Thursday, 23 June 2016

A few thoughts on what the EU referendum told us

It's about 5am and I'm genuinely gutted about what appears to be the result of the EU referendum.

Like most liberals, I'm an internationalist. Without saying a great deal about my personal feelings, let me just make it clear that this hurts. It really hurts.

This isn't some kind of political game, as some political commentators are suggesting. This is a huge decision with real human, social, economic and political consequences - not only for the UK but also for Europe.

I don't plan to write a lengthy essay analysing what went wrong, but here are a few of my own observations on the referendum, the campaign, the result and what it all means.

Cameron made a serious mistake in calling the referendum. I recall Cameron making the announcement that he would hold an in-out referendum if he won the election. I was at Bob Maclennan's house at the time, and he asked "Does Cameron know what he's doing?" The dangers were obvious to both of us. Cameron's hubris and belief that he could outmanoeuvre UKIP while simultaneously reuniting his party proved a disastrous calculation. He overreached himself in his misguided attempt to neutralise the threat of UKIP with what was essentially an otherwise unnecessary referendum.

Putting party interests before the country was a huge error of judgment. There will, of course be consequences - for the Prime Minister and his chancellor, for the Conservative Party and also for the UK.

The vote was as much a vote on immigration as it was the EU. The Leave side was successful in convincing the public that leaving the EU would equate to a vote to reduce immigration. The claim was that "taking back control" would result in a tougher immigration policy, in spite of the UK's inability to reduce non-EU immigration via the current points-based system or the arrangements currently in place for Norway and Switzerland.

The vote was, to some degree, a proxy vote against "the establishment". Yes, I know that Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove are hardly the anti-establishment figures they promote themselves as. But here was an opportunity to express dissatisfaction with many things - immigration, austerity, politics in general - and was effectively a by-election on the establishment. That establishment includes not only politicians (although there was a distinctly anti-politics element to Leave's campaigning) but also bankers, economists, journalists etc. and voters' willingness to kick elites - both real and imagined - should have been foreseen.

There is a lot of anger and frustration being expressed in this result. Unfortunately, while much of this is entirely justified, this is transferred onto the EU rather than those who are actually responsible for creating isolation, refusing to respond to societal concerns and disenfranchising people. One of the most disturbing comments in a campaign full of disturbing comments was Michael Gove's comparison of experts to Nazis, but his simple claim that "the British people are sick of experts" was proved right. It is galling to see such a blatantly anti-intellectual agenda succeed, especially as those behind it will inevitably be running the government, but there is no doubt playing the "anti-establishment" card (however disingenuously) was frighteningly effective.

Bookies are about as reliable as pollsters. Every bookmaker had Remain down as a dead cert until that Sunderland declaration. Opinion polls pointed to a narrow but decisive Remain win. How could they be so wrong?

Appeals to emotion work. Politicos imagine that the public like facts. They might, but ultimately what wins votes are emotional arguments. So, when the Leave campaign are able to use the David versus Goliath narrative so convincingly, siding with the "haves" against the "have nots", countering this by pointing out Leave's lies on Turkey and the cost of EU membership was never likely to be effective. The referendum was won on many things, but perception was more important a determining factor than facts.

Economic arguments don't work. The public aren't persuaded or inspired by economics. Yes, such arguments are serious and ultimately have huge impacts on people's lives, but crude financial statistics and predictions (some of them rather bizarre) simply don't excite emotions. Focusing on the economy was hardly the wisest thing for Stronger In to make.

Both campaigns were dismal. The Leave side was particularly nasty at times - or, at least, some elements within it were - encouraging xenophobia, making threats about the risk of british women being raped, apparently inciting "violence on the streets" and publishing posters reminscent of Nazi proaganda...all while (withiut irony) brandishing their opponents "Project Fear". They provided very little clarity while suggesting that the EU would be the solution to a range of difficulties. The Remain campaign was utterly dismal and uninspiring - in a word, insipid. It failed to use its best assets (such as Caroline Lucas, Nicola Sturgeon, Tim Farron) instead allowing David Cameron to become its figurehead. It failed to communicate a clear message, instead constantly reacting to what the Leave camp was doing, surrendering the initiative in the process.

Cameron was too visible. I mean, seriously...which advisors thought this was a good idea?  He should have followed Harold Wilson's example from 1975. As an unpopular Prime Minister, his involvement allowed him to be a focus of voters' anger and frustrations. The risk of allowing the Prime Minister to front the campaign should have been obvious to anyone.

Stronger In was like Better Together - only worse.  Why, oh why, did the In campaign not take lessons from Scotland, where BT won the referendum but lost many of the arguments? Why the relentless negativity? Why the focus on personalities? Where was the optimism, the humour, the emotion, the humanity? The Remain campaign simply didn't give people sufficient reason to vote.

Labour is in a real mess. It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to say this. The referendum provided Labour with a valuable opportunity to demonstrate its relevance and reconnect with both its core voters and one-time supporters who have deserted the party. Corbyn had a chance to portray himself as a real people's champion, standing up for the workers' rights that would be eroded by leaving the EU. He would have had far more authenticity on this point than, for example, George Osborne. But he preferred to play petty politics, refusing to share a platform with the Prime Minister and allowing Nigel Farage to speak for his core base - fatally, in Labour strongholds in the North East and Wales.

Labour has now lost Scotland, is clearly losing support in Wales and the North of England and seems to lack any clear purpose. I hoped Jeremy Corbyn would be able to provide principled and strong opposition to the Conservatives, but on the evidence of this referendum there's more chance of 76 million Turks landing in Dover.

Nigel Farage was not the asset many imagined he would be, but remains a major force. Gove was quick to distance himself from the infamous "Breaking Point" poster, and the official Leave campaign clearly has reservations. His "unconceding moment", followed swiftly by a suggestion that the decision had been swayed by extending voter registration, prompted Douglas Carswell to quip that "angry nationalism doesn't win elections or come to peaceful conclusions". Still, he's the man of the moment and, whatever we think about him and whatever his obvious weaknesses, he must now be considered one of the most effective politicians of our generation. Think about that for a moment.

This was largely an English debate. It was no surprise that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. The political conversations here were very different in nature. Issues of identity were frequently identified as being significant, and these were generally questions of English identity. Essentially, voting Leave was perceived by many a proxy for English nationalism. Not altogether surprising, but underlining the failure of the main political parties to recognise and adjust to it.

The narrative was framed largely by the media. I won't labour the point, but few people were better informed as a result.

We live in a divided society. Yes, the referendum and the campaigning certainly served to divide the country - the very nature of the debate was divisive. But many of those divisions were pre-existing, the referendum result has simply clarified them - especially along generational, class, political and regional lines.

There is a need to bring our divided society together. The result was close, very close.  If there are winners, there must also be losers, who make up almost half of the electorate. Just as in the case of the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, there is a need to allow for healing, to reach out and build bridges.

The early signs, however, are not good. Nigel Farage, in understandably celebratory mood, seemed to suggest Remain voters were not "ordinary, decent people." The tone of the conversation during the "debate", inevitably descending to the politics of "us and them", also doesn't give much cause for encouragement. But if we are to be a "United Kingdom" then it must be resognised that we must move forward together. As Chuka Umunna said, we should all respect the result, but also recognise that it is a divided result.

No-one seems to know what will happen next. There are things we can be reasonably certain of - market volatility, political turmoil and serious questions being asked about the future of the Union - but on the substantive issues, the only thing that is certain is uncertainty.

In all likelihood, whatever happens during the next two years of negotiations, it's going to be impossible to deliver everything that many Leave voters believed they were voting for. What happens then - when they believe they have been betrayed by the negotiators and "sold out" by the establishment?

Another Scottish independence referendum now seems a near certainty. As many of us predicted during the last few months (even years) only to be told we were "scaremongering". Nicola Sturgeon is to make a fuller statement later today, but BBC News reports that she has said that "the people of Scotland see their future as part of the EU". Her intentions seems relatively clear and I for one wouldn't argue with her case for a further referendum, even if I would have preferred not to have this conversation against the backdrop of the UK leaving the EU.

Will the vote to leave the EU see the break up of the UK? I won't make a prediction, but the smart money must be on Scotland gaining independence.

The referendum campaign has been many things, but it hasn't been enjoyable. For people like me, political campaigns can be fun. But the political conversation has been utterly toxic. At least in the Scottish independence referendum people were inspired to become involved positively in politics and younger people felt actively included.

In Scotland, it's clear there is a broad pro-EU, progressive political consensus. In England, with the Labour Party in turmoil and the Liberal Democrats described by former leader Paddy Ashdown as "roadkill", where do those of us who favour building a tolerant society with an internationalist outlook go?

Monday, 20 June 2016

If you value your country, it's time to reclaim it

We've heard a lot in the last few weeks about "taking our country back".

It's not the kind of thing that would generally resonate with me. After all, I care far more for people than I do lines on maps. Patriotism doesn't really shape my politics, or my personal identity.

But what I do have in common with most people is an identification with my community and the society in which I live. As a liberal, and a Liberal Democrat, I naturally want that society to be open, tolerant and inclusive.

All this talk about "taking our country back" has got me thinking. Firstly, about where such people intend to take it (apparently, a romanticised view of the 1950s that only exists in selective memories). And, perhaps more importantly, what to they want to "take it back" from?

You only have to read the comments pages of the Daily Mail to see how hateful and intolerant some people have become. It's also impossible to escape the effect that the kind of inflammatory language used by some on the Leave campaign is having on social cohesion and community relations. Others have covered this is some detail following the tragic and utterly senseless political assassination of Jo Cox last week, and there is some merit to what they say. You cannot simply stoke up intolerance with inflammatory language and then absolve yourself of responsibility - at least for the wider problem of increasing racist and xenophobic feeling.

When people express the desire to "take their country back", they generally mean from those who have a liberal and internationalist worldview, who promote tolerance and acceptance and who favour collaboration over isolation. They may wrap this up "pro-democracy" language (ironically overlooking the undeniable reality that the EU is far more democratic than the UK) but their purpose is pretty clear. More often that not, such expressions of a need to "take back" the country involves assumptions about the erosion of undefined and non-specific "British values", and inevitably focus on fears that immigration is out of control and destroying our way of life (again, something that's generally undefined).

They may not all see immigration as being at "breaking point"; they may not all condemn those who think differently as "scaremongers" while simultaneously threatening that foreigners will rape British women unless we withdraw from the EU; they may not all identify Islam with ISIS. But the sentiment informed by misconception is undeniably real and, if allowed to flourish, represents a very real danger to our communities.

Those of us who belong to the LGBT+ community will need no reminding of the rights we've had to win in the last two decades - and the role the EU has played in facilitating better rights for LGBT+ people across the continent. We also recognise that while laws often change quickly, social attitudes take somewhat longer to follow. Can we trust a UK government, led perhaps by Boris Johnson or Michael Gove to build on what's been achieved? More seriously, should we be concerned when anti-human rights rhetoric is on the rise, promoted by a man whose party has a history of saying (to put it mildly) rather silly things about LGBT+ people?

And, even more importantly, what about the kind of work Jo Cox was so keen to champion - with refugees and asylum seekers? Last Thursday morning, I was speaking with a Salvation Army officer about the kind of xenophobic language I'd heard from intelligent people, and asked where it all would lead. Inevitably the conversation led to the Salvation Army's own work with immigrant families and refugees and she was as concerned as I was about the growing intolerance and the "inexplicable" rise of a thinly-veiled racism. She experiences it every day, especially from older people. "But how do you change people's minds?" Ah...

In spite of what they claim, people wanting "their country back" generally are uncomfortable with British values as they have evolved. They see little value in remaining part of European community that has overseen the longest period of sustained peace in European History (you see, Jacob Rees-Mogg, nothing like the Holy Roman Empire). They want it "back" from progressives who do not fear multiculturalism, or do not find simplistic solutions in scapegoating minorities.

There are some who say we cannot know with certainty what the result of a Leave vote will be. But, on the basis of probability, we can point to likely outcomes. Scotland will almost certainly stage a second referendum on independence, with the smart money being on Scotland going its own way within two years. Ireland is more complicated, but an increase in tensions caused by border controls and other political questions is hardly going to improve matters.  Surrendering our influence in Europe at a crucial time, when Putin's Russia is steadily increasing its threat to global security, would be unwise - and for what? Abandoning others hardly seems in the "British" way of doing things.

And what will the next two years hold? We don't know, but I'll guarantee one thing: whatever the government negotiators manage to obtain from their discussions with the EU and others, UKIP and other right-wing Brexiters will be condemning the deal and accusing the government of selling the country out and betraying the British people. It's all very predictable, as what most Brexiters appear to want isn't something that's actually possible to deliver. The political climate in what remains of the UK in two years' time is likely to be even more toxic than at present. And in the meantime the economy will inevitably unwind.

We have to ask ourselves this: what kind of UK do we want to see after Thursday's vote? Economics aside (and I'm genuinely concerned about our economic future), do we want to live in a country divided against itself, in which the politics of hate find increasing expression? This vote has very real human consequences that must be properly considered.

Let's make no mistake about it. The Scottish Independence referendum saw a fair amount of fear and intolerance being peddled. But, on the whole, people felt engaged and empowered by the campaigning. Most positively, it saw hundreds of thousands of people meaningfully becoming involved in politics for the first time. And while the conversation on Scottish independence did, at times, become quite aggressive and adversarial at least it wasn't characterised by the same toxic hate that is so obvious a feature of some of the campaigning from Leavers.

Neither Vote Leave not Remain have covered themselves in glory. But the description of Remain as "Project Fear" is more than a bit disingenuous coming from the likes of Nigel Farage. Sure, the predictions of economic Armageddon from the likes of Osborne and Cameron are embarrassing. But they are nothing compared to the barefaced lies (£350million, Turkey, bananas) and the inherent nastiness of the "enough is enough" rhetoric.

Yes, I want my country back. I want to take it back from those who are responsible for creating a toxic political dialogue on immigration. I want to take it back from those who deliberately play the racist card for political gain and take us back to the 1960s in the process ("The Turks are coming! They're evil, I tell you. And they'll be living next door to you if you vote Remain!" is no more responsible a slogan than was "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour"). I want to take my country back by those who either incite violence, or suggest it as a solution (A party leader saying "if people feel voting doesn't change anything then violence is the next step" is, again, little more responsible than a former government minister predicting "the River Tiber flowing with much blood"). As you may have gathered, I want to take my country back from those who seem determined to relive the political discourses of the 1960s.   I want to take my country back from those who believe British values are exclusive and narrow-minded. I want to take my country back from the inverted snobs who are utterly intolerant of expertise and learning.  And I want to take my country back for those who exchange the politics of openness for the politics of hate.

Because that is what it is. As Dan Hodges wrote in the Daily Mail (yes, the Mail!) Brexit has opened Pandora's box. He said: "The time has come to talk about Project Hate. Three weeks ago we all woke to the following quote from a pro-Brexit MP: 'I don't want to stab the Prime Minister in the back – I want to stab him in the front so I can see the expression on his face.' One week later Nigel Farage said that British women risked being raped if we didn't vote for Brexit. At the same time posters began to circulate from the Vote Leave campaign – replete with shadowy footsteps – warning of 55 million migrants entering the UK from Turkey.

"This followed a warning from Gove that if Turkey were granted access, 'extremists everywhere will believe that the West is opening its borders to appease an Islamist government'. They know what they are doing. Farage. Gove. Johnson. They have always known. That they were opening a Pandora's Box. But it glistened before them so brightly. Project Hate has brought us to the brink. Britain – the country we live – stands on the edge. This time next week it could all be gone. Our economic security. Our national security. Our international security. Imagine if it works. The overt racism. The overt demonisation of refugees. The graphic threats to stab the Prime Minister in the chest. Imagine if that is what constitutes a successful British political campaign in 2016...

"The voices of moderation have fallen silent. Actually, it's worse than that. They have not fallen silent, but actively joined the chorus of anger and hate."

What Hodges doesn't mention within his referencing of Pandora's Box is the one thing to remain in the box after all the evils were unleashed: hope. There will be hope so long as those voices of moderation, of reason, of tolerance, are brave enough to speak out. The toxic political discourse that has framed the EU debate does not have to be permanent. We have an opportunity on Thursday to stand up to the hate that has so driven much of what passes for political conversation in recent months.

Enough is enough! It's time to reclaim our country.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Je suis LGBT?

We are all no doubt absolutely horrified by recent events in Orlando.

Terrorist attacks of any kind are always sickening. It was terrifying to watch the 9/11 disaster unfolding on our TV screens, just as it was heartbreaking to hear of the shocking events in Paris bombings last November. At times like this, we generally come together in support of the victims, to stand in solidarity for peace and humanity over intolerance and hatred.

And the targeted killing of 50 people in an LGBT-friendly nightclub should be no different. At first glance, it isn't...but dig a little beneath the surface and not everything is what it seems.

Yes, we've had statement upon statement condemning the brutal attacks. Yes, we're all shocked and saddened. Yes, we're horrified at the mindlessness of it all. And our hearts go out to the victim's families at this sad time. 

But one thing is missing from many of these generally sensible statements - and that's an acknowledgement of who the victims are. Make no mistake - and no doubt we'll find out more about the killer's motivations in due course - those who died were deliberately targeted because of who they are. It matters that they were LGBT+ people, precisely because they were killed for being LGBT+ people.

I was at a church service last night at which this was openly acknlowledged. Candles were lit and prayers said, making explicit that this was a crime against a particular community. But, in general terms, this has been lacking in the tributes, condemnations and assorted other statements - not to mention the way the media has been framing its reporting. I don't always agree with Owen Jones, but he was absolutely right to walk off screen given the inability of Sky News to "get" this simple fact. 

It's not simply the media, however. People who should know better refuse to acknowledge that this was an assault on the LGBT+ community. Take for example this statement from Rt Rev Dr Russell Barr, Moderator of the Church of Scotland, which was forwarded to me as a reporter for Scottish LGBT+ website, KaleidoScot:

“The news of the shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando, the number of people killed and injured, is shocking in the extreme. My heart goes out to the families of everyone involved and also to the emergency services having to deal with such an appalling event. On behalf of the Church of Scotland let me offer my condolences to those left bereaved and assure our American sisters and brothers of our thoughts and prayers at this dreadful time.” 

That may seem reasonable but it points towards the Church's difficulty in accepting LGBT+ people.  What would be the messages LGBT people would take from a statement that entirely overlooks the fact that their community had been targeted? Where is the solidarity with us? 

I responded to the Church's statement, because I believe it needs to become better at standing against injustice. A few words expressing "shock" are not enough from the kind of people who should be standing on the frontline, side by side with the oppressed, calling out for social justice and standing against hatred and intolerance. My response is here, which I trust speaks for itself:

"Thank you for this statement, part of which we have used. 

"What is disappointing, however, is the glaring admission – there is no mention whatsoever that it was LGBT+ people who were attacked and killed, and that this was obviously an assault on the community as a whole. 

"It does matter who the victims are, especially when those victims have been intentionally targeted

"It is easy to focus on the crime rather than its target. But we cannot afford to overlook the fact that it was the LGBT+ community that was the focus of this brutal attack. The attack hurts the LGBT+ community because our brothers and sisters have been targeted precisely because of who they are. There can be no escaping the reality that it was a defined attack on a particular group, irrespective of what we may find out about his terrorist connections. 

"I write for an LGBT+ news website. The statement, sensible as it is, cannot be used in full because of how it may inevitably be interpreted by our community. We don’t simply need sensible words. We don’t just need “thoughts and prayers”. We need to feel accepted. We need to feel that the church is there to stand up against discrimination and intolerance. We need more than an expression of shock at all appalling event – we need to know that the church understands this is a hate crime and stands by the victims, rather than appearing conflicted in affirming our humanity. 

"At best your statement represents a missed opportunity...but for many in our community it would seem like a deliberate whitewash. Either way, for those of us in the LGBT+ community,  the omission reveals a failure to grasp the reaility that this was a homophobic hate crime of the worst kind. A statement in which emergency services are referred to but the targetted community is overlooked does little to provide reassurances to LGBT people, against whom we have witnessed a rise in reported hate crime even in Scotland. I hope in future that such statements will be able to stand in solidarity with clearly identifiable groups when they are so obviously being attacked for who they are." 

The Queen and David Cameron made similar short statements - again, utterly sensible but devoid of any reference to LGBT people. George Osborne did the same, although he did use the #Lovewins hashtag on his tweet. Fortunately, the Scottish government has allowed actions to speak louder than words in flying the rainbow flag from government buildings.

Following the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, many of us declared "Je suis Charlie". Of course, we weren't, but we found it easy, even helpful, to identify ourselves directly with the group of people who had so clearly been targetted. How then, little more than a year later, is it possible not to identify ourselves so openly with the innocent victims of the Orlando tragedy, whose only crime was to be LGBT? Why are we not declaring "Je suis LGBT"?

Respecting those who died means accepting why they died. No doubt the perpetrator of this horrendous crime against humanity may justify his intolerance with religous or political beliefs, but the bottom line is that is was a hate crime against LGBT+ people. Ignoring this basic fact is not only to deny reality, but to insult the community being victimised.

By all means condemn violence, attend vigils, call for peace and express shock. These are all normal reactions. But please also remember what this is about. Just as the Charlie Hebdo attacks were a deliberate and calculated assault on a specific group of people, so too was Orlando. Why then are so many keen to either deny or ignore this uncomfortable truth?

The best way to honour those who tragically lost their lives is to recognise the hate crime for what it was. The victims were not random, as they were in 9/11 or in the Paris bombings - they were deliberately selected because they were deemed to be "different"; because they refused to conform to the heteronormative stereotypes demanded by many within our society. "Fighting back" against this futile act of violence doesn't need to involve lengthy discussions about combating terrorism or discussion gun control (however significant they are as peripheral issues), but rather it requires a celebration of diversity, accepting those who are different and - as my Liberal Democrat membership card reads - "build[ing] a fair, free and open society in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."

Mois, je suis LGBT. Et toi?