Sunday, 16 April 2017

Nationalism: that meme that preys on every country's weakness

Thinking about the ugly fate which might genuinely soon befall Europe, should Marine Le Pen win the French presidency - lately made more possible by the recent surge for Jean-Luc Melenchon, raising the spectre of a far-left/far-right runoff from next week's vote - I set to thinking about what makes the current renaissance of populism/nationalism so potent.

Richard Dawkins invented the neologism "meme" to mean the cultural equivalent of a gene, an idea that embeds and propagates itself in a society, which could be either positive or pathological. Religion (if you are atheist, like Dawkins) is one. Nationalism, I would argue, is also one and usually pathological.

Whither nationalism? Yes, a recent economic depression over much of the world has helped, as it did in the early 1930s. Easy answers from charlatans are always attractive. But ultimately, what is it all about? 

Why, about looking for the historic weakness in each country's psyche, which is gently stroked by the nationalist. Just as party-populist Jeremy Corbyn has tickled his party's sensitive tummy about being a "real" socialist (not a "pretend" socialist like those nasty new Labour figures who, you know, actually won elections and did stuff), each grouping or country has a weakness, preyed on by the unscrupulous.

For the English, of course, the fantasy that they can recreate their glory days. No longer, of course, their imperialist past - only the neo-Nazis can lack self-awareness to that degree. No, now it is simply that it, a medium-sized world economy, can cut the same figure outside the EU as it formerly did inside. For the Scots, it is that a nation of nine million souls can do something similar, outside Britain while inside the EU (good luck with that). The Catalans, that they can really count for something in the world outside of Spain. And so on.

But it is a general phenomenon: Americans, seeing that they no longer have a global economic hegemony thanks to China, are panic-stricken and fall back on the snake-oil answers of "making America great again" peddled by Trump. The French's weakness is that they have never really managed to integrate their North African neighbours or actually face up to the fact that their statist scleroticism is hopelessly out of date. The Germans that they feel they have been just going round being too nice to everyone during the postwar period. The central Europeans who have never quite got used to foreigners (and Jews in particular, in some countries such as Hungary). And the Russians, whose leader's harking back to the good old days of being a true superpower and identifying convenient bogeymen, for him to protect them against, has gone down a storm. In each case, the nationalist leader feeds the weakness, the particular self-indulgence of the nation. 

There is only one way out of this descending spiral: the nous, and the balls, to stand up and call this irrational self-indulgence out for what it is. We shall see, in each country separately, whether this can be done. The signs are currently not good.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Labour and anti-Semitism: can’t get the stink off

“Can’t get the stink off/He’s been hanging round for days”, wrote Thom Yorke in 1993. “You do it to yourself, you do/And that’s what really hurts”. Lines that could have been written for Labour’s troubled, Stockholm-syndrome relationship with one man. A man who is still hanging round a party which somehow cannot seem to shake him off, either.

Last Tuesday, Ken Livingstone was, essentially, let off. A man who for years has ridden perilously close to anti-Semitism in his behaviour – we shouldn’t forget the “concentration camp guard” incident with a Jewish journalist in 2005 – finally crossed the line a year ago when he decided to argue that Hitler was a Zionist.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Centre Left goes to…Dallas

It’s been over a decade since my last trip to the States. I used to go at least once a year or so but…young kids, you don’t do long-haul very often (and the experience of 26 hours to Australia with a one year-old in a cot vomiting, well, I was a bit more sensible after that).

Imagine now the shock of the change: to start with, 11 years means a jump from the era of Bush to the era of Trump. And the last time was cosmopolitan, liberal New York, not Republican heartland Texas, where Trump won clearly (although, interestingly with a significantly smaller margin than Romney did four years previously). It’s a bit different out here.

I am surely not the first to observe that Texas is big. Texans, relative to us skinny Europeans at least, are big. Everything is big.

On the way from the airport I see a great number of houses, and my first thought is that they are multi-flat blocks. But thinking about it, they may well have been individual homes. That bigness again. The cars. Everything is far apart, spaced out in a sprawling landscape of greenery, dotted with malls. No-one walks.

And then there is Fox News. I watch it one morning at breakfast-time. The headline: “Illegal Immigrant Killed My Son”. Cue interview with tearful mother. The clear implication being that you couldn’t really expect much more of an immigrant but that she or he be a murderer. We have to stop these “illegals” – it has become a noun, rather than an adjective. It is dog-whistle politics, but one where the racism is not latent, but blatant.

It is theatre, it is perhaps highly effective in influencing some people but it is not broadcast news, not in any form that we would recognise. This is Trump’s 24-hour propaganda channel, where he is never criticised, not once.

One honestly wonders what the difference is between this and Putin’s sycophantic, puppet news stations, so beautifully exemplified by the truth-twisting, English-speaking Russia Today that you can catch on European satellite TV.

Today the news items on all channels cover former the desire of Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, to testify (against Trump, we presume, in the small matter of his team’s links to Putin’s regime) in return for immunity. These kind of shenanigans do not exactly represent politics-as-usual, especially not a mere 70 days into an administration which has notched up during that time not one political success.

This is not the America I know and love. But it is surely a temporary aberration, it must be. This fine country cannot long sustain the incompetence, corruption and downright treachery of its current administration.

As I fly home, I am reminded – thanks to Pablo Larrain’s rather well-made film, which is showing on the plane – of Dallas’ accidental, tragic place in America’s story; the site of the most famous assassination in post-war history.

In the film, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy asks exhaustively about Lincoln’s funeral, concerned to ensure her husband is presented and remembered as a great man. 

One wonders who, exactly, will think of the vain, corrupt and ridiculous Trump at the end of his term as a “great man”.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The “soft coup” might be on, but it surely ain’t from the right

For weeks now, the party’s left has been whispering about a “soft coup”. Ah, the old Soviet tactic, much beloved of today’s Vladimir Putin: confuse things by accusing your opponents of whatever you are up to yourself. Oh, and make them feel under attack, so they close ranks.

There is a coup going on, but it is clearly not the evil Blairites named by John McDonnell.

As revelations about Jon Lansman’s declared strategy for Momentum as an alternative power base to the party itself became public, it seems Monday night’s PLP meeting was converted into something of a showdown.

Corbyn jeered. Watson cheered. The PLP, depressed and muted for months since Corbyn’s re-election, suddenly found its voice.

And it was that same Tom Watson leading the charge – a loyalist clearly adept at unearthing the truth but in this case apparently with a couple of years’ time-lag.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

John McDonnell has finally lost it

It was a cold February morning, when the Shadow Chancellor finally gave in to his demons and went “full conspiracy theory”.

To be fair, he probably didn’t feel too well. Labour had just suffered a “historic” by-election defeat at the hands of the governing party, something unheard of in thirty-five years and with the biggest pro-incumbent vote increase in a half-century.

It all had to be, of course, the fault of the Blairites. Particularly the man himself for his recent intervention over Brexit, who will shortly celebrate a decade of, er, not being the leader of his party. Not to mention Lord Mandelson, the incarnation of all evil to a Corbynite.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Ian Lavery should not be Labour’s Elections Coordinator. Or anything coordinator, with his toxic past

Since Jeremy Corybn’s rise to prominence, there has been a seemingly never-ending succession of skeletons pulled out of the closets of senior Corbynites, to the delight of Tory press officers everywhere.

There was the relationships of Corbyn himself with Holocaust denier Paul Eisen, and with Hamas terrorists; John McDonnell’s outspoken pro-IRA stance; the support of a motion supporting denial of the Kosovo genocide by both; the suspension and reinstatement of MP Naz Shah over anti-Semitic remarks; the suspension of Momentum vice-chair Jackie Walker over the same; the well-known Stalin apologism of Corbynites Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray; and so on. Doubtless the Tories are currently holding fire on a number of the more juicy ones, keeping their powder dry for 2020.

But the connecting thread between all these embarrassments has been clear: no matter how senseless or unsavoury, they have all been essentially connected, in the minds of the perpetrators at least, to political positions.

For example, the connections with anti-Semites are always justified on the grounds that the people in question are merely anti-Israel (of course!) The IRA connection? Because they were romantic freedom-fighters, naturally, who happened to kill people. And the Stalin connection because, well, Communism wasn’t all bad, was it? However dire the story, there was always some kind of contorted political justification which allowed the people involved to continue to look at themselves in the mirror the following morning.

In contrast, this was clearly not the case with Ian Lavery. Lavery is Corbyn’s new Elections Coordinator and the man in charge of every set of elections, we presume, from now until Labour is inevitably decimated in 2020.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Corbyn, Trump and Churchill

Perhaps a counter-intuitive observation, but Trump's nearest bedfellow in the UK, apart from the obvious Farage, is Jeremy Corbyn. 

Like Trump, Corbyn is a populist "anti-politician", although his populism only extends to his own membership and a handful of left radicals in the population outside it. Despite being on the left rather than the right, Corbyn agrees with Trump policies on non-interventionism, economic isolationism, anti-"elitism" and has the same attitude to twisting the truth for the greater good of the cause, always blaming the media for bias when caught out. It is a perfect Molotov-Ribbentrop meeting of far left with far right.

But we should also mark the desolate triumph of Trump. It is difficult to find any kind of precedent in America's history of a person so unsuited to office, from his antics as a documented sex pest, to his ignorance of history and geopolitics, his inability to avoid conflicts of personal and political interest and his simple habit of casual lying. Or his seeming lack of value - perhaps unique among presidents of the last century or so - for democracy itself.

Trump has, reportedly, reinstated a bust of Churchill in his office, citing him as an "inspiration". It also seems clear that Churchill would have despised Trump, not only as a great man might reasonably despise a little one unexpectedly catapulted to high office; but because Trump seems intent on undermining the two great post-war pillars that Churchill's work helped create: NATO and the EU.

Churchill was, of course, as well as a statesman, an accomplished historian. It is his sense of history which is so desperately lacking in the politicians of today. Those few who do will recognise the whiff of the 1930s - his wilderness years - in today's political climate; a period when populations were also desperate for a change.

Trump is not Hitler; not yet, anyway. But the news today, that not only is his Secretary of State hopelessly compromised but the entire team of senior civil servants under him have refused to take part in this charade of a useful place for America in the world, augurs terribly for the free world over the next few years, in the face of a resurgent and aggressive Russia appeased by its leader.

This is not a bunch of whining liberals complaining about George W Bush, a man who, for all his flaws, had a sense of decency and duty. This is people of all political stripes aghast at the victory of a man who appears to have no principles at all.

These are, to be frank, dark times. We can only hope that, somewhere, there is a Churchill observing from the sidelines, who can at some point step forward and bring some sense back to the post-war order.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

The by-election boom is a flashing red light for Labour

Coming hot on the heels of that of Jamie Reed, the resignation of Tristram Hunt may not be a huge surprise to many. A decent and politically-sensible member of the House, if not the obvious next leader he was sometimes billed as. In the end, it is perhaps inevitably those who least see politics as their true vocation, who soonest see more attractive things on the horizon.

But there’s an important take-away here. It’s simply not normal to have three MPs resign their seats in a month. Unless they are pushed, seriously ill or are going for another political job*, it’s really, really unusual for them to “just resign”.

The fact that three by-elections have been caused in the last month through MPs “just resigning” – two Labour, one Tory – is not just unusual, it’s unprecedented in recent political history.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Trump will change world geopolitics for the worse

It seems like a statement of the blindingly obvious but, during the current calm of the Obama fin-de-siècle, and before the storm which the Trump inauguration is likely to kick off, it seems like America has almost forgotten itself. The impact of the outsider’s November victory has temporarily become 2016’s giant elephant in the room. But the impacts may well resonate for years.

Those who think Trump is a Good Thing remain delighted, revelling in their apparent vindication, although perhaps slightly nervous at a victory they did not expect. On the other hand, the majority of voting Americans – who did not want Trump, and whose number included many registered Republicans – almost seem to have become numb to what is about to happen. They should not.

As New Republic’s senior editor Jeet Heer put it,

In many ways, this numbness, this complacency is something that Democrats have brought upon themselves. Not, to be clear, because they fielded the wrong candidate: it has now become a particularly dumb conventional wisdom on the left that the Dems should blame themselves, as if somehow the primary process could be manipulated by the DNC to get the candidate they wanted, and they chose Clinton.

No, they should take their share of the blame because before every Republican president has ever taken office, they have always said that the sky would fall in, and it never has. Objectively, Reagan and the two Bushes were not always great presidents, but they were not terrible presidents, either. All had some foreign policy successes, for example. So now, Chicken Licken has now become the boy who cried wolf, and no-one believes that some really rather bad stuff might now happen, for real.

In short: in a couple of weeks’ time, we are we are likely to start seeing some strange things. This whole Trump phenomenon isn’t going to go away and, what’s more, it is likely to have big global impacts.

Anyone who doesn’t believe this has only to check out Trump’s schoolboy statements on foreign policy to date, or even his cack-handed congratulatory calls with those world leaders in countries where he has business assets, without ever addressing his clear conflicts of interest.

But the major risk to the world is clear: if Obama encouraged an ever-more aggressive Russia through his inaction over Ukraine and Syria, Trump is likely to be substantially worse. His entourage has close links to the Russian regime – particularly Rex Tillerson, his choice for Secretary of State – and he clearly enjoyed the benefit of Russian hacking during the presidential campaign. A Trump who has already publicly downplayed America’s role in NATO is clearly going to be extremely reluctant to intervene in the event that, for example, Putin decides to “do a Crimea” in one of the Baltic states.

But whoa, there. This is a big deal. The principal of “all for one, one for all” is at the centre of NATO, the organisation which, despite its limitations, has kept the peace in Europe for seventy years. Once that principle is shown no longer to hold, the NATO structure really becomes meaningless and the whole complex ecosystem of post-war treaties breaks down. Putin is then free to retake any of the former Soviet states as he pleases.

And then there is China. Already the world’s largest economy after adjusting for purchasing power, Trump has already irritated its leadership over Taiwan and then again, this week, over his “erratic tweets” about North Korea. Bottom line: China is already talking down to Trump like he were a little boy with a box of nuclear matches.

Not to forget Trump’s neighbours closer to home. If he really decides to build the now-famous “wall” to keep out Mexicans, he will not only do untold damage to his local relations with the whole of the Americas but the US economy (and probably all his own businesses as well).

Finally, with NATO’s very existence in question, the US’s European allies can look forward to being more alone geopolitically than they have been since the 1930s. And in terms of being a global statesman who might in the end see his country’s interests in a secure and prosperous Europe, even his supporters would hardly put him on a par with FDR. And ironically for Trump’s new best friend, Nigel Farage, his new trade negotiator sees Brexit as a chance to screw Britain, not help it.

Should we as Labourites and internationalists be concerned? More than that. We should be ashamed. We have a leadership which, via a strange Molotov-Ribbentrop manoeuvre, actually supports the current Trump position on isolationism, on Russia, on NATO and on Brexit.

No, it is not time for people to stop worrying about Trump and think that things will settle down, that normal checks and balances will take effect; in fact, the signs are so far that Trump is determined to break free of those normal checks and balances, such as controls over conflicts of interest.

We should not, in short, assume that this is all so much over-reaction by whining liberals: history tells us that horrifically bad results can sometimes come out of democratic votes, results that can take years or even decades to reverse.

It is not necessary to be a political genius of any colour to see that the combination of Trump’s sheer ignorance and naked self-interest, in the context of geopolitics, make the coming years a very dangerous time for the world indeed. We in Labour should take care not to help him.

This post first published at Labour Uncut
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