Friday, December 13, 2019

My Log 772: Dec 13 2019; Chronicles from my Tenth Decade 207: Time for my mantra: wot the hell, wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai!

Last night something happened that I have never before seen in the many elections in which I have either voted or taken an interest since I was 21 in 1949, in three different countries. On the very strike of 10 pm British time, the BBC, in consort, I believe, with other broadcasting organizations, several hours before they had received a single result from the 10,000 polling stations, announced that they had interviewed 20,000 people as they left the polls, and we able to project that the Conservative party would win a crushing majority in the British election. Boris Johnson, the new Tory Prime Minister, would need 326 seats for a clear majority in the House of Commons, but the BBC was able to project that he would win 388 seats, and Labour in its worst showing ever, only 191.
Without a scintilla of further proof the BBC began to act as if their prophesy was actual fact: briefly they introduced a young man, slightly plump,  called Ben Page, from Ipsos Mori, whoever they may be, as the brains behind this whole 20,000 interview caper, but no further explanation was offered as to how the prophesy was arrived at.
I hung in there for five and a half hours, by which  time it was quite obvious that the BBC had called it correctly, if exaggerating somewhat the size of the victory. I went to bed with the BBC suggesting Tories on 326, Labour 201, and when I got up at 4.30 am the actual result was standing at Tories  364, Labour 203.
I am surely not the only person to be wondering why, if such a result can be prophesied on the basis of 20,000 interviews, why have an election at all?
Many Labour participants were willing to put the blame on the unpopularity of their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the distrust of whom was the first thing mentioned even in traditionally Labour seats, when the canvassers did their door-to-door work. The question is, why was Corbyn so unpopular, and it will come as no surprise to any readers of these Chronicles that the reason was that since his election as Labour Party leader, he has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign of character assassination, backed by the full panoply of wealth, influence and power of the wealth-owners, who have seen to it that henceforth, they hope, no left-wing nonsense can ever be trusted with the leadership of his country.
That has certainly been a major reason for this devastating result: but the entire campaign for Brexit, for leaving the European Community after half a century of membership, a campaign whose apotheosis came with the victory in the 2016 referendum on the subject, a campaign of lies, exaggerations and bluster that appeared to derive from the very belly of traditional England, certainly played a major role in this election result. Corbyn, who was originally seen as a decent bloke who had been fighting the good fight for left-wing causes all his life, including from the beginning and through the many years of his political life, fighting against racism in all its forms, was unbelievably and ludicrously tarred with the brush of anti-semitism, in a well-funded campaign designed to destroy him as a political leader, which is what it succeeded in doing.
Rather than continue in this vein, allow me to ramble and reminisce a little.
*                  *                *                *
My wife Shirley and I arrived in England in September 1951, sick to the stomach from our nine months spent in a newly-liberated India, a country groaning under the worst poverty known to mankind, from which we were very lucky, and very glad, to escape more or less whole. For seven months I tried to get a job in journalism, while Shirley worked as a supply teacher in the London system, writing nearly 100 letters of application, none of which produced anything like a positive response. Eventually I surrendered, went along to the Labour Exchange, and was directed to a labouring job in a Lyons food factory in Hammersmith, at the magnificent wage of four pounds and some pence a week.
(I can hear at least one of my children groaning: “oh, no, not that three months of real work you had to do in the factory again! Why don’t you give it a rest?”)
Well, they were a major educational experience for me, those three months. In this vast factory, manufacturing terrible food for the Lyons tea-shops, and sending it out, I rubbed shoulders with the women on the conveyor belt that it was my job to keep supplied with the food they were packaging for dispatch.  Of the many hundreds in our department, only three of us were foreigners ---  myself, and a .young Greek woman and a Dutchman. I learned quickly that if anything went wrong, one need look no furrher than “those fooking foreigners,” and I could count myself lucky that as an English-speaker, more or less, even allowing for my strange Antipodean accent (“wot, you ‘er reg’lar, then?”) I was absolved from responsibility for any mistakes. I learned there that the English working class, immensely proud as they were of having won the war single-handedly, as they believed, , distrusted and disliked anyone who spoke one of those strange foreign languages.  So, coming forward half a century, the English workers have never  trusted the Europeans? So what else is new?
On the ease with which Jeremy Corbyn was blackened as anti-semitic, against the evidence of his whole life’s work, I can report that one of the dear middle-aged women on the line confided in me one day, without raising a murmer of dissent from her mates, “There was one good thing ‘itlter done, anyway.” And what was that?  “Oh, ‘e got rid of all them Jews.”
So --- dear oh me! ---what else is new? A valuable educational experience, as I said.
I don't want to give the impression I am living in the past or inventing phony excuses for the smashing defeat of those I support.   I am used to these defeats: they have been regular stations in my peripatetic passage through life.  I lived in Britain throughout the 1960s, the years in which the British were slowly coming to terms with the fact that they had lost their economic clout in global markets.  That is why they tried  join the European Economic Community, as it was then called, so that they could make more money from trading with Europe than they could by trading with their Commonwealth (that had loyally fought alongside Britain in the war) Since I was not in love with British life, I have not kept closely in touch with what has happened in Britain, and was surprised the learn the other day that 35 per cent of the residents of London were born elsewhere. .and --- I am thankful to a thoughtful article in Le Devoir for this ---- I did no realize the extent to which, outside of London, in the once heavily industrial north, British industry, by which the industrial revolution was initiated a century or two ago, has been more or less hollowed out.
The proof of that is seen in the fact that constituencies that had voted Labour for many decades yesterday abandoned the Labour party. Most of them did not vote Tory, but they distributed their votes among four or five competing parties, and in many places were undermined by the decision of the Brexit party’s Nigel Farage not to contest any constituency in which there might be some hope of a Labour defeat: thus, in one constituency after another, the Tories were recorded as having increased their vote by one or three or four or more,  and in places where the Labour loss was up to 10 or 11 per cent, the Brexit party was recorded as winning as much as seven or eight per cent of the vote, enough that, along with the increased votes for LibDems, Green, of other small parties, was enough to turn the tide against Labour.
The unanimity with which the traditional Labour voter turned away from their traditional choice is astonishing; but even more important in this, it seems, was the simplicity of Boris Johnson’s appeal: Let’s get Brexit done.  The matter had dragged on so long, dominating British politics to the virtual exclusion of everything else for the last three years, that the voters, weary of it all, and with, as I have suggested, their traditional distrust of anyone living on the other side of the .channel never far from the surface, they simply decided to let them get on with it. That the result of any Brexit deal they might be able to negotiate with the EU ia likely to cause economic disruption that could be devastating, has apparently ceased to worry the benighted British voter.
Allow me to end with a quote from the brilliant, unconventional Greek-inernationasl-economist, Yanis Varoufakis, a man who has taught all around the world, with his own leftish interpretation of global events, who wrote, in an article published this  week:
“While Labour’s manifesto is uniquely tailored to the concerns of Britain’s so-called middle ground, never before has that territory been more hostile to Labour…….. If you ask the commentariat for an explanation of this paradox, you will get an earful of chatter about Corbyn’s Marxism, alleged anti-Europeanism and lack of character.
“However, the truth is simpler and uglier than any of this. From day one, after he won Labour’s leadership in 2015, the game was afoot. Soon after Corbyn became leader, I warned that a huge campaign of character assassination was inevitable. It was not difficult to see it coming.
Social democratic parties, like Labour, were tolerated to the extent that they tinkered around the edges of a socio-economic order. But after the
financial crash of 2008, Corbyn emerged and turned Labour into a threat to the privileged classes.

In addition to all that, I remember writing, just after Boris Johnson took over the reins of power in theTory party, that his buffoonish breezy optimism could easily  appeal to the British voter who was particularly jaded after the long delays and many prevarications. Just let’s get it done, was the message.
Andrew Neil, the BBC’s hardest political interrogator, last night kept asking Tory representatives what they had to offer to the working class voters who supported them, and I didn’t hear a single convincing answer.
But this is definitely the place for me to end with my mantra: Wot the hell, wot the hell, toujours gai, toujours gai.!


Wednesday, December 11, 2019

My Log 771 Dec 11 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade 206: I flirt for a while with being pro-American; it doesn’t last long before some of the harsh facts of voter suppression in the United States

Ever since I read Howard Zinn’s superb People’s History of the United States, I have tended to denigrate in my mind the the democratic pretensions of that great country as monstrous acts of hypocrisy, perhaps the greatest ever foisted upon history. If I may sound for a moment rather like  Greta Thunberg, the indomitable 16-year-old campaigner for climate action: “How could they, those supposedly great statesmen, fill their founding constitution with such noble words, while at the same time holding in subjection millions of imported African slaves,  on whose unpaid work rested their own wealth and prosperity?”
It must be a tough question for any American propagandist to confront. But in this past week or so I came close to being convinced of the propriety of their claim to be the exceptional nation, resting on their noble Declaration of Independence, including the opening sentence,  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
One would need to be a mindless robot not to respond to the nobility of this declaration of rights.  It was when the Judiciary committee of the House of Representatives called up four experts in constitutional law to explain exactly where the concept of impeachment came from that I came close to wavering in my critical approach to the U.S. and its pretensions.
 One after the other three of the four explained that the penalty of impeachment (a word that merely means “charge” so we have been told) came from the determination of the American colonists not to have any kind of king, nor to leave any possible opening through which an authoritarian-minded president might try to elevate his status to something equivalent to the kinghood that they were so determined to confront.
The constitutional lawyers, being experts in the art of explaining themselves, repeated, one after the other, that if a president ever committed what the representatives considered to be “crimes or misdmeanours”,  there should be a clear process laid out for calling him to account, and, if necessary removing him. I have to say I warmed to the language, or, rather, to the clarity of the language, used by the three professors, Michael Gerhardt, of North Carolina, Noah Feldmasn, of Harvard University and  Pamela Karlan, of Stanford University, and I certainly warmed to their enthusiasm for the founding impulse --- that is, to get rid of the unquestionable powers of the King--- to such a point that I found myself musing that I wouldn’t mind being their student.
Even the fourth, the dissenting Professor, Jonathan Turley, of George Washington University law school, who had the questionable brief of arguing in favour of President Trump, managed to do so with such a winning humour as to almost overshadow the expertise of his three colleagues, with whom, he insisted, he was on friendly terms, and with whom he could disagree in a respectful manner. His argument was that, notwithstanding the admittedly erratic behaviour of the man he was defending, his opponents had simply not managed to collect a convincing enough series of facts to prove their case.  He said he had heard that some people were so worked up, they had gotten mad under the strain. “I might be said to be mad, my wife might be mad, my children mad, even my dog might be mad,” he said, but that did not amount to an impeachable case against any president.
Lost in admiration as I was for the way these men and women each filled  their allotted ten minutes, I was forced back on to an undeniable fact that must (or should), confront every anti-American person, which is, that the United States is such a huge grab-bag of  every human charaeteristic that any generic attack can only be made if one is ready to ignore their many American virtues. For example, speaking as a convinced political left-winger, I have to admit that the most coherent anti-administration, and thus anti-American arguments being made in the world today are usually those poured out day after day online by American activists themselves. The great republic, under no matter what strains, usually finds a place for every --- or almost every --- opinion (note here: they frequently backslide from this level of virtue, as in Senator Joe McCarthy’s heyday).
I suppose this --- my willingness to be moved by eloquent and elegant argument --- could be described as a
 modified version of what we used to call “the embrace of the duchesses,” a cunning means by which metropolitan rulers (such as the leaders of the UK) could pull the wool over the eyes of easily-influenced colonials with a displasy of pageantry and splendour. In just such a way do I remember our Prime Minister of New Zealand, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, making a trip ti the United Kingdom in 1949 to attend an Imperial conference of some sort and returning with the news that Winston Churchill had convinced him that New Zealand had to introduce conscription as its contribution to the anti-Soviet effort. (This was the more remarkable because this man, Peter Fraser, had got into politics in 1917 when he was elected while in jail for his opposition to conscription in the First World War. Ah, those duchesses!
I began to return to my normal moral bearings when someone sent me something that had appeared in some dissident Alabama publication. Here is what it said:
During yesterday's impeachment hearing at the House Judiciary Committee one of the Democrats' witnesses made some rather crazy statements. Pamela Karlan, a Stanford law professor, first proved to have bought into neo-conservative delusions about the U.S. role in the world:
America is not just 'the last best hope,' as Mr. Jefferies said, but it's also the shining city on a hill. We can't be the shining city on a hill and promote democracy around the world if we're not promoting it here at home.”
As people in Bolivia and elsewhere can attest the United States does not promote democracy. It promotes rightwing regimes and rogue capitalism. The U.S. is itself not a democracy but a functional oligarchy as a major Harvard study found, when it reporte: “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
But worse than Karlan's pseudo-patriotic propaganda claptrap were her remarks on the Ukraine and Russia: “This is not just about our national interests to protect elections or make sure Ukraine stays strong and fights the Russians so we don't have to fight them here, but it's in our national interest to promote democracy worldwide.”
That was not a joke. From the video it certainly seems that the woman believes that nonsense.

This dissenting voice had the effect of somewhat restoring my threatened intellectual imbalance. And this march back to normalcy was aided when a few hours later I read a small report in the Guardian Weekly, to which I subscribe from London, commenting on the values of so-called American democracy. I cannot do better than quote the entire two paragraphs. First, it quoted from what it called  the foremost non-partisan organization in the U.S. devoted to voting rights and voting reform, the Brennan Centre of New York University:
In the last 20 years, reports the Centre, states have put barriers in front of the ballot box --- imposing strict voter ID laws,  cutting voting times, restricting registration,  and purging voter rolls. These efforts, which reeeived a boost when the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013, have kept significant numbers of eligible voters from the polls, hitting all Americans, but placing special burdens on racial minorities, poor people, and young and old voters.
“The measures these states have introduced affecting millions of Americans, are designed to suppress the vote, hence the term ‘voter suppression’. Such policies not only endanger the gains of the civil rights era, which ushered in the Voting Rights Act, but they also threaten the notion that the U.S. is at the forefront of liberal democracies.
“In an interview lsst year, Barack Obama said, “We are the only advanced democracy that deliberately discourages people from voting.”
I also remember him saying --- I will never forget it because I found it hard to believe any thnking person could say such a thing ---  “I believe in American exceptionalism with all my heart and soul.”
With that, I suppose I can say the anti-American case rests, as those four eloquent law professors  might say.


Sunday, November 10, 2019

My Log 770 Nov 10 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 205: Reminiscing again: comparing today’s Tory ministers with some of the past; and marvelling at the continuing success of the British Tory party

I have been watching the Brexit shenanigans in Britain with close attention for many months, and I could not help but think, “Here they go again, those Tory grandees, carefully raised in life through their special system of schools, universities and clubs to believe that only they have the right to rule their nation.”
You could feel the attitude every time the then-Prime Minister Theresa May spoke in tones of withering contempt to the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. It was all there, underneath the polite Tory façade, just as it has always been: I could have been listening to Harold Macmillan or one of his ministers, talking on the same subject almost half a century ago, describing the ruination that lay ahead for the nation should they ever have been foolish enough to vary from the Tory pathway.
I spent 11 years of my life as a resident of Britain, observing the breed from close up, and I think one of the best descriptions of them was given recently by Jean-Claude Juncker, the European politician, who said, “everyone understands English, but no one understands England.”
Echoes of the historic attitude were heard in the remarks by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, on accepting the challenge to a new election . “I will be proud to be the Prime Minister,” he said, “but I have to warn that it will be very different because we have not been born to rule.”
I don’t want to give the impression there is nothing admirable about this entrenched Tory attitude to life. What is admirable was on display when the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had to make a graceful speech of farewell on the occasion of the retirement from office of John  Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons, a man that in other circumstances Johnson may well have relished the thought of burying, so detestable does he appear to find him.   He slithered though this address with immense gracefulness, drawing many laughs, and even a big belly laugh from Bercow himself, winding it up with a play around the word “ministrations”, the significance of which I only later came to understand when I heard a play-back of how Bercow himself had used the word frequently while admonishing  members. It was an elegant display by Johnson, a man who appears to be almost toxic to most of the political establishment, who are to be heard denouncing how uncomfortable and unsuccessful have been Johnson’s recent appearances in Parliament. At those same times I have found myself thinking that the man may be a vulgar pretender, but I can imagine him going over big with the Tories main base voters. “Enough of delay and prevarication,”  is Johnson’s message. “Let’s get Brexit done. That’s what everybody wants, and I am going to do it.
The Tory party’s  merciless, steely assumption of authority which enabled them half a century ago without a qualm to deliver their poorly equipped colonies to make their way in a cruel world economy,  goes along with a civilized overview that has made Britain one of the most admired democracies in the modern world, the place that all dissenters could retreat to when things became too hot at home. 
In the 1960s, when I worked there as a foreign reporter, Britain was full of movements pushing for independence in their colonies. I interviewed numerous young protesters who later became respected world figures --- Kenneth Kaunda, of  Northern Rhodesia, now called Zambia, Julius Nyerere,  Tanganyika, now called Tanzania, the Sardana of Sokoto, of Nigeria, Cheddi Jagan of British Guiana, now called Guyana, and so on, all unsuccessful leaders in waiting.
The Macmillan government had taken office to replace the disgraced government headed by Sir Anthony Eden, (1st Earl of Avon, KG, MC, PC --- oh, yes, they stitch themselves up with numerous titles and recognitions of their worth, these grandees), which had made the rookie mistake of joining France and Israel in invading Egypt to try to turn back the nationalization of the Suez canal, the sub-plot here being that of course a nation of wogs, as the British thought of them, could never be trusted to run such a complex organism as an international canal. This was a last-gasp for the old-style colonialism.
They adjusted almost immediately to the new-style colonialism, and part of that adjustment was that when Britain believed it could make more money out of trading with Europe than with the colonies, it was time to drop the colonies.
This was the task undertaken with effortless ease by Harold Macmillan (1st Earl of Stockton, OM, PC, FRS, a considerable stitch-up), who lives in my memory as the only speaker I have ever seen to deliver a tongue-in-cheek joke with his actual tongue in his actual cheek.
He had supreme self-confidence coming from an internationally successful business family descended through his grandfather, a crofter on the Scottish Isle of Arran, something he never tired of boasting about, and his sang-froid was world-class. It enabled him on one occasion, after having just sacked five ministers at a single blow, to go to London airport en route for Russia, to dismiss the problem “as a little local difficulty” not worthy of serious attention.
On another more famous occasion when Nikita Khrushchev made one of his turbulent appearances at the United Nations, and took off his shoe during one speech with which to bang the lecturn for added emphasis, Macmillan could be heard to murmur, “could we have it in translation?”
He might have been more severely dealt with in modern times. Here is John Crace, a humorous political commentator on The Guardian, talking about the present Prime Minister: “Then there is Boris Johnson himself, a byword for untrustworthiness, duplicity and laziness…”
He went further on a later occasion:
The lying then became so out of control, that the lies started backing up on each other so that he couldn’t even connect them into meaningful sentences. He accused Corbyn of dithering when he could barely hang on to a single thought. Unable even to realise just how badly he comes across.
“Johnson fails both as a serious politician and as a comedy performer. At a newcomers’ open-mic night he would have been booed off in under 30 seconds. Still, he had got all his lies in and that’s what really counted. And with any luck, some of them might have been believed.”
And there was I thinking how skilfully (and unfortunately, from my point of view) Johnson was handling matters in Parliament!
I only once in my career ventured, more or less by accident, into this astonishing world of British upper-class assumptions. It occurred on the only time I ever travelled first class, on a British ship from Montreal to London to take up my new job, the ticket having been bought by the company. At the first-night captain’s cocktail party, my wife and I decide to look in, just for fun, so we could laugh at all the toffs. There, we were buttonholed by a fellow who was returning from a session as British Army representative to the NATO office. One of his former appointments had been as commander of the Commonwealth troops in Korea, and he was returning home to take over the northern command of the British Army.
This was Lt-Gen Sir Michael West (GCBDSO & Two Bars, quite an impressive military stich-up this, with two bars to the old DSO). He seemed to be a man of immensely impressive enthusiasms, the most recent of which was for James Michener’s novel Hawaii, presently reading, that he pronounced to be absolutely one of the great ones. To our surprise Sir Mike and his wife Cynthia sought us out on later occasions, and by the time we were due to arrive, he suggested we could have an interest in renting a small apartment they kept in London that they would have no immediate use for over the next year. He invited us to meet on the following Monday, where, in an atmosphere of riotous cheer, fuelled by several of his generously-mixed martinis, we agreed on the business deal, and haled off downtown to Wheeler’s, one of the posher restaurants in London for a further riotous occasion.
The afore-going describes every one of the several visits they paid to us in London over the next year, after which he invited us to visit him in Yorkshire at Christmas. This was the sort of man who, finding himself expected to live in an ugly ancient sone pile in the Yorkshire countryside, announced he would do so only if he could have central heating installed throughout. Having done that he decided to paint the exterior of the pile of stone --- pink.
He did his with no further trouble from his superiors except, that after his death fifteen years later, his biography in Wikipedia confirmed he was a friend of Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, and was a witty and unconventional soldier with a taste for jazz and partying.
I once asked him why the British generals, unlike the French, never threatened to take over power in Britain.
He thought for a moment and then said, “We have discussed it from time to time, By the end of our first whisky we have all dissolved in laughter.” After a moment’s more thought he added: “I think it is that if I raised my arm and said, On to Whitehall, chaps, no one would follow.”
Lower down, after listing his considerable military achievements around the world, the biography comments:
“West was often routinely provocative and, as a relatively junior officer, he regularly challenged US President Dwight D. Eisenhower's planning and was ‘invariably’ found to be right.[2] Despite his successes and influence, West was thought to be too unpredictable for the highest levels of command and he retired in September 1965.”
Whatever the army brass might have thought of him, to me Mike West seemed like the sort of guy you would like to have in your corner if you were facing a fight.
I’m not sure the same could be said of the rest of his class, unfortunately. We may be given the chance to find out if Boris Johnson becomes Prime Minister for the second time, confirmed by vote of the people.