On coming out as a feminist

by Stephen Tall on January 23, 2017

I’ve long fought shy of the term ‘feminist’. On the occasions I was asked if I was one, I’d brush it aside: “I don’t want to be one of those try-hard guys who uses the label as bragging rights.” There was some truth to that.

There’s also some truth that I find it a bit presumptuous to say “I’m a feminist.” (Why should anyone care?)

But probably the biggest single reason has been that, at least until relatively recently, I wasn’t a feminist. At least, not explicitly.

If I was anything, I guess I was an implicit feminist. I believed in equal rights (genuinely) and reckoned that was enough. Women, I would muse in the abstract, should be free to do whatever they like; and thankfully, I’d add, their rights are now protected by law.

It was a complacency rooted in my own experience. My mum had a career she loved (teaching) to which she happily returned; after which it was my dad, whose hours as a church minister were flexible, who did the school-run. We all did our share (ish) of house-work, especially after my mum got chronic fatigue syndrome. My professional life has been in education, about as female-friendly a sector as you get, often for women bosses, which I’ve enjoyed.

Truth is, while I’m sure I must at times have been simply oblivious to it, I suspect I’ve been pretty insulated from sexism.

Then, gradually, I’ve become more aware that my previous experience isn’t a universal.

From little things; such as trying to buy my nieces presents which weren’t just dolls and princesses and glittery from the PINK half of the toy shop. To big things; such as my partner having to find a new job when she went back to work after our son was born because her company (female boss, incidentally) were utter shits about her hours.

And then once you see it, you notice it (the patriarchy!) EVERYWHERE.

Seriously. From dads failing to pull their weight at home; to Hillary Clinton’s horrific mauling by the media for the same things her male predecessors habitually did without attracting comment (yes, including the emails); to women being held to blame for being sexually assaulted if they wear what they want. (There was another example of that latter one just today; it’s what prompted this rant.)

So… I still don’t feel comfortable with the label, still a bit self-conscious of it. But sexism is still all around us. And the only thing needed for it to triumph is for wishy-washy blokes to do nothing because calling yourself a feminist makes you feel a bit weird.

So, sod it: I’m a feminist.

What Vote Leave said about UK membership of the single market

by Stephen Tall on January 18, 2017

So this morning I tweeted:

I got a fair few replies to this and to my blog-post yesterday, in which I wrote:

I can’t feign the outrage I’ve seen expressed today about our departure from the single market. Of course I think it’s the wrong choice. And yes, I think Vote Leave was deliberately disingenuous in the referendum campaign in eliding single market membership/access. It’s also quite possible that a referendum specifically on membership of the single market might have produced a different result.

So here’s my all-purpose response to those who disagreed in various ways…

It’s true that various Leavers said different things in the run-up to the 23 June referendum. Then again, there was scarcely unity in the Remain camp either: the visions of Cameron, Corbyn and Farron of the future of the EU were very different (even if they were mostly suppressed during the campaign itself).

But the official Vote Leave campaign was clear: exiting the EU meant leaving the single market. Check out its official site or any of the reports from the campaign, such as that FT headline in my tweet.

And if you don’t want to take it from the Vote Leave side, what about checking out what Remain’s Stronger In campaign had to say here? There are regular attacks on the Leavers for saying the UK should no longer be members of the single market.

Now, as I said in the excerpt from my blog, above, I think Vote Leave were deliberately, even misleadingly, ambiguous about the distinction between membership of the single market and access to it. Its leaders would doubtless disagree.

Remainers should, though, be cautious before accusing others of questionable campaigning: after all, the early recession many of us expected hasn’t materialised. Sure, we warned of the economic risks in good faith. But maybe we should consider Vote Leave argued to get out of the single market in good faith, too?

Beyond the principle of it, by the way, there is another reason why Vote Leave openly supported the UK leaving the single market — it wanted to avoid being portrayed by Remain as being in favour of a Norway-style model of associate EU membership (paying a membership fee but not making the rules) as that would have torpedoed its three principal lines of attack: that the UK would be £350m a week richer outside the EU, that we could control immigration, and that we should ‘take back control’.

One final point. I’ve previously been a supporter of referendums for settling key issues. I like the idea of a participatory democracy. The 23rd June has made me think again – and not just because my side lost (though I suppose I’ve thought about it more because it did).

There was a fundamental flaw and structural imbalance in the referendum campaign. Remain had to defend the EU, not an easy gig after two decades of full-frontal media assault. Leave’s job was purely oppositional: to say the UK could be better off out of the EU. But I like the maxim ‘no opposition without proposition’.

So, if we are to have future referendums in this country, we should expect both sides to produce manifestos which set out their plans for full scrutiny — as, to be fair, the SNP did in advance of the Scottish referendum on independence.

Theresa May’s Hard Brexit: politically and tactically smart

by Stephen Tall on January 17, 2017

It’s official: it’s a hard Brexit. We’re not just exiting the EU, confirmed Theresa May today, we’re also exiting the single market and probably the customs union also.

Now, I’m a Remainer and last year’s 23rd June result left me pretty numbed. Not because I’m emotionally attached to the EU — I’ve long counted myself a liberal Eurosceptic who’s actually pretty embarrassed by the way too many Lib Dems fetishise the EU — but because Vote Leave owed its majority to naked xenophobia.

We don’t know exactly how many of the 52% belong to the send-the-bloody-foreigners-back-home brigade. But I’m pretty sure it was enough to be decisive. The votes of racists counted equally alongside the votes of those who just wanted to ‘take back control’.

So I was angry then. But, ultimately, that’s a wasteful and futile condition (see Twitter passim). And, honestly, I was more impressed than I expected to be today by the Prime Minister’s speech. Though I wouldn’t have started from here, her’s is the speech I’d have made if I were standing in her kitten heels.

First, it’s politically smart. Mrs May has earned a lot of capital today from Ukip, the Tory right and the Daily Mail. Like it or not those audiences matter to her. The optimistic ‘Global Britain’ tone will likely prove popular with the public, too, with those continuing to fight the ‘Remain’ side risking sounding like unpatriotic moaning minnies.

Secondly, it’s tactically smart. The Prime Minister is about to enter the toughest and most complex set of negotiations this country has had to undertake in over 70 years. She can’t do that on the back foot. She needed to offer a clear vision, one which strikes a deliberately independent pose, to anchor the British position in a way which avoids ambiguity or hostages to fortune. I think she largely succeeded.

That’s why I can’t feign the outrage I’ve seen expressed today about our departure from the single market. Of course I think it’s the wrong choice. And yes, I think Vote Leave was deliberately disingenuous in the referendum campaign in eliding single market membership/access. It’s also quite possible that a referendum specifically on membership of the single market might have produced a different result.

But we are where we are. I think it’s at the very least arguable that Theresa May’s decision to choose a swift exit may prove less economically harmful than protracted fudge-and-mudge.

It is, it’s true, a huge risk. But that’s what the country voted for. To take a leap in the dark. That might well mean years of fumbling around unable to find what we’re looking for and knocking over something really valuable by mistake. But it might also mean our eyes adjust quicker than we’re expecting and we’re able to navigate the obstacles in our path without tripping over (much). Only time will tell.

Why 2016 was a good year

by Stephen Tall on December 21, 2016

Well, actually, it wasn’t, so ‘scuse the click-bait headline.

But the worse politics has looked (at least to those of a usually sunny, liberal disposition who don’t enjoy pointing an accusatory finger at foreigners for all the wrongs of the world) the better have been the prospects of the Lib Dems.

The party’s unpresidented unprecedented success in local council by-elections this year and rapid membership growth were straws in the wind for the typhoon that was the Richmond by-election triumph.

It’s hard to imagine that six months ago 41% of the public people would be predicting 2017 would be a good year for the Lib Dems. I wouldn’t. And yet:


Still, as pro-cake and pro-having it is the collective default mode at the moment, let me end by hoping that 2017 is both a better year for politics and also a good one for we liberals.

Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

by Stephen Tall on December 20, 2016

220px-the_little_stranger_sarah_watersThe Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

This is the ninth book plucked from my #40booksby40 list. I’ve read all Sarah Waters’ other novels, loved each of them in their different ways, but had put off The Little Stranger: ghost stories aren’t really my thing.

But I should have realised that, though this is an homage to the genre, Sarah Waters isn’t really telling a ghost story. Set in the aftermath of the Second World War this is a story about that very British obsession, class, and our inability to feel at ease with it.

It’s told by Dr Faraday, who – like his scientist namesake – is working-class ‘made good’, yet plagued by guilt at the sacrifices his parents made, feeling uncomfortably precarious as a middle-class professional, and remains brittly envious of the upper classes (represented by the Ayres family), no matter that they’re on their uppers.

As a child, he chiselled a decorative acorn from the moulding at the family’s Hundreds Hall, where his mother was in service. As an adult, he returns to ‘haunt’ it, literally if not figuratively.

Called in to treat a malingering servant, Betty, who complains of the house’s atmosphere (ironically she remains a something of ghost at the house for the rest of the book), Dr Faraday establishes himself as a trusted friend and confidante; as, simultaneously, the three surviving Ayres’s meet different, tragic, unexplained ends.

His vanilla demeanor and bland descriptions are at odds with the chaos that is unleashed by his presence in their lives. Is his the one voice of rational sanity in a world gone mad? Or is he an unreliable narrator of events he’s somehow set in train?

Waters is too canny an author to indulge the reader who wants to know for sure. Instead we are left frustratedly hanging with an unresolved and deliberately enigmatic ending, reading into it what we want, filling in the gaps according to our own assumptions. Just like people do in ghost stories, in fact.

Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

by Stephen Tall on December 13, 2016

brief-historyA Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

This is the eight book plucked from my #40booksby40 list. And I’ll get straight to it: there are books I admire more than I enjoy, and this is definitely one of them.

I understand why it won the 2015 Man Booker Prize. The story is told in first-person by more than 75 different characters, each with their own, distinctive, vibrant voice. Its scope is ambitious, spanning three decades and the inter-relationship of Jamaican domestic and US foreign politics. It will, I imagine, make for a brilliant HBO series (its rights have been snapped up).

With all that going for it, what are my problems with the novel?

First, it’s over-long. There are three-and-a-half compelling characters: gangster Josey Wales, journalist Alex Pierce, and groupie-turned-survivor-chameleon Nina Burgess (/ Kim Clarke / Dorcas Palmer / Millicent Segree); the half is tortured gay coke-head, Weeper. When the focus is on them the story comes alive. When it’s not, the story drags, especially in the ponderous first two-thirds.

Secondly, it’s really, really hard work. Not just wading through the vast tracts of extraneous interior monologuing; not just the Jamaican patois; but mostly understanding the core of the story as the bitter power struggle between Jamaica’s two dominant parties, the JLP and PNP (exemplified by the attempted assassination of Bob Marley which is both central, and curiously irrelevant, to the novel).

I don’t want to be too down on it, though. There is some superb writing: Bam-Bam being buried alive is told excruciatingly well. There is also some sharp, dry wit — such as Josey Wales’ savvy playing-to-type when speaking to his FBI contacts, remembering ‘to say at least one no problem, mon … just so he leave thinking he find the right man’. And the pace definitely picks up towards the end.

But, boy, do you have to bumbaclot commit.

Review: Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

by Stephen Tall on December 12, 2016

orwell-cataloniaHomage to Catalonia, George Orwell

This is the seventh book plucked from my #40booksby40 list.

I have a bit of a love-hate thing for The Other Mr Blair. Animal Farm was one of my GCSE English Lit set texts (along with Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea), which simultaneously meant I studied it cover-to-cover while ensuring I’d never want to read it ever again. I also tried to read 1984 as a 13 year-old, in a silly teenage attempt to impress my English teacher, which, again, killed my enjoyment.

Orwell’s inclusion on my list is, therefore, partly to atone for spoiling him for myself; but it’s also why it’s the only non-fiction entry (I still can’t face another Orwell novel).

It’s a fun, pacy read. Which may not seem an apt description of a raw inside account of the Spanish civil war, but it’s true – for example, his detailed, fascinated description of being shot: “roughly speaking, it was the sensation of being at the centre of an explosion”.

It’s also at times genuinely funny, such as his affectionate swipe at Spanish mañana temperament: “Few Spaniards possess the damnable efficiency and consistency that a modern totalitarian state needs”.

And it includes a timeless motto, especially apt for our post-truth zeitgeist: “I warn everyone against my bias, and I warn everyone against my mistakes. Still, I have done my best to be honest.”

I’ll admit to skimming the chapters dedicated to acronym-heavy dissections of the leftist splits which caused Orwell such pain – his free-spirited revolutionary socialism was antithetical to the Stalinist communists, for all that they supposedly were on the same side. But the description of the mind-numbing boredom and futility of much of the ground-war is vividly authentic.

I’m still not up for another Orwell novel just yet. But I’ll happily give his journalism another go.

3 quick thoughts on the Richmond Park by-election

by Stephen Tall on December 2, 2016

The last two times I’ve gone to bed reasonably confident my side would win an election, I’ve had a rotten, sleepless night.

Last night I went to bed reckoning my side would fall just short and Richmond Park would be added not to the list of great Liberal by-election triumphs (Orpington, Eastbourne, Brent East) but of near misses (Birmingham Hodge Hill, Henley, Witney).

And to think liberals are supposed to be optimists… 2016 has, though, severely tested our usually sunny disposition.

Anyway, huge congratulations to Sarah Olney for over-turning Zac Goldsmith’s 23,000+ majority. A 22% swing isn’t a record; though it may be if you factor in the campaign was only five weeks’ long.

Three quick thoughts on its implications:

1. Boost to Lib Dem profile

Ever since the May 2015 electoral catastrophe, the Lib Dems have been regarded by much of the media (print and broadcast) either as a joke or an irrelevance — or both. The Richmond result won’t stop that altogether, but it might give some pause for thought.

Diane James’s brief sortie as Ukip leader achieved top-item billing on the news programmes; by contrast, the election last year of Tim Farron, now the longest-serving national party leader (!), merited just a few seconds towards the end of the BBC News at Ten.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Richmond Park will mean the media gives the Lib Dems a fair chance.

2. Forget the policy, feel the campaign

I’m, not a big fan of the Lib Dems’ Brexit strategy. I explained why here. I think Brexit will happen, indeed has to happen. I’d prefer us to be practical about how it happens.

But maybe I’m wrong (it’s been known). For a sensible Brexit to take place, there needs to be a contest of views. Labour, wholly self-absorbed, looks to be hopelessly incapable for the forseeable of providing any leadership on the European issue.

That leaves the Lib Dems as the only national, mainstream, unabashedly pro-European (too much so sometimes) party with any clout. If the Lib Dems don’t resist the ‘hard Brexiteers’ and their jingoistic folly, who will?

I still don’t think the Lib Dem Brexit strategy — a second referendum once the deal’s terms are known — is likely to succeed. But, perhaps, this time that simply doesn’t matter. The debate needs some Remain anchoring and that task is now the Lib Dems’ duty.

The fact it also appears to be a pretty canny campaigning strategy is just a bonus.

3. The Scotland analogy

This is tentative. There are lots of — obvious — difference between the current national political picture and the earthquake in Scottish politics this past decade. (Not least of which is the sensitivity of the electoral system.)

And yet…

The SNP has secured a dominant position, at least for the moment, as the doughty defenders of national interest. Ditto the Tories at a UK level.

Meanwhile Labour is falling between two stools: in Scotland it is neither quite pro-union nor pro-independence; on Europe, it is neither quite pro- or anti-Brexit. That’s mostly because these issues divide its voters most viscerally in its heartlands; it’s also because of a pattern of weak leadership both north and south of the border.

Which leaves Tim Farron as the English Ruth Davidson. At this point I admit the analogy strains, but stick with it…

The Tories have rescued themselves in Scotland, elbowing Labour aside as the opposition, because of the opportunity which fell to them: to be the unequivocally pro-union principal opposition to the separatist SNP.

I’m not for a moment claiming the same could be replicated imminently in England: Labour’s strength is too entrenched, the Lib Dems still too battered and bruised.

But what I am saying is that a Lib Dem revival which even six months ago looked like being the hard graft of a quarter-of-a-century might just be a lot more rapid.

My must-reads this week November 18, 2016

by Stephen Tall on November 18, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

My must-reads this week November 11, 2016

by Stephen Tall on November 11, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

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