Election notebook #1: What I think will happen (AKA my emotional hedge prediction of a Conservative victory)

by Stephen Tall on November 1, 2019

“You must be excited” friends and colleagues say about the coming general election. And usually I would be. Every election since 1992 I’ve followed avidly, fascinatedly.

But this one I’ll follow dutifully. It is, I do realise, honest, the most consequential election of my lifetime. But the campaign is going to be dire, isn’t it? All heat, no light (far more than usual).

The Brexit debate is still stuck in 2016, with the Conservatives desperate to turn the whole debate into a People v The Remain Establishment fight, aided and abetted by a shallow media uninterested in serious analysis of the trade-offs inherent in our future relationship with the EU.

Maybe a few other major policy issues will get a look-in. The 2017 election, after all, turned out not to be (so much) a Brexit election, but (at least as much) an election about cuts to public services. Though it’s hard to argue that, for instance, the controversy over the Conservatives’ social care proposals actually advanced public policy making, with parties now, understandably, giving it a wide berth despite the need to work out how we do provide affordably for an ageing society with increasingly complex care needs.

And as for the election outcome… well, I strongly suspect that will be at least as dire for ‘my side’. I may be wrong, of course. It’s been known. In 2017, I was sure the Conservatives would win a commanding majority. In 2015, I was sure the Lib Dems would defy the worst predictions. At least this time, as I record my priors, I’m fully aware they may turn out to be utterly wrong.

Indeed, I think there’s a strong temptation in election punditry to project the last election on to the current election. In 2010, very few predicted a hung parliament because it hadn’t happened in 36 years. In 2015, everyone expected a hung parliament because that was what had happened in 2010. In 2017, everyone expected a Conservative majority because that was what had happened in 2015. And in 2019, no-one is daring to predict that the party with consistent big poll leads on the three key metrics (party rating, leadership, and economic competence) will win because … well, because 2017.

And yet, the hard reality is that the Conservatives are in a pretty good place right now. Boris Johnson has secured a Brexit deal his party is prepared to unite behind (at least for now). There are signs Brexit Party voters are rallying to the Conservative cause. The current parliament is blamed by Leavers for the failure of the Prime Minister’s rash ‘do or die’ Brexit pledge.

By contrast, the so-called ‘Remain Alliance’ (generously extended to include Labour, though it is still, officially, a pro-Brexit party) is divided, with Labour and Lib Dems currently within touching distance of each other in the polls. The Conservatives can win an awful lot of seats on 35% of the vote under our obtuse electoral system if the 55% anti-Tory vote is ineffectually distributed between Labour, the Lib Dems, and Greens.

Sure, the 2017 election outcome should make us cautious of assuming those Conservative advantages are insuperable. However, 2017 was different — for two linked reasons. First, it was genuinely a ‘snap’ election. It was called before it needed to be, unexpectedly. Secondly, and perhaps because it was a ‘snap’ poll (as well as the first post-Brexit election), the campaign did actually matter. Usually campaigns make little difference on a national level (obviously they can influence individual marginal seats). But, in 2017, the Conservatives under-performed spectacularly, Labour bucked the risible expectations of it, while the Lib Dems flatlined (with isolated patches of recovery).

Both factors may also apply this time. But, I think, with crucial differences.

First this is not a ‘snap’ election, not really. While Theresa May didn’t ‘land’ her reason for triggering an election, I think Boris Johnson has; most people, Leave or Remain, accept this parliament has run its course and it’s legitimate for the new Prime Minister to ask for a fresh mandate.

Secondly, it seems unlikely (though can’t be ruled out) that the Conservatives will re-run as disastrous an election campaign as 2017’s was. Boris Johnson has his flaws, and they may be painfully revealed during this contest. But he is more of a known quantity. He ran as London mayor twice; he led the Leave campaign; he has just fought a leadership election.

Moreover, he faces an opponent in Jeremy Corbyn who no longer benefits from being a largely unknown figure. His leadership ratings are dire and, while I suspect they’ll improve, it seems likely he’ll be a drag on the Labour ticket this time round. And, unlike in 2017, Labour does not (yet at any rate) have a coherent Brexit policy that the leadership, its MPs and members can unite behind. As for the Lib Dems, while the party is on the up and almost certain to make gains from the Conservatives, it starts a long, long way back in most seats, likely putting a low-ish ceiling on its 2019 targets.

All of which leads me to conclude the Conservatives are more likely than not to win a majority this time. Could be slender, could be decent, could even be a landslide. The campaign will determine that.

But if I were to be wrong, and the Conservatives were to fall short or perhaps Labour even win, what would be the most likely reasons? Here’s a septet…
(1) “Events, dear boy” (as Macmillan didn’t say) — for instance, the 2017 terrorist attacks raised the profile of cuts to policing in a way no-one could (or would want to) have anticipated.
(2) That 2019 turns out not be a Brexit election, with other issues, such as the NHS and schools, dominating instead.
(3) That the flaws/risks in Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal start to become more apparent, with voters clocking that Brexit won’t actually be over by Christmas, but in reality just starting. Can Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party successfully make this argument in a way which resonates and hurts the Conservatives electorally?
(4) Boris Johnson has major leadership and personality flaws, any of which might be damagingly exposed during the campaign.
(5) Remain voters may well be more motivated and more likely to show up than Leavers at this election in order to vote against the Conservatives.
(6) The Lib Dems may well get squeezed by Labour and/or Remain may successfully encourage tactical voting that offsets united the impact of Leavers uniting behind the Conservatives (with the SNP winning Scotland; the Lib Dems making inroads into Conservative suburban/commuter-belt England; and Labour maintaining its stronghold on Leave-voting northern towns).
(7) Conversely, there may be a ‘Swinson factor’ with the as yet largely unknown Lib Dem leader attracting swathes of Conservatives Remainers (such as Times columnist and former Conservative MP Matthew Parris).

As Theresa May found out, calling an early election, however propitious the circumstances may appear, is innately risky. Boris Johnson has gambled. In six weeks’ time we’ll know if he’s come up Trumps.

5 things about this week (22 October 2019)

by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2019

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BREXIT, OF COURSE

In hindsight, it all seems inevitable.

Of course Boris Johnson was going to throw the DUP under the bus in order to deliver a Brexit deal by accepting a customs border splitting Northern Ireland off from the rest of the UK.

Of course he cares more about the Conservative party winning than he does about the Union surviving.

Of course the supposedly hardline ERG would forsake their unionist solidarity at the prospect of the hardest-possible Brexit this side of no-deal.

Of course enough Labour MPs in Leave-voting constituencies would be ground down by the process and decide to fold their opposition.

Of course the right-wing media would hail it as a triumph despite the deal being near-identical to the one offered two years ago by the EU and rejected by Theresa May, to cheers from her backbenchers, as a deal that no British prime minister could accept.

As I write, in fact, the fate of Brexit is still undecided. It remains quite possible that Parliament could yet thwart attempts to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and that a general election might have to take place first (in which case all bets are off).

But momentum has shifted, I think decisively, in favour of Getting Brexit Done the Boris way… albeit the Prime Minister has failed to ‘fess up to voters that this is merely the end of the beginning of the trade negotiations with the EU which will now stretch ahead for years.

The rush to push through legislation reminds me of 2017, and the drive to do something to show Brexit was happening by triggering Article 50 — even though no-one had even a sketch of a plan for what was to follow.

There will be no economic impact analysis, the Chancellor, Sajjid Javid, tells us, because Brexit is “self-evidently in our economic interest”. That, in just a year’s time we will face another no-deal exit (unless the government decides to extend the transition period and can muster the votes to do so) is hand-waved away by MPs desperate to pretend to themselves, as well as to the voters, that Brexit can now be swiftly resolved.

The Brexit Saga is Done. Long live the Brexit Saga!

**

HOW BENN SAVED BORIS

One coda. Before the idea Boris Johnson’s deal is a strategic master-stroke takes too firm a grip of (some) Conservative Brexiter imaginations, it’s worth remembering last week was supposed to be when the general election he wanted took place. Are we really supposed to believe his Wirral meeting with Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar — widely held to have been pivotal in securing a deal — would have taken place just a few days before polling day?

No. Boris Johnson believed (not unreasonably) that this Parliament would never approve any Brexit deal. So his strategy was election first, negotiations after. I’m guessing (if he’d won) he’d have extended Article 50, blaming someone, anyone, and then started the intense discussions we’ve seen over the last fortnight.

Or (unlikely) he’d have gone for no-deal and ended up in an even worse position, forced to make a plea-bargain with the EU. All in all, I think the Prime Minister can feel mightily relieved the Benn Act saved him from his own worst enemy (himself) because he’s now in a much stronger position than he would have been under his original strategy.

**

DOES A BREXIT DEAL SPELL LIB DEM DOOM?

Conventional commentariat wisdom states that the Lib Dem recovery will be torpedoed by Brexit happening. Perhaps, though I’m dubious.

True, it will be impossible to campaign to ‘Stop Brexit’. But the millions of Remain voters who’ve petitioned, campaigned and marched against Brexit aren’t going to suddenly be reconciled. The last 3.5 years has radicalised many, inculcating a sense of European identity in many Brits which had previously lain dormant.

Perhaps some will return to the Conservatives, especially if, let’s accept the possibility, Brexit does boost the UK economy. Those on the Remain left will stick with Labour or the Greens.

But for the many mainstream Remain-identifying voters who want (to coin a phrase) a stronger economy and a fairer society, the Lib Dems will likely be the party of choice. Especially as the party will make pro -Europeanism a key plank of its manifesto in a way Corbyn’s Labour won’t.

After a decent interval, the Lib Dems will very likely become the party of Rejoin, a reverse Ukip. That will, in turn, give the party the chance to foster something it has long lacked: a core vote, capable of sustaining it through the vicissitudes of political ups-and-downs.

Brexit happening will stymie any theoretical Lib Dem hopes of leap-frogging straight into majority government. But it may lay the groundwork for more sustained electoral growth.

PS: the Never Mind the Barcharts live podcast – Is Dominic Cummings a Genius? – is now available to listen to here:

A fab episode featuring Nick Clegg’s former Director of Policy, Polly Macknezie, and former No. 10 special advisor and Lib Dem head of media, Sean Kemp — both of whom have experienced working with Classic Dom.

**

I’ve been reading (and so should you) Robert Saunders’ essay in the New Statesman, Myths from a small island: the dangers of a buccaneering view of British history — here’s a taster:

In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, a series of commentators held up Britain’s global past as an inspiration for the present. Yet they did so in a curious manner. Empire barely featured in these remarks, pushed aside by a history centring on trade and innovation. The result was a heroic vision of British history that was global, but not imperial. It recast a coercive military empire as a champion of “free trade”; and, in so doing, established entrepreneurialism, rather than empire, as the golden thread connecting past and present. …

The use of “trade” as a euphemism for “empire” became a staple of Brexit ideology. … David Davis told the makers of the 2016 pro-Leave documentary Brexit: The Movie that “Our history is a trading, buccaneering history – back to Drake and beyond. That’s what we’re good at.” Dominic Raab, likewise, has urged the British to resume their historic role as “buccaneering free traders”. …

Such rhetoric showed no understanding of the role that empire actually played in Britain’s trading history, in breaking open new markets, protecting the sea lanes and enforcing British commercial superiority. Instead, it rested on a vague appeal to a “swashbuckling spirit”, resonant of plucky little Britons singeing the beards of mightier powers. …

This has at least three destructive consequences. It detaches memories of British greatness from the material conditions that made it possible; it overstates what Britain can achieve in the world as a small nation, “standing alone”; and it exaggerates the power of positive thinking as a national strategy. Failure can be blamed on those who refuse to cheer along: on “doomsters”, “pessimists” and “saboteurs”, who simply refuse to believe with sufficient fervour.

**

I’ve been watching BBC2’s Motherland, written by the team of Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan, Holly Walsh and Helen Linehan. It remains both funny and relatable (at least to this knackered co-parent), albeit the well-developed protagonist of series 1, Anna Maxwell Martin’s Julia — a put-upon mother trying to balance work, life and family with next-to-no help — seems to have been superseded by a more one-dimensional character with a streak of cruelty. Still, that does make more space for Diane Morgan’s Liz — a consistently reliable source of one-liners (“Life’s too short to dick about with aubergines”) — to rightly be allowed her own story arc.

I’ve also been continuing to watch BBC4’s Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History — I’ve mentioned it here before, but it really is exceptional. And more relevant, in this pre/post-Brexit world than ever.

AND I’ve also been continuing to catch up on BBC1’s Killing Eve — I’m now onto series 2, and it’s a lesson for other TV programmes in how less can be more: at 40 minutes, each episode is perfectly paced, tightly scripted, and doesn’t out-stay its welcome. How many hour-long shows can you say that about?

**

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Steam train: anticipation | reality

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5 things about this week (7 October 2019)

by Stephen Tall on October 7, 2019

PODCAST LIVE!

I solo-hosted the first live ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ podcast this weekend. Regular co-host Mark Pack was husting to be Lib Dem party president (a fact the party had failed to mention to him until the week before) though thankfully Sean Kemp, a former No.10 advisor and head of political communications for the Lib Dems during the coalition government, agreed to stand in alongside our long-planned guest, Polly Mackenzie, chief executive of Demos and Nick Clegg’s former director of policy.

I try and prepare any live event in front of an audience pretty carefully. It’s all too easy for your mind to go blank, so I like the security blanket of a sheaf of notes in front of me. (The memory of a speech I gave at a Lib Dem conference event – at which I only had to speak for 5 minutes, but realised after 3 minutes I had nothing left to say – is seared on my consciousness.)

And I was glad I did this time. Because while I’ve chaired many events over the years, the format has been familiarly standard: panellists speak for a few minutes each, you take a couple of rounds of questions, you wrap up, job done.

But a podcast is meant to be, should be, looser, more spontaneous, conversational; yet there also needs to be some basic structure – a sense the discussion is moving along – to avoid it becoming an hour’s meandering waffle. Plus there were questions I wanted to ask, points I wanted to make. All while sticking to our allotted hour’s time-slot.

Which is a long way of saying… (1) it’s a lot harder than it looks and I have new-found respect for interviewers and debate hosts, and (2) my apologies to the audience – I’d genuinely intended to bring them in, through straw polls and inviting questions to the panel, but failed utterly in the pressure of the moment.

However, while I’ve not listened back to it, I think it’ll still be a really good listen. Polly’s confession to a “toxic part” of her she can’t suppress that hopes no-deal Brexit does happen and is a disaster which wakes deluded Leavers up is self-awarely candid and amusing. And I also enjoyed Sean’s reason for declaring Dominic Cummings a genius: “he’s convinced everyone that any and all government chaos is deliberate… I wish I’d convinced everyone the Lib Dems getting rubbish press proved how great I was at my job.”

Subscribe to ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ through your usual podcast app and it’ll be ready for you as soon as it’s uploaded.

**

BREXIT FENCE-SITTING

Polly’s Brexit answer was in response to my question: “What do you personally want to happen now?” Which was my deliberate attempt to get beyond the official Lib Dem policy – revoke if the party wins a majority; second referendum if it doesn’t – which both Polly and Sean agreed was the right policy electorally; but were also uneasy about (because democracy) in the incredibly unlikely circumstances the party were in a position actually to implement it.

I find myself similarly conflicted. My Brexit journey is easily summarised.

Immediately after the referendum result, I was gutted, but (of course) accepted democracy has to be respected, and hoped for a soft Brexit option of a ‘Norway-plus’ model. Then I was a very reluctant defender of Theresa May’s deal as ‘the best deal possible within the arbitrary red lines the Conservatives have drawn’. However, I wasn’t sorry when it was voted down, both because I didn’t much like it and because the fact it was rejected by Conservative ERG diehards excised me of my residual adherence to the original referendum result. After all, if its own supporters can’t agree what Leave actually means, then I don’t see how they any longer have a mandate to speak for the will of the British people.

As a result, I guess I’m a radicalised Remainer, who now hopes the UK can stay within the EU (after a referendum). At the same time, I can’t help feeling it might be better if we left, came to our senses as a nation, and then re-joined enthusiastically. That feels morally better. But it comes at a very real cost: both the economic hit we’ll take outside the EU, and that we’ll lose the present preferential membership agreement hard won by Mrs Thatcher and John Major.

See, I’m a typical liberal: fence-sitting even on the biggest issue of the day.

**

AN ‘AVID’ READER?

Confession: I love reading but I’m quite rubbish at finishing books. There are, for example, 16 books on my Kindle currently showing as started-not-completed. Result: I read, as in get to the last page, about 8-10 books a year.

This makes me a ‘moderate’ reader according to the definition offered in a survey by the US National Endowment for the Arts, reported by The Atlantic, which found that, of the 53 per cent of Americans who said they had read at least on book in the previous 12 months:
– 23 percent of American adults were “light” readers (finishing one to five titles per year),
– 10 percent were “moderate” (six to 11 titles),
– 13 percent were “frequent” (12 to 49 titles), and
– a dedicated 5 percent were “avid” (50 books and up).

I can aspire to ‘frequent’, but know myself better than to aim for ‘avid’… unless we can include ‘books started’, of course.

**

ZADIE SMITH ON FICTION

And talking of reading, please do make time for Zadie Smith’s essay, Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction, in the New York Review of Books. It’s an incredibly thoughtful response to being a writer (or reader) of fiction in our age of the ‘problematic’, in which “the old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane.”

What would our debates about fiction look like, I sometimes wonder, if our preferred verbal container for the phenomenon of writing about others was not “cultural appropriation” but rather “interpersonal voyeurism” or “profound-other-fascination” or even “cross-epidermal reanimation”? Our discussions would still be vibrant, perhaps even still furious—but I’m certain they would not be the same. …

… we seek to shore up the act of writing with false defenses, like the dubious idea that one could ever be absolutely “correct” when it comes to representing fictional human behavior. I understand the desire — I have it myself — but what I don’t get is how anyone can possibly hope to achieve it. What does it mean, after all, to say “A Bengali woman would never say that!” or “A gay man would never feel that!” or “A black woman would never do that!”? How can such things possibly be claimed absolutely, unless we already have some form of fixed caricature in our minds? (It is to be noted that the argument “A white man would never say that!” is rarely heard and is almost structurally unimaginable. Why? Because to be such a self is to be afforded all possible human potentialities, not only a circumscribed few.) …

Our social and personal lives are a process of continual fictionalization, as we internalize the other-we-are-not, dramatize them, imagine them, speak for them and through them. The accuracy of this fictionalization is never guaranteed, but without an ability to at least guess at what the other might be thinking, we could have no social lives at all. One of the things fiction did is make this process explicit—visible. All storytelling is the invitation to enter a parallel space, a hypothetical arena, in which you have imagined access to whatever is not you. And if fiction had a belief about itself, it was that fiction had empathy in its DNA, that it was the product of compassion.

Read the whole thing here, now.

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CULTURE CORNER

I actually went to the cinema (first time since Murder on the Orient Express last year: welcome to a life of having young kids, so never leaving the house except for parents’ evening) and watched Tod Phillips’ Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. I don’t really understand why it’s become so controversial – the tired old ‘glorifying violence’, ‘copycat killers’ clichés – but, as a definite non-fan of comic book-inspired movies, I thought it was terrific. Phoenix in particular is just sublime. But the political narrative is cleverly layered. The music and cinematography is top-notch. So, ignore the ‘hot takes’ and just enjoy a really well-made movie.

Talking of hot takes… I’ve just watched the first season of BBC1’s Killing Eve and I can reliably inform you that yes, you were all right, it is terrific. I don’t know why I doubted you and I’m sorry I put off watching it for so long.

**

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Milo's been cycling for ages but wanted to keep the stabilizers on because speed. Then he realised other children were cycling without them. So today was the first non-stabilisers cycle. And he soon discovered he could still do speed.

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5 things about this week (29 Sept 2019)

by Stephen Tall on September 29, 2019

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I’m old enough to remember a time when the attempted putsch against Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson was the big news. Then struck Tuesday’s unanimous Supreme Court decision to rule Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament “unlawful, void and of no effect”. And no-one cared any more about Labour’s splits.

Part of me, the-everything-that’s-happened-to-this-country-since-the-Olympics-is-rubbish part of me, thinks this plays straight into Boris Johnson’s hands. He and his svengali Dominic Cummings have been obsessed about the coming election being a defining ‘People vs Parliament’ watershed. Everything they do is about drawing battle-lines and ‘othering’ their opponents, whether Remain MPs, rebel Conservatives, or the EU. That they can now add judges to the list of the ‘doomsters and gloomsters’ is simply the cherry on the cake the Prime Minister wants to have and eat.

But there is also an optimistic part of me that hopes enough people see through Boris Johnson’s horribly cynical ploy and that it backfires. It’s striking that all the opinion polls so far show majority support for the Supreme Court’s decision. Striking, too, that Boris Johnson’s personal ratings are down. Lying to the Queen comes at a price.

The Prime Minister has, it appears, now thoroughly boxed himself in. As the 19th October deadline (the one legislated for by the Benn Act) draws ever nearer, he will, it seems, be forced either to ask the EU for a further extension; or resign to avoid doing so. His antics over the past few days have surely put paid to any hopes of creating a fragile coalition of MPs willing to back some kind of deal, even assuming he’s serious about trying to get one (an increasingly far-fetched assumption).

An election is coming. I sketched in my last ‘5 things’ the still-quite-plausible scenario by which Boris Johnson’s bully-boy tactics triumph, and the Conservatives win an outright majority. What I don’t understand, still, is the longer term strategy. Not just what kind of deal does Boris Johnson actually want with the EU (because no-deal is no answer). But also what kind of government does he want to run — because his route to power is through ‘borrowing’ Labour Leave seats while writing off current Conservative suburban strongholds sympathetic to the party’s previous brand of economic competence and mild social liberalism. How is that a coherent or sustainable electoral base?

**

I skipped Lib Dem conference again this year. I wish the party well, but from a safe distance. I did, however, contribute a couple of comments to this excellent long-read by The Atlantic’s Helen Lewis analysing where the party’s at — and asking the awkward questions about where it might be in the future, eg:

This should be, then, a moment of great opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. They hope to pick up support from both disgruntled Labour and Conservative voters by presenting themselves as the unequivocal voice of Remain. If and when Britain leaves the European Union, though, would there be as much backing for a campaign to rejoin? The pure focus of the current anti-Brexit anger would surely dissipate, and everything would depend on whether British politics was truly realigned, or merely snapped back to its old, ill-fitting, comfortable labels.

Well worth a read here.

**

Has there been another episode of Never Mind the Barcharts since 10 September, I hear you ask… Yes, there has! And as an added bonus it doesn’t include me. Instead my co-host (and candidate for Lib Dem party president) Mark Pack interviews academic Paula Surridge as they discuss, ‘Is politics still about left versus right?

And, don’t forget, you can come along to a special live recording of the ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ podcast on Saturday 5 October: details here. And as Mark will be busy husting for the presidency, I’ll be joined by two special guests, both of whom have worked with Dominic Cummings:

* Polly Mackenzie, now heading up Demos and former Lib Dem senior policy and strategy adviser to Nick Clegg; and
* Sean Kemp, former head of media for the Lib Dems and a special adviser in Downing Street during the coalition government.

**

Hardly a day goes by without another gender controversy, whether it’s the Parents keeping 17-month-old baby’s sex a secret ‘to avoid gender bias’ or ‘My girl became the youngest trans toddler… at just three years of age’.

This blog by JJ Barnes – What is gender neutral parenting, and why would you do it? – is a useful antidote to lots of the well-meaning nonsense flying around:

I am raising my children to be “gender neutral”. This is a concept that is often widely scorned, and I think I understand why, but I also think it’s a misunderstanding. I’m not raising my children to be neither a boy nor a girl, I’m raising my children to be who they are regardless of whether they’re a boy or a girl.

I truly believe that the idea that gender is innate is one of the most toxic and insidious ways our society suppresses our children’s natural instincts. It is how the world has tried to force women into the wife and mother role, and convince men they must be emotionless warriors. Gender is a box that we are put in from birth and told to conform to, and if we don’t, then we are wrong. But generations of feminists have helped fight our way out of these boxes, and I will not push my children back inside. …

Gender neutral parenting is not about denying biological sex, it’s not about dressing children in beige, nor about stopping them enjoying gender stereotypical toys should they want to. It’s about taking the box that says they HAVE to conform, and smashing it. It’s about recognising that children are more than your stereotypes. It’s about raising them to feel safe and confident enough to express the truth of themselves regardless of their sex, because their sex does not define their personality.

I am a gender neutral parent, and my children do not care about your stereotypes. And neither do I.

**

Much of the time I should have been spending reading improving books or catching up on must-watch box-sets has instead been spent gazing slack-jawed at BBC Parliament (or being annoyed by BBC Newsnight‘s failure, despite great hosts, to match the fascinating/horrifying times we’re living through with genuine insight).

However, one programme I have been gripped by is the BBC’s Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History. Watching never-before-shown footage of Martin McGuinness planting a car-bomb, or the revelations about Ian Paisley’s complicity in terrorism, makes for utterly gripping viewing. It brought home to me how little I know about this aspect of British history; it was never taught during my 10 years studying the subject, through GCSE, A-level and Oxford degree. And of course it’s an ignorance we’re seeing played out on the national Brexit stage in real time. Anyway, do catch up with it here.

**

At times like these, I heartily commend cat photos.

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Fluffballs

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5 things about this week (10 Sept 2019)

by Stephen Tall on September 10, 2019

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BORIS IS WINNING! (PERHAPS)

On the face of it, this has not been a great week for Boris Johnson.

He has suffered an humiliating defeat in Parliament, which scuppered his no-deal threat, instead requiring the prime minister to apply to the EU for an extension unless he can magic up a majority for a withdrawal agreement by 31 October. He has had to sack 21 Conservative MPs who voted with the opposition to achieve said humiliation, including two former chancellors and eight former Cabinet ministers. He has lost the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, pretty much single-handedly responsible for the recent Tory revival north-of-the-border. His spending review, supposed to end austerity and open the spending taps to woo Labour Leavers in left-behind small towns, was utterly eclipsed. He has lost two members of his cabinet, with his own brother, Jo, accusing Boris of failing to act in the national interest, while Amber Rudd confirmed suspicions that No. 10’s claims of progress in its negotiations with the EU are a sham. And, most damaging of all, his plan of engineering a pre-31 October and capitalising on his honeymoon popularity has been blocked.

All lies in tatters, therefore, Boris is toast? Not so fast.

Let’s fast forward to Christmas Day… Boris Johnson is enjoying a festive lunch at Chequers. He and his top team are in fine spirits. For sure, their victorious election campaign had got off to a stuttering start. The Remain Alliance had seemingly thwarted Plan A (there was only a Plan A). But Boris had placed his total trust in Dominic Cummings to deliver — and how right he’d been! “It doesn’t matter how many battles you lose if you win the war!” had been the rallying cry. The delay to Brexit had given Boris the scapegoat he needed: the treacherous, Remainer Parliament conniving with the EU to deny the British people what they’d voted for. It was just what he needed to unite Leave voters around his banner. The Conservatives’ achieved 36% of the vote. Not great by historic standards (that damn man Farage!), and lower than the combined Labour and Lib Dem share, but enough to achieve a working majority of 23 seats (better than Cameron!). “A toast to first-past-the-post!” roared Boris. He still had no real idea what his withdrawal agreement would look like. Probably something like Theresa’s, a bit finessed, and this time with him selling it. How could he fail? His party was totally in his thrall, not a rebel in sight (goodbye Gawkeward Squad!). 2020 was going to be a good year.

An invention, of course. But impossible? I’d say it’s a pretty plausible hypothesis – a 30% chance maybe, with another hung parliament at 50%, then no-deal Brexit at 15% and a Labour majority at 5%.

**

THE UN-CONSERVATIVES

I can’t sum up the present state of affairs better than the final paragraph of this leader column in The Economist:

… the defeat of the government, and its loss of any sort of majority, points towards an election. It will be a contest in which, for the first time in living memory, Britain has no centre-right party. Nor, thanks to Labour’s far-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, will it have a mainstream opposition. Instead the two leading parties will, in their different ways, be bent on damaging the economy; and both will pose a threat to Britain’s institutions. Brexit’s dreadful consequences continue.

**

REVOKE! REVOKE! JUST REJOICE AT THAT NEWS

Meanwhile, the super soaraway Lib Dems are up to 17 MPs and have a new Brexit policy: to revoke Article 50 (in the super-remote chance the next election returns a majority Lib Dem government; if not, the position remains a second referendum). Here’s my assessment:

Problems:
* There’s an unavoidable issue of democracy: a policy of overturning the 2016 referendum without recourse to a second referendum has a pretty obvious legitimacy hole.
* Relatedly, are the Lib Dems really saying victory on 35% in a national election under first-past-the-post is a mandate? The SNP will prick up their ears at that.
* How will the policy land in Conservative-facing Remain seats (ie, almost all Lib Dem targets in England)? Will it deter Tory Remainers unwilling simply to see the referendum outcome set aside? I hope/assume the party has stress-tested it among this group.

Opportunities:
* Key point for me: it’s practical, logical, and honest. As we’ve seen in the last few days, Labour has struggled to defend it’s de facto Brexit party policy of negotiating a better deal to put to a second referendum — and then campaign for Remain anyway, probably. The Lib Dem policy removes the artifice of pretending to negotiate a deal.
* It also puts clear yellow water between the Lib Dems and Labour (whose opposition to no-deal has allowed them to cloak themselves in Remain even while party policy remains to respect the 2016 vote to Leave): it doubles down on the ‘Stop Brexit’ message in a way which Labour can’t and won’t match.
* Finally, it allows the party to pivot effectively: “The Lib Dems will stop Brexit immediately. No need for a second vote, let’s just make it stop, and instead start talking about the issues that really matter to people’s lives, like the economy and public services…”

**

LIBERAL EARWORM

‘Lib Dems do the Revokey-Dokey’ was my inspired choice of title for the latest Never Mind the Barcharts podcast, with Mark Pack. Listen to our analysis here.

And if that’s not enough Brexit chat for you, we previously recorded an entire episode talking nothing but Brexit, with Mark arguing (ahead of his time) that Remain is winning really. You can listen here.

And, don’t forget, you can come along to a special live recording of the ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ podcast, featuring a special guest who’s worked with Dominic Cummings!, on Saturday 5 October: details here.

**

CULTCHA CORNER

* I’ve finished listening to Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory (narrated by Tuppence Middleton). It’s an impressive debut — evoking the grimy, radical, suppressed atmosphere of Victorian London, a la Sarah Waters and Michael Faber — albeit a little heavy-handed: the obsessive taxidermist who captures curiosities for display (Silas) stalks the heroine (Iris) in a blatant display of metaphor.

* I’ve been watching Dave Chapelle’s new Netflix stand-up show, Sticks and Stones. My bad, but I’d never heard of him until the controversy about this set broke. To my tastes, it’s a bit hit-and-miss — some great insights mixed with some cheap laughs — but well worth a view if you don’t mind your comedy strong-tasting. And then tuck into Jesse Singal’s long-read, When We Argue About Dave Chappelle, We Should Recognize That Super-Wokeness Is Mostly An Elite Phenomenon.

* I’ve finished reading the first volume of Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. It really is superb, especially its account of her early life. Usually in (auto)biographies you think “hurry up and get famous”, but (perhaps because her time in power is already familiar) it’s the pre-PM years which linger in the memory. And it is commendably even-handed, given Mr Moore’s known Brexity Tory-ness (despite an unsourced swipe at the BBC for “secretly supporting” the Yes campaign in the 1975 European referendum).

5 things about this week (29 August 2019)

by Stephen Tall on August 29, 2019

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

Lots of things have happened in the last month, but nothing’s really moved on.

We’re still none the wiser about the answer to any of these questions… Is Boris Johnson genuinely intent on a no-deal Brexit? Or is the rhetorical ramping up merely a ploy to try and force a showdown with the Remoaner Commons, giving the PM cover to call a snap general election, shaft Nigel Farage and win a hefty majority against the split Remain Alliance, ditch the DUP, and adopt a Northern Ireland-only backstop?

Or does he think, as 31 October looms, he can scare up enough Labour votes for a pimped-up Theresa May Deal 2.0 to offset the irreconcilable Spartan ERG-ers and get a withdrawal agreement through Parliament? Or does he even think the EU might yet blink, or at least wink, sufficiently to allow him to claim his ‘backstop-ectomy’ has been a success and recommend a deal? Or is there another permutation I’ve not even considered?

I’ve no idea. Neither do the media commentators. I remember last February’s well-sourced HuffPo splash, ‘Why A No-Deal Brexit Is Now Theresa May’s Fallback Plan To Save Her Party – And Herself‘. I’ve huge respect for its author Paul Waugh, but given subsequent events it’s hard to view it as anything other than a pretty blatant attempt by her spinners to manipulate recalcitrant Conservative MPs into believing that Mrs May would scream and scream until she made herself sick unless they loyally voted for her deal. The ruse failed, she caved (thankfully!), and the rest is history.

Boris clearly does’t want to suffer the same fate;  and may well have persuaded himself the way to avoid it is to be nothing other than whole-hearted and full-throated in his no-deal threats. It may yet work. It may be the only way to break the deadlock in this parliament. Or it may end up back-firing as the most ill-advised European strategy since… well, since his two predecessors’. None of us knows: not Boris, not even Dominic Cummings.

**

SUSPENDING MY OUTRAGE

Let me explain why I’m not as outraged as my Remainer-dominated Twitter timeline at Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue (ie, suspend) Parliament for an unprecedented five weeks at a time of national crisis:

  • Sure, we know why he’s done it: to constrain as far as possible the possibility of Remainer MPs in the Commons upsetting his plans. It’s a dick-move, to quote Erskine May (perhaps wrongly). But that’s the nature of executive power when you’re a country without a written constitution. We should definitely have one. Good luck writing it.
  • Besides, it’s not like the forces of Remain are guiltless. After all, a deal (implicit/explicit?) was done with Speaker John Bercow that, in return for not pursuing multiple allegations against him of bullying his staff, he would do what he could to thwart the Hard and no-deal Brexiters. And he has bent parliamentary rules to do so.
  • More fundamentally, this suspension doesn’t actually prevent Parliament from blocking a no-deal Brexit — if it actually wants to do so. Up to now, MPs have been willing to show they don’t like it in principle, but unwilling to prevent it in practice. They’ve had plenty of time to act but enough of them have baulked each time — for politically-motivated reasons of expediency — at doing the deed. Time’s almost up, and the proroguing of Parliament forces MPs to make their minds up sooner than they’d like. Sorrynotsorry.

**

HOPES AND FEARS

What do I want to happen? That’s a fairly easy question to answer. I’d like an early general election which leads to the ejection of Boris Johnson from Number 10 along with his band of charlatan no-dealers and supine careerists. That should leave about 25 sensible, moderate Conservative MPs to try and recover the spirit of actual conservatism.

I’ve almost finished reading the first volume of Charles Moore’s brilliant biography of Margaret Thatcher. It’s a striking paradox that The Lady herself would never have dreamt, at any rate while she occupied Number 10, of countenancing such an economically risky policy as Brexit (let alone a no-deal Brexit); yet it is nonetheless the legacy of her reputation for single-minded revolutionary zeal (the reality is more nuanced) that her party has descended into a ‘Move fast and break things’ inversion of conservatism.

What do I expect to happen? A Boris win is my prepare-for-the-worst prior. In a case of bad timing, we’ve just started watching the BBC’s dystopic Years and Years and to be honest I’ll be relieved if Katie Hopkins isn’t PM by Christmas.

**

LIBERAL EAR-WORM

Can’t get enough of my relentlessly cheerful liberal optimism? Then come along to a special live recording of the ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ podcast, and listen to Mark Pack and me chat politics with a Lib Dem slant. And — for the first time ever — featuring a special guest. It’s taking place on Saturday 5 October: details here.

And while I remember, you can listen to the most recent edition, ‘And then there were two (more Lib Dem MPs)‘, as we discuss the victory of Jane Dodds in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election and the switch of former Conservative MP, Sarah Wollaston.

We recorded it the morning after I’d returned from holiday, so I felt a bit rusty. But don’t let that put you off: you can always mute my waffling and focus on Mark’s pearls of wisdom instead.

**

I’VE BEEN READING:

Dorothy Byrne’s really quite awesome McTaggart Lecture. It’s full of good, punchy stuff, but I especially enjoyed this anecdote:

I hate the term, ‘Pale, male and stale.’ As someone who sticks up for the rights of old ladies, I need to stick up for old gents too.

They are still overrepresented, but their voices are vital for our society. Look at John Ware who just reported an excellent and important Panorama on anti-Semitism.

He is pale, he is male, but he is certainly not stale. Is he politically correct? Well fairly recently we were in an edit suite together and he called me ‘Sweetie.’ At once the room fell silent. Indeed, I would say time stood still.

And then in the low and vaguely threatening tone I have polished over years, I said, ‘I am not your sweetie.’ To which John replied, ‘Yes you are.’ Sisters, I regret, I just laughed.

Also Helen Lewis’s typically interesting and incisive piece on how gendered is the perception/reception of women writers, ‘The Hazards of Writing While Female‘:

Women also face a strange dynamic: They’re encouraged to write in a personal tone, and then dismissed for it. “There is a deeply rooted ‘identity politics’ in the publishing industry,” Shafak said. “We don’t expect an Afghan woman writer to write science fiction, for instance. We want her to produce stories—sad stories preferably—that tell the problems of women in Afghanistan.” And when women do write about characters who resemble them, or situations that resemble their own lives, the critical reception can often imply that no artistic mediation is involved. Think of how many reviewers assumed that Hannah Horvath in Girls was merely a projection of Lena Dunham, with no ironic distance between the two. … Why do women’s books tend to get read more through the prism of their own experiences? It’s part of a double standard of scrutiny, where women’s lives and decisions are placed under the microscope—and, yes, it is often other women doing the scrutinizing.

Most of all, I’ve been enjoying reading on my brand new Kindle Oasis. It says something about our hyper-connected times that I ended up spending a quite silly amount of money on a piece of technology precisely because it is a single-purpose piece of kit, which forces me to focus on reading and not get distracted by social media or the web.

**

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Never look back

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5 things about this week (31 July 2019)

by Stephen Tall on July 31, 2019

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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.”

So said our then foreign secretary, now prime minister, Boris Johnson last year. Is that now his hiding-in-plain-sight strategy for delivering Brexit?

My first thought when I saw his ‘Night of the Blond Knives’ reshuffle — only 11 of the 27 ministers who attended Theresa May’s last cabinet have survived the purge — was this must be the precursor to an imminent general election. No prime minister with a majority of just three seats (including the somewhat flaky DUP) risks creating that many enemies on the backbenches unless they plan to call a general election imminently.

That still feels a plausible scenario, with Boris Johnson’s push for no-deal goading the House of Commons to no-con his government, forcing an election, which he will then fight on a “tell them again” manifesto to finally deliver Brexit. The Tories scoop up the Brexit Party votes, yielding a handy majority over the divided ranks of Remain. It could happen. (Though it could also result in the Conservatives being ignominiously turfed out, Mr Johnson reduced to a footnote in the history books as the shortest-serving PM since George Canning, and the 2016 Brexit vote overturned.)

Also plausible is that the Commons, while opposing a no-deal Brexit in principle, cannot unite behind any enforcible legislative mechanism to actually prevent it: what British Future’s Sunder Katwala has labelled the ‘Meatloaf Caveat’, with Conservative Remain rebels adopting an “I would do anything to stop no deal – but I won’t do that” position on no-conning their own government. And so Brexit happens by default.

Plausible, too, is that Boris Johnson is relying on the EU blinking first when faced with him going in “bloody hard”, and agreeing to scrap the backstop (or, more likely, to re-name it and offer some form of sunset clause that will allow him to claim victory). This was the expectation of many rational political observers in advance of his leadership win. But Mr Johnson’s failure to woo ERG ‘Spartan’ Steve Baker into a ministerial post — together with the continuing dissent of the DUP from any kind of deal that they perceive threatens the integrity of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, and the threat to Tory fortunes still posed by the Brexit Party — suggests rationalism is not well placed to win the day. It seems the least likely way to make Brexit happen.

Whatever else can be said for Mr Johnson’s Trumpian approach, therefore, it does at least feel we are nearing an actual deadline, one with serious consequence: Brexit will happen by 31 October, one way or another. And if it doesn’t happen by then, it may never happen. “Do or die”.

**

JO SWINSON

An entirely different kind of confidence displayed by the other newly-elected party leader, Jo Swinson, in her debut at PMQs.

Not an easy gig — remember Ming’s slip-up (from which he never seemingly recovered)? And there was added pressure with this being Theresa May’s final outing, requiring Jo to find the right balance between being herself, making a political point that would clip well for the Lib Dems on the TV news, and paying tribute to the departing PM.

Much kudos then for hitting the mark, pitch perfectly, with this swipe at Boris Johnson and his fellow “Leave Brexit to me” chauvinists:

“Can I ask the prime minister what advice she has for women across the country on how to deal with those men who think they could do a better job but are not prepared to do the actual work.”

More like that, please.

**

JESSICA YANIV

I didn’t vote for Jo Swinson. Nor indeed Ed Davey. It was the first Lib Dem leadership election I’ve sat out since I joined the party 20 years ago.

I’ve explained before why (5 things, 25 June): ‘the party’s full-throttle enthusiasm for gender self-identification is wrong-headed; and the attempts to shut down debate on the issue unhealthily illiberal’. And it’s led to me being labelled by some Lib Dems as a ‘transphobe’ (though never to my face).

But in the last few weeks a real-life case — that of Jessica Yaniv — has come to prominence which has highlighted the concern many people have that gender self-ID is open to abuse by men (NB: not by genuine transwomen) who will exploit the proposed changes in the law which would open up female-only spaces to anyone who says they’re a woman:

A trans woman, Jessica Yaniv, approached a number of female beauticians to ask for a Brazilian bikini wax, all – perhaps by coincidence – were lone home workers, the majority of whom were immigrant women. Unfortunately, Ms Yaniv was unable to find any beautician willing to carry out the intimate wax because she still retains male genitalia and each of these women only worked on female genitalia.

Yaniv has her defenders, such as Pink News, though most activists have, more creditably, tried to dismiss her as an exception, a bad apple. But, as the Economist’s Helen Joyce, has noted:

Yaniv’s demands flow logically from the claim that “trans women are women, period” — that in literally no circumstance is it acceptable to distinguish between males and females, provided the males self-identify as women. And as with any form of logical argumentation, a false premise will lead to a false — and in some cases dangerous — result.

If there’s one good thing that might, maybe, come out of this case it’s that it is legitimate to discuss the safeguarding and other concerns that gender self-identification poses. No more #NotADebate shutting down of women’s right to speak, please.

And that’s the very least both Lib Dem leadership candidates should have been brave enough to make clear.

**

NEW BARCHARTS PODCAST

Mark Pack and I saw down together to record a new ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ podcast this week, ‘Why did Jo Swinson win and what happens now?

Come for the “Can calling Boris only by his forename ever be justified?” argument, stay for my “If Brexit actually happens do the Lib Dems still exist?” existential angst.

**

CULTCHA

Yes, my Stephen Poliakoff BBC Player binge continues… Having polished off Summer of RocketsShooting the PastPerfect Strangers, and Gideon’s Daughter, I’m on to Dancing on the Edge.

I’ve been reading New Scientist’s Why everything you know about nutrition is wrong, as ever flabbergasted at how little solid evidence there is about something so everyday and important.

I’ll be picking my Fantasy Football League team, ready for a new season of hope-turning-to-disappointment (the lot of an Evertonian).

I’ve fallen in love with this 5-minute soliloquy on the state of TV (and so much more besides), filmed 42 years ago:

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Nursery graduations sound ridiculous… til it's your own child. Three years is a long time when you're four.

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5 things about this week (18 July 2019)

by Stephen Tall on July 17, 2019

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BORISIBLE

It didn’t help her bludgeon her Withdrawal Agreement through parliament, but Theresa May’s refrain — “It’s my deal, no deal, or no Brexit” — was a fair summary of the Hobson’s choice still facing the UK. Which will be the legacy of the presumed next prime minister, Boris Johnson?

Seven weeks into the Conservative leadership contest, we’re still, none of us, any the wiser because Mr Johnson is fundamentally flaky. Both Brexiter Tories (enthusiastically, if sometimes warily) and Remainer Tories (reluctantly) have lent him their support in the anxious hope he’ll shaft the other side.

It seems (who actually knows?) he won’t go for a thinly-disguised version of Theresa May’s deal. The current Brexit secretary, the Johnson-supporting Stephen Barclay, declared it “dead” five times in a meeting with the EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, according to The Times. Of course, this might just be no-deal posturing, designed by Team Johnson to show the EU that the UK is fully prepared to commit economic hara-kiri.

There had been some conventional wisdom floating round that Mr Johnson would go to Brussels, negotiate some cosmetic changes, and come back pronouncing victory in the hope of using his honeymoon period to drive May’s deal 2.0 through. But his unequivocal disavowal of the Irish backstop — “no to time limits or unilateral escape hatches or all those kind of elaborate devices, glosses, codicils and so on that you could apply to the backstop” — seems to rule that out. And, indeed, to rule out any kind of deal, given the backstop is fundamental to squaring the circle of the UK government’s nonsensical, irreconcilable, but official, Brexit position that there be no border on the island of Ireland nor the Irish Sea, but also that there should be no Customs Union with the EU.

Which must mean it’ll be no-deal, right? (Who actually knows?) This is the ineluctable logic of Mr Johnson’s “do or die” vow that Brexit must happen by 31st October — a date, incidentally, demanded by the French which apparently it is now British patriotic duty to obey. Yet the only other Prime Minister to look over that cliff edge decided not to jump (with good reason). Mr Johnson himself has labelled the odds of it a “million-to-one against”.

Because that’s the thing. I can see the path by which a no-deal Brexit could occur. Most likely not through prorogation of parliament, but through a short extension to Article 50 to enable a general election with Mr Johnson leading the no-deal charge, scooping up Brexit party votes against a split Labour / Lib Dem opposition, and winning a small majority. But then he will need to deliver a no-deal Brexit. And does he really think his premiership, even the Conservative party itself, can survive that kind of economic shock?

Alternatively, of course, that general election results in the Conservatives losing, with Labour and the Lib Dems agreeing a temporary pact to legislate for a second referendum, on which no-deal would not be an option, but Remain would.

“It’s my deal, no deal, or no Brexit”. Any of the three could yet still happen. What a ridiculous 100 days await us.

**

LABORIOUS

Labour’s Brexit position — this month’s, at any rate — has deservedly attracted derision for continuing to show some ankle to Remainers (the party now backs a ‘People’s Vote’ in any circumstances) while staying true to Leavers (Labour remains committed to respecting the result of the June 2016 vote).

This could, of course, lead to the ludicrous situation in which Labour re-negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the EU and then campaigned against its own deal in the subsequent referendum.

That said, it’s not really much more daft than those MPs who voted to hold a referendum in the first place and to implement its decision, irrespective of whether they agreed with the result. Those MPs include, ahem, the Lib Dems.

**

LIBERATED

I did attend the Lib Dem hustings at Gatwick, as promised in my last missive. It was a pretty stultifying event: 90 minutes of two capable candidates earnestly agreeing with each other on predictable topics like Brexit, climate change, and immigration. Against, against, for… just in case you were wondering.

And no, I won’t be voting for either of them (see last missive, ibid.). But for those who do want to cast their vote and haven’t yet — the poll closes on 22 July — I can, of course, heartily recommend Never Mind the Barcharts’ podcast coverage. In particular, it’s worth listening to my co-host Mark Pack’s illuminating interviews with both Jo Swinson and Ed Davey.

And if you really want to spoil yourself, here’s Mark and me disinterring the contest, the campaigns, and the candidates:

Trigger warning: this podcast includes me being less than 100% pro-electoral reform… and unloading my hypothesis that the Lib Dems are to blame for Brexit.

**

WOKENDING

And speaking of trigger warnings: they don’t work and are potentially harmful to those they’re designed to help. That’s according to this fascinating study — authored by Payton Jones, Benjamin Bellet and Richard McNally — in which trauma survivors were randomly assigned to either receive or not receive trigger warnings prior to reading potentially distressing passages from world literature:

We found no evidence that trigger warnings were helpful for trauma survivors, for those who self-reported a PTSD diagnosis, or for those who qualified for probable PTSD, even when survivors’ trauma matched the passages’ content. We found substantial evidence that trigger warnings countertherapeutically reinforce survivors’ view of their trauma as central to their identity. … Conclusions: Trigger warnings are not helpful for trauma survivors. It is less clear whether trigger warnings are explicitly harmful. However, such knowledge is unnecessary to adjudicate whether to use trigger warnings – because trigger warnings are consistently unhelpful, there is no evidence-based reason to use them.

Another woke fad — here’s Will Dunn in the New Statesman on the irrationality of replacing plastic bags with even more destructive tote bags:

Based on the 140 plastic bags per year that retailers estimated were issued to UK shoppers before the 5p charge was introduced, a cotton bag must therefore be used for at least 50 years to make any positive difference to the environment. Or 140 years, if it’s organic.

And another one to throw in — especially in light of transwoman weightlifter Laurel Hubbard’s gold medals in the Pacific GamesDr Emma Hilton’s speech looking at the science behind the differences between the male and female sex and how that translates to sporting performance:

Males can run faster, jump longer, throw further and lift heavier than females. They outperform females by 10% on the running track to 30% when throwing various balls.

* So big is the gap, there are 9000 males between 100m world record holders Usain Bolt and FloJo.
* So early does the gap emerge, the current female 100m Olympic champion, Elaine Thompson, is slower than the 14 year old schoolboy record holder.
* So unassailable the gap has proven to be, virtually all elite sports have a protected female category, to allow females to compete fairly against those with the same female potential, and to win, and, OK, to make a little money maybe.

**

CULTCHA

This week I’ve been… continuing my Stephen Poliakoff binge, courtesy BBC iPlayer. Completed Summer of Rockets, Shooting the Past, Perfect Strangers, on to Gideon’s Daughter. Just… mesmerising.

Also, of course, watching Wimbledon. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive Roger Federer for throwing away those two championship points. Which meant I missed the cricket World Cup final (though I assumed England would lose anyway, sorry).

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75th birthday present to my mum, Court No.1 tickets for men's quarter finals. Think she enjoyed it, too, which was a bonus 😉

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5 things about this week (25 June 2019)

by Stephen Tall on June 25, 2019

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I had thought the most depressing thing about this week would be the near-inevitability of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister. A man who failed disastrously as foreign secretary — of whom his old boss at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, writes, “There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth” — is about to be entrusted with the greatest of all public offices; and that at a moment when the UK desperately needs a leader of vision, resilience, depth, a capacity for hard grind, and the capacity to unite.

But Mr Johnson’s 99%-certain elevation is a runner-up to the depressing horror of seeing my country remorselessly embracing the US ‘culture wars’, that pitched battle between traditionalist conservative and liberal progressives.

First, it was the rush of Conservative MPs (and commentators) to the defence of their colleague Mark Field, who in a fit of anger slammed an unarmed, female Greenpeace protestor against a pillar before grabbing her by the neck and violently pushing her, an utterly disproportionate act of aggression which seemed to come all too easily to him.

Then it was the nasty attack, led by the right-wing media, against the south London couple who reported to the police (and subsequently The Guardian), a noisy row between Mr Johnson and his current girlfriend Carrie Symonds involving screaming, shouting, the sound of glasses or plates being smashed, along with Ms Symonds telling Johnson to “get off me” and “get out of my flat”. Their intervention has been labelled “Corbynista curtain twitching” by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who, without any apparent irony, added “politicians should feel safe and unmolested in their own homes”.

There are only three questions that matter here. First, were the couple (and other neighbours) right to report what could have been domestic violence to the police? Yes. Secondly, were they right to record the fight as potential evidence? Yes. And thirdly, were they right to then hand over the recording to a newspaper? This one’s more subjective, doubt I’d have done it myself, but I think it’s hard not to accept there’s a legitimate public interest.

Even if you think they were wrong to go to the press, though, it’s unarguable that if, say, the story had been about Jeremy Corbyn and broken by the Telegraph, those same conservative commentators would take a very different view. That the physical safety of a young woman is seen through such a tribal lens reveals how far down the Trump rabbit hole we’ve jumped.

**

As for the Conservative leadership race itself… I was going to write “it’s Boris Johnson’s to lose”, but I’m not sure that’s possible any more. Like Trump, the more that’s thrown at him the less any of it sticks. Their devotees have acquired an immunity to their heroes’ all too evident failings. Every time they feel compelled to defend another lapse, the greater their investment. And the sunk costs are now too large for them to feel able to sell up.

**

There is, of course, another leadership contest, albeit one almost entirely ignored by the media: the battle between Jo Swinson and Ed Davey to take over from Vince Cable at the helm of the Lib Dems.

If, like me, you’re resolutely undecided* help is at hand. There are three special episodes of the ‘Never Mind the Barcharts‘ podcast featuring exclusive interviews by Mark Pack with each candidate: the first, with Jo, is available to listen to now:

(Also available at Breaker, Google Podcasts, iTunes, Overcast, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, Spotify or Stitcher.)

The second will feature Ed Davey, natch; and in the third, Mark and I will dissect their leadership pitches. To that end, I’m going to attend the south-east hustings at the slightly improbably venue of… Gatwick. Which is actually a very convenient stopping point on commute home.

* Full confession: I’m undecided whether to vote at all. Both candidates have impressive credentials and will, I’m sure, be capable leaders. But as my regular reader will know, I think the party’s full-throttle enthusiasm for gender self-identification is wrong-headed; and the attempts to shut down debate on the issue unhealthily illiberal. (See this ‘5 things…‘, for example.) It seems highly unlikely either Jo or Ed will make any effort to remedy that, as Ed Davey’s not-terribly-well-received Q&A on Mumsnet made clear. And while I remain an active supporter of the Lib Dems (overall, the pluses outweigh the minuses) I’m not currently in any particular mood to back either candidate. But maybe Gatwick will win me round. We’ll see.

**

I felt genuinely sad over the weekend listening to the latest New Statesman politics podcast, featuring Helen Lewis and Stephen Bush, as it’s the last one Helen, who’s off to The Atlantic, will appear in. They have made it an absolutely essential listen, each with in-depth knowledge of the political scene but also bringing to it their own interests, whether theatre or football. Plus they’re very funny and have a great chemistry.

In her sign-off piece for the Staggers, Helen wrote a typically insightful piece about ‘Why political journalism keeps getting it wrong‘. Do read it in full, but this snippet stuck out for me:

The seductive power of the conventional narrative is one of the most distorting forces in political journalism. Jeremy Corbyn is useless, Donald Trump is a joke, Theresa May is the Iron Lady, Remain will win, the Liberal Democrats are finished, Nigel Farage has retired from politics. All of these seem true, until – suddenly – they are not. For commentators and reporters on the left, that is particularly tricky terrain to navigate, because the printed press is dominated by the right, and therefore the consensus tends to be sympathetic to that point of view.

For me, indulging in the teleological view of history is the first deadly sin of political journalism. It is also the easiest to cure – just stop doing it! Ask questions even if they seem odd or niche. Pin down politicians on under-considered scenarios. We must try to tune out what everyone else is obsessed with, and ask ourselves: what could happen that no one is talking about?

I’ve doubtless written many inadequate things over the years, but one article continues to make me cringe: 7 things I expect to happen in the next few days. I wrote it on the eve of the June 2017 election, despite having previously vowed not to indulge in easy sooth-saying prediction churnalism. It is eye-poppingly wrong on almost every count and it genuinely embarrasses me. ‘Just stop doing it,’ urges Helen, and she’s right.

**

I’ve finished watching BBC2’s Mum, Stefan Golaszewski’s brilliantly observed sit-com about, well, a mum. As Golaszewski noted in an interview with The Times:

“The very naming of the sitcom as Mum, has, in various reviews, been totally misinterpreted,” Golaszewski says. “People saying, ‘Why have you called it Mum? It’s such a bland name for a sitcom.’ Or, ‘This isn’t a portrayal of motherhood.’ And that completely misses the irony of calling it Mum, because it’s a show about a woman trying to shake off the label of “mum”. That was the idea — you have this woman who is forced to live up to the expectations of others as a widow or as a mum.”

The final episode is a treat. The line “Yes, well you can go and f*** yourself” will leave you both cheering the put-upon Cathy and with new-found respect for arch-snob Pauline.

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One of them is 75…

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5 things about this week (17 June 2019)

by Stephen Tall on June 17, 2019

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Rory Stewart is the undisputed breakout star of the Conservative party leadership election. What started out, seemingly, as a quixotic tourist excursion into the Westminster souk – with his random Rory Walks filmed for Twitter – has become something altogether more serious.

He’s bagged the support of the de fact deputy PM, David Lidington, as well as (reportedly) the current PM, lest we forget, Theresa May. There is a real prospect he’ll secure the 33 MP votes needed to make the second round cut and secure himself a place at the BBC debating table against Boris Johnson.

That he’s found himself the star attraction is a mix of luck and skill.

Lucky because Mr Johnson’s decision to eschew any public appearances has left a gap in the market for a candidate with fluency and charisma. Lucky, too, because he’s the only candidate (after Sam Gyimah pulled out) to have the guts to begin confronting his own party with the tough choices and trade-offs any form of Brexit necessitates.

The skill, of course, comes from making the best of his own luck. It says much about the current condition of the Conservative party, let alone today’s politics, that being thoughtful, speaking in sentences that aren’t pre-scripted slogans, recognising compromise as a virtue, and displaying compassion and humility mark Rory Stewart out as an exceptional candidate.

**

For all the current Rory-mania, on SW1 Twitter at any rate, the reality is (1) he won’t win, and (2) even if he does, he can’t actually win: the Conservative party would split if he were elected.

But, then, what has become increasingly clear from this contest is that none of the candidates has a plausible Brexit plan which withstands scrutiny. They are all variants of “Theresa May’s deal but done by me”; which almost certainly won’t pass Parliament. And, failing that, a no-deal Brexit (bar Rory) which almost certainly won’t pass Parliament — and, even if it does by default, will likely trash the Conservative party brand for a generation.

No wonder Boris is suddenly all publicity shy.

**

What is Boris Johnson’s plan? He must have one, or at any rate the campaign team in charge of him must have one. I just don’t buy the punditry which asserts “he’s not thought it through, he just wants to be PM”.

My best guess is that he will do his best to surf his new-PM honeymoon – populist tax cuts and public spending increases, a pledge to deliver Brexit by any means possible – and engineer a cut-and-run dash to the polls. It’s not impossible it won’t work, by which I mean it could, just about maybe, resurrect the Conservative party’s poll ratings enough to get them back in power with a wafer-thin majority.

But what happens beyond that? Anyone?

**

It was Father’s Day this week, and to mark it, James Kirkup* wrote a really good account of his own decision to achieve a better work/family balance by choosing to cut his hours. After suggesting the next Chancellor looks at the affordability of childcare, he points out:

In the end, though, this isn’t something that Government alone can deal with. The real changes that working fathers need are cultural. Employment law doesn’t discriminate. Men have just the same right to ask for flexible working as women. It’s just that most don’t.

Since I went part-time, I have lost count of the number of friends who have said that they would like to do the same but don’t feel they can even ask their employer about it. Too many workplaces are still dominated by a male-driven long-hours culture. ‘The guys above me all got where they are by working all hours and missing their kids growing up. They think that a man who’s not willing to do the same isn’t serious about the job,’ says a friend who works in finance.

Encouragingly, there are some signs that things are changing. Big employers are increasingly recognising the importance of helping staff balance work and family. Younger men are more willing to take the plunge and ask for flexibility. But they still need role models in senior positions.

We need more high-profile men who do big important jobs to show that you can succeed at work without 60-hour weeks and missing sports days and birthdays. Believe me, working less to spend more time with your kids really is something you will never regret.

I’m currently working a 90% contract (ie, every other Friday off) for just these reasons; having taken two months shared parental leave last year.

It means I get to watch my pre-schooler’s progress in his gym classes and my toddler’s joy in the swimming pool.

It also means I get to experience the frustration of persuading them to eat breakfast or to put their coat on (or take it off) — because not all parent is full of Instagrammable warmth and smiles.

In short, it means I get a more full-on parenting experience: the amazing, the boring, the tears, and the laughter.

* Extra kudos to James for being the only male journalist to have had the courage consistently to take politicians and his media colleagues to task for their repeated failures to stick up for women’s sex-based rights amid the current woke clamour for gender self-identification. His latest piece — reporting on the NSPCC’s decision to drop Munroe Bergdorf, a model and trans activist, as a celebrity ambassador because she has in the past invited vulnerable children to contact her online in apparent breach of the charity’s own safeguarding principles — is typically on-point.

**

I’ve been continuing to watch Thatcher: A Very British Revolution. Its archive footage is fascinating — I’d never before seen the clip of her tearing up when recollecting her father, Alfred Roberts, being elbowed aside as an alderman (an eerie foreshadowing of her own defenestration) in an interview with Miriam Stoppard. And her full-throated advocacy of free market capitalism is a striking contrast to the current Conservative leadership hopefuls (not one of whom named the economy as their top priority when asked on Channel 4’s debate). The lack of critical analysis — the series over-relies on the hindsight reflections of those who worked with her closely — is, however, irritating.

I’ve also begun, belatedly, watching BBC2’s Summer of Rockets. Nothing Stephen Poliakoff writes/directs is ever anything less than interesting. Plus it stars Keeley Hawes and Toby Stephens. With luck, I’ll ave enough time to binge my way through the Poliakoff back catalogue on iPlayer.

I’ve been listening to The Divine Comedy’s new album, Office Politics. I’m not sure it’s my favourite of theirs; in fact, it may well be my least favourite. But I’m still going to listen to it, a lot.

For fun last week, I outsourced my choice of reading matter, asking Twitter ‘I’m in the mood to read a UK political (auto)biography, preferably 20th century. What’s the best one you’ve read?’ Lots of good suggestions. In the end, I’ve plumped for Charles Moore’s biography of Thatcher (the daunting length of which had been deterring me) and am listening to Denis Healey’s The Course of My Life (sadly abridged). Then it’ll be John Campbell’s Roy Jenkins.

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It's alright, I caught him. Thanks to the wonderful @flora_westbrook for the gorgeous photos

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