03 October 2016

Life on Mars: Post-Democracy Britain

My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home.

Actually, I don’t think I can get home. Not from here. We don’t seem to be in Europe anymore, and no one wants to buy our cars. Young people are listening to Donovan instead of Frank Ocean. I don’t know what I did last night but I feel sick and there’s this loud bloke in my ear: “Now is not the time to have a one-night stand with your conscience.” He says he’s Gene Hunt, and I need to stick with him because the rest of them are “fucking useless.”

He’s holding a car door open for me. “Get in and let’s go privatise something.”

When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he said “I think it would be a good idea.” I feel the same about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour Party. Corbyn’s transformation from rebel to the ultimate insider reminds me of the story of Lech Walesa, the leader of the shipyard workers in Gdansk who spearheaded the civil resistance movement against the communist regime in Poland. After the fall of communism he had the misfortune to be elected the first president. He saw the country safely join NATO and the EU, but he didn’t have the skills or experience to be able to deal with bureaucracy, or to lead or delegate. The outsider style that served him well as an activist caused clashes with his former allies and he ended up surrounded by people the public saw as incompetent or disreputable. His reputation was permanently damaged and he served only a single term as president.

The Conservative party are pretty cocky about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but it’s not clear why. It’s not wise to dismiss the hundreds of thousands of people who have joined the Labour Party since he became leader when your own ageing party membership could fit in the back room of a Cotswolds pub. A few months ago the crew in the snug of The Blue Boar came within a hairsbreadth of electing a Brexit chatbot to lead the party. Before Andrea Leadsom self destructed like Microsoft’s Tay, Theresa May’s chances of winning the leadership election in Brexit Britain were no better than even.

I was so sick with the uncertainty of leaving the EU after 40 years, that the whiff of competence May exuded, like the scent of carbolic soap after a nurse has left the room, filled me with reassurance. It didn’t last. May’s reputation as safe pair of hands is based on avoiding mistakes, principally by doing nothing. The only May “success” I can think of is the extradition of Abu Hamza to stand trial in the US. May thought that leaving the European Convention on Human Rights was a fair price to pay to make that happen. She strikes me as the sort of person who would use a bazooka to put up a shelf. Brexit not only requires May to do something, but to do the impossible, so we should all get ready to duck and cover.

Barbara Castle
Coming into my political majority in the 70s and 80s had its ups and downs, but even (I hope) allowing for the nostalgia of hindsight, the politicians of those days (Benn, Healey, Callaghan, Castle, Foot, Heath, Thatcher, Williams, the many Davids...) seem like titans compared to the current lot.

Cameron, Milliband, and Clegg are the three worst leaders of the major parties that I have known in my lifetime, and like three buses they all came along at once.

Cameron ended up on top because he was stupendously lucky. When the luck ran out all he had to show for 6 years in office was the legalization of same sex marriage. Not that this is negligible, but adding a flourish to the existing civil partnerships legislation is not a major legacy when on the debit side you have broken the economy, dumped your country out of the EU, put both your manufacturing and services industries at risk, destabilized the peace process in Northern Ireland, thrown the union with Scotland into doubt, and crippled British science - amongst other stuff.

Clegg’s party had hungered for power for so long they were unable to control themselves in coalition, and gorged on the amuse bouche of front bench seats and ministerial cars and had no stomach for the main course of implementing policies, such as voting reform, which had sustained them through decades in the wilderness. They saw the promised land in the distance and hung a louie for obscurity instead. Success beckoned; they choked.

antanddec .jpg
Ant and Dec

As for Milliband, his mission was to not be his brother, and break with the Blair / Brown version of the Labour Party. He was partially successful.

Shit was it in that dawn to be alive, as Wordsworth might have said. No wonder people, especially those who only recently got the vote, don’t have respect for politics and politicians.

As a teenager I realised that I believed in democracy without knowing why, so I started reading: Plato’s Republic, The English Civil War, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Joad’s Introduction to Philosophy, The Territorial Imperative... To cut a long story short I ended up accepting Churchill’s dictum that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” The question then became: what about parliamentary democracy, with elections every 5 years, and no choice over the candidates the parties present you with? Again I made peace with the accepted wisdom: through the democratic vote you delegate the ability to make complex decisions with all the associated conflicts and unintended consequences, to someone who has the time, inclination, skills, values, intellect, knowledge and good faith that you do not. That’s the Faustian pact: politicians absolve us of our indifference, and in return we give them power.


The public expect politicians to lie and, within limits, we’re happy when they do. We need them to simplify complex topics to sound bites, to present a rose tinted view of the world - if they didn’t we’d never get anywhere. But the deal is that, despite their simplistic sloganeering, underneath it all they still understand how the world works, and that if elected they have a plan that might not get us to the rose tinted uplands, but will be good enough that we won’t be too disappointed.

The problem is that politicians have spent the last 20 years reneging on that deal. The most obvious example is Tony Blair taking the country to war in Iraq. Everyone knew the prospectus for war was dodgy, but even those who were most opposed expected the government to have a plan to deal with the aftermath of war: we trusted Blair, even if we didn’t believe him. After the war was won, the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction was a surprise to no one, and an outrage to a few. The real war crime was that there was no plan for postwar Iraq, and as a result the country went to hell. What was supposed to make people in the UK safe from terrorism had the opposite effect.

Most people hate Blair not because he lied, but because he couldn’t be trusted. Big decisions are rarely pure and never simple: it’s possible for two people, neither of them fools, to come down on different sides of a difficult argument in good faith. That’s how life is, and we accept it. Making good decisions is hard, and often requires a large slice of luck, but planning for the possible consequences of a decision is not hard, it’s just a piece of work, and there is no excuse for not doing it.


We’ve seen the same scenario repeat with Brexit. Despite the faux outrage of Remainers, no one was surprised when 350 million pounds disappeared like fairy gold the morning after the referendum, along with a bunch of other cool stuff we were promised: everyone knew it was all sound bites and spectacles. What corroded public trust was the revelation that the most influential Leave campaigners didn’t understand how the EU worked, even at the most superficial level. And neither side had a plan for what should happen if the country voted for Brexit. We were making the most important political decision of a lifetime, which would affect the lives of our children and grandchildren, and Leave and Remain served up a shitshow.

People also suspect that many of the key players on both sides, most notably Boris Johnson, but possibly May, Corbyn and others, chose their side in the debate based on their personal ambitions or the needs of their party, rather than what was best for the country. Identifying the best interests of the country with your own best interests is autocracy, and with the interests of your party is dictatorship. For understandable reasons the public have a particular respect for politicians who are seen to put the country first, and disdain for those who mostly clearly do not.

Whatever’s the case with those particular individuals, it is obvious that the deal in which politicians provide knowledge and skill and good faith in exchange for power, has been well and truly broken.

Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In the circumstances it’s not surprising that many people who voted Leave are now insistent that the government immediately implement what they voted for (whatever that was). When politicians know no more than you do, when they have no plans, when they have (in business jargon) no value to add, there’s no point in deferring to them: they are merely an instrument to do your bidding.

There is good evidence that referendums, instead of being its finest expression, actually erode the form of democracy that has been practised in the UK for the best part of a century. Theresa May is currently presenting the Brexit referendum as a mandate that established the “firm conviction” of the public on a multitude of complex issues that were barely raised, much less properly debated, during the campaign. Rarely has so much interpretation been read into one tiny cross. Of course the same thing happens in a general election, but parties are obliged to create detailed manifestos explaining what they will do in power, which come under forensic examination by their opponents and others. It’s far from perfect, but it is better than what just happened. Nevertheless, politicians haven’t helped themselves: the wholesale “reform” of the NHS appeared out of nowhere after the Conservative’s election victory in 2010. Pulling major policies out of thin air, not in response to unpredictable events but on a whim, put another nail in the coffin of 20th Century democracy.

We have a system of democracy that is incapable of making anyone happy (whether leave or remain) and which has lost the power to create consensus. It has been systematically undermined by the democratic politicians who should have nurtured it, if only out of blind self interest.

If you add in the fact that the world is becoming increasingly complex and technocratic, and that politicians, in general, aren’t very well informed (at least as far as I can judge in the areas I understand reasonably well like the internet, medicine, and science), you have to wonder what use they are these days. They need to work a lot harder to justify their existence and they have been freewheeling for decades. No one is going to stand for that.

The principle of democracy is as valid as it ever was. The way we have chosen to implement it through parliament is broken and not fit for purpose. I don’t know how it needs to change or if it should be replaced. Although politics is currently failing us, in the past politicians have helped us be better than we are, outlawing sex and race discrimination, insisting on equal pay, abolishing the death penalty, introducing the invalid care allowance, and much, much more. I’m not convinced that Facebookocracy is a workable replacement for that sort of democracy, and I’m not sure that the people promoting it think that it is either. They’re probably younger than me, and with some justice think that any change is better than none. I’m old and all I can see is how that sort of experiment could go badly wrong and take 30 years to sort out. I don’t have the time, energy, or optimism to take that risk, but I hope that others will.

24 July 2016

20 May 2016

Poet in da corner


The remarkable Debris Stevenson is going to be performing her poetry/grime hybrid remix of Dizee Rascal's first album at the Roundhouse at the end of the month.

It should be amazing. If you need convincing, or you simply can't make it, you can listen to the first track here.

17 March 2016

Rhubarb & Custard

The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016 is going to be launched at the Camden Eye Pub  Kentish Town on Sunday, March 20, at 3PM. Hear readings from the anthology’s contributors, mix and mingle with other readers and writers, meet the Eyewear editors, and get your hands on a copy of this beautiful new anthology.

If you can't make the launch, you can buy a copy of the anthology here.

07 March 2016

Excerpts from my diary

Leaves, gelatine print

This post is an excuse to link to Holly Corfield Carr's review of her year, and to say that the best thing about being in the Eyewear anthology of The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016, is the fact that Holly and Debris Stevenson are in there too, making it (in Holly's words) a hat-trick of the Jerwood / Arvon 2014/15 poets.

I realise that's rather thin content for a post, so here are some entries, often decades old, from my diary.

I was in Boots. There was a middle-aged couple standing in front of the deodorant display. The woman spoke in a soft Lancashire accent: "Why don't you try something new?" The man shook his head: "I don't think so."

Reading the prayer cards in a Devon church. So serious and heartfelt: bereavements, illnesses, broken families. Then:

“Please pray for Colin alone in Armenia with a party of women.”

I remember my Aunt Alice as an old woman, formidable as a battleship. When she was younger, her family were eating dinner in the dining room when a bomb hidden in a cupboard by Mr Raybould the local chemist exploded. Obviously he wasn't a very good chemist as no one was killed. 

06 January 2016

Freya's Seat

Freya's Seat

Freya's Tree

I would like a tree, an old English species like an oak. I would love it to be in a public space if that can be managed, somewhere beautiful.  Freya Dudley

14 December 2015

It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe

So now you can get a wifi enabled infant formula machine.

I can't help thinking that the people who missed out on learning from their own parents and might actually need this wont be able to afford it, and the people who can afford it are going to be subtly infantilised by the loss of responsibility. 

Even if that doesn't happen, you have to wonder at a linked collection of baby clothes promoting the machine with slogans like "Today I found my voice. Future Opera Singer" or "Today I discovered my hands. Future Surgeon." That sort of thing panders to the worst instincts of competitive parenting, one of the most joyless sports still outside of the Olympics.  

01 December 2015

Does no one remember or forget anything anymore?

Image from the BBC

The socialisation of the internet makes a virtue of openness, and encourages people to architect their lives like the Pompidou centre, turning everything inside out, with the amenities in plain sight, from your relationship status, to every place you visit, and the selfie you take in the branded booth as you queue to buy the caramel and cheese popcorn mix in Garrett’s off Michigan Avenue.

Humans are the canonical social and communicative animals. The phenomenal growth in networks, phones and tablets is evidence that communication isn’t a hard wired desire, it’s an existential necessity. Hermits, anchorites and the members of silent orders engender strong, conflicting emotions of fascination, revulsion, ridicule and awe, precisely because they are and are not human. 

Despite the need to share, living online without filters, boundaries or privacy feels perilously close to self harm: in a way it is the exact opposite of the life of the hermit, and just as disturbing. Most people have a sense of self preservation that stops them long before they get that far, and a lot of oversharing simply comes from people not understanding the mechanics of the on line world, and how to set boundaries the way they do in reality.

I grew up in a pre-internet world. I have failed, embarrassed myself, said and done stupid things more times than I want to count. I have seen people flayed on the web for idiocies that could have come out of my own mouth when I was younger. Fortunately everything I did is memorialised and accessible only through the unreliable, permanently degrading, and eventually obsolete, memories of my friends. 

I was also lucky not to have the burden of curating my own life, and the multiple personalities that would entail: the official face for school, university and employers, another for my friends, another...

Of course the others you're sharing with are not just your friends and family but the large corporations who are hosting your LAN party, and paying for the farms of servers managing your email, photos and status updates.

There used to be a generational difference in the willingness to share information online, with the young being least concerned with their privacy. There’s good evidence from the US that’s changing. The recent breaches of the internet security of household names like Sony, and Edward Snowden’s revelations about the behaviour of the NSA, have closed the generation gap. Most people take a pragmatic approach to privacy these days: they are willing trade information, but only if the service is worth it, and the compromise in privacy is clearly laid out and acceptable to them.

The most recent step in the dance between individuals and corporations is audio beaconing: embedding sounds undetectable to the human ear in advertisements. This is a dog whistle echo of the subliminal advertising Vance Packard described in his 1950s book The Hidden Persuaders. This time, instead of talking to you, advertisers are talking to the devices you rely on - your phone and tablet. Apple and Google do a good job of locking down permissions, but if the microphone on your device happens to be open, it will know from the audio beacon what commercial you just saw on TV and is potentially able to connect that with what you do online, for example searching for the product just advertised.

If you want to know more you can find it here.

02 November 2015

Special training in Samurai sword fighting

Tsuba from the Ashmolean collection. Photo by Samourais et Ikebana

Greg Irvine makes the Guardian article on the reopening of the V&As Japanese gallery this week after a major renovation:

The 700 year old blades certainly are  "murderously sharp" but I would imagine that the "special training in Samurai sword fighting" that the curators were given by Greg was along the lines of Careful with that axe Eugene rather than how to recreate the fight scenes from Zatoichi.

28 October 2015

A fight in a phone box

Reading the new OWC selection from Martial's epigrams suggests that not much has changed on the poetry scene in the last 2,000 years...

Book 1 #16
A slim volume -
some good, more average,
and a bunch of crap
is what you're reading:
it's that sort of book.

Book 3 #9
Cinna's writing broadsides against me -
they say. It's not writing if no one's reading. 

Try here for an introduction to Martial if you are interested in learning more: http://blog.oup.com/2015/10/oxford-worlds-classics-reading-group-season-4-martials-epigrams/.

[Translation of Martial by Gideon Nisbet used as a crib, but all words my own.]

20 September 2015

I'm in the library

The poetry wall is on the left, together with new accessions (Citizen, Cold Light, Riddley Walker...). The print to the right of the desk is Botticelli's drawing of Dante being lead through Paradise by Beatrice, and the cushion on the green chair is the head of Charles Darwin.

The literature wall is on the left with the racy stuff on the top shelf, under the watchful eye of Marie Stope's Planned Parenthood and Gloria Steinem's Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.