Wednesday, 23 November 2016

This Machine Calls Fascists

“Stop using cuddly terms like ‘alt-right’, and call them what they are! They’re Nazis! That’s what they are! Actual Nazis!”

There’s a lot of this around at the moment – referring to the current populist right-wing movement in America, which is partly to thank (or to blame, depending on your perspective) for the recent election of Donald Trump as American President.

“Call things what they are,” goes the argument, “don’t be fooled. Say the name, and you are one step closer to slaying the beast!” Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced; I don’t think it is quite as easy as that. Because, unpleasant as they are, I don’t believe that today’s ‘alt-right’ truly are Nazis, in the traditional sense.

It is absolutely correct to look at Donald Trump and his alt-right followers and see more than just echoes of the European fascist movements of the 1940s. There are big similarities there, it would be totally wrong to deny that. But there are also some interesting differences – which those who claim to prize truth and transparency over kid-gloved euphemising somehow never mention.

In an excellent article for, Dylan Matthews interviews five experts on fascism, and explains why the label still doesn’t quite fit Trump and his cadre. Although plenty is ‘borrowed’ from fascism by the exponents of the new alt-right movement, notably absent (so far, at least) has been any desire for palingenetic abolition of society’s democratic institutions (I believe the contempt in which ‘the establishment’ is held in alt-right circles is a nod to this, but certainly nowhere near fascistic enough as to count). Similarly, there is a definite lack of what Matthews describes as a Sorelian "valorization [sic] of violence", in which violence for its own sake is considered virtuous or life-affirming.

I also think there are marked strategic differences. Nazism, in the old sense, had a particular way of doing things; the alt-right have adapted to a world where – thanks to the internet, social media, twenty-four-hour rolling television news, etc. – the media is unrecognisably different from when Hitler’s Nazis were on the march. It is not possible to be an old-style Nazi in a world like this; even when there is a crossover with true Nazis in the beliefs or the aims of today’s alt-right, their approach to realising those aims is very un-fascist.

Roger Griffin, author of The Nature Of Fascism, and professor of history and political theory at Oxford Brookes University, is quoted in Matthews’ article as saying “You can be a total xenophobic racist male chauvinist bastard and still not be a fascist.” This, for me, sums up Donald Trump and the alt-right; they may be appalling far-right populists, but they don’t quite fit the definition of actual Nazis.

What’s interesting to me, however, is how insistent some people seem to be that we do call them Nazis.

There is a compulsion to define everything in our world by what we already know. To look through our history books, and say “See? This is like that! These people are those people. They must be…” But this is not like that; our societies and our understanding have changed beyond all recognition from the fervour of the 1930s and the 1940s in which fascism thrived. And even if they share some of the same aims, these people are not those people. They have a different approach to the world. That is not to say that they are not dangerous people, or that we do not live in turbulent and troubling times – but it is not the same.

If the alt-right movement – despite certain similarities with ‘old-school’ Nazism – is a new phenomenon, then it is right that it should have a new name. Possibly ‘alt-right’ still isn’t the best term to use, since it seems to sanitise and normalise the repugnant attitudes of the sect – but then, neither is an ill-fitting descriptor from seventy or eighty years ago, and half a world away.

Whatever we call the movement, it would help if we could try to define it fairly soon. The alt-right is in the ascension, emboldened by Donald Trump’s electoral triumph, and the accompanying increase in media coverage. Is it not possible that the rise of the alt-right could be at least partly due to the fact that they are looking forwards and forging something new, whilst the rest of us look back, rifling through history texts in the hope of finding the correct nomenclature?

Yes, language does matter. So why make do with an historical term which only sort-of fits, to describe a new political faction which has its own distinctive characteristics? The alt-right isn’t just Nazism with a new haircut; in fact, it isn’t quite like anything we’ve seen before. Personally, I think we need to acknowledge that, if we are going to defeat it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

On the prospect of a Trump Presidency…

I think I started to drift off to sleep around half-past-four this morning – just as it was starting to become clear that it was looking like Donald Trump's night, in the US Presidential Elections.  I woke again a few hours later, still half expecting to see that results had swung back to Hillary Clinton, who had just edged it after a very narrowly-fought race.  And then I checked my phone…  Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.

I'm not sure the initial shock of the result has worn off, yet (as I write, this news is barely twelve hours old, after all).  When Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, just a few months ago, the result took a while to sink in; the prospect of a Trump Presidency is orders of magnitude more frightening than 'Brexit' could ever be.  People today are feeling nervous, anxious, worried and scared.  They have every right to.

There are also people trying to calm everybody down, of course.  They say that Trump won't enact the more extreme things he has said he'll do; that he will 'soften' as a character, now that he doesn't have to chase votes any more; that the enormity of the responsibility he now has will change him…  I'm afraid these soothing words do little to quiet my concerns.

Even if all the calming words are true – even if Trump himself is nowhere near as bad a President as we had feared – he has unleashed something in this campaign, something which cannot just be put back in its box.  The people who cheered Trump's incendiary speeches and divisive rhetoric at his rallies and campaign events haven't formed those views overnight – such prejudice and unpleasantness has been around for years – but in the President-elect, they realised they had found a mainstream focal point for their anger, hate and bitterness.  He was a figure around which to unite.

Trump's candidacy emboldened all manner of racists, misogynists, anti-semites, homophobes and the pedlars of paranoid conspiracism and small-minded victimhood.  They felt their opinions – once widely recognised as being unacceptable – becoming legitimised. They were on the up, and they grew in confidence, making more and more outrageous demands and sounding more and more bloodthirsty with each passing day.  They are still in the ascendancy now, and growing bolder than ever.

Even if Trump 'mellows' once he gets the keys to the White House, these people won't just go away.  They won't just stop shouting.  And having been promised policies which ban Muslims, remove gun-free zones in schools, and build border walls with Mexico, their anger won't simply dissipate if Trump fails to follow through on these promises; it will intensify.

I worry that a President Trump who doesn't do all the extreme things he has said he'll do will be as dangerous as a President Trump who does do those things.  He has legitimised bigotry by stoking these flames, and he has sent a message to his supporters that it is OK to think that way.

Even if he backtracks on the wilder points of his policy proposals now, those ideas don't just disappear.  The rage, and the hatred, won't just disappear – it will grow.  That genie doesn't go back in its bottle in a hurry.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

#F1 – Radio blah-blah

Last weekend's Mexican Grand Prix will be remembered more for what happened on the radio, and on the podium, than what happened on the track.

For those who didn't see it, in the closing laps of the race Sebastian Vettel in fourth place was closing down Max Verstappen in third, and in trying to keep the Ferrari driver behind him Verstappen pushed too hard and ran wide, cutting the corner.  Verstappen had clearly 'gained an advantage' by running outside the limits of the racetrack, and even his own team boss came on the radio advising him to give the place up to Vettel – but Verstappen did not yield the position, and no official instruction came from Race Control telling him to let Vettel through.

Verstappen crossed the line in third, but was retrospectively penalised, before he had a chance to stand on the podium.  Sebastian Vettel was belatedly award third place – but, by this point, Vettel himself was the subject of heavy criticism, for his angry outbursts over team radio after Verstappen had refused to give up third place to him on track, and particularly his use of foul language.

Personally, I have no problem with a driver swearing on the radio.  In the heat of battle, when you're giving everything to beat the next guy and bring home points for your team, your emotions pour out of you; when you are frustrated, you show it.  We've all done it.  I'm not a global superstar in a multi-million pound arena, but I compete in local sports leagues – and I do get exasperated when things aren't going my way, and in the heat of the moment I sometimes let those feelings out…

What I can honestly say I've never done, though, is to aim that at anyone in particular – be that a competitor, a teammate, or a match official.  Vettel was out-of-line in what he said; he went beyond simply venting his frustration, and he directed his tirade at both a rival driver and race director Charlie Whiting.  That's not on – and he, too, was rightly punished.

But for me, these events have thrust the issue of broadcasting team radio communications back into the spotlight once again.  It's a fascinating part of watching racing, and it lets us see another side of drivers who, in interviews, are always so composed and 'rehearsed'.  But it can also be a double-edged sword, in that respect…

I have remarked before on the difference between Lewis Hamilton's language in interviews and his demeanour over team radio.  Out of the car, Hamilton is always careful to say all the right things – always thanking his engineers, paying tribute to 'the team', and so on.  But in middle of racing, with a hundred other things going on around him at two hundred miles-per-hour, he isn't thinking of maintaining his carefully polished media image, and we sometimes hear him snap at his engineers on the pit wall, getting cross that they're either not giving him enough information, or that they are distracting him by talking when he's trying to race.

And it isn't just Hamilton.  I often feel that the way drivers speak to their engineers over the radio differs markedly from the pro forma lip service they pay the team in interviews and press conferences, when they know the eyes of the world are upon them.

One of the reasons I've not taken to the relatively recent development of having a 'celebrity' interviewing the drivers on the podium after the podium ceremony is how staged and 'fake' it all feels.  They don't talk about racing; they rattle off some prepared jokes, and repeat the same platitudes about 'atmosphere' and 'fans' that we've all heard a thousand times before.

But I, and many others, want to see real people and real racing.  And real people get angry.  Team radio has given us some memorable racing moments, and not just this last weekend – who remembers "Leave me alone! I know what I'm doing!" for example? – but I do worry that maybe it results in putting drivers under a microscope a little too much.

In these situations, it is almost as if we are broadcasting the driver's internal monologue to the whole world.  Other sports don't do this – sportsmen might get angry, but their thoughts and words are not broadcast live, 'in the moment', like that.

I don't want to 'sterilise' drivers, in pursuit of the perfect image, or because teams are worried about offending people.  I don't want every last drop of passion and emotion wrung out of them, in case they say the wrong thing.  Bland automatons in shiny race suits are the last thing this sport needs.  I don't think that's what anyone wants – but too much scrutiny of radio communications could mean we end up there, all the same.

The stewards were right to punish Sebastian Vettel for his outburst.  He crossed the line, and that behaviour cannot be acceptable in F1.  But I very much hope this won't lead to yet another area of racing feeling too 'scripted'.  Let's keep racing – and drivers – real.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

I'm Only Happy When It Rains

Garbage once sang “I’m only happy when it rains”. A sentiment Norwich City fans seem to have coopted as their own. An unofficial slogan for the club’s perennially downbeat supporters, who stalk the internet looking for reasons to be miserable.

Relegation at the end of last season was a bitter pill to swallow; this season, by contrast, seems to be going quite well so far. So why does that feel like such a controversial statement to make?

A situation which has played on my mind for some time was crystallised by a conversation I overheard at the gym a few weeks back. The day before, Norwich has gone to Goodison Park to play an away fixture against Everton in the League Cup; we won – and won fairly comfortably – but the manner of the win was also very encouraging. It was our first victory at Goodison for more than twenty years, in a cup competition (which we traditionally don’t perform well in). At that point Everton were sitting in second place in the Premier League. The much maligned Steven Naismith got himself back on the scoresheet, and one of our brightest young talents, who has come up through the club’s youth academy, Josh Murphy scored a brilliant solo goal as well.

So, I was surprised at the conversation I heard. A conversation in which two people clutched at ant straw they could find to diminish and undermine this result. A conversation in which everything good about the game was explained away and loftily dismissed, while tiny errors were magnified and fixated upon.

“Oh, but Everton didn’t put out their strongest side…” “Oh, but Naismith was fortune to get his goal…”

I’m not going to say that supporters have no right to complain when they see disappointing results, sub-par performances, or feel let down by the club. But this was a performance worthy of praise, and a result which saw us progress to the next round of the cup. Is it so hard just to enjoy that? There will be plenty of legitimate reasons to be unhappy in the future – there always are – without seeking them out now.

The Everton game is not an isolated incident. After every victory (yes, victory) I will read comments about how we were “lucky”, we “scraped by”, we “didn’t deserve it”… When players make mistakes, or when the manager doesn’t get his tactics spot-on, fans are on their backs for it no time – sometimes for good reason. And yet when we win games, it is dismissed as “luck”, or treated as though it’s some sort of anomaly (even when we have – at the time of writing – an 83% unbeaten record in the league this season, having failed to score points only twice so far since the beginning of August).

Why are we – as a club, as supporters – so keen to minimise success, and to find a reason – any reason at all – to downplay good results and act as thought they somehow don’t count? While at the same time amplifying and parading our failures around as vindications of our own malcontented narcissism?

Why do some fans feel they can only celebrate winning with a caveat attached? We are we so keen to seek out the negatives in any situation?

In Alex Neil, we have a promising young manager who has won a Play-Off final, who has just been awarded Championship Manager Of The Month for September, and who has (at the time of writing) an overall 86% undefeated record at the Championship level.  And yet, a non-trivial number of fans frequently describe him as 'clueless', 'out-of-his-depth', and so on…  He 'gets lucky'; he's not 'proven'; 'the jury's still out'.  He'll always be blamed for losing a game, yet it seems people will go to extraordinary lengths not to give him credit for the good results which, statistically, are actually the norm.

That’s not say that there aren’t negatives in games, that the manager never makes mistakes, or that we can’t improve as a team. Several times this season, we seem to have ‘switched off’ towards the end of the game when we’re in the lead, and let in goals late on – we got away with it against Cardiff and against Wolves, but not against Newcastle. We’ve been awarded penalties which we haven’t converted into goals – whether that’s down to poor penalty-taking, or good goalkeeping on the part of the opposition ‘keeper (the latter of which we have no control over) is maybe up for debate, but we can’t afford to let it become a pattern of missed opportunities.

Fans have every right to be concerned about these issues – particularly if they happen more than once. I have flagged up both of these things on social media. I know we’re not perfect. Besides, part of sport is that no matter how well you’re doing, you’re always trying to improve.

But when you dominate a game, score good goals and win comfortable, and supporters’ comments after the match appear to fixate only on the minor details which could have been better – seeming to ignore completely the huge bulk of positives in the game – that strikes me as a little odd. Having high standards is one thing; being determined to look for the bad points, while chalking up anything good to luck or opposition errors is just bizarre.  Sure, it's completely understandable to point out what needs improving – but how is it so difficult also to acknowledge that, generally, we're doing pretty well right now?

Even if we were to register a ‘perfect’ performance in the league – playing well, dominating possession, scoring four or five goals, keeping a clean sheet, not even allowing the other side to register a shot on target – I would expect to see negative comments… We were lucky; the opposition were weak; that level of performance won’t be good enough if we get promoted…

This season is far from over; there is still an awfully long way to go. Our early results have put us in a very strong position, but we haven’t been promoted yet – and yet already I have seen people predicting another relegation from the Premier League next season… For me, this speaks to mindset of far too many supporters; even acknowledging a fairly self-evident fact – that we are clearly one of the early promotion contenders this season – is couched in negative terms, seeing it simply as a gateway to future disappointment rather than anything to be excited about in itself.

Trying to predict football results two years into the future is a fool’s errand, and yet for some there seems to be something cathartic about looking for any excuse to do the club down, make the worst of every situation, and seek out reasons to be unhappy where there ought not be any. They cannot, and will not, ever be satisfied; the idea of giving the team, or the manager, any credit for their success is so alien to them that they simply cannot bring themselves to do it. They’re only happy when it rains.

To me, that doesn’t sound like ‘support’ at all.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

#F1 – Championship in the balance

As we reach the mid-season break in the 2016 Formula 1 racing calendar, I think it's fair to say the pendulum has swung emphatically back Lewis Hamilton's way.  Although Nico Rosberg's early dominance left Hamilton 43 points adrift in the title race – as Sky F1 commentator Martin Brundle described the German as a man "who cannot stop winning" – the incident between the two of them in Barcelona seems to have been a tipping point, allowing Hamilton to seize the momentum and precipitating a run of rotten bad fortune for Rosberg.

But such changes of fortune are, to an extent, to be expected in sport.  Any rivalry will ebb and flow – and although Hamilton has now overtaken his teammate to pull 19 points ahead as we go into the summer break, this year's World Championship still hangs very much in the balance.  Rosberg can fight back.

What he can't fight is an uneven playing field, and I fear that inconsistency in the way the rules are applied, and the way drivers are penalised for breaking the rules, is having too much of an impact on results.  Whoever ends up becoming the World Champion this year, that should not be because of discrepancies in the stewards' decisions, or slapdash application of regulations – as in any sport, the rules must apply equally and fairly to all, and every effort must be made to ensure that every driver is treated the same by those who decide what is fair racing and what isn't, and who hand out punishments when it is not.

At the moment, we are not seeing this.  We frequently see a driver penalised for a move a carbon copy of which another driver previously got away with.  And we are seeing the rules change from one weekend to the next; on track limits, radio communications, etc., the goalposts keep being moved.  This makes for race weekends where focus is being taken away from the action on track and diverted to lengthy discussions about the latest tweaks to the regulations – and it results in wheel-to-wheel racing where drivers are hesitant to make an overtaking move, as they cannot be sure whether their racing instinct will be applauded, or saddle them with a time penalty.

Uncertainty, inconsistency, and a completely lack of clarity – if you wanted a masterclass in how to ruin great racing, this is it.

Today at Hockenheim, Nico Rosberg was awarded a five second time penalty for an overtake on Max Verstappen, where it was deemed he "forced Verstappen off the circuit".  If those are the rules, then I suppose that's fair enough – but we have all seen other drivers make overtakes almost identical to Rosberg's, and not be punished in any way.  Perhaps most notably, Lewis Hamilton on Rosberg himself in the USA last year – the race at which the British driver clinched his third World Championship title.

One of these moves resulted in a five second time penalty.
The other warranted no action from the stewards.  Fair?

And speaking of Lewis Hamilton, a very interesting thing happened in Free Practice this weekend.  Hamilton was deemed to have been involved in an unsafe release from his pit box during the practice session; his punishment for this was a fine.  The only other time when a driver has been penalised with a fine for unsafe release in Free Practice – as opposed to being given a grid penalty or formal reprimand – was at the 2015 Brazilian Grand Prix, when the driver in question, Jolyon Palmer, couldn't be given a grid penalty because he was only a test driver doing a practice session and wouldn't be competing in the race anyway.

So why wasn't Hamilton given the same penalty that every other driver in that situation in recent years has been given?  Were the stewards just being soft on him?  Hamilton already has two reprimands this year; a third is serious – a guaranteed ten-place grid penalty.  But if other drivers got reprimanded for the same transgression, then he should too – otherwise, it simply amounts to special treatment.

I guess my big concern is that something like this will end up being the deciding factor in who gets the be World Champion this year – that the allocation of penalties is so random (and so completely baffling at times!) that a driver will end up being denied a race win or a Word Championship title because of shonky, off-the-cuff stewarding.  If we reach the end of this season, and we can look back and say "decision x was what meant that so-and-so won, or did not win, the title" that will not be in any way good for the sport.

It is time for transparency in rule-making, clarity of meaning, and consistency in application.  That is the only way we can ensure a level playing field for racing hard, but racing fair – and the only way we can ensure that the World Championship winner truly deserves his crown.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Disgruntled Liberal Democrats, have a word with yourselves

Plenty of this going around at the moment.  As David Cameron steps down as Prime Minister after six years at Number 10, his one-time coalition partners are clearly feeling a little left out.

In one sense, of course, this is entirely understandable; these things were Liberal Democrat manifesto promises, which were then delivered in government – they absolutely should take credit for making these policies happen.  But so should David Cameron.  After all, how far would these policies have got if the Lib Dems had tried to implement them on their own?

I have written before that I think the Lib Dems were very unfairly treated at last year's general election, and that history will generally be a lot kinder to Nick Clegg and his party's time in office than were the confused and angry public who seemingly couldn't get their heads around what 'coalition government' was actually all about.  But now, it is those same Lib Dems who seem to want to claim sole credit for government achievements between 2010-15; this is also not how coalition government works.

Ultimately, Cameron was the Prime Minister whose (coalition) government enacted policies like same-sex marriage.  It happened under his watch, and with his backing.  His actions as the leader of a coalition government will form a part of his legacy as Prime Minister; they will also form a part of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats' legacy, too – after all, the same thing can appear in more than one legacy.  Trying to take credit away from Cameron for a policy like same-sex marriage is as churlish as to try and take credit away from Clegg – it would not, after all, have happened without either of them.

Another 'achievement' of the coalition administration was the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011.  Another Lib Dem policy enacted by Cameron.  Maybe Lib Dem activists and politicians who campaigned for this piece of legislation would like to stop agitating for new Prime Minister Theresa May to call an immediate election to seek her own mandate for a second, and consider that it is their actions (or, at least, their Act) which have made this a whole lot less likely?

Monday, 27 June 2016

Jeremy Corbyn is the oldest 'Angry Young Man' in history

Billy Joel wrote that "There's always a place for the angry young man, with his working class ties and his radical plan, he refuses to bend, he refused to fall, and he's always at home with his back to wall…"

It is a song which could have been written specifically about Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.  The leader who will, despite losing two thirds of his Shadow Cabinet in under two days, still refuse to resign in the face of overwhelming criticism from within his own party.

"And there's always a place for the angry young man, with his fist in the air and his head in the sand…"

Corbyn is the embodiment of student politics.  He is the 'Occupy' movement made flesh.  He comes from a political tradition where people truly believe that change can be enacted simply by refusing to leave until you get what you want, and where negotiation and compromise – those bedrocks of sensible, grown-up politics – constitute 'selling out', treason, betrayal.

The mindset of such politics is that criticism can be defeated by shouting louder, stamping your feet harder, waving your placards higher and refusing to give an inch.  After all, why should you consider anyone else's point-of-view, when you truly know in your heart that you are right?

It is this intransigence and hubris which will lead him to cling grimly onto his position.  "And he'll go to the grave as an angry old man…"

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Choose your bogeyman

The politics of grievance requires a 'bogeyman'.  An all-purpose evil on which can be blamed everything that is wrong with life – and the only thing that stands between us and a vague promised utopia.

Bogeyman Politics asks you to believe that there is one simple cure for all of the interconnected problems of messy, complicated, fragile day-to-day life.  Can't get a hospital appointment?  Blame the Bogeyman.  Wages don't stretch far enough?  Blame the Bogeyman.  Can't get on the housing ladder?  Blame the Bogeyman.  Marriage breaking up?  Blame the Bogeyman.  It is a crass oversimplification, peddled by charlatans who want you to think that they alone, in this big scary world, are on your side.  It is a con.

For some, the Bogeyman is 'bankers', or 'neoliberalism'.  For others, 'Westminster'.  For many, it is 'immigration'.  For the majority of people who will vote to leave the European Union tomorrow, it is the EU that fills that role; the EU is the Bogeyman, responsible for everything bad about Britain, and the one and only thing that's holding us back from being truly great (or, if you are of a nostalgic bent, 'great again').

Real life is more complex than that.  More difficult than that.  Anyone selling you the idea you can fix all your problems with one fell swoop is not telling you the truth.

Which is why it is sad to see campaigners for the 'Remain' camp in the EU referendum rebutting the 'Leave' campaign's Bogeyman Politics with a few choice Bogeymen of their own.  All day today I have watched a steady stream of smug, supercilious Tweets and Facebook posts along the lines of "Oh, you think single issue x is to blame for everything bad? Ha! You fools! Can't you see that single issue y is to blame for everything bad…?"

No doubt the people posting this stuff think themselves very clever.  They aren't fooled by the narrative that the EU is the root cause of all our nation's problems!  They can see right through that!  They know what the true cause is.  But they have allowed themselves to be duped by a different narrative – one which is just as seductively simplistic, and just as destructively wrong.

As with most things, there is no one simple answer.  The 'Bogeyman' concept is attractive because it is comforting.  It is less frightening to be told you are a basically 'good' person who has been a victim of some malign conspiracy – and that you have it within your power to rise up and take back what is rightfully yours from those who have done you wrong – than that you are adrift on a rolling sea of entropy in the ever-changing, unforgiving, big wide world.  Having someone, or something, to blame – giving it a form, a name, a face – makes life easier to cope with.  At last, the question "Why do these things always happen to me?!" seems to have an answer.

It is an understandable, human reaction.  But political movements based on grievance, where politicians knowingly perpetuate the 'Bogeyman' narrative to mobilise great swathes of the general public, have a long and ugly track record of turning very nasty indeed.  And when campaigners for 'Remain' offer up an alternative Bogeyman as a focal point for the mystified anger of 'Leave' voters, they are guilty of it just the same.

The trouble (for both sides) comes afterwards – once the Bogeyman is slain.  The Bogeyman may have been defeated, but the problems of ordinary life have not gone away.  The hospital waiting times, the tax bills, the energy prices…  These things have not disappeared overnight.  The sunlit uplands of utopia glibly promised by the politicians who cynically played on people's fear of the Bogeyman to win votes seem as far away as ever.

And so, the search for a new Bogeyman must begin.  Something has to fill that void.  Something, or someone, has to be to blame.  Who do we think that might turn out to be?  When Britain votes to leave the European Union, and people's lives are not magically improved overnight, the public anger which did so much to drive the anti-EU movement won't just vanish – we should all be very concerned about what (or who) that ire might end up focused on next.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

#EUref – time to choose

There are now only five days to go until we in the UK vote on our continued membership of the European Union.  Frankly, it can't be over soon enough.

Whilst the campaign seems to have gone on forever, and the quality and tone of the debate has often been nothing short of cringeworthy, this is a big and important decision to make.  I can honestly say I've not been so conflicted about a political issue for a long, long time – I have been genuinely undecided for the majority of the campaign, and it is only really in the last week that I have begun to marshall my thoughts, and make up my mind.

I am planning to vote to 'Remain in the European Union'.  This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, because I feel any ideological attraction to the EU.  I am no fan of the European project, and there is much of it that I view with considerable suspicion – I am voting out of pragmatism, rather than any principled commitment to the EU – so I think it is worth explaining how and why I finally decided that I am leaning toward 'Remain'.

There are cogent, sensible, respectable reasons for wanting to leave the EU.  There is a very attractive vision of Britain outside the EU.  But sadly, I think the chances of a 'Leave' vote resulting in a Britain like that is practically nil.  The majority of 'Leave' supporters do not share my vision of post-EU Britain; the majority 'Leave' view is of an insular, curmudgeonly Britain which, liberated from the shackles of EU regulation, is free to be as bitter, intolerant and cantankerous as it pleases.

For me, if voting in the referendum included an opportunity to register my opinion on what direction the country should take post-Brexit, choosing 'Leave' would be much easier.  Without that option, I fear that any 'Leave' vote will automatically be taken as an endorsement of what we might term the 'Farageist' vision for the country after leaving.  That, I am afraid, is not something I am willing to put my name to.

Writing in the Guardian yesterday, Marina Hyde sums up one of the biggest issues I would have with voting to Leave:
There are many people I respect and admire voting leave – there are people in my family voting leave. I understand their reasons. But they must stomach the reality that a vote for leave will be taken by Farage and countless others as a vote for him, a vote for his posters, a vote for his ideas, a vote for his quiet malice, a vote for his smallness in the face of vast horrors. Is it worth it?
I'm really not sure that it is.

The EU has more than its fair share of faults and foibles.  It is certainly not an institution to which I feel any kind of emotional attachment; if I felt there was a good chance things would turn out OK afterwards, leaving it would cause me no pain.

'Remain' is the safer option.  'Remain' is a vote for continuation, not upheaval.  Despite what prominent Brexit activists might say, it is not 'scaremongering' to say that voting to 'Leave' is taking a leap into the unknown.  None of this means that Britain 'could not survive' outside the European Union, of course; 'Leave' campaigners who take a leaf out of the Scottish Nationalists' playbook by accusing those who point out these risks of 'talking Britain down' as being 'too small, and too poor' to prosper on our own, are tilting at straw men.  (And they probably know it, too.)

But just as I wrote last month that Jeremy Corbyn does not get to distance himself from the rest of the 'Remain' campaign and still be 'Remain', neither would I get to specify that my 'Leave' vote were somehow different from most of the people voting the same way.  No, my vote to 'Leave' would be lumped in with the votes of people from UKIP and Britain First – and it would be assumed that I had voted for the same thing they did, and that I want Great Britain to be the same the country they want it to be.

I don't.  And I don't hold out much hope for the voices of people like me being heard, in the event of a vote to leave the EU.  And that is why I think it will be best if I vote 'Remain'.

Of course Britain would prosper outside of the EU. Of course the EU isn't perfect. Of course it isn't racist to acknowledge that. But if you are voting 'Leave' for a more open, inclusive, positive, globalist Britain – as I would be, if I were to vote 'Leave' – you won't get it. We won't get it.

What we will get will be Nigel Farage and his ilk smugly parading around, pointing to the referendum result and declaring "See? We said most people in this country agreed with us! And look…!"

How ever little love I may have for the European Union, I really don't think I am prepared to vote for an option which will empower Farage and those like him to posture and preen and proudly hold my vote aloft as proof that the public shares their vision for Britain.

I don't share it. I don't endorse it. And I don't want – even accidentally – to get mixed up with those who do. I may not like the EU much, but I would rather vote to 'Remain' than see this brilliant nation turn into the type of country UKIP would like it to be, and know that I had had a hand in that.

Monday, 16 May 2016

#EUref: pick a side

A headline in yesterday's Telegraph that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will refuse to 'share a platform' with David Cameron when campaigning for Britain to remain in the European Union will have come as no surprise for anyone who has followed the rise of Corbyn, and seen him to be the lightweight, petulant egotist that he undoubtedly is.  However, it was – in my view – indicative of how widespread certain misconceptions about referendum campaigning have become.

In writing before about how the conflation of a national plebiscite with traditional party politics has seeped into the mainstream, I have laid much of the blame for this at the door of the SNP – but this way of thinking is becoming more and more prevalent across the political spectrum, and I think it bears another look.

He gets it…

For the benefit of those who haven't quite grasped this yet, it is worth making very clear that in a referendum, there are only two sides.  You do not get your own side, all to yourself.  This means that if you are a Labour MP or activist who is campaigning for 'Remain', you are on the same side as David Cameron; you are on the same side as George Osborne; you are on the same side as Theresa May; you are on the same side as Ryanair.  You may not like it, but you are – because, on this one issue (even if on nothing else), you want the same outcome as them.

You could avoid that by being a Labour MP or activist who is campaigning to 'Leave' the EU, of course.  But then you would be on the same side as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, George Galloway and Katie Hopkins.  Whether you like it or not.

It is a common obfuscation to claim that even if you agree with the Prime Minister that Britain should stay in the EU, you fundamentally disagree with him about what the EU should look like, and what Britain's role in the union should be – and that this makes your position distinct from his.

The referendum is not about that.  This is a single-issue vote; Remain, or Leave.  Pick a side.  There is no third option where you get to say "I'm basically Remain…  But not like he is!"  Remain is Remain; it's as simple as that.

This, after all, is surely the point of holding a referendum on the topic at all?  It (in theory, at least) allows the campaign to strip away all the other gumf and focus purely on the issue, getting away from the "we are the good people, and that makes us different from those bad people" bloviating that we see so often in day-to-day party politics.

In refusing to put aside his differences with the Prime Minister in order to campaign on their one point of common ground in the run-up to this vote, Corbyn shows us that keeping his image intact is more important to him than the cause he professes to support – and once again makes the conversation about him, rather than about the topic at hand.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

#F1 – Red Bull's woes

The talk recently has been of Ferrari being a team 'in crisis' – all of which has let the issues at Red Bull slip a little under the radar.  Performance has dropped off in the past couple of seasons, and Red Bull – a team which had become so accustomed to winning not so long ago – are now much more used to fighting midfield battles, and high-profile fallings out with longstanding engine supplies Renault have only compounded the team's decline.

However, Red Bull's problems have come to the fore in the past couple of days, as it was revealed that Max Verstappen will be promoted from the junior Toro Rosso team to drive for Red Bull for the rest of this season, in place of Russian Daniil Kvyat.

It is a decision which comes close to completely incomprehensible.  As I remarked on Twitter on Thursday when this news first broke, when even a current driver (and former World Champion) in the shape of Jenson Button is laying into a team's decision-making process, you have to think that something is going seriously wrong.
The decision is baffling for so many reasons.  Not least because, despite a rocky couple of races this season, Kvyat hasn't really done that much wrong.  He has made mistakes, yes – but no worse than plenty of other racing drivers have made.  He needs the opportunity to learn from those mistakes.

Two first lap incidents in consecutive races is maybe a sign that the team should sit down with him, have a chat about being slightly less aggressive into the opening corners of a race, and encourage him to race smarter and come back a stronger, more intelligent racer in the Grand Prix ahead.  It shouldn't be the end of his Red Bull career.

Of the current field of drivers, I am a big admirer of Romain Grosjean – whom I think is a huge talent, and a very exciting driver.  It wasn't that long ago, though, that he was having his own issues with incidents on the first laps of races – issues which were far more serious than Kvyat's this year have been.

I wrote at the time how Grosjean could be a force to be reckoned with if he could fix the first lap gremlins, and I like to think that this stance has been vindicated in more recent seasons.  Despite a two-race ban for causing a first lap crash Belgium in 2012, his team (then Lotus Renault) kept faith with him, and gave him a chance to come back from the race ban as demonstrate he had learnt his lesson, calmed down, and matured on track.  It should be clear, now, that this was the right decision by the Lotus team, as Grosjean made the most of that opportunity and went on to score points and podium finishes for them, becoming a respected figure on the F1 grid in the process.

I believe Red Bull should give Kvyat – who is still only young, and learning his trade in Formula 1 – the same opportunity.  His recent incidents have been unfortunate – and of course frustrating for Sebastian Vettel, who always seems to be on the receiving end of them! – but not serious enough in my view for Red Bull to replace him so summarily.  Of course, we don't know the whole story – there could be other issues going on behind the scenes which have contributed to Kvyat losing his seat at Red Bull – but on the face of it, the whole situation looks very harsh on the Russian.

The other consideration is the affect that this will have on Max Verstappen, the driver who will be replacing Kvyat after only one season in F1.  Verstappen (son of former F1 driver Jos Verstappen) has universally acknowledged to be a future star after his debut season with the Toro Rosso team last year.  He is young, talented, and has superb racing instincts.  He's not without his own incidents either, of course – normally brought about by inexperience, and the impetuousness of youth – but no one who watched the 2015 season could've failed to be impressed by the young dutchman.

The trouble with the stars of the future is that Formula 1 teams have an unfortunate habit of trying to make them the stars of now – often before they are ready.  It is something I think we have seen before, most recently with Sergio Pérez's disappointing season at McLaren.

Trying to promote young talent into teams with winning cultures and high expectations can end very badly indeed, and can damage the career of the young driver promoted before he was ready – the pressure of driving for Red Bull will be vastly more than the pressures of driving for Toro Rosso, and I fear Verstappen may struggle to cope with the hype of being 'the next big thing', and having to deliver results for a team with the recent history of success Red Bull has, at such a young age and so soon in his racing career.

Maybe Max Verstappen will rise to the challenge and will be on the podium before the end of this year.  If so, congratulations will certainly be in order!  But it is an enormous risk to pile pressure – particularly in such an unexpected and sudden way as this – on a young rookie driver, no matter how talented or hungry for success he might be.  I hope Red Bull don't live to regret this decision.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Both sides of the #Brexit debate are thoroughly winding me up

Yesterday’s fresh new crime fiction, The Incident Of The Churchill Bust, proved to be an illustrative, if irritating, episode in showing just how crass and puerile both side of the EU Referendum debate in this country are becoming.

Keen to discredit Barack Obama’s recent intervention in the referendum campaign – which saw Obama firmly endorse a vote to ‘Remain’ in the EU – and paint the President as embittered and anti-British, the ‘Leave’ side pushed a narrative in which he had ordered a bust of Winston Churchill to be removed from the Oval Office to to cop a snook at the United Kingdom.  In response, the ‘Remain’ side put about that this never actually happened, referring to it as a ‘myth’.

The truth of the matter, of course, was neither one thing nor the other.  Obama himself seems to have confirmed that he did in fact have one of the two Churchill busts in question removed – but that this was not out of any disrespect for Churchill, or for Britain generally.  And yet, both the Leavers and the Remainers have seized upon this completely innocuous, barely relevant story and wrung its neck until it appears to support their case.

With a full two months yet to go in this campaign, it is depressing to see both sides fixating on such a triviality.  If every tiny murmur of a story is going to make both camps work themselves into a lather simplifying and twisting each detail to make it appear favourable to their cause, I don't know how much more of this I'll be able to take; far from ‘engaging’ me in a question of national importance, such petty bickering over nothing makes me want to knock all their heads together and call the whole thing off.  Oh god, can’t it just end?

Friday, 22 April 2016

#F1 – Nico Rosberg deserves his early season success

It wasn't that long ago that I was beginning to think Nico Rosberg – talented racing driver though he undoubtedly is – would never win a Formula 1 World Championship.  It wasn't because he wasn't good enough (he quite clearly was) or had the right car – Mercedes GP has been the team to beat over the past few seasons.  But so often recently, he just hasn't quite seemed to have the ruthless 'edge' that a true champion needs.

Rosberg's success in the early part of this year is all the more remarkable because of this.  We are talking about a driver who has spent most of the last two years living and racing in the shadow of one of F1's most flamboyant and polarising characters – and one of its most naturally aggressive and stylish wheel-to-wheel racers – in Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton.  There is no question in my mind that, psychologically, this will have taken its toll on Rosberg.

Even in the final races of last season, when we were treated to a small preview of the Rosberg dominance that was to follow in 2016, it would've been easy to dismiss the German's six consecutive pole positions and three wins as being the result of Hamilton's subconsciously relaxing sightly having already secured his third world title.

But this year, with the scores reset, and everything up for grabs, Rosberg has been quickest out of the blocks in the first few races of the season.  A hat-trick of wins has allowed him to stamp his authority on the 2016 season right from the start.

Slow to start, and plagued by reliability issues, Hamilton has already slipped to a thirty-six points behind his team-mate, and with a whole lot of work to do already just to claw back that deficit and be in a position to defend his Championship title.

There will, of course, be plenty who are still to be convinced by Rosberg's credentials as a potential World Champion – and the job is far from done, despite his blistering start this year.  Expect Lewis Hamilton to fight back, as any great racer would, and expect Rosberg to have his own fair share of technical difficulties; this is not over yet, by any means.

But I think it is to Rosberg's credit that he has refused simply to play second fiddle to Hamilton for a third year running.  I wrote last year (in what is, incidentally, one of my most-read Formula 1 posts ever!) that, having been beaten to the title by his team-mate once, Rosberg looked as if he felt like a 'number two driver', and that translated to racing like one; I said he needed to rediscover his faith in his own abilities.

He is making a strong statement now that he has done that – that he is more than just a 'number two driver', but someone who has confidence in who he is and his own style of driving once again.  Now, he is out to show his critics that he does have 'what it takes' to challenge for supremacy within the team, and ultimately, to be a Champion – and I, for one, find that seriously impressive after so much time spent barely being able to get close to Hamilton.

All of which is setting up a very interesting situation for this season's racing.  And what could be better than that?  Well, to end on one of my constant refrains about racing – the best bit of all is that it is real, not artificially created in a lab by Bernie Ecclestone and his nefarious henchmen engineering the situation.  Thank heavens for that!

Friday, 1 April 2016

Sandwich review: The BLT from Pick Of The Pantry

The official description of this sandwich is:
Slices of Grilled Dry Cured Bacon, Tomatoes, Lettuce & Mayonnaise on Malted Wheatgrain Bread
I had never heard of this sandwich brand before, but even in the packaging this looked promising – two well filled sandwiches, and a good colour to the bacon which seemed to suggest quality ingredients.

I was not disappointed.  BLT is a classic sandwich recipe – almost every sandwich brand makes one.  I have tried many different BLTs over the years, but this is up there with the very best of them.  The bacon is crispy, but not tough, and nicely flavoursome; there is a good balance of ingredients, and no overmayonation; the salad is fresh and the bread is not soggy.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable sandwich experience, and I would buy this sandwich again.

Monday, 21 March 2016

What will Apple ruin this time?

Today, at ten o'clock PDT (five o'clock this afternoon), Apple will host a 'Keynote' event on their website.  I suppose I ought to be excited – after all, I use Apple products, and I love them.  Instead, I feel an impending sense of doom.

Ever since Apple killed off the iPod Classic (the only real iPod) in 2014, I have suspected that Apple CEO Tim Cook treats these events as some sort of social experiment, to see just how much Apple can inconvenience and irritate their consumers before they abandon the tech giant altogether and switch to another brand.  So, instead of launching exciting, innovative, cool new products – like they used to – Apple now focus on making people's lives harder by (for example) changing the shape of the chargers for their laptops and phones, so you constantly have to buy new ones, and it's harder to lend one to your friends.

The latest rumours about the next iPhone suggest that Apple will ditch the standard 3.5mm headphone socket, meaning everybody in the world will have to buy a new set of headphones in a non-standard size – because obviously, that's what consumers really want.  (Not.)  Y'know, the same way everyone was crying out for a computer which couldn't play DVDs.

So, what pointless and inconvenient change will Apple foist on us in their event later today?  Maybe they're going to launch a computer without a screen – and announce that they are ceasing support for screens within twelve months, and that soon no computers will have screens…

The Apple Watch will no longer have an actual strap, you'll just have to balance it on your wrist and keep very still; but at least it will now come with a set of Apple Cufflinks (for £179 extra), which will be WiFi enabled, for some reason…

And the new iOS for iPhone and iPad will change the direction you 'swipe' across the screen to unlock your device from left-to-right, to right-to-left.  Just because.

And we'll still all just nod along with it all, and queue up at their weird shiny stores to buy the stupid things.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Premier League thinking cap

Today's big news in the world of football.

"Does this go far enough?" asks BBC Sport, of the news that price caps are to be trialled in the Premier League.  My initial reaction was that actually, it goes rather too far.

It may be a controversial view amongst football fans, but I have long been of the opinion that football clubs, as privately-run organisations, should have the right to charge what they like for the services or commodities they offer (including tickets to matches) – and that what is a "fair" price for tickets is determined by what people are prepared to pay to go to a game.  I have vocally defended the rights of clubs to raise their ticket prices, on various football discussion forums – normally in the face of near unanimous opposition from fans whose view of the matter is romanticised, rather than rationalised – and told people that if they think the cost of tickets is too high, the answer is to stop buying them.  This, after all, is how markets work; prices are set by what people are willing to pay for whatever is on offer.

But the more I think about the matter, the more I question my steadfast defence of the laws of supply-and-demand, in regards to ticket sales in football.  I am instinctively pro-free markets, and against intervention and price control, I make no bones about that.  But how "free" really is the "market" for football tickets?

After all, can the laws of supply-and-demand be said to apply equally to football, when the attitudes of "consumers" are so fundamentally different from in other areas?  In light of today's news about price caps on away tickets, I have been giving the issue some considerable thought; I don't claim to have any conclusive answers about the economics of football, not by a long way, but I am going to set out a few of my thoughts on the topic here, and invite comments – to my mind, this is a fascinating discussion, which we (as football supporters) should be talking about more openly.

So, let us first consider a "standard" model for a "free" market.  The same products or services are offered by multiple providers, and this creates competition in the market – different companies producing, say, washing powder are competing with each other for the same customers, and this encourages each company to produce better quality washing powder at a lower cost, in the hope of attracting consumers to purchase their products over the rivals' similar offerings.

In this way, what washing powder is "worth" is set by the people buying it, not by the people selling it – if the majority of consumers decide they won't pay Company A's higher prices, because they don't think it offers any real benefits over the cheaper washing powder offered by Company B, Company A will be forced to lower their prices (or prove that their product is worth the extra money) due to a lack of sales as consumers choose Company B instead, believing their product to be better value.

Now, contrast this with the "market" for football clubs.  At first glance, it is similar to the washing powder scenario; there are many football clubs, all around the country, all offering the opportunity for consumers to pay to watch football – some offering higher quality, some offer lower quality, some have high prices, some have lower prices, etc.

But this is a false equivalency.  It assumes that "consumers" of football are simply paying to watch football, and that they don't much care who is playing – just as consumers of washing powder probably aren't too bothered by which logo is on the box, as long as their laundry is clean and fresh.  No, unlike washing powder users, for football supporters the "brand" (ie. which team is playing) is all important; a lifelong Spurs fan (for example) isn't suddenly going to go and watch Leyton Orient play instead because the tickets are a bit cheaper – for him the important thing isn't simply watching football, it is watching Spurs.  And there isn't another Tottenham Hotspur Football Club just down the road, offering consumers the chance to watch the same team play for slightly less money.  In other words, the football "market" has an illusion of "competition" – but in reality, each club actually has a monopoly over its own "brand".

Brand loyalty exists in many areas of the market.  But nowhere is it so visceral as when it comes to supporting a particular football club.  The feelings many football fans have for their club go well beyond simple loyalty to a certain "brand" – the idea of football supporters as consumers who are willing to switch supplier to save money is ludicrous.  As such, it is difficult to apply the laws of supply-and-demand to the football "market" in exactly the same way as other areas.

Of course, "consumers" still have a choice.  But that choice is a binary one – either go to the game, or don't go.  No one is being forced to pay for something they feel is not worth the asking price, and there is an argument to be made that "consumer power" (ie. not buying tickets deemed to be "overpriced", and thus sending a club a message about pricing structures through the medium of lost ticket revenue) is still a better way of tackling the issue than imposing price controls.  But football blurs the boundaries of the way people make decisions; there is a huge cultural element to football, and those of us who wish to approach this discussion with cerebral objectivity would be foolish to ignore that.

I imagine (with no data to hand) that a not insignificant proportion of football fans would still prioritise going to matches over what might rationally be considered more "essential" expenses, if it came to that choice.  That is how serious the game – and perhaps more pertinently, the club – is to many people.  A central tenet of support for free markets must surely be a belief that people are able to make their own decisions, and a commitment to allowing them to do so; is it not therefore necessary to at least attempt to understand how they make those decisions?

The "value" of football to many people is more than simply a monetary value.  Much as my natural response might be not to interfere, and to allow the free market to take its course, I am forced to accept that the nature of football, and it's importance to many people, means the market choices may not truly be "free".

That is not to say that I am wholeheartedly endorsing the price cap on away tickets in the Premier League – I think there could be complications that arise from this, and that it could end up creating as many problems as it solves – but even if it goes against my instincts, more in-depth thought on the matter has meant I have had to concede that there is at the very least a decent case for giving it a try.  It will be very interesting to monitor the situation over the next few seasons, as the price cap is trialled, and then reevaluate things.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

How the SNP ruined referenda for all of us

As a bit of a politics nerd (yes, I admit it), I have been looking forward to the pageantry around this referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.  There’s something about these political events – whatever they are ultimately about – which thrills and fascinates.

The debates!  The interviews!  The triumphs!  The cock-ups!  Staying up all night eating curry and watching David Dimbleby filling time as the results slowly filter in!  I love it.

But this excitement has been spoilt somewhat by those killjoys in the SNP.  Ever since the Scottish people’s own referendum on their national future in September 2014, those who campaigned for Scotland to leave the UK have made it their business to ruin not just this referendum, but all referenda.  Never again can we sip from the cup of a national plebiscite, without tasting the taint of Scottish nationalism.

The simple fact is that the tactics of the SNP and their supporters have changed the way that referenda in this country are fought – and, in my view, not for the better.

But in order to understand how this affects the upcoming referendum on the EU, let us first briefly examine the two key faults at the core of the way the SNP operates.

The first is that the SNP and its party machinery are seemingly unable to view politicians and activists (of any party) as individuals.  This is a topic I have touched on before.  The SNP is the only party in the UK whose rules actively prohibit its MPs from speaking out against party policy.  There can be no ‘rebels’; no dissenters; no brave individuals who put principles before career prospects to defy the party whip.  Not in the SNP.

No, the gradually dwindling numbers of SNP MPs in the House Of Commons (we all know it started out as fifty-six, but two have already been suspended by the party…) speak with one voice on every issue.  All of the (almost) one-and-a-half million Scottish voters who chose the SNP at the 2015 General Election might just as well be represented in Westminster by one single person, voting on all issues according to Nicola Sturgeon’s orders.  (Maybe that’s something they should look into?  It might at least save a bit on Parliamentary travel expenses.)

The second is the SNP’s unshakeable belief that the only thing which really matters is Scotland’s independence.  Any other political problems are subsumed by this one great issue.  Tax?  Health?  Education?  Infrastructure?  It doesn’t matter what the challenges facing these policy areas – all will be solved in the blink of an eye, come Independence Day.  And, until independence, there is nothing that can be done about any of them, so they may as well go hang.

These two central conceits were underlined for me recently by a conversation I had with an SNP activist while a protest march against the Trident nuclear weapons system was occurring in London.  I challenged something that he wrote on Twitter about the future of Trident; his response was, weirdly, about Scotland.  Apparently, I was wrong about Trident because “I didn’t understand the Scottish people”; I tried to say that I wasn’t talking about Scotland as a nation, or as a people, but that I was responding to what he had posted on the topic of nuclear missiles – but he was unable to make the distinction.

Within a few Tweets, our Nationalist friend had successfully twisted my disagreeing with one specific thing he had said about Trident into me being somehow anti- the entire country of Scotland and its population.  Because no issue, and no policy, can be discussed without it inexorably transforming into The Scottish Matter.  And because ‘The Scottish People’ (whose ‘mindset’ I was assured I ‘didn’t understand’) are one homogeneous groupthinking bloc, rather than over five million individuals representing a plurality of opinion across all areas of policy.  Such is the SNP mentality: everything is about Scotland, always – and all Scots think alike, on every issue.

So where does this leave our European plebiscite?  A referendum in this country has traditionally transcended ordinary party politics.  Faced with an issue deemed to be of such burning national importance that it is not enough for our elected representatives simply to vote on our behalves in Parliament, as is normal for most day-to-day political decisions, the usual rules and ways of operating are thrown out of the window.  The party whips are suspended, and the campaign is not split along party lines like at a general election.  Strange alliances are forged – fractious, often, but motivated.  This is not ‘politics as usual’.

The SNP, it appears, cannot understand this.  The fact that the ‘Better Together’ campaign – which pushed for, and eventually won, a majority ‘No’ vote in Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014 – was supported by all three of the major UK political parties has become a standard campaigning tool for the Nationalists.  That Labour (traditionally the SNP’s main opposition in Scotland) had campaigned on this issue alongside the Conservatives makes them – apparently – ‘no better than the Tories’.  (And what worse insult could there possibly be, for anyone whose understanding of politics reaches no further than the end of his own nose?!)

Once again, we see how the importance of the independence debate sweeps aside all other concerns, in the eyes of the SNP faithful – that Labour and the Tories agree on Scotland’s constitutional future makes them politically identical, no matter how many other major policy areas they vehemently disagree on.  “Who cares if Labour and the Conservatives disagree on far more policies than they agree on?!”, say the SNP supporters; they agree on the only one which actually matters, so they can be lumped in together for all time.

(Of course this ignores even the basic maths of a referendum.  With only two possible outcomes to choose from – ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ – there is bound to be some overlap in campaigning.  There are simply not enough answers on the ballot paper for all the political parties involved to have one each, so you will, at some point, inevitably find yourself on the same side as politicians who are normally your opponents.  But then, figures aren’t exactly the SNP’s strong point, are they…?)

“Well, what a short-sighted, obstinate, overly simplistic view of party politics!” you might very well be thinking now.  Well, yes.  Exactly.  And yet this pervasive, barely-literate nonsense is now shaping the way our politicians are gearing up for the referendum on the European Union.

Keen not to be tarred with the same brush as their sworn political enemies, simply because they happen to feel the same about one point of policy, MPs now seem reticent to engage in the very cross-party campaigning which makes a referendum campaign different, and worth having at all.  The fear of ‘sharing a platform’ with one’s usual political enemies – and the damage this could do to one’s own political image and career in the future – is distracting from the more pressing matter of actually campaigning for the result one believes is best for the country.

If this – or any – matter is of enough significance to be put to the population as a whole to vote on, rather than being left to representatives in the Commons and the Lords, is it not also important enough to put aside party political bickering and campaign alongside whoever happens to want the same outcome as you?

In a referendum such as this, you don’t get to choose your allies – you work with whoever happens to agree with you as to the best path for the country to take.  And you should reasonably expect to do so without the threat of this being held up as a stain on your character in years to come, once the referendum is over and political life has gone back to normal.

If some cabinet ministers believe Britain should remain in the EU, while other ministers feel strongly we should leave, they should be free to campaign on whichever side of the argument they wish.  It is not ‘weak’ of the Prime Minister to allow his ministers this freedom – and it is not very edifying to see politicians from other parties attempting to portray him as such, choosing petty political points-scoring over the matter at hand.

And if a politician from any party finds himself by some happenstance on the same side of this debate as a politician from another party (which – as I have said – is mathematically certain to happen, given the limited number of options for campaigning), this does not suddenly make the two politicians, or their two parties, indistinguishable from each other on all matters.  It would be sheer folly to suppose it did.  And yet, that has been the SNP’s take on things for over two years, now – and it is a view starting to permeate the mainstream national consciousness.

I can’t help but feel sad that the SNP’s small-minded, parochial mentality is being allowed to set the agenda for a national question about which many people feel very strongly – and as a result, we are all being denied a proper referendum campaign which truly cuts across, rather than entrenches, party lines.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Suit up!

Why does it matter how Jeremy Corbyn dresses?  Given all the many other things of which one can accuse the leader of the Labour Party, his somewhat scruffy attire is surely one of the least objectionable things about him?

Well, maybe so.  But the outrage of Corbyn's supporters over David Cameron's remarks in Parliament during Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions is still opportunistic, hypocritical opprobrium of the highest order.

Those who say that politics should be about ideas and policies, not about appearance – and that Cameron should be engaging with Corbyn's arguments, rather than making snide remarks about how he dresses – might have a point if they hadn't spent the past six years taking every opportunity to bring up irrelevant personal issues such as which school the Prime Minister went to, along with endless tedious references to the Bullingdon Club, photos of the Prime Minister in formal white tie attire (which are evidently supposed to make us think badly of him, for some reason), and an endless stream of increasingly tiresome 'PigGate' 'jokes' on social media.

The left-wing journalist and commentator Steve Topple wrote in The Independent that Cameron's use of 'personal attacks' against Corbyn proved the Prime Minister had 'lost it'.  A quick check through Mr Topple's Twitter account reveals he's not above a few 'personal attacks' himself.  It takes a special sort of unscrupulous chain-puller to deploy those kind of tactics against someone for years, then get on your high horse the moment it is returned in kind.

But all of this rather misses the point.  Because actually, Corbyn's appearance does matter.

Maybe it doesn't matter very much.  Maybe it matters an awful lot less than Trident or Hamas or austerity or housing or anything like that.  But it does matter.

Partly, of course, because how you choose to present yourself to the world matters.  For anyone.  Your clothes, your hair, the way you speak, how you act – all of these things send an instant message to people about what kind of person you are.  In politics, where so much of the job is about communicating well, it is foolish to assume these things have no significance.  As in any job, if you want people to take you seriously, start by taking yourself seriously – and show up looking like you actually give a damn.

But also because, as Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn is lining himself up as a potential next Prime Minister himself.  He is asking an electorate to look at him, and choose him to be the person who represents Britain on a global stage.  That's not a trivial thing.

Polling has shown us that one of the reasons Labour lost last year's general election is because the public simply didn't see Ed Miliband as a Prime Minister-in-waiting – and nobody could say he wasn't trying.  In his ill-fitting, shabby brown jacket that looks like he picked it up in an Oxfam shop, voters don't see Jeremy Corbyn as someone who can go to the United Nations, or the G20, and make people take Great Britain seriously.  Facing David Cameron across that dispatch box is an audition to be more than just a backbench MP agitating for fringe causes – to be a statesman.  And Corbyn is not coming off well.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

What do we gain from #Brexit?

We know, now, the date of Britain's referendum on membership of the European Union – 23rd June.  Soon, the campaigning will begin in ernest, as politicians attempt to convince us either to 'Remain' a member, or 'Leave' the EU.

Personally, I am undecided on how I will vote.  I can see good arguments on both sides – and I can see wild hysteria and condescension on both sides too.  However, it's my view that the burden of proof is on those who wish to 'Leave'.

The lawyer and legal commentator David Allen Green writes on his blog Jack Of Kent that he is 'neutral' about 'Brexit', observing that the referendum's outcome will make little difference to law and policy, on a practical level.  Neutral, perhaps – but in reality this is a de facto argument to 'Remain'.  If things will be basically the same either way, why would we go through all the hassle of leaving, and all the tremendous upheaval that will entail?  Unless we can be fairly sure that getting out of the EU will tangibly improve life for most people in Britain, aren't we better off just staying as we are?

To my mind, 'Brexit' is not a matter of life-and-death.  The UK will basically be fine, whatever happens.  For all that the zealots on both sides of the argument would have us believe otherwise, neither result will truly be a catastrophe.  Maybe I will lose some friends by saying that – but friendship shouldn't be contingent on sharing a particular viewpoint on the European Union, should it?

But as I say, the onus is on the 'Leave' camp to make their case – and unless they can convince me of some very real benefits of leaving the EU (and I am still open to being persuaded), I shall end up as 'Remain' by default.

Maybe this seems uncaring, or half-hearted; a rather uninspiring way to make a decision about the future of the country.  But if it would be a touch unfair to say this is a vote about minutiae, it is at least a vote about something which few people really see as the crucial matter of our time.

For those of us who follow politics closely, it's a chance to spend a second year in a row geekishly obsessing over exit polls and sitting up all night eating takeaway food and watching David Dimbleby looking for something to say to fill in time – however, I think the wonks who inhabit the fringes of political society for whom Europe has always been a burning issue seriously overestimate the number of people who hold strong, passionate opinions about the EU.

To large amounts of people, the European Union matters vastly less than those who shout the loudest on either side of the debate could possibly comprehend.  Plenty of people are, like me, quite happy muddling along as we are – unless the case emerges that 'Brexit' would leave us decidedly better off.  Perhaps the initiative in this referendum campaign will ultimately be seized by whoever is the first to grasp this.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Eighteen awesomely quirky ways to show someone you love them this Valentine’s Day

Dinner and a movie?  Yawn.  A dozen red roses?  Snore.  Scented candles?  Oldest trick in the book.  These days, if you want to impress that special person in your life, you have to pull out all the stops and do something different.  Dating is hard, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to stand out from the crowd when it comes to making your feelings known.  My handy list of eighteen awesomely quirky ways to show someone you love them this Valentine’s Day should give you some ideas.

  1. Breakfast in the shower.
    Everyone serves breakfast in bed – surprise her with a plate of her favourite breakfast while she relaxes in the shower instead (toast not recommended).
  2. Hire a skywriter.
    Write her name across the skies in ten-foot-high letters of coloured smoke, for the ultimate grand gesture.  Or, better yet, her National Insurance Number – if you know that, that proves you really know her well.
  3. Valentines cards are so cliché!
    Instead, carve ‘I Love You!’ into the side of a courgette.
  4. Remember, love rewards originality.
    When you pick her up for your date in the evening, don’t go in the car – turn up on a Segway.
  5. Make journeys mean something!
    If you do take the car, reprogramming her SatNav so the names of all the towns are your name will remind her of how your love is everywhere.
  6. Get her a gift she’d never think to get herself…
    …something no one else has got – like her very own, working printing press.
  7. Subvert expectations.
    Everyone buys flowers.  Turn an old Valentine’s Day classic on its head by getting her wholemeal flour instead.
  8. Learn Flemish.
    Foreign languages are sexy.  Conduct the whole evening in Flemish.  She’ll be putty in your hands.
  9. Discover her an element.
    Give her something totally unique – a new element on the periodic table, named after her.
  10. Make her mayor of Walsall.
    Power is sexy.  Especially local government power in a borough in the West Midlands.
  11. Make yourself taller.
    Everyone wishes their partner were taller.  Yes, everyone.  This Valentine’s Day, why not make that wish come true?
  12. Plan your future together.
    Show her you’re in it for the long haul.  Hire actors who look like the two of you to enact scenes from your future together – your wedding; your children’s graduations; you crying at her funeral following her tragic and unexpected death while engaged in a top-secret government mission off the coast of Norway.
  13. Make memories that will last forever.
    What does everyone want to hang in their living room?  A framed selfie with Stoke City and England right-back Glen Johnson.  His agents are Stellar Football Ltd.
  14. Build her a treehouse.
    Tell her she is in charge of who is or isn’t allowed in.
  15. Do the gardening.
    Remember, it’s a short step from ‘weeding’ to ‘wedding’.
  16. Stare into the eyes of Persephone, Queen of The Underworld.
    Prove your bravery by meeting the baleful, unflinching gaze of the Greek goddess who carries into effect the curses of men upon the souls of the dead.
  17. Turn her flat into the ultimate playground.
    Install a roundabout in her kitchen and replace her sofa with a see-saw.  Everyone loves their partner to show their fun side every once-in-a-while.
  18. Clone her.
    What better way to say “I can’t get enough of you”…?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Should Norwich sack Alex Neil?


I suppose I could leave it there – and this will have been the most straightforward, stress-free thing I've ever written.  But I imagine most people are expecting me to go on and explain why we should keep faith with Alex Neil, despite a recent run of poor form which has seen us sink into the bottom three of the Premier League table…

Let's start with something that should be obvious, but oddly never seems to be: sacking the manager is not a 'silver bullet' that fixes everything instantly.  Of course, I have written about this before, but that doesn't make any difference; as soon as you lose a couple of games, people start murmuring about sacking the manager, as if that always cures everything – if that were the case, clubs would have twenty different managers every season.  They don't, because that would be absurd.  Knee-jerk sackings are not the answer – and if you're the sort of person who would see their team lose and immediately reach for the P45 at the final whistle, without a moment's thought, you maybe need to reevaluate how you make decisions.

This view is a bizarre extension of the 'Something must be done!' attitude which sadly pervades many areas of life at the moment.  Anything that happens is met with a chorus of demands to ban something, remove something, change something, legislate for something…  Because something must be done!  Regardless of what that 'something' is.  It is the response of a feeble mind – and it won't help our club.

But let's move on from there.  Let's assume that we've got past reflexive demands for action-for-action's-sake, and decided that a change of manager actually might be no bad thing, on its own merits.  Before we do anything, we need to have a replacement lined up who is better.  Not 'just as good' – and certainly not worse! – but a guaranteed step up in quality from the manager we currently have.  And we need to be sure that this person is not only a better calibre of manager than the incumbent, but is available to start immediately, and would be willing to take a job at Norwich (a relegation-threatened club with, in Premier League terms, a relatively small budget).

So who is there who fits that bill?  If no names spring alacritously to mind, I'm not too surprised.  I can think of top-level managers who are out-of-work – but would they want to come to Norwich?  I can think of managers whose services we probably could secure – but would they really be better than Alex Neil?  I'm not convinced.  And unless both of those stipulations are met, we're better off doing nothing at all.

Oh, how short are the memories of some football supporters…

But what of Alex Neil himself?  Even if a good manager is available, and happy to start work tomorrow…  Does Alex really deserve the sack?!  This is a manager who came into the club midway through the season last year, when our promotion challenge looked to be fading, and turned things around.  We all remember the euphoria of our Play-Off Final day out at Wembley, don't we?  He did that.

This is the manager who got us promoted to the Premier League.  This is the manager who got a point away to Liverpool; the manager who got a point at home to top four Arsenal; the manager who beat Manchester United on their own turf.  That deserves recognition.

Yes, he has made mistakes – he is only thirty-four years old, and he is still learning his craft while having to adapt to a level higher than any previous challenge he has encountered in his fledgling managerial career – but he has potential and ambition aplenty, and has never been under any illusions about how tough a league the Premier League is.  Comments like 'out of his depth' or 'lost the plot' are harsh, to say the least.

It is unreasonable not to permit a young manager still finding his feet to make errors.  How else does one learn?  Not only is it unreasonable, though, it is stupid.  It is illogical.  Those mistakes, more often than not, stem from inexperience.  How does one gain experience?  Not by being sacked.

At this rate, the 'sacking culture' in modern football will cut off far too much promising young coaching talent at the knees.  Where will the next generation of football managers come from?

In ten years' time, people will look at the Premier League and ask: "Why are there so few talented British coaches managing at the top level?  Why is there no new blood in management in this country?"  Because they were sacked after four games in charge by ruthless CEOs acceding to the demands of unforgiving fans who cared more about exacting their pounds of flesh than looking to the future of either their own club, or the sport of football as a whole.

Alex Neil is a young manager who deserves his chance.  Norwich City need to give it to him.  And – who knows? – there is opportunity yet for that faith to be repaid.  Time has not run out; panicking now solves nothing.

Addendum (added Monday, 8th February, following various discussions on the topic):

Those who would favour Alex Neil's immediate removal have cautioned me more than once about the dangers of the club "leaving it too late" to sack him.  It is an argument – and an expression – which I abhor.  Even leaving aside the arrogance of thinking you are the person who can tell with absolute certainty when the optimum time would be for the club to act, what baffles me about this line of argument is that that it seems to skip over the question of whether or not Alex Neil should be sacked; it assumes that it is self-evident that he should be, and that the only matter left to settle is when.  It is an assumption which speaks to the central conceit of this outlook – that sacking the manager is always the answer.

The mindset seems to be that a manager's sacking is inevitable; that the only question around the issue is not "if" he should be sacked, but "when" to do it; and that sooner is always better.  This cannot be good for the club, or for the sport.  That is not a healthy attitude to have, and the worry here is that we will creep inexorably towards a farcical scenario where it is standard procedure to sack the manager after every loss, most managers last only a few weeks in a job, and the pool of managerial talent dries up completely.