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Confessions of a Poll Clerk.

15 Jun

I’ve always voted in elections, be they local, General or referenda. That’s every election since 1970, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives confounded all expectations and all poll- predictions  by defeating Harold Wilson’s Labour Party. ( Where have you heard that one before?) I have voted in community centres in south Manchester and north Hertfordshire, schools in Sheffield, churches or scout huts in North Tyneside and Civic Centres in Cleveland. On all those occasions I just slipped in and out before or after work and didn’t spare a second thought about the people manning the polling stations. I think I just assumed they were council employees who were being very well paid for their long day’s work. But I barely thought about them, just taking it for granted that they would be on duty and making our cherished democratic process possible.

Well now, in my retirement years, I have ended up being one of those poll clerks. The money is not great and the hours are extremely long. The poll stations operate from 7am to 10pm, a total of 15 hours. However we have to arrive by 6-30am at the latest in order to set up and then at the end, it takes at least 20 minutes to pack everything away. My colleague, officially known as the Presiding Officer, then has to lock up, return the keys to the caretaker and finally, transport the sacred ballot box and all the forms and stationary down to the HQ of the count, which is several miles away. It’s a hell of a long day, and this year we’ve done it twice — once for the Tees Valley Mayoral election and a second time 7 weeks later for the snap General Election called by the Prime Minister, Theresa May. On both occasions I had to get up at 5-15 am and didn’t get back home before 10-30pm. All poll clerks have to sign a special form, exempting themselves from The European Working Time Directive. This states that no-one should work no more than 48 hours a week and should have a break at least every 4.5 hours. By signing a simple form, we polling- station staff voluntarily pull out of this sensible, civilised arrangement and let ourselves in for a 16 hour endurance tests, with no official breaks. We have to snatch our food and drinks in-between voters.  You might think the pay for such an arduous and important job would be brilliant. However, it works out at approximately £7.50 an hour, roughly around the current minimum wage. We get paid a bit for a training session for a couple of hours 2 days before. However, in my case, the taxman comes in to take his cut, so I actually get even less than the above.

So, long hours and low pay  — the question is, why do we do it? Obviously different people have different reasons. Many are council employees who are “persuaded” to work at the polling station instead of doing their usual job for that day. I presume they get paid twice although I don’t actually know. In my case, I work as a poll clerk for 3 main reasons. The first is that bit of extra money to top- up my pension and go towards the holiday fund. The second reason, I suppose, is because it’s a sort of public service. In this sense, it’s a bit like jury duty although that is compulsory if one is selected. If we are to continue enjoying the benefits of living in a democracy, then some of us have to make it possible for everyone else to exercise their votes. Thirdly, one gets to be part of a little bit of history. This is especially so in a General Election which determines the UK’s next Government, or in the Referendum about whether to remain in or leave the European Union. The place was buzzing that day in June, 2016, with a much bigger turn out for the EU referendum than for a normal election.  ( In our case, pushing 70%)  We could tell something dramatic was afoot as the people came in their droves. Quite a lot had not voted in a long time or had never ever voted before. Some, whipped- up by a Facebook campaign, were suspicious of the thick pencils that are always provided in the booths, and insisted on using their own pens. Many didn’t know what to do. “Is this the election where every vote counts?” they asked, excited by the feeling of empowerment that an election can give one. I can now tell my grandchildren and write in my diary that I processed some of the votes that took the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Whether you voted LEAVE or REMAIN, you have to admit it was a historical occasion.

I work in a small ex-mining village in Cleveland, on the eastern edge of Tees-side in North east England. It’s called North Skelton. Everyone is friendly and we have no trouble. In training we get warnings about anti-social behaviour, teenagers running in and stealing the ballot box, verbal abuse from people who find they are not registered to vote, people angrily spoiling their papers and people taking selfies in the voting booth to put them on social media. We are also warned about people from the political parties canvassing near the polling station or putting up party posters that might influence people as they turn up to vote. Everything has to be fair and neutral. We are instructed to not engage in political discussions with members of the public, even though we may be asked interesting or challenging questions. We are even told to wear neutral coloured clothes and avoid colours associated with the competing political parties. So I cannot wear: red, blue, orange, green or even purple, the latter being UKIP’s colour. My colleague and I usually end up in boring black and white. One year, I turned up for a November election in a royal blue jumper by mistake. When the presiding officer pointed this out to me, I insisted on taking it off and ended up shivering for the next 12 hours or so. This year, following the shocking terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London, we were also given extra instructions about security.

The voters of North Skelton are very friendly as I have said. We have had no trouble at all. Now that we have manned the same station several times, we have got to know some of the characters. There’s the plasterer who comes in early in his white splattered overalls. There’s the woman who works at the Post office sorting office and the man who is a ticket inspector on the local train. There’s the man who works the tills at Tesco’s and the woman who votes in her green uniform after her shift at Asda. Then there’s the retired District Nurse and the man who parks his white van outside after a day fitting double- glazing. Quite a few thank us for what we are doing, especially when they realize what a long day we are working for their community. One woman has bought us home baked cakes and another gave us a chocolate wafer bar each. One of my favourite punters is a man who writes humorous poetry. I must have told him that I used to be a history teacher because in this recent election, he brought me in two hand- written ditties, one about the Vikings and one about the Normans. He even took my address so he could post me some more.

We get young voters coming in, some of them for the first time. It’s lovely to see the genuine excitement on their faces as they prepare to cast their first ever vote. It makes a refreshing change to witness this in an age of supposed political apathy. This last general Election actually saw a surge of young voters going into the polling booths to have their say. It always depresses me to hear of people who cannot be bothered to use their vote. In my more pompous moments I think this is an abnegation of their civic responsibility. My colleague and I have sat through Council elections and Police Commissioner elections when the turn out has been as low as 20% and 12% respectively. It makes for a long, draggy day having only about 6 or 7 people walking in every hour. We also get old people coming in to vote, some in their wheel chairs or arriving on their invalid scooters. We have to help some to read the ballot paper because their eyesight is fading and they have forgotten their spectacles. Some express pride that they have always used their vote throughout their entire lives. My colleague thinks that the UK should be like Australia, where voting in elections is compulsory. I think that’s a bit draconian but do think it’s a shame that some people refuse to accept any responsibility for what happens in their own country. In my opinion, such non-voters forfeit the right to grumble about any decisions the subsequent government or council may make.

Our polling station is a village hall in North Skelton. At one end is a stage for local amateur dramatic productions. During the day we are visited by a group of adults with special needs who are bussed in to do craft and art activities. Sometimes they do some baking and occasionally wander into the station with chocolate cake mixture all round their mouths! One likes to shake the hands of voters as they come in while another insists on locking the door so we have to watch him like a hawk. At one end of the hall there are often piled up pigeon- boxes, stored by the local pigeon racing club. Recently we saw that they had been carefully sorted out into “hens” and “cocks, and mysterious wooden clocks had been placed in front of them. Presumably they were soon to be transported far away and then the race would be on to see whose bird reaches home first. One of the “pigeon men” told us that the birds are sometimes taken as far away as the continent before being released. The pigeon men are often in dispute with the Zumba women , who don’t like the unsavoury smells that sometimes waft across their dancing space. We sometimes get entertained by the Latin American dance music as the leotard-clad Zumba group are put through their paces. This is another compensation for working that very long day — we get to see community life. A particularly nice moments is when whole families come in to vote together. We even get to meet the local police who usually pop in once or twice during the day to check that everything is alright.

So ends my “confessions” of a poll clerk. It’s long hours and low pay but I enjoy it all in the end. It has many compensations. I only hope that the Prime Minister doesn’t call another surprise election soon. It makes for an interesting day but the attractions of the job would soon start to pall if I had to do it more than once or twice a year!

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General Election Blues.

14 May

It’s General Election time 2017. The Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, has called a snap election despite assuring questioners  on numerous occasions that the next general Election wouldn’t be until 2020. Maybe the breaking of her oft repeated promise is something to do with her being way ahead in the opinion polls. Such cynicism will do little to raise the publics already low estimation of politics and politicians.

I always feel strangely uneasy during a General Election campaign. There are many reasons for this. First, there is the awful feeling that, once again, it’s going to be confirmed that I live in a deeply conservative country. The Labour Party, which I support, is being represented as having an extremist, “hard left” programme, and yet I recently read the views of a Swedish political commentator, who remarked that Labour’s policies would be regarded as unremarkable and middle of the road anywhere in Scandinavia. Maybe I’m living in the wrong country!

This blog isn’t aimed to be politically neutral or balanced like a BBC news report supposedly is. I have always held left of centre views as have most of my family and friends. ( Birds of a feather flock together.) Some might call me an unapologetic socialist, which I accept. Although I sadly believe that the current Labour party is almost certain to lose at the polls, I still strongly agree with their election slogan: “For the many, not the few.” In my ideal world, everyone would have equality of opportunity and everyone would look after everyone else. I would love to live in a selfless society where the strong protect the weak and the rich support the poor. That was the type of society envisaged by Clement Atlee’s post 1945 Labour government when it set up the National Health Service and the Welfare State. Not only had Britain won the war against Nazi Germany and Japan, but it now intended to wage war on : poverty, ignorance, hunger and disease. Basing their policies on the ideas of the Beveridge Report of the early 1940’s, the Labour Party swept to power on its promise of creating a country that was fit for the returning heroes.( unlike what was promised but never delivered after the First World War.)

The Welfare State, started by the Liberals in the early 1900s and completed by Labour halfway through the 20th century, is something to be proud of and something which is envied by many other countries. The same goes for the National Health Service, underpinned by the noble idea that nobody should suffer illness and premature death just because they are poor. For 40 years or so a consensus held between the main political parties that these were things to treasure and protect. However, since the days of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s,  both have been under attack, mainly from Conservative administrations including the present one. ( but also from Tony Blair’s New Labour) The idea of pulling together as a nation, engendered in the dark days of World War 2 has now given way to an “every man for himself” approach and “I’m all right Jack” attitude. Benefits, even for disabled people, have been cut and made more difficult to access. Poor people are stigmatised as lazy scroungers. Many branches of the health service have been (or are being) privatised, while the NHS as a whole is seriously underfunded, unable to adequately meet the rising demand caused by our ageing population. The Prime Minister seemed bemused and uncomfortable recently when asked to explain why so many nurses were having to visit food banks. She would not admit any responsibility for the consequences of her government’s policies, but instead vaguely alluded to “many complex reasons.” There’s nothing complex about long hours and low pay.

For me there are many compelling reasons why people should not vote Conservative, but the likelihood is that Mrs May and her party will be voted back in with an increased majority, if the polls are to be believed. So I am depressed and have to live with this feeling of unease, impotence and dread, sitting like a cold, heavy stone in my stomach.

During an election campaign, real and important news is neglected and the electioneering antics of the politicians are given central stage. When the UK has so many real and pressing problems, we are asked instead to witness a dreary beauty contest, with competing politicians trying to win the affections of the British people in order to win power. The BBC pretends to be fair and neutral but many feel it consistently leans to the right. However, most of our newspapers unashamedly support one side over the other. The Sun ,Mail, Express and Telegraph pump out a relentless diet of anti-Labour, anti Jeremy Corbyn propaganda.( rather than genuine news.) This is done because of the probably correct assumption that if you throw enough mud, some of it will stick. It was sickening but not surprising to see one tabloid picturing Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, against a lurid red background, thus trying to associate him with the disgraced leaders of Communist Russia. My own sister, swallowing this propaganda, described Labour as being led by a “red”. ( shades of 1950s style McCarthyism here.) Everyone is welcome to his/her opinion, but it depresses me to hear people trotting out crude tabloid prejudices. I believe the power of the media and especially the press is far too high in Britain, although I would always defend the freedom of the press, which is an important cornerstone of a civilised country. Unfortunately, in Britain today, the press orchestrates public opinion rather than responding to it. The situation is even more depressing when one realizes that some of the main press barons — Murdoch, Dacre and Black– are billionaires living abroad. One would not expect such men to have the interests of ordinary British people close to their hearts. They would rather support the party that would maximise their own profits. To quote the Labour election motto — they are the “few” not the “many.”

So election campaigns get me unsettled and worked up. They get me shouting at the telly! I fear that policies that will be bad for the country will be voted for. I am angry at the constant diet of simplistic propaganda inflaming, rather than informing, people’s opinions. I am depressed that so many people now seem to behave as self-centred individuals rather than as members of a caring society. As Mrs Thatcher notoriously asserted — “There is no such thing as society.” I think it is wrong that our society is increasingly controlled by people whose main aim is to make a profit. This has even infiltrated our schools with the Academy movement. It seems crazy to me that market forces rule human beings rather than vice versa.

So, all this is boiling up inside me but I cannot really talk about it. I discuss issues with my wife and I share views with similar-minded Facebook friends on social media, but in everyday life it would be considered awkward and embarrassing to try to enter into passionate political discussion with people. Most of us quietly go about our daily lives, keeping the peace and keeping up the social niceties. Then in the secrecy of the polling booths, we deliver our verdicts. This is when the great silent majority have their say. Only those in so-called marginal constituencies have any real influence on the election result. That’s another massive frustration! In the “first past the post” system, a party, like the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP can get substantial numbers of votes throughout the country but very few MPs elected to parliament. You don’t win power by getting a lot of close, creditable second places. I would like to see Proportional Representation coming in, so that every voter could have a significant say in the complexion of the subsequent parliament. This unfortunately was roundly rejected by the public in an earlier referendum, probably because many people don’t like change and the PR system was too complicated to fully understand. I hate referendums. They often ask for a simple answer to a complicated question which is an unsatisfactory way of going about things I think. It was interesting working as a poll clerk on the EU (“BREXIT”) referendum of June, 2016. Many people who came into the polling station asked “is this the election where every vote counts?” Just for once they felt empowered. However, this is not the case in a General Election in the UK. Conservatives voting in a safe Labour area, Labour supporters voting in a Tory stronghold or Greens, Liberal Democrats or UKIP people voting just about anywhere, are all effectively disenfranchised.

My area of  East Cleveland in north-east England has traditionally been a safe Labour stronghold. However, in these BREXIT times, many previously Labour voters have turned to UKIP as they want the UK to leave the European Union. Thus they have deserted Labour, and now that the Conservatives have reinvented themselves as an anti EU party and copied UKIP’s ideas, many might even vote Tory!  Thus my area has now become a marginal constituency. The Conservatives recently had their candidate chosen as Mayor of Tees Valley, which was a big shock in such a traditional Labour area. So maybe my Labour vote will actually be important this time, even though I fear I will be disappointed with the overall election result. Apologies for not mentioning Scotland or Northern Ireland by the way as I don’t know enough about the issues affecting these parts of the UK.

General Elections reveal to me that our democracy is largely a sham. Smaller parties don’t get much of a look- in even though they may have many supporters spread throughout the country. The parties that gain power are those with large clusters of support in certain areas rather than having an even spread, The media is mainly weighted on the right side of the political spectrum. Instead of real news, we are fed a constant diet of propaganda, false fears, and dubious promises. ( Mr Trump would call it fake news.) People retreat into entrenched political positions ( including me) instead of engaging in genuinely open and respectful debate. (in fact, the PM, Mrs May has arrogantly refused to take part in any televised debate.) In polite society people mostly avoid serious political discussion, because, like religion, politics is a conversational hot-potato. Yes, General Election time is a horrible time for me, especially as I realize in my heart of hearts, that my utopian dream of a: just, compassionate and peace-loving society will not be realised. As polling day gets closer, the feeling of dread and depression grows ever stronger inside me!

Encounters with Portugal.

12 Mar

Portugal– a small country at the western edge of Europe which hardly ever makes the news headlines, except for the tragic disappearance of the British toddler, Madeleine McCann. Yet this is the country whose explorers discovered a large chunk of the world. It’s a country that had a world empire well before the British, French or Dutch. It’s a fiercely Christian nation that used to be Muslim. Just in the 20th century, it murdered its king, became a republic, endured a long dictatorship, avoided both world wars, had a peaceful revolution and joined the European Community. I’ve just been to Portugal, my second visit. On both occasions I didn’t go to Portugal’s popular and picturesque south coast, the Algarve, although I believe it is lovely. Instead I opted  for cultural sightseeing in Lisbon and Porto and all points in between. Typical history and geography teacher’s stuff really. Here are a few of the things I saw and found out about.

THE VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY and the DAY WHEN MY DAD LOCKED MY SCHOOL BOOKS AWAY.

At Belem, a suburb of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is the striking Monument to the Discoveries. It is a huge white, waterfront edifice in the shape of a caravel, the ocean-going sailing ship developed by the Portuguese to explore  lands beyond Europe. On it are clustered famous Portuguese explorers, kings, poets and priests. It was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who did more than most to make the famous Portuguese, 15th century voyages of discovery possible. He set up a maritime school in the Algarve which developed great advances in navigation, cartography and ship design.

Portuguese explorers in the second half of the 15th century, gradually sailed down the west coast of Africa, dispersing the fog of the unknown and opening up the world that we know today. It was from Belem that Bartholomew Diaz embarked when he became the first European to sail round the tip of South Africa. He changed its name from “Cape of Storms” to “Cape of Good Hope.” Then in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed all the way round Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. He thus opened up a cheaper route to the lucrative Spice Trade than the expensive and dangerous overland one, making Portugal extremely rich and turning it into a world power. Even before this, in 1494, the Pope had divided the world between Portugal and Spain. The Spanish had become wealthy and powerful following the discovery of the New World of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yet, even here, there was a strong Portuguese connection. Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, was married to the daughter of a Portuguese sea-captain and learnt all his mariner’s skills and knowledge on the Algarve.

I know all this because as a young teenager, I became fascinated with the age of discovery which I learnt about in my history lessons at secondary school. It was probably this subject that ignited my life-long passion for History. One could argue that Portugal was responsible for my subsequent long career as a History and geography teacher. I got so obsessed that I spent hours and hours producing marathon home-works which ran well beyond 30 pages of writing, drawings and maps. My poor teacher, Mrs Todd, must have hated me as she had all that extra marking to do! My dad got very worried. Surely I should be out in the fresh air, playing football or hide and seek with the other “normal” kids? In fact, my father got so concerned that he locked my books up in a cabinet and ordered me out of the house! It didn’t work though because as soon as he left for work I took my books out again and continued my absorbing studies.

MANUELINE ARCHITECTURE. — an exercise in Royal showing off.

The Portuguese got extremely rich through their discoveries and the establishment of their Empire. The 15th and early 16th centuries are seen as Portugal’s “Golden Age.” They even cashed in on the discovery of the “New World” by colonising Brazil, the largest country in South America. This proved to be a fortuitous move for gold was later discovered in Brazil and brought yet more wealth pouring into the Portuguese coffers. The Royal family, the Catholic church and others spent vast sums of money on lavish palaces, churches and monasteries.( for some reason, monasteries are called convents in Portugal.) I doubt whether many ordinary people enjoyed the benefits of all this wealth. Basically, it was a huge showing- off operation with each king or noble trying to  outshine the others. For instance, Mafra, a small town near Lisbon, is dominated by an enormous monastery-palace built in the early 1700s by the extravagant King Dom Joao V to celebrate the birth of his son and heir. It began as a simple Franciscan monastery, but thanks to the vast mineral wealth pouring in from Brazil, it soon grew into a gargantuan palace with hundreds of monks employed to pray for the Royal souls. Some people regard the spending on Mafra as obscene. Still, all that extravagance has brought great dividends to the modern Portuguese tourist industry. Cultural tourists flock to see these spectacular, over-the-top edifices. I saw similar grandiose buildings at Belem ( the Jeronimos Monastery), Coimbra, Tomar and Batalha, to name just a few.

The most characteristic style of architecture in Portugal’s Golden era is the Manueline style. It gets its name from King Manuel I ( 1495-1521).( no connection with the waiter in Fawlty Towers.) He used much of the riches of the empire to build fantastic monuments of self-glorification. His successor favoured a more restrained, simpler style so the Manueline period was relatively short. As I said, this extravagant style of architecture is a great hit with the tourists of today. Manueline architecture was a late, Portuguese version of the Gothic style. It involves elaborately carved stone-work around doors, windows and arcades. It includes: mock vegetation, twisted ropes, knots and swirls, crosses and globes. Sometimes it seems impossible that such delicate ornamentation can have been carved out of actual stone. A lot of the carvings are symbolic, representing the king, the church or the empire. Coming face to face with it, Manueline architecture makes your jaw drop. Brought up on modern architecture full of clean lines, tourists are taken aback by the forest of fancy ornamentation. It’s all very over-the-top. At the Convento do Cristo at Tomar, we saw the most brilliant examples of the Manueline style. It decorates the chapel and the multiple, arcaded cloisters ( some of them 2 storied). The whole display comes to a head at the hard-to-believe Chapter House Window.( Janela do Capitulo.) The window is swathed in intricate stone carvings representing maritime and Imperial motifs. Our guide talked to us for a full 5 minutes to explain all the symbolism in front of us. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that this was only a mere window! It is a rich, extravagant early 16th century fantasy.

AZULEJOS — beautiful glazed tiles.

Today Portugal is a Christian country but, like its neighbour Spain, it used to be ruled by the Muslim Moors from  north Africa. Much of Portugal’s history is taken up with the Christian re-conquest, led by organisations like the Knights’ Templar.( whose HQ was at Tomar.) However, the Moors did leave a strong legacy especially in the south. The most obvious relics of the Moors are the lovely glazed tiles, that grace both public and private buildings, inside and out. They brought this skilled craft over in the eighth century. The Portuguese name for these beautiful, decorative tiles is “Azulejos.” Some are pictorial, some show repeated patterns. Many of these ceramic tiles are in pale blue and white, but others feature pale yellows, reds and greens. We saw them in medieval palaces, 15th and 16th century churches and cloisters and even in 19th and  20th century Town Halls, shops, houses and railway stations. The entrance hall of Porto’s suburban rail station is particularly spectacular. Tiles are particularly apt for hot countries because they are so cool. Of course  they are ubiquitous in the Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East. Portugal’s legacy from its Arab past is particularly rich.

We saw lovely early 16th century geometric tiles in the Royal Palace in Sintra.( Palacio Nationale.) We saw a lot of religious imagery in the churches such as the Sao Roque in Lisbon’s upper town. These were usually in restrained pale colours. Later more colourful, extravagent panels were commissioned showing: battles, hunting scenes and fantastical images  influenced by the Voyages of Discovery. Sometimes a large panel would cover a whole wall like a vertical carpet. In the later 17th the blue and white Dutch style became very popular, often showing images of flowers and fruit. Tiles were seen as good insulators on the inside and solid protection from rain and fire on the outside. After the industrial revolution, mass produced tiles were used to decorate shops and factories. We saw numerous independent shops and cafes in Lisbon and Porto, all sporting attractive decoration involving azulejos. Now that I am back in Britain, the beautiful ceramic tiles of Portugal are certainly an abiding memory.

PORT WINE – White, Tawny and Ruby.

As a child I was brought up as a tee-totaller Methodist. However, even my strict, non-drinking parents made an exception for Christmas. We all enjoyed a glass of port wine. OK, it was adulterated with lemonade, but it still counted. I still remember its rich flavour and heavy texture. I think we all thought we were being rather daring and just for once, were letting ourselves go! (Ha! Ha!)

Years later, when I first visited Lisbon, my girlfriend and I made a special point of visiting the Port Wine Institute for a tasting. We were ushered into what looked like the entrance hall of a rather grand, old hotel. It was cool and shady compared to the dazzling, hot sunshine outside. The atmosphere was hushed and still. It was like stepping into another world. We sat at a table in a partitioned booth, and waited. In front of us was a menu. It was a list of different types of Port, some ruby red, some white and some tawny.( a cross between the two.) An old, uniformed waiter approached us for our order. The deal was that we could sample 6 different ports for a special, subsidised price. Not having a lot of spare cash, we carefully chose the cheapest options. However, everytime we selected a cheaper wine, the waiter gravely shook his head, saying it was not available. It was only when we got to the quite expensive ( for us) category that he finally nodded, and after a short wait, brought us our samples. We drank 3 rubies and 3 whites, carefully trying to savour the flavours and look like connoisseurs. I don’t think the waiter was fooled for a second. We soon became talkative and giggly as the wine took effect. In the end, our heads swimming, we parted with a too large sum of money and staggered out into the daylight. As soon as the bright sun hit us we realised how drunk we were. So we retreated to the quiet courtyard of a nearby old convent ( The Carmo) to rest and slowly sober up.

  Recently, I was lucky enough to visit Porto itself and went with my tour group for a tasting at a wine lodge on the banks of the Duoro. We were given a long but interesting talk about the special grapes, their growing conditions and the processes they go through to finally produce the port wines. The soils, cold winters and long hot summers of the Duoro valley provide ideal conditions for the vines to grow and prosper. It was all very scientific and I’ve forgotten most of the technical details. Apparently the British were very involved in the development of the industry, such that we have ended up with names such as :Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn and Taylor’s. Most of the lodges are on the Gaia side of the river Duoro, on the opposite bank to Porto itself. We had an interesting and pleasant tasting involving one ruby and one white. Someone acquired a sample of tawny wine which ended up being our favourite. It was lighter than the others and slipped down more easily. I suppose this preference just confirmed that we are philistines but after 3 ports, we didn’t really care. We had tasted port wine in Porto, the drink that shares its name with its country. When you’re a serious tourist you have to do these things! My Methodist background just faded into the past.

The European Union.

  Portugal voted to join the European Union in 1986, over 10 years after the British. Membership of the EU guaranteed political stability. It’s first attempt at democracy after the fall of the monarchy in the early 20th century, had resulted in massive political instability. There were a staggering 45 changes of government in only 16 years. This led to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who, being a skilled finance minister, at least brought some order to the country’s economy. However, ordinary people were denied human rights, no opposition was allowed and the press was heavily censured. It was a one-party dictatorship. The country became backward compared to much of Europe and the ordinary people suffered poverty. The dictatorship was overthrown when Salazar stepped down in 1970 due to illness and dementia. The colonies were given up after damaging wars and a so-called “Carnation-Revolution”in 1974, overthrew the old regime and restored democracy. ( The protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers guns.) I remember visiting Estoril in the mid 1990’s and seeing the atmospheric, decaying, empty mansions of the rich. Their gardens were overgrown with weeds and the gates were secured with rusty pad-locks. It was like a scene from the Adams Family! These supporters and beneficiaries of the dictatorship had all fled to Brazil and abandoned their sumptuous homes, fearing for their safety.

 Joining the EU gave Portugal much needed international support and stability. Its infrastructure was badly neglected and European money was pumped in to build roads, bridges, railways and all the other necessities for a modern nation. We were told that if there was a referendum about EU membership in Portugal today, probably about 90 to 95% would vote to stay, as the benefits for the country had been so great. The Portuguese governments had also used the excuse of EU membership to bring in some important reforms. Some measures would have been initially unpopular and might have led to the fall of a government. However, using Europe as the reason for their introduction, helped to bring in some much needed changes that were to the long- term benefit of the country. Our recent tour guide Tomas ( half Portuguese, half German) told us much of this as we drove around on a cultural tour of his country. I don’t think anyone failed to spot the irony in the fact that he talking to British tourists whose country had just voted narrowly to actually leave the European Union in the Referendum of June, 2016. It highlighted the great difference that now divides the United Kingdom from Portugal. On the face of it these 2 nations have great similarities. Both are in western Europe, both are democracies, both are sea-faring nations, both had “golden eras” and world-wide empires, both lost their empires in the second half of the 20th century and have had to come to terms with their diminished status in the world. However, one nation sees its future firmly in Europe while the other has decided, for better or for worse, to go it alone.

I have enjoyed my visits to Portugal and will certainly go again. There are many things I have not mentioned of course as this blog is not intended as a comprehensive guide, but merely some fleeting impressions. Two last images spring to mind as I near the end of the piece — the wonderful mosaic pavements decorating many of the towns and cities we visited, and the delicious pastries in the numerous bakeries and cafes we visited, especially the Pasties de Belem, wonderful flaky custard tartlets, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. These were some of the many treats we experienced in Portugal. ( Do you think the Portuguese Tourist Board will give me a free holiday now?)

 

 

Cut Adrift.

30 Jun

Like nearly half of the UK’s population I woke up on the morning of June 24th, 2016, to news that both shocked and depressed me. The British people had voted by a majority of 52% to 48% to leave the European Union, which we have been a member of since 1973. I had previously been mortified by the election of a Conservative majority government in 2015, but at least my dismay on that occasion was allayed by the thought that it would only last for 5 years maximum and then we would get a chance to overturn the result in the next General Election. However, the fateful decision to leave the EU will not just last for 5 years, but is probably irrevocable. The younger generations, who largely voted to stay in, are now stuck with the consequences of their elder peers’ negative decision. As one work colleague put it: “We’ve been cut adrift.”

This piece is not intended to be an expert analysis of the :political, economic, social and constitutional dimensions of this momentous development. This is because I am not an expert in any of these spheres. However, I am a citizen of the United Kingdom and I would like to try to summarise my own personal reaction.  I don’t wish to upset or attack the people who voted “Leave.” They had their reasons which were valid to them. I accept the result just I accept the system of democracy. I am not one of the callers for a second EU referendum just because I didn’t like the result of the first. Having said that, I think the decision to leave is wrong and probably reveals some worrying  characteristics of the nation I am part of.

First of all, I think that for many, this was not a carefully considered decision but a loud vote of protest.Many regions of Britain have suffered from unemployment, lack of investment and poverty. They have been left behind in the economic race and feel neglected and abandoned. These areas, particularly in the north, the midlands and Wales voted resoundingly to leave the EU in the recent referendum. This includes Cleveland in the north-east where I now live. I was a polling clerk in a small, ex-mining village, and although we are not allowed to discuss the issues with the voters, many  barely bothered to conceal their intentions. It was obvious to me that many were intent on delivering a protest vote against the so called “establishment” whom they blamed for many of their troubles. It was the “ordinary” working class wanting to give the rich, privileged, political elite a good kicking. One actually said that he was going to punish Cameron ( The pro-“Remain” Prime Minister) for all his “lies.” I got the distinct impression from my experiences in the polling station and my forays into social media that numerous people  primarily wanted to register such a vote of dissent. Quite a few older electors admitted that they  didn’t usually bother to vote but had especially turned out for this one. Nationally, it was the highest turn-out for a very long time. People were very taken with the idea that in a referendum, every single vote counts, unlike the “first past the post” system that the UK has in its normal elections. But having turned up, many of them didn’t know what to do. It was weird having to tell people in their fifties and sixties that they simply had to put a cross in the box of their choice. Many, whipped-up by a campaign on Facebook, were very suspicious that only a pencil was provided in the voting booth rather than a pen, even though thick pencils have always been used in British elections since the year dot. They expressed their concern that officials could later rub out their ” Leave” crosses and change them to “Remain.” Despite their political naivety and ignorance of polling procedures, these people had turned up because they were angry, and this anger had overcome their previous apathy. If this is true, then it’s a shame that this wider issue of shaking up the “establishment” clouded the more specific and crucially important issue of whether the country should remain in or leave the EU.

Another serious concern raised by the vote is our attitude to foreigners. I think patriotism is fine but if taken to extremes, can turn into unpleasant chauvinism or even xenophobia. Unfortunately, foreigners make very convenient scapegoats. It’s so easy to blame them for all our ills. According to the blamers, foreigners are: stealing our jobs, depressing our wages, taking our houses, making our schools over-crowded, overwhelming our health service and destroying our identity. I have heard all these arguments through the years, especially from a certain section of the tabloid press. In fact, I think many of these ideas have originated from the more corrosive elements of the popular press, which had been drip-feeding anti-EU and anti-immigration propaganda into peoples’ minds for decades This fear and distrust of thee “outsider” is not a new phenomenum. In the early years of the 20th century, the governments tried to unite the country against the “yellow peril.” Then in the 1950’s and 60’s, large scale immigration from the  Commonwealth led to widespread racial prejudice and discrimination. This culminated in Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech in Smethwick in 1969. I think he had serious and important points to make but the unfortunate side effect of his words was that it provided a more  respectable face for racists. Despite anti-discrimination legislation in the 1970’s, I believe that racism is alive and well in the UK and bubbles just beneath the surface of respectable society. Unfortunately, the EU’s “free movement of people” policy, has led to another upsurge of foreigner hating, especially when large numbers of people from Poland, Slovakia, Romania and other east European people arrived on our shores. This is despite the fact that many of them are very hard-working and have made important contributions to the economy, doing the jobs that British workers have not been keen to do. As one outspoken voter loudly exclaimed: “Enoch was right. He was a great man.”

To a certain extent I think this is just fear of the unknown, fear of the “other”. Unfortunately, more extreme members of the right wing turn this fear and unease into ideas of white British racial superiority. The National Front, The British National Party and the English Defence League  espouse neo-Nazi ideas about race and wish all foreigners, especially those with darker skins, to be deported. Slogans have already been painted up urging immigration to be replaced by repatriation. Luckily, the majority of British people abhor such ideas and the out- and- out racists have been largely kept in check. However, a relatively new party, UKIP, formed in the early 21st century has successfully managed to merge the issues of  EU membership ( with its free movement of people principle) with that of mass immigration. They have given the anti-foreigner idea a slightly more respectable cloak. Not only are foreigners coming over in increasingly large numbers to take our jobs etc, according to UKIP, but other, unelected foreigners in Brussels and Strasbourg are making decisions that effect British peoples’ lives detrimentally. So goes the argument. It’s easy to blame the foreigners for all Britain’s problems. Hitler blamed all Germany’s problems on the Jews. It’s the same idea. The trouble is that once these racist ideas come out of the woodwork, they can be very unpleasant and destructive. Already, since the Leave vote, there have been numerous racial incidents up and down the country. The far -right extremists unfortunately now feel emboldened to tell foreigners that they are not welcome in the UK. This is a very upsetting and unfortunate result of the Leave vote.

I believe that the EU leaders should be more democratically accountable to the people of Europe and I also think that the completely free movement of people needs to be looked at and modified, because, inevitably it will lead to people from poorer countries migrating to their richer European neighbours. However, I believe that Britain should have fought for such reform from within, rather than throwing its toys out of the pram and leaving the Union. It has been a case of flight not fight. I can sympathise with people who live in areas with a large immigrant population as they fear that they are losing their British identity. For many, identity trumps the economy and so they have ignored the warnings about dire economic consequences of a Leave vote. I think the numbers of incomers should be more carefully controlled but feel that a multi-cultural society has enriched Britain immeasurably over the years. It has broadened minds and given us many new alternatives in diet, religion, music, dance, art, language and traditions. We would be a much culturally poorer country if we consisted of just one race. However, the Leave vote heralds the advent of a more narrow minded, mono-culture definition of British life.

Britain has a long history of Empire and for a long time did not need to rely on its neighbours in Europe as its main trading partners. This is why, despite Churchill’s far sighted vision of a united Europe, the British government of the late 1940’s ( Atlee’s Labour administration), didn’t feel the need to join the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EU, set up by the Germans and the French and joined by Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and Italy. The British also considered themselves as “Atlanticists” proudly pointing out their so-called special relationship with the USA. The aims of the Europeans, especially the Germans and the French, had been to deliberately inter-mesh their economies so as to make future wars between them impossible. Europe and the World had suffered two catastrophic wars in the 20th Century which had at their heart the long term enmity between Germany and France. Other terrible Franco-German wars had taken place in the 19th century. Thus by 1945, surveying yet another devastated continent, French and German statesmen said “never again” and took their brave and far-sighted decision to integrate and cooperate rather than continue to compete and confront. Their brave gamble has paid off as there has been no war between members of the European Union since its inception. The British stayed aloof of the new union, but when their Empire quickly melted away in the 1950’s and 60’s and their special cross-Atlantic relationship was exposed when the Americans refused to back them in the Suez crisis of 1956, they belatedly realised that their new focus must be on Europe. Prime Minister  Harold McMillan applied to join in the early 1960’s but was eventually rebuffed by France’s President De Gaulle, who said that the British didn’t have the right attitude to be good Europeans. Maybe, looking at our leave vote of June 23rd, 2016, and our history of opt-outs, objections and vetoes, De Gaulle had a point. Separated from the European mainland by a thin strip of sea, the English Channel, the British have found it difficult to cooperate with their European partners. It is almost if: because of our proud history being in charge of an  Empire, our  status as a Great Power, our seat on the Security Council of the United Nations, we regard ourselves as superior to our neighbours across the Channel. I’m sure this belief that Britain is a uniquely great nation and doesn’t need to cow-tow to or cooperate with others, is behind many people’s dislike of the EU, and their wish to leave it and go it alone. When people say they “want their country back”, the familiar and successful slogan of the Leave campaign, I suspect they are thinking back to a Britain in the past, not the diminished country of today, stripped of much of its power and influence. I think it is a mistake to think that the United Kingdom is still a great and powerful nation that can easily go it alone.

I suppose I could go on making point after point and this blog could go on for ever. That would be a waste of time as no-one would want to read it to the end anyway. The remaining important thing I want to say is that I have always been an Internationalist, ever since I owned my first stamp album. It makes me sad to realize I am living in  a nation of insular, “Little-Englanders.” I have always been interested in other countries and have wanted to travel to see them and experience their different cultures. I wanted to enrich my life and broaden my mind. My parents never left these shores and never showed any desire for foreign travel. At first they were too poor and later they were too timid to leave the comfort-zone of Britain. As I grew older I developed an increasing desire for foreign adventure. To their credit, my mum and dad recognised this and made a big financial sacrifice in paying for me to go on a school trip to the south of France in 1966. This lit the blue touch-paper and launched my life-long wanderlust.. Throughout my adult life I have travelled extensively throughout Europe and in the World at large, especially in my post-retirement years. I have enjoyed the UK being part of the European Community with all the economic and cultural benefits that this has brought. This is why I think it’s a great shame that many people want to pull up the draw-bridge and withdraw from the European project that we have been a part of for over 4 decades. In this modern, increasingly connected world, it’s strange that the majority in the British referendum wanted to withdraw and become a small separate entity. From an economic, cultural and political point of view this doesn’t make any sense to me. As someone said in the campaign, it’s like claiming one’s independence by moving out of the house and moving into the garden shed!

When my 92 year old mother- in- law heard the referendum result, she cried. She vividly remembered the devastation of the 2nd World War  and feared that the Leave vote might lead to the unravelling of much of the progress Europe has made since 1945. The vote seems to ignore the lessons of history, and if further countries leave, might lead to a more insecure and dangerous continent. It’s not surprising that Russia’s President Putin is delighted at the news of the UK’s imminent withdrawal from the powerful bloc that has been opposing his aggressive policies. It may also lead to the further unravelling of the United Kingdom itself as the whole of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted firmly to remain in Europe. They may soon vote to leave us and leave us weaker and more vulnerable in a dangerous world. We are a proud, sea-faring nation, but how will we cope when we are cut adrift and are left alone in turbulent waters?

 

Living in a Left Wing Bubble.

16 May

Well, I’m still recovering from the shock of a Conservative victory in the 2015 UK General Election. It was a severe jolt to the system for several reasons. First of all, the much vaunted opinion polls had consistently forecasted a hung parliament and the necessity for another coalition government to be cobbled together. That didn’t happen, so all that media hot- air about who would form an alliance with who turned out to be a waste of time. The polls were so consistent in telling this stalemate story that I was lulled into a false sense of security myself. Maybe we could get a “progressive”, left-leaning government after-all I hoped? But it all proved to be a cruel mirage. I heard that a full third of the total media election coverage had been spent on such hypothetical speculation about the consequences of a hung parliament. That time could have been more fruitfully spent on exploring the issues, manifestoes and policies of the parties in contention. It was a big mistake to try to second guess the actual voting public, who in the privacy of the polling booth, revealed more than they did to the pollsters
The second reason I was shocked by the election result was the realisation once again that I was living in a deeply conservative, right wing country. All those vast swathes of blue on the new political map of 2015 Britain have really upset me. I should have known better. Afterall I lived through the misery, frustration and heartache of the Thatcher years of the 1980s. Mass unemployment, jingoistic war, Trade Union bashing, class war ( almost), nuclear missiles, the privatisation of important public services — it was an endless nightmare. The fact that Margaret Thatcher’s governments were wildly popular at the ballot box in 3 elections, showed me just out of step with much of the rest of the nation I was. I hated it all and got deeply depressed. Now it’s happened again. A new right- wing Tory administration has been elected and this time there are no Liberal-Democrats to curb and restrain their more extreme policies. I fear for the future. One of friends said she cried. Once more I feel like a square peg in a round hole. I should be used to it I know, being a vegetarian in a predominantly meat- eating society. Sometimes I feel it’s as if I’m living in the wrong world! It’s impossible for me to grasp that so many people have voted for a party that has been responsible for a devastating programme of public spending cuts, seriously affecting the most vulnerable people in our society. To me it’s incomprehensible that many people have voluntarily opted for another damaging dose of austerity, but I have to accept that they did. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.
I know it’s dangerous for me to write a blog about politics. Along with religion, politics is such a hot potato of a subject. I know many people will disagree with my views and may even have stopped reading by this point. However, I think it’s important to stand up for what one believes in. It’s just too easy to sit on the fence. Politics is about the pursuit of power and how that power, once gained, is used. In a way, it’s the most important issue of all. Power can be used as a force for good and as a force for bad. It can be used for the benefit of all or just for the few. We are lucky that in the United Kingdom we have a democracy where in theory, the ordinary people can choose their rulers. Many nations around the world, those ruled by dictators or corrupt governments, do not have such a choice. Yet, this idea of choice is a bit of a con I think. Apparently 63% of the British people did not vote Conservative but still ended up with a Tory government controlling their lives for the next 5 years. This particularly applies to Scotland, North- East England, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Inner London where the vast majority voted SNP or Labour. The fault of course is with the “first past the post” voting system, where a party can garner a large number of votes but keep coming second or third in the constituencies, gaining no MPS. I’m no UKIP fan, far from it, but I think it unfair that a party that experienced such a significant surge in support, only ended up with a solitary MP. The same applies to the Green Party. The only fair way forward seems to be a Proportional Representation system where the amount of votes a party gets is properly reflected in the number of MPs they have in Parliament. Most other European countries have PR so it cannot be that outlandish an idea. However, the British people rejected PR in a referendum a couple of years ago. Maybe they were influenced by the largely right wing press or maybe it was just too complicated for many to understand. I voted for PR, finding myself in the usual position of being in the minority. Maybe it’s just my lot in life to be out of step.
I think of myself as a left winger, politically speaking. To me this means that I want to live in a compassionate, fair society where everyone looks out for everyone else. I belong to what is known as the “soft left” along with people like Ed Miliband, all of my friends and most of my family. “Birds of a feather flock together” as they say. I am one of those people regularly mocked as a “Guardian reader” by the largely right wing press. I’m proud to read The Guardian and its Sunday sister “The Observer.” I don’t see anything wrong in caring for others and wanting a more just society, where the strong protect the weak and vulnerable and the wealthy help the poor. That is my Utopia, my dream. Instead, in my opinion, we have the tragic dystopia of a right wing government that promotes individualism and an “I’m all right Jack”, attitude. It’s no coincidence that the 5 years of a Conservative led Coalition, resulted in the gap between the rich and the poor widening considerably and a massive and shameful rise in food banks. A caring society should look after its own without the need for charity. But the Tories, despite their claims that “we’re all in it together”, do not want a society where every one is cared for. Margaret Thatcher revealed her true colours when she declared that “there’s no such thing as society.” She was promoting rampant individualism where the strong prosper and the weak fall by the wayside. It was this era that gave birth to the idea that everyone in need of help from benefits is a “scrounger”. I know that not everyone on benefits is a genuine case and agree that the cheats need to be weeded out, but to tar everyone with the same brush is wrong. The right wing press are mainly responsible for this especially the Daily Mail and Daily Express with their drip drip of daily poison into the minds of their readers.
So I’m a left winger, which puts me out of step with much of the media and many of the voting public. I’m not “Hard Left” as I do not want a revolution or a working class dictatorship. That would be inconsistent with my belief in democracy and in human rights. Many of those on the left of the political spectrum are compassionate people not violent revolutionaries. We want a fairer, more equal society, not a Marxist/ Communist Dictatorship. I think we have seen that go horribly wrong in Russia, China and eastern Europe. All the soft left wants is a caring society which looks after it’s less fortunate members. I don’t see anything wrong in that and yet I consistently end up in the minority. It’s difficult for me to fathom.
Maybe my lack of understanding derives from the fact that I have been living in a left-wing bubble all my life. My parents and grandparents always voted Labour. I grew up in the Labour stronghold of Chesterfield in industrial North-east Derbyshire. Both my grandfathers took part in the 1926 General Strike. One was a coal miner, the other, a steel worker. My dad worked on the railways and voted Labour as, for a long time, this was regarded as the political Party that supported the working man ( and woman.) So you could say that voting Labour was in my DNA. I grew up being taught that Labour supported the ordinary working class people whereas the Tories represented the privileged and the well-off. I know that this is a very simplistic, divisive interpretation but that it what I was indoctrinated to believe. Largely speaking though, I still think this holds true. If you look at all the great social reforms of the last 2 centuries, most if not all have been brought in by the Liberal or Labour parties.( not the Tories) :- The Great Reform Act of 1832 (The Liberals), The Poor law Amendment Act, 1836 ( Liberals), Secret Ballot, 1860s ( Liberals), Old Age Pensions, early 1900s (Liberals), School meals, early 1900s ( Liberals), The National Health Service, 1945 ( Labour), The Welfare State, 1945 onwards ( Labour), Legalisation of Homosexuality, late 1960s (Labour), legalisation of abortion, late 1960s ( Labour), Equal pay act and other anti sex-discrimination legislation, early 1970s ( Labour), Abolition of Fox Hunting, early 2000s ( Labour) etc. I cannot think of one important piece of progressive social reform introduced by the Tories. David Cameron, to his credit, has recently presided over the legalisation of GAY marriage, but even that was when he was under the influence of the Liberal-Democrats and was against the objections of many of his own party. Even Cameron’s new, post election 2015 cabinet contains several people opposed to GAY marriage and who are pro hunting.
As he grew older my father moved more to the right. He started to read the Daily Mail and take on many of that paper’s views. He became anti-trade Union and anti comprehensive education even though I, his son, had been a victim of the 11 plus lottery. I had arguments with him about these things. When Tony Benn, a leading left winger, became the MP for Chesterfield, my dad couldn’t bring himself to vote for what the right-wing tabloids painted as “a red under the bed.” (To me Benn was a hero.) Even then though, dad couldn’t stomach voting Tory but switched to the Liberals instead, taking my mum with him. He too would have been shocked by this election if he had been still alive. All my children have grown up being anti-Conservative being brought up in the left wing bubble that our family has always existed in. Maybe we might vote Green , maybe up to the betrayal of 2010 we might vote Liberal, but never Conservative. Their mother shares my views as does my second wife. You see, we are all lefty Guardian readers and proud of it! So it comes as a massive shock to find that we are in the minority.
There has been an outpouring of shock and horror in many of the conversations I have been involved in since the election result. This sense of disbelief and outrage has also been aired big-time amongst my Facebook friends. People have been expressing disgust, signing petitions and preparing to go on anti-cuts protest marches. I think it’s important not to just have a knee jerk reaction. Anger and despair must be channelled into useful, constructive avenues. The 37% must be constantly reminded that their views are minority ones even though they are represented by the majority of MP’s. I will march, write letters, canvass my MP ( a Labour one) and sign constructive petitions. I am actively considering moving to Scotland! ( joke!) I also intend to join the human rights organisation “Liberty” as one of the first priorities of this new Conservative government is, unbelievably, to scrap the European Human Rights Act! I intend to come out of my left-wing bubble and engage the right-wingers in the real world in as many ways as I can positively can. Roll on 2020!