Tag Archives: Politics

Homecoming

I’m back at the table I wrote my PhD on. The tree outside the window has grown in the two years we’ve been away, but otherwise things are pretty much the same with our little flat. The story is a bit different outside – an Italian restaurant and deli have closed, and a new deli has opened. Also, a tiny new café has appeared in an old potting shed. It has proven to be yet another good source of artisan bread. Further afield, we have a new Mayor of London. Unfortunately we missed the good mood my friends have reported settled on London after the election of Saddiq Khan, instead returning to London in the anxious week of the EU referendum.

But I’m not sure I can write about that debacle yet.

In many ways we returned to life as normal: the same flat, neighbourhood, gym, markets, restaurants. And I was waiting for the repatriation malaise to set in. But then there was the excitement of the referendum and its fallout – the resignations especially – and it feels like a completely different world. It certainly distracts from any feelings of homesickness for America. In fact, America hardly features in our conversations with our long-lost friends, as that topic is completely overtaken by current events.

So here I’ve tried to capture my various repatriation thoughts and emotions, in the spirit of this blog, but in the knowledge that this is hardly a representative experience…

 

Trains of thought on returning to the UK in June/July 2016

Oooh, I’d forgotten how pretty the UK countryside is…

Yum. Farmers’ markets and proper, unpasteurised cheese!

Hmmm, at least one of these farmers wants to leave the EU according to the signs on his van…

Ah, British pubs and pub gardens…

How British – a slightly awkward tea party half inside and half outside, with bunting and sparkling wine, and a toast to the queen on her birthday.

bunting

Surely we won’t leave the EU…?

Do I miss American craft beer more than I’m loving British bitter and cider, or vice versa? This will take some research…

Why can’t you get a good burger in a British pub? I miss American bars.

But at least we can hear ourselves talk… and it is nice not to have to tip at the bar.

What a crazy debate! Surely no-one could vote for Boris as Prime Minister? Hagis?!

Thank God to be back in the land of M&S – have they ever been properly recognised for how they enable modern couples to fully commit to their jobs without compromising on nutrition? Dinner is so much easier now!

But breakfast is so much harder! Was American brunch so cheap because of terrible wages and conditions? Now I feel bad for missing it.

Seven hours of campaigning in the rain – surely we’ll stay in the EU?

campaigning

What just happened?!

The GOP Debate

Only in DC, we kept saying to each other. At about 8.30pm the sports bars near us stopped showing baseball and the NFL training and switched over to Fox News. The tables were all reserved, and soon it was standing room only in the downstairs bar where we’d managed to get seats at the counter. ‘This is like my version of the Emmys,’ the girl next to me explained excitedly – she was a law student who hadn’t been able to vote at the last election, and she got ID’d as she ordered a beer. No, she definitely wasn’t a Republican, she just loved politics. But she was embarrassed too, that we as foreigners should see this side of America.

As things got going it became even clearer that there were no Republicans in this bar. (They were all apparently down at the Mexican place, Johnny Pistolas.) At the Black Squirrel we all reacted with disgust as Trump insulted women, and anger when Planned Parenthood and Obamacare were attacked. When candidates deputized the Bill of Rights and the founders  into their arguments, lawyers and political activists present loudly disputed and ridiculed these interpretations, forming bonds with strangers arounds them by virtue of their ability to ‘get’ the political comments and in-jokes being made. A girl behind me angrily and repeatedly accused the debaters of lying – she knew because she worked the Obama campaign. I think she’d started drinking during the happy hour debate of the seven trailing candidates…

 
It was the first time I’d seen Dr Ben Carson the neurosurgeon. I give him his full title as he trades off that. His proposition seems to be that they need an intellectual to lead the Republicans, but he struggled to show himself to be that intellectual. His grandstanding on the Ukraine seemed suspiciously as if he was covering for not knowing who President Assad was (the subject of the question). He also insisted that his medical achievements be taken into account which, while impressive – he separated Siamese twins – are hardly, well, relevant for the job he’s currently applying for (CV writers take note!). Very sadly I thought, for a black politician, he did not want to talk about racial issues, pretty much suggesting that there wasn’t a problem. I think friends and family of Sandra Bland and other recent victims of police violence would disagree.
On foreign policy they were all terrifying. Each wanted to sound tougher than the last, especially on immigration (‘let’s build a big fence’ – ‘no, a wall!’). Chris Christie made a lot of his actions as chief prosecutor after 9/11 – as if they were something to be proud of… Only Rand Paul came out for liberty over security, though he made his point most pithily in relation to the gay marriage debate: ‘I don’t want my marriage or my guns registered in Washington,’ was his memorable quote.

But mainly I was struck by how much they’re all out to get Planned Parenthood (Huckabee was especially insane when it came to this issue). Pro-life has become such a Republican litmus test that Marco Rubio was attacked for inconsistency for allowing a rape or incest exception clause in his Senate bills against abortion, and Jeb Bush had to claim that he had no knowledge that an organization he had ties to was supporting Planned Parenthood. As the campaign on Facebook makes clear, abortion is only part of Planned Parenthood’s activity, and if this organization was de-funded – as it has been in a number of southern states – an awful lot of women won’t be able to get STD and cancer tests in addition to not having access to contraception.

While Trump has subsequently attempted to improve his image with women voters – suggesting that he wouldn’t cut the women’s health budget like Jeb Bush wants to – he came over at the debate as a disgusting misogynist who has no place as a role model on TV. There’s nothing else I can think of to say about him – he’s just a vile human being.

GOP Debate
(My first attempt at an infographic!)
Perhaps the thing that made us feel most foreign was the last section of the debate, introduced with ‘Coming up, we have closing statements – and God’. As Alistair Campbell famously said, in UK politics we ‘don’t do God’. Well in Republican Party politics they certainly do ‘do God’. Each of the candidates had their own story of how they or their family members had been saved, and issues like violence on black people or treatment of Veterans had to be folded in to this display of piety or left out of the debate entirely.

Overall – to us as outsiders – Jeb Bush came over as the most realistic candidate: mostly reasonable, experienced and maybe least scary. But to an American audience he apparently just isn’t exciting enough. To be an American politician clearly requires more charisma than the entire field of UK party leaders possessed between them at their recent debate. Scott Walker clearly did well, but was terrifying. Similarly, Christie was strong but scary. Rand Paul perhaps stood out most as being different from the other candidates, but only spoke for about 5 minutes in total – of a 90 minute debate. And I found Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and John Kasich rather forgettable (though still scary). Basically if the Republicans win in 2016 we should all kill ourselves (especially women). 

No pressure Hillary!

DC and gun laws

An excellent juxtaposition of local stories on the Washington Post’s website today caught my eye:

Washpost

DC was once known as the ‘murder capital’ of the US. In 1991, a record-breaking year, there were 479 homicides. This excellent BBC article credits urban regeneration with sorting out the city’s crime problems, but neglects the issue of gun laws. Guns were a big problem in DC. So much so that when the owner of Washington’s basketball team felt he wanted to make a difference, he changed the name of the team from the Washington bullets to something less gun-related (see this Washington Post article on that story).

When I arrived in the states I was amazed to hear how difficult it was to get a gun in DC. It’s not technically illegal, but you can only buy from a licensed dealer and the city has been refusing to give licences to stores in DC for quite some time. It was also illegal in DC to carry a firearm for a while – until a federal judge declared this ban unconstitutional. In response, DC brought forward a new law, that requires people to have a ‘good reason’ in order to obtain a permit to carry a gun. Despite the fact that there are similar laws in Maryland and Virginia, this too has been struck down as ‘unconstitutional’.

The story today about this saga, was that DC had obtained a stay of this ruling until it can be appealed. Juxtaposing this with a story of how a woman was shot by her ex-boyfriend in Maryland felt to me like a comment, both on the stupidity of trying to get DC to change its successful gun laws, and on the inefficacy of a lesser law that people need ‘good reason’. [note – these stories have now been moved and the title of the gun law story changed to ‘DC wins minor victory over gun law ruling’ – what’s that about?]

Apart from the irony of federal judges talking about certain laws as unconstitutional in DC when people here don’t even get full representation in Congress (the DC licence plate reads ‘taxation without representation’), I just can’t believe it’s more important to these people that they protect the abstract right of people to carry guns than it is to protect the safer society that DC has struggled to create.

Maybe it’s because I’m from the UK, but this is one of those political stances I’ll never understand.

[Also – as you might see from the screenshot, the debate over college campus rape continues to rage. Finally the Washington Post has admitted that the incidence is as high as 1 in 5 – after far too many stories quibbling this.]

The Washington Post’s Coverage of the UK Election

News about the British election has been fairly low beneath the fold in the WP over the past few weeks; events in Baltimore and Hilary’s EmailGate have been dominating the news. So I was surprised to open my laptop this weekend and find Ed Miliband was the first topic ‘in the news’.

miliband screenshot

The WP’s version of Miliband’s story makes much of his Jewish roots and Holocaust survival parents, but the thing they focused on most was the way that Britain had – unusually in their view – given a politician a second chance. Of course, America is famous as the ‘Land of Second Chances’; it’s always been said that you can pick up and start again over here with little to no stigma. The backhanded compliment being paid in this piece is that, in changing their minds about Miliband, the UK has rediscovered a ‘faith in the powers of redemption’; but surely the movement of Miliband from zero to hero is just another example of the British love of an underdog? (And evidence that you can never predict who teenage girls are going to fall for… Milifandom, by the way, was not discussed in this piece – perhaps it was just too strange for this reporter).

Either way, the thing that Americans seem to love most about Miliband – and presumably the reason this reporter was so pleased about his ‘second chance’ – is his personal connection to America. Miliband’s family lived in the US for a while when he was young, a fact which he refers to often in relation to his fanatical support of the Boston red sox. While this probably has a tendency to turn the British public off, it plays really well over here – could there be anything more American than a love of baseball?

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/long-shot-miliband-now-the-favorite-to-become-britains-prime-minister/2015/04/30/a2c27da0-e907-11e4-8581-633c536add4b_story.html

The other story that has captured Americans’ imaginations is that of Farage, whom the WP refer to as Britain’s ‘Far Right Firebrand’. For some reason the WP’s reporter is more optimistic that support for UKIP is waning than many British people I’ve spoken to about this. While reporting one South Thanet resident as agreeing with UKIP about immigration, this report ends with the comments of someone who probably showed up as pro-UKIP in past opinion polls but has since changed her mind, realising that Farage is exploiting the depressed state of her constituency for his own political gain. This nuance isn’t missed by the UKIP supporters who trolled even this rather niche American publication, accusing it of being part of the left-wing press conspiracy that insists on ‘misrepresenting’ their party.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/is-this-the-last-stand-for-nigel-farages-ukip-revolution-in-britain/2015/04/18/35eb7b78-e29f-11e4-ae0f-f8c46aa8c3a4_story.html

But apart from these stories of the rise and fall of Miliband and Farage, there’s been relatively little coverage of the British election. Though people in the UK will probably see this situation as symptomatic of Americans’ famous disinterest in the rest of the world – their lack of passports and dislike of foreign policy debates – an interesting explanation was put forward by the WP, who accused Britain of this same disinterest: of ‘turning inward’. The days of Blair and George W’s special relationship are long gone, and the US is feeling rather abandoned by the UK in the world of foreign policy. The UK used to punch above its weight; Cameron’s austerity cuts to defence have rendered the UK far less useful and significant to the US’s foreign engagements, and even before you get to a discussion about the SNP and Trident, Miliband (despite his love of baseball) has already shown himself to be part of a coalition of the unwilling when it comes to US action in the Middle East.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/world-crises-may-be-multiplying-but-campaign-turns-britain-further-inward/2015/04/23/01c24e92-e51c-11e4-ae0f-f8c46aa8c3a4_story.html

As someone who opposed the Iraq war and viewed Blair’s closeness to the US hawks with dismay, I’m only too pleased that Miliband enjoys standing up to the current US administration. There are many issues with America’s foreign policy adventures, which Hilary Clinton could easily exacerbate (see Jackson Lears’s article in the LRB http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n03/jackson-lears/we-came-we-saw-he-died). However, I did feel some measure of shame when the WP listed the UK’s recent failures to get involved in international affairs. I’m obviously out of the loop, but it did seem to me that the recent disaster of the migrants drowning on their way to Europe prompted mainly more nasty words about immigration and a focus on our own borders. And I’m inclined to agree that whoever ends up leading the government after the election this week will end up bogged down in time consuming referenda about either Europe or Scotland.

I was brought up at a time when we were told that the world was shrinking. My generation believed that when we grew up we could live anywhere. We were encouraged to have penfriends around the world, to learn languages, to contribute to international charity drives and to feel sympathy for refugees. And I want this philosophy back.

To achieve this, I think that we have to do whatever we can to increase living standards, enforce the minimum wage and build more council houses, so that people can have a decent job and a decent home and not feel this all-consuming jealousy of the phantom immigrants they’ve been told are stealing their jobs, living in 5-bedroom houses and being given money to start their own businesses. I want people to have the stability and the confidence that they’re able to look outward and care about others again. I know this feels like this post is leading to a ‘this is why I’m voting Labour’ message – but it isn’t. It didn’t even start out as a politically motivated post. But however enjoyable I find an election and its trivia, these days I can’t escape how fundamentally serious it all seems to me for the future of our national character (something that sounds so old-fashioned you’d think it would be a Tory priority…).

Our response to the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 showed how generous people in the UK can be when they feel financially secure. I just hope that whoever ends up in power over the next few years does what they can to recover not just the UK economy, but also our standing in the world. Maybe then our relationship with America would get more interesting…

Note – I anticipate that some people might question why I get to vote in the UK’s election. To be clear, we’re only in DC for 18 months, on non-resident visas – meaning we’re still residents of the UK – and we still pay tax in the UK (as well as in the US). We also have to come back in October to whatever mess results from this election, so I think it’s only fair that we get a say. I’ll write more about visas and tax in future posts (doesn’t that sound exciting?).