The EU Referendum, the SNP and Political Fog

Before the election last year I wrote about the problem of ‘politics as comic book’, a ‘twilight’ world of good and bad, right and wrong, conducted by fighting fog because relatively few people had any idea what they were talking about. We’ve long known, for example, that the public remains stubbornly misinformed about issues like welfare and immigration.

In some respects the rise of ‘populism’ in recent years takes advantage of this, offering simple certainties in an age which seems frighteningly precarious and complex: your problems are caused by immigration, by the European Union, by Westminster, by ‘bankers’. This populism has largely been associated with smaller parties, contrasted with the ‘responsible’ and ‘mainstream’ larger parties who had a duty to combat it. This started to change with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn here in the UK and now Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump in the USA: these are politicians who are presented by those who identify as ‘moderate’ and ‘reasonable’ as offering simple, populist responses to complex problems.

Yet it is increasingly unavoidable that this is little more than self-delusion. What these people like to call the ‘centre-ground’ of politics is conducted in that hinterland of unreality where no-one really has any idea what they’re talking about but everyone pretends otherwise. It’s clear, for example, that much of our politics is addressed at the myths around welfare and immigration rather than the reality. This has found strong, grim expression in the discussion around the referendum on the European Union.

It’s obvious that public awareness of the European Union, on the basic level of what it is and what it does, is woeful. In a survey last year less only 27% of respondents in the UK could correctly answer three relatively simple questions on the EU – if people have no idea of the number of members, the chances that they have any understanding of how laws are made or even what the bodies of the EU are aren’t high. Yet, as with (and not separate from) welfare and immigration, strong feelings and perceptions of the EU have come to dominate our political discourse with little regard as to how informed or otherwise they may be.

So it was that we ended up with yesterday’s bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister trumpeting an improved ‘deal’ for the UK in the EU and asking that people vote to remain in it as a consequence. The two centrepieces of this deal underlined that this was about responding to ignorance rather than any practical concerns: a ‘red card’ veto over ‘unwanted legislation’ and an ’emergency brake’ on ‘migrant benefits’.

The ‘red card’ is clearly aimed at those who believe the much-renowned ‘faceless bureaucrats’ at the EU impose legislation on the EU, “like some distant imperial ruler legislating for its colonial subjects.” Aside from not even beginning to address the lack of education on EU decision-making or, for example, the distinction between the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, the ‘red card’ basically already exists. That’s a lot of noise mad about nothing much at all.

The hoopla over ‘migrant benefits’ gets, I think, a lot closer to the actual ‘concerns’ many have regarding the EU – concerns based on ignorance, xenophobia and just plain racism about ‘uncontrolled immigration’ and migrants ‘coming over here and taking our jobs/benefits’.  Suffice to say, the available information doesn’t support this being a problem at all. The data is sketchy but suggests that:

EU migrants make up only a small proportion of the overall benefits caseload. They accounted for 2.5% of benefits the DWP administered in 2014 – mostly out-of-work benefits – in 2014, and 7% of tax credits, based on the HMRC definition discussed above.

The DWP analysis says EU migrants on “in-work” benefits cost the taxpayer £530m in 2013. That represents a modest 1.6% of the year’s total tax credit bill.

The vast majority of EU migrants living in the UK are in employment, while EU migration has been found to have “no statistically significant effects” on employment for those born in the UK (and in fact contributes billions to the UK economy). I’m also aware from personal experience that many, even on the left, are completely unaware that people living in the EU can’t just come to the UK and start claiming benefits. There are conditions,  and the benefits they can claim are limited. It’s also the case, of course, the people from the UK are resident across the EU and some of them claim benefits.

The scare about EU migrants claiming benefits, then, feeds into the demonisation of welfare and immigration in general. We might not expect David Cameron to address these, given how well the Tories did out of inflaming English nationalism in May 2015. Could we expect the ‘moderate’ wing of Labour to do so? Of course not:

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In claiming this as a ‘substantial win..for Britain’, Chuka Umunna reinforces the harmful myths around the EU and throws migrants under the bus. This comes after Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall spoke of wanting to restrict EU benefits in the Labour leadership election (contrast with Corbyn’s rhetoric). These are intelligent people who presumably identify as ‘progressive’, perhaps even left-wing. I find it hard to believe they aren’t aware that they’re responding to concerns which are largely baseless, and flirting with deeply unpleasant sentiments as they do so. Yet this is what seems to pass for ‘centre-ground’ politics – fighting fog to avoid being seen to challenge ‘ordinary people’, who must be deferred to always (except when they believe in things which punch upwards rather than downwards, such as nationalisation and wealth taxes).

Ignorance about the European Union isn’t, of course, confined to those who view it negatively. The incoherence of the SNP’s position, demanding ‘independence’ and ‘all decisions affecting Scotland, made in Scotland’ while being uncritically pro-EU, remains largely unchallenged. Amongst Scottish nationalists I would assert that much support for the EU comes not from a deep understanding of it (or a belief in countries working together in unions), but rather as a response to anti-EU sentiment being associated with right-wing English nationalism. This may be more benign than anti-EU sentiment but it is no less based in fog.

The SNP, of course, have made exploiting many people’s ignorance about politics into an artform. Whether it be going to war to prevent Westminster from implementing much the same law on fox-hunting as Holyrood did, constantly misrepresenting (read: lying about) EVEL while not even bothering to vote on the Housing and Planning Bill (EVEL’s first use) or presenting economic plans largely idential to Labour’s and framing it as ‘anti-austerity vs Red Tories’, the SNP understand that what is going on in Scottish politics has little foundation in fact and much in nationalist rhetoric. We saw this perfectly illustrated yesterday, when Scottish Labour called the SNP’s bluff on austerity and announced proposals to use the Scottish Rate of Income Tax to invest in public services. The SNP line on the SRIT has been consistent since Swinney’s December budget: that it’s not a ‘progressive’ tax and would hit the poor more than the wealthy. This is plain incorrect when it comes to SRIT as is and it’s even more wrong about Labour’s proposal. Yet the SNP knows that the faithful need lines and so it dutifully pumped them out: by making plans to protect the poorest income tax-payers, it was acknowledging the tax wasn’t progressive (a circular argument if ever there was one); the rebate was unworkable and possibly ‘illegal’; the tax rise was a ‘unionist’ tax to pay for Tory policies.

It was this last claim which most exposed the utterly daft, if deeply sad, state of Scottish politics, unleashing lots of unhinged ranting about ‘unionism’. Scotland doing things differently was apparently a ‘nightmare’ scenario:

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Bearing in mind that public spending in Scotland is consistently higher per capita than in the rest of the UK, asking people to pay a bit more for more spending seems a no-brainer. Especially in a context where the SNP has, for example effectively cut Council Tax with its 8 year freeze, leading to a crisis in local government, while using the funds to ensure free university tuition while cutting student support for the poorest (something the SNP, again, condemned at Westminster, safe in the knowledge few would know they had done much the same). Clearly ‘doing things differently’ in Scotland is fine when it comes to enacting policies people like but when it comes to paying for it, it’s unacceptable. This is because we have the bizarre situation where, for many, the SNP get the credit for everything perceived as better than the status quo in England/Wales, but anything difficult is judged against an imaginary independent Scotland. Scotland is currently ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ to do things differently because once the country is’independent’ it will be able to do everything better. The SNP has, of course, never actually said how it would pay for doing things differently: its White Paper offered a corporation tax cut, it is cutting air passenger duty and, prior to is general election plans proposing ‘anti-austerity’ plans largely identical to Labour’s ‘austerity-lite’, it proposed more borrowing. The latter is, of course, a valid option but one which again relied on a lack of any realistic consideration (and again was probably inconsistent with EU membership). As Professor Wren-Lewis put it, it was “being in denial about macroeconomic fundamentals because they interfered with…politics.” If the fatuous fog of the EU ‘debate’ is infused with xenophobia and English nationalism, the Scottish variant has much the same effect of impeding informed debate.

Let’s be clear: people will support different political parties, different policies, different ideologies, for many reasons. I don’t mean to fetishise some ‘reality’ which exists in an ideology-free vacuum. There are certainly discussions and debate to be had about the European Union or spending/policies in Scotland. Yet to get to them we have to first acknowledge where we are and face the truth that what’s actually happening – the truth, as far as we can get it, of how much is spent on what, of what laws actually mean, of what governments are actually doing – is a secondary consideration.  It would be tempting to accredit this to an age where ‘opinion’ has become a sacred right with no corresponding responsibility to inform oneself but this isn’t a recent development, as this excerpt from The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists shows:

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If we are to have any hope of a better world we have to be able to debate and to be proved wrong.  Facile assertions that challenging the perceived status quo ‘insults ordinary people’ or ‘talks down Scotland’ or ‘presumes to know better’ are little more than dangerous demagoguery. It is beholden on each of us, as far as we can, to fight the political fog and refuse to flatter that which we know to be untrue. This doesn’t mean shouting about the media attacking Corbyn or protesting outside the BBC – it means attempting to understand where power lies, how it is operated and how it can best be challenged to achieve our goals. The alternative is darkness.

Valhalla vs Apocalypse: Enduring #IndyRef Myths

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I wrote a couple of months ago on the myths which pervade the #indyref campaign and I don’t think much has changed on that front. It’s funny – a common theme from commentors on the debate is how mature and civilised it is, yet each ‘side’ delights in pointing out the myriad of ways in which the other is talking bollocks without ever removing the logs from their own eyes. Tonight’s debate between Salmond and Darling will almost certainly see more of this and it’s been fairly fascinating seeing the myths which sustain particular identities laid bare. Both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps have attempted to lay claim to ideas that they are beacons of fairness, tolerance and justice in the world. Writing from a left-wing perspective, it seems fairly accepted amongst peers that it’s at best ridiculous, at worst grotesque for anyone to argue this on behalf of the UK, which is beset by a bleak assortment of social problems and has some of the worst poverty and inequality in the developed world. So if I don’t write much about the myths advanced by Better Together and their ilk it’s because I take it as given that those of a ‘progressive’ ilk don’t buy into them in the first place.

The myths around Scotland, however, not only seem to be burrowed deep into the national subconscious but have found themselves flourishing wildly during this debate. The great unknown offered by independence sees every problem, from the arms trade through to uninspired Scottish architecture, reframed as a ‘Westminster’ or ‘England’ issue which the plucky Scots can solve by voting ‘Yes’. Sure, most people have enough sense not to say it as bluntly as this but the overwhelming narrative is the very familiar one of Scotland being both more progressive, and more oppressed, than its neighbour to the South. The troubling subtexts in this message can’t help but seep through the cracks, whether it be in the suggestion that opponents to independence are suffering from a “deep-seated cultural self-hatred” or in the utterly idiotic notion that voting ‘no’ is giving “Westminster permanent permission to do whatever it likes forever. No questions asked.” The choice is between an independent Scotland full of hope and optimism and general niceness or a UK which is dystopian and apocalyptic. All progressive thought, opinion and action in the rest of the UK is erased.

I was surprised to see this exact framing in the latest issue of London Review of Books, a journal which consistently presents some of the best writing in the UK (and beyond) The piece, called What Sort of Scotland? and written by Neal Ascherson, is behind a paywall but I’ve copied some relevant sections with my commentary:

It does Yes campaigners some credit that they haven’t launched their own ‘Project Fear’ concentrating on what happens if independence is rejected on 18 September. They don’t talk about it, affect not to think about it. But the landscape beyond that day is growing darker.

It does credit to Yes campaigners (which Ascherson clearly is, despite making an odd distinction by claiming to only be a Yes ‘voter’) that they don’t scaremonger…except when they do. It’s ironic that for all the (correct) complaints of Better Together’s ‘negativity’, much of the Yes campaign’s energy comes from its opposition to the current state of a Tory-led UK and its apocalyptic predictions of a ‘darker landscape’. How Lord of the Rings. As I’ve written previously, the UK-wide opposition to this is never going to be found in a campaign against Scottish independence – why would it be? It’s found in the recent strikes, in fights against changes to welfare, in campaigns for a living wage, in mass demos for Gaza. This progressive body of opinion exists across the UK but many independence campaigners pretend that it doesn’t while complaining that ‘unionists’ offer no vision of a better society. It’s disingenuous in the exteme.

The Unionist parties say that they will agree on further devolution of powers to Scotland. But these don’t seem likely to go much beyond a little more discretion on some taxes. There’s talk of calling a national convention on the constitutional future, but this would apparently be led by the Scotland Office – a London ministry – with Scotland’s elected government and Parliament reduced to mere participants among a crowd of British bodies.

This complaint has been voiced with increasing frequency: the UK government might promise more devolution but it doesn’t really mean it! And even if it did, it’s worthy only of derision because it would be led by…the UK government. ‘A London ministry’. The outrage that a parliament made up of the nations of the UK would ‘apparently’ lead on constitutional change, rather than the parliament which only represents Scotland! It’s all chip-on-shoulder nonsense relying on ‘Scotland vs London’ sentiment.

It’s possible that Scotland might decline too, sharply and even irreversibly, in that first No decade. It’s not just that pro-Europe Scotland might well be dragged out of the EU by a Europhobic southern majority.

I’ve long found it ironic that pro-independence voices are almost uniformally uncritical of the EU, a body which by any measure has greater problems regarding legitimacy and democracy than Westminster. Criticism of the EU is, however, largely associated with right-wing opinion and so isn’t helpful to the idea of Scotland as a progressive beacon. Leaving that to one side, the suggestion that Scotland could be forced out of the EU by a ‘southern majority’ is another one which you hear fairly regularly and is commonly accepted. Yet it belies a far more complex reality where a majority in Scotland have consistently adopted a critical approach to the EU. A recent Yougov poll on the EU, meanwhile, found majority support for remaining in the EU across the entire UK. Most interestingly, it found that if people believed UK membership had been renegotiated more favourably, opinion on EU membership was almost uniform with 54-61% opting to stay in.

Or that English hysteria about immigration could block young European incomers to Scotland – a need first recognised when the then first minister Jack McConnell sent recruiters to the bus-parks of Poland in 2004.

A consistent majority in Scotland want less immigration while a very small minority want more. As we saw in my previous blog, 49% in Scotland thought that Scotland would ‘lose its identity if more Muslims came to live’ there, and 45% thought the same about more black and/or Asian people living there. None of this is good, of course, but it demonstrates how smugly complacent it is to believe that immigration ‘hysteria’ (and by extension racism) is an English problem.

It is, above all, the damage London governments might well now inflict on Scottish social policies. After eight years in power, the polls still give the SNP a startling lead: it is currently at 43 per cent. This is mainly because it has carried on the social policies of the Lib-Lab coalitions which preceded it in Edinburgh. These parties barricaded the welfare state – higher education, free social care and the Scottish National Health Service above all – against the tide of privatisation and marketising ‘competition’ which is washing away the British postwar social settlement south of the border. But that barricade would probably crumble in a post-No Britain.

Again, an argument you hear frequently – that even the devolved NHS will crumble if Scotland votes against independence. Putting aside the question of how that would actually happen in practice, this would have us believe that people ‘south of the border’ want to wash away the ‘British postwar social settlement’. There are wide and loud campaigns against the changes to the NHS which have led Labour to pledge a reversal of the Health and Social Care Bill. Then there is the fact that over half (52% in 2013) of people in Scotland complain that unemployment benefits are ‘too high’, which doesn’t exactly suggest it as a welfare state valhalla.

On top of that, the neoliberal Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership may soon force all public health services in the UK – Scottish as well as English – to invite competition from American private firms. This ravenous alien was only able to squirm into the UK spaceship because in 2012 Cameron’s coalition had already legalised an internal private health market in England.

This is the most bizarre complaint, to put it generously. The TTIP is being negotiated by the EU (which, lest we forget, the writer was fearful of leaving) and the United States. It’s about far more than ‘public health services’ and the idea that it’s somehow the doing of David Cameron is risible beyond belief. While there are several campaigns against TTIP I can’t find any indication that an SNP (or indeed any other party) government in an independent Scotland would oppose it.

The piece advances a heap of unexamined half-truths and distortions about the evils that will be visited upon poor, defenceless Scotland in the event of it remaining in the UK. It’s embarrassing stuff yet sadly typical of the level of debate. To underline how far these myths endure without question I want to look at one other issue: that of Trident. The British Social Attitude survey looked at this and found that “public opinion on the subject of nuclear weapons is nothing like as different on the two sides of the border” as we’re led to believe. The most interesting finding, however, was that in Scotland “slightly more people agree (41 per cent) than disagree (37 per cent) with the proposition that:

If Scotland becomes independent, Britain’s nuclear weapons submarines should continue to be based here”

In England and Wales, however, 63% thought the weapons should leave Scotland if it became independent! This doesn’t fit the common narratives around this issue at all.

It seems odd to me to have a debate around ‘the kind of country Scotland would like to be’, based on noble ideas about furthering democracy and improving people’s lives, which relies so much on myths and a refusal to engage with existing opinion. Indeed, when I’ve raised e.g. the matter of public opinion in Scotland being firmly against more immigration or more unemployment benefits, the response I invariably get is ‘well of course it is, they are brainwashed by the UK media’. Quite how the media in an independent Scotland will be different so as to help these poor brainwashed, self-hating masses, I’m not quite sure. Presumably this media will also report on the secret oil field which the dasterdly Cameron is keeping from the poor oppressed people of Scotland.

It’s all pretty gruesome, desperate stuff. Just to repeat, there’s plenty of that from Better Together and it’s covered in detail elsewhere. I don’t endorse it. Yet if I’ve always been against Scottish independence, my one abiding hope were it to happen has been that it would lead to a more mature Scotland where we don’t feel the need to revel in a sense of victimhood, inventing paranoid conspiracies and blaming the wicked English for our woes (as many in England blame the EU – as I say, we all have our enduring myths). I remain strongly of the opinion that the Scottish form of social democracy lives and dies in the perceived gap between it and England. If and when that gap goes, I would hope that attitudes would change. I’m sad to say that this seems further away than ever.

The End of Poverty

‘The End of Poverty?’ is an essential film which takes an uncomfortable look at the root causes of ‘global poverty’ and points the finger squarely at the wealthy Northern hemisphere. Fundamentally, it describes the problem as man-made – our economic system has relied and continues to rely on the continued exploitation of the world’s poor and at the core of the issue is economic justice. It’s all-too-rare to hear this when poverty, particularly in the ‘Third World’ (a difficult term, certainly) is discussed – we’re encouraged less to think about why these countries continue to suffer extreme poverty and more to see them as fundamentally broken. They’re poor because they are, essentially. Yet as one person observes in the film, in stark contrast to the favoured narrative of the ‘First World’ sending aid to the Third, what we have actually seen (and continue to see) is a massive transfer of wealth in the opposite direction. Our wealth is largely predicated on their poverty. We aren’t going to solve this by signing petitions, buying Fair Trade produce or giving more aid (which isn’t to say these things are pointless) but rather only by challenging the “power and structural violence” which dictates the (abusive) relationship. As the film makes clear, the First World countries have no qualms about interfering when democratically-elected leaders in South threaten their wealth and interests; more, they demonstrate stark hypocrisy in making the right noises about aid and ‘reform’ while institutions like the IMF and World Bank continue to exacerbate the problem behind the scenes. As War on Want noted, Cameron has been trumpeting his actions in tackling poverty which increasing it both at home and abroad, intervening on behalf of multinationals to strengthen their stranglehold over global food production. 

War on Want is one of the only organisations I’ve come across which addresses these issues at their political roots and, as such, I whole-heartedly recommend it. More, one of its central tenets is that it works in partnership with those affected. This is one of the best aspects of the film above – it may be voiced by Martin Sheen but its running time is overwhelmingly taken up by discussion with the residents, workers and leaders of Third World countries. It’s definitely worth your time.

We always want to believe in the ‘quick fix’ and critical thinking is so frayed that anyone being seen to ‘do good’ is invariably taken to be altruistic. This is how we as societies can live with our reliance on brutal exploitation  – as the narration states here, “our economic system is, and always has been, financed by the world’s poor”. Yet economic justice requires uncomfortable changes to our lives and accepting the fallacy of the notion that we can keep consuming as we do while slowly ‘raising’ those in extreme poverty to these levels. It’s similar to the issue of global warming, which continues to be presented to us as solvable by re-using plastic bags when, again, it’s our inhumane economic system which is at the root of the issue. I’m no better than most in these aspects but if we truly want anything to change, we’re going to have to start addressing that at a societal level.

I’m E-Petitioned Out

There is now barely a day that goes by without me receiving at least one e-mail inviting me to sign a petition about some issue or another. From the government’s e-petitions to organisations like 38 Degrees and Avaaz and campaigns such as If, we are bombarded with demands to join the movement, pledge to the cause, make the change. They spread quickly and easily across Facebook and Twitter, frequently with the imploring assertion that taking 30 seconds from your life can make a real difference to an issue. I’ve certainly shared them myself – and it’s because of this that I can understand the appeal. It feels more meaningful to share them than to post ironic Youtube videos of American reality shows or pictures of cats. Yet it increasingly seems that the ubiquity of e-petitions is doing more harm than good.

I’ve written before about ‘clicktivism’ and the danger of facile engagement via the internet. There are unfortunately many people who don’t bother to question something if it chimes with and/or suits their own sense of identity. This is nowhere more obvious than in the shallow memes which I wrote about in those two blogs but I think this is also instructive regarding the relationship many have with e-petitions. No matter how well meaning an organisation (or movement) is, no matter how much information they make available, there are going to be a lot of people who sign a petition because they think it sounds ‘right’ and not because they’ve actually bothered to investigate the issue at hand. The startling plethora of petitions which have repeatedly sprung up in the past 18 months or so regarding gay rights in Uganda is a good example. Clearly it was a real issue, yet it was also obvious from much of the rhetoric that many had engaged no further than the few sentences which tended to accompany the petitions. After all, some of the most prominent petition sites had previously claimed to have stopped the bill. Many were unaware that voices inside Uganda and beyond urged extreme caution with regards to public statements and petitions and worried about the clamour to end Western aid to one of the poorest countries in the world. The links between American evangelicals and Ugandan homophobia remained largely unknown, as did Uganda’s history of British colonial rule and Western support for brutal dictators such as Idi Amin when it suited (and indeed current American involvement). The numerous voices arguing that the bill was a diversion tactic (supported by Wikileaks) went almost unheard. Instead there was frequently the sense that people just believed Uganda to be an innately broken, backward country which, when combined with the belief that Westerners spending 10 seconds entering their e-mail address can meaningfully dictate policy there, results in a dangerous, Orientalist fantasy. 

The Uganda Bill petitions were unavoidable for a couple of weeks, much like the even bigger Kony campaign (also Uganda-related) earlier in the year. The Bill, like Kony, is still around – as are the issues of poverty, mortality, gender inequality and more which Uganda faces. Yet the e-petitions have moved on and so our attention has too. It’s difficult, of course, for a privileged white Brit sitting at a laptop to seriously begin to understand some of these issues. In this regard the Uganda Bill was a perfect storm for e-petitions, pushing buttons of identity politics and barbaric African nations without demanding any wider attempts at contextualisation or comprehension, or any thought further than ‘this is bad, my signing this is good’. We should ask ourselves why it feels so instinctively right – why we think ‘well it’s better than doing nothing’ rather than asking ourselves if we truly care and what that would really involve. We would rather have the quick philanthropic buzz of signing it, sharing it and then clicking onto the next Facebook post. It creates the sense of doing something without really doing much of anything.

Petitions are one tool amongst many and they have a place yet their growth seems largely connected to the narcissism and atomisation of social media rather than any increased social awareness or empathy. The new If campaign tackles the enormous and complex problem of world hunger, declaring that joining the campaign can be the “beginning of the end” of the problem. Yet how many people signing up to it will spend any time investigating this issue? More than that, how many will investigate it beyond the uncontroversial platitudes pushed by the supportive celebrities? It’s a campaign which already has the support of the Prime Minister while his government simultaneously exacerbates the problem. This great War on Want statement looks at just a few of the problems with the campaign (which I won’t repeat) but one of its greatest dangers is its idea that we in the West can ‘solve’ world hunger simply by signing petitions to our leaders. We’ve seen time and time again that this doesn’t work. Our leaders rely on the fact that we have a flimsy involvement which will either drift off entirely or be satisfied with some positive sounding announcements (and anyone who doesn’t already know that these will definitely come is naive in the extreme). The If campaign is already guaranteed to be a success on its own terms. In terms of confronting the ‘market forces’, the ‘economic development policies’, the ‘trade liberalisation’, the history of colonialism and exploitation, the continuing Western greed regarding wealth, resources and energy to name but a few major aspects of the capitalist infrastructure, it will be a dismal failure, just as Make Poverty History (which I was an enthusiastic supporter of) ultimately was before it. 

This isn’t an argument in favour of doing nothing, which I’m sure is how some would (will) present it. However it’s most definitely not the case that ‘doing something’ is always better than doing nothing. Sometimes doing ‘something’ is not only completely ineffectual, it’s harmful. It releases the pressure, convincing everyone that something is being done, that everything is fine and all we need is some well-intentioned tinkering to make things better. It pushes the idea that our Western democracies are fundamentally benign and just need to be pushed in the right direction, whether it be ‘saving the NHS’ or ‘saving gay people in Uganda’. If we truly care about these things we need to face the fact that we have a responsibility to engage, to educate ourselves about them, to think about them for more than 30 seconds. We need to ask ourselves why we are so quick to put our faith in petitions and to share them so widely. We need to consider the consequences of  this and of our wider inaction which it arguably facilitates. I’m e-petitioned out.

This is a good piece on the staggeringly idiotic ‘debate’ that has surrounded Cameron’s ‘veto’ in the recent EU summit. The substance of what was discussed and, most importantly, what was agreed has been largely ignored. Instead we’ve seen a trite retrenchment of political caricatures, with the response of much of the left being on the level of ‘Cameron bad, EU good’ and vice versa for that fabled tribe, the ‘Eurosceptics’.

As this piece notes, the left has a long tradition of ‘scepticism’ regarding the EU arising from concerns over issues such as national sovereignty, the entrenchment of neoliberalism and ‘flexible’ labour markets. Tony Benn has long been an outspoken critic, labelling it the “most bureaucratic, terrifying system in the world.” This currently prevailing idea that if you express serious doubts about the EU (which people seem to forget is different from ‘Europe’) you are a raving, bigoted lunatic is completely absurd.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of Cameron’s diplomacy, the real story is surely that, following on from the affronts to democracy in Greece and Italy, the EU wants to further cement the interests of financial capital (and the ‘austerity agenda’) in the Eurozone and, in doing so, further erode any meaningful democratic control that can be exercised by ordinary voters. The divide we should be focusing on isn’t the overblown and hopelessly exaggerated one between Cameron and the rest of the EU. Instead, it is the widening gap which exists between the working class across the EU and an elite which can almost no longer muster the energy to mask its contempt.

Denials of Democracy

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So Attitude magazine has put David Cameron on the cover. Not in itself a bad thing – there is an argument to be made that an interview with the potential next Prime Minister is a coup and that his record on gay rights should be tackled. What makes it a bad thing is the context and the ridiculous way that the magazine has went about it.

First, the context. Over the past 3 months the magazine has interviewed the leaders of the three main parties – Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and now Cameron. The latter is the only one who has been given the cover. I’ve no doubt that the magazine would argue that this is because he is the most likely to be the next Prime Minister – the truth is that the former two leaders giving an interview to a gay magazine is not particularly noteworthy because their/their parties support for gay rights is well-established. Attitude know that Cameron being on the cover will garner attention from the ‘mainstream’ press because of the Tories’ appalling history on gay issues.

Now, again this could be excused with the arguments in the first paragraph. Indeed, the magazine trumpets the fact that Cameron is interviewed by ‘one of his most vocal critics’ and has a feature preceding the interview examining the history of the Tory party on gay issues. The interviewer does manage to make Cameron squirm on a couple of occasions, but more often he is allowed to be evasive and vague. A critical reader will take this as damning behaviour, but those looking to believe in Cameron’s conversion to the cause of gay rights will be able to read far more positive interpretations into the vacuum.

The final thing which renders Attitude’s decision to put Cameron on the cover utterly indefensible is their bizarre, patronising decision to have an ‘alternate’ cover consisting of…a model in his underwear. Featuring the tagline, ‘Think politicians are pants? Then here’s a man in some!’. The magazine knows full well that many of its readers will be appalled by its decision. Rather than have the courage of its convictions, it pretends that many gay people are so idiotic that they will be turned off not by the fact that a Tory is on the cover but by the fact that it’s a politician. Because we’re gay, and we like fit men, see? At once Attitude is saying ‘This is important! We tackle Cameron on gay rights’ and on the other saying, ‘You might find this a bit boring cos it’s politics lol’. It’s breathtaking.

Make no mistake, the fact that Cameron is on the cover when Brown and Clegg weren’t (not even on ‘alternate’ covers) will be seized upon by many Cameron supporters as further evidence of his and the Tories’ conversion to the gay cause. Completely irrespective of the contents of the interview. It’s symbolic and will be taken as an endorsement.

I honestly believe that no gay person could seriously believe that Cameron thinks that they are equal to heterosexuals (not deep down – I do believe that some gay people have convinced themselves that Cameron is onside, because supporting a political party is frequently like supporting a football team). He was still supporting Section 28 in 2003. His converstion to the cause happened when he wanted to be the party leader. Such a swift turnaround tells me not that he deeply realised the error of his ways, but instead that he realised the British public had long since moved on in their attitudes and he had to follow to have any hope of winning power. For that reason he cannot possibly be trusted, and Attitude are being completely irresponsible in playing coy with him..