The Ill-informed Voter

At a recent supper, a fellow guest asserted that all those who voted to leave the EU were ill-informed. Challenged, said diner was unable to offer a single reason to support such a claim, or why they voted to remain, yet insisted that Mr Cameron was wrong to insitigate the referendum.

Does it matter who the guest was?

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EU: Bye, see you on the other side

I was sure that the my vote would help the UK to stay in the EU. That was Thursday; I’ve moved on, the markets have moved on, but the opportunists and those with vanity projects are moving in and making themselves comfortable.

Few Brits have ever embraced the EU: nobody seemed willing or capable of explaining the benefits to the public, not just over the last few weeks but for several decades, while each new treaty was invariably depicted as a further loss of national sovereignty. In the vacuum, quite ridiculous myths were perpetuated, particularly by editors of UK national newspapers. No effort was made to redress these claims by the UK nor, crucially, by the EU.

It is impossible to believe that the entire UK media always chose not to broadcast or print replies from the EU when such scurrilous assertions were made, over and over again; the EU must accept a large chunk of responsibility for public attitudes, ranging from the merely negative to outright hostility, found within all its member nations.

The result of the referendum, then, was a snapshot of the hot issue of the day, British concerns over immigration controls: the intransigence of the EU to afford more sovereignty over border issues, and the ruination of trust between the public and politicians. Global figures were flown in and experts from institutions were booked to give their opinions, all on message, stating that the UK would be diminished if we left the EU. It turned out that they were feeding the cold rather than starving it.

The UK should now work towards re-establishing trust in public institutions, and its politicians must work at re-establishing trust and respect towards the public.

EU: Mr Cameron’s legacy

I can’t get enough of the EU – it’s totally bonkers, feeding each country’s eccentricities and not so latent nationalism, allowing them to feel superior to one or more of its neighbours. So to the UK referendum. The In’s say the reforms Mr Cameron is wooing the rest of the EU with are significant, the Out’s snort in derision, but that was always going to be, regardless. But what guided Mr Cameron’s choice of changes? After all, Germany threw the financial kitchen sink at Greece to prevent them exiting: keeping the UK in should have given him an exceptional negotiating hand.

The UK could continue wholly outside of the EU (for better or for worse is a secondary issue) but what would the value be of a United States of Europe without the UK? Mr Cameron was never going to present a set of reforms that would have destabilised a shaky EU; it was, and is, irrelevant whether he likes or dislikes the status quo. Instead, it has fallen to him to find the path that allows a modestly reformed EU, with the UK in tow, in order to tread water. Brexit is unthinkable whether anyone likes it or not.

Houses of Humanity 2

Another moving adjournment debate, allowing us to see that parliamentarians are humans first.

Will Quince, MP for Colchester, was compelling as he related his and his wife’s ordeal when their baby was delivered stillborn. He carefully explained the patchy bereavement care facing parents in such circumstances, followed by Antoinette Sandbach, MP for Eddisbury, who filled the chamber with impossible emotion.

Ben Gummer, junior Minister for Health, came of age as he replied on behalf of the Government.

Watch the debate from 2 November 2015 – around 30 mins. Mark Menzies, MP for Fylde, stood to intervene.

EU: a basket case of tomatoes

Checking the internet for info on tomatoes (specifically, were they ever classed as a vegetable by the EU – no, but they have been since 1883 in the USA) I chanced upon an article by Eurofruit, dating back to June 2014, with the headline:

“Spain slams EU tomato rule change: Growers claim the modifications effectively give Morocco free access to the European market”.

What on earth was the link between a North African kingdom and EU rules on tomatoes? Briefly, Spain, Italy and, more recently, France, are furious that Morocco is being allowed to export tomatoes to the EU, tariff free. Never mind that though, a bit of probing revealed that Morocco has long wished to become a full member of the EU, and the EU is keen on the idea, too. This was big news for me; obviously, I had slept through the anti-EU brigade’s splutterings when that was announced. But, surely, the whole political thing of member-states being disadvantaged by the EU, that the E in EU no longer stood for Europe, and crow-barring Lebensraum into every sentence, surely I didn’t sleep through that?

The EU has outgrown its name as well as borders, apparently following the Eurovision Song Contest strategy of opening up to countries that have no physical borders with Europe. Morocco is an oddball but it’s the only African state that is not a member of the African Union, nor is it a member of the African Economic Community, thus some form of partnership with the EU is strategically desirable. That’s OK, the EU has some form of relationship with almost all the world’s nations, but what is the point of membership if the club is seen to work in ways that doesn’t keep the interests of its members foremost?

EU members are pushing and pulling in too many directions; it has become too big, too fast and, as with the song contest, voting blocs have formed, and the old guard are increasingly grumpy with the newbies. ‘Twas ever thus, and the next chapter, The Tail of Schengen, will offer a glimpse into the desperately weak foundations of the EU.

EU Referendum: discuss

The last two posts here were observations of how language can be used to be exclusive when it is esoteric or inclusive if it is dumbed down. The art of omission may be the more mighty weapon of influence, though, with both pro- and anti-EU campaigners giving their all to the process of the referendum and not yet examining the cases for staying in or getting out. That will change, of course, but in the meantime I’ll be checking stuff out that will influence my vote.

The problem is knowing where to start.

Note: The title of this post was to include ‘pending’. This didn’t seem right so I was about to use ‘impending’ instead but, having looked more closely at the attributes of both words, and how different cultures might interpret either, both were rejected. I also rejected a ‘The’, since the article is not definite enough to distinguish between earlier and upcoming referendums throughout Europe. Similarly, 2017 might turn out to be 2016…

PMQs: business as usual

Wednesday, high noon, and the second Prime Minister’s Questions since the General Election. Half an hour later, that most modern tranche de vie, the commenters below the line, let rip. The weekly grumbles always centre on the PM not answering the questions (well, it isn’t called Prime Minister’s Answers…), the Speaker not doing/overdoing his job, the backbenchers from every party labelled cronies and ending with exasperated ‘what’s the point’ rhetoric. Each week, after PMQs airs, they demand reform, the elimination of something or another, and seven days later they return, assured of more of the same.

The history of PMQs can be chronicled thus:

“Before 1881, all questions to Ministers were taken in the order in which they were tabled. Starting in that year, as a courtesy to Mr Gladstone (then aged 72), questions addressed to the Prime Minister were placed last on the daily list. As the number of questions rose, PMQs were in danger of not being reached. From 1904, therefore, it was decided they should begin at No. 51, then [after 1940], when this provision was proved inadequate, at No. 45… From 1961 to 1997, PMQs took place twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for 15 minutes. Since 1997, this has been replaced by a single weekly slot of 30 minutes on Wednesdays.”

The current Speaker contributed his observations on the modern history of PMQs in a speech in 2010, date-stamping modern belligerence during PMQs to the late 1970s.

What is clear is that PMQs was, and is, not intended as fodder for popular criticism. Hansard’s 2014 report found that significant exasperation from the public was due to their lack of understanding parliamentary procedure and language.

Over time, most places of work have developed their own distinctive language and systems, including those in the public sector, as effective a barrier to social mobility as, say, education at the interview stage. Yet, if one has the qualifications – not necessarily professional or academic – it isn’t a massive stretch to then imbue oneself in the lingo to clinch the job.

It is not an argument that the right of free speech depends on an elegant turn of phrase but criticism flowing from ignorance isn’t an argument at all.

Linguistics for the People

I was born an optimist, not a Catholic, yet despair is rarely far away from my tether as I trudge through self-inflicted problems of the first world.

While the ideals of democracy are regularly tested by the likes of compulsive sleb Russell Brand, or frittered away by a Green party determined to portray themselves as a maverick branch of the Women’s Institute, the few who give a damn must have slumped into their chairs as the news broke that the EU referendum element in the Queen’s Speech would need to be couched in terms that did not assume voters knew the UK was a member of the EU.

I am a fan of those niggling over the subtleties of the English language for the sake of political fairness, whether they embrace psycho, cognitive, or whatever sub-level of linguistics. It would be fab, though, if such fastidiousness was applied to manifestos.

Polling post-mortem

As elections go, boring mugged the inadequate but how did the Tories win a majority, against all expectations except for the exit polls? Their grass roots campaign appeared chaotic (except in Sheffield Hallam), the manifesto was written with red lines in mind, and the TV debates fiasco almost made Ed Miliband look…interesting.

Pollsters are also keen to know what happened, given they had been predicting a hung parliament for the past five years and, at around £125K a pop, they would quite like to keep their reputation intact. The British Polling Council is to launch an independent enquiry [sic] into the apparent bias against the Conservatives, with the term ‘shy Tories’ leading the way, a term invented to blame the voters in the last surprise Tory win in 1992. One pollster strangely blamed voters and politicians:

[Peter Kellner] said: “What seems to have gone wrong is that people have said one thing and they did something else in the ballot box…We are not as far out as we were in 1992, not that that is a great commendation… politicians…should campaign on what they believe, they should not listen to people like me and the figures we produce”.

I spent a couple of hours looking at the Council’s site at the end of April when it was already apparent that something was amiss and was struck by the first line in their Statement of Disclosure section:

It shall not be the purpose of this Code to pass judgment on the merits of methods employed in specific surveys.

Perhaps they should start right there, as well as understand that voters do not choose to become so entertainingly savvy. According to the newspapers (who commission most of the political polls which, in turn, provides the headlines for the press), those who watched the TV debates found the time to search for the answers to ‘Who should I vote for?‘ and the height of several party leaders.

MPs 0, Media 2 (Straw 89′, Rifkind 91′)

After yet another media sting, a couple of senior MP’s actions stirred up the rest of the media to ask, again, what the public thought about second jobs for MPs. To clarify, what we are hearing is the media asking a pointed question to the public, discussing their efforts between themselves and, after editing, offering the results to the dwindling numbers of people who still read/view/listen to one or more organs.

The argument goes something like this: MPs should not continue or take up any paid work, especially if it conflicts with their work within parliament and their constituency and, even more especially, if it has anything to do with lobbyists.

This has more holes than a hackette’s stockings. A few practical problems: MPs are not employees and they do not have a job description; rather, they are office holders. Due to the range of jobbing opportunities, it would be impractical as well as unwise to pin down in law what they may or may not do while they are in office. Examples include appearances on political programmes, authoring a book or media commentary, or a school governor. Whether paid or not, it is unthinkable to exclude MPs from such examples if, at the same time, we expect them to understand the consequences of their legislation. Similarly, lobbyists come in different sizes of power and, of course, the public are themselves lobbyists the moment they attempt to get their voice heard by, say, writing a letter to their MP.

That said, should MPs be allowed to do what they like, at any price? The latest Code of Conduct (2012) for MPs (and other holders of public office) goes on at some length, offering avuncular advice on how to maintain a front of respectability. Consider the wobbly existence of the Recall of MPs Bill 2014-15, and the painful, precious debates by MPs to prevent the electorate prising them out of the green leather benches.

Still they don’t ‘get it’, the Opposition least of all after their dismal debate on Members’ Paid Directorships and Consultancies. It isn’t just the money, it isn’t just the time spent not being an MP, it’s the perception that MPs have a unique power in creating, amending, and repealing legislation designed to benefit wrong ‘uns while punishing the general public. Awkwardly, this is a bit true, but a lot false.