Comedy of Errors

True Brits

A couple of weeks on from the Diamond Jubilee I’m still not sure why it is supposed to have made me feel particularly proud to be British. I’m generally a patriotic sort of chap but the site of hordes of cheap (to produce, not buy) Chinese made plastic flags being held aloft by crowds outside Buckingham Palace didn’t increase this a bit.

I suppose I should say early on that intellectually I am a republican. By that I mean that when I sit down and think about it the idea that our head of state is selected by genetic caprice is logically indefensible. But does Churchill’s old observation about democracy, that it was the least bad option, apply to Britain’s monarchy? I look at the United States where the head of state is routinely despised by around half the population and find the affectionate indifference of most Brits towards Elizabeth Windsor infinitely preferable. I was a fan of the Irish set up until a cross between Che Guevara and old man Steptoe took up residence at Áras an Uachtaráin.

And then there are my fellow republicans. Basing their case on envy as opposed to aspiration and making it with bitterness rather than generosity they truly are the modern version of the “hard faced Cromwellian sourpusses” Alan Partridge spoke about. About 20% of Brits call themselves republicans, a number almost unchanged over the past few decades; decades which have seen traditional structures break down utterly in many other spheres of national life. For its failure to make any appreciable headway with such favourable tailwinds the republican campaign in Britain must go down as one of the most useless in our history.

But still I find no national pride in the monarchy. What makes me proud is the things the people of this great country have done and the people who did them. I feel pride when I see Brazilians and Indians playing games invented in Britain. I feel pride when I hear a record by David Bowie, The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones on a foreign radio. I feel pride that we gave the world Adam Smith and free market economics. I feel pride when I travel on a bridge built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. I feel pride when I think about the men who flew fighter planes over southern England in 1940. I feel pride whenever Hollywood adapts another novel by Dickens or Austen. I feel proud that so many countries have been inspired by our constitutional arrangements. I feel pride that the theory of evolution came from a Brit. I feel pride in every life saved based on the discovery of DNA by two British scientists.

And I felt pride a week after the Jubilee when I saw an Afghan theatre company perform a play by William Shakespeare. The Rah-e Sabz company was founded in 2005 by French director Corinne Jaber, coming together out of a series of workshops she had run with aspiring actors in Kabul. The actors were immediately attracted to Shakespeare and resolved to make Love’s Labour’s Lost their first production. With no translation of the play in their native language, Dari, the actors work shopped their own, and when the play was premiered in Kabul and toured Afghanistan it was a success.

The production of The Comedy of Errors which I saw before Rah-e Sabz left to tour it round India was a joy. Performed entirely in Dari, captions explaining the action were projected on to a screen. But they were barely needed such was the expressive, jubilant physicality of the performers. With sparse staging they brought alive the setting of the bazaars of Kabul, helped by some wonderful Afghan music played live. Standout performers were Shah Mamnoon Maqsudi, dragging it up brilliantly as Kukeb (the production’s Afghan name for Luce), and Farzana Soltani as a Courtesan who could have come straight out of a modern British tabloid sex scandal.

The infectious joie de vivre was all the more remarkable knowing the company’s background. Thanks to the medievally minded morons of the Taliban, Afghanistan is a dangerous place for performers. Last year Rah-e Sabz missed an attack on the compound where they were rehearsing which killed 12 people only thanks to a last minute change of schedule. One of the company’s female members came home one day to find her husband murdered as a punishment for her acting.

People from half a world and an entire culture away were united during the performance of a story by a long dead Englishman; “tickle us, do we not laugh?” as he might have said. These enormously talented and brave people had risked their lives to perform the plays of the Englishman William Shakespeare. Those Afghans made me proud to be British.

This article originally appeared at Middlebrow Magazine


It’s a No to AV from me please Bob

I’ve found it quite hard to get too excited about this vote. Both sides have made some ridiculous claims. The Yes camp say that the Conservative leadership elections and X Factor use AV. They don’t. The No camp say that the vote is costing alot of money, an argument which could just as well be used to get rid of elections full stop.

That said I’ll be voting No. I started to make my mind up when I heard a debate on the radio between John Reid (No) and some guy for the Yes camp. Reid made quite a worthy defence of the No position, one person one vote and all that, and the Yes guy just responded by being rude to him. As time has gone on I’ve been struck by how much of the Yes campaign has been about complaining about the No campaign (the idiotic Huhne has been the worst, but then he’s less interested in the AV campaign than the next Lib Dem leadership campaign). They haven’t offered anyone much of a reason to say Yes.

Then there is the fact that I don’t relish the idea of having the Lib Dems in power forever and giving their leader the ability to pick the Prime Minister every four or five years.

On top of that I am quite wedded to the idea of one person one vote and despite what the Yes campaign have been saying, that will end with AV. If you vote Labour in a strong Labour constituency your vote is not counted again. If you vote UKIP, however, and they finish bottom your second vote, perhaps for the Conservatives, will be counted again. Thus, your vote for UKIP and the Conservatives gets counted. If you vote Labour only your Labour vote does.

The fate of smaller parties has been a focus of both Yes and No camps. The No camp say we don’t want extremists votes deciding things, a very weak argument as the vote of an extremist is worth just as much as anyone else’s. The Yes campaign say that their system will allow smaller parties to flourish and, hence, offer more choice.

But voters already have choice. In Kensington and Chelsea, one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, voters had a choice last May of Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, UKIP, Alliance for Green Socialism and an Independent. Proponents of a Yes vote argue that AV will make it more likely that one of these other, smaller parties would win and that the current system gives them no chance.

But they can win. What they have to do is get out, work hard, and convince enough of their fellow constituents that they should have their vote. Sounds impossible? Tell that to Caroline Lucas. Tell it to the Labour party, founded in 1900 and in government inside of three decades. ‘Ah but’, its been said to me, ‘Labour had the power of the trade unions behind them’. Indeed they did. And perhaps the lack of any similar manifestation of support for, say, the Alliance for Green Socialism, shows that it is their unpopular ideology and not the voting system that ought to be their most pressing concern.

The Yes campaign argue that under FPTP the people in Kensington and Chelsea who voted for any one of the six losers will not be represented. This is rather a strange argument given that AV does not propose to award the constituency of Kensington and Chelsea seven seats in the House of Commons so there will always be at least one loser and, by extension, some voters who are not represented.

AV, in short, kicks away a keystone of British democracy in one person one vote and replaces it with something which doesn’t remedy the failings even its supporters diagnose with the current system. That’s why, on Thursday, it’ll be a No from me.