Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Relative Values

The punchline is obvious. 'Poisonous values' is a phrase you can expect to hear again and again and again as Theresa May and friends (not all of them Conservatives it would appear) work to enact the new anti-terrorism strategy of denying 'oxygen' to radical values. This somewhat trepidatious approach wobbles on the less than firm foundations of 'British values', a fighting ground that I expect to see trampled by all parties as we approach the general election.

Even in the present these values are hard to define. The obvious paradox inherent in May's speech is that 'freedom of expression' is front and centre and yet the policy denies that very thing. The wiggle round for this is the contention that 'with rights come responsibilities', that tired get out clause that politicians of all hues wheel out to justify everything from cuts to out of work payments to all day licensing, from the sublime to the (potentially) ridiculous and many points in between.

For 'British values' are a slippery eel at best. Unlike Germany, where listeners to the excellent 'Germany - Memories Of A Nation' on Radio 4 will already be aware of that country's public demonstrations of reconciliation with the dark chapters of its past, Britain's history, and therefore its values, are a ragbag of the admirable and the detestable with little or no attempt to come to terms with the latter. Even focusing on the recent past, and avoiding the contradictions between the Chartists and the Highland Clearance, the direct clash of the promotion of the slave trade and its abolition or the instigation of the Poor Laws and the reality of the workhouse, leaves you with the legalisation of gay marriage up against the pursuit of an illegal war, the welfare state standing across a chasm from the 'shoot to kill' policy in Northern Ireland.

No country can in truth hold itself as a beacon of universally acceptable values. For the Tories (or any political party) to trade policy on this basis goes beyond disingenuous and into dangerous.

What we saw today was not a moral commitment to eradicating extremism but a play to middle England for votes in 8 months. To hear Radio 4 ask whether the policy would stop young British men from travelling to faraway places to behead other travellers was to see how this could play out. To get some sense of perspective here, one British citizen is not emblematic of any more than himself. You may as well frame policy on the basis that Pete Doherty plays guitar and has a drug problem so we should stop all young men playing guitars. Tautology is not a substitute for serious analysis.

That extremism exists is not in question. That it has always existed is never discussed. Faces and belief systems may change but as a 13 year old I spent a few months believing that armed revolution was the only solution to the problem of Thatcherite Britain. Had Twitter existed I would no doubt have been straight online to say so. Even within my peer group I was not the only one to believe this, Blackpool in 1984 was not a welcoming place.

The key to dealing with extremism in its Islamic context remains as evident as it always has. Given that the UK has just committed to more bombing in the Middle East the irony is crushing. Short of helping the Israeli government stick a few more flats on the occupied territories it couldn't become any greater. Palestine remains a festering sore, the duplicity of support for states that fund extreme Islam with men and materiel continues, the economic collapse of the 'home countries' of Islam, precipitated by that illegal war, the Western funding of puppet states throughout the area in the post war era and a willingness to only pay lip service to the genuine efforts of the (overwhelmingly) young people to change their situation witnessed in the collapse of the 'Arab Spring' are all factors far more powerful than the preachings of a few guys in urban conurbations and a barrage of rhetoric on Twitter and Facebook.

Without those subjects much of the ire would be meaningless. Theresa May and co may want to think about dealing with the cause rather than the symptoms. But I doubt that, expect a long few months of 'British values' and 'poisonous extremism'. To pick up another politico buzz phrase we will all be sick of before too long, we can all do it 'together'.

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