Scotland or Not-land?

 

From unsplash.com / © Stewart M

 

Most people in Scotland last week were disappointed, though probably not greatly surprised, to see their national team get a drubbing in the first round of the Euro 2021 tournament.  However, I suspect not everyone in Scotland was sad to see the team fail.

 

One person I’m sure was delighted was the Scottish, but very British-nationalist, blogger Effie Deans, who before the start of the tournament had tweeted a picture of a past Scotland-England football match and demanded angrily, “Why are there international matches between parts of the same country?” Similarly, I imagine certain fans of Glasgow Rangers, a football club whose culture revolves around such British symbols as the Queen and the Union Jack, weren’t sorry to see the Scottish national team flop.  Indeed, an article in the Daily Record newspaper on July 8th confirmed that some Rangers fans were unwilling to support Scotland during Euro 2021.

 

For Deans and a certain segment of the Rangers faithful, the belief seems to be that if you regard your country primarily as Britain, then you can’t support Scotland.  In fact, acknowledging Scotland on an international stage is damaging to your sense of Britishness and shouldn’t be encouraged.  Scotland?  No, it’s Not-land.

 

It’s not just in sport.  The idea that Scotland might have its own culture and languages is anathema to some people.  The right-wing Spectator magazine has printed pieces by embittered Scottish Daily Mail columnist Stephen Daisley and uptight Scottish composer James MacMillan complaining that (a) Scottish culture is infantile and embarrassing; but (b) if you’re stupid enough to be into Scottish culture, you’re somehow a Mussolini-type fascist too.  Amusingly, after MacMillan complained – falsely, because the man has actually won a number of Scottish awards – about Glaswegian novelist Andrew O’Hagan being cold-shouldered by the Scottish arts establishment for not being sufficiently supportive of Scottish independence, O’Hagan began, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, making favorable noises about Scotland becoming independent.

 

Particularly nasty has been the abuse aimed at the Scottish Gaelic and Scots languages.  Right-wing unionist twitter in Scotland is a constant whinge-fest about road-signs having names printed in Gaelic as well as in English.  Effie Deans again, complaining about travelling to Fort William last year: “The number of times I missed my turning made me wish the signs were in one language or the other, but not both…”  Well, dear, maybe try reading the parts of the signs that are written in the language you understand?

 

Meanwhile, dodgy, right-wing Unionist political carpetbagger George Galloway – at least, he’s right-wing when he’s in Scotland trying to hoover up Conservative votes; when he’s in England he campaigns as a left-wing man of the people – recently caused a pile-on on Scots-language poet Len Pennie after he made disparaging remarks on twitter about her and the medium in which she works.  And a few years back, Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Machar (poet laureate) received brickbats when one of her Scots-language poems was among the items given to new mothers as part of Scotland’s ‘baby box’ initiative.  “A woman from Bishopbriggs, writing doggerel,” sneered Ian Smart, prominent social media presence and self-styled ‘lefty lawyer’ and ‘Scottish Labour Party hack’.

 

Again, among many Scottish people who don’t see Scotland as a country but as a region, or as a big glorified county, of the mightier and more majestic entity that is the United Kingdom, there’s a conviction that Scottish culture can’t be real.  Accepting the existence of Scottish culture implies the place being different from the rest of the UK.  Therefore, culturally, there’s no such thing as Scotland either.  It’s Not-land.

 

From youtube.com

 

Predictably, the fact that there’s now a Scottish parliament in existence, separate from the parliament in London, is something that drives many British-loyal Scots to distraction, especially when the past 14 years have seen it run by a party, the Scottish National Party, dedicated to pulling Scotland out of their beloved UK.  Particularly guaranteed to make them gnash their teeth and froth at the mouth is any suggestion that the Scottish government, like the Scottish football team, might be recognized on an international level.  The moment First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pronounces on some international matter or dares to show her face at some international conference, Scottish twitter is raging with indignant people who have Union Jacks in their profiles (and usually the words ‘Rangers’ and the acronym ‘WATP’, which a Glasgow-Celtic-supporting friend assures me stands for ‘We adore the Pope’) slavering about her having ‘ideas above her station’ and being just the head of a ‘wee parish council’, and not knowing ‘her place’.  Can’t she see that she isn’t the First Minister of Scotland, but that of Not-land?

 

This desire to erase the concept of Scotland from everyone’s consciousness is, it has to be said, one that’s been exhibited lately by the British government too.  British diplomats have been ordered to stop talking about the ‘four nations’ of the UK and talk about it as a single country only, while supermarkets have seen a recent craze for plastering Union Jacks over foodstuffs made in Scotland.  Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that symbol of everything decent, moral, honest and faithful about dear old Blighty, was heard bragging that at the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow he was going to slather the event in Union Jacks and wouldn’t allow Nicola Sturgeon anywhere near it.

 

Just last Friday, Johnson’s education minster urged schools across the UK to honour something called One Britain, One Nation Day, wherein schoolchildren were made to sing a song, specially composed for the occasion, that ended with the four-times-repeated refrain: “Strong Britain, great nation!”  Though considering what’d come to light by Friday, I suspect the savvier kids had changed the words to: “Matt Hancock, penetration!”  Unfortunately, hopes that this would convert all Scottish children to worshipping Winston Churchill, Spitfires and the Union Jack were dashed by the fact that in Scotland most schools had broken up for the summer holidays the day before.

 

This strikes me as ironic because I’m old enough to remember a time in Scotland when it was perfectly possible for many people, possibly even a majority of people, to wear their Scottish identity as proudly as they wore their British identity and segue effortlessly from one to the other even when it involved expressing contradictory sentiments.  This meant they enthusiastically supported Scottish sports teams, enthusiastically recited Scots-language poetry by Robert Burns and, generally, enthusiastically indulged in all things Scottish: golf, whisky, tartan, ceilidhs, Highland games, etc.  Simultaneously, though, they thought the Royal Family were wonderful, cheered on the British Olympics team and got misty-eyed with nostalgia about how ‘we’, meaning Britain, had fought off the Nazis during World War II.

 

They also voted for anti-Scottish-independence political parties, mainly the Labour Party, although there was support for the Conservative Party too.  Scotland’s Tory MPs, incidentally, were experts at broadcasting a dual Scottish / British identity.  See Albert McQuarrie, MP for Banff and Buchan, who loved whisky and called himself the ‘Buchan Bulldog’; or Nicholas Fairbairn, the tartan-swathed representative of Perth and Kinross.  Although McQuarrie worshipped the ground Margaret Thatcher walked on, I think he was at heart a decent bloke.  Fairbairn, however, was a vile specimen.

 

When I look at Scottish right-wing / pro-British twitter, I see a common sentiment expressed in many of the profiles: “Hate what the SNP have done to Scotland!”  Which suggests that in the old days, before the SNP achieved political dominance, Scotland was a kinder, less partisan place.  But I remember it being far worse when there was no parliament, the SNP had only a handful of MPs and independence was regarded as a crazy pipe-dream.  In the 1980s, I recall crowds of Scottish rugby fans in pubs in Edinburgh, after international rugby matches, coming out with vehemently anti-English abuse that would probably get them arrested today.  Indeed, English rugby skipper Will Carling has terrible memories of playing in Edinburgh in 1991, when the Scottish Rugby Union decided to air the anthem Flower of Scotland, with its references to sending the English ‘homeward, to think again,’ before the start of the match.  There was, he claimed, “more noise, more patriotism – more hatred – than I have ever experienced”.  Yet many of these Scottish rugby enthusiasts were well-to-do and would have voted Tory. The prospect of an independent Scotland would have horrified them.  Evidently, feeling British for a good part of the time was no barrier to you wanting to stick it to the English.

 

Incidentally, before the SNP took power in Scotland and even before the Scottish parliament was created, Scotland was still allowed near the international stage occasionally.  This was despite it being an era when Margaret Thatcher and then John Major ran Scotland from London with what at times seemed an imperious disdain you’d associate with a colonial governor.  For instance, in 1993, while I was living on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, I remember the Scottish Office sending a group of officials there for a special Hokkaido-Scotland link-up.  I blagged an invitation to the event through a Japanese colleague with political connections who’d later serve in the House of Representatives in the Japanese Diet.  Obviously, the Scottish group had the delicate job of talking up Scotland without commenting on the running of the place by their bosses, the British Conservative government, whom few Scottish people had voted for.  They remained impeccably straight-faced, non-committal and evasive when, during a panel discussion, my colleague raised the possibility of a devolved Scottish parliament being set up.  (Actually, I’d primed her to mention this.) Their masks only slipped, from blandness to dismay, at the reception afterwards.  Some hapless Hokkaido bigwig gave them a speech of welcome and told them how he loved “that great Scottish song, Danny Boy.

 

© James S. Kerr

 

I suspect the comfortable co-existence of Scottish and British loyalties was fostered largely by the military. The British Army’s Scottish regiments were canny in exploiting soldiers’ sense of Scottishness, decking them out in tartan and having them led by pipe bands, even while they defended and promoted Britain, the Crown and the Empire (an empire that, admittedly, the Scots did very well out of).  I found it fascinating in my youth to see how normally uppity and cantankerous Scotsmen would suddenly become deferential and forelock-tugging at the sound of a posh, officer-class, English accent.  However, cuts to the military budget have left the 21st century British Army a shadow of its former self and the old Scottish infantry regiments have been reduced to just one, the Royal Regiment of Scotland.  So that influence barely exists now.

 

Another thing that once made Scots feel proudly British, certainly working-class ones, was the existence of many nationalized industries that provided them with employment and had the name ‘British’ in their titles: British Coal, British Gas, British Rail, British Steel and so on.  These encouraged the idea that working-class Scots were toiling alongside their comrades in England and Wales for a common cause, for the good of a benign, fair, welfare-state-supporting UK.  Of course, that idea died a death when Thatcher, with her zeal for privatizing the British economy, arrived in power in the 1980s.

 

I’m not sure how this will end.  It may be that Scotland gets another shot at an independence referendum in the future and votes to go its own way.  Or it may be that the stringent British nationalism / unionism of the 21st century prevails and Scotland becomes merely a Union-Jack-swathed province at the rump-end of right-wing, post-Brexit Britain.  If the latter option happens, I expect Westminster to abolish the Scottish parliament at some point.  Not-land indeed.

 

But what’s isn’t an option now is the comfy middle-ground, the old fashioned, dual-loyalty, at-ease-with-both-worlds, Scottish / British identity.  As far as that’s concerned…  Well, to quote a well-kent Scottish anthem: “Those days are past now, and in the past, they must remain.”

 

From unsplash.com / © Kristina G.

The kraken’s un-woke

 

© BBC / From the Guardian

 

Are you one of those many British people who feels ‘underserved and unheard by their media’ because your politics are a wee bit to the right?  Are you hostile towards that trendy left-wing phenomenon called ‘wokeness’ and convinced that ‘the direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly woke and out of touch with the majority of its people’?

 

Yes, life must be horrible for you in 2021 Britain.  There’s absolutely nobody in the British media to defend your views because it’s all so hideously lefty and woke.  Well, except for the Daily Express.  And the Daily Mail, of course.  But aside from those two newspapers, there’s nobody…  Oh, and the Sun.  And the Daily Telegraph.  And the Spectator.  And a good chunk of the opinion pages of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times.  But that’s it.

 

Meanwhile, with so many volleys of lefty, woke bullets whizzing around nowadays, there aren’t any right-wing commentators at all who’re bold enough to stick their heads above the parapet.  Apart from Toby Young, bless his baldy little socks.  And that feisty Julie Burchill.  And Jeremy Clarkson, James Delingpole, Darren Grimes, Daniel Hannon, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Katie Hopkins, Quentin Letts, Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn, Kelvin Mackenzie, Jan Moir, Tim Montgomerie, Charles Moore, Douglas Murray, Fraser Nelson, Brendan O’Neill, Alison Pearson, Melanie Phillips, Andrew Pierce and Sarah Vine.  And that plucky actor chappie, what’s his name?  Lawrence Fox?  Anyway, there’s only a tiny handful of brave right-wing holdouts against wokeness.  You can’t even include Piers Morgan among them.  Poor Piers used to be good on Good Morning Britain, but he’s been off the telly since his crusade against Meghan Markle, Woke Evil Personified, made him so angry that his head burst in a geyser of liquified gammon.

 

Thus, there’s hardly any media outlets or media people in Britain to defend your honest, decent, patriotic, right-wing sensibilities against the predations of the horrible, lefty, woke establishment.  That’s an establishment headed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. That’s right, the shamelessly woke Boris ‘tank-topped bumboys’, ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles’, ‘Muslim-women-look-like-letterboxes’ Johnson.  An establishment run by a cadre of Marxist provocateurs like Priti Patel, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, who’re forever up to no-good, lefty, woke activities such as imprisoning asylum seekers in pestilent hellholes, protecting statues of mass-murdering slave traders, wallpapering the rooms where they do Zoom calls with Union Jacks, and doing anything up to and including eating live cockroaches and hammering rusty nails into their eyeballs to prove their loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen.

 

Luckily, salvation is now at hand.  Today sees the launch of a new TV channel called GB News, which promises to push a right-wing agenda that all sensible, salt-of-the-earth Britons will agree with and promises to call out this woke nonsense that possesses our lefty British media and government.  Needless to say, just by existing, GB News has gone against the grain of the British establishment, and its creation is thanks to the efforts of several, heroic, anti-establishment figures.  These include financial backers like the anti-establishment American TV company Discovery; and the anti-establishment investment fund Legatum, which is based in that hotbed of punk rock, Dubai; and the anti-establishment hedge-fund boss Sir Paul Marshall, whose son Winston plays the banjo in Mumford & Sons, a band so hardcore anti-establishment it makes Rage Against the Machine look like wimps.

 

And the chair and main presenter of GB News is the most awesomely anti-establishment figure you can imagine: Andrew Neil.  Well, he’s anti-establishment if you look at his CV with one eye closed and the other eye half-open and manage somehow to miss his 11 years as editor of the Sunday Times; his involvement in the founding of Sky TV; his decade as editor-in-chief with the Barclay Brothers’ Press Holdings group, overseeing the Scotsman, the Business and the European; his 15 years as chairman of the publishing company ITP Media Group (also based in Dubai, home of the Sex Pistols and the Clash); and his 17 years with the BBC.  And that villa he owns in the South of France.

 

Anyway, setting the sarcasm aside for a moment… I was aware of Neil’s malign influence in the British media from an early age.  At school at the start of the 1980s, I did a Scottish Higher course in Modern Studies and I remember being advised by the teacher, Sandy Bowick, to read a ‘quality Sunday newspaper like the Observer or the Sunday Times’ every weekend to keep abreast of what was happening politically in the world.  Accordingly, I got into the habit of reading the Sunday Times, which was still under the stewardship of the much-respected Harold Evans.  But tragically, the gimlet-eyed Rupert Murdoch acquired the Sunday Times in 1981 and by 1983 had installed Andrew Neil as its editor.  Neil wasted no time in transforming this once laudable newspaper into the snide, shrill, right-wing shout-sheet that it remains to this day.

 

The Sunday Times wasn’t the only example of a newspaper being subjected to Andrew Neil’s reverse-Midas touch, i.e., instantly turning to shit in his hands.  Hired by the Barclay Brothers in the mid-1990s, newspapers he supervised like the European and the Business suffered declining sales and eventually folded.  Worst of all, he became editor-in-chief of Edinburgh’s one-time quality daily, the Scotsman.  It’s hard to believe today but the Scotsman was a newspaper that once was widely read, made its points intelligently and carried some influence – as much as any newspaper published 400 miles from London could.  Among other things, up until the 1990s, the Scotsman was a keen supporter, in its cautious and genteel way, of constitutional change in Scotland to allow the country more say in running its affairs.

 

In the late 1990s, after spending most of the decade in Japan, I found myself living in Edinburgh and I assumed I’d get into the habit of reading the Scotsman again.  I bought a few issues and gave up.  It’d suddenly acquired an unpleasantly right-wing editorial tone.  It was scathing about the idea that Scotland should get any degree of home-rule from London, even though the Scottish population had just voted for the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in a referendum in 1997.  Hold on, I thought.  Hadn’t the Scotsman, the old Scotsman, been in favour of Scottish devolution?  Then one night I saw Neil’s visage on a Scottish current affairs programme, where he was introduced as ‘editor-in-chief at the Scotsman’.  Horribly, it all fell into place for me.  Oh no, he’s back, I despaired. Returned to wreck yet another, once perfectly-good newspaper.

 

I suspect Neil’s tenure at the Scotsman alienated the Scottish demographic that it needed to survive as a healthy business concern.  I knew plenty of folk in Edinburgh who were around my age and, like me, were centre or left politically and interested in current affairs.  They weren’t young enough to be into new-fangled digital media and would have happily bought a traditional, physical newspaper if they thought it was worth reading. But whenever its name came up in conversation, such people would shrug and say dismissively, “The Scotsman?  Never read it now.”

 

Although Neil had nothing to do with the Scotsman after it was acquired by the London-based Johnston Press in 2005, the newspaper remained on the right, where he’d dragged it, and never recovered from the dose of journalistic syphilis it’d contracted from him during his regime.  By 2018, it was in the hands of JPIMedia and had a daily circulation figure – the one currently quoted on its Wikipedia page – of under 16,400 copies.  It’d had to lay off staff-members, reduce its numbers of pages and supplements, and flit from its old headquarters on Holyrood Road to a new one on Queensferry Road that was less than half the size and a third of the rent.  The last time I looked at it, much of what it printed was either shallow and vacuous, or hysterical, kneejerk, Daily Mail / Daily Express-style crap.

 

You’d think that with his antipathy to all things mild-mannered, lily-livered, pussyfooting and, well, woke, Andrew Neil would have given the BBC a body-swerve.  And yet during the past two decades he’s done very nicely out of the venerable corporation.  Most prominently, he hosted the BBC’s This Week programme (2003-2019), in which Michael Portillo, Diane Abbott and him would sit in a studio and discuss the week’s current affairs whilst indulging in a gruesome three-way mutual-admiration / flirtation fest.  Indeed, at the time, I thought it was the most fascinatingly dreadful thing on British television.  Not only did Neil and co. believe they were offering cutting insights into the nation’s politics, but they also seemed to think they were cool.  Funny, even.  And nothing is worse than people who think they’re funny, but aren’t funny, trying to be funny.

 

For example, I can think of few things more ludicrous than the sight of Neil and Portillo prancing around in the style of the video for Peter Kay’s chart-topping Is This the Way to Amarillo, as they did during the title sequence of one episode in 2005.  At least in 2018, when they got Bobby Gillespie from the impeccable post-punk, alternative-rock band Primal Scream onto This Week to talk about Brexit – yes, this is a strange sentence I find myself writing – Gillespie summed up the viewers’ feelings at the episode’s end.  By this point, Neil, Michael Portillo and Caroline Flint (drafted in as a replacement for Diane Abbott) had jumped up and starting cavorting around the studio in the manner of the briefly popular, crap Internet dance craze the Skibidi Challenge.  Not only did Gillespie refuse to take part in this cringe-inducing farrago, but he sported the stony countenance of a man who’d just discovered a giant dog turd on the end of his shoes.  (Mind you, having Michael Portillo dad-dancing beyond the ends of your shoes wouldn’t be much better.)

 

 ©BBC / From clashmusic.com

 

I’ve written scornfully about Andrew Neil and GB News and the guff they’ve tried to peddle about being some courageous, anti-establishment bulwark against a supposed tidal wave of wokeness.  It’s complete disingenuous garbage.  However, I have no doubt that they’ll find an audience.  One thing about right-wingers is their unswayable belief that they’re the victims, even when a mountain-range of evidence proves they’re actually the victors.  Britain has been in thrall to right-wing doctrines since the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher proclaimed there was ‘no such thing as society’, till today, when those in power claim to belong to the Conservative Party but are basically Nigel Farage’s reactionary, xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in all but name.  For a few years in the middle, Tony Blair might have constituted a blip, but he was hardly a left-wing blip.  Yet in the paranoid minds of right-wing Britons in 2021, the nonsensical belief that everything they hold dear is threatened by Marxists and social justice warriors is probably more intense than ever.

 

He might be an utter chancer, but there’ll always be plenty of deluded souls willing to lap up Andrew Neil’s brand of bullshit.

Don’t play it again, Salm

 

© Slainte Media / RT / From archive.org

 

On March 26th, six weeks before the elections for the Scottish Parliament, former Scottish First Minister and former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond launched his new Alba party to contest those elections.

 

In response to the news, George Galloway – a man with a lengthy political CV himself, having been Labour MP for Glasgow Hillhead, Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow and Bradford West and leader of the Respect Party, and now leader of the Alliance for Unity party, which he launched last year in anticipation of the Scottish parliamentary elections too – tweeted: “So it’s me and Alex Salmond in the ring.  Heavyweights.  Him for separatism, me for the union.  Seconds away…”

 

In the event, neither Salmond’s Alba nor Galloway’s Alliance for Unity got enough votes to send any of their representatives to the Scottish Parliament.  The former amassed 44,913 votes and the latter managed 23,299 out of a total of 2,716,547 votes cast.  So that tweet, as they say, aged well.  Both heavyweights got their arses kicked.

 

I’m not shedding any tears over Galloway’s humiliation.  He’s a politician whose couple of good deeds – his involvement with the Scotland United campaign for the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in the early 1990s; squaring up to a US Senate committee investigating the Food for Oil programme in the aftermath of the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2005 – have been obliterated in the public memory by the tsunami of crap things he’s done in his endless quest to promote himself.  These include dishing religious-related dirt on his political opponents during his campaigns with the Respect Party; defending the execution of a gay man by the Iranian government whilst working for Press TV, funded by the same government, in 2008; climbing onto the Nigel Farage bandwagon by endorsing a vote for Brexit in 2016; hugging extreme right-wing strategist and evil incarnate Steve Bannon in 2019; and, let us never forget, pretending to be a cat slurping cream off Rula Lenska’s lap on the 2006 series of Celebrity Big Brother.

 

Meanwhile, lately, Galloway’s antics during his doomed campaign to get into the Scottish Parliament via the second-vote / proportional-representation ‘list’ system have included him urging voters to give their first vote to the Conservative Party (the former left-wing firebrand had declared a few years earlier, “If you ever see me standing under a Union Jack shoulder-to-shoulder with a Conservative, please shoot me”); causing a twitter pile-on, intentionally or unintentionally, against Scots-language poet Len Pennie; making unsavoury references to the ethnicity of Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf (“You are not a Celt like me”); making a hilarious video where he sucked up to the Scottish Gamekeepers Association and promised to end Green Party ‘tyranny over rural communities’ whilst resembling a cast member from Last of the Summer Wine (he obviously believed gamekeepers had short memories considering that in 2002, as an MP, he’d supported a hunting ban); and generally trying to reinvent himself as a true-blue, Union Jack-waving, Churchill-and-spitfires-obsessed slab of gammon.

 

Now that he’s torched every left-wing principle he once professed to have for the sake of self-promotion, it’d be nice to think that this beyond-disastrous election result will make Galloway slink off beneath a rock and never show his face again.  But of course he won’t.  He’ll be back.  The creature knows no shame.

 

I’m not shedding tears for Alex Salmond either, but I’ll admit to feeling at least slightly conflicted.  For the last 35 years, since the dark days when Margaret Thatcher ran Scotland with the imperious disregard one would give a colonial possession, Scottish politics have felt like a rollercoaster with both giddy peaks and despairing troughs.  And Salmond has been a constant presence on that rollercoaster.  I know plenty of people who loathe him but I’ve seen him as a force for both the good and the bad, the good earlier on and bad more recently.  It’s the memory of the good things that gives me a twinge of sadness to see him end up like this, even if he brought most of it upon himself.

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

I remember when I first saw him.  One afternoon in early 1987, while a fourth-year undergraduate student, I was nursing a pint in the Central Refectory building at Aberdeen University.  I noticed from the corner of my eye a group of students whom I knew as members of the campus branch of the SNP – Alan Kennedy, Val Bremner, Gillian Pollock, Nick Goode – enter and wander over to the counter.  They were in the company of a young, round-faced bloke in an un-studenty suit, shirt and tie.  I identified him as an up-and-coming SNP politician whom Alan Kennedy, a good mate of mine, had told me was standing in the next general election in nearby Banff and Buchan against the incumbent Conservative Party MP Albert McQuarrie.  He’d come to the university that day to address the SNP group and this was the SNP students showing their visitor some post-talk hospitality.  The politician, I’d been assured, was one to watch.  Indeed, Alan said something along the lines of: “He’s going to do great things.”

 

A few months later, on June 11th, the general election took place and this rising SNP star wrestled Banff and Buchan away from Albert McQuarrie and became its new MP.  I recall McQuarrie, a doughty old-school Scottish Tory MP who revelled in the nickname ‘the Buchan Bulldog’, bursting into tears during a subsequent interview at what he saw as the unfairness and indignity of losing his beloved constituency to an SNP whippersnapper.  He was perhaps the first politician, but certainly not the last, to have his nose put out of joint by Alex Salmond.

 

By the early 1990s, Salmond was SNP leader.  I lived in London at the time and occasionally I’d drink with a Labour Party spin doctor, also from Scotland.  He had no inhibitions about telling me, at every opportunity, what a detestable creep he thought Salmond was.  With his appropriately smart-Alec manner and habitual smirk, which frequently expanded into a Cheshire-cat grin, and a general arrogance that no doubt came from knowing he was intellectually streets ahead of the numpties making up the majority of Westminster’s Scottish Labour MPs, you could understand how much of an annoyance Salmond was to his opponents.  But back then the SNP had just three MPs, so at least he could be dismissed as a minor annoyance.

 

How long ago that seems now.  In those far-off days, the Labour Party controlled much of Scotland at council level, provided the lion’s share of Scottish MPs for Westminster and, when it arrived in 1999, dominated the Scottish parliament too.  If their party also happened to be in power at Westminster, which it was occasionally, Scottish Labour-ites surely felt like masters of all they surveyed.  If the Conservatives were in power at Westminster, which they were most of the time, those Scottish Labour-ites grumbled a bit, but diplomatically kept their heads down while right-wing Tory policies were imposed on Scotland.

 

Then in 2007 the sky fell in.  Salmond’s SNP won the biggest number of seats in the Scottish parliament and he became Scotland’s First Minister.  The SNP have remained in power there during the 14 years and three Scottish parliamentary elections since.  They also won the majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats in the UK general elections in 2015, 2017 and 2019.  They lost the independence referendum in 2014 – an event that led to Salmond resigning as First Minister and making way for his deputy and supposed protégé Nicola Sturgeon – but the percentage of the vote they got, 45%, was still far more than what anyone had expected at the campaign’s start.  They upended the cosy old tradition of Scottish deference to the London-based overlords.  Thank God for that, in my opinion.

 

© William Collins

 

This stuck in many craws. Not just in those of the Scottish Labour Party, with its historical sense of entitlement, but in those of the majority of Scotland’s newspapers, whose hacks had enjoyed a close relationship with the old political clique and liked to see themselves as part of Scotland’s establishment. It must have horrified them to discover that, no matter how negatively they reported the SNP and its performance in government, a significant proportion of the Scottish public ignored them and kept on voting SNP.  Meanwhile, the grin of Alex Salmond, the bastard who seemed emblematic of their good times coming to an end, grew ever wider, his mood grew ever merrier and his girth grew ever more Falstaffian.

 

However, from 2017 onwards, Salmond’s many foes scented blood.  2017 saw him lose the Westminster seat that, after quitting as Scottish First Minister, he’d been elected to in 2015.  That same year, he put on at the Edinburgh Festival a chat-show called Alex Salmond: Unleashed, which from all accounts was a graceless, self-indulgent and ego-driven mess.  Soon after, he developed his stage-show into a programme called The Alex Salmond Show, which was broadcast on RT, Russia’s international English-language news channel.  Associating himself with Vladimir Putin’s televisual voice to the world was not a wise move.  Salmond hadn’t just given his detractors ammunition to use against him.  He’d handed them a whole arsenal.

 

I’d always assumed there was no dirt to dig up on Salmond, for the simple reason that if there had been, his enemies in the old Scottish establishment would have dug it up and used it to wreck his reputation long ago.  Thus, it was a surprise in 2018 when the Daily Record newspaper reported that Salmond faced allegations of sexual misconduct while he’d been First Minister.  This had lately been the subject of an inquiry by the Scottish government and its findings had been passed on to the police.  Although Salmond made sure there was a legal review of this, which resulted in the Scottish government admitting that its investigative procedures had been flawed and paying him half a million pounds in legal expenses, the police still charged him with 14 offences, including two counts of attempted rape, in 2019.

 

One year later, Salmond was cleared of these charges. The prosecutors dropped one charge, the jury found him not guilty of 12 more and the final charge was deemed ‘not proven’.  Nonetheless, Salmond’s defence admitted he’d acted inappropriately, had been overly ‘touchy feely’ with female staff and ‘could certainly have been a better man’.

 

Meanwhile, the Scottish government and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, now totally at odds with Salmond, were subject to both an investigation by a Scottish Parliamentary committee and an independent investigation by Irish lawyer James Hamilton about how they’d handled, or mishandled, the affair.  The committee concluded there’d been both individual and corporate incompetence but these conclusions weren’t enough to topple Sturgeon.  Hamilton judged that Sturgeon hadn’t breached the ministerial code, something that Salmond and his supporters, convinced of a conspiracy against him in high places, maintained she had.

 

From facebook.com

 

Salmond claimed his new Alba Party, supposedly more gung-ho in its desire for Scottish independence than the cautious SNP, was not another attempt to undermine Sturgeon.  But it was generally perceived as an effort to diminish her party’s vote in the May 6th Scottish election – Salmond’s revenge as a dish served cold, a year after his acquittal.  Whether Alba’s purpose was malevolent or benevolent, it didn’t succeed.  The SNP ended up with 64 seats in the new parliament, with the Greens bumping up the number of pro-independence MSPs to 72, compared with the Unionist parties’ tally of 57 MSPs and Alba’s tally of zero.

 

It didn’t help Alba’s cause that it attracted a lot of fringe-dwelling dingbats in the independence movement, dingbats whom I’m sure Sturgeon’s SNP will be glad to see the back of.  These included one vocal faction who seemed to spend all their time baiting and frothing against trans people.  It also didn’t help that Salmond showed little contrition for his past misbehaviour.  Fair enough, that misbehaviour hadn’t been enough to warrant a court conviction and prison sentence.  But it did make him come across as a sleazebag whom no young woman would want to be around.

 

One thing I will say in Salmond’s defence.  While I find claims of a conspiracy against Salmond in the upper echelons of the Scottish government, legal system and police force fanciful – conspiracies imply objectives, strategies and clear thinking, and to me the messiness of Salmond’s investigation and trial simply suggests witless blundering – I agree with his supporters that the Scottish press was pretty disgraceful in how it reported the case.  From columnist Alex Massie trumpeting at the investigation’s outset that ‘whatever happens, it’s over for Salmond’, to the Herald previewing the trial with a ‘Big Read’ feature that it illustrated with pictures of the Yorkshire Ripper, Fred and Rosemary West, the Moors Murderers, Dennis Nilsen, Charles Manson and Adolf Eichmann, to a dodgy, nod-and-a-wink post-trial documentary by the BBC’s Kirsty Wark, the tone of the coverage didn’t suggest that a person is ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  Rather, it suggested that a person is ‘guilty because we want them to be guilty’.

 

But that’s the only thing I’ll say in his defence.

 

Meanwhile, post-election, Salmond has announced his intention to become an influential Twitter presence, just as a certain former US president once was.  “I am going to unleash myself on Twitter,” he said the other day, “now that Donald Trump has created a vacuum for me.” No, Alex, don’t.  Just don’t.  Call it a day for Christ’s sake.

 

It isn’t so much that the Salmond Rollercoaster has reached the bottom of the deepest dip yet.  It’s more that the Salmond Rollercoaster has run out of track.

 

From the Jersey Evening Post

Soft power? No, soft in the head

 

From unsplash.com / © Jannes Van Den Wouwer

 

“And our hard power, conference, is dwarfed by a phenomenon that the pessimists never predicted when we unbundled the British Empire, and that is soft power – the vast and subtle and pervasive extension of British influence around the world that goes with having the language that was invented and perfected in this country, and now has more speakers than any other language on earth.

 

“And up the creeks and inlets of every continent on earth there go the gentle, kindly gunboats of British soft power, captained by Jeremy Clarkson – a prophet more honoured abroad, alas, than in his own country – or J.K. Rowling ,who is worshipped by young people in some Asian countries as a kind of divinity, or just the BBC.  And no matter how infuriating and shamelessly anti-Brexit they can sometimes be, I think the Beeb is the single greatest and most effective ambassador for our culture and our values.”

 

So spoke Boris de Piffle Johnson at the Conservative Party conference in 2016 on the subject of soft power and the United Kingdom’s ability, at least back then, to project it.  The term ‘soft power’ was coined in the 1980s by Joseph Nye, who described it as ‘getting others to want the outcomes you want’ on an international level. With sufficient soft power, a country can influence other countries through them ‘admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness’ rather than by ‘threatening military force or economic sanctions’ against them.

 

According to Nye, a country’s soft power comes from its culture, political values and foreign policies and its success in communicating and marketing these to an international audience. The UK had several historical advantages here. It was the original exporter of what is currently the world’s most popular international language, a language that, handily, it shares with the world’s number-one superpower.  It was also once a superpower itself, a ruthlessly imperial one, which left a legacy of connections around the world with its former colonies.  And, before 2016, it enjoyed a position as one of the main players in the European Union.

 

With these channels in place, all the UK needed were effective agents to facilitate the flow of its soft power and it had these in abundance too.  Not so long ago, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Development (DFID), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the British Council (BC) did a great deal to promote the UK abroad in the fields of, respectively, diplomacy, development, broadcasting and education.  It helped too that the UK had many world-famous educational, cultural and sporting brands it could draw on, ranging from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and William Shakespeare to Manchester United and the Beatles.  Though Johnson, never one to let the fear of appearing crass get in the way of what he thinks is a jolly joke, claimed that much of the UK’s soft power was due to foreign petrolheads getting off on Top Gear.

 

It’s been a long time since I felt any affinity for the UK as a political entity.  I would, for instance, be happy to see Scotland become independent of it.  But I still feel I have a dog in the fight over the issue of British soft power because for most of the last quarter-century I’ve worked for various organisations and institutions in the fields of education and development that, directly or indirectly, have helped to promote British soft power abroad.  This hasn’t bothered me too much.  The days of the imperialist British Empire mentality were, I thought, long gone.  And although there have been a few catastrophic foreign policy errors, such as Tony Bliar’s decision to involve the UK in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I thought that the ‘values’, ‘examples’ and ‘openness’ Britain promoted abroad weren’t negative ones.  At least, in the early 21st century, they could have been worse.  I wouldn’t necessarily say the UK was one of the good guys as far as countries went, but it seemed one of the better guys.

 

That, however, was before the disaster of 2016’s Brexit referendum vote and the decision by voters in Britain – well, in England and Wales – to amputate the country from the European Union and embrace a parochial Little Englander nationalism.  This was promulgated by an array of shameless opportunistic chancers like Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Cummings, Daniel Hannan, Aaron Banks and of course Johnson himself.  Cheering them on was Britain’s right-wing press, owned by the billionaire likes of Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers.

 

Johnson’s government, and that of Theresa May before him, have done their best to play to a gallery of xenophobes, reactionaries, gammons and flag-shaggers, making decisions that right-wing tabloid headlines construe as sticking up for plucky little Blighty whilst giving Johnny Foreigner one in the eye.  In fact, what they’ve succeeded in doing is eroding the once-impressive edifice of British soft power on the international stage.  You can read about Britain’s decline in the world’s soft-power rankings here.

 

One example of this, perhaps small in the general scheme of things but telling in its malignant stupidity, is how the decision by Johnson’s government to cut UK overseas bilateral aid by at least 50% has impacted on the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) organisation.  VSO is dependent for half its budget on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which is the unwieldy result of DFID being amalgamated with the FCO in 2020.  With the foreign aid budget decimated, VSO is now preparing to shut operations in 14 countries, wind down its Volunteering for Development scheme and end its Covid-19 response initiative, which supports four-and-a-half million people in 18 countries.  This follows on from the demise of VSO’s International Citizen Service in February.

 

 

I worked as a volunteer with VSO in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001.  Now, thanks to some of my experiences there and elsewhere, I’m cynical about much of what goes on in the international aid and development industry and I agree with criticisms of it made in books like Graham Hancock’s The Lords of Poverty (1989) and Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid (2010).  In Ethiopia, where I worked as an instructor at a teacher-training institute, I went into primary school classes containing 40 or more pupils who often had to share one textbook in groups of three or four and had to sit on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs.  Classrooms often had gaping holes in their floors, broken furniture and no electricity.  Meanwhile, officials at the local Regional Educational Board luxuriated in carpeted, air-conditioned offices equipped with computers, printers and projectors.  The money given to the region’s educational budget by a Scandinavian aid organisation had never percolated down past the hands of the middle-class bureaucrats into which it’d been entrusted.

 

The campus I worked on featured its own monument to aid-industry inefficiency.  It contained a language laboratory that’d been gifted by French money.  I’m not sure if that language lab had ever worked but it certainly wasn’t in use while I was there.  It was full of big, dust-covered consoles that, like computers in a flashy 1960s spy thriller, used clunky spools of tape.  Whoever had signed the original cheques hadn’t done any research.  They hadn’t realised that the language-teaching world’s preferred medium for giving students practice in listening, especially in a rough-and-tumble environment like 1990s Ethiopia, was the humble, durable and portable audio-cassette tape.

 

But VSO’s modus operandum was not about spending money that was vulnerable to being misappropriated by corruption or incompetence.  It recognised that the key was training.  Transferring skills from one person to another, so that the recipient is able to do his or her job better, leads to sustainable positive changes.  Accordingly, the people who volunteered to work for VSO were experienced professionals in their home countries. By doing a similar job in the same field in what was then termed ‘a developing country’, they could contribute to improving the training and performances of the local people they worked beside.  This wasn’t because they were better professionals than their local peers.  They’d just had the advantage of having trained and worked in more developed countries.

 

One important feature of VSO was that its volunteers earned the same salary as their local colleagues.  This meant they shared the same working and living conditions as the locals did – unlike employees of other aid agencies, there was no living in fancy compounds, working in high-tech offices or travelling in supersized 4x4s for them.  Therefore, the problems faced by local professionals during their jobs were as much of a headache for the VSO volunteers too, and together they had to devise solutions to these problems that drew on local knowledge, were realistic and would actually work on the ground.

 

In my criticisms of foreign aid, then, I’m not arguing that budgets should be slashed.  If necessary, they should be recalibrated so that training and sustainability are at the fore, if those things aren’t already.  As the old proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

 

 

I knew from the responses of Ethiopian friends and colleagues that VSO’s work in their country earned much respect for Britain at the time.  Meanwhile, my VSO experiences did a lot for me personally, helping me to become more organised, practical, resourceful, confident and diplomatic.  So Britain and the VSO volunteers benefitted as much as the local folk did.  It was a win-win-win situation.

 

The fact that government cuts have subjected VSO to this crisis shows what hot air Boris Johnson’s words about the value of British soft power, quoted at the start of this entry, really were.  He clearly has no interest in how the rest of the world perceives and interacts with the UK, other than it providing a few post-Brexit trade deals and being somewhere that he and his moneyed cronies can escape to for their luxury holidays.

 

Government actions elsewhere underline this.  The plug has already been pulled on Britain’s participation in the Erasmus programme, which allowed 15,000 British students annually to study in European universities without paying fees.  The BBC seems to stagger from one government-induced crisis to another and its main instrument of international influence, the once-admired BBC World Service, has been in freefall from budget cuts since the Tory government of David Cameron.  Other organisations that promote Britain overseas are in similarly dire straits and the current Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation even worse.  But Johnson and company obviously don’t care if they wither on the vine.

 

Yes, as the Conservative government develops its new blueprint for the country as a giant sweatshop where the majority work for peanuts and without protections, and where a political / economic elite make a fortune and pay as little tax as possible, the drawbridge is being pulled up between Britain and the outside world.  It’s a tragedy that an exemplary organisation like VSO looks like being the latest victim of this mindset.

 

© Voluntary Service Overseas

Trump-town riots

 

© CBS News

 

“It’s a disgrace, there’s never been anything like that.  You could take third-world countries, just take a look, take third-world countries.  Their elections are more honest than what we’ve been going through in this country.  It’s a disgrace.”

 

So spoke President, now almost Ex-President, Donald Trump at a rally at Washington DC on January 6th.  This was before the rally’s attendees launched an assault on the US Capitol while members of Congress were meeting there to certify Joe Biden becoming the 46th president and Trump’s successor.

 

Bravely, Trump used the pronoun ‘we’, which normally means ‘me’ as well as ‘you’, when he declared: “…we’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue… and we’re going to the Capitol…”  Then, bravely, he didn’t accompany his supporters when they marched off to confront and fight their way past the Capitol’s police force (many of whom, as it happened, were suspiciously reluctant to do their jobs).  Instead, bravely, Trump headed back to the White House where, bravely, he watched the ensuing carnage on TV.

 

In his speech, Trump claimed that November 2020’s presidential election, when Joe Biden won 72 more electoral college seats and 7,250,000 more votes than he did, and which everybody from the Supreme Court to the Department of Justice – not to mention the judges who chucked out 60-odd lawsuits filed by Trump in protest – agreed had been held fairly, was even more fraudulent than an election held in a third-world country.  Even more!

 

I guess I should credit Trump for using the term ‘third-world countries’, which is an improvement on his previous term for less-well-off parts of the planet, ‘shithole countries’.  I doubt, though, if he’ll ever evolve to the point where he refers to them as ‘developing-world countries’, or even less-patronising terms like ‘low-and-lower-middle-income countries’, or ‘the global south’, or ‘the Majority World’.

 

As somebody who’s spent much time living in (what I’ll call) low-and-lower-middle-income countries, I have to say I’ve never seen a spectacle as humiliatingly ridiculous as the one in the Capitol following Trump’s rabble-rousing speech on January 6th.  I’ve lived in North Korea under Kim Jong-Il and Libya under Colonel Ghaddafi, dictators whose perpetual self-aggrandisement led to some ludicrous sights indeed.  But nothing I saw in those places compares to last week’s scenes, where American politicians fled from their chambers while doors buckled, windows imploded and police and secret-service officers were pushed back by an inexorable, invading tide of white supremacists, Nazis, militiamen, crackpot conspiracists and MAGA nutjobs.

 

It resembled the start of a zombie-apocalypse movie – the bit where a live TV broadcast, announcing the emergency and urging calm, is interrupted by the studio staff looking into the lobby and screaming off-camera, “They’re here!  They’re here!”  Though this wasn’t so much Dawn of the Dead as QAnon of the Dead.

 

© Sony Soho Square

 

And during my time in what Trump thinks of as ‘shithole countries’, I’ve never seen performers from such a theatre of the absurd as those who were centre stage in the Capitol when, temporarily, the mob occupied it.  The QAnon-shaman guy with the buffalo furs and horns and the painted face, resembling the figure on the cover of the 1993 Jamiroquai album Emergency on Planet Earth after it’d spent a night sleeping in a skip.  The other guy with the furs, plus glasses and a dead beaver on his head, looking like the world’s shittest Davie Crockett.  The guy in the bobbled ‘Trump’ hat who walked off with Nancy Pelosi’s lectern, now under arrest and subject to a thousand jokes on social media about when he’ll ‘take the stand’.  The guy with the Santa Claus beard and the ‘Camp Auschwitz’ T-shirt, whom one right-wing idiot later tried to deflect criticism from on social media by suggesting he might actually be an ‘Auschwitz survivor’…  Hold on, though.  Someone celebrating Auschwitz in 2021?  That’s not absurd.  That’s frightening.

 

Indeed, after the initial absurdities broadcast on the initial news reports, there came more frightening accounts of what’d happened.  A police officer died of injuries sustained while being bludgeoned by a fire extinguisher.  Another officer, a black man, had to offer himself as bait and lure a racist mob away from the senate entrance, so that those inside got a few extra minutes to evacuate.  (While these things were happening, other officers, clearly sympathetic to the mob’s intent, were dismantling barriers to let them pass and posing for selfies with them.)  Journalists were attacked.  A makeshift noose was strung up outside.  Masked figures roamed around carrying zip-tie handcuffs, apparently planning to take hostages.

 

Meanwhile, there was the jaw-dropping contemptibility of Republican politicians such as Ted Cruz, the Texan cowpat, and Josh Hawley, a man who physically and spiritually resembles Miguel Ferrer’s scumbag executive in Robocop (1987).  Even after the insurrection, they kept on parroting Trump’s honking-mad claims about election fraud and they voted against Biden’s certification.  Obviously, this is because they want to secure the support of Trump’s deranged base when they launch their own bids to become president in 2024.  With Cruz and Hawley, it’s not so much ‘we the people’ as ‘me the people’.

 

I suppose I should react to this with schadenfreude.  The USA has a long history of promoting revolutions and insurrections in other countries.  The most notorious of many examples were the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, which the USA and its little sidekick the UK orchestrated in 1953 (and which begat the Shah of Iran, which begat the 1979 revolution, which begat the Ayatollah, which begat the Iran we know and fear today), and the 1973 coup d’état it engineered against President Salvador Allende that resulted in the murderous, fascistic rule of General Pinochet.  Now it’s embarrassingly fallen prey to an attempted coup of its own.

 

Still, all the sanctimonious blather about the USA being the mother of democracy and the shining light for other nations to follow, often propagated by Hollywood movies, does worm its way into your consciousness no matter how hard you try to resist.  So although the idea of American democratic righteousness is more myth and propaganda than reality, seeing its political heart get trashed by Jamiroquai-shaman guy, beaver-on-head guy, lectern-guy, etc., was rather sad.

 

From twitter.com / schwarzenegger

 

Incidentally, if the notion that the USA is the great champion of democracy is cheesy guff, it was appropriate that a few days later Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of cinema’s greatest proponents of cheesy (though enjoyable) guff, went viral in a video in which he praised American democracy.  Arnie even likened its resilience to the sword of Conan the Barbarian.  The sword’s blade, he explained, becomes stronger the more it’s tempered by punishment.  (Sorry, Arnie, but I seem to remember Conan’s mantra being to ‘crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women’.  Which doesn’t sound terribly democratic to me.)

 

But returning to the topic of low-and-lower-middle-income countries…  From 1999 to 2001 I worked in Ethiopia.  When I arrived there, most Ethiopians’ experience of the outside world was via an antiquated TV set kept in a wooden cabinet in the neighbourhood coffee shop or bar, which gave them access to two terrestrial channels.  The channels’ output seemed to consist mainly of clips of traditional Ethiopian dancing, English football matches that’d taken place three weeks earlier, and reruns of Jake and the Fatman (1987-92).

 

Within two years, however, satellite TV had arrived with a vengeance.  Suddenly, those same people were being exposed daily to dozens, if not hundreds of channels crammed with glossy adverts and pop videos dripping with opulence – fancy cars, penthouses, jewellery, designer clothes.  It was all phoney nonsense, of course.  Most people in other countries didn’t live like that.  But how was your average Ethiopian expected to know?  And how, I wondered, would this impact on the psychology of a people whose country was then, and still is today, pretty impoverished?  (In 2018 its GDP per capita was ranked 167th in the world.)

 

As it turned out, I should have been more worried about the Americans and how they’d cope with rapid advances in communications technology and especially with the sudden arrival of social media.  For now we have vast numbers of Americans taking Trump’s twitter ravings as the gospel truth.  Also, vast numbers of them believe the insane drivel that is the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, whereby Trump is battling a worldwide network of paedophilic, baby-eating Satanists who control everything, especially everything that’s liberal.

 

Whoever Biden appoints as a successor to Betty DeVos, Trump’s wretched Secretary of Education, will urgently need to promote 21st century skills like critical thinking and digital literacy in the nation’s schools.  Otherwise, thanks to social media and the Internet, the USA will collectively disappear down an extremist rabbit hole or get locked into a far-right echo chamber.

 

Ironically, Trump, so disdainful of ‘shithole countries’ in Africa and elsewhere, is probably closest in his vanity, bluster and puffed-up preposterousness to some of the infamous dictators who ruled certain African nations after the end of colonialism.  I’m thinking of Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko who, while most of his subjects lived in poverty, built a palace that became known as ‘the Versailles of the jungle’, travelled using a fleet of costly Mercedes-Benz motor cars and hired Concorde for shopping trips to France.  What Trumpian things to do.  I’m also thinking of Uganda’s Idi Amin, described in 1973 by his country’s American ambassador as ‘racist, erratic and unpredictable, brutal, inept, bellicose, irrational, ridiculous and militaristic.’  That sounds like Trump down to a T.

 

By the way, talk of Idi Amin makes me think of the 2006 movie The Last King of Scotland, based on the 1998 novel by Giles Fodden.  In that, a hapless, vain and dim Scotsman, played by James McAvoy, cosies up to Amin, played by Forest Whittaker, at the start of the latter’s career and soon gets more than he bargained for.

 

© DNA Films / Film4 / Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

Thinking of The Last King of Scotland’s imaginary scenario, I’m somehow reminded of the real-life scenario here:

 

© Daniel Biskup / The Times / News Syndication

 

Anyway, America, one week has passed since the Capitol insurrection.  You’ve got just one more week to go before Biden gets inaugurated and the Orange Blob, hopefully, is cast off into powerlessness and obscurity.

 

You’re halfway out of Crazy Town.  Hope you make it.  Good luck.

Goodbye to all that

 

From unsplash.com / © Andy Newton

 

So adieu, EU.  Boris Johnson has finally achieved an agreement by which the United Kingdom can withdraw from the European Union at the end of 2020.  During the painfully protracted negotiations it looked like Johnson was going to end up with a ruinous no-deal withdrawal, but no doubt he was deliberately prolonging the negotiation process until Christmas.  This was so that (a) when he agreed to a deal on Christmas Eve, he could spin himself as Santa Claus delivering the UK a bumper Christmas present, and (b) members of Britain’s parliament would have hardly any time to scrutinise the 1246 pages of the agreement’s details before voting on its approval on December 30th.  Meanwhile, the more the agreement does receive scrutiny, the clearer it becomes how shit it is, for everything from Britain’s financial services sector to its fishing industry.

 

One thing the agreement closes the door on is Britain’s participation in the Erasmus programme, which had allowed 15,000 British students annually to study in European universities without paying fees.  Johnson has spouted some bollocks about it being replaced by a British-run scheme to be named after the British mathematician and computing genius Alan Turing.  If such a thing ever gets off the ground, I’m sure it’ll be run by some private company headed by a member of Johnson’s ‘chumocracy’, it’ll farm British students out to eye-wateringly expensive universities in the USA and it’ll be affordable only to the offspring of Britain’s privileged, moneyed classes.

 

This reminds me of a lengthy entry I put on this blog in 2017, about the first time I ever left the British-Irish Isles and entered a non-English-speaking country.  I did this thanks to the European Economic Community (EEC), which became later the European Community (EC) and then the EU we know today, and through a small programme that existed five years before Erasmus came into being.  Anyway, it seems timely to post that entry again….

 

In the spring of 1982 I was about to finish high school and I resolved to take a year out before I went to college.  No one else in my school year intended to do this.  Those with plans to go to college were doing so six months later in the autumn.  And everybody around me, especially my parents, seemed to believe I was mad for postponing entry into college by a year-and-a-third so that I could do absurd things like…  Well, what exactly was I going to do?  I had vague dreams of travelling and seeing something of the world, and of funding this travel by doing short jobs here and there, hopefully abroad.  But as the end of high school neared, my year-out plans remained worryingly nebulous.

 

Incidentally, nowadays, it seems you’re considered mad if you don’t take a year out, or a gap year as it’s called in modern parlance, between school and college.  Indeed, employers expect it to see it on graduates’ CVs as an indicator of boldness and initiative.  I was just 38 years ahead of my time but didn’t know it.

 

Eventually, I went and tormented my school’s careers advisor for ideas and she suggested a programme I could try for part of my year out.  The EEC was funding young people in its member countries to visit other EEC countries and conduct short projects about some aspect of life in them.  The thinking was that this would give young people a better understanding of their EEC neighbours and thus create better, more empathetic EEC citizens.  All you had to do was complete and send off an application form, which if accepted got you a grant of about £250.  Then you made your own travel and accommodation arrangements, headed for the EEC country of your choice, did your research, wrote a report and submitted it a few months later.

 

I decided to go to France, because apart from the Republic of Ireland it was the closest EEC country to the UK and hence the cheapest one to get to.  Also, I’d studied French for six years at school and shouldn’t have too many communication problems.  Or so I thought.

 

© histoiredeçinema.canalblog.com

 

For my French base, I decided to use the town of Soissons, about 100 kilometres northeast of Paris.  This was because my high school in Scotland ran a student-exchange programme with a school in Soissons, some of my teachers kept in touch with the teachers there, and I’d heard that the Soissons school had rooms on its campus that could be temporarily rented out.  So I asked the head of the French Department at my school if he could drop one of his Soissons counterparts a line and arrange something on my behalf.

 

I was dubious if anything would actually come of this.  But to my surprise, in May 1982, I received a letter from a Soissons teacher called Monsieur Masson confirming that he’d booked me a room for me for three weeks the following month.

 

And what would my project be about?  I didn’t know what career I wanted to follow, but if people asked me I usually told them I intended to be a journalist, because I read a lot of newspapers and liked writing.  It was this journalistic predilection that made me propose going to France, doing research into French newspapers and investigating how they covered the big stories that were affecting Britain at the time.  How different would the French perspective on such stories be from the British one?

 

© Le Figaro

© Le Monde

 

Actually, about half-a-year after I’d typed up and sent off the report, I was in Waverley Station in Edinburgh one day when I saw, at a newsstand, a whole rack of newspapers on sale from other countries, including France.  Among them were most of the newspapers I’d consulted for my project, like Le Monde and Le Figaro.  I realised then that such newspapers were sold in Scotland in places like Waverley Station because lots of foreigners passed through them.  And, guiltily, I realised that I could have stayed in Scotland and done the exact same project by buying those French newspapers in Edinburgh.  Thankfully, the EEC never cottoned onto this and never demanded their £250 back.  (With the Internet, of course, you could do the whole project today without ever leaving your house.)

 

I set off for France at the start of June.  I was 16 at the time, unused to travelling, ignorant of foreign cultures and generally utterly naïve.  The experience that followed was so intense that I really only remember certain moments of it where my impressions were either strongly positive or negative.  Here, I’ll describe the bad stuff first and then relate the good stuff.

 

I didn’t enjoy the journey.  I’d booked seats on the night-train from Edinburgh to London.  As well as being my first time in continental Europe, this was also my first time on a train and my first time to travel to London.  Then I was scheduled to use a coach service that ran from Bedford Square in central London to the Gare du Nord in Paris, with the cross-channel part of the trip being made by hovercraft.  Needless to say, this was my first time in a hovercraft too.

 

When I got off the train at six o’clock in the morning at King’s Cross Station in London, I immediately decided that the station, and by extension London itself, was bloody horrible.  I know that today’s King’s Cross Station has been done up and is a site of pilgrimage for young foreign tourists who worship the Harry Potter books and want to see Platform 9½ there, where Harry, Hermione and Ron would board the Hogwarts Express.  But back then the station was shabby, dank and disreputable.  It was populated by vagrants, most of whom were pissed even though it was only six a.m. and most of whom, disconcertingly, seemed to be Scottish.

 

My opinion of King’s Cross Station didn’t improve three weeks later when, during the journey home, I traipsed through one of its entrance doors and a pair of skinheads promptly ordered me to shut the door behind me.  Tired and not thinking properly, I assumed they were employed by the station and did as they said.  I turned around and spent a minute trying to get the door to shut, until I realised it was an automatic one and wouldn’t shut until I stepped off its pressure sensor or moved out of the way of its motion sensor.  Then those skinheads guffawed and ran off.

 

The Gare du Nord in Paris, from which I planned to get a train to Soissons, was less grungy.  But it was here that I made a shocking and embarrassing discovery.  I couldn’t speak French.  At least I couldn’t speak real-world French, as opposed to classroom French.  With hindsight, all I had to say to the lady in the ticket booth was “Soissons s’il vous plait.  Aller simple.”  But I tried to word my request as a sentence – “I’d like to buy a…” – and it came out as gibberish.  Then I didn’t understand what the lady asked me in reply.  Finally, after a nightmarish minute of miscommunication whose memory still haunts me to this day, and while a queue of impatient Parisian rush-hour travellers lengthened behind me, she managed to identify the name ‘Soissons’ amid my gibberish and gave me the necessary ticket.

 

From unsplash.com / © Moiz K. Malik

 

It was nearly dark when I arrived in Soissons.  By the time I got to the lycée Monsieur Masson had long since gone home and I had to deal with a bemused caretaker.  He found me a room where I could spend the night, although it hadn’t been inhabited for a long time and was full of cardboard boxes, dust and stale-smelling air.  I lay on the bed wondering if this grim place would be my abode for the next three weeks.  (It wouldn’t, of course.  When the administrative staff came in the next morning, they saw to it that I was put in a different room, a clean one that even had a balcony and a view.)

 

Despite it being June, I was wearing a big bulky coat with loads of pockets, handy for carrying things in.  My grandmother had been visiting my family in Scotland when I set off and she’d given me a giant bar of Dairy Milk chocolate to eat on the journey.  I hadn’t had dinner that evening but at least in my fusty room I could snack on that.  I stuck my hand into a pocket to retrieve the bar and discovered it’d dissolved, messily, thanks to the intense body heat I’d exuded all day inside that unseasonably heavy coat.  Then I noticed some big brown smears on the back of my coat.  How had the molten chocolate leaked out there?  Then I noticed the odour coming off those smears and realised they were dogshit.  At some point, I’d accidentally set my rucksack down on some pavement-poo.  When I’d hoisted the rucksack onto my back again, I’d transferred the poo to my coat.

 

But thinking about it now, I see how most of the bad moments related to getting to Soissons.  When I was in Soissons, however, the good moments began to happen.

 

Firstly, it soon dawned on me how kind and helpful people were, even if my communication skills were so woeful that I must have appeared as a gurning, inarticulate man-child.  Particularly hospitable was my contact in the teaching staff, Monsieur Masson, who with his stylish clothes and immaculately trimmed beard reminded me of the French actor Michael Lonsdale when he’d played Hugo Drax in the 1980 Bond movie Moonraker.   As well as checking up on me regularly to ensure I was okay, he and his family invited me to have dinner and stay at their charming Soissons home the night before I returned to Scotland.  Happily, there was enough of my £250 left for me to buy him a bottle of Scotch whisky as a thank-you gift.  To my surprise, he immediately drank a measure of it out of a glass stuffed with ice cubes.  What, I thought, you can drink whisky with ice cubes?  Nobody I knew in Scotland did this.  They just drank it neat or with tepid tap-water.  And kept drinking it.  Until they fell over.

 

Then there was the pleasure of discovering a place very different from what I was used to.  I’d wander through residential areas of modern blocks of flats that were colourfully painted and had flowers growing out of pots and window-boxes.  Where I came from, blocks of flats were associated with failed 1960s planning, urban deprivation and vandalism.  Most of the shops were no larger than those in my home town but they looked unfeasibly smart and chic.  As part of my arrangement with the lycée, I got breakfast and an evening meal there every day and I also discovered the French dining experience.  Breakfast wasn’t about stuffing yourself with Weetabix and fried egg and bacon.  It was a simple but delicious ritual of dunking pieces of fresh baguette into a bowlful of coffee.  Dinner didn’t come with everything piled willy-nilly on one plate but as a series of little courses – hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, a main course, some salad, desert.  Bewildering but somehow very civilised.

 

© PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Universal

© Kennedy Miller Productions / Warner Bros

 

It was also strange seeing cultural items you were familiar with through a French prism.  I spent ages in Soissons’ bookshops, wanting to find out which of my favourite novels had been translated into French and what their French titles were.  I went to the cinema one evening to watch Costa Gavras’ newly released political thriller Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek and set in Chile after the Pinochet coup of 1973.  It was dubbed into French, but by this time my French-comprehension powers had improved and I understood about half of it.  What puzzled me was why the French had decided to give Costa Gavras’ deadly-serious movie a Woody Woodpecker cartoon as its supporting feature.  Also, they showed the trailer for Mad Max II, with the consequence that even today when I watch that Mel Gibson post-apocalyptic action-classic, I hear a solemn French voice intoning, “Mad MaxDeux!”

 

I was unhappy with the report that I finally submitted.  It seemed crude and slipshod and not remotely how I’d envisioned it being.  But its topic was certainly a good one to be focused on during a sojourn in a foreign country.  Studying how the French press depicted Britain was an eye-opener.  As Robert Burns wrote wisely in his poem To a Louse, “To see oursel’s as ithers see us / It wad frae mony a blunder free us…

 

One story I covered in the French newspapers was Pope John-Paul II’s visit to Britain, which was happening while I was in France.  It was the first time a reigning pope had ever been on British soil and the visit had sparked protests by such predictable figures as the Reverend Ian Paisley and his Glaswegian Mini-Me, Pastor Jack Glass.  Although John-Paul II was a socially conservative pope and France seemed a very liberal Catholic country, French commentators were surprised and upset that anyone in Britain could object to his presence.  Not very scientifically (or geographically, since the protestors were Northern Irish or Scottish), one writer in Le Figaro explained it thus: “In the north of England, they still believe in ghosts.”

 

© thepapalvisit.org.uk

From historyimages.blogspot.com

 

However, the biggest British news-item during my three weeks in Soissons was a war.  Britain was fighting Argentina over possession of the Falklands Islands.  Coming from Britain, where the Falklands War had sent most of the newspapers into a bellicose, jingoistic frenzy, the detachment and scepticism on display in the French press were discombobulating.  Many French commentators, even in Le Figaro, which was supposed to be conservative, seemed to echo the famous remark by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges that the conflict was like “two bald men fighting over a comb.”  Meanwhile, a gruesome cartoon in the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné that depicted a naked Margaret Thatcher making love to a missile and wailing, “C’est bon!  C’est bon!” has been etched on my memory ever since.

 

Thus, it was a project about newspapers that first induced me to leave Britain and start exploring the rest of Europe.  And during the rest of my year out, I would build on that Soissons trip.  By the time I got to college in the autumn of 1983, I’d been in Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Belgium and Holland too.

 

Ironically, newspapers were now been instrumental in building barriers between Britain and the rest of Europe.  The British newspapers owned by a cadre of right-wing magnates, like Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere and the two Barclay Brothers, did much to create the hysterical, xenophobic atmosphere that led to a small majority of the British public voting for Brexit in 2016.

 

I find it sad to think that the EU, in its old EEC incarnation, gave me my first opportunity to travel; and travel, as they say, helps to broaden the mind.  In modern Britain, where many minds could do with broadening, such opportunities have been considerably reduced.  75% of British voters in the 18-to-24 age group voted to stay in the EU, but young Britons will now find it harder to study in Europe, work in Europe and even travel in Europe.  The Brexit vote, largely the responsibility of an older and more reactionary electorate, has put a damper on such aspirations.

 

Back in 1982, I didn’t know how lucky I was.

 

From unsplash.com / © Adam Wilson

So un-macho

 

© Library of Congress / From unsplash.com

 

An extremely right-wing author and essayist recently caused an uproar by saying something offensive on social media.  That’s hardly news these days.  Anyway, impelled by morbid curiosity, I checked out said author and essayist’s blog.  No, I’m not going to provide a link to it because the dribbling jackanapes has already received enough free publicity.  One remark on that blog caught my eye and made me think, though.  It was a description of President, soon-to-be ex-President, Donald Trump as  ‘the alpha-male of alpha-males’.

 

Let me get this straight.  Donald Trump is not only an alpha-male, but is the most alpha-male going?  You’ve got to be kidding.

 

The last four years and, indeed, most of the past 74 years that Trump has been on the planet are peppered with instances that show him to be not so much an alpha-male as an alpha-wuss.  Indeed, the past month-and-a-half since the US presidential election, when Joe Biden handed Trump his arse on a plate by massively winning both the popular vote and the electoral college, has shown him to be even more pathetic than normal.

 

Seeing Trump react to defeat with a display of whiny, shrieky, stamping-his-little-feet, waving-his-little-fists, chucking-his-toys-out-of-the-pram petulance doesn’t make me think of some muscled, lantern-jawed, bare-chested, testosterone-oozing specimen of maleness swaggering his way through a Hollywood action movie.  Rather, it makes me think of the obnoxious Violet Elizabeth Bott, the lisping little girl in Richmal Crompton’s William books (1922-70) who, when anyone refused to let her have her way, would threaten: “I’ll thcream and thcream and thcream till I’m thick!”  Or of Veruca Salt, the monstrously spoilt little girl in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), who proved so unbearable that Willie Wonka’s squirrels ended up throwing her down a garbage chute to the factory’s incinerator.

 

Ironically, the right-wing dingbats who support Trump often lament the decline of good old-fashioned masculine values, thanks to, as they see it, assaults in recent decades by feminists, liberals, socialists, gay rights activists, trans activists, etc.  In fact, if you look at the best-known embodiments of traditional masculine values, as portrayed on the cinema screen, you’ll see that their hero Trump displays none of those values himself.  He falls laughably short in comparison.  Imagine how he’d react and behave if he were in the shoes of Hollywood’s most famous macho-men during their most famous movies.

 

© Gordon Company / Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

Take Bruce Willis, for example – an actor who’s well-known for his conservative leanings but who hasn’t, despite scurrilous rumours, shown much enthusiasm for Trump.  As Detective John McClane in Die Hard (1988), Willis attends a Christmas party being held in a skyscraper by the company that employs his estranged wife.  There’s an unwanted festive surprise when a gang of German terrorists show up, seize the building and hold the partygoers hostage.  McClane, who blames the company for his marriage’s break-up and wasn’t feeling comfortable at the party, nonetheless ducks into the nearest ventilation shaft and spends the film crawling around and picking off the terrorists one by one until order has been restored.  You couldn’t imagine Trump selflessly doing any of that.  Actually, someone of his orange bulk would manage to crawl about two inches along the ventilation shaft before getting stuck.

 

No, Trump, the self-proclaimed master of ‘the art of the deal’, would be more like the character of Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner).  Ellis is a sleazy company executive who thinks he can bargain with the terrorists and get them to agree to a plan to lure McClane out of hiding.  “Hey babe, I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast!” he brags in Trumpian fashion.  “I think I can handle this Eurotrash!”  Too late does the hapless Ellis realise that the terrorists have been stringing him along and don’t intend to honour their side of the bargain.  Inevitably, their leader, Vladimir Putin… sorry, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) puts a bullet through his head.

 

Or take Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who’s publicly dissed Trump for his appalling record on the environment.  In Schwarzenegger’s most famous role, as the reprogrammed-to-be-good Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), Schwarzenegger realises at the movie’s finale that the central processing unit in his head is the last remaining piece of technology that might enable the machines to take over the world.  So, nobly, he decides he has to be destroyed for the good of humanity and asks Sarah and John Connor (Linda Hamilton and Edward Furlong) to lower him into a vat of molten metal.  Could you imagine Trump being so self-sacrificing?  “I am NOT going in that vat of molten metal!  There’s no CPU in my head!  That’s fake news!  This is the most corrupt decision in the history of my country!  This never happened to Obama…!”  And so on.

 

Probably Trump would prefer to model himself on the bad Terminator played by Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator movie (1984), since that character has traits that the Gross Orange One admires: zero empathy, total ruthlessness, no qualms about using its arsenal of heavy-duty weaponry to blow away anything that defies it.  However, with Trump as the Terminator, the movie would last five minutes.  The Trump-Terminator arrives in 1984 Los Angeles…  Naked, it approaches a group of street-punks (including good old Bill Paxton, who exclaims, “This guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack!”)…  Then the street-punks beat it to death.

 

© The Malpaso Company / Warner Bros

 

Who else?  Clint Eastwood, yet another Hollywood Republican who’s been muted about Trump (and in 2020 promised to support Mike Bloomberg if he became the Democrats’ presidential candidate)?  Eastwood built up his iconic macho persona during Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy in the 1960s.  Not only was he The Man with No Name, but he was a man of few words.  He’d squint, keep his jaws clamped around a cigar and unnerve his opponents with a contemptuous silence.  You couldn’t imagine a brash, loud gobshite like Trump, someone whose mouth is five minutes ahead of his brain, doing that.

 

In fact, Eastwood in his other most famous role, as Detective Harry Callaghan, aka Dirty Harry,  offers advice in Magnum Force (1973) that Trump would have been wise to heed: “Man’s got to know his limitations.”

 

John Wayne?  In Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1966), Wayne plays a town sheriff who’s loyal to and protective of his staff – Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan in the earlier film, Robert Mitchum, James Caan and Arthur Hunicutt in the later.  Even when Mitchum develops a severe alcohol problem in El Dorado, Wayne puts up with his drunken bullshit and does his best to straighten the guy out.  It’s impossible to imagine the same of Trump, whose four-year tenure in the White House has seen a parade of cringing and crooked underlings being recruited and then, the moment they displease their master, being dumped again.  The loyal-only-to-himself Trump would have pointed a finger at Mitchum and sneered, “You’re fired!”

 

© Armada Productions / Warner Bros

 

Steve McQueen?  McQueen’s most famous role was as the prisoner of war Hilts in The Great Escape (1963), which would have earned him Trump’s disgust immediately.  As he once notoriously declared of John McCain, “He’s a war hero because he was captured.  I like heroes who weren’t captured!”  In fact, McQueen breaks out of the POW camp in Escape but then gets recaptured when his motorbike fails to clear a barbed wire fence on the Swiss border, which I suppose makes him a double loser in Trump’s eyes.

 

In fact, Trump is devoid of the qualities I recognised in the masculine icons with whom I grew up: being loyal, being selfless, doing the right thing, playing fair, saying only things that are worth saying, sticking up for the underdog, being magnanimous in victory, being graceful in defeat.  Then again, this is unsurprising when you see the Neanderthals who support him signalling their masculinity by gathering in mobs outside state legislative buildings, clad in combat fatigues and totting automatic rifles, to protest the implementation of safety measures against Covid-19.  These would-be warriors are too wimpy to countenance wearing small pieces of cloth over their mouths and nostrils to protect their fellow citizens.  Clearly, their notions of masculinity have nothing to do with the qualities I’ve listed above.  Rather, they’re all to do with intimidating, bullying and hurting people.

 

If that’s what masculinity is about, I’ll be glad to see the back of it.  And I’ll be especially glad to see the back of its biggest proponent, the one in the White House – who on January 20th goes from being the alpha-male to being the alpha-fail.

 

© Stewart Bremner

It’s Biden and bye-Don

 

From twitter.com/chrissteinplays

 

Last month, despite what all the opinion polls were forecasting, I predicted gloomily that Donald Trump would probably win a second term in the American presidential election on November 3rd.  My gloom was largely rooted in what I called the ‘shy Trumper’ hypothesis, the notion that many people were lying to the pollsters about their voting intentions because they were too embarrassed to admit they were going to vote for a scum-bucket like Trump.

 

I already knew what I would write about on this blog in the likely event, as I saw it, of Trump’s re-election.  I planned to refer to the satirical 1981 novel Hello America by the late, great J.G. Ballard, which is set in 2114 and postulates an ecologically devastated and almost uninhabited United States of America.  An expedition from Europe arrives in the wasteland formerly known as the USA and discovers there, among other things, a madman claiming to be both the American president and Charles Manson.  I suspected another four years of Trump, whose penchant during the Covid-19 pandemic for summoning his adoring, mask-rejecting, non-distancing supporters to mass campaign rallies suggested a deadly cult-leader on a far greater scale than Manson, would send the USA well on its way to becoming the surreal, dystopian badlands that it is in Ballard’s novel.

 

© Granada

 

Well, as it turned out, the polls did severely underestimate Trump’s support.  At the time I write this, he’s accrued more than 70,900,000 votes.  Thankfully, however, Joe Biden received even more than that.  He’s got just over 75,400,00 votes at the moment and has crossed the 270 college-vote threshold necessary for winning the presidency in the USA’s electoral college system.  So Trump seems to be toast.  That said, the Orange Malignancy has spent the past few days tweeting and speechifying that he actually won the election, whereas Biden cheated, and has vowed to overturn the results in the courts.

 

However, that’s unlikely to come to much if the competence displayed so far by Trump’s finest legal minds is anything to go by.  At the weekend, for instance, Trump’s lawyer-in-chief Rudy Giuliani and his team flew into Philadelphia intending to hold a press conference to outline their forthcoming legal challenges.  Through some mind-melting balls-up, they ended up holding the conference not in the city’s Four Seasons Hotel, but in the parking lot of a gardening centre called Four Seasons Total Landscaping in its outskirts.  This was symbolically located between a crematorium and a porno bookstore called Fantasy Island Adult Books.  Watching news footage of the conference, I almost expected the centre’s manager to emerge in the middle of it, reveal himself as Borat and exclaim, “Very nice!”

 

Now while nobody is happier than I am to see Trump ousted from the White House, and I can fully understand why on Saturday when Biden was officially declared president-elect great numbers of people took to the streets of New York, Philadelphia, etc., and started dancing as joyously as the Munchkins did in The Wizard of Oz (1939) after Dorothy’s house landed on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, I’m afraid things are still looking pretty grim for the USA’s future as a democracy. The fact is that nearly half the American electorate, after four years of exposure to the vile, tangerine-skinned creature, were still willing to vote for him.

 

Let that sink in.  Almost half of voters opted for a man who’s presided over the deaths of 237,000-and-counting fellow citizens due to Covid-19 while insisting that it’s just ‘the flu’ and it’ll magically ‘go away’, who’s speculated about how said virus could be neutralised by injecting yourself with disinfectant, who’s contracted the virus himself but still insisted on holding a flurry of superspreading rallies where thousands of his supporters were jammed together in close, virus-friendly proximity.  Who’s displayed a complete ignorance of and disregard for science, who’s trashed his country’s environment, who’s helped trash the environment on a global scale too through his lucre-obsessed climate denialism.

 

Who’s bragged about grabbing women by the ‘pussy’, who’s mocked disabled people, who’s condoned violence against journalists, who’s dismissed whole countries as ‘shitholes’ and whole nationalities as ‘drug dealers, criminals, rapists’.  Who’s applauded the supposed fineness of white supremacists, who’s instructed fascist militias to ‘stand by’, who’s emitted a barrage of racist dog-whistles that in Biden’s words are as loud ‘as a foghorn’.  Who’s happily played along with the insane conspiracy theories of QAnon whenever he thought it might bolster his support among the extreme-right-wing, tinfoil-hat-wearing fruit-loop brigade.

 

Who’s cosied up to authoritarian thugs like Putin, Erdogan, Mohammed Bin Salman and the familicidal Kim Jong-Un whilst insulting leaders of long-term democratic allies and showing a particular misogynistic vehemence for female ones like Angela Merkel.  Who’s sneered at his country’s war-dead and derided former prisoners of war for the failing of getting ‘captured’, whilst using his family’s influence to escape doing military service himself. Who’s managed to wriggle out of paying any net federal income tax at all in 11 recent years, whilst in 2016 and 2017 paying the laughably meagre sum of $750 per annum, considerably less than what a citizen earning the minimum wage would pay.  Who’s continually boasted about his business acumen, whilst according to Forbes magazine in October 2020 owes more than a billion dollars in debt…

 

And so on, and so forth.

 

Although some commentators have claimed that the willingness of millions of Americans to vote for a character like Trump, devoid of anything resembling a shred of moral fibre, shows how badly they’ve been ‘left behind’ in this, the era of globalism, I can’t say I find this argument convincing.  You’d have to be extremely left behind, and in absolutely dire circumstances, to believe that Trump is your friend and saviour – when it’s obvious to anyone with a quarter of a brain that he despises the poor, whatever their political creed, and is intent only on lining his own pockets and the pockets of his hideous family.  I’m afraid that Trump’s massive election turnout is more an indication that a great swathe of the American electorate either has zero moral compass and zero empathy for others or is as dumb as a sack of cement powder.

 

Into that latter category I’d put the Trump supporter who, since the election went Biden’s way, has been tweeting angrily about the anomaly of five million votes being cast in Georgia despite ‘Georgia’ having a population of only 3.7 million.  So far he’s ignored the people who’ve pointed out to him that he’s confusing Georgia the state with Georgia the country.

 

Unfortunately, President-Elect Biden has his work cut out if he intends to heal the nation and somehow get those millions of Trump fans on board with concepts like decency, fairness, science, working for the common good and loving thy neighbour.  Meanwhile, I suspect that the Republican Party, impressed by how Trump’s unrepentant-bastard approach to politics earned him 70 million votes, the second biggest tally by a presidential candidate in US history, will decide to really go for it in 2024 and field as a candidate some 21st century reincarnation of Benito Mussolini.

 

All in all, I’m afraid, there are still plenty of opportunities for the USA to go completely J.G.

 

Anyway, for now at least, I’m relieved it’s over.  I’m truly fed up with having the past few weeks of my life dominated by a 24/7 obsession with American politics.  My partner especially will be relieved that she no longer has to listen to me mansplaining the Byzantine workings of the US electoral college: “…Pennsylvania has 20 electoral votes, so if Biden can get that, it’ll carry him to the 270 threshold he needs to win, but even if Trump gets Pennsylvania in the end, he can still sneak it by winning Nevada, which has 6 votes, and Georgia, which has 16…”

 

And she’s American.

 

© Ayrshire Daily News

Hope for the best, expect the worst

 

© Stewart Bremner

 

“Hope for the best, expect the worst,” is a maxim that crops up regularly in Angela Carter’s exuberant 1991 novel Wise Children.  The novel’s two main characters, twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance, keep repeating this to themselves so that they remain grounded and their heads stay screwed on while they negotiate the highs and lows, the euphoria and tragedy, of life during eight decades of the 20th century.

 

It’s also a maxim I think is worth bearing in mind as we approach the American presidential election on November 3rd, little more than a fortnight away.  Yes, I know the polls indicate Joe Biden has a solid and stable lead over the current, revolting incumbent of the White House.  But of course four years ago Hillary Clinton was supposed to have a similarly commanding lead over the Orange Hideousness and we know what happened then.

 

One thing I suspect is overlooked in these polls is what is known in the UK as the Shy Tory factor.  Wikipedia describes this phenomenon as “so-called ‘shy Tories’… voting Conservative after telling pollsters they would not.”  Presumably, they lie to the pollsters because they’re too embarrassed to admit they intend to vote for a chancer like Boris Johnson.  As a result, “the share of the electoral vote won by the Conservative Party” is “significantly higher than the equivalent share in opinion polls.”

 

And I imagine you’d feel embarrassed too if you admitted to a pollster that you were going to vote for a crooked, racist, narcissistic, tax-dodging, pussy-grabbing, pig-ignorant malignity like Trump who shrugs off the deaths of 220,000-and-counting American citizens from Covid-19 with the glib platitude, “It is what it is.”  Thus, I have a horrible suspicion that the Shy Trumper factor will confound the pollsters’ predictions come November 3rd.

 

And that’s before we consider the USA’s idiotic electoral college system, which means that one vote cast in the least populous state, Wyoming, carries three-to-four times the influence of one vote cast in the most populous state, California, and Trump only has to edge it in a few crucial swing states to win.  Like his hapless predecessor Clinton, Biden could very well win the popular vote and still lose.

 

Also, there’s the sad fact that voter suppression has been rife.  This has been done quietly through the gerrymandering, trimming of voter rolls and removal of polling stations by Republican administrations in various states, and noisily through Trump’s attacks on the legitimacy of ballots submitted by mail.  All have been designed to reduce the numbers of voters likely to vote Democrat.

 

Meanwhile, I wouldn’t be surprised if voting on the day itself is disrupted by Trump-supporting fascist gangs and militias such as the Proud Boys, whom he recently instructed on TV to ‘stand by’.  And it’s certain that in the aftermath of an election result that, ostensibly, he loses, he and his lickspittle Republican enablers will use every trick and machination in the legislative book to have votes nullified and overturned so that he manages to grasp that all-important number of 270 electoral college votes.

 

So with Trump back in the White House for another four years, how bad will it be?  Very bad, I’d say.  I expect the USA to become at least a semi-totalitarian state where announcing yourself as a dissident – a Democrat, a liberal, a Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ activist – becomes increasingly risky.  Perhaps Trump’s official state apparatus won’t arrest or hurt you, but his unofficial army of gun-toting admirers, the white supremacists, militiamen and QAnon-obsessed conspiracy-theory fruit-loops, will take the law into their own hands and go after you themselves.  And should any of his right-wing terrorist fanboys be caught in the act of snuffing out his critics, I sure Trump will bend over backwards to ensure they are treated leniently.  Witness how quick he was to defend the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, the delusional 17-year-old who gunned down two protestors during anti-police demonstrations in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

 

Leniency will also be shown to bad-apple cops and right-wing goons who rough up another group whom Trump despises, journalists working for mainstream and liberal news outlets.  During the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, police emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric were already assaulting and harassing reporters and camera crews.  And not long ago, Trump expressed his delight that Ali Velshi, an anchor with MSNBC, was hit by a police rubber bullet while reporting on a protest in Minneapolis.  “Wasn’t it beautiful sight?” he crowed at a rally.  “It’s called law and order.”

 

Elsewhere, expect a nationwide ban on abortion.  I’m sure, though, that Trump’s wealthy elite will be quietly allowed to purchase super-expensive drugs to combat Covid-19 that have been developed with human cells taken from aborted embryos.  The Affordable Health Care Act, hated by Trump because it was an Obama initiative, will go and won’t be replaced.  Environmental protections, already trashed, will be trashed further.  The forests on the west coast will continue to burn and the White House will react only with schadenfreude because everyone in the fire-zone votes Democrat anyway.

 

Science will be denigrated and ridiculed.  The evangelical Christians who loyally vote for Trump, even he obviously despises them, and even though a less Christian specimen of humanity than Trump is difficult to find, will be rewarded by having science removed from school syllabi, textbooks and museums in favour of their own primitive doctrines about how the world was created and how it functions.

 

Hundreds of thousands more Americans will die from Covid-19 while Trump, flaunting his supposedly macho disdain for mask wearing and social distancing, will continue to blame China, the WHO and Democrat state governors.  People of colour will continue to be murdered by the police, protests against these murders will continue to take place, police will continue to attack protestors, militiamen and looters will continue to take advantage of the chaos, and American cities will become ever-more dystopian.

 

Interviewed recently in the Observer, Martin Amis observed, “This election is going to be a referendum on the American character, not on Trump’s performance.”  As such, it’s tempting to dismiss a second Trump win as an America-only problem.  If Americans are dumb and immoral enough to vote for this nightmare, then it’s on them.  They own it.  Unfortunately, a second Trump presidency will impact hugely on the rest of the world too, via his hostility towards NATO, the EU and the Iran nuclear deal, and his disorientating mood-swings regarding China, and his penchant for being a lapdog to authoritarian dictators while insulting and belittling the leaders of long-term democracies (especially if they’re women).

 

Of course, the biggest and most disastrous impact of four more years of Trump, who’s pulled the USA out of the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, will be on the environment.  His refusal to take man-made climate change seriously may well scupper any chance humanity has of lessening its worst effects.   Trump doesn’t care about the millions – billions? – of people who could lose not just their livelihoods but their lives as average temperatures rise, huge areas become uncultivatable and possibly uninhabitable, rainfall patterns change disastrously, coasts disappear under rising sea levels and climate refugees take to the road in vast numbers.  Those are the problems of the little people, the losers, the suckers, and Trump only likes WINNERS.

 

I fear that already we’ve passed a tipping point and our species is inevitably facing catastrophe, that the damage we’ve wrought on our planet’s climate is now embedded in the system and will lead from one devastating consequence to another.  But if we haven’t already reached that tipping point, it’s likely that we will have by 2024 or whenever it is that Trump leaves the White House.  (Though don’t be surprised if by 2024 he and his minions in the US Senate and Supreme Court have re-engineered the constitution to allow him to remain in power indefinitely.)  By the way, Trump’s re-election will only goad the Brazilian fascist Bolsonara further in his efforts to torch the Amazon rainforest.

 

And yet, I believe that when future historians look back on this period and wonder how humanity managed to trigger such an ecological, political, economic and social horror show, they won’t finger Trump as the main culprit for all this.  No, the title of Most Villainous Human Being on the Planet in 2020 will surely be awarded to Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire has been instrumental in preparing the way for and then enabling Trump – just as it’s done for climate-change denialism, Brexit and most other things that suck in the modern world.  A Trump re-election will be largely due to Murdoch’s Fox News, a sealed-off bubble and echo-chamber for millions of American right-wingers who only want to hear their views confirmed, never challenged.

 

Future historians?  That’s me suggesting humanity has a future, where there’ll be historians.  Evidence, I’m afraid, that I’m hoping for the best rather than expecting the worst.

 

© Reuters / Jessica Rinaldi

He’s not the right-wing messiah, he’s a very naughty boy

 

From headtopics.com

 

I try not to post things on this blog in reaction to every right-wing halfwit who says something stupid in the press or on social media.  Otherwise, I’d be stuck at my laptop and furiously writing blog entries 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  However, I’ll make an exception in the case of actor Laurence Fox.

 

As a graduate of Harrow School and a member of the Fox acting dynasty that also includes his father James, uncle Edward and cousins Emilia and Freddie, Laurence Fox is the epitome of the stereotypically posh and well-connected British thespian.  He’s also now a darling of the Union Jack-waving, Brexit-loving, Boris-adoring, Trump-admiring, climate change-denying, Black Lives Matter-rejecting, coronavirus-doubting fraternity whose members include such charmers as Toby Young, Douglas Murray and Darren Grimes.

 

I’ve never seen the TV show Lewis (2006-2015) that made Fox’s name, and in fact prior to 2020 my only sighting of him had been in the 2001 British horror movie The Hole, made when he was in his early twenties and still able to pass for a teenager.  The Hole tells the story of how a group of wealthy, spoilt and generally unbearable boarding-school brats, who include Fox, Keira Knightly and Desmond Harrington, skive off a study trip by hacking into their school’s computer and removing their names from the trip-records.  Then they steal away to an abandoned underground bunker close to the school grounds, intending to hide there and party for the few days that the trip is in progress.  After they descend into the bunker, they discover that they’ve been locked inside, and of course nobody knows they’re trapped there.  Thereafter, things go clammily and ickily Lord of the Flies.  The hideous youngsters succumb to paranoia and hysteria and eventual, fatal bouts of illness and violence.  It turns out that their ordeal was engineered by the sneakily psychotic Thora Birch.  Three cheers for Thora, I say.

 

The Hole contains a memorable moment where Knightly tells Fox to put his ‘cock away’.  Recently, noting the controversies Fox has generated, the film critic Kim Newman wondered why nobody had made a gif or sound-clip of this available online.

 

Early in 2020 Fox made an appearance on the BBC’s politics / panel show Question Time where he exhibited the same qualities that he’d exhibited in The Hole, i.e., he came across as wealthy, spoilt and unbearable.   He claimed the UK press’s treatment of Megan Markle wasn’t the result of racism because Britain was ‘the most tolerant, lovely country in Europe’, which will be a surprise to asylum seekers currently being accommodated by Serco and harassed by members of Britain First, and bleated at a person of colour in the Question Time audience who took issue with him that “to call me a white privileged male is to be racist.  You’re being racist.”

 

Now calling Fox ‘white’, ‘male’ and ‘privileged’ – for I’m sure his multiple family connections did nothing to hinder his ascendancy in the acting profession – doesn’t strike me as racist so much as truthful.  However, Fox struck a chord with many right-wing malcontents unhappy with prevailing currents of political correctness and wokeness.  People who were nostalgic for the good old days when you were allowed to nod along at Enoch Powell, good old Enoch, warning about how rivers would flow with blood if too many ‘wide-grinning picaninnies’ were allowed into Britain, and allowed to chuckle at Bernard Manning, good old Bernard, telling jokes about ‘darkies’ on the telly, admired the cut of Fox’s jib.

 

Soon he was being hailed as the new messiah of right-wing common sense and telling-it-like-it-is in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator and the like.  And soon he was popping up here, there and everywhere in the media as a pundit sounding off about the failings of leftie-dominated Britain.  (Somehow leftie-dominated despite it having a Conservative government for the last decade.)

 

The Rupert Murdoch-owned Sunday Times was quick to do a profile of Fox, in which he self-deprecatingly but possibly accurately described himself as ‘a knobbish dickhead half-educated tw*t’.  Fox also revealed that he’d fallen out with his brother-in-law who, believe it or not, is the half-Nigerian comedian, actor, writer and filmmaker Richard Ayoade.  Apparently, Ayoade said no when Fox asked for his public support after the Question Time appearance caused a furore.  Indeed, Ayoade angrily told him, “You have never encountered racism.”  To which Fox replied, “Yeah, I have.  I’ve encountered racism from black people towards me, when I was working in Kenya for seven months.  It’s the way you’re spoken to – racism can be deferential.”

 

Now I don’t know what ‘deferential racism’ is.  Then again, neither does Fox, for when the Sunday Times interviewer asked him to explain what he meant, he said, “I’m just not smart enough to do it.”

 

Alas, poor Laurence had barely a moment to enjoy his time in the limelight as the new golden boy of all things un-PC and un-woke before he stuck his foot in his mouth.  He criticised Sam Mendes’ World War I movie 1917 (2019) for featuring a Sikh soldier as a minor character.  This, Fox alleged during a podcast with James Delingpole (who, incidentally, is another right-wing bladder-on-a-stick), was ‘forcing diversity on people’.  Fox had to apologise when it was subsequently pointed out to him that some 130,000 Sikhs fought for Britain in World War I.

 

This week, Fox has been busy apologising again, to actress and comic performer (and his co-star in Lewis) Rebecca Front.  Front, a supporter of Black Lives Matter, had had enough of Fox’s constant jabbering that white lives matter too and blocked him on twitter, which Fox claimed was an act of ‘cancellation’.  He and Front then had a private text conversation about it, during which Front pointed out: “Black lives are systematically undervalued.  Their work opportunities are fewer, their health outcomes far worse, the criminal justice system works against them.  I think the least we can do is let them have a f**king slogan.”  Afterwards, Fox tweeted a screenshot of their supposedly private conversation, which of course exposed his former co-star to the possibility of pile-ons and trolling by the demented right-wing dingbats who follow him.

 

No doubt realising that the spat was attracting attention and he wasn’t coming out of it well, he later announced: “…I tweeted a private text message.  It isn’t true to my values to make a private conversation public just to make a point.  I regret it.”

 

Self-pity is a major part of Fox’s schtick.  He wails that nasty snowflake lefties, like Front, are out to cancel him.  He wails that as a well-known, expensively educated, massively well-connected white person he should be getting as much attention as all those disadvantaged, oppressed-for-centuries black folk.  And he wails too that his acting work is drying up because most of the showbiz world doesn’t like him for his untrendy views.  I would have thought that in 2020, the year of Covid-19, a lot of actors’ work has dried up.  Though after the spectacle he’s made of himself recently, would anyone want to spend the entire duration of a film-shoot or the entire run of a theatrical play in his unsufferable presence?

 

I suppose once upon a time I’d have taken comfort in the fact that the best the intolerant right can do for a figurehead is a bumbling, forever-shooting-himself-in-the-foot idiot like Fox.  Surely that would mean they could never constitute a serious threat to society.  However, when you look at who’s occupying Number 10 Downing Street, you realise being a grade-A jackass is absolutely no impediment to power these days.  God help us.  Laurence Fox could have a long and successful political career ahead of him.

 

© Canal + / Pathe / Buena Vista Distribution