On angst and antagonism – where are the good men and true?

I looked at the broken election billboards lying in the rain along the road to Easingwold and I harked back on the number of times the word ‘broken’ had appeared in the recent past; we have heard headlines like ‘Broken Britain’ or the ‘Broken NHS’; there’s a lot of potentially ‘broken promises’ maybe to come; there’s our ‘broken electoral system’; and there’s the broken world that Greta Thunberg reminds us about, just as autumn breaks into winter – last weekend was a stunner for me up in Scotland and yet today is positively grisly. So there are an awful lot or really broken issues out there, and as our politicians remind us all too often – that the other side, the other parties if they get in they will make it more broken than it is already. The Major/Blair/Cameron years where somehow the central ground seemed to hold good, that’s a world away from the positional angst and antagonism of those purporting to want to rule us all in but a few hours’ time contrasting promises of honey and wine if they get in and absolute disaster if anyone else gets in. Society seems to have become selfishly absorbed into more and more extreme positions – the tail oft wags the dog.

Isn’t it about time we started being a bit more civil to each other? Years ago I was taught to believe that lawyers should be healers not hired guns. With that same spirit, when Pariament meets next week, lets just see whether that example can be led from the very top. The disgraceful bouts of shouting at each other from opposite sides, not just at PM’s question time, but hour after hour. Lets perhaps redesign the chamber or even mix the sides up so anyone can sit anywhere. If the lion lies down with the proverbial lamb and we all recognise that there is a substantial common interest out there that needs fine tuning with better dialogue and bettter conversatiions between those that currently oppose or even hate each other our society might just work better than it does now. It starts with recognising those things that mean or should mean a lot to all of us – you can take the NHS and the planet as two obvious examples. But lets face the fact that you can’t have super care for the elderly, safer streets and you can’t provide excellent education for the many not the few without all of us paying a shekel or two more for it. But those conversations need to take place maybe via some sort of national forum a bit like the Truth and Reconciliation Comminission in South Africa – if genuine respect and better dialogue starts at the top, percolating down to our communities, percolating up to a new era of international co-operation it should work through to – these are big questions to solve big problems that deserve a more cohesive response. Lets put those who seek to govern us to the test and maybe when the next election comes along we won’t have so many of those broken billboards on the back of those broken promises.

On Terrorism Glasnost and Tolerance

A lot happens in a very short time, ranging from the good to the horrific. The Berlin Wall coming down 30 years ago reminds us of the optimism and euphoria of taking down boundaries. I was listening to excerpts from the Cold War Classic Tunnel 29 on the radio, and it was only a few years before that people were being shot in making their break for freedom. I have never liked small spaces and tunnels petrify me. They entomb us, restricting our movement to a shuffle forwards towards the light ahead, the freedom we desire so much at the other end. Its amazing to see the courage to risk one’s life for freedom when we take it all for granted. Then all those restrictions came tumbling down with the wall. These were heady days throughout Europe as boundaries between East and West melted away, and the Glasnost of cordial relations melted the permafrost of geopolitical divisions.

That’s a world away from the hubris and innate nationalism we see today. ‘Get Brexit done’ means a return to some degree of isolation as we look to take on the world on our own. All this at a time when Russia is developing its own ultra-nationalistic self and America withdraws into itself. Its not a propitious time to seek new friends and alliances or sink or swim on our own. Even our unity at home is in danger of breaking up with Scotland seeking an IndiRef2 and Northern Ireland becoming closer to the South. Where has all that confidence and enthusiasm gone as we chunter along towards losing the battle to save the planet – it should be Fix the Planet not Brexit.

What’s all this got to do with terrorism. Only yesterday there was the horrible incident on London Bridge – yet more deaths under the guise of taking out innocent victims of some sort of Western coalition against Islam. True – one man’s terrorist can be another man’s freedom fighter. But the head of UK mosques rightly said earlier today that that is no way to earn your place in paradise – violence begets violence and intolerance leads to more intolerance. It takes one bad egg to put the government’s de-radicalisation programme into the dog house. I work with wonderful colleagues – probation, police, imams and fellow mentors and I believe de-radicalisation can change hearts and minds and make most radicals reintegrate themselves in society whether they are Jihadists or members of the ultra nationalist right wing groups – currently the fastest growing terrorist threat. Remember Christchurch as so called Christians are not immune to radicalisation.

I write these words in uncertain times. I sense that people today are less tolerant than they were when the Berlin Wall came down. They are polarised about politics – and I have questioned where the consensus in the middle has gone. We seem to have forgotten that we live in a global society with global problems that require pan national solutions. Terrorism is in part an ultra-nationalist phenomenon whether we talk in terms of intolerance stemming from ego centric little Englanders or the religious fundamentalists of Isis and their mythical Ummah or Caliphate. We won’t solve these problems on our own. Terrorism is an international phenomenon. It won’t be solved by incarcerating these for longer across the board without a real understanding of how de-radicalisation can change these people into more tolerant and respectful citizens. Norway spends one third more on prisons than we do and its re-offending rate is half ours so simply banging people up in over-crowded prisons doesn’t work. . It takes a cool hand to resist the demand for greater punishment and wisdom to know where to spend the extra cash; it needs greater emphasis on the cause as much as the symptoms. We need to heal the wounds created by decades of intolerance – to work together just as we did in 1989 in Germany and indeed in South Africa. Ubuntu! That should be the war cry. So go tell your politicians to think measuredly, speak kindly and act to heal a goddam broken world.

November 2019

Where the wind blows – who knows?

Many of my posts thus far have been about the quality of communication. So much for speed being the essence of creating good vibes. Some of us are used to sending instantaneous messages via texts tweets and emails. We seek speed as being an end in itself regardless of how we get to wherever we are going or say what we say. HS2 is a case in point. Travel and enjoy or travel and thoughtfully work our way up to Birmingham or down to Kings Cross. Or thoughtfully well crafted messages even dare I say it by letter – to the friend who has just lost a loved one or to a correspondent about a claim or response – as a young lawyer we sometimes crafted our letters over days if not weeks – pages and pages of the stuff. Now like poltergeists out of the starting blocks we have to send our missive now – not later – not tomorrow. Its now as we get the advantage of being the first to respond, the first to say something – anything – un-crafted, un-thought through repost like a sword fight – traverse and parry but in double quick time.

Such adversarial posturing does nothing to create a climate of compromise; a re-discovery of the consensus that I have written about before. Today Boris Johnson submitted his plan for the future relationship between us and Europe. He deliberated – if not holding back – that’s a good sign. He then says that this is their final offer. That’s it – take it or leave it. I don’t imagine you would all agree – but how does that make the recipients feel – if they are also faced with a do or die deadline of the 31 October. Its not quite a full frontal, but a tactical holding back before the orgasmic thrust of an offer – ‘howsat!’ the referee Dickie Bird says. But it isn’t is it. The exhausted samurai warrior shoves a ‘deal’ underneath the noses of the Europeans. They won’t leave the pitch no doubt but a well crafted response may take longer than the ‘non’ that it will inevitably get. Rome or rather Brexit wasn’t built in a day – or 2 years for that matter.

Meantime the lovely Maria Arpa in her blog piece on ‘Enlightened self-interest’ on ‘Peaceful Solutions’ she reminds me of Wendell Berry message which may be the subject of my next post:

“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.” Wendell Berry

Words hurt – Words radicalise – Words heal

I have previously written about being more careful in what we say and how we say it and of course using that within the right context. The government’s chief adviser on extremism has urged politicians from across the divide to be careful of their language, pointing out that they risk provoking violence, it was reported on the 16 September that Sara Khan, who leads the Commission for Countering Extremism, told the Guardian that inflammatory language was undermining the fight against hateful narratives. On prime minister Boris Johnson likening Muslim women wearing burqas to “bank robbers” and letterboxes,” Khan said: “Politicians from across the divide need to be very careful of their language. I find that language, personally, demeaning [and] dehumanising, I don’t think we need to use that type of language." On the 9 September, Johnson faced humiliation during prime minister’s questions when Tan Singh Dhesi, the Commons’ first turbaned Sikh MP, rebuked him for the letterboxes comment. A recent report from monitoring organisation Tell Mama revealed that the number of anti-Muslim incidents increased by 375 per cent in the week after Johnson’s letterboxes comment. The group recorded 38 anti-Muslim hate incidents in the week following the publication of the article. Of the 38 incidents, 22 were directed at Muslim women who wore the face veil. Last year hate crimes against the Jewish community as reported to the Community Security Trust (CST) rose by 16% (BBC News 7/2/19).

All this points to a rising tide of radicalisation amongst the extreme right that ought to be worrying all our politicians. This is at a time of rising intolerance of those whose views we don’t share. Boris calls Johnson a ‘chlorine washed chicken’ or the French as ‘Turds’. Remainers call Leavers as uneducated and Levers call Remainers as anti-democratic Remoaners. No wonder the Labour party is simply stuck in the middle not knowing which binary direction to adopt – in or out. Those in the middle – I like to think of the middle being the majority – we so want to establish some degree of consensus – a subject I have talked about previously.

In many ways respect and tolerance are in short supply. Finding words that encourage respect and tolerance is difficult for our politicians as they seek to gat public attention by demonisinmg whoever they are talking about; so our PM feels he has to demonise the EU and most Remainers in order to attract Brexiteers who think leaving the EU should have been done yonks ago and should be done anyway – deal or no deal. Look at Netanyahu in Israel – as I write the election result isn’t clear – but in order to get a right wing coalition he has to make outragious pronouncments about annexing great chunks of the West Bank; Trump does the same to retain the rustbelt votes that got him in in 2016 – but whjen he Tweets he shoots first and asks what he should have said afterwards. So its not only what we say but how we pass on the message that corrupts the way we encourage respect and tolerance. We are approaching a very dangerous tipping point where those in authority sleepwalk towards consequences that they don’t appreciate. The world is undoubtedly a more dangerous place.

On a more optimistic note, my work with ex prisoners who were radicalised by extreme views on world domination, that work continues and I see where prison can change hearts and minds, and re-integrate some of those people back into society. I will write about prisons at a later date, but simply witnessing people refinding their faith in humanity, and in a society that has enormous potential for gerarating respect and tolerance for all – that my friend is a real silver lining to my story.

Where to consensus politics?

I remember writing an essay about this in about 1970. At the time we had increasing fissures between Labour and Conservatives bubbling up eventually into the 1973 referendum that took us into Europe. It’s very much easier to join a club when you know the rules, than to leave a club when you don’t know what follows. As a simple principle you need to build up a consensus to win over the voters in the middle – the floating ones. But how quickly you can lose that support by saying one thing and appearing to achieve something entirely different. Look at Macron in France promising to modernise the French labour law and pensions; look at the mess that the Brexit negotiations have got into; look at the way that Trump has railroaded all traditional norms of presidential behaviour. Populism and nationalism shouldn’t be the new consensus, as politicians who pander to their positional extremes fail to retain the loyalty of those in the middle.

Mrs May made some fatal mistakes in the way she negotiated:

· She failed to acknoledge the red lines drawn by those on the other side – at least the EU has been pretty consistent.

· She set her own red lines that pandered to the extreme Brexiteers in her own party – and its those red lines that are now distinctly watered down. Look at the immigration targets.

· She failed to maintain anything like a unified negotiation team – look at the brexit secretaries David Davies, Dominic Raab and whoever took over from them but really allowed Mrs May to stand in his stead.

· She failed to bring into the big tent those in other parties who might have bought into a middle way. If parliament is supreme there is within it surely a majority of members who simply won’t stand for a no deal; but equally say they don’t much like Mrs May’s plan either.

· She set the alternative to her own scheme as only a no deal refusing to acknowledge the alternatives such as the Norway Plus possibility where we join EFTA – there was only one deal in town and that was her’s.

· She sticks to the March 29 2019 deadline as if it were a mantra notwithstanding the parlous state of our preparations for not doing a deal at all by then. Extending the Article 50 deadline would seen inevitable and all parties should acknoledge that such artificial deadlines drwan in the sand don’t work.

· Floowing on from that, her team seem to have thought that the best deals are obtained by taking it to the wire whereas the club members don’t have the same degree of pressure as we do with 48% of our exports being to the EU compared to 11% of theirs.

· She was far from honest with us in calling her deal best for Britain – it was simly the least worst alternative – showing vulnerability has hidden benefits; but politicians are innately vain and far too often insincere. It might seem odd to undermine your own deal; but the more that people don’t like the deal that really she doesn’t really like herself, the greater the chances of a scond referendum.

· She has thus far failed to acknowledge the benefits of putting the possibilities to the test save insofar as she is willing to let parliament decide yea or nay to her plan – but you can only get back that middle ground, that consensus by putting the choices deal, no deal or withdraw the article 50 notice to the people and let them decide.

I believe that most people would more respect a leader who negotiates less abrasively engaging the maximum number of stakeholders, rather than one who uses a hard ball positional approach that we have all witnessed thus far. We run the risk of running out of time and railroading something onto a reluctant parliament that risks missing out on any deal at all – no doubt to the glee of some. That brings me back to the title where is that consnsus in our politics; that consensus of stakeholders and MP’s. Give them the choice and be guided what they decide; if its extending the article 50 or ruling on another referendum at least that consensus has a chance of opening Pandora’s box. Has it clicked amongst those that lead us? I somehow doubt it on the surface. But underneath the radar maybe a third way is developing momentum. Who knows in these uncertain times.

May I wish you all a very happy Christmas and ring on a new year that might indeed surprise us all. Hope springs eternal.

Big decisions need big consultations

We are now weeks away from leaving the EU with a deal that hangs in the balance between an EU of 27 and a UK Parliament respectively approving and likely to reject the deal on the table. We were just as split then as we are now with Enoch Powell and Michael Foot waving the Commonwealth flag and the ‘No’ camp and Heath and Jenkins waving the ‘let’s join the European Community flag’ . It amazes me that we seem to have learnt nothing at all from the lessons of the past. Then like now Ted Heath did not involve within those negotiations the relevant sections of the Labour Party and the liberals whose continuing support was vital to get the deal through. He of course managed it as the parties were split such that the Yes camp then had an obvious majority in Parliament a least. But there was a vision then of swinging towards a genuine common market and against on the right our colonial past and on the left the doggedly pro-Soviet left. It was a real feeling of optimism and elation at this new found collaboration between nations who only 26 years before had been at war with each other. How quickly the sands of time obliterate the memories, as to many Europe had become an imperfect lair for the Euro cats.

Move on 36 years and we are reminded of Christopher Voss’s belief that the art of good negotiation isn’t simply about getting to ‘yes’ (as I was taught at mediation school), but its about mastering ‘no’ and understanding what the path to an agreement is. That may be about diametric opposites coming towerads the centre ground. So negotiating to opt out of Europe was always going to be an immensely complicated process that would inevitably involve the push me pull you effect of opposites; somehow there seemed to be no centre ground between the EU ‘no cherrypicking’ mantra and the ‘out means out’ bland leap of faith into the unknown by the arch Brexiteers – who never really believed that a compromise was possible anyway. Those arch negotiators like me looked on and only wished we had turned the clock back and reformed Europe from within.

Where pray was the consensus building that ought to have involved as many parties who believed in seeking a compromise between June 2016 and today; an apparent minority in a minority government negotiates a compromise deal without consulting the largest party in Northern Ireland; without consulting the opposition (whose current position on Europe appears ambivalent in any event); and all this shrouded in secrecy. The result may be if the runes prove correct, that the compromise meets nobody’s vision of a brighter future in or out of the EU. As a result the two opposing wings become more polarised than ever with the Lib Dems asking for my contribution towards the campaign to stay in, and the blue rinse brigade dreaming of a unilateral pull the plug. The baffled majority are somehwere in the middle of this visonless torrid mess thinking what possible way there might be to ensure our kids do have a future. There’s a compromise out there to be had and if tweeking what we have been offered and getting the sensible wing of labour to support it that might, just might build up a consensus that out as I said have been utilised way back in 2016. From an arch Remainer like me that’s compromise indeed.

20th November 2018

On massacres and men

I am sure most of us are concerned about the worldwide spread of extremism and vitriol making politics more polarised and the language of those in charge more fractious and partisan. I can say this of Israel’s realpolitik as much as Trump’s America, of the rise of far right politicians in Italy, Hungary and even Sweden, and of course closer to home we have witnessed the sorts of extremist views we see in the Brexit debate. The dreadful killings in Pittsburgh last Saturday are a worrying sign of increasing intolerance towards certain types just as much as the awful killing of 27 Muslim worshippers by Baruch Goldstein in the shared Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron back in 1994. It’s shocking to think that these perpetrators of pure evil become someone else’s heroes and then it goes on and on.

I was moved by this story in Time Magazine this week about one of the victims of the Pittsburgh massacre. Richard Gottfried was a dentist, father and someone who devoted a goodly amount of his time to helping refugees– a real supporter of what in Hebrew is called Tikkun Olam or ‘Healing the World’. This of course isn’t just a Jewish concept; it’s a common trait amongst all faiths and none. If tragic losses like this particular massacre, or the one in Hebron in 1994 or for that matter New York’s 9/11 – if these mean anything then it is the stories of lost goodness and kindness that should win out over hate and bigotry. Bringing extremes together or just bringing people together with very different world views brought about by living such separate lives, that should be our driver as mediators, and striving within our own communities towards a more tolerant and respectful consensus like I am sure Richard Gottfried did in his; like Parents Circle does in Israel – you cannot be but moved by the stories of lost loved ones in this video about parents who lost children killed by ‘the other side’ https://vimeo.com/58973193 – no-one else’s loss should be any more or less valued than our own as we all I am sure believe and respect the fact that we are all born equal and no-one by entitlement should consider they are born more equal than others on account of their race religion or creed. This reminds me of the sign outside a farm near Bethlehem

I do rather get saddened when people say that religion is the cause of the world’s problems. The essence of our humanity is innate in most faiths. The Lord’s prayer beckons us to forgive those that trespass against us. Islam and other religions are no different. So despite the awfulness of the Pittsburgh, defeating extremism and promoting what used to be euphemistically called the common good must be our priority. I will put up further posts on forgiveness later.