Wednesday 28 August 2019

Prorogation: no holds barred

It's almost half a century since I taught what was then rather grandly called "British Constitution," but I remember at leat one of the standard textbooks (possibly Wade and Phillips Constitutional Law) explaining that parliament was solemnly prorogued, normally in the autumn of the year, and then solemnly opened again a day or two after.

From time immemorial these procedures normally took place in early November, which is why we have Bonfire Night on November 5th. (That was the date in 1605 when King, Lords and Commons all met in the same place at the same time for the "Opening of Parliament," so Guy Fawkes, had he succeeded, would have got rid  of the entire political establishment in one go.)

So Mr Johnson's excuses for suspending parliament for several weeks are contrary to convention and flimsy in the extreme.  This is clearly an attempt to prevent our legally and democratically  appointed representatives exercising their functions at a time of great political crisis.

I am not as familiar as I'd like to be with the histories of other countries but understand that it is not unusual for megalomaniacs , often generals and suchlike, who think they have populist  support, to overturn the normal political institutions, with their built in checks and balances,to implement their own  intentions which they dress up as the popular  will.

Johnson has not gone so far as to overturn our democratic institutions of ever (yet), but to suspend them at this critical time shows outrageous arrogance.  Let's hope he and his cohort now in No 10 have overstepped the mark and get their comeuppance.

Tuesday 27 August 2019

Global heating - action this day

In the past ten months a combination of Extinction Relbellion and the audacity of Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg have done us a favour: forcing us to interrupt our parochial navel gazing over Brexit and lift our eyes to the real crisis, the climate crisis, which will affect not just our own back yard but the entire planet unless we take action pretty sharpish.

We have just twelve years to reduce our polluting emissions by 45% and thus keep the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius and thus preserve a sustainable lifestyle for all  of us on the planet.

Some believe that even that won't be enough.

I have just bought and read the Extinction Rebellion handbook which they call " This is not a drill."  It is a frightening read and can be bought for £7.99 here  (even less if you abandon your scruples and go to Amazon).

On page 11 they set out their three key demands:

1.  The government must tell the truth;
2.  The government must act now . . .to reduce greenhouse gas emissions  to net zero by 2025
3   The government must create and be led  by the decisions of a Citizens' Assembly on climate change and ecological justice.

Given that governments and parliaments in all the western democracies have ignored the warnings of scientists, or even denied their validity, for decades,  they advocate a  "civil resistance model":

1.   You don't need millions, just about 50 000 activists (presumably in each country).
2.   You need to go to the capital city.
3.   You have to break the law.
4.   It has to stay non-violent.
5.   It has to go on day by day.
6.   It has to be fun.

For a start, please buy and read the book, and get fired up.

Certain political decisions spring to my mind as immediately obvious:

1.  There is no case for expanding our airport capacity: rather it should be reduced
2.  The right to fly should be rationed: maybe one return flight per adult every three years.  Coupons (remember those?) could be traded so that those who can't afford to fly anyway, or don't want to,  can profit from those who insist on playing their part in destroying the planet.
3.  There is no case for fracking: it must be stopped tomorrow, even if the earthquakes so far have been only minor.
4.  Fossil fuel based energy production should be reduced as quickly as possible.
5.  New railway provision should be medium speed rather than high speed,
6.  Gas guzzling 4x4s and SUV should be permitted only to people such as farmers who can prove they need them.
7.  Fuel duty should be increased by a significant amount each year.
8.  There should be massive investment in renewable energy production, especially, in Briatain, tidal and wave power.
9.  We should stop wasting electricity on frivolous lighting, as at Christmas.
10.  Aid should be given to poorer countries to help them achieve a decent but non-polluting  standard of living.

That will do from me for the moment.  Further suggestions welcomed.

Friday 23 August 2019

With friends like these. . . ?

Last  Tuesday, 20th August the Guardian (one of only two of our national newspapers opposed to  Brexit -the other, I hope, being the Daily Mirror) headlined Polly Toynbee's article on the front page of its Journal (ie opinion) section "Remainers  must do 'whatever it takes'  to prevent no deal."  In the same section the first leader was headlined "The cost of no deal is brutal.  MPs must work together to stop it."

An inside article by a Poppy Trowidge, formerly a special advisor to Philip Hammond, mentions "no deal" ten times and "leaving without a deal " twice, but nowhere does she mention the option of revoking Article 50 and remaining in the EU.

M/s Trowbridge's article acknowledges that the  "[Johnson] administration has done a brilliant job of branding and broadcasting its approach" - that is of framing the debate as between leaving with or without a deal rather than the better  choice of leaving or remaining (as spelled out in previous posts.)

Sadly the Guardian has not seen fit to print the letter I sent on this topic, the essence of which is that they have:
 "fall[en] into the trap, possibly as a result of the dark arts of Dominic Cummings, of allowing the ardent Brexiteers to define the question before us as between “Deal and No-deal” thus enabling them to declare any deal as a triumph of Mr Johnson’s dogged British determination.   Yet we still leave the EU.

What needs to be spelt out in any article on this topic in the next two months
 is that  leaving the EU with any deal - and the most we can expect is a 
cosmetic re-tweaking of that already agreed with Mrs May - will damage 
our political stature, our economy, our comforts, our culture, the 
opportunities available to  our young people,  and  our capacity  to avert the
 climate catastrophe. 
The real question before us now is not ‘Deal or No deal' but still ‘Remain or  Leave.’  MPs are now  in a position to compare the promises made in 2016 with the facts as they  have now emerged and answer this question by voting to revoke Article 50. If they haven’t the guts to use their judgement and do their duty, they can pass the buck by insisting on a People’s Vote. These are the true options before us."

If our major serious supporter in the media allows itself to seduced by Johnson's fairly obvious ploy, what hope is there for a rational discussion about the realities of our situation?

Tuesday 20 August 2019

The Dark Arts of Moulding Public Opinion

A report by the electoral commission has called for the regulation of targetted political messages sent digitally.  In general, the report calls for limits  to the amount of  money spent during election periods, the prohibition of foreign money, and the identification of the senders.  You can see the details here.

Sadly it is probably too late to bring in relevant new laws before a snap general election or even another referendum, but it is vitally important for us,  the public, to be fully aware of what is going on.

A recent article by Peter Pomerantsev tells of a world of "dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, deep fakes, fake news . . .[and] trolls."  I don't pretend to understand what most of these are but they are sent digitally not to the population as a whole, but to carefully targetted audiences.  Without regulation the target does not necessarily know  from whom the message comes, nor who else is receiving it, or an entirely different message.

The result is that the recipient is deceived into believing that there is a consensus of opinion where none actually exists. This perhaps helps to explain the unexpected result of the 2016 Referendum

Apparently the person in charge of targeted digital messaging for the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Referendum was a Thomas Borwick. He claims  

"that the most successful message in getting people out to vote had been about animal rights.  Vote leave argued that the EU was cruel to animals because, for example, it supported farmers in Spain who raise bulls for bullfighting.  And within the "animal rights" segment Borwick could focus  even tighter, sending graphic ads featuring mutilated animals to one type of  voter and more gentle ads with pictures of cuddly sheep, to others."

It's  a world away from "Question Time" the "Today Programme," "Newsnight," election addresses and our Liberal Democrat Focus leaflets. The Tories are said to have earmarked  several millions to digital advertising since Mr Johnson became Prime Minister.

A contributor  to a thread on Liberal Democrat Voice, where a version of this post has already been published, claims that she received lots of these "animal" messages, and that it was clear that thy came from the Leave campaign.  Good, but I am not convinced that this applies to all these mystery messages.

If elections (and referendums) are to be freely and fairly fought we all need to know who is sending what messages  to whom, and, where there is distortion of the truth, have the opportunity to put alternative views.

Without such safeguards I suspect Dominic Cummings, the mastermind behind the pro Brexit campaign and now No 10's Chief of Staff,  will take every opportunity to deceive us again.

 Post script

On a different tack, Ian Dunt, in an article  criticising  the Daily Telegraph on the 13th August for distorting the results of an opinion poll. writes:

 [It's] an example of completely degenerate journalistic standards. But it is also part of a sustained
psychological campaign from across the Brexit-supporting press and government, which is just as
baseless. It's an attempt to convince opponents of no-deal that they are doomed.
In a sense, the whole function of Johnson's government is to entrench a sense of the battle already
being over. Diplomats retreat from Europe. Remorseless countdown clocks are put up all over
Whitehall. Briefings are given to the press of the detailed daily no-deal preparation meetings under
Michael Gove.
And most importantly of all, a sustained information war is being fought to convince critics that it's
too late. MPs already lost their last chance to stop no-deal.
But there is a problem with all this. It is false. MPs have not lost their chance. They can still stop it,
quite easily in fact, and there are several avenues open to them.

Thursday 8 August 2019

Take back the question.

As predicted in the previous post  the real question facing us, whether to continue with Brexit or stop it altogether (either by revoking Article 50, as I'd prefer,  or having another public vote) has now morphed into the quite different question: deal or no-deal?

A letter to the Guardian from  a Stephen King on 6th August puts the matter clearly:

'. . .Boris Johnson has changed the conversation. The debate is no longer "Brexit v referendum /no Brexit", it is "no deal v deal."  This smart strategy positions a deal as the best possible outcome , and removes from the debate any notion  of reconsidering  the whole project.'

Sadly the Guardian's editorial policy seems to have fallen for this sleight of hand.

 An article in yesterday's paper (7th august) was headlined 'Hard Brexit  would harm ability to fight crime', thus giving the impression that some other sort of Brexit would be OK, not so bad, perfectly acceptable. . .
Today (8th August ) the leading article, after surveying the areas in which agreement on a deal may still be possible,  urges Mr Johnson  to 'engage with EU leaders in a spirit of professionalism and respect.'

An article by Martin Kettle, also in today's paper,  is headlined 'Deal of no deal: it's not really up to Dominic Cummings.'

With friend like these (and the Guardian and Daily Mirror are about the only friends we have in a largely Brexit supporting media) who needs enemies?

Whether this shift of emphasis has been engineered by Mr Johnson himself, or his wonder-working media manipulator Dominic Cummings, I have no way of knowing, but there is little doubt that we are being manoeuvred into a situation in which any sort of deal, even  merely a cosmetic tweak on the May deal that already exists, will be hailed as a major triumph of British grit and Johnsonian guts and determination, and no deal  purely the result of European obduracy.

It beggars belief that, in the final three months of this crisis our MPs have chosen to go on holiday.  Heaven knows what future historians will make of it.

At times of crisis in the past parliament has been recalled, notably in :

  • 1949 to discuss the devaluation of sterling (from $4.03 to  £1, would you believe, to $2.8)
  • 1950 to discuss the Korean war
  • 1956: the Suez Crisis
  • 1961: Berlin Crisis which led to the building of the Wall
  • 1982: Falklands War
  • 1995: Bosnia
  • 2001:  Iraq and WMD
  • 2011:  Riots following the shooting of Mark Duggan
  • 2013: Syria.
The present crisis is arguably the most serious since Suez.  Yet the government are given free rein to massage the news, and make ludicrously optimistic  spending promises in apparent preparation for a general election which may undermine the constitution, without any serious opposition.

 I just cannot help reflecting what an outcry there would be from the establishment and just about everyone else if an even slightly left of centre government were implementing similar self harm.

Someone, somewhere, should be constructing  the coalition of remain forces to stop this madness..

Brexit or No-Brexit: that is the question, and the only question that should be preoccupying us now, and could and should be resolved well before 31st October.