Believing their own Ka-bul

 

© Nations Online Project

 

I’ve watched the copious, vivid and harrowing news footage of the chaos in Kabul while the USA and its allies attempt to end their occupation of Afghanistan and withdraw. I’ve also listened to the reactions of Western politicians and political pundits to that chaos.  Not for the first time, I find myself thinking of the lines from the poem To a Louse by Robert Burns: “O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us! / It wad frae mony a blunder free us / An’ foolish notion…”

 

In standard English: “Oh would some power the gift give us / To see ourselves as others see us / It would from many a blunder free us / And foolish notion…”  I suspect that if governments could see their policies as others see them and, indeed, if all human beings could see themselves as others see them, the world would be a far better place.

 

Before I continue, let me make a few things clear.  I don’t think the USA and its allies were sensible or indeed, had much right, to go into Afghanistan in the first place.  This was especially since the Taliban were willing to hand over Osamu Bin Laden, whose masterminding of 9 / 11 had sparked the war and invasion in late 2001.  And yes, I accept that the Taliban were and no doubt still are a bunch of bad bastards.  But if George W. Bush, Tony Blair and co. were really serious about usurping them, and replacing them with a functioning democracy, and transforming a country as notoriously hostile to outside influence as Afghanistan into a modern nation, they should have invested huge amounts of capital, manpower and infrastructure once they’d taken over.

 

But of course, any chance of that happening evaporated as soon as Bush, Blair, etc., drunk on their own military firepower, steamed into Iraq.  While the Iraqi debacle unfolded, diverting attention and devouring resources, Afghanistan was neglected and left to fester.  Anyway, as they say, that’s all academic now.

 

I also see the handling of the withdrawal as a fiasco. The fiasco includes the mind-melting ineptitude of the current incumbent in Blair’s old job, Boris Johnson, who thought the falling of the city of Kandahar into Taliban hands would be a good moment to pop off to Somerset for a holiday; and of his ultra-hapless Foreign Minister, Dominic Raab, who apparently felt consolidating his tan at a five-star beach hotel in Crete was more important than getting on the phone and attempting to help evacuate Afghan interpreters who’d been working with British forces.

 

And the predicament that many Afghans find themselves in, those who’ve worked or had dealings with the Western powers and their troops, institutions and agencies during the occupation since 2001, is a tragedy.  The West didn’t so much as build a nation in Afghanistan as erect a house of cards, and clearly little thought was given to the fate of the West’s local employees and clients should that house of cards collapse and control revert to a vengeful Taliban.

 

The fact that the situation was a house of cards must have been blindingly obvious to anyone bothering to take a smidgeon of an interest in Afghanistan over the last two decades.  I’ve known a few people who’ve worked there or had to visit it, and their descriptions – of having to undergo lengthy safety / security / survival courses before being allowed anywhere near the place, of being ensconced almost 24/7 in fortified bunkers cheek-by-jowl with battalions of Gurkha soldiers, of being cocooned inside the armour of military vehicles and helicopters when they did venture outside – made it sound like a surreal experience, part Fort Knox, part Siege of Ceuta, part Alice in Wonderland.  How could any society where outsiders felt so unsafe that they had to behave like this be considered sustainable, let alone normal?

 

Not only has there been little preparation made for evacuating the West’s Afghan colleagues and clients in the event of the unmentionable – inevitable? – happening and their suddenly becoming targets.  There’s been little willpower too, which is unsurprising given the reluctance of Western politicians, as exemplified by British Home Secretary Priti Patel, to countenance the entry of large numbers of refugees into their countries.

 

Incidentally, I wasn’t surprised at the excuse I heard for why certain groups of Afghans shouldn’t be helped to flee the country and escape to Britain. This was because, it transpired, they hadn’t actually been employed by the British Embassy, British NGOs, British companies, whatever. No, they’d only been employed by outsourced contractors that these British agencies had drawn upon.  They themselves weren’t really British employees.  (At least now, in the face of public revulsion, this abhorrent attitude seems to be changing.)

 

Subcontracting is the great ‘get-out-of-jail’ card employed by Western outfits working in the developing world.  On one hand they can loudly proclaim their Western, democratic values.  On the other hand, they use the subcontracting argument to avoid paying many local people working for them anything like a decent, livable wage, avoid giving them proper workers’ rights, and so on.

 

Many Western politicians and commentators have lamented about these people being thrown to the wolves, and rightly so.  But there’s also a massive hole in the narratives they’ve been spinning.  They make it sound like the withdrawal has been a betrayal of everyone in Afghanistan and now the entire Afghan population is wailing piteously as the Taliban prepare to take over again.

 

Really?  I have no doubt that the occupation benefited a small section of the population, in the cities.  However, it’s enlightening to read this article from 2020 on foreignpolicy.com that takes an all-too-credible look at rural Afghanistan, at the region of Nangahar to be precise, where Trump had the devastating MOAB bomb deployed in 2017.  The journalist interviews a young local man who’s just decided to throw his lot in with the Taliban.  “Omari’s family is part of the 90 percent of Afghanistan that lives below the national poverty line of $2 per day, according to the Afghan Ministry of Economy. Three-quarters of Afghans live in rural areas, where even basic services are in short supply; the Ministry of Education this month revealed that 7,000 schools across the country don’t actually have buildings…” Omari views the existing government as corrupt and expresses what seems to be a widespread belief that having the Taliban in charge at least can’t make things any worse than they are now.

 

One analyst quoted in the article describes Afghans’ reasons for enlisting in the Taliban thus: “In large part, recruitment seems to stem from family and tight community connections… Individual motivations are extremely diverse and range from revenge against the government or foreign occupiers for killed relatives or comrades to limited alternative opportunities in some regions to recruiting pressure from the organization.”

 

“…revenge… for killed relatives or comrades…”  Many Western politicians and pundits seem neurotic in their desire to avoid any possibility that their forces in Afghanistan were anything other than the ‘good guys’.  No doubt many servicemen and servicewomen from the US, UK and elsewhere believed they were in Afghanistan to make things better for the people living there.  Yet there’s plentiful evidence to suggest ordinary Afghans had reasons for not viewing their supposed Western liberators as angels.  There are specific reasons – see last year’s Brereton Report in Australia, which suggests some 39 Afghan civilians were murdered by Australian special forces. There are general ones too – for instance, a US study indicated that approximately 700 Afghan civilians were killed in airstrikes by the US and its allies in 2019 alone.

 

In addition, the West was determined (though it utterly failed) to wipe out Afghanistan’s opium / heroin trade, which in 2018 accounted for a third of the country’s GDP.  Opium poppies were the country’s biggest cash crop by far.  This can’t have endeared Western forces to Afghan farmers, especially as the countries sending those forces did little to rethink their own drug policies, which inadvertently fueled the demand for and drove the profits of the trade.

 

From unsplash.com / © Tim Cooper

 

“You can’t,” some Western strategists might say glibly, “make an omelette without breaking eggs.”  Or as the recently-departed, presumably now-roasting-in-hell Donald Rumsfeld once put it, “Stuff happens.”  But the carnage and the attendant shoulder-shrugging did nothing to win those all-important Afghan hearts and minds.

 

At the moment there’s an awful lot of breast-beating going on about the turn of events in Afghanistan. But I suspect those Western breast-beaters would be in for a shock if they saw themselves as many ordinary Afghans see them just now.

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.

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

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

George, where did it all go wrong?

 

© The Belfast Telegraph

 

Last Thursday saw the Prime Minister of England – sorry, Prime Minister of Britain – Boris Johnson arrive in Scotland for a one-day charm offensive.  This was intended to remind Scottish people of how lucky they were to be part of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the ‘mighty’ union as Johnson grandly put it, and dissuade them of any mad notions of voting for Scottish independence, which, according to recent opinion polls, 54% of them are now minded to do.  Determined to press the flesh with the maximum number of Scottish people during his visit, Johnson flew into the bustling Caledonian metropolises of the Orkney Islands and RAF Lossiemouth.  A little unfortunately, the Orcadian mainland is home to a small settlement called Twatt, which led to some unkind quips being made on social media about there already being ‘one Twatt in the Orkneys’.  It was also slightly unwise for the PM to parley with some local fishermen and pose for photographers holding a pair of clawed, antennae-ed crustaceans, as social media was soon heaving with comments about how he ‘had crabs’.

 

But Johnson isn’t the only British political chancer to have foisted himself upon Scotland recently, proclaiming the message that red, white and blue unionism is good while Saltire-waving indie is bad.  For July 2020 has seen the return to Scottish soil of one George ‘Gorgeous’ Galloway.  Or to give him the title that immediately appears when you type his name into Google, ‘George Galloway cat.’

 

It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time I considered Galloway one of the good guys.  Well, one of the goodish guys at least.  This was while he served as Labour Member of Parliament for Glasgow Hillhead, later Glasgow Kelvin, from 1987 to 2005.  For many years Labour MPs formed the bulk of Scotland’s representation in the House of Commons, but apart from a few high-fliers like Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson, destined for cabinet jobs under Tony Blair, they were an uninspiring lot – a big, grey Scottish-accented blob whose only function was to shamble through the voting lobbies at their party’s bidding.  They were nicknamed the ‘low-flying Jimmies’, though to my mind they were a living, if barely sentient, definition of the Scots word ‘numpties’.

 

However, the Scottish Labour MPs contained a small but interesting awkward squad.  The squad included the admirably his-own-man Tam Dalyell; and the very leftward Ron Brown (who shocked the British establishment by heading off to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and then on his return warning that it probably wasn’t a good idea for the West to fund the Mujahideen, later to morph into the Taliban); and the trio of Dick Douglas, John McAllion and Dennis Canavan, all of whom would later end up estranged from the Labour Party and end up supporting the cause of Scottish independence.  Plus, of course, the ultra-awkward George Galloway.

 

Galloway was too left-wing for traditional mainstream Labourites’ liking, which was fine by me.  I also approved of his constitutional stance.  Though he didn’t go as far as espousing independence for Scotland, he advocated a large measure of home-rule for the country within the framework of the UK.  And when John Major’s Conservative Party won the British general election in 1992 and dashed hopes of a devolved Scottish parliament being set up for at least another half-decade, and a campaign movement called Scotland United was formed to maintain pressure for the creation of such a parliament, I wasn’t surprised when Galloway became one of the movement’s leading lights.

 

From twitter.com/thoughtland

 

To keep the issue in the public consciousness, Scotland United held rallies in Edinburgh and Glasgow.  I participated in a couple of these, though I can’t remember Galloway addressing the crowds.  I do remember, however, one Saturday marching down to Leith Links in Edinburgh where, after speeches, we were treated to a gig by the Scotland United-supporting pop / soul band Deacon Blue.  At one point, singer Ricky Ross pointed out the nearby premises of Leith’s Conservative and Unionist Association and started singing a cover of Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, which contains the pertinent lyrics, “…how does it feel / To be on your own, with no direction home / A complete unknown…?”  The memory makes me nostalgic.  Trying to establish a Scottish parliament by having Deacon Blue sing Bob Dylan at the Tories.  Those were the days.

 

Still, it was already clear that Galloway had a dodgy side.  From 1983 to 1987 he’d served as general secretary of the British charity War on Want and stories of his antics during a conference in Greece – Galloway confessed to getting to know some local ladies ‘carnally’ – led to embarrassing tabloid coverage.  I seem to remember one newspaper reporting his attempts to justify his behaviour with the headline I BONKED FOR BRITAIN.  This presumably helped give rise to Galloway’s nickname ‘Gorgeous’.  Meanwhile, his simultaneously smooth and self-righteous manner caused a lot of people I knew, even ones who shared his politics, to profess that they hated his guts.

 

During the next two decades, following Galloway’s exploits was a seesawing experience.  He’d do something crap, then redeem himself by doing something impressive, then blow his restored credibility by doing something crap again.  At the crap end was his grovelling to the Iraq despot Saddam Hussein, which in 1994 saw him utter the famous line, “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.”  Later, Galloway claimed, not very convincingly, that he’d aimed this line at the long-suffering Iraqi people rather than at Saddam himself.

 

But he deserved kudos for his opposition to George Bush Jnr and Tony Blair’s misguided, mendacious and ultimately catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003.  He denounced Bush as a terrorist, got himself expelled from the Labour Party, sued and won against the Daily Telegraph after it claimed Iraqi agents had secretly paid him with cash from the United Nations Oil for Food programme, and then squared up to a US Senate committee investigating the Food for Oil programme in 2005.  The senate confrontation was probably his finest hour.  He gave those senators a mauling.  “…(I)n everything I said about Iraq I turned out to be right,” he declared, “and you turned out to be wrong.  And 100,000 have paid with their lives, 1600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies.”

 

Though he’d  torched his bridges with the Labour Party, Galloway managed for a time to defy Enoch Powell’s famous adage that ‘all political lives… end in failure.’  He formed the Respect Party, stood for election in the London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 and won it from Labour.  He stood down as MP there following a schism in the Respect Party, but in a 2012 by-election pulled off a similar stunt by winning Bradford West from Labour.  Both constituencies had sizable Muslim communities and there were copious allegations about Galloway dishing religious-related dirt on his opponents – that in Bethnal Green he’d played up the fact that the Labour incumbent, Oona King, had a Jewish mother; that in Bradford West he’d raised the issue of the Labour Party’s Muslim candidate drinking alcohol; and that in the run-up to the 2015 general election he’d accused his Labour challenger, another Muslim, Naz Shah, of supporting Israel and lying about an arranged marriage.  But Shah had the last laugh because she won Bradford West back for Labour.

 

© Channel 4

 

True to form, Galloway’s 2005 triumph in Bethnal Green was soon negated by his idiotic decision to take part in the 2006 series of Celebrity Big Brother.  This resulted in such colossally cringy moments as George, no longer so gorgeous, dancing in a leotard beside the late Pete Burns of the band Dead or Alive, or pretending to be a cat and licking cream off the lap of actress Rula Lenska.  Hence the word ‘cat’ popping up beside his name on Google searches.

 

More seriously, Galloway secured a job as a host on the Iran-government-funded Press TV in 2008 and that same year earned himself the ire of gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell for claiming that a gay man executed in Iran was punished for ‘sex crimes’ rather than for being gay.  He landed himself in more hot water in 2012 when he defended Julian Assange against rape charges by describing having non-consensual sex with a sleeping woman (after consensual sex with her when she was awake), which Assange was accused of doing, as ‘bad sexual etiquette’ but ‘not rape’.

 

Galloway’s support for Assange was evidence that, as the 2010s progressed, he was increasingly happy to clamber onto any bandwagon that he thought would boost his profile.  So he campaigned vociferously for a ‘no’ vote in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence – ‘just say naw’.  Mind you, he was scathing of his ex-comrades in the Labour Party who’d joined forces with the Conservatives in the anti-independence Better Together movement.  “If you ever see me standing under a Union Jack shoulder-to-shoulder with a Conservative,” he told Prospect magazine, “please shoot me.”  Remember those words.  Prior to the referendum, I watched him in a televised debate and discovered that, like a cartoon character, he’d now acquired a costume, a rarely-off-his-head fedora, and a catchphrase: “That is nonsense on stilts!”

 

© The Jewish Chronicle / twitter/@VirendraSharma

 

Perhaps upset that his contribution to saving the United Kingdom didn’t result in ennoblement by a grateful David Cameron – he could have been Lord Galloway of Nonsense-on-Stilts – George then threw his lot in with the Brexiteers and campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union in 2016’s referendum on that matter.  This spawned some nauseating photographs of him, a supposed socialist, posing with Nigel Farage, ex-City of London spiv, immigration dog-whistler and Donald Trump’s biggest British fanboy.  That said, pictures of Galloway embracing the extreme right-wing nutjob Steve Bannon at a debate in Kazakhstan in 2019 were even more mind-melting.

 

The increasing number of causes that Galloway hitched himself to seemed in inverse proportion to the number of votes being cast for him in elections.  A 2011 attempt to get into the Scottish parliament saw him win a less-than-awesome 3.3% of the vote in Glasgow.  His performance in the 2016 London Mayoral contest was even worse (1.4%) and attempts to run in English constituencies in the 2017 and 2019 general elections had equally dire results.

 

Now George has a new wheeze, which is to run in next year’s Scottish parliamentary elections as head of something called Alliance for Unity, of which he says: “We have only one goal – to get the SNP out.”  To this end, Galloway has declared himself willing to work with even the Conservatives.  Yes, this is the man who a half-dozen years ago invited folk to shoot him if they ever saw him do that.

 

He intends to stand in the south of Scotland, a rural, down-to-earth area where I can’t see many people falling for his self-serving, narcissistic brand of bullshit.  Maybe he figures he stands a chance because he shares a name with one of the regions there, Dumfries and Galloway.  And who does he really expect to vote for him?  Not Scottish independence supporters, obviously.  Labour supporters will hardly vote for someone so willing to climb into bed with the Tories.  And the hard-line loyalists / British nationalists who increasingly form the main support for the Scottish Conservative Party these days will hardly be enamoured with someone who’s said of Northern Ireland: “There is no Northern Ireland.  It is six counties in the north of Ireland.  It should have never been in the British state in the first place.”  Nor will his urging of Arabs to kill British troops in Iraq in 2003, one of the final straws that got him chucked out of Labour, win him their admiration either.

 

George Galloway may still look, talk and act like the cat that’s got the cream.  But I suspect he’s now used up the last of his nine lives.

 

© The Sunday Mail / From pressreader.com

Millennium Dom

 

From the Cyprus Mail

 

Spin doctor Dominic Cummings, the Svengali to Boris Johnson’s Trilby, the Rasputin to Johnson’s Tsarina Alexandra, the organ-grinder to Johnson’s dancing monkey, the puppet-master to Johnson’s, well, puppet, has become Britain’s Most Hated Man.

 

That’s because everyone in Britain now knows that Cummings didn’t just break the coronavirus-lockdown rules that he himself helped draw up for the population, but pulverised them.  The Gollum-like governmental advisor apparently believed that rules exist only for plebs and he, as a superior being, had a divine right to flout them.  In late March he drove his wife and child 260 miles from London to his parents’ farm near Durham in northeast England, while his missus was displaying coronavirus symptoms.  He developed symptoms soon after.  Also, while in the northeast, he drove 30 miles to local tourist attraction Barnard Castle, an action he subsequently justified by claiming he’d done it to check if he could drive safely even though the virus was affecting his eyesight.  I guess that’s the equivalent of a brain surgeon performing an operation to check if the palsy he’s been suffering from isn’t making his hands shake too much.

 

I should say not quite everyone in Britain is baying for Cummings’s blood, for I’ve noticed a few right-wing folks complaining on social media that Cummings has been the victim of a stitch-up by Britain’s hideous lefty mainstream press.  Such people regard Cummings as the Messiah, thanks to him being Campaign Director of the Vote Leave movement in 2015-16 and playing a major role in getting Britain out of the European Union.  According to them, the lefty newspapers that have it in for poor Dom include that notoriously socialistic organ, the Daily Mail.  Looking at the state of the comments posted by those fulminating right-wingers, I just hope they cancel their subscriptions to the Daily Mail and invest the money they’ve saved in taking punctuation courses where they learn how to use apostrophes correctly.

 

Anyway, reading the screeds of print written about Cummings in the past week, I’ve been reminded that Cummings first made a name for himself during a little-remembered episode in recent British political history.  It happened shortly after the advent of the new millennium, in a part of the world where I was living.  I’m talking about the referendum on setting up a regional assembly in northeast England, held in 2004.

 

Soon after Tony Blair’s New Labour government arrived in power in the late 1990s, devolution was implemented in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom, with the creation of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Irish Assembly.  This left England as the only part of the UK without devolved government, which caused some awkward anomalies.  How, for example, could Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians turn up at the British parliament and vote on issues affecting the English population, when English politicians weren’t allowed to attend the three devolved parliaments and have a say on equivalent issues affecting the populations there, like health and law enforcement, entrusted to those parliaments under the devolution settlement?

 

The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act of 2003 was meant to restore constitutional balance.  It was envisioned that, eventually, eight regional assemblies would operate across England.  As England had a population five times the size of that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, a patchwork of small English assemblies would ensure that too much power wasn’t concentrated in a single, huge English assembly.  And the first English region to get the chance to approve the establishment of its own assembly was northeast England, which had an all-postal ballot on the matter on November 4th, 2004.

 

Cynics would say that the northeast was given first say because it seemed highly likely to do what the government wanted it to do.  It was deeply pro-Labour at the time and contained Tony Blair’s constituency, Sedgefield.  Also, it seemed the English region with the strongest local identity – a place that’d want its own assembly making decisions on its behalf rather than having decisions imposed on it from faraway London.  At the time I was living in the northeast’s biggest city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, without wishing to confuse the city with the region, I have to say the Geordies of Newcastle did seem a complete race apart.

 

I’d spent most of my youth in Scotland, where devolution had been a burning political issue for a generation.  There’d been a referendum about establishing a Scottish parliament back in 1979 and a majority had voted in favour of it.  Due to some disgraceful rule-bending by the Labour government of the time, though, it was decreed that the majority wasn’t big enough and the parliament wasn’t delivered.  Soon after came the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, which massively reshaped the economy and culture of the UK in the 1980s.  Most people in Scotland didn’t vote for Thatcher but the existing constitutional set-up left her free to do what she wanted with the place – a sorry state of affairs that resulted in the nadir of the Poll Tax, imposed solely on Scotland in 1989 as an experiment to see how it was likely to go down in the rest of the UK.  A great ‘what-if’ of Scottish political history is how a Scottish parliament, if one had been created at the end of the 1970s, might have stood up to Thatcher.  I certainly can’t imagine things being any worse than they were.  Anyway, it seemed to me a no-brainer that people in northeast England should get their own assembly in 2004.

 

However, in the run-up to the referendum, I realised my devolutionary enthusiasm wasn’t mirrored in the Geordies and north-easterners around me.  This was largely due to the influence of the anti-assembly campaign North East Says No, chaired by local businessman John Elliot and with a certain Durham-born, Oxford-educated character called Dominic Cummings as one of its prime movers.  The anti-assembly campaign whipped up resentment against the proposed establishment.  It warned that an assembly would be an unnecessary extra layer of government, diverting yet more public money into the pockets of yet more politicians – and diverting it away from areas that really needed it, like health.  “More doctors,” declared one of its ads, “not politicians.”  Actually, that sounds familiar.  Didn’t Dom peddle a similar message in a more recent political campaign?  Although in Newcastle in 2004 I didn’t see it emblazoned on the side of a bus.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

It didn’t help the assembly’s cause that the senior politician entrusted with overseeing its creation was deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who famously had not one but two princely Jaguar motor cars at his beck and call and generally wasn’t known for his frugality.

 

Cummings’s anti-assembly message certainly got through.  With hindsight it was scary how many left-wing, liberal-minded people I knew in Newcastle, who’d normally have detested everything Cummings stood for, unconsciously parroted his rhetoric.  I remember in my workplace a Russian woman, who had British citizenship and the right to participate in the referendum but wasn’t too clued-up on local politics, asking a colleague for advice on how to vote.  The colleague, a Guardian-reading progressive if ever there was one, promptly told her the assembly was a nonsense and to vote against it.  Meanwhile, my best mate in Newcastle, also no right-winger, dismissed the proposed assembly as a ‘white elephant’ designed to ‘line politicians’ pockets’.

 

It didn’t surprise me, then, when Prescott and company lost the referendum and a majority voted against the assembly’s establishment.  It did surprise me how emphatic that majority was – of those who bothered to vote, 78% voted against it.  And that wasn’t only the prospect of a north-eastern assembly killed stone dead, but the prospect of any future devolution in England generally.  No politician would touch the project after that whipping.  Dominic Cummings had secured his first and, alas, not his last big victory.

 

Although Newcastle is pictured by some as a drunken hellhole where ghastly nightclubs are pillaged by stag and hen parties clad in little more than jockstraps and G-strings while freezing easterly gales howl around them from the North Sea – an image that admittedly isn’t wide of the mark if you venture into the city’s Bigg Market district on a Friday or Saturday night – I thought it was a great city.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time there during the first half of the noughties.  It had some great pubs (away from the Bigg Market), a good live music scene, decent shops and easy access to libraries and galleries.  You could generally find whatever it was that floated your boat, be it antiques markets or creative writing groups or comedy shows or whatever.  And I loved how you were mere minutes away from some of the most scenic landscapes in England.  And the Geordies were great company.  Indeed, I would have stayed for longer if the money I was earning in my job there hadn’t been so crap.

 

Looking back, though, I was probably lucky that I left Newcastle when I did and avoided the years of austerity that were inflicted on it by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010 onwards.  The newspaper reports I’ve read about what happened to Newcastle make grim reading – slabs of money hacked off its budget every year, a total of some 300 million pounds lost by 2019, with a resulting cull of libraries, youth clubs and children’s centres and a general neglect of public services.  Even the city’s lollipop men and ladies weren’t spared – their numbers declined from 64 to seven in the space of five years.  Would a north-eastern assembly have been able to protect the city against some of this savagery?  Like the hypothetical 1980s Scottish parliament and Margaret Thatcher, I doubt if it would have made things any worse.

 

 

Incidentally, I think the missed opportunity of the English regional assemblies will contribute eventually to the breakup of the United Kingdom.  Occasional senior Labour politicians – Gordon Brown especially – still talk up the prospect of a federal UK as a way to keep Scotland British.  With their parliament nestling amid a bunch of similar-sized English ones where power is equally distributed, the Scots, the theory goes, will neither feel neglected nor get ideas above their station.  They’ll accept they’re fairly treated and accept their lot as happy Brits.  That might be true in an alternative universe, but it isn’t going to happen in this universe.  There won’t be a properly federal UK because people in England, as 2004 proved, aren’t interested.  And with so much power entrusted to dolts like Boris Johnson in London, I can’t see the Scots putting up with the existing constitutional status quo for much longer.

 

Modern right-wingers adore Dominic Cummings for what he’s supposedly done to restore British sovereignty.  But he’s actually done more than most to crock the whole concept of Britain.  Thanks in part to his exploits, including those in 2004, Britain as a union of four nations is doomed.  Dom-ed, in fact.