27 June 2016

Britain & Europa ...



https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_Europe.svg


“Still-faced and his lips set hard, Razumov began to write. […] He wrote five lines one under the other.

                History not Theory.
                Patriotism not Internationalism.
                Evolution not Revolution.
                Direction not Destruction.
                Unity not Disruption.


He gazed at them dully.”

-          Joseph Conrad


The actions described above come immediately after the student Razumov has betrayed a man he barely knew, condemning him to certain death at the hands of the state. The young man who had come to Razumov in the middle of the night, was an idealist and an activist. He had mistaken Razumov, the bookish loner, for a kindred spirit. But Razumov lives a life which is deeply nervous to its core; isolated from the wider world around him, hence timid but centred, all he has in life are his studies and his hopes for the future. But he feels he walks a tightrope between chaos and disaster – his only focus in life is to write a prize essay, to win that silver medal and so make something of his precarious and insignificant life. Yet, like so many of Joseph Conrad’s protagonists, he is faced with a nihilistic dilemma which exposes the raw wound at his inner core. Can he risk jeopardising his future by having been, albeit inadvertently and very briefly, associated with this man; or should he dob him in to the authorities and absolve himself entirely?

I first read this book around the time the Berlin Wall came down. I was thirteen in 1989. Entranced by the nightly News bulletins on the TV. The amazing pictures of world changing events unfolding day-by-day had a profound effect upon me. But there were other, earlier events on the TV News reports when I was growing up which similarly etched themselves onto my memory. The Miners' Strikes. The Brighton Hotel Bombing in which Margaret Thatcher and the Cabinet nearly died. The Brixton Riots. The Iranian Embassy Siege. The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster. The Townsend-Thoresen Ferry Disaster. The Falklands War.  – Beyond the small parameters of my life the world sometimes appeared to be a welter of chaos and disaster waiting to descend. Perhaps because at the time I was just coming of age, the fall of the Berlin Wall was something to latch onto; it was filled with a life affirming sense of hope. I was growing up and so it would progress; naturally, the world was becoming a better place. It stood to reason. The future would be better. My generation would be the one to help make it so ... Hence my deep sense of disillusion on June 24th 2016, when I watched all of that hope finally unravel before my eyes.

Aged fifteen at the time I first read Conrad’s Under Western Eyes, I've often found myself pondering that short list which Razumov had scribbled as the product of settling his mind and fixing his resolve against his helpless sense of disillusion. An attempt to fathom his fears of the future and his place within it. His world was in the throes of reconfiguring itself. The question at the dark heart of his dilemma always seemed to me to be in which direction should he go if he is to keep moving forward? His world had seemingly stopped, suddenly stymied by forces beyond his control, he is powerless. How could he take back that control and keep his own autonomy? – The truth of the book though, is that ultimately he can’t. He is part of a bigger system and it is a system which will destroy him, even though his instinct was to play along and preserve the status quo.

Unlike Razumov, I did believe in change. It was happening every night on the TV News reports. The Iron Curtain had collapsed. Revolution seemed like a positive thing. Indeed, the peaceful Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia was now a shining beacon of what those kinds of hopes could in fact become. We really could change the whole world without the need for, or recourse to bullets and bloodshed. Hence the tenets of Razumov’s list, which on the one hand seemed perfectly rational, were now directly contradicting themselves.

I’ve mused on and puzzled over that list on-and-off for many years since. Politics in my own country is something which has always bemused me. Until I was fourteen I’d never been conscious of any other Britain than that with Margaret Thatcher at the helm. And this was probably a large factor as to why I grew up perhaps naturally looking to the alternative, the possibilities of what else Britain could be. It felt ossified to me. The elite were all living high and mighty above us in their grand castles, whilst we, the serfs, toiled and were told to be content with our lot, and all because others (our betters) knew best what was good for us. Europe at that time, like never before, now seemed to offer a strange and unfathomable, almost ethereal, political presence - presaging a 'new' future. Like the Church and Crown in former times, notionally one had the power but it also had to pay heed to the other. It was hard not to notice that Britain's high and mighty political elite was constantly snapping at its leash. Therefore Europe sometimes seemed to be a good thing. The powers-that-be in Britain were not all-powerful after all. The European Convention on Human Rights, for one example, seemed like an eminently good thing in that respect. There were outlets for good. In referring to the EU we had steam valves to ease or stop the convulsions which could oppress us. Others saw elements of this second tier distinctly differently. It curbed and curtailed, it constrained, and it cost us. There are two sides to every coin, of course. Neither one nor the other was more virtuous or ideal, nor more accurate or true. But, with the two in tandem, to my mind at least, it seemed like a beneficial thing to be a part of – and the advent of the “New Europe” seemed only to offer a greater sense of hope, which reinforced that presentiment of good things still to come. Being part of the EU leavened the balance, it was the best way forward. In unity there is strength. “Unity not disruption.”

But over time that buzz of hope gradually began to wane. I’ve watched over the intervening years how our country’s political class has slowly homogenised. The distinctions between each have been blurred as they’ve increasingly become embroiled in a never-ending game of charades. Each betraying their own shallow sense of self-interest, not realising that the bubble they operated in was becoming ever more opaque. A weird mix of public disinterest and fascination began to coalesce, making the politicians think they could deflect public scrutiny by turning Parliament into a sideshow to a larger soap opera. The day-to-day business of Westminster had dropped out of focus with a growing public disinterest, but the scandal of MP's expenses and the insidious Orwellian drama of terrorism kept the show in town, entertaining and exercising the masses. It wasn’t so much 'bread and circuses' as more like duck-houses and gung-ho reasons to go to war. All this accrued like toxic bat crap in a dark Plato's cave during the decades through which I grew up, was educated, left home, and joined the workforce. The corrosive ammonia of political 'double-speak' is why I’ve never trusted the Tories, and equally why I came to dislike Tony Blair’s New Labour. Democratic curbs on power seemed like a good thing to me. I was glad we had the EU to broaden our perspective and if need be to act as a brake upon the broader/intra-international spheres in which we operated.

Hence why Boris Johnson’s remarkable volte face on Europe in the run up to the EU Referendum reaffirmed to me all that is so blinkeredly self-indulgent and personally myopic in the conduct of our politicians. “Patriotism not Internationalism” … I’ve never been a fan of Boris. To me he has always seemed more like Bogus Johnson. And his anti-democratic actions, vetoing local council decisions preventing planning applications to demolish certain historic buildings in London, have only ever reinforced this. I never wanted Boris to be London Mayor, and I certainly don’t want to see him become Prime Minister. I don’t think for a moment he is a loveable buffoon, I think he is a deeply sinister clown (and Michael Gove is the Jabberwock).

Living in London, fate or misfortune have meant I’ve crossed paths with Boris on a couple of occasions. One time was when I was standing at a set of traffic lights, waiting to cross. I’d got there just too late and the lights were about to change, so instead of making a dash for it I resigned myself to waiting at the curb. It was then that I looked up to see "BoJo" himself poised upon his bike, with an impending hoard of red buses, black taxis, and dirt-caked lorries, all revving their engines in loud readiness behind him. Just then, as Boris’s eyes locked with mine, a simple thought suddenly occurred to me – in a flash I realised that all I had to do was extend my arm at exactly the right moment, and then … The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round ... But no sooner had this occurred to me than the dark thought was instantly dismissed. In that electric-fast moment the traffic lights changed and in a roar of traffic Boris wobbled off on his bike with his lopsided backpack and his Worzel Gummidge hair sprouting from underneath his cycling helmet. Gnashing my teeth, I watched him disappear. The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round; round and round – all – day – long. Unlike Razumov, my rational "indecision" had exceeded my will to direct action, but the thought remained – I’d had a chance and I’d decided against it. Boris lives. Because of me. It’s a personal burden of guilt which I shall have to bear forever. Especially if he really does become Prime Minister. You can blame me, or give me an OBE, whichever you prefer; but I have to live with that thought. The wheels on the bus go round and round, all day long.

As Razumov learns in the course of Under Western Eyes, nothing happens without its consequences. He duly dobs the man in, reporting him to the authorities, but having done so Razumov is no longer free. Instead he has become involved, and so, subsequently he is gently coerced into taking part. In simply deciding to ‘do the right thing’ Razumov has inadvertently embroiled himself deeper than he could ever have foreseen. Having chosen a side he is now part of a bigger game, and it’s a game which ironically ends by destroying his life – the tenuous certainty and stability which he had thought threatened by the actions of another is instead a fragile psychological thread which he, in effect, self-twangs to breaking point. In taking control, he loses control.

None of us can know or foresee the outcome of the things we do, no matter how much we might strive to shape our lives by attempting to mould the world around us. We can’t escape ourselves. We are what external influences have shaped us to be. But, where we go and how far we carry our personal baggage is up to us. If we stay true to our own direction, yet we seek to balance it with a thought for those who might not be like us, hopefully we might find a consensus which we can all agree upon and feel comfortable with. In the end, self-interest never serves anyone for very long; the communal effort always goes the furthest. That’s why, after much thought, I came up with my own version of Razumov’s list, corrected for me and my outlook on life. Thus:

Fortitude not Despair.
Humanity not Hate.
Service not Self.
Transcendence not Isolation.
Community not Conflict.

As a result of all that I’ve seen and experienced of the wider world and the diversity of people and cultures I’ve met, and the many friends I’ve made in my life so far – I’ve chosen not to believe in borders. I’m not a fan of the kind of globalisation which promotes and entrenches petty nationalisms. I’d prefer the world to be a free and open place. Where cultural diversity flourishes rather than becomes homogenised or, worse, ghettoised. Travel and the opportunity for friendship has been the single greatest thing life has given me. I have friends in many different countries, of many different faiths and cultures. Perhaps the fact that I was fortunate to grow up in one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world laid the foundation for that openness? – I’m sure it was.

My classmates and I travelled to the “New Europe” as future ambassadors for a new sense of freedom. What has happened to destroy all that hope? … Contrary to the misguided notions of all those xenophobes who thought this referendum was a means of turning back the clock to a time which never really existed, Britain’s current multi-cultural diversity is perhaps the only real and lasting boon of Empire. And therein lies the rub. Empire not the EU is the real source of immigration, yet so many of those who seem to perceive immigration as a social problem also seem to hark back to those bombastic glory days. Empire set us on this road to globalisation. One thing which I’ve learnt from all my studies is that the effects of history are always far more subtle than the majority of people like to perceive. We tend to prefer our black and white, them and us, clear-cut divides between then and now. We like to believe in fictions. Fictions of the past, and fictions of the future. We are always living in a fictional new age, without realising it is simply a present which is trying to rearrange the effects of all the ages that have gone before. The present can never cut itself off from the past – even revolution has its roots, hence evolution. The system is but a single process however it chooses to reconfigure itself. The present is the future we are seeking to shape. And that’s why we all woke up with such a shock on Friday June 24th.

I feel like not one but two generations have been robbed of their idealism today. My own generation, the generation of Jo Cox MP,  has been robbed of its promise of being able to forge that “New Europe” which we all witnessed coming into birth by means of peaceful revolution in the early 1990s. Subsequent generations have never even had a chance at forging any sense of idealism. Higher education for all - but with ridiculously steep tuition fees (not to mention ridiculous housing prices) have robbed them of that phase of growth. They’ve never even had the chance to hope for a better world ahead of them. In that single issue – promoting education by inculcating the social bondage of debt – I think the British Government (regardless of its supposed colour) cut the feet off of its future; since that moment we’ve been stumbling towards this ridiculous and needless abyss. It’s no wonder the gap between the rich and the poor, the old and the young, has suddenly widened so far. Long before the EU Referendum this country effectively began tearing itself in two. This is why we are split right down the middle. The crisis we are now in the midst of may be nothing compared to the future which we are collectively bringing down upon our heads.

We might well be deeply divided. But I think there is a common cause which we can all strive towards if we don’t solely look to ourselves, but instead if we decide to broaden our horizons, to see and honour the hopes and aspirations of those around us, because for all our differences we are all essentially the same. The carnival of crass politics needs to come to an end, it’s now time to get real and get ourselves back on track. We need to galvanise this country and come together to work our way out of this mess and restore some sense of sanity and hope. We are a unique nation, a diverse community, and our greatest strength lies in that diversity. It’s high time we began to think holistically and not atomise ourselves into ever decreasing circles of petty warring factions. I can’t help fearing that we are sailing blindly into dangerous waters. We’ve certainly cut ourselves adrift. There’s now no doubt about that. Leaving the EU is a defining moment for sure. The rest of the 21st century – for both Britain and Europe – will be shaped by this day and this decision. Growing up I have felt many things about the politics of my country. I’ve felt fear. I’ve felt rage. I’ve felt conflicted and even fought against myself, but at times I’ve felt pride and even relief; I’ve dared to hope on several occasions, but I’ve never before felt quite so despondent about the political situation as I do today ... Now, it seems like there are no more lifeboats left, just the long agony of watching them rearrange the deckchairs.

I’m proud to have been a European. And I will always remain European, as those are the values which I chose to adopt when I was growing up. Just because my country has now chosen by the slimmest of margins (2.4%) to remove that status and those rights from me, it will not change my ethos. I will remain a European, in the hope that we can all one day regain that ideal.






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