act like a president because deep down, he knew that’s what the nation really wanted. To paraphrase a line from King Lear, perhaps it was Blair who was “more spinn’d against than spinning”.

While the ‘traditional’ Labour voter might have despaired at the vulgarities of their party back then, the truth is that eleven years on, the same gravitation to gratification is even more profoundly in evidence and seems to permeate every aspect of life. You could speculate that this is due to the increasing Americanisation of our culture or you could blame poorer education standards over-simplifying the question we are asked at each election. The best answer I’ve heard is that a sign of an unthreatened nation is one in which politics plays a less central role – and conversely, where security and even survival is in doubt, the masses are motivated to take the question of their governance more seriously.

So, viewed in the context of the history of British politics, that watershed election of 1997 still seems like a recent development, even after eleven years. In human terms, it’s about a seventh of a lifetime but in the context of social changes since then, it’s almost an eternity.

Since 1997, we’ve seen the rise of the ‘Big Brother’-culture, the spawning of an endless line of so-called ‘reality’ shows in which viewers are invited to ‘call this number’ to choose/evict the contestant they like most/least. By the time of the next General Election in possibly 2009 or more probably 2010, when we would have to have one, there could be as many as 8.3 million voters* in the elctorate aged between 18 and 30, and therefore not old enough to have participated in any General Election before that of 1997.

* based on demography distribution at the 2001 census.

in 2005, around 27.1 million votes were cast, at a turnout of (if memory serves) 59%. This would mean that potentially 18.7% of the electorate have only ever had voting experience of post-1997 electioneering.

Whatever your views on the extent of the increasing ‘celebrity culture’ we have or the youth market that is at its forefront, any would-be or incumbent Prime Minister should ignore either at their peril. Is that a good thing? Well, that’s an entirely different question…

Anyway, enter our hero, Gordon Brown. Bereft of oratory skills, lacking anything approaching charisma or media appeal and apparently eschewing the dark art of ‘spin’. It’s a heady mix for our celebrity age. It’s tempting to compare him with politicians from a bygone age such as Harold MacMillan who appeared equally uncomfortable in front of the camera. In truth, this would be an immense disservice to MacMillan, who for all his obvious discomfort, was arguably the first Prime Minister to recognise the importance of the new medium when it may have been easier for him to have avoided its exacting gaze. Macmillan was a television pioneer because of the age and despite his own limitations, whereas Brown abhors it despite the age and, one has to conclude, because of his limitations.

All of this “what I’m concentrating on” stuff with which Brown fills his rhetoric may be laudable and may even get him elected again, but for that to happen the impact of his actions will have to outstrip the presentation skills of the real heir to Blair’s media-friendly mantle, a certain David Cameron…