Archives for posts with tag: Britain

This is the fourth part of my overview of QED 2016. To see the previous entries, please check out Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

The March of Unreason

Taking a break from the formal talks (and I am sorry I could not see Paul Zenon), I went to a panel discussion discussing the forthcoming British exit from the EU and the “post factual” age we are now apparently in.

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The discussion featured NHS Campaigner Emma Runswick,  journalist Hugo Dixon, Max Goldman from Sense About Science, broadcaster Michael Blastland and law professor Michael Dougan. The panel was chaired by Geoff Whelan of Manchester Skeptics.

“A lie can run around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boot on.”

Emma observed that on complex political issues people tend to follow the advice of friends over experts.

People are more likely to trust their friends over experts, because they think that experts don’t have their interests at heart.

Michael Dougan broke the Brexit lies down into four parts –

  1. Telling lies about the here and now: According to the media now, the referendum was won by the working class of northern England. This is not true. The southern English middle class vote was by far the most important.
  2. Fantasies about the future: Boris Johnson is still being dishonest about “special deals” that Britain will get upon exit.
  3. Rubbishing anybody who disagrees. The message being put out at the moment is that anyone who disagrees is anti democratic.
  4. Debasement of parliamentary democracy. A referendum only used when you can’t get what you want in parliament.

Max observed that fact-checking was relatively new to UK politics.

Are we in a “post truth society”?

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Hugo Dixon made the point that demagoguery was a direct result of the financial crisis. When politicians don’t seem to be up to the job, voters start looking elsewhere.

In the land of the liars, the authentic liar is king.

Michael Dougan expressed a concern that once people find a way to get their views accepted in the mainstream, it’s only a matter of time before they seek a new target. What next? Global warming? Women’s rights?

Michael Blastland felt that a lot of the post factual talk was a direct result of scandals within the expert community.

There is nothing so damaging to the domain of evidence than the preacher who sins.

 

The conversation could easily have gone on for a few more hours. It was a packed room and at one stage, about thirty hands went up when the moderator asked for question from the floor. As was clearly evident from the panel discussion, Brexit is causing considerable anxiety to skeptics, scientists and rationalists in Britain and everywhere. This story has a long way to run yet.

Last piece coming up.

Voters in most countries elect politicians to work in the national interest. This means taking strategic decisions that advance the cause of that country, whether that be economically, politically, culturally, scientifically, you name it. Politicians, and particularly senior politicians, are put there to make the right moves; not necessarily the popular ones.

And then we have Brexit. A constitutional referendum in July returned a wish by a majority of voters in England and Wales (but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland) for the entire UK (including Scotland and Northern Ireland) to leave the European Union. The Tory Party in the UK, currently in government, has promised to make good on this wish and is threatening to pull the rip cord in 2017.

I ask myself how any of the following predictions are really in the UK’s national interest:

  • Scotland’s departure from the UK. The Scottish National Party are the largest political party in Scotland. They have already tried once to break their links with the UK. Under Brexit they would almost definitely do it again. And they would almost definitely win this time.
  • UK banks fear that they may lose “passporting” or ability to trade freely with the EU.
  • The CBI in the UK are reporting a significant year on year drop in sales in September.
  • London may lose its top spot in banking to other cities, including Singapore, New York and Zurich.
  • A European army might come into existence following a UK exit from the EU, contrary to British wishes.
  • Dramatic fee increases are on the cards for British university students as research funding becomes uncertain.
  • A consensus is forming that a hard Brexit would knock off 9 billion pounds in value from investment banking and capital markets.
  • New border posts could be required in Ireland, threatening a hard won peace. 

These are just a smattering of headlines from the last few weeks.

Flight of capital, brain drains, breakup of the UK, decline of strategically important industries, trade tariffs reimposed, worsened security situation: that’s one hell of a price to pay for restricting the number of Polish and Romanian migrants to England and Wales and putting one over on Johnny Foreigner.

If this is working in the national strategic interests of the UK, then I’m a Dutchman.

Goede Nacht.

I’ve just finished reading a history of the Plantagenet kings. Even though I am fascinated by the late Middle Ages, it’s now apparent that I am woefully ignorant about the history of our islands during this time. This book by Dan Jones has given me a better understanding of the politics and personalities involved. These are remarkable stories of power, tyranny, conquest, betrayal and ignominious defeat. A constant theme throughout this period is the struggle by the nobility to exert control over volatile kings, starting with the Magna Carta and leading in due course to a whole body of laws and ordinances designed to place limits on authoritarian rule.

What strikes me most is that the greatest of these kings were often the nastiest. Henry II, Edward I and Edward III visited quite incredible levels of violence on their neighbours: the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish. It’s interesting to me why history calls them great, given the extraordinary amount of bloodshed and cruelty involved. Perhaps it’s because people see greatness in those rulers who go to great ends to protect their realms and defeat their enemies. England’s great nemesis was France, so to guarantee peace, the neighboring realms needed to be brought under military control using all means necessary. When people felt fearful and insecure, they didn’t want a ‘good king’. They wanted a tyrant.

To me, this is a lesson for the current times: given the right circumstances, great power is achievable, if you only sow fear. Make people frightened. Find an enemy and tell them how degenerate and evil they are. Paint a picture of woe and downfall lest the enemy win. Tell them they will soon win unless you are put in a position to protect them. Ergo Putin, Orban and Erdogan. Ergo Donald Trump. Tyrannical, hateful, dangerous, megalomaniacal- and wildly popular in their own countries. It’s not really because their supporters are ignorant or racist – though some surely are – it’s because they are fearful. The English Planagenet kings knew this, and so too do the presumptive dictators of today. The right circumstances – a widespread feeling of insecurity and gnawing despair – exists in Russia, Turkey, America and parts of Europe, and so these people are greeted with open arms.  We’re not so far from the people of the Middle Ages as we might think.

Dear Britain,

Last week, you were asked the question if you wanted In or Out of the European Union. You voted Out.

Since then, the Pound has crashed, shares have plummeted, you lost your credit rating, Scotland has threatened independence, both major political parties are in turmoil, companies are threatening to pull out, other companies are putting investments on hold. A full blown recession is on its way.
European citizens have been threatened on the streets. Racists chant their slogans, write graffiti, leave notes and fly their flags. People are terrified.
A fragile peace in Ireland could fall apart. The UK – a Union more intermingled and intermeshed than anyone can possibly imagine, might fall apart. History has shown that such breakups are fraught with pain, injury and death.
The campaign leaders for Leave lied through their teeth. They promised none of this would happen. They were wrong. They laughed at those who urged caution. They were wrong. They admitted they had no plan beyond the referendum. This is incredible.
So here’s what you need to do. Ignore it. Drop it. Put it on ice. Kill it. Do not sign Article 50.
This was a non-binding referendum. Your people spoke, but the answer they gave threatened the very stability they wished for. In fact it did the exact opposite. It’s clear now, to anyone with half a brain, that an exit, without a properly worked out plan, would be suicide. You don’t need to go this way.
This will cause deep, deep upset, but it’s the right thing to do. Given what’s happened, I’ll bet more than a million people have since changed their mind, so a majority will breathe a huge sigh of relief if it were to happen (or not to happen, to be more precise).
Some voters may be driven to the extremes, to UKIP and the National Front; many politicians might soon lose their seats: but if there’s proper leadership and a proper explanation, this might be surmountable. Bring your best leaders to bear on this issue. Work to heal the wounds. Your politics will no doubt be colourful over the coming years, but it’s better the fights take place in parliament than on the dole queues or at the barricades.
Referendums may die as a useful political tool for a generation, but what of it? They often get side-tracked into peripheral issues anyway. Most ordinary people are not politicians: that’s why we have a parliament in the first place. Let them do the hard work of thinking and debating in the national interest. That’s what they’re paid to do.
You asked the question and you got an answer you didn’t want. In other words, you blew it. You demonstrated to the world that mistakes can happen at the highest levels, involving millions of people. So what? Eating humble pie, no matter how unpalatable, is far preferable than knowingly walking into disaster.

You might not want us, but lots of us want you. We need you. Come back from the brink. Please.

There’s been a lot of doom and gloom over Ireland’s fortunes in the event of Brexit, but I think we need to take a breath here.

Britain is not about to disappear into the Atlantic ocean. Nor is it at war with us. Nor is it about to become desperately poor and unable to trade with anyone. It will remain an actively trading nation on the edge of Europe, no further away from the continent than it was yesterday, or 200 years ago. Trade, commerce and business will continue to be important to it, as will good neighbourly relations with its major trading partners. It has no big empire to call on any more, so it will have no choice but to deal with the European countries surrounding it.

As one of Britain’s most strategically important neighbours, they will depend on Ireland and we will continue to depend on them, come what may. We have extremely strong historical, cultural and personal connections with each other. Extremely strong. These links are unlikely to diminish, not now, not ever. Frankly, we’ve been through much worse together and somehow muddled through. This talk about customs points and border checkpoints and needing a visa to travel to the UK is complete guff, because people on both sides won’t let it happen.

A few years ago, both countries achieved something magical: the ending of a nasty protracted conflict on this island that left over 3,000 people dead before their time. The agreements that brought this horror show to an end are unlikely to be tampered with, lest the tamperers want blood on their hands. Which brings up another point: we have ways to talk to the UK, whether the EU wants us to talk to them or not. We already have a special arrangement in force concerning the management of Northern Ireland. The status of Northern Ireland cannot be ignored in any discussions on Britain’s future, which gives us some breathing room when it comes to negotiations on our future relationship.

I do not think that an isolationist Britain will ever become a reality, because frankly, I don’t think its people will let it happen. 48% of its electorate are livid about yesterday’s decision and, for reasons outlined in my last post, they are unlikely to take the emergence of a “Little Britain” lying down. Though it looks somewhat unlikely right now, common sense is likely to win out. When the weight of economic reality dawns on the Brexiters, those much maligned experts will be welcomed back into the fold and given plenty of latitude in the future direction of the country. Jingoistic ultra-nationalism was never that much of an influence in much of British politics throughout the last century, so why should it some to the fore now?

Furthermore, bad and all as it might get for Britain, we’re unlikely to do so badly out of it. Ireland is something of a Singapore to Britain’s Malaysia – a business friendly island with good relations across the globe. We now become even more interesting to American and other foreign multinationals, if we are to become the largest English speaking country in the EU, with the added benefit of close connections to Britain itself. Britain may even see a greater need for us, with all our connections into Europe and around the world, helping to grease the wheels, as it were.

I’m not saying it’s going to be a walk in the park. There could be some real pain ahead, but we’re tied by a shared history. The links that join us won’t easily sunder. A clichéd Irish expression says it all: “lookit, we’ll sort something out”. We should have hope.

Yesterday, English nationalists won a victory in the UK. They voted to leave the EU, to kick the immigrants out of their country, to sacrifice UK cohesion, economic health and a hard won peace to achieve what they call “independence”. They voted to keep the pound and to burn up long-standing agreements with their neighbours. They voted to throw social protections into the bin, to smoke indoors and to revive steak-and-kidney pie as the national meal. If they want to call people of a different appearance by their traditional nicknames, they expect they’ll be able to do that too.

One of the major worries now is that other countries will take heart and follow suit. Nationalist movements in the Netherlands, Poland, Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and across Europe will be emboldened by this. The re-emergence of a fractured, hateful Europe raises its head, should politicians take their collective eyes off their ball.

People have asserted that this harks back to the 1930s and the rise of a new kind of fascism. But let’s pause. There is a big difference. The revolutionaries are not in the prime of their youth. It is a revolution of the elderly. A counter-revolution populated by people who are, themselves, on the way out. True, old people will be replaced by more old people, but the values sustaining them will not be as strongly felt as they are right now. To borrow a quote from Max Planck, societal change, as with science, advances one funeral at a time.

We see signs of this counter-revolution everywhere. Poland, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, the United States and now England, as elderly authoritarians attempt to roll back the clock against the steady march of liberal values. 

Equal rights, equal access and opportunities for women, LGBT people, brown people, black people, foreign people, Muslim people, non-believers, people with physical and mental issues, people with intellectual disabilities, children, traveling people, poor people, the marginalised. Food standards, health standards and living standards for all, not just the privileged few. It’s not just about people: clean water, waste reduction, carbon neutral living; sanctions against polluters and those who would be cruel to animals. This has caused great upset to some people. As change becomes becomes more evident, their annoyance only deepens.

So they fight back. They organise. They campaign. They vote. Donald Trump’s rise as a serious political force in the US is a sign of this. So too is Brexit.

But we also must remember that backlashes often create backlashes of their own; particularly if they are sudden and powerful, like what happened yesterday. With hard work from those of us who believe in progress, they will find implementing their wishes monstrously difficult. They will encounter problems and roadblocks at every opportunity. They will me made to look foolish, craven and incompetent at every turn. Theirs will be a record of failure, allowing people of goodwill a chance to make genuine change when their opportunity comes along. We might yet look back on these times and reflect, not on the breakers, but on the efforts of those who repaired what was broken.

Brexit is a setback. An enormous one. But let’s not forget that it’s happened because the march of progress has been overwhelmingly in the direction of liberal values. Those who oppose this are organised, but they are not, in the main, young. They may have their day in the sun, laughing at foreigners and trumpeting their national values, but the road is much longer than them. If we fight back, our values will win in the end. 

ImageSay we didn’t split from the UK in 1922. Say a Home Rule formula was worked out, and instead Ireland became a semi-autonomous region within the British state. Our history would have turned out very differently. The question is: would we have been better off?

We have some insight into how our country might have turned out, because part of our island is still part of the UK. There are some differences between Northern Ireland and the Republic, so the analogy only goes so far. For example, the Republic is bigger; it’s had a more homogenous population, a strongly Catholic identity, and it’s been more rural and less developed for most of its recent history. Comparing the Republic to the North is instructive, but it only tells us so much.

Ireland’s post-independence history can be summarised into two main phases:  Isolation and Integration. During our period of isolation, Ireland effectively removed itself from world affairs, preferring an “ourselves alone” strategy that sought to forge its destiny utterly separate from Britain. Under isolationist politicians such as Eamonn De Valera, the economy was consigned to the margins: a rural backwater, totally in thrall to the Catholic Church. Poverty was endemic and emigration was the norm. Ireland stayed out of World War II, and effectively missed out on the industrialisation and social changes that accompanied and followed this period. People left in their droves. By 1961, its population, at 2.8 million, was 200,000 people lower than it was when it seceded from Britain in 1922.

Had we remained under British rule, it’s probable that Ireland would have industrialised and developed faster during this period. We would have been part of the war effort. This would have meant greater numbers of Irishmen enlisting with the British armed forces, greater involvement by Irish women in war-time production and significant occupation by Allied forces in the run up to D-Day. Ireland would possibly have benefitted from the Britain’s post-war recovery. It is likely that Ireland might have been better off remaining within Britain between the 1920s and 1960s.

From the 1960’s onwards, Ireland opened its door to the world. It sought out foreign investment, entered the European Community, and forged links with US multinationals in specific high-growth sectors such as pharmaceuticals and computers. Domestic businesses became internationally competitive and the population decline was soon arrested. In the last 50 years, Ireland has liberalised, secularised, industrialised and urbanised. It hasn’t all been plain sailing and despite deep recessions in the 1980’s and 2010’s, the trajectory has been broadly upwards.

It’s not easy to see how Ireland would have benefited in the same way under Britain as we have done as an independent state. Britain would have controlled our corporate tax rate, thereby hampering our attractiveness towards foreign investors. Much funding and investment would likely have been diverted towards London and the major population centres of England than elsewhere. Although Britain has many agencies promoting rural development, none have matched IDA Ireland in terms of the successful relationships it has forged and its capacity to attract inward investment.

A key consideration would be the extent to which low-level guerrilla warfare, the likes of which occurred in Northern Ireland, might have damaged Ireland’s prospects within a British state. Given our long history, animosity between Britain and Ireland would have continued and occasionally deepened, particularly during recessions and times of social change. It’s very probable, therefore, that Ireland’s fate as an economic region within the UK might have been badly affected by paramilitary operations both in Ireland and in Great Britain, even if they were eventually to be resolved by new forms of governance.

Finally, there is Britain’s rocky relationship with the EU. While we have delegated much of our economic sovereignty to Brussels and are under the watchful eye of the Troika, Ireland has largely benefitted as a member of the EU and the Eurozone, through regional subsidies, a seat at the table, the lifting of trade barriers or access to new markets. Britain’s relationship remains lukewarm, and there have been suggestions of late that it might leave the EU altogether. For a small, sparsely populated island on the western edge of Britain, this would bode badly for our long-term economic prospects.

The economy aside, it is less clear how Ireland would have developed socially and culturally under British rule. Differences between ourselves and people from Northern Ireland or most other regions of Britain are marginal at best. Ireland’s cultural life is similar in many ways to Britain: we follow similar music, watch the similar TV shows, follow similar celebrities and read similar newspapers and magazines. Our high street shops are broadly the same, so fashion trends tend to match our counterparts across the sea. We have our national sports of Hurling and Gaelic Football, but these games (particularly the latter) are followed on both parts of the island with equal devotion and fanaticism. Neither should we forget that UK soccer teams enjoy far more support here than do teams in our local football leagues. Religion is possibly a wash either way also. While religion can hugely important in terms of ethnic and cultural identity – it unquestionably played a role in Northern Ireland during the Troubles – extreme devotion to Catholicism was the norm in Ireland for long periods of independence. It’s current decline is more likely due to self-inflicted wounds and increasing levels of secularism than anything else.

An eye on the Commons

I brought my daughter to London on Saturday. It was her first time on an aircraft and she had never been in the UK before either. My intent was to cram as many new experiences as possible into her growing brain over the few short hours we would be together in this endlessly fascinating city.

We saw Buckingham Palace, St James’ Park, 10 Downing St, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge and we asscended the London Eye. After that we visited Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square and Covent Garden. We then visited Hamleys in Regent St and finally we took a Tube to Hammersmith where we saw “Sponge Bob Squarepants the Musical”.

Impressions from a 6 year old:

She was disappointed that the Queen didn’t live in a castle. To her, Buckingham Palace looked like a hotel.

After visting the Palace she wanted to know what language people spoke in London. All around her were people speaking in Japanese, Italian, French and a myriad of other languages.

Her favourite moment ever was watching the street entertainers beside the London Eye. Her even more favourite moment of all time was travelling in a double decker bus. Her favouristest moment ever in the whole world was the Musical. Not to mention getting a pink toy poodle from her dad, having an ice cream for lunch, looking at how tiny the people were from the London Eye, and traveling in a big green plane above the clouds. 

And my favourite moment? Being able to pamper my delightful little daughter all day..

The city is a quite a building site at the moment. It might have something to do with being the European City of Culture this year.. Seriously though, if Cork 2005 is anything to go by, it will look really swell in 2 years time.  

The city is dripping with history. There are many fantastic 19th Century buildings throughout the city centre. I was particularly taken by the Pumphouse on my way into the Liverpool Maritime Museum.

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