Tory England

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Tomorrow there are local elections across England, the first since Theresa May called her disastrous General Election in the arrogant assumption that her putrid brand of racist, xenophobic nationalism would see her sweep aside all opposition. She was, thankfully, proved wrong. Yet we still live in a Tory England.

We still live in the Tory England where over 71 people can burn to death in their own homes in the context of a tangible contempt for social housing tenants, the deregulation of the building industry in order to place profits above people and ideologically-motivated cuts to local authority budgets, the fire service and legal aid. The Tory England where, almost a year on, people continue to wait to be rehoused in a way they would not be if they were wealthy, and if they were largely white.

We still live in the Tory England where people can lose their jobs, their homes, their right to healthcare, even their right to stay in this country because the government perceives that fuelling  ignorant racism is worth more to its survival than basic human decency. So hateful and self-defeating is this perception that the government seeks to deny doctors, nurses and students the ability to live here if they happen to have been born somewhere else.

We still live in the Tory England where people die waiting for ambulances, die in the back of ambulances, die in hospital beds sitting in corridors, because the government places its ideological drive to destroy the public sector above the enduring (just) dream of good healthcare, free for everyone. After a decade of increases, NHS funding has declined steadily since 2010 just as an ageing population sees it facing its biggest challenges. The British Medical Journal has linked these cuts to at least 120,000 excess deaths in England, “with the over 60s and care home residents bearing the brunt”.

We still live in the Tory England where the number of people sleeping on our streets has increased every year since 2010 and the number of these homeless people dying has more than doubled in the past five years.

We still live in the Tory England where the number of children living in poverty has soared since 2010, with just under a third of children currently living in poverty and almost two-fifths forecast to be so by 2022. A majority of teachers report that child poverty is noticeably worse in their schools, with children attempting to steal food because they’re hungry or even turning up with no shoes because their families can’t afford new ones. This is a Tory England where foodbank use is at record levels, as families turn to the kindness of strangers just to eat. Tory economic policies, meanwhile, continue to hit the poorest the hardest – an analysis made by the government’s own economists.

We still live in the Tory England where austerity has led to a lost decade, with economists suggesting a cost to GDP equivalent to over £10,000 per household. Wages have stagnated for a decade and living standards have faced their most sustained and deepest decline in over 60 years. Young people have been particularly hit by this, facing low wages, precarious employment and soaring housing costs. After a rapid decline following the economic crash, personal debt has soared in the past few years as people turn to loans and credit cards just to live.

We still live in the Tory England where Theresa May clings desperately to the DUP for survival, refusing to take forward equal marriage in Northern Ireland to satisfy her bigoted pals.

We still live in the Tory England where Theresa May cosies up to the brutal regime in Saudi Arabia, ramping up arms sales as it murders people indiscriminately in Yemen while professing to care about ‘humanitarian concerns’. In Tory England’s glorious ‘Brexit Britain’, the UK cosies up to the UAE, Indonesia, Kuwait, Bahrain – no regime is beyond the pale when there’s money to be made.

We still live in the Tory England where the new Home Secretary can be a documented tax evader, moving within a cabinet flush with multi-millionaires who slash and burn public services in order to ‘outsource’ them to their pals (or themselves), talking tough on people funnelling their money offshore while doing everything possible to avoid doing much about it.

The UK is an enormously wealthy country. It will remain an enormously wealthy country even if and when Brexit hits our economy. There is nothing inevitable about any of the above. Soaring child poverty is a political choice. A crumbling NHS is a political choice. Councils going bankrupt and ramping up council tax to cope with slashed central government funding is a political choice.

Tory England is a political choice and one which I don’t believe most people in England actively want.

Labour is far from perfect and it falls on everyone who cares about social justice to maintain pressure on them to do better. Yet Corbyn’s Labour is not only a clear and present difference to Tory England, the General Election of 2017 underlines that it’s a viable one. Things can be better. We just have to want it. Just before GE2017 I wrote a blog which began with words from Eugene V. Debs – words I wrote with what felt at the time like hopeless optimism. Now that optimism doesn’t feel hopeless. Reject Tory England and vote Labour.

“Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning – Eugene V. Debs

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2014 – The Year of Nationalism

My first blog post in 2014 was about the Scottish independence referendum and nationalism – topics which came to dominate my writing over the year and which I’ll no doubt continue to write on. On the morning of the vote itself, I posted this:

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Though the vote was ‘No’, I think much of Scotland has indeed gone down a ‘cul de sac of self-delusion’. If anything, the unreflective certainty that independence a) will make things better and b) is absolutely the only way to make anything better has grown stronger in those who identify as ‘The 45’ and even many who do not. Opposition to and criticism of the SNP government has all but collapsed with the ‘enemy’ being firmly entrenched as Westminster, No voters, London, No-supporting parties. This isn’t about social justice – it’s a peculiar blend of nationalism, victimhood and narcissism. Wha’s like us? The conviction seems to be that absolutely no-one is and it manifests itself in everything from a queasy instrumentalisation of food banks/poverty to the recent claims that Glasgow was ‘special’ in how it responds to tragedy. You can see both in this terrible poem posted by a Scottish comedian after the bin lorry tragedy:

C360_2012-09-14-23-14-03In being directed to imagined enemies this is a good representation of the culture of ‘grievo-max’ which more critical commentators have identified in the Scottish national character. O’Hagan writes that anxiety about Scottishness tends to manifest itself in “hating bad news about the country itself, and seeing critics as traitors”. The poem above neatly shows that ‘traitors’ doesn’t quite capture the complexity of it – critics are viewed as ‘above themselves’, outsiders thinking they are ‘better’. I think most people who grew up there (certainly in central Scotland) would recognise this tendency. Issues like racism and poverty are reframed as plagues visited upon a good-hearted people by others who lack their unique character.

Of course, it bears repeating that I write about this because it’s been massively inflamed by the referendum and not because it’s unique to Scotland: we certainly don’t have to look far to see the awful manifestations of English and/or British nationalism which, as countless commentators have pointed out, certainly looks and feels a lot uglier than Scottish nationalism. Yet the former is widely recognised as nationalism – certainly by those who identify as being on the left – while the latter was and still is repeatedly denied. I noticed yesterday that a vocal Yes supporter, who argued throughout the year that their nationalism wasn’t nationalist, posted a status complaining that ‘nationalism’ was the most overused word of the year. If the intent wasn’t clear, they explained in the comments that ‘nationalism’ was incorrectly applied to any and all arguments for independence. Yet from our discussions I know that the definition of nationalism they cling to is an extremely narrow one, almost entirely expressed in support for the SNP. It seemed (and clearly still seems) impossible to this person, and to many others, that the very way ‘independence’, ‘self-determination’, ‘social justice’ and all the other ‘not-nationalist’ arguments were framed could be (and was in my opinion) nationalist in and of themselves.

‘I’m not nationalist’ became something of a mantra for left-wing supporters of independence, even as the many meanings of the term remained unexamined. ‘Nationalism’ became something few understood but no-one wanted to be – a dynamic which is equally applicable to racism. My second blog post was about racism in the UK after the Mark Duggan inquest verdict and as we end the year it is wretchedly obvious that we’ve made absolutely no progress on that front. Few non-poc take the time to think about what racism is yet most of us are absolutely certain it doesn’t apply to us. It remains an ugly stain at the heart of the UK  and one which only seems to be getting worse. Diane Abbott states here that she has “never known a more toxic atmosphere of issues around immigration & ‘the other'”. The rise of UKIP has been disturbing but the speed and ease with which the ‘main parties’ have (again) adopted their rhetoric is truly terrifying. As I stated, the English/British nationalism embodied by UKIP (albeit of a sort which won UKIP an MEP in Scotland) is different from Scottish nationalism but it shares the conviction that it is not actually ‘nationalism’. It certainly doesn’t view itself as racist and everyone from The Sun to The Guardian has played a part in pushing the ‘UKIP aren’t racist, they’re reflecting the reasonable concerns of ordinary people’ line (one which, as we see in the above blog and here, has also made insidious use of the relatively recent shorthand that ‘gay rights = progressive’).

It seems likely that the 2015 election could be defined not by Labour and the Tories but by the SNP and UKIP. Not only in their success but in their setting of the agenda and tone (witness Jim Murphy’s awkward attempts to play up his Scottishness at every available opportunity). Nationalism hasn’t been the most overused word of 2014, it’s been perhaps the most neglected and misunderstood: it has become absolutely central to our politics and our national character. Anticipating objections, this isn’t to say that nationalism hasn’t always been present – of course it has – but it hasn’t been so overt and so dominant certainly in my living memory. It seems like a bleak time to be a socialist and an internationalist – someone who doesn’t think that the people of Glasgow are particularly different in their ‘specialness’ from the people of London, or Cardiff, or Lisbon, or Budapest etc. People don’t make ‘Glasgow’ – we make and define each other and in that process we make the world. And what a world it can be when we remember the things which unite us and the international battles which must take place for things to get better. 2015 is going to be a difficult year and we’ll have to step up to play our parts. Solidarity, always.

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