International Roma Day

Today, April 8th, is International Roma Day. It is a day where we celebrate Roma culture and raise awareness of some of the issues faced by Romani people all over the world. In the 21st Century climate of globalisation, inclusion and respect for minorities’ rights and culture, Roma and Sinti people seem to have been forgotten, viewed with prejudice and suspicion, with stereotype still playing a large part in how Roma people are perceived.

Television shows featuring chatty girls in bridal gowns don’t help. Roma people often prefer to be allowed to follow their own practices and enjoy privacy, so much anti-Ziganist discrimination is still prevalent and often unchallenged.

There is, of course, the romantic side, the ‘Esmeralda’ image, and the idea of dancing girls lifting their skirts while dark-eyed men play violins. But in real life, while the arts are frequently celebrated by Roma people, you won’t see dancing bare legged girls. However, there are and have been many people of Romanichal descent in the arts and entertainment business: Ronnie Wood, Robert Plant, Charlie Chaplin, Tracey Emin, Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins.

Outside the UK, there are many famous people of Roma descent with whom you probably would not associate Roma heritage at all, including Pablo Picasso, Rita Hayworth, Yul Brynner and even Elvis Presley, whose ancestors were apparently Sinti.

There is also the prevailing attitude of suspicion and mistrust of Roma people, often instilled in people from a young age. Think of the rhyme ‘My mother said…’.

Nowadays over 60% of Romanichal people live in houses made of bricks. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived in smaller communities, many may have worked in agriculture or been involved with travelling fairgrounds or circuses.

Roma language is part of wider culture: words such as pal, mush, dosh and kushti are well known words, and there are plenty more.

Roma people have lived separate lives and, for centuries, have been the target of prejudice which still goes unchallenged, even today. It makes me sad that the minute a Roma family arrive in a neighbourhood, suspicion precedes action, with calls for eviction. It is astonishing that people still pre-judge in this way. But such racism is rooted in world history and it is not sufficiently challenged.

I once asked a man who brought leaflets to my home asking to remove a local family  in a caravan on a nearby disused piece of land why he thought they should be hassled to move away. He was aghast that I had challenged him. His next few words were rooted in absolute prejudice and suspicion, and sadly he assumed that everyone else would naturally share his belief. Within a fortnight the family were gone.

Racism has its roots in a culture of ongoing dehumanisation. The Roma people have a history of such abuses across the world. In the 13th Century, the Byzantines said they were ‘wizards… with satanic inclinations.’ In 1541, Ferdinand I insisted that Roma people were expelled. By the 1700s, Joseph I was hanging adult males without trial and flogging women. In 1725, Friedrich Wilhelm’s slaughter of Roma males was backed by the Lutheran Church.

Non-Roma populations have been desensitised by centuries of myths and suspicions about Roma people. Stigmatised, herded, persecuted, even called ‘vermin,’ Roma people were stripped of their humanity and targeted due to their ethnicity. In the early 20th century, in the time leading up to the Holocaust and paving the way for focused euthanasia, they were referred to as ‘Lives unworthy of life’, (Lebensunwertes Leben).

The Romani genocide, the Porajmos (the devouring), saw the slaughter of thousands of Roma men, women and children. Even now, the number of deaths is not clear, but we know the number is between 220,000 and half a million.

Josef Mengele was particularly interested in Roma children for his medical experiments in Auschwitz, apparently feeding them sweets before performing amputations and attempting to change their eye colour.

The German government paid war reparations to Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, but not to the Roma people. There were no consultations at Nuremberg. Ian Hancock, political advocate and Romani scholar, said  that Roma people “are traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others.”

Dr. Hancock is a brilliant and very knowledgeable author, and I recommend any of his books for readers who would like more background information beyond this blog.

However, this is April 8th, International Roma Day. How should we celebrate it? There are twelve million Roma alive today. There are many of us who share Roma heritage through our parents and grandparents. And there are many people worldwide who believe that intolerance is intolerable. There is much we can do, including campaigning for equal rights, asking for political support from the European Parliament, working on a local level to ask for education and change, talking to people about their lives, their culture, and their choices.

It is also important to move towards tolerance and understanding, and to seek opportunities to enable one of the world’s largest minority populations to have the same rights to dignity and justice as all other groups of people.

Opreh Roma!

Punch and Judy politics? Send them to the naughty step!

During Jeremy Corbyn’s response to David Cameron setting out his position on Europe and the upcoming referendum yesterday, the leader of the opposition was prevented from delivering his opinion due to some lengthy heckling, including the interruption of ‘Who are you?’ implying that leaders of other socialist parties in Europe didn’t know who he is.

This came from the Tory benches, and was greeted by fits of laughter and cheers and jeers amongst Tory MPs, and even wry smiles could be seen on the faces of Andy Burnham and Angela Eagle, the shadow ministers sitting either side of Mr Corbyn.

Some of Mr Corbyn’s critics have a partial explanation for this. He was interrupted because Jez is unelectable and no threat to the Tories. The logic goes: people don’t respect him, he isn’t a viable leader, and there is little or no comeuppance for the Tories enjoying their pantomime in parliament if there is no credible opposition ready to replace them as a government. Therefore the Tories are bound to heckle him.

While Corbyn is far from being a perfect leader, and his and Labour’s polls have looked pretty gruesome over the past few months, that’s not how I see it. Free speech should be a given right and it is certainly given to all speakers in the House of Commons. It is difficult to have any respect for the hecklers and their football chant, which is designed to make an individual look insignificant, therefore giving them dubious superiority.

There are rules in football grounds which govern fans’ behaviour: insidious hissing at Tottenham, throwing coins at West Brom players, racist chants: it’s all abuse and if fans are seen on camera, then quite rightly they lose their place in the ground and their chance to watch the games is taken away. After all, if they can’t behave acceptably, they have no right to be there.

In a primary school, bullying would not be allowed and gang bullying would certainly be frowned upon. Bullies would be dealt with and all pupils would be clear about standards of acceptable behaviour within the culture of the school. Kids who bully are singled out by the teachers, spoken to, sent home: in the cases of repeated bullying, they are told to look elsewhere.

Why, then, is it acceptable to heckle in the House of Commons? There should be standards in place: if I am to have any respect for the people who are elected to run the country, then they should be able to demonstrate acceptable behaviour at work, doing their job, representing us.

The hecklers should have received their marching orders. They could – perhaps – be fined a week’s pay for their behaviour? I have no respect for these people, their way of conducting themselves in a debate, or their politics of oneupmanship, bullying and boorishness. Corbyn has the right to speak without interruption: not only because he is the elected Labour leader and an MP, but because he is a human being.

The bullies were even at it again later when the eminently more popular BoJo stepped up to the plate to speak about Europe. Again the heckling: someone even shouted ‘Tuck your shirt in.’

Politicians are experienced, qualified and important people: they are lawyers, historians, journalists, economists, public servants: they have a legacy of responsibility to their constituents, to the nation, and this also involves an implicit code of behaviour which shouldn’t include abuse, mob rule and mooing like cows.

It is wrong that our leaders should demonstrate behaviour that would not be tolerated in any other workplace. It is time they were called to account. The rules need to be updated so that their example becomes one of intellectual responsibility and decorum.

They should lead from the top! Just imagine if the rest of us were to follow their example. Imagine doctors shrieking at each other during operations, or zero hours contract supermarket assistants singing ‘Who are you?’ at their colleagues?

It ought to be risible, but the elected leaders of our country should surely have more respect for the gravitas of their role. Bawling and name-calling doesn’t belong in the hallowed halls of high politics. Those who chant abuse and name call should be sent out to stand in the corner, or they should be shown the red card and given a ban or a fine. They have a lesson to learn about having higher expectations of themselves and focusing on who they are serving, and it should not be primarily their own egos.

Europe – to be in or not to be in? That is the question.

Everyone is talking about Europe at the moment and , in particular, the referendum in June (probably). We will all be asked to decide on whether we want to stay in the European Union or not, and there are many voices out there, in the media, telling us what we should think. Most of these voices are politicians, journalists, businesspeople and a few celebrities, and most of their arguments are based on an emotional response to issues like immigration, sovereignty and the abstract notion of ‘Britishness’.

The truth is, I don’t know much at all about the real issues involved here. How many of us do? Who can truly explain the difference between the ECJ and ECHR? I know they stand for European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights, but that’s about it. And who knows the difference between Donald Tusk and José Manuel Barroso? One is the president of the European Commission and the other the President of the European Council: but not that way round. And what about the Commission, the Council, the European Parliament and the European Council of Ministers? How do they all affect us here in the UK? And what proportion of the voting population can hazard a guess at any of that without resorting to Wikipedia?

Perhaps we aren’t very well informed on European hierarchy and administration. Perhaps many people don’t want to be: perhaps the bottom line, which governs the in or out vote, is the judgement we make in the next few months about how it will all affect our lives. Perhaps that is why many of us will vote with our instinct rather than our logic, and our votes in June will, for many of us, be based on what we think we think, and not what we know to be factually true.

There are a lot of scaremongers out there who are pedalling the usual fears about Britain being marginalised and weakened within the European community. We would have leaders whom we didn’t know, whose names we might not even be able to pronounce, as opposed to those with whom we are familiar: Cameron, Osborne, May, Gove, Hunt. It is suggested that we shouldn’t trust all those European people we don’t know anything about: we are encouraged to believe that we will be so much safer with the aforementioned list of politicians whom we can rely on because we ‘know’ them. With what is currently happening in Britain in terms of austerity, the refugee crisis, the Junior Doctors’ crisis, that particular argument isn’t really working for me.

Europe isn’t perfect, what with the monetary problems in Greece, the rising right in France, Sweden, Holland: places I have always admired for their libertarian, people-centred politics. However, I consider myself European as well as British; Europe is expansive, there are many cultures, many languages, many different landscapes. What is there in Europe not to admire, not to want to become a part of, rather than retreating into insularity? Can we not be bigger, better, reciprocal and more influential in the EU rather than out?

Let’s examine the issues, briefly, which I think constitute the in/out argument in a nutshell. They are globalisation, climate change, the prospect of international co-operation and the old favourite, immigration.

There are as many British nationals living overseas as there are immigrants in the UK, and I am so pleased that the thousands of Europeans who support our ailing health service are here, not to mention the other industries so many people work for so tirelessly. I also admire Yvette Cooper’s stance on the issue of refugees, demanding a humanitarian solution and offering leadership within the EU : ‘A quota system across the EU is not right, but there has to be a coordinated plan across different European countries. Historically in big European crises Britain has provided leadership.’

Many people have been encouraged to develop fears about immigrants, that somehow their presence in Britain will mean that they receive benefits of housing and employment or financial support which is somehow otherwise reserved just for British citizens. I don’t see this as a realistic equation. The whole topic of immigration may well be one we share responsibility to solve and, to that end, it is better to resolve it as part of the EU.

Increased international economic integration, or globalisation, is a central issue for many people in terms of the in/ out vote. EU firms receive better opportunities in new and expanding markets and sources of finance and technology, and consumers can access a larger variety of goods at lower prices. This offers potentially significant gains if we are in the EU, with higher levels of productivity and  wages.However, many British people worry about the potential for job losses and lower wages or poorer working conditions.Again, perhaps we need to be in it to influence and change the economic situation to benefit our workers in Britain.Exactly the same is true of climate change: it is a huge concern for all of us, and we can only make things better with a concerted European effort based on a widespread agreed action plan, generated expansively.

It is the possibility of effective international cooperation which makes staying in the EU a rational argument: the idea that Britain can be part of a bigger group and have some influence, perhaps we could even offer strong leadership within the union, making the most of the potential for collaborative research, invention and innovation which could exist across the European community and benefit us all.

A slightly separate point about a possible result of the UK leaving the EU is that it might mean there’s no UK at all. Scottish Nationalists, still enjoying electoral hegemony and likely to extend it in May, would use a British exit from the EU to demand another referendum, one which -under such circumstances – they might well be likely to win. Are ardent Eurosceptics really willing to risk Great Britain fragmenting in order to break away from the European Union?

Gordon Brown, whom I admire for many things, including his his succinct comment that ‘we spend more on cows than the poor,’ said it perfectly in his article in The Guardian when he warned ‘leaving Europe to join the world is really the North Korea option, out in the cold with few friends, no influence, little new trade and even less new investment.

I stand with Gordon on this one. My vote will be a ‘Remain’ vote and I will end this article with a couple of interesting quotations from current political figures who have expressed  views on European membership:

From Nick Clegg: ‘The UK is not going to leave the European Union. Of course not. We are inextricably wound up with Europe. In terms of culture, history and geography, we are a European nation.’

From David Cameron: ‘After the Berlin Wall came down I visited that city and I will never forget it. The abandoned checkpoints. The sense of excitement about the future. The knowledge that a great continent was coming together. Healing those wounds of our history is the central story of the European Union.’

From John Hutton, former Defence Secretary : ‘Effective regulation at the European Union level can make a massive contribution to achieving our shared goals of improving competitiveness, jobs and growth.’

Inside Europe we can be part of something powerful: out of the EU, we might turn into Little Britain.

#KeepTheBan on fox-hunting, for foxes’ sake!

To follow my previous blog on fox hunting, firstly, I’d like to thank all the people who sent me lovely responses. Hope and compassion are alive and people are active against the ban, and that is very reassuring.

I have tried over the years to calm my passionate nature over this issue and I now attempt to demonstrate calm logic. It is difficult not to be angry where violence against a living creature is the central issue, but I have found that people seldom listen to arguments which involve fluffy animals and are more likely to respond to cool facts. Of course, this argument is flawed as, if we were to substitute a different animal- a pet cat, a horse, people would become outraged and quickly validate their anger. However, I am always happy to revert to logic.

I have also tried to be compassionate towards people who hunt: I don’t accept it as either their right or their culture, but I avoid calling them ‘scum’ and other emotive insults as it doesn’t provoke positive discussion between equal partners. I have been on the end of some fairly nasty anti-sabbing behaviour in the past where I was abused at the hands of hunters and where there was no discussion, of course, but that involved only a few individuals and it is interesting to see that the courts are now prosecuting people who attack anti-hunt protesters. That is how it should be according to the law: hunt saboteurs should never be at risk for protesting against bloodsports. It would be even better if there were no protest because there was no fox hunt. I have dealt with this issue in my blog: allowing the hunters to have ‘fun’ without killing an animal is possible. I am not a kill joy but I am also not a killer.

I thought, rather than make further arguments myself on this blog post, I’d attach some very clever statistics and facts, below, which put a rational argument in place.

Of course, most people who will read this blog know these facts already. But wouldn’t it be great if… imagine, if… someone who was on the side of the hunt read it and actually had the strength of resolve to change their mind.

Thanks for reading my blog and thanks for keeping the faith.


In pursuit of the unspeakable: fox or foe?

Tony Blair said in 1999 that Conservatives were  ‘the party of fox hunting, Pinochet and hereditary peers: the uneatable, the unspeakable and the unelectable.’

I can go back a little before that when, as an adolescent, I was in a pop-punk band and wrote a song which made me a bit notorious. Plugs were pulled on us when we performed it in pubs. We had our car tyres slashed and we were harangued in public places. The song was called ‘Mr Tally Ho!’ and I didn’t hold back on my opinions. The chorus went:

‘Mr Tally ho, Mr Tally Ho, ain’t there nothin’ better than your bugle to blow?’

Halcyon days. I used to go sabbing with my Dad on Boxing Day; my Mum went out and screamed at the local hunt in her typical Manchester-Irish way, telling them what she thought of their ‘sport’.

So there’s my background and I can easily be dismissed as biased. That was before I stumbled across a doe in the woods one day, dead, savaged by the local hunt and left for later.

Then I met Scott, who told me, his eyes shining, how he had been ‘bloodied’ as a child, his face smeared with fox blood, after his first hunt, and he told me I had no idea how exciting that was to a kid, the chase, the catch, the victory.

Then I met Jenny, a wonderful person, horse – mad, posh as hell, who loved all things equine, including the social life and the dressage and the smart, red coats and the thrill of the chase.

Scott and Jenny were great people.

I liked them; I didn’t ever like what they did.

I have been through the rigmarole of their excuses. ‘You should see what foxes do to chickens. They are a menace.’

I have a neighbour who keeps his chickens safely penned in. There is a fox who comes round my house often, making the low haunting sound in the night. My Dad said the fox is searching for the mate. There are no dead chickens next door. There have, however, been many a dead rabbit on my kitchen floor, decapitated, eyeless, bowels strewn for yards. My cat, The Dude, would then roll over provocatively and ask me to rub his tummy. Animals’ nature, not mine. I think I know better than to chase the cat around the garden for two hours and then give it a slow death.

As part of the Tory election manifesto last year, they promised to “give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote, with a government bill in government time”. The government has since calculated it would be unlikely to win such a vote.

It is clear that fox hunting should be, as MP Tracey Crouch, a patron of the Conservatives Against Fox Hunting group, said, a ‘pursuit from the past’ and should be ‘consigned to history’. Even some Tories recognise that it belongs with other violent and feudal traditions such as witch burning, droit de seigneur and peasant flogging. It does not cull foxes effectively and that is not it’s intention, whatever the hunters protest. It is a sport.

I love sport and I am all for fitness and fun. Horses are beautiful creatures, although I wouldn’t saddle one up and whip it, but riding is exhilarating and I so don’t want the beagles to be killed off because they are no longer useful, so there is an answer which is a pure compromise but which should make lovers of the chase very happy.

The hunt meets in it’s usual way, wearing the pretty red suits and sharing a slug of brandy together in the dawn mist. Jeeves won’t lose his job. He can set off first, on a horse with a long rag on a rope, dragging a scent which the dogs can chase. After a while, so that Jeeves has time to bash on through the countryside, taking care not to damage the environment or anyone’s cat, the hunt give chase and have a jolly good romp through the woods, blowing their bugles and getting hot and sweaty, until Jeeves drops the smelly rag and they can leap on it and devour it.

All good fun and not a fox in sight, then down the pub for a pheasant or two, or maybe a delicious nut roast and some wine.

Virtue Signalling: how we use social media to define ourselves and lie to our friends

I’ve been on Facebook for over a year now. I’ll check it a few times a day and post the occasional article or recipe. But I have noticed a growing hypocrisy – and we’re all guilty of it – among people who use social media. We mislead ourselves about why we’re doing it. It’s called virtue signalling.

I think I knew what it was before I knew the name for it. I think many of us do it subconsciously but, now it is in the forefront of my consciousness, I have become bombarded with examples of it and I am now trying to avoid doing it.

One can be all of these things. I admire other people who are. But I also admire modesty and humility, as well as action, as opposed to flaunting personal politics among friends and preaching to the converted. If someone posts this picture, how much will it influence anyone – anyone at all – to vote Labour? I suggest the answer is close to ‘not at all’.

I’m not talking about when most of my friends share an article or a post because they think it’s funny or informative or they genuinely believe someone else will enjoy it, although we are all inadvertently making comments about ourselves when we post anything. I’m not talking about someone who replies to a post because they have a burning opinion on an issue or want to raise a balanced argument or a different perspective, or share an experience. Although, again, we may be subconsciously pedalling an aspect of ourselves we may desire to promote universally.

I’m not talking about hobbyists or enthusiasts who can’t help but share their passion for music or food or politics or the next poetry reading event in Perthshire. I’m not talking about people who are wildly, irrepressibly enthusiastic. I am specifically talking about those people whose posts project a contrived and deliberate image intended for self-promotion.

We just want to be loved or admired or seen as the latest Mother Theresa.

There is a current trend to self-promote through social media. It’s like a sort of Facebook designer fashion cult, isn’t it? It’s the hope that if I put this on my page, I will appear to others in a certain cool way: people will perceive me as I want to be perceived, they will admire me, they will ‘like’ me, and they may even reply with a flattering comment, and then we can congratulate each other until the cows come home. Virtue signalling breeds virtue-rewarding, and so the cycle continues.

Perhaps we all do it to a certain extent; perhaps it is natural, there is no malice in it: after all, we just want to be loved or admired or seen as the latest Mother Theresa? But if there is no valid action which accompanies the virtue signal, then maybe we shouldn’t do it at all.

The problem exists when we suggest we are great feminists, great liberals, great activists, great philanthropists and then we don’t go out and actually do something about it, sometimes, in fact, doing the exact opposite in our private lives: doing nothing. There’s the rub. We just signal our potential to do it, our belief that we somehow might behave in a philanthropic way if we could be bothered to get off our backsides and away from the pc, and then we bask in the identity it offers us.

There is a thin line between posting photos of our food, our family, our beliefs, events in our lives, our triumphs because we genuinely want to share them, and a deliberate attempt to catapult our egos into orbit in order to harness others’ admiration.

So why might we all be guilty of virtual signalling? I mean, why don’t we just all go down the pub and have a chat about politics or philosophy or literature and then come home again, feeling better for having exchanged ideas privately? What makes us post something in a public domain which we think will inspire others’ admiration? And isn’t it valid to signal our liberalism and our support for all things fair? What’s the difference between virtue signalling on Facebook and, say, wearing a red ribbon or a poppy?

Or is virtue signalling a self-promoting smug cousin to political correctness? I think the idea lies in honesty of motive and in being really up-front with ourselves about our reasons for what we write. It’s ok to promote a political rally if we actually go on the march or would do if we weren’t hundreds of miles away, or if we inform others of an opportunity to come with us. We shouldn’t lie to ourselves, though, by suggesting that the existence of such a march promotes our desired ego image because we actually put it out there and extol its virtue without ever intending to go.

Perhaps it’s best not to tell the world you are going on an all-night vigil for peace. Perhaps it’s better to invite your friends privately, offer them a lift or a blanket, publicise the event but don’t publicise yourself. Just bloody go and be quiet and humble about your good deeds, maybe?

But there’s also a growing trend of smug responses, self-righteous ranting and self or mutually congratulating posts which are purely internet narcissism. People put egocentric  or verbose stuff out there which they wouldn’t dream of saying to someone’s face.

This type of virtue signalling which is purely competitive, which is not about deep conviction and nor does it promote support for a third party who needs it,but exists merely so that someone can massage their own ego through conflict, rivalry and challenge, is probably best avoided.

As Polonius said: ‘to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.’ (Or woman.)

I’ve made my mind up about Jeremy Corbyn

I have always allied myself to the Labour party and I am not about to change. I must admit, I was a Millifan during the run up to the last election and I foolishly hoped that Ed would have what it would takes to become our Prime Minister.

I saw Ed speak at a Fabian Society conference and I was very impressed by the depth of his knowledge and arguments and even the warmth of his delivery. Ed is a thinker, a pragmatist and he has integrity: I also hoped he would had the the capacity to inspire trust in him and in Labour, but it was not to be.

Jeremy, on the other hand, despite the majority vote of Labour members and so-called ‘£3 supporters’ that catapulted him to a victory no-one predicted, and despite the number of Labour members who think he is doing well, does not strike me as the right man for the job.

The burning question concerns his potential electability

I do agree with him to a great extent on the subject of the war in Syria. I am against any air strikes which even run the risk of killing civilians; I am concerned about reprisals and escalation and so much can go wrong if Syria implodes.

However, Jeremy Corbyn has left his party open to ridicule by occupying a hard left position and by making so many unforced errors. These began from the first moment: his botched shadow cabinet reshuffle was followed hard upon by unwise comments about ‘Jihadi John’ and shoot-to-kill, his general disdain for relations with the media, his shadow cabinet allies waving Mao’s Little Red Book, and his attempt to hoodwink the shadow cabinet over Syria have all damaged public perception of Labour and morale amongst Labour MPs.

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Of course, you might not care what the right-wing press says about Jeremy Corbyn. It is their job to offer opinions which are antithetical to, even to parody and lambast, the Labour party. But ‘Jez’ is serving it up to them on a plate: the biggest problem I have with JC is I don’t believe he is the saviour many people are investing in. The burning question concerns his potential electability – whether he can win the next General Election in 2020.

Having joined the Labour party again after this year’s Election loss, I found choosing who to vote for to be the new Labour leader very difficult. It was easier to find candidates I didn’t want to vote for – there were, to be honest, four of them – and my criteria for selection was entirely based on which candidate could win the next election.

More important to me than adhering to my anti-war principles or finding a candidate in tune with the far leftism that I clung to as a student (imagine me in my anti-apartheid t-shirt and my CND badge) was to find a candidate who could defeat the Tories, the kind of candidate who might roll back some of the worst excesses of the last five and a half years of Tory government – the bedroom tax, the relentless chipping away at the rights of disabled people and workers, the hike in tuition fees, and so on ad nauseam. I voted for Yvette because I thought she was the closest fit.

Of course, we can’t deny Jeremy his overwhelming victory. He has a benign persona, bordering on avuncular. But for all those people who will say he is a calm man who loves to debate issues within his party, there are many more who will say he has no leadership or charisma.

So, on the subject of leadership, let’s look at his voters and, specifically, the ones who laud him as leader. I know lots of ‘Corbynites’ amongst my friends. I watched their glee and relief as Corbyn was elected and how I wish I could share their optimism.

One group of Corbyn voters includes my dear friends in the north. The city of Liverpool was bequeathed a fate of managed decline by Thatcherites and certainly there is much poverty and the Labour party are the only party who can stop austerity and bring about change. I can see why they have put their faith in JC.

My good friends in the South are passionate Labour voters who shared the hard left ideology of Tony Benn and, to them, Jeremy Corbyn is putting the party back on the proper political path, from which it strayed under Blair.

Many young people I know and respect, bright and hopeful, see Jez as a way out of the uncaring social policies of the Tories. They have, quite rightly, identified Cameron as the leader they don’t want: George Osborne, Theresa May and Boris Johnson are, God forbid, waiting in the wings as well, so it is no wonder they place their faith in Jeremy.

Sadly, I believe – and the evidence shows – he is unelectable.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party is consistently behind in the polls. Even Ed, who was eventually delivered a thumping defeat by the electorate, led in the polls for most of his leadership. One recent ComRes poll put Labour 15 points behind the Tories, a result that would be real wipeout territory for Labour come 2020. The same poll showed that nearly “three in five say they don’t trust Jeremy Corbyn to keep them and their family safe”. There is, perhaps, only one more thing fundamental to the potential of a party of government than being trusted with the economy, which Labour isn’t and hasn’t been since the banking crash of 2008. That is being trusted to keep people safe. If Corbyn and his team can’t reassure voters very quickly – since political first impressions shape so much of how a leader is perceived – then he is doomed to failure. The supplementary question is just how far he drags his party down with him.

As a example of where Labour is going wrong, let’s look at the three party conferences this year. Tim Farron, promoting himself well as a good, caring, Christian man, presented his Liberal Democrat party as a plausible alternative to his two competitors. He said he intended to stake a claim on the centre ground of politics in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. There is a worry in itself.

Labour’s conference was all about Corbyn’s potential to take his party into the next election. Suzanne Moore of the Guardian suggested that ‘his “kinder” politics feel like a slow-motion punch in the face.’ Tom Watson called the Tories the Nasty Party and the conference came across as demonstrating a kind of in-house narcissism where jubilant Labour supporters were basking in the election of a new leader, but divisions in the party had already started to manifest themselves and there was no clear plan about how exactly Mr Corbyn was going to take on the Tories.

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Then came the Tory party conference; smooth, smug and firmly united. Whereas Corbyn spoke to the room, Cameron, Osborne, Johnson and their acolytes delivered – I hate to say it – rallying speeches to the country. These speeches were on-trend, resonant, policy-crammed, and occasionally witty, already grasping the opportunity to shovel up millions of centrist voters now abandoned as Labour cements its doomed, frenzied lurch to the left. Cameron’s anti-Corbyn speech hit the country in the soft belly of their fears of terrorism, as JC was presented as a danger to public safety.

I do not agree with Cameron and their conference did not strike any chord with me. May’s anti-immigration speech made me shudder and I shuddered again when Johnson called the Labour Left ‘tankies and trots.’ But Corbyn and co. have willingly supplied the Tories with this ammunition. The loaded volley should come as no surprise.

My friends in the North and South and a huge handful of good, well-meaning, intelligent youngsters, and I, will all vote Labour as, for us, the alternative is unthinkable: another five years of Tory government from 2020 under God-knows-who, in which we hear the same old misbegotten whingeing about trying to put right the deficit created by Labour and how we’re all in it together, while all the time they continue to tear holes in the safety net and make us less prosperous and free. The scaremongering and the austerity and the huge divide between rich and poor will undoubtedly increase even further under yet another Tory government.

But, hasn’t Labour party membership doubled under Corbyn? Many of us joined again because we want greater equality and less poverty as a primary focus. My fear is that Corbyn has already divided and scarred the party, and that he does not have the policies, the hardheaded, pragmatic political nous, the charisma or – worse – even the desire to defeat the Tories. It certainly seems to me that at the heart of Corbyn’s project is a culture change within the Labour Party, not ridding the country of Tory government.

He is ploughing his hard left furrow. And it is this ditch which will ultimately divide the Labour party: it has already begun. Labour voters who are not of his persuasion, and Labour MPs whose views differ radically, are not going to hang around and hope that a stubborn leader and his self- congratulating cronies can magically pull off victory against the polished, professional and policy-led Bullingdon permanents in the Tory party.

Comedian Robert Webb has cancelled his Labour membership and many other moderates are following his example. Corbyn may be thrilling his new fans but to so much of the rest of the world he appears a garbling figure of fun who is leading a party estranged with itself, crammed with internal opposition and confusion.

The abyss is opening and the Labour Party is teetering at the edge, peering down with anxious expressions, wondering how wide and deep it can yawn before the inevitable descent of our newly-elected leader.

I hope I’m wrong. I fear I’m not.

Culture first or is it all relative?

On his way to England where he has been banished, Hamlet encounters a captain who tells him that the Norwegian army is riding to fight the Poles. Hamlet asks about the conflict, and he is told that both sides will fight over “a little patch of land / That hath in it no profit but the name” (IV.iv.98–99).

Hamlet is moved that soldiers will be asked to fight a bloody war over something so insignificant. He marvels that humanity can be violent for so little gain, based on their relationship to the country in which they were born.

This leads me to consider wars and conflicts, and then to wonder whether it is ever right to adhere to cultural beliefs first – and put human rights second. I am inclined to think not. Let’s take a few more extreme examples: female genital mutilation (FGM); terrorism; child soldiers.

The following, about comments about FGM made by well-known feminist Germaine Greer – a writer many of whose other works and positions I have a lot of time for, is from this archived BBC article.

In her recent book, The Whole Woman, Ms Greer argued that attempts to outlaw the practice amounted to “an attack on cultural identity”, adding: “One man’s beautification is another man’s mutilation.”

She said that women should have the right to undergo genital mutilation as a form of “self-decoration” and posed the question: “If an Ohio punk has the right to have her genitalia operated on, why has not the Somali woman the same right?”

Ms Greer is suggesting that we Westerners should not involve ourselves in other cultures’ businesses. Are we not meddling by imposing our views and values on another cultural group whose practises stem from tradition?

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 13: Germaine Greer on stage during a media call at the NSW Teachers Federation Conference Centre on March 13, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Gaye Gerard/Getty Images)

For me, the answer lies in the well-being of girls themselves, as they are cut and stitched, often under their mother’s guidance, in the belief that it will make them more marriageable, and more acceptable to men. Often girls’ wounds become infected; often huge complications occur at childbirth or even before, in the marriage bed where male pleasure is paramount.

Patriarchal societies often, sometimes subtly and sometimes brutally, influence what women will do with their bodies. Their compliance is expected as members of their society and to refuse could render them outcasts. They may not even have the opportunity to be aware that another option outside the societal norm exists.

Patriarchal societies, whether in Somalia, Australia or the UK, need to be challenged where women’s human rights are threatened and where women themselves are treated as currency, as pawns, or as victims. Does anyone seriously believe that other cultures’ practices are more important than women’s rights and safety?

With reference to child soldiers, War Child, the charity for Children affected by war, tells us that:

  • There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world today.
  • It is estimated that 40% of all child soldiers are girls. They are often used as non-combatant ‘wives’ (sex slaves) of the male combatants.
  • Child soldiers are recruited by government forces as well as rebel groups.
KONY
Who remembers Kony 2012, the consciousness-raising viral video that promoted awareness about Joesph Kony, a War Lord and the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a paramilitary organisation based in Eastern Africa known to kidnap children for use as child soldiers.

Children may be recruited  by a state or non-state armed group. They are deployed as fighters, cooks, suicide bombers, human shields, messengers, spies, or for sexual purposes. It would be difficult for anyone to argue that the culture in which these children live has precedence over their right to be children.  Surely no one, regardless of their culture or heritage, has the right to make decisions which will endanger children’s lives and threaten their futures.

Another pertinent example is terrorism. Awareness about it is currently and constantly seeping its way into our collective consciousness but there are still people who excuse acts of terrorism, often coming close to suggesting that it is a cultural norm to express one’s views through violence. Their suggestion is that it is a natural reaction to racism or to Western foreign policy. The implication is that terrorists know no better than to commit atrocities and this somehow excuses their behaviour and gives them the right to take lives and threaten freedom.

Listen to George Galloway, an egregious example of this tendency, talking about 9/11. “Those aeroplanes on 9/11,” he says, “emerged out of a swamp of hatred, created by us.” Whatever your views are on the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq following 9/11, the idea that the West is responsible because we have somehow angered and provoked people to terrorism and we reap what we sow is to show great disrespect for all the innocent human lives lost in such attacks.

Unfortunately, this tendency is alive and well in some sections of left wing politics. The tweet below was sent by the Stop the War Coalition, a left wing anti-war umbrella group, before the bodies of the dead in Paris were even cold, and was deleted shortly after people complained that it was offensive and misguided.

STW

The problem with this mindset, anchored in cultural relativism, is that, at its core, it expects no better of certain people than to commit terror, or in the desire to blame Western foreign policy it unintentionally minimises the responsibility of the perpetrators of terror. You can no more hold responsible the authors of the Treaty of Versailles for the crimes of the Nazi regime than you can hold responsible Western foreign policy or provocative cartoonists for the crimes of those who spread terror in the name of Islam.

It is always wrong to blame all Muslims or Islam as a religion for atrocities committed in its name. It is also wrong to expect nothing better from Muslims (or any other group) than to justify their views and values through extreme and violent actions: the majority are peaceful and purposeful in their worship, and would never become involved in such acts.

Western society has not always covered itself in glory in terms of human rights: lengthy involvement in slavery, wars and imperialist rule cannot be airbrushed from our history, but change is possible if we do not accept that violence is the way to achieve progress. Tradition should not get in the way of human rights or an individual’s comfort or right to choose.

The story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the consequences to her and to Theo Van Gogh demonstrates what can happen when people dare to speak out. Ali’s courage and escape from oppression are contrasted sharply with the ensuing behaviour of those who believed themselves to have the right to make judgments about her choices.

TvGAHA

If we in other countries where we have better human rights cannot bring ourselves to stand up for other humans, are we not guilty of what some have aptly termed ‘the racism of low expectations’?

People from both left and right fall into this trap. Rightly and properly, the left recognises the brutality and the shameful history that we ought to associate with all kinds of old imperialism practised by Britain and many other European nations.

However, to view democracy, liberty or human rights as distinctly Western values being spread and imposed is to fail to grasp the fundamental tenet of any 21st Century liberalism worthy of the name: liberty, human rights and self-governance are universal values, so any lefty who makes excuses for governments beyond ‘the West’ that deny and abuse these rights are, in a way, the successors of the old imperialists. Hoarding human rights and democracy in the West would not only hinder global progress, but would also prevent individuals who are at the receiving end of abuse from having the opportunity to improve their lives and change their situations.

At the same time, people on the right too often see culture as immutable and fixed. Twinned with the conservative desire to cling on to many regressive and outdated aspects of our own culture is a pessimistic propensity to see what is regressive and outdated in other cultures as unchangeable.

I find it difficult to justify war even when it seems that there is no alternative, and I am against aggression. I also consider myself to be politically left-of-centre. But I am concerned about the safety of the individual and I believe every person should be protected from violence and oppression as a human right, whatever their society, culture or continent.

culture cartoon

I will leave the last comment to the brilliant Nick Cohen who, as ever, encapsulates the worst of these relativists in cleverly chosen words:

The apologias from some liberals are so comprehensive that they must also support radical Islam in their hearts. Far leftists have to head to the far right because there is simply nowhere else for them to go now that the revolutionary guerrillas and communist regimes of the twentieth century are history. A love of violence and hatred of their own societies – well merited or otherwise – leads them to conclude that any killer of Americans is better than none.