The police must never be routinely armed with guns

Who is reassured by automatic weapons on a residential street? We must resist this folly.

There are some traditions and routines in life that become so ingrained in one’s head that auto-pilot takes over and we switch off. The commute to work, doing the big shop on Saturday morning and, for me anyway, going to the football. We know the rhythms and the routes, we know which traffic lights we prefer on the way to the office and we know that the houmous in the Old Swan Tesco is in a slightly different place to where it is in the Allerton Tesco (although having said that, Old Swan Tesco are in the process of moving everything around. Allerton it will have to be.)

My family’s ‘going to Anfield’ ritual is as old as I am, my parents having been season ticket holders for decades, and my brother and I joining as soon as we were old enough that we could keep up the pace to walk the route. It’s the same every game. Leave the house around an hour before kick off, park the car 45 minutes before kick off, walk down together on the left hand side, cross over the road in front of the stadium, stop for a couple of minutes on the corner of the Kop and the Kemlin/Centenery/Dalglish, make our predictions, then go our separate ways into the stadium – Dad and brother into the Kop, me into the Kemlin/Centenery/Dalglish. Into the second turnstile (never the first, or any other), up the stairs, across to my block and out to my seat.

I could do this with my eyes closed – it’s barely changed in the 20+ years I’ve been doing it. Sure, the turnstiles are automatic now, but I still go through the same one. There’s only the three of us that go now. But other than that, only something extraordinary could throw me off.

And that’s exactly what happened at the Boxing Day match last year. Liverpool were playing Swansea, so it ought to have been a low security kind of affair. United, Everton, Chelsea – these are games where you expect slightly more police and maybe some police horses, but other than that, it’s generally a few smiling officers posted around the ground in hi-vis jackets, overseeing some semblance of order. This is not what greeted us as we crossed the road in front of the stadium.

On this occasion, I was shaken out of my routine by the sight of two heavily armed police officers standing in the middle of the road. They were both carrying machine guns and looked decked out for war. They were still smiling – everything about the personality of the image was still the same, but the outfit was one of menace and aggression. These weapons were not equipped in a  passive way, there in case of emergency – they were being held, trigger in the right hand, left hand under the barrel. Ready to shoot.

To my knowledge, there was no threat. No reason for these weapons to be deployed. I have written to the Police and Crime Commissioner and my MP to ask why these shocking, unpleasant guns were required for a Boxing Day match against a non-rival, but received no reply. Frankly, even if we were playing United, this would have been serious overkill. What are you going to do, shoot someone if they start fighting over a song about Gerrard?

What possible use could these assault weapons have been in anything that might have taken place at a football match? What would have happened if some unrest or low level violence had taken place within range of these two men? Their hands were on a gun. How could they have dealt with a couple of morons swinging fists at one another? “Excuse me mate, can you just hold this while I go and break that up? Safety’s off, try not to pull the trigger.”

The excuse often given in these situations is that they are there to ‘reassure the public’. Reassure me of what? I can assure you, I was far from reassured. Seeing an automatic weapon on a residential street in a populated city is one of the most alarming sights I’ve seen in a long time. Had there been a threat of terrorism, a serious indication of violence made against the stadium or the surrounding area, it may have been understandable, but there was nothing of the sort. So while we are all assuming this is a routine match, seeing armed police is the opposite of reassuring – it makes you think there has been a threat and we haven’t been told about it. Follow that link above – plenty of research negates this silly view.

It put me in mind of our family holiday to America in 2005. Flying into JFK airport in New York, we were greeted with the sight of police everywhere, all with pistols holstered on their hips. There was no heightened threat level, no expected incident – this was the norm. I asked my mum why they all had guns, and she replied “that’s just the way it is here”. Well, fine. but that had better not make its way over here.

I remember when we had some friends over from America. We were discussing over dinner and games the differences between our two countries. My wife hadn’t really realised just what a different country the US is to Britain, and so she was enjoying the back and forth. At one point I piped up to her, “I bet these guys wouldn’t believe you if you told them our police don’t have guns” – their faces dropped and they froze. “WHAT? How on earth can you feel safe if the police don’t have guns?”. It was a real lesson in mindsets and culture.

My worry is that we are being buttered up for some move towards arming the police as a routine measure. Getting these out and visible bit by bit so that when it is announced, we’re already sort of used to it. This must be resisted.

Salami slicing is always the best way to advance policy. It is quiet and sneaky, and makes objections sound petty and silly. “It’s not like we’re going for full on arming, just an armed section of the police.” “Oh well only some police are armed”, “Only some forces have been allocated funds for training” “Only at airports and stadiums”, “Well just those who have to go to more dangerous areas”… But this is exactly why we need to register objections when we encounter these situations. Because before we know it, the sight of guns will become more commonplace. If you laugh at the NRA’s suggestion that ‘a good guy with a gun is the answer to a bad guy with a gun’, then consider your support for armed police very carefully.

We have to realise that it is a ratchet. Once these things are given out to police officers like handcuffs and helmets, there will be no going back. This will not be something we can reverse. Once guns are in common use, they will be seen as ‘required’.

It’s strange to see friends who couldn’t be more against guns in America argue for UK police to be armed. Can you not see that this is how it ratchets up? If people feel targeted by the police, and those officers start walking (well, let’s be honest, driving) around the neighbourhood with guns strapped to their sides, what do you think those people are going to do next? It doesn’t take much imagination.

Frankly, I don’t believe there should even be an armed division of the police. It is a civilian force. If you want to shoot guns, join the army. If there is a terrorist incident, send the army. But I realise this is not a popular opinion, and I don’t want to divert and dilute my argument too much here – I’m really more interested in patrol policing than reactive policing at this point.

I may come back to this subject at another time, but for now, I will be taking note of any moves to advance this policy and would welcome any correspondence from others if you spot it happening.

My son is currently 9 months old. Before I know it, he’ll be scampering at my side, running excitedly between his father, his uncle and his granddad as we beat that hallowed path towards our historic stadium. If he has to see what I saw, but on a regular basis, we will be living in a different country. And that would be a real shame.

Do people really still care about the Oscars?

Are they really choosing the ‘best’? How can we know? And who are ‘they’ anyway?

I’ll be totally honest up front – I’m not that much of a film buff. Sure, I like films. But I’ve always been more of a book and TV series person. I go to the cinema maybe once a year and rarely pay attention to the latest films. When they’ve been out for a while, then maybe I’ll watch them, but otherwise I don’t feel the need to queue up for the latest Star Wars or see Les Mis on opening weekend. That isn’t a judgement on those that do, I should point out, it’s purely a personal preference.

This does mean that watching any awards shows pertaining to film, such as the Oscars or the BAFTAs, would never really interest me. I wouldn’t know what was going on, I wouldn’t have a horse in the race and I can think of more interesting ways to spend an evening. Again, personal preference.

What I can’t understand is why those who genuinely do love films and really do have favourites and want to watch a contest between heavyweights winning properly big awards would still watch the Oscars. If that is what you want, the Oscars surely isn’t that anymore? It’s like people who like music and want to see a load of singers perform to see who is the best that year watching Eurovision – you realise that isn’t the basis of the contest, right?

Of course, Eurovision has long been seen, even by its most dedicated supporters, as just a big load of fun, a political and televisual pride parade. There may be some groaning and whingeing that the truly best performers aren’t being properly recognised, some may even feign ignorance as to why this could even happen. But they all know that Greece has only voted for Austria because German finance ministers have crushed their economy and they want to spite them in some way – and Eurovision is their democratic outlet. It’s completely transparent – we all know what’s going on, and so being upset that some Estonian metal/grunge band are higher than a Spanish singer who can actually hold a tune would be patently absurd.

But with the Oscars, they still try to pretend that it’s all about being the best. ‘Best Actor/Actress’, ‘Best Film’, ‘Best Soundtrack’. Have we not already realised that it’s nothing of the sort? It’s purely a night for political propaganda, virtue signalling, pointing out institutional racism, sexism and the like, and maybe making a first pitch to be President. I’m not even saying this is a bad thing, but that’s what it is. Fine if that’s what you want, but is it not just tedious now? How can you sit through it? It used to be seen as bad form – now, if you don’t stand up to the latest oppression craze, you’re done for.

Being much more into sport, watching competition is still exciting. Yes some teams have more money, some teams have better players, there’s plenty of unfairness, but the unfairness is there for all to see. But, take football – it’s still 11vs11 (men, natch) on a pitch and whoever scores the most goals wins. Simple as that. We all know the rules, we can all see the difference in talent between the two teams, and off we go. As far as the sporting competition goes (forget the finance and the boardrooms), as long as we can be sure that nobody is cheating and there’s no match fixing, it’s transparent.

Who decides what the best film is? Based on what criteria? Can we trust them to be impartial? How? Apparently they are 91% male and 76% white. 

Already Hadley Freeman in the Guardian is talking about something that sounds to me like ‘not picking what you think is the best’.

“After a tumultuous year for the film industry (and the wider world) the Academy will face ridicule unless it starts giving prizes to the truly important films.”

Important films? Not the best films?

It all looks to me like a census taking exercise. The awards given should reflect society in general – even splits between male and female winners, an appropriate slice of winners who are black, latino, any other race you want to include exactly according to their population split.

Again, fine, if that’s what you want. But will you be able to really trust that the ‘best actor’ or ‘best film’ has been chosen? And does it even really matter, with it being so apparently subjective anyway? Arguably, the fact that this doesn’t naturally happen anyway would suggest that there is intrinsic bias, but with a process so shrouded in mystery and so subjective, how do you correct that without rankling one tribe or another? We’ve probably never had awards that have genuinely been given to the best. I’m more than willing to concede that the apparent whiteness or maleness of the history of the awards probably points to exclusion of some sort or another. I get that, and I can completely sympathise with the view that it looks very much like an old guard carrying on with the status quo. But doesn’t that just drive home the point? It will never, and can never be fair if it is subjective. If we’re saying that in the past, people have just been chosen because they’re white and male, then it’s never been fair?

There are suggestions that unless the Oscars moves into line with this sort of thinking, it will die. That may very well be true. But in getting there, it may kill itself anyway.

I’ve always tried to stay away from identity politics as a matter of principle. It’s so much more interesting to hear what people think and why they think it than base it all on their skin colour or their chromosomes. But this seems to be an increasingly naive view. As someone who wouldn’t care less if the whole Academy, or Houses of Parliament, or boardrooms were completely full of black, M-F trans disabled immigrants, as long as they have a diverse range of viewpoints, I seem to be in the minority.

What that does mean is that as soon as we start agitating for equality of outcome, I get bored and give up watching. I can’t trust the outcome, so who cares? I know what my favourite film is, why do I need that validated by a load of over-remunerated victims of one sort or the other banging on about the plight of their favourite thing that week? I’d have no problem making 100% of the decision makers black women. Let them all choose the best film. Not a white guy in sight, if that’s what you want. It’s subjective anyway, they can pick whatever film they like.

A system like the one that chooses the Oscar winners, so visible and so powerful can never survive a collision with identity politics. The two are currently powerful, and only one can remain standing. I know which one my money’s on. There can never be a system that everyone would be happy with.

It would be great if there were a system to be able to choose who or what was genuinely the best, but I don’t know of one. Perhaps you would be kind enough to point one out – I’ll gladly listen. Maybe it would produce a whole roster of white winners one year, or all black winners, or all female winners, or all male winners. But applying quotas, whilst giving the diversity that is desired, would always leave questions to be asked.

Last weekend, Manchester City beat Arsenal to win the English Football League Cup. Cool. Nobody can argue with it. City are richer and have better players, but they played on the same pitch with the same referee with the same rules. They won the trophy and nobody whinged. Maybe my simple mind needs these simple rules. But why anyone can still be bothered with film award shows is beyond me. Least of all getting upset about the outcomes.

I just can’t see how you could enjoy yourself when you’re just ticking off diversity sheets and not being interested in the actual art. It seems a pointless waste of everyone’s time and effort when you’ll all just end up at each other’s throats anyway. Just assign the awards based on population splits and be done with it. That way, it’ll be transparent and we can all get on with our lives. Let that be the criteria from the start, and let’s drop this facade that we’re choosing the ‘best’. If black people have already won three awards, then no black person can win the next one – it has to be a latino. Would that not make it simpler and fairer?

Or see which actor can score the most baskets from the free throw line and give them the little golden statue. If it helps, I can all but guarantee you more black winners if you do.

Be careful using superlatives – they won’t work when you really need them

Do you really need to reach for the strongest word you can think of?

Several years ago, we attended the wedding of some friends of ours. A lovely couple, celebrating the happiest day of their lives. It was a wonderful occasion.

The groom is, shall we say, a very positive chap. Excitable and effusive, he radiates warmth and positivity. He also uses superlatives a lot. In everyday life, this is charming and fun, but when making a speech on your wedding day, can lead you into some problems.

All the usual bases were covered during this speech. Thanks were proffered to both sides of the family, all who had helped, his ushers, the bridesmaids – you know the drill. In the thanks came the superlatives, and why wouldn’t they? He was delighted and having a wonderful time.

The in-laws were ‘amazing’, the people who did the flowers and the food ‘incredible’, the ushers ‘absolutely wonderful’, the bridesmaids ‘astonishingly gorgeous’, all said with gusto and depth of feeling. He definitely meant what he was saying.

But then he turned to his bride, his new wife, the absolute pinnacle of the whole thing. And there were no words left. How could she be ‘amazing’? She’d only be as good as her parents. How about ‘incredible’? Nope, already blown that one on the food. ‘Gorgeous’? What, only as attractive as the bridesmaids? He was reduced to mere noises and hand gestures as he grasped and groped around for words that were not forthcoming.

Now of course, in this instance, having used up all of his superlatives meant he came across as properly speechless in a charming, Hugh Grant-like way. We could all clearly see the love he had for his new wife, and frankly, words like ‘amazing’ and ‘incredible’ would feel lacking in this situation anyway. All who have gazed at their bride and had to say something about them in front of all those you know and love will have felt this feeling. No words seem to do the job adequately.

On the flip side, though, the use of negative superlatives can have a damaging effect, particularly when said by public figures or uttered in public life. The range of events that people are expected to comment on is broad, and yet there seems to be a consistent thread of going for the most extreme word for everything.

Using a word like ‘disgusted’, however relevant to the situation, blunts it to some degree. If you’re ‘disgusted’ by hearing of the crimes of a serious criminal like a murderer or a rapist, that seems pretty appropriate. Who could argue with that? But if the Foreign Secretary blurts out some silly notion about bridges or cake, is the word ‘disgusted’ really what we should be reaching for? Using it here leaves it a less effective weapon when you next want to use it.

Let’s take some recent examples, gleaned from a brief trawl through Twitter, searching on some key terms.

John Major has called for a second vote on the EU/UK deal. I would disagree with that, but it’s a fair enough, perfectly defensible position to take. One tweet reads “John Major advocates ignoring a democratic vote – DISGUSTING”. Really? Is it not just disagreeable? Or disappointing? Another called him “an absolute disgrace”. Wow. What are you going to do when a real disgrace happens, like a serious crime or a government scandal? Use the same word?

The word ‘appalling’ is pretty strong. One might be ‘appalled’ by the expenses scandal, or perhaps the UK-Saudi Arabia arms deals. These seem fairly reasonable uses for it. But customer service? Poor website design? These are just two things that some prominent people are ‘appalled’ about.

Perhaps Twitter is not the best place to be searching for reasonable people (I avoid it as much as possible), but many people spend a lot of time there and this debasing of our language in order to prove you’re the most outraged or the most angry about something has a wider effect.

Modern politicians feel the need to react to everything with the strongest possible terms, and very often, on Twitter. It means that when there is a genuinely horrid event or an opponent does something actually ‘shocking’, these words will not have the meaning they once did. And for what? So they can virtue signal away, free of the possible repercussions of not ‘condemning something in the strongest possible terms?’ Oh, grow up.

One story that I have been following for a while and has really, shall we say, got my goat, is the reaction of the Church of England to accusations made about a long dead Bishop, George Bell. I shan’t go into the detail of the whole affair here, but suffice to say I have, on occasion, been stirred to serious anger. But in one response of the Bishop Bell Group to the Archbishop of Canterbury, these men and women (fiercely fighting for the reputation of a man much revered and currently being destroyed) use words that seem mild in comparison to some examples I have given. And yet, the words have weight and force behind them.

‘Profound dismay’ may be a term further down on the ladder of superlative than ‘absolute disgust’ or ‘utter disgrace’, and yet when it is said by these highly literate individuals speaking as a collective, it strikes at the heart with frightening power, rendering those other words frail and meek. This letter was sent after previous correspondence that described the position taken by the office of the Archbishop as ‘unfortunate’, ‘disappointing’ and ‘unbecoming’.

Have no doubt, these words were said by a group of people who would doubtless, at times, have been brimming with a seething righteous anger. The group would not have formed without such a strength of feeling. But they have applied calm and reserve to their public utterances, which has meant that when the struggle has reached its high point, they can wield words with power and might.

Exercising some restraint with our language would be a highly desirable step towards civility, in my view. Applying some context, reacting slowly, having some perspective – all things that would need to be in place. But we all must take individual responsibility. It’ll never happen if we constantly try to out-react each other.

Let’s take a step back, and reset.

Taking the time to think – In praise of not reacting instantly

How long does it really take to get to a fully formed view? Probably longer than composing a tweet…

I was struck when watching an interview with Ian Hislop  (mainstay of BBC panel show Have I Got News For You and, more to the point, editor of satirical magazine Private Eye), by a response he gave to a question put to him.

He was asked “In this age of 24 hour news, how are you able to run a self-described ‘current affairs’ magazine which publishes every fortnight?”

His answer was swift and enlightening.

“Well the great thing about publishing every fortnight is that you have time to think. The problem with rolling 24 hour news is that you just go bleh bleh bleh. So the news comes out unformulated and the comment comes out equally quickly. So quite often, you see a story and think ‘well that’s obviously not true’, and then people comment on it and you think ‘well why have you commented on that, it’s not true?’ and we’re going to find out it’s not true in about an hour anyway. There’s just a huge amount of space filling. With a fortnightly, by the time you come out there’s a chance to say something interesting.”

Clearly, the term ‘current affairs’ has evolved as the word ‘current’ more and more means ‘what happened in the last 3 hours’. There won’t be any getting away from it – as reaction is available instantly, with social media (particularly Twitter) allowing a story to travel around the world with the click of a button, reaction will be given instantly.

Perhaps, then, it is down to each of us to consider what our reaction actually is. While we can add our voice to the conversation instantly, is it worth tempering that voice with a little reserve, even scepticism? An initial dipping of the toe before a fuller, more measured response later? It’s something I certainly need to consider – blameless I am not.

The panic that takes hold of most journalists or commentators if a story breaks and they’re not close it is not a new thing. But whilst in the past that would have meant they didn’t have the scoop for the following day’s release, now it means they are instantly a million miles away from it, with no way to get to the centre as it breaks all day long, while their colleagues or rivals dominate. This induces a habit of pushing everything, however ill-formed or unconsidered into the public domain as quickly as possible.

24 hour news is not necessarily a bad thing. The ability to know about things straight away is a remarkable technological feat, and one which doesn’t need to be reversed. But I would suggest that the culture needs to mellow. A thing has happened – ok, fine. Let’s talk about it, but do we need to have a fully formed opinion on it immediately as well? Can’t we wait a week for that? Why are we inviting commentators into the studio to give their ‘immediate reaction’? Why are we reading out viewer emails? Can’t the reporters and the journalists just report what they know so far without the reach for ‘what the people think about it as well’?

I read an old post on this site that spoke about the Gibraltar crisis. Remember that? Course you don’t, but I bet you reacted strongly when it happened. I only left it a couple of days myself.

I may come back to this at some point, because I’m sure there will be some example that will illustrate the point better than this general observation.

But in the meantime, perhaps we can all just step back for a moment whenever we are invited to give our view on an event that is 5 minutes old. Have we considered all the angles? Am I sure this is even true? Does it even matter? What will happen if I wait? These simple questions have recently turned would could have been a blind rage into not even bothering to react for me. And boy, does that make a difference.

Judge the past at your peril – who knows what we’ll be maligned for

Who knows what we will be judged for in 2118? It’s simply impossible to know.

And then there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Well, sort of. The hit 90’s American sitcom “Friends” recently hit Netflix, some people tweeted some things, and it all well and truly kicked off.

Apparently, some so called ‘Millenials’ (a group to which I, apparently, belong having only been witness to around 4 months of the 80’s) pointed out some ‘problematic’ things about one of the most popular television shows of all time. The lack of racial diversity, apparent sexism, transphobia, toxic masculinity – a veritable feast of modern Twitter cliches poured onto the internet like a spilled tub of organic houmous.

The reaction was no more enlightened. A howl of rage quickly countered, quite disproportionate to the initial crime, and blasted and smashed its way through the rather bewildered twentysomethings.

Now, let’s be clear. Friends is one of my all time favourite shows, it suited its time perfectly, and I can’t stand this horrid modern view that all things at all times must reflect all things and all people (except of course if they aren’t liberals). But that’s what it is – a MODERN view. Whilst the reaction was over the top, the silly, self-serving sobbing over how Chandler treated his dad deserved at least some of it.

I have been rather amazed, having watched some of my favourite classics again recently, at just how much things have moved in this direction, though. One episode of ‘Only Fools and Horses’ has Uncle Albert use the term ‘paki shop’ and ‘that paki’ (in purely descriptive terms, you understand, certainly not as an insult). I was quite shocked. But that is a relatively old show, most of it made before I was born. While such language makes me bristle, it was of its time (if you don’t believe that, the mere fact that it was broadcast with that word in it should make the case for you).

The IT Crowd has a whole episode devoted to the discomfort of the main characters while attending a ‘gay’ musical. Not much politically correct language there, and this from a trendy lefty writer and producer.

And herein lies the problem. Shows like Friends, the IT Crowd, The Office – they were written by as right-on lefty liberals as you would have been able to find at the time. So how can they be judged by the standards of 2018? Setting aside for a moment that the standards of 2018 are stupid and ridiculous, surely we must never watch anything from the past again?

Moving away from television to more serious matters of the past, some recent issues have involved attempting to remove statues of major historical figures from public view, and lamenting the views of otherwise heroic persons. This again is going to cause issues if we seek to constantly judge the past by the standards of today.

We judge the Victorians for sending children up chimneys. We judge the 1920s for restricting universal suffrage (despite the whole concept being, apparently, up for debate again following the referendum). We judge many previous centuries for overt racism. We judge the slave trade. But how many of things were obvious to the masses to be wrong? Demonstrably none of them.

The problem we will have is that a future generation will slam us – and it is next to impossible to work out what that thing is. The comedian Jimmy Carr once said “I know one of my jokes on my tour will land me in serious trouble – but there’s no way of knowing which one”. Clearly, we’re not trying to be deliberately offensive as Jimmy certainly is, but the outcome is the same – how can we know which of the things that we do or say now will be judged harshly by the standards of 2118?

There may be some obvious candidates. It could be our treatment of animals raised for food, but then that is already permeating pretty far into our consciousness. How about the supply chains for our clothing and electronic devices? Well again, we’re pretty aware of them. Driving around vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine? IN CITIES?! Again, it’s being addressed.

It could be that referring to any baby or child as a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ will be seen as monstrous. “How could those ignorant people have assumed their child’s gender before they had a chance to work it out for themselves?”, they may cry. Or perhaps keeping an animal inside a domestic dwelling will be looked back on with shame and anger. “Can’t believe my grandma jailed a conscious creature and referred to it as ‘hers’ – #disowned”.

If that sounds alarmist, consider this. People quickly forget the speed at which some things have entered our consciousness. Who would have guessed even 2-3 years ago how controversial it would have been to claim that there are two genders? Slightly further back, that a marriage is between a man and a woman? I remember the word ‘gay’ being used as a pejorative on the playground at school, quite unchallenged. Sure these things are changing now (and fast), some rightly, others questionably – but should that give us a warning sign?

I don’t want to stray to far into predictions – I think I’ve made my point. Maybe those things will never come to pass. But the point remains – we simply cannot know. And we’re for the most part going about our lives as best we can, just like our ancestors did. If we want to be remembered fondly as people who tried, but were of their time, the biggest favour we could ourselves is giving the old great-great-grandparents a break. They tried their best.

The predictability of opinion – what makes people interesting

What makes a person interesting? Can I predict your opinion? Yes? Then you’re not interesting.

 

Let’s take an issue to start with: gay marriage.

You’re in favour? Ok great. Now let me guess:

  • You’re ‘pro-choice’ in the abortion debate
  • You’re in favour of ‘gun control’
  • You read the Guardian
  • You hate the Daily Mail
  • You’re broadly pro mass immigration
  • You voted Remain
  • You, shall we say, ‘display negativity’ towards the state of Israel
  • You’re in favour of legalising marijuana
  • You don’t want any private money in the NHS/healthcare
  • You want the railways to be nationalised
  • You’re in favour of proportional representation of some kind
  • You would abolish the monarchy
  • You think the BBC is broadly right wing
  • You are against the death penalty, even for heinous criminals

Oh I do beg your pardon, you’re against gay marriage? Ok great. Now let me guess:

  • You’re ‘pro-life’ in the abortion debate
  • You’re against ‘gun control’
  • You read the Telegraph or the Mail
  • You hate the Guardian
  • You’re broadly anti mass immigration
  • You voted Leave
  • You, shall we say, ‘display positivity’ towards the state of Israel
  • You’re against legalising marijuana
  • You don’t mind private money in the NHS/healthcare
  • You don’t want the railways to be nationalised
  • You’re against proportional representation of some kind
  • You would not abolish the monarchy
  • You think the BBC is broadly left wing
  • You would favour the death penalty for heinous criminals

 

Now, these things are all very different issues. Some of them are moral questions, some political, some social. Some would reasonably require a lot of thought to come to a solid conclusion. And yet, with most people, just knowing their position on one of these things is a solid predictor of their opinions on the rest. Why should this be? I question how much anyone really understands the issues they have taken such a line on.

The neuroscientist and best-selling author Sam Harris sums it up best: “Knowing one person’s opinion on any political issue allows you to reliably predict their opinion on other issues. This shouldn’t happen because these issues are totally unrelated. Why should a person’s view on guns be predictive of his view on climate change, or immigration or abortion, it shouldn’t be but it is. This is a sign that people are joining tribes and groups, it is not a sign of clear thinking.”

Having a conversation with such a person is, for the most part fruitless and dull. It will inexorably end in subject changing, whataboutery and appeals to emotion, because they don’t understand enough about the issue. If their opinions are predictable, they are not interesting. The briefest trawl through Twitter will tell you this. Such people are not interested in listening, changing their mind, or accurately capturing their opponent’s position.

Listening to some professional women’s rights activist sound off about gun control is painful, particularly when they come up against someone who knows the facts, the stats and can back up a pro-gun position. Similarly, watching a right wing businessman chat on about immigration or ‘the lies about climate change’ can be made to look idiotic by a scientist with a full grasp of the facts.

You can tell instantly when a person clearly doesn’t read or even acknowledge anything on the opposing side. It’s painfully obvious when a Guardian reading Corbynista has never even seen the Telegraph, glanced at the Mail on Sunday or picked up a copy of the Spectator. It renders their arguments incomplete and turns them into an intensely vacuous shell. You’re not arguing the issue – you’re defending the tribe. I use an example from the Left here, simply because that’s what I experience most, and the Left is the side that claims dominion over fact, logic and reason. But if you can’t make your opponent’s case for them, you don’t understand it well enough. So how can you claim you understand yours? And where does yours come from?

Some of this is understandable. A high level belief that ‘big government’ is bad and that individual freedom is paramount will inevitably lead to a grouping of some issues under the same banner, because any misgivings at that lower level would be overcome by an overarching principle, in much the same way that the US constitution overrules many smaller changes in law because it is the overarching agreement that American citizens have with one another.

But what is really fascinating is when you come across a person whose views on some issues deviate from their home crowd. These people are much more interesting to listen to, because the only way they will have come to this deviant view is by thinking carefully and forming a solid conclusion. To express it in public would have required a complete conviction in their process and their argument.

It’s exciting, because when somebody puts a question to them, you have no idea what their response might be. But whatever comes, it will surely be well reasoned.

There are brilliant examples of these people from across the political spectrum. Liberals who voted Leave and vice versa is a good place to start looking. There are also shining examples of those dull, lifeless crowd followers all over the place as well.

Think of Farage – I could probably predict his opinion on everything. Similarly with Owen Jones. What fashionable lefty cause has he not jumped all over and furrowed his brow in that sincere way while appearing authoritative about it? It’s just so boring. He gave a perfect example of what I’m talking about during the referendum campaign when he penned a piece putting forward the case for a ‘left wing Leave’. This lasted all of 5 minutes before he retreated back into his herd, now consistently sounding off against Leave voters and Brexit itself.

Indeed, the whole tone of the piece should have foretold this. It opens with “at first, only a few dipped their toes in the water; then others, hesitantly, followed their lead, all the time looking at each other for reassurance.” Does this not show just how little he has really thought about it? He’s essentially saying ‘I’ll go if you go’. How courageous.

“The more leftwing opponents of the EU come out, the more momentum will gather pace and gain critical mass.”

“The case for Lexit grows ever stronger, and – at the very least – more of us need to start dipping our toes in the water.”

Except the second he dipped his toe, he saw it was freezing and promptly wrapped himself in a towel. Thanks mate, the rest of us who swam out into the deep are so grateful for this bravery now that the sharks are devouring us. Hope it was worth it.

True courage lies in expressing thoughts that you know full well will get you ostracised by your side. Others simply occupy their own space, not bothering to cultivate a base in a camp in the first place. I raise the example of Mr. Jones only because, having read his column for a while and getting bored of its predictability, I suddenly glimpsed a light shining through it. “This will get him into trouble – how exciting. How will he push through?” Alas, he didn’t, and his column has been as predictable as ever, ever since. It’s a real shame, because he is likeable, writes well and has a significant following.

On the other side of things, let’s take the Hitchens brothers as an example. Christopher, the darling of the Left – Peter, the darling of the Right. Neither, when you really look, deserves the title, nor would they want it.

Christopher, who sadly died in 2011, was one of the so called ‘Four horsemen of the Atheist apocalypse’ alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (this was later expanded to be the 5 horsepeople, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali joined the group). He exploded into public consciousness with his book ‘God is not Great: How religion poisons everything’ and was a vicious polemicist against religion. He was adored by students, atheists and left wingers.

But looking a little deeper, things aren’t as clear as they might be. He was an avid proponent of the Iraq War, never ever shying away from it. He blasted the Clintons (one of the most painful things about his death is not being able to see what he would have made of the 2016 presidential election), believed firmly in Israel’s right to exist (albeit with criticism of the Israeli government), thought that men should be the providers and breadwinners for their wives/partners and had serious reservations about abortion.

“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.”

Well, quite.

His brother Peter has a similar style, yet finds himself on the opposite side of most things. As a Mail on Sunday columnist and self-declared Burkean Conservative, you may think you could predict him. He hates Tony Blair, strongly opposes drug legalisation, believes criminals should be punished with prison, would reinstate the death penalty if certain judicial criteria could be met, is a fervent Monarchist, opposes mass immigration and believes the UK should leave the EU.

So how, then, does such a person also find more hatred for the Conservative Party than any other? David Cameron is a ‘slippery HR man’, Thatcher ‘overrated’. He would renationalise the railways ‘immediately’, did not vote in the referendum (indeed does not vote in elections), believes the UK should stay in the Single Market, that there should be a strong welfare state, that the Iraq War was a disaster (not difficult now, but opposed it when it was unfashionable to do so in media circles), that Trident is a ridiculous and out of date weapon that we should rid ourselves of and that Jeremy Corbyn is a good thing for the Labour Party.

These are the kinds of people you always want on your side, but they can never predictably be so. Simon Jenkins, Germaine Greer, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Douglas Murray (Matthew Parris recently said of him “[he] writes so well that when he is wrong he is dangerous.’) – these are the people you want to listen to. Not even necessarily to agree with them, but to see that they have thought clearly, express their view and sod the consequences. Some of the most interesting talks you can hear are broadsides against your firmly held beliefs, spoken by a heavyweight intellectual from the other side in firm and weighty tones. Who could fail to be stimulated by that? Dullards and cowards, that’s who.

The greatest joy is meeting someone in the flesh who can argue against your view with rigour and persuasion. A small group of us had a wonderful knockabout during the referendum campaign, a time that I look back on as a period that sharpened my thinking, forced me to back up what I thought and, in some cases, change my mind. They argued passionately for their side, and they could very well see what motivated my side.

That’s all disappearing. In this new world, tribes are king. There is simply no reasoning with most people. There is no ‘I disagree with you, but still like you and enjoy hearing your arguments.’

Well, screw it. I think what I think. Come at me. Let’s have it out. I promise you – it will be more fun than you think.

The greatest trick the EU ever pulled was convincing the world that it was ‘Europe’

I’ve always been struck by that line in The Usual Suspects where Kevin Spacey’s character quotes the old saying:

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist”

Religious or not, it’s a powerful statement. Its power lies in its inherent simplicity, a simplicity that makes you stop and question. For those who believe in the devil, it is a statement of terror. ‘People don’t even believe he exists, how can they know the true and cunning power being exerted upon them?’ For those who don’t, it makes you question. ‘If I don’t believe he exists…is it because he doesn’t exist…or because he has fooled me?’ Even if only momentarily, the power of the conundrum can jolt.

I started to realise very early on in the referendum campaign that, though not necessarily deliberately, the terms ‘EU’ or ‘European Union’ were being conflated with the term ‘Europe’. This is, of course, nothing new – for decades this conflation has been rife. But it started to matter seriously when the country was about to take a vote on it.

Now, the reason given is one of simplification. “Oh, you know what I mean when I say Europe.” But therein lies its power. Let’s just make it simpler…let’s just say Europe, it’s easier, ‘European Union’ is so cumbersome, ‘EU’ doesn’t really roll off the tongue…

All perfectly true. But let’s take a look at the two distinct terms.

‘Europe’ conjures up images of wonderful cheese, beautiful wine, fresh bread, trains that glide across serene countryside, alpine skiing, sandy beaches…it’s an emotional term.

‘European Union’, whether you’re for or against, puts one in mind of bureaucracy, not getting much done, huge expense, federalism, bullying of small nations, the migrant crisis…it’s a practical term.

During the campaign, I endlessly made this point, almost compulsively correcting the word ‘Europe’ with ‘European Union’, because it was important to me that we talked about the actual issue, rather than reaching for emotion. But I was drowned out. Much as many Leavers on television kept having to say “we won’t be leaving Europe, just the European Union”, I tried in vain to steer the argument toward accuracy, but it was no good. Being accurate was deemed to be simply providing a smokescreen in front of a deep seated hatred. The scoffing and the sliming was too overwhelming. The apparent effort it would take to change this language to be accurate was too much. But this is always a good sign that you’re right, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too worried.

And before I move on, that point is important. It is actually inaccurate to say that Britain is leaving Europe. Inaccurate. Not true. Lefties, I thought this was important to you?

Someone who really gets this distinction is one Jeremy Corbyn. Quiet as he is on his certain desire to leave the European Union (interesting that his followers don’t seem to mind this and let him get away with it, despite their almost worshipful adoration of the EU), he knows full well that Europe is not the same as the EU.

He gets it. His followers resolutely do not. And here is another point which I have been trying to make but cannot get through to anyone with…Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas CANNOT BE EXECUTED whilst Britain is in the European Union. It is impossible. Illegal. Not allowed. If you voted to Remain, but voted for renationalisation, protecting industries etc…you have cast two completely contradictory votes. And anyone claiming the EU can be reformed…well there really will be no convincing you.

It suits the monstrous EU to be called Europe. Much as it suits the wolf to be called Grandma. It knows that whilst people will look past its ugly associations and choose to hear German symphonies in their heads and smell French cheese in their nostrils whenever they talk about ‘Europe’, it is safe.

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist”.

The line was uttered by Kevin Spacey’s character, Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint. Well, that was who he said he was anyway.

Doesn’t really roll off the tongue though…does it?