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.

    5 things about this week (31 July 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on July 31, 2018

    I’ve been reading Toby Young’s The Public Humiliation Diet, an autobiographical account of his very public defenestration as first, a non-executive director of the new universities regulator, the Office for Students, and then his day-job as chief executive of the New Schools Network, the government-funded charity which promotes free schools.

    He was forced to quit at the start of this year amid mounting outrage at some of his journalism — “I’ve written some pretty sophomoric pieces, many of them for ‘lad mags’” — as well as some of his public utterances, including what he refers to in veiled terms as “a tasteless, off-color remark I made while tweeting about a BBC telethon to raise money for starving Africans in 2009”. Let your mind fill in the blanks (or, rather, don’t).

    As the number of emetic ‘one-offs’ he recounts mount up, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Toby Young isn’t a person you’d happily entrust with high-profile, taxpayer-funded positions. And yet in spite of all that, I think the piece is worth reading and reflecting on for a couple of reasons.

    First, the allegation which was probably the trigger for getting Toby Young fired was deeply unfair: that he is supposedly a eugenicist who, in the words of a Labour MP on national TV, supports “weeding out disabled people”. That slur was based on a deliberate misreading of this article; more likely, it was based on not reading it at all. I don’t agree with everything Toby Young has to say about the influence of genetics on educational achievement, but on the fundamental facts he’s basically right: ‘individual differences in cognitive ability are genetically influenced, and that cognitive ability is the strongest predictor we have of GCSE achievement,’ wrote the University of York’s Dr Katherine Asbury, defending Young after a different furore (this time, not one of his own making).

    The second reason for thinking hard about this piece is simply this: was what he experienced proportional? Toby Young’s public persona is that of a bit of a tit, something he’s consciously paraded in his work (see, for instance, ‘How to lose friends and irritate people’). But there is undoubtedly a serious side to him. The passion he channelled into founding the West London Free School was genuinely impressive. He writes that ‘getting involved in education and trying to give others the opportunities I’ve had is easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done’ and I believe him.

    To be clear, that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for his own actions; and his article doesn’t really convince me he’s quite faced up to that yet. But I didn’t much care for the glee with which his enemies leapt upon his downfall; and certainly not how they twisted the truth to secure it.

    The easy thing for a liberal like me who’s usually on the other side of the arguments to Toby Young is to say “tough luck, he should’ve been more careful” and yes, he should. A real test of empathy isn’t how we treat our friends, though, but how we treat our opponents.

    So, having defended Toby Young, let me up the ante…

    **

    I’ve written a fair bit here about the transgender debate in recent weeks. Summary for those who’ve missed it: I support equal rights for all, but don’t accept the position that “trans women are women”, and am deeply concerned that the online fury is silencing a much-needed public discussion of the tensions between the sex-based rights of women and those who identify as transgender.

    I’ve thought long and hard about writing about the issue at all, not least because a number of my friends (in and beyond the Lib Dems) hold very different views on it to me. Fortunately, being a bloke what I say here and on Twitter attracts very little flak compared to women who advocate that being born and brought up female results in everyday discrimination no-one else can fully understand.

    It’s an issue I care about. I also know a lot of people (especially women) who (understandably) prefer to keep their heads down care about it, too. Here’s a recent email I received, from someone I don’t know at all, with the subject line ‘Random acts of solidarity’:

    You don’t know me but, as a LibDem male spouse of a mumsnet reading feminist, one of the last things that keeps me sane is your twitter posts on the right hand side of Lib Dem Voice.

    I respect that the party has a policy on self-ID [of gender identity]. I respect that I am not an expert on the issue, and do not necessarily have a God-given male right to tell others what they should think.

    However, I am becoming depressed at daily being told (by implication) that I am bigoted for imagining that it is entirely hypothetically possible to be a liberal party that doesn’t have the same policy, and that we should all accept that changes to both the [Gender Recognition Act] and the Equalities Act are inevitable, and that we should act as if those changes have already happened.

    I hope that helps explain why I think it’s important those of us who self-identify both as liberals and also ‘gender critical’ feminists don’t shy away from this debate just because it’s tricky, but try and address it in a respectful and reasoned way.

    **

    I’ve been watching Channel 4’s Dispatches: Breastfeeding Uncovered, with new mum Kate Quilton “setting out to find out why Britain has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and whether more support is needed”. Three things struck me about it:

    First, the predictable online furore it triggered in the never-ending breast v bottle debate. Our first son wouldn’t breast-feed so (absent any proper healthcare support — see below) we quickly moved him onto being bottle-fed. Our second son was quickly identified as having a tongue-tie and shallow latch and, a quick snip later, was exclusively breast-fed for the first six months. Ie, we’ve seen both sides and that both can work. But it is also quite clear that all other things being equal breast is best: nutritionally, priming the immune system, and of course cheaper.

    Secondly, the attitudes among some of the vox pops (“it’s not a spectator sport”) were, if unsurprising, still depressing. The societal pressure on mothers to conform is damaging… and confusing — some are ‘shamed’ for breastfeeding in public, while others are ‘shamed’ for not breastfeeding at all. Let’s be clear, ‘shaming’ is never an appropriate response!

    Thirdly, the support new mothers receive is too often inadequate, meaning that many of the 80% of mothers who want to breastfeed stop doing so not necessarily through choice but because they feel they have no alternative — the major point Dispatches was trying to make. When our first son didn’t take to breast-feeding, we didn’t feel we had a lot of time to decide what to do because (I’ll let you into a secret) babies aren’t the most patient creatures. So we hit the bottle. It wasn’t what we wanted, but what we ended up feeling we had to do.

    Anyway, I recommend the programme which deals with an emotive issue in a straightforward, non-judgey way: you can catch up here.

    **

    I’ve also been watching Clive James, Postcard from London, from the BBC4 archive on iPlayer. I’ll tell you what brought me up sharp — my first thought was this can’t be that old (I remember it being broadcast), only to realise it was made in 1991, over a quarter of a century ago.

    And as if to re-inforce my depressed realisation, three of the celebrity interviewees were Victoria Wood, Peter Cook and Alan Coren… all now RIP.

    Some things don’t change: the lament about the cost of housing in the capital. Other things do: “How do the kids do it?” asked Clive, showing a ‘to let’ sign with double rooms in Earls’ Court for £70 a week.

    **

    I’ve been listening to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman’s debut novel. “Lovely” can seem such a weak word, but this really is a lovely book. On one level it’s about the tragedy of childhood abuse and damaged loneliness. Really, though, it’s about the power of kindness to transform for the better. And it’s also very funny.

    Plus the author has her own inspirational back story, having decided to write her novel when she hit 40 (while working full-time), before it became the focus of an 8-way auction at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s since sold over 450,000 copies in 30 countries.

    Meanwhile, when I hit 40 I realised I wasn’t even half-way through my list of 40 books I’d intended just to read by that milestone. Which taught me a valuable lesson. Don’t make lists (in public).

    5 things about this week (24 July 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on July 24, 2018

    I’ve been reflecting on the row about the Conservatives’ decision to break the House of Commons’ ‘pairing’ convention, which matches MPs forced to be absent for votes with an opposing member so they cancel each other out (just as they would if both were present). Lib Dem deputy leader, Jo Swinson, a new mother, was supposed to be paired with the Conservative chairman Brandon Lewis, who at the request of the Conservative chief whip Julian Lewis just happened to make the “honest mistake” of forgetting the arrangement for the two closest votes (wile honouring it for the other seven which didn’t matter).

    It says a lot about the current government. Not only the dodginess of cheating to win, but also the sheer incompetence of changing its story so often that no-one but Theresa May could maintain the fiction it was actually an “honest mistake”, rather than a “calculated deception”.

    A sensible legislature would allow MPs to vote by proxy (just as we electors can), both removing the bother of pairing and also ensuring MPs’ voting records were more transparent. But then a sensible legislature would also not have voted to trigger Article 50, the two-year countdown to Brexit, without having a clue what would happen next or even insisting on a final say. But that’s exactly what almost all Conservative and Labour MPs did 18 months’ ago so I’m not holding my breath for an outbreak of sensibleness.

    Workplace discrimination against new mothers is nothing new, of course. The Pregnant & Screwed campaign records that 54,000 women a year are pushed out of their jobs due to pregnancy or maternity leave, while 77% of working mums have encountered negative or discriminatory treatment at work. And it was experiencing my partner having to find a new job after our first son was born because her then company (female boss, incidentally) made her return-to-work impossible — while my working life glided on pretty much unaffected — which (in part) turned me properly feminist.

    The simple fact remains women face an awful lot of structural barriers in everyday life which the other half of us don’t. But you’d hope Parliament would try and remedy them, rather than exemplify them.

    **

    I’ve been a loyal Lib Dem member two decades, but there are moments which test my patience. It happened twice this week.

    Party president Sal Brinton, when asked at if she would be happy if half of Parliament were trans women, replied: “Absolutely. Trans women are women. And we support them.” It worked as a clap-line, at least for that audience apparently, and I guess/hope was intended rhetorically. However, given that it’s estimated maybe 0.5% of the population identifies as nonbinary I find it somewhat (let’s use the term) problematic to suggest a 100% male-born parliament would be a democratic utopia. (You can read my fuller thoughts on why I don’t accept the statement “trans women are women” here.)

    And then secondly, a party email pinged into my inbox from Scottish MP, Christine Jardine, with the subject line: ‘Cheating, Lying, Tories’. It wasn’t just the superfluous second comma which irritated me, it was the aggressive language. That’s the kind of venting I expect from alt-left sites like The Canary and Skwawkbox, not a serious party aspiring to government.

    John Harris wrote an excellent column in The Guardian this week deploring the everyday coarseness that the public and media are complicit in promoting, whether Remainers hailing Danny Dyer calling David Cameron a ‘twat’ or ITV’s Piers Morgan “venting his own prejudices while baiting this or that guest”. Here’s his conclusion:

    Too many of the people who want something better seem to have mislaid a pretty basic insight: that you find the key to a world beyond Trump, Brexit and our grim version of capitalism not by narcissistically shouting into the void and carrying a placard that says “Prick”, but grasping the deep reasons why so many people are all right with those things, and trying to convince them to think slightly differently. Contrary to what you might hear online, to do so is not to surrender, but to honour a basic leftwing principle I once saw stitched on to a Welsh trade union banner: “Civility always; servility never”.

    Civility always; servility never. That’s a ‘leftwing’ principle I can sign up to.

    **

    So why aren’t the Lib Dems doing better in the polls? It’s a question I get asked a lot, as the Lib Dems pootle along at 7-8%, despite there apparently being a sizeable chunk of the electorate crying out for a progressive, moderate, Remain-committed party.

    There are two main explanations, unpicked recently by Matt Singh in Prospect:

    • Still toxic: ‘a majority of hard Remainers thought the Lib Dems were wrong to go into coalition with the Conservatives and that about a third had not yet forgiven them for doing so’
    • Too invisible: ‘the party as a whole has a visibility problem. Asked what the Lib Dems stood for, only a third said they knew.’

    Put simply and bluntly, the Lib Dems are currently a sideshow.

    Can the party stop Brexit? No (though obviously turning up to vote against it is a necessary first step).

    Can the party overturn Brexit? No. The action, for the moment at least, is elsewhere, as Nick Clegg frankly admitted last year: “for as long as parliament is dominated by Labour and Conservative MPs, it is undoubtedly true that what happens within the two larger establishment parties is of the greatest importance”.

    There’s no easy answer to this. The reality is the Lib Dems’ prospects are not in the party’s own hands at the moment (which isn’t to say there’s nothing that can be improved in the party’s performance; but there needs to be realism about what impact such improvements could exert).

    I suspect it’ll need an external shock — such as a new mainstream centre party breaking out from the current ‘Labservative’ duopoly — to get the Lib Dems back in the game. Otherwise, I can’t help feeling it’s a case of long-haul, incremental, hard slog… sorry.

    **

    I’ve been reading ‘The great academy schools scandal, by the Observer’s Sonia Sodha on the huge educational experiment of ‘academisation’, started under Labour but driven by the Conservatives, by which some 7,500 state-funded schools (roughly one-third of them) have become independent of their local authority.

    This ‘creative disruption’ — rooted in ideological distaste for local authorities, part of the so-called progressive education “blob” Michael Gove decried — was supposed to unleash innovative excellence which would (somehow) ripple out across England’s 20,000 schools. The reality?

    … it hasn’t quite happened like that in practice. There have been several studies in the past few years that have invariably reached similar conclusions: there doesn’t appear to be an inherent benefit to a school being run by an academy chain instead of a local authority. “There are a handful of trusts achieving amazing things, but a much longer tail of trusts performing really poorly,” says [Prof. Becky] Francis. Her analysis shows six in 10 academy chains have below-average attainment for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    Pre-1997, Tony Blair observed that good education was about “standards, not structures”, and he was right. The key point about structures has always been how to build proper accountability into the schools system, twinned with the capacity to improve schools which are failing their pupils.

    Accountability we get (to some extent) through national testing and Ofsted. But school improvement capacity has become the victim of politicians’ tinkering. Instead of building out from the successful local education authorities, while simultaneously challenging the under-performing ones, the Conservatives simply threw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Result? We still have a patchwork of school performance, but with far less capacity to fix it.

    **

    I’ve survived my first two full weeks back at work, after the privilege of my two months’ shared parental leave. I miss my time with the boys, though the blow’s been softened by realising I have a stockpile of annual leave which means I can work ‘9 day fortnights’ for the rest of the year. Here’s a photo of how I put last week’s extra day to good use.

    5 things about this week (18 July 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on July 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

    **

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

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

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

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

    **

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

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

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

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

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

    **

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

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

    **

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

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

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

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

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

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

    5 things about this week (8 July 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

    • being born biologically female means you face socio-cultural challenges the other half of us don’t and that should continue to be recognised;
    • we should treat with the utmost compassion and respect those who (for whatever reasons) feel they don’t ‘fit’ with their biological sex; and
    • no individual should face any sort of discrimination either because of the sex they were born as or how they later choose to present to the world.

    Here, by the way, are a couple of articles I’ve read (among many) on this topic which have influenced my thinking: Gender is not a spectrum, Rebecca Reilly-Cooper; and Gender identity needs to be based on objective evidence rather than feelings, Debbie Hayton.

    **

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

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

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

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

    **

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

    The Hard Brexiteers have been comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Theresa May, it seems. Not because she’s a political genius — the Chequers agreement is a reversal of the position on which she fought the 2016 election — but because they couldn’t work out an alternative, feasible plan. Because there isn’t one. Those who wanted us to Leave, and persuaded a bare majority of the country that it would be easy to do so, have found the actual task of working out what to do next to be impossible.

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

    **

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

    **

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

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

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

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

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

    5 things about this week (23 June 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on June 23, 2018

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

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

    **

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

    **

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

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

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

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

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

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

    **

    Swim time with the baby

    Swim time with the baby

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

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

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

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

    5 things about this week (17 June 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on June 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    5 things about this week (9 June 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on June 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    5 things about this week (1 Jun 2018)

    by Stephen Tall on May 31, 2018

    What I’ve been thinking…

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

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

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

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

    What I’ve been tweeting…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What I’ve been reading

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

    What I’ve been listening to

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

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

    What I’ve been doing

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

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

    by Stephen Tall on July 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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