I’ve taken a bit of a liking to the quirky comedy series What We Do in the Shadows. An inept group of zombies have taken over two streets in Staten Island, New York and seem a bit confused how to complete the zombie takeover of the whole of America. Or something like that.
To quote a former Tory Party leader: “Remind you of anyone?”
Well, yes, actually. And they look like this:
There’s one big difference, however. What We Do in the Shadows is played for laughs. What the second group of undead are playing is deadly serious.
Car Boot Hostage
Zombies taking control is bad enough. But the sheer helplessness of the majority of us who have no say in who will be our next prime Minister is far, far worse. I can do no better than quote this tweet from Tom Freeman: “I miss the days when Tory leadership elections were something I’d watch with half-amused anthropological curiosity rather than the horror of the abductee trapped in the back of the van.” Tom sounds like a man after my own heart.
Rocky Horror Show
There have been many political commentators who have analysed the field of candidates in some detail. So I shall not do that. Suffice it to say that all ten want the UK to leave the EU, in varying degrees of extremist catastophe. A couple seem prepared to accept a further delay if that would help negotiations and a smoother exit. The rest say variations on the theme “31st October, dead or alive”. A couple have a simple solution to the lack of Parliamentary majority for Leave: make sure MPs don’t get a chance to vote before the end of October. In other words, suspend democracy in the interests of “the people”, i.e. the 52% of voters who voted Leave 3 years ago.
We have until the end of next month for this horror show to play itself out.
Little House of Horrors
The Conservative Party once saw itself as the party of business and the “natural Party of government”. It has turned into a real monster: one that thinks “fuck business” and has given up all pretence of responsible government. The trouble is, it keeps feeding the monster and the monster keeps growing and needs more feeding. With the Tory Party in thrall to Mr Slime and the risk of his disciples becoming minority-vote MPs thanks to FPTP voting, the House of Commons could become a House of Horrors.
At the risk of repetition: “Remind you of anyone?”
Nightmare on Downing Street
Maybe we’ll awake on 23rd July and find it was all a dream…
Or maybe it will end like this: he bears a frightening resemblance to Dominic Raab, don’t you think?
Let’s play a game. I call it “Logical Conclusions”. Using logic alone, I will “prove” various assertions from a mixture of facts and assumptions. (In fact, this is something we humans do all the time and it’s more serious than just a game.) Anyway, here goes.
Using the results from the EU parliamentary elections, various predictions have been made about the voting in a hypothetical People’s Vote. The most pessimistic was a 3% lead for Remain in an article by Polly Toynbee. The most optimistic was a Remain lead of 12%. My own estimate, based upon plausible assumptions about Labour and Tory voters (Labour split Remain 60%, No deal 20%, Corbyn hypothetic deal 20%; Tory split Remain 20%, 60% no deal , 20% May’s deal) gives a lead for Remain of 8 to 10 percentage points.
It’s important to note that all “forecasts” predict a lead for Remain, albeit all of them small, or smallish. So a logical conclusion would be that public opinion across the UK has shifted to Remain since the 2016 referendum. But it’s still a close call. Leave may well have had the edge three years ago, but no longer. The most likely reasons are a combination of two factors: (a) demographic change and (b) people changing their minds.
Each year, roughly half a million people, mainly the old, die. So 1.5 million people have dropped off the electoral register because they’re dead. Harder to estimate is the number people, now 18 to 20 years old, who have joined the register. From my research, the figure is likely to be more than 1 million but probably less than 2 million. Younger people are far more likely to vote Remain than the elderly. It is estimated that, by January last, the UK moved from a pro-Leave to pro-Remain position by demographics alone (i.e. if no one had changed their mind). The Remain majority is forecast to grow by 1350 per day by this effect.
Some market research surveys have suggested that 80% of people have not changed their minds since June 2016, as to whether they support Remain or Leave. The main arguments used, pointing in conflicting directions, are these.
“Weak” (i.e. no strong view) Remainers now support Leave because they buy the argument that the referendum result must stand for all time, otherwise it is somehow the “end of democracy”. I’m more attracted by the assertion “democracies that cannot change their minds are not democracies”. A logical conclusion to the first argument is that no further elections are needed, i.e. democracy is abolished. The other Remain=>Leave argument is that people are “fed up” with the issue paralyzing government want to “get it over with”. How so? Leaving the EU is the beginning of a process, not the end.
The main argument for a Leave to Remain switch is that such people are far better informed of the realities of a specific form of Leave (i.e. that negotiated by May) and are recoiled by it. Others may simply have learnt of the economic, social, cultural and educational (to name a few) advantages of EU membership.
The net result of people changing their minds remains controversial. There is no likelihood that this effect could wipe out the Remain majority caused by demographic change, backed up by recent opinion polls.
Country By Country
Using the same process of logical conclusions, I present some plausible outcomes by extrapolating present trends. These are not exactly my predictions, but should perhaps be seen as probable scenarios unless we change tack as a nation.
Perhaps the easiest prediction to make, and probably the first to happen, will be that Scotland leaves the UK in another independence referendum. My best guess that events will need to unfold first, so that the timing of the first split from the UK is in about 2 years’ time. This assumes no resolution of the impasse in the UK parliament, a default crash out by the UK from the EU and about two years’ evidence of the economic damage of such a foolish move. That should give Nicola Sturgeon all the momentum she needs for victory.
On the same logic and emboldened by the Scots, Sinn Fein will lobby hard for Remain-leaving Northern Ireland to leave the RUK (Residual UK), to re-form a united Ireland. Violent reaction from the Unionists will demonstrate that they have been the problem all along. There will be some re-run of the Troubles, probably not on the same scale, but expect thousands of deaths, civilian, PSNI and military.
This is the hardest to call, given the illogicality of high EU Regional Development Fund spending in Wales and the Leave majority in 2016. It’s just a guess, but I would expect some increase in sporadic action by Welsh Nationalists along the lines seen in the 1960s and 70s. This would involve some burnings of holiday homes in Wales owned by English people but not much more unless the South Wales Valleys in particular are hit very hard by being cut off from the EU single market.
I’ve left this until last. Most likely outcome: Civil War 2.0: civil unrest, street violence, random attacks by racist and homophobic thugs and a move to autocratic government. A further hardening of positions will leave the cities and the educated increasingly isolated from the rest. England (or E&W) will become a pariah country for breaking international treaties. Expect successful lobbying at the UN for England’s Security Council place to be withdrawn. The DK (Disunited Kingdom) is bound to lose completely any reputation built up over centuries for sensible, stable government. In short, we’re fucked.
The Wildly Optimistic Version
In either the “bad but most likely” case above, or the optimistic case below, it’s reasonable to expect that the Tories will either disintegrate completely or limp on out of power for 20-40 years. So there’s some good news at least! Labour’s position is far less clear: how many “natural” Labour voters will return to the fold at the next General Election or vote for the far right populists is uncertain.
This alternative scenario would roll out roughly in this order:
A clear majority recognise the sheer folly of our actions and the complete breakdown of our ramshackle, feudal-with-democratic-bits-added-on “constitution”. Wiser politicians will respond through some form of deliberative process (Citizen’s Assembly) leading to necessary – and long overdue – reforms: my own priority order is used for the following list:
Replacement of first-past-the-post with some form of proportional voting system for MPs. Note this implies likely permanent coalition governments and a marked change of culture at Westminster. Timescale: about 2 years.
Abolition of the House of Lords and replacement by an elected Senate. This could be based upon regions / nations and may lead to some form of formal collaboration between DK (England and Wales) and the independent nations of Scotland and a United Ireland. This would be a looser arrangement than the present UK and safeguards would need to be built in to prevent England using its larger population to bully its way into getting what it wanted all the time. Ideally, the senate would meet outside London, perhaps on an itinerant basis. Timescale: about 3 to 5 years for full implementation, although some interim reforms are possible sooner (e.g. abolish the 92 hereditary peers and the CofE bishops).
The final item in my “wish list”, I expect sadly, will now not happen in my lifetime. That’s the final step of Britain becoming a republic with an elected Head of State. The meddling Charles Windsor (if he ever accedes) may speed up the process by his unpopularity but the recent PR-style rebranding of his children and grandchildren may prolong the outrage that not everyone in our land is born equal.
But don’t hold your breath. True to its history, where every progressive reform has had to be fought for, England will still be awash with well-funded, reactionary forces to resist change.
In the Meantime
Before any of this happens, we have to watch, jaws agape, as the ghastly spectacle of the Tory leadership contest plays itself out. Whoever wins, nothing changes the fact that a new leader will be leading a minority government. The Speaker has just ruled out prorogation of Parliament to facilitate “no deal” as some of the more insane candidates have suggested. Top legal experts have already said it’s illegal and could be successfully challenged in court.
So we’ve all got a jolly exciting summer and autumn to look forward to! Happy days!
On 11 April, European Council President Donald Tusk granted an extension to 31st October for the UK to secure an agreement with the EU and warned that his “message to British friends” was “please do not waste this time”.
Now that Theresa May has announced her resignation is to be on the 7th June, what has the Tory Party decided to do? Yes, waste the next eight weeks having a leadership election. Around 100,000 elderly, bigoted, “No Deal” zealots, a.k.a. Tory Party members, will vote on who will be our next Prime Minister. That’s 0.15% of the population, entirely unrepresentative of the nation. The other 48 million of us who make up the UK electorate can only stand by aghast as this repellent charade is played out. One commentator has already described those standing as “a gallery of rogues, fanatics and nonentities”. I’ll give my thoughts on this once the field of candidates is clarified.
Time Wasting: The First Year
Much of the first year was spent in a phoney war between the various factions in the Tory Party. This was the period of studied non-communication, when “Br*xit Means Br*xit” and the even more meaningless “Red, White and Blue Br*xit” were repeated as a mantra from May’s lips.
This was the time when May set the tone for what followed. No collegiate approach for her, she involved and confided in just a few trusted people in her close circle. Hers was always going to be a lonely exit, as I foretold in Forever Walk Alone in the summer of 2017. During her first year May rebuffed approaches from leaders in the devolved assemblies of the UK to play a formal role in the negotiation process. Elements in the Labour Party (but significantly, as I recall, not Jeremy Corbyn) made similar demands to be involved. All to no avail. May was treading her lonely path to oblivion.
In January 2017, she confirmed the now notorious “red lines”. These boxed in her negotiating position and introduced the contradiction (no freedom of movement, free movement on the island of Ireland) which led to the contortions over Irish “backstop”. Much magical thinking entered the debate at this stage. The UK’s reputation , built over centuries, for common sense and stable government was crumbling before the eyes of the world.
In March 2017, May gave formal notice to the EU by triggering Article 50 – with its built-in two year timetable. At this stage, she had not even begun to have a plan, let alone a plan agreed with her Cabinet. This was a serious political error: from now on, with the “clock ticking” (a phrase that was to be repeated many times), pressure was upon the UK government to agree its own position. The first serious attempt at this was 15 months later (see below).
A key watershed was the decision to call a general election in mid-2017. This was an act of hubris and a serious misjudgement of the public mood. Instead of “crushing the saboteurs” (as the Daily Mail described those who disagreed with its editorial line), May lost her overall Common majority. My spoof selection for May’s Desert Island Discs (first published six days after the election) still seems eerily appropriate.
Time Wasting: The Second Year
The loss of an overall Commons majority should have signalled a change of course. May should, at least by then, have reached out to other parties and pursued a more consensual approach. Instead, she signed a pact with the most bigoted group of MPs in the Commons – the DUP – and carried on as if she had a strong democratic mandate. (The pact included a £1 billion bribe which, it seems, is now in need of renewal.) We then had several more months of dithering when nothing happened which could be described as progress.
The climax (or lowlight) of May’s second year was the so-called Chequers agreement. In her classic school-marmish approach, May locked her Cabinet in Chequers, removing mobile phones and, presumably, banged heads together. A document was produced and then disowned when Johnson and Davis resigned within two days. “Chequers” quickly became a dirty word, representing everything that was going wrong with May’s approach.
Time Wasting: The Third Year
At this point May seems to have taken personal charge of leading EU negotiations. The new Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Dominic Raab, an extreme Leave fanatic, was to be the fall guy for anything which went wrong and May’s chief bag-carrier. Discussions progressed to the point when, in November, the Withdrawal Agreement was published. The EU approved this document two weeks later.
The following four months were spent in two main activities: periods of “letting the clock run down” interspersed with a series of lost votes as the House of Commons failed to agree any way forward. This period included a Commons defeat by 230 votes, a new record for any government in the democratic era. Exciting distractions included the resignation of Dominic Raab for disagreeing with his own withdrawal agreement and a vote of no confidence by Tory MPs with one third of her MPs voting for no confidence. Various skirmishes from the Tory lunatic fringe (a.k.a. European Research Group) ended with the ERG looking like a busted flush.
Towards the end of March, we then watched the demeaning sight of May going cap in hand to the EU to request an extension to our negotiating period. This was granted to midnight on Halloween, an auspicious date for the superstitious-minded. Oh, and May made her first offer of resignation, on condition she stand down as soon as a deal is passed. She chickened out at putting her new deal (i.e. old deal in a slightly different font) to the Commons and went on to resign unconditionally with a leave-by date of 7 June.
Time Wasting: Now to October 2019
And so here we are. Our next time-waster is the Tory leadership contest, expected to take around eight weeks of the period to 31st October. More of that in a future post when the full horror of the field has been finalised. Plus, we have the added spice of Boris Johnson being taken to court for misconduct in public office: maximum penalty is life imprisonment. If only.
In the meantime, here’s something to help you reflect on May’s legacy. It’s the front page of the new edition of Private Eye. I hope the good folks at the Eye don’t mind my “borrowing” it, but it sums up everything that needs to be said:
Over 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post about public service values. Recent discussions that I’ve had prompted me to return to the subject but, this time, from a slightly different point of view.
My theme is the duty of care which people in public service, volunteers, politicians and paid staff alike owe to the people they serve. I shall show how this leads to this stark conclusion: anyone who advocates that the UK should leave the EU without a deal – and this includes the whole of UKIP and the B****t Party, plus some right-wing fanatics in the Tories – are not fit to be in public office.
Public Service Providers
But first, here are a few examples of the general principle of the duty of care.
Perhaps the most obvious examples are the people working for the NHS – a beacon of public service par excellence. When we put ourselves in the hands of medical professionals, often our lives literally depend on the care taken by NHS staff. It obviously applies when speaking of the care in diagnosis and in prescribing the right treatment. But all that glove wearing, hand-washing and ID-checking is part of it, too. (I lost count of the number of times I gave my date of birth to an NHS employee last year! And the extra checks before blood transfusions: well you know if you’ve been there.) Yes overworked, tired staff do make mistakes but the systems and training are, without a doubt, in place to minimise risks.
I’m currently reading a fascinating and highly readable book written by, and entitled, The Secret Barrister. The Secret Barrister obviously cares about the importance of a well-run, efficient and effective justice system. The book exposes how the effects of drastic budget cuts to our courts and legal aid have recklessly jeopardised the principles of just, effective lawkeeping as a key foundation that our democracy and freedoms rest upon. The part-privatisation of the probation service (just rescinded) by Failing Grayling when justice minister is a particularly good, by which I mean bad, example of what has gone wrong. At every stage of the process: police, CPS case preparation, court procedures, sentencing; a myriad of examples of the need for care is evident. Read the book: it explains things better than I can!
In a frenzy of dogma over rationality, all our utility services: water, gas, electricity, telecommunications were privatized during the Thatcher era. All of these (except possibly telecommunications) are natural monopolies and the mechanics of the market has ill served the public. In a 21st century developed country, all these are considered basic necessities. In the intervening 35 years or so, the inevitable has occurred. Each privatised company has played every trick in the book (complex tariffs to confuse, customer loyalty penalties) to rip off the consumer and maximise profit. Regulatory bodies have been either weak or suffered “regulatory capture”. A prime example is the exhortation by Ofgem for householders to switch suppliers to try to enforce the mechanisms of the market.
I simply want these basic services supplied to me by a monopoly supplier with a public service ethos who doesn’t try to rip me off if I don’t shop around every year or so. That’s most effectively done by renationalisation. In this sector, the most obvious example of the disadvantage of public services run for maximum profit is the lack of investment in renewal of ageing water supply pipes and sewers. I believe our water supply industry would be better prepared for climate change if it had stayed in public hands.
Much the same can be (and has been) said of our private railway companies. I’m convinced that train crashes and passenger deaths in the Railtrack period were, at least in part, as a result of privatisation. The basic duty of care had been overridden by the pursuit of profit for shareholders. For now, suffice it for me to add that 80% of the public agree that the railways should be renationalized.
Politics and Politicians
During a recent discussion, I said that I do believe that most politicians enter politics with a genuine desire to make our society better in some way. As our representatives – and not our delegates – we trust and expect politicians to look after the best interests of their constituents. This follows a general principle for all people in public life. And, once again, part of that is a duty of care. I’ve given examples from the NHS above. Broadly speaking, when we put our lives, our safety of ourselves and our loved ones in the hands of another, there’s a certain expectation. That is that the other party takes care to a higher degree than we take for ourselves. This expectation seems to be “hard-wired” into human relationships. Another good example would be in the whole safeguarding regime used in schools and in care institutions.
For politicians, an obvious example is that that spend wisely the money we hand over in taxes. By this I mean both that well-considered decisions are made on spending priorities (the focal point for party political debate) and that public services are run as efficiently and effectively as possible.
“No Deal” Exit from EU
Whether, and on what terms, to leave the EU seems to me to be the most significant political decision of the last 75 years, more than my lifetime. It will affect our children and grand-children’s lives for years to come. It affects us all in a variety of ways: the economy, our safety (anti-terrorism collaboration, for example), education (Erasmus, etc.) , family relationships and our ability to tackle issues where international collaboration is necessary (climate change, air pollution, species extinction). No satisfactory answers have been given to these issues by proponents of crashing out of the EU with no deal.
And yet, opinion polls show popularity for a party whose only policy is exactly this: crash out, regardless of the consequences. Reckless does not even begin to cover it. Those who are considering to vote for such a party should think on just one thing. Does this policy pass the most basic duty of those exercising public policy: that of a duty of care?
Have you had the feeling that Easter is really late this year? That’s because it is. It seems to jump around the calendar – which it does because of how it is calculated. Easter Day is on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after 21 March. This means that it falls on dates between 22nd March and 25th April. Obvious, isn’t it? No.
The consequences of having Easter jumping all over the calendar are not life-threatening, but they do cause some inconvenience. In my working life, my employer’s financial year went from 1st April to 31st March in the following year. Tax years go from 6th April to the following 5th April, mainly because the tax system didn’t adapt to the change of calendar in 1752. (The change from Julian to Gregorian calendar occurred in 1582 in most of the rest of Europe. For 170 years we were 10 days behind our neighbours (11 days after the year 1600: full explanation here.) Some familiar ring to that, I fear.
The upshot is that company and taxation financial years have 0, 1 or 2 Easter holidays – and sometimes only one of the two “bank” holidays. Confusing, eh? You bet. At work, we had to make adjustments for Easter when calculating “like for like” annual trend data, something that was quite important in my line of business.
Perhaps the biggest inconvenience arising from the variation in Easter dates is that which affects schools. The variability itself and the often huge difference in length between successive terms play havoc with curriculum planning and in preparing students for KS2 tests, GCSEs and A levels. Fixed length terms would solve this problem.
The Easter Act 1928
Until I did some research for this post, I had never heard of the Easter Act, legislation passed by the UK Parliament and which received royal assent in 1928. The Act fixes Easter as the first Sunday after the second Saturday in April. This would entirely eliminate the tax / financial year problem outlined above and would enable the Spring and Summer Terms in schools to be (approximately) fixed in length. So why didn’t it happen?
A full explanation can be found here. Briefly, Christian churches couldn’t agree amongst themselves. The Act contains the provision that, before it comes into effect, “regard shall be had to any opinion officially expressed by any Church or other Christian body”. The Act itself only requires Christian viewpoints to be considered: there is no religious veto. However, “successive governments have taken it to mean that the Act would not be brought into effect until there was a general consensus on the part of the various churches of the Christian faith as to when Easter should fall”. It seems absurd to me, in 21st century Britain, where 53% of us are “not religious” and only around a third of British people call themselves Christians, we’re stuck with this relic of more religious times.
Easter as Moon Worship?
It’s broadly accepted that the English name for Easter is derived from the pagan goddess Eostre, and that this claim dates from the early 8th century by a monk known as the Venerable Bede. Or possibly, as in the German Ostern, from the word for “east” and its association with dawn and the vernal equinox. (Most other European languages’ words for Easter derive ultimately from Pesach, the Jewish Passover.)
But does the Easter festival itself have pagan roots associated with spring, fertility and the equinox? My take is: probably. Here’s one view from the Guardian nine years ago. Eggs and bunnies seem to fit with this view.
But what about the Resurrection of Christ, central to Christian theology? Well, certainly Jesus of Nazareth was not the first who was attributed with resurrection. The dying-and-rising deity story can be found in Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis and Attis and Dionysus, derived from Ancient religions in the Near East. Both James Frazer in 1890 and Carl Jung in the 1950s analysed the frequent reference to dying-and-rising gods, often linked with the dying and regrowth of vegetation, e.g. crops in the Nile valley.
But what about the assertion in the Bible that Jesus waited until the third day to rise again? To be fair, here’s an American Christian explanation. None of that sounds particularly convincing to me! Here’s a much longer, and more thorough, analysis from someone who takes the opposite point of view. This account includes reference to the Sumerian moon goddess Inanna, the left eye of Horus (for all you Only Connect fans) and the Buddha. The latter is quoted, when dying, as saying to the animals of the Earth: “Do not weep, look at the moon! As the moon dying renews herself again, so shall I dying be renewed again.”
There is, of course, one natural phenomenon which can be said to “die and rise again” after 3 days. And I’ve already given the game away in the last quotation above. Every 29.5 days at New Moon, it can be said to “die” and reappear as a crescent after three days. The early Christian Church accommodated itself to many pagan rituals in order to ingratiate itself with the majority non-Christians at the time. For me, the most likely ultimate origin of the resurrection myth is in pagan moon-worship. Whether this was by directly adopting, and adapting, pagan rituals at the vernal equinox or via some pre-Christian dying-and-rising god myth is impossible to tell after 2000 years. But it does fit best with the annoying habit of Easter jumping around the calendar in accordance with the rising of the sun and the cycles of the moon!
So, when the shops are all shut next Sunday and you’ve forgotten a key ingredient for dinner, don’t get angry! Just wait until dark, look up at the moon, and wonder….
Here are a couple of anecdotes about events that happened to me over the past two or three years and the lessons I’ve learned from them.
But, bien sur, I discuss how this relates to our EU discussions and how we might get out of this mess.
A Risky Decision
The first story happened last year. It illustrates very clearly the concept of “informed consent” as practiced by the NHS.
After an initial round of treatment to treat the cancer which was diagnosed just over a year ago, I was presented with a choice. I had responded well to the initial treatment and my cancer was in what the medics call a “partial remission”. This meant that there were very low levels of the disease in my body and I could expect a treatment-free period – the precise duration of which varies from person to person.
Optionally, I was offered additional, more advanced treatment which offers the prospect of a longer remission period. I would need to be referred to the nearest hospital offering this treatment, some 25 miles away. I had an initial appointment with a consultant there to help me to decide whether to proceed or not. The consultation was, in retrospect, one of the most satisfying consultations I’ve ever had. The doctor spelled out the side-effects of the treatment (not pleasant as she did not pull any punches) and there were risks. A small, but not insignificant, percentage of patients die from complications associated with the treatment. I was given a few weeks to make up my mind whether to proceed or not.
I spoke to a number of patients who had been through the procedure: the response was generally that it was worth it. (I recognised that these patients were from the majority who had survived: I have found no satisfactory way to communicate with those who had died!) I did agonize over the decision, but in the end, I chose to go ahead. I’m convinced it was the right thing to do. I’ve been told that I responded “very well”, but there are no guarantees. I have learned to live reasonably comfortably with the uncertainty.
My main point of this story is this: it was a prime example of the phenomenon we call “informed consent”. The medical staff had looked after me with all the care and attention I would expect from our beloved NHS and, above all, I was treated with respect as an adult capable of making an informed choice.
The second story comes from a couple of years earlier and strikes a lighter note. My wife and I went for dinner to a newish Turkish restaurant in town. Neither of us was particularly familiar with Turkish food and the menu was quite extensive (although rather heavily meat-based! See below!). The young woman who served us was friendly and helpful – at least, as far as she was able to be.
We had some queries about the choices before we ordered our food. I enquired what a particular dish was like, hoping to get some explanation about flavours, ingredients, etc. “It’s very nice” said our friendly waitress. Undeterred, we asked about another dish we had been considering. The reply was the same: “It’s very nice.” It had been obvious from the start that our waitress did not speak English as a first language. In was now becoming clear that her English language skills were limited. We felt sure that enquiries about any item on the menu would bring for the same reply: “It’s very nice.”
So, we made some random selections from the menu and had a pleasant meal in a convivial atmosphere. Altogether, it was an enjoyable evening. But our menu decisions could hardly be described as informed – more a stab in the dark, I would say.
An Informed Choice
I’m not suggesting that the two stories are directly comparable: the decision was altogether more significant in the first case than in the second. But the principle remains the same: an informed choice is preferable to an uninformed one.
I would contend that the 2016 EU membership referendum was a classic example of an uninformed choice. During the referendum campaign Leavers’ outright lies were “balanced” by Remainers’ wild speculations about the consequences of leaving. It was a debate between two wings of the Tory Party; Corbyn’s Labour was practically invisible. The BBC did a shabby job of striking a false balance between two positions that were not ethically equivalent. The chaos we see now is for the most part the consequence of the lack of reliable – or indeed truthful – information before the vote.
So, What Now?
The words above were drafted over 10 days ago. I’ve been waiting – in vain – for some clarity to emerge from the shenanigans at Westminster. But one thing is clear: we need, as a country, to slow down, reflect and do things properly, in a grownup way.
I think that we have a lot to learn from the Irish: in this case, on how to run referendums. Even at this late hour, there seems to be only one sensible way forward: to try to reach some sort of consensus on our relationship with the rest of Europe (and the world). And, of course, to start to heal the divisions which have opened up between the opposing sides.
Firstly, we need to take the time pressure off our decision-making processes, by requesting quite a long delay to the Article 50 procedure; 12 to 18 months would seem about right. This, of course, requires unanimous agreement from the other 27 EU member countries. I can only hope there’s still enough goodwill left, despite all our frustrating machinations, amongst our neighbours.
During the time gained, whoever is our Prime Minister needs to set up two institutions:
A Grand Committee of reasonable-minded politicians from all the major parties, say 12-15 people in proportion to votes cast at the 2017 general election. This Committee will oversee the work of the:
Citizens’ Assembly, a randomly selected forum of around 100 of our citizens, along the lines used recently in the Irish Republic. A description of how they set about their task can be found here and on Wikipedia here. The terms of reference for the Assembly are detailed below.
Leave extremists and their newspaper cheerleaders will go apeshit and good control of public order will be critical. Theresa May is almost certainly psychologically incapable – and it’s politically impossible – to oversee these necessary actions. Nominations, please, for a suitable candidate to replace her. We must find a way not to leave the selection decision to Tory Party activists. They are self-evidently part of the problem, not the solution.
The Grand Committee’s other main role will be to steer through the House of Commons a process which will lead to a vote on a resolution which will command a majority, and which will be credible with the EU27 and Brussels. No small ask!
Assembly Terms of Reference
If, as a result of the Grand Committee’s work, a referendum of the British public is required, the first task of the Citizens Assembly is to define the wording of a confirmatory vote question.
But the breakdown in the political process which the last EU referendum has created needs a long-term solution for Constitutional Change in the UK. Follow-on topics for review and recommendation to Parliament include, in roughly order of urgency:
Replacement of our voting system for MPs with some form of preference voting, more fit for the 21st century than our broken first-past-the-post system.
Replacement of the House of Lords by a 100% elected Senate (with NO shoo-in for CofE bishops), together with an appropriate voting system. A key issue should be how better to reflect the diverse needs of the non-English nations in the UK and the English regions.
Disestablishment of the Church of England and the consequences of so doing: this could be more widely debated as how to protect the interests of religious and non-religious groups and ensure full secularisation of civil and political society.
A system for electing our head of state.
My guess is that the five areas of work above would take more than five, and possibly as long as ten, years. Item 4 above may need to be pushed up the priority order if the present incumbent as head of state dies before this item is reached in the order above.
Laughing Stock to Respected Nation
The political fiasco of the past 3 years has reduced the status of the UK to an international laughing stock – most informed commentators would agree. (A short, silly example is here.) A programme of work as outlined above would go a long way to restoring the former respect for the UK (which, by this time, might be just England and Wales) on the world stage.
Scott Walker (1943-2019), a man with a heartbreakingly pure singing voice.
Theresa May (PM 2016-2019), architect of the “hostile environment”.
In Fear and Trepidation
May’s successor (PM 2019-?), to be chosen by 100,000 of the most xenophobic bigots in the country outside the DUP, i.e. Tory Party activists.
TM: I know I’m leavin’, it’s too long overdue
For far too long I’ve had nothin’ new to show to you.
Goodbye dry eyes, you watched as I appeased the Brexit loons
And it serves me right to walk away alone.
Us: There’s no regrets
No tears goodbye
We don’t want you back
We’d only cry again
Say goodbye again
The months you wasted to avoid the splits
Amid the weak, the useless and the outright shits.
I woke last night and thought of you, and fearing what comes next
I felt so afraid that our country’s truly wrecked.
TM: I’ve no regrets
No tears goodbye Us: We don’t want you back
We’d only cry again
Say goodbye again
Your Party’s squirming to turn its back on you
Your face is showing traces of your hostile brew.
We now face, unloved , our darkest hour; there was no outreaching hand
It now feels so sad to see our broken land.
There’s no regrets
No tears goodbye
We don’t want you back
We’d only cry again
Say goodbye again
You thought only of Party and ignored the rest
You were Maybot under pressure, Little I-Know-Best.
Europe always splits the Tories, that should now be understood
And we’re so afraid evil always drives out good.
You show no regrets
No tears goodbye
We don’t want you back
We’d only cry again
Please don’t try again!
News item: a German wholesaler which supplies major UK supermarkets is stockpiling 3.5 million rolls of toilet paper in UK warehouses, in preparation for a No Deal exit from the EU. The company is also chartering ships to carry rolls from Naples to Cardiff to avoid possible congestion (no pun intended) on the Dover-Calais route.
Oh Sorry Me-O!
(to the tune of O Sole Mio!)
Oh sorry me-o!
Must wipe my arse
But if No Deal-o
Should come to pass
Tomorrow would be too late
I need it now; I just can’t wait.
And if I try now
Just to pass a motion,
Well then, my 2-ply now
Has to ply an ocean.
To Cardiff Bay-o
Is a long, long way-o
From Napoli. Oh, pity me: too late!
Oh sorry me-o!
My supply chain
Oh can’t you see-o?
Flushed down the drain.
I’m feeling broken, just like the state
I once was happy, now full of hate.
I never thought why,
When I use the toilet,
Voting Leave would spoil it.
Please revoke Cinquanta
Or I’ll mess my pant – agh!
Who’d ever guess I’m in a mess, irate.
Oh sorry me-o!
I should have known
I still can pee-o
All on my own.
But if I need a number two
I just can’t go, oh no, no, no, without EU!
With this clusterfuck shitshow of a government we’re saddled with: yes, I’m afraid, it does eventually all come down to this.
(With acknowledgements to Private Eye for the “part 94” bit.)
Notwithstanding other major news topics – the tragic killings in Christchurch, NZ, the collapse into administration of Interserve, to name just two – it’s hard not to write about the continuing saga of the elephant in the room which has destroyed UK democracy.
But first a joke: we could certainly do with a bit of levity. Warning: this joke depends on knowledge of another joke.
Br*xit walks into a bar. The barman says: “Why the long, drawn-out farce?”
The straightforward answer, and not funny punchline, is a single word: incompetence. Incompetence, above all, by Theresa May and the Conservative party she “leads”. None other than Karl Marx wrote“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” We’re well into the farcical stage by now.
Options Good and Bad
With 13 days to go (as I write) before we reach the risk of crashing out of the EU, it’s time to lay my cards on the table about the options now open to the UK. In this post I consider both the withdrawal agreement (the easy bit which should have been agreed at least a year ago) and the type of relationship we want long-term with the EU in the future (the hard bit, not even started). The two tables below summarize my views: I explain my reasoning in the paragraphs that follow.
Peace in NI
Remain in EU
Peace in NI
-3 to -7
-3 to -5
-1 -> -8
Some words of explanation are needed for the above tables. Numeric scales range from -10 to +10 and are my views alone. Positive is good, negative bad. -10 = worst case imaginable. SMT/MLT = short to medium term / medium to long term. “GB order” = lack of civil unrest. Only some options in the first table are compatible with those in the second, e.g. D necessarily implies 4.
My reasoning is given below. In summary, my preference, in an “ideal” world would be Option A1. The chances of this happening are slim! A2 is the status quo. I would be prepared to compromise to Option B3 in the interests of trying to unite our fractured country; worse options would be wholly unacceptable.
Options A to D
Option A is clearly my first preference, but raises the issue of social order (see below). Option B approximates to Labour’s position, perhaps as modified by cross-party negotiations amongst backbenchers. This is looking less likely following the failure of Parliament, in its first attempt last week, to wrest control of the process from May. So much for the tolerable options.
And so to the intolerable ones, options C and D. Both would be economically damaging, D especially so: so much has been written on the economic effects that I will not add to the word count here. The other distinguishing feature between the first and second pairs is that of freedom of movement. Words are beyond me to understand how this concept has been come to be seen as a bad thing: it defies all logic. Sadly, logic plays very little part in this whole sorry business. In any event, we’ve never been part of the Schengen Agreement: we control our borders already, if we’re competent to.
Options 1 to 4
The optimist in me still looks forward to the day when the UK uses its many skills, talents and historical experience to play a full and constructive role in EU affairs, i.e. Option A1. Childish carping from the wings (for short-term, domestic political gain) has been indulged by Tory and Labour Party (Prime) Ministers for years: the mood music is all wrong. I am coming to the conclusion that I will not live to see this happy outcome.
What kind of trade deal (or none) – options BC3 or D4 – will depend on shenanigans in Westminster over the next two weeks. And of course, any extension to the timescale beyond 29th of this month requires consensus amongst the EU27. Speculation suggests realpolitik will win over Farage’s reported mischief-making in countries most likely to object. As my wife says, “We live in interesting times”.
My assessments about the impact on the economy are based on what I’ve read and understood over the past few years. Getting picked off in a trade deal by Trump’s USA as a vulnerable lone country will suit the few free trade lunatics, their US backers on the political far right and, for different reasons, by Putin’s Russia. Trump and Putin both see the EU as their major obstacle to imposing their authoritarian world view. Their useful idiots (who include Farage and those who have not taken the trouble to understand their true motives) need to be very careful what they wish for. Everyone else knows it’s the poorest and most vulnerable who will suffer most in the dismal small government, free trade dystopian scenario.
The chaos and May’s mismanagement has already spectacularly damaged the UK’s reputation in Europe and worldwide: see, for example, this commentary in the Washington Post. Here’s a sample: “European negotiators in Brussels, accustomed to clever British diplomats, have been amazed by how ill-prepared the Brexiteers have been, how little they understood about Europe, about treaties, about trade. It will be a long time before they assume, as they once did, that Britain is a serious country to reckon with.”
I also hear that many news channels elsewhere in Europe and running “Look how stupid the Brits have been today” slots in their regular programming.
At best, it will take a couple of generations to rebuild the UK’s prior reputation; at worst, it’s gone forever. But our diminished status feeds back into future trade negotiations, making other countries even more wary ever to trust our government again to keep our word.
Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement
And so, to the closest outpost of our former Empire, Northern Ireland.
It seems to have been standard practice, at least since 2010, to appoint an incompetent, ignorant nobody to the post of Northern Ireland Secretary in the UK Government. Karen Bradley completes a long list of such types, excelling herself by first revealing her ignorance of Northern Ireland’s politics last autumn and, more recently, making a crassly stupid remark about Bloody Sunday. Contrast this with the bravery of Mo Mowlam when she was in the post: her actions acted as a catalyst to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The GFA has kept a fragile peace in place for twenty years.
There are many in the Tory Party who don’t give a damn about Irish affairs and would happily sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement (and possibly even peace in Ireland) for the delusions about the benefits of leaving the EU. May’s actions in signing a “confidence and supply” agreement with the DUP bigots to shore up her minority government will come to be seen as a key strategic mistake. The DUP are about as unrepresentative of the views of the people of Northern Ireland as it is possible to get (58% of the population voted Remain).
The insensitive actions of May and her badly appointed ministers have already threatened the fragile stability in the province. All but Option A, in my analysis, threaten something worse. It’s probable that exit from the EU will bring forward the date when Ireland is reunified (and possible it will hasten Scotland’s independence too – 65% Remain).
Civil Unrest in GB
Turning even closer to home, it’s obvious that the inhabitants of these islands are more divided and more angry than at any time I can remember for at least 40 years. So, what is the risk of civil unrest under each of the Options? I’ve given my best guess in the tables above. My risk score for Option D4 above shows two figures: I will explain. Giving the Leave extremists what they want would probably minimise the risk of short-term disorder. As reality dawns and the most disaffected will be those who suffer when the economy crashes, Option D4 carries the highest long-term risk of disorder and of opportunities for the extreme right.
I’ve made some “elitist” assumptions in deriving my risk scores. There’s ample evidence already of a thuggish minority of Leave extremists, egged on by far right politicians and lobbyists, who have already caused unrest on our streets. They will be (whipped up to be) incandescent with rage if we remain in the EU. I assume disaffected, disappointed Remainers will, by and large, express their views in a more civilised way. (Stereotypically, perhaps by protests outside Waitrose?)
This is a tricky issue. A government’s key priority, agreed by those on the left and right politically, is to maintain order. But democracy must not bend the knee to mob rule. We’ve already seen the murder of one MP too many, Jo Cox. It’s a tragedy that far too many politicians: all, I believe, on the political right, have used language designed only to inflame passions. May herself seems determined not to compromise. And all of this unnecessary: Cameron’s attempt to placate the lunatic fringe in his own party has led to a fracturing of society. How will it end? Nobody knows.
The immediate future does not look bright. It seems that May is still talking to the DUP and ERG, trying to persuade them to support her deal when she brings it back to the Commons next week. Meantime, Labour and Tory backbench MPs are trying to find common ground for a compromise.
Perhaps things will look different in a week or two. But whether in a good way or a bad one, time will tell.
What keeps you awake at night? I could say Theresa May’s mishandling of the EU negotiations and her attitude to the UK parliament. I could say the uselessness of our MPs, particularly the cowardice of the Tory members who vote for the government’s crap proposals out of a sense of fear and for party unity. What dreadful times we live in. Who knows how this week’s votes in Parliament will turn out – even if they all take place, according to some rumours.
Never have we been so badly served by our government and politicians, at least in my lifetime. Which is why I found the poster below, published, I think, by the @ByDonkeys twitter account, so appealing. Incompetents? Undoubtedly. Zombies, more like.
The truth, however, is that I’m currently sleeping well at night (in part thanks to my current medication).
I speculated recently that Theresa May has actually gone mad under the pressure of trying to appease both the insane and sane wings of her party and – nominally at least – to be Prime Minister. Perhaps so – but she really has turned into some kind of zombie. And, just look at the others in the picture above! “Invasion of the Zombies” would be an entirely appropriate title for a future movie based upon these troubled times.
A crash test dummy could play Theresa May. Fill in your own names for others shown in the poster above.
I guess that the thought which could really disturb my sleep is this. Whatever happens this week, May will stand down (or be pushed out) as PM in a matter of months, if not weeks. Absolutely every likely successor for her in the Tory Party would give me nightmares! When do we start screaming? And why has Michael Gove been so deafeningly silent these past few weeks!