Thursday, 19 January 2012

Canadian government threatens validity of same-sex marriages of foreign couples

Same-sex couples married in Canada – but originally from other countries – have been threatened with the prospect of their marriage being declared null and void.

In response to a divorce filed by a lesbian couple, one of whom lived in Britain, the other in Florida, a government lawyer argued that since the couple’s marriage would not be legal in either jurisdiction, it was not a valid marriage in Canada either. Although civil partnerships are allowed in the UK and same sex marriage is legal in a handful of US states, same-sex marriage is illegal is both countries.

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Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Iron Lady: and what it doesn't tell us about British politics

It's convention in opening any piece of journalism about the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the writer adds a caveat along the lines of “whatever you might think of her” or “regardless of your own political opinions”, maybe adding a “she certainly divides opinion” for good measure.

Normally, this is a neat warning to the reader that the writer does not intend to divulge his or her own political opinions. As a political journalist and muesli-eating socialist not shy of expressing my own views, I'll happily defy the prevailing orthordoxy, much like Thatcher herself. It is hard, after all, to be completely neutral about a politician who, with her government, presided over massive and very intentional unemployment, attacks on minorities and electorally convenient and poorly-executed military adventures. The effects of the deep social wounds inflicted on communities across Britain as a result of her decisions remain with us in 2012, ripping apart a post-war settlement which had up until the 1980s entitled full employment, industry that made rather than serviced things, security in retirement and a functioning, if not perfect, welfare state. I was born just after Thatcher's second election victory and my earliest political memories are of her resignation, so I've probably got some licence to comment.

Meryl Streep's portrait of an elderly Margaret Thatcher suffering from dementia was everything you might expect from a fine Hollywood actor - looking, sounding, and probably feeling the part she was cast in. Whereas Andrea Riseborough had really shone playing the young, ambitious Thatcher in The Long Walk to Finchley, Meryl Streep triumphed in her portrayal; from the wartime teenager to the shrill young Member of Parliament, newly elected Conservative leader and wizened elder stateswoman. That's all very well from a cinematic point of view, and if Streep doesn't get a BAFTA, I'll be stunned. But the film needed something weighty as its central theme, and it certainly wasn't politics.

I'd had an inkling that The Iron Lady wasn't going to give us a blow-by-blow account of the miners' strike, Michael Heseltine's televised flouncing from the cabinet room or the battle over the Poll Tax. But most dramatisations of the lives of significant figures - political or otherwise - capture to some degree the agonising over decisions that changed the course of history. Context is crucial, even in Hollywood, and The Iron Lady was let down by the vague references to nineteen seventies and eighties 1970s and 1980s politics. Political anoraks and historians must have hankered for just a little bit more narrative around some of the big decisions – the wars, the crises, the sackings, the speeches, and elections. Instead, we got a film made for an international audience, a somewhat apolitical film, and in turn, a less compelling sense of who Thatcher was as a person and a politician at the height of her powers. Yes, dementia is heart-wrenchingly sad, and the poignant scenes of an old lady looking back on her life are very effective, but Thatcher's politics were bizarrely portrayed as almost irrelevant in a film about a former Prime Minister.

I'll concede however that international audiences and younger Brits alike would have a limited recollection, if any, of Margaret Thatcher's 1980s premiership, let alone her gradual fading in retirement, meaning that the lack of political narrative of any substance is barely noticed. It's also true that there hasn't been enough light on her as a person rather than a politician, but the flip-side is that you end up feeling nothing but warmth for this shuffly old dear because the substance of what she was about as a politician is so absent. Yes, the audience squirmed with delight where she grandly reprimands one of her Cabinet brood (it could have been any one of a number of grey suits) - but this film was very much about a woman's personality and character, and really not trying to say anything about the politics of the UK in the last 40 years.

Maybe I'm being unfair. As David Wooding, former political editor of the News of the World said:
Put the political ethics to one side and watch this as a piece of pure cinema. Forget the historical inaccuracies, too. Maggie never wore a hat in the Commons, she was not with Airey Neave in the car park when he was blown up and I’ve never before heard she barked “sink it!” when generals asked what to do about the Belgrano.”
Historians: beware.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Big Society spin on the New Year’s Honours

If the turn of the year is a signal of aspirations for the next, then we are left in no doubt that the enthusiasm for voluntarism and community action running through David Cameron’s government is here to stay.

An honours list, being a medley of awards to establishment stalwarts, unsung heroes, industry figures, creatives and performers, requires a fair amount of analysis to determine whether there are any trends in the group of people who receive them. In the government’s own words, “the vast majority of people recognised include those supporting the Big Society by making a real difference to their local community through volunteering, fundraising, social action and philanthropy”.

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