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Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? by Ian Dunt (2016) 188 p.
In the opening chapter of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? Ian Dunt paints a nightmare scenario lying ahead for the United Kingdom. No trade deal with the European Union, hard borders, re-implemented tariffs and customs red tape, and the British government at the mercy of Washington, Beijing and Tokyo. The pound plummets, the economy goes into freefall and dark times lie ahead for the British people. “That was the worst-case scenario,” Dunt explains at the beginning of the next chapter. “It is also Britain’s current destination.”
Dunt is the editor of politics.co.uk and the political editor of The Erotic Review. I’ve followed his writing for some time, and respect his level-headed and journalistic approach to writing editorials and opinion pieces, which seems increasingly uncommon on both the right and the left. By this I do not mean that he sits in the middle and gives equal respectability to all sides. I mean that he states the plain truth even when it seems unfashionable or uncomfortable to do so – and if you find the headline I just linked to strident or inflammatory, I suggest you read the entire piece. He deals with facts and figures and resents the increasing role that emotional, gut-level tribalism has come to play in politics, not just in Britain but around the world.
This has only been exacerbated by the Brexit divide in Britain. Dunt is a Remainer, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from reading this book. He wastes no time on recriminations, finger-pointing or a dissection of the referendum campaign (riven as it was with misinformation, ignorance, propaganda and outright lies). Instead he looks ahead, to the enormous challenges Britain now faces, in the hope of making the best of a bad situation. To that end he’s interviewed dozens of economists, professors, lawyers and public servants to try to provide an outlay of exactly how Britain can extract itself from a political, legal and trading network that it’s been part of for more than forty years.
As the opening chapter explains: outlook not good. The problem with Brexit is that it’s not a simple proposition. “Brexit means Brexit,” Theresa May said firmly upon entering Downing Street, a meaningless tautology that will nonetheless go down in history textbooks which are unlikely to look kindly upon her and her current cabinet. After explaining exactly what the EU is and how Britain relates to it (not as silly as it sounds, since most Brits probably have only a vague idea) Dunt spends some time examining the three Brexit ministers – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – and how they’ve behaved since the referendum. Johnson has published multiple articles which contradict each other and ludicrously state that freedom of movement will continue; Fox repeatedly failed to understand that it’s illegal for the UK to make trade arrangements with other countries while still part of the EU; Davis conducted a meeting shortly after the referendum with business leaders who were pulled aside by civil servants beforehand and warned to only say they were positive and excited about the “opportunities” of Brexit.
By the end of this short and sobering book it seems very clear that few British people, whether they’re Merseyside plumbers or Tory Cabinet ministers, have much of an idea about exactly what the EU does and how catastrophic Brexit has the potential to be. Go on any Facebook or Twitter thread, or the comments section of online articles, and you will find a legion of Leave voters, lecturers at the University of Some Bloke At The Pub, happy to scoff at the notion that Britain will be anything other than enormously successful. There are no challenges or problems in Brexit-land, just a happily-raised middle finger at those faceless eurocrats in Brussels.
This is the problem Dunt finds so infuriating: not the concept of Britain leaving the EU in general, but the fact that it’s doing that so recklessly, so thoughtlessly, in a maelstrom of jingoistic tub-thumping and blind nostalgia for the British glory of a forgotten age. And, worse, that this shortsighted nationalism has infected the very highest level of politics. The book’s epigraph is a quote from Michael Gove:
“I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms, saying they know what’s best and consistently getting it wrong.”
Sky News, 3 June 2016*
*When told that the leaders of the US, China, India, Australia, the bank of England, the IMF, the IFS, the CBI, five former NATO Secretary-Generals, the chief executive of the NHS and most of Britain’s trade unions opposed Britain leaving the EU.
Foreign readers may not find Brexit particularly compelling reading; I’m Australian, but I care about politics, I lived in Britain for a year and I still have a job which means I need to watch a lot of BBC and Sky. (On a side note, as an Australian, the Remainer assumption that the UK can just turn around and find all the old countries of the Commonwealth waiting for it is hilarious. Nations don’t have friends, they have interests, and they also have their own scheming politicians and hysterical tabloids.) I also think the world’s fifth-largest economy cutting off its nose to spite its face will ultimately affect all of us. But the reason I think Dunt’s book is worthwhile reading no matter where you live is because it touches on that nerve of modern ignorance: the insidious influence of populist politics and the dismissal of people who actually know what the fuck they’re talking about. The most obvious example of this is Trump, but you can see it everywhere, as Facebook echo chambers slowly replace actual news and opinion from measured, intelligent sources. A few years ago I started working for a news network and was subject to countless hours of vox populi, and the inane, pig-headed, simple-minded nonsense that spouts from the mouth of the man on the Manly ferry when you put a microphone in front of him slowly eroded any respect I ever had for the intelligence of the common citizen. I try to avoid using the word stupid – many of these people are mechanics and doctors and engineers and environmental scientists, all of their heads swimming with skills and abilities I could never have. But they’re ignorant. Everybody is ignorant of something, and nearly all of us are ignorant of EU political relationships and trade law. So putting a loosely-worded referendum to the entire populace, after years and years of tabloid propaganda, purely as a domestic political move to placate the right wing of your own party, arrogantly assuming you’ll easily win – was that maybe a stupid thing to do, Dave?
A lot of people, particularly Remainers, assume it will be no big deal. They are going to be painfully proven wrong. What we’re going to see is millions of EU citizens in the UK now living in fear of deportation, every British citizen being stripped of their EU citizenship rights, the jeopardisation of decades of peace in Northern Ireland with the possibility of the return of a hard border (astoundingly, David Davis seemed to believe in one interview that the Republic of Ireland is part of the UK), a second Scottish independence referendum, and a volatile economy and weak pound for a decade to come. But I’m sure it will be worth it for English people to get their bendy bananas back.
I’m clearly a tad more partisan about this than Dunt. But as I said, it’s not really Brexit itself: it’s the worrying trend of abandoning facts, reason and logic and replacing them with sloganeering and feelgood fantasies. It’s about understanding exactly what it is you’re tinkering with before you rip it apart (see also: the “Washington establishment”). I can guarantee you that the vast majority of Leave voters – and Remain voters, for that matter – and even the vast majority of the British Parliament would be unaware of the problems examined in this book, even now, nine months after the referendum. For those of us outside Europe, this is worthwhile reading. For those poor sods in Britain it’s essential.
I think the last time I saw something slowly playing out on television and thought “this wasn’t supposed to happen” was the 2015 UK election. (Brexit, despite what people seem to think now, was always tight in the polls.) That was a mild version of this, because Cameron and Osborne cannot begin to compare to this. An election result that goes to the party you don’t support is a fluffy daydream compared to this. This is more like 9/11: watching something on your TV screen which you know cannot possibly be real. Something which, therefore, does not feel real. Something which makes you feel as though you’ve woken up in a nightmare. Something which makes you feel as though you are witnessing history in the making, and not in a good way; you are watching the dawn of a darker time.
We are all fucked. It is difficult to underscore how fucked we are. I am not American; by “we,” I mean everybody on the planet. Every human being.
This has nothing to do with being a left-winger. Of course I would prefer a Democrat in the White House. But this is not the same as if John McCain or Mitt Romney had won the presidency. This is a chilling, unprecedented catastrophe in the making. Every other Republican candidate in that race obeyed the norms and conventions of a liberal democracy. I’ve said throughout this election that if it were a vote between Trump and, say, Dick Cheney, I wouldn’t just vote for Cheney – I’d fucking volunteer for him. Donald Trump represents a historically unique threat to the United States and, therefore, to the world, and I am far from the first person to say this.
In the short term, I am frightened for the economy. Today the Dow Jones fell 750 points – more than the first day of trading after 9/11! I am frightened that the first year of Trump’s administration will usher in a global depression which will make 2008 look like a joke. I am frightened that now that Australia’s mining boom is over – and given that Trump has proposed 45% tariffs on Chinese imports – Australia will not, this time, be shielded from the worst of it. I am worried for my savings, my scant investments, my shitty job that I badly need. White male privilege, sure, whatever. Economic recession isn’t good for anybody anywhere in the world.
In the medium term I am worried about a man like Trump with access to America’s nuclear arsenal. Did you know that “the President has almost single authority to initiate a nuclear attack“? Is it beyond the realms of imagination that he might choose to nuke, say, Raqqa? Can you imagine him having a cool head to handle a potential crisis on the Korean peninsula? Would you be comfortable, as he apparently is, with an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia, with Saudi Arabia and South Korea and Japan developing nuclear weapons? This planet has gone 76 years without using a nuclear weapon in conflict. We all collectively came through the Cold War unscathed. Will that still be true in four years?
In the long-term, I am worried about society – human society, everybody’s society. The rise of populist nationalism across the Western world has been bad. Brexit was bad. Nothing has made me feel despair like this. Nothing has made me worry more that we are slouching towards a science fiction dystopia, a William Gibson novel, the end of The Bone Clocks, a dark and frightening world of inequality and hate and survival and despair. Americans have willingly voted for a man who ignores all democratic norms, who believes climate change is a hoax, who shows a disturbing love of authoritarian dictators like Vladimir Putin, who said he would only accept the election result if he won, who has called for the jailing of his political opponent for nonsensical reasons, who has willingly stoked racial division and bigotry in ways the Republican Party had previously only flirted with.
Trump is already a disgrace to his office and to his country simply by being what he is: an arrogant, bloviating, bullying, cruel, erratic, hypocritical, ignorant, inexperienced, lying, narcissistic, vindictive, racist, sexist, sleazy, swaggering, tax-avoiding, thin-skinned monster. He is a monster. Nearly every bad adjective you can say about somebody applies to him, and I literally cannot think of a good one. (He’s not even a good businessman, he just plays one on TV – if he’d invested his inheritance in index funds and played golf for the past 40 years he’d have more money than he does now.)
He is a man who has been caught on tape talking about committing sexual assault, and has been accused of sexual assault by dozens of women.
He is a man who appears to be running for president – who has won the presidency, Jesus fucking Christ! – simply to serve his own ego, his narcissism, his desperate need for fame and adulation.
I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t know why I’m linking to examples, when everybody already knows all this, after the last torturous year which turned out to be merely a harbinger for the horror about to descend on us.
Maybe I can’t fathom what has happened. I don’t understand how a country which voted for Obama twice could vote for this. I can’t believe that a majority of Americans looked at this self-entitled piece of shit; this dangerous, know-nothing braggart; this man who is plainly, obviously unfit for any kind of public office, who clearly never thinks of anyone else but himself, and thought: “Yes, OK. Let’s give him what he wants. Let’s let him live in the White House and sit in the Oval Office. Let’s let him have the nuclear codes. Let’s make him President of the United States.”
This is beyond satire. This is beyond nightmares. This feels like a rejected Hollywood script. This is a waking nightmare for intelligent people all over the world. I do not know what is going to happen in the next four years and I do not particularly want to find out. I do not want to see white supremacists given carte blanche to harass and assault African-Americans and Muslim-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. I do not want the economy to crater. I do not want to see nuclear weapons used. I do not want to see agreements on climate change rolled back, I do not want to see the world cope with billions of climate refugees by the time I’m in my old age. I do not want this horrid, awful man to feel the satisfaction of once again getting exactly what he wanted. I do not want to see the democratic norms of the United States undermined by voter suppression continuing, by Trump considering bullshit criminal charges against Clinton, by Trump appointing some crackpot alt-right judge to the Supreme Court. I do not want to feel the horrible, sickening sensation of my planet, my species, my lifetime, pitching forward off a cliff and into a dark and ugly void.
Britain goes to the polls tomorrow in one of the tightest elections in living memory. For a political nerd like me it’s been quite enjoyable living here during an election campaign. Despite having the same basic parliamentary system as Britain, Australia has certain key differences, and of course being a different country means that while you might have the same system, you have a different political environment. Both countries’ politics are fucked, but they’re fucked in different and interesting ways.
Labour and the Conservatives are neck-and-neck in the polls, which is to say they’re both on about 34% and, despite what both party leaders claim, they’re therefore both going to fall well short of the majority required to command the confidence of Parliament and thus retain or seize government. John Lanchester has been running an entertaining and informative election diary at the LRB, and he has a breakdown of the potential results here. Suffice to say that no matter how you cut it nobody will get a majority, just as in the 2010 election, when the Conservatives were begrudgingly forced into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Support for the Lib Dems has badly flagged in the five years since then, while north of the border, the Scottish National Party – despite the failed referendum last year – has grown so strong and popular that it’s not out of the question they might win every single seat in Scotland. By far the most likely scenario is that the SNP will be kingmakers, and there is zero chance they will support a Conservative government. Yet Ed Miliband has consistently ruled out a coalition with the SNP, even on an informal basis. This is bizarre. I know he needs to go out on the campaign trail and pretend Labour can win enough seats to form government, but he’s not stupid; he knows how this is going to play out, and his pre-election refusal to deal with the SNP will surely haunt him as much as Julia Gillard’s infamous words “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.”
Speaking of Gillard, one of the ways in which British and Australian politics are similar is that in both countries, the electorate is mortified by the concept of a coalition or a hung parliament, despite this being the norm in most of Europe. I wrote about this a few years back. I believed then – and still believe, in both Australia and the UK – that this is a symptom of the Americanisation of politics, and a sheer lack of understanding about how the nation operates and a childish desire for a “strong” leader. The Westminster system is not supposed to produce a extremely powerful executive like an American president. It’s supposed to produce a legislative assembly which passes laws, with Prime Minister and Cabinet being an afterthought.
The buzzword of the final week of the campaign, courtesy of the Tories and the right-wing press, has been “legitimacy.” People who should know far better have been talking on the BBC and writing in newspaper columns about how unfair it would be if the party with the most seats didn’t form government. That is not how Parliament works, and there’s no excuse for not knowing that, because it’s not a difficult concept to grasp. Nor can I fathom why anybody, apart from die-hard major party supporters, considers the influence of other voices in a diverse parliament to be a bad thing. Who would prefer a single-party government which rubber stamps its agenda, rather than a minority government which must negotiate and compromise with smaller parties and independents? Which of those options sounds like a healthier democracy?
Nonetheless, I have no doubt the British populace will be subjected to constant Tory whining about legitimacy for the next five years in the same way the Australian people were forced to endure Tony Abbott’s aggressive three-year campaign against the legitimacy of the Gillard government. At the moment the Tories seem to be focusing their spite at the SNP (the word “propped up” gets thrown around a lot), which if nothing else totally validates the Yes vote in last year’s Scottish independence referendum. The Scots are being treated like interlopers in their own country’s general election. Still, the Tories would be wise to stay focused on that, rather than arguing that they deserve to form government because they have the most seats; that draws to attention the unrepresentative aspect of the Westminster system, in which the Greens can get 6% of the popular vote but take only one seat, while the SNP can get 4% and take fifty-nine seats. It’s not a thread the Tories should pull. (On the other hand, it worked for Abbott.)
The most important reason this is a superior system than any other, to my eyes, is how entertaining it all is. Not only does Britain have a far larger and more diverse Parliament than Australia, so you can ponder, say, how Cameron might get over the line with the assistance of the Democratic Unionist Party, but the sheer closeness of this election has made it fascinating. It’s essentially a four-way race, with the minor parties holding more power in the post-election negotiating stage than the major parties. An election campaign, as in any country, is the most rigidly stage-managed and predictable part of any political cycle. The real battle for Downing Street begins on Friday. (Make your own majority with the BBC’s weirdly animated tool!)
I thought about whether I should vote or not. I’m entitled to, not only as an Irish citizen, but as a Commonwealth citizen residing in the UK – a courtesy which Australia, at least, doesn’t extend back towards the British. (Curiously, EU citizens residing in Britain are ineligible.) It seems a bit dishonest to vote in an election when I’m leaving the country in a few months. On the other hand, Britain is an important enough country to influence the rest of the world; I doubt Abbott and the IPA would be trying to strip away Australian workers’ basic rights if Reagan and Thatcher hadn’t made neoliberalism the new world religion in the 1980s. I also feel like it’s morally OK to vote because I live in a safe seat anyway – Bethnal Green and Bow, which will almost certainly go to Labour. Of course, this raises the point of whether it’s worth voting at all.
This is where Britain and Australia diverge quite sharply. We have safe seats in Australia as well, of course, but we also have the Senate. Everybody in an Australian state has an equal say in the senators that state sends to Canberra, so your vote matters even if you live in the safest seat in the country. Britain, on the other hand, has the House of Lords. I consider myself a fairly well-read and knowledgeable person, but until I started doing work for the BBC a few years ago, I thought it was just a name. I hadn’t realised the House of Lords is actually an unelected upper house – in the fucking 21st century!
Furthermore, Britain doesn’t have preferential voting, although this is a case where Australia is ahead of the curve rather than Britain lagging behind. It makes the entire voting system deeply undemocratic. If you live in a swing seat, do you make a tactical vote to keep your least preferred party out of office? Or do you follow your heart and vote for the Greens or Plaid Cymru or UKIP? (If you’re a right-wing/libertarian American, think about the choice to vote for Gary Johnson or John McCain in 2012; if you’re a left-wing American, think about the choice between Ralph Nader and Al Gore in 2000.) A preferential voting system removes this undemocratic issue completely, and it still boggles my mind that the British people soundly rejected it in a referendum in 2011. I suppose you can chalk that one up to the power of negative campaigning and the Tory-dominated press.
So I can totally understand why so many British people feel apathetic and disenfranchised. The system is stacked against them. On the other hand, Australia’s compulsory voting changes the dynamics once again. In Australia, a safe seat is definitely safe, because virtually everybody votes. In Britain, the turnout was 65% at the 2010 election; slightly higher than the 58% turnout in the 2012 US presidential election, but still shameful. As long as voter participation remains so low, you can’t really argue that your vote doesn’t matter or won’t change anything, even if you live in a safe seat.
So I’m going to vote tomorrow. If I was in a marginal I’d vote for Labour, but I’m not, so I’ll vote Green. The Green Party of England is a little more soy-and-lentil than their respectable (and respectably successful) Australian counterparts, but I nonetheless feel it’s an important movement that needs support. Tim Winton once said that a hundred years ago it was a case of “Daddy, what did you do in the war?” whereas in the future it will be “Daddy, what did you do to stop our planet turning into a salt pit?” But, yes, really, I’m going in to vote because I’m an irredeemable nerd and I’m curious to see what the process is like in another country.
Australia is a “nation of victims” with citizens unable to properly protect themselves with weapons, pro-gun crossbench senator David Leyonhjelm has said.
The Liberal Democrat said he wanted a calm, measured discussion about the right to “practical self-defence” in the wake of the deadly Sydney siege.
The Senator goes on to claim that: “What happened in that cafe would have been most unlikely to have occurred in Florida, Texas, or Vermont, or Alaska in America, or perhaps even Switzerland as well.”
I stayed up until 3:00am London time watching ABC24’s online feed of the Sydney cafe siege with a mix of unease and fascination, and followed it further at work the next day as it unbelievably dragged on for hours and hours. I also watched with contempt as a number of Americans with a political axe to grind descended on the Twitter hashtag and proclaimed that such a thing would never happen in America, with its prevalent gun ownership; a sentiment one of our politicians has decided to adopt, even before funerals are held for the two Sydneysiders who were murdered.
Put aside, for a moment, the notion that America is never visited by mass shootings or terrorist attacks. At the same time the siege was unfolding in Sydney, a gunman in Pennsylvania killed three times as many people. Rarely does the world provide such a stark, timely example that perhaps people should reconsider the logic of their beliefs.
The concept that armed citizens are the best way to stop gun violence has become a popular argument in America in recent years, despite the fact that in the extensive annals of American spree shootings, it has literally never happened. Someone came close during a shooting in Las Vegas earlier this year, but was instead killed by one of the perpetrators.
I’m slightly off track when it comes to Australia’s gun laws, which have broad community support, whatever libertarians like Leyonhjelm say. I believe people have a right, within reason, to own weapons for self-defence; the concept of the state removing that right makes me uneasy. But not as uneasy as I would be to live in a country in which 30 people die from firearms violence every day.
Since drastically tightening gun ownership laws after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, Australia has had no further mass shootings. It’s worth mentioning, however, that in 2002 a mentally disturbed student entered Monash University and shot and killed two students (this limited death toll is apparently why the incident is not generally considered a “massacre” or “mass shooting.”) He was prevented from killing any more because a lecturer and some students tackled him. He had six handguns; the Virginia Tech shooter only had two. If it wasn’t for the bravery and quick-thinking of those in the room with him, the incident could have been far worse.
I mention this not to say that our gun laws are ineffectual or useless or that they should be repealed, but as an example of how random mass shootings are – as we all know, the worst in history didn’t take place in the US at all, but in Norway, a bastion of liberal, left-wing gun control. There are more factors involved than the accessibility of firearms, and while we can control them to some extent, we can never truly prevent them.
But gun control isn’t about mass shootings – or at least, it shouldn’t be. The issue is always viewed through that big, lurid prism of body counts and police stand-offs, which make global headlines and bring the pundits into the studios to talk about how this might be a catalyst for change. But the vast majority of America’s gun violence victims don’t go down at the hands of a crazed mass shooter. They die in ones and twos, on street corners in black neighbourhoods, in botched armed robberies, in domestic disputes or arguments that turn violent.
Those are the facts of the matter. Senator Leyonhjelm doesn’t want “a calm and measured discussion” any more than the Americans on Twitter who saw a hostage crisis unfolding, attached it to one of the only things they know about Australia, and decided it was a good time to push their own political agenda. Leyonhjelm is a libertarian purist who bases his beliefs on abstract philosophy rather than real-world facts; what he wants is guns back in people’s hands, irrelevant of the plain statistics which prove that Australia’s gun laws have saved lives.
Like so many Americans, Leyonhjelm wishes the statistics told a different story. But they don’t.
I could add my outrage, disappointment and weariness to the collective gnashing of left-wing teeth across Australia today, but we don’t need to see any more than that. What I do want to do is address the perception of “stable government,” since Australia’s perceived lack thereof is partly what led to Labor being ousted from office despite keeping us out of recession in 2008 and continuing to deliver an economy that Europe and the United States can only dream about. (I also believe, by the way, that we live in a society and not an economy – but this is how the debate is framed these days, for better or worse. Well, worse, obviously.)
Tony Abbott’s promise to bring us “stable government” and his attacks on Labor as being a government of “chaos” and “mismanagement” stem from two things: Labor’s leadership changes and the hung parliament of 2010. The leadership knifings were absolutely Labor’s own fault, but arguing that two leadership changes in six years of government constitutes “chaos” is ridiculous. Gillard knifing Rudd and Rudd knifing Gillard did not make us lose our life savings, did not dramatically increase the rate of soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan, did not result in the rolling blackouts across major cities. It made us roll our eyes. That’s all. If you want an insight into chaos and mismanagement, go speak to the people of Greece or Spain or Ireland.
The notion that a hung parliament resulted in an unstable government is even more irritating, given that it reveals the extent of Australians’ misunderstanding of our political system. Although the papers and nightly news bulletins treat us to unlimited images of our glorious Prime Minister and Opposition Leader under the barrage of photo flash bulbs, arriving or departing from endless photo opportunities at small businesses, this is not America – and no matter how much the press wants it to be, this isn’t a presidential campaign. The Office of Prime Minister is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution; neither are any of the Cabinet positions. This is why there was a lot of sneering in certain circles at the widespread outrage after the first knifing, when Australians believed the faceless men of the Labor Party had robbed them of their democratic right. This sneering was misplaced, because while we may not directly elect a prime minister, we walk into the booth knowing full well that whether we vote for a Liberal or Labor candidate will determine who becomes prime minister, and that’s what most people are really thinking about when they put a number next to a box, regardless of whose name is next to it.
So, yes, your vote does elect a prime minister. But more importantly, what it does is determine which party will control the House – a democratic body of representatives who vote on the passage of legislation. An insistence on “stable government,” and distaste at a hung parliament, suggests that Australians have been bewitched by American elections into thinking that individual candidates matter more than a party’s policies. Labor received a bounce in opinion polls of almsot 10% after reinstalling Rudd in June. That’s a big number. 1 in every 10 Australians apparently decided to change their vote based purely on a personality. There was not a single policy difference between either leader; whereas the differences between Labor and Liberal, despite narrowing under Rudd and Gillard’s stewardship, remain stark.
In a hung parliament, the balance of power is controlled by minor parties and independents, and the passage of legislation is dependent on debate, discussion and compromise. In a majority government parliament, the ruling party will rubber-stamp whatever legislation they want through the House. Which sounds more democratic to you?
Australians seem to understand the concept of checks and balance, and why it can be a good, tempering influence for a minor party to hold the balance of power – that’s why the Greens historically do much better in the Senate, and have held the balance of power there for the past decade. When it comes to the House, though, Australians don’t like that, because the make-up of the House determines who’ll be the faux-presidential figure to “lead the country” – and never mind something as boring and trivial as, you know, legislation.
The House of Representatives is the heart of our democracy, not the office down the hallway where the Prime Minister sits. We are not at war. We do not require a figurehead to make critical, immediate decisions for us. Belgium went 18 months without a government a few years ago, and the earth did not open up and swallow the nation. The trains still ran, the grocery shops were still open, you could still apply for a passport and you still had to pay your taxes. The Labor government of the past six years was no more “unstable” than John Howard’s was or Tony Abbott’s will be. If you want to see instability, go to the Middle East.
What it ultimately comes down to, beyond ignorance, is that Australians don’t like change. We hadn’t had a hung parliament in living memory, and the populace recoiled from this new experience like a vampire emerging into daylight. Australia is a deeply conservative country that wants things to stay just as they always have been – which is why we now have a prime minister who is going to halt any efforts at stopping climate change, dismantle the work that had begun on a badly-needed national broadband network, and continue the deeply racist immigration policies of his forebears.
Australia is currently patting itself on the back for having a “discussion about race.” This shallow, vapid “discussion” revolves around a few recent events. To sum up: at last Friday night’s AFL game, Indigenous Sydney footballer Adam Goodes was called an ape by a 13-year-old Collingwood fan. She was ejected from the grounds, Goodes was too upset to continue the match, and was approached in the Sydney rooms afterwards by Collingwood president Eddie McGuire to offer a personal apology. Goodes asked the media not to vilify the girl herself, but to think about how she was a product of the casual attitude towards racism that exists in Australia. McGuire, whose conduct was similarly exemplary, then fucked it up by saying on breakfast radio that Goodes could promote King Kong the musical.
Most of the coverage revolves around whether the girl knew “ape” was racist, whether McGuire’s apology was good enough, whether he should he step down as Collingwood president, etc. This is how racism controversies always play out in the Australian media: we behave as though racist comments are mere insults that reflect poorly on the character of the person making them, rather than symptomatic of the deep and persistent racism this country was founded upon. We pretend that racist remarks are the cause rather than the effect. This is why there are thousands upon thousands of comments and tweets and letters to the editor voicing opinions ranging from genuine confusion about why Goodes was so upset to sneering remarks that he should “toughen up.”
It’s all well and good to call out public figures for making racist remarks, but the entire affair is pointless unless people are told why it’s wrong to make racist remarks. This seems obvious, but apparently they need to be. Plenty of white people will compare being called an ape to being called a Pom or a sheep-shagger, either oblivious or willfully blind to the social and cultural context that separates Brits and Kiwis from Aboriginals. A visitor from a foreign culture or an alien planet could be forgiven that thinking Indigenous Australians are on the same rung of society as white Australians. Because, contrary to the narrative of Australia’s Big Conversation About Race, the issue is not “Aboriginal person called name by white person.” The issue is “Aboriginal people still suffering the consequences of a white empire that occupied their land by force.”
Sam de Brito, hardly Australia’s most articulate or thoughtful columnist, is one of the few I can think of who has pointed out the elephant in the room over the past few days:
…That hurt is proportionate to the suffering, malevolence, violence, cruelty and indignity that men and women experienced during slavery in the US.
This is an experience to which we have never given full acknowledgement in this country. We do not understand the anger, the shame, the frustration, the bitterness and sorrow of what was taken from indigenous Australians…
…We said “sorry”, but for what? Crippling your culture? Raping your women? Murdering your children? Ingraining shame into your upbringing? Alienating you from contemporary culture to the point there is not one indigenous TV personality regularly seen on our TV screens?
White Australians say “harden up” and “get over it” about racist jokes because that’s what they really want Aboriginals to do about the dispossession of their land and the continuing marginalisation of their people. Harden up. Get over it. Stop complaining, stop drinking, stop being unemployed. Stop making me feel guilty.
Until the Australian media can link these regular racism controversies together into what they are – a reflection of racism in our society, and an acknowledgement of the fact that we fucked Aboriginals over and we’re still fucking them over – then this scenario is going to play out over and over again like an Escher drawing.
The Prime Minister has outlined the Government’s plan for an early troop withdrawal from Afghanistan which could see the majority of Australian soldiers return by the end of 2013.
The Government had been working towards bringing Australian soldiers home by the end of 2014, the date set down by the NATO-led international forces.
But Julia Gillard says security has improved in Afghanistan and it is likely the majority of Australian troops will leave next year.
“This is a war with a purpose, this is a war with an end. We have a strategy, a mission and a timeframe for achieving it,” she said in an address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“PM confirms expedited Afghan exit,” ABC News, 17 April 2012
The national discourse surrounding this announcement – surrounding this whole war – pisses me off. First is the assumption that anybody in Washington or London or Berlin or Kabul gives a flying fuck whether Australia’s meagre token force is there or not. The Taliban will see it as a symbolic victory, the ISAF as a symbolic loss. Australians should be questioning the fact that their contribution is considered merely ‘symbolic.’
Second is the Prime Minister’s rhetoric-laden speech about how this isn’t a defeat or a withdrawal, but rather a transfer of responsibility to Afghan forces, who will maintain the current status quo of peace, prosperity and stability for which Afghanistan is renowned across the globe. (Imagine what it will be like if they lose any further control.) But nah, I’m sure it’s fine, we’ve been training these guys for nearly a decade. They must be nearly ready now, right?
Third is the ludicrous notion that this is all according to plan, all going swimmingly, a perfectly reasonable and logical step in the itinerary. A five-year-old child born years after 9/11 could point out to our Prime Minister that this is actually a frustrated and hasty political manoeuvre, part of a grander tapestry of hubristic defeat for Western forces. Put quite simply: we are losing this war. Our aims are vague, our forces huddle inside fortified compounds, and our mission has gone from rooting out al-Qaeda to creating a stable democracy to withdrawal by 2014 no matter what the cost. Since Australia’s stake extends no further than supporting US foreign policy as part of the ANZUS alliance – no matter how fucking stupid, badly-planned and frankly naive American wars might be – it’s in our political interest to be the first to leave the party. I mean, hey, we did stick around for eleven years, which is pretty late. But, you know, we’ve got work in the morning, so we’d better get going. Nice seeing you, though!
Countless left-wing commentators will talk about how the military-industrial complex controls this (and every) war, and how it’s not supposed to have clear goals or resolutions, but exists merely to make money for certain sections of Western society. I have no doubt that the relationship between military manufacturers and the interior of the Beltway has been a prominent geopolitical force over the last decade, but right here, right now, in Afghanistan? Their calls are clearly no longer a priority. Our mission in that country has morphed into nothing more sophisticated than a frantic dash for the exit. There is no more damning indictment against our alleged noble purpose than hearing Julia Gillard, David Cameron and Barack Obama talk over and over and over again about how we will be sticking to our scheduled departure date of 2014, apparently with the iron-clad certainty that the security situation will improve by then. How do you think it makes Afghans feel to know that we’re bailing in two years, no matter what? How do you think it makes the Taliban feel?
Here is the plain truth. The public has grown weary of this war, the military has grown weary of this war, politicians have grown weary of this war, and it’s evident to everyone that if we stick around in this static misery we will be in precisely the same situation in 2022 – an endless baton relay, the Afghan runner sprinting ever further ahead of us, never willing or able to take the flame. We went into a foreign country with zero understanding of its culture, background or context, and we are paying the price of our own arrogance. Or, rather, the Afghans are paying the price, and will continue to pay the price. Western leaders never once cared about the people of Afghanistan. For John Howard, Tony Blair and George Bush, Afghanistan was an irritating nest of terrorists to be exterminated; for Julia Gillard, David Cameron and Barack Obama it’s an irritating geopolitical swamp to extricate our armies from. There’s a common viewpoint which says that national leaders care about nothing but getting re-elected, but even the most altruistic of national leaders observe the world through the prism of their own nation’s interests. Never ever forget that when you’re watching Gillard or Cameron or Obama banging on about “the people of Afghanistan.”
So, here’s what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. We’re going to hang out for two more years, get a bunch of Afghans killed, get a lot of our own soldiers killed, waste a lot of money, and leave with the
South Vietnamese Army Afghan National Army being judged capable of handling its own security. Within the next 1-3 years, the government will be overthrown and the Taliban will be in control again, which will be an appropriate amount of time for the West to save face and argue that it was the Afghans’ fault. For however long the fall of the government goes on – likely no more than two or three weeks – it will feature between page 5 and page 10 of the newspapers, and receive third billing in the 6pm news bulletins.
Every soldier who died in Afghanistan – American, Australian, Dutch, Canadian, any of them – died for nothing. Don’t get on my case about that. Don’t accuse me of disrespecting the troops, who sacrifice their lives for our countries. It’s exactly because the troops sacrifice their lives for our countries that they deserve honesty. They deserve to know precisely why they’re sacrificing their lives, and what that sacrifice will accomplish. They deserve to know why we’re going to war, whether we’ve thought it through properly, and what difference it’s going to make. They don’t deserve to be treated like chess pawns, maneuvered throughout Central Asia in a 21st century reboot of the Great Game, paid off with the sickeningly childish refrain of “this is a war with a purpose, and a war with an end.”
Julia Gillard is making the right decision for the wrong reason. Whatever. We lost this war a long time ago. Bring our troops home, because they sure as fuck aren’t making a difference there. And if you really want to help Afghans, and save Afghan women from the brutal rule of the Taliban? Increase the refugee intake.
The U.S. President recently visited Australia and was greeted with gushing adulation from almost every part of our society. This came not just from the people one expects it from, like our lapdog politicians or lazy media, but also from ordinary people, even those who are generally quite politically aware. I was particularly disappointed by Senator Bob Brown, who rightly heckled George Bush in 2003, but who shook Barack Obama’s hand and gushed about it on Twitter later. Australians apparently don’t pay enough attention to foreign politics to realise that it isn’t November 2008 anymore, and rather than being the reincarnation of Martin Luther King, the anti-Bush, the answer to the evil of the last decade, Obama has instead turned out to be a disgrace to his office and a traitor to his country – for all the same reasons Bush was.
A quick recap of why Obama is a terrible President and a bad person:
1. Failure to prosecute Bush Administration officials for what were clearly war crimes. (The usual cop-out argument appears to be “it would tear the country apart/it was a time of war and bad decisions were made/it’s an outrageous Radical Left-Wing idea. Apparently the President is above the law. I see why America went to the trouble of deposing the monarchy.)
2. Engaging in his own war crimes, such as kidnapping people and throwing them into prison for years on end without trial. (Astute readers will note that this is a continued
Mao Stalin Bush policy.)
3. Slaughtering Pakistani civilians by the bucketload with flying robots, which will breed a new generation of terrorists more efficiently than anything else I can think of. (This was a policy that began under Bush and was honed and cultivated to successful new levels under Obama.)
5. An unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers who expose government waste, wrongdoing or criminal acts.
6. Total subserviance to the reckless plutocrats who obliterated the U.S. economy and ruined millions of lives.
I was genuinely excited in November 2008, when Obama was elected President. I have long since accepted his betrayal, and come to the realisation that no matter who sits in the White House, the U.S. government will always be the U.S. government. What I now have to accept is that intelligent, progressive, left-wing politicians like Bob Brown are either too ignorant to realise or to shallow to care that Obama is just as much of a murderer, bully and tyrant as George Bush.
The Road To Wigan Pier by George Orwell (1937) 232 p.
After returning from Burma in 1927, George Orwell found that his beliefs and prejudices had been completely upturned after witnessing the evil brutality of the British imperial system. He decided he wanted “to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man. I wanted to submerge myself, to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against the tyrants.”
He ended up spending much time amongst the working class, and the result of that was his excellent book Down And Out In Paris And London, which I read last year and greatly enjoyed. The Road To Wigan Pier continues in this vein, but was written several years later after Orwell had established himself as a writer and distilled his outrage into a coherent socialist philosophy. He was commisioned by an organisation called the Left Book Club to carry out a report on the living conditions of the unemployed in England’s industrial North. This investigation comprises the first half of the book; the second comprises Orwell’s reflections upon that situation, and what must be done about it.
I preferred the first half of the book to the second, as Orwell throws himself into the atrocious hovels and slums of Wigan and Sheffield, making his usual wry and witty observations. (“There are also houses of what is called the ‘blind back’ type, which are single houses, but in which the builder has omitted to put in a back door – from pure spite, apparently.”) Orwell’s famous dedication to clear, concise writing makes him endlessly entertaining and readable, and he comes up with some marvellous similes.
The second half of the book was less entertaining; it is largely a political essay, which I don’t mind, but like many essays in Shooting An Elephant it is quite dated. Orwell wrote this book in the late 30s when socialism was still considered a feasible possibility in many parts of society, and while fascism was running rampant across Europe. He very clearly thought the next major struggle in the world would be between Fascism and Socialism, not Capitalism and Communism. Reading through it, I was mostly struck by how wrong Orwell turned out to be. He spends much of his time arguing why socialism had failed to gain many adherents, and one of his points is that many people disliked industrialism and mentally associated it with socialism. Orwell himself, while believing it to be “here to stay,” is also quite critical of what he calls “the machine-society.” He then later says:
There is no chance of righting the conditions I described in the earlier chapters of this book, or of saving England from Fascism, unless we can bring an effective Socialist party into existence. It will have to be a party with genuinely revolutionary intentions, and it will have to be numerically strong enough to act. We can only get it if we offer an objective which fairly ordinary people will recognise as desirable. Beyond all else, therefore, we need intelligent propaganda. Less about ‘class consciousness,’ ‘expropriation of the expropriators,’ bourgeois ideology,’ and ‘proletarian solidarity,’ not to mention the sacred sisters, thesis, antithesis and synthesis; and more about justice, liberty and the plight of the unemployed. And less about mechanical progress, tractors, the Dneiper dam and the latest salmon-canning factory in Moscow; that kind of thing is not an integral part of Socialist doctrine, and it drives away many people whom the Socialist cause needs, including most of those who can hold a pen.
No such Socialist party came about, yet England was not consumed by Fascism. And how were the conditions in northern England righted? Through technological advances and the progress of the machine-society which Orwell so disapproved of. There is clearly still an imbalance of wealth in England today, but to compare the houses of the working class now with the houses of the working class of eighty years ago is to compare modern luxury with medieval squalor. Television, broadband Internet, mass-produced clothing, central heating, affordable white goods, hot water, subsidised medical care and unfailing electricity combine to create what the miners and labourers of Orwell’s day would regard as paradise.
Curiously enough, Orwell actually touched upon in the first half of the book:
And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.
The difference, of course, is that the modern British welfare state (which I am not particularly familiar with the history of, but which appears to exist in a limited form in The Road To Wigan Pier) ensures that nobody is actually starving, even if they have been unemployed their entire lives. Whether or not the “cheap luxuries” of today seem superior to those of Orwell’s time because of my own modern vantage point, or because they actually are, is hard to say. Perhaps eighty years from now we will all have robot butlers and want for nothing, and consider having to work forty hours a week to have been a cruel and terrible fate.
Then, however, there’s the fact that our own cheap luxuries are not a result of the industrial process having been perfected, but rather because the Western world simply bucked its “working” class status onto East Asia. Now the same thing is happening in China, as hundreds of millions are lifted out of poverty and expect higher living standards, and manufacturers look to Vietnam or Indonesia or somewhere else where people are still poor and will work for a dollar a day. What happens when everybody on Earth is rich and prosperous? I can’t find the exact quote, but somewhere in The Road To Wigan Pier Orwell mentions that the whole world is a raft flying through space, which contains more than enough for everybody to live comfortably. This may have been true at the time, but it certainly isn’t today; the one or two billion OECD citizens are living well beyond their means, let alone the five billion in the developing world. Either we will exhaust the planet’s resources and collapse into a prolonged Dark Age of death, misery and poverty, or we will expand space travel and harvest the resources of other planets to provide for the billions of new TV-watching, Coke-drinking people who will be created once the developing world finishes developing, which will certainly happen within the next fifty years. And, ironically enough, the most likely push for that more optimistic outcome will be capitalist thirst for raw materials.
As you can see, Orwell gets me thinking. I didn’t enjoy The Road To Wigan Pier quite as much as Down And Out In Paris And London, but it’s still an excellent book and a valuable historical document.
Terry Lane has an article in the recent Australian Book Review about freedom of speech in this country, which is something I’ve been thinking about lately.
There is no guarantee of freedom of speech in our constitution. In some cases the High Court has found an implied protection, ruling that as the constitution envisages the nation as a democracy, and as democracy cannot function if political argument is impeded, then the drafters of the constitution must have taken freedom of speech for granted. This is convenient eyewash.
The Australian constitution is derived, in part, from that of the United States. The American constitution says, in its first amendment, adopted in 1791, that: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ Our constitution includes the prohibition of the establishment of a religion, so why did the drafting convention not take the first amendment in its entirety? Clearly they thought it was a revolutionary concept best left out.
Australia is, I am fairly certain, alone amongst Western nations in not having a bill of rights that outlines basic rights such as freedom of speech. Explaining this to foreigners is not just embarassing, like explaining why the Union Jack is on our flag – it’s downright dangerous. Lane outlines several minor but disturbing incidents:
Zanny Begg, an artist, had her outdoor exhibition Checkpoint for Weapons of Mass Distraction (2004), hosted by the University of Western Sydney and the Blacktown Arts Centre, shut down because some zealous minor council official, backed by the mayor, took exception to her anti-war message. This was much like the removal of the burned and tattered flag created by Melbourne artist Azlan McLennan, which he exhibited with the label Proudly UnAustralian (2006). When an unknown person complained, the police removed the offending item from the gallery.
And the most frustrating part is the attitude of most Australians about the issue. On the subject of flag-burning:
Jennifer says: ‘They should be stopped from doing it in a public place with children around … and have their own little flag-burning ceremonies [in] backyards. If it was to happen in a public place then they should be charged and made to apologise to the people they have offended … ’ There is something profoundly, obsequiously, stupidly Australian in that single sentence. You can say whatever you like about anything you like as long as no one can hear you and you don’t block the traffic. I am grateful to Gelber for confirming what I have long suspected.
Beyond that is the idea held by many Australians that it really doesn’t matter – that as long as the government isn’t hauling you off the street in a black van, that as long as we’re better than China or North Korea, then you shouldn’t be whining about having your art installation removed from a gallery. This is related to a wider apathy about all things political (“why should I care if it doesn’t affect me?”) which annoys me immensely. The same people who say this would be outraged if it did affect them, and even more outraged if nobody else cared. Freedom is generally an abstract concept to people until they are deprived of it, no matter how minor that deprivation may be.
Glenn Greenwald explains why freedom of speech is important better than I can:
The whole point of the First Amendment is that one is free to express the most marginalized, repellent, provocative and offensive ideas. Those are the views that are always targeted for suppression. Mainstream orthodoxies, harmless ideas, and inoffensive platitudes require no protection as they are not, by definition, vulnerable to censorship. But as has been repeatedly seen in history, ideas that are despised and marginalized are often proven right, while ideas that enjoy the status of orthodoxy prove to be deeply erroneous or even evil. That’s why no rational person trusts the state — or even themselves — to create lists of Prohibited Ideas. And those who endorse the notion that ideas they hate should be forcibly suppressed inevitably — and deservedly — will have their own ideas eventually targeted by the same repressive instruments.
If you don’t believe in freedom of speech – if you believe that the government should be permitted and even encouraged to stifle views that you find offensive – then you don’t believe in freedom at all. Criminalising the expression of viewpoints is, morally, equivalent to criminalising thoughts and ideas. And the reason that many Australians don’t particularly care is reason enough to have this right encoded in law, rather than relying upon convention.