Monday, 7 November 2016

Reasoning, Writing & Arithmetic - Brexit, Education & 'the Three Rs'

The more I see and hear the debates around Brexit (and associated discussions of immigration, and so on), the more I feel like we're not doing well enough in a vital aspect of education (not specifically us, but society in general). It's become clear to me that one if the most important subjects we need to teach to every child is what might be broadly called 'philosophy', but more specifically critical thinking and logic, along with the concepts of research and evidence (and how to apply them in supporting and scrutinising argument).

We've all seen what's happened - in a civilised society with universal education, it should not be possible for so many people to be so easily fooled by stuff that doesn't stand up to any scrutiny. Too many people just do not have the basic skills in this area that they should have. I think we need to address that much more effectively in our education system - it's more important in preparing people for life than almost anything else that our children could learn.

The recent court judgement in favour of Article 50 having to be triggered by parliament also highlights a serious deficiency in our education about some of the most basic knowledge that any citizen should have about the country where they live and how its systems work. Again. The same issue was shown up by the reaction to the realisation that the EU referendum result was not in itself a legally binding decision. There was nothing specifically 'anti-Brexit' about either thing, of course - both are simply a reflection of how our democracy works. It's blindingly obvious, though, that many people simply do not understand it. It isn't a very complicated system, and it is as it is for very good reasons (the executive not being able to set itself above the democratic institutions or the law), but people have just never been taught about it, so they don't know.

It is all too easy for those of us who are strongly engaged with politics and the democratic process to forget how little of it we learned at school, and to assume that everyone knows the basics (or even to make the mistake of thinking people are 'stupid' or 'wilfully ignorant' because they don't - very bad mistakes to make). It certainly doesn't help when the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage, two people who know exactly how the system works (and who play games with it constantly), give strength to those who don't understand by making outrageous accusations of wrong-doing against people they know full when are simply doing their constitutional and legal duty in exactly the way they are supposed to. Everyone should beware of such deliberate manipulation, but sadly it is the case that they clearly aren't. And then there's the media, and certain sections of it who feed constant half-truths at best to an unsuspecting public - people need to scrutinise information carefully, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that many lack the basic skills for doing so, and aren't even aware that they don't know what they need to to avoid being fooled by those promoting a specific message through emotive false propaganda.

This last point is the most fundamental. Yes, we do need to teach people about 'politics' and the functionings of our legal and democratic systems - it doesn't need to be complicated, and almost everyone will have the capacity to understand the basic concepts without too much difficulty. It goes beyond that, though, to the basic skills of logic and reasoning, and the ability to construct and scrutinise argument using research, evidence and so on. These are very, very basic skills for life that our education system does not seem to have been treating with the level of importance that it should have. There have been some moves to improve things, I know, but I am concerned that not only have we not yet succeeded but that the current government's obsession with taking education backwards endangers what progress we have made.

We often talk of the 'three Rs', and emphasise the importance of them from day one of school. We don't, of course, sit kids down immediately and start teaching them quadratic equations and the compete works of Shakespeare - we start at a very basic level, often leading them through some of the very basic stuff with structured 'play' and 'activities', and so on, and of course that is right. However, we need to be treating the idea of 'Reasoning' with the same level of attention and importance. Being able to think logically is every bit as critical to success in any aspect of life as being able to count, read and write. Reading and writing, of course, are very much two sides of the same coin, so when we talk of the 'three Rs' we should be including those three central core issues, including 'Reasoning'.

Many skills of logic and reasoning are taught in schools, but without being identified as such. Subjects such as Science and History are (or should be!) founded on such things. At the moment, though, we are, I think, all too often doing things the wrong way around - at a very young age, for example, we introduce the idea of 'the past' to children, and start to teach them a little bit about it. That is fine in itself, but later on that little bit we have taught them becomes far less relevant to even their study of that subject than the idea of reasoning, and the essential skills of assessing evidence and making logical judgements based upon it. That is where I think we need to start to a much greater extent - teaching children the skills of reasoning that they can develop and naturally apply later on, rather than just teaching them a few little bits of random 'knowledge'.

'Knowledge' itself is a wonderful thing, of course, but it's really far less useful and important than the ability to think. That is what cuts across every facet of life in education and beyond - not just learning (though learning is itself important) but thinking. Alongside thinking and reasoning inevitably come the basic skills of research and processing of information, and that is massively important in its own right. To put it bluntly, again using a historical example, learning the names and dates of the Kings and Queens of England is really of no practical value whatsoever in life. Understanding how to find out that information, how to assess the sources giving that information, and how to construct an argument based around that information and its context is what people really need in life. Our education system should be geared from the beginning to give people those skills.

Now having mentioned also teaching the 'knowledge' about our political system, though that is less important than having the skills to find and assess that information (since in the days of the interweb it is freely available to anyone), it's important to say a word about 'political bias'. It is absolutely imperative that we do not have any kind of political bias in our education system. I can think of little that has sent a bigger chill down my spine than the recent call from a UKIP leadership candidate for UKIP members to go into teaching to educate children the UKIP way from an early age. That works both ways, of course, and in no way would I advocate teaching children according to any political agenda, including my own. It is all about teaching children HOW to think, not teaching them WHAT to think - that distinction is critical. There is always a danger of an individual teacher, teaching the concepts of our political system and perhaps of the basic political ideologies, to make a personal 'slip up' and allow their own opinions to show. Teachers, for all of their skill and dedication, are still human, and can make human mistakes inadvertently. That perhaps becomes less of a dangerous issue, though, if from day one of their schooling we have taught children to develop the basic skills of reasoning, logic and argument construction and scrutiny. By the time we get to any kind of education about 'politics' they will already have the reasoning skills to assess any such information for themselves and to come to their own conclusions.

I should also say that I am certainly not a teacher, although I did spend many years working in educational technical support, and was involved with discussions on the basis of research about teaching and learning methods (and enhancing teaching and learning through space and facility design). I don't pretend to be able to tell people how to teach, and nor would I want to. We do need to understand, though, that the old 'chalk and talk' methodology of sending out a stream of information for people to 'learn' has been found repeatedly to really not work very well. What works more effectively are things like collaborative group learning, and encouraging people to work things out for themselves rather than just being force-fed 'knowledge'. This is something that has become increasingly applied at all levels of education (and again this governments regressive educational agenda worries me on that score), and it's exactly the kind of thing we need to understand when we're talking about children learning to reason from a very young age.

At the moment it's very clear that too many adults do not understand some of the most basic aspects of reasoning and research, and assessing evidence logically, and so on. In fact, I'm going to go so far as to say that Brexit is a huge illustration of that - many people have made an important decision about our entire future on the basis of 'arguments' that don't stand up to scrutiny, 'evidence' that is misrepresented or even entirely fabricated, and an emotional appeal to their feelings of general dissatisfaction that has led them to place the blame for the problems they see at the door of a conveniently supplied scapegoat who isn't actually to blame. Of course I freely confess my own 'bias' on the issue of the EU, but the issue remains the same - many of the 'arguments' being presented are not based in evidence, logic and reason, and those presenting them don't even seem to realise that.

It shouldn't be too hard to make the kind of change I am talking about here in our education system. Children have enquiring minds quite naturally - we simply need to encourage them to use them, and teach them the skills to use them effectively. We should certainly not consider that such things are only within the capabilities of the more 'academic' - it really isn't particularly complicated at all, but it is a habit that people should get into at a very early age. It is not, for example, only within the capabilities of an academically gifted teenager to understand a basic concept like 'the plural of anecdote is not evidence' - children of a much younger age, even those not destined for a life of university academia, are quite capable of grasping such and idea with a bit of explanation. All it needs for them to develop the good habit of reasoning is for them to be taught how to do it early on.

This is why it needs to be put right at the core of our entire education system and educational thinking, right from day one. That is why I think we need to think of those essential 'three Rs' as being Reasoning, Writing and Arithmetic. We have seen the dangers of a civilised society abandoning reason and embracing knee-jerk emotionalism led by political propaganda. We need to make sure that it can never, ever happen again. We need to do so without ever using the education system to teach people what to think. We do, however, need to make sure that everyone leaves education, at whatever age and with whatever qualifications (or lack thereof), having learned HOW to think. How to think for themselves. How to reason. How to research and understand. How to apply logic. How not to be fooled by those with a specific agenda of trying to fool them.

We currently place an emphasis on even the least academically able children leaving school with the basic numeracy and literacy skills to function in society. We need to add basic reasoning skills to that. Instead of making sure all children, as far as possible, end up with a basic qualification in Maths and English, we need to make sure that they end up with a basic qualification in Maths, English and 'Critical Thinking'. We need to gear our education system to that strong and emphasis on reasoning, start it from the very beginning, and keep it up all the way through, in exactly the same way as we do with numeracy and literacy. In my opinion, reasoning is every bit as important a life skill as being able to add things up and write things down.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Orgreave, Coal and Steel (David!).

This government has taken a decision not to investigate what happened at 'the Battle of Orgreave'. Apparently nobody actually died or spent much time locked up, so it's not important to understand the truth. I'm not surprised by this government's attitude, unfortunately, given the kind of dictatorial, authoritarian direction it has lurched in, and given the fact that some of those who might come in for criticism are some of their great mythological heroes. I use the term 'mythological' deliberately, of course, since their heroism may well not be based on an entirely true reflection of reality but on stories about how the great forefathers (and mothers) overcame the pure evil of the socialist dragon. Sadly, that seems to be where we are - that same kind of polarised 'us versus them' politics which created the miners strike and the events at Orgreave.

I disagree with them very strongly. The shadow of the violence Orgreave has been hanging over us for far too long. It has been the subject of accusations, counter-accusations, stories, myths, rumours and whispers for decades, and we need to know the truth. We need to understand exactly what happened, and exactly why it happened, not just so that we can all 'move on', but so that we can make absolutely sure that we never again see such a situation. In today's political climate in the UK, I think that's more important than ever.

Of course, it's not just about the actions of the police on that day itself, and whether they were proportionate and well thought out. We now know for certain from Hillsborough (and we didn't know before, though we may have suspected - I don't buy the defence of aiming cheap 'well if it's so important why didn't you investigate when you were in power' comments aimed at Labour in particular - the Hillsborough investigation changes everything) just how dishonest that particular police force could be around that time when it came to covering its own backside, and we need to know if the same people (or others) were doing the same. It is also about the government of the day, and how they were using the police force. That's long been the source of comment and speculation, and the evidence for that should be properly considered - abuse of state power is one of the most serious charges that can be levelled at any government, and we need to know if that did indeed go on (and whether individuals broke any laws in relation to that, of course). It's about the 'other side' too, and what were really the plans and actions of Arthur Scargill, the NUM and the groups of miners themselves on that day - again, the source of much rumour and speculation (and elements within that union had certainly been guilty of serious crimes elsewhere in their pursuit of the strike, and allegedly in their pursuit of bringing down the government too).

So many stories. So many rumours. So many whispers. We need to get to the truth. It is important, even all these years later. If we don't examine history, and examine all of the evidence, we can't learn from it. If we don't learn from it, we risk making the same mistakes again, and in terms of entrenched and bitter dispute leading to violence potentially between the government, police and organised parts of the population that is a risk we should do everything we can to minimise. A light needs to be shone into all of the dark corners of what happened and why. We need to know. A proper, full investigation is absolutely essential, in my opinion, despite the many painful memories and ghosts from the past that it will inevitably raise. We need to deal with all of that once and for all. There should be truth. There should be justice. For everyone.

Thinking back to that time of the strike, when I were but a lad (not living in a mining community myself, but not far away from many of them, and not many generations away from miners in my own family either), my memories are quite vivid. Not just seeing what had happened at Orgreave, but the whole issue of the strike itself. In many ways it was a very important part of the formation of my political opinion - watching the physical battles of the picket line, and the political battles pitched between shouting, ranting elements taking the lead on both 'sides' of the debate. It wasn't just the miners strike itself, though that was a particularly stark example - it was that whole period of unrest and upheaval, from the winter of discontent through the strike, pit and works closures, and so on. All the time it all seemed so wrong to me, as young as I was. Not 'wrong' because 'evil' was standing against 'good', or because 'the worker' was standing against 'the establishment', or because 'thugs' were standing against 'the forces of law', or whatever, but because it seemed to me that nobody had any real desire to get together and sort it out sensibly instead of just 'smashing' their 'opponent'. I found it all so frustrating (as I still do).

Throughout that time it seemed to me there was one solid, sensible voice of reason. One constant presence with the practical sense and the courage to stand between the sides (metaphorically and politically, at least!) and just say 'hang on a minute', so to speak. One person who actually wanted to sort out a real solution instead of just trying to 'win' a war of destruction that wasn't doing anybody any good. This is what forged the way I thought politically at that young age (I was a young teenager by the time of the miners strike), and what still essentially shapes much of my political identity and thinking today (though I have not always been a party member, and not even always voted for the same party).

Many Liberals, and Liberal Democrats in particular, will cite as their 'political heroes', or as those who brought them to Liberalism and the party, as the likes of Paddy, or Charles, or even Nick. All of those are good answers - it depends on when and how you came to such things, of course. For me, though I'm not given to 'hero worship at all, my big formative influence will always be that quiet voice of reason, standing up for common sense when all around were preaching the kind of entrenched language of war that ultimately led to appalling situations like the battle of Orgreave. Indeed, it saddens me a little that he is one leading Liberal figure that the party does not offer as an option to be pictured on membership cards, despite having been such an important and influential part of forming and shaping the party we have today.

Thinking about the whole Orgreave and miners strike situation this morning, I found this quote:

"During the mining dispute we have seen the Thatcher way at its very worst. She appointed as Chairman of the National Coal Board an elderly American company doctor whose reputation at British Steel had been made by cutting back rather, than building up.

She has effectively torn up the Plan for Coal and replaced it with nothing except a general sense of hostility to what is one of this country’s major assets. She has set up a confrontation which suits her Marxist opponent Arthur Scargill very well. She has allowed attitudes to harden on both sides.

Then this week she has the nerve to talk about the strike going on for a year and demands ‘victory’ over the ‘enemy.’ It may be the Thatcher way but it is not the way to conduct industrial relations - and it is deeply damaging to the national economy.

There is a better way. I want to use this occasion to make a .firm proposal to break the deadlock. It has three elements and it will require the recall of Parliament next week, which is perfectly possible since there are no party conferences.

The first element is that Mr. McGregor should step down immediately. He is now an impediment to a settlement. His replacement should be someone like Eric Varley who has the personal skills and the knowledge of the coal industry. The fact that he is not ‘one of hers’ is a positive advantage. A new Chairman of the NCB is the first pre-requisite to break the log-jam.

The second element is the establishment of a new Community Rehabilitation Programme, funded by the Government. It should undertake the environmental restoration of run down mining communities to create worthwhile jobs for former miners and to get the local neighbourhood thriving again. This Programme would be loosely modelled on the excellent Villiers scheme in British Steel but will concentrate particularly on the physical environment.

This scheme should be jointly managed by the NCB and the NUM but there is one big IF. There must be a ballot on the coal strike. The Alliance will put a short Bill to the House of Commons allowing 10% of miners, to trigger a national ballot. This trigger will be pointed at the head of Mr. Scargill and his dictatorial ways. As the Yorkshire working miners’ letter said ‘he is only a servant of the union.’ We must enable them to tell him what to do rather than the other way round.

I call on the Government and the TUC to put all their weight behind this scheme to set the coal industry on a new course. It is their duty to save the adversaries from themselves."

David Steel, Liberal Party Leader's Speech, Bournemouth 1984.

If only they had listened.

London - the elephant in the Heathrow room.

As we engage in yet another debate over the possible expansion of Heathrow airport, once again the public discussion seems to miss the great big London-shaped elephant in the room. It's a shape that hangs over many of our economic and infrastructure debates in the UK. In this particular case, the plain fact is that the UK does not have a shortage of airport capacity. It really doesn't - there's plenty to spare at the moment, all over the country. Apart from around London. At what point do we have to start asking ourselves about addressing the problem, instead of trying to put short-term sticking plasters over some of the most obvious symptoms?

Now I'm quite sure many reading this will be expecting 'the usual attack on London from the regions' - you know the kind of thing: Everyone in London is rich (just look at the house prices), London gets everything, they have all the wealth while we suffer, they took our coal and left us with nothing, and so on. That's not the point at all - London is suffering, and Londoners (those who live there and those who work there) are suffering. London is hideously overpopulated, and growing, and shows no signs of growing at a rate that is in any way sustainable. On top of that, many people from around London travel in to the city to work there every day. The infrastructure (not just transport - little things like water supply too) is horrendously overloaded, and it's getting worse - we keep pumping in large sums of money to build new infrastructure where we can, though there's little space to do it, but it's nowhere near enough, and it never will be. At what point do we start thinking about addressing the problem from the other end, and actually reducing demand?

This isn't the first time I've touched on this topic. Last year I wrote a blog post about moving parliament, and the associated state functions, out from London (specifically to somewhere around Liverpool), partly to begin to address this issue. We need to go further than that, though - we need to start encouraging businesses and employers to move too (and where they move, people will follow, or at least stay where they are instead of moving to London). In the modern world of technology, the necessity for everything to be physically located in one place so that messages can be passed and physical meetings can be held is a thing of the past. We need to utilise the opportunities offered by such things as telephones, the internet, video conferencing, and so on - we need to stop thinking in terms of putting things together for convenience, and start thinking in terms of spreading them out as widely as possible.

Not only can we now spread things out more, we really have to. London cannot continue as it has done in the past. It isn't just a problem for London, of course, and it is right, I think, to note that the draw of London's centralised economic activity is bad news for the whole of the UK. As the London area suffers from overpopulation, pollution, strained infrastructure, work-life balances dependent on hours of commuting, and so on, so the rest of the UK is suffering from lack of employment (and particularly of well-paid employment), empty housing and stagnant (at best, in some cases) housing markets, crumbling infrastructure that is too poor to attract inward investment, etc., etc.. We have to start to address the issue, and start to rebalance the geographical inequality in our economic activity and (therefore) our population. What we are doing now can't keep on - it is failing everyone.

Some are suggesting that the HS2 project will help by shortening travelling times to London, but I'm not convinced about that at all. I think it's almost looking at the issue slightly backwards. It is expanding the effective circumference of the centre instead of seeking to decentralise. The big danger in doing that is that it falls into the same category as expanding Heathrow - it perhaps addresses symptoms a little for a while, but actually overall provides an expansion of London capacity that increases its draw and increases its economic and population dominance. OK, it might mean that people can, in effect, 'commute' to London from further afield, but it does nothing to stop them having to do so. That's where the problem lies - we need to stop so much of our economic activity, and therefore our population, from being so reliant upon activity in and connection to London.

Now one 'solution' that might have an impact is Brexit, of course. It might have an impact by moving chunks of our financial services sector out of the UK altogether. I'm going to suggest that that would not be a good thing, though. Actually, 'the city' is one of those things that it makes most sense to leave exactly where it is. That doesn't mean that it needs to all stay where it is, of course, but it does raise an important point that I should mention about now. What I'm talking about isn't somehow 'de-populating' the capital city and leaving it to collapse as an abandoned shell of its former self. Far from it. It is always going to be a big city, and always going to be a big centre of economic activity, and always going to have a big population as a result - there's nothing wrong with that, as long as it is sustainable. As I pointed out earlier, this isn't an attack on London at all. What we need to do, though, is create a situation where it is sustainable - where it isn't continuing to try to expand, and continuing to draw people and activity away from other places, and where it doesn't constantly need more and more infrastructure to cope with ever increasing demand. We certainly don't want to tear down London and rip up its gold-paved streets, but we do need to find a viable and sustainable economic (and therefore population) solution for the whole of the UK, including London itself.

As a slight aside, just let me briefly address the question of immigration here, and any suggestion that anything is the fault of 'them immigrants' (which it isn't), 'immigration' (which it isn't), and any suggestion that 'Britain is full' (which it isn't). That kind of nonsense only deflects discussion away from the real problem of centralisation. We have immigration, we need immigration, and immigration is a very positive thing both economically and culturally. We aren't 'full' - in fact, we could very easily build several more cities the size of London in space that is currently occupied by sheep, not to mention the area currently covered by golf courses. We could, but the situation of overpopulation, pollution and failing infrastructure would probably eventually be the same in all of them - it is that which we need to address, not the marginal effects of some people moving to the UK while some other people leave. It's a complete red herring that only serves to block real discussion about real solutions.

As I have mentioned, I believe we ought to start by moving parliament - not only does it make a practical start, though a small one, but it sends a clear and powerful message of intent, and that is important. It tells the world, the regions, and London itself that we're actually beginning to take this problem seriously instead of pretending that sticking plasters like Heathrow expansion will solve everything (or anything, for that matter). We have to go beyond that though, obviously, and the starting point has to be a far more serious attempt to invest in infrastructure in 'the regions', even though we know that in the short term some of it might not be 'necessary' according to current and projected (projected on the assumption of nothing much changing) demand.

That is so important. We need to build the infrastructure to support the things that we need to move away from the capital, and we need to build them before they announce that they are moving (because if we don't, they won't - it is that simple). This is something that the UK has been disastrously bad at, and has in fact taken far, far less seriously than the European Union - we should really see the number of EU funded regional infrastructure projects in the UK as a damning indictment of our own failure for generations. This costs money, of course, but we need to invest, and we need to see our investment in terms of something much more fundamental than 'connection speed to London' (from places that can be easily connected to London, while the rest of the UK still gets largely ignored).

To take a specific example (chosen because I know it well), the Swansea Bay region has a population of well over 500,000. It is currently connected to the rest of the UK by a motorway that has only 2 lanes in each direction for much of its length, and some of the tightest bends on the whole UK network (with the speed restrictions dictated by such things) - it is not enough, and currently there are only plans to try to improve a small part (the part which also most badly effects Cardiff). There is an international airport reasonably close by, West of Cardiff, but no decent road or rail links to get to it. The railway line is due to be upgraded to electric over the coming years, but it still won't get you to an airport other than the inevitable Heathrow (and in order to get to Heathrow, as many people currently have to do from Swansea, you also have to pass another international airport at Bristol).

Now the city of Swansea itself is by no means the worst place in the UK for such infrastructure (North Wales doesn't even have a motorway at all, which is frankly shameful), but what we need to be asking ourselves is why businesses would relocated parts of their operation to Swansea from London, or choose Swansea instead of London and its immediate neighbours? What are the push and pull factors in such decisions, and how can we begin to rebalance them? I'm going to suggest that infrastructure is a pretty big part of that picture - the ability to reliably get people and goods in and out, not just to London but also to the world - but it's not the only one (training and education for the workforce is another, but I'm not going to claim to know all the answers, of course).

Then we need to be asking the same questions about other towns in the region, and other regions. How do we create the circumstances for a more viable and sustainable distribution of economic activity and population around the UK (the whole of the UK). We need to do it not just for the benefit of 'the regions'; but for the benefit of London itself - it's important to realise that, and it's a point I think needs to be made again and again. Regional infrastructure funding is good for London. Regional policy that attracts economic activity and employment away from London is good for London, and good for the people of London. We need to understand that, and we need to think about issues like the proposed expansion at Heathrow in those terms.

At the moment the Heathrow debate, and the whole airport expansion debate, is being dominated by the idea that we need to expand airport capacity in the South East because the South East is where all the demand for it is. We need to think about the problem differently, and from the opposite angle, and realise that the real problem is actually that the demand itself is too centralised in the South East, and that that is unsustainable. Each bit of additional capacity we build there is only going to serve to increase that centralised demand in the long term, while reducing it elsewhere around the country (where we already have an issue of over-capacity and a lack of demand, which is only going to get worse if we don't address it).

And that is a problem with our traditional way of thinking. It isn't 'joined up' - it's all too often been seen as something of a 'battle' for funding between London (which 'needs' the investment because of the overpopulation) and 'the regions' (which supposedly doesn't need it so urgently, because it doesn't have the same problem of overpopulation). We need to look at it in a new way, and realise that the best thing for London is to invest in the regions, as it is the best thing for the regions too. Investing in new London infrastructure might alleviate pressure temporarily, but in the longer term it only serves to make the problem worse by reducing the impetus for people and things to think about going elsewhere.

The best way to solve the long term problem of demand exceeding infrastructure in London is to begin to gradually reduce that demand, and the best way to do that is to invest in the infrastructure that can begin to draw demand away from the London area. We should be working together on that - it's in everybody's long term interests, and especially in London's.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Politics is becoming little more than a game show.

The major problem there is that game shows are actually hugely popular. They seem to be what 'the people' actually want, to a large extent. Politics is becoming the game show, because the game show sells. The way to attract the 'popular vote' isn't necessarily to have the best policies, or even the most popular policies (in terms of those that are thought through and sensible, and might actually work), but to reach the mass audience with easy answers presented in the most emotively appealing way (preferably by someone who looks like a slick, 'perfect' game show host, or at least 'nice'). That is a relatively new phenomenon - it's probably no accident that it's grown up at the same time as 'TV voting', either. Now everyone is a 'voter', every week from their arm chairs, but what they expect from politics is now much more the same as what they get weekly from the X-Factor or whatever.

Many people aren't interested in policies - in fairness, to a large extent they probably never were. Not in the finer detail, anyway - relatively few people sit down an examine policies line by line to see what they will mean. They want a more general 'direction of travel', and a few snippets of something that sounds good to them, and that in itself is fine. What has changed is what that means - they no longer seem to want something that sounds reasonable and sensible from someone they feel they can respect. Now they want something that tugs at their emotional heart-strings from someone that they actually like (in just the same way as they don't really want the best singer on the X-Factor, but the good looking one who comes across as 'nice' and has a really good emotional back story). They used to want a 'leader' who they thought had good judgement to exercise on their behalf (because that's what representative democracy is about). Now they seem much more to want a 'mate' who will do everything that they want all at the same time, and who will keep them entertained while they do it.

It's easy to blame 'politicians' for that, and especially someone like Tony Blair, who saw what was beginning to happen and capitalised on it (and yes, in turn contributed to it). It's not that simple, though - they are only dealing with the hand that is dealt to them, and doing what they have to do in order to survive and get into a position where they can actually do some good. We can see what's happening to Corbyn - the public and media attacks really aren't just about policy, or even effectiveness (as much as I personally think there are questions on all that, and as much as I'm certainly no fan of his). There's more to it than that in terms of 'image'. Think back to what happened to Ming Campbell, too - he was destroyed politically, almost purely because of his age and 'image'. Experience used to be a good thing for a politician - not any more, and that's not good when we're deciding who is going to run the country. Politicians haven't helped the downwards spiral, of course, but they aren't (well, certainly not all of them, anyway!) responsible for the rise in immediate and emotional-reaction voting that's come partly from the way that TV game shows have developed over recent times (and partly from the press too, though in fairness they as a group have always had one foot (at least) in the gutter).

It's all 'audience participation', of course, which sounds like a good thing on the face of it, but actually direct 'audience participation' isn't necessarily always a good thing at all. Obviously we want a population who feel engaged with the political process, but that doesn't necessarily mean they should expect to be directly interfering with it on a day to day basis, and demanding that it bends to every whim that each of them individually feels ought to be 'popular'. Elected representatives do have to get on with their job - they are elected to represent the best interests of their constituents, and that does sometimes mean having to make decisions that not everyone likes . You can engage with a Shakespeare play, and feel invested in it and emotionally part of it, without having to engage in constant 'audience participation' shouts demanding that Hamlet does a cheery song and dance routine instead of a soliloquy.

What we should have is a serious and thoughtful play, and that is what many of the performers on the political stage have been trying to get on with doing. Unfortunately, a large and vocal (and apparently expanding) chunk of the audience, fresh from their game show armchairs, seem determined to turn it into Panto, because they think Panto is much more 'fun'. A few of the performers are egging them on, too, so that they can get themselves the leading roles even though they aren't remotely suited to performing in the kind of serious and thoughtful production that running a country ought really to entail. We should have 'To be. or not to be....', but what we are getting is 'He's behind you!'. We should have Olivier and Burton, but instead we're getting the Chuckle Brothers and Biggins. As Foreign Secretary.

Perhaps a big part what has changed is the science of manipulation. It's no accident that game show back stories are presented in the way they are, with the emotional music and the neatly placed sniff of 'genuine' emotion as the contestant talks about what's gone wrong in their life and how winning this will solve it all for them. It's all very carefully constructed according to years of very detailed research about how to make people invest emotionally into something (so that they pick up those phones and get voting, keep watching the show, keep buying the records, and keep the lovely money pouring in). Likewise, politics has become far more sophisticated in the way it uses emotional appeal to attract supporters. They use it because it works, of course - they know it works, and you can't take that knowledge away.

Anyone who stops trying to use it now will inevitably disappear, and there will always be someone unscrupulous using it in a way that is designed to promote their extreme emotional view because they know they can (even though it may make no real sense as a way to deal with the real problems faced by the world). Not everyone seeking political power and advantage has nothing but the most noble of intentions, unfortunately (and not everyone is scrutinising what they are saying to see whether that is the case) - it has always been thus, of course, but at the moment they have particularly potent weapons to employ gain the advantage (and they do have an advantage - they know that what they are saying doesn't have to make any sense, but just has to be emotionally appealing). Those who do have genuine intentions and genuinely sensible ideas have to overcome that emotional clamour, knowing that their facts and logic are still likely to be seen as 'boring' anyway.

The Panto stars are now playing us, and they have the carefully researched methodology to allow them to do it very effectively indeed. They are drawing people in. They are working their emotions, because they know exactly how to get the reaction they want from at least enough people to make the gang shouts build up until they can claim that it's almost everyone doing it (which it never is, of course). They're getting the crowd to shout down the thoughtful soliloquy with a frenzy of meaningless but enthusiastically noisy 'Oh no it isn't!', 'Oh yes it is!'.

Bums on seats, old loves, bums on seats.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Solving Diving And Other Football Cheating

OK, so I've not posted for a little while, and so much has happened in the political world. It's hard to know where to start (which is partly why I haven't for a while!), so I'll start outside that world altogether. This is an issue that's been getting on my nerves for a very long time, so I thought I'd start here.

It should be no shock to anyone that there's a great deal of cheating in football. We're not just talking about that odd bit of 'overacting' when a foul has occurred, though that is obviously bad enough. There is also the issue of reacting to things that have not even happened - things like lifting feet up in the air and falling over, arms raised and mouth open in appeal to the officials, when TV replays show that no contact whatsoever has occurred. Perhaps even worse than that is feigning contact to the face off the ball. And then there's the whole issue of screaming in the faces of officials, attempting to bully them into submission. It not only prevents many people from enjoying the game, it sets a bad example to others - whether they like it or not, football players are very important role models in our society, and there's nothing we can do to stop that from being the case.

Let's not beat about the bush here - cheating in football is rife, and cheats are prospering from it on a regular basis. This can't be right, and it can't go on - radical action needs to be taken to address the problem. These are things that are already against both the rules and the spirit of the game, but the entire sport is being ruined by them. It is clearly something that is not only being accepted by clubs, but encouraged and coached by them from an early age. It has to stop.

Whenever the issue is brought up, it seems to be quickly swept under the carpet, and nothing really happens. Mention technology (we have that kind of stuff now, you know!), and a chorus of 'but the flow of the game' quickly ensues. Sorry, but nuts to the flow of the game, to an extent anyway. The game does already stop and start, especially around the times we are talking about here, and a bit more stopping and starting to consult the technology is really not going to ruin anything. It took many years just to get the football authorities to agree that maybe, in top class games where there's plenty of money around to fund it, we could use actually technology to see whether the ball has crossed the goal line - aside from any other alleged issues, if ever proof were needed that the football authorities are not fit for purpose, that was it.

There is an issue before we get to there, though - that of simple discipline and respect. Any follower of Rugby Union, for example, will know that the kind of behaviour exhibited in almost every single top class game of football towards officials would there result in warnings, cards and sendings off. That is how it should be - the officials ('sir', on the field of play), and their decisions, should be respected, even if you believe them to be incorrect. That doesn't mean that no decision can be questioned in any way - as in rugby, the captain should be able to respectfully request a clarification, but surrounding the referee, screaming in his face (or across the pitch, for that matter) should be considered unacceptable. I believe that rules to that effect exist in football, but they are simply not being applied. There is somehow a visible assumption of 'player power' that needs to be dealt with, and it really wouldn't take long to do. It would only take one or two weeks of teams ending up with 4 or 5 players sent off for dissent or disrespect towards officials for that problem to end altogether. There is no reason not to do it, as far as I can see. Get on with it - the petulance is ruining the game.

Now on to technology. In top class games, there are cameras everywhere, recording every move (including more or less everything 'off the ball') in high definition detail, and often with camera capable of giving detailed slow motion playback. Why aren't we using them? To use Rugby Union as an example again, it is possible - you can have an official watching playback in communication with the referee on the field (including while play continues), and you can play back replays at full speed and slow motion to officials on the field via big screens. Why aren't we doing it?

The 'but it stops play' argument really doesn't apply, in my opinion. What I would propose is that the on-field referee (who always has the ultimate decision, of course) can choose to review replays at any time he (or she) chooses to, stopping play if they deem it necessary (there are rules for restarting play in all circumstances, of course). Further than that, though, they should be given direction that they should strongly consider reviewing a reply if they are considering any kind of card (in other words, they don't have to, but they have to be really sure of what they saw if they don't) - that would soon stamp out the habit of trying to get opponents carded by diving and overacting. On top of that, the official watching the footage should be able to alert the referee at any time to any foul play that they have seen anywhere on the field. That will, of course, cause play to be stopped - so it should, and it would be an end to getting away with things behind the back of the officials.

This kind of technology is being used regularly in Rugby Union at the top level, and it has made a massive improvement to the game, in my opinion. I think it is fair to say that, regardless of complaints, dives and other histrionics and innocence-pleading by players, decisions made are almost always absolutely correct. Of course, there is still the capacity for human error, but you can't possibly remove that altogether. You certainly can improve the facilities available for those who have to make the decisions, to give them the maximum chance of making the right call. Has it slowed the flow of the game down? Well, a little, perhaps, but that sacrifice has been well worth it overall.

One final issue where football could learn from Rugby Union. The 'sin bin'. The idea that a yellow card means something - 10 minutes off the field, and your team down by a player for the duration. Not only would it help to stamp out foul play, it would also, I think, be of huge benefit to the players and teams themselves. It would see an end to things like the sometimes frivolous card issuing by referees wanting to stamp their authority of the game early on (and the huge effect that that can have on tournaments with card accumulation rules, for example). In combination with the checking of video footage, it would make sure that even yellow cards are actually fair and justified, and only given because they are fully deserved. Surely that is in the interests of everybody?

Football is, as is often said, a beautiful game. Currently, though, it is being constantly damaged by the inability of its authorities to get a grasp on the issue of cheating and ill-discipline. You can't blame the players for trying to make the most of what they are being allowed to get away with - it is their living, after all, and they are professionals. They are always going to do as much as they can get away with to win. It is a failure of regulation. Solving it really isn't terribly difficult - most of the facilities required are more or less in place, and the rest of it is just a willingness to actually do something to sort this kind of stuff out. Let's stop messing about and get on with it.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

How do we solve the #Brexit divisions?

So the dust has settled to an extent on the Brexit vote, and we are where we are. Now that that referendum battle is over and the campaigns are no longer trying to push their points home in the same way, hopefully a somewhat clearer picture of what it all means, and the choices we now have, should be emerging for people.

What is clear is that a decision was made, but that it was not a clear decision about the way forward, and nor was it the kind of clear margin of victory that could be said to reflect the 'settled will' of a 'large majority' of people. It was a very close result - almost half of the people who voted did not vote for the declared result. That is creating huge divisions. Aside from it driving the kind of chaos we are seeing in the two largest political parties, it is also creating a situation where some parts of the different 'sides' are becoming entrenched and radicalised to resist each other almost at all costs. That is really not a healthy situation for us to be in as a democracy, and we really need to find a way of getting through this.

Either side telling the other to 'put up or shut up' is not the answer. Those saying that we should simply have a parliamentary vote to override the referendum result (without an election) are, I believe, wrong, but so equally, I think, are those saying 'we've had the vote now we must just do it'. We don't even know what the 'it' is that we are supposed to be doing - there were many competing Brexit visions, and many different reasons expressed for voting to leave the EU. The binary option offered did not actually make a decision about what the people felt that the future should look like. You cannot simply ignore 48% of the population and drag the country out of the EU against their will, particularly without even knowing what you are doing. It is far too large a majority to just ignore. At the same time, of course, you cannot ignore the 52% who voted to leave either. We can't pretend the referendum didn't happen, and nor can we just keep holding the same referendum until we get the 'correct' result.

We are now in a situation where the country is split pretty much down the middle, and we have to find a way of dealing with that. The only way, in my opinion, is to do so democratically, in a way that really gives the people a realistic choice of the alternative visions of the future. I have already, in a previous post, mentioned the need for a General Election, and my opinion on that still very much stands. We might well be better to go even further than that, though, now that the precedent has been set for this particular issue to be specifically decided by a referendum of the public.

There are three problems with the initial referendum, as I see it:
1. It only asked part of the question that needs to be answered.
2. The result is so close that it really doesn't demonstrate any kind of 'settled majority decision'.
3. The campaign was so confused, and riddled with half-truths and downright lies, that the public can't possibly be said to have all made an 'informed decision'.

In the wake of that (knowing what we know now, so to speak) aside from the entrenched groups each telling the other where to stick themselves, there are also some people who are changing their minds. We can't assume that they are all now deciding to change from 'Leave' to 'Remain', either - there are some remain voters saying we should now leave, and some of those might decide to change their vote accordingly in a future decision making process.

This is such a massive decision for the country, with such huge implications for the future, that we really can't afford to go steaming ahead on the basis of assumptions about what a single snapshot vote means in that context (and without knowing exactly what direction we are going to try to go in).

So, what else can we do? How can we heal this rift in society, and make a clear democratic decision about exactly what we are going to do, or at least what we are going to try to negotiate? Well, we do have the General Election option, of course, but that doesn't necessarily completely solve the problem either (especially since so much of our political world now seems to be in meltdown anyway). So we get to the idea of 'EU ref II' - that's an option I had really rejected, to be honest, since I don't think re-running the referendum until I get the result I want is either reasonable or democratic, and I don't see how re-running the referendum would help to either heal the division or solve the problems we've been left with.

However, having seen where we have got to, and thought about it further, I think there is a possibility. While I don't think that the first referendum didn't produce a definitive majority vote that denoted the 'settled will of the people', it did certainly prove that there is so much dissatisfaction with the EU that about half of the country is more than willing to at least strongly consider leaving (even if they have changed their personal decision as things have emerged since the vote). That is obviously extremely significant, even if it doesn't conclusively prove that 'most people really want to leave'. Now we really have to explore the decision further, I think, in a democratic way, and there is a way of doing that via a different kind of referendum that should produce a result that really defines a way forward, that gives all the different views an opportunity to be expressed, and that I think should allow a result that people will be much more able to accept as a firm democratic decision (even if they disagree with it).

That option is to hold a second referendum on a multiple option, preference-expressed basis. Rather than a binary Yes/No choice, a choice between the main different options for Leaving or Remaining, such that people could express their first preference, second preference, and so on, via some variety of STV-like (I don't want to define it too precisely, obviously). This, I think, should be done to determine a negotiating position before triggering Article 50, rather than simply be a post-negotiation 'do we accept this or not' scenario.

Without wishing to define the Leave position for them in advance, there could, for example, be several clear options offered, perhaps along the lines of:
1. Leave The EU, but remain within the Free Trade area (accepting costs and Free Movement).
2. Leave The EU and FT area, negotiating a separate broad agreement without Free Movement.
3. Leave The EU and Free Trade area, and negotiate any deals specifically and individually.

People could vote for the preferred option first, and so on. Obviously there could be other options, including the option to leave jurisdiction of the ECHR - those were just examples for illustration purposes (it doesn't have to be limited to 3 options).

There could also be different Remain visions offered, remembering that this is about choosing a negotiating position. For example:
1. Remain in the EU under the current terms.
2. Remain in the EU and join the Eurozone (unlikely to be popular, but let's answer the question!)
3. Remain in the EU ONLY on condition of certain reforms being agreed by the EU.

This could not only give us an initial choice of negotiating position via the usual system of 'knocking out' less popular options and going to 2nd preference votes until one reaches the threshold for success, but could also give us defined future 'fall back' negotiating positions (assuming the ballot results were all stored in detail, which should certainly be possible).

Let us say, for example, that Remain option 3 was the initial winner - the UK government would then go to the EU and say tell them that we had voted to remain on condition that you are prepared to negotiate out these particular kinds of reform (with specific regard to the UK at least). That would put the ball in in the EU's court, and leave them to decide just how much they want us to stay (with the added pressure of it having been the public who have spoken directly, rather than just the 'government of the day') - it might obviously be that others would be supportive of the kind of reforms we might be talking about anyway, and would see that as an opportunity both to gain the reform that they want and to head off their own Eurosceptic lobbies. It may be, however, that the EU isn't forthcoming about those reforms - at that point, that option being 'off the table' (and therefore 'knocked out' by default), then those votes would be re-allocated according to their next preferences.

Were that option to be offered, I strongly suspect that some would vote for it as a first option and have a second option of 'Leave', while others would vote for that as a first option but have a second option of 'Remain anyway' (so Remain option 1, as listed above). The balance of those votes, and re-allocation on that basis, would tell the government where they need to be going in the next part of their negotiation (obviously, subsequent preference results would have to remain 'secret' so that the EU wouldn't be faced with a request for reform negotiations knowing that the next step would be 'we will still stay anyway'!).

Of course, there is every likelihood that hardened 'Leavers' would vote for their favourite 'Leave' option, followed by their second favourite, and so on. Same with hardened 'Remainers'. In a way that is the point. If the original referendum campaign shows us anything, it is that many people are 'on the fence', and undecided about the best way forward. It's entirely possible that a number of people would have a first choice on one side and a second on the other, rather than being committed 'Remainers' or 'Leavers'. That is really important, and it is vital, I think, that that group is able to express their views in a way that isn't just a forced choice between two absolutes that they might not want to support 'no matter what'.

This might all seem a bit of a strange suggestion, of course - to have a referendum without a single, definitive result that is announced the following day and that doesn't ever change. Perhaps it is, but it does allow for the people to decide a very clear set of negotiating positions and guidelines that can be followed as a negotiating process. It prevents the need to have referendum upon referendum as negotiations produce different circumstances. It also allows for each option to have its own individual 'campaign' that puts forward its argument on a clear and consistently agreed basis, which should make the debate a whole lot clearer than the one we've just had, when it was clear that nobody on either side really agreed with anybody else's ultimate vision (even on the far more coherent 'Remain' side, there were different expressed angles on 'reform', but it's quite clear now that the 'Leave' side had all kinds of different competing visions of the future).

Perhaps most importantly it would, I think, allow a way forward for the country that is based on a democratically expressed variety of views that would be proportionally taken into account, and one after another as a process if they become unachievable. It would actually answer the question in a way that is far less divisive. For example, a 'Remainer' who believes in reform (and chose option 3) is less likely to find it hard to accept a decision to leave if their option has been explored and found impossible, even if, on balance, they still wanted to remain anyway. Likewise, a 'Leaver' might well find Remaining more palatable if it included a serious attempt at putting some real pressure on the EU for some serious reform. Of course, some will ultimately end up unhappy with the decision, as it always the case in a democracy, but this time it would be a real decision that sets the way forward on the basis of more than a simplistic (and potentially unrealistic) binary choice.

It would be, of course, something of a radical departure from the way things are normally done in UK politics. We are where we are, though, and perhaps we need to look at some more radical ideas to get us out of the current situation of being a thoroughly divided country from top to bottom, with no real idea of where we are heading, or how to get there, or how to even begin to heal the divisions we've managed to produce over this whole debate.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

So.... #Brexit ...what happens now? A timetable.

The UK has voted to leave the European Union. I disagree with that decision, of course, but I am a democrat, and my democratic principles mean that I do not think that we should seek to overturn the result by any kind of undemocratic means. Quite the opposite - we should now engage in a democratic process to decide where we go from here.

The UK is currently in a difficult position, and is also putting the EU in a difficult position. It is quite clear that there was never any kind of agreed coherent Brexit plan on the table from the leave campaign - nothing the UK can go to its current partners with and say 'this is what we are intending to do now we have voted to leave'. We are also, as a result of this vote, in a position of political flux, in the two largest parties in particular, and in a state of financial instability due to uncertainty, and in a state of constitutional crisis, with various parties talking about a break up of the UK (and the different Brexit implications for the various different parts of the UK). We need to bring some clarity to all of this somehow, and quickly.

It seems to me that we have to set a clear, unambiguous timetable that allows differing views on Brexit (or not) to be put to the people via a democratic process. Some have talked of a second referendum, but personally I don't think that now is the time to re-run that divisive battle. It is clear that at least some people are changing their minds, and it is clear that some of the 'promises' and statements from the leave camp are unravelling, but the fact remains that the result is what it is, and we have to now move that process on. having had our 'In/Out referendum', we need to get beyond that simplistic vote and look at the details of what kind of Brexit we are ultimately going to try to have (based firmly in the reality of what kind of Brexit is actually possible, of course!). We need to get down to the nitty-gritty, and then let the people decide how to proceed from here.

Of course, that is made slightly more complicated in a sense by the two biggest parties having an unprecedented simultaneous leadership crisis. In another sense, though, that is an opportunity. The various candidates should have to plan and lay out their own Brexit visions as part of their internal party campaigns, and there is no doubt that that will be the big issue in their campaigns. They must put forward their ideas and plan, and let their parties decide which plan they want presented to the people. Other parties have to develop their detailed plans too, of course. We need a period for that to happen, and we need to make it clear to the EU, who are currently in the dark about what we propose as a country and when we are planning to trigger the Article 50 process to actually begin formal discussions to leave, that that is what we are doing.

So, by way of a timetable, I would propose something like this:

1. Over the summer, broadly in line with the timetable already set out by the Conservative Party over their leadership campaign, we have a period where all political parties can sit down, detail their plans, discuss and debate them internally, and choose new leaders to present them (and ultimately negotiate them with the EU) where they feel it necessary. By the end of the usual party conference season, all parties should have their own plans fully detailed, confirmed and in place, ready to present to the EU for negotiation when Article 50 is triggered, and ready to present to the people of the UK.

2. At that point, parliament should be dissolved, and a General Election should be held - perhaps in late October or early November. The date of that should be formally set now, so that there is no possible messing about later down the line. At that General Election, the various different Brexit plans will obviously form the basis of debate, and the people can choose between them at the ballot box. The people can then decide what vision of Brexit the UK is going to pursue with the EU through the 2 years of post Article 50 negotiation.

3. After that election, a new government can be formed according to the usual democratic process. After a brief pause to allow for the government to be fully formed, and for anything like coalition talks to take place, plans can then be moved forward. That government should then be the ones to begin the process of triggering Article 50 (or not, of course, if that is the platform that they have been elected on), and that government will then lead negotiations with the EU on the basis of the plans they have presented.

4. Given the timescales of the previous parts of the process, and to allow the new government to be firmly established and any necessary parliamentary processes to be followed to allow notification of the triggering of Article 50, it would then make sense to me to set a formal date of 31st of December 2016 for the formal triggering of Article 50, such that the UK would then formally leave the European Union on 1st January 2019. Those intended dates can be provided in advance to the EU, so they know exactly what is coming and when, allowing them to put in place any plans they need to for negotiations and so on (and to give a level of certainty for markets, other international partners, etc.).

Setting that timetable now would give clarity for everyone. Every party will know that they have a set amount of time to finalise their plans, and the people will know how and when they will be making their decision between them. The EU, and indeed the markets and so on, will also have clarity - they won't know what plans we are going to put forward until the end of that process, of course, but they will know when that will happen, and how it will happen. It would give everyone a measure of certainty that they just don't currently have in the UK's situation of apparent political meltdown. It will allow a little oil to be poured on the current troubled waters, so to speak, to just calm things down a little from the current level of general panic - not an end to the uncertainty about what will ultimately happen, but at least a measure of certainty about how and when the critical decisions will be made.

As a final note, the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has already stated that, in line with the long-standing pro-EU stance of the party, the Lib Dems will stand on a platform of not Brexiting (and in the context of the timetable outlined here, therefore presumably simply not trigger Article 50 at all if elected). That is something I fully support - while I would not support any kind of 'trickery' to block the referendum-expressed will of the people, I see no problem with giving them another democratic opportunity to decide that, having seen the full plans and what it will all mean (and that will inevitably have been stripped of some of the wilder rhetoric and confusion of the leave referendum campaign), they want to remain in the European Union.

This is such a huge decision for the people of the UK. It decides the whole context of the future of the country. They need to be absolutely sure that they want to do it, and if they do want to do it they have to decide how they want to do it before the politicians go ahead and get on with it. We all need some clarity amidst the current confusion, so that we all know exactly how and when that is all going to be dealt with. I think that is in the best interests of the country, and in the best interests of every voter and every party, whether they supported Leaving or Remaining.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

I want my country back. #wearethe48

You don't have to be a racist or an idiot to have voted leave, of course, you just have to have allowed yourself to be misled by those who are. That is, sadly, what has happened - people have been misled. Duped. Lied to.

The leave camp lies are already falling apart, and it is already clear that they have no plan whatsoever, and no clue about what's even maybe supposed to happen next. They never did. For many of them it was never supposed to really happen  - for the likes of Boris it was a Tory party power play ruse. For others it was all completely irrational 'make us Great again' pseudo-Imperial nonsense anyway (and then there were the actual racists - seeing the likes of Britain First, the BNP and the National Front heartily celebrating should be enough of a flashing early warning light to show that we've probably not done the right thing here).

This was always all about the internal conflict in the Tory party, and appeasing the hardline right wingers to keep them off Cameron's back, while keeping UKIP at bay electorally (and the Tory referendum promise itself was based on the polls-led assumption that the Tories weren't going to win a majority in 2015, so they'd never have to actually do it). Cameron gave the Farages of this world an apparent veneer of serious political legitimacy, and the perfect opportunity to mislead the public (particularly those who wanted to have a go at 'the establishment') into thinking they would be getting something that was never, ever going to be possible, and that was never, ever really on the table.
The problem with the racism angle, of course, is not that half of the UK is actually racist, but that the racists now believe that half of the UK agree with them, and are fully behind their agenda to 'send them all home'. They are both overjoyed and emboldened by the result, and we're only just seeing the beginnings of the manifestations of that. There are already widespread reports of immigrants, particularly brown-skinned and/or Muslim ones for some strange reason, being shouted at in the street and told to pack their bags and go home on the basis that 'we voted out'. That is what this has done, and what it was always going to do.

It is only going to get worse as those truly racist xenophobic types realise their new Whitey Utopia, Land of Plenty, 'Great again' Britain, free from the shackles of 'foreigners', and rich and wonderful for everyone (everyone truly' British') like it was in the good ole days (as if it ever was), was all a load of complete rubbish, and that what we are actually facing is just a deeply uncertain economic future, with less money to spend, a less beneficial international working relationships, and pretty much the same kind of immigration anyway (unless we leave the EEA, of course, which would be nothing short of an act of total economic suicide). The only really likely drop in immigration from Brexit will be caused by the lowering of pull factors on the basis of a crashed and screwed economy and the increased number of emboldened, open racists roaming the streets looking for 'the other' to abuse (or worse). I predict that they won't suddenly see the light when that realisation dawns, either - they'll just blame the EU for not giving us extra-extra-special preferential treatment and terms in the negotiations, and the 'immigrants' who haven't gone home yet when we've voted to tell them to (because that is what the racists think that everybody has done). 'Bloody foreigners'.

The warnings were being delivered right the way through the campaign. The evidence of what was likely to happen was there. Unfortunately, it was all just dismissed by many as 'scaremongering' and 'bias' (often just because 'stick it to Cameron, man'), while the outright lies of the leave campaign (already falling apart within hours of the result) were swallowed hook, line and sinker. Scotland is a great example - people said repeatedly that leaving the EU would mean Scotland leaving the UK. That was just 'scaremongering' because 'they already just had a referendum so they can't have another'...but now they are starting the legislative process to allow for a second referendum on it. That £350 million the remain campaign said didn't exist...turns out it didn't exist. That end to immigration that the remain people said wouldn't exist...nope, that doesn't exist either. 'Scaremongering'.

The entire leave campaign was lies. I've seen some spin and twisted truth and so on in politics over the years, but never anything at all remotely on the scale of the leave campaign. It was total, blatant dishonesty from beginning to end. There are elements within the Remain campaign who have to take their share of responsibility too, of course - there were some things that were over-emphasised, some figures that were dubiously interpreted, and some things that were spun and twisted, as is sadly all too common in modern politics. The official Remain campaign was not a good campaign, and petty nonsense like the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition refusing to share any platform with anyone else, putting his domestic party politics above the future of the country, certainly didn't help. Still, this was not on the scale of what the leave lot were up to.

As much as leave voters would like to tell themselves that they've done it for really sound reasons and it will all probably work out in the end if we all shut up and get on with it, I'm sorry, but it won't. People should have listened to the experts, and looked at the evidence. There was no sound, logical, reasoned, evidence-based reason for doing something as drastic as leaving the EU. No reason that stood up to any kind of scrutiny, or held water. None whatsoever - not a single argument put forward by the leave campaign made any sense at all as a sensible reason to leave the European Union. Of course, though, we're all 'fed up with experts'.

And as for that 'well the decision's made so put up with it and pull together' kind of stuff going around towards anybody who is complaining in any way at the result...whatever reasons they thought they had despite all the warnings and information that they were given (and there's lots of 'but why weren't we told this before' flying about from regretful leave voters - you were, you just refused to listen), these people have screwed my country, and they have screwed the future for my children. While I will certainly never, ever sink to the level of some of the worst elements of those celebrating the result with their vile personal (and other) abuse (and worse), I'm not going to sit back, shrug my shoulders, and say nothing about it either. I'm going to be silent about what has happened, what is happening, and what is now likely to happen as a result, and I will be actively involved in trying to salvage something from the situation we've been left in, and I would urge anyone else (even those who don't normally 'get involved' in things like 'politics') to do the same.

In that context,  I am overjoyed at the speed with which my party leader, the leader of the only united UK-wide openly pro-EU party, has reacted to confirm that the party will be standing on an openly pro-EU platform at the next general election (whenever that might be):

"The Liberal Democrats will fight the next general election with a pledge to take Britain back into the EU, claiming the referendum result was secured on a campaign of lies.

Voters backed Brexit in a “howl of anger” at out-of-touch politicians, but must be given the chance to rethink the decision, according to the Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron.

The cheap slogans of Ukip’s Nigel Farage and Tories Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are unravelling, and the public will feel betrayed when promises on the NHS and immigration are not delivered, the party said.

Since the shock referendum result, the Lib Dems have recorded thousands of voters signing up to become members."

I would obviously be concerned, as a democrat, if we were seeking to simply ignore the referendum vote and try to block leaving the EU on an undemocratic basis, but standing at a general election on a pro-EU platform in order to secure a democratic mandate for retaining the UK's membership of the EU is absolutely the right thing to do. When all around are losing their heads, and the two main UK-wide parties are imploding into their own private civil wars, Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats are providing the kind of solid, decisive, united leadership that the country, and the 48%, so desperately need.

This is the time when the 48% have to stand together, and stand together with those who have been duped by the outrageous lies of the leave campaign. If you are one of those people, whatever vote you cast in the referendum, who now believes that the people have made the wrong decision, and that we should fight to preserve our future within the European Union, even if you are not normally a 'joiner' and don't normally do politics', now is the time to take a stand and join us (as over 2,000 people have already done since the referendum was announced):

Saturday, 25 June 2016

For those complaining about people being still unhappy at the EU referendum result.

For those who are complaining about people being still unhappy at the result of the referendum.

The emergence of rampant anti-intellectualism probably worries me more deeply than anything else, when it comes down to it. There's always a level of it in society, of course, but now many people have been persuaded that it's somehow a righteous and noble way to go about making important decisions. A population will swallow almost anything if it is persuaded to act purely on knee-jerk emotion instead of stopping to think, or listen to advice from experts, or look at the evidence. It's what allows the utterly irrational to be become 'common sense' (the politics of 'yes but we all know' - the favourite debating tactic of Farage and Boris, funnily enough). That's why it has been such an important part of so many dictatorial takeovers (it's no accident that things like book burning and attacks on 'weak and subversive academics' are such a common early feature of extremist revolution). If people stop to listen and think, it's not at all hard for them to understand that 'foreign' people are actually just the same as us, for example, and that we can't really turn the clock back to the 1950s, and that the 1950s wasn't actually as great as some seem to think anyway.

If people only take a moment to look into it, they would, for example, have realised immediately that there was no '£350 million a week' to spend on the NHS (as the leave campaigners began to admit within hours of the result) - that the money didn't exist, and that it was an outright lie (even though it was painted on the side of a bus, posters, etc. - it was a shameless, barefaced lie). The only reason they got away with it was that they kept repeating it over and over so that it sunk in as 'yes but everyone knows', and kept telling people that listening to experts was a bad thing (and effectively that they were being both 'unpatriotic' and 'cowardly' if they didn't listen to the leave campaign, and the leave campaign alone). The leave campaign was entirely build on lies, but enough people were persuaded not to question them that it was able to succeed. Even the TV media, in it's attempts to remain 'balanced', failed to adequately call them out on such constantly repeated lies.

When people are persuaded that stopping and thinking and listening are a bad way to go about things, that's a really, really serious problem.

To illustrate it with a simple quote from a well known film, 'So that is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause'. That is how it always happens.

The people of the UK (well, about 52% of them, and that's enough to have a majority) have been sold nothing more than a series of lies. Normally a country like the UK, with a free press, decent education standards, etc., would wake up to that quite quickly (before it happens, in fact), but with the growth of the anti-intellectualism element there's a really good chance that not only will they not, but that they will be easily persuaded to blame 'foreigners' and 'subversive elements' for anything that might appear to change between the leave campaign promises and the reality that emerges.

These are very, very dark and dangerous times. I make no apologies whatsoever for still being very, very concerned about our future.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Rhetoric has consequences, and we cannot stand by and do nothing.

The last few days have been truly horrible in so many ways. It has been one thing after another. The horrific events in Orlando, followed by the tragic murder of one of the UK's elected Members of Parliament, who was going about her normal daily business of serving constituents, as so many MPs, Assembly Members, Councillors and others do on a daily basis. 

I didn't know Jo Cox, but I know several MPs and other elected officials. It could so easily have been any of them. Staff and party activists, too - those who are out talking to people in the street, or knocking doors, or working in MP offices, or assisting or waiting at MP surgeries. I've met and chatted with many, from many parties, many times. It could so easily have been someone I've met. It could so easily have been one of my friends. It could so easily have been me, for that matter. All it might have taken would be to knock on the wrong door, on the wrong day, with the wrong message - that is a risk that all of us who are engaged in political campaigning take every day.

This is where the ever increasing rhetoric of hatred towards 'politicians' and the 'elite', and the 'political class' from the extreme fringes of politics has now brought us. On both sides - let's not pretend that this particular thing is entirely restricted to the right - look at what has been happening recently on the leftmost fringes, too, with the rhetoric being aimed towards the 'political elite' of the 'establishment'. Not just political disagreement, openly and even robustly expressed in a democracy (between human beings who can then go and have a chat/pint together, despite their different political views), but real, demonising hatred towards the whole group, regardless of the individual - that is what our public discourse has increasingly started to become. The language of hate. The language of uprising and revolution. The language of dehumanisation towards any who stand in the path of our ultimate victory, even if that is not what those using it really intend.

It seems that the attacker was mentally ill, but that's the thing with the rhetoric of hate, wherever it is aimed - it influences people who might not be able to see it as mere rhetoric and hyperbole, and not to be acted upon 'in real life'. That is why we always need to be so careful about such things.
A family is now without a wife and mother. Until this moment, though, and the sudden realisation of humanity that it has brought, to so many people she would just have been one of those 'politicians' from that 'elite' 'political class' - those people who are so often so hated.

Think about that.

As Alex Brooker pointed out last night on The Last Leg, we often moderate what we say in front of children, because we know they are vulnerable. In other words, we know they might take what we say as mere rhetoric far more literally than we intend it. We have to consider that there are also vulnerable adults in the world with, for example, mental health problems (and apparently the perpetrator in this tragic case is one such, though we don't know any details of what those were or how they might have effected their judgement) - those who might take what we say very literally, and consider it appropriate to act upon them in a way that we had not intended.

We ALL have a responsibility for this - not just 'politicians' and the media, but all of us who discuss these issues, comment on social media, and so on. The 'keyboard warriors' (and I don't exclude myself from that - I spend a great deal of time doing 'online' things as well as more 'active' things 'in the real world') have to understand that what they are doing is not some isolated little thing that disappears into the ether, not to be taken seriously, and not to be seen by people who might misunderstand or take things too literally.

We need, as a country, to do better by our 'politicians'. We need to remember that they are human beings, even if they are human beings that we disagree with vehemently. That is down to all of us, and includes not only 'keyboard warriors' and the like, but our media, and our politicians themselves - they can't absolve themselves from the responsibility for the type of rhetoric that they have been using against each other. It all has an influence.

Of course, it's not just the 'anti-political' rhetoric that we've seen on the rise recently - it's the more and more radical and angry poison that has been pouring out as we draw near to such an important decision about the future of the United Kingdom. It is the language of hate towards 'the other' that has become increasingly a part of our 'mainstream' political discourse. It's a spiral of rhetoric being whipped up deliberately by certain politicians and media outlets to further their campaign. This very week we have Farage's already infamous 'Breaking Point' poster being proudly unveiled - an almost carbon copy of German Nazi party propaganda images that has now been reported to the police for inciting racial hatred. This is the kind of tactic that some of our politicians at the fringes are using to further their aims, but those 'fringes' have somehow now been accepted as 'mainstream' and 'acceptable', and have opened a can of worms that even they are not able to control.

Alex Massie puts it very well in his Spectator blog:

"When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’

When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.

Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen."

This morning the accused gave his name in court as 'Death to traitors, freedom for Britain'.
Think about that.
This is where our current political discourse has now brought us. Perhaps we are, in a sense, at 'breaking point', or at least at a turning point. A turning point that will decide the future direction of the country, and that is a future that worries me deeply, particularly as someone who has spent some time studying history. As I have said previously, in particular in my 'Refugee Language - A Warning From History' post, if we do not understand history we are doomed to repeat it. Ask yourself this question:

How did a cultured, civilised nation like Germany elect a group like Hitler's Nazis?

Personally, I cannot answer it better than with the words of Michael Rosen

"I sometimes fear that 
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress 
worn by grotesques and monsters 
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. 

Fascism arrives as your friend. 
It will restore your honour, 
make you feel proud, 
protect your house, 
give you a job, 
clean up the neighbourhood, 
remind you of how great you once were, 
clear out the venal and the corrupt, 
remove anything you feel is unlike you...

It doesn't walk in saying, 
"Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

Think about those words. 
Then think about these words, from Hermann Goring:

"...the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
Really think about them - in the context of where we are in the UK today, and in the context of what some of our politicians are saying and the kind of tactics they are employing, and in the context of the kind of rhetoric that they are using to attract the popular vote from those who feel disenfranchised, worried and fearful about their futures (mostly those who have suffered most from the economic hardships of recent years). "It works the same way in any country." We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that we are somehow 'different' and 'better' than the German people were in the 1930s. We are not. We can have our emotions manipulated in the same way, and we can start down the same political path as a country. We need to be aware of that.

I have, I confess, spent parts of the last few days thinking 'what's the point?', and I know I'm not the only one. Indeed, I have asked myself whether I have reached a 'breaking point' where I feel I can do no more, as what I believe in gets more and more submerged beneath the apparent tsunami of fear and hatred. All around me I see the UK descending into something that I thought, or hoped, that I'd never see. All around I see a rise in extremism from the political fringes - a return to the mainstream of the kind of opinion and rhetoric that had previously long since disappeared to the very fringes of our politics, where it was derided and laughed at, and treated as an irrelevance. A hateful kind of politics, where fear is something to be positively exploited for votes - be it fear of  'the other', or the fear of the 'elite', or fear of 'disaster', and where the political ends seem to justify any means whatsoever. This is not something that I think has been entirely limited to one side of recent debates, even though the fear being promoted by one side has such particularly dark and and hateful elements and potential connotations. 

There is a point, though. There is always a point, and it probably best explained in simple terms by this quote from John Stuart Mill:

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing."
It is very important that even this should be qualified in the current context, I think. It isn't about 'bad men' - humanity is not so simple that there are 'good people' and 'bad people'. It is about bad things happening to the world if we stand by and let them happen without trying to intervene. It's about human beings who may be misguided, or who may be wrong, but who are not 'inhuman' or 'subhuman', and who don't deserve to be treated as such, no matter how wrong or dangerous we believe their ideas might be. It is all too easy to respond to hate with hate, and we have to avoid doing that. We now know the possible consequences all too well.
Even if we ultimately fail in our endeavours, we cannot just stand by and do nothing. We cannot, so to speak, fiddle away while Rome burns (I'll leave out the questions of historical accuracy of that specific 'event' - you know what I mean, I'm sure). We must stand up to hate, and we must stand up to the promotion of fear as a political device, and we must at every opportunity point out what is wrong with what they are doing and saying, but we must do so in the full realisation that those we oppose are also human beings who must be treated as such - to do otherwise would be to give in to the very thing that we are trying to defeat. We must stand up to lies with truth, and we must stand up to emotive and reactionary rhetoric with a calm presentation of evidence. We must continue do so, even if nobody listens or finds our message emotionally attractive, and even if we always feel like we are swimming against the tide. 
As Diane Grant put it, "It's better to walk alone than with a crowd going in the wrong direction." I do feel like the UK is currently going in a very, very wrong direction politically at the moment via the politics of fear and hate, and I will continue to stand, as calmly and rationally as I can, against that, even if I am doing so alone, and even if nobody is listening, and even if I am doing so ultimately in vain. I know that I'm not quite alone even if it feels like the opposition are much stronger at the moment, and I hope that ultimately it will not be in vain - only time will tell, though.

I can do no better than to finish with a few words from Brendan cox, the husband of the tragically murdered MP Jo Cox, in his moving tribute to his wife and mother of his children:
"...that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn't have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous."