Sunday, 23 April 2017

The Holy Grail and other aspirations. LIke European unity.

My wife points out that we face the possibility of moving, for the first time in our lives, to a place where we’ve chosen to live.

That doesn’t mean that we’ve always lived in places we dislike, just that in the past we’ve always moved to them because we’ve had to. It’s either been to take up a new job or, worse, to respond to having lost an old one. Buffeted through life by the whims of redundancy, a tedious fate.

That makes it a pleasure to be in Valencia, in Spain, where we hope to retire at some as yet distant date in the future. As it happens, it won’t just be the first place we’ll have moved to entirely voluntarily, it’ll also be the first place we’ll have chosen before we even knew it.

That’s why we’re out here now, discovering the place.

My first impressions have been excellent. I mean, the city has a town beach of golden sand a kilometre or two long. A beach inside the town? Hey, that alone gives it full marks right off the bat.

But then I discovered more. For instance, I had to make a visit to the cathedral as soon as I learned that it houses the holy grail. I kid you not: the holy grail. They call it the holy chalice but, hey, that’s what the grail is. The thing’s in a side chapel, in a display case, for all to see.

The hunt for the Holy Grail is over:
look no further than this display case in Valencia cathedral
Seems a real pity that no one told the Arthurian knights. Think of the trouble, the desperate quests, the lives truncated that might have been saved. All they had to do was hop on an Easyjet flight in the morning, pop into the Cathedral at lunchtime to take a look at the grail, and they’d have had time to spend the afternoon on the beach with an ice cream. Or a mojito if they preferred.

On the way to the cathedral, I was struck by another sight which was almost as moving. More, to be truthful, if you see things the way I do. The symbol of an aspiration almost as unattainable as the holy grail seemed to be until we found it hidden in plain sight.

Wandering up a Valencia street, I was struck by the sight of three flags flying from masts over the entrance to a court building.

Three Flags in Valencia
On the left was the flag of the country and city of Valencia. It consists of the Senyera, the banner of gold and red bars that marks Catalan nationhood. To it, Valencia adds a blue strip with gold leaves. The whole thing is a proud and attractive statement of local attachment.

In the middle was the flag of Spain, representing the national state to which modern Valencia belongs.

And to the right was the familiar pattern of gold stars on a blue ground of Europe, the free confederation of which Spain is a member, by its own will and with pride.

It struck me as an interesting collocation of local, national and supranational adherence. It says, my roots are here, but I realise I belong to a wider community and, through that community, to something beyond even the old and timeworn concept of the nation, source of so much needless conflict, pain and death down the centuries. Indeed, I belong to an evolving union designed to end all that bitterness and slowly, painfully build something better.

It was encouraging to see that the people of Valencia seem capable of reconciling those three levels of attachment. But it was a little disappointing to think that my own countrymen, back in England, are apparently unable to show that generosity and breadth of vision. They prefer the parochialism of Brexit over the internationalism of Europe.

Ah, well. It’s enough to drive you back to the beach and another mojito. It would have been fun to drink it out of a grail, of course, but hey, a glass will do. The setting and the drink itself are just as good, whatever the container.

A glass is perfectly appropriate to salute the generous courage I saw symbolised out here, and drown the memory of the petty-mindedness back home.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Labour and the coming general election: the context

As we in the British Labour Party prepare for our next general election, on 8 June, it struck me as interesting to look at the others there have been since the end of the Second World War. We are, after all, in a sense still living the post-War era, at least insofar as there has not been such a violent shock in the evolution of society as that war produced. Not yet, anyway, even if Donald Trump’s working on it.

There have been eleven leaders of the Labour Party in that time, not counting deputies who have acted as leader while a new one was being elected (George Brown, Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman twice). Of the eleven, nine have fought at least one general election; John Smith sadly died before he could, and Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader, is about to face his first.

Elections, how Labour did, under which leader
Victories in red, defeats in blue
Worst result in black, best in orange
The table shows how they have all fared.

Curiously, since 1945, Labour has only lost one more election than it has won (nine victories to ten defeats). However, it has managed to hang on to power significantly less successfully than the Conservatives: of the nearly 72 years since the war ended, Labour has held power for only about 30.

The Tories have moulded the era in which we live far more than Labour has.

Of all the elections it contested in that time, Labour reached its nadir in 1983, under Michael Foot, when it won just 209 seats. Under Neil Kinnock, it gradually rebuilt its fortunes in 1987 and 1992, until it achieved its biggest success under Tony Blair in 1997, winning 418 seats – curiously, precisely double the number won under Foot.

Almost as spectacular as Blair’s success of 1997 was his victory four years later, when he won 412 seats, with Attlee’s landslide in 1945 and Wilson’s in 1966 (393 and 363 seats respectively) close behind.

At the other end of the scale, the number of seats won by Labour fell at both of the last two general elections, until under Miliband in 2015, it reached 232, just 23 more than Foot took in 1983.

So that’s a little context. The obvious question is will the trend reverse in 2017? Will Corbyn, like Kinnock, put the party on a road back up towards power? Or will he merely continue the downward trend from Brown to Miliband? Will he move us off the bottom or, conversely, set a new post-War low?

I shall be out canvassing with other members to ensure that we achieve the former outcome rather than the latter. The polls are against us but the polls can be bucked. Seven weeks from now, we’ll know whether we’ve pulled off that trick.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

UK General Election: the real action starts the day after

Exciting times for us in Britain, as we head for another, and rather premature, general election.

Well, moderately exciting. There is a general sense that the actual result may be a bit of a foregone conclusion. But that’s only based on the most recent polls suggesting the government has a lead of around twenty points. That’s only the polls – there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, even if in this case it would need to be more of an avalanche than a slip.

Indeed, without an avalanche to knock them back, the Conservatives may well be winning by a landslide. Perhaps that’s the most exciting aspect of this campaign: if we can’t block Theresa May’s re-election, can we at least limit its scale and prepare for a Labour comeback in the future? We shall see. The election’s on 8 June. One certainty in this campaign is that a fierce debate will start the following day.

Theresa May. Going to the country
At a time that suits her...
How about the timing of the election?

In 2010, the Liberal Democrat Party, for a long time the conscience of the Centre-Left, frequently sniping from the Left of the Labour Party on civil rights issues, amazed us all by going into coalition with the Conservatives. This put them in partnership with a party that stood against practically everything the Liberal Democrats claimed to believe. They claimed they’d influence the government to enact some of their measures but in fact, and unsurprisingly, pulled that trick off very seldom. Instead, they were simply dragged along behind their dominant partners until their inevitable and richly deserved punishment at the polls in 2015, reduced from 57 MPs to just 8.

Of their losses, 27 went to the Conservatives: after all, if you have to choose between two members of a coalition, you might as well go for the senior partner.

One of the few things they did achieve was the 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act. This was designed to put an end to the custom of Prime Ministers calling elections when it suited them (generally when they saw the best chance of being re-elected), forcing them instead to go to the end of the five-year maximum term for which a Parliament can last. It would take a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons to overturn the measure and allow an election to be called early.

In the event, the vote was 522 to 13 which, in case you don’t want to do the maths, does constitute a two-thirds majority.

Odd, isn’t it? The vast majority of MPs voted for the election, even though a great many of them are at serious risk of losing their seats. Sound like turkeys voting for Christmas? The reasoning seems to be that you must never let the other side think you’re afraid of facing an election. Political machismo, it seems, comes first, even at the cost of letting the Prime Minister play the system to her advantage.

It also shows another accomplishment of that sad coalition government between 2010 and 2015 failing at its first test.

Ah, well. At least we’re now only seven weeks out from clearing the political air. By then we should know some of the questions that have been troubling us for the last couple of years.

Can Labour put up any kind of reasonable showing against the government?

Has the electorate swung massively over to the Conservatives?

What are the prospects for rebuilding a progressive alternative?

A new phase of interesting times starts on 9 June.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Corbyn and Peter Pan politics

“Every time a child says, ‘I don't believe in fairies,’ there is a fairy somewhere that falls down dead.”

Peter Pan leads the way to a fantasy land
where fairies depend on children's beliefs

“I believe it because it is absurd,” said Tertullian, one of the fathers of the Christian church. It’s a powerful and highly sophisticated statement.

Christianity, like any belief system, requires faith, an ability to believe despite a lack of evidence, even against all evidence. After all, you need no faith to believe that the sun will set in the West: that’s the definition of the West. To believe that a man can be executed and rise on the third day, that does require faith.

This is as true of trivial beliefs as these more profound ones, such as Peter Pan’s statement about fairies. Or the belief that a portly, white-bearded man in a red suit will come down a chimney to bring good children presents.

I find it impossible to make such an act of faith. I say that even though I know the great comfort that faith provides. It’s no accident that the words “communion” and “community” are linked: shared belief creates a community and belonging to one is a deep human need and a source of consolation in a difficult world.

Even so, I can’t make that leap. Like Diderot, I find it less of a miracle that Lazarus was brought back from the dead, than that nobody, but nobody, chose to record the fact. Surely, somewhere there’d be something from a neutral third party: a spice merchant from Asia Minor, a Roman officer writing home, perhaps a sailor from Alexandria, even if all they were saying was “there’s a really weird tale going around this place at the moment, about a guy called Lazarus. They say, would you believe, that he died but a visiting miracle-worker brought him back to life.” Instead, nothing, nada, nix. The only authority is from the gospel writers themselves, those who were promoting the belief in the first place.

Not a problem, of course, for those like Tertullian who believe because it is absurd. But for someone like me, looking for evidence to support a point of view (which isn’t quite as strong as a belief: it can be overturned by new evidence), I simply can’t accept the story on such thin backing.

So I’m deprived of the child’s joy in waiting for the tooth fairy to call, believing in the fairy even though no one’s ever seen her. Or indeed the sense of belonging that inspires a mass at its best, even though no one’s ever documented the conversion of a biscuit and a chalice of wine into flesh and blood. Or indeed, the atmosphere at a meeting of Corbynistas, encouraging each other to further acts of faith, even though no Opposition leader in history has ever won an election from a base of unpopularity as dire as their guru’s.

That’s a double misfortune for me. In the first place, because I can’t enjoy the simple comfort of the believer drawn from the mere fact of belief. There must be joy in the fervour of the Corbynist who can, like Tertullian, convince himself of the truth of an absurd notion, such as John McDonnell’s that Corbyn can turn the poll position around in twelve months. I can’t share in it.

Then there’s the second misfortune. A child whose parents are sufficiently indulgent, and sufficiently well-heeled, will wake up in the morning to find that a coin has replaced the tooth she placed under the pillow on going to bed. Unless the parents are exceptionally indulgent, an adult who does the same with a lost tooth is likely to suffer acute disappointment. Generally, indeed, we expect adults to grow out of such childish beliefs.

In the case of Corbynist fancy, not growing out of it has serious consequences for everyone in Britain: clinging to the belief that Corbyn can defeat the Tories prevents us replacing him by someone who might make some progress against them. That simply ensures continued Tory rule. The results are all about us to see: hospitals offering doctors nearly £1000 to do a shift in A&E to prevent complete collapse into unsafe service, kids from poor backgrounds far less likely to attend good schools, families of dying invalids deprived of basic support.

Unlike the Peter Pan claim, in the Corbyn fantasy, it isn’t lack of belief that kills. On the contrary, it’s belief itself. The longer we cling on to that absurd faith, we ensure the suffering, even death, of more people – not fairies, let me stress, but people.

Personally, I can’t believe that fairies exist and depend on the belief of children to assure their own survival.

I can’t believe that the universe is run by a God who took human form to suffer and die to redeem humankind from a fate to which he’d condemned it in the first place.

And I can’t believe that the least popular Opposition leader in my lifetime has the slightest chance of winning a general election.

Well, it would be absurd, wouldn’t it?

Friday, 14 April 2017

Be careful what you wish for...

Do you remember FBI Director James Comey announcing, just eleven days before the US presidential election, that he was once more investigating Hillary Ciinton over allegations about her time as Secretary of State? Only once the damage was done did he let it be known that no charges were going to be brought. Many believe his intervention may have cost her the election.

It’s particularly galling that it has now come out that Comey was investigating Trump at the same time, for the contacts between his team and known or suspected Russian agents. Comey said nothing about that. Imagine the impact on Trump’s campaign if it had come out before the election that his campaign had clandestine contact with a foreign, and not particularly friendly, intelligence service.

Comey may have been instrumental in putting Trump into the White House, but that hasn’t stopped the President he helped create rounding on him. Trump now claims that Comey “saved Hillary Clinton's life” by not recommending charges against her. Comey may have given Trump the shove he needed to get in, but he has no control over him now.

James Comey: is Trump biting a hand that once fed him?
And what about Comey’s other investigation? Whether or not it ultimately discovers any wrongdoing by the Trump people, it’s fairly clear Putin was keen on a Trump victory and prepared to do what he could to facilitate one. Like Comey, he may be wondering now how wise that attitude was. Though candidate Trump was more than complimentary about Russia and Putin, during his visit to Moscow on 12 April, Secreatry of State Rex Tillerson described US-Russian relations being “at a low point”. In that, he was echoing Trump’s own views.

Meanwhile, Trump is finding it hard to deliver on his domestic pledges. Like so many other inept and authoritarian leaders, he’s resorted instead to military action. It’s so much easier to fire missiles at Syria or drop a massive bomb on Afghanistan, than to make deals with Congress (the “great deal-maker” Trump is proving he doesn’t deserve even that title), far less to improve incomes or extend employment opportunities at home.

Like Comey and Putin, many of those who believed Trump’s pledges to help them out of their difficulties, may soon be wondering whether they were as smart as they might have been in backing an amateur’s bid for the White House.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, it’s becoming increasingly clear that leaving the EU won’t increase opportunities or improve trade. On the contrary, the country is likely to find it hard to sign trade deals that would be as beneficial as the arrangements it currently enjoys with its European partners. Nor does it seem that Brexit will even lead to any decrease in immigration – Britain needs the foreign manpower – even though that was the principal aim of many Brexit supporters.

Comey and Putin may just be the tip of the great wave of disappointment likely to sweep the US and UK in the coming years. It would be gratifying if that disappointment would drive people back towards more sensible positions than backing Trump or Brexit. Sadly, disappointed people aren’t always the most rational. The reaction may be a switch to even more extreme positions.

We’re going through difficult times. They may become a great deal more difficult still. But we need to get through them if there’s to be any hope of resuming progress once this retroactive period is over.

In the meantime, it’ll do none of us any harm to be a little more careful what we wish for.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Science comes to my rescue

It’s a privilege to witness the achievement of a truly significant breakthrough in science. It must have been wonderful to be around when Newton discovered that apples fall from trees, something which no one had apparently noticed in all the previous history of human existence. Or, equally, when Einstein came up with his celebrated theory that time can apparently distend to appalling lengths in the company of certain relatives.

However, t’s particularly gratifying if a discovery happens to have a direct impact on one’s own life.

I’m glad to say that such a breakthrough has just occurred.

It’s sadly the case that I have won myself an undeserved reputation for being unable to do up my shoelaces effectively. Well, perhaps a deserved reputation. Nevertheless, I would like to reject out of hand, as a monstrous libel, the suggestion that I may have to stop five or six times during a walk to retie my laces. Sadly, I can’t, but only because I don’t believe the truth can be construed as a libel.

Oh, blast. Again
So, it was with unmitigated delight that I learned from a Guardian article, that a team led by Professor Oliver O’Reilly, a mechanical engineer at Berkeley, had established beyond doubt that knots unravel under the simple effect of the impact of a foot on the earth, followed by the swing of a leg while walking.

In other words, my problems with shoelaces are nothing to do with personal ineptitude. We are up against a universal law here. It’s as inevitable and ineluctable as the law of gravity. I can no more be blamed for my shoelaces coming undone than I can for weighing.

Well, I mean, I can be blamed for how much I weigh, but not for weighing at all.

And I have the full power of science to support my position.

The Guardian gives us the background

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Anyone but Corbyn? Don't be silly...

It began to feel like a trend when the third person in two days referred to me as belonging to the “Anyone but Corbyn” group, neatly abbreviated as “ABC”.

It seems this is the latest term that supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, current and flailing leader of the Labour Party, have come up with in their increasingly desperate attempt to label everyone else as part of one, homogeneous and, it goes without saying, despicable group.

We were all at one time “Blairites”. It was hard to get that label to stick to people, like me, with a long track record of opposing Blair as energetically as they now oppose Corbyn.

“Red Tory” didn’t work for people who’d spent a career opposing the Tories, in some cases winning elections against them. 

The label “plotters” (because they supported the supposed “coup” against Corbyn) suggested that there was a conspiracy embracing a couple of hundred thousand people, and you have to be profoundly paranoid to believe such a plot even possible.

They still, though, seem to need a single, simplifying term to brand us all. “ABC” is the latest attempt. Sadly, though, it merely shows how hopeless it is to impose such a simplification on a phenomenon far too complex for it.

I would never go for anyone but Corbyn. Why, we could end up with someone even worse – and there are people who would make an even more dire job of leading the Labour Party than Corbyn. John McDonnell, his Shadow Chancellor, for one. If we can cast the net beyond Parliament, the devious and authoritarian leader of the Unite union, Len McCluskey, would be another.

Perhaps “ABTC” would work: anyone better than Corbyn. Unfortunately not. I thought Ed Miliband, the previous leader, was desperately weak. More lamentable as leader even than his own predecessor, Gordon Brown. But either of them would be an improvement over Corbyn, and the last thing I want to see is either of them back.

What about “AALBTC”, anyone a lot better than Corbyn? I’m not sure that works either. You see, Tony Blair was massively better than Corbyn (or Brown or Miliband) at winning elections; he was dismal at resisting the lure of power and therefore followed the then most powerful man in the world, Dubya Bush, into the catastrophic Iraq War. That’s Dubya who was himself the worst President of the United States, or so I imagined until I discovered Trump.

No. We need someone with the ability of Blair to win elections but the guts to say “no” to power. An earlier Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was good that way, refusing to take Britain into the Vietnam War, but he wasn’t exactly the straightest of individuals and he does suffer from the inconvenient handicap of being dead.

Harold Wilson: said no to LBJ over the disaster of Vietnam
But not exactly pure as driven snow...
So what we really need is anyone but Corbyn who’s a lot better at winning elections without being opportunistic about essential principle or kowtowing to inept political leaders. Sadly ABCWALBAWEBWBOAEPOKTIPL doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue.

Which perhaps makes my point. We’re talking about a complex view, not susceptible to simple summary. Trying to encapsulate it with a single word or pithy abbreviation is bound to fail.

On the other hand, if you absolutely insist on coming up with a single term for those of us who oppose Corbyn within the Party, I do have one that I feel goes a long way towards filling the bill.

I like to think of myself as a Labourite.