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Stop moaning about Europe – Brexit is the least of our troubles

In a corrupt, divided UK, there are plenty of problems down the line whether we leave or remain.

A recent headline in the Times left me reeling at the speed at which the world has changed: “The moaners mustn’t be allowed a second vote”. But surely moaning was the essence of wanting to leave the EU?

In discussions about the Brexit vote, much of the attention has been focused on a mass revolt by the English working class. This was crucial, undoubtedly, but for me the sinking feeling I had while watching the early results came from staring at the map. I just knew that a swath of Middle England, from Somerset to Suffolk – that diehard Conservative territory – was about to turn on its master. For the first time in a generation, those places had a proper Tory prime minister, and now they were going to destroy him.

For anyone feeling even faintly disaffected with a careless and mean-spirited government, the opportunity that the referendum provided to give David Cameron and George Osborne a free kick in the head was almost too good to be true. Yet the Tories’ betrayal of themselves probably needs more explanation.

I shiver even to raise this, because I feel so dangerously close to these people in terms of my identity. I am never happier than when I’m wandering around a National Trust pile, admiring a luxuriant yet ordered garden from behind mullioned windows, contemplating coffee-and-walnut cake, humming a little Elgar under my breath and thinking about how tremendously brave our lads were in the Boer War. But what saves me is that I know this has nothing much to do with foreign policy or economic choices: that, ultimately, all that coffee-and-walnut cake has to come out somewhere.

The moaning at the heart of the Leave argument has gone on as long as anyone can remember. John Major was driven mad by various peculiar Tory MPs who made no sense and had the horrible air of those who wear monogrammed underwear and have a special room in which they listen only to Wagner. Incredibly, these people are still around. Michael Gove was correct, though, when he talked about British voters having had enough of “experts”: in effect, those wanting to leave the EU had almost no intellectual base of any kind beyond the utterings of iguanodons such as Bill Cash and Patrick Minford. The vote has not caused some intellectual leviathan to burst to the surface and transform the country. Instead, all we have is the unremitting moaniness of a deeply silly, coddled and evasive English middle class.

I keep having a nightmarish vision of a Union Jack-themed dinner party in Cromer, at which middle-aged couples, chewing local produce, stare across the table at each other, saying things like: “Tim, we’ve finally got our country back.” Yet what shape should that country, no longer strangled by the tentacles of Brussels, take? The moaning has gone on so long, it is no longer clear what it has to do with the EU. Besides, deep down, these people know that each time they said “Pole”, they actually meant “Somali”.

The only vision of the future described so far is one that frees up “the lion to roar once more”. But it is hard to see where and at what greater volume this could happen. Britons can be found all over the world – bribing Saudis, filling the Gulf of Mexico with spilled oil, grovelling to the Chinese, building London homes for Russian criminals. Modern Britain already acts on the widest stage. This is the heart of Middle England’s problem.

Taking a walk across London the other day, I was struck by how many businesses there were, lodged in posh streets, filled with nicely brought-up yet slimy young middle-class English men and women who supply yachts, financial “advice”, ugly art and discreet homes for a global clientele untrammelled by the EU or, indeed, by almost any legal framework. When the Mafia expert Roberto Saviano stated in May that Britain was “the most corrupt country in the world”, I initially felt a bit affronted, but walking west from the Strand to Park Lane proves how much Middle England has been behaving like some diseased Jeeves.

The tragedy lies in the way so many middle-class Leavers know this to be true. There can be hardly a village in the Cotswolds or Sussex that does not have that big house with extensive grounds and security gates yet absent owners. The post-Cold War world has reconfigured the nicer bits of southern England so they are now honeycombed with fairly straightforward criminality. The unfortunate revelation in the Panama Papers that Cameron’s father used entirely legal (if entirely contemptible) measures to shield his investments from tax shows that those stables, nice schools and foreign holidays of even the old elite were, in effect, being paid for by starving the NHS of funds, denying our troops proper vehicles, closing libraries – take your pick.

The problem that faces Britain as a result of Cameron’s staggering incompetence is that, whatever the result of leaving the EU, it cannot change any of the things that many people feel uneasy about. Everyone is right to moan – but not about the EU in particular. The UK is now wobbling all over the place, spurred on by an intellectually feeble movement that has no idea what it wants, one that has hardly any respect in parliament, or the City, or Nato, or in scientific or academic life, or among any of our allies or trading partners, anywhere in the world.

Putting out the hand of friendship, I think that, whether we leave or remain, we will soon have plenty of new things to moan about.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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