A Pair of Brexit Thought Experiments

It’s been a little while, but I’m afraid this is another Brexit post. However, it’s not going to go in the direction you might think. I want to run through a couple of inter-related thought experiments. I’m going to run through some events and it’s going to be clear who I am talking about, but I want you to ignore any pre-conceptions you may have and go with it.

So first up I want to rewind to the pre-referendum time, back when your pound was still worth something on the global stage.

Now, imagine you’re a relatively senior member of the Government and you back Remain. You back it wholeheartedly. You expect Remain to win. You can see Cameron and Osborne campaigning and don’t think they’re doing an especially good job, but you’re still reasonably confident. However, you know there’s a chance of losing the vote.

Either because you know something or because you have read your boss well, you think that should Leave win then the Prime Minister will resign, leaving a gap at the top which will most likely be hotly contested by those on the Leave side. They would have won the vote and see that as a mandate to take control of the Party and the country. You believe these people to be, let’s be diplomatic, ass-hats, and can’t stomach the idea of them taking charge and destroying the country because it appears they know nothing about what they’re doing.

You believe, rightly or wrongly, that being an outspoken Remainer will not win any more votes over to the Remain side, but more importantly, you know that if you are on the frontline then you basically rule yourself out as the next Prime Minister. With all that in mind, you decide to keep quiet in the lead up to the vote. Some could see this as wanting to make a grab for power, but that’s not necessarily the case. You want what’s best for the country and, looking around, all the other options are bad. Should the unthinkable happen and Leave wins, you view yourself as the only steady, reliable hand. The only person who would have a chance of being Prime Minister who would have a chance of getting the country out of the mess it’s in.

Is that why Theresa May did what she did in the run up the referendum? Who knows, but it’s a compelling narrative. But does it also chime with what has come since? That leads me on to my second thought experiment.

So, all that was laid out in the first half of this post has come to be and you are Prime Minister. You are tasked with taking the Uk out of the EU, something you think is an unholy mistake. You think it will lay to waste so many aspects of the country, it is a disaster of unparalleled proportions. How do you go about it?

You have a mandate from the country that you feel you have to follow through on. It is an unwinnable situation. Whatever deal you come away with at the end of negotiations will be a bad one. The ones that do the best for the UK – the soft Brexit options – will be seen as a copout by the electorate. They will involve us still paying into the EU and will probably do nothing (or, at most, very little) to get back our sovereignty, stop immigration, free us to cut our own trade deals – the things people were misguidedly voting for. If you manage to do one of those things you won’t be satisfying everyone who voted Leave. At best a soft Brexit probably meets the requirements for maybe 40% of Leave voters while the rest will feel screwed over because they didn’t get what they want.

On the other hand, if you go for the hard Brexit option you give those people what they want, but also a whole load of what they didn’t want. Added to which, the ramifications for the country will be catastrophic. And again, you’ll probably only please maybe 40% of the Leave voters. People will say “I only wanted to stop immigration, I didn’t want businesses to leave the country, we needed to stay in the single market”, etc and so on.

Basically, you have inherited a no-win situation. There’s nothing you can do that will please the country (and remember, 48% of the country didn’t vote for any of these options, and you didn’t want them either). So what do you do? How do you fix this mess?

First of all, you need to maximise the time you have to get the result you need while also making people think we’re moving forward. The initial Brexit discussions were about when Article 50 would be invoked. European elections meant we couldn’t delay for ever, but equally we needed a plan before we started negotiations. Sometime in the new year seemed a fair compromise. Arguably March 2017 is about as long as it could be left. Announcing that at the Tory Party conference gives a 6 month window to come up with a plan.

The next thing is to build a case for either the softest of Brexits or not having one at all in your 6 month window. How do you do that? Well, if you announce that we’re aiming for total removal from the EU, that the UK will go it alone, it’s likely that people will freak out. The pound will dive. Businesses will get scared and start openly talking about how they plan to leave the UK. Foreign investment will dry up. Fewer jobs will be created. The cost of living will start to rise as the UK imports far more than it exports and even the things produced at home are often produced using foreign parts, so all these things will become more expensive to the regular consumer. In the run up to Christmas this would be a nightmare. Wallets will feel the pinch. People won’t be able to afford to go abroad.

Many of those who voted to Leave fall into two categories – the older generation and the poorer households. Many of the older generation rely on state pensions which now won’t go as far. Some winter abroad and now will find that more expensive. Poorer households will struggle to make ends meet.

Suddenly the reality of what Brexit might mean will hit home. The discussion will shift to “And this is all happening before we’ve even left – things will only get worse”. People will panic. Then it becomes possible to raise the prospect of not going through with it. Whether or not that can be followed through is a different matter, but at least it brings the conversation out in the open. It gives us a chance of staying.

I think it’s notable that the policies regarding Brexit that caused the most fuss at the Tory Party conference came from remainers – Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt and Amber Rudd. Their speeches sparked debate about how we treated people from other countries, and how much we rely on them. The NHS can’t be truly self-sufficient in terms of medical staff. It’s outrageous and impractical for all businesses to publish the number of foreign workers they have (this has, of course, since been taken back and was “never an official policy”).

Of course, the three Brexiteers will continue to talk their guff. Guff which isn’t aligned with each other. And guff which is rapidly dismissed by various EU politicians. But it all plays a part.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see further announcements and proclamations which spark debate and outrage around the country in the coming weeks and months, and the debate starting to take a different shape in the new year. Now, whether that debate will be enough to prevent Brexit from actually happening is a different matter, and there are questions as to whether a soft Brexit is even possible (European Council President Donald Tusk certainly seems to have ruled it out). To be fair, it’s difficult to see any deal that gets signed off by all 27 states and the EU Council, so the options probably are limited. Shaping the debate to all-or-nothing might be beneficial.

Of course, this is all speculation. I have no idea. Maybe Theresa May really is moving the Conservatives into the UKIP space in a bid to appeal to the modern xenophobe. Maybe she doesn’t care about the shape of the country and her legacy. But right now, her moves are the same as those I would make if I were trying to shift the debate and keep the UK in the EU.

Brexit, Bregret, Brindecision … and Bremain?

I’m going to say something that I think you’ll think is crazy, and then I’m going to set out my stall. I don’t think the UK is going to quit the EU.

Late Friday night/early Saturday morning I put the odds down as being 1% for the Government not invoking Article 50 and 0.01% of having another referendum. 0.01% is odds of 10,000 to 1. Well, let’s double the chances (making it 5,000 to 1) because then it’s the same odds as Leicester winning the Premier League in 2015-16 and that means I can use a nice footballing analogy.

So yesterday I was thinking that the UK remaining in the EU was like Leicester’s chances last summer, before a ball had been kicked. This morning, I felt like we’d reached October 2015 in the Premier League. Leicester were doing well but everyone knew they would fall away, no one really believed they would win it. I think I’ve now reached Christmas 2015. This is the point at which people were saying “They’ve got a difficult run of matches ahead of them, but if they come out of that well then they’ve got a chance.” The next week is Leicester’s difficult run of matches, and explain why shortly. Let me first issue a caveat – the possibility of remaining may not be Leicester. It may be Crystal Palace. Palace were competing for the Champions League spots in October/November kind of time and then promptly barely took a point for the rest of the season. I may be backing the wrong no hoper.

But let me try to build a case. And what a case it is, featuring as it does the redemption of David Cameron. He wouldn’t need a redemption if he hadn’t messed everything up in the first place, but it could be that this redemption does more for the country than a straight win for Remain ever would have done.

Now, in building this case, I’m combining information culled from multiple stories to produce one narrative. You may well have already seen some of those sources. I apologise for not crediting the individual theories, thoughts, anecdotes and stories, but most of them can probably be seen on my Facebook timeline so you shouldn’t have to look far to find them.

Let’s start this story with a picture. A picture I shall title Victory is Mine!

Victory is Mine!

Victory is Mine!

These men have just won the most amazing political victory of their lives. Something I described as the most important decision in the history of the UK since we decided to go to war in 1939. This is a campaign they fought long and hard for, one they passionately believed in, one they went to war with colleagues in their own party over. They’re very excited about it. Jubilant. I think, just before they walked on stage they were shaking bottles of champagne over each others like Grand Prix winners.

So this has been noted in plenty of places, but they are not happy men. This was not supposed to happen. They were supposed to be plucky losers representing the common man and using their new-found popularity to ride a wave into number 10 (Boris more likely, with Gove as Chancellor?) when Cameron stood down before the next election. They both knew, Boris especially, that Leaving would be bad, ne cataclysmic, but that campaign had no realistic chance, right? So now they are in a position where they have to make the biggest mistake in British history.

Why do they have to make it? That’s because of Cameron’s decision to walk away without pulling the plug. I barely stopped short of labelling his resignation cowardly in my previous post, but an excellent comment left on a Guardian article (since shared virally on social media) has made me realise that it was, in fact, incredibly astute with regards to the future of this country and our position in Europe.

For one, he stated that we shouldn’t invoke Article 50 until a replacement is in place. Invocation would lead to two years of negotiation with the EU and if he’s not going to be around for that, it should be left to his successor. What that did was buy us time to sort this mess out. Perhaps more importantly, it gives time for the general public to realise what a mistake leaving would be.

As the importance of this decision sinks in, it will become clear how much of a poisoned chalice the leadership is. Whoever comes in will go down as the Prime Minister who crippled the country, and crippled it not just by leaving the EU, but also in all likelihood leading to the breakaway of Scotland and, possibly, Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom, and who wants that on their resume.

The other important element of this is the enormous amount of Bregret being felt across the country. There have been an incredible number of reports of people wanting to take their vote back. Comment pages on articles on the Daily Mail and The Sun websites show readers complaining that their newspapers gave them poor information in advance of their votes. What had been dismissed as scaremongering by the Leave camp has turned out to be all too real and these people feel cheated. So taking on the role of Prime Minister would not only mean irreversibly damaging the country (destroying the country as we know it), but also making a decision that the majority of voters no longer back.

So what does this mean? I realise that my case still has someone pulling the trigger, despite how unpalatable that job is. Well firstly, there is plenty of precedent in countries across the EU for ignoring or re-running referenda that initially came out negative. Now, none of those decisions were of the same scale as this one, but most of them featured wider margins of victory than in this one.

I contacted my MP earlier today to register my feelings about the referendum – about the fact that each of the promises made by the Leave side was a lie to one degree or another. These promises have been unravelling across the weekend when, in various interviews, leading players in the Leave team have admitted that money won’t go on the NHS, that immigration won’t fall, that free trade is unlikely to continue if we try to stop immigration, that the British economy will be stronger out – about the fact that voters no longer believed in their vote – and about the fact that the electorate were not educated enough to make this decision. My MP shared my concerns and I am convinced that there will be healthy discussions within Parliament about the fact that this is not the best thing for Britain. The vast majority of MPs believe the UK should stay and, I believe, will try to build a case to do anything to prevent this self-immolation.

What does that mean? Well, most likely I think will be a second referendum. I don’t believe the Government will just discard the outcome of the vote. This would cause far more problems with those most vocal on the Leave side not accepting it. Don’t get me wrong, I think they will be strongly against a second referendum too, but if they have a difficult case to argue. If they say we shouldn’t have another because the majority of people want to Leave the argument coming back to them will be “Why are you afraid of another vote, if the majority are with you?”, while if they accept a second vote I think they would struggle to get past 40% of the vote, perhaps even less.

MPs will make the case that their constituents have contacted them to say they made the wrong choice, that there is an overwhelming and compelling case that we should have a rerun and with the majority of their colleagues behind them I believe they will get their way. Thankfully.

I also think this may be agreed as soon as during this week. With pressure coming from the EU to invoke Article 50 as soon as possible in order to stabilise markets and enable Europe to start moving on, the UK will need to do something quickly. Admittedly, the EU can’t force us to do anything but we probably want to avoid annoying the rest of Europe much more. If we can clarify that there will be a second vote in relatively short order, and there is a much clearer backing for Remain this time, markets should stabilise and the worst can be behind us. The UK already look like dicks to the rest of the world, we would look a bit more sensible if we admitted we were wrong, and did so as soon as possible. Essentially, it’s like we all got really, really drunk and did some stupid things and now we need to go and contact all the people in our phones and apologise to them. Better to do that than say “I’ll just get new friends”.

So what kind of timescale would we be looking at? This is my made up scenario so I can make something up about this too, right? I’m building my case. What makes most sense is to have one done before the Conservative party elect a new leader. We want this done as quickly as possible and the Conservative party won’t want a leader with this hanging over their heads. Boris will happily endorse it, confident they can win again while Farage will hate the idea, and both for the same reason, they know Leave can’t win again. I would suggest we’d be looking at 6-8 weeks time for another run, so mid-to-late August?

That then gives the Tories a couple of months to sort out their new leader between the end of the next Referendum and their conference. The added advantage for them is that remaining in the EU would lessen the calls for a new General Election, something they’d like to avoid considering the mess they’re currently in (even with Labour in a similar mess). If they can hold off on an election until 2020, they might avoid some of the UKIP gains that would be likely in the event of an election called later this year. If we are to continue with the Brexit then surely a General Election is a must to ensure the public get the negotiating team they want for the exit mechanism.

So back at the top of this piece I said that David Cameron might have a redemption greater than if he had just won the referendum straight up. Well, that obviously only happens if we do get that second go around, but assuming that happens, the results the first time around have brought the deep unhappiness that exists throughout the UK society to the fore. Politicians are aware that they can’t just brush people to the side because they are unpredictable and they can mess up even the best laid plans. Politicians had become complacent, but if this leads to some kind of… well, it’s not going to be a revolution… but a rebalancing of power, of a wider range of voices at the table and the end of the Bullingdon Club domination of the Houses of Parliament, that will perhaps be the best thing to happen here since the end of Thatcherism.

So that’s my case. How crazy is it? Is it Leicester or Crystal Palace crazy? I guess time will tell, but right now I believe.

Anything else?

A couple of things that I didn’t fit into my narrative.

The biggest concern right now is the right wing extremism that is now coming out onto the streets. A search on twitter for #PostBrexitRacism should show you the kind of incidents that are occurring across the country. The far right in this country were always behind Brexit and they have taken they majority verdict as an indictment of their views. Suddenly they are justified in what they think because the majority are behind them. it is terrifying to think of what this country will become if we follow through with the Brexit. I am surprised that those on the Leave side a) aren’t condemning this behaviour more and b) that they don’t understand the role they have played in bringing this to the fore. I can’t think of many times in history when being on the same side as the racists has been a good idea and it will be interesting to see how this develops. Hopefully with the racist outbursts disappearing. In the meantime I’d urge anyone encountering any kind of incident to step in and to reassure those on the receiving end that the majority of this country are behind them, whatever the polls may appear to say. It’s sad that the most vocal are often the most objectionable and we should try to put a stop to that.

 

Finally, there has been pushback from a number of hardened Leave supporters. They won and they want their victory and the rest of us should shut up and accept it. I can understand that, they currently have a remarkable victory. What I find astonishing is that, those that I know, are saying this despite the promises they bought being pulled back in. It seems that if people didn’t instantly regret their vote after the results came out then they are sticking with it. It’s tough. I’d issue the same challenge to them as the Government will have to do to the Leave campaign as a whole – if it’s such a strong win then you should have no problem with another referendum. What I can tell you is that those of us appalled and distraught by the result, who fear for what it means for this country and our families, are going to continue to fight. This fight doesn’t end. I’m sorry, but it doesn’t. And if we do pull out of the EU, when the money goes and the jobs follow, I’m sorry but I hope yours go first. You wanted this and you should be the ones that suffer.

Trying to make some kind of sense of the Brexit

[This post was originally published on Facebook at about 1:30am on Saturday June 25th, 2016]
Today has brought a range of emotions. Is one a range? It’s mainly been rage. I suppose disappointment is in there too, that’ll do for a range. But I’ve talked it through and I feel calm enough now to try to sit down and compose something to try and make sense of this mess the country has made for itself.
I was woken by my baby daughter at around 5 or so this morning. I thought I would check the results coming in before heading back to sleep, but 20 seconds later there was no chance of me sleeping. I couldn’t believe what I saw, and at various points today that has been repeated. But I’ll come to that.
First of all, let me say that those of us on the Remain side should probably follow Mark Rylance’s character in the recent Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies. Tom Hanks asks him if he’s worried about what the American government might do to him, a Russian spy who has been caught. Rylance replies, “Would it help?”. It can feel very cathartic to get wound up, shout and scream, to abuse those we feel have betrayed the country (more on them soon), but in the grand scheme of things, “Will it help”? The answer is no. It won’t. And besides, there’s still too much we don’t know.
First things first, technically the result isn’t legally binding. The Government could still decide not to go through with this. It’s highly unlikely, but it’s possible. An even greater outside chance is another referendum, which is being demanded already. If the first of these two options holds a 1% chance, the latter holds about a 0.01% chance as far as I can see but, to quote Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber (an apt film for this situation), “So you’re saying there’s a chance.”
Secondly, we don’t know what kind of deal will be done in negotiating out exit. There are a number of options and I’ll list them in no particular order, though starting with the least likely. It’s possible that whoever replaces David Cameron (more on him soon, too) could go to the negotiating table with the rest of the EU and eke out a deal which is acceptable to sell to the British public and keeps us in the EU. Beyond that, there are the Norwegian and Swiss models. Both are shitty deals but, from where we stand right now, but better than not being in at all. I’ll not go into details, I’m just saying they’re options which offer a little light at the end of this dark tunnel. We could get some kind of hybrid deal which isn’t either of those models but is something new entirely, giving us some access to some things and not others. Diffocult to pin that down to how good or bad it would be.
The final option, and the one everyone is assuming right now, is effectively the nuclear option – we go it totally alone. This is the one we should be really afraid of as I believe it leads along a path to irrelevancy. But let’s not worry about that just yet. Whoever takes over, and who knows, we may have a general election coming too, so it may not even be the next leader of the Conservative party, will have to gauge the mood in the country and come up with a deal that is palatable. There seems to be a pretty clear mood in a lot of the country and it may become clearer in the next few months as it dawns on a lot of the Leave voters what this really means.
But the point is that there’s an awful lot still up in the air so let’s not panic too much just yet. It won’t help. We need to approach this with clear heads.
So now I want to momentarily dwell on the aftermath. As the day has gone on, it has appeared that a significant chunk of the country is having buyers remorse. There are seemingly ever more stories of people saying they didn’t expect Leave to win and if they had known what it meant they would have voted to Remain. This highlights a couple of things. Firstly, that Leaving perhaps isn’t what the majority actually want. But also, the political naivety of a large number of voters in this country. As I mentioned earlier, I doubt we can get a second referendum, but this may be the one thing that we can cling to on that front.
So then we have to focus on the electorate. Not only are there a multitude of stories of people regretting the choice they made, there was also a message from Google today that the second most searched for term in the UK SINCE THE POLLS CLOSED was “What is the EU?”. People were voting on something they didn’t understand. The Leave campaign was successful because they made this vote an emotional one, not an intellectual one, and that has been the problem with British politics (and global politics, to be fair) for too long. You prey on people’s fears and you appeal to their hopes and you hope you can lay blame at someone else’s door. People don’t like to engage with facts. They’re not fun. Cold hard numbers don’t get the pulse racing. So people vote because they are told a bad thing will happen or because they are promised a good thing, but they don’t look for evidence. You can see this everywhere – the MMR vaccine scare, climate change – people don’t want to listen at an intellectual level.
I hope that if one good thing can come out of this sorry mess it’s that people will start to engage again. That people will set aside emotional arguments and look for the information they need to make a decision. And that parties may realise that they need to address the concerns of everyone.
The sad fact is that everything the EU has been blamed for should actually be laid at the door of the government. This one, the last one, anyone that’s been in power. This has been a slow downward slide with each successive government knocking another few bricks out of the wall and causing ever more disillusionment. With the majority of politicians agreeing that a Brexit was a bad idea and now trying to recover from the shock, we can only hope that this is taken on board by a lot of them. Anecdotally, a number of Leave supporters were keen to give the Government a bloody nose, without realising that in doing so they were also managing to cut off their own arms and legs.
So those railing against the rise in NHS waiting lists, the fall in availability of school places or housing, blamed immigration and, by extension the EU. That is the primary factor this has boiled down to. However, it is government policies of austerity that led to each of these things, not immigration. I’m not going to go into dissecting this too much, but safe to say that by failing to invest in things which “the common man” viewed as essential, they looked for a scape goat. The government had told them that austerity was important right now, despite the fact that you should always pay for your essentials and only try to pay off your debts when you;re making a profit. So if what we were doing was essential, it must be someone else’s fault, and so the myth of the evil immigrant began. This horrible people, coming over here, working and paying more into our tax system than they took out, taking our jobs but by dint of earning and spending money they also generated more income which generated more jobs and on and on. But the government couldn’t blame themselves so immigration it was.
This hotbed of unrest has been bubbling around for some time and was always going to come out some way, some how. A few years ago it was the riots in London, but that was seen as perpetrated by scum rather than a symptom of a wider malaise within the country. That could have been addressed at the time, but instead it was pushed back under the carpet and written off, ignored. And now it’s come home to roost.
In the run up to the 2015 election, the Conservative party, working under the assumption that they couldn’t win outright, made a manifesto promising all sorts of things they knew they couldn’t deliver. It was packed with promises that could be rolled back should they end in coalition, as they expected. But of course, the wild promises were taken at face value (much like the wild promises of the Leave campaign which are already being walked back – see spending £350m a week more on the NHS), leading to a majority for the Conservative party and a need to fulfil promises they never had an intention of keeping. The reduction in immigration was one of those, still lingering from the days of coalition, and the referendum was another. Now they had to go through with the vote – they had promised it after all (why it couldn’t be a forgotten promise is a matter for the Conservative backbenches and whips) – but felt confident it could be easily won. But they had no plan. When they talked to people they started to realise that their own policies were what led to people’s concerns and the Tories weren’t going to come out and say “Hey, it’s not the EUs fault, don’t blame them, we did it!”
What was more concerning was that the Labour party didn’t take this line. I have no idea why they felt they needed to join with the Conservative Remain campaign. They could have fought this battle with truth and scored some vital political points for when an election came calling. If they had started calling the Tories out, telling people, reminding people, that their stretched services were due to Conservative austerity measures, how exactly do they lose?
I like Jeremy Corbyn and the bulk of what he stands for, but it’s clear that there are significant problems with the way he is running his party. He is a great voice to have in Parliament, offering exactly the kind of voice the disenfranchised in this country need, but he’s failed to be a leader when it mattered most. It’s possible he can turn it around, but I have my doubts.
So with a complacent Remain campaign, the emotional narrative was seized by Leave and now we find ourselves where we are. We already had a lame duck Prime Minister – Cameron had already said he wasn’t going to lead his party into the 2020 election, but now he has walked away. Perhaps that is right – he led an incompetent campaign for something he was supposed to be passionately in favour of. But he also said that he didn’t “walk away from the big decisions” precisely as he was walking away from perhaps the biggest decision in this country’s history since 1939 and the decision to go to war with Germany.
This should come as no surprise. He was never a great leader. He was a man who could deliver a vacuous sales pitch and nail it more often than not (though not when it mattered most), but he had never distinguished himself as a leader. To my mind he was always the palatable face to the sinister evil that lurked behind George Osborne’s eyes of a serial killer. (I use the word palatable merely in relation to Osborne, and not to suggest that I find the man palatable). The one great thing that he can hang on his mast is the legalisation of gay marriage, but that was a gimme for whoever was in power, it was not his own work. Beyond that, what can he truly say he did for this country in the 6 years he led it? In a positive sense I mean. There’s plenty he could say he did, but I imagine he wouldn’t want it on his resume.
So where does all this rambling leave us? I don’t know. I just feel I needed to try to work through that story, see if I could make some sense of it. Hopefully there’s some kind of logical procession going on there. Hopefully it’s contextualised a few things. I think it has in my mind. I hadn’t thought about the riots and some of the other elements of this until I tarted typing, but I think it’s an important part of this story.
I guess now I look forward. I don’t think we have a great time ahead of us. The pound will bounce back up. Not to the level it was at (not for a while, anyway), but it won’t stay as low as it fell today. Same goes for the stock markets. I feel it’s inevitable jobs will be lost. Business will move elsewhere. Eventually some small shoots of recovery will come, but they will be longer in coming than the apparent majority believe. There will be pain. Not for all of us, but for enough, and those of us who are lucky enough to avoid most of it (and who knows if I will be one) should remember that not everyone will be that lucky.
And this country will go on. We’ll produce a surprising amount of writers and artists and musicians and scientists for a nation so small (though I feel scientists in particular may drop off significantly), but we will not take our place on the world stage in the way that we previously did. No longer will we be the gateway to Europe for America (and vice versa). I don’t know what that diminished role will feel like, no one does. I’m no great patriot. This country has done great things and it has done terrible things, and I feel that patriotism is probably best left for the sporting arena (though maybe not football given the behaviour or many of our fans in France right now). Our island status has left us insular as a nation and that means we often don’t appreciate how we are seen by the world. Instead we have this image of ourselves as the all conquering Victorians with the Empire stretching as far as the sun can see, but that country is long gone. I have often lamented (to myself mainly) that the biggest problem we have as a country is we don’t understand how we fit into the world, that we’re puffed up with self importance and the world is passing us by a little. If that wasn’t the case before, I certainly feel it will be now.
This morning I was afraid for the future. It seemed bleak. It was all gone. You maniacs. You blew it up. God damn you all to hell. But it’s not that bad. I mean it’s bad. But it’s not world-ending bad. I viewed myself as a citizen of Europe, grateful for all that it had to offer. I may never take advantage of the right to work or study in any of the EU nations, but my daughter could have (and maybe she still will have those rights). I believe we’ll all be poorer for these events, but then I feel we’re all poorer for having voted in the Conservatives in 2015, and we’ll be poorer for a number of other choices we make as a nation. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes you lose big. But as every casino knows, you’ll keep coming back. And in the lottery that our political system has become, we’ll take another shot at electing a decent government in a few years time, or maybe sooner, and perhaps this week’s events will shorten our odds of finding a good one just a little.
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Mark Thomas – 100 Acts of Minor Dissent

Mark Thomas – 100 Acts of Minor Dissent – Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham – Friday September 13, 2013

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I’ve been delaying writing this review, not because I didn’t enjoy myself, but because I really wasn’t sure how to approach writing it. I’m still not but I have to give it a go. You see, Mark Thomas has, one way or another, been a part of my life for almost 20 years, and I have seen him live so many times and with so many different people that he means a lot more to me than just a being a comedian/activist. I still have a VHS copy of his Sex, Filth and Religion show from around 1995 and a year or so ago showed it to my other half. While naturally for comedy with a significant political element some of it is rather dated, much of it is still hilarious and I was also pleasantly surprised/scared to find I could recite pretty much the whole show along with Mark. Maybe it’s because of the point in my life where that show came along, but I do view it as one of the funniest comedy sets available (and I implore Mark to either get a DVD or digital copy available so I can finally be rid of my VCR).

Mark Thomas was, I think, the first comedian I saw after I got my driver’s licence and hence could get myself (and my friends) out to gigs. I saw him at the Wedgwood Rooms in Portsmouth. I’m not sure what the show was called that time, but it featured a section called “Have you ever stolen anything from work?”. Previously supplied answers included cocaine (from a vets in Manchester, used to knock out the dogs before operations) and a freezer, and at our show a blow-up doll was added to the list.

I dragged my first serious girlfriend up to Balham to see a Work In Progress show, and had the opportunity to have a quick chat with Mark pre-show. I watched and recorded every episode of the Comedy Product on Channel 4, later, just the Mark Thomas Product as the comedy took a back seat to some important issues (though even in the bleakest of stories, such as those around the Ilisu Dam or Palestine, Mark has always found the comedy along with the tragedy). I’ve seen Mark’s campaign against Coca-Cola and the way that company destroys (or has in the past destroyed) communities in South America, Africa and India. I’ve seen Mark discuss the various arms fairs he’s been to – including the episode of his show where he aired footage of someone from, I think, the Indonesian Embassy admitting to atrocities – something no one had ever managed to achieve before. Earlier this year I saw, and reviewed, Thomas performing Bravo Figaro, more a theatre performance piece than stand-up comedy, which gave me more insight into his own life and times, and filled in large pieces of his own history for me.

So there is a huge weight of history on any performance of his that I go along to. He’s achieved so much and I have enjoyed so many shows in the past, added to which I have my whole adult life history attached according to who I went with and what was happening to me, and, since this year, I have Mark’s own family history to add to the mix. And while Mark clearly doesn’t know who I am, this has all led to me feeling like there is a long deep-seated relationship.

Halfway through 100 Acts there was a part of me that was feeling like it was a relationship that the spark had gone out of. Perhaps it was time to call time on the whole thing and divorce ourselves; accept that we have gone our separate ways but remember the good times. That first half contained some duplicate material from the ‘warm-up’ section before Bravo Figaro, and it was material I had taken a dislike to, predominantly based around Mark’s disproportionate levels of hatred for the book One Day by David Nicholls. It’s not the target for his ire that I had an issue with – I have read it and I thought it was fine, but everyone is entitled to their own opinions – but I felt it was overblown, unnecessary and, most importantly, not funny. His description of the book makes it sound as though the book had raped his sister and given his mother cancer rather than been a self-important middle class fantasy love story that was perhaps a bit more successful than it deserved to be (which is a view I could understand a lot more). But I also felt that he went against himself in his character assassination of the book, as later on in the first half he mentions how he views books as sacred items – something which, it seems, they can only be if they meet with his approval. And, I mean, it’s not as if his target was Ayn Rand, a woman who’s literature is currently forming a central strand of political thinking in the Republicans in America, this is a book that will be largely forgotten in a few years time, it’s inoffensive, and it isn’t likely to be cited by George Osborne as the reason he’s cutting unemployment benefits; its effect on society will be minimal.

Anyway, Thomas used this description as a gateway into his forms of middle class urban terrorism which includes leaving heckles in the middle of books in Waterstones, putting his own versions of branded signs up in supermarkets and putting replacement posters over estate agents’ signs, each of which form a part of his 100 Acts of Minor Dissent.

And now I have to make a confession. At the interval I was sat in the lobby of the venue with my partner talking about the show. Our seats backed onto a wall and on the other side it’s entirely possible was Mark’s dressing room, because, you see, at the start of the second half Mark seemed to reflect back a couple of the comments I had made, namely that “someone isn’t sure if I’m being an activist or a comedian”. That isn’t quite the point I had been trying to make but it formed a part of the conversation we had had. The whole show had been introduced with Mark telling us he had to commit 100 Acts of Minor Dissent by the middle of May 2014 or he’d have to give money to UKIP. He never said why he had to do this. There was never an underlying point to the exercise, it seemed to just be a thing to do to make a show about, and this was the point I was trying to make. Is he doing these things because they will be funny and will give him material to entertain with, or is he doing them to make a point about the country and the world we live in and, in some way, to try to make things a little better be it through awareness or changing perceptions?

Another way you could look at it would be is he performing the Mark Thomas Comedy Product, or the Mark Thomas Product? A subtle distinction but perhaps an important one. The first half felt to me as though this was supposed to be the latter and yet the acts described tended to be somewhere between ‘quite amusing’ and ‘a bit dickish’.

I don’t know what changed – maybe my words (if they were my words that were overheard) came down like a challenge? Maybe I lightened up, or lowered my defences, or my expectations based on the 20 year relationship I’d had with Mark? Who knows? But in the second half I found the show hilarious. Something just clicked and it was like watching Sex Filth & Religion all over again. It was Thomas back to his comic best. A weight lifted off my shoulders. The insight was back. The skewering of the world we live in was as sharp as it ever was. The cheeky-chappy persona was front and centre (by which I mean that when Thomas is on top of his game he has a persona with which he can call you the strongest, rudest names under the sun and you still want to shake his hand). It was like we’d been through a long tunnel and had suddenly burst out into bright sunlight. This wasn’t a relationship that was on its last legs, this was a relationship that had been going a long time, there had been ups and downs, but there was a lot more life in it yet.

B+

Ha! And here’s Sex Filth & Religion so you can see for yourself what I mean.

No

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Say Yes! to No

Say Yes! to No

In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet led a coup to take power in Chile. While in power he was responsible for the murders of over 3,000 people and the torture of a further 29,000 (figures from Wikipedia). In 1988, under international pressure, he submitted to a national vote, asking the people of Chile to vote Yes if they wanted him to continue for another 8 years, or No if they wanted a democratic election to replace him.

While this might seem like an easy decision to make, the people feared both what he might do if they voted against him, and a return to the poverty and breadlines of the communist regimes in place before him. Each side was given 15 minutes of national television a day for 27 days (though the government controlled the TV networks so essentially had the other 23.5 hours too.

No tells the story of the No campaign.

There were 14 small political parties involved in the No campaign and one of the Government’s key hopes was that in-fighting would lead to a confused campaign that would fail to pull in votes. However, early on the No campaign calls in young advertising creative René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), who slowly manages to steer them on the right course.

The political parties want a campaign based on highlighting the horrors of the Pinochet government but René realises that this might be more intimidating than an enticing reason to vote. He proposes a campaign based around selling to the people a vision of the happiness that Chile can experience if they are freed from Pinochet’s tyranny. The film charts the unfolding campaign and the intimidation tactics employed by the government to try to stop them, while paying due reverence to the atrocities that occurred.

It might not sound like a fun film and it certainly had the potential to be both dry and worthy (see Lincoln for an example), but there is a lightness of touch which mirrors the lightness in René’s work. The film is shot using 30-year-old cameras, with a squarer picture than traditionally used in cinema, and a lot of colour bleed – at times it almost looks like a stereotypical 80s telenovella – but it is all the richer for it. Every period detail is right and there are a few “Hey – it’s the 80s!” comic moments (my favourite being René bringing home his family’s first microwave) which could serve to take you out of the piece but actually draw you in further, adding a warmth to the characters.

This is a very good film indeed, and a good history lesson. The tone, which had the potential to be very dark indeed, is kept light enough while making sure we understand the gravity of the situation and the deeds undertaken in Pinochet’s name. It is a film which deserves to be seen by a much wider audience than it will be, and one that should be sought out on DVD/bluray if you missed it’s short cinematic run.

A-

Nick Clegg’s “Bigotry” Non-Gaffe

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Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has come under fire for a press release issued by his office in which opponents of gay marriage were labelled bigots. The press release was hastily withdrawn and it was stated that it was not Clegg’s choice of wording and that there was a more recent draft in which the partidular phrase was withdrawn. The original wording was:

Continued trouble in the economy gives the bigots a stick to beat us with, as they demand we ‘postpone’ the equalities agenda in order to deal with ‘the things people really care about’. As if pursuing greater equality and fixing the economy simply cannot happen at once.

Words I wholeheartedly agree with. The replacement phraseology was:

Continued trouble in the economy leads some people to demand we ‘postpone’ the equalities agenda in order to deal with ‘the things people really care about’. As if pursuing greater equality and fixing the economy simply cannot happen at once.

There’s not a huge difference there, certainly the essence is the same – why should we stop driving forward equality just because the economy is tanking? If modern politicians can’t manage even the slightest bit of multi-tasking, the country really is screwed (though looking around, maybe that’s the real issue).

What’s more interesting is the response from members of his coalition Government. Below is an extract from the Guardian article on the subject:

Peter Bone, the Tory backbencher, accused Clegg of having insulted millions of people “with deep convictions of religion and conscience”. Bone said: “I don’t see how that could have got published without it being the view of the deputy prime minister. He has got to rapidly get out there on the airwaves apologising. It is clear what he thinks. There is no way that the deputy prime minister of our country can be associated with that language.”

I’m sorry, but believing that 2-10% of the nation (I have seen estimates at either end of that spectrum) are not entitled to the same set of rights as the rest of the population just because of the sex of the person they fell in love with is bigotry, pure and simple.

Bigotry: Stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.
Now, Mr Bone is entitled to his opinion, but we should be living in a country where the rights available to one person are the rights available to all, and gender, race or sexuality should not determine which rights you are or are not entitled to.
Rather impusively, I decided to send Mr Clegg (or rather, his office) an email on the subject, supporting the use of the word ‘bigot’, and I am publishing it at the foot of this post. I did realise halfway through that there may be reason behind retracting the word ‘bigot’ from the initial communication. Essentially, the reasoning can be boiled down to “It can be easier to get someone to agree to something they don’t like if you don’t insult them and call them names while you do it.” It’s a fair point, and I totally understand why Mr Clegg’s office might want to distance themselves from the initial phraseology, but it’s important to point out and drive home the fact that people who do object to gay marriage are bigots and we shouldn’t afraid to call them that or to point it out.
There’s one simple thing to remember: You can support gay marriage and still be a bad person. You can’t oppose gay marriage and be a good person.
Dear Mr Clegg,While you may never have intended to use the word “bigots” in your email or speech, I fully believe that you should not be afraid to label these people for what they are. If they opposed inter-racial marriage you would not be afraid to call these people “racists”, and likewise those opposed to giving full rights to homosexuals should be labelled and highlighted as bigots.In 30 years time, the idea that LGBT people could have not been allowed to be married will appear ridiculous – something I am sure you agree with. But the longer we allow people with these opposing views to share them as though they are acceptable in a modem society, the longer a full acceptance will take.There will always be opponents to this kind of legislation and LGBT lifestyles on general – just as there are racists around us now – but that doesn’t make their views on homosexuality or attempted restrictions on the rights of those people acceptable, and nor does the fact that some of your coalition colleagues share those views.

Using Christianity (or any religion) as a reason for these oppositions is fine – they can attempt to defend their indefensible position however they like – but we live in a free country – a country where more people are likely to give their religion as Jedi than anything else – and people should have the same rights regardless of their religious beliefs. Marriage isn’t solely a Christian institution – it is, or should be, for everyone. If a church doesn’t want to carry out a gay wedding, that would be fine in my book, as long as those gay and lesbian couples do have somewhere to marry.

We are a multi-cultural and multi-religious (or non-religious) country and we shouldn’t have legislation shaped purely on the basis of the faith of an ever-decreasing minority. While I have had my issues with many aspects of this governments work in office, I wholeheartedly welcome Mr Cameron’s pledge to pass gay marriage laws by 2015 – it stands to be the government’s greatest legacy if it is achieved. I also understand that, in order to pass this legislation, tempering language in order not I rile opponents too greatly is probably necessary.

However, I would echo Peter Tatchell’s comment: “It is pretty clear that some people oppose marriage rights for gay people because of deep-seated homophobic bigotry. Nick Clegg should not be afraid to say so.”

Kind regards,

Benjamin Hendy

NB – a copy of this email may be posted on my blog at www.benjaminhendy.com – don’t worry – no one reads it. If you (or your office) reply, I may also post your response on there.