Breaking Britain

22 June 2016

Tomorrow Britain goes to the polls to decide whether to remain in the European Union or go it alone. Bizarrely, despite being neither British nor European, I can vote in this referendum. So can any Commonwealth citizen who arrived in the country more than one month ago. 

It's a baffling remnant of the UK's colonial past as the country faces an uncertain continental future.

These are precarious times in British politics. In British society, even. The EU referendum, the Scottish question, austerity, terrorism, immigration and a general sense of fading glory have all contributed to a deep uncertainty about the future of the nation. The British have always had a quiet unshakeable sense of their own greatness and fortitude. This is the empire on which the Sun Never Set. The nation which stood alone against Hitler in Europe and even the birthplace of Cool Britannia..

Things haven't been so cool recently though. The very idea of Britishness is up for debate. There have been rifts in the last 40 years - Thatherchism and Iraq - but this is different. This is an angry country divided, not along class or racial or religious lines, but by something much murkier. No one seems to know what it means to be British any more. But Britain has quietly become a country where an MP can be assassinated in the street because of her political beliefs. 

The shooting of Jo Cox is one of those visceral moments that stops you dead in your tracks. Murder is everyday, but assassinations are exotic - native to Latin America or South Asia, not Britain. To see an MP gunned down by one of her constituents on the streets of West Yorkshire boggles the mind. No matter the circumstances, there is undeniable political element to the killing and it's worth reflecting how far we've come when something like this can occur.

I've been surprised by my own personal reaction to this referendum. There's a "Leave" stall that periodically pops up outside Brixton station and it's extremely tempting to step over there and give the people behind the table a piece of my mind. I've never felt this way about politics before - I've always been an advocate of being reasonable when debating politics. My mantra is that people's political positions doesn't define their personality and that you have a better chance of changing their minds by being open-minded rather than confrontational.

But it's getting harder to remain civilised in this atmosphere. The left is restless after two disastrous elections and the uncertain of Corbynmania. The right is walking a minute tightrope between liberal conservatism and the populism of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. The Liberal Democrats shtick of straddling the divide collapsed under the weight of austerity and the country's antiquated electoral system makes it impossible for viable third-party contenders to emerge. 

Insults - "Racist", "Traitor", "Elitist", "Apologist" - are thrown about by both sides with abandon. No thought is given to how much this attitude damages any chances of repairing the divide once this all blows over. The Sun likes to talk about "Broken Britain" and point fingers at "hoodies" or "chavs" or immigrants. But if Britain really is broken, then those headlines are a big part of why.

This hasn't been a great decade for the UK. The last five years of Blair and Brown's listless Labour government oversaw the global financial crisis. The first five years of Cameron's Conservative government have been obsessed with cutting back social services and rebuilding the country from a top-down blueprint. House prices are rising, wages are stagnating and it's become harder to survive from day-to-day. 

This isn't a uniquely British problem - the rise of Trump in the US is a response to similar circumstances there - but the natural reaction of withdrawing from the outside world and going it alone is most definitely a British response.

And this is why it's so easy for UKIP to point at the Poles or Romanians on the high street and say that they're what's wrong with Britain. Immigration is a complex issue and Britain has adapted to the intricacies of common labour market rather slowly. It's OK to be protective of your country and want to retain its heritage and traditions but that's not whats happening in Britain.

Immigrants are being used by politicians to prey on people's worst fears and uncertainties. Can't find a job? Blame the Bulgarians! Can't afford a house? It's the Hungarians' fault!  The clear narrative is that rich fat cat socialists in Berlin and Brussels open the borders so that poor people from Bucharest or Sofia can swarm into Britain and take your job. Soon you'll have to speak Polish just to shop! And just wait until Turkey gets admitted to the EU...75 million Muslims with full immigration rights. No one in Europe cares about Britain so why should we care about Europe. Vote Leave!

These ridiculous assumptions are why the Leave campaign gets tagged with "racist" label. But I don't think it's really racism. It's opportunism. Nigel Farage doesn't truly believe the British are superior to these folks, just that it would be better for everyone if they stayed in their own countries. Almost everyone on the Leave side of the argument talks about their wonderful Polish friend who has come over here and made a real go of it, pays taxes and speaks English. They'll tell you we need more immigrants like that - "The good kind".

I am one of the "good kind" of immigrants. And English guy told me last week that he feels more in common with New Zealanders than with the French despite being part of the EU for decades. Politicians like Boris talk about giving people like me more Visa rights because of our common history and language. At the expense of Europeans I presume. It's quite an odd position to be in, as if everyone is congratulating me for being able to get out of bed in the morning. All I can do is mumble insincere thank yous.

Because there's no reason why Britain's future lies with New Zealand and Australia any more than Europe. 

The EU isn't a perfect organisation but on balance its been a force for good both home and abroad.The last 70 years have been the most peaceful in European history and the union acts as a watchdog to protect rights of citizens that wouldn't necessarily exist otherwise. It's perfectly OK to love your country but it's also OK to be optimistic about the potential of internationalism. It's partly why Scotland and Wales -- smaller nations within the Kingdom - are more bullish about the EU than their English counterparts.

It would be a shame to throw all of that away.

No one knows what Britain will look like on Friday if we vote to leave. I imagine there will be some kind of general amnesty so it's not like all the coffee shops and hotels in London will shut down overnight. But eventually the English Channel will seem much wider and more imposing and I think people will miss the protections and privileges that membership of the European club provided. Britain was able to rule half the world by itself 200 years ago but those suns have long since set. The future of the world is in partnership, not competition. Inclusion, not exclusion.

The Guardian has a great on-going series called Anywhere But Westminster where reporter John Harris travels around the UK meeting people from local communities and taking the pulse of the nation. It's gotten progressively grimmer over the past few months and one of the saddest ironies is that many of those in the most recent episodes are voting to leave the EU for not other reason than this great fear of foreigners. 

Times are tough in England. There's no denying that. Jobs are scarce and social services are harder to access than ever. But despite all of that, the rich are still rich. It's one of the most devious tricks the Tories and their allies have have ever pulled off. They've found a way to shift the blame for their own systematic abandonment of Britain's communities to the Portuguese guy who makes your coffee at Starbucks. 

It'd be impressive if it wasn't so cynical and destructive. I look forward to using my ill-deserved vote to make the alternative, positive, optimistic choice to remain instead.

Early Mornings, Late Nights

29 April 2016

Last night I finished work at 11.15pm. I got home 75 minutes later and ate a small bag of Mexican Chilli flavoured crisps and drank a can of off-brand cola for dinner. I went to bed at 1.15am and woke up at exactly 5am for an 11-hour shift.

I drank a lot of coffee today. 

Anyone who's worked in any kind of hospitality job will recognise this kind of schedule. Late nights behind the bar. Early mornings in front of the espresso machine. These are the kind of jobs where weekends become meaningless, bank holidays are irrelevant and the idea of committing to plans more than a week in advance seem impossible.

My Life in Brands

28 March 2016

We live in a consumerist world. It's very easy to buy things. Almost too easy. Our society has never had such immense access to such a huge range of products and choices. It's overwhelming.

This has the potential to be a wonderful tool - we can choose products that fit our lifestyle, our budget and our values. Our parents never had that luxury. They were often limited by what was available to them locally. I met a Norwegian girl once who could remember the first time bananas came to her country. It's easy to take our current range of choices for granted. A lot of us, myself included, do take this for granted.So I wanted to sit down and explore the choices I've made.

Be Excellent To Each Other

24 March 2016

St Cecilia and the Angels
Exploring galleries is one of my favourite things to do in life, and one of the things that makes living in London so special. There's dozens of places to spend an afternoon while standing in the shadow of amazing artworks and exploring my thoughts. 

Ten years ago I used to love going to the Tate Modern and this week I ventured back there again for the first time in many months. There's lots I love about this place - work by Mark Rothko and Henri Matisse and Yves Klein make me smile. 

But as I wandered around the expansive chambers of this former power station, I found myself feeling a little uncomfortable with how ironic and sarcastic a lot of the things on the wall were. I stared at Spatial Concept 'Waiting' by Lucio Fontana, a work I adored as a 21-year-old, and felt empty. Or worse than empty. Angry. Or disappointed.

Me Blog Write Good

19 March 2016

When I started this blog in 2010 (yikes!) I used to illustrate all of my posts with Simpsons images. Like many upper-lower-middle-class types my age, the classic episodes of this show are one of the defining features of my formative years. Using screengrabs was an easy way to break up the walls of text. 

Yep, I adore The Simpsons. The first ten seasons have a case for being the greatest pop culture achievement of my lifetime. If you go back and read through the past entries on this blog, you'll find many many references to the show alongside the images. Some are obvious, and some are throwaway combinations of words that only fellow tragics like me will have a chance of noticing.