Thursday, 10 January 2019

It's Jeremy's Fault

He was reading a book, a thick book, probably one of those long, complicated novels about family sagas or multiple intrigues. Totally engrossed, he was about a third of the way through the book, his grey hair falling over his eyes and with one hand occasionally stroking his stubbly beard. He looked comfortable, cosy even, in his sleeping bag…

…which was on a cardboard ‘mattress’ on the edge of one of the narrow streets in Barcelona’s old Gothic Quarter, one of those streets that has no pavement. I spotted him and the delivery lorry swerving round him at the same moment, the driver swearing at the invisibility of a dark-blue sleeping bag on the side of the road. The reading man did not even look up from his book as the lorry swerved, such was his concentration.

The man in the Barcelona sleeping bag is homeless. One of the thousands of people in Barcelona who spend each night in doorways, on cardboard mattresses.

A few of these folk find their way into squats. We’ve just had three fires in and around Barcelona in buildings occupied by squatters. All of them linked to multiple causes, but principally to the fact that the squats either had no electricity (and the fires were caused by candles) or that they had an illegal and as it turns out dangerous connection to the electrical mains, in one case with equipment from the 1960s that blew up with the electrical load. I witnessed one of these fires on the way in to work on Monday, with three firefighters leading an injured man to an ambulance.

Poverty is Murderous

Poverty is murderous. It’s murderous in part simply by being poverty (as anyone who has read Pickett and Wilkinson's ‘The Spirit Level’ will know), but it’s also murderous because of what it forces people, desperate people, to do. To squat an old council building and to risk their lives hooking up wires to the nearest street light; or to leave a candle burning next to the mattress where mum and two kids are sleeping. It is the source of stress, of accepting poor working conditions and the ill-health that results from them, and it results in the distinct pattern of life expectancy that we can see in Catalonia or Scotlandwhen we compare poor districts with rich.

The solutions are complicated but not impossible. They include personal actions (what you give, where you shop, who you complain to) and public actions, to improve benefit systems, and to tax the wealthy.

This last point should be the aim of any government, but especially of a Labour government. So you would hope that there was some reasonable chance that, with poverty such a widespread disorder in Britain, the next Government would be Labour.

Corbyn, Confused

Today, there is almost no hope that that might happen. The extraordinarily confused leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and the indecision that seems to have rent the party into at least four quarters (combining pro- or anti-Brexit, and socialist or centrist), mean that Labour keeps falling in the polls. And yesterday’s YouGov poll seems to confirm that Labour voters will abandon the party if it colludes in a no-deal Brexit.

Like a lemming in the springtime, Jeremy seems to be heading straight for the cliff edge. His pre-Christmas Guardian interview was a classic, inventing a future full of fluffy unicorns and hairy fairies in which he would win an election, head over to Brussels, demand a whole new deal and come back triumphant by March 29th. Utterly unbelievable, and fabulously fantastical.

He must know that. 

Which means just one thing: that Jezzer is, indeed, aiming for a no-deal Brexit so that he can then blame the Tories and force their resignation via votes of confidence.

He is massively misreading the situation. If Theresa May gets her Brexit she will, as she has promised, organise a huge Brexit celebration on the night of the 29th March. She knows, and Jezzer does not, that this will inflate a Rule Britannia bubble over England, a re-ignition of right-wing patriotism, anti-foreigner patriotism, that will keep the Tories in power for a generation. (Until the "patriots’" sons and daughters realise that they have been swindled by their parents).

The fires and deaths amongst the poor in Barcelona are a powerful reminder that we need left-of-centre governments in power, that it is the job of left-of-centre politicians to get back into power. That means honesty, and pragmatism, with voters.   

It is Jeremy’s fault that Labour is dreaming of utopias when it should be on the doorsteps winning voters, and on the Commons floor winning votes.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Brutain's Hardy Sons

Two views of Britain

Brutain's hardy sons

My grandfather, who was in the Royal Navy during the second World War, would probably (I’m putting words into his mouth) have thought of himself as “chust one of Brutain’s hardy sons,” to echo Neil Munro’s description of Para Handy. I imagine my grandfather thinking of Britain as the plucky island that faced down the barbarity of a continental European dictator. Britain, including England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and its many colonies, because sailors and soldiers from Ghana, India, Kenya and across the Empire also gave their lives to save ‘Brutain.’

For some, this is still the image of Britain; plucky islanders, sensible, organised people, with a Queen on the throne and a mother of Parliaments at Westminster. There is nothing wrong with this view. It is founded in an era when her hardy sons and daughters had to fight and die for her, leaving those acres of white gravestones across northern France, Belgium and Holland.

Imperial Masters

But there is another, darker view of Britain. It’s the view you get from outside the scepter’d isles, specifically from a place within another former imperial power. From here in Catalonia, in still-Imperial Spain, the view of Britain is of an Empire whose vassal states include Scotland, Wales and the top right corner of Ireland, along with the convenient money laundries in Gibraltar and the Channel Islands.

Compare Scotland with Ghana, and the parallels as a colony of an English Empire are obvious. 

The horror of slavery in Ghana has no direct comparison in Scotland, but the Scots were cleared from their lands and sent over the seas to the new colonies in the Americas. Ghana’s chieftains were corrupted with land, power or gold in the same way as the clan chiefs in Scotland were bought over with a mixture of threats and powers over their ‘tenants’ (formerly, the members of their clan). Ghana’s human assets were stripped by slavery, as Scotland’s were with the Clearances, and Ghana’s gold was smelted for Empire just as, much later, Scotland’s oil was refined to enrich England. (Just note the levels of poverty in Scotland, an oil-producing nation, or in Ghana, once West Africa’s richest gold-producing nation, to understand how little of that wealth ‘trickled down’ to the poor.) 

Ghana was ruled from Westminster until 1957, in the same way as Scotland is now. And Ghana’s concerns had little or no echo in the House of Commons, in the same way as Scotland is ignored, and her MPs told to ‘go back to Skye’ by the English government.

The Bùrach

The Brexit bùrach has highlighted the Empire-colony relationship between England and Scotland. 

Scotland’s parliament, it turns out, has no powers. The end of the ‘Sewel Convention’, and the power grab by Westminster are clear evidence of that. Scotland’s Government has been treated with disdain by Westminster, its proposals ignored, and its representations shunned. That Scotland has different needs from South East England has not penetrated the Tory party conscience, in part because Scotland is represented by a fluffy poodle, not a wee ginger dug. Specifically, Scotland needs young migrants – none of whom will earn more than the £30,000 threshold set by the anti-immigrants in the Cabinet – to fill the places in factories, hospitals and the service sector that our ageing population cannot fill.

The easy racism of old Empire has been exposed by Brexit. In the first Cabinet meeting after the half-cocked (that’s you, Mr Corbyn) Commons Brexit debate, Ministers discussed their new post-2022 immigration policy, designed to stop anyone who is not a high-paid executive, and thus probably white-skinned, from entering the country. Nothing was said about the Empire’s emigration policy…because of course British ‘expats’ are decent folk who enjoy a pink gin on the terrace of their retirement villa in Malaga, whilst ‘foreign immigrants’ eat a chapati on their front step in East Hackney [yes, this is irony. It is hard to portray the easy, inherent racism of Empire without employing it.]

Decline and Fall...

What happens next? With Brexit, I have no idea. But for Empire, the pattern is 300 years old, and unlikely to change; the ‘Union’ of nations will continue to be one Imperial power and three vassal states. Powers will continue to be centralised in London, whether that is under a Tory or a Labour government, because that is the only logic that works for an Imperial Parliament. Poverty will continue to be obvious in the streets and housing estates of Scotland, because whatever wealth we have will continue to be removed South, for the sake of Empire.

...or Walk Free

Scotland is different from England, her needs are different from those of Her Imperial Majesty’s Government, and she has no more need to kowtow to Westminster. 

It is past time that Scotland, like Ghana and most of the rest of the Empire’s former colonies, stepped away from this abusive relationship.  We can still be Brutain’s hardy sons and daughters (because we will still be living on the British Isles), but no longer tied to the misery and warmongering of a concussed, mortally wounded Imperial overlord.