The Politics of Otherness

 

“It is now long ago that I learned this lesson from General Armstrong, and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as to when the service is rendered to a member of my own race. I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.”

Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, 1900

Tourtoirac is a beautiful wee place, if in a kind of ramshackle way. Its intriguing maisons and petit chateau have a grandeur which, if somewhat faded, nevertheless retain a charm which deliver the sort of mystique that I was looking for on a maiden family holiday to France. Throw in a meandering river running through the centre of the village and the chance to buy fresh bread every morning from the bona fide boulangerie opposite the medieval Abbey, and you could say that I was happy with my holiday choice.

It’s the kind of place that seems untouched by the world. But not just by the apparent absence of satellite dishes and Dom Jolly-esque mobile phone etiquette; it gives the impression that the world has always passed it by. There is no urgency in Tourtoirac, and that is something I was very glad to experience.

And yet there is one very visible reminder that the paysage francais has not always been the sleepy, presiding reality in this Dordogne village. Situated beside the Post Office, opposite the village square, is an obelisk-shaped war memorial adorned in French flags, the state of which clearly shows the place of importance that it holds amongst the local population.

Tourtoirac War Memorial cropped

Around the base of the monument dozens of names of local men killed during the First World War are listed, grouped around an engraving which proclaims: ‘Tourtoirac, to her children killed for their country 1914-1918’. On the same level, but on a different panel is a smaller, but still lengthy, list of local men killed in their turn during La Deuxieme Guerre Mondiale.

In a sense, this monument and its rude interruption into my family holiday should not be a surprise. It stands to reason that most towns and villages in France, much like those in the area that I grew up in Scotland, have war memorials to those lost in the two conflicts which were played out largely in Western Europe, and largely in France. But I nevertheless felt a dissonance to the surroundings which I was enjoying and the peace that I was experiencing.

A plaque on the upper part of the obelisk particularly caught my eye. On that plaque are listed five names. The names have a decidedly Jewish tint – Kohn, Aaron, Samuel – and the testimony which accompanies them is chilling: Assassines par Les Nazis (assassinated by the Nazis), Le 1er Avril 1944.

Tourtoirac Jewish names cropped

I have visited a concentration camp. Yet this plaque particularly shook me. Since encountering the Tourtoirac War Memorial, I’ve found it difficult to forget. It may be that I’m feeling nostalgia for my grandparents and their experience of the Second World War, at a time when we as a family are marking the first anniversary of my Gran’s death, a particularly poignant loss for us as the last surviving member of my family from that generation.

However I think that my awareness of war, violence and hatred, and the dissonance to that peaceful place, was particularly heightened because of what was – and is still – going on around the world even as I was reading the names on that monument.

This year alone we have seen vicious civil wars taking place in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Iraq. We’ve seen hundreds of young girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. We’ve seen Iraq fall apart in a sectarian blood-bath. And that was before the horrors of ISIS and the so-called Islamic State began to be visited upon much of that country. We’ve seen civil unrest in Missouri as yet another young African-American man is shot dead by the police. And, of course, we’ve witnessed the continuation of the ancient conflict in Israel-Palestine with thousands killed, maimed and displaced, predominantly in Gaza.

These conflicts bear witness to the triumph of fear and of scapegoating. They exemplify the politics of division, and the worldview which says; you can’t be part of this community unless you look like us, talk like us, think like us. It is, and always has been the politicisation of the Other: whether the Jew, the Russian, the Kafir, the Palestinian, the African-American – the list is endless and changes depending on where you’re standing.

Where have all the big ideas gone? The ideas which transcend identity – religious, national or racial? Many of the 20th Century’s big ideas, like Fascism or Communism, soon revealed their true colours. They were equally as hostile to the Other, and as equally prone towards using violence to achieve their ends. The Tourtoirac War Memorial shows that much.

Yet I can’t help noticing that the ideals around which we organise our world today are those which either idolise profit-making or seek to define us by the lowest common denominators. We seem to be left with either the Market or the Tradition. Important though these are, they leave me feeling cold as ideologies around which we will build our world. They lack vision, purpose, and often even a narrative. They represent the politics of survival, nothing more.

It may seem like a stretch to mention the Scottish Independence Referendum in a blog in which I’ve also mentioned Boko Haram. However – in a fundamentally much more benign form, of course – these are the terms on which even this debate is being conducted. Most of the key arguments on both sides are being made via appeals to Tradition/Identity (whether, Scottish or British) and the Market (i.e. which settlement will leave Scotland better off financially). This amounts to a great deal of heat and not a lot of light.

What inspires me are the possibilities that we have in this world to transcend otherness whilst recognising our differences; to find our shared humanity when it’s tempting to simply use labels to demean; to work for a whole that is greater than the sum of our parts; to aim for solidarity when it’s easier to divide.

In a word, Unity.

A Seismology of Political Earthquakes

What should we make of the recent European and Local election results? Nigel Farage’s claim that his party has secured the “most extraordinary result in British politics for the last 100 years” is, at first glance, hard to deny. As the party with the largest share of the national vote (around 28%) – the first time that the Tories or Labour have been displaced at the top of the pile since 1906 – UKIP have achieved a remarkable entry into mainstream UK politics. Their 24 MEPs are very hard to ignore indeed.

Likewise in the local elections; although Labour have topped the polls, winning control of six more Councils and adding 338 new Councillors, UKIP gained 161 new Councillors, to give them 370 Councillors overall and make them the 5th largest political Party in local government (after the SNP).

This demonstrable shift rightwards in British politics is a challenging reality for those of us on the political Left. What this might mean for the General Election in 2015 is open for discussion, but it’s certainly not to be dismissed.

Meanwhile, we are well and truly in the countdown to September 18th, the day our friends in Scotland will make a decision on whether to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom and form an independent country. Although the No vote has consistently remained out in front in all polls, there’s no question that a sizeable Yes vote exists in Scotland, and that the referendum result can yet go either way.

So what does all of this mean? I think that there are a few points worth making:

1. The UK electorate is tired of political business as usual – I think that the drive for an independent Scotland by a large minority on one hand and the remarkable growth in support for UKIP are both indicative of a more widely-held frustration with the way that we do politics in the UK. The lightning rod for this politics fatigue was, of course, the Expenses scandal. But the national furore around this scandal was actually encouraging – if society can’t raise its voice on an issue like this, then there really is no hope for our politics. Instead it’s the widespread apathy and disengagement by huge sections of the electorate which is to me a more worrying phenomenon. It’s the failure of all of the major political parties to really connect with and inspire the great mass of the electorate (and in fairness, we’re trying!) that has been the handmaiden of the rise of Scottish Nationalism and UKIP Little Britainism. If your narrative is that the system doesn’t work, and that politicians aren’t listening, then why not fundamentally alter it and just hope for the best?

2. The UK electorate is feeling fearful and protective – Although supporters of Yes Scotland and UKIP would each claim to have very little in common, both are supporting a political programme which is fundamentally about a retrenchment away from internationalism and collaboration, and back into what they regard as their primary identity – whether British or Scottish. These are political views which have been with us for a long time, particularly in the case of Scottish Nationalism. But their resurgence in recent years is, in my view, closely connected to the economic situation which began in 2007 and which we are still trying to untangle. When we are fearful about our material situation, we tend to withdraw to the familiar. We also tend to think that we can spend limited resources better than ‘them’. There is some truth in this, and I’ll say more about localisation of power below. But this withdrawal often correlates to – or even facilitates – an irrational fear of the Other; and soon some are complaining about the Romanian family who have moved in next door.

3. The Labour Party needs a reformation – I would say this, but I think that the mainstream political party trying hardest to move to a new model of politics is the Labour Party. We’ve always been about community organising and everyday people, but initiatives like Your Britain and the Future Candidates Programme are trying to move Labour Party politics beyond the usual suspects. Nevertheless, Labour needs to go further. As I’ve become more involved in the party over the last three years, it’s been a steep learning curve. Coming in with the zeal of the convert, looking to change the world, it’s easy to quickly get bogged down in a whole new lexicon of in-group language and behaviour, which can tend to dampen enthusiasm. It strikes me again and again just how similar this must be to a non-Christian joining a church for the first time. Like most long-established institutions, people don’t want to engage with the Labour Party in the same way as their parents or grandparents generation. They want to be part of a movement for change, something that focuses less on meeting protocol and more on policies that bring tangible social progress. If we’re going to re-engage our society with a new enthusiasm for the political process, we’re going to have to go deeper and faster in our attempts to change business as usual. Constitutional reform – such as a serious democratisation of the House of Lords, or implementation of a version of proportional representation in General Elections – would help. But the Labour Party can continue to lead by example, by introducing more measures like one member one vote for leadership elections, the Union opt-in and more grassroots campaigning.

4. The country needs to localise more political power – On paper our political system is fairly well set up to balance local and national decision-making. Yet if we can draw one lesson from all of the above, it’s that the common experience of politics in the UK is that it’s too remote. Many people feel like politics is something that happens to them, not through them. The more we can move decision-making downwards towards ordinary people, the better. The hope that ordinary voters can influence their communities around them is a strong card to hold. I believe that it’s the relative lack of that hope and connectedness to the political process which is a major factor in parts of the electorate turning to alternatives like Scottish Independence or UKIP or being turned off politics altogether.

One thing’s for sure, if we don’t do something about it, there are many more political earthquakes to come – and I can’t remember hearing an earthquake described fondly.

What We Owe Each Other

I call it the Man Case. If you’re a father or husband of a particular age, you probably have one too. Some guys have a Designated Drawer or Bespoke Basket. You know what I mean: the one place in the house that is exclusively yours, the place where you keep all your assorted bumf that is either useful for recurring man-tasks (bleeding radiators), sentimental (that ticket stub from the cup semi-final a couple of years back) or apocalypse-averting (your replica Swiss Army Knife with the built-in horse shoe stone-remover).

Last week I found myself rummaging through my Man Case, searching for a matching cuff-link, when I accidentally came across a forgotten treasure: my Widow’s Mite. Now, this is no ordinary item on the Man Case inventory. I was given it a few years ago in the Shuk, Jerusalem, by a kind Palestinian Christian who owns a market stall trading in antiquities. Technically, the ‘Mite’ is a lepton, the smallest and least valuable (Roman or Greek) coin used in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. Despite its small worth – both then and today – I was delighted to be given it. There is something particularly cool about owning something which is over 2,000 years old.

The lepton gets its generic name from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Luke:

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on. Mark 12, 41-44

I’ve been thinking about the story of the Widow’s Mite this week as the debate over the 50p Tax Rate has raged back and forth, following Ed Balls’ announcement that the Labour Party would re-institute the rate (for income over £150,000) should the Party be elected to government in 2015. The coalition government dropped the top rate of tax from 50% to 45% in 2013.

Much of the response to the announcement has become pretty ugly, pretty quickly. There has been the usual ‘bad for business’ rhetoric coming from the Tory Party. Then a group of Business Leaders sent an open letter to the Press, decrying the short-sightedness of the Labour Party, suggesting that this retrograde step would both put jobs at risk and would chase ‘wealth creators’ from the country to jurisdictions where their unique skills would be appreciated with a more lenient tax regime.

Now, leaving aside the fact that several of the 24 signatories to the letter have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds between them to the Conservative Party, it seems to me that this is perhaps one of the most outlandish acts of self-interest I’ve witnessed recently. Through it, we see some of the wealthiest people in the land speaking out against a relatively-modest tax adjustment (in France, the top tax rate is 75%) that is intended to help with balancing the nation’s books, in order to protect their own income.

In fairness, the opponents of the proposed increase argue that it will depress investment in the economy and therefore affect the jobs and income of the less well off. But this is an argument that is rolled out every time there’s a threat to the vested interest of the super-rich. Think that the Bankers Bonus is a bit generous? Well, it’s needed to remain ‘competitive’. But I believe this is a smokescreen. The truth is that the United Kingdom is a great place to live and to do business. It’s a stable, safe, prosperous and relatively non-corrupt society where a good standard of living and global connectedness are possible. Top Executives are not going to give it up and move abroad for the sake of five percent.

Likewise, I find the investment argument unconvincing. The idea of the ‘trickle-down’ of wealth is at best hard to prove and at worst an axiomatic Myth of the Right. It’s much more common in my view – and the current difficulty of securing Credit in the economy lends itself to this notion – that the rich tend to either put their added wealth into their (offshore) bank accounts or spend it on luxury goods, depending on how secure they feel. The following sentence is rarely heard on the lips of a millionaire: “Ah, it seems that I have an additional 5% on my income this year. I think I’ll open a cod-filleting factory in Grimsby”.

What about the claim that the reduction in the top rate actually improves the tax revenue of HMRC? This is something of an intractable and statistic-laden part of the argument, which I confess to being somewhat bamboozled by. Although, I have a sense that most others are too. The variables at stake, and the changing context of the economic climate over the last few years, plus the difficulty of predicting the response that individuals make to changes in tax rates, makes determining the causality of tax rates vis a vis revenue raised a mind-bender for the layman. Yet HMRC’s own figures do seem to suggest that, the last time the 50% rate was in place, it raised around an additional £3 billion per year in tax, and in all of the debate I haven’t heard many voices denying that the 50p rate will actually increase the revenue intake, even if only in the tens of millions of pounds.

But of course, ultimately, the debate over the top rate of tax should not be primarily determined by the bottom line of the revenue it generates, but by the principle of fairness and the connected principle of civic duty.

The key lesson that I take away from the story of the Widow’s Mite – other than the idea that all of our wealth, however big or small is actually given by and therefore owed to God – is the principle that each of us should give to each other according to our ability to give. And what else is Taxation in a democratic society, other than each of us giving to one another for the benefit of the whole?

How we share the cost of our Nation says so much about the kind of society that we want to create. If you were out for a meal with a group of friends and, when the bill arrived, you discovered that one of your friends had recently fallen on hard times financially and so could only contribute a small amount to the bill, you and the rest of your friends would club together to make up the difference. You would also have a loftier view of the contribution your hard-up friend made to the cost of the bill, even if it was much smaller than your own contribution.

This is really the heart of the matter of why the Labour Party is proposing the return to the 50p tax rate, and it’s why I support it. In our approach to taxation, we should prioritise the ideals of fairness, of civic mindedness, of compassion, of generosity and of mutuality. If the Widow can give her Mite, then I and the wealthier members of society can give ours and more.