Friday, April 18, 2014

My God, My God, why have you forced closing time on me?

When it comes to a dispute between Nelson McCausland and a group of pub owners I am, given that I have no particular love for either side, tempted to remain neutral.  However, on the subject of the Easter opening hours for local bars, the publicans are correct to describe our laws as "archaic."  Interestingly, this appears to be developing into an annual spat between the Minister for Social Development and the province's pub owners as last year the exact the same word featured in the headlines when this story was being covered.
 
Even by Northern Irish standards the laws do seem dated and the argument in their defence has always seemed to me to be a weak one.  If the laws prevented bars from opening at any point (as they do on Good Friday in the Republic) I might still oppose them but I could at least understand the Christian claim that this somehow gives us a chance to think about the meaning of Easter, regardless of whether the majority of us want to or not.  Quite how allowing a pub to open at 5pm and then forcing it to shut it at 11pm in some way honours the sacrifice made by Jesus of Nazareth leaves me stumped.
 
I was pleased to see the Green Party raise their voice on this matter and declare their support for a "modern, vibrant night-time economy which reflects our status as European tourist destination."  For this to be achieved though would require much more than merely normalising the opening hours at Easter time.  One can only feel pity for a resident of, say, Barcelona or Berlin who decides to come to Belfast for a weekend city break at any point in the year; the trains grind to a halt around 11pm, the buses do the same at a similar time and just after one o’clock large burly men will order you to finish your drinks and get out of whatever establishment you've just spent your hard-earned cash in.  But that is a debate for another day.
 
Last year when the Easter opening hours debate was taking place Colin Neill from Pubs of Ulster remarked that "religious views should be included in the conversation."  I disagree.  By all means have a conversation, and if the people involved in that conversation harbour strong views on religious matters then so be it, but their personal faith must remain a private matter and should not be allowed to shape or influence any discussion.  If a Christian citizen of this fair land wants to pass on the option of having a pint on Good Friday or Easter Sunday in order to mull over the death and resurrection of Christ then they have every right to do so.  What they should have no right to do, however, is attempt to force other members of the community to do the same.
 
This is not a left-right matter; "archaic" laws of this type can be opposed from a conservative or right libertarian point of view just as much as they can be opposed from a liberal or left-wing perspective.  Rather it is a dispute between people those that want to live in a modern secular society and those that wish to cling onto the old illusion that they still live in a 'Christian country'.  In all disputes of this type it is former that wins through in the end.  On this small and relatively insignificant issue, the momentum is on the side of modernity.

Friday, April 11, 2014

"It is the first day of spring. The council have chopped all the elms down in Elm Tree Avenue."

Despite numerous promises to the contrary over the past two decades, I never have made it beyond the third book in the Adrian Mole series.  I must have been around thirteen or fourteen years of age when I finished the The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole and since then I have been unable to rekindle my passion for the angst-ridden little git's tales, losing track of the ins and outs of the Norwegian Leather Industry in the process.

Sue Townsend, author of the Mole series, died yesterday.  Though I might not have read any Mole for twenty years, nor read any of Towsend's other books in the same period, I did feel a little tinge of sadness at her passing.  While numerous people will no doubt say it and I accept it sounds horribly mushy and predictable, she was responsible for kick-starting a lot of young people's love of reading.  For that alone we should all be thankful.

Her politics weren't bad either.  A feminist and a supporter of the Labour Party, Townsend was also vociferously anti-monarchist.  In a piece she penned for the Guardian a couple of years back, she spoke of her admiration for Thomas Paine and her belief in a British republic:
More than ever I believe in the republican cause. I think that we should feel quite sorry for the royal family. Most of them were born into it, so they can't see how bizarre and strange it is to have these odd, dysfunctional people at the top of the heap in this country. Just today I found a website of the UK's top 20 tourist sites: Windsor Castle is no 17, and no 16 is Windsor Legoland. It's quite easy to dispel all the myths about the monarchy, and that is what Paine did, wittily and in language that everybody could understand. I think I've been slightly braver since I read Rights of Man in holding what are often considered unorthodox views. It taught me the importance of scepticism.
Well said, comrade.  Now, off to locate that unread copy of The Wilderness Years.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bore war

There are two pointless things taking place in the UK this week.  On Saturday there is a bland battle of mid-table obscurity in the Premier League as Southampton meet Newcastle United in an irrelevant match between the only two teams in the division that can neither get relegated nor qualify for Europe.  Prior to that there will be an equally insignificant 'clash' going down in London as Nick Clegg debates Britain's place in the European Union with Nigel Farage in the first of a tiresome two-leg tie.

Now, please do not get me wrong.  The United Kingdom's future in the European Union is an important issue.  It should be debated.  It must be debated.  But is this odd little dispute between two political middleweights really the manner in which to conduct it?  I think not.

Firstly, the EU is not as big a topic in British politics as many people think it is.  For a noisy and hystericial minority of folk the issue of withdrawal is our generation's equivalent of the Battle of Britain - the one thing upon which the future of our civilisation rests.  However, as a YouGov poll before the last general election highlighted, Europe comes well down the list of issues considered important by the public.  Perhaps this is why after more than two decades UKIP has yet to win a single seat in Westminster.  Secondly, it is my belief that a silent majority of the UK public have no desire to leave the European Union.  True, they may not be rabid federalists like myself and they might want to reform Britain's membership, but as for totally cutting our links with the rest of the continent?  I very much doubt it.  And this leads on to point number three: it is time a fecking referendum on this issue.  A vote by the British public in favour of European Union membership would settle this subject for at least a generation and would also have the knock-on effect of smashing UKIP and it's irritating little leader (yes, I know Nigel tries to pretend it isn't a single issue party but I am certain that not even he believes that).

So, it isn't that I am against tomorrow night's debate.  Bring it on.  I just fail to see how it will further the debate on EU membership.  Most people will not give a damn.  Those that do will most likely be hardcore political junkies with firm, unalterable opinions on the topic.  Will anyone's view on the European Union be changed in the course of the Clegg/Farage tussle?  Possibly, although I would dearly love to know just how many.  What is required in Britain right now is not a debate between the leader of the country's third largest party and the leader of a party without a seat in parliament.  What is needed is a referendum.  It is time for the silent pro-European majority in Britain to break their silence and start arguing back with the intensity and vigour that the anti-EU faction has argued with up to now.

Will I watch the debate?  Of course I bloody well will.  I'm one of those hardcore political junkies with firm, unalterable opinions on the topic that I spoke about above.  Just don't expect me to be tuning in for round two when it goes out live on the BBC.  That'll be on next Wednesday at the same time as Real Madrid are playing Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League quarter-finals.  When it comes to Europe, football must always take precedence over politics.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

A spectre is haunting Labour

I don't normally get too worked up about things that appear in the Daily Mail.  There seems to be a lot of folk on the left who regularly object to a conservative newspaper being so bold as to carry articles saying stuff normally considered to be conservative in nature.  The phrase "Daily Mail reader" has become a popular term of abuse in recent years, one which even I have been on the receiving end of (and that was for suggesting Stalinist Cuba would not be a nice place to live).  As far as I am concerned if Paul Dacre and his underlings want to run stories day after day about the evils of the European Union, gay marriage, immigration and how some single mother in Burnley with six kids from six different fathers is claiming £400,000 a year in benefits then fair enough.  Personally I get more worked up when supposedly comradely newspapers like the Guardian call for a Liberal Democrat vote.

We all have our breaking points though.  The report carried in the DM last autumn regarding Ralph Miliband was one such example of a line being crossed.  After having read Geoffrey Levy's article about the father of the current Labour leader for the first time since it appeared back in September I was shocked not by the absence of ethical standards but rather because I had forgotten just how appallingly bad it was.  Could a reporter from one of the main UK national newspapers really get away with writing about Ralph Miliband's Marxism as though it was some kind of scoop uncovered thanks to months of investigative journalism?  And could they really base an entire article on the premise that this might have some impact on current Labour Party policy?  It seems preposterous that this absurd incoherent load of nonsense somehow made it into print and wasn't simply thrown back in Levy's face by the paper's editor.

Quality of the piece aside, it seemed to me at the time to be an example of the type of smear story that Labour should expect to get many more of in the run up to next year's general election.  Unfortunately for the DM this particular smear story backfired on them catastrophically.  Commie scare stories might have frightened people in fifties America but in 21st century Britain such guff carries little weight.  Rather than terrifying the public about the prospect of 'Red Ed' seizing state power, most people viewed it as a grubby little attack on a man who has been dead for two decades.  Even their natural supporters wanted nothing to do with it.  David Cameron said Ed Miliband was right to challenge the Mail.  Nigel Farage described the article as a "mistake".  A YouGov poll found that the overwhelming majority of British people, including a majority of Daily Mail readers, felt that the newspaper should apologise.  So, in what was probably more a case of damage limitation to their image as opposed to an expression of genuine regret, apologise they did and the Ralph Miliband debacle quickly drifted off into history.  Sort of.

It was clear that the furore aroused by Levy's article had badly wounded the Mail and it seemed just as clear that the wounded beast would be itching to strike back as soon as it could after such a humiliation.  Now that they have finally returned fire they have decided to hit Labour with something which terrifies the British public much more than Marxism or foreigners or sharia law - and that is paedophilia. 

The story that is causing so much controversy relates to how three Labour MPs - Harriet Harman, Patricia Hewitt and Jack Dromey - were all members of the National Council for Civil Liberties in the 1970s at a time when the organisation had granted affiliate status to a group calling themselves the Paedophile Information Exchange.  Now, whatever your own personal take on the story itself, you would no doubt have to admit that the Mail chose well - not that they would have to think long and hard if they were looking for a subject to embarrass the Labour Party.

Paedophilia is something that is detested by everyone regardless of their political allegiance and also has the potential to provoke hysteria in a way that no other issue seems capable of.  I have lost count of the amount of times I have heard good decent rational people descend into a frenzy about how the death penalty should be brought back for 'paedos' or how they would personally take the law into their own hands if their son or daughter was harmed.  Evidently the Mail's thinking was that establishing a link between this and Labour, no matter how tenuous, could inflict substantial damage to the party's image.

While certainly more effective in its smear potential than the Ralph Miliband story, there would appear to have been a similarly small amount of investigative work done to uncover it.  This is not a story that would have required hundreds of hours of painstaking work.  Rather one gets the impression that a few minutes of adequate searching on Google would have turned up a sufficient amount of information for a story on an organisation that is far from obscure.  Indeed, some Google searches would even have revealed to the Mail journalist undertaking their 'research' that PIE was an organisation their own paper had written about several times over the course of a number of years.  So, let's be clear, this is not a new story; this is an old story resuscitated and repackaged.  And that, brothers and sisters, is perhaps the most sickening aspect of the Mail's fake moral panic.  Dacre and his cronies could not give a damn about the poor little kiddiewinks.  Their sole aim is to smear Labour.  Nothing else.

The case bears some similarities to one that popped up in Germany last year when an old story regarding links between the Green Party and paedophile groups dating back to the eighties was conveniently dragged up just prior to September's Bundestag election after having gathered dust for more than three decades.  Though it might not have been the sole reason in the disappointing result for the Greens, any election campaign in which your party is constantly having to fend off questions about paedophilia is never going to be the most successful of campaigns.

There is a famous old tale told about how Lyndon Johnson, running in one of his first elections as a young political whippersnapper, ordered the folk on his campaign team to spread some unsavoury rumours about his opponent.  That the rumours weren't true mattered little; the important thing, said Johnson, was to make him deny them.  And so the Daily Mail in 2014 have adopted the LBJ Doctrine.  Does the Miliband family hate Britain?  No.  Does Harriet Harman have a history of sympathising with paedophiles?  Once again, no.  The journalists responsible for these pieces know that but, like Johnson, the truth is not the most important aspect of their stories.  What is central to all of this is the ability of the story to generate a scandal that will last long enough in order to sell some extra newspapers and, secondly, for it to have the power to whip up a McCarthyite witch-hunt that can dent the reputation of the opposition.

Up to now Labour has dealt well with the smear attempts.  One suspects though that in the run-up to next year's general election the party is going to find itself having to dodge a lot more dirt fired in its direction by the most rancid section of the right-wing press.