Another Five Things

It isn’t easy being a troll. Hand Me Downs is a short story by Maria Haskins.

“We Handed A Loaded Weapon To 4-Year-Olds.” Developer Chris Wetherell built Twitter’s retweet button. He tells Buzzfeed why he regrets what he did to this day.

Rosie Fletcher at Den of Geek suggests the 2 hour 45 minute running time for It Chapter Two indicates that the horror genre is moving into the mainstream. And that’s a good thing.

Over at Aeon, Matthew Stanley recounts British astronomer and physicist, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington’s attempt to test Einstein’s theory of relativity. It’s worth reading not just for the challenges Stanley faced, but also the way in which he managed to craft the subsequent narrative into a symbol of post-war German-British solidarity.

And finally, Alastair Campbell has left the Labour Party and asked Jeremy Corbyn to seriously consider whether he’s really up to the challenges ahead.

The UK election sweepstakes

Andrew Rawnsley is one of the more insightful political commenters out there but this doesn’t stop him from making the same mistake as a lot of the UK media in that he tends to look at Brexit for an entirely British point of view. Thus, we have this article suggesting that Boris Johnson will call an early election in order to crash the UK out of the EU.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that Johnson doesn’t actually have to do anything if he wants a no-deal Brexit.

It’s all well and good saying that Parliament won’t allow a no-deal Brexit but the only ways of avoiding this, ultimately, are to ratify the existing withdrawal agreement or to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.

Parliament can try to force Johnson to request another extension, but there is no guarantee that the EU will agree to grant one. Given the way in which the UK has wasted the time since April and the low esteem in which Johnson is held, it looks increasingly likely, to me, that the EU heads of government will decide that it’s better to get Brexit over with than to drag it on any longer.

So, if Parliament remains unable to decide whether to ratify the withdrawal agreement or revoke Article 50, then Britain crashes out of the EU on the 31st October, at which point Johnson will claim to have “delivered Brexit”, thus rendering Farage’s Brexit Party irrelevant.

So Johnson doesn’t need to call a general election in order to achieve a no-deal Brexit. On the other hand, if he calls an election in November, after the UK has crashed out of the EU but before the consequences start to bite, then the collapse of the Brexit party would be probably enough for him to hoover up the Leave vote and win a majority.

Johnson is blatantly gearing up for an election, but I don’t think it will happen until after Britain’s disorderly exit from the EU. The only way to stop him is for Parliament to call a no-confidence vote and bring down the government before the end of October.

Parliament returns on 3rd September. MPs will need to get their act together — and quickly — if they want to call a halt to this madness before it’s too late.

Five More Things

I mentioned Whoops Apocalypse, the TV series, some time ago. At the weekend I finally found the time to watch the film. In this version the plot is updated somewhat to reflect the fact that it was made in 1986 — four years after the TV series — but the humour is still as dark and bitingly effective as an increasingly farcical sequence of events drags the world ever closer to nuclear armageddon.

As a satire made and set during the Cold War, the film is very much of its time and you probably need to have lived through the 1980s for some of the jokes to work. It does, however, manage an accidentally contemporary moment when the US president (played by Loretta Swit) incredulously asks: “You’re telling me that the entire population of Great Britain went and elected a deranged psychotic to the highest office of the land? Again?”

Remaining with the ongoing disaster that is British politics, N Piers Ludlow asks whether the UK ever understood how the EU works. Given that the UK has been a member of the bloc for over 40 years, the conclusion is damning, to say the least.

On a more positive note, Jo Swinson was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats this week and Timothy Garton Ash is optimistic about her chances of leading a fightback for liberal Britain. We live in hope.

Returning to the subject of films, for a moment, Marvel has revealed their Phase 4 MCU lineup and Den of Geek has the details. Ignoring the Disney+ releases — I absolutely am not going to get tied into signing up to endless streaming services — the upcoming Black Widow film is long overdue and I am really looking forward to seeing how they handle Thor: Love And Thunder. Also: Blade is coming back!

And finally, Ian Stewart’s article on social physics reminded me of a book I read some time ago, namely Critical Mass by Philip Ball. The takeaway from both is that you may be an individual but, in aggregate, we are a lot more predictable than we realise.

Five Things

This is a bit of an experiment and, as such, I am not making any promises about whether it becomes a regular (or even an irregular) feature on this blog. The motivation comes from the fact that, as I trawl various corners of the internet, I often encounter articles that are interesting but about which I have little or nothing to add.

I don’t want to descend into writing endless posts that say no more than Look At This, so I plan on pulling them together so that I can say Look At These. We shall see how, or if, this works.

First up is the short story that started me thinking about this type of post. Compost Traumatic Stress by Brian Koukol explores a once-sterile alien world seeded by the blood and guts of battle and follows the traumatized veteran tasked with keeping this alien fauna under control. It’s an effective and often moving exploration of the aftermath of war and well worth a read.

Taking a quick look at the ongoing disaster that is British politics these days, Jonathan Calder is exasperated with Heidi Allen and Nick Cohen is horrified at the way in which party politics have been allowed to undermine representative democracy. Personally, I think Parliament should insist on a vote of confidence for whoever the Tories select as the next Prim Minister. Regardless of how a party picks their leader, if that leader can’t demonstrate that they have the confidence of Parliament then they shouldn’t be able to form a government.

If Asian cinema has ever appealed to you (and it should) Paul Bramhall has a fascinating article on The General’s Son trilogy and the birth of the modern Korean gangster movie. I really need to carve out some time in my week to start making a dent in my DVD pile.

And finally, Susan Biali Haas suggests that working with your hands does wonders for your brain, which is all the excuse I need to spend more time pulling up nettles.

Interesting times

Belgium went to the polls on Sunday and, this being Belgium, nothing is quite that simple. As well as the EU Parliament elections there was also a vote for the regional parliaments and the federal governments.

Overall the results were similar to those for the local elections last October, with the mainstream parties losing votes to the Greens and the far right Vlaams Belang. This is going to make for some fraught negotiations going forward.

Of the various elections, the European Parliament vote is probably the least interesting. Flanders returns 12 MEPs, of which Vlaams Belang returns 3, having taken one seat from each of the N-VA (centre right, separatists, now down to 3 seats) and the liberal OpenVLD (down to two seats). CD&V (centre-right), the Greens and the socialist sp.a are all unchanged on two, one and one seat respectively.

In the Flemish parliament, the Vlaams Belang have done frighteningly well to win 23 seats out of 124 (a gain of 17 seats) Both the Greens and the far left PVDA have both seen gains — coincidentally four extra seats for each, which puts the Greens on 14 seats and the PVDA on four, and in Parliament for the first time.

That said, the N-VA remains the largest party by far and a three party coalition with them, the CD&V and the OpenVLD would have a comfortable majority.

In Brussels, the one place in which both Flemish and Francophone parties campaign, the Greens are the big winners. I am not going to attempt to guess at what sort of coalition ends up running the city, but I suspect that we can look forward to fewer cars and a more pleasant walk to the station.

And then there’s the federal parliament, which is where things really do become interesting. Again the Vlaams Belang and the Greens are the big winners at the expense of the more mainstream parties. It’s generally the case that Flanders tends to vote centre-right and Wallonia tends to lean to the left and this is reflected in the fact that the largest and second largest parties are the Flemish N-VA and the Francophone Parti Socialiste (PS) respectively. And now they have to form a coalition.

In the last parliament we had a four party coalition of N-VA, CD&V and the Flemish and Francophone liberal parties. This time around, though, the size of the Vlaams Belang prevents these four parties from achieving a majority.

It should be safe to exclude the possibility of the far right getting into government as long as the cordon sanitaire holds — which it should. Gwendolyn Rutten of the OpenVLD has already ruled out any sort of agreement with the far right and I don’t see either the socialists or the greens being willing to do a deal with them. The N-VA have been a bit more equivocal about the far right, but if no-one else is willing to let the Vlaams Belang near at the levers of government then any hopes they they might have are dead in the water. As such, the size of the far right contingent merely adds to the complexity.

Being the biggest party, the N-VA will get first crack at forming a coalition. But the francophone parties don’t trust them — to the extend that the PS have said that they won’t go into coalition with them at all and several members of the francophone liberals of the Movement Reformateur (MR) saying that they don’t want anything to do with Theo “Thickie” Francken.

It’s possible that the N-VA might be able to bring around the MR and hammer out a coalition of with the liberal parties, green parties and the CH&V. An agreement between the N-VA and Greens is unlikely, but not completely outlandish — these two parties tried to form a coalition in Antwerp after the 2018 local elections, although the talks eventually fell apart — but any such agreement would take a long time in coming.

And if the N-VA can’t hammer out an agreement, the PS will have a go at forming a coalition. The numbers are there for a six party coalition of socialists, liberals and greens but whether such a coalition will manage to survive a full five years is anyone’s guess.

Maybe it wouldn’t need to.

After the 2010 election, the Belgian parties took 589 days to form a government. This time around, they may well take longer.

Quote of the Day: He’s going to be prime minister, isn’t he.

The Official Secrets Act, surprisingly not a Jacqueline Wilson book but actually a serious, government-level agreement, surely only exists to spell out the importance of basic confidentiality to cretins who aren’t in the room on merit, but apparently it wasn’t clear enough.

Ryan Priest on Gavin Williamson, the former defence Secretary who was sacked for leaking confidential conversations.

That petition

At the time of writing this post, the petition to Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU has reached 5.84 million signatures and the Government has responded. Unsurprisingly, the Government response is the usual stream of nonsense and platitudes:

This Government will not revoke Article 50. We will honour the result of the 2016 referendum and work with Parliament to deliver a deal that ensures we leave the European Union.

In the opening sentence the Government reveals itself to be either delusional or dishonest by claiming that they will work with Parliament. This government has done everything it can to avoid working with Parliament, culminating with last week’s rant from Theresa May — the world’s worst populist — in which she tried to portray herself a tribune of the people in opposition to Parliament.

If she wasn’t so incompetent, she’d be dangerous.

It remains the Government’s firm policy not to revoke Article 50. We will honour the outcome of the 2016 referendum and work to deliver an exit which benefits everyone, whether they voted to Leave or to Remain.

An exit that benefits everyone? I would be interested to know what such an exit would look like because, so far, every form of Brexit that has been proposed leaves the UK worse off than before. And, with the approach the government has taken so far, Brexit is already making people worse off.

People who were already rich enough to have money to shift around offshore accounts (hello, Jacob Rees-Mogg) may well benefit from Brexit. For everyone who needs to earn an income, life is going to get a lot harder.

Revoking Article 50, and thereby remaining in the European Union, would undermine both our democracy and the trust that millions of voters have placed in Government.

What trust? Only 7% of voters think the government has handled Brexit well. Nearly two thirds of voters think the government’s deal is a bad one. Whatever trust that might have been placed in this government has been well and truly squandered by their incompetence, evasiveness and outright dishonesty.

As for undermining democracy, I’m tempted to suggest that the Honorable Members of Her Majesty’s Government may need to apply for remedial lessons in Understanding the Constitution.

Britain is a Parliamentary democracy and one in which referenda are not a normal part. Indeed, Clement Atlee described referendums as “alien to all our traditions” and Margaret Thatcher described them as “a device of dictators and demagogues”. Britain has no tradition of using referendums and no process for dealing with the results.

Parliamentary sovereignty means that power, ultimately, rests with Parliament. When a government’s attempts at implementing a policy are so abysmal that companies are having to stockpile food and medicine, it is not only reasonable for Parliament to call a halt to the disaster, but Parliament’s job.

The Government acknowledges the considerable number of people who have signed this petition. However, close to three quarters of the electorate took part in the 2016 referendum, trusting that the result would be respected.

52% of nearly three quarters of the electorate. That’s 39%.

In countries where referenda are used, this would not be a sufficient majority to implement a change such as this. Hell, in the UK, a majority like this isn’t even sufficient for a union to call a strike. So why the insistence that it’s enough to crash the economy?

This Government wrote to every household prior to the referendum, promising that the outcome of the referendum would be implemented. 17.4 million people then voted to leave the European Union, providing the biggest democratic mandate for any course of action ever directed at UK Government.

To paraphrase something said to me in the run-up to the referendum: “I’m thinking of voting leave just to see the back of that smug bastard [David Cameron].”

People voted leave for a whole range of reasons, not all of which had much — or anything — to do with Britain’s membership of the EU. Tellingly, the Government has made no attempt to understand or address the reasons that people voted the way they did. Instead, they have decided that the sizable minority that voted remain don’t matter and that all leave voters fully agree with the most extreme parts of the Conservative party. And that really is bad for democracy.

British people cast their votes once again in the 2017 General Election where over 80% of those who voted, voted for parties, including the Opposition, who committed in their manifestos to upholding the result of the referendum.

If you have a choice between two parties, both of which are promising to implement the same policy, then it’s not much of a choice. Labour’s failure to offer an alternative cannot be taken as proof of support for the only option on offer.

It’s also worth noting that manifesto commitments are not set in stone. They can’t be. No-one can know what other events will happen over the course of a Parliament or what new information may or may not emerge.

I think that most people understand that a manifesto can only ever be aspirational at best and that it is insane to stick to a commitment when all of the available evidence points to it being a disaster that will only get worse.

This Government stands by this commitment.

See above.

Revoking Article 50 would break the promises made by Government to the British people, disrespect the clear instruction from a democratic vote, and in turn, reduce confidence in our democracy. As the Prime Minister has said, failing to deliver Brexit would cause “potentially irreparable damage to public trust”, and it is imperative that people can trust their Government to respect their votes and deliver the best outcome for them.

The person doing most to damage public trust is Theresa May with her inept populism and the best outcome for people is for Brexit to be cancelled.

Parliament is due to debate this petition on 1st April. Now would be a good time to let your MP know what you think.

Brexit: All heat and no light

The media yesterday were full of Theresa May’s “crunch vote” on her Brexit deal — the same deal that was rejected earlier this year. And to no-one’s great surprise, it was rejected again, this time by 149 votes.

The press today is full of commentary as to what this all means, and so much of this is just noise.

Parliament will vote today on whether they want to exit the EU without a deal, and the expectation is that a no deal Brexit will be rejected. This amounts to little more than empty posturing and won’t change the fact that the UK is due to leave the EU on March 29th and, if no deal is agreed, the UK will crash out of the EU with no deal.

Tomorrow, assuming Parliament votes against no deal, they will all get together again to decide to request an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period. The rest of EU are already asking what would be the point of such an extension given that the UK is still unable to decide what it wants to achieve. And if there is no point to delaying Brexit, no delay will be forthcoming.

Since the Withdrawal Agreement was signed off, there have been three options on the table: Ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, crash out with no deal, or revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit. This was the case in January, it was the case yesterday and it will still be the case tomorrow.

The ongoing mess that is Brexit has already damaged the UK. Firms are leaving the country, jobs are going to be lost and the fantasy trade deals promised by the Government aren’t going to come close to replacing any of this. If Brexit goes ahead, with a deal or without, Britain will become smaller, poorer and forced to accept any conditions imposed by any potential trading partner.

And it still won’t be over, because leaving the EU isn’t the end of this mess, it’s the start of the next one in which the UK continues to fail at everything (trade, travel, security, etc.) that could, until now, be taken for granted.

The only way to stop the mess, limit the damage and bring this whole screaming clusterfuck to an end is to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.

The latest Brexit shenanigans explained

I was going to post about the latest bout of slapstick in which the UK’s comedy government has been engaging. But since nothing has actually changed, and I don’t want to sit here endlessly repeating myself, I shall leave it to the satirists at NewsThump to sum up the current situation:

So right now, we’re essentially we’re waiting on an unelected ‘expert’ to decide if Theresa May’s revised deal will mean that some foreign judges in an international court could allow us to unilaterally leave a backstop that was our own idea in the first place. And if he decides it does, then the dinosaur-deniers who think gays are an abomination will help the government make it so by getting haunted Victorian apparition Jacob Rees-Mogg to support them.

Now would probably be a good time to apply for a Belgian passport.