Sunday, 12 February 2017

In defence of John Bercow

Poor Donald Trump. When he visits Britain, he is going to be no-platformed everywhere he goes, the media will completely ignore him, nothing he says will ever get reported, and the people of this country will have absolutely no idea he is even here. Poor little Donny won't have any freedom of speech.

Except that will not be how it pans out when he takes up Theresa May's embarrassingly fast invitation to pop across the pond and say hello. His visit will dominate the news cycle for days. His views will be heard by millions. This is a man who makes global headlines every time he tweets. He has more platforms than an Olympic diving team.

But none of this has stopped Trump's British apologists from demanding John Bercow resign. This is all because Bercow plans to use the power he has as speaker of the house to not invite Trump to address MPs in Westminster Hall. Please note that Bercow has not called for Trump to be refused entry to the UK or to never speak to anyone or for press conferences to be called off.

All he has done is refuse Trump an invitation to speak at Westminster Hall as a statement against Trump's racism and sexism, and to send a message of British support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary, both concepts that seem to elude the wit of Trump. Bercow had the opportunity to take a stand, to speak out on behalf of British values and he took it. He can look back on this in years to come and be very proud. Good on him.

Bercow's upholding of support for an independent judiciary is particularly important. This week, a 44-year-old man from Hertfordshire was arrested at Gatwick Airport on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack when he disembarked from a flight from Iraq. British idiots, who are apparently experts in US constitutional law, started saying that this was proof that Britain should copy Trump with travel restrictions for people with passports from Iraq - except that at this stage we don't know if the arrested man had an Iraqi passport.

It is entirely possible that the arrested man only has a British passport, in which case a travel restriction would not work. And even if he does have an Iraqi passport, he has been arrested before committing a terror attack on British soil. This would indicate that we don't need to copy Trump because our intelligence services and police are already being effective.

The same idiots who called British judges "enemies of the people" for ruling that our democratically elected MPs should have a vote on triggering Article 50 for leaving the EU are siding with Trump instead of the independent judiciary on the issue of the travel restrictions yet, curiously, they also have a lack of respect for our counter-terrorist forces, even when they do their job properly.

Trump's apologists have also pointed out this week that Bercow has shaken hands with leaders of such undemocratic regimes as China and Saudi Arabia. This is true but these leaders were not invited to speak at Westminster Hall. In any case, plenty of people who are supporting Bercow have also publicly objected to the human rights abuses of both countries and plenty of others with whom Britain breaks bread.

Barack Obama only got the opportunity to address Westminster Hall in 2012, after he had already served an entire term as president. Aung San Suu Kyi has addressed Westminster Hall, which made a powerful statement against the despotic forces in Burma that have imprisoned her and attempted to silence her over the decades. Nelson Mandela has also had this honour. While there are debates as to whether he was a freedom fighter or a leader of thugs, it is hard to argue that he was not a towering figure in ending the official policy of apartheid in South Africa.

In this historic context, for Theresa May to offer Trump a state visit within moments of his election is desperate, premature and completely embarrassing. In the wake of public pressure as well as an outcry that has transcended party politics, it looks like Trump will still be coming over here but his visit will be scaled back.

The latest news is that instead of London, the visit will move to Brexit heartland of the Midlands and Trump will use the opportunity to raise funds for British veterans. Oh good. So basically Trump is employing the same tactics of far right hate group, Britain First. They gained a lot of social media traction by posting things many people who are by no means extremist will agree on, such as support for our troops when they return from war zones and memes about not being cruel to dogs. But Britain First, like Trump, also holds plenty of despicable views. It would appear they are both playing the "But I support the troops!" card as a distraction and in an attempt to mislead people.

In any case, charities such as Help For Heroes should not have to exist in the first place.

If a government sends men and women to war, to risk death and life-changing injury, the least they can do is ensure that injured veterans are housed and do not slip into abject poverty. If Trump was going to schedule a meeting with the defence secretary on how the US and British governments can better help injured veterans when they return home, that would at least deserve some respect. The latest reports indicate Trump wants to host a mass rally with tickets at £10 a head.

Trump can expect protests wherever he goes. Moving the visit away from London won't stop that. People will travel to make themselves heard and it is simply wrong to assume that everyone in the Midlands will be delighted about Trump turning up in their neighbourhood. If anyone wishes to exercise their right to protest when Trump arrives, that should be respected. This will not impede Trump's right to freedom of speech.

Peaceful protest has long been a hallmark of British democracy. With the latest anti-Trump protests, there have certainly been some potty-mouthed banners, especially in Scotland, but peaceful does not mean colourful language is verboten.

In any case, Britain has outdone itself in the last few weeks with the most polite online petition ever.

At the time of writing, 1,853,814 people signed up to the following: "Donald Trump should be allowed to enter the UK in his capacity as head of the US Government, but he should not be invited to make an official State Visit because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen."

To say that Donald Trump is free to visit this green and pleasant land but that it should not cause embarrassment to an elderly woman is adorable. And, if Trump doesn't get to meet the Queen, that will really grind his gears. But it does not mean for a second that his freedom of speech is being denied. Seriously, Trump apologists of Britain and the world, get a grip.

Photography by Matt A.J/Flickr

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Vegetables and the age of entitlement

Spanish spinach. Spanish peppers. Dutch tomatoes. Dutch onions. Irish mushrooms. These vegetables all found their way into the pasta sauce I made for dinner last night. They were all readily available for a reasonable price at the supermarket yesterday afternoon. This is despite the signs on empty or near-empty racks apologising for a shortage of other items of fresh produce because of climate conditions in southern Europe.

In unsurprisingly idiotic news, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express lost their collective shit over this, whining about vegetable price increases. Yesterday's Mail splashed with pictures of well-stocked supermarkets in continental Europe while we suffered here in Blighty with sad emptiness in our fresh produce sections.

Sheeple of Britain! Be woke! Those terrible Europeans are denying us our God-given right to eat cheap iceberg lettuce, courgettes, broccoli and aubergines at all times of year!

But surely the Mail and the Express, two of the emptiest vessels making the most noise on behalf of the Brexit campaign, should be welcoming these scenes of vegetable rationing in our supermarkets. Why aren't they delighted that Britain is having to import vegetables from California and Arizona to fill our supermarkets and our bellies? Why aren't they thrilled that Spain is keeping more fresh produce for itself rather than sending it all our way?

After all, this is what they convinced people to sign up for when they voted to leave the EU.

Without free trade with Europe - and this will happen with a hard Brexit - European countries will charge us more for the myriad fruit and vegetables that we currently enjoy even when they are out of season.

We will have to rely on markets further afield, such as the warmer states of the US, to make up for any shortages, and there will be increased costs and an increased carbon footprint. Even if Theresa May can get Britain a good free trade agreement with the US (excuse me while I laugh so hard my bladder explodes...), the cost of transporting fruit and vegetables from the US to here means it won't necessarily be any cheaper - and those costs will be passed onto consumers. Fruit and veg growers are businesses, not charities.

As well as the rank hypocrisy of pro-leave newspapers whining like fussy-eater toddlers about direct consequences of leaving the EU, the vegetable furore shines a light on our collective sense of entitlement. The howls of protest in supermarkets across the nation when suddenly people couldn't access whatever vegetable they wanted are pretty pathetic when considered in a global and historic context.

There was a time in Britain when lettuce was generally only available from mid-May until the end of October. This weekend, we have people panic-buying lettuce.

We are now accustomed to simply popping down to the supermarket and expecting all the produce to be there all the time. Sure, some of us prefer to buy from the independent greengrocers, the farmers' markets or grow our own, but overall, we expect to see everything from asparagus to zucchini every time we pop into the shops, whether we want to buy it or not. We are ridiculously privileged.

The age of entitlement is right there for all to see in Sainsbury's, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda stores up and down Britain, and in supermarkets of developed countries around the world.

Indeed, in my native Australia, I grew up with the rise of all-year-round fruit and veg in supermarkets. Supply grew along with the Australian palate growing up. I remember, with retching horror, the khaki-coloured, flaccid tinned asparagus of the 1980s. But I rediscovered asparagus as an adult in its fresh, green glory, pan-fried in butter, wrapped in proscuitto, maybe sprinkled with a little grated fresh parmesan, available at Sydney supermarkets whenever I wanted...

It wasn't until I moved to Dubai in 2006 and was working on an entertainment and lifestyle magazine that it really occurred to me that asparagus season was a thing. I started getting press releases in May from five-star hotels with asparagus promotions at their restaurants. I had to ask my British colleagues why I was suddenly overrun with asparagus press releases and I discovered that asparagus season runs from St George's Day - April 23 - until the June 21 summer solstice.

Asparagus season seemed so quaint to me at the time, but we now expect to have all the fruit and vegetables at all times. The very notion of produce being in and out of season, and hard to come by when it's not in season, seems pretty damn retro too. Just as well the bad weather on the continent only represents a blip to our entitlement to the vegetables of Europe. Oh, wait...

Photography by whologwhy/Flickr

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

In defence of anger

People across the world are angry. They are rising up in response to the actions of President Donald Trump. And they are told that American politics are none of their business unless they are actually in America. Never mind that American foreign policy affects the whole world and we are part of the world, as much as we'd like to get off it some days. That sort of global view doesn't wash with the current tribe of Trump apologists.

Angry women in particular are being told to calm down, especially if they have the temerity to be angry while living in a western country instead of being angry in Saudi Arabia.

Apparently, women can only be angry if they live in repressive shitholes and therefore women have absolutely nothing to be angry about if they live in anything resembling a democracy. This always seems to come back to some intellectual bankrupt yelling "BUT SAUDI WOMEN CAN'T DRIVE!" as if western feminists think this is OK and as if none of us have ever spoken out about this, or countless other oppressions against women in Saudi Arabia and other restrictive states.

Apparently, women are not allowed to care about issues that affect the lives of women in countries other than the one they live in. 

Apparently, women who lead comfortable lives should just shut the fuck up and not speak out on behalf of our sisters in countries where they may not have a voice. 

Apparently, our ladybrains are so tiny, we can't care about more than one thing at a time in more than one place at a time.

Frankly, I've had enough. Mansplaining has reached Everest-like heights. In recent weeks, more than one man has tried to tell me I should hail Kelly Conway as a feminist heroine because she successfully managed a presidential campaign. Yeah, get back to me when you can tell me why helping a self-confessed sex pest win high office is some sort of victory for women. Equally, I am not about to get my blue stockings out in support of Theresa May's embarrassing sycophancy to Trump, something that could have been replaced by diplomatic caution if only we'd voted to stay in the EU.

Then there was the genius-with-a-penis who told me women were already equal where he comes from (Turns out he comes from India... Yeah, sure, honey. That is another column for another time as I'm sure my Indian female friends would agree.) and that we should wait and see what happens with Trump's reinstatement of the global gag rule and then we can "discuss" whether women should be angry about it. Never mind that there is plenty of evidence that girls and women in developing countries have suffered when funds that are used for essential healthcare are taken away for ideological reasons.

Today, some twat on Twitter told me that because I am a feminist, surely I must be a student, a vegan and unable to cook, Er, no, no and no.

And another bloke had a pop at me because I pointed out that it was poor media strategy for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour to do a public protest on the NHS on the same day as the women's march. Cue further explanations on how feminism should be done along with accusations that I - and by implication, other women - don't care about healthcare. Again, we are capable of caring about more than one thing. 

I'm the first to agree that I am not personally the victim of horrific oppression. I am nobody's sex slave. I can drive. I have a management job. I have access to every women's health service I need without cost. I don't need to ask my husband's permission to do anything. I married a man of my own choosing. I have money of my own. I dress how I please. I have an excellent life.

But why should I, or countless women like me, stay silent? Why shouldn't we speak out? Why shouldn't we use whatever platforms we can access to shine a light on issues we think are important? What is wrong with speaking out, especially if it is on behalf of women who are held back from doing so?

Of course, mass movements are always messy, not always coherent, and can be perceived as lacking focus. The women's marches which happened around the world in response to Trump's elevation to the office of POTUS were not always perfect. There were events where sex workers, trans women and women of colour felt excluded - these are issues that feminists need to deal with if they are to be successful about changing the world. But it is no surprise that there were conflicting views - that is the inevitable result of intersectionality.

And there was a very real sense among the women marching globally that this was not just about an obvious sexist ascending to power. It was a chance for more localised women's issues to come to the fore, for women to have a chance to speak out against multiple bees in multiple bonnets. There were women who took to the streets having never marched before.

The real challenge now is for people to take real action beyond the marches to happen. It is all too easy for people to look back on marches over the years and ask what was achieved. Wars still happened, it looks like the UK is still leaving the EU, last night's marches won't on their own bring down the Trump presidency.

But everyone who marched last night and the day after the inauguration showed the world that there are places where we have the freedom to publicly protest, to see where the power of free speech might lead, to set an example for countries such as Saudi Arabia where there is no freedom of assembly, to quite simply be heard. Hell, I'm a militant pro-choicer but I'll even throw the recent March for Life into the mix here - not because I am anti-abortion, quite the opposite, but because I believe that even those with whom I disagree have the right to peaceful protest. 

And that is what is happening - protests are making headlines, the pictures will live on in years to come, this will be taught in history classes in the coming decades. Actions are just as important as marches but, regardless of your politics, if you live in a country where angry people can march, where peaceful protest is a right, you should be proud and grateful. 

Photography by Chris Brown/Flickr

Sunday, 8 January 2017


This week's right-wing fauxrage was all about British foreign aid funding Yegna, "the Ethiopian Spice Girls". Unsurprisingly. the hate-fuelled, ill-informed charge was led by the Daily Mail and The Sun, with much smug crowing after Priti Patel, the hard right populist excuse for an International Development Secretary, a woman now leading a department she wanted to abolish, announced the £5.2m grant would be withdrawn.

OK, a few things...

1. The only thing Yegna has in common with the Spice Girls is that it is a five-member, all-female group. The Spice Girls was set up to as a moneymaking venture. Sure, the "girl power" message may well have inspired plenty of girls and women to take an interest in their own empowerment, and it'd be churlish of me to dismiss that, but the "girl power" slogan was a marketing tool, first and foremost.

2. Yegna is part of a bigger project called Girl Effect. Girl Effect works in multiple ways to empower girls and young women in Ethiopia as well as other parts of Africa. Since 2013, Yegna has reached millions of girls through music, drama, a radio talk show and online platforms, discussing issues such as child marriage, forced marriage, violence against girls and women, female genital mutilation and ensuring girls complete their education. Ending child marriage, forced marriage, violence, FGM and girls not completing their education are all essential not only for their own safety and empowerment, but to fight poverty.

3. As well as Yegna, the Girl Effect projects include Ni Nyampinga, which educates girls and their communities on education, sexual health and violence prevention, online youth clubs and mobile platforms allowing girls to communicate with each other and share ideas, job creation in the fields of research and data collection, and a programme to encourage girls to study in the field of technology in Nigeria, soon to expand to Rwanda, Ethiopia, India and Indonesia.

4. Sadly, "UK foreign aid helps a broad-based project that empowers girls and women to finish their education, not marry as children and not be subjected to FGM, all of which helps fight the root causes of poverty in Africa" does not make for as snappy a headline as "ETHIOPIAN SPICE GIRLS AND YOU'RE PAYING FOR IT!".

5. A common howl from the outraged right was "FOREIGN AID SHOULD BE FOOD DROPS!". The problem with limiting aid to food drops is that food gets eaten. And then more food is required. But with food drops, nothing is done to create jobs that enable people to buy food, or to improve agricultural methods so food can be successfully grown, or to ensure kids are going to school so they can go on to work in skilled and professional jobs, or to stop girls from marrying young and never reaching their full potential. Food drops are like putting a sticking plaster on a compound fracture.

6. Anyone who watched TV in the 1980s saw the harrowing scenes of famine in countries such as Ethiopia and this helped create two false narratives. The first was an inaccurate image of Africa as a homogenous blur of parched landscapes full of starving children, when it is a diverse continent of varied landscapes and climates and differing levels of poverty in different nations, many of which have a growing middle class. The second was a mentality that food drops equal effective aid. As per my fifth point, it is not effective in addressing the root causes of poverty. Creative ways to bring people out of poverty need to be explored and supported.

7. It is naive to think all aid funding goes to projects that help people and that none of it ends up in the coffers of corrupt governments. But by directly funding projects such as Girl Effect and Yegna, the money has a much better chance of being used constructively rather than funding some dictator's new Bentley, again another stereotype when democracy is becoming widespread across African countries.

8. There was the additional fauxrage in the last couple of weeks about, according to the increasingly parodic Daily Express, "UK foreign aid spews out of cash machines in Pakistan". This created inaccurate images of every Pakistani simply rocking up to their nearest ATM to greedily hoover up thousands of our British pounds. Again, it was hateful, inaccurate reporting on the Benazir Income Support Programme which helps people living on less than a dollar per day - it has enabled children to stay in school, empowered marginalised women to earn a living, improved healthcare and enabled people to start saving money. Educated, empowered people who are earning an income are less likely to be radicalised. It is a hand-up rather than a hand-out and it is working effectively. The aid is distributed via ATMs as this is a cost-effective, ensures it goes to the people who need it, and prevents fraud.

9. It is also naive to think that the motive for spending money on foreign aid is entirely altruistic. In the long term, there are additional trade and investment benefits for countries that get involved in aid projects. Indeed, foreign investment, when done properly is a win for all parties and often more effective than traditional forms of foreign aid. Multiple African countries, for example, benefit from foreign investment in energy, construction and infrastructure projects, especially in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana where local content laws require employers to hire local people and use local companies and suppliers wherever possible.

10. The UK spends 0.7 per cent of GDP on foreign aid. We can afford this and we should continue to ensure our money is being spent responsibly on projects that address the root causes of poverty across the world. Unfortunately, Priti Patel is the wrong person to be in charge of this budget as she demonstrated this week by letting inaccurate, hateful headlines that pander to racists sway her decision-making. She has thrown girls and young women in poverty under a bus with her latest hard right populist stunt. Yes, this is where we are in 2017 and it is shameful.

Photography: US Embassy Addis Ababa/Flickr

Monday, 2 January 2017

A right royal Brexit mess

Reports emerged around Christmas that Queen Elizabeth II said she was in favour of Brexit but BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg did not report it at the time. This news story got lost in the speculation as to whether she was actually alive and not spending the festive season getting embalmed when she was meant to be at a church service.

In the meantime, Buckingham Palace confirmed that the Queen is indeed still alive, but there were some shrill voices screaming about BBC bias because Laura Kuenssberg did not report the story before the referendum. She did not report the story because she only had the one source and, for a story as potentially explosive as the Queen expressing a clear view on such a contentious issue, this was quite simply not enough to run it.

Without a second source, the story was on very shaky ground. Laura Kuenssberg followed good journalistic practice but she was still slagged off, particularly by those who favour leaving the EU. Brexiters were whining that she didn't report it because the BBC is pro-remain and if people knew the Queen supported Britain leaving the EU, that would tip the vote in favour of voting out.

For a pro-remain broadcaster, the BBC sure as hell gives Nigel Farage a lot of airplay... But I digress.

I trust every Brexiter who got a bit excited because the Queen might favour leaving the EU is a republican. After all, pesky "unelected" people seemed to be a cornerstone of every pro-leave argument and a post-Brexit republic would mean the unelected Queen would become a private citizen and vote like the rest of us can. Or she could run for office herself and her popularity and world view could be put to the test at the ballot box. And how about some House of Lords reform with an elected upper chamber while we're at it, eh? Wouldn't that be just lovely?

Of course the "unelected people in Brussels" argument is bunkum because we do vote for MEPs. But we are now in a post-fact, post-expert idiocracy.

And it is a post-responsibility idiocracy if low voter turnout in Britain for European elections is any indication. God forbid anyone take an interest in voting for those who represent us in Brussels. As a result, we ended up with gravy-train-riding UKIP MEPs not turning up for important votes despite these self-serving hypocrites telling us at every opportunity that they were our "eyes and ears in Brussels". It would seem our eyes and ears did not very often extend to being bums on seats.

In the meantime, MEPs from other parties did plenty of good work that was seldom reported in the British press and engagement with constituents by MEPs was poor. If the hounds of Article 50 are released, we won't get a chance to forge closer links with our MEPs or demand better media coverage of their work, or, I dunno, take some bloody responsibility and seek out information on what our MEPs are doing - it's actually not that hard to find if you have an internet connection and a functioning brain stem.

But back to the Queen...

If you're a monarchist Brexiter, is one of your pro-monarchy arguments that the Queen is above politics? If so, you might want to really think hard before getting too excited about a Brexit-loving monarch on the throne. If she did express a view on the referendum, she is clearly not apolitical so that's that pro-monarchy argument shot to pieces. If Laura Kuenssberg had a second source, it would certainly be in the public interest to report it.

Kuenssberg's source claimed the Queen said: "I don't see why we can't just get out. What's the problem?". Good Lord. The problem is that this is exactly the kind of ignorant, simplistic statement that helped a bullshit-ridden, cynical leave campaign win against a complacent remain campaign in the first place. If the Queen really said such a stupid thing, she is like millions of other people in this country who seem to think leaving the EU will be easy-peasy and that trade deals can be easily done over a cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge.

Whatever the hell Theresa May meant by a "red, white and blue Brexit", one thing is clear. We are gearing up for another year of extreme levels of stupidity, possibly starting at Buckingham Palace. The other certainty is that Laura Kuenssberg will continue to be a responsible journalist but that won't stop elements of the left and the right criticising her without ever bothering to do a proper content analysis of her work.

2017: my expectations are very low indeed.

Photography by Maxwell Hamilton/Flickr

Sunday, 18 December 2016

An oath for oafs

Sajid Javid simply loves the idea of an oath of allegiance to British values! He is all excited after reading Dame Louise Casey's report on social cohesion because it recommends public office-holders take such an oath. Elected officials, civil servants and council workers would be expected to take this oath, should it ever become a requirement, according to the report.

But Sajid has taken an already scarily Orwellian idea one step further and said that all migrants, not just those seeking UK citizenship, should take the oath. 

Yep, he is mad about the oath. Sajid would rather talk about this oath instead of, oh, I dunno, his own decision to vote against landlords requiring their properties to be fit for human habitation while he is an actual landlord. But, hey, letting hard-working people pay through the nose to live in squalor is clearly a British value! Am I right, Sajid? Jolly good show, old chap! 

Hell, he is so keen to advocate for an oath that he has even started spitballing a few ideas for it. What a guy! I am so glad that as a permanent resident of Britain, owner of property in Britain, married to a British citizen, working, paying my taxes and voting in Britain, that Sajid is here to tell me how I can best direct my loyalty.

Sajid said the oath might include phrases such as "tolerating the views of others even if you disagree with them" as well as "believing in freedom of speech". OK, fine. So I have the freedom to say I find the vile and racist rantings of, say, Anjem Choudary or Jayda Fransen are utterly repulsive but I still must "tolerate their views"? I have zero tolerance for racism. If I had to take this oath, would I really mean it? What would happen to me if I publicly said I didn't tolerate the crap people like Choudary and Fransen come out with it? I'd be exercising my freedom of speech, as per the oath, but breaking the bit about tolerance.

"Freedom of religion" was another of Sajid's helpful suggestions. Yep, you can believe in whatever deity you like but what about freedom from religion? I am unimpressed, for example, that certain politicians voted against marriage equality with their religious beliefs being a factor in their decision. I find that sort of church-state crossover hard to tolerate - whoops, there I go again, being intolerant! Indeed, while we're talking about religion, would I be breaking the oath if I dared suggest that it is high time the Church of England was disestablished? If I say so, am I breaking the bit in Sajid's imaginary oath about believing in freedom of religion?

Sajid also suggested "freedom from abuse". If he means physical abuse, we already have laws against assault, rape and murder. These are laws everyone is expected to obey, whether or not they are a public official or not, and regardless of whether they were born here or came here from somewhere else. 

Or does he mean verbal abuse? If so, there are already laws against hate speech and death threats? Do the anti-hate speech laws contravene the "freedom of speech" part of the oath? Honestly, Sajid, this is a minefield! It's almost as if you're making this up as you're going along rather than thinking it through rationally.

Then Sajid said "a belief in equality, democracy and the democratic process" should be chucked into the oath which, the more I think about it, the more it starts looking like having about as much credibility as a pinky promise. Sajid, we currently have an openly misogynistic homophobe on the Commons Women and Equalities Committee in the form of Conservative MP Philip Davies. This is a man who this week tried to filibuster a bill to ratify the Istanbul Convention because men are victims of domestic violence too - even though the convention covers violence against men and women. If only there was a senior woman in the Conservative Party with the power to prevent ridiculous appointments to committees...

As for a belief in "democracy and the democratic process", sure, I can get on board with that. My belief in democracy extends to believing that the monarchy is undemocratic and has no real place in a modern society and that the House of Lords needs urgent reform. I am, apparently, free to say this but does the oath cover democracy and the democratic process as it currently exists or is there some wiggle room on that one, Sajid?

And finally, he suggested "respect for the law, even if you think the law is an ass". So this oath would mean that we must respect all laws at all times, no matter what? Blind loyalty for the win, eh Sajid? What if a public official who had to swear this oath found that stupid laws made their job impossible or compromised safety or would put a vulnerable person at risk? How would swearing to this part of the oath help whistleblowers who expose things that may well be legal but are morally wrong or dangerous or just plain ineffective? 

Sorry, Sajid, you're going to have to work much harder to convince me that this idea for an oath is not just creepy and chilling, but also that it is not completely and utterly useless. Would this sort of lip service really help different groups in communities come together or get along better? Would this prevent a single act of terrorism? Nope. And nope. 

What I do know is that I have lived here long enough to know this sort of forced patriotism, this ridiculous, ill-thought-out jingoism is just a stupid distraction by Sajid Javid and if it ever happened, it would not do a damn thing to improve anything.


Photography by Karen Arnold

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The lynch mob mentality is back. But did it ever really go away?

Gina Miller has received death threats, rape threats and utterly appalling sexist and racist abuse. This week a 55-year-old man from Swindon has been arrested over threats he is alleged to have made towards her.

And some people who disagree with Miller's role in using the court system to challenge the government on the way Article 50 should be triggered for Britain to the leave the European Union are actually apologising for the people who have made these threats. 

"What did she expect? She was asking for it!" has been the tone of the apologists. The same mentality that blames rape victims for their own attacks is now being applied to a woman who has every right to mount this challenge to Theresa May's increasingly useless government in regard to how we should leave the EU. 

Bear in mind the court challenge is not about keeping Britain in the EU, it is about putting the vote before parliament before triggering Article 50. Many Brexiters, despite banging on for months about sovereignty before the referendum, are now terrified of a ruling by Britain's independent judiciary that would mean our democratically elected members of parliament vote on how we should best proceed with the most monumental change to Britain's place in the world in our lifetimes. Miller and her fellow challengers are calling for the very model of British sovereignty to be used to start proceedings. Therefore it would appear that for many Brexiters, they only like sovereignty when it suits them, or they don't actually know what sovereignty means. 

In short, Gina Miller has - for making the case for Britain's exit from the EU to go through parliament - received death and rape threats. And people are saying she should have expected this.

No. Nobody should expect death and rape threats for having a different point of view. Miller should expect robust debate, certainly, but never death or rape threats. That is absolutely disgusting. In the year when Jo Cox MP was murdered for having a different political opinion to her killer, it is quite right that death and rape threats are taken seriously. We now know there are people out there who are barbaric enough to act on such threats.

Over in the United States, Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump's campaign manager, has also received death threats. And I have seen people with similar political views to my own take the same line elements of the political right have taken in the UK, that Conway is also deserving of death threats.

No. She is not. I am pretty sure I disagree with Conway on most issues, I do not see her a a feminist role model for helping get a self-confessed sexual predator into power, but do I think she deserves death threats? Absolutely not. She should expect to be challenged on everything she says, she should expect to be pilloried on Saturday Night Live, but she should not expect anyone to express an interest in killing her. 

When you know someone might want to kill you, it is absolutely terrifying. It is distressing, it erodes your trust in other people, it means you never quite feel safe. It is an awful punishment, a cruel psychological torture, and certainly not a punishment to fit the crime of having a different point of view. It is quite right that any civilised legal system takes death threats seriously.

The referendum result and the Trump victory in the US seem to have emboldened pitchfork wavers on both sides of the Atlantic.

But I am now starting to wonder if the pitchfork wavers ever went away. Are human beings in general even as civilised as we like to think we are? Multiple genocides have taken place since the world was shocked by the events under Adolf Hitler in WWII. And death penalty abolition is a relatively recent phenomenon in the context of centuries of history.

In Saudi Arabia and Iran, people are still executed in public, creating a repugnant spectacle. Thirty-one US states still have the death penalty. Nearly two-thirds of the world's countries still have the death penalty. The last person to be executed by guillotine in France was in 1977. In Britain, the death penalty was abolished in 1965, and in 1973 for Northern Ireland. 

When the death penalty was abolished in Britain, it took immense courage for members of parliament to do so in the face of much public opposition. After centuries of British history, in which so many people were lost to hangings, burnings at the stake, beheadings and obscenely imaginative torture, 1965 and 1973 marked a new era of modern civilisation. Our EU membership depends on not having the death penalty. Once we leave the EU, I would not be at all surprised to see renewed calls for a return to capital punishment. The possibility, no matter how remote, of Britain enjoying the civilising factor of no capital punishment for less than 100 years before it is swept back into the law books on a tide generated by a lynch mob mentality is sickening. 

And when we start accepting that outspoken people, and particularly right now, outspoken women, should expect death threats for daring to express polarising opinions in public, we regress as a society. We start picking away at the threads that hold society together, the threads that keep us civilised, that prevent us from turning into brutes and savages. 

Right now, those threads are more delicate than ever before.

Photo by Dan Lipinski/Flickr

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Enough with the "random nutter" narrative

We reached peak desperation from the right-leaning media last week when the Daily Mail website ran the following headline in relation to Thomas Mair, the man convicted and sentenced to a whole life term for the senseless murder of Labour Party MP Jo Cox: "Did Neo-Nazi murder Jo over fear he'd lose council house he grew up in? Terrorist thought property could end up being occupied by an immigrant family - and the MP wouldn't help him."

Firstly, fear of losing your council house does not justify shooting and stabbing a woman in the street in broad daylight. Secondly, the headline is nothing but vile speculation. Thirdly, it is stunning that we are meant to feel sorry for a man who is a textbook terrorist. He embodies the definition of a terrorist as someone who uses violence in pursuit of political aims.

We didn't find out until his trial that he repeatedly yelled: "Britain First!" and "This is for Britain! Britain will always come first!" as he murdered Jo Cox. It is disingenuous at best to think he was merely expressing a desire to put British interests first. As he killed a 41-year-old mother of two in cold blood.

Britain First is an extreme right political party that has been very successful on social media, but not at the ballot box, because of people unwittingly sharing their Facebook posts about issues most people largely agree on, such as opposing animal cruelty or helping homeless veterans, without realising they are a racist organisation. And there are enough people out there who agree with their bullshit and give it traction online.

The fact that he appears to have acted alone, that he was a lonely man, has softened the hard right narrative about Mair. But terrorism is not defined by the number of people involved in the act. It is about the motivations and Mair's motivations were political.

Because he did not kill Jo Cox while shouting "Allahu Akhbar!", because he is a socially awkward white man, he is more easily dismissed as a lone wolf, a random nutter.

The "random nutter" narrative is appalling. It is deeply insulting to all the people in Britain who struggle daily with mental health issues and manage to get through each day without committing murder. It minimises the seriousness of Mair's crime, it is a sly and repulsive distraction from his true motivations.

Just because he was a man of few friends, it does not mean his actions happened in a vacuum.

When Mair's house was searched, police discovered books on Nazi Germany, Nazi memorabilia, newspaper cuttings about Jo Cox. In the days and weeks before he committed his sickening act of terror, he searched online for information on whether a .22 bullet could kill someone if they were shot in the head, the human liver and vertabrae, political prisoners, serial killers, Nazi Germany, murders committed by the Ku Klux Klan, Jo Cox's Twitter page, coffins, paupers' funerals, lying in state, the anti-semitic and white nationalist Occidental Observer, former Conservative MP William Hague, and Ian Gow, who was the last MP to be murdered.

Mair is part of the extreme right and his views came about in the midst of anti-immigrant sentiments screaming from newspaper front pages. Sure, he took this to extremes with a house of Nazi paraphenalia but he is a product of a culture where it is perfectly OK to demonise all immigrants without question, to quote poorly extrapolated statistics about issues such as "health tourism" and refugees.

Welcome to the post-fact world! And the post-fact mentality, so beloved of ridiculous, hate-filled caricatures such as Milo Yiannopolous, has led to a post-responsibility mentality. The likes of the Daily Mail would sooner concoct a load of tripe about a family of imaginary immigrants threatening to move into poor little Thomas Mair's council house than take any responsibility for the messages they spew out that contribute to racism in this country and reduce constructive debate to a load of ill-informed noise.

But if we are quick to dismiss Mair as a random nutter, as someone whose obsession with Nazism is reduced to a cute eccentricity, we do ourselves no favours as a society. Mair, and people like Mair, are dangerous, hate-fuelled people.

I know this because I am related to one such person. My uncle, Stephen Lewis, died of cancer in Australia last year. It was a tragic death for its pitiful loneliness even if I do not miss his presence in my life. But while he was alive, I would tell people that if he went on a rampage with one of his guns, I would not be at all surprised.

Like Mair, Stephen had a house full of books on Nazism. They were stored in an orderly manner on his bookcase, with labels about their specific topics written on masking tape and stuck to the shelves. He dressed in army camouflage. He lived alone for most of his adult life. When he did speak, it was often to say something misogynistic or racist or homophobic. He was, most likely, a closeted, self-loathing gay man who felt like he could not come out, despite one of his cousins coming out as a lesbian without negative repercussions in my family.

He used to write bizarre letters to my grandfather when he was living in a nursing home, suffering from dementia. My grandfather never opened his mail so it was usually my father or I who would take a look. His letters described me as a "mongrel bitch", he told my grandfather I was working as a prostitute in the family home and, chillingly, said I'd be a "good target for his new gun".

And, like Mair, he was a man who had no real friends. In a sad way, this gives me hope for both Australian and British societies. It is darkly reassuring that I live in and hail from a society where the man who dresses in army camouflage, hoards Nazi books and memorabilia, owns guns, and whose conversation veers constantly to the racist, the sexist and the homophobic is a lonely man.

Bu while Mair and Stephen live on the fringes of society, never quite fitting in, struggling to hold down a job or form meaningful relationships, it has become quite clear by some of the revolting reactions to the murder of Jo Cox that such men have their sympathisers, their apologists and their defenders.

When the hatred boils over into acts of deadly violence against innocent people and people excuse this hatred and violence, we have a real problem. To pretend it's not political is to solve nothing.

Photography by Garry Knight/Flickr

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Why I won't join the Fidel Castro grief orgy

Fidel Castro is dead. And I, for one, will not be shedding a single tear for his passing.

As a journalist, I cannot mourn the passing of a man who on the day of his death left behind a country ranked at just 171 on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. Cuba is ranked 171 out of 180 countries. It is dwelling at the bottom with other press freedom dumpster fires such as North Korea, Eritrea and Syria. It rates lower than Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Turkey.

Just last month, Cuba arrested journalists who were attempting to cover the Hurricane Matthew disaster. Equipment was confiscated, and in the wake of harassment in recent months, some journalists have fled the country.

Raul Castro's calls for reforms in 2010 have been meaningless. The regime has almost 100 per cent ownership of all media outlets. Access to the internet for citizens is severely limited. Only around 5 per cent of Cubans have internet at home, all internet comes via the government-owned telco Etecsa. Opposition websites are blocked. There is no real editorial independence in Cuba. Censorship and threats to journalists trying to do their job are par for the course.

We will never know for certain how many people have been murdered under Fidel Castro's regime. The Cuba Archive has documented 3,615 firing squad executions since 1959. It's not on the same scale as the deaths under Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot or Mao but the mentality is the same - wipe out opposition and dissent through executions, a legal system without due process and labour camps.

Why would anyone who claims to chreish freedom, who is appalled by capital punishment, who believes in free and open political debate be OK with such repression, regardless of the scale?

"BUT FREE HEALTHCARE AND EDUCATION!" scream Castro's apologists.

Yeah, that's great as long as the educated, healthy people can actually fulfill their potential, travel freely, express their views freely, and enjoy access to a free press and a polling station once in a while. Have the apologists not noticed that plenty of countries have great educational and healthcare options and democracy? It should not be an either/or situation.

"BUT WHAT ABOUT THE US?!" the apologists yell.

It is precisely this non-nuanced, binary thinking that is turning the world into an idiocracy. It is possible to be angry about more than one thing. There is plenty to criticise the US over, especially in terms of foreign policy over multiple decades. But none of this will bring back the people who were on the receiving end of Castro's firing squads, or reunite families who have been separated, or bring peace to those who want to practice their faith without state repression.

People have risked their lives in dangerous sea voyages to escape the Castro regime. Yet it is stunning how many people who, I am certain, are quite rightly sympathetic to refugees escaping brutality, economic hardship and repression by sea in other parts of the world are seemingly unbothered by the plight of those who felt they had no choice but to leave Cuba. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.

Instead, I stand with the people who are dancing on the streets this weekend. The mere fact that I can sit here in London and criticise both the US and Cuba, and indeed Britain, without fearing for my life speaks volumes. Make mine a Cuba libre.

Photography by Kevin Burkett/Flickr

Sunday, 13 November 2016

The simple conclusion from Brexit and Trump

As anyone who either didn't vote for Britain to leave the European Union, or didn't vote for President-Elect Donald Trump, or was not a fan of either one or both these notions tries to process what has happened in 2016, there is one very simple conclusion.

A lot of us are more conservative than we think, and people in general are, quite simply pretty damn conservative. These results are largely about inherent conservatism.

Of course, this should have become obvious during last year's poll-defying general election in Britain. The predicted knife-edge result in a David Cameron versus Ed Milliband contest turned into a pretty comfortable win for Cameron's Conservatives. The phenomenon of secret Tories was born, the people who could really only express their true beliefs in the privacy of the polling booth.

And then it happened again when Brexit triumphed. Secret Brexiters were also in our midst, people who again dared not mention their intention to put their cross in the "leave" box or even to tell this to a pollster, but did so when nobody was looking.

And then, just as Trump promised when he said his victory would be "Brexit plus plus plus", the polls turned out to be utter bunkum, and typing the words "President-Elect Donald Trump" still feels weird to many a journalist's fingers, my own included.

Of course, "conservative" is a broad term. There are social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, some people fit into both categories, others are one or the other. But, if we are going to be honest, there is an element of conservatism in a lot of us. 

It takes many forms. Some of them you may recognise in yourself, some you may not. This is the part of us that claims to be a feminist yet fervently checks the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame to mock a famous woman who has had the temerity to put on weight or wear an unflattering dress. This is the person who claims to be socially liberal but still makes fun of the guests on Jeremy Kyle. This is the old school, hard left trade union type who is also a fervent anti-abortionist. This is anyone who likes the security of a monogamous marriage. This is the eyeroll when one sees how much tax comes out of their salary and mutters to oneself that they hope everyone on benefits appreciates their hard-earned. This is the reason why TV programmes such as Benefits Street and Geordie Shore keep getting made. It is the maintaining of a sexist, racist, classist double standard that allows Trump, with his five children to three wives to run for president, but such a marital track record would have denied Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton the same opportunity. It is the part of us that thanks the troops for their service, gets their kids christened despite being agnostic at best, and judges people's sex lives.

And it is this inherent conservatism that leads people to say things like: "Give Trump/Brexit a chance. It might be OK, after all." and "We need to accept the result and move on." Even if they didn't vote for the winning outcome. But for everyone who tells the world to take a chill pill, to calm down, that everything will be fine, there are people fearful in the wake of both the EU referendum and the ascension of Donald Trump. The inherent conservatism that leads to glib calls for calm is almost always based in privilege, from the people who genuinely don't think the referendum or election result will adversely affect them in any way at all.

While there are certainly people from the black, Asian, Hispanic, LGBT and Muslim communities - oh, and women - who voted for Donald Trump, there are plenty of people from these communities who are fearful as to what the future holds. Based on Trump's awful rhetoric, these are not irrational fears. If any of these fears come true, such as mass deportations, travel bans for an entire religion despite it being made up of 72 sects, a rollback of reproductive rights, a daft wall, more inter-racial violence, a society where it is even harder to be take seriously as a sexual assault victim, and so on and so forth, will those who voted for Trump take responsibility? Equally, will everyone who voted Brexit take responsibility if everything truly does turn to shit after the hounds of Article 50 are released?

After all, personal responsibility is a popular principle among conservatives. Will the conservatives who voted for Trump or Brexit take responsibility if their desired utopia does not materialise? 

And it all makes a mockery of left versus right. The lines between the left and the right are now blurred but the inherent conservatism is still there.

The Trump vote was not, as much as Jeremy Corbyn would like to think so, a massive anti-globalist, anti-establishment wake-up call. Donald Trump, in sending jobs to China (and now his daughter, Ivanka, the only woman on his transition team, in sending jobs from China to the even cheaper workforces of Ethiopia) has benefited enormously from globalisation. Plenty of people, stereotypical establishment types, figured they'd do well under Trump and voted accordingly. Conversely, there was certainly an element of anti-globalisation feeling among many a Brexiter, from the hard left to the protectionist right as well. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn are all apologists for Putin's Russia, even though it is a profoundly undemocratic, anti-freedom regime. 

Disturbingly - and elements of the left and right are equally appalling here - there are calls for censorship of journalists and of all manner of media outlets, as well as stifling of peaceful protests. Like the post-Brexit slanging matches, there are gloating Trump voters taking the "we won, get over it" line, as if democracy begins and ends at the ballot box. These people don't want to be challenged by protesters or by the media. And there are plenty on the left these days who are also mad about censorship and won't rest until the BBC morphs into Pravda, Laura Kuenssberg is replaced by Naomi Klein, and the Morning Star is the only newspaper available.

And when you look at who voted for Trump, and realise that there are plenty of educated, wealthy people among them, and when you realise that large swathes of England and Wales voted to leave the EU, even in areas that have benefited enormously from EU membership, it is clear that generalisations about every person who voted in these directions are grossly unhelpful if there is to be constructive dialogue about any of these issues any time soon. 

But there is certainly an undercurrent of inherent conservatism out there and it tells me that a populist leftist movement won't necessarily win out on either side of the pond. 

Elections are won on the centre ground - or the perceived centre ground - in the UK. Right now, the Tories have convinced broad swathes of the electorate that they hold the middle ground. Hell, there are still people who think the NHS is perfectly safe under this government, despite another £700m of our money going to Virgin Care in Somerset while remaining free from the accountability of freedom of information requirements. Indeed, the NHS is a solid example of inherent conservatism again rearing its head. There is no shortage of people who claim to support the NHS but still blame immigrants if they cannot get a GP appointment, have no issue with unchecked outsourcing of health services to the private sector "as long as it remains free at the point of use" and would not bat an eyelid if services such as IVF, transgender healthcare, abortion and birth control, were not covered by the NHS. 

Meanwhile, it's not quite apples and oranges when you compare it all with the US - there would be a political home in America for many a British Conservative MP in the Democrats, for example. David Cameron, Anna Soubry and Justine Greening, for example, would not look out of place as US Democrats, and it is actually not too hard to imagine Hillary Clinton sitting on the green leather benches of Theresa May's Conservative government. On top of all this, I am unconvinced that an ageing, Jewish-often-perceived-as-atheist, self-proclaimed socialist, such as Bernie Sanders would win over enough of America to lead a government. 

None of this points to either Britain or the US crying out for a hard left alternative, as disappointing as many will find that conclusion. While there are certainly differences between British and American societies, both nations are, at heart, conservative. And this is what the opponents of Brexit and Donald Trump need to address if they are to make a real impact.

Picture by Chris/Flickr