A couple of weeks ago I had cause to walk across Nottingham Market Square, and seeing a stall decided to see what it is pushing. I was half expecting a worthy environmental cause, or perhaps one of those strangely niche far-left organisations that somehow cling on to the hope tomorrow will be the first day of the Glorious Revolution. However, what I found outdid even the most zealous Stalinist in terms of utter delusion. For this was a stall of flat-earthers.
I remember a time when the term ‘flat-earther’ was a useful term to apply to the craziest ideas, the least logical and most far-off opinions. The Flat Earth Society was all but dormant, aside from a few over-ironic folk who probably thought the words’ wacky’ and ‘zany’ were perfectly fine to use, especially when wearing a comedy tie.
Yet now, and if this doesn’t make you want to repeatedly punch yourself in the face you’re evidently the new Buddha, belief in the earth being flat is on the rise. Reason is slipping away. Homeopathy still makes billions of dollars a year despite being utterly, utterly refuted. Anti-vaccination groups are given space to espouse views that critically endangers millions of innocent children. The Enlightenment seems to be in a state of retreat.
I stood by the stall a while and watched. I tried to assess what led people to be so determinedly evangelical about such an easily-refuted idea. One of the stall-holders was arguing with a guy I ascertained was probably a scientist. The latter chap was explaining clearly that the earth was demonstrably, irrefutably an oblate spheroid, in a calm, polite mannered voice. Yet the flat-earther was wide-eyed, barking back that it was ‘fake, fake, fake’. The (presumed) scientist used rationality to back up his arguments; these were countered by ‘You have to watch this video on YouTube’. I watched, incredulous, resisted a temptation to ask if flat-earth belief was a global phenomenon, and made my way across the slabs.
Which brings us neatly to Broxtowe Tories.
I haven’t written anything since the vote on the Town Hall. Some of you will have heard I’ve quit writing about politics. That’s sort of true, I’ll explain later. Before I do stop though, I want to fire some parting shots on why the current crop of Conservative councillors at Broxtowe Borough Council are up there with Flat Earthers as evidence-ignoring, dogma-dripping enemies of reason*.
Many of you will have attended the very packed full-council meeting to decide the Town Hall fate. Many of you would have had their first experience of such a meeting. Most of you will have been utterly horrified at the level of debate. I followed from home – childcare commitments and an ongoing complaint with the council meant it was impossible to attend – but I followed from home.
I was also sent a full audio recording of the meeting. I’ll be putting that online soon, with subtitles (the audio is a bit iffy, even with editing), and let you judge for yourself. Face still unpunched? When you get to the part about how Sarah Palin is a shining example of Evangelical Christianity I’m afraid that even Neo-Buddha will be mashing their fist in their face.
Very real concerns such as the blatant conflict of interest of Ruth Hyde and an officer overseeing the process were shrugged off. Claims that the sale will stick a million into council coffers were put out, despite being demonstrably untrue. Councillor Richard Jackson and the majority of his councillors (that he allows to speak) are, and I say this dispassionately and as a statement of fact, liars. They have lied on record and I explicitly state this and invite them to sue me if they feel it to be untrue. They have lied in public office. They are a disgrace to democracy, but very much with the spirit of the times.
The argument was, of course, turned from the one we clearly set out as objections into ‘These godless heathens at Beestonia Towers are goat-worshipping haters of Christianity and this is driven purely by that’, as predicted. Lies were told, smears were smeared, and the narrative was purposely changed because the actual concerns – see Beestonia passim – are irrefutable. If you can’t deal with reality, make your own.
Which gets us back to the flat-earthers. Add to them Donald Trump, who lies with such
abandon fact-checkers just shrug their shoulders and prepare for another late night of evidenced refutation. It’s contagious: the rise of far-right populism embodied in unironically named ‘strong men’ (have you ever seen such a thin-skinned, fragile-ego, emotionally-stunted bunch in your life?) has spread around (along?) the world. Lies become canon. Orwell’s dystopia was a system of rationality where you wouldn’t just say that 2+2=5, you’d absolutely believe it, and love those that told you it to be true.
It’s a global mess, spurred on by those who have repurposed the word ‘elite’ to something that best describes them to ‘anyone who has ever read a book’. Broxtowe has been infected by this virulence, and it is almost utterly galling.
Yet there is hope. We can turn the tide.
Of course, the most obvious, if not immediate, is to vote the idiocracy out. There are elections in May. While Beeston has no Tories in it (which is why they like to give the town a kicking), they do exist in the hinterlands: Bramcote, Chilwell and Attenborough. They will come knocking for your vote in a few months. When you find them on your doorstep, (politely) explain why they won’t be getting it. And actually, bloody well vote. Local elections have appalling turn-outs but are often the most directly important ballot you’ll be asked to cast.
If you’d like to do something now – heck, there might not even be a council very soon to vote on if Jackson gets his way – then here’s a few tips:
- There is potentially going to be a legal challenge against the Town Hall sale, keep your eyes peeled. Donations and/or pro-bono help will be required.
- Listen to the audio when I post it later this week, and read the annotated fact-checks. Get angry.
- Write to the National Secular Society. I’ve been in touch and am progressing a case, but more support will only strengthen this process.
- Write to Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs column: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Write to your councillor -especially if your ward is represented by a Conservative. Ask them to justify the sale, and beware the traps and false-narratives they’ll try and foist on you.
- Write to our MP – politely -and again, don’t let her twist it away from the facts, as she is wont to do.
Take a stand. Make Planet Earth Spherical Again.
As a few of you will be aware, I (Matt) will be calling it a day with this blog in its current form.
When I started this place up it was intended to be a fairly whimsical take on my town in the style of one of my journalistic heroes, Byron Rogers . Politics was an accident: in 2010 I wrote a couple of pieces about the forthcoming election and they were well received. I live-blogged the count when such a thing was not done by the more established media organisations, and it turned out to be a winner. I also started to get my first bits of hate-mail, but it was easy to ignore.
Back then, covering Beeston/ Broxtowe politics meant I was merely one perspective out of many. The Nottingham Post had dedicated patch reporters who would cover just about every council meeting and keep a watchful eye on whatever shenanigans shook out of the Town Hall, the BBC was pretty well-funded locally and the Beeston Express was still active.
That plurality started drying up rapidly. The Nottingham Post vastly reduced its coverage, the BBC cut back allocated budgets and the Beeston Express has gone into seemingly eternal hiatus. This is a common story across the UK: as the business model of the commercial media is diverted into digital ad spends, and the license fee is at the whim of the Department of Media, Culture and Sport, oversight gets drained away, and politicians are emboldened to behave appallingly.
This is not an attack on the aforementioned media organisations. The Post has a fine local journo in Kit Sandeman, who I’ve found to be diligent and smart in his work. Tony Roe at the BBC got a cracking scoop with his Redwood Crescent exposé (a story that is far from over, and if my sources are sound, will hopefully see the police asking a certain councillor some interesting questions) and his award-winning colleague Hugh Casswell is a bright young talent. Yet resources being what they are, and with their beat being rather huge (the complex move towards unitary councils alone is a massive amount of work to cover) things are easily overlooked.
This has left this blog taking on a role it never really asked for: the first place people come to when a story needs to be covered locally. It’s a real honour in many ways, but a tremendous responsibility. Breaking the Broxtowe Scandal story earlier this year was something Tom and I are very proud of: the sources that came forward and trusted us were terrific, the bravery of those willing to stick their heads above the parapet inspiring. Broxtowe Borough Council really is an organisation that fits the phrase ‘lions led by donkeys’ to a tee.
Yet it takes its toll. The hate-mail – vastly in the minority, but disproportionately lingering after reading -puts you on edge. It now usually comes via anonymous email (ironically where a method used by many of my best sources to cover themselves from leaking). The legal worries that accompany publishing allegations are often overwhelming: this makes the level of fact-checking involved a lengthy, often tedious process**.
Verifying sources, scouring documents, interviewing, researching, writing then rewriting then rewriting then rewriting – it takes time and patience. I currently have both in short supply***.
The responsibility is occasionally terrible. If we are leaked a story, or fed a strong lead, then to not research and publish it is akin to being complicit in the sin committed. Who else, after all, will cover it? “I always wondered why someone didn’t do something about that” runs the activist meme “Until I realised I was someone”. I’ve never aspired to political office. I’ve never felt tribal towards a political party. I’ve definitely not done this for money. I simply love where I live, and feel obliged to defend it.
Over the past few years, I’ve been very lucky in life. I get paid to write in a job I love. I meet fascinating, phenomenally talented people I’d once never have dreamt of being able to talk to. The Beestonian magazine goes from strength to strength. A play I’ve co-written is getting some very encouraging attention. And best of all, I have a wonderful wife and a beautiful son (who turns two next week). All these things bring me joy, happiness, a decent wage and a faith in humans.
Politics does none of those things. So it has to go.
However, I have given Tom the keys to this blog**** and I hope he accepts. He has the energy, the brains and the prose-panache well beyond my reach. I am very lucky to have found him, and when he is writing for huge publications I will be proud to say he cut his teeth here.
I’m also looking into how to train up community journalists professionally: after a decade I’ve picked up a lot I would love to pass on.
I will not miss the meetings. I will not miss the anxiety. I will not miss the reams of documents that get anonymously dropped into my inbox with no instructions to where the treasure is buried. It’s been fun, and I hope I’ve made a bit of a difference in illuminating local government. It’s been a riotous blast. Thanks for reading, and the loveliness I’ve received over the years.
And if you’d like to buy me a pint…well, I’m not going to stop you. I’ll use any donations over the price of a pint to buy time for Tom and I to hand-over (probably in a pub, for efficiency). Drop us a couple of quid by clicking here: ta Matt have one on me. Bye bye, I’ll miss you, and remember, it’s not you, it’s me xx
* No, it isn’t just Tories. I remember a cringingly awful debate in the Town Hall about global warming, when a Labour councillor, thankfully long-departed from office, explained that polar ice cap melting was not an issue due to observations he’d made with the ice in his scotch. I was willing the world to end after hearing his logic.
**I have had many verbal threats but as yet only one attempt to start proceedings: from Anna Soubry’s bully-boy partner, Neil ‘shonky builders’ Davi(d)son. It failed but did the trick in putting the frighteners up me. As Davidson’s former firm Persimmon were recently in the news due to paying the boss a £75million bonus for knocking up craply-built properties partly subsidised by the same government Soubry is part of, I’ll add ‘greedy shits’ to ‘shonky.
*** This post alone has taken the best part of a day to put together. The irony of writing about how little time I have while spending that time moaning about how little time I have is not lost on me.
**** I’m personally hoping he covers a story about how a local Tory councillor has been expressly told he isn’t allowed to stand in May, after being removed from Soubry’s office after making a series of angry and threatening misogynistic remarks. I’ll spare naming him for now, and instead, put up a random photo of a councillor.