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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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Labour leadership, Antisemitism and Islamophobia

16 January, 2020 - 23:53
Lisa Nandy

This past Monday the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a body elected by parts of the Jewish community (not all of it), launched their “ten pledges” campaign, a set of demands for candidates for the Labour leadership to “end the Antisemitism crisis”. A PDF of the full list can be found here although images of it have been circulated on social media (a straight HTML version would not go amiss; images are inaccessible and PDF files take a long time to load and often a separate application to display). They include bringing current and future ‘cases’ of antisemitism to “a swift conclusion under a fixed timescale”, access for Jewish community groups to “regular, detailed case updates”, suspension for anyone in the party who provides a platform for anyone suspended or expelled “in the wake of antisemitic incidents”, the IHRA definition of antisemitism to be accepted without qualification, education on the subject to be delivered with the involvement of the Jewish Labour Movement and, perhaps most controversially, that “Labour must engage with the Jewish community via its main representative groups, and not through fringe organisations and individuals”.

On Tuesday, in response to a thread from Shaista Aziz, a Labour activist in Nottingham, in which she reported that she had been invited to be interviewed on the subject of racism in the coverage of the Prince Harry and Meghan story (see last entry) and the interview request was withdrawn when she asked for clarification, I tweeted this:

Funny how a certain predominantly white minority is trusted to dictate what is and isn’t racism against them but POC [people of colour] aren’t, when it’s often very obvious to any sincere person.

I had a series of tweets from Eve Leigh, a London-based playwright, demanding to know exactly which minority I was referring to (as if it weren’t obvious), starting with this:

In a related story, why are you taking this moment to talk about Jews? Why are Jews…occupying your mind like this? Also, I have news for you, Jews are told that what we perceive as anti-semitism is just being whiny and oversensitive every damn day.

The first point I made will be obvious to anyone from any less-advantaged community who has tried to raise the issue of prejudice or privilege. To take the Harry and Meghan story, both the TV and newspapers were full of people claiming that the hostility to Meghan has nothing to do with her being Black, despite huge evidence of more hostile coverage of anything she does compared to anything Princess Kate, who is middle-class, white and British, does. I hear complaints to this effect from people in these communities all the time and anyone who follows enough Black or Asian women on Twitter or wherever will see the same; the denials and defensiveness does not come (only) from ordinary people but from people in the media: journalists and TV presenters. Shaista Aziz clarified this in her response to the interview request which she quoted in her Twitter thread: “I’m not interested in being part of YET another media discussion where a woman of colour is gaslighted and told that racism isn’t racism”.

Twice in the last couple of months a Jewish community institution has got substantial and sympathetic media coverage for opinions it puts forward about the situation in the Labour party. The first was the Chief Rabbi’s ‘intervention’, widely reported as if of great authority when he in fact heads one group of Orthodox synagogues, and actually not an ‘intervention’ but just an opinion. The second was this week’s ten demands. These statements have been reported uncritically and with enormous sympathy while people questioning them have faced accusations of anti-Semitism. Could anyone imagine the same response to a political statement by a Muslim organisation? Muslim (and other Asian) community leaders are generally portrayed as reactionary, sectarian dinosaurs; the Muslim Council of Britain has been dismissed as an ‘Islamist’ group and criticised, by both government and its sympathetic media, for being uncommitted to “British values” and equivocal on “extremism”. Any time a mainstream Muslim organisation fails to tell the media or politicians what they want to hear, they find a nobody on the fringe to speak for us, to pretend to be an imam (e.g. Taj Hargey) or ‘expert’ in whatever they think wrong with the Muslim community (Hargey, Amina Lone, Nimco Ali and the rest of the FGM industry) and confirm their prejudices. So, the effrontery of the BOD in demanding that Labour take their word on what is or is not anti-Semitism will be obvious to any Muslim reading it: we do not get the same privilege.

The bar for what constitutes anti-Semitism seems to be getting lower and lower. It’s now ‘established’ in the media that the belief that Jews have no right to a state in what they call Israel is anti-Semitic in itself, but claims are now being made on the basis of much less than that. In a widely-shared TV interview, Andrew Neil asked the Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy if she thought it anti-Semitic for Rachael Cousins (AKA Rachael Swindon) to call the BOD “Conservative backers” and asking them to disassociate themselves from the Tories and condemn “Israeli military atrocities in the West Bank”, Nandy replied “yes” without hesitation. If the BOD were purely a Jewish community representative body, that is something we could all agree on — it’s racist to expect every member of a community to answer for what any other does anywhere in the world — but the BOD acts partly as a lobby group for Israel. On its website you can find statements blaming Hamas for deaths inflicted by the Israeli army or police, opposing BDS and issuing statements condemning councils and other bodies that condemn Israeli military actions (most recently in Gwynedd: [1], [2]). It’s not racist to call them an Israeli lobbying effort: it is there in black and white.

Labour really must show some backbone and not give in to threats or blackmail. Labour have a strong minority ethnic vote which they cannot take for granted as they took the provincial working-class vote for generations. If Muslims see one candidate after another summarily expelled from the party for expressing anger about Israeli military or settler abuses in the West Bank or Gaza, they will not vote Labour; they might just not vote, rather than vote for anyone else, but it will still be a loss for Labour. If the Black community sees its long-standing activists expelled on the basis of spurious claims of anti-Semitism (e.g. Mark Wadsworth), they will know the party does not care for them either. Labour’s vote declined when it was in power because Blair, despite all the hope that accompanied his 1997 election victory and the progressive policies of his first term, drifted ever rightwards, disregarding civil liberties, launching wars that were not in the national interest to please George W Bush, locking people up who had long served their time because the press staged a campaign against “foreign criminals”, making a show of detaining asylum seekers and so much else. They have a record of cowardice in the face of power and of viciousness to those without. This craven refusal to stand up to bullies shows that this cowardly streak is alive and well in the Labour party.

Finally, as for the particular claim that “Jews are told that what we perceive as anti-semitism is just being whiny and oversensitive every damn day”, in all honesty it is difficult to tell what is oversensitivity and what is a matter of offence being feigned to score a political point. Claims of “anti-Semitic tropes” against Labour MPs and activists, including ones of Jewish origin who are “not quite Jewish enough”, are issued on a regular basis which are obviously baseless: to take an example from this week, a motion by two Jewish (though not “BOD type Jewish”) activists at an Ilford South area party meeting was condemned as denying that there was any problem with anti-Semitism in the party (it does not) and using “multiple antisemitic tropes” which is so far-fetched as to be ludicrous (if the motion referred to Jews generally as it does the BOD, it would be, but it refers to one specific organisation). If any other minority made claims of racism, Islamophobia, or anything similar with such regularity and with so little factual basis, they would be accused, quite rightly, of being at best snowflakes and at worst vexatious, manipulative and dishonest. Regardless of a few harsh words on Twitter and in Labour party meetings, the Jewish community gets a much easier ride in the media than Muslims or any other minority and the reason is obvious: because they are white, and because an easy way of slapping down uppity minorities is to make them the racists rather than address the problem in society generally.

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Prince Harry is just protecting his family

13 January, 2020 - 19:52
A screenshot of a Daily Mail story featuring pictures of Meghan Markle with her hand under her baby bump, headlined "Why can't Meghan Markle keep her hands off her bump? Experts tackle the question that has got the nation talking: is it pride, vanity, acting -- or a new age bonding technique?".

Two things have always fascinated me about attitudes to the British royal family. The first is how protective many people are about the monarchy as an institution and how vindictive many people are against ‘dissenting’ minor royals or royal in-laws. The other, specific to the Muslim community, is how many Muslims (including some scholars) regard the royal family as somehow embodying Islamic values and being a bulwark against modernity, and take a similarly harsh view of dissenters or those exploited by its behaviour. The first was something we saw in bucketloads when Prince Charles married Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall, who was well-known to always have been his choice of bride even before he married Lady Diana; the second was directed at Diana herself. We have seen both in the reaction to Prince Harry and his wife Meghan’s decision to step back from royal duties and attempt to become financially independent and not reliant on public money in their activities.

In reaction to their decision last week, there was a storm of outrage in both the sycophantic right-wing media (e.g. the Daily Telegraph) towards the couple who it turned out had not discussed the issue with the Queen (Harry’s grandmother) before making the announcement. Prince William was reported to have said that the two were from now on “separate entities” as if they had previously been joined at the hip. As examples of unequal media treatment of the mixed-race princess compared to Prince William’s white, middle-class princess Kate were being widely shared on social media, the TV presenter Eamonn Holmes told the nation on Talk Radio last week that though he had never met her, the mere look of her gave him the impression of an “awful, woke, weak, manipulative, spoilt” woman — ‘woke’ being African-American idiom for politically conscious, here used as a derogatory term meaning both politically correct and uppity. I read an article on the Daily Telegraph’s site about the National Trust planning to plant forests on much of the farmland it owns (meaning their tenant farmers will have to find somewhere else to graze their sheep), and they had five articles linked down the side to the effect that the royal family had done nothing wrong, that of course Meghan was not receiving racist treatment, that his ‘failure’ to consult the Queen was ‘unforgivable’, etc.

Harry was, of course, one of the two sons of Lady Diana who had to carry her coffin after she died in a car crash while being pursued by photographers on motorcycles in Paris in 1997. The blame for the crash is generally accepted to lie with the speeding driver, but the whole thing would not have happened but for the pursuing photographers hungry for a picture they could sell to a newspaper. I do not follow royal stories that closely but it is widely reported that Harry blames the press for his mother’s death and resents their continuing intrusion into his and his family’s lives and the often derogatory commentary on his wife’s appearance. I have seen someone on Facebook declare that of course Meghan has not had the same treatment as Diana; this is clear as she is still alive, and Harry understandably wants to keep her that way. Another social media ‘expert’ claimed that Meghan had exploited a ‘vulnerable’ young man and was now threatening to ‘steal’ him back to the USA or Canada. The fact is that Harry is a grown man and a former Army officer who can look after himself quite easily. Of course, losing his mother was traumatic but it was more than 20 years ago and it’s something that happens to a lot of people. Meghan has already given up her acting career to marry him, much as Grace Kelly did when she married the prince of Monaco (though hers was past its best). More egregiously, people openly call for the couple to divorce and speculate openly that this will happen soon. I have a hunch that some of the women saying this are envious of Meghan for marrying someone they might have had hopes, however unrealistic, of themselves marrying.

Screenshot of a Daily Mail story showing Princess Kate heavily pregnant, in one case with her hand below her bump, with the headline "Not long to go! Pregnant Kate tenderly cradles her baby bump while wrapping up her royal duties ahead of maternity leave -- and William confirms she's due 'any minute now'".

On Muslim social media, I saw a post by an imam which connected the “gradual disintegration of what seemed the impregnable House of Windsor ie the latest Prince Harry and Meghan drama etc” with “what is happening with what also seemed the impregnable ‘Islamic family’ concept”. This reminds me a lot of conservative Muslim authors in the 90s who praised the Windsor family (“staid but genuinely self-abnegating” according to Abdul-Hakim Murad) while suggesting that Lady Diana was not good enough for them; there was insistence that monarchy was a more Islamic form of government than representative democracy, and there were diatribes against republicanism and every modern ideology. The Turkish Sufi shaikh Muhammad Nazim was even quoted as claiming that Prince Charles was Muslim and that he would one day be king of America as well as Britain. On the contrary, the Windsors’ behaviour until recently was more in keeping with the worst stereotypes of Muslim family structures, treating marriage as a means to an end, i.e. producing heirs (preferably male), expecting heirs to enter loveless marriages if deemed necessary, and chewing brides up and spitting them out.

It is Harry, here, who is behaving more like a normal family man, acting to protect his wife and son from a predatory and prejudiced media, and the reaction of sections of the public have proved him right. He wants to become as self-sufficient as he can so that, not being dependent on public money, he and his family will not be considered public property. And of course he did not consult the Queen; most men in their 30s with a wife and children do not consult their grandmother before making major decisions about their families’ futures. He has given the public a big wedding spectacle at Windsor Castle but now wants future decisions about his family to be made by him and Meghan, not some committee at Buckingham Palace. He is not a direct heir to the throne; Prince William and all of his children would have to die (or renounce their claim to the throne) in the interim for him to become king, which is why he was allowed more leeway in whom he married and the name he gave his son than Wills would have been.

Personally, over the years I have moved from being firmly in favour of a republic to believing that the status quo, with some changes, is better; many republics in Europe cultivate founding myths and use them as excuses to oppress minorities, notably Muslims as in France whose every difference is held up as an incompatibility with the “values of the republic”. The problem now is that we are too deferential to wealth in this country; of our last five prime ministers, three were educated at elite private schools and the two that were not, governed for the shortest time. Any suggestion that this class has too much power is derided as the “politics of envy” while house prices and rents are allowed to spiral out of control to the benefit of existing owners (many of whom bought them cheaply in the post-war years) and financiers and the detriment of young people who cannot live anywhere near where they work. I have come to favour a figurehead republic similar to that of Germany or Ireland, where the president is elected but is not the executive in themselves. However, I forecast that this will not happen in the near future as the establishment moves to shore up the monarchy as the crown passes from Elizabeth II to Charles, who has nothing like the popular appeal and acceptance she does, so any hope of change is likely to have to wait until well after he succeeds her. However, the cruelty and intrusion of the press into the lives of younger royals in particular has long been cited as a major reason for reform, and the attitude of the popular press to Harry’s and Meghan’s decision last week will only strengthen that aspect of the case.

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Not a religion of platitudes

4 January, 2020 - 23:51

Earlier this week ‘Ed’ Husain, author of a biographical book called The Islamist, a former member of Hizb-ut-Tahreer (from when the group that became al-Muhajiroun was using the name in the UK) and co-founder of the Quilliam group, posted a tweet for the new year that tells us the ‘wisdom’ he believes Islam lacks that Christianity offers:

Muslims responded to this original tweet and he argued back, though Ed’s part in these exchanges has all been deleted; one of his responses was that “hadith is not scripture”. As I was brought up in Christianity, I have a perspective to offer on these quotations besides pointing out some of the obvious factual errors.

First, although the hadith are not scripture in the sense that the Qur’an is, we Muslims do regard them as a kind of revelation — the meaning, not the words themselves — as long as they are authentic. This matters, as there are in fact numerous sayings in the hadith literature which have a similar import to all three of the quotes Ed gives us. The four gospels are tellings of the life and mission of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) from the perspective of four individuals who are all identified only by their first names; the hadith all have chains of transmission and the biographies and reputations of the narrators are studied as well as what they reported. They are thus more comparable to the hadith literature than to the Qur’an which is the revealed word itself; the Qur’an has no extant equivalent in Christianity whatever.

The third of these quotes has a few close equivalents in the hadith, most famously the hadith in the Bukhari and Muslim collections: “None of you [truly] believes until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself”. There are plenty of hadith like this that enjoin kindness, the maintenance of friendship and family ties, giving people the benefit of the doubt, not backbiting or gossiping, guarding against envy and resentment where one hates another’s good fortune. There is not a mere command to “love one another”; there are details on how to foster love and harmony between people who do not always see eye to eye.

On the second, despite the lack of this oft-quoted phrase “render unto Caesar”, there is ample instruction to obey rulers who uphold the Shari’ah even when they are unjust or oppressive as long as they do not expect us to do something forbidden such as neglect prayers or inform on people for things that are not crimes and thereby put them in danger. Scholars make qualifications to this for such circumstances as where a command from a ruler is made purely in their personal interests, but generally, obedience is enjoined and open rebellion or incitement to it by people who do not have the means to carry it through are forbidden.

As for the first, which was said in the context of a public stoning: that punishment is still legislated in Islam much as it was in the Jewish law, though the standard of evidence in the case of adultery is very high and will be fulfilled only rarely. There is, in fact, a hadith in which the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) intervened to make sure that a woman from a powerful tribe convicted of theft was subjected to the punishment (amputation) when a particular companion suggested that she not be. The words quoted may have been said in a particular context, perhaps so as to expose the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees who had brought the woman to him (perhaps that they were so corrupt as to be unfit to sit in judgement on anyone), but it has come to mean “never judge anyone” and interpreted in a way that resembles the “tu quoque” fallacy.

I was brought up in the Catholic church and attended Catholic schools for seven of the first eight years of my schooling. Really, these statements are just empty platitudes when you look at the way many Christians who have power other people’s lives behave. All the western Christian churches have a long history of being very harsh, uncharitable, uncaring and unloving towards those who stepped out of line or caused embarrassment, of putting dogma before human life or welfare, of putting clerical reputations before the needs of the children and other vulnerable people they were supposed to be caring for. Europe did not have public stonings, but it had public executions, almost invariably by slow and painful methods, right into the 20th century in some places. Throughout most of its history, the Christian church has been in the pockets of kings, emperors and tsars; it is no surprise that they quote Jesus, peace be upon him, as saying “render unto Caesar…” given that the religion was official in the Roman and later Byzantine empires, as well as the German Holy Roman Empire whose leader was called a Kaiser (an obvious derivative of Caesar). Even in recent times, people thought of as living saints, such as Mother Teresa, hobnobbed with the rich and powerful and when ordinary people were oppressed, she lectured them on forgiveness.

Islam has detailed and nuanced guidance for how to live life, how to deal with and think of other people, how to deal with power, and that this guidance is to be found in the Qur’an, the hadith and the vast body of Islamic scholarly literature, most of which is available for any Arabic-speaker to read in numerous libraries and bookshops and some of which is available in English translation. It is not a weakness but a strength of Islam that it is not defined or represented by the empty platitudes Ed Husain quotes.

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Imprisoned by his disability?

2 January, 2020 - 23:27
A picture of a man wearing dark glasses, black trousers and a dark blue and black striped shirt being led by a guide dog through a shopping centre.A blind man (not Nellies) with his guide dog in a shopping centre in Brazil.

Today a blind man in the UK who has been convicted of sexually abusing a 10-year-old girl some years ago in Cheshire was sentenced to seven years behind bars and told he could not take his guide dog into prison with him; the dog will instead be trained to guide someone else. Neil Nellies’s lawyer asked the judge to suspend any prison sentence (i.e. release him on condition that if he offends again, his sentence will be activated on top of any additional sentence) as he is already ‘imprisoned’ by his visual impairment and that “prison for him will have a devastating impact”. However, the judge refused.

I have a few friends who are blind and follow a few more on various online platforms (YouTube, Instagram etc). They get married, have children, write, travel, cook, work … all the things you can’t do if you are in prison, so it’s a bit insulting and inaccurate to suggest that his disability is already such a ‘prison’ that it makes sending him to a real one if he committed a serious crime unnecessary. It’s possible that this man was sighted (or less severely impaired) when he committed the crimes, but so what? Over the years I have heard of too many men and women who abused children when they were young or middle-aged and strong, and were only caught when they were old and infirm and their age and infirmity was used to plead for mercy they did not show to the children in their care when they were in their prime. It’s wrong, and it is good that the judge saw through it in this case. Don’t commit the crime if you cannot do the time.

A prison is really no place for a guide dog; there are too many people in the prison who would harm it. Some of them are there because of domestic cruelty or other violent crime that also included cruelty to animals. Unless a prison officer walks the dog, it will not get the exercise it needs to remain healthy. As Nellies has been sentenced to seven years, he is likely to be released in three and a half years at the earliest, by which time the guide dog will be near the end of its working life as it has already been working for five years according to this report. I know of a young lady who was able to take her guide dog into a psychiatric unit when hospitalised in her teens, but that was only for a year and she was able to go out with the dog again within months, which does not happen in a prison sentence this long. It’s only right that the dog will go to someone who will benefit from having it.

Image source: Antonio Cruz/Abr - Agência Brasil, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil licence.

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Disaster waiting to happen

1 January, 2020 - 18:37
A white Mercedes articulated lorry with the "dnata" logo in blue on the side curtain. Its cab is in a stream and being pulled out by a red mobile crane during the night.The DNATA truck being recovered from the Longford River, 31st Dec 2019.

Yesterday a car and a truck collided on a road I’ve travelled along a lot while doing air freight work around Heathrow airport, namely the Bedfont Road south of the Longford and Duke of Northumberland Rivers which form the southern boundary of the airport, resulting in the death of three of the passengers in the car (all British Airways employees) and injury to a fourth (the truck driver, as might be expected, was much less seriously injured but was taken to hospital as a precaution). The truck belonged to DNATA, a Dubai-owned company which operates three big cargo sheds off that road, serving numerous major and minor airlines including Emirates, Qatar, El Al, Virgin Atlantic, Turkish Airlines and many others (it happened outside another shed which they do not own). Cargo sheds, for anyone who isn’t aware, are big warehouses where cargo is dropped off to be screened before being put on an aeroplane; alternatively, it can be screened elsewhere, or held securely after manufacture and delivered as “known” or “secure cargo”. (See earlier post for details about the congestion at the Heathrow cargo centre which led to those sheds being built there.)

Bedfont Road is a busy road. It’s also a narrow road, just wide enough for two vehicles to pass with care in places, and has numerous blind bends and a 40mph speed limit, and comes off a dual carriageway which links the A30 with the Heathrow perimeter road (also both dual carriageways). All the alternative routes have weight and/or width limits. Of course, if everyone drives carefully, accidents like this won’t happen but roads cannot be designed on the presumption that everyone will and driver distraction is a fact of life. It seems to have been built well before the cargo sheds when it was just the road from Bedfont to Stanwell village, which has a 7.5-tonne weight limit, but it now carries vehicles which are just too big for the road space. It needs to be widened and the blind bends straightened out, and possibly the speed limit reduced given the large number of side turnings used by large articulated trucks. I expect, however, that only the last of these will be put in place as it will be both the cheapest and least disruptive, but a car which hits a 44-tonne truck at 30mph does not stand much more chance than it stands at 40mph.

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Why did they stay in the Labour Party?

30 December, 2019 - 22:50
Picture of two white men in their 30s standing against a blue-grey background.Douglas Murray and Andrew Doyle

Last week Douglas Murray, a self-proclaimed neo-con best known for a speech in which he called for life for Muslims to be made more difficult across the board in the wake of the terrorist attacks of the early 2000s, was then a director of the Henry Jackson Society, wrote a book called The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam and more recently has announced a tour of the UK offering “an evening with” him and Andrew Doyle (of Titania McGrath fame) with a routine focussed on attacking ‘woke’ culture, published a piece on the website Unherd in which he suggested that Labour would have difficulty recovering from the “toxic mess” of the Corbyn years. He suggested that whoever succeeds Corbyn should be expected to answer for why they remained in the party when it became, on the authority of Chuka Umunna (who left the party this year, helped to form the Independents’ Group, since dissolved, then defected again to the Lib Dems, stood in Westminster instead of his old Streatham seat and lost), an “institutionally racist” party.

In my opinion it’s a little hypocritical for a man who called for life for a minority to be made difficult and who has started to make a living out of attacking the so-called woke police, meaning people who stand up against displays of racism in the media and academia, to be complaining of “institutional racism” just because the minority suffering is a different one to those he has been attacking, or are on the receiving end of racism more generally in society. Previously the best-known institution to be accused officially of institutional racism, by the Macpherson Report, was none other than the Metropolitan Police, and this was after a young Black man was murdered in London by five racist white youths, only two of whom have been convicted and then more than 20 years later; the police bungled the investigation, preferring to harass the victim’s friend rather than investigate the murder. Perhaps Douglas Murray plans to interview serving police officers and ask them why they remained in an organisation condemned as institutionally racist in an official inquiry report.

Nobody has suggested that Corbyn adopted policies that threatened Jewish life or property in the UK, or advocated or defended discrimination against them, or advocated their deportation. It’s often used against Labour that it’s only the second party to be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the previous one being the British National Party, but the BNP was founded by Nazis from the old National Front, had a policy of repatriation and did not allow non-whites to be members. None of this is true of the Labour party. The claims against the Labour party are of an entirely different order to the BNP and for that matter the Metropolitan Police: that some Jewish members feel uncomfortable (though others do not), some have said they were bullied, that “anti-Semitic tropes” have been used by some Labour figures (and some of these claims are plainly spurious, often based on straining the definition through the needle’s eye) and that others have expressed hostility to Israel, including suggesting that it should not exist. Very many of the utterances which have been exposed were said years ago, often well before they were involved in the Labour party, and were sometimes on private forums, or were discovered as a result of a trawl through someone’s social media accounts.

As for why people remained, there are numerous reasons. Jess Phillips, one of the MPs Murray suggests should be interrogated, was always critical of Corbyn and contemptuous of some of his allies; Kier Starmer was personally untainted by the scandal and is also known not to be in agreement with Corbyn on very much and has been touted as a moderate successor to Corbyn. Many of them will have known that the Labour party was by far the most likely party other than the Tories to form the next government — our system makes forming new parties notoriously difficult — and believed that removing the Tories was essential to save what is left of the welfare-oriented British state, including the health system, and to revitalise the education system which is currently being starved of funds as normally happens during a Tory government. They also believed that there was a need to save the country from the Tories’ ruinous and divisive approach to Brexit. The Lib Dems previously colluded with the Tories in bringing much of this about; the Independent Group included several former Tories who had held cabinet posts under Cameron. Corbyn was popular with the membership, largely because of the mistakes of Ed Miliband between 2010 and 2015 and of his moderate rivals in 2015.

But many of them would also have been committed to the idea of the Labour Party as just that: a Labour party. Unless any new party could secure the backing of some of the trade unions, it would end up as another Lib Dem party or at best, a kind of mirror to the US Democratic Party which is largely dependent on donations from wealthy individuals, some of whom also contribute to Republican campaigns (so as to buy favours from both sides) and some of whom are of a decidedly reactionary character. Labour’s biggest single donation in the 2019 election campaign was from the Unite union which represents a very broad swathe of British organised labour. It is funded by ordinary people’s donation and gives those ordinary people a voice, should they choose to avail themselves of it (the political levy, the part of one’s union fees that go to the Labour party, is optional). There is already one party in this country which is funded by the wealthy and largely champions their interests, albeit making the necessary appeals to people of average income. We do not really need another.

But … maybe some of them really did not believe that Labour was “institutionally racist”; they knew that many of the accusations were spurious and that the campaign was a right-wing, pro-imperialist witch hunt often targeted at Black and Asian candidates and activists, including dissenting Jews. It was not an anti-racist campaign but a racist one, but had enough media traction that they may have believed it wiser to let it blow over than stand up to it. Cowardly this may have been, and facilitated by white privilege, but not anti-Semitic.

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National parks should be inclusive; that does not mean destruction

29 December, 2019 - 19:00
A view from near the summit of a mountain down a valley to a small lake. At the bottom of the valley is a small area of green fields; a small stream runs down the valley to the lake.Wast Water, from Great Gable, in the English Lake District.

Sky News today reported that the chief executive of the Lake District National Park Authority had claimed that the park was geared too much towards the needs of older, able-bodied, white tourists and was not inclusive enough of disabled people and ethnic minorities. This has obviously led to the usual outcry from ‘conservationists’, Nimbys and reactionaries who have accused him of seeking to dumb down the park, among them the deputy mayor of Keswick (an important service town in the northern part of the park) who has condemned the construction of a tarmac path near Keswick and said that if people do not like the environment as it is, muddy paths and all, they should go elsewhere. The article quotes a report (PDF) by the government’s rural affairs department DEFRA which says that the National Parks are in danger of becoming “an exclusive, mainly white, mainly middle‑class club, with rules only members understand and much too little done to encourage first time visitors”.

There are 12 National Parks in the UK (two in Scotland, three in Wales and the rest in England) and all are large rural areas of particular natural beauty or geological spectacle. They are not parks in the sense that an urban municipal park is, but are working landscapes where tourism is encouraged, including by facilitating access to uncultivated land, and unsympathetic development discouraged or banned altogether. Until quite recently all of the English parks were in the north or south-west; three were added in the south and East Anglia this century (the South Downs, New Forest and Broads). There are other levels of protection for nature and landscapes such as the Green Belt system, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) but the national parks are the best known and probably best funded system and the most geared towards the needs of visitors. They originated after the Second World War and were intended to ensure that there were areas where city dwellers could escape to unspoiled, unpolluted areas, enjoy places of natural beauty and benefit from clean air; their establishment was the result of a popular movement which included protests against people being shut out of uncultivated land by landowners who were using them as grouse moors and the like, one of which was celebrated in the song The Manchester Rambler by Ewan MacColl.

In the comments to the Sky News piece and the tweets in response to it, people have reacted with a mean-spirited parody of what the chief executive was saying, with one reply suggesting that a dual carriageway be built up Scafell Pike and a MacDonald’s be built at the summit, and numerous other suggestions that hills be levelled because they’re ‘exclusionary’ to disabled people. While the majority of people can cope with a muddy path, a paved path away from the road allows a wheelchair user or other disabled person to enjoy the landscape as short of carrying them on a stretcher, there is no way many disabled people could enjoy walking in the hills when the paths are steep, muddy and punctuated by walls and fences that have to be crossed by stiles. Climbing hills and abseiling down cliff faces are all very well if you can, but if you are not physically able to, you should not be shut out of the country’s premier outdoor holiday destinations. When the national parks were established, many disabled and long-term sick people were still living in institutions which were in the country for a reason — because clean air was healthier and might aid their recovery or prevent deterioration. Of course, you didn’t get to appreciate the landscape much if you were shut behind walls, but the principle was understood when these places were first built. (The “£8m tarmac trail” that is the focus of the deputy mayor’s complaint is actually along an old railway line, like many long-distance walks and cycle routes the country over, and the project is to restore it after sections of it were destroyed by floods in a major storm in 2015.)

Cities are nowadays less polluted than they used to be, although traffic fumes have eroded some of the benefits brought by cleaner fuels and reduced “smoke stack” manufacturing, but access to nature and natural beauty is still good for the spirit and access to rugged landscapes where one can climb, abseil and do other activities that build up physical strength and survival skills is good for one’s general health. I spent many holidays as a child and much time as a student exploring and appreciating some of Britain’s national parks — the Lake District and Snowdonia in particular — and I agree that it is important that everyone have a way of enjoying it, not just the physically most able, those with a car and the money to run it, and those who fit into a mostly white, provincial English county. They are called national parks for a reason; they are supported by all of us and we all have a right to enjoy them however we can.

Image source: Doug Sim, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 4.0 licence.

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Was it Corbyn? Was it Brexit?

20 December, 2019 - 23:51
BBC Map showing the seats which changed hands during the 2019 election.

So, just over a week ago the Labour Party crashed to one of its worst defeats in its history, gaining only 30% of the vote (down from over 40% in 2017) in a general election which gave Boris Johnson’s Conservatives a majority of more than 80 seats (on the back of about 43% of the popular vote). While it held or gained some unlikely seats in London and the south (Canterbury, Putney), it lost large numbers of seats in what used to be its northern heartlands including, for example, much of outer Tyneside, Bolsover (represented for decades by Dennis Skinner), north-east Wales and all of Stoke on Trent, all of which went Tory, often for the first time in decades or ever. Significantly, this election had a very high turnout (usually a good sign for Labour) despite being, unusually, in December when the hours of daylight are short. Within the Labour party, people are generally blaming the loss on Labour’s decision to back a “People’s Vote” on Brexit while others blame Corbyn’s leadership and the numerous question marks over his past associations (the IRA, various Middle Eastern terrorist groups) and the perception that he was unpatriotic. Others are suggesting that it was really because Corbyn sided with his student and ethnic-minority supporters and neglected his ‘traditional’ (i.e. white) working-class base, often with the implication that the party should really take a sharp turn in the other direction.

I was never happy with Corbyn — he was proposed late in the day during the 2015 post-election leadership campaign and it was always understood that he had never held ministerial office while Labour were in power (indeed, he briefly defected to the Liberal Democrats during the Iraq war) but all of a sudden this was an asset rather than a liability. Labour MPs openly displayed their contempt for him from the beginning and the fact that he was “always a rebel” during the Blair and Brown years was taken to mean they could do the same when he was leader. The reason he was suggested was the uninspiring offers of the three leadership contenders then, one of whom (Andy Burnham) I called on this blog a “shop-minder”, i.e. a would-be Labour PM who treats 10 Downing Street as a Tory property in which he is a guest, just minding the shop for them. While still running for leadership, he made a speech at Ernst & Young in London praising financiers as “wealth creators” and lecturing against the “politics of envy”, Tory talking-points of the time. So, somebody was needed who could change the record but it should never have been Corbyn.

As someone on the fringes of the Left, having been involved in the anti-cuts and disability rights movement since 2010, the cult-like mentality of the Corbynistas was very, very noticeable. He could do no wrong for them. Often these were long-standing Labour activists who saw him, somehow, as a “great hope” despite evidence. But they acted as if, if you talked about victory enough, it would come. They presented trivial advances, such as Labour wins in civil parish council by-elections, as great victories and actual losses as wins. While the party was still clinging to the “respect the referendum” policy in late 2018, I saw people who had voted for Remain come out with the line that the advantages to ordinary people of being in the EU benefited only the middle class while real working-class people were crying out for jobs. (If we were to properly fund the education system rather than just the bare minimum, we could fund school exchanges and decent language tuition; British people are among the worst in Europe for learning other languages, and British school language tuition is some of the worst in Europe. It’s an ignorant attitude typical of the British mentality towards Europe.) It’s no wonder that when Labour lost the election, Labour Brexiteers rushed to blame it on the shift towards a People’s Vote, even though many people who canvassed door-to-door in the North say that in the houses they visited, people gave numerous reasons for turning away from Labour, more of them to do with Corbyn’s leadership. It rather reflects the usual far-left reaction to defeat: to assume that it was not because they were too extreme but because they were not extreme enough. 

It was the right thing to do to back a People’s Vote. Nobody who supported Brexit had anything to fear from it; if it remained the will of the people, it would have gained approval again. The landscape had changed since 2016, more was known about the realities of leaving the EU and the Tories had not come up with a decent withdrawal agreement that would suit any majority. Before the referendum, the most talked-about ‘solution’ was to rejoin EFTA and have a relationship with the EU similar to Norway’s; after, this was dismissed (including by some in the Labour party such as Chuka Umunna) as it would not allow us to refuse free movement, i.e. to close the doors to east European workers. It’s also known that mixed British-European families are being split up or leaving, that NHS workers have been leaving because of uncertainty or because of racist abuse by patients, that companies are declining to invest here, that the situation in Northern Ireland depends on there being no border to speak of for British or Irish citizens, that there is a substantial majority for Remaining in Scotland and that it is fuelling calls for another independence referendum which, if it goes ahead, might win. Twice we have seen signs on motorways warning of “changes to paperwork” for anyone travelling to the EU after a certain date; we are seeing preparations for long queues near to ports in Kent, which would not be needed if we simply remained in the EU. Yet the Tories will not admit, nor tell the people, that they are wrong, nor give the population the right to change their minds, as had many Tories now known as Brexiteers since the early 2010s when some of them said it was ridiculous, madness, folly to leave.

I mostly defended Corbyn on the anti-Semitism issue. Actually, for me this was not about Corbyn so much as about the principle of free speech on the issues surrounding it, including the rights of the Palestinians to live in peace and dignity in their own country and the rights of their supporters to support them. Many (not all, but many) of those targeted were Muslims who were expressing points of view that are common currency in the Muslim community and which do not include any suggestion of violence towards Jews just because they are Jews and some of those expressions were made years before they were in the running to be MPs. There has been a deliberate attempt to weed out and exclude Muslims from public life and it has claimed a number of casualties during this election campaign and indeed during the whole of Corbyn’s leadership and, whatever the criticisms from the Jewish mainstream that the party does not leap when they say ‘jump’, the party has been too timid in defending them. It is atrocious, quite simply, that anti-racist mechanisms and doctrines should be used to defend a foreign country which has nuclear weapons, whose founders and several of whose leaders were terrorists, which has used international terrorism — kidnappings and murders — to eliminate and silence its enemies, which oppresses the non-Jewish native population of the territory it claims, from criticism or condemnation.

Equally sickening was the spectacle of privileged, middle-class white people — some of them working for a newspaper with a history of witch hunts against Muslims, including the notorious foster care story from 2017, and some sharing their stories on a regular basis — affecting the air of a persecuted minority, complaining that Corbyn did not show them empathy, accusing Corbyn of ‘gaslighting’ them by not accepting their claims at face value. We hear continual reminders of their past persecutions and how strongly British Jews remember them despite the fact that none of them were in this country, not under governments of left nor right. Jews are not an oppressed minority in this country and should not be treated as one; they are well-represented in the political classes and in the media (in both of which they also have a lot of powerful friends), are not visible by skin colour and are not recent arrivals whose right to live here is in question at all.

It’s ironic also that people are criticising the Labour party for concentrating too much on middle-class voters and too little on the ‘traditional’ working class, while others criticise it for ignoring or belittling ‘conservative’, nativist sentiment among that working class. Most of the examples of ‘anti-Semitism’ which gave rise to the scandal would not have struck most people as racist; they were classed as such according to an ideological interpretation of racism, and lost the party votes because they caused dissension and division in the parliamentary party. I cannot imagine that most of working-class Britain would be greatly exercised about most of these particular incidents, certainly not to the extent that (we hope!) they would be about a politician or party that advocated racial violence or explicitly discriminatory policies or used “go home” rhetoric — bothered enough by them not to vote them into power. But, of course, we know that not to be the case. This was a dogma that was bought hook, line and sinker by the Labour Right and their sympathetic media, long enough to use it against Corbyn.

This election and the government it puts into power will be a chapter in the downfall of modern democracy. Like so many British governments of recent history, they have a false majority: some 43% of the vote which translates into more than half of the seats, yet is treated as an absolute mandate just because it gives them unfettered power. The matter of Brexit is now deemed to be ‘settled’ (I saw a Tory MP lecture Jeremy Corbyn about this in Parliament this morning, reminding him that he is supposed to be a democrat), yet the Tories and Brexit Party between them received only 45.6% of the vote while Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens — all committed to remaining in or holding a further referendum — received 47.1%. The population is as divided as ever; only the make-up of Parliament has changed. Of course, the Labour Right has only itself to blame: they were in power themselves for 13 years, yet opposed electoral reform all the way. Winners don’t change the rules, after all.

As for who should succeed Corbyn: obviously it has to be a unifying figure, not someone implacably wedded to Corbyn’s vision but neither a throwback to the Blairite past. Blair’s time was 20 years ago, things have changed and nobody entitled to vote for the first time in the most recent election was born when Blair came to power (they were only seven years old when he left office — if there is no election until 2024, they will have been two). His mistakes are a large part of the reason for the mess we are in now. While they will not be in a position to stall Brexit, they need to be open to the possibility of rejoining if that is in Britain’s national interest (especially if Brexit is a disaster); they should be committed to as close a relationship as possible and to maintaining the rights of cross-border families. They should also have a plan to regenerate the areas neglected by Thatcher-Blairism with real industry, not handouts, infrastructure projects (which, by nature, do not last) and service-sector jobs. They must not capitulate to any demands to pursue nativism or anti-intellectualism as a means of ‘reconnecting’ with people who get their ideas from tabloids; Labour cannot win elections without a broad appeal and this includes to the young, well-educated and ethnic minorities. If Labour goes down that road, all Boris Johnson has to do to win a sizeable chunk of the ethnic vote in 2024 is keep a lid on the worst excesses of racism; his term in office has to just not be an obvious disaster, as was the case with his mayoralty (I emphasise obvious). Finally, Labour really has to be committed to electoral reform, as we must never again see a situation where a leader committed to a ruinous policy and with an aversion to the concept of rights is gifted a majority because of the vagaries of the voting system and his main opponent’s shortcomings. 

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Don’t be fooled about the Tories’ “values”

11 December, 2019 - 23:54
A polling station in a hall at the back of an English church; an old lady is walking through the door. A plastic chair sits in front of a sign saying "polling station".

Tomorrow (or today, depending on when you read this) there is a general election in the UK. We have a prime minister who is a notorious dilettante, a racist, a serial liar and a man whose diplomatic performance has been so miserable that it has led to a British national having an Iranian prison term extended, who proposes himself to negotiate a trade agreement with not only the EU but also the rest of the world following a departure from the EU next month and whose party and its supportive press seems to see no wrong in him. In the past I’ve been hugely critical of Jeremy Corbyn, the main opposition leader, particularly because he was weak on Brexit before the party adopted the policy of supporting a further referendum on Brexit and on any withdrawal deal, and partly because of the cowardice the party as a whole have shown in the face of which hunts against long-standing members, including Muslims, but right now I am supporting tactical voting for the best-placed candidate to deny Boris Johnson a majority in the Commons.

I’ve come across Muslims who put an undue faith in Corbyn and others who say they will not support him no matter what, in some cases because Labour are against Muslims’ values and in others because he and some of his front bench are pro-Assad. In my opinion it would be a huge folly to trust the Tories because of these two issues. Boris Johnson is no friend of the Syrian people or of freedom or democracy anywhere, and if British citizens are in trouble in Syria, he will drop them in it with his loose tongue while Corbyn might use his contacts to help them. Tories and their allies have been talking for years about the importance of ‘stability’ and suggesting that Assad might be the “least worst option”, although this talk has died down a bit since ISIS were largely defeated. We saw how international support for the “Arab Spring” has given way to acceptance of the dictators that took over after the initial flowering, particularly in Egypt.

As for the ‘values’ question: the Tories are a majoritarian party whose power base is the white suburban and provincial middle class. Their culture comes from the Tory think-tanks that emerged during Blair’s years in power, such as Policy Exchange, which regard Islam, active Muslims or anything that sets Muslims apart as threats and this appeals to the provincial tabloid reader who does not know any Muslims and anything they ‘know’ about us, they read in the papers or saw it on the news. They don’t give a stuff what you think of homosexuality, gender identity or any issue along those lines. Tories stopped campaigning on “family values” in the 1990s when the sex scandals of the Major years, as well as changing times and values (slurs on single mothers are less of a vote winner when everyone knows at least one), made the slogan a political liability. Nowadays, they lecture about “British values” and every school and childcare facility has to teach children about these mythical values which nobody talks about except politicians.

Twice in recent history, Muslims in a western country have voted for the political Right (in the US with GW Bush and in France with Jacques Chirac) and both times we were knifed in the back once the election was over and we were no longer politically convenient. The same will happen if Boris Johnson wins this election, with or without Muslim support. If Brexit goes wrong, which there is a strong chance that it will, stories involving Muslims will make an easy distraction when people are angry about losing jobs or when food becomes scarce or expensive. On Unherd this week, Mutaz Ahmed advises the Tories to appeal to the older immigrant Labour voter, the African and Caribbean grandmothers, yet these are the voters that bore the brunt of the “hostile environment” policy and best remember the 60s and 70s when a Tory could win an election on the slogan that if people want one of them for a neighbour, they should vote Labour. Generations of socially conservative ethnic minority voters have voted Labour because they knew the Tories wanted to keep Britain white more than they cared about “the family”. Muslims should not forget this, least of all at a time like this.

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Plastic bags are not “single use”

29 November, 2019 - 23:21
A collection of jute and orange plastic bags in two pink plastic crates.

It was reported yesterday (Thursday) that since the tax on plastic bags was introduced under the Coalition government (where, you may recall, the Liberal Democrats got this introduced in return for supporting a Tory benefit cut) plastic use by supermarkets has gone up rather than down and that many of the reusable bags, often branded “bags for life” or similar, are in fact only being used once as were the old thin bags. An environmental group whose spokesman was interviewed on today’s You and Yours programme on Radio 4 called for a 70p charge to be introduced, a similar rate to that charged in the republic of Ireland. They also noted an increase in the sale of ready meals which also invariably come in plastic packaging. I can think of a few explanations for these trends; plastic use may well have increased by even more than is being suggested.

First, carrier bags never were really “single use”. Many people did reuse them for shopping or for carrying personal effects; they also got reused as bin bags, especially in cars and the like, and for the disposal of food-related waste, nappies and other waste that might make an environment smell. They also got used as temporary covers for things (e.g. bicycle saddles when covered with bird poo — or to protect them from the same). People now have to find new ways to dispose of these things, which means buying bin bags from the same supermarket that would previously have given them a branded carrier bag for free. No doubt some of the “bags for life” are also being used as makeshift bins and disposed of before they can be reused for shopping. Since carrier bags got expensive, some of us started using the clear plastic bags they supplied for loose vegetables for some of these purposes but some supermarkets have withdrawn these as well. Sainsbury’s asks customers to buy their special netting bags or just to bring our own, but continues to supply bulk vegetables in plastic packaging. I could, therefore, buy three courgettes in a plastic package and end up throwing two of them away because I don’t get through them that quickly, or just source them elsewhere, but it’s very convenient, profitable and ‘woke’ for Sainsbury’s.

I always doubted that banning carrier bags would greatly reduce plastic consumption or plastic-based pollution. People forget to bring their bags and have to buy new ones; many people were not in the habit of bringing their used bags with them. The latter was a serious environmental problem but much of the plastic in the oceans comes from fishing nets and from plastic beads used in cosmetics that is washed down drains; it was treated as if it followed that because sea life was being choked with discarded plastic, everyone had to stop using plastic everywhere and this principally meant plastic bags and straws. Yet, while shopping can be done with reusable bags made of other materials (jute is a favourite), plastic has other purposes and people will have to continue sourcing plastic, and usually paying for it. The netting bags that Sainsbury’s now expect us to buy for the loose veg is imported from China, which increases the food miles of vegetables grown in Britain or Europe considerably (assuming the plastic bags weren’t imported from there too).

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What “royalty loyalty”?

22 November, 2019 - 17:13
Black and white pictures of a row of tables with many men, women and children of all ages sat at them, with plates and cups and food on the tables. Flags are hung from the red-brick houses which open directly onto the streets.Street party in Wolverton, Buckinghamshire to celebrate Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding, 1981. (Source: Talk About Wolverton.)

In an article posted yesterday on UnHerd, Paul Embery (a self-proclaimed “Blue Labour thinker” and fire-fighter) claims that a recent poll for the site by FocalData on support for the continuation of the monarchy underlines the schism in British society between “our big urban centres, populated by large numbers of students and the liberal cosmopolitan middle-classes with their globalist outlook” on one hand and an alliance of the old industrial working class and the conservative shires on the other: the former, which tended towards Remain in the 2016 referendum, is less supportive of the monarchy while the latter tends to be more so. A brief look at the map generated by the poll, however, shows no evidence of this alliance; quite the opposite in fact, and nor any correlation with the results of the 2016 referendum. (Note: the sample size of the poll is 21,119, which across 632 constituencies in mainland Britain means 33 to 34 people per constituency — judge for yourself how representative that sample could be. The results they published today from the question about gender identity very clearly show artefacts of the small sample.)

The map shows areas with the strongest support for the monarchy in green and the least in pink, and is rather misleading because some of the lighter-pink areas have greater than 50% support for retaining the monarchy. The general areas with the strongest support include south Essex, Lincolnshire, East Yorkshire, parts of Kent and Sussex, most of Hampshire and Dorset, and the outer suburbs and outlying towns of the West Midlands. The areas with least support are most of Scotland (almost no constituency polls 50% or more support), west and south Wales, plus all of the major and minor cities (by that I mean cities with six-figure populations, not small towns with cathedrals) and university towns (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, Norwich, Brighton). While much of the prosperous south shows in deep green, other areas show more tepid support (e.g. Henley, Banbury) as well as the south-west of England. As with the prosperous south, the industrial and ex-industrial north and north Midlands are divided; much of northern Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire polls well above 55% in favour, but areas around Newcastle poll slightly above or below 50%. Those figures from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, however, are still well below the figures recorded in the south-east and Lincolnshire, which are often well above 60%, so this hardly indicates an ‘alliance’ of the shires and working class.

While the top and bottom constituencies in the table mostly coincide with Leave and Remain votes in 2016, in other areas the correlation breaks down. Coventry, Nottingham, Sheffield and Peterborough, for example, all of which voted to leave in 2016, show in deep pink on the map, all of which had a below 50% showing for support. Remain-voting Witney and Newbury both poll well over 50% in favour; Remain-voting Maidenhead and Beaconsfield both show over 60%. In Scotland only one constituency (Banff and Buchan, north of Aberdeen) has greater than 50% for retention; even in most of the border regions where there has been the strongest Tory resurgence, support is at most 50% and mostly lower. While both Birmingham and Wolverhampton voted to leave in 2016, Birmingham shows in this poll as mostly anti-monarchist while Wolverhampton and the Black Country are mostly in favour.

As might be expected, the areas with the biggest show of support for the monarchy are the areas which are provincial, prosperous, mostly white or all three. The areas of England with the weakest tend to be urban areas, particularly those with large minority-ethnic populations, and university towns. The colours on the map are somewhat misleading, because many constituencies with very different shades of green show similar approval rates but different (although only slightly different) disapproval rates but are still, say, 60% in favour of the monarchy, while some of the areas shown as light pink are in fact more than 50% in favour. What the map appears to show is in fact that most of England, with the exception of inner-city London and most of the other major cities, continues to support the retention of the monarchy — nowhere is the ‘disagree’ rate higher than 36% — but in fact there is no answer to this question that allows the person polled to state that they support the monarchy’s dissolution; it only asks whether they are “a strong supporter of the continued reign of the Royal Family”. Those who answered negatively are not necessarily supporters of republicanism; they may simply see no reason to change it now, or find no existing system of republican government satisfactory. The poll does not ask why people do or do not favour the retention of the monarchy, or what (or whom) they do or do not like about it. Support for remaining a monarchy does not equate to loyalty as such.

In short it’s an attempt to reinforce stereotypes of a patriotic, provincial, white heartland that supports the monarchy regardless of class versus a rootless, cosmopolitan, educated metropolitan elite and diverse inner-city that does not. The actual data (for what the data is worth) does not bear this out; far from demonstrating that “we have tipped into a very real cultural war, with competing values and priorities vying for ascendancy”, it shows general support for the monarchy across England and little for change with a few isolated pockets of dissent, with the strongest support in prosperous non-urban areas. There is actually nothing inherently patriotic or British about supporting the monarchy anyway, given that the family has its roots in two German royal families, that many countries in Europe remain monarchies, and that many countries more openly patriotic than the UK are republics. Supporting a republic does not mean being anti-British.

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On obscene generalisations

20 November, 2019 - 19:57
Five young Black women wearing different coloured long dresses and headscarves.

Last week a video circulated of a Canadian-based Somali imam making some ugly generalisations about African-American people, claiming that most of them were products of one-night stands and did not know who their fathers were, and that he had met a man who said that Islam limited him to four wives instead of the twenty women he had previously kept on the go. After much outcry it appears the imam apologised although some were not satisfied with the wording of his apology, and another imam then circulated a sermon making equally obscene generalisations about Somali women. What was depressing about this was that I saw some Black American Muslims defending the first imam on the grounds that there is indeed a very large illegitimacy rate among African-Americans and that at worst he was exaggerating a bit. I don’t believe this is a good reason to make statements like this in a khutba.

One of the people defending the original shaikh is a student of Shaikh Nuh Keller, the translator and compiler of the English version of the Reliance of the Traveller and a Sufi shaikh who lives and teaches in Jordan, so I am going to quote a couple of extracts from his tariqa literature to explain why what the Somali imam said was not becoming of an imam. That shaikh seems to be a ‘salafi’, judging by the list of his shaikhs, but these things are matters of Shari’ah and not the Sufi path as such. Part of the path as he teaches it is an exercise called muraqaba or vigilance in which the student is expected to refrain from seven sins, all of them sins of the tongue such as lying, tale-bearing, backbiting, boasting, showing-off and, the one relevant to this incident, conversing about the immoral which the shaikh observed was “a hobby among religious people” which they do to “make themselves feel more religious”:

They tell what the fornicators do in such-and-such a street, or what the drinkers are doing up town in such-and-such a bar, and all of this is completely haraam. Mentioning an act of disobedience to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala is an act of disobedience to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.

He explained that sometimes it was necessary to warn people of evil, such as telling travellers to and students in Syria (before the civil war) what the Assad regime did to anyone who got on the wrong side of it, but there was no excuse to talk about “how bad the times we are living in are” because everyone knows that already. This part of the sermon falls straight into that definition. (The quote is from his 1998 Virginia lectures, which can be downloaded here and the relevant section can be found by searching for “seven things we need to avoid”.)

A second thing he warned against (in a book for people coming to study with him in Jordan) was making generalisations about people based on their national origins. This is also something I have seen Muslims do a lot over the years, often imagining themselves fully justified in their prejudices and in expressing them openly:

One cannot put oneself up by putting others down, but only by worshipping Allah, and it is absolutely haram to make derogatory ethnic observations about individuals or countries. To say, “Iraqis act like such and such,” or “Egyptians have such and such an attitude” or “Pakistanis do such and such” or “Women from Upper Volta” or “Moroccan children” or whoever it may be, unless warning someone actually travelling somewhere of something that may harm him, is of the antics of the nafs, an attempt to feel superior by telling about faults one does not have.

It doesn’t matter in the slightest if one thinks it is true. It is forbidden by Allah Himself in the Qur’an with the words, “O you who believe: let no group of men mock another: for they might well be better than they are. And let no group of women mock another, for they might well be better than they are” (Qur’an 49:11). And the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) told his Companions: “Allah Mighty and Majestic has rid you of the arrogance of the Period of Ignorance and its pride in forefathers. Godfearing believer or hapless sinner: all people are the sons of Adam, and Adam was from the soil. Let peoples cease priding themselves in men, or they will matter less to Allah than the scarab beetle that pushes excrement about with its nose” (Ahmad , 2.361. h). This suffices as to how much merit the practice has. If tempted, one should just put one’s lips together and keep them that way. (As A Rule, Wakeel Books, Amman, 2002.)

Any Muslim public speaker should be trying to warm people’s hearts when they speak. They should never assume, regardless of appearances, that they are only addressing Muslims or only addressing their own people, least of all if they know their words are being recorded. We know that the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, used wise and kind words and had excellent manners with everyone, Muslims or otherwise. He forbade the Sahaba from, for example, addressing non-Muslims as kaafir, ordering us to call people by their names and their father’s names, as was the Arab custom. He told people not to insult Abu Jahl in front of Ikrimah, radhi Allahu ‘anhu, when he came to Islam after the conquest of Makkah; he prayed for the guidance of the Daws tribe when Abu Hurayrah, radhi Allahu ‘anhu, complained that they were impervious to his attempts to persuade them to become Muslims. Crucially, he condemned those who cursed their own parents, which he explained as meaning cursing someone else’s, leading to the other person responding in kind. In the Qur’an, Allah Almighty tells us not to curse others’ idols, lest they revile Allah in their ignorance. There are so many injunctions and examples of the importance of kindness and good manners in the Qur’an and the Sunnah and going to a foreign country and insulting the people will never win anybody over.

It’s true that there is a high illegitimacy rate among Black Americans; there is a high rate also among White Americans, White British people and many other groups in the West. The rate may be higher or lower but it is still high. It is a fact that many couples live together and have children before marriage, or in some cases never marry. This is not a one-night stand and a child born in this situation knows who their father is. As far as illegitimacy goes, the pendulum has swung a long way from a point where a woman pregnant before marriage would have to spend months in a “mother and baby home” away from her family and give her baby up for adoption or even be consigned to an institution for life to a point where nobody really talks of illegitimacy anymore. I am not saying this is a good thing (though the closure of those institutions definitely is), but it does not justify any claim that “they’re all at it like rabbits” or some other suggestion that everyone is promiscuous, because that just is not true.

As a western convert myself, I am well aware that there are stereotypes among Muslims from both Muslim countries and places like India about westerners and many of us have encountered them when we approach ‘ethnic’ Muslim families about marriage. There is an assumption that nobody from a western background is a virgin by the time their teens are out and if they are, it’s not for want of trying, which is truer than it used to be but still an exaggeration. It’s also not the sort of thing any imam should be telling his congregation, least of all in great detail in a khutba, and they should not imagine that it will hurt or offend less if you think you are only talking about non-Muslims — you may well be talking about their family and saying things you would not dare say about someone’s mother or sister to their face.

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It’s not all about Brexit

17 November, 2019 - 22:43
A Labour party logo showing a red rose with a green stalk and leaves.

Last Friday the Guardian printed a letter from a number of famous people who informed us that because of ‘concerns’ about anti-Semitism, they would be ‘unable’ to vote Labour in the forthcoming (12th December) election. These ‘dignitaries’ or ‘luminaries’ include the novelists Fay Weldon, Frederick Forsyth and John Le Carré, actress (and family friend of Boris Johnson) Joanna Lumley, Blair-appointed equalities chief and the right-wing media’s favourite model minoritarian Trevor Phillips, and everyone’s but the Muslims’ favourite Muslims, Ed Husain, Fiyaz Mughal and Maajid Nawaz. Many of them are Tories or Liberal Democrats of long standing that it would have been difficult to imagine voting Labour, regardless of who leads it. According to them, we are all under pressure to disregard this matter in the name of stopping Brexit:

We listen to our Jewish friends and see how their pain has been relegated as an issue, pushed aside by arguments about Britain’s European future. For those who insist that Labour is the only alternative to Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit, now, it seems, is not the time for Jewish anxiety.

But antisemitism is central to a wider debate about the kind of country we want to be. To ignore it because Brexit looms larger is to declare that anti-Jewish prejudice is a price worth paying for a Labour government. Which other community’s concerns are disposable in this way? Who would be next?

Sadly, I live in an area where the nearest thing to an opposition to the Tories is a Liberal Democrat and that’s who I will be voting for next month. To do otherwise would split the anti-Tory and anti-Brexit vote. However, I urge anyone who lives in an area where there is a Labour candidate who can win to vote for them. Much as Brexit will have a devastating effect on the economy which could easily lead to serious unrest, the reasons have to do with so much more than Brexit: they are to do with ending the culture of austerity with its harassment of disabled people and destruction of public services, the run-down of the health system (to say nothing of the threat of its privatisation) and education system, the racist culture of disbelief in the immigration system and so much more besides. All this seems to have been forgotten because the public discourse has been dominated by Brexit and the internal wrangling of political parties including the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour party (and any attempt to discuss any other issue of racism is dismissed as whataboutery).

In answer to the question, “which other community’s concerns are disposable in the way?”, unlike these concerns and fears which have been front page news practically every week for the past several years now, every other marginalised and vulnerable group of people’s concerns are deemed disposable by the present government and much of the press and broadcast media. People have died because the supports they would have depended on to get back on their feet have been kicked away in the name of deficit reduction. People live in fear of the “brown envelope” which tells them that their disability benefits are due for reassessment, which likely means an encounter with someone prejudiced against them who will lie about their condition and abilities. A disabled friend of mine wrote on Twitter yesterday:

I’m scared that once the protection of being a parent is over in 5 yrs when my boys all reach adulthood, I will be homeless. As a disabled person, the line between life and death for me lies in the hands of Tory bureaucrats who hate welfare. To say the election is about Brexit is yet another sign that people aren’t seeing our pain, suffering, fear and deaths.

Jeremy Corbyn’s record as an MP does not justify any suggestion that he would harass or discriminate against Jews if he was prime minister; on the contrary, he has been supportive of his Jewish constituents as an MP and Geoffrey Alderman, writing on the Spectator website earlier this year, said that despite the fact that Corbyn had acted unwisely on occasions, he could fill an entire article with the philo-Semitic Early Day Motions (EDMs) Corbyn has supported while an MP, including one to facilitate the settlement of Jews from Yemen in the UK. He also noted that Corbyn had supported Jewish objections to relocating Jewish graves to make way for property development while the council, led by Margaret Hodge, had approved the planning application. Meanwhile, in the huge volume of ‘incidents’ and accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party (the volume is being treated as evidence in itself), the signal-to-noise ratio is very low, and of the minority of genuine incidents, many have led to expulsions, including of councillors, MPs and candidates for Parliament. It is not true that the party has “not dealt with it”.

Very many of the signatories to last Friday’s letter are well-known people with long careers in the arts and media who must be fairly wealthy. They will not have been personally affected by the ravages of austerity. I have heard it claimed that many Jews regard a Corbyn government is a worse prospect than a no-deal Brexit; clearly whoever thinks this does not fear for their job or the security of their home. In a letter published today among a set of responses to the letter (printed Monday), it is noted that there are three historians among the signatories and all are privately educated. None of them are Jewish, and they gloss over the fact that many Jews (albeit mostly secular ones) disagree with the calls not to vote Labour; they believe they should dictate whom the public should treat as the voice of “real Jews”. I have heard the group referred to as ‘dignitaries’, but fame does not confer authority. They complain that two Jewish MPs have been “bullied out of the party” but Jewish dissenters have been the victim of bullying and doxing on- and offline and their families have been targeted.

Racism should not be a price worth paying to avoid more serious political outcomes. But that is not the case here; five years of a majority government led by Boris Johnson means five years of austerity, racism, economic decline and isolation for everyone. The alternative is a chance to reverse Brexit and rebuild what the Tories and their coalition partners destroyed. 

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Tu quoque

14 November, 2019 - 22:53
A cartoon from a Russian magazine showing a Black man hanging from the Statue of Liberty. Two winged figures hold the US flag aloft above it and a book shows a Russian translation of "come unto me, ye that labor and are heavy laden".Image from Soviet magazine Bezbozhnik, 1930

Tu quoque (you too) is a type of argument that is classified as a logical fallacy, that is, an argument that does not offer evidence of the point the arguer is trying to make but rather plays some kind of rhetorical trick, in this case by throwing the accusation back at the accuser by saying he is guilty of the same thing or something morally equivalent. It is sometimes called whataboutery and was a favourite line of argument by the USSR’s propaganda whenever its human rights record was criticised, particularly by the USA’s State Department. A favourite argument of theirs, as illustrated in the picture on the right, was “and you lynch negroes”. I came across an undated article on this fallacy today on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website after a friend shared it on Twitter. I see this fallacy being appealed to a lot in political debate, and the accusations of it are often problematic because they ignore why the argument is being made. Very often, the accusers are just as guilty as the accused, and it matters.

I call this “the bully’s fallacy”. A school or workplace bully will often justify his behaviour by attacking his victim’s character. I remember a conversation I witnessed between a bully at my school and someone he was harassing, in which he accused his victim of, among other things, “polluting the atmosphere” by smoking. His victim responded that many of the bully’s friends also smoked, to which the bully responded, “but we’re not talking about them; we’re talking about you”. He no doubt got this argument from a teacher. It’s true that if you smoke in a confined space, around other people, you risk making them ill, but at my school, some boys smoked round the back of the building and others (the ones who weren’t allowed to smoke) in an isolated spot in the grounds, so nobody who didn’t want to be there was affected. The key thing was that the criticism was not sincere and was not intended to encourage him to change his behaviour; it was intended as harassment. And the intention behind an argument is sometimes important.

Very often in political arguments, one side is accused of some vice of which the other side are just as guilty, or if not, then guilty of something similar. When we hear the present leadership of the Labour party accused of anti-Semitism, for example, a common response is to point out the numerous examples of racism on the Tory benches, where various Tory figures have been suspended and then sometimes reinstated after making openly racist or Islamophobic remarks. On some occasions, Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for statements which condemned both anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, rather than anti-Semitism alone as his critics demand. However, the guilt of the accusing side is relevant, because it is not an academic argument but a contest between two political parties for power, and if one party says to the other “you are racist”, really they are saying to the public “these people are racist; don’t vote for them”. If the accusing side is just as racist, if not more so, the public need to be aware of that.

Arguments with real consequences cannot always be treated as academic debates. When women say to men who try to engage them in debates about abortion, “no womb, no opinion”, they might be accused of an ad hominem argument, another logical fallacy, but it does not matter because the arguments have been had many times before and the consequences of a ban on abortion are very serious, not only for those with unwanted pregnancies but also for those who suffer miscarriages, who would then be liable to be investigated for evidence of abortion as been noted in many Latin American countries. As for the US v Soviet whataboutery, although the observation about lynching was by that time outdated, the US was no friend of freedom for most of the world; it was a notorious exporter of poverty and oppression and supported dictatorships almost everywhere outside Europe. This is no defence of the Soviet record of human rights or political or intellectual freedom, nor of people who reflexively assume anyone who is against the USA must be good, but for anyone outside the USA asked to “pick a side” during that time, it would not have been as simple as it would be for those of us in countries the US favoured.

I don’t believe there is any comparison between the Labour anti-Semitism controversy and the very real problem of racism in the Tory party. Most of the former consists of people’s words being twisted and often the thing that was said was true or at least arguable; the definition of anti-Semitism being deployed is ideological and the definition of a Jew is sectarian, overtly excluding many people of partial Jewish ancestry as well as dissenting and non-religious Jews; very often the accusations are aimed at silencing critics of Israel’s treatment of native Palestinians. The racism displayed in the Tory party, on the other hand, is often firmly aimed at ordinary people who are members of visible minorities who have rarely had the mass media on their side. So, if Jeremy Corbyn is indeed a racist (which I believe he is not), it is no defence of him to call Boris Johnson one, even if he is. But for Johnson and his supporters to make the claim is hypocrisy, and because this is politics and not an academic debate, that matters: a man who points the finger at others rather than address his own failings is not a good leader and a man who demonises minorities in print as a journalist is liable to do the same, when he sees it as necessary, as a political leader.

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As election nears, the witch-hunt steps up

10 November, 2019 - 22:55
On Piccadilly outside Green Park, London. A picture of a middle-aged white man wearing a blue rimmed hat with a yellow ribbon round it which says "Stop Brexit", and next to him someone is holding up a banner that says "Get your Johnson our of our democracy". Several EU and British flags are on display.An anti-Brexit demonstrator in London, November 2019.

So, the week before last, the date for a forthcoming general election — 12th December — was finally announced and parliament was prorogued (dissolved) for real, after months of wrangling so as to stop Boris Johnson using an election season as an opportunity to crash the country out of the EU without a deal. Since then, a number of MPs on both sides of the House have announced they are standing down, in some cases in response to persistent abuse (e.g. Heidi Allen, a former Tory who defected to the Independents/Change group and then the Lib Dems) but in some a clear attempt to undermine the Labour Party’s chances of winning a parliamentary majority while Jeremy Corbyn remains leader. The Liberal Democrats have secured defections from both main parties and are contesting all seats, aggressively targeting some seats which have pro-Remain Labour MPs (e.g. Emma Dent-Coad in Kensington, who secured a tiny majority in the 2017 election shortly before the Grenfell disaster). I have also seen a ratcheting up of the witch-hunt against Labour candidates, sitting MPs or otherwise, for opinions on Israel that could be deemed, particularly by partisans of Israel, to be antisemitic; one of the candidates involved stood down on Friday.

I was unable to find the blog post by Kate Ramsden, the Unison union official who was standing in the Gordon constituency in Aberdeenshire in Scotland; maybe it has been deleted, or maybe it was not on her blog but on another. However, she was quoted as comparing Israel to an abused child (referring to the Holocaust and perhaps other persecutions Jews suffered in the past) who becomes an abusive adult and the Labour party apparently said she could keep her candidacy if she deleted the post, which it appears she did. The Jewish Chronicle quoted Jonathan Goldstein of the self-appointed “Jewish Leadership Council” as saying that this was “evidence of a deliberate cover up by Labour to hide the open antisemitism of a candidate”, yet there is no evidence of any anti-Semitic content at all; she was calling for international action to force Israel to cease its abuses of the native Palestinian population. If anything, the comparison was too soft on the abusers, many of whom are not Holocaust survivors or their descendants; the attitudes underpinning Israel’s harassment and intimidation of Palestinians are taught in Israel’s schools, media and army. Much as we cannot excuse a real abusive adult because he was abused (by someone else) as a child, we cannot excuse Israel’s oppressions on the grounds that some of the oppressors’ great-grandparents suffered in Auschwitz (and we also cannot justify an ongoing occupation on the grounds of a war by Israel’s other Arab neighbours, two of whom are now at peace with Israel, 50 years ago).

It goes to show that anyone who does not accept the narrative of Israel and its apologists overseas is vulnerable to being accused of anti-Semitism if they are not Jewish, or of being a “self-hating Jew” or “not really Jewish” if they are Jewish. In either case, they are the targets for the new witch hunts against anyone seeking to become a Labour councillor or MP. Muslims have always known this, of course, as has anyone who has been active on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement over the years, but it appears that Labour has been wrong-footed and cowed by an aggressive campaign by a group of pro-Israel bullies and dirt-diggers which does not tolerate dissent. Also last week the JC dredged up an old Facebook post by Zarah Sultana, standing in Coventry South to replace a retiring Labour MP, which accused the Labour Right of ‘weaponising’ anti-Semitism to silence or get rid of their political enemies (which is true); more recently, like Naz Shah in Bradford, she has made a grovelling about-turn, claiming that anyone who uses that term today is contributing to the problem.

The biggest issue in this election is Brexit; make no mistake. It will be the last time we get to vote in an election which will determine whether we get a further vote on the matter. Of the three major parties standing in England, one (itself threatened by a party that favours withdrawing without a deal) favours a bad deal which isolates the British mainland and splits the UK, one favours a further referendum and the third favours annulling the results of the 2016 referendum and revoking Article 50. Yet the two parties which do not have hard Brexit as party policy refuse to form any sort of pact, and the Liberal Democrats insist on not only standing candidates in constituencies with pro-Remain Labour MPs but on standing well-known candidates, including prominent Labour and Tory defectors such as Sam Gyimah who is contesting Kensington. This has led to suggestions that the party is really angling for a coalition with the Tories and is willing to risk a hard Brexit to that end; an alternative explanation is that it has become a refuge for those whose hatred for Jeremy Corbyn is greater than their love for anything or anyone. They proclaim that they will not form a coalition with “an anti-Semite” yet forget that they formed a coalition with the Tories when Boris Johnson was in the cabinet and do not rule out doing so again. Johnson’s very obvious racism, sometimes casual and sometimes studied as exemplified during his years as Spectator editor, is written off as nothing serious when any racism can have lethal consequences.

Not only have I seen letters published on Twitter addressed to Labour MPs telling them the authors will not vote for them because of their association with Corbyn, even though those MPs are innocent of any involvement in the scandal and in some cases are Jewish, I have heard people proclaim that they will vote Tory to avoid helping to elect anyone who might form a coalition with Corbyn. They propose to throw the whole country under the bus, expose us to a hard Brexit with an unfavourable trade deal with both the EU and the USA, all because they can tolerate the stench of numerous racisms against visible minorities that are the target of much official and unofficial hostility but not the whiff of another, towards people they see as “like them”. It is a coalition of wickedness and insanity.

I’ve been critical of Jeremy Corbyn in the past, mainly regarding his ambiguous stance on Brexit and his party’s insistence for too long on “honouring the referendum result” despite the narrow result (the Remain share was greater than many general election wins) and mounting evidence that the Leave campaign lied, employed overt racism and broke the law. I live in a Tory/Lib Dem marginal and will be voting Lib Dem because Labour has no chance of winning, which is one reason I’ve never rejoined the party. However, I’m not going to be loudly criticising Corbyn in the few weeks up to this election, because I want the Tories out and his is the biggest opposition party and the one with the best chance of securing, if not a majority, then at least a large proportion of seats; the Lib Dems have always been a small party and remain a small party which lost the trust of most of its voter base in the 2010-15 coalition. The Labour party has committed itself to a further referendum on Brexit; it’s not my preferred option, but it gives us another chance and that is immeasurably preferable to isolating ourselves with a bad Brexit deal (or none), with the strife and misery that could result from that. However, Labour must face down the bullies, racists and McCarthyites who use false claims of anti-Semitism to silence dissent to a pro-Western and pro-status quo narrative and intend to tolerate no dissent to that narrative; otherwise, they could face challenges from independents in key constituencies. It used to be the party that sang, “though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the Red Flag flying here”; a party dominated by those cowering before racists does not deserve to win any election.

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Homesickness and nostalgia, and why they make bad politics

2 November, 2019 - 20:17
Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth
(Photo: Lyn Davis).

I’ve lived away from home for two prolonged periods in my childhood and young adulthood. The first was boarding school, near Ipswich. The second was university, in Aberystwyth. The first was two hours from home along mostly motorway; the second was six hours by any route, at least partly along slow, two-lane roads or a slow, single-track rural railway. At the first, I missed home terribly, I spent every journey there looking back and while there, counted down the days until my next trip out or home. At the second, I looked forward as much to going back as I did to going home. I’ve read about homesickness in the context of Roald Dahl’s boarding school memoirs from the 1920s and there was another example by Giles Fraser published on Unherd last Thursday. But I hate the term.

Fraser compares homesickness to nostalgia, which actually means that in Greek although in modern English, it is used to mean longing for a former time rather than another place. He accuses Remainers of using the term as an insult and of implying that it is a sign of weakness (in the sense that a homesick soldier on a tour of duty or child at a boarding school might be), when it is more of a criticism and has strong justification. The nostalgia referred to in the criticism is an unhealthy fixation on a bygone era, usually the time of one’s youth but sometimes even before that, only remembering or even imagining its good points while ignoring or denying the bad and failing to appreciate why the era is bygone and had to change. We often see this in people who hark back to an old age when they believe families were still strong, when children knew their place, when schools had ‘discipline’ and everyone had a home-cooked meal on the table when they came home. Some of this was true but it concealed unhappy marriages which women in particular found it difficult to escape from, outright child abuse and economic and political circumstances which are no longer true. People sometimes talk of the country falling apart because certain categories of people gained rights, but these rights are what stop those people being abused.

The Baby Boomers are the last generation who remember when Britain was the “mother country” of a global empire with large possessions in different parts of the world, all of which it had lost by the start of the 70s. They also remember the cultural “glory days” of Swinging London when British musicians came to be appreciated around the world, even if they were often heavily influenced by American musical forms such as the Blues; this may explain the stance of some ageing celebrity Brexiteers such as Ringo Starr and Roy Wood. Some also remember when “Britain was still white”. What they forget is that the Empire consisted of other people’s countries and was costly to maintain; as for the music, such fashions come and go and many of those musicians (and some who came along after we joined the EEC) have had long and varied careers; those that did not are those who ran out of ideas or who did not develop their musical ability. As for whiteness, the country had a labour shortage which is why it invited people over from the colonies we had occupied, and none of those people came from countries which are now in the EU anyway.

The past is gone; it is no longer real. To be homesick is to be consumed with longing for another real place. It is only really a sickness when it causes actual distress, and this is usually because one’s current place is an unpleasant one because, for example, of abuse or because the standard of living or the behaviour one encounters is nothing like what one is used to and one cannot leave easily if at all. The distress of an abused child in an institution is not like the mild longing someone has for home when they are away on business or studying. I actually don’t like the term homesickness for the abused child; it allows the adults who have placed the child there to evade responsibility for the child’s distress. He doesn’t just “miss his mum”; he misses being loved and cared for as a valued, individual member of a family rather than just another unimportant inmate in an impersonal and uncaring institution, he misses home-cooked (or indeed decent) food, he misses being spoken to with civility, he may miss having quiet and privacy.

As a member of the EU, Britain has generally had a very good deal. We still have our home (and unfettered access to 27 other countries), we still have our own parliament, we still have control of our borders, we have been allowed opt-outs to major European projects. It is grotesque to compare the misguided nostalgia for the Britain of 50 or 60 years ago, of the youth of today’s old or ageing people, with the genuine distress of a child separated from their family and suffering mistreatment. The EU is not an oppressive entity; if it were, we would be facing a military invasion for even holding the 2016 referendum, as two of the nominally independent states of the Warsaw Pact did when they asserted their independence. We have had a say in all the policies which gave rise to the discontent behind the 2016 referendum; we are still not discussing the matter of what of it had anything to do with the EU and could be resolved without leaving. This comparison of the EU to an oppressive regime or to an abusive relationship is a product of privileged ignorance and an insult to anyone who has suffered either. Brexiteers are not homesick; they have their home. They are nostalgic for an era that has gone for good, could not have lasted and had to change, and our media should be honest with them about these things.

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What is leadership?

29 October, 2019 - 22:58

The other day a friend shared this meme on Facebook: it reads “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills”. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a teacher I know many years ago when I told her that my old school (the abusive one) had appointed the ‘dominant’ boys (i.e. bullies) in three successive year groups, including mine, as prefects and she told me that some aspects of ‘bullying’ behaviour could be interpreted as ‘leadership’. In both cases it could easily be the kind of ‘leadership’ nobody needs to have inflicted on them.

There is a common belief nowadays that ‘bossy’ is a term that is only ever used to describe girls and it is used to “knock down” girls who are forthright, who know their own minds, who have ideas of their own. Things may have changed since I was at school 30 years ago but I remember it being used to describe any child who had a tendency to tell others what to do when they had no right, as well as someone who may have been in a position of authority but dictated rather than listened or who told people what they thought was what without necessarily knowing what they were talking about. Anybody who has been to school will have encountered teachers who shouted for no good reason and who thought that listening was something others did when they spoke, and the majority of teachers at primary level are women. If the term is more commonly used of girls, it may be because boys are less likely to do it unless they can back up their demands with the threat of violence, and therefore words like ‘thug’ or ‘bully’ are more likely to come into play. Bossiness in a girl is thus seen more as an annoyance than a threat.

The issue of bossiness versus leadership carries on into the workplace, but in the context of school, it is the duty of teachers to make sure that dominant or domineering pupils do not ‘shine’ at the expense of others. Having ideas and being forthright with them is not a bad thing, but those who do not have the confidence might have ideas just as good and should be allowed a chance to make them known and have them discussed, and being forthright or more assertive than someone else does not always mean one might be the best leader. A leader is not just someone who is good at making others do what they want; they are people who inspire, who bring people together, who bring out the best in others. A liking for being in charge, for telling others what to do, is not necessarily a sign that someone is equipped to be a leader because they may not have all the other skills necessary. Perhaps it might be useful to teach them these things, but others should be as well, as they might need them in adult life, not least as a parent.

At worst, interpreting bossiness (or worse, bullying) as “leadership skills” absolves teachers of the responsibility to combat unjust power structures and hierarchies among the children and young people they have charge of. It harnesses existing hierarchies for the teachers’ own convenience. Those at the top of the pile sometimes need to be taken down a peg or two for the good of everyone. If a child is not at the top of the pile or forthright with their opinions, it is not their duty to act as a prop for the development of a bigger or louder child’s ‘leadership’ potential, especially one who has harmed them, and they should not be expected to. It’s disturbing to see feminists claiming that a negative personality trait, a behaviour that causes aggravation to others, is something to celebrate and potentially reward with authority over others, when it could just be a sign that someone is a bully.

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Expel Keith Vaz

28 October, 2019 - 17:28
Keith Vaz, a middle-aged, clean-shaven south Asian man.Keith Vaz - UK Parliament official portraits 2017

Today the Labour MP Keith Vaz was suspended from the House of Commons for six months for offering to buy cocaine for male prostitutes in August 2016 in an encounter at his flat recorded by one of the men involved and passed to the tabloid Sunday Mirror. The Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, whose complaint triggered the investigation by the Commons standards committee, said he hoped that this would be the “end of the line for Keith Vaz”: “I don’t think he’s fit to be representing anywhere in this place, I think he’s been a malign influence on local and national politics for too long”. If Parliament rubber-stamps the committee’s decision, it could lead to a recall petition and a by-election,

Personally and as a Muslim I find it disappointing that it took a sex and drug scandal to bring Vaz down. Vaz is one of the MPs who supported the event at Wembley Stadium addressed by Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India and former chief minister of Gujarat under whose leadership hundreds of Muslims and others were killed in an organised pogrom - essentially a latter-day Kristallnacht - in 2002 and many others were raped, otherwise injured or had their houses and shops destroyed by mobs. Modi also represents a fascistic ideology that envisages India as a fundamentally (rather than just predominantly) Hindu society or rashtra; under his premiership, lynchings of Muslims by Hindu fanatics have soared in number, the state has stepped up its oppressions against the people of Kashmir with curfews that have lasted days at a time and sought to expel Muslim residents of Assam by assuming anyone without the right paperwork (which few people in India have) is an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh.

The long-running campaign to purge the party of real or alleged antisemitism has seen people at all levels expelled or suspended, the criteria for which is often an ideological or sectarian definition of antisemitism which many people do not know exists, let alone understand, and which is often strained through the needle’s eye. It has been proclaimed antisemitic for someone to merely cast doubt on any claim by a Jewish individual that something is antisemitic. If the Labour party will expel or suspend long-standing activists on such flimsy grounds then open and warm approval for a fascist politician with a record of public mob violence against a minority also threatened in the UK should be a guarantee of expulsion. There should not be acceptable forms of bigotry or racism and certainly the whiff of one prejudice should not be deemed less tolerable than the stench of another.

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Essex truck tragedy: why the driver is probably innocent

24 October, 2019 - 19:57
A maroon Scania V8 tractor unit with ten added headlights and bull-bars. The tractor has a long wheelbase and a rear tag (lifting) axle. It is pulling an unmarked white refrigerated trailer with a Thermo King fridge device. The truck is photographed mid-turn on a large expanse of tarmac on an industrial estate.The tractor unit belonging to the driver involved in yesterday’s tragedy (not the same trailer).

Yesterday 39 people, now known to be of Chinese origin, were found dead in a refrigerated trailer on an industrial estate in Grays, Essex (to the east of London). The driver, a self-employed man from Northern Ireland named Mo Robinson, has been arrested on suspicion of murder and police have raided properties in the province to investigate whether the gang that smuggled the people into the country are based or have operations there. Initially, the story was being reported in terms of a truck which had carried the migrants into the UK via Ireland, through the port of Holyhead, a route which would arouse immediate suspicion, but it has now been revealed that the trailer in fact came into the UK on a ferry from Zeebrugge, Belgium, and was picked up by Mo Robinson about an hour and a half before the bodies were discovered. The victims either froze to death or suffocated inside the trailer, which can be used to transport either chilled or frozen foodstuffs, and were probably dead long before Robinson, who it is reported discovered the bodies when checking for paperwork inside and alerted the emergency services himself, became involved. This incident is likely to result in changes to how drivers and hauliers handle sealed trailers, as currently they are often picked up on trust and only the exterior is examined.

Yesterday, very many media reports described the vehicle as a shipping container. A shipping container is in fact a demountable box which is carried on a ship on a stack of other containers and then lowered mechanically onto a special trailer called a skeleton or ‘skellie’ (or a rail carriage) and secured with special locks called twist locks. I have carried shipping containers a few times and if you pick one up from a port, the box will be sealed with a metal bolt which can only be opened with a large bolt cutter. Drivers never look inside them so they could contain people, drugs, guns or anything else for all they know. If any of these things are found inside, the driver is almost certainly completely innocent. This vehicle was a ferry trailer, which is dropped off by one truck on one side of the Channel and then removed by another on this side (in fact, it would be dropped at and removed from a trailer park and loaded on and off the ferry itself by a shunter employed by the ship operator). It’s highly likely that the driver would have simply been told which trailer to pick up and where to deliver it, and done so, assuming, given that it is a fridge, that it contained foodstuffs. He would have done his usual checks to make sure the trailer was roadworthy (e.g. the light, wheels, door security, exterior condition and that the fridge worked) and then pulled it away. Such trailers may be sealed so as to give the recipient assurance that the goods had not been tampered with en route; they are entitled to refuse the goods if the seal is broken, so the driver does not open the cargo compartment. In this case, the driver was expected to open the trailer and retrieve paperwork himself, so it clearly was not sealed; drivers will, I suspect, be doing this at the port in the near future. (When we pick up goods at source, we look inside the trailer to make sure the goods are as described and that the load is secure before we close the door and, if necessary, apply the seal. However, even then, we cannot do more than take a look inside if the trailer is fully laden, so depending on the size and shape of the items, it might still be possible to conceal people behind goods.)

Any driver who transports these trailers will be thinking twice about his occupation in the light of yesterday’s disaster, at least until the status of Mo Robinson and his employer or client is clarified and he is either released or charged, and similarly hauliers will be rethinking their training and procedures. Going forward, there is likely to be a demand for changes to how drivers handle sealed trailers. As an air-freight driver or “cargo operative” (this status used to be known as Level D), we are given training in security and in procedures to ensure that cargo remains secure in between the screening station and the airport or outlying cargo terminal; this is mostly to ensure awareness of threats to aircraft security such as explosives rather than human cargo. We also require a criminal record check and five years of employment references. We carry plastic seals with us and when we open the doors to load or offload freight, we apply a new one and record the number on the paperwork, and we only open the doors at bonded premises such as the screening station (an approved cargo handling company) or the terminal, and if we leave the vehicle unattended for any reason, we check the seal for tampering on return. Drivers who use cross-channel ferries are told not to stop anywhere near the port to avoid their vehicles being accessed by stowaways, and there is now a secure area where their trailers can be checked before boarding.

If and when we leave the EU, and particularly if, as expected, we leave the customs union area as well as the union itself, customs checks are going to be required on goods coming in and out of the UK which they are not now; as this would otherwise lead to impossible delays at the ports, we are likely to see goods being inspected at source and hauled to the seaport in a sealed trailer, as is the case with air freight now, as well as greater use of ferry trailers as port delays make it impracticable for one driver to handle the entire journey and stay within their driving and working time limits. If ports such as Purfleet do not provide a secure area for drivers to inspect the inside of their trailers before re-sealing, they should provide one, and all new ferry trailer terminals should make sure there is one. This way, if Mo Robinson turns out to be innocent as I strongly suspect he is, anyone still alive can be saved and drivers can avoid being caught up in a terrible tragedy like yesterday’s and facing a possible prison sentence. I should add that the newspapers which printed the pictures of Mo Robinson, mostly taken from his Facebook account, before any facts were known about his degree of involvement or culpability have behaved extremely irresponsibly and disreputably; if they had spoken to anyone with any knowledge of the industry, they would have known that it is quite possible and indeed highly likely, given normal practice, that he is innocent.

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Guardian Daily: nice new app, shame about the upgrade

17 October, 2019 - 20:25
Screenshot from the Guardian's new Daily app on an iPhone.

Yesterday The Guardian published the new version of its “daily” app (which delivers the digital version of the printed Guardian and Observer newspapers, as opposed to the news app which delivers most of that and other online content including breaking news), which I’ve subscribed to for several years and which is the most economical way of getting hold of their content now given the rising costs of the print edition and the waste involved. The old app had warned of the forthcoming upgrade and offered me the chance to join their beta testing programme, which I considered but backed off from. The old iOS app only ran on the iPad; the Android version was similarly limited to tablet-sized devices rather than phones. This version will run on any iOS device and you can install it on all the devices you have. (More: Design Week, Press Gazette, the Guardian itself.)

Unfortunately, when I upgraded, I was locked out of my subscription: when I opened any article and tried to scroll down, it opened up a box inviting me to subscribe, and one of the options was “restore App Store subscription”. However, when I pressed that, nothing happened for a second or so and then it popped up a message saying there was a “verification error” and inviting me to try again; when I did, the same thing happened. I tried contacting the Guardian’s subscribers’ helpline but all I got was a voice menu system which did not include an option for problems with the app. There was a way to email a message to the developers, but it opened in Apple Mail, which I don’t use (I use MyMail) and so I could not send a message because there was no account set up. In the event I copied the address and the text into a new message on MyMail and sent it, but got no reply.

In the end, I had to cancel my existing subscription and open a new one using their new digital subscription service, which costs the same and allows me access to premium content on their website as well as the app, and there is also a “free trial” and a reduction for the first three months, which perhaps was not intended for existing subscribers but hey, if they had make sure their app worked before they published it, I’d still be paying full price and as it is my old subscription was meant to be valid until the end of this month.

So what of the new app? Well, instead of having the content in sections accessible either from a front page or a menu, all the content is off one big page and you can scroll down to get to different sections, or across to get to content within one section. I’d quite like an easier way to get to other sections than having to scroll down past every section in between; there is a bar on the left (at the top on a smartphone) which could be used for this purpose, but it’s used for a short-range weather forecast instead, and on my phone it’s for Cambridge (I’m in London) and there is no apparent way of changing this (tapping on any part of the forecast does nothing). The Share button seems to have disappeared; on the old app it was a source of intractable bugs (it was supposed to appear when there was an Internet connection, but in practice it often did not, especially if you launched the app without a connection and then connected; the article you were reading would never have the Share button), but I actually liked being able to share articles. Now, there seems to be no access to the article’s web location which means I have to open the separate Guardian News app to share. I’ve emailed them, but am not holding my breath for a response.

It’s nice-looking and seems quite smooth in operation. It’s only day two but the old app frequently failed to load new editions when the tablet was switched off; both my devices have loaded both yesterday’s and today’s editions without me needing to switch on or open the app, which is a great improvement. Also much appreciated is the fact that the Guardian’s website will stop bugging me to ‘contribute’ by subscribing when I already had done; I suspect those who waited until the updated version (published within hours) to get their restored subscriptions (I didn’t, so I don’t know if that bug was fixed) will still not have access to premium web content and still be getting this request when they use the website.

Also this week, I upgraded my New Statesman subscription to a paper and digital offering after the PDF version was simply discontinued without warning last month, something I had to email them to find out. The new subscription costs £12/month (rather than £10 as before) and allows me unlimited website access, which I appreciate, but I had been using the PDF almost exclusively to read the magazine before as it was much more convenient than carting around a paper edition. To be honest, I find that their customer service leaves a lot to be desired; emails I wrote them took until the end of the day in question to be responded to which lengthened by several days the time it took to get the problem sorted. Also, the subscription helpline numbers quoted on their website (020 7936 6459 and 0800 731 8496) were never answered; I had to call them to get my access to the website and app activated, which it wasn’t when I paid because my current subscription runs until the end of the month, as I found out when I found the correct number; the person on the end of the line activated it immediately which was very nice of them. So, now I have two subscriptions I can read on both my phone and my tablet, which is very convenient, although I won’t be leaving my iPad behind as it’s much easier to read a long article on that than on a phone of any size.

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