Being British

I survived and indeed thrived in a week doing everything in the Welsh language. Dw i’n wedi blino iawn ac mae fy ymynedd wedi toddi [I am really tired and my brain melted]. The most amazing thing was I now know that it is possible to live in another language, which is incredible for someone who was monolingual for so long. More on this nes ymlaen [later on]. Sorry I’m still thinking of saying things in Welsh before the English! It was also lovely to spend a week away from the UK general election and finally get around to visiting some of Edward I’s castles in North Wales.

Disturbingly, the first thing I noted was an opinion poll putting the Tories on 40%. Huh? . This just makes me feel so sad after a week in a really positive community. Have people really forgot what being Welsh and/or British is?

You don’t really know your connection to your country until you live away from it for some time. Long enough to pine for the things you love about your home. Most of the time it is just the native sweets and chocolate that aren’t available worldwide, but it’s also other things like: church bells, proper chips, cask ale and cider, the incredible naffness of the screech of the wheels of a Pacer train going around a corner, Indian restaurants, the National Health Service, the 2p games at the seaside, afternoon tea, BBC Radio,  the bizarre but lovable traditions that have been maintained and the general sense of what somehow holds British communities together.

Yet, all these cool things about Britain are under threat, not by immigration, not by the EU, but by this continued obsession with right wing corporatist government, placing the interests of a wealthy minority above everyone and everything else. I do think that the vote for Brexit was simply an expression of the frustration of losing the things we love and a sense of helplessness about it which found expression with Brexit. But why oh why oh why are people turning to the Tories, the very people who caused the losses and the people who continue to perpetuate them?

Wales is different to the rest of Great Britain, which is made up of so many diverse communities, but we have so much in common. I am Welsh and Wales has it’s own history and peculiarities, yet so does England and Scotland. We should not get bogged down by what is different, but simply celebrate our diversity and enjoy living amongst so many communities in such a rich and varied island. We should never accept a single definition of beimg British.that there is only one way of being, one economy to prioritise or only one language we should use.

It is time for the people of Wales and the rest of Britian to just wake up and look around at what is happening to our society, to be Indy Curious and seriously think about autonomy for Wales, to be open to new possibilities. Why stick with the Tories? You don’t keep taking things out of communities to give to those already wealthy and put nothing back into the communities that generated the wealth: closing schools, closing hospitals and community groups struggling for resources are signs of failure, not signs of success. To use a farming analogy, you don’t keep growing crops out of a field and put nothing back into the soil and then wonder why your yields get worse every year, you nurture the soil, you put fertilisers back into the soil, you put back into the soil what it needs to enable it to produce food. It’s exactly the same thing with communities, you plough back in investment, you improve services for the future, to enable those communities and their economies to thrive. This is what Wales badly needs as do communities all across Wales, Britain and indeed the whole world.

Yet, Theresa May rabbits on how much she says she cares about unity and the United Kingdom, when in reality her policies will continue to cause harm to the things she claims to care about and then has the gall to attack those groups who are fighting for their communities.

To advocate an independent Wales is not about seeking separation or  being somehow anti-English. I seek autonomy for Wales because what Wales needs is simply not being provided by UK government and there is nothing to suggest that this will change anytime soon. I love Wales and I love Britain. I want Wales to be able to look after itself to survive and thrive, just as I want other communities in Britain to thrive. With autonomy Wales would be empowered to work together with communities across Britain, to share ideas and re-build British communities. Seeking Welsh independence is the most pro-British thing that there is. I want every community to succeed and to achieve that means helping your own community first. Supporting the Conservative party is about division, taking away power from communities and giving it to the rich multinationals. There is nothing wrong with large corporations, but they just have an unfair advantage at the moment. A large supermarket chain can force out local butchers and other local businesses, whom are often more efficient than the big corporations.

So, lets wake up Wales and the rest of Britain, let’s take on the spirit of Owain Glyndwr, who rose up against the oppression British communities by the English establishment. It’s time to really take back control and stop voting for this lot of corrupt Tories. It’s time to work together to preserve the traditions of Britain and embrace the future with open hearts.

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The Flag of Glyndwr

Coal not Dole

Sometimes you just want to scream. In Britain the media is awash with various talk of competing Nationalisms, stoked by the issues of Brexit and Scottish independence. Public figures make announcements that we should be more or less European, more or less British or more or less Welsh. This is further complicated by each of these nationalisms can be either of two things, civic nationalism and imperialist nationalism. More often than not, the debate centres around distorting what each of these things is, to confuse and blur the issue, to distract from working out what will actually make things better. Perhaps the truth is that is is simply wrong to try and change your identity or who you are, there is no sense in it and there are never purely binary things and we are all different soups of various identities anyway.  Lets get on with something more useful.

Brexit, Scottish, or indeed Welsh independence represent choices. In recent times such choices have been subject to referenda. The problem I have with all the argument and political horse play is that the supposed public discourse has centred around national identity. Really such discourse is not about identity at all, such choices should be made on a rational weighing up of complex economics to choose which is the best option.

If Brexit is the better option than remaining in the EU, great,  I do hope that it is as this seems to be what is happening, the result will be that things get better rather than the worse. However I am not assured at all by what has happened since the vote, because hardly anyone is talking about how it will makes things better. It’s the same with Scottish independence, if it makes things better, then great, do it, if maintaining the UK is the better option then we should do that and make it better.

Then there is the two nationalisms thing. This has really complicated many of the farcical debates we see in our media. Actually I think this is just a manifestation of the old left right divide, the two political wings view patriotism is radically different ways.

On the left is Civic Nationalism, where a nation is defined as all the people who live in a society, with all their various diversity. Civic nationalism argues for equality to give everyone in that society an equal chance and to make things better for everyone.

On the right is Imperialist Nationalism. Here there is a predominant sub-culture with the society and everyone should have an equal opportunity to join that sub-culture, which then expands and thrives at the expense of those who refuse or are unable to join. The pre-dominant sub-culture declares that it’s view of the world is patriotic and if you don’t subscribe to those views you are a traitor.

Hence the left always argue for more support for those that do less well than the majority. If that group thus supported  does as well as any other then no increased support is required. Whereas the right argue that they these minority groups should just join the dominant group and should have no special favours for being different.

coalnotdole

So, why the title, ‘Coal not Dole’. I was up in Ebbw Vale this morning and decided that as I was nearby, to finally get around to visiting the Big-Pit museum. It is a really good museum. The museum is a preserved working deep-pit coal mine, such mines were very common in the South Wales Valleys when I was growing up, so I was keen to have a look inside. The highlight of the visit is a trip down the mine in the company of a former miner to the coalface. The guides both explain how the mines worked and give an insight into what working down the mines was like with great humour and wit. If you visit Wales, I highly recommend a visit and it is in a crazily beautiful part of Wales, well apart from the modern open cast coal mines near by!

Being down in the pit, in the dark, seeing the cramped conditions where people used to spend all day working in dusty conditions, makes you realise what a horrible job working down the pits was. However it also makes clear how mining communities, really were communities, fostering really strong companionships between the miners and their families. My family traditionally were farmers and the farming community, pales into comparison as farming is often a lonely job  and traditionally the only time for socialising was on market day. Farming requires dependence on yourself as you are often miles from the nearest person, whereas mining requires reliance on others for your safety. This is a large part of the reason why farmers tend to be conservatives and miners socialists.

My point is we have national identities as part of our individual identity make-up and identities are stronger where there is a sense of comradeship, solidarity and working together for a common cause.  The mining communities built fantastic civic structures, such as libraries, male voice choirs, brass bands and chapels. Hence the mining communities had a very strong sense of their identity as miners, being a miner was their primary identity.

In the 1980s, the UK government decided to close down the mines. To the miners, this was an attack on their primary identity, so of course they were incredibly angry about it. A massive series of strikes were held, under the banner of the National Union of Mineworkers, which produced the ‘Coal not Dole’ badges; or it is better to work, even deep down in a coal mine than be looked after by the welfare state, which was the effect of the government policy. Today, Blaenau Gwent has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, the effect of that decision is still felt over thirty years later. The miners knew about mining so they should have been listened to, rather than those in their Ivory towers in London.

I can understand how people do feel passionate when their identities are attacked. However with Brexit and Independence, identities are not actually under threat in the same way. I know some people do feel that their British identity is threatened by Scottish independence, or their European identity by Brexit, but I feel that they do not quite understand what exactly identity is. These identities are not being threatened and they are not going to disappear. People in Britain will not be less European after Brexit, nor will Scotland no longer be part of Britain after independence. Britain will still be a set of islands off the North West coast of the European continent and Scotland will still be a part of the British Isles and they will still form part of our identities if they are parts of our identity now.

This is why I don’t get this whole binary argument that you must be for one identity over another. It’s a huge distraction from the difficult task of predicting the future and trying to work out how to make things better. The way to make things better is to make the political institutions better, the Welsh assembly, the UK government or the European Union. All of these institutions could be vastly improved and we need to ensure they do make things better, by being accountable to the communities their decisions affect, rather than winning some pointless argument about identity.

The Language of Brexit

This blog is perhaps a vehicle for my tirade against the world that almost everything exists as spectra, the world is not binary. Perhaps language itself is partly responsible for this and Brexit seems a good example of this.

Language is rarely precise, this is why we have poetry to be able to express ideas and that there is always more than one way of expressing the same thing. We use language as a kind of shorthand. We reduce long lengthy explanations to just a few words and expect that we will be understood. Indeed we often ask if our shorthand has been understood by adding an ‘isn’t it’ or something similar to the end of our sentences. We refer to things such as national characteristics, that we hope our audience may share an understanding of to enable higher level discussions. Complex discussions are only possible when the basic concepts are understood. Through this very process of creating shorthand, we often reduce complex nuances thoughts to a few words, thus creating binaries, it is or it isn’t to spectral ideas. The first words we lean are often Yes, no and not. Later we learn the much more complex vocabulary of quite, very and slightly. Sometimes, it is easy to forget that the binaries created in language are not real binaries.

The Brexit referendum was itself making the complex position of the UK in the EU into a simple for or against, to which many people wished to answer: ‘yes But…’ or ‘no But…’ often with very big buts. The issue of immigration is perhaps the biggest theme of the debate. Indeed, the meaning of the very word ‘immigration’ has subtly changed through the various debates. Whilst we know what immigration is, the movement of people into an area, the word has come to mean lots of different things to different people. In a sense this one word has lost it’s practical meaning in being a shorthand for a concept.

Even as a binary opionion, people are not for or against immigration, this is almost absurd. Most people are of the opinion that there should be less immigration into the UK. However how much less, what specific types of people are to be restricted is a huge complicated spectra. Yet, arguably Brexit won the vote when Nigel Farage said ‘the only way the UK can regulate immigration is by leaving the EU’, however exactly how this is to be achieved has not really been made clear, that;s the complicated bit and i would argue we don’t have the democratic structure to enable this to be implemented well. Lots of other things have to be sorted out for benefits to come about.

Yet, the issue of immigration in the UK is not even a simple ‘how much less?’ question as there is a whole spectra of arguments for why immigration should be reduced.

At one end of the spectra is the the cultural argument, that some  people simply don’t like ‘too many’ people from different cultures living amongst the native population, for all sorts of reasons. This position is very close to racism, but not in itself racist. However racists will have this opinion. Indeed UKIP have used this argument to appeal to people with racist views, but cleverly hidden behind statements that are not in themselves racist. If you get the cultural argument and agree with it, it is simple to agree with this argument.

At the other end of this spectra is the economic argument: That a high net level of immigration is bad for the economy. The UK is economically unbalanced between the North and the South. The UK population doesn’t produce workers with the right skills, geographically where organisations require them. The UK economy found a work around to this in importing workers through immigration. The UK called out to the people of the British Empire to come and help rebuild Britain after the Second World war, so the UK now has significant populations from India and the Caribbean. These immigrants did suffer a lot of racism that we have made progress in moving on from that, these populations are now reasonably integrated into British society. However the more recent influxes from central Europe were to take jobs the resident population were unable to fill, rather than unwilling to fulfill. The argument is that it would simply be better if the UK arranged it’s economy so that it did produce the workers it required. We are now in the position where we have to import Doctors and Nurses as we don’t produce these skilled workers natively. We have a shortage of medical doctors in Mid-Wales which  seems absurd as GPs are quite well paid. We don’t produce these workers naively because of the housing crisis, declining education standards and  a declining healthcare system where doctors are over-worked. We are asking young people to go into a six figure debt to fund their own training, to do a job where they have to do a ten year induction before they achieve salaries that can re-pay their student debt, without mentioning, that during this 15 year period, we expect them to subsidise those who own property, save money for their own housing which is more expensive every year and somehow find the money to bring up their own children before they are too old. Is it any surprise that people do something else and leave these skilled jobs for immigrants who study somewhere where the cost of living is much less. There is the  argument I heard during the Brexit campaign from people in areas with negligible immigration, people were concerned about immigration, because it meant jobs went elsewhere and didn’t come to their area (South Wales). This even applies to high earners, who refuse to accept offers of work from London as they can’t afford the housing costs there. London is harder to move to for a British person than it is to move abroad. The other part of this argument is that the failure of successive governments to provide housing , education and healthcare befitting a 1st world economy, has finally come to popular light and simply immigration, whilst papering over some systemic problems with the UK economy, puts additional pressure on housing, education and hospital places, which are still not being sorted out,., I would argue because of deficient democracy. This economic argument for reduced immigration is a lot more complex and nuanced than can be summed up in a single word ‘immigration’, so left an centre politicians struggle to communicate it effectively.

Essentially, it seems the population of the UK at large has woken up to the failures of the political consensus, or the establishment of the centre-right orthodoxy that has somehow held sway for the last thirty years. There is a widely felt understanding that the consensus was indeed wrong and has failed; as it was predicted thirty years ago that it would. However, there is no clear answer to the UK’s problems. There are two main forces seeking to implement their solutions, the liberal centre and the populist right. both of these groups with very different visions of what to do with Brexit, both groups share the frustration of never having been in political office to implement their visions. Largely because of the UKs binary democracy, that prevents non consensus ideas being implemented, and that the consensus view is itself a minority. Somehow the centre-right orhodoxy is still in power and not popularly opposed. The establishment is cleverly playing the two sides against each other to retain it’s own grip on power.

A serious Brexit government would be out there consulting widely, forging agreements and finding ways to make Brexit work for the UK economy. Instead they are arguing amongst themselves behind closed doors. Perhaps the idea is that all the division and dithering over Brexit will eventually mean that popular calls for Brexit are eventually dropped and the centre-right can continue as normal. This is frustrating the Brexiteers, who fear Brexit may never happen, but turning their ire against the centre-liberal ‘remoaners’, who never wanted this mess in the first place, it’s a distraction for us from the real work of making the UK economy stronger and a better place to live and work..

Which is all largely as I predicted. I was against Brexit, not out of love for the EU, but simply that the chances of making Brexit work well were tiny.What the UK needs more than anything is electoral reform, but this is challenging to argue for when there are so many other things going on. However , we need a system that enables the right decisions to be made and the current system proves again and again, that it is incapable of implementing the right solutions, or even basing it’s decisions on evidence based data.

If there is to be an alternative, the odds are stacked towards the populist right. Indeed as they were in the 1930s when the fascists were able to capture the popular imagination more than the communists, in Western Europe at least. Favoured, simply because the populist right can use the word ‘immigration’ as shorthand for their dislike of different people, whereas the liberal left have the much more complex, nuanced economic argument that will get lost in the clamour of what passes for debate in the main stream media these days.  Essentially, it is a battle for whose meaning of a word becomes the consensus and it is much easier to do this with a simpler message, one that can be repeated often until people accept it. After all hate is simple, hope is more complex.

Maybe, the nature of language is at the heart of why political debates can be won with flawed arguments, through clever rhetoric. A symbol, a word, can be more powerful than a concept or a sentence. Such symbols have the power to change the world.