Tag Archives: david cameron

Brexit: It’s time to accept reality and fight for a progressive future outside the EU

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In Campaigners react to the referendum results. Photo: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

It’s done and dusted. The Great British public has spoken, and they have voted—narrowly—to leave the European Union. This is the greatest political upheaval of my lifetime, and probably yours, too. To say we’re in uncharted waters is an understatement; no country has ever left the EU, and there is no map showing where Britain goes from here. The pound has already tumbled to its lowest value since 1985, the biggest fall since Black Wednesday in 1992. David Cameron’s career is unlikely to survive the morning, meaning the country will probably be without a Prime Minister in mere hours. Sinn Fein is already calling for reunification, and the SNP are pushing for another Scottish referendum.

For these reasons, and many more, we should all be nervous. But now is not the time to give into fear or bitterness. Europhiles, particularly Remain campaigners, are understandably heartbroken right now. There has been a lot of tears, a lot of anger, and a lot of disgust at Leave voters on social media. As someone who supported Britain remaining in the EU, I completely agree. It’s devastating. But in the words of Jo Cox, we really do have more in common. There is far more that unites us than divides us.

The In campaign needs to remember this now more than ever. Regardless of why people voted for Brexit—and there were legitimate reasons and concerns—the fact is the Leave campaign has been dominated by xenophobia, racism, and isolationism. Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have set the parameters of the debate surrounding Britain’s vote. They cannot be allowed to dictate Britain’s withdraw.

It’s time for the In campaign to lick its wounds, pick itself up, and get to the new task at hand: making sure that the brave new world we now occupy is not one dominated by bigotry and fearmongering. It is time for us to look not at the past, but at the future. Britain has left the European Union. There is no going back. For the sake of the most vulnerable—the workers who could lose rights the EU has guaranteed, the sick who depend on an NHS free at the point of access, the immigrants who now feel ostracised and unsafe—we cannot throw our hands up and say “you reap what you sow.” It’s time to shift the fight from keeping Britain in the EU to making sure its exit produces a fair and just society.

Part of this is accepting that the majority of voters who voted for Brexit are good and decent people. Yes, the Leave campaign has been horrible, but most Leave voters aren’t. I firmly believe in the goodness of the British people. They are fair-minded, compassionate, and wise. One vote does not define a nation.

We have to ask why working class voters opted to Leave, listen to their gripes and concerns, and directly address them. The Remain camp spent far too much of this campaign dismissing their fears instead of presenting the case for how the EU could alleviate them. We can’t do that anymore. We have to listen. We must act.

Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson won tonight, but they do not have to win in the end. Wallowing in self-pity or vitriol is not only counterproductive, but it is a betrayal of the principles so many of us campaigned for over the past few weeks. It is more vital than ever before that we present a progressive, positive alternative to the reactionary, negative politics of Farage. Indeed, UKIP exists for the sole purpose of securing Britain’s withdraw from the EU. Their raison d’être accomplished, those of us in the centre and on the left must now make sure they disappear from power across the country and cease to influence the political discourse.

Britain is great. It was great before the European Union. It was great in the European Union. It can be great outside of the European Union, if only we fight to secure a fair, compassionate future. The worst of Britain may have campaigned to leave, but now is the time for the best of Britain to lead its exit.

So cry your eyes out. Maybe get rip-roaring drunk. Punch a wall if you must. But then, tomorrow, wake up, wipe away your tears, take an aspirin, and ice your first. There’s work to be done, a future to shape, and a country to lead.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is journalist and cultural critic who writes about British politics and LGBT rights. His work has appeared at Salon, The Daily Dot, The Advocate, Pink News, and elsewhere. He founded The Curious American in 2013. He lives in Chicago.

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I’m a Brexiter at heart. Vote Remain.

I hate the European Union. It is a bloated corporatist quango run by technocrats none of us have ever heard of who seem to have an utter contempt for the British people and, well, democracy. EU leaders seem committed to further integration and a United States of Europe, except without the republican values of the United States of America. The Eurozone is floundering, the Schengen border area is broken, and—rightly or wrongly—the British people are fed up with the free flow of European migrants into the UK, unable to control who comes into the country or adopt what many, myself included, feel is a fairer immigration system.

As an American, I don’t have a vote in tomorrow’s referendum. As someone trying to immigrate to the UK from outside the EU, a Brexit would, ostensibly, be in my best interests. As a Eurosceptic, I believe it could also be in Britain’s best interests. But if I did have a vote tomorrow, I would vote for Britain to remain in the European Union.

I would vote Remain not out of some love for the European project, or some starry-eyed internationalism. I would vote Remain because the Leave campaign has not done a successful job of demonstrating just what a Britain outside the EU would look like, how it would cope and succeed.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly think Britain could be not only fine, but prosperous, outside the European Union. But “could” does not mean “will”. The Leave campaign likes to say that anyone voting Remain denigrates Britain, that they don’t believe in or trust the ingenuity and tenacity of the British people. Bollocks. I have no doubts Britain could succeed outside the EU. But no country can succeed without a plan, and nobody in the Leave campaign has been able to articulate one short of “everything the experts tell you is a lie.”

Was President Obama lying, when he warned Britain will go to the back of the queue for trade deals. UKIP’s Diane James, on last night’s BBC Debate, said she didn’t care what Obama thought, but wanted to know what Clinton and Trump think. Clinton also supports the In campaign, while Trump is for Brexit, which speaks volumes about the tone and tenor of this referendum. And what about with the EU itself? Is Angela Merkel lying when she says that Britain “will never get a really good result in negotiations?”

The EU could make an example out of Britain for fear that treating it too kindly post-Brexit could inspire other nations to go their own way. And maybe that would be okay, if only someone in the Leave campaign could articulate exactly how they plan on handling that and preventing total economic catastrophe. But they haven’t. Instead of policy, the Leave campaign has offered platitudes about how great the British people are (and you are, you really are) and how everything will be a-okay because we will it to be (it won’t, it really won’t).  When both the Bank of England and the TUC are warning that Brexit will depress wages and probably lead to recession, we should listen.

Instead Michael Gove compares them to Nazi scientists. This is one of the Leave campaigns favourite motifs, the EU as Hitler’s heir. It’s almost laughably ironic, considering how overtly and covertly racist the Leave campaign has been. The bulk of the Leave campaign has focused on xenophobic rhetoric about European migrants coming to steal British jobs and take British homes and depress British wages. This entire campaign has been made about immigration, and it has been framed in the most disgustingly racist way possible. Like Johnson’s comments about America’s “part-Kenyan” president, or Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. It’s the anti-Muslim retweets of the Leave campaign, the dehumanising language used to describe refugees. I can’t co-sign on any of this.

If another referendum were to present itself, one not premised on far-right racism and jingoistic fervour, perhaps I’d go another way. And maybe, someday, it will. But David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Ruth Davidson, and Sadiq Kahn have all said, which is that Brexit is a one-way ticket. Once the UK leaves, there is no going back to the European Union. At least not without adopting Schengen and the Euro, which most of agree is no in Britain’s national interest. Britain could always vote to leave in another 40 years, but it can’t come back on such cushy terms.

There are a myriad of other issues at play here too, issues I’ve not touched on but have swayed my hypothetical vote. What happens to the border in Northern Ireland? Will the SNP demand—and get—another referendum? How will we protect the hard-won rights the EU and ancillary bodies have guaranteed? These all need to be answered, and the Leave campaign hasn’t.

I’m not prepared to gamble with the livelihoods of the British people or the stability of the country out of some nationalistic desire to reclaim sovereignty. I desperately want Britain to Leave the EU, but the Leave campaign hasn’t presented a viable alternative. You don’t leave home without knowing where you’re going, and Britain shouldn’t leave the EU without knowing what it’s going to do next.

Instead of presenting a cogent, coherent exit strategy, the Leave campaign played to the basest instincts of the electorate and stirred up a jingoistic, xenophobic atmosphere. Because of this, I don’t know what Britain would look like outside the European Union, but I can’t honestly say I think it’s a Britain I would like. So, reluctantly, I ask you to vote Remain.

(Sorry, Alex.)

I’m more concerned with why people vandalised a war memorial than the fact they did

Protesters vandalised the Women of World War II Monument in London on Saturday. Photo: The Independent

Protesters vandalised the Women of World War II Monument in London on Saturday. Photo: The Independent

Nuance is dead. The internet killed it this weekend, bludgeoned it in the head. Then, just to make sure the job was done, we all kept kicking the corpse. Some of us still are.

I am, of course, talking about what happened this weekend. Several hundred (or thousand, depending whom you ask) protestors marched through the capital, starting at Conservative Campaign Headquarters and weaving their way throughout central London. “Tories out!” they shouted, protesting the recently elected Conservative majority and, of course, further austerity cuts promised in the party’s manifesto. “Undemocratic riots” were the words bandied about by Tory supporters on my Twitter feed, in what I can only describe as a complete failing to understand democracy (because the people’s right to assemble and protest government policies is a basic democratic principle) or riots (because it hardly classifies as such, especially compared to 2011 or, you know, Baltimore circa last month). “How dare these people protest a popularly elected government” which received less than 40% of the vote, they huffed. In all, 17 people were arrested, only three more than were arrested at an English Defence League march through Walthamstow the same day, which curiously wasn’t deemed a riot and has barely been mentioned in the national press.

The real controversy, though, surrounds one particular act of civil disobedience. The Monument to the Women of World War II was vandalised, with someone scrawling “Tory Scum” in red paint. Laurie Penny, a contributing editor at the New Statesman and prominent left-wing voice, was unfazed:

Which immediately created a predictable, if unfortunate, shitstorm. Ms Penny was subsequently subjected to days of abuse from people on Twitter, the tabloid press, and that perennial gadfly of the right, Katie Hopkins, who suggested she be made “a woman of ISIS”. What she—a living breathing woman made of flesh and bones and feelings—has been subjected to by “the right” is far worse than what that memorial—made of stone and steel and entirely inanimate—suffered.

But this doesn’t mean I’m sat here condoning vandalising a war memorial. Far from it, as I said Saturday night, echoing Conor Pope of Labour List:

I did – and do – have a problem with what happened. On the same night someone graffitied the memories of our war heroes, I was buying a round for three British soldiers recently returned home. My brother only last month returned from serving in Afghanistan, and before that Iraq. My sister is a veteran. My brother-in-law is still an active duty soldier. My father was a US marine. My great-grandfather served admirably in World War II. I grew up a mile from a United States Air Force Base, where many of my friends’ parents served. I sit on the state board of directors for a veteran’s charity. The military, whether in the US or the UK, is very important to me, as are the sacrifices our brave women and men have made for the countries I love. Vandalising a war memorial is abhorrent, and I can’t believe I have to even say I stand against it, because of course I do.

However, I also stand against austerity. And this is a point I tried to make to Mr Pope. On Monday, he criticised the author and World War II veteran Harry Leslie Smith for the following tweet:

To which Mr Pope had to say this:

Of course, this isn’t what Mr Smith was saying at all. He was trying to bring a bit of perspective, offering – wait for it – nuance to what had, to this point, been widely reported in terms of black and white. You’re either with the vandals who defaced the memory of war heroes or you’re against it. Clearly, from Mr Pope’s tweet, even the moderate wing of the Labour Party was buying into this rhetoric.

But it simply isn’t true, as an exchange between myself, Mr Smith and Mr Pope (amongst others) demonstrates. It’s not enough to simply decry the action of a vandal. We must ask ourselves why. Why would someone desecrate a monument dedicated to the memory of women who fought for our freedoms? Why would hundreds, maybe thousands, of people take to the streets a mere 48 hours after an election? What has so disheartened the public to embolden them to such acts?

Maybe it’s best summed up in a sign that appeared in one Camden Town pub:

Or maybe it’s that the working class are being squeezed out of affordable housing. Or that cuts to benefits and the bedroom tax are starving the poor. Or that under-25s still can’t find a job, as youth unemployment remains 3 times as high as the national average.

Explaining behaviour does not excuse behaviour. What Ms Penny, Mr Smith, and I have tried to do is point out that people are hurting. They’re disaffected, disheartened, and feel deserted. They are also angry, and righteous anger is justified anger. It isn’t that they are “sore losers,” as the headline of Bryony Gordon’s condescending piece at The Telegraph put it. It’s that they’re desperate.

But she goes on:

There is something profoundly cruel about vilifying a person for their democratic choices. When normal people become targets instead of politicians, something has gone very wrong. This then is the real politics of fear and hatred. It is espoused not by the Right, but by the Left. And the people who are going to make the next five years truly unbearable are not the ones who make up the democratically elected government, but the ones who desecrate war memorials…

This is all true, except that no one is doing this. “Tory Scum” is a vague phrase, and to assume it’s an attack on voters and not the government is to assume the protestors don’t understand power structures. And to say that it’s the left peddling fear as opposed to the right is not only incredibly reductionist, but also misses the entire point, which is that neither the “left” (Labour) nor the “right” (Tories) as we’ve previously understood it has actually addressed the gripping fear and seething anger of what is, effectively, the modern underclass. It’s to dismiss righteous anger in favour of the status quo.

And this brings us back to Mr Pope, who in his own way agreed with Ms Gordon’s assessment:

Which is exactly the problem, as I wrote on Saturday. Labour is so dedicated to respectability politics and wooing the middle-class that it’s ignoring the legitimate concerns of workaday Brits. You don’t have to condone desecration of sacred monuments to understand why someone so desperate for a better life might do just that. After all, why would they feel the need to honour a country they feel is ignoring them (at best) or abandoning them (at worst)?

I’m aghast that this happened. I’m disgusted that someone would vandalise a monument to our war dead. It is an insult to the memory of every single person, particularly the women, who fought and died for our freedom. I make no apologies for the person or people who did this.

But I’m also concerned with why they did it. Unlike Mr Pope or Ms Gordon, and indeed the vast majority of the nebulous “middle” and right-wing, I’m not allowing the actions of one, or maybe a few, to negate from the message so many aimed to send.

People are hurting. People are scared. And people are angry. This government, which hasn’t even yet written a Queen’s Speech, ought to ask themselves why.

This blog was updated shortly after publication on 13/5/2015 to include the image referred to as having been taken at a pub in Camden Town as well as a link to the Waltham Forest Guardian story on the EDL march in Walthamstow. The Curious American regrets these omissions. 

’tis better to give than recieve. That’s crap. But here’s a present anyway.

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Last week, I published my Christmas wish list, and kindly expected y’all to deliver. What can I say? Greed is good. Boris says so.

Still, they say the greatest gift is giving. This is, of course, rubbish, as the greatest gift is cash so I can avoid returning whatever hideous or useless gift you thoughtlessly picked up on your way to the Poundsaver till. But still, in the spirit of the season, here’s my gift to Britain this Christmas:

  • I give the gift of vibration to Lord Heseltine. Get your head of the gutters, you lot. Not that sort of vibration (though maybe 50 years ago…). Phone vibration. This way, the next time his wife rings him as he films Question Time, Dimbleby needn’t be bothered.
  • Guido Fawkes brought to our attention that Boris’ hair is receding along with his credibility. I can’t do much about the latter, but as to the former, I gladly give Boris a box of Regaine.
  • To the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, I give the gift of babysitting. Prince George is adorbs, and I have five nieces and nephews so I can totes handle this, babes. You deserve a bit of a date night, don’t you?
  • I give Lynton Crosby to the University of London Union. He’s great at turning out he votes, and you not so much. I also give solidarity.
  • David Cameron gets a selfie with me, since he’s so keen on being seen with Americans. And since he’s got the Regaine now, Boris can be the flirty blond.
  • Angela Merkel gets a telegraph, since that seems to be the only way she can safely communicate electronically.
  • Putin gets donkeypunched by Uncle Sam. If you don’t know what that means, Google it. Warning: NSFW.
  • I’d like to buy Anjem Choudary a pint. Seriously mate, you need it.
  • Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gets this children’s book. Remember what happened the last time Spain messed with a Queen Elizabeth.
  • I give British Gas customers Jack Wills jumpers. You might not be able to afford you energy bills, but you shiver in style with these fashionable fleeces!
  • Katie Hopkins gets a map of Asia. See that big country down to the south? That’s India. It’s a place, you see. And if you look to the northeast, you may be able to locate a lovely Japanese town I think you ought to visit. It’s called Fukue.
  • Alan Rusbridger gets a class on journalistic ethics taught by Louise Mensch. I’ll even throw in a freebie on investigative reporting, since she seems to be the only one uncovering just how badly you’ve British national security.
  • That being said, Edward Snowden gets amnesty here in America, but only if he brings home the documents. And marries my best friend, cos she’s kinda keen.
  • Russell Brand gets a haircut and perhaps a bit of substance, provided he doesn’t abuse it.
  • Laurie Penny gets a mini American flag to waive, as she seems to be here more than I am. You’re not a proper American until you waive the stars and stripes at a street parade. And also eaten a deep fried Twinkie.
  • Rand Paul and Shia LaBeouf both get an English 101 course, which should teach you how to properly cite your sources. And perhaps form coherent sentences. But baby steps.
  • Greg Rutherford gets all the television appearances he wants, and perhaps a new kit deal. Seriously. A boy’s gotta eat.
  • Alex Ferguson gets a villa in Spain or Cornwall or wherever pensioners go to sun themselves. Just steer clear of Florida. It’s like Duck Dynasty down there.
  • Gay and lesbian Londoners and Chicagoans get marriage counselling. We now get to be as miserable as straight people. Ah, equality.
  • Single gay and lesbian Londoners and Chicagoans get tequila. It’ll help numb the nagging this Christmas. Suddenly we have no excuse when grandma asks why we haven’t settled down. Damn.
  • Justin Bieber gets a copy of a biography, any biography, of Michael Jackson. I cannot stand aside and watch history repeat itself. He even had a monkey, for Christ’s sake! No. I won’t be party to this. Justin, we’re here to help, buddy.
  • Chris Ramsey gets my apologies for gratuitously lusting after him, and also an American tour so I can do it in person.

Finally, to all my friends, family, readers, followers, and everyone who has helped make my return to writing this year an enjoyable if tumultuous ride, a massive thank you. I’m still finding my voice, but it’s great to be back. 2014 is going to be tremendous. I can’t wait.

All I want for Christmas is views: Skylar’s 2013 Christmas List

Santa-Wish-List

Santa baby, slip a visa under my tree for me. I’ve been an awfully good boy. Santa baby, so hurry down my chimney tonight.

If you think of all the fellas that I haven’t kissed, you’re pretty much left with Ed Balls and Phil from EastEnders, and even that’s questionable considering my blackout night in Soho this summer. But all things considered, I’ve been incredibly well behaved this year, and I think Father Christmas ought to recognise and pay up. So, in the grand tradition of Eartha Kitt, Kelly Clarkson, and the cast of TOWIE, here’s my grown-up Christmas list.

  1. David Cameron to reclaim the middle ground – I supported the Conservatives at the 2010 election because I thought David Cameron was a new type of Tory. Admittedly, it was against every political instinct I had-a lifelong Democrat here in the States, I naturally lean towards the left. Still, I’m shy on socialism, and bought into the One Nation schmalz. Cameron has lurched further to the right than a drunk American driving the M25. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and I am now left with nothing but crow for Christmas dinner. It is my hope that in 2014, Mr Cameron will bring back the Tories I believed in four years ago.
  2. BBC America to get its act together – Seriously, how many episodes of Top Gear and Star Trek can one man be expected to suffer through? Their programming is nothing but Jeremy Clarkson and Klingons, two things so similar it often feels like a marathon of pure evil. So many amazing programmes are shown on the BBC in the UK, yet we’re lucky if we get a fortnightly episode of Luther here in the US. Where’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Have I Got News For You, and my beloved Hebburn? How am I supposed to get my Chris Ramsey fix. Which reminds me…
  3. Chris Ramsey – in all his Geordie glory. I’d like him wrapped in a pretty bow underneath my tree, where we will pretend to be a Lady Gaga Christmas carol. Woof.

    Oh Chris, you're making me blush!

    Oh Chris, you’re making me blush!

  4. A follow from Caroline Kent – Seriously girl, what gives? You’re the funniest Brit I follow. I’m a charming gay American. We’re a match made in Chelsea. I’m not asking you to a slumber party, though if you’re keen, I have a subscription to Netflix, a couple bottles of red and a mani-pedi kit. Just throwing it out there.
  5. Nigella to claim victory on The Taste – I don’t expect Brits to be familiar with this American programme, but think of it as The Great British Bake Off meets the The Voice. Four celebrity chefs mentor contestants and then judge in a blind taste test to see who made the best dish. Nigella finished abysmally in the first series, but considering her recent tribulations, I’d very much like to see her win. There’s no sweeter cook on the planet. Personal life aside, the woman is an amazing chef, and I hope she assembles a terrific team in 2014. I’d like to see her come out on top. Think of how smug she could be the next time she sees that bastard Saatchi. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and knowing Nigella, garnished with strawberries and a chocolate glaze.
  6. For Nicole Scherzinger to come home – Okay, this is more of a selfless wish for y’all, cos we don’t want her, either. Actually, that’s mean. And a lie. For Christ’s sake, anyone who can clap, weep or dance through every single X Factor performance deserves our respect. This is a woman who sees the best in everyone, and we we miss her. Nicole, love, you’ve been in London long enough. Baby, please come home. If not for Christmas, by New Year’s night.

    Nicole, you're my only wish this year.

    Nicole, you’re my only wish this year.

  7. For Simon Cowell to go back to Britain – X Factor USA is an unmitigated disaster. Give up the ghost, buddy.
  8. Tom Daley to live happily ever after – He’s Britain’s sweetheart, isn’t he? Has there ever been a more humble, more honest 19 year old celebrity? I don’t think so. Admittedly, I never gave twinkalicious Tom much thought. But this cheeky little bugger illustrates the straightforward snide I admire about your country. Since he’s come out, Tom has shown, like much of the UK, he’s blessed with the gift of banter. I love it. I want nothing but he best for this kid.
  9. For Christmas crackers to become a thing in America – They seem so fun! I’m still not quite sure how they work, but I want to pull something other than Chris Christie apart and get candy and a glib joke.nochristmascrackers
  10. An England World Cup victory – Relax. It’s a Christmas wish list, not a kidnapper’s list of demands. A boy can dream.

Understanding that postage is expensive and the Atlantic Ocean wide, I will gladly accept cash and gift cards in lieu of any of the above. If you insist on getting me something not on this list, I look best in blue, prefer things not made by little hands, and only wear white gold or platinum.

As I await the arrival of the many presents you’re sure to send, I will wish you all a very merry Christmas. While it’s unlikely I’ll get anything on my list, I hope you get everything on yours.

Has America forgotten to remember Remembrance Day?

Saturday night I had my friend Melinda over, along with her friend Jenny, in town from Sydney. Jenny noticed the portrait of Her Majesty, a commemorative token of the Diamond Jubilee, hanging in my apartment, complete with the flags of the Commonwealth countries. We got to talking about the ties that bind not just the Commonwealth, but the Anglosphere-our common language, common law, and common struggle against fascism in the 20th century. At one point, talking about Remembrance Sunday, Jenny asked that she be reminded to set an alarm so that she could observe a minute of silence for the ANZAC forces. It passed without a beat, but it left me something to mull, and raised Jenny very highly in my own estimation.

11 November is commemorated around the globe as a day of remembrance and reflection, of honoring the sacrifices of those who fought and fight for the freedom of humanity. It’s the official end of the First World War, which was thought and hoped to be “the war to end all wars.” History tells us it was, sadly, but the precursor to Europe’s darkest days and Britain’s finest hour. I’m always touched by the sombre, dignified memorials throughout the UK and Commonwealth, the tens of thousands of people who turn out at war memorials around Britain, regular folks who every year remind the world of the struggles for freedom, lest we forget.

I won’t say that we Americans forget, but the horrors of the World Wars are certainly not as vivid in our national memory. Not to reduce this to cultural tropes, but it’s always struck me that the normally reserved Brits offer more public displays of mourning than my compatriots. After all, we routinely wear our hearts on our sleeves and our flag on our lapels. Its not uncommon to walk up to a stranger in

Prime Minister David Cameron laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd for Getty Images)

Prime Minister David Cameron laying a wreath at the Cenotaph. (Photo by Matthew Lloyd for Getty Images)

uniform and thank her for her service or to buy a drink for the soldier at the bar. We sing the national anthem before every sporting event, pledge allegiance to the flag before the start of every school day, and unlike when the typical Brit sings “God Save the Queen,” when an American says “God bless America,” we mean it quite literally. So you’d think we’d have a more collective tradition of honouring our veterans.

Sure, the President routinely lays a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery. But if you Google “Veterans’ Day Commemorations in Chicago,” you don’t turn up much of anything. Some museum exhibitions, a brunch at a zoo, but nothing on par with the solemn pomp in Britain. You’ll see no crowds at war memorials, you’ll hear few bells tolling at the 11th hour, and for the most part, people go on about their lives with little to no regard for what happened 95 years ago today.

That we don’t really remember may explain why a nation so willingly swaddled in its own flag doesn’t make more of an effort. It could be that America didn’t experience the horrors of having its own cities obliterated. Maybe it’s not the physical scars at all, but the psychological scars of a nation that was quite literally fighting for its very survival that keeps the horrors fresh in the British consciousness. Or perhaps it’s simply that the scars of the World Wars have healed over, but that the memories of Vietnam and Iraq are still open wounds.

It’s likely all of the above, but I think it’s something more visceral, too, something intrinsic to the American character. If you take a look at Facebook, you’ll see thousands of status’ honouring American service personnel, often tagging the soldiers in our own lives, thanking them for their service. And that’s not all so surprising. Americans are famed for that stubbornly individualistic streak, and

President Barack Obama laying a wreath at the Tom of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Mark Wilson for Getty Images)

President Barack Obama laying a wreath at the Tom of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. (Photo by Mark Wilson for Getty Images)

perhaps that manifests itself most poignantly on this day. In so many ways, this is more fitting for the US. The poignancy of the British commemorations is that a nation so often shy of indulging in its own nationalism, for one day of the year, recognizes the valor of its soldiers and the sacrifices they made. As America shamelessly exploits its military to stoke patriotic fervor, what makes the British commemorations so powerful would make American commemorations feel trite, redundant, or disingenuous.

Besides, it’s not Remembrance Day here. It’s Veterans Day. The name itself invokes a sense of the soldier in the singular as opposed to a collective struggle. America, though fond of jingoistic displays, on this day takes a more reserved approach. We don’t remember as a group, but as individuals, paying modest tribute to our own loved ones. We don’t thank them all. But all of us thank them.

What if Britain had a First Amendment?

There’s been so much talk about the importance of a free press and free speech lately that I feel as though I’m at a salon with Milton and Locke. In light of the Royal Charter regulating the press and furor around the Guardian’s reporting on and release of classified GCHQ intelligence documents , there’s been a lot of talk, including from former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, about the UK’s need for an American-style First Amendment. Indeed, I’ve spoken at length about my passion for the First Amendment and the freedoms it guarantees, and I realise that I can’t approach British politics through a British lens because my own perceptions are intrinsically coloured by these deeply ingrained principles.

You see, if in the canon of American civil religion the Constitution is our Bible, the First Amendment is most certainly our gospel. In one run-on sentence, the framers articulated the essence of the new nation, the core principles for which so much Yankee blood was shed and which would transform the world:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of greivances.

Now, I refuse to play the part of the arrogant American who feels Britain ought to adopt the First Amendment verbatim. Though our legal system stems from your common law, the two have understandably evolved differently since separation. I’m not even suggesting that our way is the best way. But I think it’s important to understand what the First Amendment means to Americans before discussing whether Britain ought to adopt it as its own.

The problem is, articulating the first amendment in tangible terms is a challenge. Like our taste for cold and flavourless beer and our belief that every household should be armed like South American guerillas, the First Amendment runs in our blood. We don’t really notice it on a daily basis, because it’s not something we often think about. It just is. The First Amendment is like the air around us-it isn’t really palpable; you can’t really feel it until a storm rolls in.

For that reason, it’s easier to explain what the First Amendment isn’t. It isn’t government intelligence agents ransacking a newspaper office and destroying intellectual property in an attempt to curtail publication. It isn’t sending the police to grandma’s house because she doesn’t like gay people. And it isn’t breaking up a peaceful protest and arresting a lawmaker. I’m not saying America always gets it right either. (See: my alma mater’s horrible policy on freedom of speech in e-mail ; the case of the Legal Schnauzer out of Alabama ; or all of the 1960s.) But by and large, it gets the job of protecting our liberties done.

The First Amendment doesn’t grant permission to be like Jeremy Clarkson on steroids, spouting off every inane thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t mean that you can threaten bodily harm to someone, or falsely report a crime, or the favourite example on this side of the pond, shout fire in a crowded theatre. With great freedom comes great responsibility. I think Spiderman said that, or something close to it.

So what does it all mean? I don’t bloody well know. Asking an American what the first amendment means is like asking a Canadian to define maple syrup. We know it tastes sweet, we know that we love it, and we know that it’s intrinsic to our national identity, but we can’t really tell you why. I suppose it means being able to crassly and tastelessly joke that Prince Harry got a handjob from an Abercrombie manager without fear of the guillotine. It means questioning whether your leaders are who they say they are without penalty or sanity, and it means being able to say the the most vile, repulsive things about me and yet have me defend your right to say it (while laying a verbal smackdown on you, of course).

That’s one of my biggest concerns with the British approach to hate speech. I’m choking on my words right now, but David Starkey articulated it quite well . Britain’s laws against hate speech would never survive under the First Amendment, and thank God for that. As Jonathan Rauch recently wrote in The Atlantic, the freedom to offend minorities is imperative, not only to the cause of liberty, but for the social advancement and acceptance of the minority itself-a similar, if not an exact, argument to that of Starkey. “The best society for minorities,” Rauch writes, “is not

Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Political cartoon by Robert Ariail. First published in the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.

 

the society that protects minorities from speech but the one that protects speech from minorities.” Indeed, its only by exposing bigotry and ignorance in the public sphere that we can attack it head on and continue to win not only legal but social equality. This applies to gay, Muslim and black Britons today as much as it applied to open disdain for the working class, suffragettes and papists in days gone by. It’s hard to attack an enemy in the shadows, and laws restricting speech push bigots into the night, where they silently seethe with contempt, stifling not only their own hatred but any chance for social growth. Or, to put it another way, you have to counter speech with more speech, not less speech.

Of course, the primary medium for speech has historically been the press. On last week’s Question Time, Paris Lees asked what made newspapers so special that they needn’t be regulated by Parliament. Well, it’s quite simple: for 300 years the British broadsheets have been the conduits of liberty and democracy, as outlined by more than 70 human rights organisations in an open letter to David Cameron. Similarly, Louise Mensch brilliantly makes the point while simultaneously taking the press to task for its own meandering failures. Laws regulate what is or isn’t shown on television, as they also do in the United States, because the First Amendment provides leeway for some censorship of material deemed contrary to public taste and decency, but it’s a fine line and one which is frequently challenged.

But saying that you can’t show nekkid people before the threshold isn’t the same as restricting what can be reported on; nobody dare argues that the journalistic integrity and independence of the BBC ought to be regulated. Likewise, as an American, the thought of a government agency-even one as loosely affiliated with Westminster as that established by the royal charter-sits very uneasy. As schoolchildren, Americans learn of John Peter Zenger, a German-American writer johnpeterzengerwho successfully defended himself against charges of libel and is widely regarded as the Ron Burgundy of the eighteenth century. The Supreme Court has upheld the freedom of the press to print the Pentagon Papers, and set the bar very high for plaintiffs to claim libel in New York Times vs Sullivan, birthing the so-called “Sullivan defence” mandating that the plaintiff prove “actual malice” was involved and intentioned, citing and strengthening press freedoms. The UK, on the other hand, has no Sullivan Defence, and it is much easier to prove libel in Britain than America. A First Amendment, though, could feasibly alter British libel law, and in the United States has continually prevented government (and any public figure) from meddling in what our newspapers report. Still, we’re by no means perfect, as evidenced by the arrest of journalists covering the Occupy movement and the treatment of Michael Hastings prior to his fiery and mysterious death led to an outpouring of shock and grief from journalists around the world, even though his family continues to insist he wasn’t murdered.

It’s for this reason that Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States three spots behind the United Kingdom in this year’s Press Freedom Index, though the US rose fifteen spots from 2012 in large part because of public outrage about the detention of the Occupy journalists. The United Kingdom, is it reasonable to say, should expect its ranking to plummet in light of the current fires of regulation and oversight the Government and Hugh Grant have stoked. David Cameron’s warnings of consequences to publications disclosing the Snowden leaks , as well comments by Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps’ on reforming the license fee, widely interpreted as a threat to cut the BBC funding unless it produced more favourable reporting on the government, are about as helpful as sending Pétroleuses or Mrs. O’Leary to put that fire out.

The debate about a free press and free speech isn’t contained to the broadsheets, though. As important as it is to protect the rights of the good and noble, it’s just as important to protect the rights of the tasteless and crude (here’s looking at you, Jack Whitehall.) In the United States, that means protecting the smut published by Larry Flynt, who recently gave an interview touching on free speech to the BBC’s Newsnight. In the United Kingdom, it’s Page 3. Despite an online petition to ban Page 3 (which, in case you’re gay or American or both, is a page in The Sun with scantily clad women), David Cameron has said he doesn’t support it, despite his admittedly noble but ultimately flawed plan to filter internet porn. That’s a good Tory, because curtailing the freedom of a paper to publish what it will and of consumers to vote with their pocketbooks is decidedly antithetical to small-c conservative principles. Oh yeah, and democracy.

A similar First Amendment argument can be made against the oft-debated banning of the burqa or niqab. This has come up a lot in the last few years, especially following France’s outright ban on full face coverings, and most recently in September, when a judge ruled that a woman could not give evidence in her own trial whilst wearing the veil. Ken Clarke seems to support it, but Baroness Warsi summed it up as un-British. “I think people should have the right to wear what they want in this country,” she said. “Women won the right on what to wear many, many decades ago.” Well, yeah. Baroness Warsi speaks pointedly of the feminist arguments, echoed earlier this fall by Laurie Penny, who drew the conclusion that this isn’t just an issue of sexism, but also of Islamophobia. But if Britain had a First Amendment, would this even be a topic of debate?

Probably not. Take, for example, the case of two Christian women who appealed to the European Court of Human Rights to be allowed to wear crosses on the job. This case would be easily decided in favor of the plaintiffs on this side of the Atlantic, as is evidenced by the prolific case law on religious freedom. Similar is the case of Celestina Mba, a Christian who was sacked for refusing to work on Sundays. She lost her appeal. Accross the pond, though, the Civil Rights Act 1964 requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for people of faith, as a nod to freedom of worship and the First Amendment.

Now, this isn’t to say Americans aren’t bigots. Duh. We’re the nation that produced Michael Savage and Mel Gibson. Look at the ongoing struggle of Muslims in Murfreesboro, Tennessee to simply have a mosque, which while being challenged on planning and zoning laws, is rife with religious subtext-and, also, less-subtle nods to Islamophobia, including the plaintiffs citing fears about “sharia law” and “terrorists.” The Tennessee Supreme Court refused to take the case, allowing for an appeal to the US Supreme Court. Then there was the furor of the pastor burning the Koran in Florida and the New York mosque built close to Ground Zero, which had striking parallels to the case of mosque being built on the eastend of London several years back.

Despite the wishes of the good denizens of Murfreesboro, the First Amendment doesn’t give way to a right to discriminate in the public sphere, though-at least not really. Your rights end where mine begin, and in 2009 I made the argument that it was right to sack a Christian registrar who refused to officiate same-sex civil partnership ceremonies. The same goes for the Christian couple that wanted to ban gay people from their bed and breakfast. If you’re offering a public service or operating in the free market, you must abide by certain rules, and one of those rules is that you gotta play fair. It’s oft said that freedom of religion is freedom from religion, which is why the Supreme Court banned school-led prayer but not prayer in schools. The distinction is fine yet clear-free exercise of religion in a public sphere is acceptable, but the public sphere exercising religion is not. Frankly, it’s always baffled me why the United Kingdom-with an established church-is so antsy about the former. (If I ever meet Owen Jones, I’ll ask him.)

Less convoluted than the muddy waters of religion, though, is the the freedom of assembly. Two years ago I was living with a rather senior member of the Occupy Chicago movement-well, as senior as a horizontal leadership structure can allow-who was arrested for refusing to leave Grant Park after hours. The Occupy folks didn’t have a permit, which led to quite a few of them spending the night in jail. Still, the right to freely assemble is often cited by those staging protests, such as the storied

Caroline Lucas, the Green party's only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

Caroline Lucas, the Green party’s only MP, was arrested for protesting fracking

March on Washington. From what I can tell, Britain’s pretty good on this one too, and the aforementioned fracking protest with Caroline Lucas was busted for reasons similar to the Chicago Police breaking up and arresting the Grant Park occupiers. The difference seems to be that the Balcombe protesters believe the police were ‘heavy handed’, while shockingly, the folks in Grant Park thought CPD did a fair job of things. This isn’t always the case. Birmingham police turned hoses and attack dogs on children in the Civil Rights Movement, and Chicago Police notoriously brutalised protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention. And none of this has to do with the First Amendment and everything to do with alleged police brutality, though the First Amendment could feasibly be construed to ensure the people have a right to assemble in a public space. In fact, this was pretty much the mantra of the Occupy Chicago protestors, and regardless of what you think of them, the First Amendment allows a compelling argument to be made.

What’s also compelling, if only for both its blatancy and banality, is the right to petition. It’s oft overlooked in American discourse, because really, writing a Congressman isn’t nearly as flashy as giving a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and certainly less scandalous than posing on Page 3, unless of course you were writing to former Congressman Anthony Weiner. But it’s important to note that the right to petition grievances was one of the primary factors propelling the thirteen colonies to separate from the motherland. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, in the Declaration of Independence, that “…in every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury,” and provided just cause for insurrection and independence. That King-in-Parliament wouldn’t hear-or rather, validate-the concerns of the colonists was the driving force behind its inclusion in the US Bill of Rights.

What most Americans don’t realise-and would be loathed to admit-is that this right already existed under the British constitution. It’s included in the Bill of Rights 1689 (called the “English Bill of Rights” over this way). So that’s not exactly a novel American concept.

Really none of it is, as pretty much all of this has its roots in Magna Carta or subsequent acts of Parliament. But don’t tell my compatriots that, because it’ll just hurt their feelings. America likes to think it invented liberty. Of course, it didn’t. But it did codify it in a succinct and explicit way, providing the framework for American case law, in turn allowing for the growth of those freedoms, which developed in a way distinct of their British antecedents.

It’s for this reason that looking at what a First Amendment would really mean for contemporary Britain is so interesting, and frankly, needed. The roots are the same, but the blossoms quite different, and in the more than two centuries since our two countries parted ways, my side of the Atlantic has taken things on a slightly different trajectory, ensuring personal liberties over collective cohesion. This is purely anecdotal, but it seems to me the British public prefers it this way. From Question Time/Big Question audience reactions to debates about multiculturalism and secularism to broad support for the HackedOff charter (because really, that’s what it is), and even in conversations with British friends who just don’t understand why we allow the Westboro Baptist Church to picket everything from funerals to fun parks, the Brits seem to like things the way they are. And that’s fine. While I personally feel very concerned about press freedom in the UK, overall, it’s still a functioning democracy. Still, it’s an interesting notion, and as the debate over religious freedom, hate speech, and press regulation continues, I imagine one that will resurface from time to time. Best be prepared.

For an interesting, more learned, and British(!) perspective on this issue, see Jonathan Peters’ July 2012 interview with Lord Lester in The Atlantic.