Plenty of discussion on the blogs and in the media about the london bombings, this time last year, notably from survivors such as the irrepressible Rachel and the idosyncratic Dave Taurus.

The bombings were a terrible punctuation to a bizarre week. The previous Saturday, I had worn white and joined the Make Poverty History march, along with thousands of others. It was a hot day, and we stopped half-way round to have a pint on George IV Bridge. We chatted to a couple who had taken a bus from Bristol to join in the event. The G8 summit was about to start, and there was a feeling of optimisim in the air. It was genuine.

Watching the ‘Live 8’ highlights on TV that evening, and later that week when another concert was staged at Murrayfield, it seemed to me that those events had a certain falseness. Jonathan Ross and his interviewees kept talking about what an historic concert Live 8 would be, before it had even begun. The whole event was a paean to the original Live Aid concert, a consolation prize for those who had missed it first time around. I remember saying that you cannot package and market those moments that will define a decade, and that history has a certain spontenaity – it does not take place at a pre-arranged meeting point.

Of course, the following day four guys went straight ahead and made some real history, at their own pre-arranged meeting point. Not only did they destroy lives and property, but they destroyed the sense of optimism, a rising tide of political activity and awareness, that had been swelling over the previous week. And do you know what? One year on, I don’t think we have regained that momentum. Instead we flounder in scandal and misdirection.

A Most Respectful Letter from an Englishman in Scotland, to a Scotsman in England; In Which the Subject of Their Shared Britishness is Discussed at Some Length.

This was my shortlisted entry into the Ben Pimlott Essay Prize. The winning entry, by Rowland Manthorpe, was published by The Guardian last week.

Read close, o my best beloved, and picture the scene. It is a cold and idle weekday in February. The dance-floor at L— Nightclub is barely a third full. The clientele are young, but in this light it is difficult to be sure that they are over eighteen. Many wear those jumpers with hoods you will have seen in photographs. Thin girls in white denim dresses have braids in their hair. Three youths in turbans lurk in the corner, by the dirty pillar that blocks the view from the bar.

Chunky hip-hop performer ‘Sway’ saunters on stage with the arrogance of a MOBO winner (for that is what he is). Behind him bounces his accompanist for this evening, DJ Turkish. They are both wearing Union Jack tea towels over their faces, like patriotic bank robbers. “These rappers couldn’t see me coming if they were vaginas with spectacles,” shouts Sway, before telling us a story about the mysterious Land of Harveynicks. The entertainment has begun.

We are in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital – yes, you know it well, my friend! – in the shadow of the famous castle, where legions of tourists flock each summer to watch the tartan fuelled military tattoo. It is a place where English residents of the city complain that, these days, it is being over-run by Australians. It is a place where a man with a Ghanaian name is reciting American-inspired slam poetry, to a beat hammered out by a Turk from North London. And what of this young audience? Believe me when I tell you, if you were to conquer the countries of their parents, then truly the sun would never set upon your Empire.

Let us be clear, so we make no mistake. Your task in 2009 will be to unite all these people: The tartan tattoo day-trippers, the snobbish English students, the sullen Sikhs… and Sway, who waves the Union Jack proudly, just as you asked. You must convince them that they are one people, and that they all belong to the same privileged club. You must describe the values and the traditions that they must learn to love.

Continue reading “A Most Respectful Letter from an Englishman in Scotland, to a Scotsman in England; In Which the Subject of Their Shared Britishness is Discussed at Some Length.”

Ben Pimlott Essay Prize

I was delighted to be shortlisted for this year’s Ben Pimlott Essay Prize, run by the Guardian and the Fabian Society. The theme this year was “on whether history can help us define British identity”.

It was great to pull together some of the ideas on Britishness I have been reading and writing about online. Tragically, I fear my essay was too much like an extended blog post with not quite enough depth… and my particular offering was pipped at the post.

Rowland Manthorpe is still a student (and a good looking one at that, dammit). His winning essay is published in today’s Guardian. Excerpts from mine will be posted to Guardian Unlimited at some point, I believe. I’ll wait for the dust to settle before discreetly posting the entire thing to this blog…

Over at The Sharpener, Paul has posted his entry, while at Ministry of Truth Unity finds a true Brit: A Pakistani immigrant, British Citizen, hoping to become the first Asian MSP by standing on a platform of Scottish Independence.

Alaa Free

Funny how the same words, in a different order, mean vastly different things. Last month I blogged about the Free Alaa campaign, an online drive to raise awareness of the detention of Egyptian blogger and democracy activist Alaa Abd El-Fatah. I heard about his detention via blogging, and by the same methods (via Adloyada) I now hear he has been released.

Part of the campaign was a GoogleBomb, whereby bloggers attempted to fool Google into returning pages from the Free Alaa campaign site, whenever the word ‘Egypt’ was searched for. As Adloyada suggests, this particular tactic may have had minimal effect, but the wider use of the internet as a medium for campaigning is what interests me here.

We are updated regularly on the ‘explosion’ of blogging, with about a billion new blogs created daily. Many of these – arguably the more interesting ones – are likely to spring up in places where democracy and human rights are not guaranteed. I worry that examples of bloggers being detained, already a regular occurence in Iran, will increase with the popularity of blogging in general. Perhaps we will begin to see a form of campaign fatigue, whereby it is difficult to keep track of which bloggers have been detained, and where!

This is where Web 2.0 innovations such as wikis and RSS feeds can come into their own, ensuring we can keep updated and active over a lengthy period of time. Metaphorical ideas of momentum and critical mass are crucial factors in political movements. It will be interesting to see whether technology will lead to more sustained and effective campaigns, or just higher-profile, yet ultimately damp, squibs. Looks like the former in the case of Alaa, thank goodness.

Asymetrical warriors

Brian Haw

Surely the lone protestor Brian Haw is another example of an asymetrical warrior. Despite harassment, including entire Acts of Parliament against him, he remains firm, and uses every legal weapon at his disposal to keep protesting.

Let us not forget Rosa Parks either. Fighting an “asymetrical” battle can sometimes be a noble thing.

Voter responsibility

Last week we heard that a large proportion of voters in the UK are considering voting for the BNP (as many as eighty percent in Margaret Hodge’s constituency, she warns us). This prompted the following quip from the highly entertaining Pigdogfucker:

25% of English voters “might be” terrible cunts.

Meanwhile, Tim Newman comments on the nature of democracy in Palestine, and suggests that the Palestinians are stuck with their choice of government. If that has negative consequences for their international funding, as a result of electing a terrorist group to power, then that is their problem. (Via Devil’s Kitchen, who agrees.)

Whenever I hear someone make a throwaway remark of the format “God, I hate Americans,” I point out that actually, they probably don’t. In fact (I say), what they mean is that aspects of American culture annoy them. Those aspects are probably caricatures (gas-guzzlers, homogenising fast-food chains, the NRA, preposeterous statistics about how few Americans have passports) that are not representative of most citizens. At worst, I tell them, they actually hate exactly half the people in America (usually but not exclusively those who voted red). And moreover, they have no way of knowing who those people are, so to hate them seems rather counter-productive, not to mention a bit racist.

Surely the same applies to extreme national or local governments that may be voted in elsewhere. If the BNP do win council seats during the UK local elections, few will follow the Pigdogfucker lead and say “well obviously the people of Barking are… barking,” because for a large proportion of the population that will simply not be true. Not only will it definitely not be true for those who voted for someone other than the BNP… but we will be inclined to extend the courtesy to many of those who did. Rather than blame the voters for being generally racist and ignorant of what is actually good for them, we will instead cite the rise in racist politics as somehow a failure of the incumbent parties on a national and local level.

We do not extend this ‘courtesy’ to the Palestinians. Instead we write them off as people not interested in peace, forgetting that there are plenty of their number who did not vote for terrorism (only one third of the total electorate voted for Hamas, for example). Nor do we seem willing to appreciate any subtlety or difference of opinion within American politics: “God, I hate Americans…”

Remember the old saying, about how an Opposition never wins an elections, but Governments lose them? This is important with regards to how much responsibility the electorate must take for their government. The adage above implies that people vote retrospectively, casting their ballot not on what they expect the new government to do, but on what the old government has done. If extremists are elected to power, this analysis would place a much of the responsibility on the shoulders of the outgoing government! Only when we consider the electorate to be voting prospectively and not retrospectively, does the balance seem to tip in favour of blaming the voters themselves for a poor choice.

Clearly, people vote for a mixture of prospective and retrospective reasons. But the notion of blaming an electorate for the government it has chosen remains problematic. Personally (and I suspect, in common with many others) find it difficult to take any personal responsibility for the recent actions of my own government, because I did not vote for them. Likewise, pointing at a random Palestinian and saying “sorry mate, you brought it on yourself” seems spectacularly unfair, as is calling anyone from Barking a racist.

Democracy is a bizarre thing. Because governments take their legitimacy from the voters, we are encouraged (especially immediately after an election) to ascribe the policies and beliefs of certain sections of the population, to everyone within that population. In actual fact, we know next-to-nothing about the particular individual at the other end of our finger, other than where he lives. He is damned by the tyranny of the majority, and suffers our prejudice as a result.

The Euston Manifesto

The Euston Manifesto proposes a fresh political alignment. Their suggestion that their viewpoints are bing under-represented in the mainstream media doesn’t ring true for me: Everyone, of every political persuasion is saying that! Nevertheless, it is an interesting document with sentiments I support.

From Clause 11:

Drawing the lesson of the disastrous history of left apologetics over the crimes of Stalinism and Maoism, as well as more recent exercises in the same vein (some of the reaction to the crimes of 9/11, the excuse-making for suicide-terrorism, the disgraceful alliances lately set up inside the “anti-war” movement with illiberal theocrats)…

After Mark Lynas’ lecture last week, I am convinced that climate change will be just as disatrous for humanity as Stalinism, Maoism, and Nazism. I am also convinced that in a generation, the shame of our inaction on this issue will be comparable to the Left’s shame over communist ‘apologetics’, and European soul-searching over our inaction during the Holocaust.

Global warming is a ‘meta’ issue. It is likely to be a catalyst for many future conflicts, as different countries, groups and ideologies fight for control over scarce resources. Climate Change will emphasise the political divides we see delineated by the Euston Manifesto group. The group makes statements on particular issues (such as Iraq, and Israel/Palestine) so one on global warming, or rather, “a shared responsibility for the earth’s resources”, needs to be in there too. It is the elephant in the room, one that must be ejected before I will sign the manifesto.

Updates: Mike Marqusee has posted an interesting critique of the Euston Manifesto at Comment Is Free; Devil’s Kitchen calls me a hippy… plus further interrogation of the climate change/global warming premise at PooterGeek.

Silver lining

I was interested to hear Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok on BBC Radio 4’s Start The Week yesterday, claiming that there exists a Paradox of anti-Semitism, in which the very fact of persecution has meant that Jewish people have grouped together to preserve their culture, something they may not have otherwise done.

He makes an interesting point, but I was not convinced that he is not simply stating a truism, or a solopsim, or both. To what extent is contemporary Jewish identity shaped by the Holocaust? if those events have now become a part of the Jewish culture or narrative then that does not mean that Judaism required a Holocaust in order to become whole.

1. Jewish culture is valuable;
2. Jewish culture includes a Holocaust; therefore
3. The Holocaust is valuable.

I’m pretty sure the logic is flawed there. Simply because Jewish identity was strengthened among those who avoided persecution, that does not mean that an alternative would not also have been strong. Indeed, one tragedy of the genocide is the lament for the ‘lost culture,’ the one that would have manifested itself had the Nazis not have perpetrated their evil.

On a related point, a friend of mine commented recently that the attacks of 11th September 2001 have made the world a more politicised place, with more people engaging in politics and in political dialogue. As a catalyst for this, 9/11 would therefore be a positive thing!

Again, I’m not sure one event can take credit for this politicisation, and in any case, the nature of politics is surely related to the idea of change… a response to events, a human desire to make things different. How big does the silver lining have to be, in order for us to tolerate the rain-cloud? In the case of the Holocaust, surely the cloud is so big and offensive, no amount silver-lining could cause any kind of ethical dilemma that Dan Cohn-Sherbok dubs a ‘paradox’.

I have yet to read the book however, so perhaps I am being a reactionary, psyco-analysing the book’s four word title.

The same friend cited the rise in people motivated to write a blog, as a manifestation of this increased politicisation. I wonder how other bloggers feel about this? To what extent have world events motivated them to write? How would political blogging be different if 9/11 had not happened? Would we have asked the same questions?

'Voluntary' means you can change your mind

CuriousHamster has been musing about ID cards again, as peers continue to argue with the government over whether the cards will truly be ‘voluntary’, if citizens are required to register for one when they renew their passport. He gives the dictionary definition of ‘voluntary’, but neglects to make an important point about the definition. If you do something voluntarily, then you are under no obligation to continue to do it, if you should change your mind. I am on the Organ Donor Register, but I could ring them up and remove my details if I wanted to.

But ministers say [ID Cards] will already be “voluntary”, because it is not compulsory to have a passport.

True, it is not compulsory to have a passport (at least, unless you work for the Foreign Office), and I can hand mine back to the issuing agency, the UKPA, at any time I choose. Since ID cards will be also be ‘voluntary’, I therefore presume I will be able to return mine to the Home Office, when it arrives along with my renewed, biometric passport…

Analogue vs Digital

He is an analogue politician in a digital age.

So said David Cameron, of Gordon Brown, during their exchanges in the House of Commons today. This is a difficult metaphor, and I fear David may be using it in a very lazy manner, to mean simply “old and new”. In fact it has meanings that I doubt the Tory leader would wish to imply.

Analogue technology may be old, but music fans agree it means better quality. Analogue records capture the subtleties that digital recordings lack. Did David Cameron mean to describe the Chancellor in those terms?

Technically speaking, analogue captures all the different inputs one continuous, flowing record. In audio terms is hears all the sounds. In photographic terms, it sees shades of grey. Digital recording, by contrast, converts everything it senses to binary data. Ones and Zeros, On and Off, Black and White. Which is better for political discourse?

Most importantly, consider how the analogue and digital mediums are treated. Vinyl records are treasured by their owners, sought after by collectors. Original photographic prints fetch a fair price at auction. They carry auora of permanence. Compare this to the digital medium, where tacky CDs lie scrtached on the floor, and digital files are carelessly deleted almost as soon as they are created. Transient things of momentary interest.

Analogue: High quality, subtle, perceptive, permenant.
Digital: Flat, extreme, polarising, disposable.

How kind of David Cameron to flatter the Chancellor! One wonders if Gordon is receiving such compliments from his own party…