Archive for category Politics
I didn’t plan to write about today’s events in the US. But I remembered that I had written something (pre-blog, via Facebook notes) on Obama’s inauguration, and on this blog in 2012 when he was re-elected. The contrast between what I felt then, and what I feel now, is almost too much to bear, too bitter. But to revisit my feelings then, is to assert that those values, those principles, those hopes which inspired me are still with me, unchanged, still strong if battered and bruised. I don’t know what lies ahead – I fear it. But the future isn’t written – it can be written, and we can be part of the writing. We have to believe that ‘the people have the power to redeem the work of fools‘.
So this is what I wrote on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. I stand by it, every word.
I can’t recall any moment in my life when the sense of hope and of new possibilities has been so powerful. I know that President Obama will do some things that I will disagree with, and that I will regret some things that he is unable to do, but he is a man of integrity and intelligence, courage and vision, a man whose vision of the world is not bounded by his own state or nation but who understands the developing as well as the developed world’s needs. It’s been a long time coming, but this extraordinary moment is here now, and I know I will be weeping tomorrow as I did on election night, thinking of Dr King, and all of the other martyrs of the Civil Rights movement, thinking of all of those who’ve worked and argued and struggled to make this possible. Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked so that Barack Obama could run. Barack Obama ran so that we ALL could fly. Mr Obama, Mr President, I wish you strength, and courage, and the audacity of that hope you’ve inspired.
And in November 2012, when Obama was elected as President for a second term, I wrote this.
That day I listened to the Flobots song celebrating Anne Braden, a white Southern woman who threw in her lot not with the people she’d grown up with, gone to school with, lived next door to, but with ‘the other America’.
Anne Braden tells how William L Patterson told her, in the early 60s, “You know, you do have a choice. You don’t have to be a part of the world of the lynchers. You can join the other America.” He said, “There is another America.”
And I’m paraphrasing a little bit, he said, “It’s always been here. Ever since the first slave ship arrived, and before. The people who struggled against slavery, the people who rebeled against slavery. The white people who supported them. The people who all through Reconstruction struggled.” He came on down through history of the people who have struggled against injustice. The other America.
Today it feels as if that is lost. As if we have all lost.
John Pavlovitz nails it here:
Let the record show that I greatly lamented the day of his inauguration, and that I promised to join together with other good people to loudly resist and oppose every unscrupulous, dangerous, unjust and dishonest act this new Administration engages in.
History has been littered with horrible people who did terrible things with power, because too many good people remained silent. And since my fear is that we are surely entering one of those periods in our story, I wanted to make sure that I was recorded for posterity:
I do not believe this man’s actions are normal.
I do not believe he is emotionally stable.
I do not believe he cares about the full, beautiful diversity of America.
I do not believe he respects women.
I do not believe he is pro-life other than his own.
I do not believe the sick and the poor and the hurting matter to him in the slightest.
I do not believe he is a man of faith or integrity or nobility.
I do not believe his concern is for anything outside his reflection in the mirror.
I believe he is a danger to our children.
I believe he is a threat to our safety.
I believe he is careless with our people.
I believe he is reckless with his power.
I believe America will be less secure, less diverse, less compassionate, and less decent under his leadership.
So what words can I find today? I feel, as so many of us feel, disbelief, revulsion and fear. I hope I am wrong to feel this so strongly. Hope, such as it is, lies in not only the numbers but the calibre of the people who feel this way, the people who are moved to protest, to assert that we need bridges, not walls, to march, to boycott – and who will go on opposing the version of America that Trump asserts.
We need heroes
Don’t put your fist up
Fight with our hopes and our hearts and our hands
We’re the architects of our last stand
(Flobots, Fight with Tools)
It’s been a funny old year. Not so much of the ha ha, either. Is there anything to be said that hasn’t already been said, better probably? I doubt it, but I can’t write about the books, films and other cultural pleasures of the year without acknowledging the seismic changes and alarming portents that it has presented.
Reasons to be Miserable:
Daesh initiated or inspired terrorist attacks clocked up more deaths and more terrible injuries than the mind can encompass. As always, most of these were Muslims, in Muslim countries, although our news media inevitably foregrounds the attacks in France, Belgium and the USA. As appalling as those murders were, on my very rough calculations, Iraq was the worst hit, with over 450 deaths, followed by Pakistan. I tweeted the names of the dead from Brussels, Nice and Orlando, but will never know the names of most of those murdered in Kabul, Istanbul, Jakarta, Baghdad, Ouagadougou, Quetta, Grand Bassam or Aden.
According to the UNHCR, the number of migrants dying whilst crossing the Mediterranean reached 3800, a record. Fewer are making that journey, but they are making it via the more perilous routes and in flimsier boats. Worldwide, over 65 million people are forcibly displaced, over 21 million are refugees, and 10 million stateless. The vast majority of those displaced are hosted in neighbouring countries in Africa or the Middle East. Six per cent are in Europe. Over half of the world’s refugees came from just three countries – Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.
With regard to Syria, anything I say here may be outdated before I press Publish, but there can be no doubt that we are seeing one of the greatest tragedies of our times unfold, and that war crimes are happening there which will be remembered with shame and horror.
I’ve been told to shut up about Brexit, that the people have spoken and they’ve said we must leave Europe and that’s that. As if democracy means that once the votes are counted, those whose views did not prevail must be silent or be regarded as traitors, as if, had the vote gone the way everyone (including Farage and Johnson) expected it to, they would have shut up and let ‘the will of the people’ prevail. Firstly, whilst a majority of those who voted said we should leave Europe, that is all they said. They were not asked and so they did not vote on whether we should leave the single market, what should happen about immigration controls, what trade agreements should be in place outside the EU, what would happen to EU citizens based in the UK or vice versa, what would happen to those employment and wider human rights and other legal provisions currently under the EU umbrella. And so on. All of that has now to be negotiated and worked out, and that’s a job for Parliament. How else could it possibly happen? If anyone thinks they understand how the EU works and thus what are the implications of hard or soft Brexit, they need to read Ian Dunt’s book – Brexit- What the Hell Happens Now? Dunt isn’t talking about the arguments pro or con Brexit, but about what could happen now, what the options are, what the most likely consequences of each option are, and so on.
The US election outcome was described to me by an American colleague recently as ‘somewhere between a mess and a catastrophe’. I am (for once) holding back from comment – I know how deeply this is felt by US friends, some of whom are now seeing fault lines in their families and friendships as some support what others find inexplicable and irrational. We’ve seen a bit of that here since June. A left-wing Brexiter said to me recently that his view was that the EU was so compromised and corrupted that we had to break it in order to fix it. My fear is that some things that get broken simply can’t be mended. Something of the same feeling seems to have prevailed in the US – and that’s one of the reasons why the arguments against Trump failed to stop him winning.
This is the year when I’ve felt closest to despair, for all the above reasons, and because the Labour Party, which I’d thought was my natural home politically, has been so ineffectual in opposition. I took the hard decision to resign my membership – I doubt that I will join another party, perhaps I have to accept that there is not, and never will be, a political party to which I could sign up without caveats and qualms. In that case I have to be led by my principles and values and be willing to back, vote for, work with those politicians and activists who seem closest to them, whether they be Labour, Green, Lib Dem, Women’s Equality or any combination of the above.
On the other hand…
The Hillsborough inquests returned their verdict, and concluded that planning errors, failures of senior managers, commanding officers and club officials, and the design of the stadium, all contributed to the disaster. The behaviour of fans did not. Thus the tireless, dignified campaign fought by the families, survivors and their supporters, was finally vindicated, fully and unequivocally. Read Phil Scraton’s Hillsborough – The Truth, updated in light of the inquest verdict, and Adrian Tempany’s account of that day and what followed, and his excellent book exploring the broader picture in contemporary football, And the Sun Shines Now.
Too early to say whether Standing Rock will turn out to be a victory for the Native American and other environmental protestors – but it was truly remarkable to see the army veterans who had joined them on the site asking for and receiving forgiveness for the long history of oppression and genocide against the indigenous peoples.
Too early to say, too, whether Gambia has taken a historic step towards democracy, or wheher the defeated dictator will be successful in his attempts to overthrown the result of the election. (Meantime in Ghana another peaceful general election brings about a change of government ).
Too early to say whether hard right parties in Europe will prevail, or whether the tide will turn against them before people go to the ballot, but at least the Austrian electorate rejected the Freedom Party’s presidential candidate in favour of a former leader of the Greens.
If 2016 leads us to expect the worst (after two nights spent sitting up waiting for election results which delivered the outcome we feared most, against the predictions of the pundits), then we have to remember that this does not mean that the die is irrevocably cast.
So, reasons to be anxious, reasons to be angry, reasons to be sad – but not reasons to lose all hope.
I’ve tried, throughout this hard year, to hold on to my own brand of faith. It’s not been easy, and it won’t be easy.
In all of this, though, I have found joy in family and friends, in working for Inspiration for Life and in our extraordinary 24 Hour Inspire, in books and film and music and theatre and opera and TV, in my PhD research, in walking in the lovely countryside on our doorstep. I’m bloody lucky, and I do know it.
If I’m going to sum up, somehow, what I want to say about 2016, I think I will leave it to Patti Smith, singing Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain, at the Nobel Prize ceremony. She stumbled, apologised, and began again. In her performance, and in Dylan’s song, there is humanity and hope.
We’ve all observed Godwin’s law in action. “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1″—that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler.
We’ve all cringed at the crass hyperbole of comparing some minor injustice – or even some pretty significant injustice – to the Holocaust. We’ve all sighed at the historical ignorance of many of those who make the comparisons, wondering what on earth they do teach them in schools these days.
And of course it’s right that we should check ourselves, as those comparisons spring to mind, to ensure that if we do invoke Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising or whatever it is, we do so mindful of the history, the scale, the world-altering significance and the uniqueness of those events.
But when we hear political rhetoric and recognise its echoes (whether the words are being used consciously or not), when we see tabloid headlines and recognise the way in which they are stoking and inciting hostility and prejudice, when proposals are made (firms having to gather data on ‘foreign’ workers, schools to gather data on the children they teach, registers of Muslims, etc) that remind us of the way in which the ground was prepared for fascism and genocide, of course we have to point this out.
This is not the same as accusing Theresa May, Amber Rudd or Donald Trump of being Nazis, or of harbouring plans for concentration camps. But as we have to keep on pointing out, fascism doesn’t start with that.
It will restore your honour,make you feel proud,protect your house,give you a job,clean up the neighbourhood,remind you of how great you once were,clear out the venal and the corrupt,remove anything you feel is unlike you…It doesn’t walk in saying,“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”(Michael Rosen)
And it arrives with the drip drip drip of the message about ‘the other’, the other who has the job that should be yours, the place in the housing queue, the easy access to benefits and to everything that you feel you have to struggle for. The other who is not only (somehow) both a scrounger and has nicked your job, but is a terrorist sympathiser, a rapist or a drug dealer. Or, conversely, is covertly running the whole show, the media, the financial institutions and so forth.
You’ve got to be taughtTo hate and fear,You’ve got to be taughtFrom year to year,It’s got to be drummedIn your dear little earYou’ve got to be carefully taught.(South Pacific, ‘You’ve got to be Taught’, Oscar Hammerstein II, 1949)
Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what’s said in the Bible… Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.(Mrs Pell, in Mississippi Burning, dir. Alan Parker, 1988)
We’ve grown used, sadly, to the vilification of migrants and Muslims, the self-evidently false narratives that are promoted on page 1 and whose repudiation (if it comes) is hidden in small type at the bottom of page 2. What’s more recent is the vilification of ‘experts‘ (to use the full designation, ‘so-called experts’). The self-appointed champions of the people, the defenders of the ordinary man or woman on the street, rail against the ‘loaded foreign elite’, ‘out of touch judges’, academics who have no idea of life in the ‘real world’. In reality, of course, these newspapers are owned by members of that very ‘loaded foreign elite’, and are probably rather less in touch with the real world inhabited by most of us as the most rarefied academic or judge.
More alarming still is the growing use of the term ‘enemies of the people’, and the accusations of treachery. The former is a phrase we know from history – the history of Robespierre, Stalin and Pol Pot, under whose leadership it tended to mean at best exile and at worst death. Charges of treachery have also traditionally carried death sentences and as such those accusations feel like incitements to violence – such as the murderous violence meted out to Jo Cox by a far right extremist who gave his name in court when first charged as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. This horrifying act, along with the spectacle across the Atlantic of Nazi-style salutes at far right rallies in support of the President-elect, and Ku Klux Klan endorsements of his proposed chief strategist, are warning signs – these views never went away, not altogether, but where they might have hidden in the shadows they are now in the light, unapologetic, emboldened.
What we do and what we say now is vitally important. We cannot let these views become normalised, we cannot just ‘see how it goes’, or assure ourselves and each other that these people don’t really mean it, they won’t go that far, they will settle down, or even that there are sufficient checks and balances in the system to ensure that they cannot carry out the worst that they promise.
In the 1930s there was the real chance of stopping Hitler. Had we known then what we know now, there might have been not only the opportunity but the will. We do know now. We know where that road leads, and we know that there are many points along that road where the progress towards war and genocide can be stopped, but that last time we left it too late. Last time we let it happen. That is, ironically, our best hope now. That there are so many people living who saw the worst happen, who remember what that evil looks, sounds and smells like, and who won’t be so readily reassured that it’s all ok. And those of us who didn’t live through it but who have read and learned and understood enough will be with them.
In 1940 the Jewish writer Walter Benjamin took his own life in the coastal town of Portbou in Catalonia, believing that his chance of obtaining a visa to the USA had gone, and that he faced arrest by the Gestapo. He was mistaken – others in his party received visas the following day and made their way to safety. Who can say what he might have contributed had he been able to hold despair at bay for just a little longer? But this famous passage indicates something of how he saw the world at that time:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
(Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, and Clarence, the Angel of Alternate History)
Rebecca Solnit suggests a different way of seeing things, inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life.
Director Frank Capra’s move is a model for radical history because Clarence shows the hero what the world would look like if he hadn’t been there, the only sure way to measure the effect of our acts, the one we never get. The angel Clarence’s face is turned toward the futures that never come to pass. …the Angel of Alternate History tells us that our acts count, that we are making history all the time, because of what doesn’t happen as well as what does. Only that angel can see the atrocities not unfolding…. The Angel of History says ‘Terrible’, but this angel says, ‘Could be worse’. They’re both right, but the latter angel gives us grounds to act.
However things turn out, we may never know what difference we made, or might have made. If the threats that we perceive at present come to nothing it will be easy for us and others to say, see, we were over-reacting. If not it will be easy for us and others to say that our words and actions failed to achieve what we hoped. We could just as well say in the first instance that we helped in our small ways, collectively and individually, to defuse that threat, and in the second that things could have been worse.
Because we won’t have Clarence to show us the effect of our acts, all we can do is to do the best we can, to do the right thing, to call out evil when we see it, to draw the historical parallels with rigour and discernment, to speak truth in the face of lies and love in the face of hatred, to stand up for and stand with the people who are threatened by those lies and that hatred.
And in that spirit we think not of the man today imprisoned for life for a vicious murder motivated by hatred, but of the woman he killed, the woman whose life made a difference and will continue to make a difference, who reminded us that we have more in common than that which divides us, and whose family today have spoken out to assert the values that drove her:
We are not here to plead for retribution. We have no interest in the perpetrator. We feel nothing but pity for him, that his life was so devoid of love that his only way of finding meaning was to attack a defenceless woman who represented the best of our country in an act of supreme cowardice. Cowardice that has continued throughout this trial.
When Jo became an MP she committed to using her time well. She decided early on that she would work as if she only had a limited time, and would always do what she thought was right even if it made her unpopular. So she walked her own path, criticised her own party when she felt it was wrong and was willing to work with the other side when they shared a common cause. The causes she took on ranged from Syria to autism, protecting civilians in wars to tackling the loneliness of older people in her constituency.
Jo was a warm, open and supremely empathetic woman. She was powerful, not because of the position she held, but because of the intensity of her passion and her commitment to her values come what may.
The killing of Jo was in my view a political act, an act of terrorism, but in the history of such acts it was perhaps the most incompetent and self-defeating. An act driven by hatred which instead has created an outpouring of love. An act designed to drive communities apart which has instead pulled them together. An act designed to silence a voice which instead has allowed millions of others to hear it.
Jo is no longer with us, but her love, her example and her values live on. For the rest of our lives we will not lament how unlucky we were to have her taken from us, but how unbelievably lucky we were to have her in our lives for so long.
I am bereft of words. I have not yet read the Rebecca Solnit book, but bought it a couple of days ago on Gerry’s recommendation. I think I will read that now, and take some time out from political analysis of what just happened. Think, understand, mourn – then organise.
So now we know what it felt like to be alive when Hitler came to power. That was my first reaction to hearing of Donald Trump’s devastating victory in the U.S. Presidential election. As Martin Luther King wrote in his letter from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, ‘Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.’ Coming after the Brexit vote, Trump’s win induces feelings of total despair.
I am devastated. I no longer recognise my country. How could Trump’s message of hate, misogyny, and racism resonate with so many people? I am baffled, and saddened. I’m afraid for the future of our country, and for the future of my friends. Will my LGBTQ friends still be able to marry the people they love? Will my husband get laid off? Will my Muslim friends get deported? Will the economy collapse? What will happen to the environment?…
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I’m not Daniel Blake. I’ve never been too sick to work, never had to claim Jobseekers Allowance, never had to do battle with the relentless bureaucracy of the welfare system, never been accused of being or assumed to be workshy or a scrounger, never been reduced to zero income, never had a final reminder through the post for a utilities bill, never had to sell my furniture in order to survive, never had to apply for jobs I knew I couldn’t take simply in order to avoid benefit sanctions.
I’m not Katie either. I’ve never had to choose between feeding my children and feeding myself, I’ve never had to think of creative ways of heating my home with bubble wrap insulation and tea lights, I’ve never been driven to shoplift or prostitute myself in order to buy shoes for my kids, I’ve never been evicted or had to live in a homeless shelter or rehoused hundreds of miles from family and friends.
But I can see how it happens. I can see, and apparently those in power cannot, that a benefits sanction can mean that the Katies and Daniels of our land have no money, nothing at all, for weeks on end. They cannot, it seems, imagine that there may be nowhere else to go if your benefits are frozen or delayed, no emergency pot of money, no frivolous spending to be reined in, no family members to help out.
In the aftermath of the 2015 general election (and lord, how long ago that seems now), I wrote this, in relation to the Conservative manifesto pledges on welfare:
Hard work is an excellent thing. But to extrapolate from success and financial security being a reward for hard work, to poverty and failure being a punishment for idleness is unfair. No one achieves success and financial security without an element of luck. No one gets there without state help – for themselves or for their workforce and their business. Luck can suddenly desert any of us, and the line between security and penury is not as clear-cut as we may think. The narrative of homelessness doesn’t start in the gutter, it may start with someone in work, owning their own home, doing OK. Something goes wrong – they lose their job, fall behind on the mortgage and the bills, their family breaks up, their health begins to suffer. And that striver becomes a skiver, dependent on benefits in order to get by, or falling through the gaps altogether into a life on the streets. It’s not impossible, not for any of us.
Toby Young found himself unable to empathise, unable to envisage how ordinary, decent people could find themselves in that nightmare, sceptical precisely because the people portrayed on film are ordinary decent people, and not profligate wastrels, blowing their benefits on dope and flat screen TVs. He acknowledges that he is no expert on the welfare system, but that does not deter him from asserting that Loach has overstated his case, that what is shown as happening to Daniel and Katie wouldn’t really happen.
We’re asked to believe people who claim incapacity benefit are all upstanding citizens who would love nothing more than to earn an honest living if only they were able-bodied.
No, we’re not. We’re asked to believe that the system treats those upstanding citizens who need its help as if they are trying to get something for nothing, as if they are trying to cheat hardworking taxpayers out of their money by skiving when they could perfectly well work. We’re asked to believe not that every person claiming incapacity benefit is a Daniel Blake but that there are Daniel Blakes out there, trapped in the Rules, who have always paid their way, who struggle with the welfare system because they’ve no idea how to play it, and assume that it will be simple and fair.
Young says that
The two protagonists are a far cry from the scroungers on Channel 4’s Benefits Street, who I accept aren’t representative of all welfare recipients. … Katie, too, is a far cry from White Dee, the irresponsible character in Benefits Street.
So having acknowledged that Benefits Street is a highly selective representation of welfare recipients, he goes on to judge the verisimilitude of Loach’s characters by their resemblance to its inhabitants. The location for the programme was James Turner Street in the Winson Green area of Birmingham which Channel 4 describes as “one of Britain’s most benefit-dependent streets”. In other words the street was chosen because it was an extreme, a concentration of benefit-dependency (or, less pejoratively, benefit entitlement).
In contrast the makers of I, Daniel Blake researched many, many cases, talked to many, many people, to inform the narrative and flesh out the two main characters. People like Jack Monroe, who sees herself as ‘the lucky one’ who found a way out of the rabbit hole, albeit not unscathed by those experiences. And the film deliberately avoided some of the more extreme stories of suffering they heard in the course of their research, fearing that they would not be believed. And still the Toby Youngs and Camilla Longs and IDSs of this world complain that it ‘doesn’t ring true’.
I can’t claim first-hand experience of poverty or hunger, although my life has been far closer to Dan or Katie’s than it has to Toby’s or Camilla’s. I have been in debt, I have lain awake worrying about whether the next mortgage payment will take us over our overdraft limit, and I have done the sums to work out how long we could manage on a reduced income before we would have to sell the house. Things worked out, but they might not have done. I could have been Daniel Blake or Katie Morgan, I could still be, if everything goes pear-shaped, and the chances are you could have been, you could still be.
We have to challenge the rhetoric. Those of us who are strivers, hardworking taxpayers, must protest if we’re invoked to support attacks on those who allegedly choose a life on benefits. We don’t have to let them do this in our name.
And we have to protest, loudly and clearly, when the implementation of these welfare cuts makes people suffer, locks them into a miserable existence, a half-life, with no way out. Could they just ‘do the right thing’ and choose to be a striver rather than a skiver? Not if they have to make daily choices between heating and eating. Not if their health precludes most available jobs, not if the job they could get is impossible to reach on public transport, not if childcare is too expensive, not if they don’t have the skills or the qualifications, not if the training places or apprenticeships aren’t available…
If we care at all, if our hearts are not rock hard, if we have any capacity for empathy, if we are human, we cannot be complacent in our status as hardworking taxpayers when people are dying. Read this, and weep. Read this, and get angry.
According to our Prime Minister,
if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.
The examples she gives are of people who regard themselves as above the obligations and responsibilities to the communities in which they live and work, who identify themselves with ‘international elites’ rather than with ‘the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street.’ She talks of ‘the spirit of citizenship’.
Prime Minister : You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Those of us who identify ourselves as citizens of the world do, indeed, ‘respect the bonds and obligations that make our society work’. But we see those bonds and obligations as extending beyond the people who live around us, work for us, buy the goods and services we sell.
As a citizen of the UK, I honour my commitments and responsibilities to the country of my birth, the country where I have spent most of my life, where I have worked, paid taxes, and raised a family. But I also believe that:
In an increasingly connected world, local needs are intertwined with global needs. We are in the midst of serious challenges that threaten the whole world, and which require collective responsibility: climate change, extreme poverty, and the refugee crisis. Being a citizen of the world means acknowledging that we each have a part to play in solving these urgent global problems.
And in a world where 24 people are forced to flee their home each minute, the idea of a fixed national identity is sadly a privilege not all humans can claim. Where do you belong when your country is no longer your own? The tragedy of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War is a moving reminder of the need to look beyond borders. We need an inclusive identity for all the world’s displaced people – one that encompasses our responsibility for each other, wherever we call home. Whether you’re a founder of a multimillion-dollar business, a Prime Minister, or a refugee with nothing but a mobile phone and the clothes on your back, you can be a Global Citizen.
I spent some of my childhood years in a newly independent West African nation. My parents flew out to Ghana in 1960, with three children under four years old. My father taught Physics and Mathematics to undergraduates at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology in Kumasi. He wrote a textbook for use in schools, recognising that those imported from the UK not only assumed resources far beyond the means of Ghanaian schools, but also assumed cultural references which would make no sense to Ghanaian children. He went on to train teachers in the north of Nigeria. And in his retirement, after years doing the same at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University), he set up an organisation to link retired educators with projects in developing countries, sending them out to work with local teachers to use their lifetimes of expertise where it was most needed, in countries such as Paraguay, Kosovo, Iraq, Liberia, India and Chad.
The country of my parents who instilled in me a sense of public service and of public servants everywhere who want to give something back.
So what was instilled in me by my parents was not only a sense of public service, but the belief that that does not stop at our coastline, that it’s not just ‘the people down the road’, but the people across the oceans who matter.
It’s not about ‘international elites’, it’s about refugees, about people who are persecuted because of their politics, their religion or their sexuality, about people who starve because the world’s resources are so unevenly distributed and because their own and other governments do not have the will to act, about people… About people.
Global citizenship does not mean what Teresa May thinks (or at least says) it means.
But there’s another troubling undertone here.
‘the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere … the only ones who can be addressed as international, because they conduct their business everywhere’
‘International elites’, ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ who owe no loyalty to the countries in which they may live and work. I am not suggesting for a moment that Teresa May is deliberately echoing Adolf Hitler’s 1933 speech, any more than Amber Rudd’s proposal to require firms to list all of their foreign workers is consciously preparing the ground for yellow stars or their equivalent.
But the echoes are worrying. With the Brexit vote having been interpreted by the government primarily as a vote about immigration, and by racist bigots as a vote against foreigners of all kinds, with the plans to tighten even further the tests which would allow British businesses to employ people from overseas, and those which allow students to come from overseas to study here…
It seems that we are prepared to put into jeopardy our health services and the many other businesses and services which rely on overseas expertise, to put into jeopardy our economy, which gains so much from international students paying £20k a year in fees alone to study here, to put into jeopardy our research culture which thrives on the free movement of academics, all to reduce the net migration total.
Teresa May referred to the UK’s remarkable number of Nobel Laureates. But one of this year’s prize winners, Sir Fraser Stoddart, has reminded us that ‘recruiting from a wider pool and bringing in talent from abroad raises everyone’s standard’.
“When you get people from Messina or Madrid moving to a cold place like Sheffield, they’re serious about science,” he said. “It’s better for everyone.”
Sir Martin Rees, emeritus professor of physics at the University of Cambridge, and the Astronomer Royal, warns:
“The UK scientific scene is now much stronger than it was [in the 1980s] – thanks in part of the strengthening of science on mainland Europe. But there is a serious risk, aggravated by the tone of Amber Rudd’s deplorable speech on Tuesday, that there will be a renewed surge of defections, weakening UK science and causing us to fail to recoup our investments over the last 20 years.”
Amber Rudd spoke of the resident labour market test, which determines whether an organisation can recruit outside the UK (and, at present, EU).
The test should ensure people coming here are filling gaps in the labour market, not taking jobs British people could do.
But it’s become a tick box exercise, allowing some firms to get away with not training local people. We won’t win in the world if we don’t do more to upskill our own workforce.
It’s not fair on companies doing the right thing. So I want us to look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers.
Most people hearing this will not know how onerous it already is to appoint someone from outside the UK/EU, how many hoops the employer will have to jump through to satisfy the requirements for a Tier 2 visa to be issued, and how many hoops the applicant will have to jump through. Amber Rudd knows this perfectly well, as do many in her audience. But none of that really matters – what it’s about is meeting this arbritrary net migration target, by whatever means.
She also tackled the issue of international students:
The current system allows all students, irrespective of their talents and the university’s quality, favourable employment prospects when they stop studying. … And foreign students, even those studying English Language degrees, don’t even have to be proficient in speaking English. We need to look at whether this one size fits all approach really is right for the hundreds of different universities, providing thousands of different courses across the country.
Her first point is moot. An international student can apply to stay on after their studies are complete under a Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa – if they have access to at least £50k investment funds to set up or run a UK business. Or, they may apply for a Tier 2 visa, if they have been offered a job by a licensed UK employer, and if they can rack up 70 points under the points based system (yes, we do have a points based system!), which requires them, amongst other things, to have English language qualifications at a suitable level, and sufficient funds in their personal bank account. And all overseas students have to meet English language proficiency requirements at a level set by their institution.
But important as it is to call her out on the inaccuracies in her statement, the really important thing is what underlies it. The assumption that students are flooding here, unable to speak the language, getting favourable treatment post-study, bringing their entire extended families with them – that they are a burden and a problem.
To quote Rudd:
try and stand up for a multiracial Britain and you are labelled part of the liberal elite; point out the £20 billion net contribution from immigrants over a decade and you are told you are not listening to the people; oppose hate crime and you are mocked for political correctness. It is easier to vilify foreigners in the new Britain than it is to espouse European values.
OK, not that Rudd. Her brother, in fact, who has founded an organisation called Open Britain, a place for those who find the denigration of non-British workers appalling and campaigning for Britain to be open and inclusive, open for business, open to trade and investment, open to talent and hard work, open to Europe and to the world.
For Teresa May and Amber Rudd and so many in the Tory Party (and elsewhere) EU migrants are a problem. Overseas workers and students are a problem. Refugees are a problem. Foreigners are a problem.
And the problem can be solved by ending free movement of EU citizens, if need be losing out on beneficial trade deals as a quid pro quo, by tightening up still further on the freedom of employers to bring in the skills and expertise they need to contribute to our economy and to our academic research, by reducing the numbers of students paying substantial fees and contributing to the local economy whilst acquiring skills and qualifications which might be useful both here and in their home country.
The problem can be solved by stating repeatedly that we are doing ‘everything we can’ (whilst doing nothing at all) to bring unaccompanied child refugees who have the right to come to Britain, out of the camp at Calais – due to be demolished shortly – and to safety with family here.
Meanwhile the children remain in the squalor and misery of the camps, prey to traffickers and abusers, desperate enough to risk and lose their lives in attempts to board lorries crossing the Channel. Every day they remain puts them at greater risk of harm, and increases their trauma. But refugees – even these children – are a problem, and therefore we stall and hedge and do nothing.
And whilst we make that arbitrary division between those who live and work here holding a British passport and those who live and work here holding EU or overseas passports, we are about to guarantee for Britons who have settled overseas permanently a “vote for life” in British general elections…
The word ‘cosmopolitan’ is often used in a way that perhaps feeds into Teresa May’s characterisation, of someone who is part of ‘a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call ‘global citizens’”.
But that’s a distortion of what it means.
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.
A global or world citizen places their shared humanity above nationalistic or local identities. They recognise our interconnectedness, and that the problems and threats we face – climate change, terrorism, the displacement of peoples through war and famine – cannot be solved other than by nations working together and that our response is hindered rather than helped by borders and barriers. Global citizenship only comes into conflict with national and local identities, and with the obligations and responsibilities of national citizenship, if that nation demands of its citizens allegiance to values which are inhumane.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, is about as cosmopolitan as anyone could be. His mother was English (daughter of Sir Stafford Cripps), his father Ghanaian. He was educated in Ghana and the UK, and taught in Germany, Ghana, South Africa and France as well as in the US. His family and that of his husband, Henry Finder, is scattered across four continents.
He defines cosmopolitanism as ‘universality plus difference’ asserting that the first takes precedence over the latter, that is: different cultures are respected “not because cultures matter in themselves, but because people matter, and culture matters to people.”
The foreignness of foreigners, the strangeness of strangers, these things are real enough, but Appiah suggests that intellectuals and leaders, on the left and the right, have wildly exaggerated their significance. He scrutinizes the treacly celebration of “diversity,” the hushed invocations of the “Other,” and the brow-furrowing talk of “difference.” In developing a cosmopolitanism for our times, he defends a vision of art and literature as a common human possession, distinguishes the global claims of cosmopolitanism from those of its fundamentalist enemies, and explores what we do, and do not, owe to strangers. This deeply humane account will make it harder for us to think of the world as divided between the West and the Rest, between locals and moderns, between Us and Them.
That the language around immigration is becoming ever more toxic is recognised across the political spectrum. What might have been unsurprising in a UKIP manifesto is now mainstream Tory policy, and whilst many in Labour have been quick and vigorous in opposition, the Party’s Press Office inexplicably seemed to think that pointing out the government’s failure to meet its targets in reducing net migration was the best response.
More hopefully, the Green Party, SNP and Plaid Cymru were unequivocal:
The narrow vote in favour of leaving the EU has now been interpreted as the pretext for a drastic cutting of ties with Europe… and as an excuse for the most toxic rhetoric on immigration we have seen from any government in living memory.
This is a profoundly moral question which gets to the heart of what sort of country we think we live in. We will not tolerate the contribution of people from overseas to our NHS being called into question, or a new version of the divisive rhetoric of ‘British jobs for British workers’. Neither will we allow the people of these islands, no matter how they voted on June 23rd, to be presented as a reactionary, xenophobic mass whose only concern is somehow taking the UK back to a lost imperial age. At a time of increasing violence and tension, we will call out the actions of politicians who threaten to enflame those same things.
It’s perilously easy to despair. But if we do, if we let the seemingly endless tide of sickening rhetoric and bad news overwhelm us and reduce us to silence and inaction, those who will suffer will be those who are already vulnerable, those who are already being told to ‘go home’, facing abuse and discrimination, those who are desperately trying to reach safety and encountering the impermeable indifference of bureaucracy, those who have made their lives and careers here and now feel unwelcome.
‘There is no us and them. It’s us and us. It’s all us.’
A week after the Brexit vote, I attempted to corral my thoughts, rein in my emotions and say something about what had happened, and what it might mean. I talked in particular about what was already being reported as a spike in racist abuse and attacks, just in those first few days, often explicitly linked to Brexit – ‘we won, why are you still here?’ and so on.
At that point, this was something I was reading about in the press. But as I’ve talked to friends and colleagues since then, it’s become apparent that it’s happening right here. Of course, why wouldn’t it? How could we imagine that we would be immune? That’s what prompted this sign, in the window of the Hicks Building, home to the Physics & Astronomy department at the University of Sheffield, a place which celebrates the global nature of science and academic study.
This is just one incident. It happened to someone I know, someone who spoke with passionate articulacy about what it meant, personally and for his colleagues and fellow citizens. It happened yards away from the sign pictured above, it happened whilst I was revelling in music at the start of Tramlines, which seems to me to sum up everything I love about this city, it happened close at hand, in my city, at my University.
Matthew Malek had a near miss with a driver going at an unsafe speed. There were minor remonstrations, as one might expect. But when the driver shouted ‘“Learn how we walk in this country, immigrant bastard!”, the nature of the encounter changed radically. Matthew is a British citizen – irrelevant, apparently, because he has a New York accent, and his features show his Egyptian (Coptic) heritage. What struck Matthew most was the use of the word ‘immigrant’ as an unequivocal term of abuse. ‘He spat the word in precisely the same tone that I have heard others use the slurs “nigger”, “faggot” and, on occasion, “Jew”. It is a tone adopted for the express purpose of degrading and demeaning.’
The driver seemed ready to translate verbal abuse into a physical attack. Had this happened in a less public place, at a less busy time, with fewer CCTV cameras to record the encounter, he might well have done so.
Matthew has lived in the UK for over a decade and this is the first time anything of the sort has happened to him. He shared his account because he felt it was important that people know that ‘the rising tide of racism’ is on our doorstep:
We have all seen the news reports of a rise in racial violence over the past month… but it is not just happening somewhere “out there”. It is happening right here, in Sheffield, in a Northern city that celebrates its friendliness and its strong ties to community. It is happening right here, on our university campus.
We celebrate our internationalism, we draw students and staff from all over the world. And having welcomed them here we want them to be safe, we want them not to feel afraid, not to feel alone. We can and must be witnesses, we can and must speak out, we can and must stand with each other. We have far more in common than that which divides us.
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