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In his confirmation hearing, Barr promised that he “would not be bullied” by the president or anyone else.
On 15 January the Senate Judiciary Committee began confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, William Barr. Trump’s previous attorney general Jeff Sessions stepped down after facing repeated criticism from the president for recusing himself from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.
Ordinarily, the president might have been expected to appoint his deputy attorney general to replace Sessions, but Trump is furious with deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein because of his handling of the Mueller investigation, which has already led to criminal convictions for a number of former Trump aides. Instead, Trump appointed a loyalist, Sessions’ chief-of-staff Matthew Whittaker, as a temporary acting attorney general.
Few dispute that Barr, who served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, is qualified for the role. However, Democrats in particular are concerned by a memo Barr wrote in June in which he argued that Mueller’s investigations into whether the president attempted to obstruct justice were “fatally misconceived”.
In a Washington Post op-ed in May 2017, Barr argued that Trump had made “the right call” by firing FBI director James Comey. Given Trump’s disregard for democratic norms, Democrats are also concerned at Barr’s sweeping view of presidential authority.
During the hearing, Barr emphasised his close friendship with Mueller, calling him “Bob” and saying that he would allow the Special Counsel to finish his work unimpeded and would not limit the scope of the investigation without notifying Congress.
Barr also affirmed that the investigation was not a “witch hunt”, as the president alleges, and said that he did believe that Russia had interfered or attempted to interfere with the 2016 election. He made clear that Trump has not asked him to fire Mueller or interfere in the Special Counsel’s work and said that he would not fire Mueller at Trump’s request unless there was “good cause”. “On my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish,” he said.
Barr was less clear about how much of Mueller’s report he would make available to Congress and the general public. The report sent to the attorney general would be confidential, and Barr would then produce his own version of the report to Congress. He said that he would not allow the president to change the report before it is released, as Trump’s lawyers have suggested, but stopped short of pledging to make the full report public. He told Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, that he was committed to making us much information public as he can, “consistent with rules and regulations”.
Asked several times to justify his June memo criticising Mueller, he said that he had been “speculating” and was “writing in the dark”, without intimate knowledge of Mueller’s intentions. The point of the memo, he argued, had been to explore the potential long-term ramifications of Mueller’s possible approach to determining whether the president had obstructed justice.
The hearings were also an opportunity to quiz Barr on his policy positions, and a chance for Democratic senators eyeing potential 2020 runs to try to raise their own profile. One such senator was Cory Booker of New Jersey, who said that Barr had “written the rule book on mass incarceration”, referring to a 1992 memo titled “The Case for More Incarceration”.
Booker pointed out Barr’s previous opposition to reducing mandatory sentences and asked if Barr would commit to commissioning a study on racial bias in the criminal justice system. “I’m the only senator who lives in an inner city,” Booker said, clearly directing his comments to a broader audience. Barr stopped short of committing to the commissioning a report, but said he’d “welcome” a meeting with Booker to discuss criminal justice reform.
Several times throughout the hearing Barr justified his support for punitive sentencing as a proportionate response to America’s high crime rate in the nineties and suggested that his position had since shifted. He confirmed that he would help implement the First Step Act, passed late last year, which would reduce mandatory sentences for drug cases. He underlined, however, that he still believed that tough sentencing laws are the best way to tackle violent crime.
Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, who is also expected to run in 2020, pressed Barr on his support for a border wall. “I advocate a barrier system in some places,” Barr replied, apparently at pains to avoid the word wall.
In Barr’s opening remarks he made clear his intention to take a hard line against undocumented immigration. He refused, however, to give an indication as to whether he thought it legal for the president to declare a national emergency in order to divert disaster relief money for the wall.
Harris also asked Barr about his stance on the legalization of marijuana. Barr has said that although he personally would not have supported the legalisation of marijuana he did not intend to enforce the federal law in states that have legalized it. He added that he did not believe the current situation – in which state policy has diverged from federal policy – should be sustained, arguing that the two should be realigned.
Although Trump’s frustration with Sessions reveals that the president expects his attorney general to remain personally loyal to him, during the first day of his confirmation hearing Barr made clear that he, too, would protect the independence of his office.
Barr, who is 68, said that he had reached a stage in his career when he no longer had to worry about his “political capital”. “I’m not going to do anything that I think is wrong, and I’m not going to be bullied into doing anything that I think is wrong,” Barr said. It was a statement that both parties would no doubt support, and Barr is likely to be confirmed – if only because the Democrats are so keen to get rid of Whitaker. President Trump, however, may not be so pleased.Getty
The government warned that Remainers could thwart Brexit if it lost.
In the build-up to the Brexit vote, Theresa May and her government tried to scare Brexiteer MPs into backing her deal by warning that Brexit could otherwise be thwarted. Stories about plots by Tory pro-European former ministers like Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles to seize control of the parliamentary timetable with the help of the Speaker John Bercow were fed heavily into the Sunday and Monday papers, in an attempt to whip up fear of Remainer wreckers.
This scaremongering didn’t work – and May’s deal was rejected by 230 votes. So does this mean those Remainer MPs’ plans to control the agenda in order to control Brexit will go ahead?
Well, May has to table a “Plan B” motion on Monday, and she’s said this will be amendable. This means that other plans – a second referendum, changing the political declaration to seek Norway Plus, or extending Article 50 – have the opportunity to vie for a Commons majority when MPs come to debate and vote on May’s Plan B. Even if MPs pass changes to the deal, the withdrawal agreement is closed – it cannot be changed legally unless the EU agrees.
This doesn’t mean MPs will overturn parliamentary convention to prioritise government business over backbench business – it simply means the Prime Minister is handing MPs the opportunity to steer the next phase of Brexit by making her motion amendable.
Besides, Labour would want to be wary about overturning convention in this way. It doesn’t look like the electorate is likely to return a majority government any time soon, so MPs would probably want to be cautious about setting precedents that remove power from even a minority government’s hands so completely.
Even with the ability to steer May’s Plan B, MPs are nowhere near stopping Brexit. There’s no majority to stop Brexit – there are only small numbers backing a second referendum, let alone reversing Brexit altogether.
Yes, they could agree to extend Article 50 but EU members would have to unanimously agree to this, and they would probably only accept it if the UK needed time for something concrete, like a general election or another referendum, rather than to simply drag out discussions. There’s also a question of how long it could be extended for, considering the EU Parliament elections take place in May.
What’s more likely is no deal – or that parliament’s divided factions rally around Norway Plus and somehow get trade deal enthusiast Brexiteers and second referendum advocates onside (they currently oppose it), plus the DUP (whose Westminster leader Nigel Dodds opposes it if it means the backstop is unchanged in the withdrawal agreement). So basically hard Brexit and soft Brexit are more likely than no Brexit.Getty The past is a foreign bloc.
Parliament is deadlocked.
What happens now? That’s the question being asked after the withdrawal agreement went down to record-breaking defeat – the biggest since the 19th century and the largest in the history of modern party politics.
The first parliamentary setpiece event is in many ways the most predictable: a motion of no confidence in Theresa May’s government. Although there are circumstances in which committed Conservative Remainers and devout Conservative Brexiteers might each opt to vote with Jeremy Corbyn to trigger a fresh election, neither point has yet been reached, nor will it be reached by tomorrow.
Instead, we will be treated to the surreal and ridiculous display of Conservative MPs who just voted against the government’s flagship policy, on an issue that will define the next quarter-century, voting that they do, in fact, have confidence in May’s government.
That will have two immediate consequences. The first is that it will increase the volume from those people calling for the Labour leadership to support a fresh Brexit vote. The second is that it will make it easier for Labour MPs who fear both a no deal exit and the electoral consequences in their own constituencies if they block Brexit to vote in favour of a Brexit deal, even if it is one negotiated by Theresa May.
Although just four Labour MPs in the latter group – John Mann, Kevin Barron, Frank Field and Ian Austin – broke the Labour whip to vote for the withdrawal agreement, there are many others like them. What distinguishes that quartet is that they are either all likely to stand down or are already at odds with their local party for one reason or another: Field is currently sitting as an independent following a vote of no confidence locally.
There’s another group of Labour MPs who fear the economic consequences of no deal and the political costs of no Brexit but aren’t, for one reason or another, inclined to risk being seen in their constituencies as having “prevented an election”. These may feel, just as Labour MPs backing a second vote will, that an unsuccessful confidence motion frees them up to vote how they think best over Brexit.
It was a remarkable feat on the part of the Labour party whips to keep their rebellion at just four – but they will struggle to do so in future, and their struggles will be all the greater the closer it gets to 29 March, when the UK is set to leave the EU with or without a deal.Photo: Getty
Just three Labour MPs backed Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Plus, Frank Field.Theresa May’s Brexit deal has been rejected by the House of Commons by a record-breaking margin of 230 votes. In all, 432 MPs voted against the deal, compared to just 202 in favour.
The latter group was composed of 196 Conservatives and just six other MPs. These were three Labour MPs Ian Austin, John Mann and Sir Kevin Barron; Frank Field, the former Labour who last year lost the whip; former Liberal Democrat Stephen Lloyd; and Lady Sylvia Harmon. These last three now sit as independents.
The Noe lobby was more mixed. The 118 Conservatives who voted against the deal included both former Brexit secretaries David Davis and Dominic Raab, and the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.Tellers
Ayes: Wendy Morton (Conservative - Aldridge-Brownhills) and Iain Stewart (Conservative - Milton Keynes South)
Noes: Vicky Foxcroft (Labour - Lewisham, Deptford) and Nick Smith (Labour - Blaenau Gwent)
Nigel Adams (Conservative - Selby and Ainsty)
Bim Afolami (Conservative - Hitchin and Harpenden)
Peter Aldous (Conservative - Waveney)
Stuart Andrew (Conservative - Pudsey)
Edward Argar (Conservative - Charnwood)
Victoria Atkins (Conservative - Louth and Horncastle)
Ian Austin (Labour - Dudley North)
Mrs Kemi Badenoch (Conservative - Saffron Walden)
Harriett Baldwin (Conservative - West Worcestershire)
Stephen Barclay (Conservative - North East Cambridgeshire)
Sir Kevin Barron (Labour - Rother Valley)
Sir Henry Bellingham (Conservative - North West Norfolk)
Richard Benyon (Conservative - Newbury)
Sir Paul Beresford (Conservative - Mole Valley)
Jake Berry (Conservative - Rossendale and Darwen)
Nick Boles (Conservative - Grantham and Stamford)
Sir Peter Bottomley (Conservative - Worthing West)
Andrew Bowie (Conservative - West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)
Karen Bradley (Conservative - Staffordshire Moorlands)
Jack Brereton (Conservative - Stoke-on-Trent South)
Steve Brine (Conservative - Winchester)
James Brokenshire (Conservative - Old Bexley and Sidcup)
Robert Buckland (Conservative - South Swindon)
Alex Burghart (Conservative - Brentwood and Ongar)
Alistair Burt (Conservative - North East Bedfordshire)
Alun Cairns (Conservative - Vale of Glamorgan)
James Cartlidge (Conservative - South Suffolk)
Alex Chalk (Conservative - Cheltenham)
Jo Churchill (Conservative - Bury St Edmunds)
Colin Clark (Conservative - Gordon)
Greg Clark (Conservative - Tunbridge Wells)
Mr Kenneth Clarke (Conservative - Rushcliffe)
James Cleverly (Conservative - Braintree)
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Conservative - The Cotswolds)
Dr Th?r?se Coffey (Conservative - Suffolk Coastal)
Alberto Costa (Conservative - South Leicestershire)
Mr Geoffrey Cox (Conservative - Torridge and West Devon)
Stephen Crabb (Conservative - Preseli Pembrokeshire)
Chris Davies (Conservative - Brecon and Radnorshire)
David T. C. Davies (Conservative - Monmouth)
Glyn Davies (Conservative - Montgomeryshire)
Mims Davies (Conservative - Eastleigh)
Caroline Dinenage (Conservative - Gosport)
Mr Jonathan Djanogly (Conservative - Huntingdon)
Leo Docherty (Conservative - Aldershot)
Michelle Donelan (Conservative - Chippenham)
Oliver Dowden (Conservative - Hertsmere)
Jackie Doyle-Price (Conservative - Thurrock)
David Duguid (Conservative - Banff and Buchan)
Sir Alan Duncan (Conservative - Rutland and Melton)
Mr Philip Dunne (Conservative - Ludlow)
Michael Ellis (Conservative - Northampton North)
Mr Tobias Ellwood (Conservative - Bournemouth East)
George Eustice (Conservative - Camborne and Redruth)
Frank Field (Independent - Birkenhead)
Mark Field (Conservative - Cities of London and Westminster)
Vicky Ford (Conservative - Chelmsford)
Kevin Foster (Conservative - Torbay)
Dr Liam Fox (Conservative - North Somerset)
Lucy Frazer (Conservative - South East Cambridgeshire)
George Freeman (Conservative - Mid Norfolk)
Mike Freer (Conservative - Finchley and Golders Green)
Sir Roger Gale (Conservative - North Thanet)
Mark Garnier (Conservative - Wyre Forest)
Mr David Gauke (Conservative - South West Hertfordshire)
Ms Nusrat Ghani (Conservative - Wealden)
Nick Gibb (Conservative - Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)
Dame Cheryl Gillan (Conservative - Chesham and Amersham)
John Glen (Conservative - Salisbury)
Mr Robert Goodwill (Conservative - Scarborough and Whitby)
Michael Gove (Conservative - Surrey Heath)
Luke Graham (Conservative - Ochil and South Perthshire)
Richard Graham (Conservative - Gloucester)
Bill Grant (Conservative - Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock)
Mrs Helen Grant (Conservative - Maidstone and The Weald)
Chris Grayling (Conservative - Epsom and Ewell)
Damian Green (Conservative - Ashford)
Andrew Griffiths (Conservative - Burton)
Kirstene Hair (Conservative - Angus)
Luke Hall (Conservative - Thornbury and Yate)
Mr Philip Hammond (Conservative - Runnymede and Weybridge)
Stephen Hammond (Conservative - Wimbledon)
Matt Hancock (Conservative - West Suffolk)
Richard Harrington (Conservative - Watford)
Rebecca Harris (Conservative - Castle Point)
Trudy Harrison (Conservative - Copeland)
Simon Hart (Conservative - Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire)
Sir Oliver Heald (Conservative - North East Hertfordshire)
James Heappey (Conservative - Wells)
Chris Heaton-Harris (Conservative - Daventry)
Peter Heaton-Jones (Conservative - North Devon)
Nick Herbert (Conservative - Arundel and South Downs)
Lady Hermon (Independent - North Down)
Damian Hinds (Conservative - East Hampshire)
Simon Hoare (Conservative - North Dorset)
George Hollingbery (Conservative - Meon Valley)
Kevin Hollinrake (Conservative - Thirsk and Malton)
John Howell (Conservative - Henley)
Nigel Huddleston (Conservative - Mid Worcestershire)
Jeremy Hunt (Conservative - South West Surrey)
Nick Hurd (Conservative - Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner)
Alister Jack (Conservative - Dumfries and Galloway)
Margot James (Conservative - Stourbridge)
Sajid Javid (Conservative - Bromsgrove)
Robert Jenrick (Conservative - Newark)
Dr Caroline Johnson (Conservative - Sleaford and North Hykeham)
Andrew Jones (Conservative - Harrogate and Knaresborough)
Marcus Jones (Conservative - Nuneaton)
Gillian Keegan (Conservative - Chichester)
Seema Kennedy (Conservative - South Ribble)
Stephen Kerr (Conservative - Stirling)
Julian Knight (Conservative - Solihull)
Kwasi Kwarteng (Conservative - Spelthorne)
Mark Lancaster (Conservative - Milton Keynes North)
Andrea Leadsom (Conservative - South Northamptonshire)
Jeremy Lefroy (Conservative - Stafford)
Sir Edward Leigh (Conservative - Gainsborough)
Sir Oliver Letwin (Conservative - West Dorset)
Brandon Lewis (Conservative - Great Yarmouth)
David Lidington (Conservative - Aylesbury)
Stephen Lloyd (Independent - Eastbourne)
Jack Lopresti (Conservative - Filton and Bradley Stoke)
Rachel Maclean (Conservative - Redditch)
Alan Mak (Conservative - Havant)
Kit Malthouse (Conservative - North West Hampshire)
John Mann (Labour - Bassetlaw)
Paul Masterton (Conservative - East Renfrewshire)
Theresa May (Conservative - Maidenhead)
Paul Maynard (Conservative - Blackpool North and Cleveleys)
Sir Patrick McLoughlin (Conservative - Derbyshire Dales)
Mark Menzies (Conservative - Fylde)
Huw Merriman (Conservative - Bexhill and Battle)
Maria Miller (Conservative - Basingstoke)
Amanda Milling (Conservative - Cannock Chase)
Anne Milton (Conservative - Guildford)
Penny Mordaunt (Conservative - Portsmouth North)
Nicky Morgan (Conservative - Loughborough)
David Morris (Conservative - Morecambe and Lunesdale)
James Morris (Conservative - Halesowen and Rowley Regis)
David Mundell (Conservative - Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale)
Dr Andrew Murrison (Conservative - South West Wiltshire)
Robert Neill (Conservative - Bromley and Chislehurst)
Sarah Newton (Conservative - Truro and Falmouth)
Caroline Nokes (Conservative - Romsey and Southampton North)
Jesse Norman (Conservative - Hereford and South Herefordshire)
Neil O'Brien (Conservative - Harborough)
Guy Opperman (Conservative - Hexham)
Neil Parish (Conservative - Tiverton and Honiton)
Mark Pawsey (Conservative - Rugby)
John Penrose (Conservative - Weston-super-Mare)
Andrew Percy (Conservative - Brigg and Goole)
Claire Perry (Conservative - Devizes)
Chris Philp (Conservative - Croydon South)
Christopher Pincher (Conservative - Tamworth)
Dr Dan Poulter (Conservative - Central Suffolk and North Ipswich)
Rebecca Pow (Conservative - Taunton Deane)
Victoria Prentis (Conservative - Banbury)
Mark Prisk (Conservative - Hertford and Stortford)
Jeremy Quin (Conservative - Horsham)
Mary Robinson (Conservative - Cheadle)
Amber Rudd (Conservative - Hastings and Rye)
David Rutley (Conservative - Macclesfield)
Antoinette Sandbach (Conservative - Eddisbury)
Paul Scully (Conservative - Sutton and Cheam)
Bob Seely (Conservative - Isle of Wight)
Andrew Selous (Conservative - South West Bedfordshire)
Alok Sharma (Conservative - Reading West)
Alec Shelbrooke (Conservative - Elmet and Rothwell)
Keith Simpson (Conservative - Broadland)
Chris Skidmore (Conservative - Kingswood)
Chloe Smith (Conservative - Norwich North)
Julian Smith (Conservative - Skipton and Ripon)
Sir Nicholas Soames (Conservative - Mid Sussex)
Dame Caroline Spelman (Conservative - Meriden)
Mark Spencer (Conservative - Sherwood)
Andrew Stephenson (Conservative - Pendle)
John Stevenson (Conservative - Carlisle)
Rory Stewart (Conservative - Penrith and The Border)
Sir Gary Streeter (Conservative - South West Devon)
Mel Stride (Conservative - Central Devon)
Graham Stuart (Conservative - Beverley and Holderness)
Rishi Sunak (Conservative - Richmond (Yorks))
Sir Desmond Swayne (Conservative - New Forest West)
Maggie Throup (Conservative - Erewash)
Kelly Tolhurst (Conservative - Rochester and Strood)
Justin Tomlinson (Conservative - North Swindon)
David Tredinnick (Conservative - Bosworth)
Elizabeth Truss (Conservative - South West Norfolk)
Tom Tugendhat (Conservative - Tonbridge and Malling)
Edward Vaizey (Conservative - Wantage)
Charles Walker (Conservative - Broxbourne)
Robin Walker (Conservative - Worcester)
Ben Wallace (Conservative - Wyre and Preston North)
David Warburton (Conservative - Somerton and Frome)
Matt Warman (Conservative - Boston and Skegness)
Helen Whately (Conservative - Faversham and Mid Kent)
Heather Wheeler (Conservative - South Derbyshire)
Craig Whittaker (Conservative - Calder Valley)
Gavin Williamson (Conservative - South Staffordshire)
Mike Wood (Conservative - Dudley South)
Jeremy Wright (Conservative - Kenilworth and Southam)
Nadhim Zahawi (Conservative - Stratford-on-Avon)
Ms Diane Abbott (Labour - Hackney North and Stoke Newington)
Debbie Abrahams (Labour - Oldham East and Saddleworth)
Adam Afriyie (Conservative - Windsor)
Rushanara Ali (Labour - Bethnal Green and Bow)
Lucy Allan (Conservative - Telford)
Heidi Allen (Conservative - South Cambridgeshire)
Dr Rosena Allin-Khan (Labour - Tooting)
Mike Amesbury (Labour - Weaver Vale)
Sir David Amess (Conservative - Southend West)
Tonia Antoniazzi (Labour - Gower)
Jonathan Ashworth (Labour (Co-op) - Leicester South)
Richard Bacon (Conservative - South Norfolk)
Adrian Bailey (Labour (Co-op) - West Bromwich West)
Steve Baker (Conservative - Wycombe)
Hannah Bardell (Scottish National Party - Livingston)
John Baron (Conservative - Basildon and Billericay)
Guto Bebb (Conservative - Aberconwy)
Margaret Beckett (Labour - Derby South)
Hilary Benn (Labour - Leeds Central)
Luciana Berger (Labour (Co-op) - Liverpool, Wavertree)
Clive Betts (Labour - Sheffield South East)
Mhairi Black (Scottish National Party - Paisley and Renfrewshire South)
Ian Blackford (Scottish National Party - Ross, Skye and Lochaber)
Bob Blackman (Conservative - Harrow East)
Kirsty Blackman (Scottish National Party - Aberdeen North)
Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods (Labour - City of Durham)
Paul Blomfield (Labour - Sheffield Central)
Crispin Blunt (Conservative - Reigate)
Peter Bone (Conservative - Wellingborough)
Tracy Brabin (Labour (Co-op) - Batley and Spen)
Ben Bradley (Conservative - Mansfield)
Ben Bradshaw (Labour - Exeter)
Sir Graham Brady (Conservative - Altrincham and Sale West)
Tom Brake (Liberal Democrat - Carshalton and Wallington)
Suella Braverman (Conservative - Fareham)
Kevin Brennan (Labour - Cardiff West)
Andrew Bridgen (Conservative - North West Leicestershire)
Deidre Brock (Scottish National Party - Edinburgh North and Leith)
Alan Brown (Scottish National Party - Kilmarnock and Loudoun)
Lyn Brown (Labour - West Ham)
Nicholas Brown (Labour - Newcastle upon Tyne East)
Fiona Bruce (Conservative - Congleton)
Chris Bryant (Labour - Rhondda)
Ms Karen Buck (Labour - Westminster North)
Richard Burden (Labour - Birmingham, Northfield)
Richard Burgon (Labour - Leeds East)
Conor Burns (Conservative - Bournemouth West)
Dawn Butler (Labour - Brent Central)
Liam Byrne (Labour - Birmingham, Hodge Hill)
Sir Vince Cable (Liberal Democrat - Twickenham)
Ruth Cadbury (Labour - Brentford and Isleworth)
Dr Lisa Cameron (Scottish National Party - East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow)
Gregory Campbell (Democratic Unionist Party - East Londonderry)
Ronnie Campbell (Labour - Blyth Valley)
Sir Alan Campbell (Labour - Tynemouth)
Dan Carden (Labour - Liverpool, Walton)
Alistair Carmichael (Liberal Democrat - Orkney and Shetland)
Sir William Cash (Conservative - Stone)
Maria Caulfield (Conservative - Lewes)
Sarah Champion (Labour - Rotherham)
Douglas Chapman (Scottish National Party - Dunfermline and West Fife)
Jenny Chapman (Labour - Darlington)
Bambos Charalambous (Labour - Enfield, Southgate)
Joanna Cherry (Scottish National Party - Edinburgh South West)
Rehman Chishti (Conservative - Gillingham and Rainham)
Sir Christopher Chope (Conservative - Christchurch)
Simon Clarke (Conservative - Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland)
Ann Clwyd (Labour - Cynon Valley)
Vernon Coaker (Labour - Gedling)
Ann Coffey (Labour - Stockport)
Damian Collins (Conservative - Folkestone and Hythe)
Julie Cooper (Labour - Burnley)
Rosie Cooper (Labour - West Lancashire)
Yvette Cooper (Labour - Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford)
Jeremy Corbyn (Labour - Islington North)
Robert Courts (Conservative - Witney)
Ronnie Cowan (Scottish National Party - Inverclyde)
Neil Coyle (Labour - Bermondsey and Old Southwark)
Sir David Crausby (Labour - Bolton North East)
Angela Crawley (Scottish National Party - Lanark and Hamilton East)
Mary Creagh (Labour - Wakefield)
Stella Creasy (Labour (Co-op) - Walthamstow)
Tracey Crouch (Conservative - Chatham and Aylesford)
Jon Cruddas (Labour - Dagenham and Rainham)
John Cryer (Labour - Leyton and Wanstead)
Judith Cummins (Labour - Bradford South)
Alex Cunningham (Labour - Stockton North)
Jim Cunningham (Labour - Coventry South)
Janet Daby (Labour - Lewisham East)
Nic Dakin (Labour - Scunthorpe)
Sir Edward Davey (Liberal Democrat - Kingston and Surbiton)
Wayne David (Labour - Caerphilly)
Geraint Davies (Labour (Co-op) - Swansea West)
Philip Davies (Conservative - Shipley)
David Davis (Conservative - Haltemprice and Howden)
Martyn Day (Scottish National Party - Linlithgow and East Falkirk)
Marsha De Cordova (Labour - Battersea)
Gloria De Piero (Labour - Ashfield)
Thangam Debbonaire (Labour - Bristol West)
Emma Dent Coad (Labour - Kensington)
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Labour - Slough)
Martin Docherty-Hughes (Scottish National Party - West Dunbartonshire)
Anneliese Dodds (Labour (Co-op) - Oxford East)
Nigel Dodds (Democratic Unionist Party - Belfast North)
Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Democratic Unionist Party - Lagan Valley)
Ms Nadine Dorries (Conservative - Mid Bedfordshire)
Steve Double (Conservative - St Austell and Newquay)
Stephen Doughty (Labour (Co-op) - Cardiff South and Penarth)
Peter Dowd (Labour - Bootle)
Richard Drax (Conservative - South Dorset)
Dr David Drew (Labour (Co-op) - Stroud)
Jack Dromey (Labour - Birmingham, Erdington)
James Duddridge (Conservative - Rochford and Southend East)
Rosie Duffield (Labour - Canterbury)
Iain Duncan Smith (Conservative - Chingford and Woodford Green)
Maria Eagle (Labour - Garston and Halewood)
Ms Angela Eagle (Labour - Wallasey)
Jonathan Edwards (Plaid Cymru - Carmarthen East and Dinefwr)
Clive Efford (Labour - Eltham)
Julie Elliott (Labour - Sunderland Central)
Dame Louise Ellman (Labour (Co-op) - Liverpool, Riverside)
Chris Elmore (Labour - Ogmore)
Charlie Elphicke (Conservative - Dover)
Bill Esterson (Labour - Sefton Central)
Chris Evans (Labour (Co-op) - Islwyn)
Nigel Evans (Conservative - Ribble Valley)
Sir David Evennett (Conservative - Bexleyheath and Crayford)
Michael Fabricant (Conservative - Lichfield)
Sir Michael Fallon (Conservative - Sevenoaks)
Paul Farrelly (Labour - Newcastle-under-Lyme)
Tim Farron (Liberal Democrat - Westmorland and Lonsdale)
Marion Fellows (Scottish National Party - Motherwell and Wishaw)
Jim Fitzpatrick (Labour - Poplar and Limehouse)
Colleen Fletcher (Labour - Coventry North East)
Caroline Flint (Labour - Don Valley)
Yvonne Fovargue (Labour - Makerfield)
Mark Francois (Conservative - Rayleigh and Wickford)
James Frith (Labour - Bury North)
Gill Furniss (Labour - Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough)
Marcus Fysh (Conservative - Yeovil)
Hugh Gaffney (Labour - Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill)
Mike Gapes (Labour (Co-op) - Ilford South)
Barry Gardiner (Labour - Brent North)
Ruth George (Labour - High Peak)
Stephen Gethins (Scottish National Party - North East Fife)
Patricia Gibson (Scottish National Party - North Ayrshire and Arran)
Preet Kaur Gill (Labour (Co-op) - Birmingham, Edgbaston)
Paul Girvan (Democratic Unionist Party - South Antrim)
Mary Glindon (Labour - North Tyneside)
Roger Godsiff (Labour - Birmingham, Hall Green)
Zac Goldsmith (Conservative - Richmond Park)
Helen Goodman (Labour - Bishop Auckland)
Patrick Grady (Scottish National Party - Glasgow North)
Peter Grant (Scottish National Party - Glenrothes)
James Gray (Conservative - North Wiltshire)
Neil Gray (Scottish National Party - Airdrie and Shotts)
Chris Green (Conservative - Bolton West)
Kate Green (Labour - Stretford and Urmston)
Justine Greening (Conservative - Putney)
Lilian Greenwood (Labour - Nottingham South)
Margaret Greenwood (Labour - Wirral West)
Dominic Grieve (Conservative - Beaconsfield)
Nia Griffith (Labour - Llanelli)
John Grogan (Labour - Keighley)
Andrew Gwynne (Labour - Denton and Reddish)
Sam Gyimah (Conservative - East Surrey)
Louise Haigh (Labour - Sheffield, Heeley)
Robert Halfon (Conservative - Harlow)
Fabian Hamilton (Labour - Leeds North East)
Greg Hands (Conservative - Chelsea and Fulham)
David Hanson (Labour - Delyn)
Emma Hardy (Labour - Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle)
Harriet Harman (Labour - Camberwell and Peckham)
Mark Harper (Conservative - Forest of Dean)
Carolyn Harris (Labour - Swansea East)
Helen Hayes (Labour - Dulwich and West Norwood)
Sir John Hayes (Conservative - South Holland and The Deepings)
Sue Hayman (Labour - Workington)
John Healey (Labour - Wentworth and Dearne)
Gordon Henderson (Conservative - Sittingbourne and Sheppey)
Sir Mark Hendrick (Labour (Co-op) - Preston)
Drew Hendry (Scottish National Party - Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey)
Stephen Hepburn (Labour - Jarrow)
Mike Hill (Labour - Hartlepool)
Meg Hillier (Labour (Co-op) - Hackney South and Shoreditch)
Wera Hobhouse (Liberal Democrat - Bath)
Dame Margaret Hodge (Labour - Barking)
Sharon Hodgson (Labour - Washington and Sunderland West)
Kate Hoey (Labour - Vauxhall)
Kate Hollern (Labour - Blackburn)
Philip Hollobone (Conservative - Kettering)
Adam Holloway (Conservative - Gravesham)
Kelvin Hopkins (Independent - Luton North)
Stewart Hosie (Scottish National Party - Dundee East)
George Howarth (Labour - Knowsley)
Eddie Hughes (Conservative - Walsall North)
Dr Rupa Huq (Labour - Ealing Central and Acton)
Imran Hussain (Labour - Bradford East)
Christine Jardine (Liberal Democrat - Edinburgh West)
Dan Jarvis (Labour - Barnsley Central)
Ranil Jayawardena (Conservative - North East Hampshire)
Sir Bernard Jenkin (Conservative - Harwich and North Essex)
Andrea Jenkyns (Conservative - Morley and Outwood)
Boris Johnson (Conservative - Uxbridge and South Ruislip)
Diana Johnson (Labour - Kingston upon Hull North)
Gareth Johnson (Conservative - Dartford)
Joseph Johnson (Conservative - Orpington)
Darren Jones (Labour - Bristol North West)
Gerald Jones (Labour - Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)
Graham P Jones (Labour - Hyndburn)
Helen Jones (Labour - Warrington North)
David Jones (Conservative - Clwyd West)
Kevan Jones (Labour - North Durham)
Sarah Jones (Labour - Croydon Central)
Susan Elan Jones (Labour - Clwyd South)
Mike Kane (Labour - Wythenshawe and Sale East)
Daniel Kawczynski (Conservative - Shrewsbury and Atcham)
Barbara Keeley (Labour - Worsley and Eccles South)
Liz Kendall (Labour - Leicester West)
Afzal Khan (Labour - Manchester, Gorton)
Ged Killen (Labour (Co-op) - Rutherglen and Hamilton West)
Stephen Kinnock (Labour - Aberavon)
Sir Greg Knight (Conservative - East Yorkshire)
Peter Kyle (Labour - Hove)
Lesley Laird (Labour - Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath)
Ben Lake (Plaid Cymru - Ceredigion)
Norman Lamb (Liberal Democrat - North Norfolk)
David Lammy (Labour - Tottenham)
John Lamont (Conservative - Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk)
Pauline Latham (Conservative - Mid Derbyshire)
Ian Lavery (Labour - Wansbeck)
Chris Law (Scottish National Party - Dundee West)
Dr Phillip Lee (Conservative - Bracknell)
Karen Lee (Labour - Lincoln)
Chris Leslie (Labour (Co-op) - Nottingham East)
Emma Lewell-Buck (Labour - South Shields)
Andrew Lewer (Conservative - Northampton South)
Clive Lewis (Labour - Norwich South)
Dr Julian Lewis (Conservative - New Forest East)
r Ivan Lewis (Independent - Bury South)
Ian Liddell-Grainger (Conservative - Bridgwater and West Somerset)
David Linden (Scottish National Party - Glasgow East)
Emma Little Pengelly (Democratic Unionist Party - Belfast South)
Tony Lloyd (Labour - Rochdale)
Rebecca Long Bailey (Labour - Salford and Eccles)
Julia Lopez (Conservative - Hornchurch and Upminster)
Jonathan Lord (Conservative - Woking)
Tim Loughton (Conservative - East Worthing and Shoreham)
Caroline Lucas (Green Party - Brighton, Pavilion)
Ian C. Lucas (Labour - Wrexham)
Holly Lynch (Labour - Halifax)
Craig Mackinlay (Conservative - South Thanet)
Angus Brendan MacNeil (Scottish National Party - Na h-Eileanan an Iar)
Justin Madders (Labour - Ellesmere Port and Neston)
Khalid Mahmood (Labour - Birmingham, Perry Barr)
Shabana Mahmood (Labour - Birmingham, Ladywood)
Anne Main (Conservative - St Albans)
Seema Malhotra (Labour (Co-op) - Feltham and Heston)
Scott Mann (Conservative - North Cornwall)
Gordon Marsden (Labour - Blackpool South)
Sandy Martin (Labour - Ipswich)
Rachael Maskell (Labour (Co-op) - York Central)
Christian Matheson (Labour - City of Chester)
Steve McCabe (Labour - Birmingham, Selly Oak)
Kerry McCarthy (Labour - Bristol East)
Siobhain McDonagh (Labour - Mitcham and Morden)
Andy McDonald (Labour - Middlesbrough)
Stewart Malcolm McDonald (Scottish National Party - Glasgow South)
Stuart C. McDonald (Scottish National Party - Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East)
John McDonnell (Labour - Hayes and Harlington)
Pat McFadden (Labour - Wolverhampton South East)
Conor McGinn (Labour - St Helens North)
Alison McGovern (Labour - Wirral South)
Liz McInnes (Labour - Heywood and Middleton)
Catherine McKinnell (Labour - Newcastle upon Tyne North)
Jim McMahon (Labour (Co-op) - Oldham West and Royton)
Anna McMorrin (Labour - Cardiff North)
John McNally (Scottish National Party - Falkirk)
Stephen McPartland (Conservative - Stevenage)
Esther McVey (Conservative - Tatton)
Ian Mearns (Labour - Gateshead)
Johnny Mercer (Conservative - Plymouth, Moor View)
Stephen Metcalfe (Conservative - South Basildon and East Thurrock)
Edward Miliband (Labour - Doncaster North)
Nigel Mills (Conservative - Amber Valley)
Andrew Mitchell (Conservative - Sutton Coldfield)
Carol Monaghan (Scottish National Party - Glasgow North West)
Madeleine Moon (Labour - Bridgend)
Damien Moore (Conservative - Southport)
Layla Moran (Liberal Democrat - Oxford West and Abingdon)
Jessica Morden (Labour - Newport East)
Stephen Morgan (Labour - Portsmouth South)
Anne Marie Morris (Conservative - Newton Abbot)
Grahame Morris (Labour - Easington)
Ian Murray (Labour - Edinburgh South)
Sheryll Murray (Conservative - South East Cornwall)
Lisa Nandy (Labour - Wigan)
Gavin Newlands (Scottish National Party - Paisley and Renfrewshire North)
Alex Norris (Labour (Co-op) - Nottingham North)
Dr Matthew Offord (Conservative - Hendon)
Brendan O'Hara (Scottish National Party - Argyll and Bute)
Jared O'Mara (Independent - Sheffield, Hallam)
Fiona Onasanya (Independent - Peterborough)
Melanie Onn (Labour - Great Grimsby)
Chi Onwurah (Labour - Newcastle upon Tyne Central)
Kate Osamor (Labour (Co-op) - Edmonton)
Albert Owen (Labour - Ynys Môn)
Ian Paisley (Democratic Unionist Party - North Antrim)
Priti Patel (Conservative - Witham)
Owen Paterson (Conservative - North Shropshire)
Stephanie Peacock (Labour - Barnsley East)
Teresa Pearce (Labour - Erith and Thamesmead)
Sir Mike Penning (Conservative - Hemel Hempstead)
Matthew Pennycook (Labour - Greenwich and Woolwich)
Toby Perkins (Labour - Chesterfield)
Jess Phillips (Labour - Birmingham, Yardley)
Bridget Phillipson (Labour - Houghton and Sunderland South)
Laura Pidcock (Labour - North West Durham)
Jo Platt (Labour (Co-op) - Leigh)
Luke Pollard (Labour (Co-op) - Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport)
Stephen Pound (Labour - Ealing North)
Lucy Powell (Labour (Co-op) - Manchester Central)
Mark Pritchard (Conservative - The Wrekin)
Tom Pursglove (Conservative - Corby)
Will Quince (Conservative - Colchester)
Yasmin Qureshi (Labour - Bolton South East)
Dominic Raab (Conservative - Esher and Walton)
Faisal Rashid (Labour - Warrington South)
Angela Rayner (Labour - Ashton-under-Lyne)
John Redwood (Conservative - Wokingham)
Steve Reed (Labour (Co-op) - Croydon North)
Christina Rees (Labour (Co-op) - Neath)
Jacob Rees-Mogg (Conservative - North East Somerset)
Ellie Reeves (Labour - Lewisham West and Penge)
Rachel Reeves (Labour - Leeds West)
Emma Reynolds (Labour - Wolverhampton North East)
Jonathan Reynolds (Labour (Co-op) - Stalybridge and Hyde)
Marie Rimmer (Labour - St Helens South and Whiston)
Laurence Robertson (Conservative - Tewkesbury)
Gavin Robinson (Democratic Unionist Party - Belfast East)
Geoffrey Robinson (Labour - Coventry North West)
Matt Rodda (Labour - Reading East)
Andrew Rosindell (Conservative - Romford)
Douglas Ross (Conservative - Moray)
Danielle Rowley (Labour - Midlothian)
Lee Rowley (Conservative - North East Derbyshire)
Chris Ruane (Labour - Vale of Clwyd)
Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Labour (Co-op) - Brighton, Kemptown)
Joan Ryan (Labour - Enfield North)
Liz Saville Roberts (Plaid Cymru - Dwyfor Meirionnydd)
Naz Shah (Labour - Bradford West)
Jim Shannon (Democratic Unionist Party - Strangford)
Grant Shapps (Conservative - Welwyn Hatfield)
Virendra Sharma (Labour - Ealing, Southall)
Barry Sheerman (Labour (Co-op) - Huddersfield)
Tommy Sheppard (Scottish National Party - Edinburgh East)
Paula Sherriff (Labour - Dewsbury)
Gavin Shuker (Labour (Co-op) - Luton South)
Tulip Siddiq (Labour - Hampstead and Kilburn)
David Simpson (Democratic Unionist Party - Upper Bann)
Dennis Skinner (Labour - Bolsover)
Andy Slaughter (Labour - Hammersmith)
Ruth Smeeth (Labour - Stoke-on-Trent North)
Angela Smith (Labour - Penistone and Stocksbridge)
Cat Smith (Labour - Lancaster and Fleetwood)
Eleanor Smith (Labour - Wolverhampton South West)
Henry Smith (Conservative - Crawley)
Jeff Smith (Labour - Manchester, Withington)
Laura Smith (Labour - Crewe and Nantwich)
Owen Smith (Labour - Pontypridd)
Royston Smith (Conservative - Southampton, Itchen)
Karin Smyth (Labour - Bristol South)
Gareth Snell (Labour (Co-op) - Stoke-on-Trent Central)
Alex Sobel (Labour (Co-op) - Leeds North West)
Anna Soubry (Conservative - Broxtowe)
John Spellar (Labour - Warley)
Keir Starmer (Labour - Holborn and St Pancras)
Chris Stephens (Scottish National Party - Glasgow South West)
Jo Stevens (Labour - Cardiff Central)
Bob Stewart (Conservative - Beckenham)
Jamie Stone (Liberal Democrat - Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)
Wes Streeting (Labour - Ilford North)
Graham Stringer (Labour - Blackley and Broughton)
Julian Sturdy (Conservative - York Outer)
Paul Sweeney (Labour (Co-op) - Glasgow North East)
Jo Swinson (Liberal Democrat - East Dunbartonshire)
Sir Hugo Swire (Conservative - East Devon)
Sir Robert Syms (Conservative - Poole)
Mark Tami (Labour - Alyn and Deeside)
Alison Thewliss (Scottish National Party - Glasgow Central)
Derek Thomas (Conservative - St Ives)
Gareth Thomas (Labour (Co-op) - Harrow West)
Nick Thomas-Symonds (Labour - Torfaen)
Ross Thomson (Conservative - Aberdeen South)
Emily Thornberry (Labour - Islington South and Finsbury)
Stephen Timms (Labour - East Ham)
Michael Tomlinson (Conservative - Mid Dorset and North Poole)
Craig Tracey (Conservative - North Warwickshire)
Anne-Marie Trevelyan (Conservative - Berwick-upon-Tweed)
Jon Trickett (Labour - Hemsworth)
Anna Turley (Labour (Co-op) - Redcar)
Karl Turner (Labour - Kingston upon Hull East)
Derek Twigg (Labour - Halton)
Stephen Twigg (Labour (Co-op) - Liverpool, West Derby)
Liz Twist (Labour - Blaydon)
Chuka Umunna (Labour - Streatham)
Shailesh Vara (Conservative - North West Cambridgeshire)
Keith Vaz (Labour - Leicester East)
Valerie Vaz (Labour - Walsall South)
Martin Vickers (Conservative - Cleethorpes)
Theresa Villiers (Conservative - Chipping Barnet)
Thelma Walker (Labour - Colne Valley)
Giles Watling (Conservative - Clacton)
Tom Watson (Labour - West Bromwich East)
Catherine West (Labour - Hornsey and Wood Green)
Matt Western (Labour - Warwick and Leamington)
Dr Alan Whitehead (Labour - Southampton, Test)
Martin Whitfield (Labour - East Lothian)
Dr Philippa Whitford (Scottish National Party - Central Ayrshire)
John Whittingdale (Conservative - Maldon)
Bill Wiggin (Conservative - North Herefordshire)
Dr Paul Williams (Labour - Stockton South)
Hywel Williams (Plaid Cymru - Arfon)
Chris Williamson (Labour - Derby North)
Phil Wilson (Labour - Sedgefield)
Sammy Wilson (Democratic Unionist Party - East Antrim)
Pete Wishart (Scottish National Party - Perth and North Perthshire)
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Conservative - Totnes)
John Woodcock (Independent - Barrow and Furness)
William Wragg (Conservative - Hazel Grove)
Mohammad Yasin (Labour - Bedford)
Daniel Zeichner (Labour - Cambridge)
Orfhlaith Begley (Sinn Fein - West Tyrone)
John Bercow (Speaker - Buckingham)
Mickey Brady (Sinn Fein - Newry and Armagh)
Paul Flynn (Labour - Newport West)
Michelle Gildernew (Sinn Fein - Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
Chris Hazzard (Sinn Fein - South Down)
Sir Lindsay Hoyle (Labour - Chorley)
Dame Eleanor Laing (Conservative - Epping Forest)
Paul Maskey (Sinn Fein - Belfast West)
Elisha McCallion (Sinn Fein - Foyle)
Francie Molloy (Sinn Fein - Mid Ulster)
Dame Rosie Winterton (Labour - Doncaster Central)
After the government lost the vote on the Brexit deal, Jeremy Corbyn tabled a vote of no confidence in it. But how does it actually work?
After suffering the biggest government defeat in history, Theresa May invited Jeremy Corbyn to put down a confidence vote in her government – and gave other opposition parties the opportunity if Labour didn’t do so.
This was the tiniest scrap of saving face the Prime Minister could muster – getting in there before Corbyn could announce that he would seek a vote of no confidence in the government, which he did a few minutes after her statement.
The motion of no confidence will be tomorrow (Wednesday 16 January), the day after MPs rejected May’s Brexit deal by 230 votes.How does it work?
Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, there are only two ways to call an early election: if a motion for calling one is agreed by two-thirds or more of the House, as happened with May’s snap election in 2017, or if a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government can be cobbled together within 14 days.
Labour is trying to bring about the latter, in the hope that if the government loses the no confidence vote then it will either be able to form a government itself in the ensuing 14 days (pretty impossible, considering the make-up of the House), or the government will again be defeated in the second confidence motion after the 14 days, and there will be a general election.Will there be an election?
It’s unlikely. While Labour will have the support of other opposition parties, the DUP has consistently said it will not vote no confidence in the government unless the withdrawal agreement including the backstop is passed. The deal emphatically didn’t pass, so it doesn’t look like much has changed to change the DUP’s mind.
Without the DUP onside, Labour would need Tory rebels instead. The Brexiteer group, the ERG, which contains the hardest-core Brexit rebels, has said it will support May in the confidence vote, so there would need to be enough Tory MPs on the Remain side of things willing to lose the whip by voting against their own party being in government, which at the moment seems very unlikely.So if MPs do have confidence in the government, what happens next?
The Leader of the Opposition is free to put down as many confidence motions in the government as he likes, and is entitled to parliamentary time for them, but to have any political or practical impact he will only want to try again if something changes in the balance of the Commons that suggests he would win.
In the meantime, there will now be increased pressure on Labour’s leadership to begin officially campaigning for a second referendum. This is because, according to policy passed by the party’s members at Labour conference, if a push for a general election fails then Labour will consider other options “on the table” regarding Brexit, which include a second referendum – something Corbyn is both electorally and ideologically reluctant to support.BBC screengrab House of horrors.
Probably not, unless enough MPs change their stance and join Labour in a no-confidence vote.
Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, there are only two ways to call an early election: if a motion for calling one is agreed by two-thirds or more of the House, or if a motion of no-confidence is passed and no alternative government can be cobbled together within 14 days. Shortly after MPs voted down Theresa May’s Brexit deal, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced he had tabled a vote of no confidence in the government.
It’s unlikely the government will be calling an election, so the most likely route would be this confidence motion.
Labour’s ideal scenario would be to force another general election if MPs reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Jeremy Corbyn has been calling for this outcome for some time, arguing that it’s time for Labour to take the reins and try to negotiate a different deal.
This option has been looming for some time. In the run up to the vote, shadow cabinet ministers like shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner and shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne suggested publicly that Labour would move a no confidence motion “immediately” after the government was defeated, and there was a lot of enthusiasm in the party for this approach. Labour MPs were told by whips over the weekend to prepare for a no-confidence vote.
However, Corbyn played down expectations, and, during an interview on Marr over the weekend, only committed to saying it would be “soon” rather than immediate.
His reticence stems from the fact Labour wouldn’t pass no confidence in the government without the DUP’s support. The DUP so far has said it will not vote no confidence in the government – only in the event the deal with its hated backstop passes. So Labour will lose, although there’s no limit to how many times it can table confidence motions.
Corbyn also knows that, according to policy passed by the party’s members at Labour conference, if a push for a general election fails, then Labour will consider other options “on the table” regarding Brexit, which include a second referendum – something he is both electorally and ideologically reluctant to support.
One reason Corbyn may have decided to table a no confidence vote immediately is that other Labour MPs have told the Observer that they will table a motion themselves without delay. But the only confidence motions tabled by the leader of the opposition have to be given parliamentary time.
If Corbyn’s no confidence vote passes, that gives 14 days for MPs to try and cobble together a government that commands the confidence of the House. Then there’s another confidence vote on this. If the proposed new government fails to win that vote, then there’s a general election.
However, at the moment, without May’s deal passing, there is no majority for Corbyn’s confidence motion passing. If the government decides to opt for no deal, or it seems like that option has become its policy, however, then enough frontbenchers would resign and Tory MPs would rebel to no-confidence the government. But it’s unlikely the government will actively pursue no deal, as May has been against no deal and her government has been busy briefing about what a disaster it would be.Getty The dog days aren't over.
Theresa May’s deal has been voted down, which means the UK is closer to a non-negotiated departure.
Every day that the government cannot get its deal approved by MPs is a day closer to a no-deal Brexit. By law, on 29 March 2019, Article 50 will be triggered, taking the UK out of the European Union. If we don’t have a deal by that date, then there will be no transition period or continuity in our relationship with the EU’s institutions.
This means that by rejecting the government’s deal, MPs are taking us closer to a no-deal Brexit. If they had spent months rallying around a plausible alternative that could win a majority in the House of Commons, or majority support for an extension of Article 50, then perhaps things would be different. But as it stands, all MPs can really agree on is that they don’t like Theresa May’s deal. This means no deal is the default alternative.
Because parliament has rejected the deal, however, MPs representing alternatives such as a second referendum or the Norway-Plus, softer Brexit option will hope they can attract more supporters to their cause as a no-deal Brexit becomes an ever-more serious and immediate prospect. In striving for a general election, Labour, too, will hope that through putting down a no-confidence motion, it will attract votes from MPs fearing a no deal.
So yes, a rejection of May’s deal takes us closer to no deal, but MPs opposing her deal hope that it will also have the effect of focusing their colleagues’ minds on their preferred alternative.Getty Failing close to the wind.
The government lost by an unprecedented majority of 230.
Theresa May’s Brexit deal has suffered a record-breaking defeat in the House of Commons – and Labour is to table a motion of no confidence in the government.
The meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration was defeated, by 432 votes to 202, an opposition majority of 230. The largest previous defeat in modern history was in 1924, when Ramsay Macdonald’s minority Labour government was defeated by 166 votes.
In the minutes following the defeat, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced that he was tabling a no confidence vote in the government. Theresa May’s reply that the government would make parliamentary time for such a vote tomorrow, is a mark of the Prime Minister’s confidence she would survive such a vote (the DUP have confirmed they will support the Conservatives) – but this could, nonetheless, lead to a general election. Beyond that, May has three days to place her Plan B before the Commons.
If no majority can be found for any option, Britain is staring down the barrel of a no-deal Brexit. As Stephen Bush outlines here, there are many MPs with ideas of how to avoid a no-deal Brexit, but that doesn’t guarantee they will succeed.
So what does a government defeat on the meaningful vote mean for Brexit?Does the government’s defeat mean a no-deal Brexit?
By rejecting the government’s deal, MPs are taking us closer to a no-deal Brexit, Anoosh Chakelian explains. As matters stand, all MPs can truly agree on is that they diisapprove of May’s deal. This means no deal is the default alternative.
But MPs representing alternatives such as a second referendum or a Norway-style soft Brexit will hope they can attract more supporters to their cause as a no-deal Brexit becomes an ever more serious and immediate prospect.
And if we do reach 29 March 2019 without a deal, and without an alternative in place, the UK will leave the European Union. There will be no transition period or continuity in our relationship with the EU’s institutions. You can read more about a no-deal Brexit here.Would the government’s defeat on Theresa May’s Brexit deal mean a second referendum?
Some MPs backing the “People’s Vote” campaign will be hoping the alternative that emerges is a second referendum, as MPs fear a no-deal Brexit and agree to another vote as a last resort.
If the Labour frontbench officially campaigned for a second referendum, it would boost the chances of the proposal – but Corbyn has consistently appeared reluctant to back the idea, and it’s unlikely he would whip such a vote, considering the small number of Labour MPs who favour it.
A second referendum would be very difficult to get through parliament. Read more about a second referendum on Brexit here.Does a Brexit deal defeat for the government mean a general election?
If a different party were in power, or a political coalition brokered, it could mean a government with a very different attitude to Brexit. But under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, there are only two ways to call an early election: if a motion for calling one is agreed by two-thirds or more of the House, or if a motion of no-confidence is passed and no alternative government can be cobbled together within 14 days.
Labour, though, needs the support of the DUP for its no confidence motion to succeed, and the DUP has only indicated its willingness to vote no confidence in the government if the Brexit deal passes. You can read more about Brexit and the chances of a general election here.Could the Brexit deal defeat pave the way for the Norway option?
There’s a cross-party group of MPs advocating an exit they’re calling “Norway Plus” or “Common Market 2.0”.
Supporters of a Norway-style Brexit say it could attract Brexiteer MPs’ support, as it involves leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, as well as the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. There is also technically an “emergency brake” on free movement you can pull in extreme circumstances.
The EU too has been more sympathetic to this idea, with its chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier saying “the only frictionless option for the future with the UK would be ‘Norway Plus’”. You can read more about the Norway Plus option here.Getty
It is marginally more likely than other options, but wouldn’t permit Brexiteers to realise their dreams of free trade deals or an end freedom of movement.
There’s a cross-party group of MPs advocating an exit they’re calling “Norway Plus” or “Common Market 2.0”.
The idea is for the UK and EU to change the political declaration attached to the withdrawal agreement to declare the UK’s intention to enter the European Economic Area, and join what’s known as the EFTA pillar – the free trade area including Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Changes to the political declaration are deemed possible as it has no legal basis.
Supporters of a Norway-style Brexit say it could attract Brexiteer MPs’ support, as it involves leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, as well as the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. There is also technically an “emergency brake” on free movement you can pull in extreme circumstances.
The “plus” part would mean adding on a customs arrangement to ensure frictionless trade.
But this isn’t the amazing compromise it’s talked up to be. There is still an EFTA court the UK would be subject to, and the “emergency brake” in practice could not be readily used by the UK, and is anyway temporary – to date, only Lichtenstein has invoked the emergency brake, and the EU warned Switzerland it would be subject to other penalties if it invoked one. The UK could only implement a temporary brake on free movement in certain sectors or regions providing it could prove wages were being undercut by EEA migration – a situation for which there is very little evidence.
Under this arrangement, the UK would also be denied the freedom much-desired of Brexiteers to make its own trade deals – something that would count out support from senior Brexiteer and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and his faction.
Norway Plus, however, does have more traction than some other alternatives across parties. It’s helmed by the influential former minister Nick Boles, who was an ally of David Cameron and George Osborne and ran senior Brexiteer and Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s leadership campaign. It is also backed by Labour MPs Stephen Kinnock and Lucy Powell, and Tories Nicholas Soames and Rob Halfon, who represent different parts of their parties.
The EU too has been more sympathetic to this idea, with its chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier saying “the only frictionless option for the future with the UK would be ‘Norway Plus’”. Norway wouldn’t want the UK to enter if it were simply a temporary measure, but isn’t officially opposed to it joining.Getty Would a Norway-style deal help Britain off thin ice?
From 15 May, couples with one pensioner could lose around £7,000 a year.
“A good day to bury bad news” has become a cliché amid times of national crisis – and the Department for Work and Pensions has continued in this dishonourable tradition by sneaking out a massive benefits cut on the eve of the Brexit vote.
While Westminster is distracted by what is shaping up to be a historic government defeat on the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, the DWP quietly announced a date last night for implementing a cut that could leave couples claiming Universal Credit £7,000 a year worse off.
It’s a cut that impacts mixed-age couples – in which one partner is pension age and the other is younger.
Currently, couples can claim pension credit if one half of the couple is pension age (65, and gradually going up), even if the other is younger. While other pension-aged benefits are based on the individual, your eligibility for means-tested benefits is determined by the oldest person in the couple.
But Universal Credit will reverse this – meaning a mixed-age couple will be defined by the working-age person, not the pensioner.
This came into law in 2012, outlined in the Welfare Reform Act, but there was no set date for it – until yesterday afternoon. On the eve of the government’s meaningful vote on the Brexit deal, the DWP announced the date in a written ministerial statement for when this change will come in as 15 May.
The charity Age UK has calculated that this change could leave some pensioners £7,000 worse off each year – based on the number of mixed age couples who would be worse off under Universal Credit than if the pensioner continued to claim pension credits. From April 2019, the rates will be £255.25 per week of pension credit for a couple, and approximately £115 a week under Universal Credit.
“It’s a substantial stealth cut,” commented Age UK’s charity director Caroline Abrahams. “A couple claiming in the future could receive £140 less per week than an older mixed couple claiming before the change comes in.”
From 15 May, all mixed-aged couples who apply for benefits will be affected, as well as existing couples who claim pensioner credit who have a change of circumstances that stops their benefits temporarily for whatever reason.
Last October, I reported on this upcoming cut, hearing from a working-age woman called Jen (aged 47) whose husband is a pensioner (aged 66), who calculated that they would end up £190 worse off a week from losing their pension credit and pension-age housing benefit. She told me she would struggle financially to care for her husband, who is ill.
“The way they’re treating the working poor and obviously sick and disabled people, well it’s just downright disgusting,” she said. “To start attacking older people makes it as if it’s sort of a crime to have a younger partner. It feels like a punishment.”
Couples could lose out not only on pension credit, but pension-age housing benefit, no longer being exempted from the bedroom tax, and missing out on pension-age council tax help. Analysis by Age UK finds that some pensioners would be better off leaving their partner and living alone.
What can you do if you are in a couple like this? The Entitled To website advises “all couples where one person is over 65 should check their benefit entitlement before 15 May” and “if they are entitled to Pension Credit and claim it before 15 May they won’t be affected by the change” – so try and claim before the deadline.Rhoda Baer/National Cancer Institute Partners in crisis.
It’s hard to see a majority in parliament for passing another vote on our EU membership.
The government’s withdrawal deal has been defeated by a majority of 230, and some MPs backing the “People’s Vote” campaign will hope the alternative that emerges is a second referendum, as MPs fear a no-deal Brexit and go for another vote as a last resort.
But there is currently no majority for a second referendum in parliament, and as MPs haven’t yet come up with an alternative to a no-deal Brexit or Theresa May’s deal that could win a majority in the Commons, it’s unlikely a majority will suddenly appear for a second referendum.
If Labour puts down a no-confidence motion in the government after its deal is defeated, and then loses (which it most likely would, without the DUP onside), then it will be under pressure to campaign for a second referendum – as its official policy is to consider this option among others should it fail to force a general election. If the Labour frontbench officially campaigned for a second referendum, it would boost the chances of one – but Jeremy Corbyn has shown so far that he’s reluctant to back the idea, and anyway it’s unlikely he could whip for it, considering the small number of Labour MPs who are on board.
A second referendum would be very difficult to get through parliament. I explain the legislative process here. Political reality means it’s unlikely there will be a majority required to pass the legislation, or extend Article 50 to make time for the process (the UCL’s Constitution Unit estimates it would take 22 weeks from beginning legislation to polling day).Getty First the worst, second the best.
Thanks to hamberders and diet coke, the president’s cardiovascular status is excellent.
5am: Wake up. Fist-bump Melania.
5.01am: Take time to reconnect with my Fox & Friends.
5.10am: Now this might not mean anything to you: Diet Coke. Let me tell you, Diet Coke is a very, VERY healthy drink. Much healthier than covfefe. Very healthy. It has zero calories and zero caffeine, which means that no one knows what’s in it. No one!
6am: Watch FAKE NEWS. Very angry now. Time to Tweet. Tweeting is very, very good exercise for my (very big) hands and (very stable genius) brain. Thanks to Twitter my physical strength and stamina are extraordinary.
9am: Diet Coke. Still Watching TV. Diet Coke is one reason why I am the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.
10am: Diete Coke.
10.30am: Diyet Coke.
11am: Put out a platter of skittles, butterfingers and M&M’s in case Nancy and Cryin’ Chuck want to come give me my wall. Feel lonely so eat them all.
12pm: DiEt Coke. Melania tells me to get dressed because I have to catch Air Force One to New Orleans.
12.30pm: On Air Force One with Vienna Fingers, Potato Chips, Pretzels, and many, many packages of Oreos. Believe me, Oreos are very, very healthy because they have no germs.
12.45pm: Steak with very, very good tomato ketchup. My cardiovascular health is feeling excellent.
1pm: Speech at the American Farm Bureau’s Federation. Trust me, farmers love me. Even though personally, I don’t like to eat farm food like vegetables because it’s full of germs.
1.30pm: Diat Coke.
2pm: Diet Cokee.
3pm: Deet Coke.
4pm: Diet Cowk.
5pm: Diet Cook.
6pm: Clemson Tigers coming for dinner. I’m very generous and very, very rich, so I pay for it myself. Bought over 300 hamberders.
We have some very large people eating (not me), so it’ll be fun. Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, pizza. Great American food.
My diet is a bit like a Paleo diet. I call it the MAGA diet. No foreign food, just great American food.
So happy I throw out my jazz hands.
The footballers eat one or two hamberders, and then within one hour it is all gone.
7pm: Twitter and Diet CoKE
8pm: Dieet Coke.
9pm: Diyat Coke.
10:00pm: Been working so hard all day, unlike Nancy and Cryin’ Chuck. Time for the Dems to end the shutdown and build my wall!
(Or steel fence.)Getty
The backstop reveals the central problem of Brexit: Remainers won’t thank the government for it and Leavers won’t be satisified.
One of the arguments that Conservative ministers have regularly made in the House, particularly committed Brexiteers like Geoffrey Cox and Michael Gove, is that the backstop – the provision designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland – is actually a very good deal for the United Kingdom.
And they’ve got a point. At the start of the Brexit negotiations, the government had two objectives: the first was to maintain the status quo on the Irish border, which helped to secure peace in Northern Ireland, and has been a cross-party aim of both major parties since 1985. The second was not to agree anything in the divorce talks that prejudiced the talks on the final free trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. And it had to achieve both in a way that could be signed by Theresa May’s opposite number in Ireland, Leo Varadkar, who, like May, has domestic politics of his own to contend with.
The two aims are necessarily in conflict. The only way for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland to remain unchanged after Brexit is for either Northern Ireland or the whole of the United Kingdom to remain part of the customs and regulatory orbit of the European Union. The simplest way to do that would be for the United Kingdom to remain part of the customs union and single market indefinitely.
So one way to guarantee the status quo is for the default position to be that, in the absence of agreement, the whole of the United Kingdom will remain in the single market and customs union, will continue to contribute to the European Union at its current level – in short, for nothing to change other than that the UK no longer has any direct control over the rules it follows. That arrangement wouldn’t have to be carved out of whole cloth and would solve the question of the border.
But this wouldn’t work for the United Kingdom because it would hugely incentivise the European Union not to reach an agreement as, come what may, Brexit would not cause an economic shock or a loss of access to UK markets. If the only downside risk to you in a negotiation is that if you don’t agree, then your negotiating opposite number becomes less powerful, you won’t negotiate.
The backstop instead does make a small, Northern Ireland-shaped hole in the single market without membership fees and with a comparatively minor level of regulatory alignment. It incentivises both sides to reach an accord, because it violates the sanctity of the internal market on the EU side and because it has implications for the UK’s territorial integrity on the British side.
Unless you want to stay in the European Union either formally or de facto, as the only alternative to the backstop would do, it is a major diplomatic victory for the British and a coup for the civil service. The only intelligent case to oppose the backstop is if you either oppose Brexit and/or government policy towards Northern Ireland since 1985.
So why is that argument falling on deaf ears when Gove and Cox make it?
It is partly because Westminster is becoming increasingly clannish: there are very few politicians willing to support a Brexiteer speaking in favour of May’s deal, as most Remainers don’t want to praise a Leaver and most Leavers don’t like May’s deal.
It’s also because part of the reason why, from a policy perspective, the backstop is a big win for the British government is one that Conservative MPs and particularly Conservative-aligned think tankers privately acknowledge: it allows the United Kingdom to secure a more distant relationship with the European Union at any time, provided they can secure a Conservative government that isn’t reliant on the votes of Unionist MPs.
But just because few people want to acknowledge it doesn’t mean that it isn’t true – if you don’t like the backstop, your political interests are only ever going to be served by no Brexit at all or a Brexit in name only. The trouble for the government, though, is that this behaviour doesn't end outside Westminster. Whatever Brexit outcome is negotiated, not enough Leavers will thank the Conservatives for it and too many Leavers will blame them.
Stable and enduring parliamentary majorities of the kind enjoyed by Tony Blair will continue to be very difficult asks, whoever the Conservative leader is.Photo: Getty
At last! A man has arrived!
Finally, someone has said it! The one thing no one ever admits about caring for small children is… it’s really, really hard. And the smaller your children are, the worse it is. You can end up questioning whether you should have had them at all.
Thankfully, film director Duncan Jones has taken it upon himself to say the unsayable, tweeting that he finds his own children, aged two and a half years old and nine months old respectively, “exhausting, frustrating and life-destabilizing”:
“They are rarely fun. Sure, smiles are great, hugs are lovely, but it’s HARD & not obviously a good choice in life.”
Jones goes on to confess that “of course he’d reconsider” whether parenthood was the right choice for him.
“It’s exhausting! It’s banal! It’s like looking after a dog you can’t housetrain!”
You tell them, Duncan! As you rightly point out, this is something you “never see anyone admit”.
Apart, that is, from mothers. We’ve been saying it since forever. Indeed, it’s such an excellent observation, it’s about time a man made it.
As Rachel Cusk wrote in 2001’s A Life’s Work, raising children is “isolating, frequently boring, relentlessly demanding and exhausting. It erodes your self-esteem and your membership of the adult world.” Or as Corinne Maier, author of 2009’s No Kids: 40 Good Reasons Not To Have Children, puts it, “raising a child is 1 per cent happiness and 99 per cent worry”.
There are Mumsnet threads with titles such as Anyone else regret having children?, Anyone sometimes regret having a second child? and Has anyone (secretly) regretted having a third child?, the answer to all of which is “yes”. Clearly this is something which can be both personally painful and socially inconvenient to discuss, but discussed it is.
Women have long been busting myths regarding the “joy” of looking after babies and toddlers. In her second-wave feminist novel The Women’s Room, Marilyn French coined the term “shit and string beans” to sum up the drudgery of stay-at-home motherhood. Simone de Beauvoir compared bringing up children to “washing up saucepans”.
The alleged anti-maternalism of second-wave feminism spawned a 1980s backlash rooted in the idea that feminists had demonised one of life’s greatest joys. There is nothing new in pointing out that childcare can drive you to despair – at least not if you are female.
As someone who, like Jones, braved the Lego-strewn wastelands of having children less than two years apart, I wholeheartedly agree with him on just how dark those early days can be. (I also, in embarrassingly clichéd style, agree with all those telling him that it gets easier.) It is nonetheless difficult not to feel some irritation at his suggestion that such ideas are rarely expressed.
This simply isn’t true. They are rarely expressed by men, perhaps because men have not been immersed in the world of early years care to as great a degree as women; or because such men who have found childcare soul-destroying have long assumed this is because they are male. (In Misconceptions, Naomi Wolf tells the story of a woman whose husband believes she is “transfixed” by the same toddler games which bore him. She eventually has to tell him that she, too, does not find building a tower of blocks and knocking it down again for hours on end intellectually stimulating, not even with her pink, fluffy, feminine brain.)
Irritation aside, it is a sign of progress to see a man admitting he finds parenting hard not because of who he is, but because of what it is. It’s about time we moved beyond the idea that men just aren’t suited to looking after infants. The fact is, none of us are. And while this has long been a feminist issue, it is also more than that.
For all the groundwork feminists have put in, feminisms cannot be our sole medium for talking about the difficulties of caring for children. Patriarchy can, theoretically, be dismantled; toddlers will always be toddlers. Redistributing emotional labour and placing an economic value on the work of raising children will do many things, but it will not make mopping up toddler vomit or watching the same episode of Thomas the Tank Engine fifty times over any less grim.
We need both the political analysis offered by feminism, and a depoliticised honesty about what having children inevitably does to a person’s life. The idealisation of caring – for people of any age – has long been used to perpetuate inequality, on the basis that unconditional love can be relied upon to paper over all social and economic cracks. Simply saying “caring for others is necessary but crap” can be both a personal cri de coeur and a political act.
Just as it’s possible to love your children and feel despair at the practicalities of raising them, it’s possible to feel annoyed but also glad when an old observation is presented as new. If something is worth saying once, it is worth saying again – unless it starts with “why” and the person speaking is a toddler.Getty/Twitter Duncan Jones and his wife Rodene Ronquillo attend the premier of Warcraft in June 2016
The advert plays on Gillette’s legendary slogan “The Best a Man Can Get”, instead asking “Is this the best a man can get?”
So it looks like I’m going to have to shave for the first time in a decade.
Not because I’ve been inspired by the new Gillette advert urging men to be the best they can be. But because of all the men’s rights activists, misogynists and sillies like Piers Morgan threatening to boycott Gillette. Anyone sporting facial fuzz in future may immediately mark themselves out as a member of that gang, which seems remarkably intent on saying that men shouldn’t be the best they can be.
The advert, titled “We Believe”, was created by the director Kim Gehrig, who was also behind the brilliant “This Girl Can” campaign for Sport England that encouraged nearly three million more women to get more active. One hopes her next step will be to combine the two in a film that shows women punching sexists and running away from Piers Morgan.
It plays on Gillette’s legendary slogan “The Best a Man Can Get”, instead asking “Is this the best a man can get?” as men look moodily in the mirror accompanied by news reports of sexual assault, clips of sexist comedy and outrageously cheesy sections in which boys bully each other and scuffle.
The answer coming back loud and clear from the meninists is: “Yes, yes, fighting, cat-calling and barbecuing is basically all we’ve got.”
It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so serious.
Just last week the American Psychological Association (APA) defined traditional masculinity as “a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence” and found that it leads to negative outcomes such as suicide, addiction, violence and early death.
To be clear, the APA wasn’t talking about masculinity per se, rather the strict definition of it that places a straitjacket on males basically from birth.
I know how young it starts, I co-wrote a book about it. The Gender Agenda started out as a project to record the unfair limits put on my daughter because of her sex. It ended with the realisation that my son is also constricted by expectations placed upon him by the random accident of his chromosomes.
This led me to the same places the Gillette advert goes – role models, popular media and societal expectations that write off bad behaviour with the phrase “boys will be boys” while controlling the female sex with the words “there’s a good girl”.
Weirdly, the same men who hoist the Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) banner and march forth for the worthy aims of reducing male suicide and improving male mental health don’t like being told a huge part of the solution is rethinking masculinity – ie it’s up to them to do something about it. Unsurprisingly it’s other people who need to change their behaviour. Women mainly. Particularly feminists who don’t think about men and boys enough when they are campaigning for women. It’s almost as if the MRAs are actually old-school misogynists using serious issues as cover for a campaign that seeks to control women by telling them what they should be thinking and doing instead of that silly feminism.
And it’s women who suffer from toxic masculinity. The two women a week who die due to domestic abuse, the many more who must live with domestic violence. The girls who don’t speak up in class because teachers unwittingly ask boys for answers. The pupils who, as documented in Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender, actually do worse in their exams when they see an advert conveying negative stereotypes about women on their way to school.
But it’s men who have the power to make it better. That’s not fair. But as long as the balance of power favours men – and it does whether your metric is number of MPs or number of business board members or average salary – then it’s up to men to make it better.
The Gillette ad hones in on that message.
No doubt Gillette will now go bust because of their apparent misstep, in much the same way as Lynx did when all the men immediately agreed to stop buying it after it turned its back on their traditional advertising approach that saw nearly naked women clamour for spotty youths that smelled of “Africa” in favour of something more thoughtful. The “is it OK for guys..” campaign looked at what teenage boys really do on the internet – search for support and affirmation rather than just looking at porn.
And who remembers Nike? The company was big in the sports world... if only it didn’t start piling into politics with its Colin Kaepernick campaign that saw the alt-right burn their shoes.
Weirdly the same right-wing voices who insist newspapers are above democratic oversight because they answer to a higher and more urgent master – the market – are triggered by an ad campaign that surely stands or falls by the same standard. If people are outraged by the idea that men – yes, all men – could be better, then they won’t buy Gillette razors and we’ll have our answer as to whether this is really is the best that men can get.
But perhaps what the meninists are really upset about is the knowledge that won’t happen.
Gillette just played them for tons of free publicity.
And ultimately Proctor and Gamble, owners of the Gillette brand are gigantic capitalists like Nike and Unilever, which owns Lynx. These companies aren’t really bothered about values and attitudes, they are only interested in one thing – the bottom line.
And there’s more cash to be made from men who buy into feminism and want to be better fathers than there is from daft dinosaurs who fear a future in which men and women benefit from true equality.
Men’s attitudes and masculinity itself are changing to be more flexible, more healthy, more satisfying.
The reaction to the Gillette ad shows we’re a long way from achieving the best a man can get, but the very existence of the campaign proves men are getting better.Gillette
Adamowicz had long been a victim of hate, but was it really the hate that killed him?
In 2017, a far-right youth organisation called All-Polish Youth issued a series of “political death certificates” announcing the demise of high-profile pro-European politicians. Among them was Paweł Adamowicz, the long-serving mayor of Gdansk, famous in Poland for his robust defence of refugees and promotion of LGBT rights. “Cause of death:” it stated, “Liberalism, multiculturalism, stupidity.”
Adamowicz was stabbed on stage at a charity concert on Sunday evening, and died on Monday afternoon. He leaves behind him a country in mourning – but for his supporters, the sadness is tinged with anger. No evidence has emerged that the murder was overtly political in nature, in the sense that his assailant was ideologically motivated. But many people blame his death on an increasingly toxic political climate since the rise to power in 2015 of the right-wing Law & Justice Party that opponents say has spread and normalised hate speech, paving the road to violence.
For some liberal Poles, the most obvious historical parallel is that with the assassination in the 1920s of Gabriel Narutowicz, the first president of the new republic of Poland that was established in the aftermath of the First World War. In contrast to the relative homogeneity of contemporary Poland, the interwar republic was strikingly multi-cultural, with large minorities of Germans, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Jews. A man of the left, Narutowicz was elected by the Polish parliament with the support of left-wing parties and representatives of Polish minorities, making him a hate figure for many on the nationalist right, who saw him as a traitor and puppet of the enemies of the Polish nation. He was shot dead just five days into his term by Eligiusz Niewiadomski, a nationalist painter and art critic.
This association in people’s minds between the deaths of the two men was made explicit on Monday, when a silent march mourning Adamowicz made its way through the streets of Warsaw to the Zachęta art gallery, where Narutowicz was assassinated. Speaking to mourners in Gdansk, more than one brought Narutowicz up in conversation. It is a dangerous business standing up for minorities in this country, they say. If the right doesn’t kill you themselves, their hate will kill you for them.
One can make the case that there were strong similarities between the two victims. Both held high office, representing a multicultural vision of Polishness that made them hate figures on the nationalist right. In Poland’s feral right-wing media, Adamowicz was routinely described as a traitor, a German, a criminal, a homo-lover, a paedophile, a Commie, and a puppet of the EU – echoing almost exactly nationalist rhetoric from the 1920s describing Narutowicz as in the pocket of “Reds, Jews, and Germans”.
But things get complicated once you start trying to draw parallels between the two assassins. Niewiadomski had a long history of right-wing activism, and his motives were overtly ideological. But when Adamowicz’s assailant, having just stabbed the mayor, took the microphone to address the horrified crowd, he said he had done it because he blamed Adamowicz’s former political party for his imprisonment in 2014 for a series of violent attacks. This appears to make his motives “political” in some broad sense, but not ideological, in the sense that Adamowicz was killed because of his political beliefs – an important distinction. Complicating things still further, it has been reported that the assailant has a history of paranoid schizophrenia. Adamowicz had long been a victim of hate, but was it really the hate that killed him?
Already at the time of writing, just one day after Adamowicz’s death, there are distressing signs that this question is once again dividing Poland against itself. The government and its supporters stand accused of feeding and normalising hate speech, the result of which is an atmosphere of tension and hatred that makes such attacks as that on Adamowicz more likely, whether they are politically motivated or not. Government supporters, on the other hand, accuse opponents of politicising a crime committed by someone who was self-evidently a criminal with severe mental health problems.
Even amongst those who appear to agree that Poland has a problem with hate, regardless of its connection to the murder, the country’s warring factions appear more concerned with blaming each other for the problem than turning down the temperature. As Britons found out in the wake of the murder of Jo Cox, the kinds of people who are capable of learning the lessons from such a terrible tragedy tend not to be the people who were responsible for the problem in the first place.
So far, so depressing. But amidst the Baltic gloom, there are reasons to be positive. For years, the various controversies surrounding Poland’s nasty, rancorous government has cast a shadow over the millions of Polish citizens who do not fit the stereotype of the Pole as mean-spirited xenophobe. The attention now being given to Adamowicz – his popularity, his generosity, his normality – shines a light on a more decent Poland, the country represented by the crowds of people who queued to donate their blood in an ultimately futile attempt to save their mayor. It will have to be built without him.
Christian Davies is a journalist based in Poland.Getty
The Speaker’s choice of amendments to the meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement are profoundly unhelpful for the government.
John Bercow continues to make life as difficult as possible for Theresa May. The Speaker has selected four out of a possible six amendments to this evening’s Commons vote on the withdrawal agreement, none of them helpful to the Prime Minister.
Downing Street had signalled it could support three potential changes to the motion approving the divorce deal and political declaration on the UK’s future relationship with the EU that MPs will vote on (and defeat) tonight.
In doing so, it had hoped to attract support from two constituencies of swing voters and limit the scale of the inevitable defeat. Two amendments from Tory backbenchers aimed to dilute the powers of the Northern Irish backstop, in order to win over wavering Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP.
Hugo Swire had tabled an amendment that would have provided a parliamentary veto over the UK’s entry into the backstop, while Andrew Murrison had proposed a hard deadline of 2021 for its expiry. With the withdrawal agreement signed off by the EU27, neither could have changed the binding legal text of the treaty, but it had been hoped that, if successful, both could impress upon Brussels the need for change on the backstop.
Bercow has selected neither, and in doing so has not given Tory Brexiteers a ladder to climb down. Nor did he select an amendment from the Labour MPs John Mann, Caroline Flint and Lisa Nandy on protecting workers’ rights, vaunted over the weekend as a means for Downing Street to win opposition votes. For May, the literal intention of these three amendments as their authors saw them was less important than the desired political outcome of accepting them as changes to the main motion MPs will vote on: a less gruesome headline result for the government.
Instead, MPs will vote on four amendments that are unlikely to shift that final – and almost certainly comically lopsided – result very much at all. Nor will any be accepted by the government, which guarantees a clean yes-no vote on the deal alone. The first, from the Labour leadership, rejects the deal because it does not meet Labour’s six tests and calls for the Prime Minister to pursue every possible option to avoid a no-deal scenario. The second, from the SNP, rejects the deal on the grounds it is opposed by the devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales and calls for an Article 50 extension.
While Bercow did select two amendments from backbench Tories that aim to make the UK's withdrawal form the backstop easier, neither will be accepted by Downing Street. Edward Leigh’s – already rejected by Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General – asks the government to confirm it would withdraw from the backstop were it made permanent, while John Baron’s says the deal must only be approved if the UK is given the unilateral right to withdraw from the backstop.
While both could win support from some Tory Brexiteers, neither is likely to be good enough for the DUP and most rebels on the government benches – whose objective is still to kill the deal by a conclusive margin. The Speaker’s choices have made that job considerably easier.Getty
Talk of UK viewers abandoning traditional broadcasters for streaming services ignores one major sticking point: Brits prefer British TV.
On 22 November 1980, 21.6 million people in the UK tuned in to discover the answer to the year’s most ubiquitous question: who shot JR?
This was a remarkably large audience, by any standards. But it was all the more impressive when you consider that, historically, Brits aren’t really that fussed about American television.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not entirely immune to its charms. In the 1970s, for example, The Six Million Dollar Man and the Fonz were on just as many toyshop shelves and button badges as Tom Baker’s Doctor Who. But that episode of Dallas (broadcast 17 years to the day after the city’s other most infamous shooting) remains the only US import to have topped the annual UK TV charts in the last 60 years. To find another, you’d have to go all the way back to Wagon Train in 1959.
In fact, foreign imports barely ever figure in the UK’s top 40 most-watched programmes of the week, let alone the year. As a nation, the shows we watch in significant numbers are almost exclusively British-made.
At the same time, barely a day goes by when we don’t hear the death knell of traditional British broadcasting being sounded, amidst much feverish talk of viewers migrating in droves from boring old BBC and ITV to the shiny on-demand Shangri-La of streaming services. As Anna Leszkiewicz wrote earlier this month, Netflix, Amazon and Now TV now boast 15.4 million UK subscribers, while viewers have been cancelling their BBC licence fees at a rate of almost one million a year since 2013.
All of which begs the obvious question: if this is the future of television, then where are all the homegrown hits that British viewers so clearly prefer actually going to come from?
So far, there’s precious little evidence that subscription video-on-demand services are keen to provide them. In 2017, Netflix and Amazon spent around £150m on British-made content – which doesn’t leave much spare change once The Crown, The Grand Tour and Black Mirror are accounted for – compared to £2.1bn invested in UK programming by BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky (along with a few other smaller players).
Of course, it’s possible that, once British subscriptions reach a certain threshold, the new players will increase their spend on domestic content. But the Netflix/Amazon model is geared towards programmes with a global appeal – which often translates as a euphemism for “American” – so it’s a stretch to imagine them ever buying the rights to, say, Coronation Street, to say nothing of the fate of live, interactive entertainment behemoths like The X Factor and Strictly.
Is there a danger, then, that market forces could eventually bring about the same US cultural hegemony on television as already exists in the film industry? Though a European invention, cinema has always had Hollywood as its centre of gravity; whereas with television, local content providers, as I suppose we must now call them, have traditionally taken the biggest market share.
In the UK, indeed, the direction of travel has been firmly away from America in recent decades. Back in the day, the BBC and ITV would regularly show imports like Starsky & Hutch and The Rockford Files in prime-time slots, guaranteeing them big audiences. (Though these audiences were never, it bears repeating, as big as those watching Sale of the Century, George and Mildred or Oh No, It’s Selwyn Froggitt!)
Since the 80s, however, such fare has generally been shunted into late night slots, or onto minor channels. That’s why eyebrows were raised a couple of years ago when ITV started showing Lethal Weapon – a show with “11pm on 5 USA” written all over it – at 9pm on Fridays.
Ironically, Britain’s cold shoulder came just as American television was entering its golden age, denying the likes of The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men the mass UK audience once enjoyed by, say, The Dukes of Hazzard. And while many have sought these shows out on DVD, streaming services and belated terrestrial broadcasts on “minority” channels, we’ve no real way of knowing how just how many.
Similarly, while we have a reasonable idea of what Britain is currently watching on the boring, old-fashioned, corner-of-your-living room telly – the most-watched shows of 2018 were Bodyguard, I’m A Celebrity, Britain’s Got Talent, Doctor Who, The Great British Bake Off, Call the Midwife and Coronation Street, plus of course the World Cup – establishing definitive viewing figures for subscription video-on-demand is like trying to pin down a cloud.
According to YouGov research, around 1.3 million UK Netflix subscribers watched Stranger Things in the week of its second series launch in late 2017. Which is not bad, but it’s around seven times fewer than the number who regularly tune in to watch Brenda Blethyn’s Vera tramping around Northumberland in a floppy fishing hat. That’s a show that I’m guessing you probably read a lot less about.
Similarly, Game of Thrones – often trumpeted as the world’s biggest TV show – boasts around 6.4 million “demand impressions” in the UK. That’s a frankly huge figure for a programme that’s not free-to-air – but the Mother of Dragons is still getting her arse comprehensively kicked by the midwives of Nonnatus House. (And besides, whatever the country of origin on the crate, Game of Thrones is clearly as British as Wimbledon and peeling sunburn.)
If your only experience of British television is what’s written in newspapers, magazines and blogs, you might be forgiven for thinking everyone has already sacked off old-school telly in favour of Netflix. That’s because critics are always keen to position themselves at the leading edge of cultural trends and, let’s face it, Narcos is a much cooler name to drop than Grantchester – even if millions more people actually prefer James Norton’s bicycling vicar to Wagner Moura’s Colombian drug kingpin.
That said, TV trends are about more than the raw numbers, and it’s the viewing habits of a specific demographic – Millenials, Gen Zedders and beyond – that may ultimately prove the biggest game-changer. The average BBC One viewer is now aged 61, and even over at one-time youth channel E4, is 48. Young people are deserting “traditional” telly for American-dominated platforms like YouTube and, yes, Netflix – where they’re as loyal to the brand as the content – at an astonishing rate.
Younger than that, the Atlantic drift is even more acute: despite the heroic efforts of CBeebies and CBBC – every middle-class parents’ digital childminder of choice – only around 1 per cent of new programming across the UK’s 30+ dedicated children’s channels is made in Britain.
In that sense, perhaps the argument is already lost; when the old broadcasting order finally crumbles, don’t be surprised if it barely merits a shrug from a generation raised at the teat of US streaming giants. Alternatively, we might all be watching shows from China by then, who knows? But with arguably the finest broadcasting legacy of any nation on Earth – I mean, Breaking Bad is all very well, but it’s no Beiderbecke Affair, is it? – it would be a crying shame if we let British telly roll over and die without a fight.
Oh, and it was Kristin, by the way. Who shot JR. I forget why, but it seemed terribly important at the time.
Paul Kirkley is the TV critic for Waitrose Weekend.Getty.
The MP, who is 37 weeks pregnant, should not have to go through the voting lobby in a wheelchair.
I can’t believe I have to say this in the year of our lord 2019, but Tulip Siddiq should not have to delay her caesarean in order to vote in today’s Brexit debate. Just bring in proxy voting for pregnant women and new parents already.
Yesterday, the Labour MP said that doctors had advised her, after a difficult first pregnancy, to have her second baby by planned caesarean at 37 weeks. That involves taking steroids to develop the baby’s lungs, which Siddiq did at the weekend. However, she asked doctors to delay the operation from today to Thursday so that she could vote in tonight’s debate on Theresa May’s proposed Brexit deal. Yes, because our parliament is stuck in the nineteenth century – not even the twentieth – the only way to vote is by physically walking through the division lobby. (As it happens, Siddiq would have to be wheeled through by her husband, but the point is that she would be physically present.)
There are conventions that allow sick or dying MPs to be “paired” with a member of the opposition, who also agrees not to vote. The two then cancel each other out. Pairing also happens regularly during less important votes.
However, the system – which broke down in the 1970s, as chronicled in James Graham’s play This House – failed last summer, when Tory chairman Brandon Lewis voted in a debate on Brexit despite agreeing to be a pair for the Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson, who was on maternity leave. There is now little trust that pairing agreements will be honoured.
Luckily, there is an alternative. The Tories’ Maria Miller and Labour’s Harriet Harman have secured broad cross-party agreement for proxy voting for new parents, where a nominated representative can vote in place of the MP. That allows their constituents to see a full voting record. And, also, would in no way cause the sky to fall in. The previous conniptions about carrying babies through the lobby petered out once it became clear that the tellers could reliably distinguish between a newborn baby and Michael Gove.
The Speaker, John Bercow, has endorsed the suggestion that Siddiq should be allowed a proxy vote tonight. But really, there’s no need to make an exception. Just bring in proxy voting for pregnant women and new parents already. Parliament was built by men, for men. When its rules were drawn up, the possibility of a pregnant MP was not considered. That does not mean we can’t change the rules now, though. It is literally the year of our lord 2019.Tulip Siddiq. Photo: Getty
A defeat of around 50 votes would look very different to one of 100 or more.
Defeat in today’s meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement is inevitable for Theresa May — but its consequences are not. Just what this evening’s loss for the government will mean — both for Brexit and the Prime Minister — depends to a large extent on its shape, and which MPs inflict it.
Downing Street is acutely aware of this, and its efforts as the vote approaches have been focused on restricting to a politically manageable level, rather than overturning completely the margin of defeat.
Doing so will mean not only convincing many of more than 100 Conservative MPs who have declared against the Withdrawal Agreement, but also a sizeable number MPs from Labour – a party whose whip obliges a vote against the deal, and whose support has not yet been forthcoming in significant numbers.
The most pessimistic projections suggest that task is both beyond the Prime Minister and in any case futile. Sky News predicts that MPs will vote 424-198: a margin of 226. That would mean a clear majority of Conservative backbenchers were against the deal, as well as most of Labour and the DUP.
This scenario would dwarf the biggest parliamentary defeat of modern times, which saw Ramsay MacDonald defeated by 166 votes in October 1924 (over a procedural question regarding the establishment of a select committee). It would also mean a similar number of Conservative rebels to the 139 Labour MPs who rebelled over the Iraq War in 2003.
The political message from such a catastrophic defeat would be straightforwardly grim: it would impress upon Brussels that a negotiated settlement of any kind, especially a revised version of the current Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on the future relationship, would have no chance of securing Westminster’s approval. It would also reflect unpopularity among MPs so abject that it is unlikely that it could form the basis for a successful second vote. This logic holds for any defeat of more than three figures.
A defeat contained to fewer than 100 votes would be slightly less humiliating for Downing Street, but crucially would also offer a glimmer of hope as far as passing the Withdrawal Agreement in its current form goes.
Should May manage to reduce the margin to fewer than 95 (the number of Conservative MPs who rebelled on plans to introduce controls on handguns in 1997), 91 (the number of Tory MPs who rebelled on Lords reform in 2012) or 81 (the number who rebelled to vote for an EU referendum in 2011), then she will have managed to convince a significant minority of Tory backbenchers to change their mind on the deal without significant changes to it (or, less likely, via amendments promising further revision). Her argument that rejecting her Brexit risks no Brexit will have had limited but nonetheless significant cut-through.
A group of up to 20 Labour MPs will have also voted for her deal in this scenario – but they will be limited to those who either voted Leave in 2015, or those who have defied their party whip to back a harder form of Brexit than currently proposed by their party. This is the sort of territory that would convince May that her deal was very much still a going concern – but doubts would remain in Brussels over whether they could offer anything to salvage a victory.
Anything substantially less than this – a defeat of around 50 or less – is on current evidence completely unrealistic. It is nonetheless the sort of defeat that both the Prime Minister and those MPs loyal to her will be hoping for. Such a margin would mean the Conservative rebellion had been limited to the most hardline Eurosceptics for whom most negotiated Brexits would be insufficiently hard, pure or politically expedient, as well as the DUP. There would be a significant number of Labour rebels too, stretching beyond those 15-20 usual suspects.
Downing Street loyalists believe this is the sort of margin that would signal to Brussels that parliamentary approval would be easily attainable with the right sorts of concessions, particularly on the Irish backstop. This outcome, however, remains as unlikely as victory itself.Getty
The opposition’s tests for Brexit are imprecise – but that means a Brexit compromise might yet be found.
Much fun was had by correspondents writing up an account of a recording of Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow secretary for international trade, at a private meeting in Brussels in March of this year, in which he described Labour’s six tests for a Brexit deal as “bollocks”. For non-Anglo-Saxon readers, bollocks is a term meaning “not very good” deriving from somewhere between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Perhaps because there is widespread agreement that the tests are indeed bollocks, not everyone charged with defending Labour’s Brexit policy has been able to remember them, as Richard Burgon demonstrated recently by improvising his own tests in place of the original.
Time available for developing viable parliamentary strategies to avoid exiting the EU without a deal is short. Since the six tests are one of the underpinnings of Labour’s strategy of opposing the draft withdrawal agreement deal, and thus one of the things that leaves a no-deal exit as a distinct possibility, it’s therefore worth looking back at thems.
Doing so will demonstrate that Barry Gardiner was right about the tests being bollocks, and for at least three sets of interlocking reasons.
First, individually they don’t make sense. One group of tests (questions one, three, four, five and six – using the order in which Labour list them) makes little sense because they are too vague and subjective. The most extreme case is test six: “Does [the deal] deliver for all nations and regions of the UK?” This could be answered however Labour chooses, once the party has privately settled on an answer to the question begged: “deliver what?”
Four of the other tests suffer from the same problem. “Does [the deal] ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?” What is “strong” and “collaborative”?
“Does [the deal] ensure fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?” What is “fair”, and, on whom is it fair?
“Does [the deal] defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?” is unambiguous in the principle it wants to apply, but too vague to commit Labour to anything. How much protection means you have “defended”? All rights or just some? “Does [the deal] protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?” How do we measure “national security” and whether it’s preserved?
The second test, however, is not vague at all. It’s the one Gardiner singled out as an example, and it’s quite specific. It insists that the deal must “deliver the exact same benefits as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union”. No deal that the government (or Labour) might produce will meet this test; it’s one that could not be met without remaining in the European Union itself, which is of course a policy that both major parties are, at the time of writing, against. This test is therefore bollocks because it is not a real test, but an objection.
The second reason why the tests don’t make sense, and are bollocks, is that collectively they are not able – and we can presume not designed – to suit the implied purpose, and are therefore something of a sham.
The hope – just as with Gordon Brown’s five tests for joining the Euro, which were failed for the last time in 2003 – is that the onlooker is convinced that the test designer forgoes the temptation to decide the matter at hand according to Machiavellian political advantage. This is done by emphasising quantitative criterion, which can be decided on objectively, technocratically, and in the open.
The “X-tests” gesture is related to the practice of setting up quangos to implement policy objectives, like the Bank of England or the Office for Budget Responsibility.
The quangos have mandates, and choose among policies of sorts day by day according to whether these mandates are met or not. The X tests are akin to delegating to the non-Machiavellian gremlin inside the leadership. The Machiavellian self is restrained by being unable to fiddle the tests in the glare of the public eye.
Quangos live on, of course, because they have to make repeated policy decisions. The tests are a delegation for one-off choice, and die with that choice.
Except that with Labour’s six tests for a Brexit deal, the freedom to decide using electoral advantage is preserved anyway. Most of the tests are vague enough to be fiddled so that the deal fails, and as such one of them will always fail. And there are no independent arbiters employed like the independent researchers working on Brown’s five tests.
Of course a third and final reason why the six tests are bollocks is that there is extra ambiguity in the test scores due to the fact that “the deal” is – and this was known at the time of the tests’ writing – just a withdrawal agreement plus a series of aspirations contained in the political declaration.
As noted by Stephen Bush several months ago, the tests can’t be applied with any precision because we don’t know what a deal to conclude our future relationship would look like.
The same vagueness of the tests that allows them to fail Theresa May’s deal when it suits Labour also allows them to present their own aspirations as something that would lead to a deal that passes.
This author reads and hears constantly that the government did nothing at all to court Labour MPs to find common ground over its “deal”. This is more curious for noting in retrospect that part of the underpinning of Labour’s so-far solid confrontation is bollocks, just as Barry Gardiner confessed in private. Had there been some kind of reaching out, those minded to do so in Labour could have used the bollocks – the vagueness and the sham of it all – as cover to vote for a compromise of sorts. In which case the bollocks would after all have turned out to have been “the dog’s bollocks” (which, for any non-British readers, is confusingly quite the opposite of “bollocks”; something good and just right).
One can only hope that as 29 March approaches, the bollocks in the six tests, and the government’s own bollocks (a summary of which is well beyond the scope of this article) can still yet provide the flexibility to design an alternative to a disorderly exit.Photo: Getty
The withdrawal agreement looks to be dead in the water, as Westminster becomes ever more dysfunctional.
The only question at Westminster: will the defeat of the withdrawal agreement be exceptionally, or merely very large? The EU-UK exit deal is set to be rejected by MPs and already minds are turning to what will happen next.
The Telegraph reports that Labour will immediately table a vote of no confidence in the government, but I’m told that the timing of any such vote is still up in the air.
I’d be surprised if Corbyn did because a) there is no prospect of that vote being won yet and b) once the confidence motion has been and gone, the pressure will increase for the Labour Party to come out in support of a referendum re-run, something that Corbyn is reluctant to do.
That speaks to the biggest and most troubling Brexit sub-plot: with little over 50 working days until we are set to leave the EU under the Article 50 process, Westminster’s politics are becoming more, not less, dysfunctional.
On the Conservative side, the withdrawal agreement is dead in the water and the latest proposal to save it – Andrew Murrison’s amendment to insist that the backstop be time-limited – is a route to no deal by other means as it is unacceptable to Ireland and therefore to the EU27. Far from moving away from fantastical ideas that won’t work, the governing party is going in the opposite direction, with 12 Tory MPs signing a letter that goes beyond even the demands of the ERG leadership, which already cannot be met by any negotiated deal.
Whether by accident or by design (and from my conversations with many of the Labour MPs in question it seems like the latter), May has done a good job of picking up support from Labour MPs in heavily Leave constituencies who fear being seen to soften Brexit. But there aren’t enough of that group to compensate for the number of Brexit ultras on the Tory side, let alone the more unusual Conservative rebels.
On the Labour side, the People’s Vote campaign is no closer to either having the numbers within the parliamentary Labour Party to secure a second vote or to having the buy-in from the party leadership to get a second referendum. But they have managed to raise the political temperature around Corbyn and Brexit, which makes it difficult to see how the Labour leader can do anything to secure a Brexit deal that doesn’t cause him political damage. That the Labour leadership has raised hopes that they might get an election out of all this also makes it hard, perhaps impossible, for Labour to do anything to resolve the Brexit crisis in this parliament. This all incentivises Labour to run down the clock, increasing the chances of no deal.
It may be that the vote tonight – 7pm GMT, available on parliament’s website and the iPlayer – clarifies minds and allows cross-party alliances to break into open cover. But as it stands, the politics of Brexit look to be getting knottier, and the possibility of no deal rising as a result.Getty
The former Manchester United defender’s arguments in favour of Mike Ashley were riddled with errors.
Rio Ferdinand has been bullshitting again. The former Manchester United and England defender, while serving as a pundit during BT Sport’s coverage of the Premier League clash between Chelsea and Newcastle at the weekend, insisted that Newcastle fans should “thank” tycoon Mike Ashley, for his running of the club. He was too modest to mention that his own clothing range, FIVE, is sold exclusively through Sports Direct, the discount sportswear chain Ashley also happens to own.
Ferdinand, who, when pressed, said that his business interests were “irrelevant” to his capacity to offer impartial comment on Newcastle, launched an error-riddled defence of Ashley’s tenure. The 40-year-old suggested that Magpies fans should be grateful to Ashley for spending £50m of “his own money” to win promotion from the Championship in the 2016-17 season, despite the club generating over £100m in player sales during that same campaign. The club actually finished the summer of 2016 with a profit in the transfer market, largely thanks to the sales of Andros Townsend (£13m), Moussa Sissoko (£30m) and Georginio Wijnaldum (£25m).
Ashley, who has owned Newcastle since 2007, is an unpopular figure on Tyneside. Prior to his arrival, in the Premier League Newcastle had finished second twice, third twice, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh, while reaching two FA Cup finals and a European semi-final. They were in a European competition more often than they weren’t and, historically, despite having not won a major trophy since 1969, they remain the ninth-most successful club in English football in terms of competitive honours. Since Ashley became owner, the club have been relegated twice and finished in the bottom half of the Premier League table on a regular basis.
To highlight the temerity of Ferdinand's comments, consider that before Ashley became Newcastle owner, the club had been relegated four times in 102 years, compared to twice in the 11 after. And they are at a risk of making it three times in 12 years, should the club go down again this season, which, following the 2-1 defeat by Chelsea, is a distinct possibility.
Ashley, under pressure to sell Newcastle after a disastrous reign, insists that he is trying to, but has made no effort to make the club an attractive prospect to buyers. The club’s record signing remains the £16m paid for Michael Owen in 2005 – well below the going rate for even mid-table Premier League sides these days – and Newcastle’s current squad is arguably the worst in the top flight, totalling in value at around half of the amount Manchester United paid for Paul Pogba.
But Ferdinand said that Ashley should not be expected to invest any more money in the club when he is trying to sell. How sincere those attempts are, however, are doubted by supporters, who have noted that discussion of a takeover at the Toon usually only happens during transfer windows. The PR smokescreen set up by Keith Bishop Associates, who also represent Ferdinand, has become a tired trope of the Ashley era.
Not content with spouting nonsense on TV, Ferdinand followed up his comments with a tweet in which he said Newcastle fans should also be grateful for “no debt”, claiming that Ashley had balanced the club’s books. In fact, the club's debt is over £140m, having doubled since Ashley arrived. This information is publicly available, yet Ferdinand, who is paid to analyse football, clearly made no attempt to find this out. Confronted with this, he reportedly said he was “not bothered” about his inaccuracies.
Still, on one level, Ferdinand is right: Newcastle are a yo-yo club. But that is Ashley’s doing. They are a shadow of their former sides, such as those seen under managers Kevin Keegan and Bobby Robson, that Ferdinand actually played against. His cousin, Les, was even part of Keegan’s famous “Entertainers” team.
Newcastle now exist as a billboard for Sports Direct – Ashley pays a pittance to advertise his brand at the club – so fans could be forgiven for wanting to prioritise player signings over the “profit” that Ferdinand thinks is such a feather in his cap.
Given the breakdown in their relationship, Newcastle fans know better than to ask Ashley to pump his own money into the club; but they are entitled to demand that the money generated by the club, through lucrative top-flight broadcast deals, player sales, and the prize money earned from the odds-defying top-half finish delivered by current boss Rafa Benitez last season, should be spent on improving the squad and training facilities.
Newcastle turned a profit in excess of £20m in the summer window just gone and as yet, two weeks into the January trading period, have made no signings. Ashley claims that takeover talks are in progress, but the club’s Premier League status is, again, in jeopardy. In the 1995-96 season alone, Newcastle won 24 top-flight games. Since the start of the 2015-16 campaign, they have won just 25 in nearly four years.
Ultimately, Rio Ferdinand’s comments are either wilfully ignorant or wilfully biased. So, what, then, are BT Sport paying him for?Getty
An amendment to tomorrow’s meaningful vote aims to make the Irish backstop temporary – but it’s a non-starter in Westminster and Brussels.
Ahead of tomorrow’s meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, Theresa May’s best hope is of snatching a narrow defeat from the jaws of an enormous one. Tory backbencher Andrew Murrison believes he has found a way to pull it off.
Murrison, who chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, has tabled an amendment to Tuesday’s motion, the effect of which would be to make MPs’ approval of the deal conditional on Brussels setting an expiry date of 31 December 2021 on the Irish backstop, by means of a legal codicil to the Withdrawal Agreement.
Will it work? We know that both Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP are unwilling to support a deal that includes a backstop that lacks either a time limit or a unilateral exit clause, which Murrison’s amendment – which is backed in private by several ministers – seeks to redress. He believes it could help Arlene Foster’s ten MPs overcome “the understandable difficulties they have the Withdrawal Agreement”. Should they return to the government fold, then dozens of Tory rebels will follow.
The reality, however, is much less straightforward – and much less rosy for the Prime Minister. Brussels and Dublin have hitherto been steadfast both in their refusal to accept any sort of time limit on the backstop, which, as far as they are concerned, would defeat its purpose as an all-weather insurance policy. Murrison’s amendment seeks something they will not give.
Nor does the DUP deem a codicil a sufficient legal guarantee. Its stance is the same as it ever was: a reopening of either the Withdrawal Agreement itself, or nothing (which neither May nor more pertinently Brussels is presently willing to entertain, and parliament cannot bind the latter body to do anything or alter the agreement by fiat anyway). Though they might yet back Murrison’s amendment – a DUP source says it is the sort of thing that could “gain traction” – they would do so in the hope of sending a message to Brussels that the backstop must be ditched or significantly altered, rather than endorsing this specific plan to do so.
“It at least expresses explicitly a view of parliament as firmly against the backstop,” they say. “I imagine the EU needs a concrete expression of that before budging their position; no point, from their perspective, of doing so unless they are certain it would lead to a deal.” Given the European Research Group has already declared they will not back the amendment – which it suspects is a Downing Street ruse – it is very unlikely that such a majority will be forthcoming. Murrison’s amendment won’t provide an escape route in Westminster or Brussels.Getty
“I have been FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton. Maybe tougher than any other President,” he claimed on Saturday.
A panicked Trump is desperate for us to believe he’s “touch” on Russia following a bombshell New York Times report on Friday that the FBI opened an enquiry – in 2017, after the president fired the bureau’s director James Comey – into whether he was a Russian agent.
“The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence,” the Times report says. It adds that the investigation “also had a criminal aspect, which has long been publicly known: whether his firing of Mr. Comey constituted obstruction of justice”.
This appears to have sent the president into a manic spiral. On Saturday he went on a five-tweet tear, saying that “the corrupt former leaders of the FBI, almost all fired or forced to leave the agency for some very bad reasons, opened up an investigation on me, for no reason & with no proof, after I fired Lyin’ James Comey, a total sleaze!”
“My firing of James Comey was a great day for America. He was a Crooked Cop......” he continued, literally using that many full stops, “.....who is being totally protected by his best friend, Bob Mueller, & the 13 Angry Democrats - leaking machines who have NO interest in going after the Real Collusion (and much more) by Crooked Hillary Clinton, her Campaign, and the Democratic National Committee. Just Watch!”
“I have been FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton. Maybe tougher than any other President. At the same time, & as I have often said, getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he concluded.
His mania continued into the week: on Monday afternoon Trump told reporters on his way to Air Force One that he “never worked for Russia” and that to even ask him such a question was “a disgrace”, adding that the whole thing was “a hoax”.
But the president has lost all credibility: why would anyone believe anything he has to say at this point? The fact that the FBI was investigating him for possibly being a Russian agent is another sign that the trap may be closing around him. We already know about the links between the Kremlin and people high up in his campaign, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort; and we also know that the Russians interfered in the election process to help Trump win.
In what might be more bad news for Trump, his nominee to replace Jeff Sessions as Attorney-General, William Barr, has said in his planned opening remarks for his confirmation hearing Tuesday afternoon – published on Monday – that he will protect the Mueller enquiry into the president, a promise similar to the recusal that led him to fire Sessions in the first place. It is easy to see why all this might send the president into this spiral.
On top of the ongoing soul-searching about where all this could be leading, the president’s erratic behaviour leads to another troubling question, as it always does whie Trump has his fingers on the nuclear trigger: where will all this nervous energy get channeled?Getty Trump berates reporters for asking about the FBI investigation on Monday
Although the protesters may enjoy a strengthened sense of solidarity, they are likely overall to have damaged the cause they seek to defend.
In October, I received an email from a student representative of Oxford Stand Up to Racism inviting me to sign a statement headed “The far right are not welcome on our campuses”. This was part of an effort to prevent Alice Weidel of Alternative für Deutschland from giving an invited talk at the Oxford Union. This email arrived two days after I had received an email from students at the American University of Beirut insisting that I withdraw from giving an invited lecture there. One of them, apparently endowed with superhuman resistance to boredom, had searched my CV and been rewarded by discovering that I am an adviser to the Center for Moral and Political Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I am thus in violation of the academic boycott of Israel and, the students claimed, a paid employee of an institution that is implicated in war crimes. I was, therefore, “not welcome” at their university.
I replied to the first email by explaining why, although I share the students’ detestation of AfD, I believed that preventing Weidel from speaking would be counterproductive. I replied to the second by explaining why I would not withdraw and offering to meet the students for discussion.
In the sequels, Weidel withdrew and I was shouted down for 20 minutes by students with placards and Palestinian flags, after which I was allowed to speak – though not to the protesters, who had obediently filed out on orders from their leader, who was not a student but, the university discovered, a Hezbollah activist. It made no difference that my work for the Hebrew University is both trivial and unpaid, that the philosopher who asked me to do it had been imprisoned for refusing to do military service in the Occupied Territories, and that everything I have published about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been critical of Israel, even to the point of arguing that settlers in the Occupied Territories are morally liable to defensive harming because of their collaboration in the theft of Palestinian land.
These events are instances of a broader “no-platforming” phenomenon: a recent surge in efforts to suppress the expression of views that people find offensive or immoral, and to punish those associated with those views. These efforts take a variety of forms. The academic boycott of Israel (an element of the larger movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) seeks to exclude and isolate all Israeli academics. In other instances, such as the two I have cited, students mobilise to prevent invited speakers from speaking. There have also been campaigns to ostracise individual academics and force them to retract their published views, as well as efforts to block academic appointments and to have academics removed from their positions because of the substantive content of their writings.
These efforts have come from both ends of the political spectrum. Efforts from the right have included harassment and defamation of climate scientists, death threats to philosophers who have argued for contentious views in bioethics (such as that infanticide can sometimes be permissible), protests over the philosopher Peter Singer’s appointment at Princeton (which included not only death threats to Singer and the president of the university but also threats from conservative benefactors, which were eventually fulfilled, to discontinue donating to the university), and the cancellation by the University of Illinois of its contract with a Palestinian-American professor who had expressed anti-Israeli views on social media. Efforts from the left have included attempts to coerce the retraction of an article on transracialism by philosopher Rebecca Tuvel and the shouting down of a scheduled debate at Middlebury College between Charles Murray, the controversial co-author of The Bell Curve, and Allison Stanger, a liberal political science professor who was attacked by students as she left the building and had to be treated for both a concussion and whiplash.
There are, of course, graver threats to free and impartial inquiry than those posed by the forms of action I have cited. In the West, most are posed by conservative governments, such as the Trump administration, and the distortions of truth their supporters circulate through social media and the internet. Similarly, the most obviously impermissible means of suppressing ideas – threats of physical violence, organised efforts to defame or discredit individual academics, and so on – are employed mainly by people or groups on the right, outside the universities. Yet protests intended to prevent invited lecturers from speaking, public denunciations of academic heretics accompanied by demands for recantation, and other similar tactics come primarily from the left, within the universities.
These latter efforts at silencing academics seem to me often unjust and almost always self-defeating. The boycott of Israeli academics, for example, is unjust because it wrongs Israeli academics who actively oppose their government’s policies of occupation, settlement, and blockade, often at considerable personal cost. These individuals have done nothing to make themselves liable to be boycotted. To shun and seek to isolate them simply because they are citizens of Israel is a form of unjust collective punishment. It is also counterproductive not only because it risks alienating the critical voices within Israel but also because it squanders the opportunity to co-operate with them, when they are in a stronger position to influence their government than those who are not citizens of Israel. Justice for the Palestinians will not be achieved through force but only through mutual understanding and reconciliation, which require discussion that is open and respectful on both sides.
It is not unjust simply to decide not to invite people to speak at one’s university because one objects to their views. No one has a right to be invited to speak at a university and, given that the choice of speakers is necessarily highly selective, it is a reasonable ground for excluding certain people that their views are repellent. But once a speaker has been invited, and especially if this person has arrived for the event, it may be unfair, both to the speaker and to those who have offered the invitation, to use force or intimidation to prevent the event from occurring. It is also usually highly counterproductive. Preventing invitees from speaking by shouting them down gives them and those who agree with them no reason to rethink or abandon their views. Rather, their opponents forgo a rare and valuable opportunity to explain to them, politely but cogently, why their views are mistaken. In the words of St. Bernard’s admonishment of the clergy, “errors are refuted by argument, not by force”. Indeed, silencing speakers rather than engaging with their ideas may suggest to them and others that one lacks confidence in one’s ability to refute those ideas or to defend one’s own.
Those who organise or support protests at university lectures often say that their aim is to deny the speaker the legitimacy conferred by the opportunity to address an audience at their university. But I doubt that there is any such conferral of legitimacy, or even a perception of it. University lectures usually pass unnoticed except by a few within the university. And, in any case, universities and academics no longer command the respect they arguably once did, especially from people on the right, who have become increasingly dismissive of academics, including scientists. Yet even if some form of recognition were conferred, it would derive from the invitation by the institution, not from the actual giving of the talk. A speaker who has been invited but cancels because of illness does not thereby forfeit any recognition conferred by the institution. Nor is that recognition negated if the talk is disrupted by some tiny minority of the student body.
The general effect of forcibly preventing or disrupting a talk is usually quite the opposite of denying legitimacy to the speaker; such speakers gain publicity that they probably would not otherwise have had. The bullying they have experienced hardens their resistance to the views of their opponents and enhances their standing among their supporters, who can now regard them as heroes and martyrs. And those who have hitherto been unaligned with either side are likely to be alienated by what they may perceive among the protesters as intolerance, vindictiveness, and a preference for force and intimidation over reasoned discussion. Although the protesters and their sympathisers may enjoy a strengthened sense of rectitude and solidarity, they are likely overall to have damaged the cause they seek to defend.
Another peril in silencing invited speakers at universities is that it invites reprisals. Suppose conservative students declare that “the far left are not welcome on our campuses” and begin to shout down speakers on the left, such as those advocating the permissibility of abortion. It seems doubtful that students who now shout down conservative speakers will acquiesce in this; rather, they will respond with counter-protests at the same events. Or conservative students might organise counter-protests in defence of the speakers they have invited. The resulting confrontations are likely to escalate into affrays, with mobs of students screaming angrily at one another, potentially erupting into violence. At present, students on the left may outnumber those on the right, but moral, political, and scientific disagreements should not, and indeed cannot, be resolved by the balance of forces.
In international relations, the analogue of addressing disagreements through silencing is the choice of war over diplomacy. War is normally ruled out as impermissible by the requirement of necessity, which demands that one choose, from among the possible means of achieving a just aim, the one that can be expected to have the morally best balance between effectiveness and minimising harm to others. If the disruption of invited lectures is normally not only ineffective but self-defeating, it seldom has any chance of satisfying the requirement of necessity.
Except when speakers overtly incite their audience to violence or hatred, the appropriate way to respond to speakers whose views one believes to be offensive or immoral is to allow them to speak and then, in a temperate manner, challenge their views with reasons, arguments, and evidence. Harassment, bullying, and intimidation are tactics unworthy of universities and of the left. We should leave them to Trump and his minions.
Jeff McMahon is the White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Jeff is the author of Killing in War and co-founder of The Journal of Controversial Ideas.
This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Aaron is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics and the co-editor of Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Heidegger on Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @ajwendland.Getty.
In this long read, Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, examines the avoidable errors Britain made during its negotiations with the EU.
In 2018 the British were obsessed with Brexit, but the rest of the EU had much else to worry about. Although the migration crisis abated, EU governments could not agree on how to handle irregular immigration. France’s President Emmanuel Macron struggled to convince fellow leaders that the euro would not face a secure future without radical reforms to the way it is managed. Poland and Hungary were in conflict with EU institutions because of their disregard for the rule of law. Russian misbehaviour continued to worry eastern member states, while US President Donald Trump’s threat of a trade war caused many of the 27 to fret. Perhaps most alarming of all, the Italians elected a right-wing populist government that seemed set on collision with the EU on issues such as Eurozone spending rules, migration and Russia.
And on top of all that, EU leaders faced the unwelcome distraction of Brexit. They all regret it (some more than others) and they all want the problem out of the way as soon as possible. They now realise that Britain’s departure is not quite the existential threat they once feared – no other member state is anywhere near following the UK out.
That realisation may have made parts of the EU too complacent about Brexit. One senior Commission official commented in 2018 that with the British pebble removed from the EU’s shoe, the EU could get back to the necessary task of integration. Yet those who see the UK as the principle obstacle to a more federal, united Europe are surely mistaken. The vote for Brexit was simply an extreme and particularly unfortunate example of a phenomenon that stretches across much of the continent. Right-wing, populist forces in many member states – including those in central Europe – are antagonistic to some or all of immigration, trade liberalisation, cross-border financial transfers, supranational rules and the institutions of Brussels.
The excision of the British pebble appears to have created moderate problems for right-wing populists: since the referendum, support for the EU has grown in many parts of Europe, as voters have seen the mess the UK is in. But the fundamental EU-scepticism of many parts of European society remains. And despite the best efforts of Macron, who has found very little support among his fellow leaders, the EU is not making much effort to undertake serious reform.
Indeed, the first major lesson of Brexit is that European integration – in the old sense of grand new treaties that transfer powers to the union – has stopped. From the Single European Act (ratified in 1986) to the Lisbon Treaty (ratified in 2009), five major treaties endowed the EU with substantial new powers. There will probably never be another such treaty. Any new document would have to be ratified by every member-state, with four or five of them certainly resorting to referendums. It is virtually certain that one of the referendums would have a negative outcome. EU leaders know this, which is why, if integration is required – for example to improve the way the Eurozone works – they will resort to small, low-key inter-governmental treaties among the relevant member states. The Eurozone countries have already done this in recent years, with mini-treaties establishing the European Stability Mechanism and the bank resolution fund.
The challenge of anti-EU populism to European integration will wax and wane from year to year, but will remain potent. The May 2019 European elections will remind the EU of populism’s strength. The European Commission is undoubtedly right that, in order to tackle the root causes of right-wing populism, the EU needs new powers in areas like Eurozone governance and the handling of immigrants; the EU’s poor performance on those issues has boosted support for the likes of Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and Heinz-Christian Strache.
Yet the paradox of European integration is that anti-EU populists will often be strong enough to prevent the steps towards more integration that would undermine support for their own parties. Voters and/or parliamentarians in many member states would be likely to block the transfer of substantial new powers to the EU. Therefore while the EU is a very long way from unravelling, it is likely to soldier on with insufficient means to tackle the many complex challenges it faces.
Leaving is like joining
At the time of writing, in January 2019, the final result of the Brexit process remains unclear. No particular outcome looks likely, but several seem possible: the deal Theresa May negotiated; that deal modified to produce a much softer, Norway-style Brexit; Britain leaving the EU without any deal; or a second referendum, which could lead to the UK remaining a member.
However, two and a half years after Britain’s referendum, some lessons of the Brexit process are becoming clear. One is that leaving the EU is like joining it. Countries wanting to join engage in “accession negotiations”, but that is a misnomer. The accession process in fact involves the EU imposing its terms on the country concerned. If it does not like those terms it does not have to join. The details can be debated, but not the basic deal that the EU offers. Every country that has joined the EU has put up with this unequal “negotiation” in order to get into the club.
Leaving the EU is a similar process. Once the departing country has set its red lines for the future relationship, the EU decides what kind of deal will work. Then the exiting country has to accept those terms – if it wants a deal, and it will, since leaving without one would be hugely damaging to any state. It is true that the Irish border has made Britain’s exit particularly complicated; the Withdrawal Agreement’s provisions for Northern Ireland to stay in much of the single market, and for the whole UK to stay in a basic customs union with the EU, would not be relevant to other countries exiting. But any member state leaving would have to accept the EU’s strictures on process (the Withdrawal Agreement must come before discussions on future relations); and substance (the departing country must promise to pay the money the EU claims it is owed).
How not to leave the EU
Exiting the EU is a process in which the departing country holds very few cards, except for the money it owes. So Brexit was always going to be an unequal negotiation. But the British have handled their exit particularly badly, thereby exacerbating the weakness of their position, in at least three ways.
First, May’s government has made tactical errors. The Prime Minister set out her red lines for the Brexit talks in a speech to the Conservative Party conference in October 2016, excluding a role for the European Court of Justice, freedom of movement and membership of the single market. She made that speech without having thought through the consequences; no official was allowed to read it in advance. (Later she added no customs union to her list of red lines.)
In that speech the Prime Minister was trying to curry favour with Tory eurosceptics, especially when she said that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere – you don’t understand what citizenship means”. For much of her prime ministership, May has made minimal efforts to build bridges with the 48 per cent of Britons who voted Remain, or to the businesses that fear a distant relationship with the EU. But having embarked on the path towards a hard Brexit, she then spent the following two years learning that such a course would be very damaging to the economy; rather late in the day, she sought to change direction towards a softer Brexit. That meant blurring some red lines and provoking supporters of a hard Brexit.
Another tactical error was to send the EU her Article 50 letter, activating the withdrawal process, in March 2017. It is true that she was under pressure from both her eurosceptic backbenchers and from the EU to get a move on. But she sent the letter too soon, because she had no plan for Brexit: she should have waited till she knew what she wanted. And once the letter was sent, the clock started to tick: the UK would automatically leave on 29 March 2019, with or without a deal. The ticking clock put the EU in a very strong position.
The third tactical error was to take so long to work out what she wanted. All through the Brexit talks, the texts that the two sides discussed were EU texts. The UK failed to produce its own proposals, which allowed the EU to set the agenda. When May finally came up with a blueprint for the future relationship, in June 2018 – the so-called Chequers plan and its associated white paper – it was too little, too late to make much impact on the EU. The plan’s section on customs (allowing the UK to set its own tariffs at the same time as eliminating border controls between the UK and the EU) was regarded as unworkable by the EU, and many British officials. The provisions that would allow the UK to stay in the single market for goods by aligning with EU rules were more serious; but they failed to take account of EU concerns that the British could distort the level playing field by undercutting continental firms in areas such as social and environmental rules or competition policy. As one EU negotiator put it: “If the UK had produced the Chequers plan a year earlier, and met our concerns about the level playing field, it would have been hard for us to reject it.” But coming when it did, in the form it did, the plan was rejected.
The explanation for these tactical errors, of course, was May’s fear of upsetting her party’s hard-Brexiteers. Especially after she lost her parliamentary majority in the general election of May 2017 – which left her dependent on the votes of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – she lacked the authority to take on her right wing. She was painfully slow in developing a Brexit strategy because she could not get her fissiparous party to unite behind a common line – and when she did finally concoct a plan, key ministers such as Boris Johnson and David Davis resigned.
The second reason why the UK was in an especially weak position was that its government was divided – while the EU played a blinder in uniting behind the solid, sober and serious leadership of Michel Barnier, the Commission’s chief negotiator. He made a big effort to stay in touch with the 27 capitals – and the European Parliament – and therefore won their confidence. His “Task Force 50”, working closely with the Germans and the French, set a firm line, which to the UK was hard and to the EU was principled. Some of the member states had reservations about this line, but they still went along with it. They understood that if they kept together they would achieve more of their objectives. The UK tried hard to work with its “friends” – such as the Dutch, Swedes, Irish and Poles – to soften the EU’s stance, but with little success.
In 2018 the EU was disunited on countless issues, but not on how to handle the British. Meanwhile May and her top officials were greatly weakened in the negotiations by the continuing Tory civil war over Europe. Quite often, May would tell her EU partners one thing, her Brexit secretary (David Davis, or later Dominic Raab) would tell them something else and her officials would have a third point of view. To take just one example, in early November Raab said to Ireland’s foreign minister that the UK expected the right to pull out of the Irish protocol after three months – contradicting what officials and other ministers were saying. That civil war – and the often crude and thoughtless comments coming out of the mouths of senior politicians and commentators, such as Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s comparison of the EU and the USSR at the 2018 Tory conference – did a lot to tarnish the UK’s reputation and lose it goodwill.
The third reason why the UK weakened its own position in the Brexit talks was the sheer ignorance and incompetence of its political leaders. For most of the time since the referendum, they have failed to level with the British people about the painful trade-offs that Brexit would inevitably entail: if the UK wanted close economic ties with the EU it would have to forego sovereignty, and if it wanted regulatory autonomy it would have to accept barriers to trade with the EU. May eventually understood the trade-offs, but did not explain them to the people. Indeed, for much of the Brexit process she would not accept what experts told her. Late in 2017 she was still saying that the entire future trading relationship could be negotiated before Brexit happened: in fact trade talks will not start until after Brexit, and are likely to take around five years.
The EU did not have a problem with the British officials that it dealt with, but became frustrated with the inability of their political masters to allow them to negotiate. The persistent tendency of UK politicians to make gross factual errors grated. For example, many of them said that trading on WTO terms would not be so bad since that was how the UK traded with the US, ignoring the fact that UK-US trade is facilitated by dozens of US-EU agreements covering areas such as data, aviation, financial services and pharmaceuticals. And then David Davis said that it would not matter if the UK left without a deal, since it could use the transitional period to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU – apparently unaware that, without a deal, there is no transition.
Whatever the result of the Brexit process, the appalling performance of the UK’s political class – and in particular the narcissistic Tory psychodrama on Europe – has permanently stained its reputation, and not only in Europe.
Politics, principles and precedent
Any member state contemplating an exit in future years will pay close attention to the EU’s priorities during the Brexit talks. They may be described as the “three Ps” – politics, principles and precedent.
Note that economics was not a priority – a point that many eurosceptics failed to understand this during the Brexit talks. Because the British have always tended to see the rationale of the EU as economic, they assumed that EU leaders would also prioritise future trading ties. Brexiteer ministers assured the British people that the EU would not do anything that could endanger its trade surplus in manufactured goods with the UK. They were wrong.
The most important driver of the EU’s response to Brexit was politics. The French and German governments, and others too, saw Brexit as potentially an existential threat. If the British flourished outside the EU, others might think seriously about leaving. “We don’t want Marine Le Pen to say, ‘Look at the Brits, they are doing just fine, let us join them’,” said a French official. Every EU government that had to worry about a powerful eurosceptic movement made this point.
By the end of 2018 the risks of Brexit setting off a chain reaction appeared minimal; arguably the EU had overdone its effort to ensure that departure did not appear to be an agreeable process. Whatever the final outcome, it was evident that Brexit would inflict a degree of economic pain on the UK. But the EU was taking no risks.
The EU also cared deeply about its principles. One of the most important is that the “four freedoms” – free movement of goods, services, people and capital – are indivisible. Thus if Britain wanted free movement of goods – as its Chequers plan proclaimed – it would have to take the other freedoms too. That is why Barnier told the British that they could have a deal modelled on Norway (fully in the single market) or a Canada-style FTA (completely outside the single market), but nothing in between. The EU rejected the Chequers plan for this reason, and others – including fears that the British would distort the level playing field, and that, whatever they said, they would simply refuse to be rule-takers for very long.
The political declaration on the future relationship agreed in December more-or-less sticks to the Barnier approach, though it is so vague that with some effort one can read into it what one wants. The declaration is certainly a rejection of Chequers and it spells out that the British shall not have frictionless trade – a key aim of the Chequers plan – post-Brexit. British officials can claim that that declaration will lead to something between Norway and Canada, if not Chequers.
Another key principle for the EU is that no third country can have as close a relationship with the union as a member, or a quasi-member such as a Schengen country that is outside the EU. This reinforces the EU’s point that a state cannot be partially in the single market. More controversially, the EU has also applied this principle to future co-operation with the UK on policing, justice, security, foreign policy and defence – areas where the UK has been surprised to find the EU wanting to keep it at some distance.
A closely related priority for the EU has been to attach great importance to precedent. This may not be entirely unrelated to the fact that many of the key officials on the EU side, notably in the European Commission and the German government, are lawyers. Precedent gave the EU yet another reason to reject the Chequers plan: if the British were allowed into the single market for goods, without free movement of labour, the Swiss would insist on the same deal. (Switzerland currently accepts free movement as the price of participation in the single market for goods, albeit reluctantly.) And if the British could have their cake and eat it, what would stop Italy, say, from insisting that it be excused freedom of movement? As for security, if the British were allowed to participate in EU defence institutions, how could the EU stop a third country such as Turkey requesting the same privilege? The obvious answer is that the EU could simply say no – but that has not made EU leaders less precedent-focused.
The EU has tended to put politics, principle and precedent ahead of pragmatism, and certainly ahead of economics. In some national capitals, particular ministries (such as those responsible for trade, defence or police co-operation) thought the EU’s line on Brexit was too hard, but such views made little impact. The member states’ input into the Brexit talks was managed on a centralised basis by prime ministers’ and presidents’ offices; the sectoral interests represented by particular ministries were largely excluded.
Few of the key officials in Brussels or national capitals dealing with Brexit are economists; nor are the important politicians. When one discussed Brexit with them, it was apparent that maximising future trade and investment flows was not a priority. The British expected industrial lobbying to soften the EU’s stance, but it did not. National officials, including in Germany, liked to report that business lobbies were pressing them to be tough on the integrity of the single market. “We have been urged not to let the British pick holes in the single market, lest that precedent lead to the whole thing unravelling,” said a Berlin official. “Business leaders tell us that the strength and integrity of the single market is much more important than the loss of a bit of trade with the UK.” In fact some individual firms, such as Airbus – for which, friction on the UK-EU border will be a major headache – did speak out for a closer future relationship that that envisaged by the EU. They do not appear to have made much impact.
Forget about the geopolitics
Just as few EU negotiators are economists, very few of them have experience of foreign policy, defence or security issues. Indeed, one lesson of the Brexit process is that the EU does not attach great importance to the geopolitical implications of a country leaving the EU. Macron has said that, with an increasingly threatening geopolitical environment, Europe needs to develop “strategic autonomy”; Chancellor Angela Merkel has added that the EU must take more responsibility for its own security.
Yet without very close collaboration with the UK, post-Brexit, the EU will not be able to fulfil such aims. It is one of only two countries in the EU that has a broad range of defence capabilities, and is willing and able to use them. It has a first-rate diplomatic network, intelligence services that are second to none in Europe, and great expertise in policing and counter-terrorism.
So one might have expected the EU to take a hard line on the future economic relationship, to show that Brexit does not pay, but – out of self-interest – to have been more pragmatic on security. Given that almost nobody in the UK voted to leave because of co-operation on foreign and defence policy, even a eurosceptic Conservative government could be open to pragmatic ways of plugging in the British post-Brexit.
But this has not been the EU’s approach. Principle and precedent have dominated its thinking. The UK cannot have as close a relationship to Europol as Denmark, which opts out of police co-operation, because it is a third country. It cannot take part in the European Arrest Warrant since that is only open to member-states. And if the UK was allowed military liaison officers in the EU’s defence planning institutions, other third countries would ask for the same privilege. As for the Galileo scheme to build a network of European navigation satellites, the EU says that a third country such as Britain can use the system but cannot be part of the management or gain access to the encryption technology, lest the US asks for the same (the EU talks less about the industrial advantages of excluding UK-based firms from bidding for Galileo contracts).
Many European defence experts and quite a few ministers on the foreign and defence side of EU governments are worried about the British being kept at arm’s length. They argue that the EU does need to create unique and bespoke arrangements to plug in the British, because it needs their capabilities. Otherwise, they say, the EU cannot be serious about strategic autonomy.
Yet the political declaration agreed in December reflects little of this thinking. Given the declaration’s non-binding and very vague format, however, it is not too late for national governments to push for close ties when the security relationship is negotiated.
Did the EU push the UK too hard in the Brexit talks?
Given that the final outcomes remain unclear, it is far too soon to make a definitive judgement. And in any case, given the abysmal performance of the UK’s government and political class, it is hard to criticise the EU’s performance; during the two and a -half years since the referendum, the UK has done so little to earn goodwill.
But there are certainly Britons who voted Remain in June 2016 who would probably vote differently in another referendum, because of the perception that the EU has bullied the UK. They don’t like the fact that one side has held most of the cards in this negotiation, and they bridle at hauteur of some EU officials. And it is not only Britons who sometimes take exception to the tone of these officials.
Put all this to EU officials, and they respond, of course, that their job is to ensure a smooth Brexit that protects the union’s interests; their job is not to nurture British public opinion – especially since that opinion has been so poorly managed by UK politicians, many of whom have repeatedly lied to voters.
British MPs, and not only right-wing Tories, have found it difficult to accept that Northern Ireland should be left – in economic terms – closely aligned with the EU. But once both sides accepted, in December 2017, that for the sake of the peace process there should no border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic, there had to be an Irish protocol that left Northern Ireland in some kind of regulatory union with the EU.
On the Irish issue, the EU did in fact show flexibility in November 2018. Driven by the desire to avoid customs checks on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, May erased her earlier red line and asked for the whole UK to be in a basic customs union with the EU. At first the EU said no – though if maximising trade with the UK had been a priority, it should have said yes. The EU worried about the legality of putting an arrangement that could end up permanent into a treaty that, according to Article 50, should only cover the process of exiting – and not the future relationship. Furthermore France and several other countries had major worries that, without automatic provisions for the UK to update its social and environmental rules in line with those of the EU, British firms could exploit the customs union to distort the level playing field.
In the end Merkel helped to persuade the 27 to accept May’s request, despite its questionable legal basis. May’s problem was that, although her customs union reduced the need for controls across the Irish Sea (some would still be necessary, to check for compliance with single market rules) in an unsuccessful attempt to win over the DUP, she alienated her right wing, since FTAs with other countries would be nigh on impossible. Never mind that every serious piece economic analysis, including the government’s own, puts the benefits of FTAs with the BRICS countries and the “Anglosphere” as minimal, compared with the costs of leaving the single market and the customs union.
The biggest lesson of the Brexit process is that any effort to leave the EU will turn out to be much more complicated, time-consuming, expensive and damaging than its advocates ever suggested. Even Brexiteers have to admit that the opportunity costs are enormous: the UK’s top officials and politicians (not to mention thinkers and journalists) have been focused on Brexit, rather than on the many other serious challenges the country faces – such as the housing shortage, knife-crime, poor infrastructure and a shocking record on productivity.
If any good comes out of the Brexit drama, it may be the inoculation of other European countries against any attempt to leave the union.
Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.Getty.
Cliff-edge no deal: possibly the most exciting option available to the Brexit adventurer.
As is often the case, one of the first casualties of any great political upheaval is the English language. Brexit phrasebooks and dictionaries are ten a penny. Forget all of them. This is the genuine article (50).
The state of affairs by which the UK leaves the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and with no commitments regarding a future trading arrangement. If you are to believe certain predictions, in this scenario we’ll all be cudgelling each other over the UK’s remaining tin of ham by midday of 29 March 2019.
Managed no deal
Similar to above, but we expect to have published some guidance on which queue to get your broken light-bulbs in, how to safely recreate penicillin in your shed and some handy tips on which animals down the zoo make the best eating.
Cliff-edge no deal
Similar to above, but you can expect it to arrive a little bit more unexpectedly, leaving you even less time to stockpile Rioja. Possibly the most exciting option available to the Brexit adventurer.
The Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration as negotiated by Theresa May. Understood by almost no one and universally condemned by those who haven’t read it. Universally supported by a different group who haven’t read it. Can be used as a decent Yellow Pages substitute if you need to increase your height by four inches.
A 26-page document outlining a possible framework for the future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom. Called a “political declaration” to emphasise the fact that it isn’t a legal declaration. See also: Not worth the paper it’s printed on.
A deal like the above, based on the existing free trade agreement between the EU and Canada. Put forward as an alternative to “The Deal” by experts who don’t recognise the difference between a Withdrawal Agreement and a future trade deal. Is reputed to be highly desirable in a number of nebulous, un-quantifiable and often never even articulated ways. Likely to take 350 years to negotiate.
The controversial arrangements in place to prevent a re-emergence of a hard border on the Island of Ireland. Roundly condemned as unnecessary by those who didn’t consider it to be a problem in the first place. Universally castigated as unsuitable by those who have a breath-taking ability to misinterpret reality.
A scenario in which the UK leaves the EU with almost no clarity on the terms of a future trading arrangement. Or put another way, a scenario in which a country makes a less than trifling decision on its future, with little or no clarity about what that future may hold. See also: Brexit.
The campaign name given to the movement aiming for a second vote on the UK’s relationship with the European Union. Usually favoured who those didn’t like the first people’s vote. Not to be confused with the Badgers’ Vote, the Toasters’ vote and the vote of the Trees.
A vote so meaningful it may never take place.
The author is a civil servant in the British government, writing anonymously because Stephen Barclay probably won’t find any of this funny. While based on real events, parts of the above are embellished for comic effect. The Secret Civil Servant: The Inside Story of Brexit, Government F**k-Ups, and How we Try to Fix Things (£20, Headline) is published on 7 March.Getty
The short answer: literally nobody knows.
Toppling the likes of Kylie Jenner, Cristiano Ronaldo, Justin Bieber, and Ariana Grande, literally the most-liked picture in Instagram history is now a humble egg.
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A post shared by EGG GANG (@world_record_egg) on Jan 4, 2019 at 9:05am PST
Posted on 4 January, the egg is the sole picture from the self-prophesying account @world_record_egg, and has now smashed Kylie Jenner’s previously record-holding post by over 8 million likes. Breaking the 18.3 million-like barrier in the early hours of this morning, the egg’s global infamy has accrued it 30 per cent more likes in the space of just 12 hours.
The official rankings
BuzzFeed News managed to get hold of the account owner, who said that they were a chicken named Henrietta and that the egg was called Eugene. The owner also said the account was created out of the boredom brought on by Dry January.
With its viral popularity, we should only expect the egg’s like-count to grow ever stronger: on its current trajectory, the egg is set to have double Jenner’s like-count before the week is up. We can also expect the egg’s reign to continue for at least a year, if not several: historically, all of Instagram's most-liked posts have only been unseated by a post with 5-7 million more likes.
We can safely say this record-breaking post will stay at the top of the most-liked list for the foreseeable, proving that this is one egg (oh yes, you knew this was coming) that’ll be tough to crack.Instagram
Not only did the Prime Minister lie, but the winners of the Welsh Assembly referendum worked hard to build a “loser’s consent”.
I teach a postgraduate module at Cardiff University on the life of government ministers, from appointment to losing office. One of the seminars is on ministerial speechwriting. Next year’s version is clearly going to have Theresa May’s Stoke speech as a central focus.
In the circulated draft, the Prime Minister’s speech said:
When the people of Wales voted by a margin of 0.3 per cent, on a turnout of just over 50 per cent, to endorse the creation of the Welsh Assembly, that result was accepted by both sides and the popular legitimacy of that institution has never seriously been questioned.
There are two main problems with this sentence. First, it is a lie. Second, the behaviour of Labour ministers immediately following the 1997 Welsh referendum was a model of how to build consensus after a divisive vote, in stark contrast to May’s abandonment of bridge-building with Remainers after the Brexit referendum.
First, the lie. After the Government of Wales Act passed into legislation and the Assembly started work in 1999, many Welsh Conservatives did give the institution their whole-hearted support and their endorsement made the Assembly stronger than it would otherwise have been.
However, May and many other senior Conservatives still serving in parliament voted against the creation of the National Assembly when the Government of Wales Act went through parliament (the history student Joe Oliver has a useful link here). Additionally, the anti-Assembly current in the Welsh Conservatives carried on their agitation against the Assembly right up to and including the 2005 General Election, when, as the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush has pointed out, Michael Howard’s manifesto included a pledge to offer a further referendum, with one of the options being the abolition of the Assembly.
So May is absolutely wrong to say that the result was accepted by both sides and the popular legitimacy of the Assembly has never been questioned. She didn’t accept it from 1997-98 and she stood on a manifesto in 2005 that offered the option of abolition.
Second, the consensus building. After the narrowness of the referendum victory in 1997, Labour Welsh Office ministers Ron Davies, Peter Hain and Win Griffiths embarked on a period of inclusive engagement with critics of the Assembly. As a result of this, the Government of Wales Bill was amended as it went through its parliamentary stages, for example to allow for a cabinet system rather than the local government model originally envisaged.
Other steps were taken to bring in voices other than Labour politicians as the operating model and subsequently the standing orders for the National Assembly were worked through. My Cardiff University colleague, Professor Richard Wyn Jones, has called this a process of “trying to generate ‘loser’s consent’ for the result”. Realising that the referendum mandate for the Assembly was fragile, the ministers sought to “reach out to and address the concerns of their opponents”.
Contrast this with May. Had she tried to build “loser’s consent” after the 2016 referendum, instead of veering sharply towards a hard Brexit, she could have built a national consensus, probably around membership of the customs union and single market, which would have convinced many who voted Remain to come on board with her project. There would have been no unseemly rush to trigger Article 50 without knowing the endgame. There would have been stability in respect of Northern Ireland. She could have worked more closely with the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland. She could have turned the debate on the UK’s future relationship with Europe into one of partnership rather than bluster. She would have avoided a general election that cost her a Commons majority. Above all, she would not now be facing a mega Commons defeat on her own proposal.
Unfortunately for her, she lacked the necessary leadership skills, political breadth and human empathy to do those things. Instead, she sought a much narrower goal: re-uniting Ukip voters with the Conservative Party rather than re-uniting the United Kingdom.
There is another hidden dimension to the Welsh experience. The 1997 Labour manifesto proposal for an Assembly was far from perfect. The 1998 Government of Wales Act improved the original proposal, but in operation it became clear very rapidly that the settlement was unstable and required further amendment. This included an effective legal separation of the legislature and executive and the slow shift to stronger law-making powers, endorsed in the 2011 referendum with the active support this time of Welsh Conservative leaders.
In the Brexit case, the debate on the current deal is just the beginning of the process. Stand by for a decade or more of negotiations on the legal details of our actual relationship. Building “loser’s consent” could have meant that those details could have been agreed in outline before triggering Article 50.
Theresa May can try to rewrite history all she wants. But the facts, and the documentary record, are against her.
Leighton Andrews is professor of practice in public service leadership at Cardiff Business School. A former Labour Welsh government minister, he was one of the founders of the 1997 Yes for Wales referendum campaign and chaired the Steering Committee for the Yes for Wales campaign in the 2011 Welsh referendum.Getty
To avoid economic blackmail by the markets, any socialist government would need to impose limits on the movement of money by investors.
The inspiring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently shocked the Democrats by endorsing marginal income tax rates as high as 70 per cent. The response from progressive economists such as Paul Krugman has been overwhelmingly positive. In a recent column, he pointed out that in the context of low bargaining power, rent-seeking by elites and the necessity of revenue-raising in the context of high US government debt (104 per cent of GDP – and more if you count sub-national debt), a top tax rate of 70 per cent is eminently reasonable.
As Krugman and many others have noted, top marginal tax rates of 70 per cent or more were normal in the post-war period – also known as the “golden age of capitalism” due to the combination of high growth with low inflation, unemployment and inequality. Since then, successive waves of tax competition have suppressed both income and corporation taxes, leading to a situation in which the UK, the fifth largest economy in the world, levies corporation tax (19 per cent) at a lower level than Afghanistan (20 per cent).
Most mainstream economists today accept that tax competition has been hugely destructive to the global economy. Indeed, implementing a global wealth tax of up to 70 per cent was the central recommendation of Thomas Piketty’s 2013 landmark work Capital in the Twenty-First Century. But the problem with these “progressive” economists is that they don’t seem interested in the structural factors that have made tax competition so easy.
Tax rates didn’t start slipping because everyone suddenly decided that letting multinationals such as Apple pay tax at a rate of 0.005 per cent was a good idea. Tax rates started slipping because elites wanted it that way – in fact, they had spent the post-war period constructing a global economy wired for tax competition.
The golden age of capitalism took place under the Bretton Woods system of exchange rate pegging, which permitted the use of capital controls (limits on the amount of money that can be brought into or out of a country). These controls were anathema to the global elite, which sought the right to move their money to wherever the most profitable investment opportunities – and lowest tax rates – could be found. Friedrich Hayek – the intellectual godfather of neoliberalism – called capital controls “the decisive advance on the path to totalitarianism and the suppression of individual liberty.”
As the 20th century progressed, international capital strained against the restrictions imposed by Bretton Woods. The Eurodollar markets emerged in London as a space of unrestricted capital flows outside of the jurisdiction of any national authority; massive multinational corporations grew up that were able to shift capital across borders; and eventually Bretton Woods itself collapsed. The neoliberals had already set about constructing the new world order that was to replace it.
As Quinn Slobodian writes in his recent book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, they did so by constructing a set of international institutions to promulgate a new international legal framework that protected the “human right of capital flight”. The IMF, the World Bank, and the European Union were amongst the most enthusiastic adopters of this framework – the latter enshrining it into the creation of the single market as one of the four freedoms.
Rising capital mobility meant corporations, investors and wealthy elites were now able to threaten governments that didn’t abide by their preferred agenda. Tax rates around the world plummeted as governments “competed” with one another to attract highly mobile investors and corporations. The measure of a government’s success became its ability to implement “market-friendly” policies. Those who failed to do so would suffer the kind of economic blackmail experienced by French Socialist President François Mitterrand in 1983.
Raising top marginal tax rates is the best moral and economic course of action for the UK, but any socialist government that attempted to do so would be punished severely by “the markets”. Without constraints on capital mobility, investors will continue to exercise a veto power over domestic states’ fiscal policy, and tax competition will only get worse.
The technical infrastructure for the implementation of controls is there – most of it could be performed electronically through existing software. A Conservative government – the party of British finance – would never use it. A Labour government should; and that means making the ability to deploy capital controls in day-to-day monetary policy a central pillar of any Brexit deal.Getty Images Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the US House of Representatives.
Despite the mystique about interviews, Cambridge colleges increasingly rely on data to get a better picture of candidates.
When I talk to the students who have made it to Cambridge, they see their admissions interview as having been make-or-break: the point at which the value of their school career and their future prospects are determined.
That myth – and it is a myth – is shared in the outside world. There’s an extra layer of miscomprehension, based around the image of dons asking abstruse questions designed to weed out inexperienced state school students and guarantee that busloads of men from Eton arrive the following autumn.
But it is true that Cambridge still has its work cut out to convince the outside world that it is open to everyone with the right talent, irrespective of their background. We have to attract potential students from all over the UK, instead of the current over-concentration of applicants from south-east England.
Each year, as master of Selwyn College, I sit in on some of the Cambridge interviews and decisions meetings. What I have seen is radically different from the image constructed by our critics. The much-attacked interviews are only a small part of the selection process and their importance has diminished.
Interviews may well have once been the thing that mattered – agreeable chaps selecting agreeable chaps. But for an academic choosing the next cohort for their subject, there is now a vast amount of data, ranging from the student’s GCSE and admissions test scores (introduced to add hard evidence since the demise of AS modules), through to the school’s assessment of suitability for a degree course and their grade predictions. Some students are deselected before they get to an interview, if their record or predictions aren’t strong enough; and even the most brilliant interview will not secure a place if the rest of their profile is below the par of the field.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, offers are also conditional on the A-Level or equivalent results. Sometimes this is overtly a tough offer, because we want a student to show they can work hard and deliver an outcome at the top end of expectations. So the majority of places aren’t finally decided until eight months after the interviews.
But unlike many other universities, interviews are still part of the process, and discussion of the Oxbridge admissions process, rightly, includes questioning whether it’s a level playing field for people from all social and educational backgrounds. We now have multiple mitigations, in an attempt to ensure that private schools can’t simply coach their students through the process. We offer interview advice to state schools. We do workshops in our outreach areas.
Crucially, in my experience, we also ensure that the questions are fair to everyone, and are not items of Oxbridge whimsy. This year, I witnessed medicine interviews, where candidates were asked to work through a practical human biology question of the kind they would have been familiar with at A-Level: the key thing is to see their mind working through the problem, not whether they get a right or wrong answer. Then they were asked about their understanding of consent when a patient is receiving treatment, which seems like a reasonable thing to ask a prospective doctor. Interviewers receive unconscious bias training to help them assess candidates fairly.
Selectors have access to other important data. We know if a student is doing particularly well as an individual within a low-performing school – a significant plus sign – and we can also see if they come from a postcode with a poor rate of participation in higher education. Therefore when our critics say we should consider contextualised admissions: we do already. If you are a high-achieving student from a tough school in an inner city, or from a rural school with a challenging catchment area, our selectors will want to admit you.
I saw that when I dropped by at the winter “pool” at the start of January. The pool is the system by which offers are evened up across the university, and it brings scores of academics to a set of rooms – this year taking over much of the ground floor of Newnham College – where in the current round, 4,500 application files were available for their consideration. A college will put some of its potential offer candidates into a selection involving all the colleges to test that they are getting the best available. The pool is also used to ensure that strong candidates still get a place, even if their first-choice college is oversubscribed.
Rightly, all those academics rifling through the files have targets set by the Office for Students for state school numbers, and for candidates from poorer areas, and we routinely meet or exceed them. The Cambridge target from OfS for 2017 was 62-64 per cent for state school admissions, and in the last few years the numbers have consistently risen and are getting close to two-thirds of the UK cohort. Yes, some do come from grammar schools, but at my own college 36 of this year’s intake were from comprehensives – compared with 30 new students from the independent sector. We also have a target that 13 per cent of admissions should be from neighbourhoods with low participation rates in higher education – and Selwyn came in last year at 14.7 per cent. Meanwhile, 22 per cent of home undergraduates are now from ethnic minorities.
But we can only select from the people who’ve applied. The Sutton Trust has done some valuable research that shows that 40 per cent of state school teachers wouldn’t advise their brightest students to apply to Oxbridge, and part of that may be fuelled by misconceptions about their likely success rate, as well as outdated images of what the universities are like.
The one caveat is that selectors have to be confident that students can cope with the course: Cambridge undergraduate courses are demanding. We’re certainly keen to address some of the gaps in school attainment through transition years, which will invite students who may not have had the academic opportunities available to others to apply for a year-long course to prepare them for Cambridge entry standards. Work is going on to introduce transition years from 2021.
I’m happy for the pressure to be maintained on Oxford and Cambridge for them to be open to the brightest talent and to be more representative of Britain in the 21st century, and the statistics are proving that it is happening albeit with further to go.
But it cannot be achieved in a flash – and some of the bureaucratic and political interventions are counterproductive if they think the answer is to lower standards. We have the students already who show that it’s possible to succeed at Oxbridge whatever your ethnic, class or financial background – and they and the next generations will offer the proof that the ancient universities are changing with the times.Getty
Parliament is about to enter a high-stakes game of bluff and double-bluff.
Will this be the week that spells the end of Brexit? That’s what Theresa May wants MPs to believe, at any rate. She will claim that she now thinks that MPs will react to the defeat of her deal by voting to stop Brexit rather than taking the UK out of the European Union without a deal.
But does she? One of the neglected aspects of May’s political style is that she is happy to say things that are untrue. Although there is a widespread belief that this is part of the average politician’s toolkit, most politicians rarely lie and when they do, do so awkwardly.
But May does it frequently and with great ease. From the man who couldn’t be deported because he had a cat, through to her frequent use of the term “implementation period” (there is nothing to implement and there may well have to be an implementation period after the transition period), the Prime Minister is a politician who is happy to say things that are demonstrably untrue.
She’s at it again in the pre-released extracts of her speech, looking back to the very close result of the 18 September 1997 referendum on whether or not to have a devolved legislature in Wales, saying “that result was accepted by both sides and the popular legitimacy of that institution has never seriously been questioned”.
Just one small problem, Prime Minister, I hate to mention it, but: the parliamentary Conservative Party, including you, voted against the creation of the Welsh Assembly after the referendum. May voted to reject it at the second reading, and then against the motion to give it its third reading in December 1997. She did the same with the creation of the Scottish Parliament and that referendum wasn’t even a close-run thing. To cap it off, she – and the rest of the Conservative Party, of which she was then a senior member – went into the 2005 general election promising to hold another referendum on whether or not to keep the Welsh Assembly.
I suppose if you’re feeling charitable, she might believe that the pre-Cameron Conservatives were such a ludicrous outfit that nothing that party did from 1997 to 6 December 2005 can be considered “serious”. It’s certainly arguable, but it feels more likely that it is just another example of May saying whatever it is she thinks she needs to in order to get her way.
So what it tells us is that May believes that there are no votes to be won ahead of Tuesday appealing to MPs who fear a no-deal exit, as they are either already voting for the Withdrawal Agreement or cannot vote for the Withdrawal Agreement for party political reasons. That assessment is wholly correct in my view: most Conservative MPs who fear no deal are already voting for her deal and most Labour MPs who fear no deal think they have to vote against May’s deal on Tuesday to show willing. The only votes left to be won are from pro-Brexit MPs.
The problem – as far as escaping a no deal Brexit goes – is that the belief that May is less than truthful is widely shared at Westminster. It’s one reason why some Conservative MPs ignored her pledge not to fight another election to vote against her in their confidence vote and part of the reason why many pro-Brexit MPs don’t trust her assurances about the deal. They feel that she misled them about the December 2017 agreement, is still trying to pull the wool over their eyes as far as the transition goes and that they can’t trust her.
But it’s also a problem for everyone, regardless of how they feel about the question of Remain vs Leave. Parliament’s Brexit factions are about to enter a high-stakes game of bluff and double-bluff: and that none of those factions believes they can trust the Prime Minister only adds to the possibility that we might yet have a no deal Brexit by mistake.Getty Well it wouldn’t be make believe, if EU believed in May
A rolling list ahead of the meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement.
With dozens of Conservatives, the DUP and a sizeable majority of opposition MPs set to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday, Theresa May is destined for a defeat that could well exceed three figures.
As the parliamentary reckoning approaches, Downing Street’s focus is no longer on somehow conjuring a miraculous victory, but instead on salvaging a manageable – and not humiliatingly lopsided – defeat. Should it manage to do so, the thinking goes, it will signal to Brussels that Westminster’s approval is within touching distance should it offer concessions.
Getting to that point, however, will require Theresa May to convince not only her own MPs to change their mind, but also those on the Labour benches. The Prime Minister belatedly initiated conversations with Labour members in Leave constituencies and the trades unions last week. Though Jeremy Corbyn will whip his MPs to vote down the deal, several have signalled in recent days that they will break ranks and support it instead.
A complete list of those who have explicitly said they are likely to do so follows and for the sake of comprehensiveness also includes former Labour MPs who have resigned or been suspended from the party whip. Constituency estimates for the EU referendum are taken from Professor Chris Hanretty of Royal Holloway.
MP for Poplar and Limehouse (majority 27,712, estimated Remain vote 66 per cent)
Backed Remain in 2016
MP for Bassetlaw (majority 4,852, estimated Leave vote 68 per cent)
Backed Leave in 2016
MP for Rother Valley (majority 3,882, estimated Leave vote 66 per cent)
Backed Remain in 2016
MP for Birkenhead (majority 25,541, estimated Leave vote 51 per cent)
Backed Leave in 2016
Now read our list of Conservative MPs who say they cannot support the Withdrawal Agreement – currently running at 100.Getty That was the whip that was
The Plaid Cymru politician was one of the youngest ever members of the Welsh Assembly.
Steffan Lewis, Plaid Cymru Assembly member for the South Wales East region, has died aged 34.
Lewis, one of the youngest ever members of the Welsh Assembly, was diagnosed with bowel cancer in late 2017. He is survived by his wife, Shona, and his son Celyn, who described him as "our rock, our anchor, and most certainly our hero".
Politicians from across Welsh politics played tribute to Lewis, with Plaid Cymru's leader Adam Price describing him as "our brightest star".
As Lewis was elected via the additional member system, he will be automatically replaced by another member of Plaid Cymru in due course.Photo: Welsh Assembly
New signals from possible “aliens” remind us that the largest puzzle of all is not space, but our own minds.
Over a three-week period last summer, in a research facility in British Columbia, a group of astronomers spotted something mysterious in the data from their radio telescope. Thirteen short bursts of energy, emanating from deep in outer space, were observed as narrow-band frequency radio signals – and one of them was repeating.
Fast radio bursts (FBRs) are not rare but they are hard to spot, and only one repeating burst has ever been reported before in human history. Speculation that they could be evidence of alien technology has thus set imaginations alight. News outlets across the globe have leapt on the story, while jokes about missing drones have abounded on Twitter.
The reality, however, is that far too little is known about the phenomenon to say much about its origin. FBRs were first uncovered by accident in 2007 from a data set gathered in 2001. These were later thought to have derived from a galaxy over three billion light years away, meaning that whatever event produced them happened as primordial life on Earth was only just beginning to form.
Scientists who favour natural causes as an explanation, point to rapidly spinning neutron stars, which can form after a star explodes and dies. Professor Ingrid Stairs, an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia, told the BBC this was a likely answer. She added that it was “highly improbable” that alien civilisations were behind the highly dispersed signals.
Yet Professor Avi Loeb, from the Harvard-Smithsonian centre for astrophysics, has been keeping Trekkie dreams alive. In 2017 he co-published an academic paper exploring whether the phenomenon could be emanating from “extragalactic civilisations”. Artificially produced energy beams that enable spacecraft to ride on light waves, could be responsible for the large flashes of energy detected, he argued.
So where do these tantalising new shreds of data leave the wider debate about extra-terrestrial beings? In and of itself, not much further on. That other life exists – somewhere – seems increasingly likely: of the 3,725 exoplanets discovered to date, more than 900 are thought to have solid, rocky surfaces like Earth. But whether life exists that is as complex as humanity (or more advanced), remains a subject of wide speculation.
There is Brian Cox’s theory; that civilisations unwittingly self-destruct when they become advanced enough to do so. Or the opposing viewpoint; that other life forms have become so advanced that their technology has surpassed a level at which we can detect them. And then, for the really outlandish thinkers, there’s the simulation hypothesis; in which Earthlings are all just Sim-like artificial entities, created by more advanced humans with better computers.
All of which assumes that other life-forms would share our imperial impulse to spread out and colonise (when they may have evolved to a higher plane of ecological harmony with their own planetary systems).
Which position you subscribe to can say a lot about your outlook on the world and is why the origins of these latest unexplained space phenomenon matters so much. Are we in competition with other non-human life-forms, or part of a greater and ultimately collaborative whole? Are we the masters of the universe or its minions? How these questions are answered impacts upon all kinds of more immediate challenges – from tackling climate change to the protection of biodiversity.
Whatever event caused the FBRs to occur, they have been received by political beings. And in doing so, our reactions provide a new small piece of the largest puzzle of all; not the existence of aliens, but the trajectory of our own minds.Getty Images
The Poplar and Limehouse MP’s intervention is significant – but rather than making Theresa May’s life easier, it shows why Labour MPs won't deliver her victory.
Theresa May’s belated appeal to Labour ahead of the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement has won its first convert: Jim Fitzpatrick, the MP for Poplar and Limehouse.
“I’m not quite there yet, but I’m not far away,” was how Fitzpatrick put it in the Commons this afternoon. He criticised his party’s approach to the vote, complaining that its six tests had been designed to be failed, and argued – as Tory MP George Freeman did yesterday – that voting for Theresa May’s deal was the the “only real alternative on the table” to a no-deal scenario given the shortness of time available before 29 March.
Other Labour MPs are wont to make the same argument in private and some will no doubt follow Fitzpatrick before next Tuesday’s vote. They say that time is too short to risk voting down the only thing that is guaranteed to stop a no-deal scenario in the hope or expectation of a better solution emerging thereafter.
But what unites this relatively small group of Labour MPs is that they, like Fitzpatrick, are unlikely to stand at the next election, either out of personal choice or because of the likelihood of their deselection, or have defied the Labour whip to reject a softer form of Brexit than that proposed by the Prime Minister or opposition leadership, as Fitzpatrick did when he voted against EEA membership in June, or both.
There are only 15 MPs in the latter group and probably a similar number in the former; in other words, nowhere near enough to make up the votes the Prime Minister has haemorrhaged on her own side. What Fitzpatrick’s intervention illustrates is that May’s overtures – and the Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration in their current shape – are still finding a naturally limited audience on the Labour benches.Getty
Detainment can scarcely be reviewed from its trailer alone – but if it does show its subjects as human, that can only be for the good of the film, and for anyone who sees it.
This year’s Academy Awards nominations are not announced until 22 January, but some of the categories – Foreign Language Film, Music (Original Song) – always unveil their long-lists ahead of time. Members registered to vote in those particular disciplines narrow the competitors to the final five on which the entire Academy can then have its say.
These are not traditionally categories which generate news stories, let alone controversy. The going rate for paparazzi shots of the nominees in the Documentary (Short Subject) race is discouragingly low. Controversy tends not to attach itself to the names fighting it out for Makeup and Hairstyling. Titles vying for the Short Film (Live Action) prize aren’t usually mentioned on Loose Women.
This year, there is an exception. Among the nine contenders in the latter category is a 30-minute British short called Detainment, which was this week the suject of an emotional discussion on the aforementioned ITV daytime show. The film, written and directed by Vincent Lambe, is constructed from transcripts taken from police interviews with Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the 10-year-old boys found guilty of the murder in 1993 of three-year-old James Bulger after abducting him from a shopping centre in Bootle, Merseyside. Lambe said in a statement posted on Twitter this week that Detainment is “entirely factual with no embellishments whatsoever” and “almost entirely verbatim”.
Can something have “no embellishments whatsoever” and still be slightly less than 100 per cent verbatim? That’s one to muse on when the film is screened more widely. As yet, only a trailer is available.
James Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus, appeared on Loose Women to demand that the film be removed from consideration by the Academy. What aggrieved her was the lack of contact from Lambe, who had not sought her permission or approval, or even notified her about the making of the film. “In my own personal opinion I think he’s just trying to big his career up,” she said. “And to do that under someone else’s grief is just unbelievable and unbearable.”
The question of why Lambe proceeded with the film without making contact with those hurt most by the murder is one best left to his conscience. “With hindsight, I am sorry I did not make Mrs Fergus aware of the film,” he said this week. It would undoubtedly have been tactful, though it isn’t by any means compulsory, and one can appreciate the importance of wanting to produce in isolation a work which seeks to render everyone involved as humanly as possible, without recourse to the hysteria or partiality which characterised much of the press reporting on the case. Let's not forget that, at the end of the trial in 1993, the Daily Mirror splashed pictures of Thompson and Venables on its front page under the headline “Freaks of Nature,” while the Sun responded to erroneous and unproven claims that the horror film Child’s Play 3 had inspired the killers by telling its readers: “For the sake of ALL our kids… BURN YOUR VIDEO NASTY!” On the occasion of their sentencing, the Daily Star asked: “How Do You Feel Now, You Little Bastards?”
What appears also to have angered the victim’s family is the portrayal in Detainment of Thompson and Venables as human beings who committed a terrible crime, as opposed to monsters. In this regard, though, the family has no greater dominion or special influence over the film and its subject than the rest of us, let alone the power of veto. The facts are in the public domain, and it is up to Lambe, or anyone, to do with them what they will; the hope is that any artistic enterprise will be conducted with sensitivity. “There has been criticism that the film ‘humanises’ the killers,” Lambe has said, “but if we cannot accept that they are human beings, we will never begin to understand what could have driven them to commit such a horrific crime. The only way to prevent something similar happening in the future is if we understand the cause of it.”
Detainment can scarcely be reviewed from its trailer alone, but if it does show its subjects as human, that can only be for the good of the film, and for anyone who sees it. The murder of James Bulger was a reprehensible act – but the treatment of his killers was shocking too. Tried as adults, they were vilified not only by the press but by irresponsible politicians, who made of the case no end of capital. The then-prime minister, John Major, used the occasion to announce that “We must condemn a little more and understand a little less”, while Tony Blair called the killing “a hammer-blow against the sleeping conscience of the country” and found in such rhetoric a surefire vote-winner.
There have been powerful criticisms made against those attitudes in the 26 years since Venable and Thompson were imprisoned; most notable among these is As If, Blake Morrison’s troubling book about the murder, the trial and its ramifications.
What part Detainment will play in the conversation remains to be seen. But if it can act as even a small corrective to our numbing tendency to dehumanise murderers, asking instead why people not that different from us might do terrible things, then it will have been worth making.Detainment
The awkward tennis player won over a sceptical audience without conceding to the “Sports Bloke” narrative.
When Andy Murray emerged from the tennis circuit and into our consciousness as an 18-year-old with untidy hair and a surly attitude, armchair tennis fans weren’t optimistic. Sure, on court the grace and control of unruly teenage limbs was impressive, but no more so to the untrained eye than any other coached tennis kid emerging onto the scene. What set him apart was his refusal to participate in the other games played by elite sports professionals. His dour expression, habit of staring into the middle distance during press conferences and refusal to participate in light-hearted merriment became newsworthy in themselves. His surliness in press conferences a tennis trope.
Then in 2009 it emerged that, when asked who he'd be supporting in the football World Cup, he had replied: “Anyone England are playing.” He quickly explained it had been a joke, but many did not give him the benefit of the doubt. “I was only 19 or 20 at the time. I was still a kid, and I was getting things sent to my locker saying things like: ‘I hope you lose every tennis match for the rest of your life.’ That's at Wimbledon,” he said later.
Murray had more to be bitter about than the premature termination of his stand up career, though. Prior to his Wimbledon victory in 2013, the trophy had remain untouched by British male players since Fred Perry lifted it in 1936. Many tried and failed to achieved those heights in the intervening period, but it felt like Murray’s poor fortune that he happened to be competing at the same time as Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic were reaching their peak.
Arguably they turned him into the player he is. Murray himself has always acknowledged his competitive instinct, instilled in him by a desperate need to beat his older brother Jamie. Drawn out by his mother Judy, who coached both her sons, Murray never complained, presumably realising that no one is unbeatable and rising to the challenge laid out by the two men. In 2012, when he lost the Australian Open semi-final to Novak Djokovic, instead of offering excuses he honoured his opponent, stating he was “proud” to have closed the gap with the world’s top players.
His humility, relentlessness and talent eventually wore down even the most vehement Murray sceptic. In 2012, he softened us up by winning a gold medal for Team GB at the London Olympics. He couldn’t quite thrust himself over the Wimbledon line that year, but his performance vs Roger Federer promised that an end that the long hunt for Fred Perry’s successor could be in sight. He finally did it in 2013 and it’s hard to remember a time when we were all that happy.
Injury has dogged his career in the last few years, but his instinct as an outlier has, if anything, become more vociferous. Murray’s next significant deviation from the SportsBloke Narrative was to start calling out inequality in sport, before it became fashionable. Having always cited the influence of strong women in his life, Murray began to use his position to identify casual sexism in tennis. Highlights of this include admonishing John Inverdale for claiming that he (Murray) was the first person to win two Olympic gold medals (“Venus & Serena have won four each”), calling for a more even split of male and female players across the Wimbledon tournament and most recently becoming irate on Instagram when footballer Ada Hegerberg was asked to twerk onstage at the Ballon d’Or awards.
In 2014, he went public with texts he received after appointing Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. “When it first came out in the press that I may be working with a woman, I got a message from one of the players who is now coaching,” Murray told an interviewer. “He said to me, ‘I love this game that you’re playing with the press, maybe you should tell them tomorrow that you’re considering working with a dog.’ That’s the sort of stuff that was said when I was thinking about it.”
Many have called it virtue signalling. Some have criticised his tears in the press conference as he announced his impending retirement through injury. Thankfully, this sort of sniping has never much bothered him before. Andy Murray, far from being a thorn in the side of British sport that he appeared to be on arrival, could, through coaching, management and press exposure post retirement, be the catalyst for change. No one sensible can question his credentials. His message of inclusion and diversity is deeply powerful. And it’s an unfortunate truth, but a by-product of a patriarchal society is the fact that the voice of one powerful male is more compelling than a thousand females screaming the same message.
Judy should be very proud.Getty
We urgently need to move to a digital economy where the priority is protecting people, rather than exploiting their personal data.
Today we are living in a digital panopticon, a world where our every interaction with digital technology is being recorded and analysed. The rationale for much of this collecting, selling, and sharing of data is often based on the need to monetise it through the provision of personalised adverts.
There is perhaps nothing that exemplifies the modern data economy more than the way the ad tech industry and associated technical systems work. And while many major tech companies rely on personalised advertising for their revenues the system is so problematic – from both a societal and technical perspective – that we shouldn’t seek to fix it, but to end it.
At the New Economics Foundation we propose that in the process of placing adverts on webpages, no personal information should be broadcast. This is not what currently happens: over the 12 days of Christmas alone our personal data was insecurely shared over 118 billion times. Also, companies like Facebook, who sell advertising space directly on their webpages, should be required to get explicit consent of their users.
Advertising has migrated online in a remarkably short space of time. In 2018 almost half (44 per cent, worth $237bn) of all advertising spend was online. But what is more remarkable is that advertisers can now target individuals wherever they are on the internet; and that two digital giants – Google and Facebook – have captured the market with 84 per cent market share. Both companies are hugely reliant on ad revenue, with Facebook collecting 97 per cent of its overall revenue from ad spending, while at Google it accounts for 88 per cent.
When you click on a link to a page, between you clicking and the page loading, information about you is compiled and sent out to advertisers to assess the value of showing you an advert. The advertisers then bid in a real time auction for the right to place an ad in front of you.
However, these requests broadcast more data than is justified for advertising purposes, and can include sensitive information such as sexuality, ethnicity, or political opinions.
We should be concerned that whole companies and digital products are being built solely in order to gather personal data about us. Any free app that we have on our phone is relentlessly gathering data about us, selling it to data brokers, while delivering us personalised adverts.
The ad industry suffers from a number of technical problems. Around 25 per cent of ad spend is lost to fraud, with experts labelling it “one of the most profitable crimes with the least amount of risk”. In the process of placing adverts on webpages the ad tech industry is exposing every person who uses the internet to the non-consensual, and often unwitting, sharing of their data with thousands of companies who are all able, although not legally authorised, to copy, share, and sell the data on again.
The current auction process is not fit for purpose: we need new legislation. Instead of sending lots of personal information about us to the advertising network, at NEF we propose that nothing personally identifiable should be sent. This would immediately stop the massive leaking of our personal information, diminish the power of the tech giants, and remove one of the major incentives for pervasive data gathering.
In addition, because sites like Facebook allow advertisers to target users directly through their site, the government should ban all website owners from selling personalised adverts on their own sites using personal data with anything less than explicit consent. These sites would be required to make the full profiles that the advert is based on accessible to us. We would be able to correct any incorrect data contained in the profile as well as withdraw consent for our information to be used for targeting purposes.
This proposal would be transformational in a number of ways. It would prevent further data leaks, by preventing any personal data from being sent – and therefore potentially compromised – during the online advertising process. It would reduce the commodification of personal data, by diminishing the ability of companies to sell on personal data as well as reducing the incentive to collect data. It would force tech giants to diversify their business model away from services based on constant surveillance and personalised advertising. And it would redistribute power away from tech giants and towards websites that spend time producing content and have a dedicated user base.
We urgently need to move to a digital economy where the priority is protecting people, rather than exploiting their personal data. Only by resetting the terms on which we engage with the data economy can we hope to build a positive digital future where we can be confident that our privacy will be protected, and where we are able to navigate freely without being surveilled.
More than half of the 13 Conservative MPs from Scotland now have government jobs after a raft of PPS appointments.
The exodus of Tory MPs from government jobs after Theresa May struck her Brexit deal left the prime minister with lots of vacancies to fill – or deckchairs to shuffle.
While those ministers who resigned were replaced reasonably quickly, a raft of parliamentary private secretary positions – the first, unpaid rung on the ministerial ladder – were left unfilled.
In some cases, this was deliberate: Julian Smith, the chief whip, told existing PPSs in November that some positions had been left unfilled on purpose – so as to give him carrots or “poor man’s knighthoods” to wield before would-be rebels or to reward loyalty ahead of the meaningful vote.
Since then, appointments to the vacant posts have been made quietly, with announcements made at the discretion of the gigs’ recipients. Jack Lopresti, a rare Brexiteer backer of the agreement, was appointed PPS to Steve Barclay last month, while Andrew Bowie, a Scottish Tory elected in 2017, became Theresa May’s second PPS in the days between Christmas and New Year.
Otherwise, there has been radio silence and the government has not updated its official PPS list since September. The NS has learned, however, that a raft of appointments have been made with next to no fanfare from either the MPs or ministers in question.
Huw Merriman, the Bexhill and Battle MP first elected in 2015, has been promoted from assisting the junior Treasury ministers to PPS to Philip Hammond, the Chancellor. (This post that had been left deliberately vacant for some time after its previous incumbent, Kwasi Kwarteng, was appointed a Brexit minister in November.)
His former colleague as PPS to the Treasury ministerial team, Gillian Keegan – elected MP for Chichester in 2017 – replaces Will Quince, who quit the payroll to oppose the Withdrawal Agreement, as PPS to Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary.
Julian Knight, the 2015 intake MP for Solihull, moves from his role as PPS to the junior DWP ministers to replace her at the Treasury; while John Howell, who won the Henley by-election in 2008, becomes junior PPS at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (a promotion that has struck colleagues given his relatively advanced age, 63, and length of parliamentary service).
Most striking, however, is the promotion of two more Scottish Conservative MPs elected in 2017 onto the government payroll. Kirstene Hair, MP for Angus, has been appointed PPS to the junior justice ministers, while Colin Clark, MP for Gordon, replaces Knight at the DWP.
Their promotions – and that of Bowie – means that more than half of the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs now occupy a government job. (David Mundell sits in cabinet as Scottish Secretary while Hair, Clark, Bowie, Paul Masterton, Alister Jack and Luke Graham all have PPS roles.) The presence of Clark and Jack on that list is significant – last February, both signed a European Research Group letter demanding “full regulatory autonomy” for the UK after Brexit.
That they have been brought and kept inside the government tent in recent months reflects Downing Street’s hold over the 2017 intake and particularly the Scottish Tory MPs, only three of whom – Douglas Ross, Ross Thomson and John Lamont – will vote against the Withdrawal Agreement. The appointments of Clark and Hair to the payroll also mean that more than half of the 32-strong 2017 intake of Tory MPs as a whole now have government jobs. As all else collapses around her, Theresa May retains the power of patronage.Getty
Although the unfairness of the policy remains, the political difficulty has been remedied.
Amber Rudd has announced an end to the two-child limit for child-related benefits – or, at least, that’s what most of the coverage says.
The reality is more complex: what Rudd has done is end the retroactive two-child limit, where households that already have more than two children had their benefit top-up taken away. But she has retained the limit for children yet unborn, and for when two families become one, for instance when a widowed man with two children marries a divorced woman with one (we call this a “blended family”).
It means that the policy’s unfairness, while eased, doesn’t go away. But it does mean that the political difficulty of defending the policy is eased, partly because the financial pain won't be fully felt until the middle of the next decade, and partly because the unfairness of taking away benefits from children who are already born is unpopular, but the argument that ministers make – that people who are not in receipt of social security or in-work benefits cannot have unlimited numbers of children either – is popular, even though it doesn’t really add up.
Why doesn’t it? Well, because the restriction on when you can claim child tax credits kicks in at £55,000, well in excess of the average household income in the UK. Although the argument pitches an imagined “ordinary” family, that ordinary family earns much more than the national average.
The changed policy still creates unfairness, because most families with more than two children fit into three groups: families with chaotic lives at the bottom of the income distribution, families at the top of the income distribution who do not receive any form of in-work benefits, and so-called “blended families” right across the income distribution. A divorcee with one child who marries a widower with two cannot be fairly said to be “making a choice” to have more than two children. People with chaotic lifestyles don’t respond to the withdrawal of financial support – they just become more heavily indebted and have yet more chaotic lives.
But the argument appeals, because no one believes that they claim benefits, and although £55,000 is in reality out of reach for most British workers, it doesn’t feel like an unimaginable sum of money for most people.
More importantly, the vital parts of the Conservative coalition (the retired) and the part which went missing last time (people earning £45,000 and upwards that see the effects of austerity but are not affected by it) are particularly responsive to this argument. Why? Well because the retired obviously aren’t beneficiaries of child benefit, and people earning more than £45,000 are at or near the point where they don’t receive it either.
It has the same effect as most government policy since the Budget: direct transfers to the £45,000-£55,000 part of the income distribution, plus more funding for the bits of austerity that those voters are most likely to notice or be directly affected by. The big exception, of course, is the rise in rough sleeping: the most visible sign of a public realm in serious crisis and one that, as yet, the government has not yet managed to halt, let alone reverse.Photo: Getty
The Tottenham MP’s contribution to the Brexit debate.
Mr Speaker, I have faced many challenges in the two decades I have sat in this house. But Sunday 7 August 2011, the morning after the Tottenham riots, was by far the greatest.
Walking on broken glass, past burnt-out cars, homes and businesses, comforting men and women still in their pyjamas, I saw the place I had lived my whole life turned to ashes.
Many members of the community were urging me to say that the killing of Mark Duggan by police, which had sparked the riots, justified this rage. That the families made homeless, the burnt out buses and houses, and the looted shops were worth it.
They told me that I had to say this wrong was right.
Mr Speaker, it was not easy. But I had to look my community in the face, and tell them this violence was a disgrace and condemn it unequivocally.
Why? Because we have a duty to tell our constituents the truth. Even when they passionately disagree. We owe to them not only our “industry” but also our “judgement.” We are trusted representatives, not unthinking delegates.
So why do many in this House continue to support Brexit, when they know it will wreck jobs, the NHS and our standing in the world?
This is the fundamental dishonesty at the heart of the Brexit debate.
Most MPs now recognise it in private, but do not say it in public. Brexit is a con. A trick. A swindle. A fraud. A deception that will hurt most those people it promised to help. A dangerous fantasy which will make every problem it claims to solve worse.
A campaign won on false promises and lies.
Vote Leave and Leave.EU both broke the law. Russian interference is beyond reasonable doubt. And by now every single campaign promise made in 2016 has come unstuck.
Brexit will not enrich our NHS – it will impoverish it.
A trade deal with Donald Trump will see US corporations privatise and dismantle the NHS one bed at a time.
And even those promises on immigration – which has so greatly enriched our country – are a lie. After Brexit immigration will go up, not down.
When we enter negotiations with countries like India and China, they will ask for three things. Visas. Visas. And more visas. And they will get them because we will be weak.
Then there’s the myth about restoring parliamentary sovereignty. The last two years have shown what a joke that is.
The Prime Minister has hoarded power like a deluded 21st century Henry the Eighth. Impact assessments have been hidden. Votes resisted and blocked. Simple opponents of a government policy bullied and threatened to get into line.
Even when we forced this meaningful vote, the Prime Minister cancelled it, certain we would reject her disastrous deal.
And, oh, we will reject it.
Because this is a Lose-Lose compromise, which offers no certainty for our future.
All it guarantees is more years of negotiation – headed by the same clowns who guided us into this farce in the first place.
Mr Speaker, we are suffering from a crisis of leadership in our hour of need.
This country’s greatest moments came when we showed courage, not when we appeased. The courage of Wilberforce to emancipate the slaves, against the anger of the British ruling class. The courage of Winston Churchill to declare war on Hitler, against the appeasers in his cabinet and the country. The courage of Atlee and Bevan to nationalise the health service – against the doctors who protested it was not right.
Today we must be bold, because the challenges we face are just as extreme. We must not be afraid to tell the truth to those who do not agree.
Friends on this side of the house tell me to appease Labour voters in industrial towns. The former miners, the factory workers, those who feel they have been left behind.
I say we must not patronise them with cowardice. Let’s tell them the truth.
“You were sold a lie. Parts of the media used your fears to sell papers and boost viewing figures.”
Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson exploited the same prejudice to win votes. Shame on them.
Immigrants have not taken your jobs. Our schools and colleges failed to give you skills. Hospitals are not crumbling because of health tourists, but because a decade of austerity ground them down to the bone.
You cannot afford a house because both parties failed to build – not because Mohammed down the road who moved in.
And wealth was hoarded in London – when it should have been shared across the country.
Blame us, blame Westminster. Do not blame Brussels for our own country’s mistakes. And do not be angry at us for telling you the truth.
Be angry at the chancers who sold you a lie. As Martin Luther King said long ago. “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
So just as I speak plainly to the government this time around, let me also speak to the opposition about some home truths. There is no left-wing justification for Brexit. Ditching workers’ rights, social protections, and ending environmental cooperation is not progressive.
This is a project about neoliberal deregulation. It is Thatcherism on steroids, pushed by her modern day disciples. Leaving the EU will not free us from the injustices of global capitalism: it will make us subordinate to Trump’s US.
Socialism confined to one country will not work.
Whether you like it or not, the world we live in is global. We can only fix the rigged system if we cooperate across border-lines. The party of Keir Hardie has always been International.
We must not let down our young supporters by failing to stand with them on the biggest issue of our lives.
If we remain in the EU, we can reform it from the top table.
Share the load of mass migration, address excesses of the bureaucracy, and fix the inequalities between creditor and debtors. We can recharge the economy. We can re-fuel the NHS. We can build the houses we need, after years of hurt.
Hope is what we need.
Remain in the EU.
Give Britain a second opportunity to decide.Getty
There are periods of my life I associate with Ali. They’re often not the good ones, but he’s always been there when I needed him.
I’ve known Ali for nearly 12 years. He was always there for me when I was depressed and in a new city with almost no friends. We spent a lot of time together when I was broke and couldn’t afford to go out more than once or twice a month. We haven’t seen as much of each other in the years since – but we still occasionally hang out.
In fact, I can quantify exactly how much time Ali and I have spent together: 76 days, five hours, and 38 minutes. And it’s never been boring: together Ali and I have killed a king of the undead, taken down a dragon threatening the future of the world, repelled an orc invasion, and imprisoned a demon lord.
Ali is Aliandor, a Level 120 human mage, and my main account on the world’s most successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game: World of Warcraft (WoW).
On one hand he is nothing more than a data file, likely well under 100kb, sitting on Blizzard’s server, entirely lacking in sentience, and one backup failure away from accidental deletion. And while I know that, there’s much more about Ali that I can’t separate: what we’ve done in the game, who we’ve met through it, and the moments where controlling Aliandor was the backdrop to moments in my real life.
I’ve spent more than 1,800 hours of my life with this character, over more than a decade – that’s more than almost all of my real-world friends. Is it so strange to be attached to that collection of pixels?
The shallowest level of my connection to Ali comes from the gameplay itself: WoW is known as a fairly well-written game, but in reality, because each expansion runs for 18 months, with incremental updates to the game and its plot, much of the interest in its storyline comes because you have known the characters for so long.
If a franchise like Red Dead Redemption is gaming’s answer to a blockbuster movie, then WoW is its answer to soap operas; a soap opera that your character is an integral part of. Leading AI characters know Ali’s name, have promoted him to general, and reminisce over past campaigns with him. There’s nothing to better immerse someone into a plot – however silly – than time and repetition.
That plays a distant second fiddle to the social aspect of the game, and the people you meet through it. At the top levels of the game, the toughest bosses and the best rewards require you to play alongside up to 24 other players – and as these fights can be tough (and lead to severe frustrations and outbursts), people tend to form guilds, regular communities of players who show up at fixed times each week and do battle.
Despite the toxic reputation of gaming communities – which is often deserved – some of the guilds I was in were genuinely lovely, and led to groups of people who came to know one another deeply, even if they’d never met.
One guild I joined was led by a woman in her late 20s (she would sing “Don’t call my name / don’t call my name / Aliandor” as I logged in), whose boyfriend organised the raids against bosses. Her mother also played the game, but as she didn’t like to raid would spend a few hours a day gathering supplies for everyone else, and staying in the chat. This group was a core of people who knew each other in their real lives, who recruited more players they’d never met, and got to know them. Much of the chat would be over voice, and you came to know each other well.
Despite calling me “Ali” for years (“James is just confusing”), I came out to them, and they eventually came to follow, bemused but supportive, my journalistic career. We drifted apart as I played less, but I still speak to some of them, and think of them fondly – and Ali will always be my gateway to that.
Finally, there are just periods of time in my life I associate with Ali. Though they’re often not the good ones – turns out I play video games more when I’m depressed, or don’t have much of a social life for one reason or another, or have just been through a break-up – I can’t help but think of Ali as having been there when I needed him.
I’ve been lucky in recent years to have needed Ali less – but I’ve never found it possible to drop him. It’s nice to check in, to fly around and see familiar landscapes, to look at the now instantly recognisable in-game avatar I created when I was 20.
It’s nice to know he’s there, waiting for me – and that there’ll always be some new dire threat to the world he’ll have to help avert.
This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.Provided by the author
If the sexual misconduct allegations against Salmond are not proven, his successor will be left helplessly exposed.
Let’s be clear: if Alex Salmond is, as he insists, innocent of the sexual misconduct allegations levelled against him then he deserves every sympathy. He may be a divisive figure, but being accused of crimes you did not commit is an appalling state of affairs.
He was, plainly, within his rights to legally challenge the process used by the Scottish government to investigate the complaints made against him by two female civil servants. This week a court ruled the process had been “procedurally unfair” and “tainted with apparent bias” because the investigating officer had “prior involvement” with the complainants.
If Salmond is guilty, though – and the police continue to investigate the original complaints – then we must arrive at a different conclusion. Given his aggressive public campaign against the accusations and the Scottish government, given the undoubted impact on the women involved, and given the damage he is doing to Nicola Sturgeon and wider SNP unity, his reputation should and will never recover.
Salmond’s combative approach to the situation should surprise no one – he has behaved exactly as we would expect him to. He is a lifelong slugger, a streetfighter who has scrapped his way through decades of top-level politics. There has been no belt below which he would not hit, no insult left unrevenged, no enemy left unconfronted. By placing him in this vulnerable position, the Scottish government guaranteed a mean and messy denouement.
His tactics – and he is good at tactics – have been to obscure the grim nature of the allegations by going after flaws in the process. His crowdfunding of £100,000 to cover his legal fees may leave a bitter taste in the mouth – Salmond is by most people’s standards well-off – but it has been effective. The step seems to have been made for political as much as financial reasons, to show that even amid this crisis he could command the loyalty of independence supporters. And they flocked to him – 4,000 people donated.
His latest tactic, having won his case on a technicality, is to force the resignation of the Scottish government’s permanent secretary, Leslie Evans. Evans drew up new procedures for handling sexual harassment claims shortly before the allegations against Salmond were made early last year.
Salmond and Sturgeon are now at war over Evans’s future. The former first minister says his victory is an “abject humiliation” for the Scottish government and insists Evans must “consider her position”. The current First Minister, who appointed the permanent secretary, and who signed off the new harassment procedures, is standing by her woman.
Salmond’s higher-profile supporters have upped the ante, accusing the government of “character assassination” and a “witch hunt”. Kenny MacAskill, Salmond’s former justice secretary, attacked “a coterie surrounding the SNP leadership”, which insisted “not one blemish must be allowed to be cast upon [Sturgeon]… and any who might taint her are to be driven out, whether by leaks to the press or overt actions.”
And this is where the matter moves into especially dangerous territory for the SNP and its future. “Salmond vs Sturgeon” is the headline – and the reality – the party has been desperate to avoid, but which is now unavoidable. Sturgeon is in hot water anyway, because she held five discussions with Salmond about the allegations, including two meetings at her home, at which no minutes were kept. The opposition parties say this breaks the ministerial code of conduct, while Sturgeon insists – unconvincingly, it must be said – that the code does not apply as the conversations were in her capacity as SNP leader.
The truth is that Sturgeon now needs the allegations against her predecessor to be proved. To have botched the investigation, throwing further stress on the complainants, is bad enough. If the police find there is no case to answer then she and Evans will be left hopelessly exposed – Evans would surely have to resign.
At stake are Sturgeon’s integrity and her reputation for competence, both things that are harder to secure than they are to lose. With a closely fought election due in 2021, anything that damages the public perception of the First Minister’s qualities threatens to be catastrophic for the Nats. The opposition parties know this and are in for the kill.
At the centre of it all, lost somewhere in the smoke created by the politics, the tactics and the political panic, are two women who have, it seems, been ill-treated on all sides. One would hope that, however bad things get, that is not forgotten.Getty Images
We are not destined to be objects of pity in our old age. But ageism is alive and kicking,
Most people in England have probably heard about the country’s social care crisis and the enormous pressure on the vital services that support older people to live independent and dignified lives in their own homes.
The crisis might seem insurmountable, but the causes are specific and can be remedied.
I’ve spent the last year interviewing older people in the country about their experiences of cuts to their social care. For the people I spoke to, it meant trips to the A&E for simple infections that would have been caught early but for cuts to services. It meant the indignity of borrowing money from grown-up children to make ends meet when support was cut unexpectedly. It meant the uncertainty of not knowing where and when the next cut will fall.
I am certain that these are not one-off incidents. And they are not just sad stories. They are stories that suggest a systemic problem with government oversight.
Human Rights Watch has investigated how social care assessments for older people in England are carried out, and found that improper assessments are resulting in critical cuts to people’s services that support their right to health and to live independently in the community.
Under the Care Act 2014, anyone who meets specific criteria is entitled to means-tested state-funded care. This includes help with things like preparing meals at home, dressing, and bathing.
But we found that local authorities, who carry out the social care assessments, have been left to mark their own homework – with no meaningful central government oversight. And we found that even if a person appeals a cut to their services, local authorities can and do cut care while the appeal is being considered. This can leave older people – who may be living alone with dementia – without their carers to provide the support that is crucial for a successful appeal.
This is a problem that, if left unchecked, will likely grow. According to the National Audit Office, the number of people in England aged 65 and over is projected to increase by more than 20 per cent from 2014 to 2024.
We are not destined to be objects of pity in our old age. This is just a function of the way the world views being older. Ageism is alive and kicking, as recent news accounts and a warning from the UN’s Expert on Older People’s Rights shows.
Yet becoming older is something that we hope will happen to all of us, and when it does, we have the right to live independently and with community-based services to support us. And it makes financial sense too. Social care is often cheaper to deliver at home than in a residential care setting. But too often, age discrimination persists across societies, driving policy decisions that undermine human rights.
How to solve this social care crisis? The first step is to know how big it is. Without government accountability for accurate needs assessments, we’ll never know. The government also needs to understand how wider budget cuts it is making under the austerity drive are impacting social care in the country.
Until the government investigates and then acknowledges the scale of the problem, people across England are headed for uncertainty in their older years.
Bethany Brown researches older people’s rights with the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.Getty
The number of magistrates has halved in a decade, because they’re forced to retire too early.
Last year, a solicitor from Cambridge called Jacqui Appleton was told that her client’s trial, having been postponed for six months, would be postponed for at least another six months. Outraged, she told Cambridge Magistrates’ Court that the city’s criminal justice system was “on its knees”. On the day of Appleton’s speech, 14 hours’ worth of cases were booked to be heard in a six-hour session. Hearings now typically sit with two magistrates, rather than three. One of the reasons for this crisis is that the UK has lost 15,000 magistrates in ten years, and we have lost them to a policy that discriminates against older people.
In 1993, the government introduced legislation that all magistrates would have to retire at age 70. Many magistrates are retirees, who work unpaid and volunteer their services to use their training in the interests of justice. More than half of the UK’s remaining magistrates are already over age 60; this is causing a severe shortage in our justice system, and it is one which will quickly get worse.
At the recent annual meeting of the Magistrates' Association, members decided to step up pressure on the government to allow magistrates to stay on past age 70. They are right to do so; this arbitrary age discrimination has no place in the modern workforce. Judges can work up to age 75 if needed, and the maximum age for jurors is 75. From this May, two out of three leaders of the UK’s main political parties will be too old to work as a magistrate, but not, should they be elected, too old to work as prime minister.
Among magistrates it is the most senior justices, who chair court hearings, who are in particularly short supply; these are often older, more experienced people. In a country that is reducing immigration and has an ageing population, we urgently need to update practices regarding employing older people. If someone is perfectly capable of working and wishes to do so, the law should not force them to stop.
Our justice system is hugely respected and valued throughout the world, and it relies on unpaid magistrates to offer their time. It is an insult to the work ethic, public spirit and lifelong experience of our legal experts to force them to retire when they do not wish to.
Of course, there has to be an impartial appraisal system to assess their ability, but that applies in other areas of working life and the judiciary should not be excluded. With improvements in healthcare and life expectancy, it should no longer be acceptable to discriminate against the over-70s, any more than it would be to require people to retire just because they are of a particular race, religion or gender.
Such discrimination is socially and economically damaging and, in the case of magistrates, it threatens the fabric of our justice system.John Williams RUS / Shutterstock.com
And then Owen Jones took down Andrew Neil. Oh Auntie, you are really spoiling us.
Your mole, in all honesty, is not the greatest fan of the BBC’s Thursday night politics shows. After having for a number of years watched them religiously – in roughly the same way that members of certain Catholic sects tie spiked chains around their thighs religiously – the thought eventually dawned that it might be more fun to do literally anything else.
Last night, however, was something of an exception. Firstly, came Fiona Bruce’s debut as the new host of weekly punch-up Question Time, for which she’s won plaudits from all sides for her willingness to push back against rowdy panellists and audience members alike.
But it’s this sequence – in which she repeatedly asks the tragically misnamed Tory deputy chair James Cleverly what his government’s Plan B is, and refuses to let him change the subject to Labour – that really won this mole’s heart:
— EL4C (@EL4JC) January 10, 2019
“James, occasionally you do have to stop talking.” If only Dimbleby had thought of that, eh?
Your mole was still recovering from this televisiual feast, when Auntie served up another delicacy. In a particularly tasty segment of This Week with Andrew Neil, Owen Jones suggested that publications which run Islamophobic or race-baiting headlines (“In praise of the Wehrmacht”) might just share responsibility for the rise of the far right. As he does so, a visibly-rattled Neil – who just happens to chair the Spectator – frantically tries to shut him down:
— Ash Sarkar (@AyoCaesar) January 11, 2019
Watching this, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the reason Neil is so keen to stop Jones asking such questions is that he knows he doesn’t have good answers.BBC
We may be about to see the first implication of the changes to Labour’s procedures for reselecting sitting MPs.
Could Theresa May save her deal by wooing Labour MPs? The Prime Minister, having belatedly realised that there is no Brexit outcome that can pass through the House of Commons with the votes of the Conservatives and the DUP alone, is holding meetings with Labour MPs. She has also telephoned Len McCluskey and Tim Roache, the leaders of the UK’s two biggest private sector trades unions, and may accept an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement brought by four of the party’s backbenchers.
It’s a measure of May’s political tin ear and her aversion to working with other parties that it took this long: Yvette Cooper called for a cross-party commission to negotiate Brexit immediately after the general election, and the peak of May’s powers (remember that crazy post-Brexit summer when she was briefly as popular as Tony Blair in 1997?) was also the point when Labour MPs were at maximum skittishness about being seen to block Brexit.
Equally importantly, Labour’s procedures for how it reselects sitting MPs were rewritten at its last conference, with the major consequence being that the trades unions have lost their ability to veto any move to deselect candidates. That has big implications for both Labour and British politics and we may be about to see the first sign of that here. That McCluskey has publicly warned of the dangers of a second referendum and has privately spoken to MPs campaigning for a Norway-Plus arrangement gives Labour MPs an argument to make to their members about why they might ultimately vote for a Brexit deal. But that trade union leaders can no longer guarantee the safety of Labour MPs means that their support isn’t as valuable as it was before.
If we reach 11 March and parliament has yet to agree a deal, I don’t think that the Labour whips will be able to stop a critical mass of MPs, whether they are committed Remainers, converted Leavers or long-time Brexiteers, voting for anything to prevent a no-deal exit.
But when everything depends on who blinks first, it’s small wonder that at least three cabinet ministers have instructed their local parties to prepare for an early election, with one telling their association that the contest will happen in February.Getty Corbyn with Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite
Pistols, Temple, Licence to Kill. Don’t @ me.
It’s all still there in the muscle-memory. I can get to the Golden Gun room almost with my eyes shut, from any spawn-point in the Temple. Though you don’t want to go all the way there if you’re playing it properly. Pistols. Licence to Kill mode. You know what I’m talking about if you came of age around the same time I did.
Don’t go out in to the main Temple chamber unequipped if you can help it, because that’s a hunting-ground. But if you spawn there, sprint for the far-end left doors. Move in a zig-zag, always strafing. Back up as you open the door. Never stand still. Head down toward the lower chamber, down the slope. If you’ve gone through the right door, in the corner of the chamber you’ll find a DD44.
Then turn around. If you’re playing people who know what they’re doing, you’ll likely have someone on your tail by now.
A certain section of the population – those born in the mid ‘80s – will already know what I’m talking about. Their finger will be reflexively twitching on an invisible Z-trigger button. Their right thumb will be searching for the left and right C-buttons to strafe; because you never move forward, always strafe. You move in elegant parabola, watching for the twitch of movement that means either predator or prey. In Goldeneye, you’re either quick or dead.
For us of the N64 generation, there had never been and will never again be a finer-balanced test of skill and mettle than Goldeneye. The 1997 release by Rare revolutionised the first-person shooter genre and almost single-handedly introduced shooters to the console generation. (Some will point to the Metal Gear series, especially 1999’s Metal Gear Solid, as playing this role: to them I say, you bought the wrong console, get over it. Don’t @ me.)
It had a spectacular single-player mode, one which simultaneously paid homage to the film and jumped off from it. The 64-bit era marked the very beginning of 3D gaming, and developer Rare were its masters; the storytelling in Goldeneye influenced and prefigured the still-preeminent Half-Life, released for PC the following year.
But it was the multiplayer which shines brightest in the memory. PC gaming multiplayer, in the age of dial-up, was about either going along to internet cafes for a spot of intensive Counterstrike, or setting up complex wire-tangled LAN parties for ten-hour Starcraft sessions.
But while Nintendo has since gone in some weird directions – I’m looking at you, Wii motion controllers – nothing could top the N64 for easy, four-player multiplayer sessions. Its controller may have looked like it was designed for someone with three hands, but it fitted into the palm like you had been designed for it, rather than the other way around.
I tried a PlayStation at the time and didn’t take to it, especially the lumpen controller. Sony’s market-dominating console may have had better support for third-party developers, which is why they eventually won that iteration of the console wars, but the N64 was worlds ahead for easy useability. It had four ports, not two, and the processing power to make gaming, for the first time really, a viable party option for casual gamers. And it had Rare as a developer, which meant it had Goldeneye.
At my school we had our favoured mode, of course, though everyone had their own. I have met people later who played exclusively slappers-only, or proximity mines, or only on the Facility map. But our favoured mode was, I think, most common: Pistols Only – making the DD44 the king for its accuracy, (though the silenced PP7 was secretly as good if not better because it held an extra bullet in its clip, if I remember correctly) – and, Licence to Kill mode, which means one-shot kill. Ignore the Golden Gun, and ignore the Magnum – they are too slow.
And the level we played was Temple; the simplest and largest of the maps. Facility, if we wanted a change, but designed after the movie scene it lacked Temple’s balance and elegance of design. With Licence to Kill mode on, the game changed dramatically. I can’t play the other way – we never did – in which the game is one of attrition. But with one-shot kill, the gameplay becomes much more frenetic.
It’s all about reactions: in Temple’s wide open levels players can circle each other, frantically trying to strafe inside the turning circle of the other to get in the fatal shot. Like a shark, to stay alive you must keep moving. Keep an eye on the yellow dots on the map. They are coming for you.
That controller, that console, and that game, became almost like a religion to us. We would fight to be the first in the little dingy break-room that contained a pool table, a TV with an N64, and a ratty old couch. We would throw ourselves at the door in manic fury just to get first on the game – because it was, always, winner-stays-on. I loved it. I still do.
And of course, if you picked Oddjob: fuck you.
This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.Flickr / Creative Commons Greatest Of All Time
Suspended food inspections and stressed-out TSA workers and FBI agents mean the government may be unable to prevent major public safety threats.
The immediate effects of the US government shutdown, which has now stretched into its third week, are well known: 800,000 federal workers are no longer being paid and have now missed their first paychecks. The average government employee takes home $500 a week – and is unlikely to have a cushion to protect them from this kind of salary freeze. Those who are furloughed may be able to find temporary work or apply for unemployment benefits, others are working for free in what one union worker calls “voluntary servitude” while wondering how to cover their bills, or even pay for their transportation into work.
Americans who are dependent on government aid are also vulnerable. Food stamps have been guaranteed until February; after that there is no plan. If the shutdown continues through February and March, increasing numbers of Americans reliant on rent and housing subsidies will be affected. Some health clinics serving Native Americans are already at risk of shutting down because of the lack of federal funding.
Then there are the more insidious effects of the shutdown, the less obvious risks that affect everyone. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced it has been forced to shut down routine food safety inspections, raising the risk of outbreaks of foodborne illness such as E. Coli. Every year, foodborne illnesses send about 128,000 people in America to hospital and kill 3,000 – and that’s when regular inspections are taking place.
The FDA head, Scott Gottleib said on Twitter that he is taking steps to restore inspections of high-risk foods, which account for just under a third of domestic food inspections, including soft cheeses, seafood, unpasteurised juice, eggs, sandwiches, salads and infant formula. (Inspections of imported food are continuing as usual.)
This isn’t a cause for panic just yet: even when there isn’t a shutdown, food processing facilities aren’t constantly monitored, but inspected at set intervals. But, it might be enough to put you off your seafood paella. The director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Andrew Rosenberg, told the New York Times that he was concerned about contaminated seafood ending up on supermarket shelves, and especially clams, oysters, mussels and other bivalves that can carry “very nasty stuff”.
Even when workers are performing functions so vital to national security that they cannot be furloughed – whether that’s the TSA workers in charge of aviation security, the secret services and FBI or indeed food and drugs safety inspectors – there’s a very real risk that the stress of working unpaid will make them less good at their jobs.
The Atlantic highlights the research of Jirs Meuris of the University of Wisconsin, who has found that the more worried employees are about their personal finances the more error-prone they are at work. His research has found, for instance, that short-haul truck drivers who reported financial anxieties were more likely to crash. He estimated that employee financial worries were costing truck companies $1.3m a year because of preventable crashes.
In a statement, Meuris said:
“Based on my research, we should be worried about the impact of the current shutdown on our national security and health as thousands of government workers including those at the FBI, DEA, FDA, Border Patrol, and TSA work to protect us from threats while going without a paycheck and living in a state of financial uncertainty.
As their financial insecurity grows, we can be sure that our own security falters along with it. We need to recognize that a shutdown over border security may actually do more harm to it than what there may be to gain from it.”
Trump’s argument for a border wall is based on imagined dangers, and fears fabricated by right-wing politicians. The dangers posed by his extended shutdown are terrifyingly real.Getty TSA agents. Studies show that worried employees can be more error-prone at work
The president has painted himself into a corner with no good options for him to save face.
Trump is gambling that his base will come along with him on the government shutdown, well on its way to its fourth week, over building his border wallk. But he may have miscalculated quite how much they care about the wall as a solid actual project, rather than as a metaphor for reduced immigration in the abstract.
Here’s the problem. Democrats have no incentive to concede to Trump on their first showdown following their storming midterms victory in November, especially as Trump has decided to personally take ownership of the shutdown itself.
This may have been because Trump, despite heading the federal government, has little or no practical understanding of what it does. He gets his information from the swivel-eyed loons of Fox News – Sean Hannity, Jeannine Pirro, The “and Friends” – who say things like “what do we need a federal government for anyway.”
That’s all very well in theory and as rhetoric, but not so effective in practice. The ideological bubble Trump has surrounded himself with – Stephen Miller, Fox News – has pushed him to believe that he is winning a battle that he is actually losing. His base may want a wall in theory; but they also want their garbage to be collected and their mail delivered.
There is a theory that the longer the shutdown goes on, the more pressure might shift to the Democrats simply to be the adults in the room. The victims of an armed robbery might be against the robber when he first draws his gun, but after nearly a month of being kept hostage they may be inclined to say “just give him the fucking money already.”
But this is unlikely to be how things play out, mainly because Trump’s wider credibility is so obviously shot. When he claims, as he did on Twitter on Thursday, that he did not have a “temper tantrum” in his meeting with Democratic leadership, who really believes him? Finally, the chickens of lying with such ease may be coming home to roost.
The problem is that that leaves him with only one option: declaring a state of emergency. That gives him a scary amount of emergency powers, as detailed in this chilling recent piece in The Atlantic. He told reporters on Thursday that he was mulling that option.
What happens after that is anybody’s guess.Getty Resting bad-president face
Our existing political parties are failing. Our new movement will fill the breach.
Labour’s analysis that people are divided on Brexit but united by what is going wrong might be right – but its inability to provide a robust opposition renders it meaningless.
Brexit is a mess. No party will come out well because they’ve put their needs before Britain’s. Nearly half of people think divisions in society will deepen regardless of whether we have another referendum.
While the debate rages on, the two main parties fail to provide the leadership we so desperately need in education, health and other public services. When trust in our politicians is at an all-time low, it’s hard to see how politics-as-is can recover. The time for a new political movement is now.
In over 15 years of teaching, I’ve seen a lot of change, but the last two years have created new levels of disruption and uncertainty.
Schools are coming under intense pressure to perform as precious resources are cut. Teachers are being asked to work longer hours for the same money. Children are sitting exams earlier, causing stress and anxiety. Academic qualifications are being disproportionately promoted ignoring the creative and practical skills of so many.
Often, change comes after a general election or following the appointment of a new Education Secretary (we’ve had three of those in the last four years). New ministers looking to climb the party ladder with quick political wins forge ahead without any meaningful consultation or consideration of the longer-term implications. The impact? Schools can’t hire teachers on a long-term basis as different subjects fall in and out of favour. Headteachers can’t plan for support systems as funding is withdrawn and priorities shift. There is no time for teachers to master their syllabus because it changes too rapidly. Hard-earned expertise is wasted, energy and commitment sapped. It’s no wonder two in five newly qualified teachers experience mental health problems and half quit the profession in their first ten years.
Every day I ask how my staff and I can achieve more for the pupils that walk through our doors. We push ourselves to do better but in schools up and down the country, despite these efforts, we continue to be undermined by ill-thought-through policy and battle against a decade of underfunding. Worse still, many of the politicians that make these decisions put their own children into private education. This demonstrates a total lack of commitment to the challenges faced by the broad majority of us in Britain.
Time and time again, the system has let us down. To ensure the future of our schools we need to take the politics out of it. Like the Bank of England, education should be independent of politics. It should be teachers, academics and parents – much like the makeup of school governing boards – that take critical decisions and set the direction on schooling, not politicians pushing different agendas from one-day-to the next.
The children I teach have taught me many things, but what stands out beyond all else is their untainted optimism and passion for making the world a better place. They deserve so much more than the current toxic and divisive politics currently on offer. If we want a brighter future – as a nation and for our children – we need a new politics. That’s why I’m proud to play my part in setting up United for Change.
Saima Rana, Principal Westminster Academy and Co-Founder of United for ChangePhoto: Getty
Former minister George Freeman has become the first rebel to publicly U-turn on the Brexit deal.
Could there be hope for Theresa May after all? Former Tory minister George Freeman has become the first Conservative MP to have publicly U-turned on the Brexit deal.
Having declared against the Withdrawal Agreement last month, Freeman, a Remainer, told the Commons this afternoon that he would vote for it “with a heavy heart” in order to avert a no-deal scenario. When it falls, he will campaign for a Norway-style deal on a cross-party basis.
Though Freeman is just one Conservative MP of more than 100 to have opposed the deal and has not shifted the dial in any meaningful way by coming in from the cold, his decision to do so nonetheless suggests that Downing Street can at least hope for a less painful defeat than that which they were destined for last month.
Freeman, an occasional rebel on Brexit votes, had cited the threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom posed by the backstop and the economic damage the Withdrawal Agreement would do more generally as justification for his opposition in December. Closer proximity to exit day – and with it an increasingly likely no-deal scenario – has forced him to reassess those political priorities for the sake of some semblance of economic continuity.
In doing so, he has accepted Theresa May’s case for the prosecution – that the fundamental choice before MPs is between her deal and no deal, and that the only sure-fire way to avert the latter is to support the former. Others will follow his lead before choosing which division lobby to walk through next Tuesday. In any case, there won’t be enough Freemans – MPs whose opposition to the deal wasn’t born of deep and longstanding Euroscepticism – to deliver a victory for the government. But Downing Street’s hope will be that his logic is pervasive enough to change the shape of the defeat, particularly among those MPs who have pledged to vote in any way they can to stop a no-deal scenario.
Opinion among Tory and DUP MPs is divided as to just what sort of loss would be most useful to the Prime Minister, however. Some on the government benches believe a relatively slim margin of under 50 would advertise to Brussels that the Withdrawal Agreement and with it an orderly Brexit could be saved by a concession – or convince Labour MPs that supporting the deal is worth the political expense at the second time of asking. Others, including the DUP, believe that only a severe defeat close to or exceeding 100 can emphasise that binning the backstop is a political imperative.
Just how many Conservative MPs follow Freeman’s lead will determine how straightforward the Prime Minister’s task is once the deal falls at the first time of asking on Tuesday – and with the country’s chances of avoiding no deal.UK Parliament Am I Only Freeman? Or is this burning an eternal flame?
MPs are calling for a minister for hunger to tackle food insecurity – but we need changes in policy, not another politician on the Whitehall payroll.
The government should appoint a minister for hunger, according to MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee. The call comes as one in five children under 15 have been found to live in a food insecure household, which means without reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. And the problem is growing.
“Limited access to food… due to lack of money or other resources” is “significant and growing”, according to the MPs’ report into hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity in the UK, claiming Britain suffers some of the highest levels of food insecurity across Europe – and is the worst in Europe for the proportion of children under 15 living in severely food insecure homes.
The conclusion? Let’s have an individual minister tasked with fixing this.
The arguments are compelling. Mary Creagh, a Labour MP and the Committee’s chair is concerned about accountability. You can feel her frustration during the Committee hearing, grilling ministers about why they don’t have a joined-up strategy to address hunger in this country. “Zero hunger” is one of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs) that Britain is signed up to implement. But only the Department for International Development mentions hunger in the official plans that each department has to write up for achieving these goals.
“Which Department is responsible for ending food insecurity?” Creagh asked Cabinet Office minister for implementation Oliver Dowden last October. The answer was that it “cuts across a number of Departments” but all Departments are responsible for the SDGs.
Creagh persisted: “Who is accountable? If everyone is responsible, who is accountable?” “The whole of government”, came the reply. “Why are they not lead Ministers?” Creagh boggled. “You are not prepared to make a Minister, a single Minister—not four Ministers, not five Ministers; one Minister—accountable”.
Creagh argues that, “taking urgent action at home to tackle hunger and malnutrition” can “only be addressed by setting clear UK-wide targets and by appointing a minister for hunger to deliver them”.
The Committee’s headline recommendation is that this appointment should “ensure cross-departmental action”.
Poverty charities like the food bank network the Trussell Trust are on board. Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, commented: “We fully support the Committee’s call for a minister for hunger and a measurement of food insecurity… To end hunger, we need to understand the true scale of the challenge, and work across government to ensure everyone is anchored from being swept into poverty.”
The Women’s Institute, 77 per cent of whose members donate to food banks, is also backing the plan: “As a first step, the NFWI [National Federation of Women’s Institutes] would like the government to start measuring the scale of the problem, as well as appoint a dedicated food insecurity minister to address the issue root and branch,” said vice chair Ann Jones.
Measuring and monitoring the problem properly by engaging with civil society is crucial. But I’m suspicious of the use of bespoke ministers for societal problems created by the same government who would be appointing the role. It’s a little like marking your own homework.
After all, there’s a minister for women and equalities – and women are still disproportionately hit by austerity, with single mothers being the some of the biggest losers from Universal Credit. This is a result of government welfare policy.
There’s a minister for mental health – but even with the ring-fenced funding for mental health announced this week, we are still dangerously far off the “parity of esteem” promised for the NHS’ treatment of mental and physical health – with a 20,000-vacancy hole in the mental health sector workforce. This is a result of austerity – both the lack of local government funding or a new funding structure for social care, and years of inadequate healthcare spending.
There’s a minister for loneliness – as loneliness is now described as an “epidemic”, with 200,000 old people having not spoken to a friend or relative in over a month and 10 per cent of people aged 16-24 “always or often” lonely. This is partly a result of vanishing community hubs, like youth services (600 youth clubs have closed since 2010) and libraries (more than 478 have closed since 2010), cut by successive Conservative governments.
By making a minister for hunger, you’re unlikely to stop people going hungry, and more likely just giving the government a rhetorical leg-up whenever it’s questioned on food insecurity: We’re doing everything to tackle it, we appointed the UK’s first ever minister for hunger! It is also an excuse for ministers who should be dealing with this problem to palm it off on their colleague with the more relevant job title.
The last thing people without secure food access need is another excuse for their government to pay lip service to helping them.Getty Britain suffers some of the worst food insecurity in Europe.
Wage stagnation and austerity have left consumers too poor and indebted to allow stores to generate profits.
In 2018, the British high street endured its worst Christmas since the global financial crisis of 2008. Figures released by KPMG, which audits many of the firms in the survey, show that December retail sales fell by 0.7 per cent on the previous year. This follows a dismal 2018 for the high street, a year when shops on Britain’s top 500 high streets were closing at a rate of 14 per day.
Much of this reflects greater competition from online retailers. Many consumers have abandoned the high street in favour of websites such as Amazon. But sales for online retailers fell below expectations too. ASOS’s sales for the Christmas period were significantly lower than anticipated, prompting a fall in its share price of nearly 40 per cent.
Brexit provides an easy scapegoat for the high street’s poor performance. According to this view, uncertainty over the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU is encouraging consumers to delay purchases until later in the year.
It is true that many consumers seem to be displaying this thinking over the purchase of major assets such as housing. House prices have stagnated, and even started to fall in some places, as people put off purchasing until after Brexit.
But this is because people think very differently about asset purchases as compared to current spending. Purchasing a house is a financial investment so consumers make decisions based on their expectations about its future value, rather than simply the happiness they derive from consuming it now. House prices are likely to fall post-Brexit, so people have stopped buying.
Christmas presents are an entirely different matter. No one treats buying socks, jumpers and books like they do houses. People have to buy Christmas presents, and they’ll buy as many as they think they need, subject to what they can afford. This is the crux of the problem facing British high streets: British consumers are too poor and indebted to provide the kind of revenues that they need to turn a profit.
Since the financial crisis, we’ve been living through an almost unprecedented period of stagnation in people’s living standards. The UK is currently undergoing the longest period of wage stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars. The Conservatives are fond of pointing out that employment is high, but low wages mean the link between employment and prosperity has effectively been severed.
If the wage squeeze dealt a blow to consumer demand, then austerity has finished the job. The combination of benefit cuts and the inexcusably capricious sanctions regime at the heart of the Universal Credit system have left as many as one in eight working families living in poverty.
And yet, for the last few years, consumer spending has been relatively strong. In fact, it has been the only thing keeping the economy afloat. The other components of GDP – business investment, government spending, and net exports – have each contributed a negligible amount to growth over the past few years.
Clearly, these high levels of spending have not been driven by rising wages. Instead, they’ve been driven by debt. 2017 was the first year since 1988 – the height of the Lawson boom – when consumers spent more than they earned. Levels of unsecured consumer debt – debt not backed up by collateral, like credit card borrowing – are now the highest they have ever been.
These rising debt levels follow the pre-crisis explosion in household debt, which peaked at 148 per cent of households’ disposable incomes in 2008. Since then, low wage growth has made many consumers unable to pay off the debts they accrued before 2008, whilst low interest rates have encouraged them to take on even more. Today, household debt stands at around 133 per cent households’ disposable incomes – roughly the same level as it was in 2005, in the midst of the pre-crisis bubble.
These levels of debt are entirely unsustainable in the absence of wage increases or growth in the rest of the economy. A small rise in interest rates, or a turn in the business cycle, could tip many households into insolvency. It is no wonder that the high street is struggling.
Over the long term, the only way to deal with rising debt is to increase wages. This will require a massive increase in workers’ bargaining power, as well as a much higher – and better enforced – minimum wage. But higher wages will not be enough to treat the hangover from the pre-crisis debt boom.
In the words of US economist Michael Hudson, debts that can’t be paid, won’t be paid. We’re still living in a Ponzi economy in which we are denying the severity of the debt problem, and instead opting to kick the can down the road. What the UK economy really needs is a write-off of unsecured consumer debt – not just to save the high street, but to save the whole economy.Getty Images The John Lewis store on Oxford Street - the retailer may suspend staff bonuses after a sales slump.
The creator of Black Mirror on China’s dystopian tech and the rise of Alexa. Contains spoilers.
If there’s one thing a Black Mirror plot will do, it’s escalate quickly. The rapid-fire decisions we have to make in “Bandersnatch” – the choose-your-own-adventure film that Netflix released just after Christmas – start out innocuous (Sugar Puffs or Frosties?), skirt around serious issues (Take the medication or flush it away?) and eventually push us into appalling decisions (Bury body or chop up body?) that, understandably, make our Eighties teen protagonist Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) cry out in agony and ask us, in a meta flourish, if he really, really has to.
Could a system like this be recalibrated for other purposes, such as elections? How about showing voters the possible outcomes of their choice? “That’s the fantasy, isn’t it?” Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker tells the New Statesman. “Possibly like a virtual reality headset that you have to put on and it boils down the next ten years, then it takes you two minutes to experience that, so you see the ramifications of your decision.” He does admit, though, that even he wouldn’t have been able to script the last two punishing years of Brexit and Donald Trump, no matter how he used Twine, the video game programming language that let him sketch all the alternate realities of Bandersnatch.
Between figuring out an entirely new way to tell stories on Netflix, and making the upcoming season five of Black Mirror (which doesn't have a release date yet, but is due later than expected thanks to the complexity of making Bandersnatch), Brooker hasn’t been keeping up with the news as much as he used to. “It's been very obviously been very, very busy doing this,” he says. “So, because I haven't been doing the Screenwipe shows, I've not been watching the news. I spent years watching it, so I've deliberately not, and what's depressing is the news seems to be stuck as well. It seems to be stuck in shit mode.”
Brooker might not be seeking out the headlines these days, but still they find him, relentlessly. “Lots of people have sent me articles about that system in China,” he says, referring to the authoritarian state’s social credit concept, not dissimilar from a tyrannical social ratings app in the episode “Nosedive”.
“It's like the world functions as a Black Mirror alert system for me,” he continues. “Where people just say, ‘Have you seen this? This is a bit Black Mirror isn't it?’ Yeah. It is. I would say it's slightly terrifying, but is it the worst thing China has to face at the moment? Probably not. I mean, there's climate change…”
It’s the tech that’s closer to home that’s been worrying him. “Can you imagine if Twitter, Instagram and Facebook didn't exist, and then suddenly the government forced us all to take part in it tomorrow – we'd be outraged! Similarly, if they gave us each an Amazon Echo device, and said, hey, put this in your house, it will record everything you're saying and doing. I have bought one though, I literally bought one because I thought I should have that in my house; because it will help me think of Black Mirror ideas.”
Brooker’s not saying if he’s got a smartspeaker-themed episode in the next season of Black Mirror, but he does expand on how have an Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant, has affected his kids (sons Covey, six and Huxley, four): “They immediately took this thing like a duck to water. After we had it for about a week, the four-year-old walked into the kitchen and went, 'Alexa... I mean, Daddy! Where are my shoes?' And then we went on holiday. In the hotel room, the kids walked in and went, 'Alexa Alexa'. When I said there wasn't one, they replied, 'Just saying it so I'd hear where she was... if there was one'. Now that's quite smart, because they're cleverer than me.”
Parenting tends to bring on nostalgia, so it’s no coincidence that Bandersnatch is set in the 1980s, the decade Brooker became a teenager. While the film pushes technological boundaries, the setting is a loving recreation of Brooker’s memories: “I was 13 in 1984, and I remember going into WH Smith to look at computer games. The days of loading games off a cassette tape, which would take like five to ten minutes on the ZX Spectrum with rubber keys. The emotional moment for me was going into the Bandersnatch WH Smith set that we built in Croydon. All of that was very evocative for me.”
Back to the near future, though: what’s in store for us in season fiIve? One of the Bandersnatch endings shows the daughter of a major character living in what seems to be the present day. She’s being interviewed on the news, and, as always, Brooker’s hidden Easter Eggs are there in the news tickers. One sticks out as referring to a story we’ve not yet seen: “Senate Committee Grills Smithereen CEO Billy Bauer over Russian Bots.” What’s this? Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, perhaps? Sounds like there’s going to be some pretty contemporary stuff in the next season.
Brooker won’t give a straight answer. “Don't think there's any storyline hints there... The next season is coming this year, so not too long to wait. It's sort of different to other seasons, and that's basically all I can say. Sorry, I have to be really cagey – it’s more fun that way.” He’s right, really. It is more fun being horribly surprised by Black Mirror than by, well, real life. For now.
Bandersnatch is available to stream now on Netflix.Netflix
The Labour leader’s preferred way out of the current impasse is still a general election.
Speaking in Wakefield this morning, Jeremy Corbyn restated his demand for a solution to the Brexit impasse that appears effectively impossible: a general election.
In what is likely to be his last major public statement before MPs vote on the withdrawal agreement next Tuesday, he attempted to redefine the terms of the question facing both the Labour leadership and its MPs – from those that threaten to stretch his fissiparous electoral coalition to breaking point, to those which, on paper, unite it.
That resulted in a speech whose thrust was an appeal to class consciousness from Remainers in Tottenham and Leavers in Mansfield, rather than any meaningful debate over the validity or viability of Brexit itself. “You’re up against it,” Corbyn said, citing austerity, stagnant wages, and the cost of living crisis, “but you’re not against each other.”
Accordingly, his cursory repetition of Labour’s policy – that a second referendum should remain on the table as an option in the event a general election does not happen – came with a caveat so huge that it amounted to an implicit dismissal of a so-called people’s vote. “Any political leader who wants to bring the country together cannot wish away the votes of 17 million people who wanted to leave, any more than they can ignore the concerns of the 16 million who voted to remain.”
But despite the fact that his attention was more or less exclusively focussed on the question of what sort of future relationship with Europe would negotiate – with the fact of the divorce undisputed – Corbyn categorically ruled out doing anything but whipping his MPs to vote against the withdrawal agreement. The vast majority of them will do so on Thursday, after which point Corbyn said, as expected, that Labour would table a motion of no confidence in the hope of securing an election and with it the chance to renegotiate Brexit (rather than, say, holding a second referendum).
Notably, however, he did not specify a timescale for tabling a confidence vote after May’s deal falls – despite several of his shadow cabinet ministers insisting that he would do so “immediately”. He instead put on the record the more cautious line briefed by his team yesterday: “Labour will table a motion of no confidence in the government at the moment we judge it to have the best chance of success.”
That statement of intent was followed with a caveat seldom offered by shadow cabinet ministers sent out to spin the party’s line on Brexit. “Clearly,” Corbyn said, “Labour does not have enough MPs in parliament to win a confidence vote on its own.” As he himself alluded to when he urged opposition MPs to join Labour in voting against the government, Labour’s chances remain slim until such time that the ten DUP MPs drop the government. (That every other party will is a racing certainty.) Paradoxically, the defeat of the withdrawal agreement – and with it the backstop May’s sometime coalition partners object to – will make that chance even slimmer.
We know from what Corbyn said this morning that the Labour leadership will not whip its MPs to approve Theresa May’s Brexit, back a second referendum out of choice – both courses threaten its electoral base in different ways – or support any attempt by Downing Street to make the Brexit deal more amenable to Labour MPs by tacking on guarantees on workers’ rights. That strategy has held until now.
But failure to roll the pitch for any alternative at all – or, indeed, for the inevitable breakdown in party discipline after May’s vote is defeated and Labour has no way to bind MPs who seek mutually exclusive Brexit aims – will make the messy politics of the aftermath of next Tuesday rather more difficult to finesse.Getty.
With the loss of text, we lose an understated emotional impact that just can’t be delivered through voice acting.
“Do you want to hear what I said again?” the owl asked, and my overly enthusiastic, trigger-happy finger – eager to get back to cutting the grass in the Kingdom of Hyrule – replied “Yes” before I realised what was being asked. Wait, I thought, I meant no! I didn’t want to hear it the first time!
Anyone who’s played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) will be familiar with this encounter. The game, prior to this moment, had shown a vast open field begging for exploration, and yet now a big owl with a penchant for spewing out chunks of exposition was making me slow down to read box after box of text. Attempting to quickly skip through it by mashing buttons, as I did, often only means that you have to listen to him all over again.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
It’s easy to see how text boxes in video games get a bad reputation. And yet despite this encounter, I can’t help but miss the days when text boxes dominated video games; when voice acting was not the norm.
It was the release of Final Fantasy IX in the year 2000, a game I played before Ocarina of Time, that made me care for the stories that could be contained within these simple darn rectangles. I wanted to read them; I enjoyed reading them. Before this, I had struggled with the focus required to keep my head in good book – video games even helped me improve my own writing (and should probably be credited with earning me the honour of “Best Jabberwocky-inspired Story” in Year Six).
In games, the characters, themes, and story were all made accessible for me at my own pace. Information could be repeated or entirely skipped. I was the director of the narrative.
Late into Final Fantasy IX, one scene cemented how engaging text in games can be. During one of the many moments in which Vivi, a playable prototype mage (wizard) character, ponders the meaning of his own mortality, he says: “I don’t think I really understand what it means to live and die.” Wow, ten-year-old me thought, do I? Whether he is thinking this line or actually saying it aloud is somewhat down to players’ interpretation. It’s a quiet and personal moment for Vivi, the weight of the line conveyed far better when you read and muse alongside him. But when Kingdom Hearts II (a game that incorporated some of the characters from the Final Fantasy series) was released in 2005, an actor’s voice was given to Vivi. Entirely different to the voice I'd heard in my head for years, the line’s delivery in this Vivi voice felt jarring.
When told entirely via text, the game gave me ownership of the voice that came from the character; something that was entirely personal to me. The game’s examination on themes like the aforementioned mortality would probably not have stuck with me for all these years if I had first heard those lines spoken in a hammy actor's voice – the way they were in the 2005 remake.
Would swearing characters lose their charm?
Interesting questions emerge when exploring these old video games’ text boxes. For example, if they ever get around to remaking Final Fantasy VII, a game often derided for its poor translation job, will it be well received by fans? Many of the characters were known for their swearing, which was censored with various symbols and special characters. The harmless, feigned profanity is part of what made them so charming. But it's safe to assume that they would become far less appealing if we were to hear whatever words are being shielded by that garbled string of text.
And, swearing aside, when games increasingly started opted for voice actors, some performances left a lot to be desired. With many such video games coming from studios in Japan, questions around voice acting arose. How does a native Japanese-speaking director direct English-speaking actors? Which language do they synchronise the lip sync for? When Regina – a secret ops agent from Dino Crisis (1999) – arrives to the scene of a mutilated corpse and glibly says, “That’s disgusting”, does it make her gaming’s best portrayal of a female sociopath, or should they have done another line read? When you dig deeper into the writing behind games, more issues begin to wildly appear, with the unwelcome frequency of a Zubat.
For example the Japanese dialect has plenty of non-word sounds – think grunts and growls – that cause issues when translated for cutscenes, which are used to break up the gameplay. An English-speaking character is going to require more airtime/frames to say “what?” than would have been necessary for the Japanese version’s original grunt, meaning dialogue is rushed out of the actor’s mouth and as such comes with a stilted delivery. Text boxes previously provided more room for dialogue than a few seconds of a cutscene could allow, so the translation team had more freedom to be creative. This is something the Yakuza series gets right: rather than try to get English-speaking actors to haphazardly fill spaces made for Japanese, the creators simply kept the original Japanese voice cast and subtitled the game in English.
Another issue is that voice actors in games have started becoming too recognisable; you will often see the same names appearing across various cast lists. Troy Baker is one who appears in a long list of them, and in every new game you can’t help but notice him. While this works well for some of Baker’s games (see: Persona 4 and Last Of Us), many others struggle to overcome his recognisable voice in the gaming world (see: Silent Hill 2), with the Baker-voiced characters failing to sound like “just a normal guy”. Instead they sound like Troy Baker, with all the bells and whistles of a heavily coached performance.
While Silent Hill 2 may not benefit from its casting of Baker as main character James Sunderland, it does show how powerful text can be in otherwise understated moments. In the game – a psychological horror – Sunderland, makes a bad decision that sends him into the eponymous, fog-filled town of Silent Hill, where he receives a letter from his recently deceased wife Mary. “That’s definitely Mary’s name in her own handwriting,” the oral description of the letter says.
Yet as the game progresses and reality unravels for James, the player can check their inventory for clues. If you look at the letter near the end of the game, your inventory will tell you, in simple white text, that “There’s nothing written on the stationery.” The town of Silent Hill had tricked Sunderland and the letter wasn't real, it was a manifestation created to make him acknowledge his guilt. Not all players will experience this moment; a player must actively look at the letter again for this reveal to occur. And with this clever use of menus and text boxes, we see that games can create an atmosphere that is entirely unique for its medium – although I can’t help but feel a remake would (detrimentally for the game) try and make these little moments into far more cinematic ones.
The letter in Silent Hill 2
On the plus side, video game performances are much better nowadays, and their characters way more expressive. Plus, the end of text means we’ve finally killed the overuse of the ellipsis… Hooray... New tech has started to allow us to tell far more cinematic stories with performances that are award-worthy endeavours. But although games have come on a long way from the days of Tim Curry’s 1994 Gabriel Knight, played with a heavily exaggerated and inconsistent New Orleans accent, I can’t help but feel games are often too keen on rewriting their history rather than embracing their pasts.
But, as much as I miss them, if they ever do decide to bring back the text boxes, I just hope that when asked “Do you want to hear what I said again?”, they place the “No” option above the “Yes”.
This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.Getty
Failing to act now will endanger the Corbyn project, warns Ann Pettifor.
There is a tide in the affairs of men. Throughout his political career Jeremy Corbyn has fought for Labour’s leadership to honour the views of the membership. Some of the most influential of his staff will not be aware of those struggles as they only joined the party in 2016. Long before, Corbyn, together with Tony Benn and John McDonnell, supported the radical demands of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. The most contentious of these was that elected MPs must be accountable to the membership.
Corbyn’s strength has always lain in being at one with the membership. He knew he could stand strong in the face of overwhelming rejection by the PLP because the members were with him. This gave him the mandate to draft the 2017 manifesto which offered economic policies that would transform Britain in favour of the many not the few, and added ten points to Labour’s performance as a result.
The membership today is overwhelmingly in favour of referring the government’s Brexit negotiations to the public, so that voters can deliver a verdict on whether Theresa May’s toxic deal will serve the economic interests of the British people. Labour’s leadership team is not honouring that demand in full. Instead Lexiteers with little understanding of the democratic forces that have shaped Labour, recommend political passivity – effectively backing Brexit. By doing so, they risk handing the baton of leadership on the issue of Europe to those MPs most opposed to Corbyn.
If Corbyn breaks decisively from what the membership has overwhelmingly said they want on the single most important economic and political issue of our times – to stay in the European Union – there are no guarantees they will continue to back him. Instead – they may well look for a new leader who embodies the internationalist values they hold dear.
A second risk is that when and if a referendum is called, the same mistake that was made in 2016 will be repeated. Unless the Labour leadership chooses otherwise, the official campaign will be framed and led by those on the right of the political spectrum. If that group – and not say, Laura Parker of Momentum or the groups on the left of Labour who have been campaigning on this issue – is chosen to lead the official campaign to stay in the union, they will benefit from the ability to spend up to £7m. All other campaigns will be less effective as they will be limited to a spend of £800,000. We would lose the opportunity to set out a radical vision of a socialist UK in a socialist Europe, with all the good that could do for the many across the EU.
While it is clear that there are Labour constituencies split on the question of Europe, Labour’s membership is not. Of course there are risks in alienating Labour Leavers. Electorally however the far greater risk to the party would be to alienate Labour’s Remain voters. But this is a perilous time for both Labour’s electoral base and for Britain. Labour members are fully aware of the risks. They recognise that the times require courage and leadership to do the right thing: to acknowledge that membership of the European Union carries costs, but that the costs of Brexit – and especially a chaotic Brexit designed by the Tory Right – to the working people of Britain will be far greater. They understand that the courageous choice is for Labour to commit to stay in the European Union, not for the status quo but to work with social democratic partners across Europe to transform the Union away from the neoliberal economic policies embedded in its Treaties – many of which originated in Britain’s universities, think-tanks and government departments.
A failure of leadership on this issue, will result, we believe, to Labour being punished by the electorate. Every poll over the last year has told the same story – a potential electoral dividend for Labour if we back a second vote and Remain, or a catastrophic loss of support if we allow the Tories to win the Brexit they are so desperate to get over the line. In Scotland, weak leadership over a constitutional issue destroyed Labour as an electoral force in just a matter of years. We cannot afford to let the same happen in the rest of the UK over Brexit.
Millions of Labour’s new voters – overwhelmingly the young – may well switch their support to the Green or Lib Dem parties. A poll of Labour’s 41 most marginal constituencies recently showed us losing 40 of them if we failed to back Remain – the Remain vote splintering to the Greens, Lib Dems and SNP while the Tories held on to their Leave vote. While not dewy-eyed about the EU, these voters are nevertheless clear that Britain will gain more from building alliances with socialists across Europe to tackle global corporations, tax avoidance, crime and the greatest threat to Britain’s security: climate breakdown. They cannot understand why Labour MPs offer tacit support to the far right of the Tory party.
To fail to exercise progressive leadership on this crucial issue is to imperil the Corbyn project. It would take decades before the left could recover from such a defeat.
The Left EU Strategy and Policy Commission, which I chair, urges Jeremy Corbyn to honour the democratic struggles and achievements of Labour’s grassroots members. We call on him to announce immediately that he will respect the overwhelming mandate of Labour’s membership – for the right of the British people to have a final say on their future – to deliver a verdict on the government’s negotiations.
Above all, he must commit the Labour party to both support and lead the national campaign to stay within the EU. And, as the only popular social democratic leader in Europe, commit to work with partners to reform and transform the European Union.
To quote Shakespeare, “On such a full sea are we now afloat”. And on that turbulent political sea Labour must “take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures”. The future is ours to make. But to achieve our goals of cementing the left as the holders of power in the Labour Party, and to gain power in government and influence in Europe we have to choose the path of democracy, and the path of continued EU membership.Photo: Getty
The Labour leader risks being the man who frustrated Brexit or the man who facilitated it, and both could knock him out of general election contention.
Another day, another defeat for the government, as MPs voted to truncate the number of days Theresa May has to respond if (or rather, when) the Withdrawal Agreement is defeated in the House of Commons from 21 days to just three, backing an amendment brought by the Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve.
A small, but slightly bigger majority than the one which endorsed Yvette Cooper’s amendment to deter the government from going for a no-deal exit the day before, with 308 in favour to 297 against, as opposed to 303 to 296. Are parliament’s opponents of no deal becoming more numerous already?
Unfortunately, no. Although the immediate implications are about the Brexit crisis and how the parliamentary stand-off will be resolved, this vote wasn’t only about Brexit. It was also a litmus test for how MPs felt about the Speaker, John Bercow, who defied precedent to allow the motion to go ahead. Had the motion been lost, it would almost certainly triggered a serious attempt to remove Bercow as Speaker, and one that might well have succeeded.
That’s why committed Labour Brexiteers, such as John Mann, voted for Grieve’s amendment but did not vote for Cooper’s, and why former Remainers in heavily Leave seats, like Caroline Flint, Ian Austin, Lisa Nandy and Jon Cruddas, all of whom also abstained on Cooper’s amendment, voted for the Grieve amendment. It’s why the Conservative rebellion was a touch smaller, with 17 Tories voting against the government whip as opposed to the 20 who voted for Cooper’s amendment.
(It’s also why Kevin Barron, also a Labour MP in pro-Brexit territory, voted against the amendment. I’m told he has deep doubts about Bercow’s fitness to continue as Speaker having worked closely with him as chair of the parliamentary standards committee.)
So while the government certainly doesn’t have a majority on Brexit issues, and thanks to the DUP’s ongoing protest against the backstop doesn’t have a majority on anything else of substance either, we are a long way from anyone having a stable majority for any alternative either.
That puts pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to step in to resolve the crisis, though the reality is that isn’t within his hands anymore than it is in Theresa May’s. Labour MPs who have been allies over long years cannot convince one another to back their preferred Brexit state and Corbyn certainly can’t. To give you an idea of the problem, four Labour MPs (Caroline Flint, Gareth Snell, Lisa Nandy and John Mann) have put down an amendment to the meaningful vote, and according to the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar up to 20 more could join them in voting for the government if May accepts it or something like it.
The Labour leader has a big Brexit speech today, and his big theme is that while people in Tottenham and Mansfield might have been divided as far as their choice in the referendum goes, they are united by sky-high rents, sluggish wage growth, and insecure work, and that the best way to resolve the crisis is a general election, which as it stands he has no way to secure in parliament. (That’s one reason, as I reveal in this week’s NS, John McDonnell has been quietly talking to supporters of the Norway-Plus alternative.)
Corbyn’s speech is the type of argument that might work well the day after parliament finally resolves the Brexit crisis, and one that taps into the sentiment that we can see in both the public polls and, I’m told, in Labour’s private surveys as well: that most voters want Brexit to be over as an issue and to focus on other things.
But the problem for Corbyn is that it is hard to see how the Brexit crisis can be resolved in a way that allows Labour to pivot back to talking about how lacklustre our economic performance has been and the shabby condition of the public realm without having alienated somebody. Whatever happens, Corbyn risks either being painted as the man who frustrated Brexit or the man who facilitated it, and both carry a good chance of knocking him out of general election contention.
Corbyn’s problem should worry everyone who wants to avoid a no-deal exit, however they feel about the Labour leader. Why? Because the least immediately electorally painful choice for Labour is to keep calling for an election, to keep voting to “rule out no deal”, but never actually to vote for something that does rule out no deal. And that’s why we still can’t be sure that a no-deal exit won’t happen: because it is impossible to avert without a large number of people in parliament deciding to vote against their own political interests.Getty
When the world seemed hostile, strong women made me feel like I could do anything.
Growing up gay, I quickly developed a hyper-awareness of the interests that were “acceptable” for boys to have. As an awkwardly feminine boy, my struggle to enjoy stereotypically male pastimes, such as team sports, was an early indication that I didn’t quite fit in. Away from the playground, in the seclusion and sanctuary of the home, I found miniature ways to rebel against restrictive gender norms. My parents were kind enough to buy me dolls to play with, a Spice Girls pencil case filled with gel pens and sometimes I’d even dress up and paint my nails.
My older brother, on the other hand, was the polar opposite of me. Until we discovered tennis in our teens (which we played endlessly), finding mutually enjoyable activities to occupy us both was a tough task. So my parents must have been thrilled when, years before we picked up our rackets, we stopped causing havoc and coexisted harmoniously (almost) when they presented us with Gameboy Colours. These were closely followed by a PlayStation for us to share, which was eventually upgraded to a PS2.
As a young boy, I had a strong affinity with female heroes. She-Ra: Princess of Power and X-Men’s Storm were early idols, paving the way for my beloved Buffy Summers years later. When the world seemed hostile, strong women made me feel like I could do anything. So it was unsurprising that, when given the choice, I’d often chose to race, fight or play as a female character in PlayStation games.
In Crash Team Racing, part of the Crash Bandicoot franchise, I often used to race with Coco the fox. She was the only noticeably female character out of sixteen options. She was cheekier, funnier and, dare I say it, even a bit flirty with her male counterparts. With her pink cart and long blonde hair, Coco was much more exciting to me than Dingo the crocodile or Pinstripe the meerkat.
Tekken, an early fighting game, was another memorable example. Whereas my brother (and I’m sure most young boys) chose ripped-beyond-belief male fighters, impossibly tall and slender Nina – with a purple leopard crop top and towering heels – was my fighter of choice. Nina flipped, kicked and chopped just as well as the male characters – all in skin-tight clothing while keeping her hair and smoky eye pristine. What a woman. She preceded my love for certified gay icon Lara Croft, who, I think we can all agree, raided the first tomb at Stonewall.
In the Nineties, when early games consoles were primitive, gaming culture was overwhelmingly marketed towards men and boys – an inequality that I’m sure still exists today. Yet male characters in games often represented an over-the-top caricature of masculinity that felt unwelcoming and unrepresentative to me.
Looking back, it is now obvious to me that many of the female characters that I idolised, such as Nina or Lara, represented a hyper-sexualised femininity crafted from the male gaze. This might have felt exclusive to girls who, like me, did not feel like they often met the expectations of their gender. But as a young boy attempting to situate himself within an “acceptable” male interest, these confident women helped me.
I’m not the only gay man who explored gaming through female characters. There are even memes which jokingly suggest that boys who raced with Yoshi or Princess Peach in Mario Kart all turned out to be gay. “There was this sense of liberation and freedom I felt a lot of the time when playing as a girl,” explains Jeff, a 27-year-old media manager from London. “On World of Warcraft, I could fully immerse myself in that character and flirt with guys and be myself, from behind a computer screen, in a way I couldn’t when I was outside of that world”.
26-year-old fashion buyer Laurie “exclusively” played with female characters, or a highly feminised version of the male character if none were available. “I think I subconsciously related to the underdog narrative the female characters usually had or identified and admired their confidence”.
23-year-old PhD student Ben deliberately played with male characters when surrounded by other boys. “I was consciously terrified of appearing gay,” he says. “But I definitely liked playing as the girls when I played on my own”. 25 year-old business strategist Magnus agrees that it was a “statement” to play with a female character when playing multiplayer. “Looking back, it was basically akin to a very miniature coming out”.
Many LGBT+ people seek comfort in the fantasy universe of games growing up. So much so, that the term “gaymer” is widely used to describe LGBT+ gamers. Today London Gaymers, a non-profit social community, provides a safe space for LGBT+ gamers in London and across the UK. But before coming out and discovering the inclusive spaces of the more socially aware era we now live in, LGBT+ people had to create our own places of safety. For me, it was in front of the PlayStation, fighting against my brother with Nina by my side. She helped me find joy in an “acceptable” boys interest when maleness often seemed unwelcoming. Because if she could kick arse in towering heels, then surely anything was possible.
This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.Creative Commons / Wikimedia Commons
Team Ico’s masterpiece was ahead of its time.
If ever there was a video game deserving of the term “epic”, it is Shadow of the Colossus. Released on the PlayStation 2 in 2005, the masterpiece of the now defunct Team Ico blazed a trail for the entire action-adventure genre.
In a not particularly feminist move, the game's objective is to resurrect its sole female character, Mono, who spends the majority of the story dead and whose only narrative purpose is to be rescued. To do so, players take control of Wander, a young warrior-type man with a bad fringe.
Wander, perhaps naively, makes a deal with the demon Dormin, who promises to bring Mono back to life if he can slay 16 colossi – the giant monsters that roam the game’s magnificently crafted fantasy landscape. Each colossus serves as equal parts boss fight and puzzle-platforming exercise. Battling the monsters in their respective lairs, climbing their towering bodies and using the interactive environments around them, players are treated to an exhaustingly satisfying combat experience. Who doesn’t like to defeat something several hundred times their size?
Team Ico’s minimalist approach to development means that there are no smaller enemies in the lead up to each colossus, which adds to the game’s suspense value and sense of foreboding, and means the player gets to appreciate the beautiful scenery at a leisurely pace between battles. Guiding Wander across open plains, forests, marshlands, deserts and mountains, it’s clear that graphically, Team Ico pushed the PlayStation 2 to its limits. It set new standards for making video games look cinematic, as well as raising the bar for boss design.
But for all Shadow of the Colossus’s glorious gameplay – a masterful blend of adrenalin rushes and exploratory intrigue – it’s the story that prevents it from receiving a perfect score. On some level, the game’s deliberate ambiguity could be praised; Wander’s mysterious past certainly makes you want to play on to find out more about him and there’s opportunity for the player’s own imagination to fill in some of the gaps. Yet the ending raises more questions than it answers and after defeating 16 giant monsters, the lack of closure, I found, was a little frustrating.
The sparse set of characters and absence of lengthy dialogue feel, at times, like missed opportunities to create a wider mythology worthy of Wander’s incredible surroundings. More background information on how the colossi came to be, for example, could have added an extra layer to the game.
Still, for all its flaws, and despite being sceptical about remakes – I generally think developers should focus on thinking up new ideas rather than revisiting old ones – I have to admit I was pleased when Bluepoint Games picked up Team Ico’s torch. Shadow of the Colossus was given the high-definition treatment it deserved with PlayStation 3 (2011) and PlayStation 4 (2017) versions.
But these later editions came at a time when epic giant monster boss battles are more commonplace in gaming – see the God of War, Dark Souls or Bloodborne series – so it is worth remembering that in 2005, Shadow of the Colossus was a peerless title in the action-adventure sphere.
This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.Shadow of the Colussus/Bluepoint Games Yes, we know that picture’s from the 2017 remake
The no-deal Brexiteers are selling snake oil, says Peter Hain.
The New Year has seen a succession of hard Brexiteers – from Iain Duncan Smith to Boris Johnson – re-branding their Little Englander fantasies by advocating a “managed no deal”, as if this prospect might be an achievable, let alone desirable outcome.
They assume that, as 29 March approaches, the EU27 will concede their demands for the United Kingdom to benefit from a transition period, without a backstop. This is a dangerous delusion. Michel Barnier and other EU leaders have made it clear that, without a deal, the EU intends to treat the UK as a third country from day one, and that the side-deals the Brexiteers envisage are simply not available.
The joint European Research Group/Global Britain paper, Fact Not Friction airily claims dire warnings about No Deal are mere myths. They say the EU have promised us tariff-free trade, so we can have cake and eat it.
They cite in their support the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. But although he has indeed proposed that the parties should "aim for a trade agreement covering all sectors and with zero tariffs on goods”, that was a clear reference to the long-term aspiration of a UK/EU Free Trading Agreement (FTA) under WTO rules, which will inevitably take years to negotiate.
And as Tusk also made clear, such an agreement “will not make trade between the UK and the EU frictionless or smoother. It will make it more complicated and costly than today, for all of us. This is the essence of Brexit.” These Brexiteers are simply in denial.
If we leave the EU without a deal, WTO non-discrimination rules mean the EU will in fact, be obliged to treat the UK as it treats other non-EU WTO members (not, as has been implied, like the remaining 27 EU countries) unless and until an FTA with Europe is in place.
As an EU member, the UK currently gains from around 70 additional FTAs with non-EU countries like Japan and Canada which, in a “no deal” Brexit, will also be lost. Despite attempts by the Department of International Trade to persuade each of these countries to agree a “roll-over” of the UK’s current deals as part of the EU, two-and-a-half years after the Brexit referendum the government has made no real progress in this area.
For potential foreign inward investment, a prior UK/EU agreement will need to be in place, so that “third countries” will know what EU market access they can achieve via the UK.
The CETA agreement between the EU and Canada, signed in 2017, offers some valuable lessons. Despite being the EU's deepest FTA yet, covering most goods, it has little to offer on services - which make up 80 per cent of the UK economy and 45 per cent of our exports. It also took over seven years to negotiate and is still not fully in force.
The EU (with which we have a trade surplus in services) would have no obvious incentive to grant significant openings on services to us in a FTA, not least because, under WTO rules, the EU would then be obliged to make similar offers to other countries with which it already has bi-lateral FTAs. For example, CETA explicitly states that Canada will benefit from any new services concessions by the EU to other third countries. This is therefore a major disincentive for the EU to make a preferential deal with us.
Even under a CETA-type deal, to minimise the friction of trading with the EU single market, the UK would need to maintain European regulations in all the relevant sectors (as, for example, do EEA members Norway and Iceland). We would need to replace over 30 EU regulatory bodies and arrange legally workable memorandums of understanding between them and their EU counterparts – a process which, again, would take years, and yet the No-Deal Brexiteers press along merrily regardless.
The European Commission’s own package of 14 “contingency measures” (which are allowed by the WTO) in the event of “no deal”, specifically warns of delays to the transport of goods. This is because of the need for checks on all UK livestock exports and the application of customs duties and taxes on goods moving between the UK and EU.
Despite these temporary, minimalist EU measures, relating for example to financial services, aviation and haulage, these and other sectors such as pharmaceuticals, food and drink, data flows and the car industry, to name but a few, would still face significant disruption and legal uncertainty.
This would have severe implications for competitiveness, GDP, trade and foreign investment in the UK, as forecast by the Treasury, the OECD and the CBI. Tragically, Brexit-related trade shocks will most adversely affect Leave-voting regions, and especially those areas whose advanced manufacturing activities are operating “just-in-time” systems.
Brexiteers also claim that the UK already trades with non-EU members on WTO terms alone. On the contrary, because of its membership of the EU, the UK benefits from numerous side agreements with countries like the US and China, that go well beyond WTO provisions. In fact, no EU member trades on WTO terms only – all have at least one bilateral or regional trade agreement with other countries – especially their nearest neighbours.
If the UK leaves the EU with no deal on 29th March, therefore, only WTO terms will apply. This will mean for example a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with all the political risks that implies.
The UK will also lose the leverage of the EU bloc (the richest, biggest in the world) and will be weaker, not stronger, in future global trade negotiations. From being a leading member of the EU, a diminished UK will then face the unenviable choice of becoming a satellite state of Donald Trump’s “America First” United States or the repressive and expansionist dictatorship of China.
The consequences for citizens, consumers and businesses will be nothing short of catastrophic. In some Leave-voting areas, lives will be blighted for generations. The No Deal Brexiteers should come clean and stop peddling myths that all will be fine. It will not.Getty Images David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
A new poem by André Mangeot.
Still and bitter night, our first week in this town
we hurry home along the towpath, huddled close
for warmth. Lamp-glow through the frosted branches,
cokey smoke of houseboats mingling with the vapour
on our breath, shawls of fog that hover on the oil-black water.
It’s then we see it, glowing through the mist: a spectral sculpture
propped against a tree. Wreathed in hoary moss and riverweed,
snapped twigs now icicles amid its spokes, sheathed
utterly in ice. And as we pass we can’t stop looking back,
as if, unprompted, we recognise our tangled pasts
have gathered there, have ossified behind us as we scurry on,
our first week in this town, laughing through the cold.
André Mangeot is a poet, short-story writer and novelist. His third poetry collection, “Blood Rain”, will be published by Seren early next year.PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images
Once upon a time, Europe’s animal kingdom was as diverse as Africa’s.
Here are two authors that delight in big-picture natural history but viewed from opposite ends of the telescope, so to speak. The plant biologist Ken Thompson is interested in the botanical research that lay behind the biggest picture of them all – the “book that”, in his words, “explains everything”: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).
What intrigues Thompson is not just the vast scope of its author’s vision, but how he assembled his ideas from painstaking details acquired over years of forensic investigation. Darwin never made any great claim to be a plant expert, but this book illuminates how the Victorian scientist’s groundbreaking studies on climbing and carnivorous forms of vegetation, including grape vines and the Venus flytrap, revolutionalised several branches of botany. This short book is a delightful introduction to these extraordinary plants and brings the natural science right up to date, while also offering insight into Darwin’s pioneering work.
The Australian author and palaeontologist Tim Flannery is a leading authority on almost all aspects of natural history in his native region. He has also written a gloriously sweeping account of the North American continent from earliest times (The Eternal Frontier, 2001). Now he has produced a very similar work, but with attention switched to a completely different part of the planet. This place is home to 741 million citizens – a tenth of all humanity – on just a 15th of the Earth’s land surface, and has, in turn, been more heavily modified than anywhere except perhaps south-east Asia. It is our place: Europe.
Flannery recounts the present fallen condition of the continent’s fauna and flora – the loss, for instance, of 421 million birds in the 30 years to 2009, largely because of intensive agriculture, and the affliction of almost every common native tree with either a disease or parasite introduced by human agency. But the book’s primary theme is how we have arrived at our present circumstances over millions of years of environmental churn.
Some of Europe’s oldest geological formations are three billion years old, but the narrative really takes shape from the Cretaceous period onwards (roughly 142 to 65 million years ago), when the continent was drifting north as a sequence of islands, separated from Africa by the Tethys Sea. Dinosaurs had many millions of years of residence during this time, but already there were creatures and plants in existence that still count modern Europe as home, including the caviar-producing sturgeon, the midwife toad, the salamander, and that creator of delicious shade in almost every Greek village square, the oriental plane tree.
Along with all this natural science, Flannery is a great lover of human story. As he sifts the fossil records to describe Europe’s evolving biological patterns, he inserts lovely digressive sketches on the more colourful of his scientific forebears. None is more colourful perhaps, than a Romanian eccentric called Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvás, who once sought to invade Albania with a private army and have himself installed as its king. At his life’s end in 1933, Nopcsa slumped into a fatal depression and was eventually cremated, as Flannery notes, in his motorcycling leathers. This was after he had shot himself and his Albanian lover with a pistol. Yet Nopcsa was also a brilliant palaeontologist whose early work on Romanian dinosaur remains shaped all subsequent study of these giant reptiles.
Another great delight of the book is its author’s gift for surprising the reader with the sheer strangeness of our continent’s past inhabitants. Take, for example, an animal known as a chalicothere, a beast with a head somewhat like that of its relative the horse, but with a gorilla-like body and long sharp claws. Weirder still was the entelodont. Better named as a “hell pig”, it was a type of carnivorous mammal from Asia that was as big as a bull and had facials warts the size and shape of a human penis.
All of these relics from a lost past allow the reader to appreciate that ours was once a wilderness as unique and strange as any region left on Earth. In fact during the Miocene period (24 to 5.5 million years ago) Europe had almost as diverse a mammal fauna as exists on the African savannas today. It may well also have been the birthplace for creatures as emphatically exotic as antelopes, giraffes and okapis. Equally, our version of the elephant, a kind of super-pachyderm called deinotheres, could weigh as much as 15 tonnes and was the biggest land mammal ever to walk the planet. Imagine one of those strolling through the limestone hills that now underlie Paris.
From about the same period in our past arose another unbelievable European creature – a blind, pink, cave-dwelling salamander, individuals of which were known to survive 12 years without eating and had a lifespan of around 100 years. We know the details about this Miocene marvel, because – weirdest of all – the olm, as it is known, still exists in the karst-limestone valleys of Slovenia.
It is the continuities between Europe’s remote past and the present dispensation that are the most affecting and startling parts in this book of revelations; and none more so than the legacy bequeathed to the present by our earliest ape-like ancestors. Flannery reveals how the most recent archaeological finds are completely reshaping any understanding of human origins. It is our continent that is now thought to have given rise to the first hominids, the first bipedal apes and possibly the first gorillas.
What is more troubling is the striking coincidence between the appearance of fully modern humans in Europe and the cascade of extinctions that ensued. It looks more than likely that our ancestors directly caused the disappearance of various species of rhinoceros, the cave bear and the woolly mammoth. Neanderthals may also have met their nemesis in Homo sapiens. For once, however, there is mitigating evidence – that for several thousand years those last two species interbred and modern Europeans contain a tiny residue of Neanderthal genes.
In the final chapters of the book Flannery opens his panorama even wider to speculate upon the directions which wildlife on this overcrowded continent might take in the future. Needless to say it is our species’ sheer abundance and almost inadvertent capacity to shoulder aside every other life form that gives him pause for thought. Yet even at the book’s close he retains his capacity for surprises.
He points out that Europe, for all its biological shrinkage, supports more wolves today than the entire US including Alaska. All the predictions on land use suggest that we may also have more room for wolves, bears, bison, beavers and lynx, because by 2030 there could be 30 million hectares of abandoned farmland, amid increased urbanisation. It is an area the size of all Italy – a country where the process is already accelerating.
Just in case we are getting comfortable, Flannery produces his final shock. If Europeans think small, he says, we will stumble along in a humanised and intensively managed landscape poisoned by agrochemicals and waste plastic. Should we think big we could resurrect the woolly mammoth and the auroch – Europe’s extraordinary vanished bovid – and for good measure find space for elephants and lions. After all, why should Africans be left to bear responsibility for the world’s most magnificent megafauna? We need to be more generous, he says. Now there’s a thought for the new year.
Mark Cocker’s books include “Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?” (Jonathan Cape)
Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants: Darwin’s Botany Today
Profile, 256pp, £10.99
Europe: A Natural History
Allen Lane, 368pp, £25
From James Baldwin to Susan Sontag: the American authors labelled enemies of the state.
American exceptionalism kicked off with a defining statement from John Winthrop, the first governor of the then Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early decades of the 17th century. Surveying the wilderness in front of him – the eastern edge of a continent that was the ultimate terra incognita – Winthrop vaingloriously noted: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.”
How ironic that the most platitudinous of recent presidents, Ronald Reagan, chose to cite Winthrop’s commentary in one of his most oft-quoted speeches. Did Reagan’s preferred scribe, Peggy Noonan, realise she was borrowing a statement from the head of a puritanical hierarchy; a group that thought nothing about clapping non-believers in the stocks, hanging heretics for preaching the benign tenets of Quakerism, burning witches, and running its highly theocratic colony in a manner not dissimilar from the Taliban several centuries later? The Grand Guignol grotesqueries of religious fanaticism are indeed timeless.
No wonder that those men of the enlightenment who wrote the American Constitution – Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin – were so insistent on the separation of church and state. Because they knew of the pious monomania (and the tendency toward mob zealotry) that were ingrained from the start within the national body politic. No wonder that the first truly landmark American novel, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), examined the public shaming of a New England innocent, Hester Prynne, forced to wear the letter A around her neck after being falsely accused of adultery in Puritan-era Massachusetts. No wonder that, 100 years after Hawthorne published his daring riposte to that very American need for communal moral self-righteousness, the absolute evil of the McCarthyite witch hunt commenced. Spearheaded by the deeply dipsomaniac and demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy, it insisted on its victims wearing the metaphoric equivalent of a red C (for Commie) around their neck.
More telling was the denunciation system he devised, which was ethically so pernicious. If the alleged leftist did not name names and reveal their one-time fellow travellers, he or she would be placed on a blacklist and rendered unemployable. And the victim knew that, besides committing an act of professional suicide, such moral heroism would count for nought among those executives in Hollywood or New York who controlled the cultural landscape.
Of course, McCarthy overstepped the moral mark and ended up in disgrace, dying from massive cirrhosis of the liver shortly after his scorched earth crusade against the Red Scare was exposed as a total sham. But though there was much communal hand-wringing in the wake of the blacklist, political concern about artists as subversives continued under more clandestine circumstances, especially given that the man wielding the most power within the American secret state, J Edgar Hoover – the infamous director of the FBI for more than 36 very long years – ran this national intelligence organisation as his private fiefdom.
Hoover was, as the poet Theodore Roethke noted, “the head of our thought police – a martinet, a preposterous figure”. He was also a virulent anti-Communist who relished exposing the sexual inclinations of those under his investigation. He was especially preoccupied with gay men who expressed allegedly subversive views (ie writers). Then again, he himself was a man with just a few private contradictions: Mr Oedipus Complex who lived with his mother until her death (when he was well into middle age), who was rumoured to enjoy cross-dressing and had a male consort who might just have been his lover. And, of course, he was someone who deeply subscribed to the theory (popular among arch-patriotic Yahoos) that there was a direct link between communism and homosexuality… thus leading to the following variation on a joke I heard years back while working in the theatre in New York: “Is J Edgar Hoover gay? Oh no, no, not at all. But his boyfriend is gay.”
Hoover never feared public exposure of his alleged gayness, at a time when such a revelation was a career-ending event, because he had so much dirt on everyone else and was so deeply dreaded. But he no doubt relished his agents’ reports on writers such as James Baldwin: “On the subject of homosexuality Baldwin stated ‘American males are the only people I’ve ever encountered in the world who are willing to go on the needle before they go to bed with each other. Because they’re afraid of this, they don’t know how to go to bed with women either.’ ”
Allen Ginsberg – another openly gay man in an era when that was an act of defiant courage – won big black marks from the FBI not just for his sexuality or a visit to Cuba in 1965, but also for his “dangerous” pro-weed views. Just consider this FBI surveillance report on Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky at a legalise marijuana rally in Manhattan’s East Village: “[they] carried little Japanese finger cymbals and chanted Hindu prayer formulas directed to Shiva… GINSBERG described Shiva as the god of meditation, yoga and meditation. GINSBERG predicted that marijuana will be recognised in the United States within five years.”
It took another 40 or so years, but weed is legal in many places now stateside. Ginsberg got it right (so too, I suppose, did Shiva).
Naturally, the hyper-macho Ernest Hemingway ran afoul of the Feds, for referring to the FBI’s legal attaché in pre-revolutionary Cuba as “a member of the American Gestapo”. Hoover seemed very au courant with Hemingway’s declining mental health, culminating in his gunshot suicide in 1961, and also had Terry Southern, author of a hugely best-selling pornographic novel of the Sixties, Candy, investigated for possible prosecution. After all, free love, in the FBI’s world view, was dangerous to national stability. However, as the agent playing literary critic reported to J Edgar: “The reviewers, while not uniformly praising Candy, have generally recognised it as an amusing and effective lampoon of ‘dirty’ books.” As such, he did not recommend prosecution.
Reading through dossier after dossier on 16 American writers contained in Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files, what strikes you immediately is the terrifying absurdity of Hoover’s obsession with anyone who didn’t follow his patriotic party line and dared to express critical concern about the national psyche in well-written words. Susan Sontag got a big file opened on her for visiting Hanoi during the Vietnam War and speaking out on the bellicose campaign of “American intervention”. The African-American sociologist and civil rights advocate, WEB Du Bois, was investigated for being a communist (even though he was known not to be) because he was “in sympathy with the Southern Negro Youth Congress”. The FBI agent did mitigate this with the following racist comment – that Du Bois was considered “one of the most outstanding and competent negroes in Atlanta”.
As can be gathered, this remarkable volume makes for compulsive and deeply unsettling reading. Compiled by MuckRock, a laudable and important “non-profit collaborative news site”, its editors have used the still viable and crucial US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain the manifold files which show that even a right-wing true believer such as the infamous Ayn Rand didn’t escape Hoover’s concern – over her “vocal atheism”. It is an understatement to say that there was something decidedly Theatre of the Absurd on the FBI’s part in fearing that Truman Capote was a threat to national security for signing a “Fair Play for Cuba” petition (especially given his beau monde predilections).
As you peruse hand-typed classified document after document – frequently with key passages blacked out by the secret powers that be before they were released through the FOIA – you cannot help but marvel at the paranoid insanity of all secret state organisations. Just as the East German Stasi’s aim was “to know everything about everyone”, Hoover and his equally compulsive operatives believed that anyone who raised a questioning voice about the blessed American Way of Life was worthy of serious scrutiny.
This was especially true of writers for their ability to think independently; to view life in non-Manichean terms; to expose national hypocrisies; to question the conformist status quo; and to see that calling to account our immense internal contradictions is patriotism in the best sense of the world – one free of the xenophobia, the toxic nationalism, the “you are with us or against us” message that Hoover pioneered and which is a key construct of the Trumpian world view.
Hoover died in 1972. But as this essential volume makes known, the surveillance of American writers hardly died with the man Nixon referred to as ‘“that old cocksucker”. And I suppose there is something darkly reassuring that, in this increasingly post-literate age of ours, the thought police still consider writers to be dangerously influential. Only now, their surveillance is carried out courtesy of that smartphone in your pocket.
Douglas Kennedy’s new novel, “The Great Wide Open”, is published by Hutchinson this month
Writers Under Surveillance: The FBI Files
Edited by JPat Brown, BCD Lipton, Michael Morisy
The MIT Press, 400pp, £20
Despite the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, Theresa May could still call an election if she really wanted.
Were it not for the coalition anxieties of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the 2017 parliament would have almost certainly have come crashing down by now.
There is arguably no dependable working majority for any policy Theresa May wishes to pursue, let alone the one her government exists to enact: Brexit. Burdened with temperamental coalition partners in the shape of the DUP, her sclerotic executive has effectively given up the pretence of acting as a normal government would.
It accepted swathes of Labour and SNP amendments to the Budget – which the DUP threatened to vote down over Brexit – in order to avoid defeat. It has also pursued a policy of deliberate disengagement when it comes to opposition day debates – a tacit acknowledgement of its inability to reliably command the confidence of the Commons.
That fundamental weakness will be thrown into harsh relief when MPs vote down the Withdrawal Agreement next week. Convention dictates that the rejection of legislation of such importance would effectively amount to a vote of no confidence in the government. Cue the dissolution of parliament and a general election.
But of course, the introduction of 2011’s Fixed Terms Parliament Act – designed as a sop to those who believed the Conservatives could pull the rug from under the Coalition for political gain – circumvents that convention. The means by which a general election can happen have been severely limited as a result, and zombie governments like May’s now have a life support machine on the statute book.
The letter of the law means that a crushing defeat on anything that isn’t a motion of confidence in the government can be brazened out by a government without scruples, regardless of how essential it is to its ability to govern (the Budget, for example, or the Withdrawal Agreement). Instead, there are two ways that Theresa May could go to the country – calling for a general election herself, or blundering into one.
Although the Fixed Term Parliaments Act turned the ability to dissolve parliamentary from a prerogative power wielded at the prime minister’s discretion to a statutory one that is in theory heavily circumscribed, May could still call an election whenever she wanted. The provisions of the Act allow for an early dissolution, provided two thirds of MPs vote for it, as they did in 2017. It requires opposition MPs to acquiesce, and there is always a political imperative for them to do so. For obvious reasons, however, May is not going to do so before 29 March 2019.
The only other route to an early election – and the only plausible one in the current climate – is the defeat of the government in two separate votes of no confidence, which can be tabled by any MP but in practice must come from the leader of the opposition, whose motions are guaranteed parliamentary time. Should the government lose the first, a two-week “cooling off” period follows, after which there is another vote. Should it fail to command the confidence of the house for a second time, or no alternative government emerge that is able to do so, then parliament is dissolved and an election ensues.
The arithmetic of the 2017 parliament means that any such vote would be incredibly tight indeed. But perversely, it is only likely to happen if the government succeeds in passing its flagship policy in its current form. The DUP has said it will only vote against the government in a confidence motion should the Withdrawal Agreement – and with it the Northern Irish backstop – pass the Commons. The Labour leadership has said it will not table a motion of confidence until such time as it is likely to win it, which would at the very least require the DUP to go nuclear and vote against the government.
We know the DUP will not do this if the Withdrawal Agreement falls, as it is still overwhelmingly likely to do. And with that the political avenues to such a vote are further constrained. There are other reasons the DUP might not prioritise an election too: its Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, is defending a slender majority in North Belfast, and even if it repeated or bettered its historic haul of 10 seats from 2017, results in England, Wales and Scotland would risk the loss of its kingmaker status. The government's position is further bolstered by Sylvia Hermon, the independent unionist member for North Down (and only other Northern Irish MP to take her seat). Hermon has said that she could never countenance putting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.
If it can count on the support of those 11 MPs from Northern Ireland, the government's job of winning a majority of 635 MPs – the number you get if you subtract the seven abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs, the Speaker and his three deputies and four tellers for any vote from the 650 total (two Tory, two Labour) – is much easier. The Conservatives have 316 MPs minus non-voting deputy speaker Eleanor Laing, which, minus two tellers, takes them within four MPs of victory. Hermon's support would take them to 316, one clear of safety. To compete, Labour would need the votes of every other opposition MP in addition to its own 255 (257 minus deputy speakers). Minus two Labour tellers, and with the SNP (35), Liberal Democrats (11), Plaid Cymru (4), former Lib Dem MP Stephen Lloyd (1), suspended Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins and Jared O'Mara, Frank Field, John Woodcock and Ivan Lewis, the former Labour MPs who left the party in 2018 (5), they total 309.
The road to success or failure is thus the same as it has been throughout this parliament – winning the support of the DUP's 10 MPs, who would take either camp clear of the 318 threshold. The Labour leadership's reluctance to call a confidence vote until such time as it has withdrawn its support from the government is testament to this. Until its position changes, an election via the no confidence route is unlikely. And while some Conservative MPs are willing to entertain voting against their own government in the first of the two confidence votes in order to kill off a no-deal exit, it is unclear how they would vote in the second – and whether their preference would be for some cross-party solution rather than an election.Getty
A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.
Your Brexit coverage is ignoring what may be considerable damage to the UK constitution. The referendum and particularly its immediate aftermath signalled a profound change. Before the Brexit referendum parliamentary sovereignty was unchallenged. After it, parliament should have reasserted its authority. The stage was reached that even to say parliament was sovereign invited being called a traitor to the new sovereign power, the people.
Since then, there’s been a struggle and the British parliament has failed to perform as the constitution requires. A sovereign parliament would heed the people and then decide. Today’s parliament is looking to the people (in a possible second referendum) not for advice but for a decision. The people are being made sovereign but without deliberation and decision, and without constitutional rules. There is no written constitution to amend in order to transfer sovereignty to the people, provide for referendums and circumscribe what they may decide.
Dr Colum McCaffery
Lucan, Dublin, Ireland
Your leader “A bad year for Brexit” (4 January) is timely. It has led me to ask, “Is this country suffering from a bout of national amnesia?”
Let us recall the facts. After Ukip’s successful result in the 2014 European elections, a group of anti-EU Conservative MPs approached David Cameron, telling him that the rise of Ukip under Nigel Farage was a grave threat to their seats. What was he going to do about it? At its heart was a 40-year-old internal Conservative Party squabble: to stay in the EU or leave it.
Instead of seeing them off, Cameron rather unwisely (and cowardly) promised them a referendum as a solution. In effect, this transferred what was in essence an internal Tory civil war into a decision for the British electorate. Yet with clever sleight of hand it was not presented to the electorate as such. The Referendum Bill passed parliament but, because of his coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Cameron was unable to put a date on his referendum. His majority win in the general election of 2015 made this possible.
Theresa May as Prime Minister has cleverly shied away from confronting her ultra-Europhobic MPs and produced a deal that apparently satisfies very few parliamentarians. Her take-it-or leave-it offer appears to be leading us to a no deal of catastrophic consequences. The solution lies within parliament. Let an amendment be put to the vote: to remain within the EU or leave.
Dr Andrew Richardson
As the Brexit drama grinds inexorably to some form of conclusion (or not) it is worth taking stock and identifying the causes of both the never-ending row that we in the UK are enjoying and the corresponding mayhem engulfing much of the rest of Europe. It may take another 40 years for clarity to emerge but only then will we be fully informed and confident enough to face the rigours of another referendum.
The fine-tuning of globalisation that has taken place over the past generation or so has enabled businesses in rich countries, desperate to cut their wage bills, to progress from exporting jobs to poor countries to importing cheap labour from those countries instead. Hard-up locals inevitably resent being undercut by even poorer outsiders, while businesses and governments hold their noses in the air and pretend it is nothing to do with them.
Forty years ago, Tony Benn memorably described the EEC as a “bankers’ racket” and advised against having anything to do with it. The present EU, with its concomitant currency, is even worse now than it was then and has facilitated asset–stripping by the global financial “industry” on a supranational scale not seen since the days of imperial plunder, battering most of southern Europe into submission in the process.
The Greater Europe project envisaged by some of the more swivel-eyed elements in Brussels is doomed and always was, and in years to come tourists will gaze at the tumbleweed drifting through the abandoned edifices of the EU and wonder at the folly of it all. It will turn out to have been as demented an experiment as the Soviet one was – so perhaps we won’t need another referendum after all.
George Eaton writes (“Will Brexit actually happen in 2019?”, 4 January) that a second referendum would “further undermine parliamentary sovereignty”.
I disagree: in my view, for parliament to call a second referendum would be a useful assertion of its position.
Events following the referendum show that a binary choice on a question of principle is inadequate for addressing complex issues of international obligations and trading arrangements.
Like it or not, referendums are here to stay. If the people vote on a principle at the start of the process, then a further vote on the details of a proposed outcome is their necessary entitlement.
New Malden, Greater London
Beyond Brexit, Paul Mason points to what is likely to be the biggest concern of 2019, the rise of the far and fascist right across Europe (“Will the far right triumph in Europe?”, 4 January). That will, as he notes, be reflected in elections for the EU Parliament in May. Whether Britain participates or not, the attempted lash-up between Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s (aka Tommy Robinson) street fighters, Ukip and some figures on the Tory hard right suggest that opposing racism here will be a major task for the left, however defined, this year.
Anna Leszkiewicz’s article on the changing shape of television (“Are TV channels irrelevant?”, 4 January) made for interesting reading. But one significant factor glossed over by most commentators discussing the shift towards “the Netflix model” is that all the most popular programmes on British TV – from Bodyguard and Call the Midwife to Strictly Come Dancing and I’m a Celebrity – are British-made. In fact, American imports barely figure in the UK’s Top 100 most-watched programmes.
By contrast, the overwhelming majority of original content on the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime is American in origin. So, if the traditional UK broadcasters really are under threat, where is the British telly that viewers actually prefer going to come from in future? Or will market forces see television gradually surrendering to the same US cultural hegemony as cinema? I hope not.
Helen Lewis is right to cite the importance of Susan Sontag’s On Photography (Out of the Ordinary, 4 January) but mass photography had started long before the book’s publication in 1977. The Kodak camera was first sold in 1888 and the Brownie in 1900. Leica introduced the 35mm camera, the Leica 1, in 1925; this, with the Rollieflex of 1929, made probably the greatest contribution to the manufacture of easily carried cameras during the 20th century, in turn enabled by the emerging film formats that made them possible.
However, it could be argued that the family album began to decline in importance after the introduction of digital imaging. The physical album enabled families to share their memories in a social context, but many of the images stored digitally will probably never be seen by anyone other than the person who took them.
From my experience, the photos I make on film are often far better than the ones made digitally – they need more thought and better “seeing”.
The terms pre-ordering and pre-existing are belated recognition of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (Correspondence, 4 January). It is a delusion to believe our decisions are founded upon reason. We are driven by our will, a blind, non-rational impulse that is present in all nature and in every fibre of our being: we may do what we will, but we cannot will what we will. We may order what we choose but we cannot choose that we will order: the will to order was pre-existing, just as the will to write this letter was, though in choosing its content I delude myself into thinking that I have chosen to write it. I trust that makes everything clear.
In reference to Martin Eade’s letter, I take his point, however surely the “pre-” prefix is used in relation to a relevant event. For example, I can order a book at any time but if I order it before publication (the event), it is a pre-order.
Similarly, if I attempt to claim on a medical insurance policy with regard to an existing condition, that would be fine but not if it was “pre-existing” before I took out the policy.
As always, John Burnside’s Nature column (4 January) was both fascinating and poignant – but he needn’t wait until a visit to Papua New Guinea to hear the haunting call of a singing dog: there’s a recording of a (captive) one at: bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b0076rjq.
While he’s on the internet, I recommend he also seek out the terrifying night call of a Manx shearwater: something so sinister that, according to Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, it helped prompt a young man out on a camping trip to become a priest.
Marple, Greater Manchester
As I stack yet another box of NS in the loft, I note with dismay the increase in the former editor’s impressions of how and where he lives (First Thoughts). This time last year I had hopes that the record of the previous two years – three mentions and then two – would progress down to one, which would be enough to satisfy all the new subscribers. However this was not to be, as Peter Wilby let slip his residential circumstances on five occasions last year.
We reserve the right to edit letters.Creative Commons
The plight of a Saudi Arabian woman detained while attempting to flee domestic abuse could have ended very differently.
In a video posted on Twitter, the Saudi chargé d’affaires in Thailand is filmed discussing the case of Rahaf al-Qunun, an 18-year-old woman from Saudi Arabia who was detained in Thailand while attempting to flee to Australia to escape domestic abuse.
Al-Qunun says her passport was confiscated by Saudi authorities while she was transiting through Bangkok. She barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room for 48 hours to avoid being forced onto a flight to Kuwait and returned to her relatives, and broadcast her plight on Twitter, quickly amassing tens of thousands of followers and the attention of activists. Under mounting public pressure, Thai authorities ceded to her demand to be transferred to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. On 9 January, the agency approved her asylum claim and Australia said it was processing her application to be resettled there permanently.
“I wish they could have taken her phone, rather than her passport,” the diplomat says in the video, which al-Qunun shared while she was still waiting to hear her fate.
It’s a chilling video, and a revealing one too. The diplomat is right. It was thanks to Twitter that al-Qunun’s case came to the attention of Human Rights Watch, UNHCR, the Australian government and a loose network of international rights activists. Without Twitter and the swift action of people like the women’s rights activist Mona Eltahawy, the journalist Sophie McNeill and Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson, al-Qunun would likely have been repatriated and could have been detained by the Saudi government, killed by her family or charged with the death penalty.
In April 2017, the world’s media and human rights organisations saw too late a video posted by another Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, from an airport in the Philippines. Like al-Qunun, Lasloom was detained in transit while trying to flee to Australia to escape familial abuse. Her detention was seemingly at the request of Saudi authorities. She was forced screaming onto a plane back to Saudi Arabia, her hands, feet and mouth bound with duct tape. Women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia attempted to meet her at the airport in the capital, Riyadh, but Lasloom did not leave with the other passengers. One of the women who went to meet her was arrested, and Lasloom was not seen again. In June 2017, the BBC reported that Lasloom was believed to have been transferred to a women’s detention centre and then to a shelter.
The Saudi diplomat’s comments may also have helped al-Qunun’s case. UN refugee law – which is designed to offer international protection for people fleeing persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group – is often a poor mechanism for aiding victims of domestic violence.
For some citizens, this makes sense: women fleeing abusive relationships in the UK ordinarily do not have to leave the country to access legal and physical protection. But when it comes to citizens of countries that offer little or no protection to domestic violence victims, the situation is different. In these instances, there are variations in how countries interpret UNHCR asylum laws. Last year, for example, the US Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed US policy and made it almost impossible for women fleeing domestic abuse to be granted asylum, even if their home governments cannot or will not protect them.
Al-Qunun’s case was unusual because asylum claims are usually assessed by the host country, rather than by UNHCR directly – a reflection, perhaps, of the worldwide attention to her plight. When it came to assessing her asylum claim, UN officials would have found strong grounds for arguing that she was fleeing more than familial violence. She was also fleeing the persecution of the Saudi state. Al-Qunun says she has renounced Islam, and in Saudi Arabia apostasy is punishable by death.
The UNHCR says it does not comment on individual cases, but it would also likely have considered the reported involvement of Saudi officials in her current predicament, the ill-treatment of other women who have been forcibly returned to Saudi after fleeing domestic violence, and Saudi’s discriminatory domestic legal system, which forbids women from travelling without permission of a male relative and which has imposed prison sentences on women who have fled their homes.
There may also have been disturbing instances of Saudi officials interfering in the asylum claims of women fleeing domestic abuse. Last year, the bodies of two young Saudi women, Tala Farea (16) and Rotana Farea (22), were found bound together by duct tape on the bank of the Hudson River in Manhattan. New York police believe the sisters, who lived with their family in the US and had run away from home, had killed themselves to avoid being returned to Saudi Arabia. Amid all the harrowing details surrounding their death, there is this section in the New York Times report:
“The police said the girls’ mother had received a call from the Saudi embassy notifying her that her daughters had requested asylum in the United States. Law enforcement officials told The Associated Press that the request had prompted the Saudi government to order the family to return home.”
Fatima Baeshen, the spokeswoman for the Saudi embassy in Washington, pushed back on Friday in a statement, calling reports that her government had ordered the family to leave the United States because the sisters sought asylum “absolutely false”.
If the Saudi authorities were indeed told about the sisters’ asylum claim, and then tried to thwart it, this points to another way in which the international asylum system could fail women fleeing abuse in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Qunun will likely not feel truly safe until she on Australian soil, and it is not clear how long this process will take, but no doubt she already feels lucky. Women fleeing violence in Saudi Arabia are often fleeing for their lives – and for her, this last-ditch attempt could easily have ended very differently.Rahaf Al-Qunun
Art, citizenship and what it means to be “an African writer”.
Some years ago, at one of my reading events in Lagos, a young man in the audience raised his hand to ask me a question. His question was: “Are you an African Writer?”
Now at first glance this is a particularly peculiar question. I was born and raised in Nigeria, I wrote a novel about a central moment in Nigerian history. I speak Igbo, one of the indigenous Nigerian languages. I have only one passport, which is Nigerian, and by all accounts, Nigeria is in Africa. Yet I was being asked if I was an African writer. This, by the way, was a question I had been asked a few times before and always by a fellow African.
But before I go further with this “African Writer” question, I would like to talk about writing itself. I have been writing since I was old enough to spell. I do not remember a time when I was not drawn to stories, reading them, writing them, finding them.
I have this memory from childhood: sitting in the back seat of my mother’s car, looking out of the window, and suddenly feeling a melancholy pang, a kind of muted mourning, because what I saw through the window as we drove were stories, so many stories waiting to be told, and I knew that I would not be able to tell them all.
When my writing is going well, it gives me what I like to describe as extravagant joy. And when it is not going well, there is no greater source of depressive anxiety.
Because of its hold on the emotional boundaries of my life, because it is central to my own sense of who I am, my writing is a deeply private act. If I did not have the good fortune I have today of being published and read – and of being honoured with the PEN Pinter Prize – I would be somewhere, unknown, unread, but writing.
And yet it is too simple to claim that writing is a private act, end of story. If it were so, I would write in a diary and put it away in a drawer. I write because I have to. I also write because I want and hope to be read. And so an audience – or the possibility of an audience – moves writing from a private to a public space.
Who do I write for? The most honest answer is that I really do not know, because I never consciously think of an audience while writing fiction, but perhaps an answer that is more comprehensible is that I write the kind of fiction I like to read. And so I write for whoever enjoys the kind of fiction I enjoy.
After my first novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, but did not win, a woman in Nigeria, a stranger who came up to me at the airport, told me, “Congratulations. We will win next time.” Her use of the word “we” moved me very much.
There was in this “we-ness” a kind of collective ownership of my work, a kind of pride that spoke not only to my achievement but to a larger collective triumph.
And when I did win a few years later, I had many moments of being hugged by strangers in Nigeria, being told that I had represented us, and I, too, in some ways came to see it as a prize for Nigeria, and for Africa, because I was the first woman from there to win – although of course I alone got to keep and spend the prize money.
But the glow of this we-ness dims too quickly. Or perhaps it remains bright but sits alongside a shadow, and that is the shadow of expectations. Because to talk about our winning, to gesture to this collective ownership of a literary prize, is a statement about a shared identity. A shared citizenship. But herein lies the conundrum: the person who is hugged at the airport is the citizen, the representative of Nigeria, of Africa, and yet the person who is the citizen is not quite the person who is the artist.
Proust wrote that a book is a product of a different self from the self we manifest in our habits, in our social life, in our vices. To this I would add that the two selves are not entirely disconnected – how could they possibly be? – but that there is a certain unhinging between the two, much as there is in the character of Ezeulu in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God who, when he is performing his sacred duties as the priest of Ulu, becomes another person, another version of himself, a self as different from, and yet as genuine as, the self he is in his life as a farmer.
Still, artists are also citizens. It would be dishonest to suggest that our art were entirely disconnected from our lives as members of a community. I am reminded of my Social Studies teacher in primary school in Nsukka who would often say, in a booming voice, as a preface to answering any question at all – MAN IS NOT AN ISLAND. Neither is woman, I think.
Our art is shaped by where we come from. The South African writer Es’kia Mphahlele writes that under apartheid black South African writers wrote mostly short stories because of the urgency of their political condition; their political space shaped the form of their fiction.
It is difficult in the West to talk about the connections between creating and citizenship because of the general ideas placed around art, that it is a thing apart, that an artist by creating suddenly becomes a citizen of an imaginary and apolitical land of other artists. There are people in the West who use the term “political” almost as a pejorative in reference to a work of literature. (I emphasise the West because in parts of the world called developing, art is often not seen as automatically separate from politics.)
It is in some ways true that art is a thing apart, because unlike politics art functions in grey spaces, it humanises, it goes below the surface.
But we also live in a world in which the nation-state dominates, in which the value the world gives us as human beings can be determined by the passports we carry.
I cannot imagine what it is like today to be a writer who has a Syrian passport, or who is a citizen of Yemen, or El Salvador, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, countries in which an artist’s freedom of movement, and perhaps freedom to create, is constrained by political realities.
For me, travelling with a Nigerian passport means carrying the weight of assumptions. It means to be, at many ports of entry, automatically suspect. To travel with a Nigerian passport is to constantly confront the sneering disbelief of immigration officers when I say I am a writer, it is to be asked to step aside for more questions, it is to feel that you are guilty of something.
But of course citizenship goes beyond a mere passport. It is a sensibility. A sensibility, I think, that is often shaped by where one’s formative years are spent.
While I have a great affection for America and live part time in America, and have come to consider it a second home, I was not formed in America’s churning cultural crucible. I did not grow up there, and I’m not sure that I can ever truly be an American since I will never understand the game of baseball.
Citizenship, for a person like me from a country like Nigeria, in a continent like Africa, is not just a sensibility, it is also a condition. A condition that arises from being what I like to call “inhabitants of the periphery”. And what do I mean by inhabitants of the periphery? I am not merely referring to political expressions like Third World, but to the phenomenon of being outside the centre in ways more subtle than mere politics, in ways metaphysical and psychological.
I do not mean merely having what Chinua Achebe called a history of the dispossessed, but also inheriting and experiencing, as an essential part of one’s personal history, an accumulation of uncertainties, or to borrow from the title of the Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangaremgba’s novel, a “nervous condition”.
We are a people conditioned by our history and by our place in the world to look towards somewhere else for validation. We are conditioned to learn a lot of untruths and half-truths about who we are, and some of us make the choice to consciously unlearn these, but even the very act of unlearning takes on a colonial colouration and feeds into our nervous condition. We are conditioned by the knowledge that we come from a place that has long been derided.
If I walked into an average classroom in any Western country and asked the students to tell me what comes to mind when I say “Africa”, at best the answer would be something about safaris and beautiful zebras and giraffes. At worst it would be the usual stock images of poverty and war and helplessness. Western literature, Western film, Western photography all have a long history of seeing Africa as a place defined by what it does not have. There is no need to overstate this here. We are conditioned by that knowledge. What this conditioning results in, I think, is a curious mix of defensiveness and aspiration.
Among Nigerians, complaining about our problems is an art form. Most conversations quickly become a litany of complaints – about government corruption, no light, no water, etc. But if a foreigner were to say the same things, to recite the same litany of complaints, Nigerians would become defensive, sometimes angrily so.
I have always been curious about this brand of defensiveness – which I myself often exhibit, by the way. It seems to me that we have it because we assume that the complaining Nigerian is aware that Nigeria is not only about its problems, is aware of the human complexity, knows of the intelligence and ingenuity of people, knows how they cry and laugh, knows what motivates them and what they aspire to and what they find meaningful. And we suspect that the foreigner does not know these other stories about us and so we worry about being defined solely by what we do not have and by what we are not. And so our defensiveness emerges.
Still, linked to this defensiveness is a certain aspiration. The same Nigerian who is angry about a foreigner writing or talking about our problems in a one-dimensional way will be thrilled when that same foreigner says something good about us, or admits one of ours into some esteemed foreign rank. It would have to be a foreign rank in the so-called West, of course, which is where our education conditions us to look towards for validation.
Some years ago, my Nigerian publisher told me a story of a man who had told him that I was not authentic because I was guilty of what this man called “writing for the West”. When my publisher responded by saying that my novels were widely read all over anglophone Africa, the man then said I was still not authentic because I published first in the West.
Now this anecdote would ordinarily be unremarkable – if not for a little postscript: this same man, a short while later, contacted me to say that he had started writing fiction and asked if I would help him get published in the New Yorker. What, I wondered, was more representative of inauthenticity than that bastion of Westernness, the New Yorker? And I should say that getting people published in the New Yorker is a power I very much wish I had.
Higher power: the South African writer Bessie Head wrote of building “a stairway to the stars”
And so to be a Nigerian writer published in what we call the West is to be a repository of both pride and suspicion. It is to be scrutinised for the right kind of African representation. You are required to perform the rituals. You are required to bow to the expectations of citizenship.
Once, years ago, I discussed this question with a Senegalese friend, a brilliant academic historian. He told me quite simply, “You no longer belong to yourself.”
And what he meant was that by making the choice to write and publish realistic fiction about a place like Nigeria, I have become, to many people from where I come from, a part representing a whole. There are now expectations of citizenship that come with my writing.
But on whose terms do I no longer belong to myself?
And that is why that question I was asked, “Are you an African Writer?”, was not about geography but about loyalty.
And my answer was “No”.
I have no objection at all to being African, in fact it is all I know how to be and so I cannot possibly be anything else. And so my answer to the question “Are you an African Writer?” was no, and not because I am not proudly African – because I most certainly am, and the idea, by the way, of being proudly anything, of linking pride and identity, is a preoccupation of people who are inhabitants of the periphery; if you are in the centre, you have the automatic privilege of not needing to declare your pride, because your place in the world has never been in question.
“Are you an African Writer?”
I said no because I have increasingly been troubled by the subtle and not-so-subtle constraints that the question implies.
At that same public event in Lagos, another young man told me that he had been a keen fan until I began to do what he called “talking about this feminism issue and this gay issue”, which he hoped I would stop, otherwise he could not continue to support me. I appreciated his honesty but suggested to him that it might be best to keep his support to himself.
He was referring to my opposition to a Nigerian law that criminalises homosexuality, a law I find not only deeply immoral but politically cynical. He was also referring to a speech I had recently given about feminism, using concrete details about Nigerian life, in an effort to start a much-needed conversation about the full and equal humanity of women.
It wasn’t so much this young man’s disagreement that mattered, it was the language he used to voice it, the language of citizenship. I could not, as an African, claim to be a feminist because feminism and being African were mutually exclusive. Feminism was a sickness of the West, and one I had appropriated by being poisoned by the West. As for gay people, homosexuality was un-African, and my supporting the rights of gay people meant a disregard of African culture.
Harold Pinter wrote that in his life as a writer and creator he agrees that something can be both true and untrue. But in his life as a citizen he does not agree. He must know what is true. And what is false. I have thought about this often – and have quoted it often – because it articulates so well this sense of unhinging, this tension I feel.
I did not choose to speak out about social issues because I am a writer. But my writing gave me a platform to speak about issues that I have always cared about. I do not think that writers should necessarily speak out on political issues, but I also do not think that art is a valid reason for evading the responsibilities of citizenship – which are to think clearly, to remain informed, and, sometimes, to act and speak.
Art can illuminate politics. Art can humanise politics. Art can shine the light towards truth. But sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes politics must be engaged with as politics. And this could not be any truer or more urgent today, with the political landscapes of many Western countries so blatantly awash in what Harold Pinter called “a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed”. We must know what is true. And we must call a lie a lie.
Still, I am left often with a strange feeling of vulnerability, as though pulled in two opposing directions. I do not want my art judged narrowly on generic ideas of citizenship, and yet I do not want to use my art as an armour of neutrality behind which to hide. I am a writer and I am a citizen, and I see my speaking out on social issues as a responsibility of citizenship.
I am struck by how often this speaking out is met, in Nigeria, not with genuine engagement, whether to agree or disagree, but with a desire to silence me. A journalist once helpfully summed it up for me: people don’t like it when you talk about feminism, they just want you to shut up and write.
And yet even the writing, the art, has its own burden of expectations. That question “Are you an African Writer?” is also about the people who tell me that, as an African writer, I should not write about sex in my fiction. Or that as an African writer I should not write about a subject that is likely to divide Africans or a subject that portrays Africans in a bad light. Or that an African would never do something that my character did in a novel. Or that an African would not use a word that a character of mine had used. Or that an African would not make the choice that my character had made.
Flora Nwapa, a pioneer of African women’s writing in English, wrote wonderful, witty fiction about women in a world that she described in her own words as “dominated by men”. But in many interviews she stated clearly that she was not a feminist.
What is feminism anyway? I think Rebecca West said it best: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” But for formality’s sake, let us use this definition: that feminism is an acknowledgement of and a desire to change the fact that men have in most if not all of the world had social, economic and political privileges solely because they are men.
Flora Nwapa’s work both acknowledged and showed a keen desire to complicate this phenomenon of male privilege. She gave women agency. She showed the full, complicated complexity of women. But she would not accept that she was a feminist.
Obviously “feminism”, because of its history in the West, is a contested word. Perhaps Nwapa rejected it because it was a word that was seen as too representative of the concerns of middle-class white women, which were not always the same as those of so-called Third World women. Or perhaps Nwapa rejected it because, as I suspect, she wanted to comply with an expectation of citizenship, to perform citizenship, to declare her loyalty at the altar of authentic Africanness, one in which feminism did not exist.
Some years ago, I began to call myself an African feminist in response to that idea of feminism and Africanness being mutually exclusive. And then, a nice young Nigerian woman told me, after reading an interview in which I had said that I was an African feminist, that feminists were just angry women who could not find husbands. I then thought that I had better modify things even further and call myself a Happy African Feminist. It was all partly tongue-in-cheek but it did reflect a certain anxiety and ambivalence that I felt.
Now I find it completely unnecessary to twist myself out of shape in my eagerness to perform citizenship. I am a feminist. And it is an identity I will define for myself. But it demonstrated to me the power that comes with the very act of naming something. Until I had to confront that label “feminist”, I was simply a human being who from childhood had been aware of and alert to the many ways in which the world did not grant the same dignity to women as it did to men. But confronting that label “feminist” suddenly meant that it had power, especially presented as it was as something in opposition to Africanness. And because I wanted to perform citizenship – at some deep unreasonable level I sometimes still want to – that label gained much more power than it really deserved.
Allow me to tell a little story. I was visiting my ancestral hometown, Abba in Anambra State. It was 2003. I had at that point strong, romanticised ideas of my hometown – I still do. I love the rhythm of listening to old people talking, and I do so with a keen wish that I could speak their beautiful, proverb-rich version of Igbo rather than my modern, English-influenced Igbo. I would take walks and think to myself: my great-grandfather walked on this land, my great-grandmother planted this tree, that sort of thing – all of which gave me a simple lasting contentment.
So it was 2003 and I was walking from our country home to my family’s ancestral homestead to visit my uncle. It was in the middle of Harmattan. The soil was baked and the dirt roads were cracked, the cracks sometimes widening into large gullies. Two girls were walking ahead of me; they were local – I had earlier seen them chatting to one of the bread-hawkers on the roadside. They were walking, talking and laughing, and then one of them slipped and fell. She said something as she fell. I expected that it would be something in Igbo, perhaps a common exclamation like “Ewo!”. But the exclamation that came out of her mouth, in English, was “Fuck, fuck!”. My first thought was that I needed to write that down in my notebook. My second thought was that if I wrote that scene in a short story, the Esteemed Gatekeepers of African Authenticity would dispute it and would prefer that she break into an Igbo elegy, complete with proverbs.
Now even I wished she had said something else. But what made that scene interesting, and perhaps fiction-worthy, was that she did not. And for me, what is essential in fiction is what HG Wells called “the jolly coarsenesses of life”. The expectations of citizenship, however, often get in the way of engaging honestly with this jolly coarseness.
One of my favourite novels is The Dark Child by Camara Laye, a book of startling beauty, defiant optimism, and the most layered nostalgia. The Dark Child is about a quiet childhood in the plains of Guinea, a book which begins with the simple sentence, “I was a little boy playing around my father’s hut,” and then leads us into a world of wonderfully realised characters: his father is a goldsmith who makes gold trinkets, his mother has supernatural powers, he observes festivals, hunting, rice harvest, the transition to manhood, school and girls.
Camara Laye published this book in 1953, in the heat of the anti-colonial struggle, and some African critics felt that the book was not sufficiently scorched. An African critic famously asked him: “Was it really like that for you, brother?” What the critic meant was not only: “Was it really that easy? Was it really that happy?” But also: “How dare you betray us? How dare you not show your anti-colonial rage?” But for me, Camara Laye’s beautiful novel was anti-colonial because it quietly and insistently portrays the complex humanity of people whose humanity had been made negotiable to justify their exploitation. And it refuses to allow a reader to look away from this.
The expectations of African citizenship certainly affect how a writer is read, but obviously not only by fellow Africans. To carry that label “African Writer” in the so-called West is to be a voice to explain your country’s politics.
It became clear to me shortly after I was first published that my work was often looked at through a political lens. I would do public readings and often be asked or even be told that my novel was a political allegory, that my abusive father character represented Nigeria’s brutal dictator. Why, I wondered, must my characters somehow represent something political? Why must I always have words like “socio-political” linked to my work? Why am I not asked about the interpersonal relationships between the characters? About love?
Obviously I know the reasons – that modern African novels have their roots in the anti-colonial struggle and that so little African writing is known outside Africa that the easy response is always to read it as some sort of native explanation of an unknown place; that it is almost impossible for a novel to be read first as a story of human beings before being read as, say, an allegory of a political situation.
But it does not change the truth, which is that when I sat down to write the father character in Purple Hibiscus, I was not thinking, “I shall now write an important allegorical representation of Nigeria’s military culture.” Instead a character had come to me, with a hushed voice and an almost broken spirit, a teenage girl who was nothing like me and who I wanted to explore.
That question “Are you an African Writer?” is one I have been asked many times, and there are times when I have answered “Yes”, a yes that reflected my ambivalence but also my anxiety not to be misunderstood. I belong, was what my “Yes” said, I belong. But that “Yes” often came with a whisper: “But you must let me belong on my own terms, on multiple terms, for that is the essence of art.”
I would like to end with some words from the South African writer Bessie Head, who lived most of her life in Botswana. When she was asked the question, “Why do you write?” her response was this: “I am building a stairway to the stars. I have the authority to take the whole of mankind up there with me. That is why I write.”
This essay was presented at the British Library by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as winner of the tenth PEN Pinter Prize. The prize is awarded annually to a writer from Britain, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who, in the words of Harold Pinter’s Nobel speech, casts an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the worldCHRIS FLOYD/CAMERA PRESS
The collapse of HMV looks like a nail in the coffin for a music industry long declared “dead”. But music sales are higher than in the glory days of Britpop.
Something is always killing music. This Christmas it was the collapse into administration of HMV, the last major high street retailer of CDs and vinyl, following “extremely weak” holiday trading. Hearteningly, people reacted less with indifference towards a fallen corporate giant and more in sadness at the loss of a venue for musical exploration and life-changing epiphanies.
In the 1980s the culprit was home recording. Readers with long memories may recall the cassette-and-crossbones logo of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI)’s Home Taping Is Killing Music campaign – yet this supposed industry assassin failed to destroy the music business, with global recorded music revenues reaching an all-time peak of $26.6bn by 1999. The much-mocked home taping episode only cemented record labels’ reputation as hard-lobbying alarmists for whom the sky was always falling in. Until, at the turn of the decade, it did.
The advent of Napster in 2000 – and peer-to-peer file sharing, by which music could be shared for free by home computers networked on the new mass internet – was the first instance of apocalyptic disruption to an entire industry by new digital technologies. The death of the music industry became a business school staple, an investor’s cautionary tale, consultant catnip. In the 15 years after Napster, sales of recorded music would collapse in value by 40 per cent; venerable companies such as EMI and Virgin Megastore would vanish; and data gestalts such as Facebook, Apple, Google and its subsidiary YouTube would assimilate music as just another proxy in their battle for digital hegemony.
Even so, after many years of being buffeted by the digital hurricane, a humbled music business could finally be settling down to a new and possibly secure normal. Revenues are now rising at their fastest rate since 1995. “Music’s been through massive disruption over the past two decades,” says Annabella Coldrick, chief executive of the Music Managers Forum, “but it does seem like it’s coming through the other side now.”
The way the music industry makes its money today is maddeningly opaque compared to the albums-and-tours model of the past. But somehow, with a mix of gig revenue, licensed “syncs” of songs to adverts and movies, income from those still-controversial streaming services and even old-fashioned physical record sales, it is doing so.
The question is, which part of the music industry are we talking about? Is it record labels, tour promoters, music publishers or the new gatekeepers of streaming distribution? Is it the managers, or the artists who actually make the music? And who is likely to prosper now that music has become just another satrapy of global digital empires?
With its lock on youth culture and its assiduous exploitation of new entertainment formats – the CD boom saw one billion discs sold in 1992, rising to 2.4 billion in 2000 – the recorded music industry seemed unassailable from the 1960s to the 1990s. Yet it was blindsided by digital technology in the 21st century. First, illegal file-sharing and CD burning effectively reduced the price of its premium offering, the album, to zero in 2000-02. Attempts to prevent piracy with uncopyable CDs and “digital rights management” (“just an expensive way to piss off your fans”, according to Coldrick) were farcically unsuccessful.
Then, when Steve Jobs offered a solution with the iTunes Music Store’s legal downloads in 2003, the price proved heavy. Record labels had to accept the “unbundling” of the album (no more paying for nine songs you don’t want in order to get the one you do) and drastically reduced revenue (the industry’s global income fell from $26.6bn in 1999 to $14.97bn in 2014 according to International Federation of the Phonographic Industry figures). Moreover, the record labels had to kiss goodbye to monopolistic control of the physical product and acknowledge Apple as the business’s new digital dictator.
“The crisis came because major labels thought they could tell consumers what to do,” explains Daniel Miller, founder of Mute Records, the independent British label where Depeche Mode, Yazoo and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds made their names. “They didn’t realise they could no longer dictate how people listened. The majors paid heavily for their arrogance towards musicians, the independents and their audience. They lost out enormously and it’s hard to claw that back,” he says. “But now, finally, they are clawing it back.”The new art of the hustle
It seems that the industry – chastened, consolidated, with fewer major players but many more smaller actors on the scene – may well be turning a corner. BPI figures for recorded music in 2017 showed healthy growth of 10.6 per cent, figures not seen since the Britpop years of Blur, Pulp and Oasis. While the UK industry’s overall revenue (£830m) remains only two-thirds of its 2001 peak, streaming income of £388.8m exceeded that from CDs for the first time. It is growth in a changed world, where music has to hustle alongside social media and video as another component in the attention economy. In this new landscape the power of labels is much reduced.
“It’s a much more even playing field,” says Brian Message, partner in Radiohead’s management company Courtyard and co-manager of Nick Cave and Katie Melua. “Nowadays my role is not trying to get an artist signed to a label, it’s about developing their whole business in a more entrepreneurial way. We’re across things we never used to be, like marketing, promotion, selling music direct to consumers, VIP packages… the whole shooting match.”
When Message began working with Nick Cave in the early 2010s, Australia’s crepuscular chanteur was no longer signed to Mute Records. The new capacities of digital media enabled them to focus on the Bad Seeds’ live show and release Cave’s visceral 2016 album Skeleton Tree – an artistic high point informed by the death of his son – on their own terms through Kobalt, one of the new “label services” companies which offer the facilities of a record label while the artist provides the finance. Cave is now arguably at his creative and commercial peak.
“For artists and managers who’ve been around the block like Nick, we’ve got much more choice,” says Message. “You can sign to a label, do a label services deal, release it yourself, strike a partnership with promoters… It’s a huge change in the landscape.”
This new environment does not just sustain grizzled old stagers. It launches new careers. Artists such as grime star Stormzy can now develop a fan base cottage industry-style, via social media and without the aid of a label, then diversify into merchandise and events while retaining ownership. By the time a record company comes into the picture the artist has the whip hand; Stormzy’s debut was released as a joint venture with Atlantic, not as a conventional signing. His headline slot at Glastonbury this summer is a result of his own work.
Live and precarious
Unsurprisingly, in a world where digital distribution has turned CDs into a legacy format and vinyl into a connoisseur’s objet d’art, the biggest change has been the primacy of live performance. “You used to tour in order to sell records,” says Andy Copping, president of UK touring at Live Nation and promoter of the Download hard rock festival. “That’s turned completely around over the past few years. Live is at the forefront for bands and their survival. Many bands think of themselves as touring outfits that make records rather than the other way round.”
Faced with the cut-throat realities of streaming – where a single play of a song is believed to pay between $0.006 and $0.0084 to be divided between label, artist, producer, publisher and songwriters – the mathematics of live performance look ever-more attractive to established artists. They will take a significantly larger percentage of any ticket price (between 80 per cent and 85 per cent) than the 10 per cent they might receive from selling a copy of that new album that nobody really wants. And while albums retail at £8 to £12, a concert ticket can now be anything from £30 to £100 upwards.
When Martin Fitzgerald of retailers See Tickets started his career at Ticketmaster in 1993, it would shift 3,000 tickets on a good day. Now, when he comes in at 9am See Tickets has already sold that number across music, outdoor cinema, sport, comedy and theatre. “The internet quantified demand as never before,” he explains. “On the old box-office-and-phone model you had no real idea of where the demand really was. Now you can see that you’ve got maybe 20,000 people waiting online for a ticket. It’s like seeing the entirety of the queue for one show outside your window.”
The ability to measure audiences, and to fine-tune ticket prices and release times, plus an arms race of ever-more elaborate stage presentations, have all cranked up demand for live shows still further. Factor in the collapse of revenue from records, and some bands are maybe playing bigger, more expensive shows than they should. Then there is the added pressure of social media commentary. “When Nirvana were planning their final tour, the one that didn’t happen, they booked four Brixtons,” explains Fitzgerald. “But they didn’t have a million people on Twitter all moaning that they couldn’t get tickets.”
Which brings us back to the attention economy. While entertainment options multiply as never before, the only things they’re not making any more of are time and your customers’ attention. Live agent Nick Matthews of the Coda agency recalls walking around this year’s Reading Festival (“always a great experience for a 39-year-old agent, seeing 18 year olds at their first festival”) and noticing a change in behaviour from young fans. “They literally want to see ten or 15 minutes of a band, hear the hits, get their Instagram picture and then head off to see someone else,” he says. “They don’t even have the attention span for a 45 minute set. There is so much more music around, but people care less about it. For a live artist it means you have to become the best in your genre. But overall it’s a five-hundred-horse race and Apple or Spotify don’t care who wins it, they’ll just back the ten that do.”
Rich pickings: Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis out in London’s West End, 1995
Sooner or later it all comes back to Spotify and Apple Music. There was a time when streaming was a perennial target for music business ire. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke infamously (and oxymoronically) described the new model as “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse” after pulling his solo music from Spotify in 2013. In 2015 Geoff Barrow of trip hop band Portishead attacked Apple, Spotify, YouTube and his label UMC for “selling our music so cheaply” when he received a grand total of £1,700 after tax for 34 million streams. In March last year the rock veteran David Crosby complained to Rolling Stone that the streaming companies had “rigged it so they don’t pay the artist. I’ve lost half of my income because of these clever fellas. I used to make money off my records, but now I don’t make any.”
Yet the volume and vituperation has died down somewhat in recent years, perhaps amid a general acknowledgment that while streaming services don’t pay what physical records used to pay, at least they pay something. And as well as generating money, they’re a real-time source of market intelligence.
“The internet has made it a lot easier to build an audience quickly on your own terms,” says Ellie Giles, who manages Wirral singer-songwriter Bill Ryder-Jones, ex of cosmic Scousers the Coral. “The availability of data means we understand consumers a lot better. You can see what listeners like and where their interests are heading, and book gigs accordingly. You can actually build a business for an artist quickly.” If you can get your artists up to half a million streams a month, she explains, that adds up to £30,000 a year in revenue – a strong foundation from which to build. “From an artist’s point of view, in some ways you’re in the strongest position you’ve ever been in.”
The downside is that aspiring artists must accept the same new conditions as workers in every other industry impacted by digital disruption. You must do more, you must do it for less, and you must do it for yourself.Doing it for themselves
Elizabeth Bernholz is a Brighton-based musician who makes strange and compelling electronic art-folk under the name Gazelle Twin (imagine Björk convening a spontaneous feminist rave on the set of The Wicker Man). She’s now on her fourth and most accomplished album, Pastoral, and in the past you’d imagine her signed to an avant garde record company such as Daniel Miller’s Mute. Instead, she releases her records on her own label and acts as her own designer, website manager, content creator, marketer and business planner.
“It gets more complex every year,” she says. “The music is maybe 10-20 per cent of what I do.” While Gazelle Twin has legal and management representation and a live agent, “I spend most of my time on admin. I have a team but even so it can be overwhelming. It’s very low paid but the control can be rewarding too.” Though Bernholz has been touring profitably since 2013, it takes a 70-date tour to make a decent income for herself and her family. “If you can compromise and adjust your lifestyle you can make it work. But it’s hard.”
One factor that made Pastoral possible at all was a grant from the Performing Rights Society’s Momentum Music Fund, an industry resource interested not in creating the next Beyoncé but simply in enabling artists to have a viable career. “It’s been a lifeline, the only way to release music independently,” she says. Despite the tough environment she remains optimistic – and there have been flashes of good fortune for Gazelle Twin. On the strength of her Unflesh album she was asked to cover Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy” for the TV show The Walking Dead. “It wasn’t a massive payer but it was good for profile,” Bernholz says. “These little things do happen and you’re always thinking ‘There might be another one…’”
Other artists find that the old-fashioned methods work surprisingly well in the modern digital dispensation. In his many years at the interface of dance music and rock, manager David Manders saw the options for developing acts narrow down during the Noughties. “I could get in to see the A&Rs because they’d all wanted to be on the guest lists at our clubs,” he says, “but it got very dispiriting spending your life in offices trying to get money out of them in the later part of the 2000s. They didn’t really have any money at this point.” Then in the early 2010s, the wife of Manders’ business partner booked a small band to play in her clothes shop on Curtain Road in Shoreditch.
“J Willgoose Esq turned up with his old 1950s TV on a keyboard stand and all this electronic equipment, all done up in his bow tie,” says Manders. “He played in the window there and he was very unique – catchy tunes, brilliant ideas. There was something magical about him.” They began managing his band Public Service Broadcasting. “We were never sure it would make it on commercial radio but we thought it would go over really well live, especially at boutique festivals.”
In fact, Public Service Broadcasting proved to be a model cottage industry, with Willgoose producing his brilliantly idiosyncratic records – pulsing indie and Krautrock plus evocative vocal samples from old public information films – at home, at minimal cost. BBC 6 Music came on board (“It connected with that audience because they’re the perfect band for them, they’re intelligent music-lovers, not teenagers with short attention spans”) and Manders was able to finance a debut album through lots of partners rather than one label. “It was lots of little income streams adding up to something we could work with.”
Public Service Broadcasting’s astronautical concept album The Race For Space, their second, went on to sell 120,000 worldwide. It enabled them to work on a more ambitious third, Every Valley, which movingly dramatised the rise and fall of Welsh mining communities. The band is now a fixture at festivals and on 6 Music; in November Public Service Broadcasting played the Albert Hall. “We think about long-term growth for a band like this,” says Manders. “It’s about constant reinvestment, thinking about the future and always connecting with the audience.
“If you’re the superfan, you want the T-shirt and the CD and the gig ticket – that’s all revenue. There used to be just a few artists who did really well but it’s working out now that a lot of smaller bands can do more than just survive. The new world of the music industry is actually really encouraging.”From break-outs to Brexit
The major labels too are adapting and finding other ways to prosper. In 2015 music giant Universal released the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, directed by Asif Kapadia of Senna fame, in partnership with Film4. The movie brought Winehouse’s music for Universal/Island together with archive, interview and news footage to create a powerful portrait of the great lost British talent of the 21st century. Amy became the highest-grossing British documentary film in history, taking £3m in its first month. Similar documentary projects with Ed Sheeran and Coldplay followed soon after.
“We’ve broadened from the clichéd record business into a broad-based media and entertainment company,” says Marc Robinson, president of Universal’s partnerships, production and syncs division Globe. “Now we think less in terms of just selling music and more in terms of storytelling.”
Globe works on a spread of partnerships to find value in Universal music in unexpected places. Ad syncs are now viewed as a way to market an artist as well as nice earners: “You’re more interested in the media money that gets the artist seen than the fee for the track.” Globe is using podcast talk shows to broadcast the personalities of acts such as Jessie Ware and Gregory Porter and rethinking the movie soundtrack model by investing directly in films, including Idris Elba’s reggae- and dub-marinaded gangster movie Yardie. “We knew that music culture was integral to that film so we worked with them from script stage,” says Robinson.
“If anything, that crisis in the Noughties made the business realise what it can do with the toolkit it’s got,” he argues. “I’ve worked at Universal for 15 years and we’re at probably the most exciting time I’ve seen in the business.” The classic record company, he says, has had to become more patient, nimble and open-minded. “It’s less sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and more Pilates, herbal tea and a bit of yoga these days,” he admits. “But it feels the most creative it’s ever been during my career.”And then there is the “B” word.
On the day before the EU referendum in 2016, Daniel Miller gathered the Mute staff together. “I’m not going to tell you how to vote,” he told them. “But whoever votes Leave has to fill in the carnet.” Nervous laughter rippled through the room. The carnet is the music industry’s least favourite thing, a relic of the pre-customs union years when every single wire, plug, guitar and plectrum had to be accounted for when crossing national borders. Now, with Brexit negotiations hopelessly awry, the carnet is back on the agenda as are countless other import- and export-related miseries.
“It’s hard to factor Brexit into your business when you don’t know what it is yet,” Miller admits. Mute’s physical manufacturing is carried out in Europe by the Belgian company PIAS, so ironically movement of goods around Europe should not be a problem. Getting them into the UK is another matter. “We may need to move physical manufacture in the UK but there is a huge backlog in vinyl pressing here, for instance. Demand exceeds supply. No one knows what’s going to happen.”
Ellie Giles is planning 2019 tours for Bill Ryder-Jones and other acts and she’s wondering whether to book anything in Europe after March at all. “For smaller artists, if you’re getting withholding tax, insurance and carnets, is it worth it for a €500 show? This is a global business. I want my artists playing in Europe, America and Australia. But how do I make that possible?”
Annabella Coldrick of the Music Managers’ Forum says the people who are most terrified are the road haulage operators. Who will want to bring pantechnicons full of stage equipment and instruments across the Channel when the M20 is a static car park? Touring firms are already losing out, she says, as global artists who used to begin their European tours in the UK would hire crew and equipment here and rehearse here, but are now beginning to choose German kit and crew instead.
“You’d end up doing a couple of dates in London at the end but really you’re concentrating on the rest of the EU,” she says. “This is affecting festivals right now. People don’t know what to plan for. Every time I speak to the Brexiteer Tories they say, ‘Oh it’ll be fine, there’ll be a visa waiver, carnets aren’t that complicated…’ So many of them are just massively optimistic in the face of all evidence to the contrary.”
Perhaps there’s a final irony here. Having weathered a global storm, this industry found stability in the one thing that digital technology can’t replicate: a communal live experience among other human beings from different backgrounds. Now, in the UK this revival may be overturned, not by technology but by an atavistic rejection of all that is outward-looking. Brexit: the antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll.
This is how it is for the Patient Zero of digital disruption. The music business became the test lab for creative industries that may fear the future but know it can’t be held back. Game-changers seem to come daily. In September, Spotify made it possible for artists to upload their music direct for streaming without the need for a label at all. Apple has bought the team behind Asaii, which claims to be able to predict future hits using artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, it seems likely that the album – which has long been the industry’s creative touchstone and cash cow – could finally be in terminal decline, with American sales down a catastrophic 50 percent last year from 2015. The only constant is change.
And at the bottom of this inverted multi-million dollar pyramid are the artists. In this business, digital technology might have made it easier than ever to play, but it’s never been harder to win.
Andrew Harrison is the producer of the Remainiacs podcastMARTIN O’NEILL/GETTY IMAGES
Plus: the return of Channel 4 comedy Catastrophe.
In Cleaning Up (9pm, 9 January) Sheridan Smith plays Sam, a Canary Wharf cleaner who takes up insider dealing the better to pay off her gambling debts. This is completely preposterous, of course, but the series also comes with a stickily sentimental, lightly Dickensian atmosphere that might be just right for this time of year. Watching it, still slightly bloated on Quality Street and family tension, I found myself thinking: oh, why the hell not? Yes, it seems pretty unlikely that having casually overheard a City boy discuss his dodgy doings on his mobile late one night, our heroine almost immediately begins installing a listening device in his office. Still, I went with it. Buy those shares, Sam, and let bleach and Cif and stinky mops forever belong to your past!
Sam’s problems are legion; if this were Dickens rather than the work of newcomer Mark Marlow, she would already be on her way to the workhouse. As it is, she must contend with a debt collector called Warren (Neil Maskell) who stands outside her mullioned bay window yelling the odds. She owes him £17,000. Her ex-husband Dave (Matthew McNulty) wants custody of their two daughters – the older one of whom is in a massive sulk since her mother nicked her bedroom and gave it to a lodger called Glynn (Robert Emms) – and all her credit cards are maxed out. Even washing powder is beyond her means just now. And yet still, she cannot give up the online casino, the virtual roulette wheel that turns and turns but never coughs up anything more than an inviting “SPIN AGAIN”.
Now, though, salvation is at hand. It turns out that Sam is both highly numerate (when her daughter asks how to calculate the circumference of a circle, her mother doesn’t hesitate), and that her PhD student lodger is a dab hand with electronic relics procured from the internet (she gives him an iffy story about how she will use the bug to check her friend’s boyfriend is not cheating). She looks up insider dealing on Wikipedia, borrows Investing in Shares for Dummies from the library, and – ta-dah – it isn’t long before she has bought stock in a company that is about to be involved in a major merger, at which point her money is going to grow and grow. It’ll be like watching the Blue Peter totaliser, minus the milk bottle tops and the ring-pulls. Will she get caught? My guess is that the eavesdropped trader will go down, but that Sam, sweet and smiling and always prepared to forgo the last fish finger should someone hungrier than her need it, somehow emerges as the moral victor.
Speaking of moral victors, in Catastrophe (10pm, 8 January) Rob (Rob Delaney), having been convicted of drink-driving, is now condemned to spend his weekends working in a charity shop – something that Sharon (Sharon Horgan) is not going to let him forget in a hurry, given that she must now spend her weekends alone with two small children. Then again, occupying the high ground isn’t really her thing, or not for long. And so it is that, pissed off after an interminable morning in a museum, she embarks on a little light criminality herself, swapping the price tags on a child’s toy and a pair of jeans, thus enabling her naughtily to pay less for them. The security guard who deals with her when she’s caught tells her that, with their 27 inch waist, the jeans wouldn’t have fitted her anyway.
There are so many things to love about Catastrophe, not least the way it pays attention to the smallest details in the matter of relationships; when Sharon rings Rob’s mobile, for instance, she still comes up as “Sharon London Sex”. But what I mostly love about it is Sharon, from the stubborn set of her jaw, which is like Tower Bridge when it’s halfway up (or down), to the way she drinks a margarita (as if she is eight, and it is Tizer). I love the way she picks a fight – I’m not very courageous like that – and I love the way that, once she’s started, every accusation instantly spirals into a flight of fancy; her pugnaciousness, being so outlandish, is delightful rather than tedious, as it would be in almost anyone else. Above all, I love it when she sulks. Sharon Horgan’s bottom lip: what a magnificent thing it is, and with such good comic timing, too.
Cleaning Up (ITV)
Catastrophe (Channel 4)
A BBC radio documentary discovers the Highland hiker behind the Romantic poet.
“If your idea of Keats is of a delicate, tragic young man lying on a chaise longue in Hampstead, think again.” A documentary about Keats (6.45pm, 6 January) was heart-melting, retracing some of the poet’s steps west across Scotland, where he trekked for four months in 1818 with his friend Charles Brown. Presenter Professor Fiona Stafford over-brimmed with love and information (Keats stopped at Dove Cottage to pay homage to Wordsworth, only he was out, so a crestfallen Keats left a note) and didn’t even get to mention his love affair with Fanny Brawne, or that Keats was one of the greatest correspondents in Western literature.
Instead, we learned that on this walk he wore a massive fur hat and Brown a bright red tartan suit. They looked so singular – so “kenspeckle” – that they drew frowning crowds in Glasgow. Stafford was determined to paint JK as a tough guy who would leave anybody today with a hiking pole for dust. And he was! He shifted some 400 miles, 27 of them across a bog in Mull where the mud gnawed at him like quicksand. On Iona he found the graves of ancient monarchs such as Macbeth, their stone effigies scattered on the ground. Could these be the pale warriors of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”? Someone read the poem in the driving rain, cagoule flapping. It was impossible to not well up (“And this is why I sojourn here,/Alone and palely loitering”).
Eventually Stafford had to concede that all of this took some toll (“Keats had picked up a bit of a sore throat”). He returned to Well Walk in Hampstead to find his brother Tom near-dead of TB, and the disease taking hold of him too. Keats would die little more than two years later, after writing “Hyperion” and his incomparable odes. “Scotland had weakened his body,” notes Stafford “but strengthened his reach in poetry.” What pulsed here wasn’t sadness, though – more the euphoric sense of Keats trying to match the intensity of his ear and his feelings, with his relentless synaesthesia. He filled the corner of every line, as compressed as Shakespeare in the sonnets, but at an even greater pitch, preoccupied with beauty and the ecstasy of physical excess, and with death and the spirit world. With dying into a better place.
Keats Goes North
BBC Radio 3
Plus: Stan & Ollie.
Keira Knightley is a performer of A-for-effort, Head Girl pluck rather than depth or range. But she gets far more to do and is infinitely better at it than usual in the brisk new period piece Colette, which charts the emergence and emancipation of the Belle Époque novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. The film begins with her literal awakening – she is roused from sleep in preparation for a visit to her Burgundy home by her intended, Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), the blustery author and critic whose work, most of it produced by a team of round-the-clock ghostwriters, is published to legions of wildly appreciative fans under the name of “Willy”. Moving to Paris, Colette becomes his employee as well as his wife, milking her memories for a novel about a schoolgirl named Claudine. Henry is initially dismissive – he lambasts her work while taking a leak, peeing on her parade as it were – but a spiced-up version of the book becomes his most popular yet, and demand is high for a follow-up. When she resists, he locks her in a room with only a pen and an escritoire for company.
As Colette chafes against her husband’s control, the picture relishes the queer shape that her liberation takes: her affair with an heiress (Eleanor Tomlinson) who happens also to be sleeping with her husband, and her scandalous on-stage kiss with her new lover Missy (Denise Gough, patently auditioning for the lead in The Ellen DeGeneres Story). The film itself might have benefited from a dash of Colette’s own daring; in its cataloguing of explosive modernity (debates about the Eiffel eyesore, or early exercises in branding provided by Claudine merchandise), it seems on the verge of the sort of anachronistic mischief that Derek Jarman brought to Caravaggio or Edward II. It’s a cheeky touch, for instance, to have the characters converse in English while reading and writing in French, a comment perhaps on the way period pieces strain for sartorial or architectural authenticity while sacrificing the linguistic kind to the demands of commerce. Queerness sells; subtitles don’t.
But these hints of irreverence don’t amount to much, and the film’s pleasures are understated to the point of faintness. Maybe that’s why the viewer feels so appreciative of West as Henry, the rambunctious storm in this dainty, Sèvres porcelain teacup. Knightley raises her game in his presence, and the sparring as she shows Colette gaining in confidence gives the movie its rude blasts of energy. There’s a frisson of pleasurable irony, too, in the knowledge that this critique of the pitfalls of partnership should have among its midwives a real-life couple: Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glazter, the writer-director team who enjoyed their biggest success with Still Alice. Glazter, who co-wrote the script with Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, died shortly after the release of that last film but Colette can be seen as a “how not to” guide to working together, from a duo who knew how to so harmoniously.
Partnership happens also to be the subject of Stan & Ollie, which dramatises (and embellishes freely upon) the dying days of Laurel and Hardy. It is 1953 and the double act is embarking on a poorly attended UK tour of second-rate venues. Stan (Steve Coogan) is certain the live show will convince a film producer to back the Robin Hood comedy he is writing, which should propel him and Ollie (John C Reilly) out of another nice mess – gambling debts, health issues – and back to the glory days of Way Out West.
There isn’t a surprising shot or musical cue in the whole movie, but with performances this good you’d scarcely notice. Coogan and Reilly’s physical and vocal resemblance to their subjects is stunning without being slavish or clinical, and their rendition of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” is a happy marriage of affection, technique and flair. Most of all, they seem awfully fond of one another. Passing a long train journey by mapping out a new routine – “Can I poke you in the eye?” asks Ollie, to which Stan replies: “You can wring my neck” – they could be any married couple still in love long after the wrinkles have turned to trenches.
Colette (15) dir: Wash Westmoreland
Stan & Ollie (PG) dir: Jon S Baird
As China lands an uncrewed craft on the far side of the moon, humanity continues to look to space for salvation. But 50 years after the moon landing, we still have not found the answers we were looking for.
In his final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Stephen Hawking says that humans must colonise space because “not to leave planet Earth would be like castaways on a desert island not trying to escape”. It is not such a bizarre claim once you realise it echoes the view of medieval theologians that we should despise this life in comparison to the glory of the next. It is the perfect encapsulation of human space exploration as sublimated religion.
Hawking thought we should find another home before we destroy the one we have. (It is not clear why he thinks we’d treat the next one any better.) The moon landing of Apollo 11 half a century ago was, he says, the first step – but we failed to follow through.
It’s often lamented by space flight advocates such as Hawking that no person has returned to the moon since the Apollo 17 mission of 1972. They don’t show much curiosity about why that is, beyond blaming a general disenchantment with science and technology. Right now, the nation that sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the lunar surface has no means of sending people even to the International Space Station (ISS) in earth orbit, but must rely on the likes of the Russian Soyuz rockets (one of which malfunctioned after launch last October, necessitating an emergency landing).
Meanwhile, China has now established its lunar capability with the successful landing of the uncrewed Chang’e 4 spacecraft on the moon’s far side on 3 January, followed by the disembarking of the lunar rover Yutu 2. The project’s chief designer, Wu Weiren, commented that this was “a small step for the rover, but one giant leap for the Chinese nation”, which could be read either as a homage to Armstrong’s famous words or a declaration that supremacy in space has now passed from West to East.
Some would say the US space programme declined because the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) failed to articulate any vision of what would happen after it “won” the Cold War space race in 1969. In this view, the Apollo missions were a victim of their own success. There is some truth in that. But there’s another reason why the US space programme was bound, once it succeeded, to come to an end. Precisely by showing us the realities of crewed space flight, and what space itself looks like beyond our atmosphere, the Apollo missions destroyed a fantasy. When Buzz Aldrin spoke of the “magnificent desolation” of the moon, all we could see from the fuzzy monochrome images on television was the desolation.
After 1969 there was no getting away from the stark fact that, beyond the atmosphere, space will passively yet relentlessly try to kill us. It is bleak, lonely and inhospitable beyond anything sailors could have imagined when they set forth into uncharted seas. We haven’t returned to space because we now know that there is nothing for us there but beautiful, empty horror.
Despite today’s noble “Columbus” rhetoric about human exploration of space, the narrative of the early American space programme was explicitly militaristic and nationalistic: the goal was to beat the Reds. The Eisenhower administration launched Nasa on 1 October 1958, a year after the launch of the Soviets’ satellite Sputnik I and their first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. President John Kennedy announced the moon mission just six weeks after Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space on 12 April 1961. The goal, Kennedy said was “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth”. (In the West, women could assume at the outset that they were not part of the plan.)
Despite appearances, the US space programme has never enjoyed general public support. From the mid-1960s to the 1970s, only two out of ten Americans favoured further expenditure on space flight. When the Apollo programme began, roughly three out of ten thought the government should be spending less. The only significant change in these attitudes came with the approach to the moon landings, when Apollo 8 made the first crewed moon orbit at the end of 1968. Yet despite the huge and almost unanimously enthusiastic media coverage as the Eagle module touched down on 20 July 1969 (Armstrong and Aldrin stepped outside the next day), this enthusiasm waned rapidly. Although around 120 million viewers in the US watched the landings, by 1970 polls showed that perhaps as few as one in 15 remembered Armstrong’s name. “I had hoped,” he said that year, “that the impact would be more far-reaching than it has been.”
He shouldn’t have been surprised. The missions were framed from the outset as a “space race” against the Soviets, so the race was run once Armstrong made his footprint on the dusty lunar surface. America had triumphed; Aldrin had planted and saluted the stars and stripes on national television. “In this sense,” wrote Herbert Krugman, who helped conduct opinion polls about space in the 1970s, “public support for the Apollo programme had been designed to self-destruct on the initial achievement of the programme’s major objective.”
But something else shifted too as the public finally watched real space travel on their screens. It was not quite what they had imagined.
Shaped by popular culture, space flight had looked so easy – at least for Hollywood aliens bent on threatening our planet, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and George Pal’s Cold War-inflected version of HG Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds (1953). With Destination Moon (1950) Pal had attempted a more realistic depiction of a moon mission, and frankly it didn’t compare, looking as stilted and dull as a Nasa board meeting. Pal’s Conquest of Space (1955), a Technicolor story of a flight to Mars from a wheel-like space station, flopped so badly that movie makers were frightened off showing space travel “realistically” for over a decade – until Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey changed the game in 1968. Audiences opted instead for fantastical space opera in the old style of Flash Gordon, as in the hugely popular TV series Space Patrol (1950-55) and Lost in Space (1965-68).
Nasa happily colluded in building this illusion, for example by recycling in its press material a 1966 article in the New York Times depicting a moon base like some industrial plant transported wholesale from New Jersey. Even in the 1970s Nasa was employing artists’ renditions of space stations as wooded suburban settlements housed in glass and steel: a promise that space would be just like home. The space administration allowed manufacturers to promote their role in the Apollo missions. The missions themselves were carefully stage-managed for television. This was exploration as entertainment, all part of the brand construction.
Even scientists had rose-tinted visions about what was out there. Sure, they knew the moon was a rocky wasteland, but in 1940 the British Astronomer Royal Harold Spencer Jones wrote confidently about vegetation on Mars (as for higher life forms, he added, “we cannot say”). Space, then, was just the next (final?) frontier for exploration by the indomitable American spirit. Weren’t the Apollo astronauts like Lewis and Clark pressing on westwards? Space was more of the same, except a bit further away.
Then we saw the truth. Outer space reveals why Earth is so special. Obviously there is the extreme cold – unless you’re thinking of Venus, say, where the surface swelters at 460˚C under clouds of sulphuric acid. There’s the vacuum: the moon has no atmosphere to speak of. There’s the absence of gravity, which causes bone loss – use it or lose it, our bodies say, and experience on space stations shows that astronauts can lose 1-2 percent of their bone mass per month. And there is the carcinogenic radiation from cosmic rays and particles streaming from the sun, from which we are shielded on Earth by the planet’s magnetic field. As for planet-type environments, it’s far from clear that long-term sustainable habitats could be constructed from the available resources on the moon or Mars without constant provision from Earth.
It’s a fool’s game to try to predict what technologies of the far future might make possible, but any human presence on these two worlds – the only realistic destinations at present – would be grim and perilous. Hawking’s argument depends on the same old blindness to physical reality: we have yet to find an environment in which we would have the slightest prospect of creating an alternative long-term home, and there is none in our solar system.
Seeing the moon, that place of myth and fantasy, so naked and barren was sobering. As the poet Richard Brautigan wrote of the moon landing, “Men are walking on the moon today/planting their footsteps as if they were/zucchini on a dead world.”
Alongside a dawning appreciation of the true harshness of space, there was growing unease about the ethos behind the space programme. Opposition from the late 1960s counterculture to the military-industrial complex that supported space flight reflected a fundamental conflict of values: a rejection of a rational, technocratic society. Intellectuals too were repelled by the spiritual vacuum at the heart of the endeavour. When Norman Mailer visited Nasa’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston to research his analysis of the Apollo programme in Of a Fire on the Moon (1970), he found it “severe, ascetic” and soulless. To these people, Mailer felt, the moon landing was a mere technical achievement, devoid of sacred significance. It was the triumph of the Wasp.
The launch of Apollo 16 in 1972, the last mission to put a man on the moon
The battle front was drawn up along the fault lines created by Vietnam, the Summer of Love, and sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll. For traditionalists the astronauts were standard-bearers of morality in the face of hippy decadence. As the Evening Dispatch of Columbus, Ohio, put it, “all are men on the edge of middle age, men from the middle class. Nowhere among them… was there a whiff of pot, a mop of unkempt hair, a shouting doubter or a self-pitying whine.” They were square and proud of it, folks who got things done rather than sitting around moaning about the state of the planet.
The lack of any vision or motivation beyond winning the space race became painfully clear as popular interest peaked with the moon landings. Many commentaries asked: what does it mean? There was a sense it had to be important – history was being made – but no one could quite say why. Armstrong called it a “giant leap for mankind”, but how exactly? “It’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges,” he later said, adding in his characteristically clumsy syntax, “It’s by the nature of his deep inner soul.” Matters have barely progressed today, when Hawking is content to say the “obvious answer” to the question of why venture into space is “because it’s there”.
Newspaper editorials on the moon landings spoke vaguely of “reshaping man’s destiny” and how it was the start of a new era. To some it seemed like so much sound and fury; as historian Matthew Tribbe documents in his 2014 book No Requiem for the Space Age; even the eminent physicist Max Born called Apollo “a triumph of intellect, but a tragic failure of reason”. The Wall Street Journal asked, “Will it simply be the first of an indefinite number of pointless extraterrestrial visits, of little benefit to man while his earthy condition deteriorates?” We’re still asking.
It’s poignant to see enthusiasts of human space exploration try to paint a picture that appeals to the spirit without realising what a banal palette they have assembled. As Armstrong exemplifies, the kinds of people who make rockets and pilot them have not tended to be those who can speak eloquently and persuasively about their motivations. Kurt Vonnegut satirised the situation in his 1972 television film Between Time and Timbuktu, one sequence of which described a moon shot that carried a poet on board. The narrator, an ex-astronaut, says “Maybe he can give us some fancy description of things” – as long as he didn’t get too emotional and bring disaster on the mission.
This is the flip side of the glorious quest described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff (1979): a narrative in which the pioneering astronauts personified a moribund vision of the all-American male hero: patriotic, brave, clean-living (with a patient, devoted wife keeping the home fire burning), wise-cracking and incapable of introspection. For commentators such as the political scientist Victor Ferkiss, that was precisely the problem. How could “these thoroughly conventional and middle-class and essentially dull people” be “the supermen whom the race had struggled for a million years to produce”?
This is something Andy Weir got right in The Martian, the 2014 best-seller behind the Matt Damon movie. The resourceful Mark Watney, who engineers his survival after a disastrous crewed landing on Mars, is a hero of mind-numbing shallowness. Weir’s folksy, quasi-adolescent banter among the technicians in mission control is believably realistic. By the time Watney is rescued you’re wondering what all this impressive hardware, this hazardous mission, was really for. The Martian reflects the reputation of the US space industry for having become its own justification: we send people into space because Apollo created an entire infrastructure to do just that.
There is no substantial argument – philosophical, scientific or cultural – for why the astronauts are out there at all. “Why bother?” Watney finally asks, only to trot out a formulaic, sterile and tautological mantra: “progress, science, and the interplanetary future we’ve dreamed of for centuries”. The comment confirms that what we’ve just witnessed is a group of tech-obsessed jocks managing a pickle they created themselves for reasons they can’t articulate.
That’s why The Martian is a nihilistically useful portrayal of human space flight: a dramatisation of the spiritual emptiness at its heart. The tragedy is, of course, that Weir evidently intended the complete opposite. And this too makes it a good metaphor for Nasa’s predicament.
The contrast between the early optimism of space exploration and the post-1969 disenchantment as reality bit resonates throughout popular culture. In 1962 the music charts carried the jaunty “Telstar”, written by Joe Meek for the Tornados in homage to the eponymous communications satellite launched that year. Ten years later there was Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, where space is now vast and forbidding: “It’s lonely out in space/On such a timeless flight… Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids/In fact it’s cold as hell/And there’s no one there to raise them if you did/And all this science I don’t understand.”
As usual, David Bowie got there first. In “Space Oddity”, released five days before the launch of Apollo 11, Major Tom offered a dismal vision of men in space: “For here am I sitting in a tin can/Far above the world/Planet Earth is blue/And there’s nothing I can do.”
The stars do indeed “look very different today”: cold, distant and hostile. Yet with a patrician sense that pop lyrics were not worth heeding, the BBC elected to play “Space Oddity” during its coverage of the moon landings. “I’m sure they really weren’t listening to the lyrics at all,” Bowie later said. “It wasn’t a pleasant thing to juxtapose against a moon landing.” After the astronauts had set foot on the moon, the BBC finally realised and the song wasn’t broadcast again until the Apollo 11 crew were all safely back home. Some, however, welcomed the song as an antidote to the boosterism – “at a time”, the Observer critic Tony Palmer wrote, “when we cling pathetically to every moonman’s dribbling joke, when we admire unquestioningly the so-called achievement of our helmeted heroes without wondering why they are there at all”.
Bowie’s song, of course, took its inspiration from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 to an audience primed for its psychedelic finale. Kubrick consulted with Nasa engineers and predicted that the space agency “will be delighted” with the result. While its message for space exploration was in fact notoriously cryptic, the film helped shape perceptions because of its realism. At a stroke it raised the bar for technical standards in movie science fiction.
The lonely fate of Major Tom is prefigured in the death of crew member Frank Poole, after the rogue computer HAL has taken control of one of the capsules and rammed him with it while he is outside the ship. Poole is shown slowly spinning out into complete blackness, sealed inside his space suit until he dwindles from view: an end of unutterable isolation. Equally telling is the sequence in which Keir Dullea’s David Bowman, now the sole surviving crew member, blows the airlock on his capsule to re-enter the spaceship. There is a crescendo of alarm beeps and flashing lights that ends with an exterior shot of the spacecraft, the explosion happening in total silence thanks to the soundproof vacuum of space.
It’s a typically Kubrickian coup de théâtre, but all the more effective for reminding us how unfamiliar space is. The booms and sparks as the USS Enterprise zaps Klingon vessels invited the notion that this was a kind of marine warfare: galleons dispatching broadsides as the captain gives orders from the bridge. But what Kubrick showed was that space is like nothing you knew or imagined; all the normal rules are suspended. It is deeply alien, and out to kill you – and no one can hear you scream.
That message was already filtering into the public consciousness by the time Apollo 8 was preparing for launch. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) scandalised with its visceral imagery, but was much more culturally subversive than that. Now often seen as an allegory of Vietnam and American racism, it made radiation from a spacecraft returning from Venus the possible cause of the zombie apocalypse.
From the late 1960s on, movie science fiction depicted disorientation, decay, madness and death in the face of the overwhelming, pitiless desolation of space. In Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1972), Bruce Dern turns homicidal to try to save the plants that his crewed spaceship the Valley Forge preserves after despoliation of the Earth. The stark message is one Hawking might have heeded: can there be much future for an off-planet refuge if we have not tended our garden here on earth?
Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris appeared the same year, an adaptation of the 1961 novel by Polish science fiction writer Stanisław Lem. Its portrait of the emotional crises of a space-station skeleton crew was all the more believable because of the director’s trademark slow pace: space flight, he shows us, is mostly extremely dull. Moon, the 2009 movie conceived and directed by Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, reprises this theme of isolation as Sam Rockwell unravels into hallucination and paranoia on a lunar mining facility, abetted by a HAL-like artificial-intelligence system called GERTY. The inclement environment and the stress of extreme separation from loved ones and community highlight questions about the feasibility of long-term human habitation off-world.
Space in the movies is no longer the rosy “Tomorrowland” portrayed in the 1950s by Walt Disney, with moon bases and giant spaceships reproducing cosy American suburbia. It is a wasteland of penal colonies and extinct planetary outposts, where humans cling desperately to survival, rendered brutal or numb by the unendurable harshness.
Space opera did not die. Far from it, and the Star Trek franchise is still alive and well. But we know now that it is all fantasy. George Lucas confessed that his intention with Star Wars (1977) was to provide a fairy tale for a generation that no longer had any. As a bookstore owner told the literary scholar Hugh Kenner, after Apollo “reality couldn’t keep up. When your image of interplanetary adventure becomes a man in a huge white diving suit stumbling over a boulder… crystalline cities on Venus lose their believability.”
For a brief moment in the late 1960s human space flight suspended our judgement with its sheer scale, the raw power of its technology. Who could fail to be awed by footage of rockets thrusting free of their moorings and heading to the stars? Watching Apollo 11 blast off, even the sceptical Mailer could only manage to gasp repeatedly, “Oh my God!”
But after the moon landings, our notions of space had to grow up. The rhetoric of saving humanity by venturing to the stars has lost its shine, and we should now be impatient with it. As Vonnegut said: “I think many people are encouraged to believe that we can use up this planet and dispose of it like a Kleenex because we are going to wonderful new planets which are green and moist and nourishing. . . Well, that isn’t the case. We’re really earthbound no matter how much we may expend on getting the hell away from Earth.”
The hard facts of the cosmos show this to be so, he said. “Look at any big picture book on the universe where the distances between the heavenly bodies are indicated, and the natures of the atmospheres of some of the other planets. One must conclude that exploration is not a particularly hopeful enterprise.”
CP Snow understood this too. In the midst of the Apollo moon shots, the novelist and physical chemist admitted that “the trouble is, the solar system is a desperately disappointing place. Scientists have known this for a long time; it is now being confirmed in concrete, only too concrete, fact. It is no use holding out the prospect of limitless horizons when the horizons are certain to turn out only too desolately limited.”
Snow is in truth a little unfair, for the solar system is filled with wonders. Our robotic spacecraft have landed on a comet, roved the hills of Mars, explored the methane lakes of Saturn’s moon Titan and the frozen-nitrogen mountains of Pluto. Many scientists at Nasa worry that crewed missions divert resources away from projects like these that teach us much more about the universe, and inspire awe in the process.
Today’s astronautics is often bathetic in comparison, as the crew of the ISS struggles to get the toilets working. Their activities may even have played a part in dampening public enthusiasm: there just doesn’t seem much to do up there. Astronauts’ crazy antics in zero gravity looked tired even by the end of the Apollo missions, although it never quite reached the tawdry depths of Pizza Hut’s publicity stunt when it paid around a million dollars to have one of its pizzas sent to the space station via a Russian rocket in 2001. Seeing space exploration subsidised by fast-food outlets can hardly have enhanced the noble sense of endeavour and ambition that the space agencies seek to cultivate.
Some say the ISS shows nations co-operating rather than competing – a welcome change to its Cold War origins, it’s true, but this co-operation lacks any real goal beyond itself, and many people would rather see that spirit harnessed to tackle terrestrial challenges such as climate change or water scarcity. For China and India, space exploration has become again a nationalistic vehicle; for Elon Musk, Richard Branson and their ilk it is an opportunity for profit and advertising. If human space flight were ever to become safe enough to be routine then it will be stripped of the very mystique on which its allure depends. It will become tourism, or industry, or a bit of both and in either event just another theatre of commerce. It will be conducted not by frontiersmen but by salesmen and CEOs.
Space will not, after all, let us run silently from our crises. As the American anthropologist and philosopher Loren Eiseley has said: “Space flight is a brave venture, but upon the soaring rockets are projected all the fears and evasions of mankind.” In the end, a handful of moon rocks were not inspiration enough, nor a solution to any problems. There are good reasons why we have not gone back to the moon.
Philip Ball’s books include “Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Physics is Different” (Bodley Head)UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/ UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES
The phrase dominates our politics, but its true meaning escapes us in this era of self-interested politicians and Brexit turbulence.
The UK – or is that merely England? – is drowning in “the national interest”. The national interest is everywhere, pouring out of parliament, spouted in TV and radio studios by interviewees of all Brexit stripes, and obligatorily inserted into politicians’ op-ed pieces (which are largely ghosted by press officers, who know what the zeitgeist demands).
Brexit has turbo-charged the phrase. It is not so much spoken as incanted – to ensure there can be no mistaking the sincerity and high-mindedness of the speaker, their nobility of purpose, the seriousness of the issue at hand, the obvious and unique rightness of the solution they desire. But the “national interest” used in this way is less a phrase, more a verbal burp. If you agree with the point of view of the person who recites it, that’s fine – but resist the temptation to bathe in your own national interest virtue and, more importantly, please don’t assume that anyone who begs to differ is lacking in feeling for the nation or its interests – in other words, is something of a second-rate citizen, deficient in patriotism.
Theresa May lunges towards “the national interest” more often than anyone else – but given that her job is sorting out the referendum mess, that is understandable. There is some tactical variation. In October, before her agreement with the EU 27 the following month, she deployed it to reinforce Ken Clarke, the veteran Europhile MP, after he urged her to work with the opposition: “When we come back with a deal, I would hope everybody across this whole house will put the national interest first.”
That was a call to the higher status of “the national interest”, aimed at the souls of Labour MPs whom she hoped (still hopes) she could detach from Jeremy Corbyn’s “not on your life” view of voting to pass any Conservative Brexit deal.
But usually, given the Conservative civil war, the focus is squarely on her own MPs and members of the cabinet. After-two-and-a-half years of Brexit cacophony it has become apparent that the more orthodox means of persuasion – variously, calls for party unity; the semblance of adherence to the convention of collective cabinet responsibility; the straightforward need to govern; and, in the case of backbenchers, the deprivation of goodies doled out by the whips – have not singly or together provided sufficient motivation to agree a policy.
The national interest is portable. The phrase can be trotted out anywhere. It flies around the world with the Prime Minister: appearing in New York for the UN General Assembly and in Buenos Aires for the G20 meetings, and, obviously, in Brussels for any summit designed to come up with an answer. The national interest is also extendable, covering multiple Brexit angles. It is, for instance, the Prime Minister’s reason why there won’t be a general election until 2022 – because, as she said, it wouldn’t be in the… you can guess the rest.
But she is not alone. Jeremy Corbyn says any Labour Brexit plan would be, obviously, in “the national interest” while the Conservative-DUP deal is, obviously, not. Tony Blair has no doubt that the May Brexit deal is “not in the national interest” – he cited this in self-defence after being admonished by May for insulting “the office he once held” by calling for a second referendum. Nicola Sturgeon has used it in Brexit debates in Holyrood, although it is not always wholly clear to which nation she is referring.
The pundits too like the declaratory, ringing sound of the national interest. David Cameron’s former policy director Camilla Cavendish, writing in the Financial Times after May’s victory in the leadership confidence vote last month, said that the PM could now make “decisions in the national interest” because the hard Brexit European Research Group types had been isolated. Whereas Paul Mason, from the Corbynite left, writing on the New Statesman website in November, wagged his finger at Labour MPs who might be tempted to vote for May’s deal, telling them they were in danger of betraying not just the working class and the Labour Party but “the national interest of this country”. Everyone is at it. Throw in Simon Jenkins at the Guardian, from the maverick centre. He wants a free vote in parliament on the May deal because that too would be “in the national interest”.
Enough. From all the above, and myriad other examples from all points in the political spectrum, we can easily deduce that the national interest is unlikely to be a discoverable lump of opinion and policy. We cannot find the damn thing by simply following the right clues in a national treasure hunt. The solution is not conveniently chiselled into a rock somewhere in the middle of the UK, where we could all read the one and only magical “national interest” answer to Brexit – to the accompaniment of a truly national round of applause. If only.
Every now and then the affairs of state – or more accurately put, the survival of the nation – gives “the national interest” genuine meaning and clarity.
In the run-up to the Munich Agreement in 1938, and for a little while beyond, the public could choose between Neville Chamberlain’s view – that defending the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia was not in the national interest – and the rather different conception of Winston Churchill (and others) about how best to respond to Adolf Hitler. But after September 1939 the national interest became a great deal clearer to almost everyone. We all know the key Churchillian phrases in the defining “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech in parliament in May 1940 that told the nation its task, as France was falling to the Nazis and British forces were being pushed back towards Dunkirk’s beaches. Churchill’s talent was to conjure up the words to describe matters with complete clarity and conviction. “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer with one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.” (He did in fact use the words “the public interest” in the beginning of that speech – but that referred to his having asked the Speaker to summon parliament, not about how to pursue a war.)
There was dissent, but it is hard to be cynical about the idea of an easily understood national interest in the Second World War – or even, if to a lesser extent, once the First World War was under way. Individual policies were still the subject of differing opinion. There was public debate, for instance, about how precisely to implement rationing and censorship and so on – but there was not much doubt about the existential context that justified the measures.
I don’t for a moment think Brexit is anything other than a deadly serious matter, the consequences of which will be around for a long time. And in its own way Brexit is very much about national identity. But even so, choosing the right course of action in “the national interest” is not nearly as straightforwardly detectable as when Hitler was taking France. For instance: it is hardly lily-livered, still less traitorous, to be a Remainer but see powerful arguments both for and against a second referendum. You can reach a conclusion without the need to puff it up with rhetorical wind.
The definition of the national interest is – sometimes unpleasantly, but necessarily – a matter of democratic contest, very often taking place between political parties. We don’t like to make that too plain because party politics is seen as grubby – conjuring up yah-boo shouting and Machiavellian manoeuvring. But parties, when they work, are vehicles that should properly choose priorities, broker between interest groups and provide sufficient coherence to implement what comes out of the mixer.
But in this particular contest the two big political parties are near-hopeless instruments. The political system, in England at any rate, is driftwood when it comes to Europe – and has been, on and off, for decades. The politics of capital and labour is what most significantly defined the difference between the Conservatives and Labour in the 20th century, not war and peace, and certainly not membership of the EU.
The class base of politics may feel out of time for many, but the first-past-the-post electoral system allows the Conservatives and Labour to cling on – aged gorillas with their internal organs bleeding, yet still able to intimidate by their mere presence those MPs who might yearn for a different mapping of ideology or policy on to party politics. Neither has managed, over decades, to create a settled or convincing way of dealing with the various European institutional arrangements: the Common Market, European Economic Community, European Community and European Union.
Harold Wilson and David Cameron each had to resort to a referendum to stop their party from breaking apart. Neither suggested to the voters “my party’s unity” as the reason for holding a plebiscite. In Cameron’s case he might have advanced the argument that a referendum was in the national interest because it was the only way to protect the country from Ukip’s surge (it won nearly four million votes at the 2015 general election, even after Cameron promised a referendum), as well as end (or pause, as it turns out) the Conservative civil war over Europe. That would have been frank – but would not have exactly sounded virtuous.
Allowing the voters to decide the matter evidently did not define a settled national interest. You could just as well argue that the decision to call a referendum put a giant crater in Westminster’s legitimacy, which was itself a blow against the national interest.
So is the whole concept of a national interest in peacetime phoney? The phrase reeks of self-righteousness, encourages exaggeration and denies decent motives to those who see matters differently. It is not only hokum – but dangerous hokum.
Sixty-five million people living in a pluralist, democratic state will seldom bellow in unity and throw out clear answers to any number of genuinely complicated questions, whether on Brexit, HS2, more airport runways, funding the NHS, the housing shortage, social care or selling arms to unpleasant regimes. It is naive, perhaps infantile, to assume that the answers are blindingly obvious, and that an overwhelming unity of sentiment is the normal state of affairs.
But there is a “national interest” that does mean something – not a dull rhetorical ornament accompanying a single policy prescription, but one to do with the way we protect institutions and our democratic culture, that helps us sort out our many differences without having to come to blows.
On this basis, the “rule of law” is in the national interest. Although its specifics should certainly be the subject of debate, the rule of law is not a hollow phrase. We have a good, intuitive sense of what it means. We can, and should, argue about the diversity of the judiciary, or the amounts earned by different sorts of legal practitioners, but we know that the rule of law requires judges who are palpably independent, properly appointed, well trained, led by evidence and incorruptible. We should be cheered that although many other institutions have suffered from the (healthy) collapse of automatic deference the judiciary has not lost its moral authority. Its reputation has recovered from the lacerating failures of the 1970s, when the handling of various IRA trials made it the justified focus of deep suspicion.
But there is not much smell of rot in the contemporary judiciary and we should recognise that judges who reach verdicts that we do not like may be wrong – but they cannot and should not be defined as “enemies of the people”. You might go as far to say that protecting them from such a charge is… in the national interest.
There are other characteristics of a civilised democracy that we should examine and protect because there is a national interest to do so. If you believe in a parliamentary system of government, there is something particularly important about the integrity and fairness of the voting system that underpins it. It is a very good thing that we have boundary commissions providing impartial and independent advice about constituency shapes and sizes for the different UK nations. It is considerably less good when its work is junked or implementation delayed, as has been the case for most of this century. First past the post has enough problems, without a parliamentary map where some constituencies have electorates of around 40,000 and others well over twice as much.
For decades Labour has been uninterested about this particular inequality. It performs much better at general elections with the current mosaic than it would do with anything that gave greater priority to numerical fairness. And the Lib Dems haven’t been much interested either. In coalition in 2012 they killed off Boundary Commission changes that would have done them damage, as a penalty for David Cameron not managing to persuade his backbenchers to bring in an elected second chamber.
This is not arcane and technical stuff. The calamitous state of American politics owes much to the combination of vices that corrode elections, such as the gerrymandering of congressional boundaries, the uncontrolled flow of money, and Supreme Court decisions that constrain minority voting rights. We haven’t sunk that low, but we don’t seem to care much about the health of the system as a whole.
I spent decades at the BBC, in News and at Radio 4, and probably convinced myself that its key characteristics – its desire to be fair, its independence, its reach and scale – were in the national interest. I still believe that UK democracy is best served by having well-resourced broadcasters, led by the BBC, which complement an ideological, rumbustious and often entertaining print and digital universe. As a result the public has easy and relatively cheap access to a flow of news and interpretation that avoids polemic and prescription.
Is it a national interest? I think it is. But Brexit has cheapened the language of politics and I may need a more modest idiom. I shall experiment with the BBC as “an institution that buttresses democracy” or, perhaps more simply, “a heavyweight force to stop the Foxification of broadcasting”.
In the meantime, when you hear the “national interest” mantra in the next phase of Brexit turbulence, stay alert for self-interest and cant.
Mark Damazer is master of St Peter’s College, Oxford and a former controller of BBC Radio 4Neville Chamberlain returns to the UK in September 1938 after the Munich Conference. POPPERFOTO
As a talented improvising guitarist Miller stood out in an unusual scene, but he was even more distinguished as a composer.
The guitarist and composer Phil Miller, who died just over a year ago, would have turned 70 last Sunday, and to mark that occasion an extraordinary line-up of musicians convened at the Vortex jazz club in London for two marathon tribute concerts. These gigs, organised by Miller’s widow, featured veteran players from his bands Delivery, Hatfield and the North, National Health and In Cahoots: pillars of the so-called Canterbury scene of the 1970s and beyond, a movement with which Miller was always identified even though he came from Barnet and lived in London all his adult life.
The nature and history of Canterbury music have been thoroughly documented in a 700-page French tome called L’Ecole du Canterbury by the musicologist Aymeric Leroy (who acted as the benignly lugubrious MC on Sunday night). It is hard to categorise: sometimes misleadingly bracketed with prog, its focus is on complex, jazzy instrumentals overlaid with a wry, somewhat Dadaist take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Caravan and Soft Machine are its best-remembered exponents. Tricky time signatures and dense chords abound; charismatic lead singers and big emotional gestures are in short supply. The Canterbury bands never achieved more than cult appeal, although the loyalty of their devotees is unshakeable; and while the movement was swept rudely aside by the punk revolution, its aesthetic arguably had more in common with punk than did the corporate megaliths like Genesis and Pink Floyd who somehow survived.
Canterbury music was unusual for its emphasis on keyboards and wind instruments rather than guitars and vocals. As a talented improvising guitarist (known for his gurning facial contortions during solos) Miller stood out, but he was even more distinguished as a composer. Sunday’s gigs kicked off with two of his earliest tunes, “Fools’ Meeting” and “Miserable Man”, written for the short-lived band Delivery, which reminded us that his often cerebral music was in fact rooted firmly in blues. We then moved on to the Hatfield and the North tune “Underdub”, composed just four years later, and the leap forward in terms of sophistication was astonishing. With a tune so elaborate that it had to be performed here by two guitars and two flutes, “Underdub” is underpinned by a lilting bossa nova-like beat which might lull its audience into expectations of blandness. Instead, the listener gets presented with a melody which spirals for bar after bar without any repetition or any promise of reaching its conclusion. Each individual phrase is tuneful and appealing; each links to the next; but the melodic and harmonic logic of the whole piece is deliciously twisted and complicated, so that every new idea defies expectations.
In my novel Middle England, the main character Benjamin Trotter, a Canterbury music fan, explains to an interviewer how Phil Miller’s methods inspired his own practice as a writer: he loves the fact that “there was this combination of freshness – originality – complete rethinking of form – while the music was very easy to listen to, it really invited the listener in”. The pieces performed on Sunday night demonstrated this: never more so than in Miller’s masterpiece “Above and Below” from the early 1980s. It begins with a marching rhythm over which another of his epic, seemingly never-ending melodies unrolls, but just as it appears to have reached its climax, eerie guitar chords announce a gentle middle section which creates space for a lyrical guitar solo in 5/4. (For these musicians, improvisation in 5/4 is as simple as playing “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands”.) The contrast is exquisitely judged.
With up to a dozen musicians crammed on to the Vortex’s tiny stage, some of the arrangements felt too densely textured, but John Greaves’s solo performance of the classic “God Song” (to lyrics by Robert Wyatt) provided an oasis of heartfelt simplicity. We were left with a slightly awestruck sense of the versatility of this too-little-known composer. If you want to find out for yourself what you may have missed, nearly all his music is streaming freely at philmillerthelegacy.com.
Phil Miller: A Life in Music
The Vortex, London N16
The comedian talks Absolutely Fabulous, eighteenth century Versailles, and devolving.
Born in Illinois in 1953, Ruby Wax is a comedian, actress, campaigner and author. Her TV work includes “The Full Wax”, “Ruby Wax Meets...” and “Absolutely Fabulous”, on which she was the script editor. Her books on mental health include “Sane New World”, “A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled” and “How to be Human”.What’s your earliest memory?
My first memory is standing up in our living room when I was two and getting a round of applause. That was the last time I got a round of applause from my family. Nothing else ever topped it.Who was your childhood hero?
My childhood hero was Jerry Lewis, I’m ashamed to say. I didn’t realise that it was appalling until I was a teenager. Him, and Dr Seuss. In adulthood, it’s John Lennon.Which political figure do you look up to?
Right now, I’m in Africa: so Nelson Mandela. It’s all been downhill since him. Look how we’ve descended into the depths of hell. You would think we’d evolve with the future, but we’ve devolved.What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?
The brain. I’m good on the brain, because I’m fascinated with how it works. And online shopping. And then I run out of material.In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?
Eighteenth century Versailles, but I’d want to be in the court. Not the cleaning woman or in the kitchen. If you’re going to be a narcissist, you might as well go the whole hog! Even if you died early, I imagine it was pretty exciting, until just before they came at you with the guillotine. I’d be gone by then. I want to keep my head.What TV show could you not live without?
Technically, Absolutely Fabulous. That’s how I made my living for a while.Who would paint your portrait?
I’d let Damien Hirst put me in formaldehyde.What’s your theme tune?
“Creep”, by Radiohead.What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Alan Rickman [Wax’s lifelong friend and the director of many of her stage shows] would tell me to write everything down. He’d say, “We don’t know what you’re talking about, but write it down. Use it for comedy. Then I can edit it.”What’s currently bugging you?
When I hear the word Brexit, it raises bile in my throat. I’m allergic to the word. The minute somebody says it, I go into a coma, standing up. I don’t care anymore, about anything. It’s worn me down.What single thing would make your life better?
Having a less dyslexic mind. I can’t think straight. Which can be good for my career, but bad for my social life.When were you happiest?
When I graduated from Oxford, at age 105.Only a few years ago!In another life, what job might you have chosen?
I’d have been a neuroscientist.Are we all doomed?
If we stay on the same trajectory, we are. I think we’re at a cusp, where we might be able to re-route our bad habits, if we choose to. But that will take a lot of effort. If we stay on the same trajectory? Yes. If we manage to change the habits of a lifetime? No.
Ruby Wax’s latest book, “How to Be Human: The Manual”, is published by Penguin Life
The route to a “People’s Vote” on Brexit.
One of the alternatives to a no-deal Brexit touted by some MPs is to hold a second referendum. But how likely is this, and would it actually be possible?
Here’s the process:How do you propose a referendum?
Parliament would have to pass legislation to allow a second referendum to take place. This would need to be voted through by both the House of Commons and House of Lords.
There are two ways you can legislate for a referendum. The first is how the original EU referendum took place – through a bill that is solely about the referendum in itself (which, in that case, ended up as the European Union Referendum Act).
The second is how 2011’s AV referendum came into law – via provisions in an Act that was not solely about the referendum (in this example, the referendum on our voting system ended up as part of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act).
So theoretically a second referendum on the final deal could be included in the Withdrawal Agreement legislation, if it passed. (Although if it passed, a second referendum to fix the crisis would no longer be necessary.)And, well, it probably won’t pass – so what happens then?
You’d need a new law. This would include details like the question on the ballot paper, the vote’s date, and what the electorate will be – it could also stipulate that some details (like the date) will be ruled later.But who would propose this? Theresa May doesn’t want one
Well the government would need to introduce a bill, but there is also a mechanism to trigger a referendum if the government doesn’t want to – either by amending the meaningful vote motion or the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill with a backbench amendment (there aren’t enough MPs supporting a second referendum to do this). If this got through, the government would probably then need to make loads of its own amendments or bring forward a separate piece of legislation that could cover everything you need to legislate for a referendum.Ok. So what else is involved in the process?
Once the question is laid out in the bill, the Electoral Commission has to carry out a process called “question testing”, which by law means checking the “intelligibility” of the ballot paper question’s wording and reporting back. This usually takes 12 weeks, according to UCL’s Constitution Unit. It then accepts the wording, or suggests different wording, and the bill is amended accordingly.What would the question even be?
There is no consensus on this, and there are multiple options: leave under Theresa May’s deal, leave with no deal, remain in the EU, or send the government back to the EU to negotiate a different deal.
For the question, you could have deal/no deal, deal/remain, remain/no deal, or more than two options: former Tory cabinet minister Justine Greening has suggested three options: accept a negotiated Brexit deal, stay in the EU, or leave with no deal. The problem with this is that it diminishes the proportion of the electorate who decides the outcome.
This would have to be thrashed out in Parliament, and the Electoral Commission would be consulted on its “intelligibility” as explained above.Surely that would be difficult to agree on?
Yes, it would be tough. Also, parliament could also decide if it wanted a threshold for the result to count – like a minimum turnout or a supermajority requirement, the voting system used (if numerous options are involved), and to make the result binding or non-binding.Isn’t that going to take ages to decide?
Probably, all those decisions are highly controversial. The last EU referendum took just under seven months to pass, although that was less urgent and included the summer recess. But that’s not the only thing that would take a long time.Oh god, what else?
Well, by law there’s a minimum ten-week campaign period, and the Electoral Commission recommends polling day should be at least six months after the legislation has passed. This is just a recommendation, however, and UCL’s Constitution Unit wonks believe other parts of the process could also be condensed – it figures that the minimum time it’d take to sort out a second referendum would be 22 weeks between the decision to hold one and polling day.But that’s still… too long?
If everyone was agreed on having a second vote, and exactly how to carry it out, then it could go faster – but that’s not a political reality. So the UK would most likely need an extension of Article 50 if it wanted a second referendum, otherwise we’d just leave with no deal on 29 March 2019.Is that possible?
Yes, legally that’s possible. All the other EU member states would need to agree, which it is thought they would if it’s in order to hold a referendum (rather than just carry on discussions, or drag out the process). But the government would need to propose this, and MPs would have to approve it.So how likely is a second referendum?
It is technically possible, but political reality means it’s unlikely – there are nowhere near enough MPs who support one. Unless the People’s Vote campaign manages to manoeuvre a second referendum as the only alternative to no deal, and MPs agree to it in desperation as a last resort, then it’s unlikely there will ever be the majority required to pass the legislation, or extend Article 50 to make time for the process.Flickr/K. Pauley/7th Street Theatre Hoquiam, WA How do you legislate for Groundhog Day?
She calmly explained that I’m not the first doctor to inform her that her obesity is causing her harm
Some conversations are always difficult. Explaining to Megan, a 38-year-old woman with severe heart failure, that she couldn’t go on the heart transplant waiting list because she is obese was one of them. Megan is a single parent to an eight-year-old girl, has a history of depression and anxiety, and until recently was in full-time employment. By the time I saw her, she weighed 135kg and had a body mass index of 50kg/m² (obese being greater than 25kg/m²), which placed her in the highest level of obesity.
She calmly explained that I’m not the first doctor to inform her that her obesity is causing her harm. The first time she was told this was by another well-meaning cardiologist, who bluntly told her that her chest pain was a result of obesity (it wasn’t) and that she simply had to lose weight by eating less and moving more.
She felt humiliated and patronised, and subsequently found it difficult to trust medical professionals as she felt blamed for her illness. Certain health conditions lend themselves to more compassion than others, and obesity is not one of them.
The cause of her obesity was, by her own admission, complex. She explained that she had always been overweight but was active and played sport at national level at school. She was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome in her early twenties, and this condition predisposes women to becoming overweight and obese.
She binged on carbohydrates and fat-heavy meals when she felt depressed or anxious, she felt ashamed of her body and stopped exercising and, despite trying several diets, could not maintain the initial weight loss she incurred and was always heavier than before.
Megan is not alone. More than 60 per cent of adults are overweight or obese in the UK. Every week there is a sensational headline in the news about how the “obesity epidemic” is creating a huge financial burden on the NHS. However, the effects of obesity on health are often unappreciated: apart from joint problems, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, obesity is the biggest cause of cancer after smoking.
The Royal College of Physicians has called for obesity to be classed as a disease in order for it to be taken more seriously and to develop clear targets for its prevention as well as treatment. It calls for a shift away from the view that obese people are to be blamed and instead, to see obesity as a result of health inequalities, genetics and social factors.
This is excellent in theory, but substantial funding of public health measures is required to educate people about healthy diets and exercise and – for those who need it – provide multidisciplinary weight management programmes on the NHS. In the era of cuts to public health, it will be hugely challenging to put these proposals into practice.
I referred Megan to a heart failure specialist nurse who saw her in the community. She attended cardiac rehabilitation classes where she was able to exercise under medical supervision, and began an NHS weight management programme. She also saw a cardiac psychotherapist for several months. This intensive multidisciplinary approach is not routinely available in all NHS trusts and is something I fear could soon be cut because of staff shortages.
She returned to my clinic six months after I initially gave her the news that her obesity was stopping her from going on the transplant waiting list. To her delight – and to my amazement – Megan had managed to lose 20kg. She was exercising and was no longer depressed. Her heart failure has improved to such an extent that she no longer needs a heart transplant.
I asked Megan how she would like doctors to help overweight and obese people and she emphasised the need for empathy and a non-judgemental approach. She said, “Patients don’t care about how much you know until they know that you care.”
Nishat Siddiqi is a cardiologist based in south WalesWikipedia via Creative Commons
A soft Brexit could pass the Commons, but it is no one’s first choice – so all the other factions are running down the parliamentary clock. No deal is a real possibility.
On 8 February 2017, MPs agreed to leave the European Union without a deal. That is the simple logic of the parliamentary vote, which passed by 494 to 122, approving Theresa May’s plan to invoke Article 50 and begin the formal process of leaving the bloc. It wasn’t just the government front bench that signalled its agreement to a no-deal departure, but the opposition too.
The creation of Article 50 by the Lisbon Treaty provided a way for a nation state to leave the EU, but it is undeniably a blunt instrument. Triggering it, as May did on 29 March 2017, starts a two-year countdown to the exit. At the end of those two years, whether an accord with the remaining states has been reached or not, the departing nation leaves.
That simple fact should inform all discussions about Brexit. Confidently asserting that “there is no majority for no deal” has become a cliché at Westminster, as former Remainers reassure themselves that there are enough serious politicians there to prevent an exit that would lead to shortages of food and medicine. But that is a comforting fiction: since that day in February, we have been heading for no deal unless an alternative can be drafted, agreed with the rest of the EU and passed through the House of Commons. Theresa May has done the first two; but before Christmas, she decided she could not manage the third, and so pulled a scheduled vote on her deal. She is expected to bring the same proposals back to the Commons next week.
Parliament is no longer split on Remain/Leave lines but into four distinct Brexit tribes. Each supports a different outcome: a no-deal exit; exit on Theresa May’s terms; exit into the European Economic Area, remaining in the single market and customs union; and no Brexit at all.
The first group is, as you would expect, intensely relaxed about no deal being the default option. It is also one of the smallest, numbering no more than 60 MPs. Its main organising locus is the European Research Group (ERG), the hard Brexit faction of the Conservative Party, led by Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The ERG’s stock is low at Westminster. On 15 November, Steve Baker – the MP for Wycombe, the ERG’s chief organiser and until then regarded as one of parliament’s most effective operators – declared that he had the numbers to trigger a vote of no confidence in May’s leadership of the party. He was wrong. Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee and custodian of the process, later told the House magazine that Baker was one letter off the 48 he needed. Close but not close enough.
It took until 12 December for the magic number of 48 to be reached, by which time Baker’s reputation as a masterful backroom strategist was in tatters. May won the resulting vote by 83.
However, the received wisdom has been too quick to write off Baker and the ERG. Its strength has never come from Baker’s ability to command a majority within the Conservative Party, or to persuade middle-ground opinion within it, let alone outside it, but from the use of parliamentary procedure to leverage the strength of his faction.
Yes, May is still party leader and Prime Minister. But it was thanks to the machinations of the ERG that the vote to trigger Article 50 was taken so quickly after the referendum result in 2016. Britain’s exit is codified into British law and only a vote of the whole House can undo that, further complicating the path to stopping Brexit. Even if our exit is softened, it seems likely that the ERG will get at least half of what it wants – exit from the political project – and it could yet secure a no-deal exit.
It is harder to see how the ERG’s parliamentary opposites – such as the People’s Vote campaign, which holds its meetings in the same parliamentary committee-room corridor as the ERG – will achieve their aims. The People’s Vote campaign’s proposed alternative to no deal is no Brexit at all, to be achieved by another referendum. But the obstacles to the latter are large and probably insurmountable: the executive, in the form of Theresa May’s Downing Street operation, would have to facilitate one. Views inside the No 10 team are mixed, and many cabinet ministers would quit the government rather than support another referendum. Scarcely more than one in ten Conservative members support a referendum rerun, according to the Party Members Project, a long-running study into the preferences of party activists funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Conservative opposition to a referendum isn’t solely confined to the ambitious. After the experience of the 2016 campaign, some MPs oppose referendums full stop. One MP recently said to me, “I hated everything about it, not just the outcome.” Others believe that a second vote would return the same result as the first: a win for Leave.
That lack of support is mirrored in the Labour Party. The ESRC’s survey found that most Labour members support another referendum, but it is not their top political priority. Given a free choice, they would vote to allow Jeremy Corbyn – an instinctive Eurosceptic who has no desire to reopen the referendum question for both tactical and political reasons – free rein on the policy, rather than force him to support a second vote.
Many Labour MPs would back a second referendum if they thought it could be won for Remain; unlike their Conservative counterparts they would have little to fear from their members if they did. Still, scepticism is widespread. One MP describes referendums as “a shit idea”. Others agree with Tory Remainers that their side would simply lose again.
The People’s Vote campaign has done an impressive job of keeping the idea of a second referendum in contention, but the blunt reality is that it does not have a majority in parliament. Nor does the campaign have the support of either the government or opposition front benches, and is unlikely to secure it. And pro-second referendum MPs are themselves divided on how best to succeed. Some adopt Theresa May’s tactic, in hoping that fear of the no-deal cliff edge will make their proposal seem more attractive. For that reason, they are publicly denigrating not only May’s deal but also proposals for a softer Brexit that would keep the United Kingdom in the European Economic Area (EEA). Their number includes Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda; Jo Johnson, the Conservative MP for Orpington; and Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Brighton and Hove.
That approach mystifies not only advocates of a so-called Norway-type exit but many of their fellow second referendum advocates, too. “I don’t like the EEA but you have to have a fallback,” says one. “I think what Chris [Bryant] and others are doing is very dangerous.”
Most MPs, unless they are supporting a no-deal exit, know full well that they need a plan B and are trying to keep all their options open. The average Labour MP is, on this issue, pretty closely attuned to Ed Miliband, who told the BBC Today programme on 8 January that a second referendum was a “last resort” but his own preference lay elsewhere. Even some of the more full-blooded second referendum advocates are avoiding too much criticism of the EEA proposal, recognising that they might later have to support it as the least worst option.
Those taking a self-denying ordnance include Chuka Umunna, who conceded on 6 January on Sky News that the People’s Vote campaign does not have the strength in parliament to trigger a second vote, at least in present circumstances. This conviction is shared by his fellow Labour MPs Anna Turley, Bridget Phillipson and Phil Wilson.
The question that has to be asked then is this: is there any potential deal that is acceptable to the EU and could also command a majority in the Commons? That is the only way to avoid no deal, after all.
Theresa May’s negotiation with the EU27 has produced two documents. The first is the withdrawal agreement, which governs the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU and contains provisions to guarantee that there will be no border on the island of Ireland. (If trade talks break down or the UK does not sign a trade deal with Europe, Northern Ireland would remain in the customs and regulatory orbit of the EU.) This is the so-called backstop that her coalition partners in the Democratic Unionist Party and so many of her own MPs loathe.
Regardless of who is in Downing Street, the contents of that accord will not change. What is still up for grabs is the second document negotiated by May: the future declaration, 48 pages of text that set out in broad outline what the final relationship between the EU and the UK would look like.
As drafted, that relationship would reflect May’s interpretation of the 2016 referendum result: free movement of people would end but the UK would have as close a relationship as possible to the EU. It would mean a substantial long-term reduction in economic trend growth in the UK (because of greater friction in trade) and continued submission to trade and state aid rules set by the EU. (Corbyn is opposed in particular to these state aid rules, which he thinks would prevent him pursuing an active industrial strategy.)
The Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement has no chance of passing the House of Commons in its current form, and she could delay the vote again to avoid an inevitable defeat. However, many MPs believe that would trigger a general election, because enough of her own party would turn on May, in the hope of preventing no deal.
May’s best hope is that, as the clock ticks ever closer to a no-deal exit, MPs will in desperation vote for her deal to avoid the terror of the cliff edge. The problem is that her accord will never be able to pass with the votes of Conservative MPs alone, and she will have to concede something to allow Labour – whether through a backbench rebellion or action from the leadership – to vote it through.
What could that be? Parliament’s last Brexit tribe, the Norway Plus group, believes it has the answer. MPs such as Nick Boles want to rewrite the political declaration to declare their intention to join the EEA. That would mean a close economic relationship that keeps the UK outside “ever closer union” and also reclaims a degree of political sovereignty.
Unlike its opposite numbers in the People’s Vote campaign or the ERG, the Norway Plus group tends not to meet in committee rooms but in members’ offices, in gatherings that are often standing-room only. On one occasion, in the office of Nicholas Soames, the Conservative MP for Mid Sussex, the meeting improbably took place amid the smell of burning incense. (Many offices in the palace of Westminster, an old building next to a dirty river, do not smell as good as you might hope.) Most meetings take place in the offices of Boles, a prominent ally of David Cameron and George Osborne. He is the group’s co-chair along with Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, son of Neil Kinnock. Incense is never burned, but tea is served.
This group’s proposed solution could command a majority of the Commons and its champions are well-connected within both parliamentary parties. In the cabinet, they are in regular communication with Amber Rudd and Michael Gove, while on the opposition front bench, John McDonnell is in informal contact.
The group secured a significant coup on 7 January with the public support of Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow in Essex, and Lucy Powell, the Labour MP for Manchester Central. They are co-authors of a new pamphlet on how the EEA could work for the United Kingdom.
The support of these two prominent MPs gave a boost to the campaign, albeit for different reasons. Halfon, an advocate of “white van conservatism”, is from the middle of the Conservative Party and is precisely the type of supporter that any softer Brexit needs if it is to pass the Commons. Powell is a former director of Britain in Europe, which campaigned to take the UK into the euro.
Powell represents one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in the country. Her pro-European bona fides make it easier for Labour MPs to row in behind the EEA option.
Norway Plus, as its advocates concede, has a problem: it is not the first choice for many MPs. But it may well be the only choice that can command a majority in parliament and the executive.
As matters stand, the other three factions – no deal, May’s deal and no Brexit – believe that their interests are best served by prolonging the threat of “going over the cliff”. The Brexit stand-off could yet end with the surprising, and disastrous, triumph of the ideologues of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group.
Stephen Bush is NS political editorBen Jennings
A seemingly obscure app is about to become a social media household name.
If you went to an American Walmart sometime in the last three months, you may have heard a teen voice shout “hit or miss” in the middle of the store. Most of the time, this would be met with silence, customers looking around for who said it, and then everyone going on their merry way. But if you were lucky, you would have heard the response “I guess they never miss, huh?” shouted back. If you were REALLY lucky, you would have heard kissing noises, shouts about boyfriends, and the running footsteps of the callers and responders trying to find each other.
Confused? If your answer is yes, you are increasingly alone.
Why have Google searches for the phrase "hit or miss" surged in the past 2 months? Come with me on a journey. It starts on Pornhub and ends in your local Walmart. THREAD... pic.twitter.com/rabnIQcMrj
— Reed Kavner (@reedkavner) December 18, 2018
From lyrics in the diss track “Mia Khalifa” by musical duo iLOVEFRiDAY, a global Gen-Z meme has been born. The song was a response to an apparent insult from the Lebanese American pornstar Mia Khalifa (the tweet was, in fact, fake; the full story is explained succinctly in this Twitter thread). But the lyrics have since taken on a life of their own. Teens across the world have taken the lines “Hit or miss? / I guess they never miss, huh? / You got a boyfriend / I bet he doesn’t kiss ya” and turning them into an internet challenge, in which you enter a school, a store, or any public space and shout “hit or miss” in the hope of finding someone else who knows the meme to respond back.
And where did this hundred-million-view meme come from? The app you’re about to see everywhere: TikTok.
When my friends make me do karaoke pic.twitter.com/goJ9GEnstT
— TikTok (@tiktok_us) January 3, 2019
Millennials may recognise TikTok as a successor to Vine – an app that allows users to share short, looped videos (in this case 15-second clips, versus Vine’s 6-second ones). First launching in China in 2016 with the name “Douyin”, TikTok grew to 100 million users in the space of a single year and a billion views daily. The app became the most downloaded app in several Asian countries (such as China and Thailand) by the start of 2018.
TikTok’s popularity has exploded in the English-speaking world since it was launched in the US on 29 September 2018. By the end of November, the app had over 80 million downloads in the United States and had inspired popular memes, internet challenges, and celebrity attention. Popular talk show host Jimmy Fallon participated in the TikTok #TumbleweedChallenge on his show in November, which draws an average audience of 2.4 million. In the challenge, Fallon dropped to the ground at the sound of music and rolled down the corridor like a piece of tumbleweed.
TikTok’s popularity in the West could also be down to a recent merge with Musical.ly – a popular app amongst American teens which effectively served the same purpose (post short-form videos). Musical.ly’s sister app, Live.ly, which was used to post live videos, came under fire at the start of 2018 for its questionable practices of allowing its popular users to extract money from minors. Live.ly was shut down immediately after Musical.ly was acquired by TikTok’s owner, the Chinese internet company Bytedance.
All three of these apps could be categorised under one header: Wildly Popular Apps Amongst Teens Most Adults Have Never Heard Of. TikTok is a part of a new wave of social media platforms that, like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter before them, are on the cusp of becoming household names. Already, compilations, clips, and memes from TikTok have enjoyed millions of hits when reposted on more mainstream social media platforms, always (in a clever move from the marketing team at TikTok) stamped with the brand watermark in the righthand corner to direct new users to the app.
Part of TikTok’s popularity, though, is born out of people mocking it. TikTok in and of itself has become a meme on Instagram and Twitter. It is notorious for its “cringey” lipsync clips, to the point of inspiring YouTube compilations of the most gratingly embarrassing videos. But writing about TikTok’s rise in the US in The Atlantic in October, Taylor Lorenz argued that the hatred merely inflates TikTok’s influence. “TikTok stars may get the final laugh,” she said. “As viral cringe compilations continue to spread, more people are becoming aware of the app and downloading it.”
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A post shared by PUMA India (@pumaindia) on Jan 9, 2019 at 4:59am PST
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A post shared by TikTok (@tiktok) on Nov 30, 2018 at 1:01pm PST
In the UK, searches for TikTok have been slowly creeping upwards since the end of the summer in 2018. And although download numbers have yet to be released, the app’s visibility is undoubtedly on the rise. While the Hit or Miss Challenge may still not have penetrated UK Asdas, Aldis and Tescos, we should expect to see viral British TikTok memes in just a matter of months.Getty Images
You just never know when you’ll need a 12-year-old passport photo, an A-Z of Bournemouth or a Duke of Edinburgh award form, never completed.
It’s the lovely lull between Christmas and New Year and I am throwing things away. You may think this means I am one of those Marie Kondo types, constantly reducing my belongings to only those which bring me joy, but in fact I have to confess that I am a borderline hoarder.
A few years ago I bought an in-tray, thinking that would help me keep important papers in order. It filled up and so I bought another. Then a set of two small plastic drawers. Then a box. And then another box. All of these were somehow fitted into the kitchen cupboards, in a classic out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach to tidying, before finally spilling into a bowl, where I now keep all the ongoing detritus of my daily life.
But I have resolved, in these quiet days at the end of the year, to tackle it all – making piles of things to shred, to bin, to recycle, to put away properly. And oh Lord, the stuff I am finding.
All the downloaded and printed out campus maps from visiting universities with my daughters. They are now in their third year. The minutes of a meeting from primary school. My youngest child is 17. A small gadget to connect a hose pipe to the tap.
Emery boards and several bottles of nail polish. Two pairs of nail scissors. The cardboard frame from a school photo – no photo. Perhaps I sent the picture to my parents, who would have updated it among the collection on the sideboard.
A Nordic walking certificate. All the tickets from a cross-Europe train journey I went on five years ago. I remember that trip. I almost fell off a mountain and my daughter found a scorpion in her bedroom while I was away.
Some Strepsils. A pot of slime. Paracetamol, four years expired. Piriton, four years expired. My last two pairs of glasses, before the prescription changed. I kept one pair, Jean-Paul Gaultier from the Eighties. As if they might come back in fashion. As if my eyes might return to how they were.
Two Marine Girls albums, on cassette. A CD of an Everything but the Girl concert in Germany. A half-empty pack of Always Ultra pads, and a single tampon (I have been through my menopause).
It’s like an archaeological dig, or an episode of Time Team. The strata of my life revealed, all the secrets and lost treasure of recent years. Every so often I come across a layer of hand-made Mother’s Day cards, a rich seam of gold running through the rock. But then, just more and more nothing.
An appointment form for an allergy test for the youngest child – when he was ten. A letter about a school ski trip that nobody went on. A booklet entitled, “GCSEs – What can a parent do?”
A rail map of Europe, a metro map of Paris, an A-Z of Bournemouth. A Duke of Edinburgh award form, never completed. A small gift I bought for Ben earlier this year, intending to give as either a birthday or Christmas present, although both his birthday and Christmas have now sailed by.
Then more treasure. Lots of notebooks half-filled with scrawled lyrics, and ideas for songs. Two magazines containing nice interviews with me. My contract with the New Statesman! A Christmas card from the New Statesman! And, oh, now this stops me in my tracks, the last birthday card from my dad.
This is how it happens, isn’t it? This instinctive feeling that anything might turn out to be wanted. As I’m clearing, I say to Ben – who is the opposite of me in this respect, a tidy person who has the misfortune to live with an untidy one – “If I died and someone had to clear out my stuff, they’d think I was one of those mad old ladies who hoard everything.” And then I see the look on his face.
I don’t blame him. Amid all this chaos I’m astonished I ever get anything done.
I look at the stuff I’m keeping. Some of it counts. The Mother’s Day cards, a couple of photos. That nail polish. Balance is everything.
I’m chucking lots away, and my in-trays and boxes are neater, more organised.
But you, Declutterers of the World, don’t come running to me when you need a passport photo of yourself from 12 years ago, or a pack of expired Nurofen.Karl Sinfield/Flickr via Creative Commons
In the first of a new series, we look at what Socrates’ life can teach us about human understanding.
According to one founding myth, philosophy begins with an obstreperous old man being put to death for pestering his fellow citizens about the nature of justice and courage and other such virtues. Needless to say, execution is hardly an auspicious way to start a new academic discipline. But Socrates’ death, his characteristic doubt, and his tireless attempt to engage Athenians in dialogue tells us a great deal about the essence of human understanding.
Death indicates a limit on our apprehension of things. To see what this means, imagine the infinite understanding often assigned to God. As an immortal, infallible, and omnipotent creator, God immediately knows every last thing. Indeed, the whole of creation is said to take place within God’s being, and this suggests God is always in direct contact with reality. We humans, in contrast, can’t see everything. In fact, most of reality stands apart from us as a thought-provoking mystery. And as finite beings, our understanding is always tied to a given perspective on things.
Take a rose, for example. A physicist may say it consists of a certain set of particles and the forces that act between them. A chemist can explain its basic compounds, whereas a biologist might describe the ecosystem required for a rose to grow. An economist can identify its exchange value, an artist may depict its beauty, and a lover ought to appreciate its romantic significance. Each of these perspectives teach us something about a rose, but none on their own explains all there is to know. So, to expand our appreciation of the world, we need to accept the incomplete nature of our knowledge, question our own perspective, and adopt alternative points of view.
Socrates, for his part, embraced the finite character of human understanding. “Real wisdom is the property of the gods,” he said when on trial for his life. And he famously claimed his distinctive insight consisted solely in this: “I do not think I know what I do not know.”
Socrates’ rejection of any pretense to divine understanding and his doubt over the extent of his own knowledge drove him to question the customs and traditions of his city. Indeed, he spent most of his days trolling, in both senses, the agora: a public square and marketplace where nearly every important debate in Athens took place. Here Socrates would interrupt the daily activities of everyone from doctors and lawyers to poets and priests, and then he would challenge and press them on their deeply held beliefs.
More often than not, Socrates used his superior skill in the art of argumentation to highlight the limitations, inadequacies, and contradictions in a particular person’s point of view. In doing this, he left many of his interlocutors unconvinced and even gained a reputation as a sophist: a professional orator who could play with words to make the weaker argument the stronger.
Ultimately, Socrates’ irreverence for Athenian practices, his persistent inquiry into the essence of things, and his uncanny ability to annoy his fellow citizens led to his undoing. In fact, his peers found his way of arguing so irritating that a greater percentage of them actually condemned him to death than thought he was guilty of impiety and corrupting the youth.
Unsurprisingly, Socrates saw his radical questioning in a different light. Specifically, he took himself to be a “gadfly” who, through his stinging criticism, was able to stimulate the reflection required for genuine understanding and a bona-fide education. And while most Athenians were uncomfortable putting their customs and traditions to the test, Socrates developed a following amongst a motley crew of open-minded students, merchants, aristocrats, and dramatists. These disciples took Socrates’ challenge seriously and not only cast doubt on their cultural inheritance but began to formulate new answers to tough questions about happiness, human flourishing, the ethical basis of our actions, and our comprehension of reality itself.
The critical exchanges and fruitful dialogues Socrates initiated with his friends and colleagues defined the subsequent practice of philosophy. Indeed, the Socratic method of asking hard questions in order to encourage reflection, draw out the unwarranted assumptions of an accepted view, and then posit something new characterizes the movement of our intellectual history, generally.
Aristotle, for instance, found fault in Plato’s account of the good life in which reason dominates our unruly passions, and Aristotle’s criticisms paved the way for the Epicurean claim that our passions have a positive role to play in our well-being. Similarly, Einstein’s response to anomalies in Newtonian mechanics led to a shift in our understanding of the universe, and Einstein’s theories were largely responsible for the major technological advances in the 20th century.
With Einstein’s work we have come a long way from a grumpy old man in Ancient Greece accosting his fellow citizens in the agora, and the aim of our new column is precisely to drag philosophy out of the ivory tower and put it back in the marketplace. Practically speaking, we plan to provide a space for publicly minded thinkers to draw on their education and experience in order to address contemporary social, cultural, and political issues from a philosophical point of view. In doing so, we intend to provide our readers with insightful, intellectually stimulating, and provocative commentary from a slightly different angle.
Following Socrates’ lead, the column is also designed to be a site for reasonable debate over contentious issues, with the goal of fostering dialogue between engaged citizens across the ideological spectrum. In short, “Agora: A Market Place of Ideas” is meant to carry on the Socratic legacy – though we certainly hope our contributors are spared Socrates’ fate.
Agora is moderated by Aaron James Wendland, assistant professor of philosophy at the Higher School of Economics and the co-editor of Wittgenstein and Heidegger and Heidegger on Technology. Follow him on Twitter at @ajwendland.Hulton Archive/Getty.
And “heritage” is just a fancy way of saying old.
Some years ago I appeared on MasterChef; not, I must say, as a contestant – my culinary skills are not bad, although hardly of that standard – but as a guest judge when the programme was in its original manifestation with Loyd Grossman as presenter. I still recall asking one aspirant chef working on a fantastic dessert based on pears which variety he was using. He was completely flummoxed.
That sort of horticultural naivety among cooks has evidently not gone away. A few weeks ago on a current MasterChef programme, the contestants were invited to create a dish from a veritable market garden of fruit and vegetable ingredients. Not once were varieties mentioned yet the difference in appearance, flavour – and, sometimes, appropriate cooking methods – can be enormous.
Perhaps worse is the custom among restaurants and cookery writers of advocating what have euphemistically become known as heritage varieties. How often do we see “heritage carrots” on a menu? Heritage in a menu context is just a fancy word for old but carries some hidden implication that they are better than anything modern. In truth, the main reason old varieties have passed from general availability is because their yield is too small for today’s producers. There is no intrinsic association between age and flavour; sometimes older varieties have less rather than more.
And I do wish cookery folk wouldn’t feel the need to denigrate produce that happens to be common and familiar. Back on MasterChef, contestants were asked to create a dish based on the “humble” potato while the same week one of the glossiest food magazines was advocating “humble” apples. Believe me, there is nothing humble about potatoes and apples. The story of the cultivation of potatoes in South America at least 4,000 years ago, their introduction to Europe in the 16th century and the skills of plant breeders since to develop today’s multitude of varieties is full of drama and romance. Apples have been treasured since Roman times and we now have over 2,000 kinds in Britain.
This month, keen gardeners will be selecting vegetable seed varieties and potatoes for growing in the coming season. While the options will vary depending on whether you have a tiny kitchen garden or a full blown allotment, may I share a few recommendations.
Even in a tiny space, a row of first early potatoes will reward you and my choice lies with Red Duke of York – not especially easy to cook (they are floury and you must watch carefully before they fall apart) but with wonderful flavour.
Among green (or more or less green) vegetables, choose Rhubarb Chard with its multicoloured stems and numerous culinary uses; the dark leaved Italian-type kale, Black Magic; and, sowing ahead for harvesting next spring, Claret – the matchless biennial sprouting broccoli.
If you appreciate pulses and have space for just one, it should be the climbing French bean Cobra. They take up far less space than the dwarf varieties and are not as bulky as runner beans.
If you have room for a few root vegetables, choose the attractive beetroot Chioggia and multicoloured carrots such as Rainbow Mix. Sow the carrots close together and don’t thin them. The individual roots will be smaller but attacks from carrot fly much less likely. Whatever varieties you choose, cherish your crops, remember their names and never call them humble.YUJI SAKAI
Hands up those of you who live halfway up Scotland and don’t have central heating? Well, that’s sorted the men from the boys.
I look out of the window and for the first time in ages I see buildings: the elegant Victorian terraces of Islington, beneath a crisp blue sky. Also, I am not freezing. That’s new.
Actually, when I awake in the MacHovel I am not, strictly speaking, freezing, because I will have gone to bed under a heavy duvet fairly warmly dressed. It’s only when I get out of bed that things get chilly.
Hands up all of you who don’t have central heating? Hmm, not many of you. Now, hands up those of you who live halfway up Scotland and don’t have central heating? Well, that’s sorted the men from the boys, hasn’t it?
Cold, I think, is something that only the homeless experience these days. To be without a system of radiators implies either misfortune, eccentricity, or malevolent human intention, such as – to pluck an example from the icy air – the previous inhabitants removing all the radiators from the home they had occupied.
Actually, I shouldn’t exaggerate. I have three radiators that run off the wood-fired stove that heats the living room, although during a real cold snap I use the word “heats” only in its most relative term. When you have been feeding logs by the dozen into the stove’s maw for six hours and your breath still steams, you wonder if there shouldn’t be another word – one thinks of the almost total cold of outer space, that by some miracle, some leftover radiation from the universe’s primal explosion, manages to hover just a fraction of a degree above absolute zero.
The radiators that run off the stove are uselessly placed: one in the hall, one in the kitchen, which is so cold I put things in the fridge to stop them from freezing, and one in a little annexe of the kitchen which warms up nothing but the logs that are kept there. (There is also a window that doesn’t shut in this little box-room, which doesn’t help matters much.) The interesting thing about these radiators is that the colder the ambient temperature, the longer they take to heat up; some evenings they don’t heat up at all.
I like to think this is character-forming, as are the occasional power cuts. But what kind of character does it form? To revert to the 19th century or earlier may mean to embrace a more barbaric code, one that I have been immersing myself in, in between power cuts, thanks to a subscription to Amazon Prime. I’ve become obsessed by the TV series Outlander, in which Caitriona Balfe plays a nurse transported, via some spooky standing stones, from 1946 to mid-18th-century Scotland. Well, these things happen.
I think I’ve mentioned before my curious predilection for immersing myself, in art, in the kind of landscape I can immerse myself in simply by going out the door. With Outlander, this is getting ridiculous. On the screen of my laptop, I see Highland landscapes, or feudal lairds with extravagant beards eating steaming haunches of venison in ancient castles. I can get that by walking three hundred yards down the lane. The only significant difference that I can see is that there’s a lot more sex in Outlander than there is in my neck of the woods, not that I’m going to do a survey or anything. One goes by the evidence available. Also, there are fewer redcoats about, and if there is any anti-English sentiment I have yet to experience it. Also everyone’s manners are better and women are treated with considerably more respect.
Otherwise I might as well, for much of the time, have been transported back to a harsher, but perhaps more honest age. I get my fuel from Chris, the transplanted Devonian who does all the odd jobs here; I worked out that, until my landlady took pity on me, I was spending more money on wood than I was on wine. Yes, read that again. On wine.
So evenings are spent hauling logs from kitchen to stove and trying to keep the stove lit. (When it is running well, the flames lick its roof and the glass door in the most mesmerising way, almost as mesmerising as Caitriona Balfe’s performance in Outlander.) Kindling is recovered from the floor of the woodshed, which is a large unconverted barn in which I have yet to see anything nasty apart from myself. I imagine the spectacle of a middle-aged man stooping to retrieve splinters of wood and putting them in an old grain sack could be quite affecting, in a Good-King-Wenceslasy kind of way.
It is all a long way from Islington, where I am currently lodging at my daughter’s boyfriend’s place (it is her birthday). It’s cold here too, today, but everywhere there are organic supermarkets, weirdo art galleries and places selling 1974 Subbuteo sets in an ironic way. I had one of those once, and as I stared at it I felt like a victim of time’s own irony itself.Getty The Blackmount across Lochan na Achlaise Rannoch Moore on December 1, 2017 in Glen Coe,Scotland
No matter how Bad the opinions of its author: a banger is a banger.
From Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” declaration, to Keith – someone’s most puce uncle – announcing that he is “not a homophobe”, we so often are the things that we most vehemently insist we are not.
I spent a great deal of my teen years proclaiming – to myself, at least – that I was not a lesbian. Now I’m writing this from a bed I’m sharing with my girlfriend and two cats.
So Kate Bush’s written statement that she is “not a Tory” does very little by way of discrediting that time she called Theresa May “wonderful”. Bush claims that her 2016 May fangirl moment has been taken out of context, and that she was just glad to see a woman in power. Even though she also said May was “the best thing that’s happened to us in a long time”. (Not to read too much into this, but is anyone else getting a strong sense that “in a long time” means “since Thatcher”?)
Whether you buy it or not, Bush’s statement says more about our own obsession with entertainers’ political leanings than it does about her politics and, as with most things nowadays, I blame Brexit. It probably isn’t a coincidence that Bush has decided to distance herself from the Tories right when they’re at their Toriest and her Guardian-reading fan base is at its most anti-Tory. This isn’t something I’ve investigated, but I’m going to assume the crossover between Leavers and people who know all the words to Wuthering Heights is minimal.
If an artist’s work is apolitical, does it really matter where they personally stand on any given issue? Sure, Shania Twain basically lost her status as a gay icon when she said she would have voted for Trump. But, in the unlikely event that you’re out somewhere and That Don’t Impress Me Much comes on, I dare you not to sing along with unbridled enthusiasm. I dare you. It is perhaps an unfortunate truth that no matter how Bad the opinions of its author: a banger is a banger. Even if it’s a guilty banger that you suddenly have to pretend you’re dancing to ironically because “the world is going to shit anyway, and we’re all going to be dead in about thirty years.”
There’s no denying it though – post written statement to the contrary – Kate Bush now seems very, very Tory. And if she really is, she should probably just embrace it. She’d be joining the illustrious ranks of politically dodgy British musicians from EDL-meets-PETA Morrissey, to the decidedly gammon Eric Clapton. Heck, they could tour together. Dads nationwide would be ecstatic. Do it for the dads, Kate.
In the meantime, I look forward to Kate Bush inching her way along the political spectrum through a series of denials: “I am not a centrist”, “I am not a Corbynite”, “I am not a Stalinist.” Each time, Babooshka taking on a whole new meaning depending on whether she’s claiming to be pro or anti-Putin that week.Getty.
The president’s much-hyped Oval Office address was both anticlimactic and depressing.
Well, what a colossal anticlimax that was. Trump’s Oval Office address – the first of his presidency – was preceded by much hand-wringing by the networks over the relative morality of carrying a live, unfiltered straight-to-camera address from a president who just the previous day had referred to the media as “the real Opposition Party” and “truly the Enemy of the People.”
What would he use it to say? Would he declare a state of emergency over the refusal by Democrats to give funding for his border wall? Anything could happen. There was a feeling of anticipation as newsrooms across the country and around the world tuned in.
Sometimes it feels like Trump is being controlled by a random number generator – or maybe one of those 50/50 machines based on the decay of a radium atom like that in the box that contains Schrödinger’s cat. Some days he will be absolute deep-fried bonkers with nut sauce, and other days relatively tame, lacking in the kind of fizzing chaotic energy that often seems to drive him. This latter Trump was what appeared Tuesday night: a squinting, haltingly-spoken, ordinary, elderly man.
The squinting is what makes it not random at all, actually. The two Trumps are Real Trump, and Teleprompter Trump, the latter of whose visible concentration on trying to read the words on the screen before him overcomes his natural instinct to riff.
Last night, it was Teleprompter Trump who appeared before us, which we probably could have predicted given the straight-to-camera format. His words were a lame rip-off of soaring oratory, written most likely by Stephen Miller, his ethnonationalist king-of-the-douchbags senior adviser, who is steering the White House’s immigration policy. You could almost hear Miller’s self-satisfied adenoidal voice behind the president’s when he called the situation at America’s southern border “a humanitarian crisis, a crisis of the heart and a crisis of the soul”.
Of course, the situation at the southern border is all of those things, except in the opposite sense to what the president meant – a humanitarian crisis of children ripped from their parents by ICE agents, a crisis of America’s heart and soul, as the nation under its idiot president with his racist advisers looks at the inscription on the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – and appears to say, in Miller’s hideous adenoidal voice: “nah”.Trump strains to read words he may be seeing for the first time
Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.
Europe remains Jeremy Hunt’s Achilles heel and I’m told the ambitious Foreign Secretary’s emissaries approached Penny Mordaunt’s friends for the two to run as a dream team in the undeclared race to succeed Theresa May. With most members of the Tory sect preferring a hardline no-deal break to the PM’s Brexit scam, one-time second referendum supporter Hunt believes persuading a Leaver to be his deputy is vital if he’s to inherit May’s crown. Europhobic dog whistler Mordaunt, who lied in the 2016 campaign about millions of Turks moving to Britain, still fancies her own chances. Should the pair be forced into a marriage of convenience, the vows wouldn’t include Mordaunt’s commitment to obey.
Keir Starmer was overheard behind the Speaker’s chair asking a Labour MP “What are we doing?” after the shadow Brexit secretary sauntered into the chamber for one of Jeremy Corbyn’s waffles on Europe. Both the Labour leader and a PM who is sidelining Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay are taking back control.
Boris Johnson’s back catalogue continues to catch up with him, this time on Myanmar. My Foreign Office snout recalls how on an official visit the blond bungler’s mobile ran out of battery during a call with Aung San Suu Kyi. Nervous British diplomats declared the power failure an unparalleled triumph.
No applause from smoking room philistines for the substantial figure of Alec Shelbrooke, a waistcoated Tory with the girth of a prosperous 19th-century mill owner. The crowd wasn’t exactly arty when he flourished tickets for Northern Ballet’s The Nutcracker at the Leeds Grand Theatre. The fellow MP who suggested that the portly representative for Elmet and Rothwell looked as if he’d already eaten the Sugar Plum Fairy doesn’t need to go to Specsavers.
The life-size cut-out of Tom Watson at a Daily Mail Christmas party was an unlikely symbol of regime change, as former editor Paul Dacre regarded Labour’s deputy leader as the devil incarnate. Sugary drinks, during a Fizz-Free February, are the slimline former hammer of the press’s new target. “Coca-Cola is the new Rupert Murdoch,” Watson was overheard declaring. After he cost the Sun King hundreds of millions of pounds, every crisis is an opportunity. Pepsi will be delighted.
A Liberal Democrat old hand lamented the end of unintentional free media monitoring provided by the Cabinet Office. Transcripts of TV and radio interviews continued to arrive long after the ConDem coalition ended. The flow ceased only after an out-of-office reply from a Lib Dumb press officer alerted Whitehall.
Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily MirrorBEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, is disrupting the rules that have preserved an uneasy peace for 30 years.
In his opening speech of 2019, and his first ever on the subject of Taiwan, the Chinese president Xi Jinping was characteristically uncompromising. Forty years after Beijing agreed to stop its daily shelling of the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu, and launched a policy of commercial seduction, relations have coarsened. Addressing an audience of military and party officials and his country’s wider public on 2 January, China’s nationalist president-for-life signalled his impatience with the status quo, refused to rule out the use of military force and warned “foreign powers” against intervening in what Beijing regards as a domestic matter. For any Taiwanese viewer, it was a chilling moment.
The two jurisdictions have been antagonists since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, when the defeated Nationalist Party (KMT) took refuge in Taiwan, 110 miles offshore, leaving Mao’s Communist Party in charge of the mainland. Taiwan, with US support, continued to hold China’s seat on the UN Security Council. Both sides in the conflict took the view that there was only one China – they simply disagreed over which party should rule it.
Both were dictatorships, but in the late 1970s, their political characters diverged. A democratic movement in Taiwan broke the stranglehold of the KMT, allowing other political forces to emerge. These included the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which won a landslide election victory in 2016 and upholds Taiwan’s right to self-determination.
US-China relations, meanwhile, also evolved: Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 was followed by formal recognition of the People’s Republic, beginning the progressive of marginalisation of Taiwan. At the close of 2018, only 16 small states and the Holy See, which is having second thoughts, maintained formal diplomatic relations with the country.
The US has repeatedly affirmed the “one China” policy, but maintains informal relations with its former ally, supplying Taiwan with arms and offering it security guarantees. Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, focused on persuading Taiwanese voters of the benefits of economic ties: Taiwanese companies invested in the mainland, Chinese tourists visited Taiwan, and Taiwan prospered as China’s economy grew. By the end of last year, China accounted for around 40 per cent of Taiwan’s exports and more than 100,000 Taiwanese businesses were operating on the mainland.
Today, all three major players – Taiwan, the US and China – are led by nationalist politicians and the complex dynamics between them threaten to trigger a long-postponed crisis. It began in 2016, when then president-elect Donald Trump accepted a congratulatory call from Taiwan’s current president, the DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen. When he threw Taiwan as a bargaining chip into his trade quarrel with China during an appearance on Fox News, remarking that he did not see why the US should maintain its “one China” policy unless a trade deal could be struck, he infuriated China and put Taiwan’s future in jeopardy.
Since then, China has steadily ramped up the pressure: last year saw live-fire naval exercises in the Taiwan Strait, a protest in September over $330m of US arms sales to Taiwan, and new demands for commercial entities such as airlines and hotels to refer to Taiwan as part of China. It has also restricted tourism and agricultural imports from Taiwan, and Taiwanese officials accuse Beijing of meddling in last year’s local elections, in which the DPP was heavily defeated. Xi Jinping, no doubt, is hoping for a KMT victory in the next national election in 2020.
Finally, on 31 December 2018, the US Congress passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which calls for more official exchanges between the US and Taiwan and continued arms sales. China denounced an act that a foreign ministry spokesman described as having “seriously violated the one-China principle” and “bluntly interfered in China’s domestic affairs”.
The protest is standard. Xi Jinping’s speech was less routine. While China reserved the right to use force, he said, it was time that Taiwan accepted “peaceful unification” under the “one country, two systems” approach. Tsai Ing-wen, to nobody’s surprise, declined.
In theory, “one country, two systems” would allow a formal unification while permitting democratic Taiwan to preserve its political, legal and economic system. In practice, it would demand a degree of trust that China has forfeited on two previous occasions: the 17 Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, signed in 1951 as a treaty between the Dalai Lama’s government and Beijing, “guaranteed” Tibet’s government and respect for its culture and way of life. It lasted just eight years. And as President Tsai observed, China’s promise of “one country, two systems” to Hong Kong under the Joint Declaration signed with the UK in 1984, has allowed China to restrict political and media freedoms in the former British colony. Taiwan’s young people sympathised with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014 and have not forgotten that its leaders are now in prison.
Tsai Ing-wen, meanwhile, is cultivating other markets, including India, mindful of the danger of dependency on China, and recently appealed for international support for her democracy. China will endeavour to ensure that the DPP loses to the KMT in 2020, but though Beijing finds the KMT more congenial, polling suggests that Taiwan’s 23m people overwhelmingly oppose a unification that not even the KMT is backing.
The terms of engagement that have preserved an uneasy peace across the strait for 30 years have changed. The use of military force would be catastrophic for both sides, and for the region. But how far does Xi Jinping intend to push? And what might prompt him to judge that the risks of insistence on unification were worth the gains in domestic applause? That these questions must now be considered is a mark of our new era of uncertainty and disorder.
Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.netMARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AFP/Getty Images Xi Jinping speaks during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” on 2 January
Don’t do this, kids.
Some absolutely top-shelf max-strength you-have-to-ask-the-pharmacist-for-it-specifically whataboutery from the Associated Press in this “Fact-check” tweet it posted on Tuesday. Try to see if you can spot the flaw in the logic here:
AP FACT CHECK: Democrats put the blame for the shutdown on Trump. But it takes two to tango. Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats refusal to approve the money is another. https://t.co/9IWnqUgl2d
— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) January 9, 2019
Not really much to add to that, is there.Getty
The Marxist philosopher on why catastrophe gives him hope.
In an era of stagnant productivity, Slavoj Žižek is a notable outlier. Since 1972, the Slovenian philosopher – and self-described “complicated Marxist” – has published more than 80 books and essay collections, including Living in the End Times, Opera’s Second Death, Organs without Bodies and, most recently, Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity.
I am reminded of Stalin’s apocryphal quip on Soviet arms production: “Quantity has a quality all its own.” A poster of the dictator accompanied by the slogan “welcome to welfare” – hangs semi-ironically in Žižek’s apartment in Ljubljana.
When I meet Žižek – dressed in a nondescript T-shirt and faded jeans – in central London, he explains: “You know what made it possible? It’s not a joke: communist oppression.” In 1971, having accepted a job as an assistant researcher at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s oldest and largest university, he was denied academic tenure after the Yugoslav authorities deemed his Master’s thesis to be “non-Marxist”.
Žižek was then unemployed from 1973-77 (“I survived through translations”) before eventually becoming a researcher at the university’s Institute for Sociology and Philosophy. “I’m still there…I’m completely free, I do nothing specifically for them, all they want from me is a list of publications. Without this last moment of communist oppression, what would I have been? An unknown, shitty professor in a small department.”
He is certainly known: the 69-year-old “Elvis of cultural theory” is the subject of a 2005 film Žižek! and a peer-reviewed academic periodical, the International Journal of Žižek Studies. But though he is lionised by some as a brilliant iconoclast – whose work fuses Lacanian psychoanalysis, Hegelian idealism and pop culture – he is derided by others as a charlatan.
Interviewing Žižek is like trying to catch a writhing eel – his mind is destined to dart in unexpected directions (one monologue encompasses Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, “how to go further than Mandela without becoming Mugabe”, Lenin’s “Last Testament” and Jim Carrey’s The Mask). Like Oscar Wilde, whom he admires, Žižek is serious about frivolous things and frivolous about serious ones. “The left is in a very tragic situation,” he tells me in his resonant accent. “The new capitalist organic intellectuals – people like Bill Gates – even they say capitalism has its limits, we will have to find something new… But does the left really have an alternative vision? What they mostly talk about is global capitalism with a human face.”
For Žižek, social democracy is insufficient, but it is perilous to prescribe a fixed alternative. “We have to reject whatever remains in Marxism of historic teleology… Socialist revolution produces its own mess, it goes wrong. I’m globally a pessimist but what gives me hope is precisely this catastrophic situation. Because in such catastrophic situations you have to be creative, you have to improvise. That’s why I don’t trust leftists who have these simple solutions.”
I ask if he is attracted by the notion of “luxury communism”: an automated economy in which humans are sustained by a state-funded universal basic income. “Don’t underestimate envy,” Žižek says. “Ayn Rand saw one thing very clearly: if you abolish money, it’s very difficult not to restore direct, interpersonal relations of domination. We saw this through the Soviet Union – they had money under Stalin but it wasn’t crucial; what was crucial were the perks you got as a writer, access to luxury homes and so on.
“How will relations among us be regulated? Who will have power? Don’t give me this stupid shit about self-organisation of the people, I don’t believe in it.” (Žižek last year delivered a lecture entitled “a plea for bureaucratic socialism”.)
Žižek was most recently excoriated by liberals for his endorsement of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. But when I press him on Trump’s misdemeanours, he is defiant. “The chance of intervening militarily against Syria and North Korea would have been much higher under Hillary Clinton… Are we aware that there wouldn’t be this democratic socialism in the US without Trump? I’m horrified at Trump but through him a crack appeared in the liberal centrist hegemony.”
Žižek does not, however, take a similarly optimistic view of Brexit. “I don’t think we can fight global capitalism through stronger nation states. Here I sympathise with [Yanis] Varoufakis.” He adds: “Even if this Europe goes to hell, transnational bodies like this are the only thing that works.”
What of Žižek’s own health? During appearances last year his face was semi-paralysed, leading to fears that he had suffered a stroke. This was, he explains, the result of nerve inflammation, before raising his T-shirt to show me where doctors removed a cancerous tumour from his liver. Having endured a season in hell, to quote Arthur Rimbaud, Žižek is at ease again.
He credits writing with saving him from a premature death. “I remember when I was in a great crisis 30 years ago, some love affair went wrong [Žižek has been married three times], I was really on the edge of suicide. Writing performed the same role as psychoanalysis. How can I kill myself if I have to finish a new book and a text and so on?”
Slavoj Žižek wants to live, but not happily. “I’m against happiness – happiness is for wimps,” he remarks at the close of our conversation. “I want to be traumatised to work.”Michael Tummings and Zeitgeist Films/AF Archive/Alamy
The ad-free version for digital subscribers of the New Statesman podcast. In this episode Stephen Bush and Helen Lewis discuss the Channel Four Brexit drama and whether a Labour party led by Yvette Cooper would be as anti-Brexit as you think.
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“We have always said that it’s a matter of when, not if.”
One of the more exhausting subplots of last month’s parliamentary drama was Labour’s will-they-won’t-they routine on the question of when it would table a motion of no confidence in the government.
Team Corbyn resisted doing so, instead tabling a meaningless censure motion against the prime minister herself that received neither parliamentary time nor the support from the DUP or Tory Brexiteers it would have needed to succeed.
They arrived at this fudge for two reasons. The first and most obvious is that they would not have won. A formal vote of no confidence in the government itself is one of only two routes to achieve a general election under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. But while almost every opposition MP would vote against the government in such a scenario, for obvious reasons, the 10 DUP MPs – guarantors of Theresa May’s majority – have said they will not do so unless her Brexit deal, and with it the Irish backstop, passes.
Legally, failing to defeat the government in a confidence motion at the first time of asking is no problem for the opposition: it can simply try again. Politically, however, failure would have had profound consequences for the Labour leadership.
Pro-Europeans on the opposition benches believe that the Brexit policy passed at Labour conference last September mandates the party to advocate for a new referendum if it cannot get a general election, which a victory for the government in a confidence motion would suggest was the case. This is why they spent much of December attempting to bounce Corbyn into a tabling confidence motion they knew, and he knew, would fail.
The certainty of failure for now has been cited explicitly as an excuse for not pushing ahead with a confidence motion by senior Labour figures – most notably John McDonnell, who said Labour must wait until such time that the DUP had withdrawn their support from the government. That hasn’t yet happened, so, by their own criteria, we shouldn’t expect Labour to issue a no confidence motion anytime soon.
So why have Labour frontbenchers been saying otherwise on the airwaves this morning? Both Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, and Andrew Gwynne, who is shadow communities secretary and more pertinently responsible for Labour’s election planning, suggested that Corbyn would move a confidence motion “immediately” once May’s deal had been defeated.
In doing so they contravened both the stated position of the party leadership and the basic political logic of only moving once they were sure they could win. Unsurprisingly, Team Corbyn have been more circumspect than their most enthusiastic outriders in the shadow cabinet. A source stresses that a confidence motion would not “necessarily” be immediate and, addressing reporters after PMQs, Corbyn’s spokesman euphemistically dismissed Gardiner’s comments as “speculation”.
A Labour spokesman tells the NS: “If the government is defeated next week, it will clearly have lost the confidence of parliament and there should be a general election. We have always said that it’s a matter of when, not if we table a motion of no confidence and we’ll judge the timing day by day.” Regardless of how tough a game its frontbenchers are talking, the odds are still stacked against Tuesday’s vote on the Brexit deal being followed by another tabled by Corbyn.Getty.
The Speaker’s decision has no root in precedent but he is relying on the one rule that really matters in the British constitution.
John Bercow, the Speaker of the House, has shocked Westminster by accepting Dominic Grieve’s amendment to the government’s motion, which means the government will have just three working days to respond to the (near-certain) defeat of the withdrawal agreement, as opposed to the 21 day period it currently has.
The Speaker’s actions were surprising because, according to convention and precedent, motions of this type had been previously treated as unamendable. This is important for Brexit because now it has passed, it is harder for the government to use the threat of a no-deal Brexit to win support for the exit deal negotiated by Theresa May.
As far as the British constitution goes, however, the implications are being overexaggerated: talk of a “constitutional crisis” is wildly overcooked. It is true to say that you cannot really make an argument that Bercow’s action is supported by precedent or the rules of the House. What matters is if they are supported by the one rule of British politics that does matter: do you have a majority in the House of Commons? If you have a majority in the House of Commons, it doesn’t matter if you are found to have misled MPs, provided that majority is willing to sustain you in office. It doesn’t matter if you are upending centuries of precedent, because the only precedent that matters in our constitution is that Parliament can do whatever it wants.
Far from being a crisis, this is the constitution working normally, albeit in a more high-octane manner than it would: a straightforward showdown between the executive and the legislature, with the only question that matters which of the two can command a majority of MPs to vote its way.
Bercow’s gamble was that he is protected by a double majority: that a majority of MPs will vote for Grieve’s amendment, meaning that he can say he is acting as he should as Speaker, and facilitating the will of the house, and that furthermore, he is protected by a majority of MPs who believe that he is on their side against the executive. Had that gamble been lost, Bercow would certainly have faced an organised and potentially successful attempt to oust him as Speaker. But it wasn’t, so he survives, protected by the one rule in Westminster that really matters.
But I’m not sure that the gamble will work out that well for Grieve himself and the other supporters of another In-Out referendum. Why? Well, because while they don’t agree with Theresa May on much, they do share an interest: which is to run out the clock to the point where they can cobble together a majority in parliament to secure another referendum, something they are presently not in a position to do. By shortening the amount of time that May has to delay, Grieve has also made it less likely that a parliamentary majority for a second referendum will ever emerge.Photo: Getty
The re-elected Democrat speaker faces her greatest battle yet as she takes on Trump and contends with her party’s radical left.
After reclaiming the gavel on 3 January, Nancy Pelosi, who is 78, the only woman to be elected speaker of the US House of Representatives and the first lawmaker in over 50 years to hold the office twice, pledged that America’s 116th Congress would be “bipartisan and unifying”. She was setting herself a huge challenge. The government has been shut down since 22 December after President Donald Trump’s demand for a $5bn Mexican border wall.
As well as negotiating with an uncooperative president and forging a consensus with Republicans – who still control the Senate, the upper chamber – Pelosi needs to broker unity within her own party. The Democrats embraced her leadership only reluctantly, and this year’s diverse intake includes an outspoken and rebellious left wing. But if anyone can end Washington’s political deadlock, Pelosi can.
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, has described Pelosi as “the strongest and most effective Speaker of modern times”. During her 2007-11 speakership she shepherded a fiscal stimulus bill and extensive Wall Street reforms through Congress, in response to the 2007-08 financial crisis, and secured passage of the Affordable Care Act, which extended health-care coverage to tens of millions of uninsured American citizens.
Pelosi’s first task in the new Congress is to find a way to reopen the government. Trump has said he’s prepared to maintain the shutdown “for years” to secure funding for his wall. Pelosi has said she will not spend a dollar on a project that she describes as un-American and “an immorality”.
A longer-term challenge for the speaker will be managing division within her own party. She skilfully saw off an attempted coup last year – it helped that she has no obvious successor – but agreed to limit her term to four years. A number of left-wing Democratic freshmen are contemptuous of the party’s wealthy, ageing leadership and uncompromising in their political views.
Rashida Tlaib of Michigan attracted public attention this month for pledging to “impeach the motherfucker [Trump]”. In contrast, Pelosi is an old-school politician who advocates “decency and dignity”, even when confronting an adversary she disdains (she recently joked to the Washington Post that her nicknames for Trump are “Rock Bottom” and “Difficult Circumstances”).
The Democrats’ majority in the House grants them extensive powers to investigate the president’s business interests and foreign ties, and to begin impeachment proceedings. Pelosi has not ruled out impeaching Trump but is urging the “pound of flesh club” in her party to wait for the facts.
The speaker has been honing her political instincts since early childhood. She was born in Baltimore in 1940, the youngest of seven children. “We were all christened into the Roman Catholic church and the Democratic Party,” she has said. Her father, Thomas d’Alesandro, was a congressman when she was born and became mayor of the city when she was seven. Her mother, Annunciata, was a skilled networker and Democratic organiser. “Our whole lives were politics,” Pelosi recalled in 1987.
She studied political science in Washington, where she met her future husband, Paul Pelosi, a wealthy financier. The couple married in 1963 and moved to San Francisco, where Pelosi raised five children, born within six years of each other, while also working as a Democratic volunteer and rising through the party ranks as an organiser.
When the San Francisco congresswoman Sala Burton was dying of cancer in 1986, she persuaded Pelosi to run as her successor. Pelosi was elected the following year. She used her first House speech to urge Congress to address the Aids epidemic. (Despite her Catholicism, Pelosi has long championed LGBT rights and women’s reproductive freedom.)
In 2001, she became the first woman to be elected to the post of Democratic whip. The following year she made history again as the first female House minority leader.
As a junior congresswoman in a male-dominated chamber Pelosi was used to being excluded and underestimated, as well as disliked. When asked by NBC this month why her approval ratings were below Trump’s, she blamed decades of Republican attacks. “They’re against me because I’m effective,” she said.
When she reclaimed the speakership, Pelosi called up her grandchildren (she has nine) and any other children on the House floor to join her. She threw her arm around Bella, nine, who watched with admiration as her grandmother took her oath. It was a symbolic moment, conveying the sense that America’s most powerful elected woman will be looking to secure her legacy.
Ensuring that Congress provides an effective check to the Trump administration will be one of the hardest and most important battles of her long career. It may also be her last.Ellie Foreman-Peck for New Statesman
Wanted: polite short people adept at holding hands with footballers, with £700 to spare.
Personally, I’m no particular advocate for kids on mascot duty at football matches. Partly that’s because I don’t buy into the stereotype that paints modern footballers as hopelessly pampered, bubble-dwelling inadequates. On the contrary, I’d back practically all of them to find their own way from the dressing room to the pitch without guidance from a qualified seven year old in a replica kit. Plus there are just so many mascots these days – 22 of them at some European or international games, one per player. If they ever get organised and unionise, the game’s in trouble.
Still, it must be a thrill for the kids – walking alongside your heroes, leading your team on to the pitch, living the dream, hand-in-hand with James Milner. You can’t put a price on that.
Except, it turns out you can – and at Leicester City that price is £600. That’s if you purchase the “VIP mascot package”, which includes “pre-match tunnel walk, player photos” and the eternal pleasure of hearing your name spoken over the tannoy. And Leicester aren’t the only Premier League club monetising this corner of the match day magic, nor even the most shameless. That’s probably West Ham, whose eye-wateringly steep £700 mascot package somehow doesn’t even stretch to supplying the replica kit the mascot must wear.
You don’t need to be an expert in public relations to work out that charging children premium prices for light ceremonial hand-holding duties sends some callow signals about top-flight football at a time when it least needs them. “Dreadful avarice,” Gary Lineker resoundingly called it, soon after the BBC drew attention to this sharp practice. “So wealthy kids can buy the role, poor kids can’t,” he added. “Nice.” Even in a term when there has been a casual £5m whip-round for the departing Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore, pay-to-play for mascots must be in with a decent shout of winning PR own goal of the season.
Thankfully they’re not all at it. Credit for restraint in this area (thus far) to Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and both the Manchester clubs, who currently demand nothing of their mascots other than that they turn up on time and behave. OK, there was that boy at Chelsea that time who, in the tunnel, solemnly extended a hand to Steven Gerrard of Liverpool, only – in the classic, knockabout gesture – to pull his hand away at the last second, raise the thumb to his nose and waggle his fingers. But it’s not encouraged.
Let’s boo Tottenham, though, for slapping a £405 price tag on the mascot experience, and also Swansea City, for charging £399 plus VAT even after being relegated to the Championship. And let’s reserve a special jeer for Bournemouth, whose fee of £185 looks relatively modest in this company but apparently doesn’t cover a ticket for the match. Imagine that: one minute you’re on the pitch with the players, the next you’re out the back door and heading home before a ball has been kicked. So close and yet so far away. I guess at least you beat the traffic.
Clearly clubs should be paying the mascots. Quite apart from anything else, as with soprano choristers, it’s a brutally short career. Most mascots are lucky to work beyond the age of about 11, or not without it becoming a little awkward. And certainly, as soon as you reach 161cm (the height of Angel Gomes of Manchester United, who is the Premier League’s shortest registered player), you’re as good as cooked, mascot-wise, no player especially wishing to be physically overshadowed by his own escorting minor.
What’s more, in their new numbers, those mascots have brought lasting peace to a historically troubled region, viz the tunnel, pre-match. YouTube amply recalls the night, some 15 years ago now, when Roy Keane of Manchester United set new records for impatience by going after Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira in the painfully tight confines of the old Highbury Stadium corridor. You simply wouldn’t get that kind of ruck now. The roomy, prestige departure lounges through which the players pass in today’s new-build stadiums don’t lend themselves to combustible overcrowding, and are further neutralised of necessity when 22 children are in there, waiting to hold hands.
But our times have seen an explosion of pre-match pageantry, of which mascots are only one aspect. Where I watch football (at Chelsea, who, to repeat, do not charge their mascots), the following things now have to happen before football can take place. Eleven blue flag-bearers must parade on to the pitch, co-ordinated by production staff dressed in black with headsets. A series of flames and fireworks must be made to leap from four portable launchers, controlled by a man crouching near the advertising hoardings with a laptop in a flight case. And the teams must eventually walk out accompanied regularly by up to four mascots who will one day be able to tell their offspring what some of us now tell our own about university education: that they lived at a time when this kind of thing came free. At least in some places.
And the players and the mascots will walk all the way across the pitch to line up in front of a pop-up sponsor’s hoarding, and the Premier League anthem will be played over the PA, before the formal shaking of hands, and we haven’t even got to the coin-toss yet. And just occasionally, I suppose, in the middle of all this, I find myself harking back rather longingly to a time before anthems and mob-handed mascots, when the teams simply ran out, each to their own end of the pitch, and, soon after, kicked off. It had a certain punk energy to it. Also a certain punk brevity.
Then again, it lacked flags and fireworks, and it seems churlish to turn your nose up at those. And, in any case, nobody was going to be able to spin a £700 VIP package out of it, so I guess it was always doomed.
Giles Smith will be writing fortnightlyClive Rose/Getty Images Crystal Palace players and mascots before the Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Burnley FC
A global economy in which too much power and wealth is concentrated at the top is inherently unstable.
On 3 January, Apple’s share price fell by 9 per cent – its largest single drop in five years – after the company issued a highly unusual revenue warning. A mini crash in currency markets followed an hour later and stock markets soon tumbled around the world.
The Apple flash crash followed a series of warning signs in financial markets. The market capitalisation to GDP ratio – also known as the (Warren) Buffett indicator after the eponymous investor’s preferred means of measuring overvaluation in equity markets – has soared in the US. Volatility also rose sharply in 2018: the S&P 500 rose and fell by more than 1 per cent 64 times over the course of the year, compared to just eight times the previous year.
These trends are partly due to quantitative easing. Central banks in the US, the UK, Europe and Japan have used newly created money to buy up government bonds, pushing investors into higher-yielding assets such as equities. Donald Trump’s exorbitant tax cuts added to the problem in the US. Tech stocks, in particular, have benefited from what to some resembles a government-inflated bubble. Many investors are now ready to cash out at the first sign of trouble.
Apple’s revenue warning reflects another of the greatest potential dangers in 2019: a global economic slowdown centred on China. In his letter to shareholders, Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, pinned the blame for lower-than-expected revenues on slow growth in the world’s largest smartphone market. This slowdown, he argued, was both because of lower consumer confidence and the escalating trade war between China and the US.
Some may say it is in Cook’s interest to blame macroeconomic trends, rather than the rising competition Apple faces from brands such as China’s Huawei. But the indicators from the world’s second-largest economy are not promising. Chinese GDP statistics are to be viewed with scepticism, but most experts expect the economy to grow by about 6 per cent in 2019 – still high, but much lower than the 9-10 per cent a year that typified the post-crash period. Manufacturing output is contracting and export growth has slowed, so household consumption and government spending will be more vital to maintain demand in 2019.
Yet consumer confidence is falling and household debt is rising, suggesting that Chinese shoppers won’t be able to act as the global economy’s consumers of last resort for much longer. Meanwhile, China is running out of room to increase public spending after implementing a stimulus package around a quarter of the size of the entire Chinese economy in 2008 (extended again in 2015).
If the Chinese boom is truly over, it is unclear where future global growth will come from. Household debt is too high and wages too low for the global economy to rely on debt-fuelled consumption by British and American consumers. The US Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates four times in 2018 has weakened many emerging economies by sparking capital flight. Growth in Europe is woeful, partly because of structural problems in the eurozone that have yet to be resolved.
But perhaps the most important lesson of the flash crash is the extraordinary economic influence now wielded by international corporations such as Apple (which became the world’s first $1trn company last August).
The behaviour of monopolies such as Apple can be linked to many of the economic problems we face today. In 2015, Cook was paid $9.2m while the average Apple employee earned $36,760 – meaning that for every $1 earned by the average Apple employee, the chief executive earned $251. This is even higher than the pay ratio for the largest 350 US companies, which rose from 10:1 between 1965-78 to 240:1 between 1978-2016. Rising inequality means workers have less to spend on the products business produce, suppressing consumer demand.
Such are Apple’s profits that the company cannot invest all the money it earns. Cash hoarding by global monopolies is part of the explanation for falling business investment. Apple is also notorious for tax avoidance, which deprives governments of the resources they need to invest.
History shows that a global economy in which too much power and wealth is stuck at the top is a fragile one. And it will be ordinary taxpayers, not Apple’s shareholders and executives, who most suffer the consequences.Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Until MPs vote on the withdrawal agreement, Commons exchanges on Brexit are just noise.
The first Prime Minister’s Questions of 2019 was very much like those we endured in 2018 — with lots of familiar lines on Brexit and little else by way of new information. Here are the big three takeaways.
1) The most significant Brexit developments aren’t happening in the Commons chamber
On Brexit, today’s edition of PMQs offered familiar variations on even more familiar themes. Theresa May insisted that the only way to avoid a no-deal scenario was by voting for her withdrawal agreement, and refused to commit to holding indicative votes on alternatives. Jeremy Corbyn reminded the chamber that Labour could not support the prime minister’s deal, and that there had been no change to the binding legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement and thus no reason for the DUP or Tory Brexiteers to change their minds. The SNP’s Pete Wishart made the novel observation that the Withdrawal Agreement was “as dead as a dodo”. Nothing. Has. Changed.
There is nobody in the Commons chamber – with the possible exception of the DUP’s Nigel Dodds – who can say anything that will change the fundamentals of this dynamic if the positions of the Labour and Conservative leaderships do not budge. It is only in Brussels that meaningful change could be affected. That isn’t forthcoming either, and by any measure May herself said she is only seeking additional assurances and clarifications – which we know are insufficient as far as solving her political problems go. Until the Withdrawal Agreement is defeated, exchanges in the Commons such as today’s are just noise.
2) Conservative MPs have one eye on a general election
It isn’t often that we hear Iain Duncan Smith speak in the Commons on a subject that isn’t Brexit or welfare policy, his two political obsessions. But given the chance to challenge Theresa May this afternoon, however, he chose to ask about the fate a hospital in his Chingford & Woodford Green constituency.
Duncan Smith is defending a slender majority of just 2,438 in the Greater London seat, which backed Remain in 2016 and is a regular haunt for Labour and Momentum campaigners. His decision to use his slot to guarantee positive news coverage on a local issue – rather than launch another boilerplate Brexit broadside – reflects the extent to which Tory MPs who represent marginal constituencies are conscious that this parliament could soon come crashing down, and with it subject them to the tender mercies of an insurgent Labour.
3) The Tories think they’ve found an effective attack against Sadiq Khan – but who is it for?
The softest question of the session came from Paul Scully, the Conservative vice-chair responsible for coordinating the party’s campaigning efforts in London. He asked May whether she agreed that the Labour mayor of the capital, second referendum advocate Sadiq Khan, should support the Brexit deal, citing the fact that more Londoners voted for Brexit (1.5m) than voted for Khan (1.1m).
The comparison has been doing the rounds on social media for some time, but Scully’s decision to give it its highest profile airing yet suggests that the Tories think there is political capital to be made from it ahead of next year’s elections to the mayoralty, where the party’s lacklustre candidate Shaun Bailey will need all the help he can get.
But can it work? Not if the Conservatives want to win, which they are incredibly unlikely to do aanyway. The comparison only works on a superficial level and when you express the figures as raw numbers, which isn’t illuminating or useful given the differences in turnout (45.3 per cent for the 2016 mayoral election and 69.7 per cent for the EU referendum). When you compare the percentage figures – 44.3 per cent in first preference votes for Khan and 40.1 per cent for Brexit – it isn’t at all sound. Then there is the separate and more important question of whether such an explicitly pro-Brexit campaign could ever do anything but alienate a majority of London’s electorate, 59.9 per cent of whom backed Remain.
If attacking Khan – and by extension Labour – as wanting to thwart Brexit works anywhere, it will be in the North and Midlands, not in the capital.Getty