pen and think

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The past is another country

Sometimes it feels like I live in a foreign country. I speak the same language as my neighbours but I don’t understand them anymore. I used to believe that, despite our differences, people in Britain shared a similar past, culture and values but increasingly I find that I am wrong.

The past creates us, just as we create it in the stories we choose to tell ourselves of ourselves. It leaves its impression on who we are. The country I grew up in was proud of its humane responses to the privations of past times – its system of universal health care, social assistance and the sanctuary it offered to refugees. It seemed self-evidently right that anyone could consult a doctor or seek the assistance of a midwife when the time came without having to worry about the cost; that if you should fall on hard times you should be entitled to assistance and not depend on the charity of others; that the welcome we extend to others defines us as a civilised society.

For my grandparents the NHS was the pinnacle of human achievement, far beyond moon landings or any such frivolous endeavours. Charity was for them a dirty word, the power to give or withhold support based on religious, moral or political prejudices. With good reason people who had experienced poverty spat on the notion. Charity was the means of maintaining “proper” relations between the affluent and the poor. The country that I grew up in was vaguely ashamed of its imperial past, the part it played in subjugating and impoverishing vast areas of the globe. We stopped celebrating Empire Day in 1958 and instead espoused notions of Common Wealth.

I used to think this perspective was universally held, shared across the whole of the United Kingdom, even if its unity, excluding Northern Ireland for example, was always somewhat exaggerated. This was the Britain promoted by its official myth maker the BBC, whose project has always been to define a national audience in its image. Yet we learned last week with the leaking of Labour’s draft manifesto, and more so with the publication yesterday of the official text, that this version of the past has been outlawed. The popular press, by which I mean that section of the media with a continuing fondness for Empire and a contempt for foreigners, affected outrage at policy proposals that would drag us back to the neanderthal 1970s.

Instead, the new official history of contemporary Britain provides for universal lip service to the notion of health care free at the point of demand, lip service is still universally free. Poor people are to rely on charity in the event that they should wish to eat, or feed their children, and women who have been raped must apply to the government for the means to bring any resulting children into the world. The Home Office focuses its resources on splitting up long established families in Britain and forcibly returning young women fleeing forced marriages and the fear of violence or murder to their place of peril. This sense of Britain, this ideal of political unity, is the one that was widely endorsed at local elections this month and seems set to be endorsed again in June.

It would be easy to attribute the birth of this callous Britain to the Thatcher government of 1979 when the post war consensus broke down, except that it was Thatcher who opened the doors to the free movement of people within the EU as a means of suppressing wage inflation. A convincing case could be made, as Tom Crewe does, for the 1997 election when New Labour began its long walk away from its working-class roots, disenfranchising its former heartlands, when John Prescott announced that “we are all middle class now”. But it is austerity that has promoted mean spiritedness to political orthodoxy and the BBC continues to play its part as cheerleader in chief, still perpetuating uncritically the austerity con, as presenter Nick Robinson demonstrated again in his interview with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell yesterday. This is the BBC which will defend to its dying breath its freedom to speak on behalf of middle class Britain and strike fear into its heart with talk of redistributive tax policies, “red in tooth and claw”.

Once it was possible to take some shallow comfort in the fact that there was a border between me and my estranged countrymen, that political and philosophical differences could be explained at least in part by physical distances, and, in truth, London has always been a place apart. Now it seems increasing numbers in Scotland are prepared to forget the past and buy into a Britain which represents the antithesis of those older values. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that I don’t belong here. I think that’s why 45 per cent of those who voted “Yes” in the 2104 independence referendum voted in favour of independence. That’s why I think there will be another referendum. I understand that the majority in 2014 did not necessarily endorse neoliberal capitalism, red in tooth and claw. But I hope to god those who see June’s ballot as an opportunity to vote against a further referendum realise that that is precisely what they are voting for.


In a former life I offered advice to policy-makers on the presentation of their plans; how to clarify the story they wanted to tell, what sort of criticism they might expect and how best to respond to challenges to their proposals. My then boss would always urge me to make my advice “trenchant”. He loved that word; the very sound of it carried the punch he wanted to convey. It means sharp, effective, cutting to the heart of the matter. Continue reading

Value the child, cherish the parent

I have had the good fortune throughout my working life to work with talented, intelligent and creative people. In almost all cases my colleagues have been completely blind to any special skill and expected nothing more than to work alongside others to do a good job, to improve their circumstances and those of the wider community. Continue reading

Home and hope

There is paint under my nails. An old pair of jeans torn at the knee and a spattered black polo shirt have been relegated to a corner in the wardrobe, officially fit now only for “jobs around the house”. I do not rush into redecorating on my own account. If I never spend another hour in B&Q or Homebase I would not be disappointed; a fetish for home improvement has passed me by. Continue reading

Taking back control

Is it possible that there is an upside to Brexit after all?

This week the international community chose to ignore the UK Government’s posturing on possible responses to the deaths by gas of innocent civilians in Syria. The Foreign Secretary gave up a proposed visit to Moscow, at the invitation of the Russians, and went instead to Tuscany to argue the case for sanctions to be applied to key figures in the Russian government and military; this despite there being no demonstrable link between those individuals and the actions in Ibdil province, no proof that the Syrian government was behind those actions, no agreement on any process to establish the facts of the case and instead unquestioning support by the UK Government for illegal military action by another government. Continue reading

Truth, faith and hope?

I am old enough to remember the election of Margaret Thatcher, though I was just too young to vote in 1979. I think I can remember her arriving in Downing Street and quoting St Francis: “Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” Thatcher had worked on her Lincolnshire accent to sound more regal and the “we” she referred to was clearly intended to evoke the royal “we”. She left an overwhelming impression of insincerity. Continue reading


I missed my own self-imposed deadline last week. I aim to update this blog with at least one post by close of play each Friday. And I missed last week’s deadline.

I have options. As an employer (of me) I can give myself a hard time. Or I can seek to understand why I missed the deadline, review my work to minimise the risk of my doing so again. As an employee I’m inclined to take responsibility for my failure and engage fully in any conversation intended to help me meet my responsibilities. I could just ignore the deadline. It’s my deadline after all. Who cares if I miss it (except me)? Well I do care. Missing deadlines shows no respect for my reader(s) and I do care about that. So I have given myself a talking to. Continue reading

Democracy under threat

The Scottish Parliament was to have voted this week on triggering a second referendum on Scottish independence. Instead the vote, due on Wednesday, was deferred by the Parliament’s Presiding Officer who felt that contributions had been affected by events elsewhere.

Some Members of the Scottish Parliament felt the debate should have been suspended out of respect to those affected by shocking events at Westminster. Others believed suspending the debate would be to give in to terrorism. The Prime Minister claimed on Thursday that the attack on Westminster Bridge was an attempt to silence democracy but that democracy would always prevail. Continue reading

With respect…

Perhaps, if I didn’t spend so much time alone, I might have found a less cheesy title for this blog. Creativity is a collaborative endeavour, after all. But the title sticks and it vaguely describes the activity involved. Solitude has its compensations. I have my own routine when it suits, and when it doesn’t I don’t. There are very few occasions when I need to be somewhere. I can read when I want. And write. Continue reading

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