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2017 in Excruciating Detail, a Cofveve Review

In a year with so many memorable moments (I’m assuming here that by now we all know that ‘memorable’ is code for ‘cathartically, mind-blowing awful’) – one in May stands out. The Prime Minister had just announced a U-turn on her plans to make people pay more for social care just days after they were first announced. The plans (which hadn’t been mentioned in the manifesto) had been dubbed the ‘Dementia Tax’ to ask the elderly to contribute more towards care and had caused a massive backlash.

Hilariously she lashed out at Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, accusing him of trying “to sneak into No 10 by playing on the fears of older and vulnerable people” (some of this may sound familiar to Scottish viewers).

But the really funny bit was her reaction under the very mildest of questioning: “Nothing has changed!” she shrieked, visibly shaken and angry.

And then everything changed.

The Conservatives are usually adept at projecting power. Even through vapid meaningless speeches and sound bites and clunky octogenarian conferences, they normally succeed in putting across a subliminal message of “We are powerful” that acts as a sort of hypnotic soporific to millions of dim-witted Tories up and down the land. In that sense the idea of just repeating ‘Strong and stable’ to a country fearful of: Red Jezza, foreigners, economic collapse, but mostly ‘itself’ probably seemed a good idea at the time.

What could be more reassuring than a vicar’s daughter in expensive clobber touring about calmly reciting a soothing mantra of calm. It would be like a gentle political massage with oils and smelly candles and whale music.

It didn’t quite work our like that.

In the aftermath of her disastrous election she lost three Cabinet Ministers (a feat not matched since 1986) and has presided over the disastrous calamity of Brexit negotiations.

But just when we thought we’d reached Peak Schadenfreude along came Theresa May’s conference speech. It is rare that a single event gives such large amounts of people pleasure and pain simultaneously.

This was like an S&M convention streamed by the BBC as May’s political career went down the toilet live on air.

It wasn’t just the bizarre hacking cough that went on and on and on – or the spectacle of the actual infrastructure of the backdrop collapsing behind her – as if God herself had intervened to mock the Tory Party just for a laugh – it was if we were being provided with a clumsy metaphor for the dysfunctional country she presided over.

Her promises seemed insincere and inadequate – and – after she was handed her P45 (itself an astonishing security breach) her pathetic attempts to come over as somehow ‘anti-racist’ were a step too far even for politicians who have trademarked Hypocrisy. As Kate Maltby remarked at the time:

“You can’t promise “a more open, global Britain”, when you are still remembered as the architect of “Go Home” vans and the woman who referred to “citizens of nowhere”.

Such majestic incompetence would have destroyed any other politician in any other era. But incredibly the Tory Party have no-one less toxic to hand, are terrified of the “Marxist” Corbyn waiting in the wings and are also engaged in the most disastrous foreign policy humiliation since Suez. So she stays.


The problem for May is she invokes pity, and this isn’t a good thing for a leader.

But if May invokes pity her groping grabbing American colleague summons shame and contempt.

Even through Thatcher, and Blair, Reagan and Bush and then his imbecile son, I can’t quite remember anyone making me actually ashamed to be human like Trump does.

Every day brings some fresh hell, some new level of horror and corruption, some new height of misogyny, some new peak of foreign policy folly.

Nor are the emergent revelations about Russian interference really the point. As Ariel Dorfman wrote in the LA Times the truth is darker and close to home:

“Those were not Russians voting in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, handing the election to the Republican candidate by a bit more than 80,000 votes. They were American men and women,” Dorfman wrote. “As were the 62,984,825 others who decided that such a troublesome, inflammatory figure expressed their desires and dreams. Trump could be impeached or resign, or his policies could simply implode under the weight of their malice, divisiveness and mendacity, and the country would still be defined and pressed by the same conditions and dread that enabled his rise.”

“Now, every desperate American must gaze in the mirror and interrogate the puzzled face and puzzling fate that stares back: What did I do or not do that made the cataclysm possible?” he continued. “Did I ignore past transgressions that corrode today’s society: the discrimination, the sexism, the violence, the authoritarianism, the intolerance, the imperial ambitions, the slavery and greed and persecutions that have darkened America’s story? Did I overestimate the strength of our democracy and underestimate the decency of my neighbors? Was I too fearful, too complacent, too impatient, too angry? Whom did I not talk to, whom did I not persuade? What privilege and comforts, what overwork and debts, kept me from giving my all? What injustice or humiliation or bigoted remark did I witness and let pass? How can I help to recover our country, make it once more recognizable, make it luminous and forgiving?”

“We must vigorously protest the president’s craven actions, but above all we need to acknowledge that what ultimately matters is not what a foreign power did to America, but what America did to itself,” he lectured. “The crucial question of what is wrong with our country, what could have driven us to this edge of catastrophe, cannot be resolved by a special counsel or a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives or spectacular revelations about Russia’s interference.”

Dark Tower

If Grenfell Tower stood out as a crystallisation of the crisis of austerity Britain, the abject failure of housing and citizenship it also stood out as the moment when the ‘hidden civil war’ was exposed.

As Robert Peston has written:

“The horrific corollary of a faceless, irresponsible system of public-housing governance is that many of the poor and vulnerable people who died in the fire are not even being given the respect of formal identification as victims – because they live on the fringes of the state, and the authorities seem unable to be confident they even existed, let alone that they have died.

There is a social contract between those of us lucky enough to have voices that are heard and those who don’t that we should not put them in harms way. Grenfell seems the most grotesque breach of that contract in my lifetime. It shames us all.”

It doesn’t shame us all at all, but he is right.

Peston’s observations give Prime Minister May’s famous speech “…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere…” a much darker hue.

With this swirling mass of anger and despair, now comes the most significant foreign policy and trade negotiations of our recent history. It’s a moment that is looked forward to here by Fintan O Toole (‘Britain the End of a Fantasy’):

“Last year’s triumph for Brexit has often been paired with the rise of Donald Trump as evidence of a populist surge. But most of those joining in with the ecstasies of English nationalist self-assertion were imposters. Brexit is an elite project dressed up in rough attire. When its Oxbridge-educated champions coined the appealing slogan “Take back control,” they cleverly neglected to add that they really meant control by and for the elite. The problem is that, as the elections showed, too many voters thought the control should belong to themselves.

Theresa May is a classic phony Brexiter. She didn’t support it in last year’s referendum and there is no reason to think that, in private, she has ever changed her mind. But she saw that the path to power led toward the cliff edge, from which Britain will take its leap into an unknown future entirely outside the European Union. Her strategy was one of appeasement—of the nationalist zealots in her own party, of the voters who had backed the hard-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), and of the hysterically jingoistic Tory press, especially The Daily Mail.

The actual result of the referendum last year was narrow and ambiguous. Fifty-two percent of voters backed Brexit but we know that many of them did so because they were reassured by Boris Johnson’s promise that, when it came to Europe, Britain could “have its cake and eat it.” It could both leave the EU and continue to enjoy all the benefits of membership. Britons could still trade freely with the EU and would be free to live, work, and study in any EU country just as before. This is, of course, a childish fantasy, and it is unlikely that Johnson himself really believed a word of it. It was just part of the game, a smart line that might win a debate at the Oxford Union.

But what do you do when your crowd-pleasing applause lines have to become public policy? The twenty-seven remaining member states of the EU have to try to extract a rational outcome from an essentially irrational process. They have to ask the simple question: What do you Brits actually want? And the answer is that the Brits want what they can’t possibly have. They want everything to change and everything to go as before. They want an end to immigration—except for all the immigrants they need to run their economy and health service. They want it to be 1900, when Britain was a superpower and didn’t have to make messy compromises with foreigners.

To take power, May had to pretend that she, too, dreams these impossible dreams. And that led her to embrace a phony populism in which the narrow and ambiguous majority who voted for Brexit under false pretences are to be reimagined as “the people.”

“The People” can and must be evoked when it is politically useful, but when they emerge as actual people actually “taking back control” they are to be despised, smeared and treated as “saboteurs” and insurgents, “vile separatists” and Remoaners. As Peston suggested they are treated as less than human, certainly citizens of nowhere, possibly traitors.

And ‘so it goes’ as Kurt Vonnegut would have said.

This was the year of Grenfell:  “A vision of hell. A smouldering, charred tower of death rising into the west London sky, surrounded by streets that were plastered with missing person signs, left by the bereft and the brokenhearted.”

It was the year when fascism was mainstreamed by an American president calling nazis and racists ‘fine people’ and re-tweeting Britain First.

It was the year when the Spanish state unleashed its own riot police against Catalan people exercising their democratic rights and the world turned away.

It was the year of Priti Patel freelancing British foreign policy and ongoing Israeli apartheid.

It was the year British arms companies made huge profit selling arms to Saudi Arabia and stoking the crisis in Yemen.

It was the year the world came closest to nuclear ‘war’ since 1962 and nobody was even really that bothered because we were either so immersed in our own tribal parochialism we didnt even notice, or we were ‘just about managing’ and could scarecly look up / keep up.

Running through all of this like threads through your Stilton is the gender wars of toxic masculinity, abuse exploitation and violence.

And of course across the year the interlocked issues of Brexit, democracy and what used to be called ‘the national question’ hangs over us.

As David Marquand has written:

“…the UK is set to leave the European Union because an English majority has voted to do so, ignoring the opinions of two of the UK’s four nations.

The great question is, why? Partly it’s that for centuries, myths, memories and rhetoric have transmitted a vision of Englishness of extraordinary power. Two examples stand out: Shakespeare’s hymn to England as a “precious stone set in the silver sea”, and Enoch Powell’s evocation of the “sceptred awe, in which Saint Edward the Englishman” claimed “the allegiance of all the English” and in doing so symbolised “the unity of England, effortless and unconstrained”.

It is a profoundly reactionary vision, but emotionally powerful. It conveys the message that England is a special, exemplary, even providential nation, set apart from others. Iconography tells the same story, from the mock-Gothic Houses of Parliament to the trooping of the colour on the monarch’s official birthday.”

That reality, that acceptance has at least become clear in this year.

All of this has the seeds of hope in it; hope for the emergence of a different expression of English political identity, of a global and personal response to the attack on women, for the horrors of British austerity to be overthrown and for Scotland to position itself back into a space from which we can reclaim democracy. Some (all) of this seems distant and difficult to hope for. As our Prime Minister told us:

Nothing has changed.






Comments (9)

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  1. William Low says:

    As ‘Private Fraser’ would have suggested, ‘we are doomed Captain Mannering, we are doomed.’ Will the current approach of the Scottish Government be sufficient as an example to show an alternative way ahead? Would a Universal Declaration of Independence by the Scottish Government be sufficient to waken up the silent minority to an alternative approach?

    I have read much on Bella of late that demonstrates that there are many thinkers, excellent on analysis, good on alternative ideas and approaches out there. But when it comes to action and to a resolution of the problems do we have the people who will go for it?

    Clement Atlee’s government, in far more difficult circumstances created a Britain that had a humanity and dignity. Thatcher set in motion the creation of a Britain that should be ashamed of its record , on many fronts – most having been rehearsed in these columns ad nauseam.

    Who will carry the ‘Fiery cross’ round the land and will the people respond in time? Let us hope that the day may dawn, before too long when sense may show through and this current wave of populist nonsense will be overcome and we can develop a society, that once again enjoys and reflects the best of humanity.

    I for one would fight for that.


    1. TorryJoe says:

      Amen, Bill. Very well put, Thanks.

    2. Alf Baird says:

      “a Universal Declaration of Independence”

      UDI is not necessary given Scotland’s equal constitutional status in the union; the current 35 SNP MP’s is already a Scotland majority and constitutionally/legally such a majority can end the UK political union now in the same way it was created. Holyrood (which may be enlarged upon assuming full powers) could then prepare and pass a ‘Withdrawal from UK Union (Scotland) Bill’. Westminster (less Scotland MP’s) would then pass a similar Bill. Scotland’s sovereignty lies with Scotland’s elected MP’s (and no-one else) and it is they who have the power to end the union in the same way it began.

      1. William Low says:

        Thanks Alf for correcting my lack of knowledge. I suppose what I was suggesting was a populist approach to waken up the silent majority. Given the dreadful position of the current Westminster government and the acquiescence of the majority of the English in their dire policies, I would really like to see some action. Having been on a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth, before Christmas, with a mainly southern English Tory group of passengers, I was quite amazed at the attitudes that I found. Complete complacency over austerity, the decay of the NHS, the lack of public services and then ironically concern for the future of the grandchildren and their careers.
        I was at pains to point out to a number of them that the desire for Scottish Independence did not stem from our hate for the English, but rather the English hating the Scots so much that they have inflicted such a savage Tory government on us and seem intent on destroying all that we hold dear.

        Perhaps the election of a humble person with much to be humble about will provide the solution


  2. MBC says:

    Well, you’ve got to live in hope Mike. Because what future, darkness? Slowly the worm may be turning. It’s unlikely that Brexshit will be reversed but it’s also increasingly unlikely it will be on the Brexshits’ terms. The 48% will be heard. There is some suggestion that the public mood is changing as the disaster of Brexshit becomes clearer and when it does MPs will also start to find some guts. What is paralysing them at the moment is public opinion and the fact that most are sitting in seats with Leave majorities. The recent Tory rebellion led by Dominic Grieve was just the start of what I foresee will be a wider parliamentary revolt in 2018. Heseltine is even saying a Corbyn government would be less damaging than Brexshit.

    In Scotland nawbags may yet see the error of their ways, or at least be prepared to acknowledge that a Scottish government under the SNP has not only provided prosperity and stability, despite the worst damage nitwit Tories have tried to impose on the UK, but also some modest successes in painlessly raising some money through additional taxation for essential services such as schools, and imposing minimum pricing on alcohol. The positive distinctiveness of Scottish government is becoming clearer and more self evident. The new bridge, the success of renewable energy, the controls on minimum pricing of alcohol – are all showing that Scotland is a different country and that Scottish government is distinctive, progressive and good for Scotland. Our worst enemies remain Labour tribalism and the mainstream press and the daily dose of toxicity that is peddled to the uneducated via the newspapers. But for the thinking, educated part of the Nawbag population, a begrudging respect for the Scottish government and the independence movement is growing.

    I think it is a time for steady, confident government such as Nicola Sturgeon has been providing. I know people – myself included- would like to see change quicker, but I think that we have to play our cards well and see what Brexshit brings before we can move further in the direction of independence. Although I opposed Brexshit I have come to the conclusion that the best position long term for an independent Scotland given the size of the Yes vote that voted Leave would be EFTA as that would give us control over agriculture and fisheries whilst allowing access to the single market. EFTA makes little sense for the U.K. as the U.K. was potentially an influential member of the EU which could have played a constructive leadership role in Europe even though it refused to engage to its full potential but for smaller less inflential countries like Norway and Switzerland EFTA gives them the most domestic leverage for the best trading gain.

    Scotland is the only part of the U.K. with a progressive competent government. And that’s a rather large success to be proud of given the disasters all around us.

  3. Jo says:

    The other question for America in the wake of Trump’s victory is…why was Clinton allowed to stand? There is no doubt that it was this insane decision that won it for Trump.

  4. Lochside says:

    Alf…Thanks, yet again, for re-stating the basic facts about our sovereign status. You have set out many times, in an erudite and explicit manner, the nuts and bolts of the simple process required by our MPs to bring down the rotten edifice of the ‘Union’ and spare our country a Brexit induced meltdown along with our ultimate achievement of self determination.

    Yet despite you and many others ( yes me as well), trying to remind ‘nationalists’ on social media that our sovereign status is not held in aspic by the gellatinous weight of Anglo-Saxon colonialism, but self emposed deception, inexplicably it has to be said, by the SNP., the message still is not getting through.

    For this reason, I have really lost faith in the SNP, with their strategy of ‘exhausting every legal and political means’ to ‘support’ the blundering tory blimps. It may well be an act, a vain attempt to impress the Unionists/aged/settler English demographic to back an ‘honest broker ‘ approach.

    However, I remain totally unconvinced. Foster and her rag tag drum beating atavism has blindsided us as well as the Tories. The DUP may well be bought off again, or not, but because of our leadership’s obsession with efficient,managerial, low level regional governance as means to impress, they have thrown away the big story: that Scotland and its people are and have always been sovereign, and that we have the political clout at Westminster to dissolve the Union. No need for bent referendums, bogus postal votes and holiday home double votes combined with Brit Intel dirty tricks.

    Yet ‘wings’ and other sites are dominated by fearties demanding a plebiscite/referendum to take back what is our by right. Alex Salmond has my gratitude for just about all he has ever achieved for Scotland, but with the Edinburgh Agreement, he gambled disasterously, and allowed Scotland’s head to be placed in a self made noose, from which half of our supporters are mesmerised into wanting to repeat.

    Of course, we will not be ‘allowed’ by the Tories another Referendum, because the Supreme Court has disabled the Scottish ‘Parliament’s authority. The Henry the Eighth legislation Reform bill will create a UK constitution which will shut down the regional assemblies and return to Sec. of State administrations run by clones like Mundell. It’s already in preparation, look at the increase in the Scottish Office personnel and budget. This Reform Act will supercede the Act of Union. They will protect the tatters of what remains of Scots law, supine as it is, and the irrelevant ‘state’ Church, the tory mouthpiece Church of Scotland.

    I heard Ian Blackford’s ‘plea’ for cross party support for mediating Brexit, yet again. All I could think of was how weak are we? We voted SNP at the last two General Elections, the Scots Parl election and to stay in the EU, yet there we are with our ‘equal’ mps ‘pleading’ like children to be heard. I’m not alone in thinking this. My branch can’t get a quorum at the last 3/4 ,meetings. People are slipping away and the 1/2 million votes lost at the last election should have been a wake up call for the SNP to go on the offensive at the highest level i.e Sovereignty. But are they listening?

  5. David Allan says:

    Hi Lochside

    “My branch can’t get a quorum at the last 3/4 ,meetings”.

    From my own experience of attending SNP Branch meetings the old guard office bearers were unable to alter their boring uninspiring monthly practices. The flood of eager new members following the 2014 ref were seen as a threat and their fresh ideas and enthusiasm of the Yes Campaign were thwarted at every opportunity.

    Existing Councillors and MSP were fixtures not to be meddled with, debates were not encouraged and opportunities for active new member participation in shaping the “new post ref SNP” were stifled by the banal experience of local SNP party politics.

    Hence the drift away. Not the only reason and not I fervently hope always the case i’m certain that some branches adapted and absorbed their influx of new members and revelled in their fresh ideas likely spending time developing their canvassing skills and preparing for what ever comes next.

    For some the candidate selection process for the 2015 Westminster Election would have shone a light on what cliques existed at local level.

    Cliques that were never going to change.

    “subsumed by the yes campaign – never the SNP delivered the ref it will deliver Indy! ” That was the old guard mentality.

    Let there be no doubt all that drifted away remain committed .

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