The ‘Whether’ and the ‘How’ of Brexit

Earlier this week, the House of Commons seized control of the parliamentary timetable, and passed its own piece of legislation through the chamber. The House of Lords then passed it without amendments, and the European Union Withdrawl Bill (No. 6) will become law early next week.

The law forces Prime Minister Johnson to ask the European Council for an Article 50 extension, if an exit deal has not been agreed by 19th October (a few days before the scheduled departure on the 31st). It is a way of legally binding the government from proceeding with a No Deal Brexit.

Since then, there has been a constant refrain from supporters of the PM’s policy (call them Leavers, or Brexiteers or whatever) that parliament’s actions are thwarting the will of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU. The Prime Minister said:

It is a Bill designed to overturn the biggest democratic vote in our history, the 2016 referendum. It is therefore a Bill without precedent in the history of this House, seeking as it does to force the Prime Minister, with a pre-drafted letter, to surrender in international negotiations

The implication here, parroted by people up and down the country, is that ‘leaving the EU’ is synonymous with the May/Johnson vision of ‘hard Brexit.’ That is, a ‘how’ founded on a sheaf of red lines and the threat of No Deal.

Depending on who says this, it may be an uniformed mistake, a ‘category error’ or a deliberately misleading piece of propaganda. Either way, it’s wrong… and it’s another thing that needs to be debunked succinctly, over and over again. Continue reading “The ‘Whether’ and the ‘How’ of Brexit”

Please Stop Calling Boris ‘Unelected’

Ever since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister last month, I’ve seen countless social media posts by my friends, and people with like-minded political views, branding him an ‘unelected’ PM.

It’s true that Mr Johnson was not leader of the Conservative party at the last General Election in 2017. That was Theresa May.

But under our parliamentary system, that doesn’t matter. We don’t directly elect a Prime Minister. We elect members of parliament, and those who can agree on enough come together to form the government. Continue reading “Please Stop Calling Boris ‘Unelected’”

Do We Really Need To See A Person’s Face? Chatting to Vanessa Feltz about the Danish Niqab Ban

'Her Eyes' by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.

Denmark have banned the burka and the niqab, because “we must be able to see each other and we must also be able to see each other’s facial expressions, it’s a value in Denmark”, according to Justice Minister Søren Pape Poulsen. That’s a strange sort of value: taken literally, it would presumably also mean a ban on motorcycle helmets and many kinds of carnival costumes.

We should call this out for what it is: an illiberal attempt to bait Muslims for electoral gain; and an attack on both freedom of expression and freedom of belief. This was my view when France enacted similar legislation in 2010, and in 2016 when some French municipalities tried to ban the ‘burkini’ on their beaches.

I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Boris Johnson on this issue. He wrote about it in his Sunday Telegraph column yesterday. Many people have criticised Johnson for likening the clothing (and the women who wear them) as ‘letterboxes’, which was indeed insulting and wrong. But I think the column as a whole is a classically liberal argument against harassing a minority. The veil might not be our choice, but its wrong to stop others from choosing it. I hate what you wear, but defend your right to wear it, as Voltaire or Tallentyre might have put it.

However, there is one piece of conventional wisdom on this issue that I think should be challenged. Johnson writes:

human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we work.

Is it though? I suspect this ‘intuitive’ knowledge may not be as true as we think it is. A couple of years ago, when OFSTED said they would mark down schools where a veiled teacher hindered learning, a friend of mine wrote to me about her experience of being taught by a teacher thus attired:1

I went to a school in East London where five girls in my year group wore a full face veil. All five of them got awards for having the highest GCSE’s in our year.

My maths teacher had a full face veil and I was in her class from year 9 to 11. My maths grade improved from a failing U grade to me getting a C on the Higher Maths Paper. She was the best maths teacher I ever had. I learnt the most from her and improved my maths tremendously. My teacher before her was a man and he made me feel like I was really bad at maths.

It doesn’t matter if a teacher is veiled in my opinion. Even when they’re veiled the body language comes across. It really doesn’t matter at all.

See also the viral blog post by Thomas Mauchline, ’15 things I learnt about Islam and British values being a gay boy living opposite a mosque’:

You can do that look British people do to each other, when someone near by is making a scene, in a full face veil.

The eyes are the ‘windows to the soul’, apparently. So maybe its eye contact and one’s voice that are the real essentials for good communication, rather than facial expressions?

Earlier today I called the Vanessa Feltz breakfast show on BBC Radio London to make these points. The entire programme, with contributions from women who choose to wear the veil, is very interesting. My short twopenn’orth was at about 9:35AM, and you can listen to what I said via the player below or on SoundCloud.


1. Reproduced with permission, and lightly edited to remove names and places.

The Selfishness of a Career for Career’s Sake

Writing in the New Statesman about how useless and selfish Boris Johnson has been as Foreign Secretary, John Elledge says this:

There’s no evidence he cares about the public good, nor matters of policy, nor even ideology: he treats politics as a game, and his goal has only ever been to reach the next square on the board. This was how politics worked in the latter part of the Roman Republic, where the entire point was to complete the cursus honorum quicker than your peers

Not a classicist myself, I needed Wikipedia to tell me that cursus honorum is a set of public offices that aspiring politicians sought to hold. Ostensibly as a means of securing well rounded training in matters civic and military, but (by the end) a means of self-aggrandisement. Continue reading “The Selfishness of a Career for Career’s Sake”

Hard Borders in London and the Napoleon of Notting Hill

On Monday morning, the Foreign Secretary Rt. Hon. Boris Johnson MP was asked on BBC radio what the British Government’s vision of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would look like, should the UK leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union. In a garbled answer about the power of technology to facilitate frictionless trade, he put forward this analogy:

There is no border between Camden and Westminster, but when I was mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between those two boroughs without any need for border checks whatever.

He was presumbaly referring to London’s Congestion Charge. Journalists and social media users spent the rest of the morning mocking this wholly inappropriate analogy with the centuries old troubles in Ireland.

https://twitter.com/ianpatterson99/status/968494962341015552

All this made me think about one of my favourite books, The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesteron. In that story, written in 1904 but set in 1984, a whimsical king named Auberon Quin (appointed by lottery, the population having long since given up on both democracy and hereditary monarchy) decrees that each London Borough becomes its own city state. He sets about creating coats of arms and other heraldic items for each. Continue reading “Hard Borders in London and the Napoleon of Notting Hill”

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

Gove and Johnson

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”

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

Teresa May

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”

On the Paralympic Boos

Apparently, the booing of Conservative politicians as they present medals to Paralympians has become a bit of a Thing. First George Osborne, then Teresa May (apparently, Boris Johnson got a big cheer, but then, he’s a Veblen Politician to which normal political rules do not apply).

I’ll say first off that it makes me a bit sad. It must be uncomfortable and odd for athletes receiving the medals. Not what they imagined when they set out on their Paralympic journey.

However, that does not mean that the jeers were wrong or should be condemned.

First, is there not a cynicism to the politicians presenting the medals in the first place? It feels like they are trying to piggy-back on the goodwill that the Olympics generated. If this is the case then they deserve whatever reception they get!

Second, I think it is an example of people using whatever means are at their disposal to dissent. I am reminded of a couple of things: Obama 2008 supporters misusing the features on the My Barack Obama website to protest his FISA policy. Or, the Jeff Goldblum speech from Jurassic Park: “Life Finds A Way”. In the absence of a good method to express disapproval of a Government, people will use what ever means are available, be that the arrangement of Teddy Bears, the licking of ice-cream, or the shouting of a common religious phrase from roof-tops.  I am not saying that the British political system is comparable to the authoritarian regimes in Iran or Belarus, but even in an advanced social democracy people can still feel alienated and disenfranchised by the political system.

Finally, these boos cannot be dismissed as the co-ordinated actions of an already partisan group (as a slow clap at the Women’s Institute or the Police Federation or at the TUC might be described). These are a diverse group of citizens from every demographic in the country. The jeers are part of a real and widespread sentiment: that they happen to the extreme discomfort of both the politicians and the Paralympians is part of the message.

Veblen Royals

The Sun argues that it is in the public interest to publish naked pictures of Prince Harry. I say it is in the public interest to keep them out of the papers. It reinforces the notion that celebrities (and for better or for worse, Royals are a form of ‘celeb’) can operate by different standards of behaviour to the rest of us.

We’ve been here before. Remember when upstanding moral beacon Prince William groped a Brazillian teenager, Ana Ferreira? Antics that would and should get you thrown out of the nightclub, and maybe even a visit from the police in other circumstances, are waved away as ‘just a bit of fun’ or ‘spreading wild oats’ if you are a Royal. People were less understanding when Mike Tindall was caught on camera in a lap-dancing club, but he is only married to a Royal.

The double-standards we grant to some people was amusingly highlighted by Hadley Freeman in The Guardian yesterday:

He is the Boris Johnson of the royal family, a buffoon whose every antic only improves his public standing.

In economics, a Veblen Good is a status symbol that defies the usual assumptions about price and demand. Such goods becomes more sought after when the price increases (for example, Rolls Royce cars). In such a way, Prince Harry is the Veblen Royal, where the things that would sink a less likeable member of the Royal Family (Prince Edward, say?) only increase his stock. Boris Johnson is a Veblen Politician.

Should public figures aspire to Veblen status? No. The problem with the concept is that it is arises due to arrogance and unnatural wealth. We deplore Veblen goods when we encounter them in economics, and we should not encourage the Royal or Political variations either. The excessive attention only encourages the behaviour… and the behaviour usually involves demeaning other people.

#Flashride

Cycling home on Friday, I was unwittingly caught up in the London Cycling Campaign’s ‘Flashride’ across Blackfriars Bridge. They want the speed limit on the bridge to remain at 20mph but apparently the Mayor of London isn’t heeding the request, and it will become more dangerous for cyclists later this year.

In protest, several hundred cyclists rode together over the bridge, in full compliance with the Highway Code. I was able to take a little bit of footage of the happening.

Without wishing to boast or come across as some kind of syncophantic Mac fanboy, I must note how easy it was to capture and edit the footage. I was able to whip out my birthday iPad on the central reservation, take a couple of minutes of HD footage, and then cycle off down The Cut and homeward. It took all of ten minutes to edit the footage in iMovie and the longest part of the process was the HD upload to YouTube. The speed of ‘broadcast’ and ‘publication’ these days is truly revolutionary – causing a genuine shift in power away from elites.