Notes from the deathbed of British democracy

The past two years have seen not one, not two, but three seismic upheavals in British politics. They are separate and distinct, but have a powerful common feature.

The first earthquake was the near-total annihilation of the Labour party in Scotland. The Scottish people might have rejected independence in 2014, but they simultaneously rejected Westminster and the political traditions to which they had offered decades of devotion.

The second earthquake was the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership. Hundreds of thousands of members and affiliates sent a clear message to the party: sacrificing principles to attain electability is precisely what has made you unelectable, and the time has come for a profound change of direction. It’s easy to forget just how overwhelmingly strong that message was. Corbyn didn’t just win, he destroyed his opponents. He won 50% more votes than the other four candidates put together, and won clear majorities among all sections of the party electorate, old members, new members, affiliates, unions and of course the ‘three quidders’ who signed up to vote for him in their droves.

Finally, the third and most devastating earthquake has of course been the EU referendum result which has plunged Britain into an unfathomable clusterfuck, a monstrous medusa of crises.

The common factor shared by all three of these political convulsions is the disintegration of the relationship between the political establishment and large swathes of the population. Everything necessary to keep such a relationship intact– faith, trust, confidence, respect – is degraded or destroyed. The story of contemporary British politics is that when the people are given a choice between the Westminster parties, they will reluctantly choose one of them. But when given the choice of the Westminster parties or something else – anything else – they will choose something else. Anything else.

All of the above has been spectacular, profound, unsettling for the established order. What we are seeing this week is absolutely terrifying. With scarcely a blink, the political establishment is preparing to abandon any pretence of respecting the will of the people.

The chaos in the Labour party is bad. Very bad. As I write it seems inevitable that there will be a vote of no confidence from the PLP, triggering a leadership election. Corbyn will certainly feel mandated, almost certainly obliged to stand again and represent the wishes of those who chose him less than a year ago. It is highly likely he will win again. The only possible scenario after that would be that virtually the entire parliamentary Labour party resigns the party whip, presumably forming a new independent party. We will then have a parliamentary party with no support base or funding (excepting the generosity of a few billionaires who might fancy buying themselves a new political party) and a grassroots Labour party with numbers, anger, energy, union affiliations, but hardly any MPs at least this side of an election. All this will make the political catastrophe of the SDP’s Gang of Four look like an OAPs sewing circle.

The travails of Labour and the left, however are rendered near irrelevant by what is happening to the referendum result. Almost as soon as the results were announced we began to see petitions calling for a second referendum, and blogs by constitutional or legal experts explaining that the result might not be binding, it was only ‘advisory’ we are told. Four days later, we are being told that there might not be a single elected politician, even within the Tory party, willing to sign Article 50 and take Britain out of the EU. We hear there might have to be a devil’s compromise which involves Britain formally leaving the EU’s democratic structures while retaining the EU’s free trade agreement and accompanying free movement of people. Both Labour and Conservative voices are saying that a general election could now be fought and won on a campaign to disregard the referendum result and stay in the EU.

The vote to leave the EU was a calamitous mistake by the British people which is likely to cause economic havoc and disasters for social policy and quality of life in this country. However, the decision has been made. If the Westminster parliament fails to properly implement its outcome then it will be (rightly) seen as the most almighty Fuck You from the political establishment to the electorate ever seen, certainly in this country and quite possibly anywhere in the nominally democratic world. It would be the kind of thing that we expect to see in Pinochet’s Chile or Zimbabwe under Mugabe.  It would be a betrayal of a democratic process exactly akin to a government losing an election but refusing to leave office.

For a few weeks now I have been muttering to friends that Britain stands closer to a collapse into neo-fascism than we have at any time since Mosley marched in the 1930s. Today I think it is worse than that, these are quite treacherously dangerous times. For many years, Labour apparatchiks told themselves they could comfortably ignore the needs and wishes of their traditional working class base because their votes were secure and those people had nowhere else to go. The past couple of years have confirmed how spectacularly wrong they were.

Now the Tory party threatens to make the precise same mistake. Nearly 70 percent of Tory voters ignored the wishes of their leadership and voted to leave the EU. Where do we think they will go next? Sure, a few million of them might have sober regrets and be happy to relent on the EU but many millions more will feel entirely disenfranchised, utterly betrayed and livid with fury. Honestly, where does anyone think they will turn?

All of these current woes are a direct or indirect consequence of the alienation of people from politicians. Much of that can be blamed upon New Labour and the Mandelsonian triangulation that left so many working class people behind, but in truth it goes deeper, to the cultural impacts of neoliberalism and globalised corporate power (there are undoubtedly similar processes happening with the US primaries and the rise of the new left and the old right in Europe). This, however, is on a different order of magnitude altogether. The political establishment is like a cirrhotic alcoholic dying in the gutter while insisting that just one more bottle of whisky and everything will be OK again.

Perhaps the worst bit of all this is that I, as one unaligned British citizen, simply do not know what to do about it but sit and gawp at the sudden fatal car crash of British democracy. There will of course be better days, brighter prospects for our children but for now it feels as if all we can do is watch as our parliamentarians sow, water and harvest the seeds of fascism.

Reflections on political violence and its aftermath

Has there ever been a violent act that had a single cause? I doubt it.

Last Saturday night in Orlando, Omar Mateen took an automatic rifle into an LGBT nightclub, slaughtered 49 innocent people and left a similar number grievously wounded and maimed.  The next evening on Sky TV, presenter Mark Longhurst caused a storm by repeatedly insisting that the murders had nothing to do with the victims’ sexuality or the killers’ homophobia but was purely in the modern tradition of Islamist terrorism, and that this was not an attack on the LGBT community but on ‘humanity.’. One of his guests, the (gay) Guardian columnist Owen Jones walked off the set in disgust. The next morning the UK set about enthusiastically dividing itself into one or other camp. As the days have gone by, various other jigsaw pieces have emerged: Mateen had a history of abuse; his father is close to the Taleban; he was a closeted homosexual; come on everyone, pick your horse and flog it.

This morning the same country is reeling in shock at the brutal killing of Jo Cox, a member of parliament and much-admired champion of human rights, asylum and refuge and international development, not to mention mother to two small children. Initial reports suggested her killer had shouted ‘Britain first” during and after the fatal fracas, leading to the instant assumption that was an act of fascist terrorism inspired by the increasingly ugly and racist tone of the EU referendum campaign. Within a few hours a second explanatory narrative had emerged that insisted the alleged killer Thomas Mair had no interest in politics but was, surprise, surprise, a “loner with a history of mental health problems.”

Mair is alive and in custody, so presumably we will eventually get reasonably informative answers to these questions. I have no stomach for adding to the speculation beyond pointing out that ‘mental health problems’ is not any kind of an explanation for a violent act. Yes, there is a minuscule subset of psychiatric conditions which can cause people to behave violently under certain circumstances, and there are various so-called personality disorders which provide a convenient label for other seemingly irrational or destructive acts. From what little we know thus far, there is little to suggest Mair fell into either category.

The truth is I don’t know why Mair might have felt motivated to go to his MP’s surgery with a refurbished vintage pistol and a knife and right now, neither do you.

We have been here many a time before.

Was Richard Reid a disturbed delinquent, shuffling from prison to criminal lifestyle to cause to cause, desperate for validation or a religious fanatic radicalised by murderous hate preachers?

Was Elliot Rodger a rich young white man driven by rampant entitlement and violent misogyny or a deeply damaged, mentally ill, autistic victim of bullying, loneliness and isolation?

Was Michael Adebowale, one of the killers of Guardsman Lee Rigby an Islamist fundamentalist terrorist or a borderline schizophrenic on a narcissistic suicide mission?

Was Dylann Roof a violent white supremacist intent on murdering as many African-American people as he could or (again) a disturbed loner with a history of mental illness?

Was Paris bomber Ibrahim Abdeslam a devout Muslim intent on establishing a global caliphate or a jobless stoner drifting in search of an identity?

Was Aileen Wournos a cold-hearted serial killer or a terribly damaged victim of exploitation and male violence who finally cracked?

And so on and so on and so on.

If and when we are honest with ourselves, the answers to all of the questions above are yes to all of the above and much, much more and no to all of the above and much, much more. Human actions, particularly those with potentially profound, life-changing consequences, are never taken because of one reason. Even when we consciously decide to do something for specific and discrete reasons, our decisions are made within personalities that have been forged by an entire lifetime of influences. Deeds of deliberate and extreme violence often erupt out of a raging internal volcano of anger, frustration and bitterness which long predate the immediate trigger or conscious motivation for the act.

In a very astute post this week, written after Orlando but before Birstall, the blogger Carter wrote:

If I have learned anything about understanding anger it is that the first step in helping myself, and others, is understanding that anger is not a first order emotion; anger exists, and flourishes, because of something else we feel or have experienced.

Learning to say not ‘I feel angry’ but ‘I feel angry because…’ is essential.

I cannot complete that sentence for Omar Mateen. Beware anyone who tells you that they can. Responsibility for that could only have rested with Omar Mateen, and he is not going to complete the task.

We can never know how Mateen would have finished that sentence. It is likely we will never know how Thomas Mair would finish that sentence, because it is likely that even Thomas Mair doesn’t really know. So where does this leave us?

Personally, it leaves me with a claggy, gnawing disgust at the reactions to political violence on all sides. I am certainly not immune to the instinctive, kneejerk reaction that seeks to hold someone or something responsible for horrible crimes, and the more horrible the crime, the stronger the urge to extend that responsibility wider. A powerful bit of my soul wants to blame online neo-Nazis like Britain First or even Nigel Farage and the racism of the Leave campaign for the murder of Jo Cox.  The same bit of my soul wants to blame global geopolitics, fundamentalist religion and homophobic social mores for the murders in Orlando. I have realised this instinct is something I must resist.

Instead, I try to fall back on two truths. The first is that in every single case I have listed in this post, the killers who committed the crimes are entirely responsible for their own deeds. They cannot and should not be excused or mitigated far less justified. Thomas Mair killed Jo Cox because he wanted to kill Jo Cox.

The second truth is that every single one of us is the product of the society we create and tolerate. A society which tolerates or foments racist bigotry and hatred will, at its fringes, tolerate and foment racist violence. A society which tolerates or foments misogyny and homophobia will inevitably include misogynistic and homophobic violence. A society which considers civilian casualties to be a price worth paying as collateral damage in pursuit of political ends cannot be surprised when individuals take this to heart and put it into practice.

It is in the nature of political violence that the perpetrators want to make us complicit in their crimes, by noticing, by reacting, by debating, by responding. Of course we cannot just ignore crimes like these, nor can we simply ignore the politics in political murder. We can, however, resist the temptation to slip into pat solutions that do nothing to enlighten or explain, but merely bolster a pre-existing ideological position.

The mists begin to clear on FGM statistics

Readers may recall that I have long been interested in trying to unpick the data on female genital mutilation in the UK. The general standard of debate on this topic is woefully uninformed by actual facts. News pieces and campaign materials have traditionally waved around (almost) meaningless statistics about the numbers of girls being at risk of FGM, without explaining what they mean by “at risk” or how severe that risk might be.

The numbers tend to be horrifying and this has at least two extremely serious consequences. The first is that the practice of FGM among migrant communities in the UK is used as a damning indictment of their failure to integrate, to accede to British law and custom, or more broadly as evidence the uncivilised, backwards ways of immigrants and especially Muslims.

Secondly, for many years there has been a clamorous call to demand explanations why nobody in the UK has been successfully prosecuted for conducting FGM. It has long been assumed (and not just among the spittle-flecked rabble of the Daily Mail comments section) that some sort of political correctness must be the reason why police, prosecutors, social services and child services have all been deliberately averting their gaze from the brutes who continue to cut up the genitals of little girls. But as I have written before, there is another possible explanation as to why these offences are never prosecuted – could it be because in fact these crimes very rarely happen in the UK?

This week the Health & Social Care Information Centre published their latest quarterly bulletin on FGM. This exercise (still described as ‘experimental’) collates reports from Health Trusts around the country which count the numbers of new cases that have come to light within the NHS. The vast majority of cases are adult women (mostly aged 18-39) and typically come to light during obstetrics & gynaecology care in pregnancy and childbirth.

As the headlines explained, this latest quarter found around 1200 new cases of FGM. For the first time, however, the data included some numbers for where the women and girls were born and where the FGM procedure had occurred.

Before I go any further let me stress that the statistics here are patchy and incomplete. We are only considering newly discovered cases, not the total, and there are huge holes in the data sets where the relevant information could not be or was not recorded. Nonetheless the numbers are revealing.

Of the 1242 cases, there were 532 where the country of birth was recorded. Of those, precisely 11 cases were of girls or women born in the UK. That means that 98% of cases of FGM in the UK (from this data set and where the info was logged) were on women born outside of the UK.

Even more usefully, there were 319 cases in which the data recorded where in the world the FGM was undertaken. Of those, seven were reportedly undertaken in the UK. Again, 98% of FGM procedures happened outside the UK.

These numbers 11 cases and 7 cases respectively) are so tiny we should be aware of the risks of data errors and statistical noise. For instance, genital piercings can be classified as Type 4 FGM (in some cases this is legitimate and accurate – piercings are sometimes inflicted upon girls as a form of FGM) but it does create obvious scope for confusion and miscategorisation.

There is one incredibly important question which the HSIC still fails to address or answer: How many of the 1242 new cases of FGM are women who were already resident in the UK before they were mutilated? If we had an answer to that question, everything would suddenly become a lot more meaningful. In the meantime, what is this data telling us? It looks to me like what we are seeing is that relatively large numbers of women who move to the UK from FGM-practising countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Somalia have already been cut when they move here. This should be a clear and uncontroversial point. There is an obvious and serious need for health professionals to be aware of this and to have the expertise necessary to provide these women with the care and medical treatments they might require to heal the damage.

The other key takeaway from the data is that amongst girls who have been born in Britain, even to communities where it has been traditionally practised, FGM is exceptionally rare. For years we have been told that anything up to 120,000 girls in the UK are “at risk” of FGM, an estimate based on numbers of girls born in the UK to families from the relevant parts of the world. If the true numbers were anything even vaguely on this scale we would expect to see far, far more new cases coming to the attention of the authorities.

To be clear, we cannot be sure from this data that there aren’t lots of girls who are born elsewhere, brought intact to the UK as children, taken out of the country to be cut elsewhere and then brought back again, but this really seems something of a stretch to me. A more credible interpretation of the data would be that FGM remains a huge medical and human rights catastrophe in many parts of the world, but that when people move to the UK, with very few exceptions, they abandon the custom.

We still don’t have the statistics to speak about any of this with authority. As the academic cliché would have it, more research is necessary. If I had one wish on this front, however, it would be that when journalists, campaigners and politicians talk about the thousands of women in Britain who have suffered FGM they explain to people that the vast majority were living elsewhere when it happened. That little nugget of nugget of knowledge entirely transforms the debate and would do so in a much more constructive direction.