Friday, 8 February 2019

In defence of Dr Nikki Alexander and Dr Donald Tusk

As you may know, I’m an avid viewer of BBC Television’s Silent Witness. I’m always sad when a series comes to an end, as No 22 did on Tuesday. As ever, it was a contemporary storyline and it had an individual conundrum running through it. That was a crisis of trust in one of the team of forensic pathologists around whom the series revolves. Dr Nikki Alexander (played by Emilia Fox) is the scrupulous lead pathologist whose results are challenged in court in an appeal concerning the death of a policeman. Somehow the original evidence has been corrupted by an interested party. Here ends the plot spoiler.
The episodes end with Nikki as witness, as the individual responsible for sabotaging the forensic evidence appears in court. She is asked by the prosecuting barrister:
Dr Alexander, what are the consequences of the defendant’s actions on your work?
She replies:
“What’s the point of experts if nobody trusts them? What’s the point of evidence if it can so easily be contaminated? The whole integrity of what we strive to achieve could have been catastrophically undermined. What my colleagues and I seek to do is understand the cause and manner of a person’s death. But we don’t only deal with the dead; we deal with the living – the families, the judiciary, the coroner, the police, the public, the press. And they all have to trust us, and if there is a betrayal of that trust, there is a crime. The opposite of truth is not just a lie; the opposite of truth is chaos, chaos that is in danger of bringing down the institutions we depend on – to deliver justice.”
Thank you, Dr Alexander.

During the referendum campaign, The Daily Telegraph reported on 10th June 2016:
“I think people in this country,” declared Vote Leave’s Michael Gove, “have had enough of experts.” His fellow Brexiteers were quick to back him up. “There is only one expert that matters,” said Labour MP Gisela Stuart, also of Vote Leave, “and that’s you, the voter.” Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip, suggested that many independent experts were actually in the pay of the Government or the EU. This concerted undermining of experts was a major tactic of the Leave Campaign. Warnings of the complexity and potential consequences of exiting from real experts were poo-pooed, and who can forget the nonsense of the red bus? "The opposite of truth is not just a lie; the opposite of truth is chaos, chaos that is in danger of bringing down the institutions we depend on…" And we are now reaping the whirlwind.

Which explains Donald Tusk, the European Council President’s comments: “I have been wondering what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan to deliver it safely.” And I guess it also explains the intemperate response of leading Brexiteers to his musings. Commons leader, Andrea Leadsom, who campaigned for Britain's exit from the EU, said Mr Tusk should apologise for his "disgraceful" and "spiteful" comments.

No doubt some of the Brexiteers realise that Donald Tusk might have been thinking about Dante’s Inferno (of which Wikipedia gives a useful summary for those who don’t want to read the whole allegory). “In the poem, Hell is depicted as nine concentric circles of torment located within the Earth; it is the ‘realm ... of those who have rejected spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence, or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellowmen’.”

Each circle is reserved for increasingly bad people. The bullseye at the bottom is reserved for the epitome of evil, the Devil. Two circles out from there is the eighth, the Circle of Fraud, which is subdivided into ten evil “ditches”, the Malebolge. Writing in the 1950s Dorothy L. Sayers described this as, "the image of the City in corruption: the progressive disintegration of every social relationship, personal and public. Sexuality, ecclesiastical and civil office, language, ownership, counsel, authority, psychic influence, and material interdependence – all the media of the community's interchange are perverted and falsified".

In the penultimate ditch Dante sees the “Sowers of Discord: In the Ninth Bolgia, the Sowers of Discord are hacked and mutilated for all eternity by a large demon wielding a bloody sword; their bodies are divided as, in life, their sin was to tear apart what God had intended to be united; these are the sinners who are 'ready to rip up the whole fabric of society to gratify a sectional egotism'. The souls must drag their ruined bodies around the ditch, their wounds healing in the course of the circuit, only to have the demon tear them apart anew.”
I don’t imagine at all that Donald Tusk sees the EU as God-given, merely as a proven instrument of peace and prosperity for Europe. Neither do I have reason to suppose his wondering went as far as consigning “those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan to deliver it safely” to the ninth ditch of the eighth circle of hell. But I wonder whether the cap fits.

Of course I am not so naïve as to suggest that the promoters of Brexit were the first or only perverters and falsifiers of all the media of the community's interchange. It was certainly one of their weapons, but we have seen it in such monsters as Cambridge Analytica, we have seen it in the political life of the USA, and in the widespread use of targeted disinformation used to justify military and economic interventions designed to destabilise societies. In this, patently, the internet is a pervasively powerful instrument, with the potential to cause more damage than an atom bomb. However, it is clear that the Brexit-movement has had the effect of magnifying unrest in many of whom we used to call our European friends, and who remain our European neighbours. Some Eurosceptics no doubt rejoice at witnessing the opening of Pandora’s box and anticipate Europe’s disintegration with glee.

“The opposite of truth is not just a lie; the opposite of truth is chaos, chaos that is in danger of bringing down the institutions we depend on…” We are now discovering that Dr Alexander was right. And “the living”, who are the next generation, are the ones who will have the task of bringing back truth, and rescuing order from the chaos.

Monday, 31 December 2018

A celebration or a denial of humanity?

I trust you’ve enjoyed some time off over the Christmas period. Some of our extended family work in the NHS and so have had days or nights on duty; meanwhile my brother who’s a clergy person was working Christmas Day and was working again yesterday. When we had a meal with my siblings and partners on Thursday he told me he was going to preach about the Holy Innocents, the children under of two years and younger whose massacre King Herod ordered in a gruesome footnote to Matthew’s story of the first Christmas. I’ve no idea what he was going to say to encourage the good people of West Oxford.

However there is a topicality about the story – which maybe he will allude to. Because of course it’s thanks to an angelic tip-off that the Holy Family become refugees fleeing into Egypt. Sarah Teather of the Jesuit Refugee Service pointed out on Radio 4 yesterday morning how easy it is to sanitise the story. “…it might be easy to gloss over the surface of the story of the Flight to Egypt; to wrap it up in Christmas cheer and leap straight to the lucky escape of the Holy Family. [Rachel weeping for her children] calls us back – to the horror of Herod’s atrocity, to the open wound of forced exile and the enduring trauma of violence, which cannot be mended by cheap comfort.” 

According to the UN Refugee Agency there are currently 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, two million more than the population of the United Kingdom. I find it deeply troubling that 220 people since November have been so desperate to seek protection that they have risked their savings and their lives to cross the Channel in rubber dinghies – and we have dubbed it a “major incident” (presumably a euphemism for crisis) and we don’t mean it for them but for us. The Home Secretary has broken off his family holiday to “take charge”, the Junior Minister for Immigration has leapt into action and the MP for Dover has been joining in the hoo-hah. Comments have been dressed up in concern for the migrants’ safety and indignation transferred to the gangs who exploit them and set them off on the dangerous crossing. However it is clear, is it not, that what is fuelling this fire is an antipathy to people seeking safety and a new life in this country? There is little doubt that if one of these little boats had contained a homeless carpenter and his wife and baby child they would have been unwelcome here too.

How pathetic is a country as wealthy and populous as ours getting all hot under the collar about a few hundred folk asking for our help! In fact I think it’s worse. It’s a sign of nastily insular and selfish opinion formers who probably reflect the nation’s mood. It is profoundly at odds with the supposed Christian values which we, like Hungary, purport to espouse. Those values have been more faithfully reflected by the so-called “Stansted 15” who risked being locked up and incurring criminal charges for protecting 60 people who were being forcibly repatriated to countries where they believed their lives to be in danger.
©Kristian Boos
“Many will face persecution, harm or death when they arrive, or the widely documented violence and abuse from security contractors on these flights. 
“The Stansted action was the first time people protesting against the immigration system grounded a deportation flight in the UK. Several people due to be forced onto the flight were able to stay because of the action, which bought time to hear their applications” (Stansted 15 story). Incredibly the fifteen have been found guilty under a law which originated in terrorism legislation.

For Christmas my daughter gave me the dvd of The Greatest Showman, the musical about the impresario P.T.Barnum, whose circus of oddities brought him money and notoriety. From the start he is hounded by a prominent theatre critic named James Gordon Bennett, who will not concede that Barnum’s show is serious entertainment. For years there is nasty opposition to the “freaks” who provide the acts, which culminates in a brawl between the actors and the right-wing thugs who want them out of New York. The thugs set light to the theatre and Barnum is ruined. At this point Bennett appears and sits beside Barnum on the steps of the charred ruins.

James Gordon Bennett: I never liked your show. But I always thought the people did.
P. T. Barnum: They did. They do.
Bennett: Mind you, I wouldn’t call it art.
P. T. Barnum: Of course not.
Bennett: But… putting folks of all kinds on stage with you… all colours, shapes, sizes… presenting them as equals… Why, another critic might have even called it “a celebration of humanity.”
P. T. Barnum: I would’ve liked that.

Will this country remain a celebration of humanity, or will the purists and the thugs they persuade drive away the alien who seeks to sojourn here?

I wouldn’t like that.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

A wise man named Alexander returns to earth

Alexander Gerst has twice been an astronaut with the International Space Station, once 2014 and once this year. He returned to earth this morning in Kazakhstan. Earlier this year, the 42-year-old geophysicist and volcanologist was shocked by the difference he witnessed as he viewed the earth from space. A month ago he recorded a message for his unborn grandchildren. It should be listened to, by everyone.

“Dear grandchildren,

“You have not been born yet, and I do not know if I will ever meet you, so I’ve decided to record this message for you. I’m on the International Space Station in the Cupola Observation Module gazing down at your beautiful planet. And although I’ve now almost spent a year of my life in space and looked at Earth every single day, I just can’t get enough of this view.

“I know it probably sounds strange to you, but at the time the Space Station was built and was up here in orbit, not everyone was able to travel into space and see the Earth from a distance. Before me, only around 500 people had the chance. At this very moment, there are 7 billion people living down there on Earth and only three of them live in space. And when I look down at the planet, I think I need to apologise to you.
“Right now, it looks like we – my generation – are not going to leave this planet in its best condition for you. Of course, in retrospect many people will say they weren’t aware of what we were doing. But in reality, we humans know that right now we’re polluting the planet with carbon dioxide, we're making the climate reach tipping point, we’re clearing forests, we’re polluting the oceans with garbage, we’re consuming the limited resources far too quickly, and we’re waging mostly pointless wars.

“And every one of us has to take a good look at themselves and think about where this is leading. I very much hope for our own sake that we can still get our act together and improve a few things. And I hope that we won’t be remembered by you as the generation who selfishly and ruthlessly destroyed your livelihood.

“I’m sure you understand these things much better than my generation. And who knows, maybe we’ll learn something new, such as: taking a step always helps; this fragile spaceship called Earth is much smaller than most people can imagine; how fragile the Earth’s biosphere is and how limited its resources are; that it's worth getting along with your neighbours; that dreams are more valuable than money and you have to give them a chance; that boys and girls can do things equally well, but that every one of you has one thing that he or she can do much better than all the others; that the simple explanations are often wrong and that one’s own point of view is always incomplete; that the future is more important than the past; that one should never fully grow up; and that opportunities only come along once. You have to take a risk for things that are worth it, and any day during which you discovered something new – one where you gazed beyond your horizon – is a good day.

“I wish I could look into the future through your eyes, into your world and how you see it. Unfortunately, that is not possible and therefore the only thing that remains for me is to try to make your future the best one I can possibly imagine.

International Space Station – Commander of Expedition 57, Alexander Gerst – 25 November 2018 – 400 km above the Earth's surface

What a great perspective! Politicians generally have such short-term vision. If they could only see what’s needed for their grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s good! And if only we, who elect them, would - while we can!

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Soapboxes, the Sun and demagoguery

“I see Michael’s back on his soap-box!” said one of my good friends last night. He gave up reading my last post, Are referendums democratic - or not? Let's get real halfway through, he said. Thanks a bunch, Boris!
Picture from Too Busy To
I protested that it was just an argument about consistency. Anyway, today, I have a real concern, in fact a fear. It’s this. Even if there were a second referendum, for which I think are perfectly admissible justifications, there are plenty of demagogues who would take to the airwaves and all forms of media to stir up civil strife.

The Sun newspaper today employs the lurid tones of demagoguery in its comment column, “The Sun says”, headlined, “The Tories must prevent Remainer MPs from stealing Brexit from the ­British people
“What a tsunami of rage politicians would unleash by ignoring the democratic rights of millions on the winning side of the biggest vote in British history.” The article quotes the Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox accusing some of his fellow MPs of “stealing Brexit from the British people.” And it ends, “If Remain won, our democracy would be shattered, all faith in politicians destroyed. That never ends well.
“Do you think Brits are too reserved for civil disorder? Cast your mind back to the riots of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990 or 2011. Or the febrile atmosphere of the referendum, during which Jo Cox MP was heartbreakingly murdered.
“What a tsunami of rage politicians would unleash by ignoring the democratic rights of millions on the winning side of the biggest vote in British history.”

Now that, my friend, is soap-boxing. No it’s more. It’s rabble-rousing. How dare The Sun quote Jo Cox’s murder in a perversion of what she stood for? If you are looking for the roots of the populism that has undermined faith in politicians, you need search no further than the rhetoric of this flagship of Grub Street, the tabloid press. No doubt someone felt very proud of his or her vitriol, but I doubt very much if they stopped to consider whether it was contributing to the health of public discussion in the country.

Why should Great Britain be unable to hold two referendums without tearing the social fabric apart whilst neighbours such as Ireland and Denmark have done so without destroying themselves, and Switzerland repeatedly put the same questions to the nation and keep ticking along like a Rolex watch? Are we so much less civilised than them? The only reason that we might be is not that we lack reserve, but that the likes of The Sun and cabinet ministers such as Dr Fox and Mr Gove (and even the Prime Minister) embark on their own project, Project Hate, ably assisted by the chorus line of ex-ministers and politicians. If there were a referendum concerning Mrs May’s agreement, it would only be as useful and civilised as those leading the debate. It might conceivably be that those wanting a “People’s Vote” are concerned for more than wanting to remain in Europe.

It’s not enough to stick your fingers in your ears and shout, “La-la-la!”, and to hurl insults at those who want to say something you don’t want to hear. If you’re truly concerned for peace and national unity, then you have to talk and not shout, listen and not stop your ears – above all, you need to admit that you may be mistaken.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Are referendums democratic - or not? Let's get real.

I have kept my counsel with remarkable restraint for the past couple of years, but I’m sorry. I can do so no longer. Which is by way of a rant warning, but really… I have had enough of the continually repeated mantra, “Another referendum would be anti-democratic.”

For one thing you can’t have it both ways. For another it’s clearly fallacious. For a third I gather that if the government threatens that, if the House of Commons fails to approve Mrs May’s compromise Brexit deal, it will be presented for a vote again when, presumably, the markets’ negative reaction will have spooked MPs into changing their mind. For a fourth far from another referendum being a rerun of the June 2016 one, this would be the difference between voting on substantial proposals and voting on a promise of unicorns – and don’t dare tell me that the “ordinary voter” is too dim to understand what’s being proposed.

The pressure for a referendum came in the first place from the arch-Eurosceptics who had long peddled their myths about the EU. Now they have turned into a “research group” of sloganising Brexiteers who have been revealed as wearing the emperor’s clothes, or pin-striped suits. But they can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim that another referendum would not be democratic – if the first one was. Once you let the referendum cat out of the bag, as the logical Swiss know, there’s no way you can capture it again. It’s entirely democratic to say to the people, “Almost three years ago you voted by a small majority that we should leave the EU. Since then our keenest Brexiteers have been negotiating and this is the best package that your government have managed come up with. Is this what you want? The alternatives are to leave with no deal (which would mean the following…) or to stay in the EU and influence its decisions from within."

By the way, I have little patience with the Brexiteers’ bogus claim that the fact that both the Tories and Labour at the last election included implementing Brexit in their manifestoes indicates that 82.5% of people were in favour of that policy. What rubbish! I certainly voted for one of those parties. That does not indicate that I was voting for their every policy, but for the whole package that I judged would be best for the country and the team I trusted more. I suspect that is true of every voter in every election. That means that one is not entitled to extrapolate that each person who votes for a party also is endorsing each of its policies. It’s a fallacy. I voted to remain in Europe, but hoped that the parties would in the end see sense.

It's also a fallacy to call one plebiscite (referendum) an exercise of democracy and another a denial of democracy. You can argue that holding any referendum is a denial of representative, or parliamentary, democracy, based on the premise that the people vote for representatives they trust to debate and make informed decisions on their behalf. The 2016 referendum bears this out. The decision to hold a referendum was an abdication of parliamentary responsibility in the face of a fierce populist onslaught on the principle of parliamentary democracy.

There were rumours put out last week that, if Mrs May’s deal was not voted through on 11th December, then the MPs' Christmas break might be put off for another vote, I assume in the hope that there will enough hoo-hah from industry and the financial markets that they will change their minds. Their Christmas might even be cancelled! Hang on! If a second referendum is antidemocratic as is argued, how can a repeat vote in Parliament be democratic? You can’t have it both ways.

Another referendum on the other hand wouldn’t be a repeat vote. The issue is now quite different from June 2016. Then the question was simple: In or Out? But the evidence was all hypothetical. For example: Out, and the economy would suffer. Out, and the NHS would benefit by £35 million a week. Out, and we'll "regain control". Now we have a potential agreement for withdrawal and have concrete evidence for what would be entailed in the UK’s departure from the EU. And many MPs see that it is the worst of all worlds. I suspect more MPs are unhappy with the agreement now than ever were sceptical about the EU. What a pity they weren’t more effective in advocating its benefits all along.

As Brexiteers were wont to tell us and I agree with them, ordinary folk are quite capable of understanding facts and issues. The trouble before June 2016 is that they weren’t given them – because they weren’t known. We now know a whole lot more, for example about net migration, housing, schooling and the health service. We know exactly what the terms of the withdrawal agreement are. If the electorate was trusted once, why not trust them again? Perhaps the additional number of 18- to 20-year olds might affect the vote, which probably the Brexiteers fear. But in my opinion the outcome of any referendum is by no means a foregone conclusion. I fear Michael Gove might be right, "“I actually think if there were a second referendum people would probably vote to Leave in even larger numbers than they did before." However his claim that the very act of calling a second referendum would damage faith in democracy and rip apart the social fabric of this country would very much depend on him and his ilk. If damaging democracy becomes their strapline then a large minority of the population will swallow the bait, ignoring the fact that parliamentary democracy has already been damaged and relegated to being of less importance than plebiscite democracy. Were they to resist the Dominic Cummings' policy of social media slogans and discuss the real issues, it would be possible to reach the most desirable outcome of settling one way or another the present stalemate which is poisoning the UK’s body politic. 

I don't envy Theresa May and the Procrustean bed she chose to lie on. She has shown amazing courage in the past year as ministers have deserted her. I hope she will show yet more courage in trusting the people one more time. She might be surprised at the outcome. Will she, the government and MPs be prepared to take the risk of asking the country anew?

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

The spreading wen

There’s a scene in Yes, Minister in which the minister, Jim Hacker, and his private secretary, Bernard Woolley, are being driven to Oxford for Hacker to be wined and dined at one of the Oxford University colleges. On the M40 a thought occurs to Jim Hacker, why there are two really good roads to Oxford (M40 and M4) and none to any of the ports, such as Southampton, Dover or Lowestoft. “Nearly all the Permanent Secretaries went to Oxford,” replies Bernard, “and most Oxford colleges do really good dinners…”

I was reminded of this when the local news was again about the “brain-belt expressway” announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond (Oxford University), in his autumn statement designed to run between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge. Before the summer holiday the Secretary of State for Transport, Chris Grayling (Cambridge University), announced, “We expect to make a decision on the preferred corridor for the Oxford to Cambridge expressway this summer.” Five days ago an indicative route (Option B) was announced, which local naturalists say is the worst of all possible options. “The potential impact on biodiversity of corridor B is so serious that the route should have been discounted entirely” (Estelle Bailey, BBOWT). The potential cost was estimated as just less that £3.5 billion in July 2017, but we know how public spending estimates escalate. It’s projected for completion in 2050. It’s proposed to build lots of houses along the route (lots means, I read, a million – the equivalent of three Sheffields); and so London creeps north. The impact on biodiversity would of course be huge.

Will the Prime Minister, Theresa May (Oxford University), have enough energy or will power after Brexit to question the sense of the scheme? What do you think? You might think that I who had the immense privilege of spending some of my education in both Cambridge and Oxford would be an enthusiastic supporter of this vanity project. I know that it has lots of fancy justifications behind it dreamed up, no doubt, by dutiful Oxbridge civil servants. However there is already a fledgling restoration of the former Varsity railway line starting from Oxford, which could extend to Bedford and Cambridge and have far less impact on the environment and, one would imagine, cost less. More public transport must be preferable to more private cars and juggernauts. And there's something called the internet.

What most perplexes me is what has happened to the famous Northern Powerhouse once so loved by the Tories? Perhaps it was defenestrated along with young George Osborne. So HS2 gets only as far as that great northern city, Birmingham. Heathrow gets enormous investment with yet another runway, while regional airports which are accessible to most of the country remain undeveloped. No one, it seems, has the political courage proactively to resist the metropolitan drift which clogs the infrastructure of the south-east and starves the rest of the country.

It was William Cobbett in his Rural Rides (1830) who described London as the Great Wen (sebaceous cyst) and asked, "But, what is to be the fate of the great wen of all? The monster, called, by the silly coxcombs of the press, 'the metropolis of the empire?”
The answer is that, though the empire is long gone (despite the illusions of some Brexiteers), the monster has continued to spread and no amount of green-belt sticking plaster has been able to restrain it and it is as ugly and unnecessary as a boil, since no one has the courage to squeeze it and nourish other parts of the body politic instead.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Always look on the bright side - or count your blessings

Today has been a particularly good one. For one thing it's suited me being a tad cooler. I don't want the summer to end too soon. It would be nice to have a sunny holiday.

At the moment my lift is receiving its six-monthly health check from Ashley, our regular lift engineer and emergency doctor. He is such an expert even in Pollock lifts which aren’t his stock in trade. What's more, he's a lovely guy. These regular services are one of the benefits that I receive because of my incapacity.
Our old Yeti
Earlier in the day we drove to our nearest Volkswagen dealer as the time is coming to change my Motability vehicle. Sadly the fashionable Skoda Yeti is no longer being produced and so I’ve done my research and decided a Touran – which is a bit bigger - is my best bet. VWs have a delay in their production, I gather, as they’re working on their emissions…. So it looks as though we’ll have to wait for a few months to take delivery. But Motability are good and should allow us to keep our Yeti until the Touran is ready. The Motability scheme which provides cars, insurance, servicing etc using the mobility component of your PIP (Personal Independence Payment, the replacement of the old Disability Living Allowance) is great – as long as you receive it. However it’s far from a foregone conclusion, these days, that if you’re disabled you’ll be allowed it. A very helpful and efficient chap called Kit steered us through the process of ordering.

Then before that I had an appointment with the podiatrist. These happen every six weeks, and I have them free on the NHS after I almost pulled a nail off a toe with my rollator a couple of years ago. I never quite know who I’ll see as our local surgery is part of an area podiatry service. But today a new rather skilled podiatrist called Lottie dealt with me. My toenails are not a pleasant phenomenon, but she soon had them sorted out. I hope she treats me again.

As we returned home for lunch and considered how much help we received, we reflected that although having MND was not a choice we’d ever ever make, I am really well provided for and have a lot to be grateful for. To cap today off, Pete and Jane, two of our best friends will be coming round tonight to have supper.

Above all and beneath it all, of course, is Jane. I read this sentence while waiting for the podiatrist: “Caring for a loved one is among the most selfless acts that can be imagined.” Yes, spot on. I’m a lucky man.