Dunkirk is a searing argument for defeating Brexit

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French destroyer Borrasque, loaded with 1,200 soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a searing argument for defeating  Brexit.  Christopher Nolan’s new movie released yesterday shows the evacuation of British and French troops from the beaches of Dunkirk on May 26th 1940.   They were pursued by A German army and airforce.   This was just over 77 years ago.   It’s within the living memory of millions of people.   Since the end of the Second World War, five years later, no western European nation has invaded a neighbouring country – the longest period of peace in the Common Era history of the continent.

Dunkirk was a defeat, a retreat, an evacuation in the face of a military threat.   Brexit is a self-imposed defeat, a retreat, an evacuation following a massive shot in Britain’s foot by a grossly negligent, incompetent British Conservative party.   The structures of the European Union, slowly and painfully built (with considerable British contribution over many decades) out of the devastation of that conflict, hold the murderous forces of war at bay.   The European way of supporting the lives of citizens and solving problems is to discuss, negotiate, vote and discuss again.   It is laborious, frustrating, opaque and has no equal in the astonishing achievement of bringing lasting peace to a continent of 500 million citizens.

In the Financial Times of July 17th 2017, Gideon Rachman begins an article with ‘The campaign to stop Brexit is gathering pace’, noting increasing chatter about a second referendum.   He says that ‘The reasons that Remainer politicians are still so cautious about explicitly rejecting Brexit is that they are worried about sounding undemocratic’.   Many of the online responses to the article showed why this is so, but one correspondent replied, ‘In a democracy the people speak all the time.  Not just once.  Every day, every week, every month, anytime they want and in the UK, Parliament is, and always has been, the only sovereign authority and one perfectly entitled to change its mind every day of the week if it wants.’   David Davis, Brexit secretary, agrees.   He said, ‘If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy’ (quoted in the Independent).

Christopher Nolan’s film graphically showed men and women shot, blown up, drowning in sinking hospital ships, swimming through water ablaze with burning oil.    Other human beings did this to them.   No nation in the war had a monopoly of industrialized murder.   It is the wretched, tedious democratic processes of the European Union that have prevented this happening again.   The year after the end of the war, Winston Churchill envisaged this in a speech at the University of Zurich on September 19th 1946.   The supposed benefits of Brexit are steadily being shown to be an illusion.   Brexit is a displacement activity, to avoid the intensely difficult business of governing fairly a complex modern nation.   I urge us, the British people, to change our minds, not through another referendum but through the great democratic institution that underpins our liberty – the British Parliament.    Rational persuasion of our fellow citizens will avert another Dunkirk.

See also ‘U-turn to Europe‘, ‘Three Ways Forward’, ‘Brexit – waste of time’

ACE taxpayer support for literature – four more years

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Poetry Books Society summer 2017 selection

ACE – Arts Council England – has announced taxpayer support for the arts in England of £1.6 billion for the four-year period from 2018 to 2020.   Out of a total UK public expenditure of £800 billion a year, this is less than a rounding error.   But down at the sharp end – enabling arts businesses to support individual artists in expressing a view of the world – the money is life-blood.

In the UK, Maynard Keynes invented the Arts Council after the Second World War.   Art has always relied on patronage – royal, ducal, charitable, corporate.    In many European countries, taxpayers have taken their place alongside the great and the good in providing patronage for the arts.   In the UK, taxpayers have devolved decisions about disbursing their patronage to the arts councils of the constituent nations.    Maybe few people know that or feel it in any way.    For the recipients, it is a huge privilege.

I chair the board of Inpress, which supports independent literary publishers across the UK with sales, distribution and membership services.   To our delight, ACE has recognised the value of what we do by continuing to fund an element of the core costs of running the business for the next five years.  In return, we grow the sales of small, independent publishers and provide them with access to the major channels of retail and wholesale distribution which, on their own, they would find it very hard to access.

Last year Inpress rescued the Poetry Book Society from going out of business after 65 years.   The PBS is a child of ACE, having been set up with a £2,000 grant in 1953.   Now, under Inpress ownership, it is a stand-alone business and does not rely on the taxpayer for the funding of its daily activity.   Exceptionally, however, ACE has granted an annual sum of money to fund the recruitment of new members through online marketing.   Each member of the PBS receives a copy of a selected new collection of poetry every quarter.   This sales bonus to the selected poet and publisher significantly increases the number of copies of that title in circulation.    This helps the flow of royalties to the poet and the publisher stay in business.   The PBS is a vital element in the British poetry ecosystem.

A vibrant independent publishing industry is an essential element of a civilised society.   In return for the privilege of receiving taxpayers’ money, we engage to demonstrate the value of every penny spent, to sustain independent literary publishers in their work, and to broaden the reach of the insightful, passionate and humane voices of our contemporary poets.

U-turn Europe: untrigger Brexit

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U-turn to Europe

Theresa May – please make a U-turn to Europe.   I urge the Prime Minister to withdraw the Article 50 letter, untrigger Brexit, and get on with the true business of government – resolving health, education, housing, foreign policy.  This would save enormous amounts of time and money both in the UK and throughout the European Union.   Dealing with the world as it is, rather than the broken world inside the heads of Tory politicians, would be a service to the nation.

The British electorate delivered an intelligent, nuanced election result.   Top of people’s concerns were health, education and jobs.   Just three in 20 voters put relations with Europe above domestic political matters.    Theresa May asked the public for a strong personal mandate to negotiate Brexit.   We said, No, there are more important things to attend to.   Think again.   U-turn.

The British economy is slowing down, while the rest of Europe is beginning to recover.   The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts a steady decline in tax revenues over the next five years.   One of the main reasons is the reduction in taxes from lower immigration.   Despite the confusion over the ‘dementia tax’ in the Tory manifesto, welfare will cost more than it does now.   The NHS needs constant fresh investment to match the changing populations’s needs.   Many more young people came out to vote lat week.   Any government has to respond to their needs – primarily better funding for education.   All these matters are much more important than Brexit.

The election result puts the brakes on Brexit.   A U-turn is essential.   As David Davis, Brexit secretary, said, ‘If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy’ (quoted in the Independent).   Tory politicians have found the real business of government too hard.    Brexit is simply political displacement activity, internal Tory politicking instead of taking responsibility for government.   The Conservative party is utterly at fault in allowing Brexit to take the stage at all.      Cameron thought politics could all be made up on the hoof; Osborne played one tune, austerity, a cracked record of continuous failure to deliver a healthy economy; foreign secretaries came and went, descending to Boris Johnson.

The attempt to cobble together a government with the DUP of Northern Ireland is risible.   N.Ireland voted to remain in the EU.   The DUP opposes this although it wants no border with the Republic of Ireland.  The best way to achieve this is to halt Brexit.   Make a U-turn to Europe.

See also ‘Three Ways Forward’, ‘Brexit – waste of time’

Three ways forward to change our Brexit minds

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Jonathan Steele

Antonio Tajani

Dame Helena Kennedy


Three ways forward to change our Brexit minds – suggested by Helena Kennedy, Antonio Tajani, and Jonathan Steele, in recent days, from very different viewpoints:

Helena Kennedy on understanding the protections of international law

Helena Kennedy, leading lawyer on social justice and human rights, questions the legality of Theresa May’s approach to Brexit – in particular her attempt to wrestle to the ground the European Court of Justice (ECJ).   May tries to apply the simplistic ‘Take Back Control’ to the complexities of the continuing relations we have with our European partners, Brexit or no.   In an article in The Guardian, Kennedy points out that ‘if you have cross-border rights and contracts you have to have cross-border law and regulations. And if you have cross-border law you have to have supranational courts to deal with disputes’.   The ECJ was largely constructed by British lawyers and protects British citizens’ rights and benefits in many daily ways.   Kennedy describes ‘everything from financial services, trade, farming, fishing, security, environment, employment and maternity rights to industry standards and consumer rights. Intellectual property law, for instance, covers a huge array of research, entrepreneurship, invention and creativity’  The European patent court  was due to be opened in London shortly. What happens to it now?

Antonio Tajani – we would welcome you back

Antonio Tajani is President of the European Parliament.   He visited Theresa May in London with a clear message – we would prefer you not to leave – you can revoke Article 50 whenever you like.   Come back.    Last weekend the European Parliament agreed firm positions to underpin the EU negotiators’ work in discussing the terms of Brexit.   Tajani’s velvet glove encloses an iron fist – the European Parliament has to approve the final terms the negotiators reach.   The grumpy opening exchanges this week still demonstrate that David Davis and his colleagues think they have a strong hand – it is, as Angela Merkel says, ‘an illusion’.

Jonathan Steele – ‘abandon this ruinous Brexit’

Jonathan Steele has been a highly-respected foreign correspondent for more than 40 years.   His opinion couldn’t be more clear – the UK is heading for worse relations with our neighbours and main trading partners.   Pursuing Brexit inflicts terrible wounds on ourselves and our society.   He calls for the Labour party to campaign unambiguously to stop the Brexit process now.

Three ways forward

Jonathan Steele’s comments apply to all the parties.   David Davis, British Minister for Brexit, said ‘If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy’ (see my previous article) .   We must change our minds from the ‘we have to put up ith Brexit’ mode and the minds of our fellow-citizens.   Three ways forward in this election: vote LibDem – the clearest Pro-European proposition; vote Green in any constituency where they have a chance of winning;  and vote Labour if all else fails, since an effective pro-European coalition – for such it must be – will need as many MPs as possible.

See also Brexit- a colossal waste of time

Brexit colossal waste of time, money – stop now

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David Davis Brexit Minister (BBC)

David Davis, British Minister for Brexit, said ‘If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy’ (quoted in the Independent).   I suggest we change our minds about the colossal waste of time, money and valuable expertise that is the Brexit process.    In Money Week this weekend, Merryn Somerset Webb described a negotiation process that when it’s over will leave us much as we are now: with EU market access, with most of EU law unrepealed, and a relatively inconsequential sum of money smoothing things in both directions.     So what’s the point?

What’s the cost?

Moreover, what’s the cost?    Thousands of civil servants across the EU are about to embark on creating spreadsheets and briefing papers for years to come ‘to reach a compromise plan that leaves as much as possible as it is now, just inside a different legal framework’ as Somerset Webb puts it.   This cost will be immense – lay all those hours and salaries in a line and it stretches beyond doomsday and costs a fortune in civil servants’ wages and taxpayer-supported consultants’ fees.   Brains and money and years of endeavour that should be spent solving real problems are wasted on this huge exercise getting us simply to where we are now.

Except for the huge damage to the UK – Scotland shuddering, Ireland anxious about its toxic internal border again – and the major geopolitical risk of a desperately weakened EU in the face of Trump/Putin.   The driver of peace in Europe for the past 70 years has been the decision of the European nations to solve our differences through talking to each other and compromise rather than going to war.   Our job as citizens is to make things, not break things; to do better, not to push off.

It’s just process, not substance

Brexit is a colossal displacement activity.   It is a circular process that gets us back to more or less where we started; it is not a matter of substance, for all the cry about sovereignty and ‘taking back control’.   We default to process when we can’t face the hard dealing with the substance – how to make society better, how to help people resolve difficulties caused by change, how to defend our society in the face of criminal or political aggression and how to bring up our children to discern what is or isn’t fake news.

In the same speech in November 2012, (Conservative Home) David Davis made two very clear pronouncements:

  1. ‘In democratic nations we hold regular meaningful elections where voters can stick with what they have got or wipe the slate clean. Crucial to this principle of people power is the rule that a government cannot bind its successors’ and
  2. ‘Democracy is not just about casting a vote. Democracy is about being willing to make sacrifices for each other, to allow taxes to be used to support those who cannot support themselves. Democracy means letting our sons and daughters put their lives on the line to defend us.’

Well said.

Take back democratic control

So let us persuade Mr Davis and his colleagues to change their minds, call an election for a proper mandate for the whole United Kingdom, take back the Article 50 letter, save the colossal waste of time and money, and get on with the real work.

Beware pity, beware pity without empathy

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Beware of Pity

Beware of Pity, Barbican Feb 10 2017. Photo (c) Guardian

Beware of pity, beware of the danger of pity without empathy, be aware of the inner warmth of he who pities set against the chill of the pitied.   The warning was strongly expressed in Beware of Pity in London tonight.    The show, by the actors of Schaubühne Berlin directed by Simon McBurney of Complicité, is a deeply telling, graceful, fluid production based on Stefan Zweig‘s novel, published in 1939.

The Schaubühne ensemble was a supreme example of ‘match-fit actors’, as Simon McBurney described them in a post-show discussion, working selflessly and seamlessly with text, sound, light and projection, so that content and form were one.   Lieutenant Hofmiller, an Austrian cavalry office, narrates the story of his younger self, falling prey to the self-satisfaction of his encouraging effect on Edith, a disabled, wealthy daughter of a self-made, soi-disant aristocrat.   The ensemble creates a rich world of characters, as they double and treble roles.    Voices and bodies flowed in and out of each other and of the chairs, tables and now microphones that are the staples of a Complicité staging.   Hofmiller cannot face the responsibility of the love that Edith feels for him.   Her personal catastrophe is overtaken by the colossal European catastrophe of the First World War.   Hofmiller goes willingly to die to assuage his guilt, but he and his conscience survive to realise that there is no forgiveness.

Zweig wrote as one European catastrophe was about to engulf him, driving him to suicide.   The story speaks of another that broke over Europe only 25 years earlier.   Thomas Ostermeier, the director of Schaubühne Berlin, and Simon McBurney spoke passionately about the darkening of our present time and how resonant the literature of 100 years ago sounds today, as European politicians raise physical barriers and turn their backs on each other, draining the continent of the habit of irritating, tedious, exhausting negotiation thatfor 70 years has kept the nations of Europe talking as tetchy partners rather than fighting as mortal enemies .

See also Brexit, Trump, Le Pen

Poetry Book Society – new start, new voices

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poetry book societyEarlier this year, Inpress Ltd, which Ian Grant chairs, rescued the Poetry Book Society from extinction.   There was acute danger that the 63-year old society would disappear. This caused anguish among the membership, poets and the literary world.   The PBS forms a significant layer in the ecosystem of poetry.    A new start for the PBS promotes new voices in poetry to its members and to the wider public. It helps to maintain the reputation and output of established poets.   It adds to the royalties poets receive by purchasing print runs of new books of poetry that its Selectors choose as the Poetry Book Society Choice.    Each quarter the PBS also promotes four recommended titles to its members.  This results in additional sales for the publishers and royalties for the poets.    Helping poetry publishers to become and remain profitable is a significant effect of the PBS’s position in the market.

The Inpress mission

This is also the mission of Inpress Ltd.    The Arts Council of England, which helped to establish Inpress 15 years ago, significantly supported the rescue of the PBS.    The Arts Council’s relationship with the PBS dates back to its foundation in 1953 when T.S. Eliot, Sir Basil Blackwell and others founded the PBS ‘to propagate the art of poetry’.   Eric Walter White, a distinguished writer, musicologist and Arts Council administrator, was Secretary and subsequently Chairman of the Poetry Book Society.    He was followed as Chairman by Philip Larkin, Blake Morrison, Michael Goff and other outstanding figures in the world of poetry and literature.   As a result of the rescue, Ian Grant is now Chairman of the PBS.

Inpress and the PBS subscribe to the key objectives of Arts Council England – excellence, innovation, diversity and reach.    The PBS aims to serve its members with fresh vigour and sophistication, offering stimulating choices of new work, news and insights from the poetry world; to engage new members and new contributors through new means of communication; to broaden its appeal to a much more diverse audience than the founders could ever have imagined; and to reach writers, readers and publishers throughout the world with the message and the substance that poetry, a most ancient art, is at the heart of humane communication in our complex, messy and fractious world.

 Visit the Poetry Book Society at https://www.poetrybooks.co.uk/.

Women’s leading roles – add four more

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women's leading roles

Harriet Walter appealed (again) for more women’s leading roles in theatre and film – roles which do not involve women only talking about men, are not simply domestic or love interest and show women leading fully rounded grown-up lives.   The Guardian ran this interview with her.   She writes an ‘open letter’ to Shakespeare saying, ‘despite the fact that the world has changed enormously since your day, the stories we tell about ourselves still tend to follow your template’.

Women are wiser then men

I agree.   Women are wiser than men, there are more women than men, we have just missed the opportunity of a triumfemate of women’s leading roles the US, Germany and the UK that might have shone light onto some of the darker elements of the world’s story to come (although Marine Le Pen will hold us back).   Shakespeare’s leading women are all defined by their men, however powerful they are.   We have all been borne by women.

Maybe the Greeks knew more about the fundamental power of women’s leading roles (for good or ill) – Medea, Antigone, Electra, Clytemnestra.  However much women were formally second-class citizens in the Greece of 450BC, the dramatists could not avoid expressing their power.

My response

I try to respond to the issue addressed by Harriet Walter in my plays.   In the current one, Scapegoat, the leading roles are all played by women, older and younger.  The cast has four women, three men.   The women have big jobs – President of a European country, investment banker, charismatic politician, archetype.   They are all more than equal to the male characters.   The play is directed by Abigail Pickard Price, a young director never out of work.   The forthcoming workshop production will tell us whether the dynamic of the play works and the characters live off the page.   If so, I hope it will add a tiny weight to the female end of the see-saw.

Brexit Trump Le Pen

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Yesterday America elected Donald Trump President.   Brexit, now this, next year Marine Le Pen.   The rhetoric of Farage and Trump has allowed visceral rage, racism and fear to burst the bounds of public debate.   People are once more being divided openly between ‘us’ and ‘them’.   Education, context and parental boundaries have faded.

The 70 years since the Second World War have been progressively more easy for the rich countries of the world.   Schools and families have relaxed their vigilance over understanding and respect for every human being.   For too long all of us have fought only feebly against ignorance and the dilution of awareness of who we are and where we come from, so that lives are lived in a thin crust of daily soundbites and thoughtless responses.   Beneath is roiling appetite, addictive satiety, forgetfulness surging around a core of cooling iron – a planet dying, humanity suffocating itself in plastic cotton wool and bilious excretions.

So we have to go again.

Untune that European string

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Untune that European string and hark what discord follows.  Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation pulls a rug from under David Cameron and the Budget, and the Tory party starts to unravel.  Some EU country leaders break ranks and throw up fences at their borders, and the Schengen borderless zone that allows the free movement of people collapses.  Agamemnon’s leadership is brought into question by Ulysses, and the Greek army camped on the Turkish coast at Troy begins to fall apart.    Untune that European string – take out the keystone of the arch – and people get hurt.

Arches come and go, one collapses and another is built.    A century-old political party, such as the Conservative and Unionist Party, has an order, a structure, a rhythm and a heartbeat, that keeps it alive and operative.   This immediate party crisis will soon be forgotten but the discord of which it is a symptom goes long and deep.  The heartbeat will continue to stutter because of it.   And the discord is Europe.   

Look at the map and we are indisputably a European country.   Look at the course of British history and we have deep connections and relationships all around the world.   Look at the size of our population, less than 100th of the world’s people and the 22nd largest population in the world and then wonder how we have the world’s fifth largest economy.   Yet for all our world trade and connections, we are a European country.   Since the Romans arrived, our foreign policy has been bound up with other European countries, trading with them, allying with them, opposing them, holding the balance of power, fighting murderously with them – but always a European country.

Our contribution to Europe, a Europe of nations allied for 70 years since the last, catastrophic, European war, a Europe that struggles, moans, argues, compromises and eventually agrees, our contribution to our continent is an integral part of our economic and civic order, structure, rhythm and heartbeat, that keeps us alive and operative.   Untune that European string, and the domestic discord that consumes the Tory party will consume our country too.

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