Thursday, January 31, 2019

Government to recruit 20,000 new staff to support GPs


The government has announced that an extra 20,000 new staff will be recruited to support the work of GPs.

The Prime Minister tweeted:

"GPs are the cornerstone of the NHS. This new five-year deal means they can plan for the future with confidence to help deliver the benefits for patients set out in our #NHSLongTermPlan"

Social Media and protecting the Vulnerable

The Health Secretary has written to social media companies demanding that they take action to protect children and young people from harmful content online.

Key facts:

Following the suicide of 14-year-old Molly Russell in 2017, her parents have raised concerns about the role of social media in her death.
  • Lots of parents feel powerless in the face of social media. But we are not powerless – both Government and social media providers have a duty to act. 
  • Providers have already taken some important steps to remove harmful content, but more action is urgently needed. It is appalling how easy it still is to access this content online – it is time for internet and social media providers to step up and purge this content once and for all. 
  • We are developing a Government-wide White Paper to address all online harms, which will be consulted upon soon. We want to work with internet and social media providers to ensure the action is as effective as possible, but will introduce new legislation where needed. 
  • The Culture secretary has confirmed that one option under serious consideration is to impose on social media providers a duty of care towards the health of young and vulnerable users.

Why this matters:

It is incumbent on all of us to tackle the risks new technology brings. We want to make the UK the safest place to be online for everyone, and ensure that no other family has to endure the torment that Molly’s parents have had to go through

On the life of a local government reporter

"Cumbria Journo" Ellis Butcher has an amusing (and largely accurate) piece on the "Hold the Front Page" site about the life of a local government reporter which you can read here.

The comments section is full of posts from retired journalists asking what's new.

I think most of them missed the bit about WiFi - and actually, one thing which is new is that you can now get decent WiFi in many Cumbria County Council buildings including County Hall, which was not the case when I was elected to CCC in May 2017.

Reading the piece reminds me of what eventually happened to one of the journalists who used to cover the first council I was elected to back in my twenties. As he reached retiring age he got fed up sitting on the sidelines and approached us about standing for the council himself - and was duly adopted and elected.

You never know what may lie in your future, Ellis! See you at the next Full Council.

Quote of the day 31st January 2019

"Those who condemn the immorality of liberal capitalism do so in comparison with a society of saints that has never existed - and never will."

(Martin Wolf, "Why Globalization works")

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Time for Fiona Onasanya to resign

It's often said that it's not the mistake that gets you, it's the cover-up.

This is certainly true in the cases of both former Lib/Dem Cabinet minister Chris Huhne and his former wife, who were sent to jail for eight months after lying about who was behind the wheel of a vehicle caught speeding, and the MP for Peterborough, Fiona Onasanya, who has been given a three-month sentence for what appears on the face of it to be an almost identical offence. (Her brother was given an eight-month sentence in relation to the same incident.)

All were convicted of perverting the course of justice which was, quite rightly in my opinion, seen as more serious than the original offence.

Let's be brutally honest here. We shouldn't do it, and it is right that there are legal penalties and other mechanisms in place to stop us doing it, but just about everyone who regularly drives will at least sometimes have gone too fast. Sometimes the risk that this creates will be nominal, sometimes it is very serious indeed.

Society has the right to take measures, however unpopular they may be with drivers, to stop us doing this because driving too fast is a significant factor in causing many fatal road accidents and injuries.

Those measures may be engineering ones, such as the speed "Thumps" like the ones which Cumbria County Council is currently consulting about putting on Scalegill Road in Moor Row in my division, or they may be enforcement measures such as speed cameras, which may be accompanied by speed awareness courses, or punishments such as fines and in the worst cases imprisonment.

Either way they are there to save lives.

For people in positions of authority and responsibility to lie about their actions to try to avoid a few points on a licence and a fine of a couple of hundred pounds risks bringing the whole system into disrepute.

If Fiona Onasanya had been given a prison term in excess of a year she would automatically have lost her seat. The three month sentence she has actually been given means that, as soon as any appeal is resolved (unless she wins it), the petitions office at the House of Commons will automatically open an online recall petition, giving her Peterborough constituents the opportunity to call for a by-election. If 10% of them sign it within six weeks, there will indeed be a by-election.

In the meantime, this is what the Telegraph understands to be the state of her office and constituency representation while she is in prison:



This brings her role as MP further into disrepute. In the interests of her constituents and herself, Fiona Onasanya should resign now as MP for Peterborough and let the people of the constituency choose a new representative.

Wednesday music spot: Overture from Rossini's William Tell

Switching Energy suppliers

A record number of people switched their energy supplier in 2018, making their bills cheaper.

  •  · Thanks to the actions of the Conservative-led coalition government to open the market, there are now five times as many energy suppliers as there were in 2010, giving consumers more choice and allowing them to shop around for a better deal. We are correcting Labour’s mistakes where people were stuck paying more with providers that didn’t work for them. 
  • · We are delivering on our commitment to make sure the energy market works for everyone, helping people with the cost of living. 


Recent statistics:
  • 2018 was a record year for switching energy provider, meaning more people benefited from a better deal. Over 5.8 million, or one in five, customers made a change (Energy UK, 21 January 2019). 
  • In December alone, nearly half a million customers switched supplier, giving people more choice to shop around for a better deal, helping people with the cost of living. In December 2018, 464,378 customers switched supplier, up 10 per cent on December 2017 (Energy UK, 21 January 2019). 
  • 1.7 million customers moved to small and mid-sized suppliers in 2018, rather than one of the Big Six firms. Around 30 per cent of those who switched moved to a small supplier, and a survey by Which? found that all of the top 10 suppliers for customer satisfaction are now challenger firms (Daily Mirror, 21 January 2019). 

We are encouraging people to switch by:
  • Making it easier for new companies to enter the energy market, so there’s more choice for consumers. There are now over 60 domestic energy suppliers in the market, up from 13 in 2010 (Hansard, 15 January 2019). 
  • Making it easier for people to get better deals. Rival suppliers can contact people stuck on default tariffs for more than three years to offer cheaper and easy-to-access deals based on their actual energy usage (CMA, Press Release, 24 June 2016). 
  • Reducing the time it takes to switch supplier, making it easier for people looking to switch for a better deal. Working with the industry, we have halved switching times to 17 days to make sure that consumers can get their new deal as quickly as possible (DECC, 12 February 2016). 

We are also saving people money on their energy bills by:
  • Introducing a cap on energy tariffs and ending rip-off energy prices for millions of families. Around 11 million households who have stayed loyal to energy suppliers will now pay a fair price thanks to our price cap (BEIS, Press release, 1 January 2019). 
  • Offering every household and business a smart meter by 2020, saving customers £300 million a year. This will allow us to use energy more efficiently and avoid expensive peaks. As a result of smart meter roll-out, across all households, energy bills are projected to be £300 million lower in 2020 than they would have been without smart meters (Hansard, 8 February 2017). 

We are decarbonising our energy system:
  • 2018 was the cleanest and greenest year ever for electricity in the UK. 2018 was the greenest year to date for electricity generation, with renewable sources supplying a record 33 per cent of electricity in 2018, up from 29 per cent in 2017, and up from 6.7 per cent in 2009. 
  • Britain was powered for more than 1,000 hours without coal in 2018 – a first since the industrial revolution (The Guardian, 3 January 2019, link; The Guardian, 13 July 2018). 
  • Reducing emissions faster than any other G20 country. A study by PwC found that the UK has decarbonised faster than any other G20 country, reducing emissions by 29 per cent in the last decade alone, while continuing to grow our economy (PwC, "UK and China leading on low carbon transition but global emissions are still rising," 4 October 2018). 

It’s not just energy where we’ve made it easier to switch:
  • Making it safer and easier for people to switch bank accounts. Almost 1 million people used our Current Account Switch Service to change banks between October 2017 and September 2018 (BACS, Current Account Switch Service Dashboard, 24 October 2018). 
  • Opening the world’s biggest competitive water market, giving 1.2 million businesses the chance to choose their water provider. Since we introduced the reform, more than 120,000 businesses have engaged with the new business retail water market (Ofwat, Press release, accessed 28 November 2018)

Quote of the day 30th January 2019

Hat-tip to Hilary Reid and "Blogswallop" on Facebook. Just sums up this month …





Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Business Basics Fund

15 projects from around the UK have won a share of the £2 million Business Basics Fund – part of our modern Industrial Strategy to support small businesses and boost their profitability.

Key facts:
  • The first round of funding from the Business Basics Fund will help businesses make better use of technology and modern management practices to save them time and make them more efficient. 
  • Technology projects and pilots across the country – including digital dairy farming, artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots and cloud computing technology – are among those to benefit from the new fund. 
  • From this week small firms, academia and local authorities can now apply for a share of the next £2 million wave of funding to help them become more profitable. 

Why this matters:

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and as part of our modern Industrial Strategy, we are supporting them with new investments to boost their productivity and ensure they can continue to thrive in the future.

Recruitment and Retention of teachers

The Education Secretary has published a new integrated Recruitment and Retention strategy to boost teacher numbers and make sure that teaching remains an attractive and rewarding profession.

Key facts:

  • The Government has set out a number of measures to give teachers more early career support, reduce teacher workload and extend opportunities for flexible working which include: 
  • Simplifying the process of applying to become a teacher and reforming the bursary system to include retention-based payments so that more teachers can be encouraged to stay where they are. 
  • The creation of the Early Career Framework, a new two year package of training and support for teachers at the beginning of their career, backed by £130 million year. 
  • Helping schools to reduce teacher workload, by stripping away time consuming and unnecessary tasks like data entry, as well as simplifying accountability system to clarify when a school maybe subject to intervention. 

Why this matters:

There are no good schools without good teachers which is why it must remain an attractive career.

This ambitious strategy commits to supporting teachers – particularly those at the start of their career – to focus on what actually matters, the pupils in their classrooms.

By working alongside Ofsted and the unions, we have developed this new strategy which will enable teachers to spend more time focusing on the children and remain motivated to stay where they are.

Quote of the day 29th January 2018


Monday, January 28, 2019

As the brexit crunch nears ...

It is not surprising that, as the date gets closer and closer when, unless parliament has agreed a Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union, article 50 will cause Britain to crash out without a deal, MPs who see that as a highly undesirable outcome are trying all sorts of measures to try to avoid it.

Whether you call it "no deal" or "World Trade Organisation" Brexit, this option was not seriously put forward as their preferred option by either of the main leave campaigns during the referendum, and to claim that there is any kind of mandate from the referendum which MPs who seek a softer form of Brexit are somehow betraying is utter insanity. If Leave campaigners had wanted a mandate not just for Brexit but for some particular form or Brexit they should have sought one instead of deliberately leaving the type of Brexit they wanted as vague as possible.

Hence I regard the attempts being made in some quarters to deselect MPs like Nick Boles for supporting particular forms of Brexit which those who are trying to oust them don't think "hard" enough as deeply reprehensible.

But make no mistake. There may not be a mandate for any particular form of Brexit, but there most certainly is a mandate to leave the EU, not just from the referendum but from the 2017 General Election in which the vast majority of MPs were elected on a manifesto promise to respect the result of the 2016 referendum.

I get the distinct impression that a large majority of both Leave and Remain voters are hugely frustrated with the logjam in parliament about Brexit. Most of the non-politicians I speak to do not have a strong opinion about the relative merits of WTO Brexit, the customs union, the Norway option, EEA Brexit, or the various other forms of hard and soft Brexit. But in this part of the world at least, even most remain voters just want MPs to agree a form of Brexit and get on with it.

That goes particularly for business, which hates nothing more than uncertainty. Most business people who I know strongly prefer the PM's deal to a "No Deal" Brexit but even more than that they want to know where they stand.

In my humble opinion it would be deeply damaging if MPs fail to agree on some form of Brexit in the next few weeks. Personally I think the PM's deal and any limitations on the backstop we can get is the best option on the table but I could live with a "Norway option" Brexit.

I would regard a "no deal" Brexit as a bad option, but no Brexit at all, with the consequent damage to our democracy, as worse.

Some MPs are trying to find a form of Brexit which can pass and I think they are doing the right thing. But others, whether they admit it to themselves are not, are putting forward proposals to delay or stop Brexit and I think this is most unwise.

I don't think it helps to criticise the integrity of MPs who have put forward amendments and motions which might have the effect of delaying or preventing Brexit or call another referendum, but I do think they are playing with fire for the reasons set out by Dan Hodges in his recent article

"I was a die-hard Remainer. But arrogant MPs have made me a hard Brexiteer."

Quote of the day 28th January 2019

"Passions are at boiling point and we face a moment of immense national challenge.

But that is no justification for running roughshod over the conventions by which Parliament operates and throwing away a delicate balance that has only been established after hundreds of years of painstaking and sometimes violent evolution.

All my MP colleagues, from every part of the House and every side of the Brexit debate, should draw back from committing an act of constitutional vandalism which we would all live to regret."


(Robert Courts MP, in a telegraph article on the Cooper-Adonis amendment which seeks to delay Brexit unless parliament agrees a Withdrawal Agreement deal by 26trh February. You can read his full article here.)

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Sunday music spot: "Adoramus te" by Libera

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today, Holocaust Memorial Day 2019,  is the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

It is a day when we remember the victims of the genocides of history, from the Shoah in which the Nazis and their allies murdered six million Jews and millions of other people who fell into one of the classes of people they refused to accept as human, to all the other instances where the attempt has been made to use mass murder to eliminate a problem.

Under the theme "Torn from home," we reflect today on what happens when individuals, families and communities are driven out of, or wrenched from their homes, because of persecution or the threat of genocide, alongside the continuing difficulties survivors face as they try to find and build new homes when the genocide is over.

Today we also mark the 25th anniversary of the Genocide in Rwanda, which began in April 1994 and the 40th anniversary of the end of the Genocide in Cambodia.

I make no apology for repeating the final lines of Laurence Rees's book "Auschwitz, the Nazis and the 'Final Solution" which I posted here a year ago.


"Soon the last survivor and the last perpetrator from Auschwitz will have joined those who were murdered at the camp. There will be no one on this earth left alive who has personal experience of the place. And when that happens there is a danger that this history will merge into the distant past and become just one terrible event amongst many.
There have been horrific atrocities before, from Richard the Lionheart's massacre of the Muslims of Acre during the Crusades, to Genghis Khan's genocide in Persia. Maybe future generations will see Auschwitz the same way - as just another bad thing that happened in the past, before living memory.

But that should not be allowed to happen.

We must judge behaviour by the context of the times. And judged by the context of mid-twentieth century, sophisticated European culture, Auschwitz and the Nazis' 'Final Solution' represent the lowest act in all history.

By their crime the Nazis brought into the world an awareness of what educated, technologically advanced human beings can do, as long as they possess a cold heart. Once allowed into the world, knowledge of what they did must not be unlearnt. It lies there - ugly, inert, waiting to be rediscovered by each new generation. A warning for us, and for those who will come after."

Quote of the day for Holocaust Memorial Day 2019


Saturday, January 26, 2019

When Triumph can be Disaster

Interesting piece by Alistair Meeks on the Political Betting blog about how historically what appears to be a triumph of negotiation can have disastrous consequences if it is not sustainable.

You can read his article here.

He's undoubtedly right that history shows this to be possible. I'm not sure he's right to apply it to the current Brexit deal, but I suppose we may find out pretty soon.

Second quote of the day 26th January 2019

"I respect the Remainers. But they have to see the danger of the argument they are prosecuting. Sensible people are now openly debating on a daily basis whether we are duty bound to respect the democratic verdict of the people as expressed via the ballot box." 

(Dan Hodges on twitter)

Saturday music spot: "YMCA" (Village people music video 1978)

A busy weekend ...

There is an extraordinary amount happening in Copeland this weekend


Royal Navy visit to Whitehaven

The Patrol ship HMS Biter will be visiting the harbour this morning from 10am


Blood Bike Handover

At Cleator Moor Civic Hall at 2pm today another Blood Bike will be handed over to the local National Association of Blook Bikes service by Cumberland and Westmorland Freemasons.

Millom v. Serbia

Red Star Belgrade are aiming to make their mark in rugby league's most famous knock-out trophy. The Serbian sporting club will play in the Challenge Cup for the first time on Sunday, when they will travel to Millom, the West Cumbrian club which is believed to be the oldest amateur side in the world.


Holocaust Memorial Day

On a sadder note, Sunday will also be commemorated in Copeland and around the world as Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remember the victims of the Shoah and all other genocides.

Quote of the day 26th January 2019


Friday, January 25, 2019

Five tropes about Brexit which it is time to retire.

There are five Brexit-related insults which are used too frequently in some form or other against politicians or voters whose position on Brexit the person making the argument disagrees with that it is fairly unusual for a debate or discussion about the subject to take place without at least one of these accusations being deployed.

All five of them are true occasionally.

However, in my humble opinion, all five of these tropes are wrong and unfair most of the time, and more to the point, all of them reflect an unwillingness to accept that intelligent and honest people can disagree with the person deploying the argument. It is this refusal to accept the existence of honest disagreement which has made the Brexit debate so divisive, angry, and difficult to resolve.

As the American economist Thomas Sowell wrote,




It's high time to stop using all five of these lazy excuses for ignoring people whose views are not identical to yours.


1) It's time to stop calling Remain supporters "unpatriotic."

The overwhelming majority of Remain voters are patriots, who love our country. They voted against Brexit because they thought our country would be better off as part of the EU not because they want Britain to cease to be an independent country.


2) It's time to stop calling Leave supporters "racists" and "xenophobes."

The overwhelming majority of Leave voters are neither racist or xenophobic. Any group of millions of people is bound to contain a few people who meet that description but if the ordinary leave voters I talk to are remotely representative, most of the 17.4 million people who voted Leave did so because they think there are problems with the EU, particularly around the organisation's democratic deficit, didn't think the international order of which the EU is a key part was working for them, or wanted more freedom for Britain to run our own affairs.


3) It's time to stop calling opponents of a hard Brexit "traitors" or "enemies of the people."

 The British constitution has developed a whole series of checks and balances over the process of centuries to protect the people from over-mighty government and ensure that we are ruled by laws and not by depots. Those checks and balances became more important, not less, on the day Britain voted to leave the EU.

Judges who interpret the law according to what they think it actually says rather than what any particular faction might find convenient, are only doing their job on behalf of the people. So are those who want parliament to scrutinise and hold the Executive to account. So are MPs who are trying to find a way to implement the decision of the referendum by seeking a form of Brexit which can pass parliament, even if that form is not as hard-line as some people want.

Very few people were demanding a "WTO Brexit" at the time of the referendum and there is no mandate for one: there is a mandate to leave the EU but honest and intelligent people can disagree about what relationship we should have with the rest of the EU from outside after we have left.


4) It's time for people on both sides to stop calling the other side "stupid."

Too many people on both sides of the Brexit divide are have developed such an extreme case of confirmation bias that they are completely unable to recognise that there are genuine arguments for the other point of view.  They will state repeatedly that there are no good arguments whatsoever for Leave or no valid reasons whatsoever to support Remain, and no matter how hard you try to explain
the reasons why a rational person might support the other side they not only won't be convinced - which is fair enough - but won't even recognise that a valid argument has been presented. 

Since there are no rational grounds for backing the other side, everyone who does must, they think, either be evil or stupid.

If the arguments for either side had been as overwhelming as the most enthusiastic partisans for each side believe, the result would never have been as close as 52:48.

You may not like it but there really are rational arguments against your position and not everyone who disagrees with it is stupid


5) It's time to stop accusing any politician who does something you don't like of putting their party interest before the national interest.

So poor is the reputation of MPs now that this is the one I will probably have least success in persuading anyone not to use, but actually it is the worst example of lazy and totally nonsensical thinking of the lot.

Ironically if MPs really were putting their party interest first, the way through the Brexit mess would probably be less difficult. The Prime Minister of the day - whoever it was - would cut the best deal they could get, persuade everyone in their party to shout about what a brilliant deal it was and it would sail through parliament.

But on this issue neither Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron or Theresa May has been able to do this, precisely because large numbers of their MPs won't follow orders about Brexit if they think those orders are against the national interest.

The Labour party has exactly the same problem.

This particular accusation is distinct from the others is that it is thrown with most venom at those who voted the same way in 2016 as the person making the allegation - for example, those who are not reconciled to Britain leaving the EU often reserve their most extreme expressions of contempt not for those who have always supported leave but for those who voted Remain but accept the result of the referendum.

Instead of recognising that a major part of the motivation of people in this category is a wish to respect a democratic plebiscite and deliver what the electorate voted for, hardline remainers often accuse them of knowingly damaging Britain for political advantage.

A similar situation can be seen on the pro-Brexit side. It is interesting that the most serious deselection attempt against a Conservative MP from hard-line Leave supporters has been mounted, not against any of those MPs who have supported a second referendum or amendments which can plausibly be argued were an attempt to frustrate Brexit,  but against a "soft-Brexit" supporting MP who opposes a second referendum, accepts that Britain should leave the EU, backed the Prime Minister's Withdrawal agreement (the real-hard line Brexit opponents joined the ERG in the lobby to vote against it, though for opposite reasons) but has tried to find an alternative status outside EU membership which can get through the House of Commons if the PM's deal fails.

Nine times out of ten when any commentator, whether it be a journalist or a rival politician, accuses someone of putting party before country, what they really means is

"This politician is not doing what I think is in the national interest, and I'm not prepared to engage with the possibility that they genuinely believe that what they are doing is in the national interest, so I'm going to adopt the laziest explanation of why they're not voting for what I think they should vote for and accuse them of putting party before country." 

Nine weeks to go ...

Nine weeks from today, unless Article 50 is withdrawn by the UK or extended by unanimous agreement of all EU member states, Britain leaves the EU.

It is worth adding that, unless parliament passes a withdrawal agreement which is also acceptable to the EU, we automatically leave with no deal.

I agree with the Leave voter quoted by Sir Ivan Rogers who referred to crashing out without a deal as the “I have no solutions and can’t be arsed to think” option.

I accept - and said at the time of the referendum - that a lot of the things said by both sides were wildly exaggerated scaremongering and some of the warnings made by the Remain side were crying wolf. Unfortunately there IS a wolf - and it we have an unplanned "No Deal" Brexit the resulting disruption will have a significant cost in lost jobs and disrupted services.

The difficulty is that avoiding the default option of leaving without a deal is what Stephen Bush, writing in the New Statesman here, refers to as

"the central problem of Brexit – that there is no outcome to the crisis that doesn’t rely on someone deciding to take political damage to prevent a no deal Brexit. 

And the threat of no deal Brexit is sufficiently troubling that no side believes they will be the one that has to."

Friday musc spot: Dance of the Furies from Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice

Quote of the day 25th January 2019

"Of course, every generation faces fresh challenges and opportunities."

"As we look for new answers in the modern age, I for one prefer the tried and tested recipes, like speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture."

"To me, these approaches are timeless, and I commend them to everyone."

(H.M. The Queen, in an address to to members of the Women's Institute (WI) near the Sandringham estate. The Queen's words were widely interpreted as an appeal to overcome bitter divisions about Brexit.)

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Thursday music spot: "O thou the central orb" (Charles Wood)

Have scientisits discovered the cause of Alzheimers disease?

Very interesting piece in the New Scientist here - early evidence suggests that apparently Porphyromonas gingivalis, the key bacteria in chronic gum disease, may also be the main culprit in the development of Alzheimers.

Early days yet and work going on to further investigate.

The bad news is that gum disease affects around a third of all people. But the good news is that a drug that blocks the main toxins of P. gingivalis is entering major clinical trials this year, and research published today shows it might stop and possibly even reverse Alzheimer’s. There could also be a vaccine.

One other obvious lesson from this. If there's even a strong possibility that the scientists who are suggesting this are right, and if you don't want to lose your marbles as you get older, that's an additional reason to do something which makes sense anyway, e.g. make every effort to be vigilant about oral hygiene issues like cleaning and flossing your teeth.

A "Must read" brexit piece

The former British ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, delivered a lecture at UCL's European Institute this week which is available on the Spectator website here and which I really think everyone with a serious interest in the issue of what Britain should do about Brexit ought to read.

He is severely critical of a lot muddled thinking on all sides of the debate, from hardline remainers to supporters of a "WTO" or "no deal" Brexit, although Jim King may be interested to know that one of the comparatively few nuggets of praise which fell from his lips was describing the Leave Alliance's Flexcit plan as follows:

"the most thoughtful sceptic attempts to map an exit route – embodied, I think, in a lengthy tome called Flexcit, which is a genuine, serious attempt at least to grapple with what insider experts knew were inordinately complex issues."

He explains why the EU does not take the possibility of Britain leaving without a deal seriously, but adds that they seriously underestimate the danger of it happening by accident:

Here are another couple of extracts.


"There is therefore nothing more vicious in British politics right now – and that is really quite a high bar, sadly – than the attacks by the People’s Vote supporters on the proposed Norway + option. Or the assaults by the European Research Group Right on anyone in their Party who might countenance supporting a permanent Customs Union. 

We have thus reached the point in what I have previously described as the Brexit Revolution when it is essential for both the revolutionaries and the counter-revolutionaries to extirpate any “compromiser”. 

That is a pretty common feature of revolutionary politics. It is just that the UK is not very used to revolutionary politics, in which polarisation progressively narrows the space for compromise, and indeed compromise, always a fairly dirty word in UK politics, becomes a term of abuse. 

The revolutionaries declare that every version of Brexit bar their own is not truly Brexit. The People’s Voters declare every soft Brexit version playing on variants of either a Customs Union or a Common Market without the political integration, is an unacceptable compromise, and that only reversal of the referendum result will do. 

We are left with the bizarre spectacle of Brexiteers, many of whom used to argue that exiting to Norwegian or Swiss style destinations would be a vast improvement on remaining in the EU, because these were vibrant Parliamentary democracies whose peoples had bravely spurned European political integration in favour of free trading relationships from outside, arguing that if the U.K. now “escaped” only to such a destination, it would be a terrible betrayal."

"Now, with the road running out, and under the pressure of simply having to specify where one wants to end, and how to get there, the option of “WTO only” – which all serious leave thinkers and politicians had themselves disparaged before the referendum – has now emerged, in various guises, as the preferred option of the hard Brexiteers. As one astute commentator, who voted leave, put it rather superbly this weekend, it is the “I have no solutions and can’t be arsed to think” option. In all honesty, though now it’s a gross dereliction of responsibility and a huge failure of leadership, under cover of increasingly empty demagogic rhetoric about betrayal."

"The Prime Minister’s proposed deal is now suffering precisely the same fate at the same hands as did continued EU membership in the referendum. It is there: concrete and attackable. Everyone can specify what they do not like about it.

Which is plenty. To both sides, it seemingly looks worse than what we are leaving. You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose, as the saying goes. And the campaigners – on both sides, because this applies in spades to the Remain lobby now too – still vastly prefer to carry on campaigning in poetry than having to govern in prose."

"The proponents of reversing the revolution before the mandate from the referendum has even been fulfilled, are likewise now utterly determined not to compromise. Their guns are therefore trained on all “softer” versions of Brexit, involving close and deep relations with the EU from outside it.

Nothing is worse for them than either the Norway+ proposals or the kind of Association Agreement type models advanced by federalists like Andrew Duff, who accept the fact of Brexit, and want to find pragmatic solutions for a post Brexit relationship which might work. And might keep the relationship deep, amicable and robust.

Because they think that if they can eliminate all softer Brexit options from the field, they would face a straight fight with the Prime Minister’s deal which the avid Brexiteers will have helped them discredit and demolish.

But this means that if they do not succeed in stopping Brexit via a new referendum, they will have spent much of the last year attacking the type of post Brexit relationship which they will then want to advocate as the post exit trade negotiations get under way. Unless the only option they can support after exit is a campaign for immediate re-accession to the EU, using Article 49. In which case, we are seeing the mirror image of the Brexiteers’ strategy pre referendum: a rather masochistic hope that things go as badly as possible.

But I fear I also see in the incipient campaign to stay in “a reformed Europe” many of the British exceptionalist delusions which have run through pro EU circles since at least Maastricht. The key reason David Cameron shifted over time from a Bloomberg vision of pan EU reform and flexibility to a narrower focus on entrenching key bits of a sui generis British deal was, as he once put it to me: “most of these people (his fellow leaders) don’t really agree with me on much of that”.

With the highly ironic – in today’s circumstances – exception of trade liberalisation, on which actually they largely did agree with him, and are much more liberal than the US Establishment, that was largely right."

I strongly recommend reading the whole lecture which you can find here.

Cannabis

I was probably one of very few students of my generation who managed to go through five years at University (three years doing a first degree, a year as sabbatical treasurer of the student union, and a one-year taught Masters) without ever being offered drugs.

Part of the reason for this is that as a first year student I was given a debating assignment to speak against a motion calling for the legalisation of cannabis.

At that time the prevailing attitude to cannabis among students was that nobody should be worried about the consequences of using it because drugs based on this plant were, quote, "no more harmful than alcohol and tobacco."

But that's a rather oversimplified line isn't it? After all, both alcohol and tobacco can kill.

In fact the cannabis plant is chemically very complex indeed. It contains over a hundred substances of which there is evidence that some have genuine medical benefits when properly used. For that reason I have been very sympathetic for a long time to the idea that the medicinal use of cannabis products under appropriate medical supervision should not be a matter for the criminal law - and it looks like the government position is moving in that direction.

It is, however, worth pointing out that even for the medicinal use of cannabis the attitude of many scientists and doctors is that more research is needed before we start regarding it as a panacea and there can be side effects which need to be carefully monitored.

Uncontrolled recreational use of cannabis is a whole different ball game.
Even in my student days, one did not have to look very hard to find evidence that the recreational use of cannabis could lead to significant health problems for at least some users -  and most of the cannabis-based drugs which were available back then were a lot less strong than some of the products which are in circulation now.
In the 1970s and 1980s, most recreational marijuana contained less than 2 per cent of THC, the chemical responsible for its psychoactive effects. Today, it routinely contains 20 to 25 per cent THC.

There is an article about some of the concerns which have been expressed about the use of cannabis-based drugs by Alice Thompson in The Times which can be read in full here, and it is a useful corrective to the idea that all use of cannabis is harmless or risk free.

I believe that more research is needed in this area and legalising the uncontrolled recreational use of cannabis given our present state of knowledge of the likely medical effects would be taking a serious risk with the people's health.

Quote of the day 24th January 2019

"I thought the horror of the Shoah would mean no more antisemitism. I was wrong."

(Countdown star Rachel Riley, who made a moving and passionate speech to a Holocaust Education Trust reception in Westminster, which you can read in full at the Jewish Chronicle here under this headline.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Cumbria Day

Trudy Harrison MP and the other MPs representing Cumbria co-hosted the fourth annual ‘Cumbria Day’ in the Palace of Westminster this afternoon.

Showcasing the very best of Cumbrian produce and ingenuity in the heart of London, exhibitors from across the county were invited to showcase their work and produce, while networking and meeting their Members of Parliament, each of whom had invited two businesses to the event.

For example. this year Rory Stewart selected the Appleby Creamery and Original Marquees to represent the businesses of Penrith and The Border.

Turnout was extremely high, with MPs, Lords, civil servants and Parliamentary staffers all attending, to sample Cumbrian produce and to learn more about the county’s economy. All six Cumbrian MPs all attended, as did senior members of the Government, including the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss MP, and Speaker John Bercow.

For more details see the Cumbria Crack report on the event here.

Michael O'Hara RIP

My father-in-law, Michael O'Hara, died this afternoon in Luton and Dunstable hospital after a short illness. It had been his 90th birthday on Monday.

He was the last of nine brothers and sisters. He had a long life well-lived, and was lucid and active almost to the very end. He will be much missed by his four children, five grandchildren, and three great-grand-children.

Born and raised on a farm in the west of Ireland, Michael came to England shortly after World War II and his first job at the age of 16 was clearing the barbed wire which had been laid on the beaches of southern England during the war as a precaution against any potential German landings. He worked all over the country after that, latterly at the Vauxhall plant in Luton where he met his wife Margaret.
He was a true original, the sort of person of whom it is often said "they broke the mould" when they made him: he was also one of the kindest and most honest men I ever had the privilege to meet.

Rest in Peace.

MIdweek music spot: Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata

Help to save

The government is making it easier for working people on lower incomes to save up for a rainy day by giving them a 50p bonus for every £1 they save.

Key facts:

  • The ‘Help to Save’ account is available online to working people on Tax Credits and Universal Credit and can be managed on an easy to use app which lets savers set goals and personal reminders. 
  • Over 80,000 people have signed up so far, helping those on low incomes put money aside for the future. 
  • If someone saved a maximum £2,400 over a 4 year period, they would receive a bonus of £1,200 – a massive 50 per cent boost from the government. 

Why this matters:

Whether you are saving for a family break, putting money away for a rainy day, or even saving for next Christmas, Help to Save is designed to make saving as simple as possible.

Quote of the day Wednesday 23rd January 2019


Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tuesday music spot: Finale to "Les Indes galantes" by Rameau

Government deficit continues to fall

New data released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that the UK Budget deficit continues to fall, meaning we have more money to spend on our vital public services like the NHS.

  • The general government deficit in 2017-18 was £42.9 billion – a decrease of £4.1 billion compared with the previous year. 
  • The Conservatives balanced approach to the economy means that, since 2010, we have reduced our deficit by four-fifths and our debt is starting to fall, so that we can spend more money on public services.

Quote of the day Tuesday 22nd January 2019


Monday, January 21, 2019

Monday madrigal: John Dowland's "Come again, sweet love doth now invite"

Government publishes Domestic Abuse bill

Today, the Government published a ground-breaking domestic abuse bill to support victims and their families and pursue offenders.

Key facts:

The Government is introducing a series of measures to promote domestic abuse awareness, support victims, tackle perpetrators and improve services, after it was revealed that domestic abuse affects 6 per cent of all adults and cost England and Wales £66 billion between 2016 and 2017.

  • We’ve made a total of 120 commitments to tackle this horrific crime, including the first ever statutory definition of domestic abuse to specifically include economic abuse and recognise the impact of controlling and manipulative non-physical abuse. 
  • Non-legislative actions will see further support for children affected by domestic abuse as well as elderly, disabled, male and migrant victims and those in the LGBTQ community. 
  • We are barring abusers from cross-examining their victims in the family courts and giving courts greater powers, including new protection orders, to tackle this hideous crime. 
  • The new measures include £8 million of Home Office funding to support children affected by domestic abuse, as well as supporting survivors by bolstering the protection for victims and helping to expose and bring the vile abusers to justice. 

Why this matters:

Domestic abuse shatters lives around the country. Protecting victims and their children, as well as supporting survivors, is at the heart of our strengthened response to this horrific crime.

Statistics watchdog calls out "Schools Cuts" website

Last week, the UK Statistics Authority wrote to the Trade Union-backed campaign 'School Cuts' to rebuke their misleading use of statistics.

 

·         We welcome the UK Statistics Authority’s letter to the ‘School Cuts’ campaign, which makes clear the group’s use of statistics ‘creates a worse picture’ and gives a ‘misleading impression to parents over how much money their local school receives’.

 

·         The 'School cuts" campaign should remove the discredited and misleading figures which the statistics authority has challenged from their website. 

Conservatives will always be committed to delivering a world-class education for every child.

Quote of the day 21st January 2019

Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor from AD161 to AD180 and was the last of the line of rulers known as the "Five good emperors." It is interesting how many of the comments in his "Meditations" and other quotes attributed to him, such as this one, seem highly relevant today.



Sunday, January 20, 2019

When politics makes us irrational

I have been reading a very powerful article on the Unherd site by Tom Chivers called

"How politics makes us irrational."

It refers to two studies which are about to be published and which find that people with strong ideological beliefs - whether left or right - find it harder to spot errors of logic an arguments supporting their beliefs.

It is important to distinguish here between errors in your premises and errors in logic. Chivers starts by quoting an example of a syllogism which starts with a false premise and argues with perfect logic through to a false conclusion.

Consider the following:

“All things made of plants are healthy. Cigarettes are made of plants. Therefore, cigarettes are healthy.”

The conclusion is wrong because the major premise is wrong: plenty of things which can be made from or obtained from plants - deadly nightshade, and cyanide to give two examples - are not healthy. Tobacco is an example.

The actual syllogism is perfectly logical and if the two premises had both been right, the conclusion would be right too.

However, because the conclusion is so obviously jarringly wrong, there is a tendency to assume that the logic must be wrong too. That can be the case but in this instance it isn't.

in the first of the studies to which Tom Chivers refers, respondents were asked to rate themselves from “very liberal” to “very conservative” and then asked them to judge some ideologically loaded syllogisms such as

“All drugs that are dangerous should be illegal. Marijuana is a drug that is dangerous. Therefore, marijuana should be illegal.”

This was an American study so "very liberal" roughly maps onto what would be described as "very left-wing" on this side of the pond and "very conservative" roughly maps onto "very right-wing." This would not be an exact match.

And the results? researchers found that conservative-minded people were quite a lot better at spotting false syllogisms when they have liberal conclusions, and vice versa. It wasn’t an enormous effect, but it was significant – in one of the experiments, conservatives spotted unsound arguments about 80% of the time when they had liberal conclusions, but only 60% when they had conservative ones, and the effect was almost exactly reversed for liberals.

A second similar study found broadly similar conclusions.

I want to stress the point - neither study found any evidence that people on the right are more prone to errors in logic. To quote Tom,

"Both Left-wingers and Right-wingers find it harder, to roughly the same degree, to make accurate judgments in the face of an ideological headwind." 

The key lesson from this is that it is not enough to be vigilant for the biases of others: it is important to watch out for one's own.

Six unknown Holocaust victims laid to rest

Today, a week before Holocaust memorial day, six unknown victims of the Nazi holocaust were laid to rest before a congregation of a thousands people at a ceremony conducted by Britain's Chief Rabbi in Bushey, Hertfordshire.

The identities of the individuals concerned are not known beyond that they are believed to have been Jewish and that they were five adults and one child who died at Auschwitz. Their mortal remains were given to the Imperial War Museum as part of a large anonymous donation of artifacts relating to the Holocaust. The unknown victims were buried with earth from Israel.

James Brokenshire, the communities secretary, who attended the ceremony, said 

"We must continue to challenge racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry and where hatred can lead." 

The minister added that he hoped the funeral would bring people together and underline the message of

"never again, never forget and that none of us can simply stand by the side and allow this to happen".

The ceremony was also attended by survivors and relatives of victims who were murdered during the Holocaust, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Israeli ambassador and the deputy German ambassador.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said hate speech "can easily be translated into hate crime" and the service was a reminder to confront all forms of racism.

He warned:

"When anti-Semitism is allowed to thrive, some people can do anything and some people can reach the lowest end of human conduct."

In his address, Rabbi Mirvis addressed the six victims. He said:

"We don't know who you are, we don't know if you're male or female, we don't know which country you're from, but one thing we do know; you were a Jewish and brutally murdered."

"You were let down badly at the time and now your remains have somehow come to the UK. And we have the opportunity of granting you the dignity and honour of a funeral service."

Previously the Chief Rabbi had said that the symbolism of the funeral service is enormous.

"We find exceptional poignancy in the fact that there are six souls that we are burying," he said.

"Each one stands for one million souls who perished. And interestingly enough there were just under five million who were adults and just over one million who were children."

Rabbi Mirvis added: "There were members of my family who perished in the Holocaust and we all related to this directly. Now we will have the opportunity to accord them some dignity and to give them a final resting place."

He said he hoped the site would become a place of pilgrimage for Jewish families, much like the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But he also reflected on the memorial's timeliness for wider society, adding:

"We need a strong reminder such as this to let us know what can result, even within a democratic society, what can result if anti-Semitism, if racism and xenophobia, go unchecked."

Sunday music spot: Finale to Act 1 of "The Barber of Seville"

This is the conclusion to Act one of Rossini's opera "The Barber of Seville"

Just before this sequence it has been revealed who the main protagonists in the play actually are. There is another round of revelations left for the next play in Pierre Beaumarchais' Figaro trilogy, "The Marriage of Figaro," but the characters have just heard quite enough to leave them reeling in shock and questioning their sanity.

The lyrics of the chorus which ends the act, often performed while dashing round the stage as though in the grip of complete hysteria, can be translated into English as follows:

"My head seems to be in a fiery smithy,
the sound of the anvils, ceaseless and growing. deafens the ear.
Up and down, high and low, striking heavily,
the hammer makes the very walls resound with a barbarous harmony.
Thus our poor, bewildered brain, stunned, confounded, in confusion, without reason, is reduced to insanity." 



Seemed rather appropriate music for a blog about British politics at the end of the week we've just had, don't you think?

Quote of the day 20th January 2019


Saturday, January 19, 2019

Claiming a retrospective mandate

When you find points of agreement among both Brexit supporting and pro-remain columnists it often turns out that they are saying something insightful.

This week both a prominent Brexit supporting writer, Iain Martin, and a prominent Remain one, (Lord) Danny Finkelstein, wrote powerful pieces about how much more hardline views about Brexit have been getting. Finkelstein referred in The Times to the psychological concept of "Group polarisation" when people discuss politics primarily with other people who think as they do and are driven to ever more robust positions.

I think they are on to something, and they are calling out a process which is incredibly unhelpful. One of the thigs which has made the Brexit process so divisive and so hard to resolve is that many people on all sides have been taking increasingly hard-line positions.

Before about 2015 it was comparatively rare to find a senior Conservative who spoke openly of outright support for leaving the EU. Until that referendum was actually called most cabinet-level Conservative figures spoke simply of giving the electorate a choice in the form of a referendum.

Those whose positions have merely stood still have experienced the most extraordinary change in how they are perceived. For example, when Philip Hammond was appointed Foreign Secretary. the appointment of someone who had declined to rule out voting Leave to that position was seen as a major concession to the Eurosceptics. These days they regard the present Chancellor as a high priest of Remain - without much more evidence for that view than there was for the previous one.

People who before June 2016 would have defended a "Norway option" or EEA option as being better than continued membership of the EU now decry any such solution as "Brexit in name only."

The hardening of attitudes exists on both sides of the divide and is one of the reasons that assembling a parliamentary majority for any given course of action is proving so difficult.

It is also noticeable that people on both sides have a tendency to misremember what they were saying a couple of years ago to fit their present position.

The classic example is the very different position taken by many people about how final the referendum result should be compared to what they said before the event when they often thought Remain would win it. The first major petition for another referendum, which attracted 3.7 million signatures from Remain supporters, was created by a Leave voter shortly before the referendum in the belief that his side would lose. He was horrified when it was "hi-jacked" by Remain supporters after leave won.

(In the words of the late Windsor Davies who sadly died this week. 

"Oh dear, what a shame, never mind.")  

Some other leave supporters such as Nigel Farage who indicated before the referendum that they would not accept a narrow defeat - Farage said in a Mirror interview in May 2016 that a 52:48 win for Remain would be "unfinished business" - now expect Remain supporters to respect a result which they would not have been prepared to abide by had it gone by a similar margin in the other direction, while many of those who are now most prominent among those calling for a fresh referendum had said before the June 2016 vote that everyone should honour the result of that one. (This was, one presumes, when they thought they were going to win.)

The fact that people are taking a much harder line now, and think that they have always taken such a hard line, becomes particularly difficult when people start claiming now that the 2016 vote was a mandate for positions which simply were not being articulated at the time.

Anyone who looks back at the posts I made on this blog in 2016 will find that on a number of occasions I complained bitterly at the time that the official Leave campaign had never sought to set out exactly what a "leave" vote would mean.

A representative example is the post I put up here on 26th May 2016 called

"Why the Leave campaign should have backed Flexcit,"

but there were plenty of others.

The real problem which is making it harder to get a sensible decision about what form Brexit should take is that in the absence of any clear strategy having been set out by the official leave campaigns at the time of the referendum - unlike certain groups such as the Leave Alliance who put forward "Flexcit" - people are now trying to claim a retrospective mandate for things they believe now but certainly were not saying three years ago at the time of the referendum.

Does anyone remember a "Vote.Leave" leaflet saying that leaving the EU with no trade deal in place will do wonders for the economy?

No, because Leave was saying that getting a trade deal after Brexit will be easy because the German motor industry is desperate to sell cars to us so they will make sure the EU offers us a good deal.


As Danny Finkelstein puts it

""People who were once quite pragmatic about the sort of relationship we should have with the European Union after leaving have become more doctrinaire. Only the hardest Brexit is now real Brexit."

"These are people who once talked about how the EU was fine 'when it was a common market' or who said we might become members of the European Free Trade Association or be like Norway. People who argued that we would arrange tariff free trade with the EU. People who argued to remain in the customs union after Brexit."

"They haven't even noticed that they have shifted their position."

"They have spent so long knocking around with each other, egging each other on, setting each other purity tests, that they have drifted, drifted, drifted until we are in the ridiculous position where the Prime Minister negotiates to leave the EU and they turn it down."

"Forgetting, as they do, that they are being asked to compromise with positions that they publicly advocated not that long ago."

I think Danny has a point.

There is no easy route out of the position Britain is in now, and no way to avoid an outcome which millions of people will be horrified by.

In my humble opinion the only way to get a practical way forward which is in Britain's interests is going to be for those MPs who believe, as I do, that Britain must honour the referendum result by ceasing to be an EU member state, and who I believe to be in the majority, to reach a sensible compromise about how to deliver Brexit which can be passed by the House of Commons.

Satuday music spot: "Only You" (Voces8 version)

Windsor Davies

Windsor Davies, a brilliant actor who appeared in many TV shows and films, died on Thursday at the age of 88. He is best remembered for his role as Battery Sergeant Major Williams from the comedy show "It Ain't Half Hot, Mum." I imagine that few people who watched the show will ever forget the way he could dismiss a complaint or concern with the words, delivered in an ironic tone,

"Oh dear; what a shame; never mind."

Davies was born in London to Welsh parents who returned to Wales at the start of WW2. He worked as a coal miner and as a schoolteacher before becoming an actor.

Apart from "It Ain't Half Hot Mum" his other TV and film parts included the comedy series "Never the Twain," two "Carry on" films, Doctor Who (in the episode "Evil of the Daleks,") Gormenghast, and he was the voice of Sergeant Major Zero in "Terrahawks."

He survived Eluned, his wife of 52 years, by four months. They had five children.

Rest in Peace.

Quote of the day 19th January 2019

"Not every cage is a prison:
not every loss is eternal."

(Line from the first episode of season two of "Star Trek Discovery" which was released on Netflix yesterday.)

Friday, January 18, 2019

Massive response to A595 consultation

Copeland MP Trudy Harrison organised a very constructive meeting today with Highways England and local county council officers and councillors about the A595.

Issues covered included the proposal for a Whitehaven Relief Road and the fact that repairs to what is currently the A595 will be necessary to deal with subsidence under the Moresby Viaduct.

Responses are still being analysed but one piece of information released today to the public domain is that there was a massive response to the consultation in late 2018 on the A595 in the Whitehaven area.

There were 850 responses which represents a very high response to a consultation of this kind.

Well done to everyone who took part.

UK inflation falls to 2.1% on latest CPI figures.

Figures released this week by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggest that the  UK inflation rate fell to 2.1% in December, from 2.3% the previous month.
Inflation as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) was the lowest in nearly two years, The main downward driver on inflation was a fall in the price of petrol.
The figure is close to the Bank of England's target of 2% and probably makes any increase in interest rates in the near future less likely.

Inflation chart

Average UK pay growth is now higher than inflation, suggesting a modest rise in real incomes, with the most recent available figures showing that wages excluding bonuses were up by 3.3% for the three months to October 2018.