Author Archives: lives; running

Boris Johnson – don’t write the obituaries yet

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Most of the analyses I’ve read start from the implausibility of Brexit as a way of doing politics which couldn’t possibly achieve all the wonders which have been promised of it. It is argued that Boris Johnson has so closely associated himself with Brexit that he must fail. They go on to say that he faces an unsolvable crisis: he must agree something with the EU, and whatever the EU offers will be unpalatable to his own party. Therefore, and in particular since Johnson has given himself a deadline of October to resolve the Brexit crisis, he will be out of office relatively soon.

I get where people are coming from. In particular now that we have – at last – a rising movement against the Tories which is able to bring thousands of people to the streets, it is hard not to feel that our strength must connect, somehow, to their weakness. But the above approach risks underestimating Johnson. He brings to his new position certain strengths, which are worth spelling out:

We live in a time which repeatedly rewards amorphous leaders who don’t care about resolving our ecological and social crises, but do care about the people who vote for them, and who indulge the cruellest fantasies of their base. Across the world, people like Johnson are winning elections, and people unlike him are losing them.

To this context, Johnson brings the skills of an illusionist, the ability to say “look over there,” while simultaneously taking the pound coin out of your hand and hiding it in his pocket. This is the purpose of the Johnson gaffes, his jokes. And this is the place at which the comparison with Trump belongs. Indeed Johnson’s method worked for him often enough in the past. If you don’t believe me, try this thought experiment. Ask yourself how many left-wing voters (by which I mean everyone from anarchists to people who’ve deserted Labour for the Liberal Democrats) refer to Jeremy Corbyn, without cringing, as “Jeremy”. Now ask yourself how many right-wing voters are willing to say “Boris” and smile wryly? Prepare to see any number of Boris Johnson speeches making all sorts of policy proposals which ought to appeal to people far from Johnson’s natural base. Their purpose will not be to recruit swing voters, so much as to neutralise opposition, to shove debate to the places where Johnson feels most comfortable, to prevent people from focussing on the policies which hurt him the most.

While Brexit has corroded the support of the Conservatives, it has done equal damage to the Labour vote. In fact, it offers an unequivocally pro-Brexit Tory party at least the possibility of a very quick fix solution (an electoral pact with the Brexit party) that would be much harder for Labour to match (a pact with the Liberal Democrats, anyone?).

Although Johnson is notoriously lazy and uninterested in detail he has survived in less pressured contexts (the London Mayor) by leaving policy to subordinates, and trusting their judgment. Among the likes of Dominic Cummings are people with a sustained political vision. They have been in internal opposition since 2016 and they bring all the ambition and hunger of frustrated people – a virtue which Johnson himself patently lacks.

While Johnson faces all sorts of obstacles over the next three months; should he survive that initial period – any number of institutional arrangements will start pointing in his favour: eg the fixed term parliaments act, which means that he can repeatedly lose votes in parliament without being forced out of power; the success Johnson has had in purging the May ministers and painting his new Cabinet as a new government; the tendency of the electorate to allow a new government a honeymoon period; the general effect that incumbency has in conveying authority on even unpopular leaders.

Although Johnson appears to face the pressures of an unmovable object and unstoppable force, these are not in face equal opposites. The EU has compelling reasons for not agreeing to a free trade agreement in which imported goods from the US could trade in France behind the advantages of US protection and a soft US-UK trade deal. It has all the fixity, in other words of Scylla. But the Tory party has nothing of Charibdis. (If you don’t believe me, think of the last time you read about the Never-Trumpers in Congress revolting against their President Trump).

Fitting all this together, it is possible to imagine the outlines of a Johnson strategy for the next three months which might succeed. He could begin by negotiating with the EU, testing if there is any possibility of a MayDeal2 (i.e. the same as present, but with the backstop watered down by some technological fix to the problem of Irish trade). If Johnson can produce that deal he has a significant advantage over May: the allies in the Cabinet and the DUP to persuade the Brexiteer MPs to vote for it.

If that deal cannot be made, then Johnson could sensibly test the resolve of the Remain Conservatives. He starts from such a low point of comparison (the defeats repeatedly suffered by Theresa May) that even a narrow loss could be packaged as a quasi-victory.

If I am wrong and there are enough Grieves to prevent a No Deal Brexit, Johnson has one last asset which May lacks: the ability to speak to the Brexit party as one comrade to another, and to negotiate with them an election pact which would purge the Remainers from Parliament.

Any number of my friends are reading Johnson’s weakness from an assumption that a group of Tory MPs will be principled and show backbone in the defence of what they believe – but if your hopes for the future depend on them, then you’re starting from the wrong place.

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Heat

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Today, the Judge will be kind
He will listen to my client.
Today, the the Judge will lift a hand to his face
And hide the sun glaring through the window
Permit the uneven clanking of the fan
Forgive the cracked plaster of the courtroom walls
He will be satisfied
That it is right and necessary to put rent before food
(No-one is proposing that the children should starve).

And today the costs of public welfare
Which 47 times you voted to cut
Will be that bit less.
Because what winner with the public would expect
A mother with a young child
In work, on benefits,
To eat all seven days of the week.

“What else can I do?” Not a question but a challenge
You said those words before leaving for Iraq
The sadness caught drily in your voice
All those plans of yours
Overcome by the noonday heat – your eyes cast down
But that was long ago, before
You promised that hope and history would rhyme.

You could have been a teacher
It is a bland kind of goodness, unshowy
And it would have been better
Than what you have become.
You might have swept the streets
You laugh! A man like you: a hero;
But don’t the streets still need to be swept?
No worker in blue overalls
Ever had the chance
To make three million people poorer
With one vote.

Today the Judge will be kind.
But tomorrow the rains will fall.
Hard, dry, unforgiving.

The New Authoritarians: more interviews, articles

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In case any friends have missed them, I’m sharing here links to a couple of interviews I’ve done in the last few days. One was for the anti-fascist magazine and podcast Hope not Hate, whose researcher Joe Mulhall and I discussed Trump, Le Pen, the European elections, how the content of the far right has been broadening, so that fascism becomes a small part, but also how and why that process might reverse in future:

Another was with US based broadcaster The Real News. It’s a shorter link in which I explain much more briefly difference between an electoral far right and fascism:

Here’s a link to a post I wrote for Jacobin on the EU elections – as a moment of stabilisation rather than breakthrough for the far right.

Here’s a 20-minute talk I gave at the Conference for the Analysis of the Radical Right – setting out the approach of The New Authoritarians – and how the right has been changing since 2016.

Finally, an interview with Gr Gary Null on the Progressive Radio Network:

The enemy that returns

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A friend and I were talking the other day. You’ve always lived in London, haven’t you, I said. Except for those five years I spent in prison, he answered. I laughed awkwardly. It seemed so exaggerated; if you’ve been inside real prisons then what right… But I knew what he meant.

I used to think that it was the place I hated: the book of rules, the wooden walls into which six centuries of predecessors’ names had been carved the letters as sharp as teeth, the fifty thou a year fees, the high walls of class and gender and race apartheid which determined who got in, the small mindedness of the teachers, the thousand different plans the institution had for making everyone inside that bit smaller than we’d been.

But as I get older I acknowledge it wasn’t the place: it was the people. It was the way money swirled around them, the six square streets of London (never more than six) to which everyone retreated when the terms ended. Their idea of the world that it consisted of people like them and no-one else, no-one, came close to counting.

I was there for five years. I survived only in the company of people who were as uncomfortable there as I was. The bitter, the bright, the angry, the ones whose parents had borrowed the fees from more successful cousins, the ones who escaped in their dreams to Soho.

We were at one extreme. Another group, the large majority, got on with it. Played cricket, football, the field game, the wall game, fives. Planned the career they’d have, their Daddy’s bank.

At the far side of them there was another group: the ones the least comprehensible to me. The boys for whom this place was the best imaginable, the best of times, its emptiness its snobbery a utopia, a nirvana, their own private Petrograd and this was their October 1917.

Boris wasn’t even my contemporary, but he returned to the school every year after he’d left, sounding out his favourite teachers, seeking out the titled children five ten years his junior. A flash of blond hair, unmistakeable. Even then he was looking for allies, a better class of servant to advance his future glittering career.

I saw him later, once. It was the night the Law Lords had determined Pinochet should remain in jail. I watched as he wooed a drinks party full of ageing London leftists 68ers gone to seed. Between drinks, Boris would scour the room, work out who was standing furthest from him, who was averting their eyes. Those he wooed, a very British Clinton, passing on some quip he’d used a hundred times before. Don’t underestimate his skill at causing potential antagonists to tolerate him.

For five years I ran, round a track I escaped and then! in crowds our fists raised. Thatcher fell. When I left my best happiness was the certainty that I’d never see Boris or Rory or Jo or Jacob again. Their return is the cruellest trick life ever played.

Game of Thrones: One show, two approaches to life

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A while ago I went through a course which was intended to train people to be novelists. We learned a lot about sentences, but never about story. The only people who understood that were screenwriters. They had a very clear idea of how to write. With its language of “inciting incidents”, “midpoints”, “innermost caves” and “rebirth”, their understanding of story was as clear and as dogmatic as ang ideology. Sure, we novelists-in-training would answer but what about us? Do we have to follow the same sequence? Obviously, one lecturer would tell us. God no, the next would say.

This difference of approach helps to explain the subtle change that took place in Game of Thrones at the end of series 6 and culminated in this week’s episode.

Up to the end of series 6, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss were working with George R R Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire. Essentially, their approach was to follow the plot narrowly and literally, at least at the start, although it wasn’t long before they were cutting whole subplots (eg in the novels, Catelyn Stark is brought to back to life and fights the Lannisters silently from beyond the grave – not thankfully on TV).

Martin, famously, has stalled in finishing off the books. Only five novels out of an intended seven have been published, the last of them eight years ago. He used to tell interviewers that when he started the books he had begun with lots of people in one place and as they split apart more and more characters joined them. At some point they would start moving back together. “I think I’m reaching the turning point,” he wrote in 2011, “that’s starting to happen now.” The rest of us are still waiting.

In all of series 7 and the first three episodes of series 8, you could see Benioff and Weiss imposing the urgency of professional plotters on what had been previously Martin’s discursive, divergent story. One of the show’s two main protagonists Daenerys Targaryen was dragged from Dragonstone to King’s Landing, then north of the Wall and to Winterfell at a pace which would previously have been unthinkable. The Wall collapsed, with the significant exception of Cersei Lannister all the major characters were taken to Winterfell in order to fight a final, decisive battle with the Night King.

Even in episode 3, you could see the same approach at work – a screenwriter’s sensibility. The episode was plotted as a sequence of alternate moments, with good rising then bad, until just when everything seemed lost…

The opening cast the battle through the terrified eyes of Samwell Tarly, the writerliest (i.e. biggest coward) of all the soldier characters. In the middle parts of the episode, once the army of the undead had conquered Winterfell, there were moments of real horror – the spots of zombie blood falling on Arya. The denoument was a beautiful piece of “backwards writing” (i.e. when you start with a scene – the death of the Night King, and plot a route to it from the conclusion). A series of potential “good assassins” were tried but each defeated: Theon with his war charge, Danerys with fire, Jon trapped too far away to be any use at all. It was a bravura piece of writing to keep Arya off-screen for a full 25 minutes as each hero was defeated.

If you could take this single episode and see it in its own terms, it worked.

But did it? If you think of that moment with Arya above the Night King – flying in the air, jumping almost unnoticed: the scene itself requires us to assume an almost supernatural ability for the character to cover long distances through hunting zombies, then to move around Winterfell at almost inconceivable speed – before finally leaping from the snow (trying doing this at winter without losing your footing…). It requires us to imagine her, in other words, having almost superhuman powers. If an audience is willing to give Arya that credit it’s because we’ve been through the previous seven episodes with her, watched her apprenticeship as a Faceless Man at the House of Black and White. It’s because, in other words, Benioff and Weiss were able to trade off a great deal of pre-empting done prior to series 6.

And this was the pattern throughout the episode (as indeed it has been, ever since they took over). The scriptwriters keep on taking from a reserve of goodwill that the previous six series had built up. They never give back.

There was never a “Hodor” moment when you learned something about a character and their story surprisingly, gloriously, made sense in the end.

So in episode three there were repeated moments when characters, having played a role which the whole previous show had built towards – then added nothing to it. The Dothraki horsemen (the series’ principal black characters) rode out to battle and were slain, pointlessly. The Night King died without adding in any way to our understanding of where he came from or who he is except we learned the very mundane fact he couldn’t be killed by fire.

One way to read this is as a bunch of Hollywood scripwriters doing what they excel at – simplifying a complex story, allowing it to end. On that technical score, they seem to outperform the slow novelist.

But there’s a second, deeper sense in which Martin’s novelistic consciousness offers a much more interesting idea about how people could live.

The joy of A Song of Ice and Fire is that beneath a cynical exterior (the near-killing of Bran, the Red Wedding), there was always a subtle possibility of change. It was in the same family as “ignore your family and do what’s right,” but it went deeper than that and took in a heady dose of redemption. In the books, this was reflected in the character of Theon – stupid, selfish, and then subject to such long and cruel and humiliating punishments, that you felt maybe he could do alright in the end.

A novelist can wait for this kind of redemption, a film-maker can’t.

The Theon arch was so obvious that even Benioff and Weiss managed not to ruin it (although with their references to “home” and “good man” they did their best).

What they seemed to be doing throughout was steering away from Martin’s notion of a hard-earned transformation in favour of a well-meaning and vaguely liberal attitude towards life in which the small characters win because they are small. In which characters just do what they do. They make mistakes (this isn’t a superhero film), but the misakes have no real weight.

So you end up with the banality of Lyanna Mormont’s death, a sequence in which the baddest of zombie monsters brings a dying hero close to it for no comprehensible motive other than to facilitate its own death.

Or the survival of Tyrion and Sansa in the crypt: after the cleverest character in the show puts an army of children in a situation of utter terror – without any effect, the zombies don’t do anything there – no one dies.

It doesn’t sound like a large difference, but what the episode forgot was that even good people are capabale of such monumental stupidity that you find yourself gasping and wanting to rub your eyes. That mistakes carry consequences. That the monsters in our lives are more than an assembly of glass pieces that fall apart at the right touch. That redemption has to be earned, really, properly earned.

Blair Peach: the case for a public inquiry

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Three weeks ago I spoke at a public meeting organised by Southall Resists 40, alongside Suresh Grove, Gareth Pierce, Avtar Brah, Clarence Baker and others, calling for justice for Blair Peach. This is what I said:

My subject is the Inquest into the killing of Blair Peach.

The purpose of an inquest is to decide who died and how. It is not a criminal trial; and yet it plays a part in criminal proceedings. We know this, for example, from the 2016 inquest into the Hillsborough tragedy. That inquest’s verdict of unlawful killing led directly to the prosecution of the officer on charge on that day.

The inquest into the killing of Blair Peach could have resulted in a similar verdict and could have led to a similar criminal prosecution.

The reason it didn’t is down to the role played by the coroner, John Burton.

Anyone who has acted as a representative – in court maybe, or before an employer – will know what it is like when the person you are speaking to simply refuses to listen.

At the inquest, the Anti-Nazi League was represented by a senior criminal barrister, Richard Harvey. Celia Stubbs was represented by Stephen Sedley, later for many years a judge in the Court of Appeal. They were not shy people men, they were not junior lawyers, but tough, battle-hardened advocates.

But as these lawyers cross-examined the police witnesses they were repeatedly interrupted by the Coroner. When police officers who had been within yards of Peach’s death said that they could not remember anything, Burton said he admired them. When witnesses from Southall who had seen the killing described Peach’s death, including members of the Atwal family, Burton denounced them as liars.

Three of Burton’s decisions, in particular, have been criticised. First, the coroner initially refused the request of Blair Peach’s family to have the case heard by a jury. By tradition, juries were required in all inquests. Since 1926, they had been optional, except where the death occurred in circumstances whose repetition would be prejudicial to public safety.

But this was exactly the case that the victims of the police riot at Southall wanted to pursue. They said that the conduct of the police on 23 April 1979 police was in no way justifiable. That in order to keep open a meeting attended by fewer than thirty members of the National Front, the police had rioted against the local community: beating dozens of people, making 700 arrests, charging 345 people. How could a police riot not be “prejudicial to public safety”?

The refusal to call a jury was overturned by the Court of Appeal. Yet, despite the success of that appeal, Burton remained in charge of the inquest.

Second, midway through the inquest, Burton told the jury that there were two “extreme” theories as to how Peach had been killed. One, which was made up for the first time by him, no witness having ever suggested anything close to it, was that a left-wing protester had struck Peach with the idea of creating a martyr. The other, equally ‘extreme’ theory was that Blair Peach had been killed by the police.

In effect Burton told the jury that any verdict was available to them, except the most obvious: that a police officer had unlawfully killed Blair Peach.

In order to protect the police officers after Peach’s death, Burton had to discredit every piece of evidence in front of the jury:

  • the eyewitnesses who had seen police officers strike Blair Peach
  • the pathologists who identified the most likely weapon, a home-made cosh, a hosepipe filled with lead, or perhaps a police radio
  • the fact of a police raid on the lockers of the officers of the Special Patrol Group who were surrounding Peach when he was struck, and the weapons found there: a leather-covered stick, out-sized truncheons, a metal cosh.

Burton’s third, crucial intervention, was to refuse to allow the jurors to see the police’s own investigation into the killing: the Cass report.

Kept from the inquest jury, the report ran to 2,500 pages. It was a thorough document. Commander Cass identified six police officers who had disembarked from their vehicle immediately before Peach was struck. Cass also named a prime suspect for the killing: Officer E, an Inspector in the SPG, Alan Murray.

Murray had been on edge all day, arguing with a television crew.

He had lied about where his police vehicle had stopped; only changing his account when he realised that the vehicle’s location could be identified from police logs.

Inspector Murray claimed that another group of other police officers had also been at the scene. He later admitted that this was a lie.

Murray refused to attend an identification parade. He then grew a beard so as to make it impossible for the witnesses to identify him.

He sent a solicitor to Cass, in an attempt to warn him against continuing with the investigation.

Murray had control over the unit’s radio, one of the weapons identified by the pathologists as a possible cause of the unusual blow to Peach’s skull

Coroner John Burton died in 2004; no one will ever be able to prove why he went to such extraordinary lengths to keep the results of this investigation from the jury, or why he worked so hard to minimise any scrutiny of the police.

What we do know, of course, is that Blair Peach’s killers were never prosecuted. And, in that way, Blair Peach joins the 1500 other people who have died in police custody since 1990 without a single police officer or prison guard having been successfully prosecuted for manslaughter, let alone murder.

What we know above all is that the events of Blair Peach’s death are still crying out for justice.