Thursday, 14 July 2016

Dear Mrs May, While You Were Away, The World Died

Britain has existed for most of the last two months in a state between the abstract and surreal as our political class - Remainers and Brexiteers alike - have suffered a collective loss of nerve. For three weeks, or maybe three months, we have drifted, rudderless while the would-be crews of our battered ship of state smashed up every compass they could find and then blamed each other for breaking them.

You might be forgiven for thinking that the acclamation of Theresa May as the new Prime Minister and the appointment of her Cabinet might start to signal a recovery, but far from it, especially on the one overriding issue of our time. For while our Remainers and Brexiteers were battling like they were still at the Oxford Union, a critical news report was issued which should have humanity in full-on crisis mode. But instead, it passed virtually without comment.

That is that we face a third record-breaking warm year in a row after both 2014 and 2105 smashed previous records. And in terms of 12 monthly cycles, the once record breaking October 1997 to September 1998 period has fallen from top to 60th place. While the current temperatures have been boosted to an extent by a strong El Nino, that natural phenomenon is only breaking records because of human-driven global warming underlying it.

Our world is heating up at a rate of between 20 and 50 times that of any natural warming.

This is so fast, so ahead of even many of the more pessimistic science models and so exponentially outclassing any political decisions or practical action, that there is a growing view that we are fooling ourselves if we think for a moment that we can hold global warming to 2 degrees centigrade. 

And next came this: in such a scenario, now seemingly inevitable, the impact on the world's biosystems and, crucially, on the photoplankton in our carbon-saturated seas will be such that before the end of the century, the Earth will begin to run low on breathable air. 

So what is Theresa May's response to this?

One of her first acts as Prime Minister has been to abolish the Department of Energy and Climate Change. 

Energy, with some aspects of climate change, has been ominously merged with trade and idustrial strategy, while Andrea Leadsom has been appointed Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Leadsom does say she was persuaded climate change is real after asking about it, but she has been particularly critical of the UK's obligations under European regulations to develop clean energy and reduce carbon emissions and she is as keen to dismantle them as any other aspect of the EU. Like some latter-day Bourbon, her main concerns are to talk about lowland farmers breeding sheep and uplanders fostering butterfly meadows. Yet just a few days ago, a 2,000 page report from the Committee on Climate Change advised that Britain is woefully poorly prepared for the impact of global warming and forsees summers of heat stress deaths and regular temperatures of 48C in London.

While Brexit gains its own Secretary of State and fully staffed Department, the biggest threat in history is downgraded, scattered between departments and disappears from view. Tories may try to sound reassuring - but as Labour's Ed Miliband, himself a former Environment Secretary tweeted, "departments shape priorities, shape outcomes." With a full pair of Tory eyes on industry, what chance for real action on climate change? After all, as Green Party Energy Speaker Cllr Andrew Cooper has pointed out, their track record on climate change since 2010 has been literally a lot of hot air.

With neoliberalism and its inexorable drive to commodify and profit ceaselessly continuing to hold sway on economic orthodoxy, like a crushing girdle round our world, few of the deep changes needed to stop the existential threat of global warming have been taken - only economic recession offers any brief respite in the inexorable growth of carbon emissions. And our time to act is nearly over. Climate change is fast, but its remedies can't be implemented when it has taken full hold, or even near that. By then, so many barriers will have been broken, so many thresholds crossed and aeons of carbon and methane unlocked into our atmosphere, that no amount of emergency action will be enough to save our species.

Leadsom infamously made much of her investment in her children and grand-children's futures during her brief foray into the Tory leadership election. Tories gasped and complained that this was loathsome - Theresa May, who has no children, was as focussed on the future as she was, they insisted.

Yet, as they gassed away, neither of them seem to have grasped that the key to any human future is a liveable habitat and that this is now in deeply serious, imminent jeopardy. Whether sons or daughters, nephews or nieces, neighbours kids, friends' offspring or maybe even someone down the street or on the other side of the world, any failure to act decisively now on climate change is putting these already-born children's futures seriously in doubt.

Below: Australian family trapped by wildfires in 2013, when record temperatures up to 54C required an entirely new heat band to be created by the weather sevice. (from Shades of Purple: Australia is Burning)

Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Tony Blair Gang

The Chilcot Report yesterday has provoked a storm of retrospective debate about the UK's involvement in the Iraq war in 2003. Among the melee has been the assertion that Parliament overwhelmingly backed Tony Blair's call to arms - a pundit on Sky News suggested just "a handful" of MPs had voted against conflict, implying a contemporary near-unanimity for Mr Murdoch's mate's thirst for action (albeit carried out on his instructions by other people.) 
However, this was not the case at all. Many, many MPs and millions of others argued tooth and nail against the planned attack. Blair's increasingly fanciful claims about a clear and present danger from a sanctioned, defeated country which the UK and US had been quietly bombing ceaselessly for the previous four years, were not believed by many at the time - leading to his desperate need to "sex up" the intelligence reports which Chilcot has so devastatingly demolished. One was even lifted from a Hollywood movie rather than the backstreets of Baghdad, a shocking piece of criminal deception.

And so, while in Parliament Blair enjoyed majority support, there was more than just token opposition. As well as Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy's spirited opposition and resistance from Labour backbenchers like Corbyn, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, resigned and warned of all the now realised dangers of the proposed military adventure.

When it came to the vote, on the substantive motion to go to war immediately, 149 MPs, including all 52 present Lib Dems, the 9 SNP,/Plaid, 2 Tories and 84 Labour MPs voted against. 
And on a proposed amendment, which stated the case for war had not yet been made, there were 217 votes in favour of delaying pending a UN resolution (which was unlikely to ever be forthcoming) - 145 from the Labour benches, all the Lib Dems and Nationalists, and 16 as well from among the Tory ranks.

Labour of course at that time enjoyed an overwhelming majority with 393 seats in the 650 seat House of Commons, but with only 245 Labour members voting with Blair, the Tories could have blocked the war. Instead, 139 of them, including David Cameron, voted against any further delay and so the amendment fell. The House then voted 412 to 149 for immediate war.

Thus, when Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, called on David Cameron to apologise for his and his party's role in the conflict, it was more than a political point - it was in fact stabbing home at a key issue that Chilcot, with its understandable focus on Blair, overlooked. And that is that, no matter how chillingly "charismatic" our glorious leader Blair was, and no matter how much he longed to be a President, or maybe even a Caesar, our nominal parliamentary system meant that he did not take us to war all on his own.

And in the same vein, it is not he alone who should take the guilt of this most heinous and counter-productive of military adventures.

David Cameron skated over both Lucas' question and the challenge from Angus Robertson, SNP Leader in the Commons, on failure to learn to plan - the same mistakes, Robertson charged, had informed (or perhaps failed to inform) the 2011 air war on Libya which has led to the ruin and anarchy there and to a tide of refugees northwards. While Jeremy Corbyn, who voted against the war, apologised for his party, Cameron disdainfully washed his hands of it all, as if he was never there.
Yet if justice was served, the focus would be on more than one bad man alone.

Tony Blair should be held to account. He should answer charges. But he should not be in the dock on his own. 

Saturday, 2 July 2016

We're Leaving Europe : Now The Struggle Has Come Home

I campaigned and voted Remain. Most of my political comrades and colleagues did so too.

But the UK did not. By over 1.2 million votes, the decision is to leave.

Among my cohort, to varying degrees, people are disappointed and, in a number of cases though not all, surprised. What will it mean? After all, some of the predictions, on both sides, about the consequences of the outcome were so apocalyptic - if we are leaving Europe, where are we going? America? China? It is after all just a month ago that David Cameron said Brexit would be celebrated by Daesh/ISIS  - what now if that really was the case?

The shamelessly hyperbolic nature of the Tory-led campaigns by both the official camps have predictably provoked extreme reactions, at least in emotional terms. While a small minority of pro-Brexit racists have used the result to validate an appalling surge in hate crimes from verbal abuse through to firebombing a halal butcher's shop, somewhat more peacefully the Remain side has seen an outpouring of grief and angry disbelief - clearly, the people who voted for Brexit were misguided, confused, lied to, racists or, even, OLD!

Genuinely distraught young people interviewed in the street declared their future stolen by people who, by their chronological reckoning, will be dead soon. One viral video showed a woman burst into tears under the misapprehension that she would no longer have a Nandos restaurant nearby, while another was recorded complaining she will now need to pay to travel to France (?). Ignorance aplenty there has been - but far from exclusive to one side.

And ignorance of a dangerous type has crept into the Remain narrative in the last few days: that if enough sign online petitions for retrospective legislation and complain in the street that the result is wrong, well, we can rerun the referendum until people get it right and vote to stay. Or maybe, as it was just an advisory referendum, the House of Commons can vote to throw the result out. One constitutional expert has declared, in tortuous language, that 52-48 is somehow a draw, while others claim that it may not be legal to leave because of provisions in the European Communities Act from 1972 that bar the Prime Minister from activating the Article 50 notice clause.

Yet these all miss the point and the real challenge confronting us now : the majority voted to Leave. However unpalatable, however difficult, risky and even dangerous, in a democracy, we need to honour that.  Obscure legalism in frustration of the popular will has been and will again be the death-knell of a constitutional liberalism that sees voting as nothing more than the masses' periodic and humble ratification of the elite's right to rule. Overturn this referendum and first and foremost you will simply imperil even further what little social peace remains.

Rather than try to quash the vote, the task now is to look at why people choose to vote the way they did. Survey after survey confirms why, and confirms what anyone involved at any level of political activity over the last decade can tell you - immigration was and is the number one issue. It drove millions to the polls to vote Leave and the Left and others who voted Remain ignore this at great cost.

While probably every racist in the country voted to Leave, they were a small minority among those who crossed that box on the ballot paper. Most Leavers are not racist - but they are disaffected, disempowered and normally disenfranchised. That they felt the EU was responsible for a lot of how they feel is unsurprising given the years of relentless propaganda by the mass media that it is responsible for just about every ill imaginable - validated in full by political leaders including David Cameron casting the EU as the villain in every domestic political game they played.

 We can and must remove the perception that immigration and minority communities are the cause of distress among the poorer sections of society and instead point the finger firmly where the true reason sits - with the rich and powerful who have made this, the sixth richest country in the world, the second most unequal on the planet, behind only the USA. We need to show how it is the impact of unregulated globalism, the impact of worldwide capitalist forces, that have damaged communities and marginalised so many people in our own towns and cities. These are forces that exist in or out of the EU and are fostered by the likes of the Tories and their funders as well as being at the heart of UKIP's worldview.

So now, rather than yet again work for the political system to turn its back on the roar of the disenfranchised and isolated, we need to do two things:

1. Work for the best post-Brexit arrangements possible so that we retain the social and employment protections conferred by the EU; and so that we continue the irreplaceable international environmental work done by the EU with Britain as part of it. There may conceivably at one stage be a case for a referendum on the final settlement, but the practicalities make this less rather than more likely. The EU itself has signalled that the Brexit negotiations will be about just that - exit - rather than what comes after. It seems we will be gone before we know what will come after.

So, rather than imagine there will be either another referendum or a snap General Election - there almost certainly will be neither - we need now to campaign for a withdrawal settlement that keeps these protections and avoids what is already happening in the business press, where influential people are fullsomely calling for the ending of the working time regulations, parental leave and anti-discrimination regulations.

2. Ensure disempowered communities and groups are brought fully into the political struggle and debate. The most effective way this has started to happen has been through the Corbyn leadership of Labour, and it is a major factor in the plotters of the coup against him acting now.

And to do this, we must speak again the language of socialism, not liberalism; of equality and internationalism, not the lies of Blair-lite. It is the poorest and most vulnerable who showed their anger and disaffection most in this vote. It is also they who will likely suffer first and most from Brexit. The Left needs to develop real, positive answers with not for them and ensure their voices are heard, or there will only be ever more scapegoating of minorities and a spiral downwards towards really dark times. A priority must be to bring together those in migrant communities now in many cases deeply scared for their post-Brexit future with those who voted for Brexit, to foster a common agenda for a fairer, inclusive and more equal society - the opposite of what the Tory Brexiteers have in their sights for us.

Scotland will almost certainly leave the UK in the next few years, making the electoral mathematics for progressives in England and Wales that bit harder, but not impossible. Greens have called in the last week for a progressive alliance to take on the Tories at the 2020 election. There are many pitfalls and uncertainties to whether and how this could work, but this should now become the priority for all Remainers of a left of centre and leftwing political viewpoint:  however difficult or even sad, we are leaving Europe; now the struggle has come home.