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Sunday, 26 June 2016

Let's blame the old bastards.

Given the amount of propaganda spewed out in the EU referendum campaign, it is hardly surprising that some folk reacted to the result in a way that would more appropriate to, say, an invasion of the earth by hostile aliens. Within our increasingly large over-reaction community, it would appear that losing an election is not something that is considered to be a legitimate part of the democratic process. 
On the morning after the vote –admittedly a difficult time for any losing side- I listened to interviews with Anna Soubry, Caroline Lucas and Tim Farron which would have been quite funny, but only if they had they been scripted as comedic parodies designed to illustrate the attitude of the political class towards the electorate. Each interview was marked by a complete absence of grace, seasoned with a toxic sprinkling of weapons-grade disdain. 

Ms Soubry, a Tory junior minister who has clearly been promoted beyond her abilities, expressed her sheer ‘horror’ at the result, claiming that it was one of the ‘worst days’ in her life. She talked of voters being ‘horrid’ to her when she had been out campaigning in the racist swamplands of the East Midlands (where I understand that lynch mobs still roam the countryside) and claimed that many Leave voters had probably never encountered an immigrant.  
Caroline Lucas of the Greens was ‘devastated’ that her vision of ‘a generous and outward looking country’ committed to ‘making the world a better place’ had been rejected by the electorate. By inference, the Leave side must have been committed to establishing a mean-spirited, inward looking country, determined to make things worse for everyone. Ms Lucas said that we had to ‘find ways to heal our broken democracy’, evidently oblivious to the fact that we had just participated in the most extraordinary democratic exercise. If the result had gone the other way, my guess would be that Ms Lucas wouldn’t have been up for too much healing with the beaten Leave side. Call it a hunch.    

Tim Farron, leader of the Lib-Dems, resorted shamefully to blatant age-ism, claiming that young voters had been ‘betrayed’ by the older electorate. In assuming that all young people had voted Remain, perhaps he had concluded that they would regard the youth unemployment rates across the continent as just a feature of the system. I wonder if anyone has asked the unemployed kids in Spain, Greece and Italy how the EU is working out for them? The corollary of Mr Farron’s line of thinking is that some votes should be worth more than others. Perhaps he’d favour the introduction of a sliding scale for elections. I'd suggest something like this:  

Age group 18 – 30: two votes per person.  
Age group 31 – 45: three votes per person.  
Age group 46 -70: one vote per person.  
Age group 70 and above: These votes could be lumped together. Maybe twenty or thirty of them from like, a nursing home or whatever, could get one vote to represent the views of their group.  

Perhaps it hasn’t occurred to Mr Farron that society is a covenant between those currently living, those who lived before us and those who are yet to be born. The voter in her mid-80s has the same rights as the voter in her teens. That woman in her 80s helped shape the country we now live in, being part of the generation that made the sacrifices necessary to create the free and prosperous world we are lucky enough to inhabit. She will have worked, paid taxes, raised children and grandchildren and –something that ageists don’t seem to understand- she will have thought about the world she wants her children and grandchildren to inherit. Being in her twilight years does not mean that she has no stake in our future, so shame on anyone who is prepared to dismiss her opinion on the basis of age; shame on anyone who is willing to exploit generational differences to bolster their grubby political arguments. 

Rather than look down their nose at people, perhaps professional politicians should have a think about why there was such an anti-establishment vote. There are many reasons why Leave prevailed (personally, I think Eddie Izzard’s hectoring drag act on Question Time might just have tipped the scales), but it is clear that Labour’s abandonment of its core vote was a significant factor. Labour’s old working class voters helped deliver this result and they delivered it because their perception is that ‘progressive’ politics has -for some time- held them in contempt, regarding them as stupid, dangerous, racist and probably a bit smelly, certainly not to be trusted on anything important.

All of the reactive guff about being ‘ashamed’ of the result illustrates, among other things, a failure to understand that in a democratic system, the taxi-driver really does have the same voting rights as the college lecturer. Like a maiden aunt in some Victorian melodrama getting an attack of the vapours at the sight of a swarthy, uncouth gardener, the people who get all giddy and upset about politics red in tooth and claw really need to get over themselves. If you can’t accept that people who don’t see the world the way that you see it can ‘care’ every bit as much as you, then you’ve got a problem; if you believe that someone who doesn’t agree with you is simply ‘misinformed’ by their sources (in a way that you evidently don’t think you have been misinformed by your no-doubt-impeccable sources), then you’ve got a problem.

When you pitch your tent on the moral high ground, you’ll invariably look down on other people, but if you’re inclined to condemn millions of voters as racists, idiots or selfish old fools, then there is something you really ought to know.

That ‘shame’ you feel about the electorate?
It’s your problem, not theirs.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Democracy 1, Everything Else 0.

Through the vicissitudes of the referendum campaign, at least one thing has remained constant: the insistence of some folk on conflating the EU with Europe. I’m never sure whether it is done through sheer ignorance or whether it represents an attempt to make some political point about those supporting the Leave campaign. Whatever the case, it is always worth reminding people that the EU is not Europe; the EU is a political project designed to run Europe from a centralised source. Being ‘anti-EU’ is not the same as being ‘anti-Europe’.

As Tony Benn once put it:
 "How can one be anti-European when one is born in Europe? It is like saying that one is anti-British if one does not agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer."

The main issues in this referendum have been the economy, immigration and the democratic deficit (or, as some would have it, sovereignty).

Anyone who tells you that they know what will happen to the economy if we stay or if we leave is either lying or hasn’t yet worked out that his or her guesswork doesn’t amount to much more than a hill of beans. Perhaps you can remember all of the clever folk who predicted the dotcom bubble crash, the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the US or the Eurozone crisis? No, me neither. 

Immigration -whether we like it or not- is a huge issue, particularly in the poorest areas where folk have to compete with immigrants for jobs and housing. The consistent failure of the political class to address legitimate concerns within these communities turned this into a bigger issue than it ever had to be. There was a perfect little illustration of this failure last year, when the Labour MP Emily Thornberry posted her notorious ‘flag of St. George’ tweet. Ms Thornberry not only outed herself as an elitist snob with no understanding of -or sympathy for- the suckers she expected to vote for her; she articulated an entitled, insulated disdain that many folk now believe is endemic among our political class.  

But for all of the concerns about the economy and immigration, it is democracy that exercises my mind when considering how to cast my vote.

In 1973, the European Economic Community (known colloquially as the Common Market) was sold to the electorate on the basis that we were joining a trading block. When it was rebranded as the European Union in 1993, some critics pointed out (and were duly shouted down) that the direction of travel had been reset, away from a mere ‘Common Market’ and towards a federal European state. It is perfectly legitimate to believe in the establishment of a United States of Europe, but if you believe in it, you must be prepared to argue your case and you must get the permission of the electorate before you seek to impose it. Nobody, alas, has ever done this. We should judge institutions not by what they say; we should pay attention instead to what they do. The EU has consistently demonstrated that it acquires its powers by stealth, through treaties that nobody understands. In that sense, it is not just undemocratic; it is anti-democratic.

Accordingly, for all that there are good things and bad things about EU membership, I’ll be voting ‘out’ because my belief in the democratic process trumps everything else. As Tony Benn (yes, him again) put it, faced with the choice between a good king and a bad parliament, our belief in democracy should compel us to choose the bad parliament.

Although my mind is made up, there are four observations I’d make in advance of the vote:

1. The Remain campaign should win. Apart from the having the weight of the establishment behind it, evidence indicates that the status quo normally prevails in a referendum. That’s because people are more conservative than is generally acknowledged and ‘Remain’ is clearly the ‘risk-averse’ choice.   

2. In the unlikely event of a ‘Leave’ vote, Cameron (or whoever else is in charge) will merely take it as a cue to ‘negotiate’ what they’ll call a ‘better deal’ for the UK. Their hope would be that the uneducated electorate will get the right answer next time.

3. If the Leave vote prevails, the EU itself will find a way to work around it. Why do I say that? Because all of the available evidence tells us that that is how it operates. The drivers of the EU project are in too deep to give up now; there are too many vested interests with too much at stake to allow voters to mess things up. Impervious to anything as vulgar as public opinion, the EU leaders have gradually immunised themselves against the virus of democratic accountability. The best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour; just ask residents of Denmark, Holland, France and Greece, all of whom gave the wrong answers in referenda and were ‘asked’ to reconsider.

4. My gut feeling is that none of this matters anyway. That is not because I doubt the importance of expressing our views through the ballot box. Rather, it is because, in the end, reality will intrude; it always does. I believe that the EU -as we know it- will collapse within the lifetime of most folk reading this article. All previous attempts at 'unifying' Europe have failed and this one will as well. History tells us that when people can’t change things via the ballot box, they find other ways to express their political will. When the mere casting of votes means so very little to the drivers of the EU project, the likelihood increases that they will eventually be deflected from their purpose by forces that might be somewhat less civilised than those we’d encounter in the average election.

Good luck, whichever way you decide to vote on Thursday.

If you are still undecided, I’d urge you to read this:

Tony Benn's speech to the House of Commons on 20th November 1991.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The pedal bin in my kitchen sounds uncannily like The Move

The Move had a hit in 1971 with a song called 'Chinatown'. The track started with a gong, followed by some gentle wind chimes, before Bev Bevan’s thunderous drum roll kicked in. Every time I use the pedal bin in my kitchen, I am reminded of this song.

Let me explain how this happens.   

Rubbish in hand, I place one foot on the pedal in order to open the lid, which allows me to deposit some domestic waste. Once I remove my foot from the pedal, the lid closes, causing the bin to issue a metallic clang that sounds uncannily like the opening gong from ‘Chinatown’. Once that faux gong rings out, I am then compelled to mimic the thunderous drum roll and sing (with my internal voice) the first lines of the song: 

Bury a jar of shaoxing
When the girl is born
Surely you know the wine will age
Till she's fully grown

You may or may not be aware that these lines allude to a tradition of the Shaoxing province in China, in which a bottle of wine is buried underground whenever a daughter is born and is only dug up for her wedding banquet. It was quite an achievement for The Move to celebrate this tradition in song and get to number 23 in the British charts.    

That thing with the pedal bin is not the only aural cue that inserts itself, uninvited, into my daily routine. Whenever I power down my laptop, it issues a series of little notes, the first four of which are exactly the same as the introduction to Radiohead’s ‘Everything in its right place’ (from the album Kid A … or maybe Kid B; I always get those two mixed up). You may remember the song from the soundtrack to the film ‘Vanilla Sky’. It gets played when the Tom Cruise character is driving down a wide city boulevard early one morning when nobody –as in nobody- else is around. I think it’s because the character is dreaming or he’s on drugs, or he’s possibly dead; or perhaps it’s a metaphor for his state of mind. Whatever.   

The PC that I use at work (another sly machine), in the process of powering down, plays the opening two notes to Colin Blunstone’s 1972 hit ‘Say you don’t mind’. It’s a string quartet that plays on the track, but the PC does a decent job of imitating it. The song was written by Denny Laine, by the way; he was in Wings (the band that The Beatles could have been).     
It’s not just things in my house and at work that insist on playing pop songs. A few years ago, I was a regular shopper at a certain supermarket chain. Whenever they made an in-store announcement about special offers and so on, the first two notes of the electronic clarion preceding each notice resembled the coda to Tubeway Army’s 1979 number 1 hit, ‘Are ‘friends’ electric?’ Every time the store manager updated the customers on the "roast chickens now reduced in our rotisserie", I was compelled to follow that phantom coda, drifting off in an electric dream. ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ was a top 3 hit in 1985 for Phil Oakey and Georgio Moroder. The story goes that Oakey, thinking it was just a rehearsal, recorded the vocal in one take.   

Everything reminds me of music. And, once I’m reminded of a piece of music, it sticks in my head until I’m able to distract myself by inserting something else in its place. On the train into work the other day, I couldn’t shake off 'Ai no corrida', a Quincy Jones hit from the early 80s. I neither own nor particularly like this tune and I can’t even remember how it got into my head, but it took me most of the day to expunge it.  

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like someone to explain this to me: How come you can ‘hear’ music in your head? The act of hearing, surely, involves the primary auditory cortex receiving auditory input? But nobody was playing ‘Ai no corrida’ on the train that morning; if I wasn’t ‘hearing’ it, what exactly was going on?

This is not just about old songs; some modern stuff is catchy too. Lukas Graham’s ‘Seven years old’ (225 million hits and counting on Spotify) has recently taken up residence in my brain, demanding attention. He’s Danish, you know. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any other Danish pop stars, although John Grant’s ‘Queen of Denmark’ was a beautiful album from 2010, featuring not only a song about a sweetshop but one about feeling like Sigourney Weaver in ‘Aliens’

And I feel just like Sigourney Weaver
When she had to kill those aliens.
And one guy tried to get them back to the Earth.
And she couldn't believe her ears.

John, clearly, isn’t that big on rhyming.  
There is no escape from this sort of thing. It extends to everyday conversations and close encounters at work. I was talking recently to a colleague about how to keep oneself amused during particularly boring meetings (not, if anyone from work is reading, that I ever have to attend boring meetings). My answer was that I play my favourite albums in my head, or, alternatively, take my musical cues from the conversation.

If anyone ever says: “What’s it all about?” my internal rejoinder has to be ‘Alfie’.

If someone starts a sentence with “To cut a long story short”, I have to sing (internal voice, again) ‘I lost my mind’.

If anyone asks “Who knows?” my response has to be: ‘not me; we never lost control’. 

And, if someone –perhaps at the end of a tricky piece of negotiation- says: “Where do we go from here?”, there is only one fitting reply:  

Is it down to the lake I fear?
Aye aye aye aye aye aye
Aye aye aye aye aye aye 
Here we go.

(If you were not born an embarrassingly long time ago, you may need to look some of those references up).

A friend once suggested to me that this insistence on ‘hearing’ music was probably due to a ‘condition’, perhaps some form of musical autism. In the immortal words of Otto Harbach (music by Jerome Kern):

I chaffed them, and I gaily laughed

The desire to ascribe ‘condition’ status or to concoct some phoney-baloney diagnosis for perfectly normal human activity is a modern phenomenon that I’m convinced will both amuse and mystify our grandchildren. My guess is that most people who love music (and particularly musicians) have music in their head most of the time. If that is the case, then the ability to ‘hear’ it in everything is neither a gift nor an affliction; it’s more of a predilection, like a disposition to gardening, spotting trains or binge-watching zombie films.

The Zombies had a huge hit in 1969 with ‘Time of the Season’ and I’ve got an unusual version of the song on an album by the Japanese pop outfit Ippu Do. Their front man, Masami Tsuchiya, joined the English band Japan for their final tour in 1982, wherein his guitar pyrotechnics enlivened a largely electronic oeuvre. I caught one of the gigs on that tour, which was recorded for the live double album ‘Oil on Canvas’. 

Oh … and Colin Blunstone, who lives inside the PC in my office, was also in The Zombies.