Monday, August 27, 2018

Brexit and Democracy - A Reply to François Matarasso

Dear François

Thank you for taking the trouble to respond to my questions on Twitter in such depth and with such care.  We are, of course, in agreement on most of the key issues.  Like you, I am sure that the referendum was an appalling idea, and that the key to Parliamentary democracy is that complex questions have to be settled through complex processes of legislation - informed, nuanced processes - not reduced to a simple binary.  Like you, I find the persistence of the outmoded "First past the post" system absurd.  Like you, I am inclined to believe that the best chance of survival now is in the People's Vote campaign, although (like you) I do not feel that this second use of the referendum tool stands any chance of healing the wounds opened by the first, even if it does manage to halt the march over the cliff edge.  I would also be deeply concerned that such a Vote would confirm the creeping doctrine that a referendum is the highest form of democracy, trumping Parliamentary statute, rather than being subject to Parliamentary sovereignty.

Last week, my local MP wrote to her constituents about the People's Vote.  Her name is Joan Ryan, and she is a Labour MP, though significantly to the right of the current leader.  She asked us to return a form, in which we were asked to tick one of three boxes:
  • Yes, there should be a public vote on the final Brexit deal, just in case.
  • No, there shouldn't be a public vote and we should just get on with it, whether it's good or bad.
  • It's an interesting idea.  I'd like to know more about it.
"I'd like to know more about it."  Now, there's an argument for Parliamentary sovereignty rather than plebiscite if ever there was one....

Aside of the disingenuous language, this "voter consultation", or market research, is in effect a mini-referendum on a referendum.  It suggests to me that the root of this whole crisis is in the focus-group approach to democracy that was pioneered by Tony Blair: the idea that policy is just another consumer product, and that in order to "sell" it, you must first find out whether it appeals.  Cameron's appeal to "the people" as a ploy to outflank UKIP in the competition for "market share" was a logical continuation of this. But policy is not a consumer product, and representatives are not delegates.  Joan Ryan's attempt to muster some statistics on public opinion to back the People's Vote smacks of desperation - surely the democratic thing would be to argue in Parliament that such a vote is inherently desirable?

You say that the most compelling point I made on Twitter related to the illegal actions of the Leave campaign, but that "electoral law is quite often broken but that rarely leads to results being overturned".  That is true - but it isn't an argument against overturning the result in this case.  Only today, Tom Watson has called for a "Mueller-style investigation" into possible Russian interference in the referendum. Carole Cadwalladr's reporting on the manipulation of data by Leave has made it clear that this was a deeply anti-democratic campaign, indeed a corrupt and criminal campaign, and that it shared its principal actors with the Trump election campaign, which has this last week been proven criminal.  At the very least, this would seem to make a cast-iron case for the suspension of the Article 50 process pending a proper investigation into whether the basis on which Brexit is being conducted has any validity at all.

You referred to something you wrote in the immediate aftermath of the referendum result - and I find myself doing the same.  This dates from July 5th 2016, and I stand by it today.  The key points about democracy are towards the end of the piece.  In particular, I want to emphasise again the importance to democratic processes of considering significant minorities and their needs.  The Northern Irish dimension, which was completely ignored by both sides in the campaign, is now the biggest obstacle to a "deal" (another commercial term contaminating democratic political discourse).  Is it really "democratic" to force the province to lose the integration with the Republic that has brought peace to the island of Ireland, when the citizens of the province decisively voted against such a decision?

I agree with pretty much everything you say, François; but I can't go with you to the conclusion that "As a democrat, I have to accept Brexit, despite misgivings".  For me, as a democrat, I simply cannot accept it.

your friend

PS  I've matched your Fountains Abbey with Glastonbury.  Both casualties of a previous occasion when England decided to cut off ties from the continent.
"Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Multicultural Montréal

Présence Autochtone
I've just spent a week in Montréal, thanks to a grant from the British Council and the Québec Government, who are looking to build artistic and cultural collaborations.  It's a fascinating space for anyone working in intercultural and multicultural performance.  The Francophone Québecois, fiercely proud of their identity, clearly regard themselves as a minority with a drum to bang within the predominantly Anglophone Canada.  The Anglophones in Québec, in turn, are officially classed as a minority.  So that means the two dominant cultural groups are both minorities.  Which doesn't leave all that much room for the minority minorities.

I'd been to the city several times before, particularly to research indigenous work for ORIGINS, and the First People's Festival, Présence Autochtone, is a longstanding ally.  This year the Festival took advantage of my trip, and made me one of two visiting professionals to talk about our work (the other was Jerker Bexelius from the Southern Sámi Cultural Centre in Sweden).  As so often, there was some bemusement, even suspicion, from the indigenous audience as to why a British organisation should want to curate a Festival of indigenous cultures in London - a suspicion that soon disappears when they hear about the healing agenda in what we do, and the positive value constantly placed on the global indigenous movement.

As I spoke about the real need we have in the UK for the positive models that indigenous culture can offer, the Festival Director André Dudemaine remarked that this was like something Jean-Paul Sartre had said during the Algerian War: that the Algerians were not only fighting to free themselves from colonisation - but that they would also liberate the French.  A people cannot be free while it continues to oppress others.  It was a characteristically astute observation, and it also made me realise that, while many First Nations are quite resistant to the Québecois agenda, indigenous Francophones like André inevitably read their position in relation to a French discourse. Until then, I had always thought of the Festival's name as a simple statement of "We're still here" - but I now realise that it relates to a whole tradition of resistance to colonialism.  Présence Africaine, to which I now realise the name alludes, is a pan-African magazine, published in Paris since 1947.  As an exhibition at Montréal's Musée des Beaux Arts reminds me, it was crucial to the development of Négritude, and Picasso provided illustrations, working alongside Aimée Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor.  Sartre and Camus contributed too - even négritude was not separatist, and embraced its allies.

There are allies for the First Nations in Montréal too.  I got to meet Rahul Varma, a playwright and producer who runs Teesri Duniya Theatre (it means "Third World" in Hindi), and who set up the fascinating magazine  Rahul's company produces a wide range of plays, characterised by a global perspective that links specific communities in Québec with the international.  That has included First Nations, as well as refugees, Palestinians, and people involved in both the Rwandan and Armenian genocides.  I met Johanna Nutter, who is working with First Nations visual artist Nadia Myre as a way to develop artistic practice and cultural reach for both of them.  I met Michael Toppings, whose organisation MAI offers space and support for a whole range of diverse artists.

And yet....   It feels like there's a very long way to go.  When André and Rahul talk about the very low levels of funding and press coverage they are able to access, it doesn't sound like sour grapes - it sounds real.  When the agenda of the provincial government is to promote what it regards as a minority (the Francophones), then it's much less likely to open up to other minorities.  There's no doubt that Montréal is a global, intercultural city - but its arts funding structure and its press don't really reflect that as yet.

I had a wonderful evening with Yves Sioui Durand and Catherine Joncas, the founding Artistic Directors of Ondinnok, who came to the very first ORIGINS Festival in 2009 to lead a workshop around their Theatre of Healing work.  Yves cooked salmon and wild mushrooms, and we talked about their astonishing work.  But they were also clearly under a cloud - and it was a cloud cast by two great Francophone theatre-makers who they had regarded as their allies and friends. They are also two theatre-makers whom I admire immensely, and have been privileged to meet and talk with over the years. Ariane Mnouchkine and Robert Lepage had decided to work together to create a piece called Kanata, in which the story of Canada's First Nations would be told.  The only thing was - there were no First Nations people involved, either on stage or in consulting roles.  There was, of course, a protest, and the production has now been cancelled.

For Yves and Catherine, it feels very personal.  Yves worked closely with Robert on his previous production about Edmund Kean and First Nations, Alanienouidet.  Yves and Catherine worked twice with Ariane at the Cartoucherie, helping her company in rehearsals, for example on Le Dernier Caravansérail.  I find it difficult to understand how two such creative and aware people, who already know First Nations artists of this calibre, could not have realised that people would be upset by their decisions.  I do not believe in essentialism - in the theatre or anywhere else: it is nonsense to say that only Chinese people can talk about China or African people about Africa.  But globalised, multicultural, post-colonial spaces require globalised, multicultural, post-colonial dialogues and collaborations in order to achieve the complex art that can reflect their kaleidoscopic realities.  It isn't enough for those of us from the former colonial powers and the settler communities who see ourselves as allies of the colonised to represent them and to tell their stories on our stages.  They will still be our stages, and the action of representation so comes to reinforce rather than undermine the imbalances of power.  Our stages, like our cities and our politics, have to be shared.

[Research trip supported by the British Council]