Saturday, November 29, 2014

UKIP, rootless and increasingly friendless ?

The established political parties have solid ideological roots. They may not always live up to them but they are there at the heart and provide checks and balances on what they do. It's become a bit confused in modern times what with "New Labour" and socially liberal Tories. But dig deep and you'll find the socialists in Labour and the smaller state advocates in the Conservatives. You'll find the Trades Union sympathisers with red roses on one side and the unfettered free enterprise advocates on the other. And do on. So what of UKIP? 

There is no kipper ideology at all. Hardly surprising for a political party that had such shallow roots. Disgruntled Tories who didn't like the EU - nor foreigners very much, especially if they came to work in Britain. Golf Club bores who now found a reasonably respectable outlet for their social illiberalism. And above all the discomforted aging who wanted to return to the 1950s and who hated modern Britain. Farage, despite his youth, was one of them. Good old Nigel! 

But a "party" without roots and without a complete and coherent intellectually robust platform is not really a political party at all. It is a pressure group with a few things it feels strongly about, on which its members probably agree, and some scapegoats to target. But when such a party tries to broaden its appeal it begins to struggle. The easy targets have been secured. The disenchanted Tories seeking a more Eurosceptic home. The borderline racists (and real racists) who previously voted BNP. The grey-haired Middle-Classes who don't like change (especially cultural change). The mass votes have to be among the C2DE cohort. Not easy if your leader is a Public Scool banker and your new recruits in Paiament are from the same Oxbridge elite as the leaders of the parties that White Van Man is rejecting. 

I think it was Peter Oborne who said that UKIP will in time explode in a mess of its own contradictions. And so it will, and maybe is. And when it does retreat back to the footnote in history that is the most it deserves to be let's hope that its bilious pitch will not have damaged our body politic too much. That our tradition of commonsense and decency will have survived. And that we will be able to return to debate the big issues of the day without the nasty overhang of bigotry, ignorance and mendacity that is the so-called "UK Independence Party".

Friday, November 28, 2014

Platitudinous claptrap from Chuka Umunna on taxation.

“I’d like to see taxes at the lowest level possible. I didn’t go into politics to tax people.” 

Well that's a statement, from Chuka Umunna, pretty high in the pecking list of meaningless platitudes. What next? "Motherhood is wonderful" ? "Nothing could beat for me the moment when my child was born". "To be British is to draw first prize in the lottery of life" ? 

You cannot, ever, talk about taxation in the abstract. And you cannot credibly make such a statement which implies that the opposite is a point of view held by some. Nobody in their right minds would say "I'd like to see taxes at the highest possible level. I came into politics specifically to tax people." D'oh! 

Taxation has to be spoken about together with expenditure. Indeed it's utterly meaningless to decouple the two sides of the accounts. So you raise taxes ONLY to carry out public expenditure. 
Ed Miliband wants a Mansion Tax to help fund the NHS. (The fact that this is nonsense doesn't take away from the broad principle that you need to talk tax and spend together).  

A proper discussion of tax can only be held if it is placed firmly in the context of expenditure. Generally you start not with tax but with the budget. A Government starts with proposals about what it should, or can, do. If its view is that what it must do would cost more than its tax revenues then it has to raise more. If it believes that it should not do, or stop doing, certain things then it can freeze taxes or reduce them. 

So Umunna's motherhood statement is disingenuous claptrap. Tell us your vision of the role of Government in our society and economy. What it should and shouldn't do. Then quantify that vision. Then tell us how you'll raise the money to implement it. Anything else is silly sloganising.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A referendum is a crude and dangerous way of taking key political decisions

A Referendum is a pretty crude democratic tool, and a very dangerous one. This is for two main reasons, timing and political expediency. The more complex an issue the more inappropriate a referendum is as a means of taking a decision.   Although in the end Scotland voted “No” fairly decisively to independence it was quite a close run thing. The last minute panic from the three main parties was a response to the fact that the gap in the polls was narrowing – and that some even had the “Yes” campaign in the lead. Although over time there was volatility it was in the last six months that the gap really narrowed. Was this because the case for independence was strengthened by the quality of the argument? Hardly. On key matters, such as the currency choice and pensions, Alex Salmond and the SNP lost the argument. But clever politician that he is he realised that the way to boost his flagging campaign was to tap into the British discontent with traditional politics – the thing that has given UKIP its rise in parts of England. He also knew that the Scots have traditionally been left-of-centre in their politics and seeing that Labour was in some disarray he moved the SNP to the Left as well as exploiting the anti-Westminster mood. This was cleverly tactical, and it worked. Helped of course by the fact that there was a deeply unpopular Centre-Right Government in Westminster.

If ever an issue is strategic it is Scottish independence. The Scots were choosing how they were to be governed not for the duration of a Parliament but in perpetuity. It doesn’t get much more important than that! And yet they came close to choosing to break up the United Kingdom because, in part, they don’t like David Cameron very much and aren’t over-impressed by the Labour alternative either! This is the question of timing. The case for or against Scottish independence would be the same whether there was a Centre-Right or a Centre-Left UK Government at any one time. But the “Yes” campaign shrewdly realised that with power currently in the hands of the Centre-Right the trick was to turn the referendum partly into one on the Coalition’s performance.

The crudeness of the referendum option for making choices on major matters is self-evident. The politically smart can expediently use the issues and concerns of the moment to sway a vote whether or not these issues are directly relevant or even entirely understood by the voters. The question of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, if it is to be settled by a referendum as the Conservatives propose, would be determined by the political mood of the time. So if in 2017 a Conservative Government was in power, but deeply unpopular and the Prime Minister recommended a “Stay in” vote in a referendum, it is quite likely that many voters would say “No” because of his unpopularity. The Scottish referendum shows us that this is a real possibility. Similarly the fixed timing could be influenced by very short term events. Say, for example, that the need to pay the EU an extra £1.7bn had been announced during a referendum campaign. This fairly technical and one-off matter could strongly influence the vote and skew the result. 

Scottish independence and the UK’s membership of the EU are momentous issues – they are also extremely complicated and complex. They are also, for some people, highly emotional – on both sides of the arguments. To reduce the matter to a straight Yes/No choice is highly problematic, not least because it eliminates the “in-between” options. “Devo-Max” in Scotland or the choice of a somewhat looser (or tighter) relationship with our EU partners are perfectly viable alternatives. It doesn’t have to be the nuclear “In/Out” option in either case. This brings us to the “Parliamentary Government” factor. Around 99% of our laws are decided directly in our Parliaments, Assemblies and Courts or those (like the EU parliament, or the European Court of Human Rights) of which we are part. That is the traditional democratic model. It requires that we as citizens elect people whose job it is to take decisions for us. The Party system complements this and although three-line whips can sometimes require MPs to vote against their consciences that is part of the pragmatic necessity to have some way that Government policy can be applied without having to worry about whether a majority can be commanded on every issue. So on the issue of our relationship within the EU (or potentially outside it) we should trust Parliament to act for us. This would provide for debate by our representatives in the House of Commons and for a nuancing of decision-making that would be impossible if everything was reduced to the adversarial Yes/No question.  

The “Let the people decide” call is one of the most dangerous aphorisms of our times, or any times for that matter! One does not struggle to find dozens of examples of legislation that was (for example) socially progressive but might not have commended support if they had been put to the people in a referendum. It is also dangerous, as opinion polls regularly show, because one serendipitous event can temporarily skew opinions. Let there be proper discussions with our fellow EU members on the future of the Union and Britain’s place in it. “Opt outs” have been negotiated before for the UK and they could be again. But we won’t achieve anything by holding the crude “referendum” gun at the EU head – indeed that would be counter-productive. There is no reason to distort our normal model of Parliamentary Democracy on this matter – or any other in my opinion.





Monday, November 24, 2014

You sometimes have to say "Sorry" - do it well, but do it !

I have written before about the art of apology. When people in the public eye (especially) make a mistake there are ways to say "sorry" - and ways not to. The construct "If anyone was offended by what I said I apologise" is one particularly to avoid ! You wouldn't be apologising if you hadn't offended somebody would you ? And yet we still hear such weasel words almost daily. Which brings me to Emily Thornberry and Sajid Javid.

Ms Thornberry goofed by putting on Twitter a photo of the house of the now famous "White Van Dan" . It was in febrile times a slightly silly thing to do. I tried to sum up how I felt in a poem, and I've nothing much to add. Ms Thornberry apologised swiftly - although she fell into the "If anyone was offended" trap. She said that she had "made a mistake" and apologised "if she had upset or insulted anybody". There was no " if" about it. She had!

So what about Sajid Javid our theatre-avoiding Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport? After Lewis Hamilton won the Formula one world drivers' championship Mr Javid tweeted as follows:

Now I was not alone in correcting Mr Javid immediately. Lewis is actually the fourth British driver to win more than one championship - Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart preceded him. Not a big deal you might think. Mr Javid may know as little about Sport as he seems to about the Arts, certainly about Motorsport. But wouldn't you have thought that he would have checked his facts before he tweeted? Or that some official would have checked for him? No matter, it didn't happen. He goofed. So what happened next?

After Javid's erroneous Tweet - once it was pointed out to him - did he apologise? Not least to Jackie Stewart the only one of Hamilton's three multiple winner predecessors still alive? Did he hell! What he did was delete the mistaken tweet and substitute this one:

No apology. No "Mea Culpa". Zilch. As I said it's not a big deal. The Minister made a foolish mistake. He managed to get up the noses of F1 fans like me. All he needed to do was say "Oops, sorry" ! But perhaps the multi-millionaire Sajid Javid didn't get where he is today by apologising for his mistakes? 

White Van Man

White Van Man

Long will I remember when, 
I met by chance the strangest men.
Tattooed chests and shaven heads,
And England flags above their beds.

Their homes had room to park a van,
As symbols of the common Man.
And those who thought that they were slobs,
Were soon exposed as awful snobs.

For when we judge on what we see,
And boast that they are not as we.
We say that we are always right,
And White Van Man's a vulgar blight.

But in God's eyes we're all the same,
Eschew the praise, avoid the blame.
My way is mine, and yours is yours,
No more judging - nor class wars.

Paddy Briggs

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Vote for Us, we hate the same people you hate"

Negative campaigning has always been part of politics. The "Vote for nurse for fear of something worse" syndrome. But only once before in British politics have we had a whole political party predicated on things they are against. Yes that is UKIP, and it's happened before.

What UKIP is "For" can be summarised by saying that they are broadly "For" whatever the opposite is to the establishment view. Mark Reckless described this as "Radical" , but it is of course the opposite of that. It is "Reactionary". 

So key to the UKIP proposition is the idea of LibLabCon - the conceit that the three established political parties are all the same. We, the party of the common man, agree with you that there should be a plague on all their houses. The nearest parallel to this in modern British history was Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists. Here is what Mosley said in 1938:

"The Blackshirt is a revolutionary dedicated to the service of our country. We must always possess the character of the true revolutionary. It is not the character that you observe in the little men of the old parties, blown hither and thither by every gust of convenience opinion, elated by a little success, downcast by a little failure, gossiping and chattering about the prospects of the next five minutes, jostling for place, but not so forward in service. Without loyalty, endurance, or staying power, such a character is the hallmark of financial democratic politics. It is the opposite of national socialism."

The parallel with Farage is strong. The faux-patriotism ("service of our country"). The claim to be "revolutionary" - very close to Reckless's "Radical". The contempt for the establishment ("the little men of the old parties") and the charge that they blow with every wind. UKIP's origins were firmly in the Conservative Party and their leadership is being reinforced by Tory defectors like them. In 1939 Oswald Mosley said this about the Conservatives:

"Now I ask any Conservative, apart altogether from their present performances, how can you, believing in the principles which they proclaim, remain in that Party with such a record? What reason have you got for remaining in that Party, except that it may be unpleasant to leave that Party? Some of your friends may not like it, and for the first time in your life you may have to do something rough and hard, fight for other people and fight for England."

 While Nigel Farage's rhetoric might be a bit different to Oswald Mosley's the message to the Conservatives is the same. If you have true conservative principles how can you stay in a party which has abandoned them? 

Oswald Mosley also appealed to the common man. In particular on the subject of immigration. These are his words, also in 1939:

"...they are coming in themselves, thousands of them; thousands of them coming in, not only undermining our standard of life, not only debauching our commercial practices, not only swelling the practices of criminal lawyers, not only changing the commercial outlook and morality of the British to’ the detriment of our simple and honest people; not on IT, that, my friends; this policy of the open door, this universal entry of alien standards and alien life if permitted to continue,  is going to change the whole character of English life and English people..."

Stronger than Farage, perhaps. But not by much! Mosley was grotesquely anti-Semitic but his arguments were not that far away from those of UKIP, although the target is different. Remember UKIP supporter Leo Mcainstry's recent explanation for UKIP's rise:

"An air of bewilderment and panic now grips the two main parties. But the explanation for Ukip's rise could hardly be simpler. It lies in the issue of immigration. Ukip has tapped into the growing despair of the public at the relentless transformation of our country."

The "relentless transformation" charge is broadly the same as Mosley's "change the whole character of English life". And who said this?

"Some may say, those who do not yet feel as we do, that the entry of 50,000, 100,000 or 200,000 more does not matter, that we can swallow them, we can assimilate them. I deny it."

It was Mosley actually but you see what I mean!

We know what Farage is against, as we knew what Mosley was against, and there are strong parallels. Essentially the pitch is inward looking. Mosley ranted against the "International Financial system" and wanted to rely on the Empire. Farage rails against the EU and wants to draw back behind British borders. Mosley wanted to erect barriers to immigration, so does Farage. Mosley wanted to put "Britain First" - Farage uses the same rhetoric. And both claimed to be the only true patriots. Above all Mosley challenged and condemned  the existing political parties . There is, however, one crucial difference between Mosely in the late 1930s and UKIP today. Here is what Mosley said in 1939:

"Now let me ask anyone here, who thinks that we have been unfair when we have attacked the ownership and conduct of the Press of this country, on what grounds do they behave as they have behaved? Do they tell us any longer that there is no news value in British Union, that the people of Britain have no interest in British Union?  If they say that, let them glance round this great hall to-night and say whether or not the British people are interested in British Union. And yet any little Labour politician who cannot fill a schoolroom, any little B.B.C. crooner who bores you on a Sunday evening, (Laughter) any of these little creatures who have been made by the Press of this country, when they fill their little schoolroom, they get a headline in the newspapers the next morning."

Mosley was complaining that the media was ignoring him. That he couldn't get coverage in the newspapers or on the radio for his "British Union" (of Fascists). Well this is hardly a complaint that Nigel Farage could make! Back in 1938/39 Mosley had crested a monster and it had, through word of mouth, gained support. He filled the "great hall" of Earls Court and could have done several times over. But there was little or no media coverage and as war approached the Fascists faded away. But had he had the oxygen of publicity for his nationalistic rhetoric, for his hate campaign against immigration and the international financial system and for his rants against the establishment and the main political parties who knows what might have happened?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Essentially the respectable parties have two options in response to Rochester and Strood.

(1) Say that the Rochester voters have responded to UKIP's policy positions and that to combat them they, the parties, should move in UKIP's policy direction. 

(2) Conclude that they,nthe parties, are failing to refute UKIP's policies and that they need to intensify their efforts to do this. 

Option (1) would be morally indefensible and wouldn't work. The more the Tories or Labour try to pretend they are UKIP Lite the only beneficiary would be UKIP. Why buy a bit more Euroscepticism or a bit tighter immigration controls when you can go the whole hog and get EU Withdrawal and a total ban from the Kippers? 

Option (2) is the only way. Decent people across the political spectrum know that UKIP is a shallow, bigoted, ignorant party with a gut appeal but with policies that could never be implemented and which would be disastrous for Britain if they were. Cameron and Miliband must come out fighting. Not by adopting (a bit) what Farage says (he'd just love that !). But by fighting him on the beaches of the seaside towns (especially) where his fraudulent and shameful message has appeal. And intelligent people of honour should stop flirting with UKIP - and certainly stop defecting to them. Attack them for what they are and start now.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

What is patriotism ? Is it White Van Man ?

What is patriotism? I doubt that it's White Van Man hanging up the flag(s) of St George. He's quite entitled to do this, of course. And Emily Thornberry was wrong to sneer as, it appears, she was doing. But UKIP patriotism is indeed nationalism. As is that of the SNP. And Nationalism kills. You don't need to be any sort of historian to know that, 

The Triumph of the 21st Century (as compared with the 20th) has every chance of being pan-nationalism and unity. At least in Europe. Where the 20th Century had lots of "War War" the 21st will have lots of "Jaw Jaw" as we (at times) struggle to make European integration work. UKIP and their fellow travellers on the Tory Right want to withdraw from the European project. They are ignorant fools. As they wave their flags of St George they should reflect where such similiar national bravado got us in our parents and grandparents generations. 

You can be, as I am, happily English, proud to be British and privileged to be European. There is no paradox in this. If I had to fly a flag outside my house and could only choose one it would be the European flag. Because that is the flag which defines patriotism more widely and which is the future. That's my patriotism. Because it doesn't involve killing people. Or deporting them. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Let's send Alex Salmond home to think again...

This is the man who sought to destroy my country. And came dangerously close to succeeding. Where Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler failed to break Britain this tinpot petty nationalist almost did. It was an utterly fraudulent campaign. Six months before the Indy Ref vote two-thirds of electors were saying "No" to independence. So what did Salmond do? He turned the vote into a referendum on Cameron (etc.) and his governance of Britain/Scotland. The SNP plumbed the deep natural support for socialism in Scotland and persuaded natural Labour voters that the SNP was the true bearer of the Red Flag. Many voted "Yes" because they thought this was the socialist thing to do. An independent Scotland would be a Socialist paradise broken free of the nasty capitalists of Westminster.
It took Gordon Brown to shake a few Labour waverers back into the "No" camp and his intervention may well have been crucial. In the end the 55/45 vote against independence was clear - at least for a generation (as Salmond, in his cups, admitted). But now the "45" arrogantly won't accept the result and the SNP is seeking to build on Labour's Scottish weakness by claiming again to be the true heirs of Keir Hardie. A recent poll suggests that another IndyRef poll today would produce broadly the same outcome as the actual one in September. But tell that to the SNP, they don't want to listen.
I too want to be rid of Cameron and his motley crew of elitist incompetents. I too want Britain to return to its social democratic tradition and core values. And I want the Scots who have so often been honourable agents of change across these islands, to play their full part in Britain's recovery from the Coalition years. I want them to move away from the insularity and faux-patriotism of the SNP and embrace British politics again. Like UKIP South of the Border the SNP is a malignant force. Away with them ! We sent Alex Salmond home to think again. And if we have to do it again we will...

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sainsbury’s and the “Christmas truce”

There are plenty of ways people could object to the Sainsbury’s “1914 Christmas Truce” TV Commercial. You could accuse it of historical inaccuracy or sentimentality. You could object to the use of a tragic war to promote a supermarket brand. You might argue that this one event was utterly unrepresentative of the more than four years of hell that was the Great War. But all of these objections ignore one simple fact. At the lowest level war is about individuals. The poor bloody infantry. The lions led by donkeys. On both sides.

Max Hastings’s astonishing book about the first year of the War ”Catastrophe” is a work of genius not just for its thorough research and its determination to be as accurate as it could (both true) but for its frequent use of personal histories. Not (just) the memories of the Generals but of the ordinary soldiers. The poignant letter of  private soldier – the last he wrote before the sniper’s bullet got him. Of the German officer cut down by an attack by the residents of a village they had just subdued. The reprisal killings that followed. And on, and on for four ghastly years.

The Sainsbury’s ad combines brilliant filmmaking and casting with a quite legitimate message about “sharing”. They might have said – though it was inherent in the mini story – that at an individual level we have more in common with our “enemies” than we might be told or think. One perspective on the War was that it was a “Bosses” war and that the infantry (etc.) on both sides were simply cannon fodder. That may be a Marxist view (Karl Marx said : Proletarier aller Länder vereinigt Euch!, literally “Workers of all nations Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains”) but there is more than a scintilla of truth in it. The “truce” didn't happen again and fraternisation of any sort was forbidden. And there was no real mechanism for the lions of the two sides to turn on the donkeys and declare that enough was enough. Disobedience of orders was met swiftly by the firing squad.

At an individual level Tommy and Fritz had much in common. But by December 1914 the war was already dehumanised and casualties were in their hundreds of thousands. The war would be won by the smarter and the luckier Generals (if you read their memoirs) and by the side who deserved to win a “Just War” (if you read some historians). But it was the poets and the artists who told the true story. As Wilfred Owen put it “Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori” was an “old Lie”. There was nothing “sweet and right” at all about dying for your country. But if you seek honour and bravery and selflessness in the battle stories you will find countless examples. On both sides of the wire. There is a symbolism about the “Christmas truce”, about the carol singing and about the football. And, yes, about the “sharing” – however brief it might have been.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Forex is riddled with scams - especially for the consumer

Forex is a scam - even when it is legal. We've all seen the signs at the Airports "Free foreign exchange" - a lie, of course. All it means is that the Sharks charge their fee by fiddling the exchange rate rather than adding it as a separate item. As consumers we always pay over the odds for our travel money - often disgracefully so. Because most of us only travel once or twice a year we tend to shrug our shoulders if we notice it. But look at the exchange rates that are used for corporate transactions and you'll see they are far better for the companies than we as consumers can get. And look at the consumer "spread" - the difference between Buy and Sell rates. That will give you a clue as to the licence to print money that forex is.

The mostly ignorant propaganda against Britain joining the Euro largely ignored the consumer and focused nonsensically on faux-patriotism about the Pound. If we had joined the Euro whatever other problems we might have had to wrestle with at least as consumers travelling in Europe we'd have avoided Forex rip-offs on our hols! 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Let's make Sunday 11th December 2018 special, and move on.

In four years time, the 11th November 1918, will be especially memorable. It will, at 11am, be precisely one hundred years from the Armistice which ended the Great War. And it will be a Sunday so that Remembrance Day and Rembrance Sunday will coincide. The participants in the deadly conflict which was the Great War are all gone but the links remain in the lives of the descendants of the fallen, and those who served in other ways or survived. Both my Grandfathers were in that War and came home. They were not, as far as I know, "heroes" - they just did their duty, and were lucky. 

The last British combatant of the First World War died in 2011, and with his passing those actual personal memories of what it was like have gone as well. In 2018 there is an opportunity both to make the centenary of the end of the War special - and to consider whether remembrance on 11th November is something that we should maintain in perpetuity. If we do there is an implicit statement that the Great War was in some way exceptional. There is an argument to be made that it was, of course, but the very fact that the "War to end all wars" didn't is sadly notable as well. 

I believe that in 2018 we should commemorate the end of the Great War with a last Remembrance Day in its current form. We should give the Poppy (only really meaningful as a symbol of the First World War's killing fields) a decent burial at the same time. The permanent memorials will remain, the tomb of the unknown soldier and the Cenotaph and the hundreds of war memorials up and down the country. But let's use the Great War's Armistice centenary finally to say farewell, and thank you. The idea of "Remembrance" is a powerful and important one and over the decades we have honoured the Great War dead. One hundred years on, in 1918, let us do that for a last time and move on

How should we remember the fallen of the Second World War and of Korea and subsequent conflicts? Not, I would suggest, with Great War symbolism.  And why don't we find a new way to honour not just the fallen of the Second World War and conflicts since but all our war dead in history. The fallen of Trafalgar, and Agincourt and of the Crimea and of Mafeking. And of Bannockburn and Culloden and Edgehill and Marston Moor for that matter. Let's choose a date but make it a moving feast - the first Sunday in a chosen month for example (moving on from the current practice of having two days close together - Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday - which is both a duplication and a confusion six years out of seven). 

In the United States the last Monday in May is chosen as Memorial Day  - it is a federal holiday for remembering the men and women who died while serving in the country's armed forces. This seems to me to be an excllent model. It doesn't place the fallen of any one war on some sort of pedestal but overtly honours all who died in their Country's Service. Whenever and wherever it happened. Let's make our Remembrance Day do the same.   

Friday, November 07, 2014

In praise of being an expatriate

There is a curious piece in The Times today by Sathnam Sanghera rubbishing the world of the Ex-Pat.

I am reluctant to praise the benefits of living outside your home country too highly because I realise that it is a privilege not available to all. I was lucky, very lucky. In 1980 I was "posted" (as we used to call it) by my employer, Shell, to The Netherlands - not to The Hague but to the local company based in Rotterdam. I had to learn and work in Dutch. I had to learn about a culture quite different from my own. I lived in a city, Leiden, utterly different from anywhere I had lived before. For three years I rode the waves of that Dutch culture. It wasn't easy, I'm a fairly gregarious sort of chap and initially not speaking the language was quite stressful. But my colleagues, neighbours and business contacts were helpful and gradually I came not just to appreciate the country, but even to love it. But more importantly I changed. Shell was I think clever enough to see that I needed to be outside my comfort zone and my time in Holland was just that. Every year in The Netherlands counted at least double in my personal development.

My reward for a reasonably successful time in Holland was a posting to Scotland! Now you might not think that was an expatriate posting and technically it wasn't ! But in the same way that The Netherlands told me a bit about Europe, or one small part of it, Scotland told me about my own country. The three years I spent North of the border made me British, very different to the Englishness of my upbringing. They do things differently there. Not THAT differently perhaps, but differently. In that job, at the time of the miners' strike, I was close to events and people outwith my previous experience. And that's lies at the core of the expat benefit - you are challenged more and in different ways than if you stay at home. You will never be the same again.

Following Scotland I rode those cultural waves again for four years in Hong Kong. This amazing place invades all your senses in a unique way. Every day you smell it, hear it, feel it, touch it - there is no escape! As if, in my case, you would want to escape. I was there at a lucky time. I worked with expatriate colleagues but also, and crucially, with some brilliant local staff. Is managing a team of Hong Kong Chinese the same as managing a team of Brits? Of course not. Is it valuable experience - indeed, and not just that. You learn as much from the locals as (hopefully) they do from you. This is another big Expatriate gain. It's a two-way learning process.

At the end of my Shell career I spent seven years in the Middle East. Based in Dubai I worked across the region and visited every country. Take Yemen. I doubt that I should ever have gone to that extraordinary country had I not had a business reason to do so. Yemen was like time travel. But the business priorities and the opportunities were the same, though the solutions were very different. And that is yet another benefit. The cliche "Think Global, Act Local" may be over familiar, but it is true. And if sensitively applied it works.

To denigrate the benefits of being an expatriate is ignorant and trite. If you only measure them by the banalities of what you earn or whether the sun shines perhaps you should indeed have stayed at home. But if you see the challenge, the opportunity and the rewards as they can be then you will regard your expat years as the privilege they are. The more you ride the waves of culture the broader, and I think better, you will be as a person. I don't know any "Little Englanders" who were expatriates. Nor any petty nationalists nor faux patriots either.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Sarah Wollaston's "Vote Positive" message is the right one. Let's do it.

I think that this is an excellent Tweet from Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston. The call to us to "Vote positive" strikes a chord. UKIP is the most negative force in British politics in living memory. We all know what they are against - but what are they for? They are against Britain's membership of the European Union and want us to return to a world where economically and socially we stood alone. Anyone who has lived through the post war period in its entirety as I have (born 1946) knows that cooperation between the European Nations is the greatest achievement of these times. The idea of an armed conflict between countries within the EU is unthinkable. For my parents and grandparents that was not, of course, the case. With economic union comes peace and security.. Every Nation has retained its character and substantially its independence. But some pooling of sovereignty has been both practically advantageous and emotionally uniting. UKIP's vile and juvenile protest in the European Parliament when they turned their backs on the EU flag and anthem made me momentarily ashamed to be British, until I remembered that these bigots only represent a sad minority of us and most of us would not be so ignorant and offensive.
Sarah Wollaston
To be positive about Europe and to want to make its work can be seen in parallel to what most of us would wish about our diverse society. Contrary to what UKIP says multiculturalism was never a goal in Britain. We did not overtly decide to become a multi-racial society, it was a consequence of an open approach to migration over the years. I have written here about how I believe that UKIP and the people that support them use opposition to Immigration as a  surrogate for their opposition to multiculturalism. UKIP supporter Leo McKinstry's "Ukip has tapped into the growing despair of the public at the relentless transformation of our country." sums this up well. Current immigration does not "transform our country" at all - or very little. That transformation has already happened. The negative approach, UKIP's approach, is to scaremonger about current immigration with the hidden message that UKIP will do something about multiculturalism. This is one of UKIP's big lies (or "empty promises" as Ms Wollaston puts it). Short of ethnic cleaning and forced repatriation (even UKIP doesn't propose this) we are a multicultural society and we are going to stay that way. The positive response to this fact is to celebrate our diversity and where there are problems (which of course there are) to work hard to solve them. There is no turning back the clock. There may be a case for somewhat tighter immigration controls, but this is a largely technical matter and it is unlikely that if we introduced a tightened regime anyone would notice much. And it would certainly have no impact at all on the nature of our already transformed society.
UKIP's support among the young and the better-educated in Britain is negligible. These are the positive people Sarah Wollaston is reaching out to. But those that are voting UKIP should not be forgotten either. They are, perhaps, Chesterton's "...people of England, that never have spoken yet" and perhaps they have never spoken because our political class hasn't spoken to them. Well UKIP is - and they are listening. We need to engage with this group, up to 20% of the electorate, not by adopting UKIP's clothes but by making the positive case. For Europe, for multiculturalism, for controlled immigration. Let's counter UKIP's lies with our truths. Conservative, Labour, LibDem it doesn't matter. We'll differ on substance and detail. But we must all be positive to counter the doom and gloom.