Sunday, 26 June 2016

Landscape as political transect

Tower Hamlets (32.5 % Leave  67.5 % Remain)

It is the afternoon of Saturday 25th June and my train draws out of London’s Liverpool Street Station amid a thunderstorm, heading east for Ipswich and Norwich.  It is a grubby poorly upholstered train with many empty first class carriages whilst the rest of us are crammed into the other half of the train.

As the train leaves the station I can see a familiar mix of Victorian terraces interspersed with post-war social housing. 

Newham  (47.2 % Leave  52.8 % Remain)

The Olympic Park, Westfield shopping centre, and high-rise student accommodation.
Cranes, tents, and half-finished buildings in the rain.
Cemetery, pylons, overpass.
Car parks, transport depots, inter-war retail units.

Barking and Dagenham (62.4 % Leave  37.6 % Remain)

Petrol stations, big box Wickes store.
The train slows slightly but does not stop at Chadwell Heath station.
Semi-suburbia and standardized poor quality new build housing.

Havering (69.7 % Leave  30.3 % Remain)

Sports playing fields and multiplex cinema.
We pass through Romford and Gidea Park stations.
Pylons, undulating suburbia, copses.
We are now leaving the administrative boundary of London and entering Essex.

Brentwood (59.2 % Leave  40.8 % Remain)

Sewage works
We pass over the M25 orbital
Splash of green graffiti
Pipe sections by the railway tracks
Heaps of gravel, greenhouses.
Fields fringed with white flowering umbellifers.
Bird on a wire.
Isolated homestead near the tracks.
Muddy brook and country lane.
The white of willow leaves flashing in the sunshine against a dark grey thundery sky.

Chelmsford (52.8 % Leave  47.2 % Remain)

We draw into Chelmsford station, the tracks lined with buddleia, elder, and sycamore.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Political vandals

Last Sunday I followed the lead of Unison's Dave Prentis and reported Nigel Farage to the police for inciting racial hatred: his now notorious poster depicting refugees seeking a safe haven from war and violence marks a debasement of our political culture that cannot go unchallenged.  Given the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox, and rising levels of racism and xenophobia in the UK not seen since the 1970s, the task of defending society from the politics of hate is a responsibility for every citizen.

When the UK Prime Minister David Cameron foolishly called for a referendum on UK membership of the European Union he set in train a process that has yet to be fully played out regardless of the final outcome on 23 June.   At one level we have the spectacle of a Conservative leadership campaign in which political recklessness has been re-fashioned as an absurd bid for English independence that further divides the different nations, regions, and communities of the UK.  And standing behind the right-wing populist Boris Johnson is his new aide-de-camp Michael Gove, a curious ideological zealot, still smarting from being sacked by Cameron as Secretary of State for Education.  The simmering internal disputes over Europe within the Conservative Party have been re-energized by a cocktail of bitterness and political ambition.  

Among the glaring features of this referendum, illustrated yet again by the final debate at Wembley last night, is a pervasive hostility towards “experts” and rational argument.  Millions of voters are convinced that the decline of manufacturing industry, falling living standards, and underinvestment in public services is the fault of the European Union and not successive UK governments.  The longstanding lack of investment in education, skills, innovation, infrastructure, and all the other ingredients of economic success has scarcely been addressed.

If there was ever an illustration of why a referendum is a crude and dangerous political tool this Thursday’s polarized and unnecessary choice shows why.  The EU is not perfect but to leave would be an act of political vandalism based on a misreading of history and a retreat from reality.