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29 November 2016

The Insane Politics of 2016

A Year Best Forgotten?

If only it were that simple. We could try to forget, but the downside would be that much of the insanity would just carry on unchecked. We owe it to ourselves and to those who follow us to keep the year’s events in mind, think about them, and endeavour to make 2017 a little less like more of the same.

It was a year of political upheavals, which could be variously described as  surprising, scary, unpleasant, incredible, and (for some people with whom I have little understanding) actually exciting.
The values of our democratic social & liberal society in Britain, Europe and the USA were severely strained by an upsurge of extremist politics from both ends of the political spectrum.

Forgive this slight digression, but on the matter of the political spectrum, I don’t like the simplistic view of right and left being represented as a straight line with Socialists and Communists at one end, and Nationalists and Fascists at the other.

In practice, this “straight” line is part of a circle’s circumference; Left & Right bend round in each direction becoming more extreme in each direction, resulting in completion of the circle. Where Left & Right join, we find that the two political credos are almost indistinguishable from each other. These extreme “ends” have things in common: a tendency towards dictatorship, totalitarianism, populism, racism, Media control, loss of individual liberty and the denial of human rights. (Think Joseph Stalin & Adolph Hitler. Think Fidel Castro & General Pinochet. In both pairings, they had so much in common, didn’t they?) This is what I mean ..

The European Union

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage
In the UK things began to get nasty when the Conservative Government led by David Cameron promised a referendum on whether or not Britain should remain a member of the European Union. The only reason he did this was to paper over the cracks within his own Party. Some wanted to leave and others wanted to remain, and those that wanted to leave were making a nuisance of themselves. Fuel was poured on to the burning embers of Conservative resentment by the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) led by a charismatic, ego-driven popinjay called Nigel Farage. Farage and his cohorts were initially perceived as a threat mainly to the Conservatives, and one or two prominent Conservatives actually jumped ship and joined UKIP. In reality, though UKIP was managing to pick up votes from the “working classes” (ex-Labour voters) across large swathes of the North of England.

UKIP’s principal message was that we should “take back control”. That meant taking back control of our borders and clamping down on immigration, and taking back control of the sovereignty of Parliament, so that instead of being bound by common laws dreamed up in Brussels by unelected bureaucrats (some of whom were of course British) to be rubber-stamped by an ineffectual European Parliament, we would “make our own laws”. There was merit in some of the arguments, but then on the other hand some very useful Europe-wide laws had come out of the EU, e.g., on working time, working conditions, air and water quality, coastal waters quality, food labelling, measures dealing with climate change, common access to health care, freedom of travel, freedom to find work, and so on.

Free movement of people was a cornerstone of the EU credo, which gave us all huge advantages in terms of being able to find work in any European country, and being able travel freely and without hindrance on holidays. On the downside – hugely exploited by UKIP and others – there was an uncontrollable influx of immigrants, some of whom were very useful to us (especially scientists, nurses, doctors, engineers, etc.) but many who were not (unskilled, unemployed, receivers of benefits etc.) This latter group fuelled a feeling of resentment among much of the UK population, encouraged by Farage’s gratuitous comments about hearing foreign languages being spoken on trains being unpleasant.

Unfortunately successive UK governments (in particular Labour ones) had until recently stuck to an ideological belief system that refused to recognise that immigration could ever be a problem and actively encouraged hundreds of thousands of people to come into the country without regard to their skills, their ability to seek work, or even their ability to speak the language. Discussion of any social problems was deemed to be “racist” and was shut down before it could gain traction.

In my opinion, the UK government should have had the courage to stand up to the EU and take whatever measures were necessary in the national interest. (Other countries seemed to have no qualms about bending the rules in the national interest.) I believe the EU would have huffed and puffed and even tried  legal action, but it wouldn’t have mattered. They would have caved in to our demands in the interest of maintaining the EU as an ongoing entity.

But no, UKIP were stirring up hatred for the EU, Nigel Farage was insulting people right, left and centre in the European Parliament, and they were putting the wind up the Conservatives, especially when at the last elections for the European Parliament they managed to send a large contingent of UKIP MEPs to Brussels.

David Cameron
David Cameron
And so, David Cameron embarked upon an ill-fated referendum which he was convinced he was going to win, i.e., the British public would vote to remain in the EU. Indeed he was stupid enough to give the Civil Service specific instructions not to prepare a “Plan B”!

The downright lies and pure fantasy that rained down upon us from both the Remain and Leave campaigns swamped anything resembling truly informative dialogue and we were standing up to our knees in stinking controversy. Both sides were taking us all for fools. None of them wanted to ‘confuse us with the facts’.

We had a binary choice, IN or OUT. The appeal to naked nationalism by UKIP and the renegade Tories known as “Brexiteers” had more effect than any positive arguments in favour of European co-operation, free trade, and partnership, and the country voted NO to the EU. But .. only just, and the closeness of the vote meant that bad feeling from one half of the population against the other was rife, and even families were divided (mine included). Paradoxically, whilst I voted to remain in the EU I would have been much happier if the vote to leave had been overwhelming and beyond argument. 52% / 48% is not a good place to be.

Theresa May
Theresa May
David Cameron resigned (he had little other option) and the Tories appointed Theresa May as their new Leader, and hence, Prime Minister. She (a closet “Remainer” we were led to believe) is now left with the unenviable task of taking us out of Europe, for which Cameron had made no contingency plans!


Hate Crimes

The worst aspect of the EU referendum campaign and its result was the subsequent manifestation of something in the British character that, frankly, some of us would prefer to deny exists, namely  hate and intolerance. I suppose there has always been plenty of that around but the unwritten rules of society managed to keep it well under wraps until the Internet, and Social Media, provided a ready outlet for sociopaths, racists, anti-semites and various other varieties of swamp life.

Jo Cox
The late Jo Cox
In the weeks and months following the referendum there were hundreds of incidents of immigrants being abused. Of course many were not actually immigrants, having been born in this country, but – hey! – if you’ve got a brown or black face and speak with an unusual accent, then you’re an immigrant. At the milder end of the hate spectrum one idiot walked into a Polish food shop and told the owner to “Go home! We’re out of the EU now and you’re not wanted.” At the disgustingly extreme end of the hate spectrum, a widely loved and respected (pro-EU) Labour MP, Jo Cox, was shot and stabbed right outside her constituency office by a man shouting “Britain first!” Jo Cox was murdered in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses, and her killer just walked off down the road as if nothing unusual had occurred. It didn’t take the Police long to collar him, and I’m pleased to say that he is now behind bars for life, (and in this instance, life means life).

What have we become? It is totally insane.


Party Fortunes

The Labour Party

Ed Miliband
Ed Miliband
Nick Clegg
Nick Clegg
Meanwhile, something else very interesting was happening. In the previous year's General Election the voters kicked out the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition, leaving us with a Conservative majority government. The Labour Party performed miserably. This resulted in the resignation of both David Miliband as Labour Leader, and Nick Clegg as Liberal Democrat Leader.

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn
The Labour Party MPs put forward four just-about-plausible leadership candidates that one might describe as being on the centre-left or social democratic area of the political spectrum, and then some wag suggested Jeremy Corbyn should be nominated to balance the field. Everyone thought he would be a joke candidate because he was so far “left” that he was nearly falling over the cliff, (or - using my preferred circular analogy – whizzing round that circle towards the totalitarian point) but surprise, surprise, he amassed a huge following amongst thousands of young Socialist, Communist, Trotskyist, and Marxist activists who were signing up as Members of the Labour Party like there was no tomorrow, for the express purpose of voting in the leadership election. Jeremy Corbyn (a decent enough man, it has to be said) was a master of street campaigning and political rallies, and his support grew to such a point that, come the leadership election, he won it by a landslide; and so a man who had devoted about 30 years of his life in Parliament railing against his own Party (even when they were in government) now found himself leading it!

The result was that most of the Parliamentary Party vowed not to work with him, whilst in contrast the support of the Party membership outside of Parliament were placing him on a huge pedestal that might as well have had a brass plaque attached with the somewhat appropriate initials .. JC.

By the time we had entered the insane year of 2016 JC was being subjected to parliamentary pressure to resign, and a couple of Labour MPs challenged him to another leadership contest. Again this meant another vote by the Party Membership outside Parliament, and again the membership defied the Parliamentary Labour Party and elected him for a second time. Even the Labour Party in Parliament was not stupid enough to resist him again. Most of the “big beasts” disappeared from the Shadow Cabinet and were replaced by people nobody had ever heard of. Tony Blair’s social democratic “New Labour” had reverted to pure socialism.


The Liberal Democrats

This Party, which has honourable social reforming roots going back to William Gladstone and David Lloyd-George, had been reduced to 6 MPs at the end of World War II, (when Labour won a landslide victory) and it then spent the rest of the 20th century and the early part of this century slowly building up its popularity again, to the point where it could boast more than 60 MPs. This put them in a powerful position when, at the 2010 General Election, no single Party got sufficient votes to form a government with a working majority. The outgoing Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown made half-hearted attempts to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats but the arithmetic didn’t really add up. On the other hand if the Conservatives could form such a coalition the figures would add up. And so the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government came into being in 2010. We were in middle of a major financial crisis and some kind of stable government was urgently required.

The Coalition achieved some notable successes, namely bringing back the nation’s finances under control, increasing cash for education, increasing nursery places for pre-school children and assistance for mothers, and most significantly raising the personal tax allowance which helped the middle and low earners. 

The Liberal Democrats were a driving force behind many of the reforms of that Coalition, but their leader Nick Clegg had made one huge mistake leading up to the 2010 General Election: he had campaigned vociferously against University tuition fees and vowed to abolish them. No doubt he didn’t expect to be in government when he made that commitment, but on that basis he garnered a huge following. So, when in government his commitment was swallowed by the inevitable gaping hole of coalition compromises, and tuition fees were increased rather than abolished, the Liberal Democrats credibility and popularity stalled and plummeted to earth in an uncontrollable spin. 

Consequently the 2015 General Election saw their MPs reduced to a miserable EIGHT. They were almost back to 1945! Their place as a Third Party force to be reckoned with was taken over by about 50 Scottish Nationalists MPs (who, by the way, virtually wiped out the Scottish Labour Party).

Tim Farron
Tim Farron
Norman Lamb
Norman Lamb
The Liberal Democrats also had to elect a new Leader and had the choice of Norman Lamb and Tim Farron. Continuing my penchant for always voting for the losing side, I voted for Normal Lamb and got Tim Farron! Tim Farron is a decent guy, and has one advantage over the Conservative and Labour Leaders .. he has genuine  “working class” roots. But I cannot in all honestly describe the Leader of the Party I support as a “political heavyweight”. Norman Lamb, in contrast, is more mature and experienced, and served as a respected Health Minister in the Coalition Government, gaining a good reputation for fighting the corner of those challenged by mental illness. So .. voted for Leader Lamb, got Tiny Tim. I live with it; it’s democracy.

The Conservative Party

There is very little to add about the Party now in government, except to say that they are now faced with delivering the “Brexit” that Britain voted for, using a plan that is either non-existent, or if it does exist is not being shared with the rest of us.

(I say “Britain”, but interestingly most of Scotland voted to remain, thus providing even more opportunity for constitutional crisis. Paradoxically, although Scotland had voted to remain part of the UK a couple of years ago, the Nationalists who had complained about being ruled by a distant London are apparently content to be ruled by an even more distant Brussels!)



In 2015, this Party, under Farage’s dynamic leadership, started sucking up millions of votes (many of them from Labour strongholds) but because of the injustices of Britain’s “first past the post” system, the votes, being spread around many constituencies up and down the land, only one MP was elected. They did much better at the European Parliament elections because they are run on a proportional representation system.

Although they produced a manifesto for government, their over-arching reason for existence was to get Britain out of the EU, and in this they succeeded. Ever since the referendum people have been understandably asking, “What is UKIP  for now?”

Paul Nuttall
Paul Nuttall
The Party descended into a period of infighting and navel gazing, not to mention an outbreak of Tweets between members and officials, the resignation of Nigel Farage (“I want my life back”), a leadership contender who failed to get his papers submitted in time, a fist fight between him and another UKIP Member of the European Parliament, a new leader (Diane James) who completed just 18 days of service before resigning, resulting in a third leadership election in which Paul Nuttall became Leader. He said the Party had become a jig-saw puzzle that had been tipped on to the floor. Under his leadership the UKIP jig-saw would be put back together.

Meanwhile, in the USA ...

As President Barak Obama (Democrat) limped towards the end of his second term, no doubt exhausted by continual criticism and sometimes racist abuse by Republicans about his inability to achieve anything. This was high hypocrisy since the Republican Party had control of both Houses of Congress and thus went out of its way to block anything the President tried to do.
Donald Trump
Donald Trump
Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton
With Presidential elections coming up in November of 2016, the Republicans and Democrats went about the usual process of selecting their candidate through Primary Elections. The Republicans put a ridiculously high number of candidates forward (most of them carrying little weight), one of which was Donald Trump an egocentric billionaire businessman and TV reality star, regarded by many as a joke candidate. Meanwhile the Democrats settled on only two candidates, one of which was Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders who .. wait for it .. described himself as a Socialist !
Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders

I’d always thought the term “American Socialist” was an oxymoron, but I was wrong. Bernie Sanders started accumulating mass support, similar in some ways to what Jeremy Corbyn had done in the UK. Nevertheless, it was not enough to stop Hillary Clinton being adopted as Candidate for President. She was a flawed candidate, not only representing the East Coast/West Coast liberal establishment, but also mired in controversy over the use of a private email server, allegedly putting national security at risk. The Republicans, against all odds, also settled on a flawed candidate, i.e., Donald Trump, who set about insulting and abusing women, the disabled, Mexicans, Muslims, and of course Hillary Clinton (“Crooked Hillary”. “Lock her up.” ) At one rally he also encouraged his supporters to deal with a protester by punching him in the face.

Trump’s businesses were many and varied, as were his bankruptcies, debts and tax evasion schemes. During the campaign a video recording was unearthed in which we watched and heard him boasting to a TV producer that he could grope women in the genital area and get away with it. I think his actual words were “Grab them by the Pussy”. Future presidential material??

Considering the huge size and population of the USA it was somewhat surprising to those of us living on this side of the pond that these two people were the best they could come up with to be leader of the “free world”.

Against all odds Trump actually became President-Elect, and just as the “Brexit” phenomenon in Britain produced all sorts of swamp life, a lot of Americans started getting nasty and abusive with immigrants. Trump claimed he stood for the forgotten unemployed, and the working poor, neglecting to mention that he himself (living in gilded opulence) was a product of, and a beneficiary of  the Corporate world of global capitalism that was mainly responsible for the existence of those forgotten poor in the first place. 

Having spent the entire campaign that was calculated to cause serious divisions throughout American society, on finally becoming President-Elect, Trump announced, in all seriousness, that he intended to unite the country.

They sucked it all up, and yelled “Make America Great Again”. (By the way, when did America stop being “great”, and what is meant by “great”? Nobody seems to know.)

Trump and Farage
Self-appointed champions of Blue-collar Workers
He found common cause with our own Nigel Farage, who spoke at a couple of Trump’s rallies. What a jolly picture they made standing together in Trump Tower, two egomaniacs. Trump is going to make America great again, and UKIP’s new leader Paul Nuttall said in his victory speech that he was going to put the “Great” back into Britain again.

All great populist stuff, but totally insane (and dangerous).

Worse still, similar stuff has been stirring in Europe, with far-right Parties in the ascendant in Holland, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy – all exacerbated by waves of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants fleeing civil wars and/or religious persecution, seeking refuge in a Europe starting to collapse under the weight of alien social customs and consequent widespread resentment.

All deeply troubling.

I’m at the fag-end of my life, and I could perhaps say I don’t give a flying f*ck, but I worry about the future my grandson will inherit. So should you.

If this isn’t the time for Liberals to stand up for liberal values, democracy and human decency, I don’t know when is!

©Lionel Beck - 2016