The PM becomes everything he once railed against

From rebellious child to Chief Nanny within 12 months – what happened?

Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson recently celebrated a full year in office. It’s been a pretty eventful year, starting with the culmination of a long battle to remove the previous incumbent, through a fraught general election (which he of course won handsomely), the official departure of the UK from the EU and now a global crisis of historic proportions.

It’s a job he always wanted, apparently from early childhood, and so achieving the goal should have been momentous. And maybe it was for a short while, but it seems the enormity of what he had taken on hit him early, and hit him hard.

The arrival of Johnson into Number 10 and the subsequent defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party heralded a new dawn in a politics that had been characterised by thin margins and difficult backbenches for the previous 10 years. He could govern freely. But what was it all really for? Why did he want it? For what point and purpose was he to obtain this office and level of power?

We all know who and what Jeremy Corbyn was. He never hid it and never really changed, even as the decades went by. It’s not difficult to imagine what a Corbyn premiership would have looked like, especially if he had a whippable majority the likes of which Johnson now enjoys. Whatever your view on the guy, he had principles and plans. We can imagine the country’s relationship with Israel would have changed significantly, rail companies would have started to move into public ownership, taxes would have risen, wealth taxes introduced, private schools abolished, the works.

But turning back to the chap who actually won – what does he stand for? What does he believe? And why does he want this job? When he got into Number 10, what was the driving vision, the force, the true goal of being there? What troubled him so greatly about the state of the nation that he was determined to lead it? What made him tick? Well, it’s difficult to pinpoint. But surely there are clues in his background and writing?

Most notoriously, he apparently penned two articles for the Telegraph before the referendum campaign kicked off – one in favour of Leave, one in favour of Remain. There are charitable readings of this, there are slightly less charitable ones. But the plain fact remains – he didn’t know.

In fairness, once he had chosen, he stuck to it, and continues to do so. But this is surely due more to political reality than any real conviction on the matter. He had readily and viciously attacked Britain’s membership of the EU in the past – but it suited him just fine back then, when it was all easy and hypothetical and grew his audience. Then it became easier to be its defender when he obtained office, so he did that. Does it bother him that much?

And then we come to the latest drive to ‘combat obesity’. I make no remark on the validity of this strategy, the requirement for it, nor even whether this is something that should or should not be happening. But again, less than a year into securing the top job, he shows all his previous utterances to be mere vapour.

One would have got the impression from his many columns and writings on the topic that Mr. Johnson was not just an advocate of the freedom of the individual, but positively rabid on the subject of so-called ‘nanny state’ intervention. Yet the second he takes a briefing from PHE on the matter, he’s a convert. What drives this? And how did that happen so fast?

As recently as July of 2019, he promised a review of so called ‘sin taxes’, vowing to end the “continuing creep of the nanny state”. He said the new taxes would “clobber those who can least afford it”.

Looking back to his column history, in 2004 he wrote a piece headlined “Face it: it’s all your own fat fault”. In it, he argued that “the more the state tries to take responsibility for the problem, the less soluble the problem will become”. Seems pretty straightforward. But years ago, right?

A couple of years later, he attacked Jamie Oliver for trying to introduce more nutritious food into schools. “If I was in charge I would get rid of Jamie Oliver and tell people to eat what they like”. Well now you are in charge, Mr Johnson. He allegedly also said of mothers who were pushing ‘unhealthy’ food through the railings of their children’s schools, “I say let people eat what they like. Why shouldn’t they push pies through the railings?”

He also used his Telegraph column to rail against the ‘cack-brained’ EU plan to introduce compulsory child booster seats up to the age of 12, claiming they were “poking their noses into the back seats of our cars”. Compulsory face coverings anyone? No state intervention there, no siree.

Perhaps an inkling as to how he might deal with a national health emergency came in 2012 when he penned a column headlined “To swim, perchance to drown, is an undeniable human right”. He was responding to a Port of London decision to ban swimming in the Thames without a permit. The driving message was that risk taking is part of life and that people should be allowed to do so without the nanny state wagging it’s bony finger at us. Ahem…

His flowery language, as has been typical of Johnson over the years, didn’t hold back: “this river-swimming ban is of a piece with the namby-pamby, risk-averse, mollycoddled airbagged approach that is doing so much economic damage to Britain”. Does this sound like the kind of man who, if ever trusted with power during a pandemic, would impose a lockdown, restrict freedoms, ‘mollycoddle’ and ‘airbag’ a ‘namby-pamby’ and ‘risk-averse’ population? Again, I make no comment on those policies such as they are, but why did Johnson, of all people, impose them when he has always set himself up as a defender of liberty against the strong arm of the state? If he really believed the state does more damage than individuals free to make their own choices, why did he not stand on that principle when it really came to a head?

This is not an argument for or against lockdowns or masks or anything like that. It’s a point about what different leaders would do when faced with these challenges. Lockdown wasn’t inevitable, nor compulsory face coverings. Other options were, and still are, available. You may believe these things to be vital, but ask yourself: why would a libertarian styled leader take these routes?

It goes without saying that having had Covid-19, and had it badly, that that would have an effect on him. A close brush with mortality would be enough to scare anyone. I have no wish to take away the impact that would have had.

But principles long held are typically difficult to shake. Those previously mentioned ‘nanny state’ columns were written when he was hugely overweight. He is still overweight – so what else changed? At the moment it feels like the walls crumble just a little too easily. As though the typically pro-immigration PM might suddenly become a Farage-style drawbridge puller, or become a puritanical religious believer, or start believing that Churchill was really a racist and should be erased from our collective memory.

Is this uncharitable? Perhaps. It’s just hard to watch this without imagining that it would simply not have happened with any number of other leaders. Imagine for a second that Corbyn had become the PM and secured a healthy majority. The way Johnson has behaved since taking office is like Jeremy Corbyn agreeing with Netanyahu that the West Bank settlements should be annexed, introducing a tax cut for the wealthy, repealing the sugar tax and sending a birthday card to Donald Trump. Maybe even writing a leader for the Telegraph, reintroducing grammar schools, expanding Trident and outlawing industrial action. All completely anathema – but of course, we always knew who he was and what he thought, so that would all have been crazy and straight of the blue.

Yet with Johnson, we just nod along. As though this is always what he thought and that it’s ok to, not just slightly bend your principles for the purposes of realpolitik, but turn fully 180degrees without a second’s thought and act as though this is normal. What is an anti-nanny-stater doing talking about sugar taxes? How can he think nobody has noticed?

Maybe because in reality, it actually doesn’t matter any more. Because political tribalism is so deeply embedded that nobody is voting for anyone any more, just against the other guy. It’s easy to scoff and point at those who had hope in the guy, who voted for him because they took him at his word. It’s difficult to feel sympathy, especially when it has been obvious to many just what kind of politician he is. I mean him no ill will, I’m sure he is perfectly pleasant company and, by all accounts, a rather personable chap.

But relying on his principles and sense of duty, his sense of driving purpose? Sorry, but he has never provided any evidence that he should be trusted to maintain a certain set of holding principles against all weathers and all comers. So why would we expect him to do so when push came to shove?

So there we have it: Al Johnson, from rebellious child to Chief Nanny. Who’d’a thunk it?

Cartoons Without Drawings #1 – Stable Doors

Boris and Rishi make an expensive purchase…

Welcome to the first in a new series on this site – Cartoons Without Drawings. Political cartoons are great fun – meant to make a point without too obviously making the point. Saying something sharp and cutting without actually saying it. The beauty is the lack of words, the lack of explanation, the expectation that the viewer is intelligent and well informed enough to understand the subtleties and nuances of what is being portrayed without having to resort to such excrescences as verbal commentary.

So, Off the Party Line will now be starting a cartoon series – except I can’t draw. And apparently all cartoonists are being laid off left right and centre. So all of the above rules will, unfortunately, have to be scrapped. Soz.

In this series, I will simply describe what I think the cartoon would look like and you’ll have to use your imaginations to make it come to life. I really, REALLY can’t draw…

Boris’s Opulent Stable Door

The scene is a farm; we see a stable.

In the foreground, the stable door is wide open. It is being upgraded by several highly skilled craftspeople, including goldsmiths, lapidaries and carpenters. The door is spectacularly bejewelled, diamond encrusted, gold plated and structurally solid.

A man, probably the owner of the stable, has his hand out towards a blonde, tousel-haired, overweight man in an ill fitting suit, holding one of those comically long itemised bills that spills and rolls out onto the floor; the headline sum reads ‘£∞’. The posh, rather scruffy gentleman is gesturing to his associate, a well dressed mixed race man who is standing in front of a money printing machine, holding on to the handles of a wheelbarrow to collect the reams of paper cash falling down from the machine’s conveyor.

The machine is being furiously operated (perhaps by some hilariously old school crank/lever system) by a gentleman wearing a badge that says ‘Bank of England’.

Meanwhile, in the background, we see a trail of hoofprints in the mud going from the stable into the distance, leading up to a horse that is bolting. The horse is being ridden by an anthropomorphised virus particle.

Jeremy Corbyn is in the background holding a placard…something about Israel. Not sure why he’s there but…

The end.

Was lockdown a terrible mistake?

The Prime Minister panicked. And it may all have been for nothing.

It is seemingly imperative to start such a potentially controversial post by pointing out some things that I would hope might be obvious and therefore unnecessary to spell out, but these are not the times in which we live and so these first few paragraphs are purely an attempt at self-preservation from the flak I expect to receive. I called by blog ‘Off the Party Line’ for a reason, not because (despite some criticism) I am deliberately contrarian, but because sometimes the popular view is not altogether correct and therefore needs pointing out calmly and concisely. I should also point out that my world, my bubble, my circle is predominantly left wing, Northern, Labour voting, Remainy and middle class – places where the ‘party line’ can be firmly enforced when not appropriately toed. And whilst I am some of those things, I am not all. This can be uncomfortable at times, nevertheless it is important not to follow the herd when it heads for a cliff.

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is serious. I don’t doubt it for a moment. It spreads, it infects, it sometimes kills. These are facts that are not lost on me, nor are they facts that I take lightly. It got round our highly connected, globalised world quickly, taking advantage of modern miracles such as air transport and fast moving supply chains to insert itself into most countries on the planet.

However, it remains to be seen just how serious, how infectious and how deadly it is. Not only does it remain to be seen, but it was flagged early on by voices subsequently drowned out that we were liable to overreact and take measures that would be disproportionate to the threat we faced. We might become the elephant so scared of being scratched by a cat, that we jump off a cliff to save ourselves.

I will add my last note of mitigation here; that is to say that I do not take death or disease lightly. I believe every death, whether a child, a parent, a 40 year old, a grandparent, a 100 year old or an unborn baby, is tragic and is to be mourned. I hope this is enough to persuade you that what I come on to say is not cavalier or heartless. If you feel that you won’t be able to hear those kinds of arguments, it may be best for you to stop reading at this point, though I sincerely hope that having got this far, you’ll hear me out.

Let’s start with this now ubiquitous (but erroneous) term, ‘The Science’. The capitalisation is mine as it seems to me that it is being held way above its station, and is beginning to sound like something you might read in a dystopian novel. No, that does not make me a ‘Science denier’, it means that the assumptions being made about what constitutes ‘The Science’ are wholly unsatisfactory and in clear contravention of what those who engage in such work would ever profess to be doing – i.e. providing certainty and fool proof answers.

In terms of epidemiology, this is even more important to understand. Early on in this pandemic, government ministers now privately admit that they believed ‘The Science’ was more certain than it actually was. As James Forsyth reported, “they had not realised quickly enough that epidemiology was a lot more like economics than physics: lots of variables, lots of assumptions and no one right answer”.

One minister said, “we talk about following ‘the science’ as if there’s one opinion and not at least seven.”

This is vitally important to understand. Scientists disagree with one another. That’s what peer review is for, that’s why there are papers and counter papers. And in this instance, you’d better believe there is severe disagreement. For every Chris Whitty, there is an Anders Tegnell. For every Neil Ferguson (more on him later), there’s a Sucharit Bhakdi. Dr Bhakdi is an infectious medicine specialist and one of the most highly cited medical research scientists in Germany – i.e. he knows what he’s talking about. He describes the current fear over Covid-19 as ‘nothing but a spook‘. Is he right? Well I’m not an expert – but he is. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do – listen to experts?

This should tell us that there really isn’t any such thing as ‘The Science’, and the quicker we understand that, the better.

Which brings us to our other eminent expert, Dr. Neil Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson is the man who is essentially the architect of much of the lockdown panic that has engulfed the world. His models, suggesting 500,000 deaths in the UK alone, have set the basis for terrified governments to enact some of the most extreme and unprecedented peacetime attacks upon the civil liberties of their citizens. In his recent address to the nation, the Prime Minister Alexander Johnson repeated this half a million deaths claim.

But this is incredibly specious. Reports in the last couple of days have made some pretty damning assessments of the modelling used by Dr. Ferguson, modelling that is 12-13 years old and was designed to model influenza outbreaks. According to leading figures, his code was “totally unreliable” and “something you wouldn’t stake your life on”.

David Richards, a tech entrepreneur said it was “a buggy mess that looks more like a bowl of angel hair pasta than a finely tuned piece of programming…in our commercial reality, we would fire anyone for developing code like this and any business that relied on it to produce software for sale would likely go bust.” And this is the model we’re using to hibernate the world economy?

The noises starting to emanate from government is that the lockdown will have avoided this catastrophic loss of life. But the evidence for this is extremely slim. It falls rather bluntly into post hoc ergo procter hoc territory and, in the first place, assumed a scenario where the government would do absolutely nothing; hardly a likely scenario, and certainly not one that should be used for spreading panicked headlines.

We need to understand the politics of these numbers as well. Consider the scenario where 500,000 deaths are predicted and there end up being 30,000. Bad, but not anywhere near what we feared, so that’s good. Well what if they’d predicted 25,000 deaths and there were 30,000? How awful – why did you get it so wrong? The incentive is to wildly overestimate and look like you did something, rather than try to be accurate and get it wrong. This is no way to make good policy.

There probably isn’t much need to go into Dr Ferguson breaching the lockdown he helped to create, as that’s been covered extensively anyway. Suffice to say, he can’t believe in it that much if he then flouts the rules as soon as he feels the rush of adulterous desire.

The new shift in the goalposts is now around the so called ‘R’ number. Yet another nail in the coffin of ‘The Science’ is that experts disagree on the effectiveness of this tool as well, despite it now being the tool that Al Johnson wants to use to monitor lockdown conditions.

We have never actually been told what the ‘R’ number is, and this may be something to do with the fact that nobody really knows. In her press conference, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries sounded almost embarrassed at the use of this tool. Maybe because experts can’t agree – she said “the rate is derived from a different number of modelers. And each modeler will put in, each modeling group will put in slightly different data, it will process it in a different way; and they’re all compared to see, to come out with a broad consensus.”

She also explained that it would differ based on the setting: “(There) are predominately three different R values: we have community, which will be most people in their homes, and that’s where the ONS data is coming from, that’s households; we have care homes which have had high rates, they’re starting to come down; and we’ve had hospitals as well. So it’s quite difficult.”

As Kate Andrews points out, Dr Harries looked like she was mocking the use of this number. “We’ve got a number of different R rates. It’s a bit like saying everybody in one area has the same sort of house cause the average one looks like this.”

With such disagreement amongst even our own experts, never mind internationally, how are we supposed to know what to think? And is this really justified to lockdown entire nations when we really have no idea how effective that will be? Sweden seems to be doing no different to nations that have enforced strict conditions – why is that?

What will the effect be on our children? Studies being undertaken are finding little to no evidence of children spreading the disease, yet they’re locked up in the same way as everyone else and can’t go to school. My 2 year old son is desperate to see his friends, will have a lonely birthday when he thinks he’s having a party, and my youngest probably won’t even recognise anyone when we eventually get out. How can we know the full effects of this panic on our youngest members of society? I believe we will look back in shame at what we did to them.

The insane, nasty argument of accusing those of us who are questioning the government approach of putting ‘lives vs money’ when discussing the effects on the world economy  needs to stop. We are all arguing in good faith here, and these sorts of comebacks are unnecessary and unfair. And I don’t even do social media anymore, I only see it in the papers and on TV, I can’t imagine the howls of rage on the cesspits of the internet.

But this must be taken seriously. You think 10 years of Cameron/Osborne austerity was bad? You think daily headlines in the Guardian about the effects of austerity on the poor, the disabled, the BAME, the women were hard enough to stomach? Well wait for what’s coming. We’ve already spent the money ‘saved’ by austerity over those 10 years many times over. Johnson has promised that there will be no return to austerity, but do you trust him?

Haughty proclamations along the lines of ‘lives are more important than money, if we can save even one life it will be worth it, how can we even be thinking about the economy when people are dying?’ are, I’m afraid to say, dangerous and reckless. They’re incredibly easy to say (probably worth at least 50 likes on facebook, I’d say), but do not see the tsunami that follows. As this study from the IFS shows, ‘economic downturns have an impact on health as well as wealth’. It points to research showing a 1% drop in employment leads to a 2% increase in chronic conditions – what do you think might happen when we hit 5%? 10%? 15%? Are those lives worth saving, or are they too far in the future to care about right now?

If you’re of the mind that you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself if people close to you died because of lockdowns being lifted, then I would simply ask – can you live with the unintended consequences, the indirect loss of life, that could be far, far greater? How about some of these statistics:

  • A&E attendance has halved – so half the number of people who thought themselves sick enough to be checked out by an emergency medical professional are staying at home. Do you really think all of those people will have survived?
  • A leaked email from 31st March showed that children who would have survived, ended up dead.
    • “In one case, a mother reported that she was waiting to be spoken to on NHS 111 for more than 60 minutes while her child “arrested” – medical terminology for the heart or breathing stopping. The child subsequently died.In another case referred to in the email, a mother says she was told the ambulance service was too busy whilst her child was “semi conscious and vomiting”.And another set of parents were reported not to have taken their unwell child to hospital for five days as they believed there was “risk in hospitals of Covid-19″. The child also died.”
  • 2,700 fewer people every week are being diagnosed with cancer – do you think that there are just 2,700 fewer people a week getting cancer, or are these people just going to have it and then die because they couldn’t get medical care?
  • Given that mental health is something that people now talk about a lot, how about this one – only three weeks in (so over a month ago), “The research, conducted by King’s College London and pollsters Ipsos Mori, finds 15% of the population already say they are finding the restrictions very challenging and another 14% expect they will be unable to cope within the next month.” What do you think some of these people might do?
  • How many more people are killing themselves? How many more women are being beaten? These are horrible stats, but have to be considered as part of the ‘all lives matter’ conversation.

It’s also helpful to realign ourselves with what we normally consider a perfectly fine risk/reward ratio and what are normal deaths. As I said to my wife early on in this lockdown, imagine if (like we have now), every day, we had the BBC and the newspapers flashing the number of people who died the previous day at us. It would obviously be alarming. But we don’t have that, so we put it out of our minds. This is not to say that more people are now dying, but the numbers don’t seem to me to add up to anything like a proportionate increase that would require a complete lockdown.

Every year, around 1,800 people die in road casualties. Old people. Middle aged people. Children. Babies. Pregnant women. Dead. From being crushed and smashed by road vehicles.

Why is our response to these shocking figures not to ban cars, vans and trucks? Why do we accept these deaths? Because our risk/reward ratio tells us it is worth it for the freedom and the economy it gives us. So where is the cry of ‘every life should be protected at all costs’ when it comes to this? If you believe cars should not be banned, then are you saying you don’t care about leaving children orphaned and people permanently disabled? And how on earth, if you couldn’t live with yourself for passing on Covid-19 to a vulnerable person, could you possibly ever again get behind the wheel of over a tonne of steel, glass and rubber, fire it up with fume-producing explosive fuel and drive it around where you might kill a stranger, not to mention the child in your back seat or the elderly parent in your passenger seat?

Perspective and proportion are vital, and in normal times, we have no problems justifying our convenient (but sometimes deadly) societal norms. It is imperative that we rediscover this.

I do not say that we shouldn’t follow the guidelines. I do not say we should just go back to normal straight away. Those who are vulnerable should absolutely have the choice and freedom to keep themselves safe and out of harm’s way – this virus is dangerous for them. But as for the rest of us – why are the young and the healthy being quarantined in this way? Why are our freedoms still being trampled on? Why are we not trusted, as in Sweden, to analyse for ourselves the risks and take the appropriate action as we see fit?

The care home situation is a scandal, no doubt about it. Not even Sweden got that right. The inquiry into this should be swift and severe. But this didn’t have to happen. And we can’t go on with lockdown for much longer.

Simon Jenkins puts it perfectly in the Guardian, speaking of the PM: “In his U-turn he opted for the politics of fear. He now has workers terrified of working, and parents terrified of school. He has frightened his economy into inertia. I share the view of scientists such as Cambridge’s David Spiegelhalter and Oxford’s Carl Heneghan that this virus is unprecedented in its infectiousness, but that it will pass. The chief variant will prove to be how governments reacted, and the toll they took on the rest of their healthcare and the wider economy. Sweden gambled in its response, but so did the rest of the world. South Africa’s lockdown threatens it with economic and political catastrophe. The UN warns that the world could lose four years of growth at a cost of $8.5 trillion. Famine and further disease will be rife. That was surely the greater gamble.”

Unfortunately, it seems that for that to happen, we will need a miracle. Something that is as rare as Haley’s Comet. The PM will have to admit he made a mistake.

To finish, here’s a quick one – without looking, how many new cases of Covid-19 were there in London yesterday do you think? The city that has had over 25,000 cases. 5,000 more? 1,000 more?

24. 24 new cases. It’s time to get back to our lives.

Coming off social media has been pure bliss

I thought life without it would be so much harder – it’s been the opposite

I used to think they were so tedious. Those ridiculous people who left social media with trumpet sounds and angel music to wave them off. They’ll be back – they always come back. It drove me crazy that ‘getting off social media’ was this virtuous act that would allow you the ability to forever look down your nose at the rest of the poor plebs who would remain trapped in their cesspits arguing endlessly about Brexit and Piers Morgan.

Well I did leave, albeit without the fanfare. But given I did it over 6 months ago, I feel I can now put some skin on the bones. Because honestly, despite the vom inducing nature of a blog like this, I have to say it has been wonderful.

Sure, in these weird times, it means I don’t get to see or hear from all my friends and acquaintances, see their wedding photos, new children, what they’re up to with their lives, and that’s a bit of a shame. But honestly, maybe it was just the little nest I’d built for myself in my little corner of the internet that did it, but it was getting too much. Politics, Brexit, Tories, “Boris” was all that was ever being discussed. And that’s fun for a while, but not forever.

When you find yourself on the opposite side of a debate while everyone is worked up into a frenzy, it is exhausting. Even though I posted less and less frequently, I could still see it all. All the lies, the distortions, the pettiness, the frustrations all being spilled out onto the internet. I did my fair share of it over the years.

I’ll always be able to pinpoint the moment it happened. I wasn’t planning it, I just did it. 10.01pm, 12th December 2019.

One minute after I saw the election result predicting a Conservative landslide, I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone and that was that. A couple of weeks later I suspended my accounts. Not deleted, as I still use Messenger, and I’ve used the marketplace to sell some things, this blog will even be posted there, but it’s not there to be scrolled through or looked at.

I couldn’t bear to see the inevitable roar of rage that was about to be unleashed. My circle of friends consists of people from Liverpool (my home city), people from the comedy world (whom I have met whilst doing standup) and others. That means Labour, left wing, Remain – not exactly the audience for an exit poll like that one.

It certainly wasn’t the result I was expecting (or desiring), but my goodness was it going to be unbearable to be a part of that reaction. If the Brexit debate had taught me anything, it was to not swim out into the ocean when you see black clouds incoming.

So I left. And it has been pure, unadulterated bliss. No more shouting and screaming (digitally of course), no more feeling the need to defend even those who I dislike, no more feeling the need to balance everything out, nothing. I’m free. I’m going to post this on social media and I won’t even read any reaction. I’m not interested any more.

There is no moral message to this – it isn’t a recommendation or a warning or anything like that. It is merely a story. I was on Facebook for the best part of a decade, Twitter less so but still regularly opened. And now I no longer have the urge to open them up, life is easier for me.

I’m aiming to restart the blog and try and make it regular again (with furlough and a worldwide crisis, it feels like a good time), but I no longer care about or will even see the reaction to it. So don’t take it personally if I’m not responding, I honestly just won’t see it.

No doubt I miss a lot of you. But it’s been for the best. Maybe I’ll see you again in real life – but probably not any time soon.

The Great Northern Rail Scam

Travelling around London is easy – try getting to Manchester though…

A couple of weeks ago, I started my new job with Aurora. It was simultaneously an exciting and sad day – I left my old job at Nova with a heavy heart, but was excited to get started with a new chapter in my career.

Having worked for all of my 5 year career so far in my home city of Liverpool, the biggest change to come was the commute – based in Central Manchester, I will be spending more of my days travelling than I have been used to. I know a few people who do this commute, however, and I decided it was worth doing.

This, I knew, was going to involve travelling by train on the Northern service between the two cities. I had heard things on the news over the years about this service when things had become truly awful, but not until I had to use it myself did I realise the scale of the issues facing this particular journey.

Day one – I bought a return ticket from the Trainline app. My closest station is Wavertree Technology Park, and I get off at Deansgate, so I (logically, I thought) bought a return ticket from Wavertree Tech to Deansgate for £19.60. What would you have done?

Well, apparently that isn’t the cheapest ticket to buy. Not that this is in any way reasonable, advertised, or remotely logical, but it is cheaper to buy a ticket from Liverpool Lime Street (two stops longer) to any Manchester station (potentially another two stops longer). This ticket is £16.10. And unless somebody told you about it, you wouldn’t know it was there. Lesson learned eh?

The two weeks of travelling on this line was painful. Not a single train left the station at its scheduled time from Manchester. Every day, a freight train goes through Oxford Road Station several minutes after the train to Liverpool is scheduled. Every day. Yet every day, Northern staff seem utterly baffled by this. It is maddening to know what is going to happen, yet be utterly powerless to stop it.

My last straw came yesterday. I left my house just after 6am and walked to Wavertree Tech, buying my £16.10 return ticket from Lime Street to Manchester (Any). I waited on the platform for the 6.34 train. It did not come – cancelled. Just like that. Next train to Manchester is announced on the tannoy seconds later…cancelled. Next announcement is a pre-recorded advertisement. “There’s never been a better time to switch to a season ticket…” REALLY NORTHERN? THERE’S NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME?

I sat on the platform wondering whether to just give up and work from home, given I wouldn’t be getting into Manchester for hours. But I was due to meet our CEO for the first time along with some members of the board, plus I had left my laptop charging on my desk. And I’d already bought my ticket. None of these thoughts mattered in the end, though, as when I went to try and get a refund for my now practically worthless ticket, I was told that, yes of course I could get a full refund on my £16.10 ticket…I just needed to pay the £10 admin charge to do so.

Infuriating. So I just had to sit there for hours and wait for a train that hadn’t been cancelled to take me to my workplace.

Arriving at work hours late is not the ideal impression to be giving your new bosses. Thankfully they were very kind and understanding, but this also meant I’d have to be staying late. I already don’t see my son before he wakes in the morning, now I won’t even see him before he goes to bed.

I stayed in work until 6.15 and made the short journey to Manchester Victoria, as this is now the only station sending trains to Liverpool. The 18.27 is delayed. By how long? And for what reason? It’s anybody’s guess. Another train turns up on our platform and just sits there. Then it leaves. Then another…and another. None of them the delayed 18.27 to Liverpool Lime Street. It is fully half an hour late to arrive.

As I am boarding the train, I hear the announcement on the platform.

“Leaving from Platform 4 the 18.27 Northern service to Liverpool Lime Street calling at…blah…blah…Wavertree Technology Park, Edge Hill and Liverpool Lime Street”. Oh good, at least it’s still stopping at Wavertree.

I take a seat. “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, this is the blah blah blah. We will be stopping at blah blah blah…Newton-le-Willows…but then we will be running an express service to Liverpool Lime Street. We will not be calling at…blah…blah…Wavertree Technology park…”

I’m not sure I’ve felt an anger like that in quite some time. The blinding, searing, furious rage at the injustice of it all. And then it hit me…this is the whole scam. This is the scam. This is it.

Why would it do that? Getting into Lime Street late will cost the company in fines…but what if it speeds through all of the stations and gets there quicker? Oh sure, everyone relying on it stopping at the agreed stops will be annoyed, but who cares? The fine will be reduced. Customers are entitled to a certain amount of compensation if a train is late – 25% of the ticket for 15-29 minutes, 50% for 30-59 minutes…but only to the stop that you bought the ticket for.

It’s a scam, ladies and gentlemen. Because of course I didn’t buy a ticket to Wavertree Technology Park did I? I bought the cheaper, but longer service to Lime Street. And I got to Lime Street within 29 mins of the scheduled arrival time.

So I’m now left stranded, horrendously late, and with few rights to claim any refund for the service. This is beyond scandalous.

I don’t know why I’m howling into the ether here. This isn’t London after all. No Londoners are affected by this, so it does not matter. Guardian journalists or BBC execs don’t experience any of this, so why would they report on it? Oh sure, soon, £89billion later, we may be able to get to London a few minutes faster and that will make us all joyful and happy.

I CAN ALREADY GET TO LONDON FAST ENOUGH YOU CRETINOUS OIKS, WHY ARE YOU SPENDING SO MUCH ON HS2 WHEN I CAN’T EVEN GET TO THE NEXT CITY OVER IN THE SAME AMOUNT OF TIME???

This whole experience leads logical, rational people to logical, rational choices. I’m all for public transport and want to be greener. But I am now faced with the following choices.

I either spend £16.10 per day, to spend a minimum of 3 hours a day travelling on crowded, unreliable, useless trains, never knowing that I’ll even make it in to work or back home. I will almost never see my son or my soon to be born second child during the week and will have to wait until the weekend to see them like a single dad.

Or I take my diesel car, a car that I have, run and insure anyway, spend about £6-7 per day on fuel, park 10 minutes walk from work (roughly the same as the walk from Deansgate station) and pay £4 for all day parking? Sure, there’s a lot of traffic between Liverpool and Manchester, but this morning, I left my house at 6am and arrived at my office at 7.10am. This after having to pay for my parking online, setting up an account, adding payment details etc.

It’s a simple choice, no? How are we to become a greener, less polluting area of the country when this choice basically makes itself?

Northern Rail is a complete disgrace, but the infrastructure is just as bad. Why on earth is a 200 carriage freight train running through a busy commuter station at 5mph at 4.30 every afternoon? Why does the slightest delay in anything cause chaos like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings? Why, when I get to London, do I simply tap a bank card against a barrier, step on a train that’s basically there as soon as I reach a platform, get off and tap again, yet anything remotely as simple as that hasn’t even been thought about in the North of England?

This is a scam. And one in which I will no longer participate. Until this frightful situation is invested in, I’m afraid I shall be polluting the Warrington air with diesel fumes day in and day out. What a crying shame.

It’s a scandal, and one which needs urgent attention.

Libertarianism: attractive, but ultimately flawed – Part 1

It is not without merits, but the pragmatist in me can’t see it working in practice

Libertarianism – it’s an ideology that has its merits. It’s one of those things that I love in theory, but know I’d be disappointed with in practice. A good dose of small state with a great dollop of trusting people to live their lives as they see fit, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. What could be more conducive to a happy, healthy and free society?

Well then, let’s have a brief look at Libertarianism. It is defined on Wikipedia as seeking to “maximise political freedom and autonomy, emphasise freedom of choice, voluntary association, and individual judgement” Libertarians “believe in individual rights and share a scepticism of authority and state power”.

All of which sounds great. But the key words for me are ‘maximise’ and ‘scepticism’. This implies to me that we cannot have complete political freedom or autonomy, nor can we totally dismiss the role of the state. So, whilst I would generally align myself with these stated aims, it becomes a matter of where along those axes you draw the line. And, if I may borrow and adjust a quote from Joey, to most pure Libertarians, ‘you can’t even see my line – my line is a dot to you.’

The state should not interfere in the freedoms and liberty of people unless there is a very good reason to do so

I tend to believe that the state should not interfere in the freedoms and liberty of people unless there is a very good reason to do so. ‘Very good reason’ is the space in which the conversation needs to happen. One person’s good reason is another person’s tyranny.

Strident Libertarians would have it that laws such as the smoking ban or the recent legislation limiting Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) are outrageous interferences in the liberty of the inhabitants of Great Britain. The principles of small state limited government, freedom of choice and autonomy of the person would dictate that these laws are grotesque and not required in a society that ought to allow its citizens to smoke and gamble as much or as little as they please. And yet most of us can see the good reasons for these laws.

Taking the smoking ban for a start, if we were to strictly adhere to the Libertarian ideal, people ought to be able to smoke whenever and wherever they like. But it is perfectly clear that doing this doesn’t just affect them. I won’t go through the ins and outs of the effects (or lack thereof) of passive smoking, because that’s only part of the point. Suffice to say that restaurants, bus stops and Anfield stadium have become much more tolerable places to breathe since the ban. But then, as a non-smoker, I would say that.

I’m not in the least saying that people shouldn’t smoke. That is absolutely for each individual to decide for themselves. I also think the ban is starting to go too far and is unnecessarily embarrassing and shaming people who do smoke. The images on the packaging are quite intolerable (yes, I know that is the point) and the prices artificially ridiculous due to tax pressure. These things always affect the poor the most, and this should be taken into account when forcing such laws through Parliament.

But this is where the conversation happens. I can’t imagine a situation where pure ideology makes you either for the complete banning of cigarettes, which are in mass use, or for the complete and untrammelled freedom to infringe on everyone else’s space with your choices. So we need to discuss where the line is.

Let’s take the other example mentioned – the reduction in the amount any person can gamble on a FOBT has been reduced from £100 to £2. That may sound draconian, until you realise this amount of money is the stake that you can wager every twenty seconds. These machines, wherever they are, can suck up thousands and thousands of pounds.

The passing of this law prompted the Spectator columnist, editor of Spiked and staunch libertarian, Brendan O’Neill to complain that the ‘snobs had won‘ the battle over FOBTs. Now I don’t mind Brendan – sometimes he speaks complete sense, other times absolute wham. This feels much more like the latter.

What I do like about him is that he defends the working classes, the poor and the Northern against the horrible caricatures that can so often be painted in national media. He hates paternalism and nanny state-ism, as do I to a large extent.

The state can be overly paternalistic and better off people can have a snooty way of discussing anyone who doesn’t live in a comfortable neighbourhood and vote Remain…

But taking some lines from his piece, it feels much more like ideology than practical politics.

“I know people who frequent betting shops, mainly to bet on horses, and they will occasionally spend 10 or 20 quid on an FOBT if they’re bored. I expect that’s how the majority of FOBT-users engage with these machines.”

Great – then they won’t be affected by this then will they? They can still gamble their 10 or 20 quid. And the majority of users, I’m sure, do just use them for this purpose. But what about the minority who don’t? I’m not going to get into ‘addiction’ and what that word actually means in theory or practice, but the simple fact is that people can and do sit at these machines and watch their money disappear at a ferocious speed.

“A few years ago the Guardian sent a reporter to Slough — you know things are bad when the Guardian is willing to enter Slough — to investigate FOBTs. She watched in horror as people’s ‘£20 notes disappeared into them’. Yeah, well, I’ve watched in horror as impeccably middle-class people have queued for hours to get into some hip new restaurant and proceeded to spend £40 on glorified hotdogs and dirty chips. We all do stupid things with our money.”

Apart from the nice little dig at the Guardian, which seems to me to be an accurate summation of Guardian attitudes, the difference here is surely obvious? Endless £20 notes going into a machine (which, remember, can take £100 every twenty seconds) is not the same as a very silly (but probably well off) person overpaying for poncey food.

He writes well and much of this piece is persuasive. Whilst I back the legislation, I often recoil at the tone in which the topic is discussed. I agree that the state can be overly paternalistic and better off people can have a snooty way of discussing anyone who doesn’t live in a comfortable neighbourhood and vote Remain. All the same, I think restricting the amount you can put into these machines isn’t really harming anyone expect the gambling industry – you can still use the machine, you can still see the flashing lights and the spinning wheels, if that’s your thing. You’re just losing less each time.

The other big aspect of Libertarianism – an unshakeable faith in the power of the market no matter what – is something that is attractive, but not without its faults. I’ll come back to this in Part 2.

I’m all for reducing the power and influence of the state. It is too often creeping into our lives where it isn’t needed or welcome and it treats far too many people like they need to be saved and looked after. But it has its place.

The theory of Libertarianism is exactly how I would love the world to be. Alas, the world wouldn’t work like this in practice. It’s a shame, but we have to be pragmatic about these things.

If only hardcore Socialists took the same view…

Sorry seems to be the easiest word

Celebrity apologies are becoming commonplace – when will they grow a backbone and stand up for themselves?

“What do I do to make you want me?”
“What have I got to do to be heard?”
“What do I say when it’s all over?”

“It won’t be over until you apologise, and probably not even then. We don’t want you, you’re a disgrace, a traitor, a sexist/mysogynist, homo/trans/Islamophobe and there’s nothing you can do to be heard. You will not be heard. You will be silenced, fired from your job and erased (unpersoned, if you will) from public life.”

Not as catchy that one is it? It definitely doesn’t rhyme. Which is a shame, because it feels a lot more appropriate for our times that the original. Sorry seems to be the hardest word? Not in a world where that’s your only way out. When that’s what the mob demands. When those with the pitchforks and the torches are ready to take you out. “Sorry” is the hastily scrawled confession letter that you read out on camera in front of a balaclava-clad executioner as a last gasp plea for your life to be spared.

The crying, whimpering apology is all the rage. Indeed, it has been accepted among the rich and famous as the go-to get-out-of-Twitter-jail-free card. (This fantastic celebrity apology generator does sterling work in showing just how insincere and sickly these things can be.)

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The emperor will either give you the thumbs up, or he won’t. It depends very much on how he’s feeling at the time. Your life is no longer in your own hands.

I’ll make one thing clear before making my main point – a public apology can definitely be the right thing to do. If you’ve genuinely been an idiot or said something stupid that you regret, then saying sorry is the right thing to do.

The problem with most public apologies now is that I’m simply not buying it. I’m not buying that you regret your position when what I see all over your face is that you’re just scared of the reaction.

Twitter twitches with anticipation, ready to bring down the next young, naive weakling to stray away from the safety of the pack and be devoured.

Taking comedy as an example, there have been two high profile incidents that illustrate my point. Louis CK was accused of acting in a highly inappropriate manner towards fellow professionals over a period of many years, and he admitted it. He apologised and rightly so. You’re welcome to decide for yourself whether that apology was enough (or, indeed, whether it actually constituted an apology), at this point I don’t really care. My point is, he was wrong and as far as I can see, apologised. That doesn’t make everything right of course, but there’s no moving forward without it.

Kathy Griffin is the other end of the spectrum. She did a photoshoot (Warning – graphic) in which she held up what was supposed to resemble the severed head of the President, Mr Trump. Again, it’s up to you to decide whether this was in good taste, or funny, or not. I happen to think not, but who cares what I think. If I don’t like it I don’t have to see it. What really irritated me is that she succumbed to the pressure of the mob. She was hounded and blasted and she caved. “I beg for your forgiveness. I went too far”.

Oh for goodness’ sake. Get a grip. She made a joke that a lot of people didn’t like, she got a huge response, then apologised for the joke. A catastrophic precedent to set.

You may think “well if she’s sorry, who are you to say that she shouldn’t apologise?” Which would be a good point, except that she proved just how not sorry she was by recanting the apology, citing exactly the kind of media pressure that I’m talking about. I’m glad she did it, but worried that she bowed in the first place.

I’m not saying it’s easy, and God knows I’ve never had to face that kind of pressure. I don’t want to be too harsh on those who have apologised just to end it all, but I do want to highlight how dangerous it is.

In terms of comedy, there’s always the risk a joke goes too far. Limits are tested, boundaries are pushed. But Bill Burr puts it beautifully:

Steering away from the comedy world is where it becomes truly dangerous. Very few comedians will apologise for their jokes, and rightly so. But we have a much better line of defence than the average person. A joke is a joke, it isn’t meant to be taken seriously. The likes of Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Bill Burr – they say some awful things. But they’re jokes. If you don’t like them, don’t listen to them, and definitely don’t go to a comedy club. The thought of any of them apologising is grotesque, and would indeed be suicidal.

Others don’t have this line of defence. They’re out in the open, giving their opinions or saying something off the cuff and they’re on the hook for everything they say. Twitter twitches with anticipation, ready to bring down the next young, naive weakling to stray away from the safety of the pack and be devoured.

Take Shania Twain for example. Discussing the American President, the Canadian singer recently told a Guardian interviewer: “I would have voted for him because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest. Do you want straight or polite? Not that you shouldn’t be able to have both. If I were voting, I just don’t want b******t. I would have voted for a feeling that it was transparent. And politics has a reputation of not being that, right?”

Perfectly reasonable. Not a position I’d take, but a considered one. She even leaves an open question at the end. But could she be left alone? You already know the answer to this one by now. Then came the grovelling apology.

“I would like to apologise to anybody I have offended,” she wrote. “The question caught me off guard. As a Canadian, I regret answering this unexpected question without giving my response more context.

“I was trying to explain, in a response to a question about the election, that my limited understanding was that the president talked to a portion of America like an accessible person they could relate to, as he was not a politician,” she continued.

“My answer was awkward, but certainly should not be taken as representative of my values nor does it mean I endorse him.”

Now, actually when you look at it, some of it is reasonable. If she’d just not started it with such a subservient submission, it might be more tolerable. For me, she could have kept it all, but just replaced the first sentence with something more sarcastic and caustic, like “I don’t need to explain myself to you, you massive bunch of perpetually outraged morons. But since you asked so nicely, here’s more clarity on what I actually think.”

My admiration for those who have the courage to stare down the ridiculous reactions to any little thing they say and steadfastly refuse to apologise for something they’re not sorry for, grows by the day. It’s getting harder, sure. But that makes it all the more impressive. Especially for liberals, who more and more have to face down their own side.

Bill Maher, in a monologue on his show ‘Real Time’ said this:

“In 2016, conservatives won the White House, both Houses of Congress and almost two thirds of Governorships and State Legislatures. Whereas liberals on the other hand caught Steve Martin calling Carrie Fisher ‘beautiful’ in a tweet and made him take it down”

And the rest of it just gets better.

Germaine Greer also absolutely gets it. She has fought her whole life for the feminist cause, something that will not have endeared her to a great many people. But that was the point – if you’ve got something to say, then you have to say it. Where would any cause be now if it apologised for hurting the feelings of someone else?

And boy will she not apologise. She gave an interview to BBC’s Newsnight in which she discussed trans people and feminism. She had just been ‘no-platformed’ by Cardiff University for her views and was absolutely not backing down.

People who for decades were thankful that someone so bold was on their side and fighting for their cause, suddenly can’t believe she won’t apologise to them now that they’ve taken a different route.

In the interview, she sums up her ‘controversial’ opinion thus: “I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that procedure [transition surgery], what I’m saying is that it doesn’t make them a woman. It happens to be an opinion. It is not a prohibition.”

She is asked by Kirsty Wark, “Do you understand how they might feel like you’re being hurtful towards them?”, which seems to be standard questioning in interviews now, asking about people’s feelings rather than facts or legitimately held and defensible opinions (a bit like in the now infamous ‘so what you’re saying is…’ Cathy Newman interview with Jordan Peterson). Not “can you explain why you think that?”, not “what evidence do you have to support that position?”, just a slap down about hurting feelings and making people cry. Greer obviously bristles, replying, “People are hurtful to me all the time. Try being an old woman, I mean for goodness’ sake. People get hurt all the time, I’m not about to walk on eggshells.”

She goes on to explain the importance of tact, indicating for example that she would refer to someone with the pronoun of their choice if asked to do so, purely out of “courtesy”. I wholeheartedly agree here. I see no reason to be rude or disrespectful towards people, unless they deserve it.

But then comes the kicker. Wark asks, “Would you ever consider saying something more ameliorating…?”, which is exactly the point at which the usual response is to collapse, to cave in and just make it all go away. The point at which you have a decision to make. A decision that could have very real consequences to your life.

Greer replies, “No. I’m getting fed up with this. I’ve had things thrown at me, I’ve been accused of things I’ve never done or said, people seem to have no concern about evidence, or indeed, even about libel.”

Not things that usually matter to people engaging in such hostile behaviour, of course. But things that still make a lot of people back down. By calling it out, by not succumbing to the easy option, by fronting it out and stating outright and clearly her position, which is considered utterly blasphemous by the new religion of identity politics, Greer establishes herself as someone who will not be browbeaten into submission. This is a laudable stand and one that ought to beheld up as a shining example of how to deal with these situations. I make no comment on her opinions, such as they are. Merely on how she defends them. People who for decades were thankful that someone so bold was on their side and fighting for their cause, suddenly can’t believe she won’t apologise to them now that they’ve taken a different route.

“It’s sad, so sad
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd”

You’re telling me.

“It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the easiest word”

To borrow a snide, sanctimonious trope from a typical Guardian BTL commenter – “There. Fixed that for you.”

The Left has cultivated an image of viciousness and intolerance. This needs to change

When the Left operates with bad faith, it damages its own cause

It is something that has been niggling away at me for some time, indeed a reason I started this site. Why do so many conversations these days end in an argument, smears, lies and bitterness? Why does this happen particularly online? Why are tribes forming where once there were simple disagreements? I think I may be stumbling toward an answer.

Now please, forgive me if this has been blindingly obvious to everyone else and I’m late to the party. But it seems to me that we have no desire to believe that our opponents are arguing in good faith. We assume ill of them, we figure malign intention on their part and, above all, we believe they must be bad people.

I don’t see how any debate, discussion or argument can bear any fruit if this good faith is absent. The reason I offer the pages of this blog out to anyone who wishes to write for it is because I want people to give an unpopular opinion in an environment that encourages them to think freely and have the best assumed of them. If you give an ‘off the party line’ opinion, you have, by definition, thought it through, because the backlash wouldn’t be worth it unless you believed it to be so. Again I offer – if you have an unpopular opinion, get in touch.

The viciousness of much public discourse these days can be attributed to a lack of good faith. Left wingers assume Conservatives are evil and sadistic, Tories assume Corbynistas want state control over which trousers you’re allowed to wear that day, and so on and so forth.

But that is to provide a balance that I’m sure isn’t a fair one. I hate to come across all Lefty-bashing here, but it seems to be well documented that the Left is increasingly savage and hostile to its opponents. Dissent is deemed intolerable and impure to so many on that side of the spectrum. Providing me with examples of it happening the other way round are fine, if you want to waste your time. I don’t claim it is only one way, it definitely happens both ways – I merely offer a note of caution to those who claim themselves to be ‘kinder, gentler‘ people. Is your bar really going to be the cowardly and deflecting phrase, ‘yeh well they do the same thing to us’? I sincerely hope not. If it is, you offer no virtue that separates you from your opponents.

Let me just make that completely clear – I do not claim this is solely a Left wing problem. But it is one that should feel more urgent to those on the Left.

The Left is the wing that I should naturally be on. I try to have opinions on every issue individually, but inevitably there will be overarching principles that will inform my outlook. Most of those tend to be ‘liberal’. But I cannot count myself as among the modern Left. Elements of both wings may share the attributes of hostility, nastiness and downright rudeness, but the Right makes little outright claim to be the opposite. It is the Left that self-declares its occupation of the grounds of ‘kinder, gentler politics‘, ‘reason and science‘, ‘data-led policy’. And yet it simply isn’t so. And therefore there is a hypocrisy that cannot be tolerated by anyone with half a brain or a conscience.

If it were indeed ‘kind and gentle’, it would not assume ill-intention of its opponents or shout and scream at them. If it were a lover of ‘reason and science’, it would not shout down those who question, for instance, new gender orthodoxies, but would engage based on research. If it were ‘data-led’, it would not engage in spurious, politically driven nonsense that clearly defies the data.

The obsession with the word ‘hate’, a word my mother told me not to use unless in extreme circumstances, is now so all-pervasive that mere disagreement is now deemed hate. Disagree with gay marriage? You hate gays. Hate them. All of them. Disagree with abortion? You hate women. Vote Tory? You hate the poor. Concerned about Islamic terrorism? You hate Muslims. Want immigration to be slowed down a little? You hate immigrants. No nuance, no discussion, just straight to the extreme. Straight to the sliming and the smearing.

When even the CiF pages of the Guardian are filled with those on the Left denouncing that newspaper for straying even a tiny bit off the party line, you get a sense that something isn’t quite right. It was savaged in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader (the paper having backed Yvette Cooper – sounds crazy now, doesn’t it?). Things have rarely been better since.

I am an occasional listener to Sam Harris’s ‘Waking Up‘ podcast, among others. He is an atheist, I am a Christian. He believes free will is not a fundamentally defensible concept. I believe it is central to our being. There are plenty more disagreements I could point out. But I believe he is honest, a man of integrity and fully believes every word he says, and therefore worth listening to. That is all I would ever ask of a person – its a reason I will never listen to the likes of Milo Yiannopolous or Katie Hopkins, because I simply do not accept that they really believe in what they’re saying. They’re professional trolls who feed their children and their lifestyles on the money they make from upsetting the Lefties who will consistently rise to their bait. They are not serious people. I don’t believe they should be stopped from speaking publicly, but I won’t be listening when they do.

Mr Harris has recently been in the middle of some controversy, which you can read for yourself, or better yet listen to his discussion of it. It is far too long and detailed to go through here, but suffice to say, he has been attacked by many on the Left for a particular podcast. His most recent opponent, Ezra Klein, the editor of Vox, took a completely bad-faith interpretation of the podcast and would not back down from his position despite plenty of evidence to show that he ought to. He could still have disagreed, but still have assumed good faith on behalf of his opponent. He steadfastly refused to do so.

I was struck by the end of one the podcasts in this controversy, and it made me realise just what a problem this is for the Left more so than the Right.

A listener contacted Sam to ask: “You come off cosy with those on the Right, and then when a blowout like the one with Ezra Klein comes, it seems you can’t have the same warmth of relations and good spirit with a straight up Liberal”.

Sam explains why this misses the point spectacularly (I have shortened the monologue to sum up the key parts – highlights are all mine):

“I, as you know, disagree with Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro [two men the writer had highlighted as Right wing examples] about many, many things…but the point here is not disagreement, it is slanderous misinterpretation. And that almost always comes at me from the Left…With Ben, I made a joke on our podcast together and Ben came away not realising that it was a joke, and so misrepresented my views elsewhere. I reached out to Ben by email: “Ben, you’ve got me all wrong. That was a joke”. What did he do?…He apologised immediately, he regretted misrepresenting me.

“Same with Jordan Peterson when he got on Dave Rubin’s show. He said the opposite of one of my core beliefs. It is the centre of the bullseye for me intellectually, and he was getting it wrong. So I wrote to Jordan, with whom I had a painful collision on the podcast, and I said “Jordan, you’ve got me completely wrong. You’re misstating my views.” What did Jordan do? An instantaneous apology. He said ‘Sorry, I guess I have to read your books so I know what I’m talking about when we have our public events.”

“That is a difference that cannot be exaggerated. Peterson and Shapiro and I will go on to disagree about many things, it could be very heated…but there is a world of difference between bad faith misrepresentations and honest engagement with a person’s ideas.”

This guy’s whole experience of disagreeing with people on the Left is disheartening in the extreme. His experience of disagreeing with people on the Right is worlds apart from that, and is the way things should be. This is only one example of course, but I highly doubt this is not typical. My question to the Left would be, do you really want to concede the ground of honest, reasonable debate to the Right? When protesters can storm a lecture given by Jacob Rees-Mogg and he comes out as the level-headed, reasonable one, does that not set off an alarm bell? You’re conceding this ground to your opponents and it will be hard to wrest it back.

Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine had this to say:

I’m not a fan of the term ‘SJWs’ (at this point it just comes across as a pejorative), but the point is made all the same. You get an insight into why more and more find themselves moving away from the Left and going elsewhere. There is no longer much tolerance or respect over there. It’s shocking to see otherwise lovely, intelligent people spit bile over those with whom they disagree, rather than simply have the disagreement.

They seek to destroy, to burn, to have fired, to shun, to have removed from social media, to silence, to shut down anyone who will dare defy them. It is savage and bloodthirsty, as stomach churning to watch as it is to see a lion tear up a gazelle.

 

This assumption that ‘they must think that because they are bad people or have malign intentions’ is so unhealthy. If you can’t believe your opponent is arguing in good faith (unless they’ve clearly and repeatedly demonstrated otherwise – again, see Hopkins, Yiannopolous, Klein), then not only are you doing them a disservice, you are doing yourself one as well.

The image that leads this piece is of students protesting Charles Murray’s appearance at Middlebury in the US. He was invited to speak by conservatives in the college and was due to debate a professor who was planning to challenge him hard. He was not just going to speak freely – he was going to have a robust dialogue with somebody who totally opposed him and his ideas. But then the idiots started to shout him down as he spoke. Then what happened?

“When Murray and Stanger finished their dialogue [having moved to a secret place], they found themselves surrounded by protesters. The protesters—some of whom were wearing masks and may not have been Middlebury students—began pushing them. When Stanger tried to shield Murray, according a Middlebury spokesman, a protester grabbed her hair and twisted her neck.

“Murray, Stanger and their escorts made it to a waiting car, but the protesters “pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood,” according to The New York Times. One took a large traffic sign, attached to a concrete base, and placed it in front of the car to prevent it from leaving.

“Finally, Murray and Stanger got away. They had planned to eat dinner at a local restaurant, but, upon learning that the protesters planned to disrupt their meal, left town altogether. Stanger later went to the hospital, where she received a neck brace. “

Kinder and gentler, apparently. Hardly. This was a vicious attack on someone who was going to debate on their side. Complete insanity, and what happens when you refuse to engage in good faith argument.

Much like yesterday’s post, I’m trying to help. I’m trying to show you how this looks to those outside your bubble. My main source of news and comment is the Guardian, but I venture to the Spectator as well, the Telegraph, the Independent, Hitchens in the Mail on Sunday. I listen to people like Ben Shapiro, Christina Hoff Sommers, Jordan Peterson as well as Owen Jones, Polly Toynbee and Gary Younge to name very few in my attempts to have as rounded a viewpoint as possible.

When you go to the places outside the bubble, you see so many people who are natural Lefties but who have either been shunned or can’t bear to be a part of it anymore. If you don’t care, then fine, that’s not a problem. I won’t tell you what you shouldn’t or shouldn’t care about. But if you keep wondering why you’re losing elections or not being listened to or not being taken seriously, you have to start listening to the other side, and not whilst seething at the temerity of these people to dare defy the social norms.

I had a fantastic knockabout debate on Facebook with a small group of friends before the EU referendum. I will keep coming back to this time as a perfect example of peers treating each other with respect and dignity, because whilst we fundamentally disagreed, the basis of the whole discussion was that each of us was arguing in good faith. Without that, it could not have happened. We were all sincere and honest, and nobody insulted or attacked anyone else.

It really can be like that. But one side has to make the first move. Lefties – please let it be you.

Where are all those wretched Tories and Leavers? I’ll tell you where they are…

At work and on social media, I became a refuge for those frightened by the emotional lunacy of their peers

I’ve been recently remembering the fire and fury rage of the sensible middle classes following the EU referendum, a rage that far surpassed the coalition government being formed or Cameron’s majority win (a win that I remain convinced he never wanted). It was a visceral, vicious, blind, white hot, seething explosion of emotion and venom, hurled at everyone and anyone who had dared to defy their wishes – nay, demands – to vote the correct way. If, of course, they could find them.

Lessons had clearly not been learned from the ‘shy Tory’ phenomenon, where nobody could believe that the Conservative and Unionist Party had managed a majority, when nobody they knew had voted Tory. Or so they assumed.

I’ll admit, I didn’t see the referendum result coming either. I predicted a 55-45 Remain win which, obviously, turned out to be significantly wide of the mark. I just thought the immigration card had been played too heavily, the shaming from the middle class Left was too strong and I was utterly convinced that the squalid, shocking murder of Jo Cox MP in the final week of campaigning would render the whole thing ‘game over’.

So there we go, I was wrong. But then came the thunder.

Once again, nobody seemed to know anyone who had voted Leave. The pitchfork was grasped and the torch lit, but there was nobody to swing them at. Before the vote, I’d been happily having the knockabout online, safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t going to be on the winning side. It was a great intellectual sparring session with a small band of people, maybe 3-4 of us on the Leave side, many more on the Remain side, but conducted in a spirit of true debate. Despite my living in a Left, middle class bubble divided roughly into church and school friends, family and comedian friends online, I was a little surprised that there were so few of us, but that just reinforced the notion that the result was going to be overwhelmingly against me. But then the world suddenly turned nasty and vitriolic. Leave had won.

To the point then – where were these people? Where were the 52%? I got an answer very quickly – they were in my inbox and in hushed conversations.

Having voluntarily swam out into the deep, still waters, only to be swept out into a thunderstorm to be mercilessly drowned, I was known publicly as someone who had voted Leave. I took the brunt of it. And in doing so, I had become a safe refuge for those who had done so silently to come to for rest. My inbox swelled with people fearful of their friends, terrified of their families. They voted Leave, but dared not say so.

The day after the vote, I went to work as usual. My boss gave a speech and people hugged. But the mood had not changed. This was middle class Remain territory, and people were angry. It’s easy to hug people you already agree with. I had no such hugs (apart from the boss, but he’s lovely and hugged everyone!). For me, the guy who had voted Leave after many, many years of being against British membership of the EU, and one other colleague who had gone Leave very marginally after having flipped to and fro several times, this was not a comfortable place to be. But we were the only two in a company of 50+. 50+ 30something middle class professionals – squarely in the pro-EU demographic. Or, again, so I thought.

My first trip that day to our tiny, shared kitchen to make a coffee was hastily interrupted by a colleague. She confessed to me that she had voted Leave but not discussed it with anyone, never mind dare to share such a position on social media. She, also, was scared. The conversation ended abruptly when someone else came into the room and she scuttled out nervously.

Then another later that day. And another the next day. 5 in total, who came to me quietly and privately, in confidence, to tell me that they’d exercised their democratic right to vote. None of them were bad people. All of them were, for ease of political measurement, on the Left. All had different reasons for voting the way they did. But none of them would dare say so. They sought solace with someone who they knew they could trust. Who knows how many more there were?

So, here we have it then, middle class, sensible, lefty, Remainers – does this not make you rethink your venom? This will keep happening as long as the ballot box remains private. The voting booth is the place where you can go to stick as many fingers up at the establishment as you like. You might be able to cow people, you might be able to frighten them, you might be able to make them think they’re bad people. But you are not helping yourselves, because when they get that slip of paper, they can do whatever they damn well please. It may be cathartic to publicly signal your virtue by railing against those who have defied you, but the end effect is not the one that you desire.

I’ll have any of you out with an argument. You might have knocked me, but I won’t be backing down. I’ll happily take the intellectual fight if you want one. But there are so many others who don’t want to have the discussion because you are just so horrid. These are the people you’re forcing into hiding and the ones that keep stinging you.

I’ve waited long enough to write this post, hoping the tide would go out at some point and we could do this in a state of calm. It may have receded slightly, but the anger is still there.

So there we have it – I’ve warned you. I’m telling you this is what happens. It makes no difference to me, but you’re the ones who can’t ever seem to understand it when results go against you. I’m trying to help you.

Take it or leave it. It’s your funeral.

A comedian has been convicted for a joke. This should be a wake up call for us all

We have just set a very dangerous precedent…this must be resisted

WARNING – this post will contain videos and links with some choice language and adult themes.

For those of you who have not yet heard this story, let me start with a quick summary. A Scottish chap called Mark Meechan, a so called ‘video comedian’ has been charged under the Communications Act with a hate crime. This hate crime was “grossly offensive”, “anti-semitic and racist in nature” and was “aggravated by religious prejudice”.

So that was the charge. That such charges can even exist in this country is something I may come back to, but for now let’s stick to what actually happened. Mr Meechan posted a video to YouTube in April 2016 of himself and his girlfriend’s pug dog. The thrust of the video is that he is teaching the dog a trick, which is to perform a ‘nazi salute’ (it raises a paw). The commands for this trick are the phrases ‘gas the Jews’ and ‘sieg heil’. The joke being that such a cute dog is doing the worst thing imaginable. You can watch the full video below, if you so choose.

For this alleged ‘crime’, Mr Meechan could face prison time. It’s unlikely, but possible. Either way, he will be punished for this by the British Justice System. I’m struggling to quite put into words just how chilling, horrifying, moronic and authoritarian this is.

Right, well let’s start with the blindingly obvious – it was a joke. A joke. A joke that you are allowed to find funny, a joke that are allowed to find unfunny. A joke that you are allowed to be offended by. A joke that you can choose to share, a joke that you are free to ignore. A joke.

Are we saying jail, a place where the worst people in the country are sent (given that we don’t have the death penalty), should be there to deter jokes? We want jail to be a place that people would look at, and then think twice before making a joke?

Here are some more jokes:

“They say there’s safety in numbers. Yeah? Well tell that to six million Jews”. That was Jimmy Carr.

“Palestine is like a cake being punched to pieces by a very angry Jew”. Frankie Boyle.

Louis CK opened a special by saying he would do all of the announcements so that they can just start the show already. “Turn off your cellphones…or at least leave the flash off…don’t yell out…don’t text or Twitter during the show…what else…oh yeh no Jews, I think they said that earlier…”

So these guys should be jailed for these jokes? Or are these ok?

As expected, most of my comedian friends have shown concern about this, but weirdly there has been some pushback even in this community. There has certainly been very little outcry in the wider media, and this is such a concerning thing. A couple of things have been raised which I will attempt to address now.

The first being something to the effect of “why are you defending this guy, it wasn’t even funny”. Well that doesn’t matter. Because whether you think it’s funny or not shouldn’t be the basis on which another person’s freedom is decided. And if we don’t stand up even when we disagree, it will come back to bite us later down the line. “Is he really someone you want to defend?” I don’t care who he is. I’m not defending the person, I’m defending the principle. You’re the one turning him into a martyr, not me.

I used to watch Frankie Boyle a lot, until I got bored. I was offended by loads of things he said (who wasn’t?), but when I decided I didn’t want to watch him anymore, I didn’t demand that he be jailed or ostracised, I just stopped watching him. I watched Jimmy Carr’s last special, thought it was ok. Not particularly my cup of tea, but I appreciate the structure and the skill. I love Louis CK, Bill Burr and Chris Rock. I’m watching Ricky Gervais’ new special ‘Humanity’ as I write this. First ten minutes have been pretty good. But whether I find it funny, whether I find it offensive doesn’t matter, because if any of them were threatened with jail for anything I’ve heard them say, I would defend them.

Secondly, “well he’s been defended by and pictured with Tommy Robinson”. So what? Is that a crime now as well is it? “Well it doesn’t help his case”. Again, so what? I would caution you to be very, VERY careful using this type of argument. Anyone who is a Corbyn supporter for a start can knock this one on the head, standing as you will be in a tiny, fragile glass house. I can assure you, this won’t end well. Put. The gun. Down.

Ken Livingstone (we’re talking about Nazis, might as well bring him into it) was once asked in an interview why he spent so much time defending Muslims, given that the ideology of most followers of Islam are opposed to his own brand of politics. He answered that they were currently facing oppression, and much as he had defended the Irish in the past and Palestinians now, he wants to provide a voice for the voiceless. It’s a similar thing here. It is you, the person who would jail this man for a joke that forces people like me to defend him even though I don’t even find his joke funny. I would never teach a dog to do that, I think it’s awful and immature. I think the Charlie Hebdo cartoons weren’t funny. But for goodness’ sake, I don’t want them jailed or killed for their bad jokes.

I have never had the inclination or a reason to draw the Prophet Muhammed. Why would I? But as soon as someone says I can’t, or threatens me with punishment by law or mob violence if I do, the urge gets stronger. Notice how in all of these reports of the Nazi dog, the original video is shown. Apparently it’s ‘grossly offensive’ according to a judgement passed down in a court of law, but it is embedded on every article. The full thing. Was that true with Charlie Hebdo, or did you have to ‘deep Google’ it? Nobody had the courage to show them, but this is apparently ok.

People don’t seem to realise that legislation or precedents like this can be used against them. They seem to live in this world where only their enemies and people they don’t like are the only ones who will be punished by it. But once these things are law, once the precedent is set, that will be it. Some of the things I hear said about Margaret Thatcher or the Queen or Theresa May…well if this guy is going to jail, so are most of my friends. Or at least they ought to be if we had any kind of consistency.

This passage in a CNN piece explains it very well:

“You might say “so what?” You might think that “offensive” speech is of low value, so who wanted it anyway? However, if you don’t believe in protecting “offensive” speech, you don’t believe in protecting speech at all. What you deem “offensive” could be “humorous” to someone else. And what you find valuable, can very easily wind up on someone else’s “offensive” list.”

 

Given how social media outlets are prone to bias against Conservatives and favour Liberals, we already have a small window into how this could pan out.

Let’s just pause for a second – do you think, based on what you’ve seen or read, that Mr Meechan is a racist? An anti-semite? A genuine hater of the Jewish people? If you do, then you might as well stop reading if you haven’t already. Nothing I say here will convince you. If you don’t – then what on earth are we even talking about here? Anti-semites exist, undoubtedly (many in the party most of my friends seem to support). Some are awful, horrible, virulent anti-semites. What happens to them? Should they face the same punishment as a guy making a joke about it? Or do they now look a lot less harmful when equated to some tattooed ‘shitposter’?

I said it earlier, but it’s difficult to put into words just how frightening this is. That a judge can declare context irrelevant, and a prosecution can persuade enough that a person making a joke is being serious and should be taken seriously makes me question what year I’m living in. I hate it whenever anyone posts a thing simply alongside the phrase ‘it’s 2018’, as though that’s supposed to somehow prove something. But come on, the year 1984 has to be the one that comes to mind more than any other. Jonathan Pie says it the best:

We are so complacent. I am so complacent. We forget that rights have to be constantly fought for, not just won and then left alone. Authority will ALWAYS look for ways to erode our freedoms, and it is up to us to be vigilant in protecting them.

If we aren’t, we won’t have anyone else to blame when they come to our doors demanding our papers. We have been warned.