Friday 31 March 2017

Hypocrites, liars and cowards -- our shrunken politicians

Last June, immediately after the Brexit referendum, I wrote: 'My overwhelming emotion is one of sadness.'

But now, the sadness has turned to deep anger -- at the hypocrisy, dishonesty and sheer political cowardice that has characterised the response to the referendum result of both the UK's major political parties.

I need to be clear: I am not directing my anger at the 17.4 million voters who voted to leave the EU. Each one of them had their own reasons -- some good, some bad -- and each vote was as valid as every other vote. I am a democrat and I believe in democracy. Parliamentary democracy.

No. I am angry at the politicians who are knowingly and deliberately taking the country along a course that they themselves believe to be profoundly mistaken. What is that if it is not hypocrisy, dishonesty and cowardice?   

It was Theresa May's breathtakingly disingenuous letter to the EU, triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, that sparked my fury. Because what it revealed, far more starkly than she can possibly have imagined, is the appalling flimsiness of the pro-Brexit case.

For example: 'Perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe. We want to play our part to ensure that Europe remains strong and prosperous and able to lead in the world, projecting its values and defending itself from security threats.'

Excuse me? If we 'want to play our part', why in God's name are we leaving the EU?

'Europe’s security is more fragile today than at any time since the end of the cold war.' (Translation: Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are a danger to us all.) In which case, why on earth does Mrs May threaten to withhold security cooperation unless she gets her way on trade? ('In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.' Threats are never a good idea if you're trying to play nicey-nicey.)

Yes, I understand the tactics. The prime minister doesn't have too many negotiating cards to play, and the UK's expertise and experience in the fields of intelligence and security is highly valued by our EU partners. As The Sun headline put it with that paper's unerring instinct for taste and decency: 'Your money or your lives - trade with us and we'll help fight terror.'

The truth, as we all know, is that Mrs May thinks it would be better for Britain if it stayed in the EU. So do her chancellor, Philip Hammond, and her home secretary, Amber Rudd. So does every living ex-prime minister, from John Major to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Ah yes, David Cameron. The man who apparently still thinks he was right to promise an in-out referendum, just like Tony Blair, who still thinks he was right to back George W Bush when he decided to invade Iraq. Two colossal misjudgments by two prime ministers unable to admit that they might be fallible.

Theresa May told MPs after she had sent her 'Dear President Tusk' letter to Brussels on Wednesday that leaving the EU 'is this generation’s chance to shape a brighter future for our country.'

This generation? Which generation could she be thinking of? Hers (she's 60)? Or my children's (they are in their 30s)? Because it so happens that although the prime minister's -- and my -- generation voted overwhelmingly to leave, my children's generation voted even more overwhelmingly to remain. So much for negotiating a post-Brexit deal on behalf of future generations ...

Mrs May channels her inner Thatcher (with whom she hates to be compared) when she insists that 'there can be no turning back', just as Mrs T used to insist that there was 'no alternative' to her economic policies. There was then, and there is now -- even if Mrs M needs us to believe that reversal is not an option.

Remind me, who was it who once said: 'If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy'? Ah yes, of course, her Brexiteer-in-chief, David Davis.

So what would a braver, more principled and more honest political leader have done? They would have said: 'We acknowledge and recognise the result of the referendum, even though we believe it to have been profoundly mistaken. We will attempt to negotiate a new relationship with the EU, and we will then ask British voters whether they wish to accept or reject the terms we have been offered.'

Sometimes, it is useful to look at ourselves as others see us. I was particularly struck by the Los Angeles Times headline: 'With Brexit, Britain pulls the trigger -- on itself.' The French newspaper Liberation went for: 'Vous nous manquez déjà - ou pas.' ('We miss you already -- or not.') The German Die Welt preferred just one word, in English: 'Farewell.'

Mrs May is trying desperately to convince the EU27 that failure to negotiate an equitable Brexit deal would hurt them as much as it would hurt the UK. I doubt that she'll get very far; as Stephen Bush of the New Statesman pointed out, cutting off your nose to spite your face hurts like hell and you’re never the same afterwards. 'But while you will see people without noses living successful lives, to date, no nose has managed to carry on without a person. The bad news is that Britain is the nose in this analogy.'

What makes me even angrier than the prospect of the gratuitously self-inflicted pain we are about to suffer is the way in which the Brexit disaster will crowd out any consideration of all the other major crises on which the government should be focusing.

Critical cash shortages in the NHS, schools, social care, the police and prisons? Sorry, you'll have to ask someone else.

President Trump tearing up climate change legislation? Sorry, no time to respond.

Famine sweeping across parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, threatening the lives of twenty million people? Sorry, we're busy.

Civilian casualties as US-led coalition forces bomb Mosul? Sorry, call back.

North Korea? Turkey? China? Sorry, get someone else to deal with them.

We have become a shrinking nation led by shrunken politicians. We deserve better.

Friday 24 March 2017

Keeping calm and carrying on

Remember these people:

Aysha Frade, a school administrator with a Spanish mother and a Cypriot father, on her way to pick up her children from school.

Kurt Cochran, an American from West Bountiful in Utah, on a tour of Europe with his wife Melissa to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.

Leslie Rhodes, aged 75, who died of his injuries late on Thursday night.

Keith Palmer, a police officer with 15 years’ experience, a member of the Metropolitan police parliamentary and diplomatic protection command.

Four victims of a callous murderer whose name need not concern us.  (Although now that we know that he was born in Kent as Adrian Ajao, I look forward to the apologies from all the racist bigots who claimed that the attack was in some way related to immigration.)

How unlucky his victims were to be at Westminster on Wednesday afternoon -- three of them walking across Westminster Bridge, the fourth doing his job at the entrance to the houses of parliament.

And as we mourn all victims of politically-motivated killings, let us also remember Lee Rigby, the off-duty soldier who was murdered in 2013, and Jo Cox, the MP who was killed last June and whose husband Brendan has been a role model ever since as we struggle to find the right words in response to such cruelty.

After the Westminster attacks on Wednesday, he said: 'The person who did this wants us to be fearful and divided. Let's show them that we are neither.'

In Paris 16 months ago, 130 people died when gunmen opened fire in a series of coordinated attacks. In Brussels, exactly a year ago, 32 people were killed. In Nice, last July, 86 died when a lorry ploughed through Bastille Day crowds on the Promenade des Anglais. And in Berlin last December, 12 died in a similar attack on a Christmas market.

So we may be forgiven for thinking that London got off lightly. We knew the city was not immune, we knew that the security services believed an attack was 'highly likely'. It was a question of when, not if.

Why did London get off lightly? It is tempting to say that we were lucky, but luck was only part of it. The attacker was armed with only knives. No gun -- because it's not easy to get hold of guns in a country with strict laws about the ownership of firearms.

He couldn't get into the Palace of Westminster because it is extremely well-fortified. Those hideous black security barriers are there for a reason. If he could have, I'm sure he would have loved to kill some MPs. PC Palmer was in his way, and gave his life to defend them.

Let us not forget: in 1979, the senior Conservative MP Airey Neave was murdered when Irish republican bombers placed an explosive device beneath his car while it was in the House of Commons underground car park.

In 1984, they blew up the Grand Hotel in Brighton and nearly wiped out Margaret Thatcher's entire Cabinet. In 1991, they tried to kill John Major's Cabinet by firing mortars at 10 Downing Street.

So yes, we were lucky on Wednesday that it was 'only' a man in a rented car with a couple of knives. But we also owe an immense debt to the police and security services who have learnt well from the mistakes of the past. We are all immeasurably safer today than we were during the IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 80s.

It would be the height of folly to claim that a coordinated series of attacks on the scale of the 7/7 bombings in 2005 could not be mounted again. But it is worth noting that for more than a decade, there has been nothing comparable. (In 2007, two car bombs were discovered and disabled before they could be detonated, and the following day, there was an attempted attack at Glasgow airport.)

Londoners like to claim that the spirit of Blitz lives on in the capital. The truth is that in all the major cities of Europe that have been attacked, life goes on. Which is, of course, exactly as it should be. Twenty-four hours after the Westminster attack, I walked through the heart of London's West End -- and with the exception of a helicopter whirring noisily overhead and a couple of heavily-armed police officers on patrol in Leicester Square, it was as if nothing at all had happened.  

Over the coming days, we will learn more about the man who was responsible for the attack and perhaps begin to understand more about the best way to minimise the risk of more such attacks in the future. For the police and the security services, the task is never-ending -- to find, identify and monitor those who seek to do us harm. As the IRA said after they failed to kill Margaret Thatcher in 1984: 'Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.'

The task for the rest of us is crystal clear: we keep calm and carry on. Because that's the exact opposite of what the killers want us to do.

Friday 17 March 2017

Why the pundits may soon owe you an apology

I think it may soon be time to offer an apology on behalf of the International Consortium of Commentators and Columnists, aka The Punditocracy.

Over the past nine months, you may have gained the impression that the Western world, made up of the so-called liberal democracies, was being engulfed by an unstoppable populist tide of xenophobia, bigotry and nativism. First came the Brexit vote in the UK last June, then the Trump victory in the US in November. In Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany, populist, Islamophobic parties all seemed to be inexorably gaining support.

I know that one election result proves nothing, but the Dutch election this week ought at least to lead to a re-examining of what the media studies folk would call the ‘dominant narrative’. Perhaps the tide of populism and nativism is not so unstoppable after all.

Let’s look at some numbers from recent history. First the EU referendum: UK voters were split almost down the middle last June, 52% to 48%. Despite what Mrs May and her Cabinet colleagues would have you believe, Brexit is not ‘the will of the people’, but the will of just 35% of registered voters, given that only 72% of them bothered to vote.

Second, the US presidential election. Donald Trump’s victory did not represent a violent swing to nativism; after all, he won three million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, and most Americans do not support his uniquely toxic brand of bigotry, ignorance and extreme narcissism. 

Third, the presidential election in Austria, where last December, Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party beat Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant, post-Nazi Freedom Party. By 54% to 46%, Austrians decided not to return their country to the darkest days of its recent history.

And now, the Netherlands, where the only Dutch politician anyone outside the country has heard of, the viscerally Islamophobic Geert Wilders, won just 13% of the national vote, barely ahead of the centrist D66 party on 12% and the Greens on 9%.

As it happens, support for Wilders was almost exactly equal to UKIP’s support in the 2015 UK general election, and far below what UKIP achieved in the European parliament elections of 2014, when it won 27% of the vote, more than either the Tories or Labour. (UKIP’s current poll rating is hovering around 10%.)

So why has the ‘dominant narrative’ given you a different impression? Because, in a nutshell, we journalists love nothing more than a dramatic story – and ‘Beware, the Fascists are on the march’, or variations on the theme, is certainly dramatic enough to spin into a thousand words on a dull Thursday morning.

I do not suggest for one moment that we should not have reported the rise in support for populist politicians feeding off – and often encouraging – fear of immigrants and of the effect of globalisation on the jobs market.

But I do suggest that politicians are not alone in succumbing to the temptation to feed off fear. Journalists know just as well as politicians that you get a lot more attention shouting ‘The barbarians are at the gates’ than by gently murmuring that, by and large, and all things considered, we’re probably going to be OK.

(Incidentally, I can’t help thinking that the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte may well owe his election triumph at least in part to the way in which he so successfully exploited tensions with Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, by banning two Turkish ministers from addressing rallies in the Netherlands. What better way to fend off the threat from Geert Wilders than by showing how tough he could be against the Turks?)

So perhaps BBC news producers might be encouraged to resist the temptation to call on Nigel Farage every other day, simply because they know he’s likely to say something provocative and get their programme quoted in the news bulletins. Their US colleagues used to feel the same way about the ‘joke candidate’ Donald Trump – and look where it got them.  Interview-bookers, please note: Mr Farage may have turned into a posh-boy version of George Galloway, but as an ex-party leader, he now represents no one other than his own reflection in the mirror.

If the centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron wins the French presidential election in June, the ‘dominant narrative’ may finally be put back in its box.  And if the German anti-immigrant, anti-EU AfD party does badly in September — its current opinion poll ratings are in single figures – the box’s lid can finally be nailed down.

And then, perhaps, we’ll read more stories from places like St Louis, Missouri, where local Muslims collected tens of thousands of dollars to pay for the repair of gravestones after an attack on a Jewish cemetery, and Victoria, Texas, where a rabbi handed over the keys to his synagogue to local Muslims after an arson attack on their mosque. Real stories from the real world, instead of overblown nationalist rhetoric from cynical populists.

Of course, liberal democracies face major challenges. But we need to beware of scaring ourselves into a sense of despair. And we journalists need to be especially careful not to get carried away by our love of the dramatic and the controversial, which are always so much more exciting than boring old complexity and nuance.

Me? I cling to the hope that we’re living through nothing more than a spasm of history. One day, perhaps sooner than we think, Donald Trump will no longer be the US president. And one day, probably much later than we think, Britain will have worked out a sustainable new relationship with its European neighbours.

So we should fasten our life jackets, refuse to panic, and do everything we can to keep the ship afloat as we ride out the storm. Eventually, the seas will calm, and the winds will abate. Let’s meet again on dry land.