Growing up in the 1960s, I remember a time of huge political debate on matters of principle. The great social architecture of the post war years was still fresh and shiny and new, and neoliberal economics was a tiny maggot growing in the reptilian brain of a still largely unheralded Milton Friedman. Newspapers then were awash with major disagreement not just between left and right – there was still such a distinction at Westminster in those days – but within those wings, between the patrician right of Heath and the barking racism of Powell, between the apparatchik pragmatism of Harold Wilson and George Brown and the somewhere-left-of-Azerbaijan idealism of Tony Benn. Parties weren’t homogenous entities of Stepford Suits and Ties, but were broad coalitions that attracted a wide variety of intellectual positions under distinctly leaky umbrellas.
Nowadays, the debate seems very different. Disagreement within parties is seen as a sign of chaos, not of a rich, intelligent dialogue based in fundamental philosophical and moral precepts (though, in UKIP’s case, it does actually seem to result from chaos). Debate isn’t about whether something is right or wrong, but is about how we’re going to pay for it. This obsession with the bottom line rather than the kind of society we actually want to have and let’s find out how to fund it later, has reduced political discourse to simple, narrow considerations of how we might maintain a system in which those who control the purse strings – the banks, the hedge funds, the 1% of the global population who own 50% of the global wealth – can continue to flourish while the rest of us push ever diminishing scraps around our plates in the vain hope that it will look enough to sustain us. And the key to winning elections, it seems, is to chuck a few leftovers on in the hope we’ll smack our lips and give them our cross on their ballot paper in thanks; we’ve now sunk to the state where a political party refuses to engage in the very principle of whether or not those who commit criminal and fraudulent acts should take personal responsibility in a court of law, but instead crows about using the fines we impose on those criminals’ organisations to buy essential equipment to prop up a health service that should be resourced regardless. Imagine if we said that drug dealers didn’t need to go to jail because the few assets we could seize from them could pay for road maintenance…
That the establishment at Westminster is hand in glove with this is in no doubt; Miliband’s pathetic responses to Russell Brand’s questioning about dismantling global elitism was a spineless whinge about how change ‘takes time’ (in other words, it takes too long, so let’s not bother ) and how change requires ‘international action’ (in other words, others aren’t going to do it, so we should just go along with them). Indeed, there really is now no distinction between the political and the financial establishment, with a revolving door for politicians into directorships of financial institutions and for executives from the banks into advisory or even ministerial roles. That is reflected in the media: I have largely stopped listening to the Today programme, simply because the only source for economic and political comment they seem to give any time to is The City.
And this is where the whole notion of this ‘grand coalition’ is coming from; the establishment’s fear that their cosy club will be threatened by newcomers to the block. All it does is to put under a spotlight the lie that there remains any real difference in principle between the Labour and Conservative parties, that there remains any distinction whatsoever beyond a few million quid here and there, beyond the priority they will give to the different scraps of the rotting resources government actually has any control left over. Philosophically, there isn’t a cigarette paper’s difference between the two parties, on tax, on benefits, on commitment to Trident renewal, on immigration… on and on it goes. The venerable Political Compass website is quite clear on this; both the main parties have moved to a right wing authoritarian stance that isn’t just in the same ballpark as Thatcherism, but is playing first base for the team. And it’s so obvious too that the Green Party has now been left to occupy the ground once held by Labour before their shameful ditching of Clause 4.
The rhetoric is softening us up for this grand coalition idea. If Milliband is pushed into renouncing the possibility of a deal with the SNP, where is he to go? If Cameron wants to be seen to ‘listen to the people’, what is he to do? Given that the core differences in their policies are so minimal, the prospect of working together is mouth-watering for them both. Labour want to cut a little less and tax a little more; in a coalition, Cameron can present himself as a tough-minded mediating force on the ‘tax and spend’ party that caused the financial meltdown in 2008. Conservatives want to cut a lot more and tax a lot less; Miliband can present himself as a humane mediating force on the ‘nasty party’ that has driven a million people to the food banks. Remember that garden shot of Cameron and Clegg? Don’t for one minute think that couldn’t be repeated with David and Ed.
The basis of the coalition would be simple. Around 35% of the voters are going to plump for Labour; a similar number for the Tories. Between 60% and 70% of the electorate who bother to turn out will be represented in such a grand coalition; is that not democracy? The majority of the people want the UK to remain united, want the defence of the realm to be maintained by renewing Trident; who better to protect it than the two main parties, working hand in hand? It worked during World War II, when politicians put their differences aside to defeat the common enemy. And this time there is an enemy, and it’s an insidious enemy within.
There’s no point rehashing the post-referendum climate; Nicola Sturgeon does that more than eloquently every time she points out that those politicians who accuse Scots of becoming ‘irrational’ (David Blunkett) or of being akin to terrorist hostage-takers (John Major) or of creating a constitutional crisis (Theresa May) only six months ago were begging Scotland to stay in the Union. You wanted us; you got us, and that is democracy. I have no idea how that rhetoric is playing in England, but there is an undeniable concerted effort to portray Scotland as wreckers, and it is becoming accepted that a large minority of the electorate who want to fundamentally reform Westminster have no right to be represented in Westminster; are you listening, suffragettes? The message seems to be that Westminster is some gigantic children’s party into which you will only be admitted if you like the host, bring lots of gifts and play every party game by their rules. Damn the democratic process if you don’t like what democracy brings.
So I really do fear a grand coalition that will present itself as the protector and saviour of the UK, cutting off from representation whole swathes of people – not just Scottish nationalists – whose face doesn’t fit the establishment. Would that not mean the end of Labour, even Nicola Sturgeon asks? Well, that is to assume that Labour actually stands for anything any more. In a fixed term parliament, Milliband would be guaranteed five years of some power and some influence. Strategists will see that as more than enough time to turn around any negative perceptions. And besides, five years is more than long enough to continue the neoliberal revolution that is the main parties’ raison d’etre. The obscenity of TTIP is supported by both parties, with Labour merely making some anodyne noises about how they’ll protect the NHS. If TTIP is such a threat to the NHS, why is it not a threat to every other public service on which our civil society depends?
Tell a career politician that they have two choices. One; stay out of power for a guaranteed minimum of five years on some principle that you can’t really remember any longer (how many candidates really know their manifestos) and win the affection of the masses; or two; accept Satan’s pact for a guaranteed minimum of five years, troop through the lobbies, claim your expenses, vote for your own pay rises and secure yourself a nice wee directorship in a Fortune 500 company or a Canary Wharf hedge fund at the end of it. What would you bet on them opting for? Why would they give a damn about their ‘party’?
Should a grand coalition come about – and I’m more than convinced it’s a real possibility – we would effectively see the end of democracy in this country, sold as the will of (70% of) the people. The only ray of hope is that, even as they present it as a strategy designed to ensure stability, it will result in the constitutional crisis Theresa May fears so much. The Holyrood elections in 2016 would surely see a landslide in favour of pro-separatist parties from an electorate who see that they have been excluded from an English parliament that we were told we were welcome in. That will set a very large cat amongst some very frightened pigeons. Let’s hope we can wait that long
I’m a member of the Scottish Green party, but I’ll be voting SNP at this election. I’m no nationalist, but I do believe that if the opportunities to change a situation from within are completely denied to you, then separating from that situation is the only possible alternative. I’m hoping that my vote will be a little part of throwing one huge fuck-off spanner in these very, very corrupt works.
I was thoroughly entertained by an article in The Commentator, an unashamedly neoconservative website that makes some astonishing claims as if they were the ingredients on a cereal packet. How much wrong there is with this, a crowing hagiography from their raison d’etre of a Friedmanesque West that bears no relation whatsoever to the reality of mass populations:
‘… Our economics are in the tank. Budgets are bloated, taxes are too high, existential threats to our interests at home and abroad have rarely ever been more concerning. We seek to shed light on these core ‘civilisational’ issues.
We argue that now is not the time for big government; it’s not the time to bow before tyrants, dictators or terrorists; and it’s not the time to abandon our only true ally in the Middle East: Israel.
Let’s face it — it never should have become and never should be the time for any of those things. But lately, the West has become more than a little self-loathing in its worldview, and we exist to offer a viable alternative.
Never in the history of human civilisation had so much prosperity been created, so many lifted out of poverty, so much evil tackled, curtailed and eradicated than when the West was at its proudest.’
Let’s list some of the questions:
In an era of crippling austerity, whose budgets are bloated? The cancer research budget of the NHS or the executive hospitality budget of Goldman Sachs?
Taxes are too high for whom? Since when? Are we perhaps talking about the richest in the US and the UK, who ‘have paid a lower marginal tax rate over the last three decades’?
Which tyrants, dictators or terrorists are we bowing down to (ISIS, Vladimir Putin) and which are we hand in glove with (Saudi Arabia, the Neo-Nazis of Ukraine)? And in what way is a mineral-poor, minor exporting nation that relies on gobbling up billions in military aid like Israel a ‘true ally’? If we are saying that Israel is ideologically a friend of the West, then that can, of course, only be partially true, since holding different ideologies is a sign of democracy; given their treatment of Palestinians, a Zionist Israel is as abhorrent to me as a fundamental Islamic state. Does that mean I am not a ‘Westerner’? Or that Israel is merely an ally of some in the West?
In what sort of a world that gloats about a cure for Ebola being unsustainable in a free market are people ‘lifted out of poverty’? And are the means by which they are lifted out of poverty – health care, education – funded by ‘big governments’ run by the likes of Aneurin Bevan, or are they provided by the tax dodgers who bank with HSBC?
So into this parcel of rogues comes Tom Gallagher, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Bradford University (that means he’s a retired academic). In his ‘Seeds of tyranny being sown in Scotland?’ (note the question mark, just so that he can defend his position as hypothetical in the face of the bare-chested nationalist onslaught he clearly expects, though I’m sure the lads pictured to illustrate the article aren’t artists), he repeats the accusation made by Chris Deerin (chief Scottish columnist of the Daily Mail’s and, in Gallagher’s words, a ‘culturally clued up Scottish journalist’, and in the words of everyone else… well… a Daily Mail columnist) that artists in Scotland jumped on the bandwagon of independence in droves for the sole purpose of self-promotion.
I was amongst the first to contribute a piece for National Collective – or, as Gallagher calls them, in a clearly illiterate use of the quotation mark, ‘National Collective’ – but never contributed as much to the movement as I wanted, largely through illness. However, I kept in touch, and watched dozens of bright young people commit themselves to a cause that they knew was an almost impossible task. I had friends, many of them in full time jobs not in the arts or in full time study, who ran themselves into the ground organising and promoting events, devising publicity campaigns or canvassing communities. Just what self-promotion do Deerins and Gallagher think is possible knocking doors up closes in Govanhill or Provanmill to encourage disillusioned people who haven’t been near a ballot box for decades to even register to vote; ‘Eh, can we rely on you to vote in the referendum, madam, and while you’re at it, here’s a flyer for my one-man show’? If the artists and writers I know went into it all for self-promotion, take it from me; they got a really bad return on the time, effort and sheer hard cash they contributed.
Gallagher goes on to suggest that ‘Scottish culture has been set back a generation by the readiness of so many luminaries to act as performing seals for a political cause.’ Breathtakingly, he describes the art produced by the referendum as ‘shrill protests against the ‘Sassenachs’ (English foreigners) usually ‘toffee-nosed’, thereby combining an ethnic and a class prejudice.’ First, I would defy him to find anything on the National Collective website that could in any way be categorised as ‘ethnic or class prejudice’; in all my referendum meanderings, I have found nothing, seen nothing, heard nothing, read nothing that could be attributed to a member of the respected artistic community that could be remotely described as ‘ethnic and class prejudice.’ Secondly, the fact that Gallagher has to parenthesise an explanation of the word ‘Sassenach’ clearly indicates his intended, non-Scottish audience. Obviously he is writing for those neoliberal Western crusaders who fund The Commentator; so who’s the fucking performing seal now, Prof Gallagher?
He buys in to the whole myth that Yessers intimidated No campaigners to such an extent that the debate was fatally skewed. If it were true that there was a huge reservoir of silent No voters scared to put their heads above the parapet (despite the fact that, as Gallagher himself says, artists are ‘individualistic, edgy and hard to dragoon behind an established position’) why then have, post-referendum, the circulation of pro-Yes newspapers risen, as he admits, or the membership of all pro-Yes parties boomed? Why have Yes groups, from National Collective to Radical Independence to Common Weal, continued to pack out events and attract attention on social media? For heaven’s sake, the Nos WON; you’d think they’d be individualistic, edgy and hard enough to stand up for themselves NOW.
Except of course the No campaigners did; on Friday the 19th of September, when George Square saw what can only be described as a neo-fascist display of British nationalist thuggery.
Of course, a Yes vote was NEVER the ‘established’ position; all those wonderful young people I saw working their socks off knew they were fighting an uphill battle against the position of the establishment, which, in the final week of the campaign, pulled out every lie and empty promise they could to swing a vote they saw the possibility of losing. For me, voting Yes was always an act of rebellion, an act that I desperately wanted to upset the established applecart, to have a broader and wider effect across the globe. For me, it was the equivalent of voting for Syriza, not for the SNP.
Gallagher pours scorn on those from the Yes campaign he sees as indicative of a nationalist bullying mentality. Interestingly, he’s quite prepared to punt his own academic credentials, but describes Alan Riach as a ‘poet’, failing to recognise that Riach too is a Professor; not only that, he’s STILL a professor, serving at Glasgow University, and not a pensioner clinging on to hierarchical titles for his own self-aggrandisement. Nice display of academic respect there, Prof Gallagher (retired). He recounts Riach’s ‘delight’ at showing ‘no trace of deference’ to the Queen at a 2013 reception. So there we have it; a No vote is for the polite, the respectful, the deferent. Yes voters, it seems, are vile, unpatriotic, rude thugs. Perhaps Prof Gallagher should be reminded, though, that Riach is, by law, a taxpayer; the Queen is immune from being sullied by something as crass as tax, and only volunteers to pay a modicum of what might in a democracy be called her fair share out of embarrassment at the size of the silver spoon in her gob. Yes, taxes are far too high, aren’t they?
One of the heroes of Gallagher’s article is James MacMillan, ‘a prolific and widely performed composer’ who, he argues, is ‘in the tradition of energetic and talented Scots who over the last 300-400 years helped to shape the boundaries and content of British culture and disseminate its influence far and wide,’ a giant of the music scene counterpoised with ‘ex-rock star’ Pat Kane. Quite apart from the fact that Kane does not speak for the artistic community as a whole – and would not claim to – the interaction Gallagher describes can hardly be called anything like ‘tyranny’, and the subsequent tweet from MacMillan he quotes (‘‘the wonderful renowned separatist artists must never, EVER be criticised!’) sounds merely churlish rather than heroic. And I’d like to ask the Prof: is this the same James MacMillan who, unprovoked, called a young female activist in a conversation three nights ago between pro-independence supporters which he chose to join, ‘degraded’, ‘debased’, ‘hateful’ and ‘divisive’? Gallagher quotes ‘pro-British Scottish blogger’ Effie Deans, ‘who currently perhaps has the most profound things to say’. She claims that Putin’s Russia is more free than the state of the independence debate; I’d like to see what would happen to Effie were she to throw a few of those epithets in Vlad’s face.
This is, of course, the selective nature of this debate. For every insult hurled at a No voter, there will be a similar zinger directed at the Yes side, and each will hype up what suits them and ignore what doesn’t (I would direct Gallagher’s attention to the ‘Alex Salmond is a wanker’ Facebook page; I can’t find an equivalent for Vladimir Putin, or James MacMillan). But to claim that the arts community has silenced rather than empowered those who wish to take part in the debate is absurd.
As too is the rather wandered conclusion he comes to, in which he seems to confuse ‘the ruling party’ and ‘government’ in the upcoming general election with the SNP; as far as I am aware, the election in May will decide the fate of the current Tory / Lib Dem coalition in Westminster. His last sentence is quite apocalyptic:
‘Russia was once briefly as free as Scotland still is now, but it was a failure to resist creeping tyranny that has allowed the nightmare seen there today to unfold.’
The warning is clear; allow these horrible nasty Nat artists and writers to have their way, and tyranny will ensue. Let me make this clear to Professor Gallagher, who, given that he has worked at Bradford University for however long, probably hasn’t really got a clue about the reality of Scotland as it is now; if tyranny comes marching down our streets, it will be those fabulous young people I saw working their hearts out during the independence campaign who will have the nerve, the resolve, the skills and the courage to man the barricades. And when that happens, I’ll lay money on him still writing for a neo-conservative, culturally imperialistic website that advances the interest of global corporations that would happily strip every freedom we could ever possibly have to make a quick buck.
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.