Thursday, 12 July 2018

Some thoughts on Maria Caulfield’s letter of resignation


Maria Caulfield, MP for Lewes, has resigned her position as Conservative Party Vice Chairman for Women in protest at the PM's position on Brexit. (I love the irony of a woman being called "Vice Chairman for Women".)


Here are some comments on her letter of resignation.

Dear Prime Minister

It is with regret that I am writing to inform you of my decision to resign as a Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party following the collective agreement by Cabinet on the Chequers Brexit deal.

Having attended the briefings provided for members of Parliament, I cannot support the direction of travel in the Brexit negotiations which, in my view, do not fully embrace the opportunities that Brexit can provide.

It is noticeable that in all the resignations we have had, nobody has been specific about what these alleged benefits are. Much has been made, for instance, of a trade deal with the USA. But the detail is missing. And the detail is important, when the President of the USA is clearly intent on starting trade wars at the drop of a hat. And also when he has said specifically that his intention is to make the NHS pay more for their drugs. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/05/15/trump-threatens-use-us-trade-talks-force-nhs-pay-drugs/ In trade negotiations with the USA, we will be at their mercy. The logic that we gain in trade negotiations by being part of a large bloc escapes Ms Caulfield.

It is also noticeable that she, like the others, makes no proposals of what alternative scheme is better than the Chequers deal. We suspect that that is because she knows there is none.

For me the backstop agreement for Northern Ireland was neither necessary or constructive for the future prosperity of the UK. Having strong links to the Republic of Ireland I feel the backstop position is not appropriate and should have been rejected. It has been used by the EU as a way of blocking a mutually beneficial deal.

Ms Caulfield’s strong links to the Republic of Ireland should make her aware that the commentary from the Republic is almost uniformly about what a disastrous piece of stupidity Brexit is. (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-britain-has-gone-to-huge-trouble-to-humiliate-itself-1.3558995)

And again Ms Caulfield fails with the details. Theresa May has promised there will not be a hard border. This is integral to the Good Friday agreement. How does Ms Caulfield propose to ensure this? (She should, please, not mention technological solutions – if the technology existed to secure free movement for businesses across a hard border, it would be in use at hard borders all over the world. It is not, because the technology to do this does not exist.)

It is also disappointing that in connection with Ireland she only mentions prosperity. If she really has strong connections to the Republic of Ireland, she must be aware that peace is at least as important to them as prosperity. There is still too much violence in the island of Ireland, but it is incomparably lower than it was before the peace agreement. The absence of border controls forms an integral part of the peace agreement. Ms Caulfield’s hard Brexit risks bodies and lives in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. How does she justify this?

The policy may assuage vested interests but the voters will find out and their representatives will be found out. This policy will be bad for our country and bad for the Party. The direct consequence of this will be Prime Minister Corbyn.

Well, obviously some of us rather hope that the result will be bad for the Conservative Party. But who is finding out what here, and who is being found out? Most of the finding out lately has been about the lies, malpractice and illegal actions of the Leave campaign. Very significant overspending by Vote Leave; collusion with other organisations, like BeLeave, to cover up the overspending; the murky source of the massive amounts of cash donated by Arron Banks; his connections with the Russians – his initial confession to one boozy lunch, which rapidly magnified to four meetings, and now to eleven. Illegality and foreign influence leave Brexit with nothing but a fig leaf over its naked opportunism. If Ms Caulfield really respects democracy, she will agree that the British public, knowing what they know now, deserve, and democratically need a vote on the final deal.

Since the announcement on Friday my constituents, whether they voted leave or remain, have contacted me in large numbers to say they do not support the deal and it would therefore be more appropriate to have a Vice Chairman who can confidently defend the proposal.

That is very interesting, given that many of her constituents have considerable difficulty reaching Ms Caulfield at all. How many open access surgeries has she conducted herself this year? And the remain voters will have been contacting her to say they do not agree with this deal because they do not agree with any deal to leave the European Union.

None of those who have resigned, including Ms Caulfield, have said what they would actually do. They do not have any alternative proposal that solves any of the issues facing us. While they promise unicorns, the government is preparing to stockpile food, and plonk generators in the Irish Sea – that is how bad reality has become.

Ms Caulfield owes it to us all now not just to say that she disagrees with the Prime Minister, but to give clear and detailed proposals as to how she would solve the issues about our relations with the EU, the position of businesses, specifics about control of immigration, very detailed specifics about how she proposes to solve the problem of the Irish border while respecting the Good Friday agreement, and many other issues.

I want to thank you for the opportunity of being the Vice chairman for Women, especially during the centenary year of suffrage.

We should be grateful for one thing. At least Ms Caulfield has not told an outright lie in her resignation letter as Boris Johnson did.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Let's not be the radical party

First posted on LibDemVoice.

I find the word “radical” increasingly difficult nowadays. It has become a shibboleth. Whatever is being pitched has to be framed as radical. And everybody knows exactly what it means and says so with great authority. The trouble is that the next person will, with equally great authority, give it a different meaning.

And also, it doesn’t tell us anything about the liberalness of the policies being proposed. I think most people will agree that Iain Duncan Smith’s approach to welfare benefits was radical. But I don’t think any liberal wants a policy that vindictive. (Or that incompetent.)

When you look at the things we are in favour of, many of them are not radical at all.

Legalisation of cannabis, for instance. Cannabis is no more harmful than tobacco or alcohol. Its prohibition actually creates harmful forms of the substance, costs taxpayers a significant amount of money and badly affects a significant number of lives by creating criminal records that otherwise would not exist. Legalising it can be framed not as radical, but as common sense.

Try this:

We can:

- reduce harms to many ordinary people
- reduce pressure on the police and the entire justice system
- reduce burden to the NHS
- reduce days lost to illness for businesses
- increase tax revenue
by legalising and regulating cannabis in the same way as we treat alcohol and tobacco.

There is nothing radical there; it is just plain common sense.

Or, on a different topic, try this thought experiment:

- you are a country with small but very sophisticated armed forces
- your men and women are highly trained, well paid and dependable
- they and their families live in good quality accommodation
- if they are wounded in the service of their country, they get excellent medical and social care, and decent benefits
- you buy high tech equipment, both large scale and small scale, with an eye to effectiveness and value
- you invest in intelligence globally, regionally and locally, to enable your forces and equipment to be used most effectively and with least cost to bodies and lives
- you put effort into working on relationships with other countries which enable you to  collaborate to prevent conflict, but also to prosecute it effectively when necessary.

But one day you decide to spend more than three full years of your budget on a single weapon, one which is in practical terms useless for any conflict you can foresee, and will also, within five years, have lost its unique selling point of being invisible underwater. To afford this, you compromise every other budget: you take significant chunks of money away from recruiting, paying, accommodating and caring for your soldiers, you compromise on all the other equipment you buy, and you spend less on intelligence and on your diplomatic efforts. All for a weapon you will never use.

Doing something about Trident is not radical, it is just common sense.

We can do the same with most of our policies – climate change, housing, education, health and social care, transport.

Then we can save the word radical for policies that really are. Land Value Tax, maybe, because that really would shake up wealth and power in this country.

Monday, 4 June 2018

"Ashamed to be British"

I’ve been mulling over for a while blogging about an oft used phrase “makes me ashamed to be British (or English)”. As usual Nigel Farage has tipped me over the edge. The BBC has a survey about attitudes towards Englishness in which it appears that young people are likely to be less proud of being English than older people.  The BBC then approaches its man for all comments, Nigel Farage, who says “It’s as if we’re teaching young people that any sense of English identity is racist.” In the replies below the Beeb’s tweet about it, several people say Farage makes them ashamed of being English.

I will leave Farage alone, and I will also leave alone the issue of the framing of questions. The choice in the Yougov poll was about whether people feel “proud” or “embarrassed” to be English. National identity is a complex thing, and there are lots of other possible feelings, and lots of other ways of contrasting being proud.

(In what follows below, for “British” you could perfectly well read “English”. That does not mean that I think “English” and “British” are interchangeable – that is a con trick we English have been pulling on the rest of the world for centuries. It still works on most Americans. It only means that, whether you are using the frame of “Britishness” or “Englishness”, the mechanism is the same.)

I am struck by how regularly people respond to events by saying something like “makes me ashamed to be British”. Nigel Farage has that effect – not surprisingly. So have the Windrush scandal, Grenfell, Brexit, the state of our prisons, the prevalence of foodbanks, to name only a few. I suspect that a lot of people who say it don’t actually mean it – it has become a trope, a cliché, a standard reaction to the many shameful things we see around us.

And I wish people would stop saying it. There is no need for any of these things to make us feel less positively about our nationality. What we should be ashamed of are the people who make us feel like this. I am shamed by the political schemers who have been so brutal towards the Windrush generation. I am shamed by the liars, cheats and charlatans who stole the EU referendum result. I am shamed by the succession of home secretaries who think that prison is only about punishment. I am shamed by the poisonous attitudes towards unemployed and disabled people entrenched at the DWP by Iain Duncan Smith and embraced by all of his successors. I am shamed by the many people who insist that Dunkirk was a “British” victory and who ignore the 18,000 French troops who died standing between us and the German army in order to give us a chance to escape.

I am shamed by such people, but I am not ashamed of who I am. I am British and English, and proud of both. That does not mean that I think I am better than anybody else. It is a fake, brittle patriotism that can only love its country if it can pretend that its country is better than anybody else’s. I am simply proud to be British, and I will not be shaken from that by the liars, thieves, pretenders, charlatans, bullies, bigots and bloats with whom I share my nationality. The fact of sharing with such people sometimes dismays me. But we do not get to choose with whom we share our nationality, and our nationality is bigger than the character of any of its undesirable holders. So, I am ashamed, dismayed, perturbed, troubled, sometimes grieved, by the antics of people such as those mentioned above. But they will never make me ashamed of my nationality.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Equal Power, and how you can make it happen

First published on LibDemVoice, 24th May 2018.

I think Equal Power is the first book I have ever pre-ordered. I started reading it the day it came out. When I tweeted about that, Jo Swinson replied, and I promised her I would review it as soon as I finished reading it.

Several months later…..

My post hoc justification for my tardiness is that, to coin a phrase, a review is something best tasted cold. And I find that my opinions about the book have not changed since I first read it.

I found “Equal Power, and how you can make it happen” very powerful indeed. Not because the material was new to me – most of it was not – but because of the way Swinson treats it. She combines statistics and research evidence, other people’s stories and her own experience in a compelling way. The trick with such material is always in the way the combination is made. Statistics are devoid of life and stories lack width in applicability. Swinson combines the two admirably well in a very readable style. She then delivers much of the punch in the book through recounting her own personal experience. And, very importantly, every chapter ends with a summary of actions that everyone can take to improve gender equality.

She gives herself the space to lay out more than simple arguments. She discusses some of the underlying ideas and languages behind many of our attitudes. She notes in particular (around p31) the use of the word “illiberal”, something I have experienced myself, particularly in discussions about gender issues, being used with the evident purpose of closing an argument. “I’m against all women shortlists because they are illiberal.” Of course they are, but you cannot end it there. You have to show why they are more illiberal than the current system which routinely and significantly discriminates in favour of people like me.*  (Jo does not favour all women shortlists, but for better reasons.)

The stories bring life to the pages. Some of them are familiar, some are not, and some are immensely powerful. Shirley Williams’ anecdote of her experience as a junior minister in the 1960s is a corker. If you don’t know it, it’s almost worth buying the book for that story alone.

For much of the time I read the book, I was listening to the music of another articulate, energetic Scot, Amy MacDonald. We have come a long way, a very long way since the times of Shirley Williams’ anecdote, but there is still a very long way to go. “Don’t tell me that it’s over, it’s only just begun.” The practical suggestions for action at the end of each chapter outline some very good ways of taking us further along the road towards gender equality.

This review is quite short. I don’t want to waste more of your time reading it when you should be reading the book, available here or here, and then doing something about the inequities it catalogues.

(*Old white git in case you hadn’t noticed. I also have the beard and sandals, but for this purpose those are optional.)

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Windrush, how they suddenly became “good” immigrants

If anybody should resign over the Windrush scandal, it is Theresa May. It was her determination over a long period as Home Secretary to foster what she called a hostile environment for illegal immigrants, and her determination to produce one regardless of the cost to others that has created the tragedies that we see unfolding almost daily. This is not a flash in the pan, it is the result of years of hard work on her part. Any claim she has to be a Christian is negated by the evidence of years of consistently pushing hard line vicious rhetoric and action about immigrants.

It is not just the Windrush immigrants who have been harmed by this, to a tragic extent in many cases. Refugee Action’s report about asylum seekers “highlights the issues that occur at multiple points in the asylum process and alleges that “systemic failures” in the Home Office’s approach to asylum claims “dehumanises, disempowers and damages” those who have come to the UK fleeing persecution or war.” Other completely legal migrants regularly face harassment and persecution.

Such action does not occur in a vacuum. It does not occur without the support or at least the acquiescence of a large proportion of the population. Such support, if not forthcoming naturally, is usually nurtured by media misrepresentation of numbers, intentions and effects.

The circumstances of the Windrush generation have improved from the days when they were turned away from boarding houses at the drop of a hat, or routinely refused jobs when their ethnicity became clear. Nevertheless they are still too often treated as second class citizens and routinely suffer the daily slights of casual racism. That is, until the last few weeks. The sudden transformation of the Windrush generation from bad immigrants to good immigrants is a very interesting phenomenon, both academically and politically.

Politically it makes sense. Because of Brexit, the right wing wants to tilt away from Europe and uses the Commonwealth as one of the places from which our mythical salvation will come. (Issues like India wanting free movement to be part of any trade deal are ignored – logic is not an issue when it comes to constructing others.)  So, all of a sudden the Windrush immigrants become the kind of immigrants we want, unlike the Europeans.

They are also newsworthy because they are being hard done by. This is not enough on its own to be newsworthy – the steady increase since 2010 in the hounding of immigrants, minorities of all kinds, disabled people and many others has gone largely unremarked in the mainstream press. But human interest makes suffering much more publishable.

There may be another factor behind the ability of the right wing press and its supporters to turn on a sixpence with regard to the Windrush generation. Henri Tajfel, a social psychologist, (see also "Ingroups and Outgroups".) did a great deal of work on social identity theory. He started with the basic building blocks of identity, our capacity to categorise everything, and to assimilate categories. In the crudest terms, we categorise e.g. white and black, and good and bad. Then we assimilate, so white and good go together, black and bad go together. It is a fundamental way of enabling ourselves to function in a world of constant information (it always has been, since forever, not just in the digital age).

From that develops a way of creating identity. We categorise the world into “ingroups” and “outgroups”. Ingroups are people we are like and outgroups are people we are not like. One of his most distinctive assertions was that outgroups are just as important for our identity as ingroups – we define ourselves by saying who we are not as much as by saying who we are.

It is but a short step for powerful groups to discriminate against those who they perceive as outgroups. “Not us” becomes assimilated with “worse than us”.

Tajfel’s theories have been subsequently developed, not least in Critcher et al Race in the Provincial Press. (available at: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-artslaw/history/cccs/stencilled-occasional-papers/1to8and11to24and38to48/SOP39.pdfhttps://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/college-artslaw/history/cccs/stencilled-occasional-papers/1to8and11to24and38to48/SOP39.pdf – 250MB - I found it quite difficult to download; might have been just a bad day at the server.) A study of five newspapers in the Midlands revealed expected levels of racial stereotyping and treatment in all cases but one, the Walsall Observer. On re-examining the Walsall Observer, the researchers discovered that that paper had travellers as its main outgroup, and said pretty much the same things about travellers as the other papers said about black people. This led to a theory that we prefer to deal with one outgroup at a time. Having more than one is not necessary for purposes of self identification, and may also lead to unwelcome feelings of being threatened by having so many people that we are not like. Note that this is always about perception and about construction, not about any supposedly objective reality.

I found a piquant example in my own research, based on Critcher et al. I examined the Leicester Mercury for a year in the 1970s, and found, as they did, the expected levels of stereotyping and treatment of back and brown people, including those now known as the Windrush generation. But at one point a local vicar made a statement about sex work. He declared that it should be made legal. Sex workers could be respected, disease treatment would be more effective, they and their clients would be safer, they could be taxed, etc. This was not what the Leicester Mercury wanted to hear. For nearly a month after this hit the news, black and brown people disappeared almost entirely from its pages, as it focused on sex work. And it said about the sex workers exactly what it usually said about immigrants – would you want to live next door to one? Would you like your daughter to be one / marry one? (Seriously). After about four weeks the prostitutes faded out and the black and brown people faded back in, and business as usual was restored.

This way of dealing with outgroups may explain the shift in treatment of the set of black and brown immigrants known as the Windrush generation. We have subcategorised immigrants according to the focus of our latest political dilemma. We have created a subcategory of “European immigrants” and quite deliberately separated them from other immigrants. Now, the theory does not require that other categories of outgroup are well treated. Usually they are ignored, submerged.

But, being submerged, they then become available for other treatment as appropriate. So the fact that the Windrush generation is not our outgroup du jour means that they are available to be treated as a human interest story of the type that sells newspapers and enables (some of) us to feel good about ourselves, without (probably) actually changing anything.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Sheep's clothing


I have lived in the diocese of Chichester for nearly 35 years. For far too much of that time I have watched with increasing distress the gradual revelation of the cycle of crime and cover up in the abuse scandal that has persistently bedevilled the diocese. This diocese believes in the warmth and comfort of the gospels. This diocese painted itself as a place of refuge for religious souls cast adrift by the sea of change in the modern world. And for more than a generation this diocese has responded to the needs of the souls in its care with brutal corruption.

The abuse and the cover up have been well documented for some years now, but often in a haphazard way. During March the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) focussed on Chichester as one of its case studies, and pulled all the evidence together in one place. The transcripts of the fifteen days of hearings, and the dozens of documents which back them up, make for harrowing reading.

The events of both the abuses and the cover up were quite effectively summarised by Andreas Whittam Smith in the Independent on March 25th. He portrays the various abusers, and outlines the failure of attempts to improve safeguarding, the actions of various protectors of the perpetrators and the culture within which they were allowed not just to survive but to flourish. He calls it “normalising”. In the latter part of the article he focuses on Peter Ball, and he ends with the words of the current bishop, Martin Warner.

The evidence given to the IICSA makes clear that, despite the charging and sentencing of (some of?) the perpetrators, the diocese is still in immense difficulties. There will no doubt be continuing attempts to assert that the slate has been wiped clean. There will still be some who belittle or disbelieve the brutality that has been practised. There are still some who allow themselves to be duped by the obvious niceness of Bishop Peter among others. There are many who will know that they should have taken action. And there will be many who do not know how to conduct themselves to ensure that safeguarding is done properly in the future. The slate is not clean because there is still so much to do.

Responsibility falls at two levels, the perpetrators and those around them. The perpetrators that we know of are rightly being punished and must make their own amends. For some of those around them, who actively ignored guilt and encouraged the continuing commission of brutal crimes, perhaps punishment is appropriate too. I make no apology for using the word “brutal” despite litte evidence of violence in the crimes committed. Brutality can be practised in a caress. The fact that it is done with a velvet glove makes it no less violent, no less domineering, no less brutal. The diocese has to face up to that reality, that it was covering up not just a minor sin but a series of deplorable crimes.

And there is a particular problem for Chichester diocese that requires a particular depth of soul searching. This evidence to the IICSA (near the end of page 2) makes an uncomfortable connection between the perpetration of these offences and opposition to the ordination of women. It does not have to be that way, but there must be a different construction, a different way of thinking and a different way of being if the diocese is to get back to fulfilling its Christian mission.

I paused, as Andreas Whittam Smith obviously did, at Martin Warner’s final words to the inquiry. (Here, pages 93-94)

While apologies can begin to sound formulaic, I do want to register my sorrow and apology for the sexual abuse of children that has taken place in the diocese of Chichester, and for the ways in which it has been mishandled in the past.

This comes from the bottom of my heart as a human being, but also more formally from me as the bishop of this diocese. I also grieve for the loss of access to faith that this has often resulted in: a terrible realisation, and it is that which has sustained my efforts in ensuring that the diocese of Chichester reforms.”

The words that made me pause were the last sentence. The bishop says he is primarily motivated by the loss of access to faith suffered by the victims. In my view this is far too narrow a focus. Faith has an inestimable position in the minds of Christians. But a misguided emphasis on the primacy of faith is part of what led to Chichester falling into this pit in the first place. Abuse damages the bodies and minds as well as the souls of the victims. Souls may be mended in the afterlife, but bodies and minds can only be cared for on this earth. If the victims of these abuses get to the end of their lives, and we have not healed their souls, then healing awaits them in the life beyond. If they get to the end of their lives and we have not at least attempted to heal their bodies and minds, then we have failed. Reparation must apply to the scars carried by body and mind, or it is meaningless. And efforts at reform must focus on producing a church that heals and nurtures bodies and minds as well as souls. Without an emphasis on the current physical reality of the victims and their lives, any repentance and reform will be meaningless. Until there is widespread recognition of the brutality done to bodies and minds as well as souls, that was permitted and protected by the diocese, there will be no moving forward and no peace, however much people think there is.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Headlights

I have always thought that high intensity headlights are a pestilence. Now I find I am part of a massive majority. 80% of drivers surveyed by the RAC think that there should be better regulation for modern headlights.

“The headlights of some newer cars are so bright they are causing a road safety hazard for drivers with as many as two-thirds (65%) of motorists saying they regularly get dazzled by oncoming headlights even though they are dipped.

“Fifteen per cent of motorists surveyed by the RAC claim they have suffered a near-miss as a result of being dazzled by modern headlights that they believe are too bright.”

This is clearly a safety issue, but I was worried by the tone of some of the RAC’s press release. First of all, they see brighter lights as an improvement in technology. “the new designs of headlights are brighter, making it easier for drivers to see and therefore potentially safer for them...”; “Headlight technology has advanced considerably in recent years, but while that may be better for the drivers of those particular vehicles, it is presenting an unwanted, new road safety risk for anyone driving towards them...”. I doubt that it is safer for them. And it is only “better” if you accept the dominant view that people should be able to drive as fast as they want regardless of road, traffic, weather or light conditions. It is not better if one person’s ability to drive carelessly is bought at the expense of another’s difficulty.

We would not need brighter headlights if we drove a little more slowly. We might also reduce the 1800 deaths and 23000 serious injuries we cause on the roads every year.