Category Archives: British politics


(In which the blogger is hurt and raw and makes some possibly ill-advised political predictions.)

I’ve been at a conference for the last two days so I’m still processing the election result. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but in some ways we could have seen this coming. And while I’m in many ways delighted for the SNP and somewhat gleeful at the complete collapse of the Lib Dems, both will bring deep structural problems with them. I am considering dropping some long-term activism work to focus on alleviating some of the immediate and very real harm our new lizard overlords will cause, but at the same time I’m very aware that we can’t afford to drop long-term work because that will only come back to bite us. This government will cause misery, suffering and death in the short term, but in many ways that is only a smoke screen for longer-term projects which will just perpetuate and multiply that suffering. Here’s the five things I’m most worried about on that longer term front:

  1. The EU referendum. I genuinely don’t think that David Cameron has lost connection with reality to the extent that he believes Britain would be better off out of the EU. Leaving the EU would very much be an act of cutting off your nose to spite your face. But I do believe that for a series of short-term gains with both his backbenchers and certain sections of the electorate he has talked himself into a corner and set events into motion that he will not be able to control. A UK exit from the EU would be pointless at best and geopolitically disastrous at worst.
  2. The Human Rights Act. The dominant discourse on human rights in this country continues to baffle me. There’s a certain theme of cutting off your nose to spite your face going on here. It’s almost as if the British public doesn’t realise that they, too, are human. Scrapping the Human Rights Act will of course exacerbate a lot of the short-term immediate hurt this government will cause as many will lose a last recourse to justice, and will entrench inequalities and injustices in the long run.
  3. The Gerrymandering Bill. As if First Past The Post isn’t sufficiently fucked up, this will exacerbate some of the worst issues of the current electoral system and make future Tory majorities more likely. This is the last nail in the coffin of electoral reform for at least a generation.
  4. The Snoopers’ Charter and other surveillance. Granted, a Labour majority government would have probably pushed this one through as well, but this is now a near-certainty. Strengthening the surveillance apparatus of the state is bad news for anyone who is in any way marginalised and attempting to resist. It’s only a matter of time until it’s also bad news for those who believe that they have nothing to hide and thus nothing to fear. Some may also remember that the “emergency” Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 has a sunset clause and can only be renewed by passing new primary legislation. DRIP expires in the middle of this Parliament, I am not holding my breath for it to not be renewed.
  5. Scotland. I have mixed feelings about this one. If the Scots do manage a second run at independence and do get away, I shall wish them much joy. (I actually think even if the Tories are now prepared to genuinely put Devo Max on the table, that will exacerbate the issues and hasten the demise of the Union.) None of which changes the fact that Scottish independence would leave the rest of the UK even more thoroughly screwed.

So yes. Survival will become even more difficult over the next five years, and it is vital that we try and alleviate the pain. But we need to at least keep an eye on the long term, lest those five years turn to fifty.


In which I do dramatic readings…

Against my better judgement, I may have recorded dramatic readings of Paul Bernal’s brilliant Mr Gove and Mr Gove Goes to War!. Apologies for the sound quality on the shouty bits of “Mr Gove Goes to War!” I do imagine he is quite shrill though.
Here they are:

Mr Gove

Mr Gove Goes to War!

Quacks like a duck

I am an atheist. I diligently tick “no religion” on my census form, and I have a lot of time for large chunks of the British Humanist Association’s work, particularly when it comes to issues such as faith schools, bishops in the House of Lords, and assisted dying.
Where I have been struggling recently, though, is with the BHA’s attempts to get recognition for Humanist weddings into the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. I already struggle with the fact that certain (but by far not all) religions have the privilege of having their wedding ceremonies recognised by the state. I come from a culture of far stricter separation of church and state, where you’re welcome to have a religious wedding ceremony, but you have to have a civil one too for it to be legal.
It bothers me somewhat that my friends of most Christian denominations can have one, religious, ceremony while my Pagan friends have to go to the registry office as well as have their handfasting. There is a clear inequality here which we should probably look to resolve one way or another (and to be honest I don’t hugely mind which way). What bothers me slightly more, though, is that Humanism is suddenly trying to walk and quack like a duck.
Abolishing religious privilege is one thing, but it’s not like non-religious people can’t marry in this country – that horse bolted when we allowed the Catholics to marry. In fact, by virtue of having an established church, pretty much anyone has the option to have a civil ceremony or get married in the Church of England. So given that marriage is a legal contract which is already open to people from any and no religion through civil marriage, what exactly is the BHA trying to achieve by demanding the same privileged status for Humanism as some other religions already have?
Of course atheists, agnostics and Humanists have a desire to mark important life events – births, deaths, marriages – with some kind of ceremony. I love the BHA’s idea of Humanist baby naming ceremonies, and I would certainly consider having a Humanist celebrant conduct my funeral. As there is no legal contract involved, neither of these occasions are served in any way by the state. With marriages though, we have a reasonably good existing system in place that’s administered by the state. I would much rather see the BHA’s energy aimed at securing proper separation of church and state than trying to jostle with other religions for a privileged position.

In memory of Margaret Thatcher

I wasn’t in the UK when Margaret Thatcher’s policies wrecked this country and sowed the seeds of many of the problems we are facing today; which is not to say that the Iron Lady’s reach did not extend beyond the Iron Curtain. I was slightly taken aback by Angela Merkel’s praise for Thatcher who, in Merkel’s words, “recognised the power of the freedom movements of Eastern Europe early on and lent them her support”; until of course I remembered that as an East German Merkel’s experience of the fall of the Iron Curtain would have been very different to mine.

West Germans to this day pay the Solidaritaetszuschlag – a tax earmarked for the economic development of East Germany. Where East Germany saw a rise in unemployment, Bulgaria and other countries of the Eastern Bloc saw complete economic collapse. State assets were stolen by those in power or sold off to the highest bidder. As a nine-year-old I fought grown-ups in the supermarket over a bar of soap. I did my homework by candle light or scheduled it around the timetabled blackouts. I stood in endless queues for bread and meat, only to watch as they ran out before I got to the front. Even after we left I watched friends and relatives have to make choices between heating their homes and eating, as their money got so devalued it was only good for burning anyway.

No, the fall of the Iron Curtain wasn’t all velvet revolutions, sunshine and rainbows. While in the long run even countries like Bulgaria may find true democracy and prosperity, it’s been over 20 years now, and we’re still not there. The supremacy of the market advocated by the likes of Margaret Thatcher is maybe not the sole cause of Bulgaria’s continued misery, but it’s certainly a factor.

So while I wasn’t here when Thatcher was in power, I am hardly untouched by her policies. And more to the point, I am here now, and her legacy is still very much alive. I am not celebrating Thatcher’s death, nor am I passing judgment on those who are. But I am hoping to make a small contribution to the death of her legacy. Prompted by this, I am therefore going to donate money to four charities tomorrow, in memory of Margaret Thatcher.

Newcastle Women’s Aid
I live in the Northeast, an area with a proud mining heritage brought to its knees by Thatcher’s policies. The current government’s cuts are also hitting the region disproportionately, and a worsening of economic conditions often brings with it an increase in domestic violence and abuse. At the same time, the government is cutting funding for domestic violence services, putting thousands of women and children and risk. My first donation is therefore going to Newcastle Women’s Aid in the hope of easing the suffering of some of those affected by the cuts locally.

Terrence Higgins Trust
Given Thatcher’s treatment of the LGBT community, it is important to me that some of the money donated in her memory should go towards some of the damage done to that community. The Terrence Higgins Trust is not an LGBT-specific charity; but given the disproportionate impact of HIV on the LGBT community, vastly exacerbated by policies like Section 28, I feel it is a cause worthy of support.

Broken Rainbow
Silencing the LGBT community has unfortunately also exacerbated domestic abuse issues within it. When teachers are not allowed to talk about the kind of relationship you might be in, when service providers refuse to acknowledge that the person who beat you black and blue was of the same sex as you, when an opposite-sex partner has the power to out you as bisexual in a society that won’t accept you, when as late as the early 2000s you had no legal way of getting your gender recognised and even today you can only do so with your spouse’s consent, the whole community suffers. Broken Rainbow, of which I am a trustee, does vital work as the only national LGBT domestic abuse helpline and will also be receiving a donation in memory of Margaret Thatcher tomorrow.

Finally, Brook, the young people’s sexual health charity, will also be receiving some of my money. This government is trying to take sex and relationships education back to the 1950s, trying to do to the young people of today what Section 28 did to the young LGBT people of the 1980s and 1990s, all while Michael Gove sniggers like a 12-year-old behind the bike sheds. Not on my watch.

While our government spends £10 million on the woman who thought there was no such thing as society, let’s all show them what society looks like; and let’s remember, come 2015, what they chose to spend our money on, and what we would choose to spend it on.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

I’m struggling to even begin to enumerate the ways in which the Church of England’s decision on gay bishops is deeply wrong.
Let’s start with the obvious: apparently if you are a gay man in a civil partnership, you may now become a bishop in this country’s established church as long as you a. promise to be celibate and b. repent your evil ways “homosexual activity” of the past. So while your straight colleagues may continue to enjoy the physical as well as emotional benefits of their marriages, the Church will presumably install a webcam in your bedroom, or make you and your partner sleep in separate beds. This of course will do your relationship a world of good, thus enabling you to excel at your job and minister to your congregation ever so much better. Not.
This arrangement is hardly compatible with the duty of care normally owed by an employer to an employee. The Church, however, has a neat way around that, in that clergy are not legally regarded as employees. They have no contract of employment but are technically office holders – a clever trick which allows the Church to get around a whole bunch of employment legislation.
Funnily enough, both the opponent and proponent of the move to allow gay bishops that Radio 4’s PM managed to get on air today thought that the proposed set-up was ridiculous, unenforceable and damaging to the Church’s credibility. But that’s hardly anything new for the CofE. Also unsurprisingly, they then went on to reach very different conclusions from this shared opinion.
The decision, combined with the pre-Christmas fiasco over women bishops, also highlights another longstanding issue: that it is still easier to reach the top tiers of society as a gay man than as a woman of any sexual orientation. In privilege bingo gender apparently trumps sexual orientation every time. The Church has been debating the ordination of female clergy since 1966, and of women bishops in particular since 1975, and an end to this debate does not appear to be in sight. Ridiculous restrictions aside, though, the doors are now open for gay men in civil partnerships to become bishops, less than ten years after the debate even started with the resignation of Jeffrey John as Bishop of Reading.
Finally of course, the Church and the government are setting themselves/each other up for a headache of epic proportions when marriage equality becomes law.
Which, to be honest, would all be perfectly fine if the Church of England’s antics could all simply be filed under “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and the rest of us could be left to our own devices, as tends to be my standard approach to religion in general. The CofE, however, is a political institution in this country. As the established church, it is intimately intertwined with other institutions of state, from the head of state who is also Supreme Governor of the Church to the 26 seats in the legislature reserved for CofE bishops and thus for men – straight and now gay. And yet while those bishops make our laws, they and the institution they represent continue to be specifically exempt from some of said laws, such as the Equality Act, and they continue to demand further exemptions, as in the case of marriage equality. The rule of law this is not. It is therefore high time that the Church of England was both disestablished and subjected to the laws of the land. In the meantime, let’s hope they don’t really install cameras in people’s bedrooms.

Let’s go spoil some ballots!


Tomorrow (today, depending on exactly when you’re reading this), I want you to go out, find your local polling station for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections and spoil your ballot.

Police and crime WHAT?
Quite. Apparently only just under two thirds of us are even aware these elections are happening. The vast majority of us have not heard a single squeak from the so-called candidates.
To recap for the remaining one third, 41 elected “Police and Crime Commissioners” will replace the existing Police Authorities in England (except for London where you have the fortune of already having Boris as your de facto PCC) and Wales, all in the name of making the police more accountable. The new PCCs will be paid between £65,000 and £100,000 annually to produce a “Police and Crime Plan” for their policing area, set priorities on how police funding is spent, produce an annual report, and have the power to appoint, suspend and dismiss Chief Constables. As job descriptions go, my interns have more demanding ones for considerably less money.
Okay, but WHY?
Good question. Something to do with “accountability”. And probably “bobbies on the beat”. Everyone likes bobbies on the beat, right? Quite possibly also to facilitate the privatisation of large chunks of the police to companies like G4S; or to party-politicise the police – because that works so well!
Now, don’t get me wrong. Policing in this country needs urgent and extensive reform. Ask the families of the Hillsborough victims. Ask the families of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes and the 1431 other people who have died in police custody or after contact with the police since 1990. Ask anyone who’s been charged at by the Met’s finest on horseback. Ask the rape victims whose investigations were botched and deliberately obstructed by the police. And ask Steve Messham.
But let’s be clear: Electing John Prescott and the like to produce some glorified pieces of toilet paper is not going to achieve the kind of reform we so badly need. And let’s be clear on something else too: Theresa May does not want you to vote in these elections.
Theresa May doesn’t want me to vote?
The Electoral Reform Society estimates that due to a number of factors – all within Mrs May’s control – turnout at these elections is likely to be a record low, somewhere around the 20% mark. Theresa May continues to cheerfully insist that that doesn’t matter and whoever is elected will have a democratic mandate.
If Theresa May wanted to you vote, here are a few things she could have done:

  • Scheduled the elections to coincide with other, more established elections, e.g. local ones, and not in winter.
  • Had information about the elections and the candidates mailed out to you.
  • Provided information not just online (excluding 7 million registered voters who do not regularly access the internet), and provided information in accessible formats for the disabled.
  • Encouraged independent candidates, rather than shafting them by excluding anyone with any kind of previous conviction, demanding a £5,000 deposit and denying them a free mailshot to voters.

She has done none of these things. Theresa May definitely does not want you to vote.
I don’t want to do what Theresa May wants me to, but these elections are pointless and counterproductive. What do I do?
Whatever you do, don’t do nothing! It plays into the hands of the government. It plays into the hands of extremists candidates. It encourages politicians to keep disregarding you.
You can, if you want to, vote. If you live in a policing area where there are extremist candidates and you feel they are likely to win, then by all means do vote for the lesser evil.
If you want to be annoying and obstructive (and I don’t blame you if you do), you can pocket the ballot paper. It causes all sorts of havoc if a ballot paper has been issued but doesn’t end up in the ballot box. This does carry some risk and I’m told you may get chased down the street by the returning officer. For a slightly safer though lesser level of havoc, you can write “CANCELLED” on your ballot paper and put it in the ballot box.
My preferred option is spoiling your ballot. This makes it clear that you care, and you have bothered to turn up, but also that you do not feel that these elections are legitimate or that any of the candidates deserve your support. Imagine the signal we would send if the election was “won” by spoilt ballots. The other good reason to do this has to do with the candidates’ deposits. As I mentioned above, the deposit is £5,000, and candidates only get it back if they receive at least 5% of the votes cast. Again, imagine the message we would send if even the successful candidate lost their deposit because they were elected on less than 5% of the votes cast, at a turnout of 20%!
How to spoil a ballot
A final thought on the finer points of spoiling your ballot. From my experience as a counting agent at the AV referendum, the Electoral Commission produces guidelines to ensure that as many ballots are counted as valid whilst being interpreted correctly as humanly possible. (Note: Returning officers do not always read these guidelines. Counting agents generally will, and will fight for every ballot they can possibly imagine going their way.) Combine this with this being the first use of the supplementary vote system outside of London Mayoral elections, and I think you really can’t afford to be subtle about spoiling your ballot. Don’t play around with writing numbers in the boxes, ranking your candidates, putting in ticks instead of crosses, etc. Write something on your ballot that makes it very clear that your intention is to spoil it. One suggestion is “No to police commissioners, yes to democracy”. “This is a spoilt ballot” will do just as well. Just don’t give people any chance of counting your ballot as valid unless you want them to.
Happy ballot-spoiling!

[Elsewhere] English identity crisis

I was born Bulgarian, am legally Austrian, have spent most of my life in the UK and I self-identify as European. So let me tell you about Englishness.
It strikes me as highly amusing that the English – and, frankly, from Newcastle it looks more like just those south of Watford – are having an identity crisis prompted by Scots’ desire for independence. It feels like they are waking up to realise that not everyone on this island is English after all. But if they’re not, then what is it that makes English people special and unique? Well, as an outsider, more-or-less, who has spent a substantial amount of time in this country, I have some thoughts on how “Englishness” relates to Britishness and other national identities of the UK.
Read more at the Scottish Times.

[Elsewhere] Andrew Lansley and my cat

I have had cause recently to compare private and public health care systems – with unflattering conclusions for both.
After a week at home with the flu and still not feeling the least bit better, I finally cracked and tried to book an appointment with my GP. The process normally goes something like this: I call at 8.29am, only to get their answerphone which tells me they don’t open until 8.30. I hang up and and redial, at which point the line is already engaged. I then proceed to redial every two minutes for the next half hour or so, until I finally get one step further – into the hold queue.
Read more over at the Scottish Times.

Electoral Reform – R.I.P.

…in which I am bitter and say “I told you so” a lot…
A year ago today, I spent the day stood outside my local polling station, trying to convince people to vote for a change to the Alternative Vote. We all know how that went.
We all know that the No campaign made up numbers about the cost of AV. We all know that we lost by a landslide. Through six months of campaigning not only didn’t we appear to capture a single undecided vote – from the final numbers it looks like we actually lost people who at the start of the campaign had said they’d vote for us.
Frankly, the Yes campaign was run so badly, we deserved to lose. There are two anecdotes that will give you enough of an insight into both the national and the regional campaigns to understand quite how abysmally the show was run. Firstly, on a national level we had the right to send out a direct mailing to every household in the UK that would have been paid for by the Electoral Commission. Yes, that would have been free to us. We didn’t. Read that again. The national campaign failed to get its act together sufficiently to send out the free mailing. In the meantime the No campaign cheerfully took advantage of their free mailing to send us leaflets telling us that no tax payers’ money had been used in sending said leaflets. Some households received four or five pieces of literature from the No campaign and none from us. Secondly, with 15 days to go to polling day I attended a staff meeting at the North East campaign office to discuss the plan for the remaining campaign time. The extent of the plan was “We have to do something every day”. And frankly, we didn’t even manage to do that.
No sooner were the results in that everyone who was anyone in the Yes campaign started writing their memoirs, pointing fingers at everyone else while completely exonerating themselves. Some of them remembered to thank the volunteers in the process; most didn’t.
All of that, however, is water under the bridge. The one bone I still have to pick is with all those people who voted against AV because it wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t PR/STV/insert acronym of your choice here. It was a “miserable little compromise” (thank you, Nick Clegg). It is thanks to those electoral reform purists that the electoral reform agenda has now been buried for the foreseeable future. The really sad thing, dear purists, is that you were played. You were played from start to finish.
We were all dealt a crap hand – that was the whole point. We were given the option of keeping the status quo or making a minor change, a change that was a compromise, that no one in the pro-reform camp really saw as an ideal state; a change that the man who at the time could arguably be seen as one of the strongest pro-reform voices had gone on the record calling a “miserable little compromise”. We were given that crap hand deliberately and instead of taking it and making the best of it, we played it about as badly as we could have.
Having sown division in our ranks from the start, the Conservatives and other supporters of the outdated voting system we have were free to stand back and watch us tear ourselves apart. The LibDems were so terrified of the impending local election doom that they completely failed to support the AV campaign appropriately. Faced with practically certain obliteration in many councils, they still chose to throw their resources down that hole rather than take a long-term view.
The Yes campaign consisted of a fragile coalition of pro-reform groups with barely enough experience and clearly not enough resources between them to get a campaign going. We failed to reach out convincingly beyond the small group of dedicated activists we already had. We failed to build bridges with other groups whose interests potentially overlapped with ours, including the nascent anti-cuts movement, student occupations and other campaign groups. In a political climate increasingly hostile to the government, we kept harping on about the expenses scandal – a message that had played well 18 months previously when someone had had money to conduct the research, but had pretty much stopped being relevant by the time our campaign even started.
All of this time some of the strongest supporters of electoral reform in general opposed this kind of electoral reform in particular, because it wasn’t good enough; because in their eyes it was going to block the path to further reform. Yet somehow they never saw that a no vote would close the door on reform for good. I guess they got what they wanted.
So where are we a year down the line? The only mention of electoral reform over the past 12 months was at the Conservative Party Conference, where speaker after speaker triumphantly declared that the British people had said that FPTP was the best thing since sliced bread. The LibDems are now licking their wounds after another set of spectacular losses in local elections up and down the country. I spoke to a LibDem activist a few weeks ago who said most of them felt too bruised still from the AV campaign to even contemplate electoral reform again. The fragile coalition that was the Yes campaign has died a quiet, and frankly unmourned death, with a lot of bad blood between the different organisations and no clear direction for anyone left in this space who would like to continue to fight for electoral reform.
If you wanted PR and didn’t ruin a good pair of shoes campaigning for AV, didn’t even bother to vote for AV, I hope what you got is what you hoped for. It sure isn’t what I hoped for.