• Staying silent on Brexit

    Terrace backstreet in England with no-one around
    (Photo by Ethan Wilkinson)

    “In the Nazi era they flew the red swastika flag – but only when it became too dangerous not to.”

    This is a quote from Rowan Rheingans – interviewed in Songlines about her excellent debut solo album The Lines We Draw Together (see my Top of the World review of the album in My Latest Work), based on her stage show, Dispatches On The Red Dress

    She is talking about her German grandparents. It’s a revealing little line that rang a bell for me. We again live in turbulent times. Many people in the current Brexit debate in the UK are keen to compare their adversaries with the Nazis of 1930s Germany. 

    While the N-word is unhelpful, the atmosphere of the times has been personally revealing for me. On more than one occasion since Brexit, when confronted with close neighbours, members of my community, espousing pro-Brexit and anti-EU opinions, I’ve remained silent. 

    What price my freedom?

    I have become aware of how uncomfortable it is to contradict a prevailing view. Living in Herefordshire, where Brexit swept the boards, I felt compelled, by my own cowardice, to avoid saying I disagreed with them.

    The prospect of being ostracised in your own community, rejected by your own neighbours, cuts deep. Silently going along with their statements allows you to carry on being accepted. How far does that go?

    You may scoff

    Brexiteers aren’t Nazis, I hear you splutter. They don’t carry a threat of violence. That’s certainly true of the Brexiteers I’ve listened to. But it’s one thing to be a loud and proud Remainer from the safety of inner London.

    Out here the LEAVE billboards have only just about come down in the fields and on the side of pubs. I never saw a Remain poster in the entire referendum campaign.

    Oi, mate! Come over here and say that…

    And now I’ve mentioned the B-word, fancy some Brexit and Morality?

  • Make Britain Great Again?

    Drumroll… Welcome to Great Britain

    I’ve walked through Heathrow Airport in London a few times lately, and it’s getting more embarrassing by the day. As Brexit looms, the airport’s advertising campaign welcoming the world to Great Britain feels increasingly desperate.

    The life-size posters of Beefeaters, bus drivers and nurses – suitably multi-ethnic, naturally – with their arms open wide, wanting to give the outside world a big hug, have a comfort-factor akin to forcing an acerbic relative to welcome the ‘foreign chap’ to tea. 

    I’m not from round here, honest

    I have skulked down the moving travelators – feigning to some nationality I might conceivably get away with… Dutch? German? Damn it, even Scottish will do – anything to divert from the idea that I might be a pumped up, delusional Englishman. 

    Brexit is surely the most humbling moment since they launched the London 2012 Olympics with a logo like a dad trying to breakdance at a party. At least that was the low point. For the rest of the show, Britain came off as quite a nice place to be. 

    Who knew that a mere four years away was a cast from some sitcom version of the English past? Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson being led by Theresa May. I don’t even need to spin these guys with adjectives.

    Let’s look forward, not back

    But let’s see Brexit as an opportunity to put Great Britain back on the map as a truly Global Britain. Let’s use it as an opportunity for genuinely innovative ideas…

    Here’s one: instead of the tired old ‘EU/non-EU’ binary at border passport control, let’s go for something more outward looking? Let’s have a fast track lane for Xenophobes?

    Anyone from anywhere in the world is welcome to use the lane, but they absolutely must be a xenophobe. All others must use the standard ‘Multiculturalists’ queue, sorry (losers). 

    Has my idea got legs? Simply vote in the readers’ poll with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’ and I’ll implement the results.

  • Blackadder goes Brexit

    Advert from Heathrow Airport
    An un-ironic advert seen at London’s Heathrow Airport

    In moments of national self-implosion, we must cling fast to those wisest and most foundational of texts. At these moments we need the guidance of our national bards, and for me, nothing gets close to Blackadder. 

    In terms of national self-implosion, nothing in my lifetime has got close to Brexit, either. The breathtaking chaos, tinge with tragedy, is almost Greco-Roman in its scope: 

    “We’re in the stickiest situation since Sticky the stick insect got stuck on a sticky bun”

    Only a few men can do it justice. 


    There’s the obvious: 

    “That’s the spirit, Blackadder! If all else fails, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.”

    And while General Melchett is doing his best Jacob Rees-Mogg impression, there is of course:

    “You look surprised, Blackadder.”
    “I certainly am, sir. I didn’t realise we had any battle plans.”
    “Well of course we have! How else do you think our battles are directed?”
    “Our battles are directed, sir?”
    “Well of course they are, Blackadder. Directed according to the Grand Plan.”
    “Would that be the plan to continue with total slaughter until everyone is dead apart from Field Marshal Haig, Lady Haig and their tortoise, Alan?”
    “Great Scott, even you know it!”

    Then there are those lines that reflect my own steady ennui with the entire business of the national self-implosion:

    “You a bit cheesed off, sir?
    “George, the day this war began I was cheesed off. Within ten minutes of you turning up, I’d finished the cheese and moved on to the coffee and cigars, and at this late stage I am in a cab with two lady companions on my way to the Pink Pussycat in Lower Regent Street.”

    And then, in light of Donald Tusk’s brilliant “special place in hell” musings on the fate that should await Brexiteer politicians, there’s the wonderful:

    “I’m not a religious man, as you know, but henceforth I shall nightly pray to the God who killed Cain and squashed Samson that he comes out of retirement and gets back into practice on the pair of you.”
    A telephone rings
    “Captain Blackadder speaking. Ah, Captain Darling… You want two volunteers for a mission into no man’s land? Codename: Operation Certain Death? Yes, I think I’ve got just the fellows.” 
    Turning to George and Baldrick
    “God is very quick these days…”

    Feel free to comment and share all the beauties I’ve missed out…

  • Rural voters rule ok

    Voting day signage for US mid-term elections
    Here comes the rural vote (Photo by Element5 Digital)

    Here’s the received wisdom: rural voters are the neglected, the ignored, the forgotten — but in Western democracies, they are fast becoming the kingmakers.

    How did this happen?

    It seems counterintuitive. Power resides at the centre. Kings, queens, presidents and press barons — they are urban, as are most people in post-industrial states.

    Yet, even as the Democrats take the suburbs in the US mid-term elections — for ‘suburbs’ read ‘urban middle class’ — Republican gains in rural states cement their grip on the Senate.

    It highlights a US electoral system with built-in rural bias. Democrats won the popular vote in six of the last seven US elections — yet two of those times a Republican took office.

    In 1790, when the Senate was conceived, 95% of Americans were rural. Today, around 19% are, yet the Senate was conceived to offer equal representation to all states. The result? A rural vote is now worth much more than an urban one.

    Get off my land

    The British Brexit referendum also saw a stark split between urban and rural voting. London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol, Cardiff — diverse cities all voting strongly for Remain in an election that saw countryside and small town Britain vote 55% in favour of leaving the EU.

    Country people are quick to complain of the too-powerful cities and their liberal elites. Yet recent trends suggest that in fact, the rural vote is dictating the political and perhaps cultural direction to the cities.

    Try explaining that to the urban elites in emerging economies.

  • Britain isn’t what it used to be

    Terraced streets in small-town England
    Where have all the children gone?

    A few weeks ago, something extraordinary began happening on my street — a standard issue redbrick Victorian terraced street in a provincial English town. Children started playing among the crowded parked cars. Where there had been only silence interrupted by the occasional revved engine, suddenly there were children’s voices. But they weren’t speaking English.

    The fruits of immigration

    The lament is a common one — not only among my more elderly English neighbours, but across the country. I’ve heard that the street isn’t what it used to be, presumably meaning that the people have changed, since the bricks and mortar certainly haven’t. I’ve also heard the dreamy reminiscence of when children used to be able to play in the street.

    Not anymore. Fear — of traffic, of strangers, of the generalised paedophilic threat — has emptied the street of most kids. But here were a whole host of kids — from late teenage right down to little nippers not much older than my son — riding every wheeled contraption they could find in and out of the parked cars. It was like the 1940s come back to life and put through a prism.

    “Listen to the cosmic laughter in the wind” Robert Newman, circa 1990s

    There is a beautiful irony to the fact that a street in this staunchly Brexit region has had a little slice of yesterday’s Britain resuscitated for it courtesy of its new immigrant arrivals. I don’t suppose it’ll stop the grumbles, but it can’t help make you smile. My son — still just too toddler to join in — thinks it’s the most exciting street entertainment he’s ever seen. Better than telly.

  • Unrestricted avian migration

    robin in a holly bush
    Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash

    In my son’s new book, Robins, Wrens and other British Birds, it reads:

    “In springtime, many of the birds you see will have come from far away. Each year, some birds, like swifts, make an amazing journey to find food and nesting places. This is called ‘migration’.”

    The word struck me at once. This was unrestricted migration.

    Swifts travel to the UK from sub-Saharan Africa, some as much as 3,000 miles in five days. The RSPB reckons the global swift population at 25 million. Thats just one type of bird. The problem is, official figures on the numbers of birds migrating into the UK are extremely hard to come by, since there are no border checks in place. This is not migration to escape persecution, but to obtain food and nesting places.

    Without control of UK borders, how can the country hope to control the numbers of migratory birds? It is acceptable, in fact beneficial, to welcome birds into the UK who can demonstrate that they will fill a need and not be a drain on resources, but at present, any bird can gain entry to the UK, entering and departing as they please.

    It seems only right that systems should be put in place to protect honest, hardworking British birds. A points-based system – similar to the one used in Australia to manage human migration – would seem to be a perfectly reasonable way of managing the flow of migratory birds into the UK from sub-Saharan Africa.

    Through the implementation of a points-based immigration system, birds wishing to migrate to the UK from abroad would first have to establish, in their country of origin, that they had agreed access to a specific food source or nesting place within a UK garden or green space, and the owner of that garden or green space would have to satisfy the UK government that in doing so, they would not be depriving a British bird.