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Stop. Seriously, just stop. Now!

Why Brexit cannot and must not take place on the 29th of March, 2019

Breaking NewsTheresa May’s ‘deal’ has just been defeated in the House of Commons by 432 votes to 202!!!

However you voted in the referendum, whatever you think about the merits or failings of the EU, everyone please just stop and think. As the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy says of the instant, when learning to fly by throwing yourself at the ground and missing, you first find yourself in mid-air, supported by nothing, this is a moment for superb and delicate concentration. It is of vital importance to all of the peoples of the UK that we do not proceed with Brexit on the current timetable. To do so would be disastrous. A complete fiasco¹. Or as Angela Merkel might say, einen groβen Shitstorm. There are two obvious ways this can be avoided – the government can simply withdraw its Article 50 notification (an EU court recently ruled this can be done unilaterally, in other words without the agreement of the other EU members), or they could request an extension of the negotiation process and a postponement of the exit date. This would likely require the agreement of the other leaders however, and that cannot be assumed. But they need to do one of those things, and they need to do it soon. I will explain exactly why, but it will take a little while, and we’ll have to delve some way into the past in order to uncover the roots of our current predicament, so bear with me.

This is not intended to be a partisan pro or anti-EU piece. There have been enough of those. Since the referendum I have (mostly) kept my own council on the subject. I haven’t published a blog on it anyway. But the time has come for a proper Babel Fish examination of where we are now, and how we got here. There are many reasons why I am calling for this to stop now, the majority of which are neither philosophical nor political. Of course I had a position in 2016, and it would be dishonest of me not to acknowledge that. I was never a supporter of the idea of leaving the EU. I never thought it was a good idea, but like (I’m betting) the vast majority of you, on both sides of that debate, I had no idea then exactly how bad, how ill-conceived, how completely and utterly unplanned it actually was. I mean, we’d got to the point of actually voting in a referendum. You’d imagine the side proposing the change would have some idea of what they were going to do if they won, wouldn’t you? Of how the process of extrication might be achieved? Well, you’d be completely wrong! That has become clearer by the day since then. How did this happen? Let’s take a little time to look at the reasons, and think about how they impact the situation today as we do.

But first, the most important bit: why am I racing to get this rather lengthy piece out before today’s Commons vote, and why am I saying that we must stop now?

The UK is not remotely ready to go ahead with Brexit

This government is woefully and hopelessly unprepared. As last year neared its end it became apparent that if they were to go ahead, it would be a ‘No Deal’ or ‘Cliff Edge’ Brexit, as there is no deal available that could possibly hope to attract majority support in the House of Commons. I think we can all agree on that, can’t we? The government itself is hopelessly divided on the issue, they can’t agree on a single position even within the one party. The opposition, and by that I mean pretty much all of it, not just the Labour Party, are opposed to the deal on offer too, although for a variety of reasons. Labour is not really that much less divided than the Tories, due to the influence of a concept known as ‘Lexit’ – a left wing vision of Brexit. I will look at this in more detail later, but for now I’ll simply note that this is not the form of Brexit we’re going to get, especially if we stick to the present timetable. We’re going to get what I’ll call an ‘Oxbrixit’ – an Brexit designed by, and for, the Oxbridge elite who currently hold power in the UK. We’ll be looking at that later too. But first I want to talk about something else entirely: the scale of the practical undertaking, or exactly what it would take to pull this off successfully. I can’t help thinking of this:

       “You’re like a nine-year-old trying to rebuild a motorbike in his bedroom.”

How do things get done? On an individual level, things get done when you want to get them done, when you know how to get them done, and when you are prepared or able to put in the necessary effort to get them done. On a larger scale the same rules still apply, however because we are all far more used to our own individual tasks and goals, we tend to underestimate the task. The greater it is, the more we underestimate it. We’ll take what seems like an extreme example. If I were to ask you to estimate how long it would take to get down to the shops, you’d probably know exactly because you do it all the time. You might even tell me it would be different depending on the time of day, and by how much. If I asked you how long it would take to get to London or Paris, you’d probably still have a pretty good idea. Even if I asked you how long it would take to go half way round the world, to come and visit me in Melbourne say, you might have a rough idea of how long the flight would take, although the bit from the airport to my place would be a bit of a guess. But what if I asked you how long it would take without taking any flights, overland? I’d struggle with that one, even though I’ve actually done most of it (Glasgow to Hong Kong).

And what if I were to ask you how long it would take to get to the Sirius star system? Using the fastest spacecraft made by humans so far? Now you’re struggling, aren’t you? Unless you’re an astronomer anyway. Okay, I’ll give you some of the basic info. It’s not that far, in cosmic terms, in fact it’s in the ‘local area’ – a mere 8.6 light years away (a light year being the distance light travels in a year, at 186,000 miles per second). The Earth is 8.3 light minutes from the sun, so we see the sun as it was 8.3 minutes ago. The fastest spacecraft yet made is the Parker Solar Probe. As the name suggests, its mission is to take a close look at the sun. It was launched on the 12th of August last year, and became the closest man-made object to the sun on the 29th of October. It also reached its maximum speed at around the same time, 430,000mph. That’s pretty fast, right? Well, it would be if you were going down the shops. It’s 119.44444445 miles a second. Even to get to me it would take less than two minutes. Now that is more than enough information to work it out. I won’t give it away yet, but it’s probably longer than you think.

Now that is, as I said, an extreme example. But let’s just think for a moment about one of those, the trip to Australia. Working out how long it would take is just the start of it. What if you actually had to do it? Not just buy a ticket, but work out how long you’re going for, how you’re going to get the time off, where you’re going to stay, if you have pets who’s going to look after them, what you’ll need to pack, etc., etc. That’s before you even start to think about what you want to do while you’re here. Now imagine you have to organise this trip not just for yourself, but for 60-odd million people. Are you beginning to get the idea now? Just for something as simple as a holiday? You couldn’t do it, could you? You’d need, conservatively, thousands of people working full time to help you to work it all out. This is why people always underestimate what it takes to organise something really complicated. How long, how many people, how much money, etc. But there are some people who do have an idea of the scale of such enterprises. We call them bureaucrats, and I used to be one. Twice in fact. I worked for the Australian Public Service, once in Tax and once in Social Security.

So let me tell you a story. A long time ago, in a previous life, on a planet called the 90s, I was working for the Dept. of Social Security in Melbourne. In order to get a promotion I took a position at a non-existent office called the TSC, or Teleservice Centre. It was the first large scale call centre in Melbourne, that’s how long ago it was. Before that every office took their own calls, I was one of the people taking them, but this was the next new thing. So I became part of the set up crew for this thing, and it took what was in those days a pretty well-organised and near-adequately staffed department six months to get it up and running. Six months to acquire premises, kit them out, recruit staff, train staff, run research in the local offices to try and get an idea of how many calls to expect, etc., etc. And it was another six months before you could say it was running smoothly. Less than a month in we had the telecommunications back doubling the number of lines. This is for an enterprise that had about 110-120 people working in it when it opened. The set up probably involved 200. It served approximately a quarter of the state of Victoria. It’s just one thing, one little organisational re-jig. Six months seems to be about how long it takes to do anything remotely complicated.

Now, consider Brexit. The people who are actually responsible for organising the practical side of Brexit, the civil service, weren’t allowed to start planning for a ‘No Deal’ Brexit until after the ill-fated Chequers Agreement (12 July). The apocalyptic stuff, the warnings of shortages, queues of days or even weeks at ports, rationing – that’s coming from them! They were given nine months! Up to that point, what had been done? Dropping out of the Customs Union means putting Customs and Immigration posts in every external port. That will mean thousands and thousands of staff recruited and trained, buildings built or acquired, roadworks on altering traffic flows, all sorts of things. So far I haven’t heard that they have actually done any of this, and even as I write this parliament has voted to further restrict their planning (in the last day or two since I wrote that they have announced plans to draft thousands of existing civil servants). I have no confidence that anyone in the government has truly grasped the implications of what they are recklessly doing. But apparently an important principle of democracy is at stake. It is vital that the will of the people be respected, no matter how stupid the idea.

        Boris Johnson quite literally leads a bunch of people up a garden path

Not only does the current government not have a clue what it’s doing, nobody has a clue. They never did. At no stage was there any kind of plan as to how this complicated extrication would be achieved. It’s blindingly obvious that there will be major economic consequences, but there was nothing, not so much as a post-it note of a plan. I could never have brought myself to support such an ill-conceived, hare-brained scheme. Scottish readers – remember the White Paper? I had it on my phone. Somebody gave me a hard copy as a souvenir to bring back with me to Australia, but I couldn’t afford the excess baggage! The thing weighed a ton. Now, I know many of us disagreed with parts of it, but that’s not the point. Can you imagine how we of the ‘Yes’ campaign would have been mocked and pilloried if our case had been as lightweight as ‘Leave’s?’

Of course they said that about us anyway, even though it was patently untrue, and that points to one of the major problems faced by the ‘Remain’ campaign – Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’ syndrome. Many things they dishonestly claimed during the Indyref campaign were actually true during the Brexit campaign, but nobody believed them, because Remain was perceived to be no more than a re-run of Project Fear. Which it was. People notice when you trot out the same arguments twice in a row, and are a lot less likely to believe you when you swear there really is a wolf this time. But ‘Leave’ really had nothing, and they did get away with it. Why do you think that might be though? Why would you go into a campaign with absolutely nothing prepared? I’ve wondered about that ever since, and I’ve arrived at a conclusion. There’s only one possible explanation.

This referendum was never meant to succeed

It seems counter-intuitive to say that. After all, voices on the ‘Leave’ side had been calling for it for years, hadn’t they? Certainly they had, but those voices represented a particular faction on the political right, much of it, but not all, within the Conservative Party. Not, shall we say, an intellectual faction. They are an odd mix, the political right. Now I’m an old lefty, but I’m not chauvinistic enough to believe everyone who disagrees with me is an idiot. Some of them are of course, that can’t have escaped the notice of anyone who regularly uses social media, but there are some idiots on the left too, and some genuinely smart people who choose the right for a wide variety of reasons. I don’t want to get into those reasons too deeply here, as that is not the point of this article, but I do want to take a quick look at some of them in order to contrast them with the Brexiteers.

What is a conservative? I don’t mean a Tory, I mean a philosophical, small ‘c’ conservative. To put it as simply as possible, they are the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ people. Of course people like me would argue that it is very much broke and urgently needs fixing, but these small ‘c’ conservatives tend to come from places and backgrounds that largely prevent them from seeing much of that brokenness. For them, life is okay. Things aren’t that bad, they’ll say. Again, that’s an argument for another day. We don’t, for the purposes of this analysis, need to agree with them, just to understand them. They are cautious by nature, and that is essentially why they support the status quo, but when change comes, as it inevitably does sometimes, they eventually come around to the new reality. A conservative does not continue to agitate for the status quo ante, what went before, decades after the change has happened. That does not make you a conservative, that makes you a reactionary.

It is these reactionaries who formed the core of what we used to, before terms like ‘Leavers’ and ‘Brexiteers’ etc. entered the language, refer to as the Euro-sceptic wing of the Tory Party. They’ve been around for ages. They yearn for a ‘golden age’ they think they remember from their youth, but which never really was. And the ways in which things were better in, say, the 1960s aren’t the ways they think, or for the reasons they think. But again, another time. They are essentially a variant of the ‘grass is always greener on the other side’ people, specifically the ‘grass used to be greener before all these bloody foreigners came and started walking all over it’ people. Now it’s a bit of a cliché (but clichés are clichés for a reason) to say that there is a natural human tendency to view the past through rose-tinted glasses. You know, the summers of your childhood were always sunnier and Christmas was always white, that sort of thing?

Only it’s not true, is it? We know it isn’t. I could show you the weather records to prove it. Most of the hottest summers on record have been in the last decade or so, and it hardly ever snows at Christmas. Statistically it’s more likely to snow at Easter. It’s a function of memory I think we’re all familiar with. We remember the good times, and the really bad ones, but the boring, uneventful, grey days? They all tend to merge into one over time. There’s no reason to remember them. Why would you? Nothing happened. Life is not a movie, it’s a series of snapshots. But some people will never understand this, and insist their memories of an idyllic past are real. It’s these people we are dealing with here, because that’s what makes them reactionaries. I’m old enough to remember the late 60s, just, and things did seem pretty good then I suppose. I remember the 70s, when we joined the EU, and I remember the 80s, when everything really did start going to shit. That’s when the change many ordinary people are angry about really happened (the change from Keynesian to neo-liberal economic management brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s government), joining the EU made very little difference at the time. No, not even decimalisation, we’d already done that in 1971. Of course there were some very real problems in the 70s, the oil crisis, power cuts, the three day week, and that economists’ nightmare, stagflation² among other things, but none of that had anything to do with the EU.

Anyway, as I said, these Euro-sceptics have been around for years in the Conservative Party. Probably ever since we joined the then EEC in 1973. Margaret Thatcher, another non-conservative, but of a very different stripe, was highly skilled at manipulating them, so she kept these useful idiots around. Used them to bolster her position in the party by playing them off against the actual conservatives/Tory establishment, and leveraged them to get concessions in negotiations with the EU. But she was never in any danger of allowing them to actually get their way. David Cameron was far less adept at managing them. Now at the risk of him suing me if he were ever to read this, not that I expect he will, David Cameron had a gambling problem. Not a predilection for the geegees or the dishlickers, nothing so mundane. He gambled with the future of the country he was elected to lead. He did it in many ways, but the most obvious were in the two referenda he oversaw. Let’s have a quick look at the Scottish independence referendum first.

When the SNP won an improbable outright majority in the Scottish parliament in 2011 it triggered a then little-known policy time bomb. Years before it had been written in to party policy that if they ever did secure such a majority they’d hold a referendum in an attempt to win Scotland’s independence. But the Scottish parliament was set up, quite deliberately, to make an outright majority for any party highly unlikely, precisely to avoid such an eventuality. And as you may recall, the pollsters called that election wrongly, and not just by a little bit. The SNP, and their leader Alex Salmond, were fully expecting to lose power. They were as surprised by the result as anyone. Furthermore, Salmond didn’t think the time was yet right for the push for outright independence, and the polls agreed with that too. They said that about 20, 22% were in favour, a similar amount were implacably opposed, but the rest, a comfortable majority, were in favour of more devolution. The term Devo Max was coined to characterise that position. So when Salmond and Cameron began to negotiate the terms of the referendum, they had a decision to make. Would they both give something up, and allow a three option question, or stick to their respective preferred options and make it an all or nothing contest?

Salmond seemed undecided at first. He wasn’t by nature a high risk player, and although his entire political career had been aimed at achieving full independence, it seemed as if Devo Max would be far more likely to win. Cameron, on the other hand, was in no doubt. He gambled that when faced with a stark choice, most of the people saying they would vote for Devo Max if it was on offer would be too scared to vote for outright independence, and would choose nothing. This belief doesn’t seem to have been based on much at all, other than gambler’s instinct. Even so, early polling seemed favourable to him, and he was emboldened to do it again, even before seeing the outcome of the first gamble, in 2013. He decided to appease his restless, Euro-sceptic backbench by taking a leaf out of the SNP’s book and promising them an in/out EU referendum if he won an outright majority at the next General Election in 2015. At the time this one didn’t look like much of a risk. He was not travelling well in the polls (a quick google reveals a 2013 projection that Labour were on course to win by 93 seats) and it looked as though, even if they were not defeated, the Tories could only possibly survive by once again forming a coalition with the pro-European LibDems, who would make not holding such a referendum a condition of their support. And it wasn’t just current polling. There was a very credible theory, based on demographics and the trend of voting patterns since WWII, that the Tories would never win another outright majority at Westminster. Since then each time they’d won it was with a lower percentage of the vote than the previous time, and the same was true each time they’d lost, because their support was steadily retreating to their South Eastern heartland.

Anyway, we all know what happened in that 2014 referendum. Not the result I was hoping for, but certainly not the one Cameron had been anticipating either. He very nearly lost! Remember those last weeks of the campaign? He and the pro-Unionist forces panicked, and announced what at first glance appeared to be a major climbdown, offering the Devo Max option they’d refused to put on the ballot paper but which, on closer examination, was revealed to be nothing of the kind. It was just one more example of the Herculean efforts of media distortion that had formed the true backbone of the ‘No’ campaign. It couldn’t have been anything else when you think about it. The Electoral Commission rules clearly stated that no new policy propositions could be introduced during the ‘purdah’ period in the lead up to the vote. A genuine breach of that rule could have invalidated the entire process and led to the result being declared null and void. Did that happen? No. Was anybody held to account for it? No. Was it even investigated? Never. No doubt some cynical indy supporters would tell you that’s not surprising, because the whole system is corrupt to its core, that it was ‘fixed,’ but that’s not the real reason. The reason is because there was no new policy offer. It was illusory. It wasn’t real. It turned out that ‘The Vow’ we all thought had been made by the three leaders of the London-based parties was a complete fiction. Fake news. There never was a vow, it was entirely an invention of the odious Daily Record.

(It should be noted that this is still disputed by the Record, who insist it was agreed by the three leaders, but they deny this)

This came to light shortly afterwards, when journalists and others contacted the three leaders’ offices to ask for a copy of the ‘Vow.’ They were informed that no such document existed, and referred back to the Record for further enquiries. The Record had of course mocked up, and published on a full front page, a document which appeared to be on parchment, and was entitled ‘The Vow.’ It reproduced the actual signatures of Cameron, Milliband and Clegg at the bottom. On closer examination it was evident that it in fact contained no new offer, merely a hastily cobbled together collection of things that had already been announced separately and at different times, by different parties. It was entirely fictitious, and yet strangely not one of the three leaders made the slightest objection to this scandalous forgery at the time, nor did any of them say anything to expose the outrageous fraud afterwards. In fact they even went so far as to set up an entire pantomime Commission to negotiate the details of this non-existent deal, which turned out to be far less significant or useful than anything that might remotely be described as ‘Devo Max,’ or the ‘as close to federalism* as possible’ arrangement promised by Gordon Brown. Why (I ask rhetorically) did we ever listen to that absurd man? He may be a former Prime Minister, but at the time in question he was a mere opposition backbencher, with absolutely no power to promise anything. Yes Gordon, we know who you are. But Harriet Jones would have carried more authority!

      Super Gordon checks the timetable and waits for his new powers. And waits. And waits. Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister.

Anyway, despite this narrow escape, like a true gambler David Cameron took it as a sign that he was on a streak. And that his strategy (gamblers often mistake superstition for strategy) was a good one, worth repeating. So after initially gambling on never having to hold an EU referendum, when he won what was, once again (to the pollsters) a surprise majority in 2015, he bet on exactly the same horse he had in 2014 – Project Fear. But repeatedly backing the same horse isn’t a strategy, it’s superstition. Unless it’s Winx (Australian reference, google it). It’s like Roger Federer asking for the same ball he served an ace with on the last point. The balls are as identical as they can make them, he just served better, but sportspeople are highly superstitious. He can’t shake off the nagging suspicion that there was something infinitesimally different about that one. You used to be able to watch Bjorn Borg’s (the only other man to win five in a row) facial hair develop over the course of a Wimbledon, because he wouldn’t shave it while he was winning. Why do you think the majors install racquet stringers at the tournament? Because despite bringing twelve identical racquets to the stadium, players will still have favourite ones, and if they pop a string on that one they want it restrung straight away. When they get it back they’ll save it for a ‘clutch’ game.

So anyway, David Cameron, who so many people, especially in Scotland, tried to convince me was mad keen to leave the EU was in fact, as I told them, always a Remainer. To be honest, that wasn’t even really a thing, being a ‘Remainer,’ until he made it into one with the referendum. There was the Euro-sceptic rabble on the backbench, and there was everybody else, none of whom ever gave it a second thought. Including those who actually controlled the party. After over four decades of integration and increasing interdependence the idea was simply unthinkable. Economically it was just plain potty. Why would you pull out of a free trade agreement with most of your major trading partners? The people on the backbench, the useful idiots, don’t understand economics of course, but they know what they don’t like. And mostly that’s foreigners, whatever they may claim. Now it’s important to draw a distinction here between the Scottish referendum and the EU one, on economics, because this was so often shamelessly misrepresented that it requires its own Babel Fish translation.

What Scotland wanted to do was become independent in the way that other nations are independent. We sought full sovereignty, with powers over things like foreign affairs, defence and macro-economic policy. We weren’t proposing to cut any economic ties with anyone. Everything Project Fear Mark 1 said implied that we were of course, and that England would not trade with us. At all. That if we voted ‘Yes’ they would throw the mother and father of all tantrums, like a spurned lover taking a pair of scissors to all the clothes in your wardrobe, and refuse to have anything more to do with us. That’s extremely silly of course. They’d have been cutting off their nose to spite their face for one reason, but also because we were proposing that both successor states to the UK would remain members of the EU and as such, they wouldn’t have been allowed to do that! Westminster, which already has all those things that we were seeking in 2014, was proposing pulling out of a trading bloc of half a billion people, with incalculable consequences. But that was okay, or so Dave thought, because as I said, it was never meant to succeed!

What it was meant to do was to allow certain people to let off some steam, get all worked up and have a good shout about it, but ultimately lose the argument and the vote. The two groups this was principally aimed at were those Euro-sceptics on the Tory backbench (maybe about a hundred people), and disaffected working class people, particularly in England (millions of people). Not that there aren’t plenty of disaffected working class people in Scotland too, but in Scotland they had largely come around to the cause of independence. Which suggests, accurately I think, that they had come to see the union as the main problem. The British Union, not the European one. They saw their problems largely emanating from Westminster, not from Brussels. And there is indeed a much better case for that objectively, part of the reason for that being UK government policies over many decades, and part being the infamous ‘democratic deficit’ – Scottish voters only constitute a little less than 8½% of the UK electorate, so even if there is a clear majority for something in Scotland (like a 62% majority for continued membership of the EU for instance), that view can easily be overwhelmed if it differs, as it increasingly does these days, with that of the majority in England. Even a far narrower majority (say 53/47 as it was for ‘Leave’) in England.

*Now in a real federal system, there is usually some mechanism to compensate for this. In the US every state gets two Senators, regardless of its population, and if you want to pass an Amendment to the constitution, your first hurdle is that you need the support of 38 of the 50 states. Some will say that’s a very different situation, a much larger population, and those 50 states, so let’s look at a closer analogue, one regular readers will know I’m very familiar with, Australia. Australia has six states, and two ‘Territories.’ The Territories have smaller populations and less autonomy. Each state gets 12 Senators (2 for Territories), again regardless of population. To change the constitution takes a referendum, and that requires an absolute majority and a majority of voters in a majority of states. Given that there are six states, that means four of them have to agree before the constitution can be changed. It’s quite different to the UK’s version of a referendum, with its simple majority and non-binding outcome. We have a provision to hold those too, they are called plebiscites. But that is a far lower bar, and consequently they don’t change the constitution and don’t tend to get used very often. Outcomes of actual referenda are binding, and all resultant constitutional changes are automatic, requiring no further action by parliament.

Now you might think the differences in size between the states aren’t so great as those in the UK, but let’s have a look at that, because I was wondering myself. I mean, I knew the approximate populations, but I thought I’d look them up and get the exact numbers, for a valid comparison. So, the UK has a population of 65.1 million, of which 54.7 million are in England, and 5.37 are in Scotland. That’s pretty unbalanced, right? England has more than ten times the population of Scotland, and over five times that of the other nations combined. It has 29.5 times the population of the smallest, Northern Ireland. So far more imbalanced than Australia then? Well, yes and no. Australia’s total ticked over 25 million quite recently, in August. The largest state, New South Wales, accounts for 7.3 million of that, so obviously not a majority, let alone five times the others combined. However, the other states vary a lot. Number two is Victoria (mine) which has 5.64 million, just a little more than Scotland (although it is both more sparsely-populated and more urbanised, with Melbourne hitting 5 million just three weeks after Australia hit 25 million).

Now, with Queensland sitting on about 4.6 million, it can be seen that these three Eastern seaboard states make up the vast bulk of the population. Tasmania, the smallest state, has only 511,000, meaning NSW is 14.3 times bigger, a significantly greater difference than that between England and Scotland. And yet it still has the same number of Senators (12) as NSW. That’s the equivalent of Scotland and England having equal representation in the House of Lords. Except that all the Lords are elected by a multi-member, STV, proportional representation system. Okay, it’s not a perfect analogy, but you see what I mean? And because of those referendum requirements I mentioned, the three smallest states (Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia), despite representing less than a fifth of the total population (just like Scotland, Wales and N.I. do in the UK), can veto any constitutional change even if it is overwhelmingly supported by the three largest states. If the UK had the Australian federal system, Leave would have been defeated. Just sayin’.

Anyway, I digress. Cameron and the Tory leadership thought most people were actually okay with the EU, that they’d got used to it, or at least that they would be sufficiently conservative (small ‘c’) to be wary of the change. There’s a problem with that however. Well, that’s obvious now, but of course hindsight is 20/20 and it wasn’t obvious at the time. The problem is that the subject matter of what it would actually mean to leave the EU is massively complicated and intricate. When I said ‘incalculable’ that wasn’t an exaggeration, literally nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen, it cannot be calculated, but politicians think you are stupid! I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t know here, am I? At the time of the 2015 election I wrote of how parties used to put out detailed manifestos of what they intended to do, all of it, before elections. How over the years this had been reduced to a few key policies, and how by 2015 it had been reduced to one vague, general feeling each. In the Tories’ case that was ‘we’re the best economic managers, and all this austerity is good for you’ and in Labour’s was ‘we invented the NHS, so we must know how to fix it, right?’

So rather than expect the electorate to come to grips with arcane economic questions most of the pro-Remain leaders barely understood themselves (they barely understood the questions I mean, they didn’t know the answers, still don’t, nobody does), they opted to go with Cameron’s suggested option of a Project Fear Mark 2. Another FUD campaign: Fear. Uncertainty. Doubt. Now this is another major difference between the two referenda – in 2014 the ‘Yes’ side ran a political campaign. I was going to say a traditional political campaign, but that’s not strictly true, due to the rise of new media. I myself was spending a lot of my time in front of a keyboard, simply because I could publish material that way. That never used to be possible. But it still had many traditional elements to it. We still chapped on a lot of doors, ran town hall meetings, etc. We still used facts and logic and explanations to persuade people. The ‘No’ side didn’t do any of those things. They didn’t run a political campaign, they ran a marketing campaign. And they didn’t use facts and logic, they used emotion³.

This time however both sides would run marketing rather than political campaigns, and both would appeal to emotion, but the Brexiteers had the home ground advantage here. As I said earlier, they’re not an intellectual faction. They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed. They are people who respond to emotion rather than facts themselves, so that is automatically how they try to persuade other people, and the people who had to be appealed to were receptive to their message. Marketers will tell you that, for the majority of people, making them feel is far more powerful in changing their minds than making them think. Furthermore, fear of loss is roughly twice as powerful as hope of gain, so those supporters of Scottish independence who keep saying we just have to keep making the arguments and persuade more people of the positive case are probably completely wrong. And yes, I realise the irony of saying this in the middle of a long, detailed analysis, but if you’ve read this far then you are clearly someone who doesn’t mind a long, detailed analysis and this doesn’t apply to you.

So we had a contest of two different fear campaigns. We had Project Fear Mark 2, aka ‘Remain,’ which played on fear of the unknown, of what might happen in the future, what we might lose. But what that actually was was never really spelt out. In the case of ‘Leave’ the fear was more concrete – xenophobia. The loss was one already perceived to have happened – the loss of independence, sovereignty, control and that illusory golden age. And of a monoculture. It was a powerful combination. Cameron and his cronies thought it was a jolly jape, and that the best bit of all was, just in case you didn’t get that the whole ‘Leave’ campaign was a joke, that you weren’t meant to take it seriously, they put two clowns in charge of it! They then spent a year discovering that within the English class system, different social classes clearly have very different senses of humour. Millions and millions of people didn’t get the joke! Apparently there are millions of people out there, people who have the vote and are allowed out on their own, who believe Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are real politicians and not, as I’d have assumed, Monty Python characters! In fact, I’d swear Moggy’s dad was in the ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’ sketch.

Who did this to us?

And while we’re on the subject, Cameron’s a bit of an upper class twit himself, isn’t he? Have you ever wondered how these people, the idiot sons of the aristocracy, are able to end up running (using the term loosely) the country? I have. It bothered me for years. When I finally came up with the solution it was so obvious that most people would probably say, “Nah, it can’t possibly be that simple. Can it?” Yes. Yes, it can. They just… buy it. Because their becoming politicians isn’t the problem. That’s the easy bit. It’s just about the only job for which there are no formal selection criteria whatsoever, other than getting people to allow you to do it. There is no minimum IQ. You can be as dumb as a rock. But that doesn’t explain it, because the above-mentioned people are the products of Oxbridge (for non-UK readers, Oxford and Cambridge, two elite, world-renowned universities). How is that possible? How do they 1) get in, and 2) earn degrees? The most popular theory seems to be that people like Boris Johnson are not really stupid, they’re just eccentric. They play the fool to lull us all into a false sense of security, but in fact they are smart, ruthless, devious and Machiavellian. Let me state with absolute conviction, I do not buy that.

So what then? Well, on the first question, getting in, that was something I wondered about ever since several teachers and a careers advisor in first year at high school told me I ought to be considering Oxbridge myself. It wasn’t the sort of thing you heard much in Clydebank, but I did hear it, so I enquired. When I started high school I was telling adults I wanted to be a doctor. I didn’t really. I had no idea what I wanted to be, indeed I think it’s a ridiculous question to ask a 12 year old, but in my case they did ask it, and that answer seemed to keep them happy. I’d looked into the entrance requirements for medicine. Five ‘A’s in my ‘Highers’ including two science subjects would be enough to get me into Glasgow or Edinburgh, both of which medical schools had a better reputation than either Oxford or Cambridge anyway. But then it was explained to me, by whom I can’t recall but I suspect it was the careers advisor, that it’s not really about academic standards, it’s about social standing. The ‘prestige’ of the university. So what, I enquired, would I need to get into Oxbridge? Five ‘A’s in my Highers, I was told, then stay on for SYS (Sixth Year Studies) and get three ‘A’s in those too, then I might get an interview.

And that is all true, if you come from a comprehensive in a working class town on Clydeside like I did. And yet, as I read in an interview with him the following year, Prince Charles went to Cambridge despite getting straight ‘C’s in his ‘A’ Levels. No, don’t bother arguing with me (because people will), that’s by his own admission. So clearly perfect results aren’t essential for everyone. Furthermore private schools (I refuse to use the archaic term ‘public schools’ because it’s a terrible description and because my Australian readers use that term to refer to actual public schools – government run, open to anyone) spoon feed their pupils and coach them through examinations and interviews. Those pupils also have a couple of other major advantages not enjoyed by working class kids – private tuition and a ‘born to rule’ attitude. As I mentioned, I was encouraged to consider Oxbridge, but that was extremely rare where I came from, whereas pretty much all upper class kids, especially the boys, are encouraged to believe the are ‘Oxbridge material,’ regardless of any actual ability or talent, because they are from the ‘right’ background.

So that takes care of the first question, but what about the second? How do they get decent results? Well, the answer to that is breathtakingly simple. They simply pay someone else to do the work. The thing is, most people who haven’t been to university imagine it being largely exam-based, but in Arts subjects that’s just not true. They are mainly about essays, which you write privately, to a deadline. Yes, it’s an ‘honour’ system, and remember we are speaking of Tories here. People entirely without honour! So if you’re a young Cameron or Johnson, it’s only a short step from private tuition to having the ‘tutor’ do the work for you. Just pick a struggling, working class student with proven ability and make them an offer they can’t refuse, because let’s face it, why wouldn’t you? Plagiarism is often detected, increasingly so since the development of software for that purpose, but this isn’t plagiarism. You merely find a good student who is struggling to finish their (usually post-grad) degree because of lack of funds, and pay them to do original work for you. But what if they were to have a change of heart later, and admit what they had done? Well they just wouldn’t, because to do so would mean being stripped of their own degrees, and the loss of any career they might have built for themselves. It’s not a conspiracy, just a series of one off arrangements between pairs of individuals, both of whom have utterly compelling reasons for not revealing those arrangements. And of course this leaves the posh boys plenty of time for dining, drinking and general hell-raising. Like this lot:

        Bullingdon Club, Oxford, 1987. An image Cameron tried to have suppressed.

“Let’s face facts: the rich have been buying their children places at top universities for decades. They do this by buying into the private school system, paying thousands to send Leo and Jemima to feeder colleges that pride themselves on Oxbridge entrance, on making sure everyone passes the exams, on buffing even the dullest sixth-former to parade gloss for Oxbridge interviews.

In my final year at a British private school, over 30 kids were handheld through the application process for Oxford or Cambridge, whereas in most state schools a maximum of one or two begin the gruelling process, usually without the considerable staff support that we enjoyed.

Of those 30, about half were successful, and at least four or five of those were — excuse my French — thick as congealed slurry on the bridle path. They were dull, unimaginative posh kids who had no real interest in learning, who were just good at passing exams with the right training. What they had was the confidence to shine at interviews, and most importantly, the right kind of swagger to fit in. They had grown up being told they belonged at Oxford or Cambridge. As a consequence, they were deemed Oxbridge material, whereas thousands of state school pupils were not.

Of course, for every posh dunce who makes it into Oxford or Cambridge, there’s a successful state school applicant who worked their butt off because they wanted to study the subject of their dreams at one of the world’s top universities. Nonetheless, merit is already far from the only criterion for entry into Oxbridge.” – (Laurie Penny, writing in the New Statesman in 2011)

Yes, that sounds about right. One posh dunce for every successful, highly motivated, Mensa-qualifying state school candidate. But that is not an equivalence anyone should be prepared to accept! These privileged people of whom we speak don’t even represent the 1%. The 0.1%, maybe! There will be thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of smarter, better-qualified working class students who are more deserving of these opportunities than any of the foppish, aristocratic dilettantes in the above photograph, which is emblematic of the all but total lack of social mobility that still characterises UK society. You won’t find that in any other European country. You won’t find it in the New World. In fact you won’t find it in any other industrialised country I can think of, only in the absurdly archaic, forelock-tugging, class-ridden UK. And do not expect that to get any better outside of the EU, because I can assure you, that is never going to happen. Power is never given, only taken. Which is how we know, when you think about it, that the EU doesn’t really have any – if it did, leaving it would be a hell of a lot harder!

Which brings me, in a very roundabout way, to some of the objections people have to the EU, including those of the Lexit supporters. The Labour Party are confusing this issue, because they’ve decided their main tactical objective is to secure a general election. While it’s obvious why they would want that, I’d say it’s equally obvious why they’re unlikely to get it. A considerable number of Tories, 101 of the 317 in fact, would have to vote for it. Which would be, for them, throwing up their hands and saying, “Okay, we’re out! We admit we have no idea how to finish this thing we’ve started.” Which, yes, is what they should say, but does anyone seriously think they will? No, they have a much simpler plan than that, one they arrived at shortly after the referendum – leave Theresa May is charge until the shit has well and truly hit the fan, put the blame on her and ditch her with maybe enough time left till the election for the worst of it to be over. That’s all they’ve got. That’s all they ever had. Apart from the knowledge that nobody else knows what to do either. That may be their greatest political asset.

Because obviously the Labour Party would like an election, and would like to win it. They are a political party, it’s their raison d’être. But deep down a lot of them must be thinking this isn’t the time for it. Ever since that referendum result the office of Prime Minister has been a poison chalice, everyone knows it. Labour’s best opportunity will surely come after Brexit, when the Tories will look like the bunch of complete incompetents they are. The big question is, will that two years between March the 29th and the next scheduled election will be enough for one of the circling posh boys, Boris perhaps, to persuade people he really does know what he’s doing? And in the meantime, assuming they don’t get an election, what about a second referendum?

This is obviously one for me too. I’ve been avoiding it, haven’t I? If I’m calling for Brexit to be halted, how do I see the problem being resolved? I feel obliged to say something about that, although at this point I really don’t care. I suppose the second referendum is going to be the unavoidable outcome of the present state of paralysis. Parliament has been offered a ‘take it or leave it’ deal, but can’t find a majority to either take or leave it. But if that’s going to happen, it has to be done with some honesty. No phantom ‘deals’ that were never on the table this time, eh? I can’t see an obvious way of avoiding it though, despite the ill feeling it will inevitably generate. The government cannot simply cancel Brexit and say, “Nothing to see here! Move along!” I’m not sure there’s still time to organise a referendum before March the 29th though. That would be really pushing it. So it might be necessary to stop or delay it first, consult the people second. Then we might examine the realistic options – ‘No Deal’ chaos, May’s deal that’s not so much a deal as a statement of intent to have a deal at some point in the future, when all the unresolvable problems have been resolved, or abandon the whole misconceived enterprise.

Speaking of which, what is Theresa May’s deal? Not the deal, her deal. We haven’t talked about her. I once described her as having ‘Bradburyed‘ her way into the job, which is an Australian expression, although it’s spreading more widely now, named for Australian short track speed skater Stephen Bradbury who won Australia’s first ever Winter Olympic gold medal in 2002 despite coming last going into the final corner, when everyone in front of him fell over. Only they didn’t really fall over, the people thought to be the likely contenders, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg, ran a mile. Didn’t stand. Why? Because they had no idea what to do next! They had no clue how to control the chaos they’d unleashed. But this says everything about how these people bluff and bluster their way through life. They realised it would be much easier to install a leader, a sacrificial lamb, whose heart wasn’t really in it, so they could carp and moan from the sidelines and tell everyone how they’d have been much better at it, then bring her down and take over once the dust had settled. There is a fair-sized chunk of the Labour Party who think they have the right idea.

And so it was that we came to find ourselves hostage to a process in which the EU had a year to search the length and breadth of Europe to find the best negotiators, while the UK government spent that time squabbling amongst themselves and we ended up with a negotiating team led by the cast of The Wizard of Oz – Theresa the Scarecrow, Boris the Cowardly Lion and David the Tin Man. Now I was expressing sentiments like the above to a Scottish, Lexit-supporting comrade some time ago, and he said something along the lines of,

“I accept that this Tory Government doesn’t appear to have a clue what it is doing when it comes to negotiating a Brexit settlement, and I recognise that a big part of the Brexit vote was motivated by a wilful longing for a golden past that never was, and by a strong undercurrent of Little Englander xenophobia.”

Well yes. And those were just two of the many major problems with the whole undertaking, any of which would have been deal-breakers for me as far as supporting ‘Leave’ was concerned. Let’s look at them in order.

Now, as for the “…strong undercurrent of Little Englander xenophobia.” I think it’s an understatement to call it an undercurrent. It was the dominant theme of the campaign, and the dominant reason for its success. And let’s call it by its true name. Even if I was to accept the contention ‘… that the EU is inherently unreformable…’ (which I’ll come to later), I still could not have voted ‘Leave’ as I will never, ever, EVER be found making common cause with fascists. Not if it would help the space program! Not if they were promising free beer for all the workers! They may try to hang on to our (the left’s) coattails occasionally, and there’s nothing much we can do about that, but I’ll never hang on to theirs!

Having said all that, I haven’t even come to the principal reason I could not vote ‘Leave.’ Which is that I believe, no, I insist upon, the sovereignty of the Scottish people. Accordingly I do not recognise the competence of the UK parliament, or the UK electorate, to make important decisions on our behalf. Even if it was a decision I thought desirable (as some on the left obviously do in this case), I would not accept it until and unless the Scottish people had debated it for ourselves, by ourselves, and decided it independently. And there are some very practical reasons for that, as well as the obvious principle.

But he went on to say, “…but on the other hand the real progressive left wing case for NOT being a member of the elitist, bureaucratic and undemocratic capitalist institution that is the EU was rarely heard in the debate.”

I couldn’t disagree with that. It was rarely heard indeed. And do you know why that was? Because we were having the debate as part of the UK! We could have had that debate, we could still have that debate. In Scotland. And on this he and I agreed – I support Scotland having its own debate, and its own referendum, at a time of our choosing, post-independence. That’s the only way I can see of our having the debate we want to have. The more subtle and nuanced debate. The debate on political, economic and practical issues, untainted by a xenophobia I believe we, as a nation, do not share. I believe the Scottish electorate is mature enough to have that debate. The English electorate, I’m afraid to say, has clearly demonstrated that it is not.

The most sickening part of the whole distasteful affair came, for me, when Farage declared we’d won our independence (wrong word, I’ll come back to that too), “…without a shot being fired.” Utterly shameless, as only days before shots had indeed been fired, and a pro-Remain MP had been brutally murdered by a typical Brexiteer…okay, no, that’s hyperbole. By the sort of extremist nutter enabled by the campaign and the xenophobic rhetoric of Farage and his bonkers buddy Boris. And as for David Cameron, well, somewhere a village is missing an idiot. If he’d been a decent PM, if he’d been a leader, if he’d been a leader’s bootlace, he’d have cancelled the referendum the day of Jo Cox’s murder, and told the English electorate the truth – that they simply hadn’t shown sufficient maturity to have that debate. But he couldn’t do that, not when he and his fellow travellers have spent so many years deliberately dumbing down that electorate so it would swallow their lies.

But let’s have another, closer look at that sentence. “…the elitist, bureaucratic and undemocratic capitalist institution that is the EU…” I made a note of it, because it rather neatly sums up the pro-Lexit argument. And yeh, okay, but that glosses over the central conflict at the heart of the EU, and another issue that simply didn’t feature in the campaign. Now Lexiteers would claim, like other Brexiteers, that the EU takes sovereignty from its member states, and that’s one of the problems. But that’s one of the things member states have always been afraid of. They don’t want to cede any sovereignty, and that’s why it’s undemocratic. The more democratic you make it, the more its democratic institutions can claim a mandate, an EU-wide one, to overrule the will of any individual member state. That’s why those member states have fought to keep it undemocratic, and why all major decisions have to be by way of international treaties. To call for it to be at once more democratic and less sovereign, well sorry, but that’s basically an oxymoronic argument.

As for the other accusations, elitist? Certainly. Bureaucratic? I don’t see that as a pejorative term. As someone who has been a minor bureaucrat for a living (see above), you just try getting anything done without a bureaucracy. You can’t! And of course one of the reasons it has a large bureaucracy is that it has taken on quite a few of the things that used to be the responsibility of members. Like trade negotiations. You might think that it’s overly bureaucratic, and it might well be time for a thorough, root and branch review, but to say that it’s bureaucratic is not in itself a criticism. Capitalist? Well yeh, what isn’t? He could have said (but didn’t) that it’s a ‘neoliberal club.’ I’ve heard that one a lot. Some truth to it, sure, but neoliberalism is a contagion the EU caught from the UK. I was there. I remember. Most of the EU rules they’re talking about are things Margaret Thatcher insisted on. And the most extreme neolibs are the hard line Brexiteers, who wanted to peel Britain off from the herd, the better to bring it down and strip its carcase. When they’ve finished, and the place is an ungovernable dystopia, they’ll hop on their private jets and zoom off to some other tax haven. Maybe in the sun this time.

Anyway, I’ve gone on far too long, so briefly, is the EU unreformable? I’m yet to be convinced. However, there’s no getting away from it, we in Scotland face two very different scenarios, depending on when Indyref2 is held. Continuing membership of the EU, as a successor state to the UK prior to Brexit, with all the UK’s exemptions and sweetheart deals, or having to reapply as a new member. And the truth is my position would be different depending on which of those scenarios we are presented with. The loss of the currency exemption alone would be a deal-breaker for me. We have a hell of a lot of economic adjustments to make, and we will badly need control of our own currency. This is one reason why I’ve been reticent about getting too involved until now. I don’t know what’s going to happen (although I’ll make a few predictions in a minute), and I can’t help but look from my direction, a Scottish point of view. I’d like to stay in and at least try to reform the EU, but I incline to the Yanis Varoufakis position, which is that if you were in, you wouldn’t leave, but if you were out, you wouldn’t join.

Finally, I have to address the idea I’ve heard from so many Lexiteers – to again paraphrase – “the idea that we should win our independence from the UK only then to cede sovereignty to the EU seems self defeating and daft.” That is, how can I put this politely, a mis-characterisation. For a couple of reasons. First the practical one. There are, by definition, no matters that are controlled by both the EU and the UK. As of today, we in Scotland are members of both. If we became independent of the UK tomorrow, no powers we repatriated from London would then pass to the EU. Why would they? There is no overlap. So we would actually gain all those powers, and they include all the really important ones, like macro-economic policy, foreign affairs and defence. We’re not talking about how much pork has to be in a sausage before you can call it a pork sausage here, we’re talking the real powers of a sovereign state. If, on the other hand, the UK leaves the EU with us in tow, all matters currently controlled by the EU are supposed to revert to Holyrood, but as we now know Westminster has grabbed a couple of dozen for themselves. Unless they graciously decide to offer us a few crumbs from the rich man’s table and devolve stuff to us, we are left begging. And I’m done begging.

The other, slightly more esoteric reason it’s a mis-characterisation is that sovereignty is not ceded to the EU. By anyone! This was even conceded in the wording of the Article 50 bill, which said something like, “Although sovereignty has at all times resided with this parliament, at times it hasn’t felt that way.” Yes, you read that right, we’re doing this not because of any actual loss of sovereignty, but because of a feeling! Genius! And the member states have been very careful to ensure that this non-surrender of sovereignty remains the case, and is the major reason (as alluded to earlier) they have blocked further democratisation. The union, on the other hand, represents a total and complete loss of sovereignty (even though I recognise that some of us have never, and will never, accept this to be valid), and its end will return all sovereignty to the Scottish people, regardless of whether we are members of the EU when it happens or not.

So what is going to happen next? As I finish this parliament is already sitting to vote on Theresa May’s deal-that-is-not-a-deal. The reason it’s not a deal is that it basically puts off a bunch of the most difficult and problematic issues indefinitely. So in that sense the Brexiteers are right, because some of the problems are unresolvable, particularly the Irish border question. It’s a Kabayashi Maru, a no-win scenario. If the UK is to leave the customs union there has to be a hard border. There are only two places it can be, and it can’t be in either of them. Not, in the case of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, without unravelling the Good Friday Agreement. That was predicated on the assumption, which looked like a safe one at the time, that both Ireland and the UK would remain members of the EU. It doesn’t really work if that’s not the case, and great swathes of it would have to be renegotiated. And not, in the case of the Irish Sea, without effectively giving NI a unique and different status within the UK that they do not want!

So in light of all this, here are my predictions. Not my wish list, what I think is going to happen; the Commons will vote against the May ‘deal.’ The Commons will vote against ‘no deal.’ Brussels will refuse any further concessions. The Commons will vote against the no confidence motion, or at least fail to get the required two thirds majority to pass it. May will eventually ‘reluctantly’ accept the fact that, the Commons having voted against the deal that’s on the table, and against no deal, she can’t proceed with Brexit. Commons will eventually accept that this is what they have, albeit accidentally, decided and be forced to approve another referendum, when all other options have been exhausted. And we can all have the next couple of years to understand that our politicians have stumbled into a position that they cannot agree on any way forward from, but that they are just going to brazen it out and pretend nothing is wrong, while the rest of us feel collectively the embarrassment and shame that ought by rights to be theirs, as we become the laughing stock of the world once again. Seriously, just stop. Now!


Breaking News – Theresa May’s ‘deal’ has just been defeated in the House of Commons by 432 votes to 202!!!

¹A fiasco is a kind of Italian wine bottle. If you find yourself in a fiasco, you might as well make a spectacle of yourself, then at least you’ll have some glasses to drink the wine from.

²Staglation is the phenomenon of stagnation (low or negative economic growth) combined with high inflation. The classical/liberal economic model said that couldn’t happen. Until it did. The UK suffered from it to an extent in the early 1970s, but there have been far worse examples, notably Weimar Germany, which is probably as good an answer as you’ll get to the question ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’

³The assumption that facts alone work to persuade people is wrong. Sometimes the opposite is true – climate change advocacy is an example of this. Rather, messaging must invoke emotion in order to motivate.” (Dee Madigan – Campaign Edge, an Australian left political ad agency)

PS – The time it would take to reach Sirius at the given speed is roughly 7500 years.

Direction of the Road

Ursula K. Le Guin

October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018

A Personal Tribute

I bonded with my dad over science fiction. I’d read everything of any interest in the kids’ library and I was still a few years too young to join the adult one, so I started looking a little more closely at what he was bringing home. There were a lot of yellow jackets. He could borrow half a dozen at a time, so he did, and I was curious. So he started letting me have some. Anthologies of short stories at first then, once I was on the hook, the hard stuff – novels. I loved the ideas. He was your classical sci-fi enthusiast – young in the 40s and 50s, an engineer, an amateur futurist. When I was four he kept me up to witness the moon landing, while he assembled an Airfix model of the lunar module. I didn’t really get the momentousness of the occasion at the time, but later I was glad to have the memory.

Anyway, one day he came in and handed me a paperback, saying only, “I think you’ll like this,” and walked off. Now when I’d first started reading sci-fi he’d pointed out a few basics. All those yellow jackets, for instance, were from a certain publisher who we can’t mention who published almost exclusively sci-fi and fantasy. And if something had won a Hugo or a Nebula Award, it might well be pretty good. If you don’t know what those are, they’re a bit like the Oscars and the Golden Globes. Is it the Golden Globes? Whichever one is by popular vote anyway. The Hugo is voted by fans, the Nebula by other writers. Occasionally they agree. This novel had been nominated for both. It was The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, and he was right – I liked it a lot. It was the best thing I had read, and it began what will be, for me, a lifelong relationship.

It’s an odd thing to describe, though I’ve seen quite a few attempts, the relationship you have with a writer. Entirely one-sided, nonetheless profound, a relationship entirely of the mind. They needn’t even be alive when you encounter them, but some are, and some are there in person for 40 years, and then they go, and you feel as if you’ve lost an old friend. That happened to me when I heard of the passing of Ursula Le Guin in January. And what a friend I lost! For a purely intellectual relationship, she brought an awful lot to the table, and she drew on all of it in her work. I don’t know how to even begin to approach that body of work, and the sheer scope of her knowledge and her imagination, except the way I did first time round.

When I read that first novel, set in her beloved Portland against the backdrop of majestic Mount Hood (those who have read the book will be chuckling now, others will have to read it to find out why), first she lured me in with a delicious, juicy sci-fi and philosophical what if – what if you dreamed, and your dreams became reality, but nobody else realised what was happening, only you? I mean, how good is that? What would you do? People would think you were mad if you told them. Then she introduced a character, not a hero, not a sci-fi stereotype, but a real, ordinary but nuanced character, George Orr (thought to be a reference to Orwell), who has this power and is terrified by it. He can’t stand the responsibility of determining reality, regulated only by his subconscious. He begins to dread sleep, and becomes addicted to ‘uppers’ in an attempt to avoid it. As a result of this he is caught using an illegally obtained prescription and sent to compulsory psychiatric evaluation.

We now meet his psychiatrist, the well-meaning but grandiose Dr Haber. He has a particular interest in sleep and dreaming, and using a combination of hypnosis and a machine of his own invention, designed to augment dreaming, he puts George under and directs him what to dream. Over the course of a few sessions he comes to the stunning realisation that Orr is telling the truth, that his dreams really do change reality, and begins to attempt to use him to remake the world as he, Haber, thinks it should be. This is probably the point where I should say, “Spoilers!” and discretely draw a veil over any further discussion of the plot. So lets see, she’s given me a great sci-fi idea, characters I care about, oh and did I mention that she writes beautifully? In prose that was at once sparse and sparkling she opened the doors of literature to me, far more than anything I ever read at school did.

But it doesn’t stop there. As I began to look for her work and discover it, I could not fail to be impressed by the sheer scope of her knowledge and understanding. The child of two anthropologists, she assimilated psychology, political theory and Taoism, studied French and Italian Renaissance literature, understood environmental truths, before they became inconvenient, or even fashionable, and she used all of it to craft fascinating, challenging novels which imagined an array of possible human societies, such as an androgynous one, in ‘The Left Hand of Darkness,’ and an anarchist one in ‘The Dispossessed,’ as well as exquisite short stories like those in ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’ (don’t ask me where that title comes from, I assume it just sounded good, it has no obvious connection to the stories, of which there are seventeen). This she opens with the tragically beautiful ‘Semley’s Necklace.’

Before I talk about that however there is something I have to explain. Ursula Le Guin wrote both science fiction and fantasy. The readers of these genres form two discreet groups, although there is some overlap. I will mostly be talking about her science fiction, but I cannot fail to mention her acclaimed Earthsea Trilogy and associated works. A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968, was the first of three books exploring the life of Ged, a young wizard. Spoiler alert: Ged grows and matures into an adult, starting with his attendance at a secretive school for wizards, where he is scarred on the face by a dark power (which he discovers is inextricably linked to him), and that he subsequently defeats. Sound familiar at all? There are words for that. Ugly words. But ugly words are not what Le Guin did. She said only that J.K. Rowling should have been “more gracious about her predecessors”.

She herself was more than gracious about her own predecessors, but never less than original in her vision. Being pigeon-holed as a ‘genre writer’ meant that for much of her career she lacked the recognition by the mainstream literary establishment that she so richly deserved. It was only in recent years that this began to change. She was awarded the 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (presented by Neil Gaiman, whose many literary accomplishments include an honourable mention from me for slipping a relatively arcane Le Guin reference seamlessly into an episode of Doctor Who), and in 2017 that she was finally voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The genre itself has been more forthcoming, and she has won many Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, far more than is practical to list. Let me just mention that she was only the second ever writer to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards for the same novel, with The Left Hand of Darkness in 1970 (behind Frank Herbert for Dune), and was the first of only five writers in history to achieve that feat twice, in 1975, when she won for The Dispossessed (ahead of Arthur C. Clarke, Rendezvous with Rama/The Fountains of Paradise). Asimov only managed it once.

I mention those names because when you look to place Le Guin in the sci fi pantheon, it’s way up there you need to be looking. For my money she is the best of them. They were great storytellers, but none had her psychological or political depth. They didn’t move me, and challenge me, and delight me the way that she did. She loved to challenge assumptions, not only within the genre, but in literature more generally, and in society as a whole. Her beautifully crafted prose always had a sharp sociological edge. She consciously set off to question the norms of fantasy and science fiction, especially in terms of race and gender. She was outspoken, for instance, about the “colour scheme” of her Earthsea series. She wrote:

“I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now.”

She kept to this approach in her work from then on, not only in her Earthsea books, but also in her ‘Hainish Cycle’ works (so most of her sci-fi including those books already discussed). You’ll notice white characters are the exception rather than the rule. I was going to say her ‘hard’ sci-fi works, but in the course of research for this tribute it’s come to my attention that not everyone has the same definition of hard sci-fi as me, and here I must bring my dad in again. I read somewhere that there were those who felt that works like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed were not what they considered hard sci-fi because they concentrated too much on characterisation and sociological analysis. In other words, too much about people, culture and society, not enough space ship battles. My dad had a different definition of hard sci-fi, and I’ve always followed that one. It is that in order to be considered ‘hard,’ sci-fi writing must rest on actual science, and not speculation or easy cop-outs.

So for my dad, the fact that Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle books were premised on an Einsteinian universe where faster than light travel is not possible put them firmly in the hard sci-fi category. Writers who relied on unexplained, wishful-thinking props such as warp drive (looking at you Star Trek) to circumvent Relativity could make no such claim (and yes, I know, there is some theory to support it. These days. There wasn’t when they made it up). All of which brings me back to the opening story of The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, one of the finest anthologies of short stories ever published. Because there are narrative problems with an Einsteinian universe which must be addressed. Le Guin decides to meet them head on and make them integral to the plot in the story Semley’s Necklace. Semley, a member of a society which has fallen back to a pre-technological state, seeks a priceless, fabled family heirloom. She learns that it is in the possession of another culture with whom hers shares a planet, but which is a hi-tech, spacefaring society.

On hearing her request they deny knowledge of it, so she turns to a third group, the Gdemiar, who manufactured the necklace. They agree that she may reclaim the artefact, which is in a museum. On a space station. Light years away. She insists on journeying with them to recover the necklace, despite their attempts to explain the problems of Relativity this entails. She experiences the journey as ‘only one long night’ but when she returns nine years have passed, her husband is dead and her daughter is grown up. To those used to the cop outs, this comes as something of a shock. It was certainly a surprise to the 12 or 13 year old me. The rest of the anthology lived up to the promise of that opening tale, and finished with three absolute gems – a story from the perspective of a tree (the name of which I’ve borrowed for this tribute), ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,’ a timeless moral conundrum that many of us on the left consider defining, and a poignant prequel to her novel ‘The Dispossessed’ in which we meet Laia Asieo Odo, the semi-mythical theoretician whose writings underpin the anarcho-syndicalist society of Anarres, on the last day of her life, ‘The Day Before the Revolution.’

As Odo, or Laia as she thinks of herself, reminisces about her life we get to know a character who is achingly human, and at the same time a true revolutionary, throughout her life dedicated entirely to her people, often to her own detriment. It’s an exquisitely beautiful portrayal, and it demonstrates what is incomparable about Le Guin. It relies on a comprehensive knowledge of political theory, revolutionary movements, sociology, psychology, and a deep understanding of the human condition. Only a highly empathic polymath could have written it, and that’s a surprisingly rare combination. She was my introduction to most of those subjects. If you’re political, if you think about society, about how it is and how it might be, if you question what others take for granted, then I can assure you, Ursula Le Guin is the science fiction writer for you. She was the one who walked away from Omelas, she has shown us the direction of the road, but she has left us the day before the revolution. She has not left us empty handed though, so get down to your local library and make a friend for life.


The Battle of Hawthorn Town Hall

         Hanson and me in the 90s

or, Pauline Hanson & Me

Last night shortly after I started this the battery in my modem melted down. It just stopped working, and on inspection it felt as though the interior of the battery had turned to mush. So today I will be spending the day without internet access until I can collect a replacement, hopefully tomorrow. This is somewhat disappointing, as I had intended to publish this story today, as it is a significant anniversary. Twenty years ago, on the 19th of July 1998, an incident took place which has become quite famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, in Australian political history. Or possibly mythology. Pauline Hanson, the neo-fascist Queensland politician, was prevented from addressing a public meeting in Melbourne at the old Hawthorn Town Hall by a counter demonstration and picket. Much has been said and much has been written about the events of that day, both at the time and in the years since, absolutely none of it accurate. Despite the fact that at least 2,000 people were there that day, with some estimates saying as many as 3,500, only around a hundred people, half of them demonstrators and half of them cops, know what really happened. I am one of them, and I think the time has come for the story to be told and the record corrected.

In researching this story I have read a number of accounts of the events of that Sunday afternoon, from both left and right, and of course numerous media reports at the time, none of them remotely reflecting the true story. Of course this is in part because many of those discussing it didn’t actually see it, and tend to have an axe to grind, the Hanson apologists wishing to portray it as left wing thuggery (poor, misunderstood little fascists), a dastardly plot by the ALP or the Greens or, even less plausibly Militant, who had a negligible presence in Australia at the time and the leaders of the organised left wishing to paint it as a great victory for their tactics and strategy. In fact it was neither. The first point I have to address is the violence that really did take place and the reason for it. As with the fact that Hanson was prevented from speaking, everyone has sought to impose their own interpretation of this violence. For the Hansonites it was an outrageous victimisation, for the left a heroic stand against oppression and for the police, well they painted themselves as the victims too. Again, they are all wrong, and the truth is far more mundane, and far less flattering to all concerned.

For those who remember the incident, have you ever wondered why, although there were a number of injuries that day, there were no arrests? There’s no great mystery about it in fact. The simple truth is no arrests were made because no offences were committed. Not by the demonstrators at any rate. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the police. The violence was on their part, and was entirely the responsibility of the sergeant in charge of the contingent of mounted police attending. Without orders, acting on his own initiative, he led his unit through the crowd in front of the town hall, riding down demonstrators and causing all of the injuries. The incident commander, who was inside the building at the time, was heard to be furious when he was informed of what had happened. He demanded they be called off, but this was not done for, again, one simple reason – the police comms failed.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, that was later. I haven’t arrived yet. The meeting was scheduled for 4pm, and I got there shortly before that in the company of two friends, a couple in fact, who were relatively inexperienced with demos and who were somewhat apprehensive given the trouble that had attended earlier One Nation events in Geelong and Dandenong. I was 33, and a veteran of numerous demos in Glasgow and London, so I’d sort of taken them under my wing. When we arrived most of the demonstrators were already there, the vast majority at the front of the town hall on Burwood Road. I suggested we take a walk around the whole block before joining them. This was basically a scouting mission to identify all the access points to the area, to work out where we could go if things turned ugly.

Now the geography of the place is key to this story, and building work means it no longer looks the way it did, so in the absence of an accurate diagram I’ll have to describe it as best I can. The town hall complex was on a corner. The cross street was Glenferrie Road. Part of the complex is, or at least was in 1998, the Hawthorn Police Station, which was around the corner and behind the town hall. Between them was an open quadrangle in use as a car park, with a larger car park taking up the diagonally opposite corner of the city block. There was access to the rear of the complex from that car park, across a wide area, and also by two narrow passages on either side of a smallerbuilding (not sure what that was, gone now) which occupied the actual corner, one along the side of the town hall and one along the side of the police station. At the rear of the hall there was a passageway along the back side of the building, about 12′ – 15′ wide, contained by a wall around 4′ to 5′ high, which allowed access to a side door. This wall had a gap of around 15′ – 20′ right at the back. To access the hall you would enter the passageway there, turn left and walk around the corner to the side door.

Much has been made of this layout by the Hansonites. According to this document, which appears to have been online since shortly after the day, the police were either weak or in league with the protestors, because it should have been easy for them to bring Hanson in by that side entrance. And it might have been, because I believe that had been their intention all along, if it hadn’t been for my scouting mission. Yes folks, confession time, I was the one who thwarted that plan. You see, when I saw that layout it was immediately clear to me what they intended to do. There were hardly any demonstrators at the rear of the town hall at this point. Adjacent to the gap in the wall someone had parked a Nissan Civilian, directly facing the wall. A Civilian is a small bus, bigger than a minibus, smaller than a city bus or a coach, holds about 30. It was dusty, white and unmarked. A bit like this:

It occurred to me that it would be the simplest thing in the world to bring up another similarly-sized vehicle to take the corresponding position on the other side of the gap, creating an easily defensible area into which they could bring her by car. Of course they didn’t want the demonstrators to realise what they intended to do, so they had left just one young cop to keep an eye on it. There were no demonstrators near it. When I figured out their plan, I went to the first stewards I could find and asked for a couple of dozen people to go and block the passageway. People who heard this started volunteering and soon we had what I estimated to be an adequate number, so I led them round there. As soon as we got there the single cop on lookout duty got on the radio, which was still working at that point, and cops started arriving from everywhere!

We were able to get roughly half way along the rear of the building before they mustered sufficient numbers to link arms and block our progress. Now I didn’t do a careful head count, but I’d estimate there were roughly 50 of us, and a similar number of police, some of whom arrived behind us so we were hemmed in. That was fine, because we had successfully blocked the passageway, and the police presence was effectively helping us to do that. Indeed at first they were pushing us in both directions at once. At that point I stuck my head up and loudly pointed out that this was what they were doing, and suggested they make their minds up. “Which way are you trying to push us?” They didn’t know. I’d rumbled their Plan A, and they clearly didn’t have a Plan B. But they stopped trying to push us from behind. Because of the wall there was nowhere for us to go anyway.

In this article, written by someone involved in the organisation of the demo, they claim that demonstrators linked hands all the way around the town hall, and bravely held out in the face of mounted police charges. The earlier document indicates that the Hansonites believed that too. Didn’t happen. In fact there were effectively two separate actions that day. The first, and the one that everyone saw, including the TV cameras, was at the front of the hall. Over 2,000 people participated there. The ill-disciplined action by the mounted police unit took place there, and those who faced that charge were indeed courageous. I want to be absolutely clear about that. I didn’t see it personally, but I know they stood their ground, and that deserves acknowledgement and credit. The decisive action however, the reason the police incident commander advised Hanson they could not guarantee her safety if she attempted to enter the hall, was carried out by me and my brave 50 out the back.

Once we and the 50 or so police who responded to us settled into our allotted roles that afternoon, we began to communicate. This is very important. If you ever find yourself on the front line of a demo, this is what you do. You keep up a dialogue. Now it fairly quickly became apparent to me who the natural leader amongst the police was. He was being extremely vocal, and was yelling, “Blood rule! Blood rule!” when I first noticed him. Remember, this was in the days when people were still fairly paranoid about blood, fully effective treatments for HIV/AIDS were not yet available, and all sports were rigidly enforcing blood rules whereby the slightest sight of blood would immediately see the player sent to the sidelines to be patched up. The pre-eminent sport in Victoria was of course Australian Rules Football (AFL), hereinafter referred to as ‘footy.’ So I looked where this guy was pointing.

He was right. There was a young guy on our side who was bleeding from a head wound. It wasn’t a particularly serious-looking one, and he almost certainly got it before he joined our number, but the blood was clearly visible. I worked my way through the crowd to reach him and told him to go and get medical attention. There was a first aid tent in fact, not more than about 50 yards from our position at the near corner of the larger car park. St. John’s I believe. He didn’t want to go, so I spoke to him in the voice I inherited from my father (the one that allows me to do gigs without a mic or busk in busy streets), making sure everyone on both sides heard me. I told him he was injured, that he’d done his bit, and that now he needed to go and get medical attention. I got the rest of my 50 behind me, and by moral suasion we prevailed on him to go. I took care to let him do so without losing face, and we even gave him a few cheers and a round of applause as he went. I then turned my attention to the vocal cop.

His name (and this alone shows that it was a more innocent time, the fact that many of the cops were still wearing their name badges, you don’t see that any more) was Constable N. Smith. I’ll explain the reason I remember that like it was yesterday in a minute. Now for my non-Australian audience, I should explain that police ranks in Australia are a little different to those you’d find in Scotland or the UK. Constables are obviously the same, but you also get Senior Constables. That’s sort of equivalent to a Sergeant. They wear two stripes. An actual Sergeant is equivalent to a UK Inspector, and a Senior Sergeant is equivalent to a Chief Inspector. The group who faced us were mixed, Constables and Senior Constables. So although Constable Smith was not the senior officer present, nobody seemed to be formally in charge, and he emerged as the natural leader. So once our wounded soldier had departed I got his attention.

I can’t remember my exact words, but basically I communicated to him, in far fewer words than I’m about to use, that our enforcing of the blood rule, at his request, was a good faith gesture, and proposed that we agree to broaden the understanding and adopt footy rules more generally. That meant a bit of push and shove, a bit of the old hip and shoulder, was fair game but there was to be no striking, no kicking, no tripping, no eye-gouging, no hair pulling, etc. Once that understanding had been reached, Constable Smith and myself kept up a continuous dialogue, with a bit of friendly banter, for the rest of the afternoon to ensure its enforcement on both sides. I soon nicknamed him ‘Norm’ because of the medal. The Norm Smith Medal is awarded to the player adjudged best on ground in every AFL Grand Final. It’s named for some legend of the game from way back. I want to say 1920s. That’s why I’ve never forgotten his name. Anyway, the dialogue worked and where we were there were no injuries and no arrests that day.

They did try to bring a couple of people through. One made it, albeit looking as though he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards (which he had really, a human hedge), the other didn’t. Nobody struck them, but we were completely hemmed in, forming a solid phalanx. There simply wasn’t room for anyone to move. Not that we were trying. Our intention was to put our bodies in the way and to block access. In this we succeeded, at least insofar as having seen the results of their attempts to bring people through our cordon, the commander recommended to Pauline Hanson not to try it, and told her, I would imagine, that he couldn’t make any promises once she was in the middle of the crowd. Due to the extremely restricted space there was no chance for either side to reinforce our numbers once the block was established. Would she have been unharmed if they had tried it? I don’t know. That was certainly my intention, but she does tend to attract a lot of hostility. I do know that in the case of those two of her supporters they tried to get through, they were not harmed, however we carried out our stated intention of doing our best to block their path.

So given all the above circumstances I am quite prepared to take responsibility for preventing her from addressing the meeting. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, and I’ll tell you why. I do believe in freedom of speech, as a general principle, with one vital exception – no platform for fascism. No right can ever be absolute, not in the real world. The reason for this is that there are overlapping rights, some of them a priori rights. All such judgements are a balancing acts. So where does your right to freedom of speech end? That’s not a rhetorical question. It ends with hate speech, because that infringes on certain a priori rights of others. Even Americans, who have more legal protection for the absolute right to freedom of speech than pretty much anyone, ought to understand this. The first rights their fledgling nation ever asserted for its citizens were life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In that order. And that is entirely right and proper, isn’t it. The most fundamental right of all must surely be the right not to be killed. Hate speech leads to killing, it’s as simple as that.

That is why in countries not quite so obsessed with free speech there are laws constraining what you can and cannot say. Incitement to racial hatred for instance has long been a criminal offence in the UK, and that is entirely appropriate too. The problem is, and this is certainly the case in Australia as well as the UK, that allowances do tend to be made for politicians that would perhaps not be made for the rest of us (think of Donald Trump – much of what he says would be illegal in the UK or Australia, some of it probably is even in America). Stephen Yaxley-Lennon* is, in my view, one such politician. He is in jail for contempt of court, for defying a judge, not for the disgusting things he says, although arguably he should be. Pauline Hanson, who as you may have heard has called for his release, is another. She is a racist, a proto-fascist, what she says (some of which she has got away with under parliamentary privilege) is hate speech, and although she is not physically attacking people herself, views like hers legitimise and enable such acts in the minds of others, of her followers. Once you set out down that road it’s only going to end one way – badly.

And it’s impossible to escape the reality that fascism is a problem for us, the working class left, to deal with. Nobody else will do it for one thing. Remember in the 1930s none of the Tories, apart from Churchill famously, wanted to oppose the Nazis. They wanted to reach an accommodation with them. In Spain only the International Brigades, working class, left wing volunteers, went to the defence of the Republic. It’s our clothes they’re trying to steal and our people they are trying to recruit for another thing. The reason these ideas are so insidiously seductive is because they marry some left wing-sounding economic populism, which they invariably fail to deliver on when given the opportunity by the way, with the deeply rooted human tendency to out group hostility, xenophobia and scapegoating. It’s the worst part of our nature, and we know where it can end up go in an era where technology has made us far more dangerous than we ever were in the days when being that way conferred, presumably, some sort of evolutionary advantage. The price of freedom, as they say, is eternal vigilance, and the only thing a tolerant society cannot tolerate is intolerance. For these reasons we must be eternally vigilant not to tolerate this poisonous ideology ever taking root or thriving again. It is not within the boundaries of legitimate political opinion. The ordinary protection of political speech does not apply to it. It understands only the language of force and as our grandparents knew, it must be opposed, unconditionally and at any cost. Never again!


*the fuckknuckle who goes by the alias of Tommy Robinson

Power – A Winter’s Tale

I want to talk to you about power. Not political power, or entrenched patriarchal power, but the everyday kind you get from the socket in the wall. Because I heard something very disturbing indeed recently – the UK almost ran out of gas, at the worst possible time. Now at the time I heard about this, it was Thursday the 1st of March, and I was stuck on the other side of the world, in Melbourne, where it was still uncomfortably warm. If you were in the British Isles, you were currently in the grip of the Siberian weather system known as the ‘beast from the east’ so that could have been a very real problem. We all know now that it didn’t happen. If it had happened then you’d all no doubt be well aware of it, and there would probably be an enquiry into the reasons. And if you’ve read anything be me before, you may well not be entirely surprised to learn that I’m going to blame the Tories for the entire mess.

They are entirely responsible for this though, through incompetence, mismanagement and just plain greed. And I’m here tell you why (because this is nowhere near well enough understood). It’s not really the present day Tories who are to blame, although it is happening on their watch, and they haven’t done anything to prevent it, so they cannot escape blame entirely. No, I’m talking about the Tories of an earlier era, the 1980s, and of course one Margaret Hilda Thatcher.

As with so much of what is wrong with today’s UK, it started with her. Of course privatisation has a lot to answer for, and I’ll be coming back to that later, but that wasn’t the start of it. It actually started in the early 80s, when we faced a number of strategic decisions about power generation. We had, at that time, a significant number of coal-fired and nuclear generators (including all of the 1950s Magnox reactors for instance) which were approaching the end of their design lives. The government still owned all of them at this point.

So, with major shortfalls in capacity expected by the early 90s, decisions on replacements had to be made, because the time lag from turn-of-sod to turn-of-key for 1GW+ power stations, both nuclear and coal-fired plants, is typically seven years. But Thatcher was determined to destroy the NUM, so she didn’t want to order any new coal-fired stations at that time.

So what about nuclear, you may ask? Well, as a result of her ‘price of everything, value of nothing’ philosophy, she decided to build more nuclear power stations, but at the cheapest available price. So a bidding war started, with the choice coming down to the leading US design, Westinghouse’s Pressurised Water Reactor, or PWR, and the British design, Babcock & Wilcox’s Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor, or AGR. The AGR was widely acknowledged in the industry to be the safest available design at that time, however the PWR came in a bit cheaper, so the decision was eventually made to go with that. However, due to the delay, before any actual starts could be made, Chernobyl happened, making it politically impossible to build any new reactors for many years afterwards.

So they were put on indefinite hold, but by now there was no longer time to avoid widespread shortfalls in electricity supply by going back to coal, plus by then the UK coal industry no longer existed, and we’d have been hostage to the international markets anyway. It was at that point that the decision was made to go with cheap and relatively quick to build gas-fired generators, which could be fuelled with North Sea gas.

Just one problem with that – when North Sea gas came on stream, we were told that we had 2-300 hundred years supply. But that was assuming it was used the way it was in the 70s, for mainly domestic and some industrial use only. There were no gas-fired electricity generators back then. Using it for powergen has resulted in that 300 year potential being reduced to more like 30 years, and the UK is no longer self-sufficient. Scotland would be, but not the UK.

In addition to that, the whole system has since been privatised. Also by Thatcher’s government. Private companies have not found it to be in their shareholders’ interests to hold supplies in reserve for extreme weather events such as the one recently experienced. In times when demand is lower, like summer, they don’t accumulate stockpiles, they sell it on the international market. Remember gasometers? Those big things you used to see on city skylines, that went up and down on periodically, and held gas reserves? Don’t see those any more, do you? Plus there was a single facility known as Rough off the Yorkshire coast that represented around 70% of the UK’s storage capacity. It was ageing, built in 1985, and needed a thorough refurbishment, but Centrica, the owners of British Gas, decided it was too expensive and got out of the contract that required them to do all necessary maintenance work, so they could just shut it down instead, with no alternative provision. Just like they worm their way out of every major powergen infrastructure investment that’s ever needed. The private sector does not build power stations. They are happy enough to buy them cheap once the public purse has built them, and run them into the ground, but they have never built one with their own money!

That is the truth that today’s Tories will never tell you, but you can check for yourself, they haven’t. When they have built anything at all, it has been with government grants and subsidies. Back in the early 80s, when I first studied economics, we used to call utilities like gas and electricity ‘natural monopolies,’ which obviously had to be publicly owned, because they were essential services and therefore too vulnerable to exploitation if they were in private hands. The argument goes that companies (and remember, economics 101, the purpose of a company is to maximise profit), would find the temptation to profiteer from essential services too great to resist. Then along came Thatcher and said, “No, no, no, we’ll open them up to competition and prices will go down!” Well? Have they? Are you enjoying the savings? No, of course you’re not! My mother, an 83 year old pensioner on supposedly the lowest tariff, got a bill for over 900 quid at the end of last year!

Prices have skyrocketed, as those of us who actually understood the first thing about economics always knew they inevitably would. The system we have now has competition, yes, but what it also has is two levels of private enterprise, in both generation and distribution, sucking money out of the system to give to their shareholders. How was that ever going to result in lower prices? You’d have to be an idiot or a liar to suggest such an obvious nonsense. Now, I don’t think Margaret Thatcher was an idiot. She must have known what she was doing, and that makes it fraud, on a massive scale. It’s quite clear. Google the Fraud Act if you have the time. Privatisation ticks every box, and the only valid defence for anyone involved in it would be to claim that they were too stupid to understand what the inevitable results of what they were doing were. So that’s the question modern day Tories and advocates of so-called market solutions must answer – are you too stupid and incompetent, or too crooked to be in charge of a petty cash tin, never mind a major economy? Because it has to be one or the other.

To use Thatcher’s favourite phrase, there is no alternative!

V’s Fee, East Kilbride Yes and Manels

I am reblogging rather than just sharing this because V is a friend and comrade, I saw the whole thing unfold in real time, and I can confirm every detail of this account. So if you want to dispute any of it then I guess, come at me dudes!


image6Victoria Pearson

I often think of twitter as a big noisy pub. Your mates are all in there, but so are loads of people you don’t know. You’ve got really interesting, passionate and important conversations going on in some corners, people snogging in others, people playing music or showing off what they had for tea, arguing over who would win in a fight between The Hulk and Mr Hyde. It’s a big pub, I’ll give you that, and it can be rough at times, despite the champagne guzzlers in the corner, trying to seem “authentic” and down with the crowd, but I’ve always felt very much at home there.
This weekend I learned that, much like in the pub, there are times when a snatch of conversation can be overheard, misinterpreted, and spread through Chinese whispers until it is totally divorced from any of its original meaning. Unlike the pub…

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Free Jaggi Now

#FreeJaggiNow In keeping with my #Manus theme this last week, I’d like to ask for help in drawing attention to the situation of a young West Dunbartonshire man who has been unlawfully detained in Punjab, and denied access to family, legal or consular contact. Story below. Please share.


A 30 year old Scottish man, Jagtar Singh Johan from West Dunbartonshire, has been arrested and denied legal representation while holidaying in Jalandha, Punjab, India.

Screenshot_20171111-173438Jagtar- Jaggi to his friends – was in the area for his wedding, and was shopping with his new wife when he had a sack thrown over his head and was bundled into a van by men in plain clothes, who the family found out later were policemen.

The Indian authorities have so far refused to give any information regarding Jagtar’s welfare or whereabouts to any UK MPs, or the British High Commission, although police have suggested in Indian media reports that his crime is that he had been “running a magazine” in the UK that outlines the atrocities of the 1984 Sikh genocide, and “influencing the youth through social media.”  

As far as we are aware, running a magazine is not a crime…

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Ex Manus Capere

Literally to take from the hand, this Latin phrase is where we get the English word ‘emancipation’ from. I must confess I didn’t know that until earlier this year. When I saw a graphic featuring the phrase, I had to look it up. When I did I realised how darkly ironic it truly is that we have turned Manus Island into a horrific, tropical, modern day, Château d’If hellhole. As some may be aware, I am a Scottish Australian. I was born and brought up in Scotland, but I have also been an Australian citizen for over 30 years, many of which I’ve spent living here. In fact the process that led me here started 34 years ago today, when I fell in love for the first time. Her name was Gayle and she was, as you may have deduced, an Australian. I’ve written about her, and my decision to come here, before in a post entitled The Moment When You Know. I won’t get into that here in too much depth, but let me just say for now that I was 18, and she had just turned 23. She seemed like such a sophisticated ‘older woman’ to me at the time. Today I have a daughter, Zoe, who is exactly that age, and that seems like such a strange thing to think, but from an 18 year old’s perspective that’s how it seemed.

They never met, Gayle and Zoe, because breast cancer took Gayle from us far too young, before Zoe was born. That’s sad, yes, as much for the world as for me, even though most of the world may never know what a remarkable person, a remarkable mind, we lost with her. But I’m not looking for sympathy here, it was a long time ago and I’ve dealt with it. As much as you ever deal with the loss of someone who played such a large part in your life. But every year, on this day, I still think of her. One of the things I think about is what she’d have thought about the world we now find ourselves in. Now as it happens the night before last I was having a twitter rant about what is happening right now on Manus Island. I was furious. I still am. Two years after I fell in love with Gayle I became an Australian citizen, in November of 1985. As a Thatcher refugee, at that time I was quite proud of that. I saw then PM Bob Hawke and former PM Malcolm Fraser take Thatcher on in the Commonwealth over her unconscionable support for apartheid South Africa. I was proud of that, and of Australia’s positions on human rights issues in general.

So it gives me no pleasure to say what I now have to say. It is with a heavy heart that I write this. It is going to be very difficult and emotional for me. The reason I mentioned the twitter rant was because an old friend responded to me, and we discussed it. Not as old as me, I hasten to add, but I’ve known her a long time. Her name is Carmel, and she and Gayle have a couple of relevant things in common. They both come from old, Victorian, Western District families, Gayle’s mostly Scottish and Carmel’s Irish. And they are both hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool Labor supporting families. So I heard an echo of Gayle when Carmel said to me, “And this is why, breaking my heart in the process, I can no longer vote for Labor.” Because they too are complicit in what is happening today. Both major parties have defiled the legacy of Whitlam and Fraser and Hawke. And more, in Labor’s case, because Doc Evatt’s fingerprints are all over the UN Convention on Refugees. The Convention which today we are refusing to honour is written, in large part, in his voice. An Australian voice.

This was when the UN was new of course, in the aftermath of WWII, when Europe lay in ruins and millions of people had been displaced. There was a desperate need to resettle them, and it was done, under the terms of that Convention. Many arrived in Australia at that time, and it is particularly disturbing that many of their sons and daughters are amongst our present day politicians. Because what we have done to those on Manus Island and Nauru is the antithesis of how those European refugees were treated, and it is despicable! I can shy away from it no longer. This has been a long time coming, many years, but I am incandescent with rage. What is wrong with us? Australia, what has been done, is still being done, in our name shames and disgraces every last one of us! It is unforgivable. It is immoral, unjust, illegal, contrary to every principle of our legal system and to at least four separate UN Conventions to which we are signatories, as found by their respective High Commissions. After the original sin of the dispossession and destruction of the indigenous nations of this continent, this is the worst thing we have ever done! And I can’t bear it any more.

        Château d’If, the island prison of Edmond Dantès in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’                               Image by Jan Drewes ( – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Why what we are doing is so wrong:

I have long struggled to understand what it is that so many of us are failing to grasp about the complete and utter wrongness of this situation. But clearly there is something, so let me explain it as simply as I can. We have deliberately taken a group of people who have committed no crime and imprisoned them, without trial, indefinitely, as a gruesome example to other people so that they don’t not commit the same non-crime. That’s it in a nutshell. And you can’t do that! That is not a thing! It is not the behaviour of a civilised country, a democratic country, or a country that respects the rule of law! The specifics are these:

1. We seized their vessels at sea, in international waters, and took them prisoner. Thus breaching the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It’s called piracy. The Convention brings together a body of international maritime law that goes back centuries, and is held to be of vital national security interest to every maritime nation. One of the first times we did it, way back in 2001 with the Tampa, people don’t understand how close we came to getting into serious trouble over that. Norway could have taken us to the cleaners at the UN Security Council and in the ICJ. Anyway, we did that to this particular group of people because the government had decided to change the rules about the non-crime they weren’t committing and they hadn’t heard about it yet, so essentially we just grabbed them at random.

2. We illegally imprisoned them in Guantanamo Bay-style offshore detention centres, specifically because we knew, well the government knew, and I did too, that what they were going to do was illegal, so they wanted to put them beyond the reach of the Australian courts. One of the most fundamental cornerstones of the Australian legal system, as it is in most English-speaking countries, is habeas corpus. It is the fundamental right of every person to have their day in court. The government determined to remove that right from a group of fleeing, persecuted people, and enough of us either looked the other way, or cheered them on, that they got away with it. Almost. Not all of us are complicit. There have always been people who couldn’t accept it, activists who campaigned, lawyers who brought cases pro bono, and the High Court was snapping at the government’s heels. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

           Australia’s latter day Château d’If, the Manus Island Detention Centre, PNG.

3. In doing the above we also breached three more UN Conventions: The Convention on Refugees, obviously, the Convention on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It was this last one the lawyers came after first, and they slowly and painfully forced the government into getting the children brought out of there. They also got the High Court to assert its own authority over the camps. But the government had a plan for that. They bullied the governments of Papua New Guinea and Nauru into taking over the camps. On paper anyway. In reality they were operated by private contractors, like G4S, Broadspectrum and Serco, with no effective oversight. No media allowed to visit either. And the High Court was effectively cut out of the deal. The whole time they seemed to go out of their way to make life in the camps as unpleasant as possible. Just a few days ago a former head of medical services there broke his non-disclosure agreement (they made everyone who worked there sign one of those) and told his story, of his battles with authorities as they constantly undermined him and refused to accept his clinical decisions.

4. We’re not through with the legalities yet. A case was brought in the PNG High Court, which decided about 18 months ago that these people were being illegally detained, in breach of the Human Rights provisions in their constitution, and ordered the government to close it. So the PNG  government looked to Australia to help, and once again we looked the other way. Told them it was their problem now. They had agreed, under pressure, to accept those detainees who were found to be genuine asylum seekers, and that turned out to be over 90%, according to all available sources,* so they had little option, in order to comply with the High Court order, but to say it was no longer detaining them, that they could come and go as they pleased. Oh, so that’s all right then, is it? No, it’s not remotely all right, for a number of reasons.

*The Australian government publishes no figures, but other sources report this, and also that of those who have been had an adverse finding, the majority had not actually submitted an application, because they did not want to settle in PNG.

Firstly, these people are our responsibility. We have no business offloading them onto PNG. One of the poorest countries in the world, PNG is a place where the rule of law does not hold in much of its territory. Australians visiting, even just to travel round the capital Port Moresby, are advised to take private security. Yes, bodyguards. Levels of violent crime are such that it is not safe to live there, especially if you are a woman. It’s only surprising we haven’t had a wave of refugees from there yet. That is not a place of safety for anyone. That is not a place that is in any way equipped to accept refugees.

Secondly, they are stuck on this little island, Manus, where the locals hate them. The camp was imposed on them, contained within a naval base. They couldn’t understand why these people were being held here, it’s a remote island, they’re not across the complexities of hanging onto marginal seats in Western Sydney. They thought these must be bad people. But remember those contractors? They employed local staff as guards, because it was far cheaper than bringing them in from Australia. Straight away relations began to deteriorate, culminating in the so-called riot, which would be better described as an attack on the refugees by the staff, and other local people allowed into the centre by them, on the 17th of February, 2014, which resulted in the murder of  Reza Barati, a 23 year old Kurdish man from Iran (pictured at top of page) by local and, allegedly (they were never prosecuted), Australian staff.

Since then four more refugees have died, from illness or suicide. Relations have not improved, and although the detainees are allowed to leave the camp now, they are afraid to do so. When they do they are often beaten, robbed, and in some cases stabbed. Only a very small number of refugees have taken up the formal system for resettlement, and some of those have sought to return to the detention centre! The very first one has said it is not a safe place to send anyone else.

Over the years the numbers on Manus have gradually decreased. Remember, this has been going on for four long years. Women and children have gone, some people have been transferred to Nauru, some have chosen, a devil’s bargain, to return to the countries they fled in fear of their lives rather than remain in this place without hope, with no idea how long they might be held captive. There are about 600 left now, all of them men, mostly young. Those remaining are not in a good way. They were refugees to start with. Many of them were already heavily traumatised. Four years of arbitrary and indefinite detention, with no appeal, and no release date, exacerbated by the hostility of the environment, both climatic and social, has traumatised them all over again. Many have PTSD, depression, anxiety and other psychological issues, and many are on medication for these problems. Remember that, it will be important in a minute, because this desperate situation has become an extreme crisis in the last week.

The PNG government has now officially closed the centre. Those living there have been told to move to a new resettlement centre, outside of the naval base, but those who have seen it report that it is still a building site, nowhere ready to receive them. It’s construction is strongly opposed by locals, who have blocked the road. The refugees have understandably refused to move there, and continue to occupy the detention centre despite power and water being cut, and no food supplies being allowed in. They are effectively under siege and fear they may be attacked by the PNG military at any time. Those who are on medication are running out, and even that is not being allowed into the camp. This is an unfolding humanitarian disaster. And what has Australia done? Again, nothing!

Behrouz Boochani is a journalist and an Iranian refugee held on Manus Island since August 2014. The Guardian invited Boochani to keep a diary of the closure of the Australian-run detention camp. This is his most recent entry.

Now, I have to apologise for the time it has taken to write this article, because time is of the essence, I know. I did say at the start (when it was Thurs 2) that it was going to be extremely difficult for me. It has been. It’s now Sunday, and I have just watched Malcolm Turnbull once again decline an offer from New Zealand, restated today by newly minted NZ PM Jacinda Ardern, who is visiting, to take some of the refugees. He prefers to cling to a deal he made with the Obama administration in its dying days to take most of them in exchange for Australia accepting a group of politically inconvenient Central  American refugees the US is currently holding. But Trump hates the deal, and although he reluctantly agreed to honour it, the Americans seem in no hurry to get on with it. They’ve taken twelve people so far, last I heard. That’s not going to stop this crisis turning into a disaster. It is hard to escape the creeping feeling that we, in the richest, most fortunate country in this region, are the worst people. New Zealand has offered, and there’s been no objection raised there. Maybe they are just a little bit better than us. Even Timor Leste, one of the poorest countries in the world, far poorer even than PNG, even they offered to accept refugees. And this was after they found out that Australia had bugged their delegation’s hotel rooms and essentially cheated them in the Timor Gap Oil Treaty negotiations! They are definitely better people than us!

So what happened to us? How have we come to this? Where did we go so far wrong? These are questions I’ll be addressing in the next section, as I look at the recent history of refugee policy in Australia. And I will be naming names. But that will take a while, and six hundred desperate people on Manus Island cannot wait, so I will wrap this section up and publish it. However there are two people I must name now. The two people most directly responsible for the situation today. The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. It is they who must now act, who must be shamed and forced into acting, before this whole farce takes a more deadly turn. Let’s take a look at Peter Dutton first.

Looking like Mr Potato Head with the cold, dead eyes of a shark, this is the man presently responsible for Australia’s immigration and refugee policies. And what is he thinking? Well he reminds this babel fish, perhaps more than any human being I have ever seen, of a Vogon. And as Douglas Adams tells us of the Vogons, “They are simple-minded, thick-willed, slug-brained creatures, and thinking is not really something they are cut out for.” That sounds exactly like Peter Dutton. He also tells us, “The frightening thing about the Vogons was their absolute mindless determination to do whatever mindless thing it was they were determined to do. There was never any point in trying to appeal to their reason because they didn’t have any.” Yep, still right on target with Dutton. So not much point in wasting our breath there then. Except…he did go on to say, “However, if you kept your nerve you could sometimes exploit their blinkered, bludgeoning insistence on being bludgeoning and blinkered.” Something to bear in mind.

Poor, hapless Malcolm. That’s what people are starting to think. A man with a great future behind him. He seemed to show so much promise as the young barrister in the ‘Spycatcher’ case, humiliating Thatcher’s Cabinet Secretary in court (eliciting the immortal expression ‘being economical with the truth’). He first showed his knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when he led the Republican campaign to an unlikely defeat in 1999. When he entered parliament he probably joined the wrong party. Well, that’s what most people seem to think, including most of his own MPs! They dumped him in favour of the demented Tony Abbott in 2009, when he tried to persuade them to have an actual policy on climate change, although he continued to be quite popular with the electorate. His Liberal Party colleagues only turned to him as Abbott’s behaviour in office was becoming increasingly erratic, and their poll numbers were dreadful. A catastrophic defeat was on the cards. They knew he was far more acceptable to the people than Abbott, but that did not mean they had changed their minds. It didn’t mean they liked him, or agreed with him about much, so he was returned to the leadership, becoming with it the Prime Minister, on the understanding that he would not change any policies until at least after he won them the next election. So great was his desire for the job that he accepted those conditions.

When he took over, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief, but then…nothing changed. The devil’s bargain Malcolm had made to get the job became apparent as he failed to act on a number of things the nation thought he really believed in, such as climate change action and marriage equality. So his popularity rapidly declined. In the end he went to an early election at the last possible moment, which sounds like an oxymoron, but he held on to office by the barest of majorities, one seat. Any longer and he would have lost. What this meant of course is that his authority within his party was not enhanced by the win, but weakened. He still can’t change anything, because now every single backbencher can hold the balance of power. And they are a deeply weird and conservative bunch, those backbenchers.

So let me speak to him directly, attempt to reason with him. Malcolm, you can see how this is going to end unless you can change the script. Your poll numbers are heading the same way as Abbott’s and it is a long term trend now. You don’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of re-election unless you show some spine, some leadership! And there has never been a time when a bit of real leadership was more desperately needed than it is right now. Malcolm, if there is a shred of human decency left in you, if you are capable of feeling shame, or responsibility, or empathy, for goodness’ sake man, if you value your political life, listen to me! Enough! Act now. Stop this madness, before something horrific happens. It’s time to end this nation’s shame. You have two options – either bring them here, or let them go!!!


Part 2 – How Did It All Go Wrong? [Under Construction]

When did the rot set in? Well, the last time we had substantial numbers of refugees arriving by boat was in the 70s and 80s. They were coming from Vietnam, because of the end of the war there. And it was dealt with. Recent governments have been all too keen to point to the Howard years as their model for a successful policy, but they don’t like to talk about policy in the Fraser years, which really did work, and did so without locking people up for years and traumatising them. Fraser’s Immigration Minister Ian MacPhee, a member of the liberal wing of the Liberal Party (an endangered species these days), went privately to the Labor opposition, they agreed on a bipartisan approach, and got on with it with a minimum of fuss. It involved setting up regional processing centres that people could go to, without having to get on leaky boats, and be resettled. Those refugees have been integrated and if, god forbid, you end up in hospital tonight, 50:50 chance one or more of their grandchildren will treat you in A&E. So why was this able to work then, but not now? Because nobody politicised it!

This was the key. Nobody tried to use it as a wedge, nobody used it to send a racist dogwhistle to those sections of the electorate that respond to such signals. And the world turned, and the geopolitical situation moved on, and eventually the flow of refugees dried up, and everyone forgot. Or almost everyone. Life in Australia went on, the ethnic make-up of the population slowly changing, as it had been ever since the abolition of the ‘White Australia’ policy. But not because of refugees. You see refugees are, in the context of Australian domestic politics, a distraction. They always have been. There have never been enough of them to make a noticeable impact on the population. You see the record number of asylum seeker arrivals by boat, which was back during those Fraser years by the way, was a bit over 25,000. But Australia has been accepting 150,000-300,000 migrants every year, from other sources, pretty much since the war. Our economic model is based on it, so we can’t stop. Creating a moral panic about boat people has proved an excellent way of distracting racists from that.

But when it comes to the perception of Australia’s changing ethnic mix, there’s another figure which dwarves even that of regular, skilled and sponsored migration, family reunion, etc. Over 650,000 overseas students arrived in the first seven months of this year. And two thirds of them went to Melbourne and Sydney. Now it might be that a similar number left, having completed their studies, except it’s a growth industry isn’t it, so there was probably a higher number in than out. And that’s not even for a whole year. Then on top of that there’s another growth industry, Chinese tourism, which has become a nice little earner in recent years. So if you’re a redneck, visiting the city from the bush, or the outer suburbs, yes, Melbourne and Sydney do look a bit like they might be Asian cities. It’s all the tourists, and the students, and the regular migrants. It has never been the refugees. The chances that you’ve ever seen one are remote. I just had to clear that up. There will probably be a few more things I’ll have to clear up as I go along.

So, back to the story. Nobody was arriving by boat for a while, until the 90s, then a few started arriving again. There’s been a lot of talk about push factors and pull factors. The truth is when the push factors aren’t there, nor are the refugees. The Taliban were the new push factor in the 90s. When they took power in Afghanistan a lot of people felt they had to leave, and some of them started to make their way here. Now some people would ask why they would come all the way to Australia? Surely they must have passed through numerous other safe countries first. These are, for many people, telling questions. Because they don’t bother to find out the answers. Now the first one used to puzzle me too, until I had a sudden realisation. I was watching a news report about the “Jungle,’ the infamous refugee camp in Calais. I was thinking, “Why do you want to go to England? It’s shit there. You’re already in France. They have better welfare, better wages, shorter hours. You’ve been misinformed if you think England’s better.” But then I listened, and they told us why – because almost every one of them had family there already!

So those Afghanis making their way to Australia in the 90s were probably the same. They had family here, or friends, or at least somebody from their village had once come here and written back to say they were doing alright. Because that’s how real life works.
“Where will we go?”
“I don’t know. My uncles friend went to Australia in 1981.”
“What was it like?”
“I don’t know, but he never came back. Let’s go there.”
And these are real people, try to bear that in mind. On the question of passing through safe countries, well that’s not really going to sway you if you’re determined to make it to where your brother is, but is it even true? In between here and Afghanistan there actually aren’t very many countries that are signatories to the Refugee Convention. And if they’re not, that usually means they have no provisions in place for refugees. They might let you stay, on a sink or swim basis, with no support, or they might not. They are unlikely to regularise your status and give you a legal right to stay, or work, or send your kids to school, or get healthcare. Need I go on?

So it started back in the 90s as a trickle. But for some reason Paul Keating responded to it by introducing mandatory detention. It wasn’t offshore yet, but it was happening, in remote locations in the desert. At that time I was working in the public service, and was a union activist. We had already begun to notice the development of a toxic culture in the Department of Immigration. It was thought at the time that a particular Secretary of the department may have had a disproportionate influence in that regard. Anyway, the fact is Paul Keating, and his two Immigration Ministers, Gerry Hand and Nick Bolkus, have earned the right to be the first names on my roll of dishonour. But little did we know what was to come. We were about to get the guy who wrote the book on ‘othering’ and demonising vulnerable and voiceless people for political purposes. The man with the charisma bypass himself, John Winston Howard.


North Korea – A View From the Southern Hemisphere

Melbourne, Australia, Friday, September 15

Things look different from down here. Most of the people around me don’t think that of course. Things don’t look different to them, they just look the way they look, but I’m not from round here, I notice. But North and South, up and down, are just arbitrary designations. Conventions. The above map is no more ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ than the maps you’re probably more familiar with, it just a different perspective. Let’s flip that perspective and see what it looks like. So in Australia life goes on. The right wing government is trying to bully a privatised energy company into keeping a fifty year old coal-fired power station open (I know, Alice, looking glass), I still haven’t got my ballot paper for the $122 million non-binding postal plebiscite on same sex marriage (no, we haven’t got it yet, long story), but on the bright side the footy finals are in full swing (that’s Aussie Rules of course). Oh and Kim Jong Un just lobbed another missile over Japan, threatened to sink it (Japan) and reduce the US to ash and darkness (I think it was).

Obviously this has been going on for a while, and there is a certain low level anxiety in the air, rising whenever something like this happens. I’m sure you’ve felt it, even in Scotland. And it has certainly taken a turn for the worse this year, since Trump came to office. Ever since then people have been asking me about this region, China, North Korea, etc. It didn’t used to feature much in the news over there, I noticed that when I was in Scotland in 2014. But have a look at that map. This is our neck of the woods. China and Japan are our two largest trading partners. Which, by the way, Boris and all his talk of a great trade deal with Australia – I’m not sure there’s that much we could be trading. Our biggest export is iron ore. China’s been buying shiploads of that for the last few decades, while Britain was getting rid of its steel industry. We’ve got coal, heaps of it that we really shouldn’t dig up, but Britain doesn’t really use it any more anyway. Other than that we tend to do the same things, pretty much. Food and drink, oil and gas. Oh, and we’ve got about a million wild camels, another long story, if anybody’s interested.

Anyway, we’ve been living with North Korea for a long time. And for most of that time, after the war of course, things settled into a comfortable pattern. They have always indulged in the odd bit of bellicose rhetoric, and everyone has ignored them and got on with their lives. There was a very strange episode with them kidnapping people from Japan and denying it for decades before finally letting some of them go, but until relatively recently they weren’t in a position to threaten anyone except South Korea, and South Korea’s nuclear alliance with the US seemed to preclude any re-outbreak of hostilities. Now, it has been described as an uber-Stalinist regime, but I’m not sure that’s the correct description. It certainly has Stalinist features. Some of the methods of societal control do resemble Stalinism on steroids. But how many generations into a dynasty do you have to be before you admit it’s a monarchy? And no ordinary monarchy either. The Kim family are worshipped like god-kings. And yes, economically it’s state controlled, but the people have been largely reduced to penury to serve the needs of the regime. The Egyptian Pharaohs probably ran a fairer society.

But does all this mean North Korea is an ‘irrational actor?’ This is the fear, isn’t it? This is the term TV commentators use. In Trump and Kim Jong Un we have two ‘irrational actors’ and what happens next is anyone’s guess, right? Well, yes and no. The addition of Trump to the mix certainly seems to have had a destabilising effect. Let’s just have a look at him first, before we talk about Kim. He is a man dangerously out of his depth. He is basically your mad old uncle who thinks he knows how to run the world, but by virtue (probably not the right word) of having personality problems beyond the dreams of analysts he has somehow managed to get himself elected US President. He seems to embody the Douglas Adams quote, “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” He rants, he raves, he blusters. He constantly changes his positions. He launches missiles over chocolate cake at Mar a Lago. He is clearly a wild card. But it’s not just him. As a Washington outsider, he doesn’t have the range of contacts in Washington a new President would normally have. As a result many positions, particularly in the State Department, remain unfilled, and a number of key positions that had to be filled ended up occupied by people selected for him by the Republican National Committee.

It’s hard to know who to be more worried about, Trump or those RNC picks, because they are a bunch of Reaganite neocon hawks. Cold warriors. And they think North Korea is a Stalinist regime, and they think that what ‘worked’ in the cold war will work again. That is also a dangerous perspective to take. With Trump you never know what he’s going to say next, nor how much of what he says he will actually act on, and how much is just covfefe, forgotten in the morning. He is careless with his words, and obviously in the present charged climate, with a leader as little understood as Kim Jong Un, that could be dangerous. But the ranking neocon in the administration, the Defence Secretary James Mattis, usually picks his words very carefully. So perhaps we should be worried when he says, about 19 seconds in to this video:

“Any threat to the United States or its territories including Guam, or our allies, will be met with a massive military response…” (my emphasis). He seems to be boxing himself into something of a corner there. Not any attack, but any threat, and not may, or might, but will be met with a military response. Of course, that was about two weeks ago, and there have been quite a few threats since then. Which brings us back to the boy king. Is he mad? Is he irrational? We tend to assume he is, because he looks pretty odd, as did his father Kim Jong Il. But maybe that’s just too easy an assumption. Let’s forget the Kim dynasty, and look at this from the North Korean regime’s point of view, as if they are rational actors. The next obvious reason we tend to think they’re mad is that to Western eyes their actions look potentially suicidal. We have become unused to seeing anyone challenge American military might as flagrantly as this. Russia and China have big enough nuclear arsenals to deter them, but they aren’t going around making threats. But how does this look to the North Koreans? They haven’t fought a war for a long time, but the last time they did they took on the Americans. And they got a draw. So they aren’t as automatically cowed as many countries would be. Even so, for a very long time they seemed to be prepared to settle, in practice if not in principle, for that result. What happened? Well, with thanks to the enthusiastically helpful Chas Licciardello of the ABC TV’s Planet America, and via the Washington Post, have a look at this graph of North Korean Missile launches:

You see, nothing much happened until the 80s. North Korea was a backwater, mostly forgotten about. Then of course Ronald Reagan became President, and in various ways upped the stakes in the Cold War. It’s easily forgotten what a white knuckle ride the 80s were if you were following geopolitics. It felt like we were on the brink of war, and it turned out we were when the 30 year rule documents started coming out. There were two or three occasions when one false move could have tipped us over the brink.* It was in that climate that North Korea first started playing with missiles, and discovered they could also be a nice little earner. Remember all those SCUD missiles Saddam Hussein had in 1991, in what I call ‘Gulf War 2’ (in my time there have been 3 wars simply known as ‘The Gulf War,’ the first was the Iran/Iraq War, then the American war of 1991, and the 2003 debacle)? They were basically North Korean rip offs of old Russian systems. So this is represented in the graph by the half a dozen tests in 1984, and another bunch in the late 80s/early 90s as the Cold War is ending. Or if you prefer, the entire post WWII settlement is unravelling. Unsettled times anyway. And all of this is while Kim Il Sung is still around.

Now, when I was discussing doing this article, which I was invited to write for another publication, one of the things the editor asked was this – Is some form of ‘constructive engagement’ possible with Kim and the NK regime? My first response was that it had to be, because all the other options were unthinkable. This is where some of the Australian perspective kicks in. Because if it all kicks off, and you’re sitting in Scotland, you’re probably going to be fine. That’s the good news. Me? Not quite so sure. The speculated range for the biggest missile they’ve got is 6,500kms. That puts parts of Australia in range, and if they’ve underestimated a bit, maybe all of it. And they have underestimated before. When Obama had his handover meeting with Trump, he pointed up North Korea as the biggest thing he saw coming up in the next term. At the time the US military thought they might be able to put a nuclear warhead on an ICBM in 2-4 years. The military later came to Trump and said, “Err, sorry, make that 2-4 months.” Not a good surprise to spring on someone of his temperament. So obviously that’s the first, and worst, option – an actual nuclear conflict, where Kim gets some missiles off (we don’t know how many he might have), maybe hits a few targets in Japan, Guam, any of the West Coast American cities, maybe even Australia. The Americans go apeshit and incinerate North Korea. There are a bit over 25 million people living there. There are 13.6 million in Tokyo, 4 million in Los Angeles, and another 7 in the San Francisco bay Area. This is not to mention over 51 million South Koreans.

The next worst option, and this is the sort of calculation military planners make before giving their advice, is if the US were to mount a successful first strike, and take out most or all of North Korea’s nuclear program. The estimate is that 10 million South Koreans would be dead within 20 minutes, from the North’s conventional weaponry. And the South would retaliate, and there could well be a fair bit of radioactive contamination around from the destroyed nuclear facilities. As I said, the options are terrible. So I thought some more. Trump tweeted that they had tried talking for 25 years and got nowhere. But is that really the case? Back to Chas’s graph of the missile tests. Well, no, after that little flurry of tests during the Bush presidency, there’s nothing for years. In 1993 Bill Clinton came to power, and in 1994 Kim Jong Il succeeded his father. And they talked. During this period the Americans did engage, and they were able to negotiate a freeze on both the nuclear and, as shown by the graph, missile programs for a significant amount of time. So bring that 25 years down to 15 years, because for the first ten they were talking, and it was working.

Now what do you think might have happened about 15 years ago that resulted in that progress being lost? Well, our old friend George W Bush declared North Korea the third member of his ‘axis of evil’ along with Iraq and Iran. He then proceeded to invade Iraq. Around this time the North Koreans fired up their programs again, although with a new range of missiles on the drawing board, it takes a few years to show up on the graph as tests. So bearing all this in mind, how does it look to a hypothetical rational North Korean regime? Well, they felt more secure during the Cold War, when they could play off China against the Soviet Union, got a bit worried when the world changed and started to take ‘precautions,’ They allowed themselves to be talked down during the era of Clinton and Kim Jong Il. Then it must have sounded to them as if they’d been put on a hit list. And Saddam fell because he didn’t really have WMDs after all. So if you’re going to threaten, you’d better be able to back it up. You see what the US failed to grasp, or wilfully misunderstood, was that Saddam really didn’t have much room to move. He had to give up his chemical weapons, and he had to tell the Americans he had, but he also had to imply to the Iranians that he hadn’t. Without those weapons he would have lost Gulf War 1. And when they put him on trial he was charged with using them against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, but never with using them against Iran, even though the numbers of Iranian casualties dwarfed all the others put together. But to investigate that would have implicated the Western countries that supplied him with the technology.

Anyway, the rational North Korean regime would, we’d have to assume, like all regimes of all kinds at all times, want to survive. So they take the decision to accelerate their nuclear weapons program, in an effort to reach credible capability before the US gets round to invading them. This takes a few years. There are tests in 2006 and 2009. We also see their first two nuclear tests in those years. Then there’s a pause. Just as they are ready to test some longer range missiles, Kim Jong Il dies, and Kim Jong Un comes to power in 2011. Many Korea watchers say this wasn’t a smooth transition. It has certainly been a bloody one in the inner circles of the regime, so it’s difficult to say how much of the subsequent test activity is just because they’re ready now, and how much is Kim cementing his grip on power. He has certainly taken pains to associate himself with every test, and has been far more belligerent in his rhetoric than his father or grandfather. And he came to power very young. It’s likely to be a bit of both though. For the last six years we’ve seen missile tests every year, more during the last four than ever before, and with progressively longer-range missiles, and there was a nuclear test in 2013, two last year and of course the recent claimed hydrogen bomb.

So obviously Kim wants to cement his rule at home, but what does he want from his international stance? Well, assuming he’s not actually suicidal, we can surmise, he wants to be able to credibly deter the US from invading or otherwise attempting ‘regime change.’ Maybe some form of economic aid, or at least the removal of sanctions. But I might give the last word to Bill Richardson, the former US Congressman, and Ambassador to the UN during the Clinton administration, who dealt with North Korea then. While being interviewed for Australian TV he was asked that same question – what does Kim Jong Un want? He replied, “Well, we could ask him. Nobody has really talked to the guy yet.” He is strongly of the opinion that diplomacy has been neglected, and needs to be tried again. It’s hard to see Trump as a peacemaker though. Since I started writing this on Friday night there have been further threats from the administration, by National Security Advisor H R McMaster (another neocon) and Nikki Haley, the current Ambassador to the UN (a slightly unhinged looking Trump appointee). So let’s just hope both sides are posturing, and that the neocons will stop short of a conflict the outcome of which they cannot possibly predict, except that it won’t be good. And that they can persuade Trump of that too.


*It was announced yesterday that Lt Col Stanislav Petrov (ret), the Soviet officer who averted a nuclear war on 26 September, 1983 has died aged 77 at his home near Moscow. As we increasingly grow to depend on computers and AI we should remember him. His actions that night were quintessentially human – he chose to disbelieve a computer. Because of that decision we’re all still here today. I was exactly eighteen and a half that day. It would have been a shame if that had been it. So long comrade, & thanks for all the years.

Guardian: Soviet officer who averted cold war nuclear disaster dies aged 77.

Spin Cycle

A commentary on the #GE2017 election campaign I’ve done for Ungagged. NB: If you’re reading this in the aftermath of the election, please bear in mind that it’s 9.30pm, the polls don’t close for another half an hour, so you can see how my analysis panned out. 🙂


Spin Cycle, Part 2

What Are We Going To Do!?!

Before I start there is something I have to explain, which is that ‘Spin Cycle, Part 1’ was written, and recorded for the podcast, on the 22 May, mere hours before the Manchester bombing. Obviously a great deal has happened in the campaign since then. I think it’s only fair that I reproduce that part, as originally written, so that you can see what I said at the time and compare it to how things have panned out since. I’ll put it at the bottom. I will have to update it of course, but I’ll do that by adding observations now, rather than changing anything I wrote then. Now, to business.

In part 2 we’re going to look at it from the Labour point of view. Or perhaps I should say points of view. Those guys were…

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The Hitchhikers’ Guide To The 2017 Local Elections

Since 2013 these electoral guides (for both Scotland and Australia) have been a tradition on this blog. We’ve now covered two Australian federal elections, a European Parliament election, a Westminster general election (No.2 coming soon), a Scottish Parliament election and of course two very different referenda. This will be the first guide to local elections, but it would appear the need is great, so let’s step into the breach.

People are unsure of how best to use their vote. I’ve already been answering questions on social media. What’s become clear is that the parties still don’t understand the system, and their confusion is confusing everyone else. Now in the lead up to publishing an election guide there is of course a bit of research involved. I have a number of pollsters and psephologists I look in on, the better to advise on tactical and strategic options. One of the latter is James Kelly of Scot Goes Pop, where I found this rather frustrated sounding article. He’s getting a bit sick of fielding questions about it. Well, I’m here to help.

You see the thing about this STV (no, not the TV shannel, Single Transferable Vote) is that it’s a system I’ve been using for 30 years. It’s the system for all Australian state and federal elections. What’s more, in recent years (and at successive elections) both my kids turned 18 and got to vote for the first time. Both came to me for advice, so I have been thinking about this. It’s really not as complicated as it seems. Let me walk you through it.

When I was a kid my father once said a properly wise thing to me. He said his job was to teach me how to think, not what to think. I’ve always taken the same view with my kids. They’re smart, they know what they think, they didn’t need me to tell them who to vote for, just how to use the system to get to their desired outcome. So what I needed to work out was the simplest, most explanatory thing I could possibly say about it, and it’s this: It’s not who you put first that matters, it’s who you put last.

Now in the UK we’ve been used to a very simplistic voting system known as ‘First Past The Post’ (FPTP). We get one vote, which we indicate with an ‘X’ (as though it was designed a very long time ago, for an illiterate electorate). Whoever gets the most Xs wins. Simple. It has it’s disadvantages though. It makes it very difficult for minor parties and independents to get a foothold, and it often allows an extremely unpopular candidate to be elected. How? Because it’s designed to elect the most popular candidate, and in a three or four-way contest, the most popular candidate can often be the most unpopular too. Think of the Tories. STV, on the other hand, is designed to elect the least unpopular candidate.

Here’s how it works. You get your vote, and let’s say you vote for Candidate A. FPTP says ‘Right, next!’ STV says ‘Right. But if you couldn’t have Candidate A, who would be your second choice? And your third? Your fourth?’ and so on. Now, the No.1 question seems to be, ‘Do I have to number all the boxes, and what difference will it make?’ To which the answers are ‘No’ and ‘Potentially quite a bit.’ I have seen some major party candidates asking their supporters to vote 1 for them, and leave the rest blank. That is bad advice. No, you do not have to number all the boxes. But number all the boxes!

To understand why, you need to understand the counting process. To make a preferential system (that’s what we call it in Australia, if you call it STV nobody will know what you’re talking about) work, counting has to be a process of elimination. So they count all the first preferences, the 1s. Now with FPTP that would be it. And if everybody took that bad advice I mentioned, only voted for their favourites and left the rest blank (which won’t happen), that would also be it. But in an STV system that’s not it. The candidate with the highest first preference total hasn’t won yet, unless he/she has over 50%, which is rare.

What happens next is that the candidate with the least first preferences is eliminated. All first preference votes for that candidate are then redistributed to whoever each voter put at No.2. Then they update the tally and repeat the process, eliminate the new last placed candidate and redistribute all their votes, including the ones they gained from the first candidate to be eliminated, which now go to those voters’ 3rd preferences. Repeat the process until only two candidates (or 4, if there are 2 seats – I’ll come back to this) remain. You then have what we call a Two Party Preferred (2PP) tally, and that is the result.

One important point about all this is that the candidate who was ahead in the first preference count, the one who would have won under FPTP, may well be overtaken by preferences flowing from defeated candidates. Another is that your vote cannot possibly end up with your last preference. Second last is the lowest down the order it can possibly go, because by that time you’re down to only two remaining candidates, and in order for it to get that far all of your other higher preferences would have to have been eliminated. It is, remember, a single transferable vote. It can’t be counted twice. It stays with your first preference as long as they remain in the contest.

Does STV Lend Itself to Tactical Voting?

Yes. Very much so. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this system is that it allows you to be far more flexible about expressing your true preferences than FPTP does, because as I said, it’s not who you put first that matters. It’s who you put last. Let’s imagine an example. Let’s say there’s a great local independent you have your eye on. And maybe you quite like a minor party like the Greens too. Realistically however, you think it’s probably going to come down to a battle between the major parties. With FPTP the logic is that you have to vote for the major party you want, not your wishlist candidate, because that would probably be a wasted vote, and might help the bad guys.

With STV there are no wasted votes. You can afford to give your first preference, or your first few, to whoever you like, as long as you put your major party preference ahead of those you definitely don’t want. Once they get used to the system, the parties will work out how best to direct their preferences to their advantage, preference swap deals will be done between them, and they will distribute ‘How To Vote’ cards showing exactly how they’d like you to fill out your ballot paper, just like they do here. Of course, by then you’ll be getting the hang of it too, and you can do what I do – refuse all their cards and work it out for yourself.

However, they don’t understand it yet. The SNP, Labour and the Tories seem to be following three different tactical approaches, all of them wrong. It’s now that we have to discuss multi-member constituencies, but don’t worry, it’s basically the same. In Australia we have single member constituencies in the House of Representatives, and multi-member ones in the Senate. Senate elections are usually for six members, or twelve in the case of a Double Dissolution (don’t ask if you don’t need to know, it’s very boring). I’ve been using the single member example for the sake of simplicity. In Scotland wards have two or more councillors, three or four in Glasgow for instance. That just means it’s your last two, three or four preferences your vote can never go to, instead of your last one. Now, this is where it starts to get a bit weird.

Remember I said back at the top that the parties don’t understand the system? Well, it turns out I didn’t know the half of it! Certain things have been pointed out to me since then (thanks Steve) which make that the understatement of the year. I was hoping to avoid talking about the Senate, because if you think next week is going to be complicated, this will give you the heebee jeebees. At the election last July my Senate ballot paper was well over a metre long. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is important, so bear with me.

In a normal election we have a House of Reps election and a half Senate election, because the HoR has a three year term, but Senators have six year terms, so half of them go up for election every time the HoR does. However, in certain circumstances (again, don’t ask if you don’t need to know), the government can call a Double Dissolution election, which means HoR plus a full Senate election. That’s twelve Senators to be elected for each state. But that’s not the important bit. This is – every party or grouping which has the resources to do so fields a full slate of candidates. Six in a normal election, twelve in a DD. That’s why I found myself wrestling with a four foot ballot paper with about 90 boxes on it. But that is how you do it. Not to field a full slate is at best incompetent, at worst it’s running up a white flag. It breaks a political golden rule, namely never to concede a seat, not a single vote, until the polls close.

And yet none of the parties are doing this. Apparently when the STV system was introduced, nobody thought to take a look at a country that already had it, and where political strategists have had decades to work out the optimum approach. The Tories are only fielding one candidate in many wards. That makes some sense for them I suppose, as they are unlikely to be in a position to win two anywhere in Scotland, and they know that, and we know that, and they know that we know it. Labour are typically fielding two, which is the white flag option. Even if they were all to get elected, which isn’t likely, they still wouldn’t have a majority.

The SNP seem to be fielding three candidates in the four member wards I’ve looked at. That at least gives them the possibility of forming a majority, but it’s far from ideal. It makes no sense not to run a full slate, and I’ve never seen anyone do it here, apart from independents and minor parties who lack either sufficient members or sufficient funds for the deposits. But if you are going to do it, you’d better be 100% sure that all your supporters know what order to rank them in, otherwise you’ll split your own vote, and it will cost you seats. Perhaps what one friend suggested was right, and they are trying to adapt their (spectacularly unsuccessful, as I predicted) Holyrood AMS strategy of SNP1&2. Just… be really careful. Remember, it doesn’t matter whether you put them first, as long as you put them ahead of their unionist opponents, but it very much does matter that you put them in the right order. Similarly there is a tactical advantage in putting your opponents, if they’re fielding more than one candidate, in reverse order.

Is There A Strategic Angle?

Always. In Scotland, in the interests of consistency with my previously stated strategic objectives, I’d like to see the unionist parties removed from the political scene. The basic strategy for that would be to put all pro-indy parties and candidates ahead of all unionists. But consider also the value, especially in these local government elections, of a greater plurality of pro-indy representation. If we are to wipe out the unionist parties we’ll have to replace them with something. These elections are a good opportunity to get some good local independents and maybe some minor parties elected. You can take the chance, and if they don’t make it your vote will end up with the SNP anyway. In some cases you might even get, say, a Green and an SNP member. They clearly should be doing a preference swap anyway, but you don’t have to wait for them to realise that. And it might increase the overall number of councils with a pro-indy majority.

Tactics vs. Principle

This is perhaps the No.2 question I’ve been asked. What if there’s a UKIP candidate standing? Should I put them last on principle (many people, including myself, consider them a fascist party after all), or is it more important to put the Tories last for tactical reasons? The answer is that in Scotland* it’s highly unlikely to matter, but the elections aren’t only in Scotland. They are taking place in some parts of England and Wales too, and it might matter there. The thing is, it would only matter if it came down to a contest between a Kipper and a Tory. That would mean you’re down to your last two preferences and all your others have already been eliminated. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen to you, but it just might (see local polling I suppose). Then it might matter, but only if the Tories are running a full slate. And there I’m afraid you’re on your own. Personally I think I’d put the Kipper last, but it’s ultimately a moral question, isn’t it? I can give you tactical and strategic advice, but moral issues are between you and your conscience. The third option, not making a choice, by leaving them both out, would be abdicating from that moral judgement. Of the three, I’d say that would be the least morally justifiable choice. But that’s just me.

Hitchhikers’ Guide to UK #GE17 Coming Soon!


*There are, of course, some UKIP candidates standing in Scotland. Yeh, I’m going to go there. 😀 Many of you will have heard of one of them. The most batshit crazy one of course. I’d heard a few things about her, but I was reading an article by Wee Ginger Dug the other day and he claimed she was a candidate in Clydebank (where I grew up). I was horrified. I did a bit of fact checking immediately, but the Dug had the wrong end of the stick. Probably because the story of Gisela Allen, the 84 year old, gorilla-fancying guilotine advocate, first appeared in the Clydebank Post. One of the reporters there took a punt and called her up, hoping for a story. He hit paydirt, and it has subsequently appeared in most of the national dailies. She is actually standing in Glasgow, Ward 13 Garscadden/Scotstounhill. I found a link to the list of candidates. Imagine my horror, when I discovered she lives in the street in Finnieston where my mother was brought up, and where, at the other end of the street, my family lived when I was born! Sometimes it’s a distressingly small world.