Night traveler

I’m not keen on catching sight of my fellow travelers on the channel tunnel. I don’t like to see people in their road clothes, their scuffs, their baggies, their trackies, their onesies. Their pyjamas. I think you should have standards when it comes to presenting yourself in public. And that bombed out roadtrip look upsets me: it reminds me that many other road users are as tired as I am, that we’re all reacting 30% more slowly. You see people parked beneath the signs saying “double-decker” and “single-decker”, trying to work out what it all means. Coming out of a service station that serves both directions on the autoroute and slamming on the brakes: wait, which way?

At the beginning of my continental driving career, back when I could do the whole twelve hour drive and not get out of the car with seized knees and swollen ankles, I tried to arrange crossings so that we could maximise daylight. Like many, I’m not keen on driving at night. My night vision is poor, and I am very afraid of falling asleep at the wheel. We’d cross around six, then make the 6½ hour drive (8 hours with breaks) across France with the sun mostly in the sky. Now the kids are older, or now the kids don’t even come with us sometimes, we sometimes do the drive with just a single, short, stop. It’s brutal, cruel, inhuman. Even worse, we now tend to do it overnight. This came about mainly because we bought Frequent Traveler tickets, and if you want to avoid the surcharge, you end up getting on a train at two o’clock in the morning.

My anxiety before these trips is now almost overwhelming. A hollow feeling in my chest before setting out; a feeling that I don’t even want to go; continual flashbacks to those moments when things have gone wrong. I was especially worried this time that it would rain and I would experience those moments of blind terror when trying to overtake trucks throwing up tsunamis of spray.

The other reason for these night crossings, the channel tunnel shuttle gradually got more and more popular. If you travel at peak times, you encounter long waits, gridlocked access roads, jammed up car parks, interminable waits for passport control.

We were early adopters of the tunnel. It was more expensive than the ferry, but much quicker, and (dealmaker) there was no seasickness on my part. But in those early days, before the rolling stock looked shagged out and before the toilets were totally borked, it was relatively quiet, feeling almost exclusive (except we were there). Then two or three things happened to change that.

The first is pure guesswork, but I suspect the price of the train and the price of the ferry converged. There were a few shaky years for the Tunnel, when the company was being bailed out by banks, when they got aggressive with the fare prices. These days? Not so much, I think, but a lot of people, once they’ve tried it, don’t want to go back.

The second thing that happened was an enormous increase in the number of Eastern Europeans using the service. When you are driving all the way back to Poland to visit relatives at Christmas, then the time-saving presented by the Eurotunnel is significant. I suppose there are equal numbers of people who choose the ferry precisely because you get a couple of hours to shut your eyes? Anyway, there were noticeably more Eastern Europeans on the service once those countries joined the EU, especially if you happened to be in the single-decker train with the vans and the coaches.

The third thing was that, after the initial honeymoon period, traveling with the budget airlines became intolerable for many. We took Easyjet to Basel or the South a couple of times ourselves, to save on the driving. But it’s so horrible, and got worse, which is before you get to the horrorshow of Ryanair, and I think a lot of people opted to drive rather than face the ritual humiliation of those buses in the sky. That accounts for the mix of people you started to see at the increasingly crowded terminal.

There was hardly anybody there. No Eastern Europeans, especially. No skiers.

All of which is a longwinded way of saying that, for the past several years, the channel tunnel terminal has been busy almost round-the-clock. You walk into the building at midnight and it’s crowded, and there are cars snaking around the nightmare of a car park, queueing, often too early and out of turn, for passport control.

Until this time, that is. In what I can only assume is a Brexit-related development, we crossed today from a very quiet terminal, passing straight onto a train with no delays, no waiting, no frustration. There was hardly anybody there. No Eastern Europeans, especially. No skiers.

And the first hundred kilometres on the autoroute were similarly quiet. We passed through the night on cruise control, only rarely overtaking a truck. I sometimes saw a car’s headlights carving through the darkness off in the countryside. It wasn’t until we passed the junction with the A2 from Belgium that we started to see other cars in significant numbers: Belgian cars. Very few Brits. We saw a couple of coachloads of school trippers at the one service station we stopped at, but that was it. So, this time, there I saw nobody in a onesie, no kids in pyjamas. It was a ghost terminal.

Anecdotally, a lot of people seem to have been told it would be unwise to travel at this time. The perfect storm of strikes and gilets jaunes and Brexit, it seems. Perhaps some thought that if they left the UK this weekend, they’d be refused entry after April 12. Who knows? Fear, uncertainty, and doubt stalk the land.

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Brexit: the city in the sky

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City in the Sky by JoshDykgraaf.deviantart.com

My attitude to what the kids are calling Brexit is a fairly selfish one at the moment. It simply throws my retirement plans into a shredder, and I’m not sure what emerges on the other side of that shredder in terms of:

  • My right to live in France when I retire
  • My right to health care and prescriptions in France
  • The value of my pension
  • My tax situation

And so on. Multiply my own personal issues with those of thousands of retirees in Spain and France and points beyond, and you have a bureaucratic tangle that makes my head hurt. It doesn’t matter which country you live in: you want as little to do with the authorities and their bureaucracy as possible. Even having to ask the question puts you at a position of disadvantage, in much the same way as concerned EU citizens and their offspring in the UK, who are encountering callous indifference and bewildering misinformation at every turn.

I believe I would have to be resident in France for two years before I could even apply for French citizenship. But how does one gain residency when no longer a citizen of a member state? It’s Catch 22, innit, and there are probably a hundred other Catches awaiting us. Then again, what are my chances of health care and prescriptions and a decent retirement if I stay in the UK? Slim to none, probably.

Leaving aside my selfish concerns, I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude to the EU. I’ve never liked the way that it bypasses democratic processes. Sure, we get to vote for MEPs, but (a) nobody cares about that, and (b) a huge amount of what the EU does has nothing to do with the Parliament in Strasbourg, and is undertaken by appointees. The power of patronage is the main power at work within the EU, and it’s no more a good thing than it is at home. Faceless bureaucrats and jobs for the boys ate our democracy.

On the other hand, European rules (on working hours, for example) provide, in theory, a level of protection from rapacious capitalism that our own government would be reluctant to supply. The shitty human beings who have been running this country for the past 40 years have always erred on the side of corporate concerns, with little regard for what is good for the public and society. So taking away what little protection the EU umbrella gives is a worry.

But maybe it shouldn’t be. Because it really is hard, looking around me, to see how things could get worse. The punishment meted out to the poor and vulnerable over the past 10 years happened while we were in the EU. The rise of zero hours contracts; the slow destruction of our infrastructure; the erosion of living standards; the GBH committed against the NHS; the public money being siphoned off through a giant hosepipe into the hungry maw of private capital — all of that is happening without any protection from an EU, which is hard-coded with neoliberal economic policies.

So bring on your wrecking ball, maybe?

Of course, the whole Brexit project was probably underwritten by secret billionaires who want to turn the UK into an offshore tax haven. But it was given a racist veneer of concerns about immigration. I don’t believe that the billionaires who run our media give a shit about immigration, for example. They don’t care about the burden on schools and the NHS or the welfare bill. Their kids/grandkids are privately educated and they have private health insurance. But they persuaded a lot of voters that the country was being overrun. And to their tame politicians, the whole thing was just a game: a few false promises and lies, nothing really matters, because we’re insulated by our money from the consequences.

Which leaves us where? Outside looking in, I should think. Outside the EU looking in, but also outside the Citadel of the Rich, their city in the sky, which is what they’re hoping to hide in as things fall apart.

1974 and all that

Harold_Wilson_Number_10_officialI’ve been thinking, over the past few days, about the governments of the 60s and 70s, and the parallels between Ted Heath’s snap election in 1974 and the recent debacle created by Theresa May.

The February 1974 election, which ended in a hung parliament, was the first held after Britain joined the EU in January 1973. This latest election was the first held after the vote to leave.

In February 1974, Ted Heath, Conservative Prime Minister, addressed the nation:

Do you want a strong Government which has clear authority for the future to take decisions which will be needed? […] This time of strife has got to stop. Only you can stop it. […] It’s time for you to say to the extremists, the militants, and the plain and simply misguided: we’ve had enough. There’s a lot to be done. For heaven’s sake, let’s get on with it. (wikipedia)

The nation answered with a shrug. Heath’s tactic had backfired and when he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a coalition with the Liberals (assuming also support from the Unionist MPs), Harold Wilson became the leader of a minority government.

Wilson called another election in October and won a narrow majority of 3 seats. This was the government that eventually creaked to an end under the leadership of Jim Callaghan in 1974, with sick MPs being wheeled in from hospital for Commons votes.

Regardless of whether you believe the various conspiracy theories surrounding the Wilson government, it’s fair to say that his governments of the 60s and 70s both faced strenuous opposition from the right wing press and were undermined by those ‘enemies within’ in the financial sector. Wilson himself claimed that he was undermined by elements within MI5, and there is a longstanding rumour about a possible military coup, with Lord Mountbatten touted as PM. Was the army takeover of Heathrow Airport in 1974 a dry run? Was the cabinet office  and waiting area bugged (almost certainly yes, since the Profumo affair of 1963)?

Whatever happened, the right wing press have painted the 1970s in dark colours ever since as a way of promoting neoliberal ideology and destroying faith and participation in the trade union movement.

When people wax nostalgic about Labour governments passed, they usually turn to the post-1945 government and the creation of the NHS and the welfare state. But look at the social reforms Wilson achieved in the 60s:

  • abolished capital punishment
  • liberalised censorship laws
  • liberalised divorce laws
  • liberalised abortion laws
  • liberalised law on homosexuality
  • created the Open University
  • introduced comprehensive education
  • took steps towards gender and racial equality

And:

“1974-76, saw further reforms in education, health, housing, gender equality, pensions, provisions for disabled people and child poverty.” (source)

Finally, and most importantly, under Wilson’s government, the property speculators were squeezed until the pips squeaked and taxes were high, high, high, which kind of explains why landlords, British industrialists, and bankers had an interest in creating as much economic conflict as possible. The 60s and 70s were characterised by lots of industrial action, but as hard as those workers fought, the result was a more equal society and better pay and conditions for everyone. So of course the billionaires behind the right wing press like to paint the 70s as the ‘bad old days’.

The current situation has so many parallels with 1974, you can’t help but wonder if this will play out the same way. At the very least, an October election might be on the cards. But another left wing Labour government being undermined by the bankers, the oligarchs and the security services? Corbyn has “MI5 Plot” written all over his face.

43-year itch

maxresdefaultI went to bed on Thursday night complacently believing that the British people would have voted decisively to remain in the European Union. In fact, during the day itself, I began to believe that the result wouldn’t even be close. As I read the bedtime YouGov poll, showing Remain on 52%, I even said to myself, it’ll be more like 55-45 in the end, a 10-point margin.

Which is why, on Friday morning, I had the odd experience of literally not believing my eyes when I picked up my phone and viewed the result. It didn’t help that the Guardian had chosen a pale yellow colour for the Remain side, so I couldn’t quite read what was on my screen. But, yes, I actually rubbed my eyes, convinced they were lying to me through the bleary insomniac dawn.

Part of me, not a small part, is enjoying the resulting chaos. I currently owe more on my mortgage than I’ve ever saved in my pension. My take home pay and my pension have been steadily eroded over the past 10 years, and my future prospects were already bleak. So what if the currency crashes, if there’s inflation? I already live beyond my means. A little inflation would help reduce the relative value of my mortgage debt, and if some of the pain of the austerity years could be visited – finally – upon those responsible, I’m up for that.

To see the hated Cameron depart, to see the foaming, flaming Tories tearing each other apart: this is high-quality spectator sport.

I’m not surprised at the outcome. And I’m not surprised at the general fallout. In or out, makes no difference to most people; to those of us living with frozen pay, venal managers, looming threats over job security; or living in the zero hours land of the living dead; who fucking cares, stick it to the man, burn the whole shit house down.

42 years ago, in The Towering Inferno, Steve McQueen is told he’s going to have to go into the building to blow the tanks on the roof to put the fire out. When he realises he stands very little chance of getting out alive, he just says, “Shit,” and goes in.

That’s where a lot of us live. We’ve already, years ago, looked at our future prospects and said, simply, shit. And we carry on.

Because there’s very little chance we’ll come out of this well, is there? You know how I know? Because here, now, is the moment for a strong and principled opposition to step forward and – as a first order of business – bring the government down. Force a general election, pull something out of their asses like Harold Wilson in ’64 and ’74. Kick the Tories while they’re down and keep kicking until they stop twitching. But instead of doing that, they (the Parliamentary Labour Party) saw an opportunity to replace Corbyn. And they’re doing it, not just because they really hate Corbyn, but because they can see a scenario in which he could win a general election and prove them all wrong. And they can’t have that. A Labour victory now would expose them as the morally bankrupt careerists they are. They’d rather keep losing. They have to destroy the village in order to save it. And the most astonishing thing is, it was obviously planned that this would happen now. All the tin soldiers were in place, waiting for the moment.

Like the MI6 and the KGB during the Cold War, there’s a moral equivalency between the Tories and the majority of the PLP. They all voted to cut welfare. They all voted for the Iraq war. They’re all conniving careerist cunts.

Burn the whole shit house down.

In or Out?

FishChips_Poster_720x430px_1I’m on record saying that the EU is profoundly undemocratic and so we should leave. It’s one of the ironies of modern politics that ultra-right wing Enoch Powell (for younger readers: a kind of better educated and less spiv-like version of Farage) and the renowned leftie Tony Benn were both on the same side of the European debate.

It’s enough to make your head spin. The EU is lots of bad things. There are too many appointed officials, commissioners, officers etc., who all owe their positions to patronage. Meanwhile, the actual EU parliament is toothless and pointless, populated by chancers and opportunists who have taken advantage of widespread public indifference and low turnout. The EU enshrines an unfair economic system and forces countries that join it to operate under the same, narrow set of neoliberal capitalist policies. It owes too much to the banks and the corporations.

EU environment is afflicted by the common agricultural policy, which has, over decades rewarded rich landowners who do shitty things to the land, destroying topsoil, chopping down hedgerows etc.

All of that is why I’ve always been kinda against our membership.

But when it comes to it, I’m voting in. And I’m not sure my reasons are solid, but here they are.

Firstly, if we are resigned to living under capitalism, and if capital (money) has free movement, then it stands to reason that people should too. I’m not just in favour of migration within the EU; I’d do away with passports and border controls all over the world. If the money can move, the people should follow. And if you want to restrict the free movement of people, then you have to restrict free trade. Which means tariffs and taxes and limits and quotas.

Secondly (which is still firstly), I hate this country and want the option, when I retire, of living elsewhere. That’s my selfish reason.

Thirdly, as bad and as undemocratic as the EU is, our current government is worse. Without the restraints offered by enshrined working rules and workers’ rights, businesses in this country would be able to treat their workers even worse than they currently do. We don’t do worker’s councils and workplace democracy like the Germans. If we did, I wouldn’t be so worried. I don’t understand why we don’t (except in the basest terms: that British bosses are cunts, always have been and always will be, thanks to the class system), but we, as workers, get more protection from our employers in the EU than we would out of it. We’re also signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, which is nothing to do with the EU, but is probably in the sights of the Brexiters.

So, one, two, three: but one and two are the same: free movement. And three: workers’ rights. Limits on working hours. Maternity and paternity leave. Holidays. Sick leave. Weekends. Just think: everything working people had to fight for over 100 years or so. How quickly would it all disappear if people like Mike Ashley, Boris, Gove, and Philip Green were given free rein?