Guidance following the EU referendum result

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I was asked by the group The 48% to write a piece for the UK’s MPs following the EU referendum of 23rd June 2016.

So, I did.

The piece has now been sent to every UK MP, and will be sent to every one of the continent’s MEPs in the next few days (today being 1st July 2016).

So, I thought I would share it with you here:

We understand that, like almost everyone in the UK, you have been able to think of little other than the result of Thursday’s referendum on our country’s membership of the EU, and the likely effects of that vote.

And after deep consideration, it is with some regret that we must ask you to prevent the initiation of Article 50.

We have not arrived at this conclusion lightly. The will of the people is not something which should be ignored – though that is not what we ask you to do here – and as representatives of the people we do understand that you correctly feel a responsibility to carry out that will.

But there are a number of reasons why this course of action – not leaving the EU – is not only what is best for the country, but is also a fully justified decision for you to take.

First of all, the referendum was always held not as a legally-binding decision, but as an advisory plebiscite, to guide and inform the Houses of Parliament of the mood of the people, rather than as a direct and irresistible instruction from the nation to its politicians.

This may seem a small point, but it is not: if – as we all accept – those who refuse to vote in an election understand that the decision taken by others is the decision by which they must abide, then certainly those who vote in a referendum must abide by its rules: to demand the suggestion from an advisory vote must be followed to the letter is an unreasonable demand.

Of course, this alone should not be enough to convince you not to do what the referendum requests, it is simply to remind you that the decision on whether or not to leave the EU has not been made: it is for you, as representatives of the people, to make such a decision. The referendum must feed into that decision, but so must your own expertise and judgement: that, after all, is the responsibility for which you are paid.

Secondarily, the result itself, as Boris Johnson, the Leave campaign’s de facto leader has publicly conceded, is hardly overwhelming.

We should also note here that Nigel Farage, the man whose career has been built on ensuring this vote took place, stated in his (unnecessary) concession speech that the loss in the referendum for Leave would not mean the end of ‘the fight’. The same man specifically stated in May this year that he would ‘fight’ for a second referendum in the wake of an ‘inconclusive’ 52-48 victory for Remain: Thursday’s vote ended 51.9-48.1 in Leave’s favour.

There is agreement even from the Leave campaign that a close result should not be accepted as conclusive, and we feel the result could hardly have been closer.

Equally, statistically-speaking, the result was inconclusive by definition. The margin of error allowed in statistical modelling would mean any experiment or model which produced such a result would have to be re-run many times before anything close to acceptance and credence was given to it, and we should also note that in this purely literal sense, the result indicates at least as much as the ‘will of the people’ that on another day, we could expect that the outcome would have been different.

Of course, the vote was held on the day on which it took place, but we advise that decisions of such national – and international – importance should not be based solely upon such an outcome.

Thirdly, the vote itself. Slightly more than 17m people voted to Leave the EU, while slightly over 16m voted for the UK to Remain. But there are 62 million people in the UK. If you are to accept the result of this referendum as the sole factor in whether we leave or remain as members of the EU, you will be accepting that the correct, sensible and just course of action is to allow the (certainly heartfelt and strong) desire of 17m people to dictate to 45 million others the future of the UK, of the continent and to a certain extent the world.

We should note here also that while some 28 per cent of people simply did not vote (and so must be regarded as being content to leave others to advise the government), there were many others who could not and who arguably should.

For example, there were many thousands of UK nationals living in overseas territories – most in the EU itself – whose votes were cast but unheard because of problems with the postal voting system; others never received their polling cards in time to cast their postal vote. In both cases these are people who by the rules of the referendum were entitled to vote, but who were prevented from doing so. This does not add legitimacy to the idea that the government must accept the outcome of the vote as a conclusive order from the people.

A large number of young people who urgently wished to vote were also unable to. This is not the time or place to cavil over the electoral rules set for this referendum (even though the immediate precedent set by the Scottish independence referendum had been that in cases of unusual importance, 16- and 17-year-olds could be offered a voice) but it does underline the fact that even just outside those legally-entitled to vote sit a large number of UK citizens who overwhelmingly support the UK Remaining in Europe.

You have received guidance from (some) who could vote, but your responsibility goes beyond that: it is to the UK and all of its people. Please do bear in mind that the vote is – as all public plebiscites must be – only a limited cross-section of views on the issue across the country: your job is to ensure that this cross-section is part, not all, of what you base your decision on.

Fourthly, the vote itself reveals not only widespread division – and effectively that the UK’s population as a whole has not made up its mind – but serious constitutional crises ahead.

Not only is Scotland almost certain to leave the Union if Article 50 is initiated, there are signs that Northern Ireland may seriously consider its own position.

But the matter goes further: all four of the UK states’ capital cities voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining members of the EU, as did most other major centres of population: Birmingham; Bristol; Liverpool; Manchester; Glasgow to name but a few.

The reason that we note this is not to ‘threaten’ crisis: it is that crisis is already here. We care deeply about the UK as well as its position as a part of the EU, and we do not wish to see it fall to pieces as a result of an advisory referendum. We implore you to factor the UK’s future existence into your decision.

It is also impossible to communicate this message to you without touching upon some other, inter-connected, factors.

You will be as uncomfortably aware as we are that the Leave campaign made a series of promises – most notably that £350m per week would be spent on the NHS; that we could ‘control our borders’; and that we would ‘reduce immigration’ if we were to leave the EU. In the immediate aftermath of the result’s announcement, the Leave campaign’s leading figures have announced that none of those three promises will be kept.

Though we do understand that in elections people say things which they are later unable to live up to, we must seriously question whether a vote cast based on the three central and most-often repeated promises can still be considered valid if those who attracted that vote and made those promises then withdraw each promise immediately after winning those votes?

The word ‘democracy’ is easy to use, and has (understandably) been used often by the Leave campaign since Friday morning. But we must request that you consider whether winning votes by making promises and withdrawing those promises immediately after the result is announced can truly be part of any model of true democracy?

Connected to this is the worrying fact that many of those who voted to Leave have since stated that they were mistaken to do so, and expressed a wish that they could vote again, this time differently.

We do not, here, write to you about our own reasons for wishing to Remain. Those are important, and include the UK’s place in the world, its attitude to and experience of people from different nations and cultures from our own, our financial welfare (and that of our children and grandchildren), the opportunities granted to us by our membership of the EU, the fact that the mere threat of Leaving has caused a collapse in the value of our currency, the fact that we believe the UK is a state which should care about and be engaged in wider international issues – that it and its people are better as a result of engagement and the benefits it brings.

But while they are important, we are not campaigning to win a referendum here. We are simply reminding you that whatever your – and our – view on the UK’s membership of the EU may be, this referendum, for a number of reasons, should not be the only thing you consider when making a decision about what to do next.

Your decision is of course your own. But we would also remind you that you were elected to make this choice; that you have greater access to the realities of our situation than any member of the general public; and that a range of options remain open to you, including a re-run of the referendum, a General Election or an outright vote to Remain or to Leave. That decision is yours. It is literally what we elected you to do, and what you are paid to do.

The referendum was an advisory exercise. It is almost literally (and actually statistically) inconclusive. The major piece of information that we can gain from it is that the public – as a whole – simply does not know whether it wishes to leave the EU or remain within it, albeit that some in either camp hold strong, regularly-voiced opinions on the matter.

It was also flawed – more so than referenda need to be – and it is a decision with immediate and long-term implications for the UK’s future situation, the UK’s entire future existence, and the welfare and lives of millions across Europe, and billions across the world.

We ask that you bear all of this in mind when making your decision. The referendum is advice from the people. It should not be ignored. But neither should it be allowed to erase all other considerations. This is an enormous decision, and a real turning point in the history of our nation.

Please ensure that when making it, you do not ignore any pertinent and relevant fact, including all those set out above.

We truly hope and believe that you, as our representatives, will choose not to initiate Article 50. We believe we have outlined the reasons why you are not forced to do so.

Many thanks for reading.’

Murder, racism and Nigel Farage: where we are today, and how we got here

Farage poster

On Thursday, a serving UK politician was assassinated for peacefully expressing a desire that the UK should treat Syrian men, women and children in a more human and humane fashion.

I know some people will already be opening their mouths to say ‘…but…’ but the facts are as follows: Thomas Mair was seen by witnesses to shoot and stab Jo Cox, an MP whose major contribution to UK national politics was to campaign for the rights of Syrian refugees to enter the UK.

He was heard by several witnesses to shout either ‘Britain First’ or ‘Put Britain first’ and had taken active part in Britain First rallies. In court this morning (Saturday 18 June) he gave his name as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’.

The door has closed on any hope that he was not politically-motivated or inspired. Mair is a far-right assassin and/or terrorist. And he murdered a serving, peaceful, democratically-elected representative of the people – a woman who was also a wife, and a mother of two – because she had dared to suggest that the fifth-richest nation on Earth should welcome desperate men, women and children into its safety and security.

Now. I am pro-EU and hope we stay in, and I’m aware that what I am about to say will be criticised as ‘political point-scoring’. But I am not here to make a ‘political’ point – or even a pro-EU point. And I am not aiming to ‘score points’.

I am genuinely horrified by the fact that we live in a state where a real person, an elected politician, has been murdered for campaigning on an issue she felt strongly was important, and was a position which sought not to divide, or to vilify anyone – certainly no-one in the UK – but to encourage greater openness and acceptance between people.

I am deeply miserable – and a little worried – that the United Kingdom is now a country where ‘political debate’ so openly seeks to divide people into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ and that one result of this has been the murder of an innocent woman.

And so I think it’s time we start naming those who are responsible, and talking about what we can do about it.

And that means naming – amongst others – Nigel Farage, and the politics of horror he stands for.

Before we get into Nigel, however, it’s worth starting with Mair himself. Because I have met Nigel Farage a few times, and prior to our appearance on This Week in April, we had a short conversation.

I can definitively state that Nigel Farage does not want people to shoot one another. And – though it may seem unpleasant for me to say so – he particularly does not want white women to be shot dead.

So we must begin with Mair: no-one else has (yet) killed anyone for suggesting that it might be nice to help people not be slaughtered in Syria. He does have responsibility for his own actions, and we must not ignore that.

But that is not the whole story.

Because regardless of whether he shouted ‘Britain First’ or ‘put Britain first’ as he murdered Jo Cox, (a distinction with which Britain First has busied itself on Facebook for the last three days) Mair was a sympathiser with Britain First, and certainly took part in demonstrations with the group in Doncaster (it remains to be seen whether he was a ‘member’ and which other – if any – rallies he had taken part in).

Britain First organises rallies to make Muslim people feel uncomfortable, rides around in armoured vehicles to ‘protect’ people who never needed or asked for such protection, ‘intervenes’ (for which, read ‘acts violently and to intimidate civilians’) at mosques and never uses the word ‘Islam’ without the word ‘radical’.

Its name is extraordinarily poorly-chosen because Britain – my nation – is a place where Muslims live alongside Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jewish people, atheists, agnostics and pagans: where religious difference is far less important than the fact that we all live here and have a part to play in what makes Britain good (as well as what makes it bad).

Though I might not say we should put Britain ‘first’ (it really needn’t be a competition) I am at least confident that what I believe in is Britain – something with which Britain First appears to have a serious problem.

Britain First’s recruitment and support approach is based on two major threads – scaring people about Muslims, and seemingly pro-animal rights messages (which often turn out to be anti-Islam images) posted online. As a result, its ‘likes’ total on Facebook is not necessarily a mark of the popularity of its outlook.

And in fact, it is a fringe band of maniacs, who have taken it upon themselves to force their hopes for a UK uniform in colour and outlook, where dissent of any kind is to be met with threats and violence, upon the rest of us.

But they have increased steadily in popularity. And the reason for that is not Britain First and its members per se – they simply don’t have either the reach or the talent to be anything other than a rag-tag fringe outfit – but a wider, far better-publicised ‘political’ argument. And that’s where Nigel Farage steps in.

Because Nigel Farage is a political phenomenon. He is a former public schoolboy, former stockbroker, former Tory Party member and since 1999 an MEP who claims to be ‘anti-establishment’ and who criticises politicians for being on a ‘gravy-train’ but claims expenses on top of his own wages despite having one of the EU parliament’s worst attendance and voting records.

He has used his media access and the vast (really astonishingly large, considering it had never had an MP before 2014 and is only the fifth-largest political party in the UK) media budget of his UKIP party to drag political debate in the UK to the Right.

By this, I do not mean that he has campaigned to leave the EU, but the way in which he has done so.

Because Farage has two major messages – and both directly fed into Thursday’s political assassination of Jo Cox by the right-wing murderer Thomas Mair: that immigration; and therefore people who enter the UK, are bad for the UK; and that ‘politicians’ are self-interested, self-serving succubi, uninterested in and disconnected from the lives of ‘ordinary people’.

On migration, it’s extremely difficult to know whether Farage genuinely believes what he says, or whether he has simply decided that the best possible way to persuade people they would be better off leaving the EU is by scaring them with the prospect of a mass ‘invasion’ of the UK by people from EU member states.

If it is the former – and it may well be – he has been a particularly dedicated messenger for the most successful form of racism: arguing that foreign people threaten your welfare and in some cases your life. If it is the latter, he has done an exceptional job of being convincing.

In the last few years, UKIP and Farage have been responsible (2013) for claims that more people than actually lived in Bulgaria and Romania would come to the UK as soon as the states became members: UKIP said 29 million people would come, the combined population of the two states was 27.2 million.

During the 2014 EU Election campaign, UKIP ran a poster claiming that 26 million people in the EU were after YOUR job (with a finger handily pointing towards the readers of the posters, presumably to ensure they didn’t think the poster might be addressed to some other ‘YOU’).

In the run-up to the 2015 General Election – an election in which the active scare tactics and racism of Farage and UKIP were shown to have impacted on the wider political system: Labour showed their weakness in its face by issuing a mug promising the party would be ‘tough on immigration’, while the Conservative Party continued to show its sympathy with UKIP’s racism and xenophobia, but in more traditional, non-mug-based ways (specifically, promising an undeliverable migration ‘target’ which would in fact damage the UK if it were ever achieved) – UKIP ran posters blaming not austerity, the global economic crash or the desire of private businesses to cut expenses, but foreign people, for low wages and unemployment in the UK.

Now. At this point, I think it’s worth taking a moment to explain something. Because there may be some readers of this piece who are thinking ‘Farage isn’t a racist.’ Or ‘It’s not racism to want to protect British jobs.’

So. I know that not every UKIP supporter is a racist. I am even more certain that not every person on the Right is a racist. But it is racism to divide people by race and to claim that because of race some people in one part of the world are entitled to more and/or to better lives than others. It’s the definition of racism.

I also know that some voters for UKIP would never dream of displaying or practicising racist behaviour to anyone they met – most people are not naturally racist, and most people are actively open to meeting new people: at the very least to being polite to one another.

But that very point is an illustration of exactly what has happened here in the UK: people who are not racist by nature are voting for an openly racist political organisation and are being told by that organisation, by sections of the UK media and by one another that they are not racist and that the organisation is not racist.

I am sorry to say this, but UKIP is openly and deliberately racist. Its most successful political campaigns have been based on racist ideas and messages, and in the end, racism is about the dividing of people based on their race and geographical considerations, arguing one group is more entitled than another to a lifestyle and its trappings.

And that is the UK in which we now live: a UK in which open racism is now a successful campaign strategy and is ‘covered’ by people lining up to excuse racism, and deny that it is what it is. Most people are not racist, but more and more are being persuaded by these excuses and this covering to engage in racism, and/or to vote for racist policies.

And in recent months, it has got worse. In May this year, Nigel Farage said in a BBC interview: ‘I think it’s legitimate to say that if people feel we have lost control completely – and we have lost control of our borders completely as members of the European Union – and feel that voting doesn’t change anything, then violence is the next step.’

Those words – an open and deliberate justification of the use of violence if ‘the people’ don’t get what they want through democratic means – are lifted straight from the playbooks of 20th century fascist groups: ‘forget about the fact that in a democracy the majority of those who vote make the decisions, and that the rules are the same for everyone; if some angry people do not manage to win a vote, they will use violence. We think that’s understandable and don’t say we didn’t warn you.’

And this absolute, terrifying disregard for peaceful political process, and justification of violence to force one small group’s political will on the rest of the nation is part of a wider trend for Farage.

Because despite his public school education and career as a stockbroker and then politician, Farage has been consistent in criticising a ‘political elite’ – people at Westminster and in Brussels who he claims (despite never having been a member of the UK parliament and having an abysmal attendance rate at the EU) to ‘know’ and ‘understand’ are ‘disconnected from’ and ‘uninterested in’ representing ‘the common man’; that politicians are deliberately incapable of representing people in the UK, and that despite the fact that UKIP has never received more than one vote in every eight cast at a General Election, he and his party are the representatives of the ‘silent majority’ of UK citizens.

Farage is not the only man responsible for this divide and rule – racially and between UK citizens (eleven-twelfths of whom have never voted UKIP), and the people they do elect to represent them. But he is its major proponent, who is regularly on TV and in newspapers delivering the message: its popularity is his responsibility.

And its result has been astonishingly caustic to the UK. Not only has it damaged democracy in general, it has also built a wall around Farage’s allies (including Britain First) through which inconvenient fact, logic and reasoning cannot pass. Because Farage and others’ argument is not even that those who disagree with him are wrong but that whether they are right or wrong is literally irrelevant: their view can and should be ignored because they ‘do not represent them’.

It is the closing down of any debate: if you agree, you are one of ‘us’. If you are not, you are something else, who does not ‘understand’ – you are different and to be ingored at best, railed against at worst.

And in June, Farage stepped up the process. On 5 June, in a statement condemned by Brexit and Remain supporters alike, the UKIP leader and MEP claimed that sex attacks on UK citizens would increase if the UK remained as an EU member.

It was a shocking statement – a clear argument that ‘foreigners’ are rapists; that if an English person commits a sex attack (and they do) that is unusual, a statistical freak event, but that it’s somehow standard behaviour for foreign people.

And of course, the condemnation of the statement by those of us – Brexiteers and Remainers alike – who still have respect for human beings around the world, went largely unheeded by Farage’s supporters, including those of Britain First, because of the argument that the opinions of critics of Farage’s fact-free racist scaremongering are not ‘wrong’ and to be disproved, but irrelevant, and to be ignored.

And on 16 June – the morning of Jo Cox’s shooting and stabbing to death by the right-wing assassin Thomas Mair – Farage posed for photos in front of his latest campaign poster: an image of men, women and children fleeing death in their homelands emblazoned with the message  ‘BREAKING POINT: The EU has failed us all’.

Many news sources have already pointed out the clear similarity to Nazi propaganda used in the run-up to World War II, and I can only add that this man – and this poster – does not represent me, does not represent my Britain and he will never be anything more than a despicable, divisive and deeply unpleasant human being attempting to create a nation of either extreme division or extraordinary and dull uniformity, neither of which I would want to be part of.

But the point is also that the poster’s message was yet another warning of emergency: ‘foreigners’ are after YOUR job; ‘foreigners’ cause unemployment; the UK is at BREAKING POINT and no-one other than you and the others we agree with are able or willing to see it.

It was a clear call for action, a demand for those lucky few who understand the ‘crisis’ to do something.

It was not a call for a man to shoot and stab to death a politician. But it is ridiculous to pretend that it – and the wider arguments of racism, division and emergency continually shouted by Farage; the pretence that if only people understood or cared they too would be panicking and preventing foreigners from entering the UK under fear of collapse and/or rape – did not play a part in Mair’s act.

The United Kingdom is now a state in which innocent and peaceful democratically-elected politicians can be murdered not for breaking laws, not for preaching hatred, but for arguing for desperate men, women and children to be better assisted by the world’s fifth-richest state.

Nigel Farage is not the only person to blame for that – and as noted already, Farage certainly does not want white women to be killed on England’s streets.

But Farage is the major carrier of the messages that foreigners are dangerous to the UK, that the UK is under attack and needs to be defended, that politicians are selfish and do not represent the UK’s best interests unless they agree with him, and that therefore anyone who attempts to use logic or reason to address his concerns can and should be ignored.

Thomas Mair heard that message, and he responded.

The UK – in part thanks to Farage – has fallen a very, very long way. It will take us a long time to climb back up. But for those of us who do believe in Britain, we must start now, not by dismissing those who fear the EU and foreign people, but by engaging and embracing them.

Opposing Farage is our only option, and it is the right thing to do. But demonising those his vile message has seduced is not. We can, and must, reopen communication with those people. The alternative is a further fall, violence, mayhem, more damage to our democracy and a nation in which no-one can feel comfortable again.

Mrs X or, a Sunny Summer Saturday in Frackham

Yesterday, I was genuinely unsure of how to begin this blog.

Fortunately, today David Cameron has told us that we’ll all be delighted with fracking just as soon as we know more about it.

Thanks Dave, I should have known I could rely on you…

Meet Mrs X*.

(*Before we go on, I should note a couple of things. Mrs X is almost certainly not Mrs X’s real name. In fact, she told me what her real name was (though in this world, so accurately depicted by Mark Knopfler as being filled with ‘violence and doubletalk’, how can I possibly be sure she was telling the truth?).

And I know the journalists amongst you will be asking why I’ve kept her name a secret. Well, it’s because a) I can, b) I want to because I want her to be able to do the things she wants to from a state of anonymity as long as she wants one and c) because Mrs X amuses me as a name. So that’s that.)

SAM_6230

Now, I met Mrs X on Saturday (August 10 2013, historians from the future), near Balcombe, where Cuadrilla are currently drilling to see whether it will be worthwhile fracking in future (more on that in a moment).

I was there to visit the protest against that proposal, which was pretty famous even before the police decided to use Vulcan nerve touches to disperse peaceful protestors (Sky’s headline – Police Arrest 18 Protestors, Guardian – Anti-fracking Activists Arrested At West Sussex, Daily Mail – The Battle of Balcombe. The Daily Mail: because old ladies don’t scare themselves…). Not to worry, there’ll be more on that too.

I started by wandering down the street, saying hello to people, waving at car drivers who beeped their cars in support of the protestors, and watching bemused as the same dangerous protestors who had to be dealt with by Her Majesty’s Constabulary a couple of weeks before waved, smiled and called ‘Namaste’ to Gurkhas (I honestly don’t know why – that isn’t what this one’s about, anyway) as they drove their cars onto the fracking site.

As I did so, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was from West Sussex.

I turned round as I said no, and there was Mrs X.

Now, Mrs X didn’t look much like your average protestor. She was pretty tall, a little bit old, with an austere shortish white hairstyle as favoured by austere tallish headmistresses since schools were invented.

She was remarkably well-spoken, smartly but unspectacularly dressed, and carrying a clipboard.

Mrs X lives in Balcombe. And though I didn’t know it then, she is the response to Call Me Dave’s assurance that the UK will love fracking, if only we could be properly informed about it.

What is that response? Well, let’s see…

Mrs X lives close to the fracking site. Everyone in Balcombe does. But she had hoped that when the drilling began, she may have been protected from some of the worst of the noise and disruption, because there is a street of houses between the drill and her own home.

No such luck, it seems: ‘I deliberately grow fruit bushes in my garden, ‘ Mrs X told me. ‘And as a result, birds come in to land and eat. It’s always been something I look forward to. There’s even a pheasant who comes in sometimes.

‘But since the drills began, there have been no birds. Not a reduced number, none at all.’

(another villager told me that in fact, since drilling began, there have been no birds, insects of animals in what’s normally a pretty animalled-up part of leafy South East England during summer months).

The lack of avian companionship has upset Mrs X. She knows she can live without it, but why should she? She grew the plants to attract the birds, why shouldn’t she actually get to see some every once in a while? First World problems? Well, perhaps. But then we do live in the First World…

In any case, Mrs X wasn’t there for the birds alone. She added: ‘They’re saying they won’t pump the polluted water they’ll create into the local reservoir, but into the River Ouse instead. But the river tops the reservoir up when it’s dry. It’s the same water source. They don’t have any idea what they’re talking about.’

It’s an interesting idea – and one which displays a certain faith in human nature (far more worrying is if in fact they do know exactly what they’re talking about).

But wildlife and waste water are just two of the things people can ‘look forward’ to changing in their environment – locally, nationally and internationally.

We’ve heard a lot in the last couple of weeks about how fracking ‘does not pollute water’. In fact, it appears it does. Reports from Norway show that 18 per cent of their wells leak. Now, we aren’t Norway (there are fewer people there, so leaks are statistically less likely to strike vital water supplies) and we may build better wells than them. Fingers crossed, eh?

But let’s say 18 per cent of wells leak. Well, that’s not so many, is it? Well, yes, as the mathematicians amongst you may have noted, it’s nearly one in five. So it is rather a lot when one considers that the leaks poison water supplies.

And it gets worse. Because the same government which tells you you only oppose fracking because you know nothing about it, and that the wells don’t leak, also tells you that fracking will solve our energy crisis. The government says we have trillions of litres of gas, just waiting to be fracked out of its current home in the ground. Like a badger. Except you can’t shoot the gas when it comes out.

The problem is, Bloomberg and the International Energy Agency are agreed that for fracking to provide what North Sea oil currently does (just half of our national fuel demand), we’ll need up to 20,000 wells, in clusters of six or seven.  So that’s 3,333 clusters, in a small, pretty crowded country, and with the current statistics suggesting one well in every single one of those clusters will leak. (the same report also makes it very, very clear that fracking is not cheap, despite what the government claims. Prices will rise globally, UK prices will react to the global fluctuations, and the customer will pay more for fuel, as always. There’s no miracle in fracking. That’s why the spelling’s so different).

Simultaneously, of course, it’s just a massive V sign to the rest of the world. Around the world, floods force people from their homes, freak rainstorms followed by massive droughts destroy crops and cause people to starve to death, 98 per cent of the world’s scientists agree that human activity is causing climate change which causes these disasters to occur and what’s our response?

‘Oh yeah, climate change is a problem. But we’ve just found a load of lovely carbon emissions-producing gas to burn, so we’re dropping renewables (fuel cost of renewables: a steady zero…) and well, frankly, f**k you all.’

Still, no doubt Call Me Dave will be able to set our minds at rest with his excellent grip on science and economics.

But back to Mrs X. The clipboard she was brandishing had another purpose.

‘I’m collecting signatures from West Sussex residents so we can show the County Council there is real opposition to Cuadrilla. There have been a lot of stories about how they don’t have planning permission, but they do: it will come out of the permissions they already have. But what they don’t have yet are the licences to frack. That’s what we’re talking to the County Council about. We can still stop Cuadrilla getting those licences.’

Unlike many in the UK, Mrs X was not surprised by Private Eye’s revelation on Wednesday that Balcombe Parish Council’s Conservative membership (who would have had the opportunity to at least raise objections against the plans in the early planning application protest) waved it through with no vote.

In fact, its only mention was by one councillor, Simon Greenwood, who happens to own the land the drilling is taking place on, and stands to earn tens of thousands of pounds from Cuadrilla should fracking begin there. He mentioned that there was a plan (he didn’t offer any details of what the plan was) for part of his estate while discussing a completely different proposal.

Nor was she surprised by the same magazine’s report that Balcombe’s Parish Clerk told West Sussex County Council that the matter had been ‘discussed, and no objection was made’, even though the Parish’s records show no discussion, let alone a vote.

She said: ‘It’s even worse than they said. The clerk told the council it had been discussed, and in the last few weeks has told us that the Parish never received any communication about the fracking plan, and that the information was buried in a small paragraph of a hundred-page report to the council. Well, it can’t be both can it? Either there was no communication, or there was some.

‘No-one in the village knew anything about this. For 18 months, no-one was told anything. It’s just a really sneaky, underhand way these people have all been behaving. It’s simply not what you expect.

‘I’ve never really taken much interest in politics, though I’ve always voted Conservative, because round here you don’t really need to. You can just get on with things. But I’m not the only person living here. And no-one knew. Because the people we voted for kept it from us. We are looking at how we can legally oppose what has already been done to us. It’s not our main route of getting this stopped, but it’s one thing we’re looking at.’

At national level, Mrs X’s discomfort is hardly reduced.

‘Well, I don’t know what he thinks he’s doing,’ she said when David Cameron’s name was mentioned. ‘He obviously doesn’t know anything about fracking, and he clearly doesn’t know where the people who vote for him even live. The only place in the country fracking isn’t planned for is the Midlands, and I don’t think anyone votes Conservative there anyway.

‘And he told everyone they’d get £1m if fracking happened near their community,’ (the actual figure is £100,000, as an ’embarrassed’ Cabinet Office later confirmed). ‘Who did he think would be fooled by that? It’s a ridiculous mistake, if it was a mistake.

‘Our MP here is Francis Maude. But he’s speaking out in favour of fracking. Enough is enough. We are going to set up Conservatives Against Fracking, which will start here, but can spread wherever anyone wants it. We’ll campaign to get Maude replaced as Conservative candidate at the next election, and if he isn’t we’ll stand against him.’

(At this point, someone suggested she should stand. She looked at the floor, but brightened up as she said: ‘I’ve never done anything like that. But as an accountant, at least if I said something I wouldn’t be wrong by a factor of ten.’)

Mrs X first came down to see the protests when they started late last month. As a result, she witnessed the police activity on July 24, when officers arrested several activists – using Vulcan nerve touches (Oh, alright, pressure points) to incapacitate people who had stood in front of the gate to the site, attempting to stop the progress of lorries carrying drill bits.

She was visibly disturbed and said: ‘Well it’s outrageous. These people weren’t doing anything to the police. They were protesting against something no-one here wants and what the police did was awful. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect in Venezuela or somewhere like that, isn’t it? In a police state, I mean.’

(I spoke to another woman at the protest site, who described what the police did in some detail: ‘They picked on the men, at first. The biggest men who they obviously thought would have most chance of getting in the way of the gates. They hit some of them, then pulled them all to the floor, then they sat on them, four officers per person, and chained them up. They dragged them across the floor.

‘When people got wise to that, and started surrounding the bigger men to protect them, the police went for the women. The ones they thought were ‘leaders’. It was the same again. Using the pressure points, pulling them down, then several officers sitting on each person, then dragging them across the floor. But no-one had been violent. They were just protesting.’)

SAM_6240

Me: ‘Did you paint this?’ Police Officer: ‘No.’ Long pause…

I have argued previously that the police at Balcombe are being used as the ‘muscle’ of Cuadrilla and/or the government  – using violence to ensure the company and the government ‘secure’ what they want, regardless of the wishes of the people. As a result, I asked Mrs X who might have called the police.

Obviously, Mrs X, upstanding and respectable member of a beautiful village in South East England did not entirely engage in my mildly paranoid view of the current state of the country (even though she had just used her own direct experience to compare it to a police state).

What was more interesting was how close she did get, though: ‘No-one in the village would have done. It must have been someone else, who wants this to happen. We wouldn’t have called the police. We agree with the protestors. We join them and support them. We like them.’

Which leads to the final point. Over the last fortnight, we’ve all read or heard people (generally Conservatives, it must be said) who’ve argued that this is not a local protest. The people of Balcombe, they say, don’t care about fracking. These are weirdos coming to a peaceful place where they are not needed or wanted, to cause trouble because that’s the kind of people they are.

‘We’ve all read those stories,’ Mrs X (bless her soul) began. ‘And they’re nonsense. All of them. There is not one person in the village who doesn’t support these protestors. Who isn’t pleased and grateful for them being here, and who doesn’t want them here. We all come to see them and speak to them and join them. To let them know we are grateful and we want them here.

‘There’s a joke about it in the village. We have done what the government would want. We’ve outsourced the protests.’

She pauses, smiles: ‘We want them to be here, and we will help them any way we can.’

So, so far it’s looking pretty damaging for old Call Me Dave. The people who have already experienced fracking – therefore actually do ‘know’ about it first-hand – and happen to live in a dyed-in-the-wool Tory constituency, pretty much hate it, enough to try to overthrow their MP and indeed the government they voted for.

And despite Dave’s implication that people don’t know about fracking is because they are ill-informed, or uninterested, the reason they didn’t ‘know’ about fracking until drilling began a few weeks ago was because information about it was deliberately withheld from them by members of the Party Cameron leads – the Party they had implicitly trusted and consistently voted for.

It’s small wonder they feel cheated.

The same people – those who have to date never had any reason to believe in the police as anything other than a benevolent force for good, and that anyone who falls foul of their methods has ‘provoked’ them (even if accidentally) have now watched police activity they compare to a ‘police state’, or more accurately one in which the police are used as an arm of a corporate government, dispatched to deliver violence on people for such crimes as ‘being in front of a gate’ or ‘not being obsequious enough to lorry drivers’.

Mrs X is not alone. She’s joined by the protestors from outside her village (and coach-loads more people are set to join those already there, this Sunday), and despite the arguments of some who support fracking, she is also joined by the rest of her own community, who are outraged by the way they have been treated, and how much the Party they grew up believing in is prepared to sacrifice for cold, hard, cash.

This may not prove to be Cameron’s Poll Tax, as some have suggested. Though I’d like it to be so, the Poll Tax struck everywhere at the same time, while fracking will slowly spread across the UK like a slowly spreading poisonous thing. I hope I’m wrong, obviously.

But it’s made allies of loyal Tory voters and the so-called ‘professional protestors’ they’ve traditionally mistrusted, and all in the Tory Party’s strongest region of the UK.

This might have been a good place to have ended with Mrs X’s own joke about ‘outsourcing protest’, but I’m afraid even Frackham’s campaigning accountant was upstaged on the day by another Balcombe villager.

Sat on a foldable camping chair, across the road from the gate, she appeared to be knitting an incredibly long yellow and black scarf, about three threads in width.

Looking up, she said: ‘I don’t really know how to knit, or how to protest. But I live in the village and none of us want fracking. These people have come all this way to protest and the least we can do is show them we support them, and oppose Cuadrilla too.

‘I do know how to wash clothes. I keep wondering whether I should offer to take their clothes home, wash them and return them tomorrow. But I don’t want to offend them, they’re here helping us.’

Osborne’s World; or, how a lack of imagination makes a bad politician

I HAVEN’T BLOGGED for a while – the never-ending job search taking priority over everything else.

But yesterday’s speech from our esteemed Chancellor was just too much for me to pass up.

I’m not saying he’s an idiot – though he is – and nor am I saying he’s deliberately dismantling the state (though that’s also true).

There’s something more insidious than that in his speech. And it’s something which has happened time after time in Tory statements and broadcasts since late 2009 – when they rose from the graves they’d been resting in.

And it’s this: the Tory Party does not argue its stance. What it has done instead for the last three years is to state what the national position IS and say ‘therefore, the following is true/must happen…’

This would be OK, if their starting point wasn’t just something they made up to suit their purposes.

So the following is just one way in which we can ‘turn the tables’ a little. It contains no accusations of lies, just points out where Osborne’s speculum – as later historians will bewilderingly refer to it – fails in logic, and where its foundations are shaky.

So, yeah, blah, blah, blah.

Hugs, etc…

AT THE last election, the Conservative Party used a quote from Albert Einstein to explain the need for a new government.

The definition of insanity,’ its candidates said. ‘Is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.’

If this statement was ever true (and some claim the physicist never actually said it), the people of the UK could be forgiven for questioning the mental state of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, after his speech to the Conservative Party conference on Monday.

Mr Osborne has promised that the system of cuts he called for and has dedicated his chancellorship to delivering will continue until 2016 at the earliest.

Since June 2010, Osborne has slashed state employment, decimated public services and cut benefits to those who cannot find work, or are too ill to work.

He told us this was because it was ‘necessary’ – the only way to cut the deficit.

He promised us his cuts would hurt, but that the economy would recover from its damaged state ‘by 2015’.

He packaged the policies as ‘austerity’.

The name itself was an unfortunate choice, as the International Monetary Fund – not a body known for its ‘left-leaning’ views – has since confirmed that the result of all 173 ‘austerity’ packages enacted across the world to date was recession.

And, as in any system in which one ‘tries the same thing over and over again’, the results this time have been the same. Recession.

Mr Osborne’s plan has not decreased the deficit – his one justification for stripping jobs and money from the economy and actually reducing the state’s income over the last two and a half years.

Instead, from April –August this year, the deficit actually increased 22% to £61.3bn, £12.9bn higher than in the same period last year.

Austerity isn’t working. And yet, at the Birmingham ICC, Mr Osborne’s response to the failure of his economic policies to date was… ‘to try the same thing again, and expect different results.’

Mr Osborne has promised to cut £10bn more from welfare spending. He has told us that he will not use taxes – the government’s sole dependable income – to raise money to pay off the deficit. Instead, he plans to rely on cuts.

He says the cuts will come from indexing benefits in line with inflation, cutting housing benefit from the young and cutting benefits for families with several children.

He said: ‘how can we justify the incomes of those out of work rising faster than the incomes of those in work?

Of course, it is difficult to justify such a thing. But it is Mr Osborne, not those who are out of work, who must take responsibility for the fact that public sector workers are receiving lower than inflation wage settlements – for it is his policy.

It is Mr Osborne who must take responsibility for the fact that the private sector is choosing to cut employees’ wages, or increase them below the rate of inflation – for it is his austerity package which means there is so little money in the UK that private firms fear expenditure will force them to the wall.

So the question is not, ‘how can we justify the incomes of those out of work rising faster than the incomes of those in work?’ It is instead, Mr Osborne, how can you justify an economy in which those who work earn less money every year?

To put it another way, what are you doing to increase wages, to make work a worthwhile and attractive option? If you believe people are not working because they are richer on benefits, why not encourage higher wages, to reduce the attraction of welfare?

He asks: ‘How can we justify giving flats to young people who have never worked, when working people twice their age are still living with their parents because they can’t afford their first home?

But the cost of houses is not dictated by those who claim housing benefit. It is dictated by those who build houses, and those governments who refuse to take action over ever-increasing house prices and rental costs.

Nor is the housing shortage in this country caused by ‘benefits claimants’ selfishly living in a house. It is caused by factors including land banking by major corporations – a practice the Treasury could combat head-on by introducing empty land taxes – and by a system in which prices have been allowed to increase unchecked, while incomes have been held down at inflation-level or below.

So the question is not ‘how can we justify giving flats to young people…’ It is perhaps more appropriate to ask ‘why can 32 year-olds in full-time employment not earn enough money to afford to move into their own place of residence?’

Mr Osborne asked: ‘How can we justify a system where people in work have to consider the full financial costs of having another child, whilst those who are out of work don’t?

But everyone in the country receives a state benefit – one from a fund into which everyone in the country paid in in the first place – when they have children.

Or at least they did, until Mr Osborne decided to remove child benefit payments from selected families across the country.

So perhaps the question should be ‘Mr Osborne, why are you making life harder for parents, regardless of whether they are in work?’

Mr Osborne then outlined his vision of Britain.

He said: ‘We modern Conservatives represent all those who aspire.

‘Whether it’s the owner of the corner shop staying open until midnight to support their family.

‘Or the teacher prepared to defy her union and stay late to take the after-school club.

‘Or the commuter who leaves home before the children are up, and comes back long after they have gone to bed, because they want a better life for them.

Mr Osborne’s view is indeed an inspiring one, as long as one does not ask the following questions:

Why should a shopkeeper have to open a shop from 7am-12am, solely to earn enough money for their family – who they presumably never see – to survive?

Which teacher has been told by ‘her’ union she must not take the ‘after-school club’?

On the latter point, the NUT and NASUWT have, since the end of September, followed a ‘work-to-rule’ but have specifically stated that teachers who have volunteered to take after school clubs should continue to do so.

Why should ‘commuters’ leave home before their children are awake and get home after they are asleep? Why can’t they earn enough money working sensible hours to provide a decent quality of life for their children?

And does Mr Osborne believe that ‘a better life for their children’ will be delivered by a situation in which a parent never sees their children?

Perhaps, if a decent standard of life for working people is what Mr Osborne wants, he could call for ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’?

On energy, Mr Osborne claims the government will ‘open up the newly discovered shale gas reserves beneath our land… so that Britain is not left behind as gas prices tumble on the other side of the Atlantic.’

But even setting aside the fact that energy consultancy Redpoint, advisor to the government’s own independent Climate Change Committee, has pointed out that a gas-based energy production system would cost the taxpayer £23bn per year more than we pay at present for the same power – without factoring in inflation – even the foundation of the statement is questionable.

Because the same report, using the government’s own predictions, along with those of the International Energy Agency, states that: ‘These (groups) envisage rising gas prices in the US and the EU over the next two decades, and a significantly higher gas price in the EU than the US, notwithstanding the potential impact of shale gas.’

Finally, Mr Osborne argues that: ‘Western democracies like ours are being out-worked, out-competed and out-smarted by these new economies. The question for countries like Britain is this: are we going to sink or swim? And the truth is some western countries won’t keep up, they won’t make the changes needed to welfare and education and tax, they’ll fall further and further behind … they’ll become poorer and poorer. I am determined that will not be the Britain I leave to my children, or you leave to yours.’

It is a grim study, of a grim future – and to a man of Osborne’s mental capacities, seemingly a foregone conclusion.

But how are ‘new economies’ ‘out-working, out-competing and out-smarting’ Western states?

In the main, it’s because wages are lower, working hours are longer and social services, such as education, health and sick pay are overlooked in the interests of ‘growth above all else’.

But we have walked a different path, and have used the benefits of our wealth to deliver a better life to the people of the UK.

What else is wealth for? Why become a wealthy state if your wealth delivers no benefit?

Why, in short, should we give up the achievements we have already made – the achievements on which we must build – to become like countries which are less developed than our own?

That is Mr Osborne’s plan A. He says there is no Plan B.

First, why accept as Chancellor a man who refuses to take the time to look at alternatives to a failed strategy?

And second, is UK Plan A really a state in which anyone would aspire to live?

You turn if you want to. No, really…

It’s going to be difficult, if I continue to write this blog, not to be e-v-er so slightly nasty about our friends the Tories. And their inexplicable friends the Lib Dems. Rest assured, there will be no sparing the striding, high-charisma, ideas-driven Labour opposition, while UKIP, the BNP and the Scottish Nationalists are all a barrel of intellectual achievement and enjoyable hi-jinks too.

But before we go there, I’m going to try to stick to a less politically-divisive topic with the matter of U-turns.

Every time a government changes its mind, there seems to be a squeal from its opponents, as well as the UK media, about a U-turn. As if, somehow, realising you’re wrong and changing your mind is as bad as realising you’re wrong but sticking to your original plan plan to kill the first-born of each family regardless.

In all honesty, we have some form for this in this country: our best joke about the Italians concerns the gear-box arrangements of their tanks, because it would undeniably have been better for the world if the partizani hadn’t opposed Mussolini, and the Italian armed forces hadn’t joined the Allies to free their country from Nazi German rule. Ho ho ho, funny Italians, changing their minds to believe that the Holocaust was a bad idea. Ha ha ha, etc.

Hilarity aside, I’m not sure whether this is purely a UK thing (maybe those of you reading this elsewhere in the world can let me know if it’s the same where you are?) but it really does seem that if you change your mind in politics, you’ve committed a crime.

The Tories, as the government at the moment, have experienced some serious criticism over this in the last two years, which is ironic, as Thatcher, Cameron’s mum (I think) and steely-eyed denizen of 1980s mega-consumption once said: ‘You turn, if you like. This lady’s not for turning.’

Sadly, I’d love to give the current government a kicking for changing its mind on things, but in all honesty, I think Thatcher’s comment was one of the three stupidest things she ever said, and in fact one of the ten worst ideas expressed by a serving UK Prime Minister (I’d tell you the others, but I’m afraid I’ll run out of future posts, so I’m keeping that as back-up).

The world changes daily, if not faster, and refusing to allow any elasticity in your view of it is just not something I want from a political leader. It’s not even something I really want from a greengrocer or bus driver.

Of course, there are certain things I think I will stand by as universal basics, eg, not going to war to ensure peace. (Hm, that’s one on the PM list…) and not reducing freedom to protect freedom (drat. That’s another), but in general, within a certain framework, I think it’s reasonable to say that while one day it might be good to carry an umbrella, on another, a pair of sunglasses might be better.

In fact, that’s it. A clothing metaphor (brilliant). We agree we should wear clothes, but what they are can change by the day. Having some ‘reserve’ clothes might be good, in case you fall into a lake, or are dropped behind enemy lines during a fancy dress festival, but in general, clothes good – same clothes at all times bad.

So when the Tories said they were going to sell off the nation’s forests (I don’t know why, and neither do they) and then everyone complained, and they changed their minds, I thought ‘oh good. A stupid policy has been reversed because people complained – showing they care – and the government listened, showing either that they care about what people think, or they don’t care enough about selling the forests to make it a vote-loser.’

But what the opposition – who hadn’t wanted the policy in the first place – and the national press, which in many cases had supported the campaign to save the forests, actually did was criticise the government for its U-turn. And agreed with its revised policy.

It just seemed a little unfair, I guess.

A similar thing happened to Labour. In 2004, Tony Blair, who had said there definitely wouldn’t be a referendum on the EU constitution, then said that actually there would be, after all. I think he probably smiled while he said it, which I imagine made my skin crawl.

Now, I hadn’t wanted a referendum, because I DID want the EU constitution, and I was pretty sure I’d be on the losing side in that debate, at least in part because an Australian non-dom tax ‘avoider’ was telling 6m people a day that the EU was bad for Britain through the pages of his excellent newspaper. The glories of the British media…

But I did think ‘oh, good. People who care about the EU want a referendum on its new constitution, and even though Tony Blair doesn’t want one, he’s listened to the people and decided there should be one.’

Interestingly, Simon Glover in the Daily Mail, a newspaper which had demanded a referendum on this exact issue (I believe it ran an editorial under the headline ‘Refusing a referendum is worse than anything Hitler, Stalin or Ghenghis Khan ever did. Kill Blair and hang his body from London Bridge as a warning to The Left’ but I admit that I have some difficulty in differentiating between the Daily Mail and whisky-inspired dystopian nightmares), handled Blair’s decision like this:

‘Tony Blair’s decision to call a referendum on the new European constitution is one of the biggest U-turns in political history. Time after time, he and ministers have said that there was not the remotest chance of a referendum. It simply couldn’t happen.

And yet now it will.

Governments don’t like public climbdowns, and Mr Blair’s change of mind has been forced on him. It is a sign of weakness.’

The last six words are the giveaway: It is a sign of weakness.

But, is it?

Because in all honesty, I’d rather see some evidence that there was a thought process going on behind the glassy, cold eyes of those who have clambered to the position of Prime Minister. You have to have a mind, to change it.

John Maynard Keynes said: ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’ (sometimes I change my mind. Sometimes I check I haven’t just drifted a little while reading about dinosaurs – who knew they wore nail varnish?).

But within the House of Commons, and among political reporters, it seems to be seen as a sign of desperate weakness, cowering under the weight of actual real facts rather than relying on the power of one’s own unhinged mind to bend reality to suit your wishes.

I suppose it comes down to an argument about whether you have the courage of your convictions, whether you will stick to your ideas in the face of public criticism. But there’s a difference between saying ‘yesterday I said sprouts should all be hurled into the sea, now I see that was silly’ and, for example, ‘yesterday I said I believed in a more equitable distribution of wealth, but because The Mail says that’s what a girl would say I am now a neo-liberal who holds to the idea that all money should be distributed LESS equitably. And in fact, children should be poorest of all.’

Unless you really like (or hate) sprouts, I’d say the alteration of one small policy in the light of new information is rather different to changing your entire political outlook overnight.

Equally, I suppose I can understand that it’s frustrating for some within government – and on the opposition benches – to see a kind of ‘government by suggestion’: That is, someone announces an idea and then takes notice of the response to it.

That was one of the things Cameron’s Tories are criticised for, but in all honesty, isn’t that better than the other things the same party could be picked up on? Are we not closer to a democratic ideal if we get the chance to take part in policy debate rather than voting for a party which says ‘no top-down reorganisation of the NHS’ and then enacts the biggest ever re-organisation of the NHS, from the top, down? I know which I’d prefer.

It’s come up again because of yesterday’s decision – seemingly just by George Osborne and David Cameron in a spare moment between twisting the legs off dogs and laughing at pictures of poor people falling into puddles – not to introduce a new 3p per litre fuel duty increase in August.

A few things have been lost in the debate which followed – not least that oil is at a lower price on the international market than it has been for several years, and that the government will STILL introduce the increase, just in January, not August.

But there were some serious questions to be asked about the ‘new’ policy. It is expected to cost the government £550m. Where will the money come from? When was the policy agreed, seeing as government ministers had been defending the government’s decision to stick with the duty increase as late as Monday afternoon?

And why, if the policy will cost £550m, and the government’s main – indeed sole – priority, by its own reckoning, is repaying the national debt at a faster rate than previously agreed, is it choosing to spend money on what amounts to a tax break for car users?

This is the point at which we come closest to talk about a U-turn, because the government fought the entire election campaign on the terrible state of the national finances and has pushed through eye-watering cuts to services, public sector employment and benefit payments because it says the sole priority of the next five years must be repaying a debt.

But simply throwing an accusation of a U-turn, as some opposition MPs, and many in the media, chose to, is pointless.

If Ed Balls stands up in the House of Commons, and accuses the Tories of a U-turn, what do we gain? We don’t know anything more about the policy, or why it has been made, and almost no-one cares anyway, outside the House itself.

If Ed Balls had chosen instead to ask: ‘Is this tax-cut, using money from an unspecified source, not evidence that the current government’s main desire is not to repay a debt, therefore necessitating massive service, employment and benefits cuts, but instead that it intends for purely ideological reasons to cut the state, making people unemployed, slashing services and punishing the poor by removing the benefits they rely on, and is using the debt as an excuse to do so?’ He might have been ridiculed.

But at least the Chancellor would have had to say something more interesting than: ‘It’s not a U-turn.’

——————————————————————————————————————–

Osborne’s policy announcement – or more accurately, what followed it – raised another issue: what does it mean to be the head of a government department?

This is not a question relating to the way he made the announcement, or the embarrassment he caused to his cabinet colleague, Transport Secretary Justine Greening, who had defended the government’s intention to GO AHEAD with the duty increase one day earlier, though perhaps there will be questions asked of the Chancellor from within the government on that.

Instead it was his decision to send a junior Treasury minister, Chloe Smith, to explain and justify the decision on live national television.

The results were embarrassing. Ms Smith, who is just two years into her tenure at the Treasury was – and I used the term kindly – mauled by Krishnan Guru Murthy on Channel Four News.

To be honest, if you are unable to handle an interview with the former NewsRound anchor, you know you’re in some trouble. But worse – and I mean the word in every possible sense – was to follow, when she was torn to pieces by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight.

Ms Smith deserves little sympathy. She is, after all, a Treasury minister, and as part of her job can be expected to answer questions about Treasury policy. But it was hard not to ask some questions as the interview progressed.

The interview on Newsnight is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bddWaHuxTzc (actual interview begins at 6.20) in case you’re interested/haven’t seen it, but to summarise:

First, she was unable to say when the policy – which she claimed to have been part of creating – was decided on. She was also unable to say when it had been announced to the rest of the government.

Second, she was unable to say where the £550m to fund the policy would come from. More exactly, she said it would come from ‘departmental underspend’ but then said she couldn’t say which underspends these were. Paxman predictably said this was because she ‘didn’t know’.

Paxman then asked whether cutting the deficit was the government’s priority. When Smith said it was, he responded: ‘Is this some sort of joke?’

It was fun, in a kind of horrific way. But it raised some questions beyond the obvious ones about the policy itself – particularly, why had this been left to Chloe Smith to defend?

What is certain is that she was briefed by the Treasury to talk about ‘benefits to households and business’ (in fairness, there may be many), as she repeats the phrase seemingly two thousand times. But it seems impossible that she was prepared in any other way.

She was unable (I think we have to assume this) to offer any detail on the policy, and was in fact unable to say anything about it other than to talk about its benefit ‘to households and businesses’. This was despite the fact that this announcement was bound to inspire interest because a) it was not known by the Transport Minister the previous day b) it raised serious questions about the nature of the UK’s debt crisis and the Tory government’s view of it, and c) because it was expected that Labour was set to call a vote on the issue next week, in which many Tories intended to rebel.

She was mauled. Twice. On national television.

In the Guardian today, Michael White made a brave attempt to argue Smith had done well under intense pressure (she did not, but in fairness to her it’s hard to see how anyone COULD have done) and was ‘bullied’ by Paxman.

Fair enough. He has form when it comes to bullying.

But on this occasion, he asked several pertinent questions of the politician put up to talk about a policy, and she was unable to answer them. It wasn’t bullying. It was journalism.

So where was the Chancellor?

George Osborne stood up in Parliament, and made the announcement, enjoying the cheers and congratulations of his colleagues. So why was a junior minister sent to defend the policy from concerned reporters working on the public’s behalf?

It seems Mr Osborne was in fact ‘entertaining ministers at 11 Downing Street’ when Ms Smith was being destroyed in front of the nation.

To be honest, I’d expect better staff protection from a McDonald’s line manager than Smith received from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

And the reason it raises questions is that this is not the first time this government has seemingly sidestepped the responsibilities of high office. I do not mean this as a criticism purely of them: any party whose ministers appeared to shirk their duty in this way should be forced to answer some questions.

But Tory Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the House of Commons in April that his Special Adviser Alan Smith had acted in a manner which was ‘clearly not appropriate’ by sending text messages and e-mails regarding the government’s views on News Corporation’s attempted buyout of a majority of shares in BSkyB to News Corps’ director of public affairs, Frederic Michel.

Smith resigned. But Hunt, Culture Secretary, and Smith’s manager, faced no reprisal at all.

In most businesses – in fact all I can think of – your role as head of department entitles you to better pay, and maybe more holidays than your staff. In the case of a government minister, you actually get to help run the country.

But with those benefits comes greater responsibility. And one area of responsibility is for the actions of your staff. You have, in fact, a legal responsibility to ensure that your staff act within the law, while at work. If they do not, of course they can be punished. But the buck stops with you.

Yet Adam Smith resigned, and Jeremy Hunt, following an (admittedly embarrassing) apology to the House, remained in his role. So what are his responsibilities? Who are they to?

Equally, one might expect that as a manager, you would have a duty of care to your employees. You might, for example, help a young, relatively new member of the team, by shielding her from the worst things the job has to throw at her, at least to begin with, so she can find her feet, grow in confidence and make a more assured contribution to the company.

You might not, perhaps, throw her in a shark pool with bits of raw meat stapled to her swim suit, spraying blood in the waters around her just to make sure.

And yet on Tuesday evening, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had dinner with friends and colleagues, while his junior minister was hung out to dry, twice, on national television.

It appears to be either cowardice, or dereliction of duty.

At university I studied a course on the media’s attitudes to politics and politicians. It was sub-titled ‘Power without responsibility’.

It’s hard not to conclude that today, that applies to those in charge of national policy.

Promises, promises

Hello.

First, an apology.

I originally set up this blog to be a site where I could talk to people about my experiences working for Save the Children in Tunisia and Libya, where the charity is attempting to bring some normality back to the lives of children and young people in refugee camps or ruined cities following the Libyan Civil War.

While I was in Tunisia, this was relatively easy, but for many reasons (lack of internet coverage, sheer weight of work), it became impossible when we were transferred to Sirte, Ghaddafi’s birthplace and the place of his ‘last stand’ (though stories at the time suggested he was killed after being found hiding in a drain, this is disputed by former supporters and opponents of his regime).

Those of you who have seen me in the time since I returned will be aware I have a fair amount to say about Libya (apologies for that) but at present I’m writing it for a book which I expect will enable me to experience rejection by publishers first-hand (another of the things to do before you’re 50 list crossed off). I will post it as and when, but possibly not for a little while.

In the meantime, I have been re-acquainting myself with UK politics and generally winding up and annoying people about it on facebook and several newspaper comment sites. While also writing a book about national politics/recent UK history (I’m really determined to get that rejection thing boxed off) it’s been a way to sound off about stuff, and weirdly also to take a break.

But one thing which has occurred time and again, in researching the things I’m writing, talking rubbish online and having conversations, is that someone will pop up and deliver the line ‘It makes no difference what you do or say. Politicians are all the same. They’re all corrupt, lazy or inept, and even those who aren’t are consistently stifled by those who are. It makes no difference who you vote for, nothing ever changes because they’re all the same.’

Now most of you are well aware of my own political opinions, and I make no apology for them here. At first, I wanted to present this view as being particularly damning for the current government, made up of two parties promising ‘change’ and ‘to do things a different way’. But that would be spectacularly unfair, as it would completely overlook the actions of Her Majesty’s Opposition while they were in government (not just the last time, either) and they deserve just as much credit as the Tories and Lib Dems for the hard work they have put into helping this be the overriding view of national politics.

There is more to being in government than waving a wand and changing everything to the way you want it. We must bear in mind that there are businesspeople – and to some extent unions – who for very different reasons oppose different policies aimed at ‘change’. This is not a value judgement in either case, just a statement of fact. And those interest groups hold power and sway outside of that granted to governments by the electorate.

We must also understand that if we exist in a globalised monetarist system (there are many many conversations to be had about that. I promise I will have as many of them as possible until one of you strangles me to death) politicians simply can’t have control – or even very much influence – over some of the issues which affect people’s daily lives, particularly when it comes to employment of those working for multi-national companies, or firms which are bought by others based overseas.

But these things are only part of a much wider problem – fundamentally, people don’t trust politicians.

Some of the reasons include the fact that a small number of politicians ARE corrupt (a small number of people in every profession are corrupt) while others are willing to ‘push the boundaries’ of corruption, to see what they can get away with. Sadly, the latter is human nature, and in all honesty the legal system has to take some responsibility for the amount of time the ‘grey area’ is encroached upon by politicians and others without consequence.

But in far more cases, politicians have actually lied, or are guilty of gross negligence and/or ineptitude. In making this allegation, I refer specifically to the parties’ seeming inability to hold to their manifesto promises.

In covering the last election, I was lied to twice by the current PM, and promised things which have not been delivered by the leader of the Lib Dems – including policies they have enacted, but not in the way they told the electorate they would.

Again, I do not, under any circumstance, want to fail to applaud the Labour Party for its own breathtaking manifesto failures and U-turns, it’s just that they have not been in power since 2010 to go back on the promises they made to the electorate, so the sting of deception is less raw for me than that practised by the coalition to date.

Either these people deliberately sat there and lied through their teeth so I, a journalist, would pass on a message to the people whose votes they wanted, or they were so inept, indeed lazy, that they had failed to research the state of the nation’s finances before striding out to offer the country an improved education system, NHS, police force, Navy, indeed anything they could think of.

And the latter would be ineptitude and laziness, as every single member of parliament, from independent backbencher to government minister, is entitled to the same information about the topic of their choice, by law. There are no ‘hidden facts’ kept from MPs, as all they have to do is ask, and the information must be provided to them, by law. The excuse ‘things were worse than we thought’ is, therefore, simply an admission that in opposition, a party has failed in its most basic duty – to use the facts to hold the government to account.

As a result, far from attempting to defend the system from accusations of laziness, ineptitude, and a lack of ability or desire to keep the promises made to the voter, I have to conclude that the people who make this point are correct: the system isn’t working, and politicians are at least in part to blame for its failings.

But the result of this has been for people to turn away from politics. Voting figures are falling to such a level that the current majority party in government received 10,703,000 votes from a possible (based on registered voting figures) 47,000,000. The party in government in this country was voted for by just over a fifth of the population of voting age.

This is in part because the voting system in this country is designed for a two- rather than multi-party competition (though AV was a pale imitation of the system with which it should have been replaced) but the fact remains that out of 47m people who could have had a say in the governance of the UK in a period of international crisis, just 29m actually did so.

And the election does make a difference. The coalition has tripled levels of student debt, and its economic policies have caused the country to fall into a second recession (now realistically a depression) with rocketing unemployment. Again, decisions like this were taken by the previous government, which took us into two illegal wars, risking the lives and health of thousands of UK-born troops. Government DOES matter.

Not only that, refusal to take an interest in politics is not only damaging – allowing a tiny minority of energetic voters to change the face of the UK for at least five years at a time – but also of direct benefit to only one group of people: the politicians themselves.

If the view of the electorate is that politicians are lazy, inept or corrupt, then turning away from them only allows them to continue to be so. If you say ‘it makes no difference who we vote for, when they get into power they will only do what they always do, lie, cheat, seal and/or fail’ and that’s the genuine expectation, then nothing happens when they DO lie, cheat, steal or fail, and who benefits?

Politicians are paid huge salaries to represent us. I don’t begrudge them that, as it’s a difficult job, and as is often trotted out many of them could earn more in business. But they’re paid that by us. To do the things they promised to do, which we told them to do by voting for them. So vote, and then hold them accountable.

If someone lies to the electorate, or fails to do what you voted for them to do, tell them. And call for them to be removed, or at the very least to explain themselves at a by-election.

On a grander scale, the system should be altered so that, if a party reaches government and fails to live up to its manifesto promises, or if, as in the current (and some previous) case actually does the opposite of what it promised to win your vote, we should be able to extend the current ‘petition’ system (in which if 1m people sign a petition, the matter they raise must be debated in parliament) to include the following: if 4.8m people (just over ten per cent of the current UK voting population) believe a government is not doing what it said it would in its manifesto, a General Election must be called. This gives the party in government a chance to explain its actions, and the opposition a chance to tell people how it would do things differently (if indeed it would).

We keep preaching about the benefits of a democratic system over all others (actually a view I generally agree with) and even going to war to ‘prove’ we’re right.

But politicians of all stripes are failing in their most basic duty – to do the things they promised they would if they were elected. Don’t excuse them by saying ‘they’re all like that.’ You pay them. Demand better.

Saturday

EVEN IN a refugee camp, the weekend is the weekend.

From Monday to Friday, language, IT, maths and humanities are taught to youngsters aged 6-18, at the makeshift city’s family centre.

Others who have been unable to regularly attend school before, take part in ‘accelerated learning’ schemes, many learning for the first time to read and write.

Teachers recruited from towns nearby, and from within the communities of refugees at the camp, work alongside child protection staff and caseworkers, whose role is to find and assist children who arrived without family or friends, and are otherwise literally strangers in the strangest of lands.

But on Friday afternoon, a large number of the older children attend the camp’s mosque, made from several of the same tents in which individuals and families live.

Many of the others leave to prepare performances for the weekly party and stage show arranged by another of the permanent aid groups at the camp.

As a result, the youngest and littlest of the desert’s residents can, for a short time,totter and stumble unchallenged, as kings and queens of the sand.

They shout and laugh, playing on the donated slide, swings and seesaw, or staging impromptu, comical, games of volleyball and football.

On Saturdays, too, leisure activities take over. Older children return to the centre, but instead of lessons, they take part in sport, music and dance.

A 22 year-old refugee oversees the outdoor pursuits.

As the children play, we talk. He doesn’t know exactly where he’s from, he says, but he lists his nationality now as Ogaden.

The Ogaden live in an Ethiopean region of the same name. Most of them refer to the region as Somali Galbeed – Western Somalia.

His story begins, as he tells it, when he was eight.

His aunt became sick. He travelled by car with his grandmother from Kenya to Ethiopia to be closer to her.

The crossing is not, by the standards of east Africa, regarded as especially dangerous.

But Ethiopia’s civil war had recently ended after almost 20 years, and a new war with neighbouring Eritrea was just a year away, so heavily armed militia were ever-present.

The boy and his grandmother made it across the border.

His mother, father and sisters and brothers, following in a separate car, never did.

For the rest of his life, he has believed them dead, though he has had no definite confirmation of that, and is unlikely ever to get it.

In any case, he has not heard from any of them since.

Just weeks later, he lost his last link to his family, and his past, when he turned from playing in a garden to see his grandmother shot in the head by Ethiopian militia.

He was forced to watch as the soldiers then burned the house down.

As he spoke, the youngsters continued to play.

More than a thousand miles away, my football team struggled to a narrow victory.

It could have been happening on another planet.

I don’t think this is the place to tell the story of his life. To be honest, I’m not sure what is.

He told me about crossing four borders, repeated imprisonments, and repeated escapes.

About shipwrecks, and a walk through a minefield in which 12 out of 16 people were killed.

About a marriage to a woman who left him at the camp, and who he believes died on an attempted sea crossing to Italy.

Earlier in the week, I had talked to another Somalian refugee, a 17 year-old, of whom I asked what may seem like a silly question: why did you flee Libya when fighting broke out?

I expected him to talk about the dangers of stray bullets, or of damage to property.

Instead, he said: ‘In Somalia, we had no government for 13 years. Even now, the government is weak. As a result, people are kidnapped and killed. Somalis and foreigners. And there was no comeback. No-one did anything. In Libya, we feared the same thing would happen. And we were the foreigners. We had to escape.’

On Saturday, now late in the afternoon, we finished talking. The youngsters had long since finished playing, packed up and returned to their tents.

The sun was still shining. I asked if I could take his photo.

As he posed, leaning against goalposts made from spare tent poles, he said: ‘The camp has been better for me. Here, I can help children. I watch them smile and I don’t feel alone anymore.’

He smiled as we shook hands and said goodbye.

I tried to smile back.

I’m still not completely sure I managed it.