A puzzling innocence

Back in January I wrote a poem which touched on a nightmare which I trusted with the bright and clear skies, and warmth, of June would evaporate. It didn’t, of course.

There is a foolish innocence abroad in the land. I thought back in January that we could all handle it with gentle irony. Now it’s for real – and the irony, still gentle, has a sharper focus. Irony better than anger? I’m not sure!

*

A puzzling innocence
at home on English shores

Is it a puzzling innocence, that we should wish
to shake ourselves free of all the sand and salt,
a dog out of the waves,

more than sand and salt –
we would be somewhere else, another beach –

the same waves, the same wrack and kelp,
but the sea would be somehow different,

the tide driven by another moon and
under that new moon we’d trade our goods

beyond our shores unfettered, be more English –
the moon an English moon –

ours would be
a calculated innocence, a glorious future,
an imagination of a past when we rode oceans –

grew rich on other lands – unshackled, the sea
we’d command would stretch no more than

a few miles off our shores, yet we would
still be lords –  you say,

                         it’s bright-eyed innocence
to see only the benign, the old navy afloat,
a few new tugboats on calm and peaceful waters –

but who needs containers in this grand design –

where once we traded pounds we’d trade in pence
and who are you to say, that’s not a better way

(c) Chris Collier, January 2016

Back to Brexit ….

A brief note – in the end not quite as brief as I intended! My reason for this post – to explain why I am not one of those who voted Remain but is now prepared to accept Brexit, to accommodate – accept that the vote has happened, argue we should make the best of it and get on with life.

A few reasons, in no particular order, as they say on Strictly Come Dancing, as follows….

The vote was won on a basis of a false prospectus and false promises. Even now – press headlines pick up James Dyson and Lord Bamford, two of the rare industrialists who supported Brexit.

We are a parliamentary, representative democracy, and we should live and die by that. Not be ruled by plebiscites, which are the first and last resort of populists and demagogues. (We currently have an unelected government, governing to its own and not the 2015 Tory manifesto, and which anticipates pushing Brexit through using the royal prerogative without, if it can help it, reference to parliamentary discussion or vote.)

The European Union is a remarkable institution. Unwieldy, bureaucratic, fractious, but it is the extraordinary coming together of 28 different nations, each passionate about its own interest, but likewise seeing the benefits, after two thousand years of conflict, of coming together. Our efforts should be concentrated on reform not withdrawal. (The EU has been pilloried for its poor handling of the refugee crisis, but I wonder how it could have been handled well, given all the fear and anxieties felt by 28 countries with very different histories. Had here been no EU, how would the crisis have been handled? With any less agony, any less suffering?)

A war which tore Europe and then the world apart ended only seventy years ago, a year before I was born. Before that another war, arguably even more terrible. We’ve had seventy years of peace, unprecedented peace. The EU symbolises and acts out that peace.

As an economic union, despite all the talk it’s a significant success. No serious economist would argue otherwise. Run a business which trades with other European countries, which I’ve done, and you’re aware of all the benefits. The danger is you take them for granted – assume they’d have happened anyway. There are also extraordinary levels of scientific, environmental and cultural collaboration, for which the EU has provided both the mechanism and inspiration.

The EU isn’t restrictive – unless you’re opposed to workplace and environmental rights. And we’re not going to do without the regulations by asserting our independence – if we want to trade with Europe, the regulations are the terms.

Where there is unnecessary red tape we need to be in there, ensuring it’s removed, instead of being passive observers. We are sacrificing engagement, and influence. We’ve used that influence well over the years.

Immigration is a perceived threat – where immigrant numbers are highest we had the highest Remain votes, where they were low the highest Leave votes. A perceived threat – nowhere near the actual threat that much of the press played up. Likewise no evidence that immigration has held wages down. Yes, pressure on schools and housing in certain areas – and the last government singularly failed to recognise that immigration, and other changes in our working lives, must be reflected in improved infrastructure. (Levels of immigration in recent years have been too high – I’m not arguing otherwise – and politically they’re unsustainable at this level. How you handle this while preserving freedom of movement is a mighty challenge, but not remotely a sufficient reason for Brexit.)

Behind immigration lies the identity politics, aligned with nation and race and social group, which we should be fighting every step of the way. Espouse patriotism not separatism. Patriotism based upon British values of openness, tolerance, free speech – and a tradition of welcoming strangers, bringing them into the fold, and letting them benefit our life and culture – blending in as countless immigrants have done before. Likewise refugees – there are limits of course, but our first instinct must be to welcome.

Related to this, the argument that British, the U.K., England, isn’t the country it used to be. The old generational cri de coeur. True, the pace is faster, and the landscape much impaired. But there have been many radical improvements, too easily discounted. As for the negatives –  the EU takes the rap. I may personally be in the old codger bracket, but I’m with the younger, pro-EU generation.

There’s a mood out there, encouraged by the right-wing press, and played along with by the BBC, that somehow it will all work out. In Philip Hammond’s words, there will be bumps in the road. There’s another much more likely scenario where we find ourselves out on a limb, with an agreement which is dictated to us, and which we accept out of necessity. The economic auguries are not good. Put simply, a crisis awaits us.

There is so much else that matters out there in the world which we were just about facing up to, and they’re now on the back burner in terms of government and public attention. Global challenges, new technologies, fundamental changes in our working lives. At home, infrastructure, the NHS – requiring focus and funding when attention is elsewhere.

We have a hugely inflated view of our presence and reputation in the world. We embody as a nation tolerance, free speech, we pioneered modern representative democracy, the world plays many major sports by rules we laid down. But this is Britain as was. Our current behaviour simply alienates.

To end, two further points –

I’ve mentioned openness above. We have always been open to the world, and the danger now is that we shut ourselves off. Look to the past. Seek one-off deals when others work together. Openness is state of mind, and in an atmosphere of fear and apprehension, in great part built up by the media, it is now challenged as never before in my lifetime.

In direct contradiction to Theresa May’s comments, whether we like it or not we are citizens of the world, citizens, along with all our neighbours, of Europe, and citizens of the U.K. My patriotism is undiminished, I’m British to my last breath, but I also share a common humanity  with every man and woman on the planet.

And finally – never imagine that the change you wish for works out as you anticipate.  It will not, and never has. Gut instinct will never provide. A wing and a prayer will never suffice.

I remember one egregiously daft piece imagining a post-Brexit Britain in 2025 by Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph. It was the stuff of dreams, and typified the dream world in which Brexiters exist.

Now isn’t the time to buckle under.

1968 and all that

There’s a perverse pleasure in wading through reviews of books and articles on subjects I know nothing about and may never encounter again. On occasion something hits home. One example: Terry Eagleton in the special Cheltenham Festival Times Literary Supplement edition, on everyone’s favourite subject, post-structuralism:

‘In its curious blend of scepticism and euphoria post-structuralism is a form of libertarian pessimism – one which dreams of a world free from the constraints of norms and institutions, but which is not so incorrigibly naïve as to believe it could ever come about.’  

I could dine out on that one!

‘The revolutionary elan of 1968’ was followed by ‘the disenchanted mood of its political aftermath’. I remember 1968. Too well.

It’s a pattern oft-repeated. More recently we’ve had the frustrations of the Obama years, when ‘yes we can’ didn’t quite happen. (Maybe it never will.) The aftermath of the 1989 and the fall of the Wall. Occupy and the now empty squares of New York and London. Above all the Arab Spring, and its brutal aftermath.

But we won’t and can’t let our optimism die. I’m one of millions now and forever who believe in social justice, opportunity, capability, compassion. We rejoice when we see progress, we’re despondent when we see it pushed back. But we don’t despair.

We don’t of course always agree with each other. Do we work with the system, or oppose it – and by what means? The divide between global and anti-global perspectives is vast. Many (not all) proponents of big government and small government have the same end in view but believe in radically different ways of getting there.

I supported and support Obama, always believed Occupy wasn’t sustainable … Bernie Sanders I admire, Corbyn I don’t. We will bicker and insult and traduce the motives of others, while still aspiring to the same humanity.

And we will undermine each others’ efforts. Refuse to vote for Hillary. Battle it out for the soul and machinery of the Labour Party. And if we’re not careful – and we haven’t been of course – let another party in, a party which doesn’t define compassion and social justice quite as we do… which puts up barriers rather than engage with the world. Abandons institutions rather than seeks to reform them. Follows the populist piper, who advocates easy solutions, and plays to prejudice.

There are many good reasons for retiring to a monastery or a country cottage or sitting room and TV, and disengaging – and yet we hang in there. If we keep open minds, listen to each other, avoid scorn and hubris, remember that we’re ultimately on the same side – then we might just make progress.

A story about lemmings 

Hard to post anything on the subject of Brexit. Zenpolitics has been quiet for a while. The level of absurdity is too high. Talk of hard or soft as the only alternatives. Business, scientists, economists, all against. Incredulity that it could get this far.

Martin Wolf, in the FT, argues that we’re underperforming against our European partners of similar size, whether we look at increases in GDP, exports or productivity, proof surely that it’s not European regulation that holds us back but something more deep-rooted in British attitudes and industry – attitudes to the wider world, an over-focus on our home territory.

Jeremy Warner in the Telegraph recognises the same infirmities, but imagines that Brexit will somehow shake industry up, that it’s the EU that’s holding us back. Industry needs the shock: the mechanism by which the shock transforms isn’t mentioned.

Divorce is a shock, relationships are soured, couples don’t normally get back together. Could ‘just good friends’ ever be enough?

Companies having to divulge the number of foreign workers, as if by doing so they’d take on any more British workers. (It seems this may not now happen, a step too far, but other measures with the same intent remain under discussion.) A Home Secretary whose past record suggest she knows better, but who falls into line.

And so to the Tory party conference, an assembly of lemmings gleefully finding a cliff and looking to leap over, some in hope of a soft landing, others unconcerned if it’s hard. Maybe a few of the soft landers will live. Maybe not. Theresa May, our turncoat (loyalty to Cameron? closet believer in Brexit all along? serving her own ambitions?) PM, admits there will be bumps in the road. Some road.

The whole process is deeply unedifying. Once the Tories were split between supporters and opponents of the EU. Now the supporters are cowed, MPs looking to save their seats. Defying the logic of history and events. Falling in behind an anti-immigration agenda. Playing along with the racists closet or otherwise in their number. There’s a cowardice, a self-serving mentality about it all. They and we will look back in shame on this example of how mass hysteria can take over a political party. On a press which soaks it all up, and reflects it all back.

As a country we are bigger and better than all this. But Labour is obsessed by internal wranglings, old obsessive loyalties clouding the minds of those who ought to be out there, strident in their arguments. Anti-establishment loyalties on the left encompass the EU as well – anti-capitalist means anti-EU. We turn inward, pay heed to ideologies of left and right, we shuffle nervously, and accept ‘it’s going to happen’. Let Brexit take its course. We will get on with our lives. Phoney war. Nothing’s happening now. The stock exchange is buzzing with revenues taken in a depreciated currency. Because nothing is happening now a hazy logic suggests nothing ever will.

God help us all.

Obama and the big wide world

I gave President Obama my endorsement in my last blog – for which he’ll no doubt be grateful.

But, at the hard end of politics, has he disappointed the ‘yes we can!’ generation? The world we have to admit isn’t a happier place after over seven years of the Obama presidency. Can he be held responsible?

There are still inmates at Guantanamo, the Middle East is in greater turmoil than ever, we have a resurgent Putin, a more autocratic, less tolerant China under Xi Jinping. The euphoria after the end of the Cold War is a distant dream. (I’m avoiding here the subject of US domestic politics, more convoluted and intriguing than ever.)

Countering the arguments that a more assertive American policy could have contained Putin and Xi Jinping, it’s abundantly clear that threats of NATO intervention wouldn’t have stopped Putin, and Han Chinese momentum cannot and will not be contained by Western stick-waving.

The Middle East. America has been much criticised in the USA and elsewhere for not being more involved, for not wielding a cudgel. The USA and the West, it’s claimed, have lost influence. And, yes, there’s the Libyan invasion aftermath, and the red line that Assad is deemed to have crossed in Syria. It was rash ever to lay down that line.

On the other hand, the Arab Spring, enthusiastically supported in the West, and its aftermath have shown how little understanding Western politicians, and indeed press and pundits, have of Middle Eastern politics on the ground – of individual countries, factions religion and otherwise, what moves and motivates individual citizens.

Obama and the rest of us were carried along by all the euphoria. But Obama had at least recognised three years before that the USA could neither continue in Iraq and Afghanistan as it had done under George Bush, nor get involved in any overtly military way in Syria. The actions of the USA, UK and France over the last century have been a main cause of the Middle East’s problems (seeking causation is I admit a risky business, but on the one word ‘oil’ hinges much of the story), and a continuing attempt to impose solutions cannot be the way forward.

Some kind of equilibrium in the Middle East will only be achieved by allowing conflicts to find their own more local resolutions. Holding back has taken much more courage than renewed military intervention would have done.

I’m well aware of the impact that Putin has had in Syria in recent months. But that cannot change the main argument. The USA, and Europe, has no choice but to work with Putin, whatever old-style neo-con and new-fangled bludgeoning interventionists might argue. IS is a different matter, a vile and inhuman organisation, with which no-one can negotiate, and which can have no place in a peace settlement in Syria – which Assad must have. And I’m not going to attempt here any appraisal of clone attacks on Taliban targets in Pakistan: that would be taking us into a whole additional area of future modes of warfare, and their morality and implications for the rest of the world.

Obama cannot claim any headline agreements or extraordinary successes in his foreign policy. But he has established in direction of traffic, and that could – should – be much more important than any short-term gains.

Given the malfunctioning Congress and the pretty vile right-wing press Obama has faced throughout he has remained remarkably cool, good-natured, level-headed. I hope the future will put up a few of like calibre. Sadly none are showing their faces just at the moment. It would be intriguing to consider if there could be candidates in any other country – the French economy minister Emmanuel Macron, for example. But that’s for another time and place.

Obama and the U.K.

In a world beset with fanciful notions of power and influence, Obama stands out as a voice of sanity. I love the fact that he went to the Globe to listen to extracts from Hamlet this morning (400 years to the day since Shakespeare’s death), and later on in an address to young people in London urged them to ‘reject pessimism and cynicism’ and ‘know that progress is possible and problems can be solved’. ‘Yes, we can’ for the next generation of voters.

There’s his welcome intervention in the EU debate, making clear the USA view that UK has and will have much greater influence as part of the EU, rather than outside. And pointing out that for the USA a trade deal with the UK wouldn’t be a priority – would come ‘at the back of the queue’. Waverers in the Brexit debate take note.

We’ve had as a response, ‘irrelevant’, from Liam Fox, ‘talking down Britain’ from Nigel Farage (Farage and I don’t live in the same country), and references to Obama’s part-Kenyan ancestry from Boris Johnson. To think that a fool such as Boris has aspirations to be prime minister of this country.

‘Take a longer, more optimistic view of history.’ That’s also from Obama’s speech this morning. I’m tired in the context of the EU debate of hearing about a disfunctioning country, and a disfunctioning institution over in Brussels, linked to an extraordinarily optimistic vision of a golden age that lies around the corner, or up in the sky, outside the EU.

(Malfunctions are addressed by imagination and time and hard grind – not by magic pills.)

Aristophanes in his play The Birds positioned Cloud Cuckoo Land up in the sky, a kingdom of the birds between earth and the gods, and that’s roughly where the Brexit campaigners would leave us.

Staying with Ancient Greece, there’s a creature in Greek mythology known as a chimaera, an assemblage of the parts of other animals, ‘a monstrous, fire-breathing hybrid creature’ (Wikipedia). It usually had the head of a lion, and the head of a goat sticking out of its back, and a tail of a snake ending in another head. I can’t resist imagining Boris as the lion, head and shaggy mane, and Nigel as the goat. Who might be worthy of the tail?

Answers, please, on a postcard.

Dresden, Brussels and Good Friday

I talked about Dresden in a recent post, in a different context.

I listened yesterday to a Radio 4 meditation for Good Friday…. 3.15 it was. I was travelling to a service, and late, and in a jam on the M4. Plans do not always work out, but the jam meant that I heard a speaker and a story that I’d otherwise have missed.

The speaker’s father was a member of a Lancaster bomber crew that was part of the mass raid on 13-15 February 1945 that burnt Dresden city centre to the ground and killed upwards of 25,000 people. He never spoke about it to his son, save on one occasion. His son knew he must visit Dresden and a few years ago he attended a service of commemoration at the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

The taxi driver taking him back from the service asked him how he came to be in Dresden, and he explained his father’s role in the raid. ‘That was the day my mother was killed,’ the taxi driver said. He turned round, and they shook hands. There may have been more to the story – but that’s enough. (My apologies to the unknown storyteller for abridging the story.)

Dresden has for many years (in the UK, not least in its connections with Coventry) been a symbol of how Europe and the world can come together.

Will we in future times be reconciled to our enemies, will our enemies be reconciled to us? Hard to imagine when we’re faced with a nihilist ideology (John Kerry’s description) that espouses brutal violence. Where jihad requires violence.

We can, with seventy years now past, almost put behind us the violence of a Dresden or Hiroshima, but Brussels and Paris, and bombings in Turkey, and many times more than that the carnage in Syria and Yemen – they remind us – punch us – with an understanding of what brutal violence and loss of life are actually like – when it’s close to home, as it was for everyone in World War 2.

Reconciliation must lie at the heart of any positive view of our future, and there are powerful emotions that go with it – but I can’t put that harder emotion in response to cruelty and violence, with all the anger and bitterness it engenders, behind me – the more I think on it, the harder it is.

And that’s the dilemma, and there’s no resolution. I will always want to reconcile, but brutal violence has to be met with military action – and call that violence if you will. And that’s a hard message to put alongside the message of Good Friday and triumph of Easter.

(I’m referring here to IS, not to whether it was justified or not to bomb Dresden. That is another argument – and another dilemma. And the level of our own responsibility for the current Middle East debacle, as interpreted, for example, by the Stop the War Coalition. That’s also another argument, anothe dilemma, and one I’ve addressed in another blog.)