All posts by Jim Gunther

About Jim Gunther

Husband, father, grandfather, humanist, republican, (very!) amateur anthropologist. Interests: politics, education, ethics, comedy, eclectic music taste. Former corporate manager. School governor, charity trustee, volunteer adviser

Two Islands

There are 136 inhabited islands in the British Isles, according to Wikipedia. In this post, I shall concentrate on the two biggest: Great Britain and Ireland, country by country.

Republic of Ireland

My first visit to the Republic of Ireland was in 1974 with my first wife-to-be (as she was then). We did a circuit of the south coast and returned for a couple of nights in Dublin at the end of our holiday.

My recollection was that Ireland was a poor country: the buildings were a little shabby and the rural parts were still very socially conservative. The country felt oppressed under the heavy, authoritarian fist of the Catholic Church. I saw the deference with which locals showed to their local priest, a god-like figure in the community. All in all and coming from London, we felt we had stepped back in time about twenty years or more. Dublin had some interesting historic sites and buildings – I particularly remember Trinity College – but was in many ways unremarkable. The Temple Bar area was quiet and semi-derelict, a far cry from the youthful and vibrant quarter of the city much favoured by British (and Irish) hen and stag parties in more recent times.

Temple Bar, Dublin

Two things that struck me have not changed. The first – and most commonly commented upon by visitors – was the friendliness of the people we encountered. The second was the mixing of people of all ages, at a Caleigh, in a pub, to have a good time. (The English, then and now, seem to me to socialise within their own age groups, especially so in London and the South East. It might also be more of a middle-class thing.)

Northern Ireland

My only visit to the six counties of Northern Ireland was for work, during the so-called “Troubles” in the 1970s. A more honest term might be Civil War. I can’t even remember now what the purpose of my trip was. What I do remember is sitting in the restaurant, alone, at a table beside a very large plate glass window which acted as the outside wall to the street below. I was staying at the Europa Hotel in Belfast, Europe’s most bombed hotel. It was bombed 36 times during this period, according to Wikipedia. I remember thinking “Is this wise?” Happily, nothing untoward happened during my stay, but I do remember the oppressive and unnerving security checks everywhere I went.

Europa Hotel in the Troubles

The Good Friday Agreement brought peace and reconciliation to the north of Ireland, contingent on the UK and the Irish Republic both being members of the EU. Let’s hope peace continues, despite the stupidity of the current batch of politicians. The DUP are now mad that the UK parliament has voted for equal marriage for same-sex couples and abortion rights for women to bring this corner of the UK into line with the rest of us. Who knows what will happen next?

Scotland

I’ve had several trips to Scotland, occasionally on business, but more often as a tourist. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. Scottish independence is certainly on the cards – I would certainly vote “yes” in the next independence referendum if I were fortunate enough to be Scottish – but I’m not. I have exactly as much say in Scotland’s independence as I do about who will be our next prime Minister: a hostage in my own land.

Independence Parade in Glasgow

My wife and I enjoyed our trip to Glasgow last autumn: a vibrant and interesting city. We’ll be travelling to one of the western isles later this year. We can check out the vibes in a beautiful part of our islands.

Scotland’s form of nationalism seems pretty progressive and social attitudes similarly so: much the same applies in Ireland, especially since Sinn Fein modernised its policies and adopted progressive attitudes to women’s rights and same-sex marriage. The English form of nationalism, by contrast, verges on fascism.

Wales

The Welsh are something of an enigma to me. We’ve recently returned from a week’s holiday in Snowdonia, a stunningly beautiful part of these lands. In the 30-35 years since my first visit, I notice an increase in the prominence of – and perhaps pride in – the Welsh language. Recent opinion polls show a clear lead for Remain, in contrast to the 2016 result in Wales. Perhaps the message about all that European Regional Development Fund money is finally breaking through there.

Harlech Castle

England

Which just leaves the fucking English – of which I am one. Ah… England, land of inequality and lack of opportunity for most. The near certainty of yet another old Etonian as Prime Minister. The near certainty that he will be the third person in a row to earn the distinction “Worst PM in my lifetime”. What on earth is the matter with us?

A Deprived Bit of England

A small consolation prize: the thug Stephen Yaxley-Lennon is in jail. Good! What’s this? His 12th criminal conviction, I think.

England v Ireland

All of this leaves me to ponder on one thought: the contrast between England and Ireland over the last 30-40 years. During this time, Ireland has progressed beyond all recognition: from a backward, relatively poor theocracy to a modern, inclusive forward-looking democracy. (Not perfect, by any means, but stupendous progress has been made in a relatively short time.)

England, by contrast, seems to be regressing into a divided, hateful, intolerant and bigoted place. Honourable exceptions are the cities: London, Cambridge and Oxford spring to mind – prompting accusations of elitism from me, of course. Sadiq Khan seems a breath of fresh air as Mayor of London after the embarrassment of his predecessor and his ludicrous vanity projects.

So why is there such a contrast between Ireland’s and England’s progress to modernity over the past three to four decades? Both countries joined the EU (EEC then) in the same year, 1973. I struggle to provide a convincing explanation.

Nostalgia and English Exceptionalism

A partial explanation lies in the phenomenon known as “English exceptionalism”. This seems to have been explicitly recognised and discussed only in the past few years – and especially as one of the explainers for the denialism and fantasies of many Leave supporters. A much longer-standing problem has been the whitewashing of our imperial past. It is only in the last decade or two that our education system has started to take a more critical and impartial view of the history of the British Empire. This means that anyone over the age of about forty was told by the state (i.e. at school) a wholly one-sided version of the imperial story.

The mix is made more toxic by a strange nostalgia for the second World War and “plucky Britain’s” survival of the blitz. Historian David Olugosa, writing in today’s Observer, makes an interesting, and much overlooked, point. Those old enough to have actually been alive during WWII and who saw the suffering first-hand, were “far more likely to oppose Brexit” than baby-boomers. (More details are available at this LSE British Politics and Policy blog post.) Olugosa describes my generation as “brought up watching war films rather than cowering in Anderson shelters”. One of my schooldays memories is that the climax of the school’s Film Club season one year was a showing of the film Dambusters – all stiff upper lips, bouncing bombs and militaristic music.

The Dam Busters

It seems that, unfortunately for those of us who voted remain, that 2016 was exactly the worst time to hold a simplistic “in/out” EU referendum. Yet this still does not fully explain why the English of a certain age are uniquely prone to this stuff. The Republic of Ireland, of course, was officially neutral during the war: does this sufficiently explain the difference? Or is it somehow bound up the English class system? Any ideas?

 

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Boys Only

I was educated, from age 11 to 18, in a single-sex school. To make matters worse, my student days were at a single-sex college at a university where male students outnumbered female students by 7 to 1. So I spent my teens and the first part of my twenties in an environment where girls / women were hard to meet.

A 2015 post, First Doubts, touches on the fact that, in these formative years, I consider myself to have been a shy person. I leave it to those who know me to decide how well, or not, I have managed to overcome this problem in the following fifty years.

Why do I mention this now? Well, two recent news items (of which more below) prompted me to have some reflective thoughts on the psychological effects of single-sex education. The two stories both concern men who attended single-sex schools: Mark Field and Boris Johnson. Both Tory MPs: Field a minister (until he was suspended) and Johnson a backbencher (since he left the Cabinet). One a candidate for our future Prime Minister; both behaving in a misogynistic way.

The Mansion House Incident

The video of the incident involving Greenpeace activist Janet Barker and (suspended) minister Mark Field has been widely shared on social media. Here’s one link:

Predictably – and sadly – the incident has already divided opinion. There are those (almost exclusively in the Tory Party and its media supporters) who take the view that Barker got what she deserved. The rest of us, me included, see this is a wholly disproportionate reaction by a privileged white man to a peaceful (but disruptive) interruption to proceedings. It’s clear from the video that Field stays angry all the time he’s gripping Barker’s neck and pushing her out of the building. This is despite Barker’s repeated  statement: “This is a peaceful protest”. Field’s final words when had pushed Barker out of the building are telling: “This is what happens when people like you disturb our dinner.” (My emphasis.)

People like you. We can all speculate as to what exactly Field meant by this. I’m sure that, in part, he meant “people who do not share my views”: the whole anger shtick at the audacity of people who challenge his rich, white, male privileged position. But there’s more than a suspicion that “people like you” also refers to women; women who do not know their place.

One thing’s for sure: a thug wearing a black tie is still a thug.

The Screaming, Shouting and Banging in Carrie Symonds’ Flat

Which leads us naturally to incident number two and Boris Johnson. (Carrie Symonds is Johnson’s current girlfriend, apparently.) Shortly after midnight last Friday, police were called to the flat where Johnson is living with Symonds. The police left after satisfying themselves that no-one in the flat was in danger.

The neighbour’s concern followed loud noises of screaming, shouting and the smashing of glass or crockery. Symonds was heard to shout “get off me” and “get out of my flat”. It came as absolutely no surprise to hear that Symonds had also yelled “You just don’t care for anything because you’re spoilt. You have no care for money or anything.” The British public have a legitimate interest in the moral character of anyone standing to be our next Prime Minister.

True to form, three tabloid newspapers went into full attempts at character assassination of the neighbour who had recorded the altercation. Here’s an example from the Daily Mail in one of their full-throated “make the lives hell for ordinary people exposing inconvenient truths” mode. “Guardianista” seems to be a term of abuse for Mail journalists: it feels like a particularly puerile and infantile turn of phrase to me.

The neighbours were concerned for the safety of those involved after three tries to speak to the occupants and getting no reply at their front door. It subsequently emerged that three neighbours were concerned about the safety of the occupants.

Johnson’s private life is of no particular interest to me nor is it, per se, for judging his suitability for high office. But his character, and anything which throws light on this, is of serious public concern. Oh, and a “private” life that is so loud that it can be heard by three sets of neighbours in the small hours of the morning doesn’t seem to be so very private. What it reveals about Johnson’s attitude to women is also relevant – and disturbing.

False Victimhood

Today’s tabloids, in search of a lurid headline, are pursuing the Johnson “complicated sex life” angle. Speculation is rife. The Daily Mirror asserts “Boris ‘wants to get back with his wife’”.  The Mail says the opposite: “Despite bust-up, couple insist: We are stronger than ever”. Meanwhile, the Sun reveals “Boris and Carrie had 4 rows in 6 weeks”. Other papers concentrate on the “pressure to come clean” aspect. Taken together, it presents Johnson with an opportunity to play the victim: he’s being criticised for matters in his private life, poor dear.

Some of us are old enough to remember the scandal of John Profumo and Mandy Rice-Davies, where an out-of-control sex life threatened national security. But those were different times. Perhaps, on this occasion only, the last word should go to his former boss Max Hastings, who states that Johnson is “totally unfit” for office.

So What?

What do I conclude from these two very different incidents? Well, both illustrate the anger which is aroused in people like them who carry round with them an unswerving sense of their own entitlement. In that respect, they come from a very different upbringing from me. In retrospect, I feel that my “boys only” education meant that my teens and early twenties were, perhaps, a bit less exciting than they might have been. But I hold a strong suspicion that, for Field and Johnson, their single-sex education is a factor in their misogynistic attitude towards women.

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Zombies

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.

Zombies alert!

To quote a former Tory Party leader: “Remind you of anyone?”

Well, yes, actually. And they look like this:

Horror Show

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.

The 99.8% with no vote

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?”

The Tory-eating Monster

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?

Our next PM?

Aaaaaagh!

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Logical Conclusions

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.

People’s Vote

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.

Demographic Change

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.

Changed Minds

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.

Scotland

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.

Northern Ireland

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.

Wales

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.

England

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!

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Three Maysted Years

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”.

Back in June 2017, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier had made a similar warning about not wasting 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.

chequers aerial view
Chequers

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:

Private Eye cover
Says it all…

Makes you proud, doesn’t it?

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Duty of Care

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!

Privatised Utilities

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?

I think not.

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Moveable Feast

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.

Consequences

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.

Resurrection Shuffle

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….

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An Informed Choice

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.

Turkish Delight

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.

Citizens' Assembly in action
Citizens’ Assembly in action

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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No Regrets?

In Memoriam

Scott Walker (1943-2019), a man with a heartbreakingly pure singing voice.

In Condemnation

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.

No Regrets?

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!

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In Lieu of EU

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,
Regular supply:
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.

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