Saturday, 29 July 2017

Book Review: The Handmaid's Tale

According to Goodreads, 5 stars mean I found this book "Amazing"... in reality my feelings are much more mixed.

I've been a fan of Atwood for years, but have somehow only read a handful of her works and I was prompted into reading The Handmaid's Tale ahead of watching the TV series which I've been recording.

It *is* in so many regards an amazing book - but it is, in many many places, a deeply uncomfortable read. Some of that is in the power of what is unwritten - the brutality of the salvagings is hinted at, but these showcase executions are conducted in a surprisingly civilised fashion, right up until the moment of "particicution".

Atwood's vision of a dystopian near-future, is fascinating in its attention to detail: not just in the construction of the alternate society, but in how such a society could come about, and how quickly it could be adopted as the "norm". In this respect, this is a book about human nature: what drives individuals to dominate, and others to submit. Do you resist the imposition of a different- and brutal - set of rules? And, if so, how?

Despite the presentation of Gilead as a fiction, it is not unlike other societies that the world has known - with elements reminiscent of medieval times, as well as totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Indeed, in the "historical notes" which conclude the book, looking back on the events described by Offred in her narrative from the the safe distance of 2195, reference is made to a study entitled "Iran and Gilead: Two Late-Twentieth-Century Monotheocracies as Seen Through Diaries."

The Handmaid's Tale is often held up as a "feminist" novel and a statement on the treatment of women in society and, in part, it is. But the presence of the "Aunts" and they way they, too, partake in the brutality of Gilead suggest this is about more than the male/female power dynamic.

For me, the power of the book is not how alien the environment it presents is, but how familiar. What we take for granted as "civilisation" is shown to be fragile - something to be worked at and built on, or else human nature will out - and who can tell if you will be a Commander, a Wife, or a Handmaid, or worse?

P.S. The latest edition of the book, released to tie in with the TV show, has a new preface by Atwood herself. If your copy doesn't have this, it is worth looking up - it can be found on Google Books.

P.P.S. This is a copy of my review from Goodreads, which you can find here.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Some words on #IndyRef2

From over on my Facebook Page.

On the morning of the 24th June last year, as I lay in my tent at Glastonbury in shock at the referendum result, I thought to myself: "there goes the union".
No, not the EU - it will survive in some form without us - but the UK.
Today we could have seen what could prove to be another significant step on the road to the break-up of this sceptred isle (or these sceptred isles, to include Northern Ireland in the equation).
Back then, in the midst of my despair, I said I would prefer a Scotland in the EU but out of the UK, than a UK out of the EU. Over time, my thoughts mellowed, although I still (largely) hold by that opinion. However, I fear that the result of Scotland leaving the Union, would be a Scotland out of both Unions; and that would be in the interests of no-one.
So today's news has depressed me deeply. As far as I can tell, the SNP now intend to spend another two years campaigning for independence, and using Brexit to hammer a wedge between Scots and the rest of the UK.
And this is where I have a problem. Self determination is a right and proper principle, and there is no doubt that Brexit is not popular in Scotland. However, most recent polls have indicated that Scots still back the union, or at least don't back independence. Are we to have yet more time spent on an independence campaign when there are more pressing issues at hand?
If Brexit is so bad (which it is) and the Scots so opposed (as 62% were) then won't they come round to this viewpoint anyway - without the need for the SNP to campaign when they could be dealing with Schools, or the Scottish Health Service?
Of course, these questions are moot: the SNP have never stopped campaigning for independence: this day has been inevitable since 19th September 2014.
(And on this, I have to confess I've had cause to reflect since the Brexit vote, given my own view of that, and my urge to continue campaigning. In that case, though, I'm seeking to respond to a live political issue, rather than make live an issue that people had thought was put to bed.)
In the last campaign, Salmond spent two years seeking to take advantage of the unpopularity of the coalition government. This time, May's pursuit of Hard Brexit gives Sturgeon bumper ammunition. Her gamble is that May will help her succeed where Cameron and co failed.
For her part, May says she wants the country to unite - and she could probably have achieved an approximation of this if she had opted for a soft Brexit. But her reckless policy has exasperated divisions, and made the SNP's task easier.
Labour's position on Brexit has also made this all the more easy for the SNP. They could have laid down some red lines, and led a campaign for soft Brexit. They could have worked to get the remaining Europhile Tory MPs onside in an effort to soften Government policy. It may not have been successful, but it would have given an alternative vision of a post-EU future. Instead, they have opted to chase a collapsing UKIP vote - the one form of nationalism that hasn't gained traction in Scotland.
Having utterly capitulated to the "will of the people", Corbyn made the lives of his Scottish colleagues even tougher. When asked about another independence referendum, he may as well as shrugged and said "Whatever".
And the Lib Dems? Well, I find myself in disagreement with Willie Rennie and the Scottish Party leadership on this. Whilst I think he is right to oppose this at Holyrood; I don't think our Westminster MPs should then vote against, if Holyrood has voted in favour. The technical power to call such a vote may reside in London, the moral right surely lies in Edinburgh.
So that's it. Brexit. Trump. Scotland. 2017 continues where 2016 left off. No matter how the SNP dress it up, their brand of "civic" nationalism is, ultimately, just as divisive as those that preceded it. Sadly, this time, I fear it may win - but not before tearing Scotland, and the UK apart.
P.S. I would also make an appeal to English friends who feel the Scottish party is somehow illiberal in its support of the Union. Self-determination cuts both ways: the people of Scotland should be entitled to determine whether to be part of the Union or not, and the Scottish party, within the federal structure, should be entitled to its own view on the matter too.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Cross post from Lib Dem Voice: How the West can be Won

This post, like it seems all of them these days, was first published on Lib Dem Voice, here.

In May, eight “Metro Mayors” will be elected across England. Whilst the precise details vary between authority areas, each mayor will inherit a city deal providing them with money and powers over infrastructure development in an area covering multiple local authorities.
Given the generally urban nature of most of the areas it is anticipated that Labour will win many of these. (Although given recent results in Sunderland and Rotherham such old certainties no longer feel quite so axiomatic.) In the “West of England” area, though, we anticipate the fight will be between us and the Tories.
The area covered by the new mayor will be Bristol, South Gloucestershire and Bath and North East Somerset. The latter two authorities have a mixture of urban and rural areas, contrasting with the sprawling metropolis* that is Bristol. As things stand, the Tories control South Glos and BaNES whilst Labour is in power in Bristol. In parliamentary terms, the Tories hold six seats to Labour’s three in the region.
As we’ve seen with results in Witney, Richmond Park and Sleaford, though, the results in 2015 are looking increasingly anomalous, particularly against the backdrop of Brexit (and Labour’s response to it.) Looking further back then and the picture was different: in 2010, Labour held two seats at Westminster, whilst we held three and the Tories held four. At council level, the Lib Dems were the administration in Bristol in 2010, and have historically been strong in both South Glos and Bath, where we took control in 2011.
The Supplemental Vote system means that there are two key tasks: first, ensure people know that the contest is between us and Tories. For those in Bristol, it may be strange thinking in these terms, where the battle lines have historically been drawn differently. Second, gain sufficient second preference votes to overhaul the Conservative candidate.
There is, of course, no magic bullet in doing this but we have three key weapons: our candidate, our members, and our renewed energy.
Our candidate is Stephen Williams, whose credentials for the position are vastly superior to any of the other candidates. He is a former Councillor, Lib Dem group leader, MP and coalition Minister. He knows the city of Bristol inside out, as well as much of the rest of the area, and his experience of both local government and the workings of Whitehall will be invaluable.
Over the past two years, our membership in Bristol has more than doubled, just as it’s increased across the country. With these new members come fresh ideas, and a rejuvenating enthusiasm. The result of the General Election, Brexit and Trump have motivated new members to take action, and this has helped energise those of us who are longer in the tooth.
Online and offline, there is a real enthusiasm for action within the party. This is one of the main drivers for our success in council by election after council by election all across the country. Week after week, we demonstrate that we can take seats from all comers. The West of England Metro Mayor presents a high profile opportunity to underline that point.
We can give the Tories a bloody nose, challenge May’s pursuit of a hard and harmful Brexit, and remind them that despite the result in 2015 they cannot take the West Country for granted. We are up for the fight, and up for delivering a famous victory.
You can follow and support Stephen’s campaign via his Facebook page and you can follow him on Twitter. Members and supporters can also join an online virtual HQ. Finally, you can donate here.
*some poetic licence may have been employed here.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Cross post from Lib Dem Voice: Brexit means... Keeping Mum

The following was first published on Lib Dem Voice, here.




Brexit means Brexit… The oft repeated mantra has become as synonymous with Theresa May as Major’s “Back to Basics”, Blair’s “Education, Education, Education” and Cameron’s “Compassionate Conservatism”. Like those, the phrase has become something of a joke – not helped by the assonance of the words “Brexit” and “Breakfast”, and the trap this has provided to ministers and commentators alike. So far, so funny, so harmless. Well, not harmless, but there is a world of difference between soundbites and actual policy. Originally “Brexit means Brexit” seemed designed to simultaneously pander to those who want a hard Brexit, whilst leaving the government leeway to work out what to do.
Of course, the official explanation of a lack of policy is that we cannot “reveal our hand” in advance of negotiations. There can be no escaping the whiff of sophistry about this answer – particularly when you consider the conflicting signals from the various departments charged with coming up with some form of coherent plan for those negotiations, preferably before Article 50 itself is triggered. It is patently obvious that no such plan yet exists, and all the while the clock is ticking towards the government’s self-imposed deadline.
If taken at face value, then May’s approach shows a shocking disregard for parliament, and the people. Her original desire to exercise Royal Prerogative to trigger Article 50 was but a symptom of a wish to retain control over every aspect of Brexit. I doubt those who voted to “Take Back Control” meant “take back control and hand it to the whoever is selected to lead the Tory party to do with as they wish”. Nonetheless in a few short months we have gone from having a government elected on a manifesto in which they said “yes to the Single Market” to a situation where the new Prime Minister will not now categorically repeat that affirmation.
This desire for control was evident in the advent of “Red, White and Blue” Brexit. Back me, or be unpatriotic was the message. Brexit is British: if you don’t get behind it, then your loyalty and even national identity is suspect. Get with the programme or get out… I exaggerate, but there is a serious point here: Brexit has given licence to those whose idea of Britishness is ethnic rather than civic to voice their opinions in ever louder and more aggressive ways. The tone from May, and from elements of the press, add fuel to the fire. It’s all very well to call for unity, but you need to act like you want it.
It is impossible to shake the suspicion is that the government, or parts of it, is intent on withdrawing from the single market whatever their public pronouncements, or lack of them, say. Certainly, having already gained the upper hand once, Tory eurosceptics will now press for “Maximum Brexit”. In building their coalition of support the Leave campaigns deliberately obfuscated on whether we would (or could) remain a member after a Leave vote. Now most of the leading campaigners tell us that Brexit means complete extraction not just from the EU but from all its institutions.
So, we have three possible, and overlapping, reasons for the government’s silence on their vision for the future: 1) a lack of a plan for the negotiations, 2) a certain control freakery, driven by May and 3) an unwillingness to admit that leaving the single market is an aim of at least some of our leaders, if not the settled goal of the government as a whole.
But is there a fourth reason?
Traditionally uncertainty has been the enemy of the markets – and this was evident as the currency markets tumbled following May’s refusal to admit that her aspirations to control migrant numbers would inevitably mean a hard Brexit settlement. But it was more than this, it was a window on what will happen if, or when, it becomes clear that we are leaving the single market. May can ill afford a further sustained devaluation of the currency, the attendant monetary and fiscal measures that would accompany this, or the potential backlash that the resultant cost of living might bring against her and the road she has embarked on.
Perhaps uncertainty is better than certainty, if the latter is suitably grave. Perhaps that’s why, for now, mum’s the word when it comes to Brexit plans.