GOODBYE MR CAMERON

TwatsThat late Westminster rogue and eccentric Lord Boothby once observed that ‘the Tory Party are ruthless’ when it comes to disposing of a leader; there rarely seems room for sentiment if the rank and file have decided El Presidente has to go. Unlike Labour’s dithering with Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and (it has to be said) Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives get on with it. Rumours of coups or challenges don’t linger like a bad smell for weeks and weeks before evaporating into the ether, as is the case with their opponents across the dispatch box. Past records count for little when the decision has been made.

Iain Duncan Smith was axed before he’d even fought a General Election; Ted Heath was deposed even though he’d won one; John Major pre-empted the axe by resigning as leader and then successfully standing for re-election; and most notoriously of all, the Tories even toppled Thatcher from her throne after she had led the party to three successive General Election victories. None of this history bodes well for David Cameron. He became Prime Minister by default in 2010 and had to cobble together an administration by forming Britain’s first peacetime coalition since the Second World War; he may have won the Conservatives their first General Election for 23 years in 2015, but a meagre majority of 12 can easily be whittled down, especially when Parliament is now locked into fixed five-year terms.

Cameron perhaps anticipated future storms on the eve of the 2015 General Election campaign by announcing he didn’t intend to serve more than two terms at No.10. This threw up all kinds of excitable permutations on the part of media commentators as to what this premature retirement would entail come the unnamed day when Dave departed Downing Street. Would a leadership election provoke a General Election? Would the succession be smooth or bitter, depending on the successor? Then again, it’s possible Cameron’s inside knowledge of a forthcoming EU Referendum may have enabled him to prepare for an earlier exit than he might have wished for. Granting his Cabinet the suspension of collective responsibility was unavoidable if a fair debate was to be achieved in the weeks leading up to June 23, but it has also allowed simmering discontent with Cameron’s Premiership to bubble up to the front pages in a way that normal circumstances would never have permitted.

In comparison to Harold Wilson’s shrewd invisibility during the 1975 EEC Referendum campaign – when he kept a discreet distance whilst his divided Cabinet argued amongst themselves – Cameron has been at the forefront of this year’s Remain debate; it could be because, unlike 41 years ago, what was then called the ‘Yes’ camp seem less certain of a guaranteed victory now than they did in 1975. As Prime Minister, Dave clearly reckons the Remain team require his statesmanship clout if they are to sidestep defeat; having narrowly avoided being the man who presided over the break-up of the United Kingdom during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, Cameron seems to believe if he can avoid a Brexit scenario when backing the opposite opinion, he might just extend his time at the top to a full second term. The prospect of the vote going against him would probably make his position as Prime Minister untenable, and his detractors within the Tory Party know it.

He has had as many critics in Tory circles as outside of them during his eleven years as leader; some, such as columnist Peter Hitchens, have attacked Cameron’s now-discarded claim to being ‘the heir to Blair’ from virtually day one and have never let him forget the now-embarrassing boast. One of the more recurrent criticisms of Cameron is that he doesn’t appear to stand for or fundamentally believe in anything; he himself admitted he was ‘not a deeply ideological person’ before finding himself with genuine power, and one has to at least condone his honesty, for this statement has never been contradicted by actions. After Thatcher, conviction politicians of the most bloody-minded persuasion have largely lingered on the backbenches as the desperate fear of being rejected by the electorate has permeated the highest echelons of British politics; whichever way the wind appears to be blowing, that’s the way our leaders are going. Even Corbyn has been forced to refute decades of Euro-scepticism now that he’s somehow at the head of the Labour table.

The manner in which the Leave section of Cameron’s Cabinet have personally aimed their anti-EU criticisms at him has the ring of a school ‘away week’ whereby the teachers reluctantly submit to a more casual relationship with their pupils and suffer the indignity of being addressed by their Christian name rather than the obligatory ‘Sir’. But there has been a remarkable savagery from some of the men and women Dave made Ministers that suggests the most vocal will be in for a frosty reception in the Cabinet Office on June 24 if the vote goes in Cameron’s favour. Having said that, I doubt any of them would have exhibited such a cocky lack of respect for their leader if they didn’t believe victory will be theirs come Referendum day. Whether they admit it or not, they’re already backing Boris; and if the whole campaign is to avoid being hijacked by a Tory Civil War, perhaps Dave should fall on his sword whatever the result. History’s judgement may well be a little kinder if he does so.

© The Editor

THE LAST OF MAY

vlcsnap-2016-05-31-16h26m48s78I must admit the view from this fence is making me rather nauseas. On one side, I have David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson trying to woo me; on the other, I have Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Gorgeous George, Nasty Nigel and Boris doing likewise. It feels a bit like joining a dating site and being offered two suitable matches – Ronnie Kray or Reggie Kray. Should I refuse the entreaties of either, the consequences will border on the apocalyptic. Every menace that can befall mankind awaits me – war, terrorism, recession, economic catastrophe, the prospect of England never hosting another World Cup (and that was so odds-on that it doesn’t bear thinking about). And I haven’t even mentioned the numerous journalists and media commentators who usually make me want to pull out my own fingernails lurking on either side. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right – or, to quote another well-known pop lyric, should I stay or should I go?

The one Armageddon scenario I actually can envisage as a likelihood is that if the UK does vote leave, the SNP will instigate another Independence Referendum; having said that, I think the SNP are looking for any excuse to do so, and will keep doing so until they get the result they want – regardless of the opinions of those Scots who don’t want independence. I should imagine Sturgeon and Salmond are praying the Brexit camp come up trumps; it’s just the situation they’ve been waiting for ever since their grapes turned sour two years ago. But Scotland isn’t the only part of Britain divided; traditional divisions in Northern Ireland are also falling into line with this pattern. Recent surveys suggest Protestants are more likely to vote Remain, whereas Catholics favour Brexit. Anyone believing an official separation from Europe will somehow serve to unite this kingdom anew is clearly too blinded by the desire to give the Mandarins of Brussels a shiner to contemplate the realities of the aftermath.

The current holiday from routine Parliamentary business has seen the Devil make work for many an idle hand during the recess. News bulletins have given air time to toadies singing the PM’s praises and denying the Cabinet split over the EU issue will leave permanent cracks in the united front, as well as others within the Government criticising Cameron with uncomfortable candour and even predicting he will be ‘toast’ if the country votes leave. How anybody can realistically expect Dave to resume working with a group of underlings who have aimed the kind of personal barbs at him that are usually reserved for the Opposition should he still be in a job come June 24 is residing in a land consisting of clouds and cuckoos. Few can carry a grudge like politicians.

I apologise to a degree that this bloody subject has come to dominate the blog of late; but it is such a unique occurrence for a Prime Minister to dispense with collective responsibility within his Cabinet that it makes for good copy. To see Ministers let off the leash, actually saying out loud what they genuinely believe rather than toeing the party line and reading from a script penned by the whips is both a rare insight into the personalities behind the bland, spin-doctored facade and a chance to hear the kind of home truths that are generally the preserve of Westminster mavericks with nothing to lose. I’ve never previously known this happen, not even in the botched ‘Alternative Vote’ cock-up of a few years back; and my seven-year-old self was largely oblivious on the one occasion we’ve been here before.

As has been mentioned more than once, my age at the time of the last occasion in which the Great British Public had their say on the funny foreigners across the Channel negated any interest or real knowledge of what was going on; but had I been asked who the Prime Minister was back then, the name Harold Wilson would have come to me as quickly as any other question I might have been posed. My niece, who is three years older than I was in 1975, was presented with the same poser last week (courtesy of me) and she didn’t know the answer; granted, she didn’t know who the President of the USA was either – which surprised me more, considering Obama’s frivolous celebrity – but is that nature or nurture? Anyway, whatever that says about the society she and we inhabit is immaterial when it comes to doing what Bucks Fizz advised when they themselves made a strident entry into Europe 35 years ago.

For every argument I hear in favour of remaining, an equally valid one is made for leaving. I’ve watched and read as much as someone with a life can over the past couple of months and will no doubt continue to do so right up until the moment I embark upon my trek to the local polling station. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m undecided, for I believe I’m not the only don’t-know out there. Perhaps if one of the camps took a leaf out of the Al Qaeda manual and promised a Paradise with umpteen available virgins as a reward for the right vote, that might swing it. But then the police would be obliged to get involved, and I think they’ve enough ‘historical sex crimes’ to keep their quiet lives busy for the next couple of decades, some even coincidentally stretching back as far as 1975.

© The Editor

PASS THE VIBES, VICAR

GitStreet Cred – don’t do it! It’s Gordon Brown referencing ‘Eastenders’ in a speech and adding the prefix ‘The’; it’s William Hague attending the Notting Hill Carnival in a baseball cap; it’s Tony Blair carrying a guitar; it’s Nick Clegg boasting of his sexual conquests to a lads mag; it’s David Cameron claiming he supports Aston Villa and then confusing them with West Ham because they play in the same colours (Admittedly, I do that fairly regularly with Leeds Utd and Real Madrid). Step back in time and it can also be Jeremy Thorpe jamming with Jimi Hendrix, as well as Harold Wilson hobnobbing with The Beatles. Attempting to shed a little Westminster formality and prove politicians don’t have to be stuffy old farts out of touch with trends is bad enough; but when it extends to a charm offensive aimed at ‘The Kids’ by appropriating their lingo and encroaching upon their cultural touchstones, there are few things in life more guaranteed to curl the toes.

There’s a TV commercial for the Daily Mirror from the early 60s in which a group of teenagers have their enjoyment interrupted by a pompous father figure denouncing their noisy presence, to which an off-camera announcer responds by informing him the kids are entitled to their fun and he’s the one who’s in the way. What’s amusing about this ad is that the teenagers seem less authentic than the old fart, resembling the kind of clean-cut Pepsi-sipping stage-school adolescents ready to put on a show at a moment’s notice that populate the Cliff Richard films of the period – safe, sanitised and utterly unthreatening to a concerned middle-aged audience imagining everyone under-21 is a flick-knife wielding Teddy Boy. It’s not hard to imagine the commercial being dreamt up by the same demographic it’s intended to soothe the fears of.

The two key comedy series of the early 80s, ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘The Young Ones’, both parodied the cringing attempts of the over-30s to present their vision of contemporary yoof in a television setting. The former featured a spoof TV show for teens called ‘Hey! Wow!’ Presented by Griff Rhys-Jones as a laidback, shoulder-shrugging casual character slightly older than the adolescents surrounding him on set, the programme promises music from Lufthansa Terminal and mime from Alternative Car Park, and tries to begin with a debate on the current yoof issue of unemployment; but the host soon drops the trendy teacher act and rapidly reverts to a more authoritarian classroom tyrant. ‘The Young Ones’ eavesdropped upon a similar show called ‘Nozin’ Aroun’, presented by Ben Elton as a leather jacket-wearing member of the target age group, albeit one not quite as ‘street’ as he makes out – a bit like Elton turned out to be himself, actually.

Although understandably rooted in time in place – that time and place being the post-punk era of ‘Something Else’, ‘The Oxford Road Show’ and ‘The Tube’ – both parodies nail it. The moment a sea-change in pop culture is appropriated by adults as a means of speaking the Kids’ language, the moment has gone. This was especially prevalent in the 70s and into the 80s when virtually every year saw a Next Big Thing emerge, though it has considerably slowed down in recent years, leaving the mums and dads free to cherry-pick from slang and symbols that have been common currency amongst teens for the best part of twenty-five years – indeed, stretching all the way back to when they themselves constituted the teenage tribe (which probably makes things even worse for their kids).

The use of the phrase ‘Raving’ in the unbelievably bad Remain campaign ad for the EU Referendum (intended to persuade Young People to register as voters) suggests the word retains the relevance it had when first emerging at the end of the 80s, thus making it easier for those who produced the ad to stitch together the vocabulary of their children in cut & paste Burroughs fashion without much in the way of research – and it shows. The decision to drop the letter G from each word that flashes up on-screen (and dispensing with apostrophes in the process) is a ham-fisted concession to Estuary English of the kind George Osborne uses when donning a hard-hat and luminous jacket during his state visits to workplaces packed with common people who know the price of a pint of milk.

I would rather David Cameron strolled out of No.10 in his Bullingdon uniform, perhaps embellished with a top hat and a monocle, than painfully pose as something everyone knows he’s not. Equally, I’d prefer it if an ad which should be making a valid point didn’t wrap itself in a sequence of clichéd images and phrases the wankers that produced it have figured will best communicate that point to the under-30s. But then, if it hadn’t been as excruciating as it is, I couldn’t have responded with this…

© The Editor

IF YER NAME’S NOT ON THE LIST…

Polling station, London, 1974Probably like most people, I didn’t even notice the changes when they came in; I’m aware of them now, but only because I’m paying attention. A lot aren’t. I’m talking registering to vote. The law tells us we can all do it once we’re 18 – as long as we’re not being detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, of course. So why is it not as straightforward as it once seemed? I doubt the 1.5 million potential voters to have vanished from the electoral roll since the changes came into effect could answer that question. They disappeared because their identities couldn’t be verified via council tax and social security records on the DWP database, initially placing their automatic transference to the new register in stasis; they remained on the register until December and now they’ve gone.

Changes to the way in which the electorate register for the right to vote could reduce the numbers gaining access to the polling booth on June 23, apparently. The PM was urging ‘yoof’ to register and cast their vote this week, yet it is the abolition of the old registration system which he was instrumental in abolishing that could leave many young people out in the cold (and it probably will be cold on June 23, going by our summer climes). Individual Electoral Registration became law two years ago, twelve months before the last General Election. Whereas the previous pattern was for the head of a household to register all residents eligible to vote, with a similar process at universities, where all students would be listed together, the onus being on the individual to register alone means those people who don’t necessarily stay rigid in one place – renting tenants and students alike – are less likely to have their names down on the electoral roll.

Are these potential lost voters more likely to vote Brexit? Possibly. Are these potential lost voters more likely to vote Tory? Doubtfully. But the changes made by the previous Tory-dominated administration could have a far wider-reaching impact on voting than what happens in the EU Referendum.

The ongoing plan to bring in electoral boundary changes, reducing the number of constituencies in the process, is a plan that will base its redrawing of the map on the geography of the electorate, using the list of voters who have registered since the IER was introduced in 2014. With the majority of those registered unlikely to include serial wanderers or students, this means the boundary changes will be heavily favoured towards the traditional, stable and affluent Tory fan-base residing in rural heartlands rather than densely-populated urban areas with an ever-changing population. This imbalance gives the Tories a distinct advantage which, let’s face it, they’d obviously be foolish not to want.

When the Individual Electoral Registration became law, it was theoretically introduced to reduce the prospect of electoral fraud, but a spokesman for the Electoral Reform Society claimed the change could provoke a decline in electoral registration, ‘looking at registration rates in the 50% region’. When the new rules had been in place for a year, the 2015 General Election took place and 186,000 absent voters applied to register after the deadline. There seems to be a strong likelihood the same thing could happen again come the Referendum. How that will affect the outcome remains to be seen – or possibly Remains to be seen.

I suppose it would easy for some belonging to older generations, those for whom voting as a virtual duty was in the blood, to say that those who haven’t registered to vote have only themselves to blame. Fair point. But that implies politics figures as highly in daily discourse amongst the under-45s as it is prone to amongst the over-45s; and by and large, it doesn’t. It’s only when a media bombardment comes around every four or five years that those who don’t pay constant attention realise something is happening. We’ve been rather spoilt over the last couple of years: first the Scottish Independence Referendum, then the General Election and now a Referendum everyone in the UK can actually participate in, so anyone who hasn’t registered has no real excuse, right? Maybe; but wouldn’t it be easier if we could just turn up at the polling station with some ID and get on with it? We have to provide ID for everything else now; it should be sufficient. We’re all supposed to be on file these days, our every move monitored and tracked; so why not just endorse the myth that every free man and woman over 18 can vote and dispense with electoral registration altogether? The new system was allegedly intended to lessen the risk of fraud; it might well do that, but it doesn’t appear to be working where it really matters.

The deadline for registration re the EU Referendum is June 7; despite the fact that Mr Cameron claims a million have registered since the start of the campaign, there could be thousands who miss the deadline and won’t be able to have their say. Will they be back on the register in time for the next General Election? The way things have been going since the Individual Electoral Registration was introduced, there’s a strong possibility they won’t be.

© The Editor

PEACE IN OUR TIME

Barmaley, StalingradDavid Cameron invoked it as part of the ongoing scaremongering surrounding the impending EU Referendum; and now a retired NATO General has followed suit in order to plug a book. WAR! Yes, that’s what Europe’s got to look forward to if we a) leave the European Union or b) turn a blind eye to Putin’s military ambitions. But both the PM’s recent Remain ploy and the soothsayer-isms of Sir Alexander Richard Shirreff are issued as warnings that would require key incidents occurring years, even decades, beforehand to come to fruition; and unless these key incidents have indeed happened and won’t become apparent as such till the dust settles, it’s hard to discern them while the mongers are busy scaring.

The two instalments of twentieth century World War – what historian Stephen Ambrose described as ‘a European Civil War with no European victors’ – had roots that stretched back a long way. For me, the roots of the First World War can be traced back to Napoleon’s vicious dismemberment of Prussia a century earlier, whereas the eventual outbreak of the Second World War was a direct consequence of Germanic humiliation in the Treaty of Versailles. Unless Yeltzin’s poorly-thought out rush to dive into a western market economy during the 1990s is cited as the cause of Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, or the 2008 economic meltdown acts as an eventual catalyst for conflict, there isn’t really anything in the modern era that can be viewed as the crucial foundation-laying for war to match those that lit the blue-touch paper in 1914 or 1939.

The official line goes that peace has been maintained in Europe since 1945; if one ignores Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and a certain barney in the Balkans during the 90s, the line holds true. Not that the EU could – or should – take credit for that. It didn’t exist in its current incarnation in either 1956 or 1968 (the years of the USSR’s brutal intervention in failed, admirable attempts to embrace democratic freedoms), and I don’t recall it doing much to prevent the relentless bombardment of Sarajevo in 1992-96.

Granted, there is no denying that the past seventy years have been relatively peaceful when compared to the turbulent history of Europe, which is the bloodiest of any continent on the planet; but to attribute this rare stability to the existence of the EU is stretching it a bit. For an institution that spent its formative years as a purely economic arrangement between Western European powers to be promoted as some form of benign peace-keeping force in the centre of the continent for seven decades is dishonest, even if the peace angle was pivotal to its initial conception. However, it would undoubtedly be rather mean and churlish to express retrospective cynicism towards the movers and shakers behind both the United Nations and the European Economic Community when none of us were there to absorb the forward-looking determination they shared to see something genuinely positive arise from the ashes of a thirty-year conflict with a decade for dinner in the middle.

The current refugee crisis comprises the greatest mass migration of peoples in Europe since 1945, it is true, though the difference between then and now is one of direction. Today, Europe’s refugees are largely of Middle-Eastern descent and have viewed the continent they risked life and limb to get to as a kind of economic Promised Land; after the war, the refugees were home-grown, wandering from one devastated European nation to another, with the Jewish ones desperate to get out of Europe altogether and head for their own Promised Land…in the Middle East. One also needs to take into account the estimated deaths of around 70 million Europeans during the Second World War if comparisons are to be made with the immediate post-war continent and Europe in the twenty-first century. Europe in 1945 was a landmass that had experienced a population wipe-out on a par with the Black Death; today, it is a landmass experiencing a rapid upsurge in population.

A sudden influx of immigrants can provoke panic in some natives and foster grievances that, at their most paranoid, have a tendency to morph into far-right political parties; whether these have sufficient mass popularity to eventually cultivate a consensus whose natural outcome is war remains to be seen in this case – though Austria’s Freedom Party are poised to make a promising start. Similarly, while Putin has been able to do whatever the hell he pleases in the face of little worldwide opposition bar ineffective sanctions, is the only route available to the West to take him on militarily? Either way, there are so many ifs and buts (not to mention a fair few leaps of the imagination) if the doom ‘n’ gloom forecast is to be fulfilled that it’s hard not to see the motivation behind it as being a cynical ploy on the part of those with a blatant agenda and a degree in the politics of nightmares. The lights are still on in Europe at the moment, and the moment is all we have.

© The Editor

THE EUROPA LEAGUE

Eurovision 2016When presented with an ultimatum by Napoleon in 1806, Holy Roman Emperor Francis II not only had to abdicate and accept the dissolution of an entity in the centre of Europe boasting a vintage of eight centuries; he also had to endure a scathing summary of his overstretched Empire’s irrelevance in the continent’s new order. Bonaparte told the humiliated Habsburg that his Empire was akin to an old maidservant who had been raped by every member of the household in which she served. It was time to put her out of her misery.

Although the Holy Roman Empire’s genesis had been in the distant medieval era and it cannot be viewed in the same light as the war-like nations of Europe that were engaged in constant conflict with each other, it had continued as a useful and desirable ally for any competing European power poised to lock horns (whether England, France, Spain or Holland) for the remainder of its existence, mainly due to the sheer scale of the land it covered and the number of troops it could therefore call upon when battle commenced. Largely governed by Germanic rulers, the Empire nevertheless reached as far south as Northern Italy and comprised a complex sequence of sovereign kingdoms, city states, duchies, principalities and hundreds of other sub-divisions that, on paper, maintained a degree of independent sovereignty, though officially owed their allegiance to the Emperor. In retrospect, it’s hard not to view the Holy Roman Empire as a prototype for the European Union.

Perhaps if Boris Johnson had used his evident intelligence to draw parallels with Europe’s previous centralised economic and political powerhouse instead of taking the lazy Livingstone route to Nazi comparisons, maybe his latest gaffe could have been avoided. Both Nazi Germany and Napoleonic France evolved from mere nations into a system of continental conquest and subjugation, one that imposed order on central Europe by invading its sovereign territories and brutally expanding the boundaries of the conquering country in the process. By contrast, the Holy Roman Empire was a bureaucratic brotherhood of nations, part Common Market/part NATO; it even crossed the great divide between Catholicism and Protestantism in its member states. The Emperor usually emanated from an established dynasty of rulers, but was nevertheless an elected monarch, even if his electorate consisted of the elite Prince-Electors rather than the general public. Sound familiar?

The demise of the Holy Roman Empire was made easier by its sprawling size, particularly when Napoleon’s armies could pick off one vulnerable member state after the other before striking at its Austrian heart and forcing the Emperor to surrender his crown and bring the 800-year-old institution to an undignified end. It had become bloated, complacent and effectively irrelevant to the nineteenth century, and all that was required to kill it off was one ruthlessly ambitious demigod who had no respect for its ancient traditions. Unlike Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany, the EU is not a county and neither was the Holy Roman Empire. Boris resorted to crass Napoleonic and Nazi references because he knows these are ones that the British public can relate to in basic black-and-white terms, not to mention ones that will invoke the spirits of Trafalgar or Dunkirk. Utterly meaningless spirits when it comes to this particular debate, but potent ones all the same.

At the same time as Bo-Jo was playing his pound-shop Churchill, Eastern Europe was embroiled in a war of words set to music. Ukraine won Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest with a number apparently inspired by the singer Jamala’s great-grandmother being forced to leave her Crimean homeland by Stalin in 1944 (the title of the song) during his revenge on Crimean Tatars for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. This effective ethnic cleansing resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 deportees from the Crimean Peninsula to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in Central Asia. Not exactly the basis for an upbeat entry into a song contest noted for its banal lyrical content, but a highly charged one at this moment in time.

Let’s face it, though, the Eurovision has been a hotbed of political bias ever since the old Eastern Bloc countries were welcomed into the fold over 20 years ago. The blatantly partisan nature of the voting was one of the reasons Terry Wogan gave up his stint at the microphone, and it seems whatever controversial move Putin’s Russia makes is only ever really punished in the incongruous environs of an entertainment event while an impotent EU and UN watch on. I remember lipstick lesbians t.A.T.u. being greeted with a chorus of catcalls and boos during their performance for Russia at the tournament in 2003, so voters opting for a song criticising past Russian activities in a country that has recently been annexed by Putin is no great surprise.

Predictable outrage in Russia itself to Ukraine’s triumph hardly ranks the song’s success alongside one of the Eurovision’s great robberies, such as General Franco allegedly rigging the victory for Spain over Cliff in 1968, but it does show that the continent of Europe, from its western to its eastern tips, is a far-from happy bunny at the moment – something that the approaching deadline of June 23 (and all the hypothetical propaganda surrounding it) probably isn’t helping.

© The Editor

LOCAL VOTES FOR LOCAL PEOPLE II

LondonSo, as they say, the polls have closed and the results are in. How does the return to public office of once-disgraced ex-Tory Minister Neil Hamilton (capturing a seat for UKIP at the Welsh Assembly) reflect the political map of the country? Well, let’s start up at the top. The Liberal Democrats have embarked upon their road to recovery…by maintaining their reliable dominance in the Orkneys and the Shetlands. Not a great surprise, really. After all, former Liberal leader Joe Grimond held one of the most distant Parliamentary seats from Westminster at Orkney and Shetland for over thirty years and was a lifelong supporter of Scottish Home Rule. With the loss of their traditional fan-base down in the West Country, the faraway Scottish isles remain one of the last outposts of liberalism in the UK; had the Lib Dems lost there, they may as well have gone the way of the Whigs. Mind you, the Scottish mainland wasn’t as accommodating, where the party was pushed into fifth place by the Greens.

Nicola Sturgeon and her one pair of earrings (it took a woman to point that out to me) claimed a third straight win for the SNP in the elections to the Scottish Parliament on Thursday – even if, for the first time, the win didn’t give them an outright majority. That’s not really news, though; nobody expected a Nationalist collapse just as nobody expected the bad losers of 2014’s Independence Referendum to stop carping on about another vote on the same subject. One suspects they’ll keep carping on about it, however many times Scotland goes to the independence polls, until they eventually get what they want.

The biggest shock north of the border by far was the fact that the new opposition to the SNP is none other than the Conservative Party. Yes, you heard right. The Scottish Tory has been on the brink of extinction ever since the calamitous 1997 General Election, yet by building on their electoral disaster in Scotland last year, Labour have unexpectedly been replaced by the Tories in second place. It’s certainly a remarkable turnaround in Tory fortunes as well as an embarrassing indication of just how far Labour have fallen in what was once one of their key heartlands, with new Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale faring no better than her hapless predecessor Jim Murphy. Whatever the Labour PR machine says in the days following this latest kick in the tartan goolies, there’s no glossing over the fact that the party is perilously close to being completely finished in Scotland.

Labour remarkably failed to win any of the nine constituency seats in Glasgow, something not even Jeremy Corbyn’s fiercest critics anticipated. Yes, it may be true that the decimation of Labour in Scotland took place while Ed Miliband was at the helm of the national party; but Jezza has managed an impressive achievement by being even less appealing to the Scottish electorate than Red Ed. It’s certainly hard to imagine Labour returning to power without the strength in depth that Scotland traditionally gave them, so the council seats they retained in England seem little more than a mere short-term bulwark against Corbyn’s critics. The fact that HM Opposition tends to gain rather than lose seats between General Elections, a tradition even Michael Foot upheld (as the media keeps reminding us), leaves Labour stuck in an uphill battle to reconnect with voters beyond London and the big northern cities, with Sadiq Khan’s predictable mayoral victory over Zac Goldsmith in the capital reflective of the party’s metropolitan popularity.

At least Labour continues to control Wales, though a 24% swing to Plaid Cymru in the Rhondda leaves Labour facing a considerable hole in its previously-impregnable Welsh fortress. There were also seven regional Welsh seats won by UKIP, including the aforementioned return of Neil Hamilton, celebrating his triumph as usual with his minder…sorry, wife…by his side. The Lib Dems polled badly in Wales, losing all but one of their seats there as well as their Welsh leader Kirsty Williams, whereas the Tories were sandwiched between Plaid Cymru and UKIP, an unappetising snack if ever there was one. Mind you, at least the media focus on the local elections has enabled the Government to bury a bit of awkward bad news following one more post-Budget U-turn, this time on the plans to convert all schools to academies.

Have we really learnt anything from this batch of elections that we didn’t already know, then? The Conservatives suffered less than a party in government usually does; and Labour didn’t experience the national disaster some had predicted, even if falling behind the Tories in Scotland is a once-unthinkable humiliation. Not quite ‘as you were’ in that particular case, but more or less ‘as you were’ everywhere else. Roll on June 23.

© The Editor

LOCAL VOTES FOR LOCAL PEOPLE

SAM_1498Persistent hounder of many a bounder, TV journalist Michael Crick once described the General Election as ‘our World Cup’, with the ‘our’ being the small coterie of correspondents and commentators whose careers are devoted to documenting developments in the British political arena. If that’s true for the major event held on average every four/five years, local elections must then equate with some minor tournament staged during the summer, the kind of poor relation that is exclusively available on some obscure subscription-only satellite channel nobody has ever actually seen.

Most of us could probably name our MP (at a push), whereas councillors are a far more anonymous breed. At one time, there appeared to be a proliferation of regional titans who were never slow to remind the electorate that they’d once run around without shoes on their feet, hard men – and occasionally women – carved from local stone and prepared to pocket a few backhanders to put their towns on the map. Many, such as Newcastle’s T Dan Smith, became embroiled in scandals that were a side-effect of their rapacious ambition, eventually paying the price with prison sentences and the consequent end of careers in public office. Yes, they were rogues, but there was a certain begrudging admiration for their refusal to be cast as pale imitations of their Westminster superiors. When compared to the bland double-glazing salesmen and primary school headmistresses who constitute today’s moribund councillors, it’s no wonder so few potential voters can be sufficiently fired-up to trek to the polling station.

Not that this will be evident as live TV coverage bigs up today’s elections once the results begin rolling in, mind. It’ll still be presented as ‘David Cameron’s first serious test since the General Election’ or ‘the first chance to gauge the public’s opinion of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership’ or numerous other ‘firsts’. The broadcasters love it, and they’ve not even had the EU Referendum to get their teeth into yet; not that through-the-night broadcasts of this nature aren’t occasionally entertaining, however – fun to dip in and out of, a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s even acquired a crass Americanism to inject a dash of glamour into proceedings – Super Thursday, as opposed to not-bad Wednesday and bloody awful Friday.

Lest we forget, the engrossing allure of local elections isn’t quite sufficiently engrossing to support the hype, so it’s handy we also have elections to the assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland as well as the Scottish Parliament and one or two mayoral shindigs, most prominently the one darn Landan way, between renowned Bollywood devotee and man of the Asian people…Zac Goldsmith; and Sadiq Khan. Hell, there are even a couple of Westminster by-elections to add to the list. Come on!

Head-and-shoulders above the rest, though, have to be the elections for the local Police and Crime Commissioners. When the Tories introduced this extra layer of police bureaucracy in 2012, the turn-out amongst the electorate was a canny reflection of the public’s appetite for the new innovation: between 10% and 20%. One cannot but suspect had the damp squib proposal by the Blair administration for regional English assemblies got past the drawing board at the turn of the century, the enthusiasm on the part of the electorate would be similarly euphoric.

Having said all that, there are certain aspects of the day’s machinations which might prove interesting as pointers to where the major parties go next. Will the recent anti-Semitic accusations affect Labour’s prospects? Will the divisive European issue damage the hopes of the Tories? Will the internal coup that has been brewing ever since Corbyn rose without a trace be given the excuse it needs to move into action? Will the whole exercise serve as a warm-up for which way the wind may blow come June 23? Only one way to find out, you lucky bloody insomniacs.

And on a less cynical note, here’s a silly video…

© The Editor

THE BRITISH PLAY

WillThat the final visit to British shores of President Obama as leader of ‘the free world’ should fall on a weekend when our nation marks the 400th anniversary of its greatest writer’s passing is one of those neat strokes of fate, coming at a moment when the country is perched perilously on the crossroads between alleged integration and alleged isolation. Obama’s unsurprising pro-EU stance, whether his sentiments were given a canny nudge by Dave or not, have proved to be a sly stroke on the part of the Remain camp; regardless of his fairly unremarkable record in his day-job, Obama is a popular figure here, and no amount of crying foul play by the Brexit bunch will really alter that.

Neither Boris nor Farage have issued anything beyond petulant retorts to Obama’s veiled threat as to America’s position should the UK vote ‘no’. There is a certain irony, however, that such a professional patriot as Nigel should possess a frankly flimsy grasp of history. Accusing the incumbent President of being the most anti-British tenant of the White House is somewhat curious considering that just over 200 years ago one of his predecessors – James Madison – declared war on the US’s former colonial overlord. The War of 1812 may now be regarded as a footnote to the far greater Napoleonic conflicts by European historians, but it surely represents a bleaker low point in the Special Relationship than Obama indicating Britain will be shoved to the back of the trading queue if she chooses to retreat from the brotherhood of her nearest neighbours.

I at least expected a myriad of quotes from ‘Henry V’ to constitute the Brexit response to Obama this weekend. Regularly plucked from the text to provoke patriotism at best and jingoism at worst, the words the Bard placed in the mouth of the victor of Agincourt have become a default mechanism for the nation when it perceives itself as being under threat. And there is, of course, a case of the pot calling the kettle black in America preaching European harmony and anti-isolationism when it has spent so much of its existence masquerading as a country breaking with traditional Old World aggression by avoiding excessive participation in world affairs – on the surface, at least. A cursory glance at an enlightening article which appeared online a year ago reveals the US has enjoyed a mere total of 21 years of peace since 1776. In fact, America has never lasted so much as a solitary decade without being involved in some military conflict or another from the moment when the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.

‘And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain, and I hate the idle pleasure of these days’; so said Richard III in the hands of Shakespeare’s quill. While the gung-ho war-cry of Henry V may well be evoked to galvanise those who feel Britain’s precious sovereignty is forever in peril from some Brussels directive whilst we remain chained to treaties signed in the 80s and 90s, one could argue a withdrawal from the continent places us back in the role of detached observer on European activities, cast in the role of villain, mistrusted anew by the advocates of the great European project and consequently reinforcing our geographical separation from the mainland. This wasn’t a problem back in the days of the Empire, and we still have a network of connections to our ex-imperial possessions in the Far East, Africa and the Indian Subcontinent that, historically, should have precedence over the neighbours we’ve spent most of our lifetime fighting. After all, we only have a land border with just one country – the Republic of Ireland – which is itself further from Europe than even we are in terms of miles.

The perceived importance of a European Economic Community, not to mention a military one, was passionately promoted by Churchill even before such institutions came into being, but it was Sir Winston’s misfortune to be born too early to participate in the construction of the initial incarnation of the operation. The historical and sentimental ties with the Commonwealth somewhat got in the way of Europe’s post-war destination from Britain’s point of view, leaving the French and the Germans to take control and relegate us to a permanent periphery, even when Ted Heath achieved his long-term ambition of gaining us a place at the table in 1972. Lest we forget, the formation of the Common Market (along with NATO) took place while Europe remained divided between East and West, but the fall of the Berlin Wall, pushing back the borders of democratic Europe to the edges of Russia, changed the makeup of the EU, and the Referendum of June 23 this year will decide our role in an organisation that is a radically different animal to the one it was in 1975.

The Brexit camp contains those who recognise the differences between the modern-day EU and the old EEC as well as those who have always been opposed to any integration with Europe, while even the Remain gang recognise something has to change in order for our continued membership to be something worth fighting for. President Obama’s sentiments are obviously influenced by American interests, but his intervention probably hasn’t helped make the minds up of any don’t knows out there. As with a General Election, notions of doing something in the country’s best interests will largely be supplanted by individual concerns. As someone whose shopping is mostly done online, I would begrudge the addition of import tax on buying overseas goods that EU countries are currently exempt from if we leave, whilst a friend has already decided she will vote ‘out’ due to EU interference in the e-cigarette issue. I suspect this will be a pattern we will all follow come June, and Obama’s opinion will count for little when we visit our nearest polling station.

© The Editor

TRUST ME, I’M A POLITICIAN

MPSo, there I was – broom at the ready, waiting for the call that never came. It was five years ago and I was eager to sign-up for the Big Society. Would I be sweeping someone else’s dry sick away from the pavement, my head proudly sporting a paper hat with David Cameron’s face on it as an advert for my gullible stupidity? I was ready to volunteer to do something soul-destroying for free, eschewing the payment demanded by those council workers who at least fulfilled the state’s obligation to do its dirty work in exchange for a fee. And now, half-a-decade later, I’m furtively fixated on the letter box for a sight of the government’s explanation on why leaving the EU wouldn’t be a good idea. I’m sure it’ll be a concise and honest document that nobody could dispute the facts of.

I often wonder what it would be like to embrace bullshit with unthinking enthusiasm, to take every government edict at face value and do as I’m told without questioning the wisdom of my elected superiors. I would be measuring the amount I drank each week and once I’d reached my limit I’d not touch another drop; I would stop smoking and I’d drop everything from my diet that could induce an excess of calories and cholesterol; I would indulge in regular exercise, but wouldn’t overdo it for fear of provoking a heart attack; I would certainly avoid illegal substances and wouldn’t even contemplate a sexual act that is frowned upon; I’d spend at least three hours every Saturday afternoon purchasing goods I don’t want in order to ensure the high-street remains the beating heart of the economy; I’d try not to be too creative as that could deny me profitable employment at best and could signify a strain of mental illness at worst; I’d steer clear of sun-beds, legal highs, e-cigs, poppers and pornography and would police my vocabulary in order that I’d never say anything liable to cause offence. I’d wait with bated breath for every piece of advice issued by the particular government department entrusted with taking care of my best interests.

Don’t know about you, but I’ve been receiving regular emails from some branch of the Remain campaign over the past few weeks, ones that always open with my name, as though I’m being personally addressed by a chum. All very matey, I must say, as my support for staying in the EU has made me part of a team. Ain’t it great to belong? The only snag in my recruitment to the cause is that I never actually signed-up for it. As a confirmed ‘don’t know’ on this subject, I haven’t committed myself to either camp, so where do my pals in the Remain group get the idea that I am? The electoral register has a lot to answer for.

Occasionally, I glance at the contents of my Spam box and am bemused by the number of organisations that appear to crave my company and have a habit of disguising their sales pitch as a message from a friend. Although the Remain side of this European Hokey Cokey have yet to be directed to the same destination, as a perverse curiosity compels me to briefly scan their missives, I resent the presumption on their part that I’m singing from the same hymn sheet, just as I would if the Brexit bunch did likewise. That the latter have yet to do so perhaps underlines the crucial difference between their respective PR machines.

And now Gideon has been on his platform again to toss some scaremongering scraps down at the plebs. Taking the Brexit route would cost us all more than £4,000 a year; it would reduce the economy by 6% once we reach 2030 and would leave a black hole in the public finances of a staggering £36 billion! Right, that’s my mind made up. Just as well I’m already part of the team (according to my emails); now I’d better hit the streets and start campaigning. The economy will be 4% greater if we stay where we are, and if Mr Osborne says it’s true, then it must be. He tells us the poor would be hit hardest by a Brexit outcome – what, more than they’ve been hit by his own punitive punishments over the last six years? I had no idea.

Several Tory bigwigs, as well as a few fossils most thought were too busy snoozing in the Lords to get involved, have come out in favour of coming out. Boris, Gove and IDS are backed by the leading Fleet Street grande dames, leaving the Remain campaign to contemplate alternate means of getting their message across. The time-honoured impartiality of television is obliged to give equal airtime to both points of view, so they’ve resorted to the email and the good old-fashioned printed letter, assuming anyone lucky enough to receive them won’t treat them with the same disregard as they do the flyers promoting B.O.G.O.F. deals at their local pizza emporium.

For all the support the Brexit team are keen to claim, they lack the financial clout of their opposition and cannot compete when it comes to slick and efficient PR outside of the impartial TV arena. Does this make it a fair fight? I wouldn’t have thought so. But if the Remain posse reckon blitzing the nation’s inboxes and letter boxes with their side of the argument will seal a victory for them, they haven’t reckoned with a populace both tired and mistrustful of government advice, one whose instinctive reaction to being told what to do is to go and do the opposite.

© The Editor