Do you really need to learn to code?

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In a departure from my usual obsession with politics and current events, this blog is about my efforts over the years to “learn to code”, and my personal opinion on whether or not everybody else should bother.  The short answer is no, but to understand why I think that, I’m afraid you’ll have to read on.

Has there ever before been a term that is quite so ubiquitous while also being utterly meaningless?  We are exhorted to “learn to code” as though it is a finite skillset, akin to riding a bike, or driving a car – a skill we can always manage without if we absolutely must, but which is becoming so universally engrained in our everyday lives that we risk being left behind and cast out into the technological dark ages if we fail to learn it.

But of course learning to code is not remotely like learning to ride a bike, or drive a car.  You don’t simply learn to code and then pat yourself on the back, secure in the knowledge that you can now command any machine to your will.   Because before you can even start to learn to code, you have to decide what specifically it is that you want to be able to do.  Want to learn to build websites?  Okay, you’ll need to learn (for starters) HTML, CSS and JavaScript, then move on to further languages like Ruby, Java, C#, PHP or any number of others.  But what if you’re not interested in building websites, and you instead want to be able to write code that can analyse and interpret large amounts of data?  Well then you might want to start with SQL, or Python.  Want to develop apps and games?  Again, there are a myriad of languages to choose from depending on whether you wish to develop for Apple or Android operating systems.

It all seems so much more complicated than it was when I was at school, learning to write simple programmes in BASIC on the Apple II.  Okay, so those programmes couldn’t do much beyond printing words and characters on the screen, and even fairly simple programmes required what seemed a fairly ridiculous number of lines of code, but at least there was only one language!

I wasn’t sufficiently enamoured of BASIC programming to stick with it beyond what I was taught in school, and my next exposure to “learning to code” was at university, studying for my Bachelor of Commerce in Information Systems, where we were taught the principles of object-oriented programming using COBOL. I use the term “taught” loosely – I hated COBOL, couldn’t get my head round object-oriented programming and can remember absolutely nothing of that particular part of the course apart from the fact that it bored me to tears.  A friend, studying engineering, openly laughed at the idea that we were learning “a dead language” – he was learning C as part of his course, which I later realised would have been a far more useful language to try to learn.  But by this stage I’d already concluded that I clearly didn’t have the right aptitude to be a software developer, and that I’d be better suited to a slightly less technical role.

But computers have always fascinated me, and while I may not have been able to make any headway with programming, I found the early Microsoft Office applications to be a revelation.  Excel and Access, in particular, struck me as wondrous – here were two applications that with a few simple keystrokes or just a little clicking and dragging, could magically churn through masses of data and provide results that would have taken hours to collate manually.  I earned massive kudos in an early job in banking when I was tasked with compiling the monthly sales desk reports, a tedious job that involved pulling in data from numerous Excel spreadsheets, sorting and aggregating it to produce various summary reports and charts.  It usually would take a good half a day to complete and would always fall to the newest member of the team who would have to do it every month until either someone new joined (we had fairly high turnover within the team) or until sufficient number of months had passed for our manager to agree it was time to hand it over to someone else.

After being shown the process, I immediately recognised that much of the manual effort could be automated within Access, and set about creating a database that would pull in the various spreadsheets and, via a few simple queries, spit out the resulting reports and charts.  After a bit of trial-and-error, I had the process down to about 30 minutes of effort – and was a hero among the team.

But my ingenuity came at a cost.  I may have been a bit of a whizz with MS Access, but the rest of the team were not. So when I went on holiday, and the reporting fell to another member of the team, he found himself completely confused by the instructions I had left, and reverted to the old manual process. The problem, of course, was that by this stage everyone had come to expect the process to take half an hour, so nobody was happy that it was once again taking half a day – least of all the poor bloke having to do it.  It was decided that rather than wasting further time having me train the rest of the team in MS Access, I would continue to own the process until such time as it could be properly automated by the IT team – from memory this was a further 6-9 months.   And there was a fair bit of unhappiness from middle management that I had been allowed to go beyond the remit of my job by re-engineering a process in a way that had created such a “key-person dependency”.

There is a point to this story, beyond happy reminiscence.  Over the last couple of years, I have once again dipped my toe into the world of “learning to code”.   The website Udemy.com has literally hundreds of cheap online courses, of varying quality, in absolutely every coding language you could imagine – if you buy them during one of their many sales, you can pick up a course for as little as £12, and it’s yours for a lifetime.  My eye was drawn to a course called “Automate the boring stuff with Python” – a course that is supposedly aimed at non-techy people such as office administrators, who wish to learn how to automate mundane office jobs that would normally take a few hours to do, and that can be done in minutes via Python. This sounded like the perfect course for me, so I dove in.

And to be fair, it is a great course.  It teaches the basics of Python programming in clear, simple terms, and then goes on to teach the learner how to use regular expressions to search for particular text patterns within documents or on web pages, and how to perform basic operations on Word, Excel and PDF documents.

But here’s the rub.  Before you can do anything in this course, you have to install Python on your machine. You also, later on in the course, need to be able to create and run batch files.  Fine if you’re learning on your own machine at home, as I am, but not so great if you’re an office administrator wanting to write a Python script to automate a job you’ve been given at work.  Any company with even a basic level of IT security awareness, will have controls in place that prevent employees from installing any kind of software on their machine.  Sure, you could ask the IT team to install it for you but they will almost certainly ask why you want it installed – and unless your job title is “software developer” or something similarly techy, your request is almost certain to be denied – not only because you won’t be trusted not to introduce bugs into the system, but also because your managers will almost certainly wish to avoid a “key person dependency” situation whereby anybody else needing to be able to do your job will require the same level of technical proficiency, not previously a requirement of the role.  You’ll be left in the maddening position of knowing that you could automate this process if only you were allowed to – and there is nothing more annoying than knowing a quicker way to perform a task but being prevented from doing so.

The other issue I am finding is that learning to code in any language, is just like learning to speak another language – you can learn the basics fairly easily, but you will need to use it again and again and again in order for it to become even vaguely second-nature.  And that’s just the basic stuff.  I’ve been at this on and off for a few months now and while I may have completed this one course, I keep having to go back over sections to remind myself how different concepts work, and the entire course has barely scratched the surface of what can be done in Python.

Keeping with the spirit of “I’ve tried this so you don’t have to” – I’ve also tried web development.  I downloaded a course called “The Web-Developer Bootcamp” from Udemy two years ago and have been dipping in and out of it ever since.  I found HTML, CSS and Javascript all fairly intuitive and easy to learn the basics of – but once the course moved on to DOM manipulation, Jquery, Node.js and server-side frameworks my head started to spin.   Based on various review comments I’ve seen, this course is almost identical to the first half of many of the very expensive bootcamp courses offered by various training facilities worldwide – and I simply can’t understand how anybody could absorb that much information in that concentrated a timeframe and end up remembering any of it!   Maybe it’s once again a matter of aptitude – I’m sure that for those who are destined to become web developers it probably is easier to grasp and retain these concepts, but to me, the bootcamp perfectly illustrated the problem with “learning to code” – it’s all very well to learn the basics of HTML, CSS and Javascript, and most people of average intelligence should be able to grasp those, but there’s actually very little one can do with just those three.  In order to be able to actually build user-friendly, responsive, eye-catching websites, you’re going to need a whole host of skills that go way beyond the basics – and while a bootcamp may introduce the various concepts that you need to learn, it’ll require a great deal of time, persistence and passion to fully get to grips with all of those skills.

Personally, what I’ve found most useful about the Udemy courses has been the fact that in among the various coding concepts, have been high level explanations that have demystified so much about computer programming that I had previously struggled with.  Concepts such as what is a batch file, what is a library, what’s the difference between front-end and back-end programming, what do people mean by the term “technology stack”, and what do terms like PAAS, SAAS and IAAS mean?   And what are all those programming languages used for, and why are there so many?

What I’d love to see, is a course that explains computing concepts without necessarily going into the details of actually learning to write code.  I completed a “home maintenance skills” course a couple of years ago at my local college and it was the single most beneficial course I’ve ever done.  Over the course of six evening sessions, we learnt the basics of plumbing, lock fitting, joinery, painting, and bricklaying, and were introduced to all the key tools and materials used in each.  That course taught me two things – firstly, that unless you absolutely love a particular trade and want to devote lots of time and effort to mastering it, it is far easier to hire a qualified tradesperson to do the job for you.  But secondly, and most importantly, how to talk confidently to that tradesperson and know when they are trying to pull the wool over your eyes about how complicated or expensive a particular job is.

In the same way that I don’t believe everybody needs to learn plumbing, or joinery, or bricklaying, I don’t believe everybody needs to learn to code.  I think those who have a particular aptitude for, and love of, coding, absolutely should learn to code – and those, like myself, who have a bit of a geeky side and like to explore, would also benefit from learning the basics.  But the majority of people, who have no intention of ever becoming software developers, and whose interests lie in other areas, will be best served by learning just enough about computers to be able to speak confidently to the experts and to know when those experts are trying to pull the wool over their eyes about just how complicated a job actually is.

“Learn how to talk about coding” – now that’s a course I really can see a demand for.  Shame it doesn’t have quite such a catchy ring to it.

 

 

 

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Anatomy of a Lie

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This week, a masterclass from the Guardian, the BBC and the wider media establishment on the construction and propagation of an outright lie.

It started with a report on public health policies, published by the Institute of Public Policy Research, according to its own website the UK’s “leading progressive think tank”.  Think tanks exist purely to shape and influence public policy and therefore research papers are the bread and butter of their existence.

This particular paper looked at the leading causes of “preventable death” in the UK (smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, drug use etc.). and noted that after a number of years of improvements in public health measures that had curbed the impact of preventable disease between 1990 and 2012, in recent years the trend had started to reverse.  The researchers provided an estimate that, had the trend between 1990 and 2012 continued unchanged, up to 130,000 deaths could have been “averted” between 2012 and 2017.

Now, firstly, somebody needs to explain to the IPPR that there is no such thing as “preventable death”.  Death and taxes, we are always told, are the only two things in life that are certain – and the IPPR’s sole aim is to influence how those taxes are spent.   So it’s no surprise that they choose to extrapolate from “preventable disease” to “preventable death” via the use of a measure they call “Disability Adjusted Life Years” (defined in the report as “a measure of lost years due to poor health, either through the presence of a chronic condition or premature mortality…. the sum of years of life lost to poor health and years of life lost to disability“)

The report points out the ways in which the researchers believe that cuts to public health spending between 2012 and 2017 led to increases in “preventable deaths” over this period, and argues very convincingly for more money to be spent on various public health initiatives that will shift focus from “blame and punish” to “empathise and assist”.  To drive this point home, the report is entitled “Ending the blame game: The case for a new approach to public health and prevention”

The Guardian, of course, seized on the above-mentioned “130,000 preventable deaths” figure and ran away with it, simultaneously concluding that the report’s entreaty to end the culture of blame with regards preventable disease, doesn’t extend to finding blame for “preventable deaths”. And so the headline read “Austerity to blame for 130,000 ‘preventable deaths’ – report”

Fast forward just over a week, and Francesca Martinez, a “comedian, author and political campaigner” delivered a powerful rant on the BBC’s flagship political programme, Question Time, in which she stated that “austerity has caused the death of over 130,000 human beings in Britain… that is 130,000 mums, dads, daughters, sons, uncles, aunts who have died because the Tories and the Lib Dems decided to make ordinary people pay for a crash caused by bankers who we bailed out”.  She goes on to say that the Tories and Lib Dems have “blood on their hands” – conjuring a mental image of 130,000 people presumably having been lined up and shot, rather than simply being helped to live a few weeks or months longer due to various public health measures that may have slightly extended their lives.

Now this is where it gets tricky.  Because her underlying point, about the way in which austerity policies have been implemented and the reasons they were implemented, is absolutely valid – though it does, of course, also let Labour completely off the hook for the fact that it was a Labour government that bailed out the banks in the first place, and that so massively overspent during its term in office that the Tories and Lib Dems, who followed them, were forced to implement austerity measures to counter the overspend.

But none of that changes the fact that to claim that austerity CAUSED 130,000 deaths is an outright lie.  Whether Ms Martinez knows it is a lie, or whether she was genuinely taken in by the Guardian’s headline, is neither here nor there – the show is pre-recorded and even if Fiona Bruce herself was not aware of the origin of the figure quoted, the show’s researchers would have easily been able to check it.  Fiona Bruce could easily have interjected to either ask Ms Martinez to explain where she got the figure from, or to point out the inaccuracy of her statement.

But not only did she not interject and instead allow Ms Martinez’s rant to continue unchallenged, but the BBC later chose to share a clip of the entire rant on Twitter, ensuring that those who hadn’t seen the show itself would also have an opportunity to be told that Tory austerity policies had killed 130,000 people.

The Mirror then published a story about how Ms Martinez has been praised for BBC Question Time’s “best ever moment”, in which it claimed that Ms Martinez had been “citing research which showed over 130,000 people died from austerity”.  Except, of course, the research absolutely did NOT show that.  Is it really possible that nobody at the Mirror even took the time to read the report itself?  Or even the full Guardian article which, despite the misleading headline, did at least accurately reflect what the report contained?  Other news sites, such as Huffington Post and iNews, similarly published gushing reports about the entire rant, making no mention of the falsehood about 130,000 deaths.

The worst thing about all this, is that I appear to be almost alone in my utter outrage and despair at the whole debacle.  There is plenty of talk on Twitter about Ms Martinez’s rant, but nobody appears to be pointing out the fact that at the heart of it is an outright lie.

Whether it’s laziness, incompetence or the deliberate propagation of a falsehood for political means, it stinks.  There is a reason why Donald Trump gets away with calling the media “fake news” and why trust in the media is at an all-time low – because the media keep showing, time and again, that they have no interest in reporting the truth and are instead prepared to write and publish just about anything they can get away with in order to grab the attention of the reader.  The fact that such inflammatory lies only serve to deepen the divisions within our society, appears to be of little consequence to these so-called journalists.

When I first started writing this blog I had vague dreams of one day becoming a journalist.  But having spent the past couple of years avidly following the news, and seeing the ways in which headlines and stories are twisted in pursuit of online views, subscriptions and ultimately advertising revenue, I find myself utterly repelled by this aspect of the industry.  There are many journalists whose writing and reporting I greatly admire, but they are a diminishing number who find themselves badly let down by the growing majority who are either too lazy or too caught up in political activism to retain any credibility whatsoever.

The BBC, despite its constant claims of political neutrality, has let itself down badly over this incident and while I may be alone in wanting to shout from the rooftops about just how big a lie this was, I suspect the reason there is so little outrage on Twitter is because this is the level of deception that many of those who closely follow the news, are simply learning to expect from our national broadcaster.   I can think of no more damning indictment than the fact that this failure to uphold standards of accuracy and impartiality, has been greeted not with outrage but with a collective shrug.

 

 

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Brexit – Courage or Stupidity?

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There’s an epigram doing the rounds on social media at the moment – “Courage is knowing something might hurt and doing it anyway.  Stupidity is the same thing.  That’s why life is hard”.

As an analogy for Brexit, and the reasons why it is proving so difficult to deliver, I can’t think of a better summary.  Because those who voted to leave, despite all the warnings about the potential cost to our economy and to our standing on the world stage, see themselves as courageous, in recognising the potential pain that their decision will cause but feeling that the long-term benefits make that pain worthwhile – whereas the majority of those who voted to remain simply see the decision as utterly stupid.

It’s for this reason that we’ve seen politicians, the media and influential businesspeople spend most of the past three years trying to rationalise the vote to leave, to try to present it as something other than what it was.  Faced with a choice between remaining a member of the EU and leaving the EU, a majority of those who voted, voted to leave. They did this despite being told that to leave the EU would mean leaving the single market, leaving the customs union, giving up our seat at the EU table, possibly irrevocably harming our future trading relationship with our closest trading partner and relegating ourselves to a small island nation of no international significance.  And they voted to leave despite being told that such a decision would almost undoubtedly make us all poorer.

So why did they do it?  What on earth did they believe was the big prize that would justify such potential pain?

The answer, of course, was sovereignty.  Control.  The same message was repeated over and over by the leave campaign – we wish to take back control of our borders, our laws and our trading relationships.  We want to be able to set our own immigration policy, strike our own trade deals with the rest of the world and decide our own laws and regulations.    And we want to bring control of the democratic process back to the public where it belongs – we want decisions that affect our lives to be made by the people we elect, and the ability to hold those people to account via the ballot box.

But to many on the remain side, particularly those in our own parliament, the notion of wishing for greater sovereignty is ridiculous.   To those who have grown used to the vast majority of our laws being decided for us in Brussels rather than in Westminster, there is absolutely no desire to change the current process.  Change of any kind is never painless, and changing the entire way in which our laws are decided would require not only a complete overhaul of parliamentary process but also a complete overhaul of the civil service that supports it.  It’s no surprise that those most opposed to us leaving the EU are our parliamentarians and our civil service – we may think that it’s businesses and the general public who will be most affected by Brexit but the reality is those who will be most affected by a return of sovereignty to the UK, will be those who find themselves with an awful lot of extra work to do as a result.

So we find ourselves in a situation where those tasked with making Brexit happen, are scrabbling around trying to redefine what Brexit actually means.  It can’t possibly be about sovereignty – because sovereignty is a ridiculous aim and simply does not justify the extraordinary amount of effort involved in bringing it about, much less the associated risk to our trading relationships with the EU and our wider economic prospects.

So if it’s not about sovereignty then it must be about the individual issues – and this is where Theresa May decided, early on, that actually Brexit was about immigration, and that if she could just do a deal with the EU that would allow her to convince voters that the UK government could control immigration, that would be sufficient.  Very little else would need to change – crucially, our trading relationship would remain the same.  And while a few changes would need to be made with regards the loss of our voting rights and the return of some legislative powers to Westminster, our continuing membership of the single market would ensure that the large majority of the areas of law that are currently handled by Brussels, would remain there.

But the problem is, just because Theresa May, and the bulk of our MPs, don’t see sovereignty as a worthwhile aim, it doesn’t change the fact that those who voted to leave, do.  And trying to convince them to accept a lesser prize – one that will avoid much of the potential pain but provide no meaningful reward – has left them feeling completely betrayed.

Astoundingly, many MPs still don’t seem able to make the connection between that sense of betrayal and the extraordinary rise in support for the Brexit Party.  Some of them are still tweeting out fatuous messages about how it’s the failure to pass Theresa May’s deal that has prevented Brexit happening, or about needing to find common ground between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in order to find a deal that can be passed.

Extraordinarily, one MP even tweeted about needing to try to understand why people are planning to vote for the Brexit Party – as if the party name leaves any room for doubt.  Unlike Change UK – whose party name is the very opposite of what they stand for – the Brexit Party promises to do what it says on the logo; and for the avoidance of doubt they’ve made it clear that means taking us out of the EU on WTO terms.

Farage, though, has tapped into the wider public dissatisfaction with the way our democracy functions – or, on recent evidence, fails to function.  His stated aim of bringing about a complete overhaul of our two-party political system is music to the ears of voters who are sick to death of being told the reason they can’t have a no-deal Brexit is because there’s no parliamentary support for no deal.  To ask the public to vote in a referendum, to tell them their decision would be respected, and to then tell them that actually what they decided is not acceptable because parliament doesn’t support it, is the ultimate slap in the face – and those who voted for Brexit in the honest belief that their vote would count, will never forgive those who have simply chosen to ignore that vote.

The delusion persists within the Conservative Party, that if only Theresa May could be persuaded to step down, a new Prime Minister may be able to rescue the party.  But it will take more than a new Prime Minister to rescue the party – members have seen how divided the party is over Brexit, and as long as the bulk of the cabinet backs remaining in the EU, members will never trust the party to deliver Brexit.  The party is facing complete humiliation at the European elections and, on current polling, in the next general election, too – and it is thoroughly deserved.

I would argue the key difference between stupidity and courage, is that stupidity is often momentary but courage requires persistence and determination. As long as we remain led by those who see Brexit as stupid, we will need a great deal of courage to see it through.  And if that means a complete overhaul of our political process, then bring it on.

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Lack of integrity will sink Change UK

Nobody who has been following UK news in the past few weeks can have missed the meteoric rise in support for the newly-formed Brexit Party.  But what of the other party that was formed in recent months, with the opposite approach – to campaign for a second referendum on our membership of the EU, in the hopes of convincing the public to vote to remain?

Well, it turns out they’ve also achieved something fairly astounding.  A few weeks ago, a poll by Opinium Research , showing European Parliament voting intention, had them on 7% of the vote, ahead of the Green Party and UKIP.   A more recent poll by the same agency, however, shows them in bottom position, on 3%. UKIP, meanwhile, have gained a percentage point and are now on 4%.

 

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How on earth have they managed to poll lower than UKIP?  UKIP, let’s remind ourselves, is the party of Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad, the YouTuber who four years ago joked that he “wouldn’t even rape” the MP Jess Phillips and who, given the opportunity fairly recently to reflect on, and possibly apologise for, that comment, responded that “if she’s going to be a total bitch I’ll be a massive dick in return”.  He then went one step further and released a new YouTube video in which he stated that “with enough pressure [to rape Ms Phillips] I might cave… but let’s be honest, nobody’s got that much beer”

Now, I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of whether or not people should be allowed to joke about rape – personally, I believe they should, because it allows us to very easily discern that they’re complete dickheads.  “I wouldn’t even rape you” is the sort of comment that I remember drunken men at university coming out with – it is immature, frat-boy humour which is unappealing from a 19-year-old and just plain embarrassing from someone approaching 40.  The insistence on doubling down and refusing to apologise is similarly immature and reveals a great deal about Mr Benjamin’s character – or lack thereof.  Though even I find myself torn – I have followed Sargon, on and off, via Twitter and seen some of his YouTube videos, as well as seen him in interview with other presenters, and on the whole I find him a far more nuanced character than the raving, rape-joking frat-boy persona that the press have been taking so much delight in exposing.   He appears to genuinely enjoy political debate and while he can be just as impatient and dismissive of those whose views he finds ridiculous, as most people, he does at least appear willing to engage on almost any topic. So who knows?  His great stand for free speech is unlikely to have cost him any support among those who have been following him for years, and may have actually gained him a few extra followers among the frat-boy crowd, so maybe that explains why UKIP have gained a percentage point in the polls.

But how do we explain Change UK’s rapid fall from grace?  Well, we could start with their name – nothing quite puts voters off like a party name that completely fails to reflect the party’s aims. Change UK have absolutely no intention of changing the UK or anything else – their entire ethos is built around keeping us in the European Union so that everything can remain exactly the same.

Next there’s their completely uninspiring logo – a set of straight lines which have drawn comparisons with a barcode and a redacted document, and which convey absolutely nothing about the party itself.  Compare that to the Brexit Party’s logo – with an arrow pointing clearly towards an exit (or, more cleverly, towards the voting box on the ballot paper, in a suspected ‘subliminal messaging’ ploy which has provoked outrage, an official complaint and now even a petition among the more committed #FBPE remainer loons).

Next, let’s look at their constant lying to the electorate.  In their official launch video they announced that they have been utterly consistent in always supporting a second referendum – a statement immediately given the lie by earlier video footage of Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston all telling constituents they absolutely did NOT support a second referendum and believed the result of the first referendum result should be implemented.

Asked on BBC Question Time recently, why she didn’t fight a by-election when she stood down from the Conservative Party to join the Independent Group (as it was originally named) Ms Soubry claimed “because my positions have not changed”. Her argument, incredibly, is that because she has always been in favour of a second referendum, she should not have to re-fight an election as she was elected on that position.

Except she wasn’t.  When she was running for election in 2017 under the Conservative Party manifesto, not only did the manifesto support withdrawal from the single market and the customs union, but Ms Soubry herself argued that a second referendum would be a betrayal of the first.  So by telling us, now, that she has always been in favour of a second referendum, she is admitting that she flat-out lied to the electorate in 2017 in order to secure her seat.

This complete lack of integrity from Ms Soubry, and all the other members of Change UK who regularly change their public positions while clearly keeping their real views and intentions very much private, is what voters find so repellent. We are sick to death of politicians who say one thing and do another – and if the relative fates of UKIP and Change UK tell us nothing else, it is that voters would still rather vote for somebody who is consistently offensive, than someone who is clearly just saying what they think voters want to hear.  And personally, if it came down to who I would rather have a political debate with – or even a drink down the pub – I’d pick Carl Benjamin over Anna Soubry any day.

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Get the Popcorn Ready – it’s Corbyn vs Farage

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Who would you rather see in no 10 Downing Street – Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage?

The question is not as preposterous as it sounds.  With a recent Comres poll finding the Brexit Party is now in second place in general election voting intention, behind Labour but ahead of the Conservatives, voters worried about the prospect of a Corbyn government could find themselves having to make a difficult choice when it comes to the next general election.

Our current first-past-the-post voting system ensures that every election is essentially a two-horse race, with the two biggest parties vying for an outright majority and the smaller parties hoping for the chance of winning enough seats to be invited to join a coalition government in the event of no overall majority being reached.  Ever since Jeremy Corbyn took over the leadership of the Labour Party, the Conservatives have been relying on the assumption that no matter how disillusioned voters may be with their abject failure to deliver on their manifesto promises, they would still, when push comes to shove, hold their noses and vote for the Tories in order to prevent a Labour victory.

But now that it’s the Brexit Party that’s in second place, it’s no longer “Vote Conservative to stop Corbyn”.  It’s “Vote Brexit Party to stop Corbyn”

The Sunday Times today quotes a senior executive at Coutts, the bank used by the Queen and favoured by many wealthy clients, saying “Many clients are more worried about a Corbyn government than about Brexit”.  Big businesses, who have spent the past four years warning about the dangers of Brexit, may find themselves suddenly having to hold their noses and back the Brexit Party as their fears of a Corbyn government override their concerns about Brexit (for which most of them are, by now, fully prepared in any event).

By the time the next general election happens, the Brexit Party will hopefully have a proper manifesto, and potentially even a new name.  Without wanting to try to predict their overall policy aims, it’s pretty easy to guess where the party will fall on economic issues – firmly on the side of free enterprise, low taxation and limited state involvement. And in a straight choice between that, and Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for state ownership of utilities, higher taxes and worker seats on boards, it is not hard to predict which way business owners – big and small – will lean.

As the old Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times”.  As a result of the failure of the political class to deliver Brexit, times could be about to get very interesting indeed.

 

 

 

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Think you’ve seen political change? You ain’t seen nothing yet

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 “If… what a thought ….if they were to betray the wishes of the biggest democratic exercise in the history of this nation, then I think if you feel, since June the 23rd, you’ve seen political change in this country – if they betray those people you ain’t seen nothing yet”

This was Nigel Farage, speaking at the end of the BBC documentary “Brexit: A Very British coup”.  Having, he believed, achieved his political ambition in bringing about the vote to leave the EU, he had resigned the leadership of UKIP and was looking forward to “getting his life back” while the government got on with the job of implementing the result of the referendum.

Yet now here we are, nearly three years later, and Mr Farage has found himself drawn back into politics by the exact betrayal that he had previously found so preposterous to contemplate.  And his words could not be more prophetic – for the political changes and disruption we have seen over the past few years are as nothing compared to the further disruption that will inevitably take place over the coming months and years due to the failure of the government to deliver on its promise.

There appears to be a certain paralysis within Westminster, a refusal to see what is absolutely self-evident to anyone who is paying even the slightest bit of attention.   The Conservatives, in the run-up to the local elections, were bracing themselves to lose up to 800 seats – yet ended up losing 1,334.  Labour, expecting to increase their seat count by picking up seats from the Conservatives, somehow ended up losing 84.  And the main beneficiaries were the Lib Dems, Greens and independent candidates.

In my view, this sends one resounding message – voters are fed-up of equivocation and broken promises.  No matter how much parties argue that local elections are about local issues, as long as a candidate is running under the banner of a political party they can expect voters to vote not just on how they feel about the individual candidate but also on how they feel about the party itself.

The Lib Dems and Greens, by being utterly consistent throughout the last few years as to where they stand, not just on Brexit but on wider policy issues too, managed to retain their vote share while many of those who could typically have been relied on to vote for Conservative or Labour councillors, either spoiled their ballots or didn’t bother to vote at all.   And the number of spoilt ballots containing the words “Brexit” or “Traitors” in loud, angry letters, should have left no doubt as to the feelings of those voters.

You would think that after such a humiliating result, the Prime Minister would be tempted to bring forward her resignation and allow somebody else to try to rescue the Brexit negotiations.  You would think, similarly, that her Cabinet would finally break ranks and stop parroting the usual lines about having complete faith in her to deliver Brexit.

But no. On BBC Question Time on Thursday evening, Amber Rudd, asked about a  poll for the “Conservative Home” website which found roughly 80% of members have no confidence in the Prime Minister, responded that she doesn’t have much faith in that poll, given “there is a certain type of person who supports Conservative Home” – delivered in a tone that made it clear she does not consider herself one of those types.

Well, Amber, I am one of those “certain types” of person who reads Conservative Home. And I think you’ll find the others are all, like me, traditionally conservative voters at the more politically-engaged end of the spectrum.  We are the type of people who tend to read political manifestos before committing our vote to one or other party – we all clearly remember the Conservative Party manifesto promise to take Britain out of the single market and out of the customs union, and we are not blind to the repeated attempts to smear as “extremists” the few MPs who have remained committed to delivering on that manifesto promise.

I think you may find, too, that the young woman in the audience, who announced early on in the programme that she has been a Conservative activist for the last 3 years but now plans to vote for the Brexit Party because the Conservatives have let the members down, just may be an occasional reader of “Conservative Home”.

It seems not to have crossed Amber’s mind, that maybe her failure to identify with, or take seriously, the readers of “Conservative Home”, is an indication that it is her position, and that of the Prime Minister, that is out of place in the Conservative Party, rather than that of the members.    If the loss of over 1,300 seats in a local election doesn’t make the Conservative leadership think twice about whether it still represents its core voter base, what will?

Meanwhile, the Brexit Party continues to hold rallies up and down the country, filling out conference halls and football stadia with supporters who just can’t get enough of Nigel Farage, Ann Widdecombe, Claire Fox, Tim Martin, Richard Tice or any of the other candidates standing for the European Parliament elections.   Farage has made it clear that not only will the Brexit Party be contesting every seat in the next general election, but that his ultimate aim is to completely smash the two-party political system that has so paralysed our democracy.  The tired old Tory line of “Vote for us or end up with a Corbyn government” simply won’t hold up any longer – voters are starting to realise that it’s not only the Conservatives, but Labour, too, who are haemorrhaging support to the Brexit Party, and unless Labour sort themselves up and come up with a consistent policy around Brexit, which the entire party can get behind, they have no chance of winning a majority in the next election.

Whether or not Farage manages to bring about the political shake-up he promises, remains to be seen.  But those who laughed when he announced, 20 years ago, that he wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain out of the European Union, were certainly not laughing on 24 June 2016 when the Brexit referendum result was announced.  And while the recent fly-on-the-wall documentary “Brexit: Behind closed doors” may have outraged viewers by showing a couple of civil servants in Brussels joking about how the current Withdrawal Agreement will turn Britain into a colony, I remain hopeful that, much though it may take a few more years, in the end it will be Mr Farage and the Brexiteers who will have the last laugh.   And in Mr Farage’s words, “if you think you’ve seen political change in this country…. you ain’t seen nothing yet”

 

 

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It’s Codswallop, Carole

Screenshot 2019-04-24 at 15.03.40

If you’re not an avid reader of the Observer, and if you’re not obsessed with Brexit, or particularly active on social media, you may not have heard of Carole Cadwalladr.

It’s probably fair to say that Ms Cadwalladr divides opinion – between those who see her as a fearless crusader on a mission to expose the dark and shadowy world of big data and social media marketing and the extent to which adverts on Facebook may have influenced the votes for Brexit and Trump, and those who see her as a crackpot conspiracy theorist whose passion for uncovering “the truth” is matched only by her refusal to admit that ordinary people in the UK and the US may actually have known what they were voting for.

I have to admit when she first started revealing information about the ways in which marketing companies were harvesting personal data from Facebook in order to tailor political advertising to individual user groups, I was fascinated. And I will readily admit she has done an outstanding job of exposing the extent to which we put not just our own, but our friends’ privacy at risk when we too readily share private information via social media.   She is to be applauded for her determination to hold the big tech companies – particularly Facebook – to account for the ways in which they have violated, and continue to violate, individual users’ privacy.

But where I part ways with Ms Cadwalladr is when she claims, as she did to great applause in her recent TED talk, that the tech companies “broke our democracy”.

No, Carole love, YOU broke our democracy.   You, Tony Blair, Nick Clegg, Lord Adonis, Ken Clarke, Yvette Cooper, Anna Soubry, all the other members of the newly-formed Change UK and every other person in this country who has used their public platform to delegitimise the largest democratic vote for anything, ever, have thoroughly broken our democracy and continue to use every chance you get to give it a further kick.

With your one-sided investigation, that focused only on the ways in which the Leave campaign sought to spend their campaign funds, while ignoring all the tricks played by the Remain campaign, you turned what was a valuable piece of journalism into a political witch-hunt.   Your obsession with a £750,000 overspend by the Leave campaign, which you continually point to as evidence of Leave having broken the rules, is laughable when contrasted to your utter silence on the government’s decision to stack the rules firmly in favour of the Remain camp, with £9 million of government money used to send a pro-Remain leaflet to all households in the country, and that £9 million being completely ringfenced from other campaign spending so as not to count towards the overall Remain campaign spending limit.

You ask us to believe that voters were unduly influenced by fake adverts they saw on Facebook – yet you don’t for one minute consider just how many voters were unduly influenced by that leaflet, given that it came from the government, whose advice many voters trusted implicitly.   How many voters do you imagine read that leaflet, decided “Well, if the government thinks it would be a mistake to leave then who am I to think otherwise?” and simply closed their minds to any further arguments?

The truth is, Carole, you don’t seem to understand democracy.  You, and everyone else who has railed against the votes for Brexit and Trump, are so accustomed to living in a world in which you and your friends are able to use your public platforms to set the agenda, that you can’t conceive of a world in which the ordinary man and woman on the street, whose voices are never usually heard outside their own social circles, suddenly have the same level of influence that you do.

You speak in your TED talk of how the people of Ebbw Vale voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, despite the fact that Ebbw Vale has benefited from extensive EU investment in recent years.  In your mind, it’s inconceivable that these people, faced with the evidence of what the EU has done for them, would choose to reject such a generous benefactor.  After all, as your before-and-after pictures show, thanks to the closure of the coal mines and the steel works, and recent EU investment in new buildings and infrastructure, Ebbw Vale is no longer an ugly industrial area dominated by smokestacks but now, with its shiny new college of further education, sports centre and road improvement scheme, looks like the sort of area even you might be comfortable in.  The only possible explanation, in your tortured mind, is that these people must have been influenced by fake adverts on Facebook about Turkey joining the EU.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll find the people of Ebbw Vale don’t particularly want a new college or a new sports hall.  They quite possibly don’t even particularly want new roads or a new railway. What they want – and what the EU hasn’t provided – is jobs.  Statistics available from the Department of Work and Pensions and the Office for National Statistics, show that on measures such as social class, professional status and education level the residents of Ebbw Vale are well below the national average, with roughly 40% of residents having no, or very limited, qualifications.  A new college of further education is probably not much use to a 50 year-old who was laid off from his job when the steel works closed and who hasn’t been able to find decent work since.   And while none of that is the EU’s fault, asking people to be grateful for services they don’t want, didn’t ask for and can’t afford to use, is not likely to win hearts and minds.   Particularly when they find their council tax being used to fund repeated repairs to a new EU-funded lift which has broken down over 250 times since being installed.   For an investigative journalist, Carole, you don’t seem to have done a great deal of investigation into what’s really going on in Ebbw Vale.

And can we talk, just briefly, about the actual efficacy of Facebook’s algorithm, in targeting the right adverts to the right people?  So much of your theory relies on the idea that the adverts that Cambridge Analytica paid for, were actually shown to the right people.  Now I may just be unlucky – though conversations I’ve had with friends on this subject would suggest they’ve had similar experiences – but the adverts I see on Facebook, while often very much in tune with my key interests (skiing, hiking, travelling) are also often wildly inappropriate when it comes to more nuanced ideas.  A quick glance at my current Facebook feed shows me an advert for a “bralette” called “Curvy Sweetie” – specifically targeted for ladies with a large bust and small band, and another advert for “Huel”, which is apparently a “perfectly balanced, vegan meal” containing “all 26 essential vitamins and minerals” in powder form.  As a lifelong carnivore with a bust that has never been larger than 36B, I’m unsure how Facebook decided either of these adverts was in any way appropriate to me.

I was constantly bombarded with pro-Remain adverts during the referendum campaign (presumably based on Facebook’s algorithm determining that, as a keen skier and traveller, I must, like most of my friends, wish to remain in the EU).  Despite the fact that I was constantly posting, and sharing, pro-Brexit messages in my own news feed, I continued to see pro-Remain adverts.  Now maybe this is down to the fact that the Remain campaign were not using the same level of micro-targeting and were simply using a scattergun approach to target their message to everyone (after all, they had far more funds to play with than the Leave campaign did).  But if that’s the case, and if Cambridge Analytica genuinely were able to accurately determine which specific users would be particularly vulnerable to scare stories about Turkey joining the EU (based, presumably, on identifying users who live in small close-knit communities, who don’t travel extensively, probably with a low level of education, the usual stereotypical characteristics we expect of people who fear immigration) then what is the likelihood that those people were ever going to vote Remain in the first place?   Or even not bother to vote at all, given the chance?

You see, this is where the whole theory falls apart.  The only way this is a big story about undue influence over the result of a referendum, is if those adverts actually caused people to change their mind from Remain to Leave, or simply to go out and vote Leave when they would not previously have voted at all.  But this relies on the assumption that there exists in this country, a large number of people who were sufficiently relaxed about immigration to have been happy to remain in the EU, right up until the idea was planted in their minds, that Turkey may be about to join.  And Carole seems to think that many of these people live in Ebbw Vale.

Well I don’t buy it.  By all means, Carole, continue to expose the extent to which Facebook, Google, Apple, Twitter, Amazon and all the other large tech companies harvest our personal data and sell it on to other companies.  That truly is a scandal that needs to be continually highlighted, and you and the Observer are to be congratulated for your determination in bringing the tech titans to account.  But stop with the efforts to use this story as an attempt to delegitimise the vote for Brexit, to suggest that were it not for shadowy adverts on Facebook, the vote would have gone the other way.  It wouldn’t, it didn’t and it’s time you and everyone else accepted that.

 

 

 

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Let’s tackle anti-semitism where it exists – not where it doesn’t

A friend asked me recently whether I’d considered writing a blog about the rising incidence of anti-Semitism within the Labour Pary and within Britain as a whole.

My response, quite honestly, was no.  It was, and still is, a topic about which I am extremely wary, and at the time I simply explained that I didn’t feel I, as a non-practising Catholic of British / South African heritage, was in any way qualified to comment on.  Particularly given there are a number of highly respected Jewish journalists who have already written, and continue to write, far more powerful pieces than I could ever hope to write on this topic.

But the other reason for my wariness, which I didn’t mention at the time, was because I have found myself on two separate occasions, on social media, accused of anti-semitism for failing to recognise particular “anti-Semitic tropes” of which I had previously been unaware.

The first involved a cartoon depicting George Soros as a puppeteer, pulling the strings of Tony Blair.  I don’t recall the particular context in which the cartoon was circulated – it was certainly something Brexit-related – but I was fascinated that many journalists that I follow and whose opinions I often respect, were immediately condemning it as anti-semitic.  In my usual bull-in-a-china-shop manner, I responded to one of the condemnatory tweets, expressing my bafflement at a criticism of George Soros being automatically labelled anti-semitic based purely, as far as I could see, on the fact that Soros is Jewish. Why, I asked, should Soros be immune from any criticism over undue influence he may wield over politicians? The answer, confusingly, was that the puppeteer is a familiar anti-semitic trope that not only was used extensively by the Nazis, but which even to this day is typically only ever used in relation to Jewish people.   Criticise Soros by all means, I was told, but don’t show him as a puppeteer.

Now, firstly, I will confess to my own ignorance – I was not previously aware, at all, of the puppeteer trope.  But a brief Google search did bring up plenty of Nazi and other more recent clearly anti-semitic propaganda material depicting Jewish puppeteers pulling the strings of society.  So I could, now, partially understand the reaction.

But I still took exception to my interlocutor’s insistence that it’s only ever Jews who are depicted as puppeteers.  Nonsense, I responded, attaching a few cartoon images and memes of Donald Trump portrayed as the puppet either of Vladimir Putin or Steve Bannon.   Why is it okay to depict Steve Bannon or Vladimir Putin as puppeteers, but not George Soros?  I received no answer – whether because I had raised a killer point, or whether my interlocutor had chosen to give up and dismiss me as a rampant anti-semite, I will never know.

 

The second incident involved a couple of EU-loving Remain activists photographed at a pro-EU rally, each wearing a single gold star labelled “French”. “Dreadful anti-semitism!” roared many of the Brexiteers that I follow on Twitter.  And once again I was utterly baffled as to how this display of love for the EU, and love for their country, from two French citizens, could possibly be perceived as anti-semitic.

Never one to blindly follow my own tribe, I waded in to the argument expressing my incredulity at what I saw as a blatant attempt to use the smear of anti-semitism to discredit a differing viewpoint.  It appeared clear to me that the stars these two were wearing – being 5-pointed stars of the same shape as those on the EU flag – were meant to symbolise exactly those stars.  They were not 6-pointed Stars of David, and in no way symbolic of the Jewish faith.

Nonsense, I was told.  Regardless of shape and number of points, a single yellow star attached to an item of clothing is an anti-semitic trope.  Particularly given the word “French” was written on the star – clearly meant to invoke memories of the holocaust, in which Jewish people were required to attach a yellow Star of David, labelled “Jew” to their clothing.

Now, once again, I have to confess my ignorance.  I remember learning about the holocaust and I remember learning about how Jews were forced to register as Jewish, and how the homes of Jewish people were painted with the word “Jew”, but I don’t recall the specificity of Jewish people being expected to wear a Star of David labelled “Jew” on their clothing.  But even having Googled it, and found many articles and images confirming what I was being told, I still couldn’t let go of the difference between the six-pointed Star of David and the five-pointed stars this couple were wearing.  To me they are as far apart in shape as a pentagon and a square – the geometric part of my mind saw them as simply not comparable.

But the more I insisted on this point, the more I alienated other participants in the conversation.  For refusing to accept the parallel between the stars this couple were wearing, and those worn by the Jewish victims of the holocaust, I was labelled a racist, an anti-semite, an appalling excuse for humanity.  I even found myself unceremoniously blocked by a couple of people who had been happily following me for months.

And here’s the thing.  With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that the couple were, indeed, trying to draw parallels with the holocaust.   Their message was that they, as French citizens, feel as unwelcome in Brexit Britain as the Jews felt in Nazi Germany.  Their message was crass, and to the survivors and descendants of survivors of the holocaust, probably deeply offensive in seeking to draw parallels between Brexit and the holocaust.

But that still doesn’t make it anti-semitic.  It was not aimed as a criticism of Jews, or Israel.  The message was aimed entirely at Brexiteers – those who had voted to take Britain out of the EU and by doing so, deprive French citizens of some of the rights they currently enjoy in the UK.   This couple were not criticising Jews -rather they were calling Brexiteers Nazis. Distasteful and juvenile – yes.  Anti-semitic – no.  But the Brexiteers, clearly offended at being once again compared to Nazis, were trying to spin it as anti-semitism in an effort to flip the balance of censure from themselves to the Remain activists.

Which brings me, finally, to the impetus for this blog.  I have found myself, today, fascinated and appalled by the accusations of anti-semitism against Paul Embery, a Fire Brigades Union official, for a tweet which had nothing to do with Jews, Jewishness, or even Israel.  The tweet was not directed at, nor about, a Jewish person.  Yet still it has been deemed anti-semitic for its use of two words that were apparently used by Stalin, about Jews, 70 years ago and which are therefore, apparently, an anti-semitic trope.

The two words?  “Rootless cosmopolitan”.  The full tweet (in response to a tweet stating that a nation is not a home):

“A nation is not a home”

I fear this encapsulates the divide in our society – between the rootless, cosmopolitan, bohemian middle class (in this case a bloke who used to sing folk songs on the BBC) and a rooted, communitarian, patriotic working class”

Screenshot 2019-04-08 at 22.11.15

Now, once again, I have to confess prior ignorance.  I had no idea that the phrase “rootless cosmopolitan” was a derogatory Stalinist term for Jews.  I will tuck this away in my knowledge bank for future reference.

But given my love of words, and grammar, I am forced to point out that “rootless cosmopolitan” is an adjective (rootless) describing a noun (cosmopolitan).  Embery, on the other hand, referred to the “rootless, cosmopolitan, bohemian middle class”.  Three adjectives describing a completely different noun (middle class). Embery’s tweet is so clearly aimed at highlighting the differences in viewpoint between the middle class and the working class, that it takes a quite extraordinary stretch of will to equate it with the Stalinist “rootless cosmopolitan” trope.

But this is the problem.  Where Brexit and Labour / Tory politics are concerned, no stretch of will is too great in the efforts to smear one’s opponents.  Embery, as a prominent Labour Brexiteer, will be finding himself in the cross-hairs not just of those who wish to remain in the EU, but also many Tories and Blairite Labour members who see an attack on him as an attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

In the meantime, genuine, blatant anti-semitism continues to manifest itself, not just within the Labour party but within the UK and the wider western world. The Conservative party has recently suspended a councillor for comments on social media agreeing with the notion that anti-semitism is a “false flag, probably masterminded by Mossad”.    The Jewish Labour Movement has passed a motion of no-confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership for failure to tackle anti-Semitism allegations.   These allegations include failure to expel members for Facebook posts stating “Heil Hitler” and “Jews are the problem”, and failure to expel members for supporting conspiracy theories blaming Israel for 9/11. And social media abounds with tweets blaming “the Jews” for any and all of the failings of modern society.

I still feel completely unqualified to comment in any meaningful capacity on what has led to such an alarming rise in anti-semitism and what needs to be done to tackle it.  As my examples above demonstrate, I’m clearly fairly ignorant and still have a great deal to learn about the preponderance of anti-semitic tropes.  But I will take my guidance on what is anti-semitic, not from journalists, activists and random angries on Twitter, but from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), whose working definition of anti-Semitism was adopted in a plenary meeting by the 31 countries in the IHRA and which has since been formally adopted by the British government.

The IHRA makes clear that anti-semitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as a hatred towards Jews.”  It provides numerous contemporary examples of anti-semitism, which I have listed in full below:

  • Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
     
  • Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
     
  • Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
     
  • Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
     
  • Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
     
  • Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
     
  • Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
     
  • Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
     
  • Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
     
  • Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
     
  • Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

It is clear to me from the above that criticism of the power, influence or behaviour of an individual Jewish person (George Soros) does not constitute anti-semitism.  Nor does comparing Brexiteers to Nazis constitute anti-semitism.  And nor, by any stretch of the imagination, does the use of the words “rootless cosmopolitan” constitute anti-semitism, nor does it automatically evoke comparisons with Stalinist hatred of Jews.

There are more than enough genuine cases of anti-semitism in the UK which clearly do fit the IHRA definition, and clearly do need to be taken extremely seriously. But those who would use false accusations of anti-semitism to smear a political opponent, are no better than those who shout “racist” to shut down conversations they simply don’t want to have, and to drown out arguments to which they simply don’t wish to listen.  If it’s crass and disrespectful for pro-EU activists to evoke the holocaust in order to brand Brexiteers as Nazis, surely it’s equally crass and disrespectful for journalists to evoke Stalinist persecution of Jews, in order to discredit a Labour Brexiteer who is attempting to discuss issues of class and community.  Surely we can all do better than this?

 

 

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My Plan for Brexit? Walk Away

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“None of the Brexiteers had a plan.  Do you?”

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked this question on social media, I’d be a rich woman.  In a very recent experience, a Facebook friend demanded I present him with my plan for Brexit, after I commented on a post he’d shared about Jacob Rees-Mogg’s company not paying any corporation tax.  That’s right, the post wasn’t even about Brexit but for those suffering from Brexit Derangement Syndome, I guess everything is about Brexit.

Now, I’ve fallen too many times into the trap of trying to argue the benefits of Brexit with ardent Remainers, and I’ve learned that it’s a bad idea.  When they ask what my plan is, or why I believe so strongly in leaving, they are not asking out of any genuine curiosity.  The question is always posed in a tone of anger and frustration, and whatever answer one gives is instantly derided as fantasy.  The question is a clear opener for a protracted argument, and the longer one tries to defend one’s position, the more acrimonious the conversation becomes, and the more pointless.

So this time, I made it clear that I wasn’t going to waste my time presenting my ‘plan’ for Brexit as my interlocutor clearly wasn’t interested in reading it. Only it turned out this was also not the right response – I was then derided by him and a select few of his ‘friends’ as yet another dishonest Brexiteer who runs away when the situation becomes difficult.  Insults were exchanged and the conversation went from bad to so much worse.

At the time, in the heat of the argument, I couldn’t think clearly enough to see how ridiculous this whole situation was.  But think about it for a minute.  When did we start holding individual voters accountable for the failure of politicians?  At what point did we decide that once you vote for someone or something, you are personally responsible for everything that follows, whether or not it was what you expected?  When last did you hear somebody angrily demand, for example, that any individual Labour voter should justify the Blair government’s decision to lead us into the Iraq war?  When last did we ask Labour voters to tell us what their plan was, for fixing the mess that ensued?

If Remainers are angry about the mess that the British government is making of Brexit, it is nothing to what many Leavers feel.  Those of us who voted for Leave, did so in the honest belief that the government would fulfill its promise to implement the decision of the referendum. We didn’t each have our own individual plans as to how the process would work – we trusted the government to do their jobs and get on with it.  What we certainly didn’t plan on was Gina Miller suing the government to allow Parliament to have the final say over Brexit.  Nor did we plan on ministers going behind the government’s back to hold talks with the EU on how to stop Brexit.  We didn’t plan on two and a half years of ministers, ex-ministers and Lords claiming to accept the result of the referendum while using every trick in the book to try to overturn it.  And we didn’t plan on the government’s absolute refusal to prepare for a no-deal scenario, effectively crippling our negotiating position with the EU.

If anything, it should be Leavers angrily demanding of Remainers, what their plan is. What do they honestly think is going to happen if they manage to secure their second referendum and, despite all the evidence that shows almost nobody has changed their minds, the result miraculously swings to Remain?  Do they honestly believe that we will simply continue as members of the EU and that that will be the end of it?  Personally, I think it’s far more likely that come the next general election, we will see a huge swing to UKIP and the Brexit party as voters, fed-up of being ignored by the current crop of MPs, seek to install a new Parliament that is more willing to do what the electorate asks of them.  And if that happens, then we will simply end up starting the whole process all over again once the new Parliament is installed.

Even if, as many Remainers probably secretly hope, article 50 is revoked and Brexiteers find themselves so disillusioned that they simply give up on voting, do Remainers really believe that Britain’s membership of the EU will continue as it has in the past?  Are they honestly so blind and deaf to the repeated messages from Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Guy Verhofstadt, making it clear that the EU is intent on further federalism and that the only options available will be full membership (including membership of the Euro) and associate membership with no voting rights (something which sounds very similar to Mrs May’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement)?  If Remainers really still wish to block our exit from the EU, surely it should be time we start asking them which of the two available EU membership options they wish us to pursue in future, along with a full economic analysis of what they believe the benefits of their chosen option to be.

It is naïve in the extreme to think that we can go back to where we were before the referendum.   And the height of arrogance to still cling to the notion that we ever had the power to influence EU decisions unless those decisions had the express approval of France and Germany.  We may like to believe we have always been a rule-maker within the EU but the reality is we have always been largely a rule-taker, our opinions amplified when they accord with the general direction the EU wishes to take, and ignored when they don’t.

And where are we now?  It is hard to comprehend the unholy mess that the British government has made of negotiations with the EU – it may be true that Brexiters never had a plan but neither, clearly, did the government.  Even after the vote went to Leave, the government still failed to do the one thing that it should have been doing right from the start, and plan for a no-deal scenario.   While most of us are familiar with the refrain “hope for the best but plan for the worst”, Mrs May and her advisors have chosen instead to beg for scraps.

So there’s no point, now, asking me what my plan is.  Any hopes I may have had as to how Brexit could be handled, have been thoroughly dashed by a combination of treachery and incompetence that have made a complete mockery of what I actually voted for.  I voted to leave based on promises (and threats) that to do so would mean leaving the single market and leaving the customs union.  I voted with a wish that, free from the constraints of EU membership, we would be able to set our own immigration policy that would judge applicants not based on where they come from but on what they can offer our country, and that we would be able to focus on trade not just with the declining markets of the EU but with the rapidly-growing markets in the rest of the world.  And I voted in the full knowledge that leaving would be a major disruption to the UK economy, which would cause uncertainty and potential short-term economic harm – something I felt was worth enduring for the long-term benefits I still believe leaving would allow.

I don’t know what is going to happen next.  At the moment, it’s looking like MPs are steeling themselves to cave in and accept Mrs May’s deal, telling themselves that it’s either this deal or no Brexit. And I am hoping and praying that they hold firm and refuse to accept the deal.  Despite my initial efforts to convince myself that this deal was the best compromise available given almost half the country don’t wish to leave, I can’t now see this deal as anything other than a permanent surrender to associate EU membership, with no option to leave in future.  And while that may yet prove to be the best option available to us in the long term, I really would prefer to see us either leave on 12 April without a deal and continue to try to negotiate a free trade deal, or ask for a long extension to article 50 to enable a new government to be installed – one that would prepare, right from the start, for a no-deal exit and that would be willing to negotiate on that basis.

But to those who ask me on social media what my plan is, I have a very simple answer. Walk away.  I see your attempt to start an argument and I’m tired of it. You may think “what’s your plan” is a great way to get a debate going but I now recognise it as a clear indication that you are simply spoiling for a fight.   Not to mention a little bit soft in the head in thinking any plan I may have would make the slightest difference to our government.  When you find that your opponent is no longer interested in discussion, and instead just wants to punish you, the only option is to walk away. Something Mrs May sadly doesn’t appear to have learned yet.

 

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Dear Jessica – a social media etiquette dilemma

I have a friend who has an annoying habit of removing my comments from her posts on Facebook, when they don’t conform to the response she was hoping for or expecting.

The first time she did it, I genuinely didn’t know what was going on.  She had posted a link to a news article about a coup in Turkey, with a simple comment indicating her sadness at the news. For some reason, the coup had already gripped my attention and I had been avidly reading news and analysis of it for the last couple of days, so responded with links to three different articles which I had found to be interesting reading, and which I thought she may like to read.  I then carried on scrolling through my news feed and looking at posts from other friends.

A few hours later another friend commented on the Turkey post and I noticed, with great surprise, that the three links I had posted had vanished.  After a few minutes of scratching my head about what could have happened to them, I came to the only possible conclusion – she must have removed them.  But it just seemed such an odd thing to do, and so out of character, that I found myself compelled to message her to ask if she had removed them and if so, why.

She confirmed she had indeed removed the comments and that she’d done it because, there being three of them, she felt that I had “hijacked” her post with my own opinions, rather than understanding the fact that she simply wanted to express her sadness at reading about such turmoil taking place in a country she had recently visited, and to whose people she had particularly warmed.  It seemed the only comments she really had wanted to see in response, were those of a sympathetic nature – or, in my more uncharitable reading of the situation (I was annoyed at her behaviour and so was not feeling particularly charitable) it seemed what she was really looking for was a validation of her own feelings, rather than any actual empathy with the people of Turkey.  She certainly didn’t seem interested in actually trying to understand or discuss the situation.

I did accept, though, that three comments probably had been a bit overenthusiastic – I am not completely blind to my own faults and I can see how my occasional tendency to react too quickly and volubly to friends’ posts can prove annoying in the extreme.  So I agreed to be a bit more circumspect in future and nothing more was said about it.

But now she’s gone and done it again.  She posted a link to a “Brexit yoga” video which, while very cleverly scripted and therefore faintly amusing, has an underlying theme which I found particularly insulting, peddling the same old tired lines about Brexit being an expression of rising nationalism and an unwillingness to pay for Greek debt.  But rather than responding, as I was tempted to do, with a breakdown of every way in which the video was insulting, offensive and just plain ignorant, I chose to respond with humour.  So I posted a link to Dominic Frisby’s excellent “17 million fuck offs” song about Brexit.  If she wants to post Brexit-related stuff that she finds funny, I figured, I’ll do the same in response.

And quick as a flash, she deleted it.  No response, no message to tell me she was going to remove it – she simply removed it.

And I found myself wondering what happened to the Daily Mash’s wonderful six-year-old agony aunt, Holly, who I felt certain would be able to provide the perfect advice as to how to respond to such a situation.  Sadly Holly doesn’t appear to be working for the Daily Mash any longer as I can’t find any recent advice columns from her, but I decided instead to write to my own six-year-old correspondent, Jessica.

Dear Jessica

My friend keeps posting political stuff on Facebook and then removing any comments that threaten the sanctity of her echo chamber.  Should I continue to call her out on it, or just pretend I haven’t noticed and let it go?

Yours, Politics-addict

Dear Politics-addict

It sounds like your friend needs to learn to share.  Johnny Simkins recently brought in a bag of sweets that his mummy had given him to share with the class but then he decided to keep most of them for himself and only gave out one each to Lucy and Jamie, and that was only after they sucked up to him by telling him how much they liked his new Blaster Gun.  I think it’s naff and I told him so.  And then I went and used my lunch money to buy my own sweets.

Hope that helps

Jessica

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