19 november 2016, what not to do when you’re not the party

Trump. Moving swiftly on, or back, to brexit. The phoney war continues. In the background, the parties as ever, keenly assessing how their stance is going to play out. Labour, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, seems incapable of firming up its stance, in the hope that by neither being seen to challenge the referendum's "democratic decision" nor too much alienating "the 48%", it has a way through to bernie sanders-like (non) victory. It does not. The reason the scottish nationalist party did and do so very well (see 9 may 2015, 331 not out) is that over the last years, scottish politics has reorientated itself most strongly around a single fulcrum issue: independence. On one side, splendidly alone, sits the snp, so mopping up the almost-half of the electorate that sympathises. The other half are hopelessly split between all the other parties. The reason the conservatives astoundingly came second in the last elections is because those that are anti aren't looking for a cover their bases with some nationalist type argumentation halfway house, but are attracted more strongly to the real deal. There lies the peril for labour in england. In the period to come, brexit looks strongly like being such a fulcrum-issue, so replicating the scenario south of the border where if you want to vote for that, you know who to go to - and it won't be labour. The conservatives are ever more the brexit means brexit means brexit party. That is now their platform. Meanwhile, the libdems have got the memo and are seeking to monopolise the other side of the divide by being unambiguously of "the 48" - so if you do want to stay in the eu, you know who to vote for too. They look to have a very good chance on that basis in the forthcoming richmond by-election. As for labour, stuck in the no-man's land of the brexit middle can only come off if it ceases to be the issue, which looks highly unlikely in the run-up to the next general election, whenever that ends up being.

5 november 2016, brexit begins to bite, a bit

The furore around the british high court deciding parliament must vote on article 50, the trigger that starts the process of leaving the eu (see 3 july 2017, article 50 ways to leave your lover) misses the point. It's relatively straightforward that as when the uk joined, parliament passed the 1972 european communities act, so before a decision that sets in train a process that may lead remorselessly to its repeal, it is logical, even obvious, that parliament must similarly vote. It is worth noting in passing that the torrid, even trumpian, abuse the judges received for simply doing their job, rings of the nasty and vituperative air that led to an mp being murdered during the campaign. Brexit will not though be thwarted by this parliamentary vote. Whilst the snp and the odd ken clarke may well vote against, the great majority of house of commons remainers feel bound by the "I must follow my electorate" doctrine and will vote it through. The labour party is in no shape, and has no inclination, to take a doctrinaire stand they fear would unleash the worst elements of betrayal and disintegration on it. And yet. Like a drop of water on a rock, little by little the hard work, not yet done, of actually working out what leaving the eu means is beginning. While stopping short of blocking it at this point, mps will certainly take the opportunity to prod it and try to cast the government's as yet unformed plans in the worst possible light. The lords, if they get a say, may be even more bold. Scottish politics has become entirely overrun by the question of being for or against independence. As the only party for, the snp has a plurality across the country, meaning it holds 51 of the country's 53 seats, as the against vote is fragmented across the other parties. Whatever theresa may really think, she and her party have no other choice but to seek to become the party of brexit and gain a similar plurality across england, given that around 420 of its (with wales) 574 constituencies voted leave. They are doing a good job of it, and would reap the benefits in a general election that will surely come much sooner than 2020.

27 october 2016, what is a leppo ?

So said an american president candidate, though for once not the one you would imagine. Still, a greater indictment of the pitifully low priority the west gives to the slaughter in syria is harder to imagine. Aleppo in particular is a lightning rod for us on our comfy sofas, with maybe a quarter of its more than a million population under endless syrian and russian bombs, alongside street-by-street terror, starvation and medical deprivation. It would be the srebrenica of our time, except the death toll there was some 7000, whereas aleppo's is many times that and counting; srebrenica lasted days, aleppo years. And in srebrenica, at least there was an international force trying (albeit failing dismally) to protect those european civilians. Their arab counterparts have been totally abandoned. For the perpetrators of srebrenica, at least, at last, came some justice, through the ictfy in the hague. Its standing successor, the international criminal court, is now on the brink of collapse, as led by a rotten pretoria, one african country another looks to pull out. So even after the fact, the victims of aleppo may not even have the prospect of redress. Aleppo is a big, bloody stain on us all, fiddling around brexit as syria burns. Big power politics is back, with conflict subsumed in the realpolitik of one of its main providers offered safe harbour on its way to add more oxygen to the flames. It's no wonder syrians are fleeing anywhere they can, but quite a wonder we have the global wherewithal to do so little about it; criminal negligence surely. That's what aleppo is.

29 september 2016, shimon

Netanyahu (see 18 april 2015, bibin there, done that) was the arch rival of peres, but for once had an appropriate remark, that yesterday was the first in the history of the state of israel without shimon. Would that he had been so eloquent in the vicious and virulent remarks he made and tolerated in the days that led, directly, to the assassination of rabin, peres's other long-time rival but by then, finally, friend, lauded as a brother-in-arms in the very last speech he ever made, the night he was shot. I was in the square that night, weeping with the rest, understanding that israel has somehow changed. As he was at almost every junction in israel's history, peres was instrumental both before and after that night, in the signing of the state's best chance at peace, oslo, and in its implementation in the face of horrendous resistance, right through until he lost the election to netanyahu, under whom peace is, and seemingly always will be, a lost aspiration - read and that's how it ended. Our eldest's middle name is shimon, after peres of course, such was his presence in earlier life, as a paradigm of pragmatic peacemaking; I saw him up close many times. When I listened to him in london, just as the second intifada broke out, his bewailing and blame for arafat, whose hand he once so famously held, was jarring, so much more as he followed through to become aid and fig leaf to sharon, once the antithesis of all peres seemed to stand for, at least from afar. And yet, between these giants of a bygone age was certainly more in common that divided them. Theirs were dreams of a new and sustainable jewish state, even if they had different visions of what that might look like. None of their visions are the israel of tomorrow - those, if they exist, are ours.

12 september 2016, of copenhagen, calais and canterbury

Saw the wonderful performance of the pianist of willesden lane at the weekend; well worth the watch. It resonated both as we lived just the other end of the very same lane, but also, for everyone, because of its relevance to so many themes of the day. Lucky enough to speak to the author and star afterwards, daughter of the kindertransport refugee the play was about, hers was a paean to the generosity of the british people that took in 10, 000 children. Whither that generosity now was the question no-one asked. It would though have been a little harsh. Not only because it wasn't a question for mona, but also because a legitimate view is that britain has still been exceptionally generous these last years, even in the very different world, of rather selfish and indulgent individualism as opposed to wartime collectivism when so much was so transient anyway. For all that though, britain has taken in over 7 million migrants and refugees over the last 15 years, more than 300, 000 every single year since 1994 (though before getting too caught up in numbers, not all stayed). In 2015 it was over 600, 000 (of which the vast majority were migrants and some 39, 000 refugees). Granted, this is well down the scale from the kindness of strangers welcoming children into their homes and families and caring for them for life, but it is nonetheless an astounding mass of generosity somehow, and sadly one more in keeping with a modern society of each to their own, paying their taxes, minding their own business. We also live today with the brutal transparency of relentless modern-day media that give such succour and platforms to grumbles, hate and sensation. Borgen chronicles the descent of denmark from the international paragon of virtue that, fairytale-like, resolutely protected and saved its jewish community from nazi extermination to mean-spirited refugee-basher of the age that confiscates personal valuables from those fleeing war and destitution if they dare to find their way to the danish border. Britain is not yet far down that road. Yet, it is a moot point then whether its generous absorption capacity that the lonely then loved willesden pianist experienced has been diminished or has just reached its limits.

27 august 2016, we will fight them on the beaches...

Whilst you would think the french would be the first aux armes to defend a woman's right to wear whatever clothes she wants, fear and symbolism seem to have somehow crashed through common sense to create the "burkini" bans sweeping its beaches, though mercifully now hopefully stopped in its tracks. At root is a deep french faith in secularism, despite its catholic mores, which led in 2004 to an outrageous ban in schools on ostentatious symbols of faith, like the muslim headscarf, jewish kippah and large christian crosses. The same logic led to the burkini ban, but this was openly fanned by a wave of rampant islamophobia in certain quarters. In nice it might officially be to secure public order, but the region's mayor was clear about its real rationale: "rampant islamisation is progressing in our country". You know where this is going - just read houellebecq's (excellent) submission (and you really should). There is a case to say that whilst nigella lawson wearing a burkini on bondi beach is one thing, a french lady wearing one in these heightened times on the plaige is another, but it's not a very strong one. There is also a case that sometimes women are forced to do what they don't want: where a saudi couple are sat on the beach, he naked but for short shorts, she in thick, black garb top-to-toe, you may wonder. Yet, the burkini ban does exactly that and worse. It's not the family or religious community forcing women to dress against their will, it's the secular state. It seems openly racist discrimination: have any nuns in their habits been banned yet ? The deep stain on secularism is not the burkini but the indefensible image of 4 armed french police harassing a woman on a beach for wearing the wrong clothes. Understandable perhaps given its recent traumas, but french morals are in a terrible place, and shame on populists like sarkozy (whom I have sometimes supported and would again if he's head to head with le pen) for jumping on the bandwagon. We can only hope the wonderful republic gets through this difficult bout of western civilisational progress with liberty, egality, fraternity and burkini intact.

14 august 2016, hyper-connected

My efforts to stay unconnected during our hungarian holiday were not shared by the millennial behaviour of my two sons, now 12 and about-to-turn 15. The delights of the hundertwasser museum in vienna are many (not least an oddly-juxtaposed martin parr exhibition), but when later asked what the best thing was, the younger said "great wi-fi". Indeed apart from a cursory 5-minute walkthrough, that was where he spent most of his time; which could be largely said of the holiday. Whilst a combination of wonky wi-fi at the campsite and a luscious lake (balaton of course) kept them off-screen some of the time, once we headed to sopron, gyor (a quixotic return to childhood) and the viennese and hungarian capitals, they were largely lost to us. The bigger one is more sophisticated and open to real-world cultural experiences, but they are both lost to you tube channels, their instagram stories, twitter, constant what's apping and the rest of it (he says a tad ironically in his blog). Not that it's all bad. For the big one at least the virtual world is a way to broadcast his life experience, which he savours as much as anyone, and they both interact constantly (if inexplicably) with good friends not random strangers, so there are relationships and social capital being built. Their virtual worlds are not static or passive, they are multi-layered and creative. Their minecraft worlds are art hundertwasser would recognise and a labour the size of building st. petersburg. A film they made is exceptional. They are incredibly adept at finding information and solving computer problems; they see easily through brands and prices, checking everything online. Our virtual worlds though are totally separate. We don't even use the same platforms: tv, email and blogs, even websites sitting at a computer, are rare for them. I am learning; yet even on twitter we have utterly different experiences and inputs, a small version of the bigger "echo-chamber" problem of social media, as people wrap around them the familiar and agreeable and are ever-less exposed to challenge or other views and news. This all isn't to say we didn't have a wonderful, relaxing and interesting fortnight, which we did, but there were perhaps two experiences going on at the same time. Something you can't now get away from even on holiday.

28 july 2016, getting away from it all

I'm news'd out. In our terribly suburbanite life-trajectory, summer holidays are school-constrained to the august hot-and-expensive slot. Still, away we go. Holidays always have a pull, to somewhere and something exciting and relaxing, but they also have a push: away from work, everyday drudgery, stresses and household chores. Once upon a time I really missed news when abroad, buying a day-old english newspaper whenever I had the chance and reading it cover-to-cover on the beach, packing my shortwave radio to get yesterday's football results. No more: now even on holiday news surrounds us. And the news has been getting ever more pervasive, ever more 24/7, ever more breathless, driven by instantaneous reaction becoming the next event. And even though I am a newsaholic, this relentless month has left me exhausted. It started with the up-all-night compulsive viewing of the referendum, and then daily, hourly, sometimes minute-by-minute, events dear boy have raced along at such a frenetic pace, not least as I'm now keeping up on twitter too (jury's out). This holiday then, though I fear there will be a massive gap when I return, I'm also planning to get away from news as well as I hide from the sun and take a gentle dip in the water. Can't wait.

15 july 2015, there but for the grace of god go I

Pour tous nos amis français. La promenade des anglais à nice fait une apparition régulière dans notre vie, comme presque exactement un an avant que moi et ma moitié nous nous soient rencontrés, alors qu'elle était sur la plage de cannes à regarder les feux d'artifice du 14 juillet, et que j'étais sur la plage à nice en regardant les mêmes feux d'artifice sur les méditerranées. C'est peut-être pour cela que les terribles feux d'hier nous ont touchés un peu plus proche, la tragédie de la france est un peu plus la nôtre. En effet, comme tout le monde en europe pense, "mon dieu, ça aurait pu être moi". Dans une période antérieure de ma vie, vivant près d'une plage différente, à tel aviv, j'étais habitué à des bombes qui explosaient partout, à tout moment; à des amis qui disparaissaient pendant des heures, aux réseaux téléphoniques devenant muets par la surcharge. Un jour un ami a raté son bus habituel, qui a explosé plus tard. Le petit ami d'une autre amie est reparti avec seulement des coupures et des ecchymoses après avoir été assis à l'arrière d'un bus qui a tué 32 personnes quand il a explosé. Telle était la vie là-bas, à cette époque-là. Une telle vie semble devenir plus familière ici, maintenant. Comme elle semble grande, simple et sûre, la première moitié de la vie de notre génération x. Nos pensées sont avec vous.

3 july 2016, article 50 ways to leave your lover...

I must credit the economist for the title, but will quote a more eminent source for what this exit clause actually means. As it says in the book (p131), "Lisbon includes a specific provision (Article 50) on voluntary withdrawal to help ensure that any such unlikely happening would take place in an orderly fashion. First, the Member State wishing to withdraw notifies the European Council of its intention. It and the Union then negotiate a withdrawal agreement, setting out withdrawal arrangements and regulating the future bilateral relationship. The Council concludes this agreement, by QMV (without the representative of the withdrawing Member State), after obtaining the European Parliament's consent... The Treaties cease to apply to the departing country, either as per the withdrawal agreement, or two years after the initial notification, implying a withdrawal may occur even if no agreement is reached." What do we learn from this ? Firstly, only the uk can trigger the process; good for the uk. However, once its triggered, the axe comes down automatically after two years, so bad. If things get timed out, the eu's arrangements are intact, but the uk's potentially a blank sheet. As to the agreement, only a (qualified, adjusted to exclude the uk) majority is needed, good-ish for the uk. However to extend the two years it's unanimity; very bad. The european parliament needs to agree the agreement before the council; hard to say, but probably bad. Finally, this can all just be about a withdrawal agreement and not the negotiation of a new trading relationship or anything like that. Though the treaty allows for something broader (the negotiations are for an agreement "taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union"), my strong suspicion is it allows the eu to present a hardball ultimatum if it wants, i.e. a take the lock, stock and barrel of eu law norway-style or leave-and-negotiate-more-later approach. This would mean no trade talks not only until after article 50 is triggered but until the rather narrower withdrawal agreement is negotiated, signed & ratified, for which a two-year period looks highly optimistic; very bad indeed. No wonder the timeframe for pulling that trigger is gently receding by a few weeks every time a prime-ministerial candidate makes a speech. Three years, with a uk general election looming if it is hasn't already taken place, is probably more than enough time for the wheel to turn again before the uk population next flexes its democratic legitimacy, this time on the actual terms of what leave means. What a shame about the years of conflict, confusion and contraction we're going to see between now and then. The economist got it right, quoting abba eban, "nations always do the right thing - once they exhaust all the alternatives".

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