Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Inclusiveness in immigration is very important

I have one or two Facebook friends that continually post the most small-minded trash about "foreigners". I should really delete them, but I get a kind of morbid kick from hate-reading their simplistic cartoons, knee-jerk videos and generalist caveman articles saying why anyone with a different skin complexion is either murderously dangerous or just here in Europe for the financial benefits. They are simply wrong, and their thinking is just as dangerous as, if not more than the revoltingly maniacal terrorists they, and indeed all of us, wish to eradicate.

I am the grandson of a Polish immigrant, and empirical witness to the praise he heaped on his adopted country. He loved Great Britain with a passion. He worked on ship maintenance most of his life in dry docks in the East End of London and crucially, he played an important role during the run-up to D-Day and beyond, coming home some weeks after he had left, black from head to foot. My father said he slept for several days afterwards. He held a passion for his adopted country, calling it the greatest nation on Earth (and he had visited many in his career).

Where I am leading to is this: if the people in my country had treated him with scorn, scepticism or segregation, or if they had excluded him from an opportunity to contribute to society, or if they had accused him of profiting from the system, I am sure he would not have stayed long. If my country's newspapers were full of stories about people like him: funny accent, strange gait, shifty eyes... he would never have said anything complimentary about my country at all. But they didn't. And he did.

Why?

Because if you come with a clean conscience, a smile, and a will to be useful, you will go far, provided the people give you a break. If they don't - if they put you in a box, if they don't trust you or "your kind", if they don't try to understand you, or at the very least accept you, then you may as well find a different place to settle. The reason why immigration into the UK has on the whole been successful is due to two factors:

1. Indifference: as long as you're not a bastard, nobody really cares where you're from;
2. The economy: it can absorb newcomers because employers take experience above qualifications.

I am really upset by the country of my grandfather, the land that has been the object of imperialist expansion, whose people have suffered greatly at the hands of oppressors from all points of the compass. I am also upset by the land I call my second home, the Czech Republic, which had a similar history, if not so brutal. The people should know better than to advocate the closing of the doors to people in dire need of help. They may not be Christian, they may not be white, they may not eat pork, they may not speak your language, but they are people. They have heads, hands, hearts, and most of all they have the right to live in peace without fear of persecution or death.

I agree, wholeheartedly, that if you commit a crime, you should be fittingly punished. But to forbid people from entering your country in case they do is a despicable act of heartlessness. Everyone deserves a chance. If you are so scared by people you have never met, if you remain fearful of them and if you don't try to befriend them, how else can they integrate? They will most certainly stick together, because nobody else wants to know them. It is no surprise to me that the recent arrivals do not want to go to Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary: why would they, when they have some idea of how badly they will be treated when they get there?

So next time you are faced with a person from a hotter country who looks at you without smiling, or walks past you without looking, ask yourself why - could it be because he/she has had very little contact or bad experiences with local people? Could it be he/she has been attacked by locals and is afraid? Or could it be that he/she is confused by (especially European) locals' innate behaviour of keeping people at an arm's length and mistakenly takes it personally? I have been subject of two of those cases myself, both in Germany and Belgium, so I know how it feels. And I'm white. I can only imagine how much more compounded the feeling must be if I were not.

I haven't finished yet...

I watched a video posted on a group called "We Are Here At Home", a Facebook page where people from the Czech Republic and Slovakia congratulate themselves on their racial purity and point out the barbarism of other nations, e.g. showing rubbish tips and slums in African cities; men in Keffiyeh headgear beating their wives; memes showing darker skinned people saying what they're really coming to Europe for (not for shopping, that's for sure). This is the type of nonsense propaganda the Communists used to distribute, just delivered for another cause. It casts doubt into people's minds and drives them to a very dark place.

I agree, there are many countries in hotter climates with some serious problems with their systems, and their patriarchal ways. There are men in some countries that treat their women and children the same as their cattle. Or worse. There are also a lot of nefarious individuals that should never be allowed into Europe. We all know this. We also know the way the crisis in the summer of 2015 was shockingly badly handled. But this does not mean every single person coming out of Africa or the Middle East has a dastardly plan. Have you seen the utter devastation in the Middle East? If that happened in Europe (which it did), you wouldn't stay at home to wait to be blown up along with your house and possessions. It also doesn't mean that because some may have grown up in corrupt, disorganised or lawless areas, that they are incapable of being organised themselves; quite the opposite, in fact. How many of us, when we become adults, do exactly the opposite of the things we hated most about our past or our upbringing?

There is something sick about people unwilling to extend an olive branch to those in desperate need. There is something psychologically wrong about people who see the colour, religion or the nation before they see the person. There is something sinister about the person who propagates false information about "outsiders", or who actively looks for the opportunity to shock others, or be shocked by the behaviour of those they know little about.

Below is a list of just some of the many successful British people whose provenances lie partly or wholly elsewhere:

Art Malik (actor)
Rita Ora (singer-songwriter)
Asad Ahmad (BBC newsreader)
Riz Lateef (BBC newsreader)
Naseem Hamed (Boxer)
Sajid Javid (Politician)
David Lammy (Politician)
Baroness Warsi (Politician)
Nadiya Hussain (winner of a TV cooking show voted by the public)
Mo Farah (Olympic Sportsman)
Fatima Whitbread (Olympic Sportswoman)
Mudhsuden Singh "Monty" Panesar (Cricketer for England)
Chuka Umunna (Politician)
Gabriel Agbonlahor (Footballer)
Sadiq Khan (Politician)
Adil Ray (Comedian, Actor)
Omid Djalili (Comedian, Actor)
The Saatchi Brothers (Businessmen)
Anish Kapoor (Architect)
Michael Marks (Founder of Marks & Spencer)
Sir Alec Issigonis (Inventor, designer of the Mini car)
Sir Clement Freud (Broadcaster, Writer, Politican, Chef)
Lord Alf Dubs (Politician)


Nadiya Hussain, winner of the Great British Bake-Off 2015
(c) Love Productions/Press Association

Google them and you will find a very interesting story behind every one of them. Some of course suffered from xenophobic abuse (not every story is faultless), but the benignity of the system, coupled with the fact that the vast majority of people are colour-blind and take people at face value, meant they were able to make it in their chosen areas, many with outstanding results. If you treat people as you would like to be treated, you will find they will reciprocate. Only a small number would do differently.

I'll tell you something for nothing: I would never have even thought of writing such a piece as this if it were not for the necessity of putting my point across to some mindless bigots I have recently had the displeasure of discovering are actually parochial purist thugs. And that is because I have never really considered any of the people on that list above, or any other first, second, third-generation immigrant (I baulk at the word) as anything else except British. In some ways I feel like I'm patronising them by having to use them as an example. I have never seen them as anything else except British.

In fact, quite frankly, on an intellectual or human level, there are no foreigners. And I challenge any one of those propagators of hate (you know who you are) to prove otherwise. Look at the personality, the attitude, the potential, before you look at the nationality, ethnic background or religion. There are bad eggs everywhere, just don't put all their associates in the same category. If we did that, this is what we would see:

Football hooliganism = English problem in the 1980s = all English are therefore violent thugs
Marc Dutroux = paedophile and child murderer = all Belgians are murderous sexual deviants
Westboro Baptist Church = brutally xenophobic and homophobic Christian group = all Americans are religious nutcases
Dutch law = lenient on soft drugs and prostitution = all Dutch are perverted junkies
Hungarian government = illiberal and xenophobic = all Hungarians voted for them

For goodness sake, as a Pagan, I sometimes go to the forest at night and remove my clothes. It doesn't make me a flaming exhibitionist... If we peddle the line that everyone is the same because they do this or that, or come from here or there, or they believe in this or that, it tells more about us than it does about them...

I cannot believe, that in 2016, we are once again heading towards isolationism, segregation, and maybe even war. There are no reasons for it, except for those that get their kicks from the feeling they are superior to others. They generally are not - they are just unaware how ridiculous they look. I will not block these Facebook "friends" who post their nonsense, but I will try never to be in the same room as them ever again.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Polish politician's favourite tool: victimhood

Back in the dark days of the Cold War, people of all nations involved were fearful of "the other side". This fear was generated by the idea that "we" were superior to "them", and "they" were immoral, unscrupulous and treacherous. It worked well - indeed so well, it's been resurrected for a new public, a public that by now will have forgotten that period, and should be more or less open to psychological manipulation once again. Today's Poland is a perfect example of this.

"Us" against "them": this tool is used by so many leaders to motivate their followers, especially in hard times: listen to any post-match interview from football managers like Slaven Bilic or José Mourinho; find a speech by any of the North Korean Kim dynasty; take a look at the recruitment tactics of any wacko religion such as the Jehovah's Witnesses or even the Westboro mob; read the transcripts of any large criminal trial - what you will notice in all of them is this tendency to garner sympathy with their target audience through claiming they are being besieged and thus in need of protection, support or even encouragement.

In some contexts this may indeed be the correct action to take, but in a lot of them, shiploads of salt should be offloaded onto their pretexts before even considering their legitimacy. Take the current constitutional changes taking place in Poland right now: all the pillars of democracy have been tested and are being torn down in favour of a very pious, blinkered and ultimately vindictive government being led by an éminence grise, Jarosław Kaczyński, who is clandestinely pulling all the strings from a safe distance. He himself is slightly toxic to the public, but his party, at least at the time of election, was not. I think it its safe to say that if there were an election in Poland tomorrow, his PiS party would be soundly beaten by safer, more democratic politicians.

One can say that a country deserves the politicians it elects, and sorry to my Polish friends, but I think this also applies here... Poland was gripped by the migration crisis of summer 2015 and voted for the party most likely to protect its national borders from ethnic "impurities". Poland was an up-and-coming country, a progressive nation taking the lead in its region as the motor of European integration and solidarity. But the wheels came off in the summer when its people showed that they have yet to really comprehend the outside world at large. The election of the PiS, with a majority, despite its disastrous record in office, demonstrates the same old fears that Poles continue to believe: Russia and Germany are still trying to subjugate it; the EU is the propagator of multiculturalism and ultimately the dilution of Polish nationality; Putin himself caused the 2010 Smolensk air crash that wiped out many of Poland's leading lights... there are many more, but these are the perfect examples to highlight how to manipulate a country and its people.

Playing on these fears, along with the fact that Poles play victimhood very well (I cannot remember how many times I have had to explain why the British didn't show up the day after the attack on Westerplatte in 1939 and why I am personally not to blame, or listen to how all of us Brits, whether born or not, whether we voted for the leader of the day or not, are responsible for Poland being handed over to the Soviets after the War, even if we ourselves weren't actually at the Yalta or Potsdam conferences...) meant that Kaczynski and his allies could use the perfect storm created by the migration crisis, the eurozone issue and the struggle in Ukraine to play on the fears of the average citizen. Where this has led to is a disaster for European democracy and progressive politics. 

I personally do not think the current Polish government will survive a year from now. But where it has been very shrewd is in very early in its term of office massively changing the country's internal set-up making it likely that, even if it does fall, there will be remnants that can continue to cause a lot of trouble: the constitutional court has over a third of its members linked to the PiS. National television and radio have been infiltrated with the party faithful, causing several high-profile resignations. There are other things that have caused widespread dismay amongst Poland's opposition, leading to the coining of a new term: "Orbanisation", named after Hungary's leader and advocate of illiberal democracy, Viktor Orban. 

To conclude, this is not over; not by a long way. The chances are high that the silent majority will become irritated by this and more public resistance will bring about a friction between the ruling party and everyone else (except, astonishingly, for the Polish Catholic Church, which has so far remained impassive to the current goings-on, perhaps because it too has benefited from the new patriarchal, sexually conservative and anti-abortion regime. For the moment, the European Union is leading the way in criticising the establishment in Poland - unfortunately it is led by Martin Schulz, a German, and thus an obvious sitting duck in the victimhood propaganda war, where he, along with compatriot Angela Merkel, the Luxembourgish head of the European Council Jean-Claude Juncker, and the harmless but outspoken leader of the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt all appeared on the cover of Wprost, the Polish version of Der Spiegel or Time, in Nazi uniforms under the headline "once again they want to police Poland". They chucked in Günther Oettinger, EU Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society, for good measure, I think, just because he's German. 

And this is where I go full circle. This type of headline appeared in propaganda in the old communist Poland, and is once again rearing its ugly head. It would be refreshing to think that this time people will have learned from the mistakes of the past, but time and time again people seem not to want to; they want to try once again to dream up a reason to legitimise their irrational fears and stir up a feeling of fear and paranoia. We need to encourage the Polish opposition and seek ways to undermine this Orbanisation, before it becomes mainstream everywhere.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

A Goslitski family centenary of immigration

This week is the anniversary of a momentous occasion, although it will go almost unnoticed. And that is probably the most fitting way to spend it. On 22nd December 1915, my grandfather planted his tree in the British orchard, paving the way for the fledgling Goslitski family to thrive. It is the beginning of a very successful immigration story.




Above is the registration certificate of my grandfather, Eugene Alexander Goslitski, a Russian national of Polish descent, who came on his own looking for a better life. I have done some research into his background and reasons for leaving, and there is not much to go on, but we should look at the facts: Poland had not existed since 1795, and its lands had been divided up by Prussia, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My grandfather was a Russian simply because of where he was born. Poles in Russia were treated as outsiders and were not full citizens. Many of them were deported to Siberian camps for katorga, that is exile and hard labour in underpopulated areas where nobody else was available. Several people with my family name were registered in those camps, although it is still not easy to identify their connection to us.

Whoever they were, my family name is quite unique and if you have that name you can only be from that family. The internet has become a sort of calling card for me. Many times, when I don't have a business card on me, I just tell people to Google me, because I'm so easy to find. This is both a blessing and a burden. For that reason, anyone with our name mast be related to us. We are like Grimaldi, Habsburg or Rothschild, although much less illustrious. I say this because our family name is aristocratic and my grandfather spoke about it now and again. He would often tell his daughters that back in the home land they were princesses. This was an elaboration - countesses would have been closer to the mark, despite their stark diminution under occupation, where all Polish aristocrats underwent screening for Russian ancestry, and those without were removed from their titles. 

It is quite likely that my grandfather left because he had no life, no opportunities and very little to keep him there. He joined the Merchant Navy and sailed around the world before settling in London, where he arrived in the middle of the First World War. This was quite remarkable, because with the war in full operation, every man was needed on the battlefield or on the sea. But come he did, and he died in the Brook Hospital in Greenwich on 22nd November 1960. 

During his life, he was a marine engineer, and he worked on the other side of the River Thames from his home in Bermondsey, less than a three-iron shot from Tower Bridge and the City of London. For that reason, he made a great deal of effort for the cause during the Second World War, and was involved in the D-Day landings. My father told me he left for several weeks around that time and when he returned he was covered from head to toe in soot. He had been jumping from ship to ship maintaining and repairing the boats to get them to the other side. He slept for a very long time when he returned home.

He is one of many who were never granted full British citizenship, mainly, probably, due to that one word: "Russian". Britain and Russia were never the best of friends once the Tsar fell, despite being the first country in the world to officially recognise the Soviet Union. But without bilateral treaties, even with countries in the direct neighbourhood, every foreigner had to fulfil a certain duty to remain in the UK. My grandfather had to leave the country for 24 hours every year, and reapply for entry upon return. He didn't go to another country - he took the opportunity to go into the Thames Estuary on one of his friends' boats and get slammed for a couple of days.

And here is the main point: my grandfather, along with hundreds of thousands of deracinated people, have found new homes in their destination countries. The vast majority of immigrants and their children have contributed to society in ways that are often under-appreciated by people. Lots of them have become famous names (Sigmund Freud, Sir Alec Issigonis, Zaha Hadid, Anish Kapoor), and some have even risen to lead their country (Nicolas Sarkozy, Benjamin Disraeli). Immigration is good for any country - being a popular destination for immigrants is the best endorsement any country can have. It is a sign that newcomers can fit in, that the local population there is not bothered by change and people are considered people, no matter their origins. My grandfather, a larger-than-life character, was known locally as the Duke of Bermondsey. He made the most of his adopted country, and said it was the greatest nation on Earth. Immodestly, I cannot disagree with him. 

My grandfather left his home to seek new climes. He was an international man in a local setting. He had bigger ambitions for himself and he set off to better himself. If he had stayed there in Poland, he would have experienced two World Wars, numerous invasions and would have been witness to the horrors of the Holocaust and the next Soviet occupation, leading to the People's Republic of Poland. Instead, he took the chance to find a place he and his future family could thrive.

Immigrants have one thing in common: their entrepreneurial spirit. They know how to get on in life wherever they go. They will never be the same again once they do, because once you leave, you can go back, but you can never go back home. You are seen as a foreigner in both places. But in general, there is no reason why being a foreigner should make you a stranger. And the fact of the matter remains, the children of those immigrants will most surely never be seen as foreigners. In a country like the United Kingdom, we don't really talk about foreigners, only when referring to those who have still stubbornly kept up their stereotypical façades. It is very wrong to say that people should speak the local language at home or adopt every local custom. That is too much to ask, and is totally unfair. They should keep their own home fires burning - I do. I mean the ones that refuse to do any integration at all. The ones that have little or no desire to accept local customs, who never take part in local events, who do not learn the language and who keep unswervingly to their own traditions. 

As I said, being popular with immigrants is a good thing for any country, as it means the conditions are right. In the current crisis sweeping Europe, it is no wonder that so many of those refugees want to go to countries known for their tolerant attitudes to newcomers. If I were one of them right now, there are countries in Europe I would really not want to settle in. I wish some of the cynics would stop peddling the "benefits" myth. Of course I'd want good conditions for my family if I were an immigrant or refugee. Why would I say to my family, "lets go to Poldakia or Molvenia because if we can avoid being beaten by the police and rejected by the authorities, we stand a chance of getting our own room above an abattoir"? I would not. I would want to go to a country that made me feel welcome. The fact they provide me with food, money and shelter is another sign that they want me not to have to struggle with poverty upon my arrival. How horrible would it be if people arriving from war-torn countries were made to fend for themselves from day one? It would say more about us than about them, that's for sure.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of spending some time with some of the younger Syrian refugees in Saarburg at an art session at the cultural centre. They were making clay winter- or Christmas-themed figurines. I really liked their imagination. Below are some of their works. All of them, despite their torturous recent experiences, had made it to a place of safety and were adapting quite well to local life. Some were already speaking reasonable German. They all seemed well-adjusted and acted very maturely. I have a deep respect for anyone who undergoes such a harrowing journey to look for calm in their lives. Some of them will one day go back to rebuild their country, but many will stay, and having met some of them, I can safely say they will be a credit to their new society. My grandfather's life was not half as bad as theirs was back in Syria, which is why to deny them the chance of a new life and happiness is to betray everything my grandfather ever did.

Here's to another hundred years of migration!




Thursday, 10 September 2015

So, what are we going to do about the refugee crisis?



It is Europe's fault. As clear as crystal, it is our fault. When Africa and the Middle East were decolonised back in the post-war period, many previous occupiers just upped sticks and moved back to their capitals, leaving those behind to fend for themselves. They did not leave sufficient depth in the remnant institutions for those countries to maintain the relative peace and unity of the colonial days. Let us be honest here, what I mean is people did not fight each other under occupation as they had their foreign lords and masters as a common enemy. British colonies faired the best, with the majority of them being bequeathed the institutions and laws which have turned them into fairly successful countries in their own ways (barring a few abysmal failures), but it does not mean at all that they are exonerated. Most colonisers more or less lowered their flags, played the bugle and scuttled off home again, the only real leftovers being the languages inherited from their previous overseers.

The West's guilt
What these powers also did was divide up the Middle East and Africa in such a way that there were no real ethnic or religious boundaries, and for a reason: the French and British were worried about Arab unity. If the Arabs were able to unite under only a few leaders, they might become powerful and ultimately dangerous to European dominance. Look at India today. The Sykes-Picot deal made the area so unrealistically divided, bringing in kings, sheiks, presidents and dictators to rule the area, often being replaced when they had outrun their use, that it would keep them busily at each other's throats for decades to come. They needn't have worried so much - sectarian skirmishes and various long-lived grudges didn't take long to appear. And so the plan worked enormously well. Even when the region tried to unite under the umbrella of the United Arab Republic, a kind of EU-prototype conjoining of Ba'athist regional powers Syria and Egypt, it did not last long when one of the two member states underwent a coup d'état. Iraq was also hoping to join this group, and if it had, the momentum may have swung other regional powers behind the union, so chances are high the Syrian coup d'état was the brainchild of someone sitting uneasily in the Elysée Palace or Number 10, who did not want a successful Arab bloc at the end of the Mediterranean.

So it was all going to plan for the former colonial powers until the 1980s, when dictators like Saddam Hussein and Colonel Gaddafi started to get too big for their boots, wanting more firepower and weaponry to inflict the latest atrocity on their huddled masses and threatening the West with all sorts of vengeful actions. The Lockerbie disaster and the invasion of Kuwait were two of those actions. I remember, during the retaking of Kuwait by the West and the Allies' subsequent march into Iraq, they didn't finish the job off. They didn't remove Saddam from power. That may be because American intelligence under Bush Senior knew that Saddam Hussein was still the right man for the job in Iraq. He was holding the various loose pieces of fabric together and keeping a firm lid on any uprisings. This was perhaps the smartest move of the last hundred years. The smartest move of a lot of very reckless ones, but a smart one nonetheless.

The most reckless action of the last thousand years (or more) took place on the watch of America's most undeserving president, George W. Bush, and Britain's messianic Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction, and in the aftermath of the semi-apocalyptic destruction of two towers in New York by an extraordinarily wily and ostentatiously rich Arab psychopath with a bone to pick, these two decided to send in the heavies to "clear up" the Middle East. Now... although a lot of us were fooled by the idea that Saddam was an awful dictator who needed removing before he murdered all the minorities, we did not expect that Bush and Blair would totally fudge the entire change of regime. If they really wanted to bring in democracy, they had to realise what they were letting go of. Decades of relative calm held in place by the threat of brutal retaliation by the leader, the sectarian powder keg that was Mesopotamia was firmly sealed by Saddam Hussein, and his removal was going to open it all up.

Reasons for leaving
And it did. But not only that, it brought out all the other dissatisfied wretches and rejects from every other part of the world. It gave the Jihadis a place to really get their act together and begin the reconquering of the world. The Jihadis of Islamic State are not there to just retake what territory they lost, they are there to humiliate and ultimately bring down the governments of the West. And where better to start than right on their doorsteps? The twisted ideology, self-publicity and money-raising capabilities of these warmongers are nothing short of genial. Recruiting the frustrated, the lonely, the talented oddballs, the pious and the rejected, they tell their targets about the wonderful life they could have in the new Islamic State. They tell about the feeling of superiority these outcasts will have, and the responsibilities they will be given.

Imagine being given the power of life and death over whole towns. Imagine a country like Syria, which despite the brutal dictator, had a pretty good quality of life and a high standard of education, falling apart due to sponsored destabilisation by rich madmen and other regional rivals, and then taken over by the worst kind of warrior. Let us not forget, despite the atrocities carried out by the previous regimes in Iraq, Syria and Libya and all the other dictatorships in the region, if not the world, most people still stayed in the area, even if it was under threat of gassing or midnight removals. Nothing as brutal, savage and inhuman as Islamic State ever happened under the other dictators that caused such mass panic and the fleeing of hundreds of thousands of people to Europe. Imagine, having been a well-to-do middle-class Syrian five years ago, being told your mother has been tortured, your wife abducted, your daughter gang-raped and your son executed. Imagine being the neighbour of that family, as yet unscathed. Wouldn't you pack up and get out of there as quickly as you could? Wouldn't you, right now, be either on a Greek island, at Keleti railway station in Budapest, or scrambling over the Austrian border on your way to a place where you would be given a bed, some food and a new life?

What is worse, we in the West sold the previous incumbents the hardware to be able to carry out these crimes on their people - or at least we sold the hardware to the side our governments supported at the time. Not only the West - Russia and China are most probably in it up to their midriffs too. So when the little guys started fighting back, our governments chose a side and supplied more weapons to them. It was not uncommon for them to change sides, depending what they could get out of it all - fuel, minerals, lucrative contracts - nothing was governed by principles of fairness or justice. The Taliban was, at one time, an ally. There are many reasons why we in the West are now reaping what we sowed, and this is the final repayment of the Karma debt: what we failed to do back then to alleviate their transition to independence and the subsequent brutalities which led to the necessary intervention of the West (again) have led us so far that we have unwittingly created the diabolical cults of Jihadism and Islamist violence. This is the result of our short-termism and complacency.

Blood on our hands
And this has been the case from Eritrea to Erbil, Somalia to San'a, Palestine to Peshawar and Casablanca to Kandahar. We are guilty of great human suffering, even if by proxy, even if 50 years may have passed since we lowered our flags. What we should have done at the end of our empires was to integrate those countries into the world economy by setting up trade talks with international organisations. We should have split the countries up more logically rather than flippantly drawing ridiculous borders after liquid lunches which ended up with names like Winston's Hiccup. We should have let them form their own alliances and not stepped in when things got a little tricky. If we wanted to keep them busy, we should have made it clear from the start that we wanted to be their commercial sponsors and patrons and given them skills and trades. We should not have just let them get angry about everything. And don't get me started on Israel. Good idea in theory, but in practice, we should have been more insistent about Palestine and guarding the inhabitants who were already there. And the playing of the anti-Semitism card, getting easily offended by sometimes very trivial things like the recent palaver over the water showers at Auschwitz every time something does not go their way is wearing very thin.

So all these power-flaunting irritations of varying sizes have morphed into a giant middle finger to the Arab world. And in turn, as we have the stability and the power, we are both their enemy and their role model. Their bully and their refuge. Their bomber and their saviour. It is a strange situation to be in. And right now, having invaded Libya on a whim, having deposed Saddam in a little over a fortnight, having spent years in Afghanistan, having overpowered so many brutal dictators, we get cold feet at the very moment when we actually should do something about it. We are creating haters here in Europe due to our lack of a clear strategy and making it seem like our governments don't care. But there is a clear strategy: Russia is a very powerful player in Assad's Syria. The Russians have a fleet based on the Syrian coast courtesy of Assad. Recent pictures show that area to be totally at ease and peaceful. I am quite sure the West had been waiting for IS to overrun Assad all the way to the coast, therefore forcing Russia out of the picture, before stepping in, but now that looks unlikely. So there have been rumblings in France and Britain about sending in more military firepower. The West's distaste in confronting Russia is at least a sign it has thought about a strategy, even though it seems very likely Assad is now entrenched. The optimistic, dare I say unrealistic, plan to force Assad out through a six-month "transition period" is post-colonialist daydreaming, to say the least.

Misleading facts and figures
This is the fact about the Syrian refugee crisis: there were about 20 million people living in Syria before the troubles. Over half of them, about 12 million, have in some form or another been displaced. The vast majority of those, about 8 million, have fled to safer parts of Syria and about 4 million to neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Jordan. Only 250,000 have tried to get into the EU, but more are coming all the time. There are also great numbers of people coming from Afghanistan, Eritrea and Sub-Saharan Africa. The number of people displaced is an appalling humanitarian catastrophe and a very dark period in our history. The total number of people trying to reach European shores is unknown, but they are coming for a reason.

And here is where we need to take an honest step back: not everyone coming to Europe is doing it because their lives are threatened. Many are coming for economic purposes. There are also a number of rumours that are sweeping conspiracy theorist websites everywhere: that there are lots of Jihadists in amongst them, especially since IS warned they would send hundreds of thousands of "soldiers" to Europe back in February. The theories are not stupid and it is not wrong to be worried about this being the case. It is entirely feasible. Think about it: if the price of transport to Kos, Pantelleria or Sicily costs between one year's salary and five years' salary for one of those refugees, imagine how much a family would have to pay to get across the sea. Who is paying for them? The theory goes that some rich Sheiks are paying the traffickers to send hundreds of thousands of Muslims to Europe to dilute the secular population and flood Europe with Muslims. Again, another plausible theory, but not one I have yet chosen to believe.

Right-wing threat
What seems to be threatening to occur now, unless more people are mobilised to intervene and prevent civil unrest, is the following: the Hungarians and the British, with their fence-building and detaining of refugees at Röszke and Calais for no good reason, are no better than each other, and are giving Europe a bad name amongst those fleeing violence. Intimidation, corralling, delaying the process of registration and integration, these are all making new enemies of Europe. Showing pictures of rubbish strewn on footpaths as if it's something new; people rushing police;  people being tripped up in order to get a shot of an angry Arab; these all add to the fuel of hatred being spewed by Europe's many right-wing leaders, like Nigel Farage, Filip de Winter, Marine Le Pen, and Viktor Orban. If we don't properly welcome these moderate, fairly secular Syrians arriving at our frontiers, we risk embittering already desperate people who just want peace.

Furthermore, we seem to have let the right-wing media and politicians tell us these people are just troublemakers in disguise. I have a different theory. These are very, very different people indeed. I know lots of north Africans and Middle-Eastern people from my time living in Belgium. I also know many from when I was in London. They fall mainly into two categories: very well brought up, courteous, thankful, respectful, fully integrated and well-grounded (often much more so than their autochthonous European counterparts); or frustrated, lonely, badly-integrated, vulnerable, impressionable and looking around for a friend. And it is these people who need saving. It is indeed these people that I can relate to and identify, because a similar thing happened to me, although not in a religious context, I hasten to add. If I had been promised friendship, camaraderie and support, I would have given the same back. If I had been told angry stories of mistreatment and insult, I would maybe have wanted revenge for my new friends. It is a very easy hole to fall into, and understanding that these new arrivals are more like us on a human level than we have been led to believe is one thing that scares the right-wing media. So what we need to do is welcome these people immediately, and fast-track them into work and an autonomous life so that they feel part of us as soon as possible. They are, after all, smartphone-using, mostly well-educated, well-behaved people who, like their counterparts of 70 years ago, are looking to escape persecution.

There is hope
And that seems to be happening. Angela Merkel, at least, has played a significant role in alleviating the impact of so many arrivals by firstly spreading the word that people must be tolerant, helpful and welcoming, causing the refugees to make Germany their top destination. And this is currently the case. It is gratifying to see that the German government is making a real effort and taking the lead in showing respect, trust, and a level of humanity these arrivals have not experienced. Many of these people will never go home again. But once the war is over and the cancer of terrorism has been purged, some may choose to return to their ancestral lands. But first, it is necessary to clear the place up.

How? How do you deal with the embodiment of evil that is Islamic State, and how do you persuade people to return to places that have seen such grotesque acts of barbarity and especially to move back into properties that were usurped by other people in the meantime? There is a precedent for this, and that is the Second World War. All sorts of people who were displaced by it, whether Poles, Jews, Belgians, Russians or Germans, the bombs rained down, the mass executions took place, the persecutions carried on, the atrocities widespread. There are still scars of history in places that will forever keep their air of sadness: Auschwitz, Theresienstadt, parts of Warsaw, Bergen-Belsen, Katyn or Dresden in the Second World War are some of those places. In more recent times we can look to Srebrenica, Kigali or the World Trade Centre. All have been places of the most atrocious of crimes, resulting in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and despite the abominations that took place there, people have still returned, even if many wounds have yet to heal.

I do believe that once the Jihadis of Islamic State and other nefarious organisations have been eradicated, people will once again return to their lands. Not all, but many. In the meantime, the West had better start dropping its proclivities of setting up puppet democracies and learn to tolerate the relative safety and calm brought about by strong dictators. It had also better give the various ethnic groups the chance to run their own lands, not least the Kurds. The Turks will protest long and hard, but the Kurds need to be treated as equals. Once all of these things have been achieved, it is time the West grew up and left that area to deal with itself.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

The EU is probably coming to an end and there may be nothing we can do about it

Don't believe me? Take a look around you. Read the papers and watch the news. It's happening. The creaking behemoth that has for years been eating up Europe's nations and swallowing their sovereignty in large chunks is about to burst in a huge bout of indigestion.

The idea is completely barmy to some. I work with EU civil servants all the time, so it is only normal that they will big up their roles and deny any evidence of EU disintegration. They say I'm just a Eurosceptic Brit and enjoy spreading the gloom. But the opposite is true - I am in fact pro-European; I am just anti-Brussels.

The reason for this is that the more Brussels tries to make Europeans and their governments join in their mantra of "ever-closer union", the more they are put off by it. Let us bring the EU into a more condensed setting: if you ask a street's neighbours if they think more close collaboration is necessary, they will say "yes". About what? Well, fighting local crime; putting out each other's rubbish when they're away or have forgotten; feeding their pets when absent; making informal, fair rules on parking; discussing noise levels, building and boundaries, and such like. In a European context, that means fighting international crime and exchanging information (Europol); removing the previous red tape and making it easier to live in another country without needing sworn translations or conversion of qualifications (Maastricht, Pisa and Bologna); bringing better understanding of each other's cultures in an academic setting (Erasmus) and making war an impossibility (Rome and everything thereafter).

What neighbourhood collaboration is most certainly not is knocking down the walls between the houses so everyone can see into your living rooms, kitchens and (heaven forfend) bathrooms and bedrooms. It is not about going on a camping holiday all together and all the awkwardnesses there would be surrounding bodily odours and showering. It is not about allowing neighbours to park on each other's driveways, or rearranging next door's garden so that it becomes the same as yours, or making everyone drive the same car, wear the same clothes, drink the same wine, go to the same shops or listen to the same music. And this cannot be done when new neighbours, who seem to be poorer and less pampered than the others move in, when half reluctantly accept their new arrivals and the others refuse to have anything to do with them. All this will do is create an air of exasperation. It will cause untold damage to neighbourly relations and cause the rapid re-building of walls and a lot of "For Sale" signs to go up in the street.

Having the opportunity to close the door behind you and keep out any unwanted interference in the family unit is not a luxury, it is a right. Being able to choose how you raise your family, what school the kids go to, where you go on holiday, who you spend time with, where you shop, what you wear, and what you eat are your choices and yours alone. Don't be fooled by the need to conform, integrate or do the same as everyone else. It's your life.

The same is of the European Union. There is currently too much integration. The arrival of the Euro was, at the time, a cause for celebration. It relied on the pretence that countries shared the same money even though they didn't share the same budget, pricing arrangements, economic systems, social security systems or even tax harmonisation. that's because, despite the willingness to share currency, nations are really loath to lose more sovereignty to Brussels. And this is where the plan unravels.

If countries are unwilling to open up their books, integrate budgets and amalgamate ministerial portfolios, there is no reason for them to keep up the charade that they really do want ever-closer union. I don't believe they do. And there is a trend running along national lines depending what governments want: the French, when they are unwilling to surrender sovereignty or do something about their overspending (CAP; social security bill) will accuse their detractors of being bad Europeans. This tactic has kept up the illusion that France is a rich nation for many years now. It is not rich; it just has a large territory and population. It is an agrarian country that masquerades as a world power. The Germans will strong-arm the smaller nations into falling into line by finding some other nasty experience to threaten them with, like send Wolfgang Schäuble to shake a finger at them. The British keep moaning and sighing from the sidelines and veto or opt out of everything, while hoping to gain support from other Eurosceptic countries, who often make friendly noises until the Germans and French tell them to step in line behind everyone else. The Italians and Spanish, despite being fairly large countries, do what they are told and the Poles want to join in the Franco-German gang and become the third main motor of the European project.

It would be like Mr Johnson at No 24 and Mr Simmonds at No 26 deciding what all the others in the street should be doing and accusing those who don't want to do the same of being bad neighbours. This is not right. Why should the whole street succumb to the systems dreamed up by the Simmondses and Johnsons, when there are so many other neighbours in the street who are unhappy with their situation? I'll tell you why: because Messrs Johnson and Simmonds have too many good deals going on.

In national circumstances, it means the government of France is creaming off a lot of cash to subsidise its burgeoning agricultural sector without having to reduce it, therefore keeping the farmers from burning Paris to the ground, because it is too feeble and frightened of its militants to take drastic action and take them on, and Germany has profits for life from having persuaded many other countries to integrate with the Deutsche Mark back in the day, and making everyone sign a contract saying "if you break the economic chain, this automatically becomes the property of Germany." Everyone fell for it.

This is no way to run an international organisation. In fact, this can only lead down one path. The inexorable rise of anti-European parties and anti-austerity movements. And who will be the victims? The ordinary people. We will be cutting off our noses despite our faces. The European project is a force for good. It has helped integrate us for the better and for the common improvement of our status in the world and our standard of living. What it has also done is it has shown just how selfish, opportunistic and avaricious nation states really are, even though they won't tell you. Don't forget, what the EU's Council decides to carry out in Brussels is the brainchildren of the 28 EU leaders, not the Commission - that particular institution just carries out the Council's instructions.

Some countries want to play no part in the allocation of asylum seekers; some do not want to make efforts to reduce their national spending; some are unwilling to end their reliance on a particular sector of industry, even if it is anti-competition or even hurting other member states. Some do not want to be at all flexible in the economic plight of the poorer member states. This is all leading to the inevitable withdrawal of countries from various treaties and agreements if they don't get their way.

If I were David Cameron right now, I would feel like a real prize turnip. Having promised a referendum on the UK's membership of the most successful multinational organisation of them all, granting small nations unprecedented standing in the world and prosperity the likes of which had not been foreseen even in the 1960s, I would now find myself in the awful position of being the prime minister who most likely took my country out of it. Nigel Farage and his ragbag collection of buffoons and bigots will tell you that the UK is better out, but they are missing the point. The EU and its institutions are cementing the future for a better society. It is just unfortunate that many nation states, not just the UK, have vested interests that they are unwilling to compromise on. If we could all trust each other, this would not be an issue, but it is.

The other thing David Cameron has failed to realise is he has been visiting various capital cities trying to gather support for his request to get a deal done on UK membership and conditions, but the French and German cabal has pre-empted this by saying it would require treaty change, while at the same time sewing up their own deal that does not require treaty change. This is despicable, underhand, and a brazen attempt to highlight who is in charge in the EU. On the other hand, while Cameron has been trying to negotiate this deal with one pleading face, and with the other, sterner face, with issues like asylum he has been saying "no". He cannot seriously hope to get something out of it if he, for example, refuses to take in his country's fair share of the current wave of refugees. In all of this, hypocrisy and power games seem to pervade. This is not the right climate to instil trust and confidence in your neighbours.

The simple answer to this is as follows: what Europe needs to do is to consolidate its progress so far. Maybe for ten years to a generation, it needs to put any more major integration projects on ice and take stock of its current situation. People need to be aware of how far it has come and the leaders need to take a step back and look on their work, adjust it where necessary and make the system work. If this means that after a shorter time it becomes clear that a Eurozone social security and tax system needs to be set up, or if it becomes evident that greater flexibility and understanding of nations' individual concerns need to be addressed, so be it. The European project has indeed reached a crossroads. The only thing is, one of those future directions is also back along the way we have travelled. And nobody wants to go there, do they?

Finally, Europe needs to take the concerns of its non-Eurozone members into account. It needs to address British, Scandinavian and to some extent central European attitudes to the European project, that have always been seen as non-integrationist and anti-European. It is so far from the truth that it hurts. Everyone thinks that the good things the EU has done are to be cherished and kept. But some are unwilling to drop too many barriers because they value their privacy and right to choose. If certain rights were granted these non-Eurozone countries, I am quite sure they would have nothing against the rest carrying on with their ever-closer union.

I am also one of those neighbours who values his privacy. I don't mind inviting people round for drinks or lending them a few quid until pay day, but I will most certainly not let them open my fridge door or help themselves to the contents of my wallet. And this is why the European project may be doomed in any case: if you get too close to someone, there will inevitably be more arguments.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

My Eurovision Top (and Bottom) Fives

Everyone who is obsessed with large events of global significance like the Olympic Games, the World Cup or the Eurovision Song Contest, has lists. It's the one thing that unites us all. We're showing our autistic side, that's all, and quite frankly, WDGAFF what the detractors think - this is our prize cow and we're going to milk it within an inch of its life. The one thing Eurovision nutjobs like me always do is ask others what their top 5 are. But we don't just talk about the songs...

Top five venues?

The one thing Eurovision always does, every year, is try to outdo the year before. To be honest, I think this year's is the best I've ever seen. The stage is magnificent, the background images divine and the sumptuous opening showed it all off. But apart from that?

Copenhagen - Parken Stadium (1993)
Nobody would ever leave this off the list. The biggest Eurovision ever, hosted not in a glorified conference centre or ice hockey hall, but a stadium. It was a lovely sunny evening and the atmosphere created itself.

Millstreet, Ireland - Green Glens Arena (2001)
Think it sounds like a place for a horse show? Yes, you'd be right. The most oddball place for any Eurovision ever, it was a huge tent erected over the show jumping area, and the whole thing could have been an unmitigated catastrophe, but on television, you would never have known.

Vienna - Hofburg Imperial Palace (1967)
Yes, Vienna again. If aliens landed somewhere on the planet I think Vienna is the place they'd think we'd chosen as our capital city. The glorious buildings give it that air, but the cream on the cupcake is Hofburg. Having the Eurovision Song Contest take place there, in the home of music, was the equivalent of having a Star Trek convention in Leonard Nimoy's kitchen.

Copenhagen - B&W Hallerne (2014)
Aaaand Copenhagen once more... But wait until you read why - this was a huge undertaking. A former dock warehouse, it was converted into a 10,000-capacity concert venue with its surrounding area being dubbed "Eurovision Island". We all thought it was barmy. In the end it was a stroke of genius.

Baku - Crystal Hall (2012)
Probably the finest setting for all Eurovisions, the Crystal Hall was a truly remarkable venue and the fact they even lit the building with the colours of the flags while that nation's entry was singing just makes it all the more embarrassing that the UK sent Engelbert Humperdinck that year.

Top five winners?

This is always a contentious one with lots of us Euronuts. My cut-off point is how comfortable I would be if my earphones fell out of my ear on the bus and my fellow passengers were to hear what I was listening to, and all of these pass. I have my own rule: whatever song is in my head when the performances are over I'll vote for. Funnily enough, these below were all in my head, and the songs I hoped would eventually win that evening. I'd say it depends on the day as to who I think was the best of all time, but I can at least rummage up a top 5:

"Molitva" - Marija Šerifović, Serbia (Helsinki, 2007)
The simple choreography, the backing group, the unpretentious staging, the powerful voice and the anthemic build-up made this for me a simple choice for this list. The fact it was the only winner not in English since 1991 is unimportant. I believe the song is important, not only the lyrics, and often a song is made more beautiful if it is sung in the language of its genre. This is a perfect example.
VIEW HERE

"Love Shine A Light" - Katrina and the Waves, UK (Dublin, 1997)
This is no bias. Even 18 years later, this song's upbeat message containing those two vital winning Eurovision ingredients of hope and friendship, still make this the most deserving winner of the 1990s. I am a great fan of simplicity and unpretentiousness, and once again, this act contained no drop-dead gorgeous people, no strobe lighting, no silly dancing and no idiots losing clothes. Although the green collar was a bit OTT, it stood out a country mile and won by a 70-point landslide.
VIEW HERE

"Fly On The Wings Of Love" - The Olsen Brothers, Denmark (Stockholm, 2000)
In the grand scheme of things, this song is another triumph for the simple. Just two old guys on their guitars. Like the other two songs I have listed, it's got an unforgettable anthemic nature about it and like the UK song above, is about hope and friendship. On the night, though, nobody thought it had a cat in hell's chance. But it blew everyone else away with a 40-point margin.
VIEW HERE

"Insieme: 1992" - Toto Cutugno, Italy (Zagreb, 1990)
I have always liked Italian when it is sung. I have often hoped the Italians would do well at Eurovision as they send in quality songs, mainly due to their Sanremo festivals, which turns up some very important and long-lasting quality artists. This time was different. In 1990, this song ticked a lot of boxes: two years before the Maastricht Treaty, Europe was gripped by revolution to the east. The Germanies were reuniting, and the idea of European integration was becoming reality. This song, almost totally in Italian, had importantly three words in English: "Unite Unite Europe". The song is not a classic, but it has the same characteristics as the others above: rousing anthem, simple choreography and a memorable chorus, even if the singer makes some appallingly embarrassing moves, and the brass section of the orchestra plays some excruciatingly kitsch high notes. It won not on quality but on being the right song for the right occasion.
VIEW HERE

"Fairytale" - Alexander Rybak, Norway (Moscow, 2009)
I had a little difficulty choosing my fifth: Finland's Hard Rock Hallelujah and Ukraine's Wild Dances would round off a top seven, but I chose Fairytale because it fits the theme of the others I have chosen: memorable melody, simple choreography and no cheap gimmicks. It went a step further though: the guy could really play the fiddle. He won by the biggest margin in Eurovision history, 169 points ahead of his nearest rival, Iceland. I voted for it, and so did the rest of Europe.
VIEW HERE

Bottom five winners?

I would say at this point, whoever wins the Eurovision, despite tactical voting, still needs the support of the rest of the continent, and generally the best song always wins. For me, though, there are years when the voting public has got it terribly wrong. Most of the ones I've chosen come from the period when there was 100% public choice. It's got a lot better since they started jury votes again, but here are some that should never have won:

"Believe" - Dima Bilan, Russia (Belgrade, 2008)
If anyone won because of a gimmick, it was this guy. I hated the song, the mercenary Olympic ice skater, the stupid choreography, Bilan's heavy breathing and the utter fix that year seemed to be. There were such very bad songs that year, that it was actually the least worst of the rest. Remember Greece's "Secret Combination"? Armenia's "Qelé, Qelé"? Ukraine's Shady Lady? Nope. Nor do I - much. It could have been worse had they won. But they were the runners-up in what for me was, musically, the worst Eurovision of all time. The economic crash had just happened and I think most of Europe was glad to give hosting a miss the year after. My favourite of that year was France's Sébastien Tellier with "Divine", a train-crash of an act, that actually made it pretty good.
VIEW HERE

"Running Scared" - Ell & Nikki, Azerbaijan (Düsseldorf, 2011)
Cheesy, schmaltzy, saccharine, whimsical rubbish of the lowest order. It could have been so much better with a few tweaks of the scoreboard. Italy was second with a storming number called "Follia d'Amore" and Denmark's A Friend In London was not far behind in 5th place. But then again, Jedward was there in the mix, as was Sweden's Eric Saade, with, I believe, the worst rhyme in music history: "Stop, don't say that it's impossible / 'Cause I know it's possible." Who thought of that one? Can you imagine the writers sitting there? "So guys, we need a word that rhymes with 'possible'. Any takers?" So let's not beat ourselves up too much.
VIEW HERE

"Every Way That I Can" - Sertab Erener, Turkey (Riga, 2003)
This, for me, was the most unjust result of the 21st century. Sertab Erener's copy+paste of a song did nothing to enhance the beauty of music. It was weak, fatuous and lacking in any feeling at all. Totally the opposite end of the spectrum from the two above, which exaggerated emotion. This one was all about the act, which, when levelled against some of the other competitors that year, was never going to fail. The act was also high on the list of t.A.T.u. that year, a fake lesbian duo who arrogantly blustered into the competition claiming they were going to win. In the end they came third, but when I tell you only three points separated the top 3 places, it was close. In fact, if the Irish hadn't had a telephone meltdown and the viewing public had their say, Russia may have won - who knows? Avery injustice should have a counterbalance, and Sertab denying the Russians that year was it. But the greatest injustice of all was who came second. Belgium's Urban Trad, with their atmospheric folk song "Sanomi" should have won, were it not for the Swedish votes in the second-last round of points. They gave eight to Turkey and two to Russia, and none at all to Belgium, meaning the phlegmatic Slovenians stood in the way of Belgium's first win, and I couldn't see them giving points to Belgium. Inevitably, they gave their ten and twelve to Turkey and Russia respectively and Belgium got only 3 from them. Sanomi, for me, is the best song never to win Eurovision. But more on that shortly...
VIEW HERE

"Rock 'n' Roll Kids" - Paul Harrington & Charlie McGettigan, Ireland (Dublin, 1994)
This was Ireland's most unusual win of all. During their "Reign of Terror" in the 1990s, they tried everything to stop winning. Channel 4's comedy Father Ted played heavily on this in one episode, when the Irish broadcaster decided to rig their national champion and send an atrocious song to Eurovision. It worked in a fictional comedy, but it didn't in the real thing and this duo sang a sad and wistful number about when they were young. If the Olsen Brothers were two old blokes with instruments, these were their anathema. A dirge of a song, but what gave Ireland the victory was not, I believe, that song. It was their interval act, Riverdance. I'm wrong, of course, but imagine if most of the juries had thought the Irish entry was their interval act and voted for that instead...
VIEW HERE

"Rock Me" - Riva, Yugoslavia (Lausanne, 1989)
For the fifth one, this is truly a fart at a funeral. It requires a build-up before I write about this one, as it is so unbelievably bad that I think typing too much could cause my head to implode in on itself. In 1989, following on from Sandra Kim (Belgium, 1986), Johnny Logan (Ireland, 1987) and Céline Dion (Switzerland, 1988), came the musically inept "Rock Me" by Riva from Yugoslavia. Barely half a decade having passed after the hit film Amadeus, this one seemed like a carbon copy (copy+paste was a new thing in those days) of Falco's Mozart-inspired eponymous theme tune, but without the class or depth of thought. It was just an empty vessel carrying a tune and some vacuous girl in a hideous red-white-black outfit gandering in and out of all the other performers like an unruly kid that's cramping the style of a cheap wedding band. Feel free to watch the video, but be warned: it will stay in your head for a long time afterwards...
VIEW HERE

Top five non-winners?

Out of all the categories, this is the one I could fill with my top 50. But I won't, as the Semi-Final starts in 5 and a quarter hours, and I want to see it. As you know, if you've been paying attention, Sanomi from Urban Trad was my Best Song Never To Win Eurovision, so these are my top-top five after that one:

"Calm After The Storm" - Common Linnets, Netherlands (Sweden, 2014)
After Sanomi, this is the Next Best Song Never To Win Eurovision. Many people's favourites are formed from their most recent memories, but in this case, I am sure, just like Sanomi, that I will think the same in 20 or 40 years' time. Calm After The Storm was a triumph of simplicity and moodiness that brought the hairs on my arms, neck and chest to a standing position. I had this song in my head two weeks after the competition ended. I was devastated it didn't win, but as Conchita won with her Shirley Bassey-style Rise Like a Phoenix, I could accept second place. It is timeless, unpretentious and soulful. Get out the tissues before you play it.
VIEW HERE

The next one is actually a person and not a song. Željko Joksimović is an inspirational and deep-thinking songwriter and singer.
Here are two of his entries: 
"Lejla" - Hari Mata Hari, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Athens, 2006)
"Lane Moje" - himself, Serbia & Montenegro (Istanbul, 2004)


Everyone was playing for second in 2006. Lordi's Hard Rock Hallelujah was a shoe-in, and rightly so. It brought metal to the people. But this song was the one I wanted to win if Lordi didn't.
In 2004, B&H came a close second with another haunting melody written by him. Ukraine's Ruslana took it with her Wild Dances, and I have no beef with her of the song - it was so full of energy and activity, I was surprised she was able to hold a note by the end. But Joksimovic epitomises everything good about folk, and like Goran Bregovic, he doesn't compromise on making music buried deeply in the soil of his homelands.

Balkan music is fabulous. It is very technical, with its own character and often-unusual number of beats per bar, and it saddens me when people talk about block voting at the Eurovision. I have often voted for songs from this neck of the woods, and most certainly for these two. Listen to the songs, feel the melancholy energy and stop knocking it!
VIEW HERE (Lejla)
AND HERE (Lane Moje)


"Dancing Lasha Tumbai" - Verka Serduchka, Ukraine (Helsinki, 2007)
Verka Serduchka was a Teletubby fairy in tinfoil and dark glasses who sang in several languages. A roly-poly, camper than camp phenomenon in silver, he/she souped up another traditional melody and made it into sublime Ukrainian turbofolk. I loved it and still do. The controversial lyrics seemed to say "I want to see / Russia goodbye", but they were given the benefit of the doubt on the night.
VIEW HERE

"Et S'il Fallait Le Faire" - Patricia Kaas, France (Moscow, 2009)
I have often voted for France at Eurovision, and this was the year the larger Western European countries put up a fight to wrest the competition away from the Scandinavians and Easterners. The UK sent Jade Ewen, with her Lloyd Webber power ballad "It's My Time", but France sent this terrific number. I've seen Patricia Kaas in concert, incidentally, also in Moscow, and she certainly puts on a show. This one is a typical chanson à la française and deserved a much, much higher position than 8th, but not bad, considering she sang third, usually a very bad place in the running order, when people at home are still getting their dinner plates washed and putting on the coffee. Still, I love this song, and it deserved better.
VIEW HERE

"No No Never" - Texas Lightning, Germany (Athens, 2006)
In 2006, I still lived in Belgium. A friend of mine took me in his car to his village near Berlin (Brussels outskirts-Berlin outskirts in 6 hours, including a stop for dinner - not so much driving fast, as flying low). The next day he took his family and me to the supermarket and there was this up-tempo country number playing in the building. I heard it several more times that weekend, and it really made me stop what I was doing and listen. When I enquired about it, they told me it was Germany's entry for Eurovision that year. I liked it a lot, but in the period of time when the music really did die, I gave it not a cat in hell's chance. Germany was later that year going to host the World Cup and this was a kind of pre-tournament theme. I still hear it played on the radio 9 years later, and that's the sign of a good song - no matter where it comes in the Eurovision, if it's good, it'll survive long after they've put the glitter and sequins away.
VIEW HERE

Top five hosts?

There is only one: 
Petra Mede!

VIEW HERE

I rest my case :-)

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Why the electoral system in Britain is broken and how to fix it

In the beginning, the Labour Party went barking mad. Then the Conservatives got sleazy. One party in power alone, and the dangerous ideology that it implements, has caused untold damage to the nation, and now many people are reluctant to allow either of them to govern alone. Where do we go next?

The Labour Party of the sixties and seventies was full of paranoid militants and fist-pumping demagogues that were able, at the drop of a foreman's hat, to hold the country to ransom with one-out-all-out strikes and hard-cheese speeches if they didn't get their way. People saw through it all and Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party won by a thumping landslide. Even my left-leaning father voted Tory in 1979. Due to their utter profligacy, Labour had left the country in a serious financial crisis. They were also being held to ransom by firebrand union members who had seen to it that the electric regularly went off and the shops weren't fully supplied if they didn't get their way. With Labour unelectable, the Tories just ran roughshod over those they could bully and cajole (the unions, Northerners, Scots and the poor among others) and alienated whole swaths of the electorate that they didn't care about. Sometimes this was for the good of the nation (hence the swift but ruthless reduction in the national debt) but often the upshot was the sale of another government enterprise for a fraction of its asking price to a friend of a friend of the minister responsible, who also got a cut somewhere along the line.

The swivel-eyed lunacy of the left kept them out of power for 18 years, until the back-stabbing sleaze of the Major administration made Labour understand that by rebranding itself, it could win once more. Tony Blair realised socialism was a dirty word, but people wanted to throw out the Tories, and they voted for New Labour in their droves. Sworn capitalists, bankers, even right-leaning newspapers gave their blessing to the new set-up. The country went into a deep euphoric trance brought on by spin doctors' magic touches and Tony Blair's messianic speeches, which made the nation realise that at last they had a leader they could say was punching above the country's weight abroad and redressing the balance at home. The trance was so deep, Blair even got re-elected despite a highly unpopular war in the Middle East.

...However...

...However...

What we didn't realise, on that day when Blair gave up Number 10 saying, "it is over, goodbye," was that he had handed over the keys to the nation to Gordon Brown on the eve of a financial meltdown and a global recession that would have far-reaching consequences for some time to come, probably a generation. It didn't have to be like that. Other countries, like Canada, Germany and Australia, avoided it. He was, quite frankly, spending his way into people's affection. Buying popularity. The most narcissistic and deluded Prime Minister of a Western democracy there has ever been decided to bail out when the money dried up. Nice.

And in stepped Gordon Brown, the last Prime Minister of a one-party government we will have for a very long time. It wasn't his fault. This was Blair's ultimate revenge for his great rival: leave him to pick up the pieces; let him take the hit. And so he did. Officially voted the single-worst PM in living memory (after Callaghan and Heath that's quite some doing), Brown made sure Labour was to lose the 2010 election by being indecisive, dithering and looking gloomy even when he was smiling. He had no real policies, just improvised "ideas" from the many think tanks New Labour employed at the taxpayer's expense.

And finally in May 2010 the electorate decided there was another way. Out went old confrontational politics, in came consensual politics. The Con-LibDem coalition that formed held together pretty well for the full 5 years, and I think, according to the polls, David Cameron and his two-party government didn't do badly, getting the UK out of some pretty tricky situations. But during the last 5 years, several things happened that have transformed the landscape of UK politics forever:

a. the Scottish referendum mobilised a whole nation, and despite the failure to secure their own nation state, the SNP is poised to win nearly all the seats in Scotland. Labour made themselves toxic in the country by siding with the hated Tories in the referendum debate. I fail to grasp why the Scots should think this, because it's only on this one opinion, which was demonstrated by all the parties except the Greens. I'm sure Labour and the Tories think trees are green and the sun is bright: it doesn't mean you have to hate one party because they agree with your enemy.

b. This has caused other parties to seize their moment. Plaid Cymru in Wales, the Greens in England and UKIP have cajoled their way into mainstream politics to such an extent, that they found themselves sharing a stage with the Big Three (well, the Big Two and the little coalition partner) during the recent leaders' debates. The smaller parties proved themselves worthy of being there too. To such an extent, in fact, that in some polls even the Greens are ahead of the Lib Dems.

c. Labour and the Lib Dems have lost credibility - the former due to Scotland and the last time they were in power, the latter over broken promises to cancel tuition fees. This has let the others in. The majority of party swingers are Lib Dems to the Tories or UKIP and Labour voters to the SNP, Plaid Cymru or UKIP.

The problem now is that the parties and their leaders really don't have a clue how to operate in these new conditions. Miliband and Cameron are refusing to talk about the deals they would do with any coalition partners; Miliband has said emphatically that he would rather the Tories got back in than be part of an SNP-Labour coalition in any shape or form. How many of us really believe that? He was stupid to say it, because he will be held accountable after Thursday, if the mathematics mean it is the only option. Cameron is tight-lipped about his party's future, just like Miliband, and dodges any question about coalition. These two are the living embodiment of a country experiencing the death throes of two-party politics. People's allegiances have changed, much like their shopping habits. No longer do we go to the same shop for the product we want; we look around for a better deal, and at the moment, we think the better deal is a combination of parties, to keep checks on the bigger ones.

What is likely to happen after 7th May is anyone's guess, but I would hope that whoever is there will be grown-up enough to fix the electoral system. These are two scenarios:

1. All parties' leaders choose their brightest minds who are to remain impartial and non-partisan, to discuss how to implement a better and more representative chamber, maybe where you get the same percentage of MPs as the electorate voted for you. It is ludicrous that the Greens, if they get 7% of the votes, might still only get one MP.

Problem: although the Lib Dems, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens would benefit from this, the SNP, Tories and Labour, crucially the three biggest parties, would not. A fudge would most certainly happen that would please nobody and further alienate an already tetchy electorate.

2. I would favour keeping the constituencies but having a two-round election, where the two candidates in a constituency with the most votes would go through to a second round the week after, thus guaranteeing MPs garnered more than 50% of the votes in their chosen constituencies, but keeping them on their very best behaviour as they may very well not make it to (or through) the second round. This way, we keep the tried-and-tested constituency set-up, which assures MPs remain attached to their electorate, and at the same time ward off that most undemocratic and elitist list system favoured by some countries that should know better. Although proportional representation assures correct apportioning of seats, it distances party grandees from their voters as they know they're top of the lists and thus don't need to do any campaigning at all. They can just hire some party stooges to hand out balloons to passers-by at supermarket car parks. So I would be loath to unleash such a badly thought-out system on such an engaged and active electorate.

Problem: I can already see most politicians being fervent opponents, as this system means their electorate, instead of voting for whom they want, would possibly vote for the other candidate in a sort of "anyone but that lot" exercise. Tactical voting on a whole new level. However, if an incumbent MP has done a good job, most people would put party politics aside and vote with their heads. I know Tory supporters who vote for their current Lib Dem MP because he's been very good for their town.

Considering the looming hung parliament and the unfathomable mathematical hangover it is likely to create, it would not surprise me if the Tories and Labour went into some kind of German-style Grand Coalition just to keep their two wannabe sister parties, UKIP and the SNP respectively, out of government. I doubt it, but it is an interesting scenario. Could you imagine the stunned looks on the faces of the ruling coalition backbenchers, when some wealthy, landed Eton/Oxbridge alumnus with no chin and an accent that could cut glass is reluctantly siding with a tieless, comprehensive school-leaver wielding a thick regional brogue and bus driving and a stint at a supermarket checkout featuring heavily on his CV? Angus Robertson of the SNP would be the Leader of the Opposition. It wouldn't last long... but long enough to cause Scotland to chip itself off. Who outside Scotland remembers The Vow any longer?

Lastly, if big-party politicians want any credibility, they need to stop treating the electorate as idiots. If they are to do deals with other parties, they need to say so, so that the electorate can make up its mind better. This whole campaign has been about nothing but ignoring the vast elephant in the room that is the next coalition. I, for one, am not scared of the SNP; far from it. Considering the efficiency and straighforwardness of the Scottish government, I think the Westminster parties are scared the SNP will come in and sweep up too many of the little comforts the established parties took for granted. Complacency has no place in British politics any more, and I think a dose of SNP in government will do the country good. Leave the SNP out, and they risk Scotland breaking off altogether.