Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda

Poetry, the opposite of propaganda, should encourage people to think and feel for themselves

Last month I was honoured to be in the audience as the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley received the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize, and to hear his address, ‘Songs for Dead Children: Poetry in Violent Times.’ The entire event, including Longley’s speech, is available to listen to online.

The speech is a generous and lyrical discussion of how poets and artists can respond, with the appropriate outrage and humanity, to violent acts. Longley makes a eloquent point about the importance of literature to the ideas of free speech and democracy: Continue reading “Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda”

Are Early Day Motions Pointless?

Some Members of Parliament certainly think so

At Westminster, an Early Day Motion is a motion tabled by an MP, calling for a debate on a particular topic. The motions rarely get debated, but they draw other MPs’ attention to particular issues. EDMs are a sort of petition system, exclusive to members of the House of Commons.

I had always taken it as a given that EDMs were a useful tool in a campaigner’s kit. If one Member of Parliament is allied to your cause, they can table an Early Day Motion… which then gives supporters of the campaign a reason to write to their own MPs about the issue. By requesting that your elected representative signs the EDM, you are effectively asking “please put it on record that you support this issue”. This is useful.

During the course of the Libel Reform Campaign, we made much of the fact that 249 Members of Parliament had signed EDM 423, which was a lot. It was also significant that the motion had cross party support.

The disappointing fact that some EDMs do not attract cross party support is often a useful data point. For example, of the 36 people who have signed EDM 37, condemning the imprisonment of Raïf Badawi in Saudi Arabia, none are from the Conservative Party, who are currently in government. Since Badawi is in prison for the crime of setting up blog that discussed liberalism, it is odd that no Tory wishes to put their name to it. Perhaps they simply haven’t been asked… but perhaps the Conservative whips have asked them not to, for reasons of diplomacy. (This is infuriating to campaigners, but as I blogged previously, there may be good and honest reasons why this is so.)

It is possible, however, that if one seeks genuine change rather than posturing, EDMs are a distraction. While working on the Raïf Badawi case, I wrote to some MPs asking them to sign the EDM. I received this reply from one Member of Parliament:

I very rarely sign EDMs for the following reasons. First, they have absolutely no impact at Westminster.

Second, PR companies and the like suggest to their clients that they should pressure MPs to sign them when they know full well that they are political placebos with negligible impact but they can claim that their influence has made MPs sign EDMs. 

Third, I am told they cost the taxpayer (each) about £300 a month and there are hundreds of them. I do not like that at all in view of my first two points.

One MP I could name signs almost every one, but I think that to be dreadful because he knows full well that they achieve nothing. But it gets that MP off the hook! Not one EDM has made it through to legislation in my time.

The EDM on libel reform disproves that last point, but the others are worth considering. The £300 figure is a factual claim which I will check. But if the EDM process is not particularly respected by MPs then it might not have the parliamentary influence that campaigners assume, and those ‘PR companies’ assert.

A Table That Shows The UK Region For All Postcode Districts

Are you analysing a bunch of addresses, and want to quickly group them into UK regions? That’s what I was doing recently, and did not find it trivially easy.

A quick visit to your favourite search engine will reveal a list of UK post code areas, and their corresponding towns. But that’s not actually as useful as it might seem. Many large towns and cities take their postcode from another large town or city, often in a different county. Basingstoke (Hampshire) has RG postcodes (Reading, Berkshire), for example.

In London, the problem is reversed. The capital has eight of its own postcodes, but the outer London boroughs have their own. Sorting a diverse list of postcodes does not immediately reveal which are ‘London’.

Sometimes it’s better to group locations by broader UK regions. That’s what I wanted to do with a list of over a thousand UK addresses. Eventually I found a site that (in the hope of selling you a handy map) groups all the postcodes by region. I was able to create a lookup table from that information, which I could then use to sort and count the number of addresses in each region. Continue reading “A Table That Shows The UK Region For All Postcode Districts”

A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations

Free speech advocates need to acknowledge that our approach asks people to lay their identities on the table for dissection. If people balk at that suggestion, our response should not be to call them ‘thin skinned special snowflakes’

This is an edited transcript of my speech to the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations Festival, delivered on 15th November 2016.  This first appeared on the Leeds Beckett University Politics and Applied Global Ethics (PAGE) blog.  You can listen to the unalloyed version of the speech on SoundCloud or via the player below.

Some Arguments Against No Platform

I want to first set out my views on No Platform policies. In short, I think they’re bad for free speech and they’re bad for the people they seek to protect.

The idea of No Platform is that it seeks to avoid giving someone the credibility of speaking at a prestigious institution. Those who call for No Platform claim it is not a form of censorship, because the person is subjected to the No Platform rule can always take their words elsewhere. Moreover (they say), legal protections for free speech relate to the government, and since the government is not involved in choosing who speaks at a university there is no real issue. Why can’t we choose who does and does not speak on our campus? Continue reading “A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations”

Brexit Plus Plus? Here’s What Happen’s Next, America

Americans would do well to remember that the surprise ‘Leave’ vote in the UK on 23 June was not the culmination of a chaotic political period, but the beginning of one.

The day before the U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump declared that the result would be poll-defying “Brexit Plus Plus” election upset.

He was sort of right, in that he pulled off a surprise electoral college victory (although, since Hillary Clinton won the popular vote Mr Trump’s ‘plus plus’ suffix might be said to be inaccurate).

Americans would do well to remember that the surprise ‘Leave’ vote in the UK on 23 June was not the culmination of a chaotic political period, but the beginning of one.   Continue reading “Brexit Plus Plus? Here’s What Happen’s Next, America”

I Admire the American Political System

Recent events elsewhere in the world have made me particularly appreciate the American system.

The 2016 US Election has been, as they would say, a ‘dumpster fire’.  The media have graded one candidate on a curve, and the discussion has been almost entirely about personalities. There does not appear to have been any sustained news cycle dedicated to policy.  Indeed, even the discussion of actual policies in the debates was atrocious.

It’s clear that the country is incredibly polarised. Nevertheless, I still admire the American political system.

One silver-lining of the Trump candidacy is that there has been plenty of discussion about the US system. I don’t mean admiration for the electoral college (although I’ve heard some good arguments for its retention recently) but more simply and fundamentally, the fact that everything is subordinate to the Rule of Law, and a Constitution which places and incredibly strong emphasis of individual rights and protections against government over-reach.

This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but recent events elsewhere in the world have made me particularly appreciate the American approach.
Continue reading “I Admire the American Political System”

No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’

Any political party that did not have a mechanism for a sitting leader to be ousted would be pretty much the definition of anti-democratic

The worrying news from Turkey has made me think about the way in which the recent political machinations within the British Labour Party have been described (usually by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn) as a ‘coup’.

I’m sure the people who use that word do not mean to suggest that the 171 Labour MPs who want Mr Corbyn to resign are equivalent to soldiers with guns.  But use of the word does imply that the manoeuvrings are anti-democratic.

But they are not.  They are profoundly democratic. Continue reading “No-one In The Labour Party Has Staged A ‘Coup’”

Jeremy Corbyn Is Not Doing His Job And Should Resign

The Leader of the Opposition is not leading the opposition. He has turned a tautology into an oxymoron.

Rt. Hon. Jeremy Corbyn MP has two jobs and two job titles. First, he is Leader of the Labour Party, a position to which he was elected by a majority of those eligible to vote, in every voter category (members, registered supporters, affiliates).  If that were the whole story then a leadership challenge would be completely undemocratic and wrong.

However, Mr Corbyn is also Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition.  This is not some ceremonial title you get when elevated to a particular position, like Lord of the Isles or Second Lord of the Treasury. Instead it is a post that fulfills a crucial rôle in our democracy, scrutinising Government actions and Bills on behalf of the entire country, including people who did not vote Labour.  Just as the Prime Minister (First Lord of the Treasury, by the way) is accountable and answerable to everyone, so too is the Leader of the Opposition. Continue reading “Jeremy Corbyn Is Not Doing His Job And Should Resign”

Article 50 Will Be Triggered When Illogic Dictates

Now Britian has voted to leave the EU, there is a lot of discussion about at the moment over when or if Article 50 will be triggered.

Spinning Hugo suggests that it may never happen. He points out that the negotiating position of the UK is far stronger while Article 50 has not been invoked… and it will be instantly worse once it is invoked.  Since EU leaders have declared that they will not begin negotiations until Article 50 is triggered by the British Government, a stalemate has arisen.

This is a compelling analysis, but I am reminded of the the Unexpected Hanging Paradox:

A judge tells a condemned prisoner that he will be hanged at noon on one weekday in the following week but that the execution will be a surprise to the prisoner. He will not know the day of the hanging until the executioner knocks on his cell door at noon that day.

Using logic, the prisoner deduces that he will never be hanged. When the executioner knocks on his door on a Wednesday he is therefore totally surprised. Continue reading “Article 50 Will Be Triggered When Illogic Dictates”

My Gut Tells Me Theresa May Will Be Our Next Prime Minister

Anyone who can present a calm and collected facade will be an attractive candidate. Teresa May is doing this.

The perils of not posting your blog post immediately after you’ve written it!  I wrote this last night when the two main leadership contenders were Boris Johnson and Theresa May, and he was the bookies’ favourite.  Now Michael Gove has entered the race saying “Boris is not a leader”, Johnson’s odds have lengthened significantly and Mrs May is now the favourite.  I don’t know how that affects the principles I set out below.


The Conservative Party has begun the nomination process to elect a new party leader and therefore our next Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson is the favourite but my gut tells me that Theresa May will win.

Making pronouncements based on what one’s intensities say is a perilous practice. Often you end up talking shit or vomiting nonsense. Allow me to offer some head-like reasoning for what I feel in my waters. Continue reading “My Gut Tells Me Theresa May Will Be Our Next Prime Minister”