Maria Miller, the Expenses “Scandal” and the Assault on Democracy

Knives are out today for the Culture Secretary Maria Miller. Having been caught over-claiming expenses, and forced to pay back £5,800, her latest crime was to issue an apology that was only 32 seconds in length. The public loves the spectacle of MPs, and especially ministers, in discomfort, and the press is unrelenting in pursuing this important story.

Except, it’s not an important story at all. Since the entire scandal over MPs’ expenses blew up in 2009, the press has revelled in its supposed assault on parliamentary corruption. But the biggest story to emerge was how tiny the extent of the corruption was, amounting to a mere £1m in total. Much of this was not really corrupt at all: MPs, having had their pay driven down in recent years, had been given a wink that they could use the expenses system to make up some of the difference. Only in a handful of cases was there a suspicion of criminal activity.

With honest reporting, the outcome would have been a handful of prosecutions, a review of MPs’ pay (which would probably have concluded that they are somewhat underpaid for what they do), and some national back-patting to congratulate ourselves on having one of the least corrupt political systems on the planet.

Instead, the incident has been endlessly replayed, twisted and exaggerated. I’m no fan of Maria Miller or her government, but I would point out that her original “crime” was almost insignificant; and pursuing her now on the basis that her apology was too short is pathetic.

Why has the scandal been so over-exaggerated? Because it has been used as an assault on our Parliament and our democracy. Five years of endless repetition have left the public with the idea that our parliamentary system is rotten to the core. It is one of a number of essentially false stories that are being used to weaken faith in democratic government.

Combine MPs’ expenses with other popular, but untrue memes: that the Labour government crashed the economy (actually this was caused by bad lending in the US); that the UK’s national debt level is unsustainable (it’s high but we could have paid it down without the need for Osborne’s cuts); and that open borders with the EU have somehow caused the country damage (although economists and business leaders are confident that the opposite is true), and you have a potent formula for undermining British democracy.

There’s no shortage of real scandals to obsess over, should the press decide to. Our police forces have recently been repeatedly exposed as being corrupt to the very top – far more so than MPs. We are spied on as a matter of routine. Our postal service was privatised at far too cheap a price, costing us around 750 times the cost of the expenses débâcle.

Many MPs are cowardly, display a faltering grasp of complex issues and fail to provide the parliamentary leadership we need. Many of them are morons. But they’re our morons. We created this Parliament by allowing ourselves to be distracted from big issues by dishonest reporting. By holding MPs to ludicrously high standards of behaviour that we apply to nobody else, we end up by filling Parliament with dull mediocrities. If we want better MPs, we should participate in politics, and elect better MPs. That’s a power we have, thanks to generations of people who fought for democracy.

But instead, the public (or its most moronic members, anyway) is increasingly convinced that democracy is failing, and that action must be taken. This benefits UKIP, the party that once pretended to be all about leaving the EU, but now openly stokes up hatred against immigrants. Never mind that Nigel Farage has claimed more in MEP’s expenses than any British MP – today, he is billed as the heroic outsider who will bring down a corrupt political elite.

The editors of the Mail, Times, Express, Sun and Telegraph (who each earn far more than an MP) know they’re stoking an anti-democratic insurgency. The dangerous rise in nationalism – whether the right-wing UKIP form, or the supposedly progressive variety in Scotland – risks destabilising a country that for centuries has probably been the most stable on Earth. And it risks destabilising a continent which is the most bloodthirsty on the planet, and has never needed a good excuse to go to war with itself.

MPs who over-claim expenses can be exposed and left to the electorate. We have far bigger problems to deal with than that.

The Loss Of British Culture

There are a number of approaches taken by the anti-immigration movement to demonstrate that mass immigration is a bad thing. One is economic: it stands to reason (dunnit) that the more people in the country, the more thinly spread are the economic benefits. Naturally, this doesn’t actually stand to reason. If it did, Ireland and Portugal would be celebrating the mass exodus caused by their economic troubles. But I’ll leave others to argue the economic benefits of immigration.

The more pernicious arguments revolve around the cultural effects of immigration. While I’ve always suspected that “culture” in this context is simply a coded reference for race, I’m always prepared to hear people justify the viewpoint that we somehow “lose” or “weaken” our culture by accepting immigrants who bring other cultural ideas with them. Whenever I’m confronted with these claims, I always ask the same question: exactly what has Britain lost from its culture by accepting immigrants? Despite asking repeatedly, I’ve not been given a single example that makes sense. Perhaps the least-nonsensical replies I’ve had are along the lines of “Come on – you surely don’t believe immigration hasn’t harmed our culture do you?” to which I answer, “Yes, I really believe immigration hasn’t harmed our culture”.

In truly religious style, the anti-immigration camp always expect others to prove a negative. It would surely be easy to demonstrate that British culture has lost something: a single example would suffice. Perhaps some people remember Cockney street urchins reading the works of Dickens or quoting Shakespeare at every opportunity? Maybe, the influx of Pakistanis, Czechs and Jamaicans somehow put an end to these things? Could it be that Yardie gangsters or Islamist militants harassed and intimidated British youth until they no longer dared played the music of Benjamin Britten in public? Do Polish thugs jump on anybody who recites the poetry of Wilfred Owen? Not that I’ve noticed.

I’m given general hints like “We’ve lost London. We don’t want to lose the rest of the country”. However, last time I checked (about half an hour ago) London was still here. Although (and I think this is what they’re getting at) there are certainly more brown faces visible, and a wider variety of languages can be heard spoken in the streets, than in the past.

It’s true that, using coercion, cultures can be warped and damaged. The Yiddish culture (and language) of my great grandparents is almost extinct, courtesy of the Holocaust. Kurdish culture has been suppressed in Iraq, Turkey and Iran, as they try to destroy the Kurdish sense of nationhood. But no such coercion has happened, or could possibly happen to British culture in Britain. Sure, the Indians came here, bringing their foreign cultural values. Like cricket. And chicken tikka masala (now declared Britain’s unofficial national dish). And a taste for mathematics.

In the absence of coercion, cultures are additive. People pick the best that they encounter, and blend with what they already know. As a music lover, the strengthening effects of cultural mixing are immediately obvious to me. I would argue London has been the most musically creative city on the planet for the past couple of decades. The music made here is definitively our own, and is exported globally. London creates not just musical talent but entire new genres; the latest of many London creations is dubstep, and this has already been exported around the globe (forgive me if I’ve missed a new genre or two since dubstep – it takes a while for us older ones to notice these things). London is lucky enough to have immigration from, and thus links with, some of the deepest musical cultures on the planet – particularly West Africa and its offshoot in Jamaica.

White working class culture has long welcomed and absorbed foreign musical influences, perhaps starting with the black American troops who brought swing with them during WWII, followed by soul music in the 1960s and reggae in the 70s. Once Britain had absorbed a critical mass of immigrants, British music became truly turbo-charged, and began to flow outwards rather than simply absorb and repeat influences we heard elsewhere. The 1970s generation that tried to sound Jamaican by playing reggae was succeeded by generations that took reggae, hip-hop, house and techno, and created something new and amazing with them. Before dubstep, London made British soul, jungle, drum and bass, garage and grime. How many other cities on Earth could claim to have added so much to world music culture?

There was no tradition of British popular music prior to mass immigration, and that’s why racists can’t find any examples of anything that’s been lost. If you want to remember what European popular music sounds like without the help of immigrants, just tune into Eurovision. It’s not a spoof; that really is the best that most European countries can come up with.

Beyond music, the same points apply. We still have our fish and chips, but we also have our curry goat, lamb vindaloo and shawarmas. My local fish and chip shop is staffed by Poles, and the customers come from all over the world. Oh, and fish and chips were probably introduced by Jewish immigrants anyway.

It saddens me that, if the swivel-eyed anti-immigration loons hold sway, London may give up our hard-won cultural prize to other places. It’s tragic that Daily Mail readers and UKIP voters, in total ignorance of what constitutes modern British culture, may destroy our unique creativity, without ever noticing or caring. Those people who care least  for what British culture represents are the ones claiming to be defending it from “threats”.

All we’ve “lost” is the right to walk down the street without seeing a brown face. I’m happy to surrender that “right” in exchange for living in the most culturally exciting city on Earth. The day people from all over the world stop wanting to live in London is the day it’s no longer worth living here.

What actually defines British culture? We are an outward-looking nation, which is why the British Empire became what it was: not only a tool of global robbery and brutality, but also a giant, borderless superstate that allowed British people, Africans and Indians to travel, mix and learn from each other. British culture is multicultural, and has been for centuries. No other nation in Europe has the ability to embrace and learn from other cultures like the British, which is why this small island with less than 1% of the global population can so consistently punch above its weight. The only thing that could seriously threaten our culture would be to close our borders. That would bring to an end a story that began when the first British ship set out to explore the world.

UKIP: Playing Nazi Bingo

Fascism became a little bit discredited after the whole holocaust thing. Britain’s fascist movement had never got off to a great start, but after the second world war, Oswald Moseley’s attempt to come back (with blacks rather than Jews as a new, improved scapegoat), was never likely to succeed.

But the far-right has had a long time to evolve since the 1940s. It has regularly reappeared in new configurations. Most people tend to associate fascism with street thuggery, but these gangs are only the most visible part of the far-right (and the section most likely to cause panic among the middle classes). Hitler came to power with the support of the conservative middle classes, and corporate finance. If fascism is ever to be respectable again, its core constituency won’t consist of angry young white working class men, but the conservative middle classes.

Real British fascism is corporate power cloaked in ultra-conservative values designed to lure the most middle of middle Englanders. It attracts those who don’t think too much about politics, but when they do, they think society has changed too much, too quickly. They yearn for the Britain that their parents told them about when they were growing up; a largely mythical Christian Britain; where naughty youngsters were given a clip round the ear by the local bobby; where gays didn’t exist; and of course, where everyone spoke English, and everybody was white.

A real fascist party has two layers of policies: one set designed to recruit votes from the bigoted, social conservative, and another designed to raise finance from wealthy individuals and companies. The British National Party (BNP) looked, for a while, like it may be the first “respectable” fascist party in the UK. In 1993, it caused shock by winning the first ever far-right council seat, in East London. For over a decade, it looked like a genuine threat, but it has faded in recent years, and few people think of it as a mainstream party.

The English Defence League (EDL) attempted to fill the far-right vacuum, but it manifested as a working class street movement, so alienated middle class conservatives, and could never be taken seriously by corporate backers. Now, the vacuum has instead been filled by the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – and this time, for the first time since Mosley, far-right politics seem to have found a place in the mainstream.

Many low-information voters (to borrow an American term for morons) get a thrill from UKIP’s populist positions: leaving the European Union (because it costs money, doesn’t it?), cutting immigration (because we’re “full”, right?) and attacking benefits (lazy scroungers…) are all designed to appeal to the Daily Mail’s core, nasty, constituency of people who worry that somehow, somewhere, someone is having a better life than they are.

The problem for any fascist organisation trying to present itself as mainstream is that it becomes increasingly hard to keep candidates “on message”. UKIP has attracted fascists to its membership, and this is reflected in a number of extreme outbursts from its candidates. Their anti-immigrant line has somehow morphed to include attacks on British Muslims – to the extent that the EDL are backing UKIP in elections, and are clearly pitching to become their thuggish wing, just as the SA “Brownshirts” became the street enforcers for the Nazi party.

I recently played a game of “fascist bingo” on Twitter when I was encouraged to see if candidates ticked all the standard far-right boxes. Anti-immigration (standard fare to attract racists-who-aren’t-racist)? Check! Muslim-baiting? Check! Gays? The party is opposed to gay marriage (it’s hard to see what that has to do with opposing the European Union) and on cue, UKIP candidate John Sullivan was recently caught applauding Russian attacks on gay rights, and calling for more physical exercise in schools as a cure for gayness. Check!

To win a fascist bingo game though, we need evidence of hatred for Jews and the disabled. On cue, here comes UKIP candidate Anne-Marie Crampton with an anti-Semitic outburst that any Nazi would be proud of, raking up the anti-Semitic hoax “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and blaming Zionists for the second world war and the Holocaust (rather than those poor, misunderstood, European Christians who tend to get blamed for it). Check! And the disabled? Google came to my aid and found me Geoffrey Clark, who called for compulsory abortions of disabled foetuses. HOUSE!

UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage has succeeded in presenting far-right politics as palatable, to a greater extent than anyone since the second world war. He has attracted support from the racist right of the Tory party – those people who see David Cameron as a dangerous leftie. UKIP reaped a protest vote in last week’s local elections, largely from people who had little idea what they actually stood for. What is lacking from British politics is an active opposition to fascist ideologies; Labour’s capitulation by “accepting the immigration problem” leaves a landscape devoid of an anti-fascist force, and plays into the hands of the far-right.

With the BNP and EDL approaching the status of “laughing-stock”, UKIP are the ones to watch; their strong showing in the elections may be a flash in the pan, but they have cleverly divided the Conservative Party, and if the Tories panic, they may shift rightwards. In the long-term, that way lies irrelevancy, as demonstrated by the US Republicans, who embraced a racist electoral strategy in a nation where racism was in slow decline.

Put in perspective, the local election results demonstrated that a quarter of voters in the most conservative parts of the country will respond to a bigoted, populist message. The whitest parts of the nation are the most afraid of immigration. That’s not so surprising, though it is disappointing. The UKIP result gives little reason to panic, but it’s a reminder that “British tolerance” is not a given. Tolerance had to be fought for and won, but no battle ever stays won; victories need to be defended. Now which political party will take a stand against the rise of fascist values?