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?

UK General Election 2017 – PREDICTION

I haven’t had any chance to write for a week now due to the birth of my son, so I haven’t waded too much into the political fray, but I did want to quickly make my official predictions for the election whilst he is sleeping. I should point out very early on that these were my most recent electoral predictions:

 

US Election 2016

Trump to win the popular vote by a whisker

Clinton to win the Presidency by 40+ electoral college votes

 

EU referendum

Leave – 45%

Remain – 55%

 

UK General Election 2015

Hung Parliament with Labour the largest (but only just) minority party – Labour to form minority government.

 

So you will see that there is absolutely no need to put any stock into what I am saying. I have always followed the polls, which have in each case turned out to be a load of total nonsense.

For this election, the polls have been doing all sorts of funny things. What seemed like an inevitable Tory landslide has crept back to such a low point that even Tory insiders are rumoured to have put plans in place for a hung parliament. That being the case, I still don’t see anything other than a Tory victory, and given that a taboo seems to have been broken even in old mining towns for voting Tory, this could be a big one.

I would love to elaborate more, but alas there isn’t time. Not only will I be predicting the makeup of the next Parliament, I shall also throw in some social predictions as well. In those, I have much more confidence.

 

Party breakdown (in size order, 650 seats total)

Conservative and Unionist – 368

Labour – 210

Scottish National – 44

Northern Irish – 18

Liberal Democrat – 5

Plaid Cymru – 3

Green – 1

Speaker – 1

UKIP – 0

 

Social (and other) predictions

  1. Despite having barely made a peep about how the system works, there will be uproar over the rules and calls renewed for PR or a change to the voting system, because it’s “not fair”. This is inevitably only an issue once the party they want to win has lost.
  2. There will be widespread calls for “the old” to have their votes taken away from them. They will be chided and castigated and spoken about in the most horrid terms.
  3. Endless despair and misery will flood social media about “the kind of country this is”.
  4. The five stages of grief will be clearly identifiable for several days on social media.
  5. Jeremy Corbyn will continue as Labour leader.
  6. Many will claim that they have had enough and will be leaving the country. They will still vote in the 2022 election.
  7. Paul Nuttall will resign as UKIP leader.
  8. Tim Farron will resign as Lib Dem leader.
  9. Nicola Sturgeon will remain as SNP leader.
  10. A new Westminster leader for the SNP will be appointed after Angus Robertson has lost his seat to the Tories.

 

I’d love to add more but the day is nearly upon us. This is just a bit of fun. Being a non-partisan but politically engaged person has been fun this election. But I had fun in the run up to the referendum and post-vote was anything but. I expect the same this time around.

I am, however, very grateful that this time, rather than being sucked in to the vortex of wailing and gnashing of teeth that is online debate, I shall be able to put all that aside and focus on the new life that Zoya and I have brought into the world. A world that, I believe, is nowhere near as selfish and nasty as many will tell me it is.

In defence of Diane Abbott

On June 8th, Britain goes to the voting booths, and with the polls starting to narrow between the two major parties, the supposedly inevitable Labour wipeout is far from certain. Indeed, some Conservative sources are briefing that plans are even being made for a hung parliament. With an army of 700million 18-24 year olds primed and pumped to definitely get out of the house and definitely vote Labour, this seems like a sensible precaution to take.

A Labour victory would mean many things, not least of all Jeremy Corbyn taking the keys to Downing Street. What I can’t quite get my head around is Emily Thornberry as Foreign Secretary (although I could have easily said the same about Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson) and – worst of all – Diane Abbott as Home Secretary.

Ms. Abbott has, so far in this campaign, committed a series of excruciating gaffes. These are not isolated incidents, as she has a rich history of cringeworthy interviews in which she invariably comes across as smug, self-serving and completely unbothered about whether she is actually answering a question put to her.

However, she has been much derided for an interview she gave to Andrew Marr this week, derision which I think on the whole is not deserved. The whole clip can be found here and is definitely worth a watch. I want to examine this interview, and show why I think descriptions of a ‘car crash interview’ are well wide of the mark.

Marr opens with a question on why she should be trusted on security, to which she responds (after a brief diversion about Manchester, standard politics which any MP would open with) with some nonsense about having worked in the Home Office as a graduate trainee, apparently giving her the knowledge of “how it works on the inside”. But she then talks about her work with diverse communities and having been a working MP for 30 years, giving her the undoubted experience of seeing how the work of the Home Office affects her community. This is (eventually) a perfectly reasonable response.

He then moves on to chuck an old quote of hers about wanting to abolish MI5, her signature having been found on an early day motion calling for the “abolition of conspiratorial groups, not accountable to the British people”. She responds by saying that she wanted it to be reformed, it has now been reformed, and she would not call for its abolition now. Again, completely reasonable and a straight and clear answer. She even bats away Marr’s insinuation that “the old Diane Abbott has gone” by correctly asserting that it is not her that has changed, but MI5, allowing her to now support it.

The next point is around Abbott having voted “around 30 times against anti-terrorist legislation”. Now, this is one for me that I can’t stand hearing about. I hate it when it is used against Labour MPs, Tory MPs and Lib Dem MPs because it simply isn’t fair. It is also this kind of question and fear of its reprisals that turns perfectly intelligent and thoughtful MPs into self-serving, robotic lobby fodder. Legislation is very carefully crafted, often to try to trick or pressure opponents in a particular way, and so to boil down 30 (what would have been huge and wide ranging) pieces of legislation and use them to imply that Abbott is against anti-terror provisions is frustrating. She may have been wrong to vote against these, but we can’t know without examining each one carefully. Alas, not something that can be done in a 12 minute interview, but I would always urge you to look into these things further (and for complete integrity, do it for the Tories as well when they’re attacked in a similar way).

She makes this point brilliantly when Marr puts his next question, which relates to her having voted against proscribing Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organisation before 9/11. She calmly asks him if he has read the legislation he is referring to (he has). She explains that some on the list were, she thought, freedom fighters and dissidents in their countries, and so could not vote to proscribe them as terrorists. She may be right about this, she may be wrong, but it illustrates perfectly the issue with having one vote to cast on a wide variety of issues in one bill.

To give an extreme example, say you had to vote on a bill that was there to designate Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Lib Dem Party as terrorists, how would you vote? Does that mean you don’t think ISIS are terrorists? (Tory friends, this may not be a good example for you…)

After he puts it to her that “no list is perfect, but this is a pretty good list”, she hits back by explaining that she couldn’t possibly vote for it whilst she considered some of those groups to be legitimate dissidents and voices of opposition in their countries. Whether you think she was right or wrong to vote the way she did, she correctly points out that, “you have to give people credit for thinking about how they vote”. This is a more important quality in an MP than blindly following their party whips, and I have huge respect for it.

We move into murkier waters regarding support for the IRA. I won’t get into too much detail here because I could write for ages, but suffice to say I am not with her (or Corbyn) on this one – I do consider her to have supported the IRA against the British state, and with a group that brought such horrible violence, I don’t think this is defensible. The nonsense about her concurrent change of hairstyle and views are obviously ridiculous, but she dodges the real question, claiming simply that she “has moved on”. This is slippery and doesn’t look good. The only dark spot in an otherwise solid interview.

Next, it is put to her that Amber Rudd “spends 2 hours a day” signing orders for various activities requested by the police – would she do the same as Home Secretary? Her response is, for me, perfect. “If it’s put in front of me and there is sufficient evidence, of course I will.” What more could we ask of her?

On the question of tech companies like WhatsApp that provide communication tools, I couldn’t be more opposed to her. She peddles the same nonsense as her opposite numbers across the house about the companies working with the British government to access messages. She recognises there are ‘issues’ with end to end encryption, but she seems to misunderstand (perhaps deliberately) the nature of the thing…it is either encrypted or it isn’t. If you let the state access it, other people could do as well. I oppose any moves to open these things up, and her use of the Manchester attack to push this point is naked political posturing using a tragedy – something she has had no issue with accusing her opponents of. However, this is her view and it is clear and concise. We are free to disagree, and I do.

The issue of DNA databases is raised, with her apparent opposition to having even guilty people’s DNA on the database put to her. She explains that she has had children in her constituency who have never even been convicted of any crime who have their DNA on there. This seems to be a gross violation and, certainly in that case, I would support her opposition.

The rest of the interview focuses on police numbers (during which she actually knows her figures – a refreshing change) and how she would run the Home Office as a black person (how that is relevant I have no idea, and to her credit she bats it back by saying she would run it as best she could, same as with everything else).

Overall, this was a creditable performance and, despite having disagreements with her on several points, she came across as reasonable, professional and competent. I would have my misgivings about seeing her in the Home Office, but following this, some of those have disappeared.

She has been roundly criticised on social media for this interview, but I cannot see why. Corbyn and Abbott do have serious questions to answer about their past IRA support, but that can’t be the only thing we take into consideration about them, especially given how long ago it was. If we don’t allow people to change and adapt, we only reinforce our own prejudices and push people into corners, and that’s not something we should seek.

She has, in the past, been evasive, slippery and simply ridiculous plenty of times. But those times when she isn’t need to be credited. It is only be doing this that we encourage our elected representatives to do it more often. If this is seen as a car crash interview, why should she ever feel like she should be clear or straightforward with us again? We must give credit where and when it is due. This applies to ALL parties and ALL MPs. If we don’t, all we will get is an army of dreary, whipped Michael Fallons.

And we would deserve it.

Syria, Tomahawks and Red Ken

Let’s just take a step back

One of the running jokes on Have I Got News For You is Ian Hislop sarcastically inserting the word ‘allegedly’ in front of outrageous or salacious claims (often true). A nod to ‘the lawyers’ is never too far behind. It’s a running joke because of the face he will pull, or the tone he will employ. However, the joke is based on the very real risk of stating outright on the BBC something which is, or could be, false. This would open them up to quite serious libel charges, and be a strict violation of BBC rules.

I mention this only because there has been a distinct lack of this word appearing recently, particularly in relation to this ‘alleged’ gas attack in Syria. I was amazed to awaken this morning to the hosts of the Today programme stating that Assad has ‘gassed his own people’ as though it was a verifiable fact. Is it? When was this confirmed? And by whom? How did they obtain this information?

If this sounds like an odd thing to say, then we may have hit upon the problem. Forgive me for sounding overly sceptical…but where have all the sceptics gone? Has anyone stopped to question whether this is true or not? Or have we just taken it as gospel?

Before I am reprimanded, I should state outright that I am NOT saying that this didn’t happen. It could well have. But isn’t this all happening a little fast? Are we acting and speaking before we think? On what basis do we believe these things?

I’ll lay my cards on the table – I will be amazed if this is proven to be true. Horrified, yes – but mainly amazed. Because it simply doesn’t make any logical sense. Assad is currently in the middle of a bloody and horrid civil war, one which he clearly plans on winning. He is a dreadful man, a sinister tyrant – but he is not stupid. Bad as he may be, he shows no sign of being genuinely foolish.

Let’s try for a moment to strip all emotion out of this and just focus on reason. Chemical weapons are horrible. They’re also rubbish weapons. They have no demonstrably superior effect in a war situation and cannot kill or wound as efficiently as conventional weapons. Weapons which, at the moment, are in plentiful supply thanks to Russian involvement.

Assad is starting to win and Russian conventional weapons are starting to help him to gain a good foothold. He has also been warned repeatedly that if he uses chemical weapons, Western troops and bombs are coming in. So why on earth would he stop using bombs and start using gas? That would be asking for intervention in a conflict that he’s winning. It doesn’t make any sense. Does the timing not sound a little suspicious?

He is being backed by Russia – RUSSIA. Putin is most definitely not stupid. He knows full well that a gas attack would have absolutely no strategic benefit whatsoever, and surely would never allow such a thing to happen on his watch, given how much he has invested.

This has not been proven to anything like a level that I would be asking for, and I admit to being stunned at how readily a nation that backed Blair’s WMD theory is to believe it all over again. Once more – I’m not saying this didn’t happen…I’m saying it hasn’t been proven.

Is it so much to ask for a little scepticism? What harm could possibly come from just waiting a little to see what can be proven, independently and rigorously? Why are we rushing headlong towards a battlefield that contains Russian troops, tanks, planes and ships? I beg you – take a step back.

A scary response

On a similar note – is it just me who is utterly terrified by the thought that Trump saw some images of kids and sent his military to bomb the crap out of an airfield? Whatever you think of his actions – you may approve – is it not just the slightest bit insane that he can just change his mind so easily when he is at the helm of the largest military the world has ever seen?

Leaders need to free themselves of emotion in order to make good, unclouded decisions. American leaders especially, given the enormous power they can wield. We know Trump can’t do this. How can you make major strategic decision in this manner? More to the point, who is reining him in?

Sadly, US Presidents traditionally need to hold back their generals from going to war. Trump is enabling them. We can’t trust him with a delicate and tense situation involving huge interests and nuclear powers. One slight misstep and this goes horribly wrong.

59 Tomahawk missiles (at a cost of $250,000 each) rained down on an airport at the whim of a baby in a suit. In the parallel universe that we apparently now occupy, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron and Supreme High Lord of the Utopian Left, Justin Trudeau have backed him, while Nigel Farage, Paul Nuttall, Katie Hopkins, Arron Banks, Milo Yiannopolous, Paul Joseph Watson and Ann Coulter have denounced him. As the latter pointed out, plenty of people voted for him on the understanding he wasn’t a Middle East hawk. 13 weeks in, he’s already proven himself one.

Pictures of dead/suffering children are unbearable to see. They’re also an awful basis for making good decisions.

Challenge him on the facts

This whole Ken Livingstone saga has dragged on for far too long. More to the point, Ken and everyone else have been at an impasse that should have been resolved long ago. The main thrusts of the argument to this point have been as follows:

Ken: “Here’s a thing that happened”

Everyone else: “That’s really offended and upset a lot of people, you need to apologise”

Ken: “But it’s true, why should I apologise?”

Everyone else: “Because people are hurt and upset. You need to apologise”

And round and round and round…

Here’s my problem – why didn’t anyone just challenge him on the facts? If you think you’re right about something, there is no reason to apologise. Sometimes people get hurt and that’s a shame, but if they’re hurt by something that is true, there’s not much you can do about that. As it happens, he’s wrong, so he should apologise. But the problem is, every time he is on the airwaves, he isn’t met by this challenge, he is just met by an incredulous presenter who simply cannot believe that he won’t apologise for hurting people’s feelings.

I’ll be completely honest, I think the guy is wrong, but I do have a respect for his doggedness. He hasn’t just backed down like every other person in public life does and apologised just to end it all. Throughout this whole saga, I deliberately didn’t look up his references because I wanted to hear him faced with someone authoritative on the subject to deliver an actual riposte to his claims. The problem with not doing that, is that the people listening just hear his side, then a request for him to apologise. This leaves people going “well if he’s right, why should he?”

The answers as to why he’s wrong come in pieces like David Baddiel’s superb contribution to today’s Guardian. He outlines why Ken is wrong accurately and succinctly. But he hasn’t had the chance to put that to Ken directly. He needs to be debated.

Perhaps this should be a lesson. Demanding an apology is just an appeal to emotion. It’s saying “it doesn’t matter if what you say is true or not, you need to say sorry”. And that’s not good enough. What we need to do is say “here’s why what you said is wrong, it’s here in this respected book, this respected and knowledgeable expert says so, you’ve interpreted it in this way when really you should have done it that way. Now apologise.”

A world where people are forced to apologise for something they’re not sorry for – what kind of world is that?