Archive | January, 2019

Trapped beneath a Toxic Cloud.

25 Jan

In recent months I’ve been playing a new game — it’s a game that is partly amusing, but mostly depressing. I walk into a room during a news or current affairs programme on the radio and count how many seconds it takes to hear the dreaded word: ” Brexit.” My current record is 2 seconds. This morning , on Radio 4’s “Today” programme for instance, I listened for about a minute to an interesting discussion about mesolithic times and archaeology, but before I even got a chance to put the kettle on, the subject switched to the conference of wealthy nations in Davros and the influence that ” Brexit” was having on their economic discussions. The dreaded B word was mentioned 5 times in 30 seconds. This obsession with one subject has been gaining momentum ever since the British public voted by a narrow margin for the UK to leave the European Union in the referendum of June, 2016. The media’s attention on this issue has intensified in recent weeks as the UK nears its exit deadline but with no withdrawel deal being agreed by its parliament. Last month in December, the tedium was temporarily relieved by the C word. What are you doing for Christmas? Have you bought all your Christmas presents yet? How many people are you having round for Christmas dinner, etc. But, no sooner had the decorations been taken down and we had spluttered a few “Happy New Years”, than the subject of the EU and Britain’s exit from it quickly returned to centre stage.

Day after day, week after week, this same subject dominates the agenda, squeezing out almost all others. It has not only largely hi-jacked all TV and radio news programmes, but it has swamped much of social media as well. It is a divisive, controversial and poisonous subject which depresses me greatly. The nation is intractably divided between “Remainers” and “Leavers” and there seems to be precious little middle ground. It’s a bit like living through a civil war, with words being deployed as weapons. A barrage of propaganda is being hurled at the long suffering British public from both opposing camps. I voted “Remain” but I have to be very careful who I admit this to. One of my closest friends, also a “Remainer”, admitted to me that he now keeps his views to himself for fear of attracting abuse. I’m sure many “leavers” feel the same thing as well. The atmosphere in the country at the moment is very tense and unpleasant. Strong views on both sides of the divide can easily spill over into anger and aggression. This blog is not intended to be about the arguments of “leavers” or “remainers”; the subject is far too complex and sensitive for me to wade into. Instead, it is about the consequences of the Leave vote and the subsequent political wrangling, on my life and those around me.

Last week I watched BBC 1’s “Question Time”, the channel’s flagship political discussion programme. All but one question from the audience was about Brexit. Should there be a second referendum? Should the date for the UK’s exit from the EU be put back? What are the different consequences of the vote for the border between Northern Ireland ( part of the UK) and the republic of Ireland ( part of the EU)? Should there be a general Election because Prime Minister May’s negotiated EU Withdrawel plan has been roundly rejected by Parliamant? The discussion was held in front of a very partisan audience in Derby who heckled, booed and cat-called every time they heard something they disagreed with. It seemed to me that opinions had hardened into prejudice. People were there to take part in an aggressive war of words rather than a respectful exchange of views.  It was an uncomfortable watch, seeing what depths the level of political debate has now sunk to. Towards the end of the programme, the chairperson, Fiona Bruce, decided to accept a final question that was not about Brexit. It was about climate change and the contribution that veganism could make towards the lessening of global warming. Even though this is another very serious subject, when it was announced, it was as if the toxic cloud was suddenly lifted. The atmosphere became civilised and respectful. People listened to each other with open minds. There was no heckling. What a difference from all that had gone on before!

In my opinion the Brexit debate seems to have descended into chaos. Politicians and people have been reduced to shouting at each other from entrenched positions. Minds are largely closed, not open. The media is having a field day, getting together politicians of opposite opinions regarding Brexit, and goading them into a nasty, negative fight. It fills the newspaper columns and fills up the airwaves on programmes such as the “World at One” or “Today.” What would the media have done without this gift of a subject to constantly and relentlessly chew over? It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Unfortunately social media, with less controls, has descended to even greater depths of in-fighting. Those of you who know me will already know that I often succumb to the dubious charms of Facebook. I know it’s not “cool” to admit this, but I am an oldie afterall  so don’t worry much about my image. At first it was a great way of keeping in touch with friends, family and aquaintances. Pictures were shared, and greetings exchanged. In other words, for, me, it was a largely positive experience. Since the decision to leave the EU was taken however, Facebook has become much more problematic for me. Visiting it is now akin to walking through a minefield. Say the wrong thing and one could very quickly get into a nasty online spat, with lots of people jumping in for the “fun” of it. One of my genuine friends described this as the “Facebook Ambush Society.” It’s much better, he said, to have a frank exchange of views down at the pub over a few drinks. At the end of the evening, everyone amicably agrees to disagree and goes home feeling reasonably happy and content. On social media however, once you have made your views known and clicked “Send”, you are open to attack from all and sundry for evermore.

So I have become very careful about what I commit to the internet. Many of my Facebook “friends” agree with me and give me positive strokes. However, some don’t share my opinions and here I have to exercise extreme caution. I’m even a bit nervous about writing this blog for fear of a negative comeback from certain readers. Once it’s out there, it’s out of my control. It’s uncomfortable to sit on the fence all of the time however, and a bit cowardly to hide away my views for fear of reprisals. I’ve already admitted that I voted “Remain”. I think the UK should play a full, constructive part in the European project and not isolate itself on its tiny island. I believe we belong in Europe and that the British Empire and Britain’s “so-called’ “Special Relationship” with the USA are things of the past. Unfortunately, it seems that many still hark back to the glory days when Britain was recognised as a ” Great Power.” I get lots of Facebook posts about how Britain saved Europe from the tyranny of Hitler and how Europe should be so grateful as to give us a good deal when we leave the Union. I find these simplistic notions irritating and uncomfortable to read. It seems that many people are still living in the past and, to make matters worse, are looking at that past through rose-coloured glasses. Britain didn’t win the Seconf World War alone. Europe was largely liberated by American and Soviet troops, not to mention many from the Commonweath. As a former History teacher, such gross simplifications and distortions of the “facts” cause me intense irritation. But then I remind myself that History is not really about the Truth but  about what different people perceive to be the Truth. Lucy Worsley, the TV historian, is currently presenting an excellent programmes about American History’s biggest “fibs”. Everyone enjoys a good story and every country likes to paint its story in the best possible light. It seems that Philedelphi’s famous Liberty Bell was never rung to declare American Independence, Paul Revere did not carry out a solo ride through the night to warn the Americans that the British were coming, and that from the very onset, America was never the land of the “free” and never had equal rights. George Washington and his colleagues were not interested in freeing African slaves or giving votes to women. To give a British example, many British people, including famous politicians like Winston Churchill, have gloried in the achievements of the British Empire.To them, it’s the story of how the British brought civilisation to the previously “dark” corners of the world. These people conveniently forget the cruelties of slavery, the atrocities of war, the economic exploitation of the countries we “civilised” and the innate racism of  our Imperial administrators.

I could go on but I am now straying too far from the subject of Brexit. I know you must have started to get twitchy because I haven’t mentioned the B word for several minutes. The point I have been labouring is that it’s a shame that “Brexiteers” often nostalgically hark back to those glory days that never existed in the first place. As well as being a Remainer ( or a “Remoaner”as Brexit supporters now cynically call us), I am on the left of the political spectrum. However I am on the “soft Left” not the “hard left”, to use terms that I don’t really like. I disagree with the left wing idea, expounded by many labour party supporters, that the Brexit crisis should be exploited to engineer a General Election and thus try to get the Conservatives out of power. It grates to say it, but I believe that the country should rally round the Prime Minister and the compromise withdrawel agreement that she and her officials have negotiated with the European Union. This is for the sake of the country and not for narrow political gain. When I expressed this view on social media I was immediately attacked for not wanting to bring down an “evil” government. At the same time I still felt under the kosh for being a remoaner.  I feel as though I am being ambushed from both sides. It is unpleasant and disconcerting.

For better or for worse, the decision has been taken for the UK to leave the EU. I think the referendum was deeply flawed, being full of false promises, lies and financial irregularities. It was only called by Prime Minister David Cameron, to try to bring his vociferous, anti Europe right-wing under control. This was a reckless decision, in my opinion, for it has now divided the country and landed it in this terrible mess. However, the vote was taken and, even though my side lost, I think the result should now stand and be respected. And yet the arguments go on and on. Some Remainers want a second referendum now that the general public understands a lot more of the facts and the possible harmful consequences of the “Leave” vote. I don’t agree but I can see their point. Meanwhile, some Leavers are now campaigning for a no- deal Brexit. They want the UK to just walk away and make a clean break from the EU. I don’t agree with this either. Anyone who has been through a divorce knows that it not easy and not right to break promises, renage on agreements and abandon responsibilities. As I said, it’s a total mess for the country, and it has created a vile atmosphere. It’s probably the worst thing I’ve lived through in my life although the 80’s Miner’s Strike and the Falklands War were pretty horrible too.

The toxic cloud over the country shows no sign of lifting. At the moment, the politicians seems to be involved in a endless game of bluff and counter bluff. People on both sides of the Leave/ Remain divide continue to be angry, upset and worried. People in Northern Ireland are deeply concerned about a return to the terrorism of the  “Troubles” and the potential ripping up of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement which was made on the understanding that there would be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because they were both members of the EU. Now a return to the old, tragic situation could well be on the cards even though all the politicians are denying it. People in Scotland are also angry and concerned because they mostly voted to stay in the EU but are being forced out of it. The fateful vote of 2016 may well lead to the break up of the UK as well as the EU.

The vote has had many unintended negative consequences. One has been a sharp rise in racism and aggression towards foreigners. Even before the referendum campaign was completed a member of a white supremecist group shockingly murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox who had devoted much of her career to helping people and trying to bring people together. After the leave vote came through, many interpreted it as a protest vote against large- scale immigration. Certain tabloid newspapers  and leave campaigners had manage to conflate mass immigration with the EU’s free movement of people rule. As soon as the leave vote went through, some thought they had now been given carte-blanche to attack and abuse foreigners. Numerous unsavoury incidents were reported in the press. It left a sour taste in my mouth and shocked me to realize that our civilised country could so quickly descend into racial prejudice and discrimination which many had hoped was a thing of the past. It had been simmering just below the surface all the time. The politics of Enoch Powell and the far right were moving towards the mainstream. When I visit NHS hospitals or watch documentaries about them on TV, it never fails to amaze me how many nurses and doctors, including consultants, come from other countries. Immigrants are a very important part of the UK workforce  but many blame them for their troubles and turn them into scape-goats. I  hate the idea of my country wanting to pull up the drawbridge and turn its back on its nearest neighbours and most natural allies. But many people now disagree with me.

It has been a very uncomfortable period for all who live in the United Kingdom. Even the Queen, who is famous for saying nothing political, has made allusions to the country needing to come together. Royal correspondents have been wheeled in to try to interpret Her Majesty’s Regal utterings. It’s a good story for the media as it brings together two of the nation’s favourite obsessions : The Monarchy and Brexit. Yes, even the Queen has tasted the fetid atmosphere in her country and found it noxious. At last there is something that her Majesty and I can agree on. Brexit has led to many surprising consequences. Who would have thought that I, a rebublican, would have been quoting and supporting the Queen. Who would have thought that I would be feeling sorry for a Conservative Prime Minister and even rooting for her despite the many harmful things Mrs May’s government has done? Who would have thought that I, a lifelong Labour supporter, would have become embroiled in arguments with fellow Labourites? Brexit has created new barriers but has also melted down old barriers. Senior Labour, Conservative and Liberal MPs are currently campaigning together for a second referendum because in their view, they are putting their country before their party.

The whole issue is endlessly controversial, with disagreements and arguments at every turn. However, I’m sure that everyone can at least agree on one simple thing — we wish that Brexit can be achieved as soon as possible and then go away. Then we can all try to get on with the rest of our lives! If only the toxic cloud would lift so that peace and harmony can at last shine through once again.