Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Lost Causes

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on August 22, 2014

Last night, I found myself in tears, and thinking to myself “despite everything, I still believe in Liberalism, and I still believe that the Lib Dems are the best vehicle for it. I’m going to have to fight harder for the party”.

Which is probably not the response Steve Earle was intending to provoke.

I’ve been having a tiny bit of a crisis regarding the party recently. It’s partly been to do with stuff that’s been in the news — not just the Rennard stuff (about which I agree with Jennie), but also Clegg’s speech about immigrants, which had me spitting blood. (And it was specifically the bits about *immigrants*, not about immigration, that annoyed me. People of good will can disagree about what level of immigration should be allowed, but taking rights and services away from people who are already here is just vile.) I try to be loyal in my public statements, to accept the realities of politics, and not just to be someone sniping from the sidelines, but that really pushed me to my limit.

But mostly because I’ve been fairly unwell myself for quite a while, and had a *LOT* of personal stuff to deal with (enough that when I’ve just listed some of the “highlights” of the last couple of months people have tended to laugh because the sheer number of things going wrong has been hilarious) and I’ve had difficulty keeping to my party commitments. I’m on my local party exec, and I try to do a good job, but there are some very simple things that I haven’t been able to do recently. I hope to be able to pull my weight again very soon.

These things have combined to create a sort of “what the fuck is the point of even bothering?” attitude in me. I’ve been using up more and more energy, but having less and less actual ability to do the things required of me, and all for what seem to be rapidly diminishing returns in terms of result. I’ve been seriously questioning why I bother.

Basically, in short, I’ve been turning into a whiner.

But yesterday I went to see Steve Earle, at the conference centre attached to the Echo Arena in Liverpool. I hadn’t meant to go to the gig, actually, but my friend Emily had a workmate who couldn’t go, and so I got their ticket. I love Earle’s work, but hadn’t seen him live since about 1998 — he always seems to play Manchester when there’s another gig on the same night that I already have a ticket for, or when I’m out of town.

After a support act which reinforced my desperate desire to get out and perform music again — their guitarist played exactly like I do, by which I don’t mean “badly”, but that he had exactly the same phrasing, to a degree that was frankly spooky — Earle came on and launched into You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and I remember realising that I have never yet seen an American act play Liverpool and *not* play a Beatles song. Blondie even did it in Delamere Forest, because that’s close enough…

For those who don’t know who Earle is (which I discovered when talking about the gig in the days leading up to it is far more people than I would have thought), he’s usually described as a country singer, but like all genre labels that’s something that can describe totally different forms of music. In Earle’s case, it seems to mean “man who has both a guitar and a Texas accent”, and not much more than that — Earle’s music definitely has a resemblance to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Michael Nesmith, or Townes Van Zandt, but no more so than its resemblance to Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits (in ballad mode), Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, or Elvis Costello, none of whom normally get called country singers.

Earle did a two-hour set, which touched on most of the highlights of his career — I Ain’t Never Satisfied, My Old Friend The Blues, Devil’s Right Hand,Goodbye, Tom Ames’ Prayer, Copperhead Road, Guitar Town, and Galway Girl (which got a small number of people who had seemed rather disapproving of his swearing and songs about crime, and who had presumably only come because they knew that song from the cider advert, on his side), and the rest. He also talked a lot between songs — about the different types of song he writes (“I write those songs so that I get women in the audience, which stops my audience getting uglier and hairier, because when I look at the men it’s like looking in a mirror” — which made me laugh more than it should, because I’d been joking earlier that Earle’s current glasses/balding head/huge beard look is stealing my style, and because he said this right after Goodbye, my single favourite song of his, so it might not be having quite the effect he hopes), and about his own personal struggles (he’s currently going through his seventh divorce, though to his sixth wife — he married and divorced one of them twice).

The one area of his songwriting he didn’t go into much in the show was his political songwriting. While almost everything Earle does has an at least implicit political message, he left out most of the explicitly political stuff he did in the mid-2000s, songs like John Walker’s Blues or Amerika v6.0 (The Best We Can Do), at least until the encore.

But for the first song of the encore, he played Jerusalem, his song about the Middle East, and talked about the work he’s done there producing collaborations between Jewish and Palestinian musicians and working with anti-war Israeli activists. And he said “I don’t believe in lost causes, because I’m a recovering heroin addict, and for a long time everyone thought I was a lost cause, and I even thought so myself, and I turned my life around”, before talking about how Belfast had changed over the years, and how even the seemingly impossible can soon become normal in politics, and then singing:

I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say

And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find

That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

And suddenly I understood how Earle could carry on his own political campaigning, which is mostly against the death penalty in the US, a cause that seems far more hopeless than any of the causes I’ve been involved in. And I thought about my own pathetic moaning that I haven’t yet got everything I want in politics, and that changing the world is quite hard and sometimes you have to do it even when you have a headache or are a bit tired, and I compared that to the people in the Middle East for whom political activity is literally a matter of life and death, and who just get on and do it, and realised just how comparatively easy my own political “struggles” really are.

So I’m more resolved than ever that I’m going to keep campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, and that I’m going to keep pushing within the party for it to be more like it is at its best and less like it is at its worst. I can’t promise that I’ll be any more use than I have been, given my health, or that the efforts I do make will be any more successful. But I’ll do what I can, when I can, to make the world a little bit better…

Fifty Years

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on August 13, 2014

The Wilson governments have not been regarded particularly highly by history, partly because of economic factors, and mostly because of the disastrous mid-70s government (which faced problems that no government could have dealt with). However, there’s an argument to be made that the Labour government in the mid-sixties was the third great radical progressive government of the twentieth century, after the Liberal government of the pre-WWI years and the Atlee government of the late 40s.

During a very brief period of time, and (at least at first) with a wafer-thin majority, the Wilson government gave its backing to some enormous changes to British society — usually because of Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary (and later founder of the SDP, one of the predecessor parties of the Lib Dems) putting his weight behind a Labour or Liberal MP’s private member’s bill. Abortion was legalised, male homosexuality decriminalised, theatre censorship abolished, birching ended, divorce laws relaxed, and (most importantly as far as this post is concerned), the death penalty abolished after Jenkins gave government backing to a bill brought in by backbencher Sydney Silverman.

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the last executions to take place in the United Kingdom, and I thought it deserved marking. The death penalty was popular among voters, and is still supported by a plurality, if not a majority, and this is one of those occasions which I think shows clearly that representative democracy is better than direct democracy.

So to mark the anniversary of the end of one of the most barbaric practices ever, here are a few related links.

The Howard League’s publications on capital punishment
Amnesty’s look back at fifty years without the death penalty
Reprieve — a charity that campaigns against the death penalty and repression in the US
Amnesty’s campaign to stop a man who has been on death row in Japan for 46 years and has recently been granted a retrial from being sent back to death row

And today I’m thankful that for a brief period of two years, a decade and a half before I was born, Britain had a Home Secretary who said “the permissive society is in reality the civilised society”, and who replaced the board in his office listing execution dates with a drinks cabinet…

“Open Door Policy”

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on August 5, 2014

Over the last few days, the leaders of all three main political parties have been competing to show who has the biggest dick by showing they can simultaneously bash poor people and foreigners, two groups of people who simply have too much power in this society. They’re all proving they’re real men because they can kick those at the bottom.

In particular, we’ve been hearing a lot about how Britain is simply too welcoming to immigrants, how we’re too generous to them, and how they are drains on what we must now apparently call the “welfare” system (because using the term “benefits” isn’t macho enough). “We can’t continue to have an open-door policy” say all the leaders [and before anyone starts talking about the Greens, remember that they have an immigration policy that specifically says their policy is not intended to increase the numbers of immigrants. They are no better on this than any of the major parties]. “We need to be tougher, but fair”.

Let me tell you about this “open-door policy” that we supposedly have. There are various ways that people can come over here, and the rules differ depending on where the person is coming from, why they’re coming over here, how much money they have, and so on.

I have no experience of most of these (except distantly, when I was working on a psychiatric ward with a few patients who had developed mental illnesses as a result of the asylum system, which was trying to throw them out of the country back to countries where they would be tortured), but I *do* have experience with what most people think of as one of the “good” or “acceptable” kinds of immigration.

My wife is American, and for various reasons when we got married it was better for us to live in the UK than the US. Most people I’ve spoken to about this — in fact *everyone* who hadn’t found themselves in the same position — thought this goes as follows:
We get married, she becomes a citizen.

The process is actually this [note that the process has changed, for the worse, since we did this. :

She had to go back to the US. We married over there, but if we hadn’t, she would have had to apply, while over there, for a fiancee visa. This would have cost £750 at the time — the cost now is £885. You pay that cost even if you’re turned down. That visa would have lasted six months, after which we would have had to do all the rest of the stuff below.

But as it is, we didn’t *have* the money to do that, and got married in the US. We had to pay for a marriage visa, which again cost £750, and which again now costs £885 (and would cost £1285 to do the way we did, with a same-day service at the consulate). We had to pay this in cash, because my wife is a dirty foreigner who can’t be trusted to pay by debit card or cheque, but weren’t told this until we were actually halfway through the process at the British consulate in Chicago, prompting tearful phone calls to my wife’s bank, who were thankfully able to temporarily increase her withdrawal limit.

I don’t know if you are married, and if so whether the first day of your married life was spent being bullied by bureaucrats until your spouse is in tears, while stuck in a city you don’t know and having to pay a month’s wages for the privilege of someone making the person you love cry, and with the possibility hanging over you that if at any time you make a wrong move you can end up being forbidden to live in the same country as your spouse, with no appeal. It’s not the best honeymoon ever.

We also had to provide multiple pieces of evidence that I had a job and could support her, that we really did have a life together, and so on. No-one in our position then could do this now, because while back then you just had to prove you were earning a reasonable amount (I was on £15,000 a year at the time), now you have to prove you’re earning more than the average wage.

But then she was a British citizen and had the right to live over here, right?

HA!

The marriage visa, back then, gave you permission to live in the UK for two years. That permission could be revoked at any time, and while you’re in the UK you have no recourse to public funds — no benefits, whatsoever. This was particularly wonderful when I lost my job three months after we married when the company went bankrupt, and definitely didn’t cause us to both develop major anxiety disorders which are still with us eight years later.

But THEN she was a British citizen and had the right to live over here, right?

No. When Holly came over, at the end of that two years, you had to apply for indefinite leave to remain, which involved further proofs (many of which we simply didn’t have, which required a lot of frantic pleading and begging on our part — anyone less articulate and willing to manipulate the system would have failed at this hurdle) and, yes, pay more money. That was another thousand pounds at the time, but now the amount you pay after two years is less, “only” £601. The reason for this is that now, after two years, you can’t get indefinite leave to remain, only “further leave to remain”, which gives you another three years, still without recourse to public funds.

If, after that time, your marriage hasn’t fallen apart under the strain of dealing with all this, the immigrant spouse, then and now, had to pay (£1093 is the current amount) to be granted indefinite leave to remain. They also have to take a test, which costs £50, on “life in the UK” — a test which covers all sorts of useful information like what year women were first allowed to own property, which I’m sure will come in very useful if my wife is ever transported back in time to the 19th century.

But THEN she was a citizen, right?

No. Despite people calling it the “citizen test”, it doesn’t grant you citizenship. You get indefinite leave to remain, and can finally claim any benefits to which you are entitled, but you have to (or at least this is how it was when we did it) wait another year after being granted ILR before you can become a citizen and get voting rights. This costs ANOTHER thousand pounds, and also involves an oath of loyalty to the Queen (something that no-one born over here has to do for citizenship).

Holly still hasn’t actually done that bit, even though we’ve been married eight years, because we’ve never had a spare thousand pounds just lying around. So she’s still not eligible to vote in the country where she’s lived for the last eight years.

(We’ve half-jokingly talked about running a campaign to get her on the Lib Dems’ elected list of suggested peers, because getting her into the House of Lords seems like the *least* complicated way to get her UK citizenship. Seriously.)

Of course, even if she did get citizenship, she still wouldn’t be “really” a citizen, because unlike anyone born here her citizenship could be stripped at whim by the Home Secretary, with no appeal.

Meanwhile, every time my wife, who has something not far from PTSD as a result of all our dealings with the immigration authorities, despite her having about as easy a time as it’s possible to have in our situation, goes to the pub, or turns on the TV or radio, or looks at the newspaper, there are people — including the FUCKING LEADER OF THE POLITICAL PARTY SHE AND I ARE BOTH MEMBERS OF, WHO KNOWS BETTER BECAUSE HE’S MARRIED TO AN IMMIGRANT! — denouncing immigrants, for the way they just come over here and take all our benefits, for the way “we” make it too easy on “them”.

Before you tell me that immigrants have it easy, try spending your life on a constant alert for what’s in the news, so you can warn your wife when she shouldn’t turn on Radio 4 in case she’s reduced to a sobbing fit by all the powerful people talking about how evil she is. Try holding someone in tears because the entire culture is telling her, constantly, that she is not welcome, and never will be welcome, in her home, no matter what she does.

Try facing the possibility that if you can’t pass a multiple choice quiz with questions like “Which TWO kings believed in the ‘Divine Right of Kings': the idea that the king was directly appointed by God to rule”, “The independent police complaints body is called the Independent Police Complaints Commission in which TWO countries?”, “Which two highest-grossing film franchises have been produced in the UK (Choose any 2 answers)” and “The Paralympic games have their origin in the work of which German refugee, at the Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire who developed new methods of treatment for people with spinal injuries?” you’ll be deported.

Try losing your job, being unable to claim benefits, and then *still* having to scrape together a thousand pounds out of nowhere while looking for another job, because if you don’t you’ll be deported.

And then try being told that the biggest problem this country has is that it lets all those immigrants in and gives them free money.

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Why I Don’t Post Much About Politics At The Moment

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on July 27, 2014

Before the 2010 election, and for a couple of years afterward, I used to post here a lot on political topics. Since about 2012, though, I’ve barely talked about politics except in the most abstract manner (things like my Liberal Future series, which I do intend to continue).
The reason for this is simple. My political views are all about anger, and wanting to change the things that make me angry. I’m angry about poverty, about the treatment of minority groups and women, about the erosion of civil liberties, about the lack of democracy in this country, about the way London is an evil vampiric force sucking all the attention and power from the rest of the country, about generational inequalities, about rentier capitalism… basically, I’m angry about a lot of stuff.
This means that I am, occasionally, quite articulate when it comes to talking about bad things happening in politics. I’m a fairly decent attack dog, if occasionally so strident that I push people away, but I’ve found that I’ve managed to change quite a few people’s minds on a few important points.
What I’m no good at is talking about good stuff. My reaction to same-sex marriage finally being allowed is, simply, “good”. That’s it. That’s all I have to say about the subject. It’s a very obviously good thing, and I’m glad we finally did it.
This means I am no good at celebrating achievements, I’m only good at pushing for more.
Under normal circumstances this would be fine, but the Liberal Democrats, the party I think is, despite many obvious flaws, still the best vehicle in British politics for advancing towards the kind of society I want to live in, are the minor partner in a coalition government right now.
That government has done a few very good things (all brought in by the Liberal Democrats) and quite a few very bad things (mostly ideas from the Conservatives, some things that any government would do right now because they’re at the centre of the Overton window despite being ludicrous, and one or two bad ideas from the Liberal Democrats because nobody’s right all the time). To my mind, the current government is not much better — but certainly no worse — than any of the other governments of my lifetime, and so it makes me angry at about the same rate as the others have. However, this government is *extremely* unpopular, at least among people I know (who tend to be leftish).
This leaves me with three alternatives:
I could take a panglossian tone, accentuate the positive, and post constant reminders about how tractor production has increased 4%. This would be insulting to my readers and a waste of my time.
I could attack the current government. This would be counterproductive. Everyone reading this blog knows every bad thing the government is accused of doing (many of which are even real). You don’t need me to tell you about them, and me ranting and raving about the bad things the current government has done might well turn even more people away from the Liberal Democrats. Certainly Labour supporters could use anything I posted — “See? Even a Lib Dem thinks that X, Y, and Z were stupid” — while leaving out the fact that X was a Tory policy and Y and Z are both things Labour committed to as well. It would also give the impression that the constant attacks on the Liberal Democrats are justified, when for the most part they simply are not.
Or I could just talk about something else.

Now for the first couple of years of this government, I still had things to say, because lies were being told on a regular basis by the Labour party. I don’t mean differences of opinion, but many outright lies were being reported as fact in the Guardian, and so I could usefully turn my anger against them. But as the election has got closer and Labour have realised they might have to work with us next year, that’s mostly died off. Sadly, the effects are still lasting, and I still regularly get abuse, threats of violence, and even death threats, as do most people who dare to publicly admit to being Lib Dems and who aren’t completely sheltered from the general public.

But what I want to say is this: Don’t think that my lack of posts means that I care less about those issues. Rather, while we are in government, there are better methods to change things than shouting about it on my blog. When I get angry about something this government does, as I’m in a democratic party, there are avenues I can explore to try and fix it (sometimes it even works).

Those who follow me on Twitter will also know that I regularly froth at the mouth there. The difference is that my Twitter account is locked — it’s where I vent semi-privately, and only a relatively small number of people can see what I say there, and I trust those people, even when they’re not supporters of the same party, to be sensible enough to understand the difference between an angry tweet and an attack on the party itself.

But put simply, when other parties get it wrong, I scream publicly because I have no other recourse. When the Lib Dems get it wrong, I work within the party to make sure they get it right in future. And I don’t tend to write about when anyone gets it right.

One reason I’ll be finishing the Liberal Future series, though, is to say “these are the principles I do stand for, and this is why I think that the Liberal Democrats are still the best party to advance those principles”.

But as I said in 2010, I do not support the current government, but I *do* support the Liberal Democrats within the current government. That still stands…

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A Sweary Rant About Political Discussion

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on July 20, 2014

I posted a link to Tim Farron’s rather good speech on Tumblr yesterday. Someone who’d been following me there for a few weeks posted Standard Aggressive Rant Number Five in response (take the couple of lines saying Thatcher wasn’t utterly evil out of the context of a speech that says she was wrong about everything important, in damaging, harmful ways that will take decades to fix, and use that to “prove” that Lib Dems are “really” evil, heartless bastards who deserve to be shot). I posted this in response, and thought it worth posting here too:

As a general note, if you’re going to reply to one of my political posts by calling me “hateful”, “on the side of evil”, and say I deserve to be shot, and your reason for this is that a single paragraph near the beginning of a speech I link to says some mildly positive things about Thatcher while the entire rest of the speech says things like:

Her economic solutions were wrong and have had a lasting and damaging impact – handing control over our major utilities to foreign investors and poorly regulated oligopolies, abdicating responsibility for managing our economy at all, weakening the infrastructure that underpins our economy and weakening and dividing our society.

My argument is that the post 1979 consensus should now be considered dead. It doesn’t need an FDP-style rebrand, it needs a decent burial.

Beveridge’s consensus was ambitious, the consensus of Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron is unambitious. It says that government cannot make the difference, it says that all we can do to help business is to back out – that all that businesses need is the free for all of Beecroft, that all our economy needs is another inflated south east housing boom, that our infrastructure needs will be met by unaccountable monopolies doing it in their own good time.

That consensus has failed, utterly.

The Thatcher / Reagan economic experiment surely should have died at the collapse of the banks in 2008, yet somehow that corpse is still twitching. The financial crisis was the clear physical proof that the economic experiment that supplanted the Beveridge consensus had failed utterly.

But don’t misunderstand me, the Thatcherite consensus that Cameron sustains and Miliband has no answer to, has been demonstrated to have failed not just in the crash of 2008 and the poverty, misery and inequality it has inflicted, but also in the absence of so much of the infrastructure we need to plan for the future. Lets just be honest and acknowledge that we still have pathetic rail links, a massive housing shortage, a massive skills shortage, laughable broadband connectivity, an appalling energy crisis and the ultimate crisis of climate change. The Thatcherite consensus has damaged our society and it has weakened our economy. Conservatives have often talked about their admiration of Victorian values – if only they really did admire those values, because Victorian values included ambition to build an infrastructure, to create a transport, communications and logistics backbone to our economy, to make a difference, to see a problem and not worry about whether fixing it would fit with your ideology, but to just get on and fix it.

And where the whole piece is about how Thatcher and her ideological successors were completely, utterly, wrong, then you can just fuck off.

I have spent much of the last four years dealing with abuse and, in several cases, actual death threats, from people with whom I would agree on at least 80% of individual political issues, because the way I choose to fight for those issues is in a party that works within the system and has to compromise (and yes, to my mind, compromises far too much and too often). I note that the “revolutionaries” and “progressives” who do this never do so to supporters of the Labour party, a party that for much of my adult life was led by actual war criminals and still has many on its front benches, or to supporters of the SWP, a party full of rape apologists.

Everyone working for political change has to make compromises, and it is entirely right to question those compromises, to debate them, to argue over them, and to say that others have compromised too much. It is utterly wrong to use abuse and threats to try and silence those who’ve made different compromises.

And even if it would have me, I’d want no part of a revolution that was so committed to ideological purity that anyone who disagreed with it was called “evil” and told they’d be “put up against the wall”. Should there ever be the danger of such a revolution, in fact, I would be proud to volunteer to be the very first up against the wall, because I wouldn’t want to live in a world which didn’t tolerate honest disagreement.

So fuck you if you want to use abuse and threats as the first recourse in political discussion. Fuck you if you want to kill me and people like me, or even people who disagree with me in every way. Fuck you if you put ideological purity ahead of making a real difference in people’s lives.

When my revolution comes, you’ll be given a far worse punishment than being put up against the wall. You’ll be given complete freedom of speech, but so will people you disagree with, and there’ll be nothing you can do about it.

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