Excluded by Policy

This post is dedicated to the memory of Tessa Jowell, who died on Friday. She has been lauded as the Minister who drove forward the UK’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics. But arguably, her greatest legacy was the introduction of the Sure Start programme. This was a valued and evidence-based programme to help disadvantaged children in their early years development. Sadly, this programme had been decimated by Osborne’s ill-conceived austerity policy.

Tessa Jowell
Tessa Jowell

I was speaking to a head teacher I know well recently. He told me that, sadly, he has had to make the first exclusions from his school this year, after previously succeeding for many years to avoid this. He made a direct link between curriculum changes and exclusions – a link I had not previously made myself.

I understand that exclusions are up considerably in other local schools, too.

School Budgets

As a Chair of Governors myself, I am only too aware of the effects of cuts to school budgets: difficult decisions have to be made. With the lion’s share of the budget going in salaries, this inevitably means fewer staff. With statutory requirements around class sizes, it is the support staff who tend to get reduced in number. This makes it more difficult to keep “hard to handle” pupils in mainstream school provision.

The vicious 40% cuts to Local Government budgets from central government have also severely reduced the capacity of second-line support to these vulnerable pupils. A double whammy.

Sure Start

The head reminded me – it’s a secondary school – that they are now seeing children who were unable to take up Sure Start schemes owing to the squeeze on LA budgets, when much of the Sure Start programme was cut back. Much of what Sure Start was about was to enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds catch up in their development with their middle-class peers, so they didn’t have to play catch-up during their school years. Prevention is always better – and cheaper – than cure.

Youth Services

One obvious effect of swingeing LA budget cuts is the decimation of Youth Services. It does not take a genius to work out that, if there is less for kids to do out of school, the temptation to get into trouble is correspondingly greater. Obvious, really.

Curriculum Changes

The one bit I hadn’t twigged was the connection between Gove’s curriculum changes and the rise in exclusions. It all stems from the higher status afforded to academic subjects by the English. The pressure on all 16 year olds to take subjects from the EBacc list narrows the curriculum choices – in particular, away from vocational subjects. These academic subjects are often less suited to children with learning and behaviour issues and further reduces their self-esteem. This, in turn, encourages poor behaviour and the risk of exclusion.

So, in summary, higher exclusion rates follow directly from a toxic cocktail of Tory policy changes (i.e. curriculum changes and budget cuts).

Grammar Schools

Meanwhile, the Government announces it will waste £50m on “expanding” grammar schools – an evidence-free Theresa May vanity project which solves nothing, a subject I first raised back in 2015.

Ho hum.

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Some Way Out

There must be some way out of here
Said the Maybot all alone
There’s too much confusion
I must do this on my own.

Rabid dogs have caught my mind
Sane men ground to earth
Remain was forty-eight percent
But fuck all now that’s worth.

Good reason to expedite it
Barnier he kindly spoke
There are many voters out there
Who feel that life is but a joke.

But you and I have been through that
We don’t have long to wait
Stop messing; make your minds up
The hour’s getting late.

Don’t forget about Good Friday
I heard the Taoiseach say
Unless you believe in unicorns
You must find a better way.

Outside in the distance
The CBI did growl
The exit day’s approaching
Rees-Mogg began to howl…

 

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Grudging, As Ever

On Friday, the Government announced another U-turn, this time on the composition of the Grenfell enquiry panel. In December, May had rejected this request from survivors. It’s the latest in a long line of resistance by the powerful for ordinary people to have more say in the political process. Let’s examine a few examples from the last 800 years.

Grenfell Enquiry Representative Panel

The Grenfell panel is to be widened to include people with the skills to examine the cultural and community reasons behind the fire. This follows a prolonged period of pressure from survivor groups.

Windrush Concessions

After six months of constant coverage by the Guardian, giving heart-breaking case study after case study, the Government finally admitted there was a problem with the Home Office’s hostile environment policy. But their solution was very, very narrow in scope indeed. They have commissioned Capita to set up a small, poorly trained group to handle any injustices that may have befallen this relatively small group of people. Everyone who has studied the institutional racism within the Home Office knows that the total number who may be affected runs to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.

So far, May has done the absolute minimum required to keep the Daily Mail happy. How much more pressure needs to be applied, and how many more cases does the Guardian have to highlight, before the Home Office and May admit the problem is much wider? Grudging approach number two.

Lords Reform under Blair and Cameron

Now that the House of Lords has resoundingly defeated the government 14 times over plans to leave the EU, I find it highly amusing that the right-wing press has suddenly discovered that the Lords are unelected and therefore “undemocratic”! The leading exit extremists, including Rees-Mogg, were basically the same group who voted down attempts at reform under Blair’s New Labour and the 2010-15 coalition led by David Cameron.

Blair did succeed with a feeble compromise to reduce the number of hereditary peers to 92. Cameron’s attempts, half-hearted at best to appease his coalition partners, failed totally.

After over 100 years since the initial reform (see below), the Lords lives on as the largest unelected legislative chamber outside the People’s Republic of China. Resistance to the inherently corrupt Lords appointment system lives on.

End of Empire

After the costs of fighting World War Two, Britain was skint and heavily in debt to the USA. Our ignominious rush out of India and Palestine is well-documented elsewhere.

We did some pretty awful things as we finally left our colonial past, particularly in Africa. Here are a few examples of British Empire atrocities to be going along with. Independence for our former colonies, particularly those with majority non-white populations, was given grudgingly and often bloodily.

NHS Introduction 1948

Despite the lack of money and the high level of UK national debt, Nye Bevan pushed forward his plan to introduce a National Health Service, free at the point of use. He did this in the teeth of opposition from the Conservatives and (initially) the doctors’ professional body, the BMA.

Over time, as the people came to love – and treasure – the NHS, the Tories have tried to forget this part of our history. During the 1950s the Tories grudgingly accepted that the NHS was part of the fabric of our society.

Lords Reform 1911

The Parliament Act 1911, introduced by the Liberal Government, was passed in the face of bitter opposition and resistance. Its effect was to reduce the powers of the upper house and in its powers over budget setting. The preamble to the Bill included the words “it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation“. You can say that last bit again! I’m sure the original 1911 reformers would never have dreamt we would still be debating this issue 100 years later.

Once again, change was resisted and introduced grudgingly.

Women’s Vote

The Representation of the People Act 1918 finally brought the franchise to women over the age of 30 and extended male franchise. A vicious rearguard action against the suffragists and suffragettes had been waged for decades before; the issue was often bound up in Parliament with horse-trading over independence for Ireland. Measures, including the infamous Cat and Mouse Act 1913 and forced-feeding meant that women were subjected to treatment that would be classified as torture today. Resistance took on a very sinister tone.

Universal suffrage came very grudgingly!

Irish Independence

The fight for Irish Home Rule was resisted by the establishment at every turn, often entangled in the “and Unionist” element of the Tory Party. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 introduced the controversial border which created Northern Ireland as part of the UK from six northern counties of Ireland. We live still with the consequences of this decision.

True independence for the Republic of Ireland came in stages and finally in 1948. The changes were resisted for decades and the UK has never fully understood the colonial nature of its earlier relationship with the people of Ireland. Grudgingly again.

Electoral Reform 1830s

The 1832 Reform Act was the first small step to widening the franchise, passed by a Whig Government and fiercely resisted by the Tories at the time. It did also do away with the notorious “rotten boroughs” and introduced constituencies with roughly the same populations.

The number of people allowed to vote increased only by a tiny amount – grudgingly.

Abolition of Slavery

Practically everyone knows that compensation was paid to the slave owners, not the slaves, when slavery was abolished by the Slavery Abolition Act 1933.  The bribe was huge: £20 million: 40% of Government income for the year. It was paid as part of a grubby scheme to overcome resistance of those in the establishment who had benefited from the slave trade and slavery.

Glorious Revolution

The so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 saw King James overthrown by force and led to the Bill of Rights. Although much bound up in Protestant – Catholic antagonism, it was a case of Parliament challenging the absolute power of a monarch. During the machinations, James turned to the Tories for support.

Runnymede by force

Even in 1215, Magna Carta would never have come about voluntarily by King John. Although hardly a revolution by “the people”, the rebels used force (and the threat of it) to force the king to sign.

Tories inheritors of this tradition

None of the above is exactly news. And the last two examples pre-date political parties and are more examples of aristocracy versus absolute monarchy. But my general point is this: all progressive reforms have come about by fierce – and often bloody – pressure and have been resisted by authority figures. You can be assured that May’s recent grudging acceptance of the inevitable in relation to the Grenville Tower fire enquiry is just the most recent example of whose side the Tories have always been on. And it’s never the side of those pressing for reform.

If we want to see Britain as an open European-orientated, welcoming, diverse, multicultural country, we need to fight for it all the way.

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Split Down the Middle

Thanks to the uselessness of David Cameron, the split in the Tory Party has spread to the whole country.

Well I don’t know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain’t right,
I’m so scared in case I fall off my perch,
And the Dunces leave me here in the lurch,
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Split down the middle with you

Split?

Yes I’m split down the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do,
It’s so hard to put a smile on my face,
Losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place,
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, split down the middle with you

Well you started out as Mayor,
And you’re proud that you’re been there,
And your fans, they all come crawlin,
Slap you on the back and say,
Please, please

Trying to make some sense of it all,
But I can see that it makes no sense at all,
Is it cool to show Jack Rees-Mogg the door,
‘Cause I don’t think that I can take anymore
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, split down the middle with you

Well you started at the MOD,
You’re as proud a Brit as there can be,
Your corrupt friends, they come crawlin,
Slap you on the back and say,
Please, please

Well I don’t know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain’t right,
I’m so scared in case I do something wrong,
‘Cos all can see I’m really not that strong,
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Split down the middle with you,
Yes I’m split down the middle with you,
Split down the middle with you, here I am split down the middle with you

 

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What Was It All About, Alfie?

There’s a sad postscript to the tragic tale of Alfie Evans, the little boy who died last week.

Extra Security

Alder Hey Hospital has set up a helpline and introduced extra security measures as a result of the Alfie case. Hospital staff were abused and attacked by ill-informed mobs after they cared for little Alfie for 18 months, in the most sensitive and distressing circumstances imaginable.

crucifix

It all sounds familiar to those who remember the equally tragic case of Charlie Gard. In both cases, the sound of people – Catholic fundamentalists and pro-lifers generally –  jumping onto bandwagons and hijacking proceedings were deafening. The Catholic Legal Centre bullied Alfie’s parents into letting them take over the legal case. Catholic fundamentalist activists posed as relatives to gain access to Alfie’s bedside. Even the Pope was in on the act: Alfie’s parents got an audience with him.

More Scary

So what is the result of all this?

Every child in Liverpool who is ill enough to need to go to Alder Hey Hospital, and their worried parents, will now need to go through extra security checks. That makes visiting the hospital that little bit more scary for every child at their most vulnerable. That doesn’t sound a very Christian thing to me.

What Is to Be Done?

The sad tale of Alfie seems just the latest in a long line of gross overreach and interference in our lives by religious fundamentalists. Christian evangelists seem the worst – the Catholics being richest and best organised – with some Islamic groups also to blame. It does seem to be a particular problem with the monotheistic (Abrahamic) religions, but Jewish groups and the good, soggy old CofE don’t seem to be in the same league. So we must choose whom to oppose with care and consideration.

I have always felt uneasy at the misogyny associated with these religions and the passion devoted to telling women what to do with their bodies. A quick read of Leviticus will remind us all that women’s bodies are inherently dirty. Leviticus 15:19 (menstruation) and Chapter 12 (Purification after Childbirth) would be good places to start for the uninitiated. Mary is fetished by Catholics as a virgin, but I assume she had periods! (Incidentally, Chapter 12 is sandwiched between “clean and unclean food” and “regulations about infectious skin diseases.”) Sorry, folks, times change.

So, what can we do? Pick our opportunities as best we can. Here are two ideas for focussing our lobbying and pressure.

Safe Zones for Family Planning Clinics

foetus image

The first area relates to the harassment of women considering abortions who get intimidated by Christian groups outside Family Planning Clinics. Congratulations to the councillors in Ealing for passing local bylaws to protect women from harassment at a vulnerable time. We now need central government to make this into an England-wide piece of legislation. But with May’s constant reminding us of her visit to church every Sunday, we may have to pick off the country one council at a time. There are, I believe, other councils considering their own bylaws.

Faith Schools

I obviously believe, as a Humanist and secularist, that there should be NO state-funded faith schools in the UK (the norm throughout most of the rest of Europe). But the 80% of the public who agree with me find ourselves in a hostile environment on this issue whilst May stays as PM.

But there is a good second best: ensure that the National Curriculum regulations, particularly in favour of teaching “British” Values and admissions policies are rigorously enforced with NO opt-outs for faith schools. (The “British” values are, of course, in reality European ones, but we dare not speak that word!). Amanda Spielman, Head of Ofsted, has said some encouraging words on the subject. Local governing bodies, sympathetic councillors, parents’ groups, teaching unions and the rest must use local opportunities to ensure no backsliding on this.

So there are a couple of things we can do to fight back and put religion back into its box where it belongs. Alfie, tragically, was just the tip of the iceberg. “First, they came for the Jews…”

One Other Thing

Oh, and one other little thing. We must strain every sinew to ensure that Britain stays close to its friends who share its values. That, of course, means the UK must stay a member of the EU.

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Telling the Truth

Theresa May is reported as taking the lead in consolidating the anti-Russia alliance of nations against “fake news” and propaganda (particularly via social media).

Common Ground

This seems like sensible politics. All the UK’s European allies, and several other countries, were convinced at Russia’s guilt in the Salisbury poisonings and were very supportive. This obviously included the “sanctions” of sending home diplomats. Russia’s response has been harsh words but no real action. Within the UK, there has been genuine bipartisan support. Pretty much everyone agrees that Russia is a key source of fake news. So far, so good.

 

There is, however, a major flaw in May’s approach. Her sycophantic approach to the US President, first in her dash to Washington soon after Trump’s inauguration, her offer of a state visit (subsequently downgraded to a working visit to avoid protests) and her continuing support for Trump’s deceptions are very worrying. The adoption of the hardest of hard terms and her silly red lines – to appease the Dunce minority in her party – in the negotaitions with the EU leave Britain hopelessly exposed to a man “not morally fit” to be President (so said James Comey, former FBI chief, on April 15th).  [At the time of writing this, The UK Government has not responded to Trump’s lies about knife crime and blood-covered floors at a prestigious London Hospital. This was in part of his love-affair speech to the National Rifle Association yesterday. Martin Griffiths, the apparent source of the Trump story (in an interview recently for Radio 4’s Today programme), has replied on Twitter. He said he is happy to invite Trump to visit his hospital to see the success in reducing knife crime. Will May speak out? We’ll have to wait and see.]

And the UK Government has got quite skilled in generating Fake News of its own.

Fake News: An Example

The most recent, and egregious, example is the success the Government propaganda machine had this week getting the NON-STORY about Breast Cancer screening top billing on  BBC TV and Radio and front page headlines in all the newspapers on 3 May.

AgeX breast cance trial
AgeX trial

The (inconvenient to Government) facts, given in detail below from the Guardian on 3 May, can be summarised as follows:

  • Running trials of this type has 3 effects:
    • It costs money
    • A few women have their cancer detected earlier and this reduces the risk of an early death
    • Several more women will get “false positive” results and will undergo unnecessary distressing surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy.

Following some inconclusive Scandinavian result, NHS England set up a project: AgeX to see if offering routine screening to younger and older women was cost-effective. The objectives of the trial are reproduced from the Official AgeX website.

“The National Health Service (NHS) routinely offers breast screening every 3 years to all UK women aged 50-70. In 2012, an independent panel concluded that, while routine breast screening at ages 50-70 confers significant benefit to UK women, the advantages and disadvantages of starting breast screening at younger or older ages were uncertain. The AgeX trial will assess reliably the risks and benefits of offering an extra screen to women aged 47-49 (who will all be offered routine screening anyway three years later) and, separately, of offering additional screening to women after age 70 (who will already have been offered routine screening every 3 years at ages 50-70).”

  • At most, 40,000 women lost out on an offer of an extra screening, not 450,000.
  • There was NO COMPUTER ERROR: it was all part of the trial’s design with a control group to make the results statistically valid.
  • There was nothing for Jeremy Hunt to apologise for!
  • If AgeX had screened all women over 68, about 200 would have been correctly diagnosed earlier with breast cancer. 30 would die within 5 years, but only a small fraction of this number, unknown and unknowable, would have been saved by earlier screening. Another 600 would have undergone unnecessary treatment because of the “false positive” effect.
  • Nobody in the know recognises Hunt’s 135 to 270 deaths figure.

A Mathematical Joke

As a maths graduate who spent the first seven years of his career in statistics and computer modelling, I am confident of the numbers. So let’s have an old mathematical joke to break the boredom.

An astronomer, a physicist and a mathematician were travelling by train through Scotland. They notice a black sheep in an otherwise empty field. The astronomer says: “Look! All the sheep in Scotland are black!” “No, no!” says the physicist. “All you can say is that SOME of the sheep are black.” There is an awkward silence. It lasts no more than a second or two, but seems much longer. The mathematician raises his eyes skyward, a look of utter contempt on his face. He intones, in a flat, monotonous voice: “In Scotland, there exists at least one field which contains at least one sheep, AT LEAST ONE SIDE OF WHICH is black.”

Mathematicians laugh at the joke. Everyone else laughs at the mathematicians for finding it funny.

Meanwhile, back to the politics.

Burying Bad News

Some clever person in 10 Downing Street (i.e. an adviser, not May!) obviously decided they wanted to bury some bad news on 2 May. It wasn’t the local election results, which were inconclusive and proved nothing. So my guess is that the bad news was this: May’s inner War Cabinet met to hammer out which of two competing options they wanted to create a (near) “seamless” border in Ireland. Both options had been rejected as unworkable, “magic” even, 18 months ago, and again rejected in early March. Barnier gave the UK until 18 April to come with a non-magical solution: the date has obviously been fudged a bit and the Cabinet meeting on 2 May was meant to sort this out: it didn’t. So my guess is that the Government needed blanket coverage of something else, and the non-news about breast screening worked like a dream.

So what has happened?

  • 10,000 worried women phoned the helpline on Friday, rising from 5000 on Wednesday. It sounds chaotic, with call centre staff insufficiently trained.
  • Up to 450,000 women will be unnecessarily worried, but with only a few worried enough to call the helpline or go their GP (although NHS England has specifically asked women NOT to go to their GP).

So, one question remains. Was Jeremy Hunt in on the game? We don’t know.

  1. If Hunt didn’t understand the numbers, that makes him even more incompetent than the eye-watering levels of incompetence already set by all the members of May’s Cabinet (including May herself). That takes some beating, but Hunt would have achieved it. In which case, he should resign.
  2. Or else Hunt is complicit in the conspiracy to spread fake news. In which case, he should resign.

Meantime, the EU negotiations descend ever further into farce and tragedy.

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More Lovely and More Temperate

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate

temperate house
Temperate House

Kew Gardens is one of my favourite places. Let’s celebrate the re-opening, after five years’ refurbishment, of the glory that is the Temperate House. I can’t wait to see it! Surely this is something we in Britain call all agree about.

We’re Divided

Sorry, but I didn’t start it…

Theresa May
Hostile environment

Rough minds do shake the snarling moods of May
And common sense hath all too short a date

 

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Tail Wags Dog: Dunces All!

Back in February, in my post Call It Out: Crazies!, I coined the term I have been using for the irreconcilable Leavers in the Tory Party: Crazies. In the light of recent events, I’ve changed my mind – and my name for them. Here’s why.

dunce
Dunce

Taking stock

First, let’s take stock of where we are.

  • 62 MPs signed a pre-emptive letter to Theresa May demanding the most inflexible arrangements (almost certainly unacceptable to the EU officials and EU27) for the UK and a customs union. That represents 20% of the Tory party and less than 10% of the membership of the House of Commons. Tail wags dog.
  • May boxes herself into a position where she is beholden on these unrepresentative idiots, because of her extreme weakness and vulnerability as party leader.
  • Inner “War Cabinet” kicks the can further down the road on a seamless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. The EU deadline was 18 April for the UK to come up with a solution. Two years wasted.
  • In short, government paralysis, led by the most stubborn, useless Prime Minister in my lifetime.
  • All credible options involving leaving the EU still worse than the status quo.

How did we get into such a mess, with the UK a laughing-stock? The EU27 view us with a mixture of frustration (for not knowing what “we” want) and pity.

So, let’s clarify my new name for the people who are being allowed by May to hold us to ransom.

Deluded

D is for Deluded. Specifically, I’m referring to the post-imperial, nostalgic seekers after Empire 2.0, largely based upon the old white Commonwealth: racist as well as deluded.

Unhinged

U is for Unhinged. I don’t go in for cod-psychology. But the mind-set required to deny reality smacks of elements of mental illness.

Nasty

N is for Nasty. May has, ironically, fulfilled her earlier warning and prediction: the Tories are now a fully-fledged Nasty Party, extending far beyond the Windrush generation. Hasn’t everyone noticed yet?

Crazy

C is for Crazy. Still crazy after all these weeks, as I said in February.

Europhobic

E is for Europhobic. These people see the EU and our nearest neighbours as the enemies. I see them as our closest friends internationally, with whom we share the most values. This Europhobic disease is usually associated with an unhealthy addiction to the mythical “special relationship” with the USA. Is there anyone sane who would want a special relationship with Donald J Trump?

DUNCE Ratings

So my new acronym is to call these people Dunces.

How about a little game: some key politicians and my assessment of their DUNCE scores (marks out of 5).

Jacob Rees-Mogg (plus many long-standing Tory backbenchers such as Bill Cash): 5+5+5+5+5=25

Liam Fox: 5+5+5+5+5=25: no trade deals signed yet, or for the foreseeable future.

Boris Johnson: 3+2+5+3+3=16: hard to assess, as his Trump-lite narcissism heavily disguises his true motives.

Theresa May: 2+1+5+0+5=13. The final 5 is based upon her actions since taking over as PM, not on the fact that she was a (shy) Remainer in the vote.

Jeremy Corbyn: 0+0+0+0+3=3. Corbyn has never fully shaken off his Eurosceptic approach; practically the whole of the Labour Party’s MPs would score a total of 0 to 1 points. Opportunity missed?

Keir Starmer: 0+0+0+0+0=0. Saw him at Cambridge when he was DPP. Sane, rational, best man to present Labour’s position (but not necessarily as Party leader).

A Fine Mess

So where does this leave us? In a fine mess. Let’s see what the local election results and a few more defeats in the Lords – and Commons – do for us. We live in unprecedented times. In the meantime, don’t let the Dunces destroy all we progressives value in Britain!

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Stop Breaking Down

Stagecoach bus services are an overpriced, despicable pile of crap.

Oxford to Cambridge

Our local bus services were withdrawn years ago and we are dependent on the “express” between Oxford and Cambridge (90 miles in 3hrs 45mins – average speed 24 mph) to get us from our village into the nearest town, a distance of 8 miles. In theory, it’s a good service – nominally every 30 minutes; in practice, it’s extremely unreliable. That’s not Stagecoach’s fault: there are just too many pinch points on the route. The buses don’t stand a snowball in hell’s chance sticking to the timetable. The drivers do their best.

x5 bus
Nice bus – when it works!

The buses, about 5 years old, have leather seats, air conditioning and free wifi. But they keep breaking down – see below. So we often get ancient buses or a town double-decker replacing the advertised bus. Not so luxurious!

Can’t Take the Heat

On 19th April, the freak 29° day, I had a hospital appointment and arranged to get the local bus into town to meet my wife, a distance of about half a mile. The service is timetabled for every 15 minutes. We waited 50 mins and were “rescued” by another local bus route from a nearby village. One of the regular users said they were operating the route that day with only one bus. It turns out that many, if not most, of the buses had broken down in the heat and they were driving buses from Eastbourne (140 miles away) for replacements. Not exactly professional.

Rip Off and Contempt

Yesterday, my wife got my car serviced and needed to buy a return ticket from town and back: cost £8.65 return: she’s too young to get a free bus pass! (I never travel at a time I have to pay!) I was shocked at the expense. By contrast, I paid £8.50 return this morning to travel 20 miles to the next big town and back by train (travel time 18 mins out, 13 mins back). My bus home was waiting to go at the advertised time at the bus station. But, after getting everyone on board, they said it wasn’t working and, after a 10-15 minute delay, we were all decanted onto a local bus replacement. Regular passengers said it had happened 2 or 3 times in the past week. I really am shocked that Stagecoach charges two and a half times per mile as our overpriced railways for a vastly inferior service.

The poor service and grotesquely high fares show an utter contempt for Stagecoach’s Passengers (mostly old gits like me with free passes). [Note the P word, not the C word.] Bus privatisation outside London (where it is highly regulated by the Mayor’s Office) is an utter disaster, as I now know from personal experience.

Stop Breaking Down

By chance and coincidence, I have had inside information from 3 current and one former bus driver over the past couple of years. The basic problem is that Stagecoach skimps on routine, preventative maintenance. (The former employee said he left because Stagecoach, as an employer, was “crap”.) And yet I generally find the drivers friendly and they do a thankless job, so don’t blame them! Brian Souter, CEO of Stagecoach is a very rich man. Instead of paying himself (and the Scottish National Party) so much money, he should spare a few quid keeping his buses properly maintained! Someone needs to teach him the meaning of public service – or simply renationalise the buses as well as the railways.

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Equal Under the Law

We no longer live in a democracy. The UK is now more a sort of elective dictatorship – and will remain so for as long as Theresa May continues to be Prime Minister and she continues to approach her role as she does currently.

What Makes a Modern Democracy?

A common fallacy is that it is all about the voting. As long as all adults have chance to vote every few years, everything will work out in the long term. That’s just a tiny part. Modern democracies have evolved over centuries and it is the interplay of several components (which we take for granted) which are all needed.

The terms “democracy” and “liberal democracy” are almost interchangeable these days. Wikipedia, as ever, has a go at defining both: Democracy and Liberal democracy. Its components can be broken down in many ways. Here, I’m using those stated by political scientist Larry Diamond. I shall mention two of them only very briefly and concentrate on the last two.

According to Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government; the active participation of the people; protection of human rights of all citizens; and the rule of law.

Political System

Basically, this is a system for choosing and replacing the Government through free and fair elections. The British system requires that Parliament is sovereign. A basic requirement for any democracy is that the system produces a government broadly in line with the public’s wishes, i.e. that it is representative of the people who voted for it, but not beholden to their every whim and wish. This is not the place to discuss the merits of our “first past the post” electoral system, so I will say no more except, by world standards, I think we’re still pretty good. Obviously, the unelected House of Lords is a major aberration, but again, this is not the place I wish to discuss reform of the Lords.

Active Participation

Diamond’s view of this includes not only voting, but also embraces active “citizens”, i.e. active in politics and civic life. Implicit in this is that the electorate are reasonably well-informed about what they are voting for. I contend that this last point was simply not true for the EU referendum.

election turnout
Election turnout since 1945

The election turnout figures since WWII from Wikipedia show a broadly steady trend at about 75% until the New Labour years, which mark a significant fall to about 60% in 2001, followed by a slow recovery back to around 70%.

For comparison, the turnout for the EU referendum was 72.2%, only slightly above the figures for recent general elections. I draw no conclusions from these figures here.

Human Rights

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists five fundamental rights: Right to equality; freedom from discrimination; right to life, liberty, personal security; freedom from slavery; freedom from torture, and degrading treatment. To these, for a “liberal democracy”, I would add the freedom of expression, which includes freedom of speech and of the press.

By European standards, Britain fares badly under “freedom of the press” with the vast majority (by circulation) of the media owned by foreign or non-domiciled billionaires with agendas far removed from public opinion. I have commented on this in the past and simply draw attention to this fact here.

But I do want to say some words on the right to equality and on freedom from discrimination. Linton Kwesi Johnson in a rare and interesting interview in Saturday’s Guardian, states “I believe that racism is very much part of the cultural DNA of this country, and most probably has been so from imperial times”. Evidence for this is overwhelming and endorsed strongly in an excellent book I read recently: Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor. He has particularly harsh words – repeatedly – to say about the extreme racism of Winston Churchill, for example. The Windrush generation has just brought the institutionalised racism of UK immigration policy into the limelight. It affects many, many more than those who arrived on the Empire Windrush. UKIP (when it was a force to contend with) and the Tories (by adopting UKIP-type policies) have strongly encouraged the rise of the racists and bigots in our midst.

But this is still not the reason I say we’re living in an elective dictatorship.

Rule of Law

The rule of law divides into four key areas: an independent judiciary, the right to a fair trial, presumption of innocence and equality under the law.

A judiciary independent of the executive arm of Government is hard-wired into the Constitution of the USA and has, so far, saved us from the full evils of Trumpism. Britain succeeds in this area too, but more by custom and practice than anything concrete – until the European Convention on Human Rights was incorporated into UK law, by the Blair government. The Tories have threatened to overturn the Human Rights Act 1998, so beware.

I think we do fairly well on fair trials, so no further comments on this.

And so to the factors supporting my assertion we are becoming more like a dictatorship: presumption of innocence and equality under the law.

Presumption of Innocence

For centuries, this has had two practical effects. Defendants have the right to have their evidence considered by the magistrate, judge or jury (alongside all the other evidence). And the onus is on the state (i.e. prosecution) to prove (beyond reasonable doubt in criminal cases) the guilt of someone accused.

Theresa May’s hostile environment policy has effectively removed this right from immigrants, including the Windrush generation. The same problem has spread, via the DWP, to the much harsher sanctions regime for poor and disabled people applying for benefits. In both cases, aspiring immigrants and benefit seekers are disbelieved (i.e. assumed guilty) and it is they who must prove their “innocence”. This is a flagrant violation of natural justice and of the rule of law. Such practices can normally only be found in fascist-type dictatorships, not democracies.

Equality Under the Law

The hostile environment applies to undocumented (i.e. NOT illegal) immigrants and to the poor and disabled. It follows, as night follows day, that this is discriminatory: race, gender, disability, you name it. So we no longer have equality under the law. QED.

With Amber Rudd gone, the spotlight turns to Theresa May herself. Good. And about time. She’s at the dead centre of Britain sliding into some kind of elective dictatorship. I’ll leave it there.

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