Friday, 27 October 2017

Catalan independence: What will Catalonia gain?

When I think about my favourite European cities, there is only one city which always come out on top. Barcelona.

I love Barcelona, it's almost the perfect the city. You have the mountains, the sea. Beautiful architecture, an historic Medieval quarter, great bars and restaurants and a successful and glamorous football team. It has everything I want from a city.

I've naturally taken a great interest in the referendum vote and the declaration of Catalan independence by the President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont. The question that dominates my thinking about the crisis is this: What does Catalonia expect to gain from independence?

Catalonia is the richest region in the Spain. I remember back in 2001 I spent two weeks in the city studying Spanish. One afternoon after my lessons had finished I got chatting to an English guy in a Tapas bar on Las Ramblas.

He lived in the Pyrenees and had come down to Barcelona for the day. He explained to me how Barcelona and the Basque country are the two richest regions in Spain. Many people emigrate from other parts of Spain to Barcelona.

Catalans he said had a reputation for being a bit 'stuck up' they think they're better than other people in Spain. Only a few weeks ago I read something similar from the Times journalist John Carlin. He argued that Catalans aren't snobby they're just reserved in comparison to other regions of Spain.

Unlike in this country, Spain is a more federalised and de-centralised state. Different regions have autonomous control which have been significant features of the country since the end of Franco's dictatorship in the 1970s. From an outsiders point of view Catalonia has vast regional powers which they now appear to have lost as a result of this referendum.

Catalonia seems very good at telling a story that they are an oppressed people. I studied Spanish history at university and I have a book about the history of Barcelona FC by Jimmy Burns which talks about the political oppression Catalans suffered during the civil war and under Franco's dictatorship. The question now is whether this history of oppression still rings true today.

Both the Madrid government under Mariano Rajoy and Carles Puigdemont must take equal responsibility for the crisis. Unlike the UK's Scottish referendum, Catalonia's was illegal and with a turnout of only 43%. 90% who voted may have voted for independence but with such a low turnout, I don't understand how Catalan separatists can claim they have a true mandate for independence.

However, the government and Mariano Rajoy's reaction was totally over the top. Why not just ignore the result and say it has no legality, rather than cracking down on independence demonstrators and thereby falling into the role of the centralised Spanish state bad guys. Surely that's what Catalan nationalists want?

The impression that Catalan nationalists give is that they are a nation being held back by the rest of Spain. They think of themselves as being more sophisticated and European than the rest of Spain. There's no doubt that the recession in recent years and issues over tax distribution have played a part in fuelling the separatist cause and the notion that Catalonia will flourish under independence.

What's needed is better dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona and agreements on the level of economic and political power that Catalonia should have.

This crisis has echoes of Brexit here in this country. It's a movement based very much on passion and emotion. Sadly for supporters of Catalan independence, I struggle to see what the economic and political benefits of independence will be for ordinary Catalans.



Saturday, 14 October 2017

Harvey Weinstein: The culture that sustained his behaviour for so long needs to change.

It's been incredible to watch the total collapse of Harvey Weinstein's personal and professional reputation over the last few weeks.

When you discover that his behaviour of sexual harassment against women has been an open secret in Hollywood for years, your first reaction is to think why was it allowed to continue for so long and why now are people speaking out.

In many respects this story isn't that shocking. You have a powerful and influential man in a glamorous industry who takes advantage of that power and influence to prey on and sexually harass women. The spotlight at the moment is on the movie industry but we all know that the culture of sexual harassment exists in many other industries and professions.

It's this culture that ultimately needs to change. Certainly in respects of Hollywood you need more women in positions of power and influence whether its directors and movie executives. You also need both men and women to change attitudes and behaviour. The sense of entitlement that men can feel towards women has to change and women must be made to feel comfortable and confident in raising issues of sexual harassment.

Weinstein was allowed to continue with his behaviour due to a culture where people were afraid to speak out, fearful of the negative impact it would have on their own careers. But there is also the legal and public relations power that Weinstein held which meant that many of the stories known about him could be suppressed and unknown to the wider public.

In following this story, two of the best and most interesting articles I've read were in the The New Yorker and the celebrity gossip website Popbitch.

I love reading the New Yorker. They always provide real detailed analysis on the topics they report on. This is exactly what they've done with this report on Weinstein that highlights just how consistent and systematic his bevaviour has been over the last 25 years.

From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories

The article I read in Popbitch talks about the role that newspapers, magazines and online outlets play in maintaining a culture within the entertainment industry that allows sexual harassment to go unchallenged.

I thought this was an interesting point as when stories like this emerge it's natural that you wonder why nothing was reported earlier. Popbitch provide some answers to this question.

Inches for Inches

Have a read, you should find them interesting.



Wednesday, 16 August 2017

India's independence: The story of Partition

During the last week, I've been reading a few magazine articles to commemorate the 70th anniversary of India's independence. There's also been a number of documentaries on the BBC featuring British Asian's whose family were directly affected by the events of Partition.

India's independence in 1947 and the creation of Pakistan is one of those stories that I've always been aware of but reading and listening to people's stories made me realise it's a story we don't hear enough about.


Partition isn't simply an event from India's history, it's very much British history as well. Sadly it's a story from the 20th Century which is overlooked. We're constantly reminded of events from the Second World War but the start of Britain's loss of Empire remains unfamiliar to many.

What stands out for me is the loss of life and religous violence that took place in the lead up to independence. Partition created a newly independent Muslim dominated Pakistan while India remained mainly Hindu dominated.

It meant that Hindus and Sikhs who found themselves on the wrong side of the partition line living in what would become Pakistan had to migrate to the new independent India. Meanwhile Muslims living in India made a similar journey in the opposite direction to Pakistan.

During this process millions of people lost their lives as religious sectarian violence escalated. I read really sad interviews with survivors of the violence who are now living in the UK. Despite the years that have passed, many still found it hard to forgive.

One Muslim women interviewed in the Sunday Times found it hard to understand how her grandchildren could be friends with Hindus and Sikhs. There were similar stories from Hindus who could not forgive Muslims.

What I find so shocking is that before independence, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims lived side by side for generations in peace. Then suddenly in the space of a matter of months these same people began murdering each other!

Here in Britain in 2017 we like to think we live in a peaceful, civilised and secure society. Different religious and ethnic groups don't go around killing one another. What's worrying is that none us truly know how close we all are to descending into mass violence and murder should circumstances change.

Britain's role in India's independence story doesn't make great reading. It seems that with the end of the Second World War and the country exhausted and bankrupt, we couldn't wait to get out of India.

In the interwar years of the 1920 and 30s as India's independence movement grew in strength, it seems Britain played a role in encouraging greater religious divisions - the old divide and rule strategy.

There's no doubt that fostering religious difference and tensions helped create the conditions that led to so much violence and suffering. Having created this tension, Britain was quick to let India and Pakistan deal with this violence as Britain brought an end to 300 years of rule in India.




Monday, 14 August 2017

World Athletics Championships: Goodbye to two legends

Dramatic is the best word to describe the final night of the World Athletics Championships in London yesterday.

From the joy of watching a quite brilliant gold medal performance by the British Men's 4x100 relay team to the sad sight of seeing Usain Bolt pull up injured as he attempted to complete the final leg in his last ever race for the Jamaican team.

It was one race and one championship too far for Bolt but as Michael Johnson said in the BBC studio he didn't need to turn up to these Championships. He had nothing else to prove but I'm sure the appeal of finishing his career in front of a packed stadium in London was one of the motivating factors in him running again.

The same could be said for Mo Farah. In the last 7 years I don't think I've enjoyed watching 5 and 10,000m races as much with Mo at his best. It was hard effort to win gold in the 10,000m final and again in the 5,000 you just felt this a race too far. It shouldn't be overlooked that he still won silver but it felt strange seeing him not win the gold.

Usain Bolt and Mo Farah are not only my two favourite athletic stars they are two of my favourite sports stars. I feel fortunate and privileged that I've seen both of them run live over the last few years at the Olympic stadium. They will be hugely missed.


The future of athletics

We've listened to so many people talk about where athletics will go now that it has lost its biggest star in Usain Bolt. No matter how great an individual, every sport has to and will carry on. You might as well ask the same question of tennis when Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray retire. Or football when Messi and Ronaldo are no longer playing. Ultimately athletics and other sports go on and new stars emerge with their own talents and stories.

Personally, although Bolt is a huge loss, I've been watching athletics for over 30 years and I'm not going to stop simply because he's no longer on the scene. It was interesting watching the Men's 200 Final without Bolt. The winning time by Turkey's Ramil Guliyev was run in 20.09. One of the slowest winning times for a 200m World Final but it was still a great race to watch. With 100m to go, you had no idea who was going to win.

As for the spectre of drugs and cheating in the sport, this is one issue that refuses to go away from athletics. We're never going to eliminate cheating from the sport entirely. It's human nature to try and gain maximum advantage possible and this invariably leads to some crossing the line into cheating. It's important to ensure that the sport remains in a place where winning and being successful means being clean.

It's right that Russia's ban from competition remains in place and I would like to see longer bans of up to five years for those who have been caught cheating where there is clear evidence that their drug taking has been the result of attempts to improve their performance. You may think that sounds obvious but in athletics and other sports you do find that people have failed drug tests for a variety of reasons.

I'm thinking of the likes of Maria Sharapova in tennis who failed a drugs test after failing to realise that the medication she was taking had been moved to the banned list. There's a grey area of athletes who have failed drugs tests because of naivety, lack of professionalism. It goes back to the saying that athletes must be responsible for the medication and substances they are putting into their bodies.

When it comes to drug cheats there is no bigger hate figure than Justin Gatlin. I understand his frustration and the argument put forward that there are plenty of other athletes who competed last week that have served drug bans but none of them have received the same level of hostility shown towards Gatlin.

Unfortunately, Gatlin runs in the most high profile track event and since his return from his doping ban has been the most significant rival to Usain Bolt. Whether he likes it or not he has become the figure of hate that people will look at as representing the worst of drug cheats.


A good week for British Athletics?

Until the final day of competition it was looking like a pretty poor championships for Team GB. Thankfully our relay teams made the final medals tally respectable. The target was between 6 - 8 medals and we finished with 6.

Apart from Mo Farah there weren't any certain gold medals that GB could pin their hopes on. We were unlucky with a number of fourth spots - a couple of those could so easily have been bronze medals. Despite the lack of individual medals, overall it was an ok performance from Team GB.

World athletics is incredibly competitive and I think this fact is often overlooked by those with only a passing interest in the sport. Athletics is not rowing or cycling and Britain is never going to dominate in the way that we do in those sports.

We're not going to see a 'Super Saturday' in every World Championships and Olympics and in truth Britain has always had cycles where we have perhaps 2 or 3 genuine gold medal contenders competing. We've just come to the end of one of those cycles.

If you look at the spread of medals won by different countries, athletics is a truly world sport and for some events just making the final is a huge achievement. Of course the other side of the argument is that more scrutiny is paid to GB's performance when you take into account the level of funding British athletes receive.

I hadn't realised that GB receives 27 million pounds in funding. No other country is spending that amount on athletics so from that point of view we shouldn't get complacent and should be aiming for at least 10 medals at championships.


Lets bring the championships back to London


I was fortunate enough to attend last Monday's evening secession. The two finals included the Men's 110m hurdles won by the Jamaica's Omar McLeod and the Women's 1500m Final. The 1500 was without doubt the highlight of the evening and arguably the best race of the Championship.

The race was won by Kenya's Faith Kipyegon with Britain's Laura Muir missing out on a bronze medal after being pipped on the line. It was a brave run from her. With 150m to go she tried to keep up with Kipyegon and the Dutch athlete Sifan Hassen. Perhaps if she'd held back she would have had a better chance of winning the bronze but she went for it.

It was a brilliant race to watch live as you could see there were different phases to the race. The first lap was run with real intent, while the second lap was quite slow. The race really began wtih 500m to go with Hassen making her move to the front. The last lap was thrilling to watch.

Last Monday reminded me why I love watching athletics and why London and the UK is arguably the best place in the world to watch live sport. You can always rely on this country to turn up and show huge support for any major sporting event held in this country.

Every session at these World Championships was a sellout. Having attended the Anniversary Games the last two years at the Olympic stadium, I totally agree with those who say British athletics fans are incredibly knowledgeable and know their stuff. Another good point was made by the BBC's chief sports writer Tom Fordyce, who wrote:

"An athletics crowd is untouchable in its diversity: families, kids, a blend of ethnicities that reflected this host city but was light years away from the far narrower demographics at Wimbledon, or Twickenham, or Lord's."

This is so true, you find such a great mix of people when you watch live athletics.

The next World Championships are due to be held in Doha and Eugene, Oregon. You know for fact that the crowds will never match anything we've seen in London. It made me realise that there's no better place to watch athletics than London and this is why we should hold the Championships on a regular basis.



Friday, 23 June 2017

Grenfell Towers tragedy

A week after the Grenfell tower fire the political fallout shows no sign of slowing down.

As of today at least 79 people have died and the Chief Executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate has resigned and leader of the council Nicholas Paget-Brown is under pressure to step down as well

It is without doubt a national tragedy and I agree a 100% with those people who have claimed it is our equivalent of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

When Katrina struck the US city of New Orleans, it revealed the stark reality of how race and class in America played a major role in who escaped the city and those who were left behind.

The Grenfell tower fire has revealed similar uncomfortable truths. The fire claimed the lives of some of London's poorest residents living in one of the richest boroughs in the UK.

Anyone living in London or familiar with the city will know there are areas where huge amounts of wealth and poverty exist next to each other. In many respects London has always been like this, going all the way back to the 19th Century. The book 'A tale of two cities' by Charles Dickens immediately springs to mind when you think about London and Grenfell Tower.

There's no doubt that the tragedy and its aftermath is a failure of both local and central government. It's clear that the poorest in our society, those on low incomes and towards the bottom of the social scale have been ignored for too long. Residents had repeatedly complained to the council about safety measures at the tower block but their concerns were ignored.

When you consider why the tower had lethal flammable cladding, no sprinklers fitted into the tower and just one inner staircase as an escape route, it comes as no surprise that residents had previously urged the management company - Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) to improve the buildings safety - their concerns were ignored.

I recently read that in November last year, a resident's organisation the Grenfell Action Group warned on its blog that it believed "only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord" and end the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders"

After the fire had started, some residents stayed in their flats as they had been told to do so in the event of a fire - this guidance ultimately cost some residents their lives.

The response from both local and central government has come in for heavy criticism. Theresa May again showed her political weakness by failing to immediately meet with residents of Grenfell Tower. Such things are important and do matter as being a leader is about capturing the public mood at such moments and having the ability to clearly show empathy. Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council have not come out of this any better either.

The response has raised lots of questions about the state's role in providing a safety net for the country's poorest and most vulnerable people. I've heard comments saying that the tragedy is being made too political by opponents of the government; but how can this event be anything other than political?

Since the election of Margret Thatcher in 1979 and the advent of the new political consensus (I have to use the term neo-liberalism - it's such a cliche now) our ideas on the role of the state and what the state should do has radically changed. Fewer people now live in social housing and for those that do, the role of the state in providing maintenance, services and regulatory standards has diminished.

There's a growing feeling that the state needs to take a more active role and responsibility in many areas of society; whether it's in the economy or public services. This partly explains the rise in support for Jeremy Corbyn.

The tragedy comes at a time where it feels like the country is in turmoil. We've had a General Election which resulted in a hung parliament and not the expected Tory majority. We now have a weak minority government with a lame duck Prime Minister. During the election we had terrorist attacks in Manchester and London and we still have the issue of Brexit to deal with.

If feels like the country is in crisis. That there are forces developing that are leading the country to a new era of doing things. Perhaps this is what it was like towards the end of the 1970s. I was only a small child at the time but from everything I've heard and read, it felt like the country was coming to the end of a particular chapter which of course it was. It was the end of the 'Consensus post-war Period that was about to be replaced by Thatcherism.

I wonder if in years to come whether the Grenfell fire will be seen as part of a development that led to a new era of British politics and society. Only time will tell.