Why are people making such a fuss about Russia?

The Central Intelligence Agency of the United States Government has alleged that the Russian government ‘hacked’ the US election in order to ensure that Donald Trump became president.

Several thoughts occur to me on reading this.

The first is: this production is brought to you by the same team that told you about the weapons of mass destruction held by Saddam Hussein, in order to justify the second gulf war and trigger the overall destabilisation of the entire Middle East that so many people are suffering from.

The second is: this production is brought to you by the same team that developed and financed a coup in the Ukraine which toppled President Yanukovych and triggered a long civil war that has immiserated the entire nation.

The third is: this production is brought to you by the same team that has – over a period of decades – sought to put sympathetic regimes in place throughout the world, in order that the interests of the US ‘deep state’ are catered to.

So, before thinking ‘the CIA said it, therefore it must be true’, let us simply bring to mind this history and ask ourselves not ‘was Trump helped by the Russians?’ but instead ‘why is the CIA seeking to undermine the outcome of this democratic election?

I believe it is because the CIA – rightly – perceives Trump to be an existential threat.

After all, one of the most salient differences between Clinton and Trump in this last election was their foreign policy. Clinton was the establishment candidate – the one that sought to continue the framework kept by GW Bush and Obama for the last sixteen years. That framework has several key features, such as: continued drone warfare in the Middle East and elsewhere, reliance on Guantanamo bay to hold undesirables (deplorables?), hostility towards Russia and China as rival great powers. In sum, this is the ‘neo-conservative’ agenda, as put in place in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

The principal locus for this struggle between the American intelligence establishment and other world powers has shifted from the Ukraine to Syria, for the simple reason that Putin’s Russia decided to intervene militarily (at the invitation of the Syrian President Assad). The media are full of stories about the tremendous human suffering that the people of Syria are experiencing, and it is appalling, yet what is not so readily apparent is that it is the Russians who are most likely to achieve a lasting peace. If the US establishment gets its way, the war in Syria will carry on for generations more.

Consider that the worst thing to happen to any country is for the rule of law to collapse. (There is a very interesting TED talk on why this is so appalling – search on line for ‘TED talk Gary Haugen locusts’ – it is well worth twenty minutes of your time).

The Syrian civil war is between President Assad (recognised as the legal ruler of the state, supported by Russia, also widely recognised as a very bad man) and ‘moderate’ Islamists (basically a branch of IS but supported by the US and Saudi Arabia, so we don’t get told such things). At this moment in time, with Russian forces fully engaged, there is absolutely no chance whatsoever for President Assad to be driven out of power.

Our choices are therefore: a) escalate the conflict by seeking to establish a ‘no-fly’ zone – the choice advocated by Hillary Clinton, and which would almost certainly have led to a shooting conflict with Russia, or b) allow Russia to cement Assad in power, ending the civil war, and concentrate on defeating IS – this is the course advocated by Trump.

There are those with a vested interest in keeping Oceania at war with Eurasia and with the astonishing election of Trump they can see that their desires are about to be throroughly thwarted. Trump is clearly planning to radically recalibrate the foreign policy of the United States, as can be seen by his various appointments to his Cabinet.

If we are concerned to preserve our way of life, we need to pay attention to what truly threatens it, the enemies both internal and external. Externally, the greatest threat that we face is located in the Middle East, not because of the ‘hard power’ controlled by IS, but because of the soft power. In other words, here is an ideology which cannot be compromised with, and which is steadfastly committed to the elimination of all that we value in our own ways of life. We need to take this seriously, and where there are clear allies in our struggle against them – and Russia is certainly that – let’s not get distracted.

Yet the internal threats are most evident at this moment in time. After all, if you believe that Trump is going to be a disaster, from where do you get this idea? Might it be from the mainstream media by any chance? The same media that – in addition to completely misunderstanding Trump – has consistently been used as a mouthpiece for the views that the CIA have most wanted to be accepted; as with the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the ‘popular revolution’ in the Ukraine; the establishment of Pinochet in Chile… need I go on?

Truly, if we are to preserve our way of life, perhaps the most important thing is to exercise the values of our way of life more effectively in our own lives: to think critically about what we read, to exercise free speech (and notice what and whom can and cannot be criticised with impunity), to strive for the ways of peace and not war. Those things are only worth defending where they actually exist.

2016: the year the bubble burst

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One of my favourite jokes is: a hundred thousand lemmings can’t be wrong! I like it because it is absurd, it is closely related to a philosophical type of argument called a reductio ad absurdum, and I like it because – once the requisite irony of the delivery is appreciated – it contains an immense and important truth.

That truth is simply this: just because everyone you know agrees with you, that doesn’t mean that you are right. You might simply be joining in with a crowd of small mammals joyfully committing suicide by jumping off a cliff, in obedience to long-defunct biological imperatives.

The interesting thing happens when a lemming realises that they are in fact a human being and stop and say ‘is this really the way that we want to go?’ (Doubtless many will say that this is a good metaphor for Brexit – that by deciding to leave the European Union the British population have decided to jump off a cliff, and the result will be messy and bloody. That is the sort of comforting lie that we tell ourselves when reality becomes too painful to be coped with immediately.)

After all, what 2016 has demonstrated, on both sides of the Atlantic, is that those in positions of power and authority and influence do not have any clue what is going on. They have manipulated the levers of power in order to maintain the status quo, in order to ensure that the world remains safe for global corporate capitalism, and yet the results have not reflected their choices.

I would say: the bubble within which they have been operating has finally burst. That bubble, that echo-chamber, that closed circuit has been dominant for many decades. It has been marked, as all religions are marked, by clearly expected standards of speech and behaviour, with shibboleths relating to the treatment of minorities and women, where transgressions lead to expulsion from the community.

What has happened this year is that the illusion of dominance and inevitable victory for that religious perspective has been shattered. The world does not operate according to the central tenets of political correctness. There are people whose suffering was not taken account of by that dominant ideology, and their numbers – of those who suffer and those who care about those who suffer – are now large enough to cause electoral earthquakes.

Earthquakes that were not seen; at least, not seen by those who have relied upon the official prognosticators and opinion formers and tea-leaf readers commonly known as pollsters. Why not? Simply because, as mentioned above, if you believe something that falls outside of the bubble then the bubble will react angrily and aggressively against you. You will be bullied at escalating levels of intensity until you repent of your transgressive thoughts. You might lose your job; you will at least lose some friends. In this sort of environment is it surprising that people keep their views to themselves until that one private space wherein their preferences might actually have some impact?

The reason why the bubble has burst, why the illusions have shattered, why the genie will never get back into the bottle is that all those of us on the outside of the bubble, who have watched the creeping madness and group-think take over and destroy so much of virtue and value in Western society – we now know that we are not alone. On the contrary, we have the momentum, we have the numbers, we have reality on our side. We refuse to go over the cliff.

Such language might alarm. Does this mean that we are going to watch a replay of the 1930s, with Trump as Hitler, and Farage as his bag-carrier? No, it really doesn’t – and the dominance of that narrative simply shows what the principal factors were which formed the politically correct bubble in the first place. These are the long-defunct biological imperatives that are driving the lemmings over their cliff. Put simply, the West was so traumatised by the experience of the Third Reich that it has chosen to do everything possible to prevent a recurrence, up to and including cultural suicide.

The paradox is that there is an ideology abroad today which has very clear and direct philosophical and cultural links with the Third Reich, which insists upon traditional roles for women, which is radically anti-semitic and excludes ethnic minorities from all positions of power and influence, which prescribes the death penalty for homosexuality, and which is committed to the path of violence and terrorism in order to pursue those objectives.

It is because more and more people are aware of the threat that this ideology poses to us that the bubble has burst. The bubble has prevented a full and vigorous engagement with the threat; it has instead acted to incubate the threat within our own society; and people have had enough.

Yes, there are direct economic interests in play as well. The promises of the bubble have not been kept; whole communities have been cut off from any increase in prosperity – rather the reverse; and all the while the spectacle of fat cats filleting their company’s pension systems before pushing their employees over a financial cliff has fostered the disaffection that is now too obvious to ignore.

This crisis has been decades in the making, and will take many years yet to fully unravel. It will not be a gentle time. What are our tasks for the months and years ahead?

Those of us who have been outside the bubble for some time have, I believe, to ponder one essential question: how can we remain civilised in the context of the coming conflict? To put that slightly differently, and more personally, how can we remain Christian and not succumb to Nazism? How can we insist upon the priority of one form of life in this nation – one that actually does preserve all the progressive achievements of our culture – without scapegoating a minority? On that question will this generation be judged.

For those who have been within the bubble, I am bold to offer some advice. The first and most important advice is simply: don’t assume that those who disagree with your views are racist, homophobic, sexist reprobates. That has been the default assumption for so long that those words have lost their power in the same way that they have lost their accuracy. If you reflexively reach for those insults in discussion with Brexiters and Trumpers then you simply commit yourselves to leaping from the cliff with greater conviction.

The second bit of advice is simply: listen. Those of us outside the bubble don’t have all the answers, and if we are to preserve a civilised society in this land then the polarisation of argument is not going to help us achieve that end. We have to work together. Yet that cannot happen if one side believes that the other is morally beyond the pale, an incarnation of barbarism, a return to fascism. No, we need you to listen. We need you to recognise that the bubble has burst, that there might be truth outside your world-view, and that a little humility on your part would go a very long way.

If this does not happen; if bubble-dwellers double-down on the rightness of their perspective; if they continue to turn towards violence and anti-democratic methods in order to insist upon the rectitude of cliff-leaping – then, in that case, I am gravely concerned for the future of our country and our civilisation. The stakes here are very high, and it is the lack of awareness of those stakes that seems to me to most characteristic of the bubble.

We have a future to build, a future which may yet be much better than what has been before. If we want that future to be bright, we are going to have to build it together, outside the bubble.

The simple Christian argument for Trump

In the light of many comments on yesterday’s post

1. Christians believe that war is evil.
2. Clinton is much more likely to pursue, initiate or trigger a major war than Trump.

If 1 and 2 are true, then Christians must prefer Trump to Clinton.

There’s a bit of wiggle room on 1, and more on 2 – though not much. To disagree on 2 is perfectly possible, and many Christians would argue that Trump is more risky than Clinton in this area. I think the evidence for that is slight-to-vanishing, but it is at least a spiritually serious engagement, and there can then follow a shared assessment of the facts of a situation in the light of an agreed moral framework.

However, to accept both 1 and 2 but then say that Trump cannot be supported because he is vain, obnoxious, rude to women etc – this is not a spiritually serious argument, and does not qualify as Christian engagement in the political process. All those things are (probably) true, yet their significance pales in comparison to the violence of war. All those evangelical leaders who now disavow Trump on such grounds simply demonstrate how completely they have been captured by the principalities and powers; they are whitewashed tombs. Whilst it would undoubtedly be a good thing to have a morally exemplary character as the occupant of the White House, that is not an available option. This is simply a choice between two evils, and unless 2 above is wrong, it is really very clear which is the greater evil.

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Yes, I really do want Trump to win, and this is why

Let me begin by saying that I do not see Trump in the way I saw Palin, as someone of substance and virtue. There are many things which a Christian might see as less than ideal with Trump, which are too familiar to need listing here. However, I do wonder whether those things which seem such strong flaws, such as his narcissism, are in fact essential characteristics that shield him from the immense assaults that he is facing – that, in other words, if there was to be a presidential candidate who might succeed in taking on the entrenched principalities and powers that have so disfigured our world, it could only be someone like Trump.

I rush ahead of myself.

Clinton is the candidate of the establishment. That establishment encompasses both sides of the standard Rep/Dem divide. As an establishment candidate, Clinton embodies the policies that have become embedded in the ‘deep state’ since the collapse of the cold war, and would continue to implement them were she to assume office. These include: a reckless and ill-considered foreign policy that has caused havoc across the Middle East and in the Ukraine; protection for financial vested interests and ‘too big to fail’ banks like Goldman Sachs; and more power and protection for the surveillance state and torture.

Broadly speaking, if you believe that, in the light of the situation in Syria and elsewhere; the financial collapse; and the revelations about the NSA from Snowden et al; that the United States is a beacon of virtue lifting up the world towards the light, then Clinton is undoubtedly the best candidate. If, however, you believe that vested interests have taken charge of the United States and have led it away from its destiny, that have turned it into an oppressive Empire, and that it needs to reformed and returned to its foundational values – then, perhaps, there might be a question as to Clinton’s suitability for leadership.

Those questions have greater purchase when considering Clinton’s own character and fitness for office. The director of the FBI has assessed her as being extremely careless with state secrets, and quite clearly, were she not a presidential candidate, she would be in the midst of a prosecution and facing jail for serious breaches of security. Her actions throughout the Benghazi story are deeply disturbing for anyone who takes the idea of public service seriously. There is evidence that she has abused her office for the purposes of personal enrichment through the Clinton Foundation. There are serious questions about her personal integrity and the way in which she will mouth feminist platitudes whilst having protected her husband from all questions of sexual assault. In addition to these, there are serious questions about her health and her possible alcoholism.

Of course, these may all be considered simply as standard attributes of those who have sought and attained high office in the United States, and therefore unremarkable. I am not in a position to comment authoritatively on that.

However, it is possible to see behind Clinton the shape of the principalities and powers that are opposed to the Kingdom of God, against which all Christians are called to stand. That is, if we are to take our Scriptures seriously, Christians are baptised into a situation of spiritual warfare, where that spiritual struggle is necessarily political – and the political struggle is necessarily spiritual. To separate out the two is ultimately to deny the incarnation, and anti-Christian.

What Christians refer to as the ‘principalities and powers’ are the deep structural forces that keep human beings in subjection and oppression; that pursue and worship the exercise of power, eternally seeking to extend it; and which always seek to suppress dissent and the voices of the prophets. These are the forces of injustice which choose to crucify those that oppose them.

In today’s world, those forces can most aptly be seen at work in the ‘deep state’ of the United States. I say most aptly simply because they are most clear there – I do not wish to say that the United States is uniquely prone to wickedness. If pushed, I would rather say the opposite, that the constitution of the United States, the idea of a ‘proposition nation’ to which all are welcome – this seems to be a step forward in the history of humanity, an outgrowth of the gospel itself. My concern is that the United States has forgotten itself, and become captured. (For more on this, see here.)

This deep state would include what Eisenhower christened as the military-industrial complex, but also the mainstream media, which operates as a directed chorus to generate assent for what the deep state chooses to do. More broadly I would include within the principalities and powers all the habits of mind and speech that fall under the heading of political correctness, the ways in which we censor ourselves for fear of being excluded. It is such a fear which is the fuel that allows the principalities and powers to maintain their power within the world, subject only to the directions of the prince of this world.

That is the broad context in which I understand this election. That for the first time there is a candidate against whom all of the established principalities and powers are united. This should, at the very least, cause Christians to give sustained attention to that candidate and wonder whether the Lord is doing something particular here.

This does not mean that the person struggling against the principalities is a saint, let alone one without sin. The notion that a political candidate might be such is a reflection of both spiritual and political immaturity, and the failure to recognise Jesus as Lord. It can mean that we are called to pay close attention, and remember that God is able to use frail and weak human nature to accomplish something miraculous.

After all, what is at stake in this election? What is most at stake for the world?

In my eyes, the most important issue relates to Syria – the civilisational clash with ISIS, and the way in which great power relations are at stake. If this is handled wrongly – that is, if the United States continues to behave in the way that it has been doing – then what might have been an opportunity for all the civilised nations of the world to unite against barbarism will instead become a catastrophic war between great powers.

In the second presidential debate this issue was raised, and the differences between the candidates were very clear. One candidate spoke about ISIS as the most important enemy, and the need for cordial relations with Russia. The other spoke about Russia as being a greater threat than ISIS. One candidate sees the issue clearly and neutrally. The other sees through the lenses manufactured by the deep state and would act accordingly.

Those latter actions, in my view, would be utterly devastating to the world, and lead to immense misery and suffering. What most disturbs me about almost all coverage and analysis of this election is that these weighty matters are ignored in favour of the equivalent of celebrity culture and gossip.

I believe that all Christians have a duty to vote, and to vote in such a way that the Kingdom of God is brought forward. Those forces which are in eternal opposition to the Kingdom are now united against Donald Trump. The principalities and powers do not wish you to pay attention to the serious matters of life and death, of war and peace. They would far rather that people were concerned about lewd behaviour, potential rudeness, arrogance and egotism, vulgarity and bad taste. I do not see how any spiritually serious Christian could consider voting in favour of the principalities and powers. That is why I want Trump to win.

Or, to put it all into one single image: Beelzebub knows his own.

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I support a basic income

In this time of flux after Brexit, when all sorts of futures seem possible, it’s worth arguing for some fundamental changes. One that I am particularly keen to see is a basic income.

There are many ways of establishing this – see the wikipedia page.

For me, the principal attraction is that it is a way of saying to every member of a society “there is a point below which we will not allow you to fall”. In other words, it is a matter of social inclusion. If you are a member of our society, you will be given the means to participate in that society.

There are of course lots of positives and negatives associated with such a development, but I tend to view most of the opposition as special pleading. I believe that a basic income would make for much greater economic resilience through troubled times.

I am also, of course, thoroughly conditioned in my approach to this by my Christian context – a basic income would be a concrete expression of grace, and a means to give effect to the ‘bias to the poor’ evident in Scripture.

Fortunately, this is an idea that is gaining traction in many different places. Let’s hope that England can be one of them.

One land, one law, one language

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It’s about culture, not race. Whenever there is a discussion about how different people from different backgrounds might be able to co-exist, and potential problems are pointed out – like the fact that ‘co-existence’ might not be the intention of some groups – then the word ‘racism’ gets thrown out.

Racism as an insult has functioned to shut down the debate about immigration that our society really needs to have had. It does that because of the dominance of political correctness in our political conversation. Unless we can signal our virtue by repeating the necessary platitudes then society simply shuns us. (I saw a story that ran before the Brexit vote, about a civil servant that had taken unpaid leave from her post in order to actively support the Leave campaign. It was clearly indicated to her that she had committed career suicide – I hope that the referendum result has changed things for her!)

This is why we need to be clear that the issue is not about race – that is, it is not about particular physical characteristics that a person may or may not have. No, it is about culture, that is, it is about the ways in which we order our common lives together.

Different cultures do things differently. Some cultures encourage free speech and individual creativity; other cultures emphasise the importance of community and shared endeavour. Some cultures prohibit the eating of pork; others delight in bacon butties; others enjoy deep-fried Mars bars (allegedly).

Where there is a healthy distance between cultures, their diversity can be celebrated. Tensions arise when different cultures are required to live in close proximity one with another. At that point, where the cultures clash in significant ways, there is a significant risk of conflict. Put in summary form, if you add cultural diversity to immediate proximity then the result will be conflict.

This is what we have seen in our nation in recent decades. Enoch Powell infamously warned of the ‘rivers of blood’ that would flow from uncontrolled immigration, and that is not a bad description of London after the terrorist outrages of 7/7.

Where I very much disagree with Powell’s analysis, however, is that some groups of immigrants have been able to assimilate into our country immensely successfully, whereas others – a minority – not only have failed in the past but show no indication of succeeding at any time in the future.

So, for example, the ‘Windrush’ immigrants that came in the 1950s came from a distinctly British culture – they were, in general, English-speaking, Protestant, cricket-loving, formed within a state that had adopted British common law. Yes, they faced immense racism on their arrival (to our shame) but in many ways these immigrants were ‘more British than the British’. In other words, once the distraction of racism had been removed, their culture could be seen as profoundly compatible with what already existed here, and the new things that they brought, like reggae, could easily be absorbed.

In contrast to this are cultures with values that are inimical to classical British values, which seem to have established semi-autonomous enclaves within our cities – with horrifying consequences as in Rotherham. Some cultures contain deeply engrained misogyny; worse, that misogyny is particularly focussed on white women who are seen as legitimate targets for abuse, as their behaviour (wearing normal Western clothes) shows that they are not respectable and honourable.

It is not possible to have these two cultures co-existing in one space. In the end, one will displace the other. I would argue that if there is to be any form of healthy assimilation and co-existence between people of different cultures then there has to be an acceptance of ‘one land, one law, one language’. In other words, that if people of a different culture are to live peaceably in the ‘one land’ then the primacy of the existing law has to be paramount ‘one law’ and in order to engage with the wider society there has to be an acceptance that there is only ‘one language’ that can be used in any public forum. To accept that a different language is legitimate is to embed divisions with pernicious consequences over time.

We need, as a single British society, to be very clear about what sort of culture we wish to see affirmed and maintained in this land. The existing culture has been under sustained assaults for many decades, and the Tony Blair-led surge in immigration that has so changed the texture of British life needs to be addressed from a position of strong confidence in classic British values.

What does that look like? I am very fond of the story about Sir Charles Napier, who in the mid-nineteenth Century was the Commander-in-Chief in India. There was an Indian custom called Suttee, which required a widow to be burned alive on her dead husband’s funeral pyre. This had been banned several years before, and Napier was being petitioned by Hindu priests to allow a resumption of the practice. As recorded by his brother William, Napier said this: “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

This sort of robust and unapologetic assertion of British values is desperately needed in our present context. It is because we have seen such assertions as ‘in bad taste’ that we have ended up in the predicament that we are in. We need both the scope and the confidence to assert our own distinct English and British identities, in order to ensure that the dominant culture in this land is not eventually eclipsed by the present toxic and aggressive alternative.

I am also convinced that such a robust assertion of ‘Britishness’ would be welcomed by the overwhelming majority of immigrants, who quite often identify more strongly with Britain than many who have been born here. After all, they have chosen to come here as a deliberate act, rather than simply enjoying the good fortune of being born in the best place in the world. Those who hate Britain and all that it stands for are a distinct minority, but they are a minority which need to be engaged with and required to accept that we cannot have different cultures co-existing in the one space, for it can only lead to conflict. One land, one law, one language.

(A Jeremy Creake article for the Courier)

In Praise of English Phlegm

Whatever happened to ‘keep calm and carry on’? Since the result of the referendum was announced as a clear victory for Brexit it seems as if all around are losing their heads and blaming it on each other. Surely we can do better than this cacophonous disorder.

One of the most repugnant forms that this disorder has taken has been through the rise in what are now classed as ‘hate crimes’ – verbal and physical attacks upon those who are seen as different, whether a different class, a different race, a different level of ability; a different language, religion or nationality. Such crimes are symptoms of a serious breakdown in our national cohesion, a failure to remember who we are and what we stand for.

After all, we who live in England live in a land that has seen immigration happen for thousands of years, and each generation of immigrants has given something to English identity. Why is ‘French’ such a common name on Mersea Island? Because of the number of French people who were fleeing the Huguenot massacres in the sixteenth century and came here for safety. What is the most popular take away food in England? Tikka Masala – and thank God for Titash.

For sure, there are practical issues and problems around numbers, and on this topic the referendum gave a very clear steer to our political class about what direction they need to travel in. Yet to bring immigration under a greater measure of control, and to reduce the numbers from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands, is not to give license to the most moronic and bigoted amongst us.

No, surely one of the points about Brexit, about wanting to assert our own identity once more, is that we want to assert the best of ourselves, all the things about which we cam most confidently feel proud. Amongst that is English phlegm.

To be phlegmatic is to be calm and dispassionate; it is to take anything that our leadership tells us with at least the proverbial pinch of salt; it is to be accepting of difference within large bounds of tolerance. That is the best of what it means to be English – that we share a common way of life within our shared land, that we give people the emotional room to be themselves, however eccentric or strange people might seem to be. Phlegm is not a cold indifference, it is a pragmatic way of life that has proven itself down the centuries. It is who we are when we are at our best.

Let us all resolve to work together, calmly, pragmatically, phlegmatically. There is no place for racist extremism here. It’s just not English.

[Courier editorial]

“There’s a sermon in that” – reflections from an independent island

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I have recently returned from a two week holiday in Cuba, a trip taken with three university friends. Some twenty years ago, soon after graduating, we were sat in the living room of the house that we shared in West London, and recognised that our carefree lives were unlikely to stay that way. We agreed that we would put a small amount of money each into a central pot – beginning with £10 a month – in order that, every ten years, we would have enough funds to take a holiday together, to renew our friendships and remember what life was like before career and family commitments took hold. Our first trip was to Mongolia in 2005; this time round it was the turn of Cuba to host our little “Self-Preservation Society” (and yes, it was after one of our regular viewings of The Italian Job that we came up with the idea).

Cuba is a fascinating country, incredibly warm and welcoming, a happy and musical people set in an incredibly green and lush environment. We started our trip in Havana, which is a remarkable city. The architecture was stunning, and it was clear that the city had been incredibly wealthy in the past. Yet it was equally clear that for most of the last fifty years that money had dwindled to effectively zero, and consequently these amazing buildings were often near-derelict. Thankfully, now that the Cuban economy is embracing tourism more thoroughly, there is a new flow of wealth which is allowing the state to slowly renew and repair the built environment in central Havana.
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I said to my friends “There’s a sermon in that” – and yes, the necessary teasing did follow. What I had in mind was simply that I saw a parallel between the architecture in Havana and the church. Like Havana, the church has been immensely ‘wealthy’ in the past, by which I don’t just mean money but also the general affirmation of the faith shared by the community. It was a wonderful building. Yet today it is a pale shadow of what it was – it has suffered from decades of neglect. Just like the buildings in Havana, there has been nothing spent on maintenance, and now there is a desperate need for new investment in order to repair all that has gone wrong. And what does the church need to spend money on, in order to restore the building to its former grandeur? I would say simply: teaching the faith.

Back to Cuba. One of my friends has a medical condition which means that he cannot walk very far, and so he has a collapsible bike that he uses to get around, and which he brought to Cuba. Unfortunately, the day before departure his bike acquired a nasty puncture, and our first morning in Havana was then taken up with trying to find someone who might be able to repair it. After a thorough discussion with our guide, we found a small workshop at the back of garage, who agreed to repair the tyre. My friend (who now lives in Germany) was astonished to watch the craftsmanship with which the mechanic took apart the tyre and manually re-threaded the wires in order to make it robust. My friend exclaimed, “I’m going to take this back to Germany and tell them that this is how you fix things!”
Ingenious Engineers
Havana is famous for all the 1950s cars that are still driven there – a snapshot of how things were before the Revolution. What this little experience brought home to us was the way in which all those old cars were kept going by some incredibly creative and imaginative engineering. The Cubans are clearly capable of making the most of anything at hand. I should add, however, that this did not extend to emissions control – the air in Havana was incredibly polluted, and I developed a hacking cough that didn’t leave me until I was back on Mersea. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the cigars…

That Revolution has clearly defined modern Cuba. I had the sense sometimes that there was very little history for the Cuban people to celebrate. What seem quite small things, such as a particular battle in the Revolutionary War, were blown up into major museums, and the people who were involved in that Revolution – most especially Che Guevara – were raised up in quite hagiographic ways, with all their personal effects treasured like Medieval relics. Of course, the tensions with the United States have only recently begun to ease. It was clear that this conflict had gone a long way to form the Cuban character, and the state had consistently reinforced a message of Cuba being an independent communist island facing off against the behemoth of a radically capitalist United States.

One striking way in which this difference manifested itself, in Havana and more widely, was the almost complete absence of advertising. The only form of acceptable advertising seemed to be revolutionary slogans alongside an image of Fidel Castro. This one, for example, has the charming slogan ‘Socialism or Death!’
Socialism or Death
The state remains overwhelmingly present in Cuba, yet most of the population seemed very happy. In part that must be a result of the excellent health-care for which Cuba is rightly and justly famous. In part it must be a result of everyone having plenty to eat. In addition, all Cubans are educated through a national system and, charmingly, all schools have the same uniform, segregated three ways for the three levels of primary, secondary and tertiary. There were always smartly dressed children to be seen going to and fro.

I could see no trace of any racism whatsoever, and in particular, there seemed to be no sense of ‘shame’ according to different body shapes. I did wonder whether the absence of advertising, coupled with a more general equality, helped to make the Cubans so cheerful. I often saw people who might be regarded in our society as having less than ideal bodies who were clearly very much at home in them, with a strong sense of appropriate style and even ‘swagger’. This was wonderful, and I suspect not having to cope with a constant bombardment of airbrushed-perfect bodies had something to do with it.
Cuba 015
Their happiness might also have something to do with the music that was continually present. However small the restaurant it would not be long before along came a few men (with an occasional woman) with guitars and maracas and the familiar ‘Guantanamera’. For the most part we greatly enjoyed these. We had booked in to see the world famous ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ on our last night in Havana, but I have to say that we found them disappointing compared to others, especially a band that performed regularly in the bar just a little way down from our hotel, that had an amazing flautist. Yet – and perhaps this is simply the projection of a tourist – music seemed to be more deeply embedded into the rhythms of Cuban life than it does here in England. We brought several CDs back with us!

After two weeks we flew to Gatwick, having had long discussions with each other about what was going to happen with the Referendum (mine was the sole voice in favour of Brexit). We arrived back on the morning that the result was announced. I felt that whilst we as a country might have many things to learn from Cuba I was nevertheless very grateful to be back. I am as proud of this country as the Cubans are of theirs, and it felt magical to be returning from one independent island to another that had just determined to reclaim its own independence. “¡Hasta la victoria siempre!” as Che used to say.
The Four Musketeers
Thanks to Ian for photos

Gove and Diplomacy

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I used to play a boardgame called Diplomacy on a regular basis. The art of the game was to be able to lead another player up the garden path in order to betray them at the most effective moment. The best players were able to convincingly persuade someone else to join them in their own endeavours before pulling the rug away from beneath their erstwhile ally.

Of course, when this is done, there is then an enemy for life.

When I first heard of Gove bailing out on Boris I immediately thought about the game. It seemed like a classic example of the genre. Yet the more that time passes, the more I think that Gove is simply an idealist who hasn’t realised the consequences of his actions – which is why his leadership bid is going to struggle so much. It seems plausible to me that Gove didn’t make his fateful decision until very late in the day – which, in Diplomacy, is the sign of a bad player. Worse, his actions have now cemented his reputation as a disloyal back-stabber. I suspect this is a long way from the truth, but as with Diplomacy, so much depends upon reputation.

I would agree that the next Prime Minister has to be someone who was committed to the Leave campaign, and I would far rather that it was Gove as he seems to have a principled position from which to move forward. Between the aim and the achievement lies a rather large gap for him. Ah well.

The political fallout from project fear

One of my earliest political memories is of the political “assassination” of Margaret Thatcher. Then, as now, the Conservative Party was convulsed with the question of membership of the European Union. A group of senior cabinet members that were committed to the European project conspired together to bring her down, in order to ensure that the UK joined up to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (the precursor to the Euro).

Many of us will remember the consequences of that decision when, under the illustrious leadership of John Major, the UK was forced to quit the ERM having failed to control sterling through the spectacularly incompetent manipulation of interest rates.

The Conservative Party has never properly recovered from that debâcle – yet I wonder if, paradoxically, this Referendum process may just achieve that outcome, and establish a new consensus within the party structured around a consistent and principled Euroscepticism.

David Cameron’s time as party leader, surely, is coming to an end. The Conservative Party itself is significantly more Eurosceptic than the parliamentary party, and much more Eurosceptic than the Cabinet. What will cause Cameron the most problems, however, is the way in which he has conducted himself during the Referendum campaign.

This has two parts: first, the way in which elements of the Remain campaign seem to have benefited from the use of excessive government funds, such as through the distribution of leaflets advocating a Remain vote that were circulated to every household in advance of the Referendum. This – whilst doubtless considered legal by the government advisers – clearly constitutes a tilting of the playing field, allowing the Remain campaign to benefit from hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of extra advertising outside of the limits that apply to each of the campaigns proper (I find it interesting that the Leave campaign is rising in the polls now that the spending limits for both sides are equivalent).

More crucial for the Prime Minister’s own political prospects, however, is the second part, that is, the way in which he has criticised and demeaned those who have been campaigning for Vote Leave – those, remember, who form a majority of his own party.

This does not just apply to his criticisms of Boris Johnson – clearly there has never been a healthy relationship between the two of them, and that is not normally an issue for any party, so long as the two individuals concerned can put aside those differences when they need to work together (think Blair/Brown). What is much worse is the way in which Cameron has sought to characterise the Vote Leave campaigners as in various ways immoral and irrational, and – as part of his campaigning – clearly identified himself with the left of the political spectrum in doing so (thus revealing, in my opinion, where his true metropolitan political sympathies lie).

Recently Cameron even claimed “Can we be so sure peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking? I would never be so rash to make that assumption” – suggesting that to vote leave is to actively risk another war. This is risible, and will not be forgotten by the Conservative Party.

So what is likely to happen? Lots of noises are being made by the ‘usual suspects’ like Nadine Dorries, but they will not be the people that make the crucial decisions. Much, obviously, will depend on the specific nature of the Referendum result itself.

Should there be a very clear mandate to Remain – in other words, in excess of a 55%-45% split in Remain’s favour – then Cameron’s position will in fact be strengthened and he will be able to choose the time of his departure. On the other hand, if there is an equivalently clear vote to Leave then he will be obliged to resign within days. That much is, I believe, the commonly accepted political wisdom.

However, if the voting is more narrow than that – as presently seems likely – then things become more difficult. There are three scenarios I would like to consider.

The first is a narrow victory for the Leave campaign. I suspect that this will also eventually lead to a Cameron resignation but the process will be more fraught, as he will argue that he is best placed to lead the subsequent Brexit negotiations. Few believe that to be true, but things will be messy.

The second is a narrow victory for the Remain campaign. This, I believe, will simply lead to a re-run of the latter days of the Major administration. The majority of Conservative MPs are Eurosceptic and there will be immense bitterness at the way in which Cameron has behaved. The arguments about manipulation will not go away. Cameron may be able to hang on for some time, but he will be a mortally wounded figure.

The third is a slight tweak on the second: the UK as a whole votes to Remain, but England votes to Leave. This is an outcome I consider quite likely, and the consequences could be profound. The Scottish referendum raised all sorts of questions about the unity of our nation, and if England seeks to move in a different direction to the other home countries then it is not difficult to see the Eurosceptic cause gaining huge encouragement from such an outcome.

The question would then be how far the political right in this country was able to morph in such a way as to harness that latent English nationalist and Eurosceptical sentiment for electoral gain. I could conceive of a situation that saw a rapprochement between the main part of the Conservatives and UKIP leading to a re-alignment of the right – and I could see such a ‘new’ party being electorally immensely successful. It would certainly have my sympathies.

As always, we shall watch and await the outcome with great interest. We live in very interesting times.