The Millicent Fawcett Statue is for My Great-Grandmother

The Millicent Fawcett statue by Gillian Wearing has been unveiled in Parliament Square today. It is the first statue in the square to depict a woman.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett led the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). This was a distinct organisation from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Unlike the ‘Suffragettes’, Fawcett and the NUWSS eschewed militancy and violence, an approach which appealed to my great-grandmother, Marjory Ingle. Continue reading “The Millicent Fawcett Statue is for My Great-Grandmother”

Social Exclusion at the Top

Ant McPartlin’s drink driving conviction and record £86,000 fine in Monday gives me an excuse to finally publish a post that has been sitting in blog purgatory for eight years.

Ant’s car crash is the latest example of fabulously wealthy TV and sports stars behaving badly in vehicles. Yaya Touré was handed a record-at-the-time £54,000 fine for drink-driving in 2016. Further back in time, we may recall the former Chelsea defender Ashley Cole was clocked doing 104mph in his Lamborghini, and John Terry has a penchant for parking in disabled bays.

Continue reading “Social Exclusion at the Top”

El Miracle de Miralles

I wrote this whimsy in a fugue state one evening in October after seeing this Tweet. Thank you Paul for the inspiration.

To say that the world was shocked when the Scottish Parliament building was suddenly transported 1000 miles into the centre of Barcelona, would be something of an understatement.

No similar, verifiable phenomenon had ever before occurred in human history. The field of physics was thrown into disarray, when not one scientist could offer an explanation for why a building with a footprint of some four acres should suddenly, and without warning, disappear from its site beneath the cragged, volcanic mountain of Arthur’s Seat, and reappear on the site of the Mercat Santa Caterina. Continue reading “El Miracle de Miralles”

Discussing Britain First and Facebook on BBC South East

The racist far right group Britain First have been banned from Facebook. BBC South East reported the story and interviewed yrstrly for English PEN. Here’s what I said:

We abhor what Britain First stands for, but nevertheless there are some unintended consequences with this move. Shutting down speech you don’t like is deeply problematic—It means that countries around the world can use it as an excuse to shut down speech they don’t like. And it also alienates certain sections of the British population, [with whom] we really need to have a dialogue…

Obviously this is just a small excerpt from a longer interview I gave to the news team. There is a lot more to say about this issue, in particular about how we appear to have ceded most of our political discourse to private companies running social media platforms. There is also a real issue surrounding the efficacy of counter-speech, and what both social media and the traditional broadcasters might do in order to give better, bigger platforms to the kind of options that can counter and neutralise the far right threat. I will post more on this soon.

In the meantime, the entire South East Today programme for 14th March is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.

The Heady Life of an NUWSS Organiser in 1909

Votes for Women, you say? Today is the perfect time for me to share some extracts from The World of an Insignificant Woman by Catherine Thackray, which is a biography of my great-grandmother Hilda Marjory Sharp (nee Ingle).

Marjory (as she was known) was born in 1882 and was a teacher and social worker. In 1909, when she was 27,  she secured work as a paid organiser for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, organising meetings, rallies and petitions. Her activities are detailed in Chapter 4 of the book. The excerpt below is taken from pages 78 to 81.

What is fascinating and slightly depressing about this account is how many of the free speech challenges faced by the NUWSS and Suffragettes remain today. The problem of people shouting down political speakers with whom they disagree still persists one hundred years later. And the comment from the Men’s League that they never suffered the same level of abuse as the women is echoed by our contemporary experience of female politicians receiving far more abuse on social media than their male counterparts.

You can buy The World of an Insignificant Womanonline as hardback or paperback, or download a free eBook in EPUB, Kindle, or PDF format.

Continue reading “The Heady Life of an NUWSS Organiser in 1909”

Shame and Legacy

In a comment about Donald Trump’s most recent abuse of power, Vanity Fair contributing editor Kurt Eichenwald uses an interesting turn of phrase to describe political legacies: “Cowards are not the people schools are named for.”

Speaking on the Ezra Klein Show podcast this week, former Obama speechwriter John Favreau diagnosed the current American political malaise as being essentially about shame… or the lack of it. He and Klein noted that many of the guard-rails to good, democratic behaviour in politics, especially American politics, depends upon the idea of personal shame. People, even (perhaps especially) politicians, care about what other people think of them, and this moderates their behaviour. Politicians like Barack Obama cared deeply when they were criticised, even if that criticism came from their political opponents. This drives conciliation and compromise with the ‘other side’ and can also foster respect, understanding and bipartisanship. This is what a polity requires to maintain a functional democracy. Continue reading “Shame and Legacy”

So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission

This week the Universities Minister Jo Johnson MP has called on the Office for Students, the new universities regulator, to ensure that the institutions under its purview guarantee free speech. He was commenting on the launch of a consultation by the new Office for Students on how it will regulate universities.

First of all, we should remind ourselves that Universities have a statutory duty to protect free speech: Section 43 of the Education Act (No.2) 1986. This section was added to the legislation amid similar concerns around No Platforming of Conservative politicians. So Mr Johnson’s suggestions are perhaps less radical than he supposes.

Second, there is something vaguely satirical about a Government forcing institutions to protect free speech. Reading Johnson’s comments, I was reminded of the Scarfolk Town Council poster ‘Free Speech Is Now Compulsory‘. Continue reading “So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission”

Are Early Day Motions Pointless?

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.

Nazi Punching

In a recent post, I listed the titles of all 53 of my unpublished blog drafts. This obviously prompted me to go back and look at some of them.

Among those still languishing in ‘blog purgatory’ was a post ‘On Punching White Supremacists’ and was written in January, when the dos and don’ts of Nazi Punching became a hot topic of conversation after a particular proto-Nazi was punched live on TV.

The post appeared to be a complete thing, and I am unsure why I did not publish it at the time. Perhaps I forgot. Perhaps I felt I should not be ‘on record’ as being either for or against Nazi Punching—Both positions are morally perilous, as the post itself explains.

Or perhaps I felt that the world simply did not need another ‘hot take’ on Nazi Punching.

Anyway, it seemed silly to keep the thing in limbo. The arguments for and against are a useful aide memoir, even if my conclusions are ambiguous. So I published it.

You can read the post here. Continue reading “Nazi Punching”