Further poorly argued thoughts on the EU

I don’t think I’ve got the hang of this clickbait headline thing.

This is another stream-of-consciousness political blog. I’ll post about science fiction next time and we can all relax.

Previously on LiveJournal. NOW READ ON.

I vacillate between a resigned belief that even if we vote to leave Europe it won’t be that bad, and a nagging fear that it’ll be bad enough. Things do tend to settle down, and the new status quo is almost certainly probably highly unlikely to cripple the UK in the long run. We have no Control for this experiment, and we’ll never know what the untaken path may have looked like.

I do worry about the short term impacts – the potential increase in the already punitive levels of austerity if the economy suffers a bit from a vote to leave. And yes, the impact on the Higher Education sector where I work1 – where millions of EU students are at risk at a time many institutions can ill afford it. Government changes to international immigration have already made the UK an unwelcoming and risky destination where students from beyond the EU can be turned away at the drop of a hat, or made to leave and return at their own expense, or suffer humiliating checks on their ‘genuineness’ as students. International student applications to the UK have declined as a result of this climate. Extend that same approach, those same hurdles, to EU students, and they’ll stay away in droves. We need those EU students, just as we need the overseas ones. (The Government’s stance on student immigration is largely inexplicable to me when these students bring millions into the economy and are not, on the whole, likely to settle permanently in the UK.)

I also worry that if we do vote OUT it’ll be largely a gut vote, based on sincere nationalistic pride, perhaps, but fed by fallacies and misinformation and woefully lacking in clarity about what lurks on the other side of an exit. There’s so much falsehood around. If we stay with the topic of immigration, there’s this facile idea that leaving the EU represents regaining control of our borders, as if we can’t control them now. I think there’s a myth that anyone from the EU can just stroll in without let or hindrance. But we’re not part of the Schengen Area. We already can and do check the passports of migrants from the EU. We already can and do turn them away when we regard them as a threat. (And, by the way, most of the examples that Teresa May and her ilk cite as EU tampering with deportations are actually decisions made by British courts, but that’s another discussion). If we make migration from the EU even more like migration from the rest of the world it won’t suddenly make us safer. Half of all our immigration, give or take, comes from the rest of the world. It won’t suddenly stick a big cork in Dover and make everyone turn away.

And as for sovereignty, I’m never sure what we imagine this means. I certainly haven’t spent my adult life thinking “If only the British government had the power to make decisions”. It seems to make them all the time. Really big, stupid fucking decisions, but decisions nonetheless. If by sovereignty we mean that there are constraints on what we can do based on certain narrow things we’ve agreed with other countries, which country can’t say that? In or out, we’ll be making deals, signing agreements, joining international bodies, and cheerfully limiting the hell out of our own sovereignty – if that’s what you want to call it. That’s our sovereign right, I guess. We willingly sign up to the treaties and trade regulations that we currently have – not in one fateful decision to join the EU around the time Jon Pertwee turned into Tom Baker, but in all those numerous discrete decisions ever since. We don’t have to leave the EU to make different decisions about what we sign-up to, if that’s what we really want. And if we do leave the EU we won’t suddenly lose all those trade regulations – far from it. We’ll probably need more. Every one of them will represent some kind of compromise in which the UK agrees to something that, yes, constrains it. I’m sure those UK trade deals will be painted as a triumph for the very sense of sovereignty that the EU trade deals seemingly undermine. But they’ll be no different.

Besides which, when it comes to employment law and human rights, I rather like the idea that we sign up to principles greater than the petty self-interest of whichever national governments are in power, here and elsewhere. I like the idea that we all agree on basic standards of decency, and hold each other to account.

So maybe it’ll be okay either way. But I really hope we vote to stay.

1 All opinions are my own personal views not those of my employer.

10 things I think about Europe

Politics again. Sorry.

The debate on Europe is driving me mad, characterised as it is by myths and subjectivity and opportunism masquerading as facts and imperatives. I’m sitting on my hands watching each side characterise the other as hateful scare-mongerers while appearing blind to the excesses of their own camp.

So to get it out of my system, here are some things I believe about Europe. Like everyone else, some of these are evidence-based, and some just are:

1) The principle of being in Europe is more important than the problems with Europe. Joining with others in principles and endeavours that transcend individual nations is positive, and acts as a check on individual nations.

2) Europe is not something which is ‘done to us’, it’s a collaboration we participate in, and help shape. We won’t always get our own way – neither will anyone else – but we have a strong voice. We shape the laws. We win exemptions.

3) It is nonsense to say that World War Three looms imminently if we leave the EU (aka “Stay Off My Side, David Cameron”). It is not nonsense to say that the history of Europe prior to the creation of the EU was one of near-constant conflict and war, and that participating in the EU has been one of a number of key reasons why we have seen an era of much greater peace and stability. Unchecked separatism and nationalism can easily and rapidly sow the seeds of conflict. Even now the EU is straining against an upsurge in extreme right wing political parties and anti-immigrant sentiment.

4) Our locally elected MPs go to the central parliament where they have a local voice but where local interests are balanced against wider ones, and the elected democratic parliament is supported by a vast bureaucracy of unelected officials. But enough about the UK. Ahem.

5) Europe is almost certainly rife with compromise and inefficiency, but it is not actually Evil (like, say, FIFA) and is capable of being reformed. If we do rightly focus on European inefficiency we shouldn’t cherry pick examples while ignoring the inefficiency inherent in our own political machinery.

6) EU membership is a net cost to the UK in terms of monies directly paid and directly received. On that level it’s a drain on our resources. But membership of the EU only has to make the most marginal percentage improvement in the UK economic growth for the gain, year by year, to vastly outweigh the cost. Does it do that? It seems highly likely, but I can’t say for certain. At the very least it’s a low risk investment with the potential for an extremely high return.

7) Putting aside the fact that European migrants provably contribute more to our economy than they take out, leaving the EU might (unless we retain free movement) reduce a chunk of net migration. On that level, leaving the EU would help us “regain control” of our borders. But it would by no means be a magic bullet that would bring net migration down to zero.

8) There are clear and to some extent understandable worries about how immigration is changing our culture, a fear of cultural miscegenation in which national distinctiveness is perceived to be lost, or changed unrecognisably. But we easily forget that our perception of ‘Britishness’ has changed over time. Second and third generation immigrants aren’t generally perceived as immigrants at all. They’re just British. If they’re white (like that extremely suspicious foreign influence Rick Stein) mainstream opinion doesn’t give them a second glance. Our sense of Britishness has always accommodated and been enriched by infusions from other places.

9) The ‘Out’ campaign is not intrinsically racist, and many who are in favour of leaving the EU are not driven by immigration. But I think one consequence of a ‘Brexit’ will be to increase the UK’s isolationism and feed racist views. I’d love to say that slightly curbing immigration would rob racism of oxygen, but in my view the tougher we talk and act on immigration the more strident and polarised our anti-immigration rhetoric becomes. Support for UKIP is often highest in the areas of lowest immigration, and right-wing debate on immigration is not notable for its relationship to facts. If we board up the windows, we’ll only become obsessed with what’s under the floorboards.

10) Whether we stay or leave, we’ll never know for sure whether that decision had a causal effect on our future prosperity, or lack of it. But politicians will cheerfully blame everything on that decision. And it will be So. Damn. Aggravating.

(Follow-up blog)

Oh god he’s talking about politics

I’m not really a Nick Robinson fan, but this slightly smug, waffly article summarises the obvious difficulty in talking knowledgeably about our future in or out of Europe. There are probably many reasons to leave the EU. There are many reasons to stay. Probably neither will be a disaster (though what do I know?) but amid the patent fear-mongering on all sides there’s genuine inability to know what will happen until it happens. The many leaflets that have thumped onto my doormat are equally aggravating whether they are for or against EU membership; although on the plus side they’re all pleasingly shiny and ideal for lining the cat litter tray.

I also don’t like Mr Cameron or his tax affairs, but as with his support for gay marriage I do occasionally find that he deigns to agree with me. It’s nice of him, I only wish he’d do it more often. I do worry that the meta-narrative about political machinations within the Conservative party – Boris and IDS making tactical moves, Cameron’s future, whether tax payers should pay for Government leaflets – is a sly and effective distraction from the real issues. Journalists don’t do it on purpose, but they just can’t resist shop talk. A story about a story is so much more gossipy than a story about an actual thing. It’s fine when there’s nothing much at stake but right now there are bigger fish to fry. (There would be smaller fish to fry, but they’re subject to a strict EU fishing quota). If this becomes a story about politics then people will treat it as a political issue. They’ll vote ‘Out’ to punish Cameron, rather than because they have a view on the EU.

Personally I’m for staying in. You’re amazed, I can tell. It’s not because I feel ‘European’, really. Intellectually I know I’m European, but it’s not my primary national identity. ‘Europe’ still intuitively means “that big bit of continent over there” and not “this little collection of islands that the BBC weather map persists in tipping at an alarming angle so that Scotland looks tiny”.

But neither do I feel any animosity towards Europe. I like the idea of being part of something greater. I guess I don’t know any different. I’ve pretty much always *been* part of it, and Europe hasn’t blighted my life with its evil foreign ways. Mais non. I think it’s quite telling that you can watch an episode of ‘Yes, Minister’ from 1981 and hear the exact same stereotypical worries about the EU and its alleged wacky laws. But here we are 35 years later and the sky hasn’t fallen and Britain hasn’t lost its Britishness. Far from it. If we really must define Britishness as a test of cultural purity then we’re more pugnaciously xenophobia than we have been in years. Well done, British people.

But really, what do we mean by Britishness? Boris is no less Boris for 40 years spent in the EU. It hasn’t made Iain Duncan Smith any less strident. I reject the seductive notion that Europe erodes our “sovereignty” – whatever that really means – as if any country can govern in perfect isolation from its neighbours and treaties and trade alliances and human migration and equality and rights for workers and basic human rights. Of course not. We have sovereignty over our own laws in every way that counts; we don’t seem to have any difficulty in passing laws that tax the homeless for their spare pavement. We simply subscribe to international common principles – both within the EU and in parallel with it – because it makes sense.

It’s very easy to talk about isolationism in terms that make it sound noble and patriotic. You can picture Jim Hacker drifting into his Churchill impression. But Churchill was an architect of a United Europe, and I think it’s a very grown-up, civilised thing to be part of a wider society of nations. We can be ourselves and still accept that there are limits on the way you can behave and still get to participate in the world. There’s no reason I can see to feel that being part of Europe diminishes us. It might even make us greater.

“Calm down, dear”

There was a great documentary by Kirsty Wark on the BBC last week called “Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes”. (Still on iPlayer if you want to watch it.) The title is from the hugely popular online video last year, with teh naked ladies dancing. (I point this out because I’m so clued up I hadn’t even heard (of) it when it came up in last year’s Christmas Quiz. Finger on the pulse, me.)

The focus of the programme was the culture of abuse, insults, sexual threats and misogynistic remarks commonly faced by women online, including high profile recipients like Mary Beard and Caroline Criado-Perez. [EDIT : Perez has just posted examples of the abusive tweets.] Coincidentally my wife was just telling me the other day about the constant unwelcome ‘approaches’ she faces when online gaming as a female character (“Are you really a girl?” “How old are you?” etc.) and there are examples of precisely that behaviour in the documentary too. Equally there are some in the programme who deny that this is a female-specific problem, and say that rape jokes and abuse faced by women are just one facet of the jokes and abuse targeting men, and that the only difference is women’s (hyper)sensitivity. I don’t buy that. Sure, abuse is faced by everyone. Men get online death threats, and that’s reprehensible too. But to say that women should simply “man up”, as one commentator puts it, is to ignore the wider society in which we live, and the sheer amount and extremely misogynistic overtones of the abuse against women versus the generic nature of the trolling against men. The playing field is not level.

I look at society and it seems staggeringly obvious that women are the subject of systematic objectification, exclusion and lack of respect. I know it’s not all women, and not all the time. I know it’s better in our society than in some parts of the world. I know it’s talked about more openly than it used to be. But it’s in the way TV shows and films are written and cast. In the age, looks and number of female vs male presenters. In comics. In music. In who gets book deals and recording contracts. In who wins awards. In the fact that the Best Actor Oscar gets announced after the Best Actress one (because, why exactly?) In advertising. In magazines. In who gets to participate in debates. In business. In politics. In the lack of respect for older women, or any women who don’t pander to male ideals of beauty. In dismissive attitudes to rape and domestic violence. In David Cameron ‘joking’ “Calm down dear” to diminish a female MP’s opinion. Even in which members of the crowd the TV camera lingers on. In a thousand thoughtless moments of chauvinism by men who should know better. Including me, quite probably. You get the idea. I’m not going to brainstorm the world’s first comprehensive list of all sexism ever.

This may all sound a bit born-again feminist. I know it’s a bit rich, me saying women are oppressed like it’s a revelation. I’m not trying to come off as more-feminist-than-thou. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that, commonly and insidiously, many women face much more of an uphill struggle than many men. In ways so ingrained that often people don’t see them at all, or choose not to. Sometimes it takes real effort for men in particular to step back from the blithe assumptions they’ve benefitted from all their lives.

It’s why it drives me mad when blowhard sideshow-acts like Jeremy Clarkson or Godfrey Bloom poo poo the very idea that sexism still exists. Or, God forbid, claim that men are the disadvantaged ones. These are the high profile crackpots. Almost reassuringly barmy. Obligingly self-satirising. The high profile UKIP donor who says he doesn’t think women should wear trousers. But for every crackpot there’s an army of men who’ve never been near the ‘Have I Got News For You’ studio but who’ll nod along. Why should women even *want* to wear trousers when men prefer to see women in skirts? (Yeah, women. Explain THAT.)

In employment law, the classic feature of unfair discrimination is that you only see the stereotype, not the individual. Someone will decide that women can’t work in construction because they’re physically weak. Never mind that some women could beat me in a fair fight. (Okay, most women). Or they’re too emotionally fragile, or it’s improper, or it’s too dangerous. Leave that nasty stuff to The Mens. Recognising and challenging those preconceptions, treating people as individuals, recognising all the ways in which society is constructed to favour and pander to the desires of (straight, white) men, should not be controversial things.

At the risk of making this all about me, I sometimes feel paralysed in talking about feminism online because, although it’s a subject that I feel a passionate affinity with, it seems presumptuous of me to imagine that I can really understand. I worry that I’ll simplify, offend or patronise. I fear that even though I may imagine I’m a feminist, I’m wearing my own unchallenged sexist assumptions on my sleeve. (Memo to self: donate sexist arm-band to charity shop). I read powerful, illuminating articles on sexism like this or this and I feel that I have nothing to add. So I tend not to say anything at all.

But it’s worth saying something, no? I try to be aware of my stupid assumptions, sexist and otherwise. I try to be conscious that the playing field is not level. At least it’s a start.

(“Join us tomorrow, when our topic will be: Religion, which is the one true faith” – Kent Brockman)

“That makes you the racist.”

I just posted on Twitter the perhaps depressing truth that “At this stage I assume that any party with the word “English” or “UK” in the title is racist until proven otherwise.” And received from a random human being the, I hope you’ll agree, amazing reply: “So you are not pro England or Britain, but favour the rest of the world? That makes you the racist.” Even more amazingly, their twitter profile unironically includes the words “I’m not racist but…” Marvellous.

I know such sentiments are not new. But it feels as if the prevailing political narrative has now shifted pretty far to the right when it comes to immigration. It’s the normalisation of such transparently xenophobic, if not outright racist, sentiments that leaves me feeling frustrated, exasperated, powerless. The major political parties are queuing up, not to argue the value of diversity, not to remind us that we have nothing to fear from change, but to compete for how tough they can look on ‘controlling our borders’.

The UK is not alone in this by any means, with parts of Europe and Australia cheerfully demonising anyone who has the gall to think their country is lovely. It starts of course with ‘dastardly foreigners’ but then, even more perplexingly, travels back along the family tree to second or third generation immigrants like a racist genealogy show: “Who Do You Think You Are and Why Don’t You Go Back Where You Came From?”

It would be instructional to trawl back through the political debates of the last decade(s) to see how we got here. How worries about immigration came to be blandly accepted rather than challenged. I feel like I can glimpse a vicious circle where someone lands a punch with some statistically rare horror story about a sponging terrorist asylum seeker, that gets picked up by the right-wing media, that connects with the public, that the other parties have to respond to. (I say ‘have to’ on the unspoken assumption that they’re spineless and desperate enough for power to compromise their principles, just to lay my biases out there on the table.) And that begets further scare stories of the made-up or cherry-picked variety. And then mainstream news outlets like the BBC decide that the ‘public’ are worried about immigration. Immigration is an issue. It’s going to decide elections. So they start reporting the cherry-picked the stories too, which leaves those picking the cherries in the driving seat (…of their cherry-picking vehicle. Bear with me here.) And then a party like UKIP, that trades in … racist cherries… has a small victory, and that seems important because now the public are worried enough about immigration to vote for complete twats. So it must be bad. And naturally you need to report the complete twats, because in some sense they’ve come to represent the whole issue. And that party winds up looking like a serious contender, one of the Big Four, and somehow you’ve made the extremists look electable. And cherries look bigoted.

All of which still leaves me sitting here in my cosy little liberal democracy looking in blank incomprehension at the popular rise of the far right.

Can haz vote

Haz voted.

We’re in an ultra-safe seat and I voted against the majority party. D’oh. My wife went on this website that calculates that votes in this constituency are worth the equivalent of 0.059 votes (based on the probability of the seat changing hands and its size.) But I still feel it’s worth voting – important, even to vote. If nothing else I’ll have kept down the depressingly non-zero proportion of the vote here that goes to the BNP.

We took Anna along so that she could watch us vote. At 9 months I don’t think it made a big impression, but by the next general election she’ll be nearly 6. How scary is that.

My gut says that despite all the polls showing the conservatives with a narrow lead, they’ll actually end up with a straightforward majority, just because a) I’m feeling pessimistic, b) I suspect human nature means that when it comes to the crunch most protest votes against Labour are going to go to the traditional opposition party not a perceived wildcard like the Lib Dems.

Most polls don’t seem to take into account things like marginal seats but bafflingly assume we live in a proportional representation utopia. I’d be extremely interested to see what a hung parliament looked like, though. It’s tough to see how it could be worse than the status quo, which amounts to the usual suspects being decisively, dynamically, excitingly… self-serving and short-sighted.

Wake me up when it’s time to vote

And so it begins. The Election that feels like it’s been upon us for months is finally upon us. Almost finally.

Now the parties can stop pretending to campaign and start really campaigning. Yes, apparently it can get worse. Since no-one was campaigning previously, all those increasingly intolerant poster campaigns that have blighted my trip to work for the last few weeks must only have existed in my imagination. (Which, given that two of them involved David Cameron’s head photoshopped onto Gene Hunt’s body, I can easily believe.)

Like everything in politics these days, even the Election announcement was leaked and reported in advance. Yesterday BBC News told me that the election would be announced today. And today it was, amazingly, announced. At this rate the next four weeks could last a lifetime.

The BBC seem to be at pains to talk up this election (which to be fair is probably a much needed shot in the arm for the electorate). To accomplish this they’ve been going out of their way to emphasise the allegedly massive differences between Labour and Conservative policies. Or rather, the differences in their rhetoric: ‘cuts now’ or ‘cuts later’, ‘this is no time for change’ or ‘this is time for change’. The trouble is, when you get right down to it the slogans belie the essential similarity of the underlying policies.

In fact I’ll go further — I don’t really believe that the parties mean what they say. I’m sure this comes down to my alarmingly detached view of the news, but my strong feeling is that the only reason Labour are talking about ‘cuts later’ is not because they necessarily think it makes sound fiscal sense but because it sounds slightly different from the Tory position. And vice versa. When everyone wants cuts, it’s all about product differentiation. It’s possible to argue that it does make sound fiscal sense, just as it’s possible to argue that announcing an NI increase months ahead of time isn’t like trying to have your cake and eat it, but when I listen to politicians at election time I find myself beset by an inability to believe a single word that comes out of their mouths.

I don’t mean to sound like one of these disenfranchised apathetic stay-at-home voters the news is always telling me about. I’m not that. I do vote, and I feel strongly that it’s our responsibility to vote (if only to stop the BNP increasing their market share). What I’m realising, other than that my cynicism may be at the stage where it has a clinical name, is that I don’t really vote based on individual policies. Because I don’t believe that the parties are sincere about their policies. More often than not they appear to be an arbitrary means to an end, an idea dreamed up in a campaign HQ as a way to sound good to the electorate.

Instead, I think my vote is driven by ideology. I vote for a party because I believe that what they stand for, in totality, is in line with my moral or social values. I don’t even think I judge this mainly by aggregating all their policies together, I think it’s about big statements: freedom, equality, social justice. That kind of thing. The broad political sweep of left, middle and right.

Where individual policies probably do influence me is that I may vote against the ones that offend me. In a world where the two main parties are hardly different in many of their policies, only one intends to overturn the ban on fox-hunting, and that party will definitely not get my vote. Both of the main parties are almost equally repressive, emotive and hypocritical on the subject of immigration so neither will probably get my vote. (This is because I’m a bleeding heart liberal).

All of which means that the less the parties have to say over the next four weeks, the greater chance they stand of getting my vote.

I have a dream.