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StephenTall.org

5 things about this week (18 July 2018)

by Stephen Tall on July 18, 2018

I’ve been jadedly following all things Brexit. For a brief moment, 10 days ago, it looked like Theresa May’s Chequers deal had squared off all but the most fanatical Tory Brexiters and given the government a substantial basis for negotiating a non-disastrous withdrawal from the EU.

Then David Davis and Boris Johnson quit the cabinet on the basis that if we just speak LOUDLY and s l o w l y to the foreigners they’ll realise how lucky Europe is to have us as a vexatious neighbour. To quote Boris: “Imagine Trump doing Brexit… He’d go in bloody hard… There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”

It’s the kind of political willy-waving that appeals to blonde narcissists with superiority complexes, though there’s scant evidence Trump’s bluster actually makes a difference.

And of course it ignores the fact that when the President of the USA makes threats he does so from a position of strength; whereas the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (to remind Brexiters of our country’s full name) will be negotiating Brexit from a position of weakness (having triggered Article 50’s two-year countdown 15 months ago with no strategy for agreeing a deal even with her own cabinet, let alone with the other 27 EU member states).

Quite simply, the Brexiters have hit a reality wall. They made all kinds of promises in the referendum campaign — we’d retain the benefits of the single market; countries would be queuing up to cut trade deals with us; the NHS would be awash with cash; the border with Northern Ireland was easy to solve — which have since disintegrated.

The next few months are oh-so-predictable. Lots of Brexiter tantrums to try and get the EU to give in to the Hard Brexit Tories’ impossibly contradictory demands; followed by outraged indignation at those bloody foreigners for failing to understand how lucky they are that we want to continue benefiting from the bits of the EU that work to our advantage. Just watch…

**

I’ve been thinking about patriotism, following another national exit — England’s defeat in the World Cup semi-final. I wasn’t “gutted” or “sick as a parrot”; I just felt a bit empty. I guess like most fans of the national team I’ve acquired a tolerance to disappointment.

There is often a fine line between patriotism and nationalism. How often does pride in national achievements spill over into an unattractive, usually drunken, xenophobic boorishness?

Yet this English football team — greater than the sum of its parts, with Harry Kane the only indisputably world-class individual — helped to define the difference. Patriotism is inclusive, nationalism is exclusionary, and pretty much the whole nation cheered on a squad in which 11 of 23 players are black or of mixed ethnicity.

David Baddiel nailed my kind of patriotism, explaining that the enduring appeal of the football anthem he co-wrote, Three Lions, is its non-triumphalism. He said it’s “quite hard to be English and be unqualifiedly proud of your country … whereas actually it’s OK to be proud in a downbeat, qualified way”. Yep, basically.

**

I was struck by the reaction to my last blog which covered my views on the transgender debate — that I support equal rights for trans people, but don’t accept the “trans women are women” mantra — with half a dozen people contacting me privately to say thanks for saying that. That’s never happened to me before. It’s a pointer of how toxic online discussion of this topic is, and how lots of people, especially women, quite rationally choose simply not to get involved.

So I was pleased to see the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, Adam Tickell, sticking up for the rights of one of his academics, Dr Kathleen Stock, a feminist ‘gender-critical’ philosopher, to freely articulate her views without fear of being unpleasantly targeted:

By celebrating inclusion, we must recognise the personal courage of the many individuals who come up against abuse or unacceptable behaviour – just because they are being themselves. I know it has been extremely difficult for many people in the transgender and non-binary community to hear the views held by our academic.

But for me, alongside this, we must also be kind to those people who are brave enough to share their own views – and respect the courage they have for doing so. Whether it is one of our academics or another member of staff, or one of our students, I feel very strongly that we must respect their right to free speech. I hold a deep-rooted concern about the future of our democratic society if we silence the views of people we don’t agree with – even if our disagreements are vehemently opposed.

And speaking of respectfully debating these vexed issues, The Economist has done a fabulous job of curating a range of articles about ‘transgender identities‘ from different perspectives. It really is well worth reading.

**

I’ve been reading Don’t be a dick, Pete — Stuart Heritage’s comic-biography of his own brother — the wildcard choice from my holiday reading list. It’s funny, rude, honest and touching. Though if I wrote a ‘no filter’ book like this about one of my brothers, there would be a major family rift. But it seems to have brought them closer together, and for that I’m genuinely glad.

And I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Erin Kelly’s He Said, She Said, a gripping two-hander about a rape that sets in train a series of events which tears lives apart. It really gets under the skin of trust in relationships: how lies spiral out of control, and the destructiveness of nagging doubt.

**

Better use of evidence in public policy has long been a bugbear of mine; three years ago I published an essay, A liberal approach to evidence-based policy making, which argued the need for more and better use of robust trials to “tackle effectively the messy, difficult problems we face”, rather than simply relying on dogmatic gut instinct.

So I was pleased to see the FT give space to Caroline Fiennes to make a similar point about philanthropists:

Many donors intuit the solution to some broader social problem. It seems not to occur to them that they might be wrong, nor that there might be better variations.

We patently do not yet know how to solve many social problems. We need to discover — and acknowledge — our ignorance here, and be scientific and fearless about assessing whether proposed solutions actually work.

It is science that doubled life expectancy in the West within only about a century, and moved us from carrier pigeons to mobile phones. It will be science, and the attendant humility of donors and public policymakers to their own ignorance, that will enable us to solve the longest-standing social problems.

After a week of yet more Brexit/Trump idiocy, I think I’ll leave this week’s despatch on that semi-optimistic note.

5 things about this week (8 July 2018)

by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2018

I’ve been thinking why the current debate about gender identity — in particular the argument which hinges on whether you accept the statement “trans women are women” — is such an unpleasantly aggressive one.

Is it because so much of the public discourse happens online (a guarantee of incivility)? Is it because activists dominate the discussion, with the moderate majority steering well clear? Is it because of the pathetic name-calling that characterises the stand-off (eg, TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) — see also that other new insult, “gammon”, used to dismiss old white men)? Or the casual over-reach to label whoever’s on the opposite side of the debate as either “transphobic” or “misogynistic” in place of calm persuasion?

I reckon it’s all those, plus the fact that both groups — the trans activists who assert that those who self-declare they have changed gender should now be accorded by society their chosen status, male or female; and the feminists who argue that being born biologically female in a patriarchal society creates a different and inherently oppressed lived experience — regard themselves as true progressives.

Trans activists regularly declare themselves to be on the right side of history, allying themselves to the painfully hard-fought battle for gay equality. Feminists who disagree point out nobody is disputing the need for equal human rights for all trans people (both trans men and trans women), but maintain that natally-born women face a structural oppression that trans women born and brought up as men cannot truly understand.

It’s not a debate I want to duck. My own view is that:

  • being born biologically female means you face socio-cultural challenges the other half of us don’t and that should continue to be recognised;
  • we should treat with the utmost compassion and respect those who (for whatever reasons) feel they don’t ‘fit’ with their biological sex; and
  • no individual should face any sort of discrimination either because of the sex they were born as or how they later choose to present to the world.
  • Here, by the way, are a couple of articles I’ve read (among many) on this topic which have influenced my thinking: Gender is not a spectrum, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper; and Gender identity needs to be based on objective evidence rather than feelings, Debbie Hayton.

    **

    I’ve been watching pretty much nothing but the World Cup. Though England’s penalty shoot-out against Columbia I sat out on a bench on a street in Spain’s Santiago de Compostela — I couldn’t face watching a seventh championship exit, so missed out on witnessing our first World Cup penalties triumph. Our win against Sweden was a more comfortable viewing experience (though I missed Harry Maguire’s goal: I was chasing our 3 year-old in a game of monsters at the time. Peppa Pig on the iPad saw him through the second half, releasing me to watch uninterrupted.)

    What’s been terrific — other than, obviously, England reaching the World Cup semi-finals for only the second time in my life — is the deserved love for manager Gareth Southgate. A thoughtful, unassuming, determined coach, it’s also an accident that he’s in the role, having been drafted hastily in following Sam Allardyce’s abrupt departure. Yet he’s now a national hero, thanks to his redemptive back-story (he missed the crucial penalty which knocked England out of Euro ’96), his meticulous preparations (including psychometric testing of his players to assess their fitness for the stress of that moment in the spotlight), and his seamless ability to inspire through stories rather than braggadachio. Here’s a snippet from the Guardian:

    On Tuesday, before the game against Colombia, Gareth Southgate’s team-talk focused on the backgrounds of his players and the thing they had in common. Jordan Pickford’s back story included a loan spell for Darlington when they were relegated from the Conference, followed by a stint at Alfreton Town. Jamie Vardy has his tales from Fleetwood Town. Harry Maguire was in League One with Sheffield United. Dele Alli experienced the lower leagues with MK Dons and Harry Kane’s loan spells included Leyton Orient and Millwall. And on and on. These might be exceptionally rich men but so many of these players have worked their way up. It is not an ego-free environment, by any means, but there is also not the big-time attitude that existed in other England squads. And to say they lack hunger is, frankly, absurd.

    In short, we are far more united when we work together; and that’s what Southgate is trying to coax out of his young team, to get them to achieve their best. Other leaders, please take note. Speaking of which…

    **

    It looks like we’re heading for a soft-ish Brexit. No, we’re not going to stay in the single market or the Customs Union after Brexit; instead we’ll “maintain a common rulebook for all goods” with the EU, including agricultural products; and the borders between the UK and EU will be treated as a “combined customs territory”. Spot the difference?

    The Hard Brexiteers have been comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Theresa May, it seems. Not because she’s a political genius — the Chequers agreement is a reversal of the position on which she fought the 2017 election — but because they couldn’t work out an alternative, feasible plan. Because there isn’t one. Those who wanted us to Leave, and persuaded a bare majority of the country that it would be easy to do so, have found the actual task of working out what to do next to be impossible.

    So we’ll do our best to continue as we are, but with a patched-up deal that’s worse than the one we currently have. Hooray for Brexit, eh?

    **

    I’ve been reading Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn — the crime novel from my holiday reading list. She’s such a good writer. I first came across her via Life After Life, one of my all-time favourite books. I then read its sort-of sequel, A God in Ruins, almost as good. I then turned to her debut, Behind The Scenes At The Museum, which is great but a bit harder going. And now I’ve started her Jackson Brodie series; ostensibly crime novels, but really they’re an excuse for penetrating investigations into fascinating characters’ inner workings. And the great thing is, I’m only half-way through her ouevre (with an eleventh novel, Transcription, due this autumn). If you haven’t yet, do so immediately.

    **

    I guess I’m not alone in regarding Paul Dacre, long-standing editor of the Daily Mail, as one rung above Satan. Yet this week, he delivered a fantastic eulogy at the memorial service for his opposite number (in pretty much every sense) at The Guardian for many years, Peter Preston. It’s well worth a read. I liked this excerpt …

    … he was, quite simply, a print man. He loved that magical symbiosis of newsprint, pictures, headlines, fonts and beautiful words that at their best can make a paper a functioning part of society rather than a commentary at its edges. Inevitably, sadly, those Fleet Street skills needed for that magic symbiosis are dying in an internet age that seems to have a voracious need for free, somewhat crudely expressed, round-the-clock information and gratification. Yes, of course, journalism will survive and may one day flourish again. But it will be different.

    … because it spoke to me. A child of the ’80s, I was obsessed by newspapers, in an age when they were the only form of instant mass written word communication, and had real power. Though I’m acutely aware we should be careful about nostalgising an era when newspapers got away with thin content and restrictive trade union-policed work practices (those two points are linked), which, among other things, discriminated horribly against women.

    My respect for Dacre notches up a rung. We need to try harder to find the best in those we disagree with (especially when those disagreements are often a minority report). There’s a lovely episode of BBC Radio 4’s Great Lives in which the formidable Scottish left-wing author Val McDermid talks about her enduring friendship with that redoutable English conservative, PD James, though they were polar opposites in their outlooks. I once suggested they’d have blocked each other if they’d only known each other through Twitter. Here’s how Val McDermid replied:

    DSC08520_1PS: this is my eight and final week of shared parental leave. Back to work on Monday. I’ll try and blog about the best bits. In the meantime, here’s me and my boys enjoying our holiday in Galicia, Spain.

    5 things about this week (23 June 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on June 23, 2018

    What is there left to say about Trump and the USA? The president’s policy of caging migrant children separated from their parents has proven too horrific even for him to sustain. (The audio recording of Spanish-speaking children crying out for their missing mums and dads is just heart-rending.) If there’s any chink of light in this story at all, it’s that Trump was forced to U-turn.

    But note that polls showed a majority of Republicans (55%) backed him — and as The Economist points out here he only cares about energising his base. That, after all, is what put him in the White House in the first place; a blunt appeal to white America to take back control. Will what worked in 2016 work again in 2020 (assuming Trump does go for re-election) — you’re more optimistic than me if you’d bet against it.

    **

    I’ve been trying not to care about who hosts BBC1’s Confirmation Bias Clapalong Time Question Time following David Dimbleby’s departure. Trying not to care about QT is the default position of sophisticated political hacks; note how often we take to Twitter to declare we’re not watching it. I actually don’t watch it these days. It’s hard to know when the format got broke… Perhaps when they added a fifth panellist, meaning no-one gets time to develop proper arguments; or perhaps when the public decided going for cheap pops at the pols was the best way to go viral. Perhaps both. Either way, QT is all heat and little light. It is to serious political debate what WWF wrestling is to Olympic athletics.

    **

    I’ve been choosing my holiday reading. This used to be a thought-demanding, semi-stressful task — working out what which 5 (ish) books would fit in my suitcase and trying to anticipate what mood I might be in when I was elsewhere. A couple of quality Booker-ish novels, a crime thriller, a serious non-fiction read, and a wildcard were the usual mix. These days, there’s zero anxiety — I’ve got about 15 unread books downloaded to my Kindle — but also less anticipation. Then again, with two young children there’s also zero time.

    If I did have still to choose, though, here’s the five I think would be on my short-list:

  • Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Booker-ish, 1)
  • Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (Booker-ish, 2)
  • Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn (crime thriller, though seriously well-written)
  • Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (non-fiction, long meant to read it)
  • Stuart Heritage, Don’t be a dick, Pete (wildcard — brilliantly funny Guardian writer)
  • **

    I’ve been reading about sugar: Wired’s long-read, The Collapse of a $40 Million Nutrition Science Crusade, how Gary Taubes’ anti-sugar campaign has more or less dissolved. The topic interests me as, when my partner was diagnosed with gestational diabetes during her last pregnancy, she was set a strict low-sugar diet which she had to monitor via twice-daily blood-prick tests. She lost loads of weight and I decided to join in; partly to avoid the inconvenience of cooking separate dinners, partly to lose the 5kg I needed to fit back into my when-I-was-30 clothes. And it’s worked brilliantly. Plus, it has the major diet advantage that drinking red wine is just fiiine (I’m doing it now, as I type).

    The tl;dr upshot of the article is that Taubes et al have been able to produce no hard evidence (yet) that a low-sugar diet is more effective than a low-fat one. Similarly, a recent major study comparing low-carb / low-fat diets found no major differences; and therefore advises that folk choose the diet that personally suits them best. (See above: red wine.)

    PS: this week, I made low-sugar brownies in my slow-cooker. The recipe demanded the use of 85%-cocoa chocolate with the inevitable result that the brownies are uneatable… unless mushed-up with (ahem) plenty of ice-cream.

    **

    Swim time with the baby

    Swim time with the baby

    I’m three-quarters through my 8 weeks’ shared parental leave. Six weeks is nothing, I realise, just a tourist excursion into maternity leave. Still, I think I’m glimpsing the conflicted feelings my mum-friends experience at the prospect of going back to work. Relief at a return to normality, mixed with real remorse at the milestones I’ll miss out on witnessing first-hand.

    Our baby has learned to eat (and, mostly, enjoy) solids during my time off. He’s become much more confidently mobile. But he hasn’t yet said “mummy” (or “daddy”, despite a lot of coaching), or clapped his hands, or taken his first steps. Chances are, I won’t be around when he does. Six weeks’ ago, I’d have rationalised that away quite comfortably. Now, I feel a little bit sad at the prospect.

    Tuesdays have become my favourite day. With our high-energy and chatty ‘threenager’ in nursery I can focus on the baby. I take him to rhyme time at the library (where there’s maybe one other solo dad and 50 mums), then meet up with my partner to do some shopping and have some lunch. This week, while she had a scheduled afternoon work call, I took the baby to the park, playing on the swings and slide (so did he). Great fun and it wore him out, so I got to sit in the sunshine and read for half an hour while he napped. Then it was time to collect the threenager from nursery, and go back home with them both for dinner, bath, book and bed. It was pretty much a perfect day.

    And if you’d told me six weeks’ ago that would be my idea of perfection, I’d have laughed. Funny thing, parenthood.

    5 things about this week (17 June 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on June 17, 2018

    I’ve been ignoring all things Brexit. Well, that’s not strictly true; I’m not on Love Island. Eg, I know David Davis threatened to resign (yes, again) over whether the backstop agreement between the UK and the EU over the Northern Irish border is time-limited. I also know that a handful of Tory Remainer rebels threatened to rebel against Theresa May (yes, again) before being shafted agreeing to a compromise that was denied as soon as their votes were in the bag. And so it goes on, and on.

    As a pragmatic Remainer, here are my priors on Brexit:
    1) it was a stupid decision driven by a number of factors, including racism (a subset of anti-immigration, but a decisive one in such a close vote);
    2) it’s officially already made our country poorer, just as predicted;
    3) nonetheless, we have to go ahead with it, if only to prevent a future betrayal myth springing up;
    4) it’s unlikely it will be a disaster (though, admittedly, Theresa May’s cak-handed approach means we can’t rule that out), most likely we will realise in a few years’ time that quite simply we’ve been diminished;
    5) we’ll spend the next few decades gradually opting back into bits of the EU (at great expense) until we end up pretty much where we are now, or perhaps even re-joining.

    In short, I see no way of preventing Brexit and don’t think we should try; but the softer it is, the better it will be and the less humiliating it will be for us to reverse. And if my priors are wrong, and Brexit does unleash some hitherto unseen Global British greatness, well we can always go harder later.

    I’ve been watching BBC2’s Germaine Bloody Greer, a fascinating, revealing documentary marking the almost half-centenary of The Female Eunuch’s publication. While the images of Greer now (79, unsteadily tramping the woodland at her home) were designed to deliberately contrast with Greer then (31, a smoulderingly vivacious whip-smart intellectual) what it also highlighted was the consistent iconoclasm of her beliefs. She’s not an ‘equality feminist’ if that simply means inheriting equal shares in a man’s world; true female freedom has to be much, much more than that. The film also reminded us why she’s a telly-dream: always caustic, always candid, always interesting, whether talking #MeToo, transgenderism, or pornography. A quite remarkable woman who it seems really doesn’t care what people think of her. We need more of them.

    I’ve been listening to Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, an entertaining account of Kim Philby’s role as ‘The Third Man’, double-agenting for the Soviet Union. It shows how far you can get with a slice of luck, masses of chutzpah, and the benefit of the doubt which comes from being a clubbable chap who’s “one of us”. Interestingly, Macintyre suggests MI6 engineered Philby’s defection to Moscow, preferring to appear incompetent in letting him escape their clutches than having to deal with the fall-out from his arraignment for spying.

    Macintyre does his best to show the consequences of Philby’s treachery; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died because of the secrets he betrayed. Yet there’s an inescapable glamour to spying — risky undercover lies in the name of a greater good, your ideology – which somehow elevates this crime above the plainer ‘conspiracy to murder’ reality. Even the terms “treachery” and “betrayal” feel somehow quaint now, rather than the utterly damning insults they once were. Philby’s second wife bluntly asks him once, “Which comes first for you: your family or the Communist Party?” He didn’t hesitate before answering “The Party”. Admirable or chilling? A bit of both, is my honest answer.

    I’ve been obsessed by the World Cup. No, I don’t like that it’s being hosted in the autocratic kleptocracy that is Russia; but it’s a festival of football which I find joyous to watch. Of the top 4 teams — Germany, France, Brazil and Spain — so far only France has won (squeaking past Australia). I still wouldn’t bet against them being the final 4, but that they’re being put through their paces is all part of the fun.

    One question still puzzles me. In political programmes, we don’t rely solely on ex-MPs to be pundits: journalists and other hangers-on who understand the game, and can analyse it perhaps more dispassionately, are also asked their views. Yet in football, it’s always ex-footballers (with varying levels of coherence). I’m a fan of the introduction of VAR; in part because we now get to hear from referees clearly explaining the real-time thought processes of those interpreting the laws of the game. That addition has brought a new dimension to watching a match. Maybe next they could get some football writers on, like Sky Sports’ always fascinating Sunday Supplement. Why not aim for a plurality of voices?

    20180611_113427I’ve been enjoying Father’s Day at what is the beginning of my sixth week of shared parental leave. It’s often seen as a somewhat nouveau interloper — when I was a child, we bought my mum a card and present on Mother’s Day, but only a card for my dad on Father’s Day — though their historical origins are roughly equivalent (according to Metro anyway); both trace their genealogies back centuries before becoming popularised in the US c.1908.

    I’m glad we have it; though obviously I have to declare an interest. But society has a long, long way to go before parenting is regarded as an equal shares responsibility between mums and dads. Any nudge in the right direction is welcome. Also I got cake for breakfast.

    Anyway, I finish with my favourite photo of the week: my ‘threenager’ being a snail.

    5 things about this week (9 June 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on June 9, 2018

    I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. It’s a denunciation from a Silicon Valley insider of what he calls BUMMER (‘Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent’) – ie, anything on the internet which hoovers up your data to sell stuff to you.

    It’s an interesting enough marshalling of familiar arguments. The one which resonates most with me is the coarsening effect of the outrage-emitter that is Twitter (see last week). I’m more blase about the doubtless pernicious impact of ads popping up scraped from my browsing history or my emails – it doesn’t seem a bad trade-off to me. They get to guess what I might want to buy in return for offering me useful services, gratis. (One of the reasons that my once icy opposition to ID cards has melted away; Google knows way more about me that the state does.)

    Lanier argues that BUMMER companies need to re-invent their business model – to stop relying on advertising to stay free (which is what impels them to suck up all our data, dementor-style) and to focus on developing services people will be willing to pay for, including search engines and social media. Seems ridiculous at first, but he makes the point that the renaissance of television has come about not by offering free-to-view, advertising-paid shows — the commercial norm until a decade ago — but through companies like Netflix and HBO persuading punters to pay monthly subscriptions.

    I’m a little sceptical the analogy with social media works. Lanier is, too, hence his argument we should delete our social media accounts, thus forcing the tech giants to develop something better. You first…

    I’ve been watching BBC1’s A Very English Scandal, with Hugh Grant as former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, whose career was ended by his alleged involvement in a plot to kill an alleged former lover, Norman Scott (played by Ben Whishaw). As well as brilliantly acted, it’s impressively written (Russell T Davies) and directed (Stephen Frears).

    I watched it a little uneasily, though, as it confidently presented plausible conjecture as historical fact. We don’t know if Thorpe did actually order Scott’s murder. We don’t absolutely know if he and Scott actually were lovers (though they almost certainly were). What we do know is there were conflicting testimonies from a cast of varyingly unreliable witnesses — and, in Thorpe’s case, no testimony at all — which meant it wasn’t much of a surprise when he was cleared of the charges.

    Ambivalence is hard to dramatise, but I rather wish Davies and Frears had entertained even a smidgeon of the doubt which still exists.

    I’ve been listening to John le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies, the final (?) George Smiley novel. My prior view, based on n=1 of reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is that le Carre’s books are dully stodgy, but make stonkingly good adaptations. Yes, the Alec Guinness TV series and the Gary Oldman film; but especially the BBC Radio 4 adaptations, of which the best is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold — to which Legacy is the prequel/sequel/spin-off. Tom Hollander is its pitch-perfect narrator (if it’s filmed I hope he plays the sly MI6 lawyer, Bunny). It lacks the thrilling denouement/reveal of the best le Carres — instead we get a sightly preachy paean to Europe from old George — but its clever interleaving of plot and characters from novels written half a century apart is pretty remarkable.

    I’m eagerly anticipating the World Cup. I’ve drawn Peru in the office sweepstake, which I had presumed was a no-hope cause. But apparently, ranked 11th in the world (who knew?), they’ve a better chance of winning the trophy than England. So it’s only an almost no-hope cause.

    IMG-20180604-WA0000I’m half-way through my 8 weeks’ shared parental leave. Summary: it’s going quickly. Sidenote: if you do take shared parental leave can I recommend timing your baby such that your leave falls during the summer when the World Cup is on?

    This week was especially notable for our trip to the Sussex seaside, half an hour’s drive away. It was one of those glorious, happy, sunny days I hope my kids come to remember as being what every day was like in summer. Footnote spoiler: actually, neither of their prefrontal cortexes are sufficiently developed yet to remember the day.

    5 things about this week (1 Jun 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on May 31, 2018

    What I’ve been thinking…

    Has the centre of British politics really run out of ideas? It’s the kind of casual remark which will get wise politico heads nodding in agreement. But I’m not sure I go along with it. After all, it’s only 3 years since David Cameron’s won a shock election victory thanks to an explicit promise to maintain the status quo:

    That’s conservatism for you. It was also unabashedly centrist in its pitch (albeit more so with hindsight than perhaps seemed apparent at the time). So centrists can win.

    The problem isn’t a lack of centrist ideas. At any rate, no more of a lack of ideas than afflicts either the contemporary Conservatives (in thrall to its right-wing Brexit obsessives) or Labour (in thrall to a hard-left cult with no political imagination beyond state ownership).

    No, the problem is simpler than that: neither of the two current party leaders are centrists. That’s why there’s a crisis in centrism — there’s nobody to actually get on with doing the centrist thing (ie, trying not to bugger up the economy and making sure there are enough decent hospitals and schools).

    What I’ve been tweeting…

    Actually, I haven’t been. I’ve been gradually weaning myself off Twitter over several months. I’ve never been a natural at it — I’m better at paragraphs than epigraphs — and I dislike its gravitational pull towards negativity and outrage.

    I’ve had to mute friends who I reckoned I might not want to remain friends with if I kept reading their tweets. And though I’m careful who I follow I still end up seeing idiot-tweets from the professional controversialists as normally sensible people decide to “call them out”, aka giving them exactly what they want: attention.

    I’ve been struck by the comments of a couple of people recently.

    First, from the brilliant Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (in a wide-ranging Guardian interview well worth reading), who said simply, “there’s an ugliness about it”.

    And secondly, from this interview of Jaron Lanier by Danny Fortson in this week’s The Times about Lanier’s new book, Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now:

    Over 160 pages, Lanier uses the term “asshole” 126 times. Indeed, the title of one of his 10 arguments is “Social media is making you an asshole”. … Now, you may not feel like you match that description, but stop and think about that snarky tweet you sent to a stranger, that joke you made at someone’s expense on Facebook, the stolen minutes you spent reading the negative comments beneath a YouTube video. It is a subtle but unrelenting process, like climate change, Lanier argues. But instead of melting the ice caps, it is chipping away at your humanity.

    Twitter has been chipping away at my humanity for too long. I’m consciously uncoupling from it. Which, by the way, is why this blog has been revived.

    What I’ve been reading

    I’m midway through the second of Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical Patrick Melrose novels, Bad News. I loved the first, Never Mind. This one I’m struggling with a little more because (1) I’m not on holiday now, and (2) because needle phobia.

    What I’ve been listening to

    If you’re expecting music recommendations from me, forget it. Having kids has utterly destroyed my interest in music — nothing to do with time, it’s just I’ve learned to enjoy silence. I can just about cope with choral music. That’s it. Though my Alexa would have you think I listen to an awful lot of Justin Fletcher singing nursery rhymes. And truth be told I do love his rave version of What Does the Fox Say?:

    What I do listen to a lot more is audiobooks — to while away commuting, housework, DIY — and I’ve just finished an Agatha Christie; my favourite of her books, in fact, ‘Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case‘. It’s deeply ingenious, with so many twists, deftly done; also both psychological and philosophical, with discussion of Othello, euthanasia and eugenics.

    What I’ve been doing

    20180524_173123I’ve reached the end of my 3rd week of shared parental leave (of 8 weeks). In short, it’s great. If you get the chance to do it, do it.

    Vince Cable: first thoughts on his leadership (and his biggest challenge)

    by Stephen Tall on July 20, 2017

    Finally — after a slightly absurd delay even when it became obvious there would be no other candidates, and a decade after he first ruled himself out of the running for the job on the grounds of his age — Vince Cable has been ‘elected’ Lib Dem leader.

    I’d probably have voted for him if the position had been contested, but I wouldn’t take my endorsement as a golden pat on the shoulder. Since I left Labour and joined the Lib Dems in 1999, I’ve given David Rendel, Ming Campbell, Chris Huhne and Tim Farron my first preferences as leader. The only two I backed successfully (Ming and Tim) had the shortest tenures. Correlation isn’t causation, but, still, I wouldn’t blame you for doubting my sagacity.

    But sagacity is, of course, Vince’s forte. He was among the few to foresee the dangers lurking beneath the surface of the seemingly unsinkable British economy in 2007. His lowest professional moment — being stripped of his cabinet responsibility for assessing Rupert Murdoch’s bid for outright control of Sky after unwisely letting slip to an undercover journalist that he had ‘declared war’ on the media mogul — was later transformed into triumph after the phone hacking scandal forced all politicians to declare war on Murdoch (very temporarily in the Tories’ case).

    I declared him my un-hero back in the days when blogging was cutting-edge social media. For all his brilliance, though, he has his flaws — most notably, for not being collegiate. He launched his ill-fated ‘mansion tax’ on to an unsuspecting Lib Dem conference in 2009, much to the chagrin of his colleagues in neighbouring seats whose constituencies would be most affected. Still, collegiality is less of an essential requirement for the leader’s job now they have fewer colleagues.

    The main criticism levelled against him in this non-campaign (other than being too old, which is beyond is control) has centred on an interview with the New Statesman, which led to accusations — obviously, though not only, on the Guido Fawkes website — that he had hand-waved away the idea sexism or racism are issues any more. Here’s the full passage:

    … Cable is 74 years old. Is he the right leader to attract youth support? “There was a phase – was it 20, 30 years ago? – when there was a faith in youth,” he says. “You know, Tony Blair, Nick [Clegg] and others. And the mood has changed. It’s more sober. People are puzzled and angry . . . and I think they’re willing to listen to people who’ve got some experience, some historical memory, of the way things are.” …

    Yet many Lib Dems say that it’s time for a younger, fresher face. There was widespread disappointment that Jo Swinson, who could have been their first female leader, didn’t stand. Cable praises Swinson, who will be his deputy, but he insists that he is “not standing as a caretaker”.

    “Gender isn’t an issue any more, rightly so,” he adds. “Thanks to Obama, race isn’t really an issue any more – at least, we hope not. And age shouldn’t be, either. It should be who you are and what you have to say.”

    Now, the quote which got snipped and landed Vince in trouble in some quarters is “Gender isn’t an issue any more”. But, in context, it’s clear he’s talking about whether gender (or race) is any more an automatic bar to being a political leader — which is very different to the accusation levelled against him that he was denying the existence of sexism and racism. An accusation which must be pretty hurtful to someone who started an inter-racial family and whose father didn’t speak to him for four years as a result.

    Here are some things I think Vince has going for him (other than being pretty darn clever):

    He gives good talking head: the media will actually want to interview him. For a party with 12 MPs, that’s a pretty good qualification in itself. Of course, that does carry with it the risks of occasional loose lips (see above) — but if there’s one thing worse than being talked about…

    He will appeal to moderates: as I’ve asked before, who should the Conservative who liked John Major, or the Labour supporter who wanted Yvette Cooper to be leader, vote for? Certainly not the current incarnations of their party. Vince might well be taken seriously by voters who didn’t warm to Tim Farron’s cheeky chappiness.

    He’s a grown-up: true, Vince hasn’t been tested by a leadership campaign. As Gordon Brown and Theresa May both proved, that’s a short-term convenience and a medium-term problem. But Vince is a known quantity, for better or worse, and intellectually secure (sometimes, perhaps, to excess). He’s not going to be worried going up against Andrew Neil.

    Vince’s biggest challenge is the one regularly posed by Mark Pack and David Howarth: from the doldrums of 8% at the last election, can he help foster a Lib Dem core vote, one that isn’t reliant on the Stakhanovite efforts of (sometimes eccentric) individuals dotted around the country, but which has genuine appeal to enough liberal-minded voters to form a cohesive voting bloc?

    It’s no easy task, especially as Jeremy Corbyn has proven himself to be much more adept at appealing to educated, middle-class professionals, the group most likely to label themselves progressive small-l liberals — as evidenced by Labour’s stunning performance on 8th June in places like Bristol, Cambridge and Canterbury, as well as London — than he has Labour’s working-class base, whose support for Labour has declined.

    But if the Lib Dems are to have a viable and sustainable future, it’s the only choice. Brexit, of course, gives him a platform, with the anti-EU Corbyn himself at least as committed to a Hard Brexit as Theresa May (probably: no-one really knows), and Labour MPs split, depending on whether they represent a Leave-voting working-class seat or a Remain-voting metropolitan seat. Add to that a stuttering economy and public services showing the strain of austerity and the conditions are there for a revival.

    I hope so, anyway. British politics is pretty depressing, at the moment. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour have shown themselves fit to govern, yet they’re currently the only show in town. If a new Centre Party isn’t going to shake things up, it’s up to the Lib Dems. Over to you, Vince…

    The deliciously ironic leadership contest Vince Cable’s coronation will deprive us of

    by Stephen Tall on June 28, 2017

    I don’t share the angst of so many Lib Dems that — it appears — the party has been deprived of a leadership contest. First, Jo Swinson, then Norman Lamb, and now Sir Ed Davey have all declined to take on Sir Vince Cable.

    Jo’s and Ed’s public reasons were each good and believable.

    Both have just won back seats they lost and need to focus on defending them. The fates of their predecessors, Nick Clegg (defeated) and Tim Farron (big majority slashed), hang heavy in the air. Both also have young families and don’t want to miss out on those unrepeatable moments.

    The task of Lib Dem leader is, I reckon, the second worst in politics (after Prime Minister), trying to satisfy a notoriously querulous membership on practically zero resource.

    Norman’s public reasons for skipping this contest are more contestable. Citing the “gruelling” campaign to retain his Leave-voting North Norfolk seat, he then anticipates that his abstention on the vote to trigger Article 50 would have sunk his leadership chances: “for many in the party that abstention was an act of betrayal.”

    He’s probably right. The pro-EU fervency among many Lib Dems, especially the 20k ‘newbies’ who joined post-23 June — in large part as a result of Tim Farron’s instinctual anti-Brexit stance — would suggest a ‘Eurosceptic Lib Dem’ (the term is relative among our ranks) might struggle.

    Though that’s not really a reason not to try, especially if you have a message you think the party needs to hear. For Norman to duck the challenge is understandable; but also more than a little disappointing.

    It’s also quite ironic, given that it now seems certain Sir Vince ‘Strong and’ Cable will be coronated. For Vince has long been the No. 1 ‘Eurosceptic Lib Dem’. He once branded the Common Agricultural Policy “a complete disgrace” while opposing the Euro — sensible chap — and (correctly) demanding EU budget restraint despite activist outrage.

    More recently, he has questioned the Lib Dems’ decision to bang on about a second referendum, rightly raising awkward questions that many in my party would prefer to shrug off (“Which side would we be on if there was a soft Brexit?”) and arguing for more focus on outcome than process (“I would just like to see more emphasis on what it is we want from these negotiations rather than arguing about the tactics and the means”).

    He has also — to the consternation of EU-philes among the party ranks — highlighted the current hypocrisy in which the Lib Dems campaign for preferential treatment for Europeans over non-Europeans (so much for true internationalism!). The same rule should apply to all, regardless of nationality. “The demand for effective immigration control coexists with greater tolerance of diversity,” Vince has noted — a statement reckoned by some Lib Dem activists to rank alongside Enoch Powell, but which probably sounds ultra-liberal to your average punter.

    It’s a shame, then, that the Lib Dems are depriving the public of the delicious irony of its two most Euroscpetic MPs contesting the leadership of the most devotedly pro-EU party.

    Yet in some ways it’s better a contest is avoided. The actual policy differences between Jo Swinson, Sir Ed Davey, Norman Lamb and Sir Vince Cable are so slight, so cigarette-paper thin, that the campaign would almost certainly have descended into personalised bickering (if not between the rivals themselves then between the factions that would get behind them, projecting their own views onto their chosen candidate).

    I’m at ease with a Vince Cable leadership. He’s a grown up, has media smarts, will get a hearing. Of course, there are all sorts of flak that will get thrown at him — tuition fees, Royal Mail, his age — but if anyone can ride that out, he can. And if he can’t, well he’s said he’ll stand down in three years, so we can have another go then. (Did I say ‘go’? I meant Jo.)

    Until then, arise Sir Vince.

    What do the centrists do now? Here’s my suggestion…

    by Stephen Tall on June 27, 2017

    I’ve written before about my sympathy for a new ‘Centre Party’ (much as I dislike such a split-the-difference name). The election result means the issue has simultaneously both become more urgent and less likely.

    More urgent because who does a centrist voter now vote for?

    The Conservatives, already moving to the right as Theresa May made slashing immigration her party’s top priority, have now sealed the deal with the antediluvian DUP. If you’re the kind of Tory who liked John Major, to whom do you now turn?

    Meanwhile, Labour is now in thrall to Jeremy Corbyn following his expectations-defying result, with the party’s hard-left even more determined to exert control, and looking to purge MPs suspected of any Blairite tendencies. If you’re the kind of Labour supporter who voted for Yvette Cooper as leader two years ago, to whom do you now turn?

    And less likely because 2017 saw the revival of two-party politics, with the Conservatives and Labour hoovering up more than four-fifths of voters on 8th June. Outlier, or reversion to the mean? We don’t yet know, but it’s going to be harder to justify quitting a party polling 40%+ than it is one languishing in the 20%s.

    Nonetheless, there are currently a lot of centrist, politically homeless Tory and Labour voters voting for their parties in spite of, not because of, their leadership and their policies. To whom do they now turn?

    A new Centre Party, that’s who. So say Conservative MP Anna Soubry and former Labour speech-writer Philip Collins. Heck, even Nick Clegg, sort of.

    Such a Centre Party would be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. It would promote economic growth in order to fund schools and hospitals. It would accept Brexit while retaining UK membership of the single market. It would invest in housing and roads and safeguard the environment. It would guarantee a safety net for the vulnerable.

    In short, it would be unashamedly sensible and boring.

    Defining what a ‘Centre Party’ would stand for is the easy bit, of course.

    The far harder part is working out how on earth you build from scratch a party capable of winning seats in our first-past-the-post system. And working out who among the current crop of politicians has the vim and vigour to lead it. (Pro-tip: if your answer is David Miliband flying back from New York then try again.)

    It is not the lack of ideas, then, which is preventing the birth of a ‘Centre Party’. It is the structure of our electoral system which is tilted against parties with broad national support.

    Which is why I have a simple suggestion for the centrists: join the Liberal Democrats.

    I know, I know. Only 12 MPs, wasted vote, etc. But, actually, I’m serious.

    For a start, we have a great future leader in Jo Swinson — modern, pragmatic, determined — waiting in the wings.

    Moreover, membership of the Lib Dems has been transformed over the past two years. In 2015, there were 45k members. Today, there’s over 100k. A good chunk of these new members (to the chagrin of some veteran sandalistas) are moderate liberals.

    They liked, or at least understood the need for, the Coalition. They are pro-European (sometimes a bit too obsessively so, but none of us is perfect). They want to be in power, not shouting from the sidelines. They are exactly the kind of people a new ‘Centre Party’ would be trying to attract.

    So don’t cannibalise this group; join them. And make the Lib Dems great again.

    Brexit, one year on. And no-one is yet any the wiser

    by Stephen Tall on June 23, 2017

    One year on — a referendum and general election later — we’re still no closer to understanding what either of the two main political parties intend to do about implementing Brexit.

    The Conservatives committed in their manifesto to the UK leaving the single market and customs union. But, then, they pledged a lot else in their manifesto which they’ve since abandoned. Brexit secretary David Davis has previously promised a deal “that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”, while chancellor Philip Hammond would clearly like to do so by sticking with the very good deal we already have. This enigmatic position is echoed by their ‘friends and allies’, the DUP, whose manifesto promises ‘customs arrangements which facilitate trade with new and existing markets’ — which implies leaving the single market and customs union while discreetly stopping short of calling for it.

    Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has, with Blairite finesse, successfully straddled a position which supports both a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit while still attracting the votes of educated, metropolitan Remainers (and, miraculously, maintaining a reputation for straight-talking). Shadow chancellor John McDonnell has been clear Labour supports leaving the single market (though, like David Davis, he wants to keep the same terms of trade, somehow). Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has been equally clear that Labour supports keeping single market membership on the negotiating table.

    Confusion reigns. And let’s remember, both the Tories and Labour voted to set the two-year negotiating count-down clock ticking three months ago.

    Little wonder, then, that Brexit is squeezing out time for any other issues — y’know, minor matters like our notoriously sluggish productivity, or escalating social care costs, or the housing crisis — in the next two years. Instead, the politicians are going to be devoting every waking moment to working out the irreconcilable instructions of the British people: to deliver a growing economy while divorcing ourselves from a market which gives our businesses unfettered access to 500 million customers across the continent.

    Enough of the electorate bought the half-truths peddled by Vote Leave last year, not least Boris Johnson’s seductive aphorism that “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it.” Trouble is, reality’s biting away at that cake. And there are no signs yet that either the Government or the Opposition has any real clue what they should be doing about it.