Brent on Obama

newstatesman.com' s weekly tour of the political blogosphere with your guide Paul Evans

Dawn breaking

Like many people, I drank a six-pack of Coors to celebrate the inauguration of President Obama this week. His elevation to leader of the free nations may have be causing ripples around the world – but he could hardly have anticipated the impact it would have on the streets of Brent.

Boundary changes have left sitting MPs Dawn Butler and diminutive Lib Dem Sarah Teather engaged in an increasingly desperate battle to win the new seat of Brent Central at the next general election.

But has gone OTT with her online announcement of an exclusive endorsement from Barack Obama, containing lines as astonishingly awful as:

“I say to the people of Brent you should have the audacity of hope and when someone asks you can she do it, you respond yes we can.”

Iain Dale was quickly on the case, asking: “Surely Barack Obama wouldn't have written such a trite and self serving paragraph himself? Would he?” adding caustically: “Pass the sick bag, Alice”.

The authenticity of the saccharine note, printed on House of Commons paper, soon came under scrutiny, courtesy of the Unity on Liberal Conspiracy who reckoned a “bonehead stunt” had been perpetuated using Photoshop. Under pressure from the Standard blogger Paul Waugh, Butler stuck to her guns – claiming that Obama had pre-agreed the wording prior to meeting her at Downing Street, and then signed the endorsement.

Belfast-based xetera thought that this strange episode was symptomatic of the “Obama juice” phenomenon, where politicians desperately claw for a link to the President in “...the hope that, like some sort of secret potion, a tenuous connection to the man will provide a little personal boost”.

Whatever the truth, the endorsement is inaccurate. The claim that Butler is one of just two black women in parliament ignores the fact that there are two Houses of Parliament, and that one of them was led for several years by Valerie Amos.

What have we learned this week?

It isn't just Brent that is touched by Obama's magic – the Emerald Isle has been similarly transformed, as we learn via the ever-magnificent Slugger O'Toole.

Around the World

Jahanshah Rashidian on Rotten Gods gives some interesting history on the leftist factions in post-revolution Iran who perhaps unwittingly sold out the working classes to maintain strategic alliances with right-wing Islamic groups. He recounts:

“Their new independent trade unions were banned and replaced by Islamic societies formed by the Ministry of Labour. Their profit share and bonuses which were established under the Shah were nullified. The right of strike was rejected. Wages stayed low, many factories were shut down; and their workers were fired without any unemployment benefit.”

Today, Iran's left faces a steep challenge to assert itself as a secular and pro-union force. The Haft Tapeh sugar cane workers strike of last summer was met with characteristic brutality by state (five strike leaders were recently charged with propagandising against the government) but undeterred, efforts continue to secure better pay and conditions. Iran's loss is Britain's gain, as exile Maryam Namazi continues to prove, as one of the country's most passionate and articulate advocates of free expression and secularism.

Videos of the Week

In honour of the return of Ken Clarke to the fray, let us enjoy the sounds of the Kenny Clarke quartet.

Quote of the Week

“Brent Central was always going to be a dirty fight - Dawn has now provided the ammunition to make it even dirtier.”

Mike Smithson on Political Betting

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.