Chasing the tail of Brexit

I’ve been considering whether to write about Brexit. So much to say in one sense, but so little to comment on in terms of actual developments, 9 months in. There have at least been a succession of empty sound bites from government, added to this week by a truly messy BBC Question Time Brexit special (which UK viewers can watch on iPlayer, here)… it’s enough to make you pull your hair out.

But it would be remiss of me to ignore the debate today: the day that the UK signs ‘Article 50’. A chance, I’m sure, for nationalists patriots to mark with fervour, with a blurry idea of what it is they’re actually celebrating – not entirely their fault, given the opacity of how Brexit is progressing on a governmental level. The more fringe quarters of the rightwing press are crowing about ‘our’ very own ‘Independence Day’. It is dubbed, somewhat clumsily, ‘E-day‘ (all your trigger warnings come at once: it’s a Daily Mail link). I mean, I quip about fringe quarters of the press, but The Daily Mail is the UK’s most-read newspaper with circulation figures of 2 million, making it the 4th-most read English language newspaper in the world. Lovely.

British EU desks

‘Taking back control’

It is at least true that signing Article 50 will trigger the extrication of the UK from the European Union. But this triggering is not really a ‘breaking free’ in any significant sense. In fact it is more like the reverse of a ‘taking back control’ promised to the electorate. It is a capitulation of British interests, money and co-operative policy structures built over half a century, in a ham-fisted attempt to assuage a misguided postcolonial crisis of identity. *Breathes deeply*. Take what you can from the humour of the BBC show; there’s nothing funny about our real Little Britain. Article 50 represents the start, not the end, of an interminably long political negotiation to decide how European trade and movement will work in the future. According to Whitehall policy staff, there are 700 separate areas to disentangle. It’s like a large-scale divorce: only in this divorce, there is little precedent for what should happen, and an awful lot at stake for people outside the marriage itself.

As for what the relationship between Britain and the EU will look like in the future, that will remain unclear for longer still: the first negotiations will only be able to deal with Britain’s actual departure. Britain has been told by the EU it has outstanding financial commitments of around €60 billion to pay. We don’t seem to be in a particularly strong position to argue against that, seeing as our ‘side’ still needs to secure future lucrative trade deals with the bloc in the wake of, err, those trade deals we’re about to lose with our EU membership. Why would other European countries allow Britain the same or even similar access to their trade offering when Britain isn’t willing to abide by the tenets of EU membership? We can’t have our cake and eat it too, as Philip Hammond noted this morningContra bluster from British tabloids about our country’s refusal to bend to the will of European plutocrats (itself a claim with something of the echo chamber about it: MP’s expenses, anyone? Tory fraud scandal? House of Lords paid non-attendance?) David Davis has actually already admitted that yes, we will have to pay up. Brexit: so far, so messy.

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That red bus

Paying €60 billion rather dwarfs the red bus brigade that claimed £350 million per week went into the EU. In fact, the latter figure has been disproven anyway, not least because of the value of reciprocal income. But €60 billion also pales into insignificance when you consider the £220 billion worth of exports alone we currently sell to EU countries every year, as well as the same – more, in fact – bought via our imports from EU countries. Those will be compromised when we lose unilateral trade agreements for at least the period of negotiations, if not longer. Sure, we can work through policy that tries to shore up some of this trade, as well as looking to other countries to stem the gulf – but that takes time and, surprise! – money. These are complicated and in all likelihood, protracted, negotiations that voters last summer were truly in the dark about: either because they didn’t think about it or they weren’t equipped with the information to do so effectively.

For those with buyer’s remorse, the £350 million saved per week can go to the NHS though, right? Apart from nothing’s come through yet. The claim is now abandoned by the very people who made it, and in real terms, NHS spending is actually down. Even where NHS spending may increase, adjusting for inflation shows that it won’t rise as much as suggested, and non-NHS health services face disproportionate cuts. ‘Leave’ voters should rightly be furious.

Us vs. Them

What was interesting about this week’s BBC Question Time Brexit special was not so much the political performances but the audience. Again and again, what people complained about/were worried about/made uninformed assumptions about… was immigration. In case we were in any doubt, Brexit was for many people a protest vote to reduce immigration. The fact that the EU is represents only half of inward movement of people to the UK is besides the point to these voters, who just want less of it and do not feel they are given opportunities to make that heard: and so they used our European membership referendum as their direct line.

On an economic basis, complaints about the drain of migrants have been repeatedly proven unfounded, as this excellent Movehub infographic shows (full version in link, albeit only measuring up to 2012). In fact, EU migrants are of greater benefit to the UK than non-EU migrants. They are mostly young, working, and paying taxes. But good luck countering feelings with facts. Until we listen to voters’ concerns and where they come from – whether emotionally or practically – they will not feel listened to. Through it all, Brexit is kicked jerkily into action despite its at-best tangential relevance to the issues that are really at stake for a disadvantaged electorate.

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Political rhetoric, course 101

What now? Well, no-one really knows still. David Davis may bluster about the solid 9 months of work done by his department to set things up for disentangling itself from the EU (incidentally, the department is rather refreshingly titled ‘The Department for Exiting the European Union’ – no acronyms here, pals). But a smooth ride hardly seems likely given the myriad aspects needing consideration, from economics and trade to constitutions, binding and non-binding policy regulation. Think of the headache involved in deciding the rights that should be afforded to EU nationals currently resident in the UK, and Brits abroad.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: this whole Brexit scenario was an avoidable crisis, manufactured and stoked by egotistical politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson who enjoyed their soapbox without having to take ultimate responsibility. It will swallow money, human resources and focus from other crucially important issues that do need political action and do deserve the focus of British voters. There’s plenty wrong with the EU, but the union has stepped up its efforts to better rationalise processes in the interests of cost-saving and efficiency. It seems to me far better to be part of an like-minded, established bloc with half a century of experience than going it alone in a global age of economic uncertainty, compounded by shifting geopolitical allegiances that threaten civil unrest at any time.

Sure, at times we have invested more into the EU than we were getting out; but such disproportionate political grandstanding to exit a union that has done a lot of good seems all the more surreal when you consider the £31 billion we are paying to renew Trident. Let’s call it what it is – a nuclear deterrent for a small country with dwindling impact on the world stage. Using the euphemism of ‘Trident’ lets us get away without consideration of what nuclear armament, with all its consequences, really means. Still: might come in useful in a future where our European allies are rather colder in their diplomatic collateral.

What I’m saying is: I know we’re supposed to get behind these political machinations now. I know that ‘Brexit means Brexit‘ (but what, exactly, is Brexit?). I know that there will be unenviable work done by incredibly dedicated civil servants here and on the continent to hammer out a mutually beneficial (or mutually palatable) contract over several years. But as an ideological exercise, it remains a misguided, manipulative endeavour and a case study for Political Rhetoric 101. A GCSE history class could pick apart the political motivations for rolling out Brexit at a time of hardening social attitudes, rising nationalism, structural inequality and enforced (and demonstrably ineffective) austerity measures.

In 10 years, when we see an arms-length Europe and a privatised NHS, I don’t think school classes will have any problem in linking the patterns together to show how a perfect storm of misplaced patriotism and lies came together to exacerbate both.

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This really does say it all.

International Women’s Day round-up

I’m up to my neck in deadlines at the moment, so I’ll keep it short and sweet, but today is International Women’s Day and it is more important than ever to celebrate the event. The theme of this year’s celebration is ‘be bold for change’ – a manifesto we can all get behind in a global political climate that remains perilous. The statue of Liberty went unlit last night in an unplanned power cut, and you don’t need me to explain the symbolism 101 happening right there.

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To round-up some of the writing marking today’s importance, I’m reblogging three solid but concise pieces in The Guardian. 

  • Rebecca Solnit argues that silence and powerlessness goes hand in hand, which means it is more important than ever to speak out [whether talking, campaigning, maybe even blogging!] to keep politics progressing. Read more here.

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    Picture credit: Nathalie Lees

  • As a one-time expat in Madrid, Spain myself, I found Sam Jones’ article about women silenced by the 20th-century Franco regime fascinating. These artists, writers and scientists are finally getting the recognition they deserve. Read more here.

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    Elena Fortún memorial plaque

  • Finally, Molly Redden problematises the International Women’s Day campaign ‘A World Without Women’ by asking who it is for – it seems likely that those facing economic precarity aren’t going to be able to strike or take unpaid leave as easily as others. Read more here. (NB: the subheading, ‘feminism is having a mainstream moment’, isn’t very helpful, but I’m blaming that on the subeditor).

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    Photo credit: Shannon Staples/Reuters

Elsewhere, the Guardian has a rolling live news stream of International Women’s Day events, which seems to me an impressive commitment to a range of coverage, including protest.

I know I probably sound like a newspaper employee by this point, but it’s amongst the better of the media platforms I’ve seen today. Highly commended goes to Buzzfeed, for accessible coverage including links out to women writers from the Global South, with some fantastic photography – read more here.

Happy International Women’s Day!

GradFest & the importance of academic networking

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Just a short post this time, to alert QMUL researchers to the PhD-run GradFest next week.

I was an organising committee member for this graduate festival in 2015 and 2016 and found it to be a really valuable experience, both to help organise and attend (I wrote about last year’s here. All these events are free, and have been organised by PhD researchers for others in the academic community. Some you can even attend if you’re at a different London institution. Events cover everything from making your own blog to yoga as a way of switching off from work, but all are united in being chosen by students for their relevance to the PhD process.

The ever-excellent Thesis Whisperer published an interesting piece yesterday questioning if conventional advice we are given about our research is wrong. With all the recent talk of isolation in PhDs, and debates about whether the PhD is even fit for purpose, initiatives like organised events are all the more important for what they can offer us in terms of collaboration and networking. I think inter-disciplinary (and inter-institution) networking is absolutely vital to solid, relevant research, but it’s easier said than done when the research environment encourages the PhD researcher to chip away at their 100,000 word Yellow Pages masterpiece alone. Along with conferences, organised research events like GradFest based on the increasingly popular model of arts or literature festivals, is one way to tackle this singular working pattern.

With my PhD finishing later this year, my thoughts are turning to an academic vs. industry career – or the hybridisation of the two(you know where to find me, Apple). This upcoming session on presenting research, including research that might have taken a wrong turn(!) looks right up my street.


Senate House research room in Bloomsbury makes a scenic change from my living room but alas, few networking opportunities to be had in the hallowed silence.




Art as resistance in the age of unrest


It feels like things are in flux at the moment more than ever before. I’ll save the theatre metaphors for my last post, but this is a world stage changing so fast that I can hardly keep up to write about it.

The worrying thing is that very little of it seems like progress; most feels like regression. To borrow Donald Trump’s favourite Twitter catchline: sad. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you’re lucky enough not to read his tweets, which are a garbled mess of egotistical grandstanding and hurt feelings about his media coverage. But Newsweek have compiled a list of all the things that made him ‘sad’; published last December, it hasn’t even got to some of the best stuff, but there’s ample fodder here to make you laugh (and cry).

How do we go about processing such rapid changes in politics? It feels hard to rationalise some of this stuff. The speed at which his Republican administration has reversed travel rights for migrants and foreign travellers (and then fired the US Attorney General for refusing to endorse the ban), muted the social media accounts of his environmental staff, and disinvested in global family planning and abortion funding is staggering. But the danger is that we find it so hard to process we give up on doing so altogether. This might be exactly what Trump’s administration want, so that they can press ahead with yet more aggressive strategies whilst we split our attention between one carefully manufactured crisis piling on another.

One way we can think (and communicate to others) about what’s happening is by looking at how art and graphic design respond to political upheaval – whether that’s via protest posters, graffiti, or advertising. We’ve seen the way that right-wing media manipulate privately-felt, often inaccurate anxieties within the general population to further their own media agenda. But looking to more creative expressions of feelings from individuals that are communicated outside of mainstream media channels offers us different perspectives.

 Protest posters


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We’ve seen protests around the world in the past week, and the signs were some of the best bits. The first, from Monday’s march in London, was made to protest Theresa May’s refusal to speak out against Trump’s ‘muslim ban’ (photo credit: Rex/Shuttershock). The second is from the women’s march in Washington DC last week (photo credit James Jackson).


This is not a new protest poster – far from it. Made in 1966 as an anti-war image, it got the message so perfectly right that it’s been used ever since. I remember a version of it my mum stuck to the wall of our downstairs loo when I was young, so when I saw the print in the V&A exhibition ‘So You Want to Start A Revolution?’ exhibition the day after the London women’s march I was amazed. Over 50 years on and we’re still having to make the same kind of public demonstration.



How about graffiti? Whether it’s art or vandalism is a separate issue (my personal nightmare is seeing good graffiti covered by sloppy work), but graffiti is uniquely placed to make a visual impact in what are often high-footfall urban environments. The above piece is a chillingly relevant image to accompany the way that Trump (and increasingly, Theresa May) works to turn opinion into pseudo-fact through dogged repetition. Many attribute the above to Banksy, but the tag suggests it’s by Mogul, a Swedish-based stencil graffiti artist. Stencil graffiti may not represent the cutting edge of street art any more, but as a platform for expression, it is well suited for communicating powerful political messaging because it lends itself to text information and is so easily decipherable.


The weird thing is that I used the above piece in an article about the run-up to the EU referendum, back in June, yet now it feels more real than ever. Boris Johnson ‘managed to’ secure free passage for Britons who hold dual nationality with countries on Trump’s banned list: therefore the UK, we are encouraged to believe, has nothing more to worry about. How about us working as allies to those in less privileged arrangements? Not likely.


When it comes to advertising, I’m not naïve enough to believe that corporations work without their own ulterior motives when they respond to political situations – their image is their brand, and by capturing some of the sentiment of what the public feels, they are managing to be ‘on side’ with that public at times when scrutiny of consumption is at its very highest. That said, it’s a good feeling to see advertising that responds to political unrest and resists those things that most agree are problematic or dangerous. It doesn’t have to wade into international relations and come ‘out’ as partisan; the fact it does means that it is confident that a significant proportion of viewers or consumers will share the viewpoint.

Take this Danish TV advert on ‘all that we share’. I defy you not to feel moved by it (and jealous that the Danish once again get this kind of thing right). Click for the video.

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The below advert really caught my eye as I cycled past it in a drizzly Victoria Park this morning, where LOVEBOX festival runs every summer. The double meaning is clear – people get lost at music festivals all the time; in fact I think I must have spent half of every music festival I’ve ever been to lost and with a dead phone – but the political ring of the statement is strong too. In times of dangerous geopolitics we can find resistance in being there for each other.


Another brilliant image comes from the New York Times magazine cover. It’s from 2015, not now, but it’s doing the rounds on Twitter because of its prescience in predicting Trump’s isolationism (I say prescience, but the hands don’t quite match; Trump’s are famously small). As a magazine cover this just blows the competition out of the water. I love it. Look at that blue paint colour, and the erasure it indicates. The position of the globe, how it contrasts the global with the local, and how the whole composition feels old-fashioned, even retro, makes for a striking piece.


In fact, the New York Times has received a lot of media attention for its scrutiny of Trump’s dystopian regime presidency, resulting in appeals to subscribe to its news in the interests of maintaining independent journalism. I’m in two minds about this idea – if you read the content, great, but you might look closer to home for this kind of exchange support model; for example the Guardian has a similar fundraising scheme and rapidly dwindling reserves in the age of online news which is free to access. Better yet would be to fund civil liberties organisations or human rights charities who employ trained policy advisors, researchers and legal teams to investigate human rights abuses and lobby government accordingly. Liberty and Amnesty International are good starting points.

What can we do?

What exactly can we do? I’m not sure I have answers. I missed the London march against Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ because I was teaching, so I wrote to my MP, Meg Hillier, asking her to lobby on behalf of constituents for government to act more decisively than Theresa May’s mealy-mouthed statement calling on Trump to rethink his travel ban (truly an exercise in tautology). Lest we forget, May’s first take on Trump’s bombshell read as follows: ‘immigration policy in the United States is a matter for the government of the United States’. Wow. Judging by the popular and media response, May thought it time to hire a new comms chief, and did just that, choosing – aha! – the Daily Mail’s political editor.

It’s hard to know what else we can do to be effective. Figuring that the ACLU was getting much-needed attention from the U.S side of things, I donated money to the UK Refugee Council and signed a petition calling for the U.K to postpone Trump’s state visit until he reverses his discriminatory travel policy. But how can I be sure that a petition actually works? It seems an awfully easy way to be an activist. Writing to your MP is (slightly) more likely to result in action, and the brilliant They Work For You finds your MP and gives you a template. But my MP is up to her neck in Brexit negotiations (cheers electorate for that time and money drain) and besides, as an inner London Labour MP, I can be pretty sure she already shares her constituents’ views and is lobbying accordingly.

Donations are better yet, as crowd-funding work in America has shown over the past week. And marching is a highly visible form of protest that also brings people together. As this article by Owen Jones points out, Trump is a threat to structures of democracy and grassroots campaigning may be the best strategy to adopt.

But this Medium article is essential reading, expanding on the theme I touched on earlier of manufactured crisis as a way to make larger, more ominous legislative changes; as I say, I’m not sure funding newspapers is more effective than specialist NGOs. But the writer makes a good point that protest is only covered by the media who are interested in covering it; a large swath of American media is in favour of the current administration and won’t promote coverage that impinges on that narrative. Just take a look at the results: Americans actually report feeling safer with a ‘Muslim ban’. As I’ve written before, we all absorb our news through media filters of like-mindedness, and it means we consume often completely different stories to those who are politically opposite-leaning. The gulf is widening all the time.

Through all of this we need to be allies to those in more precarious social situations than us. Migrants, whether documented or undocumented; minorities; those experiencing job insecurity; and those who experience disproportionate police harassment: these groups most need advocacy and representation and are also least likely to receive it. Talking and communicating across the spectrum – from blogging to protest to conversations with friends, students and family – can help maintain momentum and political engagement amongst us ‘normal people’ at a time when the bigger picture can feel overwhelming.

Post-Brexit Trade: Or, As EU Like It

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Tom Miles/Motelism, 2014

This week has brought a new chapter in the convoluted Brexit saga, as a much-anticipated public speech by Theresa May sought to lay out a framework for what comes next. The whole Brexit portmanteau-ed mess feels more and more like a Shakespearean tragedy; I’ll leave you to allocate MPs to the parts. Spare a thought for those of us who have to watch the play.

In case anyone was in any doubt that the government have little clue of how to actually enact Brexit, May’s speech testified to the hopelessness of progress so far, and as far as I can see, some considerable hopelessness about what comes next. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but lest we forget: this whole costly, lengthy, conceptually blurry political impasse grew from David Cameron’s pledge for re-election as Prime Minister in 2015 to ‘let the people’ decide whether they wanted to remain in the EU, terms somewhat unspecified. As academics and policy experts warned at the time (but who listens to academics and policy experts, right?) the full rationale and information for any such decision went far beyond anything that a simple ‘yes/no’ binary could hope to address.

That didn’t stop Cameron merrily reducing the issue to over-simplified terms to get the referendum he’d promised off the campaign trail and into life. I’m sure some of you watched Charlie Brooker’s (excellent) Screenwipe 2016 over Christmas, available here. The coverage of post-Brexit politics was just stunning for showing that yep, no-one had any clue what to do. No-one. The best/worst bit of Brooker’s précis were the soundbites of different politicians describing what type of Brexit we’d have, like a loaf of bread (or sex?). Hard Brexit, soft brexit, clean Brexit… And then colours – grey Brexit (cheery) and, worst of all, Theresa May’s bizarre (un)cool Britannia riff: a ‘red, white and blue Brexit‘. It was almost as if the Conservatives regretted the whole referendum in the first place, but by that point Cameron was out to lunch permanently and the others were left to clear up his mess.

But back to the present scene. 7 months(!) after Britain voted to leave the EU, this week’s speech was Theresa May’s chance to lay out exactly what all that entailed, and show that in the absence of a government plan all summer or autumn, things were finally on track. The fact that her speech prompted more questions than gave answers seemed to go un-noticed by rightwing press, who went to town on receiving the speech as some sort of benevolent but firm mother regaining control of her borders. Forgetting that Margaret Thatcher was actually a key figure in forming the EU trade deal, enthused comparisons between the two Iron Ladies abounded (right down to their shared innuendos, suggests The Telegraph. Please god no). Not only is immigration not what the referendum was supposed to be about (migration is related to Brexit, but not interchangeable, and clearly not in regards to non-EU movement), the plan seems to me to be a wilful overestimation of both what May was promising and what May could achieve. No matter: the Daily Mail included breathless coverage of  May’s jazzy new haircut, what with that having absolutely nothing to do with anything.

Most notably, May scrapped the idea of continuing membership of the single market, which is something even the Brexiters didn’t vote for when they opted to leave the EU. In fact, David Cameron had pushed for more integration into the single market, not less. Theresa May isn’t stupid – knowing that Brexit was, for many, more about immigration than Europe – she basically said that the country will leave the single market in order to also scrap free movement of European citizens. So, the muddled and often damaging ideology surrounding migrants continues to grow. Yet when we go and live in Spain we’re called ex-pats… I know, it doesn’t make sense to me either.

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German newspaper Die Welt nailing it

This slash-and-burn approach to years of negotiation, partnership and knowledge sharing is not only wasteful, it undermines the future of young Britons – who voted to Remain in the EU on ballot day – by restricting their ability to travel, work and study freely in the EU. Why would we pay huge amounts and give ourselves an enormous administrative headache for the sake of restricting our ability for cross-country movement? It’s the 21st century! The message is that European migrants aren’t welcome here, but hey, everyone else round the globe do come and trade – although countries of lesser standing need not apply. We are once again forgetting our diminishing place in the global world order: and I say that as someone who loves my country, not least its amazing diversity (increasingly under threat). The Tory government expects countries to line up to broker expensive, protracted bilateral deals that are more necessary to us than to them, whilst wilfully giving up one of the biggest in history – the EU trade agreement. We have not been a global superpower in trade terms since the C19th century, and as this article shows we have the weakest productivity in the G7 group, but May isn’t letting that get in the way of telling (some) people what they (might) want to hear.

Why would the EU, or any new international trade partner, give us a good deal? We have no bargaining chips in either scenario. Europe does not need us more than we need them, despite the nonsense peddled by rightwing press determined to shame Remainers via bogus patriotism. Control over our relationship with the EU won’t sit with us, it will sit with them – and the potential economic loss is invariably greater for a country of 65 million people than a shared bloc of 500 million. As for global trade, the U.S and China set that agenda, and given Trump’s new revanchist position against trading with Mexico, it hardly seems likely a new partnership would benefit the UK more than it would the U.S, despite Trump’s nauseating love-in with unpalatable British talking heads (Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins enter stage left).

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Lovely use of ‘Playboy’ as political certification

The sterling boost that followed Theresa May’s speech isn’t much to write home about either, as a summary by The Conversation shows here. Sterling hit a historic 32 year ow against the Dollar this week – which is a joke when you consider the political and economic division currently routing the U.S.

But for the many people sick of the current economic order that helps the rich get richer and the poor get poorer – 8  people now hold the same wealth as 50% of the global population – there was a stitch in time moment: could Theresa May’s speech really be turning to a new economic growth model? Could we be heralding a more egalitarian tax or finance system? Nope. May is essentially offering the UK as a tax haven to other countries. And spare a thought for the continuing precarity of EU citizens living and working in the UK. They are no clearer on what comes next for their livelihoods and their families, as this excellent state-of-play report by The Migration Observatory shows.

Meanwhile, Scotland are – as anyone could have predicted over the past few months – considering another referendum on independence from the UK, because Scotland (and Northern Ireland) voted to remain in the EU and are being dragged out of it by England and Wales. It’s hardly Macbeth territory when you consider Scotland’s position and its frustration. Cameron’s foolish referendum could yet spell the extended dissolution of the United Kingdom, a depressing prospect. In a supposed era of the global citizen, England looks smaller than ever. Say what you like about Nicola Sturgeon (and plenty do, with abandon), she is an intelligent, clear-headed and determinedly representative politician for her constituents; her verdict of May’s free market move as potentially ‘economically catastrophic’ is worrying.

Through it all, I ask: why would we want to impair international relations? Why would we want to cut ourselves off from Europe in favour of uncertain and unproven trade deals with other countries that aren’t even as geographically proximate? Brexit was hardly a decisive democratic mandate – 51.9% vs 48.1%. I’m increasingly perplexed at the way that Leavers and mainstream media paint those who voted Remain as ‘Remoaners’, poor citizens, or children having a tantrum.This spoof Daily Mash piece says it all. Given that nearly half the population falls into the Remain camp, it can’t really be thought of as a disparate minority, nor can the range of concerns with a Brexit be dismissed as somehow unpatriotic.

The way the political (and tabloid newspaper) rhetoric around Brexit is progressing is deeply unhelpful to the U.K’s cohesive social identity. There is a creepy return to populist/nationalist rhetoric, kickstarted by Farage’s ‘Independence Day’ (a term aimed to misguide, as we were never not independent). To suggest the UK is free from the yoke of EU oppression is nonsense – there were plenty of ways in which this country benefitted from EU partnership, and those include, y’know, UK legislation for LGBT couples who aren’t married, free movement for university students studying abroad, and globally respected human rights protection. Politics has become bogged down in meaningless imagery. Take, for example, Boris Johnson’s bizarre reference to World War II today whilst conjecturing about the way that France might deal with Britain’s exit from the EU. He’s reacting to a political situation that hasn’t even happened. (In keeping with the Shakespeare theme, a spokesperson has just clarified that Johnson was not ‘suggesting anyone was a Nazi’, just making ‘a theatrical comparison’. It’s as if he knew I was writing a theatre themed piece!)

Our politicians and rightwing media are painting us as inward-looking and isolationist when that’s the opposite of what many of us want to be – especially those who travel, and young people. In doing so, they paint the 48% who never consented to this costly political headache as unhelpfully negative, when what we are trying to express is the unprecedented shortsightedness of the political decisions made and the promises broken to areas of the electorate who most needed economic help. Now we wait for the next act.


As EU Like It

Book Review: Routledge Companion to Geographies of Sex & Sexualities

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Happy new year! I have written a review of Gavin Brown and Kath Browne’s Routledge Research Companion to Geographies of Sex & Sexualities for the academic journal Antipode.

I enjoyed reviewing Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You for Pan Macmillan last year (which you can read here), but this was a different endeavour as the review was for publication in an academic journal (this article in the ever-excellent Thesis Whisperer covers some of the debates). This review took me a while to write as the book itself is enormous – it could almost sit on a coffee table, although alas, like most academic volumes, it’s absent of those arty photos we all love – but it was nevertheless a really interesting experience. It proved to be a good way of consolidating my own knowledge of the research field whilst also writing for other readers. That sense of consolidation is key, because in a field that is changing all the time (especially in terms of new technology) the researcher needs to keep on top of new ideas or risk becoming out of touch in their own research.

I’d recommend the book to cultural geographers, sociologists, and political scientists certainly, and it deserves a place in any university library because it covers a very wide range of topics: from sex work to transgender life in small-town America. You can read my full review here, but below is an extract of how I introduce the topic, as a way of sketching out some of the most interesting parts of this geographical topic for those of you not familiar with the area:

‘What is the relationship between cities and sexualities? Is the Pride parade dead as a form of political expression? How does urban governance influence sex work? These are the kinds of questions raised at the intersection of geography and sexuality, and they bring with them debates from queer theory, sociology, and science and technology studies.

The Companion takes as its starting point the historical lethargy in geography regarding the study of sex and sexuality beyond a heteronormative focus on couplehood and the family. This has shifted over time to incorporate approaches that attend to the influence of place, space and mobilities in shaping sexual desire, and how sexual identities including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender are represented across the world. The perceived “naturalness” of heterosexuality means that it has long been accepted as the default expression of sexuality in public space, so non-heterosexual or queer identities and practices in public space are easily marked as other (and sometimes punished).

Following an initial focus in the 1980s and 1990s on gay male spaces, scholarship grew to consider lesbian experiences, and, more recently, bisexual and trans people. Today, the field is healthy and expanding, exploring not just sexual identity but also biopolitics and sexual health, migration, surveillance, technology, the value of home, the visibilities and exclusions that mark public and private space, and the life (and possible death) of the “gayborhood”.’ (Miles 2016: 1-2)

And you thought geography was all ‘colouring in’.

But there is a serious point here: in a global context where 74 countries actively punish LGBT people, and where LGBT safe spaces are still subject to violence, social science research on sex and sexualities is more important than ever.

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Merry Christmas


With things finally winding down for Christmas, it’s time to put the news away for a moment (hard to do with all the excellent lists of 2016 doing the rounds, like this list of best music albums and this list of 2016’s unsung heroes) and sit back and reflect on the year past.

For me, it’s been a fascinating first year of blogging, and I’d like to thank you for coming along for the ride with me. My aim was to discuss some of my work as a PhD researcher, but as well as technology, it was politics that caught my eye this year – and with so much going on across the globe, who can blame me?

Yet my two most read posts by far were a piece on why the Orlando shooting in June was so important for the LGBT community, and my recent post on the UK’s mental health crisis and suicide rates. After all my discussion of Brexit, Trump, and London, it goes to show that actually some of the more personal stuff resonates: not just with friends and family, but strangers too (hello, readers in Belarus, Angola and Nepal!)

The sentiment in the Lora Mathis poem Kiss Your Friends’ Faces More is truer than ever, and I’m going to carry it into 2017. Until then, enjoy a digital detox.

Merry Christmas!



2016: A Year in Review (Darker than your Facebook version)



Without Rhyme or Reason. Tom Miles 2014

2016 will in many ways be seen as an annus horibilis. To take just a selection, we’ve seen: austerity measures, Brexit, the consequent resignation of the prime minister whose whole re-election campaign was, you know, based on a referendum, a replacement Conservative Prime Minister who wasn’t elected but was at least less revanchist than her competitors, the Nice terrorist attack that killed 86 festival-goers, acceleration in climate change and the progressive destruction of the great barrier reef, Zika virus, the ongoing destruction of Syria, a redoubled effort by SNP to separate Scotland from the UK, a refugee crisis, the Calais ‘jungle’, the election of Donald Trump as president of America (truly an example of the power of post-fact politics), Russian hackers infiltrating US voting protocol, North Korean nuclear weapons testing – and the deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Victoria Wood, Prince, Harper Lee and Muhammad Ali amongst others.

Hey, it’s not been all bad, but as the year I chose to start blogging on technology, politics and the media, I certainly haven’t been short of stories to follow. I don’t want to end the year on a down note, but I really do think 2016 is key in global politics: a series of interlinked events that can be seen as eruptions resulting from the breaking point of unbridgeable gaps in equality, politics, and wealth. Angry people do all sorts of reactionary things; the depressing thing is that so many of these protest actions ultimately end up hurting themselves more than they will ever hurt The Establishment.

I’m focusing on just Brexit as synecdoche for the larger picture, because there are questions that are still not answered. Six months on from Brexit, how much more do we know? Well, laughably little, basically. The fact that we don’t know how to leave the EU rather suggests that inviting us to do exactly that without preparation wasn’t David Cameron’s brightest idea. The way that the Conservative government have handled not just the planning of how to extricate themselves from the union but also how to deal with the associated political fallout has been farcical, although Labour and Liberal Democrats haven’t done much to shout about when it comes to post-Brexit planning either.

It feels like the whole political establishment has yet to pick their jaws up off the floor at the result, and to be fair, I can see why. This was a serious step-change for British politics, with implications for an unbelievably wide network of related issues, from immigration to banking. It goes to show that what many people suspected is reality: Westminster didn’t have any back-up plans in place for the possibility that the referendum would result in a ‘Leave’ vote.

Six months on and in the absence of a concrete procedure, we’ve witnessed various political gags. Having confirmed that, yes, ‘Brexit means Brexit‘ (which means, what, exactly? Inquiring minds want to know), one would think that Theresa May might refrain from soundbytes to define the seemingly undefinable. Nope: she now promises a ‘Red, White and Blue Brexit’. I know, right. I told you 2016 was a strange year.


It could have been worse!


The UK’s ambassador is now warning us that Brexit could take up to ten years due to the complications of finessing a trade deal. Not only could negotiations limp into the mid 2020s, but the deal reached might still be rejected by any of the 27 other countries involved during the ratification process. Still, David Davis – actually one of the better Conservative cabinet members – is more optimistic, citing 2 years as a reasonable target. This optimism overlooks the fact that the remaining EU member states can now reasonably be expected to make an example of us and could easily do so via soul-crushing bureaucracy.

It all testifies to how manipulated the debate became in the run-up to the election, with the false promises of funding for the NHS that still anger me now, and dog-whistle speeches designed to foment ethnic tension in the electorate. Sure, the EU wasn’t perfect, but extricating ourselves from an imperfect relationship with its rather downplayed benefits, from cultural exchange to trade collaboration, makes so little sense economically and politically it’s a wonder the idea hasn’t just been put out to die. Of course, it can’t: there was a referendum, remember! Meanwhile, Cameron is back to enjoying the piece and quiet of North Oxfordshire, whilst his pet project for re-election in 2015 threatens to mire the British government and taxpayer in debt and stasis.

As The Guardian notes, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, did warn us all before the referendum that if Brexit came to pass, it would happen slowly and painfully. He estimated it would take 7 years, with no guarantee of success in coming to a new arrangement in the partnership. The fact he isn’t shouting ‘I told you so’ to anyone who’ll listen shows how miserable the whole fiasco is to all involved, whether members of the leave or remain camps.

Through all this, while government stay tied up in Brexit, there are bigger fish to fry – not least the future prospects of Russia, a country capitalising on our European destabilisation episode in order to boost its hold on Eastern Europe for future collateral. I’m reading The Next 100 Years by George Friedman, published in 2010, and some of the predictions didn’t take 100, they’re happening now. So, 2016: it’s been newsworthy.

British EU desks

Safe as houses? Regeneration & community

smart cities mission

Last night I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Tom Slater from the University of Edinburgh give the annual David M. Smith lecture at Queen Mary, University of London. The reason why Tom Slater’s talk was so interesting was because he brought together scrutiny of British rightwing think-tanks and the social issues at stake in regeneration in London. Regeneration can be beneficial, but in the process of ‘tidying up’ perceived social problems in council housing, it can also lead to displacement of residents, free market land grabs, and higher rents not just for council tenants, but for London residents more generally too. Slater’s argument is that this compounds existing inequality and doesn’t always solve the underlying issues at stake.

What struck me was how little I know about think-tanks, and yet some of the most influential and established think-tanks, as featured in newspapers, TV reports, and BBC coverage, have decidedly murky links with rightwing politicians, with Conservative government advisors overlapping with ex-politicians who provide the rhetoric the government wants to hear, especially when it comes to ‘sink estates’. Reading some of the policy releases of rightwing think-tanks, you’d be forgiven for thinking that their social policy credentials are rather lacking, as they blame social problem after social problem on those most likely to be affected by those issues: the poorest level of society, basically. It says a lot that those think tanks who are registered with the Charity Commission (registering as a charity provides tax exemptions) have serious variability in their transparency:

Thinktanks transparency measure Sam Miles sexuality and the city blog.png

Still, it’s a small mercy that there is an external group who examine exactly these oddities, called WhoFundsYou?

Surprise surprise, the more rightwing the think tank, the poorer its funding transparency – perhaps because they would rather you didn’t see their relationship with Tory donors. As Slater noted, the party line from Policy Exchange is that ‘we respect our supporters’ rights to privacy and do not disclose their details unless they wish to be publicly acknowledged’: possibly because doing so would expose the odd dynamic that exists between rightwing politicians, business and property developers. These supposedly academic, expert think tanks are supposed to provide policy on important social issues. Yet their websites are so slick that it takes a while to see that they very rarely come down on the side of those who need it most, preferring instead to laud the free market as the solution to any problem.

These think tanks feed into a dangerous, divisive us-versus-them rhetoric that politicians capitalise on, blaming benefits claimants for everything that is going wrong in society. It’s a neat way to disguise the real cause of why public services seem to be breaking down, which is disinvestment – and at times wilful mismanagement – so that public services will start to get to such a sorry state that the government will ‘have no choice’ but to privatise them, the NHS being the major body on the chopping board (excuse the pun). And in many cases it will be Tory party donors, who conveniently run private healthcare businesses, who will win those contracts. Don’t forget, the government’s austerity measures have by almost every economic and social indicator made things worse (for the time-pressed, here’s a shorter BBC take).

But the larger picture painted is one of deprivation that can’t be addressed by continuing involvement in the community, which isn’t necessarily true. As a result, regeneration – which can be a force for good but can be problematic – seems to be the only solution. Yet as Slater, and, in the audience, both a teacher working in central-south London and a government councillor responsible for what most would consider a wealthy west London borough pointed out, the result is massive disruption for local residents who are relocated far away from their social networks, GP practices, schools and families. If former residents are invited back to live in what has been regenerated, they find that they cannot afford the inflated tenancies, the estate ground rent, or the ‘affordable’ housing market – which, lest we forget, is a pretty forbidding 80% of market rent or sale value. When the rent for the average 2-bed flat – yep, flat – in Hackney is £490 per week and the average price of a flat to buy is £600,000 (thank you Foxtons), it’s unlikely young professionals can afford to live there, let alone poorer former residents.

You might be as shocked as I was to learn that earlier this year the government commissioned the estate agent Savills to write a report into social welfare, council estates and regeneration. Somehow it doesn’t seem likely the estate residents will be the ones to benefit from the plans.

Regeneration doesn’t eliminate poverty, it tends to relocate it, meaning that the success stories we hear from regenerated areas are never the whole picture and rarely help us in knowing how to address structural inequality because they have so much input from property developers and estate agents who know the risks of social cleansing and forge ahead anyway. They barely even bother to pay lip service to the idea of community. Even Sadiq Khan, previously a vocal critic of London’s spiralling property market, this week watered down his ambition for truly accessible housing in London (though the resulting proposal is better than nothing).

Hackney sold house Sam Miles sexuality and the city blog.png

The London housing market is hyper-inflated and buoyed by investment opportunities for buyers with capital that most of us can only dream of.

So what happens next? One area for hope might lie in rent control – but, as Slater argues here, misconceptions about the impact of rent control on property market value means that intelligent conversations about the potential of rent control remain out of reach, even as we see residents of rent controlled housing in Holland, Germany, and much of Scandinavia continue to prove that it is possible and equitable. The Scottish group Living Rent are campaigning for rent control zones in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and I’ll follow their progress to see what happens next.

If nothing else, learning more about all these issues meant that I have a better grasp of why London’s unsustainable property bubble is unlikely to burst in the near future – or even equalise to a position that makes buying a first home tenable. Us young professionals and key sector workings are struggling to survive and thrive when we just can’t get a foot on the property ladder (average 2-bed flat in Hackney, £600,000 remember). What hope is there for housing security for those living in real social precarity?

The rise and rise of the alt-right

Disaterous decisions Motelism Sam Miles sexuality and the city blog.jpg

Motelism, 2012

It has been a week since the U.S elections resulted in a (relatively narrow) win for Donald Trump. In the 7 days since, media coverage has addressed every possible angle of his win, from why the result was a shock, to powerful writing by Gary Younge on the soul-searching needed to understand the crisis facing middle America.

Less has been written about the electoral system, in part perhaps because the election has its result now, and America’s political future is more pressing a concern than its demographic patterns. But looking at the voting patterns is fascinating, because it shows not just that the Midwest and rural areas are more conservative and cities and coastal communities are more liberal (this has long been true), but that Trump managed to win voters over in states that were previously Democrat including Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, as well as industrial swing states that voted for Obama a mere cycle ago including Ohio and Michigan. Meanwhile, ‘millennials’ – young adults aged 18-25 – voted in the majority for Hillary Clinton. The map below has been shared all over social media, and whilst it isn’t quite accurate because it is based on voting intention rather than outcome, it does give hope that younger voters will hold the power in the next election cycle.

millennials US election voting intention Sam Miles sexuality and the city blog.jpeg

We should remember, too, that in a system similar to the UK electoral process, the American election system isn’t the most representative option. Clinton did win the majority of popular votes, at 61.9 million to Trump’s 60.9 million. But this makes no difference because, as in the UK, votes are allocated to wards, boroughs and states, with each unit electing a representative (similar to our MPs). This is only the second time in a century that a losing president has gained the majority of popular votes. The fact that this win doesn’t mean being actually elected suggests proportional representation deserves consideration as a voting system, which you can read more about at the Electoral Reform Society. As you can see, it is rational and highly representative, which makes it all the more depressing that so few Western countries use it, favouring instead arcane and complicated electoral systems seemed designed to confuse the electorate. We did get a referendum on introducing Alternative Voting instead of our existing first-past-the-post system in the UK in 2011, but – surprise! – it didn’t go through. Many polls suggested at the time that the proposed system wasn’t fully understood by voters.

The mood for many feels very post-Brexit, with uncertainty about the extent to which Trump will roll out policies that even his own party deemed unpalatable in the election run-up. If we accept that the U.S election, like Brexit, shows that we are in a post-fact democracy (ie. promises made to win over voters which are not true and will not happen, for example allocating £350 million to the NHS) then at least some of the more extreme ideas Trump came up with in his election campaign will be neutered or quietly killed off. We can but hope. Such hope seems a bit futile when Trump has already chosen Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist. For the unitiated, Bannon is a white nationalist who allegedly doesn’t like his children mixing with jewish children.

Trump Sam Miles sexuality and the City blog.jpg

These are significant political appointments, and we should make every effort to scrutinise these early movements because they signal what a Trump presidency could look like. In case you missed it, this excellent piece shows how historical disasters like facist rule or world war are not precipitated by obvious errors or avoidable turning points, but tiny, incremental shifts in attitude and judgment that fringe political leaders capitalise on to nudge the public into more and more extreme views. It’s chilling. What struck me is he wrote it before Trump was even elected. He voices my worries exactly when he warns that the election in France of Marie Le Pen, which most of us once thought unimaginable, is a real possibility next year. In case you’re not up to speed on Le Pen, she is a fascist rebranded as alt-right. Think UKIP on acid. Front National is a tempting option for many French citizens anxious about terrorism and conditioned to conflate religious extremism with Muslims and migrants; the FN party scored 28% of the popular vote in 2015 regional elections.

We can reason all we want about how to think rationally about emotive topics like these, but human nature is very subjective. People think what they think based on an incredibly narrow field of vision made up of their experiences, the people around them, and the media they consume. Not only is it hard to get people to consider different angles to an issue (and I include everyone in that stubbornness, not just closet racists), it’s even harder to do so when people don’t voice their honest, often ugly opinions for fear of being ridiculed for them. It’s pretty baffling to think that people to some extent know that their views are informed by prejudice rather than rational thought because of the outcry voicing those thoughts would provoke. But it’s more worrying still to realise that because of this sense of holding back in public, voting predictions, common consensus and opinion polls all end up shockingly inaccurate because ‘silent voters’ voice their opinions in the anonymity of the ballot box. Hence Brexit, hence Trump.

Finally, the argument that the best way to expose facist beliefs is to hold them up to public scrutiny is – I hope – dying on its arse. BNP leader Nick Griffin getting a platform to peddle hateful rhetoric was not a huge risk – not one of life’s naturals in debate, he famously floundered on BBC’s Question Time in 2009 (it even has its own Wikipedia entry). But Marie Le Pen is a different kettle of poisson. This astute Vice article points out she is a PR master. She manages to control the stage in any interview, the bigger the better: I’m looking at you, BBC. Giving her airtime doesn’t expose her ugliness to the world, it allows her a platform to edit and manipulate her views in order to seem temporarily human. Unfortunately, holding fascism ‘up to the light’ often gives it the air it needs to prosper, not wither.