LEAKED! List of types of Brexit currently under consideration

Image stolen from vice.com.

The Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson has opened up a new front in the debate over what sort of Brexit the Government should work towards. It should not, she argues, be either soft or hard but open, which presumably means ‘not closed’. As it happens, this website has been handed by an anonymous source a list of other alternative Brexits currently under consideration by the new Government. The list specifies that “in accordance with modern Conservative thinking, the Market Knows Best, it may work best if each individual consumer of the Brexit rage chooses whichever variety best suits their pocket and lifestyle aspirations, although as many components will be sourced overseas there is no cast-iron guarantee that a particular Brexit will be available”. Several of the items on the list have been marked ‘need to think of potential sponsor’, ‘no answer as of 11/06’ and ‘marketing dept will call back’.

  • Inside-out Brexit
  • Upside-down Brexit
  • Back-to-front Brexit
  • Side-to-side Brexit
  • Do-the-hustle Brexit
  • Hokey Cokey Brexit
  • The Mashed Potato Brexit
  • Tizer Brexit
  • Irn Bru Brexit
  • Dandelion and Burdock Brexit
  • Buckfast Brexit
  • Jasmine Green Tea Brexit
  • Rooibos Brexit
  • Camomile Brexit
  • Perrier Brexit
  • Tesco’s Value Still Water Brexit
  • No Brexit
  • London Review of Books Bookshop First Tuesday of Every Month Wine, Nibbles and Discounts For Subscribers Brexit
  • Wetherspoon’s Thursday Night Is Curry Night Brexit
  • #WhatOddsPaddy Sunday Specials Paddy Power Brexit
  • Burger King Limited Edition Angus Whopper Brexit
  • Ryanair £10 Priority Boarding Brexit
  • El Cubano Salsa Nite All Welcome Discounts for Beginners Brexit
  • Cairo Jax SHEFFIELD’S TOP NIGHT OUT WEDNESDAYS LADIES DRINK FOR FREE Brexit
  • George at Asda Brexit
  • Cash for Gold Sutton High Street Top Prices Paid for Jewellery Brexit
  • Domino’s Pizza 2 for £20 Collection Only Brexit
  • Crystal Palace 20% Off All Season Tickets Before The End Of June Brexit
  • Norwegian Wood Brexit
  • The White Album Brexit
  • Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey Brexit
  • The End Brexit

Although the printed list ends there, four items appear to have been amended in handwritten form:

  • Death to all Taigs! Brexit
  • Jesus was an Ulsterman Brexit
  • “That bloody woman says they’ll only do it provided we make it illegal to be gay, catholic or female and under 40. I say we should go for it” Brexit
  • “Don’t write down the last thing I said on the bloody list of Brexits you bloody idiot!” Brexit

“Neoliberalism had some good points”: An interview with Momus about Europe, politics, identity and Japan

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Momus is a polymath: a musician, novelist, blogger, artist and occasional journalist and curator. Unusually for someone who bestrides different fields, whatever he turns his hand inevitably turns out to be absolutely unique and compelling.

I’ve been a fan since the late 1980s, back when he styled himself ‘the third Pet Shop Boy‘. Since then he’s released over 30 albums (all of them unerringly excellent), six novels (every of one of them a cracking and often uproarious read), and several thousand consistently fascinating posts on his now-defunct but still celebrated blog Click Opera.

Most recently he’s opened his own online ‘open university‘ and continues to produce occasional soundscapes called ‘hearspools’, which frankly defy description, but any one of which could change your way of seeing and thinking about the world. Although he lives in Japan, he’s also doing a series of appearances around Europe and I caught up with him in the really quite magical setting of Swiss Institute in Rome, where he was doing a talk on sublimation in his lyrics and a concert, during which he played songs related in some way to Rome and its history.

Read the interview in full at katoikos.eu.

Theresa May’s secret plan for Brexit

As I’ve argued here from the start, Brexit is impossible. David Cameron blithely drew us all into a trap set by the far-right, and whoever has the responsibility for actually implementing the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will quicky find that it’s no easier than building a physical wall between Mexico and the moon.

Trump’s ‘friend’ Nigel Farage, aka the trickster who brought us to this point of total intractability, is a lifelong fascist who would happily, in collaboration with his US and Russian counterparts, start a world war. Seeing the situation the British Government is now in, he’s as gleefull as a bulldog in a kennel built of its own excrement. As a proper pre-referendum democratic debate, i.e. one not distorted by the strident lies of Farage, Johnson, Murdoch* and Dacre – not to mention the illegal manipulation by Cambridge Analytica – would have established, it would take decades of negotiations by legal and constitutional experts on both sides to even begin to disentangle the British State from the European Union. 

So what’s Theresa May’s plan, given that she’s always known that the whole thing is a non-starter and that attempts to enact it would destroy the British economy? Even after she’d acheived her vanity project of becoming Prime Minister her early attempts to even define the project were absolutely devoid of meaning. So far she’s toughed it out, pretending that she has a clearly-defined notion of what’s involved. Call it ‘hard Brexit’, to prepare the population for decades’ more austerity. Use the opportunity to put into action the final solution for the NHS and all the other eternally cruel dreams of her political tradition. 

In relation to the actual negotiations, she’s attempting to set the country up to take part in a geopolitical tantrum, trying to persuade voters and herself that the UK can realistically just walk away from the whole thing. It’s absolutely to Corbyn’s credit, despite his woeful prevaracation in the run-up up to and immediate wake of the vote, that he’s insisted that ‘no deal’ is not a plausible possibility. 

In the meantime, I suspect that for all that she’s just about managing to robotically bluster and fib her way through this campaign and will probably get a majority (although not nearly as big as she wanted), May simply doesn’t want to be Prime Minister any more. I think that her calling of this election was an attempt to establish in her own head a mandate for national suicide, but that however hard she tries she just does not have the courage. It is highly possible that she will do the same as Cameron and wash her hands of the whole disaster. But whether it’s on the individual level of resigning, or at the national level of activating the suicide belt of abandoning negotiations with the EU, Theresa May’s secret plan for Brexit, whether she knows it or not, is to walk away and let everyone else deal with the consequences.

Over the next week, every single person who wants the Tories to be defeated needs to be banging on doors, sticking up posters, striking up conversations with strangers at bus stops and at every point reminding their fellow citizens: the Tories do not give a flying fuck about the future of our society. They just want to get even richer at our expense. And when they say they have a plan for Brexit that involves anything other than the sacrifice of our livelihoods and the martyrdom of our children’s life chances if not their actual lives, they are lying through their expensively-upholstered teeth.

* I’d just like to take this opportunity to suggest that Rupert Murdoch is the Robert Mugabe of British politics.

I no longer feel ashamed to feel ashamed to be British

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What I most wanted to become when I grew up was a foreigner. My father was from another country and my mother hadn’t been born in the city where we lived (Sheffield), so I always felt like a bit of an Ausländer. I must have heard my dad and his mum speaking German together and wanted to join in, to be part of another world. I remember my mum being appalled when I, aged about 6 during an overenthusiastic game of toy soldiers, shouted with glee and fury as I smashed my fist into the enemy lines, “TO HELL WITH THE BRITISH ARMY!”. Straight after university I moved to Ireland and started to reinvent myself as someone a bit more worldly.

Something I subsequently read which left a major impression on me was Declan Kiberd’s classic book ‘Inventing Ireland‘, in which he wrote about how national identities are formed through mirroring, through a dialectical process of subjecting and objectifying. ‘Us’ can be defined as ‘not Them’, and thus the British projected onto the Irish all those qualities they didn’t want to acknowledge in themselves: catholicism, irrationality, brutishness, ignorance, free-spiritedness, etc. Much more recently, another Irish writer and thinker, Fintan O’Toole, has helped me reflect on what being British (and English – see below) entails in the wake of Brexit. In a recent article for the Irish Times he wrote:

Brexit and the English nationalism that underlies it are redefining England for the rest of the world as an angry, hostile, unlovable place. And it’s vital for Ireland that we are clearly distinguished from that new English identity.

An exemplary British European, Julian Barnes, expressed similar thoughts in an article for the LRB called ‘People will hate us again’:

We have our sentimental vision of how others see us: as correct, humorous, eccentric, polite, tolerant, phlegmatic and so on – ‘très British’. But historically, they have equally – if not more often – thought of us as cold, arrogant, violent, self-interested, racist and hypocritical.

Both writers are concerned with how Brexit changes the international reputation of the British. What about the view from inside? What will Brexit do to our sense of ourselves, especially those of us who live abroad?

The process of even acknowledging myself as British was a long one. Although in May 1997 I was living in self-exile (and no fan of Tony Blair), I shared at a distance the widespread relief that nearly 20 years of Tory rule were over and some measured optimism. I was glad to be out of the country when Diana died, with the public outpouring of sentiment for the loss of the national poodle. At the time I thought the whole morbid fanfare was both hilarious and contemptible; by the standards of 2017 it seems quite harmless, even laudable. When Blair sold Britain into the war in Iraq I expressed outrage and joined the march in Lisbon, but also felt that I benefitted from years of distance – he wasn’t ‘my’ Prime Minister, I thought.

I’ve written here about the process of coming to terms with my identity through living abroad, learning languages and reflecting on my own culture and history. In China I was confronted with the contradictions of presenting myself as someone who was all foreground, no background. My students’ questions revealed an assumption that as a British person I admired ‘my’ Prime Minister and was happy to be seen as a representative of my culture, my country, and my government. Such preconceptions were never hostile. They were positive stereotypes and as such, although they challenged my own view of myself, I benefitted from them.

I’ve also written (here) about my insecurity when it comes to claiming the status of a foreign language speaker, seeking acceptance as a member of another cultural community. My anxiety about that status being rejected – when, for example, someone switches from their language into ‘mine’ – houses a fear of being seen as small-minded, provincial, and naive. What results is an instinctive chippiness and defensiveness. Similar emotions arise when food is mentioned in class. In response to the stereotype of the British being unsophisticated in their eating habits, I get riled and feel compelled to point out that We, because of Our History, have a very cosmopolitan diet…I’ also have to keep in check a tendency towards snobbery in relation to less culturally or gastronomically diverse cultures. My sense of entitlement (“curry is a British invention! of course we know how to cook pasta properly!”) has deep roots, partly buried in centuries of colonialism. Barnes was right to mention hypocrisy. My defensiveness when it comes to languages and food and my refusal to wear the badge of my own culture ignores the fact that my livelihood is entirely founded upon on centuries of colonial and imperial dominance.

Over the years I’ve met both anglophiles and anglophobes. I like people who don’t speak English, but I have sometimes detected a certain antipathy from a lot of lingua-franca-refuseniks, particularly from those whose dislike of the language of neoliberal globalisation is motivated by anti-imperialist sentiment. It’s almost refreshing to have to challenge that stereotype of myself as cold and lacking in empathy. It’s a rare novelty and as such a luxury to encounter anti-English/British racism. Few other nationalities enjoy such privilege.

It’s always felt like a small victory to be told I’m not typically British. At the same time, I’ve very slowly came to realise that my response is by no means atypical: as Kit Wright’s poem ‘Everyone hates the English‘ exuberantly points out, no one resents the English as much as the English do. My self-deprecation (e.g. wanting England to lose at sport) is in some ways typically English. (Indeed, someone once wrote a book about this very attitude.) When it comes to coldness, what ‘we’ see as humour and irony doesn’t translate. In the notion of ‘taking the piss’ there’s a defensiveness, as a character in ‘Against’ the Day’ by Thomas Pynchon remarks: 

Any who may come to feel betrayed by them, insulted, even hurt, even grievously, are simply ‘taking it too seriously.’ The English exercise their eyebrows and smile and tell you it’s ‘irony’ or ‘a bit of fun.’

Here we come to a tricky area: am I concerned with being British or English? As the Scottish writer Momus points out, there’s a marked difference. Very few Glaswegians voted for Ukip. His classic essay is about English self-deprecation, not Scottish or Welsh*. He quotes Minette Marin making a similar point to Pynchon:

“To me, as an American on my father’s side, one of the most unattractive aspects of Englishness has always been false modesty. It’s called self-deprecation, but springs from a deep sense of superiority (not unjustified, and all the more annoying for that) and it was traditionally both a ruse to placate inferiors and a game to tease equals – a national form of self-aggrandisement and exclusion.”

While an English cliche has it that the Germans excuse their historical misdeeds with the phrase ‘I was only following orders!’, it’s long seemed to me that the English/British equivalent is ‘I was only having a laugh!’. It’s significant that insofar as Britain has sought to come to terms with its history of racism and violent plunder, comedy has been one of the main media.

I’ve gradually come to accept my national background as a defect, albeit one that I’m powerless to change, whether I eventually manage to acquire an Italian passport or not. I’ve lost some of my sense of shame, although I’ve never got to the point of cheering on the football team. I would never declare myself proud to be British. I didn’t like the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony any more than I liked Blair, but I could see that there was an aspiration towards a more inclusive cosmopolitan self-image, one that celebrated the progressive aspects of the country’s past without shying away from the guilt occasioned by slavery and empire. I began to see my antipathy towards my own national identity as a little more than an overgrown adolescent impulse.

Now, five years on, we have the most right-wing and nationalistic government of my lifetime, led by someone who actively sneers at ‘cosmopolitans’. Politics is dominated by a tone of unreflective and unrestrained imperial nostalgia and unreconstructed xenophobia of the most facile and obnoxious kind. Downton Abbey, Ex-NF thug Nigel Farage and scumbags beating up asylum seekers are all of a piece, symptoms of a deep reactionary shift towards the most repugnant aspects of our history. If you add in the media treatment of child refugees, the screeching of Katie Hopkins and all the other professional shit-stirrers and the fact that millions are expressing an intention to vote for much more of this, it’s hard to feel anything but a renewed sense of deep, deep mortification. We unambiguously are, as Barnes says, “cold, arrogant, violent, self-interested, racist and hypocritical.”

It’s shameful to be British, and I for one no longer feel ashamed to say so.

 

* I apologise for sometimes using the two terms interchangeably but sometimes it’s unavoidable. I’ve tried to use them appropriately. It’s worth noting that: a) it was the British Empire, not the English one b) Tony Blair joined in with the invasion of Iraq in his capacity of Prime Minister for the whole of the UK, not just England, and it wasn’t just English soldiers who killed and died there and in Afghanistan c) Wales as a whole voted Leave d) I happen to think that Scotland made a catastrophic mistake in 2014. However, do feel free to challenge individual misuses, in the meantime I’ll just leave this here:

Are the Tories throwing the election to escape responsibility for Brexit? No, but…

aw-theresa-may-jeremy-corbyn-poll

As I’ve argued all along would be the case, an orderly Brexit is turning out to be impossible. The early stages of negotiations have been like trying to make an omelette using shit instead of eggs. It was never going to be anything like a ‘clean divorce’ – that metaphor is just as unhelpful and misleading as Thatcher’s comparison of a national economy to that of a household. Instead the UK wants to unilaterally break a contract with 27 partners and define some sort of mutually beneficial relationship afterwards in the face of a politically justifiable desire from other partners to eliminate any possible benefit.

It may not be clear from reading the domestic press, but the UK Govt is currently undergoing galaxy-wide humiliation at its lack of preparedness, its self-delusion and its misplaced arrogance. Foreign news outlets tend to report what people like Juncker have actually said, not some self-serving distortion of it. The Tories and their pet bulldog newspapers can snarl emptily about sabotage and bluff and bluster about being ganged up on but the fact that May et al do not know what they are doing is now public knowledge from Torino to Timbuktu. There are probably peasants in the North Korean countryside having a good laugh at May’s plight over their breakfast of grass and bits of their house as they try to find light relief from thoughts of impending nuclear annihilation, not to mention spladgequards from planet Beetlewoox 4 scratching whatever they have for heads and wondering why this particular species of human known as The British insists on behaving in such a hostile manner towards its nearest neighbours.

At the same time, Corbyn’s Labour Party is rising slightly in the polls (not that much – it’s rather like someone you were sure was dead moving an eyelid slightly). Would Corbyn be better placed if this somewhow was to become known as the Lazurus election? That would place him in the not-exactly-to-be-coveted position of having to negotiate in the national interest for something which is against the national interest. After all, even the most ardent Brexiteers did this primarily for their own ideological jollification. Instead, the likeliest scenario is that following a probably slightly less emphatic Tory victory than we had feared, the UK will call off talks and resort to extreme hostilities as the economy collapses and the country quite possibly prepares North Korea-style for a war which may or may not ever arrive. If the whole thing wasn’t so depressing I would bet good money on some form of conscription being introduced before Article 50 expires. That’s the sort of thing merchants of chaos like Farage wanted all along and Cameron was prepared to risk for the sake of short-term political expediency.

The Tories are, of course, not about to throw the election. They want to achieve their long-standing ambition of crushing the godawful upstart Plebs Party for good*. The polls may well be misleading – Michael Ashcroft certainly made sure they were in 2015. But they must be having very serious qualms about the trap that they’re backing themselves into. The Tories have been able to get away with austerity by blaming everything that’s wrong in society on the previous Labour Government. No opposition means fewer scapegoats at a time when they need them like never before. This is not a good time to turn the country into a one-party state.

* It may be due to missing the irony in this sentence that some idiot on the Labour Party forum (possibly a troll) said that this article ‘reads like Tory Party propaganda’. This may mark an all-time high in terms how inane political debate on social media can go, I’ll keep you posted.

I was a teenage Lib Dem

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It was my (German) grandmother who first introduced me to acid house. She’d just got back from a all-nighter in a field off the M1 and with shaking hands and gleaming eyes she pressed a Todd Terry mixtape into my hands with the words ‘Dies musst du einfach nur hören!’. In suburban Sheffield in mid-1988, a period soon to be known as the second summer of love, there was a huge opening of like minds, a spiritual confluence of tribes and generations united around bleeps, beats and togetherness.

Actually none of that is quite true. There may have been people nearby getting into raving and revelling in e-fuelled dionsyan madness but I’d just finished my GCSEs and was working in a supermarket stacking shelves as slowly as I could. When my dad offered me the chance to deliver Liberal Democrat Focus leaflets I must have leapt at the opportunity for some excitement. To my eternal shame my attachment to the Lib Dems continued on to University. I think I must have quite fancied one of the people on the stall on Fresher’s Day and so spent several weeks trudging around Norwich in the runup to the local elections trying to get people to vote yellow (I don’t think I actually voted for them myself). I vaguely remember a couple of barbecues at which I met well-meaning and very polite local people who cared very much about their streets (for them the Lib Dems were essentially  a national version of Neighbourhood Watch) but were either clueless about the world beyond or sounded to my ears distinctly like Tories.

Thankfully for my dignity and campus credibility my political trajectory swept me away from Paddy Ashdown and co. When the exchange rate mechanism crashed down in early 1992 and it became clear that no one up there in or near power had a clue what they were doing I decided to abandon my weird form of political contrarianism and go back to being a Marxist. In the meantime, sadly, my adolescent street-pounding in Sheffield Hallam had eventually paid off, and those seeds I’d planted (in the form of leaflets focussed almost exclusively on street lights and traffic containment measures) had flourished to the point where a fresh-faced chap called Nick Clegg was elected local MP. His trajectory surpassed mine, because while I continued on through various trotty groups towards inevitable disillusionment, his star rose to the point where he came to stand on a sunny morning in spring 2010 in the garden of 10 Downing Street and, beaming like a new parent, boast that he and his new friend David were going to “take Britain in a historic new direction” and create a “stronger society” by, er, allowing Trident to go ahead, capping immigration and introducing some spectacular and ‘savage’ cuts.

The rest is history, although not of the sort that should make anyone feel proud. Within a few short months students were rioting in Central London in fury at Clegg’s decision to betray them over skyrocketting tuition fees. By spring 2011 ordinary voters were so sick of the Government’s coalition of sickening cruelty and staggering hypocrisy they rejected Clegg’s prized referendum over the Alternative Vote. In mid-2011 there were (as had been predicted a few weeks earlier by local youth groups struggling to survive those ‘savage’ cuts) riots which quickly spread from Tottenham to cities across the country (and which were sternly condemned by Clegg as ‘completely unacceptable’). Since then things have only got worse, as Gary Younge details in The Guardian this week:

Since 2010 there has been a £387m cut in youth services, and between 2012 and 2016 603 youth clubs were closed. In London, £28m has been slashed from youth services budgets in the last five years, leading to 36 youth centres in the capital closing. A starved NHS is unable to adequately provide mental health assistance to the young. The government now plans to cut funding to schools in urban areas.

Cuts have consequences. They leave wounds and create resentment in those whose lives have been scarred. It’s more than poetic coincidence that Younge’s article also talks about a rise in knife crime and relates it to austerity. The A-word is one that, in the Lib Dem-crowded anti-Brexit Facebook groups I signed up to in the wake of the Brexit vote last summer, I quickly found to be taboo. People were (rightly) horrified and outraged by what had taken place but (as had been the case after the 2011 riots) they weren’t very interested in finding out why it had happened.

At the same time there were a number of well-informed explanations of what lay behind the vote, especially how those who had most to lose (in working class areas which depend on EU funding) had almost uniformly voted to leave. One particularly cogent account by someone who spent weeks talking to people in what became ‘leave’ areas is the Guardian reporter John Harris, who argues trenchantly that decades of economic neglect lie behind the Brexit vote, and that the level of dillusionment is such that it would be a grave mistake for those of us who campaigned to stay in the EU to try to reverse the vote. Instead left-liberals have a duty to make political connections with the areas left out of globalisation, to create dialogue and common causes which aim to draw millions of disaffected people away from the influence of the far-right.

I’m lucky: I haven’t been directly affected by austerity. I’m also one of those who has (on an individual level) done quite well out of neoliberal globalisation and who appreciates the chance to live in other countries and have other people come to live in mine. At the same time, I oppose the austerity agenda of the last few years, which I can see is having a devastating impact on the social fabric of cities like Sheffield and creating unprecedented levels of social resentment and mistrust throughout the country. That resentment and mistrust fuelled the Brexit vote. Nevertheless, in my occasional visits to those Facebook groups I regularly encounter people who like to pretend that everything was perfect until June 23rd last year, that Brexit is an inexplicable stain on reality’s otherwise pristine sofa. In fact, it is partly an incoherent and (deliberately) misguided response to those ‘savage’ cuts Nick Clegg boasted of and then presided over. I know that Tim Farron is not an Orange Book neoliberal like Clegg, but I’m also aware that (as Owen Jones points out in today’s Guardian) he is on record as saying he would enter another coalition with the Tories. Whether he’s being cynical or naive, his party is no alternative to and no defence against the most right-wing government that the UK will have ever seen. Another loved-up springtime morning in the Downing Street garden would be, to paraphrase one of my grandmother’s most illustrious compatriots, a farcical tragedy repeating itself as a particularly tragic kind of farce.

May clinches victory in snap General Election

Our reporters, London, Friday 9 June 2017 22:42 EMT

An emboldened Theresa May followed her win in the snap General Election that ratified the supremacy of her rule by taking aim at political opponents at home and abroad.

At her victory speech late on Friday, supporters chanted that she should bring back the death penalty — a move that would finish off any possibility of the UK rejoining the European Union — and May warned opponents not to bother challenging the legitimacy of her win. She told them to prepare for the biggest overhaul of the UK’s system of governance ever, one that will result in her having even fewer checks on her already considerable power.

The result of the referendum sets the stage for a transformation of the upper echelons of the state and changing the country from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential republic, arguably the most important development in the country’s history.

May said she would immediately discuss reinstating the death penalty in talks with the prime minister and the nationalist opposition leader, Nigel Farage. The president said she would take the issue to referendum if necessary. She also announced plans to seal off the Channel Tunnel ‘with no prior warning’, abolish the House of Lords, reduce the university system to just Oxford, Cambridge and possibly Bristol, reverse the Northern Ireland peace process, reintroduce conscription and the workhouse, hunt down dissidents, ‘any remaining’ foreigners and ‘non-U’ journalists, expel from London anyone earning less than £400,000 a year, ban curry and reinstate both blue passports and the institution of serfdom ‘before the end of the next parliamentary term’.

“Today, Great Britain has made a historic decision,” she said. “We will change gears and continue along our course more quickly.” The pound surged as much as 2.5 percent against the dollar in early trading on Monday in London before gains moderated.

The result will set the stage for a further split between Britain and its European allies, who believe London is sliding towards autocracy. The European commission said on Friday afternoon that the UK should seek the “broadest possible national consensus” in its constitutional amendments, given the slim margin of victory. The official British Government response came shortly afterwards. “Bog off, beastly wogs”, it read.

Turkish sultan Rečep Tayyip Erdoğan was the first world leader to contact Mrs May to offer his congraulations on her victory, while French President Marine Le Pen took a break from directing jew-gathering operations in the east of the country to state that she found the outcome ‘vraiment formidable’. Meanwhile, the UK’s Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn welcomed the result and said that he would be extending his holiday in Venezuela ‘for the foreseeable future’. As for US President Donald Trump…I’m sorry. It appears that satire has just reached its limits.

(Additional reporting courtesy of The Guardian and Bloomberg.)

Seven weeks in Bangkok

Although like most Westerners I’m attracted to the idea of overcoming craving, I spent 90% of my stay in Bangkok suffering from an insatiable yearning for deep sleep and iced refreshments. The fact that Thailand is a Buddhist society is thrust upon you as soon as you leave the airport, in the form of billboards sternly warning you that although it might be calming to place a craven image of Mr Buddha (fat version) in between the plant pots or adorning your upper left buttock, this is very actively discouraged, in fact it’s actually illegal to buy religious symbols as a ‘decoration’. Such ‘respect for Buddha is common sense’, admonishes the poster. It’s the kind of evocation of common sense which would make Pierre Bourdieu cough up his tam yang soup. Symbols of Buddhist faith do nowadays play an important decorative role in Western lives and households. What the relationship is between such images and actual faith and practice is a very moot question.

Maybe the authorities should also put up signs against selfies at buddha shrines. It’s easy (and fun) to sneer at such misplaced displays of self-centredness. It would also be unfair (as I did at one point) to complain that Thailand is less the land of smiles than the land of selfies. As it happens I identify with a lot of Buddhist philosophy and have a lot of respect for those who genuinely try to live according to its precepts, particularly renouncing one’s individual will. Just this morning I came across a lovely quote from the Buddha: “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most”. As it turns out, on tracking down that saying I see it’s fake, as is a lot that Westerners believe about Buddhism. In a classic article which he really should have called ‘Western Buddhism and the Spirit of Neoliberalism’ Slavoj Žižek argued that in contemporary Western ideology Eastern religions play much the same role as Weber (Max, not Lloyd) argued that Protestantism did in the development of capitalism*. They underpin an individualist mentality of detaching oneself from social responsibilities, particularly the moral consequences of one’s actions. You can spend 16 hours ruining lives by pushing innovative forms of debt enslavement in the City and then go home, close your eyes and pretend that reality is a mere illusion. To be fair my position had softened on this, but I do still think that those who persist in the belief that Buddhism is inherently more tolerant and peaceful need to take an honest look at what’s happening in Burma. The attitude of the Chinese authorities to religion has also changed. The former leader Jiang Zemin was keen on allowing Christianity to spread in the belief (also pace Weber) that it promoted industriousness. The current leaders seem to be taking a different tack, urging Party followers to stick to Marxist-Leninist atheism and restrict their contact with religious belief to eating members of the Falun Gong.

Maybe they should ask you at Bangkok Airport if you’ve come to nourish your body or your soul. I wasn’t there on a spiritual sojourn, but to accompany my wife while she did a summer course at the university. It wasn’t my first visit. In January 2005, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, me and my then girlfriend abandoned our plans for a beach holiday and instead spent several weeks on the west coast helping tourists locate their loved ones and rebuilding fishing boats with our teeth while using our hands to bottlefeed orphaned children. The language was no problem, we picked it up in a couple of hours. The highlight was when I received a gold medal from the King, who became a close personal friend and subsequently introduced me to Michael Jackson, with whom I (retrospectively) wrote ‘Earth Song’.

Some of the preceding paragraph is not true. There were probably tourists who sacrified their time and energies in such a way. We (shamefully) took our lead from George Bush after 9/11 and ‘supported the economy’ on the relatively corpse-free west coast. Maybe it was the heat bearing down from the Thai sun or rising up from the bowls of Tam Yung, but my memories of our actual holiday are vague. As we were living in China at the time, the ease of finding transport and accommodation came as a pleasant shock and we were overwhelmed by how friendly and cooperative everyone seemed to be, especially when it came to providing us with smoothies and toasted sandwiches. I quite liked Bangkok, including the backpacker enclave of the Kaoshan Road. The Sukhumvit area was relaxing to walk around and the presence of the occasional street elephant impressed me, although the animals themselves didn’t seem to be massively enjoying themselves, except when they were producing tsunamis of steaming elephant wee.

In London over the years I had lots of Thai students. I’d sometimes gently oblige them to do a neat party trick, which was to recite the full name of their capital city, which is basically a massive list of everything of significance in the place. People’s names are also not what you might think. For years I had no idea how complicated the whole thing was and arrogantly insisted on using their ‘first’ names. It’s actually far more respectful to call Thai people by their chosen nicknames, even though my students were had invariably chosen things like Rabbit or Blue. The most common surname by far was Porn and we had one student who unwittingly glorified in the name Bumsick. Again, it’s easy to make fun, until we recall that the name of the current US President is a synonym for bottom burp, two of his predecessors were called Bush and the present UK Prime Minister shares almost her entire name with a scuzzy porn star.

Even the smiliest Thai person must get frustrated at being asked about the same old prurient clichés, particularly about ladyboys and the social role of women-who-work-as-prostitutes. One night our group of humanitarians and alternative thinkers ended up in a strip bar on the street called Soi Cowboy. We tried to join in with the hilarity but I’d read too much about the background to have a lot of fun. There is a mythology that sex workers are more respected back in their home villages. I hope it’s true and that they’re not coerced. It’s also nice to think I would never have to take my clothes off and waggle my arse in the face of fat German tourists. That whole supply and demand thing is probably a key factor.

My experience of the Thai language was actually kind of refreshing, in that it was a relief not to pretend that I fitted in. Learning any new language is always a great game but I was reminded how difficult it is to start, to get past the stage where you can get a phrase out but not understand a word of the reply. Had I been there for more than a few weeks I would have tried harder (try saying that in Thai) but as it is I felt grateful when people responded in English. It made a change from feeling resentful, as I often do in countries where I do speak the language and someone addresses me or replies in English. Given the immense linguistic and cultural gap, in Thailand calling yourself an expat makes sense. Although I vastly prefer the word ‘foreigner’ it would be misleading and absurd to put yourself in the same social category as a enslaved Burmese refugee peeling prawns for British supermarkets or a Pakistani Christian asylum seeker terrified of arbitrary deportation. A lot of English language culture is nonetheless very bland, filling out that nebulous category of ‘international’: soulless hotel bars, vapid pizzas, what should really go by the name of “Mexican” “food”. I joked with a random person we met at an expat meetup about how all we have in common is our language – for all I know, I could find myself talking to an arms dealer! He turned out to be basically an arms dealer, one who lives in Oman and occasionally comes to Bangkok for the (nudge nudge) ‘recreation’.

Maybe (to be generous) he meant the shopping. It’s incongruous that the authorities are so fussy about the statues because they are, like everything else, very much for sale in endless parades of stupendously cavernous malls. If you didn’t know Bangkok was the capital of a Buddhist society you might mistake it for a gigantic monument promoting human cravings. Parts of it felt distinctly like the most boring part of London, viz Canary Wharf. The absence of parks and the presence of the Sky Train above congested roads makes for a heavy and frenetic atmosphere and what starts as a five minute stroll to seek out yet more international adaptors can quickly drain you of physical and mental strength. The BTS trains themselves provide some relief from the heat as they are kept at a constant temperature of -273.15C.

Two cities that make for useful comparison are Bangkok and Mexico City. Before going to the former we spent a year living in the latter. There are obvious point in common (heat, traffic, spices, political chaos) but in terms of walkability the Mexican capital is (relatively speaking) paradise, with its abundant green spaces and (where we were living) leafy boulevards. Between Mexico and Thailand we also spent ten days in Cuba (ain’t life grand!), where the heat was often unbearable. We are making a sterling contribution to global overheating by virtue of our globetrotting and will have some great travelling stories to regale our daughter with should we be able to stop gasping for air long enough to share them.

There are also, as mentioned, some nice, quieter parts of Bangkok: some pleasant side streets and the teak mansion which that silk guy who used to be in the CIA called home. The night markets (particularly JJ Green’s) are a charm and a joy. Some of them are actually less markets, more shopping centres, because if there’s one thing which absolutely everyone loves and that Bangkok is crying out for, it’s more shopping centres.

I tried to take an interest in Thai politics but it’s a murky affair and it’s hard to work out who the least-bad guys are. The whole red and yellow t-shirt thing may be, well, colourful to outsiders but those garments are indications of treacherously deep rifts in society exploited by those with the means to do so. From a very voluble taxi driver I heard the best argument against democracy I’ve ever encountered. He explained cheerfully that given the immense power of Thailand’s version of Berlusconi (Taksin Shinswatra, who, when ousted from a military coup, simply put his sister in charge of his party – the army stepped in to cancel an election she would have won) there is simply no alternative at present to military rule (a fascinating and detailed background can be found here). In the light of Trump’s rise and Rupert Murdoch’s victory in the UK referendum it was hard to argue back.

At the Foreign Correspondent’s Club we saw a poster for an intriguing upcoming event discussing free speech in the light of the upcoming constitutional referendum. It was subsequently banned by the regime, which didn’t want people discussing what they’d be voting on. God forbid that participants in referendums should be well-informed, especially by bloody (vomits) experts! While we were there things were calm but there was a certain nervousness around the King’s health (he subsequently died in October). This is something that it is immensely hard to discus with Thai people and it would be wrong to joke about, especially given that the university hosting us is known as the ‘Pillar of the Kingdom’.

In our brief interactions with people in uniforms we noticed a certain harshness of tone. Traffic policement were uniformly brusque, as if no one told them about the smile thing. Being snarled and barked at by people in khaki became a daily experience. The brutal treatment of those who challenge or offend authority both contrasts and is intertwined with the tweeness of official state promotion. The current Prime Minister is a retired general who gives regular speeches on ‘returning happiness to the people’ (he also write a ballad of the same name) and said of those who oppose his regime “Whoever causes chaos to Thailand or disrupts peace and order, they should not be recognised as Thais, because Thais do not destroy each other…The charm of the Thai people is that they look lovely even when they do nothing, because they have smiles”. This reminds me of General Wiranto, the sadistic Indonesian general with his love for karaoke. The documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ also exposes this deeply sentimental aspect of authoritarianism. Autocrats have a necesarilly limited and often puerile emotional range. An entertaining complement to Peter York’s classic coffee table book on dictators’ houses would be one on their music collections. I suspect that Trump’s CD rack contains a fair few Whitney Houston discs – ‘American Psycho’ Patrick Bateman (a character partly modelled on Trump) was obsessed with the production on her debut album. If he gets to lead the G7 I can imagine him, Putin, and Duterte joining in on a rousing version of ‘The Greatest Love of All’.

The course my wife was on was about Peace Studies. On a field trip down south the group was chaperoned by the army. The episode gave us an insight into how autocracy works: the military politely asked if someone could come along, and the organisers of the trip were in no position to say ‘no’. Those who work in human rights exhibit immense bravery and intelligence in the face of outright repression. The history of Thailand in the 1970s involves a communist insurgency partly inspired by the massive presence of US troops, soundtracked by bands like Caravan and marked by massacres of radical students. It puts me in mind of Costa Rica’s role in relation to the Contra death squads in Nicaragua. Thailand may famously have remained formally independent for centuries but its history is certainly not free of geopolitical compromise.

The imperial struggle to win over young people’s hearts and minds continues in other forms. One weekend towards the end of my stay an ‘Edutech’ festival took place on campus, the central theme of which seemed to be: “let’s get rid of teachers!”. Let the students eat laptops instead. Upcoming TEFL guru Hugh Dellar wrote an excellent diatribe against big business’s ongoing takeover of education here. Apart from the odd exchange I had little contact with the university students themselves. The atmosphere around the residence felt a little twee, or maybe that’s my sulky impression as for the first few weeks I couldn’t seem to find anywhere to buy beer.

The area next to where we were staying is being transformed from a filthy storage place for heavy industrial machinery into spick and span student apartments surrounded by manicured lawns and immaculate, if empty, bijoux shopping malls. I came across a friendly cafe several grubby street away whose owner was recently turfed off the campus to make way for shinier, newer things. There’s big money in international education. Another cafe just next to our building employed two charming Cambodians who spoke less English than anyone else I have ever met (although my command of their language is considerably  worse – at least they knew how to say ‘hello’). An extended stay in the orient is, as Edward Said taught us, an object lesson in trying to essentialise, to see everything as (in this case) quintessentially ‘Thai’. Any society houses hidden tensions and exclusions. Bangkok is a primate city, which means it attracts huge numbers of immigrants, some of whom, especially those from the Esan region in the north-east near Laos, are not always well treated. Most people would also prefer to live near the centre, in the place where we were privileged to be staying, rather than spending inordinate numbers of hours on various cramped and stuffy forms of public transport.

I lived a charmed life for the few weeks I was in Bangkok. Since I was in the midst of a swimmimg mania, my daily schedule involved an hour-long dip rewarded with a smoothie and toasted sandwich followed by a sunblasted stagger to the MBK shopping mall to seek out even cooler drinks, even more breathable garments and ever-spicier rice and noodle dishes, followed by a few desultory hours of dozy work interspersed with shouting at people who might be racists on Twitter. Although I did survive the heat, get paid for the work and achieve a relatively deep and even suntan, my one-man online campaign against Brexit failed to have any meaningful impact. Proof, if any more were needed, of the ultimate ineffectiveness of all human endeavour. Or maybe further evidence that Twitter is not an appropriate forum for combatting incipient fascism, especially when you happen to be thousands of miles away from where the events you’re ‘debating’ are taking place.

*If you’re in the market for a a imponderable conundrum to meditate on, that sentence may well be it.

Brexit lesson plan – Key issues and consequences

Immagine

As I’m a British person living abroad, I’ve found that my students are very keen to know what I think of Brexit and are generally relieved to hear that (like most people in my situation) I think it was a catastrophic decision. However, I think it’s very important not to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone who voted for it did so out of xenophobia or because they’re all thick, as the Guardian reporter John Harris patiently explains here. Many were frustrated with society, left out of globalisation and duped by nationalist politicians and self-interested newspaper moguls into thinking the EU was somehow to blame. So now you know what I think. Just for a change.

This lesson doesn’t focus on the causes of the vote, but rather uses a Guardian article from yesterday (March 29th) to help your students (and you) understand some complex issues involved in the negotiations which will now take place. This can be followed by a speaking activity in which they express their own opinions about the broader consequences. The lesson was designed for B2+ Politics students but could be used with any Upp Int+/Adv class interested in the issue.

Procedure

  1. Show them this article and draw their attention to the subject (Brexit) and the date (March 29th). Ask them what happened on March 29th (Theresa May write a suicide note) (you don’t have to call it a suicide note).
  2. Draw their attention to the subheadline. Make sure they understand what civil servants are. Demonstrate what ‘untangle’ means and establish that in this case ‘distill’ means to reduce a list of 700 areas down to eight.
  3. Scroll down pointing out the categories (Timing, The ‘divorce’ bill, Citizenship, Borders, Trade, European Court of Justice, Transition, Ratification). Elicit a brief definition/translation for each.
  4. Show them the questions below and get them to copy them off the board. This will enable them to identify any which cause confusion. Point out that the answers can be found in the text and that they should only use their dictionaries as a last resort.
  5. Either handout printed copies of the article or get them to find it on their phones/tablets/pcs/etc.
  6. Students in pairs find the answers. Monitor to offer occasional hints to any pairs who are struggling.
  7. After 20 minutes or so, swap partners to check their answers.
  8. Go through the answers on the board (make sure you know the answers first).
  9. Tell them they’re going to be interviewed about the consequences of Brexit, and that there will be two questions: 1) What are the short-term consequences a) for the UK b) for Europe? 2) What are the long-term consequences a) for the UK b) for Europe?
  10. Give students three minutes to prepare, looking up vocab they will need and asking you for help if necessary. Make sure they are taking notes and not preparing a speech.
  11. Students interview a partner for 3-4 minutes and then swap roles and repeat.
  12. They change partners and repeat the exercise but this time film/record each other on their phones.
  13. HOMEWORK: Students write a transcript of the interview they gave, making corrections where necessary, and then email it to you for comments.

Questions for reading exercise

Timing

1) When will Brexit happen?
2) What’s the main disagreement between the UK Govt and the EU on this point?

Divorce Bill

1) How much does the EU think the UK should pay?
2) How much does the UK Govt think it should pay?

Citizenship

1) Why are a lot of people in Europe angry about this?
2) What does pretty much everyone agree on?

Borders

1) What do both the UK and the Irish Govts want to protect?
2) What do some people hope?

Trade

1) What do most Europeans believe is most important?
2) What is a “bespoke customs union”?

European Court of Justice

1) What doesn’t the UK Govt want to do after it leaves the EU?
2) What possible solution is the UK Govt considering?

Transition

1) What “painful concession” could May face?
2) What have business and the City insisted is important?

Ratification

1) What are the names of the chief negotiators on each side?
2) Why would the UK Govt have problems obtaining a “generous trade deal”?

Tady Prosim!