Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The Bright Side of Brexit

You could not have asked for a better bench-test of the Westminster system of governance than Brexit. A bench-test that Westminster, and the society that maintains it, has failed dramatically.

The Brexit campaign was built on racism. The campaign focused on the control of immigration, blaming ‘immigrants’ for the job losses and the poverty in the UK. This is a technique that has been used by mendacious governments, kings and tribal leaders since we were plankton. ‘Those amoebae look different from us. They are the cause of our discomfort. We are better than them. Let’s get them out of our pond.’

Poverty and unemployment in Britain are not the result of immigration. They are the result of a sick Westminster neoliberalism that soaks the rich. The City has not suffered, but the poor kids on the streets in Pollok, have.

The focus on immigration was led by the Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph, all of them newspapers owned by wealthy individuals who will lose nothing (and may win yet greater riches) as the result of Brexit. And here is the second ingredient in the Brexit bench-test. The tabloid devils were supported by the BBC, which equals or betters Russia Today as a government propaganda channel. No-one can demonstrate that Mr Putin is influencing RT, just as no-one can demonstrate that Mrs May is influencing the BBC, but both channels express an editorial line that suits the government of the day.

There may have been an imaginary halcyon day in which British journalists were an objective balance to the power of government – a functioning Fourth Estate telling truth to power – but those days – if they ever existed – have long gone.

The bent bananas argument for Brexit, led by the equally bent Boris Johnson, has been broken by the facts of Brexit. The argument was that Brussels had created a series of rules and regulations – including one governing the quality of fruit including bananas – that were an imposition on Britain’s freedom to do business. Boris and the Brexiteers argued that we should escape the shackles of EU regulation so that Britain could trade freely with the world. A hypnotic argument, amplified by the tabloids and the Telegraph.

And now we face reality; the EU is the UK’s largest trading partner, and so we will inevitably want to continue buying and selling there. So we will continue to have to abide by their rules on bent bananas, data protection, car parts and a thousand other products and services. But this time, we will no longer have a say, no longer have MEPs, or a seat on the committees that draft these regulations. We will be in a worse position, a weaker position, than we were before Brexit.

Brexit is the dark force in English politics. It has brought out the worst in the Westminster system of governance.

But it has a bright side. A bright side, for Scotland.

Because Brexit has shown that the ‘Union’ of Scotland and England is nothing of the sort. It has shown that Scotland is merely the colony of an ageing imperial power. The Scottish parliament, set up after years of demands and proposals, has no power. Brexit has shown that the ‘Sewell Convention’ is worthless, a slip of paper shredded in a Tory fart. The Westminster power grab – taking back any remaining powers that the toothless Scottish parliament had – has been supported not only by the Tories but also by a Labour party that has definitely lost its way.

And this is our hope. That the people of Scotland will realise, thanks to Brexit, that their parliament, their government, their power has once again been ripped away from them by the greed of Westminster. This is the bright side. This is independence.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

From Clay to clay

I'm in a town in the Potteries, in England's West Midlands. The town was built on clay, and what you could make from it, and there are still the tall chimneys of the ceramics works that were the employers of the region.

The ceramics works are now heritage museums. Which would be fine, if this was part of a successful diversification of industry. But it is not. The scene is desolate, crumbling, bleak. Walking through the city yesterday, Saturday evening, there were too many boarded up and empty shops, with the only thriving retail business, the betting shop. The grocer, who serves as the local branch of Western Union, has his windows barred and meshed so that it appears more like a cop shop in Blade Runner than a place to buy your greens. The roughly-painted restaurant set up by - from what I can read of the flaking signage - a Polish couple has been closed for months. A Wetherstones pub provides a cheery change, its bulky, white, clients spilling out onto the pavement to sing football songs.

But it is the buildings I notice most. Nineteenth century brick buildings, with the carved and moulded additions that signalled ostentation, English-style, with what were once neat little sash windows and once-gay window-boxes for flowers. Now? The buildings are rotting. The roof of one - occupied, with tattered greying curtains at the windows - is curving inward, broken-backed. The brickwork on all of them - made from the clay that also fed the potteries - is crumbling. Clay is returning to clay. How long will it take? How long before this once busy town melts into the earth again?

The census - England is dilligent in charting its decline - tells us what is happening here. The data is from Nomis, based on the 2011 census. This is a poor town, with almost two thirds of the population in socio-economic grades C2, D and E (overall in England, just over 45% of the population is in these grades). One person in five (20%) is on benefits (England 13%). Worse, young people are being abandoned. Amongst 16 to 24 year olds, one in three has no educational qualification whatsoever, and 48% have either no qualification or a Level 1 qualification - the lowest grade (England, 35%). Their future is bleak.

This town has all of the illnesses of the neoliberal economy, the preferred model of Westminster governments since Margaret Thatcher. The state has not intervened, except to pay, grudgingly, the increasingly faulty and impoverishing benefits that its citizens are due. The state has allowed London, its financial quarter and its southern-county hinterland to flourish, while it has left the north to rot.

Why did the state not intervene? The decline of the ceramics works was well-signalled. Their carefully collected census data showed Westminster, long before it became physically obvious in the crumbling façades of the buildings, that this town needed help, needed to diversify, to build a well-educated young population, to be given a hand to climb out of poverty. But Westminster, hypnotised by the snake-oil sellers in the City and the tax-dodging barons of the tabloid press, abandoned the north of England to focus on the comfortable homes and voters of Surrey. 

What now? Like the Scottish Highlands, this town has been cleared. Not by the Duchess of Sutherland and her ghillies, but by Margaret Thatcher and her dodgy economists. A young person with gumption will have caught the privatised Virgin train to London and have looked for work there. It's a town, built on clay, sinking.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Too Bad

I am talking to my son, and he is describing a lecture he just had at University. It was about archaeology in war zones – what happens when a war rolls over our heritage. The lecturer showed video of military tanks clanking over ancient temples…and then said that the real story was not there, but was in the fact that these sites were looted first, that the statues, the pottery, the art was stolen, packaged and shipped out for sale to the highest bidder. With the funds, of course, coming back in the form of guns, bullets and more tanks. The pillaged loot was re-badged in Basel, and sold in London.

London! Trading in stolen artefacts! Why does so much immoral trade circuit through London?

This week’s Commons vote illustrates part of the problem. London is the node in a network of former colonies including the British Virgin Islands, which have allowed people to set up companies whose ownership is opaque, or directly anonymous. So whether you are dealing in stolen statues or offering ‘riot control’ equipment to dodgy regimes you can trade through London’s former colonies, or its Crown Dependencies.

Westminster could have stopped this years ago. But they didn’t. It took 14 rebel Tories, including the increasingly belligerent Ken Clarke, to force a Government climb-down.

Why? Because we are badly governed. We have a bad government in Westminster, a rotten government. I don’t mean the Tory party, although they are fully part of the problem. I mean the government. Westminster bends its ear too easily to the lobbyists – from the arms trade, from the City, from the architects of tax-avoidance schemes, from the multinationals… Westminster is too full of clubbable chaps who went to school with the chaps who are now doing the dodgy deals.

Westminster is corruptible, and corrupted.

And Westminster rules Scotland. ‘Rules’ in the imperial, Britannia sense, as the Brexit power grab shows. Rules in the expectation that the people of Scotland will be grateful for the crumbs from Westminster’s very fat loaf.

The big decisions – who we go to war with next, how we control the power of wealth, what we do or don’t do about climate change, which American multinational we let off the fiscal hook, how we set quotas for immigration – are all taken by a rotten government on behalf of Scotland.

Scotland needs an independent modern government. A government that is transparent, open and representative, so that everyone can walk into Holyrood and feel that someone there shares their interests or their concerns. We also need, as Lesley Riddoch keeps reminding us, good local government with the power and the money to resolve local issues. We need to pass our own laws, to work out how we live and love together, through a parliament that is not held in the palm of the lobbyists. We need independence.

There is a similar feeling about Madrid. Even the right-wing El País asks whether we should be 'organising public life [by] relying on Mafia techniques.'
 The corruption, and the extraordinary collusion of the judiciary in locking up elected politicians for their opinions, are leading many Catalans to the conclusion that independence is the only way of getting a government that functions.

An escape from under the heel of a bad government is one of the reasons why half the people of Scotland, and half the people of Catalonia, want independence. We’ve both had more than 250 years of it, and it gives us the dry boke.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Clink the Difference

What’s the difference between Catalonia and Scotland?

The weather? Well, yes. The food. Yes, again. The beaches? Hmmm. There are those lovely beaches on Coll…

But the big difference?

The big difference is that Nicola Sturgeon is not in exile in Brussels, and Patrick Harvie is not in the clink with Ross Greer, Robin McAlpine and, say, Lesley Riddoch.

Because that is what is happening to Catalonia. Spain has four people locked up for their opinions: prisoners of conscience, or political prisoners. Two of these people – Oriol Jonqueras and Joaquim Forn – are elected politicians, re-elected in the ballot imposed by Spain on the 21st December. The other two, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart are the leaders of two charities, yes charities, that promote Catalan culture and democracy. Omnium Cultural, the charity led by Jordi Cuixart, was set up in the 1960s amongst Catalan exiles to preserve and promote their culture in the face of the onslaught and assassinations of the Franco regime.

All four – Jonqueras, Forn, Sànchez and Cuixart – are prisoners on remand. They have been charged, but not tried. They are innocent until and unless proven guilty. The Spanish state has gone back to its origins, and is charging the men with ‘sedition’ and ‘rebellion’, accusations that would have resonated in the 15th century but which nowadays seem antediluvian. In an extraordinary piece of invention, the state has also decided that the men should be charged with creating a violent, ‘tumultuous’ affray. The charges relate to the various pro-indy demonstrations in Barcelona and Catalonia; demonstrations that have attracted a million people each year…and which have resulted in zero arrests, zero charges, and zero police claims (at the time) of violence. Now the Spanish state is trying to portray these peaceful, warm, friendly, demonstrations as ‘violent.’

Meanwhile ‘our Nicola Sturgeon’ is in exile in Brussels. ‘Our Nicola’ is Carles Puigdemont, chosen as President of the Generalitat (the Catalan Parliament) after the September 2015 elections, and selected again as the leader of the biggest pro-indy party at the December 2017 election. He and four other elected members of the Generalitat fled the country in early November to escape imprisonment by Spain.

Spain’s militarised Civil Guard have now decided to extend the assault, by charging more than 30 more people with crimes against the state. These new charges – amongst which the militarised police have included charges of ‘violence’ – could see many more elected politicians locked up.

Spain has used a paragraph in its Constitution – para 155 – to take control of the Catalan government and civil service. Just like in Scotland, Catalans thought that they lived in an ‘autonomous’ region, with its own parliament, its own rules and its own civil service. But as Scotland discovered during the court case over Brexit and the Sewel Convention, ‘autonomy’ is an empty word. You can have your autonomy, but only with our say so.

Imagine that Westminster had decided to lock up, or drive into exile, our elected politicians. Imagine that Westminster had taken over the Scottish parliament, closed websites, used armed riot-police to break up queues of people voting in Scottish elections, had trumped-up charges against civil leaders, politicians, police officers. Imagine the affront to democracy that would represent.

And then work out just how stupid this policy would be. Stupid (from Westminster’s point of view) because it would drive many more people into the arms of the SNP. Many more people would vote for independence, exactly as happened in the 21st December 2017 elections in Catalunya, where 106,013 more people voted for pro-indy parties than in 2015. We’d have ‘martyrs’ to the cause in jail or in exile. We’d have cases heading for the European courts and the international justice system, and campaigns at the UN. We’d be the Palestine of northern Europe.

That’s the clink of a difference. Scotland is not Catalonia; Nicola is free to speak her mind from her Holyrood office. But as you hear her speak, think about Carles Puigdemont, Oriol Junqueras, Jordi Cuixart, Joaquim Forn, Clara Ponsatí, Antoni Comín, Meritxell Borràs and Meritxell Serret, who are either exiled or jailed for speaking out.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Skin in the Game

Politics is a dangerous game. It can appear childish, or pointless, or it can appear that despite much jaw-jaw there is too much war-war in either the literal or the metaphorical sense. But beneath all the hot air, the postures and the editorialising there are people, sometimes many people, with skin in the game.

That is how it feels here in Catalonia, now. After the extraordinary events of the last few weeks – extraordinary in the sense that the creation of a new nation state is definitely out of the ordinary – we have had the anti-climax of leaders leaving to seek asylum in Belgium, and of a fudged takeover, in which civil servants in Madrid will run Catalunya at least until we hold a new set of elections in late December.

So that was the outcome of more than two million people voting, in polling stations defended, over the weekend of 1st October, by thousands of volunteers. Of more than a million people turning out each year on 11th September to create massive demonstrations in Barcelona, or along the Mediterranean coast. Of bloody attacks by Spain’s militarised National Police and Civil Guard on people in lines at voting stations. Of what Julian Assange has called the first Cyberwar in Europe (yes, his hyperbole is sometimes a little far-fetched). Of widespread censorship. And of locking up the leaders of two charities on charges that could put them down for up to 15 years.
All of these people had skin in the game. Many will be charged with mediaeval-sounding offences such as rebellion and sedition, knowing that the courts in Spain – where this type of justice is still a relative novelty after years of dictatorship – are unlikely to be lenient in sentencing. More than 700 town, village and city mayors, for starters. Many civil servants. The bosses of Catalan radio and television stations. People – such as my neighbour, a farmer – who were selected at random to run the voting stations on 1st October. People – such as this writer – who have written about the referendum in positive terms. All of them, all of us, have skin in the game.

And for what? So that the Sixth Catalan Republic could last just one weekend, from 15:27 on Friday 27th October, when the vote in the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat, was announced, to around mid-day today Monday 30th October, when we heard that the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont had arrived in Belgium and was seeking political asylum? All of the brilliant planning before the Referendum – hiding the voting boxes so that even Spain’s ‘intelligence’ service could not find them – wasted on a grey Monday afternoon with the disappearance of the team who led us this far?

For what? 

For community. 

Because the people who had and have skin in the game are people who have built a community. We’re a community of sufferers, today. But we showed the incredible power of a mass movement, enough power to create, even for a weekend, a new state. Power and organisation enough to evade an entire police force and intelligence service. Power to force Spain to reconsider its relationship with Catalonia. Power to move the bond and stock markets. The people are not powerless pawns in the grip of multinationals, media and our Imperial Leaders. We have power, we have wielded that power, and we can do that again – whether the cause is Catalonia, saving the environment or rights.  We have the power because we are willing to risk our skins – literally in the case of the people attacked by the National Police – for a cause that we believe in.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Mariano, my friend

Spanish President Mariano Rajoy could not have done a better job. A better job, that is, for Catalan independence.

On Saturday morning he announced a series of measures that raise the hairs on the back of the neck. The aim, he claims, is to restore constitutional democracy. The effect is quite the reverse.

Mariano's government will decaptitate the Catalan government (and as collateral damage, the government of the tiny protectorate of the Vall d'Aran.) Mariano becomes, effectively, the president of Catalonia and his Ministers take over the Catalan ministries. Every cent spent by the Catalans government will be controlled by Madrid. He will take control of the radio and television channels subsidised by the Catalan government, and the Catalan centre for telecommunications (CTTI), and thus the internet. His Ministers will run the schools and the police, the health service and the suburban railway. Every agency, company, foundation or department of the Catalan government will now be controlled by Madrid. The El País newspaper (whose shareholder structure includes the Madrid government) reported on Sunday that Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, is to be charged with inciting revolution and faces a 25 year prison sentence.

This is the same Mariano Rajoy who led a campaign, whilst in opposition, to overturn the statute that would govern relations between Spain and Catalonia as an autonomous region, the 'Estatut'. The statute had been voted through by the two governments and in a referendum, but none of this was good enough for my friend Mariano, who took the statute to the politically controlled Constitutional Tribunal and destroyed it.

Now this friend of an independent Catalonia has given the Catalans exactly what they needed. By revisiting Imperial Spain, by sending in his violent, militarised police to beat old ladies in voting queues, and by attempting to take over a government that thousands of Catalans lost their lives to defend in the 18th and 20th centuries, my friend Mariano has catalysed a social revolution in Catalonia. People who were undecided have become staunch nationalists. The demonstrations are getting bigger, although they remain, despite the provocations of plain-clothes policeman placed there for the express purpose of inciting violence, completely peaceful.

And people are smiling in wonder at the utter stupidity of Madrid politicians. What are they thinking? How do they imagine that they can control the people? Because this is a people's revolt, something that Madrid has failed to understand. This is emphatically not, as it is painted in Madrid, a few crazed politicians leading a hypnotised electorate to a cliff edge. It is the voices, bodies and votes of millions of Catalans who would rather be poor and free than live under the heel of the Spanish Empire.

This is Jeremy Heimans' "new power" in action, and my friend Mariano has no idea how to channel it.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Referendum, just for the record

Just for the record of having taken part, for the record of Yes votes, for the record of a wonderful, terrifying emotional weekend, a few notes on the Catalan Referendum on Independence, 1st October 2017, as seen at Sant Esteve de Palautordera, the village in Montseny, Catalonia, that is my home:

We got the call-out on Thursday. Everyone should be at the old primary school - the polling station for the village - on Friday night. The fear was that the police would seal the polling station. In Catalonia and Spain this official seal (it's done with Police sticky tape) makes it illegal to enter a building. So we had to make sure that the police did not seal us out.

Friday Night

By 6pm on Friday there were a couple of hundred people in the school playground. The numbers grew during the evening. We organised food, there was street theatre from Tortell Poltrona of Circ Cric and a story from the Marduix theatre group. And we watched Pride, dubbed into Catalan. The struggle of the lesbian and gay community in London to support, and be accepted by, the striking miners seemed especially appropriate as our tiny village took on the might of the Spanish Empire.

The film was still running when around 1am on Saturday morning the shout 'Police' went out. We shut off the movie, and crowded round the entrance to the playground. We phoned and texted friends and within three minutes there was a crowd of 250 people and growing, jammed into the entrance of the playground. Two very calm, decent Mossos d'Esquadra (the autonomous government's police force) drove up and told us that they had to read a charge against us. Was there any single organisation behind all of this? 'The people of the village' we replied. Was there any one person who was responsible? 'The people' went the shout. The police then told us that they would be back - and this time there might be four of them - at 06:00 on Sunday morning to 'precintar' (officially seal) the school. But that if there was 'such a big crowd that, in our judgement, we might cause public disorder by closing the school' then they would be unable to seal the gates. They repeated this message so that we all understood clearly.

I slept, fitfully, that Friday night at the school with around 50 other people, waking repeatedly at small noises and shouts in the night. In the morning, with three other volunteers and the generous donation of wonderful fresh croissants from the Valflorida bakery we made breakfast for around 150 people.

A Festival for Democracy

Saturday morning was a festival. The group organised dance classes (I took part in tap-dance, and Menorcan 'ball de bot'), drawing classes and talks. There was music, and people contributed food and drink -  we were all avoiding alcohol so it was soft drinks all round - to sustain the crowd. There was another visit by the Mossos with the same message about the timing of their Sunday visit, and the relevance of the crowd. And so into Saturday evening, now with some 500 people in the school and the playground. I retired home for a few hours sleep, and then came back at 05:00 to make breakfast. At 05:30 we served over 200 breakfasts to the volunteers - so many that the local café's coffee machine broke down with the demand. By 05:00 there were at least 500 people there, and by 06:00, the appointed hour that number had grown to represent more than half the number who would eventually vote.

The police did come back, but made the sensible judgement that the crowd was too big to control (it was two friendly Mossos, and 800 people at the school.) The Mossos stayed with us all day, parked just a little way away from the school, watching the entrance to the playground.

The Voting Boxes

Just before 08:00 the shout went out 'Police!' By then we had been drilled to block the entrance, and climb onto the barrier fence surrounding the playground. The crowd was enormous, all of us facing outwards, packed along the fence. Behind us, and thus completely hidden from the two Mossos in their patrol car, three people appeared with black bin bags. The voting boxes! The famous voting boxes that had been hidden so successfully that the entire Spanish police force had been unable to find them! They were smuggled into the school behind our backs and out of sight of the Mossos. And then, realising what had happened, realising that this had been a false alarm designed to distract attention, we all cheered. The boxes, with the voting slips and envelopes were safely in the polling station.

Now an enormous queue formed. We heard that - another masterstroke by the Generalitat - the Catalan government had introduced a universal census so that people whose polling station had been shut down could go to any other station to vote. This depended on access to the web, and so the team had organised IT specialists to be on hand, backed by a team of hackers somewhere in Catalonia, to keep the census open against attacks by the Spanish intelligence service.

Police Brutality

Then we started to see the videos. The awful videos of brutality by the Policia Nacional and the 'Civil Guard' against defenceless voters. The rubber bullets - banned across Catalonia two years ago after an incident in which a woman was blinded. We were all thoroughly scared. WhatsApp and texts began to arrive from friends in other places who had been attacked or seen the attacks. We reorganised the queue to ensure that the oldest people could vote early and leave. And we did more drills to prepare for what we presumed would be an armed attack by Spain's militarised police.

We uncovered a secret police officer. She was identified (in our village, everyone knows everyone so it was particularly stupid of the Civil Guard to send in a plain-clothes cop), surrounded by a group of women, and gently moved away until she left the village.

The Farmers (and Firefighters) Save the Day

Then the tractors came. The local farmers came out in force to support the referendum, and used three tractors to block the main access to the polling station. One farmer parked a livestock truck across a fourth entrance and the fifth was closed with four tonnes of sand, courtesy of a local building supplier. The firefighters arrived - the roar of pleasure from the crowd must have been audible a kilometre away - and added to the blockade by parking a fire tender across the road. 

That was all a relief, but it did not stop us being vigilant, especially when, during the afternoon, we heard that more than a dozen Policia Nacional vans were parked on the main road a few kilometres from the village. People were still frightened - at one point in the afternoon an old lady asked me, from outside the playground, if it was safe to come in and vote; I reassured here that here, now, it was safe.

The young people of the village were incredible, reinforcing a weak section of the fence around the playground with street barriers, and zipping around on their scooters and bikes to watch out for arriving police.

As the referendum closed, the brim-full voting boxes were smuggled out of the school in a reverse of their arrival, and the counting team was taken to a safe house in the village to compile the results.

Democracy Wins

In the end, aside from the plain-clothes police officer, no-one came to assault our village. The people of the village, together, saved the day. The evidence is in the figures - in a village of a couple of thousand voters we achieved the highest ever result for voting in an election or referendum;  85.36% participation, and 95.8% (1,525 people) voting Yes.

It was an extraordinary day. A day of mass participation, of powerful emotions - fear, laughter, many, many tears of pain (when we saw how the Policia Nacional hit old ladies to try to prevent them voting) and joy (at the farmers, the fire fighters, the four tonnes of sand). It was a day of new friendships, of many hugs and much dancing. And a day when democracy, the will of the people, proved that it was stronger than the 'argument of force' from Spain. A day to remember forever.