Category Archives: Uncategorized

Links, round-up

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Back in May, I gave a talk at a London RS21 meeting with Jairus Banaji on the far-right. There’s a video of that meeting at that meeting here  and the text of the talk is on the Socialist Worker (US) site. I spoke to Quartz magazine post-Charlottesville, and some of my comments made it into the article here.

The big news for lawyers in the UK over the next few years will be the shift to an online court system. I’ve posted some early comments about it here, and was interviewed as part of a BBC programme about online courts here.

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My student; the anti-Semite

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Later today, Paul Nuttall is going to replace Nigel Farage as leader of the UK Independence Party. This will be a strange experience for me. You will see in the coverage of his past career that Nuttall was once, briefly, a history lecturer. Before that he was a student, and in 1999-2000, I taught Paul Nuttall for a year. A year was long enough to get a good sense of a man who is going to be part of our lives rather more in future.
Nuttall was then studying at Edge Hill College on a History BA. I taught in the history department, where I was responsible for various courses including a one-year course teaching the history of fascism in Italy and Germany, for which he signed up. Nuttall struck me as bright and cynical. He was 23 years old – as old as the graduate students we taught, not our undergraduates, almost all of whom were straight out of A-levels. He seemed to have a stronger personality than any of his peers. While most of the students knew only what it said in the various course books, he had read more widely, in books and on the internet. He didn’t express his views openly but from time to time you felt he was testing the water to see what he could get away with.
In early December 1999, Nuttall’s cohort were set a standard essay on the causes of the Holocaust. I forget the exact title, but the question was something like whether the Final Solution was principally caused by Hitler’s anti-Semitism or by other factors related to the German economy or state. To my surprise, Nuttall’s answer worked in two footnotes to different books by David Irving. I wasn’t expecting this, because Irving wasn’t on the course reading list: this was after his libel trial and historians regarded Irving as an unpleasant, racist crank who was beyond the pale.
Moreover the references did not engage with the subject that Nuttall had actually been set: it felt rather as if he had written them in to see whether he could shoe-horn these views into an academic context and “get away” with them.
One of the quotes (for an essay about the Holocaust…) was from a book David Irving had written about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The message of the other Irving quote was that that anti-Semitism had been popular in Weimar Germany: the quote exaggerated the extent of anti-semtiism and carried the implication that it had been popular because it was deserved.
The incident was one of the oddest and most unwanted experiences I’d had as a teacher. I had taught fascism courses in different institutions over the previous three years including to A-levels students at Tower Hamlets college. Those students were under enormous and sometime contradictory pressures from their family, the mosque and the big trends in global politics that were heading in the direction of 9/11. But nothing they had ever written compared to this. I had never seen a student argue anything that could even remotely be characterised as “the Jews deserved it”. While Nuttall’s piece as a whole did not go that far, that seemed to be the message of the quotation he had used
I met Nuttall to discuss what he had written and he gave a tearful denial, saying that his girlfriend had downloaded the references to Irving’s book from the internet, blaming her rather than his own judgment. He accepted that the words could be construed as having an unpleasant, even racist meaning. But he denied that this had been his intention. He seemed shocked to be challenged about anything – like smug, arrogant, people everywhere he was most comfortable in a small bubble where no-one could disagree with him.

Peter Picton (1934-2016)

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My uncle Peter, who died on Thursday, was many things: an entertainer, a proud trade unionist, an author. As Pierre the Clown he was a fixture on children’s TV in the 1960s and 1970s. As the owner of the original Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car from the film, he performed in the 1980s and 1990s at hundreds perhaps thousands of Christmas events, weddings and local shows. He would drive Chitty through crowds in their thousands, waving back as the children in his audience waved at him. He became an honourary, working-class, Royal.

 

Pete never talked about his childhood. As he told it, his life’s story began in his teens when he went to stage school. In his holidays, he worked as a chef’s assistant. In time, he began a new career as the apprentice to Coco, the head clown at Bertram Mills circus. “Coco had a marvellous act, pies and custard, pasting up rolls of paper, rolling them up, rolling them down, so that the paste went everywhere. The humour,” he used to say. “It was all timing, you know.”

 

By 1954 Pete had adopted his stage name of Pierre the Clown. In 1956-7, weeks after the Soviet tanks had put down the workers’ uprising in Hungary, Pete was one of the first western acts to be allowed into Budapest. He worked there with another friend, an Italian clown called Cavalini, “Huge numbers came,” he said. “They love their circus in Eastern Europe, it was their main source of entertainment. For me, they were wonderful days, but the atmosphere was strained, you knew something was wrong.”

 

He had a favourite prop, a black Model T-Ford. Pierre would try to open one door but it wouldn’t and another swung open in its place. Then the doors would open, but they fell off. Miming between each setback incredulity, defeat, renewed hope, Peter attempted to drive the car from its back seat. The car would start before finally spilling him onto the floor.

 

The chef Robert Carrier worked with Pete, and sent him touring around schools talking about dental health. A special poster was commissioned, in typically sixties lurid blues, reds and yellows, “Pierre the Clown says End you meal with an apple. It’s nature’s toothbrush.” Pete was the clown handing John Lennon an apple at the opening of the Beatle’s Apple Boutique.

 

In 1967-8 Pete was now at the height of his celebrity. In 1967, by which time he was the father of a young son Jon, he released a pair of singles, Pierre the Clown in Nursery Rhyme Town and Pierre the Clown in Space Rhyme Town. They start with familiar rhymes, but the rhymes take detours. They become something new and wonderful and strange. He wrote The Gourmet’s Guide to Fish and Chips; and a children’s guide to Hastings.

 

He worked for the Rolling Stone on their circus tour. He was also at his most active within Equity, negotiating the clowns’ pay rates with the major circuses.

 

In 1968, Pete worked as a driver on the film ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. At the end of the film the props were auctioned off and Pete was able to buy the working car complete with its Gen 11 numberplate. The car was to become the mainstay of Pete’s working life, and for the next forty years he performed at countless shows acting Pete’s own creation, a mixture of Dick van Dyke dashing inventor Caractacus Potts and Lionel Jeffries’ eccentric Granda Potts.

 

In the early 70s, Pete met Susie and they were to live together more 42 years, in Belgravia, then in Shipston and for thirty years in Stratford. They married in 1988.

 

In 2013, Susie and Pete sold Chitty. It was an inevitable and a right decision. Pete  suffered intense arthritis in his hands and knees and found the work hard. But he fought retirement for many years. Even without Chitty, he was still a local celebrity: he couldn’t go to the bank or a shop without meeting or making a friend.

 

Pete was one of those rare adults who believe in children, who are aware of the powerlessness that the young can feel. A stream of youngsters came to Susie and Pete’s house, were given presents of sweets, make-your-own models of Chitty or Smurf stickers. “Here’s something,” Pete would say and they would leave with a five or ten pound note. 

 

Pete was one of those big, bold people whose lives evade categories. Someone who hated racism and homophobia and who paid his union subs years into retirement. But the newspaper he read, even in hospital, was the Daily Mail.

 

I visited him two days before he died, his face covered in an oxygen mask. He could communicate only in sign language and whispers. But he wanted to know how I’d travelled there, how my children were. His face creased in a broad smile when he heard that they were acting and dancing. All of sudden he waved, he pointed. I was wearing trainers, bright red running shoes beneath my grey trousers, my grey top. He pointed to them and he laughed. “I like them,” my uncle the clown said. Even in hospital, Pete was still thinking of other people rather than himself. Fighting for his life, he cheered us up by making a joke. 

Giulio Regeni mural, Cairo

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There are any numbers of photographs of Giulio Regeni with cats. His cat has been tortured (the bandages), in common with so many victims of the regime and it has the wings of a martyr of the revolution. The cat’s eye has been painted clear in memory of the protesters whose eyes have been shot out. On Giulio’s face are the words of his mother at his memorial, that he was killed like an Egyptian.

Solidarity and love to all those fighting for justice for Giulio.

The tactics of Exit voting

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For any readers missing the argument for a left exit vote in the coming referendum, here’s one I prepared earlier. In the EU’s rush to take austerity positions since 2008, the budget mechanisms of the EU have been reimagined and the Commission and the ECB have become devices for forcing cuts on the poorer European states. It is a condition of continued membership that budgets are submitted to the EU each year and there they are scrutinised to ensure a continuous process of cuts, privatisation and diminished collective bargaining. In Ireland, Greece and Spain, EU policies are leading to a rapid diminution of union bargaining, and if these are the worst affected, the direction of travel is the same all across the continent.

That said, while I can recognise that the left exit position can have a principled basis, it’s problem if anything is that it is too principled. I have yet to encounter a left exit argument which finds a transmission mechanism between the high socialist hopes of those that I hear espousing exit and the vote. Why, I want friends to explain, will an exit vote improve the balance of forces for the left in Britain?

Here, it seems to me are the main areas where the advocates of a conventional Brexit are tactically ahead of their temporary allies among the exit voters of the far left:

The vote is / the vote isn’t a vote for restricted immigration. If you study the polls carefully, I understand it is possible to construct an argument that the EU exit vote isn’t just about immigration. When people are asked to explain why they are voting for exit, they do not always put immigration as their sole or even necessarily their top priority. Now one (relatively weak) response would be that data on voting intentions often has this character: if you study people’s reasons for UKIP voting, say, often people have complex and conflicting reasons for voting the way they do.

More important, is an understanding of how the national exit vote has been planned. The strategists of the exit vote are aware that: i) they have a big lead among the demographics most likely to vote (i.e. over 65s – see graph at top), ii) there is an equally big stay majority among the groups of people least likely to vote (i.e. under 25s), iii) these majorities have different weight. Because over-65s are much more likely to vote (in general and in this case in particular), exit can win without a popular mobilisation, in fact the more that it polarises people the greater the risk that today’s possibly-non-voting stay voters will be converted into tomorrow’s actual stay voters, iv) therefore anything that feels like racism is counterproductive – the UKIP/migration vote is already primed and ready to vote (of all the parties, UKIP supporters report the greatest interest in the referendum and the greatest intention to vote). Raw anti-migrant politics will only produce a reaction in terms of stay voting by the young.

This, I think, explains the way that the exit argument is positioned both in the national media and locally. There is a constant shuffle backwards and forwards between “immigration” and “other” arguments. One day, we are told that the NHS is dying under the weight of prospective immigrants, the next day that migrants are dragging British workers into poverty. Then as soon as these arguments are put, they are withdrawn and replaced with a blancmange of emptiness which is the characteristic mode of the exit argument. It is the same with the local literature: for every letter you find in which exit is presented in terms that would make a BNP voter smile, there are two fliers in which the No campaign avoids text and slogans and limits itself to stating that there is an Exit position, the politics of which are already assumed.

That said, while you can make an honest argument that Exit politics have been “less horribly anti-migrant” than many on the left predicted; you can’t make a compelling case that any significant part of the exit argument in this referendum has been an argument for redistribution, unionisation or socialism.

Who gets to interpret the meaning of a large Exit vote. Imagine a different context: a Labour government is elected, led by Jeremy Corbyn. The government has widespread popular backing and introduces a programme of nationalisations. Some EU institution (the ECJ? – it would only get involved as a result of a legal process starting in the UK, so we are planing already a two-term Labour government) announces that the EU which has previously allowed such nationalisations as Northern Rock now no longer approves of them. Corbyn calls a referendum to leave the EU in order to deepen his reform plans.

Here, I’m not making the obvious point that “this isn’t how we got here” but a (slightly) subtler one. In a democracy, the people who get to interpret a popular vote are the government of the day. Under a Corbyn government the left decides what a vote means, under a Tory government it’s the Tories who choose. A 55-45 exit vote will be interpreted as a the greatest possible popular affirmation of the politics of the Tory right and UKIP in just the same way that a stay vote will be used to bolster Cameron, Osborne and also (although to a lesser extent) Corbyn.

So, while the left exiters might want to interpret a 55-45 vote in “their” favour as an argument for socialism, that’s not how it will be interpreted by the government, and therefore by Parliament in the making of new legislation, or by the members of the main parties. Let alone by trade unionists, migrant workers or the young. (All three of whom have good reasons to fear an exit vote). In all these different constituencies, the dominant interpretation of an exit vote will be a vote for faster neoliberalism, the greater unpicking of reforms, faster privatisation, etc.

Who is actually voting. I’ve alluded to these points already, but to bring them out more clearly. The exit vote corresponds exactly to the demographic of the people who consistently vote for the worst political options in Britain: above all, it is an age vote. In just the same way that Miliband was ahead among the young and lost in every age group above 40, so it is with the exit vote. It is the vote of the old, of UKIP and the worst Tories. Friends on the left shouldn’t tell themselves that you can mobilise the very people in society who are most opposed to you, on their favoured issue, in circumstances they have been preparing for 30 years, with their government is in power and expect anything good to result.

All of this is relevant not merely to how people should vote but what the effect of a large exit vote will be. We live in a society that has for four decades increasingly criminalised migration, and in which non-EU citizens resident in Britain have been denied the vote in the referendum that will decide their future.

It is already the case that such non-EU migration as the UK still allows overwhelmingly comes as a result of EU law. Both EU and non-EU citizens will find it harder to come to Britain in the event of an exit vote and harder to stay. A large exit vote is going to mean an attack on EU migrants – if the left is seen to have voted for that attack we will be in a weaker position to resist it afterwards.

My own view remains that this is a referendum that the left cannot win and that either option will result in further attacks. Yet in the choice between two bad options, one of them is worse.

 

The Arab spring which didn’t end

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Haitham

Two pleas. One is for a person, the other for a social movement. The person first: Haitham Mohammedain (above). For people who don’t know him, he is a revolutionary and lawyer, the advocate of the Egyptian independent unions, a participant in their struggles against the old corrupt state-run unions and a prominent figure in the country’s Pro Palestinian movement. He was arrested four weeks ago with around 200 others. The fear is that he could be facing a jail sentence of five years for the simple act of demonstrating against the regime. There is a petition for Haitham you can sign here.

Behind Haitham’s arrest there is a much larger story: the protest coalition that toppled President Mubarak in 2011 has not gone away. The issue of the hour is the decision of the ruling generals to sell off large parts of the Sinai to Saudi Arabia. Thousands of people have taken part in demonstrations, and a regime which is also coming under international pressure following its murder of Italian student Giulio Regeni, is now showing greater signs of weakness than at any point since the generals took charge in 2013.

Now the social movement. Just as protest has been renewed in Egypt, much the same has taken place in Syria. There have been demonstrations in over 100 towns and cities following a ceasefire in March with banners saying that “our revolution is still in progress” and this month an uprising by prisoners at Hama.

In the war itself, the Syrian state has been shelling civilians as they received aid, and bombing schools and markets in Aleppo, while its Russian ally has bombed the same city’s hospital.

Although there are good examples of leftists here trying to encourage a discussion of the Syrian revolution, the default position of many on the left in Britain has been to think that there is a trade-off between our ability to promote regime change “here” and the acknowledgment of other people’s crimes “over there”. That we in Britain can only protest against “our” leaders (GB, the US) and not against the other imperialist states (Russia). And therefore that if other global powers are taking part in a genocide, we must be silent. When socialists in Syria tells us that the result is a “denial of solidarity,” we should be listening to them.

The friends I want to have, and the friends I don’t

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For people who read this site and have never met me, I thought it might be useful to try to explain some things about me you probably don’t know.

1. I’m Jewish (it’s weird having to be explain this stuff right now, but wait with me while and you’ll understand).

2. I’m not “really” Jewish. By that, I mean that I don’t conform to most people’s idea of what a Jew is. I don’t dress like a Jew, whatever that would mean, and Woody Allen’s not my thing. I only have one Jewish parent. And they were born in 1946. Like a lot of Jewish people in that era – and unlike their counterparts born 20 or 40 years later – that means we didn’t practice any religion at home and I’ve never been in a synagogue.

3. There’s another way that I’m really, really unlike most British Jews: in that my parents were the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Oddly enough, in some ways that’s possibly the most unusual thing about my Jewishness. Many British Jews are second-, third-, fourth-generation British. That means that their immediate family weren’t caught in Eastern Europe. Sure, in the small parts of Britain which Hitler invaded people were taken away and killed, but we’re talking hundreds of people that’s all. (And of course there were many people from Britain who were on holiday, staying with family etc, and were caught up in events they could barely understand). I’m here because as well as being a Jew I’m also a second-generation immigrant.

4. One way my experience is unusual is that, actually, few people survived the Holocaust. Of people who lived in Germany, Austria, Poland, etc – the numbers who got out are small, and the closer that people came to danger the fewer of them there were that escaped. If you don’t know this stuff, read Primo Levi, one of the very few Auschwitz survivors. It will give you a sense of how it was.

5. When I say that my grand-parents were Holocaust survivors, and I compare them to how Holocaust survivors are supposed to be, they were in some ways like and in some ways unlike Holocaust survivors. First, although the large majority of their relatives were killed, they were never that close to dying. They got out, from Austria, in late 1938, leaving behind parents (on both sides) and a sibling. But they in the younger generation were fine.

6. Where my grandparents get more typical is that, having escaped from Austria they (and the generation below) went through something like 40 years of emotional harm. This isn’t something I’m capable of writing about, not directly, but I’m talking the whole range of harm – suicides, mental health diagnoses that struck around for more than a decade, and a whole sense of self-hatred, desire to emulate the powerful, the oppressive, etc etc etc. That’s the thing about harm, it’s sticks around.

7. It’s the “gluey” character of suffering which explains why I am an anti-Zionist. Because if “we” have been suffering for forty years as a result of the harm that the Nazi inflicted, the dispossession, the being forced into camps, exile, the killings … it should be obvious to everyone that “they” (the people who have been disposed since 1945) are going through exactly the same process. And it takes a particular kind of cruelty-mixed-with-stupidity to say that “because the Nazis tried to annihilate the Jews”… “we” … are allowed to dispossess and harm someone else, the Palestinians.

8. I appreciate that my family’s proximity to genocide ought to make me exactly the sort of person that Zionism is supposed to be about. And yet the Zionists – especially the non-Jewish supporters of Zionism – are exactly the friends I don’t want. If someone is the ideological or actual descendant of the people who were blithe to the rise of fascism in Britain, then I don’t want them to tell me that they are on my side now. That goes for the Mail (which didn’t just run one pro-BUF headline but for several months operated as effectively the fascist party’s private press), the Royals with their several fascist salutes, the Tory Party which saw Mussolini and Hitler as people they could do business with. Even the Big Daddy of British conservatism Winston Churchill whose Zionism waxed and waned in direct proportion to his anti-semitism (if you don’t know this stuff, google him). I’m also not so keen on the sudden declarations of friendship which British Jews are getting from the likes of the Labour Right (one of whose MPs was detained in the war as a pro-fascist) and which spent the 1930s very happily demanding the outlawing and imprisonment of the relatively few people in British society who were trying to stop the fascists, mainly who were found (but not only) on the far left.

9. I’m also not keen on the sudden support I seem to be getting from all sorts of self-declared philo-Semites, the Hitchenses, the Burchills, whose support seems to be wholly dependent on the positions on they have already committed to in support of Israel and Israel’s global allies. They have a construct of what Jews are like and it’s not pretty.

10. Finally, while I’m not throwing anyone out: please think this through. I am in a Jewish family and all through my life I have spent time among other Jews. Some agree with me 100%, some 0%, and most, as you’d expect, fall somewhere in between. I argue with them. Sometimes, it’s my friends who are the ones doing the arguing and I’m left bolstering them when they’re doing ok.

But, telling me – repeatedly – that it’s not anti-Semitic to mix up Hitler and Zionists, it’s not anti-Semitic to suggest that the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if the Hitler hadn’t suddenly turned racist (to everyone’s surprise) in 1932 (why 1932?) … you’re just making it harder for me, and for people like me. Please stop now. Its because I want to be able to agree with you – and because I want to be able to argue with the people I dislike – that you, right now, need to raise your game. Thanks.

Originally posted here.