Saturday, 27 December 2014

My Own Suggestion for Briton of the Year

I wanted to start this blog about the Times naming UKIP leader Nigel Farage "Briton of the Year" with a snarky comment suggesting that the venerable London paper's slide into irrelevance is now confirmed, but have decided to take a different tack (although, see what I did there?).

Admittedly, it is a little shocking. As a former immigrant to the UK, able to come and go as I please thanks to my Italian passport, I found all discussions about limiting (legal) immigration to be distasteful and short-sighted. And UKIP was (and I guess still is) an existential threat to me, in a manner of speaking - if they were to succeed in separating Britain from the EU, I'd immediately find it much harder to go back, find work, etc.

Farage is also a pretty unpleasant character, although he's clearly canny enough to have surrounded himself with people who make him look statesmanlike. His party seems to embroil itself in rows over homophobia or sexism or racism every other week, but as the Times notes, he's Teflon Nigel - nothing sticks.

But people who are up in arms about the choice are kind of missing the point. Hitler and Stalin were declared Man of the Year by Time magazine in the 1930s, after all. And that may sound glib (as well as an example of Godwin's Law), but the point isn't that the "Briton/Person/Whatever of the Year" is someone we admire - rather, it's about who we will best remember when we think back to 2014.

People have suggested alternate Britons of the Year, including the Ebola doctor Will Pooley or one of the people executed by ISIS. With respect, Pooley is for me a better choice, but still not who I'd choose. The other public figure who's not only been in the public eye a whole lot, and who's had a lot of words written about him, is Russell Brand, the comedian who's effectively been telling young people not to bother voting.

I wouldn't choose him either, though. Not just because I think his call to refusal is dangerous and short-sighted, in its way, as Farage's campaign against, well, everybody who had the misfortune not to be born British.

My choice would be the campaigners who successfully fought to keep from getting evicted from their homes on the New Era Estate in Shoreditch. They came to the game late, but their struggle was, for me, much more emblematic of what's happening in Britain than Farage or Brand. It's also more global - the fact that their homes were sold out from under them to an American real estate company that was ready to evict them all (or jack up their rent by at least three times), with the connivance of a sitting Tory MP, is something that's playing out everywhere.

What's admirable is that they were able to force the Tory MP and his brother to pull out of the deal, and then force the new owners to give up and sell the estate on to another housing charity. They took a stand against big money, and against selling off every last square foot of London to luxury home buyers from Russia, the Gulf or wherever, and against the odds, they won.

The reason I find the New Era group to be more deserving of Briton of the Year is that they tackled the root of what's wrong with Britain (and specifically London), whereas Farage and Brand are reacting to symptoms. Farage thinks everything would be fixed if Britain kicked out everybody who was born somewhere else; Brand thinks ignoring politicians and getting on with drugs and sex-parties is the way forward. But the New Era win shows that the way out of our current problems - in whichever country you live - is to work together to build a fairer society.

I'm sure plenty of people got evicted from their homes in London this Christmas, but the New Era activists have provided a template for how to combat predatory behavior by corporations against the individual.