Posts Tagged ‘lefty ranting’

Dear Dave,

I wonder just how you feel, deep down inside, about the way the last couple of days have gone. Normally I would be one of the last people to express concern for your well-being or mental state, but now… Well, look, I know everyone who goes into public life and politics probably has at least one eye on posterity and how they will be remembered by future generations, so I expect this has occurred to you already, but I just feel the need to remind you that (as things currently stand) you stand a very good chance of going down in history as the man who destroyed the United Kingdom and dissolved the post-war settlement both here and on the continent. How do you feel about that, Dave?


The ironic thing, of course, is that this is the exact opposite to what you actually wanted. The opposite of your stated intentions, at least, and I must confess I do doubt your ability to consistently lie so convincingly. You promised people a vote on Europe in the hopes of preserving unity, and as a result the UK and its people have ended up tearing themselves apart. Nice work, fella.

Is it worth repeating the narrative that this is all on some level the result of Charles Kennedy’s alcoholism? Both the promise of the vote and the fact you found yourself in the awkward position of having to keep that promise are on some level consequences of the Lib Dem’s deeply unwise participation in the coalition government, which would have been unimaginable under the leadership of someone more in touch with the traditional ties between the different progressive parties, like Kennedy. You might want to run one more public health campaign on how alcoholism wrecks lives before handing over to Boris, Dave. Just a thought.

It’s all a bit academic now, though, of course. For whatever reason, there you were, trapped in a coalition with the Lib Dems which it seemed like only you and Nick Clegg really wanted – watching the pair of you often put me in mind of two men in free fall, fighting over a parachute – blasted by the left for the simple cruelty and cynicism of your economic policies, blasted by the right for the progressiveness of some of your social policies, Mr Toad snapping at your heels and threatening to steal all your supporters and MPs for his UKIP bandwagon, the old Tory faultline juddering and shuddering – Europe, Europe, Europe.

Things looked bleak. The Tories seemed likely to tear themselves apart. You couldn’t go down in history as the man who split the Tory party, could you? So promise them a referendum. That’d shut them up, for the time being at least. But promise it for after the next general election, the one which you knew you had no real chance of winning outright. You’re a politician, no-one seriously expects you to deliver on your promises. It was a sticking plaster on a deep wound, but it would do the trick.

But then, of course, the Tory press ground into action, those great engines of loathing and fear which hate you and think they own you. You had reckoned without them, and without the fact that the Lib Dems would be quite so devastated in the election, and the fact that the SNP would be quite so buoyed by your perceived lies in the last independence referendum campaign that Labour would lose its Scottish heartlands. And you found you had won that unwinnable election after all, and were obliged to give the people at your back their prize.

Still, I expect I know what you were thinking – this will be close, but every sane person will stand up for Remain. When the paucity of the case for leaving becomes apparent, people will understand there is only one sensible option for a forward-looking UK.

Of course, you had forgotten that for many people who are mildly unhappy with their lives, any election is an opportunity to reflexively kick against the status quo – one could argue that the whole UK electoral system is founded on the principle that a minority of people are going to switch parties every few elections, regardless of policy or ideology. And perhaps you had underestimated the extent to which we now live in a post-factual world, where reason takes a back seat to simple instinctive emotionalism – ‘we have had enough of experts,’ said your former education secretary and (former?) friend, whether consciously or not giving voice to the anti-vax, anti-evolution, anti-climate change mindset. But could you really have forgotten that the Tory press was also out there?

You know the Tory press well enough. It exists not to tell people the news but to educate them on how it believes they should think. It serves not the interests of the people who fund it by buying newspapers and satellite TV but those of the cabal of rich men who own it. Pulling the UK out of the EU is very good news for them, for they despise all those protections and rights the EU has given to workers and unimportant poor people. Destabilising the European project suits them very nicely. That they could take your head as well, post-Leveson, would be an added bonus.

But they couldn’t campaign for departure on an ‘it will make rich people richer’ basis, which is why we had week upon week of dog-whistle scare stories about immigrants coming, and EU waste, and undeported criminals, and immigrants coming, and Eurocrat arrogance, and immigrants coming. Much of it not true, or totally irrelevant to the vote, but enough to scare people and create the right climate of uncertain hostility. The people responsible don’t care about these things, know that they are trading in lies, but they did enough to get what they wanted: the UK heading for departure. Europe itself gripped by uncertainty. You, off into well-paid millionaire obscurity.

So what does the future hold? (Not for you personally, of course – you’ll be all right, that was never in doubt, though I wouldn’t hold my breath for many sympathetic biographies.) Division in Labour, with Corbyn under attack for his role in the recent disaster. Division in Europe, with other sceptic groups demanding their own referenda. Division in England, with the capital and the provinces, the educated and the ill-informed, the young and the old, seemingly irreparably split. The prospect of division in the UK itself, with a further Scottish independence referendum on the cards – perhaps the ghost of a chance of one in Northern Ireland, too.

(Of course, one consequence of Scottish independence – and I note that this is something your lot are very careful not to mention in public – is that it would practically guarantee Tory hegemony over the rest of the UK, at least in the short to medium term. As we saw in last year’s great disaster, without a strong showing north of the border, Labour will never be able to challenge for a Commons majority, so in some ways the end of the UK as we know it would be very good news for your party, even though the grim right-wing wasteland it would propel the rest of us English people into scarcely bears thinking about.)

But, you know what, there is one place where people seem to be… well, not quite coming together, but at least not trying to tear each other apart with quite the usual gusto. The Tory party’s lethal instinct for power and survival seems to be as strong as ever. Perhaps you have managed to lance the European boil for them, Dave, although not many people are happy about your method of doing so. Perhaps the Tories will become united in a way they haven’t really been since the days of the old hag queen. If so, your plan succeeded. You have managed to unify your party after all. Never mind that there has been a degree of collateral damage on a potentially historic, potentially global scale, maybe you will in fact be remembered as the leader who made the Tory party whole again.

I wouldn’t bet on it, though.

Read Full Post »

With Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 we once again depart from the arena of film as a form of entertainment – this movie does not set out to brighten your day, make you laugh, or provide you with any kind of respite from reality: quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a film with an agenda and an axe to grind, it’s entirely partisan and very forthright about it. As a result – and especially considering the subject matter involved – this is a film which is going to repel large numbers of people simply because of its nature. To talk about it solely in terms of its merits and flaws as a piece of cinema is likewise to almost miss the point of it.


Although, as the title suggests, The Spirit of ’45 is at least partly about Britain in the years immediately following the Second World War, it is also really about the state of the country today. The film’s thesis is that the first Labour government, elected in 1945, brought about one of the greatest and most positive transformations in the country’s history, creating the NHS and the welfare state, nationalising utilities and transport, creating masses of decent, affordable housing, and so on. (The film’s contributors go into some detail concerning the awfulness of slum life in the 1930s – this is very much Road to Wigan Pier territory.)

This is attributed to the sense of national unity and empowerment created by the country’s successes in the war, and the belief that things really could be changed for the better, and the film is utterly unequivocal in presenting these reforms as a wholly good thing. Extracts from the Labour Party Manifesto are reverently recited, and no-one has a bad word to say about any of it, just as the later section of the film covering the rolling-back of much of this work by the Thatcher administration pulls no punches in portraying this as a wholly retrogressive and socially destructive undertaking.

Well, my personal politics are – broadly speaking – very much on the same wavelength as those of the makers of this film, and I agree with most of what they suggest here. But for me the film doesn’t directly address one of the more insidious consequences of the Thatcher era, which is that mainstream British politics are now almost entirely bereft of ideology. Voters aren’t asked to choose between genuinely different viewpoints and principles any more – at an election, you’re not making a philosophical statement, but choosing which person you believe will be a more competent administrator. Thatcher, with the aid of the massively Rightward-leaning UK press, managed to shut down this whole area of debate, leaving the British Left cowed and reluctant to declare itself as genuinely socialist: ‘socialist’ has become a word with overwhelmingly negative associations in British mainstream politics.

The Spirit of ’45 opts not to address this, in favour of recounting more concrete examples of the negative impact of Thatcher. But I think this is a mistake – if the film wants to be a wake-up call for young people today, a reminder of what their grandparents and great-grandparents achieved in the name of Socialism, then it has to acknowledge that this flavour of politics has a massive image problem at the moment. But it seems oblivious to this, just as it seems almost reluctant to engage with a wider audience beyond the Left-leaning faithful. As I say, I’m sympathetic to the film’s agenda, but even I found a lengthy disquisition on the benefits of regulating the labour market for dock workers rather dry and unnecessarily detailed.

And, as with all films like this, I think including a few contrary or neutral voices would have increased its effectiveness considerably. There are problems with the concept of the NHS, just as there are issues with the idea of a universal welfare state – but the film doesn’t even acknowledge these exist, let alone engage with them. It’s very easy to instinctively demonise the Right, much harder to critically examine the capitalist position and produce arguments to debunk it – and the film opts for the first course.

This is a film with its heart in the right place, that talks a lot of sense about many issues still relevant to our lives today. If the rebirth of socialist thinking which it seems to be fervently hoping for comes about, no one would be happier than me. But I don’t think The Spirit of ’45 is going to be the instrument of that change (I can’t imagine what could be, but that’s another set of problems), simply because it does not seem interested enough in reaching for an audience beyond those who already agree with it. Laudable, but very worthy: comfort viewing for old-school Lefties.

Read Full Post »

So, yeah, anyway, I came out of the Odeon in Oxford yesterday (not the coffee shop, the new one) when I noticed a man looking at the cinema with an expression I can only describe as baleful. Had this been the coffee shop it would be sort of understandable (I have been known to glower at the indignities inflicted on a formerly exemplary cinema myself), but no. And, what was more, I sort of recognised the man. It took me a while to figure out where from, because it does when you see somebody in the flesh who you’ve only previously seen on TV or in a photo. I eventually figured out who the guy was (or at least who he strongly resembled) – it was Peter Hitchens.

That at least explained the baleful stare, because baleful is really Peter Hitchens’ default mode. Peter Hitchens is – well, you know, when I was planning this thing out in my head on the bus home I was all set to go with ‘Peter Hitchens is one of the arch-dukes in the demonic hierarchy of that circle of Hell  managed by the Daily Mail’, but you know what, I’m not going to. I appreciate that by even letting you in on that I am rather ineptly trying to have my cake and eat it, but you know what, it’s a good line and I’d hate to lose it completely.

So I’m not going to stick the boot in on the guy but stick to facts he himself would agree with. Peter Hitchens is a journalist and commentator, appearing primarily in the right-wing UK press and as a purveyor of conservative viewpoints in the media. He is a conservative himself, but – if I read the situation correctly – would demur if described as a Conservative, quite simply because he considers the party to currently be utterly lacking in backbone and not nearly aggressive enough in pursuing a conservative agenda.

Some examples of Mr Hitchens’ personal opinions: he considers Labour’s abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords as ‘constitutional vandalism’. Based on recent pronouncements on TV, I suspect he would also have negative things to say were there to be any attempt to abolish the principle of primogeniture (basically, institutionalised sex discrimination) in the UK royal succession. The largely peaceful resolution of the Northern Irish conflict was a ‘collapse and a surrender to lawlessness’. Fighting against Nazism in the Second World War was a mistake: ‘Imagine: no European Union, probably no Nato, no United Nations, no courts of Human Rights, no Starbucks, no McDonald’s, no kilograms, no mass migration’ (disagreeable consequences of the conflict, in Mr Hitchens’ view). Some people deserve to live in poverty (and, furthermore, there are no ‘truly poor people’ in the UK). He is pro-death penalty and anti-abortion, but then you could probably have guessed that.

[Believe it or not, folks – and I’m not entirely sure I do myself – but someone claiming to be the one and only Mr H got in touch with me (see comments section below) and complained, with uncharacteristic mildness, that I had misrepresented his views on the Second World War. He didn’t go into details as to how, but in the interests of fairness, and to avoid accusations of quote-mining, here is Peter Hitchens’ original article so you can see for yourselves where he’s coming from.

PS. A bit later: or check out the comments section where Mr H recaps what he actually thinks on this topic. Nothing if not scrupulously fair, wot?- A]

My own views are, of course, considerably different, but then this is not really surprising given that even David Cameron, who emanates from roughly the same area of the political spectrum, has publicly described Peter Hitchens as a ‘maniac’.

I’m not sure I’d go that far. I vehemently disagree with virtually everything Hitchens comes out with – every time I take the plunge and glance through one of his Mail on Sunday columns a peculiar gloom and low-level fury grips me, possibly almost as a Pavlovian response – but he comes across as a sane, rational and intelligent man, the substance of his views excepted, of course (put it this way, he’s more cogent than Richard Littlejohn). I have known of him and followed his thinking for nearly 15 years, since a Mail piece frothing about the ‘evil knowledge’ released into the national bloodstream by people swearing on TV in good old This Life (‘These Nasty Lives Will Poison Real Life’ was, I believe, the subheader).

And so to the question I posed my (Mail reading) landlord and landlady some time later: what exactly is the appropriate response for a civilised socialist upon encountering Peter Hitchens in the street? Ray, my landlord, had an easy answer: ‘You go up to him and punch him on the nose.’ I have to say this never really occurred to me as an option. Satisfying though it might well have been, lamping Hitchens was never really on the cards, largely due to my own matchless lack of both physical courage and co-ordination, but also because, well, it’s not really my style.

Of course, there was also the issue of it perhaps not being Hitchens at all. Lamping some unfortunate stranger already saddled with the drawback of being a dead ringer for Peter Hitchens would, surely, just be adding insult to injury. But I did momentarily consider going up to him and saying ‘Peter Hitchens, I despise you, everything you write and say, and everything you stand for: you and people like you are a drag anchor on the culture of this country and a major cause of whatever misery and other problems are currently besetting it’.

But, as you’ve probably guessed, I didn’t. Hitchens went off to glower balefully at something else in Oxford city centre (God knows what; I shudder to think) and I buggered off to GBK for a cheeseburger. My spleen remained unvented; Hitchens remained oblivious.

And I think part of the reason why is due to Hitchens’ attitude towards people like me, not all of whom show such restraint. After all, there was for a while a Facebook group named ‘Peter Hitchens Must Die’. One importunate beggar who only received Hitchens’ views on charitable giving (‘few things are more wicked’ than modern begging and its practitioners) did indeed stick one on him, if Hitchens himself is to be believed.

Quite possibly amusing though all this is it does just provide ammunition for Hitchens and his acolytes to sneer at people holding differing views to them. Oh, those immature, hate-filled, intellectually-incontinent Lefties! They can’t win an argument so they just to try to win a fight! It just provides another opportunity for people on the Right to rehearse the arrogance and presumption of the right-to-rule that we see every day in the workings of the Tories in our current government.

So lamping Hitchens or giving him an earful would just be counter-productive. I think progressives are better, more intelligent, more decent people than the Right would have the world believe. I think liberal and socialist ideas are more coherent and humane than anything the other side can come up with, and I think this can be proven in any venue you care to mention.

But in order to do this I had to treat Hitchens with a courtesy I don’t think his ideas strictly deserve. You know the old saw: ‘one of the greatest victories you can gain over someone is to beat him at politeness’ – perhaps not completely applicable in this situation, but you know what I mean. I wandered off to GBK feeling I had probably retained the high moral ground.

Of course, there are a couple of downsides to all this. One is that, as a result of my civilised inertia, Hitchens remained completely oblivious to the soul-searching and victory of liberal thought to which he was a party. The other is that, as a result of all this, the last time I met someone I genuinely admire, we ended up having a mild row, while the last time I encountered someone I heartily dislike we went our separate ways without him being at all perturbed or rattled in his objectionable worldview. It isn’t easy being the good guy, I suppose.

P.S. A bit later: It occurs to me that even publishing this piece gives Peter Hitchens ample material for an item in his column along the lines of ‘Smug Lefty believes showing basic good manners are grounds for considering oneself superior’. You just can’t win with some people I suppose. Maybe I should have lamped him or just called him names after all.  


Read Full Post »

I have been following, with a mixture of interest and bemusement, the saga of the bit-part actors who are suing the venerable and generally trustworthy IMDB on the grounds that it has released their real ages into the public domain. This, say the thesps in question, is going to seriously impact upon their ability to get work, as Hollywood and the rest of the industry is only interested in people who are perceived as being young and fresh, and no-one is ever offered a job playing a character younger than they really are.

What causes a mildly raised eyebrow on my part is that the actors don’t seem to have a problem with the industry itself (casting directors, producers, and the like) having this attitude – or if they do, they seem to have accepted that it’s inevitable and beyond the power of anyone to change. But for the IMDB to facilitate it, even inadvertantly? It’s litigation time! I am reminded of the morally-minded group who, following a shooting spree which they believed was provoked by a violent movie, left the local gun store in perfect peace and proceeded to picket their video rental outlet.

Well, it’s not a fair nor especially logical world and this fact is the subject of Andrew Niccol’s new movie In Time, which has its own take on the intersection between youth and money and suchlike. This is a SF movie set in an indeterminate future in which human biology has been rewritten so everyone stops aging at the age of 25. To reiterate: everyone is physically 25 in perpetuity. The drawback is that society now uses lifespan as a currency – wages are paid in the form of hours, days and months, your current balance is recorded in a glowy green clock on your arm, and should your time tick down to zero you croak, usually dramatically.

Niccol’s movie does a good job of establishing this slightly demanding premise and introduces us to factory-working everyman Will (Justin Timberlake, actual age 30) and his mum (Olivia Wilde, actual age 27). Will’s general resentment of the system finds an outlet when he rescues a world-weary member of the super-rich (Matthew Bomer, 34) from a local gangster (Alex Pettyfer, 21 – eh?). Will finds himself with a lot of time on his hands as a result, but also – due to an unexpected tragedy – a desire to make the rich pay.

So off he trots to the preserves of the super-wealthy where he meets tycoon Weis (Vincent Kartheiser, 32) and his spoilt daughter Sylvia (Amanda Seyfried, 25 – fair enough in this case). However he is also being pursued by incorruptible lawman Leon (Cillian Murphy, 35), who believes Will’s stolen all the time he now has to play with. But Will’s exposure to both extremes of the system has opened his eyes to its injustice and he is now a man on a mission…

Slightly mind-bogglingly, a lot of commentators are describing In Time as cerebral, thought-provoking SF very much in the same vein as Inception. Come on… once you get your head around the basic premise, this movie isn’t much more cerebral than Logan’s Run, which it superficially resembles in many ways. It’s a very Seventies-style piece of SF: not an awful movie, but nothing very special either.

It looks fine – the film-makers have created an austere, abstract world of some style, but this seems to have been inspired by the characters, who are all pretty much ciphers, designed to facilitate the plot. Timbo does a workmanlike job as the lead but the romance between him and Seyfried fails to stir and as a result most of the movie feels like a rather mechanical succession of plot developments and set pieces instead of an engaging narrative. (The climax is very contrived, too.)

But the problems run deeper than this, to the very heart of the film’s premise. Normally I tend to be hard on movies where the future is utterly identical to the here and now barring the single innovation on which the plot is predicated, but in the case of In Time this would be missing the point, which is that the similarity between the movie’s world and the real world is intentional. (The movie doesn’t bother trying to explain the precise details of how its world came into being, for what I suspect is the same reason.)

Well, look. If my engagement with In Time as a film of ideas and with a statement to make had taken the form of a conversation, it would have gone something like this:

In Time: ‘So here is the world of the story. Multitudes carry on desperate existences of privation and hardship so that a few can live in luxury.’

Awix: ‘Gotcha.’

IT: ‘The majority are crushed by the poverty of the time they have, while a tiny minority are dehumanised by the excess which surrounds them.’

A: ‘Still with you.’

IT: ‘And it doesn’t have to be this way! The whole system is an artificial construct supported by the vested interests of the few and the power structures they manipulate!’

A: ‘Right…’

IT: ‘And… the real horror at the centre of this story is… (pauses for effect) That the world in which we live is exactly the same!’

IT sits back, beaming and nodding sagely.

A: ‘…sorry, is that all you’ve got?’

IT: ‘What?’

A: ‘Is that supposed to be profound, or a surprise, or something? I figured out this was a fairly unsubtle allegory for modern society in the first ten… well, actually the first time I saw the trailer for the movie. It’s not exactly deep.’

IT: ‘Umm… well… I bet a few people will look slightly differently at the world around them now. You never know, it may open a few eyes to the facts of existence.’

A: ‘Well, maybe, but what kind of person wanders around in the world and achieves an age where they can go to the cinema without realising the nature of our modern economic model?’

IT: ‘People who go to see a movie just because Justin Timberlake’s in it?’

A: ‘Hmm, shrewd casting.’

…but seriously, folks. I’m as contemptuous of western capitalism as anyone else with eyes and a brain and a soul, and if you’re pitching me the notion that it surely can’t be beyond the collective wit of humanity to come up with a fairer and more humane way of organising our lives, then I’m buying, but In Time has nothing to offer on this front beyond some very superficial observations and an overwhelming belief in its own profundity. The artificial nature of the allegory it presents also prevents it from having to come up with a coherent alternative system for Timbo and Seyfried to put in place come the end, but in the real world things are different.

All credit to Niccol for getting such a subversively-themed movie made at all, but the very inanity and shallowness of its ideas really mean that in the end it’s nothing but a bundle of good intentions with no real insight or anything meaningful to say. It’s a proficiently made movie, but nobody involved really gets the opportunity to shine. If you think that putting up a pup tent outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral is the key to bringing down the world system and bringing about a new utopia, then I expect you will think In Time is a classic of challenging and intelligent SF cinema. For the rest of us, it’s a passable piece of entertainment with distinct delusions of grandeur.

Read Full Post »

I had the interesting experience the other day of observing an argument between two people who both, it seemed to me, were in the right. The venue was Manchester (I was observing courtesy of BBC news) and the participants were a man and a woman.

‘If you treat someone like scum,’ said the woman, ‘then they’re going to behave like scum. Stands to reason dunnit?’

‘Yeah, but that doesn’t give them the right to come down here and loot all our shops,’ said the man.

The woman contemplated this point for a moment. ‘Jog on,’ she eventually advised.

Yes, I find myself moved to comment on the late unpleasantness in so many of our city centres, which luckily enough kicked off just after I vacated the nation’s capital (in case you were wondering). I don’t really have any great insights to offer, and indeed some of what I say may seem a little simplistic or actually naive.

Having said that, the general tone of the national debate so far has been slightly depressing (not to mention embarrassing) – ‘Flog [the rioters] in public,’ was one helpful suggestion. ‘It’s all down to New Labour/the human rights act/rap music/Poles,’ is the inside word from the various organs of the Far Right. ‘Have them all shipped to Afghanistan to be cannon fodder for our real heroes,’ piped up someone on Facebook – if you want to establish your credentials as a right-thinking and decent everyday person, reflexive adoration of the armed forces is pretty much de rigeur; coherent thought is strictly optional.

Nevertheless, the question has to be asked – why’s it happening? And why’s it happening now? The second question at least is easy to answer, although it’s fairly obvious that the vast majority of the participants didn’t give a damn about the death of Mark Duggan and probably didn’t even know who he was: the cause of this was not a single political issue. The size of the disturbances and the speed with which they spread makes it very clear that the conditions enabling something like this are widespread and have been in place for some time, and the Duggan incident was merely a convenient spark.

So, why were these people rioting? I suspect there isn’t a single easy cause, because, well, real life is complicated. But it seems to me that we take it for granted that it’s only in poorer areas and sink estates that this kind of thing happens, almost as if rioting is one of those things that poor people tend to do from time to time: another vulgar lower class pursuit.

I’m not defending violence or looting or property damage or any kind of antisocial behaviour, but then again I think it’s rather hopeful of the establishment to expect people living in poverty to just shut up and put up with it in perpetuity without any hope of an improvement to their lives.

I’ve felt for a while now that the story of society for nearly a century now has been one of the conflict between mechanisation and information: society has changed inasmuch as people are treated more like machines than ever before – or maybe not machines but beans to be counted, figures on a graph. Society has lost its human face. Contrasted with this is the massive improvement in information technology and systems – most people are more limited than ever before in terms of what they can make of their lives, while at the same time their access to information about the rest of the world has increased enormously.

And so now we’re at a point where the most deprived members of society are aware of exactly what they’re missing, moreso than ever before. Couple this to a culture which is largely impersonal and which at times seems to make a virtue out of cruelty and the basest kind of materialism and you have the recipe for what we’ve seen in British streets over the last week or so.

Everyone wants to feel their life has some significance – and I would suggest everyone has the right to feel as much. Yet so much of what we see around us is sending the message that the more material wealth you have, the more you matter as a person. Whether this is true or not, when it’s coupled to an economic system which by its very nature is inevitably going to generate haves and have nots, it’s a recipe for alienation and social unrest.

I fear that the current lot’s religious devotion to the primacy of the market-driven system means we are unlikely to see any real change. Poor people, I predict, will be told to shut up and accept that this is their lot in life, and to stop rioting as it upsets the Daily Mail. There will no doubt be talk of respect (which basically boils down to poor people showing respect for the better-off, rather than vice versa) and basic values of decency – the same old weary lexicon, trotted out again.

Everywhere in the media I hear of the angry muttering of middle-class people incensed that their taxes may be used to help the reconstruction or support some of those responsible. The cause of all this trouble, I honestly believe, is the economic inequality which is fundamental to our current way of life. As long as most people persist in their belief that the existence of people living in poverty is a necessary evil (with the addendum that it’s be really nice if the chavs buggered off into their warrens and stopped making the high streets look untidy) then events like the ones we have recently seen will happen again and again and again. The rioters, like the poor, will always be with us, mainly because they’re one and the same.

Read Full Post »

Given the general grim dismalness of our national and cultural life in the UK at present (although, glimmers of light occasionally occur: Don’t Scare The Hare is being shunted to a less embarrassing timeslot and So You Think You Can Dance has been axed), you have to find something to do in order to stay sane. One thing I do – I can’t say I actually enjoy it, but I think it’s useful and good for me in a self-mortificatory sort of way – is to read my landlady’s copy of the Daily Mail and try to figure out how they can possibly justify printing some of the headlines that they do.

I mean, it is just possible the whole newspaper is some sort of situationist prank (in rather poor taste, admittedly) and no-one involved seriously means a word they say. Or possibly it’s actually published in a parallel dimension where current affairs are very vaguely similar, and it ends up in our papershops as a result of some sort of distributory cock-up. But I’m going to take a leap of faith and stick with my initial suspicion that it really is meant to be a newspaper.

Anyway, let’s look at today’s headline: ‘The day the British people stood up for democracy’. For the benefit of foreign readers: this is a reference to the result of Thursday’s referendum on whether the UK should change its electoral system, replacing the current first-past-the-post system with one incorporating a transferrable vote system referred to as AV. For what it’s worth, the vote came down 2-to-1 in favour of keeping the existing system.

It’s a bit late to be discussing the merits of the different systems on offer, as this result effectively means that any chances of electoral reform are gone for at least a generation. Personally I was all for AV, for a number of reasons. It remedied the main problem with FPTP system, which – as I remember discussing with the political philosopher Dr Steve Champlin of Hull University, nearly 20 years ago – can return a victor who only receives a fraction of the vote. It also avoided the main objection I can see to full Proportional Representation, which is that it breaks the direct link between constituency and MP.

And, more importantly, AV promoted consensus politics in a number of ways – by encouraging candidates to appeal to broad base in order to attract preferential votes, and by increasing the possibility of future coalition governments, which by their very nature lead to all the nutters of the parties involved neutralising each other.

On Planet Mail, of course, this translates as ‘an attack on the politics of conviction’. ‘Conviction’ presumably being ‘the Right’. The current Tory meat shields coalition partners, the Lib Dems, took a tremendous pounding in the council elections that were also held on Thursday, which is widely being interpeted as a punishment delivered by an electorate which feels betrayed.

Why do they feel betrayed by a party and a leader which is actually in government for the first time in over half a century? Because to do it they got into bed with the Tories. ‘Last time I vote Lib Dem,’ was a sentiment I heard from more than one friend, when the news of the coalition negotiations broke following last year’s general election. Most people who take an interest in these things feel the Lib Dems and Labour have – or had – much more in common than either party has with the Tories. They’re both, broadly speaking, centre-left progressive parties. I recall, ten years ago, informal arrangements being made between Lib Dems in the north and Labour supporters in the south to trade votes in order to keep Tory MPs out.

This is the reason why the Mail and the rest of the chorus of Tory cheerleaders were so relentlessly and viciously hostile to the idea of AV: they were well aware the Tories would suffer more than either of the other parties if AV were introduced, with Labour preferences going to the Lib Dems and vice versa. The size of the combined centre-left block would be better reflected under AV.

According to the Mail, of course, this system would be undemocratic, which is why the British people stood up for democracy when they rejected it. It is always easiest to express yourself agreeably when you yourself define all the words you’re planning use, of course. Now all the dust has settled and the post-mortems are underway, it’s easy to talk about the half-truths and outright lies peddled by both sides, because it doesn’t really mean anything. However, I would beg your indulgence for a moment.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with opposing a change to the voting system simply on pragmatic grounds (because you’ll get fewer votes under it), as long as you’re honest about it. The No lobby produced a colossal quantity of – how can I put this delicately? – bollocks in an attempt to justify their opposition to AV. Apparently, it was unfair. It was overly complicated. It was un-British.

Jawdroppingly specious and mendacious bullshit in action.

Well, I went to a British university where a version of AV was used in student elections, and we all coped with it, and it didn’t strike us as being any more unfair than FPTP. Most tellingly of all, though, a version of AV – this unfair, overcomplex, unpatriotic system most Tories objected so vehemently to – is the system used by the Tories themselves to choose their own leader.

Let us pause and consider this for a moment.

And then a moment more.

Specious political bullshit and an insult to the intelligence and integrity of the British people, of course, and there’s no real point in complaining about it. Partly this is because of the enormous media bias in favour of the Right, which I’m certain remains the key impediment to any meaningful political change and social improvement in the UK.

But also – well, with the benefit of hindsight I think this could have been predicted, couldn’t it? Anyone involved in this government was going to be unpopular, particularly the Lib Dems, whose particular grail this was. With the Lib Dems cruising for a bruising and the big batteries of the Mail, the Express, and the Telegraph (amongst others) supporting the Tory cause the contest was never going to be a fair one.

Having said that, it’s difficult to conceive of a plausible chain of events that could ever lead to a win for the AV camp. The Tories would never put an AV referendum in their manifesto for all the reasons I’ve mentioned: it would be turkeys voting for Christmas. As the other major party, Labour is also generally suspicious of voting reform and would also be unlikely to make one an election pledge. Only the Lib Dems want a referendum, and this one only came about as a result of the hung parliament in last year’s general election. Hung parliaments are incredibly rare.

Even if, by some fluke, another one comes along at the next election, the Lib Dems will be stuck with the same problems as they had this time: the referendum inevitably being treated as a verdict on a party very likely suffering from the slump in popularity experienced by anyone in government, and the weight of the Tory press going all-out against them.

So, realistically, we are stuck with FPTP as our national electoral system, very likely in perpetuity. This isn’t really much of an insight, but even so – one has to feel somewhat sorry for the Lib Dems. For their naivety, mostly. One wonders how they will process the realisation that the only times they will be able to force a referendum will be the ones when they are least likely to win one. It sounds rather more like an ugly Catch-22 than democracy to me.

Read Full Post »

As a liberal-verging-on-the-out-and-out-socialist, it only makes sense that I should be drawn to things that chime with my own attitudes, and the more deeply-embedded the connection, the stronger my own affection. So it’s hardly a surprise that I can detect a rich vein of distinctly British, distinctly left-of-centre material running through my favourite TV series like lettering through a stick of rock. Doctor Who is obviously a TV show made by and for lefties.

Unfortunately, others disagree with this self-evident truth: the political activist and former parliamentary candidate Alex Wilcock has previously written about the series’ role in making him a member of the Liberal Democrats (or Satan’s Meat-shields as I believe the party is considering retitling itself), while ex-Tory MP Tim Collins once made a disconcerting habit of popping up on DVD extras extolling his love for the series.

So things are not as obviously clear-cut as they seem. What is one to do? What are the politics of Doctor Who? What are the Doctor’s own politics, come to that? I hope to shed some light on this topic, usually by coming at it from odd angles.

One such approach begins with a look at some of the criticism directed at the finale of David Tennant’s first season, Doomsday. I don’t like Doomsday a very great deal. I think it marks the first moment where Rusty Davies’ efforts to invest the series with an emotional resonance got out of control and the tail started wagging the dog. Other people have produced closely-argued critiques of the storytelling, and they seem to me to be accurate. However, one brand of Doomsday-criticism never fails to make me laugh in its sheer missing-the-pointness and that’s the line going something like this:

The Cybermen get done over by the Daleks much too easily in Doomsday.

More precisely: throughout this episode, ever-increasing numbers of Cybermen hurl themselves against four (that’s four) Daleks in mortal combat, and are effortlessly slaughtered, while the Daleks suffer no real casualties whatsoever. The Cybermen, runs the argument, are the Numero Dos Doctor Who monster and should put up a better showing than this, right?

Well, hoo hoo, ha ha, which series have you been watching? Doomsday manages to get this much right at least: the Cybermen have always been presented as a bit rubbish throughout their time on the show.

I am breaking no new ground when I suggest that if ever a Doctor Who monster needed to be wrapped in a scarf by its mum and careful where it went upon leaving the house, it is a Cyberman, as their list of allergies and impediments is remarkable. Dauntless cyborg warriors they may be, but they are variously (and extremely) vulnerable to radiation, gravity, induced emotional states, and (most famously) gold. There’s a bit in Attack of the Cybermen (another lousy story, of course) where the Doctor declares ‘The Cybermen have only one weakness…!’ which would have been funny enough even had he not gone on to describe a brand new one – emotionless they may be, but apparently they can’t resist going to help each other out whenever they get into trouble.

And, prior to their encounter with the Daleks at Canary Wharf, the Cybermen are on the receiving end of an astounding number of beatings. Their basic tactic upon coming under fire seems to be to march forward into it regardless. This one-in, all-in approach shows admirable solidarity and esprit d’corps, and is not out of character as we shall see, but it does result in a number of spectacular Cyber-massacres. They even get handed a bloody good hiding by the old ‘ooh sarge bullets don’t stop them aaargh’-style cuddly UNIT, the only really big-name monster to do so.

When they're not being massacred the Cybermen enjoy clubbing as much as anyone else.

As time goes by, the Cybermen do appear to make some tactical progress, in The Five Doctors abandoning their ‘let’s all keep walking anyway and see how it turns out’ approach in favour of ‘let’s all stand around looking at each other in bemusement’ upon encountering the Raston Robot. The result of this is, unfortunately, yet another massacre. Cheeringly, by the time of Silver Nemesis the Cybermen seem to have learned their lesson and actually choose to run away when confronted by a seemingly-invincible force. We should not let our view of the boys from Telos be coloured too much by the fact that the seemingly-invincible force in question is one man with a bow and arrow.

In the wider universe, the Cybermen are also presented as very much the poorer relations of the monster set. The Daleks forge galactic alliances, master time-travel and destroy the oldest and most powerful civilisation in the universe! The Sontarans engage in an epic war lasting for millennia, and, while they don’t actually conquer the oldest and most powerful civilisation in the universe, they give it a damn good try and leave the Time Lords with a big cleaning bill when they fail. Meanwhile, the Cybermen are hanging around space stations and moonbases trying to sneak in, and when that fails they all go and hide in a big fridge. And when the monster alliance builds the Pandorica prior to The Pandorica Opens, guess who gets stiffed with hanging around on guard duty? Even then the Cyberman in question manages to get himself mugged by Bronze Age tribesmen. Nice work, trooper!

We hear a lot about Galactic Cyberwars and the Cybermen being barred from the Death Zone, but I just suspect the former is the result of the Cybermen employing a good PR consultant, while the latter – well, you can’t blame the Time Lords for wanting to keep things credible – it’s called the Game of Rassilon, not Really Easy Target Practice for Everyone Else.

What, you may be asking, has any of this to do with the politics of Doctor Who? A fair question, and to answer it let us consider the political ideology of the Cybermen. What clues can we derive from their behaviour? They famously don’t seem to get on with those notoriously right-wing Daleks – who rightly suss the Cybermen out to be lightweights – and are famously egalitarian. Beyond occasional declarations of ‘You belong to us’, made to lesser races, they don’t seem to go a bundle on personal property, either (excepting black paint, which is the exclusive preserve of Cyberleaders). We have already discussed their touching solidarity and unwillingness to let each other suffer alone. It’s obvious, really: the Cybermen are socialists.

Not in your monolithic, Stalinist way, of course (this is the preserve of those Cybermen knock-offs spiritual cousins of the Cybermen, the Borg), but in the vaguely-embarrassing, hanging-around-on-street-corners style of Socialist Worker activists. They have a strong set of core beliefs but no clue whatsoever about how to put them into practice. It’s touchingly pathetic, really – no wonder they have those little tear-drop things drilled into their eye sockets.

So there we have it: our first clue that the politics of Doctor Who are not as clear-cut as one might think. The series is not as wholly uncritical of left-of-centre ideologies as one might have expected – even if, through the very ineptness of the Cybermen, it seems to be suggesting that the true dangers lie elsewhere. The Cybermen are there not really to be hated but pitied. And then blown up.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »