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Does opposition to the "rape clause" show a progressive alliance could work?

Protestors gathered in Glasgow to demand a change in legislation limiting child tax credits. 

On Thursday evening, a group of protestors gathered in Glasgow's grand George Square. They waved placards like "Down with this sort of thing", and the odd Saltire flag. 

Since the Scottish independence referendum, the square has become a rallying point for the independence movement. But this wasn't about the constitution - at least not directly. It was about the UK government's decision to stop child tax credits for a third child, and in particular demand evidence for an exception when the woman was raped. "Get tae wae yer rape clause," another placard demanded.

Mentioning "progressive alliance" to anyone in Scottish Labour is a somewhat sadistic enterprise, because it always gets the same result. The SNP, they point out between splutters of indignation, is not progressive but managerial. And as for an alliance - this is the party that is, door knock by door knock, attempting to obliterate them.

Yet while Labour will never consent to pax SNP, on the ground, truces are being made on particular causes. The "rape clause" is one of them. 

Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP leading the protest, told the crowd: "This isn't just about women in Scotland." Women in Northern Ireland, as several speakers noted, could find themselves in trouble if they hadn't previously reported the rape because of laws requiring them to disclose serious crimes. 

Later, Thewliss told me she had support in opposing the "rape clause" from Labour MPs like Jess Phillips and Sarah Champion, as well as Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. She hopes to continue to challenge the bill containing the legislation at committee stage.

But the rape clause protest has also provided a useful tool for opposing the Tories on both sides of the border. Scottish Labour activists are deeply cynical about the SNP's supposed emnity with the Tories, which they view as a pantomime designed to consolidate votes along pro and anti independence lines (Labour's more nuanced position has pleased neither voter camp). Under the charismatic Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives are expected to win big in the local elections in May.

When I asked Thewliss why she was targeting the Scottish Tory leader, who has no seat at Westminster, she replied: "She has constituents here as well who will be affected by this policy, I know who have communicated to her about this."

Dugdale, too, has gone on the attack. In the Daily Record, she praised Thewliss and accused Davidson of remaining silent on this "barbaric" issue. 

There was no doubting the strength of feeling against Davidson at the rally. One protestor, Maddy McCance, waved a sign declaring Davidson "a traitor to woman and weans" (the UK Prime Minister Theresa May occupied the other side of the card).

Herself one of ten children, McCance said she objected to the idea of limiting child tax credits to two children full stop.

She told me: "Every one of us grew up when the state [still] helped, got degrees and went to work, and put money back into the state. That's what we were brought up to do."

For the Scottish politics connoisseur, the rape clause rally still had echoes of a pro-independence event. The popular SNP MP Mhairi Black lamented to the crowd that she was "tired of the Scottish government having to put plasters over the holes of a government we never voted for". On a darker note, the language of "traitors" scribbled on some of the signs is often used against pro-union campaigners (of which Davidson is the best known). 

Then there's the fact that - as Labour veterans of the 1980s know - a day in power is worth years in opposition. Despite the rally, the legislation is likely to go ahead.

But for anyone bracing themselves for continued chaos in Labour and a decade of Tory rule, cross-party, cross-parliament support may be the only way practical way forward. Just so long as no one ever calls it a progressive alliance.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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