Snap! (You’ve got the power)

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Actually, technically, she’s got the power. For she, Theresa May, or Mrs May as they call her and May, as I call her, is the unelected Prime Minister of Great Britain now seeking to become the elected Prime Minister of Great Britain with a snap election that she promised never to call. Politicians and promises, eh? Cuh.

I guess it’s called a “snap” election because it’s going to be identical the last one. Snap. In which demoralising case, if the Tories are kept in power for another five years by a Labour party weakened through its own in-fighting and long-term muddle-headedness about Brexit, and the apparent unthinkability of a progressive coalition, there’s a very real chance that this country will snap in half, if not into three pieces.

A snap election is a sneaky bastard trick to pull. The Tories had their strategy and buzz-phrases planned, while the rest of the parties have just a few frantic weeks to catch up and decide on important matters such as whether sex between two people of the same gender is or isn’t a sin, and whether we need Trident or not. (The answers to both of those questions are opaque at this stage.) So we have the unedifying sight of May striding through seas of vetted Tory supporters to stand at a podium and answer no questions as she doggedly and bloodlessly repeats the phrases “STRONG AND STABLE LEADERSHIP”, “THE NATIONAL INTEREST” and “COALITION OF CHAOS” (the latter written and printed up on placards before the chaotic parties announced that they would not coalesce). Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn does what he always does, and does best, which is loosen his tie, leave Westminster behind and walk the earth, engaging with people who would benefit from Labour policy but who are still more likely to vote Conservative.

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Good lord, we are in a fucking pickle. Tory austerity and “hard” Brexit seem to play much better in the wider populace than Labour focus on workers’ rights, the NHS and bank holidays, never mind the Liberal Democrat sort-of-anti-Brexit stance, which seems to annoy most people outside of big, complex cities, who accept the fate of a referendum in which 51.9% of the country voted to accidentally cast their beloved sovereign nation as a global pariah and push it to the back of every queue. (Still, at least all the immigrants have disappeared since last June. You just don’t see foreigners any more, do you?)

My total lack of confidence in Labour after Ed Milliband’s dismayingly weak challenge in 2015 (“Hell, yeah!”) was lifted when the membership voted outsider Corbyn in on a thrilling mandate. But the failure of the party to get behind him – or to field a single credible candidate to stand against him – left them in disarray. But I truly believe that now is the time to put squabbles and snipes aside and vote for whichever party can get the Tories out. If Labour are in second place in your constituency, vote for them, for the greater good. If it’s the Lib Dems, vote for them and hope that Tim Farron makes up his mind about the gays at some later stage. If you’re lucky enough to live in a ward where the local Greens speak to the people, vote for them and we’ll sort out bin collection later. (I’ve made no secret of my fundamental support of the Green Party’s policies in the past, but unless there really is a coalition of chaos, it’s more important to oust Theresa May and her privatising PPE asset-strippers than worry about bins.)

I believe this is called tactical voting. Vote with your head, not your heart, and we’ll sort out the details later. Clearly, this would be a lot simpler if the Lib Dems and Labour weren’t too arrogant to pool resources, but we are where we are. And this is where we are:

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Personally, if I were in charge of Labour, I would waste no further time campaigning in Scotland. It is an act of hubris. The electoral equivalent of banging your head against a wall. But it’s also a distraction from the job in England and Wales, which are very likely, I think, to be what’s left of the United Kingdom within the next few years. I still wish I could vote for the SNP, but I’m going to have to come to terms with the cold, hard truth that I can’t. Unless I move to Scotland. Which is a temptation. (If I were in charge of any political party, I would ensure that my party leader did not run away from reporters.)

As for UKIP? Are they still going? Seriously, give them no thought. They’ve come in, smashed the place up, and we’re going to be cleaning their mess off the walls for generations to come. Unless Theresa May has a vicar’s-daughter epiphany one night before the month named after her and remembers that she campaigned to stay in the European Union, and calls a snap EU: Sorry About All That referendum based on facts and projections that are too complex to get on the side of a bus, or paste over a photograph of non-white migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015, but that’s magical thinking, I know.

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage launches UKIP's new EU Referendum poster campaign, London, UK - 16 Jun 2016When are we going to reach breaking point? It seems to me we’ve had it with Farage and Banks and Nuttall and their cobbled-together saloon-bar fascism. And Farage’s oily ambitions to be a shock jock inside Donald Trump’s bum have now been revealed, so we really should move on. But my worry, among many worries, is that UKIP voters (many of whom were said to be ex-Labour voters) will return not to Labour, but to the warm embrace of the Conservatives, because their leader, who was firmly in favour of REMAIN before she succumbed to “the will of the people”, is seen as “STRONG AND STABLE” in “THE NATIONAL INTEREST” and will stop the non-existent “COALITION OF CHAOS” from prevailing. How? In the traditonal Tory manner: by laughing hard and exaggeratedly in its face like she does to all questions of equality, rights and decency raised by Corbyn at PMQs. She is laughing at you. She thinks food banks are funny. She thinks I, Daniel Blake is a knockabout farce. She thinks an energy freeze is different to an energy cap. She is not shaking with mirth, but self-interest.

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Like you, probably, I wish there wasn’t a general election. I wish there was more time to prepare, and some different people in charge (it’s a shame that Nick Clegg counted himself out of the leadership with his betrayals, as he’s a very clear speaker and persuasive advocate of commonsense). The opposition is nothing like as strong as the might of the Scottish National Party makes it look. We ended up with the Tory/Lib Dem coalition in 2010 because Labour were too arrogant to countenance a Lib Dem/Labour/Green coalition. We may end up with another Tory government this time if nobody has the guts to collude for the sake of the country.

I hope the pundits are right, and that this is not an election about Brexit, but an election about the future of the NHS. That the future pharmaceutical industry consultant Jeremy Hunt is still in his job after five years shows just how low down the priority list public health provision is for this bloodthirsty government. All the post requires is to keep running the NHS down by stealth, placing negative stories in the press, and economic and statistic inevitability will do the rest, eventually. A few feckless poor people might die in the process, so it’s win-win for Theresa May.

This partly political broadcast is almost over. If you’re not registered to vote, register to vote. If you think your vote will make no difference, think again. It might make the difference between a library and no library, which is stark, even if it’s a library you don’t ever plan on using. Would a world without libraries be better or worse? If you can bear to vote for a party you don’t passionately believe in, in order to unseat a party you passionately despise, do that. Nobody is going to mind.

If you want a crystal example of the disconnect between Tory thinking and cold, hard reality, spend a second or two considering long-retired former Tory health secretary Edwina Currie’s recent Tweet.

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She seems actually to think that obesity is caused by over-eating, and not by malnutrition. She also seems actually to think that malnutrition, which means bad nutrition, only applies to starving people in what she probably still thinks of as the Third World. Did I mention that she used to head the Department of Health? This is not just ignorance, it is wilful misreading of the facts to fit a prepared placard. It is also rooted in hatred. Currie is sure to be one of those people who thinks poor people shouldn’t have tellies, and that food banks are a lifestyle choice.

As Billy Bragg always rhetorically asks in such situations: which side are you on? Are you on the side of Edwina Currie, and Jeremy Hunt, and Aaron Banks, and Nigel Farage, and David Davis, and Michael Gove, and Boris Johnson (yes, let’s not forget him just because he’s been put in Big Yellow Storage for the duration of the campaign) and Theresa May? Or are you not?

Eh?

 

 

Your country needs EU

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Nigel Farage, a man who is not even an MP, and whose party only has one MP in the House of Commons, is the most influential politician in Britain. Farage need only sit in a snug bar somewhere on the Kent coast, telling stories of his days as a commodities broker to other members of his golf club over a succession of pints, between now and the EU referendum vote on June 23 and his supreme power will be unabated. He did this.

Welcome to Europe: The Final Countdown. Our dearly beleaguered Prime Minister, David Cameron, sort of accidentally made a manifesto pledge before the general election to hold an EU referendum in this parliament, solely to stop those on the right of the Tory vote from emigrating to UKIP, whose leader continues to be the kind of bloke you’d like to have a pint with, something no Tory can claim to imitate. If ever a man can congratulate himself on undue national and international influence from a position of relative electoral obscurity, it’s Nigel Farage, without even being electable in South Thanet in 2015, where the oast houses have spikes mounted on them to repel parachuting foreign invaders. Farage has forced the Conservatives to hold a referendum that their leader, their chancellor, and 25 members of their 30-member cabinet did not want to hold. Well done, Nigel. Mine’s an imported European lager.

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And yet opinion across the country – crucially among the tiny percentage of the electorate who will bother to drag their arses out of bed on June 23 to place their democratic cross in one of two boxes and change the future of the country forever – still seems evenly split. In which case, there is a very real chance that this country will vote to leave the European Union after 43 years of membership, in a couple of weeks’ time because of one powerful, elected politician’s fear of another one, whose only mandate is to be a member of the European Parliament he wants not to be a member of with every fibre of his being . The whole thing is a giant pisstake. And the joke’s on us.

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We have the sitting government, “officially” neutral but no such thing, with its electoral mandate, desperately trying to get the voters of Great Britain and Gibraltar to vote “remain”. (I am a big fan of lettuce, and I wish to vote “Romaine”.) But some rather noisy and famous members of the Tory bloc – including one of the noisiest men in Britain, Boris Johnson; the ghoulish IDS; the one who can’t stop laughing, Michael Gove; the man with a cardboard box full of his belongings ready on his desk, John Whittingdale; grey Chris Grayling; entitled Zac Goldsmith (who has gone mysteriously quiet since throwing the London Mayoral election away by pretending to like Bollywood films when he hasn’t seen one); Liam Fox; Priti Patel; and assorted former Chancellors now in the Lords – are currently, and persuasively, filling their compliant parish magazines ie. the Eurosceptic news media (specifically: the Times, the Telegraph, the Sun, but most pantingly the Mail, the Express) with stories of “CRISIS”, “HARM”, “INVASION” and “EU KILLERS AND RAPISTS”, which work on a very primal level, and have little to do with the “leave” campaign’s refrain, “We want to make our own laws, and not have them made for us by a coterie of cheese-eaters in Brussels.” They have largely to do with fear. Fear of foreigners, specifically Turks and Albanians currently. Fear of invasion. Fear of our “way of life” being threatened by boatloads of Bulgarian pickpockets.

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A sensible debate needs to occur on immigration, and our role in the current global displacement crisis. But there’s no time to do this properly between now and June 23, which is under three weeks away. And while Cameron fairly sensibly but never passionately states the case, as he did over and over again on Sky’s EU Debate last night to an audience who wouldn’t stop shouting out before the roving mic arrived, that leaving the single market would damage the UK economy (something most economists pretty much agree on in principle), it’s not getting through to those in zero-hours jobs or less-than-zero-hours no-jobs, or indeed those in actual jobs that don’t cover the cost of living (“the working poor” is a phrase that should strike fear into the hearts of all of us). Or people who live on the south coast. One photo of a row of tents battered by the coastal winds on a clifftop in Calais, each one containing at least one Albanian with an eye on the coffee shops of Dymchurch, beats a hundred statements from the Treasury or letters in the Telegraph signed by a slimy coterie of CEOs.

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Personally, I’d stay in, if only for the employment rights enshrined into European law that the Johnson regime would rip up within days of entering Parliament. I have nothing personal to gain from the EU, but it feels better to be in it than not in it. This country is small-minded and insular enough already, without literally becoming an island. (It was during the dangerous George W Bush years that I really started to believe in Europe as a necessary political counterweight to US neocon insanity – which hasn’t exactly gone away, has it?) I have no love of the financial services industry, or of “big business”, and I certainly have no love of David Cameron and his chums, and as such it feels weird to agree with them on anything, but that’s how I feel in my bones. I despise the Tories. But I actually fear Boris and the “leavers”. And if there’s one thing that seems to be driving this debate, it’s fear.

A great leap forward

Squeeze are a band who were formed in 1974, when I was nine and the eloquent East Midlands firebrand Grace Petrie was around ten years away from being born. They were invited onto BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show last Sunday to perform their splendid song Cradle To The Grave (the theme tune for the splendid BBC comedy of the same name), and a few days before, singer and co-songwriter Glenn Tibrook found out that they were going to be on the same edition as the Prime Minister. But not until ten minutes before the live performance did he decide he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t slip in a new verse. So, without the rest of the band knowing, he did. It was sung, live, to a visible audience of two: Andrew Marr and David Cameron (who’d been on to smarm about how his government’s dismantling of council housing wasn’t that at all, even though it is).

I grew up in council houses
Part of what made Britain great
There are some here who are hell bent
On the destruction of the welfare state

As an act of protest it was calm, collected and heartfelt. You can read Tilbrook’s full account of why he did it here. Even if Cameron wasn’t paying attention, we were. (It was Danny Baker, old pal and co-writer of the series that bears the song’s name, who tweeted about it, and interest among the righteous snowballed from there.) I think the fact that it went a bit viral is due to a broader thirst for protest in the arts. I have loved Squeeze since Cool For Cats, and although their best known songs are beautifully observed social documentary, rather than out and out socialist anthems, a beating heart is always audible, and anyone who had a heart would surely be on the side of people who can’t afford to buy their council houses rather than the side of the developers and landlords who will cash in on their blameless misery.

My blood was stirred by Tilbrook’s stand. It must have been even more exciting to catch it as it went out. What a thrill such subversion provides. If he’d sworn, or thrown down the mic, or stuck two fingers up at Cameron, it would have been less of a moment. To instead attack him with poetry, which is what it is, is poetic. This government will cut the subsidised arts down to the bone if they have their way, as they believe, in the space where their hearts might beat, that if the arts can’t pay for themselves in a free market, they have no place in the public arena.

I tweeted in the heat of the moment about Squeeze, but was defeated in my constant aim of clarity by the 140-character limit, and it didn’t quite come across, which is why I’m expanding upon the fire in my belly here, and will keep typing until I’ve finished! Anyway, out of a self of righteous dismay with the generally apolitical malaise of today’s mainstream pop and rock music, this is what I wrote:

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I called Squeeze “old” because, well, they are. The band itself is 42. Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford are 58 and 61. They have been around. And the truism goes: you get more right wing as you get older. I have personally found this not to be the case, but you do see people’s priorities change when they have children and find themselves inevitably sucked into the system, with less time for the luxury of dissent. (Do you know that quote by literary critic Cyril Connolly? “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”)

I find myself getting angrier and angrier about injustice, cruelty, materialism, privatisation and lack of compassion. Some days I wish I’d calm down. I may not have been on a march since 2003, but this is chiefly because that particular protest’s failure to change the course of history knocked the protesting stuffing out of me. (I even tried writing letters to my MP and to the PM but they had no effect either, and Iraq was duly invaded, as planned long before anybody tried to stop the war.)

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So the sight of a band who’ve been around since the mid-70s seizing the moment on a live political discussion programme and having their say warmed my heart. My tweet was not aimed at “young bands” who are politicised. I’m well aware that a pocket of young artists are as pissed off as I am. I may not know all their names, or be au fait with their politically charged music (as I’ve long since stopped going to gigs on a regular basis), but as Billy Bragg’s official biographer I keep abreast of political music via him. We collaborated on a new chapter to my book only two years ago, and in writing about Billy’s endorsement of Jake Bugg, Grace Petrie and others, I felt a connection with them. Having first heard Grace Petrie through Josie Long when we did a 6 Music radio show together, it gave me enormous pleasure to type “Petrie, Grace” into the updated index of Still Suitable For Miners. (I still wonder to this day why Josie and I were not invited back. We were told that the station had loved what we’d done, but the call never came.)

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Anyway, true to form, my Tweet was read by some as a sweeping generalisation against all “young bands”. It was nothing of the sort. But Twitter can be a cruel interpreter of raw feeling. To me, there is no difference between what Squeeze did and what Petrie, Seán McGowan and Chris TT do. I remembered this dispiriting moment from a 2011 article by Dorian Lynskey in the Guardian. We join Grace Petrie onstage at the University of London:

“You guys at UCL,” she says. “You’re pretty political, right?” A handful of students raise a feeble cheer, and Petrie’s face falls. “That’s not quite what I expected.”

She wins them over in the end, but the message is: it ain’t easy being political. One of her first songs was Goodbye To Welfare, so it’s easy to see the link with Squeeze. My dismay was clearly never with her, or the others who fight the good fight. It was with the general state of pop and rock music made by the young and aimed at the young, but to my ears bereft of struggle or friction. I actually sometimes think that the mobile phone age has bred an intractable complacency. You can’t blame a generation for succumbing to the touch-screen intimacy of the smartphone and taking their eye off the bigger picture – after all, nobody even looks forward when they’re walking along now. Their face is in that little glowing oblong, their ears plugged, their attention all used up. This victory for the system makes political artists all the more rare, and all the more vital.

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Sam Duckworth (formerly Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly), who raises a “Stop Bombing Syria” placard in his Twitter avatar, wrote to me of “the death of the counter culture in the under-30s.” It sort of breaks my heart. In a better world, protest artists would be on television. Maybe not on Andrew Marr, but somewhere on the BBC, with its public service remit (although I guess the BBC has bigger fish to fry, what with the Tories bearing down hard at charter-renewal time). When I was a teenager, we had Something Else on BBC Two, a “youth” magazine show that introduced me to so many things, not just Joy Division live (something it’s now famous for doing), but also political poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, John Cooper Clarke and Craig Charles. I may be remembering it – and the subsequent Oxford Road Show – through a rose tint, but I was a “youth” and somebody was speaking to me. Also, there was nothing else on and no mobiles, so I went out on my bike and listened to records with my friends, and talked.

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Nothing more boring than a man in his fifties hymning his childhood, but I hold the youth of today to a high standard. I don’t expect Adele (whose music I like) to bring down the government. But I don’t hear any politics in the dreary music of Ellie Goulding or Florence Welch either (and they seemed to come up via 6 Music with a certain degree of credibility), or in any of the acoustic singer-songwriters like Ed Sheeran, or James Bay, or whatever the other ones are called. They’re the worst; they come on like troubadours, one man and a guitar, and they say next to nothing.

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People on Twitter started listing bands and artists who are political for me, and the fact that I’d not heard of many of them tells you a lot. Enter Shikari and the King Blues I’m familiar with, but (and I’ll try and put links in to their websites here) less so Tim OT, Against Me!, Gecko, The Lagan, Josiah Mortimer, Dru Blues, Brigitte Aphrodite, Chas Palmer-Williams, Ducking Punches, Perkie, Colour Me Wednesday, Onsind, Will Varley, Itch (from the King Blues), Grant Sharkey, Beans On Toast (thanks to Seán McGowan for most of those, but others chipped in).

It’s an underground movement, as it has to be. But the very technology that seems to be turning the populace into zombies, unable to communicate verbally or emotionally, also empowers unknown or unsigned artists to get their music out there, often for free, via Soundcloud or Bandcamp. Squeeze are a well-established band from another era of contracts and distribution and copyright and Walkerprints, and for them to make their stand, on live television, in the daytime, on the BBC, puts them in the same boat at Grace Petrie and the others mentioned here.

That’s what I meant.

I’ll end with a self-referential couplet from a song by Billy Bragg written and recorded in 1987 for the Workers’ Playtime LP:

Mixing Pop and Politics, he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses …

Now form a band!*

 

* Sorry, another ancient reference.

Thinking allowed

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It was announced that David Bowie had died, aged 69, at around 6.45am. I found out, as is the usual way of things now, via social media. I logged on to Twitter at around 7.15 and the first tweet I saw was by Gavin Hogg, which had been retweeted by Nige Tassell. I didn’t, at first, get it.

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So I scrolled down and confirmed it. This was devastating news, not least in light of the fact that we bought his new album yesterday, and purchased the recent Mojo with him on the cover, to have a good read about the making of said album (and of Scary Monsters in a separate feature). Certainly, he looked a little wizened in the new photos, and especially in the video for the single, but nobody outside of his family and close friends can have known that he’d had cancer for 18 months. Not as shocking as someone famous you admire dying in a car crash, for instance, but shocking nonetheless. We shall hear no more new David Bowie music in our lives.

Anyway, I will pay tribute to my all-time favourite musician elsewhere. I blog herewith about David Cameron, who had this to say.

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What David Cameron, or David Cameron’s office, says via his Twitter account impacts on way more people than anything I will ever say. He has 1,327,911 followers. He is the Prime Minister of a country. His party were voted in at the last election. Of course he has 1.3m followers. Many of these followers will take everything he or his office types at face value. And indeed, I am not saying he didn’t “grow up listening to David Bowie.” David Bowie is always on the radio. Unless you only listened to Radio 4 or Radio 3, or don’t listen to the radio at all, you’re going to hear David Bowie’s hits. I’m not even saying that David Cameron doesn’t think he is a “pop genius” or a “master of reinvention.” But when I saw the tweet (I follow David Cameron as you must know your enemy), I felt indignant.

I read the comments under David Cameron’s tweet, posted by his office within around ten minutes of the official announcement by David Bowie’s office, and this was the gist: “Fuck off … Fuck off, you twat … You prick … Oh do fuck off … Fuck off, dish face … Bowie was the antithesis of everything you stand for … Piss off … Twat.” Rather than join this jolly mob of abuse the Prime Minister will never read, which would be water off a prick’s back in any event, I simply retweeted his tribute with a footnote of my own.

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Note, I used the epithet “Sir,” to distance myself from any foul-mouthed abuse. This was intended to back-reference what Johnny Marr said when David Cameron voiced his appreciation of the Smiths. He “forbade” him from liking the band, as I’m sure you remember.

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Anyhow, my “You are not allowed to comment” comment was passed around by those who agreed with the sentiment. I felt strongly and passionately about the insidious and hollow way our Prime Minister uses social media to attach himself to what he thinks are issues that will endear him to the electorate. Jumping in with a personal tribute to David Bowie, on the great man’s untimely death, felt particularly ghoulish to me. Part of my problem is the motivation behind it. I have plenty of evidence that David Cameron’s motives are not always sincere or honest. He was on Andrew Marr only this weekend explaining why selling council houses would be good for people living in poverty and at no point actually told the truth, which is that he despises anyone without the get-up-and-go to be rich and if they can’t afford to buy their council house, then all they’re doing is preventing less lazy people from buying it.

I see David Cameron as a hateful figure. A dimwit without the empathy to understand what it’s like to grow up without a helping hand. He lacks the intelligence to see how much ire he stirs up when, say, he turns up in his wellies to be interviewed about the floods in Cumbria when it’s his government that has cut flood defence spending, and engineers his photocall so that he doesn’t have to speak to any ordinary people who have been flooded out.

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That’s the background for my tweet, something most people who care to follow me understood. But a few took violently against it. I took abuse from individuals who called me, variously, a “fascist”, a “totalitarian”, and, in one illiterate case, a “fuck whit”. Before blocking them, I checked to see if they were Tories, but it was hard to tell. One compared me to Donald Trump in my haste to disallow one elected man from commenting on the cruel passing of my favourite artist from cancer. I’m pretty sure you can’t be a fascist if you are against one single person? And it would be a pretty useless totalitarian state that oppressed one citizen.

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My dislike – and disenfranchisement – of David Cameron is not based on his race, or ethnicity, or his political views, or his detachment from the country he is chopping up and selling off; it is merely based on his being David Cameron, and a grudge I have been building up for five years. One rather more reasonable person on Twitter claimed to also “dislike his politics” but remained affronted that I had disallowed the PM from commenting on David Bowie (as if perhaps I had some kind of administrative or legislative power to do so). Mind you, “disliking his politics” does not quite go far enough to describe my feelings about David Cameron.

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So, RIP David Bowie. And do shut up, David Cameron. Someone else sarcastically asked me to provide a list of those who can and cannot comment. Easy: everybody else can; David Cameron can’t. Hope that clears it up.

First …

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First they came for BBC Three, and I did not speak out –
because I don’t watch Snog, Marry, Avoid.

Then they came for BBC Worldwide, and I did not speak out –
because I don’t really know what that is, or does.

Then they came for Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice, and I did not speak out –
because I mainly listen to Radio 4 and watch BBC Two and Wimbledon and Question Time.

Then they came for the whole of the BBC, including Radio 4 and BBC Two and Wimbledon and Question Time and Strictly Come Dancing and The Voice
and there was no one left to broadcast that fact in a trustworthy manner.

After Pastor Martin Niemöller, 1946

Carry on, nurse

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In the late 1980s, I spent an awful lot of time at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, South London. I wasn’t ill. I had fallen in with a gang of medical students who were being schooled there, through a mutual art school friend of mine. Though outsiders, the pair of us joined their amateur theatre group, later aggrandised by the name Renaissance Comedy Associates. (One of the students, a driving force behind various dramatic and comedic ventures, was Matthew Hall, who would later adopt the stage name Harry Hill and leave medicine behind.) Because St George’s is a teaching hospital, in that Prelapsarian era of low security, my memory is of having free run of the place: I drank subsidised lager in the Students Union bar, and treated the hospital’s corridors as my own, constantly venturing into the bowels of the place to rehearse with a band, or block out a play, or even curate evenings for the film society. You could even park for free. (It’s £2 an hour these days, I just checked.)

The upshot of this fecund period of my postgraduate life – during which Matthew and I co-wrote a play which we took to the Edinburgh Fringe, and a solo play I wrote about a Woody Allen obsessive was staged at St George’s vast, functioning theatre (not the operating kind) for two nights – is that it shattered my innate fear of hospitals. Having been rushed to A&E twice in my life at that point – both times, in childhood, to get stitched up after an accident in the home – the smell of hospitals still triggered an existential gag response in me, as it does to most people, I would guess. I’d been inside Northampton General plenty of times to visit family members – the worst being when my ailing grandfather was hospitalised, never to come back out – and I would have laughed if you’d told me that in my early 20s I’d voluntarily and regularly hang around in an infirmary with over 7,000 dedicated staff that serves a population of 1.3 million across Southwest London.

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In the decades since, I’ve been through the doors of other hospitals, usually for benign tests, or on the occasion of emergencies relating to others, and although they are always potential buildings of death and bad news, I have never slipped back into fearing them since my time as a St George’s groupie. However, the endless recent horror stories about the NHS, which arrive on a daily basis, and range from lethal malpractice and institutional abuse to simple underfunded inefficiency, seem to be doing their best to drive us all away from places designed to make us better and mend us. If the car parking charges haven’t achieved that already.

In January, 15 hospitals in England enacted “emergency measures” in A&E (handily emblemised by an emergency tent erected in the car park of the overloaded Great Western hospital in Swindon). Such symptoms of failure are easy enough to diagnose: we all live with improved life expectancy, with the ever ageing population leading to more ailments and infections; the winter (although it didn’t even get that catastrophic this year); vicious cuts to Council budgets leaving patients without social care and thus blocking hospital beds; the recruitment crisis among GPs, who are hard enough to get an appointment with anyway; the new 111 emergency phoneline driving traffic to A&E algorithmically; just generally more illness as we eat terrible processed food and – who can blame us? – drink and smoke our way out of austerity. None of which ought to be a surprise to those controlling budgets and none of which is suddenly going to go away.

The NHS is sick. It is a suitable case for treatment. It needs TLC and all it got from the last government was PFI, which means nicer-looking hospitals that cost twice as much as they said they would, made tidy profits for the private companies who built them, and inside which every essential service from cleaning to catering has been outsourced to the lowest bidder. But at least Labour wasn’t ideologically against the very idea of what the Americans call “socialised healthcare”; the Tories absolutely are, and would have the NHS fully privatised in a second if they thought they could get reelected afterwards. The dicks.

NHSDoctor

What’s a national health service to do when the government of the day wants it asset-stripped, and the leader of a currently ascendant golf-club fringe party can think of nothing better than to criticise the English pronunciation of some of its dedicated staff? The majority of us in this country don’t have health insurance. So the majority of us rely on the NHS. It’s ours. But its original cradle-to-grave guarantee is under siege from Tory ideology, which is to say: privatise the shit out of it. (Because free market capitalism states very clearly that the private sector is better equipped to run everything than the public sector.) Perhaps, romantically, you regard emergency medicine and longer-term care as a service that cannot be farmed out to private companies – who, by their very nature, must run things with an eye always on the bottom line. Perhaps you feel that medicine should be available to all, and paid for my our taxes? Like running water, or electricity, or rail transport, or gas. (Spot the irony there.)

Carry on Doctor I keep seeing ambulances which proudly announce that they are run by G4S. (I wouldn’t announce my presence if I were G4S, but such private companies know little of hubris.) This is how old-fashioned I am: the very sight of a private, or partly-private, or public-private, ambulance make me feel sick. The NHS works “in partnership with” G4S, a company that has been criticised for using “non-approved techniques” at a detention centre, the “breach of human rights” of a prisoner being treated at Royal Liverpool University Hospital (who was handcuffed to a security guard for eight days), and using immigrant detainees as cheap labour, and is currently accused of torture at one of its South African prisons, and the unlawful killing of an Angolan deportee after “unreasonable force” on a British Airways flight. The company also paid a settlement of £109 million to the government after a Serious Fraud Office investigation into tagging, incorporating a refund for “disputed services”, but still it enjoys government contracts. Who wouldn’t want these people turning up to take you to the hospital – what could possibly go wrong?

So it is no surprise to find out that St George’s – my adopted alma mater! – relies on G4S to “provide flexible healthcare logistics solutions that meet its customers’ evolving requirements.” It’s all rotten, right down to the weasel words used to dress up its job description. At least, as the election looms, the party that used to be Labour is using the NHS as one of its big platforms. Who can blame them, when the Conservatives have made their feelings about the old warhorse pretty plain? I’m stirred that it’s still considered an issue, even by Labour strategists, with the ghost of PFI still sitting at the banquet table. The Green Party bemoans “botched privatisation schemes” and “hospitals and surgeries treated like profit-driven businesses rather than public services” and promise to oppose cuts, closures and privatisation , and to “maintain the principle of a free NHS”.

NHSCARRY-ON-AGAIN-DOCTOR

It’s not over yet. But it’s worth bearing in mind when you choose who to vote for if you wish NHS doctors and nurses to carry on treating you.

Areas of outstanding booty

UKfrackingnatParks

I was being both playful and deadly serious when, last night, after the watershed, I Tweeted:

I fucking hate fracking.

I added a PS in brackets – (I waited until after the watershed to Tweet that – it doesn’t work with dashes or asterisks) – a hint of levity beneath the hard crust of protest. Hey, it’s a stupid medium. Sometimes only a stupid joke will do. It doesn’t mean that serious intent is out of the question: attention-grabbing is half the battle. Anyway, a number of like-minded folk re-Tweeted my 15-certificate statement. Also – and I was sort of expecting this – one man objected to the basic underlying implication of my Tweet. He wrote:

if you’d been born in the late 1800’s would you have hated underground coal mining?

There’s no apostrophe in “1800s” but I wasn’t going to pick him up on that and be a prick. So instead I petulantly replied:

Yes.

I have no way of knowing what I would have hated in the late 1800s, as it was a very different time. Anyway, then I went to sleep. It was after 10.30. This morning, I found that the man had not let it lie. He’d responded, with a trace level of passive aggression, I felt (and no initial capital letter again):

presumably you have a masterful alternative to fracking up your sleeve, that the energy companies have failed to note

So I gathered my thoughts and, with about 15 years of being very interested in green issues behind me, I typed:

Use less energy.

Touché? Who knows. I only publicised my aversion to fracking in the first instance to reflect the fact that, far from being a destructive, money-motivated process only being perpetrated in faraway North Dakota and East Texas, it’s coming to the UK with an awful lot of political will behind it (and by that, I mean corporate will, obviously, as waived through by politicians with financial interests in energy companies). I care about this, and not because it’s literally going to happen in my urban backyard.

National parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, world heritage sites, all will be fair game for exploration and drilling for shale gas across this land once the bids are in for “onshore oil and gas licences”. But don’t worry, ministers are asking energy firms to “submit an environmental statement” before they are allowed to start tearing the arse out of Britain in the name of cheap energy and profit. This statement has to be “particularly comprehensive and detailed” if they want to frack on or near a protected bit of the map. But since when did a bit of paperwork stop big business?

I’m glad this brutish form of gas extraction actually termed hydraulic fracturing comes colloquially giftwrapped as “fracking” from its heartland in America, which nobody seems to have noticed is a bigger country than the United Kingdom. You just know that the marketing departments of the energy giants looking for a piece of the action, or “fracktion”, will be tearing their hair out trying to come up with a way of rebranding it. Too late. The word fits.

Frackingpeakoil

Here’s the truth: I don’t have a magic solution to the country’s energy problems or the world’s, but I do know that the people in charge (by whom I mean the people who run the private corporations that run our governments) have known that the world’s oil was going to run out for decades. In 1956, Shell geoscientist (ie. not a hippy) M. King Hubbert predicted that “peak oil” would be reached in 2000. They named a curve after him. It certainly looked pretty dicey by the Millennium, although other experts have adjusted the end of days to the more palatable 2020, by which time the world will have solved the problem, apparently. Forgive me if I have zero confidence in that happening. The Market has failed to sort everything out previously. Why trust it this time, when so much is at stake?

It’s the Shale Of The Century! Just as Ed Miliband’s compromise solution for the railways is to allow the public sector to bid against private companies, it’s always a “competition”, as that’s how free market economics works, even when an apparent “Labour” party is tinkering with it. (It’s capitalism that led us to this precarious point where the massive oil-consuming nations have encouraged everyone else to consume more oil in order to compete in the global market and thus, we are running out of the stuff.) The “competition” for UK fracking licences is, we’re told, “likely to attract significant interest from energy companies keen to explore Britain’s new-found shale reserves.” Of course it is. There’s money to be made. It’s a gold rush where individuals with a pick and shovel may not apply. (This is a shame for all those fashionable men who have massive beards, as they already look like gold prospectors.)

Bad luck if you’re in the Bowland basin of the north-west, a central belt of Scotland and the Weald in the south-east. We must hope that the protests that sprang up in Blackpool and Balcombe about the potential for environmental damage will be replicated in these new areas of outstanding profit. The licensing round was announced while the MPs were on holiday, so they can pretend they didn’t know about it.

Frackingdiag

The Tory Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon told the other Lords and Ladies, “We recognise there are areas of outstanding landscape and scenic beauty where the environmental and heritage qualities need to be carefully balanced against the benefits of oil and gas from unconventional hydrocarbons.” Planning consent is going to be a pushover. Eric Pickles is going to bypass the usual channels and sign it off himself.

And yet … there may be hope. From Conservative voters. Who live in many of the areas that are to be fracked. If they don’t actually live in rural constituencies, there are the exact types to aspire to do so (fantasy Countryside Alliance members who actually live in the suburbs), and they don’t like it up ’em. Quite why Cameron is prepared to put the interests of the corporations that fund his party above the actual individuals who might vote him back in without the pesky Lib Dems is beyond me. He is, if nothing else, shallow, self-serving and bloodless. Dozy, platitudinous twat that he is, surely even he can see that this is a potential electoral timebomb. (Unless, of course, he never really was in it to help anyone, and is only an ideological zealot up to a point. I’m not sure which is the more skin-crawling: a rightwing bastard, or someone pretending to be one.)

fracking oil pump

Greenpeace are not happy (“The government has fired the starting gun on a reckless race for shale that could see fracking rigs go up across the British countryside”), nor are the Green party (“Many campaigners have campaigned for decades to get national park status, and they are given for a reason. The idea that they could be offered up to the fracking firms is a scandal”), but, according to the Guardian, Shaun Spiers of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, seemed fine with it, assured by the government’s “highest possible safeguards.” (Good luck, rural England, with this bloke backing your protection.)

In the interests of balance, I would say that the British Geological Survey has estimated that shale gas deposits under your house and garden could supply the country with energy for up to 40 years. And luckily, in order to extract it, all the energy companies have to do is sit near it with a tanker and it will magically evaporate out of the rock under the soil and fill the tank, which can be then safely and noiselessly driven away.

The Institute of Directors said three cheers for “a dynamic, productive and well regulated shale industry in the UK.” Pardon me if I sit on my hands and save my applause for later. The man on Twitter who thought he was being very clever probably thinks I am a lily-livered, bleeding-heart, anti-business Guardian-reading lefty with no answers to his difficult questions. He’s kind of right. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be furious about the fact that nobody has done anything about our untrammeled consumption of energy thus far except invent energy-saving lightbulbs. Why didn’t we – and why don’t we – just turn the lights off when we leave the room?