Abuse, and how not to deal with it

The political abuse and harassment scandal has, it seems, claimed its first life. Welsh Assembly Member Carl Sargeant has reportedly killed himself after allegations were made about his behaviour.

I have no idea whether Sargeant is or is not innocent of the allegations. Already, social media is awash with comments blaming his accusers for his death. There is a real risk that this will deter other people from coming forward with their own stories of abuse.

To be sure, this may serve as a harsh reminder that a throwaway comment may have consequences far beyond those intended. If this does make some people think twice before making trivial or frivolous allegations, then that will be a good thing.

But it is completely wrong to dismiss all allegations of this nature as being frivolous or trivial. Just because something is relatively low level (when compared to, say, an allegation of rape) doesn’t make it not worth reporting. It’s just as illegal to steal a tenner as it is to rob a bank of millions. And low-level sexual harassment and bullying still needs to be dealt with.

If there is blood on anyone’s hands, though, it seems to me that it rests on those who told Sargeant he was under investigation. He posted this on Twitter shortly afterwards:

Now, it seems to me that this is totally inexcusable. To be told that there are allegations against you, but not to be told what they are, is both cruel and a denial of the basic right to defend yourself against your accusers.

It’s worth noting, in this context, that the police can’t arrest you without telling you why you are being arrested. Anyone accused of a crime must, by law, be given all the information that will be used in evidence against them. There can be no justification for any internal disciplinary procedures failing to follow this basic principle of justice.

It seems to me that we need some basic guidelines in place to ensure justice for both the accuser and the accused.

People should think carefully before making allegations, and be sure that what they allege is not trivial or frivolous.

However, no genuine victim should ever be deterred from speaking out, and it’s better to err on the side of reporting the things that are too small rather than not reporting the things that are large.

Any allegation, of any nature, once made, must be taken seriously and investigated appropriately, whether that be internally or by referral to an external agency.

The subject of any allegation has a right to full disclosure of the allegation made, at the time that they are informed of the allegation, and to be kept informed of any information which later comes to light.

Both complainant and subject have a right to be treated with dignity and respect throughout.

The investigation should be neither rushed nor unduly delayed. Reaching the right conclusion is more important than reaching a rapid conclusion, but justice deferred is no justice at all until it is resolved.

This story will, no doubt run and run. Let’s hope that some good can ultimately come out of what is, undoubtedly, a tragedy.

You can call the Samaritans on 116 123. More contact details are on their website.

Don’t give a green light to abuse

Abuse, harassment, inappropriate behaviour. It’s been in the news a lot lately, particularly in relation to Parliament and politicians. Accusations range from the extremely serious, such as rape, to the relatively minor, such as an inappropriate touch on a knee.

I don’t particularly want to comment on the more serious allegations, not least because there’s a strong possibility that these will end up involving the police and CPS and thus become sub judice. And, also, I don’t think anyone would argue that rape is OK, or that people should have to put up with it. The issue in the specific case reported by Labour activist Bex Bailey is more about the way it was covered up rather than any attempt to justify or trivialise it.

There is, though, a repeated meme on social media that many of the lesser allegations are just mischief-making, and that they represent nothing more than everyday behaviour that people should just be robust enough to cope with.

I disagree, although I do accept that there’s a reasonable point to be made there. And, more importantly, not all supposed misbehaviour is, in fact, abusive.

I’m sure many people will have seen the so-called “sex pest spreadsheet” that has been circulating in various media outlets. In reality, much of the behaviour listed there is entirely normal and consensual (and, indeed, has already been widely reported in the media with no adverse comment).

Other inclusions seem more prurient than principled. I, for example, would not take part in what are euphemistically known as “golden showers”, but it is not for me to judge those who do. Equally, having “odd sexual ponchants” (sic) is only of significant concern if the particular oddity is that they are abusive. Otherwise, it’s a matter for those concerned, not for the authorities. Politicians have always been prone to affairs, but, while that may be an issue for their spouses, it is not really abusive in the wider sense.

However, some of the things on that list are abusive or inappropriate. And, where they are, they do need to be addressed. And they can’t simply be dismissed as trivial or unimportant.

This is where I take issue with those who say that what’s described in the spreadsheet as being “handsy” is too commonplace and trivial to care about, and that people should just develop a thick enough skin to brush it off.

To be sure, it is commonplace. And people who have to work in that kind of environment do develop thick skins. But that doesn’t make it right, or acceptable.

When I was at school, it was commonplace to describe people with darker skin tones as “P*aki” or “n*gger”. It didn’t really seem to bother the one black kid in my circle of friends, so presumably he had developed a thick skin about it. But that didn’t make it right then, and it wouldn’t be acceptable now.

Repeated inappropriately sexual behaviour, even low-level, is the same. It may well be commonplace. And, for a long time, it has been tolerated as normative and those who suffer from it have been expected to simply lump it.

But we are better than that now. We hold ourselves to a higher standard, and we have a right to hold others to a higher standard.

This is the real point here. Individual allegations of inappropriate behaviour come and go. Not all of them may be justified. Some may be mistaken, others may be malicious. We should never simply assume that every complaint is automatically credible and true. But, nonetheless, we should not tolerate an environment where abusers routinely get away with abuse simply because nobody else calls them out on it.

That doesn’t mean people can’t flirt, or engage in consensual behaviour. It simply means stopping to think about whether an action or comment is appropriate before moving the hand or opening the mouth.

It is not abusive just to have different sexual preferences to the majority. It isn’t abusive to have a consensual relationship with a colleague. It isn’t necessarily abusive, in the more general sense, to sign up to websites like Ashley Madison. It isn’t abusive to misunderstand someone’s intentions. Anyone can make a mistake occasionally, and misinterpret someone else’s actions as an invitation to more intimacy than was intended. I’ve sure we’ve all been there.

But when someone develops a reputation for being “handsy”, or “not safe in taxis”, or when multiple people report similar “misunderstandings” then it’s not just a simple mistake, or a different perspective on sexuality, but a pattern of behaviour. When someone refuses to accept there is even an issue, but instead accuses all allegations of being false, then that is a problem. And that needs to be challenged, no matter how important or senior the perpetrator. Staying silent, or trying to discredit those who do speak out, is just giving a green light to abuse.

Image credit: The House of Commons Chamber. Image from UK Parliament; licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The “Progressive Alliance” is a figment of the imagination

Left-wing activists cling to the idea that there is an inherent anti-Tory majority, if only the opposition parties could get their act together and cooperate. Real election results, though, make it clear that there is no such thing.

Eight new “metro mayors” were elected this week. What’s interesting about mayoral elections is that they use the supplementary vote system – if no candidate gets more than 50% of the first preferences, the votes cast for all but the top two candidates are reallocated according to their second preferences.

If there is a “progressive alliance” among the electorate, therefore, the way that the second preferences are distributed will reflect this. As it happens, though, they don’t.

Of the eight mayoralties contested, four were won by Labour and four by the Conservatives. The Labour victories were all achieved with more than 50% of first preferences, so second preferences didn’t come into it. But the four Conservative wins all needed second preferences to reach a result.

Image screenshot from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2017/may/04/local-and-mayoral-elections-2017-live-results-tracker
Image screenshot from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2017/may/04/local-and-mayoral-elections-2017-live-results-tracker

In all four of those cases, the total Labour, LibDem and (where applicable) Green vote in the first round was more than 50%. So, if all of the Green and LibDem voters had given Labour their second preferences (or, in Cambridge and Peterborough, Labour voters had given the LibDems their second preference) the Conservative candidate would have been defeated in the second round (even assuming, charitably, that all the Ukip voters made the Tories their second choice).

So, when given the opportunity to vote for a progressive alliance, the electorate didn’t take it. At least some LibDem and/or Green voters must have chosen the Conservatives as their second preference (and, in Cambridge and Peterborough, some Labour voters must have done so too).

This is shown most clearly in the Tees Valley contest, where there were only four candidates and hence the possible interplay of second preferences between different minor parties can effectively be ruled out. In the first round, Labour’s 39% and the LibDem’s 12% add up to 51%, compared with the Conservatives’ 39% and Ukip’s 9% making a total of 48% (numbers don’t add up to precisely 100% due to rounding, before you ask!). But in the second round, the Tories won by 51% to Labour’s 49%. The LibDem voters could have put the Labour candidate into the mayor’s office with their second preferences, had they wanted to. But not enough of them did want to.

Now, I don’t find this at all surprising. It corresponds with a similar analysis of the 2015 general election, for example. But it still seems to be beyond the grasp of those clinging to straws in the hope that the centrist LibDem voters will somehow prefer Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to Theresa May’s Conservatives.

Necessary hashtags and the art of detecting media bias

Twitter (or, at least, my particular Twitter bubble) has been busy this last 24 hours pouring scorn on the Home Secretary’s apparent admission in the Andrew Marr show on BBC1 (and later, in conversation with Sophy Ridge on Sky News) that she would consider legislating to force communication suppliers, such as WhatsApp, to break their encryption systems so as to permit governments to access messages.

I’m not going to rehash all the reasons why breaking or weakening encryption is wrong. Plenty of people more knowledgeable about it than me have already done that. I’m more interested in how she ended up making such a statement in the first place.

First, some background. The idea of forcing communication suppliers to add “backdoors” into their systems has been floating around for a long time, particularly in policing circles, as it would clearly be beneficial in some cases to be able to get at the content of every electronic message. So this is a proposal that tends to bubble up every time there is a major terrorist or criminal incident.

Such proposals have never actually come to anything, though, partly because they don’t stand up to technical scrutiny but also because they would be firmly resisted by many large and influential corporations – like banks and other financial institutions – as well as other government agencies which themselves rely on encrypted communications.

So, how did it crop up again this time, and why was the Home Secretary so willing to countenance it?

It’s important here to see the whole thing in context. If you haven’t already watched the full interview with Andrew Marr, then do so now on iPlayer before it expires. Because it’s clear that the first person to say something stupid in that exchange wasn’t Amber Rudd, but Marr. He introduced the topic of end to end encryption, made a complete hash of explaining it, and then invited Rudd to agree with him that it is “completely unacceptable” that the government can’t access terrorists’ messages on it.

This is intellectually unsustainable, but political dynamite. Rudd could not, realistically, disagree with him – imagine the tabloid headlines if she had dared to suggest that it is acceptable for criminals to be able to communicate in secret – but neither could she agree without falling straight into the trap that Marr had laid for her.

It was clear from that exchange that Rudd is not only uninformed about how encryption works, but was uncomfortable discussing it. It’s easy to mock her misguided use of terminology, but when she tried to divert the conversation into an area of safer ground, Marr dragged it back. It was, essentially, two people talking about something neither of them really understands, but both agree that it’s a bad thing.

Having fallen headlong into Marr’s elephant trap, though, Rudd couldn’t easily crawl out of it. This was more of an issue later on Sky News, on Ridge on Sunday. Unlike Marr, Sophy Ridge had done her homework, and was able to point out the glaring inconsistency between Rudd’s assertion that she fully backed strong encryption with the threat to legislate against it. But it was too late for Rudd to row back on the statements she had made to Marr, so instead she had to resort to the usual political trick of speaking firmly, keeping a straight face and refusing to acknowledge the contradiction in the hope that viewers would hear what they wanted to hear.

The real question this raises is: why was Rudd so poorly briefed in the first place? Given that it had already been publicised that Adrian Elms had used WhatsApp shortly before murdering four people, why was it not anticipated that the question of accessing it would crop up? Why couldn’t Rudd have defused Marr’s line of questioning by pointing out to him that he didn’t understand how it worked?

I can only speculate here, but it seems to me that this is an issue with the Home Office which goes back a long way – it was clearly visible during Theresa May’s time as Home Secretary, and even before before that under the last Labour administration. The hiving off of Home Office functions into the newly created Ministry of Justice was one attempt to deal with a department that former Home Secretary John Reid once described as “Not fit for purpose”. But this has seemingly resulted in not one, but two dysfunctional ministries.

The particular problem with the Home Office has been a long standing disregard of personal liberty, combined with an ill-concealed contempt for the tech sector. Apart from legislation drafted by the Home Office which combines illiberality with technical infeasibility, this has repeatedly manifested itself in a lack of desire to engage with reasonable and informed criticism. Ministers are left unbriefed, and in danger of looking stupid (as both Rudd, May and their Labour predecessors did, regularly, when talking about Internet-related issues), because there is a perception that the general public, and the tabloid media, doesn’t care about the details. Only nerds care, and nerds don’t matter.

I don’t believe that the government will legislate to force companies to break encryption. There would be too much opposition, both internally and from industry, for that to happen. But we will carry on getting these kites being flown every time there is a terrorist incident, until this anti-tech and anti-freedom factor within the Home Office is rooted out. Ministers could make a start by insisting on being properly briefed in future, and hiring a few SpAds who understand the issue and can offer unbiased advice.


While I’m on the subject (and apologies if this is turning into too much of a long read), consider for a moment why WhatsApp is in the news. As I said at the top of this article, it is known that Adrian Elms used WhatsApp only a few minutes before embarking on his murderous spree. But how do we know that?

Given that WhatsApp is end to end encrypted, and only the sender and recipients of a message can read it – or even know that it is sent – the only way to know this is to have access to either the sender or recipient’s phone.

In this case, media reports say that the police know Elms used WhatsApp because they found a message from him on a phone seized from a known acquaintance in Birmingham. But they don’t know who else he may have communicated with, because his phone is locked and they are unable to access it.

But if they can get that, though, then they have a history of the WhatsApp messages that Elms sent and received. They were not secret to him, and neither are they to anyone who successfully accesses his phone. End to end encryption protects messages from being viewed in transit by third parties; it doesn’t protect them from being viewed on either of the devices they were sent from or to.

In fact, if you read the media reports carefully, the idea that the police are being stymied by lack of access to WhatsApp isn’t coming from the police. They may be happy with that particular misbelief being spread around, because it may help minimise the prospect of accomplices deliberately deleting messages that may be relevant (although, in practice, it does now seem that Elms really was a “lone wolf” and had no accomplices). But the idea that WhatsApp is deliberately hindering the investigation is a suggestion that’s being fed by the media, supported by off the record comments from Home Office insiders (again, not explicitly, but with hints dropped in headlines that aren’t borne out in the text of the article).

The police’s problem is simply that they can’t unlock Elms’s phone. Or, at least, aren’t admitting to being able to, at least not yet. And if they do get into it, there are probably far more interesting things they can discover from it than who he was messaging.

There’s a subtext here that’s worth exploring. Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies are in the firing line at the moment because of their seeming reluctance to remove extremist material. Some of these criticisms are justified, others less so – the tech companies do actually have a good record of addressing explicitly illegal material, as indeed Amber Rudd tried to point out before being interrupted by Andrew Marr; the real issue comes with the stuff that isn’t necessarily illegal but may be offensive or inappropriate. The fact that adverts from well known brands have been appearing on YouTube videos posted by Daesh and their sympathisers has been in the news a lot recently, particularly in the context that these adverts earn money for the videos’ creators.

This is a valid concern, and Google et al could certainly do more to ensure that advertisers have more control over the material that their adverts appear alongside. There are also perfectly legitimate concerns about where the line is drawn regarding offensive, rather than specifically illegal, content.

However, there’s an undercurrent to this which needs to be borne in mind. Google and Facebook, in particular, are very much in the business of attracting advertising expenditure away from the traditional media. The newspapers which complain about Google showing ads on jihadist videos are not neutral; they have skin in the game.

The traditional media also resent the way that search engines and social media have become the gatekeepers to their own content. There is a strong perception in the media that the tech industry is leeching away their traditional source of revenue, and offering nothing in return.

To some extent, that perception is true, although it’s also arguable that it’s not a problem – changes in technology and society’s behaviour always benefits some and not others. Airlines put the ocean liners out of business, steamships spelled the end for the tea clippers and the printing press rendered scribes redundant. The traditional print media can’t really complain if they are now on the downward slope of a hill they were once ascending.

What this means, though, is that there has, for some weeks, been a media campaign in progress against Google, Twitter and Facebook – a campaign driven as much by self-interest as any real public concern. This wasn’t helped by a particularly inept response by Facebook to an investigation by the BBC into sexualised images of children. The Westminster attack has simply played into this narrative, by allowing the media to say “I told you so”. It also gives impetus to their anti-Google and anti-Facebook campaign (and remember that WhatsApp is owned by Facebook).

The traditional print media and broadcast media would love nothing more than to see the tech giants taken down a peg or two. And their reporting reflects that. It is not unbiased. Andrew Marr’s carefully laid trap for the Home Secretary has to be seen in that context, too.


Edited to reflect media reports that the police know about Elms’s WhatsApp use from one of his acquaintances, rather than his own phone.

Happy Ides of March!

Today is the 15th of March, the nearest equivalent in our calendar to the Roman Ides of March, the date on which – as we all know from our Shakespeare – Julius Caesar was assassinated. Everybody knows to beware the Ides of March. It’s even been reported that one of the reasons for not sending Britain’s Article 50 letter to the EU today is to avoid any association with the Ides of March.

The thing is, Shakespeare emphasised the Ides of March as the date Caesar was assassinated deliberately for the sake of contrast, because to the Romans that was a joyous day – it was a day of new year celebrations and religious festivals. It would be like a contemporary book setting an assassination of a president on Christmas or Easter day. Or even some other date that has a generally positive feeling about it – “Beware the Spring Bank Holiday”.

I think we should start a campaign to rehabilitate the Ides of March. I’ve just been out in the garden, where the birds are singing, the sun is shining, the Magnolia and ornamental cherry are beginning to blossom and the leaves are returning to deciduous trees. I think the Romans had it right when they made March the first month of the year. Early spring is when the year feels new, it’s when optimism starts to return after the dark days of winter. We should celebrate it, just as the Romans did.

Happy Ides of March, and a happy new circle of the seasons!

2016 and all that

Bowie_1983_serious_moonlight_blu

It’s been an interesting year. For some, it’s been interesting in the sense of the apocryphal Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times”. For others, it’s been interesting in a less ironic sense.

Politics and celebrities are two of the staples of the media. So it’s not surprising that big events in both have dominated popular thinking. The unexpected results of both the EU referendum here and the presidential election in the US, combined with a higher than average death toll of genuinely A list musicians, has led many people to think that 2016 has been some kind of apocalyptic nightmare.

In reality, it’s nothing of the sort. Yes, we have lost more leading players from the world of music this year than normal, including one of my own personal favourite artists (David Bowie). But, for all that, it’s within the bounds of statistical variation. And, as has been pointed out elsewhere, much of it is simple demographics. The post-war generation of leading musicians are ageing; we can hardly be shocked when someone such as Leonard Cohen dies at the ripe old age of 86. And those who have had their lives cut unseemingly short have almost all lived self-destructive lives, particularly with drugs and alcohol. A lesson here, maybe, is that youthful excesses have a lasting effect; even if you clean up your life in your middle age the damage is already done.

Outside the shallow world of celebrity and the naval-gazing of politics, though, 2016 has actually been a pretty good year. Globally, the number of people living in absolute poverty continues to fall. And one of the biggest contributors to that is technology: the expansion of low-cost Internet access is one of the biggest contributors to GDP growth in poorer countries.

It’s been good news on the conservation front, too. The Giant Panda is now officially off the endangered list. The number of rhinos poached in South Africa has dropped, and China’s decision to ban trade in ivory has been hailed as a potential game changer for elephants.

Despite continued fighting in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, and terror attacks in Brussels and Berlin, the overall number of people killed by terrorism and warfare have declined slightly from 2015 and the long term trend is still very much downwards. It may not seem apparent from our media’s focus on countries nearer to us, but Africa, the Americas and Asia have all seen a marked drop in armed conflict.

If you want more good news stories, then these articles from Quartz and the Guardian are good starting points. For those who like a more data-oriented approach then the aptly-title Our World in Data has some charts you really should be looking at.

But what about Brexit and Trump? Well, to begin with, not everyone thinks those are bad. I’ll go into both of these in a separate article, but wherever you stand on the issue you can’t ignore the fact that a majority of those voting preferred the UK to leave the EU, and even if Trump didn’t get a majority of the popular vote he clearly won the election under the constitutional system which is currently in force. And even if you are on the other side to the winners in both of those cases, there are still reasons to be optimistic. But that’s for another time. Right now, let’s just be pleased at how 2016 has turned out.

Header image credit: Image by Jeffchat1 via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence. David Bowie performing on the Serious Moonlight Tour, November 193. Which is the tour where I saw him play live, at Milton Keynes Bowl in July 1983. Happy days.

The next Prime Minister

Nominations for the Conservative Party leadership election – and, by extension, the internal election for the next Prime Minister – open today and close on Friday. Conservative MPs will whittle down the contenders to a final two, who will then be voted on by the membership as a whole. The precise timetable after that depends on the number of candidates, but we should know the winner by late August or early September.

As a party member, I will have a vote in the final ballot. I’m not going to say who I’ll be backing until I know who I have to choose between. But these are some of the principles which will guide my choice.

Firstly, it needs to be someone who can unite the party and the country.

That may sound like a meaningless platitude which will be uttered by every candidate. But it isn’t, and it matters. We’ve just had a very bruising referendum contest, and it’s important that the new leader is someone who can work with both sides. Someone who will appoint ministers on the basis of ability, not cronyism and patronage.

David Cameron has won two general elections by appealing to the centre ground of British politics. That, too, is an essential attribute of his successor. We need someone that the floating voter is comfortable floating towards. It isn’t enough to rely on Labour’s shortcomings to win an election. We need to be able to offer a positive choice to the ordinary, non-political voter. More than ever, a post-EU Britain needs a one nation government.

Secondly, we need someone who appreciates and encourages the work of grassroots Conservatives at association and branch level.

The new leader of the Conservative Party won’t just be responsible for the parliamentary party. It needs to be someone who recognises that politics doesn’t just happen in Westminster, but in county halls, town halls and civic centres across the country. Someone who makes it easy for me and my colleagues to be proud of what we stand for.

The timetable for any possible hustings will be short, but I want to see the final two candidates making a strong effort to reach out to ordinary members and telling us directly why we should vote for them. That’s another reason why I’m not backing any specific candidate yet. I want to hear what they actually have to say to us.

Finally, I want someone who I can trust with the things that matter to me.

Obviously, every party member will have their own priorities which will reflect their own experience and circumstances. But my choice will be influenced by the things that I care about: a strong commitment to civil liberty and freedom of conscience, an understanding of technology and the value to the UK’s economy of an open Internet, a bias towards evidence-based policy-making, and a preference for localism over a one-size-fits-all approach.

The decisions we will make over the next few weeks will have long-lasting ramifications.

Under normal circumstances, party leadership elections are held at on a timetable intended to give the new leader time to settle in before any really difficult decisions need to be made. That won’t be the case this time.

The incoming Prime Minister will need to get straight to work on our negotiations with the EU. An early general election is also on the cards. That makes it all the more important that we in the party think long and hard about who we want in that role. The potential difference in outcome between the right and wrong choice could not be more stark.

Two tribes go to work


Following the EU referendum, there are, broadly speaking, four groups of people in the UK:

Group A – Hardcore Remain voters, who are not only unhappy with the result but are unwilling to accept the outcome and insist on either flinging insults at Leave voters or actively trying to overturn the result (or both).

Group B – Moderate Remain voters, who are disappointed with the result but are willing to respect the outcome and now want to ensure that any negative effects on a post-EU UK are minimised.

Group C – Hardcore Leave voters, who see this as an opportunity to gloat at their opponents, who don’t care about reconciliation and want to take this opportunity to impose their will on a post-EU Britain.

Group D – Moderate Leave voters, who are pleased to have won but recognise that they only have a slim majority, that there are a lot of people who disagreed with them, and that those views should still be heard.

Whichever way you voted in the referendum, I hope it’s obvious that the B and D “moderate” groups are the ones acting in the UK’s best interests (and, for that matter, the EU’s). Sensible, intelligent people need to cooperate to make sure that the UK’s relationship with the EU is renegotiated to provide the best possible outcome for all parties.

If you’re a Remain supporter, that’s obviously going to be sub-optimal to staying in, but it’s still possible to make the most of a less than ideal situation. If you voted Leave, then compromising on some of your ideals will be worth it to ensure a smooth transition to a post-EU Britain.

It’s time for the two sensible tribes to work together. Ignore the ranters and ravers, the xenophobes and anti-democrats, and concentrate on the future rather than the past. Our future depends on it.

After the referendum

This time tomorrow morning, we will be voting in the EU referendum. By this time the day after that, we should know the result.

So, what happens next?

Obviously, that depends on what the result is. But this is what I want to see, for both options.

If we vote to Remain

Firstly, it’s essential to bear in mind that voting to stay is not voting for the status quo. Nor is it an endorsement of every aspect of the EU and everything that it does. The EU is horribly broken and dysfunctional in very many ways. If we are staying in it, we need to take the lead both in highlighting the problems and coming up with ways to address them.

Secondly, a choice to remain is not an endorsement of the Remain campaign. Some of the ad hominem attacks on Leave campaigners have been truly appalling. If the Remain campaign is victorious, more than anything it needs to follow this up by being gracious.

A vote to stay is not a rejection of the need to change. It just means change in a different way to leaving.

The long term future of the EU needs to work for everybody, not just those who wholeheartedly buy into its vision. That means taking the criticisms of the EU levelled by the Leave campaign seriously, and seeking to address those from within the structure.

If we vote to Leave

A vote to leave is a step into the unknown. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a leap in the dark. The key priorities of the government over the weeks, months and even years that follow a decision to leave will be about how best to secure the long-term interests of the UK.

There are many possible routes forward if we leave. Some of them are as different as the choice between leaving and remaining. And even if we leave, the opinions of those who voted to stay are still relevant in that debate.

A leave vote means a majority want out of the EU. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a majority want out of free trade, or free movement of people, or cross-border consumer protection.

Voting to leave isn’t the end of a process. It’s the start of one. The start of a new Europe that better serves the needs of all the countries in Europe, whether in or out of the EU.

Whatever we choose

No matter which vision for our future wins, both sides have to accept the result.

No carping, no complaining about the other side taking liberties with the campaign. No conspiracy theories. No accusations of ballot rigging. No subtle (or unsubtle) undermining of the will of the majority. No grudges.

Whatever happens, we have to move on. This has been a deeply unpleasant campaign, with very little to be proud of on either side. It’s time to put that behind us and make a commitment to making this decision work. For all of us.

Referendum musings

It’s just over a week to go to the EU referendum, so I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts.

To begin with, let me say what this post is not. I will not tell you how to vote, or try to persuade you which way to vote. And I will not tell you which way I will vote.

There are, however, a number of things which need to be said.

Lies, damned lies and the battle for your vote

The first is that, by and large, the conduct of both sides has been utterly appalling. That doesn’t apply to every individual involved in either campaign, and very many of the grassroots activists on both sides – of which I count many, again on both sides, as friends – have been doing their best to argue their cause in a reasonable manner.

But, still, many of the headline claims made by the leaders of both sides are, at best, pure speculation dressed up as fact or, at worst, outright lies.

We’re doomed, I tell you, all doomed

On the Remain side, the increasingly shrill warnings of economic disaster, rise in terrorism and imminent collapse of civilisation simply do not ring true. By all means, consider a worst case scenario. But a description of the most extreme possible outcomes has to go hand in hand with a realistic assessment of the risk.

If it rains hard enough for long enough, my house could be flooded. We are on the edge of the “thousand year” flood zone. But, realistically, that is very, very unlikely to happen, at least in my lifetime or that of anyone I eventually sell the house to.

The same applies to predictions of what might happen if we leave the EU. It could, theoretically, result in economic disaster. But just saying that it could is insufficient information. To be useful, that has to be part of an overall risk assessment with outcomes ranging from best case to worst case, and with informed and expert predictions of how likely all the various possible outcomes are.

It doesn’t add up

On the Leave side, the repeatedly bandied figure of £350m a week paid to the EU is simply false. And arguing that that’s the right figure to use, because it’s what we would pay if it wasn’t for the rebate, is meaningless. That’s like saying that if I buy a shirt from M&S at 30% off, I should still assess the cost on what I would have paid without the discount. My accountant would laugh at me if I did that.

It’s also simply wrong to say that, whatever we pay to the EU, we could instead spend it on the NHS if we left. That disregards all the money that is currently spent by the EU on things within the UK. The absolute most we could spend on the NHS if we left is the total net cost of EU membership – which is a heck of a lot less than £350m a week. But even that disregards the possibility that leaving the EU may incur other costs which also have to be met. Realistically, this is simply an impossible promise.

Little Britain and Big Brother

The Remain argument that the UK would have to adopt something like the “Swiss model” or the “Norwegian model” to get access to the benefits of the single market if we leave is equally specious.

The UK has a population of 64 million, and a GDP of $2,768 billion (measured in USD as that’s the common unit of comparison). Norway has a population of 5 million, and a GDP of $513 billion. Switzerland has a population of 8 million, and a GDP of $685 billion. In other words, the UK has a population nearly five times that of Norway and Switzerland combined, and a GDP more than double their combined total.

If we leave the EU, we will not need either a “Swiss model” or a “Norwegian model” in our relationship with the remaining EU. We will have a “British model”, negotiated to take account of our economic and population strength. We can’t say for certain what this will look like, but we can be sure it won’t look like anything which currently exists.

Our only goal will be the western shore

On the other hand, leaving the EU will not solve our immigration “problem”. Quite apart from the fact that it is far less of a problem than many people believe – there is absolutely zero evidence that immigrants are squeezing local-born people out of the employment market, for example – the reality is that EU migration is still lower than non-EU migration.

Given that many EU migrants would, if we were not part of the EU, fall into the same categories as the non-EU migrants allowed to come here and would therefore continue to be allowed to come in the future, the idea that we could make a sizeable dent in immigration by leaving is laughable. And that’s assuming we won’t negotiate an agreement with the EU which includes free movement of labour anyway. I strongly suspect we would, because overall, it would be beneficial to us to do so.

The face doesn’t fit

If we disregard the guff from both sides (and there’s an awful lot of it to disregard), though, what are we left with? Can we, as some suggest, make our decision based on the identities of those arguing for either option?

The answer to that is “no”. I’ve previously argued that, when it comes to a general election, you can’t just vote for policies – you have to take account of the perceived competence of those who will implement them as well. But a referendum is the complete opposite. No matter what we decide, we will still have the same government the day after the referendum as before, and we will still have the same options at the next general election.

Voting Remain because you dislike Nigel Farage, or Leave in order to snub David Cameron – or vice versa – is the worst possible reason for making your decision. Voting Leave will not put Ukip in power. Or Jeremy Corbyn, for that matter. Voting Remain is not an endorsement of the current government. The decision we collectively make on 23rd June 2016 will have an effect long after all of us currently active in politics have retired or died. Casting your vote now on the basis of which set of faces you like the most is one of the most mind-numbingly stupid things you could do. So don’t do it.

Making either choice is a decision based on what you, after giving the matter careful consideration, honestly believe is best for the UK in the long run. At least, I hope it is. And that means cutting through the dodgy headlines and looking beyond the faces to try and find the facts.

I’m not, in the space of this article, going to try and give you the facts, beyond those I’ve obliquely referred to already. But I am going to make a few observations.

Break point

After my comment on the behaviour of the campaigners, the second most important thing which must be said is that the EU is badly broken in a number of areas. That fact is, I think, beyond dispute. A full list would be far too long, but the economic sacrifice of Greece on the altar of the Euro and the mismanagement of the migrant crisis are two obvious examples. The question is not “Is there anything wrong with the EU?”. The question is “Can we fix it?”.

In this context, I disagree with the criticism of Jeremy Corbyn for seemingly being lukewarm over the EU, or with Boris Johnson for dithering before coming out for Leave. In both cases, these are the actions you would expect of someone who recognises that there are strong arguments for both options, but that ultimately you have to make a choice between them. I’m not telling you which of Johnson or Corbyn you should vote with, but both of them make a better role model here than those who adopted a knee-jerk position for either Remain or Leave right from the off.

Between the devil and the deep blue sea

The reality is that there are some very good arguments on both sides. Anyone who doesn’t recognise that simply hasn’t thought about the issue in any great detail. Equally, there are some very bad arguments on both sides. And the tragedy is that the campaign has seemingly focused on the bad arguments rather than the good ones.

The EU is, as I’ve said, badly broken in many respects, and if it continues down some of those broken pathways it has the potential to do a great deal of harm. But it has also been extremely beneficial in very many ways, and the UK has gained a lot from our membership. Again, I will say that anyone who does not recognise the truth of both these statements has too little understanding to make an informed choice.

Questions, questions

Ultimately, everyone’s decision has to be their own. I’m not telling anyone how to vote, or how I intend to vote. But I will pose a set of questions that will inform my own choice. Hopefully, they will be helpful to others as well. Those questions are:

  1. Are the EU’s structural flaws beyond repair, or can they be fixed?
  2. In the long term – not just the next few years, but for the next generation – which option offers the best prospects for our economic security and freedom?
  3. Is a decision to leave influenced by the “grass is always greener” fallacy?
  4. Conversely, does a decision to stay reflect the sunk costs fallacy?
  5. Which decision will I be most proud of explaining to my children, and why?

I’ll leave it to you to answer those questions for yourselves, or to pose others. I may come back after the vote and explain how I answered them.