I spent this morning at work in my garden. A very, very British thing to do, weekend gardening.
I spent this afternoon listening to Jeremy Corbyn and Richard Burgon talking about patriotism and national security. How quickly we forget what it was like when the good guys were getting to do all the big political speeches.
Patriotism is looking after the people and the land around you. Community work and environmental work, in other words. Oh and gardening, of course.
National security is about dealing with the threats the people are facing. What threats are our people facing? Climate change, pandemic, global conflict – so build relationships across the globe to address global-scale problems, recognise that you can’t put a fence round one little island in the North Sea to stop viruses, extreme climate events or nuclear missiles at the border.
We need to stop UK companies selling chemicals and weapons to the countries creating the conflicts, causing the disasters, driving the refugee tides. What other threats do our people face? Shortage of housing, of wages, of food – so we need to build council houses, create jobs, pass laws making food a human right, and look at how we produce and price food. What else? Threats to our health service? so we need to re-instate and re-fund the NHS. Where will the money from all that come from? I know, says Jeremy Corbyn – let’s use the billions the current government are planning on putting into creating weapons to feed more wars.
Farewell to Prince Philip
Go on, give him a couple of minutes thought, or however long you generally spend on someone you’ve heard of, who’s died. Patriotism, and national security, depend on us recognising that no one person is more important than the others, but keeping faith with the rule that every single one does matter. Let us hope that the current generation of young royals will put the monarchy idea peacefully to bed now – maybe when their gran passes on.
Meantime, we – all of us – need most urgently to find out how to get control of the rest of the elite who are wrecking the world – the aristocracy, the billionaires, the privileged, public school set who think they own the country. Please put your mind to it, and help with finding the ways. It’ll take all of us – and it’s the most patriotic thing you could be doing with your time.
This seems to be playing in my head, so here it is – you’d better listen to it too.
You don’t just not need the mainstream media – you need to liberate yourself from it. I focus here on one newspaper and one TV channel because they tend to be the last ones people give up – the ‘best of a bad bunch’, as it were.
Like many people (including you, probably, if you’re reading this) I worked this out gradually, over the course of a decade. I was ‘not watching TV much’ 20 years ago. I went from not buying mainstream papers much to not buying them at all around 15 years ago, when the Guardian went completely insane, obsessing first over how much the editor and all its obedient little reporters hated Julian Assange, and then they all went completely hysterical over how much they hated Russell Brand – just when he was providing a very efficient media-deconstruction service to young people, strangely enough.
Up till then, I was one of those who said “oh but they have some good writers, I don’t read the silly ones” – but during the Assange and Brand assaults, I noticed that the ‘good’ writers were, consistently, whilst being sensible and interesting, including some kind of bitchy side-swipe at the current scapegoats along the way, to keep in with the boss, I suppose. Drip, drip, drip, and we all subliminally half-believe Assange, Brand – Corbyn more recently – are dodgy. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it. It’s pathetic.
Most people think most people watch telly so that they know what most people know … but what if most people *aren’t* watching telly?
The mainstream media have a hysterical edge quite often now. They know their power is slipping. For example, when a confident, well connected writer gets into hot water with the Guardian and decides to walk, it’ll take her about 5 minutes to find her own online platform and gather in her loyal readership. She’s not lefty enough for me (and she’s not quite given up the Guardianista talk – see Russell Brand link above) but if she was one of your favourites, be assured, you don’t need to follow her to some other mainstream newspaper. Go find her own words, online. She’s worth more, her readers know, than any dying rag.
So, having become better informed, and with more time to do my own thing, since ‘hardly ever’ became never, I spent a few years being frustrated by people who kept doing ‘common sense’ at me, telling me the things they’d gleaned from the mainstream media, things they’d sensibly worked out by ‘reading between the lines’ of their papers, or watching BBC coverage ‘critically’. Yeah, some good stuff occasionally – and you may spot when it’s laced with misleading crap, but how do you spot what it’s missed out altogether?
I’m a socialist a feminist, and an environmentalist and an anti-racist so when the very obvious mass reaction to a well-cared for 99-year-old man dying in his bed was “why the f*ck can’t I watch my favourite telly program!” my first thought was well, I’m glad the fascist, sexist, tiger-shooting racist old so-and-so wasn’t the nation’s favourite after all – but my second thought was more sobering.
Are people really so stuck in their ritual BBC/ITV ogling? Are they only angry at the royalist propaganda because it interfered with their weekend viewing list? Jonathan Cook tells the tale, of the BBC being so inundated with indignation they put up (then hastily took down) a special, dedicated complaints page. It didn’t help.
Listen to the language of people who ‘don’t watch TV much’ – it’s remarkably similar to that of people who ‘don’t drink much’ or ‘don’t do drugs much’. So this is for people who are beginning to feel uncomfortable with their mainstream media habit, who are vacillating between a desire to give it up, and a clinging fear that people like Assange, Brand and Corbyn may really be a bit evil, and that they couldn’t have worked it out on their own.
Shouldn’t you rather be worrying what embarrassing daft ideas you are repeating because they were seeded into your news by the Beeb?
So many people are dithering on the boundaries now, feeling that they just can’t quite ‘give up’ this particular paper, or that particular program. Thing is, there is absolutely nothing to ‘give up’. I may not know who won Bake Off, but I know far, far more fascinating things than I ever found out on the telly – including stuff about how to cook and what famous actors are up to – I am also more up-to-date with politics and current events than I used to be when I wasted the best part of an hour a day on BBC news.
You’re reading this blog online, are you not? That last program, or that long-loved writer who you flag up as your reason for occasionally dipping into TV or papers are also online. There’s hardly a journalist alive who doesn’t have a blog nowadays, and on their blogs, they are more themselves than they ever dare to be in the corporate papers. And any program aired on TV that’s worth its salt will also be available online somewhere. Even BBC news clips get passed around social media on the odd time they manage to say something interesting and important but, once you get used to looking wider, you’ll find there’s more and better coverage of most things being produced and published by better people on YouTube, on blogs on things like Patreon or Medium or – I don’t know what’s which, there’s so much to choose from and all you have to do is join a few social media pages that flag up indies, and take your pick.
Do yourself a favour – hang onto the best of what we learned in lockdown – let’s carry on finding our own stuff to read/watch/talk about in the pub. Until the pubs open, our mates are on zoom, but even after that, so are universities, political groups and specialists in anything we could possibly wish to learn about and discuss – and most of your favourite musicians and comedians, not to mention the world’s favourite classic movies – are all over YouTube. (If it’s your favourite alternative comedian you’re stuck on, think again – ask yourself why the telly’s hung onto Ian Hislop, but dropped Nish Kumar). Let’s keep, and build on, the new freedom. It’s telly-out-the-window time.
Very well, you are right. No more cheeky comments from me. Yes, we should observe eight days of mourning.
DAY 1 Mourn for the ones who, in Mr Johnson’s words, have lost loved ones ‘sooner than we might have wished’ to COVID-19.
DAY 2 Mourn for the ones who have died – old and young, many key workers, many more forced to continue unessential work due to lack of funds, the NHS workers, predominantly racialised ones, who died of COVID-19.
DAY 3 Mourn for those who died the horrible death of being homeless and sick.
DAY 4 Mourn for those who died the horrible death of being poor and lacking social care.
DAY 5 Mourn for those who died on The Journey, seeking asylum. Explain to those who say it’s mostly young men who wash up here, so they must be economic migrants, tell them that that’s because the women and the children, the old and the sick don’t make it.
DAY 6 So mourn for the old and the sick who died on The Journey, and those who stayed home and died amidst destruction.
DAY 7 Mourn for the women and the children stolen away from camps like Calais by traffickers.
DAY 8 Mourn for those who die of bombs and pollution and climate change in all the places that will continue to be destroyed until we learn how to control our aristocrats and our billionaires, and *especially* the billionaire aristocrats, who bomb and starve and squeeze the whole world.
And yes, okay, give a thought to rich and well-cared for old men who die in their beds, in their castles, aged 99.
Socialism A, socialism B, and why everyone who was paralysed by despair on 13th December 2019 should be back in action by now...
The Ministry of Truth
We’ve always been very keen on throwing the term ‘Orwellian’ at anything we consider less than honest but in recent years, the term seems to apply more and more often. Last week (April 2021) a story broke which qualifies 100% – a firm of UK lawyers get the job of doctoring textbooks to suit the Israeli market
And reading that, I remembered that during the compilation of the recent report on racism (that found there wasn’t any) there had been talk of providing ‘the real truth’ to schools. Just trying to imagine what such a scheme would look like under our current government made my toes curl.
The impossibility of agreeing ‘the truth’ with the average citizen you meet in the street was a constant burning problem for Labour activists during the 2017 and 2019 election campaigns, not to mention during the nightmare of the Brexit referendum. The enormity, the impossibility, of that task in the face of a government and a mainstream media drifting ever further from reality is beginning to be discussed by relatively mainstream reporters and academics now, two years after That Terrible Day…
But, having had two years to get over the reeling horror of what happened to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, most socialist activists are probably beginning to see, as my comrades do, that we already knew we’d been beaten by 2019. We’d run the campaign in a state of denial, based on the fact that the media had spent the last two years telling us we’d lost when in fact we hadn’t, and so we completely failed to acknowledge reality when we really had lost.
So what happened to real socialism? Why could we not see the wood for the trees? There’s hardly anyone in the Labour Party who doesn’t claim to be a socialist: from the very best paid and most privileged members of the plap (as we took to calling the Parliamentary Labour Party after some of our more bruising experiences), right on down to the lowliest of activists out on the street between DWP maulings, ‘the grassroots’ helping out with Unite Community campaigns against Sports Direct and other exploiters — all insist that they are socialists. How can so many, so very different people, people absolutely at each other’s throats, think they’re socialists?
I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of socialism – or at least, there’s socialism, and a very convincing faux socialism that often takes its place. I found a good, clear definition of the distinction in Snakes and Ladders by Selina Todd. The subtitle of the book is ‘The Great British Social Mobility Myth’. Todd makes extensive use of the personal accounts collected in endeavours such as the Mass Observation Project
She demonstrates a change, over the generations, in the publicly perceived aims of socialism. She looks at early socialist projects, pre-Second World War, which tended to be local subscription schemes, co-ops where communities banded together to solve problems and help each other, thus reducing their reliance on the ‘power people’, the oppressors. Then she looks at later ones which tended to be more individualistic efforts to lift ‘high achievers’ into the middle classes. She follows the developing clash of these two ideas via conflicts in the Workers’ Education Association, over whether their work should centre community education projects for everyone, or whether they should focus on creating scholarships for ‘achievers’.
The problem gradually comes into focus. Clearly, lifting individuals out of the oppressed, working classes into the middle classes isn’t really socialism – you can’t lift everyone into the middle class. If that is your aim, what does ‘the middle’ rest on? Who is going to scrub the floors and wipe the arses? Do we discuss this thorny issue, or do we close our eyes and trumpet ever louder the catch-phrases of socialism B….?
Tony Blair was one of the more notorious proponents of ‘meritocracy’, enthusiastically espousing ‘equality of opportunity’, and mixing meritocracy with the wide-ranging benefits which generally come with a Labour government in a very enticing agenda which, for one-and-a-half terms of office, successfully covered a creeping privatisation that left us with our hospitals deeply in debt, school grounds being sold off and a range of other troubling developments including the over-riding horror of the Iraq War. A loss of socialist vision that more than justified Margaret Thatcher’s statement that New Labour was her greatest achievement.
But Blair was a socialist – and initially a very popular one. What happened?
A good source of detail on how ‘meritocracy’ works is Miseducation, by Diane Reay, which surveys stats and experiences of UK education from the very start of mass education, and discovers an unchanging strategy of using the majority of children as a buffer (collateral damage is the term she uses), the contrast that allows those bright achievers to be ‘top of the pile’. There were only ever so many grammar school places back in the 11-plus days, and middle class parents were always good at making sure their children got them. The few working class people who clawed their way into grammar schools often felt lost and defeated when they got there, cut off from their working class roots, not quite good enough for the alternatives… Comprehensives looked, for a while, like a solution to that but there was, eternally, the private school system sitting on top, limiting their efficacy; and even within those comprehensives, streaming systems recreated that hierarchical ladder for the ‘achievers’ to climb… and the corresponding snakes for others to slide down.
The now-proliferating academy businesses appear to be even more focused on this idea, with their competitive, motivational, aspirational straplines, and their quiet assurances to teachers that no-one will have to handle more than one of those problematic set 3 classes, where the kids all seem to have SEND or mental health issues: the latter translates, in some opinions, to kids who are angry, depressed and/or distressed – the ‘collateral damage’ – the necessary foil of the class system.
Those kids need rescuing – or they need to learn to rescue themselves. Is that a skill they’re going to learn in those schools?
Corbyn – a return to socialism A?
It was extremely hard to sell Corbyn’s version of socialism to everyone – it sold itself to pretty much everyone who actually met him but, strangely enough, it didn’t get an honest airing in the mainstream media, and the high-salaried, high-achievers in the Labour Party didn’t take to it too well. Nevertheless, team Corbyn kept him out on the road, meeting people in their tens of thousands, and good instincts led many, many people to recognise that the socialism of Jeremy Corbyn was something different, something that provided redress – as some analysts noted, Corbyn’s acknowledgement of ‘the left behind’ was key.
Corbyn wasn’t cheering people on to ‘rise above’ the herd, he was constantly calling for them to ‘stick together’, to ‘build the community’ and make socialism happen.
The one big Momentum call-out
Initially, the organisation Momentum became the instrument of the mass movement. When the plap made their first major attempt to nip Socialism A in the bud (an exercise now known as ‘the chicken coup’) they found the House of Commons surrounded by tens of thousands of – well, people – just people – responding to Momentum’s call to hold the line for Corbyn, chanting ‘for the many, not the few’ and ‘no-one left behind’.
It was instinctive, it was right (I think) but, as many lefty commentators said after the Terrible Day (13th December 2019) the majority of the movement lacked background knowledge, it lacked political nous, and was completely un-leadable. It scared the heck out of Jon Lansman who, at that time, considered himself to be in charge of Momentum. It gets very personal here but it seems to me that from that day on, Lansman back-tracked furiously, aiming for his own natural home which was most definitely Socialism B. His methods came from the secret weapon of the right at the time – Identity Politics.
The Politics of Divide and Rule
Where Socialism A always centres the class struggle, aiming to unravel the ‘meritocracy’ view in favour of community and class action, Socialism B will reply with divide and rule – sometimes centring the ‘high achievers’ to create an elite, other times centring a minority competing in ‘the oppression Olympics’ – for example, look at who was getting kicked out of the Labour Party during the struggle to get Corbyn into number ten – top of the list was Jewish Socialists – especially black and female Jewish socialists – accused of anti-semitism.
Were there really hordes of anti-semites in the Labour Party, or was this an attempt to use one section of the Jewish community against another? And then came the leaks, and the signs of racism and sexism running through backroom party bureaucracy.
It was Momentum that scuppered the CLGA left slate system that the new, mass membership relied on to compensate for our lack of political experience and literacy, and it was Momentum in general, Jon Lansman in particular – who did the damage, first by throwing the anti-semitism bomb at Pete Wilsman in the middle of an NEC election, and more recently by making sectarian demands of CLGA candidates that exacerbate the divide between gender-critical feminism and the trans rights movement.
Lots of lobbying or lots of people?
How do you heal those divides? The two styles of socialism can be seen in the choice all political movements make between foregrounding community- and movement-building or foregrounding lobbying. The lack of experience of many of us newcomers to party politics led to an expectation that if only we could get our particular case in front of Corbyn or MacDonnell, all the problems would fall away. Many sections of the movement attempted to build and lobby, but there was always too much belief in the ‘Corbyn will sort it out’ feeling. I suspect that it is, even now, slowing the development of the current Corbyn Project, as too many sign-ups sit at home waiting for Jeremy to work his magic.
It was the failure of that misplaced faith that led us all to slump into despair as the election results came in on 13th December 2019, and Corbyn resigned as party leader. It was the same failure of faith that led so many campaigns to wander off down their separate, and often antagonistic, paths since then. Failure of faith in ourselves as a collective. It’s time to pull those paths back together – we need to recognise truth speakers such as Corbyn, to listen to them and honour them, but not expect them to work the magic. We need to know that we can campaign side-by-side with people of different opinions, but we need to be politically literate enough to know whether they are real socialists. I don’t know if the Labour Party itself is any use to us now, but nor do I expect Mr Magic Corbyn to start a new party.
What we need to do is a lot more homework, then we need to get out there and make sure more people really understand what happened, and what is happening. Keep the conversations going until enough people understand… and as so often happens, I was just trying to work out how to say all that, when I realised someone just had.
I’m not sure how long the share token for ‘The Truth’ will stay live but, if it’s stopped working when you get to this point, try searching for Caitlin Johnstone and the-problem-isnt-human-nature…
I dedicate this blog post to the person who casually slandered me in a Facebook group last week and probably didn’t even notice they’d done it.
It would be so nice if I could call this blog “the bleedin’ obvious” but I keep finding myself in this conversation, so the only thing that’s obvious is that it’s something we all desperately need to remind ourselves, not least because our government is now engaged in what I think is probably a wrong-headed idea in the first place – that is, making laws about ‘hate’.
If you and I disagree, it may be that we are looking at something from different angles, or informed by different experiences. If that’s the case, then we’d really benefit by questioning and listening. When we come to understand each other, we’ll both know more, won’t we? And probably, we’ll both come to a slightly altered, better informed position.
Or it may be that one or both of us are wrong, because we’re going on beliefs, rather than sound knowledge. That’s horribly likely these days, when so many groups and individuals are making a career out of being very influencial con-merchants. Again, if we sit down and compare what we each think we know, we’ll probably unravel some errors and come out both knowing more.
Sometimes, that’s not so easy. Maybe one or both of us is deeply emotionally invested in what we think we know. Where that’s the case, if we’re not important to each other, we’ll probably stop talking, because it becomes hard work. If we are important to each other, we need to be more careful – we’ll probably ‘agree to disagree’ and approach the contended issue another time, maybe a bit at a time, or wait till one of us learns more.
But then, now I think about it, most of the situations where I’ve seen disagreement presented as ‘hate’ are actually conversations between complete strangers.
Imagine two people are chatting in the street, and a third comes along, rubbishes what one or both of them are saying and throws in an opposing idea, then waltzes off into the sunset.
Or then again, imagine someone who’s generally quite polite to you, or doesn’t talk to you at all, suddenly saying you’re a complete idiot and everything you’ve just said is evil.
It’s the sort of thing that happens on social media all the time – but we actually think it happens more often than it really does – either because we step clumsily into conversations we haven’t read all of, or because we type something that sounds okay to us, but actually reads quite differently to how we intended.
I bet you, like me, regularly tell yourself you’re going to start being more careful on soc media. I even think there’s a good chance that you have, at least once, done what I just did – which was see a conversation started by someone I vaguely know, in which someone had said something I think is wrong and damaging, so I just went in and corrected them and sailed off again to carry on with what I was doing. I probably just started a row, or really offended someone, or added to the general feeling that the world is full of hate.
Lack of moderation
There was a flare up in a Facebook group I’m an admin of. I was in the thick of it. Someone complained about the ‘lack of moderation’ so I diligently went through all the flamey threads. I found one example of out-and-out slander, two blatently abusive statements, one case of completely arbitrary, unilateral censorship by a moderator (not me) and vast swathes of condescending, patronising, ill-informed infuriating twaddle. How the heck do you moderate *that*, I thought. Then I realised that ‘lack of moderation’ has more than one meaning. I think that conversation was held between grown ups, many of whom displayed a shameful lack of moderation. But then, if I asked them where the abusive bits were, they would no doubt judge it differently.
But what if someone’s intentionally trying to hurt or confuse someone, or scare them into silence? – Well, perhaps even then, we should moderate our response – just explain to them that that kind of thing does not generally work, in the long run. All it does is upset people and make you unpopular.
Er… let’s try harder (to get along I mean, please don’t try harder to annoy people on soc media). We could do with a bit less hate in the world.
Even if we disagree about COVID and vaccines
Even if we disagree about Brexit
Even if we disagree about sex-based rights
Even if we disagree about the police
Even if we disagree about what happened to the Corbyn movement.
Good grief, it used to be just football teams, didn’t it?
Sorry for the bar room tone of the title, but it seems to me to match the level of thinking we have been getting from our government.
I have huge sympathy with the people who have been agitating all along to keep/get the schools open.
I have huge sympathy with the people who want the schools shut until we’re sure we’re safe.
I have huge sympathy with the people who think the whole idea of schools should be torn up and re-invented.
What we have found out
Open the schools, fund the schools
Many communities, especially those that have become pits of social and financial deprivation due to the degradation of local authorities and funding, were depending on schools to keep children fed, healthy and safe. There are horrendous reports now coming out of the dangers and disasters that are befalling children in these areas during lock-down. If we are going to go on like this, we need to provide schools with the funds and the specialist staff to deal with all the community problems that have fallen into their laps because no-one else is dealing with them.
Keep the schools closed, fund everything else
It’s obvious that we need to close schools, and as many other institutions as possible, until the experts in *that* field have worked out how to deal with the virus and related problems so, having learned what our kids are going through, a responsible government would be urgently and actively re-funding and re-staffing the NHS, social services, community police, housing officers and all the other departments (not private contractors please, they have proved to be useless and expensive) – government or local authoritydepartments that would, if they had the resources, be dealing with the problems those children are facing and – obviously – we need legislation to assure that wages and working conditions are functioning in a way that allows young adults to set up home, and find the time and resources necessary to bring up their children properly.
But it would appear that the only thing concerning the government is how they handle a cohort of kids who are all in different places on their national education data sheets, kids who are not in the habit of functioning in a group and following orders. Faced with a situation that doesn’t fit on their spread sheets, government ministers flip-flop between micro-management and hand-waving laissez faire in a way tailored to guarantee rage in teachers and parents alike.
Catch up with what?
Or – why school culture is bad for your kids
Closing schools made precious little difference to home-educating families. Those who aren’t familiar with the idea probably formed their notions of what home-schooling is long before it became something desperate parents resorted to when schools could not provide for their children. No longer middle class ‘hippy’ types, most home-schooling parents hauled their lives into a new shape with great difficulty because their children have special needs and their schools were poorly resourced to respond. Many of those who home-school now, whether by choice or because of special needs say the term itself is somewhat outdated. ‘Community education’ would be a more appropriate description. They band together, join local gyms, libraries and arts and science projects, and endeavour to teach their children what they are capable of learning in a way they are capable of learning it.
The biggest problem I see with such education is that it’s often impossible for people who don’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, or who have to work long hours, to take part.
When the schools closed, the children in those families who were engaged in non-school education carried on their education pretty much as before, except that their group work had to move onto zoom. The problems they do have went right on as before – the difficulty of getting officials who contacted them to understand what education was, the difficulty of securing places and facilities for the kids to sit exams and the complete irrelevance to them of government guidance and directives – but overall, home-schooling proved itself during lockdown to be far, far better adapted to the modern world than most schools were.
For one thing, it’s a large part of why the government we weren’t allowed to have had free broadband for all as a headline policy, and it’s another area in which I really wish we had a government with the ability to look and learn.
What ‘home-school’ kids are suffering though, is the same thing all kids are currently suffering. They urgently need the time and the opportunity to rediscover and rebuild their social networks. I seriously hope the government doesn’t pursue that recently mooted idea of extending school hours so kids can ‘catch up’ – what, catch up with an imposed GCSE regime that has little to do with their actual lives? – they, just as much as their home-schooling friends, need time to catch up with their friends, their lives.
Through the portal
If only – If only we had had the government the majority of us did our best to bring in in 2017 (yes, majority – go find out, if you don’t know) we could take away the fines and the social pressures (poverty, overwork, inadequate housing etc) that force parents to send kids to school, and we could completely make over our schools, so that they were our hubs of community education: so that they provided shelter and routine every day to kids who needed those things, but also provided exam resources and sittings, labs, dance and recording studios, IT centres, libraries, orchestra, choir and team sports opportunities and above all, professional teachers, to everyone in the community who needed them (free at the point of use, naturally – because we believe in free education for all, don’t we?) Such schools would of course be staffed by experts on education, child development and safeguarding, but they would not have to be experts in health, social care, housing, social control and all the rest of it because we would have proper local authority departments assessing and doing the necessary in those specialities.
The biggest lesson
Above all, I think the lesson all of us – parents, teachers, kids, politicians, the voting public – need to take from this is that we won’t get given what we want, we won’t get told the whole truth – unless we take action, take responsibility, and start making the world we want to pass on to our children.
As the UK pulls into position as a world-leader in COVID deaths, as the NHS, the legal system and the economy fall into chaos, as the Home Office scrabbles around trying to retrieve the latest batch of lost files, our PR-dependent government works day and night to keep all media voices and spaces filled with news of the one thing they are keeping pace with – vaccination centres. Twinned with their current obsession with trying to convince us that anything that goes wrong goes wrong because some people aren’t following the ever-changing government guidance, this suggests a desperate need to direct attention away from something…
I am really hoping that means it is still possible for ministers to make such a bad job of something that they get kicked out of their jobs.
It used to be a subject for comedy, the way government ministers are constantly shunted into jobs heading departments they knew nothing about – but it was a joke back then. We knew that really, a minister does not have to be an expert in the subject area. They are supposed to be good at listening, rallying and directing, tuning their departments into the direction they’ve been elected to take them, leaving the subject-management and delivery- based decisions to those out-of-fashion types – experts in the field
I acknowledge that focusing on one person may be a little unfair. Gavin Williamson is no more than a prize specimen of an era of government-by-guesswork. I am regarding him as a test case – are Conservative government ministers EVER bad enough at their actual job to sack? Yes, we’ve seen cheating, lying and general malpractice leading to ministers having to step down (eventually) but what about actually being so bad at your actual job, what if a minister has dug himself into a ditch so deep that no-one anywhere could mistake what he was doing for effective leadership?
In the run up to Christmas, when experts in virus control were saying schools were potentially a major spreader, the government threatened legal action against schools that wanted to close a few days early to make the Christmas holiday a more effective circuit-breaker. Williamson’s department did not tell schools what was expected of them after Christmas until halfway through the last day of term.
The aborted return
Then, when it had become patently obvious to just about everyone that schools shouldn’t kick off as normal after Christmas, Williamson decided that they should. And as the whole of education world tuned in to hear the announcement of return dates – that’s all they wanted, return dates – so they could actually start organising, in an extraordinary display of obliviousness, Williamson treated his infuriated audience to what felt like hours of flah about how education was a good thing and the government was good at it before announcing his seemingly random decisions about which schools would or would not be opening on the 5th January.
That moment must have seen the biggest simultaneous switch-off ever, as parents, teachers and school staff everywhere leapt into action to try and do three weeks work in one evening.
One day, we were back – one day, just enough to get the virus running round a horde of new little hosts, and then Williamson was finally forced to listen to the growing tide of teachers, doctors and trade unionists backing up the voices of the virus experts, and schools were closed again. Even those few who had wanted to take the risk and open all the schools were now infuriated by all the work the about-turn generated.
The sound and the fury were muted for a couple of weeks, as parents and teachers occupied every waking hour trying to sort out all the late-started plans the government last-minuteism had forced on them, but it’s back with extra flame now.
Pooled experience, blended learning
What expert timing true awfulness has! Having spent a lunchtime in a meeting where teachers discussed what they’ve learned and what they need to do now, and prepared a timetable with a good blend of live and recorded lessons and independent learning tasks, I spent the early evening in a huge, nationwide zoom where teachers everywhere were pooling ideas based on the same discoveries – that many kids thrive on some live learning but that very few kids benefit from dawn-to-dusk live instruction.
I emerged from that session full of ideas about using short online sessions to kick off good-quality independent work, and/or live lessons pointing to dip-in-and-out recorded materials, only to hear that Gavin Williamson, basing his idea on no known evidence whatsoever, had just announced that live learning was best and therefore the aim was to do it all the time.
Fuses blew. I ask now – is there any ditch deep enough that an expert-spurning, self-absorbed, arrogant, clueless, destruction-wreaking minister cannot be sacked for digging himself and his country into?
Speaking across the generations can be challenging to say the least. At 18, I found most over 40s clueless, condescending and often downright rude. Having just passed 60, I am beginning to notice for the first time that most under 40s are…
Well, let’s not perpetuate the mirage. I saw this meme today you see, about trying to explain to the parents that the under 40s are feeling pretty bad…
Like most of the people I know of my age, I feel deeply worried about what the up-coming generations are going through. Have you noticed how many grey heads there are amongst the socialist and environmentalist activists? You’d have to look on zoom now – marches and camps sadly are… Anyway – we do that because we’re deeply worried about what up-coming generations are going through, and how on earth their children…
Trouble is, many of them seem to be judging us because we haven’t given up and sometimes, we even have the audacity to be cheerful, and make like victory is in sight.
That’s the spirit…
Okay yes, there are some people who have no patience, no staying power – look at the numbers who gave up on the Corbyn thing when we lost the election – but you know, lots didn’t. They’re still looking for a way.
Okay yes, there are some people who don’t realise the gravity of the environmental situation, the austerity situation, or even the virus situation – though I should think the queues of ambulances and hearing of the deaths of actual friends and acquaintances must be catching up with most of them by now – but there are also masses of people – unimaginable numbers of people – who in their own way, know we are hanging by a thread, know the chances of the generation after next are a million to one – but who are still seeking answers, and still have an annoying habit of being cheerful sometimes.
Thank the gods! Thank the extraordinary human spirit and its ever-seeking survival skills!
A million to one chance
The point is, we knew. My generation lived through the Cold War Era. We saw the nuclear attack drills, and we saw what a hopeless, helpless fudge they were. We saw the mad, mad, impossible over-kill of the nuclear weapons build up – we thought it pretty unlikely we’d survive to our 30s, let alone old age.
We’d read the Silent Spring. We knew about leper ships. We engaged. Many of us. Millions of us. And we’re engaged still and we’re sometimes cheerful still because you see, if that million to one chance comes up, it won’t just drop a happy ending in our laps – it’ll be a chink of light. Yes, imagine, you’re 50 metres under and that chink of light is impossibly small, impossibly far-off. If you are going to make anything of it, you’ll need a horde of lively minds, able bodies and yes – cheerful people – to fight your way through.
We knew. We don’t give up. We have cheerful days. Don’t knock it.
Homework, set by members of my CLP 4 years ago: Read Tony Blair’s biography, and write us a piece for the young Corbynites who want to know just who this beast in the shadows is, and how, if he’s good and gone, he’s managed to leave this handful of people in key executive positions all over the party who are so damned good at out-playing the party’s every attempt to change.
I rejected the challenge as not worth the pain – but then happened to find a copy of the book in a junk shop, when we’d jumped on a train for a jolly day out shopping. Oh god! That psycho face gimlet-staring out of the cover pic! It was only 50p, so I caved in and said “oh alright then.”
Even the shop lady thought I was mad. “You won’t learn anything – he’ll only be bigging himself up,” she said, as I handed her the 50p.
It’s called A Journey. What with that, and the gimlet stare on the cover, I decided to discard the dust jacket on the train home. I could cope with the plain blue cover underneath – or so I thought. I nearly chickened out and left the whole book on the train when I realised it had TONY BLAIR embossed on the spine in 2-inch high letters, which fellow passengers were staring at in horror.
If ever the first line in a book was perfectly prescient, this one is. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: “When it was first suggested that I write this book, Bob Barnett, lawyer, friend and negotiator extraordinaire, expertly steered the negotiations that brought me to Random House.” There you have it – Tony Blair in a nutshell. Never mind policies, never mind principles, the one and only quality he notices in everyone and every event, is the potential for effective manipulation – for winning. I had a quick flick through. My eye was caught by the nature of the captions on the photo pages. Here’s an example:
The words of praise are extraordinary – “operative”, “superbly attuned” – remember how the phrase “on message” kept turning up in political columns when Blair was “team building”? Remember how, when the 2015 Labour leadership election was a three-horse race, the three candidates were shunting and shifting, playing chess for the “winning message”, and nobody was unusually stirred… Until a forth contender came along, one who messed up the chess-game by just saying what he thought, regardless of whether it was popular, or part of a pre-agreed “message”. The membership scented truth, and they were in the mood for it. From that moment on, despite the other candidates’ attempts to adapt, taking hasty lessons in appearing unrehearsed, Corbyn was the man: too old and too relaxed to fit the conventional model but, unbelievably, unstoppably popular – because in certain circumstances, people are ferociously loyal to truth, once they’ve spotted some.
Looking at the photos of Blair’s chosen inner circle, I am reminded of a famously machine-oriented councillor I came across at the Labour South East regional party conference. He got on fine with the group he and I were both working in that was about winning council elections – some fine, efficient advice on campaigning… but he was the only one at conference who took to the main stage and advised a (largely Corbynite – as the majority of members are) audience to “stay off social media, it’s just an echo chamber.” The advice was greeted with a stony silence. We knew where and how the membership at large got one up on the Blairite machine, and why he wanted it to stop. If he noticed that manipulative tactics stick out a mile these days, he didn’t show it but then, come to think of it, he didn’t show his own feelings once, all weekend. Educated for politics, groomed, trained and funded for his position, he is a text-book example of Blair’s machine men.
Pondering this, my eyes strayed to the page opposite the photos, where Blair is describing the role of Foreign Secretary, and explaining why it’s the job everyone wants. “…you basically spend your time with people who are polite to you…generally dispensing goodwill and opinions to those who seem relatively keen to receive them.” Sounds like the queen’s job to me – aren’t politicians supposed to be doing important, responsible things? Not the Foreign Secretary apparently – “…Not for you the horny handed sons of toil badgering you over fuel prices, or complaining about the government’s clearly ill-motivated refusal to spend money on this service or that, the minutiae of road schemes…” Is that, then, the root of the resentment Blairites hold for the Corbyn/McDonnell movement? Is it that they hold the people and their need for services in such total contempt they resent Corbyn’s expectation that all politicians lower themselves to actually running the country and providing services?
Not getting off to a very good start, this book review of mine, is it? Let’s see how Tony’s getting on: INTRODUCTION “Most such memoirs are, I have found, rather easy to put down. So what you see here is not a conventional description of who I met or what I did…” That, Tony, is pretty much what the lady in the bookshop said. “There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that’s me.” Well okay, on the subject of Tony Blair’s experience of being Prime Minister, I suppose he has a point but is he going to keep the idea under control, and not write as if he is god of the real world? “I describe, of course, the major events of my time, but I do so through the eyes of the person taking the decisions in relation to them…” – The person? Doesn’t this sound a tad like the memoir of a dictator? – “…I hope it is fair.” I doubt it, old son.
I will try to be fair. But that’s my problem, not yours. You need not read the whole book with me, I’ll just tell you what was going through my mind while I laboured (sorry!) through the pages. The point is, if “truth” is the agreed, polished, message of the establishment, then it is in trouble. It has been struggling since the early days of newspapers. For most of our history since the invention of printing, the right to print and distribute was strictly controlled. From the 1700s onward, business people agitated increasingly loudly for a right to print news and politics – they scented big profits – but statesmen were initially quite open about their horror of the idea. How could they keep people “on message” if their own doings and sayings in government were passed around freely? You can see some stunning examples of this argument throughout the 1800s if you look for histories of Stamp Duty Law, which is where a lot of the attempts to control newspapers appear and get debated. One of the more recent examples comes at the end of the first world war, where a British politician is on record as congratulating the editor of the Guardian for keeping “on message” during the war. “The British people,” he said, “would never have stood for it if they’d known what was really going on.”
After the shameless drive for profit, technology was the next phenomenon that threatened “the message” of the ruling minority. Popular radio and then television, ease of travel, with roving reporters turning up everywhere, began to be a regular embarrassment to business leaders, politicians and royals. The British Royal family did their very best to keep behind their camouflage but have lost bags of face and loyalty in the last generation or two, largely thanks to the press and the media spreading the shabby reality of their being typically human, only richer.
A feature of technological progress is that new inventions quickly become available to larger numbers of people. That’s what happened to publishing and communications technology. Soon, everyone could do what a few decades back only the professional investigative journalists could. Corporate law would stop ordinary people getting rich by using it, but it could not stop them using it. Even disaffected US soldiers could communicate and publish stuff – and so, via Wikileaks, we received Bradley Manning’s truth, and then even wars started losing the support of a controlled “message”. That was the moment we saw Tony Blair’s tower really starting to crumble.
People in general have never been particularly insistent on truth. Most of the time, a good story will do but the demand for “truth” arises when people feel conned, or when they’re having a hard time and, with the rise of social media, there are now millions, rather than thousands, out there angrily looking for their truth. George Michael dies, a tabloid paper immediately prints spread after spread of “how we loved George” and an army of social media punters hit back by sharing archive posts of that same newspaper’s “Pits and Perverts” front page at the time of the miners’ strike, and memes with messages such as “Tabloid papers told us Jimmy Saville was a force for good and George Michael was a pervert. They’re still trying to tell me stuff now.”
And once people start doing that, the first response is the “post-truth era” idea – they have just discovered they’ve been conned, so they think “truth” died quite recently and shout about its tragic death. But once you start looking, you can’t find the start of it. Tony Blair may have been a pinnacle of message-over-truth but he didn’t invent it. Take the “Pits and Perverts” incident. People who aren’t currently on a truth mission, still believe the media version of the government-versus unions battles of the 1970s but people who are currently “off message” can quite easily find the archives, look at the history and discover, for example, that the vast majority of those nasty, aggressive miners who ended up in hospital had wounds to the backs of their heads – clobbered by police swinging long truncheons from horseback as they ran away.
Next, the amateur researcher will find that the famous BBC footage of the “battle” at Orgreave was doctored by the BBC (whether with or without government instruction is still being investigated). The police drove miners into a dead end, corralled and beat them, and then furious, cornered miners started throwing stones. The BBC chose to crop the film and show the stone-throwing first, then the police charge, with the obvious effect. Once your amateur researcher knows this, they know they need to adjust most of what they’ve ever been told.
The Post Post Era
Of course, there is a kick-back. The establishment minority know that one game is up, and serious moves are now in evidence to curb social media and the technology that has allowed so many to start down the path of re-adjusting what they thought they knew – but communications technology is a hydra now. It’s going to be a hard job getting every filming, recording and dissemination device back into the hands of the minority. The only alternative is to oppress the majority into silence by starving them of services, homes, health care etc
But – when do people go after truth? When they’re desperate, when they’re cornered and when the stories aren’t working any more. When people are hungry, they’re hungry for truth. Once they start feeling that, you get movements like Occupy, People’s Assemblies, the Anti-Austerity Movement, the Corbyn-McDonnell movement: fresh, new, up-to-date forces demanding truth and its partner, fair play. They aren’t the first and they won’t be the last but, win or lose, they are proof that truth isn’t over, any more than history turned out to be over when Fukuyama wrote its obituary. It’s still there, it just goes in and out of fashion according to how people are faring, and how well the stories are working.
The era of using the word “post” to dismiss inconvenient things is over. It’s time we started giving our history a serious place in our thinking.
Well, here we are in lockdown again and among the trials and tribulations, our beloved bookshops are closed once more. If you’re in Hastings, please remember Bookbuster and Printed Matter still have ordering systems in place, and other shops around the town – and everywhere! – are offering their titles through online stores.
Here’s a selection of Circaidy Gregory Press non-fiction books currently available to buy online at bookshop.org
This Damn Puppeteer
“I know everything about alcohol – except how to stop” – Brian’s book is a work of art and philosophy a story of the after-effects of child abuse and the realities of life on the street. It touches all of us.
You can read all about the book, the play and Brian’s doings in Hastings on the blog here You can buy Brian’s exraordinary biography online at bookshop.org here
Fish-heads, Fire-raising and Force-Feeding
Women’s fight for the vote in Hastings and St Leonards