Friday, 22 March 2019

A national leader who has risen to the occasion

The prime minister has won international admiration for the way she has handled the national crisis. She has found the right words, struck the right note, and she has brought the nation together in a way that few leaders can.

In many ways, it has been a masterclass in political leadership. Not only because of what she said but how she said it – she understood the nation’s need and responded in a truly exemplary fashion.

Oh, wait. No, surely, you didn’t think I meant … Did you? Really?

I’m talking about Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, whose response to the mass murder of 50 Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch last Friday has been, in my view, pitch perfect.

With just three simple words, she set the tone for the country’s remarkable national response: ‘They are us.’ It should become the ringing credo for all modern nations, the most powerful answer available to the populist wave that seems to be sweeping across the globe.

In countries as different as Brazil, China, Hungary, India and Turkey, leaders have set community against community, majority against minority. ‘We, the people …’ has become not a cry of unity but of division, the people against the elite, against the foreigner, against the enemy.

We even heard it in Downing Street on Wednesday night, when a very different prime minister sought to turn ‘the people’ against the very people they had elected to represent them in parliament.  ‘I am on your side,’ she said, apparently not having seen – or having chosen to ignore – the latest opinion poll suggesting that sixty per cent of the electorate would now prefer the UK to remain in the EU, and only forty per cent support the withdrawal deal that she has so painfully negotiated.

She also seems to have forgotten – or chose to ignore – that UK prime ministers govern only as long as they retain the confidence of parliament, not the other way round. It’s parliament that is supreme, not the prime minister. Her words, doubtless born of a belated realisation that she has boxed herself into a corner from which resignation is the only escape, were a disgrace.

If you haven’t already done so, look at the pictures of Jacinda Ardern, her head covered to respect Muslim custom, embracing the families of the Christchurch victims. Listen to her explain why she will never mention the murderer’s name – and marvel at the speed with which her government has moved to tighten New Zealand’s gun laws.

Suzanne Moore, writing in The Guardian, quoted Martin Luther King, who said that genuine leaders do not search for consensus but mould it. Ardern, she said, ‘has moulded a different consensus, demonstrating action, care, unity. Terrorism sees difference and wants to annihilate it. Ardern sees difference and wants to respect it, embrace it and connect with it.’

Why do I focus on New Zealand, this week of all weeks, with the clock ticking inexorably towards an event that I now hesitate even to give a name to? Because Jacinda Ardern has shown that liberal values have not died, that they still have a place in today’s world, and that – even as a nation faces its darkest hour – reaching out to embrace neighbours is not an unaffordable luxury but an essential response.

Yes, New Zealand is a small, generally peaceful country, unlike many of those where the wave of populism is running strong. But that doesn’t mean it can’t offer the rest of the world an example of how to adapt to the needs of a changing population in a rapidly changing world.

Like all successful leaders, Jacinda Ardern knows the power of words. Unlike many, she uses them to bind wounds, not to open them. She doesn’t talk of immigrants ‘swamping’ towns and cities (M Fallon, 2014); she doesn’t insult Muslim women who wear face-covering veils by saying they look like letter boxes or bank robbers (B Johnson, 2018); nor does she refer to migrants as ‘a swarm’ (D Cameron, 2015).

And when the President of the United States asks her what support the US could offer New Zealand after the Christchurch shootings, she replies that he should offer ‘sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.’

There isn’t much for liberals to celebrate these days – so let’s not miss this opportunity to celebrate a rare political leader who has genuinely risen to the occasion.

Friday, 8 March 2019

A government of bigots?

Within the space of just a few hours this week, two Cabinet ministers have had to issue grovelling apologies after spouting gratuitous and offensive insults. A third should have done, but didn’t.

First, the Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley had to grovel after claiming that deaths caused by British troops and police in Northern Ireland during the Troubles ‘were not crimes’.

Which is (a) wrong, and (b) about as offensive as it’s possible to be to the families of those who were killed. Hence the grovel: ‘I am profoundly sorry for the offence and hurt that my words have caused. The language was wrong and, even though this was not my intention, it was deeply insensitive to many of those who lost loved ones.’

(This is the same Northern Ireland secretary, you may recall, who freely admitted last year that when she first took the job, she had no idea that nationalists in the province didn’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.)

Then Amber Rudd – a former home secretary, no less, who you might have thought would have learned something by now about diversity and minorities – somehow managed to refer to the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who is by far the best known black politician in the country, as ‘coloured’ – an epithet that ceased being acceptable at about the same time as the Black and White Minstrel Show went out of fashion.

Ms Abbott rightly called it ‘an outdated, offensive and revealing choice of words.’ Ms Rudd immediately apologised for her ‘clumsy language’.

And then – yes, there’s more – Andrea Leadsom replied to a question in the Commons on Islamophobia by suggesting that the questioner, Labour frontbencher Naz Shah, should ask the Foreign Office, which gave the very distinct impression that she regards Muslims as, well, not really British.

A headline in The Times sums it all up admirably: ‘One day, three gaffes as ministers offend Irish, blacks and Muslims.'

What is it with these people? Are they stupid? Careless? Racist? And it’s not just Conservatives, either – remember the Independent Group and former Labour MP Angela Smith, who just a couple of weeks ago barely managed to stop herself referring on TV to people who are ‘black or a funny tinge’?

I recognise that not everyone chooses their words with as much care as a professional journalist or broadcaster. Sometimes even the best of people are caught out when the brain trips up the tongue – as my former colleague Jim Naughtie notoriously discovered when he mis-spoke the first consonant of Jeremy Hunt’s surname.

But this is something different. This is the tongue revealing what the brain forgets to conceal, or in the case of Karen Bradley, the tongue revealing the gap where the brain should be.

I think it also reveals something else. It reveals an appalling level of ignorance about the world beyond Westminster and the social circles in which too many MPs spend their lives. And although I hesitate to accuse anyone of bigotry without sufficient evidence, I think it’s at least arguable that these repeated ‘mis-statements’ or ‘clumsy language’ do reveal attitudes that should have no place in twenty-first century Britain.

Which brings us to out-and-out bigotry, against minorities of all descriptions, but in particular against Jews and Muslims. On Thursday, the equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, announced that it has embarked on the first step of a statutory inquiry into whether the Labour party is guilty of unlawful discrimination against Jews.

This is serious stuff – because the only previous occasions when it has taken similar action were when it ordered the British National Party to rewrite its constitution so as not to contravene race relations legislation, and when it found that the Metropolitan Police were discriminating against minority ethnic, gay and female police officers.

On the other side of the political divide, the Conservative party has now suspended fourteen members who are alleged to have published Islamophobic comments online. And the Tory party chairman Brandon Lewis has been accused of failing to act against several other complaints of racism and Islamophobia.

One Tory activist in Portsmouth, who came to the UK from Iran forty years ago and whose daughter is a British army officer, was quoted as saying: ‘People in the party feel able to be as racist as they wish now.’

Hardly surprising, is it, given that it was a former Tory foreign secretary no less – Boris something? – who wrote in a newspaper column last year that Muslim women who wear a face-covering veil, or niqab, look like letter boxes or bank robbers.

Sayeeda Warsi, who was both chairman of the Conservative party and the first Muslim woman to sit in the Cabinet, has accused Theresa May of ‘burying her head in the sand’ over the issue. ‘She doesn’t listen, she fails to acknowledge when there is a problem.’

So is there more Islamophobia in the Conservative party than antisemitism in the Labour party? I have no idea, and I’m not sure it matters. There has certainly been much more publicity about Labour’s in-house bigots, but there is a fairly obvious explanation.

As Jonathan Freedland suggested in The Guardian, it’s probably because ‘people expect much less of the Tories than they do of an avowedly anti-racist party such as Labour … if the Tory party is riddled with bigotry towards a minority, it hardly comes as a surprise.’

What I find so deeply depressing about all this is that it shines such an unflattering light on politicians and political activists who claim to be in business to make the UK a better place. If they are harbouring racists and bigots – and failing to root them out – I dread to think what might lie in store.

Because if you think this is just a handful of pathetic bigots sounding off and doing no real harm, ponder these statistics.

According to the most recent figures from the Muslim monitoring group Tell Mama, there were 1,200 verified anti-Muslim attacks in Britain last year, an increase of more than twenty-five per cent over the previous year and the highest number since it began recording incidents.

And according to the Jewish security group the Community Security Trust, there were more than 1,650 antisemitic incidents over the same period, a sixteen per cent increase over the previous year.

There should be no tolerance for bigotry anywhere, whether in the constituency meeting rooms of our two main political parties or on the streets and online where thugs think they can attack minorities with impunity.

And Cabinet ministers should learn how to talk about people who look different, sound different, or worship differently, without being offensive. It really isn’t that hard.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Too hot to handle

Hasn’t the weather been utterly glorious this week? Well, no, actually, I think it’s been utterly terrifying.

Twenty degrees Celsius in February (that’s nearly seventy degrees Fahrenheit in old money) Is Not Normal. It’s unnatural, wrong, and a sign that this poor old planet of ours is in serious trouble.

If it were normal, I’d be thrilled. February has always been my least favourite month, when I’ve had more than enough of endless dark, grey days and a constant gnawing damp that chills my bones. The only thing to be said for a normal February is that it’s short, and it’s when the crocuses pop up in the park.

So we’ve had a record-breaking warm winter. Which followed a record-breaking hot summer. And if your memory can manage it, wind the clock back to February last year, when the Beast from the East had us moaning about the snow and ice, and the Arctic experienced its warmest winter on record.

I know weather is not the same as climate, but c’mon. These aren’t random, or freak, extremes. Climate change isn’t any longer something that we need to worry about because it could, maybe, cause problems for our grandchildren. It’s here. Now. It’s happening.

And in case you think I’m being stupidly parochial, they have also just had Frazzling Februaries in Ireland, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. Not to mention Australia, where record-breaking summer temperatures have climbed in some places to above fifty degrees Celsius (that's a hundred and twenty Fahrenheit).

Twenty of the hottest years on record have happened in the past twenty-two years. The five hottest? The last five. In the words of David Wallace-Wells, author of a new book apocalyptically titled The Uninhabitable Earth: ‘It is worse, much worse, than you think.’

So here’s the good news. We aren’t necessarily all going to be frazzled to death or inundated by coastal floods over the coming few decades. We know what we need to do,  and we have started doing it. All we need to do now is hurry the hell up.

According to new research published this week by a team at the University of East Anglia, an analysis of whether carbon gas reduction schemes in eighteen developed economies – representing nearly thirty per cent of global emissions – have had an impact, has revealed that the answer is Yes. It is measurable, and it is significant, but it is not enough.

In the countries studied, which included the US, UK, France and Germany, where emissions declined significantly between 2005 and 2015, ‘the fall in CO2 emissions was mainly due to renewable energy replacing fossil fuels and decreasing energy use.’

So, good, but not good enough. The UK’s sole Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, is certainly not impressed by this country’s record: ‘With this government’s huge subsidies for fossil fuels, relentless building of new roads and runways, slashing of support for clean energy and sordid love affair with the car industry, it’s incredible that overall emissions fell at all.’

In a piece I wrote last September, I quoted the UN secretary-general, António Guterres: ‘Climate change is the defining issue of our time, and we are at a defining moment. If we do not change course by 2020, we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change.’

But here’s some more good news. Politicians, belatedly, are beginning to wake up. Even in the Trump-traumatised US, where the new kid on the block, the Democrat wunderkind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, has created waves with her proposal for what she calls a Green New Deal, which would aim over a 10-year period to generate all the country’s electricity from renewable or zero-emissions sources, upgrade every building to be more energy-efficient, and overhaul the transportation system by large-scale investment in electric vehicles and high-speed rail.

And, credit where credit is due, here, Jeremy Corbyn, in an under-reported speech last month, has promised to make averting a ‘climate catastrophe’ a central aim of government if Labour wins power at the next election. (Yes, I know, I know …)

In a climate change debate in the Commons on Thursday, graced at one point by a mere ten MPs on the government benches (I mean, really, the future of the planet? Of course they must have lots more important things to think about), the Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, former editor of The Ecologist magazine, warned: ‘If you look at the trends, we are not heading for that apocalyptic two-degree rise [in average global temperatures], we are heading for something that looks more like three degrees, the consequences of which we cannot possibly estimate.’

To quote Caroline Lucas again: ‘We are living through climate breakdown – and instead of taking urgent action, ministers carry on as if nothing has changed.’

What can we do about it? We can walk more, use the car less, buy as much food as possible that isn’t wrapped in plastic, recycle like mad, and lobby our MPs. And, given the shambolic performance of both our main political parties over the past couple of years, I reckon it’s probably time to seriously consider voting Green.