A video recently released by Channel 4 news, shows beer-swilling England fans ask a begging child in France to perform oral sex and drink “piss” for 5 Euros. Other footage involves Islamaphobic and pro-Brexit chanting, jeering and abuse — invective phrases and derogatory words that I can still dimly remember seeing scrawled on convenience shop windows, back in the very early 90s in my hometown of Woodingdean, a suburb dominated by council estates on the Eastern edge of Brighton and Hove.
My other memories from that time include disused mattresses and rusted swing-sets littering people’s front gardens, being forbidden to play in the local park due to the number of discarded hypodermic needles there, and sirens wailing on many a Saturday evening as fire engines attended the burning cars 2 minutes up the road. As a child of the eighties, if recent political momentum has really been fuelled by nostalgia for the days when Britain was “great”, it’s not the type of nostalgia that I can believe in myself.
It’s not too difficult for me to imagine that in the eyes of much of the world, England has already transformed since the 23rd of June. It has morphed from from the proud country that had just elected the first Muslim mayor of a Western Capital, to a country whose main export might well seem to be football fans who speak little (if anything) of the native language of their destination, drink heavily, and behave absolutely appallingly.
A Jew(ish) Perspective on the EU
I am half-Jewish and, after my parents split up when I was about three years old, I was raised as a Jew by my mother, and went to a tiny Jewish primary school in Hove called Torah Academy. I was still quite young when I first began to question the faith — probably never having been comfortable with the idea that half of my family were not “chosen” by God. It was around the same period in primary school that I also learned about the Nazi Holocaust. At probably only about 6 or 7 years old, the awful fact was impressed upon me, that had I been born 70 years earlier, and less than 1000 miles away, I would have been rounded up, and might well have died in a gas chamber.
I have never been what you might stereotypically imagine a Jewish person to be like though — and when most people find out about my background, I’m often told that I “don’t look Jewish”, whatever that means. I’m also terrible with money, and could probably sell everything I own and still not make enough to pay off one of my credit cards. I’m certainly not devout in any way, and have always found problems with many aspects of the faith and culture. Perhaps you can understand my bafflement, for example, at having it explained to me, that I shouldn’t get a tattoo because “God had made my body exactly the way it was supposed to be”, by the very same Rabbi who had cut my foreskin off when I was 8 days old.
In Nazi Germany, however, it wouldn’t have mattered what my individual beliefs or feelings about being Jewish were, and when you are part of a minority, sooner or later you are faced with the fact that your individual identity simply doesn’t matter to some people. When you learn about these things so young, when you see the similar themes appearing time and time again — the sheer volume of hatred and oppression that has plagued the narrative of most of Human history — it can become an intrinsic part of you. I suspect that for many people, as it was for me when I was younger, it becomes quite easy to favour forging relationships with other people like yourself. Under the weight of ‘otherness’, it can also become a bit too difficult to imagine being able to forge relationships with those who are different to you.
Over the course of my life I have done quite a few things that I am not proud of, amongst which I am perhaps most ashamed to admit that I was a bit of a bully when I was a teenager. In a pathetic effort to “fit in”, I used homophobic language, sometimes even racist language, and definitely prejudged people or teased them based on characteristics that they could not change. However, I consider myself very fortunate that the course of my life has enabled me to meet such a diverse range of people, to un-learn these behaviours, and to recognise, respect and appreciate all sorts of people.
When I moved to London, I managed to find work in an inner city college, where I had my first real chance to work closely with people who came from very different backgrounds from me. I had not really known many Muslims beforehand, and certainly none who would have described themselves as devout. A huge part of me still clung to those old fears though, perhaps a remnant of that young child, learning with horror about the Nazis. Some small part of me felt that my Jewishness was something that I needed to hide, that maybe Muslims were innately anti-Semitic. It is too easy to be afraid of Muslim people when you don’t know any, especially given the number of recent terrorist attacks ostensibly carried out in the name of Islam, and the tendency of the media and some political figures to sensationalise such stories. It is one of many lamentable consequences of our media culture in recent years, that the Muslim-ness of some terrorists tends to be fetishised in a way that is quite simply not repeated for terrorists of other faiths.
In my first year as a teacher, I remember a lesson with a really small, lovely A-level English group late one Friday afternoon — we were studying a Martin Luther King speech and got round to discussing the Ku Klux Klan. I was the only person with pale skin in the room. One of the students asked me if I would protect them if the KKK came running into the room to get them, and I assured them that of course I would try. However, although I felt the old fear as always, it felt important to explain to them that they wouldn’t be the only ones in danger if the KKK turned up — they would be just as likely to want me dead, because I am Jewish.
“Oh! Are you Jewish, Sir?”, one of them asked, with faint surprise. There was slightly unnerving pause. After a moment, she gave a sigh and said wistfully — “Wouldn’t Dr. King be proud if he could see us now?!”
It was a really wonderful moment, but for a few days afterwards, I couldn’t help wondering why I’d felt the need to “out” myself as a Jew, and the understanding I came to was this — although I was just as vulnerable and afraid of prejudice and racism as they were, they wouldn’t have been able to see my vulnerability unless I chose to show it to them. I am lucky, in that I often have a choice whether or not to expose myself to potential prejudice: A Black, or Asian person does not have the luxury of being able to hide the colour of their skin when they feel unsafe, as I can sometimes hide my “Jewishness”. I think that what had brought us together in that moment was not place, age, culture, race, nationality or religion — it was our shared vulnerability — the bravery we showed in admitting that we sometimes felt afraid. In our companionship we could also feel a shared hope — hope of a brighter present and future, where none of us need feel afraid of discrimination and persecution.
Hope for a brighter present and future is, for me, a huge part of what the EU does or has done for the United Kingdom and Europe. Whatever your feelings may be about the EU’s wastage, bureaucracy, regulations, etc., for me, it plays an extremely powerful symbolic function. After centuries of war, after the travesty of Nazi genocide, it represents a continent that stands united in its desire to ensure that genocidal Fascism should never be allowed to regain a foothold here. To me, it is 28 nations that pledge “never again”.
Regardless of any trade or immigration agreement that results from Brexit, surely it is common sense that our government should be doing everything we can to preserve the unity of country and continent against facism at least. Sadly, the heavy implications of much of the Leave campaign seems to have achieved the opposite. Imagine my dismay today, to hear, after a week of awful news, that four men have been seen giving Nazi salutes to each other on a daylit street in Liverpool. Imagine how much scarier it must feel for non-white British people. As a talented young singer that I know from London recently asked — to what extent does “Make Britain great again’” just mean “Make Britain white again”? Of course, regardless of international efforts to stand against prejudice, there continue to be global problems related to race that are worrying and particularly “insidious”, as Akala so eloquently discussed shortly after the last general election. Nevertheless, the polarization of the media and the pitting of people on either side of the EU debate against each other seems to have actively undermined any progress made towards addressing these problems in the UK, and to have legitimized prejudice and hostility.
The EU is actually much more than a symbol to me. It has given me opportunities that I might never have had, and has helped me to overcome many of my fears about being Jewish in a world so prone to racial hatred. As a young Jew, I never imagined that I would have German friends, but recently went for an incredible weekend in the diverse, tolerant and creative city that is modern Berlin — it cost less than a train ticket to Cornwall!
Similarly, last summer I spent two weeks staying with a Sicilian friend that I met when we studied music together in London. I enjoyed the most incredible and humbling hospitality whilst visiting that beautiful country, and you could never have guessed that our grandparents could have fought on opposite sides in WWII. He has read his grandfather’s copy of Mein Kampf, and still owns it today. As he put it, though, “se non sei coglione e te lo leggi di certo non diventi nazista” (if you aren’t a dick and you read it, it certainly won’t make you into a Nazi).
I might still be Islamophobic today, if I hadn’t lived alongside, worked with, and come to know many different Muslim people in London, each as unique and individual as anyone else. I have giggled naughtily with a Muslim teenager about our shared love of bacon, and wished a close friend a peaceful fast at Ramadan, moments after talking openly about how things are going with his latest boyfriend. I might also have been homophobic today had I been brought up differently; if I’d not also met so many wonderful LGBTQ people and seen some of the people I love most in the world struggle to come to terms with their LGBTQ identity. When I consider this, it also occurs to me how easily my Sicilian friend could have been anti-Semitic, if he hadn’t had opportunities to meet and know Jewish people like myself. It is impossible to calculate how many aspects of my life would be different if the EU’s open border policy had not been in place in my lifetime.
How many marriages, partnerships, friendships, businesses and collaborations would never have been if we had not been in the EU? At least 4 couples in my social circle are mixed nationality couples who met whilst studying, working and living in London. A great many more relationships in my friendship group, including my own, began at a University in Cornwall that might not have existed if not for EU investment in the area. For me, and for many people like me, the EU has been, and continues to be a profoundly positive force. For most of my career so far, I have worked in health care and education in London and the Southeast, and my experience of both industries is that they would probably collapse entirely without the immensely valuable, yet chronically underpaid labour of immigrants from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. But then again, I live in London, and my experiences are not the same as those of others in this country.
An Immigration Problem?
I am starting to wonder why what seems to be a more regional problem with totally unguided settlement of migrants putting too much pressure on local employment and public services has been framed nationally as an “immigration problem” at all. Surely, there must be space for a conversation about the difference between controlling migration on the one hand, and guiding settlement of people based on an informed understanding of regional housing and employment situations. For whilst I can safely comment on my own experience that free settlement of EU migrants has enriched the areas I have lived and worked, but that doesn’t mean that I can safely say that it is good for the people of places like Telford and Wrekin. Some of the people in those areas might object based on national, religious or racial prejudice, but it would be highly prejudiced in itself to assume, for example, that 59.3% of people in the West Midlands (who voted Leave) are racist. It is also highly offensive to the many people who have genuine and real concerns about the impact that immigration is having on their community. And immigration has been the key issue here, make no mistake — whatever my experience of it might be, it has been the key issue for many British people since World War II. After all, I doubt many of us would say that the other overt motives behind the Leave campaign — bureaucracy, lack of democracy, inequality of power and affluence, inefficiency, unaccountability — are not problems that also affect Westminster, but nobody is suggesting that we “leave” government entirely.
That a campaign that has so brazenly misrepresented facts, derided “experts” and pandered to people’s worst fears and prejudices is extremely worrying. That political leaders and The Sun feel it justifiable to get people in Newcastle riled up about immigrants living in London or Scotland, is simply bewildering. That they will face no consequences for lying to the public is, to my mind, absolutely unacceptable, particularly when you consider the hypocrisy of institutions like The Sun who seemingly feel no shame in leading with a call for tough action to “stamp out” inciting racial hatred, the very day after a long, often dishonest, front page campaign “nudging” their readership towards hatred of immigrants. It is even more concerning given the immediate spate of reported hate-crime across the UK since the 24th June. It is not just in the UK, either — some of my European friends have also been concerned about the resurgence of fascism in their home countries. Add to that the rise of Donald trump in the US, and it’s unsurprising that the future may suddenly be looking scarier for anyone in the Western world who isn’t rich, white, male and heterosexual.
But it is only when we try to think of the United Kingdom as being a cohesive unit — a nation capable of having one majority opinion - that it really appears an insurmountable problem. That it seems that the whole of the UK wants out of the EU, or it seems that all of the Leave voters are right-wing xenophobes. If living in diverse communities has taught me anything, it is that the modern world can only work if we try to understand and respect the differences between people. Surely that principle must also extend to respecting the differences between “remainers” and “leavers”, and between those worried about immigration and those who welcome it.
If David Cameron and the Tory government had really confronted the UK’s over-riding feelings about the EU, then maybe the referendum could have been more useful. If it had asked, for example: “Do you think that your area can support migrants?”, then at least then we would now have a useful and informative map that reflected the kind of welcome and prospects that immigrants could expect in different areas of the country. It’s not even like such information would need to be used in any official capacity — after all, LGBTQ people from across the UK do not move to Brighton because they have to or because the government enforce it — they move there because Brighton is known to be a community that is relatively supportive of LGBTQ people. After all, who wants to live where they aren’t welcome? Instead though, we have a map that does little more than tell us we are misled and un-united — a nation with little understanding or consensus existing between Scotland and metropolitan centres like London and Manchester, and the rest of England.
In 1977, I doubt very much that the Sex Pistols realised how prescient the sentiment would turn out to be. It is primarily people my age, people who weren’t even born when the punk era faded out, with whom the phrase “no future” really resonates today. There are so many crucial and fundamental things that we simply do not have the luxury of looking forward to: job security, buying and owning your own home (or even secure tenancy with reasonable rent), comfortably supporting and raising a family. Things that were accepted as rites of passage, by many older British (and European) people, are basically laughable to most people under 35 now. The average house price in Brighton last year was £357,437 — to get on the housing ladder I would have to earn a salary of over £70k. As an English teacher, the figure might as well be £1million when you’re looking at teachers’ 15% real wage reduction over the last ten years, half your salary going on rent and bills every month, and saving up to move every 2 years as you get priced out of successive London postcodes. Meanwhile, its hardly like I am in a particularly unfortunate position, I am in fact, very lucky to be well educated, qualified and that I was able to undertake the 7 years it took me to qualify to teach English, otherwise I’d probably still be doing care-work for £12k and living with my Mum. Recent figures show that child poverty is still on the rise, and in my personal experience teaching students in London, I am reminded daily that things like breakfast, a safe place to sleep, your own bed, and money for simple things like pens, cannot be taken for granted in London today.
The only people I know who are under 40 and own their homes, are from wealthy backgrounds or have few or no siblings, and have had to suffer the loss of family members at tragically young ages, but have inherited enough to afford a deposit as a result. If my parents live to the average life expectancy of people in the UK (approx. 82 years), I will be 62, with probably ten years left to work, and have 5 younger siblings to divvy up any of the modest inheritance that remains after care costs.
To me, these problems don’t really seem to have anything to do with the EU, though, and I suspect that the majority of people who voted Leave in places like my partner’s hometown of Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, feel the same way. It was not the EU or immigration, but neoliberal, right wing economic policy and globalization that turned Merthyr Tydfil from the proud industrial city, the former capital of Wales, into a living museum of the impact of unsupported deindustrialisation, home to one of the biggest council estates in Europe, where the biggest employer is now EE. The people of Merthyr have, in 2 generations, gone from a place where young men could look forward to a lifetime of honest, hard work that enabled them to support a family, to a place where the best chance of employment is in unskilled call-centre work, selling products to their neighbours to raise profits for a mega corporation. To barely subsist as they contribute to the insane wealth of shareholders and CEOs who will probably never visit the valleys or consider South Wales’ beautiful landscape or rich culture, let alone invest in them, but will do everything they can to avoid paying taxes. It was not the EU that caused this to happen. Thatcher’s conservative government, and the surreptitiously right-wing Blairites allowed those post-industrial communities to decay for decades. If anything, the EU has actually tried to pick up some of the slack, investing around €757 million each year in the Welsh economy between 2007 and 2013.
If the referendum shows us anything, though, I think that it shows that there are a huge number of people who want real, significant change. Not just the 17million that actively voted for such change as soon as the opportunity arose, but we could also count the vast majority of remain supporters. Perusing the arguments of the Remain campaign, it would be extremely difficult to find anyone happy with the EU in its current form; a sense of the need for reform seemed to be pretty much universal. The cries came loud and wide from both sides of the campaign — for increased transparency, accountability efficiency and democratic control.
And yet, one week later — there are no voices in parliament discussing Cameron’s accountability for dividing the country he is paid to lead, or Johnson’s or Gove’s. No-one is demanding even an apology, let alone justice, for Jo Cox and her children, or any of the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have already been made worse by this referendum. No-one is seriously asking how the British people can take democracy seriously when we allow such blatant distortions of the truth to be peddled by either side of any debate or election. As Michael Gove said, much of the country have “had enough of experts”, and why not? The feeling amongst many people is, understandably, that they have been lied to for so long, why should they believe “facts” now?
Does it really have to be this way? Is it really unthinkable that we could live in a country where the press and political class are held to an equal standard of honesty than a first year degree student? Is it impossible to imagine that we could actually enforce meaningful consequences for those nudging us further into a “post-truth” world.
Consider the Leave slogan — “Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week” — that was printed on a bright red bus and toured round the country for weeks in the run up to the referendum. The figure was utterly debunked by the UK statistics authority, and even Nigel Farage apparently thought it was a “mistake”, and began unmaking the promise immediately after the results came in. And yet, where are the consequences? For a side planning to lose, it was an absolutely genius slogan — Boris Johnson would have been clear to take leadership of the Conservatives as a “martyr” who’d bravely fought the cause. As leader, he could have then ensured that the UK quietly posed no resistance to TTIP, and then blame the inevitable privatisation of the NHS on a British public who voted to Remain in the EU.
Now, however, to almost no-one’s surprise, Johnson has pulled out of the leadership race. You can watch smug relief pass over his face as he announces that the new leader to guide Britain through the post-EU break up “cannot be me”. How much proof do we need that not even Boris believed his own lies about the benefits of leaving the EU? As Ewan McGregor pithily tweeted, the “spineless c$&t” won’t even stand up to clear up the mess he has helped create.
Which way to the future?
Where are the working and middle classes’ leaders now? Rather than uniting — to hold the governing party to account for the shameful destruction of a nation and, potentially, an entire continent, or to propose a progressive forward movement, the Labour party regress to infighting, instigating a Blairite coup apparently co-ordinated by a PR company. It’s in the national interest we are told; it’s because Jeremy Corbyn isn’t “electable” we are told, it’s all about “electability” we are told, as if “electability” isn’t just a euphemism for being supported by the popular press. Corbyn has been crucified by the press from day one. His campaigning, his policies, his speeches about the things people care about, somehow never make it onto the 6 O’clock news. When Corbyn does make the news, it’s usually because he has omitted this or that archaic, phatic ritual.
Are we supposed to just forget who that press are, and whose interests they represent? Are we supposed to just forget that the people behind The Sun for example, have yet to face consequences for hacking the phones of a missing girl’s parents to sell their papers. An organisation that colluded with police to blame the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster for their own death. The same organisation that made many young, British students of mine fearful for their lives after printing their disgraceful “1 in 5 Muslims” headline earlier this year. We’d need a seriously short memory to think these people give the slightest bit of a f**k about the British people. And yet, they are still allowed not only to call themselves a newspaper, but “Britain’s Best-selling Paper”. Any apologies or retractions are kept well off the front page, and they barely receive a slap on the wrist each time they callously disregard facts in favour of circulation and political agenda.
And what does “electability” really mean? When you hear the numerous people speaking of how they agree with Corbyn’s policies and respect his honesty and integrity, but just don’t think he can win an election, I can’t help wanting to ask — well, wouldn’t you vote for him? Isn’t it worth talking about the fact that he has sensible policies that represent our interests, rather than allowing the media to dictate the boundaries of our discussion to “electability”. He wasn’t “electable” as leader until he was elected, just like the Green party have never been “electable”, until Caroline Lucas was elected in Brighton Pavillion. I’m sure that the media will continue to describe the Green party as “un-electable” in Bristol, until the point that they actually do get elected there.
The majority of Labour supporters agree with Corbyn on many things, especially the movement against austerity and neoliberalism funnelling money from the pockets of the masses into the off-shore holdings of a few. Even in America, Bernie Sanders’ popularity seems to indicate a growing global resistance to the forces of hyper-capitalism, to the decimating impact, on the real inhabitants, of a world designed around Ayn Rand’s “Greed is Good” / “the Market knows all” philosophy. If the past 35 years have shown much, it is that this prospect of allowing market forces to determine fate is in the best interests of everybody only makes sense from an economic standpoint — as a strategy it is failing to benefit us in terms of security, sustainability and quality of life. Society is fractured, the young are dispossessed, the working poor disenfranchised, the planet is being wrecked, and wars and civil unrest continue, to the benefit of very few people outside of the arms industry and the super-rich.
Just look at the arguments given in the past for the privatisation of various public services — they were all proposed as a means to improve competition, drive up quality and efficiency — how many of them — energy, transport, mail, water, telecommunications, carework, and others — have genuinely become more beneficial to the public as a result of privatisation? We need a retrospective investigation; an answer to these questions before we allow the proposed privatisation of more of our public services — the police, Health and education — based on the same ideological argument of driving up quality through free market capitalism.
There has been a lot of talk from the Left about leaving the EU so that we don’t get bullied into accepting TTIP — a US trade deal with Europe that seems to be designed to enable private companies to sue national governments who stand in the way of free trade. Given the breadth and extremity of the global issues now facing our species, surely we should be entertaining notions of the opposite being written into law — governments should be able to sue private companies that act in ways detrimental to the well-being of their country and the ecosystem, as it will ultimately be the tax-payers who foot the bill for the consequences, both personally and financially. This is no longer conjecture, either, there is already plenty of data and evidence of the indirect consequences: melting polar ice, the rising occurrence of extreme natural disasters (hurricanes in the US and Asia, terrible floods across the UK) not to mention the oil spills, droughts, famines and extinctions that have directly been caused by the activities of big business.
Hugely naïve though it may be, I am reluctant to paint big business, and the individuals who have acquired enormous wealth as an “enemy” though. If we continue to elect governments that actively support the notion that the acquisition of wealth and power is in the best interests of society, how can we complain when people with enough talent, determination, cunning and luck happen to have done particularly well at it? You have to wonder what the end-game of hyper-capitalism is, too — what is the plan for people like the Koch brothers, who, thanks to their mostly Oil-related business, are estimated to be worth $34billion each? When climate change renders the planet uninhabitable, are they planning to move to Mars or the Moon? We know they could probably afford it, but why would anyone really want that?
Of course I will no doubt strike some of you as the most ridiculous idealist, but I can’t help but hope and feel that our species has already been set on a path to collectivism rather than individualism. Ever since a human being went out into space and turned around to take a picture, we have been able to see ourselves for what we are: small specks on a rock, floating through space together. Surely the only sensible way forward is a way of living that recognises the implications of this — that recognises that all of our actions ultimately impact on all of us. Our modern capitalism, neoliberalism, promotes the very opposite philosophy.
If, for example, the 25 richest individuals in the UK today felt it their personal, patriotic duty to keep just £1billion of their personal fortunes (an arbitrary number, but then I’m not sure how much “rich enough” is — answers on a postcard please). If they could be persuaded to step up and honour their nation, their species, and invest the rest of their fortunes towards our collective future, we could easily balance the budget deficit, and still probably have enough to buy back the National Grid, and invest in ecologically friendly businesses in deprived areas. Why is no one asking them? How bad does it have to get before we unite as a species to do so?
If anything, Jeremy Corbyn might not be left wing enough to get the disenfranchised and angry British people back on board, for many of whom, as Alex Brooker said on The Last Leg, life “already is shit”. So where are the truly progressive policy suggestions? A colleague of mine, a fellow English teacher, recently blogged some ideas that were more interesting than anything the public have heard from Labour in years, for example, she asks why we don’t give Goldman Sachs a free building, or some kind of subsidy, to relocate to Hull or Sunderland? This type of initiative would cost a seemingly prohibitive amount of money in the short-term, but surely there is a desperate need to start thinking long-term. With smart and conscientious investment, guided by the public interest, this time in 20 years a place like Merthyr Tydfil could be home to the UK’s answer to Tesla. If they’d started 10 years ago, maybe nearby Port Talbot’s Tata steel plant wouldn’t be in such grave danger now. It is short-term thinking that has resulted in our current situation, and no businesses will want to be based in a country torn apart by wealth inequality, with poorly funded health and education for its workforce, with the danger of hostility and civil unrest in the streets.
Instead of a united and progressive Left with a clear long-term plan, however, Labour have chosen this moment to attempt a coup in the name of personality politics. We have the so-called “moderate” PLP, many of whom voted for the War in Iraq that lost Labour a huge amount of public support in the first place incidentally — spouting rubbish about “saving Labour”. From what? Centre-right mediocrity? Do any of them have an idea what the country should look like in 50 years? The arguments for Corbyn’s resignation seem to be concerned only with the next 4 years.
When we consider the voting record of the MPs leading the coup, the timing seems not only irresponsible but also pretty suspicious — just 2 weeks before the Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war comes to light, as observed by Craig Murray. It comes less than a fortnight before Corbyn may well call for Tony Blair to face war crime charges for taking us into a conflict that millions of British people protested against (and too many have died because of) all based on lies and distortions of the facts. Are we really going to tacitly accept this? Is it really just business as usual? Do we really have to accept a “post-truth” world with the concentration span of a WhatsApp addicted 15-year-old — and just get used to it?