The Deserted Village

Baby Boomers and Misinformation are leading the charge towards Brexit

This piece was originally written for the AudienceNet blog based on research we carried out from 1-5 April 2016.

The UK teeters on the edge of a cliff, pushed from behind by false assumptions and the over-45s who have the least to lose on the way out. 

Voting intention - age

It would be a gross mistake to talk about a “UK position” when it comes to Brexit and negotiators in other EU member states would do well to remember this. UK-wide research conducted by AudienceNet from 1-5 April shows a society divided on its place in Europe. Given the plethora of previous polls on the issue, it will not come as a surprise that millennials are, by far, the most Europhile. A large majority of 18-24 year olds hope to stay in the European Union, while the Remain position is also well ahead among 25-34 year olds. 35-44 year olds are evenly divided, while every age group over 45 has adopted a position that clearly favours Brexit, with outright majorities. Given that these cohorts tend to have much higher voter turnout, there appears to be considerable trouble ahead for the pro-EU British citizens. In gender terms, both men and women are edging towards Brexit.

Men are quite evenly divided while a substantial proportion of women remain undecided at 27%. The voting intention figures represented here come with a trigger warning that respondents were asked a series of issue-based questions to begin with, to ascertain whether there were specific correlations between various negative assumptions and one’s disposition towards the EU and Brexit.

The survey asked participants to indicate the top three issues that most affect their decision on which way to vote. An astounding 61% cited immigration as one of their top three issues, far ahead of any other option. Indeed, 32% saw it as the number one basis for their decision in the referendum. This underlines the increasingly nationalistic tone of certain elements of the Leave campaign and much of the commentary in the tabloid press. This issue was much more potent among those voting to Leave than the Remain camp, although it still seems to hold some resonance among the undecided.Issues

Brexit voters were also significantly more likely to focus on the cost of EU membership as a basis for their voting intention. Across the whole population, there are widespread misconceptions about how much EU membership costs, and the media have played a significant role in beating this particular drum. When our respondents were asked to estimate the proportion of UK taxes that go into the EU central budget, even pro-EU voters overstated the amount over tenfold. The median figure estimated by Remain voters was 10%. Their Leave counterparts thought it was double this at 20%. 9.5% of respondents thought that over 50% of UK taxation went to the central EU coffers. The actual figure is not even close at 0.6%.

While only 12% referred to over-extensive EU bureaucracy as a basis for their voting intention (17% for Leavers), this also emerged as a basis for wildly mistaken assumptions. A slight majority of participants thought that over 20% of the EU budget was spent on administration. The median figure among Leavers was 25%. Again, this is way off the mark, and 6% (£7.2 billion) is the genuine figure. As a point of reference, the current rate of expenditure on government administration within the UK alone is £15.2 billion.

Comparing each side of the referendum debate, it is apparent that those voting to leave the EU tend to focus more on issues such as immigration, cost of EU membership, and sovereignty, while those hoping to stay in the EU are more mobilised by peace and security, employment, trade and the UK’s international influence. 43% of Remain voters are worried about employment, should Britain exit the EU, while only 19% of Brexit voters consider this an important motivating factor. Correlated with the age profile of either side of the debate, it appears that the Remain camp has a greater stake in remaining in the EU due to the wider opportunities it offers in terms of career development and economic growth.

The two most striking take-outs from this survey have been the extent of the age cleavage in terms of voting intention as well as the extent to which the mix of misinformation and generationally specific predilections have given the Leave campaign the initiative. As beneficiaries of Erasmus, free movement and cheap travel, young Britons are looking outward to the European Union while their older counterparts focus on outdated conceptions of national sovereignty and an isolationist vision of security. Added to this, a diet of hysterical media coverage, reactionary nationalism, misplaced nostalgia and fear mix with mistaken assumptions about the workings of the EU and the UK’s contribution to it. It will be left to younger generations to deal with the full extent of the aftermath.

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The “Millennial Dialogue” in North America: What do the neighbours think?

Here is a piece I wrote for the FEPS-Generation Progress “Millennial Dialogue”, but after my departure to AudienceNet. It appears here on the project’s dedicated website. 

Screenshot 2015-07-07 17.06.05As one would expect, the survey shows many commonalities between millennials in the US and Canada. Their respective hobbies and interests were very similar with music, new technology and cinema coming out on top in both countries. However, there were particular differences that fit into an overall narrative of separate identity. Young Americans show much higher religiosity (53%) than their Canadian counterparts (40%). This divergence is reflected in the political realm too, with interest in politics among US millennials noticeably higher than their northern neighbours. Still, like in many of the surveys conducted as part of the millennial dialogue, political interest is low in both countries.

On this point, there are also noticeable differences in how each group explains the situation with Canadians proffering extrinsic explanations for political apathy and Americans offering procedural and intrinsic reasons. Throughout the qualitative parts of the survey, Canadians indicated that there were too many distractions in modern life to pursue an interest in politics. Politics, they say, simply cannot compete with the alternatives offered by social media and other hobbies. In the US, millennials express a distinct distaste for the practice of politics. Here the focus is on negative campaigning tactics from candidates, polemical discourse and polarising bipartisanship. These merge to leave a sour taste in the mouth of the average young American. It is interesting to note that, in contrast to Canadians, social media do not receive much blame from young Americans. One can perhaps attribute this to the manner in which connected technologies were used so effectively by the two “Obama for President” campaigns to mobilise young people. Thus, in the US connectivity is seen as an asset to politics, while in Canada it is a distraction.

There were also areas of comparison and contrast in policy priorities. Healthcare, education and job creation were considered to be the top priorities in both countries, but healthcare was a considerably higher priority among Canadians, perhaps reflecting the long history of universalism in that country. Added to this, millennials in the US had defence as a much higher priority at 67% (53% for Canada) while they also gave greater priority to foreign aid at 48% (41% for Canada), reflecting the more prominent position of geopolitical issues American political discourse relative to that of Canada.

On issues of expanding civil rights, identity politics and gender expression, young people in both countries show a broadly progressive outlook. Indeed on the characteristics considered most important among politicians, progressive parties fared better in both countries, favouring the New Democratic Party and the Liberal Party in Canada, as well as the Democrats in the US. There was, however, a higher demand in the US to increase the proportion of women in politics at 47% as opposed to 37% in Canada. It is possible that this reflects a stronger history of gender representation in Canadian politics.

Overall, the “Millennial Dialogue” has provided fascinating insights into the young cohorts of these neighbouring countries in North America. They have so much in common and yet they are separated by virtue of history, circumstance and their countries’ respective roles in the world.

Taboo is both a product and cause of oppression

On a week in which satire has come to the fore in such a serious way, this piece attempts to address some of the challenges raised by this current discourse.

Hebdo

There was much talk in Ireland over the weekend about a proposed sitcom on the Great Famine, to be launched by Channel 4 this year. The young Irish scriptwriter, Hugh Travers has been in discussion with the British network about the concept for Hungry amid widespread negative reaction back home. More than 30,000 have signed a petition on Change.org to have the show pulled, with historian Tim Pat Coogan comparing the idea to mocking the Holocaust. Others referenced the impropriety of a British network broadcasting such a programme given the pernicious role British officials played in exacerbating conditions in 1840s Ireland.

Let’s look at the cultural legacy of the Great Hunger for a minute. Undoubtedly, the British application of laissez-faire economics in seeking profit from Irish foodstuffs when the population couldn’t sustain itself should never be forgotten. It is perhaps the most shameful chapter of British history and appears to be taught insufficiently in schools there (as an aside, a TV programme – even a sitcom – on this subject will undoubtedly facilitate greater understanding of Irish history among Britons). Within Ireland, the societal shock was unprecedented. The loss of over a third of the population (at a conservative estimate) to death and emigration has left many lasting legacies from a constant narrative of exile and victimisation to a lower population density that has persisted to this day.

One significant legacy was the consolidation of the powerful position of the Catholic Church in post-Famine Ireland. The British government had allowed Church involvement in education since the 1830s but after the Famine this was widely expanded. In parallel with highly conservative mores of Victorian Britain, the Church set about deepening institutional religious devotion in Ireland in a mould of Victorian (dare I say, Puritan?) respectability. There was a subtext to this that the Famine had been a societal punishment for sins of the past, for promiscuity, drunkenness and an indulgence of quasi-pagan ‘folk religion’ among Irish Catholics. Consolidation would continue until independence, when the Church could expand its influence further, exerting phenomenal influence on the new State.

During this time, a culture of taboo developed wherein clergy became very adept at telling people what not to do. You can’t have sex outside marriage. Women can’t have bodily autonomy. The State can’t build secular schools or healthcare systems. You can’t read Nineteen Eighty-Four or watch Dr Zhivago. The culture of taboo entered secular discourse too as it became almost impossible to question the orthodoxies of the founders of the State. This led Edna Longley – another occasionally banned author – to write “Sanctified histories are Ireland’s version of Marxist-Leninism, all the more insidious because their roots go deeper.”

So coming back to satire, we can see that a pernicious colonial legacy has led Irish people to oppress one another in espousing a culture of taboo. This must be part of the thinking of those who called for Hungry to be banned but we’ve been here before. As pointed out in student website Oxygen.ie, people were baying for blood at the thought of lampooning three Catholic priests on an island but it turned out to be arguably Ireland’s greatest ridiculous comic masterpiece. There was an element of “what will the neighbours think” to this as people didn’t like the idea of indulging British stereotypes of the Irish. However, as Blind Boy Boat Club pointed out when the Rubber Bandits were under attack from boring killjoys over their song “Horse Outside”, Father Ted revolutionised British attitudes towards Irish people precisely because it made those stereotypes so laughable. Indeed, it showed a growing maturity in Ireland as a society that learned to laugh at itself.

But it’s been a tragic week for satire. Yesterday saw a vicious attack on press freedom as the forces of reaction launched an attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo. This magazine is not to my personal tastes as I see satire at its finest when directed upwards towards positions of power and not towards minorities from the former colonies of a powerful country. Still, France has a robust satirical tradition and the point has been made that Charlie Hebdo does not discriminate when it comes to targets and that it has lampooned the French Establishment in greater measure. Even if one takes offence to a particular article or cartoon, or finds them irresponsible, there can be no rational reason for such cold, calculated murder other than to impose taboos and strictures anathema to a free society and to foment divisions within that society. The maintenance of that free society will also be contingent on France upholding its Enlightenment values and not sinking into an Islamophobic mess led by Marine Le Pen and her ilk. The Norwegian reaction to the terrorist attack by white supremacist Anders Behring Breivik was an example for all free thinking democrats to follow.

Still many will ask where should we draw the line in a liberal democracy that respects pluralism and rejects hate speech. If the French suppress Charlie Hebdo or the Irish suppress Hungry on the basis of those who take easy offence what comes next? Was the Russian government justified in jailing Pussy Riot for causing offence to the Orthodox Church? Was it fair enough for the Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his book The Satanic Verses? Ultimately, a taboo moves from being a reaction to alienation among the ridiculed to an instrument of oppression and hubris when power changes hands. At risk of sounding like a slippery slope argument, yesterday’s censorship boards are today’s attempts to prevent a young writer from releasing his work. Yesterday’s sanctified history is today’s attempt to reassert a theocratic and authoritarian worldview. It’s hard to have it both ways. Most want to identify both with free expression and the responsibility to use free speech in a spirit of common decency and responsibility.  Yet if you think that suppressing a sitcom like Hungry will come to any good or if you propose a nasty, elitist and aggressive reaction to those horrific attacks in Paris, t’es pas Charlie.

Could the Scottish vote awaken European democracy from its slumber?

Opinion piece adapted from the previous post and published in EurActiv.

Scotland PicThe Scottish referendum has had the benefit to set the stage for a broader discussion on the way governance functions in the UK and the EU at large, writes David Kitching.

David Kitching, is Policy Advisor for the Foundation of European Progressive Studies (FEPS), the political think tank linked to the Party of European Socialists (PES).

Certain commentary in Brussels and London in the run-up to yesterday’s landmark referendum contained a tone of sneering incredulity that a component part of a large EU member state would seek secession in 2014. In reality, the tremors running through the British body politic are indicative of a much broader impulse that is reflected elsewhere too. The received wisdom is that the world has (or ought to have) moved past the petty nationalisms of bygone days, that the onslaught of global capitalism has vastly increased economic interdependence and moved the locus of real power and decision-making away from the nation-state. The simultaneous erosion of economic borders and growth of institutions of regional and global governance would appear to push the nation-state into further decline. In the European context, this points to greater EU integration to consolidate the member states’ positions in the 21st century.

Yet this has not been the case. UK-based Catalan academic Montserrat Guibernau argues that, contrary to received wisdom, such globalising phenomena actually encourage nationalist movements to recast their traditional nature to meet contemporary challenges. This has taken on a number of guises. The most pernicious has been the alarming rise in populist, and sometimes xenophobic, nationalism. These groups operationalise fears related to globalisation to target immigrants, unjustly blaming them for the suppression of wages, increasing unemployment and penury to native populations.

Another example has been an increase in an appeal for “nations without states” such as Scotland or Catalonia. While both forms appeal to a divide between an elite focused on transnational issues and a people still concerned with local matters, the resulting standpoint is markedly different. The Scottish nationalism of the independence campaign was broadly inclusive and civic in character, eschewing any of the essentialist ethnic rhetoric of its Populist Radical Right counterparts. They advocated a Nordic-style, social democratic economy and saw greater a opportunity of achieving this within an independent Scotland. This ought to provide some food for thought in the UK as such aspirations have not gone away with this result.

There has been a strong message throughout that Scots feel alienated by Tory-ruled Westminster and that Scots who traditionally voted for Labour have felt left behind by that party too. Therefore, the Scottish debate should be seen not in a context of misty-eyed nationalism but in terms of the significant political and constitutional questions it raises. Given the social and economic trends that have affected the UK in recent decades, is the current institutional set-up fit for purpose? British social mobility is in deplorable health, and wealth and power have become increasingly concentrated in London and the southeast. This has had a detrimental impact on certain parts of Scotland, but also Wales and the north of England. By bringing into question the Act of Union, Scottish voters have opened up the space for others throughout the UK to question whether the system as it stands is sufficiently responsive.

Ironically, in debating independence, the Scottish have given much greater service to the UK than their British nationalist and Eurosceptic counterparts in UKIP and (elements of) the Conservative Party. Whereas the former looked at issues of civic governance, the latter are the true embodiment of divisive, insular, Little Englander attitudes. The independence debate has shifted the ground of identity politics so that the basis of such conversations must be quality of life, democratic legitimacy and institutional accountability rather than outmoded jingoism. Added to this, the 85% voter turnout has been a phenomenal achievement in voter participation, with significant lessons for political engagement elsewhere in Europe. It should provide a wake-up call to all European leaders that the remoteness and technocracy of present decision-making processes will cause other “nations without states” push for similar plebiscites, with crisis-hit Spain to the forefront.

It is time for European discourse to pull back from indulgent, abstract debate. Arguments between Eurofederalists and Eurosceptics too often descend into displays of competitive romanticism played out in a vacuum. The aspirational cosmopolitanism of the former meets the nostalgic nationalism of the latter while the work of engaging citizens in the decisions that affect their lives gets left behind. Scotland’s referendum should remind both camps that in democratic politics, one’s position should be justified by the impact it will have on the lives of the affected citizens. This morning’s result must surely have an impact on the European debate within the UK too as they discuss “Brexit”, given the parallels in the respective arguments used in the Scottish debate. There is much stronger pro-EU feeling in Scotland than south of Hadrian’s Wall and if pro-union parties are serious about being “Better Together” they must take this into account in any subsequent proposals.

At least the stage has now been set for a broader discussion on the way governance functions in the UK and the EU at large. The Scots turned out in huge numbers and peacefully chose to stay within the UK but by a slim margin. Their discourse represents an enormous challenge to Westminster to reform itself and bring the disenchanted back on board. Across Europe, it challenges traditional and established governmental institutions to address the way in which they function. For this we should all be thankful.

If Caledonia should become a stranger

A general commentary on the upcoming referendum in Scotland. At the time of writing, I await an update on possible syndication in a newspaper or two. 

Glasgow_bridgeSome international commentary contains a tone of incredulity that a component part of a large EU member states would seek secession in 2014. In reality, the present shockwaves running through the British body politic are indicative of a much broader impulse that is reflected elsewhere too. Part of this amazement is based on a notion that the world has (or ought to have) moved past the petty nationalisms of bygone days, that the onslaught of global capitalism has vastly increased economic interdependence and moved the locus of real power and decision-making away from the nation-state. The simultaneous erosion of economic borders and growth of institutions of regional and global governance would appear to push the nation-state into further decline. In the European context, this would appear to point to greater EU integration to consolidate the member states’ positions in the 21st century.

Yet this has not been the case. Montserrat Guibernau, argues that, contrary to received cosmopolitan wisdom, such globalising phenomena actually encourage nationalist movements to recast their traditional nature to meet contemporary challenges. This has taken on a number of guises. One has been an alarming rise in populist, and sometimes xenophobic, nationalism. These groups operationalise fears surrounding globalisation to target immigrants, blaming them for the suppression of wages, increasing unemployment and penury to native populations.

Another has been an increase in an appeal for “nations without states” or regional nationalism such as in Scotland or Catalonia. While both forms appeal to a divide between an elite focused on transnational issues and a people still concerned with local matters, the resulting standpoint is markedly different. The Scottish nationalism of the independence campaign is inclusive and civic in character, eschewing any of the essentialist ethnic rhetoric of its neo-populist counterparts.

Still, the debate in Scotland has vacillated between the spiritual and the mundane as identity politics and financial concerns mix and muddy the waters. The pro-independence campaign advocates a progressive, social democratic economy and sees greater opportunity of achieving this within and independent Scotland. This has greatly appealed to many voters at an emotional level too, and the turgid financial arguments of the “No” campaign have failed to inspire. However, there are still very important questions for the “Yes” camp to answer. It has been said that Scotland would keep the Pound Stirling as its currency. However, the maintenance of such an arrangement would greatly limit the extent of independence, as it would require a currency union to be operable. The travails of the Euro have proved this point. An alternative could be a Scottish Pound pegged to Stirling, as was the case with the Irish Punt in the decades after independence. This provides little fiscal flexibility and undermines the extent of economic independence that can be achieved. For example, lowering corporation tax while pegged to the Pound would never be accepted by the Bank of England. There is a worry that, in order to be competitive, Scotland’s only means of buoying its economy would be through downward pressure on wages. The result is a race to the bottom far removed from the aspirations of progressive Scots. Of course, oil revenues can be used to sustain some of the adjustment but will this be enough?

Politically, the Westminster elites who are alleged to have become so removed from the realities of the British public will end up having their own counterparts in Holyrood. The pressures that currently exist in the United Kingdom will still have to be faced by an independent Scotland. There is no room for self-indulgence or complacency. Drawing on the Irish experience (perhaps the most pertinent historic comparison for the current Scottish debate) Fintan O’Toole warns: “What a free country quickly discovers is that the better Us of its imagination is not already there, fully formed, just waiting to blossom in the sun of liberation. It has to be created…”

This implies moving beyond old misty-eyed nationalism to something that addresses significant constitutional and democratic issues. In this sense, the Scottish debate represents a stark contrast to the jingoism of UKIP and the more Eurosceptic Conservatives when discussing a potential British exit from the European Union. Rather than discussing sovereignty in an outmoded Westphalian tone, this debate has avoided essentialist and exclusionary discourse. Instead, it has drawn on social, economic and demographic trends that have affected the UK in recent decades.

British social mobility is in poor health and wealth and power have become increasingly concentrated in London and the south-east. This has had a detrimental impact on certain parts of Scotland, but also Wales and the north of England. In a sense, this week’s referendum opens up questions about the whole constitutional design of the United Kingdom. People in England and Wales are also talking openly about methods of governance rather than simply alternating elites in an unresponsive system. There is some talk of further devolution to the regions, with Greater Manchester mooted as one possible seat of a regional assembly.

It is also instructive for the overall debate on Britain’s place in the European Union. Arguments between Europhiles and Eurosceptics sometimes descend into displays of competitive romanticism as the aspirational internationalism of the former meets the nostalgic patriotism of the latter. The Scottish debate has shifted the ground for identity politics so that the basis of such debates must be quality of life. This will have a ripple effect throughout Europe. Whichever way the Scots vote, even if it upsets their English and Welsh cousins, it will raise significant issues about how they govern themselves. With over 93% of eligible adults now registered to vote, it represents an unprecedented moment of democratic participation.

Across the water, Ireland represents the closest example of both the dangers and potential of going it alone. Thankfully for Scotland, the bloodletting of the Irish War of Independence has not been a feature. It is interesting the Dublin government has not issued a single statement either in favour or against Scottish independence. Ultimately, the Republic of Ireland will be able to work with either administrative set-up. It is probably wise in this light to keep a neutral silence and let the Scots decide for themselves. There may be some cause for concern in Northern Ireland, however. The peace agreement is a product of a delicate balance of constitutional, cultural and social concerns. The Unionist community in Northern Ireland has much closer ties of kinship to Scotland than to either England or Wales. There are fears in some quarters that this community would feel more exposed to drives for Irish unification in a post-Scottish UK and that a backlash might ensue.

In the European Union at large, the potential outcomes are mixed. There is much stronger pro-EU feeling in Scotland than south of Hadrian’s Wall and it is certain the Holyrood government would seek EU membership for Scotland. While there are no democratic impediments to this, there are fears that Scotland would face a veto from other countries with strong regional nationalist movements. Spain has been the most vocal in this regard and the outgoing European Commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso indicated the accession process would not be plain sailing by any means. Even Deutshce Bank has issued warnings regarding market reactions.

Ultimately, if we share the values on which the European project was built, it serves nobody to adopt coercive positions from a distance. Scotland will make up its mind on Thursday based on the judgement and self-determination of its citizens. The United Kingdom and broader European Union will have do deal with it in a manner that is realistic, pragmatic and neighbourly. If they stay, they will have enriched the United Kingdom and its democratic discourse. If they go, we can only hope that the split is an amicable one.

Gaza, the media and protest: the need for political organisation

Efforts at peace are doomed to failure if we continue to take the politics out of it.

This latest tragic episode in the Middle East conflict has an especially strange feeling. The media discourse, for one thing, has been so mixed. Some mainstream channels, we are told, have not provided adequately balanced reportage of the conflict. They have given Israeli lives greater value than those of Palestinians. They have over-reported the extent of Hamas actions while diminishing the crushing extent of Israeli Defence Forces’ bombing campaign and ground assaults. Then there are the pieces that focus on the human element. Jon Snow made a particularly impassioned appeal on behalf of the children of Gaza, who are victims, both of the present attacks and of the spiral of violence and hatred into which some will inevitably be swept. Lucky are those of us who have never been presented with the choice of whether to pick up a gun, a rocket launcher or a petrol bomb!

We are well familiar with the hysterical coverage that assumes all Palestinians will ultimately choose the violent option, that the IDF is doing what is necessary and that Israel “has the right to defend itself” even if this includes bombing civilians and precipitating street warfare. There are thoughtful, philosophical pieces on the nature of terror and what constitutes it and a whole plethora of reflections to fill as many tabs as your browser can take. In some ways, the media have become a battleground in their own right, wherein people power can exert changes in coverage through social media.

The Israeli Embassy to Ireland got in trouble during the week for its bizarre use of Twitter to scaremonger about Islamist incursion in Europe, in a manner akin to far right groups such as Vlaams Belang and the British National Party. That’s right, an official organ of the State of Israel tweeted pictures of major landmarks wearing niqabs, hijabs and burkhas. Social media have also been the main tool through which protests and demonstrations have been organised, at least in the West. In Ireland, I have seen Facebook used to mobilise people around direct political pressure, giving the contact details of the Ministers for Justice and Foreign Affairs so that they might feel pressurised into acting within their portfolios to give greater voice to the humanitarian perspective on behalf of Ireland. The hope is that they can use their influence in such fora as the UN Human Rights Council in which the Irish government, along with other EU member states, abstained on a vote to establish whether war crimes had been committed in Gaza.

It is striking that there is an overall feeling of powerlessness, even among those in power. What can little old Ireland do on its own without the strength of the EU? How can we reach consensus when Germany is hamstrung and supports Israel unequivocally for fear of raising the spectre of their benighted past? How will France or the UK get on board when their arms industries sell to Israel? How can any of these countries move without the US? And how can the US change track without alienating the powerful pro-Israel lobby there? This whole sorry saga is a lesson in political organisation and strategy…

Last Thursday, I stood in the middle of the Schuman Roundabout in Brussels – surrounded by the grandeur of the European Commission, Council and External Action Service buildings – to protest the persistent vicious bombing campaign on Gaza. Approximately 50 people from several countries joined together for an event entitled “Peace for Palestine: Stop bombing Gaza”. The context was that the organisation Young Professionals in Foreign Policy was holding an event to discuss the situation in Gaza and their special guest was Israeli Ambassador David Walzer. Had they invited Palestinian representatives too, this might have seemed reasonable. However, to privilege the more obviously belligerent party in this manner showed such a blatantly unequal distribution of power in terms of narrative, message and influence as to warrant protest. “It is better to do something than nothing”, I told myself, no doubt similar to the perspective of the millions of protestors currently taking to the streets worldwide. Ultimately, however, the helplessness that crept over me as we stood on the roundabout shouting at a man who couldn’t hear us reinforced the feeling that we in fact represented this uneven distribution of power. We must do something but what we do is most important.

The Biblical tale of David and Goliath has some application to both sides. Israeli politics exemplifies a “laager culture” that sees itself as an underdog surrounded by hostile neighbours. Their self-perception is that, like King David as a young shepherd, they use skill, ingenuity, toughness and pluckiness to overcome their adversaries. The Palestinian narrative is more obviously coloured by themes of colonisation as Israel expands brazenly into Palestinian territory, granted impunity by an imperialist West that caused the problems in the first place. Conspiracy theories abound about why Israel is allowed to do this, many of which are underscored by sinister anti-Semitic undertones that evoke an international Jewry embedded in the institutions of global financial capitalism and politics.

It is perhaps this latter association that has led to the linkage between the cause of Free Palestine and the political Left. Crucially, however, this has been an amorphous Left that, for the purposes of this campaign, eschews the tenets of traditional political organisation. Being non-partisan is held as a positive and inclusive thing. All the while, hands are wrung and protests held in places where none of the pertinent decisions are made. This is not to negate the potential of street politics. The Civil Rights Movements in the US and in Northern Ireland gained much of their momentum from the streets. Yet key to their success was the dual approach wherein they got their hands dirty engaging with the turgid, boring affairs of traditional politics too.

Within Palestine itself, there have been many efforts to work in this manner. Through many frustrating years, Fatah tested both political and armed tactics to achieve Palestinian statehood. However, as they engaged more in negotiations, Israel also undermined their position to the point at which they appeared weak to many Palestinians. Their woes have been added to by their tendency to appear as Establishment darlings and by a slide towards corruption. This is an awful pity! I have met several Fatah leaders of the older generation, such as Nabil Shaath, and younger hopefuls like Hussam Zomlot. They have huge personal potential but have been met by intransigence at one side and organisational breakdown on the other.

The net result was the opening of space for the dangerous, reactionary forces of Hamas to come to power in Gaza. Israeli refusals to even talk to them in a constructive manner shores up Hamas’ position further. Their pathetic attempts at rocket fire when faced with Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defence system shows a political leadership with few solutions that wishes to keep its more extremist militants on board. Yet the current incursion into Gaza in fact strengthens Hamas’ political position for now and undermines any possibility of a negotiated solution. It is difficult not to conclude that this is the Israeli government’s desire.

And what of the Israeli perspective? Last March, I attended a meeting of the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Jerusalem. Here, civil society leaders, academics and some politicians from both sides met to discuss potential new paradigms for resolving the conflict. Some Palestinians excused themselves for being late by explaining that they had been forced by border guards to take alternative entrances to West Jerusalem for no good reason. This was during peacetime but even when faced with such civil rights abuses, there was a sort of “apologist consensus” among certain Israelis, even those who were from the “peace camp” of the Labour Party and Meretz. “We must be able to defend ourselves!” they say, “We live in constant fear of rocket fire” they remind us, “We’re the only democracy in the Middle East”. Of course, they stop short of the outright disdain for Palestinians spouted by Netanyahu and Likud but the crucial point is that this “apologist consensus” is embedded within political parties. Other more cuddly lefties from Israeli civil society organisations disagreed with this perspective but they do not operate where the decisions are made. If we want to effect change, this must be done through the political system, with all its faults and compromises, whether we like it or not.

But this makes people uncomfortable. Partisan politics makes them feel dirty. Most would donate money to a UNICEF or Red Cross appeal for the children of Gaza. But would they donate money to a political movement so that they have the resources necessary to negotiate effectively? Is it better to provide medicine for a wounded child or prevent these wounds from happening in the first place by securing peace? (Obviously this is not an argument against donating medicines!) Whether we like it or not, negotiations occur at the political level and it is through engagement with politics at every level – from the street to the parliament – that we can change the dynamics of power that currently prevail. This was part of the process in bringing the downfall of apartheid in South Africa when ANC operatives were sent money by sympathisers elsewhere. Of course, it sometimes involves getting our hands dirty and dealing with people in our own political systems that we don’t particularly like. If the purity of the cause supersedes the effectiveness of the outcome, then the cause will remain in the echo chamber and innocent civilians will continue to be killed with impunity. “Doing something” is not the same as doing something effective.

Manic but reflective at the crossroads of music and politics

After watching the Manic Street Preachers play at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, I was left with some food for thought and took out a pen and paper. Below is the transcript of my scribblings.

ManicsThe meeting point between politics and music can be a funny old place. The desire for empiricism and rationality doesn’t always sit easily with the search for emotional resonance and artistic expression. I was raised on Christy Moore, a great folk singer with an activist’s heart who has a particular talent for interpreting songs from across the world and relating them to one’s own experience. Sitting in my father’s van on the way to school, Christy’s exhortations to the listener to get up and be counted resonated in a very special way. So too did the songs of Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen, as they sang of their people. At the same time, Radiohead brought the world of music to new frontiers, taking their fans on a journey fraught with risks of disappointment and disillusionment, but ultimately achieving the exhilaration of musical discovery and creativity.

The Manic Street Preachers have always occupied an unusual place in this continuum. I encountered them as I entered a phase of my teens wherein I sought answers to explain the world around me, as well as the correct questions to ask. I was a fairly bookish kid with a love of music and a nascent interest in how the world was run. For a kid with too many questions, the Manics had something to say. They demanded that we take up arms. Yet this arsenal was not to be composed of bullets, batons or blades. One felt compelled, rather, to build and borrow from armaments of ideas; to read and become better; to cultivate the mind in such a way as to understand the world but still have an emotional resonance with it…

Much of this came back to me last night as the Welshmen performed at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels. I had not seen a live Manics show in at least eleven years and I took the opportunity to go along for old times’ sake. In the end, I revisited those old times in a far more lucid and vivid way than I had anticipated. I felt such a spectrum of contradictory feelings as to genuinely appreciate the contradictions in their art: the visceral exhilaration when they opened with Motorcycle Emptiness was still tinged with a lonesome undertone. There is an upbeat tempo to many of their songs that masks a dark and reflective underbelly. This becomes an uncomfortable juxtaposition during James Dean Bradfield’s ode to his mother’s battle with cancer, Ocean Spray, as the crowd danced to their hearts’ content. I felt genuinely sorry for Bradfield during his acoustic set when some in the audience began to clap along during the tragically sad This Sullen Welsh Heart, perhaps all the more because of the resonance it has with some of the more depressed parts of Ireland during darker days.

Beyond this, when Nicky described The Holy Bible as an “anti-Britpop masterpiece” and Richie Edwards as an “esoteric genius” I wondered whether there were contradictions in how the bands art and politics mix, and how I should relate to them. Working in the European Quarter of Brussels, it is unsurprising to become keenly aware of accusations of ivory tower elitism. In the ‘Brussels bubble’, there is sometimes a sense that technocrats seek recourse in esoteric assumptions so they can tell people they know better and that their interpretations are of a higher order. One could wonder whether this was Nicky’s intention last night, or Richie’s back in 1994. But that would be a gross misrepresentation.

So what was (and is) their intention? Do the Manics see themselves as a force of emancipation or more as documentarians of the working class condition? If they are emancipators, then who are the emancipated? Ultimately, I could only figure that they demanded the same of other listeners as they did of my friends and I as we searched for meaning in our adolescent night-journeys. There is no predestination in their worldview. Instead, they lay down a challenge for us – as lovers of music and as seekers – to build a well-stocked mind. This became most evident when they sang If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next. In a time when Europe crackles at the flames of a far right that is growing in influence, this famous quote from a republican leader during the Spanish Civil War is once again a call to arms, and to equip the mind. Behind it is a desire to read and write and learn and research ideas, to help others to do the same, and to face down those who deride the expansion of human thought. If this is their purpose, then it is indeed emancipation!