Category Archives: Politics

Ethical and moral compromises

Today has been a first for me. My first active (or more accurately, inactive) participation in industrial action. It’s not something that I voted for, but as a member of a democratic union (in my case the Universities and College Union), I am bound to support the majority view in a fair and open ballot process, to the extent that my conscience allows. In my case, this has involved striking today, and making a voluntary donation to the strike fund to support those members who will have lost up to 8 days’ pay by the end of this stage of the dispute on Wednesday next week. The strike is in protest at the failure of universities nationally to move quickly enough to resolve issues around pay, conditions (especially workload), and pensions. Despite the fact that some universities (including Bristol) have made progress in the areas of workload allocation, reducing the reliance on temporary contracts for teaching staff in particular, and the gender pay gap, the sad fact is that most of the key decisions around pay and pensions are negotiated on a national basis. Pay across the HE sector has been held artificially low for over ten years now, and allowing for inflation, pay remain below pre-financial crash levels. Pension changes have seen employee contributions rise and benefits capped, with the threat of further significant rises to come despite clear evidence from the Union (verified by some of the most qualified pensions academics in the country!) that they are not necessary at the scale proposed (and possibly not at all).

Nobody takes industrial action lightly; and nobody who works in HE wants to jeopardise the education or experience of our students and potential students. But equally, industrial action, whilst always a last resort, is also sometimes necessary to demonstrate strength of feeling and to encourage employers back to the negotiating table. There are signs that the action of this past week is leading some university vice chancellors to put pressure on the national negotiating body to re-open talks, and that would be a good step forward. Personally, I hope that there is enough goodwill on both sides to be allow progress to be made and the dispute to be settled. It is distinctly uncomfortable to find yourself placed between your duty to your students, and your duty to your colleagues.

It’s also good practice, though, because I will face a similar ethical dilemma when I go to the polling station for the general election on 12th December. In my constituency, it looks almost inconceivable that anyone other than either the Labour or Conservative candidate will be elected. There is no dilemma at all for me about not wanting to return a Conservative MP to parliament in my name. My problem is that in order to stop this, I will have to vote Labour. Ethically and philosophically, I can rationalise this on utilitarian grounds : that ethical actions are those that seek to do the most good for the greatest number of people. But in voting Labour, I am aware that I am tacitly supporting a party that has alienated large numbers of centrist socialists, as well as many Jews. The behaviour of some Labour members in some constituencies has been bullying and boorish. The failure of the leadership to genuinely apologise for the many incidents of anti-Semitism that have been reported, AND to take decisive action to root out the racists who have perpetrated those incidents, is shameful.

But I cannot cast my vote in a way that increases the chances of a Conservative government after December 12th. The Conservative Party has become a far-right parody of itself, pandering to a populist agenda that is as hollow as it is morally bankrupt. The leader of the Conservative Party is a philanderer and a liar who is unable to withstand even the most gentle cross-examination and so simply refuses to turn up to any interview with anybody who is not wholly biased towards him. A bully who threatens parliament, the courts, Channel 4 – indeed, anybody who stands up to his appalling behaviour – with curbs on their independence or their right to exist at all. A fraud who insists on pressing ahead with the outcome of a fraudulent referendum on membership of the EU despite all the evidence that there was no majority at that time (or at any time since) for any specific form of leaving. A charlatan who refused to allow detailed scrutiny of his renegotiated withdrawal deal, choosing instead to plunge the country into a divisive and wholly unnecessary general election. After nine years of Tory rule, the country is an international laughing stock, is mired in debt (despite the austerity measures that have seen the richest get richer while everybody else is much worse off), and has spent three and a half years without a functioning government while the Conservative Party tries to work out what form of Brexit it actually wants.

I saw a Tweet the other day that said that the most 2019 thing ever would be to see all parties returned to Westminster on December 13th with exactly the same number of seats as they had when parliament was dissolved. It would be a delicious irony and would certainly appeal to my sense of the absurd. My ideal outcome would be a result that delivers no overall control to any individual party, and that forces a coalition of Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Green and/or Plaid Cymru MPs, with a radical agenda including a second referendum to settle the Brexit debacle, and constitutional reform including abandoning first past the post in favour of proportional representation. I want to be able to vote for the party that I really want to see representing me (at the moment, Plaid), and to know that that vote counts. I don’t want my vote to be a choice between the least worst option.

In the meantime, I’ll be the bloke at the polling station with a peg on my nose voting for Labour.

Reflection on the UK/US politics in 2019

I’ve tried to steer clear of blogging about politics so far this year. The general election campaign in the UK and the impeachment hearings in the US are dominating the news programmes, and both stories are incredibly depressing. Last Saturday’s Haiku verses seemed to go down well with the reader of this blog, so I’ve used the format to give some form to my thoughts on politics in the UK and US at the moment. I’ve left them as a series, although each is also capable of standing on their own. They’re a bit downbeat and defeatist, I’m afraid, but that’s kind of where my head is with all this at the moment.

Politics '19
On the altar of ego
Truth is sacrificed

Liars parading
Feeding prejudice and fear
Stirring base motives

Immigrants are tarred
Remainers labelled traitors
Others all to blame

Votes can't fix this mess
However you cast your vote
Politicians win

A virtual meeting

Day 5 Challenge : meet somebody new and learn something about them.

This is quite a tricky one for somebody who leaves the house at 6.40am to drive to work, spends all day in the office, and then gets in at 6.30pm in the evening looking forward to something to eat and a bit of R&R time before bed. But then I remembered that this challenge is as much about the blogging as it is about the lived experience. Blogging is the ultimate virtual activity – so I have chosen to ‘meet’ somebody virtually. And no – I haven’t joined downloaded a dating app! Rather, having consulted a list of people linked to 4th November, I have gone back to the seventeenth century and have chosen to learn something more about Mary, the first British Princess Royal and the Princess of Orange, who was born on this day in 1631 in St. James’s Palace, London.

Mary was the eldest daughter of King Charles I and in line with acknowledged practice in Europe at that time, she was lined up for marriage in a way that was all about politics and diplomacy. Charles initially sought to arrange a marriage to her cousin, the first in line to the Spanish throne; and subsequently, she was connected to the Bohemian royal household. Ultimately however, at the age of 10 years old, she was married to William II of Orange, although it appears that their union was not consummated until several years’ later. William died in 1647 just days before the birth of the couple’s son Willem (later William III of Orange). Willem was brought up largely under the control of influence of his father’s mother and brother, and Mary herself struggled to be accepted in her adopted home in the Netherlands. Her loyalty to her brothers (the future King Charles II and the future James II) did not go down well with the Dutch public, and there were rumours of an affair between Mary and one Henry Jermyn, a member of James’ household. It was only with the restoration of the monarchy in England, and Charles accession to the throne, that Mary’s stock rose within the House of Orange. She returned to England in September 1660 but died just three months’ later, apparently of smallpox (the disease that had claimed her husband 13 years earlier).

I am indebted to that font of all knowledge (and saviour of secondary school pupils across the world) Wikipedia for the biographical information that features in this post.

I am also reading Simon Jenkins’ excellent historical primer, A Short History of Europe : From Pericles to Putin. It’s a fascinating chronology of the history of the political and geographical entity that we now recognise as Europe, but which was for much of its first two thousand years, wracked by internal division and warfare, and the constant threat of attack from the Ottomans in the east. I highly recommend it as an accessible and eminently readable introduction to intrigues, alliances, betrayals and deceptions that forged the nation states of modern Europe. Jenkins’ own mischievousness is revealed in the subtle references to the UK’s current wrestling with its future relationship with the EU, counterpointing the modern day turmoil to equally turbulent events throughout the continent’s history.

One of my favourite days of the year

This is one of my favourite days of the year. I get to spend the morning welcoming applicants to study medicine at Bristol to their interviews. It’s a great reminder for me of why I love working in HE, and it’s a massive privilege to be able to meet so many incredible, (mostly) young, highly motivated individuals as they set out on a journey that will hopefully lead to them qualifying as doctors in 6 or 7 years’ time. Getting a place at medical school is an incredibly competitive process – we received 3,700 applications for our 251 places in this round, and we will interview about 900 of those applicants as we decide who to make offers to. And this remains the case in the face of what looks like a concerted campaign to undermine the UK higher education sector.

There has been a slow drip-feed of stories over recent months that has created something akin to a hostile environment for universities. Initially, the focus was on Vice-Chancellors’ pay, and one or two outlier salaries were held up as evidence of a rotten system as a whole. This was closely followed by a succession of almost wholly unsubstantiated claims of a crisis of free speech on our campuses; with rumour and anecdote taking the place of actual evidence, to create a narrative that ‘no-platforming’, safe spaces, and ‘snowflake students’, were preventing the robust discussion of contentious ideas. Next came the double-whammy of concerns about value-for-money and claims that white boys going to new universities would end up worse off than their peers who went straight into the world of work at 18. The Augur review of tuition fees is due to report later in December, and is widely trailed as recommending a reduction in fees for subjects like English, Drama, and History; with fee levels capped for medicine, engineering and sciences. This conflation of ‘value for money’ with graduate earnings is simplistic and unhelpful. The ‘worth’ of a degree is not something that can be calculated in purely financial terms. Most recently, unconditional offers (at entry to University) and so-called grade inflation (at graduation) have come into the sights of those seeking a stick to further beat the sector with. The headlines are again dominated by claims of universities lowering standards to allow students in in the first place, and then allowing those students to leave with an undeservedly high award at the end of the course.

What has been remarkable about all of these issues is the lack of detailed empirical evidence underpinning the challenges that have been made; and the uncritical reporting of them in the mainstream media. To be clear, I’m not saying that everything is perfect in the sector; but nor is it anywhere near as dysfunctional as the current narrative might suggest. UK HE is hugely beneficial to the country, and to those towns and cities which have thriving universities. As we teeter on the edge of a departure from the European Union, and in a world that seems to be becoming less certain and more fragmented, institutions that bring people together from across the Home Nations, and the international community, deserve to be supported and reinforced.

A televised Brexit debate? A guaranteed turn-off

I’ve tried really hard not to devote too much of this blog to the soap opera that has become Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Hot air, posturing and bare-faced lies have blighted any attempt at a sensible discussion about the UK’s future relationship with the EU since the 2016 referendum was first mooted. Whilst May and Corbyn have not been the worst offenders in this regard, nor have they been blameless. Each has made statements that stretch the truth and have served to confuse and obfuscate rather than clarify and crystallise the choices facing the country through this critically important process. From May’s recent crass description of EU workers coming to the UK as “queue-jumpers”, to Corbyn’s meaningless and wholly unsubstantiated claims for a “jobs-first Brexit”, they have both played the role of small-minded, party-focused, tinpot apparatchiks, when the country was crying out for strategic leadership.

Now, with the EU having signed off on a Withdrawal Agreement and framework for a future relationship with the UK that they have made clear is the final, fixed offer, May faces the seemingly impossible task of persuading enough MPs to support her ‘deal’ in a vote in the House of Commons in mid December. Somewhat bizarrely, she has embarked on a two week tour of the UK to ‘sell’ the deal, presumably in the hope that public opinion will be brought to bear on those MPs who are minded to defeat the proposal either because it’s too Brexity, or because it’s not Brexity enough, or because they never wanted any Brexit in the first place. The irony is that May’s deal seems to have achieved more in uniting the competing factions than any other proposal so far since the referendum result in 2016. Unfortunately for May, all the factions are united in opposition to it.

Which brings us to the proposal that May and Corbyn will be offered a prime time TV slot to debate their respective positions on the Withdrawal Agreement and future framework as it stands. I can’t imagine a greater TV turnoff than a head-to-head between these two political pygmies. The past two and a bit years’ of Prime Minister’s Question Time encounters between the two has generated all the chemistry and dramatic tension of a wet Wednesday afternoon just outside Ousefleet. It’s not as if we don’t already know how the debate will proceed. May will bang on about a deal that ensures strength and stability (despite all the evidence that we will be poorer as a country, less significant in terms of our place on the world stage, and with a widening of the gap between the rich and the ‘just about managing’ that May made such a fuss about in her ill-fated post-Brexit election campaign). Corbyn will spin his own vision of a unicorn-filled future in which the UK will be outside the EU but will retain all the EU market access and employment protections that our current membership affords. They’ll both agree that their vision respects the will of the 37% of the electorate who voted to leave the EU in 2016 (conveniently ignoring the fact that all recent polling suggests that the slim majority in favour of leaving then, has had serious second thoughts having properly understood the implications.

However, these aren’t even my strongest objections to the TV debate proposal. Even more worryingly, it’s being seriously suggested that this charade of popular politics might replace Strictly Come Dancing, Dr Who and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here in the prime time Sunday scheduling. Frankly, nobody voted for that in the referendum.

Review : Wounds – a memoir of war and love

The Irish Republic has rarely featured as prominently in the mainstream British media as it has in recent months. Plans for a soft Brexit seem set to founder on the challenges posed by the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland; and the historic referendum on changes to the law relating to abortion was the dominant news story of the late-May Bank Holiday.

Today, the Democratic Unionist Party’s annual conference will be addressed by Boris Johnson, having spent last evening listening to Philip Hammond on why the current Withdrawal Agreement is the best that can be achieved by negotiation.

It was in this context that I came to read Fergal Keane’s Wounds : a memoir of war and love. Having long admired Keane’s forensic approach to broadcast journalism, most notably in his coverage of the Rwandan Genocide in 1994 as the BBC’s Southern Africa correspondent, I was intrigued to see how he would tackle a subject that was – literally – much closer to home.

American sociologist Charles Wright Mills wrote that “neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both”2. Keane reflects this philosophy perfectly in Wounds, his account of events leading to the Irish Uprising in 1916, the battle for independence and the creation of the Irish Free State in 1921, and the subsequent civil war and political settlement underpinning the Republic of Ireland as it is today. Keane employs his journalistic skills to excellent effect. Meticulous research and reference to contemporary source materials lends an academic rigour to the writing. But the text is brought to life as Keane draws on his own family history in north Kerry to see the events through the eyes of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

I came to the book from a position of woeful ignorance about the history of the island of Ireland, and the series of events leading to the Uprising and eventual secession of the Republic from the UK. This book makes clear that what little I thought I knew was hopelessly simplistic and anodyne.

The caricature of English oppressors lording it over an impoverished native population is comprehensively demolished by Keane. He paints a picture of the north Kerry of his grandmother that is so much more complex and nuanced. Certainly, there are ‘old English’ families receiving an income from Irish tenant farmers on estates that were given to English ancestor-invaders several hundred years before. But these landlords are not all hostile to the interests of their tenants, nor are they uniformly against the principle of a greater say for the people of Ireland in their day-to-day governance. Similarly, some of those who fought most doggedly to preserve British rule were themselves born and raised in Ireland. As Keane writes in his prologue : “This is the story of my grandmother who was a rebel, and her brother and how they took up guns to fight the British Empire. And it is the story of another Irishman… who fought against them because he believed it was his duty to uphold the law of his country.” Towards the end of the book, he concludes that : “There was no absolute telling how the mood of the times and the circumstances of family, the generational shifts and, possibly, resentments could change the way in which young men and women saw the world.”

A recurrent theme throughout the book is the genuine conflict that existed across communities, between families, within individual combatants, throughout the skirmishes and battles that characterised the guerrilla campaigns of first the war of independence and then the civil war in the south of Ireland. Keane links the fight for freedom from UK rule in the period after 1916, directly to the Troubles that claimed so many lives in the lead up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10th April 1998 : “The Provisional [IRA]’s claims of legitimate violence were rooted in the violence of [those] who had no electoral mandate for revolution when they struck in 1916 against a government they declared to be illegitimate.” In this context, the peace process that reached a conclusion in 1998 brought to an end a conflict that had begun 80 years earlier. And this is why questions over the border between north and south as part of the political soap-opera that is the Brexit process have such deep meaning in Northern Ireland and the Republic. In contemplating the possible return of a hard border between the UK and theRepublic, Keane observes : “Nobody thought the war would start again. But so much of our island history is about how unforeseen consequences play out over the long run that I cannot say violence will never return.”

Wounds is a thoughtful, accessible and above all intensely compassionate account of a period of history that has profoundly influenced the last 100 years of politics in the UK. I highly recommend it as a primer for anybody seeking a deeper understanding of the modern history of the island of Ireland, and a better appreciation of why any potential dilution of the Good Friday Agreement is the cause of such alarm.

(Mills, C. W.: 1959, The sociological imagination, Oxford University Press, London)

Spitting Image revisited

The creator of Spitting Image, the satirical sketch show involving caricature puppets of politicians, sportspeople, celebrities and others in the public eye, has donated his entire archive of material to Cambridge University library. When asked whether the time was right for a re-boot of the programme, Roger Law commented that : “We are back where we were with knobs on and yes it can be done.” If you’ve never heard of Spitting Image, or have no idea what it was all about, then I’m not even going to try to describe it – instead, please follow the link to the YouTube excerpts. Suffice to say, in the 1980s, it was the most subversive pricker of pomposity and hubris that there was. In many respects, Spitting Image can trace its ancestry back to the satirical programmes including the Frost Report and Monty Python in the 1960s; and which continued in slightly more mainstream form with the great impersonators (such as Mike Yarwood) of the 1970s and 1980s. Anyway, I’ve been motivated to write today’s blog through re-imagining what a Spitting Image of 2018 might look like. I’ve come up with some characters that I think would make great satirical material and I’d love to hear your views.

The first would be a narcissistic heir to the family billions who gets bored with appearing on reality TV shows and bankrupting a succession of otherwise strong businesses, and chooses instead to run for president of the United States. Each week would feature a sketch where the petulant man-child causes chaos in the corridors of government through random policy announcements made entirely through social media. These would be punctuated with abusive comments directed towards other world leaders and threats of war, fire and brimstone against any person, country or religious group that happens to come under his gaze. Positioning himself as an anti-establishment figure who was committed to ridding the country of corruption and Making it Great Again, he’d actually be permanently mired in allegations of corrupt behaviour and colluding in foreign interference in the democratic process. All such allegations would be brushed off as fake news by the President and his team of fawning acolytes, who would distribute blatantly doctored video and audio footage to back up their increasingly ridiculous claims. To make clear that this character was a gross caricature and not based on any real person (past or present), the puppet would be coloured vivid orange with a superfluous mop of hair vainly struggling to cover a large bald patch.

My second character would be the UK prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party. The shadow of her puppet character would be shaped to match the Margaret Thatcher character of the original series, but each time my new character said or did something stupid, the Thatcher-shaped shadow would shake her head in a mixture of disbelief and despair. My character would speak entirely in aphorisms and slogans, adding emphasis through constant repetition of her personal mantra : “Let me make this absolutely clear”, before launching into a vacuous and unintelligible soundbite. At the end of my first series, this character would be deposed as a result of a coup led by former cabinet members from the deranged alt-right wing of her party, and the coup de grace would involve her being sent on the last train through the Channel Tunnel to France before it is blown up on the Folkestone side. Brexit means Brexit, after all.

The third and final character in my pitch would be an elderly, left-wing career politician who – through a series of unfortunate events – finds himself as leader of the Labour party. His long track record in opposing all forms of government (right or left) over a thirty year period stands him in good stead as he charts a course that means that he will never actually have to govern himself. Miraculously, in the face of the least popular and most dysfunctional government in modern history, he manages to keep the Labour party behind the Conservatives in the polls, and maintains his own approval ratings at a reassuringly low level. This character will have an uncanny knack of disappearing from scenes whenever called upon to actually say anything significant, only to pitch up in North Africa or South America at some event to mark an episode in a glorious but ultimately doomed revolution from the 1970s.

And they say that satire is dead.