- Are there any films that have been pivotal for you in developing your understanding of sexuality and gender diversity?
- Which pre-1980 films do you think were most powerful in their depiction of LGBT characters?
- Does queer cinema have a responsibility to challenge stereotypes? Which films have done this well?
- Has queer cinema helped to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in mainsteam cinema?
- Historically, queer characters have often been hidden in coded roles. Which actors have stood out in this context?
- Which films do you think have done the most to challenge mainstream narratives around the AIDS crisis?
- Do you ever find it hard to suspend disbelief when watching a gay actor play a straight character, or vice versa?
- Queer cinema has often deliberately undermined the notion that minorities must be represented by 'good' characters. Who are its best anti-heroes?
- Does the new realism in films like Weekend and Keep The Lights On indicate that queer cinema is moving into mainstream spaces?
- Are LGBT characters in mainstream cinema starting to have more complex roles? Any examples?
Tuesday, 4 December 2012
Thursday, 25 October 2012
Monday, 8 October 2012
Thursday, 4 October 2012
Monday, 1 October 2012
Tuesday, 25 September 2012
Saturday, 15 September 2012
Wednesday, 29 August 2012
Few political battles rage more fiercely than those we fight to protect what is close and dear to us. Even so, the public outcry over developer Hugh Scott's plans for Glasgow's Otago Lane has been remarkable in its size and volume. The campaign to protect the lane, bringing together people of all ages and backgrounds, has raged for three years. Today, despite all that - and in defiance of its own planning regulations - Glasgow City Council's planning committee voted to let the development go ahead. Some have said that the machinations around this recall Sun Tzu's The Art Of War. Yet there is another tradition perhaps more pertinent - perhaps more worrying for those who have betrayed their voters - and that is the art of tea.
A philosophy expounded by numerous eastern cultures, known in China as cha yi, the art of tea is centred on an understanding that there is more to the human experience than the material. It has an aesthetic aspect and a political one. Understanding the art of tea - or seeking to understand it - is vital to understanding how human affairs change and develop, and how certain ideas come to dominate, once we step beyond the battlefield.
“In the small [tea] room, it is desirable for every utensil to be less than adequate. There are those who dislike a piece when it is even slightly damaged; such an attitude shows a complete lack of comprehension,” said the tea master Sen no Rikyū (according to the Nampōroku). He could be providing a literal description of Tchai Ovna, the tea house at the centre of the lane, as he sums up very neatly the historic appeal of the area. He could also be summing up the blunder that the planning committee has made - that failure to comprehend what, in his native Japan, is called wabi - the aesthetics of imperfection. A generous observer might say that the councillors have been dazzled by an image of gleaming modern development. They have failed to understand what the lane means to people and why, sometimes, our imperfect heritage is more valuable than the slick and slippery.
Slippery, in this case, is also a term that has literal implications. The proposed site on the end of this small, historic lane is on the banks of the Kelvin River. It is a notorious slip zone. One architect has already said privately that he does not expect any new building constructed there, in accordance with the specifications outlined in Scott's proposal, to last for more than twelve years before it begins to slide dangerously into the water. If we run the numbers, we see that this is unlikely to bother Scott, who will have made a tidy profit by then, but it should bother the council and the local people, who will be left with the job of cleaning up the mess.
Some argue that this shouldn't matter - Glasgow needs new homes, urgently. Well, yes, but that's like saying that the world needs fewer children and eliding the inability of some countries to cope with the economic pressure of shrinking their populations too fast. Glasgow needs affordable homes and it needs them in underdeveloped areas. Luxury flats in areas whose infrastructure is already struggling to cope with population pressure are not a solution. They will do nothing to help the poor and they will do nothing to help revitalise those parts of the city that are struggling.
There are so many practical problems with this development that it would be impossible to go into them all in depth here. Alongside the damage to the city's heritage and the pressure the development will put on the lane's small businesses are major public safety issues around traffic - drivers use the surrounding streets as a shortcut between major thoroughfares, and there is a school just across the road, so the last thing it needs is more cars. There are also issues for the natural environment - the riverbank is an important wildlife corridor connecting parks. Without routes like this, animal populations become isolated and are damaged by inbreeding, with serious implications for conservation. The city planning regulations clearly state that all these issues should be cause for concern, so when they are ignored we should quiet our battle cries, sip our tea, and ponder what is going on.
At this stage it would appear that all those who voted in favour of the development are Labour councillors. The problems caused by Labour's grip on the council - and its sense of entitlement in that regard - are legendary and, again, difficult to go into in depth here, but suffice to say that many members of said party regret that influence of certain individuals in that context. At its heart, this isn't about party politics - we see the same issues come up in any number of areas where one group has achieved lasting dominance. It is about a group of people who have lost any sense of relationship with ordinary voters, to the point where they might easily be swayed by other interests.
Many had hoped that the shock Labour got at the last council election, when it briefly seemed they might lose overall control, might precipitate a shift in attitudes. Instead, a last minute surge in support (surely nothing to do with the city having now given permission for twenty two annual Orange marches) not only secured them but seemingly increased their audacity. Although campaigners plan to mount a legal challenge to today's decision, the councillors involved will no doubt feel secure in having had the last word. They have, for the time being at least, secured the ground. People are beginning to discuss when they should go for their last cup of Tchai Ovna tea.*
What has been missed, as so often, is the significance of the immaterial, of the lingering feelings this has set within those who feel that they have been betrayed. Those feelings are likely to lead to more than just legal contestation. They will entrench in a significant portion of the population a suspicion about council decisions that will last, that will spread, that will inform the investigation of planning matters across the city. From now on, everything those councillors do will be watched. They may come to regret their easy dismissal of the humble tea-drinker.
*The planning proposals would allow Tchai Ovna to remain open, but a probable decrease in custom whilst it is surrounded by construction work means its survival is still in jeopardy.
Thursday, 16 August 2012
Amid all the clamour around Julian Assange, it's proving dangerously easy for parties on both sides to forget why the law matters - and what it is for. We must not let political games or cults of personality distract us from its vital role in protecting the innocent - and even the guilty.
When all this first blew up I, as a journalist, was extremely worried about what looked like a plot to extradite an individual who had made enemies through his pursuit of the truth to the US, a country with a terrible record on the treatment of (unofficially) political prisoners. I was suspicious about the rape allegations as the nature of the crime, coming down to one person's word against another, makes it a common choice for framing individuals with powerful enemies. That changed for me when I read Assange himself describe, almost casually, how he had sexually penetrated a woman he was staying with without her consent. Now either Assange is a liar, in which case he cannot be trusted when he proclaims his innocence and anyone should be able to see that he must face trial; or he is an honest man, in which case he is a self-confessed rapist and must face trial. His victim (and possibly a second victim) is the only innocent here.
That doesn't change the fact that issuing an international arrest warrant for rape is an exceedingly unusual move. Several factors need to be taken into consideration here. Yes, Sweden could be trying to obtain custody of Assange so it can hand him over to the US in exchange for political or diplomatic favours. It could be taking the case more seriously because Assange's high profile means it can use him to set an example (something any good defence lawyer should challenge). It could even be that, in light of the popularity of the Millennium books and films, which challenged Sweden's record on the prosecution of crimes of violence against women (in specific relation to the protection of an individual perceived as a foreign policy asset, no less), it is anxious to redeem its reputation. And there is the possibility that it has simply decided it ought to take rape more seriously. There lies the rub. Why doesn't every country take rape more seriously? Why is it still so easy for people to get away with it by skipping across national borders?
Now Ecuador enters the fray. One wonders, what did those who raised bail money for Assange think they were supporting? Was it Wikileaks and the principle of freedom of speech? Now that they have lost it, as he has forfeited his bail conditions to take refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, it's painfully clear that Wikileaks was, for him, never the priority (imagine what it could have done with that money - or what a difference it might have made to Pte. Manning's defence fund, something Assange keeps claiming to support whilst actually doing very little). The superb work that Wikileaks has done in many areas no longer makes headlines; all the focus is on its sometime leader, with the self-styled martyr's image that probably helped him to get access to his victim(s) in the first place. Of course, a martyr can be a political asset like any other, and many people are assuming that's why Ecuador has taken him in (and now granted him asylum) - to make a grand statement and stick two fingers up at the United States. If I were them (and if I were Assange) I'd be more wary. The value of assets varies over time. Can he really guarantee that Ecuador won't choose to sell him on in the future? In 2006 the IVK PAX study found that Ecuador had the fourth highest kidnapping rate of any country in the world. In such a context it would be easy for a valuable asset to disappear and turn up in American hands without anybody being able to prove who was responsible. No law could protect Assange from this.
Then there's the matter of Assange's current self-imposed house arrest in that embassy. How could he get to Ecuador without first traversing UK territory and being arrested? He might be smuggled out, but where to? No Ecuadorian ship will be allowed into UK waters in this situation, so he'd need to undertake quite a journey under the eyes of multiple expert security teams and journalists. Giving him diplomatic status is not an option as that would require the permission of the nation in which the embassy is based, i.e. the UK. That country retains the option of announcing that it has found a new home for the embassy, reassigning its protected status to that building, and arresting Assange during he transfer, but it is unlikely to undertake this because the precedent it would set could endanger its own diplomatic staff in a number of other countries. So everybody waits.
In the midst of this, Assange's supporters claim he has offered (a) to be questioned by Swedish investigators within the embassy; and (b) to go to Sweden if they can guarantee he won't be extradited to the US. Both of these offers look reasonable on the surface, but let's look more closely. What kind of precedent would it set for Sweden to be bullied into shifting part of its judicial process overseas? What damage would that do to Sweden's international reputation? More than it could afford, as it would undermine any future international arrest warrants it might feel the need to issue. And could Sweden realistically rule out all possibility of a future extradition under the terms of a warrant it may as yet have no inkling of? Of course not - in fact, it may very well find that it lacks the legal power to resist such a warrant.
Swedish justice has been extensively demonised in the course of this case. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the UK has effective extradition treaties with the US - ones particularly amenable to the latte party, in fact, as they even allow the extradition of UK citizens with learning disorders that leave them ill-equipped to cope in the US judicial system. If I were seriously worried about being extradited to the US, I'd far rather be in Sweden than in the UK.
Temporarily, we have a stalemate. Unless it has got ulterior motives (which may include bargaining over Assange whilst he's still in London), Ecuador has bitten off more than it can chew. Sweden cannot be seen to back down and the UK cannot escape its duties to Sweden. Everybody seems hamstrung by legal restrictions and we come back to that question, what is the law for?
At the bottom of this are three sets of abuses. The first is the abuse of due process at Guantanamo Bay and in the trial of Pte. Manning - if the US had not chosen to go down that road, nobody (except possibly Assange himself) would have a problem with him being sent there. The second is the abuse of diplomatic process by Assange and by the staff at the Ecuadorian embassy who chose to shelter him, which places at risk the embassy's greater duty, to promote its national interests and thereby to support Ecuadorian citizens. Thirdly, there is what started all this - an allegation of rape. The ugliest thing about the case is that this is now rarely discussed in anything other than political terms. People are forgetting that, if it happened as Assange described, it was an act with real human consequences - and not just for its perpetrator. It is treated as an inconvenient detail in a much bigger political game.
What is the law for? It is for this: to give an individual who has been the victim of injustice some hope of mediated restitution. It is there to persuade a raped woman that she has options beyond picking up a knife and plugging her attacker full of holes.
We all benefit from the rule of law, whether innocent or guilty. And no matter how tempting different bargaining strategies may seem to the various governments involved in this case, it would behove them to remember that when faith in the rule of law disappears at that very basic level, so does the foundation on which the whole edifice of civic society is built. Regardless of the other issues here, none of us can afford to perpetuate a process whereby powerful men can get away with abusing others because there is always something more important to deal with. There is nothing more important than justice, and if we can't secure it for victims of rape, we can forget about trying to remedy injustices between nations.
Wednesday, 8 August 2012
The double negative: in some languages it strengthens the negation; in English it contradicts itself, becoming positive; in Scotland it just embarrasses all concerned.
Last night's spectacularly misjudged Newsnight performance by Ian Davidson MP brought several months of histrionic debate over Scottish independence into sharp relief. It was particularly embarrassing for the unionist side, whose sincere concerns were reduced to mudslinging nonsense, but of course there are those who take a similar approach in the pro-independence community. So we get the pseudo-ironic comments about how those on the other side would react negatively to particular things, which isn't supposed to be negative in itself because it's humour (a lame defence in any context); and when called on, the perpetrators usually resort to claiming their opponents started it. This wouldn't be acceptable in primary school classroom and it's not acceptable in public life. One thing I am confident the majority of Scots can agree on is that it has to stop. If Scotland is to move forward as a nation, either independently or within the union, our politicians must act like grown-ups.
England has long taken a positive attitude to negative politics - just look at Westminster. Prime Minister's Questions at noon on Wednesdays routinely sees hundreds of people we are meant to respect reduced to troop of shrieking gibbons - often the principals can hardly be heard and, when they can, their pronouncements have more to do with performance than coherent argument. Those who challenge this are usually told that it's traditional, but is a traditional embarrassment any less of an embarrassment? This kind of behaviour is an insult to every member of the public who turned out to vote because they thought their candidates had an interest in seeing the country well run.
This is not to say that remaining in the union is detrimental to good conduct. Right from its inauguration, Holyrood has shown itself to be a more civilised place. There's backstabbing and dubious political manoeuvring, of course, but overt bullying and shouting is not tolerated. This is something we should celebrate and aim to extend into other venues where political discussion takes place. It is something we should build upon, dispensing with the ideologically-focused bickering that gets in the way of honest discussion. Like Westminster, Holyrood is a small place with a big job to do. There is too much real work MSPs could be getting on with for time wasting posturing to be considered acceptable - in any party.
It seems no coincidence that the Newsnight drama was initiated by a Westminster MP - somebody who spends too much time among the rabble to appreciate that we do things differently here. It's not the first time Ian Davidson has been accused of bullying, with Eilidh Whiteford withdrawing from the Scottish Affairs Select Committee last year amid allegations that he threatened to give her 'a doing', and others have accused him of bullying women in particular. Would he have treated Newsnight presenter Isabel Fraser differently if she had been male? That's difficult to say, but the dismissive way he began responding to her before letting her finish her argument speaks volumes. He was not only aggressive, he was unwilling to countenance that anything she said could be of value. Still, from a political perspective, the most problematic aspect of his actions was the lack of control they implied.
Like David Cameron red-faced at the despatch box on a particularly rough Wednesday, Davidson gave the impression of a man so emotionally swept up by the moment that he could not articulate the political message he was there to put across. Passion can be valuable in a politician - it provides the drive to get things done - but ultimately we pay our politicians to think, to reason, to negotiate. If a politician feels that a programme is biased, they should assert that politely and take it up with the proper authorities (indeed, BBC Scotland is currently being investigated for alleged bias against the SNP). Getting in a flap about it and taking out anger on a presenter is not only inconsiderate behaviour, it makes one look like a buffoon.
Alongside the likes of Davidson's performance, we have the so-called Cybernats who attack anybody on the internet whom they perceive to be dissing the SNP or independence, and an equally rabid group of unionists who attack those seen to be doing the opposite, accusing them of being Cybernats. On occasion I've been attacked by both sides over the same remarks, which at least persuades me I am getting something right. Like street gangs, these groups are really most interested in attacking each other, and each presumably feels its actions are justified by the existence of the other, though each seems to have a significantly magnified idea of the size of its rival. In reality there don't seem to be very many of them but their voices are disproportionately loud and have a distorting effect on Scottish politics. Sometimes journalists and commentators who ought to know better get caught up in this phony war. We need to accept that those who snipe at each other like this have removed themselves from meaningful debate. They need to stand back and understand that such aggression is not going to influence anyone; and nor should it. If one wishes to influence people, one has to actually talk to them, and make a real case. Simply discouraging others from speaking is not only obnoxious, it's ineffective.
When people behave like this, or like Davidson, it is tempting to simply ignore them and find a way of routing discussion around them. That's one thing online; it's a little harder when it happens in parliamentary select committees or on national television programmes. But there is a simple solution, and that is for the rest of us to refuse to engage in the first place. A man who cannot conduct himself respectably on Newsnight should not be invited back. A committee whose spokesperson conducts himself in such a manner should not be heeded. Real authority comes not from institutions but from the people. Those who do not respect that cannot expect to play any meaningful role in our political culture.
It's time for an end to negative politics. I don't want to hear any whining about who started it. Each of us should be concerned first and foremost with our own conduct. We should aim to set an example, not partake in a race to the bottom. Scotland deserves better. The Scottish people should be able to say to their politicians - whatever side they sit on - yes, yes, yes!
Thursday, 26 July 2012
In standing up for marriage equality, the SNP has not only done what is right - it has drawn the lines for a battle that could define its governance - and Scotland's future.
Last week, everything looked very different. Backing down from an announcement after heavy hints to the press that it was decision time, the government looked weak, apologetic. Its focus on ongoing negotiation made it look as if it was trying to come up with an impossible compromise, more interested in avoiding enmity than in making friends. Of course negotiation is important, and it is vital that any piece of legislation is carefully drafted to ensure no-one is inadvertently harmed by it, but much of that work will take place now, after its direction has been decided. It is also important that a government stand up and speak clearly. It matters that all of us, no matter what 'side' we are on, can understand what we are dealing with. And perhaps most importantly, if we are to have faith in the good intentions of our politicians, we must be able to see that they have faith in themselves.
One of the iconic examples of strong government in these islands has been Margaret Thatcher's handling of the miners' strike. Economically, taking on the miners at the point when she did was unnecessary, perhaps even unwise - although the industry would ultimately prove unsustainable, it was then still some distance from that point. But politically, it was inspired. Why? Because union power at the time was such that it represented an alternative power base, a significant challenger to her authority. No leader who wants to do more than tread water can afford to tolerate such opposition. By grasping the nettle, Thatcher gambled her premiership on victory over a powerful opponent. In securing that victory, she won for herself the type of authority that enabled her to restructure a whole economy.
Authority of that kind is exactly what the SNP needs if it is to lead Scotland into independence. Its current opponents' position on independence is neither here nor there (and their insistence they'll turn their supporters against it somewhat laughable). What matters is the victory, the show of strength. A freshly independent country would need to be governed with guts and vision. It would need to be governed by a party with the independence of spirit to stand up to rivals and act in its interests regardless of threats.
In challenging the Scottish government's democratic authority through its position on equal marriage, the Catholic church has given it a gift - an opportunity to prove itself that it might not otherwise have had. In rising to the challenge, the SNP have doubtless recognised their opportunity, but their cause here is one that must attract much wider support, and not just because the majority of MSPs in other parties agree that equal marriage is a just thing. If the SNP should falter, what would become of the next government? Would Labour be willing to go on under the yoke of presumed Catholic authority, of a church - and churches, because it is not the only one that likes to throw its weight around - dictating Scotland's fate regardless of the true will of Scotland's people? Would they be willing to be shackled to the past, borne down by a weight of tradition that makes us at best a quaint curiosity for tourists, not a country speaking for itself, contributing to the world?
Despite their differing positions on independence and the risk of strengthening the SNP's power base, it is in the interests of every Scottish party with a reasonable prospect of finding itself in government to seize the moment and stand with them on this. Scotland's democratically elected parliament cannot afford to suffer the pretensions of its religious rivals. It has gone on too long. From the sectarian mess in Glasgow with its football violence (on both sides) and its intimidatory parades, to the censorship of the arts, the massive hate-based advertising campaigns and, most significantly, the repeated intimidation of politicians who seek to take actions the churches don't like. We've seen it in individual election campaigns where ad hominem attacks question candidates' personal morality and we see it in cases like the equal marriage debate when threats are made to reposition supposedly massive blocks of voters. In this instance, it isn't even about moving those voters to a party which feels differently on the matter, because there isn't one - it's simply about moving them away from a party that has the nerve to say no to them.
All of this would be mitigated somewhat if the churches were actually speaking for a large proportion of Scots, but extensive research shows that they're not, with many of their own members very uncomfortable about the line they have chosen to take on this occasion. Instead, they are speaking for themselves - for entrenched power bases. They are not as strong as they pretend and it is high time a government called their bluff. By moving away from the politics they constrain, Scotland's parliament can better serve all its citizens, including those with strong religious beliefs. Everybody benefits from honesty, clarity and a habit of debate that it based around evidence and quality of argument rather than around presumed moral superiority. In this climate, those who wish to advance particular moral positions must demonstrate their worth.
It is only through embracing this new politics that Scotland can move forward as a nation. That will be in its best interests regardless of its status as a nation, but for supporters of independence it is particularly important. In grasping the nettle, the SNP have shown that they are no longer afraid to step up to the fight. Now is the time for them to show us what they are made of.
Tuesday, 17 July 2012
The SNP tell us that they're ready to approach Scotland's future with vision. But does today's failure to reach a decision on equal marriage show cracks forming in the party even before the independence referendum takes place?
Scotland is, the SN tell us, ready to become an independent nation. Many would agree. But if that's so, what sort of nation? What ideals will sit at its heart? Will it look to the past - to its romanticised history, its celebrated rural and architectural heritage, its sometimes delightful but sometimes dubious traditions? Or is it ready to look to the future, to speak out boldly in a changing world?
For those campaigning for independence, this ought to be a no brainer. Sympathisers in love with the romantic idea of Scotland past are unlikely to vote for it to stay in the union no matter how modern policy develops; the weight of that inheritance is too great a thing to be more than temporarily afflicted by a single disagreeable decision. Those with a progressive agenda, however, are far more likely to be swing voters, uncertain where their best options lie. The SNP already has a good handle on the traditionalists. It can't afford to alienate those looking to the future.
Further to this, a Scotland that looks back into the past is easy for opponents to ridicule. It would be very hard for such a nation to justify reaching out to claim its space on the world stage. If Scotland is to become independent, it will need to show that it is sharp, modern, realistic and capable of moving with the times.
This ought to make things simple. But the division that exists within the Scottish populace over equal marriage is closely related to the division at the heart of the SNP. I am always amused by people who tell me that they plan to vote against independence because they don't like the SNP. That, I'd say, is a very good reason to vote for it. Not only would their share of the vote be likely to decline thereafter, but there would be far less reason for the two halves of the party to stay together. The northern, rural, agricultural, paternalistic wing would go one way and the southern, urban, liberal wing would go another. They're only staying together now because they have independence as a common goal. In the meantime, as in most instance were opposed parties make a sincere attempt to work together, Scotland benefits from relatively moderate, pragmatic government. But can they stay together that long?
As Scotland's people wait to see what the eventual outcome of the equal marriage discussion will be, the SNP has some serious thinking to do. If it expects us to believe that it is strong enough to carry Scotland through major constitutional change, it will have to show more mettle than it has today. It won't be able to fob people off forever with the line that it just needs more time. And one thing is certain: if it cannot hold its own marriage together, it has no place denying marriage to those who might.
Thursday, 29 March 2012
It's a testament to the successes we have enjoyed as a nation that most people here rarely have to think about going without food. When they talk about cutting back on their food budget, most mean doing without treats. But there remains a substantial minority for whom finding enough to eat is an ongoing challenge. And whilst there may seem better ways to go about doing that than eating a lump of hot fat and sugar from the nearest Greggs, the fact is that some people depend on doing precisely that.
Foe me, the crisis came way back in 1992. It was my first summer as a student and the rules had been changed just a few years before so that people in my position were not eligible for government support. There were complex (and very personal) reasons why living with my parents was not an option for me. John Major was in Number 10 and unemployment was close to three million; though I would happily have supported myself through work, I simply couldn't find anything. So I sub-let a room and subsisted on a food budget of ten pounds a week; five when the soles of my shoes wore through and I had to save up to buy more.
In that situation, getting enough calories was difficult. I didn't have the skills I would acquire later from an Australian friend whose weekly budget was £2.50, who subsisted on chocolate for calories and cabbage for nutrition. I did discover that I could get free vegetables by visiting a local greengrocer who had to get rid of items that would go off by the following day. But getting enough calories was harder. After six months I would find myself in hospital, weighing less than seven stone, with multiple infections (starvation is hell on the immune system). Without the occasional bit of hot bakery food, I doubt I would have survived that long.
I always assumed that cases like mine were rare, but since I raised my voice over the 'pastygate' debate I have been contacted by a whole heap of people with similar issues. For some it's about poverty. Of course it is usually cheaper to buy ingredients and cook at home, but not everybody has a home to go to. For others it's about disability. Severe anxiety disorders can make cooking terrifying and mean comfort food is important because otherwise one might not eat at all (for a significant number of people, anxiety is accompanied by serious weight loss). Then there are those on the autistic spectrum who struggle to cope with the sequential tasks of shopping, cooking and eating - things that might sound ridiculously easy to others but which they also find it hard to get help with. As people in these groups are more likely to be living on very low incomes, affordable hot food becomes all the more important.
In addition to these, there are the people on low incomes who need to get something to eat during breaks at work. If you're working long hours (as many on the lowest wages do) or if you're living in poor conditions, making a packed lunch can be difficult, and many workplaces have no facilities for heating food. This isn't just an issue for those struggling to survive, it's an issue for those with few sources of pleasure for whom an extra couple of pounds a week in VAT will mean having to give up the hot lunch that makes a grim job bearable on a cold day. Little things like that matter a lot when life is hard.
This isn't a plea on behalf of Greggs, who were bending rules that many other bakeries felt obliged to hold to. It's simply a plea that these issues be treated with the seriousness they deserve. It's all very well to protest that food like this is unhealthy - I'd far rather people could get calorie-dense food without the fat and salt - but if the solution is simply to price that food out of people's reach, with no alternative put in place in the interim, very vulnerable people will have their lives made even harder. We really do need to find ways of reducing the price of fruit and vegetables but we also need to ensure people can get enough calories. Because when you're in that situation, you can't wait for the next piece of legislation. I was lucky. I found somebody to help me. I wouldn't have lasted much longer without.
When Margaret Thatcher was in power, doctors petitioned for the right to prescribe food to patients who kept ending up back in hospital basically because they couldn't afford enough to eat. Last year a young mother starved to death in Dublin. We don't like to talk about hunger in the First World but it does exist. Ultimately we need to tackle it by creating more employment, providing assistance to those with specific difficulties and improving our welfare system. In the meantime, we must think carefully about anything that increases the price of cheap, hot food at a time when inflation is already outpacing wages.
That old story about Marie Antoinette - false, of course, like many of the best historical anecdotes - stems from an old French law which required bakers who had run out of bread to supply customers with cake at the same price. It represents, then, common beliefs about the failure of the privileged to grasp what being out of bread means. Sadly, those beliefs are all too easily substantiated. Of course it doesn't matter where David Cameron bought his pasty (though it might matter that he thinks all Northern cities are essentially the same) but it matters that, to him, that expenditure was utterly insignificant, and he is making decisions on that basis, whilst others make choices between eating, heating and paying the rent.
Fortunately I am no longer in such desperate straits, but others are, and this isn't all pie in the sky to them.
Wednesday, 11 January 2012
The thing is – and I suspect Salmond knew this from the start – all this angst about a date is really a bit beside the point. There's horrified talk at Westminster about how Salmond wanted his referendum to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, which just shows how limited understanding of the Scots is there, because I'm pretty sure I've never met one who would care in the slightest. But the distraction worked, stole away focus, kept the unionists from looking at the issues on which they might actually win hearts and minds. Moore, to be fair, could filibuster himself on virtually any subject even if you gave him all day, and his intervention – forced by David Cameron's – has made it difficult for other unionists to make their voices heard. The consultation produced by the Westminster government is a lightweight piece of fluff (though I would still urge you all to fill it in – you can find it here and it'll only take you ten minutes). Yesterday was noise, signifying next to nothing.
The emptiness of the much-hyped announcement is clearly embarrassing even Moore himself, who looked shattered by the end of a turn on Newsnight, poor thing. And there's one of his problems. If Westminster wants to lead the unionist campaign, it has very few people to do the talking. A Cameron speech on the subject means guaranteed gains for the SNP (which may be Cameron's plan, since his party could benefit nicely from losing Scotland, or so he is liable to think). There's Jim Murphy on the opposite benches, but he's lost a lot of sympathy in Scotland in recent weeks and seems to have his ambitions fixed on Westminster now. Margaret Curran has stepped in but isn't quite singing the same song. So we can watch Moore get increasingly exhausted as the SNP rolls out an endless line of fresh, energised opponents for him – and let's not forget that the Scottish Greens support independence too.
The real problem is that the shift of control over the unionist campaign to befuddled Westminster politicians means that all they really can talk about are things like the date and the legal technicalities (whereby they seem to have confused legal weight with political weight). In Scotland, every commentator I speak to and most of the politicians say they want a Real Debate on the issues. Salmond's date, at least, should allow for that – I'll admit I was confused by Moore's simultaneous demands that the referendum be held as soon as possible and follow deep and meaningful consultation. Yet today the Westminster unionists, in a misguided bid for relevance, continue to flap about how the date must be changed.
Then there's the issue of devo max. On independence, Scots have very different views, and many have yet to make up their minds. Yet a large majority evidence a strong interest in further devolution. If this devolution is to be relatively minor, there's no need to take it to a referendum; it can fairly be sorted out between the Holyrood and Westminster parliaments. But if it is to involve, say, a shift of control over defence sector issues or the provision of an element of fiscal autonomy, it would seem appropriate that the people get to decide. Since referenda are expensive (as several members of the current Westminster administration have emphasised), why not have a question about devo max presented at the same time as one about independence?
I don't believe that Scottish voters would find a two question referendum too complicated, and I wonder at the smugness of politicians who suggest they would. Neither do I care if no political party is pushing for devo max as its favoured objection. Plenty of individuals within those parties are, and, more importantly, so are plenty of ordinary Scots. This is not and should not be a referendum about party politics and petty political allegiances. It must be a referendum that allows the Scottish people to express their views in a simple, fair, and inclusive way.
I would hate to live in a Scotland that remained bound to the United Kingdom against the will of its people. Similarly, I would hate to live in a independent Scotland that the majority of Scottish people didn't really want. It is important that we get this process right not just for the sake of ideologies but for the sake of doing right by everyone affected. This must be a listening process, a responsive process. It must not be about polarisation, about pushing people to absurd political extremes. Because one way or another, within three years, this process will be over. And whatever happens then, Scotland must find a way to bring those who have been disappointed into the fold, to heal itself and move forward as a whole nation.
We have roughly 1001 nights to go until Salmond's promised referendum happens. I think I can speak for the vast majority of my fellow Scots when I say please don't force us to listen to the same soulless story on every one.
Tuesday, 3 January 2012
I'm a year older than Stephen would be if he were still alive. I'd recently finished my A-levels at the time of his murder; he was in the middle of his. Four years before, I'd started working with an anti-racist campaigning group, SOS Racism. It had been a natural progression for me. When I was a child my mother volunteered for a charity called SAFTA which provided tutors to immigrant women who wanted to learn English in their homes. I helped out and quickly grew familiar with some of the prejudice they and their families faced. Coincidentally my primary school boyfriend was Arabic and the first time I ever encountered direct racism was from our headmistress – hardly a shining example of authority.
I know there are some people who raise their eyebrows at the thought of white people being involved in race politics at all, but there are ways to work outside the ugly colonial structures of the past. SOS Racism was a partnership between local people of various races determined to bring about social change. My white skin meant I was able to do certain things that would have been much more difficult or dangerous for a darker skinned person – namely research with other white people, sometimes including members of far right groups. I was young, slightly shy, wide-eyed; they opened up to me. They told me things that made me want to punch them and I kept smiling. I collected data that could be used to lobby for support.
In relation to that, I tend to agree with others who have summed up the change over the last twenty years as a shift from overt to covert racism. Though I no longer do the same type of research (I have moved on to work, at least primarily, on other equality issues), I still encounter racism. The difference is that I see far fewer direct expressions of hatred, far more excuse-making and attempts to justify discrimination as rooted in something more rational (belief systems, economic concerns or - ironically – a supposed threat to other social minority groups). This is not to say that incidences of direct aggression don't happen or, indeed, that covert racism is any more acceptable. But it's an interesting change nonetheless, in that it tells us the rational case against racial hatred has been successfully made. This is an achievement campaigners should be proud of. It's a step along the way; and it is now necessary to reframe some aspects of the debate.
As I noted, I now work on other minority issues, and over the last few years this has included research work with the police. Attitudes to the police in some minority communities are so polarised that it's hard to do any such work without being perceived as some sort of collaborator, so let me explain that I sympathise with the feelings behind that and I took on this work partially in order to challenge that in myself, to try and shed my own preconceptions and prejudices and see what was real. As a young queer person and an activist, I knew what it was to be afraid of the police, but I felt that research in that area ought not to be left solely as the domain of people who had no such hesitations – who might be too willing to accept that everything was rosy.
Everything is most assuredly not rosy. Of course there is still prejudice (and I continue to hear distressing stories from those on the receiving end). But just as wider society has changed, so has the police force, and in this case the change has more pronounced effects. The existence of police diversity officers and so forth may sometimes be mocked, but in practice it does mean there are safe ports of call for those who fear prejudice. It has also contributed to a much greater awareness of diversity issues among individual police officers. Forces vary, but in many the old macho culture has been substantially eroded, and with it the notion that prejudiced attitudes are the mark of the hard man. Admitting to prejudice is something officers are much more reluctant to do, whilst others like their work environment precisely because they consider it free of prejudices that have always disturbed them, including racism.
One of the difficulties in making change is that examples of successful communication and progress don't tend to get talked about, whereas a single bad experience may resonate for an individual for decades, and resonate socially too. This is often raised as a reason why ethnic minority officers are still under-represented in the police. It's tough to ask individuals to take risks for the sake of long term social improvement. More effective is change through modifying structures and rules, and where this has improved things within the police force, it can more often than not be traced back directly to the original Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. I would venture to say that (alongside rapid growth in the number of women serving) this has changed the police force more than anything else in the last sixty years.
Of course there is a long way to go. Nevertheless, we should celebrate these changes which are a credit to the bravery of a family who became important campaigners at a time of tremendous personal grief. Changing institutions must be part of wider cultural change (with society and the police force reflecting back on one another), but this change was no small thing.
It's just a pity Stephen couldn't have been here to see it. And it remains a great injustice that, though the world has changed dramatically in ways he could never have imagined, one thing he might have guessed with accuracy at the time of his death is that, in 2012, young men in the UK are still being attacked because others hate the colour of their skin.