UK Jewry is backing itself into a corner of its own making.

In the last couple of weeks, I have become embroiled in a discussion at my synagogue – on which I am in a very small minority –  about whether it is correct for an address made from the platform during our synagogue services to invoke a party political position, based on perceptions of anti-Semitism within the current Labour Party. This immediately followed an invitation to Ian Austin to address our Friday evening service, two weeks ago, on the 81st anniversary of Krystallnacht at which I was horrified at Austin’s invocation to his audience not to vote Labour in the forthcoming General Election to the approval, I need to add, of the vast majority of his audience; reflecting the current thinking of most of UK Jewry. And this was not the first of its kind.

Our rabbi, who is a very sincere and spiritual man – and a man for whom I have the utmost respect – has taken a position that it is his duty to speak out against Corbyn. This is from his most recent message, justifying the invitation, in our weekly congregational newsletter:

The only question we raise today is why there were not more Jewish leaders, scholars and lay leaders, with the courage to speak out against antisemitism and attacks on the Jewish people. As Elie Wiesel has so brilliantly challenged us over the past decades: “Do we really want our children to ask us years from now why we were silent?”

This statement is absolutely incontestable but whether one can conclude that Jeremy Corbyn is that duck, based on what he has quacked and with whom he swims, is far from proven in my opinion. There is some distance between the warning of a perceived direction of political travel and the reaching of conclusions of racial prejudice. More significant is the question as to whether the pulpit a correct place to direct voting intentions. (The Charities Commission says that it is not.) This is what I wrote, following that service, to the Rabbi:

Though I feel totally mismatched to engage with you on this, the fact remains that I did leave synagogue on Friday quite disturbed by elements of Ian Austin’s presentation to us – and I am not an apologist for Corbyn nor currently a supporter of The Labour Party. There will, however, have been quite a few at the service – which is also broadcast to a wider audience – who will be voting Labour in the coming election, and even some who do not see Jeremy Corbyn in the light in which he was cast. Do you have any concerns that they might feel that our synagogue is not a place where they feel comfortable? And is a political issue, such as this, one that should potentially drive such a wedge?

I know that it may be dangerous to quote from a person that I know nothing about, nor as to his ultimate motives. I suspect that I may find major areas of disagreement with Robert A H Cohen but I find myself in broad agreement with what he writes below in his blog Writing From The Edge: Rescuing The Jewish Covenant One Blog Post At A Time:

I’ve been told to fear the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. I’ve been warned that the Labour Party leader is antisemitic. And, according to a new poll, nearly half of British Jews are considering leaving the country if Labour wins the General Election on December 12th.

Despite the doomsday picture being painted for British Jews, I’m not fearful of Corbyn or the possibility of him reaching 10 Downing Street. Nor do I believe that the Labour Party is “poisoned” or “rampant” with antisemitism. But what has left me horrified over the last four years has been the reckless and irresponsible way in which antisemitism has been used to vilify Corbyn and make the entire Labour Party appear toxic.

For the record, I’m not a Labour Party activist, or even a Labour Party member. I have no particular brief to support Jeremy Corbyn. In local and national elections over the years, I’ve voted for Liberal Democrat candidates, Labour candidates and Green candidates. Geography means I don’t attend a synagogue as often as I’d like to, but I read and love my Jewish prayer book, and at home we light Shabbat candles and we celebrate the Jewish festivals. I worry about rising antisemitism around the world and I care about the safety and security of Jews in Britain. And because of all these things, it bothers me deeply when I see antisemitism become drained of meaning for the sake of narrow political advantage.

The UK’s Brexit induced General Election was always going to be about more than just Brexit. And so it should be. A decade of chronic underinvestment in public services; the growing disparity between rich and poor; our response to the Climate Emergency; and the very future of the United Kingdom itself, all need to be central themes of the campaign over the next month. The one issue that does not need to be part of the debate is antisemitism. At least not the version of the antisemitism debate we’ve been having over the last few years which has become profoundly politicised.

The opening days of the campaign

As things stand, scaremongering about antisemitism is in danger of hijacking the 2019 election. This is not good for British Jews nor for British democracy.

The position of the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish News, the two most widely read Jewish newspapers in the UK, is entirely expected and consistent with the campaign they have been running since September 2015 when Corbyn was elected Labour Party leader.

As this General Election campaign got underway, the Jewish Chronicle’s editorial stated:

“The impact of a Labour victory is almost unimaginable for our community…The prospect is truly frightening.”

The Jewish News titled its main Op Ed ‘The nightmare before Chanukah?’

What exactly are these editorial writers expecting to happen if Corbyn becomes Prime Minister? Shouldn’t it be possible to imagine it? Is there some hidden anti-Jewish manifesto in Corbyn’s back pocket that only they have seen? Their language suggests they expect immediate discriminatory laws against Jews to be enacted by a Corbyn government or, at the very least, a hostile environment against Jews to be created across the country.

Speaking at a formal dinner of the Board of Deputies of British Jews on November 4 the Board’s President, Marie van de Zyl, also hinted at the dark consequences of a Corbyn victory by saying the Board was “preparing for all scenarios.”

What kind of “scenarios” is the Board preparing for? It’s never made clear because it makes no sense. But a feeling of impending doom is created and left hanging in the air.

The Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, who’s been a prominent left of centre critic of Corbyn since his election, wove the same mood of dread and anxiety in a recent article in which he repeated the now well-worn (and well-refuted) allegations against Corbyn:

“I understand that to many, all this will sound overwrought. I’m afraid that Jewish history has made us that way, prone to imagining the worst. We look at our usually sparse family trees and we can pick out the pessimists, those who panicked and got out. It was they who left their mark on us. You see, the optimists, those who assumed things would work out for the best, they never made it out in time.”

It sounds “overwrought” because it is overwrought. But worse still, it’s feeding a moral panic across the nation and stoking fear in Jewish homes without a credible threat being presented.

But the Jewish establishment’s campaign against Jeremy Corbyn has never been only about convincing British Jews not to vote Labour.

The number of Jewish voters in the UK is tiny. Including adults and children, we make up only 0.5% of the population. There are only a handful of constituencies, mostly in North London, where Jewish votes (assuming they are cast uniformly) could make a decisive difference to the outcome. In any case, the majority of Jews stopped voting Labour long before Corbyn became leader. That’s to do with the economic and social advancement that most Jews in Britain have achieved. Until recently, it’s had nothing to do with Corbyn or antisemitism.

So branding Corbyn as antisemitic has always been about influencing the wider UK electorate. And it may well have succeeded. A poll carried out in April 2019 reported that 55% of respondents agreed with the statement that Mr Corbyn’s “failure to tackle anti-semitism within his own party shows he is unfit to be prime minister”.

Conservative supporting national newspapers, in particular the Daily Mail, The Times, The Telegraph, The Express, have all been enthusiastic amplifiers of the ‘Corbyn is antisemitic’ narrative. Neither these national newspapers nor the more liberal Guardian or the BBC, have shown much interest in seriously interrogating, let along challenging the allegations. The case against our mainstream media in its handling of the Labour antisemitism saga has been well established by media analysts and antisemitism experts in the book ‘Bad News for Labour’ published last month.

Meanwhile, the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats’ leader, Jo Swinson, speaking at her party’s election campaign launch on November 5 came up with the most peculiar, contorted and self-serving framing of the antisemitism accusation I’ve seen so far:

“Most importantly, the reason why people are Remain [on the Brexit question] is about values, and one of those values is so important – is the value of equality – for recognising that people can be themselves, as individuals, whatever the colour of their skin, whatever God they pray to, whoever they are. And Jeremy Corbyn’s complete and utter failure to root out antisemitism in his own Party, is a – just – total dereliction of duty when it comes to protecting that value of equality.”

While this alignment of racism, inequality and support for Brexit may have some coherence when you look to the political right, it’s hard to make sense of it in Corbyn’s case, not when you examine Corbyn’s track record on campaigning against racism or his party’s policies on immigration and refugees. And while Corbyn’s position on Brexit is deliberately ambiguous, painting him as a hard Brexiteer doesn’t tally with his party’s position over the last three years. But hey, let’s not let any pesky facts spoil the antisemitism story.

As for the Conservative Party leader and current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, he’s happily climbed on the bandwagon by describing his main opponents in this election as: “fratricidal antisemitic Marxists”. I feel sure he will return with characteristic enthusiasm to the subject as the election campaign reaches its climax.

For a more detailed account of how the right is exploiting and abusing antisemitism during this election, and over the last few years, I’d recommend the article by antisemitism academic Tony Lerman in Open Democracy.

The case against Corbyn’s Labour

So what is the case against Corbyn? And does it stack up as the show-stopping, moral argument against his gaining elected high office?

It’s always been difficult to disentangle the allegations of antisemitism from the wider divisions within Labour over Corbyn’s shift of the party to the left. The growing influence of more left-wing Labour members at the grass roots and within its national decision making bodies has been fought against by Labour MPs who favoured the Blair/Brown years of Labour leadership. Antisemitism has, in part, become a proxy battle in a bigger ideological war over how Labour should respond to decades of neo-liberalism and more recently austerity. So motivations can be, and have been, mixed and complex.

It’s impossible to understand the personal criticism against Corbyn without recognising that it’s nearly always in the context of a wider debate over the behaviour of Israel towards the Palestinian people.

Corbyn has been a long standing campaigner for Palestinian rights for decades. Those official and establishment Jewish voices that say they fear a Corbyn government tell us they do so because they fear a radical change in the safety and security of Jews in Britain. But a more credible explanation for their accusations is the possibility of a radical change in the attitude of the British government towards the State of Israel. But in merely expressing the possibility of a political motive behind the attacks, one quickly becomes branded as anti-Jewish. Freedom of speech gets buried alive in this war over the meaning of antisemitism.

Having noted this central aspect of the saga, it’s also true that some on the left make themselves, and by association Corbyn, easy targets for justified criticism. The left’s emphasis on the wrongs of empire, colonialism and racism lead to a small minority expressing an obsessive and un-nuanced understanding of Zionist thinking which too easily trips into antisemitism.

It’s true too that Israel/Palestine has become a totemic cause on the left, much as South African apartheid was in the 70s and 80s or the Vietnam War in the 60s. But there are perfectly legitimate reasons for wanting to highlight Israel as a nation with a long and on-going history of human rights abuses which western leaders choose not to act against. A few on the left will make the lazy mistake of falling into anti-Jewish rhetoric to explain why this has happened. This in turn enables the professional advocates for Israel to label all anti-Israel criticism on the left as founded on nothing more than antisemitism.

The questions we are then left with are: how great is the scale of the problem and how well has Corbyn dealt with it?

Let the numbers speak

The precise scale of reported antisemitism within the Labour Party became clear at the start of this year when Labour’s general secretary, Jennie Formby, released detailed numbers covering accusations of antisemitism made against Labour members between April 2018 and January 2019. This covered the period during which media interest in the story reached fever pitch in the summer and autumn of 2018.

The 673 accusations as a percentage of party members amounted to 0.1% of the total Party membership. However, 220 of the allegations were rejected through the disciplinary process which left 453 (or 0.08% of party membership) accused, found guilty and disciplined. Of these, only 12 were considered serious enough to warrant permanent expulsion.

Further analysis of these figures, and other data, and their comparison to survey data of antisemitism in the UK population as a whole, has been carried out by statistician Alan Maddison. The upshot is, there’s less antisemitism in Labour than you would expect to find in the UK population as a whole (which is already among the lowest in the world). In fact, reputable surveying in 2017 by Jewish Policy Research, showed that antisemitism was more prevalent on the right and far right than on the left in the UK.

“Levels of antisemitism among those on the left-wing of the political spectrum, including the far-left, are indistinguishable from those found in the general population.”

Which again begs the question as to why all the focus has been on Labour since Corbyn became leader. The numbers suggest we should be looking elsewhere.

What about Corbyn himself?

If Jeremy Corbyn is truly antisemitic he must be the most unusual and eccentric example of antisemitism ever displayed by a British political leader and perhaps any political leader.

When you are told that a politician is a diehard antisemite you don’t expect to then discover that over the decades he’s signed dozens of Early Day Parliamentary motions condemning antisemitism; helped organised protests against anti-Jewish marches; visited the Terezin concentration camp to commemorate Holocaust victims; attended numerous Jewish events in his constituency; and read the war poetry of Isaac Rosenberg at his local Remembrance Day service.

The list of antisemitic ‘crimes’ by Corbyn which have been ‘unearthed’ to ‘expose’ his guilt all crumble for anyone who bothers to do some fact checking or examine the context in which they happened.

If I have criticisms of Corbyn over his handling of antisemitism it’s that he did not defend himself or his party more robustly.

He should have toured the TV studios during the spring and summer of 2018 to refute the allegations made against him. He should have invited his accusers, in particular Campaign Against Antisemitism, and the leaders of the Board of Deputies, Jewish Leadership Council and the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, to debate face to face. He should have given a platform to Palestinian voices to demonstrate the problematic nature of the IHRA “illustrations” of antisemitism. He should have given a major speech setting out his understanding of Jewish history, of antisemitism, of what does and does not count as fair criticism of Israel and Zionism.

The strategy of not giving more oxygen to the allegations through direct engagement turned out to be wrong. It just encouraged more vilification.

The failure of Jewish leadership

But the greatest failings in this story have not been Corbyn’s.

Over the last four years the formal leadership of the Jewish community in the UK, aided and abetted by Jewish community newspapers and the Campaign Against Antisemitism, have succeed in making the task of fighting anti-Jewish behaviour harder and more complicated.

They have exaggerated a problem within Labour and enabled a false narrative to take hold in the public’s understanding of the issue. In doing this, they have made antisemitism into a party political football.

With their promotion of the IHRA document as the international ‘gold standard’ of wording rather than the “working document” its authors describe it as, they have imposed on politicians, local authorities, universities and Churches a weak and deeply flawed definition of antisemitism.

They have promoted illustrations of antisemitism which are already chilling free speech and denying another people their history and identity.

By turning antisemitism into a political battleground, they have created ‘good Jews’ and ‘bad Jews’ – those that are allowed to speak with a Jewish voice and those that are condemned as traitors.

The campaign against Labour has never been about reforming or educating a small minority or rooting out a tiny hardcore of antisemitism. This has been about regime change. Only Corbyn’s resignation as leader was ever going to be truly acceptable.

With a General Election campaign now in full swing, Labour candidates and Labour activists, and indeed Labour voters, are being told they are actively promoting antisemitism or at least ignoring the concerns of the Jewish community in Britain. It’s no longer just Corbyn that’s being vilified. It’s half the country.

Meanwhile, Jewish families have become fearful under entirely false pretenses.

This is not good Jewish leadership. This is a dangerous failure of leadership.

If Labour loses this election and antisemitism allegations are perceived to have been a key factor in the Party’s defeat, what will be the long term political consequences? How will millions of voters perceive our Jewish institutions and leaders and indeed Jews in general?

A better debate on antisemitism

Whatever the result of this General Election, we’re going to need a better and very different debate about antisemitism in Britain than the one we’ve been having.

Antisemitism is real and it’s growing. We need to face into the role Israel plays in generating antisemitism. We need to recognise that Zionism can be experienced as both a movement for Jewish liberation and as a project of racist, settler colonialism. We need to be clear from which political direction the most serious dangers to Jews and other minorities are coming from. For some on the left, there is a need to learn some Jewish history and appreciate why so many Jews feel such an emotional tie towards Israel.

As for those who currently claim to speak in the interests of Jews in Britain, they too could do with some serious historical and political education. Or perhaps just early retirement.

 

I am deeply concerned.

Annie Feuermann

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I find it impossible to remove the personal and contact details of deceased persons, with whom I have been close, from my diary & address book. Thus, every 14th October the name of ANNIE FEUERMANN pops up in my diary.

Annie was a close childhood friend to my mother’s sister, Lisel and then of Herta, my mother. As Socialists,  Annie & Lisel shared a life of political activism. Due to the untimely early death of Lisel and Herta’s mother – from an infection from a tooth extraction in the early 1920s (my mother was born in 1918) – Lisel’s role was much more than that of an elder sister to my mother. Following Lisel’s own death in 1960, Annie in many ways took over that role and I recall very clearly the emotion and excitement that accompanied Annie’s visits to our home. After my mother’s death in 1988, Annie – who by then had moved back to Vienna – was a regular visitor to my Father’s home and my own. I last saw Annie in 1993 – on a memorable trip to Vienna with Dad, Hertha Lowy, a lifelong friend, and Jane – when she presented me with a glorious lithograph of the Franz Josefquai, which hangs in our living room today.

Vienna

Annie was one of those very rare people who seem to have an aura about them. Always understanding and interested, Annie was a gentle and kind person who always had, or made, time for others. Sadly, though I retain some details, I regretfully do not recall enough to write a credible biography of Annie’s remarkable life. Fuelled with these memories of her, I took to the internet to see if I could discover a bit more and to my joy discovered an entry in Das RoteWien, the online Lexicon of Viennese Social Democracy and, incredibly, a video of an interview with her televised by Austrian television in 1989. (Link to video)

The interview concerns itself with Annie’s experiences in the 1930s as a Jewish teenager of strong Socialist conviction – a period effectively bookended by the General Strike & Uprising of 1934, which heralded in the suppression of political opposition, and The Anschluss of 1938, when the Germans marched across Austria’s opened borders to occupy the country. The following is a rough transcript of that interview:

Annie Feuermann was born in 1913 into an orthodox Jewish family. She was aware that anti-Semitism existed in Austria because it was a subject talked about at home. Her father ran a small clothing business and she recalls his telling of the minor indignities that he felt he suffered as a Jew; especially when travelling on business, when he was often interrogated as to who he was and where he came from and was more-often-than-not offered inferior accommodation. Annie said that these were the ‘small pinpricks’ one experienced as a Jew in Vienna at those times, whose cumulative effect made Jews often feel as ‘Anderen’ – foreigners.

 At the age of 16, Annie joined the Socialist Youth party. By her own admission she was a ‘book worm’ and, when she was given a membership card to the library ran by The Party, the world of the major socialist writers opened for her – the ideals of the French Revolution, the 1848 movement, 1871 Paris Commune & the Russian Revolution. Even more significantly she was now in contact with other like-minded individuals, who saw the solution to all social problems, including anti-Semitism, in the notions of Equality and Freedom as intoned by Schiller’s refrain: ‘Alle Menschen werden Bruder’ – all Men should become Brothers (and one’s religion was a personal matter & not a basis for discrimination.) In the interview, Annie is asked whether she was aware of there being anti-Semitism in the SD party and her reply was

“I’ve now come to realise that this was the case but I still haven’t changed my mind that a world where all people are brothers and equal is still possible; one where all people have the same potential regardless of race or religion.”

Annie recalls a Socialist Culture – one where on where smoking drinking or dancing were frowned upon, as opposed to ‘wholesome activities’ such as hiking, swimming, skiing – and spending a lot of the time in discussions, not only with fellow Socialists but also with those of different political persuasions, in the youthful belief that such debates offered a route to the peaceful resolution of issues. These debates also brought her into contact with some very eminent individuals including Max Adler, the Marxist philosopher, who offered views that one simply did not get at school!

At 11.46 am on the 12th of February 1934 the Viennese tram system came to an abrupt halt signalling in the start of the 4-day so-called Austrian Civil War. (For a fuller account see here). Annie, now a 21 year old full ‘card-carrying’ member of The Social Democrat party, makes her way to an official SD Gathering Point near her home in the 1st Bezirk to await further instructions expected by telephone. She had been more than aware that conflict was possible, even inevitable, and was prepared to give up her life for socialism; given an absolute conviction that the working class would have to fight for the rights of the down-trodden in the long term interests of the world. The call never comes and, when it becomes clear that all is lost, she returns home but not before helping to hide or destroy a store of incriminating material. After the failed uprising, the Social Democrats are declared an illegal political party. The disappointment for Annie is that the Social Democrat party’s organisation and plans had not only failed but had in no major way been acted upon. 

Annie continues to work clandestinely for The Party until The Anschluss on 12th March 1938; after which time the issue at hand becomes one of personal survival. During this time she finds herself twice in prison. The first time in 1935 when she is scheduled to meet 2 others on Petersplatz. When these two young men are detained by the police, who suspect that they are in possession of stolen bicycles, find illegal socialist materials in their possession and furthermore are told that they were waiting for a certain Annie Feuermann. Police come to her house and find a draft article for the illegal socialist newspaper.  Annie is arrested and detained in prison for 60 days. In a single cell with 5 other women, a political prisoner among criminals & prostitutes, she recalls that she was most scared of what her father would think. In prison, that first time, Annie spends her time studying for her exams. Annie was now known to the police and, after her release, is the subject of continued observation. In 1937, after again being found in possession of illegal materials, she is sentenced with 2 others to 4 months of political detention, again in prison as there were no special facilities available for women.  For the first 6 weeks, of this her second detention, her glasses are confiscated from her; for her the worst punishment of all, as she can not read. When the glasses are returned she remembers reading Crime & Punishment. Conditions are poor – nothing compared to those after the Anschluss – but awful by any contemporary standards. She remembers being continually hungry and the solidarity among the prisoners of all political persuasions who went on a hunger strike over poor food, which lasted 24 hours until better food was offered. She also remembers hearing beatings. The imprisonment cost her her graduation, as she was banned from attending university. She was allowed back after the day after the Anschluss but by then she was more concerned with saving her own life.

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 I do not know exactly how long Annie remained in Austria before she managed to flee. In the interview, she recalls that three weeks after the Anschluss two Jewish boys were picked up by the police. Their mother heard nothing and then she received a postcard with no other explanation from Germany excepting that she could fetch the urn with their remains from Munich. This was not unique but she remembers it because it was the first time that such a thing had happened. Annie did manage to flee from Austria. From the Rotewien, I can see that she was assisted by The Quakers to get to Paris and then made her way to Glasgow, which was her home when I first remember meeting her in the 1950s.

Annie remained in Glasgow until her return to Vienna in 1959. In Glasgow, Annie worked as a hospital care-worker and I think it must have been there that she met and married Mr. Kohn, with whom I never made any acquaintance. I also do not know what became of him – I, now presume that he died before 1959 as I certainly have no recollection of his being in Vienna, on our first family visit there in the summer of 1959, when we met up with Annie.

Upon her return to Vienna, Annie threw herself into public service, serving among other things as Chair of Poale Zion, the Jewish Workers Union. Annie also spent a deal of her time concerning herself with the conditions of Austria’s immigrant population. Her boundless energy was still very much to the fore, when I last saw her in 1993.

I wish I had spent more time in conversation with Annie about her personal life and political opinions. I was very interested, for instance, to learn from her interview that she blames the increased presence of anti-immigrant nationalist sentiment in Austria on the fact that the country did not undertake any measurable process of self-examination or reconciliation during the aftermath of World War 2. But that was Annie, one of those rare individuals who concerned themselves more with others, rather than talk about herself. The fact that one year after her death, The Annie Feuermann Day Care Centre was founded in her honour is a testimony to a remarkable human of the highest ideals and one who devoted her life to the service of them.

 

יהי זכרו (זכרה) ברוך

May Her Memory Be A Blessing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Petition against Palestinian Authority salaries for terrorists.

Whilst the UK does not directly fund the salaries of terrorist prisoners, it is morally unacceptable that British taxpayers’ money is being used to fund essential services and public sector salaries in the Palestinian Authority at the same time that the Palestinian Authority is wasting its own resources on rewarding terrorists. As a donor state the UK is entitled to call out  and condemn this reprehensible practice.

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Please sign the petition here to the UK Government about the shocking new revelations that the Palestinian Authority is increasing salary payments to terrorist prisoners.

To: The Secretary of State for International Development

We the undersigned, note the report published by Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) on 3 July 2019 (here), which states that:

  • In the months January – May 2019, the PA’s (Palestinian Authority’s) expenditure on salaries to terrorist prisoners and released prisoners was 234 million shekels (over £52 million)
  • This figure shows the PA has increased its salary payments to terrorist prisoners by 11.8% compared to 2018
  • The PA Ministry of Finance put its budget expenditure reports back on its website only after PMW exposed that the PA was hiding its finances
  • The reports reflect the PA’s decision to plunge the Palestinian economy into crisis and punish its public employees by cutting their salaries, while guaranteeing the payment – in full – of the salaries to the terrorists

We do not understand how the UK assessment of the MoU between DFID and the PA can have concluded “that the Palestinian Authority continues to demonstrate a credible commitment to a range of DFID ‘partnership principles’, including the principle of non-violence” when the PA is paying salaries to terrorist prisoners.

We call on the UK Government to use its leverage as one of the major donors to the PA to insist that it ends the practice of paying salaries to convicted terrorists.

We get the Leaders we deserve.

When Dave called The Referendum, not for a moment thinking that the UK would opt for BREXIT, nobody could have conceived the social and political stalemate that we have been living through these past three years. Looking back on it now, it is hard to imagine that the country was so ignorant of the difficulties that lay ahead. Back in 2016, we were aware that there was an Irish issue attached to a departure of the EU but the word ‘Backstop’, as it relates to this issue, was nowhere on the horizon. But, what really dismays me about these last three years is how the vast majority of personal opinions have not shifted in response to an evolving situation.. This fact is exactly what blindsided Mother Theresa in 2017 when she asked for a bigger BREXIT majority and she received a wafer-thin mandate reflecting exactly what had happened before. And two years later nothing in terms of public opinion has really changed. And this stasis is directly reflected in the positions taken by our political leaders

 MAD

Der Spiegel this week published the immensely amusing cartoon above and The Ericle was amused with the rest. However, stepping back from the ‘cleverness’ of it all, I am asking myself where the thrust of joke really resides. Yes, yes, Boris is an imperfect individual – and the Conservative members who promoted him party leader are a bunch of Middle-England Oldies – but are we not really playing a collective blame-game; one where as individuals we refuse to adjust to new realities?

Albert Einstein is reputedly accredited with saying that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Well something has now changed: we now have a single-minded government with cabinet members all ostensibly singing from the same hymn-sheet. Though, The Ericle is by a long chalk not a standard-bearer for the new Government and is far from comfortable with the cut of Boris’s jib, I do however see that what he is attempting is potentially game-changing. Furthermore, I believe him when he claims that he would much rather leave with a deal than without. And the best way this can possibly come about is by taking the position “We leave by October 31, come-what may” and prognosticating it with absolute conviction.

I am far from sure which part of the saying “Some are born mad, some achieve madness and some have madness thrust upon them” applies to Boris. However, I do recognise, as an International Relations graduate, that negotiating foreign policy requires different skills to those require for the conduct of domestic politics. Indeed, it is reasonably argued that presence of MADness – Mutually Assured Destruction – has spared the world from global warfare since WW2. So, if Der Spiegel wants to see Boris as ‘Mad’, that is no bad thing. However, if we are minded of Shakespeare’s words that “Men at some time are masters of their (own) fates” then it is our personal sanities that are brought into question.

My reader will have noted that I have been on both sides of the BREXIT debate; having voted Leave in 2016 to being prepared to vote Remain in the event of another Referendum. Surely it must be crystal clear to all concerned that we can’t Leave and Remain? Something has to give. Do we really want to continue debating the issue for another 3 years? What is at stake here is Society itself and that is why The Ericle wishes this matter to be resolved in the shortest possible time. For three years now, no other issue has really been given oxygen, and gawd-knows this country has issues. So that is why I am hoping that public opinion and the country’s parliamentarians fall behind Boris’s proposed direction of travel and that by October 31, this horribly divisive period of our history ends and we can begin focusing on other vital matters of national importance.

 

Vox Clamantis in Deserto

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If ever there was a living metaphor for the state of a nation, Theresa May’s voice yesterday said it all. In fact, to call it ‘a voice’ does not do justice as a describer – it was a croak, at times a whisper and at all times painful to listen to. As such, it summed up the state of our sick nation – a voice which, in near history, when invoked others were obliged to pay attention; now no more. Yesterday, that voice became that of an injured animal, talking only to itself – a wounded creature that had lost its way and was floundering around in the jungle looking for some safe haven in order to lick its wounds.

It may suit the collective to place the blame on The Prime Minister but this is to obviate a blame that, in reality, resides with the collective itself; for in truth we are a nation that has refused to take stock of itself and one who, for many years, has taken false succour in a belief that we have a national and global status that does not match the reality of our true circumstances. Moreover, as a nation that has not taken account of the change in our circumstances, we have continued to keep faith with institutions that derive from a quite different age; one where an unwritten constitution held sufficient democratic sway given a thriving economic and political situation. As the UK moved from a position of great wealth, that could service a welfare state, shrinking finances required institutions that could fairly take stock of our situation. Instead, we have been trapped within political institutions that could be controlled by self-serving vested interests. As a result, we have become a nation of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. In many countries this formula produces unrest and revolutions; in the UK it produced the Referendum result of 2016.

The Great British Public can well look at yesterdays sickening shambles in The House Of Commons and point fingers at its leaders. In truth we have the leaders that we deserve; one that reflects a nation that evidentially presents itself as one where individual opinions cannot come together for the common good. And though I would personally welcome a chance to reconsider, and can see great democratic merit in a 2nd Referendum, I fear this will solve nothing – in fact, it could cause yet more harm to our wounded public fabric. So, for this reason alone at this very late hour, I still hope that The Commons – and the EU – can find some way to gather around a workable compromise that allows us to move on within a reasonable short-term time-frame. If this is to happen, they will, at last, be serving the people rather than individual political agendas. Inshallah.

 

Bored with BREXIT?

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Like any sane person in the UK, I am sick and tired of discussing BREXIT but it is a conversation that won’t go away. My fearful anticipation is that it is a generational conversation that won’t end, as it is one that really is about the undercurrents & forces that are swirling in the world:

  • the shift of economic & political power away from the First World
  • a slow-down in the World Economy
  • responding politics of nationalism and economic self-interest
  • political leaders that exploit all of the above

These are dangerous times.

My generation has lived the full cycle from post-war optimism and economic good-times to the opposite end of the spectrum. Moreover, we have lived from a time where the needs of society played some role in individual consciousness to one where self-interested entitlement best describes The Public Soul. Given that peace-to-war & feast-to-famine cycles are enduring to this world, it is a socio-psychological model of human behaviour that is nigh to universal. But we are a generation that expected otherwise and the fact that the cycle has lasted the length of a lifetime may yet be the best indicator that belies the dictum plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, (the more things change, the more it’s the same thing). So, even while my guts tell me that we are entering an inevitable night, there are some straws to clutch on to that suggest things may yet be different:

  • economic co-dependence
  • the internet Global Village
  • the threat of MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction

Even if the above factors do apply the brakes to our momentum towards a cliff edge, undoubtedly we have a bumpy road in immediate prospect.

Which brings me back to BREXIT. I despair of the politicians that are using the ‘Backstop’ to fuel their political ambitions for it is a Red Herring. As Mother Theresa asserts this is a Withdrawal Bill and a fair Final Settlement will always need goodwill on both sides. For heaven’s sake, no compromise can offer everything to all sides. So, FWIW, I do truly believe that the May Deal – tweaked or otherwise – is our best direction of travel, as it’s a solution that offers something to all sides.

And if you believe that these are my last words on the subject, may I respectfully refer you to the fairies at the end of the garden….

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BREXIT: A Failure Of leadership

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The Ericle can offer my valued reader no great insight as to whether yesterday’s proposed Brexit Withdrawal deal is as good as the UK could get. Although I am not fundamentally against it, what I am completely clear about is that the choice that should be before decision makers, at this time, should be one between the deal that is currently on the table and a fully-expressed alternative; namely a well-constructed comprehensive Hard Brexit (“The Cliff Edge”) plan. To which – as I have argued for in a recent posting – another referendum should take place, which includes the 3rd option of Remaining. This is the real betrayal that has taken place over the last 2 years; not the deal as is currently muted. Rather the May government, either by incompetence or design, is holding a gun to the country’s head to either accept a deal that has been driven almost entirely by maintaining a status-quo for Big Business or face chaos. For chaos is indeed the alternative on offer and this is the crime that has been committed.

The above can be of no surprise to those who have been paying attention. On the surface there are 3 prime forces at work:

  • a narcissistic selfish electorate that is only concerned with its individual well-being
  • politicians who pander to this neediness and defer from responsibilities of leadership as opposed to re-election
  • greed (the Thatcher & Blair years) & austerity (Brown to present)

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However, there is an elephant in the room – the UK Civil Service. This elphant is not invisible but it is certainly Teflon-coated. No other UK institution is more immune from scrutiny and criticism. It chooses to represent itself as per Gus O’Donnell on a recent Peston on Sunday – dismissing accusations that the civil service was trying to thwart Brexit – as being imbued with ‘honesty, objectivity integrity and impartiality’; to which the former Cabinet Secretary added that the problem wasn’t with his side (the civil service) but with… Brexit!!!  Sir Humphrey could not have said it or done it any better. The Senior Civil Service (‘The Mandarins’) has long been criticised for being as much of an Oxbridge elite as are our political leaders. And like its political masters’, claims of the ‘death’ of the Old Boy network are severely exaggerated. It, therefore, shouldn’t shock anybody who is in tune with the many cosy coteries extant in the UK that like the politicos The Civil Service planning for a No Deal was tardy and incomplete. Moreover the executive & admin levels of the civil service – those chaps responsible for implementing non-functioning wasteful IT contracts & the like – are unlikely to have compensated for their seniors’ shortcomings.

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The situation we thus find ourselves in is a ‘very British’ one. As a country, we are prone to grandiose ideas but with a follow-up that is inefficient and drawn out – the 3rd Heathrow runway and High-Speed Rail come easily to mind. However, once Article 50 was triggered (a tragic political mistake) the luxury of an ever-lengthening deadline was removed from the equation and our historic inabilities have come to the fore. Perhaps it is true that we have the leaders that we deserve. But, to mix my metaphors, we have talked ourselves into a corner and we are now left in a boat with only one paddle when there should have been two.

As I write this, cabinet ministers are dropping like flies. This only brings me more to the conclusion that I reached long ago. This decision is not one that can be taken by Government fiat or by a Parliamentary vote. The situation requires another referendum that includes the Remain option – or, as is most likely, a National Election to the same effect.

What a way to run a railroad!

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21st Century Highwaymen

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According to Wikipedia:

The Great Age Of Highwaymen was the period from the Restoration in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. What favoured them most was the lack of governance and absence of a police force. Most of the highwaymen held up travellers and took their money. Some had channels by which they could dispose of bills of exchange. Others had a ‘racket’ on the road transport of an extensive district; carriers regularly paid them a ransom to go unmolested.  Their famous demand was “Stand and deliver your purse!

I would contend that today a new Great Age Of Highwaymen is afoot, preying on innocent travellers. Their bill of exchange is the credit card and their ‘racket’ comes via rental car transactions. And, yes, most travellers regularly pay them a ransom and go forth unmolested.

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Perhaps the most famous location relating to Restoration Highwaymen was The Spaniards Inn, near where we live in London. Then a first staging-stop on the route north from London, weary travellers were preyed upon there to give up their worldly possessions; often to the infamous Dick Turpin.

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A few days ago Mrs Ericle and I arrived at Malaga Airport, somewhat frazzled by a delayed flight, wanting only to proceed with all due haste to our Andalusian destination. The only obstacle in our path to this ambition was a rental car transaction. Mrs E & Moi-meme are not unwashed in these matters and it would be fair to say that we faced our encounter with the rental representative with some trepidation but a steely determination.

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The first assault on the vulnerable car-renter is delay, extending exhaustion and inviting impatience. Invariably there will be a queue with each transaction ahead of oneself taking unbearable protracted time. As one gets nearer to the counter, the point where the ultimate assault will take place, one inevitably overhears what the future has in store – the confusion, dismay and angst are palpable. This day our assailants are OK Rent A Car – but it could have been Any Other Rent A Car, the experience would almost certainly have been the same:

MR OK: Hola, hello! Welcome to OK Rent A Car. Can I have your reservation, por favor.

At this stage, MR OK seems like a nice helpful sort and you almost begin to think that today your worst fears will not be realised. This sense of well-being is quickly dissipated as Mr OK carefully scrutinises your reservation as if something particularly nasty has just made its way up his nose. He sighs, morphs into a Customs Inspector and demands delivery to his person of driving licences and a credit card. His attention then turns to a computer keyboard where he spends the next few minutes typing a novella; an activity which results in an outpouring of paper to match his endeavours. Mr OK brandishes these like a magician asking you to inspect a pack of cards. He knows, you know; he knows that you know, you know that he knows – there is a trick about to be performed. He is The Magician and you The Victim looking for the catches and suspicious of every turn. This only adds to the tension of the situation further playing into Mr OK hands. The trick evolves and invariably succeeds, at many levels. Let me play some of them out for you:

  • The Warm-up Act: The Documentation. It is impossible for you to read it all within any acceptable time-frame; your own or that of the line behind you, whose seething impatience is itself becoming a factor in the transaction. Mr OK does nothing to dissuade you that the paperwork is a minefield, while at the same time inviting you to sign in several places. You are a rabbit caught in the headlights but you sign anyway – they all do – after a cursory inspection. In reality, you have nothing to fear but fear itself but you have been placed in submission mode. You have been invited to take your clothes off and expose yourself. You have obliged.
  • #1 The Disappearing Car Trick. You didn’t realise it but the car you booked is a Magic Car. It’s disappeared! But unlike other magic tricks that involve reappearances, in this trick the car you expected never appears. You are directed to accept a ‘like-car’, which despite your protests, you have no other choice but to accept as the car you booked has totally disappeared. In truth, the trick here is a no-gainer for either side but its main effect is the further ceding of control to The Magician.
  • #2 The Fuel Trick. This trick can be played in any number of ways. Reasonableness would suggest that your car be provided with a full fuel tank. What you are not expecting is the fuelling charge accompanies this service. Another variation is the Full Tank Out/Empty Fuel Tank Back Trick; a double whammy as there is still a fuelling charge but how the heck do you return a car empty? Either way, full or empty, you have been tricked!
  • #3 The Insurance Trick. You will be aware that every rental car transaction involves an infamous Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) insurance – that threshold above which insurance covers any costs of damage to the vehicle while in your possession. That level has gone up over the years; in the case of OK Rental A Car it is a hefty €1250. The Magician now draws your attention to this potential liability. Fortunately, he has an insurance policy that covers the €1200 and it will only cost you €209! This is an insurance premium of 17% but many succumb immediately to this monstrous proposition. Those that don’t are subjected to a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing appeal from The Magician that he only has the renter’s financial interest at heart; conjuring up images of the misfortunes of slashed-tyres, scratched mirrors and pebble-chips. It is a determined punter who resists The Magician, particularly as by this (considerable) time the issue has been presented as potential financial devastation rather than the €1250 which is really at stake. The few that don’t succumb to this pitch – which include those like ourselves who have taken out an annual CDW-excess policy that costs less than 50% of that The Magician wants for one-time-cover – are invariably subjected to a tirade on their financial insanity. The vehemence of The Magician’s argument, and the energy he puts into it, strongly suggests a personal financial interest in the matter?
  • #4 The Inspection Trick. Your paperwork may include a marked-up diagram of any scratches or dents on your rental vehicle. However, it will be up to you to point out any that are not marked. By the time you actually approach your vehicle, you are in all likelihood far from your best to carry out this inspection. In truth, you are not a car professional and how much can you really notice under such conditions, let alone after the exhaustive process you have been put through. If you have paid the €290 insurance you do not have anything to fear but it’s a hefty price that you have paid for this comfort.

The above covers just the major dimension of the kinds of robbery one potentially faces at the hands of Rental Car companies. There are others such as car-cleaning charges and breakdown insurance, all of which one would reasonably expect to be an integral part of the basic car rental proposition. As per the description above of our 17th Century Highwayman, it is a ‘racket’ undertaken with a cloak of invulnerability granted by “the lack of governance and absence of a police force”. In reality, our 21st Century Highwayman is guilty of a low-order of crime – it’s not murder or assault but when aggregated it is a grand larceny, which potentially could be subject of PPI-kind recompense. Given that much of this crime takes place across international jurisdictions, I am not holding my breath. Until that unlikely time, needs dictate that one must subject oneself to the abuse – if not the injury – in the knowledge that most clients of the Car Rental Highwayman will simply ‘Stand and Deliver’.

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