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Should we blame Boris, Theresa, or David?

It looks like the bigger consequences of the Brexit vote are about to hit. Everyone thought "no deal" was a laughable extreme back in 2016, and now our government seems to be sailing deliberately towards it.

Do we blame David Cameron, who naively called an ill-prepared vote? Theresa May who dogmatically stuck to extreme "red lines" in the negotiations, failed to get a majority in a General Election, failed to get the agreement voted through, and yet dogmatically refused to consider compromise positions, again and again? Or do we blame incompetent cartoon character Boris Johnson - whose main achievement as London Mayor was the foolish "garden bridge" plan that went nowhere after wasting tons of our money - now arrogantly pushing us to no-deal despite the danger for ordinary people, as well as the democratic deficit?

It's crucial to remember that none of these people is at the root of all this. The Conservative Party as a whole should carry the blame. (Or the credit, if no-deal is a success - sure, why not.) They are currently pushing a heck of a lot of effort into trying to blame the EU for any no-deal Brexit: pretending the EU is refusing to negotiate, when in fact the EU is refusing to reopen negotiations it's just spent two years on, or at least refusing to reopen them unless the UK government proposes a way forwards. The Conservative party have got us into this mess - not just the British public! There were many different routes the government could have taken from 2016 onwards, and this embarrassing mismanagement comes from the Conservative party, again and again. Their MPs and leaders, the government ministers, the membership. We can consider blaming Corbyn for not being an EU cheerleader, but frankly, his subdued triangulating is a minor footnote in this shambles of bad tactics.

I might be tempted to go deeper and say our First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) voting system is on the hook, since that's the reason that the Conservative Party (and Labour) sticks together in the shape it does, and why they feel the need to pander to extremists. But that might be a little too indirect.

We're already suffering the consequences of the Brexit vote. (Personally: I've lost multiple colleagues who have gone overseas, lost opportunities, etc. Collectively, we've lost a lot of influence, and we've wasted a heck of a lot of time we could have been spending fixing the climate crisis.) I'm particularly concerned about what will happen next. In particular, a perverse incentive of a crisis such as no-deal: it gives the sitting government a rare opportunity to ram through emergency legislation which might reshape the British settlement more radically than is normally achievable. The Conservative Party has already shown simple-minded cruelty in voluntarily imposing a cost-slashing "austerity" agenda on the UK for a decade - an agenda wihch may have led to over a hundred thousand excess deaths. They have demonstrated that they don't worry about whether poorer people suffer the side-effects of their big ideas. What more would they like to do?

We see some hints of changes that Brexit might enable: today the food industry claimed it's going to need exemption from the laws of fair competition in order to keep everybody fed. That argument wouldn't get anywhere near the table in ordinary times.

I'm opposed to Brexit but I certainly think naively "cancelling" it would be as harmful as going forward. The right way to proceed, clearly, is to take more time to find a true compromise outcome (which may well turn out to be a soft-ish Brexit, although no-one on any side wants to admit that). The rush now is for selfish reasons. We don't yet have a plan. - And, for our current government, perhaps it's more than just a necessary evil, perhaps not-having-a-plan is an opportunity they are looking forward to?

| Politics |

Jeremy Corbyn has already won

I'm writing this on the morning of the day of voting for the 2015 election.

Opinion polls are notorious here in the UK for having a complex relationship with reality. What I expect will happen is that the Tories will win but with an embarrassingly modest lead. From the last election they had a working majority of 12 seats. The polls in April suggested a Labour wipe-out was on the cards, and unfortunately for Theresa May she grabbed that opportunity and took it on herself to throw it away: it's hard to see her doing anything but failing to make good on her potential.

Theresa May called this election for entirely selfish reasons. She wanted her own mandate, yes, but she'd previously said it wasn't needed. She called the election, as she said herself, taking advantage of the moment to get herself a lovely big majority. It's highly likely that this gambit will fail and that she'll be back in a position rather similar to the starting position, in which case she'll have wasted two months of all of our time - and, crucially, two months out of the two-year time limit when she was supposed to be negotiating Brexit.

So even if the Tories win, Theresa May is likely to have failed badly. Jeremy Corbyn, however, has defied the expectations of the pundits and built up organic support for Labour. I was sceptical about him and in particular about his election strategy, but it seems really to have worked, and he's shown himself to be a much better leader than many of us thought. Will his parliamentary party finally get behind him after the election? We shall see.

There's another thing we can thank May-vs-Corbyn for. Putting aside for the moment differences of policy, this election seems to me to be a victory for

  • talking principles, rather than soundbites;
  • going out and engaging with people, rather than hiding and stage-managing.

And it's been the first election in my adult life in which the two big parties have actually represented a meaningful choice of two options. In previous years, New Labour and the Tories may have come from different stock but their political visions were so close as to be redundant. Corbyn's Labour have offered not just a coherent vision, but a genuine alternative. I don't expect them to be able to win, but given that they're fighting uphill against a hell of an onslaught of negative media, it's been heartening to see their principled and engaged version of political campaigning to reap massive rewards, building themselves a massive swing from 25% up to almost 40% (that's according to voting-intention polls). I don't consider myself a Labour voter but Corbyn's made it plausible to consider that a possibility.

I had expected this election to be dispiriting but it has been heartening.

| politics |

The Economist shopping list for UK work

I don't always agree with The Economist magazine but it's interesting. It thinks bigger than many of the things you can buy on an average news stand. The current issue has an article about Britain and Marx, which happens to end with a clear and laudable shopping-list of things that our country needs to do to ensure the health of the economy and of worker's conditions. Let me quote:

"The genius of the British system has always been to reform in order to prevent social breakdown. This means doing more than just engaging in silly gestures such as as fixing energy prices, as the Conservatives proposed this week (silly because this will suppress investment and lead eventually to higher prices).

  • "It means preventing monopolies from forming: Britain's antitrust rules need to be updated for an age where information is the most valuable resource and network effects convey huge advantages.
  • "It means ending the CEO salary racket, not least by giving more power to shareholders.
  • "It means thinking seriously about the casualisation of work.
  • "And it means closing the revolving door between politics and business."
| politics |

Making eye contact with strangers

If you're looking for a New Year's resolution how about this one: make more eye contact with strangers.

I was reading this powerful little list of Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century by some Professor of History. One idea that struck me is a very simple one:

11: Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust.

In a large city like the one I live in, eye contact and small talk are rare. They're even rarer thanks to smartphones, of course - although, twenty years ago, Londoners were still avoiding each other, but using newspapers, novels and Gameboys instead. Anyway I do think smartphones create a mode of interaction which reduces incidental eye contact etc.

So I decided to take the advice. Over the past month or so I took those little opportunities - at the bus stop, at the pedestrian crossing, at the supermarket. A bit of eye contact, a few words about the traffic or whatever. I was surprised how many opportunities for effortless (and not awkward!) tiny bits of smalltalk there were and how worthwhile it was to take them. After the year we've had, this is a little tweak you can try, and who knows, it might help.

| politics |

Govt report on implications of leaving the EU for UK science and research

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has published its report into the implications of leaving the EU for UK science and research. The report is accompanied by a set of conclusions and recommendations.

By the way: the implications of Brexit (if indeed the UK ends up going through with it! So much is uncertain, even now) are massive and widespread. Science and engineering are only one of the many big issues that need to be considered. But as a UK sci/eng researcher I have good reasons to pay attention to this side of things! It's not about how much money I get. It's about whether the UK will be maintaining its attractive leading edge in research, as I said before the vote.

There are some really sound recommendations in there. Recommendation #4 is good: the Government should articulate a "genuinely comprehensive strategy for communicating its messages of ongoing support for science and research in the context of its plans for leaving the EU and the negotiations to follow." Why is this important? Because the Brexit vote itself send a message round the world about what kind of place Britain was, to existing and potential researchers. On top of that, really unfortunate messages were sent when certain government ministers talked casually about whether or not EU nationals would be allowed to stay in the country. So the Government has some work to do, to make sure the researchers of the future - currently planning to apply for PhDs, choosing courses/locations, and looking at global politics with eyebrows raised - understand that we want to work with them and we plan to treat them honourably.

This goes hand-in-hand with recommendation #6 and #7: mobility is crucial for research, and it'd be shooting ourselves in the foot to forget that. The Government's choice of negotiating position is going to make a massive difference here: how will they balance freedom-of-movement (though it's not my own wish to reduce it, a Brexit would be rather hollow if it didn't do so) against the access to market/finance which they seem to be expending the most energy worrying about? But in order for UK research to flourish, researchers from other countries - both present and future - need to know that they're welcome here and not threatened by uncertainty.


Frankly, though, I'm still left with the feeling "Why the hell are we still going through with this stupid idea?" I respect the outcome of the referendum but it expressed the nation's preferences, not any actual plan - and the elephant in the room is that any actual specific choice of Brexit is going to be one that the majority of people think is stupid and unjust - both the ones who voted for it as well as the ones who voted against it.


Read the recommendations in full - they are sensible.

| politics |

Remembering the run-up to the Iraq War

The LRB has an excellent article by Philippe Sands about the Chilcot Report and the Iraq War.

The UK had a key role in the Iraq War, and even before it happened there were millions of us on the streets marching against it: we said in advance that it was unjustified and would escalate terrorism in the region. (There's a video going round at the moment of Jeremy Corbyn back in the day, saying exactly that.) Now, looking back from a 2016 in which we have Isis/Da'esh and waves of refugees, there's no pleasure in the confirmation that we were right. The consequences reverberated not just through the region, but through to the EU and the UK too. Millions of us ignored, and so many killed (not least, directly killed in the war), because Tony Blair had pledged to Bush: "I'm with you, whatever".

Some quotes from the article:

"[The inquiry said] 'we consider that the UK was, in fact, undermining the Security Council's authority.'"

The inquiry received 37 legal responses regarding the war's legality, "reflecting the views of 57 expert individuals and six organisations. Just one of them supported the claim that the war was lawful."

"On 31 January [2003], Blair met Bush and offered a commitment that contradicted the legal advice given to him by Goldsmith the previous day."

"[Goldsmith's] formal advice - the 7 March document permeated with an understanding of the uncertainty and risk involved in going to war - was deliberately withheld from cabinet."

Our government (and related organisations such as the UN Security Council) are built with checks and balances, so that things such as ill-advised wars on the basis of misconstrued information should be less likely.

The article is well worth a read.

| politics |

Brexit vs the science around me: the first month

Just before the Brexit referendum I was wondering how Brexit would affect the kind of people coming to work with us. That's a long-term effect and very hard to measure. But really, like most of the country I hadn't really thought deeply about the direct practical consequences of an Exit …

| politics |

Remainers, referendums, parliament

Many "Remainers" are writing to their MPs, emphasising the referendum was "advisory" and sometimes demanding a second referendum. I think both of those are damaging and alienating ideas to cling to, they won't help to fix our politics.

The ideal way forward is for the next PM to get some …

| politics |

Brexit vs the science in my office

So, fine, there's a letter in The Times signed by over 5500 scientists arguing that UK science would suffer in the event of Brexit. They talk about funding, and collaboration, and shared infrastructure. There are cited sources for their evidence. I agree with the letter. I even signed it. But …

| politics |

The Tower Hamlets Local Plan

If you live or work in Tower Hamlets then please give them feedback on the "Local Plan" they're developing. It's a plan for the next 10-15 years of development in the borough.

So... what's the point of a Local Plan? In practice, it's a document which gives councils/developers/mayors …

| politics |

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