Points of View: Me and St George

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(Lyme Regis 2016, credit: Richard Bridges)

 This photo caught my eye. “So crowded” was my first thought. I looked again. Felt uneasy. Felt guilty. Felt confused.

It’s not hard to work out why. This is reality not an air-brushed brochure. The beach isn’t pristine, the clothes are not haut-couture and the bodies aren’t air-brushed.

But the chaotically packed sand, the brawny sleeveless t-shirted chap in the foreground (“big bloke in wife-beater shirt” said one commentator), the fluttering cross of St George. Martin Parr, welcome to Britain 2016.

But let’s not jump to conclusions too quickly. You can try to play “Where’s Wally” by looking for a can of Stella somewhere, but I think your time would be better spent.

Take the man in the foreground – and I am sorry Sir, but I do not know you or who you are. But actually, he is helping his small son – almost out of shot, dressed in an Arsenal kit (not a fashion crime, as far as I am aware. Unless you’re a Spurs fan).

And try as you might, I couldn’t find a can of Stella, or a knotted hankie. But I do see people reading books and newspapers and actually not doing any harm to anyone.

I know some people get very uncomfortable about these sorts of images – just as many did about Parr’s seminal work “The Last Resort”. There is nervous well-to-do middle class laughter about peole we presume are less well off, less cultured, less confident or adventurous than us. And then some guilt because we might be responsible. But I think it is wrong – indeed patronising – to generalise in this way.

No, my unease about this photo comes from two places. First, I can see no non-white faces. Ok, this may be indicative of my urban multiculturalism, but the lack of diversity is really striking. Discombobulating almost.

And then there is that flag. Oh how things have changed in the last month with that flag. When I was a kid, the Cross of St George meant trouble.  It had been colonised, taken over paraded by the far right of the day. Then came less worried times. The people as a whole made a determined effort to repossess the flag for everyone.  We collectively rejected a national symbol being the private property of an abusive small minority – or maybe in times of prosperity, such things become less important.

But now? Now I am not sure.  Post –Brexit  don’t we feel ill-at-ease?  My foreign-born friends are (mostly) palpably worried, anxious, and careful. Racists and xenophobes seem emboldened even though I am sure most people who voted “out” would absolutely reject such intolerance. How do we react to icons that have become tarnished in this way? How can we live with them as we did before? How do we stop ourselves possibly over-reacting and placing our own fears and presumptions at the doors of innocent others?

Questions, questions. I do think  Martin Parr would have been happy  to  have taken that photo, and  to feel  a link with  the Thatcherite  backdrop of  “The last resort”. There is no doubt we live in challenging times. But rather like that Guardian “Points of View” advertisement, we need to be sure we see all angles before jumping to conclusions.

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post

Clutching at Straws?

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Photocredit: Getty images
Close your eyes and it could well have been Ed Miliband talking on the steps of 10 Downing Street this Wednesday. Apart from the voice, of course. Prime Minister May’s message was decidedly centrist. Given her consistently  right-wing voting record,  was this  just a gimmick, designed to deceive?

I think I’m entitled to be sceptical. But perhaps, just perhaps, we should wait and see. And no – I haven’t gone soft. Here’s why:

Theresa May has possibly read the runes and realises that many centrist votes are simply there for the taking. There seems to be a trend across the last two General Elections  of Labour failing to win back votes lost to the Tories.  Perhaps May is positioning the party to permanently colonise this section of the electorate.

After all, it is not unreasonable to surmise that whatever the outcome of the current internal Labour debates,  there is a realistic prospect of centrist voters looking for a new home.

And May would not be the first politician to embrace Machiavelli’s maxim that what you need to do to get power is different to what you need to do to keep it.

Machiavellian is one apt description for her boldness in cabinet appointments. Who didn’t have an instinctively good reaction  to the fates  of Osborne, Whittingdale, Morgan and Gove? The debate is still, of course, out on our new Foreign Secretary.  Perhaps having created a huge mess, it is only right he is given an opportunity to clear it up.

Policy-wise, Brexit must inevitably dominate the post-referendum period, but there are surely worse people  to have in charge than the pro-human rights  David Davis. I worry at the loss of focus on climate change,  but see potential positives with the emphasis on industrial strategy.

Let us be clear, though, that when Theresa May says “We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives” that can mean massive deregulation and privatization as easily as a supportive and empowering state.

Unfortunately we on the left have to face some uncomfortable  truths – the first  comprehensively educated Education Secretary  is a Conservative. Indeed more of the cabinet went to state schools than any government since  1945.  Both female prime ministers have been Conservative. Why have these achievements not been ours?

So maybe there is the basis for just some, little, super-ultra-cautious optimism. But at the heart of Mrs May’s approach is a contradiction.

You can’t be a One-Nation Prime Minister with Two-Nation economic policies. You can’t be  progressive on social policy  without  the  economic policies to  turn  pledges into  reality. Chris Dillow’s article expands well on this point, and highlights the space this leaves for those on the left (and right).

This week has shown once again that   the Conservative Party is the master above all of keeping power. That has to be admired, and not just because of the travails of the opposition. Another Tory maxim is governing for the few and not the many. If Mrs May is serious about breaking that one, she will have to show more substance than seduction.

Did Legal Loop-hole Win it for Leave?

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The “Vote Leave” battle-bus, Photo credit PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Brexit pledge of more money for the NHS was a key argument in the EU referendum. Indeed, it could well have been the deciding factor in a narrow win following a bruising campaign.

The £350m per week in question was blasted on the side of the Leave battlebus, and cited by Brexiters-in-chief remorselessly. Highly controversial but seemingly widely believed, it has now been thoroughly disowned and all traces purged from the campaign website.

Spin – arguably bending truth up to but not beyond breaking point – has always been part of the process.  And “over-spinning” can often be justified on the basis that it is just someone’s opinion, rather than a clear statement of fact (a crucial distinction, as every newspaper journalist knows well). But how could something so unsupported have been allowed to surface in the first place?

You see, large parts of the Representation of the People Act (RPA) were incorporated into the regulations governing the Euro-referendum, as a clear set of rules to ensure everyone behaved themselves.

Large parts but not, apparently, the bit that says you can’t bend the truth beyond breaking point: Section 106  in particular makes it an offence to publish a statement about a rival candidate that you know to be false.

It was this clause – or rather the failure to abide by it – that ended the parliamentary career of the MP for Oldham, and former minister for immigration,  Phil Woolas.  In the 2010 General election,  he narrowly defeated his Lib-Dem  rival  Elwyn Watkins. In doing so  had made some specific statements about him  that were subsequently shown to be in breach of the Act.  The election was declared invalid, Woolas was barred from being a candidate for three years, and Debbie Abrahams won the rerun contest for Labour with a comfortable majority.

So despite the cross-referencing of these two pieces of legislation, why did unedifying untruths still unfold?

To my lay-person’s eye, there seems to me to be one obvious reason – Section 106 refers to candidates, not campaigns.  And I  can hear the argument that  a campaign,  especially  such  a broad  one  as  Leave (or Remain),  cannot realistically be expected to adhere to the same standards  as one individual candidate.

But such arguments surely misunderstand the issue.  The whole point is that elections must be fair and seen to be fair.  That fairness is vital because if the result of a poll is not credible,   the consequences of that in terms of social unrest, economic uncertainly, and political instability can be very great indeed.  As we are seeing in this extra-ordinary post-referendum period.

Therefore, from the perspective of practicality as well as ethics,   the same standards must apply to referenda as to all other elections covered by the RPA.

“But hang on,” my hypothetical critics retort -” who speaks for a campaign?”  Why  should leading figures  be trapped  by  what some low-level  barrack-room  loudmouth  may sound off about?  Campaigns are just too big to be held to the same standards.

This seems a thin argument:  Parliamentary candidates also have significant teams of support staff working on their campaigns. This is recognised by the Act.  And in any event Leave and Remain were officially endorsed groups.  There is a clear chain of command.  So I see no reason why a Section 106 (or equivalent) proviso should not apply in these circumstances, albeit with an additional built-in opportunity  for repudiation. A suitable  acknowledgement that  there has  been a problem,  a  disavowal  of the offending statements and an undertaking  to fix whatever has gone wrong would seem to be an appropriate and effective  sanction  in the  context  of a referendum.

It is time to take a further step to remove lies from our political process.  The mess they create smears those who voted Leave with honourable intentions – and does damage to us all.

This article also appears in the Huffington Post