Spoiler alert: I’m assuming you’ve seen the Dr Who anniversary episode. If not, why not??
The French National Front has, in the past, been very big on hijacking Joan of Arc as an icon of their values. The Brits, on the other hand, have never been big on that. Winston Churchill sort of fills that particular void, but even then only from a distance. Despite being right on the single most important decision of his life, opposing Hitler, Churchill held opinions that would alienate many on both the modern right and left. Eurosceptics shift uncomfortably at his support for a United States of Europe, and in government after the war he was economically left wing and a union appeaser. The left remember his opposition to Indian independence. Still, one can’t be too picky. JFK was elected in a rigged election. FDR imprisoned Japanese Americans. An icon is supposed to be soothing from a distance but not looked at too closely.
Having said that, watching the 50th anniversary of Dr Who, I couldn’t help thinking that if there is anything that sums up modern Britain, it’s The Doctor. It’s hard to imagine any country where the identity of the actor playing a fictional character on a children’s (yes, that is who it is aimed it, even if it has made efforts to include the whole family) TV show is a source of enormous national debate and media coverage. The Americans don’t do the same about Superman. Even James Bond doesn’t demand the same loyalty.
But Dr Who is different. Possibly because TV is a more intimate form of culture than film, and by the sheer nature of TV producing much greater episodic quantity than film, and the fact that it is family friendly, and the fact that nearly three generations of TV viewers have now grown up with him, The Doctor has managed to find a particular niche.
But there’s more to it than that. Unlike James Bond, Dr Who has modernised to reflect modern Britain, and more to the point, is at ease with it (Prediction: we’ll see a female Dr by 2017). He’s cheeky, informal, comfortable with different cultures and even sexual orientations, and suspicious of big power in whatever form. He’s also from a former superpower long neutered, yet still with cultural impact throughout the galaxy.
To Eurosceptics, he could be an icon for an independent Britain not afraid to face down Brussels. To pro-Europeans he’s someone who recognises the need to work with allies, often by convincing them of his leadership ability in pursuit of a common goal.
But you know why he’s a national hero? I’m not a Brit, but even I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck when Tom Baker’s voice is heard in the final scene, because it means something. There’s a line in the episode when Rose his companion points out to The War Doctor that the wheezing sound the TARDIS makes is now synonymous with hope, and it’s the truest line in the whole episode, because for every fan from 1963 that’s exactly what the sound meant. That in the middle of an episode, when people were in what seemed like desperate hopeless danger, the sound of the TARDIS materializing always meant one thing: Here Comes Help.
Is there a Brit over six years old who doesn’t know that sound, or not know that a blue police box has absolutely nothing to do with either the police or telephones?
The truth is, if he spoke with footnotes we’d all be better off. “The EU,” he declares, normally a few glasses of Port on board and holding court down the golf club “is obsessed with interfering in our lives. Telling us who we can employ (Women), unsound chaps (homosexuals), fellas who don’t get the culture (Muslims or non-whites) and on top of all that, then ties us up in Health and Safety nonsense (Not poisoning employees) and telling us how to run our businesses (not putting rat droppings in tins of baked beans) It’s a bloody outrage!”
The truth is, and he doesn’t even know it himself, his gripe isn’t with Europe. Europe has become the bête noire, the evil incarnation of all that he dreads, but the reality is that all those things would have come anyway.
He’s not allowed come back from a liquid lunch on a Friday afternoon, and grope the 19 year old office intern. He can’t write “No Darkies, Poofters or Paddies” on job advertisements either. And yes, he does have to treat women equally, and not sexually assault them at the Christmas party, letting them know that if they aren’t a bit friendlier they can clear their desks on Monday.
EU or no EU, no modern western country tolerates that, and whereas the EU may be ensuring that standard is the same across Europe, those standards aren’t just from Europe, they’re from modern society, and he hates that.
His problem is that he’s bought into some fantasy that it can all be reversed, that if those bastards in Brussels are sent packing he and his balding, sweating middle aged pals can all revert back to some sort of 1970s sitcom where they get to do a Benny Hill around the office and cheat their customers.
He genuinely believes that Britain outside the EU will be on an equal footing with the US, China, Brazil, and the remainder of the EU. Why? Because “we won the Battle of Britain and the 1966 World Cup, that’s why!” He’ll even throw a nuclear submarine into the mix, as if that matters. It certainly didn’t in Libya.
But you know what the strangest thing is? In France, he has a counterpart. She’s a hard left socialist who despises the EU for nearly the exact opposite reasons he does. Because it is based around a single market (Market begins with an M, as does Men!), and free trade, and yes, letting people make profit (Profit!) across borders, and lets heterosexual white men (or rapist aspirants, as she titles them) hold jobs at all. In short, she hates the EU because it recognises globalisation, and stops protectionism, and lets people travel and work and make money, and doesn’t demand the immediate nationalisation of, well, everything.
They’ll never meet each other, of course, and more’s the pity. Be fun locking them up in a lift together for a few hours, all the same.
There was once a time when you knew where you stood. The mega wealthy, the Hearsts and the Rockefellers and the Morgans were very powerful and used their wealth to further their interests. They bought newspapers, hired muscle, politicians, judges, even started wars.
Pretty much same as today, you say?
Not quite, because at least back then they had the subtlety to keep pretty much out of the limelight, and even their hired political lackeys would pretend to be working for the ordinary joe.
Now, however, we have the surreal scenario of the plutocrat class not only having all the money but actually demanding that the rest of us, under the threat of some Fox News applied collective Chinese arm-burn, say it’s a good idea.
The pinnacle of this recent movement was, of course, the nomination of Mitt Romney, a good man (I’ll get back to that in a minute) who actually felt obliged on the campaign trail to stand up for the civil rights of corporations.
Think about that for a moment. In an age where the western middle class is genuinely fearing, for the first time since World War II, that its living standards are actually in reverse, the nominee of one of America’s two great parties felt an obligation to step in and stop billion dollar corporations being bullied by poorer people, including many of those same middle classes now fretting.
And here’s the thing: I think Mitt Romney is an honest, decent man whose values told him that those businesses were being harassed by someone and he felt it was unjust. He genuinely saw them as the victim. He’s like the guy who sees Lucy pulling the ball away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, and thinks “Poor Lucy! She must be so exhausted having to trick Charlie Brown and make him going flying through the air every time!”
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, Eisenhower and Churchill, both in office, and hardly doyens of the hard Left, saw mass society-wide membership trades unions as legitimate actors on the economic stage, with just as much right to be there as business. Both men sided with business, but saw society as a careful balancing act between capital and labour where both sides had to be able to walk away feeling they’d gotten their slice of the pie.
Now, you have an appalling lack of grace from the mega wealthy, where many plutocrats not only believe they should be free to use their resources (wealth) to further enrich themselves and their class, but then get indignant at the middle class for using its great resource, government through democratic elections, to pursue its class interest.
This leaves us with the jaw dropping scene of the mega wealthy feeling genuinely aggrieved, pointing fingers at people economically far beneath them and accusing them of “class war” for wanting things such as employment rights, universal health care or minimum wages.
It results in the grotesque spectacle of a US Republican Party, a party founded on the principle of righting one of the greatest wrongs of human history, now reduced to regarding the taking of food assistance from low income families and stripping them of low cost health insurance as a noble aim worth pursuing.
It is, quite simply, appallingly bad manners of the part of a class that should know better. A class that seems to lack, for want of a better word, class.
When one reads British conservative and Eurosceptic websites, one can be struck by a common theme that runs through them. This is the assumption that the great majority of British people are very strongly opposed to further participation in the European Union, and will definitely vote for withdrawal, if given the opportunity.
Whilst I admit winning a Yes To Remain vote is a challenge, I’m not convinced that a vote to withdraw is the absolute in-the-bank result many eurosceptics seem to believe. Consider, for example, Yougov’s April poll, which gave a 43%-35% lead to those advocating withdrawal. Pretty depressing stuff for pro-Europeans, you’d think, but I’m not sure.
The fact that in THE most Eurosceptic country in the EU, in a country where nearly every newspaper is opposed to EU membership, over a third of voters are STILL pro-EU, before a campaign even starts, is extraordinary.
Then add in the campaign itself, with the prime minister coming back from Brussels with some (admittedly modest) reforms, but then mounting a Stay In campaign with EVERY living former prime minister? This thing could be much closer.
Now, supposing it’s a narrow Yes to remain, say, 53% on a turnout of 55%. What now for the eurosceptics? Will they demand a second vote, suddenly discovering a deep and profound respect for the Irish constitution?
Because let us not underestimate exactly how beneath the political waterline such a result will hole them. They have built an entire political movement, an ethos even, on the idea that the British people were tricked in 1975, and that the EU now is a bastardised conspiracy going far further than that which was mandated in Harold Wilson’s referendum.
But a Yes vote wipes that whole slate clean.
I genuinely think we may see an outbreak of psychological and emotional breakdown on the No side if such an event were to occur. Bear in mind, this isn’t just a victory for the hated Brussels. This is a betrayal by the people of glorious Albion themselves. A Yes vote will devastate the image many eurosceptics have of Britain and the British.
Indeed, the more extreme elements may even start talk of a coup, as they did during the chaotic days of the 1970s, believing their values represented the real Britain and therefore overruled the mere votes of the riff-raff. Will they start drawing lines around areas that voted for withdrawal, for example, and start demanding that those areas should be permitted leave? Mad stuff, I know, but these are the people who talk of EUSSR and the Fourth Reich.
Let us be clear. A vote to withdraw will be respected by Parliament, the government, and Britain’s European partners.
But that also means that a vote to remain most be respected by the eurosceptics, and I’m not sure they’ve prepared themselves for that. The NHS would have to be ready.
Angela Merkel’s handsome victory in the German elections is yet another chapter in the ongoing saga of how the Left across the Western world seem to be either incapable of winning elections, or, on gaining power, not seeing their public support collapse.
In recent years, and all within a period of crisis for international capitalism, conservatives have ousted or defeated social democrats in Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Britain, Canada, and Poland. In Ireland the dominant conservative Fianna Fail party suffered a terrible defeat in 2011, but only to be replaced by an equally conservative Fine Gael. In France the Hollande administration is amongst one of the most unpopular governments to have ever sat in the Elysee Palace, with former President Sarkozy regularly outpolling the incumbent. Only in the US have the Democrats managed to hold on, by being what would be to the Left in most other Western countries a centrist and even conservative party.
Why is it? Why can the Left not grasp the opportunity? One possible answer is that the Left is now actually the conservative anti-change side in modern politics. Many on the Left seem to dedicate more effort to protecting the vested interests of specific sections of society, even as those sections have actually shrunk. For example, both the British Labour Party and the Spanish PSOE seem more concerned with protecting the benefits of existing public sector workers than with helping larger numbers of younger workers into permanent employment.
In addition, the Left seem to struggle with communicating that a modern welfare society needs the balanced approach of rights AND responsibilities, and that welfare in the winter needs everyone to contribute in the spring. The modern Left is very easy at spending money and opposing cuts when in opposition, yet positively Gingrichian in refusing to sell equally the responsibility of all citizens to fiscally contribute to the funding of the welfare state when in power.
Likewise, the failure of the Left to grasp that the ground has shifted on cultural issues has led to its alienation within traditionally loyal voter groups. In Britain, France and the Netherlands, for example, Labour parties are losing voters on the immigration issue to populist parties on the right, with those Left parties paralysed from even addressing the issue for fear of breaking age old internal taboos about race and in particular multiculturalism. The casualness with which people on the Left are willing to brand anyone who disagrees with them (including their own potential voters) as racist or sexist indicates a desire by many on the Left to conform to an ideological purity checklist over actually winning a majority of voters to their argument.
Even now, in Ireland, the hard-line Left parties are struggling to breech the margin of error in opinion polls, despite Ireland having bailed out banks with billions of euro of taxpayers money. Despite genuine anger, the public still refuse to align behind traditional left wing arguments. Why is that? One possible cause is the refusal of the hard Left to recognise that the public does not accept the argument as being for or against capitalism. The public do not hate capitalism, or wish to abolish it. Instead, they want manners put on it, normally with a big state stick. Yet this doesn’t fit in with the One More Push for Socialist Utopia pushed by the hard Left and not believed by anybody else. Capitalism, in whatever shape, is the only game being played now, and has, much to the anger of the Left, popular support.
Curiously, one has to look to South America to see left wing parties winning power, but often only when absolutely shocking disparities between the rich and everybody else are permitted to fester. The reality is that these huge gaps just don’t exist in the western world, thanks to the wealth redistribution of the welfare system.
Is it possible that they could emerge? You’d be foolish to rule it out. But does it mean that the lower half of society has to be pushed to absolute breaking point before it votes left?
The Liberal Democrats are bumping around in 8-14 poll range, which seems to be a source of great bitterness for Lib Dem members. I’m not that surprised at the poll rating. Having been to Lib Dem conferences back in the day, I was always struck (as an outsider) by how many people seemed to me to be there because the party wasn’t Labour or the Tories. Now, in the cold light of governing reality, those soft “why can’t we be nice to everybody?” types have left, or defected to the party that, eh, invaded Iraq.
The remaining vote, bobbing around 10%, seems about right, the sort of vote liberal parties elsewhere in Europe get. The problem, however, is that whilst that is all fine and dandy under a PR system, it’s lethal under FPTP.
What that means is that the Lib Dems cannot enter another coalition without a commitment to legislate for some form of PR. Without it, a second term will kill them.
Now, the idea of getting PR may not be as fantastic as some think. For a start, it’s true that the Tories and Labour will just not concede on full PR. However, imagine a scenario where UKIP wins, say, 15% of the vote, more than the Lib Dems, and ends up with no seats? To bloke in pub this becomes an issue of fairness. Surely a party that gets more votes than another party should get seats? It’s the sort of scenario that Cameron and Milliband would be weary of just dismissing as a political anorak issue.
At that point, it would not be unreasonable for the Lib Dems to argue for a national list of say, 150 MPs, elected completely separately from the FPTP constituencies. By electing them separately, it means that most MPs on the list would still be Tory or Labour, but it would also guarantee Lib Dems and UKIP a cushion of seats. It’s not ideal, but it would be progress, and more importantly, it is not impossible to imagine Tory and Labour MPs voting for such a scheme either. After all, it would create a batch of super-safe Tory and Labour list seats.
One of the more valid arguments put forward by British eurosceptics is the fact that Britain can happily trade with the United States without having to join the US. This is, of course, true. The truth is, it is not in Britain or the remaining EU’s interest not to maintain a healthy and cooperative relationship post British exit.
However, let’s be clear about one thing: whereas the US and Britain are friends and allies, they are not equal partners. Britain is Robin to the US’s Batman, and whereas Batman cared about Robin, we had no doubt who was in charge: 320 million people to 63 million will do that.
Likewise, we will be trusted allies, 440 million Tintins to their 63 million Snowys. But sheer size will decide who decides what, and who goes “woah! woah!”
If there is one political history book you read this year, Dominic Sandbrook’s “Seasons in the Sun: The battle for Britain 1974-1979″ is the one. Sandbrook tells the story (from a centre-right perspective) of Britain culturally, politically and economically from Harold Wilson’s return to power in early 1974 to Mrs Thatcher’s election in 1979.
What makes the book so good are the wonderfully human nuggets that communicate the crisis facing Britain at the time. Whether it is some of Wilson’s advisors seemingly seriously considering murdering one of their number, to the exasperation of Tony Benn’s cabinet colleagues at his refusal to accept economic reality, to retired generals and media barons actively considering the military overthrow of the democratically elected government.
But what really fascinates are the facts that contradict the myths of the era, such as the reality that private school numbers actually grew under Labour’s hamfisted efforts to make education more equal.
Or that one education minister in particular closed more semi-private grammar schools than any other in history: Margaret Thatcher.
Or what about the fact that by the end, with inflation threatening to soar into the late 20s, it was the Labour government, at the behest of (amazingly) trades union leaders, which finally got a grip on public spending.
From an Irish perspective, there’s plenty here too. There’s the Ulster Worker’s Council strike, where a fascist mob basically staged a coup in Northern Ireland, but also a glimpse of what might be: In Tony Benn’s ridiculous pouring of public money into loss-making worker’s collectives making products that no one wants to buy, we see what life under Richard Boyd Barrett could be like.
I listened to it as an audiobook, which I seriously recommend as David Thorpe, the actor reading it, does a very credible impression of nearly all the key players of the time. A super, informative, entertaining book.