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.

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