Monday, March 19, 2018

Nick Cohen on conspiracy theories

Twenty years ago the people who thought they were the political mainstream could dismiss conspiracy theories as the beliefs of a small number of cranks and nutters.

I certainly used to take for granted that the majority of people would agree with the rule which I believe was first formulated by Sir Bernard Ingham when he was Margaret Thatcher's press secretary:

(Often expressed as "Nine times out of ten you'll be wiser to believe a cock-up theory than a conspiracy theory.")

The most convincing reason to believe that conspiracy theories are usually wrong has been put forward by many people from the comedian David Mitchell to the journalist David Aaronovitch - you usually have to credit the conspirators with confidence that thousands of people will do their jobs perfectly and that none of them will blab.

I have been quoting the late Stephen  Hawking in my "quote of the day" pieces since his death last week. As professor Hawking said of one conspiracy theory,

"But, but, but and again, but!" (to quote Sir Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," from which the quote is taken.)

Although I still think that Sir Bernard was dead right about the sensible way to judge what is really happening, after 2017 the idea that the overwhelming majority of people agree that conspiracy theories are usually silly is coming to look like somewhere between complacency and arrogance.

These days it is only too obvious that millions of people believe what would once have been dismissed as conspiracy theories by those who thought we were the overwhelming majority but now find ourselves to be one strand of thought in a deeply divided society - and not always the dominant strand.

Of course, even if they are not responsible for everything that goes on in the world, conspiracies do exist and some crimes are down to them. Somebody conspired to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter and almost any explanation for the attack would be described as a conspiracy theory by anyone who disagreed with it.

I note incidentally the announcement in the past 24 hours that Vladimir Putin has been re-elected with an increased majority, which does at least disprove one argument put forward last week against Russian involvement in the Salisbury attack, namely that the Russian state would have been foolish to carry out an assassination just before a Russian presidential election.

We now know that, if Putin calculated that being accused by the West of trying to murder someone who many Russians would regard as a traitor would not hurt him in the election, he was, sadly, entirely correct.

At the weekend Nick Cohen wrote a powerful but depressing piece in the Observer about the rise of conspiracy theories from the fringes of politics to the mainstream, and what to do about it, which you can read here.

To finish this post on a less depressing note, the medical site "Pulse" has an amusing article here by a Bracknell GP called Dr Nick Ramscar who descibed how he used the "cock-up-theory" to persuade one patient to at least consider taking the antibiotic he wanted to prescribe her ...

Quote of the day 19th March 2018

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sunday Music spot: Stainer’s “I saw the Lord”: sung by Magdalen College Oxford

A little early in the year since this was written for Trinity Sunday, but never mind,

Quote of the day 18th March 2018

"Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious."

Professor Stephen Hawking 1942-2018. RIP.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

From the PM's speech at Conservatgive Spring Forum:

"When Brexit is done, and Britain steps into the new future that awaits us, I want it to be this party, the Conservatives Party, that leads our country into the next decade and beyond.”

The facts about Free School Meals

There has been a lot of duplicitous scaremongering about free school meals from the Labour party over the past week. Here are the facts about what the government is doing.

As Channel 4 Factcheck confirmed here in an article entitled

"Labour aren't telling the whole truth about free school meals,"

Labour "haven't mentioned two key points:
  • No one who is currently eligible for free school meals under Universal Credit will lose their entitlement.
  • In fact, under Universal Credit, 50,000 more children will receive school meals by 2022 than would have done under the previous benefits system.
This is not a case of the government taking free school meals from a million children who are currently receiving them: it’s about comparing two future, hypothetical scenarios. Both of them are more generous than the old benefits system"

Saturday Music Spot: Purcell's "Music for a while"

Absolute masterpiece by Thomas Purcell, sung by the countertenor Andreas Scholl. The previous version of this which I posted, some five months ago, was sung equally beautifully by tenor Thomas Cooley and can be found here.

The lyrics are:

"Music, music for a while, shall all your cares beguile:
Wondering how your pains were eas'd,
And disdaining to be pleas'd,
Till Alecto free the dead.
From their eternal bands,
Till the snakes drop from her head,
And the whip from out her hands."

Quote of the day 17th March 2018

"However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. Where there's life, there's hope."

Professor Stephen Hawking, 1942-2018. RIP.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Miriam Shaviv writes in the JC about the rise in antisemitism

I had never expected to see in my lifetime - indeed, within the lifetime of some who still remember the Nazi Holocaust - that tolerance for Anti-Semitism could possibly become as widespread as it appears to be now.

There is an article in the Jewish Chronicle by Miriam Shaviv, called

The future is not looking good for us,

which I think anyone who wants to live in a non-racist society would do well to read.

She compares the gradual rise in public acceptance of Anti-Semitism to the old fable of the boiled frog -

Put a frog in a pot of hot water and it jumps right out, instinctively aware of the danger to its life.

But place the frog in a pot of cold water and bring it to the boil slowly, and the frog will swim around, gradually adjusting his body temperature and acclimatising to the rising heat.

By the time it realises that it is about to die, it is too late. The frog has expended all its energy and can no longer jump out of the pot.

She argues that the present threat of hostility to Jewish people

"is heating up gradually, day by day, week by week, so we adjust to every new horror and live with 'the new normal'. And therein lies the danger. We’re already half-cooked.

Quote of the day 16th March 2018

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Standing together

It may not have escaped the notice of some of the politically conscious readers of this blog that there is one person who I have studiously avoided quoting or referring to in the past 72 hours or so and an open goal that I have pointedly refrained from taking aim at.

That it because this county used to have a tradition - which the majority of MPs of all parties continue to respect - that "politics ends at the water's edge."

According to that tradition, when your country is involved in a confrontation with a hostile foreign power - and sadly, that is what Putin has evidently decided Russia under his leadership will be - you make every effort to stand together, and put together a united front against our country's enemies.

As Labour MP Pat McFadden told the House of Commons yesterday and as I quoted this morning,

"Responding with strength and resolve when your country is under threat is an essential component of political leadership. There is a Labour tradition that understands that, and it has been understood by Prime Ministers of all parties who have stood at that Dispatch Box."

The fact that most Labour MPs have shown that they are willing to support the Prime Minister of our country when we have been the target of a despicable external attack does not make them "red tories" and the fact that I choose to recognise their support does not make me soft of socialism.

It is about standing together against a bully who is culpable for acts of attempted and actual murder in our country and who is a threat to the country all of us love.

Expressing the point very well, here is a link to an article by Labour MP Anna Turley explaining why she agrees with Theresa May about Russia

Joint statement by the US, British, French and German governments

The governments of Great Britain, the United States of America, France and Germany have issued a joint statement about the Salisbury poisoning.

Here is the full text of the joint statement.

"We, the leaders of France, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom, abhor the attack that took place against Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK, on 4 March 2018.

A British police officer who was also exposed in the attack remains seriously ill, and the lives of many innocent British citizens have been threatened. We express our sympathies to them all, and our admiration for the UK police and emergency services for their courageous response.

This use of a military-grade nerve agent, of a type developed by Russia, constitutes the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the second world war. It is an assault on UK sovereignty and any such use by a state party is a clear violation of the chemical weapons convention and a breach of international law. It threatens the security of us all.

The United Kingdom briefed thoroughly its allies that it was highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. We share the UK assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation, and note that Russia’s failure to address the legitimate request by the UK government further underlines its responsibility.

We call on Russia to address all questions related to the attack in Salisbury. Russia should in particular provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Our concerns are also heightened against the background of a pattern of earlier irresponsible Russian behaviour.

We call on Russia to live up to its responsibilities as a member of the UN Security Council to uphold international peace and security."

There has also been a White House statement in support of Britain:

Quotes of the day 15th March 2018

"It seems to me, without any access to closed information, that the use of this particularly bizarre and dreadful way of killing an individual is a deliberate choice by the Russian Government to put their signature on a particular killing so that other defectors are left in no doubt that it is the Russian Government who will act if they are disappointed in any way by those people’s actions."

(Kenneth Clarke MP)

"As the Prime Minister has said, the attack on Mr Skripal and his daughter was an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom. There has to be a robust response to the use of terror on our streets. We must act in a measured way to show that we will simply not tolerate this behaviour. In that regard, I welcome, and associate those of us on the Scottish National party Benches with, the measures contained in the statement. On this matter, I commit my party to working constructively with the Government."

(Ian Blackford MP, SNP leader in the House of Commons)

"I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement. Her conclusion about the culpability of the Russian state is immensely serious. In addition to its breaches of international law, its use of chemical weapons and its continued disregard for the rule of law and human rights, that must be met with unequivocal condemnation.

May I welcome the measures she has taken to downgrade the intelligence capability of the Russian state, and particularly the work that I understand has started with the United Nations?

Within the United Nations, it is important to expose what the Russians are doing and to build the broadest possible support against them."

(Yvette Cooper, Labour MP and chairman of the House of Commons Home Affairs select committee)

"I and my party fully support the Prime Minister’s statement and position."

(Sir Vince Cable MP, leader of the Liberal Democrats)

"It is clear that there is almost unanimous support in the House for my right hon. Friend’s proportionate and right response to this crisis. In particular, she is absolutely right to use the mechanisms of the United Nations to make it clear to everyone what has happened in this ​case."

(Andrew Mitchell, Conservative MP)

"I assure the Prime Minister that most of us on the Labour Benches fully support the measures she has announced today".

(Labour MP Ben Bradshaw)

"I completely support everything the Prime Minister has said today. The truth is that, under Putin, the Russian Federation has managed to combine all the worst facets of communism and all the worst facets of rampant capitalism, all wrapped up inside a national security state which keeps its people poor and kills his political opponents."

(Chris Bryant, Labour MP)

"Responding with strength and resolve when your country is under threat is an essential component of political leadership. There is a Labour tradition that understands that, and it has been understood by Prime Ministers of all parties who have stood at that Dispatch Box. That means when chemical weapons are used, we need more than words, but deeds."

(Pat McFadden, Labour MP)

"The Russian economy is a fraction but its expenditure on offensive capability a multiple of ours. Is there a lesson there?"

(Desmond Swayne, Conservative MP)

All the above quotes are taken from the Hansard report of the debate following yesterday's statement by the Prime Minister on the Salisbury nerve gas attack and the government's response. That report can be read in full here.

Some further quotes:

"This week, as every week, I oppose Tory policies that I believe are harming my constituents. But today I support the action the PM is taking following despicable Russian aggression against our country one hundred per cent."

(Wes Streeting, Labour MP, on Twitter)

"I expressed my support for the initial steps that the prime minster has outlined in the House of Commons this afternoon.

"Obviously as legislation is brought forward we will scrutinise that carefully.

"But it is very clear that Russia cannot be permitted to unlawfully kill or attempt to kill people on the streets of the UK with impunity."

(Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, SNP, statement outside No 10 yesterday)

I was shocked.”

“I never imagined even in my bad dreams that this chemical weapon, developed with my participation, would be used as a terrorist weapon.”

Russian whistleblower Vil Mirzayanov, who was one of the chemists who developed the Novichok nerve poison during the cold war. He later grew angry that Russia failed to declare the existence of its' chemical weapons when international treaties to prevent the use by any nation of such weapons  were signed after the Cold War.

He was sacked and jailed for going public about what he knew and later moved to the USA.

Mr Mirzayanov, 83, is also quoted by Reuters as saying he had no doubt that Russian President Vladimir Putin was responsible, given that Russia maintains tight control over its Novichok stockpile and that the agent is too complicated for a non-state actor to have weaponised.

The Kremlin all the time, like all criminals, denying - it doesn’t mean anything,” Mirzayanov said.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Midweek madrigal: "Hence Stars! Too Dim Of Light"

Stephen Hawking RIP

One of the greatest scientists of all time died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of this morning at the age of 76.

After developing Motor Neurone disease in his 20s Professor Stephen Hawking spent most of his life in a wheelchair yet from that wheelchair his mind roamed the Universe as that of few others could. He was the first to set out a theory of cosmology as a union of relativity and quantum mechanics.

He also discovered that black holes leak energy and fade to nothing - a phenomenon that would later become known as Hawking radiation.

In a statement his children, Lucy, Robert and Tim, said:

"We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today.

"He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years."

They praised his "courage and persistence" and said his "brilliance and humour" inspired people across the world.

"He once said, 'It would not be much of a universe if it wasn't home to the people you love.' We will miss him forever."

A book of condolence is due to be opened at Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge, where Prof Hawking was a fellow.

Professor Hawking was reportedly offered a knighthood in the late 1990s but turned it down because of a disagreement with the government of the day about the funding of science.

Prof Lord Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, who was at university with Prof Hawking when he was diagnosed, said his friend had

"amazing willpower and determination".

"Even mere survival would have been a medical marvel, but of course he didn't just survive," he said.

"He became one of the most famous scientists in the world."

Prime Minister Theresa May called him a "brilliant and extraordinary mind" and "one of the great scientists of his generation". She added: "His courage, humour and determination to get the most from life was an inspiration. "His legacy will not be forgotten."

On a lighter note, he appeared on a number of popular television shows as himself, including "Red Dwarf," "The Big Bang Theory," and he was even the only person in the fifty year history of Star Trek to, in a manner of speaking, appear as himself.

I am sure Brian Cox is right that Stephen Hawking will still be remembered a thousand years from now.

Rest in Peace.

Quote of the Day 14th March 2018

There is a lot of truth in what Winston Churchill said about Russia in radio broadcast in October 1939. But perhaps today there is an even better key to understanding the actions of the Russian state - Vladimir Putin 's personal interests. Even when they differ from those of the Russian people.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The PM's speech in full

I referred last night to the statement Theresa May gave in the Commons yesterday about the Salisbury poison attack but I think it is worth quoting in full.

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the incident in Salisbury - and the steps we are taking to investigate what happened and to respond to this reckless and despicable act.

Last week my Rt Hon Friends, the Foreign and Home Secretaries, set out the details of events as they unfolded on Sunday the 4th of March. I am sure the whole House will want to once again pay tribute to the bravery and professionalism of our emergency services and armed forces in responding to this incident, as well as the doctors and nurses who are now treating those affected.

Our thoughts, in particular, are with Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey who remains in a serious but stable condition. In responding to this incident, he exemplified the duty and courage that define our emergency services; and in which our whole nation takes the greatest pride.

Mr Speaker, I want to pay tribute to the fortitude and calmness with which people in Salisbury have responded to these events and to thank all those who have come forward to assist the police with their investigation.

This incident has, of course, caused considerable concern across the community.

Following the discovery of traces of nerve agent in Zizzi’s restaurant and The Mill pub, the Chief Medical Officer issued further precautionary advice. But as Public Health England have made clear, the risk to public health is low.

Mr Speaker, I share the impatience of this House and the country at large to bring those responsible to justice - and to take the full range of appropriate responses against those who would act against our country in this way. But as a nation that believes in justice and the rule of law, it is essential that we proceed in the right way – led not by speculation but by the evidence. That is why we have given the police the space and time to carry out their investigation properly.

Hundreds of officers have been working around the clock – together with experts from our armed forces - to sift and assess all the available evidence; to identify crime scenes and decontamination sites and to follow every possible lead to find those responsible. That investigation continues and we must allow the police to continue with their work.

Mr Speaker, this morning I chaired a meeting of the National Security Council in which we considered the information so far available. As is normal, the Council was updated on the assessment and intelligence picture, as well as the state of the investigation.

It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok’.

Based on
  • the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down;
  • our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so;
  • Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations;

the Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

Mr Speaker, there are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the 4th of March.
Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.

This afternoon my Rt Hon Friend the Foreign Secretary has summoned the Russian Ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and asked him to explain which of these two possibilities it is – and therefore to account for how this Russian-produced nerve agent could have been deployed in Salisbury against Mr Skripal and his daughter.

My Rt Hon Friend has stated to the Ambassador that the Russian Federation must immediately provide full and complete disclosure of the Novichok programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. And he has requested the Russian Government’s response by the end of tomorrow.

Mr Speaker, this action has happened against a backdrop of a well-established pattern of Russian State aggression:
  • Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe.
  • Russia has fomented conflict in the Donbas, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defence and the Bundestag, among many others.
  • During his recent State of the Union address, President Putin showed video graphics of missile launches, flight trajectories and explosions, including the modelling of attacks on the United States with a series of warheads impacting in Florida.
  • While the extra-judicial killing of terrorists and dissidents outside Russia were given legal sanction by the Russian Parliament in 2006.
  • And of course Russia used radiological substances in its barbaric assault on Mr Litvinenko.

We saw promises to assist the investigation then, but they resulted in denial and obfuscation – and the stifling of due process and the rule of law.

Mr Speaker, following Mr Litvinenko’s death we expelled Russian diplomats, suspended security co-operation, broke off bilateral plans on visas, froze the assets of the suspects and put them on international extradition lists. And these measures remain in place.

Furthermore our commitment to collective defence and security through NATO remains as strong as ever in the face of Russian behaviour. Indeed our armed forces have a leading role in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence with British troops leading a multinational battlegroup in Estonia.

We have led the way in securing tough sanctions against the Russian economy. And we have at all stages worked closely with our allies and we will continue to do so. We must now stand ready to take much more extensive measures.

Mr Speaker, on Wednesday we will consider in detail the response from the Russian State. Should there be no credible response, we will conclude that this action amounts to an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the United Kingdom. And I will come back to this House and set out the full range of measures that we will take in response.

Mr Speaker, this attempted murder using a weapons-grade nerve agent in a British town was not just a crime against the Skripals. It was an indiscriminate and reckless act against the United Kingdom, putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk. And we will not tolerate such a brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil.

I commend this Statement to the House."

Quote of the day 13th March 2018

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Prime Minister's statement about the Salisbury Attack.

Theresa May told the House of Commons today that the Salisbury attack was carried out using a “military grade” nerve agent developed by the former Soviet Union.

The PM said that Sergei Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with one of a series of nerve agent known collectively as Novichock, and there were two possible explanations: either the attack was an act of the Russian state, or Russia has lost control of a deadly banned substance.

She said that “the government has concluded it was highly likely Russia was responsible” for the attack.

Russia’s ambassador in London has been summoned to the Foreign Office to explain whether the Salisbury attack was “a direct action by the Russian state” and if not how the Russian Government managed to lose control of its stock of nerve agents.

Novichok is a series of nerve agents that were developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s and which are allegedly the most deadly nerve poisons ever made.

In the 1990s trial for treason of Russian whistleblower  Vil Mirzayanov, the Russian authorities openly admitted that these agents had been produced by the Soviet state.

Mirsayanov had gone public with his safety and environmental concerns after finding concentrations of hazardous substances at more than eighty times the safe level outside a Russian chemical weapons facility.

Expert witness statements prepared for the KGB by three scientists said that Novichok and other related chemical agents had indeed been produced and the KGB argued in court that therefore the disclosure of this by Mirzayanov represented high treason. (He was initially imprisoned but later released.)

Boris Johnson has told the Russian ambassador that Moscow must “immediately provide full and complete disclosure” of its Novichok nerve gas programme to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, giving Russia until the end of Tuesday to respond, said Mrs May.

She added that  if Russia does not give a “credible response”, the government will conclude that the attack involved “unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom.

The PM also said that if the government does come to that conclusion, she will return to the Commons to outline proposals for proportionate retaliatory measures.

Sir Ken Dodd RIP

Knotty Ash's King of Comedy died yesterday at the age of 90.

Sir Kenneth Arthur Dodd was born on 8 November 1927 in the Liverpool suburb of Knotty Ash, the son of a coal merchant. His birthplace had a central part in his later stage show as he wove surreal tales around Knotty Ash and its inhabitants the "Diddymen."

Ken Dodd had a comedy career of amazing longevity and was the last of the Music Hall giants. He shared with some of the funniest people I ever saw perform that he could make a perfectly ordinary greeting like "Good Morning" or even just a lift of an eyebrow into a gag which would reduce an audience to fits of laughter.

I can recall seeing him perform as a child and he could deliver lines like

"Isn't it a wonderful day for going into Marks & Spencers and shouting 'Woolworths!'"

in a way which made the words far funnier when you watched and heard him say them than they could ever appear on the page of a computer screen.

Ken Dodd continued to work and make people laugh practically right up to the end.

He was knighted a year ago in last year's New Year's Honours list and married his long-term partner on Friday.

There will never be another Ken Dodd.

Rest in Peace

Quote of the day 12th March 2018

Sunday, March 11, 2018

A final thought for Mother's Day

How should the UK respond to Monday's poison attack?

This article represents my own opinions and is not necessarily the policy of the Conservative party.

A major investigation is still going on into the events in Salisbury on Monday. However, it is already clear that three people - the two targets and a police officer who went to help them - were made seriously ill, and in total more than 20 people required hospital treatment, because someone used a  sophisticated and rare nerve gas to attack them and thereby also endangered others in the vicinity.

It is inconceivable that this was the action of a group of individuals. Only a government, and not many governments, could have done it.

It is right that the government should seek to be as certain as possible who was actually responsible before taking action about it. But with hindsight it was a mistake that the government then in office did not take stronger action when Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in a similar manner in 2006. That mistake must not be repeated.

I am not suggesting the response Britain would have made in the 18th or 19th centuries - when the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter would have been seen as an act of war and our country could and did declare war on countries, including world powers, for much less - would be appropriate today. Today nations are rightly very reluctant to go to war with any nation and indeed invading Russia has rarely ended well for those foolish enough to attempt it.

(Although Vladimir Putin might reflect that quite a few of the same historical figures like Napoleon and Hitler who found out the hard way that invading Russia is a bad mistake also found the hard way that picking a fight with Britain isn't a great idea either.)

If evidence can be found that Russia was behind Monday's attack I don't think boycotting the World Cup is remotely sufficient response.

Christian May argues here in City AM that although "It is difficult and dangerous to go toe to toe with a thuggish regime like Putin's Russia but inaction carries its own costs too and cannot be an option."

He suggests expelling every single Russian diplomat from the country.

I would go a stage further - I would break off diplomatic relations, recall all our own diplomats from Russia, and thereby deprive Putin of the opportunity to expel them in response when we sling all his spies and diplomats out of Britain.

He also suggests that a draft law currently working its way through parliament permitting targeted sanctions should be given priority, and I agree.

Dan Hodges writes about his former party

Dan Hodges is a former Labour party and Trade Union activist and employee who left the party when Ed Miliband was leader.

He disagreed strongly with his then leader's policy on how the West should respond to Syrian president Assad's use of poison gas against his own people and presentation of that policy: it would be fair to say he is even more unhappy with what is happening in the Labour party now.

Dan has a piece on his former party in the Mail on Sunday today. (For those who follow such things, of the two Mail titles that's the one which is less likely use insults like "Enemies of the people" for people who annoy it such as judges who rule that the law doesn't say what the paper wants it to say.)

I think we can reasonably assume that the Mail on Sunday's lawyers will have checked Dan's article very carefully and it would never have been published unless they were confident that they could substantiate the comments he makes in a court of law should an action be brought.

That won't stop the supporters of Momentum and those who like the idea of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister from dismissing anything written in the Mail on Sunday by a defector from the Labour party as an obvious smear.

In the present political climate one wonders if producing concrete proof that a political party was planning the massacre of the firstborn would persuade it's partisans to withdraw their support.

Not very long ago it would have been unthinkable that a British mainstream political party could put itself in a position in which former members could write articles like the one which Dan published today about it. And if it did, it would be all the more unthinkable that such a party could continue to be regarded as a mainstream political party which could win 40% of the vote in a general election and continue to record around 40% support in the opinion polls.

The events of 2016 and 2017 have turned that view on its head. We now have Donald Trump in the White House and all over the Western World the lunatics have either taken over the asylum or are threatening to do so.

For those who do want to read it Dan's article can be read here.

Third and final version of "The Sound of Silence" this time by VOCES8

And here is another different rendition of "The Sound of Silence" this time for eight unaccompanied human voices sung by VOCES8.

Second Sunday music spot: Disturbed "The Sound Of Silence"

I posted the Simon and Garfunkel original version of "The Sound of Silence" yesterday and in the comments Jim King drew my attention to the "Disturbed" version. Each is brilliantly done in its' own way and I think you get more by having listened to them both than if you are just familiar with one version.

That's because it says something interesting about the nature of music how the same wonderful piece of music can be performed so differently and yet the same idea comes through. Hence I thought I would post this one too.

Sunday music spot: "Zadok the Priest" (Handel)

Quote of the day 11th March 2018

"How to give a car crash a bad name"

(Tom Harris, former Labour MP, title of the second chapter of his recent book "Ten years in the death of the Labour party."

The chapter covers Gordon Brown's leadership of the Labour party and the country from just after the decision not to call an early general election in October 2007 to the MPs expenses scandal in 2009,)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Evidence for the truth of a familiar saying

A saying often attributed to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson and various other people is that

"a lie will fly around the whole world while the truth is getting its boots on"

and various similar alternative versions. Actually, it is unlikely that any of them originated the phrase, and the first person to make an observation along these lines was probably Swift when he said,

Very ironically, one of the things which impressed me about the commitment to accuracy of this report into the modern version of this is that they got the above quote right in the opening paragraph, quoting what Jonathan Swift actually did say and not what Twain and Churchill almost certainly didn't (except, possibly, quoting someone else.)

If you are a regular reader of social media, how often have you seen someone print a screenshot of a false story with huge numbers of likes and retweets/shares, and another of a correction to it with the truth which does not have anything like as many likes or retweets/shares?

In my case, I've seen that phenomenon a lot more than I like.

I had hoped that the fact that we tend to notice and remember such instances would create a sort of "memory effect" that precisely because they is disturbing and contrary to what we ought to be able to expect we would remember them more frequently than the instances where corrections get more attention.

Sadly a huge study of the rate at which accurate and inaccurate Tweets spread suggests that Swift was describing only too accurately what often happens on social media.

A major study by MIT researchers published this week in Science magazine,

"The spread of true and false news online"

found evidence that "Lies spread faster than the truth" particularly in respect of political news.

The authors studied all the most re-tweeted posts on Twitter over the period from 2006 to 2017 for which it was possible to identify whether the tweet was true or false.

It will be immediately obvious to any intelligent person reading this that how you categorise a tweet as true or false is absolutely critical to whether this study is worth anything. In the words of the authors,

"We classified news as true or false using information from six independent fact-checking organizations that exhibited 95 to 98% agreement on the classifications."

The fact-checking organisations concerned included Snopes, Politifact, and

When the people preparing the study had used the six fact-checking organisations to classify 126,000 tweets, which, together had been retweeted more than 4.5 million times, as true or false and determined how far and fast they spread, they found that:
  • "Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information" and this effect was most pronounced for false political news.
  • A false story reaches 1,500 people six times quicker, on average, than a true story does.
  • Falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to get retweeted than accurate news.
This study was specific to Twitter, partly because Twitter co-operated with the study team. However, it is entirely possible that the human characteristics which cause people to share false news on Twitter, presumably mostly in the belief that it is true, may well apply to other social media.

I found this study deeply alarming and depressing. Nobody in the study or in the reports I have read about it has a fully satisfactory answer to what we do about it, but I do have a couple of suggestions.

1) If you see a story which you do not know for certain to be true but which really jumps out at you - either because it supports your side of an argument which is important to you or because it is particularly shocking or powerful - think very carefully before you share it. If in any doubt at all, see if there is anything you can do to check the validity of the story. When I see a story which makes me think "Whisky Tango Foxtrot!" and I check if there is any truth in that story, I frequently discover in no more than a few minutes that the story ranges from a very incomplete picture to utter rubbish.

2) Society needs to have a diverse range of media available so that the truth has at least a chance to get out that and this should include conventional "MSM" media. Politicians who seek to discredit, threaten, de-legitimise or curtail the actions of large swathes of the media in general - as opposed to correcting specific mistakes where they have evidence to back up what they say - should be regarded as highly dangerous.

And the 2018 prize for the most ridiculous example of double standards goes to ...

Following a recommendation from the Electoral Commission that voters should be required to produce ID at polling stations in order to reduce electoral fraud (e.g. voting more than once by impersonating someone else,) the government is trialling a requirement for Voter ID at this year's local elections in five local authority areas.

The intention is that if this is successful if will be rolled out everywhere at the next general election in 2022.

A similar requirement is already in place in Northern Ireland, where ID has been required to vote for thirty years and prescribed forms of photographic ID since 2003 and there is no evidence whatsoever that it has materially reduced turnout. There are currently seven different forms of photo ID accepted in Northern Ireland, including an Electoral Identity Card. As you can read here, studies show that

"The Northern Irish experience suggests voters quickly adapt to the requirement, with little or no negative impact on turnout."

Incidentally, while dismissing suggestions that Voter ID is a wicked Tory plot to stop Labour supporters from voting, the same academic article linked to above also suggests that more should be done to improve the integrity of postal voting and although individual registration and the requirement for all postal ballots to be accompanied by a slip with the voter's signature and date of birth (in a separate envelope outside the one with the ballot paper) have certainly helped with that, I think the author has a point that the issue of how easy it is to get a postal or proxy vote would benefit from further study.

Proposals for voter ID have, however, come under fire from a number of directions including the Labour party - whose leader, incidentally, employs a 'campaign manager for the Labour party' who has been convicted of electoral fraud - and who have been energetically representing the attempt to crack down on voter fraud as an attack on democracy.

Since the Labour party requires people to produce ID before voting in it's own internal democratic processes such as internal Labour party elections, this is an absolutely bizarre example of double standards.

If an image of a social media message which has been doing the rounds is accurate and not from some kind of parody account, the prize for the most extreme example of double standards this year on the issue goes to the Bolton branch of Momentum, for this:

Yes, they are holding a meeting to plan a campaign against ID and they require the people attending to bring a membership card - a form of ID.

Excuse me while I roll on the floor laughing ...

Education secretary Damian Hinds promises to cut teachers' workload

In his first major speech to the teaching profession at the Association of School and College Leaders' conference in Birmingham, education secretary Damian Hinds promised to “strip away” pointless tasks to allow teachers to “focus on what actually matters”.

He appeared on stage with the chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, and Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, in a discussion on how to tackle workload.

Mr Hinds said thatRight now, we have so many brilliant teachers in our schools… but, with rising pupil numbers, I recognise that recruitment and retention is difficult for schools.

“And, clearly, one of the biggest threats to retention, and also to recruitment, is workload.

“Too many of our teachers and our school leaders are working too long hours – and on non-teaching tasks that are not helping children to learn.”
“We need to get back to the essence of successful teaching – strip away the workload that doesn’t add value and give teachers the time and the space to focus on what actually matters.

The education secretary announced a commitment to work with OFSTED, regional schools commissioners, the Education and Skills Funding Agency and multi-academy trusts to clarify their roles and ensure that teachers and school leaders have a clear understanding of who they are accountable to.

Last month it was announced that Regional Schools Commissioners had agreed to dramatically scale back visits to schools to avoid duplication with Ofsted

Mr Hinds promised today that there will be no new tests or assessments for primary schools, and no changes to the national curriculum, GCSE or A levels for the remainder of this Parliament, beyond those already announced.

He also promised to work with teaching unions and professional bodies to develop a strategy to drive recruitment and boost retention of teachers.

Mr Hinds added:I know that the current accountability regime can feel very high-stakes for school leaders – and that this filters down to all staff.

“I also know that schools can at times feel accountable to multiple masters, and even subject to multiple ‘inspections’. That is why I will be making a statement – following consultation with ASCL and others – to clarify the roles of actors within the system.

“We need to ensure that headteachers have clarity about how the system works: we need a transparent, supportive system, where schools know the rules of the game and the role of every player.

“That is why I want us to work together – government and the regional schools commissioners, Ofsted, schools, teachers and unions – to make this a reality.

Saturday music spot: The Sound of Silence (Original 1964 version)

Simon and Garfunkel's classic ...

Quote of the day 10th March 2018

"Russian propagandists now have their own Western radio and television stations, and work across the web to influence the results of elections and referendums. And it seems as if nothing has changed. Just as the old Soviet Union funded Communist propaganda, so Russia now funds Putin propaganda. Just as the old Soviet Union funded the Communist parties of Europe, so Putin’s Russia provides money for Europe’s new far-right parties. "

"No foreigner would volunteer to fight for Putin’s Russia. By definition, the appeal of Russian nationalism is limited to Russians. Julian Assange and a few Western journalists have moved from opposing Western imperialism to supporting Russian imperialism. But although the journey is surprisingly easy to make, there is too much hypocrisy along the way for any decent person to stomach."

"Russia uses RT and Sputnik to settle scores and blacken the name of reputable critics."

"A child could understand the game Russia is playing. But Russia is also spinning a line that is harder to expose: we may be a corrupt, authoritarian gangster state, it implies, but you are no better. You have no right to look down on us or insist we follow your liberal standards. If we are trash, so are you."

"Russian propaganda, of course, never talks openly about the criminals who run the country. But its question — “what right have you to criticise?” — is always present. The picture of Western countries that emerges is of lands where corporations have captured politicians, where media freedom is a sham, and everything you hear from official channels is a lie."

"This is not the whole truth about the West, but it is a part of the truth about parts of the West for part of the time."

"Many have written with astonishment and more than a little disgust about how far Left and Right have united in their admiration of Putin. How, we wondered, can Corbyn’s chief strategist Seumas Milne and sections of the British Left join with Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump in doffing the cap to the Russian autocrat. The answer, if there is one beyond power worship, lies in their common hatred of liberalism."

"The more interesting question is what Russia hopes to gain. It certainly isn’t looking for ideological obedience from its adherents, as the old Communists once did and Islamic State does today. Rather, it wants to undermine the credibility of Western democracy. In the zero-sum game of Kremlin foreign policy what weakens Britain strengthens Russia."

"Whatever their many and glaring failings, the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama at least paid lip service to the universal human right to self-government and the protection of basic freedoms. Trump does not. He has far more time for autocrats that he has for democrats. If Russians rise up against Putin, they will neither expect nor receive support from his America."

"Russia’s propaganda in the West does not just aim to influence Westerners but Russians. Its message to them is: there is no hope."

(Nick Cohen, extracts from an article about Russia's propaganda machine, "Russian Spider spins its web" which you can read on the Standpoint website here.

I don't always agree with Nick Cohen, but there are few journalists on the right or left who are better at asking the difficult questions of people on all shades of the spectrum which not enough other people are asking, and pointing out when emperors have no clothes. If the people who have been posting things in praise of Vladimir Putin's Russia this week have anything remotely resembling an open mind, they might benefit from reading Nick's masterly analysis of Putin's propaganda machine.)

Friday, March 09, 2018

Quote of the day 9th March 2018

"Protectionism is a scythe that slices through core conservative principles, including opposition to government industrial policy, and to government picking winners and losers, and to crony capitalism elevated to an ethic (“A Few Americans First”).

Big, bossy government does not get bigger or bossier than when it embraces protectionism — government dictating what goods Americans can choose, and in what quantities, and at what prices.

Down the decades, Trump has shown an impressive versatility of conviction, but the one constant in the jumble of quarter-baked and discordant prejudices that pass for his ideas has been hostility to free trade. It perfectly expresses his adolescent delight in executive swagger, the objectives of which are of negligible importance to him; all that is important is that the spotlight follows where his impulses propel him."

(George Will in the National Review, explaining why Donald Trump's proposed import taxes on foreign steel and aluminium would be bad for the American economy even before any retaliation from the rest of the world, and are not something that Conservatives - or anyone else - should support. You can read the whole article here.)

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Trump's trade war disaster

Those people who voted for Trump and lose their jobs as a result of today's insanity have nobody but themselves to blame, because he never made any secret of his protectionist views.

But implementing his threat to put tariffs on imported steel and aluminium is nevertheless a disaster for the world, including America.

I didn't agree with everything that EU President Donald Tusk said this week, but in the war of the Donalds,

when Donald Trump said "Trade wars are good and easy to win"

and Donald Tusk said "Trade wars are bad and easy to lose"

in my opinion Donald Tusk is 100% right and Donald Trump is 100% wrong.

And it's true even if there is no retaliation. There are a lot more jobs in the US industries which use steel and for whom the Donald has just put up their costs than there are in the steel industry for whom he has just reduced the competition they face.

I agree with the arguments of Ryan Bourne here that the EU should not retaliate. Because Trump has done something mad and hurt both ourselves and his own country does not make it sensible for us to retaliate by hurting his country and ourselves.

Trade has been a massive generator of prosperity and wealth not just for the rich but for the majority. Perhaps the political mainstream has not done enough to ensure that extra wealth is shared and the minority who lose out are protected; certainly we have not done enough to explain the benefits of trade.

We need to try harder to convince those people who have a working brain that the unholy alliance of  nutcases on the looney-socialist hard left and the looney xenophobic hard right will make the country and the vast majority of people, including many of the least well off, poorer if we listen to their anti-trade views.

Lord Macauley wrote many years ago that

Unfortunately his pessimistic comment is still far too often entirely correct. It is past time we tried harder to change this.

Stephen Pollard, Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, on his Corbyn Dilemma

I wrote a few days ago in a post called The right and wrong way to respond to Labour" about the dilemma which Jeremy Corbyn poses to members of other parties.

There is a popular perception - which in usual times is right more often than not - that politicians agree with one another more often than they make out and have to magnify their differences to make elections interesting.

With Jeremy Corbyn, his opponents have the opposite problem. For most of us, if we say exactly what we really think about the leader of Her Majesty's opposition it is likely to come over as a hysterical personal attack at best or a smear at worst.

One of the reasons Brandon Lewis was wise to introduce the "respect" pledge for Conservative candidates is that, particularly after one or two people very foolishly attacked the Labour leader without getting their facts quite right, criticism which is seen by the electorate as over the top is more likely to help than hinder the person criticised. As Margaret Thatcher said

and we have plenty of political arguments to deploy about why a hard-left government would be a disaster for Britain without using personal ones. Plus we must not let even constructive criticism of the other side crowd out putting forward our own positive policies and achievements.

What I had not realised until I read the article linked to below by Stephen Pollard is that journalists have exactly the same problem in dealing with Jeremy Corbyn that his political opponents have.

And not just "right-wing" journalists. Stephen Pollard used to be an open supporter of the Labour party - though I do not know how he votes now.

Explaining why he didn't put the latest story about Labour and Anti-Semitism on the Jewish Chronicle (JC) front page, he writes in an article called "My Jeremy Corbyn Dilemma" that

"Over the past couple of years, we have exposed numerous Corbynite antisemites.

"The truth is that we could have such a story almost weekly.

"But I am acutely conscious that there is a perverse side to this – that the more it’s reported, and the more we go big on it, the more it is then discounted as just par for the course.

"It’s as if the market has priced in all this sort of thing into his share price, so when more emerges the response is a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘tell us something we don’t know’.

"So despite the view of some Corbynites that the JC never stops banging on about their hero, the reality is the opposite. We run far, far less about him and Labour’s antisemitism issue than the story probably deserves, precisely to avoid it dominating the paper."

A Brexit warning to both parties

A YouGov survey for "Red Box" which asked people in February and March how clear they found the policies of both main parties on the EU is not good news for either party.

Clearly we need to explain our position better and so does Labour.


However, at least the proportions of people who are "fairly clear" or "very clear" on where the Conservatives stand is higher and rising. For Labour that proportion is lower and falling.

Quote of the day 8th March 2018

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

MBE investiture

I was invested with the MBE this morning by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

About another sixty people were invested with various honours at the same ceremony today and I had an opportunity to talk to quite a few of them. They were all very interesting people who had done remarkable things for their country and their communities and I was very humbled and flattered to be among their number.

Matt Hancock's statement on the future of the press

I support the government's decision not to order a new "Son of Leveson" inquiry, not because I think Britain's press is perfect but because the one thing worse than the press we have now would be a press accountable to the government.

I think it is worth publishing here some extracts from Matt Hancock's statement on how the government proposes to proceed on regulation and why which was made in the House of Commons and can be read in full in Hansard or on the government website here.

A more detailed government response is available here.

Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport addressed the Commons as follows:

"Mr Speaker, With your permission, I wish to make a statement on the Leveson Inquiry and its implementation, and the freedom of the press.

Over many centuries in Britain, our press has held the powerful to account and been free to report and investigate without fear or favour. These principles underpin our democracy and are integral to the freedom of our nation.

Today in a world of the Internet and clickbait, our press face critical challenges that threaten their livelihood and sustainability - with declining circulations and a changing media landscape.

Mr Speaker, it is in this context that we approach the Leveson Inquiry, which was set up seven years ago in 2011, and reported six years ago in 2012, in response to events over a decade ago.

The Leveson Inquiry was a diligent and thorough examination of the culture, practices and ethics of our press in response to illegal and improper press intrusion."

"There were far too many cases of terrible behaviour and having met some of the victims, I understand the impact this had."

"I want, from the start, to thank Sir Brian for his work. The Inquiry lasted over a year and heard evidence from more than 300 people including journalists, editors and victims."

"Three major police investigations examined a wide range of offences, and more than 40 people were convicted."

"The Inquiry and investigations were comprehensive.  And since it was set up, the terms of reference for a Part 2 of the Inquiry have largely been met."

"There have also been extensive reforms to policing practices and significant changes to press self-regulation."

"In 2016, Sir Joseph Pilling concluded that IPSO largely complied with Leveson’s recommendations. There have been further improvements since and I hope more to come.

In November last year, IPSO introduced a new system of low-cost arbitration.

It has processed more than 40,000 complaints in its first three years of operation; and has ordered multiple front page corrections or clarifications."

"The College of Policing has published a code of ethics and developed national guidance for police officers on how to engage with the press.

And reforms in the Policing and Crime Act have strengthened protections for police whistleblowers."

"Mr Speaker, the media landscape today is markedly different from that which Sir Brian looked at in 2011. The way we consume news has changed dramatically. Newspaper circulation has fallen by around 30 per cent since the conclusion of the Leveson Inquiry. And although digital circulation is rising, publishers are finding it much harder to generate revenue online.

In 2015, for every 100 pounds newspapers lost in print revenue they gained only 3 pounds in digital revenue. Our local papers, in particular, are under severe pressure. Local papers help to bring together local voices and shine a light on important local issues - in communities, in courtrooms, in council chambers. And as we devolve power further to local communities, they will become even more important.

And yet, over 200 local newspapers have closed since 2015, including two in my own constituency.

There are also new challenges, that were only in their infancy back in 2011. We have seen the dramatic and continued rise of social media, which is largely unregulated. And issues like clickbait, fake news, malicious disinformation and online abuse, which threaten high quality journalism.

A foundation of any successful democracy is a sound basis for democratic discourse. This is under threat from these new forces that require urgent attention. These are today’s challenges and this is where we need to focus. "

"12% of direct respondents were in favour of reopening the Leveson Inquiry, with 66% against.

We agree and that is the position that we set out in our Manifesto."

"We will take action to safeguard the lifeblood of our democratic discourse, and tackle the challenges our media face today, not a decade ago.

During the consultation, we also found serious concerns that Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 would exacerbate the problems the press face rather than solve them.

Respondents were worried that it would impose further financial burdens, especially on the local press.

One high profile figure put it very clearly. He said:

‘Newspapers…are already operating in a tough environment. These proposals will make it tougher and add to the risk of self-censorship’.

‘The threat of having to pay both sides’ costs - no matter what the challenge - would have the effect of leaving journalists questioning every report that named an individual or included the most innocuous data about them.’

He went on to say that Section 40 risks ‘damaging the future of a paper that you love’ and that the impact will be to ‘make it much more difficult for papers…to survive’.

These are not my words Mr Speaker, but the words of Alastair Campbell talking about the chilling threat of Section 40." 

"Only 7 per cent of direct respondents favoured full commencement of Section 40. By contrast, 79 per cent favoured full repeal.

Mr Speaker, we have decided not to commence Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and to seek repeal at the earliest opportunity.

Action is needed. Not based on what might have been needed years ago - but action now to address today’s problems." 

"Our new Digital Charter sets out the overarching programme of work to agree norms and rules for the online world and put them into practice.

Under the Digital Charter, our Internet Safety Strategy is looking at online behaviour and we will firmly tackle the problems of online abuse.

And our review into the sustainability of high quality journalism will address concerns about the impact of the Internet on our news and media.

It will do this in a forward looking way, so we can respond to the challenges of today, not the challenges of yesterday.

Mr Speaker, the future of a vibrant press matters to us all. There has been a huge public response to our consultation. I would like to thank every one of the 174,000 respondents as well as all those who signed petitions.

We have carefully considered all of the evidence we received. We have consulted widely, with regulators, publications and victims of press intrusion.

The world has changed since the Leveson Inquiry was established in 2011. Since then we have seen seismic changes to the media landscape.

The work of the Leveson Inquiry, and the reforms since, have had a huge impact on public life. We thank Sir Brian Leveson for lending his dedication and expertise to the undertaking of this Inquiry.

At national and local levels, a press that can hold the powerful to account remains an essential component of our democracy. Britain needs high-quality journalism to thrive in the new digital world.

We seek a press - a media - that is robust, and independently regulated. That reports without fear or favour.

The steps I have set out today will help give Britain a vibrant, independent and free press that holds the powerful to account and rises to the challenges of our times."