Category Archives: current affairs

American elections, imperialism, slavery – and Britain

I have written a blog posting on another website that might be of interest to readers here too, about the American elections, imperialism, slavery and British reactions to these themes:

Some notes on the American election and imperialism (click image to read the article)

Some notes on the American election and imperialism (click image to read the article)

Understanding Islamic State? A conversation with David Pratt

Last week I had a Twitter conversation with David Pratt, the foreign editor of Scotland’s premier newspapers, The Herald and Sunday Herald, and I then wrote a short blog posting about this on another blog I use.

Some of the themes and issues I address here will be of interest in reflecting on how we think about groups like Islamic State and others. In particular, students engaging with questions of categories and identity questions might find this interaction and my subsequent reflections helpful.

In The Public Sphere

David Pratt is a journalist I rate very highly.  He is the foreign editor for The Herald and Sunday Herald newspapers, and reports with engagement and passion on conflict and humanitarian issues around the world.  He recently wrote a very good column about Palmyra, and I tweeted a link to it with a comment that he then picked up on, and a conversation developed.  I thought it might be interesting to post it here, with a further comment.  Pratt’s original article is here: Caring about people and art is one and the same thing, and I warmly recommend it.

Here’s my tweet, and the ensuing conversation can be read below it (may need a separate tab/window to see it in full; I’ve also created an image of the conversation below; the IS article I linked to is one I wrote for the Critical Religion Association):

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The xenophobia at the heart of the UK affects everything, including our university system

Today I read a rather brilliant article about the American justice system by Albert Burneko: The American Justice System Is Not Broken.  Along the same lines, I would argue that neither, of course, is our immigration system in the UK broken, even though some claim it is: yes, it discriminates on the basis of race, but that is entirely deliberate. Xenophobia is an integral part of the system.  All the major Westminster parties are racist in this way: the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government, and the opposition Labour party (see, for example, this interesting comment from the Spectator, which I, of course, read differently to the way they do!). The parties’ pandering to UKIP probably makes this worse, but we should be clear that none of the parties can legitimately use that as an excuse: they all espoused, and when in government operated, racist policies long before UKIP was in any way a significant force.

Xenophobia and racism, of course, permeate our society, as does discrimination on the basis of class, gender, disability, age and so on. Our political parties reflect that, but they also create it: this is a dialectical relationship, as the parties escalate their racism in order to (as they see it) appeal to more voters, who are presumed to be racists too (incidentally, realising this is what the parties think of us, the voters, leads to interesting thoughts… but that’s for another time, maybe!).

I see this all the time in the context of our country’s university system, and thought it might be interesting to give some examples and consequences. After all, especially at postgraduate level, our universities attract students from around the world, and some of our most able students are those who have gone to great lengths and endured enormous financial and emotional pressures to study here: often they are away from their families and friends for years at a time, with relatively little money, in a strange environment (and therefore with few, if any, support networks, at least to begin with) – and yet often they still produce brilliant work.  I don’t wish to devalue the achievements of UK students, but to produce excellent research under such circumstances does require additional effort and personal resolve.  EU students have it hard compared to UK students (language, unfamiliar context etc.), but non-EU students face even more hurdles – at least EU students have the right to come here and study without visa complications.

That is where, for non-EU students, the xenophobia and racism that permeates our society becomes immediately apparent.  Most non-EU students come here under the Tier 4 visa system, and universities generally have the right to enable students to come here under that scheme.  But if not, the process is complex.  It is also costly: £310 plus £310 for each dependant (so if you are careless enough to have a partner and children before studying and are unreasonable enough to want them to come with you, that gets very expensive!).

Now, let’s presume you have stumped up the money for the visa. Next you have to pay the university fees. This is the first time we see the racism that our political parties espouse in their policies reflected beyond the government.  I don’t think most people realise this, but fees for students in the EU and outwith the EU are different.  For example, if you want to do a PhD with me (yes, please do enquire!), my university charges the following at the moment (and some universities charge more):

EU students (incl. UK)
Non-EU students Mode of study
£3,996 £12,000 Full time
£1,998 £6,000 Part time

Oh, and if you’re here on a Tier 4 visa, you can’t do your PhD part-time, so forget the £6,000 option.  Of course, being a full-time student means you might struggle, for example, to do a part-time job on a supermarket checkout to help pay for your fees and living costs, especially if English is not your first language and you need all the hours in the day to read and understand complex source material or theoretical texts for your research. That’s just tough: be rich, or struggle (see how neatly class is intertwined with the racism here?).

If you need to leave the UK, perhaps for research fieldwork, or to visit your family, getting back into the UK is not necessarily straightforward.  An American PhD student of mine was stopped at Heathrow and nearly not allowed back into the UK, despite having the appropriate student visa – this is just ‘simple’ xenophobia! The immigration official at first pretended not to believe she was returning to study, with the conversation at one stage moving to comments on how pretty she was, and that she was surely just trying to get back into the UK to marry a boyfriend and stay here (all this in the fevered imagination of the border agency person – there was no boyfriend, and she was coming back to meet her supervisors and carry on her study).  That conversation could have been very different had she not been white and not been from the USA, and I know of other students who have been harassed and delayed at airports despite having the right student visa.  If they already have the right visa, they should be allowed straight through the airport immigration checks, rather than face arbitrary harassment.

Let’s presume that you complete your studies on time and graduate – congratulations, that’s a great achievement, and you, your family, and your supervisors should all be incredibly proud! Now, let’s presume that you didn’t just spend your time in a library, but maybe met a local and fell in love! That’s wonderful, and then, maybe with a year or two still to go on your student visa, you get married – congratulations again, that’s lovely, and everyone will be very happy for the two of you and wish you well for your married life together.  That is how it should be.  Unless, of course, you happen to be in the situation of one of our students a couple of years ago: as I recall it, her new husband had a daughter from a previous relationship and lived near to her and the child’s mother so he could see his daughter regularly.  He had sustained some kind of injury at work, and could now only work part-time, thereby automatically lowering his annual salary.  Despite this, the newly-married couple had more than enough money for their needs, and lived quite happily together – until she graduated and her visa ran out.  The UK government pretends to value families (the odious Iain Duncan Smith has recently even introduced a ‘family test’ for new laws), but the reality is that they don’t care about families unless they are wealthy (again, this is where class and xenophobia are linked). Our former student could only stay with her husband if between them they had a certain level of household income, otherwise she had to leave.  No amount of protestation about his situation and the lack of job opportunities for her in a difficult economic climate made any difference: she eventually had to return to America.  Her husband then had a choice to make: did he move to America with his wife (which he could do automatically, being married to an American citizen: their laws appear to be less inhuman in this regard), or did he stay in Scotland so that he could see his young daughter regularly? It’s an impossible decision to make. So much for our government pretending to support families.

But let’s forget about that crazy little thing called love, and presume you just want to stay in the country and work here, having made friends, felt welcomed by the people around you, and are happy in the town you are in.  You might struggle to get an appropriate academic job (it is extremely difficult: “only 19 per cent of UK PhD holders were in higher education research roles three and a half years after getting their doctorate”), but you might be in perfectly decent work, even if it doesn’t pay you that much. High pay, such as academics get, is not necessarily what all want – it’s very nice, certainly, but security, purpose and so on are rewarding for many, and a lot of jobs offer that.  But doing something like this is basically impossible.  Oh yes, the government will pretend it isn’t, but I have seen post-PhD students from non-EU countries try to secure employment with an income level that will satisfy the requirements of the UK government, and in most circumstances it simply can’t be done (unless you’re on a very narrow list of desired professions), especially not for people with humanities backgrounds.

There are exceptions, of course, where certain kinds of visas exist that allow work to be done by specialists without regard to income levels, but it requires a level of commitment from institutions like universities that, understaffed as most administrative departments are, is an incredible stretch.  Too often, there is too much expected of such people, and as they seek to ensure they do things properly, urgency and deadlines slip, and what seems like a perfectly simple thing to do is made more complex to the point where the human objective – helping someone stay in the country who can offer something helpful and useful to our society and where they might be happy – is lost.  Overstretched people often end up having to do things that effectively dehumanise situations, and this is neither their fault nor their moral failing.  Rather, it is that the whole immigration system is so deliberately complex and the penalties for institutions that fail to observe them so severe, that folk are terrified of failing to comply (the London Metropolitan University crisis from 2012 is etched into the mind of every university recruitment and personnel director in the country, I’m sure).

Our government’s policies are constructed in such a way that we don’t see the xenophobia and racism in our institutions unless we actually look for it, but all of our public life is infected by this it. The examples I have given point in part to the process whereby xenophobia and racism is embedded in our institutions – it’s not that people who work in our institutions are xenophobic or racist (well, some might be, but I’m arguing they are not necessarily so and I would never presume they are unless I had evidence to the contrary). People in our institutions have to come to decisions that reflect the principles laid down by the government – and these principles are the problem, reflecting values and positions the parties think we, the voters, want them to embody. We urgently need to disabuse our politicians of these views and find a way to exercise real control over our parties and government in order to address these problems.  Every election offers that opportunity, and I encourage support for parties that explicitly don’t pursue racism and xenophobia but seek to undo the damage the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour parties have done to our public life (I think this basically means the Scottish or English and Welsh Greens, the Scottish Socialists, the Scottish Nationalists, and Plaid Cymru… any more?).

How to reduce the likelihood of dying: be a woman in Scotland

Women in Scotland don’t die. Well, some do, but not at the same rate as men. This means I’m doomed, because men in Scotland are nearly three times more likely to die than women – those are bad odds! I can prove this with statistics, as I’ll show below. However, before I get to that, there are two things I don’t really understand, given that girl and boy babies are born in pretty much equal numbers:

  1. if fewer women die, there should be lots more women in Scotland than men, but I don’t really detect that much of a disparity in numbers;
  2. also, there should be an awful lot of very elderly women in Scotland, but there really don’t seem to be that many (but perhaps my scepticism about TV advertising is misplaced – maybe all these anti-aging creams really DO work! But still, there should then be lots of old-but-young-looking women about, and there don’t appear to be, as noted in point 1).

Anyway… by now you may be asking how I know that fewer women die in Scotland. It’s really very simple: for the entire month of June I’ve been reading the obituaries in the printed version of The Herald. For a while I had a sense that there seemed to be lots of men recorded but very few women, so for the entire month June I compiled figures from the obituaries. These statistics show that men die at a much higher rate than women, and presuming the order in which they appear on the page suggests something about their relative importance, I can also deduce that less important women die more infrequently – this obviously means not only should you be a woman if you want to live longer, but you should be an obscure woman.

– o – o – o – o – o – o – o –

Silliness aside: it is obvious to most of us that the mainstream media is sexist: we often think of the tabloids in this regard, but the broadsheet press is also sexist, even if it doesn’t use naked women as a primary selling point. Compiling obituary information is a clear marker of that: these pages record the passing of significant people, and although I have never heard of many of them (because they lived and worked in fields far removed from my own interests), I find obituaries interesting.

Here is the data I collected:

M 2.6. 1 1 Maitland Mackie
Mary Soames
T 3.6. 1 1 Hilda D Spear
Michael Schmidt
W 4.6. 3 0 Duncan MacLean
John Weir Cook
Matthew Saad Muhammad
Th 5.6. 3 0 Walter Yellowlees
Malcolm MacDonald
Herb Jeffries
F 6.6. 2 1 Matthew K Dickie
Dorothy Robertson
Carl Boehm
S 7.6. 1 2 Jean Petrie
Georgina Scott Sutherland
Alexander Shulgin
M 9.6. 3 0 Harry Hyde
Chester Nez
Zbigniew Pietrzykowski
T 10.6. 1 0 Rik Mayall
W 11.6. 2 0 Max Wallace
Eldon Griffiths
Th 12.6. 1 1 David Kynd Brown
Yuri Kochiyama
F 13.6. 0 2 Jane Gray
Barbara Murray
S 14.6. 2 1 David MacLennan
Rolando Ugolini
M 16.6. 2 1 Duncan Fenton
Eric Hill
Anne Donnan
T 17.6. 2 0 Donald Macaulay
Sam Kelly
W 18.6. 2 0 Jim Keays
Casey Kasem
Th 19.6. 2 1 Charles Letts
Kevin Elyot
Elaine Gerber
F 20.6. 0 1 Rhea Martin
S 21.6. 3 0 Phil Mason
Gerry Goffin
Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos
M 23.6. 2 1 Gerry Conlon
Francis Matthews
Ruby Dee
T 24.6. 2 0 Ian Hughes
Jimmy Scot
W 25.6. 2 0 Harry Wylie
Felix Dennis
Th 26.6. 2 1 David Taylor
Eli Wallach
Martha Hyer
F 27.6. 3 0 Peter Mallan
Tommy Craig
Phil Mason
S 28.6. 2 1 Joan Macintosh
Horace Silver
Patsy Byrne
M 30.6. 2 1 Molly Wood
Bobby Womack
Terry Richards
Totals: 46 16 (that’s 2.875 times as many men as women!)

So we can see that on numerous occasions not a single woman was deemed worthy of an obituary in the Herald (only on two occasions did this happen with insufficient numbers of significant men dying). There’s also a pattern where women more often appear as the last person in the list, preceded by one or two men. And so on… We can see very clearly that men predominate in the obituaries in every way, indicating that men’s lives are interesting and worthy of our attention, whilst women’s lives are less so – all of this is a serious problem that permeates our thinking.

I am not, of course, making these comments to in any way mock the deceased, but simply to point out that what seemed like a pattern to me in the months prior to June is a reality, based on this month’s obituaries.  How we mark those who have died and celebrate what they have given our society is tremendously important – and it’s important that the contributions of men AND women are recorded and celebrated.

Now, about race…

Challenging Everyday Sexism

In connection with the launch of the new Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies that I am several others are involved in, there is to be a day of talks, workshops and debate about challenging sexism in public and private life.

The event is free (though you do need to register as numbers are limited), and is open to students and staff at Stirling University, and anyone else who wishes to attend.

The programme has a number of sessions:

  • Laura Bates (founder of Everyday Sexism Project) and Kezia Dugdale MSP on ‘Challenging Everyday Sexism’
  • Workshops on challenging street harassment, porn culture, men challenging men, sexual violence prevention education
  • Gail Dines (author of Pornland) on ‘Sex(ism), Identity and Intimacy in a Porn Culture’

The detailed programme and registration form is available to download here.

Some thoughts on the Labour Party in Scotland, and why I wish things were different

A while ago I ended up in a brief Twitter discussion about the Labour Party and the independence referendum with a fairly prominent Labour activist and friend based in Edinburgh. We share much in terms of our interests and engagement; our common membership of the Iona Community symbolises a significant part of this. Twitter was not a very good space for a meaningful conversation, and so I suggested we move to email. So I sent him a long email about my worries for the party – but he never replied and never mentioned it again. Fair enough, he’s a busy man, but given that I was raising some of the issues I am raising here, I wonder if there is more to it…

Today’s Sunday Herald makes for depressing reading for anyone who has any affection at all for the Labour Party, as I certainly do. I was a member many years ago, but left when they supported the American-led Gulf War (no, not that one, the 1990-1 war – I’ve been around for a bit!). I have voted Labour more often in more elections than I could possibly count – though a little while ago I joined the Green Party and have voted for them consistently in recent times, even though I admit I’m not a very active member.  But in Council elections, for example, where I have had more than one vote and not enough Green candidates, I have still voted Labour after voting Green – but on reading the Herald today it dawned on me that I can no longer foresee a time when I could ever vote Labour again.

The wider context for this is the independence referendum on 18.9.14. I fully support independence for Scotland, but have many friends and colleagues who do not, and I respect that. Whether Scotland achieves independence or not next year, we will still be neighbours and will still want to improve our society, we just differ about the best way to achieve a better society, not in the idea that it needs to be better than it is now (for example, more just, more equal etc.). I don’t want to explain why I support independence here (some pointers to that are here), but I do want to offer an honest plea to my Labour friends about their support for the British nationalist campaign, Better Together (see the article I just linked to for more on the terminology I’m using here).

A key issue, I think, is the company they are keeping. It is perfectly ok for Labour to take a British nationalist position in the referendum debate if they sincerely believe that they can help bring about a more equal and just society in the UK as a whole, rather than doing so in smaller, more democratic structures that allow greater opportunities for change (yes, I know, my bias is showing in my terminology!). However, I think their alliance with the other parties in Better Together, the Tories and the LibDems, is destroying the soul of Labour, and it saddens me enormously that they don’t seem to realise it. Earlier this year came ‘donorgate‘, the revelation that Better Together had been funded in substantial part by Ian Taylor, someone with very dodgy sources for his money and who didn’t even live in Scotland, but hey, I suppose he’s for the union so that’s err… ok (see articles 1, 2, 3 from National Collective). But today the Herald reveals that the top 20 most recent donors for Better Together are all Tories (and many having what some might regard as problematic sources of income). This might be fine and dandy if the Tories were active in the campaign in Scotland, but insofar as there is a grassroots campaign by Better Together (and there isn’t much beyond leafleting, and certainly nothing like the Yes campaign’s creative activism), it is largely Labour people running it: even their leader is Alistair Darling, former Labour Chancellor at Westminster. What we therefore have is a campaign paid for by rather odious Tories (bedroom tax, student fees, disability cuts, privatisation of the English NHS and schools… I could go on) with Labour doing the actual work on the ground – or to put it another way, Labour have hired themselves out to the Tories and their interests.

If this is in the expectation that the referendum will be won by the No campaign and that the Labour Party will then go on to win the 2015 UK general election, then I think Labour strategists are, to put it bluntly, in cloud cuckoo land. Not only do the UK-wide polls suggest Labour will really struggle in 2015, but I increasingly see support for Labour in Scotland itself waning. I am not alone in realising I cannot vote Labour again: their positioning is costing them support from precisely the people who have the same interests they used to have. That connection to the Tories and their money is symbolic of all the things they have moved away from over recent years. The Labour hierarchy does not seem to realise that the Tories are simply using them in Better Together because the Tories themselves are so toxic in Scotland that any vocalisation of support they might offer for the British nationalist position would almost certainly ensure widespread support for the Scottish independence movement. The moment the referendum is over (whether it is won or lost), these oh-so-generous Tories will turn on their erstwhile Labour colleagues in Better Together with a vengeance.

This could then herald disaster for Labour: not wilderness years, but the practical death of the party altogether:

  1. I expect that if the referendum in Scotland results in a No vote, Labour will be blamed by many Scots and these connections to the Tories will be key in that argument. Furthermore, Labour’s activists, tired from campaigning against the vibrant and exciting prospect for independence (even if it loses the referendum it is still more exciting on the Yes side), will struggle to rally support for the 2015 election, and will almost certainly lose that, perhaps even to a Tory majority. The Tories will then gerrymander the constituency borders (that they already tried to do in this parliamentary session, only being stopped because of a clash with the LibDems) and Labour is then unlikely to win another general election for a very, very long time, defeated by their own selling-out on the one hand, and Tory manipulation on the other.
  2. If the referendum results in a Yes vote, the Tories will blame Labour: they’ll say they provided millions of pounds but Labour activists still lost them the referendum, so how can they be trusted to run the negotiations with the Scottish government over independence? Their activists, tired from campaigning against the vibrant and exciting prospect for independence (it is tiring arguing against something much more vibrant than your position) will struggle to rally support for the very last UK 2015 election and will almost certainly lose that, perhaps even to a Tory majority. The Tories will then gerrymander the constituency borders as noted above, and Labour in rUK is then unlikely to win another general election for a very, very long time, and I would doubt their ability to win in Scotland for a while too.

Either way, the present situation is a lose-lose scenario for Labour.

If the Labour Party (and by that I mean members, not just the hierarchy) genuinely believes that a No vote is better for Scotland – and I can understand why some might think that, even if the argument is not persuasive to me – then I think they need to start campaigning away from the Tories and their money, and therefore away from Better Together. If they were ethical about their support for the union and thought worker solidarity would function better in the UK as is then that is an interesting and potentially positive position to be arguing – but they are not doing that and in fact they cannot do that whilst funded by the kind of horrible Tory capitalists who want to do away with as many workers’ rights as possible (and this also explains in part why the official No position in the referendum debate is so rotten). Of course, some would say that the Labour Party left workers behind when the crypto-Tory Tony Blair became leader of the party, but people like my friend mentioned above do genuinely support and engage with ordinary workers and the working class, as do many other grassroots Labour Party members. I want them to retake control of their party! At the moment, I am sure Labour will lose in the Scottish referendum – regardless of whether the referendum results in a Yes or a No vote – and then, almost automatically, in other contexts.

I say all this not because I want the No campaign to win the referendum – clearly, I wouldn’t be engaged in the Yes campaign if I wanted that! – nor because I want the Labour Party as it is to be resurgent, but because I worry about what I would dare to call the soul of the Labour Party. In a UK context (even though I hope we won’t be stuck with it for much longer) the Labour Party still offers the only vaguely viable left-of-centre party, and if they are to offer that to the UK electorate in 2015 after a 2014 No win, they need to recover that and be more convincing – and they’re less and less so as time goes by. If, as I hope, there is a Yes vote, Labour will similarly need to hold to a leftish position in the 2015 election, offering a viable alternative to the Tories during negotiations and after Scotland has left the UK. (Of course, in Scotland, the SNP are way to the left of the Labour Party, highlighting the fact that the terms “left” and “right” are a) not necessarily very helpful, and b) relative.  Perhaps I should add that I’m not an SNP supporter and have never voted for them, nor see myself doing so.)

So, my dear Labour friends – it is not too late, I hope, for your party to recover, to retrieve the soul it once had from the Tories in Better Together and Tory-lites who are running your party at the moment, at least in Scotland. But I think you need to act fast. More stories such as the one in today’s Sunday Herald are poison to the well-spring of support you once enjoyed in Scotland, and to survive, you need to move away from these poisonous supports, even if they appear to be full of money that you think you need. If you are going to sup with the devil you need a long spoon – and at present you neither have one, nor seem to even see the need for one.  The alternative is therefore clear – don’t sup with the devil!