5 things about this week (14 March 2019)

by Stephen Tall on March 14, 2019

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Even by Brexit’s crazy standards, that was a roller-coaster of a week. It started with Theresa May speeding to Strasbourg in a desperate attempt to maintain the fiction there had been genuine concessions from the European Union on the infamous backstop.

When that swiftly unravelled the following day, courtesy the baritone straight-talking of attorney-general Geoffrey Cox, her deal was crushed, the second meaningful vote losing by a 149 majority.

Then, on successive days, the House of Commons voted to oppose no-deal (without legislating to prevent it) and oppose a second referendum, before finally coming to an agreement to postpone Brexit Day; either by 3 months, if Mrs May’s deal passes at the third, fourth, fifth etc attempt; or by much longer, if it doesn’t.

So what happens next?

Logic dictates that next week’s third meaningful vote on the PM’s deal may well pass; or fail narrowly enough that it might pass the next time (with Theresa May, you just know there will always be a next time).

There are various hints and rumours that the DUP might be amenable to flipping their opposition. There is talk of splits among the Tories’ hardline ERG no-dealers. There is an assumption some Labour MPs will in the end move across as the only sure-fire way of preventing a disastrous no-deal outcome.

In short, despite the complete breakdown of her authority and credibility — with cabinet ministers breaking three-line whips with impunity — the surest bet looks still to be Theresa May landing her deal.

And yet… these are norm-defying times we live in. I’ve made the mistake in the last few years of projecting my assumption of rationality — Project Fear will prevail; Trump has no electoral college route to victory; Corbyn’s Labour will lose badly — only to be sucker-punched by reality. The orthodoxy that no-deal just can’t happen because someone, somewhere, will stop it is, I hope, true.

But I can’t help feeling no-deal’s likelihood is being underestimated by people like me who keep on expecting the old norms to magically reassert themselves.

**

It looks like the People’s Vote (aka second referendum) is dead: 334 MPs voted against, with just 85 in favour. Missing in action, of course, were the Labour party: 201 of its MPs abstained, though even if they’d all gone through the aye lobby it would still have been a sizeable defeat.

From Labour’s point of view, though, their brief dalliance with a People’s Vote has served its purpose. It stalled the momentum of The Independent Group, helping to persuade many wavering moderate Labour MPs not to defect. Now, not least thanks to deputy leader Tom Watson’s fledgling party-within-a-party social democratic parliamentary group, Labour feels safe to revert to its previous over-riding commitment to have Brexit implemented by the Conservatives and keep its hands clean. It’s been an wholly cynical manoeuvre which has worked a treat, practically Mandelsonian in its brazen execution.

For the record, I’m one of those Remainers who think the 2016 referendum mandate lasts until we leave, assuming a respectable deal can be obtained. For all its many flaws, and it’s certainly a marked trade-down on our exceptionally good deal as an EU member, I think Theresa May’s deal is a workable way of honouring that mandate. Sorrynotsorry.

**

Vince Cable has announced he’s to resign as Lib Dem leader. I’ve long been a fan of his, though it’s hard to claim he’s set the political world alight in his two-year stint. Still, the challenge to stand out is much harder these days, as the joint fourth largest party.

While, for good reason, I generally avoid making political predictions these days, I feel safe in stating the next party leader will be a woman, the two front-runners being Jo Swinson and Layla Moran. Jo was a government minister during the Coalition; Layla was first elected in 2017. We know their position on Brexit, but little else, yet, about their economic or public policy positions (that’s not a criticism, just a statement).

So, plenty for Mark Pack and me to get stuck into in our next Never Mind the Barcharts podcast, which should be out next Tuesday, 19 March (my birthday, and what could be nicer than getting up at 5.40 am to make it in time for our recording slot?). Over 2,000 listens to date, for which much thanks!

**

One of the issues I periodically bang on about here is the root causes of the gender pay gap — which isn’t, as is often supposed, because of evil companies illegally paying women less than men, but because caring responsibilities primarily fall on women; that we lack a culture of flexible working (bad for all parents, not just mums); and that we under-value highly feminised employment sectors.

So I was interested to read Adam Corlett’s recent analysis for the Resolution Foundation on ‘the gender parenting gap’ which, unsurprisingly, found it’s still a man’s world:

Concentrating on families with a child under five, 93 per cent of parents making some kind of employment sacrifice were female in 2018, down from 98 per cent in 1992-93. Conversely, men’s share of this employment hit has risen from around 2 per cent to 7 per cent. … If the overall trend of the last 26 years were to continue it would take until the 2220s to reach gender parity on this measure.

The reason?

… parental leave and pay are likely the most important policies for the gender parenting gap, with couples’ later decisions about the division of parenting and employment strongly affected by their child’s first year or two. When the law offers mothers six weeks of leave at 90 per cent of salary (uncapped), and 33 weeks on a low income, but only offers fathers two weeks (albeit with the option of using some of the mother’s weeks) on that insufficient income, we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a large gender gap in employment and early years parenting.

Adam’s proposal:

… perhaps we should look to our Nordic neighbours. In Iceland, mothers get three months of generously-paid leave, fathers get the same (also non-transferable, importantly), and couples get a further three months to share between them. Or Spain, where paid paternity leave is in the process of being increased to 16 weeks to reach gender parity. And we should also look to companies such as Aviva that have introduced the same paid leave policy for fathers as for mothers. Individual attitudes matter too, and social norms are perhaps harder to change than policy, but improving the gender balance of both government and corporate parental policy should be something that both men and women can get behind.

PS: I’m working a 90% contract in my current role so that I get alternate Fridays with my two pre-school children. I’m well aware, mind, I’m fortunate to have an employer willing to offer that flexibility (and that I can afford to make the choice).

**

This week I’ve been watching Ricky Gervais’s unexpectedly heart-warming After Life, which I binged in one evening. Even if you hated everything he’s done since The Office, I think you’ll fall a little bit in love with this. (If you didn’t like The Office or anything else he’s done since, feel free to give this a miss.)

I’ve begun reading Robert Saunders’ incredibly readable Yes to Europe!: The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain. With every page, it becomes clearer quite how appallingly poorly prepared was David Cameron’s 2016 effort by comparison.

And I’ve enjoyed viewing Don McCullin’s extraordinary photographic exhibition at the Tate, a vast trove spanning London’s pre-gentrified East End, graphic war-torn countries’ suffering, and intimate portraits of domestic poverty. It really is stunning.

**

They grow up so fast, don’t they?

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4 today!

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5 things about this week (5 March 2019)

by Stephen Tall on March 5, 2019

We’ve all had a week off Brexit, courtesy the scuttle-diplomacy of Theresa May and her attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, who are both doing their best to look busy in the hope that their blatant attempts to run down the clock to 29th March can retain a mere shimmer of credibility. He has, reports say, given up the hope of persuading the EU to annul the Irish backstop by ensuring the UK can renege on its agreement whenever the fancy takes it (grrr, rotten foreigners, eh?!)… or not, if you believe his partial denial of those reports.

I sometimes struggle to recall I’m one of those Remainers who actually at least half-supports Theresa May’s deal, such has been the mess she’s made of selling it (afraid as she is, as every Tory leaders appears doomed to be, of her feral backbench Brexiters). Her’s is, I suspect, probably about the best that could be made of a bad job: a far, far worse deal than our current privileged Euro membership, but a bespokely realistic means to square the circle of respecting the referendum result while not tanking the British economy.

That I – a happily self-confessed centrist – thinks that probably spells trouble for the Prime Minister. Like many who thought Brexit, Trump and both Corbyn surges were all infinetisimally unlikley because, surely, common sense would kick in, I wonder if I’m continuing to under-estimate the chances of a no-deal Brexit happening. I keep on looking for straws in the wind — chatter of an ERG climbdown, the DUP sounding not impossibly unreasonable — and caught myself confidently tweeting the other day that her deal has >35% chance of passing based on nothing more than my gut instinct that surely, common sense will kick in. I mean, it has to, right? Right, guys?

**

Reacting to the creation of The Independent Group, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, says she “would rather die than join any other party”. It’s a statement best read as (1) metaphorical (I hope), and (2) her latest OTT pitch to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. But it does sum up rather neatly the tribalism of our party system.

To an extent, I understand it. Back in my most Lib Demmy days (when a councillor and editing LibDemVoice) I could be pretty partisan; maybe it’s a necessary pre-condition, if you’re going to (as I did) volunteer 20+ hours a week on top of your day-job, in order to justify such eccentric behaviour. Though I never went as far as making a legacy to the party — I’ve never had quite enough confidence the party’s beliefs and mine will always align — so I’m certainly not signing my life away to it.

But, for all my reservations about the party’s current breadth of vision (lack thereof) and strategic direction (ditto), and the occasional dottiness of its priorities, policies and processes, I do still believe that the country will be better for having more people support the Lib Dems and more Lib Dems elected to positions of responsibility.

So, when the email came through from my party asking if I’d be willing to be a candidate (again) in this year’s local elections, I knew I had to say yes. That’s, I reckon, a sensible level of commitment.

PS: Mark Pack and I discuss the new Independent Group — what we make of it and whether it’s a threat to the Lib Dems — in the latest episode of our podcast, now officially named Never Mind the Barcharts. Listen to it here.

**

[Please admire the following segue, I don’t just throw this stuff together y’know…] ‘Our aim is to pursue policies that are evidence-based, not led by ideology’ begins the second paragraph of The Independent Group’s statement of values. You might expect me — a fully signed-up evidence junkie — to cheer and I do.

But with two cautions.

First, there’s nearly always some evidence somewhere to justify pretty much any policy if you look hard enough. What matters, therefore, is (1) finding high-quality evidence, and (2) synthesising it to understand the consistent messages. That’s a lot easier in my area of semi-expertise, education, than it is in many other areas of public policy, where good evidence is thin on the ground.

Secondly, even when you have good evidence, ideology (or, to use a different, softer, term ‘values’) still matters. As I wrote here, in A liberal approach to evidence-based policy-making, if I wanted to boost voter turn-out at elections, simply following the evidence would lead me to recommend making voting compulsory; after all, in Australia turn-out is consistently over 90%. However, as I believe voting is a right, not an obligation, it’s not something I’d support.

Evidence is important, yes, absolutely, but don’t out-source your ideology to it.

**

Evidence works best when you’ve agreed a policy aim and you want to find out how to implement it in line with your values, effectively and cost-effectively. Let’s take a practical example, a bugbear of mine I’ve written about before — that universities are scandalously incurious about how best to spend the £800 million a year they currently plough into ‘widening participation’ schemes which aim to improve entry and reduce drop-out rates for students from under-represented and disadvantaged backgrounds:

Financial aid for students is undoubtedly a good thing. However, the evidence is clear that scholarships and bursaries do very little to address the biggest issue I think faces higher education: how can you get more young people from low-income backgrounds with the talent to succeed into university in the first place. Universities are focusing too much effort on (very expensive) financial aid in the name of widening participation when in reality it’s often a marketing/positioning exercise. British universities are appalling bad at evaluating the impact of their widening participation activities. If they’re serious about tackling the social divide they need to get a lot smarter and a lot more rigorous about finding out what actually works so they can invest their money effectively in widening participation strategies that truly make a difference.

Congratulations, then, to the Office for Students which, absent any leadership from the higher education sector itself, has stepped up to the plate. It will be funding a new, independent centre ‘providing evidence on the impact of different approaches to widening access and improving outcomes and progression for disadvantaged students’. Long overdue, but very welcome

**

I’ve been listening to Brit-ish, Afua Hirsch’s thoughtful and through-provoking reflection on growing up as a mixed-race person in Britain. She totally persuaded me that our education systems need to de-colonise the curriculum (or, more to the point, give an accurate and rounded account of this country’s people and its history which doesn’t erase/gloss the problematic bits). I was less persuaded by her arguments on cultural appropriation. I would have been interested in some international comparisons – eg, is our race problem peculiarly British, or could a similar book have been written called French-ish? But it’s well worth a read/listen, particular for its central thesis that progressives claiming “I don’t see colour” are part of the problem.

I’ve been reading Caroline Criado Perez’s essay in The Guardian, The deadly truth about a world built for men, excerpted from her new book, Invisible Women. Lots of everyday examples, from air-con to toilets in theatres to the size of phones, which exemplify how patriarchy unthinkingly discriminates against those born female (yes, it turns out — who knew? — biology matters!).

**

Usual quiet Sunday

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5 things about this week (21 Feb 2019)

by Stephen Tall on February 21, 2019

This week saw the birth of the long-awaited new centrist party, The Independent Group. Who knows what’s going to happen?

My heart says I hope it thrives. At last, a handful of the grown-ups in our two main parties have had the courage of their convictions and done something constructive, positive. Just perhaps it will force a response from the Conservatives and Labour, a reversion to the sensible, moderate mainstream; a rejection of their current adherence to their controlling extremists, whether ERG or Momentum.

My heads says it’s bound to get squashed by our stultifying electoral system, which stifles at birth all insurgents (ironically, Ukip only prospered thanks to the proportional system of the Euro elections). That the initial excitement will give way to predictable squabbles about leadership and policy direction.

But, for just a few days, I’m going to suspend my analytical pessimism. There’ll be plenty of time for that. For now, I’m just enjoying the sight of 11 MPs once again happy in their own skins, liberated, feeling free to express the views and values they’ve always held without the cold disapproval of their rigid parties.

And what absolute stars Luciana Berger and Heidi Allen turned out to be. There’s long been a commentariat assumption any new party would need a famous name with gravitas to succeed. But maybe the opposite is true, and the pleasant surprise of calm, honest, down-to-earth decency is what will give TIG traction.

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched the news with any sense of cheerfulness. It was enough to persuade me to chuck them a tenner, to wish them well.

**

You only have to look at the decision of home secretary Sajid Javid to revoke the British citizenship of Shamima Begum, the Bethnal Green youngster groomed and radicalised by Islamic State, to see how low our current political leaders will stoop to grub for popularity.

As international law forbids a citizen from being made stateless, it’s highly likely Mr Javid’s decision will be overturned. But, from his point of view, it’s served its purpose: he can pose as the strong voice of common sense for the right-wing media, no matter that the tough-minded decision would be for this country to step up and take responsibility for one of our own, rather than attempt to shunt the problem onto another country.

As The Times’s Anthony Lloyd, who interviewed Shamima and reckons she would be an ideal candidate for a de-radicalisation programme, writes:

… if the home secretary were to make his decisions based upon security, then he would push for the prompt repatriation from Syria of every single British Isis member, including Kotey and Elsheikh. The current situation, whereby more than 900 foreign fighters and nearly 3,000 foreign family members from 49 countries are cooped up in camps alongside thousands of Syrian and Iraqi Isis members in one of the most unstable parts of the Middle East is unsustainable; a calamity waiting to happen.

Yet so far, in the week since Ms Begum’s story emerged, little evidence of reasoned, informed consideration and debate has appeared. We would do well to realise that victory against Isis will be measured in no small part by our ability to have the confidence in our own legal system and values in dealing with British citizens who joined the jihadists.

If our institutions and sense of worth cannot deal fairly and appropriately with a runaway schoolgirl from Bethnal Green, who may well be more deserving of rescue and rehabilitation than hatred and condemnation, then we will indeed have become a very little England.

**

Speaking of little England, here’s the obligatory Brexit paragraph… I don’t know to what extent the UK’s bonkers decision to leave the EU played a part in first Nissan’s decision to shift production of its X-Trail from Sunderland to Japan, or of Ford to to scale back engine production in Bridgend, or of British carmaker JLR to cut 4,500 jobs, or of tyremaker Michelin to close a factory in Dundee, or of German car-parts maker Schaeffler to close factories in Llanelli and Plymouth, or of Honda’s decision this week to shut its Swindon plant with the loss of up to 7,000 jobs… but, alongside the downturn in the Chinese economy, it’s fair to say it was in the mix.

This is the Brexit reality: a sharp and sustained economic decline which Leavers will shrug off, pretending either its unrelatedness or else reckoning that the short-term pain will be worth the long-term gain.

Remember: here’s the link to donate to The Independent Group.

**

I never much liked Martina Navratilova in the 1980s. I hope it was simply that I preferred underdogs and that’s a label that never really applied to one of the greatest female tennis players of all time. But, looking back, I was probably also influenced by the distaste some felt at the time for a no-nonsense independent woman who was an outspoken advocate of gay, lesbian and trans rights.

But I was nothing but impressed by her article in this week’s Sunday Times pointing out that allowing transwomen to compete against women in sports events is intrinsically unfair. It’s not just that I agree with her, but also the way she modelled her argument, noting that, after her initial comments a few months ago triggered a Twitter row, “I promised to keep quiet on the subject until I had properly researched it”:

Well, I’ve now done that and, if anything, my views have strengthened. To put the argument at its most basic: a man can decide to be female, take hormones if required by whatever sporting organisation is concerned, win everything in sight and perhaps earn a small fortune, and then reverse his decision and go back to making babies if he so desires. It’s insane and it’s cheating. I am happy to address a transgender woman in whatever form she prefers, but I would not be happy to compete against her. It would not be fair.

She’s right and her bravery in speaking up (in spite of the inevitable wokelash) has prompted many other female athletes to make the same point, such as Paula Radcliffe: “If you are born and grow up male you cannot be allowed to compete in female sports simply because you ‘identify’ as female. It makes a mockery of the definitions of male and female sports categories.” Let’s hope this opens up the space for a long-overdue debate, minus the tedious slurs that those sticking up for single-sex spaces for women are ‘transphobes’.

**

This week I watched Netflix’s documentary, Fyre: the greatest party that never happened, about the catastrophic failure of a “luxury music experience on a posh private island” orchestrated by a compulsive liar called Billy McFarland, who seems to have taken The Wolf of Wall Street as an inspiration rather than a cautionary tale.

And this week, I resume my 9-day fortnights Yes, I’ve opted for a 90% contract at work at least until my eldest child starts school in September: time to enjoy with him every possible moment of his last few pre-school months.

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No need to ask "Did you enjoy nursery today?"

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5 things about this week (15 Feb 2019)

by Stephen Tall on February 15, 2019

So we’re heading for a no-deal Brexit. That, at any rate, is the mood music this week from well-informed observers like ITV’s Robert Peston and Huffington Post’s Paul Waugh.

Waugh’s account is particularly eye-catching for its claim that Theresa May’s preference for a cliff-edge Brexit is motivated by the need to preserve Conservative party unity:

One source says: “She’s been told – ‘You need to understand prime minister, it’s very simple maths – the ERG [European Research Group] will fuck you, fuck the Conservative party and they will throw themselves over a cliff. Your Remainer colleagues will not’. It’s who’s got the biggest balls.”

Of course, it’s impossible to read a Brexit story now without wondering whether it’s been briefed as part of a strategy.

Is the hyping up of no-deal actually just a clever bluff by Number 10 to try and rouse Remainer Tory MPs (and pragmatic/Leaver Labour MPs) to get behind Theresa May’s deal? Or is it a double-bluff to try and convince no-deal Leaver Tories that the PM is actually on their side, after all, so to give her the benefit of the doubt if she comes back from Brussels with some more backstop reassurance? Or is it just indiscriminate bluff, with Theresa May desperately hoping that someone else will blink first before she eventually has to?

Who knows, it may even be entirely accurate. Perhaps Theresa May is convinced the best way to save the Tory party is to fix it to the no-deal mast. No-one can be sure.

‘A sphinx without a riddle,’ was Bismarck’s famous epigraph of Napoleon III; ‘from afar something, near at hand nothing’; ‘a great unfathomed incapacity.’

* I loved this cartoon, from The Economist’s KAL, when I first saw it. It seemed to sum up so much about the un-meeting of minds during the UK-EU Brexit negotiations (although in a sop to Brexiter grand-standing, the British plug is actually, genuinely superior).

**

Churchill: hero or villain? It’s a debate which spikes up on social media every few months or so, with predictably entrenched results. The performative woke left dusts off its version of history to decry his infamies. Meanwhile the brittle nationalist right cries foul at any attempt to besmirch this great Briton’s virtues. Attempts at nuanced reflection rarely prosper in this binary echo-chamber.

But, for me, this New Stateman piece by Simon Heffer – from 2015 – best captures the contradiction of Churchill, both hero and villain:

The myth keeps us from an honest interpretation of our history in the first half of the 20th century. The false and romanticised picture we have of him, created by his reputation from 1940-45, is a huge obstacle to true understanding. In one aspect of his life, when the man met the hour, he was as outstanding as anyone in British history has been. In all others he was just another politician on the make, firing out opinions at random in the hope that one, now and again, would hit the target. He had a bellicosity that in all circumstances other than 1940-45 could be intensely dangerous, and that had its downside even in the fight against Hitler.

**

I was a huge fan of Jeremy Hardy. One of the first Radio 4 comedies I remember laughing at was At Home with the Hardys (1987-90), and I loved listening to him, whether on his eponymous ‘Speaks to the Nation’ series or ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’ or ‘The News Quiz’. Yes, he was an unreconstructed lefty; but he was also self-aware, happily taking the piss out of his own views as well as his opponents’.

I remember once blatantly stealing one of his lines in my only ever stand-up (well, actually sit-down) comedy performance, at a university open mic event, when I took the easy gig of playing an old-school racist Tory, reminiscing about how “we turned the map of the world pink before homsexuality was even fashionable”.

I once asked Channel 4’s head of comedy why Jeremy didn’t have his own show: “some people are diminished by TV,” she said. And it’s true, as he himself admitted, that radio was the medium where he thrived.

I loved Hugo Rifkind’s tribute to him, especially this line: “… he also knew that a person’s political identity, however fierce, may just be their own formalisation of a broader morality on which others, with other politics, will agree.”

**

The third (final?) podcast – The As Yet Unnamed Political Podcast – from Mark Pack and me is now live. Topics we discuss in 30 minutes include universal basic income and (relatedly) self-styled radicalism, as well as the prospect of a new centre party.

And, crucially, if we do actually make it a regular thing, what we should call the podcast. My suggestions of ‘Stick it on a podcast’ (inspired by David Penhaligon), ‘Lib Dem Ear Trumpet’ and ‘Never Mind the Barcharts’ have all been pooh-poohed by Mark. However, we’re both resolved not to open it up to a public vote. That way, disaster lies.

PS: I cling to my Lib Dem membership, in spite of the best attempts of the party (this time in the person of Lynne Featherstone, someone for whom I’ve previously had huge respect) to make itself look ridiculous – this time by claiming that anyone still supporting the Equality Act 2010 cannot be a feminist and should just quit.

**

A fortnight’s bronchitis has at least had one compensation: I’m pretty much up-to-date with my TV backlog: Netflix’s Sex Education (quite remarkably good), as well ultimate “warm bath telly”: ITV’s Grantchester (new vicar shaping up pretty well) and Cold Feet (I remember watching the first episode in 1998), and BBC1’s Call the Midwife (no, still haven’t watched it without crying).

Now I just need to get the energy back to start reading books again…

 

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Novelty value

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5 things about this week (31 Jan 2019)

by Stephen Tall on January 31, 2019

One of the reasons I wanted to resume blogging again was properly to capture my real-time thinking on issues. It’s good for the soul to be constantly reminded when you read yourself back quite how stupidly wrong you’re capable of being. (Though this technique doesn’t seem to work for Nick Timothy.)

Last week, I opened with the lines, ‘What is Theresa May playing at? A week on from the heaviest parliamentary defeat since ever, and still she’s clinging to her Brexit deal, her Plan A-thru-Z.’ Yet the logic of her position now seems both clear and justifiable.

True, she only scraped her Commons’ win this week by flipping her long-stated (and correct) position that the infamous backstop in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement is non-negotiable. The EU is clearly not going to shift on this in any remotely significant way, and certainly not before the next meaningful parliamentary vote on 14 February. It’s quite likely, then, that she will lose again. But less badly than the first time, I’d expect.

In essence, Theresa May is winning the war of attrition to get her Brexit deal through. She may well have to ask the EU to extend Article 50 to give her more time; but, slowly but surely, her deal is emerging as the only option left on the table.

We know from this week’s Commons votes there’s insufficient support for a second referendum (let alone simply revoking Article 50). There still seems to be no real momentum behind a Norway-style EEA deal (small wonder: it is quite patently a worse “rule-taker not rule-maker” outcome than our current membership). Yet, the Commons has also shown it is against a ‘No deal’ – sure, it did so in as toothless a way as possible, but I still find it hard to imagine Theresa May wanting, or being allowed by her cabinet, to take us over the precipice.

Which leaves… Theresa May’s deal, faute de mieux. I’m still not quite sure how it gets across the finishing line, but it’s the only one with the legs to get there.

**

But of course that’s not the end of the story (even if what I’ve said above turns out to be accurate).

As Stephen Bush noted in 2017, the Nafta deal, signed in 1993, was still a defining issue in US politics in the 2016 presidential primaries and general election.

The arguments about Brexit aren’t going to disappear the day the Withdrawal Agreement takes effect. Some Leavers are going to continue to call Theresa May’s deal a cop-out; and if one of their number wins their party’s leadership contest the issue will remain live. Unreconciled Remainers are going to begin their push for the UK to rejoin the EU.

The battle may soon be over. The war’s only just begun.

And on that bombshell, let us speak no more of Brexit for the rest of this blog…

**

“Social mobility in the UK is so much worse than it used to be. If only we could be more like the highly-educated meritocratic Germans.”

Say this at a dinner party and you’ll probably get many nods of appreciation for your sagacity. But, it turns out, both sentences are pretty wide of the mark.

There’s a fascinating article at The Conversation by Erzsebet Bukodi, who, with John Goldthorpe, has examined extensive British birth cohort studies from which they conclude:

‘… social mobility in Britain is not in decline. Absolute rates of class mobility between generations have been stable at least over the period since World War II. Men and women today are just as likely to be found in different class positions to those of their parents as they were in the 1950s.’

And as for the Germans…

‘… Britain is one of a group of West-Nordic countries that show – comparatively – high fluidity within their class structures. One reason for this is that, in Britain, education is not class destiny to the same extent as it is in a country such as Germany.

‘In Germany, and several other Western-Central European countries, the educational system is highly stratified, with early selection for different types of school. Because there is then a tight link between formal educational qualifications and employment opportunities, educational inequalities are rather systematically translated into labour market inequalities. Where such “credentialism” prevails, education can in fact prove a barrier to, as much as a source of, social mobility.’

Can’t guarantee saying all this will go down as well at a dinner party, mind.

**

In our first pilot podcast — available to listen to here! — Mark Pack and I answered the question, ‘If you could get the government to think about one thing other than B*****, what would it be?’

I chose public transport on the grounds that it would do most to help improve productivity (while also improving people’s everyday lives). So I was interested to read this analysis in CityMetric:

‘Allowing 30 minutes of travel time using fixed infrastructure such as a tram gives Birmingham a population of about 1.7 million people, which is very close to its population as defined by the OECD of about 1.9 million. But at peak time Birmingham’s effective population is just 0.9m – less than half the population that the OECD use.

‘This is where things get very interesting. If we consider that Birmingham has a population of 1.9m, and we assume that agglomeration benefits should work in the UK to the same extent that they work in France, Birmingham has a 33 per cent productivity shortfall. This underperformance of the UK’s large cities is part of the productivity puzzle that UK economists have been desperately trying to solve.’

Well worth your time to read here.

And it does, I hope, back up my podcast argument that there are many less expensive ways than HS2 (or HS3/4) or Crossrail to boost the economy. But they’re also less sexy so get politicians less excited.

**

I’ve been watching Netflix’s Sex Education — and, somewhat to my surprise, loving it (I’m two episodes in). I watched it out of curiosity because work colleagues raved about it. It’s like a cross between The Breakfast Club, American Pie and The Inbetweeners, cleverly blurring it’s British/American identity: the cast speaks with British accents, including Gillian Anderson, but the setting is generic American college. There’s some unnecessary nudity — though I guess you probably wouldn’t watch it with your mum anyway — but it’s smart, sweet and very funny.

And I’ve been listening to Radio 4’s Front Row interview with Germaine Greer. She really is quite incapable of uttering an uninteresting sentence. A fascinating retrospective as she reaches her ninth decade.

And that’s it for another week. Apart for this:

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I was in charge of tea tonight and yes that is my son dunking his chips in his Shreddies just call social services now

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Theresa May photo: Image by Jay Allen, Crown Copyright – used under Creative Commons

5 things about this week (23 Jan 2018)

by Stephen Tall on January 23, 2019

What is Theresa May playing at? A week on from the heaviest parliamentary defeat since ever, and still she’s clinging to her Brexit deal, her Plan A-thru-Z.

The reason, I guess, is clear. She would rather go down in history as the Prime Minister who brought the country to its knees (by allowing no deal) than the Conservative leader who split asunder her party (by blocking no deal).

There was a time, not that long ago, when I could conjure up some sympathy for Mrs May. She was the only grown up left standing in her party’s 2016 leadership contest. Even her reach for a hard Brexit, withdrawing from the single market to end free movement, I could initially understand given the desire of so many to ‘take back control’ of our borders.

But she has failed to acknowledge two realities. First, the significance of the Northern Ireland border with the EU which stymies a British exit from the Customs Union. And secondly, the significance of losing her majority at the 2017 election, which meant any deal would require an embrace across the Commons chamber given the implacable zealotry of her own party’s Brexit headbangers.

Ignoring both, Mrs May has created the current impasse. As a result, she is left with just one hope: that by kicking the can down the road long enough, one of the two obstacles she faces — either the headbangers or the EU — will jump out of her way. This seems massively to underestimate their respective persistence.

I suspect she knows that. But still she cannot bring herself to put country before party. It’s quite the political obituary she’s writing herself.

**

I finally got round to watching Channel 4’s Brexit: the Uncivil War, written by the splendid James Graham. It’s good fun and well worth a watch, but it also grated on me for three principal reasons:

1) while Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as Vote Leave’s combustible éminence grise, Dominic Cummings, the casting is also a bit easy. Yes, here’s the guy who played that psychopathic genius, Sherlock — DO YOU GET THE PARALLEL?? — as the geeky protagonist who (we’re more or less told) single-handedly wins the referendum by inserting the word ‘back’ in the middle of the campaign’s slogan, ‘take control’.

2) Cummings was, of course, a key character in Vote Leave’s success. But not as pivotal as the film made out (his boss Matthew Elliot was probably more influential). The play which made James Graham’s name, This House, set during the final groaning years of the minority Callaghan government, was an ensemble piece and all the better for it.

3) it also falls too hard for the half-conspiracy theory that Cummings’ recruitment of Cambridge Analytica and its dodgy Facebook ads were the difference between the two campaigns. We’ll never know for sure, but I can’t help feeling that three decades’ relentlessly negative media coverage of the EU from the right-wing press (ie, pretty much all of it) dutifully followed up by the broadcasters, was way more influential.

**

Can I be the last person to slate Russell Brand for his jaw-dropping shirking of the excruciating and mundane bits of fatherhood he doesn’t care for? Here’s what he told the Sunday Times’s Decca Aitkenhead:

I’m very, very focused on the mystical connotations of Mabel’s beauty and grace. Not so good on the nappies and making sure that they eat food. … Laura’s able to sustain and maintain domesticity in a way that’s astonishing. I didn’t have much experience of how to organise domesticity. … Laura does all of it. It turns out that she is extremely well versed in the nuances and complexities of child-rearing.

Because of course mothers are genetically programmed to change nappies and pack carrot sticks while, for fathers, such desiderata is the equivalent of learning Mandarin while skiing up a treacle-covered Everest.

Reading this new-age-woke-bloke-laziness I’m reminded of a Guardian article Helen Lewis once wrote, highlighting the default assumption that’s still only slowly changing that mothers are the home-makers: Yes, there is one great contribution men can make to feminism: pick up a mop.

**

I’ve gone done a second pilot podcast with Mark Pack, still titled the ‘As Yet Unnamed Political Podcast’ – you can listen to it here. We cover Paddy Ashdown, Lib Dem strategy, Tim Farron’s record, and overseas elections. But (almost) no Brexit because Mark wouldn’t let me. Next time (if there is a next time)…

**

It’s 25 years since BBC2 first broadcast The Day Today, one of the greatest satirical TV shows of all time. Which is all the excuse I need to post this clip – WAR! – which captured perfectly the symbiosis of amped-up media and failed political leadership a full quarter of a century before Brexit:

5 things about this week (10 January 2019)

by Stephen Tall on January 10, 2019

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Let’s pick up where I left off, and see if I can make a proper go of it this time, eh?

**

78 days to Brexit and the paradox that is its simultaneously mind-numbingly boring and risk-takingly thrilling denouement. Throughout the autumn, barely a day seemed to pass without a ministerial resignation. Into 2019, and its government defeats which are all the rage (literally). Frankly, it’s all too much to process.

And not just for the public, I suspect. MPs, too, seem to be caught in the traffic-light daze of the enormity and complexity confronting them. Brexiters and Remainers alike are queuing up to reject Theresa May’s deal and the infamous ‘backstop’, without seemingly caring over-much if they could really do any better; at least in a way which both honours the referendum result and squares the circle of the Northern Ireland border.

James Kirkup, journalist-turned-think-tanker, has today written a thoughtful piece in The Times praising the Prime Minister’s deal:

In truth, the deal would leave Britain able to choose, though from a range of imperfect options. But that’s what Brexit means. Having rejected a first-class trade deal with our closest partners, we are left to choose between second-best alternatives. Most adults eventually accept that growing up means giving up on fairytales of perfection and instead choosing between least-bad options. Mrs May’s deal, backstop and all, is the least bad option open to Britain. MPs should vote for it.

Well worth a read in full (yes, it’s paywalled but you get two free articles a week for registering). Of course, it’s rationale is predicated on our politicians being able to look beyond their slogans and consider politics as the art of the possible. So a crushing Commons defeat for Theresa May still seems the most likely outcome of the big vote.

**

I’ve just returned from a couple of weeks’ holiday in Spain with my in-laws, celebrating New Year and its Fiesta de los Reyes. Brexit was, incidentally, barely mentioned on the news programmes; other European countries have their own domestic worries, and the UK’s hara-kiri simply baffles them.

I decided to take a break from Twitter, too, but obviously couldn’t completely stick to that. My occasional lapse did at least mean I didn’t miss out on this excellent article by the New Statesman’s Helen Lewis, which I’m highlighting for two reasons.

First, its subject – the toxic debate about gender self-ID – is one I’ve written about here before. Indeed, it was a big part of the motivation to re-start my blog because it felt a better medium than Twitter to highlight my deep concerns about the undermining of single-sex spaces for natal-born women.

Secondly, Helen Lewis is the writer who first got me interested in this subject (and identity politics more generally). She has written extensively and sympathetically about the need to improve rights and services for transgender people, while also highlighting the problems associated with self-ID. And as a result, has been regularly traduced as a ‘transphobe’ and ‘TERF‘ for the latter (with the former ignored).

Her article is gloriously angry, but also makes a very serious point about woke activism:

Supporting better funding for gender identity services doesn’t make you a radical activist. It just makes you someone who is destined to be disappointed by a Conservative government. Supporting self-ID, by contrast, in the face of all the evidence it might have unforeseen consequences for everything from prison populations to crime statistics to women’s participation in competitive sports – now, that makes you look right-on.

**

I’ve gone done a podcast. Well, everyone has these days. It’s “the classic ‘two dudes talking’ format” – to quote my co-presenter, Mark Pack – with the idea of filling the gap in the market for liberals chatting politics and stuff. You can have a listen here and let us know what you think…

**

Tonight we’ve submitted our online application for a primary school place for our soon-to-be-4 year-old. We’re lucky in Horsham; all the nearest six schools we visited (ie, within 2 miles) are Ofsted-rated ‘Good’ and do well in national tests. And no, that’s not the be-all-and-end-all, but still.

Indeed, precisely because they’re all clearly good schools, it made our decision a bit trickier. And, to be honest, us as parents a bit fussier. He loves music, is half-Spanish, extremely energetic — so our ideal is a school with instruments and mutlilingualism and plenty of outdoor space. Fingers crossed.

One school which was quickly ruled out was the one with the motto, ‘Be sensible and safe’. To be clear, I’m not advocating ‘stupid and dangerous’ as preferable for kids. But — not to go all new-age hippy — I would prioritise exploration and risk-taking (within a safe environment).

On which note, it’s well worth reading Jonathan Haidt and Pamela Paresky’s article in today’s Guardian, By mollycoddling our children, we’re fuelling mental illness in teenagers:

Children’s social and emotional abilities are as antifragile as their immune systems. If we overprotect kids and keep them “safe” from unpleasant social situations and negative emotions, we deprive them of the challenges and opportunities for skill-building they need to grow strong. Such children are likely to suffer more when exposed later to other unpleasant but ordinary life events, such as teasing and social exclusion.

… free play, in which kids work out their own rules of engagement, take small risks, and learn to master small dangers (such as having a snowball fight) turns out to be crucial for the development of adult social and even physical competence. …

How can we raise kids strong enough to handle the ordinary and extraordinary challenges of life? There’s a powerful piece of folk wisdom: prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. As soon as you grasp the concept of antifragility, you understand why that folk saying is true.

**

Cultural corner… Having been away, I’ve only just caught up on BBC1’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation, The ABC Murders. I’m pretty open to re-interpretations of classics, but they should at least respect the canon. Yet Sarah Phelps’ version transformed Hercule Poirot from a deeply religious, retired Belgian policeman, whose patriotic integrity is part of his DNA into an atheistic ex-priest, who deceives his country and closest friends. However stylish the cinematography, the thing was badly done. Niall Gooch has written an excellent critique of it here.

But let me end on a positive. I read Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle while on holiday and absolutely loved it. Described as Agatha Christie meets Groundhog Day (with a dollop of gothic horror) it is scintillatingly original, and especially impressive for a debut.

And that’s it – hopefully for another week, rather than another four months this time…

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Waited years for an in-focus shot of me casually throwing a child in the air. I finally have one. Thank you @flo_westbrook for this great pic (among many others)

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5 things about this week (26 August 2018)

by Stephen Tall on August 26, 2018

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The SDP has a bad rep. The moment any potential Labour split is mentioned, someone pipes up “Ah but SDP”, as if the fate of Jenkins, Owen, Williams and the other one is a slam-dunk argument against putting principles before party.

There are two reasons put forward. First, the SDP is blamed by the left for splitting the anti-Thatcher vote. Yet there is pretty compelling polling data the Conservatives would actually have done better, not worse, if their only viable rival had been Michael Foot’s Labour party.

Secondly, the SDP more or less ceased to exist within a decade of its formation. That surely self-categorises it as an utter failure? Yet within two years of its formation, Labour had elected a soft-left leader, Neil Kinnock, resolved to lead his party from the mainstream.

Eleven years later, Labour elected John Smith, on the right of Labour (and as a result a trade union sympathist, at a time when the unions were a bulwark against left-wing militancy).

And 13 years after the SDP’s birth, it saw its ultimate social democratic victory, when Tony Blair was overwhelmingly elected Labour leader.

True, its leaders never again tasted power. But their political tradition triumphed. Might Kinnock, Smith and Blair have happened anyway, absent the SDP? We’ll never know. What we do know is that, though they lost the battle, they absolutely bossed the war.

**

I guess I count myself a pretty semi-detached Lib Dem right now. Partly that’s just circumstance (work and family preclude active involvement). But it’s also my party’s obsessive crusade against Brexit.

In theory, I’m with them; I agree it’s a rubbish decision to Leave, one which will make this country poorer in more ways than just financial. But that was the result in a referendum of which the Lib Dems were wholly supportive. There is no good outcome to Brexit, but there are less worse ones — including Theresa May’s Chequers proposal — and they should be given more of a hearing than my party is willing to.

However, one of the merits of being a member of a political party is that there’s nearly always someone else who, starting from the same philosophy, agrees with you. Cue Andrew Duff, a former Lib Dem MEP, who’s published a sensible and realistic commentary, Brexit: Beyond the transition:

When Theresa May fleshes out her concept of a ‘third model’ of a new partnership, the EU leaders should respond constructively. While they will continue to insist on the principled indivisibility of the four freedoms, they should also be searching for pragmatic solutions, within the framework of Union law, that will limit the collateral damage of Brexit to the EU economy and salvage the international reputation of the EU. Unless the chiefs succeed in building a long-term sustainable relationship with the UK, the EU will suffer the consequences for many years of having a resentful, nationalistic and litigious neighbour on its doorstep. A good settlement for the British, on the other hand, outlined in the Political Declaration, could establish a precedent for new-style partnerships with all the EU’s neighbours. Norway, Iceland and Switzerland may well want to upgrade their own relations with the EU in emulation of the UK.

He is also (rightly) dismissive of the push for a new ‘People’s Vote’:

… a panicky referendum in present circumstances promises to be catastrophic. Opinion polls suggest that a majority is forming against a hard Brexit, but that a rerun of a referendum on ‘Leave’ versus ‘Remain’ would be just as close as the first: certainly the assumption that Remain would win handsomely is an arrogant one not supported by the facts.

(Rather surprisingly, all this has me warming to the thought of a Michael Gove premiership. Were he, not Theresa May, in charge, I strongly suspect he’d be pushing (in true Nixon-goes-to-China style) for an EEA-plus kinda membership for the UK; and as the original Vote Leave voice he would command a respect not accorded Mrs May, who (like Jeremy Corbyn) did her expedient best to absent herself from the referendum campaign. He also has more media-smarts in understanding how to sell a policy to the public — witness his latest canny intervention from the previously anonymous Defra on banning puppy farming.)

**

Do I really have to write about Jamie Oliver and ‘cultural appropriation’? His new ‘jerk’ chicken triggered Labour MP Dawn Butler into tweeting, “Your jerk rice is not OK. This appropriation from Jamaica needs to stop”.

Most people (at any rate beyond the Twitter echo chamber) will dismiss the label of ‘cultural appropriation’ — that it is wrong to borrow in any way from others’ cultures without their permission — as wanky over-intellectualising. The easy, appeasing response (as with political correctness) is simply to say there needs to be greater mutual respect: so do not ridicule or make fun of others’ beliefs, cultures or traditions.

But as Kenan Malik notes:

There are certainly many cases of the racist use of cultural forms, from minstrelsy onwards. Much art, though, is necessarily disrespectful, even contemptuous, of cultures and traditions. …

The very term ‘cultural appropriation’ is inappropriate. Cultures work not through appropriation but through messy interaction. Writers and artists, indeed all human beings, necessarily engage with the experiences of others. Nobody owns a culture, but everyone inhabits one (or several), and in inhabiting a culture, one finds the tools for reaching out to other cultures.

Cultural interaction is necessarily messy because the world is messy. Some of that messiness is good: the complexity and diversity of the world. Some of it is damaging: the racial, sexual and economic inequalities that disfigure our world.

Such damaging messiness will not be cleaned up by limiting cultural interaction, or by confining it within a particular etiquette. In reframing political and economic issues as cultural ones, or as issues of identity, campaigns against cultural appropriation obscure the roots of racism, and make it harder to challenge it.

In fact, his essay says everthing I think needs saying about cultural appropriation so head over there now and read it.

**

There are two ways of reading this week’s news about Donald Trump, with his former lawyer Michael Cohen accusing the president of joining in what prosecutors might see as a conspiracy to violate elections laws.

The first is that this really does mark the beginning of the end: he faces serious accusations now on so many fronts that impeachment proceedings are inevitable (if the Democrats take back control of congress in November’s midterms).

The second is that Trump’s presidency has always, and will always, confound all precedent and logic. He has a lock on his base that precludes any challenge from within; so for as long as the Republicans outnumber Democrats he is safe.

No-one knows which way it will swing. I’m conditioned to assuming the worse; that there’s nothing he can do, no matter how gross, which will lose him power. Yet tyrants appear all-powerful until suddenly they’re not.

**

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything.” So preached Sam Seaborn in The West Wing (and let’s pause a moment to reflect how great it would be to live once again in times which don’t make that show’s set-up seem so dated).

But of course it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I was struck by this article looking at pupils’ educational performance across a variety of advanced countries using OECD’s PISA data set:

The results for the UK are particularly striking. They show that for here, educational performance is very much driven by social factors. So while tweaking educational policy may help or hinder at the margin, it is social policy that really has the power to secure large gains in educational attainment. …

Only a tiny fraction of the variation is due to school-related factors – such as the number of computers per student, the number of staff per student, the size of the school, or school policies about communication with parents – or even government funding. It’s clear that it’s the social stuff that matters.

Now, I happen to think school matters more than the authors allow — else we wouldn’t see such variation between schools with similar proportions of disadvantaged pupils — but it’s still a useful corrective to the blandishment that all ills could be sorted if we could only sort out our schools.

**

PS: I’m still working 9-day fortnights in an effort to make sure I still see as much as possible of my boys following my two months’ shared parental leave.

Is it worth it? Well, this happened this Friday… So I think you’re safe in assuming the answer’s yes.

Ari's first steps!

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5 things about this week (18 Aug 2018)

by Stephen Tall on August 18, 2018

I came across the origin of the ‘disposition effect’ this week, via Matthew Syed’s Times column about financial trader-turned new Chelsea coach, Maurizio Sarri.

The term was coined by a behavioural finance academic, Terrance Odean, who observed ‘the tendency of investors to hold losing investments too long and sell winning investments too soon’. Here’s Syed’s explanation for the phenomenon:

Why does it exist? The reason is largely due to ego. When we have taken a public position, it is difficult to accept that we might have been wrong. This is why traders hold on to their bad investments, desperately hoping they will rebound. But this bias exerts a cost. It means that traders are throwing good money after bad.

Which, I think, goes some way to explaining (in chronological order of catastrophe) Corbyn, Brexit and Trump, each of whose leading supporters are doubling down on their political investment: to sell out now would be to turn themselves into, well, sell outs.

Corbyn is the one which troubles me most and I’ll tell you why. I know almost no-one who admits to having voted for the mounting disaster that is Brexit — of the seven places I’ve lived and worked, all voted to Remain — so I don’t have to keep on having the arguments about why it’s a bonkers decision.

I don’t know that many Corbyn supporters either; but I do know plenty of tribally loyal Labourites. Decent, well-intentioned people I often agree with on a range of issues. And they know that all their work for their party is edging Corbyn closer to Downing Street.

They all agree that’s a terrifying thought: making Prime Minister a man who stopped thinking in 1983 and embraces any individuals who have proven their anti-western credentials, however violently. Yet they can’t stop themselves. They are holding on to their bad investment in the Labour party, desperately hoping it will rebound sans Corbyn.

Perhaps time will show them to be right in holding out, playing the long game. Perhaps. But count the cost. Just count the cost.

**

I’m not one to join the chorus of BBC-bashing you hear with tedious regularity from the conservative right, and now increasingly virulently from the liberal-left. Sure, the Corporation has made mis-steps, most notably the false equivalence afforded to climate scientists and uncredentialled climate change-deniers. But the frothing accusations, animated by an unattractive victimhood, are rarely in proportion to the Beeb’s offences.

Still, I do find some of the BBC news coverage frustrating. So I’m heartened to see its new editorial director, Kamal Ahmed, admit that:

“… we have some structures in the BBC and ways of doing news which are challenged in this new environment we are in and I think in particular of what is called the ‘disco’, a discussion between two opposing sides about one issue. In a polarised world and a world of such passions we should think more often about whether that is the most illuminating way of explaining.”

I don’t know whether he had BBC2’s Newsnight in mind, but it’s immediately what I thought of. Because it’s a programme which feels like it should be essential viewing given the political tumult of the times we’re living through; but (with exceptions like its star public policy reporter, Chris Cook) it’s rarely appointment TV. Too often, it’s yet another pointless ‘disco’ featuring pundits arguing the toss.

Yet there must surely be space for 45 minutes a night of intelligent news coverage. A telly equivalent of the Economist or Prospect. A midpoint between News at Ten and Panorama. Here are a handful of ideas for regular 15 mins segments:

  • ‘Everything you need to know about…’ – eg, what would be the effect of a Brexit on WTO terms? (Cf Radio 4’s The Briefing Room)
  • Behind the headlines – a focus on how the media has covered that week’s big story: what they got right, what they distorted, why they chose the angle they did
  • ‘I can’t believe it’s not Brexit’ – in-depth focus on a vital area of public policy streamed across a week – eg, our failing transport system or prisons (okay, I part-ripped this idea off the New Statesman podcast, but that’s because it’s a good and necessary antidote to Brexit fatigue)
  • anonymised focus groups to get an unprompted insight into regular voters’ views – combined with insightful data analysis of issue-specific polling
  • the BBC reality check on an issue as voted for by viewers
  • ‘In conversation with’ interviews with academics and other experts about what they see as the big issues which don’t make the news because they’re not ‘newsy’

Newsnight was created before 24-hour rolling news and social media. The days when its hard-hitting interviews with top politicians could set the agenda are gone. This gives it the space and time to reimagine what a programme motivated by curiosity about current affairs and modern life can be. It should grab the opportunity.

**

Part of my motivation for re-starting my blog this summer was to talk about issues which don’t seem to be well-suited to shouty social media — including my ‘gender critical’ feminist take on trans issues.

This week, I came across an article, by Jonathan Best, which brilliantly articulates, sensitively and reasonably, the concerns many of us have that the different lived experiences of trans women and natal-born women, and the different types of discrimination they face, are being erased by some trans activists, and that the debate about this which needs to happen is being shut down. Here’s his conclusion:

I think this is the challenge facing us all: to advance trans rights and liberation without compromising natal women’s sex-based rights and protections. This must be done in an atmosphere of mutual respect in which anyone is free to critically discuss anything they wish, using whatever (respectful) terminology they choose. The underlying issues of sex and gender must be seen for what they are: nobody’s exclusive property. We are a long, long way from this ideal state of affairs.

Ain’t that the truth.

**

Here are three cultural highlights from my week:

  • I started watching Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs Maisel and why has nobody previously told me how brilliant it is and how I would absolutely love it right from the off? It is quite simply brilliant and I love Rachel Brosnahan in it. Did I mention it’s brilliant and I love it?
  • I finished listening to Anthony Horowitz’s The Word is Murder, his latest meta-detective story, in which he autobiographically stars as a Dr Watson-cum-Captain Hastings assistant to the flawed, misanthropic but brilliant (I really do need a thesaurus) un-PC, former PC-turned-consultant, Daniel Hawthorne. For me, Horowitz will always be a genius for creating the classiest of all TV detective series, Foyle’s War. I loved his previous book-within-a-book crime novel, Magpie Murders. This one doesn’t quite hit those heights (the ending is more whimper than bang) but it’s still a great summer read.
  • I visited Tate Britain’s All Too Human exhibition, ‘capturing the sensuous, immediate and intense experience of life in paint’. I work right next door and am a Tate member, yet seem to frequent the cafe more than the galleries. I’ve been determined to put that right and I’m glad I made a start this week in awakening my artistic hinterland — even if I did have to suppress an instinct to shout ‘Mornington Crescent‘ when I saw Frank Auerbach’s paintings.

**

This fella started at nursery this week. He feels so little to be leaving him so young (10 months); yet he’s settling well, enjoying new friendships, and loving the new experiences — this week, exploring herbs frozen in ice, for example (see photo). Play group was nothing like that in my day…

We know many of his ‘firsts’ will happen without us being present. That said, having spent months trying to get him to clap, it was a bit galling to find out he’d done it on only his second day there. He may be small, but he’s already perfected the art of trolling.

5 things about this week (9 August 2018)

by Stephen Tall on August 9, 2018

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What is there left to say about Brexit? Do I spend the next seven months wailing against this catastrophically stupid decision the ‘will of the people’? Half of me thinks I should, if only for posterity. Because I do want my (grand-)children one day to know that lots of us did foresee the long decline just over half the voters chose to condemn this country to.

That said, there is something perfectly British, or at any rate English, about Brexit. I’m loathe to suggest there’s anything as simple as a national psyche — we contain multitudes — but in voting as we did we have typically demonstrated our simultaneous superiority and inferiority complexes. (The two are, of course, inter-related.)

Our superiority is asserted through Theresa May’s vacuous “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra; as if the damage from a no-deal Brexit will be fairly shared because one of us is surely roughly equivalent to 27 of them. We appear to assume the rest of Europe will eventually cave in out of a mixture of their own self-interest (the infamous German car-makers who Brexiters guaranteed us would ensure Britain got a great deal) and being good sports (negotiation means give and take, we reason, while discounting the minor downside for the rest of the EU that special treatment for the UK would likely destabilise a political system they still quite like).

Our inferiority is betrayed by the growing realisation that Brexit’s not going awfully well and there’s no easy way to see how it will go better. For all that the Chequers deal was a baby-step in the right direction, it exposed the reality of what Brexit means: Britain needs the EU more than the EU needs Britain. We either maintain close relations with the EU (which means sacrificing our hard-won opt-outs and rebates and instead becoming a paying member of a club with no say in making the rules); or sever our current trading alliance to ‘take back control’ of our borders and suffer a massive economic hit. Either way, we’ll be diminished.

It seems entirely apt that this summer’s anthem has been the reprise of that ultimate British hymn of ironic self-deprecation, Three Lions: “Everyone seems to know the score / They’ve seen it all before / They just know / They’re so sure / That England’s gonna throw it away / Gonna blow it away”.

**

The last two years of hurt have never stopped Boris dreaming.

His unplanned resignation, forced by David “the exact same benefits” Davis’s exit, has done him no harm among Conservative members if this recent survey‘s to be believed.

And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his unpleasantly provocative labelling of niqab-wearing Muslim women as “letter boxes” and “bank robbers” is anything other than a deliberate dog-whistle to a certain type of Leave voter.

(I don’t think the world needs another white male’s view on the niqab, so these are the two tweets on the topic I’ve seen which best capture my thoughts:

  • Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: “I, a progressive Muslim, do not care for veils but totally mistrust Boris Johnson. Tough call. Spent the last many hours explaining my complicated position. And realized this political conman has now incapacitated reformists like myself.”
  • Maajid Nawaz: “This is the uniform of medieval patriarchal tyranny. It victim-blames women for their beauty. Where this is enforced it symbolises violent mysogyny. I’m not advocating banning this monstrosity but I refuse to defend it. It deserves to be ridiculed. Not the women inside it.”)
  • Two unrelated but coterminous things strike me. First, that Boris Johnson has recently met with alt-right nationalist Steve Bannon.

    And, secondly, that a poll this week has shown that the most fertile ground for a new political party is not in the progressive centre, but among Leaver voters who feel none of the parties are currently tough enough on crime or immigrants.

    Please, don’t have nightmares.

    **

    When is it okay to give up on a book? I’m not asking for a friend, I’m afraid.

    This week I attempted Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders’ 2017 Booker Prize-winning novel. I can see why it’s been critically acclaimed, and I can’t deny that it’s an impressive achievement. But, ultimately, life is too short to persist with books you’re not enjoying and I’m afraid I found myself not really caring enough about what happened on the next page. I felt similarly about Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. But I know some people are obsessive-completists, who cannot not finish a book once started.

    On the flip-side I also don’t re-read novels, even my favourites. My actuarial estimate of the number of books I’ll read before I die is 975 (assuming 25 a year and that I live to be 80). On one level, that sounds a lot. But given c.180,000 books are published each year in the UK alone, that 975 represents just 0.01% of what’s yet to be published; let alone the estimated 130,000,000 books already published.

    Where one book closes, another one opens.

    **

    I love the start of the football season. It’s that one moment of equipoise — every team is level on null points — when no-one can be quite sure what will happen. Sure, Man City look nailed on as champions again, but it’s been a decade since anyone retained the premiership trophy. Liverpool will be breathing down their necks, too. Will Jose Mourinho’s Man United fall victim to his third-season syndrome? Can Spurs survive their players’ World Cup hangover? Will new managers at Chelsea and Arsenal lift them into top 4 contention? As for my team Everton, my hopes are pretty low-key after a disastrous pre-season when we lost out last five games. I suspect we’ll end up anywhere between mid-table respectability and a relegation battle.

    The start of the season also fuels my inner nerd: I enjoy playing fantasy football league (and still run LibDemVoice’s mini-league). Like all the best games, the concept is simple: pick a squad of 15 for a fixed budget, with their performances converted into points: the ‘manager’ with the most points come next May wins. Like all the best games, there’s a whole lot more strategy to it than that… Is the best system 3-4-3 or 3-5-2? Should you rotate goalkeepers according to home advantage, or choose a set-and-forget premium player? How do you maximise the number of set-piece players in your team? When is it best to play which ‘chips’? When should you ‘wildcard’? Etc, etc.

    It’s 25 years since the first real mass-market fantasy football league game was launched by the Daily Telegraph (many others soon followed). Surprisingly, despite the huge global popularity of the game, no individual has made a fortune out of it. Its British populiser, David Wainstein, is commendably phlegmatic about that, as the FT documents here:

    … given the opportunities to scale the business, and the fact that the money was flowing in, why was Wainstein not more successful? “We had a good run,” he says, somewhat ruefully. “We were profitable at least from 1998 to 2012.” Sure, I counter, but given the scale of Fantasy Football in all its forms where did all the potential millions go? “I don’t see any company in the UK or the US that has done fantastically well out of Fantasy, as in the end the media owners own it and they themselves don’t necessarily earn that much money out of it.” The issue was intellectual property. Wainstein owned the company name, Fantasy League and the scoring system. Yet he had adapted the idea from one launched in the US decades before. …

    Yet for him, and this confirms my feeling that this is not a story about failure or lost opportunity as such, it has been more about the work/life balance. Wainstein does not see himself as an entrepreneur in the classic sense. “I’ve been on a sort of a personal journey and I’m quite sanguine about it,” he says. “I look back to when I started it; it was about enjoyment and passion.” Success was critical, he explains, and meant more to him than simply money in the bank. “I’m motivated by doing something reasonably fresh. Whatever we’ve done, compared with others in the field, we’ve tried to do it in a new and creative way — and been very successful with it. It’s a loaded dice game,” he laughs now, “and I’ve come out with some wins and some losses, but I’ve actually kept my shirt.”

    Which is a nice antidote to Bill Shankly’s famous dictum, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

    **

    I’ve been catching up on Spiral, season 6 (shown on BBC4 back in Jan/Feb, but our then three/four month old wasn’t keen on letting us settle down in the evenings to watch telly). It’s gripping drama with the added benefit that the need to concentrate on the subtitles rules out the temptation of being distracted by my phone and suddenly realising I’ve totally lost the plot. It’s also fascinating to glimpse a different legal system — the inquisitorial, rather than the adversarial we Brits are used to — even if spoilsport Wikipedia does tell me this actually applies only to a minority of cases in France.