"Politicians prostitute their sense and judgment to the supreme aim of survival politically": Paul Flynn. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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“One Nation – what the f*** does that mean?”: an interview with Paul Flynn MP

Nearing three decades in parliament, leftwing firebrand Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, discusses Labour’s chances, laments modern politics, and reflects upon MPs disrespecting their elders.

“Brick by brick we’re rebuilding socialism,” smiles Paul Flynn wryly from his wheelchair as his assistant helps him back into his office from a Commons vote, “a new Jerusalem”.

It’s the Labour MP for Newport West’s grim sarcasm and florid eloquence that defines the role he plays in parliament – his website has a testimony, among many others, from the Mail’s Quentin Letts emblazoned across the top in bold red letters: “Magnificently rude”.

Known as a principled but stubborn leftwinger, who causes difficulty for the whips, Flynn is nevertheless more complex than just a pain in the backbench. With too many ideas for change to be dismissed as having no influence, and too much wit to be merely branded a curmudgeon, Flynn remains an arresting voice on both the green benches and the committee corridor, as a member of both the Public Administration and Home Affairs select committees.

And rather than simply being a disruptive wildcard of Westminster – in September 2012 he was kicked out of the Commons chamber for accusing Defence Secretary Philip Hammond of being a liar – Flynn has given a lot back to the parliamentary world. His sardonic and searing humorous self-help guide, How to be an MP, was the most-borrowed book from the House of the Commons library last year.

“I’m sure they [the press] were expecting it to be 50 Shades of Grey, or How to Purchase a Duck House,” his lip curls, “I’m sure they thought it was going to be something that would be damaging to MPs, and it turned out to be my worthy tract.”

As someone who has studied the (imprecise) art of being an MP so closely, and has been in parliament’s confines since 1987, Flynn surely has insight into how politicians have changed over time. I mention the modern phenomenon of career politicians, and he calmly tears them apart:

“I mean it is bleak, and they tend to be one-dimensional, and vacuous,” he replies without missing a beat. “I think it was a good thing when there were miners and farmers and factory workers here; there was a variety of experience here, and there was a depth to the place it doesn’t have now, and I think there is a superficial layer of people who live in this tiny area of politics.

“And their language is banal as well. No one talks in the way that political parties send out press releases and so on. The language being used is that of a not very bright seven-year-old. It really is sort of insulting to people.”

He gives Ed Miliband and the Labour leadership’s favourite slogan “One Nation” as an example:

“One Nation? I think it has no resonance at all, the idea of One Nation. It might have under Disraeli. It might have meant something then for Britain, but it’s not understood, and I can’t see why you’d adopt it. I mean, they trialled it out to receive any reaction from people, and just a blank, open mouthed “huh?” was the best you could get. . . ‘We are One Nation’? And what the fuck does that mean? I’m sure that’s how people feel about it –it doesn’t mean a thing does it?”

Flynn was the only Labour MP to put Ed Miliband as his fifth choice for Labour party leader in the 2010 leadership election, and he smiles slowly as he reflects on his decision:

“I didn’t realise all these things were going to be published in these long lists!” he giggles. “In the fifth column there was just one cross, which was mine. I went for his brother, who I thought had more gravitas and presence. . .”

However, he is surprisingly optimistic about Labour’s chances in the next election, saying “I think things are going with us”, and concedes that his bottom favourite leadership candidate has had “some good moments” in his role.

As one of parliament’s more senior figures, at 79, does Flynn feel it’s important to stick around (he’s said he won’t be standing down) to provide some balance in light of the new, relatively young, crop of politicians on both frontbenches? Does parliament need its oldies?

“Oh God, yes!” he nods. “The line I take is that when people say ‘you’re not as good as you used to be’ is to agree warmly: I’m not as good as I used to be, I’m much better than I used to be, as I’ve been here longer! I know everything, and I still love it, still get a real buzz of excitement from it, and love being here, in the chamber asking questions.”

Why?

“Because you’re going against this great mountain of prejudice and stupidity, the fact that you can stop it every now and again and switch it in a different direction... because the general standard of political thought is pretty basic, and I’m arrogant enough to believe that we can be better.”

Does he find that his fellow MPs respect their parliamentary elders?

“No, they’re very contemptuous. I’m referred to by other constituency members as ‘PPC’ for ‘Prospective Parliamentary Candidate’ – in my constituency it stands for ‘Poor Pathetic Cripple’, and I accept that!” he chuckles.

He describes his condition as “a bone ache I’ve been getting since I was nine”, and explains that he eschews painkillers and other medicines to avoid their side effects, adding that he has some “eccentric theories about pain”.

“If Beethoven had been on antidepressants and Mozart had been on Ritalin, we would never have heard of them. You need certain angst in life, you need something to distract yourself from it and work is the thing, and that displaces physical discomfort.”

He merrily unbuttons his shirtsleeves to show me the lumps on his elbows – “I’ll flash my bumps at you; a rare treat,” he laughs. For someone whose speeches in debates drip with dry sarcasm, he is markedly more optimistic than I expected.

Indeed, he notes how the culture of Westminster is much better compared with when he arrived, and puts this down to the increase in number of female MPs:

“Having women MPs has civilised the place to a greater extent. . . I’ve seen none of the macho posturing of boys and the ‘whose is bigger than whose else’s?’ That was depressing. It wasn’t productive. It’s much easier for women MPs to get elected these days with the lists and so on, but that generation of Jo Richardson and Audrey Wise and Barbara Castle – I mean, they had to sacrifice their family life in many cases in order to stay on in parliament. It wasn’t obligatory, but they did. But they were tougher than the average and the present lot, and the present lot certainly wouldn’t put up with the nonsense of previous generations.”

However, his ultimate conclusion about our decision-makers is a gloomy one: “They [politicians] prostitute their sense and judgment to the supreme aim of survival politically... Most political decisions are prejudice rich and evidence free... I'm all in favour of having two spots on the ballot slip, one saying ‘None of the above’ and one saying ‘Write in candidate’. . .”

With his refreshingly candid approach to political commentary, perhaps voters would do well to “write in” this one.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.