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Saturday 25 November 2023

BRITISH POLITICS IS A SOAP OPERA (AND A RUBBISH ONE AT THAT)

The return of Call-Me-Dave Cameron has proved something. British politics really is like a soap opera which knows it only has causal viewers, so it can get away with recycling plotlines. The old villains can even come back with fanfare. Cameron is the Nick Cotton of parliament.

Anyone remember the mid Nineties much? Hard to think of it now really, but back then a well-and-truly scuppered Tory government was busily trying to pretend its days were un-numbered. While an incoming Labour administration, looking forward to a thumping majority, was assuring the nervous that to avoid inconvenience they didn’t actually intend changing anything.

Watching this all over again, it’s amusing to hear once more that this approach is pragmatic and statesmanlike. Of course a political party wants to win, and win with a working majority. Guys, this news has reached us thanks. Ever thought about what you might want this majority for? 

But party machines don’t actually work like that. In the same way the rich can never think of themselves as rich enough, they’re fixated on vote maximalisation. And in what’s essentially a two-party system, that means Labour taking votes from the Tories. By any means. Those other voters, already signed up with you, they’ve no other home to go to after all. So it hardly matters if they complain about the d├ęcor.

While the Tories didn’t counter by becoming more centrist, but by what they called “clear blue water”, by tacking further to the right. At least initially, this was electoral stupidity. But they were bounced into it, a prisoner of their ever-narrowing base. Like a constantly stumbling drunk, they’d then pretend they were intentionally acting that way. Then Labour, still guided to follow them by spreadsheet wonks, continued to step right after them. They carried on shadowing the Tories even when in power.

This doesn’t mean the parties become identical. In fact that notion obscures what happens. Instead the small and trivial differences between the two become everyone’s focus, become what politics was. ‘Responsible’ and ‘mainstream’ politics, at any rate. In political trainspotter speak, this is called the shrinking of the Overton window. Which is already too narrow to fire an arrow through, and shrinking daily.

Further, public anger with the Tories was not to do with their policies but individual cases of corruption and ineptitude. Which to be fair, there was an abundant supply of. But it allows them to be depicted as being at odds with our free and fair democratic system, with no thought given as to exactly how they were able to get away with being so at odds for so long.

And it overlooks that things like (to choose a more recent case) the crony contracts given out over Covid are what free market politics look like, and will always look like, when actually applied. And it means that the Tories can kick a few wrong ‘uns offstage, bring forward a few unknown backbenchers and be back in business. Sunak initially had a mini-bounce for precisely this reason, though without it happening across the board it didn’t (and couldn’t) last.

But the Tories coming back out the wilderness, of course that took a while to happen.

It won’t this time.

Smarter Blairites soon gave up trying to defend the Iraq war. It being, you know, indefensible. Instead they chalked it up as a one-off, a unique situation unlikely to recur. And grossly simplified and distorted history by making out that criticisms of the Blair years were solely down to that debacle. In fact Labour even went on to win the next election, their majority reduced but still workable. Nevertheless the Gulf War was like a lightning rod, galvanising opposition.

Whereas Starmer is having his Gulf War moment right now, over Gaza. Before he even gets to meet the Downing Street cat. The still-further-right Tories, with Braverman The Barmy or someone interchangeably fanatical at the helm, will return the sooner and Labour will then shift to shadow them. (“Yes we support the chopping the arms off for anyone caught attending a demonstration, to stop them holding any more troublesome placards. But this new policy of them losing their legs too… oh alright then, off with the legs as well.”) That thing which worked so terribly last time, let’s do it all again.

So we’re screwed, right?

Possibly, yes. But there’s also a slower and more seismic shift going on. Both parties are busily chasing one narrow demographic, which will most likely not be here in a few years. And you can tell how significant it is by the way they’re both ignoring it.

Tories are losing the youth vote, to a magnified degree, with signs they’re now failing to gain the Fortysomethings. To adapt an old Sixties phrase, the young get old, but they don’t go Tory. You can see how this has happened. Their generation crept rightwards over time, so they assume this is some universal law at work, people growing up and getting sensible. The fact that their generation had economic inducements to do so (you know, property, savings, stuff like that) eludes them.

And when they don’t just expect voters to turn their way, their main tactic is to make it harder for youth to vote. Voter ID was largely seen as creating obstacles against the poorer voter, but that overlaps with the younger voter quite considerably.

The classic case would be immigration. The Tories always act as though this is their populist trick, a scare-word which needs only to be mentioned (“smaaaaal booooats, whoooooo!!!”), and the fear-stricken will flock to them. Whereas the majority now have positive views on immigration.

(It was rarely mentioned that, while Corbyn was quite popular among the youth, his policies read a different way to them. To my generation they meant a return to the social democracy of the Seventies. But that was a world the youth had no experience of. To them it was something excitingly new.)

But by also ignoring this vote Labour risk being in turn ignored by them. They lose the Youth wall. Which could turn to a rise in support for a smaller parties, or a general disenchantment with Parliamentary politics. Politicians are just people who ignore you, so just ignore them. The vote becomes something like landlines, perhaps it had once a purpose for those oldies but no more, not for us.

Could this take us to to a more autonomous, ground-level style of politics? Which mainstream politicians are stuck with being responsive to. We act, then they are forced to answer. Possibly.

But it could also take the form of an internet-generated activism. This doesn’t necessarily mean mere clicktivism. Things already look too much like a series of single-issue campaigns which come in waves, each replacing the last. We’ve already seen some of this. Black Lives Matter gets replaced by Me Too, which is replaced by pro-Palestine, and so on. Everyone updating their forever-provisional social media bios in order to keep up. Nothing is ever built on, ever consolidated. Which may not be in a dynamic with mainstream politics, but still is with the news cycle.

Anyway, apologies to Nick Cotton for comparing him to David Cameron. I now promise to shut up about politics. For a bit, anyway.

Saturday 18 November 2023

ON GAZA (OR WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT COLONIALISM)

On a recent ‘Question Time’, seeking to defend the military targeting of hospitals in Gaza, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg ensured he repeatedly referred to Israel “the Jewish state”.

The ploy may seem obvious enough. In Europe we’re used to associating Jewishness with victimhood, so pressing that button might bounce us into the assumption “the Jewish state” must be the victim again.

As we seem to keep being asked, opposition to the bombing of Gaza has nothing to do with anti-semitism. But in itself that’s insufficient. It also needs to be said that the bombing of Gaza has nothing to do with Jewishness. Because the insinuation is also misdirection.

Let’s creep on this sideways…

Conspiracy theorist crank David Icke, when seeking to slip (much deserved) accusations of anti-semitism, came up with a novel defence - he can’t be anti-Jewish because there’s no such thing to be against. What we call ‘Jewish’ is just a polyglot agglomeration of people, an arbitrarily defined category.

And, at least insofar as that goes, he’s right. Except the thing he isn’t telling you is that the same applies to every other racial group.

As more and more scientific evidence has been gathered, it has pointed to the fact that racial distinctions have no basis in biology. It’s not even that there’s no significant distinctions between races, there’s not even any meaningful distinctions.

Race is, and always has been, a social and political construct. The racial categories we’re lumbered with today were largely devised in the era of colonialism, and precisely to justify colonialism, to legitimise one group of people colonising another. Most people seem to imagine something like the slave trade was a product of racism. Whereas it was the other way around, it was its existence which made racism necessary. Race, as it’s commonly thought of, was an invention of racists in order to be racist.

Does any of that let Icke off the hook? Nope. What he says is true, but that’s somewhat over-ruled by it being irrelevant. By comparison, national borders are political constructs. They don’t exist in nature, infrastructure has to be built to enable them. But realising this isn’t the same thing as denying it. Try explaining this as a means to get into another country, you’ll find passports work better. Those barriers and border cops may have been built, but that doesn’t stop them stopping you. Built things are still things.

Take Icke’s argument to its natural conclusion and the Holocaust is suddenly no longer a problem, because the Nazis may have thought they were murdering Jewish people in the millions, but they weren’t really, were they? If anyone thinks this, I hope I never meet them.

But it does point to a vital way in which racism works in actuality. Racism professes to be a ‘common sense’ doctrine, dealing with immutable facts. Racists sometimes adopt the name “race realists”, playing this up. Whereas in practise it can be bent whichever way you twist it, so it becomes an ever-shifting product of alliances being forged and breaking down. This combination is precisely what makes it useful.

Similarly, what groups do and don’t get included in ‘whiteness’ has varied greatly over time. As colonisers of Ireland, the Victorians were near-obsessed with the notion that the native folk were really black, even if they unsportingly refused to sport black skin. Yet the Irish who emigrated to America were often employed as cops, in order to keep the still-less-white Southern and Eastern European immigrants down.

And so on Armistice Day the far right chanted at the Police “you’re not English any more”. They see ‘Englishness’, by which of course they mean whiteness, as their natural birthright. They imagine others are inherently jealous of this, and so scheme to undermine it. But it’s there inscribed on you, literally, like a genetic family heirloom. Yet when it suits them, ‘Englishness’ suddenly becomes a political alignment, which some will betray and so lose. The Police are English because they’re predominantly white. But they also stopbeing ‘English’ as soon as they bar the far right’s way.

As well as rallying that mob, far-right thug Tommy Robinson has also attended more orthodox pro-Israel marches. In fact, most of the British far right have now turned to embrace Israel. Because it fights against ‘the Muslims’, their current hate group of choice. And they imagine that by associating themselves so readily with Jews this lets them off the Holocaust hook. Which of course means the ‘real Jews’, not those not-Jews but the most far right elements of Jewish society.

And this works more broadly. It would have been hard to not to hear that mantra phrase, so trotted out by British politicians of both main parties in defence of each successive atrocity - “Israel has the right to defend itself.” Ask not whether the Palestinians have a similar right, you’d be met by an outpouring of manufactured outrage.

Which might seem a little backwards, when it is after all Palestine which is the one being occupied. But that is precisely why this has to be so insisted on. Palestinian actions are inherently tainted, not to be trusted. What might look like hospitals, refugee camps or even UN relief workers to the innocent might turn at any moment into terrorist cells. While Israeli actions are inherently defensive, carried out reluctantly, any civilian casualties held to hang on their noble souls.

And that's because Palestinian existence is seen as inherently problematic. This is classic colonialism. They must be subjugated, expelled or removed, because while we have decided their lands should be ours the awkward buggers aren’t playing along. They’re the natives, the Aboriginals, the Native Americans.

And this is Rees-Mogg’s trick. The “Jewish state” angle has to be stressed precisely because Israel doesn’t represent “the Jews” any longer but the whites, the West, the civilised world… it doesn’t matter which term you use, they’re all polite euphemisms for colonisers. And at the same time the violations of international law are obvious and clear-cut, all the old colonial powers have allied with them in this. As have the media, from the far-right shock jocks to the liberal ‘centrists’.

Plus, those of us minded to oppose war crimes soon found we were subject to the same framing. We’d chant “we are all Palestinian”, and they were happy to take us up on it. Like the cops with the far right, in their eyes we have chosen to not be English any more, we have chosen to side with the enemy. So our demonstrations are held to be inherently problematic and threatening, never framed in terms of their demands but their potential for trouble. I think we can assume hours have been sacrificed raking over demo footage for angles, with next to no results. And yet the eye of suspicion still hovers over us.

With nothing more concrete, this often takes the form of mere insinuation, the claim some might feel intimidated by our protests. And somehow not by pro-Israel rallies. Or Conservative Party conferences. Or pretty much anything else really.

In short, Israel isn’t colonising a weaker neighbour because it’s a Jewish state, but because it’s a state. It’s acting the way colonial states have always acted. Don’t let liars and apologists such as Rees-Mogg red-herring you.

Saturday 11 November 2023

‘THE WHEEL IN SPACE’ (PATRICK TROUGHTON’S DOCTOR WHO)

First broadcast: Apr/June ’68
Written by David Whitaker
(From a story by Kit Pedlar)



“Everything’s so… dead, isn’t it?”
-Jamie


Sticking To The Plan

“Our plans are anticipated,” complain the Cybermen. And you can see how that might have happened. In fact, you picture the pitch meeting as going something like…

“Well, Dr. Pedlar, thats a good idea. But an Antarctic base being infiltrated by the Cybermen, with an international crew who initially distrust the Doctor then come to work with him… it does seem rather familiar.

“Do you think? Okay, let’s say it’s not an Antarctic base. Instead, let’s set it on… the moon!” 

“There was that one called… uh… what was it now... ’The Moonbase’.”

“So there was. Okay, then let’s really think outside the box this time. How about… a space station!”

“Capital! Six episodes, first draft by end of the month. Oh, and write the Doctor out of the second one. Patrick’s after another holiday.”

…and by serving up just the formula, like something assembled from kit parts by a committee, this loses almost everything which made the earlier Cyber-stories appealing. From ’Tenth Planet’ to ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’, each had built chronologically on the one before. The Cybermen pimp up both their plans and their design, and try again. Significantly, though this story is surely set later in the same chronology, no-one on the Wheel has even heard of the silver darlings.

Worse, the Cybermen had always stood for something. True, this could change completely from one story to the next. But in a way that kept things fresh. This time they’re a merely generic menace, aiming to invade the Earth because that’s the sort of thing they’d do. They most resemble the sneaky scheming Cybermen of ’The Moonbase’. But there’s little connection.

Let’s face it, this story’s no good. But that’s not the problem with it. In truth ’Doctor Who’ was frequently no good, even if our rose-tinted memories shy from saying it. The problem with it is that it’s not mad. And it is the business of ’Doctor Who’ to be mad.

You couldn’t claim ‘Web Planet’ or ‘The Space Museum’ as any good. But, to pick up on a phrase used when we looked at them, there was a deranged imagination at work. The brief was to fill a half-hour hole in the schedule, watchable enough for viewers to keep paying their license fee, while sticking to the budget. And from that they came up with ’The Web Planet’. It’s the sort of left-field, out-there thing the show’s chief character would have made, if tempted from his travels and enlisted to programme TV shows.


The Hartnell era had effectively been the antithesis of formula. More because no-one had hammered one out yet than out of any kind of principle, but it remained the case regardless. Even when Hartnell was dull, as it often was, it wasn’t formulaic. If anything it had the opposite problem, it was hard to credit this wildly varying material was all part of the same series even if it had the same actors in it calling each other the same names. It flew without a safety net, leaving you obliged to accept falls.

But Troughton marked the time when formula came in, which proved tighter bonds than any captor foe. And from then that tension would never really go away, between going wilfully mad and voluntarily donning a straight-jacket.

Though this is true, it does need qualifying. It may be that the show required some sort of formula, if it was to have any kind of longevity. And it should be said there are stories aplenty which are ‘formula-plus’, which follow the formula but manage to go mad anyway, such as ‘The Macra Terror’. But then there are also stories like this. We’ve gone from flying without a safety net to six episodes of being tangled up in one.

True, there are flickers still of that deranged invention. And not a whole lot of citation seems required to attribute them to David Whitaker. The pod things the Cybermen first burst from are entirely unexplained and equally memorable. Jamie’s sabotage… well, getting him accused of being a saboteur would seem enough. Instead there’s reference to a Back to Earth campaign. (Whose slogan is what? ‘Just Stop Space’ or ’Leave Means Leave’?)

Had it been up to me, I’d have set the Wheel spinning in tension before the Cybermen arrive to exploit this, a relief ship delayed by months because of reasons. Instead of a couple taking six episodes to get together, have them already split up but with one unable to move out given the circumstances.

As it is, the lack of anything resembling drama becomes a drawback. There’s corridors aplenty, but instead of running through them there’s just sort of hanging around. On the other hand, the wilful avoidance of jump scares, and their replacement by an inexorable inevitability, is a rare strength. Most evident in the moment when the Doctor finally faces off the Cybermen. He turns around to find them already in the room, and calmly states “I imagine you have orders to destroy me.”


Some say the problem is is Pedlar’s science fiction approach clashing with Whitaker’s more classic-’Who’ sense of telling a story through symbols. They may be onto something. But this means that the absurd ignorance of science, for a story set on a space station, is often given as an ancillary weakness.

Certainly its there. Distance in space is measured in miles, even though space has rather a lot of those. The Cybermen (somehow) cause a sun to go nova, which is (somehow) near enough to affect the Wheel straight away. Which is does by “deflecting” meteorites at it, though they can handily be shot out of the not-air. (You suspect this is just a relabelling of the debris which would be caused by an earth explosion.) 

But rather than weakness this is a strength, adding to the quirky charm. Of course Whitaker’s not purposefully getting it wrong, he’s just not bothering to look that stuff up. But that tells you where his interests lie. It encourages us to see everything not literally but in terms of symbols, as he intends.

Meet The Cast

Whitaker has said his chief goal was to humanise the characters. He does make Gemma (the slightly more competent deputy) likeable. But the only one you could claim as characterised is Zoe. Who is clearly being signposted as the next companion. We see the others at work in the Operations room before the end of the first episode. Then we’re not told about her until the second, before finally meeting her. And she seems semi-removed from the immediate story, mostly hanging out with Jamie, barely encountering the Cybermen. (That widely reproduced shot of them menacing her is a publicity photo, not a still.)


As Pinocchio was a puppet who wanted to be a boy, this maths prodigy is like the calculator who’d sooner be a girl. In a story where the antagonist is essentially killer robots, she’s told she’s “just like a robot… all brains and no heart.” Causing her to reflect “but I want to feel things as well.”

(Fun fact! Originally ‘computer’ was not a machine but a job, for calculations which then needed to be made manually. Tedious work, it was often assigned to women. Though more often found working in teams, like typing pools, than a single teenager. ’Wheel’ seems to assume that in a space-age future there’ll be more need for this sort of work, with some even bred for it.)

Her precocious nature, manifested as a tendency to reel off facts and numbers on any pretext, is shown to be annoying to the other crew. Which makes you wonder if Zoe’s more popular than the later Adric simply because fans are more likely to fancy Wendy Padbury than Matthew Waterhouse. Nevertheless, in order to see more of life than log books she stows away on the Tardis. An improvement on the adopted waifs that were Vikki and Victoria.

It wasn’t great scheduling for this to come out after the already un-good ’Fury From the Deep’. It’s not just worse, it’s worse in all the same ways. If only Troughton’s second season could have ended on the high of 'Web of Fear’. But it never seems to work that way...