Norway four years on: finding new ways of expressing solidarity

As is the case every year, our hearts and thoughts go out to all those in Norway commemorating the fourth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the country tomorrow.

As the truly terrible events of July 22nd 2011 recede further into the distance in terms of a pure timeline, they continue to resonate globally: especially as the issues of global security, migration, terrorism and European unity become more fraught and critical. Yet no amount of deliberating over geopolitical considerations can ever dilute the human element of those events four years ago. It was human beings who suffered; it was human beings who were unduly robbed of life in an attack both unprecedented and shocking in its scale as far as Norway (and indeed Scandinavia, if not post-war Europe) was concerned.

Tomorrow sees the opening of a new July 22nd exhibition centre in a government building in Oslo, which includes parts of the car bomb used in the initial attack on Oslo and artefacts retrieved from Utøya following the subsequent attacks on the that island. It seems only fair and objective to point out that the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten has claimed that the exhibition has divided opinion. According to the newspaper, some feel it is simply giving undue attention and publicity to those who perpetrate such attacks, whereas others feel that actual information about the events is the best way of countering extremism and hatred.

We incline towards the latter view ourselves (having found that a day at Auschwitz in 1995 was not nearly enough to try and register the scale of the horrific events that befell Europe more than 70 years ago), but we would reiterate, as we have done in previous years, that Norway has set an extraordinary example to the rest of the world in the way it has gone about dealing with these events. To our eyes at least, it seems nothing short of the profoundest dignity and stoicism. We feel it more imperative than ever to offer our annual gesture of support and best wishes to those in Norway (and indeed across the world) carrying out their own memorial services and acts tomorrow. The country’s response to those events remains an ongoing one: by registering this, we hope we express new forms of solidarity in the process.

The website of the Norwegian Workers’ Youth League (Arbeidernes Ungdomsfylkning) gives information (in Norwegian) on how you can donate money to the ongoing project to rebuild facilities on Utøya or actively participate in related work taking place on the island (although note that, as of July 2015, there is no international PayPal donation facility available: this doesn’t stop you making an international bank payment). Otherwise, as always, we would recommend the Norwegian Refugee Council as an organisation that provides invaluable humanitarian aid to refugees and displaced persons worldwide. Technically, it is not directly connected to the events of Oslo and Utøya: morally, for us, it has always seemed an ideal gesture of solidarity with Norway and a way of honouring the country’s ongoing commitment to freedom, democracy and tolerance (which resonated long before July 22nd 2011 and which continues to resonate in defiant and timeless fashion). We would urge you to give; a donation via PayPal is available in this instance.

Thirty years ago: Beckermania and a rude then arid Anders Järryd

It’s almost exactly thirty years since Boris Becker became the youngest player to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon. Having been in my final year of primary school at the time (and in my final days of childhood in London as we prepared to move to Somerset) I still have a pretty heady cocktail of memories of that time. We were shunting our worldly possessions down the much-feted M3/A303 route from the capital to South-West England every weekend, and we were relying on a decidedly dated black-and-white television to heroically summon up coverage from SW19 when in Somerset – if we weren’t making use of the radio in our Volkswagen camper van to follow Becker’s irresistible rise into the fame and fortune honeypot.

He knew we were in the Volkswagen listening

He knew we were in the Volkswagen listening

Irresistible is certainly how it felt at the time: like a few other Wimbledons since (in particular, Andre Agassi’s title triumph in 1992 and Roger Federer’s second title in 2004), there was a sense even at the time that Becker was completely dictating the narrative of the fortnight and therefore destined to win. Like just about everyone else in modern times, however, he actually had to win the seven matches to get there first, and this wasn’t some unimpeachable formality: it was probably the exact opposite when he twice had to break Joachim Nyström to stay in his third-round encounter and then made the walk to the net when injured (and therefore apparently ready to retire) in the next round against Tim Mayotte (Becker’s manager and coach both shouted and exhorted him to carry on; they got their way and Becker got his victory).

On a note of exacting Scandiness, one thing that stands from a distance is my memory of how the commentariat and purveyors of punditry on the BBC pronounced the name of Becker’s Swedish semi-final opponent, who again had Becker in trouble before failing to convert some points for a two-set lead and then coming out far less inspired after a rain-break took the match into the final Saturday. Anders Järryd was (I am convinced) Anders Yah-RUDE as far as they were concerned. In years to come, the RUDEness subsided and instead a rather flat aridity came to the fore as Yar-RUDE became YARID.

Why the change? I pondered this at the time, and then realised this week (for the first time ever) that in any case there is an omljod/umlaut/double dot/call it what you will over the a in Järryd. So therefore it seems to me that JAIR-ryd (not quite rude and not quite rid) is the optimum pronunciation, at least if around 1:10 on this YouTube clip is anything to go by.

My fetishistic desire for complete verbal and oral perfection when essaying accents notwithstanding (we know we’re culpable on this blog a lot of the time, so we don’t push the matter), what stands out looking at some old footage of the 1985 final between Becker and Kevin Curren is how restrained the crowd are at match point for Boris (see from about 2:49:00 onwards here). Key matches at Wimbledon nowadays seem to unfold in a permanent cauldron of noise, articulated spectator nerves and emoting (not that this is a bad thing; it has heightened the raw and sharp immediacy of proceedings). Certainly when we are fortunate (as we have been over the last decade or so) to have a succession of frankly absorbing and see-sawing confrontations at all levels in the men’s game, it rather deftly complements the niceties of whether you say Jar-RUDE or JARID or, in actual fact, neither.

Järryd for his part was a fine player, one of the last of the (now almost extinct) brigade to excel in both singles and doubles. In spite of that semi-final loss to Becker, he was in peak form in 1985, reaching a career-high number 5 in the singles list and number 1 in the doubles rankings. He won eight Grand Slam doubles titles in his career, three of them with Stefan Edberg, who may well resume his modern rivalry with Boris Becker, in a coaching format at least, should they respectively guide Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to the men’s final on Sunday week. (Or Novak Đoković if you’re purist to a fault or double fault about that kind of thing.)

Not forever defined by Becker and the rain: Anders Järryd cutting a dash at Wimbledon 2011, where he got to the senior men's doubles final with Jeremy Bates

Not forever defined by Becker and the rain: Anders Järryd cutting a dash at Wimbledon 2011, where he got to the senior men’s doubles final with Jeremy Bates

Danish election: Borgen anticipates real life again

Ahead of today’s election in Denmark, it’s worth noting that centre-right Venstre party leader Lars Løkke Rasmussen, who may well reclaim the premiership four years after he ceded it, was perilously close to the abyss a couple of years ago over the issue of expenses claims.

Just as in the first series of Borgen in 2010, a centre-right prime minister, Lars Hessleboe, lost power after getting embroiled in a shopping expenses scandal. He later reclaimed the premiership.

Not guesswork by Borgen all round (even if the order of the prophesying is not quite impeccable). Sorry if I am the three millionth person to pick up on this: I have been out of the loop a bit recently.

Lars, not that Lars: the real-life one

Lars, not that Lars: the real-life one

Lars not that Lars: the Borgen one

Lars not that Lars: the Borgen one

Scandi social democrats falling out of love?

A story from Politiko in Denmark today, or, rather, one sourced from the Swedish title Expressen, which, if true, indicates the problems facing Scandinavian social democracy (and indeed, Europe-wide social democracy) ahead of today’s election. Apparently the ruling Social Democrats in Sweden have been distinctly cool about lending support to their counterparts in Denmark due to the tone the centre-left has adopted in Denmark on immigration. This underlines a problem with political parochialism in general: it shuns internationalism (and therefore runs the risk of fracturing bodies of support and alienating potential allies within a wider continental frame, especially if they don’t happen to agree with the actual policy).

New parties key to Denmark election result?

The Denmark election is taking place today with polls on a knife-edge. A Gallup poll late last night had the centre-left bloc, led by incumbent prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, narrowly trailing the centre-right bloc, led by the man Thorning-Schmidt ousted from the premiership in the 2011 election, Lars Løkke Rasmussen.

Just as was the case with the shock Conservative victory in last month’s UK general election, it would be rash to jump to simplistic conclusions (or indeed predict the election outcome), not least because these polls certainly do not present a cut-and-dry case for ‘Thorning-Schmidt bad, Rasmussen good’.

The Gallup poll projects that Thorning-Schmidt’s governing Social Democrats will actually gain two seats and narrowly increase its vote tonight (a parallel of sorts with former UK Labour leader Ed Miliband, who has had to deal with the paradox of suffering the most devastating defeat for his party in 32 years whilst being the first person to increase the Labour share of the vote in 18 years).

Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Helle Thorning-Schmidt

At the same time, Rasmussen’s Venstre Parti is set to post what in any normal circumstances would be an exceptionally bad result. Having suffered the indignity of coming third in last year’s European elections, they are projected to lose ten seats on the basis of this Gallup poll. Within the right-wing bloc at least, the party with all the momentum behind it is the Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party), who are pursuing the same populist right-wing agenda that has served them well at the polls for several years. The Gallup poll projects that they will win ten seats.

Although there is evidence that anti-establishment politics is gaining traction in Denmark, I would argue that this is not borne out by the standing of the People’s Party itself. Having played a key role within the right-wing coalition that governed Denmark between 2001 and 2011, it seems more establishment than anti-establishment, not least when its views on the EU and immigration are not exactly unconditionally rejected and repelled by Thorning-Schmidt herself. 

The ‘anti-establishment’ zeitgeist seems better represented by the Alternative Party, a green political party that has nonetheless remained coy about saying whether it does ‘left or right’ politics (although it is technically part of the Thorning-Schmidt bloc going into tonight’s election). The party itself dates back to 2013, but Gallup projects that it will pick up eight seats tonight (having of course not won any mandates in 2011). Perhaps on the evidence of the Wiki description, ‘green entrepreneurship’ would describe its ethos better.

Similarly, the Liberal Alliance, formed as recently as 2007, and part of Rasmussen’s centre-right bloc going into the election, are projected to gain four seats – even though the Danish Wiki page seems to bear out concerns that it is rather light on policy, its commitment to EU membership notwithstanding.

Although the new parties seem key to the election result, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that anti-immigrant and anti-EU sentiments are defining the political debate in Denmark, irrespective of who wins. The worrying aspect for the left must be the projected retreat of the minor parties within the centre-left bloc, with the pro-immigration Danish Social Liberal Party projected to lose the eight seats it gained in 2011 and the Socialist People’s Party projected to lose seven seats, just as it did in 2011. This may be the most potent factor with regards to the overall result as voters go to the polls today.

If Thorning-Schmidt does hang on, there may well be a sense that she has scrambled over the finishing line with no particular momentum for the left, with the main story a direct net switch from the Venstre party to the Danish People’s Party and not enough voters defecting from the left bloc to the right bloc.

That was more or less the pattern of last year’s election in Sweden, when support for Fredrik Reinfeldt’s ruling Moderate party collapsed and the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats benefited. The Social Democrats, under the much-vaunted leadership of Stefan Löfven, had seemed certain to gain power, but their vote barely increased and they barely got over the finishing line (or indeed didn’t at all given that they had to form a minority coalition with the Greens which barely made it through last year and into this one in one piece).

Stefan Löfven - unconvincing victor in Sweden last year

Stefan Löfven – unconvincing victor in Sweden last year

Unlike the UK, the question of exit from the EU seems less potent in Denmark (for now, at least). But a recent piece in the German press suggesting that the direct train connection between Berlin and Copenhagen is in jeopardy seems in some way symbolic of Denmark’s predicament at the moment. It is part of the EU, unlike Greece it is not in a state of financial crisis that threatens its very presence in the European project, and under the Social Democrats unemployment has gone down somewhat since the nadir of the 2008 financial crisis (belying concerns that immigrants pose a threat to actual job availability).

For all that, Denmark looks curiously detached and wary of the outside world, even in a decade where numerous countries look detached and wary of the outside world. That’s a particularly big irony at a time when Danish televised drama has once more its best to conquer the televised drama world with 1864, a series which seems to resist jingoism and parochialism with every ounce of its conception and realisation.

Esbjerg and the layperson’s Mount Rushmore

The manifold joys of recently watching early noughties Danish cop drama Unit One (Rejseholdet in Danish) have included watching Mads Mikkelsen on the inexorable rise to stardom (but doing it on his own Danish terms) and the showcasing of individual locations in Denmark in each particular episode. There’s something formulaic yet varied and enjoyable about this format, not least because it draws attention to monuments and vistas which might have completely bypassed the non-Danish viewer otherwise.

Particularly attractive in this respect is an episode set in Esbjerg which offers an impressive shot of an impressive monument, the Mennesket ved Havet work by Svend Viig Hansen. I like to think of it as a layperson’s Mount Rushmore: it makes use of a humanoid quartet but the four individuals could be anyone, not just a suite of statesmen. It is Scandi elegant egalitarianism wrought large, not least because the figures are both imposing and graceful, lending them a certain androgyny (it’s worth noting that menneske translates as both man and human). For my part I would cast them as four nautical types: ship’s cook, shipbroker, dock warehouse guard and fisherman seem as good as any identities.

An open letter to Andy Burnham

An open letter to Andy Burnham, candidate for the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party.

There is a Scandi link of sorts here directly mentioned below (the Nordic Council and the Nordic Passport Union). The other obvious parallel is the moribund state of social democracy in Scandinavia at the moment, with Norway, Iceland and Finland all firmly in the grasp of centre-right parties, the Social Democrats in power by default rather than enthusiastic voter support in Sweden, and one of the most important elections (if not the most important) in Denmark’s modern history taking place tomorrow at a time when there is nothing separating the centre-left and centre-right blocs in the polls (yet a time when anti-EU and anti-immigrant rhetoric also shows no signs of abating). 

Andy Burnham

Andy Burnham

Dear Andy Burnham,

Thank you for your recent e-mails and texts asking what my top priority is as a new Labour party member.

Although I feel the most important thing for a political leader and a movement is a vision which transcends one or two priorities, I would stress that the country is in urgent need of reform to the housing and pension sectors that involves following something other than the free-market dogma which has underpinned political thinking and practice since 1979.

I am 41 years old and am still not on the property ladder in spite of having worked almost continuously since I graduated in 1996 (this not counting the work I did whilst I was an undergrad). I refuse to accept that somehow I have worked insufficiently hard to give myself a home of my own and income security in my years to come.

The Conservative policy of now wishing to sell off housing association properties is frankly awful and just about the most dire policy they have come up with since Margaret Thatcher became their leader in 1975. I don’t choose these words lightly as I am aware there is stiff competition on this front. Labour needs to present a radical alternative in order to make decent hard-working middle-income, lower-middle income and working-class communities feel like they are something other than a growing body of disenfranchised individuals precariously close to serfdom (again, I don’t choose this word lightly).

In a nutshell, I think Labour would be able to make progress on this front and bypass the credibility problems thrown up by the mansion tax and rent caps in the election if it still commits itself to (or seeks to increase) relatively high levels of taxation for the prosperous and introduces tax incentives for the social groups I have highlighted above (not least small business owners, whose numbers have mushroomed due to the paucity of well-paid jobs in established large companies).

This would help underpin a genuine long-term process of redistribution and make those lower down the ladder feel that they are being rewarded. It would also go a long way to detoxifying the familiar claim in the years leading up to the 2015 election that Labour is not tough enough on benefit claimants as it would demonstrate an understanding of the value and potential of those who do work hard for a living but who don’t get to see the rewards they would like.

I am sure this can be done in a way that produces healthy amounts of state revenue whilst giving some slack to those lower down the social ladder. The important issue stemming from 2015 is that Labour needs time to formulate these policies but also time to present them coherently so that they gain ground and favour with the public over months and years, not just a matter of weeks.

Labour’s leader at last month’s election defeat, Ed Miliband, was right to address the issues I discussed but wrong to present policies such as rent caps and the end of non-dom tax exemption so close to an election. This enabled the Conservatives to carry out classic diversionary and deflecting tactics such as saying the Labour leader had ‘stabbed his brother in the back’ and was as such unfit to rule, trumping the immediacy of Miliband’s announcements with a new deliberately overplayed and unpleasantly alarmist – yet politically effective – immediacy. I hope Labour has learned its lesson on this occasion.

Otherwise I would mention various issues which I feel are of importance. (I have taken the trouble to present these in a letter format as I hope using an overpriced first-class stamp emphasises that I take them seriously and am not just prepared to respond for free in text or e-mail form!)

  • Europe; the party needs to be unambiguously committed to staying in the EU. As highlighted above, the idea that migrants are sponging off the system has a lot of the teeth taken out of it if Labour has a decent taxation policy in place (thus in turn taking the teeth out of Cameron’s reform negotiations);
  • Human rights; Labour needs to unambiguously explain why a British bill of rights is no more than a poor third-rate substitute for a perfectly valid existing HRA. I am concerned that Liberal Democrat leadership frontrunner Tim Farron is doing an excellent job of ‘ground war campaigning’ on this front but that no Labour politician has seen it fit to at least actively join forces with him (not campaigning actively and jointly with Nick Clegg and indeed Nigel Farage on electoral reform in 2011 cost Ed Miliband dear in this respect);
  • The BBC; Labour needs to make the case for retaining the licence fee but introducing payments for playback coverage. This gives two perfectly feasible viewing choices, underlines the idea that the BBC is committed to viewer choice, and nullifies the right-wing argument that the licence fee is some sort of draconian poll tax (it isn’t as it is optional rather than compulsory but one needs good proactive policies to hammer this point home);
  • Scotland; Labour has gained nothing from unionist policies in recent times and I suspect Scotland itself does not particularly benefit from being in the union (the levels of poverty I saw there whilst on holiday in 2013 brought this point home emphatically). The odds are that the 2014 referendum was no more of a ‘one-off’ than the 1979 devolution referendum was and that Labour needs to accept that a more federalised (and probably eventually independent) Scotland is not some great taboo in the long term. Labour may have only won 231 seats in England and Wales on May 7 but that is the same as to say it did better in England and Wales than it did in the nadir of 1983, indicating that in the long run at least, independence for Scotland is not some electoral suicide. Labour needs to look at how the Nordic Council and Nordic Passport Union work in terms of trade agreements and freedom of movement and present a coherent and sensible framework for the existing UK countries embracing such an ideal. Committing to such a cause may seem bold, but in terms of how countries are actually governed, legendary figures such as Nelson Mandela and John Hume got the rewards for their long-term boldness. The SNP were wrong in the way they went about pursuing independence (especially Alex Salmond’s notion that the pound could be kept) but right in principle to pursue independence. Labour’s task is to take the lead on this issue and demonstrate it is not one predicated on mere nationalism;
  • Local politics at a national election level; the Conservatives won on May 7 because they got ‘local’ better (to coin a concept). I was really disconcerted by how disorganised and fatalistic a constituency Labour party sounded a week before the election when I rang to inform them the local Conservative candidate was retweeting spurious claims about Labour’s record in office. Given that the Labour majority over the Conservatives was less than 5,000, the person answering the phone should have at least known who the Conservative candidate was. Compare this with the astute ‘grassroots’ politics of Tory MP Robert Halfon, the assiduous attention paid by Tories to Lib Dem marginals well before May 7, and the canny selection of born-and-bred local Tory candidates in bellwether seats. Labour needs to embrace local activists and actually ensure that its candidates can ‘talk human’ as the late Charles Kennedy might have said. In this sense, there is not much point in selecting genuinely local candidates if they are not allowed to expound their ideas in civilised fashion to the national media (which was the disconcerting impression given in Nuneaton during a John Harris video report for The Guardian newspaper just prior to the election).
  • Local politics at a local level; Rotherham is a truly shameful moment in Labour’s history and gives the impression that in too many instances too little attention is paid to local issues as long as the seat or council is safely Labour. I suspect that on this front at least, Labour needs to start accepting that the Big Society is a plausible way for describing the untold amount of community and charity work that people in this country do carry out. In order to strengthen communities and marginalise those who would be anti-social to an extreme nature (or convince them of their wrong), be it paedophiles, ASBO teenagers, Muslim extremists, or right-wing nationalist extremists, Labour needs to operate on a social level as much as a political one and find some way of incorporating this community and charity work into its modus operandi (thereby echoing the spirit of the Rochdale Pioneers). People may sniff at charity if it seems too contrary a concept to socialism, but abstract socialism counts for little at the moment if it is failing to prevent people from starving under five more years of Conservative government.

Otherwise I would mention two pet issues of mine which don’t necessarily feature large in the Labour remit (but which I would argue are all the more important for that).

  • The police have had a wretched deal under the Tories (who possibly assume the law enforcers aren’t going to vote for Labour en masse and that the Tories can therefore get away with waging war on them, just as New Labour played roulette with its own core supporters). Time for Labour to work out how to repair fences with them;
  • Rural and semi-rural poverty is a really worrying indictment of what Britain is like in the 2010s, even if it goes under-reported. I fail to see how farmers who just about manage from day to day are any different from public sector workers who just about manage from day to day (especially following the 2014 floods in Somerset). I am rather tired of the tribalised enmity (at worst) or remarkable non-relationship between Labour and countryside communities (especially bizarre given the historical importance of the Tolpuddle Martyrs); as much as I would like the ban on fox hunting to be retained, I think this needs to go hand-in-hand with an understanding of issues such as the plight of dairy farmers in the face of cut-throat supermarket pricing competition. Labour may never convince some people that a hunting ban is correct, but, in the interests of representing everyone (not just a metropolitan elite, lifelong Labour voters in lifelong Labour seats etc), it also needs to ensure that rural life is not defined by this one issue alone and do so in an empathetic and discerning way.

I appreciate this is a long letter but it is one I have been meaning to write for a long time. I intend to publish it on my blog as well in the interests of at least presenting my ideas to a larger audience. There are themes not explored here that I need to address in my own time (and perhaps write about further); however, I expect you to be the next Labour leader and at the moment do not see a feasible alternative for at least starting the process of returning Labour to the sensible communitarian centre-left. Therefore I hope I have at least outlined some of the issues that concerned me.

Finally, I would warn Labour against being mired in a stupid war of words where ‘Taliban New Labour’ is actually genuinely considered a constructive way of moving on from Tony Blair. It serves the doubly defeating purpose of reminding people of Tony Blair’s most destructive legacy (the various conflicts in the Middle East and their consequences) whilst turning a blind eye to the fact he still won three elections for Labour. This double-edged paradox is perhaps the most sensitive and troublesome one in Labour’s entire history. It requires the utmost discernment to deal with it, not playground insults and name-calling from both sides.

Good luck with your leadership campaign.

Yours sincerely

Worldly Scandifriend