Wednesday, 16 August 2017

After Charlottesville: Trump and taking down statues

Donald Trump has come up with some interesting remarks on the clashes that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. These were the background that led to the murder of a protester  leading to the murder of a protester, Heather Heyer, and the injury of several others, by a white supremacist who took a leaf out of the terrorists’ book, and drove a car into the crowd. 

Trump said:

Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee. This week, it is Robert E Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop? George Washington was a slave owner. Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? ... Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now are we going to take down his statue? … You're changing history, you're changing culture...

Robert E. Lee: should his statue go?
In a sense, he has a point, though not the one he thinks he’s making. It’s true that iconic figures from the US past have terribly tarnished images: George Washington was a slaveowner who never freed any of his slaves, even on his deathbed.

Thomas Jefferson too, who penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” clearly felt the right to liberty was alienable for anyone with African blood. Why, he even took it from his own family. Visitors to his house at Monticello commented on the strange sensation of being served at table by slaves whose looks made it absolutely clear they were Jefferson’s own sons. He had fathered them on another of his slaves, Sally Hemings. 

He enslaved his own children? What an indictment.

So one can see an argument for taking down their statues.

However, that would mean simply ignoring their real achievements elsewhere. One of Washington’s finest was to have led the American army to victory over the British colonial power, and then to have resisted the temptation to take on the military dictatorship that was clearly open to him. And Jefferson was the voice of the revolution. He may have behaved shockingly in his home, but at least he set certain principles for democratic behaviour – though limited only to white males at the time – which have become a benchmark for the rest of us to aim at (but for everyone).

So maybe their statues should remain after all.

What about Lee?

I’ve never understood why he had monuments anyway. He swore allegiance to the United States, served in its armed forces, and when his state rose against his country, chose to side with his state. He couldn’t, he claimed, draw his sword against his “country”, but by that he meant Virginia, not the USA.

That made him an oathbreaker and turncoat. In absolutely strict terms, he committed treason. And that betrayal was directed at the very country, the United States, most Southerners would loudly uphold today.

Why on earth celebrate such treason? Why tolerate monuments to it? Why aren’t they in the forefront of the movement to tear down his statue?

Don’t think it was the only option open to him. His fellow-Virginian, George H. Thomas, made the opposite decision. He remained loyal to the country to which he had sworn allegiance and to the army in which he served. He became, in my view, the most effective general on either side – significantly better in that respect than was Lee himself.

That view runs counter to the claims of many who maintain that Lee deserves our respect as a great soldier. Really? He sent men to march a mile under devastating fire from enemies in well-protected positions, in what became known as Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. George Pickett himself, the man who gave his name to the charge though he didn’t order it, when asked to put his division in order for a defensive fight after the charge, replied that he no longer had a division.

Men like Douglas Haig, who threw away hundreds of thousands of lives of British soldiers under his command in the First World War, and his equivalents in the French and German armies, simply took Lee’s Gettysburg lunacy to a new level of carnage.

As for Stonewall Jackson, well there’s little to say. He was a religious maniac and a man of appalling brutality. An effective soldier maybe but a thoroughly unpleasant man. Take down his statue by all means.

And why not, indeed, Lee’s too.

So, you see, Trump has a point. Though I doubt he’d agree with it if he thought it through. On the other hand, who’s ever accused Trump of thinking things through?

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Toffee's diary: strange things. Like trains. And adulthood.

Trains. Terrible things. Do you know them? I didn’t. But I found out a week ago.

They go chunka-chunka-chunka for hours and hours. And sometimes woosh-woosh-woosh. Worst of all, when another one goes by, they go woosh-woosh-roar-roar-roar-clackety-clackety-clack.

It’s horrible. Especially because it goes on and on and on.

Still it was wonderful when we got to the end. Its somewhere called Scotland. There’s lots of great places. A river we can wander along. A field with lots of other dogs that Luci could run away from and I could play with. And there was even a sea thing which was fun.

“Yes,” says Luci, “where I went in and you ran away.”

Luci went into the sea thing
But I thought it was a bit safer to watch and bark a bit at it
Not really. I didn’t run away. I went in too. But I only went in just a bit. Paws, you know. That was far enough. The rest of the water just kept moving. Luci may have liked that but I though it made more sense to stay near the sand. Sand! That’s great stuff. You can get it everywhere, and dig in it, and even run across it.

What’s more, there were some really nice humans in Scotland. There was a woman who was like our human number 1, but she was even better at picking me up. Rocking me, you know, and stroking me and telling me how nice I was.

“She doesn’t know you like our number 1 does,” says Luci.

And a man too, who’s terribly big. Bigger than human number 2. Amazing. And the third one’s a puppy. I knew that because she was, well, puppy-like. She was taller than my humans and almost as big as the man one, but still a puppy’s a puppy, and you just know when you see one.

Talking about puppies, something really odd happened to me this week. The humans told me I wasn’t one any more. Not a puppy. No idea why. “She’s in season,” the humans kept saying.

In season? What on earth did that mean?

“It’s summer,” said Luci, “that’s the season. Not that you’d know it with the rain. And it won’t be for long anyway. Trust me, I know. I’ve seen seasons come and go.”

Seasons come and go? So what does that mean? That I’ll stop being an adult and be a puppy all over again? I think I’d prefer that.

But the worst of it was that they started talking about me making puppies. Making them? I like being one but I’ve no idea how to make one. Why don’t they just let me go on as a puppy myself instead of trying to turn me into some kind of puppy-making adult? 

“The humans will sort it all out,” says Luci. 

It’s all very well for her to say that: it seems they’ve made sure she can’t make puppies, and I don’t know how they did that, any more than I know why I can’t either but they think I can.

“You’ll find out,” says Luci.

Oh, well. It was fun in Scotland anyway. And now we’re off again. Chunka-chunka-chunka. Woosh-woosh-woosh. But it doesn’t feel so bad this time. Maybe I’m getting more used to it. And, after all, putting up with it worked out pretty well, considering, last time.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Venezuela: the case for just saying “no”

There is a glorious scene in my favourite book of World War One memoirs, Emilio Lussu’s Sardinian Brigade. He describes a moment when his Italian unit is waiting to charge the Austrian lines. The pre-assault artillery barrage starts up but the fire, instead of hitting the Austrians, falls on its own, Italian positions.

While Lussu rushes about trying to restore discipline among the panicking troops, he’s struck by an astonishing sight: one machine gun unit which is under full control of its officer, a friend of his, marching in fine order – towards the rear.

“What on Earth are you doing?” shouts Lussu.

“Attacking those guns,” replies his friend.

“But they’re our guns,” he shouts back.

“They’re firing at me,” comes the calm reply, “so they’re enemy guns.”

That strikes me as a thoroughly sensible, not to say commendable, attitude. By analogous reasoning, if a government is wreaking havoc on the lives of workers and the poor, it is, by that simple fact, a government hostile to the principles of socialism. It’s crucial to bring it down, as quickly as possible. If it claims to be socialist then, as soon as we’ve got our hollow laugh out of the way, we need to devote ourselves still more urgently to the task – a false friend is far more dangerous than an open enemy.

Why do I mention that just now?

Because there seems to be a belief among certain circles of the British Left that we need to back the present government in Venezuela, on the grounds that it’s ‘socialist’. This is a ‘socialist’ government that presided over a reduction in GDP by 18.6% last year. Inflation was running at a yearly rate of 741% in February 2017. Although the official figures are different, many commentators believe that unemployment is climbing towards 20%.

The face of socialism? Not as I see it
Venezuela is sitting on the biggest oil reserves in the world. And yet it’s GDP per head is a little over $12,800 a head and falling, while even Cuba, with no oil, is running at $11,900. How long before Venezuela falls below Cuba?

There’s plenty wrong about Cuba, but at least it’s delivering a stable economy, secure if low living standards and decent healthcare, in spite of decades of US sanctions. Nicol├ís Maduro’s government is delivering chaos, in which the first victims are the poor and the workers it claims to protect.

Sure, the parties likely to replace his in power may well be pretty awful. At least they’re open enemies and we can get on with opposing them once they’re in office. The one controlling the regime right down is a false friend and it’s wreaking horrific damage on those it should be defending.

Marching on it at the head of a machine gun detachment probably isn’t a good idea. But doing the same thing metaphorically? It’s firing on our people, which makes it the enemy, so why not?

After all, don’t forget Stalin called himself a socialist too. He proved it by taking out 80 million people. Among whom were all the leaders, bar him, of the revolution that was supposed to bring socialism to Russia.

I got tired decades ago of being told that his successors’ governments had to be supported simply for the principles to which they paid lip service. I feel tired when I hear the same stale old rhetoric being dragged out in defence of Maduro. 

We need to find something more innovative. And actually stand up for the people we’re supposed to represent.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Who'd be a democratic socialist? Depends on what you mean by it

On 21 October 1966, 40,000 cubic metres of stones and mud slid down a hillside in Wales. In their track stood the village of Aberfan and Pantglas Junior School. 116 children and 28 adults died.

Aberfan: aftermath of disaster
The heap that slid was slurry from the nearby coalmine. It had been dumped for years on top of known springs. The constant flow of water made it unstable and many voices had been raised in concern.

The slagheap was the responsibility by the National Coal Board. It had taken control of the coal industry when it was nationalised by Attlee’s iconic Labour government. It was headed by Alf Robens, a former Labour MP who had held the position of Minister for Power in that same government.

Robens falsely claimed that the disaster could not have been foreseen. He strove to minimise the Coal Board’s contribution to reconstruction, which only proceeded when a new Labour government under Harold Wilson came up with some money, though that didn’t stop £150,000 being taken from the charitable fund for the disaster (ultimately paid back by yet another Labour government, under Tony Blair).

Why do I recall that story now?

Because just recently some friends on the left accused me of not being a “democratic socialist”. I don’t take offence at such attacks: they merely balance charges of being a “raving socialist” levelled at me from the right (the centre-right: I don’t knowingly have friends in the hard right). Still, it’s a criticism that deserves consideration.

I’ve always thought that central to socialism is the slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. There are huge difficulties with this principle, not least that no one can really say what anyone’s needs are.

Generally, many socialists accept as an intermediate step the slogan, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution”. Achieving even that would be a huge step forward. And we’re a long way from doing so.

A recent report reveals that chief executives of top UK companies are, on average, paid in a year what someone on a median income would take 160 years to earn.

Major company chief executives may be doing an important job. But their claims to take responsibility are empty. When companies go wrong, Chief Executives generally just move on. Tony Hayward, Chief Executive of BP at the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, has taken up lucrative new positions with Glencore Xstrata and Corus. As his history shows, these top executives aren’t always as competent as one might hope: the link between ther contribution and reward is hard to see. Certainly, it isn’t established at 160 times median pay.

Tackling this kind of problem strikes me as central to democratic socialism.

Sadly, however, those who most loudly proclaim their socialism take what to me seems a far more reductionist view of socialism. They equate it with nationalisation of industry which they conflate with people’s control. That sounds democratic. Indeed, with people’s control it would seem likely that a more socialistic approach, linking remuneration to contribution might be adopted.

Sadly, the real experience of nationalisation is that it produces not people’s control but state control. The bureaucrats who run nationalised industries don’t act in the interests of the people, but generally in the interests of the self-proclaimed elite that includes men of Tony Hayward’s ilk.

Aberfan shows how such bureaucrats can be sucked into the game and ignore the legitimate claims of ordinary people. I sympathise with the Aberfan father who wanted the cause of his son’s death to be recorded as “buried alive by the National Coal Board”. The same coal board would do Thatcher’s bidding and bury the entire British coal industry less than twenty years later.

It also saddens me that many friends on the left line up with the Brexit camp in the great debate that dominates British politics. In a pamphlet on the subject, an MP for whom I have great admiration expressed his surprise at the fact that the far right shares his desire to leave the European Union. Only his surprise surprises me. The driving force for Brexit is fear of immigration and a nationalistic loss of local state power – a fundamental concern of the far right.

On the other hand, one of the few forces to have resisted the hegemony of the Tony Haywards has been the EU. It has ensured the adoption of employment laws that are anathema to the top executives. It represents a bulwark against the kind of behaviour of employers that marked the National Coal Board and Lord Robens at Aberfan. It guarantees freedoms, including the freedom of movement, that give wage earners the right to pursue the best opportunities for themselves anywhere across the world’s largest trading bloc.

Why would any democratic socialist want to give any of that up?

Brexit: "bringing back control" to hand it to Washington?
Thanks for sharing, @AnnEnglishRose

So, friends who doubt my democratic socialist credentials, here’s my answer: if democratic socialism is reduced to state control of industry and a nationalistic refusal of merged sovereignty with our neighbours, then certainly I want no part of it. If, on the other hand, democratic socialism means battling against the injustice and regressive effect of inequity, revealed in individuals being paid 160 times more than others for delivering not even a fraction of 160 times as much; if it means working with other nations to defend our rights and extend our prosperity; why, then democratic socialism is precisely what I believe in.

And isn’t that precisely what the Labour Party should be about?

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Sadiq Khan: what a real leader looks like

There’s “absolutely no way you can disrespect the way the people voted,” claims Shadow Education Secretary and leading Labour Party member Angela Rayner.

This is a curious statement, and by no means the only one of its kind floating around these days, because it’s both true and untrue. Certainly, you have to respect the outcome of a vote in the sense that it sets the framework of politics. But there would be no Opposition if we simply respected, fully, the result of a vote: we’d have to say, “the people have voted for the other side so we should back their policies”.

In reality, we say “this is the way people voted but we’re going to keep up the pressure all the same. We believe people can change their minds and we want to win at the next election as we lost at this one”.

The Guardian article from which I took the Rayner quote was concerned with the statements of the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, that it would still be possible for Britain to remain in the European Union. This is coming to be known as an exit from Brexit. It would take another vote, he acknowledges, which is precisely what I would expect an Opposition to demand: beaten in one vote, it works for victory in the next.

Sadiq Khan, outside Westminster.
Is that where his future lies?
There’s a refreshing quality to Khan’s statement. The Labour Party position on Brexit is far from satisfactory. Or even clear. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, recently announced that Britain would have to leave the European Single Market because continued membership of it would be “dependent on membership of the EU”.

This is another of those curious statements, that’s both true and untrue. A small number of nations are members of the Single Market without being members of the EU. Norway is a notable example. But Corbyn is right in a wider sense: to retain its membership of the Single Market, Norway has in effect to behave like a member of the EU, accepting all its regulations and even paying contributions to its budget, but without having any say in setting them. One can imagine that opting for such an outcome for Britain might honour the strict letter of the Brexit vote, but entirely deny and undermine its spirit.

The problem is that it’s hard to be confident that Corbyn is taking this position merely to “respect the vote”. Given his past pronouncements, one has to suspect that he’s hiding behind the will of the people in order not to reveal that secretly he’s in sympathy with the Brexit camp – even though that’s contrary to the official position of the Labour Party he leads.

This would certainly be disingenuous at best. But far more serious, it means that on this crucial question for Britain, the government faces no Opposition. The biggest Party opposing the Tories will ultimately back the government – as has repeatedly happened on Brexit votes. Labour MPs put forward amendments, lose them and then line up under Leadership pressure to pass, docile and toothless, through the government lobbies on the substantial question.

As I said before, taken to extremes, “respecting the vote” means backing the government. On the EU, it feels as though that’s exactly what Labour is doing.

That’s why it’s so refreshing to hear Sadiq Khan speak out. At last, a leading member of the Party has spoken unequivocally in favour of Party policy. What a contrast with an official leadership which seems paralysed by its own ambivalence over it. Above all, Khan is speaking as a true Opposition leader: accepting that the people have delivered a verdict and that we are therefore heading in a direction we view as mistaken, but refusing to give up the right to work for a change in that decision even at the eleventh hour.

In other words, as an Opposition should, he holds out the hope of reversing a decision that went against us. That’s an approach I’d like to see the whole of the leadership embrace. My fear is that the present leadership may be unable to make such a change, and instead what we need is a change in leadership.

The Mayor of London, I feel, has given us a taste of what that might be.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

The sequel to Frost/Nixon could be far more chilling

It’s been fun watching the film Frost/Nixon again. Not just because it’s a gripping film with fine actors, above all the extraordinary Michael Sheen as Frost, but also because it’s a valuable reminder of some significant if deeply unedifying events. A reminder that’s particularly timely today.

Frost (Michael Sheen) interviewing Nixon (Frank Langella)
The film tells the story of what remains one of the more significant interviews ever shown on TV. That was the interview of Richard Nixon by David Frost. At the time, Frost was a man who’d made a strong though not first-rate reputation first as a comedian, second as a talk show host. It was extraordinary that, with such a background, he should have decided to interview the former US President three years after he had been forced to resign from the White House. Nixon went as a result of the Watergate scandal, once it became clear that his denials of involvement in the attempted cover up of the burglary of the Democratic National Committee were simply mendacious.

The film shows how Nixon initially ran circles around Frost but, eventually, the interviewer was able to turn the tables on him and extract the only public admission of guilt that Nixon ever made and the closest he came to an apology.

The most telling line of the film comes at the end. Sam Rockwell, playing journalist James Reston, points out that thanks to Watergate, Nixon’s “most lasting legacy is that today, any political wrongdoing is immediately given the suffix… ‘gate’”.

There has, however, been a move in recent years to try to rehabilitate the memory of Nixon. Apologists for him point to his construction of better relations with the Soviet Union, to his opening up of China, and most powerfully to his working through the Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War. These are, it is true, major achievements, but I can’t help wondering whether other Presidents might not have been able to pull them off too, given the changing atmosphere both domestically within the United States and across the world. More to the point, while ending the Vietnam War was certainly a huge success, it’s worth remembering that Nixon had earlier extended it into Cambodia, inflicting terrifying numbers of casualties and, more important still, precipitating the seizure of power there by the Khmer Rouge. These instituted the most violent regime the world has seen, wiping out more people, proportionately to their population, than even the Nazi Holocaust.

All this adds up to my watching the revision of Nixon’s reputation with considerable scepticism. He may have had some achievements but I feel that his contribution was only to see, and seize, opportunities he had little role in creating.

Meanwhile, as the Watergate Scandal unfolded, we watched him retreating from position to position, admitting one offence when he could deny it no longer, while still denying others, throwing colleagues, often long-term friends, to the dogs rather than resign himself. Eventually, though, the options ran out. With the House of Representatives about to vote for impeachment, and the Senate almost certainly to convict him, he resigned. Soon after, his successor Gerald Ford pardoned him, ensuring that he was never brought to account for his misdeeds.

The damage has been long lasting. Nixon believed, as he claimed to Frost, that whatever a President did was, by that simple fact, not illegal. This is a claim worthy of a monarch, not the President of a republican form of government: a king by divine right might feel that nothing he does can be regarded as a crime or be sanctioned by law. But the nature of a republic is that it has at its core the notion of rule of law, making it impossible for any citizen, however powerful to be above it.

Nixon, like every President, had sworn to uphold the Constitution. By his behaviour, he had broken that oath. It was a fundamental betrayal, and it set a precedent.

That precedent is being cheerfully followed today. Trump’s Nixon, in spades. Charmless and dishonest just like the 37th president, he only lacks his predecessor’s competence and effectiveness. Sadly, we have to be grateful that he does. If he were to chalk up any achievements, they would be far more those of war than of peace – Nixon bombing Cambodia rather than Nixon talking peace in Paris.

They have in common their indifference to the law and their contempt for the Constitution they swore to uphold. But here too there is a major contrast. Nixon may have lied and cheated and obstructed, but he didn’t commit high treason by collaborating with a foreign power hostile to the United States.

It’s worth watching Frost/Nixon even if you’ve seen it before. It’s entertaining as well as insightful. Just remember that, relevant though it is, the President of that time was merely loathsome and criminal.

This one is profoundly toxic too.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Austerity: is it really a Tory blind spot?

A joke frequently told against Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour governments led by Tony Blair, that he was having an extramarital affair. The object of his affections was a mystery woman known as Prudence. He simply couldn’t stop himself mentioning her whenever he spoke, so that the catchword for everything he did in dealing with the country’s finances was that it was down, he claimed, to Prudence.

“Mock on, mock on”, he might be saying today. And “what side of your face are you laughing out of now?”

After David Cameron brought the Conservatives to power, Prudence was unceremoniously dumped for a much less attractive siren known as Austerity. Far from seducing the Chancellor alone, Austerity seems to have bedded most of the senior figures of the Tory Party. Which isn’t to say they weren’t warned. Anyone at all familiar with the ideas of Maynard Keynes pointed out that there was a paradox at the core of the notion Austerity: when a government puts the brakes on spending the result isn’t necessarily a saving, but often the exact contrary. Reduced spending leads to reduced economic activity, and therefore reduced taxation, and far from emerging from indebtedness, the government merely sinks further into debt.

UK Debt as % of GDP: steadily growing under austerity
Source: BBC
Seven years on, it’s clear that this is exactly what has happened. Back in 2010, Cameron made a great deal of the supposedly unbearable cost of debt Labour had amassed, a toxic burden being passed on to the future generations. It was approaching the trillion-pound level at that time. Seven years on, it is now projected to reach £1.8 trillion by next March, but curiously the Tories have stopped talking about it.

Despite years of austerity, with constant cuts to essential public services, even the government’s deficit – the amount by which spending exceeds income – is rising again. In June, it was nearly 50% higher than it was in the same month last year. Keynes’s paradox of thrift is being verified with a vengeance: thrift cuts revenue and not just cost, so it can make things worse rather than better.

Anyone reading this piece might feel there’s nothing new in my making this claim. I’ve said it all before, haven’t I? So why am I saying it again now?

Because now we learn that the Tories are not only persisting with their austerity policies in the face of evidence that they aren’t working, but even in the face of evidence that they’re costing them votes

Now that’s truly odd. Because if the Tories are anything, they’re an election-winning machine, hypersensitive to any chance to win a vote, or any risk of losing one. It’s quite extraordinary that they’re sticking – for now – to a policy they know might lose them power.

Which leads to a further question. If it isn’t working financially; if it’s costing them votes politically; then why on earth are the Tories continuing to pursue austerity?

Could it really be that they are, ultimately, entirely heartless? Do they truly believe that the poor need to be punished for the offence of being, simply, poor? And the best way of punishing them is to impoverish them further?

I find it hard to believe that any but a few of the Tory leaders are quite that ruthless. Sadly, though, that leaves only one explanation: that they simply can’t see what they’re doing. Which suggests that the Parliamentary Conservative Party has simply lost all contact with reality.

Surely we wouldn’t want to suggest that Tories might be that benighted, would we?