Let’s Stay Together

It’ll be a surprise to virtually no-one that I’m voting to remain in the European Union today. I’ve been vocal in my intentions since long before this horrendous European Referendum campaign began and I make no pretensions to be anything other than pro-European. However, less than a decade ago I couldn’t have imagined describing myself as European. I was vehemently anti-EU and the arguments that the Leave campaign have repeatedly brought up about EU membership reducing the UK’s sovereignty and control over its own destiny are ones I made regularly. So what changed?

Put simply I was put in a position where I had no choice but to engage with the EU, to understand its policies and it’s processes. When I started my career a big part of my role revolved around understanding EU policies on business support, research and innovation; working on EU-funded projects; and writing bids for European funding. My instinctive antipathy for the EU was eroded over time by familiarity with how the EU worked and a deeper understanding of how the UK benefited from our membership. I don’t think that benefit is purely financial either – although you’ll be hard pressed to find a town in the UK that hasn’t benefited from EU money in some way given that the EU invests significantly in infrastructure, particularly in deprived parts of the UK, in a way that successive British governments have failed to do.

The benefits of the UK being a fully involved member of the EU far outweigh the financial though. Put simply we achieve far more through collaboration, cooperation and engagement than we would be able to as a country alone, even as an EEA member. As an EU member the UK influences policy in Brussels every day. Anyone arguing that we don’t do this enough should be looking at our shockingly low levels of engagement with European Parliament Elections – low turnout and low enthusiasm in these elections has produced a cohort of MEPs who don’t believe in the EU and don’t work to represent Britain’s best interests in Brussels. You simply cannot claim that the EU is undemocratic when as a country the UK overwhelmingly refuses to engage with the democratic processes that are already in place.

The ability to collaborate easily across borders, to operate businesses across national boundaries, to pool the knowledge of the best and brightest minds in Europe is, to my mind, the absolute best thing about the EU. Our universities and scientists are widely recognised as being world leading, the UK undoubtedly punches above its weight on all measures of scientific excellence. This is not an accident, UK science has always been at the forefront of discovery but I seriously doubt we could continue to retain this position in an increasingly globalised world without the scientific collaborations EU membership facilitates. Many of the UK’s major employers are European or global companies employing thousands upon thousands of people in this country because our EU membership facilitates access to the single market and because our research base is phenomenally successful at engaging with the European research and innovation base.

I don’t apologise for being pro-European, I’m not a reluctant European but I recognise that many are. And I’m not an idiot – the EU is not perfect by a long shot but then what organisation is? Big organisations require big bureaucracies to function whether they be governments or privately owned organisations. I used to be a small-state Conservative, I’m now a small-state Liberal Democrat – heavy-duty bureaucracy isn’t a thing I have a natural love for. The EU, certainly in terms of research funding has made efforts to reduce bureaucracy, but it certainly could and should be more efficient. But I don’t think an excess of bureaucracy is a surprise in an organisation the size of the EU and certainly not a reason to turn our backs on the European project.

I understand that the world is changing rapidly and that these changes are terrifying, particularly if you live in a community where high levels of immigration combined with savage cuts to public services have made life harder. The temptation to blame everything that’s bad in this country on strangers coming into your community is overwhelming and incredibly human – we’re hard-wired to see those we perceive as “other” as a threat. If immigration is your overwhelming concern I can see why you might consider voting to leave the EU and I accept that whatever I say about the benefits of EU membership is unlikely to change your mind.

But if you’re on the fence or unsure which way to vote please think about all that the European Union has achieved in the last half a century. Not least among these achievements is fact that we’ve seen over 7 decades of peace in a continent that was at war for over a thousand years. The UK was instrumental in setting up some of the core mechanisms that have created a peaceful Europe and I think turning our back on the close relationships we’ve developed over the past 70 years would be bad for the UK, bad for Europe, and bad for the world.

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Five Years Later

I think this might be the first general election in which I’ve not voted Conservative. It is, of course, only my third general election as a voter but still. I do always try to examine my voting decisions because the concept of voting for someone just because they’re “your party”, regardless of policies, is bizarre. I don’t think my political opinions have changed that profoundly since 2010 but aligning those to a specific party this time has been harder.

This election has been strange. I’ve been much less engaged than I was in 2010, I think I only watched one debate – if you don’t count the Scottish Leaders’ Debate I saw in Glasgow last week. Generally all the choices available have felt uninspiring, there’s no-one who feels like they can really offer the kind of change I’d like to see. It also seems unlikely that anyone’s likely to have much of a mandate to do anything radical.

I hate the anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric peddled by UKIP, the Conservatives and (to some extent) Labour which has definitely been a defining point in choosing who to vote for. I’m a lot more pro-European than I’ve ever been before and I can’t see anti-immigration rhetoric as anything other than racism in a fancy hat. In addition, I don’t think the Conservatives have done enough to protect the poor and vulnerable in our society. Whilst I still think that some level of austerity/rebalancing of the economy was necessary it’s clear to me that too much of that burden has fallen on the people who have the least. In terms of social issues I probably align more with the Greens than anyone else but economically I can’t contemplate voting for them. So I’ve come full circle to the party I voted for the first time I ever cast a vote – the Liberal Democrats. Let the hung parliament chaos commence!

P.S. One last point on stereotypes. I’m not voting Conservative and unless they change their tune I’m unlikely to do so in the future but I’ll never subscribe to the “all Tories are evil” doctrine perpetuated by so many people I know. Firstly, evil is such a strong word – I would really hesitate to use it of anyone. There are caring, compassionate Conservatives just as there are unpleasant members of the Labour party.  Judge people on their individual merits, not a lazy out-of-date political stereotypes.

Now We Are 28: On Feminism and Being Angry

Less than two weeks ago a man who hated women killed six people. Every single day since then I have seen a man on the internet telling people (normally women) that misogyny doesn’t exist. Every. Single. Day.

Three weeks ago I went to a work conference and spent an evening explaining to a bunch of otherwise lovely and very clever people why feminism is important and relevant in the 21st Century.

I would love for the battle to achieve equal rights for women to be over, I really would. When I was a child I read about the suffragettes, women’s battles for the vote and the fight for equal pay and I really thought that the war had been won, that women were considered equal. Then I grew up.

In school, the girls were always judged on their appearance – I was considered “ugly” so I always came in for particularly nasty bullying both in school and out. As I got older my friends and I considered it par for the course that we would get felt up without our consent in pubs and clubs. When I waitressed the chefs physically and verbally harassed every woman who came into the kitchen. A senior male colleague once thought it appropriate to complain to my manager about my “very short” skirt (it was knee-length) and told me that laughing at things was inappropriate because I sounded like a giggling schoolgirl. The (male) sales assistant who sold me my new, painstakingly chosen bike spent all his time talking to my boyfriend. The other week a man cycled behind me for over a mile so he could look at my bum. And, like virtually every woman I know, I’ve been shouted at in the street by random men more times than I can count.

You know what the worst thing about that list is? That I feel lucky to have got off so lightly. That I am extremely privileged to experience society as a middle-class, thin, able-bodied straight, cis, white woman and thus will never have to endure the hardships that many women face just trying to exist as equal members of society. Most women will endure far worse verbal, physical or sexual abuse than I have ever encountered and this will be accepted by the world. Their experiences will be dismissed or ignored or never even shared. And when a man kills a woman it will be considered an “isolated incident” or the work of a “lone madman” rather than the product of a society which is profoundly unequal.

I am so angry. I get more angry every day as I see women’s concerns about ingrained sexism, rape culture and violence against women being dismissed and belittled. I’m angry that young women today grow up in a world where their right to equality is less understood than it was twenty years ago. I’m angry that women continue to be defined by whether or not they’ve popped out a baby but at the same time they’re likely to get discriminated against because of it. I’m angry that young men continue to be taught that expressing their emotions is weakness and that hurting others is strength.

I have no idea how we fix this. I grew up believing that women were equal because they’d fought and won so many battles. Now I struggle to believe that genuine equality will be achieved in my lifetime. So yes, feminism matters.

Now We Are 28: On Nationalism

I’m not a big fan of rampant nationalism or of nationalist politics. The Nigel Farages and Alex Salmonds of this world, with their clarion cries about the greatness of the nation-state, leave me cold. Nationalism values people because of where they come from rather than who they are or who they might become which is pretty much anathema to everything I believe in.

You see, in the words of Scroobius Pip, I’m from a little place called Great Britain but I don’t know if I love or hate Britain. There are lots of things that make being British wonderful – incredible landscapes; the national obsession with tea; the amazing diversity of our language and culture; the prevalence of social liberalism; our rich sweep of history; and Doctor Who to name but a few. But then there are lots of things that make Britain absolutely awful – our political system; ingrained sexism; casual racism; the M6; the bloody weather; the ability of the England cricket team to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory; flags on cars during football tournaments; the Daily Mail; the EDL… You get the idea. There are days I love living in the UK and days I loathe it but I’d never really say I’m proud of being British. How can you be proud of something that’s an accident of fate? It’s like saying I’m proud of having green eyes – I had absolutely no say in the matter!

People are though, aren’t they? Proud of their little strip of land, of their English (or Welsh or Scottish or Irish) descent and scathing about anyone who isn’t from these shores. Given that the UK is essentially an island of incomers this always seems to me a rather hypocritical position to take but whatever. I don’t get it, how does love for one’s country become hatred for other countries and other people? Surely you can have affection for the place you were born or where you live without using your nationality as a weapon to oppress others? And if your strip of land is that great why don’t you want to share it with people and attract people from all over the world who can add to it’s greatness? After all, this island would be pretty empty if it weren’t for immigrants…

Feminism’s New Entry Policy

This blog post has been brewing for a while – ever since the Guardian published an article on Tory feminism several weeks ago in fact – and I discovered the hitherto little known “fact” that you could only be a feminist if you hated the Conservative Party.

I’ve described myself as a feminist from a very early age. I remember reading about the suffragette movement whilst I was still in primary school and being shocked that women hadn’t always been allowed to do the same things as men. Equality has always been one of the most important principles in my life – and not just for women – I believe passionately that all human beings are equal regardless of race, sex, sexuality, religion or any other descriminating factor that anyone cares to think of. All feminism has ever been for me is the belief that women are equal to anyone and anything.

However, according to people like Suzanne Moore, the fact that I voted for David Cameron negates my right to believe this. Because Margaret Thatcher wasn’t a feminist, because the Conservative Party have on occasion acted like the the worst kind of right wing dinosaurs you can only be a feminist if you are “left-wing” (I put left wing in inverted commas here because there is no mainstream political party in the UK whose policies are remotely left of centre). Why? Why in 2012 when no major political figure would deny female equality or the power of the feminist movement can I as a feminist not make a decision to support a political party based on my own beliefs and priorities? In 2015 I may well vote for a different political party (hell, I may even set up my own political party to avoid the dilemma of having to vote for any of the uninspiring choices currently on offer) but in 2010 I voted for the Conservative Party (the reasons for which are explained here). I am technically a Conservative Feminist and thus cannot possibly exist.

So again I’m back to the question of why? Surely it’s a good thing that women are represented across the political spectrum and are fighting in different ways for issues important to them! I don’t particularly like Louise Mensch or Nadine Dorries but I can’t deny that they stand up and fight for the issues which they feel are important. I may fundamentally disagree with Dorries’ stance on abortion but hell I fundamentally disagree with every word which comes out of Laurie Penny’s mouth as well – and I deny neither of them the right to be a feminist. I may not like the way they do it – dictate what I can do with my uterus or what type of cake I am allowed to eat at your peril – but the most important thing is that they are women standing up and being counted.

So my message to the sisterhood is pretty much just this: respect my right to say and be something, even if you don’t like what I’m saying or what I represent. Women aren’t all the same, just as all human beings aren’t the same. If you don’t like my stance on something politically challenge me, I’ll debate anything with anyone – I have even been known to change my opinion if given a decent enough reason to do so.  But never ever deny my right to call myself a feminist because of what political party I support.

Caitlin Moran manages to sum up what I’m trying to say far more eloquently than I’m ever going to be able to:

“The purpose of feminism isn’t to make a particular type of woman. The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right ‘types’ of women is what’s screwed feminism for so long… What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be.”

(Seriously if you haven’t read How To Be A Woman yet – do it! Even if you’re a man, it’s fine…)

 

Thoughts about the Riots…

So we’ve had three days of riots across England – mostly London-based but spreading to Birmingham and Manchester over the past few days. Things have started to calm down now but that just means people are increasingly casting around for someone to blame and to try, in a largely reactionary way, to suggest ways to deal with the aftermath. I don’t have any kind of solution for this particular brand of lunacy but just wanted to get a couple of things off my chest.

Ken Livingstone yesterday referred to the rioters as protestors. Well they’re not. I’m sorry but that’s the long and the short of it. Protest implies you’re protesting against something rather than just stealing plasma TVs and designer clothes “because it’s free innit”. This whole episode may have begun with a protest (against the shooting by police of Mark Duggan in Tottenham) but it seems clear that this legitimate protest was soon hijacked by those looking for trouble – as per the student protests last Autumn. I’m not saying there aren’t serious underlying social issues at work behind this violence but these are long term factors created by decades of social mismanagement by politicians of all stripes. The fervid media attitude towards cuts in public spending combined with a resurgence of global economic problems has made the world feel a less secure place. In my opinion you can’t say that an austerity programme less than 9 months old and only marginally more severe than the programme of cuts proposed by the previous government is a genuine factor here. Both the rhetoric and the growing reality of public expenditure cuts is a potential trigger factor but not a root cause.

It has also been suggested that abolition of the Education Maintainance Allowance caused young people to riot. Well in one way that’s true. EMA is simply a symptom of a culture of entitlement that can be seen throughout society. When I was a teenager (and it’s not that long ago) I had no need of EMA to encourage me to go on to further education – I knew that was what I had to do to improve my chances in life. I had supportive parents and teachers to help me on my way but I knew that to get on in life I had to help myself as well. I got my first job when I was 13 and have been lucky enough not to be out of work since. Very few of my early jobs were glamorous – I was a paper girl then a waitress – but I learnt social skills and earnt my own money long before I had any qualifications to my name. I wasn’t unusual – all my friends and classmates had part-time and Saturday jobs. It was just what we did to earn the money for driving lessons, nights out and new clothes. It is tougher to find a job now than it was in 2001 but there are still hundreds of migrant workers doing the jobs that British people won’t do. There’s a large Polish community in the town I come from many of whom have university level qualifications but are doing relatively menial jobs because they’d rather work than be unemployed. I get the overwhelming sense that for a considerable section of British society they’d rather be unemployed/on benefits than do a job which is more menial.

So what are the answers? Well, I don’t have any. My instinctive argument is in favour of a small state and a balanced budget but dogma is no use here. People make a country not politicians – surely the very essence of any kind of big society – and if the policiticians of this country continue to fail her people then things will only get worse. Austerity protects our economy in some ways, preventing massive interest rises on government borrowing and shielding us from some market forces but it makes growth more difficult especially in a time of continued global financial turmoil. If the Eurozone is falling apart and America has its credit rating lowered how can we possibly expect our economy to grow at anything like the pace required? This isn’t the government’s fault particularly – as a country recovering slowly from recession and with a big burden of debt there’s only so much that can be done to improve matters. A fiscal stimulus like a VAT cut may well increase consumer confidence but then again it may not and runs the risk of market disapprobation.

Meanwhile what do we do about social problems? How can we teach kids to aspire to something more than a life on benefits when it’s all they and their parents have ever known? How do we encourage children to get an education in order to get a great job when the costs associated with gaining a degree are spiralling and the job market is so challenging? I was lucky – my family all had jobs and my parents encouraged me to try and earn some money of my own. It was just obvious to me that I would have to work for a living and if I worked really hard then one day I would be lucky enough to do a job I really enjoyed. I wholeheartedly believe in a meritocracy but I can see how soul-destroying it must be not to have that vision, not to believe in your own ability to get on in life. To see things getting more expensive and politicians talking about tightening your belts when you and your family couldn’t afford the things you needed or wanted even when the UK economy was booming. Perhaps that’s why people jumped on the bandwagon of the riots. It’s not an apology or an excuse but it’s a reason.

So I ask again, how do we solve this? We could ask our politicians to stop becoming entrenched in the dogma that didn’t win an election and work together to look at how we can be fiscally responsible and encourage growth. It’s not an easy circle to square but surely if MPs stop arguing with one another and start thinking constructively they might just be able to do something productive on our behalf. At the same time we need to look at what we can do with resources other than money to encourage aspiration. If 13 years of a Labour government throwing money at every public service it could think of should have taught us anything it is that social problems can’t be solved with investment alone. We need to encourage people to work together within and across communities to help kids realise that they can do anything they want – the only limit is their aspirations. We need to help people who got involved in violence over the past three days put it behind them and use this experience as a catalyst to do something useful.What this situations doesn’t need is kneejerk reactions like reducing civil liberties or removing benefit. Yes the actions of those rioting, looting and in some cases killing and injuring people are deplorable but some of the reactions I’ve seen in the media and on twitter/facebook have been equally so – you don’t solve a crisis by suggesting mass murder, you just don’t. People convicted over this should feel the full force of the law, no-one should be disputing that, but it is just as important that they receive compassion, help and support to help them realise that there is more to life than a free flatscreen TV and that this country does have more to offer them than violence and poverty.

The Shape of Things to Come…

Well, it’s been a while but the twin factors of both the Browne Review and the Spending Review have driven me back into the waiting arms of my blog to muse about the reality of the brave new world I welcomed so enthusiastically in May…

First things first – last Wednesday’s Spending Review was undoubtedly D-Day – not just for the coalition but for us all. Would it be as terrible as we feared? Well, I have to say no. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to stand up and cheer about cuts to public spending which are undoubtedly going to make all of our lives more difficult in the short term – but I actually thought it would be worse. In truth, given the unrelentingly doom-laded tone of the media, until I actually read the Spending Review document in full I thought it was worse.

The biggest criticism Labour seem to be able to level at the government is that it’s cuts are ideologically driven, that regardless of the country’s financial situation the government would have gone on some kind of rampage of oppression – just because they could. Apart from the fact that this argument is somewhat childish it also ignores the fact that this ideological “roll back of the state” will only reduce public spending to 2007 levels – hardly an era of massive underinvestment.  All the things that are being protected or invested in are hardly the choices of an insanely right wing mob – the health service, which will remain unequivocably free at the point of use; international aid and low carbon technologies. Rather these are the priorities of a liberal-minded government with a desire to position Britain well for the future.

The Spending Review isn’t however devoid of ideology – quite the opposite – and for that we should be grateful. I certainly don’t want anyone making decisions on the government’s priorities for the next five years without a clear vision of what it wants the country to look like after those five years. What the CSR sets out is a plan to fundamentally reshape Britain – to create an economy dependent on innovation, enterprise and private sector growth rather than on an ever-expanding public sector, a burgeoning budget deficit and an over-stretched welfare state.

The decisions being taken on welfare and benefits are tough ones but it’s important that they are taken. I defy anyone to say that our welfare system doesn’t need fixing, I really do. I’m not denying that we should have one – exactly the opposite, it is our ability to care for the poor and vulnerable which makes us an enlightened society. But poverty and reliance on the state for survival should be the absolute last resource not a lifestyle choice. The fact that many children in low income families grow up with no ambition other than have a child, qualify for a council house and, if they’re lucky, to stay out of jail is an appalling indictment on this country and one that we should feel ashamed of. Ultimately the reforms Ian Duncan-Smith is proposing will revolutionise the welfare system and improve the quality of thousands of people’s lives but to do this the government has to make tough decisions up front, decisions which it is attempting to mitigate, but which will hurt.

However if the choices made in the CSR really deliver the brave new world we were promised in May than ultimately all of us will reap the benefits. Worth the risk? I think so. I hope so…