Posts Tagged ‘United Kingdom’

kennedyIn recent times, we have seen an upsurge in a rejection of the status quo and the success of populism, overwhelming the accepted norms of political discourse. The litany of events is very obvious … Erdowan in Turkey becoming progressively more authoritarian, the election of Syriza in Greece to oppose the EU-imposed austerity, the British public voting (albeit narrowly) for “Brexit”, the near-defeat of the Liberal-National coalition Government in Australia, the ascent of a virtual fascist to the Presidential run off in Austria, the likely ascent of the far-right National Front in France to a run-off in the coming French elections and the inability of a left-centre candidate to even make the frame, the rejection of Prime Minister Renzi’s attempt to rationalise decision-making in Italy leading to his resignation, the likely future success of the ultra-right in Holland, and above all, the election of businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump to the most powerful position in the Western world, President of the United States.

In reality, this trend can be traced back even further, to the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union (although this was also a more complex situation than mere discontent with the failures of the incumbent power structures). It could also be argued that the ultimate example is the steady move towards a command-capitalist model in China, with attendant liberalisation – creeping, at times reversed, but inexorable in its trend – of the media, of criticism of Party officials, and of the material expectations of a growing middle class. Indeed, in unleashing the forces of capitalism on Chinese society, Deng Xiao Ping can be said to have headed off a more dramatic and cataclysmic change in China.

When people are asked why they are participating in these quiet (or not so quiet) electoral revolutions they invariably answer with comments like “I am just sick of all of them”, “I am tired of the status quo, we need someone to shake things up”, “Politicians have failed us”, “We need someone to fix things up.”

The danger, of course, is that the people wreak major changes based on their discontent, without necessarily taking the time to consider whether those changes are what they really want. Fed a diet of rubbish and lies by both the media and their political leaders they simply cannot work out what is true or not, and therefore fall back on their gut instinct. And their gut instinct is that they are being badly led – which they are.

This is emphatically not to say the people are stupid – not at all. It is simply to note that in their desire to punish the under-performing elite they place rational decision-making of what might come next as secondary to their desire to give the establishment a damn good kicking. They argue, if questioned on precisely this point, that “it couldn’t be any worse”.

Winston ChurchillThe fact that it could, definitively, be much worse, is ignored because of the same anger that created the switch to populist idols in the first place.

Churchill’s warning that “democracy is the worst form of Government, it’s just better than all the others” is forgotten as the public elevate people who do not essentially subscribe to democratic ideals to run their democracies, with as yet untested outcomes.

In Russia, for example, the putative glasnost and perestroika of the Gorbacev era has now been thoroughly replaced by the quasi-fascist rule of Putin and his cronies, with uncertain outcomes that could be argued to threaten peace in Europe, at least. The Brexit vote at a minimum calls into question the “Union” part of the European Union, which is now on the nose throughout most of the EU, and the great dream of a peaceful, co-operative Europe that transcends mere trade freedom seems to lie in tatters. We might also note Churchill’s prescient remark that “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” People used to understand the limits of Government to “fix things”. No longer, it appears.

How did it come to this?

It is important to see this collapse of the ruling consensus as more than any desire to attend to this particular problem, or that, because the matters creating the angst vary from theatre to theatre.

Unquestionably, above all, the refugee flood around the world (and not just from the Middle East, at all) has created great tensions – great fear of “the others” – because it has happened at a time when the world seems to be collapsing into an ongoing conflict between the West and extremist Arabist/Muslim sects. But when massive population shifts occurred immediately after the Second World War there was considerably less social angst about an inflow of refugees, although by no means was there none, as any of the Italians, Greeks, Albanians and others who were shipped en masse to Australia (and America, and Canada) can attest. But it produced no mass revolution against the status quo. As recently as the late 1970s, huge inflows of refugees from the communist takeover of Vietnam produced barely a ripple of protest. So something different is happening here.

Unquestionably, economic uncertainty is playing its part.
The lost of traditional jobs has devastated some areas,
and not been replaced withtightrope anything else. That politicians seem unable or unwilling to recognise and successfully the problem is a staggering failure. During the 1930s, a huge “whole of Government” effort in some countries prevented the compact between the governing and the governed from breaking down altogether. The “New Deal” in America being the best and most successful example. But the mass unemployment caused by the breakdown of capital in that decade led inexorably to World War 2 and all that meant. That Western politicians can look at societies with 50% youth unemployment, can gaze on as we witness the wholesale collapse of traditional industries, can make mealy-mouthed contributions when someone brings up the obviously inadequate funds to support the aged and the ill, and yet imagine that such a cataclysm could not occur again? This is the ultimate desertion of responsibility.

It seems to us that the world is experiencing a “perfect storm” of fear – endlessly beaten up by politicians and the media – at precisely the same time as politicians are struggling, and usually failing, to come to terms with the stresses and strains created in economies by “instant” international banking (which can change the dominant rules of a market in seconds), globalisation (which has led to the wholesale demise of “old” industries in the established economies), a series of scandals that imply that our political leaders are little more than a series of ever-hungry pigs with their snouts so deep in the trough that their eyes can’t see anything over the top, and, and this is critical, a failure of leadership.

On the one hand we have the populists, with their broad brush stroke slogans, their breathlessly simple solutions, and their fellow travellers that constantly beat the drum praising the perspicacity of their chosen flag bearer. Only he (or she, in the case of Marie le Pen) have the strength and vision to ram through “the change we need”. And like parched wanderers in the desert, the people turn inevitably to the promise of relief. Tongues hanging out for any water, no matter how brackish.

But this is just a mirage of “we can fix it”. It’s a big lie. A big con. So big, indeed, that people swallow it, because surely no-one could be so ruthless, so uncaring of the effect they are having, so roguish in their pursuit of power, as to promise relief with no real idea of how to deliver it. But they can. As Stalin so chillingly said, “one man’s death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”. The same hideous calculation is made by the populists when they promise change they cannot deliver, and solutions that are paper thin in their analysis.

But what has the response of the liberal democracies, the “ruling elite”, been to this challenge? It has been to bury themselves in perpetual over-intellectual obfuscation, to sneer at the populists as if they do not represent a threat, to blithely fiddle as their Rome burns. It has been to bleat “but we are doing our best”, when Blind Freddie can see that their best is woefully lacking. It is to lock themselves in their ivory towers – towers made of parliamentary walls, and TV studios, and offices – and to make little or no real attempt to explain to the people why they are doing what they are doing, and that is assuming they are doing anything much, at all.

How has this situation been allowed to persist?

The reasons are many and various, but in our view they come down to this:

THE FIVE GREAT FAILURES

The failure of vision

Politicians are no longer driven by a desire to create better societies – to serve their people – but by careerism. There is no doubt that no one succeeds in climbing the slippery pole without a strong streak of self-regard, but until the relatively recent past politics was still full of people whose primary, over-riding motivation was the betterment of their electorate, and more widely, humankind. There were more “enthusiastic amateurs”, drawn from all walks of life, chock full of useful experiences. To be sure, they never turned their noses up at the perks of office, nor the thrill of handling the levers of power. But at the core was a desire to conserve what was good, and to develop what was promising, and – based on evidence – to eschew what was failing. It is highly questionable whether that still applies to most politicians today – certainly those of reach the top of the heap – and the people smell the rot with absolute accuracy.

The failure of honesty

It is now a dispiritingly long time since any politician, anywhere in the West, dared to say “Actually, we’re not really sure what to do”. And yet, in huge swathes of decision making, it is perfectly clear that our leaders do not know what to do. The pace of change, and the relentless news cycle, is leading them to pretend they know what they’re doing when they really don’t. In vast areas of public policy – balancing the structural changes in economies, achieving unanimity on climate change, reducing the proxy conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, preventing a new Cold – or Hot – war, it is plain they are thrashing about, confused and dispirited. And yet, turn a camera and a microphone on and they act like Mastermind contestants with all the answers.

This has two linked effects. Firstly, it destroys trust, when it becomes clear that the assurances and calming words are so much hogwash. Second, it removes responsibility from the public to be part of the solution to intractable problems, leaving them reliant on blowing up the entire system when they are – inevitably – disappointed, as they had no part in devising the solution, and no ownership of the outcome.

The failure of communication

Politicians seem to no longer be able to phrase their goals in simple language, without succumbing to the temptation to reduce everything to focus group-led slogans.

It would be hard to think of a single major Western politician – with the possible exception of Angela Merkel, although her days may well be numbered – who still has the required “common touch”, although Justin Trudeau in Canada is undoubtedly a standout exception – and he, it should be noted, is of the left, and is an intellectual, thus giving the lie to the assertion that all this change is merely a revolt against “left intellectualism”.

A politician like Churchill, for example, could be autocratic, even waywardly so, but he never forgot the absolute need to take the people with him. Perhaps in war-time this need is more obvious. But in the recent past – much as we disagreed with some of her policies – a politician who widely admired Churchill – Margaret Thatcher – also had the ability to communicate broad themes in a popular way, while making changes that many argue were long overdue in Britain despite being sometimes achingly difficult.

Where are the democratic politicians who offer us soaring rhetoric, yet rooted in common sense, to enliven and inform civic debate? Certainly Obama offered the soaring rhetoric, but outside of campaign mode he so often failed to return to those heights, and was too often hidebound by a toxic combination of an obstructive Congress, a swingeing economic crisis, and his own innate conservatism.

The cupboard is depressingly bare.

The failure of thought

The West, in particular, but by no means exclusively, is failing itself. The essence of democracy is free, vibrant and deep debate, the development of philosophy, the parsing of solutions. One of the inevitable results of the dumbing down of Universities – through the diversion of their funds increasingly to commercial “applied science” rather than humanities such as literature, politics, and philosophy – even theology – has starved our system of thinkers. The problems we face are massively complicated, yet those who used to work diligently behind the scenes in thousands of “thinking hives” are increasingly no longer there, and no longer contributing. Political parties are increasingly less full of thinkers and increasingly full of yar boo sucks partisans. Where political thought across the political divide was once welcome and respected, now it is virtually unheard of. While politicians of different ilk may well be friendly “behind the scenes”, for them to acknowledge the thoughts of an opponent as having value, of being worthy of consideration, is apparently political death. Little wonder the public don’t trust them, faced with such ludicrous and childishness obstinacy.

The failure of media

Our media organisations have become helplessly addicted to the brief, and the sensational.

Whilst this was always true of the tabloid media, it is now true of all media.

The people they employ are largely intellectual pygmies, and in television in particular they are in the job because they look good and can follow a producer’s brief.

Across all types of media, they don’t scare the horses, because they rarely ask any hard questions. Hard questions require that the journalist has knowledge and the politician can address that knowledge intelligently, taking whatever time is required. Neither is true, and anyway there is no time.

There are exceptions, to be sure, but they are very few and far between, and becoming more so. The success of the series “Newsroom” showed the public’s deep desire for a form of journalism that is principled, erudite and independent. But of how many journalists today can those three qualities be said? And increasingly, anyway, mainstream media is being over-taken by social media, where the provenance of any story is impossible to divine, and where the impact is so transient that clear nonsense is forgotten almost as soon as it has trended, but not before it has added to the dominant zeitgeist, whatever that may be. If we are in the era of “post truth politics” – a terrifying concept in itself for admirers of democracy – then the most brutal criticism of all must be levied at the media – all of the media – that simultaneously tolerates and encourages the situation.

So what’s to be done?

It may indeed be way too late to close the stable door after watching an entire herd of horses bolting in all directions. Or to mix our metaphors, we may all be just a bunch of well-boiled frogs who should have acted to redress the decline a long time ago.

Yes, we will be accused of being pessimistic because it appears “our side” of politics is currently losing, and we will also be accused of succumbing to conspiracy theories.

In fact, we confidently expect we will be today’s Cassandra, doomed to wail on the battlements while all around mock us.

But in our view, the first step in redressing this danger – the danger of the collapse of modern liberal democracy – is to acknowledge the problem and seek to persuade others to address it. Others, we note, regardless of their native political bent. This is a task for all of us, whatever our political persuasion.

As we do not have the influence to turn the ship around on our own, we simply point to the mounting evidence, and suggest the general shape of a solution.

It will take a mighty effort to reverse the trends outlined here. But as Horace said 2000 years ago, “A journey, once begin, is half over.” To begin this journey, we have to agree that there is a problem, yes?

Advertisements
Lorries drive along a protection fence, preventing access to a circular road leading to the port of Calais. PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP

Lorries drive along a protection fence, preventing access to a circular road leading to the port of Calais. PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP

 

The story of the youngest-ever refugee killed trying to enter UK from Calais should be made into a movie. It would change people’s minds about the topic overnight.

The fifteen-year-old Afghan boy  – who cannot be named until his family in Afghanistan are officially informed of his death – was trying to stow away on a lorry in Calais.

He was technically eligible to receive asylum in the UK but the paperwork had been taking a long time to come through.

Paperwork. Government code for “deliberately dragging our feet to avoid our legal responsibilities and pander to sick, anti-refugee sentiment”.

He was out with his cousin, a 17-year-old refugee staying in the same camp, in the early hours of Friday morning. The two boys managed to climb onto the roof of a lorry. Witnesses said the driver noticed them and swerved from left to right to knock them off.

We ask: How is that not murder?

The youngest boy was thrown to the ground, in the path of oncoming traffic. Witnesses told Care4Calais.org he was run over three or four times. It’s also been reported the drivers didn’t stop to check on him.

Other refugees came to the aid of the boy and police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. When police noticed the body they called an ambulance, but he was dead by the time it arrived, 15-20 minutes later.

Again: the boy had a legal right to claim asylum in the UK. His brother is already resident in the country so he should have been given permission to join him, but he was fed up of the feet-dragging of the authorities responsible for his papers.

While he waited he was living in squalid conditions and had begun taking matters into his own hands, trying to hide on cross-channel lorries and even creeping onto the axles of vehicles.

The as-yet un-named young boy.

The as-yet un-named young boy.

Friends and relatives said he was desperate for an education.

He’d fled Afghanistan months earlier, aged 14, after the Taliban prevented him from attending school and tried to force him to become a suicide bomber.

His father feared for his life and sent him away.

The teenager had already travelled through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Germany. Imagine. A fifteen year old. Imagine he was your son.

“He was a kind boy with a good mind, he was trying to learn English in the camp and hoping to go back to school when he reached the UK,” said Abdul, an Afghan friend from the camp.

Calais-based charities say his death is the 13th this year and he is the third child to have died.

“Every day the British and French governments continue to delay taking appropriate and timely action more and more desperate children and adults gamble with their lives. This senseless loss of life must stop,” said Clare Moseley, founder of Care4Calais.org.

Be part of the solution. Share this tragic story. Change minds.

Queen Elizabeth IILike most other Brits (originally, at least). and much of the rest of the world, we are full of admiration for Queen Elizabeth II as she approaches her 90th birthday, having recently become the longest-serving monarch in the country’s history.

We are not, in truth, overly in favour of the monarchy, as we are highly sceptical as to whether it really offers the economic boon that is always quoted whenever anyone questions its existence.

And though it is supposed to be non-political, it undoubtedly wields behind the scenes influence, and whether that influence is for good or ill it really should play no role in a truly democratic society.

One cannot help, by way of example, to wonder what might have occurred had avowed Nazi sympathiser Edward VIII remained on the throne to apply his influence in support of Halifax and the appeaser faction in the Conservative Party in 1939. No ascent of Churchill and an ignominious accommodation with the Nazis would have been much more likely than the stout defence of country and Empire – and subsequent defeat of fascism – that actually occurred. For a fuller discussion of the fight between Halifax and Churchill on the conduct of the war, one of the most seminal events in the whole of human history as it turned out, we recommend this Wikipedia article, which is fascinating.

And non-Brits sometimes forget we have chopped the head off a king on our way to a participatory democracy. We are by no means mindlessly adulatory to our monarchs. The approbrium heaped on future King Charles III’s head over the breakdown of his marriage with the adored Princess Diana shows how shallow the British public’s acquiescence really can be. Our monarchs really do rule at the public’s favour.

Nevertheless, one would be hard pushed to find anyone with a word of criticism of the Queen. Despite her advanced years, she maintains a punishing schedule of public engagements, (the equivalent of almost one a day), and despite having, by all accounts, something of a temper (an attribute she shares with most of her ancestors), she manages to seem to deal with almost everyone with impeccable courtesy and good humour.

She has never had a whiff of scandal anywhere in her personal life, and unquestionably is held in great affection by the vast majority of her own people, by people throughout the British Commonwealth (a push for a Republic in Australia, for example, is widely believed to be on hold while she still lives, out of respect for her personally), and ordinary folk in the world in general. He continued occupation of her throne (well, a total of eight thrones, actually) is undoubtedly the democratic will of her subjects, and that should be respected.

Which leaves us with one burning question.

If she is still on the throne ten years from now, as might well be the case, who will send her the official telegram that always goes from her to a centenarian subject on their birthday? After all, such an outcome is by no means unlikely. Her mother, it should be remembered, was mostly hale and hearty until her 102nd year.

She can hardly send one to herself, now can she?

We think the people should be told.

bomba-nuclear1

In what has been hailed as the new Leader of the British Liberal Democrats “facing down” the activists in his party, the LibDems just rejected a motion calling for Trident to be scrapped.

This is what happened.

We show below the original motion in normal text with the original line numbers, and lines through the text which was deleted by conference. In italics we show the text inserted by virtue of conference voting for Amendment 1:

Motion begins:

1 Conference notes that the go-ahead for building Successor submarines
2 for the Trident system is scheduled to be decided upon in 2016.
3 Conference believes that British possession of nuclear weapons is
4 inappropriate and unhelpful to today’s needs.

5 Conference rejects the projected spending of £100billion on the system
6 over its lifetime, believing the money could be better spent.

In line with our existing policy as set out in policy paper 112, Defending the Future – UK Defence in the 21st century (2013), and our recent General Election Manifesto, conference resolves to oppose like-for-like replacement of the Trident system as proposed by the Conservative government.

Conference believes that the ‘Maingate’ decision to proceed with Trident replacement is such a fundamental question affecting the UK’s national interest that it should be subject to a binding vote in Parliament and not simply a government decision; and calls on Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians to vote against any such proposal should it come before Parliament. Conference further calls on the Federal Policy Committee to:

1. Commission a Policy Working Group to develop policy on the future of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, if any, following a full consultation within the party.

2. Include within the remit of the working group consideration of:
a) A full assessment of potential strategic threats to the UK.
b) Prospects for the promotion of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament and the UK’s potential role in these efforts.
c) The implications of a non-nuclear defence posture for the UK on conventional defence capabilities and the UK’s place in the world, including its contribution to the security of Europe through NATO.
d) The scope for and implications of a scaled-down nuclear deterrent.
e) Independent costings of options.
3. Bring a policy paper back for debate at Conference within 18 months, including if necessary options for conference to decide.

7 Conference therefore calls for the plans to renew the Trident system to
8 be scrapped, and for the earliest decommissioning of the existing Trident
9 forces.

So what (by a narrow margin) has the Lib Dem conference just actually decided?

"Helpful and Appropriate"

“Helpful and Appropriate” is rather in the eye of the beholder, one feels.

Well, if one looks at the lines deleted by the “wrecking” amendment, one can now see that Conference decided by default that Britain’s possession of nuclear weapons IS appropriate and helpful to today’s needs.

Yes, to be sure, the amendment opposes “like for like” replacement of Trident, but this was essentially just whitewash. What the amendment specifically allows for is Trident’s replacement by another nuclear weapons system.

The clear implication in the terms for the future enquiry that is now proposed (which will, of course, be utterly irrelevant to the real world as it will take place AFTER the British Government makes it’s decision, a point that can not have escaped the understanding of those drafting the amendment) is that the UK’s place in the world will be somehow diminished by it not possessing nuclear weapons, and that its contribution to the security of Europe would be similarly diminished. in other words, in the event of external aggression to the continent of Europe, the party believes it would be a sensible option to drop nuclear weapons on Europe’s borders.

Which leaves the party – now led by an evangelical Christian who says he would never launch the weapons if he had the choice – in the curious position for a supposedly radical party of supporting the idea of Britain independently attacking someone (presumably Russia) with weapons of mass destruction that would slaughter umpteen millions of innocent children, men and women civilians.

The Liberal Democrats (of which the author of this article is a member, and has been a member, with a few stutters, over 40 years) is a party that has become largely irrelevant to the mainstream political process through a disastrous collapse of its support that shows little imminent signs of turning around, and which is generally full of nice, somewhat wooly-minded middle class people who largely think they sit in the middle ground of politics, full of rational discussion and mutual respect and eschewing the nasty tribalism of the left and right.

Nevertheless, despite it’s historical weaknesses, and it’s current electoral nadir, the party has always played – and it would be good to think will continue to play – a useful national and international role as an incubator of good ideas, as provokers of attention to issues that other parties largely ignore, and of a group of people who are less hidebound by “that’s the way it’s always been done” than most. In the past, when it’s level of elected support was about where it is now, the Party nevertheless “punched above its weight” in this regard. The party also keeps alive an affection for ideals of political plurality, free speech, and individual liberty, both economic and social.

trident_2469358bBut given the chance to dramatically play that role now by arguing that Britain should lead the stalled world disarmament process, what they have just done, in reality – because of the inexorable timetable for the Trident replacement decision – is actually to fall in lock-step behind a radical right-wing Conservative Government that would never consider Britain giving up nuclear weapons in a pink fit.

As a result, they will now inevitably be outflanked on one of the most vital decisions facing the country in the coming little while by the new left-wing leadership of the Labour Party, and by the surging Scottish Nationalists, and will inevitably be seen by the public to be dithering over a crucial moral and strategic issue when the Government inevitably acts.

The membership should be under no misapprehension: the Liberal Democrats just missed a huge opportunity to provide their party with the distinctiveness that they need if they are ever to reclaim any real degree of power at local, European and Westminster levels, and an equally significant opportunity to provide moral leadership to the multilateral disarmament efforts that the world has largely abandoned in recent years, which they would have achieved by stating “we do not need these bombs, we reject their use, we cannot afford them, and we will seek other ways to relate to the world around us”.

New Lib Dem Leader Tim Farron

New Lib Dem Leader Tim Farron

Responsibility for those missed opportunities lies directly with the new Leader of the party, Tim Farron, and those with their hands on the levers of power inside the party who advised him to make this matter a “test” of his leadership, and then made that argument directly to members in a variety of ways.

In truth, Farron arguing that he wanted a “full debate” before a decision is taken is a complete furphy, a fig leaf to cover the moral cowardice of the amendment. Or, as one Lib Dem speaker in the debate, Reece Edmends put it, “If you support nuclear weapons, if you want one, two, three or four subs, have the intellectual honesty to say so.”

The speakers in favour of the amendment largely did not state their preference for keeping nuclear weapons clearly. One complete piece of intellectual dishonesty was an argument that the Ukraine had just given up nuclear weapons and been invaded (albeit in a very limited way) by Russia. So what exactly were those speakers arguing? That Ukraine should have attacked Russia with nuclear weapons? To have done so would not only have been ludicrously disproportionate, but would have invited an immediate and overwhelming response from Russia that would have obliterated Ukraine from the map. Which neatly encapsulates, of course, the complete pointlessness of spending 8% of your GDP on nuclear weapons, as Britain does. You can’t actually use them. Ever. Even in a real fighting war.

There were also dark warnings about Russian expansionism, despite the fact that as we have shown with historic detail, the Russian action in Crimea was proportionate, discrete and nuanced.

We have a lot of time for Farron, but we are disappointed and worried by his actions in this case. Shock and dismay at his position is already evident on the activist wing of the party, and he will need to somehow heal the breach he has now opened with those who were his most fervent supporters for the Leadership.

What he and others clearly thought was if the party committed itself to disarmament of Britain’s independent nuclear weaponry they would be castigated as “irresponsible” or “too left wing”. Now they will be castigated as mere ditherers. Had they allowed the original motion to stand they would have been able to make the case for the scrapping of Britain’s nuclear weapons stockpile between now and when the decision will be made, putting useful light and space between them and David Cameron’s increasingly nationalistic and unpleasant Government.

Such moral determination might just have ameliorated the Government’s intentions somewhat, although the idea that it would turn around their view in toto is probably fanciful and this writer would not argue that case. In reality, what the Lib Dems think or do at the moment doesn’t currently matter much more than a reasonably small hill of beans. But any decision to replace Trident made in 2016 will still be in its early stages of implementation by the time of the next General Election in 2020. That would have given the Lib Dems, along with others, four years and innumerable opportunities to win the national debate, and possibly the next election.

But they squibbed it, and the party – chock full of new respectful members – let them.

The 2010 result - next Thursday will be wildly different.

The 2010 result – next Thursday will be wildly different.

Dear Reader, we have often claimed a 100% record for our election predictions around the world since around 1979. Of course, the fact that we haven’t managed to parlay these into a cushy job standing around in an ill-fitting suit on TV on election night is another matter altogether. Still, it’s a fun game: half political nous, half consumer insight, and half instinct.

Thus friends who have been following our prognostications for half a lifetime or more have been urging us to put up or shut up. Mostly, we suspect, shut up.

But this election in the UK is proving notoriously difficult to call accurately.

For those of you who aren’t following it with the same obsessive pleasure as your indefatigable correspondent, we will lay out the basic issues.

A majority government after next Thursday?

Will either Labour or the Conservatives get an overall majority of seats?

This is the easy one. No. The reasons are many and varied, but the essentials are that no one party is particularly popular in a country that is ravaged by political division and has endured tough times in recent years.

Normally, tough times would usher in the Opposition, on the basis that Oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them.

But there is the rather odd situation this time where none of the major party leaders are genuinely popular, and the electorate is also keenly aware of the fact that no major party seems to have a very clear idea of what to do to combat the general economic malaise affecting a Europe stricken with structural debt and over-spending, matched to low levels of productivity and innovation.

Labour would have won the election in the good old bad old days, but the seemingly unstoppable rise and rise of the populist, quasi-socialist Scottish National Party (and to a lesser extent their Welsh equivalent) will rob them of the seats in the major urban areas of of the Celtic states that they historically thought they “owned”.

The Lib Dems, although they have done a little better in the last week thanks to a creeping decline in the UKIP vote as the anti-immigration party come under greater scrutiny and a good performance from party leader Nick Clegg in a TV debate, will not win enough seats to make another straight Tory/Lib Dem Coalition a possibility.

So who will be the next Prime Minister?

That’s probably a rather easier one. If one adds the likely SNP wins to the likely Labour wins, then it will be Ed Milliband of Labour. Except that he has gone out of his way to insist (without any credibility) that he will not even consider an agreement where the SNP guarantee supply, let alone a full-blown coalition, so there is still some uncertainty. If Labour wins the popular vote (say by 35-34%) in the old days that would have seen them within a seat or two of a majority given the current standing of the Lib Dems and UKIP. The rise of the SNP is a new political reality that Westminster has to grapple with.

As we cannot predict with any certainty what politicians will do behind closed doors – who would have bet on the Lib Dems backing the pro-austerity Euro-sceptic Tories last time rather than their more amenable centre-left Labour colleagues? – we cannot predict what will happen after Thursday. But we suspect the outcome may be as follows, or something like it:

As the leader of the largest party, and the sitting PM, the Queen will invite David Cameron to try and form a majority Government – which may need to be tested on the floor of the Commons – but he will fail to pass a vote of confidence. The Lib Dems won’t have enough seats to get him over the line, even with the support of the protestants from Northern Ireland and a couple of UKIP MPs, and anyway they will abstain because of the current Tory insistence on an “in out” referendum on the EU.

The Queen will then invite Ed Milliband to do the same, and his motion WILL pass, but without a formal agreement with the SNP, putting him in power as a genuine minority Government – a situation almost unknown in British governmental history. Why will it pass? Simply because the SNP will calculate that they have more chance of negotiating successfully and informally with Labour, with whom they share many policy objectives, than they would with the Conservatives, who are anathema to them and their supporters. In effect – and this may be Milliband’s current calculation – they are pretty much caught in the cleft stick of their own anti-Tory rhetoric.

This process could take a long time, and will be the subject of fevered discussion in the media and the country. If you thought post-2010 was chaotic, it’ll be nothing compared to this.

So why not just call the election now? Isn’t that what you’re doing?

Well, sort of. Except when we make predictions we like them to be as accurate as possible, and there’s one factor that prevents a rush to final judgement.

The last weekend

One of the things most misunderstood by political pundits and commentators that have never actually been politically active themselves is the effect of the “ground game”, as the Americans call it. The Obama ground game – making sure one’s own supporters get out and vote in sufficient numbers, and getting waverers back into the fold – was the main reason he won re-election in 2012, for example, and it went to pot in the 2014 mid-terms, which is why the Republicans did so much better then.

(That’s a deep simplification, and other factors were at play in both elections, but it’s essentially a very true and much-ignored fact.)

Yes, the all-important ground game: that’s the effect on the electorate of the work done by political parties in each constituency. These can produce utterly skewed results, seat by seat. Taken over the country as a whole, they can affect the result significantly.

We won’t know the effect of the last weekend’s campaigning until polls are taken on Sunday night (by telephone) in key marginals, hopefully picking up any last minute impacts.

Similarly, whilst it might be hard for those of us obsessed with such matters to believe it, politics isn’t the most important factor in many people’s lives. So many people make their mind up in the last few days of an election, including, in the UK, whether to vote or not at all. We would normally suggest a low turnout for this poll, given the unpopularity of the main parties, but two other factors suggest it will be an average or even slightly higher turnout. One: other options now exist for disenchanted voters to express a protest vote, such as UKIP, the Greens and the Nationalists. Two: everyone understands the election is close, and therefore people feel their individual vote may carry more weight than usual. Those people are not yet reflected in polls – unless they are “Don’t Knows” – and in a tight election working out what they might do is central to understanding what will happen.

Sanders

For those of you who may never have lived in a marginal seat, here’s a brilliant example of what’s known as a “Last minute squeeze leaflet” employed by sitting Lib Dem MP in Torbay, Devon, Adrian Sanders. Normally, one would expect Sanders to be in trouble in this seat, which was a Tory fiefdom for decades, despite the fact that he is a hard-working local MP who is well-respected. But this leaflet makes it clear to all those who intend voting that only the Lib Dems or the Tories have a realistic chance of winning. Voters like being on the winning side – messages like this, if conveyed successfully, produce so-called “tactical voting” (aka I want the MP I least dislike) – which can boost the result for one of the main contenders or another.

Of course, the Tories can employ the same tactic against intending UKIP voters – and will, in this seat and others. Both Tory and Labour candidates will ruthlessly “squeeze” Lib Dem candidates and others in seats where they are going head to head.

How well each party makes this argument, seat by seat, will have a profound effect on the result. Pollsters will be seeking to track that effect from Sunday night onwards, which is why we will reserve our final prediction for a day or so.

We will note these general trends, which we expect to show up more clearly in polls over the next few days.

  • The number of “Don’t Knows” is falling, and this will increase as next Thursday approaches. Opinion polls that combine face-to-face interviewing with telephone interviewing, and which include constituency-specific data in their polling, will be more accurate, and are the ones to follow.
  • UKIP’s vote has peaked and is in decline. They have had, essentially, a poor campaign. Will probably only win two seats in England.
  • The SNP will probably not win all the seats in Scotland, as people have so breathlessly been reporting, but they will win a great many. The Lib Dems will retain Orkney and Shetland and maybe one more seat.
  • Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats is now marginally less likely to lose his seat of Sheffield Hallam than he was a couple of weeks back. The Lib Dem vote is trending up again, inch by laborious inch, and we expect it to end up on or near 9-10% nationally. Predicting their result nationally is fiendishly difficult because there are some seats – Eastleigh is a good example – where their ground game and local Government presence makes it almost impossible for them to lose, whereas on notional national swings they could. We have said all along they will end up with 20 seats or less – which will be a disaster for them – but we concede that other wise heads predict 20-to-30. We think we’re nearer right than wrong.
  • The Greens will only hold one seat after the election, the one they hold now in Brighton.

More news as it comes to hand. We will make our fearless prediction on Monday or Tuesday. Maybe.

Interestingly, The Independent newspaper’s poll of polls where they consult the heads of the ten largest polling organisations is headlined “A Tory lead but a Labour Government” and includes this very apposite comment from one of the pollsters, Michelle Harrison of TNS:

This election represents what happens when a country is not confident about its economic future, unsure of its place in the world, and fed up with the state of its politics.

The political stalemate at the centre, and the fragmentation of the traditional party system, has left us with a set of polls incapable of telling what will ultimately happen, when there are so many potential scenarios. What we can feel confident about though is that Thursday will be a seismic night for politics in Scotland. When the votes are counted, we expect the Tories to be the largest party, but that Labour should still have the greatest chance of forming a government. But how do we measure the advantage for the Conservatives of already being in No 10 in the days after the general election? The real drama will start on Friday.

We agree. Meanwhile, if you think you know better, put your assumptions into this rather excellent Election Predictor, one of many around. Here’s another good one. Hours of innocent fun for all the family …

Incidentally, putting an average of the most recent polls into predictors today (using different figures for Scotland of course) gives this result which would mean our predictions over the last year about most of the result have been well-nigh spot on. Long way to go yet though:

National Prediction: Conservative short 46 of majority

Party 2010 Votes 2010 Seats Pred Votes Gains Losses Pred Seats
CON 37.0% 307 33.5% 18 45 280
LAB 29.7% 258 31.5% 53 33 278
LIB 23.6% 57 10.0% 0 40 17
UKIP 3.2% 0 13.8% 2 0 2
Green 1.0% 1 5.1% 0 0 1
SNP 1.7% 6 4.1% 45 0 51
PlaidC 0.6% 3 0.6% 0 0 3
Minor 3.4% 0 1.4% 0 0 0
N.Ire 18 0 0 18
British leaders debate

Yes, well that’s pretty clear, then.

So seven leaders line up to give the country their vision for the future of the UK. Except that’s the UK without Northern Ireland, who weren’t given a guernsey because – er, well, who knows? Especially as Northern Ireland MPs could very possibly form part of the Government of the country after the May election, propping up a winning – but insufficiently winning – David Cameron.

Anyhow, this debate, and the public reaction to it as measured by innumerable polls, gave almost no insights into any of the leaders or their parties, and showed once more why the Nationalists are now so popular in Wales and Scotland. Their leaders were articulate and focused, and the English were mainly waffly and uninspiring. Cameron and Milliband could be bosom buddies – one could hardly get a sheet of paper between their positions on just about anything, and Clegg was just plain woeful, realising, perhaps belatedly, that he’s leading his party to an historic shellacking that is almost entirely his fault. The Greens were insubstantial and Farage of UKIP was just folksy and occasionally horrid.

In other words, as you were. And we’re heading to the closest election in British political history, with outcomes so multiple and impossible to predict that it is quite fascinating, although also worrying, as a country that has no confidence in its leadership is a country with problems.

Our prediction? Keep your eyes on the blog over the coming weeks, and we will give our fearless before-the-day forecast as always. But not just yet, thank you. One major gaffe either way could tip it. What is sad is that it is very unlikely, on this showing, to be one major burst of innovation and inspiration.

richardWe have no idea if Cliff Richard is guilty of having assaulted a young man under the age of 16, 25 years ago, or at any other time. He vigorously denies the charge, but then so have others who have subsequently been found guilty. What is undoubtedly true is that the worldwide publicity effectively organised by the police before he has been charged with anything is deeply worrying to anyone who values due process and concepts of privacy.

Famed QC Geoffrey Robertson outlines his concerns in an article we link to below, and it is well worth reading for anyone who value concepts of liberty under the law.

As Robertson points out, “Police initially denied “leaking” the raid, but South Yorkshire Police finally confirmed yesterday afternoon that they had been “working with a media outlet” – presumably the BBC – about the investigation. They also claimed “a number of people” had come forward with more information after seeing coverage of the operation – which leads one to suspect that this was the improper purpose behind leaking the operation in the first place.  This alone calls for an independent inquiry.”

We all need to consider the implications of this very carefully. Imagine, if you will, that a police officer (or team of police officers) has a suspicion that someone – anyone, you – is guilty of having committed a serious crime. If the way this matter has been conducted is to be a template for the future, then they make no effort to contact you directly, even though they know where you are, but they do confirm their investigation to the inquisitive media and invite their co-operation.

Remember, this is without proof, or charges having been laid. It seems nothing more nor less than a deliberate tactic to stir up other people to come forward with allegations or evidence against you.

This type of “fishing” behaviour, which must inevitably result in great damage to a person’s reputation before it is even known if charges will be laid, is not how police investigations happen in a liberal democracy, and it strongly implies that some Police in the UK are either unaware of the appropriate way to behave, or no longer consider themselves restrained by concepts of liberty and privacy.

Remember, Richard may be guilty of absolutely nothing at all. But we don’t expect to see him hosting any Christmas specials anytime soon.

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-way-the-police-have-treated-cliff-richard-is-completely-unacceptable-9672367.html

For the record,

In a statement on Thursday, Sir Cliff took appeared to take aim at the force’s decision, saying: “The police attended my apartment in Berkshire today without notice, except it would appear to the press”.

He added: “For many months I have been aware of allegations against me of historic impropriety which have been circulating online.

“The allegations are completely false. Up until now I have chosen not to dignify the false allegations with a response, as it would just give them more oxygen.”

He also said that he will “fully cooperate” with the police.

The televised raid was also criticised by Conservative MP and Former Deputy Commons Speaker Nigel Evans, himself previously cleared of sexual assault charges by a unanimous jury vote, and currently fighting furiously to retain his Parliamentary seat following a grassroots campaign to unseat him as an MP, who told ITV:

“It appears the press knew what was happening before he did and the world’s media were camped outside his doorstep. A press helicopter was up before the police even arrived — he is quite right to be angry about that. Questions have got to be answered.”

They have indeed.

Protect free speech

An historic moment looms

As British blogger Cranmer (aka His Grace) discusses here http://archbishop-cranmer.blogspot.com/2012/01/we-must-be-free-to-insult-our-neighbour.html, Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 outlaws ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ words or behaviour if they are likely to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’.

The matter is also discussed by civil freedoms campaigner Old Holborn here: http://bastardoldholborn.blogspot.com/2012/01/pay-attention-your-last-chance.html

Whatever you think of His Grace’s religious views, (or Old Holborn’s ruminations, for that matter), he argues persuasively that this is increasingly being used by certain people to get the police to arrest and silence Christian street preachers, prosecute hotel owners for chatting about their faith with a Muslim hotel guest, and to prosecute a teenager for calling the cult of Scientology, well… a cult. (Which it is. So sue me.)

The Home Office is conducting a wide-ranging online consultation to help them decide whether or not to introduce an amendment to clarify the situation in the proposed Protection of Freedoms Bill, and the Christian Institute, along with others, is campaigning to have the word ‘insulting’ removed from this Act.

The campaign has cross-party support, including Edward Leigh (Con), Tom Watson (Lab), and Alan Beith (Liberal Democrat), along with very many others inside and outside of Parliament. They believe that the freedom to disagree and to challenge received wisdom lies at the heart of a democracy, leave alone healthy religious discourse.

My thoughts on this are simple. When we remove the right for people to make pejorative remarks in defence of an argument or position because they could be considered insulting (as opposed to threatening, or abusive, where abusive clearly means many things, but to my mind primarily meaning an insult unsupported by facts, argument or logical principle), then we weaken democracy, and perhaps irretrievably.

For example, if I call an idea idiotic, or an action (say bad driving), am I therefore also referring to the proposer/practitioner of that idea as an idiot?

And if I am construed as doing that, should that person be entitled to make a complaint against me for being insulting? And should I then be liable for prosecution?

In a robust democracy, ruled by commonsense, my answer is “No, of course not!” Ideas are frequently idiotic. Indeed one of the most insulting activities around – racism – is, in itself, is an inherently idiotic idea. And those that propose racist ideology are, in my considered opinion idiots. Should I not be permitted to call them such?

But what if there were safeguards? Should a court be allowed to decide what is reasonable and what is an insult? Would reasonableness be a defence to such a charge?

Quite apart from the infringement on one’s rights as a free citizen to be forced to defend the matter in court (with concomitant costs) the answer is again “No”, because it arrogates to the courts the right to decide what is reasonable, instead of using our own commonsense as free individuals.  It is just another drift to a centralised, nanny state where freedom of expression (and freedom to scrutinise the actions of others) is curtailed.

Imagine it. Eventually a body of case law builds up on the question of reasonableness. Then one day, dismayed by the matters clogging the courts, Government decides to legislate all the possible situations where one using the word idiotic can be used reasonably.The courts then continue to further develop case law. Eventually, rather than risk prosecution, we the People simply stop saying “that’s idiotic” for fear of prosecution.

And now multiply that effect by a hundred words, or a thousand.

Alarmist? Perhaps. But words are the currency of freedom. They each have vital nuances of meaning. They allow us to freely participate in discourse, with each other, with those who influence our lives, and with our State. The very complexity of English is its strength, it is why it stands head and shoulders above other world languages in its ability to explain, reveal, illuminate and inspire. Anything that reduces our right to revel in its range of expression is lunacy.

I am on record as saying that I support rules that prevent us racially abusing one another. Consistency demands that I here explain why. The history of the world, especially in the last hundred years or so, reveals racism as a uniquely pernicious habit of human behaviour, the genesis of which is speech, and the result of which has been unimaginable suffering. It is also the least supportable bias, when analysed through any prism, that we humans are prone too. Under these circumstances, I believe it justified to curtail our right to racially abuse one another, as a deliberate exercise in mass opinion and behaviour moulding, just as I believe poor driving can be legitimately curtailed by speed limits and the breathalyzer.

When the laws to prevent racial vilification were initially formulated, in the UK and elsewhere, the most common argument against them were that they were a slippery slope towards a general curtailment of freedom of speech. At the time, I recall clearly liberals of all political persuasions vowing to prevent that slippery slope from becoming a reality, myself included. This far, and no further, was a clear agreement amongst politicians and commentators of varying ages, backgrounds, and political hues.

Which is why I raise my voice now in support of the campaign to have “insulting” removed from the law. It is far better to have a ruling principle in a free society that people have recourse to other, civil arenas to resolve feelings of distress. Apart from continuing the conversation, which is always an option, of course, strong libel and defamation laws (at least in the UK and Australia, albeit less so in America), also protect people from being the object of obviously unreasonable aspersions.

Take the survey yourself, but hurry

You are welcome to take the Home Office survey yourself, but I warn you that you have less than a day to do so. It ends on Friday 13th. (Spooky, or what?) And you don’t have to answer all the questions if you don’t want to, just answer the ones on insulting words, and then skip to the end.

https://www.homeofficesurveys.homeoffice.gov.uk/v.asp?i=41428bwhlr

But in any event, internal consultations of this kind are very rarely of any major use in either promoting greater freedom of or preventing infringements of civil liberties, as they are usually a cynical PR exercise.

What works best is the white hot glare of publicity when laws are actually formulated.

So feel free to re-blog this article, Facebook it or whatever. And then keep an eye on the news for the moment when consultation turns to law making, and the restrictions placed on us are re-legislated. And when that happens, defend, with every fibre of your being, my inalienable right to call you an idiot. And to be called an idiot.

And if you don’t agree that’s right and proper, then frankly, you’re an idiot, and slippery slopes were made for people like you.