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Protest against Trump state visit, London (Photo: Beki Dambrauskas)

There have been some voices today, from the usual quarters, pointing out past occasions when the Queen has been forced to endure the company of odious tyrants. The point they’re trying to make, of course, is that Donald Trump should be allowed to have his state visit.

Conservative apologist Iain Dale lists Nicolae Ceausescu in 1978, Robert Mugabe in 1994, Bashar al-Assad in 2002, Vladimir Putin in 2003, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2007 and China’s Xi Jinping in 2015. He neglects to mention the ex-IRA commander Gerry Adams in 2015. The argument seems to be that the Queen has met monsters before, what’s one more? First let me say I’m glad to hear Conservative voices putting Trump among the company he deserves — it’s an admission, of sorts, of what he is.

Now let me point out why this occasion is different. Many of these past visits were attempts to build bridges with countries we’ve not traditionally enjoyed good relations with, or whose values don’t resemble our own; democracy, tolerance and free speech. I don’t necessarily agree that this is a good idea, but that’s the aim.

The United States, however, is a country with which we have long had good relations. It’s a country whose values have long been recognisable to us as similar to our own. Under Donald Trump, that is changing. He is a tyrant ruling by executive order, flouting the judiciary and openly lying to his people. He has vowed to demolish the constitution he pledged to defend. He’s a self-confessed sex pest, so soaked in tawdry allegations that we’ve ceased to notice the stench. A thin-skinned vainglorious idiot who blacklists whole peoples from the land where “huddled masses” have long aspired to freedom. And don’t get me started on his cabinet.

His state visit will be no bridge-building exercise, comparable to the examples above. We have no hope of affecting a positive change by our good example. This man is running roughshod over the values our countries have long shared and, by inviting him now — in record time for a post-war president — we are endorsing him. This is made abundantly clear by the deafening silence from Downing Street about his de-facto Muslim ban. It’s not what we would do, they pathetically mewl. They promise UK exemption from the ban, even as the US embassy in London denies it.

There’s a reason for this: Theresa May is in a position of weakness unusual for a UK Prime Minister and it all comes down to Brexit. This calamitous decision to leave the European Union, the world’s largest economy and our biggest trading partner, has forced us to drag our begging bowl across the pond to this Toytown Hitler. Is this taking back control?

I note also that Nigel Farage, the privately-educated ex-stockbroker who crusaded for Brexit while moaning (hilariously) about the elite, is now calling for a similar “Muslim ban” here. This sort of politics is the baggage of Brexit and we will hear more of it as this madcap scheme continues. I think we can also safely dispatch with the notion that the driving principle of UKIP is some sort of libertarian streak; no, it’s the same old bigotry we all thought it was.

“They think the Queen can’t cope with Trump,” says Mr Dale. Nonsense, the Queen has coped with fascists all her life. But we should have enough respect for ourselves and the USA, that she shouldn’t be exposed to a fascist American president.

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Photo: Abi Begum (www.nwhomebuyers.co.uk)

Let me start by saying I’m no fan of the EU as an organisation. Its president, Jean Claude Juncker, has no popular mandate from the European people yet he presumes to speak as if he has total authority. Its legislature passes law that, if enough of our neighbours vote for it, can be imposed on us without the approval of a single British MEP — though in some cases we can veto it. Those laws are not always in the best interest of the UK. And the EU commission has seldom expressed an interest in addressing this issue.

That being said, part of David Cameron’s renegotiation deal changes the founding treaty of the EU so that it’s aim of “ever close union” between members now explicitly exempts the UK. What that means in practice remains a matter of debate, but in any case the transfer of any further powers to Brussels cannot happen without another UK referendum, as established under the European Union Act of 2011. This, given the economic cost of leaving — reaffirmed repeatedly by experts and entrepreneurs alike — made me incline toward remaining. What sealed the deal is the poisonous bile and often outright lies told by the Leave campaign in recent months.

Immigration

The government pledged to get net migration down to the tens of thousands. Its failure to do so has often been blamed on the EU and undoubtedly this is a factor. But the majority of migration to our country comes from outside the union and restricting this influx is well within the remit of our parliament. It has not done so. Could it be that there’s some sort of need for migrants?

The clearest illustration of this is the NHS. The Leave crowd moan about ‘health tourism’ putting it under stress as foreigners come here for free treatment. The reality is that it wouldn’t be able to function with migrants. EU nationals alone make up 10% of NHS doctors and, in all, more than 100,000 NHS staff are non-British. Big businesses, usually the primary concern of the Tories dominating Leave, have made it clear that migration allows them to fill jobs they wouldn’t necessarily be able to otherwise.

No doubt to ward off accusations of bigotry, the Leave campaign reasons that leaving the EU will make for a fairer immigration system, where those arriving from outside the union do not come second to those from within. We’ll be able to admit more skilled workers from Asia, Africa and the Americas they say. Does anybody really believe that a campaign which has crowed repeatedly about slashing migrant numbers actually just wants more from elsewhere? And aren’t these the same distant lands, according to argument, whose émigrés fail to integrate when they come here?

If not, why did Nigel Farage — perhaps the noisiest voice in the Leave campaign — use an image of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria to illustrate his claim that Britain is reaching, as he called it, breaking point? These are non-EU migrants Nige, give them a fair chance! Of course, these troubled souls weren’t in Calais anyway, they were on the borders between Croatia and Slovenia.

The Leave crowd also can’t seem to decide whether migrants are stealing their jobs, or sitting around unemployed and mooching off the state. To clarify, freedom of movement within does not equal freedom of welfare. New arrivals cannot show up on day one and live off benefits — in fact, abuse of the system in this regard is grounds for sending people home. Yes, the papers may have found people abusing the system — and long may they continue to highlight shame them — but that doesn’t mean these instances are anything like representative.

And besides, if Farage and co. are so keen on non-EU migration, why are they so bloody petrified of Turkey?

Turkey

This one is simple, Turkey cannot join the EU without getting the agreement of all current member states. Half of Cyprus is still occupied by Turkey, do you suppose they’ll be on board? And what about Greece, whose people were forcefully — nay, murderously — expelled from Anatolia by the Turks during and after WWI? The same Greeks spent 400 years being occupied by the Ottoman Empire, which also occupied Bulgaria and Hungary and so on. Perhaps these nations might have something to say about it? That’s before we get on to the legitimate concerns of nations who have no bad blood with Turkey. Furthermore, there’s a raft of requirements new joiners must satisfy before they join the EU, of which Turkey has satisfied one. Turkey joining is such a dim and distant prospect that we can dismiss this whole argument as a red herring.

Trade

If we leave the EU, we’ll be able to negotiate trade deals with the rest of the world, the Leave campaign tell us. Yet we’re already negotiating trade deals with the rest of the world as part of the EU. Who do you think is going to get a better deal, an isolated UK facing economic turmoil in a post-Brexit world, or a 27-nation bloc whose members include Germany — the fourth-biggest economy in the world? The answer is perhaps made clearest by the fact that these other countries — non-EU countries — are lining up to tell us Brexit is a bad idea. Yes, most would cut deals eventually. But we’d be bloody lucky to get terms as good as we might otherwise have got.

Economists and entrepreneurs are also lining up to tell us leaving that the EU puts our economy in peril. We’ve just had more than 1,280 business leaders — whose companies employ more than 1.75million people — signing a letter to say that Brexit will put British jobs at risk. What does the Leave campaign say to this? That they don’t care about the experts; that the experts have got it wrong before. I wonder if Michael Gove is so distrusting of expert advice when seeking medical treatment; or if he’d let an amateur represent him in court. This is nothing more than anti-intellectualism.

But, they tell us, we’ll get back £350million a week we currently send to the EU. This can be spent on public services like our NHS. This figure is nonsense and happily ignores the fact that we get a rebate that slashes this contribution to £276million a week. It’s cut down further by EU spending within the UK, such as support for farmers and university grants, bringing the total down to £161million a week. We know how much we spend being a part of the EU — can Leave tell us how much the economic uncertainty that comes with leaving will cost us? No they can’t.

Nor do I believe that money saved on EU membership would be spent on public services. Again, the past record of the Tories at the heart of the Leave campaign gives the game away. This current Conservative government has made real-term cuts to every public service it can, demanding savings even when there are no more savings to be made.

It’s also worth noting that a number of big businesses locate themselves in the UK, particularly in the global financial hub of London, because it provides easy access to the EU single market in favourable conditions. Ireland knows it’ll be a blow to its economy too if we leave, but it’s government does anticipate that a number of these companies will relocate to Dublin should that happen.

Make Britain great again

This whole EU debate has been dragged into the realm of panacea politics. There is no one solution to the troubles facing our country, and only the ignorant or the dishonest can say otherwise. There’s a sense of nostalgia about the idea of leaving; the notion that we can win back some better Britain long lost. To paraphrase Donald Trump, that we can “make Britain great again”.

Will we be greater for it when we’ve snubbed our friends and allies in Europe? When we’re paying the economic price for doing so? What about when we turn around and find the vile SNP agitating for a second independence referendum because of our decision, thereby threatening to leave our Great Britain short a head?

We are different from Europe, on our rain-lashed little rock out in the sea, but there is more that unites us than divides us from our neighbours. These words I borrow from Jo Cox, the MP who was last week gunned down for believing as much. I don’t love the EU as a political body, but I do love Europe, and — more importantly — I love the UK. That’s why I’m voting remain.

On a breezy December morning in 1903, humanity witnessed the first heavier-than-air manned flight. Less than 70 years later, our species made its debut on the moon.

Photo: Paloma Baytelman  (www.flickr.com/palomabaytelman)

Tim Hunt. Photo: Paloma Baytelman (www.flickr.com/palomabaytelman)

This prodigious progress – or giant leap, if you will – was owed in no small part[1] to a former Nazi, whose wartime missile programme led to the deaths of 21,000 people.

And while the extent of Wernher von Braun’s belief in National Socalism is debatable, that he was a Sturmbannführer in the SS – and had blood on his hands – is undeniable.

Despite this, the rocket scientist was never punished[2]. Right or wrong, he was left to get on with his work. No such luck for the scientist who made a sexist joke.

Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize winner, was frogmarched out of his roles at UCL and the European Research Council for his remarks about women in the lab.

To sum them up: girls in the lab are distracting, they fall in love with you, you fall in love with them and they cry when criticised. Stupid, yes, but worth sacking someone over?

In any case, his dismissal was applauded by a virtual mob which then turned its anger on the Royal Society, of which Hunt remains – for however long – a fellow.

Hunt is, of course, not the first scientist to fall victim to this mob. Tuning in for an update on the Philae comet landing last year, I watched astounded as a physicist broke down in tears halfway through the briefing, grovelling his apologies.

Wondering what mistake could have elicited such a reaction, I expected some careless blunder on his part had endangered the whole decade-long mission. Not so.

The scientist, Dr Matt Taylor, had worn a shirt adorned with women in risqué dress – a birthday gift he received from a friend. Taylor and she received a torrent of abuse over the “sexist” garb.

Even if one accepts some wrongdoing here, the fact remains that history is littered with people of great achievement, but poor judgement.

Richard Wagner was a notorious anti-semite, Eric Clapton drunkenly threw around the terms “wog” and “coon”, but their music is no less moving for it.

One doesn’t have to agree with Clapton on immigration, or Hunt on gender issues, in order to accept that they might make great contributions to music or science.

Their talent doesn’t put them above censure, true, still it is increasingly accepted that those at the forefront of any field must have the preferred opinions in every field.

Meanwhile, the extent to which off-the-cuff remarks are assumed to be one’s fully-formed opinion is growing.

Cambridge professors Dame Athene Donald and Ottoline Leyser defended Hunt’s attitude towards women in science, yet these views – the views of women who worked with him – were ignored in favour of his rash remarks.

This is to be expected in the transient world of social media, but the decision to give someone the boot is one with a lasting effect on their life and work, and deserves more consideration.

In any case, there is a difference between word and deed, and the line is being blurred. When people are sacked for holding an unpopular opinion, it shouldn’t matter what that opinion is for us to be concerned.

Once the principle is established we all become prisoners of fortune, because the measure of acceptability can change, leaving you in the firing line.


[1] Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher Von Braun, by Bob Ward, giving view of Apollo Program director Sam Phillips on p.167
[2] Making it in America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans, by Elliott Robert Barkan, p. 396

Photo: Dave Radcliffe (www.flickr.com/photos/libdems)

Photo: Dave Radcliffe (www.flickr.com/photos/libdems)

Whatever one may think of the current Labour Party, there’s no denying that it knows how to lose an election.

The morning of May 8 brought a crushing defeat, but for all the upset there was no time wasted. Miliband resigned and straight away conversations started about what could be done differently – and under who – to win in 2020.

Coming, as it did, on the morning the party hoped to walk victorious into Downing Street, this was admirably resilient. But what of the night’s other losers, the Liberal Democrats?

While there is no consensus on why Labour lost it, the Liberal Democrats can be under no illusions: five years of propping up a Tory government had ground voter support down to a nub.

Yet somehow, the party seems to have missed this message. Its leaders speak as if the electorate lost the election, not them – as if no mistakes have been made, save for by the voters.

Nick Clegg, stepping down, said the results had been “crushing and unkind.” Paddy Ashdown said the outcome was “cruel.” You’d think the public had failed to support them out of spite.

Clegg went on to say his MPs had lost their seats because of “forces entirely beyond their control” and that the “politics of fear” had cost them – the latter point was echoed by Vince Cable.

In a moment of undisguised contempt for the electorate, Clegg evoked a Liberal Democrat councillor who, on losing his seat, said he wholeheartedly accepted the voters’ verdict if it was their thanks for the scraps begged from the Tory table.

The notion that the coalition might have been a mistake, meanwhile, is not indulged at all. The party is agreed – it was brave and selfless to leap at power like a dog after a stick, and a move all should admire.

If a failure must be considered, it’s that the party did not adequately communicate its greatness. Yet this too can be someone else’s fault. One councillor told me they blamed the lack of a Liberal Democrat mouthpiece on Fleet Street.

Even Norman Lamb, who at least accepts some wrongdoing, seems to only give ground on the tuition fee U-turn, otherwise defending the Liberal Democrats’ time in Toryland.

One might expect something like humility from a party that lost 85 per cent of its MPs, but the talk is mainly of rebuilding, and – with the coalition not disavowed – it’s on these toxic foundations.

The year after entering the Conservative coalition, Lib Dem party membership plummeted 25 per cent. Herein lies the key.

The Liberal Democrat voter base was, in no small part, composed of people on the centre-left. Did Clegg and co really expect to get into bed with a right wing party and retain that support?

For many, this loss will seem well earned and richly deserved. Here is a party that not only helped the Tories into power, but continued to support them even when its own values were the cost.

Whether or not the party did the right thing by sporting a Tory leash (it didn’t) is neither here nor there. The voters have decided it was wrong and, until the survivors distance themselves from the decision, they will be starved of support.

Clegg may mourn a sad result for liberalism, but liberalism is alive and well. Its followers didn’t abandon his party, his party abandoned them.

What matters now is who liberals choose to support in the future and, at this stage, it’s not the Liberal Democrats.

Let me take you back. It’s September 2014 and David Cameron faces the very real prospect of being the Prime Minister who oversaw the demise of the United Kingdom.

Scotland is to vote on independence and the polls are horrifyingly close. Cameron the hard-nosed Tory melts away and his soggy leftovers entreat the Scots to stay.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Scottish Government (www.flickr.com/photos/scottishgovernment)

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Scottish Government (www.flickr.com/photos/scottishgovernment)

Yet if a week is a long time in politics, imagine seven months. Those who agitated for independence lost the vote, but still the Tories have surrendered Scotland to them.

The Conservative campaign now takes it as given that the Scottish National Party will win the Caledonian constituencies, leaving Labour short of a majority on May 7.

What’s more, Cameron and co continue to insist that Labour will make a deal with the SNP, no matter how often or loudly Ed Miliband denies it.

This is partly about winning Tory votes in England – reaffirming unionist values on one hand, while implying Labour links with secessionists on the other.

Just as important though is the effect on Scottish voters. Every anti-Tory is being told you can vote SNP and get Labour just the same – no need to be tactical.

Under normal circumstances, anything that puts your rivals further from power is par for the course, but this loss is not a Conservative gain – the SNP get the spoils.

I won’t be voting for them, but I know Labour are the last levee against the nationalist flood and I would rather they ran the UK, than the Tories ran what’s left of it.

Besides, how woeful is the Conservative offering that they must endanger the union, not even to get a majority, but merely to keep its opponents from one?

Nor would a Tory majority, were it possible, protect our United Kingdom.

Only the blue team will hold a referendum on EU membership and only something like an EU exit would enable Nicola Sturgeon to push for another independence vote.

Plus there’s no doubt that a Conservative government would benefit the SNP – their independence rhetoric is laced with anti-Tory bluster which Labour would neutralise.

It’s doubtless true that the reds will take a beating in Scotland. Miliband may also go back on his word and jump into bed with the SNP, as his rivals say he will.

The political realities are what they are and merit discussion, but the Tory party and its supporters in the press have gone beyond this.

The Sun warns against the SNP in England, but rallies behind them in Scotland. After a debate, Conservative leaders praised Sturgeon for her performance.

This party wants to carve up our country. It deserves our contempt.

Make no mistake, the referendum has not settled the independence question “for a generation.” It has left a cut across the throat of our country – one that may not heal.

One people has started to think of itself as two. SNP membership has quadrupled and, in England, English votes for English laws and even a new Parliament are talked about.

With such a close result, nationalists will want the question asked again and again until they get the answer they want – it’s the neverendum.

Nationalism is the politics of division, left or right. Now is the time for our country to heal; to emphasise what unites us, not what separates us.

The election is done in a day. The United Kingdom must continue.

While politicos and pundits throw around statistics and debate policy, a great number of people are feeling right now the way I feel on match days – bored.

Photo: Bart Heird (www.flickr.com/photos/chicagobart)

Photo: Bart Heird (www.flickr.com/photos/chicagobart)

Every election I find myself trying to convince people I know to go out and vote, and every time I hear this argument: they’re all the same, none of them represent me.

At this point, some would try and push their party of choice, while others might try and give an unbiased account of each side. My problem is, I kind of get the argument.

In 2010, those who weren’t voting Labour or Conservative had a moderate third option in the Liberal Democrats and their centre-left manifesto.

But five years later, any Liberal manifesto is a risky proposition. Enacting higher tuition fees, party brass made clear that pre-election pledges count for nothing until Clegg gets a majority – a notion so far-fetched that the Dems can promise whatever they want.

Nor have teams red and blue become more attractive in the meantime. National debt, soaring under Labour, reached giddy new heights under the Coalition and though the economy is growing, so is wealth inequality, foodbank use and insecure employment.

Small parties offer one alternative, but each has its electoral baggage – from bigots to hippies – and you can only do so much to separate the two.

In any case, all options would require me to settle. Where I agree with a party on one thing, it’s negated by disagreement elsewhere. Besides, my vote makes precisely no difference in my staunchly Tory constituency.

If all this seems to be building to some puerile argument for refusing to take part altogether, rest assured it’s not, I’m simply saying we should vote for Batman.

A self-starter, the aforementioned Bruce Wayne recovered from personal tragedy and built a business empire, he recognises the value of investing in technology and takes a hardline on crime. He’s community minded.

I mean, I only saw the films, but that’s what I got from it.

Granted, he’s a fictional character – one that’s ominously quiet about the deficit and foreign policy – yet if I’m wasting my vote anyway, why not make a point of it?

With any other approach, it’s an all-or-nothing game. Don’t vote and you appear not to care, however principled your abstention. Vote for a party and you may as well support it heart and soul.

In my university days, there was a way to take part in student democracy without voting for the self-important twerps who’d plastered their faces on every building.

His name was RON, meaning re-open nominations, and every year he ran for every position. He never won, but I liked his resilience and, like Batman, he had a use.

Those in power don’t concern themselves with non-voters. It’s no coincidence that so much policy is geared towards older people, who hit the polling booths in big numbers, while so little is aimed at young people, who don’t.

Snub the polls and they’ll govern like you aren’t watching, snub the parties and they’ll know that you are.

By voting for Batman – or more accurately, by scrawling the bat logo over the whole paper – you say: “Yes, I’ll vote, but not for any of this lot.”

It was nearly 2,000 years ago that the Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase ‘bread and circuses’ to satirise the politics of his day.

In the years since, the words have come to describe the sort of crowd-pleasing distractions that are used to preoccupy proles while the societal scenery collapses.

Photo: Nico Hogg (www.flickr.com/photos/nicohogg)

Photo: Nico Hogg (www.flickr.com/photos/nicohogg)

For some, it’s a description that would fit The Benefits Estate; a documentary gawping at the poor which was borrowed from Irish TV and given a more demeaning name by Channel 5.

At a time when tax-dodging and lobbying scandals are making headlines it’s easy to argue that such programming, so often emphasising petty crime and bad judgement amongst the poor, is a sideshow.

But when Juvenal wrote his satires his anger was not at the establishment – it was at the people. They had given up their power. They had abandoned their responsibility. All they wanted in return was shallow appeasement.

Channel 5 alone has aired shows called Benefits, Benefits Britain: Life On The Dole, On Benefits And Proud and – for those who want two prejudices satisfied at once – Gypsies On Benefits And Proud.

These programmes may serve the interests of the wealthiest, but their prevalence is the fault of the Great British public.

People of my generation may remember the MTV show, My Super Sweet 16.  In it, the horrifyingly out-of-touch offspring of the super-rich were shown organising opulent parties, while prancing to and fro inviting and disinviting friends as if choosing who lives and dies.

The appeal of the programme, so far as I could make out, was it made you feel better about yourself. Watching idiots living extravagantly with money they did nothing to earn makes you feel grounded.

Imagine then the delicious mix of self-righteousness and outrage that comes with watching someone live extravagantly off taxpayer cash that you – yes you – had hard earned and nobly sacrificed.

And the threshold for luxury is low for those living off the state. One shot shows a mum moaning about money while another shows her son on the Xbox. Look at them – living like normal people!

In our minds, benefit claimants should look like Oliver Twist; clothed in rags, permanently hungry and sporting a forlorn (if hopeful) expression. Well, for my part, I’m glad that the poorest in our society aren’t living like those of Hogarth’s London.

That’s not to say that change isn’t due. Elderly people who find themselves in need of help could have paid taxes all their working lives, but face sacrificing their children’s inheritance if they want the government to chip in for social care.

Nor do I deny that there are benefit claimants in dire need of a reality check. If you wear only designer clothes and have the latest Mac, MacBook and iPhone, then face it, things could be worse.

Yet our national obsession with benefits – and its commensurate coverage – is completely disproportionate.

Figures from November show that dosh dished out to the poor or unemployed accounts for six per cent of state spending. Meanwhile, one calculation for what we lose in uncollected tax suggests a number roughly equivalent to 17 per cent of the public purse, £119bn.

Within that welfare spend on the jobless and deprived are an honest majority of claimants whose deservedness most would never query, but still we focus on the minority and let them influence our views.

At the same time, someone at the other end of society complains that £67,000 of taxpayer cash is just not good enough.

Documentaries about benefits and those who get them can be insightful, but when you’re tuning in for a thrill it’s poverty porn – so do remember to feel a tad ashamed when the credits roll.