It’s not often I write a letter for publication. It happens, but not that regularly. Occasionally it’s to Private Eye but as often as not, it’s to the Jewish Chronicle in response to a columnists’ outpouring, to reply to a letter or to comment upon a news piece. There’s a columnist there named Geoffrey Alderman who distinguishes himself to me on a regular basis by being like Melanie Phillips, someone with whom I disagree to such an extent that if I do agree with him, I immediately and urgently review my own thoughts to see where I’m wrong. He wrote a column in this week’s edition on the “Christian bakers” law case. Now, there are those who think – with good motives and understandable arguments – that the wrong decision was reached in that case. Andrew O’Neill, a very clever, very funny man, is one of those, believing that the state, via the means of the law, should mind its own business; after all, the peopel wanting a cake could go elsewhere with no inconvenience to anyone. Alderman on the other hand reaches that conclusion via very different reasoning and imputes nefarious motives to the customers, and their supporters.  So I wrote a letter to the JC. Now, I should say that when I told my lad that I’d written a letter, he – with no knowledge of the contents – softly swore half in admiration, half in dread as to what I wrote. Well, this is what I wrote:

Sir, 

I am constantly grateful for the opportunity to read Mr Alderman’s weekly musings, since knowing his column awaits me as I progress towards the middle pages of the JC allows me to play Shrödinger’s Alderman every week.

Will the column’s contents be contemptible or merely offensive? Of course, they are are both until I read the column and the possibilities collapse into one or the other. 

Long may Mr Alderman’s writings appear. Should I wish to show someone who does not read the newspaper an example of how one can be both wrong in content and tone I only have to present them with his latest column regarding the “gay lobby” which is insulting to the intelligence and morally indefensible. A commercial organisation can either be open to serving the public or it can discriminate. It cannot do both, not without accusations of hypocrisy and justified criticism. To suggest that only “the gay lobby” believe in non-discrimination insults the intelligence and his readership. As for Christianity being “persecuted” in the UK, maybe I’ve missed that in a country with the monarch being its defender of the faith, where its legislature opens every day with Christian prayers and 26 bishops have seats in the House of Lords by right. Yours, etc.

Someone once told me that they enjoy reading me when I write from either frustration or anger. I think I got both there.

I was lucky enough to get to see Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer last night, along with their guests (including Mitch Benn, the extra-ordinarily talented and lovely Andrew O’Neil, and Hayley Campbell, whose writing impresses me more every time I get to read it.) They’re guest-editing the current edition of New Statesman, and NS put on an evening’s entertainment which, as I say, I was fortunate enough to attend. I’ve known Neil for longer than my son’s been alive and it was so nice to catch up with him, Amanda and others after the show.

Backstage, Neil was embarrassingly nice about my own writing and it reminded me this morning about the following.

Way back when (well, about three years ago) I had another blog, hosted on Livejournal. For various reasons, all of which are too boring to relate here, I ceased that blog and started one here. But the old one’s still around, and it’s useful to be occcaisionally link to it. You can read all the fast fiction challenges in 2010 and the 150 stories I wrote for them in 150 days here, for example. There’s an entry I keep bookmarked for whenever anyone tries to tell me that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah; here’s why he isn’t, if you’re interested.

Some of the entries have been cross-posted to this blog; on occasion, when there’s something I want to add to whatever I wrote, or simply just to repost it to a new audience.

Like this post.

About four and years ago, Neil was fifty years’ old. Well, to be fair, for the next 365 days as well, he was fifty, but upon the occasion of Neil fiftieth birthday I couldn’t think what to get him as a birthday present. But seeing as he’s encouraged me and encouraged me and… well, nagged me on occasion, frankly… to write more, I wrote him the following.

I hadn’t ever intended to put it up on the blog, but Neil said I should, so… enjoy.

There Once Was A Child…

There once was a child who did not read.

It was not that he couldn’t read; he had read in the past. However, he told his parents, his friends and all who asked that he no longer read. And yet, the bookshelves of his bedroom were filled to overflowing with volumes of all kinds: hardback novels, paperback collections of long out of print stories, the occasional biography, and comic books by the hundred. And few of them did not show signs of use.

Nonetheless, contrary to the apparent evidence, he responded to all enquiries with the simple declaration that he did not read. And the child became angry when this assertion was challenged, despite many having seen him with an open book.

His parents, while puzzled at the fervour with which he maintained that He Did Not Read the books, were content to allow the child his eccentricity. After all, his father commented, he’ll grow out of it. His mother, however, worried.

His teachers were far less understanding and punished the child by assigning additional books to him. Within days, the child would return the book, commenting knowledgeably upon the contents, but insisting that he hadn’t read the book.

One day, it happened that an author was visiting the school, and in despair teachers begged him to meet the child.

So he sat with the child. And they talked.

“What is the word for when you lose yourself in wonder?” the child asked the writer. “It cannot be ‘reading’, for that is such a small word. And inside a book is so big. When I open a book, I am no longer myself. I am a sailor. Or a spy. Or a magical beast. Or…”

The child paused, and the writer was touched to see the child blush. “Or I am a boy wizard,” the child finished, quietly.

The writer was careful not to laugh, for he did not wish either to offend the child, or to patronise him.

And then he explained to the child something they both knew, but only the adult understood: that any word or phrase had only the weight and importance given to it by the one experiencing it at that moment.

“Do you believe reading is an end, of and for itself?” he asked the boy.

“No,” replied the child, “but everyone else seems to.”

“But we know they’re wrong, do we not?”

And then the child understood – reading was freedom to decide for yourself how much of yourself you gave to the experience; reading was the gateway to the world, to every world.

Reading was experience of everything.

There was once a child who did not read… or at least did not read for reading’s sake.

Let us hope there are many, many more.

I was reminded of it last night and again this morning, so even though Neil’s four and a half years older than fifty now and my own fifty-first birthday is rapidly approaching… I get to say a belated happy birthday again and again and again. 

I’ve been fascinated by the early briefings about the EU referendum due by the end of 2017, as promised in the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 general election.

I was interested to learn there’s been research done on the question to be asked. Well, not on the specific question, but on questions asked in referenda. It’s no surprise that crafting a question for a referendum is as much art as science, but recently the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 had a feature that indicated that the length of the question played a larger role than I had previously thought. For every additional word (beyond six words, I believe) there’s a small but measurable effect: it increases the chances of a no vote. Only by one or two percentage points, but in a close result, that could be all that’s needed. There’s also been research done on whether the yes or the no option should be the ‘default’ case, i.e. the ‘no change required’. In other words, should the question be something like:

Should the UK remain in the European Union?

or

Should the UK leave the European Union?

I’m unsure what the question should be, but my gut suggests that the ‘change’ option should always be the yes option, as it was in the Scottish Independence Referendum, where the question was, as you’ll recall:

Should Scotland be an independent country?

It may – or may not – be a coincidence that the question was exactly six words long. By the foregoing, you’d conclude that I think the question should be the latter of the two options, i.e. should the UK leave the European Union? And you’d be right. But the question and what it should be, and what it turns out to be, are matters for another day. However, if you’ll forgive me, since we don’t yet know the slant of the question, I’ll use in and out as the options going forward, ok? 

 As I say, the question itself isn’t even on the agenda yet. What is on the agenda, however, is the electorate, or rather what should comprise the electorate. But before I get to that in detail, one other macro-matter regarding electorates has been brought up; it was nothing but expected, and I don’t, can’t, believe it’s been brought up for any reason other than mischief-making. So let’s dispose of it quickly and move on. The Scottish National Party have said that they want the referendum, when it’s held, to have four electorates: the people of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And that each of the four countries would have to vote to leave the European Union before the UK could leave.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. And what’s more, the SNP know it’s nonsense. It’s trite to say that the people of Scotland had their opportunity to vote for independence eight months ago, and they comprehensively rejected it… Trite, but true. It would be absurd for something of this magnitude to be decided on a country-by-country basis. The only even slightly sensible part of this would be if the SNP were laying groundwork for another referendum, which would hardly be in the spirit of the comments made since September 2014, when the SNP said the matter was now settled for a generation. 

If, however, the SNP intend another manifesto, then this is how I think they’d do it. They’d enter the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections with a manifesto promising another referendum in 2017, daring Westminster to say no, with 56 of the 59 Scottish MPs being SNP and another SNP Scottish government.  Their raising of the ‘four nations, four votes’ issue now can therefore be seen as a way of preparing their arguments to the European Union that if the UK leave the EU, then Scotland should be allowed to take the UK’s place.

But as I say, it’s a ludicrous position. Unless, of course, the SNP have lied to the public, lied to the voters and lied time and time again on camera about their ambitions. Now, what are the chances of that…?

Anyway, back to the electorate the government want; David Cameron has let it be known that the government will propose that the electorate should be the same as that for a general election:

  • British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who are resident in the UK will be eligible to vote.
  • So too will UK nationals who have lived overseas for less than 15 years.

However, the government is not intending to extend the franchise to include include 16 and 17-year-olds, unlike the Scottish independence referendum. However, for some strange reason, members of the House of Lords and Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar will also be allowed to vote, although they cannot participate in general elections. This last puzzles me, but I’m sure there’ll be a reason for it; a lousy one, but a reason nonetheless.

It’s easy to understand why Cameron is now floating the idea of the franchise excluding under-18s and also EU citizens living in Britain; it increases the chances of an out vote. Taking the second first, I don’t think anyone would seriously suggest that EU citizens should be able to vote. British nationals haven’t been abole to vote overseas EU referenda, and it’s sensible that they are excluded here. I’m far more interested, however, in the exclusion of 16 and 17 year olds.

I don’t think it’s news, nor a coincidence, that the average UKIP supporter tends to have been born, as Emo Philips puts it, ‘at a more comfortable distance from the apocalypse’. And, similarly, opinion polls have shown that the 16-18 year old age group is, on the whole, more supportive of remaining in the EU than those nearing retirement age, say. One might think from this that Cameron wants to stack teh deck to decrease an in vote. I’m not sure. Not yet, anyway. 

See, I don’t think Cameron wants to leave the EU. In fact, I think he desperately wants the UK to remain inside the EU, reformed or otherwise. However, to bolster a fairly weak negotiating position – and to describe it as fairly weak is to greatly overestimate its strength, in my opinion – he needs to show the EU that he’s prepared to let the franchise be as anti-EU as he can. At the moment, anyway. It would not surprise me if, closer to the referendum, 16 and 17 year olds were included, much as Labour have indicated that they would attempt to amend the Referendum Bill to include them. They’re likely to fail in this attempt… in 2015. But it would not surprise me if the government respond to, say a Private Members’ Bill in early 2017 to lower the age allowed to vote in the referendum, by bringing such a measure onboard as a government Bill and taking it forward. The strongest argument, I think, for allowing this is that if there’s any age group that will be affected in the longer term, it’s the almost-adult.

So, the question needs to be sorted out, the franchise needs to be sorted out, and what the government offer to the people will do also. It’s tempting to regard what will be on offer as a straight in or out deal. But of course it won’t be. Or at least it won’t be just that. It’s like suggesting that running across a busy motorway with your eyes closed only involves whether or not you’ll make it to the other side unharmed. I genuinely don’t know the answers to the questions that have already been asked about the consequences of us leaving the EU. I don’t even know half the questions that should be asked. Thing is, I don’t think anyone else knows them right now either. And that’s even assuming that the government could get the bill through parliament unamended, no guarantee with a majority so thin, a dose of flu doing the rounds would annihilate it.

Fasten your seatbelts, people. This is going to be a bumpy ride. 

As the race* for the United States Presidential election of 2016 hots** up, it’s interesting*** to see how the potential candidates for their parties’ nomination frame their arguments and identify the most pressing issues of the moment.

* more of a canter, actually
** becomes slightly less tepid than it was a couple of months ago
*** no, actually, this one’s accurate

What are particularly of interest to me are the vast differences between the UK and the US, and I don’t just mean the old line about two countries seperated by a common language. There are things of great import in the US that simply don’t apply over here: the argument’s been won – or lost, depending upon your view – and the matter is effectively settled for a generation or more. It certainly won’t be part of any serious political discussion in the UK.

Let me take just three. I’m not going to go through the arguments for each ‘side’ and I’m certainly not going to make a case for one side or the other; I’ll merely point out that these matters are done, dusted and aren’t up for serious discussion. Sure, each of them have their amending adherents on each side, but those who demand a material change in the law are those on the fringes of serious political debate.

(1) Abortion.  There’s no-one of any seriousness suggesting that abortion should be made illegal in mainland Britain. There are debates every so often about how and when abortions should take place, but – and I do not in any way trivialise those arguments when I say this – every debate in parliament is about tinkering with the existing rules. No one serious is suggesing extending the right to everyone who wants one, say at 36 weeks, nor saying they should be banned at 6 weeks.

(2) Capital punishment. It’s gone. Done. Never to return. No matter what opinion polls suggest, no matter how ignorant the arguments made – on both ‘sides’, the UK will never allow capital punishment again. It’s done. No serious political party would ever have as a policy anything coming close to bringing back capital punishment. 

(3) The right to bear arms. The right of the general public to own and use guns. Never going to happen over here. Never. Going. To. Happen. It would be stupid to pretend that no-one has guns over here. Of course some do, and if you believe television drama, anyone with an ounce of common sense knows how to get one. Yeah, not true. We’ve never gone in for that. Some police are armed, but surprisingly – to an American, say – few. I’ve only ever seen ‘real working guns’ carried by police officers at airports and once outside a court during a terrorist trial in the 1980s.

These things are all current debates in the United States, both at a State level and for national discussion. And not one word was heard about them during the admittedly short, thankfully, official UK election campaigns during April and May this year.

While the NHS was discussed, no-one is talking about abolishing it. (Before you jump in to say that it’s being privatised by the Tories behind closed doors, I’m not going to go into that argument here, merely say that they’re not calling for its abolition.) 

Of course, one thing that the US has and we don’t is a single document entitled The Constitution. I’ve come to believe that we should have one as well; note that I don’t say that the US has a written consitution and we don’t. That’s just ignorant. Of course we have a written constitution: it’s just not in a single codified document entitled The British Constitution; instead it’s partly in various laws, partly in case law judgements, and partly unwritten. An example of the latter is the Salisbury Convention (unwritten) and The Parliament Acts (written). Together they tell the House of Lords what they can and can’t oppose when it comes to legislation proposed by a government and brought forward through the House of Commons. 

As a result – and inevitable consequence – of having that congle codified document, the Supreme Court of the United States spends, and has spent since the late 1700s – an extra-ordinary amount of time defining what the Constitution actually means, and since Marbury v Madison (1803) and then Martin v Hunter’s Lessee (1816), an awful lot of that time apportioning rights between the federal and state governments, and between the various branches of the executive and legislature.

Which is good. Which is right. A court should have the final say as to the interpretation of the law.

Which is why it remains astonishing to me that anyone on this side of the pond is against universal human rights, identified and promulgated by the European Convention of Human Rights, and interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights. I’ll have more to say about this as the government’s proposal to remove the UK from the convention and court, and replace it with a “British Bill Of Rights”. At the moment, I’m still in shock that any politician thinks this is a good idea. It isn’t. It’s a stupid, ill-conceived, ill-thought out piece of nonsense, and among the many things this government will do about which I’ll be ashamed in the next five years, this one will come near the top.

   

Every so often, I write a short piece of fiction for this place. Occasionally, I pull out from the archives a story I wrote some time ago that (a) you probably haven’t seen and (b) I want to have a larger circulation. I hadn;’t quite realised until I checked quite how many had their origins in politics, or at the very least were inspired by politics. 

So here are two very different tales of fast fiction, both set after elections, one the night of the election… one sometime later…

Title: Infinite Density Explosion
Word: memetics
Length: 200 words exactly

Midnight; nothing would change now

He leaned over his desk and checked the newsfeeds, sweating. This hadn’t been planned.

A decimal point in the wrong place. Dammit.

He cast his mind back to the meeting three months earlier – Lord, was it only three months ago? – and the throwaway question when the subjects of amateur political punditry, blogs and replication of content had arisen: could memetics be an answer?

The first test run had been with a council by-election in a small town out in the sticks. Bloggers passed around a question and answer meme, unknowingly being subliminally influenced. The target was a 5% majority. They got 4.972%

Then they tried it with a parliamentary seat. Leaflets, blogs, advertising; they’d aimed for a 9% swing. Even the death of the candidate on the eve of the election, a heart attack during congress with a goat, hadn’t changed the result: a 9.015% swing.

But today?

He looked at the general election exit polls. A 100% swing, and that only because that was how high they could calculate.

He looked at the pistol his boss had left him an hour ago.

He looked again at the screen, and again at the pistol, pondering…

© Lee Barnett, 2010

 
 

Title: Once Within Memory
Word: truffle
Length: 200 words exactly

There had once been something called a chocolate truffle.

The younger of those present would snigger at the tales when they heard older people mention them with fondness.

There had once been hamburgers.

Less tolerance of this was expressed by the younger generations at what was regarded by them as an abhorrent practice. This had less to do with the rights of animals and more because of the now widely held belief that humanity at least now possessed common human dignity.

There had once been universal education.

And again, as they did upon hearing the older generation reminisce about long extinct qualifications, those who had been born more recently would sigh, as if to excuse the stories, and the people who told them.

There had once been naturally born children.

And those without navels openly laughed at their forebears, blatantly mocking the ugliness and blemishes that everyone of the older generation carried on their bodies.

There had once been elections.

Only the very old remembered these, and their recollections were either listened to with barely disguised impatience, or with irritation that was not disguised in the least.

There had once been freedom.

But no one talked about that any more.

© Lee Barnett, 2010

party games

Posted: 19 May 2015 in politics
Tags:

There’s an inbuilt problem with democracy; sometimes, the people you don’t want to win an election… win. And while I side with the comment most often attributed to Churchill that: 

“Democracy is the worst system of choosing a government… apart from all the other than have been tried.”

I’ve also some sympathy with the Sage of Baltimore, H L Mencken, when he said: 

“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what’s good for them and deserve to get it… good and hard.”

Almost two weeks since the general election, something’s struck me. With the notable exception of two constituencies*, no-one’s alleged unfairness in how the election was run, nor that any reputable party engaged in thuggery, violence or intimidation.

“Well, of course not!” I hear you say. To which I’d reply that it’s a measure of our society that we count on that to be the case, don’t we? Looking around the world though, there are so many elections where that’s not the case, where intimidation and coercion are so common, it’s expected. That’s not to say that there are more dodgy elections that non-dodgy, but I think it’s something about which we should feel proud. Alistair Cooke often told the story about how the golfer Bobby Jones once informed an umpire that he’d done something requiring a two stroke penalty, something that no-one else witnessed; thereafter when he lost the championship by one stroke, people praised his honesty and his sportsmanship. A disdainful Jones is reputed to have replied that one might as well have praised him for not robbing a bank.

Well, indeed. One might as well praise the British for not robbing a bank. But you know what? In a world where it’s not bank funds but elections that are stolen, allow me to feel at least a little satisfaction that our elections were free and fair.

(*Those two I mentioned earlier? Well, George Galloway is alleging misconduct by the [successful] Labour candidate. I’m sure it’s got nothing at all to do with the returning officer reporting him to the police for breaching election rules. Nothing at all. Oh, and UKIP supporters are still giving Al Murray grief about his campaign, straining reason, common sense and credulity in maintaining that Al’s campaign was ‘financed by the BBC’. I’d say I was astonished, but when you consider the average UKIP supporter (and most of them are very average) reason, common sense and credibility are not foremost among their attributes.)

But the necessity for free and fair elections isn’t of course limited to 650 individual contests to elect our members of parliament. They range from trades union elections, to political party elections, the leadership of both of which can fairly claim to have a greater mandate than most politicians, whether they’re councillors or members of parliament if only due to their electorate often being many times that of a constituency.

It ill behoves those elected on a small turnout, though, to criticise those elected on a greater turnout, not without very good other reasons to do so. The current head of the Unite union may have gotten 85% of the votes cast, a thumping win under any circumstances, but he was elected on a turnout of a shade over 15%. Not exactly a huge mandate, one might argue. “But the others are obviously quite happy to let other people decide,” comes the counter argument. True, as far as it goes, but then you don’t get to use the “xxx only had a low turnout so no real legitimacy/mandate” as I’ve seen union supporting folks use as a justification for attacking the police and crime commissioners, some of whom were elected on turnouts barely in double digits.

An inescapable paradox of a transparently open election process – and I’m thinking mainly of political party leadership contests here – is that the more transparency you get regarding the politics and personal beliefs of the candidates, the more bitter will be the fight to become leader, and the harder it will be to unify the party afterwards. For what should be obvious reasons by now, I’m most concerned about the forthcoming Labour Party leadership election. If the past few days are any indication of the next three and a half months, and there’s no certainty that they will, we’re in for a very nasty contest, something that makes the nastier elements of the general election weve just been through look like a polite tea party.

I wince when I think of what the right wing press will try in order to discredit worthy candidates, and I similarly do so for what some ‘supporters’ of the various candidates will do to try to ensure their bod wins.

I haven’t made my mind up who I’ll vote for yet; how could I? I haven’t seen enough of their pitches. Which is why I’m more than a tad worried about what’s already being said by some, that only this candidate or that candidate can make the party electable in 2020. Let’s see what they have to offer; let’s see what they have to say. Let’s see what they think about the last five years, and the thirteen before that. And most importantly, let’s see what they think about the next five, and the five after that.

And only when I’m sure will I make up my mind. Surely, that’s the democratic way?

busy busy busy

Posted: 18 May 2015 in Uncategorized

In case you follow this blog, just to let you know, there’s no politics – or indeed any – blog entry today; I’m taking today off.

Back tomorrow.