I’ve been staying off politics because I’ve been getting angrier and angrier over the last few months about so many things. However sometimes apoplexy wins out.
The treatment of Yashika Bageerathi – the forcible end of her education, the ripping apart of her family, her deportation in the company of five guards in a half-empty plane paid for by the British taxpayer – is surely one of the most shameful acts of a government that is steeped in a racist anti-immigration policy in order to appeal to the very basest voters, despite the protests of almost 200,000 people. When we vote Yes in September, I truly hope the new Scottish government will invite her and her family here to contribute to a vibrant new country.
In the meantime, an idea for peaceful protest I stuck up on Twitter is gathering a bit of steam. Please consider making this simple gesture as a measure of support for a young woman who has been treated truly appallingly.
I was privileged to be asked by Jenny Lindsay of National Collective – the organisation of artists and writers making huge waves in the independence debate – to do a filmed reading and brief interview for them: when that’s available, I’ll post it here. However, Jenny also asked me to write an article for the website, and kindly gave me permission to reproduce it on my blog in its entirety. You can find it on the National Collective website here.
It’s my first public words on the referendum: consider my colours now firmly nailed to the mast. The article seems to have been well received: it’s perhaps the nearest I’ll ever be to ‘trending’ on Twitter…
Independence Is The Triumph of Hope Over Fear
A few months ago, I was talking to my godson, Andrew, about the forthcoming referendum. He’s a lovely lad; in his thirties, he works in the care of adults with severe learning disabilities. He and his partner, a nurse, have the most beautiful two year old daughter, a smiley, happy, sweet child who charms everyone she meets. They both work punishing shifts for not much more than a combined living wage: Andrew frequently has to walk four miles to catch a bus that’ll take him to work.
He was going to vote No. Astonished, I asked him why. “Well,” he said, “look at me. I haven’t had a pay rise for over five years, and prices just keep going up and up. I’ll never be able to afford to buy my own home. I don’t even see how I’ll be able to buy a car. I rely on my mum for childcare because it’s so expensive, and holidays are a non-starter. If we go independent, how do I know it won’t get much, much worse?”
We live in a society that is crippled by fear. Ordinary working people live on the cliff edge of robbing Peter to pay Paul every month to meet the debt commitments they are blamed for having in our recession economy; deunionised, they are forced to accept derisory wage rises that are in effect cuts in living standards when the price rises in commodity-traded food and fuel that puts billions into the already groaning coffers of multi-national corporations are taken into account; they are labelled scroungers when they turn to the state for help, while their bosses in both the public and the private sectors pay each other handsomely over the odds because they have defined themselves as somehow ‘indispensable’ to the machine; they are conned into believing that they, the people at the bottom, are somehow to blame for all of this, and that despite the overwhelming evidence that the problems lie at the top on the desks of money-laundering, rate-fixing, tax-avoiding, mis-selling big banks and hedge funds, the status quo is the only way to go.
I remember growing up in the 60s and 70s, when optimism for the future was all the rage. Yes, we worried about nuclear weapons and knew that there was a huge problem with hunger and war in the Developing World; but, for ourselves, we felt that life was on the up, and never did any of us consider in 1973 that, in 40 years time, families would be worse off in real terms. But then the neoliberal Thatcher agenda came along and put paid to all of that, and the dismantling of the great public goods of the post-War period – gas, electricity, the railways, steel, mining and, especially, social housing – saw the beginning of what Naomi Klein calls the “great sacking”, the siphoning off of what we once all owned into the hands of a rapacious few who buy it with promises of consultancies and seats on the board to the appropriate career politicians.
And we have been made afraid. Our governments have become adept at getting their own way using it; I remember my parents were truly convinced that Sadaam Hussein could drop a nuclear weapon on us within 45 minutes. The discourse has become one of fear, one which reached its nadir last week with the unedifying sight of a UK Cabinet minister of Scottish origin, Jo Swinson, scaremongering against a Yes vote because it could entail higher mobile phone roaming charges and mean the end of Saturday letter deliveries.
I don’t know about you, but I reckon senior politicians have a duty of care to the electorate. They are meant to lead, to provide visions for the future, to reassure, to sound the voice of reason, to refute sensationalism, to think big. But just consider this: we are being asked to accept that we are not competent to run our national affairs because a mobile phone company might charge a few quid more if we do. The insult represents a preposterous infantilisation of the Scottish people, especially when Swinson neglected to add that the EU is likely to outlaw roaming charges anyway.
And Ms Swinson tells us that Royal Mail services will be cut if we make decisions for ourselves while at the same time a Cabinet she is a member of is pushing through the neoliberal sale of Royal Mail to already bloated hedge funds, organisations intent not on the social good of a postal service that delivers to isolated people come rain or shine but on the bottom line. We know what happens during privatisation: “efficiency” is bought on the backs of the customers and, especially, the ordinary workers, who find their conditions of employment ripped up to fund the additional burdens of a profit margin and the retirement packages of chief executives. Does Ms Swinson really believe that a vote by Scottish people is a greater threat to mail deliveries in Scotland than Goldman Sachs?
All over the world, we see sporadic instances of unrest at this gross perversion of human economic activity: The Occupy movement; riots in Greece, Brazil, London, Sweden and, ten years ago, Argentina; the Arab Spring movement. But all these offer only a fleeting glimpse of a brave alternative and, against the structures that have taken root in our politics, are pretty much doomed to failure. “If you want to change something,” protestors are told, “work from within.”
And that’s why I’m voting Yes. We have a legal, peaceful, constitutional means to say “Enough is enough; these are not our values.” We can reject an economic system that allows the South East of England to suck the rest of the UK dry to fund its stratospheric salaries and its eye-watering house prices and its super car lifestyle. We can reject a social system that has been engaged in brutal social engineering for forty years and is now accelerating, with the whole of London becoming the largest gated community in the world, the poor made unwelcome by property prices and the bedroom tax, shipped out to be shipped back in on a daily basis to clean the offices and keep the wine bars staffed on a High Speed Rail line that Scotland will pay £4.5 billion pounds towards but will stop at Manchester. We can reject a political system that moves the centre of power out of reach of the ordinary man and deposits it amongst the voices of the rich, influential and corrupt where it cannot help but be seduced. And we can do all this at the mere stroke of a pen. No violence. No upheaval. Just one little cross in a box and the world changes.
I agree with Patrick Harvie when he says it’s not going to be hugely different the day after we vote Yes. We may find ourselves a little poorer (I doubt it) or a little richer (probably more likely), but the sun will not shine brighter, the air will not taste sweeter and birds will not fly in our windows to make our breakfasts. But what I do believe is that a Yes vote will send a message out to the rest of the world, and it’s a message of hope that we don’t have to accept the political, economic and social structures that have been used for so long to make us afraid.
I laid it on the line for Andrew. I told him it seemed that he had been conditioned to believe that his life was miserable, and that it would only ever get more miserable if he tried to take charge of it for himself. At a time of his life when he should be feeling the most hopeful ever – a loving partner, a beautiful baby – he has been disempowered, emasculated, hobbled by fear that any change he initiates in his life will make matters worse. When he should be growing in confidence and capacity, he has been told to stand still, to stay put, to accept what his betters have decided and, most of all, to shut up.
That’s not good enough for him. It’s not good enough for his daughter. And it certainly isn’t good enough for Scotland.
The “Today” programme took a swipe at Kazakhstan today – or, to be more accurate, President Nazarbayev – in a segment that revealed that an almost racist Borat attitude towards the country is alive and well at the smug old BBC.
Giggling like a posh toff at a boy on a bursary, Justin Webb reported that Nazarbayev is “looking for an elixir for immortality”, and the Nazarbayev University has come up with a yoghurt drink. How funny. You can just imagine the old git – he’s 72 – swatting flies away with his solid gold zuzu while proclaiming he’s the King of Scotland, can’t you?
Of course, that’s nowhere near the truth. Apparently, Nazarbayev was publicly praised at a national assembly meeting – he is immensely popular in the country, and the culture is one of respect for authority, without it tipping into subservience – and he jokingly suggested the scientists find an elixir that would allow him to rule forever.
This is no senile madman, no power-crazed despot. Kazakhstan is by no means a fully fledged democracy, but neither is it a dictatorship. Elections which return the president to power with almost unanimous support have been given as clean a bill of health by observers as the US and UK elections. Nazarbayev is a consummate politician who managed the Soviet state, managed the transition to independence, managed a period of hyper inflation when the country had literally no administrative infrastructure, managed unilateral nuclear disarmanent and managed the development of a powerhouse economy that is growing a hundred times faster than the UK – all in 20 years. Whatever you think of his politics, he deserves respect for ensuring that Kazakhstan has not turned into a carbon copy of those other dysfunctional Stans in the area.
They interviewed a Kazakh and a UK scientist, both of whom said the Kazakhs were on to something, since the management of a human’s microbial balance in the digestive tract is crucial to health and well-being. But no: “The Kazakhs are on to something?” Webb repeated incredulously, with James Naughtie joining him in a gusty sarcastic guffaw.
I’m going to be very sensitive to this kind of thing from now on: I’ve made a commitment to Kazakhstan on the basis of what I’ve read about the place, and there are are a lot of things to admire about it, not least its 99% literacy rate. Stupidity is not a national characteristic, and the “Today” programme has no right to treat it like the country yokel.
Besides, I wonder how many people in the Webb and Naughtie households had a very fashionable Yakult yoghurt drink this morning?
Just over a year ago, I saw at first hand the bravery and dignity of the Norwegian nation. Susanne Sundfør, a young Norwegian singer, was performing in Wroclaw a matter of hours after her country had been rocked to its core by Anders Breivik’s cowardly attack on the children of its political classes. Despite having to sing songs that seemed so prescient of the horror that unfolded in Oslo and Utoya, she was restrained, elegant and proud, while at the same time in obvious pain. It was a humbling experience.
I think we’ve seen a scaled up version of that dignity in Norway’s treatment of the whole Breivik case, and it has shown the world how to respond to acts of terrorism that are designed to attack what we are and what we believe in. Breivik wanted to change the country, to make it turn away from openness and tolerance, to make it cower in fear and lash out against the forces of darkness he thought threatened it. The country’s reaction has been magnificent; they have responded by being even more open and tolerant, by refusing to cower or lash out or be afraid – of him.
Breivik is one of those delusional oddballs who believes in white supremacy because it allows him to bask in the myth of his own exceptionalism. Norway’s answer to him has been masterful in that it has refused to treat him any differently than any other criminal, no matter how petty. Thus, he has had exactly the same opportunity as anyone else to address the court, will have exactly the same restrictions and privileges as anyone else in a Norwegian prison, has received exactly the same maximum sentence that any other Norwegian criminal would receive. In effect, they have marginalised him, debased him, emasculated him by giving him the message that no matter how hard he strikes against their way of life, life will go on the same as if he were a pickpocket or a paedophile.
And what has been remarkable is the support this approach has had from the people. Even the families – those who I have seen or read interviews with – have been dignified and respectful and even grateful to the judicial system. There is no barking for revenge; just read the mature, sensible, rational but absolutely touching words of 19-year old Emma Martinovic, a survivor of that day:
“This means so much. Everyone has talked about how he would be judged insane, and I thought so too. But this confirms that he is sane and healthy, something we’ve known since day one. Finally someone who listens to us and understands us. It is absolutely amazing and feels very fair. This allows me to move on. He is doomed, and there is no one who can say otherwise. Now he is in the cell and I trust the police security. Now I do not need to worry about him anymore.”
That is the most eloquent one-finger salute that could ever be delivered to Breivik and his kind; you are done and dusted, and I will never think of you again, you little, little man.
Of course, posters on Huffington Post UK – which, unlike it’s generally liberal US counterpart, seems to have become a haven for Daily Mail readers and similar right-wing nutjob halfwits – went bananas with faux outrage. “21 years? That’s three and a half months per victim”, they chanted, as if justice can be reduced to a question of Primary school arithmetic. He’ll be out in ten years because of some go-gooder social worker. He’ll fool the psychiatrists. He’s be in his fifties at the end of his sentence. Insane. Norway should be ashamed of itself.
I wish fuckers like these didn’t annoy me as much as they do, but they do. Oh my word they do. Quite apart from the fact that Breivik received the maximum sentence allowed by law of 21 years, with the possibility of that being extended indefinitely by 5 years at a time if he is still considered a danger to the public – which ensures that he will undoubtedley spend the rest of his life behind bars – the depressingly predictable calls for the rope, firing squad or being roasted on a spit totally ignored the fact that Breivik himself would probably embrace martyrdom like a long-lost idiot brother, thereby ensuring his immortality in the racist, survivalist community worldwide.
This outrage, based as it is in fear, is tremendously useful to the corporate governments of the west, since it validates a whole host of intrusive measures designed to “protect” us. Masquerading as “antiterrorism”, the governments of the UK and US have brought in a whole range of strategies that are more useful to them not because they control subversives, but because they control us. Phone-tapping, e-mail gathering, rendition, extra-judicial imprisonment, even worldwide torture chambers in countries that belong in the pits of hell are all part of a system that can seamlessly be tweaked to suppress the general population. And so hackers like Gary McKinnon and Ryan Cleary, whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning and even Julian Assange himself all find themselves up against a finely-tuned bureaucratic structure whose tentacles can now grasp anyone, anywhere, and whose outposts are as shadowy as anything in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.
And, as such, we have been complicit in the victory of the terrorists to force us to change our ways, change our lives, abandon any pretence we ever had to democratic principles. In terrorism, the military, the secret services, the governments and the global corporate structures have found their best ever ally in their battle to control and to manipulate we, the people. And every time we cry, “String him up” or “What’s wrong with water boarding?” we cast our vote in support.
So, bless Norway for being the only Western country this century to truly stand up against terrorism, by mainaining its sanity and refusing to abandon its principles. They have ensured their democracy which was so cruelly attacked has survived not just intact, but immeasurably strengthened.
I can’t help comparing the hoo-ha over Julian Assange with that stain on the reputation of the Blair government, their failure to extradite General Augusto Pinochet in 2000 to Spain to face charges of torture.
I am as dubious as anyone about the case against Assange. The charges against him rest largely on him not using a condom during consensual sex with two women, one of whom threw a party for him after the event. Both women are linked to the US security services, apparently. But of course, charges of rape – even if that country’s definition of rape seems to be totally at odds with anything we would understand the term to mean – are hugely serious, and must be investigated. Assange must answer the charges, and has offered to do so if Swedish officers will come to the UK or if they will guarantee him safety from extradition to the US. They have refused.
But it’s nonsense to say it’s just about that: it is absolutely clear that the US has some stake in this, and will apply for Assange’s extradition when he is in Sweden. We’ve already seen that, while refusing to acknowledge international law in a whole raft of ways, such as the criminal court in the Hague, the US believes its law can be exported to other judicial systems; hence their demand for the extradition of hackers from the UK. In effect, international law for the US consists of US law being applied to preserve US interests wherever it wishes.
William Hague’s horrible “there will be no escape” pronouncements, then, are all part of keeping the US happy. It has nothing to do with international law or extradition treaties; it’s all about what the US wants. It was exactly the same in 2000, when, despite the highest court in the land ruling that Pinochet should be extradited to Spain to face torture charges and despite a swathe of international courts and governments supporting that, Jack Straw delayed and delayed and delayed the extradition until doctors could concoct a case for him being too ill to go to Spain. Funny – he was too ill to go to Spain, but well enough to travel to Chile, which is a bit like me saying the journey to Edinburgh is a bit wearing, so I’ll go to Berlin instead.
But of course, Pinochet was a pal of George W. Bush, seen as a still influential US ally amongst the red threat in South America. There was a message to be sent out, since no dictator would ever cooperate with the US again if they were going to be held responsible for crimes condoned and actively supported by the US in the future. Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher saw him as the man who was willing to turn his country into one of the first testbeds of the Friedman economics that has dominated the world since the 1970s. There was no way the politicians were going to accede to the demands of the law in that case; Pinochet had to be protected.
So: if it is permissible to let a torturer slip through the legal net, why is the government so vexed about the story of an albeit rather arrogant guy who might have slipped up with a burst prophylactic? Of course, it’s to do with the establishment. Pinochet was part of it, part of the global power elite who are prepared to repress and torture and kill to maintain the status quo; Assange threatens it by providing a mechanism by which their grubby secrets – great and small – can be washed in public.
And by playing up the charges against Assange, it obviously draws attention away from and discredits Wikileaks.
The messenger is being shot. Just what Pinochet would have wanted.
It is, of course, trash TV. “Make Bradford British” is a crude amalgam of various reality shows, cheap and not so cheerful fare like “Big Brother”, “Wife Swap” and “Come Dine With Me.” The premise is simple: various cultural, ethnic and religious stereotypes from Bradford – “Britain’s most divided city”, is the fatuous claim – volunteer to spend time living with each other in some sort of half-baked and nasty social experiment.
It is an execrable, faux documentary. The “diversity and community experts” are little more than commentators, adding the occasional sound bite to tell viewers what they should be feeling (“These people have to live together” we are told, just in case we hadn’t got the drift) and pronouncing the annual Scottish New Year celebration as “Hoggamunny” (“I don’t understand the question,” says a white girl, “what’s a Mahoggamunny?”). Meanwhile, the production values clutch at the sensational like the drowning man clutches at the proverbial: cue Rasheed, the jolly Muslim fundamentalist, giving up mosque to spend a day in some stately home with the group, praying in the car park, his nose almost pressed against the side of the minibus (couldn’t they find somewhere with a little more dignity?) while elderly liberal Maura weeps her new found understanding.
And yet… and yet…
I have a complicated relationship with the concept of “Britishness”, and not because, like many Scots, I see my identity as lying solely north of the border. No, it is more to do with my genealogy. My father, born in Lipine, near Katowice, in 1913, was Silesian Deutsch Volk; his status as a Pole was merely an accident of politics. So, after 1939, he joined the Wermacht, fought on the Eastern Front where he got frostbite and was wounded and was then transferred to the Western Front, where he was captured by the Americans to begin a whole new time line in the UK.
That, as a boy brought up in the jingoistic days of 1960s Saturday afternoon cinema (“The Battle of the Bulge”; “The Great Escape”), was difficult to accept for a while. How could I be British when my father fought for the ultimate bogey man, Adolf Hitler? How could I be British when the British would quite happily have killed my father on the battlefield?
Let there be no doubt: I’m glad my father was on the losing side. I think World War II and the overthrow of Hitler was one of the few righteous wars in history I would have volunteered to fight in, like the Spanish Civil War or The Opium Wars (on the side of the Chinese, of course). Certainly, there was a moral dimension to it that has been lost in the corporate imperialism of most conflicts since, such as Haliburton’s invasion of Iraq.
But it does rather complicate things. In the TV programme, mixed-race bar owner Audrey talks of the “scales falling from her eyes” when she realises the impact her own racist language has on others: something similar happened the morning my father took the twelve year old me aside and showed me his Iron Cross and explained how he got it. I realised that, in the great game of international politics, a whole nation of people could one day be our allies supplying our Kings and Queens, the next day be our deadliest enemy, and the day after that become our family.
One character in the programme, a black man of West Indian descent called Desmond (yes, that’s right) is interviewed before he meets his house mates: he beats his chest and says that being British is “in me heart”. Later, after hearing an uncomfortable discussion about language with a harmless but insensitive old buffer called Jens who claims that he was only joking when he used to talk to his former police colleagues about going out “Paki bashing” and referring to blacks as “black bastards”, Desmond finds a hole in that huge heart of his. For decades, he had, in his own words, pushed the casual, unthinking racism “under the carpet” in order to just get on with it; obviously distressed, he finds that there is no longer any space under that carpet.
I have no wish to suggest my experience as a white kid was directly comparable to Desmond’s, but I grew up with similar casual references to my difference. I was regularly called a “Polack” by schoolmates and even by colleagues up until the 1990s; teachers referred to me as “Banacek”, a nominally Polish detective on TV played by George Peppard. I have become somewhat sensitive when, on introducing myself, I am asked, “What kind of name is that?” “It’s a surname,” I replied once to a parent who asked me that question in the middle of a busy corridor at a parents’ evening. “Yes, but where does it come from?” was the retort, my irritation failing to make an impression. “My father,” I said, and I was looked at as if I was an uppity moron.
Britain is, for me, simply an organisational entity, and I “owe” it nothing more than that I pay my taxes and obey the law; in that sense, I am a much better Briton than many of the beknighted movers and shakers held up as examples of “Great” Britain, the Sir Richards and the Sir Alans who tax avoid like crazy or the chief police officers and civil servants and MPs mired in corruption. I believe I am a good citizen – I regularly give to charity and am as kind as I can be to others – not because I am part of a Great British Big Society, but because it is the decent thing for an individual human being to do.
A later show, “Prejudiced and Proud”, continues the theme, looking into the lives of Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League, and Sayful Islam, of whatever banned group he leads this week. Neither man has little substance outside his ego: both are filmed smiling with smug satisfaction in the midst of the anger and chaos and violence they preside over; both claim moral authority, yet a moderate imam points out Sayful’s total lack of intellectual credibility for the position he has set himself up in, while Robinson wanders the streets, drunk, baiting people with references to Anders Breivik who, of course, declared war not on Muslims but on the children of white liberals. The leads are merely self serving opportunists, but it is the wider cast of characters I find most confusing – the Muslim boys who look lost and terrified at the venomous reaction they generate, the tattooed skinheads who, like Hitler’s bierkeller shock squads, inextricably link bullying drunkenness with political agitation. The notion of finding common ground with such people based solely on a shared skin colour or language or religion or place of birth seems utterly strange to me; I see nothing that I would identify as my “culture” in any of them.
But I am undoubtedly Scottish. I cheer on the Scottish football team (and anyone who is playing against England) and, in certain situations such as English pubs, vamp up my Scottishness. I am as prone, I suppose, to tribalism as the next man or woman. However, I am also aware that I have no Scottish “blood” in me, whatever that means, and have therefore made a choice. Perhaps that is why we seem to have even more difficulty defining what is “Scottish”, why we feel Scotland as a place that includes all, why we find it impossible to define a Scottish writer any more clearly than as someone who was born in Scotland or who lives in Scotland or who writes about Scotland or who…
But would I die for Scotland? Never. I may fight for a moral or political cause I think is right, or to protect the weak, or to stand up for liberties I valued. But I cannot see myself ever putting my life on the line for some indefinable, amorphous collection of human beings whose only common bond is that they find themselves bounded by the same arbitrary geopolitical borders on a map. Neither can I imagine ever asking young people – who, it has to be said, are rarely the sons and daughters of the rich who start wars in the first place – to go off and put their lives on the line in my place
Britain, England, Scotland – whatever the country, that indefinable notion on its own just doesn’t seem to be worth it.