Our Election, Brexit, and Going Forward

  "Vote Here/Vote Aqui" sign in Orlando, Florida - 2008. Image Credit:  Erik (HASH) Hershman  via  Flickr   CC

"Vote Here/Vote Aqui" sign in Orlando, Florida - 2008. Image Credit: Erik (HASH) Hershman via Flickr CC

     So it all comes down to this. After arguably the most bruising, unconventional, and wild political campaign in American history, we are finally at the moment when we choose our next president.

     To be honest, it has been tough to get my head around it all, with so many twists and turns, ups and downs, allegations and innuendo being thrown around, facts and falsehoods being spouted about, claims and counter-claims being made, and just generally, the anxiety over the whole affair.

     As it stands, the choices we face as a country are both unpopular and with unprecedented high negative ratings. For many of us, the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is one we would rather not have, for neither has been particularly inspiring and they both have heavy amounts of baggage – the contents of which have been exposed for us to see.

     Nevertheless, that’s those are choices we have and a choice must be made, for this election has come down to a referendum on the future – about what kind of country and society we wish to be, much like the UK’s referendum on the EU in June. Indeed, much commentary has been written and discussed about that referendum and what happened there in relation to our election. There are differences to be sure, but just as our election has pitted the wild card Trump against the more seasoned Clinton, the EU referendum pitted the unknowns of Britain leaving the EU against the what was known about staying in – in other words, the relative status quo vs a desired yet ill-defined change.

     What ought to be clear is that vast swathes of the people in both countries are not satisfied at all with where they are in their lives and with the state of our countries. There is the sense that the establishment has been failing them for years with policies appearing to benefit only those who are ingratiated with the system, such as the politicians, their families, wealthy campaign donors, corporate and other special interests, and just about anyone with inside connections to give them a leg up over everyone else.

     Along with the effects of 2007-2008 financial crisis, there have been the issues - repeated throughout the Western world - of globalization and how many people have been left behind as a result of it, changing economies and demographics which have clashed with the traditional structures and assurances of societies, and a general sense of uneasiness and the feeling that things are going downhill in many ways. Frustration with the status quo has allowed for the rise populism, which has fueled Trump in America and Brexit in Britain.

     That decision for Britain to leave the EU was a shock to everyone because it was figured that given the given the stark choice between the known and the unknown, Britons would stick with what they knew as a future in Europe as opposed to the unknowns outside of it. When the vote came, a slight majority of Britons decided that whatever unknowns there were outside the EU, they were worth it in the belief that the fortunes for themselves and the UK were better off outside.

     The mistake that some of the pro-EU campaigners made leading up to last June’s referendum was that they focused too much on the negatives of leaving, rather than the positives of staying, just as those advocating keeping the UK together during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum were criticized for accentuating the downsides of separation in order to get the people to vote “No”. This resulted in the “Yes” vote for separation being much higher than anticipated as the separatist campaign – appealing to positive platitudes if not solid facts – made inroads particularly among the working classes who felt they little to lose in choosing separation. Two years later, the Brexit campaigners did much of the same thing by portraying themselves as having new and bold solutions, as opposed to the stale answers offered up by the establishment. Similarly, a significant chunk of the American electorate appears prepared to risk uncertainty with Trump rather than go with what they know (and probably dislike more) about Clinton, who has been touting her experience and readiness for office in contrast to the unpredictability of Trump.

     Whatever happens, it is incumbent on our leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to commit themselves to getting things done for the great good. At everyone’s heart is the desire for a government that works effectively and efficiently, which works in the national interest while engaging with the world. Indeed, there is a lot that needs to be done domestically and internationally, and the people and political leaders must rise to the occasion as we do live in unprecedented times where people’s trust and confidence in government and other institutions are so low.

     This is the landscape facing the victor of the election tonight (or tomorrow) and on top of that, about half of the country not only voted against this person, but probably has a low opinion of them, to say the least. Whoever it is will have to work hard to unite the country as never before and provide answers to legitimate issues raised throughout the course of the campaign.

     As an optimist, I do not believe all will be lost regardless of who wins. Our country has gone through so much in over two centuries of existence, including an all-out civil war and presidential resignation, and we have shown the capacity to not only survive, but go on to be a better country than before. Our Constitution and hard-won democratic institutions are greater than any one person who temporarily occupies them for a few years at the pleasure of the people, and I believe the same to be true of the UK as well.

     That said, the choice we make does matter and I hope that people do consider the future carefully make a wise choice that we can be holistically comfortable with for generations to come.

Our Internal Affairs

     Throughout my involvement in the Scottish referendum campaign, there were several times when I was told to stay out of Scotland’s “internal affairs.” Some Nationalists and “Yes” supporters on Facebook and Twitter would say that the referendum vote had nothing to do with me and that – among others things – I should “f**k off” and pay more attention to what’s going on in the United States. Other people were more polite about it – saying that they appreciated my interest, but nonetheless still say that I ought to stay out of their referendum over their future.

     Then when President Obama made his intervention in support of our closest ally to keep itself together, there were many Nats who angrily frothed at the notion of the President of the United States making his views known publicly – at one point, alongside the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron. He too was told to stay out and shut up, and even then-First Minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond reportedly was upset about the presidential intervention.

     Following the referendum and up to the present, I have still found myself coming into contact with Cybernats telling me that what goes on in Scotland has nothing to do with me and that I should stop commenting and writing articles such this.

     So when I came across yesterday’s article in The Herald that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had endorsed Hillary Clinton to be our next president, my first thought was: well, look who’s commenting on the internal affairs of another country. However, this was not mere commenting on what’s going in America, but openly saying who she would like to see in the White House this time next year, and breaking the diplomatic convention that politicians in one country should not directly comment on foreign elections or endorse candidates in those elections.

     Yet while Sturgeon should have observed this convention (regardless of whether she was prompted by a member of the audience to which she was speaking), I tend to find nothing wrong in general with politicians, other public officials and figures, and private individuals in one country commenting on other major issues and concerns in a other country, especially one that is a close friend and ally.

     Such is the case with the Special Relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom that we cannot help but to watch what goes on each other’s country and perhaps have something to say about events which may prove to be quite consequential to the nature of our relationship. It is therefore not surprising that President Obama made an intervention two years ago to keep the UK together, and that he is choosing to speak out in favor of the UK’s membership in the European Union.

     On the other end, it has been David Cameron and other leading British politicians who have voiced their criticism of unspoken and controversial Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, and Members of Parliament even debated whether Trump ought to have been banned from entering the United Kingdom. Indeed, when Sturgeon was asked whether she would welcome Trump to Scotland if he became president, she did not directly answer the question, but did refer to his views as “abhorrent.” In doing this, she stayed in line with what most politicians were doing – condemning Trump and speaking about the campaign in general terms – but differing by actually making an endorsement of Hillary Clinton.

     Even so, she has a right to do this, and if she were a private citizen like most of us, there would be no criticism from me. For my part, it has been an interesting time to observe politics and current events unfold on both sides of the Pond, and being on Twitter and Facebook has helped me to see how many Brits and Americans see each other. From the casual social networkers to the media pundits to the political leaders, just about everyone has something to say about one another’s country and perhaps offer suggestions or thoughts on what it ought to do.

     At times, this gets taken for “lecturing” – as though a person from one country or the other is looking down/talking down to people in the other country from on high. But the reality is this: you can either listen or not; take it or leave it. We have to be grown up about hearing from people who either reside in or are from other countries, and again, especially when that country is a close friend and ally which shares broadly similar customs, values, language, and heritage, and with whom there are strong military, economic, and political ties.

     No one had to listen to me on Twitter and Facebook during the lead-up to the referendum; the people who have supported me and in some cases, have become my friends during and since that time, could have ignored me. The fact that they and so many others have not is an indication that they are at some level interested in what I have to say, just as I am interested in what they have to say.

     In the bigger scheme of things, I seriously doubt anybody changed their minds because of me, but I was at least contented with engaging with people who took me seriously and treated me with respect along the way.

     I got into the referendum and events since because of my respect, appreciation, and love for the United Kingdom and my desire to not see it dissolve and cast into the dispersing winds. I have been sincere in this desire as a private citizen because of my personal affection for the country, its people, its history and heritage, its culture, my concern for its future and where it’s going, and its relationship with my country. In the last four years, I have taken an active interest in what goes on in the UK, with a particular focus on Scotland due to the referendum and since, and now with both countries going through many of the same issues, I do what I can to keep up with the comings-and-going on both sides of the Pond.

     On the other side are many new British friends who take an active interest in what goes on in the United States, not least because of the roller coaster ride that is the presidential election. Many of them have a reciprocal admiration, respect, and love for America, and as they watch developments over here, they have expressed their own concerns about the direction of the country as we go through the primary process and go about choosing a successor to President Obama.

     And I welcome this because after all, we are close allies and friends; we do have a Special Relationship, so it is only natural that we pay attention to each other, for certain events occurring in one country tend to have an effect in the other. For that reason alone, it is right for us – short of public officials making transatlantic endorsements – to comment on what is going on in each other’s country. Speaking for myself as an American, it also makes sense because sometimes, it helps to hear different perspectives from our cousins across the Pond, and there are many who feel the same way in the UK with regard to the US.

     To be clear, our internal affairs are ones which only we can – quite rightly – decide for ourselves at our respective ballot boxes, but with the right tone and in good faith from the perspective of friendship and a genuine interest on the issues at hand, an outside perspective can be warmly received and appreciated. We do not have to agree with each other or come around to the other person’s point of view, but listening and perhaps having a conversation or debate can make us stronger in our beliefs, better informed about the world around us, and feel a sense of mutual respect among each other.

     This I believe is a good thing for everyone. 

     To quote Robert Burns: 

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!

Reaching For The Sky: The Story of the Tuskeegee Airmen and the Pilots of the Caribbean

 A group of RAF Supermarine Spitfires in World War II. Image Credit:  Public Domain

A group of RAF Supermarine Spitfires in World War II. Image Credit: Public Domain

     As an American with a profound interest in the United Kingdom, among the things which fascinates me is the interplay of society and culture between our two countries. Going further as a Black person, I tend to spend time looking about for parallels and differences between the experiences of Black Britons and African Americans.

     So with Black History Month in America drawing to a close, I watched a documentary about the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the group of Black pilots who made history by being the first African-American military aviators in the US Armed Forces.

     Educated at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama and trained at a nearby airfield during World War II, the airmen formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). 992 pilots were trained from 1941 to 1946, and of these 355 were deployed overseas for active duty during the war – seeing action in the European and North African theater, and participating in 1578 combat missions and 179 bomber escort missions. Of those escort missions, only seven resulted in the loss of a plane for a total 27 lost aircraft, which was better than the average of the 46 within the 15th Air Force P-51 Mustang group. The Airmen were responsible for destroying 112 enemy aircraft in the air and 950 ground vehicles (rail cars, trucks, and tanks), while also putting an enemy destroyer out of action and sinking 40 other boats and barges.

     As a result of their efforts, the Airmen and their units received several awards, honors, and commendations – including a Silver Star, 14 Bronze Stars, 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 744 Air Medals, and eight Purple Hearts. Three Distinguished Unit Citations were also awarded to the 99th Pursuit Squadron for operations over Sicily in 1943, the 99th Fighter Squadron for successful air strikes over Monte Cassino, and the 332d Fighter Group – whose planes shot down three Nazi fighter jets during a bomber escort mission over Berlin in March 1945.

     However, these well-earned accomplishments could not disguise the fact that the Airmen faced racial discrimination in and outside of military, which was still segregated at the time. In many cases, they had to deal with commanding officers who looked down on them because of the color of their skin and went to extreme lengths to keep white and black personnel apart – even during instructional classes and theater briefings.

     Nevertheless, Airmen such as Roscoe Brown and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. became heroes for their exploits and service to the country, and in the years following the war, pilots from the Tuskegee units were some of the best in the Armed Forces. Following the desegregation of the military in 1948, new opportunities opened up for these aviators as their skills were in high demand for military and civilian applications. Some went on to become civilian flight instructors and contribute to the development of aviation. Others stayed in the newly-formed US Air Force, such as Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., who in 1975 became the first African-American four-star general.

     Beyond this is the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen in terms of helping our country to move forward on matters of race. Like Jackie Robinson in the sports world, the Airmen helped to change attitudes and make it easier to break down racial barriers and legal segregation during the Civil Rights Movement. Today, they stand as inspirational pillars in our long and complex American story.

     After watching the Tuskegee Airmen documentary, I wondered if there was a similar group of black pilots in UK’s Royal Air Force during the Second World War as well.

     Thankfully, this did not take long as I discovered the “Pilots of the Caribbean” – Black people from Britain’s Caribbean colonies who answered the call for King and Empire and served in the flying services during not just World War II, but World War I as well. Along with native black Britons, thousands of African-Caribbean men and women volunteered in the fight for freedom and in the defense of Britain, her Empire and Commonwealth.

     In the First World War, they signed up, and like so many throughout the Empire, they did so out of a sense of patriotism, economic and personal reasons, and seeking adventure. However, most of them could only serve in colonial regiments – such as the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) – and there was a “colour bar” which prevented many from participating in the armed forces of Britain itself, including native black Britons. Eventually, this was relaxed and as the war progressed, more black personnel ended up serving in the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service, and from 1918, the Royal Air Force (RAF). Sergeant William Robinson Clarke from Kingston, Jamaica was the first Black volunteer to qualify as a pilot, and he flew R.E.8 biplanes over the Western Front in the summer of 1917. This compares favorably to the experience in the United States, where no African-Americans were allowed to serve as pilots in our armed forces during the “war to end all wars.”

     Unfortunately, there was more war to come after 1918, and when World War II broke out in 1939, African-Caribbean volunteers once again signed up to lend their service in the name of freedom and in defense of Britain and her Empire and Commonwealth. This time however, the RAF actively recruited from the Black colonies and encouraged thousands of young men to come to Britain to train as pilots. From the Caribbean, around 6000 African-Caribbean men volunteered for the RAF – 5500 as ground crew and over 400 as air crew – and 80 women became members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), with Jamaicans numbering the largest single contingent at 3700 strong.

     Together with Black people from Africa and Britain itself, these men and women served in all commands of the RAF, save for Transport Command, whose personnel traveled to countries that were intolerant of integrated crews. Indeed, the RAF generally took a firm and (for its time, progressive ) view of abolishing any color barriers and racism within their ranks – with the Air Ministry Confidential Order of June 1944 stating:

 “All ranks should clearly understand that there is no colour bar in the Royal Air Force…any instant of discrimination on grounds of colour by white officers or airmen or any attitude of hostility towards personnel of non-European descent should be immediately and severely checked.”

     During the war, the vast majority of the Black air crews took their place in Bomber Command, which was responsible for targeting and bombing strategic targets in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe, including railroads, communication lines, highways, and industrial sectors. Among the more noted names in this area include Flight Lieutenant William “Billy” Strachan and Flying Officer Lincoln Lynch of Jamaica. Strachan served in the 156 Squadron, a unit of the elite Pathfinder Force, whilst Lynch was posted to the 102 Squadron and was awarded the Air Gunner’s Trophy in 1943 and the Distinguished Flying Medal. There was also Flying Officer Akin Shenbanjo of Nigeria – a member of the 76 Squadron who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), Sergeant Arthur Young – a Welshman and native Black Briton of the 106 Squadron.

     Meanwhile, Fighter Command featured several Black airmen who helped to provide escorts to bombers, sweeps of enemy aircraft, and air support for ground forces. Among them include Flying Officer Arthur Weekes from Barbados, Flight Sergeant Collins Joseph and Warrant Officer James Hyde of Trinidad, and Flight Lieutenant Vincent Bunting – who all flew Spitfires (and in Bunting’s case, a Mustang fighter) and were responsible for shooting down enemy aircraft in fierce air campaigns.

     In Coastal Command, people such as Flight Lieutenant Lawrence “Larry” Osborne of Trinidad, Flight Lieutenant David Errol Chance and Aircraftman M. Hendricks of Jamaica, and Aircraftman G. Small of Barbados took part in reconnaissance missions, escort missions, and sinking enemy vessels (including U-boats, war ships, and merchant vessels) as they helped to win the Battle of the Atlantic and keep vital sea lanes open, while also being responsible for the RAF’s air-sea rescue service which saved over 10,000 lives. Osborne was a navigator aboard Liberator long-range reconnaissance bombers, while Chance participated in anti-shipping campaigns – first as a Beaufighter pilot in the Aegean Sea, then as a Mosquito fighter-bomber pilot in the North Sea.

     However, none of these aforementioned commands could have been effective in their efforts without ground staffs, and it was here where 5,500 black RAF personnel participated in a number of varying roles and trades. Included in this number were men and women such as Leading Aircraftman Philip Lamb of Bermuda, Leading Aircraftwoman Sonia Thompson of Kingston, Jamaica – who worked as an Instrument Repairer, and Flying Officer Reginald Foresythe – a native Black Briton of Nigerian descent who was born in London. Foresythe was a jazz composer, pianist and band leader, and though he was too old for combat duty, he joined the RAF and was commissioned as an Intelligence Officer in Britain and North Africa.

     By war’s end, these thousands of Black men and women from throughout the Britain and the Empire and Commonwealth made invaluable contributions in their service as members of the Royal Air Force and the overall effort to defeat Nazi Germany, and many were commissioned as officers and decorated for gallantry or exceptional service. It is hard to know exactly how many there were because ethnic origins were not recorded and the Black volunteers were fully integrated into the RAF services, but this is a credit to Britain for treating them generally in the same way as anybody else, and again, it speaks volumes about the UK’s relative progressiveness compared to the US, since the Tuskegee Airmen were racially segregated in our armed forces.

     As for personal discrimination on the part of white colleagues, while there were some instances of misbehavior and unfair practices, personnel of all backgrounds tended to get along well on a personal and professional level. For his part, Flight Lieutenant Billy Strachan said:

“If by any reasonable calculation, one might have expected me to have suffered, if not discrimination, at least a constant barrage of racist jokes; I can confirm that this did not happen.”

     The lasting legacy of the Black RAF personnel is multifaceted. Some of the African-Caribbean’s returned home after the war, and played a role in obtaining independence for their countries in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Others would return to the UK permanently in 1948 aboard the Empire Windrush (with one-third of its passengers being RAF airmen returning from leave or veterans returning to the service) and be part of the large-scale post-war immigration from the Caribbean. Along with native Black Britons, they would go on to establish communities of their own in the UK – fighting against discrimination and for civil rights, and becoming business leaders, politicians, educators, statesmen, activists, and some made life-long careers in the RAF itself. Indeed, the RAF has noted on its website that it is “clear that the foundations of Britain’s Black community were laid in part by RAF veterans” and it partly because of them – like their Tuskegee counterparts in America – that British society and social attitudes have changed for the better. They reached for the skies and succeeded in more ways than one.