Thursday, 27 February 2014

3 things David Cameron could learn from Angela Merkel

It isn't very often that I get particularly excited about visits by foreign dignitaries. Barack Obama's visit a few years back was nice, but it didn't exactly inspire me. By the time he visited, what shine that was left on his Presidency was quickly wearing thin for me. Yes, he was a glossy American politician wearing a nice suit, but it didn't get me excited. Angela Merkel's visit today, however, is incredibly exciting - if only for the perspective it gives over David Cameron's leadership of his party and our country. It seems to me that Cameron (somebody who I still believe is made, in some percentage or another, out of pork luncheon meat) could learn a thing or two by Europe's most powerful leader and coalition-builder in chief.

Firstly, Merkel proves that grandstanding about whether people will or won't enter coalition won't make any difference. The piece in the Telegraph on Monday suggesting that Cameron would pledge not to enter coalition again only proves an air of arrogance that we haven't seen in a while. From my experience, people on the doorstep quite like the fact that coalition means a middle way. It's a sad indictment on the two major parties that the likely outcome of the next General Election is that the public finds both of them too shabby to award an overall majority. Merkel is well versed in coalition building, in the national interest or otherwise, and she knows that the public should never be second guessed. This is something the Conservatives could do with remembering.

On another front, her visit says something very important about a Conservative Party prone to puffing it's chest over Europe. It's all well and good whining about referenda or rebates, but would any of the Tory back-benchers have the gall to say it to her face? There's no irony lost on me in the fact that whilst Cameron tries to be as macho on EU reform as possible, we're welcoming the head-honcho with open arms. The reality is, whatever squabbles we're currently having about the EU (regardless of the fact that a referendum has already been legislated for, thanks very much), I wouldn't be surprised if a fair amount of fawning goes on on all sides. At least we can breathe a sigh of relief that Peter Bone is otherwise engaged.
Germany, in safe hands.
For me though, the crux of the matter is that Angela Merkel's visit only shows British Poltics for what it is - male, pale and small. Rather than engaging properly in debate about the big issues (you know, the fact that climate change still exists despite the recession, or the fact that we have an ageing population whose pensions and benefits aren't going to pay themselves?) our politicians argue back and forth in circles. Should we ban the Burqa? How can we make the lives on immigrants harder? Should we bring back the dealth penalty in the light of the Lee Rigby verdict? I'd rather our politicians worried about where we, as a country, are going - instead, they seem to rattle around desperately trying to win over the right-wing press in a bid to scrape together a few more seats. Our politics and our politicians are growing smaller, it's no wonder people aren't likely to care enough either way to turn out to vote.

I, for one, am glad that Liberal Democrats at Spring Conference will have the option to support truly progressive and forward-thinking policy - not bound by some kind of trial by Daily Mail. If we can learn anything from Angela Merkel, it's to accept that coalition is a very likely possibility, but steam ahead regardless; carving a vibrant and Liberal vision for the United Kingdom. Then, and only then, we will be able to show the other parties for what they are - shabby little men, chasing polls more than they're chasing votes. The people of this country deserve better.

As Delia Smith might say, 'Let's be 'avin you.'

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Hidden Histories : The Gay Holocaust

As many of you will know, February is LGBT History month. Around the world, events are held that look our collective history in the face and try to reach some kind of understanding about where we've come from. More often than not, these events focus on educating young people about people or events they might not know about. I'm happy to admit that I didn't know much about Harvey Milk's work before the film was produced a few years ago. And that's the issue, if we're to get anywhere, we need to know where we've come from.

All of this came together for me, when my partner and I visited the Auschwitz Concentrations Camps during a recent visit to Poland. I can't quite explain what it was that compelled us to visit, I think it was a mixture of historical curiosity and a need to try and make some kind of sense of it. What I found was, of course, harrowing. The visit left me reeling for a few days afterward, but it also left me with more questions than anything else.

In deciding to go, I'd done a certain amount of research. I think it was part of a process of understanding things before we visited, in some kind of bid to protect myself from the shock of it all. The part that I particularly connected with was the treatment of homosexual men (*the Lesbian experience was somewhat different, only because the Nazis didn't believe lesbianism to pose the same 'threat' to the furtherance of the Third Reich, though was horrific in its own right) - I guess it's easier to comprehend things if you feel that you have some connection with it. I'm also aware that understanding what happened to around fifteen thousand men is a slightly easier task than beginning to comprehend the mass killing of millions of innocent people.

What I found at Auschwitz was surprising, however. Whilst I'd fully expected the most part of the visit to focus on the treatment of European Jews, what clearly was happening was some bid to allow every affected community to remember. The buildings of Auschwitz I were hived off, one remembering Russian people held at the camp, another remembering members of the Romany community. Each building, divided off and used for individual communities in their acts of remembrance.

On only one occasion, however, did I find a reference to the gay men interred at Auschwitz. This isn't surprising, because what happened after the war ended was almost as shocking as the treatment of these men before 1945. Having survived the Nazi death-camps, gay men were often re-arrested for 'repeat offenses'. They were often beaten and seen as 'true criminals' - their experiences discredited because they were seen as 'less innocent' than others.

Similarly, during the war, these men were subjected to their own version of hell. Often isolated and housed in barracks solely for 'sexual deviants', these men were forced to sleep with their hands outside the bedding - beaten if they were found with them elsewhere by morning. They were often forced to work even harder than other inmates. In other experiments, they were forced to have sex with 'prostitutes' (often women also held captive) whilst Camp Officers watched, in some sick attempt to ex-gay them. This in itself contributing to the fact that gay men were far less likely to survive in camps than other communities.

To me, LGBT History month is an opportunity to remember everything that is good and proud and right about the struggle we've been through. It's a fantastic opportunity to understand the events that have led to equal marriage being granted in the UK. But it's also a time to properly reflect on our history and the parts of it that have been erased. More than one hundred thousand men were arrested and tried for homosexuality in Nazi Occupied territories, and around fifteen thousand men were sent to concentration camps for being who they were. These men were talented, passionate and loving people - they deserve to be remembered this month more than any other.

For those interested, there's a very interesting documentary on the subject on YouTube called 'Paragraph 175' - the particular law relating to homosexuality in Nazi Germany. I'm not sure if it's meant to be on YouTube, so, just be aware.

* Note added in second draft. Lesbian women often suffered incredibly traumatic experiences including corrective rape, they weren't sent to concentration camps in quite the same way, however, mainly because legislation focussed on gay men.