Archive

26th March 2019

On Sinn Fein Absenteeism: A Modest Proposal

Does nobody these days have back-channel access to the Sinn Fein, passionate Remainers all? Or some mobile phone numbers, twitter handles?

Could those seven Sinn Fein mps not be encouraged to waive their time-worn abstentionist policy, swallow hard and – however briefly – take their seats at Westminster? After all, sometimes a custom is more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

At present, Northern Ireland, where 55% of votes cast in June 2016 were for Remain, is represented at Westminster only by the DUP – passionate Leavers all and currently still supporting the government (like a rope supports a hanging man?)

Brexit in any form would be hugely consequential not just for Britain but for the whole of the island of Ireland.

Is anybody trying to talk them round? Leo Veradke? John McDonnell? Besides, might they not find it absolutely delicious in one fell swoop to stick it to Brexit, to the Tories  and to the DUP?

Would they really have to swear allegiance to the House of Windsor? Surely if many an honourable British republican – not to mention the likes of (Tony) Benn and Jeremy Corbyn – have somehow managed the trick, surely Sinn Fein could do so too? For example, fingers crosssed?

It goes without saying that for such a sacrifice of priniciple they would reap the eternal gratitude not just of 16 million Remain voters but, at a guess, that of a clear large majority of the 13 million who abstained in 2016 and the 19 million who, too European or too young, weren’t enfranchised. Above all, there would be an enormous number of people in Ireland who’d appreciate the sacrifice.

22th March 2019

Open letter to Guy Verhofstadt

Dear Guy Verhofstadt,

You have every reason to be impatient with the British parliament’s stance on Brexit. Can they not, you plead, finally cease stating what they don’t want and make clear instead what on earth it is that they do want?

It sounds so simple, so attractive. But, Guy, they just can’t do it. They can’t bring themselves to say it. Not because they don’t know what they want but because it would make them a laughing stock. Not in your eyes perhaps, Guy. In their own eyes. In the eyes of the British public, from whom they derive their precarious authority and on whom they may one day rely to renew it.

The simple, impossible-to-acknowledge fact is that a majority of the British parliament knows precisely what it wants: it wants to remain in the EU. They have looked hard and long at the May-Barnier deal and they’re not buying it. And right now, they’re staring into the barrel of a ‘no-deal’ exit and they don’t like that either. Why would they? Nobody in their right mind would.

The softer Brexit options now under discussion do at least tick the ‘less catastrophic’ box but are still deeply unappealing: they would see Britain, like a beggar with his trusty dog, hugging the EU for warmth, but remaining gagged and bound – which, for European politicians, might well be a blessed relief. The thing that has to be grasped is that whenever Dame Margaret Beckett, a former Labour foreign secretary, splutters that ‘the best EU deal is the one we already have,’ nobody ever raises a voice to contradict her.

What complicates matters further is that the UK population, to judge by opinion polls stretching back over months, is in rough alignment with parliament. If a referendum were held today, Remain might well triumph as comfortably as the ineffably conceited David Cameron assumed it would in 2016. Which is precisely why a majority cannot be found in parliament to back a second referendum. They can’t be seen to go against the sacred will of the British people as expressed on June 23 2016.

For in the United Kingdom the profoundly shocking outcome of that simple binary vote on that single day in June 2016 has acquired the status of a miraculous event, a holy tablet. The 17.4 million people who voted Leave on that occasion are cited day in day out as unimpeachable oracles, glorified first as ‘the will of the people’ and now as ‘the voice of the people’ (Theresa May on 13 March 2019 in parliament): indeed, in such grandiloquent phrases as ‘the British people instructed the government to deliver Brexit’, the 17.4 million are allowed to stand for the nation itself.

Yet if you trouble to examine it closely, the 2016 Referendum – whisper it softly – never provided any honest mandate for any form of Brexit. The Brexit process that Mrs May calls ‘an exercise in democracy’ has always been an abuse of democracy and worse, an abuse of the demos, the long-suffering UK population.

How can that be true? Did not a majority vote for Leave?

A slim but clear majority of those who voted on 23 June 2016 did indeed vote ‘Leave’. But the closer you look at the details of that result, the framing of the referendum itself, the circumstances under which it was called and, indeed, the franchise, the less conclusive it appears. There are four reasons for this.

Firstly, the franchise set out in the EU Referendum Act 2015 excluded two notably euro-enthusiastic groups of voters: the over three million EU-citizens whose right to vote had long been recognised at council elections but who were deemed unfit for the (too consequential for ‘foreigners’?) EU referendum; and sixteen- and seventeen-year olds who in 2014 had been eligible to deliberate upon the weighty matter of Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom but who, in the space of two years, had lost their right to express a view on the (more?) weighty matter of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.

Secondly, no threshold condition was set. As was set out in the EU Referendum Act 2015 itself, when it comes to matters of constitutional importance, for a referendum to count as valid and binding a two thirds majority is usually required or, as was the case for the 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution, a majority equivalent to 40% of the electorate. In the 2016 referendum, the Leave vote in fact won not 66% but just 52% of the votes cast, roughly equivalent not to 40% but to 35% of the enfranchised electorate (and barely 26% of the entire UK population).

Thirdly, two of the four national constituents of the United Kingdom, Scotland and Northern Ireland, had majorities favouring ‘Remain’. It has long been a convention for referendums in multinational states to require a majority in each of the member nations in order for the referendum proposition to succeed. The consequence of flouting this condition is staring us in the face and may yet lead to the break-up of the UK; for the argument now rages in both Scotland and Northern Ireland that if Brexit happens their nations will be ‘forced out of the EU’ against their democratic will.

Fourthly, the EU Referendum of 2016 was explicitly accorded a merely ‘advisory’ status in the relevant legislation and this fact could not altered by the illegitimate and cavalier manner in which politicians starting with David Cameron promised that whatever the outcome of the Referendum the government would then ‘respect’ and ‘honour’ it. These were hucksters’ promises and should have been discounted as baseless. The fact that they were believed does not grant them any legitimacy.

But the supreme, the crowning, absurdity is that there was no popular pressure, no groundswell of opinion in favour of holding a referendum in the first place. Membership was never a hot-button issue. There was certainly never a demonstration to compare with last November’s 700,000-strong rally for a people’s vote. The single-issue Europhobic party known as UKIP could never manage, despite repeated and well bankrolled attempts, to get their tub-thumping leader elected to any Westminster constituency in the land.

The EU referendum was conceived as a straightforward and risk-free manoeuvre to silence a small minority of nationalist extremists within the English [sic] conservative party. Yet this is the tail that now wags the rest of England, the UK and even the European Union, powerfully distracting it from more serious business.

To summarise: in 2016, on a severely restricted franchise, without the constitutional safeguard of a threshold, the Leave campaign achieved a simple plurality in an explicitly ‘advisory’ referendum. Despite this fact and despite significant subsequent shifts in opinion and demography, the British parliament (made up largely of former Remainers) is quite incapable of liberating itself from what it continues perversely to consider its democratic duty, i.e. to deliver Brexit to a population (made up largely of would-be current Remainers).

You can demand angrily that the British government and parliament say finally what on earth it is that they want. You are right to do so. The trouble is that they just can’t. They have the entire nation in a twist. It is essential that they are given time to sort out their self-inflicted fiasco.  A couple of years at least. During which time, I would strongly advise you to look away.

Respectfully,

Christopher Woodall

20th March 2019

Open letter to George Freeman MP:

Dear George Freeman MP,
I’m a constituent of yours, living in [Mid-Norfolk]… I have never voted anything but Labour but, unless they rid their party of anti-semites and belatedly take a firm and principled stand against Brexit, I am unlikely ever to do so again. For the time being, like many others, I have no useful vote.
I feel very strongly that Brexit would not only be very damaging for this country and for Europe as a whole but also that its passage on the basis of the 2016 referendum would be essentially fraudulent.
On four separate grounds, that referendum cannot be deemed to represent the views of the population of the UK nor to consitute a mandate for Brexit.
1) the franchise excluded not only 16 and 17 year olds, who had been entitled to vote in the Scottish Referendum 2014, but also EU-citizens. My partner, an Italian citizen, property-owner, tax-payer, resident here for 24 years and mother of a British citizen was among those excluded from having a say. I believe that if these two groups had had their rightful say, the result would have been very different. No taxation without representation? Well, both EU citizens and young people in this country, in various ways, pay taxes but were not represented in a matter vital to their futures.
2) in contrast with what is normally the case in referendums of constitutional importance, no 2/3 or 40%-of-electorate threshold was set. Since the ‘leave’ vote only amounted to 52% (as opposed to 66%) of the votes cast and less than 36% of the entire electorate, it would not have been deemed to have passed. If you look at the numbers, barely 26% of the UK population voted Leave.
3) the referendum was explicitly ‘advisory’ (see 2015 EU Referendum Act) and no number of earnest promises made by politicians that any victory however slim, however shorn of threshold, would be taken to be ‘an instruction’ can overturn that fact. Those promises were illegitimate, invalid and should be set aside. You can’t promise what you don’t possess. You can’t bind the future. The referendum should have been accepted on 24 June 2016 as advisory only – in line with the relevant legislation – and a second referendum should have been immediately promised to confirm whatever deal was brought back. That could have happened. The fact that it didn’t is scandalous.
4) in 2016 there was no great appetite for a referendum. Most people cared much more about schools, the NHS, the economy, etc. The passions that were whipped up by the extreme-nationalist wing of your party and by UKIP were threatening to destroy the party led by David Cameron. The Referendum was conceived as a way to put the problem to bed. Had anyone believed Leave could have won, a sensible threshold would have been put in place and the franchise might have been different. Then if leave had won, everyone could have accepted it. As for UKIP, despite many attempts, they couldn’t even get their tubthumping leader elected to any constituency in the land. Never was there a mass demonstration of 700,000 people calling for either an EU referendum or Brexit – but there was one last November calling for second referendum.
Brexit is an abomination and it has no democratic legitimacy, having failed to extend the franchise to significant swathes of affected citizens, having failed to set a constitutionally appropriate threshold and having been set up to be ‘advisory’ – as I believe you know – and it should be stopped. Every time you hear someone say, ‘17.4 million people… the British people…’ remember that it is a non-sequitur: 17.4 million leave voters back in 2016 could never represent the UK population of 65 million and certainly do not now that the issues have become so much clearer and almost three years have passed.
For pity’s sake, do what you know is right, not what is [politically expedient].

With best wishes,
Christopher Woodall

10th November 2017

Flanders Field doggerel for Brexit Ears

My son (10) has been instructed by his primary school to learn for homework ‘In Flanders Fields’, a piece of doggerel that in its final lines incites unspecified present and future soldiers to pursue ‘our quarrel’ against the ‘foe’, saying that not to do so would be to ‘break the faith’ – whatever that is – and somehow to prevent the dead from sleeping. Of course, the nature of the ‘quarrel’ is not specified either.

In other times and places, such piffle, though popular, might be laughed off. But some English [sic] politicians have begun to refer to their fellow Europeans as ‘enemies’ and to those who all too timidly continue to oppose ‘Brexit’ as traitors. At the same time, once respectable albeit rightwing journalists have now taken to calling European politicians and civil servants ‘EU monkeys’ in mass-circulation newspapers (Rod Liddle in The Sun, 26.10.17).

As an antidote to Flanders-Fields doggerel, my son and I are now reading Wilfred Owen, whose forthright English tones were inflected with a quiet internationalism, quite free of any scoundrel patriotism: ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend…’ says the narrator at the end of ‘Strange Meeting’. In ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, Owen portrays the failure to avoid conflict on the part of European nations, depicted as an old ‘Abram’, as a refusal to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’, opting instead to slay ‘half the seed of Europe one by one.’

On the 11th November, we shall be making the modest gesture of wearing white rather than red poppies, in order to commemorate those of all nations who were slaughtered in the shameful twilight-imperial bloodbath known as World War One and especially those who stoutly refused to enlist or chose to desert and face certain death rather than to submit to the knaves, fools and asses who bade them kill their brothers and sisters.

Let us celebrate the words of the German anti-militarist Karl Liebknecht who in 1915, in the teeth of nationalistic compatriots and of backsliding fellow socialists, stated: Der Hauptfeind steht im eigenen Land. (The main enemy is in one’s own country). This was also the position of the Scottish Labourite internationalist Keir Hardie, the French pacifist Romain Rolland and many other fine men, women and children across Europe and beyond. These are the people we should honour in such times of dusted-off jingoism and extemporised foe-speak.

 

25 June 2017

Remembering A Day in the Death of Joe Egg

Donna Triggs’ sensitive and forthright production of Peter Nichols’ dark comedy, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, continues to work on its audience – if I am remotely typical – like a depth charge almost a month after seeing it at The Garage, Norwich. So no apologies for taking all this time to reflect on the play and its staging.

When I first saw the play, it was the late 1960s and I was a teenager. I remember being shocked by the staging of severe physical handicap: in those days, with the exception of the men [sic] maimed in war, who tended to carry their wounds proudly, the disabled were hidden away. I was on the cusp of adulthood yet apart from the teenage girl next door, a spastic polio victim – yes, that was indeed the accepted language, shared by experts and family members alike – I had never encountered severe disability: not at school, not among friends or relatives, certainly not in books, magazines or on radio or tv. Ironside, the first police series to feature a wheelchair-bound detective wasn’t yet screening in Britain.

It takes an effort to recall – let alone to imagine – quite how shocking Joe Egg then was. As well as displaying the face of severe disability in the character of Joesephine, confined to a wheelchair, incapable of speech and, as is made brutally clear, unable to control her bodily motions, the play presents in her parents, Bri and Sheila, two contrasting characters, the father as desperately clownish as the mother is doggedly, painfully, resilient. The mind games that Bri and Sheila play as they dance and improvise something approaching a normal married life around their daughter’s central presence – central absence, I should say – is the very heart of the play’s first half, along with the personality traits they invent for Joesephine in order, it seems, to sustain their open-hearted devotion.

In the second half of the play, two new characters, Freddie and Pam, long-term friends of Bri and Sheila, are introduced, serving to embody the outside world and its varying conventional views of disability. While Freddie, who is well-intentioned and keen that Bri and Sheila should be ‘practical’, sketches out a humane solution to what he sees as Bri and Sheila’s intolerable predicament, Pam, his wife, displays a feeling of revulsion at the very thought and sight of disability, as if it were not merely traumatic but somehow intrinsically impolite or indecent.

It is at this point that the focus of Donna Triggs’ production seemed to shift from Joesephine’s parents – roles performed with maniacal energy by Robin Watson and titanic calm by Lois Entwistle – to Joesephine herself and, perhaps surprisingly, to Pam (played by the director herself). And as this shift in our attention proceeded, so did our self-questioning. From ‘could I ever be as good-humoured and inventive as Bri or as resilient and loving as Sheila?’ we moved to an examination of first Joesephine and then Pam.

From the outset, Moira Hickson’s formidably rich and suggestive portrayal of Joesephine repeatedly raised the suspicion that there was an active mind, a will and a consciousness at work there, despite the absence in the text or on the stage of any real evidence to that effect. And so it was that Joesephine, the object – or mere occasion – of the play curiously became its central subject as we, in imitation of Bri and Sheila, began to seek and almost involuntarily to construct a personality for ‘Joe’, willing her to live more fully. At the same time as this process unfolded, the character of Pam seemed to turn from vulgarly reprehensible, a perfect model of how not to react, to pitiful and deeply human.

After the performance I attended, there was an extended discussion with the actors, the director, and also with members of The Hamlet, a Norwich-based disability centre, including a severely disabled young man and his mother. When asked how she judged the characters and attitudes represented in the play, the young man’s mother not only voiced sympathy and understanding for Bri and Sheila but proved quite unwilling to condemn Pam, whose revulsion she attributed to simple ignorance and, above all, to fear.

Time was spent discussing the way language and perceptions have changed for the better in the last fifty years, since the play was written. Yet there is clearly no room for condescension towards the past nor for complacency about the present circumstances for disabled people. What has been achieved in terms of rights and inclusion took years of campaigning by those most directly involved and also required support and solidarity from wider society. In times that remain austere, this engagement will remain essential. Triggs’ Joe Egg and the work of The Hamlet, in different ways, will be important in this struggle.

 

The following review was published in TLS in 1995…

 

Piero Camporesi, Exotic Brew. Translated by Christopher Woodall. 193 pp. Oxford: Polity. £29.50.

From a review by Patrice Higonnet of several works. Title of the review: ‘Let them drink chocolate. Salons, food and the growth of civil society.’

Goodman and Gordon are strict taskmasters who write from verse and chapter; Censer’s scholarship is impeccable and cold. In Bologna, however, Piero Camporesi is a poet.The darkening shadows of theory are never visible in his text, which is none the less remarkably informed. Everything in Exotic Brew is culinarily transposed and comes with succulent recipes such as the one for Président des Brosses’s favourite creamed sweet: beef marrow, milk-soaked breadcrumbs, almond paste, cinnamon and stock-covered currants. In Camporesi’s pages, the individuation of social life becomes smaller table-ware, personalized settings, or a quest for comfort. Cartesiansism exists, but as a “ratio convivialis”, a reconceptualized sequence of dishes, whose deeper meaning is of a “geometrical order and mathematical reason”. The feminized salons are “the dreams of lightness become a social imperative”. Like Goodman and Gordon, Camporesi also sees sociability as the key to Enlightened thinking, but he sets it in a very different register: “The dinner-table was becoming the condensation chamber for the new frontiers of the mind”; and a dinner without Voltaire was “like a ring without a gem”. Food, writes Camporesi, “was spoken rather than eaten, taken with detachment, while the new hot beverages… punctuated the passage of time with an obligatory ritual and etiquette”. Coffee and chocolate were the “liquid emblems of a new society”.

Camporesi does not ignore high politics: the decay after 1700 of monarchic authority, so important to Habermas and his disciples, is relevant to him oo, if only gastronomically. Camporesi’s definition of “l’infâme” does include an implied critique of political excess in an age when – in the words of the sceptic academician and tutor in the French royal house, La Mothe le Vayer (1588-1673), “the princes of Europe fed on vipers the fowls [which] they themselves consume”. But Camporesi subsumes these princely politics under a culinary rubric, namely the “extravagance of the baroque imagination [with its] bombastic cascades of main dishes”.

For him, Enlightenment politics and lighter food were always very close; did not French haute cuisine begin during the negotiations for the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713? But for Camporesi, the difference between absolutism and enlightened despotism is not so much in the changed Habermasian configuration of the private and the public, as in the fact that Louis XIV, contemptuous of the civil sphere, never tasted potage garbure (which he easily could have done) whereas Frederick the Great, the first servant of the state, “composed verses in praise of pâté à la sardanapole”. Because the abbé Galiani’s acrimonious dispute with Morellet in 1770 over the advantages of free trade is a set-piece in any discussion of Enlightenment sociability, the Neapolitan minister appears at some length in both Goodman’s and Gordon’s texts. And Camporesi cites him too, but in his book, Galiani is not merely a polemicist. He is also a moderate and Enlightened man whose elevation of spirit enabled him to admire Morellet’s skill in carving pullets.

The transformation of the public sphere, the revalorization of civil society; these lofty changes, Camporesi reminds us, were hard to understand for those who lived them day by day, unthinkingly. But drinking chocolate (or, in Boston, tea) was more simple. In 1794, the reactionary Bishop of Parma knew what he was doing when he condemned ex cathedra the wicked love of novelties. For Camporesi, every new dish, every gastronomico-philosophical self-indulgence, every lavish table, every “epic of chocolate and sugar” contributed to “the graceful disorder” of the eighteenth century. Take the case of Cardinal Moncada, who was much interested in cooling and heating techniques and consequently devised a “well lubricated enema [that] entailed blowing hot tobacco smoke into the anus by means of a tube”. For Camporesi, the man is not an amiable eccentric but a “culture hero”.

Tiresome, postmodern Italian chic? No: Camporesi is very learned. He knows Bolognese food and culture perfectly. His knowledge of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jesuitical texts is impressive. He weighs his sources carefully, and he characteristically rejects, as he should, the questionable idea that the Cardinal of York, last of the Stuart line and a vegetarian, could really have consumed thirty pounds of chocolate a day. His playful, crafted and optimistic book is modest and accessible, elegant and entertaining, with, unexpectedly, an elegaic aroma: Camporesi’s diners had it in their mind to reject ponderous baroque cookery, but we see them also feasting in the shadow of the guillotine. Voltaire would have found food for thought in this delightful and incisive book.