06 July, 2016


The British Labour Party is facing a serious existential crisis following the referendum on EU membership and its acrimonious aftermath. I am reminded immediately of the strife unleashed in the party by its drift leftwards in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which led to the formation of the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP) by the so-called ‘gang of four’ in 1981. These four leading members of the party were especially angered by the decision to include unilateral nuclear disarmament and a desire to leave the European Economic Community (forerunner of the European Union (EU)) in the party’s manifesto for the next general election, which was described at the time as ‘the longest suicide note in history’.

Another similarity with the current situation is that both leaders emerged from the left wing of the party. But Michael Foot was trounced in the general election of 1983, and, based on what I’ve seen, I believe that a party led by Jeremy Corbyn has absolutely no chance of winning the next general election, whenever it is held. Despite having massive support among the party’s grassroots members, Corbyn has no obvious leadership qualities, and I’ve never known a political leader who was so utterly devoid of charisma.

Corbyn is clearly a man of principle—before becoming leader, he voted against the party line in the House of Commons hundreds of times—but I base my assessment of the man not on what he does but on what he says. For example, in November last year, he described the attacks in Paris by members of Daesh as ‘immoral’. He wasn’t wrong, of course, but I couldn’t help but wonder why he chose to use such an insipid adjective when many stronger words were available to him (e.g. barbaric, heinous, horrendous). He was at it again in the recent referendum campaign, in which the only thing I heard him say in favour of remaining in the EU related to ‘protecting workers’ rights’. And his refusal to share a platform with Remain campaigners from other parties did not mark him as a man of principle; it merely made him look like an idiot. Overall, his contribution to the debate was decidedly wishy-washy, and his apparent lack of enthusiasm was a serious error of judgement.

He failed to grasp that the principal area of concern for most traditional Labour voters was immigration from other EU countries. And he appears not to have been aware that in neglecting this concern, he was effectively surrendering at least part of this vote to another party, one that was geared-up and ready to step in as the party of choice for working-class voters: the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Had Corbyn been prepared to make an effort to reassure such voters, it is likely that the UK, as a whole, would have voted to remain in the EU.

At first glance, it would appear that a right-wing party representing the working class is an anomaly, but there is a lesson from history here: Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts (i.e. Fascists) enjoyed considerable support in the East End of London—and probably in the poorer areas of other major cities—during the depression of the 1930s. UKIP may not be as overtly racist as the Blackshirts, who were, after all, modelled on the Blackshirts of Benito Mussolini’s Italy, but a strain of xenophobia is an integral part of the party’s ethos.

On the day following the referendum, I listened to Any Questions on BBC Radio 4. For anyone not familiar with this program, which has been running since 1948, it involves four leading politicians, who have been invited onto the show to answer questions from the audience while a chairman tries to maintain order. On this occasion, there was only ever going to be one topic of conversation: the result of the referendum. Naturally, two members of the panel had advocated remaining in the EU in the referendum campaign, while two had campaigned to leave. One of the latter was MEP Steven Woolfe, and from his very first contribution I thought I was listening to a member of the British National Party, a fringe organization that would have been better named the British Nazi Party. Woolfe continually hurled class-based insults at the other members of the panel, whom he characterized as middle-class and out of touch with the electorate. That would chime strongly with the attitudes of many of his target voters.

Yesterday, I listened to an interview with Paul Nuttall, deputy leader of UKIP. At one point, after Nuttall had talked about targeting traditional Labour voters, the interviewer asked whether this meant moving the party to the left. Nuttall’s response was succinct—and disarmingly honest.

“Not at all,” he said.

So could it happen? Is the Labour Party on the point of fading into obscurity? There is historical precedent. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the old Liberal Party was the party of choice for working-class voters. And this continued into the twentieth century, but it was then slowly supplanted by the Labour Party, which had been formed in 1900. The last wholly Liberal government came to an end in 1915, although the last Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd-George, continued in office until 1922 as head of a wartime coalition. The party then faded into obscurity, returning only a handful of MPs in the second half of the twentieth century until its fortunes revived slightly following merger with the SDP in 1988.

There is another parallel with the present from the early days of the Labour Party. Its founder, Keir Hardy, suggested that Lithuanian migrant workers in Scottish coal mines had filthy habits, they ate garlic that they fried in oil filched from streetlamps, and they were carriers of the Black Death, comments that would have been more likely to chime with working-class voters of the time than visions of a socialist utopia, as it also seems to have done in the recent referendum.

The Labour Party formed a short-lived minority government in 1924 and another from 1929 to 1931, although it had to wait until 1945 to form a majority government. It last won a general election in 2005. However, the party does not have an automatic right to be either in government or the main opposition party. UKIP may have seemed like a single-issue party that has now achieved its raison d’être, but it is highly unlikely to disband, and I suspect that it is already drawing up its manifesto for the next general election, one that will appeal to working-class voters. It received around 4,000,000 votes in elections for the European Parliament in 2013, and it could easily double that total in the next general election if Jeremy Corbin remains leader of the Labour Party. These are worrying times.

01 July, 2016

photographic abstraction #19

There is one new motif in this collection of abstract photographs, used in Distortion and Over the Hills and Far Away. The latter is the first monochrome image to be featured in this series. Electric Storm is actually a photograph of spilt paint that has been diluted by running water, while Mapping the Desert and The Icing on the Cake are both photos of stained walls, although both are unlike any other images in the series that use this motif. Although Sheep May Safely Graze comes from the same source as Surface of the Moon in Photographic Abstraction #18, I still think that nobody will guess what that source is, but I’d love to be proved wrong.

The darker lines in the following picture appear to have been bent out of shape, hence the title:


If the paint photographed in the next image had been a different colour, I’d have had to come up with a different title:

electric storm

The next photo reminds me of a dusty old map on which there appears to be writing that I can’t quite read:

mapping the desert

The following image was originally a colour photograph, until I discovered that it took on a more dramatic appearance when reduced to black and white:

over the hills and far away

The vaguely ovine shapes on a green background immediately suggested to me the title of a well-known aria from JS Bach’s cantata #208, although I’d be the first to admit that there is nothing musical about this image:

sheep may safely graze

The last image is an example of efflorescence—dissolved salts being re-deposited as the dampness in a wall slowly evaporates:

the icing on the cake

recent posts in this series
Photographic Abstraction #15
Photographic Abstraction #16
Photographic Abstraction #17

27 June, 2016

more door gods #3

I spent quite a lot of time over the winter searching for more examples of painted door gods in Hong Kong, but until a couple of days before I was due to leave for the UK, I didn’t have enough to justify another post on the subject. However, I came across the Shuen Wan Temple, located east of Taipo a short distance north of Ting Kok Road, quite by accident while checking out something else. If you’re not familiar with Chinese door gods, their origin and some of the conventions governing their appearance are described in More Door Gods #2.

shuen wan temple

This temple consists of three adjoining halls, each with its own entrance and door gods. As usual, because the doors were open, it was necessary to photograph each door god separately then montage them together. Photographing the door gods when the doors are open makes the glare that you see in these photos unavoidable. The following three photos correspond to the three doors in the above photo, reading left to right.

In these three pairings, both guardians are carrying the standard weaponry, a halberd by Yuchi Jingde (on the left) and a pole sword by Qin Shubao (on the right). However, the ethnicity of the two former generals in the Chinese imperial army is not obvious. Yuchi Jingde was a Uighur, but in all three of these photos he could easily be mistaken for Han Chinese, like his companion. Note also that the two figures guarding the central door are stroking their beards rather than grasping the handles of the swords behind their backs. This is definitely a nonstandard pose.

cheung shan monastery

It would be difficult to pick this building as a monastery from this photo—it looks more like a temple—but once through the doors you will see that the internal layout is unlike that of a temple. The first of the two photos below is of the door on the left of the photo above.

The figures in the first photograph look more like scholars than soldiers. Although Yuchi Jingde is carrying a short sword, Qin Shubao is carrying nothing at all and is grasping the belt around his waist with both hands. The figures in the second photo appear more threatening, but note that both are carrying pole swords.

ping shan
During the severe cold spell in January, Paula and I decided to travel across to the Ping Shan Heritage Trail, in the far west of the New Territories, rather than go cycling. The following photos are of the door gods on two ancestral halls, which just happen to be located next door to each other. The first photo is of the Tang Ancestral Hall, while the second is of the Yu Kiu Ancestral Hall.

If you have been intrigued by these images, more photos of door gods can be seen in More Door Gods and More Door Gods #2.

22 June, 2016

collapso calypso

The European Union (EU) is a moribund organization and is probably now on the verge of collapse. It was once a good idea. The European Coal and Steel Community, formed in 1952, was clearly an attempt to repair the ravages of the Second World War by bringing former enemies into partnership, but its successor, the European Economic Community (EEC), formed in 1958 by the same six countries—Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany—under the terms of the Treaty of Rome, was more than this. It was intended to create a ‘common market’ in goods and services (hence the popular name for the EEC), and it worked. The economies of the six founder members of the EEC forged ahead of the rest of Europe.

However, by the time the first new members had joined the EEC—Denmark, Ireland and the UK in 1973—global economic headwinds such as the oil crisis of 1973 had reduced these initial advantages. Nevertheless, the system still worked, although it was starting to creak. Greece joined the EEC in 1981, yet less than seven years earlier, it had been a military dictatorship. Spain and Portugal joined in 1986; these too had been military dictatorships only a decade earlier. More pertinently, all three countries were peasant economies with limited levels of industrialization, so they were, inevitably, subsidized by the richer countries of northern Europe, although with a community of only twelve countries, this was seen as a positive move, designed to bring the three new entrants up to the same level of prosperity as the existing members.

The rot really set in with the Maastricht Treaty of 1993, whereby the EEC became the EU, with its mantra of ‘ever closer union’. An economic bloc became a political entity. On this point, it is worth noting that the European Commission (EC), which should be the EU’s civil service, is in fact the EU’s executive arm. The current president of the EC, Jean-Claude Juncker, was prime minister of Luxembourg from 1995 to 2013, while his predecessor, José Manuel Barroso, had previously been prime minister of Portugal (2002–4). The commissioners, who oversee the various departments within the EC, are also former politicians. It’s called riding the gravy train.

Three new countries joined in 1995: Austria, Finland and Sweden. One wonders why they waited so long before applying for membership. I must assume that their leaders didn’t anticipate what would happen next. It seemed like a good idea to admit former members of the Warsaw Pact. For citizens of these countries, having lived under the yoke of communism for decades, it must have seemed like liberation. Instead of being shot by border guards, they could now board a train or plane and travel to any other EU country. It was always going to happen that many of these citizens would want not only to visit but also to settle in one of the EU’s richer member countries.

Meanwhile, among the earlier tranche of members rescued from an unpleasant history, Greece is now, economically and politically, a basket case, while Spain has a youth unemployment rate of more than 50 percent. However, what made me think the EU was on the verge of collapsing was the sight of member states on the eastern border of the union closing their borders to keep out refugees from the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. I don’t blame the governments of these countries for taking this step, because I have no experience of the threats from the east that the eastern edge of Europe has experienced for the past 2,000 years. I imagine that folk memories of these incursions were behind the decisions to close borders.

You will have guessed by this point that I’m not impressed by the EU. Policy is decided by politicians who have been appointed, not elected, and while it would have continued to work as a trade bloc, it has been a disaster as a political entity. However, my motive for voting for the UK to leave the EU tomorrow has nothing to do with the shortcomings I’ve discussed here. It is the prospect of further expansion. There are six countries in the Balkans that are not yet members of the EU, none of which are particularly prosperous, so they would need extensive support from the union’s richer members.

And then there is Turkey. The accession of Turkey is probably a long way in the future, and things may have changed by the time this happens, but as it stands I have no wish to be part of a political club, one of whose members routinely uses anti-terror legislation to jail journalists who criticize its government. Even worse, the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge—it’s illegal even to discuss the subject—the Ottoman Empire’s massacre of Armenians between 1915 and the early 1920s as genocide. It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians were killed during this period, often in grossly inhuman ways. The excuse at the time—it is still trotted out now—was that the Armenians, being Christian, were ‘the enemy within’. If this were to be considered a reasonable excuse, Nazi apologists could use it to justify the Holocaust.

In fact, a similar thing is happening now. The Kurdish Peshmerga is probably the most effective fighting force against the monsters of Daesh, yet Turkey has been attacking it largely because it is also dealing with a Kurdish insurgency in the east of the country. The Kurds are the new enemy within, and they are revolting because they are not being treated by the central government with either dignity or respect. On the other hand, I could be persuaded to change my mind if Turkey were to get rid of the mountebank who is its president. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a megalomaniac who cannot stand criticism, who is anti-intellectual and who probably sees Christianity and Islam as mutually antagonistic. There is no place for such views in the modern world.