Saturday, 22 April 2017

Thoughts in Progress

No sooner had the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced that there would be a general election on June 8th than the political obituary of the Labour Party was quickly drafted up. Pallbearers were contacted (perhaps Blair and Campbell would do the honours?). Flower shops were e-mailed. What size should the wreath be? And just what song or anthem would be appropriate to play as the coffin was being lowered into the ground?


Here we go again

For the third year in a row the British electorate goes to the polls. Fourth, if you live north of the border. Remember the Scottish referendum in 2014? Bet you had already forgotten about that one. Well, Nicole Sturgeon, the Scottish National Party leader, she is calling for another one. If that sentence does not provoke mental – as well as physical, but mainly mental – fatigue in you, then, congratulations! You have finally succeeded in transitioning into a robot. Your future is secured. It is us, mere mortals, who have reason to worry.

And yet, and yet, and yet…

Although Labour lags well behind the Conservatives in the polls (remember those? They were supposed to be very accurate, until they got Brexit and Trump wrong), May and co. have not had an easy ride. Had you asked me back in July last year if Jeremy Corbyn had any chances of getting Labour’s fortunes back on track, I would had said no. Just like that, a rotund no. After Cameron’s cowardly exit (he and Osborne got us into this Brexit mess and rather than face the music, they both abandoned the ship while it was sinking), May was seen as a safe pair of hands. Even I cast my usual cynicism aside and read Labour’s last rites quietly as soon as Thatcher 2.0 moved into Downing Street. Despite the Brexit-related imbroglio in which Mrs May found herself, she began her premiership with a firm hand.

But the honeymoon is over and Theresa knows it. She is the prime minister under whose guard the Chancellor of the Exchequer broke a Tory election pledge on national insurance. She U-turned on that decision. She is the cheerleader for the return of grammar schools. Even her own MPs are against the idea. There has not been much talk of grammar schools recently. She is the leader who went to Washington to meet the new incumbent in the White House. To say that she did not make much of an impression on him or anyone else worldwide would be the understatement of the century. Here is someone who probably thought that by not giving away much about herself she would be able to breeze through the next four years until the general election of 2020. Yet, keeping one’s privacy (good) does not equate to being boring (bad). Theresa May is boring and she has been shown up by someone who has problems creating punchlines for his own jokes. Jeremy Corbyn looks and sounds like a member of the public watching a stand-up show who has suddenly been asked to come on the stage to finish the act of the top comedian on the bill because she or he has been taken ill. Standing in the spotlight and faced with a hundred expectant faces, Mr Corbyn tries out his best jokes, only to see them falling flat on their faces, stepped on and kicked away by a demanding audience.

And yet, only two weeks ago, before May made her unexpected announcement, the Labour party put out a set of policies that were electorate-friendly enough. Not too scary, not too loony-left-sounding, just sensible enough that people could see Jeremy Corbyn in a different light, with a new pair of glasses, if you like.

Mrs May has been dealt a terrible hand with Brexit. She is the Remain-voting politician who has to negotiate a hard Brexit with the EU. In addition to that, salaries have stagnated and job prospects look grim. From a safe pair of hands ten months ago, she has turned into the grim reaper. Burying recovery, real or potential.

Enough has happened in the last year to convince me that the political landscape has grown more unpredictable per day. This works in Corbyn’s favour. I would probably advise him to ditch the “socialist” tag and concentrate on a progressive agenda. It is also the turn for Corbyn’s merry band of followers to stand up and be counted. The Tories are not interested in anyone else but themselves. Their motivation is not just Brexit, but the total annihilation of the Labour party. Victory on 8th June would also send a powerful message to those pesky Scots with their demand for a second referendum. Faced with these grim prospects, Labour supporters have nothing to lose. Go for broke, then. Canvass on every street, knock on every door. Remember, you have nothing to lose.

I doubt Jeremy Corbyn will be our next prime minister. That would be taking unpredictability to a whole different level. However, good results in the general election for Labour will make a dent on the Conservative armour. A coalition would be a realistic target and one that Jeremy should pursue. Whatever the outcome, I do not think that the pallbearers will be used just yet.


© 2017

Next Post: “Cubafonia”, to be published on Wednesday 26th April at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

A fellow parent confessed to me recently that she was struggling with her adolescent daughter. Her behaviour was erratic, she had lied on a couple of occasions and she was lagging behind in her exams. All part and parcel of parenting, I thought. Then, she made a comment that left me scratching my head for a nanosecond before realising what she meant: “You see, I don’t want to be like those other parents”. She didn’t point at anyone in particular, there were no other parents around us and she kept her eyes firmly on the ground as she spoke. Whether she was feeling embarrassed or guilty, I don’t know. What I did know was what she meant by “those other parents”.

Retrospective analysis is a powerful tool. Especially for those with no past in the country to which they have relocated. I came to live in London facing the imminent arrival of my son (my wife was heavily pregnant) and an almost-zero knowledge on parenting on arrival. Whatever I had experienced during my previous stay in Londontown (just the one month) was nothing compared to upping sticks and moving here permanently. Talk about challenges! A new culture, new ways of being, expectations (both of myself and of my future home) and a baby craving attention.

A few of the difficulties were overcome pretty soon. I found a job and I got used to the British accent (especially the London twang) almost immediately. It was the parenting bit that took me longer (has taken me longer, I should write). That is why I was able to understand this fellow parent’s concern.

As soon as I settled in London, I, ever the observant, began to listen carefully to what people said and to watch what they did. The outcome of this gave me a powerful insight into the world of parenting in the UK.

Being a parent/carer is not easy. Along with education it is the profession that almost everyone has an opinion on, whether parents themselves or not. Note the use of the word “profession”. Being a parent is a job, just not a paid one. We are raising little human beings with the hope they will become responsible citizens in the future.

What that parent was telling me on that day corroborated the suspicions I had long harboured about parenting in the UK: it is a much divided element of society with a silo mentality that conspires against the very world we want to create for our children.

Let us go back to that parent for a second. What she was confessing to me would not have made anyone bat an eyelid. In fact, we would all have chimed in with our own anecdotes of stroppy teenagers. Yet, the more I scratched the surface, the more I realised she was being snobbish.

Look at the gates of a modern primary or secondary school in Britain and you will be exposed to a modern urban zoo. Whether a comprehensive or an academy, it is the same spectacle: parents forming their own mini-tribes and clans with very strict rules on who is allowed to join in. Forget The Who singing “the kids are alright”. It’s the adults who are screwed up.

Class, I noticed in those early years when my son was in reception, had an overarching, albeit thinly-veiled, influence on parents’ integration into the school community. The scruffy-looking, hair-up-in-a-bun, chain-smoking parent – usually, a mum – was shunned. The 4x4-driving, high-flying, dapper-looking progenitor was welcome. As I mentioned before, this was not openly done. Like a secret language, the way parents interacted with each other was full of codes and signals.

What this other parent really meant when talking to me was that she did not want to be seen as a rubbish parent. After all she did not yell at her daughter on the street. Or, give her fast food for breakfast and dinner. Or, she was not the type who refused to play with her little one, choosing to be on her mobile 24/7 instead. No, she was the other kind: the one who used to take her bairn to the museum, who always took advantage of free drama workshops or who baked cakes together with her daughter.


Let me say something really controversial: there is no such thing as a rubbish parent. There is, however, challenging parenting. How could there not be? You go from thinking mainly of yourself (OK, maybe, the boy/girlfriend, too) to caring for another human being who, in the first years of their life, cannot articulate clearly what their needs are. It is enough to make someone want to blow their brains off. Add ingredients such as class, race, gender and age and public perceptions of them and you have a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, with the government’s latest announcements on the new education policy, there will be even more division in the school community. The proposed return of grammar schools and the expansion of academies will contribute to the entrenchment of privilege. Those parents with greater means will flood the grammar school a mile away, whilst the local comp, unable to compete, will just die a slow death. Guess whose children will attend the former and whose the latter? 4x4 glamour parent’s and chain-smoker’s respectively.

My answer to my fellow parent’s worries was that sometimes we need to get to know the other parent before rushing to judge them on their appearance. An appearance that occasionally includes a sign hanging from their neck with the caption "Please, touch me with a bargepole". By the same token that parenting is hard, it is unfortunately an opportunity to get up on one’s high horse and point our accusing finger to all and sundry. As Philip Larkin said: “They f*** you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do”. The trick is in understanding that this is never intentional. Remember: there is no such thing as a rubbish parent. But, boy, is parenting challenging!

As usual, this is my last column before the Easter break. I hope you have a very relaxing time and get to do all the things you have been planning to do but have not found time to. I know I will be doing more cycling around London (if my bike allows me to). I shall return late April. Until then, take care of yourselves.


© 2017

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